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“I do hope this is what you wanted,” said Janice Yates, a thread of anxiety evident in her crisp Bostonian accent as she took the Second Avenue exit off Hawn Freeway in Dallas, Texas.
Sitting beside Janice in the vintage Mercedes, Dominique Falcon nodded, her pulse kicking up a notch. Her future might be riding on what she saw in the next few minutes. It could be the beginning of what she hoped was a career, not another disappointment. After facing five such disappointments in the past month, she wasn’t looking forward to a sixth.
“We’ll be there in two minutes,” Janice told her, taking a left into Deep Ellum, an avant-garde art district near downtown. “The neighborhood is in transition from residential to commercial, so you have an eclectic mix.”
“It’s the studio that counts,” Dominique said, hearing the doubt in her godmother’s voice. In her search she had seen a wide range of photography studios from lavish to run-down, but it was the atmosphere for the work created within that counted, not the outer trappings.
“It’s the building at the corner with the glass front and side.”
Dominique, in a chocolate, double-breasted jacket, matching cuffed trousers, and long-sleeved silk bodysuit, eagerly scooted forward on the smooth, leather seat of the Mercedes. Automatically, her hand closed around the Nikon that was never far from her reach these days. She came out of the car as soon as Janice brought the vehicle to a parallel stop in front of the building.
Janice, stylish and slim in a fringed, glen plaid jacket and skirt, was almost as fast. She took exceptional care of her fifty-three-year-old body and liked to think she could still keep up with anyone half her age. She usually did.
Unlocking the clear glass door, she stepped back. “Stop staring from the outside and come on in.”
With a smile, Dominique’s long legs quickly closed the distance between them. But once she was at the entrance, her steps slowed. She wanted this to be the place.
Her right hand trailed along the S-shaped Plexiglas that separated the tiled entryway from the polished concrete flooring of the main part of the studio. Glancing back at her godmother, who looked as anxious as Dominique felt, she faced forward and stepped around the glass … and into her dream.
It was as if the room had been waiting for her, and she for it. She felt right. It felt right.
Sometimes it takes a little longer for some of us to find what we’re looking for. The thought raced through Dominique’s head. Her search had taken twenty-nine years.
Dominique slowly let her gaze roam over the enormous studio. White walls glistened. Immense, plate glass windows reaching thirty-feet high in front of her provided an unobstructed view of a small, well-tended park across the street that had a piece of modern art, three black, wrought iron benches, and several small oak trees. Working in the studio would be almost like being outside.
One of the other properties she was shown had had a glass front, but had looked out onto a dreary office building. Perhaps because she was part Muscogee Indian, she liked space and the ability to see the faces Mother Nature painted on the landscape. Here, she could have both.
Overhead track lights were spaced every seven feet. In the far corner of the wall were bare rods waiting for canvasses and backgrounds. Next to them was a sliding steel door for deliveries. The setup was a photographer’s dream.
“You’re sure this place is for lease?” Dominique asked.
“I sure am,” Janice said with a smile. “The man who was the previous tenant went to California with his wife after she was transferred there.”
Dominique turned to the older woman, suspicion creeping in. “And you just happened to hear about it, when I’ve had realtors across Texas and the bordering states looking for a place exactly like this?”
“Don’t you still believe in the power of a fairy godmother?” Janice asked, raising a finely arched brow.
Dominique laughed, a rich, throaty sound. “I believe you and my family would do anything to keep me close. Houston and Oklahoma are both less than an hour’s flight from here.”
“Is that so bad?”
“No. I’ve missed all of you.” She folded her arms. “But I need to know if Daniel or one of his associates owns the building. And if they do, please don’t tell me the tenant lost his lease because of me.”
“What a suspicious mind you have. As far as I know, Daniel and the owner of this building have never met. I knew you were looking for a place, and I put out the word that if anyone heard of anything to let me know. I may have lost some clout in the Boston community, but I have contacts here.” The hurt was unmistakable in Janice’s voice.
Instantly contrite, Dominique hugged Janice affectionately. Dominique hadn’t meant to bring up bad memories. Janice had been on a social and financial par with Dominique’s mother until Janice’s womanizing husband decided he wanted a younger wife four years ago. Greedy as well as immoral, Wayne Yates started a smear campaign about Janice’s character that nearly devastated her.
