After all, what did I expect? That we’d both look at each other with wide-eyed surprise and then leap across a daisy-strewn studio into each other’s arms while orchestral music played in the background?
That our past would be magically erased, and bluebirds of happiness would ring our heads while tweeting a chipper melody?
I should have stayed. I should have looked him in the eye, told him I’d come about the job, and steadfastly repeated that the past didn’t matter. Over and over and over for as long as it took for him to ignore everything that happened before and simply hire me.
Because I hadn’t come to Santa Monica to see Wyatt Segel or W. Royce or whatever name he wanted to go by. I hadn’t come because I have some deep hidden desire to strip my clothes off in front of a camera. And I most certainly hadn’t come for the fizzle and pop that fills me every time Wyatt is near.
I came solely for the money. For Griffin.
And there is no way I’m letting Wyatt’s Arctic glare send me scurrying away.
I need this job, and he needs a model. So I’m doing this. I can, and I will.
With my pep talk still ringing in my ears, I turn and pull open the heavy steel door. It creaks, and as I step over the threshold, Wyatt turns once again to face me.
He’s standing like a sentry in front of a wall decorated with dozens and dozens of white-draped photographs. I know what’s hidden behind the drapes—images of women just like me, their bare bodies posed provocatively. And for one tiny moment, I breathe easier. Soon, those women will be on display for anyone in the world to see, but until then, Wyatt’s covered them. He’s protecting them. Guarding their honor.
And surely a man who does that will protect me, too.
I clear my throat and flash a tentative smile. “I shouldn’t have run.”
Immediately, the guarded expression in his eyes fades, replaced by something that looks almost like hope.
Encouraged, I rush on. “It’s just that I really need this job, and you made it so clear you didn’t want to see me, and—”
“I see.” He’d been walking toward me, but now he stops, his hands sliding into his pockets. His posture stiffens. He’s no longer hopeful; if anything, he’s hostile.
A wave of embarrassment crashes over me, and I want to kick myself for being such a fool. My apology was for running away twelve minutes ago. But Wyatt obviously thought I was apologizing for what happened twelve years ago.
I expect him to order me out. To tell me firmly and plainly that I have no business being there.
But he says none of that. All he does is look at me so deeply I’m certain he can see all the way to my soul.
I shift under his inspection, feeling raw and naked and exposed. I want to explain. To tell him how confused I was. How much he meant to me. How badly I screwed up. How many people I hurt.
But I can’t. The words just don’t come. Instead, I can only manage a breathy little gasp before I force out his name, “Wyatt, I—”
“I’m not hiring you, Kelsey. Did you really expect that I would?”
“I—I didn’t know it was you,” I admit.
“And now you do.” He starts to pivot, dismissing me.
He stops. His eyes are wide, and I think he’s as surprised as I am that a curse escaped my lips. The teenager inside me actually cringes, but my father isn’t here. It’s only Wyatt, and my outburst has at least snagged his attention.
“You need a model,” I say. “I need the work.”
“This isn’t the job for you, Kelsey. We both know that.”
I lift my chin. “You don’t know me at all.”
“No, I don’t. I thought I did,” he adds, his harsh words making me cringe. “But I know enough to know this isn’t you.” He indicates the three photographs without drapes. “Or this,” he adds, yanking more drapes to the ground to reveal two riveting photos of women who are entirely nude, yet staring out at the camera without an ounce of shame, as if they owned the world and everything in it.
“And certainly not her,” he continues, uncovering another, this one in virginal white bridal lingerie, her wrists and ankles bound with red ribbons, her face alight with ecstasy. “Or am I wrong? Is that really what you want, Kelsey? Or are you just here for another piece of me?”
Another piece of me? I have no idea what he means by that, but I don’t ask him. I can’t. I’m too distracted by the way my heart is beating wildly, and not just in reaction to the waves of restrained anger pulsing off this man, but because of the images he’s revealed. Bold women. Brash women.
Fearless women who ask for—and get—what they want. But that isn’t me. It never has been. How can it be when I know only too well the price I’d have to pay?
