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Jordan Brand opened the throttle of her jet-black Ducati motorcycle and shot through the intersection just before the light turned red. She leaned forward as she aimed her bike between the two cars in front of her, determined to make up time by creating a third lane for herself. Jordan ignored the loud honking as she zipped in between the two lanes of traffic. She couldn't care less if the other drivers didn't like her shortcuts. This was California. No one had the right to cast stones.
Jordan cut off a canary-yellow Escalade as she made a right turn onto Broadway. She ignored the posted speedlimit sign. After all, sometimes tiny little rules needed to be broken. Jordan accelerated as she made another right onto Sixth and drove in the wrong direction up the oneway street. After dodging an oncoming car, she invented a parking spot in a no-parking zone and jammed on the brakes. She dropped the kickstand and shut off the engine.
"What lunatic actually thought it was a good idea to give you your license back?"
After she removed her helmet from her head, Jordan smiled broadly at the large, heavily tattooed man standing outside the tattoo parlor. "Which one of us has a better shot at makin' it to old age, Chappy? Me with my driving, or you with your cigarettes?"
Chappy grinned right before he took another drag from his unfiltered cigarette. "It's too close to call."
Jordan swung her leg over the seat of her bike, tucked her helmet under her arm and walked over to where he was standing. She reached up, pulled the cigarette out from between his lips, dropped it on the sidewalk and then crushed it beneath the heel of her boot.
"I just added a week to your life." She smiled up at him.
Chappy ran a beefy hand over his shaved, tattooed head. "If you come a little closer and give me a hug, I'll forgive you."
After she gave him a quick hug, Jordan asked, "Is Marty inside?"
"He's been waitin' on you, as usual. Got the client in the chair already. Don't you own a watch?"
Jordan stepped away from him with an easy laugh and pulled a rolled piece of paper from the inside pocket of her motorcycle jacket. "I have the drawing right here. When have I ever let you down?" She stopped just before she pulled open the door to the tattoo parlor. "You know, for social degenerates, the two of you are really uptight about punctuality."
"No." Ian Sterling slipped the top photo from the large stack of pictures in his hand and dropped it onto the floor. "No," he said again, and the second photo followed the first. He sifted quickly through the pile as he paced around his photography studio. "No. No. No. Dammit. No!"
Ian dropped the rest of the photographs onto the floor. He pulled off his reading glasses, marched over to his phone and stabbed at the intercom button with his finger.
Dylan Axel, who was leaning casually against the desk, asked, "Is there a problem?"
Ian ignored him. "Chelsea. Come in here, please."
The door leading to the reception area opened and a tall, rail-thin brunette hurried in. "Yes, Mr. Sterling?"
Ian jerked his head toward the photographs strewn across the polished concrete floor. "Shred those."
Chelsea looked temporarily stunned but snapped out of it quickly. She lowered herself to the ground in her skintight pencil skirt and began to pick up the discarded pictures.
"I'm starting to think that you don't approve of the models I found." Dylan sauntered over to where Chelsea was teetering on her stiletto heels and offered his hand to her. "I'll take care of it, Chelsea. Thank you."
Chelsea's eyes shot to Ian before she allowed Dylan to help her to her feet.
"What I want," Ian said in frustration, "is just one model who doesn't have the same face that I've seen a million times before!"
Ian walked over to his receptionist. "Take Chelsea, for instance."
Dylan bent down and scooped up the head shots of the models he had found. He stood up and looked at his friend with apprehension. Usually he could count on Ian to be diplomatic, but lately, he'd become a loose cannon.
"She's a beautiful woman," Ian said to Dylan before he turned to Chelsea. "You're a beautiful woman."
"Thank you." Chelsea's smile brightened. Receiving a compliment from Ian Sterling was like winning the lottery for an aspiring model.
"But there's nothing new here, there's nothing special here. I'm looking for a face that I've haven't seen before, a face that makes me feel inspired. Is that too much to ask?" Ian looked from one to the other of them questioningly.
His receptionist looked crestfallen and her smile faded. The color drained from her face as she spun on her heel and headed toward the door. She reached for the doorknob and slipped out. Dylan could hear the drawer of her desk being slammed shut. If she came back, he'd have to smooth things over with her.
"I don't know, Ian ." Dylan frowned at his long-time friend. "Is it too much to ask for you to be polite every once in a while?"
Ian glanced up, surprised to discover that Chelsea had left. He stared at the closed door for a second before he rubbed the back of his neck. He had been trying to make a point to Dylan, not insult Chelsea.
