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Endless Summer by Nora Roberts (1)

CHAPTER ONE

The room was dark. Pitch-dark. But the man named Shade was used to the dark. Sometimes he preferred it. It wasn’t always necessary to see with your eyes. His fingers were both clever and competent, his inner eye as keen as a knife blade.

There were times, even when he wasn’t working, when he’d sit in a dark room and simply let images form in his mind. Shapes, textures, colors. Sometimes they came clearer when you shut your eyes and just let your thoughts flow. He courted darkness, shadows, just as relentlessly as he courted the light. It was all part of life, and life—its images—was his profession.

He didn’t always see life as others did. At times it was harsher, colder, than the naked eye could see—or wanted to. Other times it was softer, more lovely, than the busy world imagined. Shade observed it, grouped the elements, manipulated time and shape, then recorded it his way. Always his way.

Now, with the room dark and the sound of recorded jazz coming quiet and disembodied from the corner, he worked with his hands and his mind. Care and timing. He used them both in every aspect of his work. Slowly, smoothly, he opened the capsule and transferred the undeveloped film onto the reel. When the light-tight lid was on the developing tank, he set the timer with his free hand, then pulled the chain that added the amber light to the room.

Shade enjoyed developing the negative and making the print as much as, sometimes more than, he enjoyed taking the photograph. Darkroom work required precision and accuracy. He needed both in his life. Making the print allowed for creativity and experimentation. He needed those as well. What he saw, what he felt about what he saw, could be translated exactly or left as an enigma. Above all, he needed the satisfaction of creating something himself, alone. He always worked alone.

Now, as he went through each precise step of developing—temperature, chemicals, agitation, timing—the amber light cast his face into shadows. If Shade had been looking to create the image of photographer at work, he’d never have found a clearer statement than himself.

His eyes were dark, intense now as he added the stop bath to the tank. His hair was dark as well, too long for the convention he cared nothing about. It brushed over his ears, the back of his T-shirt, and fell over his forehead nearly to his eyebrows. He never gave much thought to style. His was cool, almost cold, and rough around the edges.

His face was deeply tanned, lean and hard, with strong bones dominating. His mouth was taut as he concentrated. There were lines spreading out finely from his eyes, etched there by what he’d seen and what he’d felt about it. Some would say there’d already been too much of both.

The nose was out of alignment, a result of a professional hazard. Not everyone liked to have his picture taken. The Cambodian soldier had broken Shade’s nose, but Shade had gotten a telling picture of the city’s devastation, of the waste. He still considered it an even exchange.

In the amber light, his movements were brisk. He had a rangy, athletic body, the result of years in the field—often a foreign, unfriendly field—miles of legwork and missed meals.

Even now, years after his last staff assignment for International View, Shade remained lean and agile. His work wasn’t as grueling as it had been in his early years in Lebanon, Laos, Central America, but his pattern hadn’t changed. He worked long hours, sometimes waiting endlessly for just the right shot, sometimes using a roll of film within minutes. If his style and manner were aggressive, it could be said that they’d kept him alive and whole during the wars he’d recorded.

The awards he’d won, the fee he now commanded, remained secondary to the picture. If no one had paid him or recognized his work, Shade would still have been in the darkroom, developing his film. He was respected, successful and rich. Yet he had no assistant and continued to work out of the same darkroom he’d set up ten years before.

When Shade hung his negatives up to dry, he already had an idea which ones he’d print. Still, he barely glanced at them, leaving them hanging as he unlocked the darkroom door and stepped out. Tomorrow his outlook would be fresher. Waiting was an advantage he hadn’t always had. Right now he wanted a beer. He had some thinking to do.

He headed straight for the kitchen and grabbed a cold bottle. Popping off the lid, he tossed it into the can his once-a-week housekeeper lined with plastic. The room was clean, not particularly cheerful with the hard whites and blacks, but then it wasn’t dull.

After he tilted the bottle back, he chugged the beer down, draining half. He lit a cigarette, then took the beer to the kitchen table where he leaned back in a chair and propped his feet on the scrubbed wood surface.

The view out the kitchen window was of a not-so-glamorous L.A. It was a little seamy, rough, sturdy and tough. The early-evening light couldn’t make it pretty. He could’ve moved to a glossier part of town, or out to the hills, where the lights of the city at night looked like a fairy tale. Shade preferred the small apartment that looked out over the unpampered streets of a city known for glitz. He didn’t have much patience with glitz.

