Is This Love?
Rocco Silva has zero interest in getting in front of the camera again. After being eliminated, not once, but twice when he competed on "Slave to Love," a reality TV show where a submissive looks for a Dominant, he's become the laughing stock in his BDSM and professional communities. He pours his full concentration on his work as the owner of a garbage company until a sexy woman walks into his life.
Gia Curtiss is tired of her work as a staff photographer in a discount store. After earning her filmmaking degree, she wants to put her education to use by doing a documentary. After a friend tells her of an opportunity to work as a production assistant for Ananda Morton, the producer of "Slave to Love," Gia decides to see the woman about a different proposition. She pitches the idea of doing a documentary on the twice-rejected contestant from her show. Ananda doesn't think the man will do it and challenges Gia to get him to agree. If he does, Ananda will hire her as a director.
Gia thinks she has it made until she runs into opposition with Rocco. He has no interest in making a fool of himself again unless Gia agrees to go on camera with him, allowing him to play with her.
When Gia gets caught up with playing with Rocco, it's hard for her to discern what's real and what's just for show. Can she figure out her feelings before filming ends? Will he allow himself to be vulnerable for this special woman?
“Come on. Give me a smile.” Gia Curtiss smiled wide as she stood behind her camera and tripod. “Act like you like each other,” she said under her breath.
The African-American family standing in front of her reminded her of her own. The mother figure in front of her sat poised, almost in a trance. No matter what angle Gia shot her, the woman kept the same position, the same smile. It made Gia wonder if she practiced that pose before she came to Talmadge Department Store for this family photo shoot or if she looked that way all the time, masking her pain or boredom.
The father figure, on the other hand, couldn’t stop smiling…at every woman who walked by Gia’s small cubbyhole of a photo area. Each young woman in tight jeans got a sly smile and a wink from him even as he held his young daughter in his arms.
That little girl. Gia looked at her and smiled. She looked adorable with her curly Afro puffs on each side of her head and her red-and-white polka dot dress. She looked like a real-life Minnie Mouse, a doll that should be cherished and protected.
Seeing her light caramel skin tone and rounded cheeks reminded Gia of herself at that same age. The fact that the child’s parents looked checked out and clueless behind her really brought her back to her past.
Gia felt her cheerful disposition slipping. She knew it affected her customers when the little girl crumpled her forehead in confusion as she gazed at Gia.
“Hey, look at this.” Gia shook some colorful plastic oversized keys next to the camera. The color and clicking plastic brought out a giggling fit in the toddler.
Gia took the shot. It had been the only one where even the parents looked straight ahead at her and smiled, a rarity.
“Are we almost done?” The dad handed the little girl to the mother, then straightened out his ill-fitting red suit. “Our appointment is only for an hour.”
The mother finally broke character and sighed. Dad put his hand on her shoulder, which caused her to firm up her smile.
Her reaction caused a strange tremor in Gia’s belly. She rubbed her hand across her stomach to calm it. She had a job to do. She didn’t need to get involved in strangers’ business, even though spreading the word on injustice seemed to be her forte.
Gia attempted to keep smiling. “I want to get a couple more shots and then that’s it.”
After taking the last few pictures, she dismissed the family with promises of giving them proofs from the day by email in a few hours.
As soon as the customers left her area, Gia released a loud, long sigh. She ducked behind the counter and checked the computer to see if she had any more clients. Staring at the screen allowed her to drown out the chaotic sounds from the store. Families bustled around here and there, returning Christmas presents and buying the obligatory New Year’s resolution items like scales and exercise equipment. New slate. New self.
With the lingering image of the family still on her mind, and the holidays passing, Gia picked up her phone and dialed her mother first.
After the first ring, someone answered. “Gia?”
“Hey, Mom. Happy New Year…again.” She looked in her cup of coffee, courtesy of the coffeemaker in the employee lounge.
The gray liquid had turned cold during her last session. She tossed the cup with its contents into the trash receptacle under her counter.
“You already woke me up at midnight to say that. Are you okay?” Her mother sounded more annoyed than happy to hear from her one and only child.
“Yeah, I’m good. I was taking a picture of this family and I—” Gia stopped herself. “Now that I’m all done with school and—”
“It’s about time.” Daria Curtiss never minced words. “I tried sending you to college after high school, but you were so interested in living your life. See where it got you?”
