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"You saved my family." The grateful client grabbed Dixon Carter into a bear hug. Rattled, Dixon managed a back pat or two, hoping that did the trick. Emotional stuff threw him.
"We just gave you some advice, Eric. You earned the job." A laid-off auto tech, with an ill wife and two young boys, Eric had recently secured a job with the city, thanks to the help he'd gotten at Bootstrap Academy.
"You gave me the guts to apply," Eric insisted. "You taught me how to interview, what to say on my resume. You got me the leads."
The man had tears in his eyes. Tears.
Dixon blinked back the moisture in his own eyes, pride making his chest burn. We do good work. "That's why we're here."
Dixon sometimes got so caught up in the business side of the agency he forgot the rewards. Bootstrap Academy was a last-chance job-training and placement agency in Phoenix. The place was his brother Howard's dream, and Dixon had been privileged to help bring it to life a year ago.
"All I know is that if it weren't for this place, my boys wouldn't be stepping off the bus next fall with new backpacks, new sneaks and snack money burning holes in their pockets," Eric said. "I don't know how to thank you."
"Tell them your story." He nodded toward the new clients in a meeting room down the hall. "That's all the thanks we need." Ideally, Eric would give hope to the men and women who'd been beaten down by economic hard knocks or their own mistakes.
"Thank your brother and his wife for me, too."
"Absolutely. They get back tonight." Howard and Brianna had taken a vacation to celebrate their fifth anniversarytheir first trip away from their girls. Dixon was watching the four-year-old twinsand counting down the hours until their parents returned.
Not that he didn't love the girls. He adored them. But adding them to his own work, plus what couldn't be put off of Howard's, had been tough. Single parents deserved medals. Dixon would like a family one day, but not until he stopped putting in sixty-hour weeks here.
Oh, and found a woman to have one with.
Howard and Brianna were due back before the girls' bedtime, thank God. Dixon hadn't yet performed the elaborate night rituals to Sienna's satisfaction. Ginger was more tenderhearted, but a challenge in her own way.
Eric headed for the workshop, and Dixon saw his assistant barreling down the hall toward him. "What's up, Maggie?" he asked.
She nodded across the lobby to the small shop where they sold donated business clothes. "Tonya's about to lose her nerve with the interview."
Dixon backed up so Maggie could beeline for the young woman dressed in cutoffs and a tank top, who was glancing from a rack of blazers toward the exit door, ready to bolt. When Maggie reached her, she said something that made the girl smile, then led her deeper into the shop toward the manager.
Maggie had uncanny people instincts. She gave pep talks without being condescending, help without pity, support without being pushy. Tonya would walk out today with more confidence, a business suit and bus fare, if that's what she needed.
The smallest gesture could change everything for their clients. A smile, a word of praise, a phone callall could be a lifeline for someone about to go down for good.
Maggie had been one of their first clients. Howard had wanted to hire a social worker, but Dixon had had a feeling about Magdalena Ortiz. And he'd been right. Dixon wasn't used to trusting his feelings. Facts and figures were predictable. People not so much. People were the whole show around here, though, so Dixon often found himself at sea.
Checking his watch, Dixon sprinted for his office. He had twenty minutes to finish and send the email to the foundation before he had to get his nieces from gymnastics. Late pickups were not tolerated, according to Brianna. What are they going to do? Put me in time-out?
Dropping into his chair, Dixon pulled up his draft of the intent-to-apply email due by five today. It looked good. Complete. He clicked Send, hoping he wasn't too bleary to judge. They had to win this grant if the agency was going to survive another year.
He'd been up half the night finishing the app. He'd laid out a convincing argument, based on Bootstrap's high success rate, efficient operation and range of services. Today he'd tried to bring it to life by weaving in the client stories Howard and Brianna had given him. Howard had been a social worker for seventeen years before starting Bootstrap. His wife Brianna had been a high school teacher. Now she ran their workshops and basic skills program.
The stories were heart-wrenching. They fired Dixon up, kept him awake nights hunting down grants, looking for more ways to help. Dixon had found the building and negotiated a killer lease, but money was always tight. Coming from business, Dixon had been shocked at what non-profits went through for modest bucks. Banks were stingy, grant entities required endless paperwork and sources dried up all the time.
