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Saved by the Fireman by Allie Pleiter

Saved by the Fireman
Love Inspired (October 21, 2014)
by
Allie Pleiter

Chapter 1

Charlotte Taylor sat in her boss’s office Friday morning and wondered where all the oxygen in Chicago had just gone.

“I’m sorry to let you go Charlotte, I really am.” Alice Warren, Charlotte’s superior at Monarch Textiles, looked genuinely upset at having to deliver such news. “I know you just lost your grandmother, so I tried to put this off as long as I could.”

A layoff? Her? Charlotte felt the shock give way to a sickening recognition. She’d seen the financial statements; she’d written several of the sales reports. Sure, she was no analyst wiz, but she was smart enough to know Monarch wasn’t in great financial shape and a downsize was likely. She was also emotionally tied enough to Monarch and torn enough over losing Mima that she’d successfully denied the company’s fiscal health for months. As she watched her grandmother’s decline, Charlotte told herself she was finally settled into a good life. She’d boasted to a failing Mima—not entirely truthfully, she knew even then on some level—about feeling “established.”

She’d patted Mima’s weakening hands, those hands that had first taught her to knit and launched the textile career she had enjoyed until five minutes ago, and she’d assured her grandmother that there was no reason to worry about her. She was at a place in life where she could do things, buy things, experience things, to get all the joy out of life just like Mima taught her. How hollow all that crowing she had done about how she’d become “successful” and “indispensable” at Monarch now rang. Who was she fooling? In this economy, did anyone really have the luxury of being indispensable?

Except maybe Mima. Mima could never be replaced. Charlotte and her mother were just barely figuring out how to carry on without the vivacious, adventurous old woman who’d now left such a gaping hole in their lives. It had been hard enough when Grandpa had lost his battle to Alzheimer’s—the end of that long, hard decline could almost be counted as a blessing. Mima’s all-too-quick exit had left Charlotte reeling, fabricating stability and extravagance that were never really there. Hadn’t today just proved that?

Charlotte grappled for a response to her boss’s pained eyes. “It’s not your fault, I suppose.” She was Monarch’s problem solver, the go-to girl who never got rattled. She should say something mature and wise, something unsinkably optimistic, something Mima would say. Nothing came but a silent, slack jaw that broadcast to Alice how the news had knocked the wind knocked out of her.

Alice sighed. “You know it’s not your performance. It’s just budgetary. I’m so sorry.”

“The online sales haven’t been growing as fast as we projected. I’d guessed the layoffs were coming eventually—I just didn’t think it’d be—” she forced back the lump in her throat “—me, you know?”

Alice pulled two tissues from the box on her desk, handing one to Charlotte. “It’s not just you,” she sniffed, “You’re the first of four.” She pushed an envelope across the desk to Charlotte. “I fought for a severance package, but it’s not much.”

A severance package. Charlotte didn’t even want to open it. Whatever it included, the look on Alice’s face told Charlotte it wasn’t going to make much of a difference. Mima, did you see this coming? Of course that couldn’t be possible, but Charlotte felt her grandmother’s eyes on her anyway, watching her from the all-knowing viewpoint of eternity. It wasn’t that much of a stretch, if one believed in premonitions. Or the Holy Spirit, which Mima claimed to listen to carefully.

In true Mima style, Charlotte’s grandmother had left both her and her mother a sizable sum of money and with instructions to “do something really worth doing.” A world traveler after Grandpa died, Mima squeezed every joy out of life and was always encouraging others to do the same. Mima bought herself beautiful jewelry but never cried when a piece got lost. Mima owned a ten-year-old car but had visited five continents. She bought art—real art—but had creaky old furniture. Her apartment was small but stuffed with fabulous souvenirs and wonderful crafts. Mima truly knew what money was for and what really mattered in life.

That was how Charlotte knew the funds she’d inherited weren’t intended for living—rent and groceries and such—they were for dreams and art and life. Having to use Mima’s money to survive a layoff would feel like an insult to her grandmother’s memory.

Alice sniffled, bringing Charlotte back to the horrible conversation at hand. Alice was so distressed she seemed to fold in on herself. “I wasn’t allowed to tip anyone off. I’m so sorry.”

She was sorry—even Charlotte could see that—but it changed nothing. Charlotte was leaving Monarch. She’d been laid off from the job she’d expected to solidify her career. It felt as if she’d spent her four years at Monarch knitting up some complicated, beautiful pattern and someone had come and ripped all the stitches out and told her to start over.

Over? How does a person start over when they suddenly doubt they ever really started at all?

Charlotte picked up the envelope but set it in her lap unopened.

“You’ve got two weeks of salaried work still to go.” Alice was trying—unsuccessfully—to brighten her voice. “But you’ve also got six days of vacation accrued so...you don’t have to stay the whole two weeks if you don’t want to.” The woman actually winced. Was this Alice’s kinder, gentler version of “clean out your desk”?

