The Cowboy’s Beauty
“I can’t wear this,” Morgan Nelson said with one arm crossed over her chest where the see-through material left nothing, truly nothing, to the imagination.
People shouted and swore, their voices echoing in the large room broken only by portable racks of clothes and a few flimsy partitions. Tangy sweat, bold perfume, and that familiar scent of nervousness combined together in a familiar, though unloved, aroma.
“We’re in the middle of a show. We don’t have time for drama queens.” Henrique Ove barely looked up from where he was placing duct tape in strategic locations on another model’s outfit to keep it in place.
“I’m not being a drama queen.” Please. Morgan did everything she was asked to do, and more, with not a word of complaint. Not about the long hours. Not about the near-starvation diet. Not about the hideous outfits that no normal person would wear. As long as they paid her, she’d wear whatever they set out.
But she didn’t sign up to do a nude.
“This was not in my preshow outfits. I did not have this in practice yesterday.” She’d tried every one on, and multiple assistants had made sure that everything fit and was shown off to its best advantage. It was about the clothes. Not about the girl.
“We don’t have time for this. You’re next. Go.” He made a shooing motion with his hand, not even looking at her.
Music blared in the background. The crowd outside was loud and boisterous. Earlier, a big-name buyer had arrived unexpectedly and demanded a front-row seat. That event had seemed to flip the switch from “normal” to “electric” and may even explain why she had been given an outfit she’d never even tried on.
Lights glared from the ceilings and reflected off the multitude of mirrors and the plain white walls. Models bustled around in various stages of undress. Assistants scurried after them, fixing broken straps, handing off last-minute replacement shoes or jewelry, and adjusting the tiniest wrinkle.
It was true, to a certain extent, in this business one lost a lot of their modesty. One’s body was just a background, the perfect background, hopefully, on which to showcase a designer’s creations to their best possible angle.
But this see-through travesty that her handlers had put on her, unexpectedly and most definitely without her permission, was not something that she was going to let slide.
“I’m not wearing this.”
Someone shouted her name. Sarwith, the top-name facilitator who was backstage methodically, some would say even brutally, adjusting the clothes on models to make sure the clothes were shown to the best advantage.
“You wear that. You’re next.” Sarwith’s tall, slender blondness practically mirrored Morgan’s own.
“It’s perfect for your figure. When I saw you yesterday, I had to switch it for this show. Your body is the perfect canvas on which to display my handiwork.” Her regal brows lowered. “No one else will do.”
Henrique gave a last, quick tap to the barely-there top of the model he’d been working on. He straightened and finally looked at Morgan full-on. “Wear it. Or leave,” he enunciated clearly. “And if you leave, don’t think that you will ever work as a model again. Not in this town.” Which happened to be New York. “And not in this business.” He was only about five feet tall. She and Sarwith towered over him. Morgan’s natural height of six feet one inch was increased by the five-inch, size twelve strappy heels she wore. “Not even a dog food commercial.”
Morgan stared at him. Really? After everything she’d done, everything she’d worked for, he’d seriously take it all away because of one see-through shirt?
Sarwith stood with her hands on her hips, a smug smile on her face, like she knew what Morgan would choose.
Surely Henrique wouldn’t keep her from working. He couldn’t do that.
But Henrique could. She didn’t doubt it for a moment. Like everyone else in this business, he worked his fingers to the bone, but he had clout, and lots of it, especially when it came to models and recommendations.
Morgan was very aware that there were always younger, prettier, more slender models waiting in the wings for someone to fall. That had been her, not that long ago.
But she’d promised herself when she started that there were certain lines she’d never cross. She’d never lain on anyone’s couch, although she’d had the opportunity, and she’d watched as girls who walked into those certain offices and closed the door behind them had shot to superstardom practically overnight.
She’d be lying if she said she’d never been tempted to take that route. Everyone did it.
But she’d turned those offers down. She’d had negative balances in her checkbook. She’d downgraded apartments and even been evicted over overdue rent. She’d scrimped and struggled, working as a waitress, a cashier, a body double, anything. She’d take any job that would give her the flexibility to drop it and do a show at the last minute. She’d never turned down a show. And she’d always shown up and done her best.
It was finally paying off. For the last six months, her star had risen, and finally she was here, at New York Fashion week. Her years of struggle and having nothing were giving way to a gold mine. All she had to do was walk out that runway in the see-through shirt that she already wore. Thirty seconds. It would take thirty seconds. She’d already caught the eye of several designers, and her agent had spoken with her for over an hour last night after the practice. She was on the cusp of making it big. It had been her dream since her dorky, awkward, embarrassing teenaged years in her remote North Dakota high school.
