I opened the door of the ladies' room, stepped into the hallway, and almost slammed straight into the intern.
"Miss Williams, Mr. Bristow is looking for you!" he squeaked as he skidded to a stop two inches from my shoulder. He wavered there a second and then stepped back smartly, like he was afraid of getting scalded.
I sighed and wiped my hands on my pencil skirt then immediately regretted it. Water ruins silk, Monique, I chided myself. There goes three-hundred and seventy-eight dollars, plus tax.
Now I was really irritated. "If I hadn't stepped out right now, were you planning on bursting in on me while I used the bathroom, Ben?" I snapped at the hapless intern.
"No, Miss Williams," he mumbled, his eyes dropping right down to my cleavage where they stayed put.
I put my hands on my hips and waited a beat. I'd give him to the count of ten. Then I'd kill him.
I watched it dawn on him and had to suppress an evil smile. The tips of his ears looked like candles on a birthday cake as his whole body flushed from embarrassment. He yanked his gaze away, and I could see the nervous pulse trembling at his throat.
The kid just had a brush with death, and he knew it.
His eyes snapped back up to my face. "Sorry," he blushed, and then ran off at a dead sprint.
I sighed again. "Thanks for letting me know," I mumbled, but he was long gone. Ben was completely terrified of me.
Just like everyone else in this office.
I’d heard the whispers behind my back. ‘Monique Williams's’ temper was legendary, my reputation preceding me when I took this job. The angry black woman, that's what I was here. That was the identity I had fallen into. It didn't matter how hard I tried to smile and sweet talk my way into a nicer reputation. No one believed me, and my temper was starting to become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
My reputation for anger made me angry. How was that for a Catch-22?
So the way I saw it, I had two choices. I could be the angry, hot-tempered woman they expected, or I could quit. It’s not like I hadn’t thought about it. I could leave here and start over somewhere new where I could reinvent myself yet again…
That's what my father would have done, though. And look how well that had turned out for all of us…
It seemed I was stuck here for the time being. With my new job secure, I had no choice but to play the part. If they wanted angry, I'd give them angry.
I straightened my skirt and slicked a wayward curl of hair back into place. If Gil Bristow was looking for me, that meant whatever assignment I was about to get had already aged to the point of emergency. Gil had two settings: 'off' and 'PANIC!' He was notorious for sitting on things until the last possible moment, then handing them off to his underlings as their "number one priority."
Never mind that if he had just given us the work when it crossed his desk, we all could be spared the heartburn that came with deadlines.
That wasn't how Gil worked.
And frankly, that's why I liked working for him. I've always been at my best when I have to keep moving. A rolling stone gathers no moss, you know? The more pressure you put on me, the better I worked, and Gil seemed to understand that on an intuitive level.
As I wove my way through the mass of desks in the open plan office of Auteur magazine, I could hear Gil's distinctive half-bellow, half shriek calling my name. "Monique! Get in here!" Several fearful heads snapped around, then ducked down to their desks in studied busyness.
Weaklings. I sniffed a little, amused. Whatever Gil was bellowing about, it could wait one more minute.
I grabbed my notepad from my desk, then checked the little mirror hanging off my desktop. My hair was on point today, and the cream colored blouse I had chosen made my ebony skin shine. I happened to know that Gil preferred this blouse...he had told me himself in a drunken slip-up at a company party last month.
Pathetic, isn't it? But if I wasn't going to make friends with my personality here, I had to use whatever advantages I had. My tits are an advantage.
Any attention can be good attention, it all depends on your attitude.
Having made sure I was put together, I walked briskly over to Gil's office. Running was for interns.
I've been the main music and lifestyles photographer for Auteur ever since I moved to this city. I took over the position after the unfortunate firing of a thirty-year veteran. Opportunity was knocking and I’m the kind of girl who answers.
It was a firing I had nothing to do with, of course. But that didn't stop the rumors that greeted me the minute I walked in the door. Whispers and tight smiles had accompanied me since.
I told myself I didn't care, because I was practically born for this position. Traveling photographer, working on assignment, blending into the background to get the shots I needed, those were my strengths and I was good at what I did.
And it suited me to. Roving across the country, a new city every night, shaking the dust from my heels and moving forward. That was how I'd always lived my life, from the time I was a little girl and my daddy had us in a new town every year or so. He called us Gypsies and talked about it like we were all on a great adventure together. We had nothing to tie us down.
