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DEVASTATINGLY

BEAUTIFUL


PART I




Prologue

5 years ago

You promise me you’re done with them?” My voice wavers but I have to stay strong. These men are dangerous, and I know Brian. He wouldn’t get his family mixed up in something like this. He looks me straight in the eyes and takes my hand. This man, the one man I trust in the world, has no reason to lie to me.

Not again. Not now that I’m carrying his child. Our child.

Yes, baby,” his hand rests on the gentle curve of my abdomen and he smiles. “Promise.” He presses his lips to mine and I feel like a weight’s lifted off my shoulders.

I hate that he’s wrapped up in people like them, but we’ve been through so much together already.

I have no other reason not to trust him.


ONE

Tatum

“You did what?” my voice bellows throughout the warehouse and rings back in my ears. I’m really getting tired of making it have to get this loud, but this is insane. I'm a grown ass man; he needs to stop coddling me.

“Sorry, kid. This came from above your head.” Nathan cowers in front of me, at least six inches shorter than I am, and I have half a mind to smack him around just for calling me ‘kid’. Sure, I’m about five years younger than him, but I’m still a Savage. A mother fucking Savage. You don’t call men like me ‘kid’, no matter how much older than me you are.

“My father told you do to this?” I growl, watching him cower even more.

“Y-… yes sir,” he stammers, taking a cautious step backwards. I feel my fist twitch, itching to hit something, or someone.

Son of a bitch.

“Leave. Don’t bother coming back,” I growl, following him to the warehouse door.

He scurries out and I slam the door behind him. My mother-fucking father. How much is he going to ruin in my life before he realizes I’m not putting up with it anymore?

“Alex! Get my father on the phone!” I yell to the empty room. I know she’s listening, though. She always is. Sure, she’s a good lay, but she’s an even better assistant. The only one I’d want dealing with the shit that I have to put her through. There have been more times I can count that she’s had to physically get blood on her hands for me, and I know she’d never tell a soul about it.

That’s the thing about being ‘in’ with the Savages. You can be in, be a part of this family for years, but the minute you open your big mouth you may as well count yourself dead.

“Line one, sir.” She peeks her head out of her office to tell me wearing a slight grin on her face, then disappears just as fast when I nod at her. Opting for more privacy, I head into the smaller of two interrogation rooms and grab the phone.

“What did you do?” I growl into the receiver. Sure, he’s my boss and my father, but he’s also just fucked up everything I worked so hard on for the last few months. I had been following this lead for months. Months of my time flushed down the drain when dear old dad took it all out from under me by sending one of my men behind my back to take out the target.

That was my fucking target.

“You couldn’t do it, son. You have too much on your mind. I saw the chance and I had Nathan take it,” he answers, like he didn’t just ruin more shit in my world.

“You knew how important that job was to me!” I yell, my voice echoing off the empty walls. This job was my job. The man I was following was my kill. No one else’s. He deserved to look into my eyes, the man he screwed over on a job and payout, as I tortured the poor soul. I mean hell, he probably got off easy with a gunshot to the head, knowing Nathan! I growl and look around the warehouse, one of many I house my teams in, and kick over a chair.

Un fucking believable.

Warehouses in this business are important. You need a big enough building to hold everything for your assigned team, plus no close neighbors to hear the screams of the poor men you bring back.

“I know you thought it was important to you. You forget the reason behind it, though, Tatum. All of this started because of me. If you have someone you need to take your anger out on, you know where to go,” he chides.

Asshole knows I’ll never come after him for what he did. He’s my father, and I know it was an accident, but it doesn’t make it hurt less.

“I’m out, dad. Out of it all. Everything. I can’t do this with you going behind my back to save me.”

“You’re out?” he asks, surprised.

“Yes. Out. I’m leaving. Give my team to someone else,” I growl, pissed that I can’t even perform my job anymore without pity.

I’ve been doing this long enough before the accident to have gained respect from some of the biggest names in the industry. Worldwide recognition goes a long way, but now that my dad has ‘saved’ me when I didn’t need saving my first name will be tarnished. Not because the job isn’t done right, but because it looks like I had to have my father help me. He’s making me look incapable!

I huff, tossing the phone to the table and let out a growl that echoes throughout the empty building. Walking out into the warehouse, I grab my leather jacket on the way and only turn to look back as I slide the door closed. Alex knows what just happened already and I’m sure she’s already got someone else lined up to take this from my hands.

I’m done. Family or not, I need to figure out who the hell I am other than Al Savage’s son.


Molly

Editing wedding photos is a pain in the ass.

I chose this profession. I should love this profession.

That’s the mantra I keep repeating over and over again as I sit here and go through thousands of photos from the wedding Evie and I shot last weekend.

How do you Photoshop a little girl’s finger out of her nose? Every damn shot! I love kids but seriously, every picture I have of this girl is either a gold digging disaster or she’s flashing the camera! How in God’s name does that even happen? Not one shot!

Typically I have Evie, my assistant, help me on things like this. She’s full of great ideas…but she left me a week ago to go back to school and I haven’t found anyone to fill the position yet. I need to, and soon, because it’s about to become busy season with no help.

I have an add in the paper but with being in a small town there’s not much activity in the applicants. Everyone’s too young, too old, or not interested in a low paying assistant job.

