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Jake paused outside the fourth modeling agency he’d been to this morning—not counting the easy dozen he’d checked on after more than a week of searching. He still wasn’t any closer to finding anyone remotely suited for the job, and the manager of this agency had been flat-out rude when he’d told him what he wanted.
Was it too much to ask for someone unique, an attractive young woman with a sexy, dark, and edgy look—and piercings? Nothing grotesque—ears, nose, eyebrow, the popular spots.
You’d think he was searching for a freak-show contestant.
He was running out of agencies, which meant he was running out of options. Marcus Reed, the one who’d hired him for the ad campaign, had specifically wanted a model from the San Francisco area for a potential long-term commitment. L.A. was out.
Sitting in his car in the parking garage a few minutes later, he sent a text to Marc. Struck out again. One more on my list before I start dragging strangers in off the street.
Slipping his phone into his pocket, he paused when a tone alerted him to a new message.
Marc must be bored this morning. Chuckling, expecting a snarky reply, he checked the text. It wasn’t from Marc. Stunned, Jake stared at the message on the screen, one that said number blocked instead of a name.
He scanned the text and his stomach clenched. Hey, RJ …
He hadn’t been RJ for almost twenty years.
The rest of the message was simple, appeared harmless.
Saw you over on Battery. It’s been a long time, bud.
A tight knot coiled in his gut. He couldn’t take his eyes off the text. No one called him RJ anymore. As far as he was concerned, RJ Cameron was dead and gone. Except someone had found him—someone who could connect him to the Olympic wonder kid he’d once been. The same stupid kid who’d spent time locked up for manslaughter after a drunk-driving accident that took two innocent lives.
He sucked in a couple of deep breaths. He had a job to get done. There was no time for crap like this. With a tap of his finger, Jake deleted the message.
* * *
Kaz Kazanov looped her tote bag over her shoulder and shoved open the heavy door into the office of Top End. Her roommate Lola was at her usual station at the front desk. She glanced up when Kaz stalked into the office, nodded at the door behind her desk, and shrugged.
Kaz glanced at the closed door to the general’s office and whispered to Lola. “You don’t know what he wants?”
Lola shook her head. “No idea. He just told me to get you here stat.”
“That doesn’t sound good, especially after the way my morning went.”
“What happened?” Whispering, Lola leaned across her desk.
Kaz waved her off. “Nothing good. I’ll fill you in later. Mind if I leave this here?” She dumped the heavy bag on the floor beside the desk.
“Go ahead, but you better hurry. He was blowing steam out both ears.” The phone buzzed, and with an exaggerated eye roll, Lola turned to answer it.
Kaz headed toward the door. She rapped twice, heard the familiar bark, and walked into the office.
“Close the damned door.” The pudgy little man behind the desk glared at her, lurched to his feet, and leaned forward, both hands planted firmly on the scarred oak surface.
Taking a deep breath, Kaz shut the door, folded her arms across her chest, and stared right back at him. He was such a weasel. She’d had her fill of him long ago, but she liked the steady income and loved the other people she worked with. He’d been more of an irritant than a real issue.
“The Smithum account is no longer ours, Ms. Kazanov. Do you want to know why?”
Oh, crap. She’d shown up on time and done everything they’d asked, but the vibe had not been good. “Not particularly,” she said, except she really did want to know.
“Well, I’m telling you anyway. They not only dropped you, they dropped the whole fucking agency because the model we sent them, the one they spent a week preparing for, the one who required specially ordered size-twelve shoes, had a fucking tattoo on her goddamned belly.”
Oh, this was just wrong. It took her a bit to find her voice—but she found it just fine. “My torso wasn’t even in the shoot. This was a shoe ad, for crying out loud. Feet. They wanted feet.” She lifted one of the feet in question and then stomped it hard on the tile floor. “I’ve got two of them. Pedicure’s perfect, tan’s perfect, and maybe they’re big, but so am I. You put little feet on a six-foot-two-inch woman, she’s gonna fall over.” She let out a frustrated huff. “Why should they care about my tattoo?”
He really did get spit in the corners of his mouth when he was pissed. Yuck. Kaz blinked, then focused on the wall behind him.
“They are a deeply conservative company. They do not approve of tattoos. Neither does this agency. Your contract with Top End specifically spells out that there will not be any body art, tattoos, or piercings of any kind beyond simple earrings.” He glared at her, and she watched, fascinated, as his eyes narrowed and he focused on her face. “When did you add that disgusting stud in your nose?”