Gia squeezed her eyes shut, hoping that this phone conversation wouldn’t turn into a fight. Too bad that didn’t happen.
“Anyway, now that I have some vacation time, I was thinking of coming to see you.” She smiled to keep her voice light over the phone.
“You’ve been at Talmadge long enough to accumulate vacation?” Daria questioned.
Gia shook her head. “I thought it would be nice to come down to Florida since we didn’t see each other over the holidays.”
“I thought you wanted to spend time with Lucas. Isn’t that what you told me?” The longer Daria spoke, the stronger her voice became.
“I told you that Lucas and I broke up. I shared that information with you as soon as it happened.” Gia hadn’t meant for the unintended dig to be audible. She didn’t want to hide how she felt.
Daria picked up the cutting remark. “You mean like me and your father?” She chuckled. “Probably a good thing you didn’t come down from Virginia. I would have to clean up and cook for more people.”
“I could have helped. It’s been a while since I’ve seen you.” Gia drummed her fingers on the countertop. She didn’t want to beg, but she would for her mother. “It feels weird not being with you for the holidays.”
“Welcome to adulthood.”
Gia’s mother’s hard truth felt like Daria had punched her several times in her gut. As a result, she rubbed her hand over her stomach again to calm it.
“I won’t hold you up.” Gia didn’t see this conversation getting any better. “Just wanted to talk and see how you were doing.”
“The same as last time. We’ll talk again. You have a birthday coming up.” Daria disconnected the call before Gia could confirm that she would leave her birthday in June open to have her next conversation with her mother.
She couldn’t figure out when they had become so disconnected. The longer she thought about her strained relationship with her mother, the more she realized they really hadn’t been that close. She had a history of explaining to her friends how busy her mother had been and how hard she’d worked, and she had. In all her life, Daria never took a break to see Gia in a school play or watched her cheer or had even seen her graduate from high school or college.
Not content to allow her last conversation with her mother to be the lasting impression she would have on family, Gia quickly called her father. Harrison Curtiss had a gift of always making Gia feel special.
After one ring, he answered the call. “Hey, sweetheart. How are you doing? Staying warm?”
Gia smiled. “I’m doing okay, Dad. Virginia is not like Florida. I could use some of that sunshine.” Especially in frigid January.
“You want me to buy a plane ticket for you and get you down here for a little while?”
Gia smiled. “I would love to see you again.”
“I know. Sorry I didn’t see you over the holidays. Work and all. You understand.” His apologetic tone oozed through the phone like slow-dripping syrup. “And I’m really sorry I missed your graduation. I’m so very proud of you for going back to college after all these years.”
“Come on, Dad. I’m still in my twenties.” She knew what he meant.
Her time to get her life together and figure herself out started to slip away. As she would always tell herself. Better late than never.
“You need some money? Are you okay on your rent and bills? I can send you something if you need it. Anything for my little girl.” Harrison sounded like he moved around on the other side of the phone, like he multitasked while he talked to her.
“No, your card with your very generous gift inside was plenty. Thank you.” Gia remember screaming as soon as she received her father’s card with a twenty-five-thousand dollar check inside. Too bad the screams didn’t stem from excitement.
As the check sat on her kitchen counter, she still couldn’t bring herself to deposit it. Her father had always taught her to save her money for that just-in-case moment, but this gift felt like he wanted to buy his freedom. The money would allow Harrison to have time away from her without explanation. Gia wouldn’t let him get off that easy.
“Good. I hope you can use the money. Still driving that beaten-up car?” Harrison chuckled.
“Hey, don’t talk about Don Johnson.” Gia had named her late-model Toyota after the actor because he reminded her of her ride. Life had been hard on him, but he still kept going, and he still looked good doing it.
“Yes, but you’re a college graduate. If you want to project a winning attitude, then your outside appearance should reflect that. That includes your car and your clothing.” Harrison imparting his dad wisdom seemed misguided. He should have been saying these things to her years ago during her formative time, not now.
“Let me at least buy you a new car. What about a nice Mercedes?”
She heard his keys jingling through the phone. Her heart slowed down its wild beating. “No. I don’t need a car. I just—” She stopped herself. “Happy New Year, Dad.”
“I love you, honey. You want me to call you tonight?” he asked.
