Excerpt for In a Flash by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

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Published by EVERNIGHT PUBLISHING ® at Smashwords

Copyright© 2018 Laura M. Baird

ISBN: 978-1-77339-796-2

Cover Artist: Jay Aheer

Editor: Stephanie Balistreri


WARNING: The unauthorized reproduction or distribution of this copyrighted work is illegal. No part of this book may be used or reproduced electronically or in print without written permission, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in reviews.

This is a work of fiction. All names, characters, and places are fictitious. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.


To the inspiring people with the Emerald City Writers Conference and the Greater Seattle RWA chapter, my experience with you and the event revved my desire and determination to make my writing dreams a reality. This story was inspired by first attendance, and was my first NaNoWriMo success. To the friendship I developed with Marlo Lanz, fellow romance author, your constant praise and encouragement meant and continues to mean the world to me! Thanks for loving my story. And always to my husband, for his love and support.


Cover Model, 1

Laura M. Baird

Copyright © 2018

Chapter One

Audri reclined against the wall, watching her boss photographing the cover models. They were in their second day at a writer’s conference in Seattle—an event for which Audri had less than seventy-two hours to prepare. And, after plenty of hustle, she took a moment to relax and take in the happenings.

She never tired of watching Jesse’s work, and she especially never tired of watching his subjects. All gorgeous men and women, all with their own distinct look, and all head-turners.

One in particular always got her attention—Carson Malloy. He was over six feet of undeniable sex appeal with the perfect blend of muscles and intricate tattoos that Audri took advantage of gazing upon whenever the chance allowed.

Earlier she had watched Carson as he chatted, laughed, and teased with Celeste, another model he was particularly close to. The two had been modeling for Jesse going on a year now, and the little Audri had garnered about them—given they were very private people—they’d known each other for some time. She knew both modeled for other photographers, and Celeste had been the inspiration behind a major character in a popular video game put out by a local production company.

As for Carson, he was the talk of the town, a purported playboy who was seen with a different woman every other week it seemed. But whisperings about his charitable work floated around, certainly making Audri curious, but never going so far as to dig into his personal life. She had casually asked Jesse about what he knew, but even he didn’t have many answers for her.

She knew all about keeping one’s personal life private.

Besides, their relationship was strictly professional. She wouldn’t let it go beyond that. It was safer that way—safer for her heart and safer for her ego.

This weekend, she tried to be particularly diligent about curbing even subtle glances so as not to be distracted, ensuring everything with their participation in the event would go smoothly. It’s not as if anyone would really notice, as all eyes would no doubt be on the models in front of Jesse’s lens. And in spite of Audri’s own unique look, she’d perfected the habit of fading into the background until she was needed.

Audri’s thoughts were interrupted as her attention was captured by the conference coordinator, Merien, who gave her a thumbs-up and huge grin. Audri chuckled at the woman’s enthusiasm, knowing she also felt relief after securing Jesse for the weekend. Merien had contacted Audri practically begging for Jesse’s services only days prior. He had actually been their first choice but had committed to another engagement. That, however, had been rescheduled. And since the original photographer scheduled for the event didn’t work out, for reasons unknown to Audri, it allowed her boss to take advantage of the opportunity.

Life was funny that way—constantly fluid. And Audri Bennett, at the age of thirty-five, had learned that while going with the flow was certainly the easy way to go, the struggle against the tide was well worth it when it led to sweet rewards.

Never had she had a job more rewarding than with Steed Studios. Who could get tired of looking at the stunning results of hers and Jesse’s efforts? Of having her input valued? Of wearing whatever suited her mood and not worrying about showing off the colorful ink that decorated her creamy skin? More often than not she wore clothes that covered her tattoos, due to the cooler, rainy days in the Pacific Northwest. Being the middle of October, those days were upon them.

Besides his praises for being the best damn assistant he’d ever had, Jesse tried to coerce her into more than a few photo shoots, constantly telling her that her images would go like wildfire. Audri put the kybosh on that, preferring to remain behind the scenes, letting Jesse and the professional models receive all the accolades.

