Melissa sat at her grand piano and played a melody she’d written for Tomás. The words never came together, but the notes touched her soul. She missed him deeply, especially his presence with her boys, who dragged through the morning head down and heavy-hearted, unwilling to accept Tomás was gone.
She’d spared no expense with the funeral arrangements, prodding Sid to pitch in for the more expensive casket and a marble headstone. Money would come back to her. Tomás was gone forever.
She tapped the keyboard with her pinky and held the foot pedal down to let the last note sustain. Then she closed the cover and ventured to the war zone in her living room, where her boys argued over which shoes to wear. “Enough!” she blurted when their ongoing dispute dissolved her veil of serenity.
“Adam won’t give my shoes back,” Jonathan complained with his black Ralph Lauren dress shirt opened at the neck.
“Mine don’t fit anymore,” Adam fired back. “Jonathan has three other pairs he can wear.”
“It’s not my fault you have big feet,” Jonathan retorted.
“At least I don’t have your pea brain.”
Melissa grabbed the brown loafers from Adam. “These shoes belong to Jonathan. Pick out a pair of your own.”
“They don’t fit.”
“They can’t all not fit.”
Adam sighed. “I don’t have brown shoes to wear. I need brown shoes to match my belt.”
“Then wear a black belt instead.”
Adam thought for a moment. “A black belt doesn’t go with my socks.”
“Then change your socks.”
“I told him the same thing,” said Jonathan.
Melissa gave the brown loafers to Jonathan. “Put these on.”
“What about me?” Adam complained.
“Pick out a different pair and get dressed. You two sound like girls fighting over the same dress for prom. Brown shoes, black shoes, it doesn’t matter. At this point, I don’t care if you wear anyshoes at all. Just don’t make us late.”
“Do I have to go?” asked Adam.
“Tomás would want you there.”
“Is he going to be all swollen and gross like a floating body in the river?”
Melissa looked at Jonathan. “What did you tell him?”
“Nothing!” Jonathan insisted. He looked at his brother then back at his mom. “I didn’t say anything. Adam’s seen too many CSI reruns.”
“I don’t want to hear it,” Melissa said sternly. “I want you both ready in five minutes. Teeth brushed. Hair combed. You boys are growing into young men. It’s time you started acting like it.”
* * *
Leland took the lid off the cat’s litter box and dumped the contents in a plastic grocery bag. He replaced the old newspaper with the legal custody papers from Paula’s attorney. With Abby coming home and a mountain of hospital bills, he needed all the help he could get without adding Paula’s legal wrangling to the mix. Paula deserved to spend the rest of her life involuntarily committed. She’d brought her own damnation upon herself. No court would see it otherwise. At least he tried to convince himself of such assumptions. The way he’d convinced himself he would never see Paula again, and yet, there she was, back in his life like nothing ever happened. As Abby’s mother, she retained a biological connection to her offspring regardless of her mental deficiencies—a fact any good family lawyer with questionable integrity would exploit. On the other hand, she was bat shit crazy—a fact no court would overlook. With Abby’s health returning, he had much to be grateful for, and no reason to spend a second thought on Paula’s delusional machinations. Now he faced a funeral he’d rather do without, but the notion of seeing Melissa again stoked a hunger he wanted to explore.
Melissa adjusted a framed picture of Tomás on her wall while her doleful guests hovered around her home. “I still can’t accept what happened,” she confided to Sid while she claimed her third glass of Chardonnay from the catering tray. “I feel like I’m stuck in a bad dream.”
Sid put his hand on her shoulder. He wore a dark blue blazer with a solid red tie, and an aura of genuine sadness about him. “Sometimes bad things happen to good people. Tomás deserved better.”
“What about my boys? How are they supposed to forget Tomás is gone?”
Sid stepped aside for a guest to pass through. “It’s not about forgetting as much as learning to accept what happened and move on.”
“The boys don’t want me to sell the house.”
“Your boys don’t pay the bills. You’re doing the right thing.”
“Then why do I feel so bad?”
“You buried a best friend today. No one’s judging you.”
Melissa sipped her wine. She acknowledged the familiar faces in her formal living area. “What would Tomás have wanted?”
“In terms of what?”
“Everything. This funeral. My boys’ future. This house.” Melissa tried to smile through her barren expression but couldn’t tap any positive vibes. “I miss him so much.” She finished her drink and passed the empty goblet to Sid when the doorbell chimed. “I’ll get it,” she said as she moved toward the open foyer to greet Leland in his black Wranglers and a wide collar cowboy shirt with the sleeves rolled up. She glanced over her shoulder to see a dozen women intrigued by the tall, rugged gentleman with a Stetson in his hand and their undivided attention. “I didn’t think you would come.”
“I wanted to be here.”
Melissa motioned for him to leave the foyer and the bevy of prying eyes.
