Impossible dreams, p.33

Impossible Dreams, page 33

 part  #1 of  Carolina Series Prequel Series

 

Impossible Dreams
 



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  Wrapping both hands in the mayor’s lapels, Axell lifted him from the sidewalk and dropped him to one side. “You can have the bar, Ralph. You can have the restaurant and the whole damned town. But you’ll fry in hell before I’ll let you have Maya’s school.”

  Maya would have kicked his shins if she’d seen him roughing up the mayor. Maya. Axell’s soul screamed in agony as he bent over the steering wheel and roared the engine into life.

  He could almost smell the flames from here.

  Thirty-seven

  We are born naked, wet, and hungry. Then things get worse.

  Axell saw the smoke billowing over the forest of trees long before he reached the school. His gut clenched and a cold chill spread through him. If he didn’t think about it, he wouldn’t feel it. Don’t think, Axell. Do. That always worked. Keep moving, keep an eye on the road ahead, don’t feel, don’t imagine life without Maya...

  God. Maya. His insides cracked and memories poured out of him despite his best efforts. Maya grinning proudly over a spinning dragon treasure. Maya frustrated, with Baby Alexa beating at her breast. Alexa! Damn and triple damn. Shudders rippled through him. He couldn’t bear it. Couldn’t think of another tiny infant...

  He couldn’t do this. He couldn’t lose any more people he loved. He must be a jinx. There must be something wrong with him. He should never have dared bring Maya into his home, to open up to her, to love her...

  To love her. Oh, God, how he loved her. He’d never known it hurt so much. Agony crawled around under his skin. He should have told her. He might never get the chance to tell her.

  A Buick pulled in front of him and slowed to a crawl as its driver gaped at the black clouds of smoke spewing into the cloudless blue sky. Axell cursed. He slammed his horn. The smoke billowed higher. Was that a flame shooting up?

  “Lord, give me a giant bat to swat these damn Yankees off the road,” Axell growled as the Buick continued its crawl on the winding back road.

  Abruptly, Axell shot the Rover off the road, slammed across a drainage ditch, and plowed through an old tobacco field. Ahead rose the fence line of trees with black smoke mushrooming higher. The utility vehicle bucked and swayed as it hit erosion ruts and old furrows, but Axell concentrated on doing and not thinking. Mercifully cold numbness replaced rampaging panic.

  Flames shot through the smoke.

  Thoroughly focused now, he swung the Rover between tall Georgia pines, over sumac and willow oak saplings, through thick beds of brown pine needles, screeching to a halt only when he reached the row of sycamores and azaleas on the outskirts of the property. The tires skidded in the debris and the Rover’s front bumper crumpled against a sweetgum trunk. He shot out of the car before the tires stopped spinning and the air bag exploded.

  Children milled in the front yard, and as he ran toward them, Axell strained to count heads, searching for the faces etched on his heart. Maya had an entire school full of children on her hands this time. How many teachers did she have? Three? Could they get all the kids out?

  And Baby Alexa, who couldn’t walk on her own. Who had Alexa?

  Mind screaming in anguish, Axell burst through the forest of trees and shrubs into the swarm of terrified, crying children in the drive. He finally located Matty clutching a squirming guinea pig and staring with huge dark eyes at the flames leaping from the back of the house. One of the teachers held a wailing Alexa, and Axell’s stomach dropped to his feet. If Maya wasn’t holding Alexa...

  Two of the older children stumbled out the front door, one carrying a rabbit cage and the other a fishbowl. Axell didn’t even have to question the teachers shepherding the children down the stairs — he knew at once who was inside, organizing the retreat, looking after everyone but her own damned self.

  All the icy shards of his frozen insides splintered and crumbled as another spurt of flame erupted on the back roof and children shrieked. Maya is inside. Not stopping to think, to calculate logistics, or use any rationale whatsoever, Axell dashed up the stairs. As he hit the smoke-filled hall, his only thought was that the children needed Maya. He was expendable, but he had to save Maya. The world didn’t need another yuppie bar. The world needed Maya. Constance needed her.

  He would die without her.

  Saying his prayers and screaming her name in the murky dimness, he fought his way down the wide hall — and nearly crashed into her.

