At the sound of the crash, Damian rolled his eyes heavenward and wondered for the hundredth time whatever had possessed him to hire such a clumsy, surly, irritable, annoying, immature, and inexperienced assistant.
Taking a deep breath to quell his irritation, he raised his voice to ask, “Are you all right, Nicholas?”
“Yeah,” came the muffled reply. Even at a distance Damian could tell that the boy was frustrated and angry.
“What was it this time?” he asked.
Ashley’s eyes crinkled in silent laughter as he sat, perched on the stool, where he’d been watching as Damian set up the shot.
“Nothing breakable,” came the defensive answer.
“Have it cleaned up by the time I get out there,” Damian instructed, before muttering, “to save me from having a heart attack.”
The response was indecipherable, but the resentful tone was clear.
“Why do I put up with this?” Damian sighed to himself.
“Why do you?” Ashley asked, chuckling. He was quite sure he knew the answer; after all, the hapless assistant was by far the most beautiful young man that Damian had ever hired. They never seemed to last long, but Ashley was certain that all of them had “skills” outside the arena of photography.
“He was better than the rest of the lot that applied after Derek left,” Damian grumbled, his gaze fixed on the viewfinder of his camera.
Today’s shot was just a still life, but it still took Ashley’s breath away. There was no better photographer at work in London today; Damian Wolfe could make the simplest object compelling and exquisite.
It had taken forever, and all the weight of a long friendship, for Ashley to convince Damian to shoot his catalog. Although Damian was American by citizenship, with a French father and Italian mother he was fairly cosmopolitan; he and his parents had lived all over the world before he finally settled in America as an adult. After a case in which his work had been taken to the Supreme Court in America as an example of indecency but was vindicated as freedom of expression, Damian had found it more comfortable to work in Europe.
He was fond of saying that although the Supreme Court was on his side, the U.S. was simply too young a country to appreciate erotica. They preferred sentimentality to beauty. Treacly calendars with ivy-covered cottages and flowers in vases, or even worse, babies in animal costumes were all that some Americans deserved in Damian’s opinion.
He was welcomed to the London art scene with open arms, the much-publicized court case having made him an instant celebrity. Although he disdained the renown, he did appreciate the fact that it brought his work to the attention of collectors such as Ashley.
Working almost exclusively in the area of his own personal interest, Damian created beautiful male erotica; he could photograph a nude with all the delicacy of a rare orchid, and yet use the same model to produce a shot of graphic sexual power, so raw that it raised disturbing doubts in the minds of men who had never considered another man’s body as sexually arousing.
Of course, that just amused Damian to no end.
Ashley Winthrop was an entrepreneur in high-end erotic toys and a noted patron of the arts; he was also a connoisseur when it came to erotica. He had already purchased several of Damian Wolfe’s pieces before he had finagled his way into meeting the artist at a gallery opening.
Recognizing their similar interests, they soon became friends. Ashley wasn’t shy about badgering Damian to shoot several of the items he offered for sale, and when he’d seen the results, he continued to pressure the artist until he’d agreed to photograph the entire catalog.
Already, Ashley knew that this catalog was destined to become a collector’s item. Taking an ordinary item such as handcuffs, Damian had created a simple but elegant set and lit the cuffs so that the metal dazzled with a seductive promise that Ashley knew no submissive would be able to resist. He could hardly wait to see what Damian could do with a whip.
Damian moved forward to adjust the angle of one of the cuffs, donning a pair of sleek black leather gloves to ensure that he transferred neither fingerprints nor dust to the highly reflective surface.
Ashley’s groin tightened as he watched the sure, graceful hands stroke the metal. The first time Damian had picked up a crop in Ashley’s office, running the braided leather absently through his fingers, Ashley had recognized a fellow Dominant. He had no desire to feel the bite of the whip himself, although he found the photographer extremely attractive, but he greatly desired to see Damian in action, with a slender submissive body drooping in front of him, eagerly surrendering to whatever delicious punishment he was sure Damian could devise.
Damian returned to his stance behind the camera, completely oblivious to the other man’s train of thought as he took the shot. He was somewhat pleased with it. He wasn’t sure it was the best he could do, but at least it was a starting point.
“I don’t know why you badgered me into this,” Damian grumbled, pushing back his shoulder-length hair while still looking through the viewfinder. “I’ve got to be at least twice as expensive as any product photographer, and three times as slow.”
“Four times slower and five times more costly,” Ashley said gleefully, rubbing his hands together. “I’ve worked it all out, Ian, but the cost-benefit ratio is on my side.”
He couldn’t see the photographer’s face, hidden behind the curtain of his glossy hair, but that wasn’t where he was looking anyway. Damian really had a lovely body: broad shoulders, narrow waist, and quite a fine arse, if he did say so himself. Ashley knew that he would never get his hands on it, but a man could dream, couldn’t he? Although the charm of demanding the submission of another man would be lost with Damian, Ashley still rather fancied him. Holding him back was the fact that he was not at all sure that he might not end up in the encounter with his own arse in the air, awaiting either the kiss of the whip or the surge of what looked to be a massive cock, if Damian’s package was anything to go by.
“How can that possibly be a good thing?” Damian asked, exasperated by his own slowness. His standards were incredibly exacting but ordinarily he didn’t have a client hanging over his shoulder; he simply worked out his own vision to his satisfaction.