With her thick glasses and nasty scaly, red skin along with years of acne, not to mention her height which had her towering over her teachers and classmates since she was thirteen, and hunching her shoulders and bending down to try to make herself smaller so she’d not stick out so dramatically, she’d never been considered a beauty.
It wasn’t until she studied nutrition in college and started eating from the salad bar instead of chowing down on fried chicken and boxed pasta, quit watching tv and started exercising, and—maybe the most dramatic changes—her braces finally came off after four long years and she switched to contacts.
Her body shape changed. Her skin glowed with health. And, lo and behold, she attracted the attention of people who thought with a little hard work she could really make it as a model.
Because of growing up on a small ranch in North Dakota, hard work was something she was familiar with.
Multiple people were calling her name now. Henrique had his arms crossed, and his foot tapped. Other models and stylists had stopped to stare at the latest drama queen who was going to demand her way.
The pressure to give in and conform, to not throw away everything she’d gained, to do what was expected, was strong. These people didn’t understand the values she’d been brought up with and considered her refusal a power play. Or a temper tantrum.
This wasn’t the first time she’d wondered why she’d worked so hard to be successful in an industry that had no time for morality, modesty, or the values that related to those things.
Inside of her, those two sides warred. One side begging her to conform, to give in and do what they wanted, to keep her position and garner prestige and be successful, showing everyone who’d ever called her ugly or fat that she’d won. Against the other side that pleaded with her to see the value in modesty and morality and to not allow the rest of the world to dictate right and wrong to her.
“Onstage. Now,” Henrique barked.
She turned her back, walking to her station and putting her own clothes back on. Ignoring the shocked looks and the behind-the-hand whispers and several catty comments from her “friends,” she picked up her purse and walked out of the room.
Ford ignored the thumping pain in his head and the burning in his eye. He blinked but didn’t take his hands from his keyboard to rub it like his brain subconsciously urged him to do. He was close. Very close to getting the prototype dialed down to quality that was affordable to middle-class Americans.
“Ford, I’m leaving.”
Just like that, the zone he was in vanished like a bubble on a windy day. He shoved back away from his desk in the darkened room—all the rooms in his house were dark—and turned to the doorway where his sister, Georgia, stood. Her hair sat in wild disarray around her head, but what else was new, and a bag was slung over her shoulder. That was unusual.
She’d taken amazing care of him over the last decade or so. Handling his moods—he knew he had moods—and making sure he ate, exercised, knew his calendar and appointments, and she even gave interviews in his stead. Because he wasn’t taking his ravaged face into a studio. Nor was he giving interviews from his home. It was his sanctuary.
He’d quit college after the farming accident that took his leg and eye and two fingers, along with his handsome looks. But his self-confidence hadn’t disappeared until Shauna broke up with him. In the hospital. Two days after the accident.
She hadn’t wanted to be shackled to someone she was “going to have to play nursemaid” to. Her words.
Bill Gates didn’t have a college degree.
Ford snorted. He wasn’t quite as successful as Bill Gates.
Georgia put her hand on her hip. “You’re not giving me a guilt trip about finally going to Europe like I’ve always dreamed about.”
“No.” He was, but technicalities.
He fingered the pen on his desk, studying it. “I upgraded your tickets to first class and put a little extra spending money in your account.” “Little” being relative. “I also booked three nights at the castle you decided was too expensive.”
Georgia’s mouth hung open. “How did you-” She abruptly cut off. Yeah, he didn’t show his face to people, ever. No one outside his immediate family. But he had contacts everywhere. And he wasn’t afraid to call in favors.
She knew it. Her lips tilted up in a self-effacing smile that said she should have known better.
“Thank you,” she said softly.
He shrugged her thanks off. She deserved it and more for what she’d put up with from him over the years.
Georgia took a step closer. “Morgan Nelson will be here later today. I wanted to have a few days to train my replacement, but you nixed every applicant I had until her.”