Evie was perfect. She came out of nowhere when I needed someone else and she stuck by me. She’s my best friend and she’s currently in Chicago, living out her dreams at art school.

I’m trying to stay positive, but it’s not looking good. I may have to start placing adds in outlying cities and bring someone in, but then I run the risk of having to pay them more for relocation and I can’t afford that right now.

There’s a few shoots between now and the wedding coming up. I can only hope I find someone by then.



TWO

Tatum

Thirteen hours. That’s how long I’ve been on the road, and I can’t stop driving. I know at some point I’m going to need to stop for sleep, but I can’t bring myself to do it. I’m running away like a little pussy, but who the fuck cares anymore? I can’t take the knowing stares and sympathy, especially from him. It makes me feel like a bastard. I’m not running because I’m scared. I’m not running because I’m sad. I’m running because I don’t like everyone in town knowing my past and pitying me for it. I sure as hell don’t like being reminded of that night, nor do I like the fact that my father was the cause of it, so I left. Maybe time away will help me accept that my life will never be the same or maybe it’ll help me figure out who to be without my last name following me everywhere I go.

Maybe I should change my name.

It’s weird, a few weeks ago I would have told you the only way I’d leave my father’s empire is in a body bag, but here I am. I’ve walked away with a backpack, full bank account they can’t touch, and my Harley to my name. Out on the open road has taught me that there’s more to life than being the modern day vigilantes of the crime world.

Okay fine, maybe that’s putting it nicer than it really is, but you get my point. I grew up in a crime-ridden family full of love and rules. I grew up Al Savage’s son. That’s the only identity I’ve ever known. Being out here, driving to who-knows-where… It feels way more than ‘nice’. It feels fucking fantastic.

A light pops up telling me it’s time to give another arm and leg for a tank of gas. I may seem crazy, spending all of this money driving to nowhere, but what else is there to do when you have millions? Girls are too easy to get (it’s not even fun anymore) and family…well that’s just a joke. So I packed up my bike and headed out across the country to see where I would end up. A bike that those assholes didn’t even know I had. One they couldn’t track even if they wanted to. I’m pretty fucked up as of lately and instead of staying to face my demons, I ran. There’ve been plenty of things in my life that I’ve stayed and battled through.

Not this time.

I pull off the road at a dingy gas station. The sign is lit in the middle of the day and it doesn’t look like there’s been traffic through here in a while. Dust covers everything in the store and the whole place has a musty smell to it. I can’t help but laugh to myself. A millionaire putting his own gas in his car and spending time in places like this. Ironic, isn’t it?

The man who takes my money is nice enough. “Looks like you could use a break, kid.” His hair is greased back, or what’s left of it at least, and I’m fairly certain he’s missing half of his teeth. I cringe inwardly when he tries striking up conversation with me. There’s that ‘kid’ thing again. What is it with these guys? Do they not know who I am?

Sure as shit if I told him my last name he’d regret trying to talk to me. Typically people that know my family stay away. Unless they want something, that is. Too many people out there want something; I’m better off being alone for a while.

“Nah, just filling up and heading back out.” I toss a wad of cash on the counter and turn to look out the window as he makes my change.

“Where ya headed?”

“Not sure yet. I’ll know when I get there.” Seriously, dude, back the fuck off.

“Well, down the road about a half mile there’s a right turn. Only turn you’ll see on this road for miles. Small town, nice enough people. They do have a motel, though. You look like you could use some sleep, and sleepy driving is just as dangerous as driving drunk, ya know.”

Boy do I know. “Thanks, man, I’ll consider it,” I say, just to get him to stop talking.

Heading out to the pump I think about the man’s words. I could use a little rest. Driving by yourself can get lonely and going through the middle of nowhere where all you see are cornfields is just boring. Maybe it’s time for me to take a break. If he’s right, this little town is the last chance I’ll have for a while to get a good rest.

I finish up pumping my own gas and take a good look at the road behind me, and the one in front of me that supposedly heads to this town he told me about. Putting my helmet on, I take a deep breath before making my decision. Couldn’t hurt to get a few minutes of shuteye before heading back on the road. What could go wrong?


Molly

Everyone’s talking that there’s a new guy in town. Why anyone cares is beyond me, but this town is so small I guess they don’t have anything better to do. Yes, I get a lot of business for being where we are, but a lot of that comes from larger neighboring towns and not our small little town in southern Illinois. Actually, I’m not even sure if we are a dot on the map and I like it that way. I can stay out of people’s way and keep to myself. That’s how I tend to roll. Most of the time that is. However, when people meddle too much I feel the need to put them in their place. Such is the case when Betty Fredricks stops by my table at the coffee shop.

“Hey, Molly, have you heard? There’s a new guy in town and he’s apparently not too bad on the eyes.” Betty’s in her mid to late 50s and tries her hardest not to look any older than 30. Makeup and hair dye can only do so much. In my opinion, she would look way better if she didn’t try so hard. There’s my opinion creeping up on me again. Nope, no one cares, Molly.

“Yep, I heard all about it, Betty. Don’t really know why I should care, though.” I don’t want to have this conversation. Ever.

“Well, seeing that you’re all alone, I just thought you’d want to know. Maybe finally find someone to take good care of you. I worry about you, Molly.”

Well thanks, bitch.

“I’m fine. Really.” Been there, done that. And I’m never going back.

