“What are you doing? Come on. We’ve got to go.”
Jenna wasn’t leaving. Love was about sacrifices. And she was willing to make some. She might get kicked out of the Flower Scouts, but it would be worth it.
“I’m staying. From this angle I’ll catch the sun rising over the ridge.” Jenna peeked at her watch. “Sunrise is about to happen in three minutes.” She turned her head slightly and tilted the camera to the right, getting a few shots of white mist poking through a thicket of pine trees. Golden-orange leaves crunched beneath her sneakers as she shifted her camera in the direction of light streams that illuminated gaps between trees and a brook nestled in the center of the clearing.
“You’re nuts, Jenna Havilland. Plain old nuts,” Tiffany declared, hovering behind her. Jenna refused to turn around and make eye contact. Maybe ignoring her fellow Flower Scout would keep her silent for at least a few seconds.
“No, I’m not. I’m devoted,” Jenna mumbled back, keeping her eyes and camera fixed on the view in front of her.
“Whatever. If we don’t leave now, they’ll know we snuck out. We have to get back to the hotel.”
Jenna wanted to strangle her brother for getting romantically involved with a Flower Scout in her troop. Since they started dating six months ago, the melodramatic eighth grader, Tiffany Wilson, appointed herself as Jenna’s personal chaperone.
“Tiffany, I never told you to come with me, you know.” Jenna rolled her eyes, not moving an inch, knowing it would alter the perfect position she had. “No one twisted your arm. You’re the one who followed me, remember?” Jenna reminded her, taking an impromptu shot of a blue jay perched on a branch, its wings fluttering.
“I’m obligated. You’re my boyfriend’s sister. I feel responsible for your safety.”
Jenna shook her head. Oh brother. “It really isn’t necessary, Tiffany.”
“Yeah, it is. You clearly have a tendency to wander off.”
Jenna didn’t bother to respond. Sunlight strained through a wispy, low hanging cloud, slipping above it until the sun cleared the crest of the ridge. Sunrise. Jenna zoomed in, adjusted the lens aperture, and clicked the button on her SLR camera seven times. She got it. The perfect shot.
Finally turning around, Jenna faced Tiffany. “Mount Clare has the best sunrises in the entire northeast. It’s like a postcard. I couldn’t miss the chance to get it on film. Hopefully, I’ll be able to use the pictures for my Advanced Placement Art Portfolio.”
Tiffany sighed deeply, twisting her lip gloss covered lips in disapproval. “You are obsessed, Jenna.” Her auburn bangs pulled down over her eyebrows like a shade as her eyes narrowed, studying Jenna.
“Perhaps. I love it. It’s my passion, I guess.”
“Thought your boyfriend was.” She winked at her.
Jenna smiled. She twisted a lock of curly brown hair around her index finger, imagining Matt Gibson in his soccer jersey and shorts, looking awesome. In her humble opinion, he was the cutest boy in the seventh grade. “Okay. It’s a tie between the two.”
“Are you sure? What if you had to pick one?”
“Today maybe Mount Clare would win. That sunrise was amazing, and I got some great sketches too.” She put her camera and sketch pad in her backpack, zipping it up before she hauled it over her right shoulder. “I can’t wait to get into the darkroom on Monday and develop the film.”
“Well, I would have picked my boyfriend. Who cares about a stupid sunrise on a cold autumn morning? I know I don’t. I would rather be in bed, sleeping.”
As they sprinted down the steep path, Jenna glanced back at the ridge mountain peaks, hoping she’d never have to choose between her art and something else. It would be an impossible choice to make.
Nineteen Years Later…
“Put that on the right shelf, Jenna.” Pedro Damian Rodriguez’s voice boomed over the blaring sound of construction. The drills seemed to angrily demand attention, almost overshadowing Pedro’s unmistakable authority.
“What if it doesn’t fit? Maybe we can put it on the other side,” Jenna Havilland screeched, pushing her voice to be heard over the drilling and incessant pounding of hammers.