With a sigh, Ian said, "I'll talk to her when she gets back. I'll apologize."
"I know you well enough to know that you'll try to make it right, Ian. But here's a novel thought-let's get back to the days when you weren't regularly insulting folks. Let's bring that Ian back. I miss that guy."
Ian's jaw set. "I wouldn't waste my time thinking about that if I were you."
"Maybe you think it's a waste of time." Dylan dropped the head shots in an unceremonious pile on the desk. "But I don't."
When he didn't respond, Dylan continued. "Look. I get that you were handed a raw deal here, okay? Even when
I try to imagine what you're going through- Honestly, I can't. But let me ask you this-what good does it do you to take it out on everyone around you?"
"I said I'd apologize and I will," Ian said tersely. "But don't go holding your breath for the old Ian to come back, okay? He's dead."
Not waiting for his friend's answer, he walked over to the floor-to-ceiling windows that lined the walls of his studio, unlatched the plantation shutters that blocked out most of the natural light, and yanked them open. When the bright sunlight streamed into the room, he quickly covered his eyes with his hand. When he was twenty-eight, he had been diagnosed with a type of macular degeneration called Stargardt disease. Not only was the condition destroying his central vision, it had made his eyes sensitive to bright light.
"Dammit!" Ian grabbed his sunglasses from the inside pocket of his blazer and slipped them on quickly. The sunglasses worked double-duty-they had special lenses that helped him cope with light sensitivity, but also protected his eyes from UV rays that were destroying his central vision in the first place. Rain or shine, the sunglasses had become his constant companion.
Ian stood still for a moment, breathed in deeply until the pain in his eyes subsided. After a moment, he slowly, cautiously opened his eyes and looked down sullenly at the movement on the street below.
"Are you okay?" Dylan asked.
"I'm fine," he said roughly. It was a lie and they both knew it. But sometimes the lie was easier to handle.
Dylan shook his head. He felt powerless. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn't figure out how to help Ian and make things more tolerable.
Ian continued to stare out at the city street below. He hated the pity he heard in his friend's voice. Pity was the last thing he wanted. And that nerve-grinding sound of pity was exactly why he had worked so hard to keep his condition a secret. But keeping the secret was becoming increasingly difficult with each passing day. The truth was he had been living on borrowed time. Many people with Stargardt disease were legally blind by his age. He had been diagnosed later than most and the progression had been slow. The central vision in his left eye was completely blurred, but he still had his right eye. For now. But Ian couldn't ignore that changes were coming, just as he couldn't ignore that life as he knew it was about to drastically change.
The doctor who had unceremoniously broken the news to him that Stargardt was a "no treatment, no cure" oneway trip to legal blindness, had encouraged him to continue to exercise regularly, eat healthy, avoid foods rich in vitamin A and quit drinking alcohol ASAP. He'd referred him to a low-vision specialist and a psychologist to help him prepare for the changes to come. But how could anyone really prepare him to lose everything he loved: his career, his business photography? Hadn't he earned the right to be angry?
"This book is part of my legacy as a photographer," Ian said in a controlled, quiet voice. His back was still turned to Dylan. "When all is said and done, and I can't see my own hand if I hold it up in front of my face, I'll know that this book exists. That my work lives on in it. That. I live on in it. Which means.I need a woman who can breathe life into every single shot. I need a woman who can help me make this book the best representation of Ian Sterling photography." He glanced over his shoulder at Dylan. "So excuse me if I feel a sense of urgency. We start shooting in a month and I haven't found her yet!"
Dylan jammed his hands into the front pockets of his tailored slacks. He understood why Ian was so driven to create a perfect book. He understood his focus, and even his foul mood. Ian felt he was on the brink of losing everything that he loved, and there wasn't anything he could do to stop it. No one could.
"What I need," Ian continued under his breath as he stared down onto the street below, "is a woman who's fearless, edgy, unique someone with a personality. Not some California bleached-blond bimbo, or an Orphan Annie waif who needs a couple good meals. I want a woman who isn't afraid to be different. I want." He paused for a moment as his eyes settled on a black motorcycle parked illegally and facing the wrong direction on Sixth Street. He could tell that the woman swinging her leg over the back of the bike was tall and lean. His heart began to quicken as he leaned forward and turned his head slightly to the left so he could focus in on her with his stronger eye. The minute she pulled off her helmet, he had a visceral response that felt like a punch in the gut.
"What?" Dylan asked.
