One week later, sitting in a director’s chair while a woman with hair the color of a sunset caked what felt like a shitload of foundation on her face, Sophia repeated the same question to herself.
What the hell have I agreed to?
It was four o’clock in the afternoon. She should still be in her office at FamFit, working on their latest fitness app they hoped would give Fitbit a run for its money. Instead, she’d been in this Belltown photography studio since two in the afternoon, submitting to the handling of makeup artists, nail technicians, and hair and clothes stylists. Maybe most women would call this pampering, but not her. Torture. Enduring the slow dripping of water on top of her head might be worse than this…but not by much.
Christ. How had she let her sister convince her to do this? It’s a simple shoot for Sports Unlimited’s annual sexiest athletes edition, Giovanna said. You’ll be great, Giovanna said. This was crazy. Beyond crazy. Complete lunacy worthy of a stay in Arkham Asylum.
“I don’t know what made you decide to color your tips blue, but I love it,” Delia, the hairstylist, praised as she wound another lock of hair around the wide barrel of ceramic curlers. “They will look fabulous against the jersey.”
“And the tattoo,” Mona added, glossing Sophia’s cheekbones with a big brush. “What happened, sweetie? Man trouble?” She shook her head, the huge auburn and gold afro quivering around her pretty face. “I almost covered it up, but then I thought it will look gorgeous with the outfit.”
Sophia heard the rest of their conversation as if through a thick layer of cotton. Holy shit. Since the peacock tattoo wrapped low around her left hip bone, what the hell kind of outfit did Sheila have planned? When she’d gotten the ink two years ago, it’d been for her, not a man. The peacock had seemed the obvious choice. Vision, guidance…protection.
The purpose hadn’t been to flaunt it in front of God and country.
Ohhhh Jesus, this was a mistake.
“Just a few more touches…” Mona murmured. A very short time later, she stepped back, surveying her handiwork. A wide smile stretched her vibrantly painted mouth. “Beautiful.”
“I’m just about done, too,” Delia announced, carefully setting the curlers on the stand next to them. She ran her fingers through Sophia’s hair, twisting here, tucking there, before finally cupping her shoulders and turning her toward the lighted mirror.
Sophia sucked in a breath.
The woman who stared wide-eyed back at her was…stunning.
Big, loose waves tumbled around her face, emphasizing brown eyes that had always seemed average. Now, rimmed in black eyeliner and gold eyeshadow, they appeared darker, mysterious. She suddenly had cheekbones that would’ve made Kerry Washington grind her teeth in jealousy. And a dark red tint added a lushness to her mouth that almost embarrassed her. This was the mouth of a woman who owned her sensuality, reveled in it.
And liked to be kissed…a lot.
“Speechless.” Delia snickered. “We must be damn good at our jobs.”
Yeah, they deserved medals of valor. Because for the first time in her twenty-four years of being Giovanna Cruz’s twin, Sophia actually felt as beautiful as her flawless sister.
“Here we go.” Sheila, the clothes stylist, materialized behind them, holding up a child-size blue, white, and black jersey with the number 88 emblazoned on the front and…and…
She stared at the tiny piece of black cloth that could have generously been called shorts. Very generously.
I’m going to kill you, Giovanna.
“C’mon, hon,” Sheila urged, gripping her elbow and propelling her out of the chair. “We don’t have a lot of time.”
Standing on rubbery legs, she moved behind a partition and wriggled into the shiny booty shorts, muttering under her breath.
And swallowed a groan.
The black, clingy material rode low on her hips, and the colorful bird rose above the band like a vibrant painting. But the hem of the shorts barely cleared the bottom of her ass. If she bent over, everyone would be a season ticketholder to her See You Next Tuesday.
Oh sweet baby Jesus.
Shaking her head, she reached for the jersey. Held up the cropped top.
“Umm.” She peeked around the edge of the partition, careful to keep her bared torso hidden. “Is something supposed to go underneath this jersey?” Like a turtleneck.
“Of course,” Sheila said, tsking. “I totally forgot.” The stylist snatched a hanger off the rack and handed it to Sophia. “Here you go.”
