"Wildlife photography?!? You've got to be kidding me. Why on earth would you want to do that? I can't believe you'd give up your career to take pictures of animals! You're a fashion photographer! You spend your days in a nice air-conditioned, well-lit studio taking pictures of hunks in their underwear!"
"Are you done yet?" asked Jaylee when her roommate stopped for breath.
Marion, red in the face and breathing hard, shook her head. "In their underwear!" she repeated. "Or on a beach someplace, taking pictures of hunks in swimsuits! Teeny little thongs! Oiled bodies! Bulging packages! And you get paid for it. Good money, too! Millions of people would kill for a chance at a job like that. You can't really be planning to throw it all away."
"Except that I am. It's not all as great as you think."
"Oh, come on!" Marion picked up a stack of magazines and catalogs from their coffee table and waved them in Jaylee's face. The pages flapped, fanning her with a breeze that smelled of cologne samples.
Images fluttered past. Male models. Posing to display chiseled abs, sculpted chests, rock-hard buttocks. Strong jaws. Brooding expressions. Smoky come-hither bedroom eyes. Lots of skin on display. Bronze skin. Mocha skin. Dark chocolate skin. All of it smooth, hairless, gleaming.
And, yes... packages. Bulging packages.
"Look at them," Marion said. "I know women who go out to clubs and fork over a cover charge and a two-drink minimum for the privilege of stuffing more money down the pants of guys who don't look half this good. And you not only get to take pictures, but you get paid to do it! And the perks..."
Marion gave her a lewd grin. "Oh, come on... you can tell me. Nearly-naked man, exotic location, hot babe like you..."
"You make it sound like it's just me and the model. There's at least half a dozen people around whenever I do a shoot. Lighting crews, make-up artists, wardrobe –"
"And I'm not such a hot babe."
"Oh, sure, right." Marion rolled her eyes and addressed an unseen audience. "She stands there telling me that, with those big eyes, and all that dark hair, those gorgeous tits, that ass... not to mention a mouth that belongs in the dictionary illustration for 'fellatio.' Lips to die for, and that little beauty mark –"
"You're starting to make me nervous. Besides, it's not like I'd get anywhere. Most of them are gay, anyway."
This derailed Marion only slightly. "So? You can still dream! That's what a vibrator is for. How likely is it that I'm ever going to seduce Tom Cruise? Do I let that stop me from using my imagination?"
Jaylee laughed despite her exasperation. "But, see, Mare, here's the thing. Tom Cruise turns you on."
"What are you telling me?" Marion waved the magazines again. "And these guys do nothing for you? They don't rev your engine? Maybe I'm the one who should be getting nervous, then."
"It isn't like that. These guys..." She took a catalog, one that somehow thought it could sell men's clothes by showing men hardly wearing them. "They don't do much for me. They're all alike. Pretty boys. Gym whores. They're not... they're not real men."
Marion leaned over her shoulder and put her fingertip directly on a fire-engine red mesh pouch with prominent contents. "You can't tell me that's not real."
"That isn't what I mean. I keep telling you."
"And I keep not understanding."
"I'm tired of looking through my viewfinder at nothing but waxed, hairless Boy Wonders who look like they've got a bag of golf balls down their shorts. What ever happened to guys with chest hair? I love sinking my fingers into a thick mat of chest hair."
"Eew," Marion said, nose wrinkling. "Next, you'll be telling me you like hairy backs."
"I might not go that far," Jaylee admitted. "But I can't see myself with a guy who shaves his underarms and trims his pubic hair down to a wisp!"
"Hey, fair's fair. Women have been doing that for centuries. You've had bikini waxes; I know you have."
"That's different. Haven't you ever wanted a wild man, Mare?"
Jaylee sighed. "The first guy I slept with, my senior year of high school, he was a wild man. No matter what time of day it was, he had this scruff, this five-o'clock shadow. And chest hair, and that line of hair going down the belly... and this enormous stiff cock sticking up out of a dense curly bush of pubes."
"I'm with you on the enormous stiff cock part," Marion said. "But the rest... I shudder to think what the shower drain must have looked like. Probably a wad of hair big as a drowned mouse. Blech. Did he have a hairy ass, too?"
"Yeah," Jaylee said, her eyes nearly glazing over with nostalgia. "And muscular, hairy legs, too... from the waist down, he was almost like one of those goat-guys from Greek mythology. Satyrs."
