“Okay, turn to the left…. Shift your left leg that way too…. Yeah, that’s great. Hold it, hold it….”
Aaron Stevens bit back a yawn and tried not to blink too often. Strong eyes, sexy pout, slight slouch. After two years of this, he could almost do it in his sleep, which was good, considering he was a half step away from dozing off. One too many late nights in a row plus a last-minute call for this shoot added up to one very, very groggy model.
“Okay!” The photographer, Owen, lowered his camera and pointed at his assistant. “Last setup, guys. Let’s get moving.”
Aaron sighed and walked over to the small wardrobe area to his left, peeling off his jacket. He shot a tired smile at the wardrobe assistant, Aimee, and stepped behind the screens set up to provide him with a tiny bit of privacy. Not that it mattered. Models at every level learned quickly that modesty was a hindrance. Catalog work like this might not compare with high fashion, but after the first time he’d posed in a thong, Aaron got past being shy on the set.
Thankfully, today was about fall suits, not skimpy underwear. He shucked off the navy blue pin-striped slacks and exchanged them for the cuffed gray ones hanging next on the rack, checking himself in the full-length mirror as he zipped up. Deep blue eyes stared back at him, and as he often did, he considered his features: strong jawline, slightly too-large nose, wide mouth, clear but imperfect skin. His dark brown wavy hair had been styled into a smooth, professional look to match his clean-shaven face. He knew he wasn’t bad-looking by any means, but he sometimes wondered why everyone else seemed to think the disparate parts he saw added up to a near-perfect whole.
He shook off his thoughts. No time for navel-gazing when he had a job to do. White long-sleeved dress shirt and black dress shoes, a quick touchup from hair and makeup, and he was back in front of the camera, flipping the gray suit coat up over one shoulder as instructed.
A sudden flurry of voices near the doorway caught his attention for a second, and he cursed his lack of concentration when Owen sighed. “Sorry,” he said, sliding back into position.
“Not a problem,” Owen said. “Long day for everyone. Just a few more and we can get out of here.”
“Great.” Aaron pictured his bed and tried not to grin in relief at the thought. He had the next day free and planned to spend it sleeping late and doing as little as possible.
An unfamiliar face came into his line of vision. Two of them, actually—a short redhead and a taller blond, both men who looked around his age. Anyone who worked in the industry learned quickly to judge both ages and sizes quickly, and Aaron was no exception. Given a closer look and a few more minutes, he could probably come up with their clothing and shoe sizes too.
The redhead spoke to the photographer’s assistant, Annie, and she shot him a quick smile and nodded. The boys stepped back a few feet, the redhead watching Owen.
The blond, on the other hand, chose to watch Aaron.
Aaron refocused on the camera. He tucked his hands into his pockets, tilted his head back, parted his lips. He shifted his weight from one foot to the other between frames, turned his head to the right, tilted it back down.
As far as Aaron could tell without looking at him directly, the blond guy never moved an inch, never stopped staring at Aaron.
Even though he didn’t always understand it, Aaron knew he had a certain look that worked for some people, a body that wore clothes well. Making his living off that didn’t stop him from feeling gawky and out of place a lot of the time, like the teenager he’d been until a few months earlier. Still, he was getting used to stares, used to people watching him.
He wasn’t used to this kind of scrutiny.
The blond wasn’t a photographer, didn’t seem to be scouting him for a job, wasn’t in the audience at a runway show. This man seemed to be studying him like a puzzle he couldn’t figure out, like he was trying to see right through his skin and into his soul.
Aaron was unnerved. He tried not to let it show.
“Okay, we’re done! Thanks, everyone! Great job, Aaron!” Owen set the camera aside for the last time, and the various assistants in the room broke into a smattering of applause. Aaron relaxed, smiled, and headed over to wardrobe one last time, more than ready to exchange the suit for his own clothes.
“Excuse me.” Aaron had the jacket off and was just reaching for the fly on the pants when the voice came from behind him. He turned and was faced with the blond man. Wow, he thought as he got his first good look at the creamy skin, sculpted features, expressive green eyes. Maybe I had this all wrong. He must be a model too.
“Hi,” Aaron said. “Can I help you?”
The man held out a hand. “Matt Carson,” he said, and Aaron reached out automatically. They both froze at the contact, gazes locked. Aaron sucked in a breath. Wow. Oh wow.
Matt laughed, a short, nervous sound. “Um, yeah,” he said, not letting go of Aaron’s hand. “Um, I’m a journalism student at Columbia, and I’m working on a project. I was wondering if you might be able to ask… help me out?” His words were rushed, like he was trying to push them out before he lost his nerve.
Aaron looked down at their joined hands. “Project?” Matt seemed to jump a little and released Aaron’s hand. Aaron fought off an urge to grab it back.
