Authors: Laney Castro
BETWEEN HEATS (Downtown Aquatics #1)
knew he was in deep water the moment he saw her.
aspiring model Madison Thomas wants is for her first big catalogue campaign to
go well. What she doesn't count on is an all-American swimming champ and
co-model trying to get her fired on her first day. But Madison doesn't back
down from a challenge and she won't stop until she gets what she wants.
Aaron Harding has a tough time
pretending that he's not attracted to the redheaded model. When she makes her
move, he's all too willing to match her stroke for stroke.
Their attraction is undeniable. But Madison
has her own game plan to get to the top, and getting entangled with Aaron is
one complication she doesn't need.
For Jake and Jen and Nick and Nat
"Step closer, please," the photographer instructed
her. "Now, hand on shoulder, that's it… uh, wait,
that pose. I think we need to adjust the lights."
Madison Thomas gave her partner an embarrassed laugh. She was
clad only in bikini bottoms and
her breasts were covered by
. Definitely not the kind of clothes she wished she
wearing while standing just inches away from an Olympic
swimmer with one of the hottest bodies she had seen. She wasn't going to let
this faze her. "These things take forever to start," she said
But the guy didn't even blink at her. His fingers around her
waist were ice-cold, and so was his expression. He stared straight ahead. The
only evidence that he had heard her at all was when he replied a blunt,
Madison sighed. This was her biggest modeling contract
yet—a catalog campaign for Stroke swimwear—but she never expected
it to be
excruciating. She and a
few other models were appearing with the country's latest Olympic favorite,
Aaron Harding, but as far as she was concerned,
he was nowhere near the boy-next-door image that he projected. She was no
sports fan, but she had seen photos of him with his wide smile and eyes that
crinkled when he did. But today he was curt and standoffish. He barely looked
at her, but when he did he would turn away as if he had seen something
revolting. At first she thought it was just nerves, but that was until she had
seen him joking with the other models during their shoots. Madison had gone
through just one set-up with him and already it had been fraught with retakes
and miscues, so unlike the easy chemistry he had had with the others earlier.
It was definitely messing up her mojo. She had tried every approach there
was—cool and professional, friendly, even flirty—but the guy was
definitely not a fan.
Just her luck that she'd ended up with
Dr. Jekyll and Merman Hyde.
She should have known the day wasn't going to go well. Call time
was at 8 AM, which really meant she had to be there by 7. It wasn't just about
making a good impression; it was more about braving the morning rush to get to
the rented studio in Burbank without breaking a sweat. She had counted on
Elliott to give her a ride while her clunker of a car was in the shop, but when
she woke up to a pretty direct
see you at the shoot
instead of the expected
Pick you up at six-thirty, Red
she had to hightail it out of her apartment. She had to ask Siri twice for
She made it just before the clients arrived. But by the time
she was sitting in the dressing room making nice with the stylist and other
models, her stomach's embarrassingly loud grumble reminded her that she had
forgotten to eat breakfast. Madison was grateful that her shots with Harding
were scheduled for later that morning, so she still managed to call a sleepy
Elliott Rodriguez and demand an egg white omelette and a wheatgrass and fruit
"But they should have some food there," her booker
"I can't munch on toast, I'll show in my bikini!"
Madison knew she was overreacting but she knew her booker, of all people, would
understand. The agency was filled with models on weird diets and preparing for
a shoot was good enough reason for the special request. Besides, he was also a
good friend of hers, giving her a little more license to demand. "Please,
Elliott?" she had wheedled.
Of course, he didn't show up for hours, and not until
Madison had gone diving into her bag
and settled for a
granola bar. She sent a
mental thank you to Trader Joe's, but that didn’t keep her from ripping into
Elliot when he arrived.
And now this.
It was a shame that
Aaron Harding could be so gorgeous and look ramrod-stiff before the camera. He
was tall and lithe, with long arms that looked powerful and graceful instead of
spindly. His jaw was his most prominent feature,
and angled like he meant business (some people would say his smile was the best
thing about him but Madison was no judge of
but it was his eyes that merited a second look. They were a clear gray behind a
coat of thick lashes that were criminal on a man with his bulk. If his swimming
record brought in the sports fans, then it was his eyes that gave him the
fangirls. Only Madison didn't understand why it was like he was posing for a
in every frame they were in. She was just grateful
for the break and hoped a little encouragement would ease the swimmer's nerves.
"Is this your first product endorsement?" she forged
on, adding a small smile.
Again, Aaron didn't reply right away. "Yes," he
finally said, not even bothering to look at her when he spoke.
It was like digging for water in the Sahara.
"Okay, we're back on track!" the photographer said,
and Madison heard a few test shots being snapped. "Shall we start again?
Madison, a little closer to Aaron,
. Hand on hip
and then look here—"
No, this was not how she had imagined her first major campaign
to go. She needed this to be
dammit. She saw Aaron's jaw clench and unclench, which set her on edge. She
gritted her teeth and tried to smile sensually as she had been instructed, but
it wasn't working.
