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Maple Grove, Indiana, USA Altitude 810 feet
"Amazing. Absolutely stunning!"
Melinda Clark, soon to be Mrs. Mark Donovan, pored over the sample wedding album with unabashed enthusiasm.
River Kane, owner and head photographer of Forever Photography, held silent as the woman gushed. Normally, she felt a surge of pride whenever someone complimented her work, but given the recent upheaval in her personal life, all she felt was numb.
Mark, in an attempt to curb his fiancée's blatantly expensive taste, looked at a photo and shrugged. "It's okay."
"Okay?" Melinda palmed her heart, her three-carat engagement ring glittering as brightly as her wide blue eyes. "Look at the expressions Miss Kane captured. So much love. You can just feel the joy."
"It's a wedding, honey. I'd be worried if the bride and groom weren't happy."
"Not just the bride and groom." She tapped a manicured nail to a five-by-seven of the Sweeny bridal party.
"There are…twelve people in this photo and every one looks fabulous, even the flower girl and ring bearer. How often does that happen? Usually at least one person blinks or sneezes, or scratches inappropriately. Remember your cousin's wedding album? Obviously that photographer didn't have the sharp eye and skill of Ms. Kane. Just look at these images of the ceremony!"
"They're kind of artsy."
Mark leaned in and muttered something to Melinda, who muttered something back.
Wishing she were anywhere but here, River gripped the padded arms of her floral upholstered chair. Drumming her fingers wouldn't do. Where was the tolerant patience that used to come naturally? It's not as if this moment, these prospective clients, were out of the realm of her normal world.
She was used to people admiring her work. She was used to those who criticized. Some splurged on her top package. Some budgeted for a lower tier, while others haggled over even her most basic package or, in some cases, walked away. After several years in the business, she'd pretty much seen it all. As a levelheaded professional, she was equipped to handle any situation.
She also had good instincts.
River was certain, by Melinda's enthusiasm, her extravagant ring and Mark's sagging shoulders, that they would commit to her premium package. That meant major dollars for Forever Photography. Yet River couldn't dredge up an iota of pleasure. A contract meant she'd actually have to photograph the damned blessed event.
Or maybe Mark would get cold feet or second thoughts and abandon Melinda at the altar.
That would be awful, of course. But then River wouldn't feel like the only jilted bride in the state. She could commiserate with Melinda. Curse her ex-fiancé almost-husband, a cowardly, fickle-hearted bastard. They could drown their sorrows in the champagne, meant to toast a happily-ever-after, and bemoan their sadly-never-was.
River watched as Mark encircled Melinda's waist, inwardly winced when he smiled and kissed his intended's cheek. The man was besotted.
She was going to have to shoot the damned wedding.
Twenty minutes later the contract was signed and a hefty deposit check sat on River's doodle-free desk blotter. Melinda and Mark left, and River's assistant, Ella Tucker, entered. River barely noticed. She was too busy squirting sanitizing liquid into her palms—didn't people realize how many germs were transmitted by shaking hands?—and cursing her inherited talent.
"Damn Mom's artistic streak and Grandpa's photographic eye."
"We took a vote," said Ella, her trusted sidekick of three years, "and we've decided you are a freak of nature."
River blinked. Normally Ella poked her head in after an appointment to ask if they'd secured the booking and what package the client had opted for. As River's assistant, she made more money when her services were required on-site. The "freak of nature" remark was out of the blue and triggered deep-rooted issues that intensified River's already fragile mood. She tried not to take offense. Not privy to the details of River's past, Ella couldn't know how keenly her observation hit home and hurt. Besides, she wasn't a spiteful woman. She was a barely-twenty nosey Nate (although well-intended) friend and associate.
Maintaining a calm facade, River forced a teasing smile. "By we, I assume you mean you and Ben." River's mailman. Ella's boyfriend. A guy who knew everyone's business and never shied from expressing his opinion.