“Well okay, Molly, but you just wait ‘till you see him. You may change your mind.” She pats my arm before turning back to her friend.

Doubt it.

Betty walks out the door and turns towards the hair salon. Sure as shit, I bet she’s heading down there to spread my unhappy mood to the rest of the ladies. All I want is to have a successful business and keep to myself and my few close friends. Apparently that’s too much to ask as they’re always meddling in my personal life, and the only really close friend I have here is moving to Chicago soon. Maybe I should take my business and move to a larger city, one where people mind their own business.

The door dinging cuts through my thoughts and I shoot a glance over to the front of the restaurant to see who just walked in. Force of habit, I guess, always checking my surroundings. My eyes scan the room and land on the man that just waltzed in the front door.

Holy. Cow.

Movie star beautiful doesn’t even cover it. Who does this guy think he is and why is he in a place like this? He saunters over to the bar and grabs a Coke. His jeans are tight in all the right places and the black t-shirt he’s wearing has a look that says ‘I want this to look old, but I really paid extremely too much for it’.

This has to be the man everyone’s talking about. I haven’t seen anyone like him before. Arrogant would sound mean, but he definitely has that aura about him. Like he knows he’s good looking and plays it to his advantage. I bet you he has three women at his bedside nightly. What with the dark hair, strong jaw, and amazing arms. Holy cow those arms. I take a deep breath and let my mind wander to the things those arms could do to me. The strength, the muscles…if the arms are any indicator I can only imagine what the rest of his body is like.

Oh my GOD, I need to stop.

Focus, Molly. I have to find a new assistant, and fast. The Rosewood wedding is in two weeks and it’s huge. There’s no way that I can shoot the entire wedding by myself and I’m not asking Evie to come back for it. She has enough on her plate. Something needs to change soon or else the studio’s reputation will suffer, business will suffer, and I will be without a job.

I get up and walk out of the shop, passing by Hot Pants on my way out and attempting not to take a deep breath when I walk by.

I fail, and instead find myself inhaling the sexiest scent I’ve ever smelled. I pause and glance back; he’s focused on the TV and not paying one lick of attention to me. Maybe that’s a good thing, though. I don’t need the attention of someone that beautiful.

After stopping by my shop and grabbing my Nikon, my most trusty of about seven different cameras I shoot with, I walk down the street to the park. Maybe finding the beauty in small things will ease my mind and mood as of lately.

I used to love scenic photography. I love the outdoors and photographing nature in all its glory. It wasn’t until I realized that wedding photography pays ten times better than nature pictures that I switched my main area of focus to capturing people’s big days. Now, nature photography is just what I do as a hobby. I enjoy it, but it doesn’t bring home the bank that I need.

Just as I begin to focus in on a flower, blurring out the child swinging in the background, I hear him. Don’t ask me how I know it’s him, but I just know. It’s as if the pressure around me changes and the air has an extra charge running through it. I turn to look up at the beautiful specimen of a man towering above me.

“Morning ma’am.” He tips his baseball hat he’s put on since the coffee shop at me and grins. The southern accent definitely adds to his appeal.

“Hi,” I reply. “Can I help you?”

He grins again. Like he knows something I don’t. “I think I might just be your knight in shining armor.”


THREE

Tatum

I just wanted to sleep. I just wanted one night of peaceful sleep without having to look over my shoulder, and then I was going to get back on the road and continue driving. I have no plans where I’m going to end up, but the further from Texas I end up the better. Granted, my father has his claws everywhere in this country so I still have to be careful, but the further away the better.

When I check into the motel, the only one this small as sin place has, the man behind the counter looks like he’s seen better days. Hell, even in my line of work I come across some rough people, but this poor man looks like he barely has anything left in him. He’s nice enough, though. A genuine nice. Not like when someone is only nice because they want something.

“How many nights for ya, then?” he asks, checking the calendar that looks as empty as my gas tank did earlier.

“Just need to get some sleep, that’s all. Won’t be here long,” I mumble in annoyance.

Like I’ve said before, small talk isn’t my thing.

“Well, if ya plan on stayin’ long term, I rent out a few places. There isn’t much here for work, seeing as most who live in the town run the town, but if ya want, I can see if anyone is looking for help,” he suggests.

“Thanks, man, I’ll let you know. Right now I just want to relax. Driving alone is exhausting.”

“It’s a nice little town. Not even a dot on the map, really. If you’re looking to get away, this may just be the best start for you.” He shrugs and hands over a room key. I walk outside and toss on a ball cap, just incase he’s wrong and there’s someone here watching me right now.

There more than likely isn’t. I think he was right when he said this place isn’t even a dot on the map. The sign entering town said it holds about two thousand people, probably a little less. Maybe this is the place I need to pause my journey for a while.

It felt so good to be alone on the road. I can’t remember the last time I had free time to myself without my dad pressuring me. Time to think, relax, and actually find a hobby. This little town feels like just the place to start anew and that thought alone scares me but excites me at the same time. I need to be able to find a new me and forget about the old. If that can even happen. My hope is that this place is remote enough that my past can’t find me here. I just have to be smart about it. Learn to live modestly. That’s not hard, right?

