Hex was on the prowl.
The chill had shot up his spine earlier, gotten him out of bed and onto the mostly deserted streets of New Orleans at two AM, searching for the something – or someone – who called to him.
At times, being a slave to his desires was exhausting, at others, exhilarating. Tonight, it was a combination of both as he stood in front of the old house, just waiting.
The vines withered, shrubbery was overgrown in spots and bare in others, a testament to what the combination of nearly two years of neglect and a force of nature could do to what was once a beautiful Victorian home.
Since Hurricane Katrina, the paranormal activity in the city and her outlying regions was off the charts. And the paranormal was Hex’s bread and butter – as a member of the Agency for Covert Rare Operatives, he investigated hauntings and captured images of ghosts on film in a way very few before him had the ability to do.
He’d seen some pretty good fakes of ghost images, had exposed his share of the hoaxes and made a name for himself with his black and white stills of haunted houses, with or without ghosts. His career as a photographer was his cover, since both ACRO and his work for the agency were secret.
He hadn’t been to his main office in upstate New York in months. ACRO set him up in a satellite office in one of the best hotel suites in the city, and most people thought he was here compiling his newest photography book.
He’d been doing that too, but this was more about releasing spirits who’d been displaced, who needed guidance to get to where they needed to be than getting images for the new book. Hex wasn’t the most powerful of mediums at ACRO, but he did attract a special breed – the loneliest of the ghosts, ones who desperately needed someone still living to help release them.
Alone was something Hex understood well. He never wanted for female company when his needs called and his travels took him far and wide enough that worries of long term entanglements weren’t an issue. Very few people understood his work enough, or at all, for him to begin to think he had the hope of a normal relationship – a kind of social worker for ghosts.
The only time he actually felt the pull to settle in with someone was when he was here, in New Orleans.
This city had always intrigued him, stirred his cock with the scent of heat, steam and perfume, sugar and sex that even the stench of destruction couldn’t overpower. The pull of the city’s inherent sexuality was something even nature couldn’t erase, and yes, he was getting restless.
There was a single light shining through a second floor window. As he watched, a shadow moved past the sheer curtains. Human, not ghostly.
Brenna St. James, the well-known supermodel, had called him earlier – the desperation in her voice clear even in the simple message she’d left for him on his cell phone. He hadn’t bothered to call her back, but he’d been summoned here to her house by something bigger than both of them.
Tonight, the moon would be full and he was more superstitious than most. As soon as the dusk had settled, the white orb called to him, made him want to take Brenna under it with a mournful howl that would shake his soul, which rattled him to the core, because as a rule, he never went anywhere during a full moon. He was too exposed, vulnerable.
His senses flared. A few clicks, flashes of light and he focused on the area of white mist to the right of the house. A ghost exiting the desolate house. Hex was once again in his element – the flood of emotions, both his own and the ghost’s, nearly overwhelming. Luckily, he had control over that.
The whir of his camera cut through the night, the clicks echoing through the desolate darkness.
# # #
The click of a camera had once been Brenna St. James’s drug of choice, the rush almost sexual, the high almost orgasmic. Now the sound brought dread to the pit of her stomach, because she knew what she’d see in the photos.
Still, she had to try.
Six cameras topped stork-like tripods, all aimed at her as she posed on the nineteen-twenty’s Victorian-style chaise, one of the few remaining pieces of furniture remaining in the nineteenth century Queen Anne. She’d sold everything else, and in a few days, an antiques dealer would come for the last of it.
Brenna smiled for a few shots, did the sexy pout thing for a few more, and then stuck out her tongue for a couple others.
Monthly ritual completed, she hurried to the two digital cameras. She’d have to sell the others when the film ran out, but until then, she wouldn’t waste a single frame.
She plugged one of the cameras into her laptop balancing on the end of the chaise and waited until the images appeared.
When they did, cold sweat broke out on her forehead. Nothing had changed. The chaise, the hand-carved stairway railing behind it, the hallway to the kitchen on the left — everything in the formal sitting room stood out in sharp definition. Everything except her. Her body and features were so blurred that she could have been any blonde blob.
Then again, she wasn’t so sure she wanted to see what the camera would reveal. Her waist-length hair, no longer pampered by designer products and cared for by top stylists, hung like a wiry horse’s tail. The dark circles under her eyes would probably never go away, and her skin had rebelled against the New Orleans humidity in the form of a dull, bumpy complexion. And she’d always been thin, but a combination of poor diet and irregular meals had taken even more weight off her – another couple of pounds and she’d meet the requirements for heroin-chic fashion.
Hands shaking, she plugged the second camera into the computer and came away with the same results.
“Dammit,” she whispered, and then, louder, “Dammit!” Sinking to her knees, she screamed at the top of her lungs and then buried her face in her hands.
She was in so much trouble. A model who couldn’t be captured on film was pretty screwed.
The sound of someone knocking on the door brought her head up. Knocking? At two in the morning?
