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Ominous. That's the word that came to mind as Elissa Mason stared at the western horizon from the front porch of the house she shared with her aunt. Angry, dark clouds were doing their best to snuff out the last sliver of daylight hanging at the edge of the world. A gust of wind pushed the wisps of hair that had escaped her ponytail into her eye and sent a soda can careening end over end down the street.
Verona, her mother's older sister, came out of the house behind her. "Looks like we might finally get an end to this drought."
"It's what is coming along with the rain that I'm concerned about." Already they were under severe thunderstorm and tornado watches for the remainder of the night. As thunder rumbled in the distance, Elissa couldn't kick the bad feeling she had.
"Yeah, might be a doozy, but beggars can't be choosers," Verona said.
There was no denying that this part of central Texas was in dire need of rain. The ground was so dry throughout the Hill Country that it was cracking, and already ranchers were having to sell off stock because they didn't have adequate grazing. Not to mention the fact that even native Texans were getting tired of baking every time they stepped foot outside, no matter the time of day. It was almost autumn, and there still hadn't been any relief from the heat. The only ones who were likely seeing any benefit from this Hades-like weather were the electric utilities fueling all the air conditioners running nonstop.
As she watched the sky darken, she noticed Pete Kayne turning onto the street in his sheriff's department cruiser. She waved as he pulled into his driveway next door. When he shut off the engine and got out of the car, he glanced back to the west, as well. Another gust of wind had him grabbing his Stetson to keep it from taking flight.
"Looks like you might have a busy night," she said.
He took off his hat and ran his fingers through his dark hair. "That's what I'm afraid of. Going to try to catch a nap in case I end up having to go back in."
She smiled. "Good luck with that." While she was a morning person, Pete Kayne definitely wasn't. Sometimes she gave him extra-bubbly greetings in the mornings when he had to work first shift just to see the annoyed look on his face.
He gave her one of those looks now, the type shared by people who'd been close friends for a long time. She laughed as he headed into his little house. After watching the sky darken more, Elissa headed inside. She checked the weather coverage on TV until it started getting repetitive.
"We better go ahead and eat in case we lose power," Verona said as she headed toward the kitchen.
"Not a bad idea."
As they ate several minutes later, Elissa flipped through some nursery supply catalogs she'd brought home from work.
"Are they still planning to start on the addition Monday?" Verona asked.
A zing of excitement shot through Elissa as she envisioned the pottery studio in its completed form, a place where locals and tourists alike could come and learn to make their own pottery. And the new florist shop she was adding to her already thriving nursery and landscape décor business would boost sales during the parts of the year when people weren't landscaping. "Yeah. I'm having to rein myself in when I look at these catalogs. I could spend myself into bankruptcy with all the neat stuff in here."
Verona smiled. "Like taking a sugar addict into a candy store."
Even with the newly minted loan she'd received for the expansion, Elissa couldn't afford everything she wanted for the nursery. Like her best friends, India and Skyler, she had big dreams for her business, ones that often outpaced what she could bring to fruition.
Verona patted her hand. "You'll get there, honey. Just look at everything you've done in a few short years. Paradise Garden is a destination now, not just a place where locals pick up something to stick in their flower beds."
Elissa was proud of how she'd taken what had once been a little, family-owned nursery she'd worked at as a teen and turned it into a f lowery, fragrant, sprawling manifestation of her dreams. That didn't mean she couldn't dream even more. The day she stopped dreaming about what Paradise Garden Nursery could be was the day she needed to hang it up.
After they finished eating and cleaned the dishes, Elissa plopped down on the overstuffed chair to do some realistic choosing of stock she wanted for the pottery studio and florist shop. Verona turned the weather back on and picked up her knitting.
Elissa fell so far into her work that she didn't look up until Verona switched off the lamp next to her chair then clicked off the TV.
"Looks like the storms are tracking north of us, so I'm going to hit the hay. I'm meeting Annabeth for breakfast in the morning."
