This was, without question, the craziest thing she had ever done.
Lucy Drake stood on the front porch of her great-aunt’s house, shivering at the cold, damp breeze that slid under her jacket.
She ought to just find a hotel somewhere in Hope’s Crossing to spend the night, instead of standing here on the dark and rather creepy-under-the-circumstances doorstep of a massive Victorian mansion after midnight in the middle of an April rainstorm.
If she had an ounce of brains or sense, that is exactly what she would do—climb back into her BMW and head for the nearest hotel. Hope’s Crossing was overflowing with them, and on a shoulder-season April night when the ski tourists were gone, she could probably find hundreds of empty rooms.
Then again, if she had either of those things—brains or sense—she wouldn’t be in this situation. Right now, she would probably be at the end of an eighteen-hour workday, heading back to her quiet condo on Lake Washington with another few hours of work ahead of her before she finally crashed.
Another gust of freezing wind whined fitfully under the eaves and sent the branches of the red maple beside the porch clawing across the roof like skeletal fingers.
She zipped up her coat and reached for the doorknob of the house. Crazy, she might be, but she didn’t need to be cold and crazy, too.
The door was locked, of course. What else had she expected, when Iris House had been empty since December and Annabelle’s shocking death? Even though she had known it would be locked, she still felt a hard kernel of panic in her gut at one more obstacle.
What if she couldn’t get in tonight? What if she could never get in? Where would she go? She had come all this way, two days of driving from Seattle. She had subleased her condo, packed all her belongings, brought everything with her. She would be stranded without a home, without shelter, in a town where the two people she cared most about in the world were both gone.
The lateness of the hour and her own exhaustion from the stress of the past week pressed in on her, macerating her control. She felt it slipping through her fingers like fine-grained sand but she forced herself to take a deep breath.
Okay. Calm. She could handle this. She had fully expected the door to be locked. No one had lived here for months. If she had showed up on the doorstep of the old house and found it wasn’t secure, then she would have cause to worry.
This wasn’t a problem. She knew right where her great-aunt always hid the spare key—assuming no one had changed the locks, of course….
She wasn’t going to go there yet. Instead, she turned on the flashlight app of her phone and used the small glow it provided to guide her way around the corner of the wraparound porch.
The chains of the old wood porch swing clanked and rattled as she sat down, a familiar and oddly comforting sound. She reached for the armrest closest to the front door with one hand, aiming the light from her phone with the other.
After a little fumbling, her fingers found the catch and she opened the tiny, clever hidden
compartment Annabelle had created herself inside the armrest.
Only someone who knew the magic secret of the porch swing could ever find the hollowed-out hiding place. She reached inside and felt around until her fingers encountered the ice-cold metal of the key to Iris House.
“Thank you, Annabelle,” she murmured.
No one had changed the locks she discovered when she inserted the key and turned it. See, there was a bright spot. Next hurdle: what if the security code had been changed since her last visit?
Knowing she didn’t have a moment to spare, she didn’t take time to savor the scents of rosemary and lemon wood polish and home that greeted her inside.
Instead, she bolted to the keypad for the state-of-the-art security system Annabelle had installed several years ago. Her fingers fumbled on the keypad but she managed to type in the numbers that corresponded with the letters H-O-P-E.
he system announced it was now disarmed. Only then did she let herself sigh with relief, trying not to notice how the small sound echoed through the empty space.
She flipped the light switch in the entryway, with its parquet floor and the magnificent curving staircase made up of dozens of intricately turned balusters.
How many times had she rushed into this entryway during the two years she lived here during her teen years and called to Annabelle she was home before dropping her books on the bottom step to take up to her room later?
Suddenly she had an image of when she first arrived at fifteen, her heart angry and battered, showing up at a distant relative’s home with everything she owned in bags at her feet.
Apparently, things hadn’t changed that much in seventeen years—except this time her bags were still out in the car.
She turned around, half expecting Annabelle to come bustling through the doorway from the kitchen in one of those zip-up half aprons she always wore that had a hundred pockets, arms outstretched and ready to wrap her into a soft, sweet-smelling embrace.
