This is an unedited snippet. Working title is From This Day Forward
[Traci] turned her camera on, again, caught a cracking sound, and then another section of the façade fell to the ground. This time no flames followed it, just massive amounts of brown-black smoke. The stench of the fire and the fire equipment exhaust were getting to her. She began to cough.
“You’re done. Let’s get out of here.” Sean tugged on her arm.
After stopping by the room where the meeting had been to pick up his suit jacket and hat, he grabbed a couple bottles of water from an ice-filled chest, handing a bottle to Traci. They walked several halls, took a set of stairs, and opened the door that went to the parking garage. It was practically empty.
“My car’s over here.” He removed his phone from his pocket.
She only heard bits and pieces of the conversation. It was apparent that he intended to take her to lunch with his family. “Please don’t. After crawling around in an elevator on my tummy,” she looked down at her shirt, “and tearing my top. I’m not suitable to go to lunch with your family.”
He shook his head. “Better not plan on staying tonight in your hotel. It’ll be condemned. I’d let you spend the night at my place, but I’m sure you would reject the idea. I’ll send you to my grandmother’s. She loves company, and they have a huge house.”
Ensconced in his car, they exited the garage on the far side of the building and within minutes pulled into the private parking garage of a condo. They went inside where they rode the elevator to the penthouse. They stepped from the elevator directly into his condo.
“Welcome to my place. I’ll find a fresh shirt for you, and you may clean up a bit before we eat.” He pushed open a door. “All yours.”
“Another order. When are you going to get tired of telling me what to do?” She called after him as he walked away from her.
He looked over his shoulder. “What is wrong? I’m doing all I can to be kind, and you’re snapping worse than a turtle.”
Having spent his teen years with three stepsisters that were close to him in age, he knew how moody females could be, but her sudden shift unnerved him. Maybe I’ve made a mistake. Maybe she’s not what I really want. Maybe I’m projecting what I want onto her. His phone rang. “Hey. I’m glad you called, Chelsea. Can you help us out?”
He tried to explain the situation with Traci.
“I’ll be there in about three minutes.”
He breathed a sigh of relief. Chelsea was a no-nonsense kind of person. The family had started to create a call list to contact all the employees. When she finished, he asked, “Where are we meeting for lunch?”
Chelsea’s even-keeled voice was calming. “The Mountain Bear.”
It was his least favorite place to eat. He knew it was his grandfather’s choice, so the family went. The old man ruled over the family with an iron hand. Cody considered it a simple indulgence and not worth an argument with the elderly patriarch.
Sean knew that Cody frequently didn’t see eye to eye with his father, therefore went to the opposite extreme with Sean and his brothers. Cody was the first to admit that he was fallible, but he gave everything he had to whatever the task. He also believed that wise men sought counsel because no one could ever do it all. Sean’s grandfather called it delegating.
Chelsea’s slight tap at his elevator door alerted him of her presence. He opened it. “It wasn’t locked.”
“You might be my brother, but you’re a grown man. I’m not going to walk directly into your apartment.” She raised her eyebrows and then smirked. “I don’t care what you do when you’re home, but I don’t want to watch.” Her grin turned into a round of quiet giggles.
He grimaced and pointed in the direction of the guest suite.
In his own bedroom suite, he stripped his dirty clothes off, washed his face and hands, then found a clean shirt and suit. He had slipped his belt through the loops of his pants as another knock landed on his bedroom door. Assuming it was Chelsea, he answered, “Come in.”
“Oh, you have more doors in this place than anyone I know.” Traci leaned against his doorframe. “When are we leaving?”
He held up two belt buckles. “Which one?”
“The smaller one. You won’t look like a western hick to those big city folks in the east. Because you know that you’re going to be hit by the press for a statement. Or do you intend to turn that over to your company spokesman?”
“That’s played on my mind. I think that’s a job for him, not me. But I’ll be in the eye of the press.” He shot her a grin, as he put the smaller buckle on his belt. Then added a matching bolo before turning around. “Good?”
He noticed what she was wearing. “You look great. That’s Chelsea’s outfit?”
“Obviously your sister approved of what I’m wearing. When in Rome and all that?”
“Maybe.” He looked at the soft suede scarf that draped her shoulders and smiled. “It looks very nice on you, and it looks as though it fits you well considering you’re taller than her.”
She narrowed her eyes. “What man would even know about what fits?”
A single chuckle escaped. “A person who spent a lot of years with a pack of sisters and a stepmother who is a bridal designer – kind of hard to escape the fashion parade. I’ve even done the catwalk.”
“I wasn’t too happy at the time doing the catwalk. Now I can laugh about it. But as a teen I didn’t think anyone would discover my little strolls up and down. I didn’t get that lucky. Seems I made the front cover of a major fashion magazine and there was a huge spread inside. You can tack that one onto my résumé, just in case I need another job. Think I could get away with doing romance novel covers?”
“Are you being serious?”
“Of course not. I’d never in a million years consider it, but I’ll probably get conned into it some day. DeeDee sweet-talks my father into all sorts of things.”
“DeeDee? As in Main Street Bridal?”
“That’s your mother?”
“Are your clothes custom made?
He held a finger up, lifted his phone off his belt, and looked at the screen. What now?
Traci wanted to know what was going on. Sean answered the text message by texting back. His mood grew somber, but he never said what was happening.
