A Standalone Novel
It feels so damn good to be bad …
Bad boy photographer Wyatt Royce’s career is on the verge of exploding. His sexy, controversial show has everyone buzzing. All he needs is one perfect model to be his centerpiece.
Then Kelsey Draper walks in. Stunning. Vibrant. And far too fragile for a project like this. Wyatt should know—after all, he remembers only too well how their relationship ended all those years ago.
Desperate for cash and to lose her good girl persona, Kelsey sets her sights on Wyatt’s show. But only the show. She knows all too well that Wyatt Royce is a danger to her heart.
Wyatt agrees to give her the show on one condition. He has complete control of his muse—on camera and in his bed. As business and pleasure blur, Kelsey can’t help but wonder if she’s in too deep. Could a good girl like her ever be enough for a man like Wyatt?
Wicked Grind is part of the Wicked Nights - Standalone Novels series.
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About this StoryPublication Date 07/11/2017 Story Type Book Series Wicked Nights - Standalone Novels Genre Contemporary Romance
I’d thought he was out of my life forever. That all that remained of him was a memory, sharp and forbidden. Terrifying, yet tempting.
The one man who changed everything.
The one night that destroyed my world.
I told myself I was past it. That I could see him again and not feel that tug. Not remember the hurt or the shame.
That’s what I believed, anyway.
Honestly, I should have known better…
He was surrounded by naked women, and he was bored out of his mind.
Wyatt Royce forced himself not to frown as he lowered his camera without taking a single shot. Thoughtfully, he took a step back, his critical eye raking over the four women who stood in front of him in absolutely nothing but their birthday suits.
Gorgeous women. Confident women. With luscious curves, smooth skin, bright eyes, and the kind of strong, supple muscles that left no doubt that each and every one of them could wrap their legs around a man and hold him tight.
In other words, each one had an erotic allure. A glow. A certain je ne sais quoi that turned heads and left men hard.
None of them, however, had it.
“Wyatt? You ready, man?”
Jon Paul’s voice pulled Wyatt from his frustrated thoughts, and he nodded at his lighting director. “Sorry. Just thinking.”
JP turned his back to the girls before flashing a wolfish grin and lowering his voice. “I’ll bet you were.”
Wyatt chuckled. “Down, boy.” Wyatt had hired the twenty-three year old UCLA photography grad student as a jack-of-all-trades six months ago. But when JP had proved himself to be not only an excellent photographer, but also a prodigy with lighting, the relationship had morphed from boss/assistant to mentor/protégé before finally holding steady at friend/colleague.
JP was damn good at his job, and Wyatt had come to rely on him. But JP’s background was in architectural photography. And the fact that the female models he faced every day were not only gorgeous, but often flat-out, one hundred percent, provocatively nude, continued to be both a fascination to JP and, Wyatt suspected, the cause of a daily cold shower. Or three.
Not that Wyatt could criticize. After all, he was the one who’d manufactured the sensual, erotic world in which both he and JP spent their days. For months, he’d lost himself daily inside this studio, locked in with a series of stunning women, their skin warm beneath his fingers as he gently positioned them for the camera. Women eager to please. To move however he directed. To contort their bodies in enticing, tantalizing poses that were often unnatural and uncomfortable, and for no other reason than that he told them to.
As long as they were in front of his camera, Wyatt owned those women, fully and completely. And he’d be lying to himself if he didn’t admit that in many ways the photo shoots were as erotically charged as the ultimate photographs.
So, yeah, he understood the allure, but he’d damn sure never succumbed to it. Not even when so many of his models had made it crystal clear that they were eager to move from his studio to his bedroom.
There was just too much riding on this project.
Too much? Hell, everything was riding on his upcoming show. His career. His life. His reputation. Not to mention his personal savings.
Eighteen months ago he’d set out to make a splash in the world of art and photography, and in just twenty-seven days, he’d find out if he’d succeeded.
What he hoped was that success would slam against him like a cannonball hitting water. So hard and fast that everybody in the vicinity ended up drenched, with him squarely at the center, the unabashed cause of all the commotion.
