The early morning light streamed in through the beautiful stained glass of the cathedral windows and the sun’s rays bounced off the white and gold coffin, making it look almost ethereal. Ash sat stoically, hating the tie that was choking him, the suit he hadn’t worn in over five years, the shoes that were pinching his toes…but most of all, hating the fact that his father was inside of the coffin. It was a beautiful coffin, made to impress…not the dead guy of course, but everyone else. That was what his stepmother Allison did best…impress. She’d impressed his father when she was just a twenty-five-year-old barista and he was a forty-year-old multi-millionaire, recently widowed and left alone to raise a twelve-year-old boy. Asher Michael Bennett III had been a hard man to impress, so Ash supposed he should give her credit for that at least.
He wondered what his father was wearing inside that fancy coffin. He’d be willing to bet the old man was the best-dressed man in the room. Allison would know that everyone who was anyone in Manhattan would be at the funeral, and it would never do for the guest of honor to be wearing anything less than Armani’s finest.
Ash could hear the whispering and shuffling as the cathedral filled up behind him. He didn’t need to turn around to know that the guest list would read like the who’s who of Manhattan Island, and he didn’t care to see any of those faces. It was why he lived in California, in the Central Valley…in a motorcycle club. He’d had his fill of these people for the first twenty-three years of his life, and the only person he still had any respect for after all those years was the man who was lying in the casket up at the altar. That respect was the only thing that brought him back…that, and Sledge. He smiled when he thought about his oversized friend. Sledge had ridden hard with him for three days so they could get there on time. He’d set his alarm and woke Ash up that morning. He’d ordered Ash a beer from room service with his breakfast because even though Ash wasn’t much of a drinker…he was going to need at least one to get through the day. And then, he’d gone back to his own room to spend the day sleeping, watching television, and smoking. Sledge wasn’t about to show up in a church full of what he still referred to as his “mortal enemies.” They were a clique of rich kids that they had both gone to private school with their entire lives. They were the bitches and bastards that had terrorized Sledge almost to the point of causing his suicide. Sledge told people that Ash saved his life in high school, but in Asher Michael Bennett IV’s mind, it was the other way around.
Ash’s blue eyes left the coffin and moved to the flowers…thousands of them that would all be carried out to the gravesite and left to die alongside the man being buried today. Tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of flowers. He wondered if anyone there found it the ridiculous and practically obscene waste of money that it was. His father wasn’t impressed with things like that…but this party wasn’t really about him. This party was about Allison…and of course, Charlie. Charlie might be the only person there that Ash was interested in seeing. He wasn’t sure. He hadn’t seen her in five years and then she’d been a cute little ten-year-old with pigtails. She was fifteen now and sadly, according to the emails and phone calls from his father, Charlotte Joanne Bennett was rapidly becoming as superficial as her mother Allison. Ash supposed he was partly to blame for that. The day he’d left New York, his little sister had begged him to take her with him. She’d cried and held onto him until his father had to peel her off. Ash tried to maintain a relationship with her after that, but she refused to talk to him on the phone and she hadn’t answered a single one of his text messages or emails.
Ash reached up and tugged at the Windsor knot that felt like it was choking the life out of him. But in truth, it wasn’t the knot or the tie…it was this place and the people, and the thought of the best man he ever knew being closed inside of a box and put into the ground. He hated that, and he just wanted it to be over. He wished that he’d stayed behind at the hotel with Sledge. His big friend had always been the smarter of the two of them.
Somehow, he made it through the church service. It was long and drawn out, and there were way too many speeches. These people loved to hear themselves talk and they loved showing off their new designer funeral clothes even more. He managed to sneak out of the church and into the family limousine without having to come face to face with anyone. He knew his time was coming, though. He’d have to stand in a line at the graveyard to receive condolences and then he’d have to suffer through the reception afterward at the mansion, but then it would be over, and he could go back to California and his real life and his real family.