Annabeth Watson had been Verona's best friend for longer than Elissa had been alive. Along with Franny Stokes and Ingrid Stohler, they played some mad games of poker, too.
"Don't you two get into too much trouble."
"Pffftt," Verona said as she waved off Elissa's teasing warning.
Elissa laughed as she watched her aunt head down the hallway toward her bedroom. A few more minutes of circling products in the catalog and Elissa was yawning. A gust of wind rattled the house as she stood. Hopefully the weather would calm down so she could sleep. Her days started early and were always long, but she loved every minute of them.
Just as she was about to fall asleep, she heard rain begin to patter against her bedroom window. Good. Maybe tomorrow they wouldn't have to water all the plants and shrubs covering the nursery grounds. As she drifted toward sleep, she began to dream she was floating on her back in the middle of a big blue sea.
Elissa jerked awake, her heart beating frantically. It took her several of those heartbeats to realize she'd been awakened by the raging storm outside. A loud crash shook the house accompanied by the sound of glass breaking. She leapt from the bed and ran out into the hallway, nearly running into Verona. The tornado siren started howling downtown.
"We've got to get to the storm shelter," Verona said over the wailing of the storm.
A freakish moaning over their heads caused Elissa to look up just as she heard what sounded like an approaching train. Something slammed into the side of the house, and the roof timbers sounded as if they were on the verge of shattering into kindling. The train sound drew closer.
"There's no time!" Elissa opened the hall closet where they kept their jackets and shoved Verona inside. She wedged herself into the cramped space, wrapping herself around her aunt to protect her in case the house disintegrated around them.
The wind howled like a wounded animal intent on retribution. Verona made a sound of distress, half sob and half curse, and Elissa wrapped her arms more tightly around the woman who was like a second mother to her.
"We'll be okay," Elissa said, though she wasn't so sure. It sounded as if the end of the world was upon them.
The angry-beast wailing of the wind mixed with the sounds of crashes and ripping timbers. Elissa feared each moment would be their last, that the house would be swept from its foundation, Verona and her along with it. Her legs began to shake from the strain of crouching on the balls of her feet. The sounds of destruction seemed to go on forever while they hid in the dark, praying the storm didn't find their hiding place.
Gradually, the roar began to quiet. The creaking and popping lessened and then stopped altogether. Even after the storm passed, Elissa didn't move, not fully trusting her ears that it was over.
"We made it," Verona said, spurring Elissa to motion.
Careful not to bonk her head on the coat rod above her, Elissa pressed her hands against the walls of the closet to help her stand. Her legs felt no stronger than boiled noodles. She took a deep breath before she opened the door. Everything was dark, but at least the hallway seemed to still be intact. She reached up to the shelf above the coat rod and fumbled around until she found the large flashlight they kept there.
After helping Verona to her feet, Elissa flicked on the flashlight and pointed it out into the hallway. The family photos still hung on the wall, so at least part of the house was standing. Before investigating further, she grabbed a pair of old sneakers she used when she worked in the yard and slipped them on her bare feet.
Verona followed as Elissa made her way toward the living room. She tried the light switch, but it wasn't a surprise that the power was out. She pointed the flashlight at Verona's feet and saw that she'd slipped on a pair of sandals.
Elissa felt the damp breeze just before she stepped into the living room and found a large tree branch sticking through one of the west-facing windows. Rain had blown in through the broken glass, but that was nothing. They at least appeared to still have a roof over their heads.
"Careful where you step," Elissa said. "The floor is wet, and there's glass everywhere." She stepped over one of the smaller arms of the branch. "I'm going to check outside."
"Be careful. There might be electric lines down." She looked back at her aunt. "Stay in here."
Verona appeared as if she might argue.
Elissa pointed toward the broken window. "See if you can find a way to close that up around the branch until we can get it removed."
Verona finally nodded.
Elissa wished for daylight as she opened the front door and stepped out onto the porch. The night was so dark that she felt as if she were trying to light her path through a cave with a lightning bug. Thankfully the porch seemed to be intact, though the two rocking chairs were gone. They'd probably been reduced to kindling.
