A Picture's WorthbyRowan_McBride©
-- One --
My first tangle with Mason Ripley happened in Central Park, because I dared to interrupt him while he snapped candid pictures of people enjoying the first day of spring. I didn't know his name, then. I didn't know anything about him, except that I wanted him to take my picture too.
It took me a few minutes to get up the nerve to make a move. That was strange for me. I was six-foot-five, 295 pounds. I was one of the top bodybuilders in the country. High intensity situations were, well, a walk in the park for me.
But something about this guy had me off balance from the get-go. On the outside, he seemed so casual; dressed in a brown, scuffed leather jacket and a pair of faded blue jeans. He had a mop of brown hair that blew around when the breeze did. Just another guy in the park . . . with a camera that put the ones on my photo shoots to shame.
He crouched, a smile playing on his lips as he took a picture of a little girl. I tilted my head to the side, stole a look at his round ass as they filled out his jeans.
Okay, I wanted him to do more than take my photograph.
With my hands in my pockets, I walked forward. My tall, broad frame cast a shadow over him. "Hey, I'm—"
"In my light," he said, not looking up from his camera.
I stopped short. "Oh, sorry." I walked around to his other side. "How's that?"
He snapped another picture. "Thanks."
What little momentum I had was gone, and I fumbled for something to say. "I'm Joe. Joe Wilson."
He cast a brief glance my way before returning his attention to his camera. "Mason Ripley."
His total disinterest floored me. I was a huge guy. I inspired awe in everyone I met: male or female, gay or straight. My best pick-up line was my body, and now I actually had to say something. "So . . . taking some pictures?"
Aw, fuck. What was that!
He answered me, though. And he didn't seem annoyed, just unimpressed. "Yep."
The little girl got up and ran to her family. He smiled as he watched her go.
He had a great mouth. Full lips that seemed soft, but not unmasculine. I wanted to see a close-up of that mouth. More specifically, I wanted to see it on my cock.
He got up, started to leave.
I couldn't let him go, and the single, desperate word was out of me before I could think of something more suave. "W-Wait."
He turned, an expression of vague curiosity on his face. "Yeah?"
"C-Could you take my picture?"
His brown eyes looked me up and down. "No. But thanks for the offer."
What the hell? I felt as if I'd just been shot down after asking him out. "Why not?"
His face was gentle, friendly. His voice was polite and calm. "You're not very photogenic, and I'd hate to waste the film."
All of my awkwardness vanished as my hands left my pockets, clenched into fists. No one was crazy enough to insult me, especially when they stood a full head shorter. "Where do you get off, talking to me like that? Just because you take a weekend and snap some pictures in the park, you think you're God's gift?" I took a menacing step forward. "I've been on the cover of Muscle & Fitness, asshole. What have you done?"
To my utter surprise, he cracked a smile. "Muscle & Fitness, huh? Why do you want to be photographed by an ass like me?"
His teasing tone threw me for a loop. I had a feeling he would always do that. The awkwardness flooded back. "You . . . You see people."
God, I should have taken another route today. "When you take pictures, you see people for what they really are. I-I can tell."
His grin widened a fraction. "Those big time magazine photographers don't do that?"
I glanced away. "No."
"And you want me to see you. Is that it?"
So embarrassing to admit this, to a total stranger no less. But lately I'd been feeling empty. Invisible. I hadn't felt like that in a long time. "Yeah."
"Here's the thing, Joe Wilson." He leaned forward, caught my gaze. He smelled like grass and a touch of leather. "You're . . . blank. There's nothing there to see."
My brow furrowed. "That's not true."
"You're sure about that?"
"Of course I'm sure."
He straightened. "Well, that burst of anger earlier was interesting." One hand slipped his camera into the bag around his neck while the other unzipped a compartment on the side. "I don't have a studio, but I have a little set-up in my apartment." He pulled out a business card and handed it to me. "Tuesday, four o'clock. If you forget, or if you ditch the appointment, then lose my card. People who waste my time irritate me almost as much as people who waste my film."
The card was simple. His name written in some fancy script, with his address printed clearly underneath it. "I'll be there. Can I call you Mason?"
He walked away, gave me a careless wave. "You can call me whatever you want. Just don't be late."
I stood there on the grass until he was out of sight. This guy had ignored me, called me blank, and tied me into knots without breaking a sweat. I knew I should trash his card and never look back.