What he feared was that the show would be nothing more than a ripple, as if he’d done little more than stick his big toe into the deep end of the pool.
Behind him, JP coughed, the harsh sound pulling Wyatt from his thoughts. He glanced up, saw that each of the four women were staring at him with hope in their eyes, and felt like the ultimate heel.
“Sorry to keep you waiting, ladies. Just trying to decide how I want you.” He spoke without any innuendo, but the petite brunette giggled anyway, then immediately pressed her lips together and dipped her gaze to the floor. Wyatt pretended not to notice. “JP, go grab my Leica from my office. I’m thinking I want to shoot black and white.”
He wasn’t thinking that at all, not really. He was just buying time. Talking out of his ass while he decided what—if anything—to do with the girls.
As he spoke, he moved toward the women, trying to figure out why the hell he was so damned uninterested in all of them. Were they really that inadequate? So unsuited for the role he needed to fill?
Slowly, he walked around them, studying their curves, their angles, the soft glow of their skin under the muted lighting. This one had a haughty, aquiline nose. That one a wide, sensual mouth. Another had the kind of bedroom eyes that promised to fulfill any man’s fantasies. The fourth, a kind of wide-eyed innocence that practically begged to be tarnished.
Each had submitted a portfolio through her agent, and he’d spent hours poring over every photograph. He had one slot left in the show. The centerpiece. The lynchpin. A single woman that would anchor all of his carefully staged and shot photos with a series of erotic images that he could already see clearly in his mind. A confluence of lighting and staging, of body and attitude. Sensuality coupled with innocence and underscored with daring.
He knew what he wanted. More than that, somewhere in the deep recesses of his mind, he even knew whohe wanted.
So far, she hadn’t wandered into his studio.
But she was out there, whoever she was; he was certain of it.
Too bad he only had twenty-seven days to find her.
Which was why he’d stooped to scouring modeling agencies, even though his vision for this show had always been to use amateur models. Women whose features or attitude caught his attention on the beach, in the grocery store, wherever he might be. Women from his past. Women from his work. But always women who didn’t make a living with their bodies. That had been his promise to himself from the beginning.
And yet here he was, begging agents to send their most sensual girls to him. Breaking his own damn rule because he was desperate to find her. That elusive girl who was hiding in his mind, and who maybe—just maybe—had an agent and a modeling contract.
But he knew she wouldn’t. Not that girl.
No, the girl he wanted would be a virgin with the camera, and he’d be the one who would first capture that innocence. That was his vision. The plan he’d stuck to for eighteen long months of squeezing in sessions between his regular commercial photography gigs. Almost two years of all-nighters in the dark room and surviving on coffee and protein bars because there wasn’t time to order take-out, much less cook.
Months of planning and worrying and slaving toward a goal. And those sweet, precious moments when he knew—really knew—that he was on the verge of creating something truly spectacular.
He was exhausted, yes. But he was almost done.
So far, he had forty-one final images chosen for the show, each and every one perfect as far as he was concerned.
He just needed the final nine. That last set of photos of his one perfect woman. Photos that would finally seal his vision—both of the girl in his mind and of what he wanted to accomplish with this solo exhibition.
He’d sacrificed so much, and he was finally close. So damn close … and yet here he was, spinning his wheels with models who weren’t what he wanted or needed.
With a sigh of frustration, Wyatt dragged his fingers through his thick, short hair. “Actually, ladies, I think we’re done here. I appreciate your time and your interest in the project, and I’ll review your portfolios and be in touch with your agent if you’re selected. You’re free to get dressed and go.”
The girls glanced at each other, bewildered. For that matter, JP looked equally puzzled as he returned to the studio with Wyatt’s Leica slung over his shoulder and a tall, familiar redhead at his side.
“Siobhan,” Wyatt said, ignoring the trepidation building in his gut. “I didn’t realize we had a meeting scheduled.”
“I thought you were going to shoot a roll of black and white,” JP said at the same time, holding up the Leica in the manner of a third grader at Show-and-Tell.
In front of Wyatt, the girls paused in the act of pulling on their robes, obviously uncertain.
