NIGHT IS DARKEST
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Copyright © 2009 Jayne Rylon
Lacey could guarantee that the eerie sound of the first shovelful of dirt landing on the polished surface of her brother’s coffin would reverberate through her nightmares for eternity. The skittering of pebbles adding one more barrier between her and her last blood relative caused her to flinch. A warm, gloved hand reached out to bracket her elbow. Tyler. She didn’t have to turn around to recognize his steady, comforting touch. He and Mason stood resolute behind her in their dress uniforms like her own personal honor guard.
Her spine straightened. She drew her shoulders back and lifted her chin against the agony she struggled to hold at bay. Rob would be proud of her stoic bearing. Though, in all honesty, she couldn’t cry. She hadn’t shed one single tear since she’d received the news of his ultimate sacrifice. Whoever he’d died to protect, she prayed they were safe. She had to believe his loss held some value.
With dry eyes, she scanned the monstrous crowd. Rows of black clad mourners, so deep she couldn’t make out the end, ringed the gravesite beside her parents’ under the oak tree in the city’s oldest cemetery. The preacher’s speech—designed to comfort—couldn’t penetrate the gloom in her heart, which complemented the dreary, overcast day. In her mind, she heard Rob’s laugh, then replayed the petty argument they’d had over dirty dishes last Wednesday, before remembering his daily warning.
“Stay safe.” It was the last thing he’d ever said to her. He’d whispered the standard entreaty in her ear as he captured her in a bear hug before she’d headed off to work Friday evening. In her mind’s eye, it seemed he held her tighter—for a moment longer—than usual, but she recognized the wishful thinking.
If only he’d listened to his own advice.
She shivered against the October breeze as crispy leaves wandered past the pointed tips of her black leather boots. A few moments later, Mason’s jacket enveloped her. Lacey tugged the lapels over her breasts, soaking up the heat of his body. She could make three fitted coats from the fabric that had so recently framed his broad shoulders.
Over the past several days she had thrown herself into the preparations for this service and the party—she refused to call it a wake—that would follow. At no time had she been left alone. Though they’d stayed in touch with the fruitless investigation, one of Rob’s best friends had accompanied her while she delivered Rob’s dress uniform to the funeral home, selected music and readings, gave input into the obituary she’d penned and stopped just short of following her to the bathroom to see if she needed their assistance to wipe her ass.
They were driving her insane.
Mason nudged the base of her spine with a discreet pat. “Go ahead, doll. Do you need me to escort you?”
She blinked to clear the haze from her mind. The police commissioner now stood at the edge of the jagged hole in the ground, sparing her a glance drenched with pity. In his outstretched hand rested Rob’s badge, hat and service revolver. The sea of miserable faces focused in her direction goaded her forward, fortifying her determination to stay strong. She picked her way across the soggy ground to collect the personal effects presented with honor.
The eleven baby steps seemed like a marathon but, though her legs wobbled, they held. Lacey pivoted, then appraised the two men whose suffering mirrored her own. The support and worry in their glassy eyes, offset by the twin lines of their clenched jaws, spurred her to make the return journey to their sides without delay.
When the ceremony concluded, strangers pressed against her on all sides as they encroached on the open grave. They either wanted to offer their genuine sympathy or to gawk at the morbid spectacle, maybe both. Misery threatened to drown her. She couldn’t bear to witness Rob’s sweet girlfriend, Gina, weep through another silk handkerchief or observe the droves of people he’d touched say goodbye. Even the open arms of Tyler’s mom couldn’t entice her to linger. Instead, she snagged a flower out of the elaborate spray at her feet, clutched it to her heart beneath Mason’s coat, then turned to her brother’s best friends.
“Get me out of here.” The plea had barely crossed her lips before Ty sheltered her under his massive arm and Mason took point, clearing a path.
While he navigated a course around the headstones, she focused on tactical things. Things like how many place settings they’d need, the logistics of heating up the food generous neighbors and strangers alike had donated for Rob’s farewell party, and the ripple of Tyler’s six-pack against her ribs as he ushered her to Mason’s waiting truck.
Only when they sandwiched her between them on the bench seat, isolating her from the morose gathering, did she surrender a tiny sigh. Mason turned over the big block engine with jerky motions of his stiff limbs as Tyler enfolded her hand in his, chafing it to infuse some semblance of warmth into the frigid digits.
“Take me home, please.”
Lacey wove between the lingering clusters of guests at Rob’s party, picking up another empty hors d’oeuvre tray. She accepted Gina’s hug as one of the young officers, James “Razor” Reoser, prepared to escort the wrecked woman home. It became a struggle to find things to keep her occupied as a troop of helpful visitors, including Mama Rose and Lacey’s co-workers from the hospital, lent a hand without being asked. Though they meant well, their presence in her home and kitchen unsettled her.
“Lacey, why don’t you come sit down for a minute.” Her friend Jambrea patted the sofa beside her but even the comfy cushion couldn’t entice Lacey to grant her aching feet a reprieve. Like a caged animal, the pacing seemed to help.
“No thanks, I’m going to clean up a bit.” She waved the black plastic clutched in her fist then hurried in the opposite direction.
