FINDING THE ONE
The day couldn’t have been more perfect. Mac couldn’t be more perfect. Until he reached for his camera…
Art photographer Mac Johns finally found his muse—the gorgeous and amazingly sexy woman with whom he just had a one-night-stand. Trudy Prendergast is a former model whose career in high fashion tanked after nude photographs of her were publicly insulted.
In a really bad case of mistaken identity, Trudy signs a contract with Mac, thinking she’d be modeling for his sculptor father. Whoops!
When passion heats up between them again, Mac lets Trudy out of the contract, unwilling to risk her career even though his photographs of her could put him back on the map as one of the world’s best art photographers.
Finding someone who could see Trudy for her true self once seemed impossible. But Mac seems to see her—to truly see her beauty, inside and out. And when Trudy discovers what Mac has given up to protect her, she’s suddenly torn between two options: lose the lucrative contract she’s been working so hard to win…or lose Mac.
Publisher: Bloomfield Publishing
Publication date: December, 2014
FINDING THE ONE, by Rochelle French (excerpt)
Trudy Prendergast eyeballed the grape stuck in her cleavage with something close to horror. Here she was, minutes from introducing herself to the artist she needed to hire her (being jobless and about to lose just about everything kinda sucked), and a grape had been jostled off a passing waiter’s tray to fly out into the crowd and lodge between her boobs. So much for the decision to wear a plunging neckline. Ugh. Butterflies that earlier had been playing a rowdy game of soccer were now sinking to the pit of her stomach.
She swept her gaze across the crowded art gallery, but couldn’t find her “date” for the evening, her sister. Good god could she ever use Milla’s help to calm her nerves. And get the grape out.
Because if world-famous sculptor Gregor Johansson caught her with her hands down her top, he’d no doubt be suitably unimpressed. Hire a model who felt herself up in public? Not likely.
The message from her agent had been clear—several live models were applying to pose for Gregor’s upcoming art series. To up Trudy’s odds at getting the job, she should get herself into the event honoring him at the River City Art Museum and Gallery in Sacramento. Make sure he knew she was more than just a photographed face in a portfolio. Be real. Be three-dimensional.
Be without a grape.
Her bank account and her loft (how many mortgage payments was she behind in now?) were both relying on her to get this job.
“Cheese puff?” Her sister Milla appeared at her side, holding a plate topped with hors-d’oeuvres, all precariously balanced on her ever-expanding pregnant belly. Seven months and counting. “Gruyere and Irish cheddar.”
“Not now. I kind of have a problem.” Trudy shimmied slightly, hoping to work the grape down her dress and to the floor, but the zipper at her waist cinched the dress in tight.
“You’re checking out your own cleavage. I hadn’t realized you were that desperate.” Milla went on tiptoes to peek down the plunging vee of Trudy’s dress. “Oh. How’d you manage that?”
“Hey, I don’t need any sibling grief right now,” Trudy said, giving her sister what she hoped was a glowering stare. “What I need is help in removing this grape before I meet the artist. I can’t fail in getting this contract.”
“Failure’s in the eye of the beholder.”
“Wasn’t that Foster Dad Number Three’s motto?”
“Number Four, remember? Number Three spouted Biblical sayings.”
A reporter and his cameraman pushed their way between the two, cutting off their conversation and sending Milla off-balance. When her pregnant sister wobbled, Trudy grabbed her arm and steadied her, then pushed back against the crowd to give Milla more room. She waved the cameraman onward, but a flash went off in front of them in a blinding light.
Her chest clenched and her jaw slammed shut. Blasted photographers. Three years ago a client with a camera had harmed her career and left her emotionally reeling. She hated the lot of them. “Can’t you guys give us some space?” she ground out and glared. The photographer, a young man with a press ID around his neck, held up a hand and backed off.
“I’m fine,” Milla said, now balanced on two feet.
Relieved her sister was safe, Trudy let go of Milla’s arm, but the crowd shifted and pressed in tight. Too tight. The grape squished between her boobs. Gross. “Bathroom, Milla,” she said. She had to get rid of the annoying fruit, and fast. Because if that wretched thing stayed stuck in her cleavage for one moment longer, she’d have to introduce herself with jelly in her cleavage.
Definitely not how one became a world-famous artist’s new muse.
* * *
Mac Johns leaned over the wrought-iron balcony above the gathered crowd. He looked down to the floor below, tracking the redhead’s steps as she stomped toward the bathroom. Aww, how adorable. Her pissed-off expression was the cutest attempt at fierce he’d ever seen.
Next to him, his friend Remy Toussaint waved a hand in front of his face. “Stop drooling at the redhead down there and hand over the money.”
