“I think we got it,” Molly said confidently to the almost naked man standing in the corner, wearing nothing but a stark white towel draped across his tan waist.
Molly nodded as she scrutinized her work. “Yeah, the lighting was brilliant. I don’t think we could have done any better.”
“If you say so. You’re the expert with that thing.” The model pointed at the large camera Molly cradled in her hands, the screen displaying the digital shots from the day of working with him.
Molly loved her job as a professional photographer. Her friends were insanely jealous. What woman wouldn’t be? She spent her days in her studio behind the lens of her trusty camera, capturing sexy images of some of the most gorgeous men from all over the world. Either she was paid to travel to them or they flew to Seattle to have her work her magic. Authors in the romance industry adored her photos. Her attention to detail had won her awards over the years, but what she loved the most was bringing the characters from books alive. Sure, it didn’t hurt to look at well-defined muscles and sculpted abs that begged to be touched and to know what was hidden beneath the scrap of cloth that usually covered these men, but that wasn’t how the business worked. Her friends would argue it was just because Molly didn’t throw herself at these scantily clad men that she was missing out on these valuable opportunities.
If they only knew how nervous most of these men were, their fragile egos stripped down for her. It took Molly the first half of the shoot to calm them, easing them out of their shells, getting them just to loosen up enough for the right shot. It was more like babysitting rather than staring at a buffet, despite what her best friends thought. Not all the models lacked self-confidence, however. There were some who would stroll in, look directly into the camera and own it. But, for the most part, a lot of the guys were unsure and needed coaxing. Molly often felt more like a counselor than the world-famous photographer that she was.
Today, the Seattle sun was shielded behind soft, white clouds, filtering its rays into her studio that overlooked the Puget Sound. Her tall, glass windows provided the most stunning views of the shimmering water and the bustling city. Molly had worked hard for this view. It hadn’t come easy or cheap—or without her busting her ass to make her name known in the photography industry. She had the scars—mostly emotional, but scars, nonetheless—to prove the struggles she’d endured, climbing to the top. Now she was one of the most sought-after photographers. Models from all over the globe wanted her to shoot them. New York Times and USA Today bestselling authors and publishers almost begged for her to shoot their covers. They wanted the best and…well, Molly was. Her skills proved that she had something special and everyone knew it.
Not bothering to sit down at her desk—bending over, instead—to focus on the images she was uploading to her laptop to edit, she almost forgot to say goodbye to the model she had just worked with. It wasn’t until he was standing close to her, now fully dressed, that she realized he was still in her studio. Having him near her like that shifted the atmosphere in the room. His dominating presence was invading her space, creating nervous waves in her stomach. She inhaled his expensive aftershave, looked up from her screen and smiled.
Molly managed to say, “Great shoot today. Thanks again.”
Remember to breathe, Molly.
“Yeah, it was amazing. You’re amazing.” The man paused, running his fingers along his day-old beard, the perfect blend of refined and unkempt sexy. His voice was silky and oozed well-practiced enticement. Molly watched him stand still, contemplating his next move. She was tempted to grab her camera and snap another shot. The light was hitting him just right and his pose was thoughtful and natural. This man was gorgeous.
He turned his mesmerizing gaze toward her and asked, “Do you want to grab a drink?”
Molly swallowed. It wasn’t the first time she had been asked out by a model after a shoot. Sometimes it was the result of having bonded over their frail vulnerabilities. Sometimes they figured she was as good a lay as any while they were in town—another stamp in their romantic passport, so to speak. Molly wasn’t so sure about this one. He wasn’t overly emotional or guarded about his body, nor did he seem to really desire her. So, what is he after? She watched him scan the large studio. There was her answer. This type of square footage didn’t come cheap and he knew that.
“You know, maybe another time. I’m really excited to get this edited.” Molly pointed at her sleek silver laptop, delivering a fake smile in hopes it would put him off.
He nodded and thanked her again as he saw himself out. The nerve. Molly rolled her eyes and released the air she had been holding in her lungs. While she was in mid sigh, her cell phone chirped.