When she bent to retrieve a disposable cup forgotten under the side table in the living room, the intensity of Mason’s stare scorched her. She glanced up to find him scrutinizing her every move from his post near the front door where he thanked departing guests for coming with a solemn yet composed grace while he handed out copies of the photo-collages she’d designed yesterday. Her knees bent of their own volition. She didn’t want any observers to think she teased him by offering a glimpse of the bows edging her thigh-high stockings at a time like this despite the reputation she’d earned for tormenting him through the years.
Not that he’d ever taken the bait. After enduring the disappointment of a thousand rejections, she refused to delude herself into imagining he wanted to anymore. Only a greedy woman would wish to trade the enduring friendship he’d given her for a single night of wild passion anyway.
“Want me to grab that, Lacey?” Her neighbor, Rhonda, started to reach out but Lacey lunged, snagging it first. She collected the stray glass along with several discarded napkins before heading out the backdoor to add her overflowing trash bag to the growing pile. Her shoulders sagged under the weight of the whispers she left in her wake.
“Hasn’t cried at all.”
Out of space to retreat, she glanced around in panic at the fence surrounding their postage-stamp sized yard. The aged wood made her even more claustrophobic than usual. The lawn Rob had enjoyed manicuring now hosted a hodgepodge of folding tables, deck chairs and chimineas gathered from around the neighborhood. People had shared one final meal over fond memories of their co-worker, high school buddy or distant acquaintance by the fires but they’d abandoned the chilly evening with their obligation to attend fulfilled hours ago.
A burst of anger at life in general made her grunt when she flung the garbage, harder than necessary, toward the pile of trash. The seam of the black plastic sack split in flight, depositing half-eaten food, plastic utensils and God knew what else in a five-foot swath of debris.
“I would have helped you with that, Lacey. If you’d just asked.” Tyler’s weary statement came from a nearby table. She hadn’t seen him sitting there in pensive isolation.
“I can handle it.”
He moved like lightning to her side and, with an unrelenting grip on her arm, prevented her from avoiding the sight of his red-rimmed eyes to tidy up the mess. He’d always been the most sensitive of their group. Empathetic and kind. But the raw agony she witnessed now compelled her to break free and finish her task. He stilled her attempts with a shake.
“Enough.” No sign of his typical charm or easygoing smile could be found in the harsh set of his flattering features. “You’ve done enough. Let me fix it. Before he died… I promised Rob I’d take care of you. And I will.”
“You think cleaning up this shit is what he had in mind? Fine, go ahead!” She shook her head in disgust at the shrill tone of her outburst then schooled herself to release the tension in her spine before snickering at the fun-loving, shockingly handsome man. All her emotions bubbled and swirled in a confusing mix she couldn’t control. It was too much to deal with at once.
“Little one, you need to take a break. Come relax with me for a minute. I’ll rub your shoulders.”
As if that’ll help. The sure massage of his hands wouldn’t calm her down one bit.
“You have no idea what I need, Tyler.” The bitterness in her heart overwhelmed her better judgment as she let the stinging truth fly. “You’ve never understood me.”
His emerald eyes widened, the sexy arch of his eyebrows raised and his luscious lips parted as his jaw hung slack. She wrenched out of his grasp before he could recover, rotating with a sharp motion that tore the grass beneath her heel.
Lacey stomped up the stairs into the kitchen without a backward glance, in search of another task to occupy her thoughts. But, when she got there, she realized someone had already washed, dried and stored the dishes. The floor had been mopped, the leftovers boxed up and put in the freezer, the lavish flower arrangements she’d set aside to donate to the hospital had vanished and pointless conversations no longer echoed down the hall.
There wasn’t a single thing left to do.
The haunting silence threatened to suffocate her. She bolted for the rear staircase then took the steps to the second floor two at a time as she headed for her parents’ room. After their deaths, she’d often crept into their bed at night somehow hoping their essence would linger in their personal space. Ten years had passed. The stale air in the room provided no comfort now. Instead, the oppressive weight of the emptiness reminded her of a mausoleum.
How dare they all leave her behind to suffer alone?
Irrational rage propelled her to lash out. She swept the photos of her and Rob as children from the dresser. The happier times she’d experienced before the harsh realities of the world corrupted her blissful ignorance felt like a minefield of cruel lies waiting to detonate with one misstep of fate. Lacey faced the windows, yanking down the yellowed eyelet curtains her mother had prized. Maybe, if she could erase the memories, she could avoid the tsunami of misery zeroing in on her heart.
The flowered comforter suffered her wrath next as she ripped it from the king-sized bed, flinging it into a pile with the curtains in the corner. A primal roar escaped her chest as she climbed onto the bed to reach the framed portrait taken weeks before the accident that had stolen her parents. She twisted to drop it over the cushion of the comforter but lost her balance on the squishy mattress. The glass covering the photograph shattered on impact against the corner of the nightstand on her way down.
Her lost loved ones stared back at her with timeless grins covered in broken shards as she collapsed on top of the wreckage of her life.
“Lacey! What the fuck’s going on?” Tyler’s shout snapped her out of her daze.