When the messy and public divorce was over, her reputation was tarnished, the lavish home she had lovingly decorated and cared for had been taken away from her, leaving her bank balance pitifully low. She had left Boston, moving first to New York and then finally to Dallas three years ago to open an antique store.
“I know that,” Dominique finally said. “But I also know my family is skeptical about this newest goal of mine, and with my track record they have every right to be. But I also know they realize how much I want to succeed and will do whatever they can to help me achieve what I set out to do. I’ve let them help in the past, but this time I want to do it on my own.”
“So, do it,” Janice said, the words a challenge.
Dominique searched the steady, brown gaze of her godmother for only a moment. Duplicity wasn’t in Janice’s nature. She was too sensitive and too caring to be dishonest.
Joy and, yes, a tiny shred of fear, raced through Dominique. This was it. All she had to do was to be bold enough to step out and take the challenge. If she were going to make a name for herself in photography, she had the place to do it.
It meant moving, as she had so many times in the past, but this time she had a definite goal, a purpose in mind. That hadn’t always been the case, she ruefully admitted as she gazed around the room.
Her wandering had initially begun as a means of getting away from the pain in her family’s eyes every time they looked at her. By the time she had finally taken a good look at her life, eight years had passed. Eight wasted years.
Her delicate hands lifted and closed around the Nikon N90 hanging from her neck. Such a small object, but its power was irrefutable. With it, she felt powerful. Through the camera lens she saw what was, saw endless possibilities of what could be.
“I hope that smile means you’re going to rent this studio and stay in Dallas with me.”
Dominique turned toward the stylishly dressed woman a few feet behind her. “It’s perfect. I couldn’t have dreamed of better.” She smiled down at her petite godmother. “All I need now are some clients.”
“You’ll have them once I start telling my friends here and in the surrounding Metroplex about you,” Janice said with confidence.
A frown worked its way across Dominique’s brow. “Remember, I’m Dominique Everette.”
Janice let out an exasperated sigh. “I don’t know why you don’t use your name. People would fall all over themselves to have Dominique Falcon do their portrait.”
“That’s exactly what I’m afraid of. You, of all people, know what I’m talking about,” Dominique reminded her. “Mother was so worried about you when you left Boston. She would have done anything to help you. You accepted nothing but friendship.” Dominique tilted her head to one side. “You didn’t try to influence anyone with the Falcon name, either.”
“I had something to prove,” she said with a trace of bitterness in her voice.
“And you did. Janice’s Antique Attic has done well.” Dominique sighed. “Try to understand that I want to make it on my own merit, just as you did.”
“In your case it’s different. People would have probably cluttered up my shop not buying a thing, but they’ll stand in line for the sister of Daniel Falcon and the daughter of Felicia Falcon to take their picture, and you know I’m right.”
Dominique was unfazed. “Believe me, I’ve thought this through very carefully. I’ve been out of the country and my picture hasn’t been in a fashion magazine for some time, so no one should recognize me. I’ve planned and budgeted. I have two years to turn a profit before the money I’ve allotted myself runs out.”
“And that’s another thing. I can’t believe you want to pay me rent,” Janice said testily.
“If I lived anywhere else I’d have to pay.” Dominique refused to back down. “Don’t fight me on this. I was looking forward to spending some time with you.”
“All right, but I don’t like it. The way you explained things last night, paying me rent leaves you with very little working capital to keep your business going.”
Dominique’s fingers tunneled though her thick black hair. “That’s the way it has to be. Dominique Falcon may have access to unlimited capital, but Dominique Everette is an entrepreneur with a tight budget.”
“I wish there was some way for you to show those fabulous wedding photographs of Daniel and Madelyn,” Janice pointed out ruefully. “The way his hand was touching her face was almost erotic.”
Dominique had felt the same way on seeing her brother and his bride in the forest glen she had created just for that shoot. It had been imperative that people believe the wedding had taken place much earlier than it had. She had achieved her goal and more.
Watching them, she had almost felt like a voyeur. After the session was finished, Daniel had stated he and his bride were going to stay a while and not to come looking for them.
Dominique could still remember Madelyn’s shocked protest, and Daniel’s answering laughter. Two hours later they had finally come home, looking disheveled and utterly happy until they spotted her. Madelyn blushed, but Daniel grinned like a rogue, picked up his wife and started up the stairs to their bedroom, whistling. She didn’t see them until the next day.
It had been a fantastic picture because the subjects were amazingly photogenic, madly in love, and beautiful. All Dominique had to do was press the button. The camera, Daniel, and Madelyn did the rest. She knew that wouldn’t always be the case. Yet, she eagerly wanted the chance to try.