Dumbfounded, she stared at the black bra-style garment. The Oh, hell no quivered on her tongue like a notched arrow ready to fly. Giovanna wouldn’t have a problem wearing this. And for today, you’re Giovanna. And sex sells. The reminder didn’t erase the first razor-tipped nails of panic from clawing at her throat.
In that moment, she was transported back years ago to a high-school girls’ locker room where, naked and humiliated, she’d gathered her soaked clothes from the shower floor as a group of girls taunted her about her fat ass and dimpled thighs. The shame and helplessness swamped her. And for a long second, she froze, powerless against the ferocity of that memory, once more the heavier, uglier Cruz twin. That time in the shower, surrounded by jeering, snickering mean girls, had also been the last time she’d been naked in front of anyone. Even during sex, she wore a T-shirt or insisted on the dark.
And for all the skin the midriff-baring jersey and brief shorts revealed, she might as well be naked.
God. Briefly closing her eyes, she shuddered. She hadn’t been prepared for this emotional backlash when she agreed to her sister’s charade.
Man up, girlfriend. You’re not that awkward teen anymore. They didn’t break you then, and this skimpy outfit won’t today.
Minutes later, jersey on, she inhaled a deep breath, pressed her palms to her belly, and straightened her shoulders. Ordinarily she wasn’t a praying girl—Easter and Christmas Eve mass was more her speed—but today, she sent up a quick Our Father and followed up with a Hail Mary just to cover all bases.
The cool air of the studio brushed over her skin, raising goose bumps over her arms and legs. The squirming in her stomach hadn’t ceased, but she smoothed her face into an impenetrable mask—another inheritance from high school—and followed Sheila down a short flight of stairs and into the main part of the studio.
Huge floor-to-ceiling windows took up one wall, and the afternoon light bathed the wide, open space. Her bare feet slid across the cool, smooth hardwood floors, and she ordered herself not to wrap her arms around herself. WWGD? What Would Giovanna Do? That was her mantra for the day.
Cameras, tripods, chairs, laptops, people—how many did it require to take pictures?—and huge white umbrella-looking stands littered the area. Carefully, she picked her way through the maze of cables, extension cords, and power strips as if they were a nest of reptiles ready to strike at her ankles.
Sheila paused at the edge of the organized chaos, and Sophia followed suit, mentally flipping through the poses her twin had taught her in a modeling crash course. Hips tucked. Back arched. Smize. She absently glanced at the huge backdrop dominating the wall…
Ay que papi mas lindo.
That man. What a beautiful hottie.
He was huge. Like Titans-roaming-the-earth-making-mountains-tremble huge. Well over six feet and probably closer to three hundred than two fifty, he and his shoulders seemed to dwarf the wall behind him. Tautly corded arms hung loosely beside a wide, bare chest and a
one-, two-, three-, freakin’ four-rung ladder of ridged abs.
A vee only the truly ripped—or photoshopped—sported cut above his hips, arrowing beneath a tight pair of black football pants that clung to a pair of thick, heavily muscled thighs. Large bare feet she could easily picture smashing small villages were braced almost arrogantly apart. She used to spend hours watching Fred Flintstone powering his prehistoric car with his feet, and that part of the body had never been particularly sexy. Until now.
With a struggle, she shifted her gaze upward, and it snagged on the miles and miles of gorgeous, caramel skin. And not just any caramel. Salted caramel. Rich. Smooth. Honey brown. Yummy. And covered in a palette of ink. Mesmerized by the rich, beautiful art, she inched closer, eager for a closer look.
Bold, black tribals; snarling black panthers; fierce angels with flaming swords; flowing script… The tattoos flowed up his arms over his shoulders and across his chest. More beautiful calligraphy ran down the sides of his torso and spanned the bottom of his stomach, disappearing into the low band of his pants.
He was…wow. She had no idea who he was but he definitely got her vote for sexiest athlete.
She caught a sigh that wormed its way up her throat…or maybe she didn’t.
Because his attention shifted away from the photographer in front of him and toward her.