“You’re a sheriff,” Mac said, tipping his head in Remy’s direction but keeping his gaze fixed firmly on the gorgeous woman with the flaming red hair he’d mentally named Red Hot. “Isn’t gambling illegal in California? Shouldn’t you arrest yourself?”
“We’re not in Deloro County, so I’m outside my jurisdiction and therefore off duty. Now pay up.”
“Crap.” He’d been so certain Red Hot would pull that grape out right there in the middle of the crowd, and that he would’ve liked to see. He put his glass of champagne down on the balustrade, fumbled in his pocket, then pulled out a wad of cash. He peeled off a hundred-dollar bill and then handed it to his friend with a resigned shrug. “God she’s cute. Even with that lovely don’t-fuck-with-me look.”
“Not an uncommon expression among women in your vicinity.” Remy shoved the money into his jacket pocket. “She was sexy, for sure. But there was something…” He paused, then said, “She remind you of anybody?”
Tall…gorgeous…redhead… Wait a sec. Red Hot did seem familiar. Mac thought for a moment, then snapped his fingers. “I’m getting New York and fashion. Was she one of the models I used to photograph? Oh, wait—I didn’t sleep with her, did I?”
“Christ, Mac.” Remy shook his head. “No, that’s not what I meant. Wait until she comes out of the bathroom and look again. Closely, this time.”
Mac grabbed his champagne and took a swig, waiting for Red Hot, sans cleavage-grape, to return. Below, waiters wound their way through the crowd full of women glittering in evening dresses and men decked out in Italian suits, all eager to meet Mac’s father, the world-renown sculptor, Gregor Johansson. Press photographers snapped photos with rapid succession—pictures that would most likely appear in most town and country publications. Those photos could hardly be called art, but as Mac knew as a commercial photographer, the pictures paid decent money.
“Your sister did a great job organizing this event to honor your dad,” Remy said.
Mac downed the rest of the now-warm champagne. “Yep, Doe did herself and Dad proud. Reporters all the way from New York are here to cover the event. Heck, half the population of Meadowview drove the two-hour trip to Sacramento in order to be here for good ol’ Dad. Some event.”
An event as boring as watching mold grow on cheese.
He immediately regretted the thought. He loved his dad, honored his work, but a party that catered to wealthy art patrons didn’t exactly raise the roof. Even with Remy to hang out with, Mac had practically been asleep on his feet until a few minutes ago. With the average age at the far side of sixty, the crowd hadn’t held his excitement until the tall willow of a redhead and her beyond-pregnant companion had walked through the door.
After another minute, the redhead and her friend came out of the restroom.
“Nope,” he said, checking her out again. “Didn’t sleep with her. A few of those days in New York remain a hazy blur, but not hazy enough to forget sex with her. Why do you think she should be familiar to me?”
“Your sketches, Mac. The ones you showed me earlier.”
The murmur of the crowd faded into the background as Mac stared at the woman. Well, hell. Remy was right. Red Hot’s expression reminded him of those he’d sketched for the art series he wanted to create: Warrior Woman. Like the mental images of the female warrior who filled his mind, the woman below looked alive, open, strong. Determined, and yet still sensual and with an air of grace.
No wonder he’d been instantly attracted to her.
Funny, though, he hadn’t pictured a photo of Warrior Woman fuming at her own breasts. Didn’t quite fit in with any of the images he held in his mind, but that expression he could definitely use.
“You getting any inspiration?” Remy asked.
“Thought you weren’t going to push me.”
“Stasis leads nowhere, Mac.”
“We’re not playing Scrabble.”
“You’re missing the point.”
“No, I’m evading the point.”
“Look,” Remy said, frustration clear in his tone, “you took the first step at regenerating your art photography—you contacted a modeling agency for a live model. And you have a meeting tomorrow with the director of this place.” Remy swept out his arm to indicate the gallery.
Yeah, sure, Mac had agreed to meet with Ian Ackerley to discuss showing his planned Warrior Woman series here, but that might have been a mistake. He shrugged. “Maybe my glory days are behind me. Maybe the original hoopla about my work was over a fluke. Maybe a washed-up artist is all I’ll ever be. Maybe all I’ll ever be good at is commercial photography.”
“And maybe you’re throwing yourself one hell of a pity party. Nope, I don’t buy it. You’re ready to start again. You’ve made the first step. And it’s been how many years since your mom died?”
Emotion caused Mac’s throat to tighten up. God damn it. He didn’t need the reminder. Didn’t need to recall the pain his mother experienced as cancer ate away at her. Didn’t need to recall how the responding pain in him had triggered him to capture the most haunting and artistic photographs of his career. Didn’t need the reminder that his muse had died that windy day as he and Doe and their father laid her to rest.
“Drop it,” he said, his voice low. “I have other things on my mind tonight.” He pointed to the woman below.
