WHEN IN ROME – Chapter 1: Phone Calls and Emails


My chair creaks as I lean back from my desk, stretching my arms overhead. The glow of the computer monitor is the only light in the room. Hooking my interlaced fingers around the back of my neck, I squint at the digital images on the screen. This afternoon’s engagement photo shoot had gone well, but I’d promised the couple proofs by tomorrow morning so they can make a selection for their official announcement. I have it narrowed down to four, the styles and poses ranging from traditional to artistic.photographer-455747_1920

Deep inside, I hope they’ll pick the artistic proof, where their heads are partly obscured by a length of gauzy fabric, leaving only the suggestion of an intimate about-to-kiss moment. During the editing process, I can play with the contrast and hues to give the photo an antique filter, leaving the color vibrant in that space right between their lips.

Too bad life can’t be edited as easily as a photograph.

My eyes start to burn, so I spin away from the computer and let my vision adjust to the dark of my studio space. Then I stand and go to the window. The Atlanta skyline stands in relief against the brilliant washes of red and orange from
tonight’s sunset.

One of my cameras sits on the window ledge. Without taking my eyes from the skyline, I lean over and pick it up. Fortunately, it’s my film camera, an expensive tool in today’s world of digital photography. I spent a few pennies I didn’t
really have to buy it online. And without a black room of my own, the cost of developing film images can be killer on a wallet. I’d love to invest in a digital scanner that would let me convert the negatives into digital files. Either that or create a black room. Right now, neither option works with my budget or my current studio space.

I have to be content with sending my film to a specialized developing company, always keeping my fingers crossed that both the prints and the negatives will make it back to me safely.

For a minute or two, I just watch the skyline, my hands automatically going through the steps of fitting the camera onto a nearby tripod. This is the last shot I’ve been trying to capture for my Atlanta Skies series, a project I hope will land me a spot in one of the local juried photography exhibitions. The colors of the sunset deepen a little more, setting the downtown skyscrapers in silhouette.

I hold my breath and bend to the viewfinder.

My cell phone rings.

Damn it. Concentration broken, I straighten and purse my lips.

The deadline for one of the most prestigious juried exhibitions is two weeks away, and I need to capture this shot tonight if I’m going to get the prints back in time to submit.

“Come on, Kate,” I mutter. “Focus.”

The ringtone falls silent.

After a steadying breath, I look again through the viewfinder and adjust the zoom on the camera. My finger moves over the button for the shutter. Exposure time is everything.

Again, my cell rings.

“Are you fricking serious?”

My shot of the Atlanta skyline at sunset, the perfect picture that could get me noticed after twelve years in the photography business, is gone. Because of a phone call. If I wasn’t so pissed off, I would probably dissolve into tears. Which I haven’t done since I hit adulthood.

I stomp across the studio to my desk and snatch my smartphone off the charging station. I don’t even need to look at the caller ID to know who’s on the other end of the line.

“It’s past eight o’clock, Mom,” I snap as I answer.

“Which is why I knew you’d answer,” my mother, Linda Berkley-Miller, replies. “Do you have time to chat?”

A headache pinches behind my eyes. “No. I have engagement session proofs due to a client by tomorrow.”

“Of course you do.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

I shouldn’t have asked the question. I know what it means. It means, “Why are you still spending so much time on photo shoots of engaged and newly-married couples, when you’re miles from being part of one yourself?” Sometimes it also means, “You’re almost thirty-four and not getting any younger.”

However, it now also means, “Sadie’s married to a millionaire. When are you getting your act together to do the same?”

Mom’s never that direct. “Did you see the pictures your sister posted of the baby? I can’t believe how perfect he is.”

“I don’t exactly stalk Sadie on Facebook, Mom.” To be honest, I have my sister blocked so her posts won’t show up. It’s hard enough knowing she landed a fairytale life. I don’t need to have it rubbed in my face.

“I’m surprised you haven’t gone to see the baby yet,” Mom says.

