“Impress me,” Donovan McRae commanded from behind a matched pair of enormous computer screens.
The screens sat on a desktop that consisted of a giant slab of ash-colored wood. The slab of wood was mounted on a base hewn from what appeared to be volcanic rock. The desk, the screens and the man were way down at the far end of a long, slant-roofed, skylit space, a space that served as Donovan’s studio and drafting room in his sprawling, half-subterranean retreat in the West Texas high desert.
Abilene Bravo could not believe he’d just said that.
After all, she’d been imagining this moment for over a year now. At first, with anticipation, then with apprehension, and finally, as the months dragged by, with growing fury. She’d waited so long for this day—and the first words out of the “great man’s” mouth were Impress me?
Hadn’t she already done that? Wasn’t that how she’d won this prize fellowship in the first place?
And would it have killed him to emerge from behind that fortress of screens, to rise from that volcano of a desk, to gesture her nearer, maybe even to go so far as to offer a handshake?
Or, hey. Just, you know, to say hello?
Abilene gritted her teeth and tamped her anger down. She reminded herself that she was not letting her big mouth—or her temper—get the better of her.
She did have something to show him, a preliminary design she’d been tinkering with, tweaking to perfection, for months as she waited for this all-important collaboration to begin. Donovan’s assistant had led her to a workstation, complete with old-school drafting table and a desk on which sat a computer loaded up with the necessary Computer Assisted Design software.
“Well?” Donovan barked at her, when she didn’t respond fast enough. “Do you have something to show me or not?”
Abilene saw red, and again ordered her heart to stop racing, her blood not to boil. She said, in a voice that somehow stayed level, “I do, yes,” as she shoved her memory stick into an empty port.
A few clicks of the mouse and her full-color introductory drawing materialized in front of her. On his two screens, Donovan would be seeing it, too.
“My rendering of the front elevation,” she said.
“Self-evident,” he grumbled.
By then, her hand was shaking as she operated the mouse. But beyond that slight tremor, she kept herself well under control as she began to show him the various views—the expanded renderings of classrooms, the central cluster of rooms for administration, the negative spaces that made up the hallways, the welcome area, the main entrance and vestibule.
She intended to cover it all, every square inch of the facility, which she had lovingly, painstakingly worked out—the playgrounds, the pool area, even the parking lot and some general landscaping suggestions. From there, she would go into her rough estimate on the cost of the project.
But she didn’t get far. Ninety seconds into her presentation, he started in on her.
“Depressing,” he declared darkly from behind his wall of monitors. “Institutional in the worst sense of the word. It’s a center for underprivileged children, not a prison.”
It was too much—all the months of waiting, the wondering and worrying if the fellowship was even going to happen. Then, out of nowhere, at last—the call.
That was yesterday, Sunday, the second of January. “This is Ben Yates, Donovan McCrae’s personal assistant. Donovan asked me to tell you that he’s ready to begin tomorrow. And to let you know that instructions will be sent via email…”
She’d had a thousand questions. Ben had answered none of them. He’d given her a choice. She could be flown to El Paso and he would pick her up there. Or she could drive her own vehicle.
She’d opted to drive, figuring it was better to have her own car in a situation like this. In order to arrive before dark, she’d been on the road before the sun came up that morning.
The drive was endless. An eight-hour trek across the wide-open, windblown desert to this godforsaken corner of Texas.
And now she was here, what? She’d met the great man at last. And she found him flat-out rude. As well as dismissive of her work.
He demanded, “What were you thinking to bring me lackluster crap like this?”
Okay, worse than dismissive.
The man was nothing short of brutal. He’d seen a fraction of what she’d brought. And yet he had no compunction about cutting her ideas to shreds.
Abilene had had enough. And she said exactly that. “Enough.” She closed her files and ejected her memory stick.
“Excuse me?” came the deep voice from behind the screens. He sounded vaguely amused.
She shot to her feet. Upright, at least she could see the top half of his head—the thick dark gold hair, the unwavering gray-blue eyes. “I waited a very long time for this. But maybe you’ve forgotten that.”
“I’ve forgotten nothing,” was the low reply.
“We were to have started at the beginning of last year,” she reminded him.
“I know when we were scheduled to start.”
“Good. So have you maybe noticed that it’s now January of the next year? Twelve months I’ve been waiting, my life put virtually on hold.”
“There is no need to tell me what I already know. My memory is not the least impaired, nor is my awareness of the passage of time.”
“Well, something is impaired. I do believe you are the rudest person I’ve ever met.”
“You’re angry.” He made a low sound, a satisfied kind of sound.
“And that makes you happy?”
“Happy? No. But it does reassure me.”
He found it reassuring that she was totally pissed off him? “I just don’t get it. There’s such a thing as common courtesy. You could at least have allowed me to finish my presentation before you started ripping my work apart.”
“I saw enough.”
“You saw hardly anything.”
“Still. It was more than enough.”
By then, she just didn’t care what happened—whether she stayed, or whether she threw her suitcases back into her car and headed home to San Antonio. She spoke with measured calm. “I would really like to know what you were doing all year, that you couldn’t even be bothered to follow through on the fellowship you set up yourself. There are kids out there who really need a center like this one is supposed to be.”
“I know that.” His voice was flat now. “You wouldn’t be here now if I didn’t.”
“So then, what’s up with you? I just don’t get it.”
Unspeaking, he held her gaze for a solid count of five. And then, bizarrely, without moving anything but his arms, he seemed to roll backward. His torso turned, his arms working.
He rolled out from behind the massive desk—in a wheelchair.
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