“No, I’ll do it on my own or not at all,” Dominique said. “There is already enough speculation on the identity of the photographer. You’re the only one outside the immediate family who knows I took those pictures, and it has to stay that way.”
Janice made a face. “I suppose.”
“I may not be able to show that picture, but I’ve an idea of another one that’s going to be just as memorable.”
Dominique grinned. “Not what. Who? And the answer is you.”
“Oh my,” Janice said, her face glowing with obvious pleasure.
“Oh my is right. Let’s go create some magic.” Taking her godmother by the arm, Dominique started across the room.
* * *
After signing the contracts for a two-year lease which took a hefty chunk out of Dominique’s budget, they dropped the film off at the photographic lab, then headed home. Dominique’s spirits were higher than they had been in weeks.
Things were coming together. When she’d received Janice’s call a week ago she had no idea she’d have a studio by the next Monday. Photographing her godmother had made her dream seem real and obtainable.
Janice parked in the detached garage of the one-level, ranch style home. Arm in arm the women walked beneath the ivy-covered breezeway leading to the back door of the kitchen.
Janice opened the door and they were greeted by the light scent of bayberry in the welcoming brightness of the spotless yellow and slate kitchen. Those colors were joined by mauve and hunter green as they passed through the spacious, antique-filled living room and continued down the hall on the way to the guest bedroom.
“If you don’t like anything, we can change it,” Janice said on opening the door.
“You have exquisite taste, Janice,” Dominique said, already knowing she’d love the room. She wasn’t disappointed.
The genteel elegance of the bedroom reminded her of an English garden. The walls were done in a dusty pink to complement the soft floral print of the woven damask drapes tied back on either side of an upholstered Victorian window seat.
But the focal point was the elegant, eighteenth century mahogany bed with a shaped headboard and high posts with urn finials. The bed was lavish, with a matching comforter and mounds of decorative pillows that invited a person to lie down in luxury and comfort.
And everything looked new and fresh.
Dominique turned to her godmother. “What if I hadn’t liked the studio?”
“I refused to let myself think you wouldn’t,” Janice said simply. “I’m behind you all the way in this.”
“Thank you,” Dominique said, giving the woman another hug. It felt good to have another person believe in her dream, to believe her vision could become a reality.
Although her parents and brothers loved her and were making the right overtures, they weren’t completely sold on the idea that she wouldn’t become bored and change her mind in a year or less, just as she had done in the past. Dominique’s Place, a little bistro in New York, was just beginning to show a profit when she became restless and sold out in nine months. The Afrikan Art Gallery in Seattle only lasted seven and a half months.
She had been assisting some of the best photographers in Europe for the past two years, but this was the first time she was going to be on her own.
“I have faith in you. We all do,” Janice said. “I’ll go start dinner. Call your parents and Daniel, and meet me in the kitchen. We have some celebrating to do.”
Setting her Louis Vuitton overnight bag on the bed, Dominique picked up the phone and called her parents in Oklahoma and her brother in Houston. Each one caught the excitement in her voice and wanted studio portraits done. Laughing, she had asked them to give her a little time.
Hanging up ten minutes later, she changed into white shorts and an off-the-shoulder knit top that skimmed a couple of inches above her navel. Humming, she headed for the kitchen.
* * *
The celebration dinner was a two-inch thick porterhouse grilled to perfection over charcoal, stuffed baked potato with the works, spinach salad, and butter pound cake topped with freshly made whipped cream and lush, ripe strawberries. Dominique teased Janice about making her fat, but she ate every bite.
Dominique had thought she’d miss the fresh vegetables and fruits she got daily from the Paris market. Janice was quick to point out that Dallas had its own Farmer’s Market, and she shopped there at least twice a week.
Deciding they were too stuffed to tackle the kitchen, they had taken their glasses of chardonnay and gone outside to relax by the pool. The backyard was awash with flowering begonias and petunias.
Despite it being September, the temperature in Dallas still soared into the high double digits. Placing their drinks on the umbrella table that separated them, both women settled into chaise lounges several feet from the edge of the sparkling blue water.
At the unexpected deep male voice, Dominique sprang upright and almost fell out of the lounge chair. Regaining her balance if not her dignity, she whipped off her sunglasses and jerked her head toward the sound.