“Not only will people in the lifestyle be fighting to get their hands on this catalog, they will pay for them,” Ashley said. “And they’ll buy. Those handcuffs have been a staple in my line for over five years and even my mouth is watering over them. I would buy them from me right now, if I had someone to put them on.”
Damian laughed. “Surely you have someone awaiting your… kind attentions.” His eyes raked insolently over Ashley’s body.
The tawny-haired man shivered under the intense scrutiny of an alpha Top, but the little smile that curled his lips didn’t change; Ashley was experienced enough to know how to stand his ground.
“I can’t imagine that you haven’t… ahem… tested these items thoroughly before offering them for your customers’ consideration.”
Ashley grinned, his teeth gleaming white under the modeling light. “I know what they’re all used for, yes.”
“I’ll bet you do.” Damian smirked, before going back to concentrate on his shot. He was perfectly aware that Ashley was an enthusiastic player, not merely a dabbler who sold toys. Not that Damian himself played anymore; he’d grown weary of demanding subs who misbehaved in order to earn whatever punishment they desired. He’d decided that empty was better than half full and had lived a celibate life in the five years since he’d come to live and work in London: ironic for a man who made his living creating erotica. An irony that he fully appreciated, but by now he had convinced himself that he was more suited to the purer gratification to be derived from the visual stimulation provided by his models.
At that moment, Nick pushed the studio door open, letting the light pour in just as Damian was about to release the shutter.
“Fucking hell, Nicholas, can’t you remember to knock?” Damian snapped without looking up.
Nick pushed the door shut hurriedly, irked at being berated when the studio lights were still on anyway; he’d checked for the sliver of light under the door, not that he was going to mention that. In a sullen voice, he asked, “Just wanted to know whether you wanted your tea now.”
Ashley watched with interest as the boy’s velvety dark eyes flicked nervously between the photographer and the glittering handcuffs, displayed like a jewel on a bed of soft dark feathers.
“Turn off the modeling lights, Nicholas.”
Dragging his feet, the tall, slender young man made his way to the power pack, crouching beside it to press the button. There was a click and the room was plunged into darkness. In that moment, the erotic tension in the room roared in Ashley’s ears. Everything was silent. Not one of them made a move in the dark, but he felt strongly that at least one of the people in the room really wanted to.
Then the sudden flash of Damian’s lights split the darkness with a series of soft explosive pops. The photographer took several shots, bracketing, Ashley remembered him calling it.
“Okay, Nicholas. Lights,” Damian ordered tersely.
A click and the modeling lights were back on. Ashley had continued to look in Nick’s direction to avoid being blinded by the lights, so he was in the perfect position to observe the soft, liquid look in the boy’s eyes as he gulped in some air and stared avidly at the cuffs before his usual impassive mask slid back into place.
Ashley glanced at Damian to find that he was still fussing with his camera. Finally Damian stood upright. “I think that’s it for today,” he said in a dissatisfied tone.
“Tell me again why you were shooting in the dark?” Ashley asked.
“Star filter,” Damian said. His laugh lines sprang into being as he smiled and reached up to sweep his hair out of his face. “We’re going to make your old police standards sparkle like diamonds.” He suddenly seemed to realize that Nicholas was still crouched by the pack. “Why are you here?” he demanded bluntly.
“Came to ask if you wanted your tea, yeah?” The husky voice was soft and yet still communicated Nick’s insolence clearly.
“Go boil it, or buy it, or whatever you do with it,” Damian said, losing interest.
“What would you like in yours, Mr.…,” Nick asked Ashley, with a bare modicum of politeness.
“Winthrop,” Ashley supplied amiably, although he had told Nicholas his name at least twice before. “I am in the mood for a bite of something sweet, perhaps an éclair or a napoleon. And get me a latté, large, cinnamon decaf. With whipped cream. Low fat!”
Before he slouched from the room, Nick muttered, “You really think that’s going to help?”
Damian chuckled under his breath at Nicholas’s jibe, still standing with his hands on his hips, glaring at the handcuffs as if they were a recalcitrant model, refusing to hold a pose.
“Dreadful baggy trousers,” Ashley muttered fastidiously, looking after Nicholas. If he had the dressing of the young man, he’d be wearing something tight and form-fitting, depending on what kind of arse he had. It looked as if it might be quite a pert one, but those loose jeans were so deceptive, as Ashley knew to his cost. Not only had Damian’s last assistant Derek turned out to be a tad on the pudgy side, but he didn’t even like to play.
“What was that?” Damian asked abstractedly.
“I asked your boy for something sweet,” Ashley said, grinning inwardly at his choice of words. Sure enough, they caught Damian’s attention and he smirked appreciatively. “He seemed a bit dismayed.”
“That’ll be because I don’t usually run to cakes for tea. I expect he’ll have gotten into the petty cash and gone down the street to the pastry shop,” Damian replied in resignation. “Well, come along. The young twit has either put the kettle on with no water or forgotten it altogether. I’d better check on it.”
Ashley slid off the stool and followed Damian out of the studio into the kitchen area, his eyes bright with curiosity. Something was brewing here, even if it wasn’t the tea, and he was interested to see how it all played out.