HE TICKLED MY FOOT: one big, strong hand holding onto the ball of my foot, the other hand’s forefinger running languidly down the curve of my instep.
I squirmed and tried to pull my foot free of his grip. He scowled at me and gave me one of those roguish, stunning smiles of his. No wonder women—and quite a few men—had been in love with him for the last two decades. It was more than the fact that he literally got better looking every damn year. It was more than the amazing shape he kept his body in.
It was even more than the restless leviathan between his muscular legs that was now discreetly covered by my Hello Kitty pink and white sheets.
Brad Pitt was just the sexiest man to ever live…and—tabloid rumors aside—he was a great guy… a humanitarian. Heck, he’d done more than FEMA for New Orleans.
“I’m not done yet,” he admonished, his voice deep with want.
“Well, stop with the tickling, then, and get to it,” I said, pressing my free foot into his hard, hairless chest. Good god, his flesh was soft and warm… and he smelled delicious.
He raised an eyebrow and smirked. “Yes, ma’am.”
As Brad reached over to the bedside table, his thick fingers caught hold of the nail polish applicator, and then he set to work once more on painting my toenails. A subtle pink called Unabashed.
I can only imagine he does the same thing for Angelina…
And isn’t it nice that she lets him come here too. Those two really love their fans…
Brad looked up and frowned, and I realized a phone was ringing somewhere.
“The machine will get it,” I said, wiggling my toes at him. He smiled and dipped his head to resume my pedicure.
I heard the machine click on, and then a beep. And then my boss’s voice shrilled into the room, as if the damn machine was right by my head—which was ridiculous, since I kept my answering machine on my desk in the studio.
“Hope! I know you’re there… where else would you be!” Janine groused. “You never leave the house.”
That made me mad. I was not some hermit. I went out all the time: to Wal-Mart, to the fruit and vegetable market, to…
Well, I wasn’t much for painting the town red, but I was not some pathetic shut in… I just wasn’t!
“Hope…this is a code red emergency! I haven’t gotten any new cover shots from you, and Olivia is getting nervous.”
I groaned and looked up at the ceiling. This was bad… very bad.
“This is bad… very bad!” Janine echoed.
Brad looked to me confused, and I could only shrug my shoulders. Bye, bye Brad… hello reality.
I woke from my daydream sitting at the desk in my studio, my mouth dry as cotton balls, my body feeling hot and sweaty all over.
“Pick up, pick up, pick up!” Janine brayed.
My heart leapt and I lunged for the telephone. “I’m here,” I said breathlessly. My daydreams featuring Brad always took it out of me, even if we’d never gone any further than a naked foot massage, or his washing my hair… also naked, in the shower…
“Thank god!” Janine bellowed with relief. “You’ve got to fix this.”
I had to fix it. Me? Why didn’t that thought fill me with confidence?
“Hope… are you still there?” Janine called from my phone. She was the owner, CEO, and Senior Editor of Branded Publishing, and she was the busiest woman I’d ever met: organized like a general or an accountant… and quite possibly the most annoying human being on the planet.
I covered the phone’s receiver and took a deep breath, held it for a ten count, and reminded myself—again—that it was the copious amount of work I was getting from Janine and her ever expanding e-publishing house that insured I was caught up on my mortgage and not working shifts at Wal-Mart or Denny’s.
“I’m here… just had to load some images onto my laptop.” Which wasn’t exactly true.
I already had all my recent photos loaded on my laptop… and as I clicked them open they were coming up… lacking. Really lacking. I couldn’t put my finger on exactly what was wrong with them.
The young man I’d shot was handsome and very well built, and the girl was what they’d call rockin’ in the body department.
But the pictures of them together just seemed so… flat… lifeless…
Maybe he was too buff? Maybe the shine on her recently capped teeth and spanking new breasts was causing havoc with the lighting?
Whatever it was, none of my new batch of images was going to even make it to my next round of cuts. And I needed a cover for the new Olivia Lovelace novel by next week.
“You know we need to get the advance copies out to the reviewers by next week, don’t you?” Janine queried.
“Yes,” I sighed, clicking rapidly through my new collection of mediocre shots, hoping that speed might make one of them look more appealing. “Believe me, I know.”
“Hope, nothing says cheap and rushed to romance bloggers more than sending out ARC copies with no covers.”
“I know, I know… and I promise I’ll have something gorgeous for you in plenty of time.” I just had no idea how. It was the middle of summer, and the bevy of hot young men and pretty girls who usually signed up to model were away, back home—wherever the hell that was—since college was over until fall.
