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One of Arkansas's infamous summer storms had crashed through earlier, bringing high winds, booming thunder and dangerous lightning strikes. Somewhere on this tumultuous Thursday night in July, a tree had fallen over a power line, knocking out the electricity to this part of Little Rock almost two hours ago. Mitch's neighbor in the other half of the duplex—the woman he referred to as "the ditz next door"—had lit candles all through her rooms for light and then left to buy fast food for a late dinner. When she returned, the duplex was fully engulfed in flames.
Water trickled down his face and dripped off his chin. He reached up to swipe at his eyes with the back of one hand, clearing raindrops from his lashes. The rain was little more than a trickle now, but without a hat or raincoat, he was soaked. He made no effort to find shelter. Instead, he watched the firefighters gather their equipment and listened to the ditz next door as she told her tale to a woman who appeared to be a newspaper reporter. She wasn't even smart enough to make up an excuse for the fire, he thought with a shake of his wet head. She freely admitted that maybe the dozen or so candles she'd left burning had caught something on fire.
Maybe? He'd always believed the forty-something bottle-redhead was short a few watts in her mental chandelier, but now he figured most of the bulbs were permanently dimmed, to carry the metaphor further.
He thought regretfully of a few valued possessions he'd lost in that fire. A quilt his late grandmother had made that he'd used as a bedspread. Electronics equipment. Souvenir T-shirts from college and medical school activities and from his few travels. Pictures.
Fortunately, his laptop had been in his office at the hospital, and he kept files backed up online, so he hadn't lost the music and digital photos stored in his desktop computer. Most of his truly precious treasures—things that had belonged to his father and grandfather—were safely stowed in plastic bins in his mother's attic because the duplex had been too small to provide much storage. But still he regretted the things he'd lost. All his clothes, for example. The only clothing he owned now was a couple of shirts and two pairs of jeans stashed in his office and the sneakers he wore with the blue surgical scrubs in which he'd left the hospital.
"Dr. Baker? Are you all right?" The woman who lived in the nearest half of the matching duplex next door approached beneath a big, green-and-white golf umbrella. She and Mitch had met not long after he'd moved in, when he'd helped her retrieve her new kitten from a tree that stood between the two rental properties. That kitten was now a fat, lazy cat who liked to come visit him on Sunday mornings and beg for treats. Both Mitch and Snowball would miss those visits.
"I'm fine, Mrs. Gillis. Thank you."
She looked mournfully at the steaming remains of the house, then distastefully at the ditz, who was dramatically wringing her hands for the benefit of a television camera. "I figured that woman would cause a tragedy in this neighborhood, but I thought it would be because of her reckless driving. The way she zips down this street without any regard for anyone—and you know she hit Miss Pennybaker's mailbox just last week. Now this."
"At least no one was hurt, and none of the other houses were damaged." Mitch smiled reassuringly at her. "All the other stuff can be replaced."
"I'll miss having you as a neighbor. Not many nice young doctors want to live in this neighborhood. They all want to move out to those fancy houses in west Little Rock or some place like that."
When he'd moved into the rental, he'd been a very busy, twenty-five-year-old intern who'd been given a month's notice to find a new place after his former apartment had been sold to a developer. He'd looked for someplace available, convenient to the hospital and reasonably priced, all of which he'd found in the tidy duplex in an aging but respectable midtown neighborhood. He hadn't intended to stay more than a few months, but those months had stretched into years while he'd spent sixty to eighty hours a week at the hospital and what little time was left over helping his widowed mother.
Now, two months into his pediatric orthopedic surgery practice, he could afford to buy or build, but he couldn't think about that now. Not while almost all his worldly possessions were still smoldering in front of him.
Heaving a sigh, he rubbed a weary hand over his face and urged his neighbor—his former neighbor, he corrected himself—to get in out of the rain. There was nothing anyone could do tonight. He assured her he had a place to stay. He would crash at his mother's house until he found someplace better.
