Simultaneous flashes from multiple cameras sparkle around me like glitter against the purple and white backdrop. An unending line of limos stretches down the hill toward the Bay dispensing gorgeous people in gorgeous clothes. Benefactors from San Diego to Seattle are here to see and to be seen, hoping to raise awareness and money to help physically and sexually abused women and their children through a charity close to my own heart, Sturdy Legs for Women and Children in Crisis. Shouts come from every direction as photographers announce the arrival of San Francisco’s very own technical wonder and one of the biggest donors. “Mr. Steede, Mr. Steede. Bryce, over here.” I raise my camera, hoping for the perfect shot.
At thirty-two, he’s one of the youngest self-made entrepreneurs in the country. He radiates confidence and energy, which tells everyone he’s someone. His long strides are strong and purposeful as he makes his way down the purple carpet. He stops several times to answer questions from reporters giving me and the rest of the photographers a chance to admire his tall, good-looking physique, and I must say, the man knows how to wear a tux.
Photographers – some of us work for legitimate publications; others, frantically calling out Steede’s name, I recognize as paparazzi trying to get their “money shot”, are vying for his attention. Shutters release in rapid succession freeze-framing his typical pose – strong posture, a slight tilt of his head to the right, corners of his mouth barely turned up.
His eyes methodically scan the crowd, looking to give that one lucky recipient his trademark mega-watt smile. For some unknown reason, he zeros in on me. His smoldering gaze locks with mine, momentarily freezing me in place. Then, like a fever, instant warmth spreads though my body from head to toe. My heart flutters and pounds fiercely against my chest. I hear the beating in my ears and I’m convinced my pulse will break through my skin any moment. A cold shiver then runs the length of my spine as the hair on my arms stand erect.
I’ve taken many photos of Bryce Steede before, but I’ve never had this reaction. I swipe away a lone, escaped curl from my up-do, and like a robot on autopilot, snap continuous pictures, vaguely aware of other flashes going off around me. When I’ve finished, it’s as though time is standing still and the Earth has stopped rotating. No movement. No sound. We make no attempt to interrupt this silent moment between us. His perfect full, open-smile, widens. Did he just wink at me? As I steady myself in my ankle strap four-inch heels, I casually glance over my shoulder and notice there’s no one behind me. When I look back toward him, he breaks eye contact and moves along, blending into the sea of celebrities.
Carly, the photographer next to me remarks, “Alixandra Quinn, you certainly got Steede’s attention.” The sour expression on her face says she’s not happy about it either.
The Bridge, the magazine where I’ve worked for the past five years was one of the few publications invited to photograph inside the ballroom. The assigned photographer for The Bridge was sick, so when my boss called and asked me to fill in, I agreed. My Saturday night was free, as usual.
By the time I get home, it’s well past midnight and what has already been a long day has morphed into a longer night. The pictures are loaded, ready for edits and there he is larger than life, his mesmerizing stare drawing me into a temporary trance. It seems his look is only for me and for a moment, I’m breathless. I shake my head and snap myself out of this unwanted daydream. I need to get myself together before the photo shoot of Mr. Steede for The Bridge article that’s coming up.
“Ahhh, finished,” I say aloud as I hit send, and wait to make sure the ZIP file uploads.
As I stand and roll my neck and shoulders to work out the kinks, I feel the stiffness leave my body. Removing the last of the bobby pins from the makeshift up-do, my hair tumbles down around my breast and I shake out the tangled mass of red curls. Once my head hits the pillow I’m done for. Slate-blue eyes invade my thoughts as I drift off and before sleep consumes me, I briefly think, this can’t be good.
Today I volunteered at the Sturdy Legs Center, which I do once a month. My heart goes out to every woman who recounts her story. The desperation and fear in their voices is evident with each phone call. I spoke to a woman having a hard time with her abusive boyfriend and knows what’s best, but is torn. In the end, she came to the Center. I can only hope she stands by her decision to leave him for good.
As I leave the shelter, the hair on my neck prickles and an unsettled feeling of being watched overcomes me. My body tenses, and wild-eyed, I look around but see nothing out of the ordinary, so I quickly hop in my car to go home.
I live in a modest two-story house. The entry way opens into a huge living room done in browns and reds. My roommate’s bedroom is to the left and the stairs leading to my bedroom and bath are on the right. My bedroom’s decorated in light hues of lavender. The queen-size bed sits by window with my work area across the room. A flat screen TV hangs from the wall at the end of my bed. It’s warm and cozy. My sanctuary.