As though he could see her, she shook her head. “I’ll catch you another time. Maybe around my birthday.”
Harrison snorted. “Honey, that’s five months away. I’ll talk to you way earlier than that.”
She smiled at that comment. “Love you.”
“Love you. Take care.” He disconnected the call quickly.
What a difference in her two parents. They loved differently. Why did she still feel hollow after talking to each one of them?
“Hey, hot potato.” Flynn, one of the many stock helpers/cashiers, popped up at her counter.
His platinum blond hair stood straight up on his head and complemented his silver-blue eyes.
“Hey, Flynn. All quiet on your end?” Gia locked up the computer screen when she saw she didn’t have another appointment for the next couple of hours.
Flynn snickered. “No. But I’m on break so I could care less if the world falls apart. Are you able to join me for a delicious but fattening coffee?” He held up his arm to her as his way of getting her to link her arm around his and go off with him.
“No appointments for a while and the coffee here sucks. I’m game.” She put up her out-of-office sign and accepted Flynn’s gentlemanly gesture.
Gia bundled herself in a large coat and threw the cap her grandmother had knitted for her on her head. Even for the short walk across the street to the shopping center with their favorite coffee shop, Gia had to wear layers to ward off the cold.
As soon as Flynn reached the door, his chivalrous behavior ended. He bolted inside without a care in the world if Gia made it. Typical Flynn.
When she opened the door herself and walked inside, Gia got the full blast of several espresso machines hissing at once. It sounded more like a dentist office or a construction site rather than a restaurant.
The coffee scent lulled her into the place with floors and chairs as dark as the richest coffee Beans and Buns had to offer.
“The usual for you?” Flynn headed to the counter while Gia secured a table for them.
“Something with a hit of caramel and whipped cream, please.” She removed her gloves and shoved them into her pockets before taking a seat. She couldn’t wait to get her hands around a hot beverage.
Funny. Not long ago she would have replaced the word “beverage” with man. Not being linked to one allowed her to focus on herself, her education, and her work.
After Flynn placed the order, it didn’t take him long to join her. “So?”
Gia furrowed her eyebrows. The motion reminded her of the little girl she’d photographed earlier. “So what?”
“Have you heard anything yet?” He pushed his bleached tresses out of his view, which showed off his perfectly applied eye makeup and eyeliner.
Flynn hated the term guy liner. “I’m not lining my body, just my eyes,” he would say.
Gia gave him a dismissive wave. “I sent my résumé as soon as I graduated last month. They called me right away.”
Flynn sat up straighter.
“They thanked me for my interest, however…” She shook her head. “The problem is despite going through film school, I don’t have any experience.”
The barista called Flynn’s name that he had their drinks ready.
Flynn stood but kept his stare on Gia. “You think that’s your only problem?” He shook his head before turning to get their drinks.
Gia became happy and lightheaded as soon as she spotted her coffee drink piled with whipped cream. She would have to savor this orgasmic feeling since it had been a long, long time since she had a real one. She imagined the hot beverage being laced with caramel.
“Give me my coffee and then you can explain what you meant.” Gia held her hands up to accept the treat.
Flynn sat down. “What I mean is that if you really want to be a filmmaker, you need to get out of Virginia Beach. Nothing happens here.”
“If Teddy Riley can have a music studio here—”
“Burned to the ground.” Flynn cocked his head.
Gia ignored his comment and kept up with her argument. “And if one of the biggest movie producers can live here, then I should be able to do what I love from here.”
“What movie producer?” Flynn blew on his coffee before taking a careful sip.
“Eagan Morton. I guess you can now count his wife, Ananda, too.”
“Is this the whips-and-chains guy?” To illustrate his point, Flynn snapped his wrist in the air as though cracking an imaginary whip. He followed it up with a snicker.
“Yes, he was in that reality TV show Love My Way, like, five or six years ago. His wife produced Slave to Love.” Gia remembered both shows.
She recalled the bravery of Eagan and the contestants for doing the show many years ago, before it became trendy. The second show whetted her appetite to learn more about the lifestyle, especially one contestant.
Master Rock didn’t have a lot of screen time, but he’d made an impression on her. His character seemed to be a contrast to the man. How could someone so tall, composed, and good looking be involved in such a risqué practice?
