I opened the door for Mad, dangerously close to crawling out of my own skin and bolting to the other side of the planet, thinking about the last time I’d been in this studio. Who I’d been with in this studio. It wasn’t that my family hadn’t visited here afterward, but I’d flat-out refused to set foot in this studio ever again on the grounds of I WASN’T A FUCKING MASOCHIST.
Madison breezed in, her movements, like her being, swift and sunny. She leaned her entire upper body against the counter, greeting the person at the reception like she’d known her her entire life. Her pixie hair was growing a little longer than usual, sticking out playfully. It was fuck hot, and I wondered if she was going to let her hair grow and if that meant hair yanking during sex was in the cards for me.
Madison laughed at something the receptionist said, then fished her phone out of her bag and showed her something. The receptionist, I realized, was the same woman who’d taken my picture all those years ago. The memory slammed into me like a truck in a busy intersection. This was a one-person-operation business. The woman had been the one cooing at my (real) ex-fiancée and me—two nervous postgrads who’d made a fatal decision to get married before they’d known who they really were—to smile at the camera.
She won’t recognize you. She owns a studio on Broadway. She sees hundreds of people every week, some of them remarkably ugly, some of them remarkably beautiful. Your face doesn’t chart.
“Oh goodness.” The woman, who introduced herself as Becky, pushed her glasses up her nose, blinking up at me. She was fiftysomething, athletic looking, with a gray, conservative dress, hair the same color as her dress, and enough jewelry to sink the Titanic. “It is you again, Mr. Black.”
For fuck’s sake.
“Again?” Madison smiled politely, her gaze ping-ponging from Becky to me. “Is this your second engagement shoot here?” she inquired, processing as her suspicions received validation.
I wanted to pull Becky’s, Berta’s, and Mom’s guts out of their a-holes and make trendy scarves out of them. Rather than physically assaulting women triple my age, I took Mad’s hand in mine (third time, and it was growing on me—kind of) and let the comment roll off my shoulders.
“This one’s gonna stick,” I clipped.
“Don’t be so sure,” Mad muttered.
“Oh, it will. The girl before”—Becky shook her head, rounding the counter to show us to the studio—“she was no good for him. I knew it wasn’t meant to be. I have a feeling about those kinds of things. I do.” She stopped in front of a white screen that had been heavily lit by projectors. A stool and camera equipment sat across from it in the darkened corner of the room. Becky flicked the camera on the tripod alive, squinting as she adjusted it. “I wasn’t at all surprised seeing her back with someone else. You two, I just couldn’t see it. When a couple walks in, I don’t even have to talk to them. I see their body language and know if they’re going to make it or not. Never fails.” She tapped her manicured fingernail to her temple. I flashed her a polite, can’t-fucking-wait-to-get-out-of-here smirk. I’d have dodged this entire shoot if it weren’t for the fact it put a smile on Dad’s face.
When Mom had told me she’d booked us an engagement shoot as a present, I’d initially turned it down, but then Dad had looked so disappointed I’d had to say yes.
“And what do you make of our relationship?” Mad asked, standing with the white background behind her. She had a gray blouse, pearled neckline, and pink, peach-patterned pencil skirt I wanted very badly to rip off her body.
“You are definitely in it for the long run. This is your happily ever after.” The woman smiled behind the camera. Madison flashed me a pshhh look. She was amused by her. Off-base Becky wasn’t. I didn’t think it was all that funny.
Becky instructed us to stand close to each other, using excessive hand movements to make her point. She asked me to drape a hand over Madison’s shoulder while standing behind her (“Look at that height difference, whoa!”) and then asked me to put both hands on her shoulders and look into her eyes. It was cornier than popcorn, and every sarcastic bone in my body wanted to snap with rage, but I did it, knowing my parents would take great pleasure in seeing the final products and keeping in mind what Mad had told me about showing Dad how I felt.
We did as we were instructed, smiling painfully wide to the camera as Becky clicked away. Both our gazes were locked on the black eye of the camera as it flashed. Realizing we could be there for a while, Madison struck up a conversation.
“So. You’re here . . . again?” she asked through a teeth-closed smile.
“Lean over and kiss her cheek, Mr. Black!” Becky yelled behind the camera. I did as I was told, pressing my lips to Madison’s apple cheek. A jolt of something hot and unfamiliar ran between us when we made contact. Like her body swelled in my arms, becoming rounder and hotter and more alive, somehow.
“Drop it,” I murmured into her skin.
“You said you’d tell me about Amber if I did this shoot with you. Spill it,” she hissed, her smile still bright.
“Madison, turn around! Hug him! Look like you mean it. No, this is all wrong. It looks like you are trying to tackle him in a football game.” Becky continued her commentary. Mad turned around and circled her arms around me, placing her cheek against my heart. I stared at the top of her head, and sure enough, there were two grays. They glittered against her otherwise-brown hair.
“Are you nervous?” she whispered.
“No.” I scoffed.
“Your heart rate is through the roof.”
“When’s the last time you had coffee?”
Noon, probably. Still, I was allowed to have a goddamn heartbeat, especially when I had a gorgeous woman pressed against me. “Right before I picked you up. Two shots of the good stuff.”
“Liar.” I could feel her grinning through my shirt. “So, Amber.”
I wanted to shove her tiny frame into my pocket and zip it. She was infuriating.
“Mr. Black! Hug her back. I don’t remember you so frozen your first round.”
“Which you may want to stop mentioning for the sake of my current relationship,” I countered loudly.
She waved me off. “I’m too old not to be blunt.”