They left his place and drove a few blocks away to a restaurant called The Mountain Bear. Once inside, it took a second or two for her eyes to adjust to the low light. Behind the hostess was a taxidermy bear standing on his hind legs. All over the walls were trophy heads of various animals. Revulsion crawled up her throat as she looked at the animals that were probably killed for no reason other than to hang their heads on a wall. Disgusting.
They walked directly to a side room that was filled with some of the same people that she had seen earlier at the meeting.
Sean introduced her to the various people in attendance. “And I’m sure by now you remember my younger sister Chelsea.”
“Hello again.” Chelsea stuck her hand out. “You look fantastic compared to an hour ago. I love that outfit on you. It looks better on you than it does on me. If you like it, keep it.”
“I couldn’t keep your clothes.”
“Go ahead. I took the liberty to order two more outfits for you, since you’ll be here for a while. I figure if you can wear those, we’re a match for size.”
“Thanks, but I’ll be going home tomorrow.”
“I doubt that. It’s got to be your video that is all over the web. Who else was still in the building when the front wall of the hotel tumbled to the ground?”
“What?” She swiped at her phone. “Omigosh! It’s been picked up by all the major networks.”
“Soon-to-be-famous may have already happened.” Sean chuckled in the quiet voice that he used so much.
The first time she met his stepdad, she realized how much the two men were alike in mannerisms. She wondered if either one of the men ever got flustered or raised their voices.
“Our fine mayor, Mike Smitner.” Sean extended his hand.
She glanced at Sean and then at the mayor. Instantly there was the impression that this man was not welcomed. She stuck her hand out. “Traci Moretti. It’s a pleasure.”
Sean grinned at the man. “Traci is with Dawson Stream Service. ” Then he leaned to the man and in a barely audible voice said, “I think she’s been poking her nose into everything, including our fine city offices and first responders.”
“Oh, I thought maybe we should discuss what has happened this morning. But I was just called back to my office.” He showed off his phone that was attached to his hip. I’ll have to catch you later.”
“Good to see you, again.” Sean smiled, and then turned his gaze to Traci.
She could tell he was stifling laughter by the look in his eyes.
“Oh, thank goodness. I think he was trying to wiggle his way into our family meeting.” He placed his hand on her back, led her to the table, and then seated her beside him. “This is Traci Moretti. I keep telling her I’m going to marry her, but she doesn’t believe me.”
That elicited a great deal of laughter.
Aaron Symons who had been flirting with the pregnant woman said, “Guess she doesn’t know much about this family.”
The pregnant woman came into the room and kissed the redheaded Aaron before tossing her arms around Cody Montgomery. “Omigosh, I’m sorry about being late, Daddy. I could barely get through town. Half the roads down here are blocked off. It’s horrendous.” She turned to the redhead. “Apparently the wind may have caused the old bank building to catch fire. And now it’s spreading to the Gaynor. What a mess. The sky is filled with smoke. The city has public utility trucks everywhere.”
Sean turned and introduced the two women. “This is my sister Julia. And this is Traci from Dawson Stream Service.”
Traci swallowed, and extended her hand, but the look on the pregnant woman’s face was forced.
“The press?” Julia turned to her brother. “Really?”
“Yes. Your brother has been wonderful. He’s even taken me to see the pump jack that caught fire. Most people are afraid of the press. No one ever taught him to be fearful of what we write.”
“Why should we be fearful? I can’t imagine my brother not telling the truth. We have nothing to hide.” She smiled at her brother. “I need to see my husband before he gets jealous of my spending so much time with my family while ignoring him. I’ve barely had a chance to say more then ten words to him since he arrived during the meeting.”
“I heard Melissa has the children.” Sean’s statement sounded more like a question.
“Of course Melissa has my crew and she has Rage, too.”
He shook his head. “I’ve heard Drexel has been teaching that boy to jump.”
By this point, Traci was totally lost. She had no idea what they were talking about. To her rage was an emotion, but it didn’t take long to determine that Rage was a boy. And there must have been something wrong with him, because he couldn’t jump. This family is confusing.
She sat there listening to bits and pieces of conversation by the various members. Everyone there was a Montgomery or married to one except for her. She wanted to smack herself on her forehead as the realization hit her that she was in an insiders meeting. The food was served. The mushroom soup was unlike anything she’d ever tasted. To call it divine was an understatement. A salad followed, and then the meal of steak and potatoes came with several choices of vegetables. But when the dessert was served, the serious conversations about the meeting, the bombing of the hotel, and the pump jacks took on a life of their own. It was like watching a tennis match and often became heated. Cody and Sean acted as referees.
When the grandfather, Douglas Montgomery, looked directly at her and asked what she thought, she stumbled for a moment.
“Me? I’m only here to report, not to form an opinion.”
Cody quickly injected his queries. “You’ve heard the various officials and agents. Do you have any questions? Do you think anyone forgot to cross their T’s or dot their I’s?”
She raised her eyebrows and tried to think quickly. “Well, I’m not certain what you’d call it, but I truly do not understand why they will not let you repair the damage. The only people I saw out there were yours. Where are these government agents that had plenty to say at the meeting and acted like they were there 24/7?” She glanced around the room. “I don’t have an opinion, but I do have eyes and ears.”
Cody seriously stared at her.
Traci folded her arms over her chest. “What? You don’t believe me?”
“I do believe you, but I’d also love to see what you wrote.” Cody said.
There was a murmur throughout the room.
“Don’t ask her for that.” Sean raised his hand to indicate stopping, “At this point, it’s between her and DSS.”
She figured it was Sean’s attempt to protect her from his family.
Cody nodded his head.
What is it about this family? I want to go home.