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Chapter 2 Present Day
Standing a few feet behind her fourteen-year-old daughter, Ariel, in the hot Virginia sun, Rainey Adams watched her staring up at Bliss House. If it had been possible to will Ariel to love it as much as she did, Rainey would have done it in a heartbeat.
It was a house from Rainey’s dreams, rising from its bed of tattered gardens on two stories of firm yellow brick, its face boldly pushing forth from between two shallow wings. The third floor was a mansard crown of aged gray slate, relieved by several chim- neys and windows set deep into shadowed cornices that made them seem secretive even in the afternoon light. The lower floors were layered with shutterless arched windows taller than a man and punctuated with iron accents whose points looked more dangerous than decorative. But the creamy white trim and pale stone outlining the house’s edges lent Bliss House a tentative air of softness and kept it from looking too severe. Too guarded. From the outside, one of Bliss House’s primary architectural oddities—a dome crowning the central well of the house—was barely visible. Overall, the house gave an impression of contradicting itself, as though it weren’t sure of what sort of house it meant to be.
Rainey, though, was certain it was meant to be hers. While she’d found it intimidating on seeing it for the second time in her life (the first having been when she was only eight years old, and then she couldn’t go inside), it was like nowhere she’d ever lived before, and she found that she wanted to cling to its immutable presence. It was solid and old and beautiful and challenging, all at the same time.
Ariel needed the stability a place like Bliss House could give her.
Rainey needed it, too. As an interior designer who spent much of her life making homes for other people, she’d always believed that the atmosphere of a house was shaped by the people who lived in it. Yet here she was, looking for comfort and strength from a thing made of bricks and mortar. She and Ariel, like the house, had been damaged by their sad—even tragic—histories. But she had plans for the house beyond the critical repairs and renovations that she’d already done. She would heal it, as it would help to heal the two of them. It would be a home where Ariel would feel safe, and together they would bring the kind of happiness to Bliss House that would make it worthy of its name.
Overwhelmed with a feeling of hopefulness, Rainey reached out to touch her daughter’s hair, but then quickly drew back her hand. “What do you think? Do you like it?”
It was a ridiculous question, and she knew she was opening her- self up for the worst kind of derision. Ariel had become an expert at taking advantage of her eager desire to make things right between them. All she had to do was turn and fix Rainey with one of her practiced, uncaring looks with eyes that looked too much like Will’s eyes. In life, the three of them had been a solid, happy unit. In death, the man they had both lost was always between them.
“You’re kidding, right?” Ariel leaned awkwardly on her cane, a scowl aging her once-delicate features. She hid her thinned, cropped hair beneath a slouchy patterned cap, and her scars beneath clothes that hung loose on her slight frame.
Rainey bit her lip to keep from asking Ariel if she meant “kid- ding” as in this-has-got-to-be-a-joke, or “kidding” as in this-is-the- coolest-place-I’ve-ever-seen. She’d been expecting a strong reaction to Bliss House—one way or the other—from Ariel, who had refused to even look at pictures of it before they arrived in Virginia.
Ariel started forward slowly. The accident—yes, it was an acci- dent, even if Rainey herself was responsible—that had claimed Will Adams, Ariel’s father and the center of Rainey’s world, had also left the entire right side of Ariel’s body burned and badly scarred. Two years earlier, she’d been a lithe twelve-year-old who was already several inches taller than her mother. She had loved gymnastics and ballet, and wore her then-lush black hair knotted in a taut bun at the back of her head. Her porcelain skin had been free of the blemishes that plagued other girls, and her blue eyes—like her father’s—were alternately full of harmless mischief and solemnity.
That girl was gone, replaced by an angry, unforgiving teenager who had spent too much time in and out of hospitals, and stabbed her walking cane into the ground as though every step were a punishment. She saw every mirror as an enemy. Her depression and anger turned the time she and Rainey spent together into a shared silent cage that seemed to grow smaller with each passing day.
Rainey was finally used to her daughter’s wrecked beauty, the fierce red flesh along her jaw that spread like a chafing hand over her right cheek. She longed to gently touch the scars that ran from Ariel’s face and down her arm to the back of her hand. She missed the giggling girl who looked so much like her daddy, missed the intermingling of their hair—Rainey’s so blond and Ariel’s so dark—as they read or played computer games together, or cuddled on the couch to watch a movie. Missed looking into her daughter’s eyes and seeing something, anything, besides hurt and contempt.
To My Adorable Mommy, I Love You Soooooooo Much!!!! Ariel had written in bright gold on the last Valentine she’d given Rainey, over two years earlier. Yes, she missed so much about her baby girl.
“It was hard to get good pictures of the front of the house,” Rainey said, following Ariel. There was a pebble in her open sandal. The driveway hadn’t yet been repaved and was a minefield of small rocks and three-inch-deep potholes. “You’d have to go way back down the drive, and out there the trees get in the way. It will be clearer in the winter.”
What will winter be like here? She hadn’t thought about things like snow removal or even about the cost of heating such a monster of a house. Before buying it, she’d only been in Old Gate once, and by that time Bliss House had been sold to a doctor outside the family. But then it was sold again to become a successful inn run by a married couple, the Brodskys, whose ownership had ended in a tragic murder. Before it was sold the first time, Bliss House had been in Rainey’s mother’s family for over a hundred years. Now it was hers.
In a better market, Bliss House might have cost her half-again the one-point-four million she’d paid for the house and land. Between her own trust fund and Will’s life insurance, she had a very manageable mortgage and, if she acted carefully, they could live quite comfortably for at least the next ten years. Ariel would be out of college by then—if she would even go. They hadn’t exactly been diligent about home schooling.
Will would never have believed she could let things get to this point. God only knew Rainey could hardly believe it herself.
When they reached the landing below the front door, Rainey looked up to the distant rooftop. Barely five feet two inches in her shoes, she suddenly felt insignificant. Beside her, Ariel seemed much younger than she was, and more vulnerable. It was as if they were two tiny, fragile dolls about to enter a massive new dollhouse.
Two ragged, broken dolls.
*Used with permission of Pegasus Books, LLC