“What are you talking about?” Molly Neff asked. “Say it again.”
“Please tell me you’ve got a good idea that doesn’t involve showing my ass.” Austin leaned back in his chair and propped his feet on the edge of his desk. “The clothing company wants something that’s simple and chic—that’s your strong point, but I still don’t see why you think I could be good for this.”
Molly sighed and drummed her pen on her notepad. She’d worked with Austin for the last five years and still he managed to surprise her. The ad campaign they were working on didn’t have to involve him showing his ass, as he’d put it. He didn’t have to show up in the campaign at all. But what if she went with her initial idea and used him in the advertisements?
She stared at him. Austin Dean personified sex. From his perfectly cut dark-blond hair to his muscles and the way his clothes always fit just right, he could model. When he smiled, she melted—and so did just about every other female within a hundred-mile radius.
Molly picked up the shirt box and flipped up the lid. The T-shirt wasn’t anything that special, but on the right body and showcased to its softest advantage it would sell well. Pair it with the boxer briefs and put the model in a casual situation…yeah, she could see the clothes selling well. Hell, she could see the posters now with Austin as the model.
“What are you thinking?” He moved his feet from the desk and leaned forward. “The wheels are turning. I see them.”
She shook the shirt out and smoothed it across her notebook. If she wanted him to model, she’d have to tell him sooner rather than later. “Okay, so here’s what I’m thinking. Aura Sportswear wants the clothes to look easy to live in. They’re going for casual and fun. What if we did a series of photos of models in those clothes?”
“Isn’t that the plan anyway?” He frowned, but his blue eyes twinkled. “Go on. What’s your vision?”
The tips of her ears burned. He loved to tease her about her methods for coming up with the ideas for the different advertising campaigns, but the visions, as he called them, almost always worked. “I’m seeing black-and-white images. Casual. Like, the male model stretched out on the bed, wearing glasses maybe, and dressed in the shirt and boxers. He’s reading the paper. Another one is the same kind of guy, but on a balcony. Maybe it’s sunset and he’s got coffee. Bare feet, backside shot. Hot, but not overly grossly sexual.”
She met his gaze and hoped the heat on her cheeks wasn’t evident. When he laughed, she knew he saw everything.
Austin didn’t answer right away but kept laughing. “Backside shot. Who says that?”
“I do,” she muttered. She saw him as the guy on the bed, engrossed in the paper and debating what to do with his stock portfolio. He’d be damn sexy. She could probably make a mint off the posters alone. “The clothing is made for lounging. It’s supposed to look soft and inviting, but sporty. Like this.”
Molly placed the tablet in front of him. She pointed to the image she’d cobbled together on her photo manipulation software.
He stopped laughing and sobered. He laced his fingers together. “You used my face.”
“It’s the back of your head.” She shrugged. She should’ve regretted her decision to photograph him, but it was too late now.
“Where is this?”
“I took it a couple hours ago while you were staring out the window. Your pose was perfect and the lighting was even better. I cut your body out and put the clothes in. Your body is the plastic mannequin body.” She gripped the pen again, needing something to do with her hands. She’d crushed on Austin for almost ten years, but every time she’d tried to make a move, he hadn’t been available. They’d only made love a couple of times because he’d wanted it. Her mild obsession with taking his picture was going to get her into trouble.
“I thought I was a little tighter in the back and ass section.” He swiped the screen to another image and paused. “Did you take this?” He snorted. “What am I saying? Duh, you took this. It’s your tablet.” He turned it around. “Is this me, too?”
She shrugged again. Yep, her tendency to photograph him was definitely going to get her into hot water. “It was the lighting and your expression.” He’d looked so damn cute and puzzled. “Sorry.”
“For what? I want a copy so I can use it for my business cards or something.” He leaned back in his seat again and crossed his arms. “Molls, I don’t know why you got into the advertising game. Your photography is too good not to be shared.”
“Nah.” She picked at the tip of the pen. She’d considered working professionally as a photographer, but she liked creating advertising spreads. Truth be told, she craved the time she spent with Austin. They’d probably never get together as anything other than collaborators, but that didn’t mean she couldn’t dream about a romantic relationship with him.