The computer monitor goes blank, plunging my studio into complete darkness. I fumble for the switch to my desk lamp, then start pacing. “I don’t have the time or money to spare on a trip to St. Croix right now.”

“You went to the wedding.”

“Yeah, well . . .”

My attendance at Sadie’s tropical shotgun wedding to business mogul Nelson Mattingly had been a knee-jerk reaction on my part. I’d learned about her breakup with her long-term boyfriend, Ryan Wutkowski, through Mom, then about her elopement through Dad. Not that my little sister tried contacting me about it herself. I never even got an official invitation, just an email from Sadie about a week before the wedding, letting me know the details in case I felt like dropping everything to show up.

Which I did. She’s still my sister, after all.

“I think Sadie’s a little upset that you haven’t met your nephew yet,” Mom says. “She’s talking about having his portraits done for Christmas. Have you offered?”


“I have to offer? She hasn’t asked. Just like she didn’t ask me to take photos at her wedding.”

“Honestly, Kate. It’s been almost a year since the two of you decided to start a war at the family reunion. You’re the older sibling. Don’t you think you should take the high road and apologize?”

“Apologize?” I nearly trip over the power cable to my light box. “Maybe Sadie should be the one to apologize for planning to leave me off her guest list!”

“She invited you, didn’t she?”

“Last minute in an email. Does that even count?”

“And you weren’t very gracious about it. You were kind of a bitch to her friend.”

I’d been wondering when someone would bring that up. I’m kind of surprised Mom or Sadie had’t mentioned it before now. I still don’t have a good reason for ripping Carmella Sannarelli a new one the night of Sadie’s rehearsal dinner, at least not one that I could explain to Mom. Maybe a little leftover protective big sister syndrome had been at play.

Or maybe Sadie hurt me worse than I’d realized by asking her college friend to be her maid of honor instead of me, even after that huge fight.

But then, Sadie always did what she wanted and got away with it, because that’s just how Sadie operates. I assume she’s no different now. Being the wife of a millionaire probably doesn’t do much to improve a person’s sense of humility and empathy, even when it comes to your only sister.

Mom clears her throat. “Kate, if you’re not busy the next few days, I was thinking you might want to meet up with my friend’s son.”

Here we go again.

I rub my forehead, where the headache has grown to a vise grip. “Why would I want to meet up with your friend’s son?”

“Because you’re both single. He just moved to Atlanta a couple weeks ago and could use some pointers. You’ve lived there, what, seven years? You must know some great places to eat and visit.”

“You mean places to go on a date.” With a tap of my mouse, I wake up my computer. If Mom’s going to try convincing me to go on a blind date, I might as well use the time to study the proofs for my client.

“You aren’t getting any younger, Kate. Just look at the prize Sadie landed, and she’s—”

Plopping into my chair, I lean toward the monitor and enlarge the artistic shot. “Sadie didn’t land a prize. She flaked out, broke up with her fiancé, ran off to play in the Caribbean, and married the first rich guy she came across. Now she’s off in her ivory tower with her perfect little family and absolutely no drive to pursue her ambitions. As if she ever had any to start with.”

“That’s unfair.” Mom’s scowl is audible in her voice. “You haven’t even taken the time to congratulate your sister on her little boy, never mind trying to get to know your brother-in-law. Nelson’s a nice man, and Sadie’s very happy.”

“Well, good for little sis.” My enthusiasm for editing the proofs sours. “Can we change the subject?”

“I’m worried about you, Kate. If you’d just go on this date, maybe you’ll hit it off. Aren’t you sick of being alone?”

I shove away from the computer and stand again. “Better than watching another relationship crumble.”

“What are you talking about?”

The images on the monitor sting almost as much as what Mom’s matchmaking attempts remind me. There’s dating and marriage and affection and infatuation in the world. But real love? Not so much. She should know. Her own marriage fell apart.