I also knew that I would be on time Tuesday, or die trying.
Carefully, I slid his card into my wallet, listened to the thump of my heart as I wondered what his apartment was like.
At that moment, more than anything, I wanted Mason Ripley to see me.
-- Two --
I stood outside the door to Mason's apartment. He lived in the East Village, where a lot of pseudo-Bohemian-artsy types resided these days. A far cry from my place in Union Square.
It was five minutes till four. If I didn't knock soon, he was going to be irritated. I didn't want that. I wanted him to want me.
Taking a deep breath, I lifted my hand and rapped on the door. A long silence passed. I was about to knock again when it swung open.
Mason glanced up, seemed almost surprised to find me there. "Joe. Right on time." He stepped aside. "Come on in."
He wore a long sleeved, white t-shirt with patches of discoloration over the lower arms, another pair of old jeans with similar patches over the thighs. Work clothes, of some sort.
I'd never seen anything so hot in my life.
As I entered, I thought his apartment was a lot like him. Straightforward, rugged, a little tousled. I paused when I saw the bed in his livingroom. "What's the deal with this?"
He walked to the other end of the room, turned on some lights mounted on tripods. "The bedroom is my darkroom, so I sleep out here. Stand between the lights."
I guess we were getting right to it. I stood where he indicated, looked at the white backdrop. "Is this the only background you have?"
Mason chuckled. Warm. Low. "It's not Sears. Usually I take pictures in more natural settings."
I turned and stared at him as he pulled out a camera, checked the lens. "Like in Central Park?"
"Central Park's nice. Take off your jacket."
I took off my jacket. "Where do I put it?"
"Anywhere you want."
Looking around, I folded it up and placed it on the corner of his bed. I returned to the backdrop. "Now what?"
He snapped a picture.
"Hey! I wasn't ready."
Mason looked over the top of the camera. "So get ready."
I stood stiffly, my hands hanging by my sides.
That unimpressed expression reappeared. "That's it?"
"What's wrong with it?"
Reluctantly, he took another picture. He looked about to take another one before lowering the camera. "No, try again."
Alright, I wasn't a rookie. I knew how to pose. Spreading my feet apart, I crossed my arms over my chest, causing my biceps to stretch the sleeves of my dress-shirt tight. "How's that?"
He walked around, studied my profile. "Nope."
Shit. "Give me some direction. What do you want from me?"
Sighing, he looped the strap of his camera around his neck. "What do you want?"
I frowned. "What do you mean?"
He ran his fingers through his chestnut hair. "Portrait? Action shot? Sexy picture for your girlfriend?"
"I don't have a girlfriend."
His eyebrow cocked upward.
Embarrassed now, I broke the pose I'd been holding. "I just want a good picture. Of me."
"That's going to be hard, since you seem intent on not letting yourself show."
It was unnerving, being lectured this way. Suddenly I didn't know where to look or place my hands or how to stand.
Mason shook his head and replaced the lens cap. "This isn't going to work. You should go home now."
Home? "Wait." Desperate to make him see I was a work of art, I undid the first few buttons of my shirt and whipped it off over my head. I stood before him half-naked, giving him a look at my tanned, sculpted muscles. "There, take your picture."
His gaze traveled over me a moment before he leaned back against the wall. "You're showing me your body, not you."
Stunned, humiliated, I retrieved my shirt. "What have you got against my body?"
"Nothing, it's the best I've ever seen. But I can't give you the kind of picture you want."
He crossed the room, picked up my jacket, and handed it over. "Because you won't let me."
"I don't understand."
His expression softened. "You don't have to understand. You just have to know that this session is over."
How anyone could look so gentle while saying such harsh things was beyond me. "You don't know me."
He opened up his front door. "How can I, when you don't know yourself?"
That hit a nerve I sure as hell didn't want touched, and I strode out of his apartment. "After a few minutes you think you've got me all figured out. A hack photographer who can't even afford his own studio."
Mason leaned against the jamb. "Is that it?"
My jaw ticked. "Yeah, that's it."
Disappointment colored his features. "Have a safe trip home, Joe."
The door shut, and I was left standing like an idiot in the hallway.
-- Three --
"And you just . . . left?"
I paced the floor in my big sister's livingroom as she sat on the couch. "What the hell was I supposed to do?"
She placed the sheaf of papers she'd been studying on the coffee table and gave me her full attention. "You're what? Three hundred pounds? Why didn't you just deck him?"
