Meg Jeffries wasn’t wearing underwear. She wiggled a bit in the backseat of the taxi as if to confirm she was now fifteen minutes from her apartment and all but naked under the rainbow fabric of her favorite skirt. If she asked the driver to turn around now, she would be late, and that was not an option. Not today. As traffic on the Bay Bridge slowed, she thought about stopping somewhere along the way but realized she no longer knew the city where she’d grown up. Fashuation, the trendy boutique her older sisters adored when they were teenagers, was now a dry cleaner. Meg leaned her forehead against the cold glass of the window. Nothing is the same. In more ways than just her underwear. Besides, she sat up, willing her insecurities away, she was not asking the balding driver who reminded her of a gruffer version of her grandfather if he knew of a place to pick up some panties.
If she’d started working out as she’d promised herself last week, there might have been something in the oversized bag she carried everywhere. Maybe some bike shorts or bathing suit bottoms. When she’d researched the gym up the street, she had noticed they offered water aerobics. There was even a coffee shop en route from her apartment. Normal people worked out and drank coffee, and Meg was giving normal a real concerted effort these days.
Searching the gym’s website, she’d landed on the page that described four different membership packages when an e-mail came in from one of her colleagues. It included a link to an article and a rolling eyes emoticon. She’d read the Op-Ed piece it linked to arguing that climate change was “natural” and “simply something for the bleeding hearts to worry about.” It had pissed her off enough to close her browser and fire off a two-paragraph e-mail to the paper responsible for the article. Not that she hadn’t heard the same drivel hundreds of times before, but it still hit her anew every time. So, instead of picking a plan and joining a gym, she’d put Vivaldi’s Concerto in G Minor for 2 Cellos on repeat and made zucchini muffins.
Two rent payments into her new place, and it turned out the only “normal” thing she could manage was baking. It was a bit of an obsession. Since her neighbors were gluten-free vegans, that left a lot of baked goods for late-night snacks. Another contributing factor to her present state of undress, she thought as the taxi took a sharp left and threw her into the door where a wad of dried chewing gum was squished into the miniature ashtray. Perhaps if she’d joined the gym instead of shoving carbs in her face and sending angry e-mails to people who simply didn’t care, she would emerge a civilized adult. A woman with a schedule and flat abs. A professional with the basic reassurance of undergarments before she attempted to speak in front of an audience.
It was that damn green skirt. The one that was too tight now that she was in the middle of a love affair with her oven and had discovered the falafel joint around the corner from her apartment. Both were to blame. She’d had on perfectly respectable panties until the green skirt, combined with the panties, made her ass look like it was in four sections instead of two. So, she took off said panties, hoping for a smoother look, but after several more tugs and grunts decided she looked ridiculous in green corduroy and went with her favorite skirt instead. Not only did it have an elastic waist with a silky tie, it was every color of the sunset. That was why she’d bought it four assignments ago. The skirt billowed out and made her feel pretty. Last time she’d worn it was on the plane home from her last shoot in Canada after spending three weeks photographing the gray wolf.
God, what she wouldn’t give to be back with the wolves, or anything on four legs for that matter, instead of pulling up in front of the Moscone Center naked as a jaybird, to use an Uncle Mitch expression. She certainly wasn’t naked, but when the valet opened the door of the taxi, a breeze danced along Meg’s skirt, and she sure felt a little exposed.
“No one knows,” she said more to herself, but the valet with the gauges in his ears looked up.
“Sorry?” he asked as he patiently continued holding the door.
Meg grabbed her bag and her GoMacro protein bar. She’d decided to skip lunch after pinching her way into clothes that used to fit, but in the end decided she might need a little snack later. She wasn’t sure what kind of food would be served at this event, so she brought her own.
“Nothing. I’m a little… nervous.” Meg turned toward the valet as the cabbie rounded the front of the taxi for his money.
“Does this look okay?” She glanced down at herself and was certain no one could see the important piece of clothing she’d left behind.
“Yeah, I like the skirt.”
“Thanks. I bought it in Morocco.”
“They have spectacular bazaars there. Have you been?” Meg stepped aside, letting him close the taxi door while she fished through her bag for her wallet.
“To Morocco? Um… no. I’m still saving to get down to San Diego for my sister’s wedding.”
Meg caught herself again in that eternal state of jet lag. She’d been home three, almost four months now, but somehow she still felt disjointed, as if she was floating in an existence in which no one else could relate. There were times she’d run into other photographers on assignment, and it was standard to ask where they’d come from or which remote corner of the planet they were off to next. Working for National Geographic had been the escape hatch from a boring life that Meg had shunned for as long as she could remember. Now that she had changed directions, she was beginning to wonder if that hatch swung both ways.
“Right. My sister is getting married too. That’s common ground.”
The guy nodded and watched as another car approached.