“We’re done,” Wyatt said to them before turning his attention to his assistant. “I have everything I need to make a decision.”
“Right. Sure. You’re the boss.” But as JP spoke, he looked sideways at Siobhan, whose arms were now crossed over her chest, her brow furrowed with either confusion or annoyance. Quite probably both.
But Wyatt had to hand it to her; she held in her questions until the last model had entered the hallway that led to the dressing room, and the door had clicked shut behind her.
“You got what you needed?” she asked, cutting straight to the chase. “Does that mean one of those models is the girl you’ve been looking for?”
“Is that why you’re here? Checking my progress?” Shit. He sounded like a guilty little boy standing in front of the principal.
Siobhan, thank God, just laughed. “One, I’m going to assume from the defensive tone that the answer is no. And two, I’m the director of your show first and foremost because we’re friends. So take this in the spirit of friendship when I ask, what the hell are you doing? We have less than a month to pull all of this together. So if none of those girls is the one you need, then tell me what I can do to help. Because this is on me, too, remember? This show flops, and we both lose.”
“Thanks,” he said dryly. “I appreciate the uplifting and heartfelt speech.”
“Screw uplifting. I want you on the cover of every art and photography magazine in the country, with your show booked out on loan to at least a dozen museums and galleries for the next five years. I couldn’t care less if you’re uplifted. I just want you to pull this off.”
“Is that all?” he asked, fighting a smile.
“Hell no. I also want a promotion. My boss is considering moving to Manhattan. I covet her office.”
“Good to have a goal,” JP said, tilting his head toward Wyatt. “I covet his.”
“Go,” Wyatt said, waving his thumb toward the dressing room. “Escort the girls out through the gallery,” he ordered. The space was divided into his two-story studio that boasted a discreet entrance off the service alley, and a newly remodeled gallery and storefront that opened onto one of Santa Monica’s well-trafficked retail areas.
“So you’re really done?” JP pressed. “That’s it? Not even a single shot?”
“I don’t need to see anything else,” Wyatt said. “Go. Chat them up so they don’t feel like they wasted their time. And then I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“That’s your subtle way of getting rid of me, isn’t it?”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Wyatt retorted. “I wasn’t being subtle at all.”
JP smirked, but didn’t argue. And with a wave to Siobhan, he disappeared into the back hallway.
“So how can I help?” Siobhan asked once he was gone. “Should I arrange a round of auditions? After all, I know a lot of really hot women.”
That was true enough. In fact, Siobhan’s girlfriend, Cassidy, featured prominently in the show. And it had been through Cass that Wyatt had originally met Siobhan, who had both a background in art and a shiny new job as the assistant director of the Stark Center for the Visual Arts in downtown Los Angeles.
Originally, Wyatt had envisioned a significantly smaller show staged in his studio. The location was good, after all, and he anticipated a lot of foot traffic since folks could walk from the Third Street Promenade. He’d asked Cass to model about eight months ago, not only because she was stunning, but because he knew the flamboyant tattoo artist well enough to know that she wouldn’t balk at any pose he came up with, no matter how provocative. Cass didn’t have a shy bone in her body, and she was more than happy to shock—so long as the shock was delivered on her terms.
Siobhan had come with her, and before the shoot, Wyatt had shown both of them three of the pieces he’d already finished so that Cass would have a sense of his vision. It was the first time he’d laid it out in detail, and it had been cathartic talking to Siobhan, who spoke the language, and Cass, who was an artist herself, albeit one whose canvas was skin and whose tools were ink and needles.
He’d explained how he’d originally just wanted a break from the portraits and other commercial photography jobs that paid the bills. And, yes, he was beginning to make a name for himself artistically with his landscapes and city scenes. That success was gratifying, but ultimately unsatisfying because those subjects weren’t his passion. There was beauty in nature, sure, but Wyatt wanted to capture physical, feminine eroticism on film.
More than that, he wanted to make a statement, to tell a story. Beauty. Innocence. Longing. Ecstasy. He wanted to look at the world through the eyes of these women, and the women through the eyes of the world.
