Authors: Dara Girard
Oddly, Ian’s approach to photography wasn’t like her father’s or Jeremiah’s. Ian approached it like a storyteller for future generations to uncover and for present ones to reflect on. Looking at his pictures made her want to be better, not just good, but great.
Mariella stayed online for the rest of the evening, reading Ian’s articles on photography. His prose was as deep, intelligent and mesmerizing as his photographs.
“What are you doing?” Gen asked, clutching a cup of warm Ovaltine. She pulled up a chair next to Mariella who sat hunched over her laptop at the dining room table. Lights from the town shone brightly into the apartment casting soft shadows on the walls. “You’ve been on that thing since finishing dinner.”
“I’m reading about Ian Cooper. He used to be a photojournalist.”
Mariella didn’t ask her how she knew, that wasn’t the question that plagued her. “Why did he give up all this to run a magazine?”
“He had to,” Gen said. “Josh told me he had to step in when his father became ill, because the magazine wasn’t doing well and they knew Ian could turn things around.”
Jeremiah hadn’t told her that. But he never discussed business with her. “I wonder what he could want with me.”
“Ian wants to meet with you?”
“Yes. He gave me his card and said to come to his office tomorrow at eleven.”
“You’ll have to ask him then.”
“Don’t worry. I intend to.”
“I’m sure Josh—” She stopped.
Mariella couldn’t help a smile. “Josh seems to have a lot to say.”
“We spoke a little at the park.”
“It’s nothing serious,” Gen said quickly.
“Funny you should say that because I keep having this strange feeling that you’re in love with him.”
Gen’s face reddened. “Why would you say that?”
“I won’t say it if you tell me I’m wrong.”
Gen sipped her drink then set the cup down. “I know he’s not what you’d call handsome but
like his looks, and that’s all that matters; plus he’s smart and sweet and…” She picked up the cup.
“And?” Mariella pressed.
She stared down at the cup. “Yes, I do love him.”
Mariella rested her chin in her hand and shook her head. “Don’t move too fast.”
Gen frowned. “Why?”
“It’s been my experience that people rarely make rational decisions when in the ‘I’m in love’ state. Trust me, I’ve seen my sisters do bizarre things because of it.”
“Sounds romantic to me,” Gen said softly.
Mariella sat back and pointed at her. “Listen, because of love, some of what they did looked ridiculous at the time. Fortunately, everything worked out. All I can say is I hope to leave this planet without falling prey to it.”
“You’ve never been in love?”
“No, nor do I plan to be. That doesn’t mean I’m not capable of loving. I love my sisters and nephews and niece very much.” She smiled. “And you, of course.”
Gen didn’t smile back. She looked at Mariella as though she’d happened upon a strange creature. “So you never want to get married?”
“What made you think that?”
“Well, you said—”
“I said I never wanted to fall in love. I didn’t say I’d never marry. Marriage can be very advantageous if it is to the right person.”
“If you love him, it’s the right person.”
“Not necessarily. A man should always love a woman more. Otherwise the woman is at a disadvantage.”
“How can that be?”
“Love makes you weak, vulnerable. Women only have few powers to claim, and giving away our hearts leads to our greatest oppression.”
“I don’t believe that.”
“You don’t have to but it’s true. Why is it that the best love stories usually deal with someone dying? I’ll tell you: Because men believe in sacrifice and suffering, especially when it comes to a woman’s lot in life. Suicide, ruination, depression, death, illness. All the classics have women who don’t, or cannot survive, without the ‘love’ in their lives, or lovers separated by fate who will do anything to be together, including killing themselves.”
“But love stories—”
Mariella held up a hand silencing her. “Personally, I find them as realistic as a unicorn, but that’s just me. We can dream of men who will risk all for us as much as we risk for them
those stories only exist in books. I am a realist and plan to keep myself intact by living in a rational manner. Either marry a man who adores you—one you can reasonably tolerate—or don’t get married at all.”
Gen stared at her friend, amazed. “Mariella, how can you be so cynical? I thought you said your sisters are happily married.”
“They are, but they are the type of women who make good wives. I don’t. I’m aware of my faults. I can be impatient and demanding and I’m certainly not the nurturing motherly type that men crave. The best husband for me would be a man who is very rich and travels a lot.”
“I believe that men and women can love each other equally.”
Mariella shrugged. “Well, you can choose to believe that if you want to. Do you think Josh loves you?”
“I don’t know,” Gen stammered. “I think he likes me.”
“Likes you? Don’t be modest. I’ve seen him tripping over his feet, and he’s always tongue-tied when he’s around you. I suppose he’ll suit you. No, he’s not very handsome, but at least he’s rich.”
“Mariella, don’t talk like that,” Gen scolded.
