Sample text for The sooner the better / Debbie Macomber.

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"Eternal rest grant upon her, oh, Lord…." Lorraine Dancy closed her eyes as the first shovelful of dirt hit her mother's casket. The sound seemed to reverberate around her, magnified a hundred times, drowning out the words intoned by Father Darien. This was her mother- her mother-and Virginia Dancy deserved so much more than a cold blanket of Kentucky mud.

Lorraine had received word the evening of April first that her mother had been involved in a horrible freeway accident. In the beginning she'd thought it was some kind of cruel hoax, a distasteful practical joke, but the mud-splattered casket was real enough to rip her heart wide open.

Her chest tightened with the effort to hold back tears. A low mewling escaped her lips and her trembling increased as she listened to the priest's words in the gray afternoon.

After a while, the friends who'd come to say their last farewells started to move away. Father Darien gently took hold of Lorraine's hands and in sincere compassionate tones offered a few final words of comfort. Reaching deep within herself, Lorraine managed to thank him.

Still, she remained, standing by her mother's grave.

"Sweetheart." Gary Franklin, her fiance, stepped closer and placed his arm around her waist. "It's time to go home."

She resisted and held her ground when Gary tried to steer her toward the waiting limo. She wasn't ready to leave her mother. Not yet. Please, not yet. It made everything so final…to turn her back and walk away.

This shouldn't be happening. This couldn't be real. But the reality of the moment was undeniable-the open grave, the nearby headstones, the muddy ground. Her fears assailed her from all sides, sending a chill down her spine. Lorraine wasn't sure she could survive without her mother's love and support. Virginia had been her touchstone. Her example. Her mother.

"Sweetheart, I know this is difficult, but you can't stay here." Gary again tried to urge her away from the grave.

"No," she said, her voice stronger now. What made it all the more difficult, all the more painful, was the complete lack of warning. Lorraine had talked to her mother that very weekend. They were so close; it had been the two of them against the world for as long as Lorraine could remember. Not a day passed that they didn't connect in some way-with a conversation, a visit, an email message. On Saturday they'd spent more than an hour on the phone discussing plans for the wedding.

Her mother had been delighted when Lorraine accepted Gary's proposal. Virginia had always liked Gary and encouraged the relationship from the beginning. Gary and her mother had gotten along famously.

Just last weekend-just a few days ago-her mother had been alive. During their phone call Virginia had chatted endlessly about the kind of wedding she wanted for her only child. They'd discussed the wedding dress, the bridesmaids, the flowers, the invitations. Lorraine had never heard her mother sound more excited. In her enthusiasm, Virginia had even mentioned her own wedding all those years ago and the only man she'd ever loved. She rarely spoke of Lorraine's father. That was the one thing she didn't share with her daughter-at least not since Lorraine's early teens. Those were private memories, and it was as though Virginia held them close to her heart. They'd sustained her through the long lonely years of widowhood.

Lorraine couldn't remember her father, who'd died when she was three. Her mother had loved Thomas Dancy so completely she'd never entertained the thought of remarrying. No man, she'd once told Lorraine, could live up to the memory of the one she'd lost.

Her parents' love story was possibly the most romantic Lorraine had ever heard. When she was small, her mother had often told her how wonderful Thomas had been. In later years, of course, she hardly ever talked about him, but Lorraine remembered those long-ago stories-of her father being a decorated war hero and how her parents had defied everyone by getting married. They were the adventure tales, the marvelous bedtime stories of her early childhood, and they'd made a deep and lasting impression on her. It was one of the reasons Lorraine had waited until she was twenty-eight before becoming engaged herself. For years she'd been searching for a man like her father, a man who was noble. Honest. Brave. A man of integrity and high ideals. No one seemed right until Gary Franklin came into her life.

"Lorraine, everyone's gone." Gary's arm tightened around her waist.

"Not yet. Please." She couldn't leave her mother, not like this. Not in a cold wet grave when Virginia Dancy hadn't even reached the age of fifty. The pain was more than Lorraine could bear. As the agony of the moment overwhelmed her, tears began to roll down her cheeks.

"Come on, honey, let me get you away from here," Gary murmured in a compassionate voice.

Lorraine took a step in retreat. She didn't want Gary. She didn't want anyone except her mother. And her mother was in a grave. "Oh, Mom," she cried, then broke into sobs, unable to stop herself.