Maybe one of her neighbors had heard her scream. Then again, the neighbors on either side couldn’t care less about the down-and-out supermodel who had inherited a house they believed had been ill-gained by her mother in the first place. They’d made it clear that they didn’t appreciate Brenna’s charlatan mom tricking Foster Duncan into marrying him for his money, and they’d made it equally clear that the very sight of Brenna in the front yard was a disgrace.
The nosy jerks wouldn’t have to worry about it for long. If she couldn’t scrounge up a house payment by next month, the bank would foreclose, and it didn’t look like she’d be coming into money anytime soon. She’d sold nearly everything of value and had already shut off the phone, cable and internet, and this week she’d have to make a choice between paying the electricity or water bill.
The knock at the door became more insistent. It was stupid to answer, she knew, but at this point, she had nothing left to lose. She didn’t even care that she wore nothing but a tank top and a pair of men’s Snoopy boxers that kept sliding down on her hips. No, she’d worn far less in swimsuit layouts.
She’d worn nothing at all in the men’s magazine spread. Of course, that particular job had been unique, had taken place after her images had gone blurry and no one else would hire her. The magazine had printed the fuzzy pictures – on the cover, even. But the real draw had been the article itself, supposedly written by the photographer and describing her body to the male readers. The result had been a record number of sales for the magazine, and now, months later, men still told her how they’d jerked off to the article.
Flattering, but creepy.
Never in all my years as a photographer have I been turned on by a nude model. But as I shoot Brenna St. James, I’m required to jot down my observations, and that, my friends, is torture. I have to imagine what her full breasts would feel like beneath my palms, how her dusky pink nipples would pucker under the caress off my lips. Her pussy is clean-shaven, probably very lickable, and although she has said that she doesn’t have sex with photographers, I think I’m going to test her ideas about that. Wish me luck.
She still cringed when she thought about that last paragraph. All the guys who admitted to getting off on her spread asked if she’d slept with the photographer, probably assuming that if she had, she’d sleep with them, too.
“Hey! You okay in there?” A low, powerful voice boomed through the door.
“Who is it?” she called out, grasping the door handle but not turning.
“I was out walking. Heard you scream. My name is Hex-”
She yanked open the door, welcoming the blast of sultry night air that stirred the staleness in the house. “Oh, my God. It’s you. It’s really you.” Her prayers had been answered in the form of a blond god of a man who captured ghosts on film and captured the imaginations of women everywhere. “Come in. Please.”
The shadows fell from his face as he entered the lit parlor, revealing the graceful, high cheekbones that would have made his face beautiful if not for the rugged line of his jaw and hard set of his mouth. Reportedly, he was a recluse, but as something of a celebrity in the Deep South thanks to his amazing photos, pictures of him could often be found accompanying newspaper interviews, and now she knew firsthand that he was even better looking in person.
“You’re Brenna, right?” He didn’t even look at her. Instead, he eyed the room while moving deeper inside, his booted feet clomping on the wood floor that squeaked with every step. And wow, he had a nice butt. Lean, but not flat, and perfectly shaped for a woman’s hands. The man was a walking Levi’s advertisement.
“That’s right. Brenna St. James.” She closed the door. “I don’t understand. I left a message, and when you didn’t call back, I assumed-”
“Like I said, I was taking a walk and heard you scream.”
“It’s called frustration,” she muttered. “You’re here to help me, right?”
He hooked his thumbs in his jeans pockets and stared up at the balcony on the second floor. Finally, just as she was about to ask what he was looking at, he shook his head and swung around. “You said the house wasn’t haunted. So I’m not sure why you need me to take photos.”
Those eyes. So clear and piercing, the color of fine whiskey and just as intense. And when his gaze traveled leisurely down her body, she felt the burning path like a shot of Jack Daniels down the throat.
“I don’t want pictures of the house. I want pictures of me,” she said hoarsely, and his eyes snapped back up, darker than they had been a moment ago.
“I don’t shoot people. Sorry.” Hex stalked toward the door, and panic rose up in her chest. “If everything is fine here, I’ll be going.”
She grabbed him by one arm, and oh, my. Sleek, powerful muscles rippled beneath her palm, sending a current of awareness shooting through her body. It had been a long time since she’d looked at a man with interest – not since Nicky dumped her over a year ago – but this Hex guy…the strength, the sensuality that radiated from him, well, it called out to parts of her she’d thought had gone as blurry as her images.
“I said, no.”
“Please. I’ll pay anything.” A lie of sorts, since she was down to her last hundred dollars, but once he took care of her problem, she’d find work and could pay him. And this time, she wouldn’t be so reckless with her money. She certainly wouldn’t trust a boyfriend or manager with account information and investments again.
“What do you want from me?” he asked, and boy, she could think of a lot of ways to answer him, ways that involved his slim fingers on her suddenly inflamed skin. “I take stills of buildings, not people. I’m sure you could find dozens of local photographers who would jump at the opportunity to take your picture. Why me?”
