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THE MARDI GRAS MASK was a whimsical concoction of white feathers and sequins. Scarcely longer than Charlotte's hand, it shimmered as it rested on her palm, as weightless--and as fragile--as the trace of a kiss. It was meant to be an adornment, not a disguise, designed to evoke a fairy-tale princess.
Of course, fairy tales were for children, as impractical as make-believe and as implausible as happy endings. A person had to find their own luck, just as they had to guide their own fate. Charlotte Marchand had learned long ago that the real world made no allowance for weaknesses, and she couldn't permit herself any now.
But dear God, she wished she could still believe in magic. Charlotte blinked, surprised to feel the sting of tears. She pressed her lips together and breathed deeply through her nose until the urge to weep passed. She wouldn't permit herself to fall apart, even here in the privacy of her office. That was a luxury she couldn't afford.
Resolutely she placed the mask on the corner of her desk and focused on the stack of printouts in front of her. It was late, and she'd been at the hotel since daybreak, but she still had work to do before she could go home. Somewhere in that pile of numbers there had to be a solution, and it was up to her to find it.
The week before Mardi Gras was traditionally the busiest tourist season of the year, the make-or-break time for the New Orleans hospitality business. This year more than ever, countless jobs depended on making it a success. But at the Hotel Marchand, bookings were on a downward spiral. The string of problems that had plagued them over the past several weeks had driven away customers and wiped outtheir profits. The Marchand family finances had been stretched to the breaking point and couldn't prop up the business indefinitely. Charlotte needed to turn things around within the next seven days or the hotel likely wouldn't see another Mardi Gras.
Then again, people flocked to Mardi Gras in order to forget their troubles and cut loose. It was a celebration of possibilities, when anything could happen.
Just this once, why shouldn't it happen for her?
The mask caught the glow of the desk lamp, setting off a flash of sequins. The feathers shifted on some current of air that Charlotte couldn't feel, making it look as if they stirred on their own, as if by magic...
She hesitated, then extended her hand to run a fingertip along the edge of a feather.
Forgetting troubles never solved them. She'd learned that around the same time she'd given up hoping her own fairy tale would come true.
Pressure built in her throat, but she wasn't sure whether it was from more tears or from an irrational urge to laugh.
Magic? Fairy tales? What was wrong with her tonight? Maybe the strain of trying to keep the hotel afloat was finally catching up to her. She never indulged in whimsy. She was sensible, responsible Charlotte, always doing the right thing and obeying every rule. She strove to be a good daughter and granddaughter, sister and aunt, putting others first, whatever the cost.
Fine, that was all well and good, but when was it going to be her turn?
"Just this once," she whispered. "Would a little magic be too much to ask?"
As if in reply, the hush of her office was shattered by the shriek of the fire alarm.
Charlotte's hand jerked, knocking the mask to the floor. No. Please. Let this be a glitch in the wiring system or a prank by a tipsy guest. She grabbed her cell phone and dialed the number for security. "Mac!" She jammed the phone to her ear, trying to hear over the noise of the alarm. "What's going on?"
Mac Jensen was in his last week as head of the hotel's security. He'd agreed to stay on until the end of Mardi Gras, but Charlotte knew he was eager to return to his own security business. "A smoke detector in the maintenance area was triggered," he replied. His voice was uneven--he sounded as if he were running. "I'm heading there now."
She slid her feet back into her shoes and went to the window behind her desk. Except for the echoing alarm, the courtyard below seemed just as it would on any normal evening. Tiny lights winked from the trees, softening the shadows beneath. Amid the scattered lounge chairs and tables, the pool glowed serenely, an elegant oasis in the center of the hotel. She slipped her phone into the pocket of her suit jacket, braced her hands on the windowsill and leaned outward to get a better view.
The doors to the hotel bar burst open. People streamed into the courtyard, some knocking over chairs in their haste as they headed for the alley to the street. A white-haired man fell, creating a jostling pileup behind him. Within seconds one of the cocktail waitresses had helped him up, while more staff members directed the crowd toward the exits.
The employees of the Hotel Marchand were well drilled in emergency procedures, so their first priority was the safety of the guests and of themselves. Mac had said a detector had been triggered in the maintenance area, which was in the same wing as the bar and the hotel's kitchen. There was a chance that some leftover cooking fumes had set it off by mistake.
Black smoke puffed through the open bar doors. That explained the mass scramble to evacuate. This was no false alarm.
Charlotte spun from the window and headed for the corridor. At least her family was safe. Her sisters weren't working tonight; lately they had been spending every spare minute with their new fiancés. Her mother wasn't here either--Anne would be at the hospital with William, her new fiancé. They were all trusting Charlotte to take care of the hotel....
She moaned under her breath. This couldn't be as bad as it looked, could it?
The lobby was clogged with people, most pushing their way toward the street, but some who were dressed in their nightclothes were milling around and obviously confused. Julie Sullivan, Charlotte's administrative assistant, stood in the center of the melee, doing her best to spread calm in spite of the bone-jarring shriek of the alarm.
"Miss Marchand," someone called. "I demand an explanation."
Charlotte assumed an expression of confidence that she didn't come close to feeling and turned toward the voice. She recognized a pair of the Hotel Marchand's longtime patrons--the couple had reserved the same suite during Mardi Gras since they had honeymooned here and hadn't missed a year yet. "I'm sorry for the inconvenience, Mr. Shore. We'll have everyone back in their rooms as soon as possible. But in the meantime, you'll both need to move outside."