Austin scratched his forehead then pushed away from the desk and stood. “What if—? What if we did this? The ad campaign. We pitch the idea of the black-and-whites and see what Aura says? I’ll do it, but only if you take the pictures. Yes?”
“You mean manipulate them together? Sure.” She nodded. “I’ve got a couple of shots of you I can put with the clothing and cut and paste into a good composition.”
Austin rounded the desk and sat on the edge of hers. “No, I meant we actually shoot me in those clothes. Well, you do the photography and I’ll pose. We can get a hotel room or something. I’ve got points we can use for it, or we could expense it once we get the account.” He swung his foot and bobbed his head. “We could make a night of it. Room service. Order a movie… I’m in. What about you?”
She stared at him, unable to process what he’d just said. A hotel room? Seriously? Making a night of it? Uh, yeah, she wanted to, but probably not in the same way he meant.
“Molls?” He tipped his head to the side and his eyes widened. “What do you think?”
She wanted to strip him naked, ride him into the sunset and forget about the ad campaign—that’s what she thought. “Are you sure?”
Where in the hell had that come from?
“Why wouldn’t I be sure?” he asked. He stopped swinging his foot. “I don’t trust anyone else to take my picture.”
“Oh, yeah. That.” Definitely not thinking the same as she was… “If you want real pictures, then sure. I’ll take them.”
“Get that overnight bag you keep in your car and meet me at the Madison House Inn. They’ve got the exact room we want for this.”
“Sure.” She paused. “I’m thinking more candid shots for these. Like the girlfriend taking the picture. Thoughts?” She shouldn’t be hoping for more, but she did. Was she wrong to want to be the woman in his life and not just be his collaborator?
Austin nodded. “That’s smart.” He grinned and kissed her on the cheek. “This is why I only work with you.”
She warmed from her head to her toes. She balled her hands to keep from reaching for him. Wanting him was so foolish, because he’d never see her as anything other than his friend, but still. A vision of him in bed with her, him kissing her and making love to her, came to mind. She pressed her knees together and bit back a sigh. Naked, clothed, she’d didn’t care—she wanted him.
“I’ll meet you in the lobby in ten.” Austin smiled and trailed his fingers over the back of her hand. The flirt. He packed his tablet and leather-bound notebook into his messenger bag then strolled out of the office he shared with her.
Once alone, she sighed and rested her head on her folded arms. Photographs, a room together, him in form-fitting clothes—she was so screwed, and not in the way she wanted. She should’ve used another head for the mock-ups, but she hadn’t been able to resist. The thought of Austin modeling those shirts and shorts was too tempting.
She stuffed her own tablet and notebooks into her shoulder bag then tucked the box of shirts and underwear beneath her arm. She was going to spend the night with the man of her dreams, taking pictures of him. She could do this.
Ten minutes and three trips back to her desk later, Molly finally stepped into the elevator. She leaned against the back wall and sighed. What was she thinking? She should have turned him down. He had to know how she felt about him. Good God, they’d been friends for so long and she’d admitted she liked him at least twice after she’d had too much to drink when they’d slept together before.
The elevator car stopped and the doors opened. Austin stood in the lobby, but he wasn’t alone. Her heart sank, along with her spirits. She’d talked herself into turning him down, but she hadn’t expected him to turn her down first.
Austin widened his stance and smiled at the petite blonde woman. He laughed at whatever she’d said and seemed entranced by her.
Molly pressed the button to close the elevator door. She’d seen this too many times and knew exactly where he’d take the evening. He and the blonde would end up spending the night together. He’d come into work the next day and tell her all about whatever it was they’d done. A movie, dancing, hanging out at a basketball game, going to an art gallery opening—whatever. She’d play the role of the trusty friend, listening and being supportive.
Screw support. She was tired of being the best friend.
Just before the doors shut, Austin rushed up to the car. “Where are you going?”
“Back upstairs. I forgot my purse.” She’d lied, but she hoped he couldn’t see the gigantic bag dangling from her arm.
“Molls.” He stuck his arm between the doors. “You’ve got everything. Might take you a dozen trips, but you never come downstairs without it all.”