After locking my things up in the motel room, I glance around. This town is small, but there’s something to it that’s pulling me in. I see a sign for a small coffe shop so that’s where I head first. After walking inside and heading straight for the small bar in the front, feeling everyone’s eyes on me, I grab a coke and try to focus on the small TV on the wall. There’s an abundance of people in here for it being the middle of the week, and most of them have seemingly gone back to their discussions they were having before I walked in. Most, except two older ladies that are staring at me and whispering to each other. I see them look over at me, then they lower their voices considerably so I can’t hear what they are talking about. Grabbing my coke and give them a nod before taking another gulp.

“You’re new here, right?” the more natural looking of the two women asks. The other one stands there just staring at me. I can’t tell if she’s happy, surprised, or if that’s just the way her face looks. Seems to me she’s trying way too hard to stay young, rather than embracing her age.

“Yes, ma’am, just stopped in for a rest. Town looks so nice, though, I may just end up staying for a while. Hitting the reset button on my life, if you will.” I don’t know what makes me want to talk to these women, but it feels nice talking to someone who doesn’t know me. I can keep any undesirable part of my life out of the picture as long as the past stays away.

“Well, if you do decide to stay, just let us know. We know of someone who could use your help. You look like just the perfect man for the job.” Why does everyone in this town keep trying to get me a job right away? I don’t need the money, nor do I need to answer to anyone but myself. Thinking more about it, though, if I stay, it would be suspicious I wasn’t working yet had endless money to spend.

“Tell me more about this job you heard of, I just may need something to bide my time with.” I grin and wink and the look of excitement on woman number one’s face rises before they star to tell me all about this ‘job’ opening they just heard of.

Apparently it’s for a photographer and apparently she needs a new right hand man in order to keep the business afloat. I don’t want to know why they know so much about this photographer’s life, I can pretty much guess. Small towns breed nosey people. I roll my eyes when they mention it’s for a photographer and it’s a woman. I don’t do ‘art’ and I’ve never seen it as a business but more-so a hobby. I also don’t answer to women, in this case probably butch and scary women. Isn’t that what most women artists are, anyway? Lesbian and butchy?

I sigh and resign myself to check this potential employer out because I have nothing better to do. I could leave but something is keeping me here. Plus, these women seem adamant that it’s right down my alley, but I’m not sure how they think they know that when they don’t even know me. Again, I could totally leave…but where’s the adventure in that? Maybe this is my do-over.

They instruct me to head to the park, saying they saw her heading that way. ‘Find the girl with the bright red hair and camera. You can’t miss her’ they said.

I can’t, either.

Because she’s right in front of me.

And she’s the most beautiful woman I’ve ever set eyes on.

Fuck. Me.

“Morning ma’am.” I throw on my best southern charm and tip my hat at her, earning a scrunched, annoyed, cute as fuck face from her.

Are photographers really this cute? Shit she’s more than that. She’s beautiful.

“Hi,” she replies, and I can’t tell if its out of niceties or annoyance that she stands and pushes her hand out to shake mine. “Can I help you?”

I grin at her and the minute our hands touch I blurt the lamest pick-up line I can think of. “I think I might just be your knight in shining armor.”

Great. Just great, Tatum,

Molly

If it’s not Hot Pants himself, straight out of the fucking magazine. I narrow my eyes at him and chuckle.

“Thanks, but I’m not available. And that was a really lame line.”

I pull my hand from his and scoot around him while looking through my camera bag to make sure I didn’t leave anything behind. God, he smells good. Nope, that’s the flowers nearby. I’m telling myself it’s the flowers. Don’t look him in the eye. It’s the flowers that smell good.

It’s not the flowers.

Holy hell, I’m in trouble.

“Wait, I uh, I’m sorry,” he stammers, reaching out and gently grabbing my elbow as I speed away. “That came out wrong. I’m Tatum, I heard you were in need of some help.” He stares at me, trying to read my physical response to him, all the while waiting for my verbal response. His hand still resting on my elbow, his eyes locked with mine, and I feel a tingle start between my legs. Jesus Christ he’s good looking. Physically, my arms are screaming ‘TAKE ME NOW!’ which also seems to be the same thing my lady parts are screaming. The only part not agreeing is my head. Damn head.

“Um, Tatum, is it? I’m not sure what you think you’re saying or doing right now, but I don’t need a man’s help. I sure as hell don’t need a man who starts off with that lame of a line. I’m late for an appointment now, due to this unfortunate conversation, so please excuse me.”

With that I walk off towards my car, leaving him to stand there alone, looking after me as if no one has ever told him no before. I’m not sure who this character is, but I’m damn sure I know exactly who sent him my way. Not one, but two lovely older ladies who seem to think the only way to feel complete is getting attention from a man. I’m going to need to have a talk with them.

First, though, I have a very important meeting with a very high profile client. Turning on the radio, I roll the windows down and drive back to the office. All the while trying to get my head back on straight from my encounter with Mr. Hot Pants.

I mean Tatum.




FOUR

Tatum

Well, that didn’t go as planned. Since when does a woman not respond positively to me? I didn’t even get this chick’s name. No, not chick…woman. All I know is she has the most brilliant colored red hair I’ve ever seen and beautiful green eyes. Her hair looks natural, too. Not fake, box color like I’ve seen on so many women in the past. She’s real. Her skin was almost glowing when I walked up to her, then when I opened my dumbass mouth it dulled. Almost like she hates men. Oh God, I hope I was wrong about the whole ‘lesbian’ thing. Nothing against them, just that I’m a dude and hot women who don’t like dudes depress me.

