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Casey Sinclair pulled into the high school parking lot. Should she park and go in? She was half an hour early for her job interview, but hadn't wanted to be late if there was traffic on the road from Round Rock, Texas, to Austin. She'd been hesitanta school was an odd place to interview a photographer, after allbut the e-mail she'd received June 1st had explained that it was a working interview. Casey would take part in a photo shoot and would be paid for her time.
Eager as she was to do a good job, Casey felt like crap today. Morning sickness. Day two of it. Maybe it was payback for having deliberately left out any mention of her pregnancy in the cover letter she'd sent with her résumé. But she'd been afraid of having her application rejected on that basis. Besides, at the time she'd felt perfectly fine. Now, not so much.
Just this week, a nurse practitioner at the free clinic in Round Rock had listed several possible symptoms Casey might experience during her pregnancy, including morning sickness. Yesterday, when she'd woken up, nauseous, she'd told herself it was the power of suggestion. When she was sick again this morning, she was forced to admit it might be for real. So all she'd eaten for breakfast were half a dozen soda crackers. And she hadn't made any sudden moves, as the nurse advised.
Now, hours later, she still felt nauseated.
It could be butterflies because of this interview, but she had to get over it. She needed this job badly. Right before she left home this morning, someone from the electric company had called and said if she didn't pay her bill ASAP, they'd turn off her power. She'd said she was expecting some money after today, andthe rep had agreed to give her an extension until Monday.
Taking a deep breath, Casey climbed out of the twelve-year-old Honda her soon-to-be-ex-husband had left behind when he took off. No doubt Dane hadn't thought he could sell it.
Casey eyed the almost bald tire nearest her and wondered how much longer she could put off replacing them all. Thank heavens the e-mail had said she'd receive at least fifty dollars for helping the studio owner with his team photographs. The money was more than welcome, but wouldn't stretch far. Casey needed a regular income.
She retrieved her trusted Nikon, her light meter and her purse from the backseat, then shut the door with her hip.
She prayed for a good outcome as she walked toward the gymnasium, crossing her fingers that her stomach would settle and that she'd do everything the interviewer asked of her perfectly. She noticed parents pulling up to drop their kids at the door.
The cavernous, brightly lit space looked like all high school gymnasiums. Noise ricocheted off the high ceilings. Across the room, two men stood near the bleachers, talking and gesturing. Boys and girls in a variety of uniforms were horsing around. A few straggled in from what Casey guessed were the locker rooms.
Her attention skidded back to the men. One wore gray sweats, the other khaki slacks and a short-sleeve pullover. The second man claimed the bulk of Casey's interest, because even as he spoke, he was busy assembling two light stands and a tripod.
Wyatt Keene. That was who Casey was supposed to meet today. The ad she'd found had given no information at all about the prospective employer. A few lines in the Help Wanted section of the Austin paper simply stated "Photographer wanted for studio portraits and off-site work. Prefer experience with weddings and family groups."
Casey had experience.
She'd also had a week to get used to Wyatt Keene's name, and to do a little research. There was a Keene Photography Studio listed in the phone book, which went a long way toward easing her mind about meeting a strange man in a school gym.
Tightening her grip on her camera, she headed toward the pair, hoping against hope that Wyatt Keene would be as nice as his name felt rolling off her tongue.
"Mr. Keene." At the sound of Casey's voice, the man holding the equipment wheeled abruptly toward her. She smiled and extended her hand. "I'm Casey Sinclair. I'm sorry I'm early, but there was much less traffic than I expected. Anyway, I always say it's better to be early than late."
Casey felt her smile fade under the man's frowning scrutiny. Heavens! Was it a crime to show up early? Or did he think she was too chatty? She tended to babble when she was nervous. And boy, was she nervous. The man kept staring at her with eyes that were even blacker than his hair, and not very friendly. "Are you Wyatt Keene?" she asked hesitantly, tempering her earlier enthusiasm.