He may not have slept with her in the past, but that didn’t mean he wouldn’t tonight. He’d thought she was hot when she’d walked in, but when he saw the grape disappear into her delicious cleavage and her incredulous but feisty reaction, his interest had spiked. And now he was picturing her as the model for his Warrior Woman series. The art photography series of a woman facing all odds could get him back into the world of acclaimed art photography. And he could see Red as his Warrior Woman.
He could also see her in his bed.
“She’s going to do the horizontal tango with me, I hope,” he said.
Next to him, Remy blew out a breath. “Stasis.”
Mac jabbed an elbow into his friend’s gut. Not that an elbow to Remy’s twelve-pack could do much damage, but still. “What did I say? That conversation’s over. I’m headed downstairs to introduce myself. See if she wants a drink. Maybe suggest a night of debauchery. But first I need to see if Doe needs help with the baby.”
“I saw your sister carrying your nephew around earlier. Why’d she bring Aaron?”
“Dad insisted when the babysitter—who has the work ethic of a sloth, by the way—texted to cancel.”
“Has to be hard for her, managing both you and your father’s business affairs and being only eighteen and raising Aaron on her own.”
“She’s a trooper. Wish she didn’t insist on working—I’d be happy to support her, but you know how bullheaded Doe can be. Wants to earn her own way, or at least earn as much as she can. Guess I’d better head downstairs now, check in on her and the baby.” He grinned. “Then hit on Red Hot.”
Remy chuckled. “That woman doesn’t seem like the type to believe one of your standby pickup lines. She’ll give you the death stare the way she did the grape. Two hundred says you crash and burn.”
“You want me to bet on having sex with a woman? For a sheriff, you have severely compromised morals.”
“Said the spider to the fly.”
Mac grinned. “This spider is too busy for bets.”
* * *
Grape successfully removed, Trudy left Milla at the hors-d’oeuvres table and worked her way back into the crowd, scanning for the tall, silver-haired man she hoped would be her new boss. God, she needed the work. Mortgages waited for no one. Neither did creditors, who called more frequently than lonely kids at camp. But where the heck was Gregor Johansson? The artist seemed to be playing some sort of messed up Where’s Waldo routine. Only without the cool red and white striped hat.
She needed to find him. Needed to convince him to award her the contract. The contract up for grabs was only a couple of months in length but had an extension that would bring it up to three years if the artist was happy with the first project. With what Gregor was paying, she could get herself out of the financial hole where she was stuck and sinking fast. For a while she’d been the front-runner for a lucrative five-year contract with a natural clothing company, Essentially Green, but right when she thought the job was in her grasp, it had gone to one of her competitors. She had nothing.
Four years ago a series of surgeries changed the course of her career—and her life. She’d run away from Foster Family Number Seven once Milla had turned eighteen and headed out for college. Lucky enough for her, she’d ended up agented and became a high-fashion model, working the runways in New York, Milan, and Tokyo. The work didn’t earn her a ton of money (supermodels got millions, but runway models…yeah, not so much) but enough to put a down payment on a gorgeous loft in a bedroom community on the outskirts of Sacramento.
But then a medical condition had forced her and her uterus to part ways, and her body had responded in a most inappropriate manner by gaining twenty-five pounds. And her catalog and runway modeling career had stopped, just like that.
Being a live model, posing for various types of artists, however, paid well enough, and that’s what she turned to when it was clear the weight was there to stay. But the work was sporadic, and the medical bills she’d incurred had her falling behind on her mortgage and maxing out her credit cards. The contract with Gregor Johansson was exactly what she needed—a three-year guarantee of work, so long as the extension was put in place, which she was certain it would.
Too bad she’d have to pose nude for him.
Posing nude as a model wasn’t a big deal, really, but one of her former clients had made it into a big deal when he’d posted pictures of her online after the surgery and weight gain. Those photos turned into an online joke. People had left nasty comments—Massive Model…Miss Fatty-Pants…Tubster Trudy ate a whale…And then the meme started. A picture of her naked (except for where her hands covered her tummy and lady bits) kept showing up on social media sites with various sarcastic slogans about Tubster Trudy plopped right on top.
The Dog Shaming meme had nothing on Tubster Trudy.
It got so bad that for a while, people would stop her in the grocery store and ask her if she was Tubster Trudy. At least now, three years after her image had gone viral, not many people remembered her shame.
The good thing about working for Gregor Johansson was that the man was a sculptor—whatever he created using her nude image wouldn’t be discernable as her. Plus, her agent Lisa always made sure any contract she signed contained a clause directly stating the artist would not put any images of her out there before the actual art pieces were complete without her permission. Now, if she could just track down Gregor…
Her gaze followed the curve of the grand staircase that led to the long balcony overhead, with a wrought-iron railing interspersed among heavy columns. No Gregor on the balcony, but at the very last column stood two men. Two very hunky men. Well-dressed. Gorgeous. Sexy. And who were both staring right at her.