Gary turned her in his arms and held her protectively against him. "Let it out, sweetheart. It's okay. Go ahead and cry."

Lorraine hid her face in his shoulder and wept as she hadn't since that night the state patrolman had come to her with the tragic news. How long Gary let her weep, she didn't know. Until her eyes stung and her nose ran and there were no more tears to shed.

"The house is going to fill up and you'll need to be there," Gary reminded her.

"Yes, we should go," she agreed, and wiped her nose with the tissue he handed her, grateful that Virginia's neighbor, Mrs. Henshaw, would be there to let everyone in. Lorraine was calmer now, more self-possessed. People would want to talk about her mother, and since Lorraine was the only one left in the family, she'd have to be in control of her emotions.

Together she and Gary started toward the parking lot. Away from her mother. Away from the only parent she'd ever known.

Lorraine's one, small comfort was the knowledge that after twenty-five years apart, her parents were finally together again.

Lorraine couldn't sleep, but then she hadn't really expected to. She should be exhausted. She was exhausted; she'd barely slept in days. This past week had been the most emotionally draining of her life. But even now, after the funeral and the wake, she was too restless to collapse into sleep.

Gary seemed to think that spending the night at her mother's house wasn't the best idea. He was probably right. Her judgment, along with everything else, had been thrown off-kilter by her mother's death.

The wake had been here, at Virginia's place, since Lorraine's apartment was much too small to host the event, and a restaurant seemed too impersonal. Parishioners from St. John's Church where Virginia had faithfully attended Mass all these years, plus a large group of neighbors, coworkers and friends, had lingered to tell Lorraine how sorry they were. They, too, appeared to have difficulty accepting the suddenness of her mother's death.

Virginia had been an active member of St. John's and a devout Catholic. For twenty years she sang in the choir and worked tirelessly for her church "family." As a stockbroker with a large national firm, she'd made a name for herself in the business world. Turnover at the firm was high, and Virginia had learned that office friendships were often fleeting. Nevertheless, the house had been crammed with people.

Contrary to what Lorraine had assumed, she wasn't needed as hostess. Friends and neighbors arrived bearing casseroles, breads and salads, which soon covered the dining-room table. The extras spilled into the kitchen and lined the countertops.

Lorraine was grateful to everyone, especially Gary who'd been both helpful and kind. Yet throughout the wake, all Lorraine had wanted was to be alone, to grieve by herself without people pressing in on her. But that wasn't possible. It took her a while to realize that the friends who'd come were in need of solace, too. So she'd thanked them for their condolences and done her best to take on the role of comforter. Before long, she'd found herself depleted of energy, and she'd sunk into her mother's favorite chair. Sitting there helped her feel closer to the mother she'd loved so deeply. It eased the ache of loneliness that threatened to consume her in a room full of people.

An endless stream of sympathy and advice had come at her.

"Of course you'll want to keep the house…"

Lorraine had nodded.

"Naturally you'll be selling the house…"

Lorraine had nodded.

"Your mother was a fine woman."

"We're all going to miss her."

"She's in a happier place now…"

".such a senseless tragedy."

Lorraine had agreed with one and all.

By the time everyone had left, it was dark. Gary had helped her with the cleanup and urged her to return to her own apartment. Or to his. He didn't seem to understand her need to stay here, but how could he? He'd never lost a parent.

"You should go on home," she'd told him. "I'll be fine."

"Darling, you shouldn't be alone. Not tonight."

"It's what I want," she'd insisted, yearning for him to leave. It was an unfamiliar feeling, and one she didn't fully comprehend. She loved Gary, planned to spend the rest of her life with him, but at that moment she'd wanted him out the door. She had to deal with her grief and pain in her own way.

"You need me," Gary told her with loving concern.

"I do," she said. "Just not right now."

Disappointment registered in his deep brown eyes and he nodded with obvious reluctance. "You'll phone if you change your mind?"

Lorraine had said she would.

He'd kissed her on the forehead in a sweet gesture of love and consolation. Shivering with the evening's cold, Lorraine had stood out on the porch and watched him drive off.

She'd cleared away the dishes, then wandered aimlessly through the house, pausing in the entrance to each room. Tenderly she caressed the things that had once been her mother's most prized possessions. She closed her eyes and pictured her mother and father together at last and the wonderful reunion they must be enjoying.

