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"I think we really might have found the twelve sexiest men in America," Lacey Graham's assistant, Jackie, sighed as they took in the photographic buffet of gorgeous men before them on the project board. The final selections for the "Sexiest American Heroes" calendar had been made the week before. As photographer for the project, these gorgeous guys were all now in Lacey's capable hands.
Lacey stood back, one arm wrapped across her middle with her other elbow balancing on it, her chin resting in her fingers as she assessed the blowups of the hunks with a cool, experienced eye.
Too many blondes in a row in March, April and Mayshe'd switch April with August. Since they were in October now, she'd reversed the schedule, starting with Mr. December, who was set to arrive tomorrow, and November a few days later. She wanted to take them one at a time, calling them back at a later date for group cover shots.
She and Jackie had been juggling these promo shots all day, most of which were not professionally done but were good enough for roughs. Actually, it was impressive how incredible these men looked in the bad lighting and overly bright PR poses. Her hands itched to get to work, to get them in the right setting, good light.
"I don't think I've ever seen such a collection of perfect men all in one place." Jackie sighed. "I want them all, and not necessarily one at a time."
Lacey chuckled. "Down, girl. Don't you have a steady boyfriend?"
"Well, sure, but I can window-shop, can't I? K.C. is my guy, and he knows it, but frankly, he's not above checking out some beautiful woman when she walks by and turnaround is fair play. So if you had to choose ?" Jackie promptedLacey mischievously.
Lacey shook her head, not interested. She looked at the men on the board in the only way she could, as professional modeling subjects and that was all. She rubbed her right forearm, knowing it was healed, but a shadow of an ache lingered anyway. Her last lover had not taken her attempts to break up very well, leaving her with a broken forearm as a parting gift, along with an assortment of bruises and a nasty laceration that had taken several stitches. Broken hearts were something you could get over most of the time, but having someone break your arm wasn't easily forgotten.
Swallowing deeply, she studied the board, fighting the sick feeling in her stomach that she got whenever she thought about being with a man. It would pass. She'd get back in the game at some point. When she was ready and not before, not even for guys like the ones lined up in front of her. Until then, she'd keep to herself and focus on her work. That was what mattered.
No one here knew her secret.
Jackie didn't know and no one was going to know about what had happened with Scott, her ex. On the advice of the doctor who treated her arm, Lacey had made one visit to an abuse counselor when she'd arrived in the city. Once she saw the haunted expressions of the women sitting in the lobby, she'd walked back out. That wasn't her. She'd handle it on her own.
What Scott had done to her had been a onetime thing, a huge, incredibly stupid mistake. But Lacey hadn't waited around for more and wouldn't allow it to happen again. She wasn't like the women who were trapped or who wouldn't leave.
Still, the memory pinched at her as much as the residual ache in her arm. On a certain level, she was irritated with herself for not being able to enjoy the beauty of the men as she once would have done. Like Jackie said, there was nothing wrong with looking.
There was no doubt that the array of males she'd be working with were prime fantasy material. She also knew she shouldn't change her perception of all men because of one bad apple. She knew thatin her head.
Her heart, however, was still playing "keep away," and so was her body. She'd made a few small forays into a normal dating lifetried to go out to clubs with friendsbut it hadn't worked out. The thought of a man touching her, even to dance well not yet.
"I'm a professional. I don't have a favorite," she said primly, breaking the spell of her thoughts.
Jackie wasn't buying it. "Ha. Give me a break. Check out Mr. November and tell me he's not absolutely perfect."
Lacey glanced up, relenting just slightly. "No one is perfect."
They grinned at each other, and Lacey relented a little. "It is hard to resist an honest-to-goodness cowboy."
"Not a cowboy, a Texas Ranger," Jackie corrected with flourish. "Rough, rugged, and they always get their man."
"Isn't that the Mounties?"
"Whatever. I bet they always get their girl, too."
Lacey studied the man staring out from the Ranger's PR photo and smiled. "He's got good eyes. Dark hair, dark eyes. That straight jawline could be on a statue at the Met, but he's so serious. All the rest are smiling."