And then the man on the right winked.
Her heart jumped. This was no ordinary good-looking guy—this was a fireman-calendar-worthy hunk. Tall and broad-shouldered, but lean through the hips. Thick black hair, flashing smile, long black lashes over piercing blue eyes, and full lips usually found on women who’d injected collagen. If it weren’t for his strong jaw and a nose a little too long for his face, he’d be close to pretty. Similar to the playboys she used to date during her high fashion days. The other guy stood a couple inches shorter and looked a little older. Cute, too, but not as hunky. Or as intense. Her gaze flipped back to the first guy who’d caught her eye.
He leaned against the metal railing, one hand holding a glass of champagne, his gaze fixed firmly on her. He raised the flute and nodded.
Trudy went all fluttery. It had been a while since a guy like that had come on to her. Since the Tubster Trudy event, she’d dated, sure, and had even had sex a few times, but usually with everyday men like her sister’s accountant (rather pedantic and with an unusual interest in plaid socks), the bartender at her favorite pub in the city (sweet, but totally hung up on his ex-girlfriend), and a high school physics teacher (potential long-term dating material until she overheard him on the phone telling his mom he was dating “Tubster Trudy from the Internet”). Was she ready for someone like this?
Unable to resist, she sketched a hesitant wave back.
Hunky Dude’s grin widened.
A rush of heat blazed up her chest to her cheeks. That man packed one hell of a smile. Something glimmered in his eyes—seduction, playful teasing maybe—she couldn’t tell, but she went all mindless and breathless and warm in her belly.
Milla shoved a stuffed fig in front of her face. “Want some?”
“I’m steering clear of small fruit for now.” She glanced at the fig, then back to the more appetizing meal on the railing. “Besides, I’m busy.”
Milla followed Trudy’s gaze up to the balcony and gasped. “Oh my god. Gertrude T. Prendergast, that man is beyond gorgeous. And he’s looking straight at you. The dude is seriously getting his flirt on.”
Still holding her gaze, the man tilted his chin upward, a gesture of familiarity.
Trudy’s stomach did a quick flip, then tugged inward. Milla was right. The hunk was definitely flirting. But her quest for the contract with Gregor Johansson couldn’t wait. Sigh.
The man lifted a finger in the air as if to tell her to stay put, then disappeared behind a pillar. Um…was he coming down to talk to her?
“Honey, I think he wants you,” Milla said, still gaping.
“Yeah, but I need to find Gregor.”
“We’re in public. Call me Trudy. And focus on tonight’s agenda, which does not include me picking up a hottie. You know how bad I want this contract. Without it, I could lose my loft. And go to debtor’s prison with what I have on my credit cards. You don’t want to visit me in jail—it’s impossible to hug anyone through that thick layer of safety glass. I can’t lose focus tonight.”
“Good luck with that. Because if the look in that dude’s eye was any indication, he’d like to take you home wild, passionate stranger-love to you.”
Her sister ignored her protest. “But I do have to interrogate him first. Look him up on Facebook. Check out his Linked-In profile. This place has Wi-Fi, right? Hey, you are carrying condoms, aren’t you?”
“I’m working,” she said, fervently. Although yes, she had several condoms in her purse from the last time she’d gone out with her sister, who’d shoved a handful at her and warned her never to leave the house unloaded, just in case a Greek god dropped out of the sky and offered to give her carnal pleasure.
At the time, Trudy had snorted with laughter. Greek gods didn’t drop from the sky.
Or did they?
Normally, she’d consider putting the pack of condoms to use. After all, he had the look of a playboy—all expensively dressed and slightly cocky—which put him in her category of a Dude To Do. Playboys worked well for her—they didn’t expect full-on commitment and were cool with things ending rather quickly. Just her style.
Milla teased her about having an allergy to relationships, but her sister didn’t understand her need to avoid men who wanted unconditional love and babies and stuff. Casual sex and serious dating were both fine, but full-on relationships— those kinds with the mutual understanding that marriage would inevitably be discussed? Yeah, not so much. Once she’d dreamed of a husband, babies, and a white picket fence, but those dreams had flat-lined four years ago. Removed along with her fertility bits.
She gave herself a mental shake. She couldn’t be distracted right now. This contract with Gregor was too important.
But then movement caught her attention, and she realized Sexy Dude was coming down the stairs. They connected gazes again, and an uncontrollable rush of flutters dashed about in her belly and thoughts of her negative bank account dipped out of her mind.
But then the man pointed to her chest, smiled broadly, and mouthed the word “grape.”
Heat flashed over her skin, instantly mottling it red like some sort of color-changing octopus. Oh, God. He knew where that damned grape had landed.
And he was laughing at her.
