<br><h3> Chapter One </h3> Kids made women look twice at a man. Usually in a good way. That was the lesson of these last twenty-seven days. Mitchell Baker had never really thought about it before—had had no reason to—and now he was considering that with what he'd learned, maybe in the future he would rent a kid from time to time, take him to the park, ride a bike, play touch football or catch (depending on the season), and wait for the women to gravitate toward him. They seemed to be fascinated, well, at least interested, in a man on his own enjoying himself with his kid. In this case, three kids. <p> It helped they were pretty cute tagalongs. He couldn't take any credit for that, though, and he didn't point it out to the inquiring women until pressed with comments like "She has your eyes" and "I can see where they get their athletic talent." What his eyes had in common with eleven-year-old Emilie's was the color green. As for athletic talent, Mitch had never noticed he was particularly gifted in that area while the twins, just turned five, were almost preternaturally coordinated. <p> When he pointed out that the trio didn't exactly belong to him, the women weren't noticeably less affected. In some cases, their curiosity was piqued and they hung around to offer helpful parenting hints, stain removal advice, and occasionally, a phone number. Life was good. <p> Mitch slouched in the burgundy leather chair in his lawyer's office. Under the high gloss cherrywood table his hands were folded loosely in his lap. His thumbs tapped out a rhythm because it was not easy for him to be a body at rest. He was dressed casually: jeans, Cole Haans, white Oxford shirt (lightly starched). The cuffs of the shirt were rolled crisply to three-quarter length, revealing forearms that were dusted with golden brown hair and leanly muscled. On his right wrist he wore a watch with a scuffed brown leather strap. Plain and serviceable. He glanced down, flicked his wrist, and checked the time on Mickey's golden silhouette. <p> Half past two. Where the hell was she? Didn't she realize the kids were waiting for her? <p> The door behind him opened and Mitch turned his head just enough to glimpse that it was his own lawyer who had entered. "Is she here yet?" <p> Wayne Anderson was a button-down type who was more at ease in his own skin when he was wearing a three-piece suit. He dropped his briefcase on the table and took the chair beside Mitch. "Good afternoon to you, too." <p> "Well?" <p> "You're not even going to attempt a civil overture?" <p> Mitch merely shot him a sideways glance, his mouth flattening. <p> Wayne sighed. "Perhaps pleasantries are overrated. No, she's not here yet." Ignoring Mitch's grunt, he opened his briefcase and pulled out the topmost folder. "You got my message, didn't you?" <p> "I don't know. What was it?" <p> "I told Gina that it was very likely that Thea wouldn't be here today. Just her lawyer. I'm sure—" <p> Mitch held up one hand, cutting Wayne off. "You told Gina?" <p> "Hmmm. Yesterday, I think. I made a note somewhere of when I called." <p> Mitch was certain he did. "Yeah, I'll see it when I get your bill." Sitting up, he ran a hand through his hair. "Hell, Wayne, it wasn't Gina you talked to. She hasn't been at the house for days. You should have called my cell. That was Emilie." <p> "Emilie? Couldn't have been. I think I would have recognized a child's voice." <p> "Emilie is older than you and me together." It didn't seem like much of an exaggeration. "Body snatching. Mature woman in the guise of a self-absorbed eleven-year-old. I'm pretty sure there's a pod in my basement." <p> Wayne chuckled. "Sorry." He snapped the briefcase shut and dropped it between the chairs. "I really thought it was Gina. Afraid I just spit out the message and hung up." He started to open the folder, paused, and closed it again. Turning sideways in his chair he looked carefully at his client and friend. "Everything all right with you and Gina?" <p> There was an infinitesimal pause. "Sure." <p> Wayne regarded Mitch's carefully neutral expression, searching for a chink in the armor. He let the pause pass. "Glad to hear it. This thing with the kids could throw anyone for a loop." <p> "This <i>thing</i> will be over today." Mitch waited for some reassurance from Wayne. "Won't it?" <p> "I suppose that depends on how you define 'over.'" <p> That wasn't what Mitch wanted to hear. His fallback position was wry humor. "You'd think a sharp lawyer like you would know that. Finished. <i>Finito. Le fin</i>. The end. History. Does that help?" <p> Wayne grinned. His broad, craggy features split along the fault line of his mouth. The lines at the corners of his eyes deepened. He tapped the folder with his index finger. "Have you considered a prenup?" At Mitch's blank look, he explained. "A prenuptial agreement." <p> "I know what a prenup is. What I don't know is why you're changing the subject." <p> "I'm not. Not really. Have you and Gina considered one?" <p> "We're not that serious. We haven't even discussed marriage." It was almost the truth. To the best of his recollection, <i>he</i> had listened while Gina talked. If he hadn't contributed anything it wasn't technically a conversation, was it? Just a monologue. Maybe a soliloquy. It sure as hell wasn't a discussion. "I have issues." <p> Wayne smirked. "Issues?" <p> "Uh-huh. Like Gina doesn't know where she was when Kurt Cobain died." <p> Whistling softly at the enormity of this chasm, Wayne shook his head. "I knew Gina was young, but—" He made that whistle-sigh