Motion has always been a way of life for me. Nothing is permanent. Nothing is forever. If something doesn't work, then you just pick up your things and move on. Putting down roots only keeps you from moving forward.
Of course, so far this job hadn't really been moving me forward the way I had hoped. I’d been stuck doing mostly local assignments for months. I had a feeling Gil was about to change that.
"That better be Monique knocking on my door," Gil shriek-bellowed. "Monique! Get in here!"
"Hey, Gil," I said, calmly shutting the door behind me. I couldn't help it. I pitched my voice lower. I always do when I talk to my editor.
I was still trying to figure out how a man as fat as Gil Bristow could have such a high, girlish voice, but the mystery of his voice paled in comparison to the mystery of his weight itself. The man was in constant motion, always jiggling, wiggling and shifting his gelatinous bulk around in his chair. He must burn millions of calories just sitting there, and yet he was still as big as ever.
"Monique," he wheezed in his choirboy high voice as I sat down. "This is a big one. We are under an impossible deadline, here."
I tried not to roll my eyes. Of course we were...because of him. I was sure of it. "I will do my best, Gil." I smiled gamely, sitting down and tucking my legs smoothly under the chair. "What do you have for me?"
bsp; Gil dragged his focus away from my clothes and leaned back, his voice rising even higher with excitement. He clasped his hands over his head, and began the wiggle-jiggling.
"How big a fan are you of country music, Monique?" he jiggled at me.
I raised my eyebrows and didn't say anything. Instead I opened my hands and invited him to take in my ebony skin, my braided hair, my full lips and dark brown eyes.
Gil waited a beat and then fluttered his hands. "Oh right right, you probably don't...."
"Not, really, no."
"There are a few black guys doing country you know...Darius Rucker, that Hootie guy?"
"You were saying, Gil?" I interrupted. It was important to keep him on topic if I wanted to get out of this office anytime soon.
"Right, right, well we're running a big editorial on Tanner Brock. You've heard of him, though, right?"
"Just in passing." That's pretty accurate, though what I didn't add is that the passing - of his on-the-beach photos in a supermarket tabloid - nearly gave me whiplash. Tanner Brock was one hell of a good-looking white guy. But he was also a good ole boy country singer and definitely not my taste.
"Well he's got this big old ranch in Heath County, Texas. Talks about it a lot in the story, always mentioning it in his songs," Gil shifted, then started the leg portion of his jiggling. "I want you to go down there and take some pretty pictures of the place. Give the reader the sense of Tanner Brock 'at home,' and all that."
My smile faltered. "Heath County, huh? That's where he's from?"
"Are you familiar with the area?" Gil was still jiggling, but he paused to shoot a meaningful look at my Jimmy Choo slingbacks.
"Little bit," I sighed. "I spent a couple of years living in a town the next county over." And then left in the middle of the night without saying goodbye to anyone, I didn't add.
"Really Williams? I would have never pegged you as a country girl." Gil's voice was impossible high at this point and it was starting to irritate me.
Thank God for small favors. "I said I spent a few years there. That doesn't make me a country girl, Gil," I said, standing up and smoothing my skirt over my hips. "I'm a city girl, through and through." Recently, anyway. As far as you know.
Gil looked like he went cross-eyed for a minute from staring at me. I snapped my fingers at him. "Focus here, Gil. When do I leave?"
He looked away so quickly I knew I had caught him. "Tomorrow," he told the wall. "Stop by and check things over with Clara, she should have your flight all booked." Gil stood up, though it didn't make much difference in his height. "Thanks for being a team player, Williams."
Heath County. Where everything went to shit. Lovely.
"I'll get the pictures," I said, smiling through gritted teeth.
"Maybe you'll have time to swing by and see some of your old stomping grounds?" he hedged. He could tell I was pissed
"Not if I can help it," I told him forcefully, slamming my notebook closed and sweeping from the office.
The sun was just peeking over the hills of Heath County, but I could already tell it was going to be a scorcher. Heat hung in a haze over the scrubby brown, rolling hills, collecting in the hollows and dry streambeds of Brock Ranch. Sweat was already collecting on my brow and I hadn't even gotten out of bed yet.
Sleeping in my own bed. Best damn feeling in the world.
I grew up here, my dad grew up here, and his dad too. My great-Grandpa Brock built this place. Four generations of memories were steeped into the walls.