My mom’s picture lights up the screen on my phone. “Hey Mom.”
“Hi Button.” According to mom, my father called me “button” the first time he held me and it’s been my nickname ever since. “How are you?” She sounds subdued.
“Just walked in the door. What are you doing?” Silence follows and I wonder if we got disconnected. “Mom? You there?”
“Yes, I’m here.” She hesitates before continuing. “Today’s the ten-year anniversary…” Her words trail off.
“I’m fine, Mom.” God, I don’t want to have this conversation.
“I worry about you so much. I don’t want to hurt you by bringing it up and I know you’d rather forget…” I cut her off before she goes any further.
“Forget? If only it were that simple. He burned June 1st into my mind, and body, to make sure I’d never forget.” The disdain in my voice is evident as I vehemently spit out the words.
There’s another long pause on the other end of the phone. “Mom?” I hope she doesn’t think I’m angry with her. She’s the last person I want to hurt.
“Okay, Button, I understand. Are you all packed?”
I breathe a sigh of relief when she changes the subject but I feel the walls closing in and need to get off the phone. “Mom, I don’t mean to cut this short, but I’m overwhelmed with preparing for this trip. Can I call you later?”
“Okay, sweetie. Ali? You know I love you more than life itself, right?” Her voice cracks and my eyes sting with unshed tears.
Oh Mom. “I know and I love you too. We’ll talk soon, I promise.” She’s always been my pillar of strength to lean on and it makes me sad I’m not at a place in my life where I can be hers.
After I compose myself from the emotional call with Mom, I switch gears and mentally flip through my upcoming schedule. I’m flying to New York City tomorrow afternoon for a big shoot for Forbes for their feature article, “Top 10 Under-35 American Entrepreneurs,” and Bryce Steede’s one of them. An image of Bryce in his tux from last night clouds my brain and for some unknown reason this makes me smile. To clear my mind, I do a brief meditation before I get ready for my Tae Kwon Do class. Maybe a good workout will erase the unfamiliar, wayward thoughts I have. Maybe.
Still sweaty from my workout, I dive on the bed to retrieve my phone. It’s my roommate, Steven Hart, my best friend in the whole world. Tall with light brown hair, amber eyes the color of cognac, a hard taut body and extremely beautiful. He’s smart, witty and an all-around kind human being. Between our jobs, we hardly have any time to spend together. Like me, he graduated from the Art Institute of Seattle but with a BFA in interior design. He’s my confidant and my protector, the big brother I never had. A little too protective at times, but because he’s the only friend I’ve ever confided in about my past, I can understand why.
“Hey, Ali, sorry I didn’t call you back last night.” He sounds tired and he tries, unsuccessfully, to stifle a yawn.
“Don’t worry about it. I know you’re on a deadline for your project. I wanted to remind you I’d be out of town.”
“I remember. Did you pack your skates?” He asks in a humorous tone.
“Of course I did.” Ice-skating has been my go-to stress relief ever since my Dad left us when I was eight, and I always take them with me when I travel.
“You’re weird. You’re the only person I know who brings ice skates on a business trip.”
“You know it helps me relax. I have to finish packing, so I’m going to go.”
“All right, have a great trip. We need to hit karaoke when you get back.” We go to karaoke night at the local bar sometimes and see who can out sing the other. We’re very competitive and Steven can be the king of sulk if he doesn’t “win.”
After we hang up, I think about Steven and Sampson, his boyfriend. They’ve been together three years and I think are getting ready to take the next step. Sampson’s a catch. He’s an attorney with a lucrative law firm, successful, warm, and just like Steven, an all around kind human being. He’s tall and muscular with sable skin and olive green eyes. When they’re together, its visual sensory overload. Between them, the brightness from their smiles alone could give Times Square a run for its money.
A surge of panic and dread washes over me as I look over my flight itinerary. Crap. Why didn’t the travel agent book the direct flight instead of routing me through Houston? The further away from that place I can be, the better. I should have paid closer attention to the documents the agency emailed to me. Resigned to my fate, I instead concentrate on what I need to pack. New York can be brutal in June, so a pair of cream linen pants, matching cuffed sleeved jacket, and a salmon-colored sleeveless shirt are the perfect choices for the photo shoot.
In keeping with our usual ritual before any business trip, my boss Jodi Walker and I, meet for dinner. She’s the editor and co-owner, of photography for The Bridge. I dash to my Mini and peel out of the driveway. I mentally pat myself on the back because it’s my first brand new car and I bought it myself with my own money.