Her gaze traveled up taut, muscular thighs encased in tight denim jeans, past a narrow waist, over an impressive chest to a sinfully handsome face sculpted in bronzed mahogany that an angel would have wept over. Her hand lifted and closed around thin air. She almost groaned over the loss. The photograph would have been sensational.
Unexpectedly, as she gazed into rich, chocolate brown eyes, she experienced the sense of being knocked off balance. Her hand clutched the edge of the chaise lounge. The irrefutable awareness annoyed her almost as much as her idiotic impulse to slip her shades back on to shield herself from his hot gaze, which prowled over her as if it had every right to do so.
The belated greeting that she had been about to utter died in her throat. She detested men who openly ogled her.
Her hard glare elicited a deepening smile that made her think of how a cat must look just before licking his chops and pouncing on his prey. As that thought raced through her mind an unfamiliar something stirred deep inside her. His impact on her senses was totally unexpected and totally unacceptable. She felt … restless.
In the past she’d had no trouble dismissing such ill-mannered men. Yet, this particular man with his deep, molasses voice flowing like a lazy, sun-kissed river and too handsome face made it difficult for her to do so.
“Hello, Trent,” Janice greeted warmly. “You’re off early today. It’s only a little past seven.”
He chuckled, a deep baritone sound that did strange things to Dominique’s stomach. Maybe it was the second helping of pound cake overflowing with whipped cream and strawberries.
“Don’t remind me,” he answered, but his gaze never left Dominique.
Janice saw his attention on Dominique, frowned, and swung her legs over the side of the lounge chair. “Forgive me. Dominique Everette, Trent Masters—my friend and next door neighbor.”
“Hello.” His grin widening, he extended his hand.
Uncharacteristically, Dominique ignored the gesture. She didn’t let herself think her refusal to take his hand was anything more than a firm rebuttal against his earlier rudeness. “Do you usually come over unannounced?”
The welcoming smile on Trent’s handsome face froze. His outstretched hand dug in the front pocket of his tight jeans. Dominique considered the accomplishment a minor miracle. “It hasn’t been a problem in the past.”
“Trent has been a lifesaver to me since I’ve moved here, Dominique,” Janice said, her gaze whipping back and forth between the two tense people.
Dominique caught the placating note in her godmother’s voice and heeded it. If the man had helped her godmother, he must not be as rude and crude as he appeared. That didn’t mean she wanted to be best buddies with him.
“If you’ll excuse me, I have some things inside I need to take care of.” She stood. “Good-bye, Mr. Masters.” Her voice was cool and final.
Trent had never been in a blizzard, but he now had a pretty good idea how it must feel to step from the warm confines of the indoors into a blast of frigid air. Nonplussed, he watched the stunning woman brush by him as if he were the lowest kind of life-form. Noting her head held high and her regal bearing, he had the irrational urge to either bow or laugh.
Looking at her sleek, golden brown body moving away from him, the wind whipping her wild mane of midnight-black hair as it skimmed the top of her swaying hips in the white shorts, another thought struck—how much he enjoyed eating chocolate swirl ice cream in a cone. Licking from the top to the bottom, then taking a good bite.
Guiltily, Trent brought his rampaging mind back, then turned toward Janice and took the seat Dominique had vacated. The canvas was still warm. It didn’t take much imagination on his part to recall her utterly feminine and alluring body stretched out on the lounge and the turmoil it created within his own body or to imagine his fitted over hers.
“Not you too?” Janice almost groaned.
“What?” he asked.
Janice rolled her eyes. “Most men see Dominique and start acting as if they have a screw loose. I thought you had more sense.”
Trent reached for the drink nearest him, sniffed, then put the glass back on the table. He needed something stronger than wine to fortify him. “So did I.”
The older woman laughed. “At least you’re honest about it.”
“The drool on my chin would have probably given me away.”
She smiled indulgently. “It’s about time you started thinking about something else other than those trucks of yours.”
“Just because I’m thinking doesn’t mean I’m going to do anything about it.” Trent shook his dark head and gave a long, telling sigh. “Women take too much time. Dominique more than most, I imagine.”
Janice straightened her shoulders and sent him a stern look. “And why would you think that?”
“It’s obvious,” Trent said, leaning back in the chair and crossing his long legs. “She has to know she’s gorgeous, with a body to match. She probably could have any man she wanted. A man is going to have to put in a lot of overtime to keep her happy.”
