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The Novels of Nora Roberts, Volume 4, Page 2

Nora Roberts

  She wondered what was happening inside. What were the men doing? What was the fire doing? If it was a war, did it hide, then leap out to attack, bright and gold?

  Ash floated down like dirty snow. Mesmerized, Reena stepped forward. Her mother caught her wrist, drawing her back, hooking an arm around her to bring Reena close against her.

  “Stay here,” Bianca murmured. “We have to stay together.”

  She just wanted to see. Her mother’s heart was an excited drumbeat against her ear. She started to turn her head, to look up, to ask if they could get closer. Just a little closer.

  But it wasn’t excitement on her mother’s face. It wasn’t wonder that shone in her eyes, but tears.

  She was beautiful; everyone said so. But now her face looked like it had been carved out of something very hard, leaving sharp lines dug deep. The tears and the smoke had reddened her eyes. There was gray ash in her hair.

  Beside her, Dad stood with his hand on her shoulder. And to Reena’s horror, she saw there were tears in his eyes, too. She could see the fire reflected in the shine of them, as if it had somehow crept inside him.

  It wasn’t a movie, it was real. Something of theirs, something that had been theirs all of her life, was burning away right in front of her. She could look beyond the hypnotic light and movement of the fire now, she could see the black smears on the walls of Sirico’s, the grime and wet soot staining the white marble steps, the jagged shards of glass.

  Neighbors stood on the street, the sidewalk, most in their nightclothes. Some held children or babies. Some were crying.

  She remembered all at once that Pete Tolino and his wife and baby lived in the little apartment above the shop. Something squeezed her heart when she looked up, saw the smoke pouring out of the upper windows.

  “Daddy! Daddy! Pete and Theresa.”

  “They’re all right.” He lifted her when she pulled away from her mother. Lifted her as he used to when she’d been little. And he pressed his face against her neck. “Everyone’s all right.”

  She hid her face against his shoulder, in shame. She hadn’t thought of the people, she hadn’t even thought of all the things—the pictures and the stools, the tablecloths and the big ovens.

  She’d only thought of the fire, its brilliance and its roar.

  “I’m sorry.” She wept now, with her face buried against her father’s bare shoulder. “I’m sorry.”

  “Ssh. We’ll fix it.” But his voice was raw, as if he’d drunk the smoke. “I can fix it.”

  Comforted, she rested her head on his shoulder, scanned the faces and the fire. She saw her sisters holding each other, and her mother holding Xander.

  Old Mr. Falco sat on his steps, his gnarled fingers working a rosary. Mrs. DiSalvo from next door came over to put an arm around her mother’s shoulders. With some relief she saw Pete now, sitting on the curb with his head in his hands, his wife huddled beside him clutching the baby.

  Then she saw Joey. He stood, his thumbs hooked in his front pockets, his hip cocked as he stared at the fire. His face was full of something like joy, the kind in the faces of the martyrs on her holy cards.

  A something that made Reena hold on tighter to her father.

  Then Joey turned his head, looked at her. Grinned.

  She whispered, “Daddy,” but a man with a microphone strode up and began asking questions.

  She tried to cling when he set her down. Joey was still staring, still grinning, and it was more frightening than the fire. But her father nudged her toward her sisters.

  “Fran, take your brother and sisters home now.”

  “I want to stay with you.” Reena grabbed at his hands. “I have to stay with you.”

  “You need to go home.” He crouched until his red-rimmed eyes were level with hers. “It’s almost out now. It’s almost done. I said I’d fix it, and I will.” He pressed a kiss to her forehead. “Go on home. We’ll be there soon.”

  “Catarina.” Her mother drew her back. “Help your sisters make coffee, and some food. For the people who’re helping us. It’s what we can do.”

  Food was always something they could do. Pots of coffee, pitchers of cold tea, thick sandwiches. For once there was no arguing in the kitchen between the sisters. Bella wept steadily throughout the process, but Fran didn’t slap at her for it. And when Xander said he’d carry one of the pitchers, no one told him he was too small.