She raised her eyes to his but couldn’t force a sound past the constriction of her throat.
The spit-polished shine of his dress shoes captured her attention as they gobbled the distance from the door to her landing site in two huge strides. His hands curled around her waist in a protective hold as he righted her. Instead of soothing her, the touch incited another bout of her righteous fury.
“Put me down!” Though he pinned her shoulders to his chest with one sculpted arm, she lashed out with the three-inch spike of her boot, hoping to connect with his shin.
“Mason! Where the hell are you? Get up here!” Tyler bellowed as he spun toward the bed then flattened her thrashing body to the mattress.
“Get off me, you overgrown asshole!” Lacey continued to squirm and kick but she moaned when the motion rubbed her against every inch of the flexed muscles blanketing her, subjecting her to another kind of torture. She had to get out from under temptation before she did something crazy. So she turned her head and bit the vulnerable flesh on the inside of his forearm. Hard.
“Son of a bitch!” Tyler jerked. With the opening presented, she slithered from his grasp then made a break for the door.
Arms folded across his monolithic chest, thick thighs braced apart, Mason blocked her escape route. His imposing frame occupied the entire opening. He took an ominous pace forward, the dangerous glint in his ice blue eyes not one she’d seen aimed at her before. The intimidating glower caused her to retreat a teensy bit before she could check her instincts. She bumped into the solid wall Tyler had formed behind her. Trapped between the two men, who overwhelmed her senses on a good day, she abandoned all vestiges of sanity.
“Leave me the hell alone, both of you!” She lunged to the side in a futile attempt to slip between them.
Mason’s broad hands gripped her shoulders, though the gesture made it seem more like he cradled her instead of jarring her as she expected. “Hang on to her, Ty.”
One sleek arm wrapped around her hips while the other clamped above her breasts. A whimper snuck from her throat when Tyler accidentally brushed her nipples along the way. Her breath huffed in and out of her lungs beneath his embrace as she wished he caressed her for more pleasurable reasons. The tired dream refused to wither.
Lacey averted her gaze from the intuitive question on Mason’s face but it landed on the raw mark she’d inflicted on Tyler’s arm. The sight of his injury deflated some of the mad overtaking her system. “Shit, I’m sorry. I-I don’t know what came over me.”
She leaned forward to place a tender kiss beside the ring of bruises already forming beneath the raven hairs dusting his forearm. His husky whisper came close to her ear, washing her with the scent of the chocolate cake he must have eaten.
“It’s alright, little one. It’s about time you let some of this out. There isn’t enough room inside your itty-bitty bod for all that rage.”
His gentle understanding unleashed a torrent of emotions from behind her carefully constructed dam. If he hadn’t supported her, the force of the gush would have knocked her off her feet but she squeezed her eyelids shut against the liquid threatening to seep out.
“You’re bleeding.” Mason’s rough timbre broached the awkward silence. He scooped up her hand from where it dangled at her side, raising it for inspection. When the moist, heated silk of his mouth surrounded her index finger, her eyes flew open. The vision of his lips suctioning the droplet of blood from the immaterial scratch punched her in the gut.
Lacey wanted nothing more than to let them care for her. But they wouldn’t soothe her the way she needed. They never had before, no matter how many times she’d made a fool of herself in an attempt to entice them. Instead, they’d remained steadfast friends, always close yet never close enough. What did a nick on the tip of her finger matter when her heart had been through the wringer?
Sudden, rending pain slashed across her soul as one too many of life’s disappointments annihilated her shaky composure. Her chest heaved with dry sobs a moment before an unearthly wail burst from her throat. Grief obliterated all perception of her surroundings. Tears poured from her, dripping off her cheeks in a steady stream.
Lacey thought she would drown in sorrow. For her brother. For herself. Someone lifted her then deposited her on the flannel sheets with infinite care. She curled into a ball on her side. Dual heat sources bracketed her shuddering body. Even through the despair shredding her guts, some basic part of her recognized Tyler’s attempt to comfort her by rubbing her back. She cried in horrid gasps, unable to stop the flood of grief now that it had begun.
Rob! Not him, too. It’s not fair! She pleaded with the powers that be to transform this nightmare into some colossal mistake through divine magic. When that plan fell through, she emptied herself of heartache, crying until nothing remained but a hollow shell, brittle to the touch. After what seemed like hours, the steady murmuring of Mason’s soothing litany reached through her sniffling and the occasional cough.
“That’s right, Lace. We’ve got you.”
Unfortunately, his attempt at calming her incited another crying jag. Their intimate display of affection was temporary. She couldn’t get used to having them so close—to relying on them. After all, they weren’t hers to keep.
All her life, she’d craved her older brother’s best friends. They’d indulged her girlish desire for adventure by helping her climb the tallest trees, smuggling her extra pieces of her favorite candy or racing her on their bikes while always keeping her safe. Then, their wicked good looks had inspired her first teenage crushes. Instead of fading from puppy love to deep-seated friendship, her longing for them grew year after year as she watched them mature into amazing men.
Smart, funny, aggravating and sexy. Together, they were everything she’d ever wanted.