"Maybe he doesn't like having his picture taken."
"We'll have to change that right quick," Lacey said in a mock Western accent, slipping out of her serious self for a moment, though she couldn't joke about the facts in front of her.
"This guy is the real deal. Look at his bio. Very single, career cop, has more awards and recognitions than I can count. He was nominated for the calendar by his community after he stopped a school shooter single-handedly. He found the guy targeting a local migrant school before the shooting happened. Tracked him through the Texas desert for five days and brought him back. Alive."
"Wow," Jackie breathed the word, fanning her face, and Lacey had to agree. Wow indeed.
Lacey couldn't help but be impressed with the stories of the twelve men on her wall. They were good men. Men who put their lives on the line to help others. The one thing all of the calendar candidates had in common was that they'd pitched in to help during the weeks of 9/11, one of the criteria for the application.
The Bliss calendar this year was going to be a smash, a celebration of the best of the best. It was also going to be a very visible leap for Lacey into the world of commercial photography. It could push her to the top. That was what she was counting on, anyway.
Lacey had given up several other opportunities to land the deal. The women's magazine equivalent of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue, the Bliss project was the chance of a lifetime.
She wasn't going to let the past get the best of her.
Eyeing Mr. November again, she allowed herself to imagine the possibilities, just for a second.
"His eyes are good," Jackie agreed, "but I can't wait to see him with his shirt off. I bet he has great abs, naturally defined, not gym-machine generated."
Lacey agreed. "I love the slope of the croup "
"The what?" Jackie frowned at her as if she was nuts.
Lacey laughed. "Sorry. My parents raised horses back in Nevada, and sometimes I can't help thinking about people's bodies in equine terms. Especially men."
"I'll bet he's hung like a"
"Jackie!" Lacey admonished, laughing. "We're not taking those kinds of pictures."
"Hey, gotta show some skin for Bliss. But what's the slope of the What was it again?"
"Croup. On a horse, it's the curve that follows the hip to the tip of the tailright about here on our handsome model," she said, leaning in to trace the masculine line from hip over his hindquarters.
"Oh. Yeah. I love that part," Jackie said approvingly. "Very important for good thrust, yes?"
Lacey choked on a shocked laugh, pulling her hand back as she realized she hadn't withdrawn her finger from the photograph yet, her cheeks catching fire. Maybe she wasn't quite as detached as she thought she was.
"Yes, I suppose it would be. Thanks for the visual. I guess Mr. December should be here tomorrow, right?"
Jackie snapped to attention. "Oh, crap, I meant to tell youI had to change up the first two appointments. November is coming in first because December's wife went into labor, so he won't be in for a week or so."
"Oh, well, good for them. We should send something, congratulations, flowers, whatever," Lacey commented absently, still studying the pictures.
"You're the best."
"So, Mr. Luscious should be arriving at LaGuardia around 10:00 a.m.I'll meet him, of course." Jackie grinned like a cat swallowing a whole flock of canaries. "And then after lunch you'll meet him for an afternoon planning session, some studio time, and get out on the shoot day after tomorrow. He's single. No babies to worry about, thank the heavens."
"Sounds good. Thanks so much for all of your help. I've never had a full-time assistant before. I could get used to it."
"Hit a bull's-eye with this job, and you'll need one to keep up with all the projects that will be coming your way," Jackie said sincerely, patting Lacey's arm. "Oh, I have to go. I'm meeting Kenny at the rib place he's been insisting on going to. You want to come along? He's into photography, too, and was hoping to talk shop with you at some point."
"Really? I didn't know thatwhat's he do?"
Jackie shrugged. "He's been doing all kinds of things for a while. He had a small gallery show, and he's been picking up some brochure work, catalogs, that kind of thing."
"Everyone has to start somewhere."
"He's really goodI could show you some of his stuff sometime."
Lacey smiled, but always felt awkward in situations where up-and-coming photographers wanted to make contact, but it was how the game was played, and Jackie was her assistant.
