If Ursula Scott had to look at one more naked man, she’d scream.
Loud and long.
Case in point, the overweight fifty-year-old adjusting his thong as he trundled toward the photography studio’s tiny dressing room.
Shuddering, she turned away. Okay, the guy wasn’t totally nude but close enough. Their session was a memory she could live without. As were several appointments from this morning.
Ursula lifted the camera strap over her head and carefully set her professional Nikon on the prop table. Behind her, the dressing room door clicked shut. She narrowed her gaze.
Damn her boss, Victor McKenzie, hiding in his office. It didn’t take a Mensa membership to figure out what he was up to—avoiding the weirdos responding to the model ad he’d placed in a Seattle print and Internet newspaper.
After the recent rash of vandalism the studio had experienced, Ursula really needed something in her life to run smoothly. Was it asking too much for that thing to be the test shots for her first magazine photo spread?
She spun her silver thumb ring. Six months from now, in May, she would buy Mackie’s studio. Every assignment she completed in the interim would cement her chances of building a profitable business and assisting her parents with their massive debt. Her dad wouldn’t accept her help any other way. Neither would her mom. Ursula needed to secure her future first, they said. No, insisted. And she was trying! With everything in her.
But sometimes working for Victor McKenzie, once a talented photographer whose industry contacts would transfer to her with the sale, tested her last nerve.
At a scuffing sound, she glanced toward the hall door. Stacy, the part-time receptionist, scurried in carrying the pumpkin-spiced latte Ursula had requested from the coffee shop next door. No foam, extra-hot.
Stacy handed over the latte, and Ursula’s fingertips stung as she grasped the cardboard cup.
“Sorry I’m late.” Stacy adjusted her black-rimmed glasses. “Eighteen more potential models are waiting to see you. I wrote their info on the appointment sheets, super-legible like you asked. It took a while.”
“Thanks. I appreciate it.” Ursula refused to treat the night-school student with Mackie’s surly brand of disrespect. At twenty, Stacy was eager, organized, and a lifesaver on busy days.
“We’re getting tons of calls about the test shots.” Stacy pumped a fist. “It’s only Wednesday, and we’re booking into next week.”
Ursula sighed. “We have to draw the line somewhere, Stace. I know Seattle Lights asked us to test every man who responds to the ad, but at this rate we won’t narrow the field in time.” To accommodate the production window for the magazine’s popular Valentine’s issue, Seattle Lights required the “Real Men, Real Lives, Real Loves” photo spread completed by December. The rush job allowed Ursula two days to finish the preliminary shots and barely two weeks to photograph the eight men the editor would select from her shortlist.
Stacy’s eyebrows bunched. “Should I talk to Mackie about it?”
“No, I will later.” This morning’s questionable applicants weren’t Stacy’s concern. Leaning forward, Ursula whispered, “Tell me, is there any hope? Or are they all as sleazy-looking as…?” She nodded toward the changing room, where the thong monster had vanished.
Stacy shook her head, whispering back, “Some actually look quite normal. And this one guy? I so want to take down his info.”
“Tall. Six-two or -three,” Stacy murmured. “Shoulders like a linebacker. Slim hips, trim waist. I’m thinking awesome abs.” She crossed her fingers. “Masses of wavy dark hair. On his head. It’s almost black, like yours, but with a rich chestnut brown mixed in. Great butt too. Hot, hot.”
“Thank God for small favors—a man with an ass.” Ursula sipped her latte, and warmth curled in her tummy. “I can understand older guys packing an extra twenty around the middle, but when they strut around as if they’re auditioning for Playgirl…” She wrinkled her nose.
Stacy giggled. “At least Mackie’s letting you run the shoot, Urs. That’s major.”
Last week, when their boss dangled the carrot, Ursula would have agreed. After what had felt like eons of toiling at small jobs to improve the studio’s bottom line while he lazed around during the year of their agreement, finally the chance had arrived to showcase her skills to a significant client. However, as she’d come to learn, Mackie’s good deeds usually harbored a downside. And this one was a doozy. A day after passing her the assignment, he’d let it slip that he’d skipped over obtaining her input to publicize a call for models featuring the new Real Men angle he’d conveniently failed to mention before—and now any dude and his doohickey could saunter in for the test shots.
So much for the GQ types he’d vowed would pose in front of her camera.
Ursula wiped a palm on her jeans. The dressing room door opened, and the thong fellow emerged, wearing a sweater and baggy slacks.
The man shrugged into a jacket. “When will I learn if you’re using me?”
“Calls should go out Monday, Mr. Hacklemire. Thanks for coming in.” Ursula pasted on a smile until he left. Placing her latte on the table, she told Stacy, “Send in the next one. The sooner I complete this round, the sooner I can forget this day ever happened.”
