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Alice Bloom straightened the colorful flower arrangement that sat in the bay window of the Victorian house that had been in her family for three generations. Well, four now. Counting her.
The Montana sun filled the sitting room with golden, summer light. The house was warm, but not too warm. She didn’t want the family and friends of Mrs. Elaine Chapman to be uncomfortable in any way. Alice’s dad had a tendency to turn up the air conditioning until people’s teeth started chattering. Nobody wants to stick to their chair during a funeral! he’d say. But nobody wanted to freeze to death at one, either.
The door to the basement squeaked open behind her, and she turned to see Dana standing there in her signature black slacks and matching sweater. It didn’t matter that Dana was the embalmer, and dealt with the dead for a living. She wore black on her days off, too—in the mornings, at night, on the weekends, on vacation…you name it. Alice had even seen her in pictures at Disneyland wearing black jeans and sneakers. Her nose, lip, and eyebrow rings, in sharp contrast to the giant Mickey Mouse emblazoned on her T-shirt. Black, of course.
The younger woman looked around and smiled. “It looks pretty. Nice job, Alice.”
“You don’t think it’s too much? She liked pink.”
Mrs. Chapman’s family had asked Alice to take care of the flowers, so she’d admittedly gone a little nuts. Pink roses and carnations from Sweet Pea Flowers. Lilies and baby’s breath. Everything pink and soft, and painfully feminine. But looking at it now, she wondered if it didn’t have more of a Pepto-Bismol vibe going on.
“No, it’s cool,” Dana said. “It smells like a garden in here.”
Good. A garden was good. This funeral might look slightly medicinal, but as long as it didn’t smell that way.
Dana walked up beside her and peered out the window, which was open a crack to let some fresh air in. The first of the family members were starting to arrive. A small Volkswagen parked underneath the shade of the big, ancient oak in the yard, acorns crunching underneath its tires. Then a few pickup trucks pulled up behind, lining up like boxcars behind a train.
“Ninety-eight,” Dana said. “Passed away in her sleep after an evening spent with her book club? Not a bad way to go, if you ask me.”
“Not too shabby.” Alice glanced over at her. “Is that new?”
“It’s a septum ring,” Dana said matter-of-factly. “Your dad is worried that when I take a drink of water, it’ll squirt out from all the holes in my head. Like a sprinkler. His exact words.”
Alice laughed. “You know he loves you. He’s just a little old-fashioned. Progressively old-fashioned. That’s my dad.”
“I get it. I’m sure my dad would feel the same.”
Dana had only been in Marietta for six months. She’d graduated from mortuary sciences school in December, and had answered Bloom Funeral Home’s ad for an embalmer right after. Alice had liked her immediately. Even though they were complete opposites, she felt like Dana was the little sister she’d never had. She was protective of her, even though the younger woman could absolutely take care of herself. She rode a vintage Honda dirt bike she’d nicknamed Sugar Bear. So, there was that.
They were still getting to know each other, but it was pretty obvious that Dana and her family were estranged. It made Alice sad. As the only child of a widower, she knew what a gift family could be. How lonely you could feel without it. She also knew how it felt to be an outcast—a square peg trying to fit into a perpetually round hole. Being the weird little kid of a small-town mortician did that to you.
“So, what do you say?” Dana asked, as they watched Mrs. Chapman’s family and friends make their way up the flower-lined walkway. “Your birthday is day after tomorrow. The big three-four. Are you going to let me take you to the Wolf Den for tequila shots?”
“God. I was hoping you’d forget about that.”
“I hate tequila.”
“You haven’t tried the right tequila.”
“There is no right tequila.”
“Live a little, Alice.”
“I’ve made it this far. I must be doing something right.”
Dana sighed. “By washing your hands fifty times a day?”
“What are we talking about?”
They both turned to see Alice’s dad, looking dapper in his black suit and tie. His snow-white hair was combed neatly over an endearing bald spot, and a soft paunch hung over his belt buckle.
“I’m trying to get Alice to loosen up for her birthday, Mr. Bloom,” Dana said. “It’s a losing battle.”
“She won’t do it, Dana, my dear. I’ve tried.”
Alice crossed her arms over her chest, feeling the cool weight of her mother’s pearls against her throat. “Well, now you’re just making me sound like a prude.”
He leaned over and gave her a kiss on the cheek, something that always melted her pretend defenses. Alice had only ever been truly mad at her father twice in her life. Once when he’d washed her favorite blue dress in hot water and shrunk it three sizes. And that time he’d forgotten to mention that her mom was dying.
“Here they are,” Dana said. And her pretty, pierced face transformed into something exquisite as she smiled at the first of the Chapman family to walk through the door.