I watch her perfect ass sway on the walk back to her car, standing there like a dumbass with my hands in my pockets wondering where I went wrong. I mean, the pickup line was lame, I’ll admit that, but that shouldn’t have been the kicker. I’m way better looking than just a pick up line.

She gets in her car without a glance back at me and I start to worry that maybe she has no feelings at all towards the opposite sex. If that’s the case, maybe I should pack up and head out now. The best looking thing in this town wants nothing to do with me? I’m not ok with that. I’m a Savage. I don’t give up.

Time to make my way back to town and find the women from earlier. Maybe I can get more information about this beautiful creature out of them.

Walking into the market, the bell on the door dings, alerting everyone in the store that the new guy in town just walked in. I can see the looks I’m getting. I should just hop on my bike and keep driving until I find a place that has people in it who mind their own business. Only problem with that plan is this woman I can’t get out of my mind is in this town. No woman has ever stood up to me before and I think that’s why I’m so intrigued by her. All I have to do now is make her realize I’m not the ass she thinks I am.

“Well if it isn’t you again. Never did get your name, son,” the woman from earlier says.

“Hello again, names Tatum. Listen, earlier you sent me on a wild goose chase to find a potential employer.”

“Yes! Did you find her? Isn’t she wonderful? She is so busy she could really use some help,” Botox lady speaks up. Man, I really need to start learning people’s names.

“Yea well, about that… I, uh, kind of messed up the initial meeting and she thought I was hitting on her. Got all upset, actually got kind of feisty, then got in her car and drove away.” I let out a nervous chuckle and the ladies laugh with me. “I was wondering if you could send me to her office so I could make it up. I feel kind of like an ass.”

The ladies quickly scribble down an address and hand me the paper. They look a little too excited to be helping me, but I guess there isn’t much excitement in small town life. Once I have the paper in hand, the younger looking of the two ladies hands me a Reese’s.

“It’s her favorite. Can’t go wrong there. My name is Alex, and this is Betty. Good luck.” Then she winks at me. I’ve never been more grateful to be handed candy in my life.

Walking out to my bike, I enter the address into my phone GPS and buckle my helmet. It’s amazing how much can change so fast. A day ago I was thinking I’d be on the road for a few more days until I figured out what I’m going to do with my life. Now, I’m going to search for a job simply so I can be about this beautiful woman.

Again, making decisions in my life because of a women…

Following the route on my phone, I find myself in front of a tiny little storefront filled with black and white drapes and photos intertwined in them. First look tells me I’ve hit the right place. I huff and roll my eyes, stretching out my muscles as I try to figure out how to approach this woman.

I have nothing against photography, but with all of the digital cameras and photo editing software, who actually pays someone to take pictures anymore? It seems like a dead end job to me. Photography should be a hobby. Who in their right mind would start a studio in such a small town and hope for it to succeed? This is the correct address, however, so either way it’s time to get this show on the road.

Walking up to the door, I twist the old style doorknob and enter. It’s cool in here, with a faint fragranced scent to the air. There is country music coming from a back room somewhere, but no one in sight. I ding the bell on the front counter and look around at the open space.

Standing in the front room alone, I decide to take a look at the binders and books on the display tables. All full of very beautiful pictures. I’ve never seen images as ordinary as a tricycle portrayed in such an emotional manner. All of the photos seem to have a story behind them.

Wow, maybe this chick has more talent than I’m giving her credit for.

Molly

The meeting was short. Apparently Mr. Delany enjoyed my previous wedding shots in my portfolio and bought the largest package I have available without having to talk him into it. I may have fibbed a smidgen saying I had help for the wedding, but by the time his daughter’s wedding comes around next year I’ll have someone helping me. I have to; I don’t have a choice.

This isn’t going to be any ordinary wedding. The Delany’s are a very powerful family and don’t do anything half-assed. They also like to do things that may or may not be illegal in almost all 50 states, but no one questions them in this area, and I’m not about to start. Some say it’s because they’re the Midwest mafia. All I know is that money talks and the $25,000 package they’ve just purchased is telling me not to worry about anything other than keeping the job and capturing the best pictures possible.

Now here I sit in my darkroom, country music blaring, singing to myself while my photos develop. Even though Evie told me on many occasions to tear out the darkroom because it would be a great area for another studio, or even more space for another office, I can’t bring myself to get rid of it. There’s something about watching the photo that you took being developed and finished and knowing that from start to end, you were the cause of it. Though I do use digital for my professional shots, I tend to stick with film for personal use. From rolling the film, to developing it, to creating the pictures… I am the sole purpose that these works of art exist. I love this feeling.

Setting the canister of developer down to soak for a few minutes, I walk out front to grab my water and check messages.

I know he’s here before I see him. That damn smell of his is intoxicating. I just want to snuggle into his chest and take a good sniff. Well, that among other things.

“Well hello again, stranger,” I say to him, startling him and making him drop the photo book he’s looking at. The air of confidence he normally wears momentarily slips as he quickly turns to look at me with wide eyes. A grin sweeps across chiseled features.

“Molly.” He smiles and nods his head gently, putting his hands in his jean pockets and not taking his eyes off me.

