The last funeral I went to had been my wife’s. Ever since I’d avoided them like the plague. Unfortunately, I hadn’t been able to do that with this one.
Thick, dark gray clouds hung low overhead, and the fuzziness of the air in the distance told me it was raining not so far away. Sitting in the backseat of my town car, I stared up at the small, stone church my mother had chosen for the occasion.
Through the open door, I made out a glimpse of a framed picture on an easel surrounded by rose petals. If this had been anyone else’s funeral, I wouldn’t have been able to see that from here. It would’ve been surrounded by mourners and a steady procession of people paying their respects on their way into the service.
That was not true in this case. Not that I was particularly surprised. Shitty human beings didn’t usually attract as many mourners as the good ones did.
I sighed, meeting my driver’s gaze in the rearview mirror. “Are you ready, si—”
A loud bang at my window cut off his question and I twisted in my seat to see my mother arching a dark eyebrow at me through the glass. Her graying hair was covered by a dainty black hat. One of those with the mesh visor hanging from the front.
Yeah, I don’t know what that thing is called, but it’s ridiculous that she’s trying to hide her face. Unless it’s because she doesn’t want people to see her smile at her husband’s funeral.
“Are you coming?” she called softly, just loud enough that I’d be able to hear her but not so loud to cause a scene. “Or are you just going to sit there?”
I grunted, rolled my eyes, and reached for the door handle before looking back at Tim, my trusty driver. “Don’t go too far. This shouldn’t take long.”
He nodded his understanding, his expression businesslike and unsympathetic—probably much like my own. “Yes, sir.”
When I opened the door and climbed out, my mother took my arm and held on to it as she started dragging me to the few stone steps leading up to the door. “Excellent. Now that you’re finally on the move, we can get this over with.”
“In a hurry, are we?” I asked as I glanced down into her bright green eyes, a bunch of shades lighter than my own. “Where are you running off to? Hot date?”
I was joking, but when my mother shrugged in response, my heart did a weird lurch and jerked as she pleaded with her eyes for me to understand. She patted my arm. “It’s not a hot date, but I have plans after this with my boyfriend.”
“How do you have a boyfriend already?” I choked out. “Dad only died a few days ago.”
“You know we’ve been separated for months, darling. Your father, may his soul rest in turmoil, was a cheating bastard and everyone knew it. You can’t honestly tell me you’re surprised I didn’t wait for him to finally give me a divorce or kick the bucket before I moved on. I didn’t want to be the only one left in our marriage, so I got out too. It’s hasn’t been a secret that there was no one left in our relationship recently.”
As I thought it over, we ascended the steps and passed the framed picture of my father in the foyer. I didn’t stop to look at it, but I knew the picture she’d chosen. It was a good one, a respectful choice, but his flat brown eyes were uncaring even as they stared back at me from a photograph taken many years ago.
It was seeing those eyes that made me nod my agreement with my mother’s statement. “I guess you’re right. It shouldn’t have surprised me. I just wasn’t expecting to find out about it today, is all.”
We paused outside the interior doors and she looked up at me, straightening her spine a bit before she let out a soft sigh. “I would’ve spoken to you about it before, but I was hoping your father would come to his senses and sign the divorce papers before I did. It’s just like him to drop dead instead of just signing the damn papers. I always did tell him that his stubborn streak was going to be the death of him.”
“Once again, you were right,” I said.
She gave me a small smile. “A mother always is. Are you ready for this?”
I nodded, peering easily over the top of her head to see a grand total of fifteen people had bothered to turn up for this—and she and I were included in that number. Also included were Kaden and Kody, two of my best friends, Jake and Maxine, my other two best friends, and Jake’s grandfather. All of whom were here to support me instead of having come to show their respects or mourn the passing of the deceased.
Other than them, I recognized a few of my mother’s friends and finally my father’s loyal assistant—a man whose morals were as loose as his boss’s had been, which explained why he’d been so loyal to the man.
The only person I didn’t recognize was a woman seated right up front—in one of the seats closest to the coffin that had been reserved for family. Mom and I took seats in the same row, but across the aisle from what I was assuming had been my father’s last mistress.
“Dad really was a piece of shit, huh?” I murmured to Mom as I looked around. The preacher seemed to be waiting for more people to join us, but I thought he was going to be disappointed until a few more shuffled in and dropped into the seats behind us.
I frowned, wondering who the hell they were as I turned to face some of the newcomers. Since they weren’t dressed in tailored, couture suits, I assumed they weren’t colleagues or coworkers of my father’s. The man had been a piece of shit, but he’d done well for himself at the law firm he’d devoted his life to.
“How did you know my father?” I asked one of the men behind me, noticing the worn jeans and work shirt he was wearing. “I don’t mean to pry. I’m just curious.”
I really was. Obviously, this was an open thing. Anyone could come, but something about these people was bugging me.