  There was a stink in the air now, one she would always remember, and the smoke hung like a dirty curtain. But they set up a folding table on the sidewalk for the coffee, the tea, the sandwiches. Passed out cups and bread to grimy hands.

  Some of the neighbors had gone back home, out of the smoke and stink, out of the drifting ash that settled on cars and ground in a thin, dirty snow. There was no brilliant light now, and even from a distance Reena could see the blackened brick, the rivers of wet soot, the gaping holes that had been windows.

  The pots of flowers she’d helped her mother plant in the spring to sit on the white steps lay broken, trampled, dead.

  Her parents stood in the street outside Sirico’s, their hands locked, her father in the jeans he’d grabbed when she woke him, her mother in the bright red robe she’d gotten for her birthday only last month.

  Even when the big trucks drove away, they stood together.

  One of the men in a fireman’s helmet walked over to speak to them, and they spoke for what seemed a long time. Then her parents turned away, still hand in hand, and walked toward home.

  The man walked toward the ruin of Sirico’s. He switched on a flashlight and went into the dark.

  Together, they carried the leftover food and drink back inside. Reena thought they all looked like survivors in those war movies, dirty hair, tired faces. When the food was put away, her mother asked if anyone wanted to sleep.

  Bella started to sob again. “How can we sleep? What are we going to do?”

  “What comes next. If you don’t want to sleep, go clean up. I’ll fix breakfast. Go. We’ll think better when we’re clean and have some food.”

  Being third in line in age meant Reena was always third in line for the bathroom. She waited until she heard Fran come out and Bella go in. Then she slipped out of her room to knock on her parents’ bedroom door.

  Her father had washed his hair, and it was still wet. He’d changed into clean jeans and a shirt. His face looked the way it did when he got sick with the flu.

  “Your sisters hogging the bathroom?” He smiled a little, but it didn’t reach his eyes. “You can use ours this time.”

  “Where’s your brother, Reena?” her mother asked.

  “He fell asleep on the floor.”

  “Oh.” She pulled her damp hair back into a band. “That’s all right. Go, have your shower. I’ll get you clean clothes.”

  “Why did the fireman go in when the others went away?”

  “He’s an inspector,” her father told her. “He’ll try to find out why it happened. They got here faster than they would have if you hadn’t seen it. Pete and his family are safe, and that’s most important. What were you doing up so late, Reena?”

  “I—” She felt the flush heat up the back of her neck as she remembered her period. “I need to just tell Mama.”

  “I won’t be mad.”

  She stared down at her toes. “Please. It’s private.”

  “Can you go start some sausage, Gib?” Bianca said casually. “I’ll be down soon.”

  “Fine. Fine.” He pressed his hands to his eyes. Then he dropped them, looked at Reena again. “I won’t be mad,” he repeated, and left them alone.

  “What is it you can’t tell your father? Why would you hurt his feelings at a time like this?”

  “I didn’t mean . . . I woke up because I—My stomach hurt.”

  “Are you sick?” Bianca turned, laid a hand on Reena’s forehead.

  “I started my period.”

  “Oh. Oh, baby girl.” Bianca drew her in, held her hard. Then began to weep.
  “Don’t cry, Mama.”

  “Just for a minute. So much, all at once. My little Catarina. So much loss, so much change. My bambina.” She eased back. “You changed tonight, and because you did, you saved lives. We’ll be grateful for what was saved, and we’ll deal with what was lost. I’m very proud of you.”

  She kissed Reena on both cheeks. “Does your tummy still hurt?” When Reena nodded, Bianca kissed her again. “You’ll take a shower, then a nice warm bath in my tub. It’ll make you feel better. Do you need to ask me anything?”

  “I knew what to do.”

  Her mother smiled, but there was something sad in her eyes. “Then you take your shower, and I’ll help you.”

  “Mama, I couldn’t say it in front of Dad.”

  “Of course not. That’s all right. This is women’s business.”

  Women’s business. The phrase made her feel special, and the warm bath eased the achiness. By the time she got downstairs, the family was in the kitchen, and she could tell by the gentle way her father touched her hair he’d been told the news.

  There was a somberness around the table, a kind of exhausted quiet. But at least Bella seemed to have used up all her tears—for the moment.