“Want the hottie first?” the girl asked, heading out.
“I wish. But we’d better do them in the order of arrival. I wouldn’t want to aggravate the mob.” Ursula looped the Nikon around her neck. A minute later, while she adjusted lights and flash reflectors, the studio door opened and closed.
“Where do you want me, honey?” A stout man sporting a burgundy satin dressing robe stood inside the vast room. Sneakers shod his sock-less feet, and enough coarse black hair to outfit ten shaved monkeys forested his bare shins and partially exposed upper chest. “Name any position you like. I’m very limber.” One of his eyebrows drooped in an obscene wink, and he curled his lips in what Ursula assumed he considered an extra-sexy look.
“It’s not just lounge-wear shots,” she responded in a cool voice. He’d shown up at her place of business not wearing pants? Unless he’d changed in the studio restroom near Mackie’s office, he must have.
She was two seconds from losing it!
Hoisting a gym bag, he stepped closer. “Brought my other gear along. Thought we’d start with my best look first.”
Repressing the urge to roll her eyes, she accepted his information slip and scanned it. “Make yourself comfortable, Mr. Longfellow.” She stacked the paper beneath the cat-shaped paperweight on the table. “I’ll take your bag until you need to change for the shirts-on shots.”
She reached for his pack. Big mistake. He dropped the duffel bag and planted his hands on his hips.
His robe parted to reveal gold satin boxers with a gaping fly.
A gaping inhabited fly.
Some movement occurred.
Too much movement occurred.
The creep’s creep was creeping out!
He winked again. “Mr. Longfellow.”
“What are you doing?” Ursula flung up her hands, shielding her gaze for a merciful split-second.
“Makin’ an impact on ya’, babe. There’s a lot of competition out there.”
“I don’t care if the Sexiest Man Alive is out there! I’m not taking your picture today. Or ever!”
“I don’t get my chance like everyone else?”
“You blew your chance when you perved yourself, buster. Get out of my studio!”
He lifted his hands, and the bathrobe fluttered closed. “Don’t throw a chick-fit. I’m going.”
“You bet your shortfellow, you are.” Ursula policed him to the reception area, her camera bumping her abdomen with every stride. Stacy’s head popped up from the desk. Ursula escorted the slime through the noisy throng and out onto the street. Chilly air swept in as she locked the glass door behind him. No way, no how, were more scumbags getting in.
She whirled to face the crazily dressed men milling around Stacy’s desk. Old Spice, Aqua Velva, and sweaty armpit permeated the air.
“Listen up!” Several heads snapped toward her. She pointed to the door. “If anyone else thinks this is a porno gig, they can leave. ‘No-shirts shots’ does not mean ‘no-sense-of-common-decency shots.’ If I see another piece of Spandex or satin enter my studio, I’ll hit the roof.” She was up there already!
“I brought swim trunks. They’re nylon,” a Vin Diesel look-alike shouted. “That work?”
“Are mankinis made of Spandex?”
Ursula clutched her thumping forehead. “I’m taking ten. Everyone clear your wardrobes through Stacy.”
She stalked toward the main hall to the right of Reception. The male crowd parted as if she were an ovary-laden Moses commanding the Red Sea. She glimpsed linebacker shoulders and chestnut hair as she stormed past, but she wasn’t in the mood for sightseeing. At the moment, she didn’t give a crap about anything but ripping off Mackie’s head.
The heels of her shoes thundered on the worn linoleum. “Mackie!” She shoved his door. Stuck. She shoulder-rammed it. The old doorknob sprang loose, and she pushed inside the cluttered horror of Victor McKenzie’s office.
Tinny music blared from a prehistoric transistor radio topping the bookshelf beneath the blind-drawn window. Mackie sat behind his gigantic desk, chomping a submarine sandwich.
Apparently, he wasn’t the only one enjoying a snack. Red spiked pumps poked from beneath the desk bottom. A female voice cooed, praising his proportions.
Ursula’s stomach roiled. Urgh, not Jasmine, his latest bimbo?
“Sorry!” She stepped back. Really, really, really sorry.
The sandwich dropped to the desk. “Ursula? What the hell?” Mackie jumped up, hands scrambling for his zipper—and Ursula uttered a prayer of thanks that he wasn’t a tall man.
A bonking sound echoed beneath the desk. “Ow, my head.”
Camera bouncing, Ursula raced into the hall. “Mackie, lock your door!” She slammed it shut.
“It was!” His gruff voice blasted through the wood.
“Then fix it. With a deadbolt.”
“Don’t be so judgmental! You never heard of Hump Day?”