Rose cast her gaze at the patrol car in front them, trying to convince herself that maybe the explosion had only set a part of her house on fire. That maybe the firemen had caught it in time. “I passed out.”
“Rose, you made a storm appear out of nowhere.”
“People can’t control the weather.” If she could, Holland Springs would be in The Guinness Book of World Records for the most ass**les struck by lightning in one town. She laced her hands together in her lap. “They were calling for storms tonight.”
The DJ reminded everyone to watch out for isolated evening thunderstorms.
But it wasn’t. Nothing was. If things had been left up to her, she’d be saying good-bye to Ivy. Telling Summer all the little things she needed to know about her. Giving her sister the baby book she’d made. All the pictures she’d taken. Well, not all of them. A few she’d keep for herself. “Summer won’t wait until tomorrow to leave.” A lump formed in her throat, almost as large as the boulder sitting in her stomach.
“We’ll only stay as long as they need you, then I’ll drive you to Jemma Leigh’s,” he said. “I’d like to say good-bye to Ivy, too.”
She turned to look at him, the glow from the dashboard highlighting the stark lines of his face. Her heart pinched. “You’re really going to miss her?”
He nodded once and applied the brake as the patrol car slowed and made a left at the intertwined dogwoods that stood behind the Strawberry Grove street sign.
Sasha did the same, the bump as the tires hit the gravel making Rose sway slightly. She breathed deeply, clutching her hands tightly and wishing for her cross necklace. There was no way she could look. None at all. She closed her eyes like a coward.
The car quit moving.
Her eyes flew open. She tried to speak but only air rushed out and a strange sort of croaking in her throat.
“I’m so sorry, love.” He grabbed her hands, squeezing them.
Nothing in her life had prepared Rose for the sight that greeted her. Her own American horror story come to life.
Flames licked at Strawberry Grove, ravenous as it ate the almost three hundred year old structure. Fiery fingers reached for the sky, engulfing the roof and two chimneys. Paint peeled like skin from a rotted corpse. Blown out windows like empty eye sockets. Missing doors like mouths opened in a forever silent scream. Great billows of smoke so black that it blocked the moon’s feeble attempt to shine. Ashes floated through the air, blanketing the firemen, their trucks and anything else nearby like dirty snow.
Obviously, the rain from the storm hadn’t helped, but maybe that’s what started it in the first place—the lightning from the storm and not a person. It happened all the time, so why should her house be spared?
No, not her house. Her home, her safe haven where no one judged her. Where her family had lived for generations. Where Ivy had rolled over the first time, where she changed Ivy’s first diaper, given Ivy her first bath and listened to her coo at Blackbeard.
It was where Rose had taken her first steps and said her first words. She and her sisters’ height, yearly measured and marked on a wall by the back stairs. Giggles and secrets shared under the cover of darkness. Chasing butterflies and Blackbeard in the front yard. Helping her mother pick flowers as she and her sisters learned each one’s proper name and uses. Things she’d never do for Ivy, not at this home. And now that Summer had her back, not at any other.
Taking a deep breath, she risked a look at her forcing house. Only one corner remained. Gone were plants hundreds of years old. Gone were seeds kept in large glass jars, ones that you couldn’t find on eBay or at Littman’s Nursery five miles up the road.
It wasn’t just seeds or flowers; it was her legacy. Her means of support so she didn’t have to end up like her mother. Like Summer.
How in God’s name would she finish fulfilling the order for Barbara’s Bugs? If she didn’t uphold her end, then she wouldn’t get paid. If she didn’t get paid, she couldn’t pay off her loan to Harrison. Thoughts of everything she was responsible for fell like dominoes.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” David coughed. He waved over one of the volunteer firemen, and started questioning him. The terse shake of the fireman’s helmet indicating that things were worse than what she thought.
The word pierced her heart. There was no way she could blame lightning now. There would be reports to fill out and reporters to avoid once they arrive. At least she didn’t have an insurance policy on the house, because then she would have the added burden of convincing one of their agents she hadn’t started the fire.
Despite the organized chaos of men and women running around lifting hoses, adjusting nozzles and giving orders, she’d never felt more alone. Defeated.
Rose lifted her chin, determined not to show how hollow she felt inside. Determined not to lean on anyone for anything. Ever. She wouldn’t acknowledge that it was Sasha holding her up, that his arms were anchoring her to this world.
“You’re shivering, love.” Sasha added another blanket—his own—to the one wrapped around her.
“I’m not cold.” She was shaking with rage. Fury and pain threatened to consume every good and decent part of her soul. Who would do something like this? She sliced her gaze to Sasha for a moment, then watched the sheriff head back their way.
“Don’t come any closer—the fire’s too hot.” David ambled over, headlights illuminating the grim slash of his mouth. “The chicken coop out back’s empty and someone saw your cat run off to the east.”
The tiniest prick of joy made her want to smile. “Good.”
Ominous creaking gave way to a sharp crack. The emergency crews began to shout and back away.
Sasha jerked her against him as the roof collapsed. “We have to leave, Rose. It’s not safe.”
“Romanov’s right, honey.” David took off his hat and wiped his arm across his face, smearing ashes on his nose and cheeks. “There might be another explosion. Whoever did this wanted to make sure that nothing would be salvageable.”
“It wasn’t me.”
David held up his hands. “I’m not accusing you, Rose. Everyone knows how important this house was to you. It’s been in your family so long, it’s like an honorary member. There’s nothing you can do no how. I’m not sure why I was told you needed to come out here.”