From FRAME BY FRAME
“Pete, we can’t have a repeat of what happened in St. Pete,” Natalie Moore’s boss said, in the general direction of her phone.
Nat raised an eyebrow, thinking of an old childhood prank kids used to play on one another: Pete and Repeat were walking along a bridge. Pete jumped off. Who was left?
Addison Fry, executive editor of World Sophisticate Travel and Lifestyle magazine, crooked a finger at her, pulling her by invisible leash into the vast corner office that comprised her boss’s domain.
Every piece of furniture in the room was modern and upholstered in leather. A lot of cows had given up their lives for Addison’s posh posterior, and Natalie suspected that a couple of chairs were draped in the skins of her former assistants. But for some reason, La Fry liked her, for which Nat was grateful.
Not for the first time, she squinted at examples of her boss’s strange taste in art: a green-painted brick inside a Lucite box; a white canvas with a huge red dot in the center; a stainless steel bucket hanging on the wall; a painting that consisted of nothing but sixteen squares of blue in various tints.
Nat didn’t get it. Not that she was sure there was anything to get. Outside the tempered glass walls, a scaffold came into sight, and the two window-cleaners on it seemed to share her opinion of the art.
A pair of thousand-dollar reading glasses slid down Addison’s fashionable nose, and she sipped at an unappetizing moss-green liquid in a crystal tumbler.
Nat refrained, just barely, from wrinkling her nose, and followed the indication of La Fry’s finger that she should seat herself. On the speaker phone, a man groaned.
“I was not verbally abusive, Addison,” he said in a deep, whiskey-rough voice.
“You made the girl cry, Pete. You were the catalyst for my stylist leaving Russia immediately and quitting her job. That doesn’t smack of a kind, gentle approach.”
“Add, she tried to put a teddy bear into my shot of the Hermitage. A blasted teddy bear! And besides, I apologized. I even sent flowers. Of course, I didn’t know she’d gone straight to the airport, for Chrissakes.”
“Regardless, you will not make young Natalie cry when you work with her in Bangkok.”
Nat’s eyes widened. I’m going to Bangkok?
“Is that understood?” Addison continued. “You may be a brilliant photographer, but I can’t have you terrorizing my staff. Practice smiling into a mirror, my dear. Pretend to be affable.”
“Affable,” Pete repeated. “Bloody hell.” He sighed. “Well, I haven’t frightened a small child for months, now. That’s an achievement, isn’t it?”
“Absolutely, darling. Now, just remember, when you bare your teeth for a smile, the corners of your mouth should turn up.”
“And remember that ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ are useful little words.”
“Brilliant. So I should have said, “‘Please get the friggin’ teddy bear out of my architectural shot, you little twit.’ Is that it?” The unknown Pete sounded so outraged that Natalie’s mouth twitched.
This time it was Addison who sighed. “Something like that.”
“Fine. So when does your sweet young thing arrive to make my job a living hell?”
“I’ll e-mail you the information. She’ll arrive a day after you do. That will give you time to . . .” Addison’s voice trailed off. “Get acclimated and check things out.”
Pete remained silent, and the atmosphere became oddly heavy. “Only for you would I return to Thailand, Addy. I hope you realize that.”
Natalie was fascinated to see her boss’s somewhat reptilian eyes go soft over the power-glasses. “I do, sweet Pete. I do. Goodbye, darling.”
The connection now dead, Nat sat quietly mystified while Addison made a couple of notes. She, Nat Moore, a.k.a. Sweet Young Thing, was flying to Bangkok to work with this grumpy photographer? To make his life a living hell? She swallowed. Gosh, I can’t wait!
At last Addison pushed up her glasses and looked at Natalie. “Well, that was your introduction to Pete Sedgewick. Are you pleased to make his acquaintance?”
“Um,” said Natalie. “Not . . . exactly.”
“He’s really not a bad sort. Heart of gold. Just don’t let him push you around.”
“Of course not.” Nat did her best to look tough.
Addison laughed. “You look a bit confused, and rightly so. Natalie, you’ve done a good job here as a stylist for the last few months, so I’m sending you to work on your first foreign assignment. It’s in Bangkok: we’re covering the grand opening of the Continental Hotel on the banks of the Chao Phraya river. You’ll stay in five-star luxury and have a generous expense account. Isn’t that exciting?”
Nat nodded. Yes, except it sounds too good to be true. And the catch is obviously Pete Sedgewick.
“Now, I’ll be honest with you. The only downside is a touch of jet lag and of course the fact that you’ll be working with a difficult creative genius.”
“I know you’ve heard of Pete—-after all, he’s world-renowned. He really is quite brilliant at what he does, but we need his photographs to have a shade more warmth and human appeal.”
Great, so he’s inhuman, too?
“We need to personalize the architecture of the Continental Hotel for our readers at World Sophisticate, so that they’ll want to visit Bangkok and book a room. But our darling Pete is, ah, something of a purist.”
“A purist . . . ?”
Addison sipped at the nasty green liquid in her glass. “Pete doesn’t like to put people or props in his photographs. Your job is to get them into the pictures anyway. That’s all.”
That’s all, huh? You want me to wrest creative control over his own work from a world-famous, difficult creative genius. That’ll be a snap. No problem. Because I’m sure he’s not territorial or anything.
“Do you think you can handle that, Natalie?”
