“A secretary? For J.W. Chadwick, no less. That’s just embarrassing.”
The blood beneath my cheeks began to boil. “You didn’t really give me a choice, Mother.”
“You’re going to thank them for the opportunity, and you’re going to meet your sister like your father wants, and then you’re going to start with his company, under Finley. Do you understand?”
Mother chuckled. “Well, it wasn’t a legally binding contract, Ellison. It was more of an agreement on paper.”
I took a deep breath, relieved that I could be lying on the back of a rented yacht in thirty-two hours, soaking up the sun and drinking mimosas and eating my weight in lobster and Peking duck. The question was whether Finley wanted me there.
“Not yet. It’s the middle of the night there.”
“You just decided this morning that I wasn’t dead to you?”
“Honestly, Ellison. Don’t be so dramatic. We forced you to get a job, you did, so you’re being rewarded for your hard work, and then you’ll work under your sister. No one’s dead.”
Mother tripped over her words. “What do you … who are you … what on Earth are you going on about, Ellison? Who’s dead?”
I swallowed. “Please thank Daddy for the tickets, but I’m not going to Sanya. I have a job here that I love.”
“You love being a secretary,” Mother deadpanned. I could hear my father asking questions in the background.
“I’m actually taking pictures for them, too, and I’m really good at it.”
“This is about a boy, isn’t it? You’ve met some local, and you’re not thinking straight. Philip, talk some sense into her.”
“I’m going to be unreachable at times. If it’s an emergency, call the magazine. They know how to get in touch with me.”
“Ellison,” Mother warned. “If you hang up the phone—”
While my mother stumbled over what to say next, I hung up. I was afraid that if I spoke to my father again, I would change my mind.
The lights were dim at headquarters. Half the hotshots were sitting around the kitchen table, playing cards, while the others were showering.
The only noise was the water pipes funneling through the dorm to the ten showers plus my fingers clicking on the keyboard. I had pretty much become part of the sofa since we’d arrived back to our temporary home, simultaneously resting and uploading the latest pictures. After the last picture sent, I began typing out the next installment of the MountainEar’s “Fire and Ice” series.
Tyler walked out, his hair freshly buzzed and his cheeks red from the hot shower. When he was clean, the tan line around his eyes from wearing his goggles all day in the sun was more prominent. He was wearing a heather-gray Alpine Hotshot T-shirt, navy cotton shorts, and—from the looks of it—nothing underneath.
“My turn?” I asked as he fell onto the sofa next to me.
“So? I’m just one of the guys, right?”
Tyler didn’t answer, but I could tell the thought of me showering next to his crewmates bothered him. Initially they’d all offered to let me shower first, but I wasn’t about to make all twenty of them wait after nearly two weeks on the mountain for me to take a shower.
“Yes, ma’am,” Puddin’ said, hopping up from his padded foldout chair.
Tyler breathed out a laugh, and I nudged him with my elbow. “What’s funny?”
“You’ve somehow become the boss around here. They take orders from you like they do from the superintendent or Jubal.”
“Maybe they just need a big sister.”
Tyler watched Puddin’ walk across the room toward the showers with his bath bag swung over his shoulder. Puddin’ ducked under the doorframe, his arms standing out from his body because his muscles were so massive. He was the largest crewmember, followed by Cat and Sugar. Although they had arrived looking like powerlifters, the hiking and arduous labor for twelve to sixteen hours a day had made them leaner. Tyler had said that by the end of fire season, they would all look more like cross-country runners. Puddin’ had already lost forty pounds.
“You think he needs a big sister?” Tyler asked.
Puddin’ poked his head around the corner. “Ellie? Think you could make me another grilled cheese? They’re the best I’ve ever had.”
“I’ll make you one,” Fish said from the table.
Puddin’s sheepish expression made him look like a little boy. “Nah. That’s okay, Fish.”
I smiled. I wasn’t the best cook, but I could make a mean grilled cheese. Puddin’ didn’t mean they were the best; I just made them a lot like his mom had when he was young. “Three?” I asked.
“If it’s not too much trouble,” Puddin’ said. His voice was so deep it carried like he was speaking through a muffled megaphone, the way a giant might sound.
“Okay if I do it after my shower?” I asked.
He disappeared around the corner, and I stretched my neck toward Tyler, looking up at him with a knowing smile. “Yes, I think they all need a big sister.”
“Or a mom,” Tyler said. “They might not let you leave.”
“If I don’t find a place by October, I might not.” I was joking, but Tyler watched me for a long time.
“You need a place?” he asked. “I’m looking for a roommate.”
“Maybe we could look into a three-bedroom. This is Slick’s last season. He and his wife have a three-bedroom condo that will be up for sale.”
I thought about it for half a second. “I can’t afford to buy.”
“I can. I was thinking about it, anyway.”
He nodded a few times, pretending to watch the television. Every few minutes he would smile and start to say something, but think better of it.
Puddin’ came out in a fresh pair of comfortable clothes, and the remaining ash-covered crew looked to me.
“Bullshit,” Tyler said, pointing at him.
Everyone at the table laughed, and Cat jogged by, smooching his lips at me. “I love you, too, Ellie,” he lilted, winking.
“I’ll punch your cock,” Tyler said, slapping at him.
Sage came out, and I sent Jew in. Bucky came out, and I called on Sancho. Soon, all the guys were finished, and it was my turn. I rolled my eyes at Tyler—he insisted again on standing by the door. It wasn’t the first time I’d taken a shower at headquarters, and the guys would never peek, but they loved to tease him.