again. "I didn't realize she was practically prepubescent. You could be facing charges." <p> Mitch grimaced. "Very funny. She's twenty-two." <p> "Ouch." Since Wayne and Mitch had been sixteen when Cobain shot himself, and mourned the event with a candlelight vigil in Buddy Yarbrough's basement listening to grunge rock, there were some significant years separating Mitch and his current girlfriend. "Then she probably doesn't understand the existential subtext of Scooby-Doo either." <p> Mitch ignored that. "Look, Wayne, I make a decent living, but women aren't after me for my money. I don't have three homes and a lucrative stock portfolio to protect." <p> "I know, and you should let me give you the name of someone who can help you with that." He held up one hand when he saw Mitch was running out of patience. "Actually I was thinking of Gina. She comes from money. I don't know anything about her personal wealth, but—" <p> "We don't talk about money." <p> "Probably a mistake." <p> "Hey, I'm telling you, there's no marriage in my immediate future. But if I tie the knot, I promise I'll throw the divorce work your way." <p> Wayne went on as if Mitch hadn't spoken. "There are also the children. In the event you do get serious, you want to be very clear with Gina that if the marriage goes south, Emilie, Case, and Grant are still yours." <p> Now Mitch's entire body was engaged in the conversation. He pushed himself completely upright, legs squarely under him, forearms stiffly set on the wide arms of the chair. His fingers pressed the arc of brass upholstery tacks until the tips were white. He had an urge to stand up, walk out, and keep walking. He wondered if the odd fluttering in his stomach was an uncomfortable prelude to an ulcer or because he hadn't bothered eating lunch. "I thought we were here today to discuss that the children will be going with Thea." <p> "Well, yes. We're here to discuss it." <p> "But you don't think she'll agree." Mitch had never had a panic attack. Maybe that's what was happening in his stomach. His head was a little muzzy as well. <p> "There are no guarantees." <p> "Jesus, you sound like a lawyer." <p> "I <i>am</i> a lawyer. Your lawyer. Don't ask me to be your friend right now. You have enough of those. Me included on my off time. Right now you need a lawyer." <p> "Right now I need Tums." <p> Wayne didn't smile. "In my briefcase." <p> Mitch shot Wayne a skeptical look, realized he was serious, and reached for the briefcase. He let it go with a light thud when the door to the conference room opened. Keeping his eyes straight ahead, he let Wayne turn to see who was coming in. That's what he was paying Wayne for, wasn't it? Someone to watch his back. <p> Wayne got to his feet as Thea Wyndham stepped into the room, Avery Childers immediately behind her. He nodded once to Avery, a cordial lawyerly greeting that established the rules of engagement. For Thea he had an openly warm smile, accepting her hand when she extended it in his direction. <p> "Wayne," she said softly. "It's been a long time." <p> "What? Four. Five years?" <p> "Five. The last time I saw you was at the twins' christening." <p> He'd forgotten about that. Was that the last time she had seen Mitch as well? He noticed that Mitch was still sitting in his chair and had made no attempt to get up or even look in Thea's direction. "How about that," he murmured. "Rather prophetic." Thea couldn't remove her hand from his light grasp fast enough. Wayne had felt her stiffen at his words. It did not make him hopeful that Mitch's concerns were going to be resolved in a way that was mutually satisfying. He watched Thea skirt past Mitch without acknowledging him and take the chair Avery held out for her. <p> Mitch waited until she was sitting before he speared her with a glance. She held it steadily, he'd give her that, just as if she hadn't been trying to avoid a confrontation all along. Without preamble, without any attempt to soften his tone, he asked bluntly, "Where've you been?" <p> Her lips parted fractionally. God, Mitch thought, if she wet her lips with that little pink tongue of hers, he was going to cry foul. She had a great mouth. Always had. Wide and lush but not with that bee-stung look that screamed collagen injections. What she did was take a short, indrawn breath and catch her bottom lip between her teeth. It was not precisely a foul, Mitch decided, but she was playing fast and loose with the rules. <p> She let her lip go when his eyes strayed purposely to her mouth. He noticed that she wasn't wearing any lipstick. To get that particular shade of rose she must have been worrying her lip the entire way to this meeting. Good. He hoped her nerves were as taut as his own. <p> "Well?" he asked again. <p> Avery broke in. "Mr. Baker. You should address your questions to me." <p> "Why?" he asked insolently before Wayne could stop him. "Has she lost her voice since she sat down?" Under the table Wayne kicked him. Mitch slumped in his chair, stretched his legs out and away from further abuse. "Go on. You two talk to each other. Thea and I will await your verdict." <p> Avery had mastered the cold smile. He gave it to Mitch now. "We're not making a judgment, Mr. Baker." <p> Before Mitch could respond to the other lawyer's patronizing tone, Wayne opened the folder in front of him. "I have copies of the agreement." He passed one to everyone. "This was drawn up shortly after the twins were christened. The same language was used in the will. I know, because I was the attorney for the deceased." He slid a copy of