The flutter in her tummy squeezed, and not in a good way. How mortifying. Here she thought a guy who could rival Michelangelo’s David was coming on to her, only apparently he thought she was the joke of the night.
Memories of the online comments about her body flooded her mind. No way, no how. She would not be humiliated again. Ever. She cut off eye contact and whirled around, her vertebrae snapping into a stiff iron core. She didn’t have time to get laid, anyway.
Not when her whole future was at stake. She needed to locate Gregor Johansson immediately, and put that obnoxious Greek god out of her mind—permanently.
Yeah, right. Like that was gonna happen. Sighing, she turned and scanned the crowd, looking for the silver-haired man she hoped would be her new boss.
Mac snagged a flute of champagne from a passing waiter as he headed over to where he’d last seen Red Hot, who had scurried away. How adorable was it that she’d ended up with a grape accidentally caught between her boobs? Maybe he should tip the waiter who’d stumbled, causing the entire fiasco with the escaped grape to unfold. Not that he’d wanted the waiter looking at her that way. Or any other man.
Tonight, she’d be all his.
But first, he had to find her in this crowd before she took off for good. Introduce himself. Ask her out. He hadn’t taken his friend Remy’s bet (for a sheriff, Remy had some rather compromised principles) but still had visions of how the night could turn out, with his naked body covered by her luxurious red hair. He looked around the crowded art gallery and found her.
He squeezed through the crowd and came up to her. Shoulders stiff and her back ramrod straight, she stood before him, still wearing that delightful expression of sexy-pissed. Not that her displeasure gave him satisfaction, but the two little lines that formed between her brow when she glared was beyond cute.
“Excuse me,” he began, giving her what he hoped was a dazzling smile.
“Yes?” Her voice was tight, her eyes narrowed, and instead of looking at him in the eyes, she’d dropped her gaze, which was now riveted on his feet. Her face held none of the excitement he’d seen earlier when they’d first connected. Now she was glaring at his shoes.
Huh. Not quite the reaction he’d anticipated. She had been flirting with him, right? He ignored her expression and pressed on, saying, “I saw what happened earlier. You know, with the grape and all.”
At his statement, she ripped her stare from his feet to his face, her green eyes flashing anger. Whoops. Her expression said it all—she’d misunderstood why he’d been laughing.
“Oh, crap. I didn’t mean it that way,” he backpedalled. “I thought the situation was funny, not that you were funny. Here we are at this stuffy fuddy-duddy event and you end up with a—” He cut himself off at her glare. Her adorably cute glare.
She crossed her arms over her chest.
Mac held out the flute of champagne. “Peace offering.” When she hesitated for a few beats, he held his breath, breathing out when she finally accepted the flute. “I’m Mac.”
The tiny muscles on the right side of her mouth relaxed. Then a small smile formed. “I guess in retrospect, that grape’s sneak attack was rather funny.” Her smile widened, fractionally. “I’m Trudy.” She raised the flute up and sipped.
“Cute name,” he said, thinking the name as one normally associated with a round little thing, not someone as tall and strong as Trudy, but somehow it fit her.
Red Hot—no, Trudy—nodded at the shorter and very pregnant woman next to her, wedged in tight by the crowd. “My sister, Milla.”
Up close, he could see the similarities—the light lines creasing the side of their mouths, the flecks of gold and grey in their eyes. Milla shook his hand vigorously, beaming at him. Cool. Score one for him—he’d managed to win over the sister. Now to win over Trudy.
And he had a proven process…
Step One: meaningless chitchat.
“Are you two Gregor Johansson fans?” he asked the sister, throwing out the most meaningless chit-chatty line he could come up with.
Milla let go of his hand, and said, “As an overwhelmed mom and a former accountant, I haven’t exactly focused on art. So no. No clue who the man was until about five hours ago. Trudy convinced me to come.”
He focused his attention on Trudy. “Because you’re a fan?”
She still wore that tight expression, although a hint of a smile tugged at the corner of her mouth. “Um…I’m actually here to network.”
Hmm…she hadn’t quite melted. But what had he expected? For her to accept his first attempt at breaking the ice after he’d found the grape incident funny when it was now clear she most definitely had not? Remy was right—a cheesy pickup line, such as “If I told you that you had a good body, would you hold it against me?” wouldn’t cut it with this woman. He instead opted for more chitchat. “So…what do you do, Trudy? Professionally, I mean?”
She hesitated, staring intently at him. After a pause, she swallowed. The tiny muscles on the left side of her mouth relaxed and the tiny smile widened. “When I’m not serving as a fruit bowl, you mean? I model.”
Distracted by the pulse along her neckline, it took Mac a second to register what she’d said. He clapped a hand to his forehead. “That’s how I know you. I knew I’d seen that mane of hair and that strut before. You worked the catwalks in New York, about four or five years ago.”