Although times and opinions were changing, Audri didn’t see herself as a typical model material with her curvy figure on a five-foot-four-inch frame. She loved emulating her favorite look of the pin-up gals from the forties, fifties, and sixties, having fun with the retro-style attire while adding her own flare. Her raven hair was often kept in a swept-up do, and on the occasions she’d let it remain down, the thick waves would reach her shoulder blades. Lately, she had a thing for the color red, recently having had it weaved into her locks. And a new pair of red cat-eye glasses framed her deep blue eyes. They were necessary when viewing anything up close. Those glasses were currently tucked into the cleavage of her dress while she watched the models pose under Jesse’s command.

After calling nearly a dozen potentials, Audri was able to secure four male models and two females. That would ensure a variety of scenes: singles, couples, male-on-male, female-on-female, even ménage-a-trois. The selection of authors at the event ranged from sweet romance to sinfully erotic, from suspenseful thrillers to sci-fi fantasy. Audri also brought backdrops with wardrobe and makeup to offer a wide selection of looks and settings. Most of the models had their trademark look, but they were usually open to pulling off anything that was asked of them.

Since the previous photographer and his crew were booked by Merien to stay at the Sheraton, in the heart of downtown Seattle, Audri arranged for their models to take over those rooms. Even though they all lived in the greater Seattle area, it just seemed more convenient to keep them all together. Audri and Jesse lived north of downtown near South Lake Union Park, so they had no need for rooms. Although commuting back and forth wasn’t a hardship, they were thankful for secure storage at the hotel during the event for their equipment.

Once they got settled in on Friday evening and became familiar with the schedule and their working space, Saturday became a day of nonstop shoots. Celeste, Tony, and Cameron had modeled in the morning session, while Tasha, Marcus, and Carson were now getting started for a full afternoon. The evening would consist of a special event that would include Jesse and all of them in a meet-and-greet with the writers and fans.

The purpose of their appearance at the event was to not only promote Jesse’s work, which several of the attending authors had already used but provide exposure for the models as well. Jesse planned to put together a slideshow on his laptop that would play throughout the evening, giving everyone a glimpse of what he was able to accomplish in a day’s time. There would also be opportunities for anyone to pose with the model or models of their choice.

Life wasn’t too shabby for them.

Speaking of not too shabby, try as she might, Audri couldn’t keep her eyes from drifting to Carson as he began his shoot with her boss. They were set up in a spacious alcove just off the main area from the conference where plenty of attendees were gathering to watch. All of the models drew a crowd—especially Carson. He was highly sought after, with the ability to look dangerous in a holster and leather as the mob boss or covert operative, or sinfully sexy as the shirtless lord of the manor. His emerald eyes had the ability to draw you in, to captivate—whether they were hard with menace or soft with affection. The dark brown mane that usually framed his face and reached his shoulders was secured in a small tail at the nape of his neck. The rest of his body, however, appeared to be void of hair.

That is, the parts of his body that Audri had had the pleasure of seeing. Smooth arms, torso, and legs. And if Audri had to guess, she’d say his nether region was smooth as well. Something she’d be embarrassed to admit that she spent entirely too much time thinking about. It had been some time since she’d been involved with anyone, and her covert observations had certainly fueled plenty of fantasies. She was often left hot and bothered with no choice but to seek self-gratification while surrounded only by darkness.

And his ink? While Carson wasn’t tattooed from neck to ankle as some models were, what he had was perfection in her opinion. Black tribal and Celtic designs were intertwined to decorate both shoulders, with a Celtic cross over his left pec and an intricate three-leaf shamrock, a trefoil, over his right. Across the expanse of his back was a realistic lion’s head done with amazing detail and a banner above it whose words she had to look up to discover their meaning. Malo mori quam foldari—which meant, I would rather die than be disgraced. It was the motto for his family crest.

Did she have a bit of an infatuation with Carson? Yeah, you could say that. Not that he gave her any indication that there was anything to pursue—again, keeping it professional. He was always courteous, even jovial at times, but most often reserved with their encounters. The last thing she wanted to be was another groupie lusting after a hot model. Somehow, she just couldn’t help it though. He tickled all her senses—except for maybe common sense. Besides, she was hardly the type he lusted after, as he always seemed to be surrounded by the stereotypical tall, lithe models, usually of the blonde variety.