“I never thought I’d see the day you’d judge someone on appearance,” Janice said ruefully.
Trent frowned, his gaze going back to the closed patio door Dominique had disappeared through. “Are you trying to tell me there aren’t at least ten guys lined up to take her out?”
“As far as I know there’s not one.”
His frown deepened instead of clearing. “It’s worse than I thought.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Barracuda. Eat a man up and spits him out.”
Janice surged to her feet. “If you say one more unkind word about my goddaughter, you’ll find yourself unwelcome in my house or on my property.”
He came to his feet as well. “Goddaughter. You’ve never mentioned a goddaughter.”
“That didn’t mean I didn’t have one,” Janice said. “She’s opening a business in Deep Ellum, and will be living with me for an indefinite period of time, so I expect you to be courteous.” Janice picked up the two glasses. “If not, you’ll have to find someone else’s pool to swim in and another place to eat.” With that she swept into the house.
Dominique was in the kitchen washing up the dinner dishes. Setting the glasses on the blue tile countertop, Janice picked up a drying towel. “Despite that display of male stupidity, he’s a nice, intelligent man.”
Dominique clinked a china plate none too gently in the dishrack. “I hate being stared at as if I’m on display.”
“I know. You may not believe this, but Trent seldom pays attention to women. It’s kind of odd to see the turnabout. He’s usually the object of female attention.”
“Some women have no taste,” Dominique said, trying hard to forget her own reaction to Trent. With her heart still thudding, it was impossible.
Putting the plate away, Janice reached for another. “On the contrary, Trent is considered a very good catch. He’s in his mid-thirties, has a successful transport trucking business, he’s handsome, and has a body that has been known to create a stir when he wears swim trunks.”
Dominique didn’t want to think of Trent in swim trunks. She was having enough trouble trying to forget his broad shoulders and the muscled hardness of his thighs in those disgraceful jeans. “He probably knows it and uses it to his advantage.”
“Quite the opposite,” Janice said, pausing between drying two forks. “He seldom dates. Says he’s too busy running his business to socialize.”
“With his attitude, who would have him?” Dominique asked, determined to dislike the man.
“Half the single women I know, that’s who.” Janice chuckled, then sobered. “If I know Trent, his conscience is already giving him a good talking to and he’ll probably apologize the next time you see him.”
“I hope that’s in the year two thousand,” Dominique said, snatching a wineglass from the counter.
Wearily Janice eyed Dominique’s agitated motions. “If you cut your hand, you won’t be able to use your camera.”
Instantly, Dominique’s hands stilled. “He made me so angry.”
“Men were acting much worse at Daniel and Madelyn’s reception, and they didn’t faze you,” Janice reminded her.
Head down, Dominique slowly began washing the glass. “I knew I didn’t have to see them again. Masters is different,” she explained.
“That he is, in many ways. I just hope you won’t hold this afternoon against him, and will allow yourself to find out.” Janice placed a hand on Dominique’s rigid shoulder. When Dominique looked at her, she continued speaking. “You both mean a lot to me, and I’d like you to be friends.”
“Friends might be asking too much,” Dominique said with a wry twist of her mouth. “How about we don’t draw blood?”
“It’s a start.”
* * *
Not moving as Janice stalked away, Trent had winced on hearing the angry thud of the patio door closing. If she got the blasted thing off the track again he wasn’t going to fix it.
Even as that thought came to him, he knew he’d do anything Janice asked him because of two things: he liked and respected her, and she had been right to ream him out about Dominique.
He wasn’t surprised by how easily Dominique’s name rolled off his lips. In his business you had to remember names. What did surprise him was his initial reaction. Hard and hot and stupid.
He shook his head ruefully. He was too old and he hoped too intelligent to act that way. He owed both women an apology, but watching the loosely woven patio curtains swoosh closed, he didn’t think now was the time.
Looked as if he was on his own for dinner. He sniffed the air and recalled the smell of charcoal-cooked meat that had brought him over in the first place. Janice had probably cooked steaks on the grill he had spent all day setting up last summer while she stood under the protective covering he had built so she didn’t have to cook in the sun.
With a last, longing look at the curtained door, he started home. Served him right.
But he couldn’t help wondering how he was going to face his meat loaf again. There wasn’t enough sauce in the world to disguise the bland-tasting concoction he’d stirred together two days before. Grimacing, he tried to remember if he had eaten the last of the warmed up chili Friday night.
Copyright © 1998 by Francis Ray