“Well, do you have a frequent flyer account? Sometimes you can catch huge deals.” The cab driver was glaring at her now. Meg opened her wallet.
“I’ll keep that in mind,” he said. “Are you here for the climate thing?”
“Yes, I’m presenting… something.” Meg handed cash to the taxi driver and looked down at her jumbled papers.
The valet reached over as the cabbie handed him something before speeding away. The next car in line pulled forward.
“You might want to put the other one on if you’re going to be in front of people.” He handed her an earring.
Meg instinctively touched one ear, found the dangling stone, and moved to the other one, which of course was bare. An earring was a simple thing, but she felt out of control. She had been up to her waist in rivers, tracked mountain lions, and dove into icy waters all for the perfect shot, but this looking presentable business was intense.
“Thank you.” She slid on the earring.
“No problem.” He rounded the next car to open the door for the driver. “Knock ’em dead. Try to… what’s that they say? Oh, yeah. Picture them all naked.” He handed a ticket to a slender balding man, climbed into the car, and was gone.
Was that a joke?
Could he see through her skirt? Meg shook herself free of her absurdity and stepped past the automatic doors into the beige and sparkly lobby of the convention center. Eighty percent solar, she remembered reading on their website. It was a beautiful building, made even more so because it was gentler to the earth than most massive venues. Meg liked gentle.
Taking a deep breath, she straightened and followed the signs pointing to the Symposium for Climate Wellness Initiative. Kind of a ludicrous name, Meg thought, but they’d invited her to talk about the shrinking habitats of polar bears. Their name didn’t matter and neither did her panties, she reminded herself.
Underwear or no underwear, this cause was her “wheelhouse,” as Amy, her new agent, had said, tossing her shiny hair and crossing her perfect legs while sitting behind her perfect desk.
Lord, I have an agent now.
Meg rounded the corner near a bronze statue of three dancing figures.
Are you nervous? Her sister Anna texted before Meg had a chance to take the picture. It somehow felt like she knew Meg was in a mini-state of panic. Meg began typing a response. Not yet, but I don’t have any under…
What the hell was she doing? It’s not like Anna could help her or bring an extra change of clothes the way their mom used to when one of them had an accident in preschool. This was the real world, and Meg was a grown-up for Christ’s sake. Besides, as much as Meg loved her sister, Anna would not understand forgetting underwear. She was poised and orderly, and Meg was, well, not. That didn’t mean she had to share every detail of her disarray.
Nope. I’m great, Meg texted back with a smiley face and tossed her phone into her bag. It would be so like her to get distracted right outside where she needed to be and miss the whole thing. Did lying through text message count? Meg had a feeling it did, which went against her “no lying” policy, but technically she was great. Great might be an overstatement, but she was at least good.
She kept reminding herself to focus. This was serious business. She needed to find a way to make a living, or she’d be stuck taking pictures of fruit for lifestyle magazines or cranky families at one of Murphy’s Portrait Studio’s ten locations.
Abstract images lined the hallway as Meg followed the sign pointing toward the main auditorium. She didn’t recognize the photographer’s name, but the images were manually processed. It had been awhile since Meg had been in a darkroom. She could experiment with some city images and work in paper now that she was back. Maybe she could teach.
Now you’re losing it, some rational part of her brain muttered. It was right. She knew how to take photographs, which didn’t mean she had any clue how to show someone else. Besides, she’d pissed off enough people in her photo workgroups at Berkeley. A classroom of Photography 101 kids didn’t need some bitch crushing their dreams right out of the gate. Anna had a way of reaching students, seeing things through their prism. Meg only saw things through one lens—her own. That sounded harsh even to her own ears, but the truth was she’d spent most of her adult life arguing with only herself.
Everything had shifted now, admittedly her own doing. A few short months ago, she was washing her shirt each night in a river, and now she was about to stand in front of thousands of “activists” and share the scary truth about the bears she loved more than most people.
No wonder she forgot her underwear. There needed to be a reentry period for this kind of stuff. She’d planned on taking it easy, dipping into her savings if necessary, but then last month’s National Geographic cover came out and Amy said she was “hot, hot, hot.”
“If you ever want to make a living as a ‘normal person,’ you’d better seize the day,” Amy had added.
Meg sure as hell never wanted to be normal growing up, but she did feel a pull toward something more. Random family breakfasts, a can opener that wasn’t part of a multipurpose tool, full-size toothpaste. Meg returned home to put down roots, but as she pulled the doors open to whispers of backstage conversation, she wasn’t so sure she was cut out to be among the humans.
Westin Drake rolled over in bed to escape the harsh light of morning. Through a haze of bite-sized memories from the night before, he first realized he was desperately thirsty. Reaching toward the nightstand for a bottle of water, he noticed the glossy photograph and demo his date had slipped him after she introduced herself at the Save Something fundraiser. She had pretended not to know who he was and did a damn good job of it, he had to admit. She’d taken the seat next to him, talked a lot about herself and how she’d come to be involved with the nonprofit, even sprinkled in a little bit about her family back home in Georgia. West bought it hook and line.
