By Toni Noel
For ten years I studied landscape photography, standing behind a large format camera and ducking under a dark cloth to focus an image upside-down on a 4 x 5 inch piece of glass before closing the shutter and transferring the image to film. Later, I'd develop the negative in a dark room, dry the film and make a print. If I deemed the print suitable, I'd mount it to share.
In Decisive Moments, Amy Millington does the same thing, but the images for her show are to satisfy one of the requirements for her graduate degree in fine art. Only architect Charles Harding stands in her way. He owns the last home she's promised to photograph, a boarded up mansion on Harding Road, a sad-looking house that draws her back again and again.
Since the death of his caretaker, Charles has allowed no one to enter his childhood home, the scene of events so traumatic they've shaped the reclusive architect's life.
Enter Amy and Marta, Amy's five-year old daughter on a daddy search. Charles doesn't have a chance. Amy's grab shot of the roofline of his house snapped from the sidewalk and enlarged to hang in a place of honor at her gallery-show opening touches the homeowner's heart, and he lets her see the inside of his home.
Amy needs more. Her patience and Marta's persistence win Charles over. The boards come off the windows and he gives Amy a key to the front door. He still can't cross the threshold, but the woman who is quietly stealing his heart can photograph to her heart's content.
On her first venture inside, Amy senses a presence, smells Thanksgiving dinner cooking, hears children's voices. This house needs a family living under its roof again, she decides, but returns often to photograph, and eventually learns about the tragedy that happened in the study. When he was four, his mother shot his father, then turned the gun on herself while he played beneath the study window.
Amy's negative of the fireplace study looks as if a ghost walked in front of her camera, so Amy loads Marta in the car and makes one final trip to the house to retake the image she plans to hang in a prominent place in her graduate exhibit. Marta disappears while Amy's lost in her work. Charles helps her search, entering his house for the first time in years. He finds Marta in a secret room his father used as a wine cellar, where she has found the long-lost suicide note his mother left, and Charles learns his mother did not abandon him for lack of love.
Now Charles feels free to ask for Amy's hand in marriage, but she says, "No way." Her late husband's perceived infidelity broke her heart and turned her off marriage for good. Charles insists she learn the truth, and her trip to Las Vegas to talk to his military friends eventually brings results. She learns her husband loved her dearly and hoped to someday have a child with her.
Charles makes one final play to win Amy's hand, a quiet dinner in a special location, forcing Amy to face her own Decisive Moment.
A boarded up mansion in Mission Hills inspired this novel.
Here's an excerpt:
The receptionist on a mission to block her path was no match for Amy Millington. On a mission herself, she darted past.
Her destination loomed ahead, the two closed mahogany doors leading to the office of Charles A. Harding, Architect.
So far, so good.
Now to outsmart the sedately dressed secretary seated at the desk just outside those doors. This formidable woman screened the architect's calls and had, on a daily basis for the last two months, refused Amy's request for an appointment.
Failure to accomplish her mission meant postponing graduation for six more months. No way. Too much was riding on her master's degree. Maybe even a Guggenheim Fellowship. Amy's new career, for sure, and with it, a secure future for her daughter. No way would she allow Harding's secretary to stop her now.
Taking a deep breath, Amy charged around the woman's desk to the doors and yanked, sending one crashing back against the wall.
The dark-haired man seated behind a massive desk looked up, surprised. His finely tailored suit matched the toasted pecan color of his eyes. His white shirt seemed almost too harsh for his silk tie softly patterned in rust and bark.
Amy's heart beat erratically, making her lightheaded right when she needed to be at her best. She didn't have much time. Building security would show up soon.
She met the man's unreadable gaze and forced her best smile. Three more strides brought her close enough to inhale the woodsy scent of his aftershave. "Mr. Harding, I--"
His threshold guard interrupted. "I'm sorry, Mr. Harding. This young woman wouldn't stop."
He frowned, but a hint of curiosity lit his eyes. "Never mind, Julia." He nodded at his secretary and she left the room, though Amy noticed she didn't close the door.
Then he returned his attention to the blueprints on his desk. The nerve of him. Like a naughty child in the principal's office, he made her wait.
A fresh wave of irritation at all her wasted time washed over her. Weeks of thwarted attempts to see this illusive man, and what did he do once she'd breached his gates? Ignored her best smile. Ignored the stylish suit she'd purchased just for this moment, a suit bought with money she'd managed to cut from her school supply budget over the last six months. It looked like she wouldn't earn a second glance from this reclusive architect.