Did Audri lack self-confidence? Hell no. Except when it came to Carson. With him, she felt like the wallflower at the school dance, hoping the king of the prom would ask her for a spin, knowing it would never happen.

As Audri continued to watch Carson, Tasha, her closest friend, joined him. The woman looked amazing in her skintight dress, ready to play the part of mobster girlfriend. Tasha was stunning with her rich caramel skin, dazzling hazel eyes, and head of kinky chestnut curls. Standing nearby, awaiting his turn was Marcus. He was ex-military, had been for a few years, and still kept himself in excellent shape. With ebony skin and deep brown eyes, bald head and muscles galore, he was a stunning man with plenty of humor who seemed to always have a lighthearted attitude.

Audri smiled as she watched the interaction among the group, wishing she were the one Carson was trapping against the desk…

“Audri! Come here, would ya, doll?”

Jesse calling her by his beloved nickname snapped her out of the daydream. She didn’t mind it really, knowing he used it as a term of endearment. Others had nicknames for her, and she’d usually make a point of letting them know which ones not to use. Usually.

Pulling herself away from the wall, she smoothed her form-fitting black vintage dress that was topped with a red sweater and began striding toward him in her Chase & Chloe black and white Mary Jane pumps. As she passed Marcus and Tasha, Marcus gave her a flirty wink and Tasha blew her a kiss. She returned the gestures, grinning with her cherry red lips.

As soon as she reached Jesse, her smile faltered, and she had to stop from retreating as Carson suddenly stepped toward them. The towering presence of his oh-so-masculine form was enough to cause her body to shiver with nervous excitement. And wouldn’t that be embarrassing for him to know he had the ability to make her swoon like a delicate flower under wilting heat?

His blossoming smile morphed to uncertainty before it was quickly replaced with a stoic look. He took a half-step back as his eyes seemed to offer an apology. For what, Audri couldn’t say. She tried to refresh her smile, hoping it didn’t look like a grimace.

“What can I get you, Jesse?” Audri asked, turning to her boss.

“Just you,” he answered while changing camera lenses, not looking at her yet. “I need you to pose with Carson, and then for a few shots with Marcus.” Before she could protest, he quickly gave her an intense stare. As if that would intimidate her. He then grinned and continued. “And don’t tell me you’re not my model, I know this, as you’re constantly reminding me. But you’ve got the perfect look for what I’m after. Just a few shots and they won’t even include your face.”

“Oh, gee, boss, way to flatter a girl.”

Marcus had quickly joined them, sidling up to Audri’s side and draping an arm around her shoulder. “I’ll go first,” he said playfully, giving her another wink. Audri couldn’t help but laugh before hip-bumping the big stud.

“Go on, Audri,” Tasha joined in. “You’re a beautiful woman who should be photographed more.”

“Why don’t you get on over here too, so I can have two beauties flanking me?” Marcus said to Tasha.

“You can’t even handle one of us, let alone two,” Tasha threw back at him.

Marcus laughed. “We’ll see about that.” He then looked down at Audri and winked. “Looks like it’s just you and me then.”

Audri couldn’t help but blush. “Fine, whatever,” she half-heartedly protested. She knew arguing would be fruitless, and she didn’t want to delay their schedule. She just prayed to God she didn’t make a fool of herself. Posing with Marcus would be easy, as he was fun and good-natured. Carson, on the other hand, was intimidating and possibly too gorgeous for his own good. “Where do you want me?”

“Oh baby, I been waitin’ to hear those words from you for so long,” Marcus quipped.

Audri and Tasha couldn’t help but laugh. “In your dreams, big guy,” Tasha said.

“Every damn night,” Marcus added, feigning despair.

“All right, all right,” Jesse interrupted. He directed Marcus in front of the desk as the laughter settled. Before Audri was called over, she caught sight of a perplexed look on Carson’s face. He quickly masked it with a tentative smile when their gazes met, and he gave Audri a nod.