“I’m glad you brought up that couple.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out his phone. “I saw something that might interest you.”
Gia shook her head. “No more pictures of skinny guys in tighty whiteys on roller skates, or weird people dancing, right? I can’t take seeing any more of those.” Call it her advancing age or because she had worked hard to put herself through college and get a degree, but childish endeavors held no interest to her anymore.
“No. Of course not.” Flynn peeked over his phone. “Okay, maybe just one more.” He turned his phone around in time for her to see a beanpole of a man in Superman Underoos roller skating into a busy Wal-Mart store to the surprise of the customers. Flynn laughed so hard that people around their table gave them judgmental glances. “Okay, that was the last one…today.” He snickered. “No, I want to show you something else. For real this time.”
“What’s that?” She took a sip of her coffee and released a long, loud moan. The sweetness of the buttery caramel coated her tongue as the hot drink made its way down her throat. Perfection.
“A potential job if you don’t end up ruining it for yourself.” Flynn pursed his lips.
“A better job than being a department store photographer? I swear. If I do another session with a single woman and her cat, I’m going to scream.” She took another sip of her coffee to ease her growing anxiety.
Gia felt the bubbles from the whipped cream on her upper lip before Flynn signaled for her to wipe it away.
“No. This.” He turned his phone around to show her what looked to be an advertisement.
In order to see it better, Gia grabbed his phone and read it. “A production assistant for Begonia Films?”
Flynn nodded. “You know who runs Begonia Films? Ananda Morton.”
Hearing her name had Gia feeling flushed all over. A customer walked in and allowed the frigid January weather to blow into the place. That cold blast cooled Gia down quick.
“There’s your start. Get in with the naughty queen and maybe eventually you can hop over to Eagan’s side.”
Gia did a few clicks over Flynn’s phone to send the information to herself. Flynn had been on the right track. At least he suggested an in-town job instead of telling her to go to L.A. or New York. In her own time. Not now. Not yet.
She heard her phone chirp once when the message got sent to her. The second signal surprised her. Gia glanced at the screen and saw that one of her film school professors had sent her a message asking to speak with her.
She blinked. “Oh, wow.”
“What?” Flynn drank some more of his coffee.
“Professor Duvall wants to talk to me.” She answered him back that she could see him after her shift at seven today. “He was one of my favorite teachers when I was getting my degree. I wonder if he wants to give me some leads on work. Or maybe help me snag an interview with this guy who’s been dodging me. Duvall’s been around. He can really help me secure better projects.”
“Hopefully out-of-town jobs. You are a thirty-year old—”
“Twenty-nine,” Gia quickly supplied.
“Woman with nothing tying her down. Even your parents hightailed it to Florida. Separately, of course.” Flynn crossed his legs and leaned back in his chair.
“Yeah, I talked to both of them before you came up to the counter.” She took another sip of coffee in order to get in something sweet while thinking of the bitter exchange.
“Really? How are they?” Flynn rubbed his hands together.
“The same. Exactly the same.” She kept her gaze down to the table.
A pause lingered at the table until Flynn spoke again. “Gigi, if you look up the term ‘late bloomer’ in the dictionary, there would be a picture of you.” He snapped his fingers in front of her face. “Life is passing you by. You need to jump on the train before you miss it.”
Gia could always count on Flynn on being on the nose and honest. She glanced at her phone. “I need to get back.”
“No, you don’t.” Flynn wagged his finger at her. “You just don’t want to finish this conversation.” He stood. “Avoidance has always been your key trait.”
“That’s not true.” Gia stood and put her gloves on before picking up her coffee. “I have a fantastic artistic eye. I can see you’re a little heavy on the rouge, my dear.”
Gia bumped her hip against Flynn’s. “You know I’m jealous of your skills.”
“I keep telling you that I will teach you how to be a glamour puss like me.” Flynn draped his arm around her shoulders. “You have to be open.” He put his large hand with slender fingers on top of her head. “Let me spike out your hair. It’s short enough.”
Gia removed Flynn’s hand from her head. “No way. I’m fine with my tinted lip balm and my bed-head hair.”
“Good thing you’re a natural beauty. That’ll take you far when you finally step out of your comfort zone and pursue that career.”
“Speaking of which—”
Flynn cut her off. “I know. Back to the grind.” He looked at her before pushing the door open. “Bundle up, buttercup.”