“Olivia’s our hottest burning star, so we need to keep her happy. She’s only contracted for one more novel and she’s already let it slip that Doubleday and Penguin have made offers.”
Oh… now it all made sense. The unprecedented hype and publicity for the new Olivia Lovelace novel, and why Janine was so hell bent on getting the cover done.
Olivia had already rejected my first cover, saying it looked too much like some of the other covers I’d done before. That’s why I hadn’t even looked at my stock photos and had plunged right into securing new images with fresh faces.
I stared at a picture that was almost good, almost passionate…and absolutely gratingly generic.
Maybe my ego was bruised? I mean, after having my first effort brushed aside with such a prickly rebuke, I could just be looking at my new crop of stills with an injured ego.
I clicked on the “almost right” picture and threw it to Photoshop and played around with colors and contrasts.
Still no good.
“Don’t worry, Janine. I’ve got it all under control. I promise.”
Janine sighed on the other end of the connection. “I know you do, babe. I know you do. It’s just that Olivia’s ebooks account for over half our sales this quarter. I can’t afford to lose her to a… Legacy Publishing House.” She said those last words with real venom in her voice.
Janine had started out in the traditional publishing world, working for Harlequin and then St. Martin’s. But then ebooks went viral, and the print publishing industry started cutting authors and whole publishing lines.
Janine had been one of those cut at the editorial level. It had devastated her, and she’d been teetering on the edge of becoming a statistic in the Print/eBook war when she ran into a fellow “downsized” editor named Greta from a rival publisher, and her stinking rich ex-boyfriend who owned half of downtown Dallas and three sports teams.
In her usual browbeating manner, she pulled both her ex and the other editor into her wake, and pitched them an idea off the top of her head. A new kind of publishing house where only ebooks were put out and the prices for them could rival even those of self-published ebooks.
She’d been right, of course. And she and her fellow downsized editor put out no less than twelve top ten Amazon romance novels in the first year.
But this year she’d ratcheted up the tension with two a month publications. And two months ago she’d added two new lines: Hot Branded and Night Branded. Erotica and Paranormal romance lines.
Just thinking about it made me exhausted. I couldn’t imagine putting out so many books. Nevertheless, I was making the covers, and it was turning out to be more and more hectic.
I had to. That or she’d find a new photographer.
And that would be bad.
“I’ve got it under control,” I told Janine, and then told her I’d call her in a couple days.
When I hung up I called Vincent Call, my contact at the modeling agency.
“Need a model, call Vincent Call!” the man cooed into the phone.
I rolled my eyes. Good god, he was tacky.
“It’s Hope Jones. I need two more models, and I need them quick.”
“Sorry, toots,” the little shitweasel said, sounding anything but sorry. “But we don’t have anyone we can send you until next month.”
I huffed out my held breath and fumed. “How about one of your competitors?” I cringed the second the words left my mouth.
I heard him hiss out the breath he’d taken. “I don’t have any competition down here. This is San Antonio, Texas, for crying out loud, not Manhattan!” And he hung up.
Crap. Not only didn’t I have any models coming in for my much needed shoot, but I’d inadvertently pissed off my supplier. I’d have to send him some booze, or a strip-o-gram.
First I needed to find some models.
I checked the phone book—zilch: turned out that Vincent the shitweasel really was the only game in town.
I googled modeling agencies in Houston, Dallas, and then for all of Texas. None, it turned out, were running any actual models this time of year.
Models were out of season.
I shook my head and then rested it on my kitchen table.
Maybe if I looked far enough back in my stock photos I’d find something I’d forgotten about, something that was fresh and new looking.
Problem was that before I started shooting racy covers for romance novels, I pretty much shot weddings, birthdays, and graduation pictures…
I cringed just remembering some of the dead eyed, pimply teenagers with too much eyeliner, too much hairspray, and way too much cologne and perfume on. Thank god, you can’t smell that crap through a picture.
If I didn’t find a way to keep my position at Branded Publishing, then I might end up doing portraits at Wal-Mart, if not stocking the shelves there as well.
I lifted my head and there it was… a headache from hell—pounding, throbbing, sharp pains around my eyes, and a heavy weight squeezing my frontal lobe.
I staggered over to the cabinet in my kitchen where I kept my mini-pharmacy: band-aids, salves, balms, first aid kit, ice packs, and painkillers.
I picked up my bottle of Tylenol and found it empty. When had I used the last ones?
I sighed deeply and reached for my car keys. Prophetic or not, I was going to have to go to Wal-Mart before I could go any further with my model hunt.
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