I should have been listening to Mrs. Fairfax in the interview, but I was too nervous to focus. I'd never been on a movie set before, and even though it was a tiny, historical film, it was a real live set. Through the administrative office window, I could see a black and white horse tearing at the grass in the main garden square of the estate. Actors milled around in 1800s British officer costumes, all red and white, the younger of the two picked his nose because he didn't see anyone looking. I'm so excited I feel myself breathe through my shirt and each ridge of my bra presses against me like a prison. I have waited since I was six years old to work on a movie. Finally I'm here on set.
Mrs. Fairfax is watching me squirm expectantly. I can't mess this up. Oh God, what did Mrs. Fairfax say?
I nod enthusiastically, and re-adjust my scratchy skirt. I desperately need this job. It's the only thing separating me from the vast, horrid nothing that is Noble, Kansas. If you'd been there, you'd know.
Mrs. Fairfax seems satisfied.
"So, you've worked with children before, then?" she asks.
"Yes, I did a great deal of babysitting as a teenager. Now that I'm in college, I've done some volunteering for Big Brothers, Big Sisters, but I spend most of my time studying. I'm sorry, I thought this was a production assistant job?"
"It is. There are quite a few children on the set as well though, actors for some of the different scenes, and frankly quite a few of the cast and crew can have very," she paused as though searching for the right word, "childlike, tendencies."
"Relax," Mrs. Fairfax says with a slight smile. Her eyes seem tired, and for an instant I wish I could make her day easier, maybe get her a martini.
"As a junior production assistant, you're not going to have to interact with the more childish actors." She smiles to herself as she looks out the window, in time to see the second soldier in red and white wiping snot on his costume pants. She sighs and turns her gaze back to me.
"You'll begin tomorrow at 7 a.m. bring your social security card and alternate form of ID. We run a tight schedule, and you'll probably be working with the child actors to start. You'll want to mind your manners; working with the British cast requires finesse." I nodded again; hopefully I don't seem like one of those plastic bobble-head dolls.
Must exude air of competence. Cannot return to Kansas in disgrace.
"Alright, then. Off you go," said Mrs. Fairfax.
"Thank you for this opportunity," I stammered as I grabbed my purse and limped from the room. I want so badly to untuck my blouse and rip off the skirt. I scratch madly the second her back is turned, and then follow her out of the estate.
The next morning, groggy and confused, I stumbled out of bed and threw on the cleanest set of clothes I could find, a pale pink t-shirt and loose slacks. When I saw myself in the dorm room mirror, I seemed younger than 21, and my long, dark hair had curled softly. I'm pale-skinned with deep brown eyes, not particularly exciting to look at, but not unpopular either. I'm smaller and a touch shorter than most girls. It was only 5:30 at the time I was ready, I must have set it too early, not that it mattered, I couldn't sleep anyway.
Mrs. Fairfax was happy I came in so early to the set, and sent me down to the prop manager a few buildings away to fetch some things for the day's shooting. The morning was unusually cool and crisp for September, and the estate was surrounded by smaller gardens, unkempt patches of woodland, and the odd acre planted with kale, rhubarb or vegetables, as well as newly-tilled sections lying fallow for the coming winter. The grounds were massive, and assistants aren't allowed use of the golf-carts to get from one part of the location to another. After about a half-hour I found the prop area, and the prop master handed me a bag of wooden toys for the children with a brisk, "Here you go. Hope you last longer than the last one."
I headed back toward the main building of the estate where Mrs. Fairfax and the other staff were headquartered. I did not feel the cold at first, although the morning frost was still glittering along the trees and my breath came in clouds in the still air. In my rush to get to work, I had left my jacket in my apartment. Now, I took advantage of the privacy of the open fields to rub my arms together and shiver. It's been a pleasant enough morning with the sky a melting series of indigos, fresh-yellows, and the steel shade of gray, one color melted into the next. I can smell leaves burning in the distance, the gentle smoke reminds me of Noble. I must have strayed from the main walkway, as I saw more trees and less gardens as I walked toward where I hoped the main estate was.
