A Billionaire's Redemption - By Cindy Dees
“...We commend the soul of our brother departed, and we commit his body to the ground—earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust...”
The preacher’s voice droned on, but Willa Merris’s heart hurt too much for her to hear the rest. Her father, Senator John Merris, was dead. Truly gone. Murdered. And even though his body had been discovered nearly two weeks ago, the finality of it had waited until this exact moment to slam into her like a ton of bricks.
Despair weighed on her until she could hardly breathe. What were she and her mother going to do? He had always been the center of their universe, the two of them pale moons orbiting his brilliant life.
A thud startled her. Her mother had just tossed a tightly balled clod of red Texas clay on top of the casket. The dirt in her own hand was cold and moist, squishing out of her clenched fist. Blinded by tears, Willa tossed her clod of dirt into the hole that contained her father’s mortal remains.
She shuddered as dozens of other mourners stepped forward to toss handfuls of dirt on her father’s grave. Some of them appeared genuinely sad, but the majority ranged from indifferent to covertly satisfied to bury the bastard. She had no illusions that her father had been a saint. Far from it. He’d been a mean man in a mean business—two mean businesses—a wildcat oilman carving a fortune out of the oil sands of West Texas, and a United States senator, brawling in the halls of Congress.
A comforting arm slipped around her shoulders. She leaned into the embrace for a moment, but then caught a whiff of the aftershave and stiffened. No. Surely not. Horror flowed through her. That, and sheer, frozen terror. She glanced up at the sympathetic face of James Ward, the son of her father’s longtime business partner.
“Get away from me this second,” she cried. “Don’t touch me!”
The people around her jolted, shocked by her outburst. She slipped out from under Ward’s arm as he stared at her, dumbfounded. Right. Like he didn’t know exactly what she was talking about.
Flashes of his big hands tearing her clothes...viciously slapping the fight out of her...shoving her to the floor of her living room...and, oh, God, the pain of his big body slamming into hers over and over. His grunts...the maniacal gleam in his glittering blue eyes...the humiliation and utter degradation of it...
She’d wanted to die. Right there where he’d left her on the floor like some piece of tossed-off garbage. She’d wished desperately to disappear, to just cease to exist. But no such luck. Instead, her father had checked out of his mortal coil and left behind the mess of his life for her to unravel in addition to hers.
“Honey,” Ward murmured, “you’re overwrought. Let me drive you home. Put you to bed.”
Overwrought? Something inside her cracked. She’d show him overwrought! “Get away from me!” she screeched.
Backpedaling from him with her hands outstretched to fend him off, she registered vaguely how everyone had gone stock-still around her. It was as if time had stopped with everyone in funny poses, staring at her slack-jawed as if she’d grown a second head.
“I swear, if you lay a hand on me again, I’ll kill you!” she shouted at Ward in rage she didn’t even know she had inside her. “Do you hear me? I’ll kill you!”
The vignette unfroze all at once with a rush of reaching hands and concerned faces closing in on her like macabre, black-clad clowns. Camera bulbs flashed, cell phones whipped out to arm’s length, pointed at her. Even the local news reporter frantically gestured at her cameraman to get all this on film.
Appalled, humiliated and so irrationally furious she scared herself, Willa batted away the hands, shoved through the crowd and broke into a stumbling half run toward her car. The grass and her high-heeled shoes were a lethal combination and she nearly broke her neck before she fetched up hard against her car door breathing heavily. She felt dirty. A driving compulsion to wash away the feel of James Ward’s filthy touch overwhelmed her. She had to get home. Take a hot shower. Scrub herself clean.
Willa stabbed at the car’s ignition button and nearly ran down the news reporter as she accelerated away from her father’s disaster of a funeral, frantic to escape this nightmare from which there was no waking.
* * *
Gabe Dawson watched the slender, black-veiled woman race away from John Merris’s