Bryan Mitchell. She specialized in it.

He couldn’t deny that her portraits of the rich, famous and beautiful were well done—even excellent ones of their kind. There was compassion in her photographs, humor and a smooth sensuality. He wouldn’t even deny that there was a place for her kind of work in the field. It just wasn’t his angle. She reflected culture, he went straight for life.

Her work for Celebrity magazine had been professional, slick and often searing in its way. The larger-than-life people she’d photographed had often been cut down to size in a way that made them human and approachable. Since she’d decided to freelance, the stars, near-stars and starmakers she’d photographed for the glossy came to her. Over the years, she’d developed a reputation and style that had made her one of them, part of the inner, select circle.

It could happen to a photographer, he knew. They could come to resemble their own themes, their own studies. Sometimes what they tried to project became a part of them. Too much a part. No, he didn’t begrudge Bryan Mitchell her state of the art. Shade simply had doubts about working with her.

He didn’t care for partnerships.

Yet those were the terms. When he’d been approached by Life-style to do a pictorial study of America, he’d been intrigued. Photo essays could make a strong, lasting statement that could rock and jar or soothe and amuse. As a photographer, he had sought to do that. Life-style wanted him, wanted the strong, sometimes concise, sometimes ambiguous emotions his pictures could portray. But they also wanted a counterbalance. A woman’s view.

He wasn’t so stubborn that he didn’t see the point and the possibilities. Yet it irked him to think that the assignment hinged on his willingness to share the summer, his van and the credit with a celebrity photographer. And with a woman at that. Three months on the road with a female who spent her time perfecting snapshots of rock stars and personalities. For a man who’d cut his professional teeth in war-torn Lebanon, it didn’t sound like a picnic.

But he wanted to do it. He wanted the chance to capture an American summer from L.A. to New York, showing the joy, the pathos, the sweat, the cheers and disappointments. He wanted to show the heart, even while he stripped it to the bone.

All he had to do was say yes, and share the summer with Bryan Mitchell.

* * *

“Don’t think about the camera, Maria. Dance.” Bryan lined up the forty-year-old ballet superstar in her viewfinder. She liked what she saw. Age? Touches of it, but years meant nothing. Grit, style, elegance. Endurance—most of all, endurance. Bryan knew how to catch them all and meld them.

Maria Natravidova had been photographed countless times over her phenomenal twenty-five-year career. But never with sweat running down her arms and dampening her leotard. Never with the strain showing. Bryan wasn’t looking for the illusions dancers live with, but the exhaustion, the aches that were the price of triumph.

She caught Maria in a leap, legs stretched parallel to the floor, arms flung wide in perfect alignment. Drops of moisture danced from her face and shoulders; muscles bunched and held. Bryan pressed the shutter, then moved the camera slightly to blur the motion.

That would be the one. She knew it even as she finished off the roll of film.

“You make me work,” the dancer complained as she slid into a chair, blotting her streaming face with a towel.

Bryan took two more shots, then lowered her camera. “I could’ve dressed you in costume, backlit you and had you hold an arabesque. That would show that you’re beautiful, graceful. Instead I’m going to show that you’re a strong woman.”

“And you’re a clever one.” Maria sighed as she let the towel drop. “Why else do I come to you for the pictures for my book?”

“Because I’m the best.” Bryan crossed the studio and disappeared into a back room. Maria systematically worked a cramp out of her calf. “Because I understand you, admire you. And—” she brought out a tray, two glasses and a pitcher clinking with ice “—because I squeeze oranges for you.”

“Darling.” With a laugh, Maria reached for the first glass. For a moment, she held it to her high forehead, then drank deeply. Her dark hair was pulled back severely in a style only good bones and flawless skin could tolerate. Stretching out her long, thin body in the chair, she studied Bryan over the rim of her glass.

Maria had known Bryan for seven years, since the photographer had started at Celebrity with the assignment to take pictures of the dancer backstage. The dancer had been a star, but Bryan hadn’t shown awe. Maria could still remember the young woman with the thick honey-colored braid and bib overalls. The elegant prima ballerina had found herself confronted with candid eyes the color of pewter, an elegant face with slanting cheekbones and a full mouth. The tall, athletic body had nearly been lost inside the baggy clothes. She’d worn ragged sneakers and long, dangling earrings.

Maria glanced down at the dingy Nikes Bryan wore. Some things didn’t change. At first glance, you’d categorize the tall, tanned blonde in sneakers and shorts as typically California. Looks could be deceiving. There was nothing typical about Bryan Mitchell.

