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Michaela Landry gripped the steering wheel of the Camry and frowned as she looked out the windshield and tried to read the road signs. Nothing looked familiar. She couldn't find any of the landmarks her godmother had described to help her find her way back from the Memphis International Airport. Was she even going in the right direction?
She sucked her teeth, annoyed with her own ignorance, and blaming Memphis for having streets not being laid out in a more logical way.
She found herself crossing a street called Flicker. She'd seen that before
but then she made a turn. Wrong move. Michaela had no idea where she was.
Just then her cell phone, which she'd placed on top of her purse on the passenger seat, began to trill a musical ring tone. She reached over and pressed the speakerphone button.
"Where are you?"
Michaela exhaled in relief when she recognized her godmother's voice.
"I'm on my way back to the house, Aunt Alice," she answered as if she knew what she was doing.
Alice Underwood laughed. "Girl, you are lost. Admit it. You should have been back to the house a half hour ago. Ben and I don't live but twenty minutes from the airport. I've been calling the house and getting no answer. You had us worried. What happened?"
Michaela squinted as she passed another unknown street name and confessed that she didn't know where she was. She described her location. Guiding her by phone, her godmother got her pointed in the right direction.
"I would have figured it out," Michaela said defensively. Already she was seeing businesses and buildings she recognized.
"Yeah, but by then you would have been in Mississippi." Alice chuckled.
"Is your flight delayed?"
"No. As a matter of fact they just announced we'll be boarding in a few minutes. I just want to make sure you'll be okay by yourself. Call me if you need information
or if you get lost again."
"I don't plan on having to call you for anything. This is a special trip for you and Ben."
She was feeling confident as she drove along the avenue that would lead back to her godparents' home in the neighborhood known as Chickasaw Gardens.
The wide avenues were clean and orderly, bordered on either side by the occasional high brick wall, or formal entrances indicating gated communities. The trees were tall and leafy and very old, forming an arbor overhead. They shaded the road, with sunlight dappling through the branches.
"You're too proud and stubborn for your own good. Men don't like that in a woman, you know."
"I'm not interested in any man who can't let me be who I am."
Michaela couldn't help responding to her godmother's reference to her tendency to square off with the opposite sex, and not back down when she felt she was right about something. According to Alice Underwood, that's what had contributed to her persistent single state.
"Anyway, how do you know I wasn't driving around exploring, and getting better acquainted with the University District?"
"Umph. 'Cause you can't fool me. You city folk think you know everything. I remember when you and your sister used to come to stay with us when you were kids, how you'd carry on about the bugs and the heat and the strange sounds at night. You weren't curious. You were scared."
"I loved coming to see you." Michaela smiled at the memory, making the last turn on the approach to her godparents' home. "I wanted to live in your house forever."
"Well, now's your chance to find out if you'd really like living in a small city in the South. Memphis isn't like D.C."
"That's why I accepted your invitation to stay by myself while you and Uncle Ben are away on your second honeymoon. I needed a break."
Alice laughed, her voice laced with skepticism. "All right now. We'll see. I told Jefferson to keep an eye on you."
"Your neighbor? I don't believe he even exists. You keep talking about him, but I haven't seen him since I got here. I don't need a babysitter, Aunt Alice. I have Lady for company."
"That fool cat don't like nobody but Ben. She turns up her nose at me."
"If she's not nice to me she won't eat."
Alice Underwood laughed merrily. "Honey, if there's a showdown I'm still betting on Lady to come out ahead. She's got eight more lives than you have."
"Oh, I'm here, Aunt Alice! I just turned into the gate."
"Good. I have to go myself. Ben is signaling me to get off the phone and get in line for boarding."
"Have a wonderful time in Paris. What a romantic place to spend your anniversary."
"Thank you, dear. You enjoy yourself, too."
Michaela finished the call. She pressed the remote, clipped to the sun visor, to open the electronic garage door. When she drove in, the front right side of the car hit something and pushed it along the cement floor. She turned off the engine she got out to investigate. She found a recycled shipping carton in front of the bumper. It was partially filled with articles of clothing, and she guessed that Ben had apparently forgotten to move it when he loaded the luggage into the car earlier. Michaela put it aside, not sure if the clothing were rags, Ben's working-around-the-house clothes, or things to be given to charity.
She closed the garage door and headed to the back door of the house that would let her into the kitchen. There was no question that it felt eerie to be there by herself. She could hear the ticking of the wall clock over the kitchen door, the refrigerator motor, a bird outside in one of the trees. There was a soft ca-thump from the laundry room and Lady, the Underwoods' aging, fat, long-haired cat, came sauntering in from one of her favorite sleeping places on top of the clothing dryer. Lady looked up at Michaela with her wide, gray eyes, meowed tentatively and strolled past her and into the living room.
"It's you and me, babe," Michaela murmured.
Suddenly she started. She heard a hard scraping sound that seemed to be coming from the backyard. Michaela turned around to lean over the sink and peered out the window. She could see almost the entire yard, but it was empty and still. Just visible was an edge of the flagstone patio and a lounge chair. She frowned at it, sure that the day before the chair had been in a different place. Or had it?
She started again. This time it was because of the front doorbell. She hurried to find out who was there, chastising herself for letting her imagination get the better of her. There was no peephole, such as she had on her apartment door in the building where she lived in D.C. Weren't folks here worried about being bludgeoned to death by a stranger they couldn't see?