“Hey, you made it,” she says as she taps her watch. Jodi will be 38 this year but looks younger and has a mischievous personality. She’s in great shape and can’t be any taller than 5’5”. Her platinum blonde hair is cut in a short, smart style, and there isn’t a wrinkle to be seen around her hazel eyes. She’s also the only person I know who can wear horned rimmed glasses and get away with it.
“I’m not late. You know better than that.” I act like my feelings are hurt and it works.
“I’m sorry. I was just teasing.”
“I know. I like messing with you. Where’s Phillip? Isn’t he coming?” I ask.
“He wasn’t feeling well. I heated a can of soup for him before I left.” She and Phillip have been together for twelve years and he’s proposed several times but she always turns him down. Philip is confident he’ll eventually wear her down and she’ll say yes.
“Jodi, you’re such a gourmet.”
“You know that’s right. I don’t do the cooking thing. Never got into it. Although my bank balance would appreciate it if I at least learned to cook the basics.” She does eat out all the time. Poor Philip. If they ever get married, he’ll have to hire a chef.
“You know you’re moving up in the world when the Forbes photo editor asks for you specifically,” Jodi says. Her unwavering pride in me shines through her smile. Forbes has its own photographers but they asked Jodi if she would allow me to take the shots.
“I have you and your “in” at Forbes to thank for that. You’ve helped me in so many ways. Eternity is not enough time to show my gratitude.” She smiles her dazzling shy smile at my compliment.
“You have the talent. I just point you in the right direction. That’s all.” She’s so modest, but without her, I wouldn’t have flourished like I have. She was a high profile photographer; still is, though now, she concentrates on the magazine.
Jodi isn’t in her usual form tonight. Whenever she wants to drop a bomb on me, she gets like this. As we talk, I can’t take it anymore and finally tell her to blurt it out. “Jodi, what is it? You’re acting weird. Well, too weird for you.”
“You picked up on that, huh?” she says as though she’s distracted.
“Seriously? We’ve known each other how long, and you’re surprised when I call you out?”
“Okay, The Bridge feature article on Bryce Steede’s life story got moved up to the week after next, when you’re on vacation.”
“It was planned for the end of the month!” Damn. I’ve already made all the location arrangements.
“Yes, but the other owners wanted to move it up, based on the publicity around the Forbes article. I tried to explain that we needed your magic touch on the photography, but I was out voted. ‘Strike while the iron is hot’ is the idea. Steede is hot right now. It seems all the women want him and all the men want to be like him. We’re lucky Steede agreed to the change on such short notice. He also agreed to the same locations.”
“What are you worried about then? Sean’s a good photographer. Everything will be okay.”
With her voice lowered and her words clipped and tense, Jodi says, “Ali, you don’t understand. Just because Sean’s the nephew of another owner, doesn’t mean he’s up to the task. We don’t need good, we need great. With increased interest in Steede, our sales should boom. This article’s the one that can make us a national name. If we want to play with the big boys, I need the best photographer, and that’s you.”
“I’m sure it’ll be fine. Try not to worry. You always do this when faced with a challenge and it turns out better than you expect.”
“Ali, Bryce Steede is not one to give interviews often. I don’t know how we got so lucky when I know several publications that have tried to get him but failed. We were surprise and quite shocked when he agreed to our interview.” She sighs then hesitates, while twisting her napkin around her fingers.
“What. What is it? What aren’t you telling me?” She shuffles around in her seat and I can see the apprehension in her eyes. “Come on, out with it.” I snap.
“I know you have that week off, but could you please come in and do the shoot? Please, Ali, please?” Jodi’s begging? I think the Earth just tilted on its axis a bit.
I’ve been looking forward to taking the week off for some much-needed R&R, with a surprise visit to my mom.
Jodi pouts, and her bottom lip trembles. She’s so maddening when she gets like this. She’s supposed to be the strong one, teaching me, but sometimes the teacher becomes the student.
“I’ll be back Thursday evening. Can I let you know then?” I ask. This is what Jodi’s worked so hard for, along with the other editors and staff. I can understand her fear.
“Sure, Ali. That’ll be fine.” A trace of a smile lights up her expression and her body relaxes. She’s quick to subdue it but I see a sense of relief wash over her face.
“I’ll call you from New York.” I embrace her in a warm hug as we leave.
“Okay, sounds good. Have a safe flight. I can’t wait to see your photos from the shoot. I know they’ll be spectacular, as usual.” With that, she’s back to her calm, strong self.
Light traffic makes the drive home a breeze. Packing, a relaxing bath, then sleep. The sooner tomorrow is over with the better.