As they continued to stare at one another, his smile widened, and Audri felt her mouth lifting to mimic his. It took two calls from Jesse before Audri realized she’d been staring, frozen in place. She broke away, feeling her cheeks flush.

She made her way over to a grinning Marcus who looked sharp in a suit of deep blue with a white shirt and burgundy tie.

“Okay, Marcus, recline against the desk, cross your ankles. Audri, step slightly to his left, your right foot planted here, and your left leg here.” Jesse had her nearly straddling the man. “Oh, and put your glasses on.”

She and Marcus looked down at the same time to her glasses resting against her cleavage. When she looked up to him, if it was possible for his grin to widen, it did. “Need any help?”

“I think I got it.” Audri had to lean back in order to reach between them and remove her glasses from her dress. Once she slid them in place, she playfully batted her lashes and grinned in return.

“Okay now, Audri, turn your head so that you’re looking off to your left while Marcus is staring at you. Marcus, wrap your right arm around her waist.”

“With pleasure,” Marcus whispered as his arm came around her.

“You are such a flirt,” Audri said, trying to suppress the nervous shudder she felt. Posing like this felt too intimate and she didn’t want it to get awkward.

“You know it, cupcake.” He winked.

Audri stifled the groan threatening in response to that nickname. One of these days she’d have to ask him to stop using it, but today was not that day.

Marcus was deliciously handsome, and his personality was a kick, but there just wasn’t that spark of attraction that screamed for anything beyond friendship. With the flirtatious teasing that had been escalating, she often wondered if Marcus wanted more. Of course, his playful banter had often included Tasha, so maybe it really was just his way of having fun. Her ability to read a guy’s intentions took a lousy turn with her last boyfriend, making her question her own judgment, and the last thing she wanted was to ruin the comradery they shared.

Before Audri could reply, Jesse was telling them to hold still while he snapped shot after shot.

“Okay, now, Audri, I want you to remove your sweater.”

“Oh, now it’s getting good,” Marcus oozed.

Audri tried to laugh off the comment as her face heated. She began to pull away, finding Tasha at her side.

“Let me help you here, girl. And you,” Tasha lifted her face to Marcus as she started to remove Audri’s sweater, “you really need to tone it down, mister, or you’ll scare someone off.”

“Pfft, as if,” Audri said, trying for a blasé attitude. She missed the intense look Tasha had given the man.

“You know I’m only teasing, right?” Marcus said apologetically. “I like our banter.”

Audri tilted her face up to look into the man’s eyes. “Marcus, I adore our banter. As long as it stays friendly, right?”

“Always. Sorry if I got carried away, Audri. I’ll cool it.” Before she could reply, he nodded in Jesse’s direction when her boss called Marcus’s name.

“If we’re done with the chit-chat, maybe we can get down to business?” Jesse half-heartedly groused while Tasha backed away shaking her head. “Okay, Audri, same stance, lean in and place your left hand on Marcus’s right shoulder. That’s it. Marcus, right hand around her waist, left hand around her neck. Yes!” he bellowed when they moved into position. “The contrast of your hands on her skin is amazing. Audri, your ink is beautiful!”

Click after click of the camera’s shutter echoed through Audri’s head as she became hyperaware of the scene. More people gathered to watch the shoot, their whispers beginning to grate on her nerves. Usually, she would never mind the audience, knowing it was great for Jesse and the models. But now she felt much too exposed, never expecting to become the subject of the murmuring crowd. It took all her concentration not to freak out.

Her dress had a halter-top tie around her neck and was backless down to her waist, revealing the full expanse of her back. Spread across her shoulders and upper back was an intricate tattoo of a mandala design in black and grays. Also revealed were her tattooed arms, called sleeves, consisting of a variety of images. One arm depicted a sea life scene with colorful coral, fish, and a mermaid. The other was decorated with flowers, fairies, and her favorite creature, Pegasus.

Although dressing vintage appealed to her, Audri loved the more fanciful tattooing of modern day instead of the traditional style, called Old School. She wasn’t ashamed of her ink, she just wasn’t used to showing it off by revealing so much of her skin. Especially while in the arms of a freaking hot guy who loved his flirty teasing.

