Chapter Six

Astrid

Brianne does her best to be quiet as a church mouse during dinner. I tell her about the series of photographs I plan to take. I’ve climbed these mountains many times before, but getting the right equipment to the right point at the right time is the real trick of the thing.

“I have a cabin up there. We’ll stay there most of the time, but we may need to do one or two overnights if we can’t climb fast enough in the morning.”

That doesn’t faze her. “I’m pretty comfortable with overnights, even as the temperature drops. Do you have winter sleeping bags, or will we need to hit an outfitter on the way?”

“I have the gear.”

After we eat, I show her all my camping supplies. She carefully inspects every inch of the down bedding, then rolls it tight before sliding it back into the carry bag. Here her curiosity is replaced by a confident knowledge, and I find myself softening toward her as she moves swiftly through the bins. I let myself really look at her, past the adorable haircut and the eager smile, although I like those a lot, too. I see muscles well-defined under pale skin that flushes easily. She purses her lips when she’s thinking, tightening the delicate muscles around her mouth in a repetitive pulse.

And when she glances sideways at me, I feel a warm swell of heat.

Stop it, body. That’s annoying. You’re not supposed to like her.

I decide that’s enough time spent together for one day. “I wake up early,” I tell her.

She nods, and her pixie cut sways with far too much enthusiasm for hair. “Sounds good.”

Does it? It sounds disciplined, maybe. Practical, for sure, especially if you want to get the early light regularly. But good?

Good is waking up whenever my body wants, not when “All About the Bass” starts playing on my phone.

Which reminds me, I’m going to need to change my ringtone before I share a small cabin with Brianne the Kid.

She’s hardly a kid. True. But my brain wanted to give her a nickname and Hiker Fantasy Girl is untenable. That would lead to absolutely bad, bad, bad things. The worst kind of bad.

Deliciously bad.

“Right. See you in the morning.” I turn on my heel and head back inside. She races along behind me, coming alongside as we reach the living room.

“Night,” she murmurs like she just can’t help but be polite, and before I can respond, she veers off to the guest room.

I sigh and head in the opposite direction.

My bedroom is deep inside a suite. My retreat from the world. But tonight it feels confining, like I’m hiding from my guest.

Which you are. She’s not my guest, though. She’s an assistant, forced on me by my cousin.

I run a bath, then sink into the water, thinking about the days ahead. I have an ambitious photo schedule planned. The most important shot is one I’ve taken three times before. This will be the fourth and final image in a set. The four seasons, all captured from the same point.

But I’d like it to also anchor a new series I could display in a show of its own. Climb a Mountain, I think I’ll call it. If we could find a gallery that was vertical, with a winding staircase, that would be even better. Hang all the pictures around the staircase as guests climb up to the top, where “The Seasons” would be on display.

You need to take the pictures first. It’s almost an impossible task, requiring four or five days of perfect weather, in the same season. An assistant nimble enough to keep up with me, and smart enough to stay out of my way while I’m working.

Brianne seems both nimble and smart.

And yet… Marcus has sent her to me to hide out.

What kind of political activism did his wild child stray get caught up in?

***

I ask her the next morning in my office. I’m not prepared for her answer. Probably my own fault for asking after two hours of grilling her on how she reads maps, GPS coordinates, having her pack and unpack my camera gear.

She’s doing her best, but I’ve snapped a few times. And now I’m doing it again. “I’m sorry, what?”

Brianne gives me a wary look from across the maps spread out between us on my desk. “What…what?”

“You’re here because you said the wrong thing on Twitter?

“It wasn’t just one tweet. I created a whole account and heckled the government for months on end.” She squares her shoulder, her eyes bright and defiant.

Oh, heaven help me from the ideological youth. I press my lips together to keep from responding further.

Political activism my ass.

“I couldn’t keep quiet,” she protested. Is that what she thinks I’d rather? “I was shocked at how many people out there just didn’t get it. I needed to say something.”

“Sure.” I turn back to my computer, and the weather report for the next two weeks.

Out of the corner of my eye, I see her cheeks turn pink, but she doesn’t say anything else.

It’s my fault for asking. I’d been hoping for a protest. Maybe dreamed of her in Docs and a plaid shirt, stomping through a Take Back the Night rally.

“I did say things out loud, in front of people, too,” she says abruptly. Then she clamps her mouth shut again.

“Forget I asked.”

Now her cheeks are bright red, and I’ve offended her, but I don’t have time to school her on the real injustices in the world. She lifts her chin and rolls her lips together, then nods. “What does the forecast say?”

“There are four or five nice days. If we climb each day, I think I can do this. We can do this,” I add, forcing myself to soften my tone. “It’s going to be hard work. Long days, sore muscles.”

“I’m fine with that.”

“Good.” I glance back at the screen. “Today is a cold dip, then the temperature rises again. We should head up there tonight, and tomorrow might be our first climb.”

She nods, then looks at the door.

Have I barked at her enough that she’s worried about asking if she can go? I flick my wrist and give her what I hope is an understanding smile, but it probably comes off as a grimace.

I carefully gather up my notes and the maps, and file them in their waterproof folders, then slide them into their designated pocket on my custom camera backpack.

I carry it to the foyer, then get my personal pack from my bedroom. I meet Brianne again in the hallway, and gesture for her to put her backpack at the door next to mine. “We should eat before we hit the road,” I say, pulling leftovers out of the fridge.

She slides onto the bar stool on the other side of the granite island, then stops herself and hops off. “Can I get cutlery?”

I point to the drawer, and she silently grabs forks. Her cheeks are pink again.

I should say something to make this less awkward.

I don’t, because what would I say? One day you’ll realize the world is full of assholes, human beings are basically dysfunctional and awful, and then we grow old and die?

It’s better if I don’t talk.

As we eat, I notice Brianne’s eyes dart around my big, empty house. It’s the not first time she’s wondered why I have all this space when I clearly don’t like people. Does she know her face is that expressive? But she presses her lips together, again, because I told her I prefer silence to the sound of her voice.

I lied.


Keep reading in chapter 7

copyright Ainsley Booth, 2017

Ainsley Booth is an alter-ego of Gigi Ford. All rights reserved.