“I’m just being honest. You know as well as I do that men are visual creatures. Right? Well, look at you. You’re beautiful, and you’ve been an international model. You can get any man you want, you have the looks, so use them. It doesn’t matter for what.”
Gen shifted awkwardly in her seat. “But it makes you sound shallow.”
“Who’s to say I’m not?”
“I know you’re not,” she said firmly. “If you were, I wouldn’t be your roommate. Besides, if you were truly shallow you wouldn’t have been staring at those photos all evening.”
Mariella glanced at her watch. “Has it been that long? What time is it?”
“12:30 a.m. If you want to be ready for your appointment with him tomorrow, you will need to look rested.”
“Yes.” Mariella turned off the screen and closed the laptop. “Well, his work is impressive, I’ll give him that.” She walked over to the stove, and poured herself a cup of tea. “But we’re not talking about me,” she said, determined to continue their prior topic.
Gen sighed, looking a lot older than her twenty-four years. “How I feel about Josh doesn’t matter.”
“You’re concerned about how he feels about you?”
“No.” Gen lowered her head. “You know that I can’t be with any man.”
Gen met her eyes. “Is part of who I am. I can’t lie about it, but I don’t want to reveal it either.”
“He shouldn’t mind. This is a new day.”
“It’s not that new. There are still certain taboos. I don’t think Josh would be able to handle it. Besides, look at the kind of family he comes from. Yes, I know what you’re probably going to say. I may have the looks, but unlike you, Mariella, I don’t have your kind of confidence. Men love the way I look, and for many, they think I’m a certain way, when I’m not. And…” She went to the sink and dumped the contents of her cup. “You know, I really don’t want to talk about it anymore. Trust me, I know it won’t work.”
“How would you know, if you don’t give him the chance?”
“I don’t want to know.” Gen abruptly turned. “Good night, see you in the morning.”
Mariella sat back at the table then turned the laptop on again, this time wondering which of her photos would impress Mr. Ian Cooper. Mariella spent most of the night, into the early morning going through her portfolio and selecting her best photographs. She intended to get the job, and wasn’t going to take any chances.
an walked into the offices of
magazine the next morning pleased to see everyone working diligently. Just the way he liked it. Little did he know that several minutes before he entered, Merta Robinson had glanced out her office window and seen him walking toward the entrance of the building. “Oh no,” she cried. “He’s early.”
“Why?” someone asked.
“It doesn’t matter why. Places, everyone.”
In a moment, people removed their feet from their desks, hid breakfast bars and donuts, and stacks of magazines, grabbed phones and exited certain Internet sites. By the time Ian entered the office with his black Labrador Sylvester at his side, the office looked like business as usual.
His assistant, Nelson Mullings, a recent college graduate and eager to please, rushed up to him. “You’re early.”
Ian stared at him, but didn’t reply.
Nelson cleared his throat. “It was just an observation.”
Ian shook his head. “No, it wasn’t. You want to know why I’m coming into the office at this time. The reason is I have an appointment at eleven and I want to be ready for her.”
“Oh, well, the thing is…there’s a situation.”
“Your mother is here.”
Ian paused. “In town?”
“In this building.”
“Where specifically in this building?”
“In your office.”
“Why?” Nelson echoed.
“Yes,” Ian said with exaggerated patience. “Why is she in my office?”
Nelson finally understood his error. “She wanted—”
“You know I don’t like people in my office when I’m not there.”
“I thought I could…uh…convince her to leave before you arrived, but she insisted.”
“Next time think about this. Who would you rather upset? Me or her?”
Nelson tugged on his tie, nearly strangling himself. He coughed then said, “It won’t happen again.”
Ian walked toward his office. “I didn’t think so.”
“It gets worse.”
Ian stopped. “How bad?”
“She said she has luggage in the car.”
“Okay.” He continued walking.
Ian slowly spun around. “Yes?”
“She brought Candy.”
He swore softly but with force. Before he could consider the perfect exit strategy, his mother stuck her head outside. “I thought I heard your voice. What’s keeping you so long?” She turned her cheek to him. “Come here and kiss me hello.”
“I’ve never kissed you hello. Stop imagining things.”
“Can’t you be civil for five minutes?”
“I’m assuming that’s a rhetorical question.” Ian turned to Nelson. “Make sure we’re not disturbed.” He snapped his fingers and pointed to his desk. Sylvester walked in and lay down beside it. Although he was a Lab, Sylvester was accustomed to the sedentary life in the office, which he tolerated in anticipation of the invigorating walks he took with Ian before and after his workday. Ian followed his mother into the office and shut the door. She sat down on the couch and held up her cheek. He walked past.
In the absence of his greeting, she tapped her cheek.