Mom turned around too, her intelligent eyes curious as she surveyed him. “I don’t recognize you. Did you work with Brandon?”
“No, uh.” The man shifted in his seat and glanced at the woman next to him. When she shrugged, he released a quiet sigh and gave us an apologetic look. “We didn’t know him, actually. The funeral home paid us to come to make it look like there were more people here. We work at the factory behind the home. It’s just down the street, so when it starts looking like it’s going to be a poor turnout, they offer whoever’s closest some cash to save the family the heartache.”
So surprised that I laughed, I drew the stares of the other fake mourners my way. Most of them offered me sympathetic glances, but I shook my head as I pointed at the door. “Just leave, please. Whatever you’re getting paid to be here, I’ll triple it. Give the name Tristan Huxley to the funeral home and tell them to add it to my invoice.”
The man I’d been talking to blinked a few times, but then he nodded and stood up, circling his finger in the air to let the others know they were packing it in. Before he shuffled to the end of the pew, he held his hand to his heart. “We’re sorry about your father.”
“Don’t be,” I said easily. “He was an asshole. That’s why there’s such a poor turnout.”
The man gave me a what-are-you-gonna-do shrug, nodded, and led his fellow fake mourners out of the church. Mom smiled at me as she turned. “That was a good call, but you should’ve let them stay if you were going to offer them triple what they were going to get for being here. You have no idea how much money you’re going to have to shell out for the privilege of booting them out. Might as well have gotten some bang for your buck.”
“Nah, you know me. I’m not into pretending, and besides, Dad doesn’t really deserve the dignity of a few more mourners present at his funeral, does he? I’m paying for the privilege of a final fuck you. Whatever it ends up costing me, it will be worth it for that.”
She sighed, worry mingling with the amusement in her eyes. “Today is difficult for you, and that’s fine. Brandon wasn’t the best father, but he was your father. On top of all that, it’s the first funeral you’ve been to since Shelley’s.”
I frowned. “How did you know that?”
She arched a knowing brow at me. “A mother always knows.”
“You’re just full of little pearls of wisdom today, aren’t you?”
“I always am. It’s just been a while since you’ve let me share them with you,” she said, smiling as she wrapped her dainty hand around mine. “My point is that your father didn’t deserve the dignity of a few more mourners at his funeral, but you’re too smart for your own good. You should’ve just let them stay and left here with the comfort of knowing that there were more than two people at his funeral who actually came for him.”
“And what?” I stared back into concerned eyes. “Fooled myself into believing that it made sense that there were people here he obviously didn’t work with? Let’s not kid ourselves, Mom. Not even the other senior partners at the firm are here. Those people didn’t look like any friends of his I’ve ever met. I’m not too smart for my own good. It was just too obvious. It wouldn’t have been a comfort. It would’ve been a mystery that would’ve driven me crazy.”
Her gaze moved from mine to someone behind me. “Jake and that Maxine doing well?”
“Yes, Mother. She’s his wife. They’re madly in love. They’re doing fine.”
She smiled and squeezed my hand. “If it can happen for a guy like Jake Aspen, it can happen for you, honey. Don’t give up hope.”
“It’s already happened for me,” I muttered as a dull ache twisted something at the center of my chest. “Besides, Jake’s really changed. I’ve told you that.”
“Yes, you have. I’m not saying I don’t believe you. I do. Lord knows, I’m happy that boy finally pulled his head out of his ass. I know his parents weren’t that great, but at least he had wonderful grandparents. How you turned out to be so respectful because of the example his grandfather set for you, and he turned out to be such an ass, will forever remain a mystery to me.”
“He didn’t turn out to be an ass, though,” I argued quietly as the preacher seemed to give up waiting for more people to arrive and finally turned to gather his things. “He’s a good man. It just took him a little while to realize it.”
“Even so, you will find happiness again, darling. You’re a good man, too. I know you feel like your chance at love died with Shelley, but it didn’t.”
Before I could protest, the preacher started delivering the eulogy and my head dropped. Clearly, the man was grasping at straws based on what little good things we’d had to say about my father when we’d met with him earlier, and on the other hand, my mother had this expression on her face that told me she wasn’t done with the whole me-finding-love-again topic.
“Fuck, I need a drink,” I muttered before I could stop myself.
Mom tightened her grip on my hand and used her other to rummage around in her purse on the chair beside her. When she pulled out a pocket-sized bottle of tequila and held it out to me, I shook my head at her.
She was right. This wasn’t an easy day for me. It was dredging up a lot of memories I tried my best not to dwell on and now my mother was encouraging me to drink in church. Between that, the news of her having a boyfriend, and the fake mourners, it was also turning out to be as bizarre as it was depressing.
I really did need a drink, but first, I had to get through listening to the preacher trying to put a positive spin on things and the unknown woman in the pew across the aisle stifling her sobs. My head lowered even further and I squeezed my eyes shut, wondering if I should’ve taken my mother up on that tequila after all.