Michaela opened the door.
Standing before her was a tall, broad-shouldered man with medium-brown skin. He was clean-shaven, but wore wireless rimmed glasses that seemed almost invisible on his chiseled, square face. He was dressed in summer business attire: brown slacks, a white short-sleeved shirt and a smart but conservative tie.
"Can I help you?" she asked.
He inclined his head toward her, askance. "Good afternoon. Are you Michaela? I'm Jefferson McNeill. I live three houses that way." He pointed with a sideward nod of his head.
She quickly gathered her wits. Aunt Alice had neglected to mention that Jefferson McNeill was a good-looking man with an erect, sturdy build. To Michaela he had the demeanor and presence of, perhaps, a lawyer, or college professor
someone who looked like he'd played varsity football. The woman in her did a quick mental survey of her own appearance and decided that what Mr. McNeill was seeing should be equally appealing. She smiled pleasantly at him.
"Yes, I'm Michaela. My godparents mentioned you." She decided against offering Mr. McNeill her hand. That seemed too businesslike and formal. "Would you like to come in?"
"Just for a quick minute, if I'm not interrupting," he responded, stepping past her into the house. "I wanted to officially welcome you to Chickasaw Gardens. I'm going to pretend that you just moved here and don't know anyone."
"Well, that's kind of true, especially with my godparents gone."
"Did they get off okay this morning? Ben's not big on the travel part. He just wants to be there."
"I know what you mean," she said, leading him into the living room. The kitchen seemed too cozy, and the backyard too informal. She didn't know anything about Mr. McNeill, yet. "Aunt Alice called a few minutes ago. They were about to board the plane. I just got back from taking them to the airport."
Jefferson pursed his lips and looked at his watch. "I was kind of keeping a lookout for you. I thought you'd be back here an hour ago."
Michaela indicated the sofa where he was to sit, while she sat in her godmother's favorite easy chair, curling her long, thin body comfortably.
She watched as Lady suddenly appeared and walked over to check out the visitor. The cat sprang onto the arm support of the sofa, nearest Jefferson. He reached out to stroke the cat's head, but she sniffed at his hand for a moment before gracefully retreating and jumping to the floor and sashaying away.
"I made a few stops," she fibbed smoothly as Jefferson turned his attention to her.
He stared right at her. "You got lost."
She couldn't help but laugh at his unexpected conclusion. "I'm never going to live that down, I see."
"I don't mean to put you on the spot, and there's nothing wrong with getting lost. You learn from mistakes. That's what I tell my girls."
"Yes, you have twins, right?"
"Kimika and Kyla. They're thirteen. They're looking forward to meeting you ever since Alice mentioned that you work at Howard University in D.C.," he said.
"Any particular reason that impressed them?" Michaela asked him.
"Their mother, my late wife, went to Howard."
" she murmured awkwardly.
"I came over to introduce myself. Since this is your first night alone I also thought you'd like to join me, and the girls, for dinner. Nothing fancy, but we'd love to have you."
"That's very nice of you," Michaela said, automatically searching for a reason to say no.
"Your eyes are an unusual color," he suddenly observed. "Like ginger beer."
"If that was a compliment, thank you."
"I'm sure you've heard that before."
Michaela merely smiled politely.
She wasn't ready for this kind of socialization yet, and she had a feeling that Aunt Alice had put Jefferson up to the invitation. She also wouldn't put it past her godmother to try and play matchmaker. Michaela had no idea what Alice Underwood might have told Jefferson McNeill about her
and her other reason for getting out of D.C.
but she'd already been given a rundown on Jefferson and knew he'd been a widower for some five years. But Michaela wasn't having it. Meeting an eligible bachelor was not why she'd come to Memphis.
Besides, she wasn't all that sure that the invitation was sincere. He was saying all the right things, but something was missing. To Michaela it seemed like Jefferson was assessing her with a cool detachment, rather than real interest. He adjusted his rimless glasses, staring at her again.
"Come over about six. We'll have time to get acquainted before we sit down to eat."
"Thank you, but I was thinking of going over to the university tonight for a performance I read about. Would it be okay if I called and let you know in the next hour, after I check to see if tickets are still available?"
"Yes, ma'am, that's fine.You'd be welcome anytime."
Jefferson then told her how it had come about that he was able to find a house and move into Chickasaw Gardens. His boasting reminded Michaela of the way her colleagues and friends in D.C. talked about the "good" neighborhoods they lived in, like Prince George's County in Maryland, as if establishing their pedigree. But Jefferson also admitted that her godparents had been warm and helpful and among the first of his neighbors to welcome him and his daughters to the historic community.
In a way, he was returning the gesture.
"Are you okay here alone?"
"Everyone keeps asking me that. I'm not afraid of the dark and I don't believe in ghosts," Michaela assured him. "Aunt Alice left me a long list of names and numbers, just in case. Yours is on it."
"Good enough. Don't hesitate to use it." He stood to leave. "I have to get back. I'm dropping the girls off for music lessons after lunch, and I need to head back to my office for a few more hours."
"Thank you so much for coming over," Michaela said, escorting him back to the door. "I'll call you about dinner."
"If you decide not to come tonight we'll do dinner some other time. Ben and Alice said you're planning on being here most of the summer."