It was Aaron who broke away first. "I'm really sorry
everyone, but can we take a break?"
The photographer seemed relieved. "Okay, fifteen minutes,
everyone. Someone, don't forget to mark their spots."
She saw Aaron stalk off to his dressing room. With a sigh,
Madison headed to the one she shared with the two other models. Anna Pavlenko
was about a year or so older than her, and was also from her agency. Lakeisha
Johnson, the other girl, was from a different agency but Madison found the
younger girl pleasant enough. Unfortunately, they were still chattering about
how nice and pleasant Aaron Harding had been and Madison wanted to roll her
he whole nice-guy thing is just an
wanted to shout.
He's nothing but a rude ass
’s going to
jeopardize my career.
Now there was no way Stroke would want her back. But
she bit the words back. Instead, she threw a robe over her shoulders and sat
down, only occasionally chiming in their conversation as she waited for her
shoot to resume.
Madison was cleaning her bag for misplaced energy bars when one
of the production assistants came in, followed by Elliott with a wheatgrass
"There you are!" Madison sighed in relief,
stopped when she noted the worried expression on her
booker's face. "What's wrong?"
"Uh, excuse me, may we have a private word with Miss
Thomas?" the production assistant asked.
The other models exchanged worried glances as they left but all
Madison could do was shrug in confusion. Only once the door was closed and the
production assistant had relayed the message that Madison let loose her shock.
She was going to kill Merman Hyde.
It was the boner that nearly broke him in two. He knew what
he was getting into—knew the redhead was going to be there—but
nobody warned him he'd be posing with temptation on two legs, and with only the
skimpiest of clothes between them. He didn’t bother closing the door to his
dressing room. Being a swimmer had made Aaron quite comfortable with his skin;
there was no place to hide when you've only got swim trunks on and millions of
people were watching the
on your forearms
in high-definition. But add a luscious creature wearing only bikini bottoms to
the mix, and he was close to diving into the nearest pool for a cold awakening.
Aaron had no delusions about being a model. All he wanted to do
was swim and train. His ascent was slow and steady, but after an impressive
showing at Summer Nationals, Pan
, and his
Olympic debut, companies had come calling. Didn’t matter that he only finished
fourth in the 100-m freestyle finals and his only medal came from the 4x100-m
medley relay. Stroke still courted him with an endorsement deal that was too
good to refuse and here he was, a fish out of the water amidst the lights and
gorgeous models. Sports photographers and ESPN, he could manage. This was
entirely different. It was like being an awkward teenager all over again.
"Focus, Harding," he berated himself, taking three
deep breaths and shaking his arms like he did before he stepped on any starting
He glanced down.
Nope, not going to work.
"Aaron, is there anything wrong?" Stroke's marketing
manager Eliza Caldwell asked. She was flanked by one of the account managers
from the advertising agency and a representative from the talent agency who
handled his endorsements. All three of them showed mirror images of concern.
He quickly grabbed a robe to wear. The table was stacked with
nearly everything he could need and a nearby rack held robes and towels, as
well as the suits he was to wear for the catalog. "Hi, Eliza," he
greeted. "Sorry, I just need a couple of minutes to uh, get some things
out of my system."
Like one redhead with a tight body.
Seriously, what was wrong with him? He was better than this.
"If there's anything wrong, just let us know," his
talent rep, Mike Tang, said sympathetically. "We wouldn't want you to be
anything less than comfortable with this shoot."
Aaron gave a barking laugh.
If they only
"It takes some getting used to," he admitted. "I'm
really sorry about the delay but I'm glad you guys are being patient with
"Anything for you!" Eliza assured him. "Is it
the poses? The suit? The model?" Aaron must have winced or something,
because she was quick to catch the change in his expression. "Is it
Madison? Oh, dear, we thought she was a great fit for you and we certainly
liked the work she's done so far with her solo catalog shoots but—"
"We mean, if you feel uncomfortable—" the woman
from the advertising agency hedged.
Aaron shook his head. "No, it's fine, we can work through
this." He hated disappointing people. It was probably one of the reasons
why he had come so far in his swimming career. He hated disappointing his
father, then his coach, and then later, the American public. Fourth place still
ranked. Maybe disappointing a client didn't rate as highly with other people,
but for Aaron it was the same thing. When he went out and did something, he
wanted it to be the best job he could do. Now he regretted thinking that
modeling was something he could pick up in one afternoon.
"Of course," Agency noted. "But with the
schedule, it would be good if we can iron things out as soon as possible."
fine," he said, trying to relax his jaw so it didn't sound as if he were
spitting the words out through gritted teeth, even if it felt that way. "I
can head back now." And heaven help the art director who was going to have
to Photoshop his boner out of the way.
"If it will make you feel comfortable, perhaps we can just
try one more frame with Madison Thomas and then finish the rest of the shoot
with Anna," Eliza suggested. "You seemed much more at ease with the
blonde. Does that sound good to you?"