Bryan accepted the stare as she drank. “What do you see, Maria?” It interested her to know. Conceptions and preconceptions were part of her trade.

“A strong, smart woman with talent and ambition.” Maria smiled as she leaned back in the chair. “Myself, nearly.”

Bryan smiled. “A tremendous compliment.”

Maria acknowledged this with a sweeping gesture. “There aren’t many women I like. Myself I like, and so, you. I hear rumors, my love, about you and that pretty young actor.”

“Matt Perkins.” Bryan didn’t believe in evading or pretending. She lived, by choice, in a town fueled by rumors, fed by gossip. “I took his picture, had a few dinners.”

“Nothing serious?”

“As you said, he’s pretty.” Bryan smiled and chewed on a piece of ice. “But there’s barely room enough for his ego and mine in his Mercedes.”

“Men.” Maria leaned forward to pour herself a second glass.

“Now you’re going to be profound.”

“Who better?” Maria countered. “Men.” She said the word again, savoring it. “I find them tedious, childish, foolish and indispensable. Being loved…sexually, you understand?”

Bryan managed to keep her lips from curving. “I understand.”

“Being loved is exhilarating, exhausting. Like Christmas. Sometimes I feel like the child who doesn’t understand why Christmas ends. But it does. And you wait for the next time.”

It always fascinated Bryan how people felt about love, how they dealt with it, groped for it and avoided it. “Is that why you never married, Maria? You’re waiting for the next time?”

“I married dance. To marry a man, I would have to divorce dance. There’s no room for two for a woman like me. And you?”

Bryan stared into her drink, no longer amused. She understood the words too well. “No room for two,” she murmured. “But I don’t wait for the next time.”

“You’re young. If you could have Christmas every day, would you turn away from it?”

Bryan moved her shoulders. “I’m too lazy for Christmas every day.”

“Still, it’s a pretty fantasy.” Maria rose and stretched. “You’ve made me work long enough. I have to shower and change. Dinner with my choreographer.”

Alone, Bryan absently ran a finger over the back of her camera. She didn’t often think about love and marriage. She’d been there already. Once a fantasy was exposed to reality, it faded, like a photo improperly fixed. Permanent relationships rarely worked, and still more rarely worked well.

She thought of Lee Radcliffe, married to Hunter Brown for nearly a year, helping to raise his daughter and pregnant with her first child. Lee was happy, but then she’d found an extraordinary man, one who wanted her to be what she was, even encouraged her to explore herself. Bryan’s own experience had taught her that what’s said and what’s felt can be two opposing things.

Your career’s as important to me as it is to you. How many times had Rob said that before they’d been married? Get your degree. Go for it.

So they’d gotten married, young, eager, idealistic. Within six months he’d been unhappy with the time she’d put into her classes and her job at a local studio. He’d wanted his dinner hot and his socks washed. Not so much to ask, Bryan mused. To be fair, she had to say that Rob had asked for little of her. Just too much at the time.

They’d cared for each other, and both had tried to make adjustments. Both had discovered they’d wanted different things for themselves—different things from each other, things neither could be, neither could give.

It would’ve been called an amicable divorce—no fury, no bitterness. No passion. A signature on a legal document, and the dream had been over. It had hurt more than anything Bryan had ever known. The taint of failure had stayed with her a long, long time.

She knew Rob had remarried. He was living in the suburbs with his wife and their two children. He’d gotten what he’d wanted.

And so, Bryan told herself as she looked around her studio, had she. She didn’t just want to be a photographer. She was a photographer. The hours she spent in the field, in her studio, in the darkroom, were as essential to her as sleep. And what she’d done in the six years since the end of her marriage, she’d done on her own. She didn’t have to share it. She didn’t have to share her time. Perhaps she was a great deal like Maria. She was a woman who ran her own life, made her own decisions, personally and professionally. Some people weren’t made for partnerships.

Shade Colby. Bryan propped her feet on Maria’s chair. She might just have to make a concession there. She admired his work. So much so, in fact, that she’d plunked down a heady amount for his print of an L.A. street scene at a time when money had been a large concern. She’d studied it, trying to analyze and guess at the techniques he’d used for setting the shot and making the print. It was a moody piece, so much gray, so little light. And yet, Bryan had sensed a certain grit in it, not hopelessness, but ruthlessness. Still, admiring his work and working with him were two different things.