He put his arm around the tiny woman beside him and guided her toward the front door. "This never would have happened in the old days when your parents were in charge," he said over his shoulder.
Somehow Charlotte maintained her smile as she sweetened her apology with the promise of a complimentary meal.
She continued through the crowd, soothing the guests and encouraging the staff. She knew there was no need to panic. Like the other buildings in the historic French Quarter, the Hotel Marchand was old, yet it had withstood the worst that man and nature could throw at it for almost two centuries. The hotel's alarm was hardwired to the New Orleans 911 system, so fire trucks would already be en route. Between the continuing alarm bleats, she was sure she heard distant sirens. Several of the hotel's uniformed security staff were at the front entrance to keep order outside and to direct the firemen when they arrived. Everything was going according to the emergency plan.
Yet the panic was there, just beneath the surface, and no amount of logic could combat it.
The hotel was more than bricks and mortar to Charlotte, far more than just a means to make a living. It was the focus of her life. Her anchor and her refuge.
She'd known she was in danger of losing it but not so soon. Mon Dieu, not like this.
AT THE FIRST WHIFF OF smoke, even before the alarm sounded, Jackson could feel his nape prickle and his pulse slam against the scar tissue in his hand. Yet he never considered going the other way. As the rest of the bar patrons scrambled for the exits, he headed straight in the direction where the smoke was the thickest.
He wasn't alone. Two security men, both carrying fire extinguishers, pushed through to the service hallway ahead of him. Shouts came from the far end, where more figures moved in the haze. The overhead sprinklers came on with a whoosh, cutting through the smoke that had gathered near the ceiling, but fresh clouds rolled from an open doorway midway down the corridor.
Someone caught his elbow from behind. "Sir! You can't come back here."
Jackson looked over his shoulder. The man who had stopped him didn't wear a uniform, but it was obvious by his bearing that he belonged to the hotel security staff. Instead of a fire extinguisher, he held a cell phone. Like everyone else Jackson had encountered so far tonight, he was a stranger.
Yet it had been almost twenty years since he had set foot in the Hotel Marchand. The building had remained the same, but he'd known that the people in it were bound to change. "You might need my help," he said.
The man swept Jackson with an impatient glance, taking in his shaggy hair, faded denim and well-worn boots. "Thanks, but--"
"I'm a doctor."
There was the sharp pop of a small explosion, followed by shouts and a fresh billow of orange-tinged smoke.
Swearing, the security man released Jackson's elbow and sprinted down the hall.
The fire was in a storage room lined with shelves of stacked linens, cardboard boxes and bottles of what likely were cleaning fluids. From the doorway Jackson could see pieces of broken plastic near the bottles--one of them must have burst from the heat, causing the explosion he'd heard.
Water from the sprinklers hissed and turned to steam as it fell, tamping down the smoke that curled from the shelves. But it wasn't enough to douse the flames that roared from a blackened heap of towels in the center of the floor. The men with the fire extinguishers advanced on the blaze, trying to contain it beneath a layer of white foam. Jackson stayed a safe distance back and surveyed the rest of the scene, automatically searching for any injured.
A young man with sandy blond hair leaned against one of the shelves beside the doorway. Moisture glistened from the soot that streaked his face and plastered his white shirt to his shoulders. He stared at the flames, his gaze bleak, a charred gray suit coat--the same kind the hotel staff wore--gripped in his hands. He seemed unaware of the blood that dripped from his cuff.
Jackson yanked a handful of linen napkins from a stack near the door and touched the man's arm to get his attention. He shouted over the noise. "Let's go outside. I need to take a look at that cut."
The man didn't move. "I tried to put it out." His voice was rough. "I swear, I tried."
Rather than dragging him out by force, Jackson lifted the man's wrist and peeled back his sleeve. A gash on his forearm welled crimson. It appeared to be a clean cut, probably from a piece of flying plastic. He pressed a napkin to the wound. "Hold this."
"I got here too late. I never thought it would be this bad." He glanced at his arm, then dropped his charred coat and slapped his hand over the makeshift compress.
Jackson wrapped it in a second napkin. Silently cursing his clumsy fingers, he leaned over and used his teeth to tighten the ends into a knot. "You'll need to get that disinfected and stitched."
One of the uniformed security men cried out and dropped his fire extinguisher. He leaped backward, beating at the flames that raced up his pant leg, but he couldn't stop the fabric from igniting. Instantly his legs were engulfed in a cone of orange.
Jackson grabbed some sheets from a shelf and flung them around the man's legs to smother the flames, then enlisted the help of the blond man to haul the injured security guard outside. Between them they got him to the fresh air of the courtyard and laid him on one of the lounge chairs beside the pool where the light was the strongest.
Given the circumstances, Jackson was capable of administering only the most basic first aid, but he reasoned that was better than nothing. He improvised, using what was available to minimize the trauma to the guard's burned skin and to keep him from going into shock. Within minutes, the fire department arrived amid a chorus of sirens. Soon afterward an ambulance drove through the lane to the courtyard. As the paramedics hooked up an IV drip, Jackson got on their radio to ensure a burn specialist would be waiting at the hospital.