"Yes. This is Mike Granville, the coach. We'll be taking team photos today for the yearbook. The captains have props they want to display, and Mike wants us to use trophies. Bats, balls and such. Or signs with the sport's insignia. In the past I've had the captains kneel in front of their teams. I told Mike I'll take the first photo of his soccer squads. The most difficult job will be getting the kids to stop fooling around. Otherwise, it's standard picture-taking protocol."
Casey opened her mouth to say she understood, but Keene went on with his instructions. "Watch me from the bleachers. You'll see what I mean. When I'm done, you can shoot the swim team. Five or six frames ought to be enough. If I think you've done okay, you can photograph the varsity and junior varsity baseball players."
He spun without another word, picked up his gear and strode across the gym. Casey heard him call out to boys and girls in soccer uniforms.
What a hard nose! Even the coach must have thought so, because he offered Casey a sympathetic glance before heading off to tell a group of noisy boys to be quiet.
The real pity of it, Casey thought, was that Keene was darn good-looking, with his angular jaw, brooding jet-black eyes and a stubbled chin that was at odds with his almost military-short haircut. She guessed he might be thirtyish. He was probably an inch over six feet, which made her feel much shorter than her five-foot-two height warranted. The photographer had the build of a natural athlete. Not too thin, muscular or bulky, but just right in her estimation.
His attitude left a lot to be desired, though. Casey ground her teeth as she hurried after him. If she hadn't been so desperate for this job, she would've walked out right then.
She pulled up short directly behind Keene as he fumbled the tilt head he was screwing to a tripod. Casey grabbed for the delicate piece of equipment and their hands collided.
"What are you doing?" He all but leaped away. "I said take a seat in the bleachers where you can watch the first group shot."
"Yes, sir," she said, annoyed by his attitude. She slapped the tilt head into his hand and stomped off to take a seat.
Part of her fumed. But her heart also pounded at being chastised for trying to be helpful. Keene acted as if he'd rather not breathe the same air. Her stomach got all jittery again. What was his problem? She'd been counting on this job, but now Disappointment crept in. It was patently obvious that he'd taken an instant dislike to her. Casey hadn't the faintest idea why. She glanced down at her capris and sandals. Was she dressed too casually? She'd thought it was important to be able to move comfortably for the shoot, but maybe Keene had expected something more professional.
At her foster parents' studio in Dallas, she'd even worn jeans on field shoots. But then, Len and Dolly Howell were good-hearted people. They'd offered to come down here and help her move straight back home with them when she'd called to let them know Dane had left her. If they had any inkling she was pregnant and almost broke, they wouldn't wait for an invitation; they'd be here. Which was why she couldn't tell them. Not only were both getting on in years, but they'd already helped her more than enough. It was time for her to stand on her own two feet.
Casey flopped down on the hard bleachers and studied the gym more thoroughly. When would the other applicants arrive? Surely she wasn't the only person vying for this job. She'd planned to make such a stunning first impression that Keene would automatically want to hire her. Apparently she'd blown that in the first five minutes.
With her purse and camera balanced on her lap, she settled her chin stubbornly on her hands. She would show Keene she was the best person for this job.
Wyatt didn't relax until a sidelong glance revealed that Casey Sinclair had found a spot off the court. He shouldn't have growled at her, but he'd been thrown off stride. First by her breezy warmth, but more by the touch of her hand brushing his.
He'd told Greg Moore, his best friend and business accountant, that he wasn't comfortable with the fact that only two of the thirty applicants had enough experience to fill Angela's shoes. The other qualified applicant had placed too many conditions and restrictions on what he wanted in a job for Wyatt to even consider contacting him for an interview. Wyatt knew it shouldn't be relevant, but he wished his one viable candidate wasn't so attractive. Her eyeswell, suffice it to say they drew a man in. And Wyatt didn't need that kind of complication after the awful year he'd had.
