The photograph in the elaborate silver frame slipped from Bianca’s nerveless fingers to crash to the granite-tiled floor beneath. The glass protecting the photograph immediately developed a fine spider-web pattern of cracks on impact.
Maybe it was her imagination running away from her. But she could have sworn that Jake’s face, frozen forever in the smile she loved so much in the picture, took on just a hint of accusation at her clumsiness.
A tear slid down her cheek, unbidden. She had promised herself that she’d stop doing this to herself, break out of the endless cycle of recrimination that she hadn’t tried to keep him from leaving the house after that last, absurd fight. He’d been drinking, just a little, but enough. If she had stopped him, the potent cocktail of anger and alcohol in his system wouldn’t have spurred him out the door and into the path of that oncoming bus.
Everyone, even his own family, had said the accident wasn’t her fault. His mother had hugged her close at the funeral and wept with her. Wept with her son’s murderess.
The guilt had torn at her to such a degree that she had become a virtual hermit. She had found a job that she could do from home and left her well-paying career as an advertising artist without looking back. She couldn’t bear to look around the office and the empty desk down the aisle where Jake had sat, like an exclamation point on her guilt, drawing her eye no matter how much she wished to avoid the painful reminder.
But now Bianca cried out in anguish at the desecration of the only physical evidence she had left to her that Jake had ever existed. That he’d ever loved her, and been loved in return.
She knelt beside the frame and picked up the photograph reverently, as tears she swore to the outside world she was past shedding rained down onto the glass in a thunderstorm of grief, beading on the glass forlornly. One teardrop traced a jagged crack in the glass that followed the inside curve of Jake’s cheek, as if he mourned for the life he’d once had no less than Bianca herself did.
Heedless of the splinters of glass that poked out of the simple silver frame, she cradled the picture to her glass and sobbed.
“I’m so sorry, Jake. I wish I’d been strong enough to stop you.”
She sat there on the floor, curled around her misery like a gray ball of despair, while the grandfather clock in the corner ticked out its melancholy, dirgelike rhythm. Time seemed to leave her behind; in its wake was left only the remorseless promise of a colorless, cold, lifeless life that threatened to spin into eternity beyond endurance, and then further still, until she begged for a release that would and could never come. All that warmed her was the tracks her tears left on her face. Without them, she felt like an ice sculpture done in flesh.
A soft tapping at the door brought her head around, and she swiped at the tears on her face. She paid no attention to the havoc she wrought on her makeup, or what her unknown caller might think of the distress on her face. Everyone knew well enough to leave her alone, so whoever was waiting on the stoop was unlikely to be anyone she wanted anything to do with.
Bianca sucked in a deep breath, made a half-hearted attempt to make herself not look like she’d been mourning the destruction of her world, and walked to the door. She could feel the wavering, watery smile struggling to slip off her face as she opened the door to find . . . no one.
A chill, damp breeze that smelled of dead leaves and forsaken hope greeted her, eddying past her into the house. Suddenly furious, she slammed the door and screamed, “Fucking kids!” As if an invisible switch had been flipped, the tears began again, and Bianca whirled away from the door. Right into an impossibly warm, solid chest, where a second earlier there had been only empty air.
The first thing her gaze met was a black leather jacket. She’d always been a sucker for the bad-boy look, with its zippers and faintly ominous aura. Her eyes trailed down to faded blue jeans and biker-style cowboy boots, and then up past the white T-shirt and the narrow but strong neck.
Past the jaw, shadowed with stubble, and the graceful nose, to the blue-grey eyes she had stared at a thousand times in a photograph and the unruly shock of dark hair that always looked slightly windblown no matter how short it was cropped.
She flinched back, her heart hammering with terror. This was the fare of the stories she’d read back when she cared, before she entombed herself aboveground in her own home as penance. But the dead didn’t really come back. Did they?
Not trusting her voice, she reached out to touch him experimentally. The leather jacket creaked and flexed at her touch, but otherwise didn’t yield, or fade into smoke, or anything else she might have expected. It felt too real to her senses, unaccustomed these days to reality, and she felt the world spinning around her madly as conflicting urges arose in her.
One was a mad desire to go with him and find out what lay . . . Beyond. Another was the terrible certainty that this was a dream. And still another was to wish to be naked and feel him against her, one last time, to say with her body what she just had no words to convey.
Terror mingled with lust as she grew damp, staring up into those sad, loving eyes and the gentle, handsome face that framed them. Her mouth opened, to beg him to leave or stay.
Before she could say anything, he pressed her against the door, branding her mouth with his hot lips.