Marion's nose was wrinkled more than ever, so that her entire face was scrunched up in a kind of dubious horror. "I never knew you went for that. All these years, and I thought you were normal."
"It's normal! Quit eyeballing me like I just told you I was into guys who wanted to be diapered, or peed on, or something."
"What about spanked?" Before Jaylee could answer, Marion held up her hands in a time-out signal. "Forget it... I just had a vision of you paddling some guy's hairy ass, and I really don't want to go there."
"Why are we even talking about this?" Jaylee tossed the catalog aside. "I was telling you about my new job."
"One incomprehensible revelation leads to another. And now that I know what turns you on, I'm kind of worried about you going out and taking pictures of gorillas."
"Gee, thanks. Because you know it just must be a short step from liking some chest hair to bestiality."
"Isn't it?" Marion grinned.
"So sue me if I'm one of those women who has a deep-down primal urge to be ravished by a big, powerful barbarian. Maybe I was captured by Vikings in a past life."
"Or cavemen. You want they should club you on the head and drag you around by the hair? Or, hey, here's a thought... what about that guy down at the pizza place, the one who wears the bear costume and plays the accordion? Or we could go to Disneyland, and I'll cover for you while you drag B'rer Fox into the briar patch."
"Enough already!" Jaylee cried. "Give me a break, huh? How many times did you make me go see The Last Samurai? Did I say a word?"
"Right. Okay. So, tell me about the new job. I still can't believe it, but tell me anyway. I thought you hated outdoorsy stuff. Somehow, it's hard to see you crouching in a duck blind, waiting for a moose to walk by."
Ten days later, Jaylee was on her way to do almost exactly that very thing. Not moose, but deer... except that she was really hoping to get some good shots of predators. That was where the money was.
Lynxes sold better than rabbits. Hawks sold better than swans. Wolves sold better than elk. Part of it was the challenge – predators, being quick and sly, were harder to capture on film than their more placid prey. Part of it was the risk.
But the main thing was the coolness factor. Even kindergartners knew it. Ask a group of kids to name their favorite dinosaur, most of them would instantly say T-Rex. Ask people going to the circus what they most hoped to see, and it'd be the tigers. At the zoo, crowds gathered more around the big cats than the zebras. Audiences were always more impressed when a magician disappeared a panther, rather than a sheep.
Her camera bag was in the passenger seat, strapped in with the seat belt. The last thing she wanted was some sudden stop to tumble it into the footwell. Her cell phone sat in its recharging holster, plugged in, and for once, quiet. No panicked calls from magazine editors to drop everything and rush over to re-shoot some guy's package. The back seat was taken up with her suitcases and a cooler. Classic rock throbbed from the speakers.
She had the windows down and the sunroof open to take full advantage of the clean green smell of the forest as she followed the winding road. Every now and then, the trees opened up on stunning meadows and majestic rock-lined river valleys.
Maybe Marion was right to be worried. Her new job didn't pay as well, and was a lot chancier. She couldn't do all of her shoots in zoos and other controlled environments. Wild animals weren't going to pose for the camera. She could well walk away from this assignment empty-handed. She could well get fired.
But she had enough in savings to keep up on her half of the rent, groceries, and bills for a long time. And once she'd gotten a few photo credits in National Geographic and other leading nature magazines, she might be able to put together calendars, prints, postcards...
A small brown sign appeared ahead, informing Jaylee that the turnoff to Black River was coming up. She slowed, and even watching for it almost overshot the narrow gravel lane. There weren't any telephone poles or electrical lines, and she threw a quick glance at the map and brochure resting on the center console. Rustic cabins, she'd been told. Now she wondered just how rustic they meant.
She found out fifteen miles later, when she crested a hill. Whoever had designed the place must have been a Lincoln Log enthusiast as a kid. The largest building was long and low, with smoke rising from chimneys at either end. A cluster of tiny cabins surrounded it.
The setting was pastoral, a lush green field dotted with wildflowers spreading out to meet the trees. A spring-fed creek sparkled through the grass, and she spotted six deer by the time she reached the gravel parking lot. The deer turned bland, docile brown eyes toward the car, and seemed unperturbed by its presence.