“Stop that,” Ian said. “No one is looking so we don’t have to perform for them.”
She frowned. “Other sons kiss their mothers on the cheek.”
“Yes,” Ian said, sitting behind his desk and staring at her. But other sons didn’t have a mother like Shirley Cooper. She was lavishly beautiful, a banquet of desirable attributes: thick dark hair with only a hint of gray despite her years, expressive brown eyes that made her face look twenty years younger, a trim figure with enough curves to save her from being called skinny.
However, her looks hadn’t kept his father from openly playing the field, and she wasn’t surprised. His mother was a former fashion model. She had been discovered working at her father’s pharmacy by a scout for Williamson’s Modeling Agency, and had a very successful modeling career. Before she married his father, she knew the sacrifice she would have to make. He had been up-front with her, and she had weighed what was best for her. She wanted to be taken care of and had gotten used to the wealth and privilege that being a model had provided. She knew that in time, she would be too old for the industry, and wanted to ensure she would be able to continue the lifestyle she had become accustomed to. Her only regret was being passed over for a chance of being a Bond Girl.
Sitting in his office, Ian saw for a moment the beauty she must have been forty years ago. Today she wore a finely tailored pink crepe suit. But no outfit was complete without matching high-heeled Italian shoes and her Chihuahua, Candy, who sat on her lap wearing the identical suit.
Ian scowled at the dog that was dancing on its little paws eager to greet him. “Did you have to bring that?”
“Candy is very sweet and she loves you.” She held up the excited dog. “Come on. Let her give you a kiss.”
“The day I let her kiss me, one of us will be dead.”
Shirley pulled Candy close to her chest, shielding her. “Don’t be disgusting.”
“So. Where are you going?”
She placed Candy on her lap and began to stroke her. “What do you mean?”
“Nelson said you brought luggage.”
She lowered her gaze and adjusted Candy’s jacket. “I wanted to stay with you for a few days.”
“Stay with Josh.”
“I don’t want to stay with Josh.”
She looked up startled. “Do I need a reason?”
“Your house is bigger.”
“Mother,” he said, losing patience. “What are you doing here?”
“Otis is getting ideas.”
Ian sighed. Poor Otis Fassel. He was an international trader who had been wooing his mother for the past eight years. “What kind of ideas?”
He shrugged. “So?”
“I thought we could use a little time apart.”
“Why don’t you just add to the man’s misery and marry him?”
Shirley set Candy on the couch then crossed her legs. “I’ll get married again when you do.”
He began to grin. “Is that a promise?”
“Because that might be sooner than you think.”
Her brows rose in surprise. “You’re thinking of getting married again?”
A knock on the door interrupted his reply.
“What?” Ian asked.
Nelson timidly peeked his head in. “Umm, you have a visitor.”
Ian glanced at his watch. “She’s early.”
Nelson looked relieved. “So you are expecting her?”
“Yes, at eleven not ten.”
“But since she’s here now…” He let his words trail off hoping Ian would fill them in.
He leaned back and clasped his hands together. “Yes?”
“What should I do with her?”
“Nothing. She can wait.”
Nelson glanced at the visitor, biting his lip then turned back to Ian. “She doesn’t seem the patient type.”
“Close the door.”
Nelson reluctantly shut the door.
Ian leaned forward. “Where were we?”
Shirley looked at her son. “You were toying with me.”
“How can you talk about marriage? I haven’t heard you were seeing anyone.”
“The idea came to me recently.”
She studied him suspiciously. “What are you up to?”
“Nothing. I’m just suggesting that you make peace with Otis. You won’t have my place to run away to too much longer. I doubt my wife would like it.” He paused. “Actually, I can be certain she wouldn’t.”
“Who is she?” Shirley said, unable to temper her curiosity. “What does she do? Where did you meet her? Is she—”
A timid knock interrupted her.
Ian sighed then said loudly, “What is it, Nelson?”
Nelson came in wringing his hands together. “Here’s the thing. When it comes to patience, she’s not a fast learner.”
“Really?” Ian said without surprise.
“She’s making things awkward.”
“Merta is in tears.”
Ian looked thoughtful then slowly stood. “Excuse me,” he said to Shirley and followed Nelson out the door.
Almost immediately he saw Mariella gesturing to a short balding man, indicating that he needed to straighten a framed painting.
“Where’s Merta?” Ian asked.
“In the kitchen,” Nelson said.
Seconds later Ian stood in the kitchen where he saw Merta sitting in the corner with a box of tissues.
She pushed her glasses up her nose and turned, her red eyes magnified behind her glasses. “Yes, Mr. Cooper?”
She opened her mouth but no words emerged.
New tears swelled in her eyes.
Ian’s patience snapped. “Speak, woman. I don’t have all day.”