Kaz clenched her hands into fists to keep from touching the offending stud. Damn it all! She knew better than to wear it when coming anywhere near this guy, because he was always looking for something to bitch about. It didn’t seem to matter right now anyway. The general had already worked himself into a self-righteous froth.
“Today, Ms. Kazanov, you really fucked up. I can’t believe you showed up for the shoot in a pair of shorts and a cropped top with your midsection on full display, flaunting…”—he paused, obviously for the dramatic effect—“a large tattoo.”
She took a deep breath and let it out. Carefully enunciating each word, she said, “For your information, I showed up in the jeans and T-shirt I’m wearing now, completely covered, as you can tell, and was changing into shorts for the shoot when the owner’s son decided to invite himself into my dressing room. I was not flaunting anything—I was being spied on by a pervert.”
Before he could respond, she added, “And furthermore, the contract I signed says nothing about body art or piercings. I have never signed an amendment that says anything different.”
“The contract you signed has been updated. You are well aware of the rules and policies of this company.”
She planted her hands on her hips and glared right back at him. “They may be your rules, Mr. MacArthur, but they are not in my contract. Not even mentioned in mine. I have never been offered another version, nor have I read one. Believe me, sir,” she said, emphasizing the title, “I read the small print.”
“Well, Ms. Kazanov, it really doesn’t matter. You’re still fired.”
“What?” Good God, the man was practically spitting, he was so pissed, his face purple, his body leaning forward as if he were ready to attack, shaking his fat little finger in her face.
“You heard me, Kazanov. Fired. Clear out your locker and leave the premises. Your check for this morning’s fiasco, minus costs for failure to perform, will be mailed by the fifteenth.”
He stood straighter and still had to look up to her. Then, as if he realized the height disadvantage hadn’t improved, he quickly sat in his big leather chair.
Not that it changed anything. “I said get out, Ms. Kazanov. You don’t work here anymore, which means you’re trespassing in my office. Now go. I have work to do.”
She stood there a moment longer, staring at the stupid little man and wishing she could think of something particularly pithy to say, something that would make her feel better as she slowly turned and headed for the door, except all she could think of was how expensive the rent was and how little money she had in her bank account.
Kaz opened the door, but she took satisfaction in slamming it as she finally found her backbone and stalked out of the office.
* * *
Jake glanced at the door of the final agency on his list. Top End. Sort of off the beaten track, but the place looked better once he stepped through the door. An attractive receptionist was just answering the phone, but she faced away from the entrance, her attention apparently focused on the office door behind her.
He took a moment to check out the pictures of all the beautiful people along the wall. They were almost interchangeable from agency to agency. This wasn’t looking too promising, but he stopped in front of the receptionist’s desk and waited for her to finish her call.
She set the phone down, but continued staring at the door behind her. Finally, he said, “Excuse me?”
She spun in her chair and blushed, looking up, and up even more. His height had that effect on people sometimes, but at six-and-a-half-feet tall, he was hard to ignore.
Her fair skin blushed a deep rose as she apologized. “I’m sorry. Busy day. How can Top End Modeling help you?”
“Jacob Lowell, R. Jacob Lowell Photography.” He shot a quick glance at the wall of photos. “I’m looking for a model with a particular quality. I’ve been to a few other agencies, but had no luck. I’m not sure if you can help me or not.”
She smiled broadly and spread her hands. “I won’t know until you tell me exactly what you’re looking for. Man? Woman? Hands, feet, face, whole body, or other body part? Particular style? What do you need?”
He let out a frustrated breath. He’d been describing the look he wanted for over a week now, and it hadn’t gotten him anywhere. He gave it another shot.
“Not the traditional look,” he said. “I’ve got a client who wants edgy, someone sort of dark and mysterious. Female, not necessarily traditionally beautiful, but someone unique, eye catching. Piercings are important. Ears, nostril maybe, or cheek. Eyebrow.” He shrugged. “The usual spots for those who do piercings. I want, you know, a sense of danger. I…” He shook his head. At least this receptionist wasn’t laughing at him. “It’s hard to explain. I’ll know her when I see her.”
The office door behind the receptionist opened. Then it shut loudly as a tall, absolutely stunning young woman slammed it behind her.
The receptionist spun around in her chair. “Kaz? Are you okay? What happened?” She glanced at Jake and then focused on the woman.
He couldn’t take his eyes off the model, because that’s what she had to be. No woman this tall, this beautiful could be anything but a high-end model.