“Yeah, project,” Matt said, and Aaron shifted his gaze back to Matt’s face. “I’m putting together a feature piece on some of the high-profile jobs in New York, but I’m trying to find some, well, kind of less than obvious choices. My friend Jamie”—he nodded toward the redhead—“interns with Owen part-time, and he told me you’re a film student. Directing?”
“Yeah,” Aaron said. “NYU.” He shifted. “You mind if I change out of these clothes? I’ll be glad to talk to you about this—”
“Oh! Oh, sorry, yeah, please, go ahead,” Matt said, blushing. “I’ll just… I’ll wait over there.” He pointed at the gathering of chairs near the door and shot Aaron a smile. Aaron couldn’t help but return it, even if he didn’t think he’d be able to articulate why.
Aaron slipped back behind the screens and changed quickly, pulling back on his jeans and T-shirt and sliding his feet into his sneakers. He sat down to untangle and retie the laces and used the chance to look over at Matt from under his lashes. Matt sat bent over in the chair in a similar position to Aaron’s, but he was digging into a backpack at his feet, his tongue sticking out from the corner of his mouth. His hair fell across his forehead in tangled strands. He wore a vee-neck sweater, faded jeans, and sneakers, but his shoes were better suited for basketball than for running, like Aaron’s were.
Aaron knew he was checking Matt out. Not that long ago, he would’ve denied it, run from the very idea.
That was then; this was now.
Shoes tied, Aaron stood, grabbed his jacket, and walked toward Matt. He tried to push down the nerves nipping at his insides. He might be able to exude sex appeal in front of a camera, but that rarely carried over into real life. Not when he actually wanted to be himself, at least, and right now, that was what he wanted more than anything.
Well, maybe not more than he wanted to spend more time talking to Matt.
Matt looked up at him as he approached, then stood. “Hi,” Matt said, grinning.
“Hi,” Aaron replied. “Ready now.” He half smiled. “You want to get some coffee?”
Matt grinned wider, if possible, and nodded. “Yeah,” he said, picking up his backpack without breaking their gaze. “Yeah, that’d be great.”
The coffee shop around the corner was quiet. Aaron supposed it was because of the gorgeous weather. It was the first really nice spring day of the year, and people were probably out spending time enjoying it. Maybe he’d do that tomorrow; it was supposed to be even more beautiful.
Not as beautiful as the man sitting across from him. The sun glinted off Matt’s hair through the window, and Aaron watched, fascinated, as the light formed a halo around Matt’s head. Golden boy, Aaron thought, smiling at himself.
Matt caught the smile. “Something funny?” he asked, eyes glowing like his hair. Aaron shook his head.
“No, nothing, just enjoying the view,” he said softly, not even trying to pretend he was looking outside. Matt blushed again, and Aaron smiled wider. “Sorry, don’t mean to embarrass you.”
Matt looked up at him from under his lashes, heat behind his eyes. “Not embarrassed, exactly,” he murmured. Aaron swallowed as he understood Matt’s meaning.
Matt straightened up then and smiled quickly. “So, project,” he said, back to business. “It’s my senior thesis, really. I have to have an outline done in two weeks, and my advisor wanted me to get at least one more feature in. Jamie suggested you as a possible subject.”
Aaron leaned back and took a sip of his coffee. Interviews he could handle. He hadn’t done a lot of them, but the agency had provided some coaching. “Okay,” he said. “So I’d be representing, what, models or students?”
“Models,” Matt said, wrapping his hands around his coffee cup. “Most models just, well, model, or maybe model and act. Or at least stick mostly to the modeling industry. Management, photography, design. Finding one who wants to do something different, like film directing, that’s the challenge.”
Aaron nodded. “Okay,” he said. “But there are still a lot of model-slash-students out there. Why me?”
Matt smiled again, a little shyly this time. “Honestly? Jamie. We’re roommates, and I told him what my advisor said. He called me this morning when he got to the shoot and one of the assistants mentioned that you were a student too.” Matt shrugged. “So it was kind of a spur-of-the-moment thing.”
He grinned again, that infectious, dimpled smile, and Aaron felt his heart skip a beat. Talk about lucky breaks, he thought.
“Gotcha,” Aaron said, leaning his arms on the table. “So what do you want to know?”
“Well, everything,” Matt said, his eyes once again giving away hidden layers of meaning. He leaned back. “But we don’t have to go into it all now. Like I said, spur-of-the-moment. So I’m not really prepared to do a full interview.”
Aaron smiled, slowly, watching Matt’s pupils expand in response. “Okay, then,” he murmured. “When can I see you again?”
Matt smiled back, softer this time. “How’s tomorrow work for you?”