"Her," Ian repeated loudly. "Down there. I want her."
"Mom. Mom! Will you come up for air, please? What's the problem?"
"I just saw the pictures on your Facebook page, Jordan! What have you done to your beautiful hair?"
"I can see that. What did you do to the color?" Barbara Brand's voice had a shrill quality that made Jordan move the phone away from her ear for a minute.
"I changed it," she said nonchalantly when she brought the phone closer again.
"Jordan Carol, save your witticisms for your friends. Obviously I can see that you've changed the color from the pictures!"
"Mom." Jordan pushed on the door to leave the tattoo parlor; she smiled and winked at Chappy, who was tattooing a navy-themed design on a young man's arm. "If you're going to keep on freaking out every time I post a picture, I'm afraid we won't be able to be Facebook friends anymore."
Barbara ignored her daughter's teasing remark. "Your hair was so naturally beautiful, Jordan. Do you know how many women would pay good money to have hair like that? And look what you've gone and done. You've ruined it!"
"Mom. It's hair dye. It's not permanent."
"Okay, let me rephrase that.it's not forever."
"Your father thinks that it looks like a clown exploded on your head!"
"Uh wow! I can't believe Dad said that! I'm not going to tell Amaya. She can be very sensitive about her work. It wasn't easy for her to get just the right blend of fire engine red, magenta madness and tangerine bliss."
"Amaya? Amaya did that? She isn't a hairstylist!"
"True," Jordan said of her roommate. "But she is a trained ice sculptor, among other things. We figured they were related disciplines." Jordan laughed as she stepped out onto the sidewalk.
After a short pause, Barbara added, "And here your dad went to all that trouble to get you an interview with the head of the art department at Montana State so you can finally finish your master's degree. What in the world are they going to think of you with that hair?"
Jordan stopped in her tracks and looked up at the sky in frustration. "Oh, my God, Mom! We've already discussed this like a thousand times! I am not and I repeat I am not moving to the middle of nowhere Bozeman, Montana. I'd rather die a slow and painful death!"
"What's wrong with Bozeman? It's a college town!" Barbara seemed genuinely surprised. "And you can paint anywhere after all. What's more inspiring than Montana in spring?"
"Mom. I have my first gallery show coming up. Do you know how insane it is that a gallery is actually willing to sponsor an unknown artist?" When her mother didn't respond, Jordan added, "Mom. I love you. But you've gotta accept that I'm not moving back to Montana."
Just as her mom was about to continue making her case, Jordan spotted a San Diego police officer standing beside her motorcycle. He was writing down her tag number.
"Hey! Wait!" she called out to the policeman. "Mom, I've gotta go. RoboCop is writing me a ticket."
She made a kissing sound into the phone. "I love you. Give Dad a hug for me!"
Jordan tapped the end call button and jammed her phone into her pocket. "Officer, wait. I'm gonna move it right now!"
The man had naturally golden skin, coal-black hair and the muscular frame of a guy who spent most of his spare time in the gym. He looked up at her and she saw that his eyes were the rich color of a Kona coffee bean. "Is this your motorcycle?"
"License, registration, proof of insurance." He was all business.
"Officer, please. I was just about to move it. I was late and-"
"License, registration, proof of insurance, ma'am." He was unmoved by her explanation, she could see.
Jordan rested her helmet on the seat of her bike, pulled the license out of her back pocket and handed it to him.
The cop looked at the license and then said, "Registration, proof of insurance, Ms. Brand."
"I don't have it on me." Jordan inwardly cursed her own carelessness. How could she have left the house without her wallet?
"Wait here," the officer said before he walked back over to his own motorcycle.
Jordan followed him. "You don't understand. I just got my license back-"
"Stay with your vehicle, ma'am!" The cop stopped in his tracks and made a gesture that let her know he wasn't in the mood for any further argument or explanation.
Jordan took in a deep, frustrated breath as she walked back to her bike. She sat sidesaddle on the seat and stuffed her hands into the front pockets of her faded jeans.
As she watched the officer call her information in, all she could think of was the negative balance in her checking account. The money she'd just made selling customized tattoo designs to Marty needed to go into the account pronto if she had any hope of breaking even. It was a financial reality that occasionally selling tattoo designs and bartending on weekends at Altitude weren't enough to keep her right side up. But by her calculation, all she really needed to do was keep afloat until the gallery show. Then she'd be in the black. Well, that plan was looking like a real long shot now that RoboCop was about to blow up her flotation device.