Ella plopped in the chair vacated by Melinda only seconds before. "May I be blunt?"
River's mind screamed no, but it wasn't in her nature to blow people off. Besides, she could take it. At this point in her life she was fairly numb to criticism and rejection. "Consider me prepared."
"You were dumped at the altar by your fiancé, the man of your dreams, two weeks ago today. Yet you continue to operate as if nothing happened. Most women would've thrown a tantrum, retreated into a shell, hired a hit man, purchased a voodoo doll in the likeness of their ex—something, but you didn't even cry." Ella pumped her ever-present lip gloss tube, a sign that she was just gearing up. "You cashed in your honeymoon tickets and resumed business as usual. Which for you," she said, after swiping the shiny pink stuff over her plump lower lip, "is photographing other couples walking down the aisle, saying 'I do' and walking, or flying, into the sunset. I know you loved or at least thought you loved David. And I know you're a gentle soul, but this…re-straint, this robotlike behavior is plain freaky."
River felt her calm slipping. That wouldn't do. Desperate for control, she folded the check and slid it into her wallet, then scooped up the sample albums and replaced them on the decorative shelves adjacent to her antique desk—everything in its place. "I'm not a robot," she said, careful to keep her voice light. "I'm sensible and grounded."
"You're in denial. You're also cautious and paranoid. Not your fault," Ella added as though that would ease the sting. "You're a product of your grandparents."
Better than a product of her parents—selfish and reckless. But River didn't voice that thought. She skirted talk of her parents—a free-spirited artist and an eccentric archaeologist—like the plague. Surely they were just as toxic. "Is there a point to this attack?"
"We figure it's only a matter of time before you blow."
"We being you and Ben."
"It would be pretty sucky if all that suppressed devastation and anger erupted during a photo shoot. How many times have you told me your reputation is everything? Ruin one happy wedding and future contracts could be at risk. You know how word travels."
Your reputation is your most valuable selling tool, River could hear her grandpa saying. She'd not only inherited Forever Photography from Grandpa Franklin, she'd adopted his work ethics. Her fractured family had also cursed her with a few assorted habits, although Ella called them quirks. Ella, though sometimes annoying, was observant and wise beyond her years. River didn't know what was more troubling. That a woman seven years her junior was analyzing her behavior, or that her concern had merit. River did feel pressure building within. A simmering mixture of disillusion and resentment. Long ago, she'd had a similar feeling and she had indeed blown. As a result she'd severed her relationship with her father.
As always, the mere thought of Professor Henry Kane whipped River's normally controlled emotions into a frenzy. She blamed him for her mother's death and for annihilating her own sense of adventure. Since David had cited her conventional and cautious ways as his reasons for dumping her, she blamed Henry for ruining her love life, too.
Chest tight, River reclaimed her seat and tucked her shoulder-length curls behind her emerald-studded ears. She bolstered her shoulders and tried not to look fragile—something else David had complained about in front of God and friends. His observation, like his rejection, had stung. Especially since she'd dedicated several years to building her strength and stamina. She couldn't help that she'd been born pale, blond and petite. Nor was it her fault that she'd been molded into a person of many quirks. Quirks David used to find endearing.
When had their relationship gone wrong and why hadn't he been willing to fix it?
Ella cleared her throat. "Are you thinking or ignoring me?"
River forced another smile. "Listen, Ella. I appreciate your…and Ben's concern, but I'm fine."
"Uh-huh." Pump, pump.
"I'm not going to have a meltdown in public."
"What about in private?"
River considered the best response while Ella swished on more lip gloss. If she forfeited control, she worried she might never get it back. She'd planned the rest of her life according to David T. Snodgrass. Happily married until they died, three children, a two-story single-family home on an acre of land, yearly vacations to Disney, a 401K plan…
River's list went on and in great detail, and now that list was in the trash bin. No plan. No map charting her way for the next fifty years. Panic had been skirting the edges of her being ever since David had said adios. In order to function, she was operating on automatic, business as usual. And she would continue to do so until she formulated a new life plan. She didn't expect Ella to understand her orderly nature and she had no desire to explain.