A few minutes later, he climbed into his car and drove away without looking back at the ruined duplex.
"Oh my gosh!"
Jacqui Handy was accustomed to fourteen-year-old Alice Llewellyn's dramatic appearances, so she wasn't overly concerned late Friday morning when Alice burst into the kitchen with the exclamation. "What's wrong, Alice?"
"My uncle Mitch's house burned down last night! To the ground!"
Startled by the legitimate reason for her young charge's agitation, Jacqui set down the copper watering pot she'd been filling at the sink and turned quickly.
"Is he all right?"
"He's okay. He wasn't home. He was at the hospital."
Jacqui drew a relieved breath. She didn't know Mitch well, but she'd always liked him. She was glad he hadn't been hurt—but then, she'd have felt the same way about anyone, she assured herself.
"He lost everything, though," Alice added, her somber brown eyes a striking contrast to her mop of cheery light-brown curls.
"I'm very sorry to hear that. How did you find out about it?"
"I called Mimi to tell her about Waldo's new trick and she told me. Mitch spent the night with her last night."
Mitch's sister, Dr. Meagan Baker, had married Jac-qui's employer, attorney Seth Llewellyn, three months ago. Seth had full custody of his teenage daughter. His ex-wife Colleen, Alice's mother, was a high-powered attorney at an international law firm based in Hong Kong. Seth had a distantly amicable relationship with his ex, who stayed in almost daily telephone contact with their daughter. Jacqui worked as full-time housekeeper and occasional cook and personal assistant for Seth and Meagan. In addition, she kept an eye on Alice and served as her daytime chauffeur when necessary. Alice considered herself too old to need a nanny, so they were all careful not to refer to Jacqui by that title.
"Mimi was pretty upset about the fire," Alice confided, pushing a hand absently through her tousled curls.
"I'm sure she was."
LaDonna Baker, widowed mother to Meagan, Mitch and Madison, was very close to her three offspring, all of whom had chosen to stay in Little Rock to practice medicine. She had embraced her new teenage step-granddaughter into the family with affection and eagerness, and she and Alice had already grown very close.
Alice was the one who had given LaDonna the whimsical nickname of "Mimi," saying it fit in with the rest of the M names in the family. LaDonna had accepted the name with delight. Jacqui suspected having young Alice in her life had eased LaDonna's grief somewhat at the loss of her elderly mother at the end of last year.
"So, anyway," Alice continued, "Mimi's expecting company for the next week, so she doesn't really have a place for Mitch to stay until he finds a new place. And Madison has a one-bedroom apartment, so she doesn't have room for him, either. So I said why doesn't he stay here with us? We've got an extra guest room. I know Dad and Meagan would offer if they were here. So Mimi said that was a really good idea, if you and I don't mind, and she was going to call Meagan and tell her everything that happened and make sure it's okay."
"He's going to stay here?" Jacqui asked, following the rambling account with an effort. That was the part that stood out most to her.
She pictured Dr. Mitchell Baker, a tall, sandy-haired man with kind blue eyes and a warm smile that transformed his pleasantly homely face into full-out attractive. He was thirty-one, two years older than Jacqui. She had met him several times during the past fourteen months, although she could count on one hand the number of times she'd actually had a conversation with him. Those conversations had been brief and slightly awkward, at least on her part. For some reason she always became uncharacteristically tongue-tied around Mitch.
"I knew you wouldn't mind—you don't, do you?" Alice asked, suddenly aware, apparently, that she was making assumptions on Jacqui's behalf.
There seemed to be nothing gracious to say except, "Of course not."
Alice smiled with a flash of braces. "I knew you wouldn't."
Normally, Jacqui wouldn't be staying at the house herself. She had her own apartment across town. But Seth and Meagan had left only two days ago for a two-week trip to Europe on a belated honeymoon. They had asked Jacqui to stay with Alice, a request she had been happy to accept—and not just for the extra pay that would go into her savings for a down payment for her own house someday.