They were based in the same town, but they moved in different circles. For the most part, Shade Colby didn’t move in any circles. He kept to himself. She’d seen him at a handful of photography functions, but they’d never met.

He’d be an interesting subject, she reflected. Given enough time, she could capture that air of aloofness and earthiness on film. Perhaps if they agreed to take the assignment she’d have the chance.

Three months of travel. There was so much of the country she hadn’t seen, so many pictures she hadn’t taken. Thoughtfully, she pulled a candy bar out of her back pocket and unwrapped it. She liked the idea of taking a slice of America, a season, and pulling the images together. So much could be said.

Bryan enjoyed doing her portraits. Taking a face, a personality, especially a well-known one, and finding out what lay behind it was fascinating. Some might find it limited, but she found it endlessly varied. She could take the tough female rock star and show her vulnerabilities, or pull the humor from the cool, regal megastar. Capturing the unexpected, the fresh—that was the purpose of photography to her.

Now she was being offered the opportunity to do the same thing with a country. The people, she thought. So many people.

She wanted to do it. If it meant sharing the work, the discoveries, the fun, with Shade Colby, she still wanted to do it. She bit into the chocolate. So what if he had a reputation for being cranky and remote? She could get along with anyone for three months.

“Chocolate makes you fat and ugly.”

Bryan glanced up as Maria swirled back into the room. The sweat was gone. She looked now as people expected a prima ballerina to look. Draped in silk, studded with diamonds. Cool, composed, beautiful.

“It makes me happy,” Bryan countered. “You look fantastic, Maria.”

“Yes.” Maria brushed a hand down the draping silk at her hip. “But then it’s my job to do so. Will you work late?”

“I want to develop the film. I’ll send you some test proofs tomorrow.”

“And that’s your dinner?”

“Just a start.” Bryan took a huge bite of chocolate. “I’m sending out for pizza.”

“With pepperoni?”

Bryan grinned. “With everything.”

Maria pressed a hand to her stomach. “And I eat with my choreographer, the tyrant, which means I eat next to nothing.”

“And I’ll have a soda instead of a glass of Taittinger. We all have our price to pay.”

“If I like your proofs, I’ll send you a case.”

“Of Taittinger?”

“Of soda.” With a laugh, Maria swept out.

An hour later, Bryan hung her negatives up to dry. She’d need to make the proofs to be certain, but out of more than forty shots, she’d probably print no more than five.

When her stomach rumbled, she checked her watch. She’d ordered the pizza for seven-thirty. Well timed, she decided as she left the darkroom. She’d eat and go over the prints of Matt she’d shot for a layout in a glossy. Then she could work on the one she chose until the negatives of Maria were dry. She began rummaging through the two dozen folders on her desk—her personal method of filing—when someone knocked at the studio door.

“Pizza,” she breathed, greedy. “Come on in. I’m starving.” Plopping her enormous canvas bag on the desk, Bryan began to hunt for her wallet. “This is great timing. Another five minutes and I might’ve just faded away. Shouldn’t miss lunch.” She dropped a fat, ragged notebook, a clear plastic bag filled with cosmetics, a key ring and five candy bars on the desk. “Just set it down anywhere, I’ll find the money in a minute.” She dug deeper into the bag. “How much do you need?”

“As much as I can get.”

“Don’t we all.” Bryan pulled out a worn man’s billfold. “And I’m desperate enough to clean out the safe for you, but…” She trailed off as she looked up and saw Shade Colby.

He gave her face a quick glance, then concentrated on her eyes. “What would you like to pay me for?”

“Pizza.” Bryan dropped the wallet onto the desk with half the contents of her purse. “A case of starvation and mistaken identity. Shade Colby.” She held out her hand, curious and, to her surprise, nervous. He looked more formidable when he wasn’t in a crowd. “I recognize you,” she continued, “but I don’t think we’ve met.”

“No, we haven’t.” He took her hand and held it while he studied her face a second time. Stronger than he’d expected. He always looked for the strength first, then the weaknesses. And younger. Though he knew she was only twenty-eight, Shade had expected her to look harder, more aggressive, glossier. Instead, she looked like someone who’d just come in from the beach.

Her T-shirt was snug, but she was slim enough to warrant it. The braid came nearly to her waist and made him speculate on how her hair would look loose and free. Her eyes interested him—gray edging toward silver, and almond-shaped. They were eyes he’d like to photograph with the rest of her face in shadow. She might carry a bag of cosmetics, but it didn’t look as if she used any of them.