“Guess so.” She averted her gaze. “Look, Austin, this won’t work.”
“What?” He stepped into the car and pressed the button for the top floor. He leaned against the wall beside her. “Talk to me.”
“Nothing to say.” She couldn’t meet his gaze. “When—when are you and the woman out there leaving?”
“Huh?” Austin tapped the emergency stop button and crossed the car to where she stood. “You mean Iris? I’m not spending time with her tonight. That’s what I was trying to tell her down there. She’s convinced we’d be a good team. Probably, but I already promised you we’d get the job done.”
“Iris?” As in Iris Sommerville, the owner of Aura? The woman who wanted her and Austin specifically to do the ad campaign? Shit. She probably wanted special treatment and Austin in her bed. Molly closed her eyes. She’d just played right into Iris’ hands and was about to deliver photos of Austin in Iris’ brand of clothes.
“Hey.” Austin curled his fingers under her chin. “We’ve got a job to do and we’ll get it done. We’ll have a good time doing it. Promise.”
She didn’t doubt they’d have fun, but she did doubt he wanted to spend the night with her. Work or not, he wasn’t known as a playboy for nothing.
“You’re finally tired of me, aren’t you?”
“No.” She wriggled away from him and pressed the button to start the elevator up again. “We need to get this done. Let me do some magic on the computer. I’ll have the stuff ready for Monday’s presentation.”
“I don’t think so.”
The car stopped a second time, but when she looked up at the display she noticed they were on the ground floor. She shrugged past him and into the cooler air of the foyer. God, she was screwing this up all on her own.
“Hey.” Austin caught up to her. “I don’t know what’s gotten into you, but we’ve got a job to do. We’ll do it.”
“Yeah,” she said and choked back tears. She’d built up the evening in her mind and ruined things before they’d even begun. She blew out a ragged breath. “Let’s go.”
A muscle in Austin’s jaw tightened. He didn’t say anything as he escorted her to the parking garage. He didn’t have to talk. She knew the play. Meet at the Madison House Inn.
“I’ll see you in a few.” She unlocked her car and dumped her things onto the back seat. “Meet in the lobby?” He didn’t answer, so she glanced around the garage. “Austin?”
“In here.” He opened the driver’s side door for her. “You’re driving.”
“Oh.” She shut the rear door and settled onto the front seat. Sure enough, Austin was in her car. He’d ridden with her plenty of times and hung out with her plenty more, but there was something different between them.
“We might as well take one car. We’re coming back here in the morning anyway.” He rested his arm across the seat back. “Josh and his working Saturdays rule. The guy is nuts.”
“He knows what he wants out of his workforce.” She switched on the engine and managed to back out of the spot without hitting anything. She didn’t know how she’d accomplished the feat, seeing as her hands wouldn’t stop trembling.
She peeked over at Austin a couple of times as she made the short drive across the city to the lakefront. Working in Avondale, Ohio, had its plusses—traffic, but not awful and a great view of the lake. Stores were within a decent distance and the cost of living was reasonable. Besides, Avondale had the Madison House Inn. Every room faced the lake and resembled a homey bedroom rather than a stuffy hotel room.
She turned onto the freeway and merged. Austin hadn’t said anything since the garage. She drummed her thumbs on the steering wheel.
“There’s a couple of T-shirts, three pairs of boxer briefs, a button-down shirt and a tie. Not sure why Aura didn’t send over pants,” she said.
“Aura makes jogging pants and base layers.” Austin toyed with her ponytail, tugging her hair lightly. “Or the selection is their way of throwing us a curveball.” He laughed. “They’ll love the way we’re going to lob that ball right over the left field wall.”
She bit back a chuckle. Austin and his baseball analogies—what would she do without him?
“This is the exit.” Austin sat up straighter and moved his arm. “I haven’t been to the Madison in forever.”
“I’ve only been there once.” She stopped from elaborating on that visit. She doubted Austin would remember her being at the company Christmas party two years back. He’d come in long enough to say hi then left with his date.