Gia ducked her face down into her coat as she followed her friend out of the cozy coffee shop. She and Flynn made quick work of getting back to Talmadge. As soon as she walked into her photo studio area, Rex Downer, the manager of the store and her boss, stood behind her counter waiting for her.
Rex stood a good half a foot over her already tall stature. With his slim frame, though, Gia found it hard to take him too seriously, although she respected him as her boss. He wore suits to the store every day, but always smelled of moth balls. His light blue eyes would have been sexy on anyone else. On him, they seemed like a waste.
“Where have you been?” He came around the counter.
“I went to Beans and Buns across the street for a coffee.” Gia removed her winter shield and hid her coat, hat, and gloves under the counter. “I put up the out-of-office sign like you asked.” She removed it to prove her point. “And I checked the schedule. My next appointment is not scheduled to come in for another hour.”
“Yes, but we don’t discourage walk-ins. What if one of our customers wanted to make an appointment?” The more he talked, the higher his pitch became until it sounded like he started to shout.
“Are you saying that customers coming in here to buy socks and underwear will decide on their way out to sit down for a picture suitable enough to hang in their home?” Gia didn’t want to sound like she wanted to laugh, but she knew the snicker would be coming.
She knew about the websites dedicated to chronicling the strange customers that visited Talmadge. Sad to say, she had seen almost all of them. The best part: none of them stopped at her studio to commemorate their visit.
“If they don’t sit down for a session during their visit, they may make an appointment. The point is that you need to be here to make sure to take care of their needs.” He smoothed his hands down his lapels, which only kicked up the putrid chemical smell that stuck to him even more.
Gia took a step back. “I’m more than happy to be accommodating; however, according to the law, during my eight-hour shift I’m entitled to at least two fifteen-minute breaks and a half hour lunch. Are you saying as a representative of the Talmadge brand that you don’t feel that way?”
Rex pursed his lips, which made him look like a turtle, especially with his bald head. “Get back to work.” He stormed away from the studio area.
Yep, Gia needed to get another job. She needed to get away from feeling lower than her capabilities. As much as she hated to admit it, she had to agree with Flynn’s advice. Hopefully Professor Duvall would have some good news for her. She’d gotten a great grade from his class.
As soon as Gia finished with her last customer and forwarded proofs to them, she went back to her alma mater in Virginia Beach headed up by a famous, if not controversial, tele-evangelist.
The impressive campus held several large brick buildings. She went to the one in the center that also housed the studio where they did most of their religious telecasts. Gia didn’t subscribe to their spiritual thinking. The university had an impressive film school and the equipment she needed to learn the craft.
She went down the hallway that blinded her with the white ceiling tiles, white walls, and white tile floors. When she got to the end of the hallway, she knocked on her professor’s partially opened door.
“Gia?” His deep voice held such a rich tone, it could have opened the door for her.
“Yes, sir.” She stepped into his cramped office that could only fit his chair, a desk, and a chair in front of his desk.
She wanted to hug him, but Professor Duvall remained seated. He did, however, extend his hand to her.
Gia kept smiling as she shook his hand but her insides started to compress into a ball. “Nice to see you again.”
“Have a seat.” He pointed to the chair in front of his desk.
When Gia sat in it, her knees bumped against the front of his desk. The sting of the hit had her gritting her teeth, but she didn’t want to show him her discomfort.
“I don’t want to waste your time,” Duvall began. He set his hands in a teepee on his desk and looked over them.
“Okay.” Gia found it harder and harder to show a pleasant front as she observed his serious countenance.
“I heard that you put in for an assistant director job at a local news station.”
Gia perked up. Duvall probably put in a good word for her. Maybe he had some good news. “Yes, I did. I did an internship with the station. I produced a couple of really good stories, including that exposé on the power company and that new pipeline project. I submitted them for part of my final project.”
“What about that other story you were going after, the one about that sanitation company? Anything ever come about on that?”
At this close range, Gia noticed a small scar over her professor’s upper lip. It made her wonder how he’d gotten it. Fight with a lover? Rough play with a sibling? Cut on a soda can?
“I’ve emailed them. I call. I can’t get in.” She shrugged.
