Ideal Image, SnapShot, Book Two
In one blinding flash, the very fiber of her existence is shredded.
For criminal lawyer and single mother, Stacie Gustafson, a dependable career, a well-organized life, and an immaculate image, had always been her armor. Without it she’s left exposed and struggling to create a new existence for her and her daughter. No matter how hard she tries, she is unable to avoid her history.
All it takes is one look at the blue-eyed woman, for Nicolas Flynn to be transported back ten years. Sure, her appearance has changed, but then so has his, since he turned his life around. His devotion to his small-town law firm is tested with the arrival of this bittersweet blast from the past, making for a persistent distraction. One that drags along more trouble than she left behind.
“Mak! You’re not going to have time to eat if you don’t hurry the hell up!”
Ever since school started last week, Makenna has been dragging her ass every morning.
She didn’t have any problem getting out of bed during the summer break; she’d be out the door and by the riverside, with that damn fishing rod my brother got her, before I had my first coffee. Thank goodness Ben put the fear of God into her about the Dolores River right across the street. His recounting of the lives the fast-moving water has claimed over the years was enough to scare her into the life vest he insisted she wear.
With her fishing now limited to the weekend, she’s lost her interest in getting up at the crack of dawn. In fact, she’s missed her bus, more often than not, so I’ve had to drive her to school most mornings. Not really a problem, since I work from home, but being out in public still makes me uncomfortable.
I can’t really blame them, because I have a hard time looking in the mirror myself, which is why I’ve taken most of them down. The scars I was left with, as the result of an explosion earlier this year, are pretty prominent along the left side of my body and draw looks. I’m still due for some plastic surgery, but after the initial months of constant prodding and poking at my body; I need a break.
I’ve barely had a chance to settle into the new house and my new reality. Days are so much longer without the constant pressures of working in the very busy Albuquerque District Attorney’s office. I’d barely been in the hospital a week, when the phone calls started coming, wanting to know when I would be back in the saddle. I already knew that wouldn’t be anytime soon, since an ADA is in the public eye quite a bit, and the public wouldn’t want to see me like this.
My life has been turned upside down and I’m still finding my feet.
As is my nine-year-old daughter, Makenna. Although she loves the idea of living near her Uncle Ben, Isla, and their baby, Noah, she wasn’t happy about giving up her school, friends, and home permanently when I decided to settle here. Displeasure she is more determined everyday to drive home.
Christ, that kid drives me up the wall.
I toss a few muffins in a container and grab an apple from the crisper drawer in the fridge. Looks like my recalcitrant daughter will be eating on the fly again. Loud footsteps come pounding down the stairs, and Mak comes stomping into the kitchen, a scowl on her face, but at least she’s carrying her backpack.
“No time, kiddo. Told ya the first time.” I hand her the muffins and turn her around so I can stuff the apple in her pack. “Get your butt out to the car. We’re pushing it already.”
“Why can’t we have pop-tarts or donuts? Normal people do,” she complains all the way out the door.
I roll my eyes heavenward, and count to ten, before snagging my phone and keys off the counter and following her outside. By all counts, I have ten or so more years of this before I can legally show her the door. The thought is enough to get me drinking at seven forty-five in the morning.
Jen spots me coming in right away. Doesn’t matter that there’s a bit of a line up, she waves me through to the back right away.
“Do Stace a macchiato when you have a minute,” she calls out to the barista before following me into her office. “I need to pick your brain,” she says to me after sitting down at her desk.
“Isla’s sent me the edits from your shoot with her—I cried,” Jenn says, dramatically flapping her hands in front of her face. “So gorgeous. Anyway, with the campground booked all the time, still nursing Noah, and the upcoming fundraiser, she’s running ragged. I need your help.”
“Sure,” I offer, shrugging my shoulders. “What do you need?”
“You know she’s planning to auction off some of your shots at the gala, right?”