I cannot believe I've gotten lost on my first day, and now Mrs. Fairfax is going to fire me in public. Everyone I've ever known will laugh at me, and people I don't know will see it on Snapchat and laugh at me, and damn it's junior high all over again, I thought.
I stopped for a moment to look up between the ancient oaks and calm myself. I was there still, back pressed against the rough bark, when I heard the sexiest voice I have ever heard, with a heavy, upper-class English accent mutter, "Damned."
Only, it sounded as though he whispered it directly in my ear, the word angry and deep, like I displeased him. I felt it along every millimeter of my spine, a thrill both electric and pulse-pounding. Something so very wrong about that rich voice cussing. I felt as though I had heard that voice all my life.
A ruckus moved through the trees, birds shrieked and flew off, and the ground trembled. The metallic clatter of horse hooves pounded the ground, the sound skittering through the trees as though it came from all directions at once. I pressed my back harder into the bark of the tree and waited for the horse. I imagined being trampled, my body crushed by it, and scrambled to push harder into the tree. My heart raced and I felt the beat of life shove through me.
The horse was a stallion, sleek-coated and all black as it streaked past the oak that hid me. I only noticed it for a moment, because leaning close over the saddle of that magnificent beast was a rider in a rough gray cloak which clung to him not quite hiding the muscular form of his shoulders and arms. The two passed in an instant, one impressive animal atop another, and I flushed realizing I had not looked at his face.
There was just enough time to catch my breath as they passed, and I took one step from the tree. I heard a sliding sound as the horse hit a frosted patch of earth. Its front right leg bent wrong and the full gallop forced horse and rider to twist in a half-turn. The horse slipped again. It snorted, sides heaving.
Everything happened at once. The rider looked up from his mount the second it began to fall back. A thin, gray scarf covered the lower half of his face and the hood of his cloak covered most of his hair except for a few jet black strands which curled around his forehead. His skin was pale as cream, and he had the fine upturned nose and high-cheekbones of an aristocrat and thick dark brown eyebrows, but that wasn't what stopped my heart in my throat.
It was his eyes, a light, glacial blue, the color of open sky. He looked up into mine, and didn't break his gaze even as the horse went down with him.
"What the hell?" he said. I had just enough time to know it was his voice I heard curse in the forest. He hit the ground and the horse hit with him.
I ran down to the rider, dropping the bag of prop toys along the way. He struggled free of the saddle and stirrups and pushed his way free of the horse. The rider didn't seem injured, and I felt foolish racing down the hill to help.
"Are you hurt?" I asked.
He stumbled, but he didn't seem to be injured too bad. He swore in that same sinful voice, and it was like silk brushing against my ears. I blushed and tried not to listen.
"Can I help you?"
"Yes," he hissed. "Come here and help me up." I trembled inside at the imperative edge of his tone. I'm not so used to taking orders. I took hold of his right hand to pull him up, but he flinched and cursed again.
"That one may be broken," he said through gritted teeth. "Try the left."
He got up on his knees, and then leaned his weight on my shoulder until he stood. His cloak felt as coarse against my arm as it had seemed billowed out behind him. He smelled of sweat and sandalwood, with a hint of pepper and the soft scent of lime soap. Underneath that smell was the heated, delectable scent of his skin. I tried not to breathe him in, and found any number of places along the pathway for my eyes to follow. His arm and back were hot against mine. I was not ready to face those eyes again.
I set him on the edge of a wide network of tree roots, and lowered him to the ground.
"If your arm is broken, there is a medic tent back with the film crew. I can fetch someone."
The rider bent his head and took care as he squeezed his right arm with his left. He flinched as he checked the spot above his elbow.
"It's only a sprain," he said, his eyes found mine as he tried to use his right arm to push off the ground and stand. He moaned. Instinctively I reached toward him, but I was taken aback by the anger in his beautiful eyes. He was a wounded animal, and I was not to corner him.
