The phone shrilled into the darkness. Sasha startled awake. With shaky hands, she grabbed it from the nightstand.
“Is this Sasha Masters, the owner of DanceWorks?” She’d chosen to use her mother’s last name for privacy when she moved to Rockford.
“It is.” She glanced at the clock. Three in the morning. This wasn’t going to be good.
“Lieutenant Liam Murray here, from The Rockford Fire Department. Your building caught fire, in the bakery. It’s contained on the first floor.”
“Is Mrs. Bruni hurt? Anybody?”
“Nobody’s hurt. But her shop is a mess with a shitlo—oops, sorry, a whole lotta water damage.”
“She’s at the site, now. She gave us your contact information. There’s smoke damage in your studio but you’re one lucky dog. The sprinklers stopped the fire from reaching the second level.”
“Just so no one was hurt. I’ll be right there.”
“Thank you. Mrs. Bruni’s all alone.”
Throwing on clothes, Sasha thought about calling her sister Hannah, but she was still recovering from her arm surgery and she’d want to come, too. Sasha could handle this by herself.
She took a moment to breathe in and out deeply for calmness, then dashed out to the car. On the short drive she uttered the mantra, “No one’s hurt. No one’s hurt.”
Flashing red lights from police vehicles blocked off the entrance but they let her through. More red lights and the loud rumble of firetrucks greeted her as she arrived at the building and hurried out of the car. A man in tan-and-yellow gear approached her. “Ms. Masters?”
“Liam Murray. I called you.” He angled his head. “Mrs. Bruni’s over there.”
“Can you tell me how the fire started first? And the extent of the damage?”
“Looks like an electrical outlet sparked in the bakery near the deep frier.”
“We got here fast and put it out with a special extinguisher. The flames did damage, but the water is the big culprit.”
“Did you explain this to her?”
“Uh-huh. She asked if she did anything wrong.”
“Aw. Poor woman. I’ll go over to her.”
The stalwart widow of a war veteran, Angela Bruni was slump-shouldered and pale. When she saw Sasha, she started to cry. “Cara. My shop.”
It was dark so Sasha couldn’t see inside. “Mi dispiace tanto.” Mrs. Bruni had been teaching her Italian so she knew the words for I’m sorry.
“Dio mia. This is all I have left of Gus.” She and her husband started the bakery together. “That nice firefighter said it was not my fault.”
“Apparently the electrical outlet was old and sparked.”
Mrs. Bruni shook her head. “Your studio?”
“Smoke damage. Easier to clean up.” But water damage? That was huge.
“He said I can rebuild. But how?”
“The building’s insured. I promise, you’ll have your store back.” If Sasha had to pay extra for repairs herself. She owned the structure and was up to code on her inspections. This must have been a fluke.
Another woman approached them. “Angie, dear Angie, I’m so sorry.” Sasha had met Mrs. Bruni’s sister, who often helped out at the bakery.
They hugged then Mrs. Bruni said, “Coso posso fare, Millie.”
“We’ll figure out what we can do.” Mildred looked over her sister’s shoulder at Sasha. “There’ll be a way.”
“Excuse me.” Lt. Murray stood behind them. “Ms. Masters would you like to go up and see your studio? The private entrance staircase’s intact.”
“Thank you, Lieutenant.” She said to the women, “I’ll be right back.”
He handed her something. “I got some goggles from the truck and some gloves. Put them on. And don’t touch anything.”
He went ahead of her to the door. “I’m afraid we had to break your lock.”
“I’m glad you didn’t have to break down the door.”
They climbed the steep staircase and he opened the studio door. Immediately, she began to cough.
“We should go back.”
“No, I’ll be all right.” She pulled out a scarf she’d grabbed at home and covered her mouth and nose to dilute the acrid, putrid smell.
The symptoms dwindled and her eyes adjusted. Everything was intact—the two dance barres, the set of mirrors. She saw the door was closed to the office so that might have helped to keep it cleaner.
“We can’t stay, but I wanted you to know it’s just smoke damage.” When she didn’t respond, he went on, “There’ll be soot everywhere. But luckily no water damage. The alarm went off and we got here fast.”
“I had a layer of fireproof compounds and mortar laid between the floors when I remodeled upstairs.”
“Good thinking. Let’s go back to the street.”
Ironically, it was a lovely July night, with stars twinkling and the streetlights glowing. Too lovely, for what had happened here.
Sasha had a thought. “I forgot to ask how I go about cleaning all this up.”
“Call Pro Serve. They’ve worked with us a lot. You’ll have to wait to do anything inside, though, until the arson squad checks things out.”
“Arson? This could be arson?”
“Doesn’t seem like it to me, but for most commercial fires, the squad comes to make sure. I already told this to Mrs. Bruni.”
“Oh. My heart stopped there for a minute. But, again, thanks.”
Sasha walked over to Mrs. Bruni, who now sat on one of the benches that lined the street. Mildred’s arm circled around the shoulders of her sister’s flowered house dress. Sasha joined them. As soon as she sat and took the old woman’s hand, she felt gutted by her pain.
Sasha ignored it. She would be here for her friend.
Dan stood across the street on the sidewalk as he watched Sasha come out of the studio entrance with a fireman and head over to a bench. Amidst the noise of the trucks and officers shouting orders, Dan crossed to where she sat with Mrs. Bruni. Her curly brown hair was back in a ponytail and she wore a light purple workout suit. “Sasha, are you all right?”
“Danny? Um, physically, I’m fine. What are you doing here?”
“I have a small apartment down the street and heard the commotion outside my window.”
“I forgot where you lived.”
“Mrs. Bruni, I’m so sorry about all this,” he said.
The older woman stared at him with bruised eyes. He tried not to react but she was so sad even his hardened heart softened. “Danny. Thank you.”
“You two know each other?” Sasha asked.
“I go to the bakery almost every day.”
“You’re a nice boy,” she said squeezing his hand.
Ha! He was anything but that.
“What can I do for you?” he asked Sasha
“We don’t know yet.”
When Mrs. Bruni turned to her sister, Dan dropped down next to Sasha. Taking her hand would be too forward, so he made sure their hips and shoulders touched. Her face was ragged, her violet eyes turbulent, something else that elicited unwanted emotion from him. “This is so awful.”
“I know. You’re insured, aren’t you?”
“I am. But Mrs. Bruni has a high deductible. She won’t be able to cover all the repairs.”
“There must be something we can do.” He used we intentionally.
“The town has to help.”
“I agree. How bad was your studio damaged?”
“Smoke damage. The flames didn’t reach it so the sprinklers didn’t go off.”
“That’s good to hear. At least it didn’t burn.”
“I have to remember that.” She gave him a small smile. “I like that you’re so optimistic.”
Again, the foreign twist in his heart. Which he couldn’t afford. He’d come to Rockford to do a job and he certainly couldn’t develop feelings for his target. After all, he was planning to destroy her life as she knew it.