This time, she couldn’t hide the swift intake of breath. Was too stunned to try.
Jesus H. Christ.
He was gorgeous.
No, no. That sounded too superficial. Too…shallow. And his face of sharp, defined angles, shadowed hollows, and stark yet patrician lines spoke of strength. The dark hair that dusted his jaw and surrounded the almost lush fullness of his mouth damn near shouted of a carnal sexuality that had heat curling low in her belly like an undulating plume of smoke.
And those eyes.
Amber and green with flecks of gold. An eagle’s eyes.
A predator’s eyes.
Her heart thudded against her chest and she stiffened her legs. Sprawling out on the floor like a pagan sacrifice eager to be devoured would probably be frowned upon.
“Good, you’re here. We’re ready for you, Giovanna.” The photographer lowered his camera and handed it to another person standing behind him.
For a moment, she didn’t move. Couldn’t move, totally ensnared by the golden gaze that hadn’t released her yet. Then, the photographer’s words penetrated her lust-dense stupor, and she flinched. Right. He was ready. For Giovanna.
God, I promise if you get me through this without me embarrassing myself, I’ll start attending mass more than twice a year. I’ll stop lying to Mama about her arroz con pollo, and quit thinking evil, homicidal thoughts about Brian… But I’m gonna need you to increase my faith on that last one. I mean, he’s a complete douche.
Oh shit. She mentally slapped a palm to her forehead. Calling her supervisor a douche in a prayer had to at least be a venial sin.
Uncertain whether she had God on her side or not, she forced her mouth into a Giovanna-like smile and stepped forward. Closer to the beautiful Titan.
She risked a peek at him, and once more became instantly ensnared by his intense, multi-hued stare. This close to him and that piercing scrutiny, one thought reverberated in her mind like a foghorn echoing over the Puget Sound…
The gig is up.
No one else had sniffed out the imposter in their midst, but he seemed to peer underneath the makeup, the poofed-and-curled hair, and the skimpy outfit to the gangly, shy, fashion-oblivious nerd beneath. Would he rat her out? Demand to know who she was in front of everyone? Hell, she’d failed Giovanna even before one click of the camera…
But he remained silent. And more importantly, he shifted that eagle’s gaze away from her and back to the photographer.
Relief coursed through her.
But that relief didn’t last. Because as she neared the giant in tight pants, her skin pebbled almost to the point of pain. Heat washed over her like a tidal wave, and those tap-dancing nerves erupted into a full-out samba up and down her spine. She didn’t have the courage to glance down, but no doubt her nipples were on full display against the flimsy jersey. Damn things.
Stepping close, she gathered the remnants of her rapidly fleeing courage, skipped her gaze up his chest and—was that a dime hanging from a thin chain around his neck?—voluntarily met his eyes. “Hi.”
Ay Dios mio. Hi? She needed to get out of her basement office and to the corner bar more often if that was the best she could offer.
“Hello,” he replied. “Nice seeing you again, Giovanna.”
Molasses—warm, dark, thick. The deep timbre heavy with the flavor of the South slid over her exposed skin like a caress to her senses. She’d never had the pleasure of visiting Louisiana, but she’d bet her DVD of Sixteen Candles that sexy drawl came from there.
Then the name he’d called her penetrated. Giovanna. But for the first time since embarking upon this ill-conceived farce, excitement spiked with recklessness skipped through her veins.
That’s right. She was Giovanna Cruz, confident, gorgeous, and an up-and-coming supermodel. For today at least, Sophia Cruz—antisocial app developer, eighties movie hoarder, DC and Marvel comics geek with a sweets addiction—had been locked away.
Giovanna wouldn’t have a problem touching the Titan with the salted caramel skin, eagle eyes, and sun-warmed molasses voice. Wouldn’t see an issue with palming those muscular biceps, draping her arms over those wide shoulders, or pressing herself against that hard, big body. Nope. It was part of the job.
And for the next few hours, part of her job.
Anticipation and a whole lotta inappropriate lust fluttered in her belly.
Oh hell yes.