All it takes is one word and I’m jelly. His scent, mixed with his heavenly features is enough to make a girl lose her panties in no time.

Jesus, I need to watch myself with this one.

“What can I do for you?” I ask trying to mask my lusting for him through professionalism and grace.

Trying. I never said I was doing it right.

“I feel the need to explain myself and apologize. Earlier I was very vague and you may have gotten the wrong idea. I heard you were in need of help with your business. The ladies at the shop told me I’d be the perfect fit for the job, but as I look around I’m not sure I know anything about it. What’s this job they told me about? Or were they just pulling my chain, trying to play matchmaker? Oh, and here, they told me to bring you this.” He hands me a peanut butter cup, my one candy weakness.

Sneaky, sneaky Betty.

As much as I want to turn him away and tell him I don’t need help, he’s the only person looking for a job that’s crossed my doorstep since Evie left. And now more than ever I need a helper since I finalized the plans for the Delany wedding.

“Well, as a matter of fact I’m looking for an assistant. The job would be coming to all shoots with me, aiding me in whatever props or lighting I need, and helping position people to get just the right shot. Think you’re up for it, big guy?” Trying to sound like I couldn’t care less if he takes the job, my inner, very voluptuous self is jumping up and down screaming for him to take it. She really wants to get to know him on a more personal, intimate level. I on the other hand have to hold back every feeling I may have for this beautiful specimen. No way am I getting involved with someone so beautiful. Not happening. They always bring around too much trouble and I have enough of that as it is.

“I may just do that. I will have you know that I know nothing about cameras, but I can take orders just like the best of them. I think I’m perfect for you.” He smiles a broad smile revealing bright white teeth.

Yes. You look like you’re very perfect for me.

“Great, well then I guess we should get started. Give me one second, I need to run back to the darkroom and finish up something I was working on.” Maybe if I get away from him for a while I can compose my thoughts, since they’re jumping all over the place. Once second I’m telling myself not to be attracted to him, the next my panties are being soaked by his deep southern drawl and delicious smell.

“I’ve never seen a darkroom in use before, mind if I join you?”

Of course he asks that.

My darkroom is tiny. On a good day, E and I could work together in here and only bump into each other a couple times. I’m thrilled that he wants to start learning the trade this soon, but seriously, the dark room?! So dark, so close, maybe this isn’t a great idea. Nevertheless, he’s asked so nicely…and he smells so yummy.

“Sure thing, follow me,” I chirp.

What am I doing? This can’t lead anywhere good.

He follows me to the back of the studio where my tiny, one-man dark room is hidden. Taking turns going through the light-safe revolving door, I go first and grab my film canister to finalize processing my film. Whipping around to grab my last chemical, I slam straight into the hardest chest I’ve ever felt.

“Easy there,” he says, his voice suddenly deeper and more serious than in the light. His hands gently hold on to my upper arms, sending chills through my body. How can I have such a reaction to a man I just met?

“Sorry,” I manage, captivated by the red glow on his face from the only light in the room. His eyes are so damn entrancing. Why does he have to be so beautiful? And why does he have to be staring at me the same way I’m staring at him?

“So, uh, let me get this going, then I’ll show you around,” I’m able to stutter out. Being around this man makes me unable to speak correctly, I’m sure of it. I need to get over this if he is going to work with me daily.

He smiles and backs up as much as he can. I’m more nervous knowing his eyes are watching my every move and I’m not sure if he’s watching to learn about film development, or watching as a hunter stalking his prey. I feel like the second is the better description of how his gaze is following me around the room, and that makes my insides warmer than they’ve been in a long time.

After the film is done, I lay it out to dry and show him the enlarger I use to make my prints. I explain certain technical aspects of a darkroom that he’s never heard of, and give him an example of how to make a print from the start. He’s very attentive through the whole thing and when I finish the print and hang it to dry, he finally speaks.

“Molly, I have to say, I’ve never had much of a respect for photographers. After watching you create such a beautiful picture from scratch, I feel completely different about your line of work. Well done, and thank you.” His voice is rough, his eyes hold on to mine with every word.

I’m speechless.

“Welcome, now let’s get your paperwork done. I have somewhere I need to be tonight.” Like out of your stare and alone with my thoughts for a while.

That and a bottle of wine.



FIVE

Tatum

I head back to the hotel that night feeling better about things than I did in a long time. It could be that I’ve finally gotten away from my family and the knowing stares, it could be that the air here is a lot lighter than the heavy air in Texas, or it could be that I’ve found a new quest in the woman from the photography studio.

Molly.

Her name fits her to the T. Her red hair, shining in the sun, was my first sign that she’s the real thing. I’ve become an attractant for all things fake recently, so seeing someone like her push back against me, and not take my over smug self, it hot as hell. Now all I need to do is get on her good side. Hopefully this ‘job’ will do that.

I really have no interest in having a job, but I also have no interest in anyone else finding out who I really am. I think I’m far enough away from Texas for people not to recognize me on the street, but you never know what magazines have run stories on me or my family. At least if I lay low with a small town job I won’t be an easy target.

Feeling this way about a woman is different for me. Has it really been that long since I’ve been laid? Either way, it makes the thought of going into work a little easier when you have nice eye-candy who actually knows what she’s doing in her line of work. I’ve worked with too many incompetent women in my line of work, so this is a nice change. It actually turned me on, watching her do something she knows so well. It was like she was dancing a choreographed dance, knowing exactly what she had to do and when she had to do it.

