Eli

Chapter 1

Roman

 

Starting over sucked. Starting over because of a man was even worse. Moving clear across country to get away from the rumors and financial ruin made it almost unbearable. Having to hide the anger and the frustration was the hardest part. And I wasn’t even sure I was doing a very good job of it.

Otherwise, I would have had the damned job by that point.

“I think it’s going to be interesting.” That translated to boring and monotonous in my head. I was hoping the owner of Leashes and Lace didn’t hear it, though. Catalog photos, fuck. It wouldn’t matter if they were guys in lingerie. It was still boring.

Preston was nodding, but the way he was analyzing me put me on edge. I needed the damned job, but he wasn’t giving me enough to work with to know if I was saying the right shit or not. Any monkey could have taken the photos.

Why it was such a process to get hired, I wasn’t sure. My résumé should have spoken for itself without the need for all the hoops. Phone conversations, in-person interviews, and a portfolio review were ridiculous. It was twinks in panties, not priceless artwork. “It’s unique, and the way you do things will be a bit of a challenge. I’m looking forward to it.”

That sounded sincere, right?

Preston finally started speaking again. “I know we do things a little differently, but we’ve found that giving our customers a variety of shots and experiences with the lingerie helps it sell better. They can put themselves in the situations and pieces easier.”

I got another one of his long, studious stares before he continued. “Each of our models prefers different setups and styles, so we have several photographers on retainer who come in at various times.”

Then he shrugged as if he realized they did things very differently, but it looked like he didn’t really care that he was making things harder than they had to be. “We post everything from more typical photos that you’re probably thinking of, to actual bathroom mirror selfies. Some of our models prefer to do most of their work on video blogs where they show off the clothing and chat with the customers. It’s not conventional, but our brand has been built around taking tradition and turning it on its head.”

That was the one part I could agree with—and the only reason I’d applied for the position at all.

When my ex had blasted our personal life, and his own brand of crazy, all over the internet, getting work had become almost impossible. I’d built a business around society events, as well as the portrait and still-life work that I preferred.

A bowl of fruit didn’t argue or tell you that it wasn’t her good side.

It hadn’t been glamorous or flashy, but I’d made a pretty good living at it. I hadn’t been required to work with high-maintenance models or other drama queens to make ends meet, and I’d been content. I was a damned good photographer.

But my ex had fucked that all up when, in a slightly drunken drama queen moment, he’d decided to put our entire life out there in a rambling video that had put our sex life front and center on the more outrageous news outlets. I’d gone from being booked months in advance to nothing in just over twenty-four hours.

When I’d gotten angry, he’d lost it and cleared out our savings account before disappearing. I’d come to find out that he’d thought it would be a great way to get into acting. Take a bit of internet fame, mix with someone hot and dramatic, and he should have found instant success.

Instead, he’d just come off as unstable and creepy, and no one legitimate besides a random mention on TMZ touched it. It seemed like no one could decide if it was a weird BDSM relationship, or if he was some kind of battered boyfriend, and they weren’t willing to put their reputations on the line to find out.

Well, he was crazy, and we had been in a weird BDSM relationship, but he wasn’t battered. He was just a brat who liked drama and spankings. I was the idiot who hadn’t been able to see past the sexy exterior to understand that there wasn’t anything besides drama underneath it.

No more brats.

No more drama queens looking for attention and spankings.

No more giving anyone else access to my money.

“Sometimes changing up what’s expected can be a good business plan. People see things very differently, so giving them more opportunities to see the same piece is probably helpful.” What else? What else? “And when they get to know the models and their temperaments, it makes the buying experience more personal.”

Preston finally seemed to thaw because he cracked a smile. “And we have a variety of temperaments. But our customers love them. We’re actually getting ready to expand our IT department because the site has been so busy lately.”

“Capturing who the models really are should be an interesting challenge.” God save me, I was going to be working with more crazy drama queens.

Preston actually laughed. “Some are more vibrant than others, but they all bring something unique to the company. Most of them have been with us since the very beginning in one role or another. A few started behind the scenes before moving in front of the camera, and others are more comfortable in the privacy of their own home and hardly ever do the more professional-style shoots.”

So he had everything from attention whores to shut-ins who were afraid of what they wanted?

Great.