He’d spent the evening dancing with her and eventually had Vince drive her home. Outside her house, she’d said, “I don’t usually do this, but you’re incredible. What did you say you did again?” West had invited her back to his hotel and kissed her. She was gorgeous and at least played smart. Well, until she reached into her bag and handed over her promotional materials. He had no idea why he bought the bullshit. Maybe he foolishly thought things would be different now that he’d moved from LA to San Francisco, or he wasn’t too bright, as his oldest brother would say shortly before smacking him on the back of the head when they were growing up.
Whatever the reason, West had found himself in the same situation he swore to avoid, but this time he made a few more cocktails and decided if she was going to use him, he was going to use her right back, right there on his hotel suite couch.
Yeah, that routine usually sounded better in his head, but the truth was he only played a badass womanizer on the big screen. In what little reality he had left, West wasn’t wired to be an asshole. Which was why even though he’d taken April, the aspiring singer, to bed and even though she’d screamed out his character’s name instead of his—twice—he’d still held her and agreed she could stay the night.
West closed his eyes, guzzled some water, and not for the first time in his life kicked himself in the mental balls. Why couldn’t he be one of those guys who had rules? Boundaries when it came to his bed—who was allowed in it and for how long?
The answer, while he hated to admit it given his current situation, was simple. He’d had female friends growing up, and brothers who would kick his ass if he started acting like an idiot. Then there was his mother, who called him every Monday on her way home from her Jazzercise class even after he moved to LA. The truth was, he liked women, often with their clothes on.
The one asleep in the king-size bed of his hotel suite at the Fairmont San Francisco with “Free Samples” emblazoned across her ass in sequins had shared something with him last night. Sure, it was purely physical for both of them and opportunistic on her part, but she showed her true colors after he kissed her. He still unzipped her dress, so he was a willing participant. The universal rule was that nothing good ever starts with a lie, but West was weak and male, and he took her to bed anyway.
So, as mind numbing as he was sure the conversation over a room service breakfast would be, he would smile and offer her more coffee. They would eat and then he’d hand her off to the sainted concierge West called “Towner.” She would ensure April was delivered safely and discreetly home. West knew no other way to treat people.
He had tried for aloof badass ever since women began throwing themselves at him solely based on his movies or an absurdly airbrushed picture of him in a car he’d never drive. West had wanted to be that guy at different points in his life. It looked much easier, especially during the years he spent climbing out from under the shadow cast by his brothers, but he had long accepted that a clear conscience was worth more than anything.
With all that swirling around in his still-dehydrated brain, he resolved to order breakfast once again, sign anything that wasn’t skin, and feign interest in her music career or her desire to start a celebrity event-planning business as a backup.
West quietly pulled back the covers and made his way to the shower.
Moments later, towel at his waist, he grabbed his phone vibrating in the jeans he’d thrown over one of the gold upholstered armchairs the night before. He should have left the phone right where it was, but instead, he swiped the screen.
“Where the hell are you?”
“Good morning, Hannah. Are we talking physically or mentally? I’ve been thinking about Malta. Have you ever been?”
His manager said nothing, but her breathing had become a language all its own. West was fluent.
He gave in. “I’m home, I mean at the hotel. Why? Where am I supposed to be?”
More breathing. “Symposium for Climate Wellness Initiative. Annual event. Ring any bells?”
West remembered because of the stupid name. He looked at the clock on his phone. Right as he realized it was already 11:30, April rolled over, stretched, and gave him the woman-waking-in-a-big-bed grin.
“Shit.” He turned to face the bedroom door, willing April to get her bedazzled ass out of bed. There would be no luxuriant farewell today.
Hannah Leighton continued breathing through the phone. “Yeah, shit is an understatement. You’re introducing Megara Jeffries. It’s a big deal, West. National Geographic. You said doing new vodka-flavor unveilings and night club openings were not considered community service, remember? ‘I have a conscience. I need more,’” she mocked in a baby voice.
West closed his eyes. He had said that.
“Do you remember that?”
“Not quite in that voice, but yes.”
“And since I’m your kick-ass agent, I reached out and showed these hiking-for-fun bleeding hearts that you would be a perfect spotlight for them.” Her voice was much louder now. “She’s been on the cover of National Geographic twice for crying out loud.”