I nod, I do know, it was the whole purpose for allowing her to photograph me in all my glory. The Children’s Burn Foundation is a cause I’ve thrown myself into the last months. I’d never heard about them until I got to talking to a mom of one of the kids in the burn unit at Durango Mercy Regional Hospital. Her little girl had sustained burns to her face and chest, in an accident with hot oil, and was there for her eighth surgery in two years. Her mother mentioned that if not for the foundation, she would not have been able to afford the additional plastic surgery to reconstruct the little girl’s nose and mouth. When I mentioned the foundation to Isla a month or so later, it was her idea to do something.
Well, that something has turned into a huge silent auction and dinner fundraiser. Through some of Isla and Ben’s connections, we managed to get a Durango art gallery to donate artwork, and the Strater hotel in Durango is donating the space.
Isla worked on me for months, but I finally conceded to let her use me as a subject for a series of art photographs, showing the beauty of imperfection. It was an interesting experience.
Other than a quick peek here and there at the digital screen on Isla’s camera, I haven’t seen any of the shots, let alone the edited ones.
To say my curiosity is piqued is putting it mildly.
“Yes. The whole series from what I understand,” I confirm.
“She picked certain shots for that, yes. She shot over three hundred images though. There are plenty more.” Jen leans forward on her desk and lowers her voice. “I want to do a photo book with a selection of the leftover images,” she whispers, but immediately rears back with her hand up when she sees the concern on my face. “Isla wanted to do one herself, and was crushed when she was in here earlier this week that she wouldn’t have the time to tackle it before the event. So I thought I would do it for her,” she says hopefully. “With your help, of course.”
“I don’t know…” I begin, a feeling of panic threatening at the idea of having my face, my body, in a book. I mean a few exclusive original prints in the hands of a few people are one thing, having a book full of my pictures for anyone to buy is another.
“I get it,” Jen quickly states. “Which is why I need your help. I need to know which images you’d be comfortable with including.”
The blonde girl provides the perfect interruption, allowing me a moment to settle myself down. By the time she’s put the extra large cup, almost overflowing with whipping cream, on the desk in front of me and backs out of the office, I’m a little more in control of my thoughts.
“Where are the pictures?” I ask, lifting my cup to my mouth and slurping off the best part of my coffee, as Jen flips open her laptop and turns the screen around.
I’m surprised when I note the clock as I walk out of Jen’s office. Over two hours have passed, and I’ll have to hustle to get back home in time for my eleven o’clock conference call. I have a standing appointment with the Denver lawyer I’m doing some freelance research for.
In my hurry to get home, I fly out of my spot outside the coffee shop, nearly ramming a grey Audi just pulling into the parking lot. I barely manage to slam on the brakes in time, as the driver lays on the horn. I raise my hand in apology and edge forward, so he can pull in around me.
I start rolling down my window to apologize in person when I recognize the person getting out of the car, and instead slam the gear in reverse and hightail it out of there.
A man so eager to snag me for his firm when he discovered a former ADA might be settling in town, he almost hounded my brother for my number. He never got so far as to contact me.
Instead he very obviously reconsidered whatever offer he was going to make me when we were introduced at Ben and Isla’s wedding. Mr. Flynn got his first good look at my damaged appearance and could barely look at me. Needless to say, I never heard from the man.
That was one of the reasons I decided to try and find some work to do from home, at least until I was ready to talk to the plastic surgeon about possible next steps.
I’m in pretty decent shape financially, especially since the sale of my place in Albuquerque, but it doesn’t hurt to have a little extra coming in. Hence the research from home.
Resolutely pushing a certain tall, bald, well-dressed asshole and his shiny car out of my mind, I park the car on the dirt shoulder outside of my yard and rush inside, snatching the ringing phone off the counter.
Normally I hit the coffee shop on my way into work at around seven a.m.
This morning I’m running late, because one of the horses got tangled up with some barbed wire. Not sure where the damn wire came from, since we don’t use it on the small ranch my dad and I own just out of town, but her front leg was pretty mangled and we had to call in the vet early this morning.
Dad and I bought the place maybe six years ago, after my mother passed away suddenly. Mom had always been the driving force behind the large farm we had not far from Durango. It was too much for Dad to manage on his own, since ironically Mom had been the healthy one of the two of them. Of course, all eyes had been on me to drop everything and take over. The truth is, as much as I enjoy a bit of physical labor, I knew in the long run, farming wouldn’t have been enough to satisfy me.