  “Axell!” she screamed in joy, before shoving a cage in his arms. “Thank God. Muldoon ran back in here, and I can’t find him.” She sounded frantic.

  With relief so bone deep tears formed in his eyes, Axell crushed her in his grip, cage and all. Smoke poured from the back of the house as he hauled her toward the door. If he was expendable, so was the damned cat. Maya was not.

  “Muldoon!” she wept, nonsensically. The whole damned building was going up in flame, and she cried over a cat.

  Attacked by a snaking sensation around his ankles and refusing to release Maya, Axell shoved the cage at her and leaned down to scoop up a terrified ball of fur. Hero of the year, he’d saved the life of a cat with a father fixation.

  “I’ll kill you for this, but not now. Where are your damned teacups?” he shouted, coughing on smoke, shoving her toward the door while the cat clung to his shirt. He damned well wouldn’t have her running back in here for china. She might do what she wanted the rest of the time, but he was still bigger than her right now, and he wasn’t letting her out of his grip.

  “They’re in the car.” Exchanging crying cat for cage, Maya fought through the smoke toward the front door. “All my stuff is in the car.”

  In the car. The words chimed like church bells in his ears as Axell finally saw daylight ahead. In the car. She’d already packed her teacups in the car. She wouldn’t have done that because of the fire. Maya would never have carried out material things first. Had she been coming home to him?

  Or leaving forever?

  Maybe those chiming bells tolled doom.

  They gasped as they fell through the front door and stumbled down the steps to the lawn. Fire trucks screamed up the drive as the teachers steered the children to safety, away from trees and shrubs that might ignite. Maya hurried toward them, her arms full of yowling cat. Axell followed. This time, the damned school could burn. He’d rebuild it personally. He wasn’t letting her out of his sight, not even for Cleo and her damned dealer. Let Cleo figure out what to do with him.

  Shoving the rabbit cage into the outstretched arms of one of Constance’s playmates, Axell grabbed Muldoon from Maya, plunked the cat into Matty’s arms, and caught his wife by the elbow. As the fire engines slammed to a halt near the porch steps and rubber-coated men leapt out to swarm over the lawn for the second time in twenty-four hours, he steered Maya to the outskirts of the crowd and wrapped her securely in his arms so she couldn’t bolt. He wasn’t surprised to discover she was sobbing with huge gulps of air.

  “It’s all right,” he murmured, stroking her back, wishing he knew something, anything, about comforting women in moments of disaster. “No one’s hurt.”

  That wasn’t enough. He had more to say, but didn’t know how to say it.

  She nodded against his chest, hiccups shaking her through the sobs. “I can’t look, Axell. Tell me they’re all okay.”

  “Muldoon’s on Matty’s head, yowling. There’s a teenager rocking Alexa. Your teachers are explaining to the kids what the firemen are doing. They’re all fine. You’re the one who scared me out of my wits. So help me, Maya, if you ever do anything like that again...” He still shook with fear. This isn’t what he’d meant to say. The words pounded at his chest and screamed in his heart, needing release.

  “The school is a loss,” she whispered what they both already knew.

  “I’ll build you another,” he promised. “We’ll make it look just like this one, if you like. I know contractors, architects...”

  He couldn’t help it, her quiet hiccups tore at his already shredded insides. Axell pulled her into his arms, for
all the world to see. As she buried her face against his shirt, the fear of never being able to say the words caused them to pour out in a rush. “I love you, Maya.” The fear of never being able to say the words caused them to pour out in a rush. “I love you, and I don’t want to lose you, too.”

  She looked up at him through tear-glazed eyes. All the wonder and excitement he so prized shone back at him now. “You love me?” she whispered, then hiccupped again. Embarrassed, she buried her head against his shirt. “No one’s ever told me they loved me before.”

  “I do. I love everything about you. I love your purple hair and purple flowers and kaleidoscope eyes. I don’t want to live without you, Maya. It’s been driving me crazy, trying to pretend I don’t care when it’s tearing me apart. I couldn’t bear it if I lost you.”

  “If you love me, you can’t lose me,” she said insensibly, her words muffled as she swung her head back and forth. “You can’t lose the ones you love, Axell,” she announced more emphatically, lifting her head and defying him to argue. “Haven’t you learned that?”