“The son of a bitch fired me,” Kaz said, ignoring Jake standing there, staring at her. “He’s got a major issue with tattoos.” Her laugh was harsh and angry. “To make matters worse, I forgot to take the fucking stud out of my nose. The general was not pleased, to put it mildly.” Then she sighed, leaned over, and grabbed her tote bag. “The Smithum people dropped me and the agency because of my tat. A tat on my belly they wouldn’t even have seen if not for a pervert employee checking me out in the dressing room. They’re doing a freaking shoe ad! My belly’s not even in the shoot.”
She stopped, finally noticed Jake standing there. “I’m sorry. Bad day.” She gave him an apologetic smile, then focused on the receptionist. Her shoulders slumped.
“My locker’s already empty.” She held up the bag. “Guess it’s a good thing I’d already planned to clean it out today. I’ll see you back at the house, okay?”
“Oh, Kaz. I’m sorry, hon. There are other agencies, and they don’t have Top End’s stupid rules. As popular as you are…” She glanced at Jake again, but he was more interested in the model than anything Lola had been saying. “I’ll come home as soon as I can.”
Kaz merely nodded, but she flashed another quick smile at Jake and said, “I really am sorry. That was totally unprofessional of me.” Slinging her bag over her shoulder, she added, “It’s been one of those days,” and headed for the door without waiting for an answer.
Jake stared at the slowly closing door, fully aware he was actually aroused. The thrill of the hunt? Hell, he didn’t know, but she was beautiful, she was edgy, and she was exactly who he was looking for. He turned to the receptionist. “Tat? What kind of tat’s she got?”
Blinking, the woman straightened in her chair and gave him her professional smile. “A butterfly,” she said. “A beautiful monarch butterfly that runs across her hip and her stomach and up her rib cage. She got it to honor her sister.” She glanced once again at the door. Then she smiled softly. “Last year, before I knew Kaz, her little sister was killed. Some guy ran a stop sign, a stupid kid out joyriding.”
Jake’s simmering arousal disappeared in a heartbeat, buried in a kaleidoscope of images that flashed through his mind—darkness and a rain-slicked road, faces locked forever in terror, the sounds …
He shook it off and focused on the young woman, on what she was saying. Consciously pushed the memories away. That was another time, another place.
He’d been a totally different person.
For all intents and purposes, RJ Cameron died almost twenty years ago, and Jake had no interest in resurrecting the body, though that text he’d deleted a while ago was a reminder that even the best-kept secrets had a way of getting loose. What the hell was that all about?
The receptionist was still speaking. He focused on her red lips, forced himself to pay attention.
“They released monarchs at her funeral,” she said. “Kaz got the tattoo in memory of Jilly. It was tough.”
Jake sucked in a deep breath. “A monarch butterfly across her torso?”
“Yes. It’s absolutely beautiful.” She shuffled some papers on her desk and smiled at him. “Now, Mr. Lowell, back to business. I need specifics, exactly what you’re looking for.” She reached for an album on the shelf behind her and pulled it out, set it on her desk.
Jake watched the receptionist, really looked at her, at the coal-black hair slicked back from her pale face, darkly drawn eyes, and blood-red lips. Upscale Goth? No matter—she was as sleek, as beautiful, and perfectly professional as a young woman could be. Then he glanced over his shoulder, at the door the tall, dark-eyed beauty had just exited.
He’d never felt such an instant attraction toward a woman—something he definitely didn’t need. But she had piercings, and the tattoo was an omen. It had to be. Except …
Damn it all. She might be perfect for the job, but not for him. Not a woman he felt this kind of visceral attraction for. She could ruin everything he’d gained over the past ten years—his reputation, his career, his new life.
He had too many secrets hiding in his own personal closet, secrets that were just fine when he left them alone. This morning’s text was a reminder of how easily his hard-won sense of security could be shaken. There was no way in hell he could work with a woman he was attracted to—not if he wanted to keep the truth hidden. Hiring her would be the biggest mistake of his life.
No, he’d already made the biggest one—that long-ago night on a rain-slicked road—and two innocent people had died because of it. But damn it! She was perfect for Marc’s ad campaign. And he owed Marc. Owed him more than he’d ever be able to repay.
“Her,” he said, still staring at the door. “She’s what I’m looking for. I want her.”
“Kaz? But the general … uh, Mr. MacArthur, just fired her. I can’t send her out on assignment if she doesn’t work for the agency.”