No. But she produced her best I’m-so-competent smile. “Absolutely.” I really want to see Bangkok, and it’s hard to make me cry on the job.
Addison beamed at her and handed over a manila file and a first-class ticket in Nat’s name to Thailand, which she just happened to have sitting on her desk. She was nothing if not efficient, but what if Natalie hadn’t possessed a passport? Apparently that had never crossed La Fry’s cosmopolitan mind.
“Excellent,” she said. “I’m counting on you.”
Euphoria tangled with dread in Nat’s stomach. “Thank you so much for giving me this opportunity. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate it.”
“Well, I’ve had my eye on you since you started here, so enjoy the trip. Just try not to let Pete depreciate all that appreciation, darling.” Addison hesitated for a moment, which was uncharacteristic of her. “Cut him some slack, all right? He’s had a difficult year.”
What does that mean? But Natalie nodded. “Okay.” She got up and made her way to the door. Her boss’s parting words followed her from the room.
“And for God’s sake, no teddy bears!”
Three days later, a cold, early November wind sliced through Nat’s light jacket as she waited for a cab to take her from her tiny studio apartment on the upper west side to the airport. The smells of Manhattan eddied around her: pungent exhaust, autumn leaves, warm bread from a nearby bakery, hot grease from local restaurants, and the occasional ripe whiff of a dumpster.
She wondered what sort of face went with Pete Sedgewick’s whiskey-drenched voice. He’d sounded older and, well, sexy. In spite of his gruff words.
His voice had rasped over her skin, teasing the tiny hairs on her upper arms and raising prickles of awareness. It had then shot straight to the center of her spine and up to the back of her neck, where it blossomed into heat. Sound had become sensation with the speed of light.
Nat’s musings were interrupted by a dirty flash of yellow: a cab occupied by a driver whose most remarkable feature was his utter lack of expression. He emerged from the cab to throw her suitcase into the trunk and slam it closed. She climbed into the back seat and told him their destination.
Countless bumps, jolts and emergency brakings later, they arrived at La Guardia with a screech and a jerk of the wheel which indicated that she should get out while the getting was still good. She handed the expressionless cabbie his fare, waited for her receipt and got out of the cab. The guy didn’t move himself, just popped the trunk again and waited while she pulled her own bags out.
She certainly wasn’t in Atlanta anymore—-but then, she’d learned that over and over again in the three months since she’d come to the city to work for World Sophisticate. Men were different here. The first time one had let a door shut right in her face, she’d thought he was being deliberately rude. Soon she learned that most New York men were just oblivious and wrapped in their own high-stress plastic business bubbles.
Natalie checked in with her airline, went through security and arrived at her gate with plenty of time to spare. She’d packed a book of Pete Sedgewick’s photographs into her carry-on, to get some idea of what to expect. The tome peeked spine out of her carry-on bag and it occurred to her that there was probably a head shot and short bio of him in the back. She settled into a hard plastic chair, pulled the book out and flipped to the end, her pulse kicking up. And there he was.
Pete looked about thirty-five and had a lean, very handsome face which served as a nice canvas for the three days of growth on his chin and cheeks. Deep grooves ran from under his nose to the corners of a poet’s mouth, sensual but sardonic. His dark eyes tilted slightly down at the corners, and were punctuated by faintly exclamatory crow’s feet.
But the most remarkable aspect of Sedgewick’s appearance was his shock of wavy, salt and pepper hair. It would have curled over his collar if he’d worn one, and contrasted with the black T-shirt he favored instead.
Pete Sedgewick looked like a cross between George Clooney and Richard Avedon. He looked like a chain smoker, a hard drinker . . . and an unforgettable lover.
From the moment she met that challenging gaze and saw the angle of that dangerous chin, Natalie knew he was trouble—-and that was before she took in his photographs.
She’d always thought of photography as more of a recording science than an art, but Pete changed that perception immediately.
The force of a complex personality penetrated every one of his shots, whether high-rise or historical, commercial or residential–as if he could compel the metal and stone and glass and concrete to reflect his own vision. He certainly didn’t pay homage to the architecture; somehow he bent it to his will and exposed its pretensions as well as its beauty.
Nat paged through the pictures slowly, riveted by each one. Not only were they masterpieces of technique, but they were full of suppressed emotion.
Frame by frame, this was Pete Sedgewick’s vision, a force of nature that she’d been sent to tangle with. She closed her eyes and unwillingly began to laugh at the idea that her predecessor at World Sophisticate had brought a teddy bear anywhere near the man’s camera. Maybe to call her a ‘twit’ had been an act of great restraint on his part.
By the time Nat boarded her flight for Thailand, she’d begun mapping out a strategy for approaching and dealing with Pete. If she stuck with it and remained professional, she should be fine.
Start with a compliment. Tell him how much you admire his work.
Do not let him get the upper hand or treat you like an idiot.
Communicate clearly what the magazine needs and expects of him.
Make creative suggestions and stand by them.
Do not, under any circumstances, allow the man to know you are even faintly attracted to him.
Natalie felt satisfied with the plan, written out in a fresh travel journal she’d bought just for the trip. It told her plainly in blue ink, in her neat, loopy, slanted-to-the-right script, that she was in control of the coming situation and knew what to do.
Watch out, Pete Sedgewick. Addison Fry’s latest Sweet Young Thing is someone to be reckoned with.