When she turned off the engine, cutting the blast-and-thump of the stereo, a near-total silence descended. As her ears adjusted, Jaylee realized she could hear the twitter of birds, the whisper of the breeze through the leaves, and the chuckling sound of the creek.
She got out and stretched, glad to be out of the car after so many hours of sitting. She arched her back, arms behind her, breasts straining at the buttons of her soft blue-and-white plaid flannel shirt. One top button wasn't up to the task and sprang free, causing the shirt to gap open to the lace-trimmed top of her bra.
That was when she heard a throat clear, and whirled around. In the stillness of the day, she was amazed she hadn't heard him approach. The man was only a few yards away, and the initial sight of him looming there like that sent a pang of fear through her. She was suddenly very much aware of being alone out here. No other cars in the lot except a mud-caked SUV. No other signs of human life. Just her, and him.
But then, as she got a better look, Jaylee's fear gave way to interest.
He was a big man, broad through the shoulders and chest, with arms like a lumberjack's. His hair was so black that the sun struck indigo highlights from it, and it was worn long, almost to his shoulders. A dusky bristle of beard-shadow covered his cheeks, chin, and upper lip. He had darkly tanned skin, and startling, vivid green eyes.
The collar of his tee shirt – it was grey, with "Black River Wildlife Preserve" printed on the front above a logo of a wavery black line meant to indicate a river, and the silhouette of a howling wolf – was loose enough to show a lusty crop of chest hair rising to the base of his neck. He also wore navy-blue sweats, and his muscular thighs would have done credit to a marathon runner.
She noticed, as well, the distinct and particular loose sway at his groin, which suggested that he wasn't wearing anything underneath. Here she was, former men's underwear photographer extraordinaire, faced with a man who was clearly going commando. She guessed, therefore, that he wouldn't be familiar with her work.
As she studied him, feeling a pleasant warm tingle in her belly, she saw that he was in turn studying her. His gaze roved with arrogant frankness from her low-topped hiking boots, up her bare legs to the hem of her cutoff denim shorts, lingered on the generous show of bra and cleavage afforded by the sprung button, and finally reached her face.
There, he seemed fascinated by her mouth, and Jaylee fought down an urge to slide her tongue over the fullness of her lips.
"You're the photographer," he said in a husky voice that sent shivers through her, and twanged her libido like guitar strings.
"Jaylee Dawson," she said, hoping she could refrain from drooling. "I was told to ask for Rommie."
When she'd first heard the name, she'd been expecting some sort of grizzled old coot, a caricature of a shotgun-totin', moonshine-drinkin' grey-bearded mountain man, with an aged bloodhound by his side. She couldn't have asked for a better surprise.
Rommie showed her which cabin was hers, and insisted on helping carry her luggage. He handled the suitcases with an easy strength that made Jaylee weak in the knees.
The cabin was a single room, with a pot-bellied woodstove on a brick hearth and a bed with a frame made from rough-hewn logs. It was covered with a homey quilt. Jaylee was supposed to be here for two weeks, and as Rommie set her suitcases on the bed, was already calculating how many of those fourteen nights she'd have to stay here alone.
By the way he was looking at her, not very damn many. And, looking at him, it was all she could do not to wrap her legs around him and just climb him like a tree.
"Ice house is behind the main lodge," he said. "Blocks of ice in sawdust. Outhouse is around the back of the cabin."
"Outhouse?" she echoed with some dismay. "Any chance of a shower?"
His green eyes seemed to glow with amusement, and strong white teeth showed in a grin. "There's the creek."
The prospect of two weeks without hot water didn't exactly leave her giddy with delight, but there were other compensations. After all, Rommie had to bathe, too... and if she could sneak a single shot of him, naked and wet, with her telephoto lens, it'd make the whole trip worthwhile. Not that she could really sell such a picture to National Geographic.
"You want to get settled in, or do you want the tour?"
"I can unpack later."
He showed her around, and she could have listened all day to his husky growl of a voice. The wildlife preserve, he told her, wasn't fenced. There were signs posted to warn off intruders and hunters, but it was essentially just a sprawling tract of undeveloped woods and wilderness where indigenous animals were allowed to roam free, though tagged with tracking devices. The land had been in his family for generations. It wasn't usually open to tour groups or school field trips or anything of the sort. Occasionally, they'd welcome in a few independent researchers, or photographers, like herself.