“The party two years ago, right? I wished I could’ve stayed longer. Gigi wanted to leave. She hated large crowds.” Austin tugged his wallet from his coat pocket. “Let me off at the door and I’ll get the room.”
“Sure.” When she stopped, he jumped out of the car. She did as she’d been told and sat in the silent vehicle. She should have been happy as hell. A room with Austin. This should’ve been her dream come true.
Molly scrubbed both hands over her face and sighed. If she kept thinking the worst then she’d never get him out of her system. Tonight would be a fun night. Room service, she’d take pictures of him, and God only knew what movie he’d want to watch. Maybe more? She couldn’t be sure. If she wanted a good time, she’d have to make it happen.
She gathered up her purse and her shoulder bag then climbed out of the car.
“Where’s the box?” Austin asked. He jogged up to the vehicle. “You’ve got your hands full. What can I carry?”
“My other bag and the box, I suppose.” She paused. “If I’ve got an overnight bag, what are you going to use tonight?”
“Thought I might bum something off you.” He winked. “But seriously, I’ve got a few things in my messenger bag. I’ll be all right.” He gathered up the bag and box. “The room’s ready. You’re never going to believe it. The place is booked up so we hit the jackpot.”
She locked the car and followed him into the hotel. She didn’t say anything as she entered the elevator with him and held her breath until the elevator car stopped. Top floor.
“Bridal suite,” Austin said as the doors opened. “Free upgrade.”
“Are you kidding?” She crept out of the elevator and up to the third door in the foyer. “Really?”
“No kidding.” He slid the card through the reader and twisted the handle. “It’s going to be perfect.”
“Sure.” She hesitated to put her bag or purse down. She’d never been in such a lush room. The suite featured three rooms, not including the bathroom. French doors led to a balcony. Her mind worked overtime. She could see him on the balcony in the waning sun. Him stretched out on the bed, reading the paper. Cooking in the kitchen in nothing but his boxer briefs. She closed her eyes and bit back a sigh. Her body warmed again and her nipples tightened.
“What are you thinking?” Austin rubbed her shoulders. He pressed his chest into her back. “Got ideas?”
She swayed into him and swallowed past the lump in her throat. She couldn’t speak. Not when she wanted to turn around and kiss him.
His breath tickled her ear. “Bet I’m thinking the same thing you are.”
Bet he isn’t.
Austin let go of her and left her things on the couch. He flopped onto the bed. “I’m thinking we need food, drinks and a movie—then the photos.”
“Right.” She rubbed her forehead with the back of her hand. “What did you want to eat?” Molly focused on unpacking the box and her bag. She needed to sort out what they had and what she wanted to do with the ad campaign. She set her laptop up on the desk and plugged in the cord. “Is there a menu anywhere?”
“I’ll get us something.” Austin disappeared onto the balcony. He chattered on his phone and waved his hand as he spoke.
Molly ignored him and finished getting her things out. She unfolded the clothes and arranged the items on the table. The colors needed to contrast just right. Austin strolled back into the suite and she rested her hands on her hips.
“I know they want bright color to sell the clothes, but what about black-and-white art shots mixed in? Like posters within the catalog?” She looked at Austin. “What do you think?”
“Like modeling stuff?” He sat on the arm of the sofa. “You’re really getting into this one.”
“I know what I want out of it. I’ve got a pretty clear vision.” She twined her fingers together. “What did you order?”
He stared at her for a moment. “Molly, are you trying to sell me?”
“Kind of.” Not really, but maybe, yeah, she was. She sighed. “I can see you in the photos, and they’re going to be great.”
“I believe you.” He smiled and scooted onto the couch beside her. “I ordered pizza, beers and sodas. Figured we could watch an action flick or a dirty movie. Whatever you’re in the mood for.” He wriggled his brows. “I’m all for the porn flick.”
“Austin.” She’d watched more than a couple of dirty movies with him—usually when they’d needed inspiration and had been stuck in the midst of procrastinating. After a particularly hot movie, she and Austin had ended up in bed together. She relished the memories of making love with him. After those two times, he’d shied away from her for a week. Did she want to go through that again? The silent treatment? Not really.