Mom picks up on the significance in my silence. “Are you suggesting that your father’s and my divorce—”

“Never mind. Just drop it, Mom. I’m not going on a blind date, and I’m not planning on getting married. Sadie already won that game. Stop trying to make me play, too.”

She starts in again, but I hang up before she gets a sentence out. Then I put my phone on silent.

The last thing I feel like doing now is editing a bunch of engagement photos, but I have a commitment to my clients. Still, I need a break.

Crossing the studio, I flip on the light in the small kitchenette area. My work days tend to run long, especially when I have a lot of in-studio sessions booked, so I keep an assortment of healthy drinks and snacks on hand for myself and my clients. But there’s one not-so-healthy snack stashed in the back of the freezer, just for me.

I open the freezer door and smile at the dozens of single-serving cups of ice cream and frozen yogurt in a variety of flavors. They’re the only things in this world I can count on to lift my spirits. After a minute to consider my choices, I grab a cup of strawberry swirl, rummage in a drawer for a clean spoon, and return to my desk. Three bites in and I already feel better.

Now to tackle the photo proofs.

A ping sounds from my computer speakers, signaling the receipt of an email.

“Really, Mom?” I mutter.

Probably shouldn’t have hung up on her like that. I don’t even want to check my phone to see how many times she’s tried calling back. Now the barrage of emails will start, and I so don’t need to deal with this right now.

I take another bite of ice cream, closing my eyes and wishing for a little peace and quiet.

Another email pings through instead.

Unless I send a response, she’ll just keep sending emails until my inbox floods with the guilt trip. Two more spoonfuls go down in quick succession, and as the ice cream headache dwarfs the Mom-won’t-drop-the-marriage-thing headache, I maximize my email client.

The messages aren’t from Mom.

Frowning, I stare at the sender’s name. Beth Wright, my old friend from college. And the address is her work email.

I wonder what she wants. We chat every couple weeks online, less frequently on the phone. Beth landed her dream job with a talent agency in New York City right after graduation. Then she met and married her dream guy and promptly popped out her dream baby. Now, between her job and her family, she doesn’t have much time for socialization. Whenever she does have time to talk, our conversations tend to be pretty brief. And she rarely sends emails, and never from work.

Curiosity piqued, along with relief that the messages aren’t from my mother, I click on the first email.

“Got a lead on a photography job for you. Big fashion shoot starting the end of next month. Short notice, I know, but it’s good money, great prestige. Two-month commitment. Give me a call tomorrow if you’re interested.”

Fashion shoots are among the best paying jobs for photographers in the world, ranking right up there with travel gigs and product advertisements. I suck my lips between my teeth and bite down. It would be a huge opportunity, but two months is a long time to be away from my own business. Still, if it leads to bigger and better things, gets my name out there in the world of professional photography . . .

I open Beth’s second email.

“Forgot to mention—the shoot’s in Rome. Sleep on it.”

Rome? As in, Rome, Italy?

Now my interest is one-hundred-percent engaged. Can I swing it? Depending on when I’d need to leave, I might be able to shuffle a few things around, talk to clients who have sessions booked in the next couple months.

An international fashion shoot? A lot of photographers never land those kinds of jobs, even if they’re willing to sell a limb to get one. And I just got handed an opportunity out of the blue.

But do I have the guts to take it?

I grab my ice cream from the little pool of condensation forming on my desk and take a few more bites. It’s definitely worth getting the details.

My enthusiasm recovers.

After shooting back a reply to Beth to let her know I’ll call in the morning, I switch to my photo editing program and look at the proofs again. Keeping a promise to my clients is an important part of finding a way to advance my career. I spend an hour or so soft-editing the images, then add my business logo as a watermark. A few clicks of the mouse sends them to my client’s email address.

Satisfied with the photo proofs and excited at the prospect of an international opportunity, I shut down the computer, clean up the kitchenette, and turn off the lights. Then I head home to sleep on Beth’s message.