The compulsion to flee roared up from some dark corner of her stomach Charlotte didn’t even know she had. She didn’t want to stay another minute. The fierce response surprised her—Monarch had been so much of a daily home to her she often didn’t think of it as work. “And what about sick days?”

It bothered Charlotte that Alice had evidently anticipated that question; she didn’t even have to look it up. “Two.”

She was better than this. She couldn’t control that she was leaving, but she could control when she left. And that was going to be now. “I don’t think I’m feeling so well all of a sudden.” Sure, it was a tad unreasonable, but so was having your job yanked out from underneath you. She had eight covered days out of her two-week notice. What was the point of staying two more days? Two more hours? Her files were meticulous, her sales contact software completely up to date, and next season’s catalogue was ahead of schedule. There wasn’t a single thing keeping her here except the time it would take to sweep all the personal decorations from her desk.

Alice nodded. “I’ll write you a glowing recommendation.”

It felt like such a weak compensation. Charlotte stood up, needing to get out of this office where she’d been told so many times—and believed—she was a gifted marketing coordinator and a key employee. “Thanks.” She couldn’t even look Alice in the eye, waving goodbye with the offending manila envelope as she walked out the door.

Monarch only had two dozen or so employees, and every eye in the small office now stared at her as she packed up her desk. Charlotte was grateful each item she stuffed into one of the popular Monarch tote bags—and oh, the irony of that—transformed the damp surge of impending tears into a churning burst of anger. Suddenly the sweet fresh-out-of-college intern she’d been training looked like the enemy. Inexperience meant lower salaries, so it wouldn’t surprise Charlotte at all if adorable little Mackenzie got to keep her job. She probably still lived at home with her parents and didn’t even need money for rent, Charlotte thought bitterly.

She reached into her file drawer for personal papers, her hand stilling on the thick file labeled “Cottage.” The file was years old, a collection of photos and swatches and magazine articles for a dream house. Apartment living had its charms, but with Charlotte’s craft-filled background, she longed to have a real house, with a yard and a front porch and windows with real panes. One that she could decorate exactly the way she wanted.

Just last week, Charlotte had nearly settled on using Mima’s funds to buy a cottage in nearby Gordon Falls. It would be too far for a daily commute, but she could use it on weekends and holidays. She knew so many people there. Her best friend Melba had moved there. Her cousins JJ and Max had moved there. Melba’s new baby, Maria, was now Charlotte’s goddaughter. She’d come to love the tiny little resort town three hours away on the Gordon River, and there was a run-down cottage she’d driven past dozens of times that Charlotte could never quite get out of her mind. Mima would approve of her using the money to fund an absolutely perfect renovation in a town where everyone seemed to find happiness.

Well, not now, Charlotte thought as she stuffed the file into the bag. In light of the last five minutes, a weekend place had gone from exciting to exorbitant. Get out of here before you can’t hold it in, she told herself as she stuffed the three framed photos—one of Mom, one of Mima, and one of baby Maria—in beside the thick file. She zipped the tote bag shut with a vengeance, yanked the employee identification/security badge from around her neck and set it squarely in the middle of the desk. Just last week she’d bought a beautifully beaded lariat to hold the badge, but now the necklace felt as if it was choking her. She left it along with the badge, never wanting to see it again.

With one declarative “I may be down but I’m not out” glare around the office, Charlotte left, not even bothering to shut the door behind her.

***

Jesse Sykes flipped the steak and listened to the sizzle that filled one end of his parents’ patio. He’d built this outdoor kitchen two years ago, and this grill was a masterpiece—the perfect place to spend a Saturday afternoon. He planned to use a photo of the fire pit on his business brochures—once his plans were finalized and they got printed. That, and the portico his mother loved. Filled with grapevines that turned a riot of gorgeous colors in the fall, it made for a stunning graphic. Only two more months, and he’d have enough funds to quit his job at Mondale Construction, buy that little cottage on the corner of Post and Tyler, fix it up and flip it to some city weekender for a tidy profit. With that money, he’d start his own business at last.

Move-in properties got plucked up quickly in Gordon Falls, so finding the perfect fixer-upper was crucial. He’d already lost out on two other houses last fall because he didn’t quite have the down payment stashed away. But the cottage he’d settled on now was perfect. It was June, and he’d planned to buy the place in March, but that was life. He’d needed a new truck and Dad sure wasn’t going to offer any help in that department. A few months’ delay shouldn’t make a difference, though—the cottage had been on the market for ages. It needed too much renovation for most people to want to bother.

“I’m pretty sure I’ll have Sykes Homes Incorporated up and running by the fall. I can still snag the fall colors season if I can buy that cottage.”