* * *
Leland followed Melissa to an adjoining room partitioned behind French doors. Autographed photos of celebrity singers lined the walls. A French country sofa with exposed wooden feet and padded arms anchored the other end of the room. “I’m sorry for your loss.”
“I’m sorry you had to drive all the way out here. I know the roads are still a mess.”
“I can’t stay long.” Leland stood hat in hand, squeezing the brim between his fingers. “If there’s anything I can do to help you with the house.”
“You already have. I’m sure Tomás is delighted you’re here.” She lifted her head slightly and caught a whiff of Leland’s enticing cologne. “Any word from Brad Siegel?”
Leland motioned with his hat. “Sid knows more than I do.”
“Would you like a drink?”
“I’m good.” Leland cleared his throat. “How are your boys?”
Melissa aired a mischievous smile. “I sent them outside to burn off energy. They’re probably setting something on fire.”
“Have you seen the news lately?”
Melissa toyed with her hair, her smile morphing into a serious, introspective stare. “I haven’t, but from what I keep hearing, we’re the best kept secret. The national news has mostly ignored us. The media’s more concerned about the Gulf oil spill and some New York City car bomber than they are about our natural disaster.”
“I suspect that will change.”
“Do you really think so?” Melissa challenged him. “People are hurting. They need to know they’re not alone in all this mess, even if they really are. If that makes sense.”
“I heard Anderson Cooper’s in town today with his crew.”
“Don’t tell Sid. He’s had a crush on that man forever.”
Leland grinned. “The city will pull together.”
Melissa opened a portable liquor cabinet and fetched a thirty-year-old bottle of Highland Park. “You sure I can’t get you a drink?” She poured two glasses. “Don’t tell Sid I hide the good stuff in here.” She offered one to Leland.
“You shouldn’t let a woman drink alone.”
Leland took the glass and sniffed the single malt scotch, the bottle of which cost more than his rent. “You always get what you want?”
“Depends on who I want.”
Leland swallowed his first sip. The warm burn lingered at the base of his throat. “You have good taste.”
Melissa followed Leland to the sofa, her eyes heavy from the wine and a restless night. “I liked the song you did for Brad. You sing from the heart.”
“I sing what I feel.”
“And what do you feel right now?”
“Like I should probably be on my way.”
Melissa leaned against the sofa’s padded arm rest. “If you’re worried about Abby, I’m sure she’s in good hands.” She downed her scotch and set the empty glass on the window ledge. “I came by the hospital the other day. You were singing about a four-part harmony, comparing your daughter to a Beethoven symphony.” Melissa looked away. “Might have been one of the most beautiful songs I’ve ever heard. I saw a woman with you and Abby. Your ex-wife?”
“Does she know that?”
“It’s late,” Leland proffered, instead of fumbling with a complicated answer to a very simple question.
“It’s seven thirty.”
“I hate to wear out my welcome.”
“The only thing you’re going to wear out is me.”
Leland choked on the scotch, coughing with his hand on his mouth. “Wrong pipe,” he said nonchalantly, convinced he’d misinterpreted the flippant comment; although he wondered if Melissa was naked under her curve-fitting dress. “I just came to pay respects,” he said without thinking before he spoke. Torn between dismissing himself again or advancing on an overt invitation, he played his best poker face in a room alone with a beautiful woman who stoked a fire within him.
Melissa slipped off her heels and locked the French doors with a flourish. “People die every day. Doesn’t mean we stop living our lives.”
“I think I should—”
“Don’t think. Feel. Like you do when you sing.”
“You seem, vulnerable.”
Melissa reached behind her back and unzipped her dress. “Like you’ve never taken advantage of a vulnerable woman before?” She moved slowly toward Leland while she unfastened her bra. “Do you think I’m attractive?”
Leland set his hat down and cupped his hands to her hips with his arms bent in a futile effort to keep her away. “Very much.”
Melissa stepped back and peeled down the top of her dress to expose her bare breasts—firm, yet supple and inviting. “I find you very attractive, Mr. Presley. In more ways than you can begin to imagine.”
Leland moved closer and raised his hand to frame her face, his thumb caressing her soft facial features. He found her intoxicating. “What are we doing?”
“Whatever we want,” Melissa whispered demurely.
Leland kissed her softly on the mouth. When her breasts pressed against him, he dismissed any reason he should leave.
Melissa broke off the kiss and stepped out of her dress altogether. “How does this look to you?”
Leland kissed her passionately this time. Then he gently bent her over the sofa arm and slid his hands along her hips to feel her quiver from his touch. He opened his pants and penetrated her slowly from behind.
Melissa gasped between short breaths, indulging her fervent desire.
Leland kept an eye on the door, certain one of Melissa’s guests would burst in at any moment and find their host in flagrante delicto.