We ride to the studio in silence. I watch the scenery pass, feeling the heaviness of the silence crushing me.

It must bother him too because eventually he says, “I’m sorry.”

I continue to stare out the window. “How’s your knee?” I ask, not only to change the subject, but also because I’ve been worried about it.

He sighs. “It’s fine.”

I don’t believe him for a second.Carson greets us when we get to the studio. My first impression of AJ’s agent is he seems genuine and seems to have AJ’s best interests at heart. He shakes my hand, giving it an extra reassuring squeeze as if he knows just how awkward all of this is for me.

“This big lump might be a prodigy on the field but he ain’t the prettiest thing to look at,” Carson says teasingly as he pats AJ on the arm. He points at me. “You’re the only thing saving these photos. Beauty and the Beast.”

AJ rolls his eyes and laughs. They must joke like this all the time because AJ gives it right back and neither seem to take it personally. Their banter cuts down on the tension and I feel myself start to relax. I wonder if there’s anyone AJ doesn’t get along with. He has such a good natured and natural rapport with everyone he meets.

I keep glancing over at the photographer who sets up his equipment. He has several assistants running around, checking every little thing to make sure it’s perfect. It feels intimidating, like a modeling shoot with all the lighting and cameras at different angles. My stomach is in knots. What am I doing? This is all so crazy.

“All right,” the photographer says loudly, startling me a bit. “Are we ready to start?”

I choke on my breath. I’ve always hated being in the spotlight, literally and figuratively. I hate getting my picture taken, the stiff posing, the fake smiles. I’m livid that I even allowed myself to get wrapped up in all of this in the first place. I have got to start making smarter choices for myself.

AJ takes my shoulders, causing my entire body to stiffen. He leads me toward the photographer who gives us directions.

“Relax, just be yourselves. Show me the love,” he says. His enthusiasm is infuriating and makes me feel the opposite of relaxed and loving.

I’m frozen at first, not sure what to do. Then AJ touches the small of my back. It’s a simple touch but it makes me feel warm all over. He leans into me, my breathing quickens as his fingers trail down the skin of my arms, raising goosebumps.

“That’s it, that’s perfect,” the photographer says.

As AJ’s lips just barely graze the side of my neck, I forget there are six people in the room with us. Right now, it’s just us. He barely touches me, but it feels so profound, so intentional. His large body against mine makes me feel safe, like none of the chaos and scandal can reach us. I lean my head back to look up at him, barely registering the rapid clicking of pictures being taken.

The photographer makes excited sounds as AJ leans in to kiss me. AJ’s eyes sparkle in the light like bright jewels as he looks deep into mine. There’s just the hint of a smile on the corner of his lips. He looks at me like he knows all my secrets, like he can see through all the smoke and bluster, like he can see through the walls I’ve tried to build around my feelings.

The logical part of my brain thinks it’s best to pull away, but I’m not thinking with my brain at the moment. Only my body is in control of my actions right now. The crazy thing about being such a guarded person is that once those walls come down just a bit, it is so easy for a torrent of feeling to sweep me away.

Before I know it, the photographer announces that he has the perfect shots and that the shoot is over. I blink as if coming out of a deep sleep. How long were we posing like that? It seems like time stood still.

We’re called over to a monitor to review some of the shots taken, and oh my God, they’re beautiful. I wasn’t sure how they would turn out with me working an eight-hour shift right before, but they are amazing. The ring stands out on my finger as we hold each other. The way we look at each other is … unexpected. I’m surprised by the way I’m looking at him, how real it looks, how in love we look.

“You can’t tell me those don’t look believable,” Carson says triumphantly. “That looks like one hell of a happy couple to me.

“I need to go,” I say, feeling like the walls are closing in around me once more.

Tags: Penny Wylder Romance
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