Dad sat back in his lawn chair, eyes squinting in that annoying way Jesse knew heralded his father’s judgment. “Fall? Spring is when they buy. Timing is everything, son. You’ve got to act fast or you lose out on the best opportunities, and those won’t be around in September.”

Jesse flipped the next steak. “I’m moving as fast as I can, Dad.” As if he didn’t know he’d missed the spring season. As if it hadn’t already kept him up nights even more than the Gordon Falls Volunteer Fire Department alarms.

“It might not be fast enough.”

Jesse straightened his stance before turning to his father. “True, but learning to adapt is a good lesson, too. This won’t be the first time I’ve had to retool a plan because I’ve hit a hitch.”

Dad stood up and clamped a hand on Jesse’s shoulder. “Son, all you’ve hit is hitches so far.” This time he didn’t even bother to add the false smile of encouragement he sometimes tacked on to a slam like that. Jesse thrust his tines into the third steak and clamped his teeth together.

“Is it that older cottage on Post Avenue?” his mother asked. “The one by the corner with the wrought iron window boxes?”

The wrought iron window boxes currently rusting out of their brackets and splitting the sills, yes. “That’s it.”

He caught the “leave him be” look Mom gave Dad as she came over and refilled Jesse’s tall glass of iced tea. “Oh, I like that one. So much charm. I’ve been surprised no one’s snatched it up since Lucinda Hyatt died. You’ll do a lovely job with that.”

“In two more months I’ll be ready to make an offer.”

“You could have had the money for it by now if it weren’t for the firehouse taking up all your time, with no salary to show for it, and keeping you away from paying work. You’d better watch out or this place will be sold out from underneath you like the last one, and you’ll be working for Art Mondale for another five years.” Dad’s voice held just enough of patronizing tone to be polite but still drive the point home.

“Mike, don’t let’s get into that again.”

Dad just grunted. Jesse’s place in the volunteer fire department had been a never-ending battle with his father. Jesse loved his work there, loved helping people. And by this point, he felt as if the firefighters were a second family who understood him better than his real one. Chief Bradens was a good friend and a great mentor, teaching Jesse a lot about leadership and life. Fire Inspector Chad Owens had begun to teach him the ins and outs of construction, zoning, and permits, too. It was the furthest thing he could imagine from the waste of time and energy his father obviously thought it to be.

Mom touched Jesse’s shoulder. “You’re adaptable. You can plot your way around any obstacle. That’s what makes you so good at the firehouse.”

Jesse hoisted the steaks onto a platter his mother held out. “That, and my world-class cooking.” Then, because it was better to get all the ugliness out before they started eating, Jesse made himself ask, “How come Randy isn’t here?”

Dad’s smirk was hard to ignore. “Your brother’s at a financial conference in San Diego this week. He said it could lead to some very profitable opportunities.” Jesse’s younger brother, Randall, would be retiring in his forties if he kept up his current run of financial success. Randy seemed to be making money hand over fist, boasting a fancy condo in the Quad Cities, a travel schedule that read more like a tourist brochure, and a host of snazzy executive trappings. It didn’t take a genius to see Jesse fell far short of his brother in Dad’s eyes. A month ago, when Jesse had pulled up to the house in a brand-new truck, Jesse couldn’t help but notice the way his father frowned at it, parked next to Randy’s shiny silver roadster.

“He’s up for another promotion,” Mom boasted.

“Good for him, he deserves it.” Jesse forced enthusiasm into his voice. Somehow, it was always okay when Randy missed family functions because of work. It was never okay when Jesse had to skip one because he was at the firehouse.

“Someday, that brother of yours is going to rule the world.” Dad had said it a million times, but it never got easier to swallow. Every step Randy took up the ladder seemed to push Jesse farther down it from Dad’s point of view. While Dad never came out and said it, it was clear Jesse’s father felt that a man who worked with his hands only did so because his brain wasn’t up to higher tasks.

“I don’t doubt it, Dad.” Jesse admitted wearily. “I’ll just settle for being King of the Grill.”

Mom looked eagerly at the petite filet he’d marinated just the way she liked it. “That is just fine by me. Jesse, honey, this smells fantastic. You will make some lucky lady very happy one of these days.” Her eyes held just a tint of sadness, reminding Jesse that the ink was barely dry on Randy’s divorce papers. His brother’s raging career successes had inflicted a few casualties of late, and Mom had been disappointed to watch her grandma prospects walk out the door behind Randy’s neglected wife. This past winter had been hard on the Sykes family, that was for sure. Was Dad clueless to all those wounds? Or did he just choose to ignore what he couldn’t solve?

They were in love...once...his mom and dad. Now they just sort of existed in the same life, side by side but not close. Randy had married because he was “supposed to.” As if he needed to check off some box in his life plan. Jesse didn’t want to just make some appropriate lady “very happy.” When he fell, it would be deep and strong and he would sweep that the love of his life clean off her feet.

It just wasn’t looking like that would be anytime soon.