The door to the limousine was pulled open and a teenage girl with long, straight blonde hair and crystal blue eyes slid in. She was dressed to kill in a navy-blue Burberry suit and she was on her phone. She didn’t even look across the seat at her brother and Ash had no idea if she even knew he was in the car. Seconds after Charlie, Allison entered, riding high on a wave of Gucci perfume…and on her phone as well. Allison, unlike Charlie, did make eye contact with Ash, and her dark green eyes, which used to be brown before the contacts, said everything he needed to know about how happy she was that he showed up.
The door was closed, the limo started up, and Ash sat in silence on his side of the huge car, practically melting into the soft leather. Finally tiring of the sight of the two women chatting on their phones like they were on their way to a party, he closed his eyes and leaned his head back into the seat. He tried to draw up images of things that made him happy. His Harley, his brothers, the club, and the gym where Wolf had begun letting him take boxing lessons from one of Jacob Wright’s teammates, a guy named Jagger who played a guitar and sang like his namesake Mick Jagger and fought like a champ in the cage. The guy was fun as hell to be around and since things had been quiet around the club for a few months, Ash was enjoying the larger-than-life stories Jagger had to tell.
He felt the limousine slowing down and he opened his eyes. His sister’s large blue ones were locked into his as soon as he did. He managed to find a smile and he said, “Hey, Charlie.”
With no expression at all on her beautiful face she said, “It’s Charlotte.”
“Sorry. Hi, Charlotte.” She stared at him, like she was studying his face and then turned to her mother, who was still on her phone and said:
“Is this dolt going to open the door and let us out of here or what?”
Ash felt a pang in his chest. He blamed himself for Charlie, at least a little bit. He reached across the table in front of him and using the handle that was within her reach, he opened the door and pushed it open. His little sister looked at him like he was a circus freak with two heads and then looked at her mother, who sighed and rolled her eyes. The driver appeared in the doorway then, but not soon enough to escape the wrath of the spoiled teenager.
“Jeez, thanks for showing up,” she said, to the man that was old enough to be her grandfather. Ash’s dad insisted on manners from the time that Ash was old enough to remember. When he was four years old he was taught to say please and thank you to the staff. He knew that Charlie had been taught the same. Somewhere along the way she’d decided that she was above all of that, and Ash was sad for her because of it.
The driver helped her out of the car and Allison finally ended the call that she was on by saying, “Gotta go, I’ll call you later. Of course we can do lunch tomorrow. Mwah!” As she slid toward the door she looked at Ash and said, “Your tie is crooked.” The Gucci perfume that had wafted in with her didn’t leave when she did, and Ash felt like he might gag on it before he hit the fresh, cold air and sucked in a lungful. The limousine was the first in line of many and the rest of the guests seemed to be holding back until the “family” made their way to the huge canopy and took their seats in the front row. Ash sat next to Charlie, but she looked straight ahead, not just ignoring him, but going out of her way to do so.
The graveside services were as long and boring as the church service had been. His father would have hated it. He would have thrown a joke or two into one of his speeches and he would have jazzed up the music. He would have made people feel like no matter how sad they were that their loved one was gone, there was hope left for the future. That was what his father did, he lifted people up. The one mistake that he’d made in his life was sitting two seats away, and although she was a bad one, Ash couldn’t hold it against him. He’d made a bad choice in women a time or two himself.
The priest finally stopped talking, the boring music quit playing, the boring people stopped giving their fake speeches, and it was at last time to stand in line and accept their fake regrets. It was the first real look that Ash had gotten of the guests. Up front and moving through the reception line like royalty were the “society people.” There wasn’t a wet eye in the bunch as they offered their stiff handshakes and stiffer condolences. A little further back were the executives that worked for his father in his textile company. The Bennett money went back for centuries and the company was almost as old as that. Those gentlemen, and one lady at least, seemed genuine in their grief and condolences. The next wave of people was extended family members, cousins and aunts and uncles that Ash hadn’t seen in years if at all. They weren’t much looser than the first wave of rich people had been…at least not with him. He did notice a few of them being overly friendly with Allison. That probably meant his father had left her in charge of the fortune and they were hoping to get what they likely thought of as their fair share.