A shriek of laughter rose from down the hall, where they provided child care for clients and staffincluding his niecesreminding Dixon he had to run and fetch them at gymnastics.
He was about to get up when the intercom clicked, and the receptionist spoke. "I'm sorry, Dixon, but there's an urgent call." Something in her voice put him on alert, every muscle tense. "It's a doctor. Calling from Reno."
Reno? Reno was near Tahoe, where Brianna and Howard had been staying. Except, they should be on the road by now. Electricity shot through Dixon like the zing of a sudden cavity.
Don'tpanic. It might be nothing. "Send it through."
Let it be minor. Let it be a mistake.
He picked up the line the instant it rang. "This is Dixon Carter." He held his breath, reined in his alarm.
"You're related to Howard Carter?"
"He's my brother, yes. Did something happen?" He kept his voice level and steady. Whatever it was, he'd need to stay calm.
"This is Dr. Finson, Reno Regional Hospital. I'm sorry to tell you that your brother and his wife were involved in a highway accident."
"Are they okay?" No, they're not. He heard it in the man's hesitation, his grave tone.
The doctor inhaled sharply before answering. "I'm afraid their injuries were too massive. They died on the scene."
"No!" The word exploded from him. No, no, no. It can't be. It's a mistake. Howard can't be dead. Or Brianna. No.
Not possible. He fell against the headrest and his chair rolled back, as if to escape the news. This can't be true. They can't be dead. It's their anniversary. There's a party Saturday.
"I'm sorry for your loss, Mr. Carter," the doctor said. His voice was hard to hear over Dixon's muddled thoughts. "They suffered fractured cervical vertebrae, so death was likely instantaneous. I'm going to transfer you to a liaison who'll talk over transportation arrangements."
"Transportation arrangements?" The hospital had a travel agent? They'd get him a flight, a rental car?
"For the bodies," the doctor said. He sounded young. A resident likely. Maybe he'd gotten the patient names wrong. They made mistakes at busy hospitals, right?
Dixon opened his mouth to ask for proof, for a second opinion, anything, but he was put on hold. His brain was moving through sludge. Howard was dead. Brianna, too. Killed on the highway. They lay in a hospital morgue, their bodies broken. Oh, God.
Waiting, he fumbled in his desk drawer for a pen, finally seeing the one on top of the yellow pad where he kept a running list of to-do items, some checked, some not. Insanely, he mentally added a task: bury your brother and his wife.
The social worker who came on the line was kind. She spoke slowly, waited for his questions after each piece of information. His mouth felt rubbery as he talked, and her voice came to him as if from underwater. She told him to contact a Phoenix mortuary, which would make arrangements with one in Reno to prepare the bodies and fly them home. Prepare the bodies fly them home. The words were tiny bombs exploding in his brain.
She gave him her number if he had more questions. "Will you be all right? Do you have family nearby?"
"I'm fine. No one nearby. My mother's away." He'd have to reach her on the cruise ship in Europe. She would know how to reach his father, who'd skipped out when Dixon was ten. But Dixon wasn't close to his mother. His family consisted of Howard and Brianna and Sienna and Ginger. Sienna and Ginger!
He had to pick them up. His gaze shot to the clock on his desk. He'd be fifteen minutes late if he left right now. "I need to go. I'll call if I have questions." He jumped up, sending his chair crashing to the wall behind him and lunged for the door, patting his pocket for the keys to Howard's SUV. They'd asked him to drive the girls in it instead of Dixon's Subaru WRX since the SUV was built like a tank. Howard and Brianna had taken their sedan to Tahoe. Maybe if they'd had the SUV they would have survived the crash
Too late. Too late. They're gone. He ran for the door. Maggie, two of the social workers, and Ben, a Bootstrap graduate they'd hired as a handyman, huddled around the reception desk. "What happened?" Maggie asked Dixon.
"Brianna and Howard were in a car wreck. Killed. They're gone." The words hit his ears like blows. He noticed he was trembling. The women gasped, faces shocked. Maggie covered her mouth with her hands.
"I have to get the girls. Cancel the United Way lunch, Maggie. Hold down the fort as best you can. I'll call when I'm able to. Ben, finish the shelves in the career center, then wire the computers."