Reluctantly, she let her hand drop and wished she had coffee or wine to offer him, but she’d been living off ramen noodles and Popsicles for weeks.
“Because I’m being haunted.”
One tawny eyebrow shot up. “How do you know?”
“Can we sit down and talk about this?”
“I’m fine where I’m standing.”
Near the exit. Yeah, she picked right up on that one. Now if she could just convince him not to use it.
“My mom used to own this place. After Hurricane Katrina, I came to help her repair the damage. A month later, I went to Milan for a photo shoot, and none of my pictures turned out. It’s been that way ever since.”
His gaze narrowed, focused, and she got the impression he was taking his own mental pictures. When he finally spoke, the appreciation in his voice said the images had turned out just fine.
“And you think a ghost is responsible?”
“I don’t think. I know.” She wrapped her arms around herself, a nervous habit borne of a childhood where she’d often had to explain her mother’s gift to skeptics. They never believed her. “I grew up here, and my mom was a psychic, so I’ve been around the hocus pocus and supernatural all my life. I know ghosts exist, and I know a haunting when I see it. I’m haunted.”
“Have you been to a medium?”
A bitter laugh escaped her. Before Katrina, New Orleans had supported a thriving population of psychics, but it seemed like only the frauds had returned. Still, she’d tried them all in hopes that one might possess even a thread of talent.
“Several. It’s always the same. They can’t see him, but they go through the motions. Tell him to cross over and all that. Then I come home, take a picture, and nothing has changed. I need you to capture him on film. Then maybe we can talk to him. Figure out what he wants. Who he is.”
“And once that happens?”
“I can get out of this hellhole and move to New York or L.A. where I belong. So please, will you do it?”
He shoved his fingers through his hair, leaving it mussed and begging for her touch. “I told you, I don’t shoot people. I’ll contact some colleagues and see if they can help. Give it a couple of weeks-”
“I don’t have that long!” She threw herself in front of the door. “Please. I know I have a reputation for being difficult, but I’ll do anything you say. Anything you want. If you want me to stand on my head while you snap pictures, I’ll do it. I’ll do anything. Anything at all.”
His gaze dropped to her breasts, which hardened beneath his stare until she knew her nipples were pressing against the thin fabric, and one corner of his lush mouth twitched. “Somehow, I suspect that our ideas of what constitutes anything are very different.” His voice was a low, rough challenge.
Sensation washed over her skin, and heat swam beneath it, all from nothing more than Hex’s suggestive look. Desperation tore at her, hunger gnawed at her, and urgent, erotic need had begun to build at her center.
Unlike her mother, Brenna had never used sex to get what she wanted, even though she’d been shown the casting couch on several occasions. Sex had always been about pleasure, about the meeting of bodies and minds after she’d gotten to know a man.
What she was about to do went against her nature – and against everything she used to spout for the “Love First” teen magazine campaigns for which she’d been a spokesperson.
An image of Nicky in bed with her former best friend flashed in her brain, and she shrugged.
Love was overrated, anyway.
Before her pounding heart pumped some sense into her brain, she stepped away from Hex and peeled off her tank top, exposing her breasts to the steamy night and his glittering gaze. Encouraged by his response, she shifted slowly, subtly, to expose her best angle, and pushed down her boxers. His audible swallow echoed through the cavernous room as she took her time rolling her spine straight.
“Then again,” he murmured, “I could be wrong.”
“Anything,” she repeated, and a gust of wind shrieked through the house. Somewhere upstairs, a door slammed and she jumped.
“Your ghost isn’t happy.”
“That’s the first time he’s done anything like that. Made noise.”
He looked up at the ceiling. Your ghost doesn’t like it that I’m here.”
The rise and fall of Hex’s chest beneath his T-shirt grew irregular as he stood there, and for a humiliatingly long moment, she thought he’d refuse her. Then, in a blur of motion he moved, and she found herself pinned to the wall, her wrists shackled above her head by one of his hands, her flank being stroked by his other.
“I thought you don’t screw photographers,” he murmured into her ear, and she flushed from head to toe at the knowledge that he’d seen the men’s magazine spread.
“You can’t believe everything you read.” Though in this case, it was true. She had a strange aversion to dating men with cameras. Pictures revealed what a person looked like on the outside, but when a photographer looked at her through a lens, it felt like he was seeing her on the inside.
And inside, she wasn’t nearly as beautiful.
“I read that you’re lickable. Was that bullshit too?” He rocked his hips into her so the hard ridge of his erection rubbed her bare mound. “Because I’m thinking maybe I should find out.”
She went utterly wet between the legs at his words, her body firing up, preparing for him even as her mind shut down — not from fear or hesitation, but from the sudden, devastating knowledge that no matter how impersonal she would try to make this, Hex would turn it into something very good, and very personal.