“I look forward to doing business with you, Barbara.” Rose managed to shake her mother’s hand and slip it out of her gasp.
Her mother’s face transformed into a cool business woman. “As do I, Ms. Holland.” Walking out the door, Azalea tossed over her shoulder, “There’s someone waiting out here for you.”
A familiar black streak of fur raced inside and jumped up into Rose’s arms. “Blackbeard, you bad kitty, where have you been?”
The cat meowed, then began purring.
“I missed you, too.” She buried her face in the cat’s fur.
After consulting world-renowned experts and all of them coming to the same consensus that no brain activity had been present for the past three weeks, Sasha had made the gut-wrenching decision to take his mother off of life-support.
Each one had assured him that he was doing the right thing. However, the right thing never turned out to be the easiest thing.
She’d taken her last breath in his arms, a shuddering sigh that racked her frail body. He remembered telling his mum that he loved her. Then silence; not even the machines dared to make a noise. Sasha had held her until the doctor on call had come to the room and given the time of death for the nurse to record.
He’d buried Phoebe beside his dad, as they had wanted. Christian and Sebastian had attended, the strain between them obvious but not overwhelming. Sasha had felt a sort of melancholy mood invade his body during the ceremony, but he’d had three weeks with his mum.
Every day he’d visited her. Some days he’d talk for hours, reading from their favorite fashion magazines on his tablet. Other days, he was content to sit in silence or listen to her playlist on his iPod, relieved to be able to simply be with her. Free from worry. From responsibility.
It was everything he’d wanted. Everything he’d thought he needed. The freedom to come and go as he pleased. No more looking over his shoulder. No more getting the living hell beat out of him. No more waiting for the other shoe to drop and watch his uncle play God with Phoebe’s life.
His mother was at peace, and he could imagine that his father was at peace as well. That they were waltzing around Heaven, fantastically happy to be together again. A part of him was happy for them as well.
But as he sat in his favorite pub and drank his favorite ale, all he could think of was Rose. What she was doing. Thinking. Who she might be seeing.
A couple of men booed as their rugby team took another hit. In the corner a couple held hands and snogged.
Sasha took another pull of his beer and grimaced. He knew without a doubt who’d want to be snogging Rose: Gabriel Edwards. The bloody sod. Though to be fair, Edwards was a decent fellow. He was someone that would be good for Rose—boring, but good—and he’d keep her safe from men like Jason. Men like Sasha.
He scratched his jaw. He had no idea what the two of them would talk about. Edwards was as quiet as Rose. She needed someone a bit more social, a bit more charming. A bit more of himself.
“Delusions of grandeur, mate,” he mumbled. Rose had made it perfectly clear that she didn’t need him. No, her traditions, her small town and her store were what she needed. What she preferred over him.
“God Almighty, Sasha, couldn’t you’ve picked a better place to get up to?” Sebastian sneered in the mirror behind the bar.
Sasha rolled his eyes as his cousin took out a pristine handkerchief and attempted to clean off the sticky counter. “I’d reckoned there’s no better place than the one you wouldn’t be seen in.” He turned toward Sebastian and saluted him with his bottle.
“While I had assumed you’d be off to places more exotic for Fashion Day.”
“It’s Fashion Week, and I’m not in the mood.”
“Really?” Sebastian raised his brows. “There can be only one thing to keep you away from clothes or get you out of them—a woman. Or more precisely Rose Holland.”
“You don’t have a f**king clue what you’re about.” Sasha struggled to remain impassive. “But you do know where you can precisely shove it.” Slamming his bottle down on the bar counter, he motioned the bartender over and settled up his tab.
“Good to know some things never change,” Sebastian said.
“Sod off,” Sasha muttered and stumbled out into the freezing November night, leaving his arrogant ass of a cousin behind. He hailed a cab, muttered his address and leaned his head against the back of the seat. When they arrived, he slipped in the deserted townhouse and told himself that it was better this way.
No beast wrapping around his ankles and doing its level best to trip him as he trudged up the stairs and to his bedroom. No baby toys to dodge, or soft lullabies being sung in the middle of the night. No starfish-shaped hands reaching for him. No drooling mouth messing up another shirt, or breaking into a grin.
He certainly didn’t miss the smell of night blooming jasmine. Or the way rare smiles would make him feel victorious. Luminous blue eyes that could see to his soul were blocked from every thought. And he sure as hell wouldn’t think of how it felt to be inside of her, of how she moaned his name or clutched him to her. Of how much he loved being with Rose.
He loved Rose…Ivy, too.
Looking in the mirror, he shook his head, then shucked off his clothes. A cold bed greeted him. He paused, one knee on the mattress and took a deep breath. This was his life and he’d better get used to it.
Mercifully, sleep claimed him seconds after his head hit the pillow.
The worst thing about coming to terms with all the lies Rose had been told was confronting her worst fears.
She’d spent the afternoon digging through the charred remains of Strawberry Grove, hoping to find something worth salvaging. The only thing she found was a half-burnt chest of jewels and pictures in her room. No, not her room—Poppy’s room. A room so sacred that as a child she’d hovered in the doorway, watching her mother as she dressed for her dates. Every Poppy had inherited this room. Or so she’d been led to believe.
She had searched and searched for her beloved book. The one that had passed down from one Poppy to the next. The one truth in her life, the abundance of handwritten notes in the margins couldn’t have been forged. But she hadn’t been able to find it. Good thing she had the majority of it memorized.
Her shoulders drooped a little.
Only she didn’t want the memory, she wanted the real thing.
The sun dipped behind the horizon and she pulled her cardigan tighter around her middle.