He massaged his chest and motioned for the first soccer team to gather around. He spent a few minutes arranging the kids by height for a better composition. When he stepped behind his camera, a long forgotten burst of pleasure came roaring back. It felt good to be getting on with work he loved.
Greg had been right to prod and badger him. Wyatt had frittered away a year during which he took no paying jobs. Looking back, the busywork he'd done, like painting his house inside and out and refinishing the bedroom set Angela had wanted him to do, hadn't given him any satisfaction. In fact, as soon as it was completed he'd advertised on Craigslist and had given the set away. Throughout that time he'd avoided his friends and drifteduntil Greg said that if he didn't snap out of his grief, he'd risk losing his house and the studio he'd poured so much money into. The studio he'd built for Angela.
Really, Wyatt had no choice but to give Casey Sinclair the opportunity to show what she could do. He needed her. According to her résumé, and the references he'd got from her previous employer in Dallas, she had all the skills he needed to get Keene Studio up and running. And that had to be Wyatt's focus now.
Coach Granville came over and sat down next to Casey as Wyatt took shot after shot of the soccer teams. "I dread picture days," he lamented. "The kids are antsy to get it over with. I've always liked Wyatt's work. He gets the job done, and has a knack for dealing with kids. I for one am happy he's opening his studio again. Last year I had to work with another firm. That photographer had zero rapport with teenagers, and the pictures reflected it. I can't tell you how many calls I fielded from unhappy parents."
Casey cut her gaze from Wyatt to the coach. "His studio's been closed? I wasn't aware of that. He advertised in the Austin American-Statesman. I assumed he'd lost a photographer, or that the business needed extra help."
Granville gnawed his lip, abruptly clamming up. It was obvious he'd rather not tell her any more about Wyatt Keene. While Casey search for something to say, he bolted from his seat.
"All I can tell you is Wyatt had valid reasons for taking a hiatus," he said. Then the coach was gone, rustling up a gaggle of boys shooting baskets at the far end of the gym.
Keene had finished with the soccer players and Casey realized he was gesturing for her to take over. She couldn't shake Coach Granville's comment. The studio hadn't been open in a year. Had Wyatt Keene been ill? If so, that might account for his brusqueness. Maybe he didn't feel well. She could definitely sympathize with that.
She left her seat, more determined than ever to do an exceptional job. Still, she was a bit concerned about working for someone whose studio had been closed for a year. Would he have enough clients to warrant paying her what she needed to support herself? Supposing she even wanted to spend eight or more hours a day around another jerk of a man.
After what she'd just gone through with Dane, it might be smarter to cut her losses and seek another job. Although she already knew jobs in her field weren't easy to come by. It was too costly to consider opening her own studio. And it was too painful to admit her naïveté when it came to Dane. Back home in Dallas, a lot of her girlfriends had got married straight out of college. Not Casey. She'd insisted on holding out for Mr. Absolutely Right. When she met Dane a couple of years after graduating, she'd thought she'd found him.
Ha! What a joke.
She couldn'twouldn'tgo back to Dallas with her life in shambles, she thought as she waited for the swim team to gather. And the other jobs she'd found in the paper weren't suitable for a woman in her condition. House painting at a new real estate development. Not with the dizziness she'd experienced these past two days. And the fumes wouldn't be good for her baby.
She'd answered an ad for two payroll clerks. It turned out to be for a chemical company on the far outskirts of Austin. Chemical residue and odors would be bad for her child, too. Growing desperate, she'd toyed with the idea of applying to be a pet sitter for two dogs, since she liked animals. But the job didn't pay enough to cover the cost of the gas for the thirty mile round trip to Austin every day.
This job, working for the unfriendly Wyatt Keene, matched her schooling, her experience and her interests to a T. Casey had worked in her foster parents' studio since high school. She'd loved every second of it. Still did, she admitted to herself as she clicked several practice shots. Len Howell had taught her how to take beautiful family and wedding portraitswhich was how she'd met Dane. Howell Studios had been hired to photograph Dane's sister's wedding, and he'd been the best man.