She burst into tears.
Ian took a deep breath then turned to Nelson. “What happened?”
“After being offered one of Merta’s cookies Ms. Duvall said her cookies were a health hazard and that she should be reported to poison control and listed as a possible risk.”
Ian nodded. Unfortunately, she was right. He’d heard about Merta’s cookies and his office staff fled when she brought in her latest culinary experiments: pudding with cornstarch, oatmeal-relish cookies and one of her favorites, pickle-banana bread. Of course no one was ever brazen enough to say anything to her face.
Ian shook his head. “It’s just her opinion, Merta. It shouldn’t bring you to tears.”
She sniffed and lifted her watery gaze to his face. “Do you like my cookies?”
“I don’t think I’ve ever had one.”
“But you must have,” she insisted. “Every month I prepare a special batch for you. I give them to Nelson to hand to you.”
Ian glanced at Nelson who averted his gaze. He knew Nelson had probably disposed of them long before they reached his desk. “Oh yes, those.”
“Would you like one now?” She leaped up from the chair and shoved a tray crowded with brown lumps in front of him.
Ian took one then glanced up and saw Nelson standing behind Merta, vigorously shaking his head then wrapping his hands around his neck and miming a gagging reflex. “I’ll save this for later. Now wipe your eyes and get back to work.”
She smiled and left.
Ian lifted the lump to his nose and sniffed. “This smells like—”
“And tastes like it, too,” Nelson added.
Ian wrapped it in a napkin. “I’ll give it to Candy instead.” As he was about to return to his office, he spotted another employee, Leonard Mills, cleaning out the coffeepot. His tie was tossed over his shoulder, his shirt disheveled and his sleeves rolled up. “What are you doing?”
“Remaking the coffee,” Leonard said, vigorously rinsing the pot out. “Ms. Duvall said it didn’t taste fresh.”
“Who makes the coffee here?”
“I do. I make a fresh pot every morning.”
“It’s still morning. Why are you making another one?”
“Because she said it didn’t taste fresh.”
“And you agree with her?”
Leonard hesitated. “No, but—”
“Then why are you making a new pot?”
“Because of the
she said it.”
“But she doesn’t work here and I’m not paying you to make coffee.”
“She can be very forceful.”
“Then tell her to make it herself.”
He shivered. “I’d rather make more coffee.”
Ian glanced toward the office, then walked briskly over to the display where Mariella was instructing Serita Brickman, a recent hire in a peasant blouse with a plastic daisy in her hair. “Put it back, Ms. Brickman,” he said.
Serita sent a nervous glance at Mariella then looked at Ian. “But—”
Ian enunciated every word. “Put. It. Back.”
Mariella turned and looked at him. “I don’t think the way you have the display is correct. I thought it was best to have it this way.” She continued adjusting the display. The office fell silent. No one moved.
Ian kept his gaze on Serita. “I’m glad you are diligent in your task, but leave things as they are unless I instruct you.”
Mariella moved toward him. “Mr. Cooper—”
Ian continued to address Serita. “Don’t let anything distract you from your task. Nelson will help you.”
Mariella stepped in front of him. “Mr. Cooper, I am speaking to you.”
Ian looked past her. “And when Ms. Duvall arrives, please let me know.” He turned, then disappeared into his office.
Mariella stared at the closed door, stunned, but within seconds her surprise turned to mortification then rage. She’d never been ignored in her life! People always paid attention to her.
He had the arrogance to look right past her. Her. Mariella Duvall. Her rage almost became a tangible creature taking over her body, making her skin burn, her hands tremble and closing her throat against words. However, with superior effort she managed to keep her face composed.
Nelson’s voice cracked when he spoke. “The coffee’s almost done.”
Mariella didn’t hear him. She couldn’t. Rage had deafened her and narrowed her vision. All she saw was the closed door. Nobody shut a door in her face and got away with it. Mariella adjusted her jacket and skirt and retrieved her taupe leather portfolio that was sitting in the lounge chair. She marched up to the door and turned the knob. It didn’t move. He’d locked the door. That’s when her rage became fury and she did something she’d never done before. She pounded on the door, and at the top of her lungs shouted, “Open up this instant! I will not be treated this way. Do you hear me?”
She pounded the door again until her fist ached. “Now!”
When the door didn’t open, Nelson gingerly approached her. “Can I make a suggestion?”
She spun around and glared at him. “No. You may not. I’m leaving. I will not stand being treated this way.”
“Should I make another appointment?”
She paused then said in a low acid-laden voice, “Are you trying to be funny?”
“No, I just thought that after you’d calmed down…” His words trailed off as the fire in her eyes became an inferno.
“Calm down? Do you think I’m overreacting? Do you know who I am?”