She told herself there was really no reason to be concerned about having a houseguest. She suspected that Mitch, a surgeon like his sister, would be at the hospital quite a bit. When he was here, Alice would keep him entertained. Jacqui would perform her usual role, staying quietly in the background. She was good at being a housekeeper, and she knew exactly how to play that part.
"Mimi's going to call you as soon as she talks to Meagan," Alice said on her way out of the kitchen. "I'm going upstairs to pack for the sleepover at Tiff's tonight."
Alice and her friends loved sleepover parties and were always looking for an excuse to have one. Because Tiffany was on the same swim team as Alice, they had decided to stay at Tiffany's house tonight and have her mother take them to a scheduled meet the next afternoon. Alice had assured Jacqui there was no need for her to attend this particular event, so Jacqui planned to use the time to catch up on some overdue chores including grocery shopping. She figured she might as well stay at her place tonight to dust and vacuum and grab a few extra things she needed here.
The phone rang only a few minutes later. She wasn't surprised that it was Meagan, calling to make sure there was no problem with her brother staying at the house for a few days.
"No problem at all," Jacqui assured her employer. "I'm glad to be able to help. Enjoy your vacation. Your brother will be fine."
"I'm so glad to know you're taking care of things there," Meagan said fervently. "I don't know what we would do without you, Jacqui."
Meagan's mother said much the same words when she called a few minutes later to discuss her son's plans with Jacqui. "He'll probably spend another night here with me and then come over there sometime tomorrow. You're sure you don't mind having an extra person in the house?"
"Not at all. I'll be cooking and doing laundry for Alice and me anyway. One extra houseguest will be no trouble at all. Neither Alice nor I will be here tonight, but I'll be back tomorrow morning, so he can come whenever he's ready."
"You're a jewel, Jacqui," LaDonna said warmly. "We're all so lucky to have found you."
During the past year or so, Jacqui had made a deliberate effort to make herself indispensable to the Llewellyn/ Baker family. She liked this job, and she wanted to keep it. In return, they had all been nothing but kind and generous to her. Maybe they even considered her an honorary member of the family.
She wasn't that presumptuous. Besides which, she had learned long ago that "family" was a word frequently used without real meaning. Family members—honorary or otherwise—were all too often expendable, in her experience.
Mitch's steps dragged as he climbed the steps to the front door of his sister's house Friday night. His mother had given him detailed instructions for letting himself in and disarming the alarm system. As tired as he was, he hoped he remembered her directives correctly. The last thing he needed tonight was to be arrested for breaking and entering.
It was after 11:00 p.m. He'd had a very long day of surgeries, meetings and a pretty-much mandatory appearance at a retirement party for one of the surgical department heads, followed by yet another couple hours of paperwork in his office. His amazing and efficient secretary had volunteered to spend her lunch hour picking up a few things for him so he hadn't had to wear scrubs to the party, which had been a casual affair fortunately. He now owned three pairs of khaki slacks, three white shirts, a comb and toothbrush, a few pairs of socks and a package of boxer shorts in addition to the two pairs of jeans, two polo shirts and electric razor he'd kept stashed at work. He'd had to wear sneakers to the party because Jean hadn't risked buying shoes for him.
It amazed him how kind and generous everyone had been at work. Other doctors, nurses, techs, office staff, everyone who'd heard word of the fire had offered condolences and any assistance he might need. His partners had volunteered to cover for him when he needed time to look for a new place and to replace his lost possessions, even though their schedules were all stretched to allow for summer vacations. A few people had even offered extra clothes and household goods. He'd been genuinely touched by everyone's thoughtfulness.
With a duffel bag holding his entire wardrobe clutched in his left hand, he used his right hand to quickly press buttons on the keypad located just inside the front door, resetting the alarm for the night. At least he had a place to sleep for a few weeks. He would have stayed with his mother, but his late father's two sisters had already planned to come for a weeklong visit.
Posted June 19, 2011
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Posted June 18, 2011
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