Ultimately, he wanted to elevate erotic art. To use it to reveal more about the models than even they were aware. Strength and sensuality. Innocence and power. Passion and gentleness. He envisioned using a series of provocative, stunning images to manipulate the audience through the story of the show, sending them on a journey from innocence to debauchery and back again, and then leaving them breathless with desire and wonder.
That afternoon, Wyatt spoke with Cass and Siobhan for over an hour. Showing them examples. Describing the emotions he wanted to evoke. Listening to their suggestions, and taking satisfaction from the fact that they obviously loved the concept. They’d ended the conversation with Cass posing for another hour as he burned through three rolls of film, certain he was capturing some of his best work yet.
Then they’d walked to Q, a Santa Monica restaurant and bar known for its martini flights. They’d toasted his project, Cass’s pictures, and Siobhan’s career, and by the time they ended the evening, he was feeling pretty damn good about his little pet project.
The next morning, he’d felt even better. That’s when Siobhan had come to him with a formal offer from the Stark Center. He’d said yes on the spot, never once thinking that by doing so he was tying another person to his success—or, more to the point, his potential failure.
“I’m serious,” she pressed now, as his silence continued to linger. “Whatever you need.”
“I’ll find her,” Wyatt said. “I have time.”
“Not much,” she countered. “I need the prints ahead of time for the catalog, not to mention installation. Keisha’s already getting twitchy,” she added, referring to her boss. “We don’t usually cut it this close.”
“I know. It’s going to be—”
“Twenty-seven days to the show, Wyatt.” He could hear the tension in her voice, and hated himself for being the cause of it. “But about half that before you need to deliver the prints. We’re running out of time. If you can’t find the girl, then you need to just find a girl. I’m sorry, but—”
“I said I’ll find her. You have to trust me on this.”
Right then, she didn’t look like she’d trust him to take care of her goldfish, but to her credit, she nodded. “Fine. In that case, all I need today is to see the latest print so I can think about the promotional image. And you’ll email me a file for the catalog?”
“Sure. This is it,” he added, walking to a covered canvas centered on the nearest wall. He pulled down the white drape, revealing a life-size black and white photograph of a woman getting dressed. At first glance, it wasn’t the most titillating of his images, but that was because it was such a tease. The woman stood in a dressing room, and hidden among the dresses and coats were at least a dozen men, peering out to watch her.
The woman, however, was oblivious. She was bending over, one foot on a stool, as she fastened a garter. The view was at an angle, so at first glance the audience saw only her skirt, a hint of garter, and the woman’s silk-sheathed leg.
Then they noticed the mirror behind her. A mirror that revealed that she wasn’t wearing panties under the garter belt. And even though absolutely nothing was left to the imagination, it still wasn’t a particularly racy or erotic photograph. But then you noticed the reflection in the mirror of another mirror. And another. And another. Each with an image of that same woman, and each slightly more risqué, until finally, as the mirror approached infinity, the woman was nude, her head thrown back, one hand between her legs, the other at her throat. And all those men from the closet were out in the open now, their hands stroking and teasing her.
Most important, the mirror was so deep in the image that you had to stand practically nose-to-print to see it.
Wyatt couldn’t wait to see how many people did exactly that at the showing.
“This is fabulous,” Siobhan said with genuine awe in her voice.
“It was a hell of a photograph to set up and then develop. Lots of work on the set and in the darkroom.”
“You could have set it up digitally.”
He scoffed. “No. Some of the images, sure. But not this one.” He turned his head, regarding it critically. “This one had to be hands-on. It’s as much about the process as the product.”
“Yeah. I get that.” She met his eyes, and the respect in hers reminded him of why he didn’t just take photos for himself. “I want to take it back with me right now and show Keisha,” she added.
“Soon.” Although Siobhan and Keisha had wanted him to deliver each print upon completion, Wyatt had balked, explaining that he needed the art surrounding him in order to ensure the continuity of story in the overall exhibit. And the size of the canvas and the particulars of the way he handled the image in the darkroom were such that duplicates weren’t adequate.
That meant that when Siobhan needed to see a piece, she came to him. And now that she was not only putting together the official catalog, but also doing promotional pieces from the images, she was coming a lot.