“Okay, so no porn—yet.” He tossed his keys and wallet onto the table then rummaged through his messenger bag. “I’m ditching my contacts. If the food arrives, let him in. I put it on the room.”
“Sure.” She twiddled with the settings on her phone and her digital camera. She’d probably get better shots with the phone but clearer images with the dedicated camera. She sat at the table and pulled out her notebook. Time to sketch out exactly what she wanted.
Molly barely noticed Austin moving around the room. She did hear the knock at the door and peeked over her shoulder. Austin wheeled a silver cart and whistled.
“This is great.” He laughed and scooted the pizza box and drinks onto the table. “They think we’re on our honeymoon.” He plunked a vase with two roses onto her notepad. “Happy marriage?”
The cut-crystal vase sparkled and the fragrance of the roses wafted around her. She closed her eyes and breathed in the light scent. Roses were her favorite, but she hadn’t had a boyfriend in forever, or a reason to buy herself flowers. When she opened her eyes, Austin had sat opposite her at the table.
“The roses are nice.” She laced her fingers together. “Thanks for buying dinner.”
“Molls, I couldn’t invite you to a hotel room and not, at least, get food.” He twisted the top off a bottle of beer. “Want?”
“I’ll have a soda for now, but save the bottle. It’ll work as a prop.” She finished her sketch then moved the tablet and vase aside. “So, how was your date with Serena?” She hated talking to him about his various girlfriends but she wanted conversation.
“Serena? She dumped me after two dates. Said I wasn’t able to commit.” Austin shrugged. “I’m not sure what she expected. It was only two dates, but yes, the last one was pretty bad.”
“Oh.” She slid a piece of pizza onto her plate. “I’m sorry to hear that.”
“No you’re not.” He winked. “I know you. As far as you’re concerned, I need to stop trying to find a date and focus on work.”
“True.” She willed her hands to stop trembling. For a moment, she thought he’d say she wanted him to stop dating and realize she wanted him.
“Iris asked me out.” Austin downed another swig of beer. “Said we’d get the account if I went with her on a date. I turned her down.”
“Wow.” She picked at the pepperoni on her slice of pizza. “Guess you’ve got women falling at your feet now.”
“Except the one I want.” Austin munched on the pizza and stared at her. “One of these days I’ll get my head out of my ass.”
“But not today.” She ripped the pepperoni away from the cheese. Any other woman would probably want to be in her position—with a handsome man in a hotel room and with the ability to make him strip. But he wasn’t interested in her in a romantic way.
“You never know.” Austin polished off a second slice of pizza then sat back in his seat. “So. I saw the notes. What’s the plan, boss? I’m dying to see what you’re going to make me do.”
Make him do? She could make him explain his cryptic statement, or maybe tell her exactly how he felt about her. But why make things easy? She met his gaze and part of the ice around her heart melted. The old-school black frames brought out the blue in his eyes.
“Well, first I want you to keep the glasses.” She turned the notebook around. Focus. “How about you put the shirt and boxer briefs on and I’ll mess up the bed. I thought I saw a newspaper around here somewhere. We can spread that out and make it look like you’re reading it.”
“Hunt out the sports page and I will read it.” He tossed his wadded-up napkin onto the plate. “And don’t finish the beer. Got it.” He left the table and grabbed the clothing. “Be right back. Don’t miss me too much.”
She rolled her eyes and slumped in her seat. The man would wear her out. She waited for him to close the bathroom door before she hopped up from the table. They were comfortable with each other and he surprised her by not stripping right in front of her—while keeping up a conversation.
Her thoughts turned to Iris Sommerville. The woman knew good-looking men and if she did date Austin, she’d help him improve his social standing. She’d probably get him jobs in the modeling and film industries, too. Did Molly blame Austin for being interested? No.
She yanked the comforter from the bed and messed up the sheets. She wanted the lived-in style.
“Nice.” Austin eased up beside her. He held the paper. “Almost looks like my room.”
“I don’t doubt it.” She picked up her phone and camera. “I’ll do some quick shots on the phone first to get the lighting right, then I’ll use the SLR.”
Austin plopped on the sheets. He crawled toward the headboard and stretched out.