“What?” Pedro lifted a pudgy finger to his ear, his gold and diamond ring catching the early morning light. “Jenna, I cannot hear what you said.” He pushed his large, horn rimmed glasses up the bridge of his nose.
“It’s not working,” Jenna yelled again.
“What do you mean it isn’t? It must.” Pedro grabbed the square vase from Jenna’s hand. “Why is this happening to me?” Pedro sighed as he attempted to force his Amber Dreams limited edition vase onto the tiny corner shelf with no success.
“Just put it somewhere else.” Jenna’s voice was pitched high this time from annoyance at him. “It’s obviously not going to fit.”
Angrily, Pedro shoved the vase back into Jenna’s hands. “Stop telling me nothing is working, Jenna!” He moved toward the shelf in a flourish of motion then shoved his back against the row of shelves, his shoulders slumping in a gesture of defeat. “I can’t do this!” He lifted his fists into the air and then threaded his fingers through his thick mass of gray hair. “The opening is in a week. Everything must work. Nothing can be wrong.”
“I’m not saying anything is wrong or won’t be done on time,” Jenna explained. “I’m just telling you that this vase,” she held up the innocent target of Pedro’s latest meltdown in the palm of her hand, “won’t fit in that spot. Relax Pedro. Just breathe.”
Being Pedro’s personal assistant was a career choice Jenna was seriously beginning to regret. The man was insane, but during pre-gallery opening season the man morphed into a complete lunatic.
“I’m trying.” He paced the hardwood floors. “You’re right. It won’t fit. Move it to the left.”
Jenna neatly tucked the vase on the left shelf and breathed a deep sigh of gratitude that the vase crisis was now resolved.
Pedro and Jenna had been together for five years. They understood each other. Lately though he was getting on her nerves. Maybe it’s all of the pounding, that’s all it is. I’m not usually here for this part of the gallery opening process. Think about the warm bath and glass of chardonnay that’s waiting for you at home. Visualize, just visualize.
“I’m so nervous this time, don’t know why,” Pedro admitted. “It feels different somehow. Everything is going wrong. Everything bad.”
She knew how to talk Pedro down from the ledge, but this time he seemed more in need of comforting instead of tactful, assertive words of reason.
“It will be fine. You are Pedro Damian Rodriguez, the artist and Gallery Transitions Inc. creator. Guru of everything artistic and innovative. You're the one who came from Mexico in 1970, at the age of nineteen with only the clothes on your back, and built an art empire. You know that. Everyone does.”
“Oh Jenna, thank you. Gracias.” Pedro outstretched his arms, hugging her. He smelled like cinnamon and cigars. “You make my life beautiful, you know?”
“Enough of this mushy stuff, boss. I’m speaking the truth. You are brilliant.” Jenna released herself from his embrace. “Look, I’ve got to meet Danielle at the airport. I don’t want to be late.”
“What would I do without you, Jenna?” He shook his head as he commented in his thick accent. “I’d lose my mind.”
“You don’t have to worry. I’m not going anywhere.” Well maybe not today. Maybe after this gallery opening I might, if I accept Alexander Quinlan’s offer. Working for Quinlan’s Fine Art Management Firm and Auction House might be an awesome opportunity. No more mood swings or erratic behavior could be in my immediate future.
“Good, I can always depend on you.” Pedro closed his eyes; the look of relief on his face made it appear as if all the weight of the world had been removed from his shoulders. “Everyone leave. You stay Jenna. You always stay.” He hugged her again.
“Pedro, I’ve got to go. The flight may have landed already. I’ll be back in an hour or so.”
* * * *
Jenna parked her sedan near the entrance of the private airport arrival area. She rushed over to the loading dock where Pedro’s artwork would arrive. Once it was inspected, it would be delivered to the fine art storage facility next to the airport. She had to carefully inspect each sculpture and sign claim forms before they were shipped off to the storage facility and then the auction house.