Wyatt was adamant that the images not be revealed prior to the show, but Siobhan’s team had promised him the rapidly expanding catalog mockup would be kept under lock and key. More important, the pre-show promotion wouldn’t reveal any of the artwork—while at the same time, teasing the art’s sensual and daring nature.
So far, they’d not only managed to do just that, but the campaign was already a success. The gallery had been releasing one image a month—one of his photographs, yes, but only a sexy snippet shown through a virtual barrier laid over the image. Once, it was yellow caution tape. Another time, it was a keyhole in a hotel room door. Clever, yes, but also effective. Wyatt had already been interviewed and the exhibit pimped out in no less than five local papers and magazines. And he was booked on two morning shows the day the exhibit opened.
Not bad, all things considered, and he told Siobhan as much.
“If you really want to see a bump in our publicity,” she replied, “we should get your grandmother on board.”
“No.” The word came swift and firm.
“I said no. This exhibit is on my shoulders. I can’t hide who I am, but I don’t have to advertise it. If we trot my grandmother out, book her on morning shows, make her sing little Wyatt’s praises, then everyone is going to come. You know that.”
“Um, yeah. That’s the point. To get people to your show.”
“I want them to come for the show. Not because they’re hoping to get Anika Segel’s autograph.”
“But they’ll see your art. They’ll fall in love then. Who cares what brings them through the door?”
“I do,” he said and was relieved to see that she didn’t seem to have an argument against that.
She stood still for a moment, possibly trying to come up with something, but soon enough she shook her head and sighed. “You’re the artist.” She made a face. “And you have the temperament to go with it.”
“See, that’s how you wooed me into doing the show with you. That embarrassingly sentimental flattery.”
“You’re a laugh a minute, Wyatt.” She hitched her purse further onto her shoulder, then pointed a finger at him. “Don’t fuck this up.”
“Cross my heart.”
“All right then.” She leaned in for an air kiss, but caught him in a hug. “It’s going to be great,” she whispered, and he was surprised by how much he appreciated those simple words.
“It will,” he agreed. “All I have to do is find the girl.” He glanced at his watch. “An agency’s sending someone over in about half an hour. Nia. Mia. Something like that. Who knows? Maybe she’ll be the one.”
“Fingers crossed.” Her grin turned wicked. “But if she’s not, just say the word and Cass and I will dive into the search.”
“A few more days like today, and I’ll take you up on that.”
“A few days is all you have,” she retorted, then tossed up her hands, self-defense style. “I know, I know. I’m leaving.”
She headed for the front door, and he turned back to the print, studying it critically. A moment later he reached for the drapes that covered the prints on either side of the first image, then tugged them off, revealing the full-color photos beneath.
He took a step back as he continued his inspection, ensuring himself that there were no more refinements to be made. Slowly, he moved farther back, wanting all three in his field of vision, just like a visitor to the exhibition would see. One step, then another and another.
He stopped when he heard the door open behind him, cursing himself for not locking up as Siobhan was leaving. “Did you forget something?” he asked as he turned.
But it wasn’t Siobhan.
It was her.
The girl who’d filled his mind. The girl who’d haunted his nights.
The woman he needed if he was going to pull this exhibit off the way he wanted to.
A woman with the kind of wide sensual mouth that could make a man crazy, and a strong, lithe body, with curves in all the right places. Eyes that could see all the way into a man’s soul—and an innocent air that suggested she wouldn’t approve of what she saw there.
All of that, topped off with a wicked little tease of a smile and a sexy swing to her hips.
She was a walking contradiction. Sensual yet demure. Sexy yet sweet.
A woman who one minute could look like a cover model, and the next like she’d never done anything more glamorous than walk the dog.
She was hotter than sin, and at the same time she was as cold as ice.
She was Kelsey Draper, and he hadn’t spoken to her since the summer before his senior year, and as far as he was concerned, that was a damn good thing.
Her eyes widened as she looked at him, and her lips twitched in a tremulous smile. “Oh,” was all she said.
And in that moment, Wyatt knew that he was well and truly screwed.