Into the Wild Online - Beth Ciotta

CHAPTER ONE

Maple Grove, Indiana, USA Altitude 810 feet

“AMAZING. ABSOLUTELY stunning!”

Melinda Clark, soon to be Mrs. Mark Donovan, pored over the sample wedding album with unabashed enthusiasm.

River Kane, owner and head photographer of Forever Photography, held silent as the woman gushed.

Normally, she felt a surge of pride whenever someone complimented her work, but given the recent upheaval in her personal life, all she felt was numb.

Mark, in an attempt to curb his fiancée’s blatantly expensive taste, looked at a photo and shrugged.

“It’s okay.”

“Okay?” Melinda palmed her heart, her three-carat engagement ring glittering as brightly as her wide blue eyes. “Look at the expressions Miss Kane captured. So much love. You can just feel the joy.”

“It’s a wedding, honey. I’d be worried if the bride and groom weren’t happy.”

“Not just the bride and groom.” She tapped a manicured nail to a five-by-seven of the Sweeny bridal party. “There are…twelve people in this photo and every one looks fabulous, even the flower girl and ring bearer. How often does that happen? Usually at least one person blinks or sneezes, or scratches inappropriately. Remember your cousin’s wedding album? Obviously that photographer didn’t have the sharp eye and skill of Ms. Kane. Just look at these images of the ceremony!”

“They’re kind of artsy.”

“They’re unique!”

Mark leaned in and muttered something to Melinda, who muttered something back.

Wishing she were anywhere but here, River gripped the padded arms of her floral upholstered chair.

Drumming her fingers wouldn’t do. Where was the tolerant patience that used to come natural y? It’s not as if this moment, these prospective clients, were out of the realm of her normal world.

She was used to people admiring her work. She was used to those who criticized. Some splurged on her top package. Some budgeted for a lower tier, while others haggled over even her most basic package or, in some cases, walked away. After several years in the business, she’d pretty much seen it all. As a levelheaded professional, she was equipped to handle any situation.

She also had good instincts.

River was certain, by Melinda’s enthusiasm, her extravagant ring and Mark’s sagging shoulders, that they would commit to her premium package. That meant major dollars for Forever Photography. Yet River couldn’t dredge up an iota of pleasure. A contract meant she’d actually have to photograph the damned blessed event.

Or maybe Mark would get cold feet or second thoughts and abandon Melinda at the altar.

That would be awful, of course. But then River wouldn’t feel like the only jilted bride in the state. She could commiserate with Melinda. Curse her ex-fiancé almost-husband, a cowardly, fickle-hearted bastard. They could drown their sorrows in the champagne, meant to toast a happily-ever-after, and bemoan their sadly-never-was.

River watched as Mark encircled Melinda’s waist, inwardly winced when he smiled and kissed his intended’s cheek. The man was besotted.

She was going to have to shoot the damned wedding.

Twenty minutes later the contract was signed and a hefty deposit check sat on River’s doodle-free desk blotter. Melinda and Mark left, and River’s assistant, Ella Tucker, entered. River barely noticed. She was too busy squirting sanitizing liquid into her palms—didn’t people realize how many germs were transmitted by shaking hands?—and cursing her inherited talent.

“Damn Mom’s artistic streak and Grandpa’s photographic eye.”

“We took a vote,” said Ella, her trusted sidekick of three years, “and we’ve decided you are a freak of nature.”

River blinked. Normally Ella poked her head in after an appointment to ask if they’d secured the booking and what package the client had opted for. As River’s assistant, she made more money when her services were required on-site. The “freak of nature” remark was out of the blue and triggered deep-rooted issues that intensified River’s already fragile mood. She tried not to take offense. Not privy to the details of River’s past, Ella couldn’t know how keenly her observation hit home and hurt.

Besides, she wasn’t a spiteful woman. She was a barely-twenty nosey Nate (although well-intended) friend and associate.

Maintaining a calm facade, River forced a teasing smile. “By we, I assume you mean you and Ben.” River’s mailman. Ella’s boyfriend. A guy who knew everyone’s business and never shied from expressing his opinion.

Ella plopped in the chair vacated by Melinda only seconds before. “May I be blunt?” River’s mind screamed no, but it wasn’t in her nature to blow people off. Besides, she could take it. At this point in her life she was fairly numb to criticism and rejection. “Consider me prepared.”

“You were dumped at the altar by your fiancé, the man of