For some reason, the airport was eerily quiet. Looking around, Jenna silently questioned where the security team was. They usually patrolled the grounds on foot and in SUVs. Harry wasn’t even at the security gate today. Instead, there was an unfamiliar guard who seemed disinterested in his job. Rubbing her bare arms, an unexpected chill left a trail of goose bumps on her skin even though the breeze was a humid one. Digging through her purse, she balanced a coffee cup in one hand and quickly searched for her tube of lipstick and compact with the other. She knew she must look like a disaster so she figured taking advantage of these few moments of down time were warranted. Jenna frowned after looking in the mirror. Dark circles shadowed her fair skin and they seemed to emphasize her slightly blood-shot, green eyes. Her curly, dark-brown hair rose in every direction, refusing to stay in place. It was clear she barely survived the all-nighters this week working with Pedro on the opening.
“Oh well, these can cover the damage temporarily.” Jenna muttered to herself, plucking her sunglasses out of her bag.
Pedro was right. Everything appeared to be going wrong this time around, but she would never verbalize that thought to him. She had to be the calm one, the problem solver.
Things fell apart so quickly right after the contractors jumped ship. Instantly they were behind schedule. It really might be the Pedro effect. He drove yet another loyal contractor, and possibly another personal assistant, over the edge.
“Are you Jenna Havilland?” Startled, Jenna turned around to see who spoke, almost dropping the coffee cup in her hand.
“Uh, yes,” she answered, still trying to regain her composure.
“I’m Alex. I’m here to help with the inspection of Mr. Rodriguez’s auction items.”
“You’re from Quinlan’s Art Management Firm?”
“Yes.” He smiled, extending his hand. His handshake was firm, and confident.
“Nice to meet you, Alex.” He looked so calm and put together, accentuating Jenna’s feelings about being a wrinkled mess. “I usually meet with Danielle.”
“I know. She’s been promoted to Coordinating Director and International Liaison.” His sandy-brown hair blew slightly in the breeze, and his blue eyes seemed to see right through her. There was something inviting and warm about his eyes, making her feel immediately at ease. “So, I’m filling in for her as we make changes in workload.”
“Okay, great. Has the artwork arrived yet?”
“I believe it has.”
“Well, let’s head over then.”
They walked in silence to the private facility. Jenna noticed the usual security guard wasn’t manning this area either. This guy didn’t even ask for her ID card. She held it in her hand and then shoved it back into her purse after the guard quickly glanced at them and a second later returned his attention to his cell phone.
Alex held the door open for her. “Thanks.” Jenna stepped through the doorway with Alex following behind. The cool air-conditioned office was a welcomed relief from the scorching summer heat.
A man with a clipboard sat behind the receiving desk.
“We’re here representing Pedro Rodriguez and Quinlan’s.” Jenna handed him the merchandise forms.
He scanned the documents, nodding. “Just a moment, I’ll check to see if your merchandise inspection room is ready.” The clerk stood up, taking his clipboard with him. “I’ll be right back.” He left the reception area, closing the glass door behind him.
“I’ve heard a lot about you,” Alex commented, standing beside her.
“Really? What did Danielle tell you?” She couldn’t help the smile that drifted across her face.
“Not only Danielle. Mr. Quinlan.”
“Good things I hope.” Please say good things. I really want that job.
Alex laughed, his blue eyes lighting up his entire face. His smile almost undid her.
“He said anyone who can handle the great Pedro Rodriguez must be part saint, part solider, and part psychiatrist.”
“Okay. I think I like that description coming from the world renowned Alexander Quinlan. Pedro is amazing and brilliant, even though he can be difficult at times—well maybe most of the time,” Jenna teased. “We certainly have our ups and downs, but we make it work.”
“I think Mr. Quinlan was definitely right about you.” Alex treated her with another killer smile. Everything about him was inherently charming and sexy. He had an enticing, masculine swagger that drew her in, demanding her attention. It could have been misinterpreted as cockiness or arrogance because of his good looks, but his easy, kind smile instantly erased the thought from her mind.
“How long have you been working for Quinlan’s?” Jenna asked. “I don’t remember seeing you at any of the openings or auctions.” She would have certainly remembered seeing someone as good looking as him cross her path.