Alice smiled, too. Stepping forward to shake their hands and extend her warmest condolences. Nobody ever really understood this, but she loved it. Not the death part, of course. But the comforting part. She got how it felt to lose someone. What it was like to say goodbye in a flower-filled room with tissues on every table. These families with the red noses and sad eyes were her people. And there was a special place in her heart for each and every one.
People filed past, making their way into the light-filled mortuary that smelled like rose petals. The house was lovely, in and of itself. But it also exuded a quiet kind of dignity, of old beauty that was hard to explain until you stepped foot inside its walls. It smelled like summer. But it felt like summer, too.
Alice glanced down the line of people coming up the walkway. There were a few elderly folks slapping their canes on the cement, or leaning on a walker or two. But most of them were young—nieces, nephews, friends. Overall, this group of people didn’t look so much solemn, as ready to celebrate the woman they’d come to honor. Mrs. Chapman had lived a good life, a long life, and as far as funerals went, this was about as peaceful as you could hope for.
The last of the guests walked through the door—a middle-aged man and a little girl of about five or so. She wore a ruffled dress and a crooked bow in her hair, and clutched the man’s hand like it was a life preserver.
Bending down, Alice touched her puffy sleeve. “Hello there. I like your dress.”
The girl’s eyes were so blue, they looked almost periwinkle. “Thank you.”
Alice smiled. “There are still plenty of seats toward the back. Thank you so much for coming.”
The man led the little girl into the other room where the pianist had started playing A Closer Walk to Thee.
“I think that’s it,” Dana said softly.
“Okay. I’ll be right there.”
She started pushing the front door closed against the warmth of the morning, when a big, black truck rumbled up to the curb. It was so huge that the driver had to park with its tail end jutting into the road.
Alice frowned disapprovingly. Maybe she was a prude. But at least she didn’t block the street during a funeral.
The door opened and a man in a white Stetson climbed out. He slammed the door and walked around the front of his truck, obviously in a hurry. Then stopped and touched his hat, as if he’d forgotten it was still there.
Alice watched as he turned around, opened the door again and swiped the hat off his head to toss it in the driver’s seat. He ran his hand through his strawberry blond hair, doing nothing to erase the hat ring. He wore a denim shirt, dark-washed Wranglers, and boots. The boots were worn, dusty. His belt buckle giant and gleaming in the sun. She’d didn’t hang out with any personally, but she’d seen enough cowboys around Marietta to know this guy was the real deal. The Wranglers might be new, but the boots weren’t. And that said a lot.
He headed up the walkway, oblivious to her standing there. All of a sudden, she felt awkward, like she’d been waiting for him. Which, she guessed she had been.
She swallowed hard. It was absolutely not the time or place to be noticing how his shirt stretched over his broad shoulders. And despite the five-o’clock shadow at ten o’clock in the morning, he also looked about a decade younger than her, which only made her feel more awkward, if that was possible.
She plastered a smile on her face, and waited for him to reach the front steps. Sometimes this happened. A bolt of desire would hit like a lightning rod out of a clear blue sky. Then she’d have to remind herself that tall cowboys with hat rings around their hair didn’t notice her. They ignored her. And that was okay, because the pain of her childhood was in the rearview mirror now, and she was happy with the woman she was. She was a helper, a comforter. And despite how boring Dana thought her life was, she was good with it.
He took the steps two at a time, and then stomped his boots on the porch, ridding them of some dirt. She waited until he looked up and saw her standing there.
“Hello,” she said. Softly, in her best funeral director’s voice. It no longer mattered that he’d parked his truck crooked, or that he smelled faintly of soap and man. Or that she’d spent the better part of her teens crying over guys just like this. He was here to say goodbye to someone, and she was going to help him do that.
He nodded. Then smiled, and touched the brim of his hat, which at this very moment sat in the driver’s seat of his pickup.
“Ma’am. I’m a little late.”
“That’s okay. They haven’t started yet.”
He walked over, dwarfing her in his presence. Then reached out to shake her hand. “Jake Elliott. A neighbor of Elaine’s.”
Her fingers disappeared underneath his. His skin was rough and warm, his movements measured, confident. His face was tan, and thin white lines made their way from the corners of his hazel eyes. A twenty-something’s version of crow’s feet. She, on the other hand, had the beginnings of the real thing.
“Alice Bloom,” she said. “I’m so sorry for your loss.”
“Thank you.” He looked toward the room where the reverend was now at the podium straightening her notes and clearing her throat.
Without another word, Jake Elliott walked into the chapel with his head bowed. His broad shoulders rounded. He looked too big for the room, and Alice watched him go, her heart beating steadily behind her breastbone. Men like that looked too big for everything.
“Alice!” her dad whispered from the doorway.
She looked over, pulled back into a reality she’d momentarily forgotten.
“Turn up the air,” he said. “It’s warm in here.”
End of Excerpt