"Will I be safe out there?" she asked.
"The animals aren't tame," he said. "And I was told you were interested in snapshots of predators. Cougar, maybe, or wolf."
She didn't care for the word 'snapshots,' but let it go. "That's right. Are there many?"
"A few," he said. "But for the most part, they'll be interested in their natural prey, not a person. It's the bugs you'll want to watch out for."
Jaylee nodded. She had bug spray, but was resigned to a few mosquito bites all the same.
They came to Black River itself, and she grabbed for her camera. The river got its name not from the color of the water, but from the way it reflected the towering black cliffs on either side. The sun dazzle made it look like a spill of diamonds on black velvet.
"You should see it in the moonlight," Rommie said. "Moon's full tomorrow night."
Jaylee spent the next day out in the woods, shooting roll after roll of film and arguing with herself.
One side of her was disappointed. Rommie hadn't made a move on her the previous evening. He hadn't even invited her to share dinner with him. She was also disappointed in herself for not making a move of her own, either.
The other side of her felt guilty, felt slutty, for being so ready to leap into bed with a man she'd only just met. Never mind that he was everything she'd been describing to Marion only a few days before.
But, damn, did she want him! She'd gotten into bed nude – solely because it was more comfortable, she told herself. Not because she expected her door to open at any moment and there he'd be, large and powerful and ready to crush her into the mattress with a fuck of truly epic proportions.
And, nude, she had rolled this way and that, unable to sleep. A low-grade fever of unfulfilled arousal wouldn't let her drift off. She'd finally had to masturbate just to relieve the tension. And even then, even after bringing herself to a most satisfying orgasm, she had erotic dreams.
Rommie, of course, was the star. In the one that she remembered the most clearly upon waking, she had been out in the meadow by the stream, crouched down to cup the cold water into her hand and drink. Some sound made her turn, and he was there, naked and hairy and monstrously erect.
She had fled – it was a dream; it didn't have to make sense – and he'd given chase, through the high grass warmed and fragrant from the sun. Her stride had lengthened into leaps, until she suddenly became aware that she was no longer Jaylee Dawson, but a deer, a fleet doe bounding toward the safety of the wood. And Rommie, hot on her heels, was now a slavering wolf, black-pelted, with feral green eyes.
When he sprang upon her, bringing her down, all at once they had been human again. His mouth had been all over her throat and breasts, not biting but covering her with hard, fierce kisses. In the course of their squirming struggle, her legs had gone around his waist, and when he rolled onto his back, Jaylee rolled with him and impaled herself eagerly on his cock.
Her travel alarm had gone off before her dream-self had, much to her annoyance. She'd wakened to find her hand between her legs, and with her other hand made frantic slaps at the clock until she hit the snooze. Then she kicked off the covers and brought herself to climax, as pale morning light streamed in through the window.
An hour later, having breakfasted on an orange and a power bar, she was on her way. Dressed in khaki shorts, a forest-green shirt tied Daisy-Mae style below her breasts, and her hiking boots, she had her long hair in a ponytail and her eyes shaded by the brim of an Australian leather hat. The bug spray was the scent-free kind, to avoid alerting the animals to her presence. She had a water bottle, a compass, a sandwich and some trail mix in a small backpack, and her camera bag over her shoulder.
The woods around Black River teemed with life. She caught blue jays and cardinals, bright flashes of blue and red against the trees. A squirrel, fat and sassy, scolding her from a stump. A doe – reminding her of her dream – stepping daintily through the underbrush. Later, a proud stag with a harem of three does, the lucky buck.
No predators, though. Not so much as a fox, let alone a bobcat or lynx or mountain lion.
She was no Davey Crockett, and wouldn't have known how to read animal tracks if her life had depended on it. Still, it was only the first day and she had gotten many pictures that she hoped would be good.
The shade of the woods had protected her from much of the heat of the day, but she was sweaty and ready for a swim. She came to the banks of Black River and saw a large flat rock poking up from the water a few yards out.
The water looked too inviting to resist, so Jaylee hung her camera bag and backpack over a limb, cast a quick look around, and undressed. If Rommie was watching from the shadows, she wanted to tantalize him a little. She took her time removing her bra, and massaged the red lines its straps and underwires left on her flesh. Then, after another glance, she slid down her panties and stood naked on the riverbank.