The last wave was a mixture of loyal staff and old friends that didn’t fit in the society set. As Ash was accepting the condolences from the first one, a man who had served as his father’s mechanic for as long as Ash could remember, he suddenly realized that Charlie and Allison were no longer standing next to him. He glanced to his right and saw them being escorted back to the limousine by the driver. Words couldn’t describe the sheer disgust he felt for them both at that moment. He swallowed the bitter taste in his mouth and continued accepting condolences until the line was gone and so was the limousine. Chuckling to himself at the stupidity of it all, he walked over to where his father’s white casket now sat, waiting to be lowered into the ground. He put his hand on top of the blanket of flowers that covered it and finally let the tears that he’d been holding back all day, fill his eyes.
“I’m pissed at you, old man. You were too fucking young to die. Who has a fucking stroke and dies at fifty-six years old? You were Asher Michael Bennett the fucking Third, man! You were supposed to live forever. You were at least supposed to live until I found the right woman and had you a couple of grandkids…until I finally did something worth all that pride you always had in me.” He reached up and wiped a tear off his face. “I love you, old man. You won’t be forgotten, I promise you that. I know you’re in heaven so I’m not sure if we’ll be meeting up again someday…but if I don’t make it up there, I’ll be drinking a toast to you where I’m at.”
“And where might that be?” Ash froze at the sound of the voice. It was soft, sultry and the last voice he ever wanted to hear again in his life. Even Allison’s was preferable, and that was saying a lot. He ground his jaw and turned slowly around with his eyes still on the ground. As he moved them up past a pair of black-and-white heels, delicate white ankles with a blue rose tattooed on the outside of the right one, sculpted calves, sexy knees, and three inches of muscular thigh before the bottom of her black skirt interrupted them, he realized that even now she still set his blood on fire. Her hips were still wide and her waist small. Her breasts were perfect. He couldn’t see that in the coat she wore over her suit now, but he knew what they looked like…and they were perfect. The skin on her neck and face was still flawless. Her golden-brown hair lay in waves all over her head and down her back and her hazel eyes were still the prettiest thing on the east coast. But when Ash looked at her now, it was like staring into the eyes of a snake.
“Mack.” Mackenzie Foster had at one time been the love of Asher’s life. She was the basket that he’d put all of his eggs in…and then that basket had fallen to the cement and it was all over. He’d found himself sifting through the slimy shells, and trying to find the pieces of his life. Like Humpty Dumpty, he’d never been able to put them back together again…so he’d done the next best thing, he’d left.
“I’m sorry about your dad.”
“Thanks, but not to be rude…why are you here?”
She flinched, almost like he’d hit her in the face. “I cared a lot about your dad.”
“Oh…I didn’t know that caring about people meant showing up to you.” He hadn’t meant to do this. Hell, he just hadn’t expected her to show up. The one time he’d staked his whole future on her showing up, she’d bailed. His rudeness wasn’t driving her away, though; instead she nodded, like she understood, and said:
“I’ve missed you, Ash. I tried to call you after you left…”
“Changed my number.”
“Yeah, anyways. It’s good to see you, I’m just sorry it’s under these circumstances.”
“Yeah, I’m sorry too. Look, I better get to the reception…” He realized as he was talking that all of the cars had left. Allison…the bitch…had left him stranded in a graveyard.
“I can give you a ride,” Mackenzie said, as if reading his mind. He used to think she could do that since she always seemed to know what he was thinking, or how he was feeling. It used to give him a warm, comforting feeling, like they were soulmates. Now, it just felt intrusive and it annoyed him.
“I’ll call an Uber.”
She looked hurt again. Too fucking bad. “Ash, it’s been a long time…are you ever going to forgive me?”
“No. I’m not.” He took out his phone and as he headed toward the road where his ride should still be parked he texted Sledge. “At the cemetery. Heading to Last Call in the Village. Meet me there?”
The text he got back in return was swift and to the point. “OMW.”
Ash ordered an Uber on his app and then stuck the phone into his suit jacket. He was almost to the pavement when curiosity got the better of him and he looked back over his shoulder. Mackenzie was still under the canopy, standing next to the coffin with her face buried in her hands. There was still a piece of his heart that beat for her; it pissed him off, but he’d learned to live with it. What he couldn’t learn to live with was the woman who abandoned him at the altar on the very day their life together was supposed to begin.