He jumped in the SUV, squealed out of the lot and gunned the engine, wishing for his WRX with its turbo boosters. He leaned over the steering wheel as if that would get him there faster.
Sienna and Ginger, those two sweet girls, were orphans.
Bile rose in his throat and his vision grayed. He twisted the steering wheel, swallowed hard. He didn't have time to get upset.
The girls were probably freaked enough that he hadn't arrived. How would he tell them what had happened? When? Not right off. Not until he figured out the right way.
Grief tugged at him, dragging him down, breaking him in two. He fought to stay clear, to keep going, to do what had to be done. Get the girls, feed them, find a funeral home, reach his motherwould her cell phone work at sea or would he have to ask the cruise line to contact her?
He had to call Brianna's twin sister, Aubrey, too. Aubrey was Brianna's only family, as far as Dixon knew. Their mother had died when they'd barely graduated high school. Breast cancer, he thought. He didn't know the story on their father, who wasn't in the picture. Where would he get Aubrey's number?
Probably from the stapled pages of instructions Brianna had left with details about the girls' food preferences, their schedule, what they needed in their backpacks for Bootstrap, the babysitter next door, plus a list of emergency contact numbersa plumber, an electrician, several neighbors, the pediatrician. At the time the list seemed to be overkill. Who would ever need any of that?
He did. It was all he had.
How would Aubrey take the news? Would she even be in the country?
Supposedly, she was coming to the anniversary party in three days. He'd figured she would breeze in at the last minute with some extravagant, impractical gift like she'd done for the twins' birthdays. She'd brought her ski-bum boyfriend to the last one. Dixon and Aubrey had had a moment five years before at Howard and Brianna's wedding. Since then, she'd been prickly around him, and they'd hardly spoken to each other.
Now they'd be forced to work together. They had a funeral to plan.
He shoved that idea into the swirl of his thoughts and snagged a new worry. What would happen to the girls? They would need a guardian.
It had to be him. Dixon was the only option. His mother loved the girls, but only in small doses. And parenthood had to be the furthest thing from Aubrey's mind. She had some kind of travel blog about outdoor sports.
Of course, it was far from his mind, too.
You 're it, Dix. You'll have to raise the girls. His gut churned, and he noticed that his jaw ached like crazy. He'd locked his back teeth, as if that would help him keep it together. He looked up, saw the red light and slammed on the brakes. Damn. It wouldn't do for him to get in a wreck on the way to get the girls. He was all they had now.
How would the twins react? Ginger would dissolve into tears. Would Sienna? He imagined screams and wails and howls of grief and wild questions he wouldn't know the answers to.
They'd be upset that he was late, and hungry, so he'd stop for fast foodalways a hittake them home and somehow find a way to tell them their parents would not be coming home tonight or ever.
Call Constance. The answer popped into his head. The Bootstrap career counselor used to work as a school psychologist. She would talk him through this. He couldn't blow it. The girls were counting on him.
As he waited for the green, the icy fact of Howard's death trickled past his defenses.
Howard is gone. Your brother. The one person who loved you no matter what, your best friend, your family.
It can't be. It's not fair.
Howard deserved more time with his kids, more time with the agency he'd only begun to build. Dixon wanted more time with him, too. He owed him so much.
He's gone. Forever. You'll never see that grin of his, never get to harass him about the Phoenix Suns, kick his butt on the court, eat his smoked ribs, watch him work wonders with people in need.
The light turned green and he stomped the accelerator to the floor, shutting down his pain. He had a job to do. Two minutes later, he whipped into the strip mall that held the girls' gym. He spotted them doing cartwheels on the sidewalk, watched by one of the trainers, who looked pissed. He parked, jumped out of the car and hurried over. The instructor looked pointedly at her watch.
"There was an emergency. I'm sorry."
Her face didn't change. She'd probably heard a million excuses. I bet you haven't heard this one.
"Where were you, Uncle Dixon? We've been waiting and waiting." Sienna's piercing blue eyes locked on his, more accusatory than her words.
"Uncle Dixon!" Ginger ran and leaped into his arms, wrapping her legs around his waist.
His chest tightened and his lungs seemed to shut down. He loved these girls so much. They had giant hearts, boundless energy and huge spirits. How would this tragedy harm them?