“Hello,” she answered, a little more gruffly than she’d intended.
“Wow, so what’s with the ‘tude, lady? Bad day?”
It was one of her best friends, Tiffany.
“Just got done working with a model.”
“Well, then why do you sound all cranky? Was he awful? So good-looking that you couldn’t handle it?” Tiffany teased, causing Molly to laugh and her mood to lighten.
“You know the type. He wanted to go out for drinks—”
Tiffany cut her off quickly. “And you said, yes, right? Because if you didn’t, you honestly need to have your head examined.”
“I’d have to say he was more interested in my real estate than me.” Molly frowned.
“Like real estate, as in the prime location between your legs? You know, it’s all about location, location, location, baby.”
“I wish.” Molly huffed in frustration. “No, more like the prime location of my studio.”
“Tell me about it. He was gorgeous and he smelled divine. He was totally your type—tall, dark and devilishly handsome.”
She heard Tiffany’s disappointment through the phone. “Really? Oh, I just don’t know how you do it, Molly. I have to give it to you. I would simply come undone working with those gorgeous men and not taking advantage of them every chance I got.”
Tiffany always acted like she was some aggressive sex kitten, but they knew the truth. She was actually quite timid, which was a huge reason why she was single. All three of them were single and not dating anyone special. It didn’t usually work that they were unattached all at the same time, but they were now. Their other best friend, Mackenzie, was the mother hen of the group. Well, more like the bossy one—completely overbearing, but with an absolute heart of gold. She, too, teased Molly about her line of work, but Mackenzie loved being a teacher, as it helped fill her maternal void. They had biological clocks that had gone haywire over the last couple of years, but everyone had warned them as they entered the dirty thirties that baby fever would hit soon after, and it had for Tiffany and Mackenzie. Every time they passed a stroller, neither could resist the temptation of peering in to catch a glimpse of some infant swaddled in fuzzy pink or blue blankets. Molly? She had her moments. They were brief and passed quickly when she heard the wail of a newborn or the shrill sound of a tantrum from a toddler. That didn’t tempt her to want to rent out her womb for nine months.
She looked at her spotless, chic studio. Her smile went deep into her soul, masking the want for a baby. Her space sparkled and gleamed with the afternoon Seattle sunlight, illuminating sleek lines and utterly contemporary taste.
If she were being completely honest with herself, yes, she did indeed want a child, eventually. But Molly also realized she was missing a very important part of the equation—a man. She didn’t want just a sperm donor, though she and her friends had discussed that over far too much wine and Chinese food one night, considering it as a last resort. That had left them laughing for hours. No, Molly wanted the real deal. They all did. They wanted a man—a sexy, successful and simply wonderful man. Is that really asking for too much?
Being single, especially in Seattle, came with its challenges. Molly thought the enormous Emerald City should be plentiful with eligible bachelors, but Molly assumed that, as with any place, being single was a mixture of bad luck and an overly detailed list of the personality traits she wanted in a boyfriend. As time passed, her list had grown a lot shorter. She’d crossed off quite a few of her must-haves and was looking to review her available options. Now she figured it was mainly the bad luck that was keeping her single. Molly had been unattached the longest out of her friends, who were more like her sisters. Tiffany had been on a dating spree recently, but Mackenzie and Molly had known that none of the guys were Mr. Right for their friend. Mackenzie also had a pretty extensive list of requirements for her ideal mate, and she was even more stubborn than Molly when it came to sacrificing the qualities she was willing to live with, so she dated very little.
“Well, since you didn’t want drinks with that sexy model, how about meeting up with us?” Tiffany asked.
Molly smiled. Yes, a drink with her best pals she could do. “That sounds lovely, actually.” She could use some cheering up. The best cure for her bruised ego was some quality time with her besties.
“Great. I’ll pick up Mac and we’ll swing by the studio and grab ya. Sound good?”
“Perfect. I have some edits I want to go through, so just buzz when you guys get here.”