  She rubbed her eyes and tried to speak firmly, but her voice cracked. “I was only ten when I lost my mother, but I can remember how her hair bobbed up and down when she laughed, how she loved pushing us in the swings, how the wind felt blowing through my hair as I swung higher and higher and she laughed with such joy...”

  She gulped on a sob and Axell crushed her closer. Just to hear her voice was Beethoven’s Fifth and a child’s laughter all wrapped into one. He understood joy again. Ice shards of his heart melted into warm, rainbowed puddles.

  “And my father,” she continued brokenly. “He used to wear ten-gallon hats and cowboy boots and swing me up in his arms and call me his cowgirl. He’d put his hat on my head and it would cover me up to the shoulders and we’d laugh and laugh. He bought me cowboy boots of my own. God, I loved him so much. And he’s still here. He is,” she insisted when he didn’t respond soon enough.

  “What happened to them?” Axell asked quietly, slowly absorbing her words, working them around inside himself to see how they fit, pulling out memories of his own parents and trying to put them into the picture.

  She wiped her eyes on his shirt. “My mother died of appendicitis. We were poor. We didn’t have insurance. She figured it was just a stomach ache. By the time she collapsed and the neighbors called an ambulance, it was too late.”

  Axell clutched her tighter as she wept. She had so much love inside her, and now he saw where it came from. Her mother had died to save the pennies for food on their table. He could see it because that was what Maya would do. “And your father?”

  She hiccupped. “When he lost his job here and we started drifting, he started drinking. My mother had a thing about alcohol, so she started nagging. That made him drink more. They broke up when I was pretty little, but I remember the arguments. I never saw him again. We never knew what happened to him until the social workers went looking for him after Mom died. They found out he died in a drunk-driving accident in Texas. Some days, I could never forgive him, but I can’t forget him either.”

  She was weeping quietly now, a torrent of tears and heartaches Axell couldn’t bear as his own memories flooded through him. He knew love. Maybe it wasn’t a loud and joyous love filled with laughter and tears like Maya’s, but it was strong and solid and he could offer it to her, if she would accept it.

  “Come home with me, please,” he pleaded. “I’ll do whatever it takes to make you love me, Maya. I’m sorry, so sorry I’m such an ass. I’ll never tell you what to do again. You can have cowboy hats and swings and the school and anything you like. You were right and I was wrong and I’ll get down on my damned knees and beg if I have to...”

  Her sobs began to shake suspiciously like laughter. Warily, Axell lifted his head from hers and tried to see her face. She buried it in his shoulder and clutched his shirt tighter. He’d ruined more shirts this way... He’d have to start buying wash-and-wear.

  “Don’t b-beg,” she stuttered into his shirt between sobs and laughter. “Please don’t beg, then I’d have to grovel and I’m really no good at it. God, Axell, just hold me. Tell me you love me some more. I love you so much it scares hell out of me and I don’t know what to do about it, and running just seemed simplest, but it’s not, really.”

  She practically disappeared into his arms when he held her this close. He’d hold her closer if he could, pull her inside of him where she could never be hurt again. Pain and joy ripped at what remained of his insides. Or his heart, or whatever it was Maya had gotten into and claimed for her own. She could have it. He didn’t need it anymore. He just needed her — and the dreams she made possible.

  “I love you, Maya, I need you. We all need you. Don’t ever do this to me again.”

  She nodded against his chest. Her sobs had lessened somewhat. She hiccupped. “I was coming home, honest. I decided if I meant to learn to fight, it ought to be for something more important than a building. It’s all right about the school. It’s just boards and walls. I shouldn’t have hurt you, though, or Constance. I won’t do it again, I promise.”

  Something tight and hard unfurled inside Axell’s chest, and he relaxed and loosened his grip enough to rub her back. “It’s all right if you need a time-out every once in a while. You can swim to some safe place and come back again when you’re ready. We’ll understand, just as long as we know you’re coming back.”

  She lifted her head, and red-rimmed eyes shimmered with tears as she gazed at him worshipfully. “Loving you is the scariest thing I’ve ever done, Axell Holm. If you understand me any better, I’ll feel like a walking, talking crystal ball.”