Not vain about her appearance, he decided. That would make things simpler if he decided to work with her. He didn’t have the patience to wait while a woman painted and groomed and fussed. This one wouldn’t. And she was assessing him even as he assessed her. Shade accepted that. A photographer, like any artist, looked for angles.

“Am I interrupting your work?”

“No, I was just taking a break. Sit down.”

They were both cautious. He’d come on impulse. She wasn’t certain how to handle him. Each decided to bide their time before they went beyond the polite, impersonal stage. Bryan remained behind her desk. Her turf, his move, she decided.

Shade didn’t sit immediately. Instead, he tucked his hands in his pockets and looked around her studio. It was wide, well lit from the ribbon of windows. There were baby spots and a blue backdrop still set up from an earlier session in one section. Reflectors and umbrellas stood in another, with a camera still on a tripod. He didn’t have to look closely to see that the equipment was first-class. But then, first-class equipment didn’t make a first-class photographer.

She liked the way he stood, not quite at ease, but ready, remote. If she had to choose now, she’d have photographed him in shadows, alone. But Bryan insisted on knowing the person before she made a portrait.

How old was he? she wondered. Thirty-three, thirty-five. He’d already been nominated for a Pulitzer when she’d still been in college. It didn’t occur to her to be intimidated.

“Nice place,” he commented before he dropped into the chair opposite the desk.

“Thanks.” She tilted her chair so that she could study him from another angle. “You don’t use a studio of your own, do you?”

“I work in the field.” He drew out a cigarette. “On the rare occasion I need a studio, I can borrow or rent one easily enough.”

Automatically she hunted for an ashtray under the chaos on her desk. “You make all your own prints?”

“That’s right.”

Bryan nodded. On the few occasions at Celebrity when she’d been forced to entrust her film to someone else, she hadn’t been satisfied. That had been one of the major reasons she’d decided to open her own business. “I love darkroom work.”

She smiled for the first time, causing him to narrow his eyes and focus on her face. What kind of power was that? he wondered. A curving of lips, easy and relaxed. It packed one hell of a punch.

Bryan sprang up at the knock on the door. “At last.”

Shade watched her cross the room. He hadn’t known she was so tall. Five-ten, he estimated, and most of it leg. Long, slender, bronzed leg. It wasn’t easy to ignore the smile, but it was next to impossible to ignore those legs.

Nor had he noticed her scent until she moved by him. Lazy sex. He couldn’t think of another way to describe it. It wasn’t floral, it wasn’t sophisticated. It was basic. Shade drew on his cigarette and watched her laugh with the delivery boy.

Photographers were known for their preconceptions; it was part of the trade. He’d expected her to be sleek and cool. That was what he’d nearly resigned himself to working with. Now it was a matter of rearranging his thinking. Did he want to work with a woman who smelled like twilight and looked like a beach bunny?

Turning away from her, Shade opened a folder at random. He recognized the subject—a box-office queen with two Oscars and three husbands under her belt. Bryan had dressed her in glitters and sparkles. Royal trappings for royalty. But she hadn’t shot the traditional picture.

The actress was sitting at a table jumbled with pots and tubes of lotions and creams, looking at her own reflection in a mirror and laughing. Not the poised, careful smile that didn’t make wrinkles, but a full, robust laugh that could nearly be heard. It was up to the viewer to speculate whether she laughed at her reflection or an image she’d created over the years.

“Like it?” Carrying the cardboard box, Bryan stopped beside him.

“Yeah. Did she?”

Too hungry for formalities, Bryan opened the lid and dug out the first piece. “She ordered a sixteen-by-twenty-four for her fiancé. Want a piece?”

Shade looked inside the box. “They miss putting anything on here?”

“Nope.” Bryan searched in a drawer of her desk for napkins and came up with a box of tissues. “I’m a firm believer in over-indulgence. So…” With the box opened on the desk between them, Bryan leaned back in her chair and propped up her feet. It was time, she decided, to get beyond the fencing stage. “You want to talk about the assignment?”

Shade took a piece of pizza and a handful of tissues. “Got a beer?”

“Soda—diet or regular.” Bryan took a huge, satisfying bite. “I don’t keep liquor in the studio. You end up having buzzed clients.”

“We’ll skip it for now.” They ate in silence a moment, still weighing each other. “I’ve been giving a lot of thought to doing this photo essay.”

“It’d be a change for you.” When he only lifted a brow, Bryan wadded a tissue and tossed it into the trash can. “Your stuff overseas—it hit hard. There was sensitivity and compassion, but for the most part, it was grim.”

