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Page 35 of Third Time's a Charm (Holland Springs 3)

The words I told you so ran through her mind as the ghosts of every Poppy Holland before her watched with sympathetic eyes as she entered her bedroom.

Her earrings were the first to come off, making a little pinging noise as they hit the interior of the heart-shaped bowl. The boots were thrown into Summer’s old room as she made her way to the bathroom. She scrubbed at her face, removing all traces of date night Rose. All traces of an excited woman until nothing but plain humiliation remained.

Despite wanting to rip the dress to shreds, she carefully placed it into the back of the closet, where it couldn’t mock her. The never worn before turquoise satin bra and matching panties were traded for boy-cut briefs and a faded nightgown.

Saving her necklace for last, she opened her jewelry box and carefully pulled it out. It gleamed in the moonlight. As she fastened it around her neck, her throat thickened.

Walking over to the bed, she climbed on the mattress and curled into a little ball in the middle of her bed, staring at the night sky through the French doors. Her star winked as unchecked tears slid down her cheeks. She’d been so stupid to wish upon it last night. So childish.

So…hopeful.

With a heavy sigh, she reached down and tugged the quilts to her chest, and closed her eyes. Sleep couldn’t come fast enough.

***

In fact sleep didn’t come at all. So, she got up, changed her clothes and headed to the basement to begin filling the order for Barbara’s Bugs.

Around five in the morning, she trudged through the kitchen, flicking her sleepy eyes at the phone. He could have called while she’d been gone yesterday. Maybe she should’ve bought an answering machine, but for the odd telemarketer, her phone never rang. As for her cell, it was five years old with sketchy service, had no data plan and was for emergencies only. She’d never seen a reason to give him her number—not until now.

There was so much she still had to do. So many chores that needed to be done, but she was bone tired. Never had it taken so long to go up the stairs. Never had her house felt so empty, so quiet. She missed Ivy. She missed her sisters. She missed…Sasha.

Before she knew what she was doing, Rose found herself at his door. Pressing her hand against it, she closed her eyes and listened for the sounds of him breathing. Of him muttering in his sleep about people not listening to his fashion advice and Paula Dean’s cooking. But it was all in vain. He wasn’t here.

Blackbeard brushed her legs and rubbed against the door. It opened a crack and the cat slipped inside. She pushed it open further and watched the fickle creature jump on the bed, circle around twice and meow. The cat stretched, claws extended, and kneaded the bed covers before settling down in the middle. Rose wanted to crawl in there with him, breathe in the scent of Sasha’s ridiculously expensive cologne.

If Sasha came home today with a really good explanation (and some cheesecake), maybe, just maybe she would forgive him. Maybe allow him to make it up to her. But after a nap and by six that afternoon, Rose knew he wasn’t coming back today either.

Rather than mope around, she threw herself into her work again, only stopping to eat and catch a few hours of sleep. With each label she printed out, her heart grew lighter. This was what she’d been taught to do since she was old enough to help out. This was going to let her keep her house and her business. Her life.

Twice Tempted, one read. Another, Four Ways to Keep Your Lover. Two silly little titles, but her customers loved them. Privately, she’d always thought they were sweet. After all, she’d been the one to make them up. Her absolute favorite was tucked away in an old spice chest, one that the first Poppy Holland had brought with her to the New World. Flowery script labeled the small crystal jar Third Time’s a Charm. Out of habit she dabbed the jasmine-scented fragrance behind her ears with the delicate stopper. Just as every Poppy Holland had done before her.

And like every Poppy Holland before her, she was destined to be an outcast. To never really be a part of society, but hover on the fringes and help those who needed it. Even those who didn’t deserve it. Maybe that was the real reason her mother had left. She couldn’t deal with the responsibility or the shame of being a Holland. But she thought nothing of putting the burden on her oldest daughter.

The one that Rose had always thought Summer to be, but as it turned out, Summer was her first cousin, abandoned on their back porch steps by her mother, Wisteria Holland, a month after Summer was born and never heard from again. No one but their family knew and Rose intended to go to her grave keeping it that way.

***

The acrid smell of bleach reminded Sasha of death. He fought the urge to cover his nose and mouth with his hand. Or nick one of those masks that the nurses wore. But for Phoebe, he’d brave anything.

The lonely echo of his footsteps sounded like a cell phone ringing in the middle of a darkened movie theater. Muted voices, the hum of machines and constant beep of heart monitors were the background music of his trek.

No one greeted him, and not since checking in at the front desk had he seen another living soul.

Slowing his pace as he reached his destination, he mentally prepared himself and patted the bag slung over his shoulder. A few heartbeats later he was standing in the doorway, motioning the guard to leave. It wasn’t until after the burly man left, did Sasha close the door and approach the bed in the center of the room. One that was appointed with serene earth colors, thick rugs and paintings of his mother’s home in Zimbabwe. He had no family to speak of living there; the entire village where his mother had been born was ravaged by cholera two years after they sent her to boarding school in London.

“Hullo.” He tenderly smoothed the soft black and grey curls away from his mother’s brow. “What have you done with your hair?” He tsked. “Hospital patient was so seven years ago.”

Sasha hooked his foot around a nearby chair and pulled it up to the bed. He dropped the bag in the seat, unzipped it and began to lay out its contents on the bedside table. A brush, comb, hair smoother, facial cleanser, and a shampoo cap. Beside those, he placed her favorite moisturizer and his iPod.

He dialed the iPod to the playlist he’d created just for his mother. One full of ridiculously sentimental songs. But that didn’t stop him from humming along as the microwave heated the shampoo cap and he washed his hands.

After checking the cap to make sure it wasn’t too hot, he tucked his arm under his mother’s frail shoulders and gently lifted her, fitting the cap around her head. He carefully propped her against the pillows and began to lightly massage in the shampoo.

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