I folded my arms over my chest and let my back thump against the wall. "Come on, Eilis."
"I'm serious. If he was as harsh as you say, then why didn't you set him straight?"
Why hadn't I? "I don't know. Something about him . . . twists me up inside."
Eilis propped her elbows on her knees as she rested her chin on her graceful hands. "Okay, let me make sure I've got the facts right. This guy insults you in the middle of Central Park and invites you to his place for a photo session, where he insults you again before tossing you out. And you just let him do it to you."
I bowed my head, kept my gaze locked on my feet. "That about sums it up."
"He must be really, really hot."
Despite my burned ego, I burst into laughter. "He is. But it's more than that. Mason's got something . . ."
"That's his name. Mason Ripley."
I sensed the burst of motion on the other side of the room and lifted my head to see my sister staring at me, wide-eyed. "Mason Ripley. You met Mason Ripley in Central Park?"
Not sure what to make of her reaction, I nodded.
Her lips parted. "Oh . . . my . . . God."
"I think I'm missing something."
"Joey! He's bigger than Sebastião Salgado, he's bigger than Emmet Gowin, he's bigger than Ansel Adams!"
I struggled to keep up. "Who's Ansel Adams?"
Eilis squeaked and pointed to a picture hanging on the wall behind her.
I walked over to it, really looked at it for the first time. It was a stunning black-and-white landscape: a deep, rocky valley with a white moon suspended above. "Mason takes pictures like this?"
"No, not exactly. He's got his own style, and—" She made a sound close enough to a growl to make me glance at her in alarm. "Oh, no use trying to explaining it. Hold on a second."
She ran into the next room. I took a seat on the couch, listening as she rummaged around. I was almost afraid to see what she wanted to show me.
Eilis returned, holding a huge scrapbook close to her breasts. Slowly, almost reverently, she placed it in front of me on the coffee table.
I just stared at Mason's name, stenciled across the front in black ink.
"Go ahead. Take a look."
It wasn't going to bite me, I reasoned, so I opened it to the first page.
A thick, lush rainforest. A silhouette all but hidden among the leaves. The colors leapt from the photo—every shade of green imaginable. The canopy blocked most of the sun, and yet the scene itself was clear, as if I could reach inside and pull out one of those emerald leaves.
"Holy shit. It looks like a picture out of National Geographic or something."
I could hear the smile in her voice. "Keep going."
I turned the page, and there was a similar scene, on the cover of National Geographic. My voice dropped to a whisper. "Wow."
"It gets better."
She wasn't kidding. There were covers to Newsweek, Time, The Rolling Stone. There were prints of people, prints of landscapes, newspaper clippings. Each one so different from the next, but every photo had that same clarity, that same realism. I looked at one of Mason's pictures and knew the subject. Intimately. Gratefully.
I'd been right in the park. He could see you.
He just couldn't see me.
"Damn," I said, looking at another photo.
Eilis clapped her hands. "I know! Isn't he amazing? I've been collecting his stuff since college. And you met him! You—" She stopped short, and her voice dropped sympathetic. "Oh, sorry. Forgot that it wasn't a good meeting. Either time."
I scrubbed my face with my hand. "You don't understand, sis. I bragged about being on the cover of Muscle & Fitness. I called him a hack photographer."
"Ouch. No wonder he was so hard on you."
His gentle expression flashed through my mind. "It's not that. I don't think anything I said pissed him off. He was just annoyed because I was boring."
She fisted her hand against her heart. "Oh, Joey. You're not boring."
I closed the scrapbook. "I am compared to him. He's a superstar in his field."
"So? You're a superstar in yours."
Surprise made me glance up. She was right. How had I forgotten that?
"You don't give yourself enough credit, Joey."
Knowing this speech by heart, I leaned back against the couch. "Doesn't matter, anyway. I blew it with Mason."
A sly grin shaped her mouth, one that had meant trouble since we were kids. "Maybe not."
"I don't want to hear it." Eilis had a way of walking away from her schemes scot-free, while I caught the full brunt of the blame for whatever we'd done.
She went on as if she hadn't heard me. "Timothy is at a law conference this week," she said, fingering her wedding ring. "And it just so happens that I have two tickets to an art show on Friday. Mason Ripley's art show. His first in years."
I bolted upright. "You're kidding."
