RECLAIMING HIS PREGNANT WIDOW: EXCERPT
The voice that broke into her thoughts was softer than Brand's rough velvet tones. Not Brand, but Harry.
Brand was dead. Tossed without honor into some mass grave in the hot, dry desert of Iraq. Years of unending questions, desperate prayers and daily flashes of hope were finally over. Ended, irrevocably, in the most unwelcome manner nine months ago.
But he would never be forgotten. Clea had vowed to make certain of that.
Determinedly shrugging off the shroud of melancholy, she brushed a curl off her face and turned away from the statue to her father's business associate and her oldest friend. "Yes, Harry?"
Harry Hall-Lewis set his hands on her shoulders and gazed down at her. "Yes? Now that's the word I've been waiting a long time to hear you say."
The playful note in his tone caused Clea to roll her eyes. How she wished he'd tire of the game he'd made of the arranged-marriage plan their fathers had hatched for them two decades ago. "Not now, Harry." On cue her phone beeped.
Relieved, she extracted her cell phone from her clutch and glanced at it. "It's Dad." As chairman of the museum's board of trustees, Donald Tomlinson had been giving prospective patrons a private tour of the exhibit.
After listening to her father for a few moments, Clea hung up and said to Harry, "He's finished the tour, and yes, he has secured more funding. He wants us to come join him."
"You're changing the subject." Harry's hands tightened momentarily on her bare shoulders, making Clea aware of the brevity of the bodice of her floor-length gown. Then the moment of self-consciousness was gone as Harry released her from the friendly hold with a chuckle. "One day I'll convince you to marry me. And that will be the day you realize what you've been missing all these years."
Clea stepped back, unaccountably needing a little distance from him. "Oh, Harry, that joke wore thin a long time ago."
The humor evaporated from his face.
"Is the thought of marrying me so repulsive?"
His hangdog expression added to her guilt. They'd grown up together. Their fathers had been best friends; in all ways that mattered Harry was the brother she'd never had. Why couldn't he understand that she needed him in that role, not as the husband their fathers had cast him as decades ago?
Gently touching the sleeve of his tailored jacket, she said, "Oh, Harry, you're my best friend, I love you dearly—"
"I sense a but coming."
The winking glitter from the chandeliers overhead gave his eyes an unnatural sparkle. Despite his carefree persona, Harry had always been perceptive. And he was right, there was a but. A great big, tall, dark and heartbreakingly absent but.
The love of her life...and utterly irreplaceable. Grief had created a black void in her life that drained her of joy. How she missed him!
Clea shut off the line of thought that always led to unstanched pain and wild regret, and focused instead on Harry. "I'm just not ready to think of marriage again."
She doubted she'd ever be ready.
"Surely you don't still harbor hope that Brand is alive?"
Harry's words caused the frenetic buzz that had been driving her for months to subside, forcing her to confront the pain she'd so carefully kept from facing. Weariness—and a lonely longing—overtook her. All at once Clea wished she was home, alone in the bedroom she'd once shared with Brand, cocooned in the comfort of their bed. The familiar ache of loss swamped her.
Dropping her hand from Harry's sleeve, she wrapped her arms around her tummy and said in a high, thin voice, "This is the wrong time for this discussion."
Harry caught her arm and said quietly, "Clea, for the past nine months, since you received confirmation that Brand is dead, you never want to talk about him."
Clea flinched at the reminder of that awful day.
"I know you did everything in your power to find him, Clea, that you never gave up hoping that he was alive. But he's not. He's dead, and probably has been for over four years—however much you tried to deny it. You have to accept it."
"I know he's—" her voice broke "—dead." Harry looked as shocked by her disjointed statement as she felt.
Coldness crept through her.
Defeated, Clea's shoulders drooped and the soft satin of the sea-green dress—the color of Brand's eyes—sagged around her body. She shivered, suddenly chilled despite the warm summer evening.
It was the first time she'd admitted Brand's death out loud.
For so long she'd refused to stop hoping. She'd prayed.
She'd kept the flame of faith alive deep in her heart, in that sacred place only Brand had ever touched. Clea had even convinced herself that if Brand had been dead a piece of her soul would have withered. So all through the months—the years—of waiting she'd stubbornly refused to extinguish the last flicker of hope. Not even when her father and friends were telling her to face reality: Brand wasn't coming back.
Harry spoke, breaking into her thoughts. "Well, accepting he's dead is a major step forward."
"Look, I know it's been a tough time for you. Those first days of silence." Harry shook his head. "And then discovering he'd gone to Baghdad with another woman—"
"I might've been wrong about Brand still being alive," Clea interrupted heatedly, "but Brand was not having an affair with Anita Freeman—I don't care what the investigators say." Clea wouldn't tolerate having her memory of Brand defiled. "It's not true. Their minds belong in some Baghdad sewer."
"But your father—"
"I don't care what Dad thinks, I absolutely refuse to believe it. Besides we both know Dad never cared much for Brand. Let it rest." She hesitated. "Brand and Anita were colleagues."
"Colleagues?" Harry's voice was loaded with innuendo.
"Okay, they dated a few times. But it was over before Brand met me." How Clea hated this. The way the gossip tarnished the love she and Brand had shared.
"That might have been what Brand wanted you to believe. But the investigators found proof that they'd lived together for over a year in London before he met you—hell, that's longer than he was married to you, Clea. Why did he never mention that? Your husband died in a car crash with the woman in the Iraq desert. Stop deceiving yourself!"
A quick scan around revealed no one close enough to overhear their conversation. Thank God. Clea stepped closer and spoke in a low tone: "They did not live together—Brand would've told me that. The relationship was brief. They only kept contact because of work. Brand was an antiquities expert, Anita was an archaeologist. Of course they ran across each other."
"But you'll never know for sure. Because Brand never even told you he was going to Iraq."
Unable to argue with Harry's logic, Clea straightened and said, "I have no intention of conducting a postmortem on this."
Her husband was dead. And no amount of wishing that he was beside her was going to bring him back.
© Tessa Radley
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RECLAIMING HIS PREGNANT WIDOW