Could this afternoon get any more awkward?

Apparently so as Jesse called for Carson to step forward and take Marcus’s place.

Lord, help me!

She startled as Marcus leaned in to whisper in her ear. “Showtime.” He gently kissed her cheek before releasing her. When she stepped back, Marcus pushed away from the desk and joined Tasha as Carson moved closer.

Audri refocused, pushing her glasses up on her nose. Again, she had to tilt her head skyward to face off with the hulking form of another freaking hot guy—one whose arms she dearly wanted to have around her, but equally dreaded. She knew she took an audible gulp, and she thought for sure she saw a grin adorn Carson’s lips as he slid past her to take up where Marcus left off.

“Audri, same as before,” Jesse called out while fussing with the lighting. “Carson, against the desk, Audri, step up to him.”

Audri turned away from Carson, growing more uncomfortable by the second. “Jesse, is this really necessary? Get Tasha in here to do the job. That’s why she’s here.” She was ready to be done. Truth be told, she was afraid of sweating bullets and embarrassing herself.

Just as she was about to walk away, Carson spoke, causing her to whip her head back around and stare at him.

“C’mon, cupcake, I know you’re ready for this.”

Calling out that nickname would normally piss her off, but his wicked grin and the low rumble of his voice only caused her belly to tumble with delight. As he rested casually against the desk, ankles crossed and hands folded together in front of him, his grin changed into a seductive invitation. He seemed to be daring her, challenging her to indeed step up and finish this session with him. Never one to back down from a challenge, she summoned her courage and gave him a saucy smile.

Fine! I can do this. I’ll show him.

She raked her gaze over his torso where his white dress shirt protested across his impressive chest and wide shoulders, pushing the limits of how far the material could be stretched. Her fingers itched to smooth out the creases, or better yet, undo every last button and free him from the garment. Oh, to have her hands on his glorious skin. She had to clench her fists at her sides as she took a fortifying breath to center herself.

Audri’s gaze ventured back to his eyes as she slowly sauntered toward him, over-emphasizing the sway in her hips. She never broke eye contact and was pleased to see a flash of shock register on his face. What she witnessed next nearly had her tripping in her heals.

Was that desire on his face? Desire? Impossible!

Audri’s pulse raced as she watched his eyes question, almost begging, pleading for her to come to him. He sat up straighter as he uncrossed his legs, planting his feet on the ground while his hands gripped the edge of the desk. Her careful steps led her closer and closer as she tried to push aside the uncertainty of her actions. She wanted him to see she wasn’t intimidated by him—no matter how much she really was intimidated by him.

All else around her faded away as Audri focused on Carson, feeling like David facing off with Goliath. Even with him in his seated position, his imposing form still seemed to tower over her. She tried not to let that bother her in the least as she stepped right up between his legs, bringing her body within inches of his. Still keeping his gaze, she was rewarded with another hint of surprise before his stare smoldered. Audri swore she could feel the heat radiating off his body, and suddenly she didn’t miss her sweater so much.

She boldly reached out to place her hands behind Carson’s head, her nails lightly scraping his neck, wishing she could release the strands of his lush hair from its confines. She could’ve sworn she felt a shudder roll through him as he closed his eyes and released a shaky breath. When he opened his eyes and smiled, sweet and warm, the heat she now felt threatened to melt her into a puddle of goo.

Ever so slowly, as if not to spook her, Carson brought an arm around her waist while his other hand slowly trailed across her outer arm and down her side. His fingers danced tenderly across her exposed flesh, his touch eliciting tiny shivers as it simultaneously fired her up. The arm snuggling her waist felt like a branding iron, leaving its mark of unrelenting fiery heat. Her entire body began to burn as he pulled her impossibly closer, his powerful thighs encasing her hips and the smooth silk of his shirt grazing her exposed cleavage.

As their breaths increased, mingled, Audri was certain she could hear the frantic beat of their hearts pounding in sync. She splayed her fingers around Carson’s neck, kneading his flesh, feeling the tense muscles slowly relaxing beneath her touch. Focusing on the steady caress of his hands on her back, she couldn’t look away from the softness in his eyes.