the will across the table to Avery. "Duly witnessed. You can see, Mr. Childers, that both our clients agreed to the terms of legal guardianship in the event of the deaths of Gabriel and Kathryn Reasoner." <p> Mitch kept his eyes on Thea. He thought she winced but he couldn't be sure. Except for that brief thing with her lips she hadn't given him another sign that she was moved in any way by these proceedings. If he was giving her the benefit of the doubt, he'd say she was still in shock. He'd had a month to get used to the idea that Gabe and Kathy were dead. He'd had to arrange the funeral, attend the viewings, speak at the memorial service, and go to the grave site for the burial. He'd had a month with Gabe and Kathy's children to know how devastatingly final it all was. <p> Thea? She couldn't be bothered. <p> Literally. <p> She'd gone to ground. It was hard to believe that in this day of electronic accessibility, Thea Wyndham had effectively disappeared. No cell phone. No e-mail. No voice mail or answering machine. Until four days ago no one knew where she was, or at least no one would give her up. She reappeared on Monday morning in her offices at Foster and Wyndham, the advertising firm her grandfather had founded, just as her weekly planner suggested she would, vacation over. It was then that she was informed of the deaths of her friends. <p> Mitch wondered what had gone through her mind. Had she regretted for even a moment that she had been so completely out of touch? Mitch didn't know the answer. The truth was he didn't know Thea Wyndham well at all. There were times he had wished that were different, but not just now. Right now he didn't give a damn. <p> Something Wayne was saying drew his attention away from Thea. He still watched her, watched her tuck a strand of red-tinted hair behind her left ear, watched her finger the onyx pendant around her neck, watched her keep her expression perfectly still while he studied her, but he finally was listening to Wayne again. <p> "It's clear Gabe and Kathy's intent was to have Ms. Wyndham <i>and</i> Mr. Baker jointly raise the children. The language reflects that decision. I drew up the will and the agreement to their exact wishes." <p> Avery's eyes fell as he peered at the documents through the lower third of his progressive lenses. He grunted softly, a sound that committed him to neither agreement nor disapproval. <p> "It's unusual," Wayne went on. "As you know, in most cases the parents assign guardianship to one person. If there are two, typically they're a married couple, more often parents themselves." <p> Mitch did not miss the faint widening of Thea's almond-shaped eyes. If she'd been a deer he would have already made her a hood ornament. His lip curled at one corner in a smile that was clearly not meant to be one. Thea Wyndham actually flinched. <p> Refusing to acknowledge the undercurrents between Mitch and Thea, Wayne continued addressing opposing counsel. "You will notice it was duly signed and witnessed. Ms. Wyndham—" <p> Avery Childers looked up over the top of the glasses. "Didn't you try to talk Mr. and Mrs. Reasoner out of this course of action?" <p> "I wouldn't characterize it as trying to talk them out of it. I counseled them regarding the potential difficulties. They were convincing in their own arguments, Mr. Childers. They believed that their children needed the guidance of two adults whose values and backgrounds were similar to their own. Mr. Baker and Ms. Wyndham were the two people they trusted with the lives of their children." <p> "Relatives?" <p> "Mrs. Reasoner had a maternal great-aunt." Wayne thumbed through some notes he had scrawled on a legal pad. "Mrs. Edna Archer. They were not close. Her age, I believe, is seventy-six. Mrs. Archer has three children and there are assorted cousins in Mrs. Reasoner's generation, none of whom she knew as well as she knew Mr. Baker." <p> Avery's brows knit. He glanced at his client. Thea nodded slightly, confirming that it was Kathryn Reasoner who had selected Mitch Baker as one of the children's guardians. She had been Gabe's choice. <p> Wayne continued. "Mr. Reasoner had no one that he knew of. He was adopted by the Reasoners when he was four. He was their only child, and they passed away when Emilie was an infant, a few months apart. He also had no biological siblings, at least at the time of the adoption. Unlike many adoptees, Mr. Reasoner never expressed any interest in searching out his birth parents." <p> Mitch saw Thea stir. For a moment her mouth had become tight, her eyes distant. Impatience? Discomfort? He didn't know but he found himself irritated rather than sympathetic. Hadn't she taken the time to explain any of this to her lawyer? As far as he was concerned, Wayne was going over information everyone in the room should have known. <p> Thea stood abruptly. "Excuse me," she said quietly. "I need—" She didn't finish. Rounding the table quickly, she let herself out of the windowless conference room and into the hallway. <p> The silence didn't last past the door being closed behind her. "What the hell?" Mitch asked, looking at Childers. "That question <i>is</i> for you, by the way." <p> <i>(Continues...)</i> <p> <p> <!-- copyright notice --> <br></pre> <blockquote><hr noshade size='1'><font size='-2'> Excerpted from <b>A Place Called Home</b> by <b>Joanne Dobrzanski</b> Copyright © 2011 by Joanne Dobrzanski. Excerpted by permission of ZEBRA BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.<br>Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.