Molly said goodbye and hung up. She stared at the monitor in front of her, the images of the model in various poses looking back her.
* * * *
Lost in her work tweaking the images with an array of filters, Molly was so engrossed that she almost didn’t hear the loud buzzing that echoed off the large studio walls. She got up quickly from her desk and jogged to the massive double doors to let her friends in.
“Jeesh, what were you doing? I have been ringing that dang buzzer for, like, forever,” Tiffany complained as she slipped past Molly into the studio. Mackenzie frowned and hugged Molly.
“We’ve only been standing outside the door for a minute,” Mackenzie assured her.
Tiffany walked over to one of the large windows facing the Puget Sound. The sun was setting, casting a tangerine hue over the haze of the city. “God, do you ever get tired of this magnificent view?”
Molly shook her head as she joined her, staring out at the glittery lights in the surrounding buildings that seemed to stretch up toward the sky. “Nope.”
“Yeah, I didn’t think so.” Tiffany laughed as she faced Molly. Her dark hair was loose on her thin shoulders. Tiffany’s large eyes were a soulful brown and she had the best cheekbones. Tiffany was gorgeous in a unique and completely unexpected way. Molly’s brain acted as a camera, capturing shots of her friend’s delicate features as the sunset cast a shadowy light on her face. Tiffany sensed what Molly was doing and threw her a pouty look.
Mackenzie stood next them. The willowy blonde towered over Molly, making her feel short and stubby. Mackenzie had the figure of a teenager, slim and athletic. Her sun-kissed hair was cut in a sleek bob, framing the sharp angles of her face. She was another beautiful woman. Molly couldn’t help but snap mental pictures of Mackenzie, too. She searched Molly curiously with soft mocha eyes. They all had brown eyes in varied shades of the common color, but resembling their different tastes in coffee. Tiffany had the espresso, dark and bold. Mackenzie was more of an iced mocha with an extra shot. Molly’s resembled the instant crap coffee variety that no one really liked. Molly hated her eyes. They were plain. Her friends had tried to convince her otherwise, but they both had spectacular depth and richness in theirs. Molly thought hers looked like a muddy puddle after a typical downpour in Seattle—watery, with a sad, muted tone. Nothing special.
“What’s going on with you?” Mackenzie reached for Molly, concern swimming in her eyes and worry creasing her otherwise wrinkle-free face, the result of fabulous genetics.
Molly sighed. Is there anything going on with me? They usually accused her of being moody, but she was an artist. Isn’t that sort of the job description? Acting the part of the tortured soul? They sure never let her play that role for very long.
Tiffany stared at her hard and added, “Yeah, you seemed cranky on the phone. So what’s up?”
“I don’t know. I mean…” Molly really couldn’t explain how she felt. She had a blessed life. Granted, she had worked for it, but, regardless, she knew she was lucky. Happy? Well, that was a different ball of wax.
“Drinks. That’s what we need.” Tiffany perked up, her hand on her hip, taking a sassy stance. She reached for the oversized purse that was slung over her shoulder. A Louis Vuitton knock-off, but it looked as real as they came. It was their little secret. Tiffany dug around and retrieved a bottle of Prosecco, holding it up for them to all gaze at her prize.
“You were carrying that in there? Oh dear. Seriously, Tiffany,” Mackenzie scolded.
Tiffany winked and answered with a wicked grin.
“I, for one, am thrilled our friend is lugging around a bottle. You never know when you may need it.” Molly grinned happily at Tiffany. “It does make you look a little like a wino, but you’re my favorite drunk.”
“No, you have me mistaken. I’m fun, not a drunk.” Tiffany defended as she moved toward a long table that was against the wall opposite the windows. “Besides, at least I bring the good stuff.”
“I have an idea. Let’s stay in. Want to order some food?” Mackenzie suggested.
“Yes, let’s do that. Molly’s got one of the best views in all of Seattle. Let’s just hang out here,” Tiffany replied while she peeled the label away to get to the cork.
“Chinese?” Mackenzie whipped out her cell phone and started to dial their favorite takeout.