She licked her lips, suddenly parched, wishing she could steal the moisture from his mouth with a kiss. And when his gaze shifted to her lips then back to her eyes, maybe he thought the same as he mimicked her move, swiping his tongue across his plump lower lip.

Audri disguised her groan with a remark she knew sounded much too needy.

“Are you ready for this?”

Chapter Two

Oh, hell yeah! Carson was more than ready for this. He’d been ready for a year now but never acted on his desires. And boy did he desire Audri—had since the moment he saw her in Jesse’s studio. He’d been fascinated with her fierce attitude and smart humor. Not to mention her generous curves, gorgeous smile, and friendly demeanor.

He made it a point to discreetly learn anything he could about the woman, given that she’d always been much too reserved around him. During their encounters associated with work, she was nothing short of pleasant, always keeping it professional. But rarely had there been anything remotely personal.

He knew she’d had a rough breakup with a previous boyfriend, but that had been over a year ago. And while he’d observed enough to know she hadn’t become involved with anyone since, surely a fun-loving, out-going person like her wouldn’t let one hiccup stop her from becoming close to someone else.

Or would it?

Carson didn’t know the particulars about what had happened with her last relationship, but since he’d come to work with Jesse, Audri had always seemed to have an effervescent personality with boundless energy. She was always bubbly yet levelheaded, knowledgeable, respected, and appreciated. Everyone loved her, as evidenced by the many compliments he’d hear being directed her way. And there was no one with whom she didn’t get along or interact.

Except with him. Well, they got along, but their interactions were limited at best.

Why couldn’t she banter with him as she did with Marcus? Or Tony, Cameron, and the many other models she’d dealt with at Jesse’s shoots? Did she just not like him? Carson had witnessed plenty of times when Audri would joke and laugh and huddle together for conversations. Even though most of her time had been spent in the background observing once Jesse began his work, she wouldn’t hesitate to give some insight on making the shoot better. Rarely ever with him though.

Hell, he wasn’t perfect. He was always willing to take direction to improve upon himself and his work. And it wasn’t as if he wasn’t approachable, always able to get along with just about anyone. There was substance to him, even if he didn’t always go out of his way to show it. Was he proud to be that guy who wasn’t known for being much more than eye candy? Not really, but Carson never let on that he was anything more. He didn’t talk with too many others about his life, and certainly not with any women other than Celeste. They had a history.

And his past certainly didn’t instill in him much trust for women. Carson never found anyone else that he wanted to open up to, always keeping his relationships casual and brief.

Until Audri. With her, he’d imagined more, but hesitated to let her know of his interest, for fear of getting shot down. So yeah, his ego played a part in his resistance. Instead, he’d kept his distance, hoping they would somehow gravitate toward one another, organically.

Until now.

Now, he had caught a glimpse of her spunk, and possibly her interest. In him. He had to know if she was reciprocating the desire he felt for her. Or was she just out to prove a point that nothing could rattle her? Hell, Marcus sure liked to flirt with and rattle her, but she’d given as good as she got. Or so it seemed.

There for a minute, she seemed to be uncomfortable with all the attention and intimate banter. She didn’t even want to do the shoot, but today she’d given in, obviously wanting to appease her boss. Typical move for her, keeping everything running like clockwork.

But seeing her in Marcus’s arms nearly undid him. He tried to mask his surly looks, hoping not to act like a caveman. And what was with his statement about being ready for this? Okay, so maybe he was trying to force a decision, throw out a challenge, and damned if Audri hadn’t steeled herself to his challenge and waltzed right into his arms.

Carson liked her guts.

So, what now? He had the woman of his dreams in his arms, her soft skin beneath his hands, and her vulnerable blue eyes staring into his through those sexy little red glasses.

Vaguely aware of Jesse’s camera taking shot after shot, of the murmurs from the crowd of onlookers, all Carson could zero in on was the opportunity in front of him. Without breaking eye contact, Carson began to lower his head, seeking Audri’s lips. God, how he wanted to taste her—and her lips were just for starters. He watched her eyes widen a fraction before a myriad of emotions crossed her lovely face. Hope. Nervousness. Desire.