Instead I took notice of the long gray cloak he wore, his height which was taller than I had first thought when he was bent over the neck of the horse. I was afraid of him for a moment, with only the woods around us. He was strong, his shoulders and arms rippled with muscle, his stomach and hips lean. The same fierce heat I felt from his voice crept into me as I gazed on him. I wanted him, even hurt as he was, I could feel my body reach for him. He was the most handsome man I had ever seen, those artic eyes and dark hair. I am both drawn to and repulsed by beautiful people. I am not one of them, but how I long to be.
If he had been kind to me, if he hadn't been staring into my soul as the horse went down, I think I would have left him there in the forest. His anger served as a sort of buffer for me. If anything I was determined that he would get help whether he wanted it or not. The horse had righted itself, and I checked it as best I could before determining it was bruised up, but not badly injured. I grabbed the reigns and bent to pull up the rider.
"C'mon. We'll go to the medic tent. You can lean on me as we go."
"What are you doing out here anyway?" he grumbled as he stood, his voice rough and agitated. He turned and stared at me again. The heat of his shoulder and arm felt good against mine, too good, and I tried not to smell him.
"I'm on the crew for the movie being filmed at the estate. I got lost getting these toys for the set. I'm not that far off the grounds."
"You're on the crew down there?" He pointed with his good arm, the one around my shoulder. The estate grounds seem to spread out before us in dots of garden, field, and hedge.
"Do you know which actors are in the film?" the rider asked. He still had not removed his scarf or hood. His face was close to mine as he gestured, and if he was not layered in scarf, we might have been lip to lip. More of his hair fell from the hood, and I wanted to brush it back. I know it would feel cold from the air and slick as silk. He said something, didn't he? I cleared my throat.
"It's my first day, and a lot of the cast is British anyway. They're only in America for the shoot. So, I haven't seen any of them."
"So you're?" His eyes reviewed my pale pink shirt and loose slacks with certain hauteur. I had been found wanting. He puzzled for a moment.
"I'm a production assistant," I said.
"Right," he said and his eyes travelled over me again. I found myself wishing I had dressed better today, maybe a ball gown would satisfy Mr. high-class? My traitorous nipples did not share my offense, and presented themselves in chilled points to his gaze. The rider saw them, and quickly looked away. It would appear chivalry is only dead in America. Or I am have grossly overestimated the appeal of my breasts. Either way, I had the wild desire to pull up my shirt and make him see.
"You're not afraid to be alone in the wood with me?" he whispered, a slight menace to his cultured voice, his lips quirked in a playful smirk under the scarf. He was so close I could feel his breath against my neck as he said it. I shivered, but it had nothing to do with the cold. He leaned move heavily on me, and his chest brushed tauntingly against me as we limped together. I gasped and coughed to recover.
"No." I said softly. It was a lie, but I couldn't tell him everything about him was too intense for me. He scared the most primitive part of me, the part which felt like a gazelle making chit chat with a panther.
"Stop. I think I can make it from here on the horse," he said. I pulled the reigns over, and he used my shoulder to boost himself up with his good arm. He let out another moan as he settled into the saddle when his elbow was wrenched again.
"Now," he said and loosened his scarf so that his mouth was visible. The rider had the most beautiful mouth I have ever seen. His lips were plump and well-shaped with a sort of smirk to them. He'd been biting his lower lip to hide the pain of getting into the saddle. I would kill to be that lower lip.
"My whip, please?" he said in that same honeyed, British voice. He smiled as he said it, and arched an arrogant brow. I stared at him stupidly for a moment, and then searched until I found it, a long, black English style riding crop. I held it up to him. For a brief, wild moment I imagined kissing the end before I handed it to him. The smell of the leather, the texture of the whip end against my lips, the pleasure in his pale blue eyes as he watched me kiss it, knew that I was entirely his.
I handed it back to him with the handle out. I blushed again at my thoughts and could not look him in the eye.
"It's cruel," I said, digging my sneaker into the frosted earth. "To the horses."
"Don't worry," he said, and I felt his eyes tracing my neck. He tilted his head so he had a better view of my lips, "I never use it on the horses."