I never thought that someone working in a darkroom would be sexy, but watching her move through the dark, only lit by a little red light, was amazing and sexy as sin. She glided in the dark, knowing exactly what she needed and where she was getting it from, and damn if she didn’t feel perfect against me when she ran into me. The red glow of the light on her skin, and the dark contrast between everything around her was incredibly sexy.

Mark that on the ‘places to do’ list once I finally get on her good side.

I’m never going to get used to having a boss or having to report by a certain time, but at least she made it sting a little less that this is how low my life has come. I mean come on, a millionaire as a photographer’s assistant; how hard could it be?

Once I get back to the motel with my to-go dinner tight in it’s Styrofoam box, I click on the TV and turn on my cell phone. It’s been off the majority of my trip so no one can trace me. Not like many people would, but there’s one person in particular that wouldn’t have any trouble at all finding me if my dad put him up to it.

Immediately as my phone links to the internet the pings start. Luckily, and probably because this is a burner phone not many people have a number to, it’s all from one person. My IT guy Eddie.

Eddie: Boss man, your dad’s looking for you. I’m holding out. Contact.

Eddie: The fuck, dude? Text me.

Eddie: I can’t fucking trace your phone IF YOU DON’T TURN IT ON! FUCK, Tatum!

Eddie: I’m holding your dad off but he’s on the hunt. You need to call me.

I roll my eyes and turn off my phone. If he really needed to find me he could…if it were an emergency. I can guarantee it, this is not an emergency. This is my father’s ego being hurt that his only child could walk away from him.

I pop open my dinner and stare blankly at the TV, not taking in anything on the screen. No, the only thing my mind wants to think about right now is a very specific redhead.


Molly

I didn’t get a wink of sleep last night. Tossing and turning all night, wondering what Tatum’s doing, and what he’s thinking. Being in the dark room with him yesterday taught me one thing: don’t ever go in that tiny room with him again. I almost jumped him right there, before even learning his last name.

It’s been a while since I’ve been laid.

He shows up this morning in nice, fitting dark jeans, a pair of chucks, and a black t-shirt. Jesus, this man is nice to look at. I can’t think that way though. His cocky attitude should be making me want to run away, not to mention the fact that he’s now my employee. Never mess around with employee’s…it’s one of my only rules and I spent the night last night envisioning all the different ways we could mess around!

“Morning, Tatum, glad to see you didn’t chicken out.” Maybe if I tell myself to be mean to him, I won’t like him as much.

Please.

“Nope, that’s one thing you have to learn about me. I never chicken out.”

Great, he’s so sure of himself. No time like the present to get the ball rolling then, I guess.

“Great, follow me. We have a newborn shoot this morning and engagement photos this afternoon.”

He helps as I gather items for the newborn shoot. This is one of the hardest parts of the job for me, but I can’t stop myself from booking them. Such innocent little lives, so precious. Most of the time they’re only a week or two old, so new and fresh. It’s heartbreaking and awe inspiring all at the same time to watch the new parents with their baby.

This particular parent wants their baby to be pictured in their home so we have to load all of the equipment up. Baskets, blankets, teddy bears, sound machines, small outfits, and anything else I can think of. Tatum loads it all in, asking questions mostly about the types of materials and why so much has to be packed.

“Infants are so unpredictable, you never know what is going to work well. A mother might have her mind set that the photos are going to be a certain way, but if the baby won’t wake up or won’t go to sleep sometimes those pictures don’t work out. I always want to be prepared. You never know when your last moment will be with your child so I want to make these pictures as precious as possible. That way, worst case, they have beautiful moments of time to look back on.”

Tatum nods silently but doesn’t ask why I suddenly grow quiet. Sitting here at the red light it’s all I can do not to break down. Getting through a newborn shoot is always hard on me. It’s been 5 years and I still can’t look at a baby without thinking ‘what if’. It’s a little easier today, though. Having Tatum to teach helped take my mind off of the dark mood it was getting in.

Tatum seems to learn very easily. He’s already getting the ropes of how to set up for the best shot, how to properly light a shot, and even different soothing techniques for the baby. He almost seems as if he’s done this before.

At the end of the shoot I’m finishing up packing the last of our stuff while Tatum talks with the happy parents. It went by without incident, only having to stop once for the baby to nurse back to sleep. I look over and see Tatum holding the tiny bundle of baby and all pretenses on this man are shot. He has the most genuine smile I’ve ever seen, all the while looking at this small baby like it’s his world.

Then it happens.

My chest tightens and my throat seems to close. I can’t breathe. I try looking to the sky and taking deep breaths, but it’s not working. Shit not now. Walking to the other side of the car, I slide down and wrap my arms around my knees. Over the years I’ve had a few of these spells. Some would call it PTSD, others call them panic attacks. I call them weakness and I wish they didn’t happen. Sitting on the ground probably looks pretty silly, but it’s the only way I know to get over these attacks. I take a few breaths, as deep as I can and let a handful of tears slip down my cheek.

“Hey.” His voice is unmistakable.

“Oh, hi,” is all I can get out.