Her brow wrinkled slightly and her grin faded. “Yes…” she answered slowly. “Four years.”
“Oh, thank God,” he said. “I couldn’t figure out how I recognized you.”
“You remember me from a fashion show?”
“Not exactly. For a second I thought maybe we’d slept together and I’d forgotten.”
Trudy’s eyes narrowed.
Hell. “Uh…I didn’t mean to imply sex with you would be forgettable.”
Her jaw dropped.
Shit. He hadn’t blown a pick-up this bad since he wrote a love letter to his teacher Mrs. Livery, proclaiming his fourth-grade adoration. He needed to get this conversation back on track. Because the more he spoke with her, he realized that not only did he want to sleep with her, he was also considering asking her to pose for him.
Yeah, he’d told Remy to drop the discussion about his exploration of reentering the art world, but seeing Trudy had triggered his creative juices that had almost disappeared the day his mother died. He could see Trudy as his Warrior Woman—could see the photographs in his mind. Warrior Woman in Repose. Warrior Woman in Despair. Warrior Woman in Defiance.
Tension wound its way through his spine. He still wasn’t certain he wanted to push forward with his plan to get back into art photography, though. Even though he had a meeting scheduled in the morning with Ian Ackerley to discuss showing his speculative yet-to-be-made Warrior Woman series, and even though he’d been searching for a model to pose for him on that project and others he’d like to create in the future, he still wasn’t exactly completely committed to the idea.
Yeah, Trudy had said she was networking, and yeah, he could see her as his Warrior Woman, but he wasn’t sure he should mention he was in search of a model until he knew for sure he was fully committed to delving back into his art. He knew how hard it was to get work in her industry—he didn’t want to get her hopes up. After all, the contract he was offering was rather substantial. After a short trial period in which he’d create the Warrior Woman series, the contract would extend to three years. Definitely a good gig.
So maybe for tonight, he would go with his first idea—get Trudy to go out with him. After, he could think about seeing if she’d pose for a few test shots. For now…
Step Two: honesty.
“Look,” he said, placing a hand on her arm, “I didn’t mean to insinuate you’d be forgettable in bed. So if you want to take out a six-shooter and blast several holes through me, I couldn’t blame you.” In the last two minutes, Trudy’s expression had transitioned from cautiously optimistic to shocked to royally pissed. Now the new smile forming gave him hope. God, she was cute when she smiled.
“Mac.” A tap on his shoulder accompanied the sound of his name.
Uh oh. Not exactly the voice he wanted to hear in the middle of a pick-up. When he turned around, he shot his sister his best I’m busy here look. Doe glared back at him, her son Aaron clinging to her like a limpet and grinning at him like a loon.
“Not now, Doe,” he muttered quietly. He turned back around and flashed a quick glance at Trudy. She was watching the unfolding scene with narrowed eyes. Wow. Those lines around her mouth had grown as deep as the road ruts he made four-wheeling. What had he done now?
Aaron tugged his jacket sleeve, demanding his attention, and he turned back to his nephew. A shiny streak appeared. Drool.
“Hada, dada, dada,” the baby babbled, holding one hand out to Mac. The other gripped Doe’s multiply pierced ear, chubby fingers entwining in a variety of silver hoops.
Blast. Drooling babies played no part in the seduction scene he’d envisioned.
“Would you just take the baby for a minute?” Doe asked, working Aaron’s fingers out of her earrings.
Did his little sister not understand he was busy? Did she not see the amazing woman standing before him? But at Aaron’s sudden sob, Mac melted. Seeing the little guy cry always undid him. “Come here, big boy.” He pulled the baby into his arms. He could introduce Trudy to his nephew—women liked babies, right? He pivoted, but instead of that soft-eyed, glazed-over expression women usually put on when they saw an infant, Trudy had recoiled.
Uh oh… So maybe she wasn’t a baby person after all. Fine. He’d hand Aaron back in a second. As soon as he apologized to Trudy. Yet again.
Step Three in seduction: ask her out.
Her fierce glare shot him down. She turned her back on him, her shoulders jolting upward. Had he blown it that badly? Trudy certainly seemed as if a rather large-sized bug had crawled up her butt.
He snuck a quick peek. Bug or not, Trudy had one sexy ass.
The swell of the crowd’s applause filled the air, turning Trudy’s attention to the podium, Mac’s gaze following. His father had stepped up to the podium, commanding the attention of the room, Trudy included. Damn. Speech time.
He’d have to complete Step Three later. But no problem—he’d win her over. He always did.
* * *
Oh my god, Trudy thought. Was the guy married? He had to be, right? The baby had called him “dada.” So this wasn’t a pick-up? Ugh. The whole situation was beyond confusing. She’d thought Mac had been flirting with her, but he’d just recognized her from when she was a high fashion model. Probably had wanted to talk about the good old days. At least he hadn’t brought up the whole Tubster Trudy fiasco—maybe he didn’t know. After all, not all corners of the world had known about her shame.