  She saw her father reach over, lay his hand over Mama’s, squeeze it before he began to speak. “We have to wait until we’re told it’s safe. Then we’ll start cleaning up. We don’t know yet how bad the damage is, or how much time it’s going to be before we can open again.”

  “We’re going to be poor now.” Bella’s lip trembled. “Everything’s ruined, and we won’t have any money.”

  “Have you ever not had a roof over your head, food on your table, clothes on your back?” Bianca asked sharply. “Is this how you behave when there’s trouble? Crying and complaining?”

  “She cried the whole time,” Xander pointed out as he played with a piece of toast.

  “I didn’t ask you what I can see for myself. Your father and I have worked every day for fifteen years to make Sirico’s a good place, an important place in this neighborhood. And my father and mother worked to build all that for more years than you can know. It hurts. But it’s not the family that burned, it’s a place. And we’ll rebuild it.”

  “But what will we do?” Bella asked.

  “Be quiet, Isabella!” Fran ordered when her sister started to speak.

  “I mean, what do we do first?” Bella asked again.

  “We have insurance.” Gibson looked down at his plate as if surprised to find food on it. But he picked up his fork, began to eat. “We’ll use it to rebuild or repair or whatever we need to do. We have savings. We won’t be poor,” he added with a stern look at his middle daughter. “But we’ll need to be careful, for as long as it takes. We’re not going to be able to go to the beach like we planned over Labor Day weekend. If the insurance isn’t enough, then we’ll have to go into our savings, or take out a loan.”

  “Remember this,” Bianca added. “The people who work for us have no job now, not until we can reopen. Some of them have families. We aren’t the only ones hurt by this.”

  “Pete and Theresa and the baby,” Reena said. “They might not have any clothes or furniture or anything. We could give them some.”

  “Good, that’s a positive thing. Alexander, eat your eggs,” Bianca added.

  “I’d rather have Cocoa Puffs.”

  “Well, I’d rather have a mink coat and a diamond tiara. Eat. There’s going to be a lot of work to do. You’ll all do your part.”

  “Nobody. Nobody,” Gibson added with a jab of his finger toward Xander, “goes inside until you have permission.”

  “Poppi,” Fran murmured. “We have to tell him.”

  “It’s too early to call him with news like this.” Bianca pushed food around her plate. “I’ll call him soon, and my brothers.”

  “How could it have happened? How can they tell how?” Bella asked.

  “I don’t know. It’s their job. Ours is to put it back together.” Gibson lifted his coffee cup. “And we will.”

  “The door was open.”

  Gibson turned his gaze to Reena. “What?”

  “The door, the front door, was open.”

  “Are you sure?”

  “I saw. I saw the door was open, and the lights—the fire in the window. Maybe Pete forgot to lock it.”

  This time it was Bianca’s hand that reached out and covered her husband’s. Before she could speak, the doorbell rang.

  “I’ll get it.” She rose. “I think it’s going to be a very long day. If anyone’s tired, they should try to sleep now.”

  “Finish eating,” Gibson ordered. “Take care of the dishes.”

  Fran rose as he did, came around the table to put her arms around him. At sixteen she was slim and graceful, with a femininity Reena recognized and envied.

  “It’s going to be all right. We’ll make it even better than it was before.”

  “That’s my girl. Counting on you. All of you,” he added. “Reena? Come with me a minute.”

  As they walked out of the kitchen together, they heard Bella’s irritated, “Saint Francesca.” Gibson merely sighed, then nudged Reena into the TV room. “Um, listen, baby, if you don’t feel well I can spring you from KP.”

  A part of her wanted to jump at the chance, but guilt was just a little heavier. “I’m okay.”

  “Just say something if you’re . . . not.”

  He gave her an absent pat, then wandered off toward the front of the house.

  She watched him. He always looked so tall to her, but now his shoulders were bowed. She wanted to do what Fran had done—say the right thing, put her arms around him, but it was too late.


  She meant to go right back into the kitchen, to be good. Like Fran. But she heard Pete’s voice, and it sounded like he was crying. She heard her father, too, but couldn’t understand the words.