“Hell, yes,” Molly and Tiffany answered in unison.
These were her girls. It didn’t matter if they stayed in or went out on the town. As long as they were together, they were guaranteed to have fun.
Shortly, they were seated around a large glass table that Molly normally used to lay out prints from shoots. They dined on their fill of chow mein, pork fried rice and more Kung Pao shrimp than any woman should ever eat. White cartons, soy sauce packets and chopsticks were littered around them as they chatted about everything—mostly about the lack of sex or romance in their lives. Biting into a crispy fortune cookie—her favorite—Molly surveyed her beautiful friends. She couldn’t understand why any of them were single. Tiffany was gorgeous, sweet and sassy… What was there not to love about her? Mackenzie was stunning, witty and full of love… She had so much to offer. Then there was her. She knew she might not be the sexiest thing on the planet, but she was successful, caring and everyone constantly complimented her on how pleasant she was, even telling her she was sort of hot, especially when she wore her glasses. So how is it that I haven’t landed the perfect guy yet? Cracking open another cookie, she read the thin slip of white paper. Bold red font stared back at her, reading, ‘There is nothing truer than the company of friends.’ How right is that fortune?
More wine flowed and, to keep the mood light, Molly blasted the radio. She and her two best friends danced barefoot in the empty studio, singing their hearts out and putting on a drunken performance that could rival the best pop star’s. Tiffany swayed her hips to the song. Mackenzie took a while to loosen up, but then started to bop to the beat. Molly busted out some goofy moves that reminded her of middle school dances, her favorite being the ‘running man’. They laughed hard, clutching their sides when Tiffany took a spill on the slippery wood floor. In their feeble attempt at helping her up, they all ended up on the floor somehow, spread-eagled, staring up at the vaulted ceilings. Music continued to play, filling the wide and open space, but the mood had shifted. That was when the laughter died and the deep realness of their friendship was exposed.
“I love you, guys,” Tiffany whispered, her dark tresses fanned out against the honey-colored bamboo floor.
“Me too,” Mackenzie added softly.
Molly tried to swallow the lump that was forming in her throat, feeling tears starting to surface. “I love you both. Thank you for tonight.”
They all stayed on the floor, listening to several more songs before Tiffany said, “God, this floor is killing my back. I feel old.”
Mackenzie and Molly both laughed.
“And for the record, we are old,” Mackenzie replied.
“I wanted to say the same thing, but figured I would tough it out until one of you cracked.” Molly started to get up.
Mackenzie and Tiffany groaned as they eased themselves off the floor. Working quietly as a team, they cleaned up the remnants of their dinner.
“I would totally live here, Molly,” Mackenzie commented as she tossed several cartons into a waste basket.
Tiffany was wiping up some sticky Kung Pao sauce. “Seriously. This studio is so fabulous. You need to let me move in here.”
“I do love this place.” Molly looked around at her kingdom. An enormous clear-glass shelf that held her many awards was against one of the walls. Expensive frames that contained some of her best work were hung precisely in the perfect locations. Various shades, light fixtures and tons of other photography gear were set up in one corner. The room celebrated her. It showcased all of her efforts but, more importantly, it proudly displayed her passion for this form of art.
After every last morsel was cleaned and the work space was back to being immaculate, they made their way back to the window. The sun had long since disappeared, leaving the city lights to twinkle silently as the three of them stared out at the busy traffic below.
“Thank you again, guys. I really needed this tonight.”
Mackenzie and Tiffany linked their arms through hers as she stood in the middle.
She would be lost without them. They knew all her secrets and her fears. They had supported her during her moments of crippling self-doubt. They’d loved her when she was at her worst. They’d dried her tears when critics had given her harsh reviews. They were her cheerleaders. They’d pushed her to continue to pursue her dream so many times when she’d just wanted to give up. They had been the first to celebrate when she finally did become successful and had told her countless times how much she deserved it.
These women were more than just friends. They were her tribe, her sisters. They were Molly’s everything.