“It won’t be as bad as you’re imagining.” His smile widened. “Most of our photographers come back later and say they were expecting to deal with absolute insanity but have found the guys to be great.”

Some people just had higher tolerances for crazy.

Lately, I had none.

“I’m sure they’re going to be great to work with.” And for the money they were paying, combined with the flexible hours, I wasn’t going to argue.

His smile turned into more of a smirk. He knew he was downplaying the drama. “Some more than others, but they all have rabid followings on the site and have helped take the company to the next level, so I appreciate even my more interesting models.”

I just had to keep reminding myself that it wasn’t forever. A year, tops, and I would have everything planned out. I could go back to photographing things I actually enjoyed. But before I could even start thinking about rebuilding my career, I needed to land the job.

From everything that Preston was saying, I thought he was going to offer it, but I wasn’t sure. Our previous conversations had led me to think he would be giving me the job right away, but when I’d walked into his office, he’d just started talking. He’d said he wanted to get to know me more before he made his decision.

I hadn’t really known what to expect when I’d walked up to the building. I’d looked up the site online and had done some basic research on the company, but I was starting to think I should have gone through the blogs and videos on the site in more detail. When I’d first started exploring the site, after I’d seen the ad for a new photographer online, I’d mistakenly thought they were looking for real photographers to give the site a more traditional look.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

One year…that was all I had to put up with. One year to build up new clients and to figure out how everything would look. One year to make sure I had a savings account no one could touch. One year of crazy, and I would be set.

“How about I show you around?” Preston still hadn’t said that I had the job outright. However, he wouldn’t waste his time showing me around if I was off the list completely. So I held on to that bit of hope.

“I’d like that.” Standing, I followed Preston to the door. His office looked professional and comfortable, less banker and more relaxing therapist’s office, but still like it was a real company and not a new internet startup. “You have a great building.”

It looked almost like a warehouse from the outside and was fairly unimpressive. But as I’d walked in, that was where it’d started to shine. The lobby looked like it could have belonged in any bank, but when he’d walked me through the back offices, that was where the cold comparison stopped.

Oversized pictures of models and lingerie were mixed in with photos of the building and the local scenery. There were also very candid shots mixed in that looked like company parties or social events because the people in them were all standing around talking.

As I’d browsed the site, I’d been surprised at the different body types and men who were shown. Most were clearly fit, but there was everything from tall, broad, butch guys in lingerie to twinks in panties. And that was just the clothing side of the site.

Preston had been very upfront with the fact that it would only be the lingerie models that were photographed in the studio. He’d said very early in the conversation that the models for the fetish wear were generally in relationships where their partners took the photos. He’d said that it made for more intimate shots and a more accurate representation of the lifestyle.

I hadn’t cared either way, but it had let me narrow down my research on the site, so I’d appreciated the information. I couldn’t help but think that he’d probably run into some weird issues with new photographers if he had to spell it out that clearly.

Which was hypocritical, from my way of looking at it. Taking pictures of guys in panties was fine, but they crossed the line when it was some guy with a plug shaped like a tail up his ass? It was all photography.

Judgmental morons.

As he led me through the cubicles and offices, I was surprised at how busy it was. “Looks like you have a lot going on.”

Preston looked around. “This is actually quiet for us. Most of the marketing, buyers, and the back-office staff work on this floor.” He pointed over to a bank of cubicles that were toward the far wall but empty. “Those are full a lot of the time with the models. Most of them have individual blogs on the site that they update from here, or even second jobs. We have one guy who writes several different blogs on a variety of topics and most of it he does here.”

That had to be a circus.

Luckily, all I would have to do would be take the pictures on site, and then I could edit them from anywhere before I sent them back. Working with all the chaos and drama would be a nightmare.

Thinking up a positive response was hard. “It’s great that you’re so flexible.”

Preston shrugged, not willing to accept the praise. “We’re more like a family here, so it just makes sense. And we have a lot of room, so not making use of it to help them out would be petty.”

As we walked through the offices toward the stairs, he introduced me to people and waved at others who were on the phone or engaged in conversations. There was none of the usual tension that most people had when they were talking to the boss. It was casual and easy. I wanted to poke one and make sure they weren’t pod people or the kinky version of Stepford Wives.

I behaved myself, though.