She shook her head. "Black tie. Want to come?"
Common sense told me to say no, but I found myself a man obsessed. "I look pretty good in a tux, right?"
"Ew. I don't know. You're my brother."
I smiled for the first time in almost a week. I shouldn't have asked. Even Mason said I had a great body. And all my clothes were tailored to fit me to perfection.
A third chance to see Mason. Maybe, this time, I could manage to be charming.
-- Four --
Unable to take another step forward, I stood on the sidewalk in front of the Jardan Art Gallery.
"Come on, Joey. When did you get to be such a big yellow chicken?"
I narrowed my eyes at her. I outweighed her by almost two hundred pounds, and she still had no fear about giving me a hard time.
Eilis smiled innocently, looped her arm through mine, and guided me into the gallery.
It was swank, although I guess I should have expected that. Photographs of varying sizes were spaced carefully along the grey walls, each with its own set of lights. Most were in black-and-white, but a few were in color, which added splashes of brightness to the exhibit.
Lots of beautiful people around, too. Most of them wore black or some other dark color. Eilis had chosen to go red from head-to-toe, and her low cut dress hugged her entire body while setting off her dark hair. People all over the gallery paused to look at her and I couldn't blame them. My sister was once Miss Rhode Island, and she was every bit as gorgeous today as then.
I stood out as well. The sheer bulk of my body dwarfed everyone else in the room. My tux was the standard black, and it went well with my dark hair and eyes. At least, I thought so.
My body stiffened at the sound of that smooth, sultry voice. I'd only met him twice, but I'd recognize it anywhere.
Eilis gave me a light elbow to the stomach. "Breathe," she whispered.
I took her advice, and then I turned around.
Mason Ripley stood before me, his eyes intent on mine. He wore a black tux like most of the other men present, but his bow-tie was undone—a black strip of material hanging around his neck—and the top two buttons of his white shirt were unfastened. A long, leather strap held his camera bag against his waist, and he wore a pair of beat up sneakers as if they'd come standard with the tux.
He looked great, and all my well rehearsed topics of conversation deserted me.
Thankfully, my sister was there to save me. She reached out, shook his hand. "Mr. Ripley, it's such an honor to be present at your exhibit. I've been trying to get tickets to one of your shows for almost a decade now."
His gaze drifted to her, and he smiled warmly. "Fan of my work?"
"Oh yeah. You don't want to know the size of my scrapbook."
He chuckled. "What's your name?"
"Eilis. Eilis Wilson."
Mason glanced at her ring finger, then up at me. "Married?"
I finally found my voice, though it sounded too much like a croak. "No. She's my sister. She kept her maiden name, even though Timothy—her husband—doesn't really—"
Eilis tapped her shoe against my ankle to stop my babbling.
"Ah." He focused his attention on her. "Eilis is an interesting name. What are its roots?"
"Hebrew." She patted my arm. "Just like Joseph here."
Thank God she hadn't called me 'Joey.'
Mason's gaze didn't leave her. "What do you do for a living?"
"I'm a neurosurgeon."
He grinned, took a step closer. "Funny, smart," his gaze intimately caressed her face, "and beautiful. I don't suppose you'd let me take your picture sometime?"
Every emotion inside of me shattered. Eilis? He wanted to take a picture of Eilis?
Her eyes rounded. "Really?"
"Sure." He leaned forward. "I can see your life in your face. You wear it well."
I had to get out of here. My body was about to follow the lead of my emotions. But my mind had frozen up. I couldn't move. I couldn't say anything.
A short, reedy man hurried toward us. He looked Mason over in dismay. "For Heaven's sake, Rip! Can't you put the camera down for one hour?" He reached for it.
Still smiling, Mason placed a hand on his wrist, stopping him in mid-grab. "Never, ever touch my camera. Understand?"
The man gulped, nodded.
Mason looped an arm around his narrow shoulders. "Eilis, Joe, this is Fletcher Thomas. My manager. He's twitchy, but a good guy." He looked down at him. "Fletch, show Eilis around the gallery, have her pick out her favorite photo, and give it to her."
Fletcher turned red and began to sputter. He looked about to pop a vessel in his brain. Good thing that was Eilis's specialty. "G-Give?"
Eilis stared at Mason in awe. "Get out! A Mason Ripley original?"
His mouth crooked. "Consider it a bribe. To spend a day with me and let me capture you on film."