“For those types of stories, you can’t sit back and wait for the opportunity to come to you. Make something happen.” He wagged his finger at her. “That’s part of the reason I have you in here.”
“My résumé to the station?” She shifted in her seat.
Duvall nodded. The top of his shaved head looked to be covered with sweat. Strange considering the freezing temperatures. He scratched his salt-and-pepper beard. “They contacted me for a recommendation.”
She beamed. When she noticed his dour expression, her shoulders slumped. “I’m sure as your favorite student, you gave me a glowing commendation, right?” She thought the joke would have lightened the mood in the room. It didn’t.
“I can’t recommend you for that job.” He shook his head.
Gia could no longer put up a good front. She felt her bottom jaw unhinge. The compression that twisted her gut now tied it up completely. She could barely breathe let alone think. “Why?”
“You aren’t ready for that. You already can’t go after a simple story.” Duvall pulled open a drawer and pulled out a folder. “Look at these.” He placed some photos on the desk in front of her.
They contained shots of couples—some kissing, some in much racier poses, and others with parents and their children.
“Okay, good pictures. Why are you showing me these and what do they have to do with me wanting to work in the news?” She crossed her arms over her chest, careless of how it looked.
He pointed to the pictures. “Really look at them. What do you see?”
Gia stared at the shots. “I don’t know. Lovers. Couples. Families.”
Duvall held up the first picture of a couple kissing. “These people are actors and they were asked to kiss for the shot.” He held up the more intimate photo. “This couple was posing nude in an art class. They stopped long enough to let the photographer get this shot.” He held up the last picture. “This is a child asking a woman for directions.”
Gia glanced at the pictures again, keeping the context in mind now. “Okay, so these people are all strangers.”
“Yes, they are. The point is the photographer tricked the observer into seeing more. Context is as important in photography as content. This photographer knows how to involve himself into the subject matter without losing himself.” Duvall pulled out some more pictures. He placed them on his desk next to the other shots.
Gia recognized them right away as her pictures she took while in school. She photographed buildings and sculptures. If people wandered into the shot, she didn’t mind. Gia adopted a technique that would blur their faces, like the people moved at the speed of light and she managed to catch them bolting away.
Each time she took a photograph like that, she felt a sense of accomplishment. She certainly didn’t think not showing people would be a detriment to her career.
“You are a skillful photographer. But you lack a bit of compassion for your subjects.” Duvall shook his head.
“That’s not fair. I was shooting buildings, not humans.” She pushed the pictures back.
“Humans? See. Right there shows the disconnect.” Duvall scooped up the pictures and put them back in his desk. “You need to open yourself up more to your subjects. Be empathetic. Show care. Show viewers your heart in each picture. You do that, I’ll push for you to get a local job with the news in the directing field if that’s what you want.”
Gia clenched her jaw so tight that her head ached.
“Until then, you may want to think about coming back to school for the graduate program.” Duvall picked up a pen. “Maybe another internship will help strengthen your skills.”
So not only had her favorite teacher shot down her dream, he tried giving her a sales pitch.
Gia jumped up to her feet. In the process she banged both knees against his desk, which shifted it a bit. She ignored the stinging pain as she shuffled her way to his door. Duvall held his hand out and looked like he wanted to ask her about her wellbeing.
“Thank you for your time and honesty.” She shook his hand although she really wanted to drag him over the desk and pummel the man. “I’m surprised that after working so hard and spending so much time and money here that I’m now given honest feedback about my performance after I’ve graduated.”
“This shouldn’t be a surprise to you. We’ve talked about this before. You’re competent.”
“Competent?” Gia secured her purse on her shoulder. “You have a good night, Mr. Duvall. I appreciate everything you’ve done for me.”
“Yet I don’t really feel that you do.” He pointed to her. “You’re not ready to tell people what to do. And you’re too timid to go after what you want. Give it some time. Eventually after some experience under your belt, you will.”
Gia didn’t give him a chance to expound any more than that. She ran down the hallway to get out of the building as fast as she could. She wouldn’t be defined by what Duvall thought. She knew what she could do. She would prove to Duvall, Downer, and anyone else who doubted her how wrong they had been.
When Gia got to her car, she pulled out her phone to call Flynn immediately. She spotted the message she forwarded to herself about the production assistant job with Ananda Morton. This could be her ticket to show them all. She would have to make her own way.