“Right.” West tossed the red bra hanging from the doorknob and the piece of material pooled on the ground near it toward the bed. April’s outfit had passed for a dress last night, but in the harsh light of almost afternoon and his agent’s amplified breathing, it looked more like a Halloween costume. He kept that last observation to himself, glancing at April, who apparently had not met Hannah, or she wouldn’t be crooking her finger in a gesture that invited West back to bed. He shook his head and pointed to his phone in an animated panic. April’s eyes grew wide as she blew her blonde locks out of her face, scooted out of bed, and eagerly nodded as if she were privy to an important crisis. She held her finger to her mouth and tiptoed into the bathroom.
Before the guilt in his stomach bloomed, Hannah was back in his ear.
“I will… How much time do I have?”
“Moscone Convention Center.”
“I’ll be there.”
“Tamara sent you clothes. Did you get them?”
West considered the living room and noticed the wardrobe bag hanging on the front closet door.
“Yes. I’ll be there and in whatever is in that bag. Need to go.”
West hung up before more breathing erupted into more yelling.
“Baby, are we late for a photo shoot or something?” the husky voice spilled from behind the bathroom door.
We? West ran a hand over his face, hoping to erase every choice he’d made since yesterday morning’s Kinesis workout, but the sandpaper feel only reminded him that the clock was ticking. He called down to Towner.
Alice Towner was a saint. West already knew that, but he would now need to add wizard since less than fifteen minutes later, he climbed into a waiting car after kissing April on the cheek outside the service elevator and assuring her he would share her songs with some of “his people.” Christ, he was a good actor.
Once again, he awkwardly offered Towner some folded bills.
“Thank you, but I brought my lunch today,” she said in a voice that usually had West sitting up straighter.
“You should try that little deli next to the dry cleaner. It doesn’t look like much, but they have scrumptious chopped liver,” Towner said before closing West into the quiet of the black sedan. She offered some version of the lunch comment every time he tried to give her money in a voice that reminded him of his Aunt Margaret. Not the tone, but the wisdom behind it.
Twice a year, once the day before Easter and then again during the Christmas season, his mother’s sister came up to Petaluma from “the big city.” She giggled a little every time she used that label for San Francisco, as if she was the first person to think of it. The van from Bayview Care Community pulled in at three o’clock sharp. She insisted on it so she and West would have plenty of time to be “seated and prepared” at the backyard picnic table for tea at exactly four. When West was little, he cringed at being forced to wear the bow tie she had given him at Christmas and having to pull out the wooden bench for her as if they’d arrived at the Ritz. By the time he was a teenager, it was an eye-rolling intrusion into his all-important social life.
Aunt Margaret, no nicknames for her, died when West was a senior in high school, and the strangest thing happened. He missed her, missed tea and time with her he would never get back. She’d helped him grow up, knocking every chip off his adolescent shoulder with a simple story or a pouty face. She’d been his friend when the comparisons to his brothers became too much. She’d kept his secrets and trusted him with hers. West didn’t know how significant Aunt Margaret was until she was gone. Life seemed to work that way.
He’d thought about having tea a few times after she died to keep the tradition alive, but something far less important usually got in the way. He had never met anyone like her until a few days after he checked into the Fairmont.
He’d been surrounded by photographers while trying to make his way into the lobby. Towner burst through the crowd of cameras, her winter-white bob perfectly quaffed, exclaiming, “Mr. Drake needs to get inside. Please stand back. His dear sister is in labor.” The piranhas had parted on an “aww” and allowed West to pass. He didn’t have a sister.
As Towner escorted him to the service elevator and explained that he could use the side alley for his “comings and goings,” West had thanked her and discreetly handed over a folded hundred-dollar bill. Her help was well worth the money, but she had instead pushed up the brim of her glasses, shaken her head, and showed West a picture of her newest granddaughter. That was it, a picture, some random conversation about when peaches were in season again, and a handshake. It was the beginning of their relationship. Towner informed him less than a week later that she did not want to be called Ms., Miss, or Mrs. She was sixty-eight and none of those titles fit anymore, so she said. West, who was raised to respect his elders, couldn’t bring himself to use her first name, so they settled on Towner. “Like Madonna,” he had told her. He occasionally still tried to tip her, especially when he called on Towner to deal with his less-than-proud moments, but she never took the money.
He smirked at the thought of the hotel concierge being his only true friend and decided his Aunt Margaret would certainly approve.
The driver notified West they would arrive at the convention center with five minutes to spare, which was good news. He didn’t want to listen to Hannah if some National Geographic rising star had to walk on stage alone. Like that would be a huge loss. The woman took pictures in freezing water, or with bears. She was obviously more than capable of walking on a stage. He had asked Hannah for more substance, but he’d secretly hoped she would stop sending him to publicity things altogether when he moved from LA. He should have known better; Hannah had selective hearing.
“These groups are happy to have you. And why wouldn’t they? You’re pure star power, hon,” she had said last month when she set the event up and was far less pissed at him than she was on the phone.
Closing his eyes and resting his head back on the leather seat, West wondered how many more of his fifteen minutes of fame were left.