Just most corners.
Three out of four, she figured.
She shouldn’t have allowed herself to be distracted by a guy, anyway. Because now Gregor stood at the podium, receiving the award being presented to him, and there was little to no chance she’d be able to speak with him after his speech.
“Hold this.” Milla shoved her plate of food in Trudy’s free hand. “I’m off to pee.”
Poor Milla, what with the watermelon sitting on her bladder and all. Trudy glanced around for a cocktail table on which to place her flute of champagne and Milla’s plate of food. All she saw were bodies—no tables, no ledges, no surfaces of any kind. She shifted from one foot to the next, her wrists aching, as Gregor spoke, thanking everyone from his mother (may she rest in peace) to his daughter (may she stop getting tattooed) to his son (may he get off his duff and get back into art). The artist had the crowd laughing, but Trudy was way to stressed out to join in.
Finally, the crowd erupted into applause—Gregor’s speech had ended. He stepped down from the podium and into the applauding throng. Trudy craned her neck—his path lay straight before her.
She smiled, hope swelling in her chest. Maybe tonight might turn out okay, after all. She could still introduce herself and let him know she’d applied to be his next model. She hoped he wouldn’t think her rude by not shaking his hand, but unless Milla got back in the next few seconds (doubtful, given the watermelon), her hands were otherwise occupied.
She took a step toward Gregor, edging slightly forward in the tight crowd, but was suddenly forced to a halt by a hard tug on her hair. A ripping sensation suddenly shot through her scalp. She held back a yelp. What the heck?
She turned as much as she could, trying to see who had her hair in a death grip. The young woman she assumed was Mac’s wife stood behind her, engaged in an animated conversation with a member of the press, the baby casually dangling off one of her hips. The infant held not only her hair but also the straps of Trudy’s bodice, which was tied in a bow at the back of her neck. Those straps were interlaced with two large handfuls of long red hair, which the baby shoved with little pudgy hands into its slobbery mouth.
Adorable, even though drool was not a flattering hair accessory.
The baby gave a sharp tug, tearing out a few strands. Pain radiated through her scalp. Uh oh. Cute or not, she needed to extract herself from the baby.
“Excuse me,” she gasped out. The woman was still turned away from her, deep in her conversation, and didn’t notice Trudy’s desperate plea, but at least Trudy had claimed Mac’s attention. And yet he made no move to take the baby.
Instead, he grinned.
A quick glance over her shoulder told her Gregor stood about ten feet away, headed in her direction. Nerves exploded. She couldn’t possibly greet the artist with a baby using her dress straps as reins and pulling her hair out by the roots. And yet with a plate of food in one hand and a flute of champagne in the other, she couldn’t disengage the baby on her own. She leaned forward, trying to tug her way out of the cutie-pie’s grip, but the little baby hands refused to release the straps of her bow.
Grape down cleavage, mistaking friendliness for a come-on, hair filled with baby spit—she wasn’t sure this evening could get any worse.
But then the baby pulled hard with both hands and released the dress’s straps and all of a sudden Gertrude T. Prendergast learned how much worse the night could get.
Because all she could do was watch helplessly as the broad straps of her dress—straps that also served as her bodice—floated down to droop at her waist.
Completely baring her breasts to the crowd.
For a brief moment, as Mac stared at Trudy’s naked breasts, his brain couldn’t figure out what the heck had just happened. Then he wrenched his gaze upward and took in her shocked and humiliated expression. Oh, God, the poor thing. By tugging on her dress straps, his infant nephew had just accidentally bared the woman’s uh…amazing boobs. In the middle of the art gallery, for all to see.
Instinctively, he pivoted on one foot to stand in front of her—blocking her nakedness from the crowd—then pulled her against him.
Trudy stared up at him, her face a blank slate, then those mouth lines were back, coupled with a deep line between her brows. A vein transecting her brow beat rapidly. “What are you doing?” she gasped out.
He peered down at her. “Rescuing you.”
“You’re hugging me.”
Her brilliant green eyes flashed. In high heels, her mouth was nearly level with his. Her warm, juicy, lush mouth. He fought the urge to kiss her. Instead, he pressed one hand against her back, clenching her chest tight to his, and deftly snared one of the straps of her dress with his other hand.
“Get off me!” She struggled, but he held her firm.
“If I let go of you now, you’ll flash everyone. Again. I’m guessing that’s something you’d rather avoid…”
Her cheeks heated. “Um, yes.”
“We look all cuddly at the moment. No one can tell I’m re-dressing you. All you have to do is hold still. I promise I’ll be a perfect gentleman.” He worked the strap of fabric up between their chests, then slid it up and over her shoulder.