Molly jumped back and whipped the camera from the bag. The man was a natural. She snapped half a dozen shots before he’d even settled.
“You’re not giving me the chance to pose.” Austin crossed his ankles and rested on his elbow. He smoothed the paper out in front of him then grabbed a pillow and tucked it to his chest. “Better?”
“Yes.” Not really. The pillow impeded the view of the shirt, but she didn’t have to use that particular shot—not for the campaign anyway.
He rolled onto his back and laced his fingers together on his belly. He bent his left leg and kept his right leg straight then glanced out of the window. The shirt stretched tightly across his chest and accentuated the taut planes of his body. When he breathed, his abs became more defined.
Molly wobbled as she clicked away, taking more photographs. He oozed sex. God. She was crazy. She could be taking the pictures for her own use, not to entice everyone else.
“Good?” He grinned. “I’m not sure I want to get up.” He sighed and stretched then sat up. “I bet you want to use that light.” He nodded toward the balcony. “It’s that right time of the night. Creamy light or something like that.”
“The sunset will make your skin look perfect—not that it’s not already.” She blew out a long breath. “Just go out there.”
“Yes, ma’am.” He scooted past her and onto the balcony again. The way he padded out onto the concrete and leaned against the railing was so casual and as if he spent many an afternoon out there.
Molly snapped a few shots with her phone then switched back to the single lens reflex camera. “Hold on.” She grabbed the beer bottle then offered it to him. “That’s better.” She knelt a few yards from him and focused. “Be yourself.” She wasn’t sure what he’d do but she trusted him to know what she wanted.
Austin rested his forearms on the railing and crossed his legs. He swirled the beer in the bottle and nodded once.
Everything he did was exactly what she needed in the photos.
“That’s great. I can work on other shots on the computer.” She strolled back into the hotel room and placed her camera in the bag. If she spent too much more time out on the balcony with him, she’d admit she still hadn’t gotten Austin out of her system.
“I don’t know,” Austin called. “I think we need a couple of selfie ones.”
She froze. ‘Selfie ones’. Yeah, a personal shot would be good. She handed her phone to him without looking back. “Go for it.”
She didn’t bother to watch. She’d seen him photograph himself plenty of times. He always managed to take the best shots and never had his hair out of place or his eyes funny. She hated selfies or any other pictures of her.
“I did a couple.” Austin eased up beside her and draped his arm around her shoulders. “Smile.”
When she looked up, he snapped a photo.
“Why did you do that?” she asked and reached for the phone.
“Because you’re adorable.” He kissed her temple and took another picture. “And I love to irritate you.” He kept her phone and strolled away from her. “Aura is going to love what you’re doing. They’re lucky we’re doing this.”
“Correction. They asked specifically for you. I got to do this because they had to take me.” She tucked the notebook back into her bag and slid the memory card from her camera. “Want me to take off? You’ve probably got a girlfriend dying to spend the night with you.”
Austin groaned and took the memory card from her hand. He led her across the room to the bed and tugged her down beside him. “You make me sound like I can’t keep my dick in my pants.”
She shrugged, not wanting to argue with him. Austin liked to date and loved to tell her about the women he’d seen. “You like all the girls you’re with, then you sleep with them and the relationship falls apart. I don’t know if the shine is gone or your attention span is that small, but you can’t commit.”
“You sound like Serena.”
“I’ve been witness to almost all of your relationships since college.” She stood, but he tugged her back onto the bed. “Austin, stop playing with my head, okay?”
“No.” He grabbed the remote and switched on the television. “How can I stop playing with your head? I invited you to stay the night with me in a hotel room. I never said we had to fuck or that I expected something from you. The idea of the photos was your idea—a great one at that—but I’m just going along. Relax and let me give you a great night.”
She scrubbed both hands over her face again and sighed. Being alone with him wasn’t an awful idea. She’d fallen hard for Austin so many times. At least this time she had photos for later. After he moved on and found the woman of his dreams, she’d have a reminder of the man who owned her heart.
“Well?” He met her gaze and grinned. “What do you think?”
“Sure.” What else did she have to lose?