  He grinned. “Don’t worry. You’re more like a kaleidoscope. I can see through you, but boy, is it confusing. Not to mention, colorful.” He glanced over her shoulder. “And speaking of colorful...” He sighed in expectation of the walking, talking disaster climbing out of the police car at the end of the drive. “Here comes your sister.”

  Staying solidly within the circle of Axell’s arms, Maya turned to watch as Cleo gathered up Matty and cat and purposefully strode in their direction. She couldn’t bear watching the school go up in flames, so she focused on what was important. Cleo trailing a policeman was important.

  She wiped her tears on the back of her hand and waited. Axell’s arms made everything all right. He’d said he loved her. Axell loved her for herself, just as she was, without any compromises. The words smiled in her heart and the world glowed brighter. She could handle anything right now.

  “I used up all your honey,” Cleo declared harshly as she came within speaking distance.

  Puzzled, Maya blinked. “That’s okay, I’ll buy more. Your teapot’s safe. I’ve got it in the car.”

  Hugging Matty against her, Cleo nodded and looked past Maya to Axell. “Cueball is puking his guts all over the police station.”

  Axell’s arms tightened around Maya. She had the feeling she wasn’t catching something here. “Who’s Cueball? Does he have food poisoning?”

  Axell stroked her reassuringly as if she were a darned cat, and she glared over her shoulder at him. He was looking worried but that curious light gleamed in his eyes.

  He watched her carefully as he answered. “The fires weren’t accidental.”

  “Tell me something I don’t know,” she practically spat out. “And if I ever get my hands on the slimeball...” Her eyes widened as she read their expressions in a different light. “You know who did it!” And then the honey statement kicked in.

  Maya stared at her sister with disbelief. “You didn’t? Tell me you didn’t, Cleo?”

  Cleo shrugged. “The shop had a little ant problem. I’ll call the exterminator when I get back.”

  Maya could sense Axell struggling to follow, but she couldn’t explain. She still didn’t believe. “They have fire ants down here, Cleo,” she said in horror. “Tell me they weren’t fire ants.”

  Cleo scratched her son’s head and didn’t offer any expr
ession at all. “He sells dope to kids, Maya. He offs old men for refusing to help him hide the stuff. He sets fire to buildings, little sis. I made sure they were fire ants, just like the last time.”

  The policeman was almost grinning, even if Cleo didn’t crack a muscle. “We had to take a hose to him. Any time he doesn’t answer a question, we turn the water off. Mr. Holm, we need to ask you some questions when you have a chance.”

  Maya heard Axell choking behind her. She wasn’t certain if it was laughter or not, and she refused to turn and find out. She didn’t have a violent bone in her body. She remembered the time Cleo had dumped honey over one of her tormentors and left him for the ants to find. It hadn’t been funny then. It wasn’t funny now.

  Smelling the smoke as her dream and a century of history burned to ashes, Maya thought maybe it wasn’t funny, but it sure the hell was justified.

  She watched as Headley limped through the crowd of onlookers. Parents had started arriving to take their children home. Several of the matrons from the Garden Club were shaking their heads and checking the roses on the boundaries to see if they’d survived the intense heat, and flood from the fire hoses.

  The plants near the house would be a total loss. Maya couldn’t turn and look. She could still hear the hiss of hoses and steam. Even if they saved part of the structure, it couldn’t be rebuilt. She leaned into Axell’s embrace. She could stand on her own if she wanted. She just didn’t want to right now.

  “I’m sorry, Maya,” Headley said with complete sincerity as he reached them. “I’m getting old and not as quick as I used to be. If I’d put two and two together a little faster...”

  “The pusher killed Pfeiffer,” Axell interrupted coldly. “But someone paid him to burn the school. Who?”

  “It’s not what you’re thinking, Axell,” the reporter said warningly. “There isn’t any way you could...”

  Maya watched with interest as a silver Mercedes halted in the driveway and the mayor leapt out, searching the crowd frantically. As soon as he saw them, he hurried in their direction. Amazingly enough, Selene slipped elegantly from the passenger side and sauntered in his wake.

 

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