Family Tree


by Susan Wiggs

1

Now

I can’t believe we’re arguing about a water buffalo.” Annie Rush reached for her husband’s shirt collar, turning it neatly down.

“Then let’s quit arguing,” he said. “It’s a done deal.” He sat down and shoved first one foot, then the other, into his cowboy boots—the ridiculously expensive ones she had given him last Christmas. She’d never regretted the purchase, though, because they looked so good on him.

“It’s not a done deal. We can still cancel. The budget for the show is already stretched to the limit. And a water buffalo? It’s going to be fifteen hundred pounds of stubborn.”

“C’mon, babe.” Martin stood, his blue eyes twinkling like the sun on a swimming pool. “Working with a live animal on the show will be an adventure. The viewers will love it.”

She blew out a breath in exasperation. Married couples fought about the dumbest things. Who left the cap off the toothpaste? Whether it was quicker to take the Ventura Freeway or the Golden State. The number of syllables in broccoli. The optimum thermostat setting. Why he couldn’t clean his whiskers out of the sink.

And now this. The water buffalo.

“Where in my job description does it say water-buffalo wrangler?” she asked.

“The buffalo’s an integral part of the show.” He gathered up his keys and briefcase and went downstairs, boots ringing on the hardwood.

“It’s a crazy misuse of the production budget,” she stated, following him. “This is a cooking show, not Wild Kingdom.”

“It’s The Key Ingredient,” he countered. “And when the ingredient of the week is mozzarella, we need a buffalo.”

Annie gritted her teeth to keep from prolonging the fight. She reminded herself that underneath the fight was their marriage. Even at fifteen hundred pounds, the buffalo was a small thing. It was the big things that mattered—his effortless way of chopping garlic and chives as he cooked for her. His dedication to the show they had created together. The steamy shower sex they’d had the night before.

“It’s gonna be great,” he said. “Trust me.” Slipping one arm around her waist, he claimed a brief kiss.

Annie reached up and touched his freshly shaven cheek. The last thing she needed was a dispute with Martin. He had no sense of the oddity of his idea. He had always believed the show owed its appeal to the outlandish. She was equally convinced that the success of their show stemmed from its authenticity. That, and a talented chef whose looks and charisma held an audience spellbound for an hour each week.

“I trust,” she whispered, rising on tiptoe for another kiss. He was the star of the show, after all. He had the ear of the executive producer, and was used to getting his way. The details, he left to Annie—his wife, his partner, his producer. It was up to her to make things happen.

With the argument still ringing through her head, she braced her hands on the sill of the window overlooking the garden of their town house. She had a million things to do today, starting with the People magazine interview—a behind-the-scenes piece about the show.

A window washer was preparing to climb a scaffold and get to work. Martin passed by on his way to the garage, pausing to say something to the worker, who grinned and nodded. Charming Martin.

A moment later, his silver BMW roadster shot out of the parking garage. She didn’t know why he was in such a hurry. The Monday run-through was hours away.

She sighed and turned away, trying to shake off the emotional residue of the argument. Gran was fond of saying that a fight was never about the thing being fought over. The water buffalo wasn’t the point. All arguments, at their core, were about power. Who had it. Who wanted it. Who would surrender. Who would prevail.

No mystery there. Annie surrendered, Martin prevailed. That was how it worked. Because she let it? Or because she was a team player? Yes, they were a team. A successful team with their own show on an emerging network. The compromises she made were good for them both. Good for their marriage.

Another thing Gran would say was imprinted on Annie’s heart—remember the love. When times get hard and you start wondering why you got married in the first place, remember the love.

Fortunately for Annie, this was not hard to do. Martin was a catch. He was the kind of handsome that made women stop and stare. His aw-shucks charm wasn’t confined to the show. He knew how to make her laugh. When they came up with an idea together, he would sweep her into his arms and dance her around the kitchen. When he talked about the family they’d have one day, the babies, she would melt with yearning. He was her husband, her partner, an irreplaceable element in her life’s work. Okay, she thought. Okay, then. Whatever.

Annie checked the time and looked at her work e-mail—all her e-mail was work—to discover that the scissor lift they’d rented to install new on-set lighting at the studio was having mechanical problems.

Great. One more thing to worry about.

The phone rang, and the screen lit up with a picture of a cat. “Melissa,” said Annie, putting her phone on speaker. “What’s up?”

“Just checking in,” said Melissa. She seemed to check in a lot, especially lately. “Did you see that e-mail about the cow?”

“Buffalo,” Annie corrected her. “And yes. Also, I have a note about a lift that’s not working. And I’ve got CJ from People coming. So I guess I’ll be in late. Like, really late. Tell everyone to sit tight until after lunch.” She paused, bit her lip. “Sorry. I’m cranky this morning. Forgot to eat breakfast.”

“Go eat something. Okay, gorgeous,” Melissa said brightly. “Gotta bounce.”

Annie turned back to her computer to double-check the meeting time with the reporter. CJ Morris was doing an in-depth piece on the show—not just its stars, Martin Harlow and Melissa Judd—but the entire production, from its debut as a minor cable program to the hit it had become. CJ had already interviewed Martin and Melissa. She was coming over this morning to visit with Annie, the show’s creator. It was an unusual slant for a magazine article; casual readers craved gossip and photos of the stars. Annie hoped to make the most of the opportunity.

While waiting for the reporter, she did what a producer did—she used every spare minute to handle things. She studied the rental agreement for the lift to find a phone number. She and Martin had quarreled about that piece of equipment, too. The cost of the lift with the best safety rating had been much higher than the hydraulic one. Martin insisted on going with the cheaper one—over Annie’s objections. As usual, she’d surrendered and he’d prevailed. Since they’d blown the budget on the water buffalo, she had to skimp on something else. Now the hydraulic lift was malfunctioning and it was up to Annie to deal with the issue.

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