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Third Time's a Charm
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It's time to come home. You may visit Phoebe. Be at the airport in thirty minutes.
His muscles eased. Finally, he could see his mother. If he drove exceptionally fast, he could make it to the airport in twenty. He could shower and change on the plane. Everything he could possible need would be on it. But first he had to call Rose and explain.
Another vibration from his phone.
Tell no one.
Why the hell not, he wanted to text back, but his uncle's message was clear. He expected him to go in, get the job done and walk away. Make no friends and leave no one that would care about him being gone behind.
He'd promised to take her out. Promised to finish what they started. He could ignore his uncle's instruction and do just that.
Sasha banged his fist in the dirt. What kind of son put his sick mother last? Grabbing the nearest rock, he clenched it so tightly in his fist that his knuckles started to ache. There were so many things he wanted to do with that rock. So many words he wanted to shout.
But his situation, much like his life, was futile.
Rose put on her best dress-one that Skye had given her last year at Christmas. Slightly funky and more her baby sister's style than hers with its bold print and little belt that had an alligator as a buckle, she felt young and pretty. It hit her at the knee, but the tall boots she borrowed from Summer's closet looked perfect with it. No one had to know she'd stuffed tissue paper in the toes for them to fit.
Quickly checking the time, she gave herself a once over in the mirror. The cross necklace looked worn and old-fashioned. Maybe she should take it off? Her hands went to the back of her neck and she hesitated. There wasn't a time that she hadn't worn this necklace. This reminder of who she was and where she came from.
"Just this once," she said to her reflection and smiled, taking off the necklace before she lost her nerve. After placing it in her jewelry box, she left her room.
She practically glided down the stairs and floated across the hardwoods, ultimately deciding to wait for him in the small living room. She glanced at the clock over the mantle. Twenty minutes until seven. No reason to panic or get upset.
Seven was a lucky number and people went on dates at seven. Even Jason hadn't picked her up until after seven.
She grabbed the remote and after turning on the television, clicked through all nine channels only to find nothing on. Blackbeard wandered in and out of the room, meowing plaintively until Rose took pity on him and picked him up. "I was trying to not get cat hair on me," she scolded as the cat made himself at home in her lap and purred.
Minutes turned to half hours as Rose waited. Half hours to hours. Each subsequent tick of the clock making her heart beat faster until she had to stand up and pace the room. She carried Blackbeard in her arms, lowering her head and rubbing her cheek against his soft fur every so often.
By nine o'clock her stomach felt funny-not exactly butterflies and not exactly cramps. Maybe he'd gotten in a car accident. Maybe he'd gotten abducted by aliens. Maybe the aliens ran over him with their spaceship. She sat back down and checked the stations for any breaking news of a hot British guy being kidnapped by horny women.
Again she stood, dumping Blackbeard out of her lap, and started for the phone. Pride made her stop and sit back down. She apologized to the unforgiving cat who ran out of the room with his tail standing straight up.
At ten-fifteen, she thought she heard a car pull into the driveway and ran to the front door, flinging it wide open. A sharp retort and a kiss ready for her very fashionably late date. But the driveway was empty. Slowly, she shut the heavy door and locked it, trudging up the grand staircase. Her shoulders drooped and her eyes stung, but she refused to cry.
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.
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.
His mother had always been so proud of her appearance and her heritage, even when she'd changed her name. A well-meaning agent had convinced a then fifteen year old Mudiwa that her Zimbabwean name wasn't catchy enough. So, she'd changed it to Phoebe, in honor of her favorite English poet. Ten years and a successful modeling career later, she'd met Maks Romanov at a Safe and Clean Water for All benefit.
"I took one look into her beautiful green eyes and she couldn't stop me from asking her out," his father would always say.
"And he couldn't stop me from saying no," she'd laugh.
Then they'd kiss and his father would waltz her around the room, caught up in their own love song.
He'd always loved watching them, even with an adolescent's embarrassment over the affection they shared. Or rather had shared. His father was gone and, for all intents and purposes, so was his mother.
Sasha snagged a towel from by the sink, wrapping it around Phoebe's wet hair after he'd removed the cap. Then he washed her face and applied the moisturizer to her mostly wrinkle-free skin.
"Last month, your old arch-rival, Lina, had a face lift. Everyone knows she's at least eight years younger than you. Although she claims to be eternally thirty-five," he said as he brushed her hair. "I know, I know, I shouldn't revel in others' misery."
Sasha kept the conversation flowing, however one-sided, about fashion and gossip. All the things that would make his mum smile and shake her head at him. It was from her he'd inherited his love of clothes and eye for style.
Tight spirals fell in an orderly array when he was done and he chucked the brush into his bag. Finally he sat, edging the bag out of the seat with his hip and laid his head beside his mother. He took one of her hands and placed it on the back of his neck, the slight weight a comfort. It was times like these he could pretend Phoebe was stroking his hair and asking about his day, his accomplishments.
Exhaling, he closed his eyes and said, "I've met the most beautiful woman. She's kind, generous and has absolutely horrid taste in pajama bottoms. She's raising her sister's baby and running a business all by herself. I think you'd get on with each other."
"Then what's the problem?" his mum laughed.
"I've been sent to destroy her."
"Mugare kure nemoto."
Stay away from the fire. He smiled ruefully. That had been her advice every time he'd been caught being naughty.
"That's a bit dramatic, even for you," Vladimir Romanov chuckled.
Sasha's eyes popped opened and he jumped to his feet, his mum's arm falling listlessly to her bed. He adjusted her hand and the covers. "Don't recall your name being on my VIP list."
His uncle smiled. "We are family, Alexander, and despite what you think of me, my ultimate goal is to maintain those relationships."
"Your ultimate goal is world domination."
Vladimir shrugged. "With my family by my side."
"What family?" Sasha leaned against the closest wall and stroked his chin. "Do you mean the son that won't have anything to do with you, or the one's that dropped off the face of the planet?" Lucky bastards.
His uncle's eyes turned glacial. "Your next project."
Unfazed, Sasha barked out a laugh. "Sebastian hates me only slightly less than you."
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