“I can do it myself—”
“I’ve almost got it,” he added. “I promise no one can tell what I’m doing. It’s dim, with the lights low and the spotlight on Gregor. If anyone even notices, they’d think I’m just hitting on you.”
She snorted. “You should have helped me with your baby before this disaster happened.”
“My baby?” He lifted his gaze from hers to look for his sister and nephew. Doe had melted into the crowd, taking Aaron with her. At least the little bugger had let go of Trudy’s dress. “Aaron’s not my baby.” His fingers found the other silken strap.
“But he called you ‘Dada.’”
“Contrary to popular belief, an infant’s first word isn’t ‘Mama,” it’s ‘Dada.’ I’m sure moms all over the world glare at their husbands regularly, but who am I to argue with a baby?”
“So that woman isn’t your wife?”
Realization formed. “You mean Doe? She’s my sister.”
Trudy pulled back, her eyes squinted tight and her brow wrinkled, but in a cute I’m-so-confused way, not an I’m-gonna-kill-you way. “Oh, wow. Total mistake on my part.”
Maybe Trudy had been dissing him because she thought him a two-timing pig. Hope flared. He could fix this situation. If Trudy would let him. After all, he’d been a bit of a pain this evening. Not that he’d meant to be, but hey—miscommunication happened. And he’d had a boatload of miscommunication with the radiant woman standing before him tonight.
But the downturn of her lips didn’t match the warmth in her eyes. In such close proximity, he caught a whiff of her scent. An intoxicating aroma of something sweet and— “You smell like a salad.”
“What?” Trudy pulled back. The fabric slipped.
“Don’t move,” he warned. “You smell like carrots, or maybe lettuce or something. Nothing to do with the food on the plate you’re holding,” he added quickly. “And flowers, too. So I guess you smell more like a garden. Huh. I’ve never been around someone who smells like a garden before. Very sexy.” He sneaked a peek at Trudy’s face.
She shifted until their mouths were a mere inch apart, puzzlement written across her face. “It’s…it’s my shampoo. Cucumber mint.”
He inhaled. “Smells delicious.” He dipped his face closer to her neck, his hands still working the straps behind her.
“Um, thank you?” she said. After a pause, she added, “You know, I do appreciate you rescuing me.”
“My pleasure.” Mac traded positions with his hands and fished around for the other strap. He worked the soft silk up her chest. Someone bumped him from behind and his hand slipped.
Trudy sucked in a deep breath.
“Really,” she drawled out, raising an eyebrow. But the corners of her mouth were raised. A good sign.
“Yes, really. I’m being a gentleman, which, believe me, isn’t all that easy right now.” He maneuvered the silk and got both straps to cover her breasts. “Knot or bow?” he asked.
“What? Oh, knot. Make that a double knot.”
Mac closed his eyes and let his hands linger at the nape of her neck. Her skin under his fingertips felt as soft as silk sheets. He breathed in the scent of her hair again. Cucumber and mint, huh? Who would have thought that would be so enticing? He pulled the straps together behind her neck and tied a neat square not. Then he looped it again. “There. All concealed.”
“Thanks.” Trudy heaved a breath. “You can let me go now.”
“I’d rather not.” Mac loosened his grip but kept one arm wrapped around her, gently caressed the small of her back. He caught the attention of a passing waiter, then took the plate of food and the now-flat champagne from Trudy’s hand and placed them on the waiter’s tray. Then he caught her gaze. For a moment they stood, silent, connecting visually the same way they’d done earlier, when he’d been up on the balcony after she’d been attacked by a flying grape.
The tension in her back released. That cute quirk of a smile came back.
Mac’s pulse raced. No part of him wanted to let her go. The two of them most definitely needed to start over. He’d reintroduce himself, then introduce her to Doe and Aaron as his sister and nephew. But he wouldn’t introduce his father. Tonight he just wanted to be Mac, not Mac Johns, son of world-renown sculptor Gregor Johansson. Just this once he wanted to rest on his own laurels and not any residuals from his father. He could always get to “the son of” part later.
“I know,” he said, leaning close to her ear, “let’s have a do-over.”
Trudy wrinkled her brow. “A what?”
“I’ll pretend like I didn’t see the grape”—Trudy blushed—“or your incredible, um, assets”—Trudy’s blush deepened—“and you pretend like you never thought I had a kid and was married. You know, a do-over.”
* * *
To keep reading Finding the One, click HERE to buy!
“A model with a body image problem, a photographer whose muse refuses to pose for him, quite a bit of misunderstanding, and a love neither one thought they’d find … an entertaining and interesting love story.”
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“A wonderful story of loving oneself enough to love another.”
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Copyright © 2016. Rochelle French. All Rights Reserved.