Jojo shook her head and perched her elbow on the desk, cupping her chin in her hand. She covered her mouth with her fingers, the clicking of the mouse getting faster.
“I don’t even know what to say.”
“The truth. I’ll still have the assistant job if they suck, right?”
“Daddy!” Jojo called, sounding more like an impatient pre-teen than a young woman capable of managing an entire business.
Wick hurried out of his office, hobbling but motivated. “They’re good?”
“See for yourself,” Jojo said, still clicking the mouse.
I crossed my arms, feeling my skin burn as it slowly warmed, and shifted my weight, unsure how to take their reaction. Wick put one hand on his daughter’s shoulder, bending over to get a closer look at the monitor.
“Ellison,” Wick said, staring at the screen. “These aren’t bad, kid.”
He stood upright and patted me on the shoulder. “She needs an assignment, Jojo. Not any of the usual boring shit, either. Something both the locals and tourists want to know more about. Something exciting. Sexy!”
Tyler finally pushed through the door. “I’m not leaving.”
I rolled my eyes. “Don’t you have a job to do?”
“Ellie’s first assignment!” He pointed to Tyler. “She can follow the hotshot crew. We know the basics, but what do they really do? How dangerous is their job? How physically arduous? What does it take to be a hotshot? Who are they? What do they do in their down time?”
“No,” I said, more begging than answering.
“I’ll help you,” Jojo said. “I can rewrite it, or write the whole damn thing if I have to. You just take notes and get the pictures.”
Wick smiled, all of his yellow teeth on display. He puffed out his chest, proud of his daughter. “This is going to be a feature. Edson and Wick. It could get picked up by the AP.”
“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Are we sure this is even possible?” I asked. “I’m sure there are safety concerns.”
Wick pointed to Tyler. “Make this happen, Maddox. I’m calling in a favor.”
Tyler took a step toward Jojo’s desk. “I’m sure I could work it out with the superintendent. I have the day off tomorrow. I could take her in and speak with him.”
I sighed and raked my fingers through my hair, pleading to Wick and Jojo with my eyes. “Stop. Let’s think about this for two seconds. You want my first assignment—as an amateur photographer—to be a featured story about following hotshots into fires? Really?”
Jojo turned off her computer, slipped on her coat, and winked at me. “Bring me back something amazing.”
“It’s my second day of taking photographs. You want amazing?”
“I have faith in you,” Jojo said. “Get out of here. Work day is over, and José is outside.”
I trudged to my office to gather my things. When I returned to the lobby, Tyler was standing in the dark, chatting with Jojo about my assignment. Jojo had already turned off the lights and was waiting for me to leave, keys in hand to lock up behind me.
Tyler walked with me to the curb where the Audi was parked, white clouds puffing from the exhaust. Sally hadn’t authorized the use of the car, but José was certain my parents wouldn’t want me walking miles in the snow.
“So … breakfast tomorrow before we go in? My treat.”
“This isn’t a joke to me,” I said. “I need this job. If I screw this up—”
“You won’t. I’ll make sure you have plenty to shoot. Let me buy you breakfast before we go to the station. We’ll talk about presenting it to my boss, and I’ll have a better idea of what you want.”
“Okay,” he said, the dimple in his cheek appearing. “Either way, after breakfast is over, you’ll have a better idea of what you want.”
The Audi’s back door creaked as I opened it.
“Just remember this,” I said. “This wasn’t my fault. I tried to save you the trouble.”
“I’m a firefighter, Ellie. I do the saving in this relationship.”
I slid into the back seat and closed the door. Tyler tapped on the window, and I rolled it down. “This is not a relationship.”
“I’ve told you before—I’m open to friends with benefits,” he said with a wide grin.
I rolled up the window as José pulled away. The leather seats were warm, and I rubbed my fingerless gloves together.
José turned left onto the highway for home, glancing at me in the mirror.
I stared out the window at the lights breaking through the dark. “I think what you’re seeing is irritation.”
“A guest?” I asked. “Please tell me it’s not Sterling. Or my parents. Fuck, it’s not my parents, is it?”
“How long has she been there?”
“She must know Sally is trying to starve me to death.”
José slowed at the gate, and then passed through, driving leisurely down the drive and stopping in front of the house next to an eighties model Hyundai hatchback. The blue paint was chipped, and a long scrape and dent spanned from front fender to back seat. The car was cute but beat up—no more perfect car for Paige.
She greeted me in the foyer, throwing her arms around me. She was wrapped in a blanket that smelled like Finley, nothing but her head, hands, and tattered red Converse visible.
She pulled me into the kitchen. “I brought cookies,” she said, pulling off the lid of a plastic tin that looked older than she was.
She held out a round sugar cookie, the white frosting in the shape of a snowflake.
I took a bite. “Wow,” I said, still chewing. The cookie melted in my mouth, and the frosting was decadent. “You really made these?”
Maricela opened the fridge and pointed to a covered plate before zipping up her coat and gathering her things to leave for the night. José’s taillights glowed through the frosted glass, too, making Paige’s unannounced visit an even bigger relief.
“How’s it going? You’ve sort of disappeared,” Paige said, choosing another cookie.