Finally he stopped shuffling the blueprints, rolled them up and stood. "Five minutes."
She extended her hand, ignoring his cold demeanor. "My name is Amy Millington." When he reluctantly offered his, she shook his hand, an artist's hand with long fingers, his smooth, uncallused palm unexpectedly warm.
"Charles Harding, but of course you know that."
Yes, she knew his name, and a lot more about him, thanks to her research. His presence seemed to fill the spacious room, crowding her. His quick gesture indicated she should take the chair near his desk. She sat, welcoming the chance to catch her breath and corral her thoughts.
He took his seat and cleared the space before him of work, giving her a moment to study him unobserved.
A stray curl tumbled over his forehead when he glanced down at his work, giving him a boyish look. He was definitely more good-looking than any photos she'd found of him, but he looked older than his years, and almost sad.
"So, Miss Millington, what's so important you couldn't wait for an appointment?"
"I wanted an appointment, but your secretary has refused to give me one each time I called. She insisted you were unavailable, that you would never make time to see me."
"Julia simply carries out my instructions." He opened a drawer, took out a yellow pad and slid the drawer shut. "What brings you to my office? Are you interested in building a home?"
Amy glanced at the framed renderings on the wall behind him. All were of rather sterile, contemporary dwellings built of stone and glass. Her artistic eye rebelled at those cold images created by the man seated across from her.
"House plans are not what I had in mind." She steadied her nerves and plunged on as she felt her five minutes ticking away. "I'm a grad student at UCSD just weeks from completing a master's degree in visual arts. Photographing architecture is my main emphasis. I came because of my interest in your great-grandfather's home designs."
Harding's frown returned so she hurried on. "He built six homes in Mission Hills. I've studied those designs, and over the past few months I've photographed the interiors of five of those homes as part of my graduate project. There's only one I still need. The house you own on Harding Road. At one time the man living there gave me permission to photograph the interior, but I'm now unable to reach him."
She watched as the architect's lips drew into a tight line, hardening his expression. A mouth revealed so much about a man.
With a deft motion, he slid open the drawer and stuffed the yellow pad inside. "I'm afraid what you're about to propose is impossible. The uncle you spoke to died." Harding came to his feet, ready to kick her out.
"No." A muscle twitched in his strong jaw. "Five houses should be sufficient for your needs."
"Not photographing the sixth house will make my study incomplete. Please, could I--"
Irritation flashed in his eyes. "No one goes inside."
Why? It didn't make sense.
All right, time to try something else. "I'm sure you know the first C. A. Harding included ingenious details in his designs." To Amy's relief, his stiff stance relaxed a fraction.
"One interesting part of my research involved discovering the secret hidden in each of the homes he helped build. The house with the dumb waiter to the master bedroom is my favorite."
As if surprised to discover himself standing, Harding eased back into his chair.
Almost made him smile. Good. Maybe she could reach the real man beneath this hard shell. "Or maybe it's the house on Dixon Drive where shrubbery hides the outside stairs leading from the garden to the eldest son's bedroom."
Amazingly, Harding's sculpted lips twitched into a smile. What a difference a grin made in his looks. Gone was the grim set of his jaw, the skeptical frown. A cleft in his chin appeared. What could have made this handsome man so dour? So serious? Charles Harding needed to learn how to lighten up.
Ignoring the sudden tripping of her heartbeat as she realized she was staring at him, she hurried on. "I can just picture an adolescent son sneaking in late at night, no need to remove his shoes."
Leaning forward, Amy met the architect's gaze and smiled. "What about you? Are surprises hidden in your designs?"
"I'm more concerned with function. With practicality. My clientele demands modern efficiency for their money, clean lines and easy care. Hidden passageways are remnants of another time."
"That may be true, but what romantic times they were. Have you asked your clients if they might prefer something more imaginative? A design with a few soft curves to soften all the cold stone and glass?"
"What might seem appropriate in your art would be considered impractical in modern homes."
Modern designs held no appeal for her she'd learned. "Now, about photographing your house..."
Anger -- or was it something else -- flared in his eyes as he stood. "There is no chance of you ever photographing my house," he said, a note of finality in his voice.
"Here's my card, in case you change your mind."
He slid the card into his desk without a glance. "I won't."
She tucked her purse under her arm and headed for the door. Across the room a burst of buttercup yellow caught her eye. Her own reflection in glass. The only spot of color in the dreary room was her best suit.
Decisive Moments is available for download from all eBook stores and the publisher,
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