"Surebut you go ahead for dinner. I have work to finish up here. Thanks, though."
"Okay, I'll have your hunk here for you safe and sound tomorrow."
"Don't take a bite out of him before you get here."
Jackie stuck her tongue out. "Spoilsport."
Lacey grinned, then was left alone to quietly study the men. They were all amazing, although Jackie was right. November stood out. Maybe slightly older than the others, he had more presence, more something. Manliness, charisma Those steady brown eyes might have been staring down a suspect as much as a camera as he peered out from the picture. Dangerous. Not to be messed with.
Would he look at her that way? Did his eyes soften when he was with a lover? Naked, tangled in silky sheets, skin to skin? Was he still all hard edges and intense eyes then?
A shiver skidded over her skin. She didn't need to be around any man with the capacity to be dangerous. Still, she wondered what it would take to make him smile. Reaching out to draw her finger along his outline again, she stopped when her fingers met his lips.
Maybe Mr. November could remind her how good being with a real man could be, not some jerk who got off on hurting women. They would be working alone for several days, moving around the city. Almost nothing was as intimate to Lacey as staring down the barrel of her lens at someone, closing in, finding the shot.
It was New York City. Anything could happen.
Slope of his croup, huh? Would she be asking to check his teeth or feeling him up for spavins and thorough-pins and other physical faults before they were done? Jarod Wyatt shook his head, mostly amused. The idea of her feeling him up wasn't an entirely unappealing one, and at least she knew something about horses. He hadn't expected that from a city girl.
He stood in the dark corner of the Bliss studio, fascinated by the conversations he'd overheard, and more so with the woman who couldn't seem to keep her hands off himor off his picture, anyway.
The smaller, dark-haired girl with the lusty sense of humor walked out the back, leaving the blondethe photographerstanding alone in perfect silhouette against the white wall. She was lanky and somewhat coltish in build, but she moved gracefully. Her fingers were long and thin like the rest of her, though beneath the khakis and black T-shirt, he could see she had her share of curves.
Jarod had only been to New York once before, on the day after the bombings. The empty spot on the skyline still kicked him in the chest because he'd stood in the middle of it for several days and those were memories he wasn't likely to ever forget. He wasn't sure what he expected to feel coming back. Mostly it was good to see the city had recovered, that it was busy and teeming with life, the way it should be.
On the approach, he hadn't been able to take his eyes off the spot where the Towers used to be, but he noted driving in that there was so much life here, nothing could ever completely erase it. New York was a place unique unto itself, and if he wasn't here for such a ridiculous reason, he might enjoy the visit. He loved the scrub desert and wide-open spaces of Texas. His home was a part of his soul. Still, he enjoyed getting away every now and then, just like anyone else. Cities had their advantages.
He'd also been told there was a decent place that did Texas barbecue better than he could find in his home state. He didn't want to believe it, but he had the address in his PDA and hoped to find out for himself.
Feeling a little like a Peeping Tom, he figured he should make himself known. He'd stayed to the back when he'd walked in, not wanting to interrupt, but now there wasn't any reason to lurk, except that he was enjoying the view.
Clearing his throat gently to signal his presence, he stepped forward from the hallway where he'd been standing. She whipped around, obviously startled, and he froze. Her posture signaled fright to him. Not a jump or a gasp of broken concentration, but her big eyes landed on him with a look that he'd seen far too often. Fear. Momentary panic.
He put his hands up, calming, showing he was no threat.
"Sorry, didn't mean to scare you, ma'am. I'm Lt. Jarod Wyatt, Texas Rangers, El Paso division November, as you have me up on your board there," he said with a healthy dose of Texas charm and sincere chagrin. The picture reminded him why he was here, and it made his eyes roll every time he thought about it.
"You're not due until tomorrow," she said starkly, sounding a bit choked, as if trying to breathe correctly. Was she always this jumpy? She'd mentioned Nevada. Maybe she wasn't a city girl as he'd assumed.