“I was around, behind the scenes.” He leaned his tall frame against the wall, his head almost reaching the framed portrait of the airport’s founder. “I work in the finance area mainly.”
“From finance to managing auction coordination, a curious career change.” Jenna studied his broad shoulders as he removed his jacket. Well-sculpted muscles hidden beneath his pale blue oxford shirt stretched and bulged under the fabric, teasing Jenna with a glimpse of his toned body. He definitely worked out. There was no doubt about that.
“I’m interested in learning all aspects of the business, leave no stone unturned. Mr. Quinlan is my mentor.”
“Got it.” Jenna nodded. “That’s great. So doing Danielle’s job is only a temporary thing?”
“Exactly, until we can find someone to permanently replace her.”
“It would—” The sound of a car backfiring five times stopped Jenna mid-sentence.
Alex’s eyes squinted in confusion. “What was that?”
Before Jenna had a chance to respond, a slow rumble, like the start of an engine, came from the back room where the airplane hangar and inspection rooms were. Alex sprinted over to the glass door behind the desk, and Jenna followed him. The smell of smoke and fuel greeted them as they made their way through the corridor.
“Alex, look,” Jenna blurted out, her voice trembling and unrecognizable to her own ears. “I-I think he’s dead.” Her shaking fingers pointed to the clerk, blood seeping through the jagged hole in the center of his crisp, white shirt.
“Come on.” Alex grabbed her hand. “Let’s get out of here and call the police.”
The private airport was always deserted which had never bothered Jenna until now. When they reached the tarmac, Alex still held her hand. That was the moment Jenna saw them. As if in slow motion, two men lifted their guns and began firing, pointing them directly at her and Alex. She looked right at them, momentarily paralyzed. Their images were drilled into her memory—the shorter one with a beard and dark, almost black eyes, and the other with long, stringy-blond hair and a long scar down the side of his face. Averting her eyes, Jenna glanced at the plane. Its propellers sped up, ready to lift off at any minute. She caught a glimpse of a woman sitting in the passenger seat, her profile resembled someone she’d seen before, maybe even someone she knew, but the sharpness of the morning sun created a glare, obstructing Jenna’s view.
Before she had a minute to think, to process what was happening, she heard Alex’s voice from some distance place saying, “Get down, Jenna. Get down now!” With his arms around her, he pushed her to the ground, ducking them behind the shelter of his car.
The sound of bullets slicing through metal lasted for what seemed like years. When she heard the pulsating sound of a plane engine roaring to life, they ventured rising a bit to peer over the car. The gunmen disappeared in a Cessna headed over the Atlantic.
Jenna panted now, after holding her breath for too long.
“Are you okay, Jenna?” Alex held her face between his palms and then tucked a strand of wayward hair behind Jenna’s ear.
“I think so,” she croaked out, still in a daze. “What just happened?”
“I have no idea.” He reached for his cell phone and began dialing nine-one-one.
Jenna tried to get up and gasped.
“What’s wrong?” Alex glanced at her, while still talking to the operator. “Oh my God, Jenna, you’re bleeding.” He knelt down beside her. “Operator we need an ambulance. The woman with me has been shot.”
“I didn’t even feel it.” Jenna clasped her left hand over the skin below her collar bone. She began to feel sharp pain course through the flesh of her upper body, throbbing deep inside her skin. The world started to spin too fast, making her dizzy. Jenna closed her eyes from the throbbing pain and to hide the tears threatening to fall.
“Hey, hey, don’t cry,” Alex told her gently. “You’re fine. The ambulance will be here any minute.” Jenna detected the fear in Alex’s eyes and wondered if she was going to die. He wrapped his arms around her, holding her tight. She pressed her face against his chest as he stroked her hair. Her body began to tremble. Blood drained from her face.
“You’re going to be okay,” he whispered in her ear. “Help is coming.” She hung on to him for dear life, feeling helpless as she slipped away from the world. “Stay with me, Jenna, hold on.” Jenna’s eyes fluttered closed, when all she wanted to do was stay awake.