The wail of emergency vehicle sirens started downtown. Hopefully no one was hurt seriously. She pointed the flashlight in that direction and gasped. Pete's patrol car sat upside down in the middle of her yard. She ran down the steps and toward the corner of the house. But when she aimed the flashlight toward Pete's house, it wasn't there.
"Oh, God, no." Heedless of what lay in her way, she ran toward the rubble that was all that remained of Pete's house. "Pete!" A huge lump rose in her throat and panic seized her as she swept the flashlight over the broken timbers and concrete foundation. Pete couldn't be gone. Beyond India and Skyler, Pete was her best friend. Tears pooled in her eyes and her heart ached. "Pete!"
He had to be here somewhere, had to be safe. Why couldn't he have stayed at work?
Loud banging to her left drew her attention. She pointed the flashlight in that direction and spotted the storm shelter halfway between her house and the remains of Pete's. A mangled hunk of white metal lay against the door.
Pete. He had to be the one making that noise. She made her way through the obstacle course of debris.
"Pete? Is that you?"
"Yeah," came the muffled replay. "I can't get out."
Elissa stifled a cry of relief. "Hang on."
She sat the flashlight on the ground so she could shove what had once been his washing machine away from the door. She grunted and cursed when her hands slid off the wet metal. Trying a different tactic, she stooped and gripped the underside of the washer. Gritting her teeth, she managed to roll the useless hunk of metal away from the door.
Needing to see that her friend really was alive, she jerked the door open. Pete climbed the last few steps up out of the shelter. Before she even thought about what she was doing, Elissa wrapped her arms around him and hugged him.
"Hey, what's this?" Pete patted her back awkwardly.
She let him go and took a step away. And then she swatted him on the arm. "You scared me to death."
He glanced past her toward what was left of his home. "You're not the only one." He glanced toward her house. "Are you and Verona okay?"
"Yeah. Tree through the window, but we're lucky." She looked again at the spot where his house had stood for as long as she could remember. "I'm so sorry, Pete."
"It's just a house."
The hitch in his voice told her he wasn't as okay with the loss of his home as he tried to seem. Her heart ached for him. He was such a nice guy, a good friend, and life kept handing him one horrible blow after another. The loss of his father when they were teens, his mother only months ago and now his home and all his possessions. She resisted the urge to hug him again.
He cursed, and when she glanced at him she could tell he'd spotted his patrol car. His personal truck had been in his garage. Lord only knew where it was.
"I've got to get to work, find out how widespread the damage is."
"I'll take you, or you can borrow my car."
"Oh, my God." Verona approached them with another flashlight in hand. "Pete, honey, are you okay?"
Verona had no reservations about showing Pete how much she cared about him and gathered him into a tight hug. "I'm so glad you're safe." She planted a kiss on Pete's cheek.
Elissa couldn't tell in the dark, but she'd bet money Pete was blushing.
Verona finally let him go and turned to look at the destruction. She shook her head. "It's not fair that we got off so easily while you've lost everything."
"Tornadoes are like that," he said. Pete took a couple of steps then sighed. "I need to go to work. Nothing I can do here now anyway."
"Let me get my keys," Elissa said. She hurried back to the house but paused on the porch to look back toward where Pete stood in the dim glow of Verona's flashlight. Anger welled up in her. Pete didn't deserve this. The guy deserved a break, and already her mind was churning with ways to help him. Because that's what friends did, they helped each other.
Pete felt numb all over, as if he'd been dumped back into a nightmare he'd spent the past few months crawling out of. He didn't think he was a bad guy, but it sure seemed as if fate got a kick out of punching him in the face on a regular basis.
He sighed and shook his head. At least he was alive, and Verona and Elissa escaped unharmed. He only hoped the rest of the area's residents had fared as well. Right now he had to put aside his own problems and focus on work.
"Pete," Elissa called from in front of her house. "Can you help me get the garage door up?"