“Seriously?” I, once again, consult the handwritten directions scribbled on a bar napkin. I’m beginning to feel like a rat in a maze, twisting and turning through the new mini-warehouse development wedged in between two of Ft. Worth’s busiest freeways. “If this is some kind of a joke, Colton Barnes, I’m going to strangle you with one of your own bull ropes.”
Every building, every doorway, is identical to the next one. Following the cryptic directions—third right, second left, fourth driveway on the right—I scan the cookie-cutter doors. Find the one with a neon Open sign—turned off at this hour of the morning for obvious reasons. Not much need for a BDSM club to be open at ten in the morning. Not that I would know anything about such things. Never been to one before. When this photo shoot is over, I doubt I’ll ever set foot in this place again.
I pull into a parking space and cut the engine. My old Mazda heaves like it’s giving up the ghost, and maybe it is. Every time it starts is a surprise. If I had means to replace the heap, I’d welcome its death. I send up a silent prayer for one more miracle, so I can get to the bank to deposit the check I’ve been promised for doing this favor for Colton. The money won’t solve all my problems, but if I parcel it out, I should be able to afford to put my rig on life support. I dread the day Jed down at Finch’s Gas & Garage finally utters the words, “Say your good-byes, Beth. There’s nothing more we can do for her.”
I make a mental note to stop and pick up a bus schedule on my way home. The money I’m going to earn this week will pay my rent and buy groceries for a few months, but not much more. My car isn’t the only thing on life support. I’ve been doing CPR on my once lucrative dance/cheerleading studio for the last several months. I started out with a group of young dancers a few years ago and took them as far as they could go. Most have moved on to college teams, I’m proud to say. But even though the front window is lined with trophies from various competitions, I haven’t been able to attract enough clients to replace the ones who have left.
My fault. I’m a better dancer than I am a business person. Which brings me to my present predicament.
I haven’t told anyone about my financial difficulties—not my family or my friends. They’d all want to help, but I need to work this out on my own. If I don’t learn the ropes, I’ll always be looking for someone to come to my rescue, and I don’t want to be that person. That’s why I agreed to Colton’s business proposal, and the fact I’ve had the hots for the man since the day my body flooded with estrogen when I was thirteen.
At sixteen, Colton Barnes had already made a name for himself on the football field, the baseball field, the debate team, the academic decathlon team, and the junior rodeo circuit. He walked the halls of Jeff Davis High School as if he owned them—and, hell, he did. Every guy wanted to be him, every girl wanted to do him, and every teacher wanted to clone him. Eventually, he chose rodeo over the colleges offering him both academic and athletic scholarships. He was/is too good to be true.
Sometimes I wonder if he regrets the path he chose. He made a fortune on the Professional Bull Rider’s circuit, but the sport took as much as it gave. Forced to retire after a particularly nasty animal stomped on his right leg, smashing the bones to bits, he returned to Ft. Worth with a noticeable limp, and started a business making custom bull ropes. He mostly keeps to himself these days, occasionally showing up at The Lone Star to have a drink with his buddies from high school. That’s where he found me.
I go there every week to drink and laugh with my girlfriends. The group ranges from a few to a dozen, depending on work schedules. We’re all single, except April who’s engaged and Bailey Rose who has a semi-permanent thing going with Travis. Conversation usually revolves around our dates, or lack thereof. Everyone there knows I dance, so it’s not unusual for one of the regulars at the club to drag me down to the dance floor to teach some greenhorn the basic steps. I was headed back to my table after teaching some sorority girl how to two-step when Colton stepped into my path.
At thirty, he is even more handsome than he’d been as a teenager. Age and experience have added character to his features, something I hadn’t been aware of until the moment I crashed into his broad chest.
He apologized profusely, but hell, if I’d had two nickels to rub together, I would have paid him to let me bounce off his chest. He offered to buy me a drink, and, finding the manners bred into me as a Southern woman, I let him. I lost track of how many drinks I consumed at his expense, but when I woke up the next morning with a herd of longhorns stampeding through my skull, I vaguely remembered agreeing to pose for him. I’d found the napkin with directions on it stuffed inside my bra.
“You’re a class act, Bethany.” I check my teeth in the rearview mirror for remnants of the sausage biscuit I ate for breakfast then grab my makeup case from the passenger seat. The summer heat is already building at this hour, so I’ve opted to do my final prep on site rather than have the makeup slide off my face on the way over. My next car is going to have a working air conditioner, even if I have to sell my soul to afford it.
Colton meets me in the small lobby area. I’m nearly struck dumb by the perfection of the man, but the cane he leans heavily on is enough to remind me he’s mortal. I’ve never seen him use a cane, and I say so.
“Just giving my leg a rest while I can. I need both hands to rig, so I’ll be putting weight on it a lot for the next few days.” I nod even though I don’t have a clue what he’s talking about. I don’t remember much about our conversation at The Lone Star. The important phrases—model for some photographs, and I’ll pay you—were the ones stuck in my brain. With his free arm, he waves me through to the next room.
Industrial lights illuminate the cavernous space. Low walls meant to delineate, not provide privacy, jut out from walls covered with implements and apparatus, leaving the center section wide open. A woman of around forty, barefoot and dressed in a peasant blouse and flowing skirt—the photographer, I assume—works to adjust a light stand. A grey backdrop hangs from the ceiling, continuing across the floor.
“Wanda,” Colton calls out. “Our model is here.”
“Bring her over. I need to check the lighting then she can get ready.”
I’ve worked with photographers before. They are a focused lot, pardon the pun, so her directness doesn’t bother me. Following Colton over, I take my place on the mark taped to the backdrop.
“No, no. On your knees…?”
“Beth,” I automatically supply while my brain processes her instructions.
“Kneel, Beth.” Colton’s deep voice startles me from behind. “The first shot is a simple wrist restraint.”
“Oh. Okay.” I drop to my knees and look up at the camera situated on a tripod.
A large hand strokes my hair, which I’ve left down, not sure of the exact look the photographer would prefer. “Chin down, darlin’. There will be plenty of shots showing off your beautiful face, but this isn’t one of them.” Dipping my chin, a faint memory from the night at the honky-tonk flashes in my mind. “Good girl.”
Colton combs his fingers through my hair like I’ve seen people do with a horse’s mane. It might have been comforting, except it’s Colton freakin’ Barnes doing it, and the memories of the conversation that led me to be here come back in a rush. I wrap my arms around my middle in an effort to stem the tremors of fear racing through me.
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