He turned on the charm. “She’s your roommate, right? I heard her say she’d see you at home later. Call her. Ask her if she’s willing to meet me. I’ve got a hot assignment, one that could be a terrific career opportunity for her.” Not to mention what it could do for his professional reputation. “I don’t care if I hire through an agency or independently, but I definitely want…” He paused. “Her name’s Kaz, right? She’s the one I want. She’s perfect for this job.”
He yanked his wallet out of his back pocket and dug through it until he found one of his cards. The corners were bent a little, but he quickly straightened it out and handed it to the receptionist. “My Web site’s on there, and all my professional info is on the site. Check me out. I’m legit, San Francisco born and bred. Well, Marin, but close. There’s a portfolio of my work, my Facebook, Pinterest, and Twitter accounts and a list of the magazines I’ve done shoots for.”
He watched her as she studied his card, thankful that none of those social media sites mentioned the stupid kid he’d once been. R. Jacob Lowell was a successful photographer with an excellent reputation and a long list of professional credits. There was no mention of RJ Cameron on any of his sites. That kid belonged to his past.
But the model? He wasn’t sure why, but he had a feeling she was going to be all over his future.
Whether that was a good thing or bad, he’d just have to find out.
Jake glanced at the door again. Maybe he could just chase her down. The sidewalk was filled with pedestrians headed in all directions, but she was tall and gorgeous. She’d stand out. Except he didn’t have a clue which way she’d gone.
He doubted the suspicious receptionist would give him a lead.
“I don’t know…”
“Please?” He tried the sad puppy-dog eyes. The look always worked with women, but this gal wasn’t buying. He said it again, desperate now. Terrified he’d lose her. “She’s the one I’ve been hunting for almost two weeks now. That honey tone to her skin, the cut and color of her hair, and those beautiful dark eyes. Right down to the stud in her nose. And the tattoo. Especially the tattoo.”
The receptionist didn’t even blink.
“I’m serious. The art’s like an omen—the company is new, their logo is a monarch butterfly. It doesn’t get any better.”
The receptionist took a deep breath. Shook her head. Jake’s gut clenched.
“I just don’t know…”
That was better than a flat-out no, but not much.
He was clenching and unclenching his fingers. Not good. He shoved his hands in his back pockets. “This job is important to me and to my client. He’s a successful guy with deep pockets, starting up another new business. The model who gets this job will be the focal point of an international media blitz on a big budget, but we’re on a tight deadline. I need a commitment right away.”
He didn’t tell her it was more than just a job—that this was the biggest job Marc had ever offered him. He already owed the success of R. Jacob Lowell Photography to Marcus Reed, but this would take him to an entirely new level.
A level that much farther away from RJ Cameron.
He didn’t just owe his success to Marc; Jake owed him his life.
He ran his hand up the back of his head and stared at the door. Then he realized he’d just made a mess of his hair, which probably made him look disreputable as hell, so he tried to shove it back down, which only messed it up worse. He took a deep breath, fully aware he was acting way out of character. Not his usual manner at all.
“You’ve got my cell phone number. Tell her that if she’s at all interested in the job, she has to call today.”
“Look.” The woman studied him like he was a bug on the wall. “I can’t give you Kaz’s personal number. I’ll give her your card, have her call you, but you’d better be who you say you are.”
Score! “Who else would I be?” He chuckled and glanced toward the closed office door behind her desk. “I’m no general, that’s for sure.”
She laughed, then glanced at the door. “Thank God,” she said.
The phone rang. Jake didn’t hesitate. As she reached for it, he was flying out the door, searching for Kaz. Even as tall as he was, tall enough to see over just about everyone, it was the lunch hour, and the sidewalk was packed. He had no idea where to look, which way she’d gone.
With those long, long legs she could be blocks away by now.
“Crap.” Still watching for the model, Jake headed toward the next block where he’d parked. He’d take a run down Nineteenth, see if he could spot her. If he didn’t, he’d have to hope like hell she called him.
Tires squealed. Jake spun to look, but the unmistakable scream of tires on asphalt had him leaping out of the path of a sliding car. The older sedan rammed a parked car just ahead of him. A policeman giving someone a ticket at the stoplight raced across the street, halted traffic with one arm raised, then reached for the car door where a guy was slumped over the steering wheel.
Jake kept walking, but his head was once again filled with images from long ago. The rain falling, his brother’s face, the horror of death. The guilt. No matter how far or fast he walked, the reboot of bad memories stayed with him.
Copyright © 2015 by Kate Douglas