I spent my whole tour dreaming of coming back here. Back to the ranch where I grew up rambling around these hills as wild as a coyote, tussling with my brothers and causing my mom heartache. The hills used to echo with our shouts, and the shrillness of my mom's whistle as she called us back to the main house for dinner.
Now, my brothers had all left to pursue big city dreams or, failing that, settle down with good women to start their own family ranches.
My parents left too, though they took a more final route. They were buried a-ways up in the Highlands, next to Brock parents, grandparents and great-grandparents.
It was silent here now, and that was unnerving enough to make me sit up straight in the bed. I was alone at Brock Ranch for the first time in my life, and it just plain felt wrong. That was hard enough to deal with.
Harder still was seeing the disrepair. The place I loved so much had fallen into a sad shape while I was on the road. I only had three weeks before the second leg of the tour started up again. In the meantime, I had a long-ass list of repairs I needed to tackle head-on.
I was ready to get started. My father didn't raise me to run from hard work. That's what this place needed and that was exactly what I planned on giving it.
The sun rose higher, slanting across my bedsheets and sending dust motes dancing crazily in the beam. The white painted walls of the master bedroom still gleamed in spite of the years it had been since someone last slept here. I stepped out of bed and pumped some water in the basin, then splashed my face. Maybe my first upgrade should be modern sinks?
Just then, my phone vibrated on the dresser my grandfather had made fifty years ago. It was an odd, discordant sound, and I was instantly on edge. I was even more on edge when I saw it was Keith, my manager.
The guy wore the biggest damn cowboy hat I ever saw in my life, but I would bet money those boots of his never had a speck of real dirt on them. He was a cowboy in clothes only and he set my teeth on edge. "Yeah," I barked into the phone.
"Good mornin' to you too, sweetheart," he drawled in that fake accent of his. "Did I wake you?"
"Nah," I grumbled, drying my face on a towel. "I'm up. Whaddya want?"
"I see you're not in the mood to chat. Fine, I get that. Just wanted to give you a head's up that Auteur is sending the photographer out to shoot you doing the cowboy thing at your ranch."
"What's this now?" I was off. The tour didn't pick up again until three weeks from now. "I'm on vacation, Keith. There's a shit ton of work that needs to be done here. I don't want any distractions."
"She won't be a distraction, I assure you..."
"She?" I barked. "Yeah, that's going to be a distraction. I don't need a prissy, big-city photographer mincing around here in her impractical shoes and complaining about the smell of cowshit. It's a working ranch, Keith, not a film set."
"Just get through it then, pardner."
I couldn't believe he just used the word 'pardner' without a trace of irony. I caught a glimpse of myself in the old, gilt framed mirror my mother had hung on the wall, and I could see I was smiling in spite of my irritation. "You win, Keith," I sighed.
"You always do the right thing, Tanner, that's why you're my favorite client."
"You're a pain in my ass and I guess that's why you're a good manager," I huffed into the phone. "But I'm telling you right now, I've got stuff to deal with here. If the photographer is really coming to photograph a 'day in the life' or whatever, she'd better be prepared for what my days entail. Sun-up to sundown, that's my workday."
"Sounds familiar," Keith chortled. "Just got off the phone with Blake and he was complaining that ever since he started in the band with you, he can't sleep past six in the morning. Says you're worse than his two month old."
I had to laugh. "Am I as cute as his little girl too? Ask him that for me, will ya?"
"Too afraid he'll reach through the phone and strangle me with those giant meathooks of his. Listen man, thanks for sacking it up. I gotta go run herd on the rest of your wayward crew, make sure they don't enjoy their vacations too much."
"Go ruin their days like you did mine." I grinned.
"Will do, Tanner. Enjoy raking cowshit or whatever."
"Will do." The smell of manure was indeed wafting through the open windows, but I always thought of it as a good smell. The scent of home evoked memories even more than the place itself did. My father had me working this land from the moment I could lift a pitchfo
rk. It was good to be back even if it was for such a short visit.
Too bad this photographer showing up had to cut into my peace. Hope she had the good sense to wear practical shoes.
The first thing I did when I got home from work was grab my Louis Vuitton carry-on down from the top of my closet.
The second thing I did was text Chanel, Dayna and Hayleigh.
I hesitated just before sending the group text, like I always did. That nagging little voice in the back of my head never seemed to shut up about them, no matter how long we had been hanging out...which admittedly hadn't been very long.