Lorraine was comforted by the knowledge that Virginia had been happy during the last weeks of her life. She'd been thrilled at the news of her daughter's engagement, thrilled at the prospect of planning a large formal wedding. No sooner had Lorraine said yes to Gary's proposal than Virginia had started making elaborate plans for the October wedding. She'd valued tradition and frowned on Lorraine's having chosen a small emerald necklace in lieu of the usual engagement ring.

"You have your wish now, Mom," she said aloud. The wedding ring on her left hand had belonged to her mother. The inside of the band was engraved with the words "I'll love you always. Thomas." The funeral director had given it to her that very day, just before he'd closed the casket. Lorraine had slipped it on and wouldn't remove it until the time came for her own wedding. Her mother had worn this ring since the day Thomas Dancy placed it on her finger, and now Lorraine would wear it, too.

"What am I going to do without you, Mom?" Lorraine said into the stillness of the night, her eyes welling with tears. It surprised her that she had any left.

She mulled over everything she'd done that had been a disappointment to her mother. She'd dropped out of medical school after her second year and trained as a nurse-practitioner, instead. Virginia had said little, but Lorraine knew her mother regretted that decision. She liked to think she'd made up for it when she met Gary, who sold medical supplies to Group Wellness, where Lorraine worked.

The fact that she'd become a lapsed Catholic had distressed her mother, as well, but Lorraine had never identified with the church the way Virginia had. She attended a nondenominational Christian church, but her mother would have preferred she remain Catholic.

"I'm so sorry, Mom," she whispered, knowing she'd let her mother down in countless other ways.

When she'd finished her emotional journey through the house, Lorraine had taken a hot shower and changed into a nightgown, one she'd bought Virginia the previous Christmas. After giving the matter some thought, she'd chosen to sleep in her mother's room, rather than her own. When she was frightened as a child, she'd always climbed into her mother's bed. Lorraine was frightened now, afraid of the future, afraid to be without Virginia, without family.

As she lay there sleepless, she gathered her memories around her, finding consolation in the happiness they'd experienced. Day-to-day life had been full of shared pleasures, like cooking elaborate meals together, watching the classic movies they both loved, exchanging favorite books. Virginia also worked for several church-sponsored charities, and Lorraine sometimes spent an evening helping her pack up boxes of food for needy families, or stuffing envelopes. Her mother had been a wonderful woman, and Lorraine was proud of her. She'd been devout in her faith, hardworking, kindhearted. Smart, but generous, too.

After an hour or so, Lorraine gave up even trying to sleep. She sat up and reached for the framed photograph of her parents, which rested on the nightstand. The picture showed Virginia as young and beautiful, wearing a full, ankle-length dress with a wreath of wildflowers on her head. Her long straight hair fell nearly to her waist. She held a small bouquet of wildflowers in one hand; with the other hand she clasped her husband's. Her eyes had been bright with happiness as she smiled directly into the camera.

The Thomas Dancy in the picture was tall and bearded, and wore his hair tied in a ponytail. He gazed at his bride with an identical look of love and promise. Anyone who saw the photograph could tell that the two of them had been deeply in love.

As recently as last weekend, when they'd been discussing Lorraine's wedding plans, she'd teased her mother about the photo, calling her parents "flower children." Virginia had been good-natured about it and merely said, "That was a long time ago."

Sadly this photograph was the only one Lorraine had of her parents together. Everything else had been destroyed in a fire when she was in grade school. Lorraine remembered the fire, not realizing until years later all that she'd lost. Her parents' photographs and letters, her father's medals.

Lorraine knew that Virginia O'Malley had met Thomas Dancy her freshman year in college and they'd quickly fallen in love. The war in Vietnam had separated them when her father volunteered for the army in 1970. He'd survived the war and come home a hero. It was a year later, during a routine physical, that something unusual had shown up in his blood work. That something had turned out to be leukemia. Within six months, Thomas was dead and Virginia was a young widow with a child.

Library of Congress subject headings for this publication:
Family secrets -- Fiction.
Theft -- Fiction.
Man-woman relationships -- Fiction.
Father-daughter relationship -- Fiction. -- sears
Mexico -- Fiction. -- sears