“Well?” Wyatt demands, and when I remain silent, he makes a scoffing noise. “Like I said, that’s not who you are.”
I bristle. “Did you really just say that? Are you actually telling me that I ought to be ashamed for wanting to pose for you? That those women should be ashamed of their bodies? Their emotions?”
“Ashamed?” He sounds genuinely surprised. “Hell no.”
With a soft chuckle, he saunters toward me. He stops only inches away, his proximity making my head spin.
When he reaches out, I start to take a step back, but force myself to stay perfectly still. This is a test, I’m certain of it. And it’s one I’m determined to pass.
Even so, I can’t stifle the soft exhale of breath when he gently brushes my hair off my face, his fingertip grazing my ear in the process. I feel that touch all the way in my core, and I have to forcibly press my lips together in order not to whimper.
Slowly, he traces his fingertip down the line of my jaw, then down my neck, lower and lower until I’m not breathing, and it’s taking all of my strength to stand perfectly still and not run.
“What I’m saying,” he says as his fingertip rises with the curve of my breast, “is that I don’t think you can handle it.”
“I can,” I say, though my voice comes out shaky and not firm at all.
“Is that so? The kindergarten teacher has a wild side? The dancer’s abandoning beginning ballet and tap for more exotic pursuits?”
“How do you know what I’ve been—?”
But he continues speaking as if I hadn’t said a word. “You’re willing to do this?” he asks, putting his hands on my shoulders as he steps behind me, so that we are both facing the wall of exposed photos.
“You’re actually going to reveal yourself to the camera? To me?” His hands graze down my arms as he speaks, making it difficult for me to concentrate on his words, which are drowned out by the pounding of my blood.
“And it’s not just your body on display, but what’s inside you. Are you willing to show that fire? That heat? To expose yourself like that, open and vulnerable, to whoever stands in front of those photos? And to me, too, Kelsey. Can you handle knowing I’ll see you raw and vulnerable? And not just see you. Do you understand that I’m the one who’s going to take you there?”
The thought terrifies me—and yet I can’t deny that the terror is tinged with something else. Something scary and exciting all at the same time. “I can do it.” I force the words out past dry lips. “I’m not the girl I was when you knew me.”
Photographer Wyatt Royce’s career is on the verge of exploding. All he needs is one perfect model to be the centerpiece of his sexy, controversial show. Find her, and Wyatt is sure to have a winner.
Then Kelsey Draper walks in. Stunning. Vibrant. And far too fragile for a project like this. Wyatt should know—after all, he remembers only too well why their relationship ended all those years ago.
Determined to break free from her good girl persona, Kelsey wants spice. Adventure. And she’s certain that Wyatt is just the man to help.
But when Wyatt agrees to give her the job only if he has complete control—on camera and in his bed—Kelsey can’t help but wonder if she’s in too deep. Because how can a good girl like her ever be enough for a man like Wyatt?
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Though known primarily for her award-winning and international bestselling erotic romances (including the Stark and Most Wanted series) that have reached as high as #2 on the New York Times bestseller list, JK has been writing full time for over a decade in a variety of genres including paranormal and contemporary romance, “chicklit” suspense, urban fantasy, and paranormal mommy lit.
JK has been praised by Publishers Weekly as an author with a “flair for dialogue and eccentric characterizations” and by RT Bookclub for having “cornered the market on sinfully attractive, dominant antiheroes and the women who swoon for them.” A five time finalist for Romance Writers of America’s prestigious RITA award, JK took home the first RITA trophy awarded in the category of erotic romance in 2014 for her novel, Claim Me (book 2 of her Stark Trilogy). Her Demon Hunting Soccer Mom series (as Julie Kenner) is currently in development with AwesomenessTV/Awestruck.
Her books have sold over three million copies and are published in over twenty languages.
In her previous career as an attorney, JK worked as a clerk on the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, and practiced primarily civil, entertainment and First Amendment litigation in Los Angeles and Irvine, California, as well as in Austin, Texas. She currently lives in Central Texas, with her husband, two daughters, and two rather spastic cats.
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