When I met Daniel Baldessari, I didn't know what real romantic love was. But I didn’t really care.
All I cared about was how he looked at me. No one had ever looked at me that way. Especially not the hottest man I’d ever laid eyes on.
Like a hunter about to pounce on his prey and lick her to death.
“Twyla,” he growled, his voice deep and rich like dark honey. “Unusual.”
“Daniel Baldessari,” I said back, surprising myself with the breathiness of my voice. I usually wasn’t a flirt. But the way he looked at me…I could feel my body lotion melting on my skin. I swallowed hard and my legs trembled like a deer’s in the crazy high sandals he’d had me wear.
I’d come to Daniel’s studio in his home in the hills above the city. An Italian villa with balustrades and columns, walls overgrown with bougainvillea and morning glory vines. Large plate glass windows overlooked the city that was sparkling after a very unusual and much-needed Los Angeles rain. I walked down a path lined with long, pointed cypress trees, up the marble steps to the front door. A dark-haired woman in a pencil skirt and sky-high heels met me and ushered me inside.
Daniel Baldessari was leaning against the wall wearing a white collared shirt open at the neck and jeans that clung to his ass and thighs and threatened to tear at the knee.
Those eyes were watching me where I stood in the bright light of the room. So intense.
Was he mad at me? Did I look all right? I felt my knees weaken and practically buckle under me. How was I going to model?
“Twyla, are you feeling uncomfortable?” he asked. “Do you feel good in the clothes?” He was holding a large, black, expensive-looking camera and his sleeves were rolled up so I could see the veins in his arms and hands.
“The dress is beautiful,” I said. “I love everything.” I sounded like a twelve-year old.
“Then why do you look so tense?” He wasn’t smiling.
I stared down at the shiny white floor that matched the flawless walls. Then I made myself look back up at him.
“This is my first time,” I blurted.
“Really?” He put down his camera and came over to me. He was much taller than I was, even in the high heels. The body of a world-class athlete. I realized I was holding my breath.
“Where are you from?” he asked. He was close enough that I could smell the clean, foresty scent of his thick, black curls.
“That’s very exotic.”
“I know, right?” I tried to joke back. He still didn’t smile.
“Well, Twyla from Ohio, it’s nice to be your first.”
I didn’t think I was imagining the implication. What could I say to that? I pressed my thighs together and the thong dug into me, not in a bad way.
He went on, “But this is the big city and I need you to nail this. You got this job without a go-see. No one gets that opportunity. And I’m not sure if you realize that every minute we waste is costing the client money.”
If I hadn’t been aware, I was then. God, I wanted to please him. It was instinctual, powerful. And it wasn’t just about pleasing the client. I need to get the money to send to Jack.
“Now, just relax.”
“Pretend you’re alone, with your boyfriend, doing something you love.”
I blushed again; I could feel it travelling from my cheeks down my throat to the tops of my breasts. If I weren’t careful, my nipples would light up.
“What?” He sounded really impatient now.
“No boyfriend,” I said. There was Cooper but he wasn’t like Daniel Baldessari.
Compared to Daniel, Cooper was a boy in the presence of a man.
“That’s impossible,” Daniel said. “A young woman like you.” I felt myself melt a little. Was he flirting? Then he paused, held up his camera and pointed it at me like a weapon. “Unless. Is there something undateable about you?”
My mouth dropped open and adrenaline shot through my body. “What did you just say?”
But Daniel Baldessari was busy snapping photos of my animated expression, my adrenalized body.
“That!” he said. “That’s what I want.”
The manipulative piece of… And that was how it began.