So, seeing as I wasn’t ready to give up my practice in Cortez, and my dad wasn’t quite ready to give up on farming, we managed to work out a compromise. Dad sold the farm, I sold my place in Cortez, and together we put in on this small ranch in the Dolores River valley. My father brought a few of his horses and we have some chicken for fresh eggs, so with their daily care and the vegetable garden he likes to grow, Dad keeps himself busy.
The ranch house is all one level, with a central living area and kitchen right off the foyer, and a hallway going off on either side. One runs behind the kitchen to a separate bed and sitting room with bathroom, which my Dad claimed as his space. He liked being closer to the kitchen. On the other side, behind the living room, are two smaller bedrooms, a bathroom and a den. I guess Dad’s staying in what was originally the master suite, and I have one of the smaller bedrooms on the other side, but I also have my home office in the den.
The layout makes it so we don’t have to be in each other’s space all the time; we retain our independence, yet at the same time, I know I’m around whenever Dad needs me. Like this morning when he found his favorite mare injured.
The arrangement works for us.
My mind is still chewing over how that tangle of barbed wire could’ve gotten in one of the pastures when I’m almost sideswiped by a late model, navy Subaru SUV. I lay on the horn, which clearly alerted the driver, since the car abruptly comes to a halt, but my heart is beating in my throat. That was close. I could’ve cared less about another ding on my own pickup truck, but Dad wanted it to check along the fence lines today. I’m driving Dad’s prized possession. The one indulgence he allowed himself after selling the farm.
It would’ve been a blow if his pretty baby got scratched up, and I’d never live it down.
I manage to pull around the back of the SUV and step out of the car, turning toward the rolled down window. I barely have a chance to register who’s behind the wheel before they back out and fly off with squealing tires.
“Was that Stacie Gustafson?” I ask Jen when I walk up to the counter.
“Morning to you too, Nick,” she fires back smartly.
“Morning, Jen,” I dutifully respond, trying not to roll my eyes too loudly. “May I have an extra large please? And by chance, was that Stacie?” I try again.
“You may, and it was.” She turns her back without elaborating, and I grit my teeth, knowing I’m being toyed with. “You’re late this morning?”
“One of Dad’s horses got injured. I spent most of the morning trying to get her corralled and waiting for the vet to get there. It’s gonna be a late one tonight. Hence, the extra large,” I explain.
“She going to be okay?” Jen wants to know as she sets my coffee on the counter in front of me.
“She should be, pending any complications. Doc cleaned and stitched the wound, gave her a tetanus shot and wrapped her up. Dad’s keeping an eye on her in the stable.”
“Good.” Jen nods, tilting her head to the side, a twitch at the corner of her mouth. “Stacie was here to do some work on the gala. Have you two met?”
“We met briefly in April. Haven’t really had a chance to talk to her, though.”
“Odd,” she concludes with a twinkle in her eye. “I would’ve thought the two of you have tons in common. You both practice law, you’re both involved with the foundation, funny your paths haven’t crossed more often.”
I don’t bother telling her that as far as I know, Stacie is not even aware of my minimal involvement in the Children’s Burn Foundation. All I did was help set up the original framework for the organization a few years ago, since then my involvement had just been through my support and donations.
I also don’t want to let on that I’ve purposely avoided Ms. Gustafson these past months. Ever since I got my first glimpse of her at Ben and Isla’s wedding. Instead I pull my billfold from my back pocket, toss a five on the counter and grab my coffee.
“Doesn’t matter,” Jen says, breaking through my thoughts. “You’ll get your chance in two weeks, at the fundraiser.”
“I guess I will,” I concede, with a friendly smile as I back out of the door.
The smile is gone the moment I turn toward the car. I haven’t quite figured out how to avoid her at an event I’m supposed to be hosting. That had been Isla’s idea, and I said yes before I knew her sister-in-law was deeply involved in the fundraiser.
At least this time I know what to expect. I had no idea that Ben’s sister, an assistant district attorney, was her. The first name threw me off. Stacie Gustafson was not necessarily an uncommon or exotic name.