That familiar sense of disorienting loss gnawed through her as she remembered Annabelle wouldn’t bustle through that door ever again.
She felt something dig into her palm and realized she was still clutching the key from the front porch. She slid it onto the table, making a mental note to return it to its hiding place later then took another of her cleansing breaths.
Right now she needed to focus. She desperately needed sleep and a chance to regroup and regain a little perspective.
The air inside Iris House was stale, cold. She walked through turning on lights as she headed for the thermostat outside the main-floor bedroom Annabelle had used the past few years when it became harder for her to reach the second or third floors.
The heating system thermostat was set for sixty-two degrees, probably to keep the pipes from freezing
during the winter, but the actual temperature read in the mid-fifties.
She tried turning the heating system off and then on again—about the sum total of her HVAC expertise. When no answering whoosh of warm air responded through the vents, she frowned. Annabelle used to complain the pilot light in the furnace could be tricky at times. Apparently this was one of those times.
Lucy was torn between laughter and tears. What did a girl have to do to catch a break around here? She had walked away from everything and packed up her life to come here, seeking the security and safety she had always found at Iris House.
With all the possible complications that could have ensnarled her journey here from Seattle, she had finally made it and now a stupid pilot light would be the one thing keeping her from reaching her goal of staying here.
It didn’t have to be a stumbling block. Last time she counted, the old house had nine fireplaces and she had seen a pile of seasoned firewood against the garage when she pulled up. She didn’t have to heat the whole house, just one room. She could pick one and spend a perfectly comfortable night in front of the fire then have a furnace technician come in the next day.
And wasn’t that some kind of metaphor for her life right now? Who ever said she had to fix every disaster she had created right this moment? She only had to focus on making it through tonight then she could sort the rest of it out later.
Considering none of the beds likely had linens at all—and certainly not fresh ones—for tonight she would bunk on the sofa in the room Annabelle had used as a TV room, she decided, and deal with the rest of the mess in the morning.
“You can do this,” she said aloud.
Hearing her own voice helped push away some of the ghosts that wandered through the house. Annabelle. Jess. Even her younger self, angry and wounded.
Energized by having a viable plan of action, she quickly headed out into the rain again and grabbed an armload of wood from the pile, enough to keep the cold at bay for several hours, at least. Trust Annabelle to keep her woodpile covered and protected so the wood was dry and ready to burn. Her great-aunt had probably cut it all herself.
Back inside, she dropped the pile of wood on the hearth in the cozy little den and found matches and kindling sticks in a canister on the mantel.
She was so not a Girl Scout, but Annabelle had insisted both she and Jessica learn the proper way to light a fire. Those long-ago lessons bubbled back to the surface, and in moments she had a tidy little blaze going.
Perfect. In no time, the room would be cozy and comfortable.
She added a larger split log and watched the flames dance around it for a moment before they caught hold. Already the house felt a little warmer, not quite as empty and lonely.
She yawned, tempted to curl up right this instant on the sofa and drop off. No. She would sleep better in a nightgown, with her teeth brushed and her face washed. Closing the door to the room behind her to hold on to the heat, she headed out for one more bone-chilling trip to the car for the suitcase that held her essentials.
She carried the case straight to the bathroom just off the kitchen and made it through her ablutions with bleary eyes. After grabbing a couple of blankets out of the linen chest in the downstairs guest room, she opened the door to the den—and was greeted by thick, choking black smoke.
For an instant, her exhausted brain couldn’t quite process this latest disaster in a depressingly long line of them. Then in a wild burst of panic, her synapses started blasting messages, one after the other, and she had the presence of mind to slam the door shut.
Smoke. Blaze. Iris House was on fire.
“No! No, no no!”
It was probably just the chimney not drawing correctly. That’s all. Calm down. She would just put the fire out and air out the room and all would be fine.