He hadn’t wanted anyone young or good-looking. He didn’t even want middle-aged and good-looking. Basically, he wanted someone whose good looks wouldn’t make him self-conscious about his lack. Georgia hadn’t shown him Morgan’s picture, but she hadn’t needed to. He remembered the Nelsons’ niece from school. She’d been a lot younger than him, but their schools were small, the Nelsons were fellow ranchers, and it was hard to forget Morgan. He remembered quite clearly his “friends” describing her as a moldy dumpling with legs and glasses. She wasn’t what he would consider attractive, but he didn’t allow anyone who was with him to make fun of her. Still, for some reason, that dumpling comment stuck in his head, and he remembered her as the “dumpling” girl.
“She’s a North Dakota girl.” He finally spoke since Georgia seemed to be waiting for him to say something. Mostly because there was a twinge in his chest that threatened to become loneliness after she walked out.
“She is. She’s also quite smart and willing to learn and work hard. I’ve left detailed instructions, but, Ford…”
She waited until Ford met her gaze.
“You’re going to have to help her some. I can’t explain to her in a note how to do everything that I do.” She gave a humorless laugh. “I never know what you’re going to have me doing when I get up in the morning.”
That was true. Most of the time, he didn’t know what the day was going to bring, either. The tech industry moved fast. Staying one step ahead could mean success. Staying well ahead almost guaranteed success. He aimed to outpace it every day.
Too bad he couldn’t get the one billion dollars he’d been willed from Mr. Edwards at Sweet Water Ranch. But he had to be married. No chance of that happening. Which was fine. He was already a self-made multi-millionaire. If he had the money, in the next year, he could be a multi-billionaire. Without the money, it would happen eventually. Just not as fast.
“Ford. Promise me you’ll go easy on her. Be nice. Give her a chance.”
He didn’t say anything. But he would. He’d been voted best-looking and most likely to succeed in his small senior class. One of those was still true. Now, it was hard to be around beautiful, or even pretty, women. It made him too conscious of his own lack.
It wouldn’t be hard to deal with dumpling girl. He wouldn’t feel inferior because of his lack of looks. He couldn’t really work with her and not allow her to see him. Maybe they’d understand each other. At the very least, she shouldn’t be too put off by his face, since hers wasn’t much better.
He hated the bitterness in his thoughts. But that was a by-product of the accident too. Or maybe just a by-product of Shauna.
Whatever. Right now, it didn’t matter. Since his most loyal friend and companion, Georgia, was leaving him for three weeks.
“Ford.” Georgia leveled her eyes at him. Her face got the stern, serious expression on it that he’d only seen a time or two. “If she quits, I’m not coming back.”
He couldn’t stop his reaction as his eye snapped to hers. Eye. He had an ugly, puckered scar where his right eye should have been. He used to wear an eye patch, but it was itchy and Georgia didn’t care.
Their housekeeper, Mrs. Torgerson, was in her early sixties. She, along with her husband, kept the house and grounds. Georgia was basically his personal assistant, face of his company, and general all-around whatever-he-needed person. There was no way she could hire any one person to do what she did, but he’d resigned himself to the fact that he was going to have to deal for three weeks. But if Georgia didn’t come back…
He searched her face. She was joking.
She crossed her arms over her chest. “Try me.” She tapped her toe on the ground. That was Georgia. Never still. “If you hadn’t dragged your feet and only given me permission to hire her last night, I could have trained her properly.” She lowered her eyes at him. “So of course, she can’t just rush over but needs a little extra time to pack for three weeks.”
Georgia wasn’t going to make him feel guilty. He wanted someone he could depend on. Not someone who was out ramming around. Like there was anything to do in rural North Dakota, anyway, but still, he wanted her available to him if he needed her, just like Georgia was.
Georgia sighed and walked into the room. “You’re a good man, Ford.” She knew his work went beyond the things that would make him money. “But you’re being consumed with bitterness.”
That wasn’t anything he didn’t know. He just didn’t know what to do about it. He stood to meet her, his prosthesis making it slightly difficult, even after more than a decade of practice. If he’d been able to keep his knee joint, it would have been easier.
Georgia put her arms around his waist. Georgia was a huge pile of energy wrapped up in a tiny, almost-five-foot-tall bundle. He was almost a foot and a half taller than her. His height was about the only thing the accident hadn’t stripped from him.
“I love you, Ford. You and Ty were about the best big brothers a girl could have. But I can’t save you from yourself.”
He bent over, hugging her back. He knew she was right. He needed to be saved from himself. But he didn’t know how or what he needed to do to even start. How did a man accept the fact that he would be ugly and alone for the rest of his life, and that all the money in the world would be cold comfort when he’d driven everyone who cared about him away?