  So she moved quietly forward toward the living room.

  Pete wasn’t crying, but he looked like he might, any second. His long hair fell over the sides of his face as he stared down at the hands he clenched in his lap.

  He was twenty-one years old—they’d given him a little party at Sirico’s, just the family. Because he’d worked there since he was fifteen, he was family. And when he’d gotten Theresa pregnant and had to get married, her parents had let them have the upstairs apartment dirt cheap.

  She knew that because she’d heard Uncle Paul talking about it with her mother. Eavesdropping was something she had to do penance for—a lot. But it always seemed worth a couple extra Hail Marys.

  Now she could see her mother sitting beside Pete, her hand on his leg. Her father sat on the coffee table—which they were never allowed to do—facing him. She still couldn’t quite hear what her father said, his voice was so low, but Pete kept shaking his head.

  Then he lifted it, and his eyes glimmered. “I swear, I didn’t leave anything on. I’ve gone over it a thousand times in my head. Every step. God, Gib, I’d tell you if I screwed up. You have to believe me, I’m not covering. Theresa and the baby—if anything had happened to them—”

  “Nothing did.” Bianca closed her hand over his.

  “She was so scared. We were so scared. When the phone rang.” He looked at Bianca. “When you called, said there was a fire and to get out, it was like a dream. We just grabbed the baby and ran. I didn’t even smell the smoke until you were there, Gib, running up to help us get out.”

  “Pete, I want you to think carefully. Did you lock up?”

  “Sure, I—”

  “No.” Gib shook his head. “No, don’t just knee-jerk it. Go through the steps. Lots of times routines get so automatic, you can skip something without remembering it later. Just go back. Last customers?”

  “Ah. God.” Pete pushed a hand through his hair. “Jamie Silvio and a girl he’s seeing. New one. They split a pepperoni, had a couple of beers. And Carmine, he hung out till closing, trying to talk Toni into going out with him. Um,
they left about the same time, about eleven-thirty. Toni and Mike and I finished the cleanup. I did the drawer—oh God, Gib, the bank envelope’s still upstairs. I—”

  “Don’t worry about that now. You and Toni and Mike left together?”

  “No, Mike left first. Toni hung out while I finished up. It was about midnight, and she likes if one of us watches while she walks home. We went out—and I remember, I remember hauling out my keys, and her saying how cute my key ring is. Theresa had this picture of Rosa made into a key ring. I remember her saying it was sweet while I locked the door. I locked the door, Gib. I swear. You can ask Toni.”

  “Okay. None of this is your fault. Where are you staying?”

  “With my parents.”

  “You need anything?” Bianca asked. “Diapers for the baby?”

  “My mom, she keeps some stuff there for her. I just wanted to come, to tell you. I want to know what I can do. I just went by. You can’t get in, they’ve got it blocked off. But it looks bad. I want to know what I can do. There must be something I can do.”

  “There’s going to be plenty to do once we’re cleared to get in there and clean up. But right now, you should go be with your wife, your baby.”

  “You call me at my mom’s, you need anything. Anytime. You guys have been good to me, to us.” He reached out to hug Gib. “Anything you need.”

  Gib walked to the door before turning to Bianca. “I need to go down, take a look.”

  Reena dashed into the room. “I want to go with you. I’m going with you.”

  Gib opened his mouth, and Reena could see the denial on his face. But Bianca shook her head at him. “Yes, go with your father. When you get back we’ll talk, again, about listening to private conversations. I’ll wait until you get back before I call my parents. Maybe we’ll have more to tell them. Maybe it isn’t as bad as we think.”

  It looked worse, at least to Reena’s eye. In the daylight, the black brick, the broken glass, the sodden debris looked horrible, smelled worse. It seemed impossible that fire could have done so much, so fast. She saw the destruction inside through the gaping hole where the big window with its painted pizza had been. The burned mess of what had been the bright orange benches, the old tables, the twisted mess that was once chairs. The sunny yellow paint was gone, as was the big menu sign that had hung in the open kitchen area where her father—and sometimes her mother—tossed dough to entertain customers.