Fire extinguisher! Where was the bloody fire extinguisher? Annabelle always kept one under the kitchen sink, she remembered. She raced back and yanked open the cabinets then blessed her great-aunt’s independent, self-reliant mindset. The fire extinguisher was attached right to the inside door.
Lucy yanked it off and quickly scanned the instructions, then stopped long enough to grab a dishcloth out of a drawer to cover her mouth before charging back to the den.
She couldn’t see any flames through the smoke, which further reinforced the idea that a chimney draw issue was to blame. She hoped, anyway. At the same time, she wasn’t completely stupid. If she couldn’t deal with the problem on her own, she would call the fire department.
Coughing, eyes burning from the smoke, she activated the fire extinguisher and sprayed toward the logs.
The fire sizzled and spat at coming into contact with the chemical as the extinguisher did its job.
Okay. Crisis averted.
She hurried and unlatched the window to let some of the smoke out. Just as she turned around, she heard an ominous crackling and a loud, angry roar from overhead.
Her stomach turned over. She had heard that sound once before, in one of the upstairs bedrooms one memorable wintry January day when she was seventeen. This was more than a problem with a poorly drawing flue. This was a chimney fire.
In that previous fire when she was living here, that had been a case of an old bird’s nest falling and igniting. This could be another one or perhaps creosote buildup had ignited.
Whatever the reason, this was a nightmare. Chimney fires burned hot and fierce and could burn through the masonry, the walls. Everything. In addition, flying debris could ignite the roof and take down the entire hundred-twenty-year-old historic mansion.
She couldn’t burn down Iris House. She had nothing else left.
Though she knew it was risky, in one last desperate effort, she aimed the fire extinguisher up the chimney, adrenaline shooting through her as fast and fierce as those flames, until the chemical ran out then she scooped up her purse and raced for the door with her phone in hand, already dialing 911.
Apparently, someone beat her to it. She ran out onto the porch just as a couple of guys in full uniforms were running out of a fire truck parked behind her car, lights flashing. Another engine was just pulling up behind it.
Somebody must have seen the smoke pouring out the window and called it in. Yay for nosy neighbors.
“Is there anybody else inside?” one of the firefighters asked her.
“No. Just me. It’s a chimney fire, centered in the den. Go to the end of the hall, last door on the right.”
“Oh, am I so glad to see you guys,” she called to the third firefighter she encountered as she headed down the steps of the porch.
This one wasn’t in turnout gear, only a coat and helmet that shielded his features in the smoke and the gloomy night. She had only an impression of height and impressive bulk before he spoke in a voice as hard and terrifying as the fire.
“You won’t be so glad to see us when we have you arrested for trespassing, arson and criminal mischief.”
Lucy screwed her eyes shut as recognition flooded through her.
She should have known. Brendan Caine. He was probably the reason she hadn’t wanted to call the fire department in the first place. Her subconscious probably had been gearing up for this encounter since she saw that first puff of smoke.
It would have been nice if she could have spent at least an hour or two in Hope’s Crossing before she had to face this man who just happened to despise her. Not the way her luck was going these days, apparently.
She lifted her chin. “How can I be trespassing in my own house, Chief Caine?”
He jerked his head up as if she had lobbed a fireball at him. In the glow from the porch light, she saw his rugged features go slack with shock. “Lucy? What the hell?”
She tried for a nonchalant shrug. “Apparently, having the chimneys cleaned is now at the top of my to-do list.”
“You did this?”
“The furnace wouldn’t kick on so I thought I would warm the place up with a fire.”
“The pilot light has been dicey all winter. I’ve been meaning to have somebody in to look at it. I’ve had to relight it a couple times a week.”
Of course. He only lived about four houses down the street—and since Annabelle had been Jessica’s great-aunt too, Brendan would naturally feel responsible for looking after Iris House.
“I didn’t know how to light it and I was freezing,” she said. “I just figured I would stay warm with a fire tonight and deal with the furnace in the morning.”
“And you never thought to go to a hotel?”
“Why go to a hotel when I happen to own a twenty-room mansion?”