By the time we’d walked up to the second floor, I’d met a variety of people, and most were tolerable. Some would probably get on my nerves if I had to work with them much, but they were in departments I wouldn’t see very often. So I wasn’t worried.

No, my worries were all at the top of the stairs.

I could hear the chaos before we even reached the second floor. Models were everywhere. Naked ones bunched in one corner and trying on clothing, lingerie-clad men sitting on couches and talking, and even a handful of women who seemed to be directing traffic or trying to control the chaos.

I could not work under those circumstances.

Preston must have seen something on my face because he chuckled. “It’s usually only about half this many people, sometimes less than that. We got a shipment in this morning of a line that we’re thinking about adding to the site, so the guys are picking things they want to try out.”

“To try out?” I wasn’t sure I understood what he was saying.

Preston nodded. “Everything that’s on the site has been tested by at least one of the guys. If they come back and love it, then we’ll work with the manufacturer, but if they come back and say that it’s awkward or uncomfortable or impractical, then we’ll take another look before we commit to the line.”

I wasn’t sure if all companies worked that way, but I had to think it was another one of their turn tradition on its ear ideas. “I guess that makes sense.”

Not really, but it was his company, not mine, so I wasn’t going to argue.

Watching the flow of people, some stood out more than others. The nearly naked guy in pink panties who was storming up to Preston was one of them. He was hot, but he screamed trouble. I had to fight the urge to back up and walk away. I could spot a crazy drama queen a mile away and one was closing in fast.

“Preston! They’re orange!” He said it like he was holding a bug instead of a pair of oddly colored panties.

Preston sighed. “We knew that.”

“No, we were told it was a fall line, and that rep said they were pumpkin spice colored.” He frowned like Preston was an idiot and waved the clearly offensive fabric around. “This is like a kid’s plastic pumpkin kind of orange. I’m not wearing it, and I can’t deal with any one of them wearing it either.” The level of drama radiating off him was staggering and made my skin crawl.

Preston chuckled and nodded. “I’ll talk to Merrick and see what he says. You’re right; even I can see it’s a hideous color.”

“Thank god.” The thin, almost twink drama queen sighed. “I was afraid it was going to be like the green panties all over again.”

Fighting back a laugh, Preston shook his head. “I promised not to argue with the Queen of the Panties again…at least not about color.”

The queen popped a hip out and struck a catwalk-style pose. “Damn straight. And I still have the crown.”

What the hell had I gotten myself into?

Preston finally broke down and laughed, and the nearly naked man with the orange panties smirked. They both remembered I was standing there at the same time. Preston tried to recover first, but the other guy beat him to it. Sticking out a hand, he smiled at me.

“Eli.” His smile turned into an I’m-so-cute grin that set my teeth on edge. “I’d invite you to meet the rest of the family, but they’re a bit distracted at the moment.”

I had to say, it was a first for me, but I didn’t want to be rude, so I ignored his lack of clothing. “Hello. I’m Roman Landry. It’s nice to meet you.”

Preston thankfully interrupted before I had to figure out something else to say. “Eli is one of the models you’ll be working with on a regular basis. His previous photographer took another job, and I want to get a new look for him on the site.”

“I am so much more interesting than lions.” Eli slouched and pouted, making Preston smile.

How bad was the job if the man went from photographing Eli to tracking lions?

“Yes, I would have to agree, but we knew when we hired him that it would only be for a short time because he was a wildlife photographer.” Preston gave Eli a look that made it clear they’d already had that discussion.

“But he was perfect.” Eli’s pout seemed more genuine that time. Had they dated?

“He said he’d be back next year after his next trip to India.” Preston offered the words to Eli like they were a bribe for a small child.

Fuck.

“But that’s after Africa and that island with the turtles.” Eli waved his hand like the real name didn’t matter.

“Eli.” Preston was starting to sound like a pissed-off parent. “Why don’t you get to know Roman? I’m sure the pictures are going to look amazing.”

Eli turned that pretty—that sulking pout to me. “I’m not sure you’re going to be as much fun as Greg was.” Preston mumbled a low “Eli” under his breath, but Eli and I both ignored it. “Greg would spank me when it would make the panties look even hotter.”

Twisting his body a little to flash his ass, Eli gave me a long look, peeking through his lashes seductively. “Will you spank me so these panties look right?”

Fuck.

 

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