“It was a grim time. Everything I shoot doesn’t have to be pretty.”

This time she lifted a brow. Obviously he didn’t think much of the path she’d taken in her career. “Everything I shoot doesn’t have to be raw. There’s room for fun in art.”

He acknowledged this with a shrug. “We’d see different things if we looked through the same lens.”

“That’s what makes each picture unique.” Bryan leaned forward and took another piece.

“I like working alone.”

She ate thoughtfully. If he was trying to annoy her, he was right on target. If it was just an overflow of his personality, it still wouldn’t make things any easier. Either way, she wanted the assignment, and he was part of it. “I prefer it that way myself,” she said slowly. “Sometimes there has to be compromise. You’ve heard of compromise, Shade. You give, I give. We meet somewhere close to the middle.”

She wasn’t as laid-back as she looked. Good. The last thing he needed was to go on the road with someone so mellow she threatened to mold. Three months, he thought again. Maybe. Once the ground rules were set. “I map out the route,” he began briskly. “We start here in L.A. in two weeks. Each of us is responsible for their own equipment. Once we’re on the road, each of us goes our own way. You shoot your pictures, I shoot mine. No questions.”

Bryan licked sauce from her finger. “Anyone ever question you, Colby?”

“It’s more to the point whether I answer.” It was said simply, as it was meant. “The publisher wants both views, so he’ll have them. We’ll be stopping off and on to rent a darkroom. I’ll look over your negatives.”

Bryan wadded more tissue. “No, you won’t.” Lazily, she crossed one ankle over the other. Her eyes had gone to slate, the only outward show of a steadily growing anger.

“I’m not interested in having my name attached to a series of pop-culture shots.”

To keep herself in control, Bryan continued to eat. There were things, so many clear, concise things, she’d like to say to him. Temper took a great deal of energy, she reminded herself. It usually accomplished nothing. “The first thing I’ll want written into the contract is that each of our pictures carries our own bylines. That way neither of us will be embarrassed by the other’s work. I’m not interested in having the public think I have no sense of humor. Want another piece?”

“No.” She wasn’t soft. The skin on the inside of her elbow might look soft as butter, but the lady wasn’t. It might annoy him to be so casually insulted, but he preferred it to spineless agreement. “We’ll be gone from June fifteenth until after Labor Day.” He watched her scoop up a third piece of pizza. “Since I’ve seen you eat, we’ll each keep track of our own expenses.”

“Fine. Now, in case you have any odd ideas, I don’t cook and I won’t pick up after you. I’ll drive my share, but I won’t drive with you if you’ve been drinking. When we rent a darkroom, we trade off as to who uses it first. From June fifteenth to after Labor Day, we’re partners. Fifty-fifty. If you have any problems with that, we’ll hash it out now, before we sign on the dotted line.”

He thought about it. She had a good voice, smooth, quiet, nearly soothing. They might handle the close quarters well enough—as long as she didn’t smile at him too often and he kept his mind off her legs. At the moment, he considered that the least of his problems. The assignment came first, and what he wanted for it, and from it.

“Do you have a lover?”

Bryan managed not to choke on her pizza. “If that’s an offer,” she began smoothly, “I’ll have to decline. Rude, brooding men just aren’t my type.”

Inwardly he acknowledged another hit; outwardly his face remained expressionless. “We’re going to be living in each other’s pockets for three months.” She’d challenged him, whether she realized it or not. Whether he realized it or not, Shade had accepted. He leaned closer. “I don’t want to hassle with a jealous lover chasing along after us or constantly calling while I’m trying to work.”

Just who did he think she was? Some bimbo who couldn’t handle her personal life? She made herself pause a moment. Perhaps he’d had some uncomfortable experiences in his relationships. His problem, Bryan decided.

“I’ll worry about my lovers, Shade.” Bryan bit into her crust with a vengeance. “You worry about yours.” She wiped her fingers on the last of the tissue and smiled. “Sorry to break up the party, but I’ve got to get back to work.”

He rose, letting his gaze skim up her legs before he met her eyes. He was going to take the assignment. And he’d have three months to figure out just how he felt about Bryan Mitchell. “I’ll be in touch.”

“Do that.”

Bryan waited until he’d crossed the room and shut the studio door behind him. With uncommon energy, and a speed she usually reserved for work, she jumped up and tossed the empty cardboard box at the door.

It promised to be a long three months.

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