"Would it make you feel better if I went home now, chugged a bottle of wine and sobbed into my pillow?" River asked
"No. But you'd feel better."
Wrong. It was, however, a way out of this conversation.
"I'll keep that in mind." Still smiling, River pushed to her wedge-sandaled feet. "We're caught up on business. What do you say we knock off for the day? I have personal errands and you've never been one to pass up extra time at the gym." Whereas River maintained a rigid schedule that centered on jogging and moderate weight training, Ella kept fit via trendy workouts. Flavor of this month: Zumba.
"Great." But before River could get out the door, Ben burst in. The uniformed mailman planted a quick kiss on Ella's slick lips then turned to River. "This is unorthodox," he said, looking harried, "seeing it was addressed to your home, but I couldn't imagine leaving it in your mailbox, considering its origin."
River tensed. Ben was a company man. A straight-arrow, by-the-books government employee. What would cause him to deviate from his normal route, delaying service to his regulars?
Ella rushed to River's side. "Is it bad news?"
"Maybe it's good news or promising news," said Ben. "Whatever it is, it's marked Important."
River hefted her red satchel higher on her shoulder to busy her hands. Wringing them wouldn't do. "What is it?"
Ben produced a worn eleven-by-fourteen padded envelope. "No return addressee," he pointed out, "but it's postmarked Baños, Ecuador."
River held tight to her satchel's strap, tight to her control.
"David's in South America," Ella said, excitedly pumping her gloss. "Isn't Ecuador in South America?"
"Yepper," Ben said, still holding the envelope. "That's why I rushed it right over."
Reapplying the gloss Ben had kissed off, Ella leaned in for a closer look. "Except that doesn't look like David's handwriting."
No, it didn't. But the all-capitals print was familiar. Although River hadn't seen it in a long, long time.
"David's on an extreme tour," Ben said, "floating down the Amazon or zip-lining across the jungle canopy. Maybe he asked someone else to send whatever it is."
Ella snatched the package from Ben and felt up the contents. "It feels like a book."
River snatched the package from Ella and slipped it into her satchel. "I'll let you know."
"You mean you're not going to open it here? Now?"
"I'd rather not." Sensitive to the couple's disappointment, River itched to make a graceful exit. "I appreciate the special delivery, Ben, but I feel a meltdown coming on and I promised Ella I'd do that in private. She'll explain." That was as graceful as it could get. River blew out of her office, through the reception area and out the front door of Forever Photography.
She anticipated dark clouds, rumbling thunder, something ominous to match her mood, but the weather was sunny and mild. A beautiful late June day. If things had gone according to her well-laid plan, she would've been a June bride. Instead she was a June reject. She shelved the thought and focused on the package. "What do you want?" she grumbled as she slid into her minivan.
It had been five years since River had last heard from her father. And that had been a lame greeting card, condolences on the passing of her maternal grandpa. As if the selfish bastard really cared.
She nosed the van toward home.
What could it be? In addition to the surprise package, she was reeling from the possibility that her estranged father and fiancé were in the same foreign region. David was actually in Peru. Wasn't that just south or east of Ecuador? The coincidence was just too weird.
Taking her usual route, River zipped through town and pulled into her designated driveway. She eyed the two-bedroom rancher she'd inherited from her grandparents, much smaller than the one she'd planned to buy with David. For a moment she marveled that she'd been willing to part with it. Though lacking in warm, fuzzy memories, it was the only place she'd ever been able to truly call home. Her grandparents, though reluctant guardians, had taken her in when she was thirteen. The same year her mom had died. The same year she'd cursed her father to hell, thereafter referring to him as Henry.
Months later, in a fit of remorse, she'd tried to mend that bridge, but her efforts had failed, driving a bigger wedge between father and daughter. River had many regrets, but mostly she was bitter.