“Why don’t we head out and after we drop this stuff off grab a bite to eat?” He looks uncertain while talking to me. Maybe he’s scared to set off the crazy person sitting on the ground hugging herself.

“Um, no thanks. I need to get some things done before the engagement shoot tonight.” Lie. I don’t have anything at home waiting for me. Not anymore

“Come on, Molly. It’s my first day and I don’t know many people. I’m hungry and both of us need to eat before the shoot tonight. Humor me.”

I give in. Partially because I don’t have the strength in me to decline him again, and partially because I really want to get to know this mysterious man. He’s right. We both need to eat. How much can sharing a meal with him in the middle of the day hurt?



SIX

Tatum

Something’s bothering her. She hasn’t been herself since we got to the newborn shoot this morning and she’s still not okay. Hell, finding her on the ground like that, hugging her knees crying? That scared the shit out of me. It shouldn’t have, though…I barely know this girl.

Today was my first time around a baby in a while and as difficult as I thought it would be, I’m more in awe of this healthy, tiny bundle. I’m actually having a good time learning the ropes of her said profession, but something just doesn’t seem right with her. Her light went out when we walked in the door and it hasn’t returned.

We’re trying a place out in town that she’s supposedly never eaten before. It’s a Mexican restaurant with very vividly painted walls and festive music blaring. Not really my style, but the smells are so amazing they make my stomach rumble. The waiter seated us at a booth in the corner, out of the hustle of the lunch rush. I wait for her to take her seat before sitting down and she grins at me.

I want to see that grin again.

“So Tatum, tell me a little about yourself. How’d you end up here?” She asks, half smiling. The light in her eyes is slowly coming back, but there’s still a darkness there that she’s trying her best to hide.

Telling her about my life will be tricky. No one here can know my past.

“Well, I grew up with both parents. Still married actually. Went to college like any normal kid, met a girl, left the girl, and took a long drive until I landed here. No rhyme or reason to it.” Vague, but not lying. “How about you? You aren’t from here, are you?” Turning the conversation to her will hopefully make her not notice my brushing over of her question.

“Good one. Nope, definitely not from here.”

Wow, she’s going to be as difficult as me.

“Boyfriend?”

“No,” she says as her face falls and she absentmindedly twists her bracelet while staring out at the restaurant.

“Have your eye on anyone in particular?” Just maybe, if I play my cards right, she’ll be mine.

She looks up at me with those big, green eyes, tilts her head to the side and smiles.

“No.”

“That’s a shame,” I say, then I leave the conversation to her. If all she’s going to give me is one word answers, I’m going to make her work for more small talk.

We order chicken fajitas and super nachos, and I stick to water while she orders a frozen margarita, no salt. As we sit in silence I can feel her getting more uncomfortable. We talk about inconsequential things like the weather, sports teams we each root for, favorite vacation spots and so on. Neither one of us delve any more into one another’s private lives. I can tell she’s had enough of that for one day. I grab the check as soon as it comes to the table, not even giving her a chance to reach for it.

“Come on, Tatum, let me at least pay for my part of the meal.”

“No can do. Doing that would be a slap in the face to me. Let me treat you as a thank you for giving me a job and taking time out to teach me the ropes.”

She sighs and nods slowly. I hate that she gives in so easily. The strong woman I met yesterday isn’t anywhere to be found. Her fight’s gone and I want to help her get it back. I’m not certain why I feel so strongly for this woman after knowing her for only a day, but I feel as if I’d do anything to get her out of her shell and back to the feisty redhead I met at the park.


Molly

Ok, I was wrong. Lunch in the middle of the day with your overly sexualized, beautiful looking coworker is a bad idea. Not only am I grilled about my relationship status, I’m then thrown a huge curveball by his response. What the hell does that mean? He can’t possibly be thinking of me that way. Yea, I’m not terrible looking, but for his beauty he could get someone a little less frumpy. That and for the sole purpose to try and scare him off, I’ve been nothing but mean to him since he introduced himself.

Well, apparently that didn’t work. I’ve noticed how his eyes focus on me every time I talk, like I’m the center of his world. Only one person has ever done that before and that ended very, very badly. I can’t let anyone get that close to me again. I’d rather things didn’t turn out that bad again, and having someone like him in my life is just asking for trouble.

That, and the fact that I’ve started receiving threats again from the one group I’m trying to stay away from is a sure sign that I need to get my life together before inviting the innocent in.

“Listen, Tatum, I’m not feeling well today. I think I need to head home and rest before the shoot tonight. Can you head back to the studio and make sure everything is set?” Maybe getting away from him for a while will let my hormones relax. They seem to be in overdrive lately and it’s happening every time I am around Tatum.

“Sure, just tell me what to do.”

I go through step by step what to do with the photos from this morning. He says he’s competent with computers so transferring them from the card to the computer shouldn’t be too hard. Then I tell him about the things we need for the engagement shoot tonight. There isn’t much equipment needed for the shoot, so he shouldn’t have too hard of a time. Honestly, he seems pretty competent on day one of a job he claimed he has no knowledge of.

Heading home, all I can think about is Tatum. I got myself so hot during lunch I didn’t quite know what to do. My panties are soaked just from sitting through a mid-day date with him. I can’t have those feelings anymore. When Brian was killed, he took my entire life with him. I can’t start over again, which means I can’t give myself to someone again.



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