Was he reading this right? Did Audri want to kiss him as badly as he wanted to kiss her? Her eyelids dropped, her lips parted, and she seemed to be holding her breath … in anticipation.

Only one way to tell…

“Got it!” Jesse called out. “Damn, Audri, that was excellent! You, too, Carson.” His last words seemed to be an afterthought.

Jesse’s words startled them both, causing Audri to release her hands and try to scramble out of Carson’s arms. Only he wasn’t having it as he kept his arms banded around her. He certainly didn’t want her to end up on her shapely rear.

She stiffened and said, “You can let go of me now.”

Carson leaned forward a fraction and whispered, “What if I don’t want to?”

He watched her breath hitch and her eyes widen, obviously stunned by his words. He looked down to her exposed cleavage, watching the rise and fall of the supple flesh as she took a shaky breath. What he wouldn’t give to lower his head into that inviting crevice and inhale more of her intoxicating scent.

Audri clearing her throat stopped him as he caught himself leaning forward even more.

“Shoot’s over. It’s Tasha’s turn.” She gave a little shove to his chest, trying to force him to release her. Reluctantly, he did. He didn’t want to push his luck and end up embarrassing them. Especially Audri.

As his hands slowly unwound from her body, she took a step back. And then another until Tasha gently touched her shoulder. Only then did she break eye contact with him in order to turn to her friend.

“You two looked stunning together,” Tasha complimented. She then handed Audri her sweater, who eagerly took it and put it back on.

Carson loved looking at her skin, hating that much of it suddenly disappeared beneath the garment. He also loved her ink—the little bit he’d had the chance to glimpse before today—just as much as her milky flawless skin void of enhancement. And after she’d removed her sweater, oh man, did he really love her ink, thinking without a doubt that she was the sexiest woman he’d ever seen.

“Hardly.” Audri blushed. “You, on the other hand, are. Go show ‘em what you got.” She chuckled as she gave Tasha a playful swat on the backside before turning to walk away.

Carson watched her bypass Jesse and Marcus, both trying unsuccessfully to stop her as she spoke softly before continuing out of sight. Marcus then turned to look at Carson, staring him down with an unreadable expression on his face.

What was going through his mind?

He straightened away from the desk and sighed, wondering if life would ever go his way with that woman.

“Hey, stud. Putting some moves on my girl?” Tasha seemed to tease as she approached Carson. “Because you know she’s a very guarded woman. Going to take a special man to break through her veneer.”

“Is that right?” Carson wasn’t in the mood for a dress-down or any lecturing. He could’ve handled things smoother with Audri. She deserved no less. And he knew that Audri and Tasha were close, so naturally, Tasha would watch out for her friend. As he started to step away from the desk, ready for a break, Tasha stood in his path.

“That’s right, Carson.” She spoke in a hushed tone as her striking hazel eyes gave him a cool assessment. “Someone who isn’t going to play her or use her, someone who isn’t going to hurt her.” She leaned in even closer, not intimidated by him in the least. “I wasn’t lying when I said you two looked stunning together. But that’s only outward appearance. Can you offer her more?”

Carson raised his brow at Tasha, taking stock of her words, of her concern for her friend. He damned sure had to respect her for it. Didn’t mean he had to endure it right now. He made a move to step by her, but she followed his movements, once again facing off with him.

“Because if you can’t, then you need to—”

“What I need to do is get some water and take a breather for a sec before we finish this shoot. That okay with you?” He tried to keep his words on an even keel and not let Tasha rile him. The last thing he wanted was another pissed off female in his presence, even though Audri had decided to bolt. And who could blame her?

Tasha stood stone-faced and silent for a moment, her calculating eyes never leaving his. Apparently, she decided to keep any further comments to herself as she swiveled to her side, gesturing for him to proceed. Carson walked away, telling Jesse he’d be right back as he stalked past the photographer.

“Yeah, sure,” Jesse mumbled absently, too focused on his camera.

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