These are unedited chapters! Ignore typos for now!
© JJ Knight
So, I’m naked.
In a tent.
The tent only has three sides.
Aaaaaand…it’s in the middle of a parking lot.
But that’s not all.
A woman blocks the fourth, open side of the tent.
She’s a willowy bottle-blonde with a tight black shirt that says “Ride ‘em Shiny.”
And she’s hosing me down.
Now, you may wonder how a man arrives at a scene like this in broad daylight.
I’ve got nothing but time to explain as the woman tells me to spread my legs. I take a wide step, arms in the air, trying not to flinch in the spray.
I’m happy to tell you this story. It will distract me.
So first, you have to be rock hard.
Hey, now. Get your mind out of the gutter.
I like the gutter.
But right now I mean muscles.
Pecs. Gluts. Biceps. Lats.
To reach tent-in-a-parking-lot level, you’ll work out every day for at least a year, probably two.
Your diet will be strict. Lean meat, measured carbs.
You’ll go through bulking periods to put on muscle, then a cutting phase so that you burn the fat out of the creases.
On the last day, you have to dehydrate so your skin pulls tight and every sinew is revealed. And you will eat like a maniac, infusing those muscles with carbs so they’ll plump out.
Then, and only then, will you find yourself in a tent behind an arena, butt naked, getting a spray of tan and oil before you go on stage to compete in a regional bodybuilding competition.
That’s where I’m headed next.
You with me?
Well, not with me.
Your eyes might be bugging out if that were the case.
But you can picture it now, right?
Me. Naked. Muscles. Oil.
Is your mind in the gutter again?
The spray is cold and brown, like being pelted with chocolate milk.
Which is kinda…gross.
That might have melted your lady boner.
Well, unless you like licking chocolate milk off—
“Take a quarter-turn, honey,” the woman says. “Got to get all the pale bits.”
Pale bits. I’m not exactly pasty on a normal day here in sunny California. But for the lighting and the stage, you have to be really dark for your muscles to shine.
Plus, there are parts of me where generally the sun don’t shine.
“Turn again,” the lady says, and now I’m facing her, all the goods on display. She works like a pro, her gloved hand shifting the dangling parts aside so she can get my thighs.
As she bends, I spot dozens of people milling around the parking lot. It’s a big regional competition. People peer in, and I guess I’ll have to get used to it. If women can stick their heels in stirrups and pop out a kid in a roomful of onlookers like my cousin Greta did, then I suppose I can just shut my trap about getting gawked at by strangers wandering by my tanning tent.
I am, after all, expected to put my body on display. The tight competition trunks don’t cover up much more than this woman’s pale blue glove.
“I’m gonna put a finish on it,” she says, and I stifle a wisecrack. I’m sure she’s heard them all. For now, I’ll keep my crusty remarks to myself.
The woman sprays another pass, then steps back to assess me. “Lookin’ good, baller,” she says. “Make a slow turn so I can do a final check.”
I do as she says. Good thing I’m not shy.
“All right. Give it a sec to dry. Don’t touch anything you don’t have to, and don’t scratch any itches!”
She clips a towel over the opening so I can stand there without an audience. I let out a long breath. I’m dying of thirst.
I got to eat a huge breakfast this morning, part of making sure my muscles aren’t “flat” for the big day. It was heaven, honestly, after the dieting of the last ten weeks. Four orders of French Toast, three sides of hashbrowns, and six scrambled eggs.
Unfortunately, I only got to drink half a cup of black coffee with it.
Prejudging is in an hour, but the evening show is when the audience will arrive. I will probably eat carb loads several times today, but I won’t be able to take more than a few sips of water until it’s all over. Otherwise, I risk bloating my hard work.
I touch my chest. Damn, I’m dark. My arms look like they come from someone else’s body.
It seems dry enough, so I slide my posing trunks on carefully, trying to avoid too much pressure on any one spot. But they’re tight, and it’s like a wrestling match to get them in place.
Nobody tells you about this part, not even my best bud and training partner Franklin. And I thought he’d told me all the bad shit.
I finally manage to get the tiny blue trunks in place and everything tucked in. I snatch up a loose hoodie and slide it on. Next, baggy sweatpants that avoid rubbing the tan, but will keep my legs warm. It’s not cold out, but Franklin warned me that letting my muscles use their glycogen stores to keep warm will lessen their bulge when it’s time.
I’m trying to do everything right.
I slide into my slip-on shoes and shoulder my bag to head out of the tent. The woman gives me a wink as I lay a tip in her hand. “Good luck, baller.”
I mumble my thanks and take off. After that show of flesh, I could use a beer. But I won’t be doing that anytime soon.
The parking lot’s a circus. Tents for supplements and weight systems line up in a row, banners whipping in the wind. Men pose with women in bikinis dangling on their arms.
There’s skin everywhere. Bronzed, shiny, bulked up bodies are on display in every direction. They aren’t competing, obviously. You can separate us by what we’re wearing. The marketers don’t need to protect their tan or keep their muscles warm. They’re selling stuff and trying to show off what it can do.
I wave off several who approach with samples and swag. I was supposed to meet Franklin five minutes ago. His prejudging is in less than an hour. He wants to give me a pep talk and make sure I look the part.
I fish my badge out of my bag and flash it at the guard sitting by the back door. Then I’m inside, air conditioning flowing over me like a Bahaman breeze.
The pre-staging area is a madhouse. Some weight categories are already headed to the stage, so tricked-out bodies turn sideways to avoid bumping into each other and messing up their perfect oil. The air is full of tension and angst.
I spot Franklin grabbing his pin at the registration table. He’s prepped and ready, a loose towel across his shoulders, slip-on shoes, and red trunks. His tan is glossy and perfect.
He’s a regular on the regional circuit. When I first started, he was a beast compared to me. But during this last bulking phase, my muscle mass developed past his. We’re in different weight classes now, and I’m glad we don’t compete against each other.
I spot an empty bit of wall out of the way of the crowd, a place to stand and wait until Franklin leaves the line. The sea of bronzed humans fascinates me.
I don’t think I would’ve taken up the call if I hadn’t reconnected with Franklin. We were roommates at UCLA as undergrads, but lost touch as I started running my family deli.
When I felt the excess of too much pastrami on rye, I asked around for a good workout joint. Franklin had been the one to recommend Buster’s Gym. Thing is, it’s an old-school, free-weights place where once you start pushing hard, you need a qualified spotter to work in pairs.
He was already competing and needed someone more reliable than his current training buddy. Even though I was a wad of flab compared to him in those early days, I got bitten by the fitness bug and soon both of us were hitting the weight room five or six days a week.
When I started putting on muscle, it became a bit of an obsession. Franklin motivated me to push as well as kept me in check. He reminded me that there was life outside the gym, and after my brother Jason screwed up his own franchise good and hard by ignoring it, I knew I needed to find some balance between my workouts and my business.
Today is the day I will test that balance.
I don’t expect to compete anywhere near the top. But there’s always the possibility that I’ll get up there and knock everybody dead.
I don’t how I’ll manage my business if that happens, but I guess I can only do what Grammy always says, and crunch that pickle when I get to the jar.
Franklin leaves the desk and spots me. His stride is confident as he threads his way through the crowd. I hope this is his night. He’s waited a long time to qualify for nationals and the journey to a pro card.
He holds out his arm for a fist bump, because even a handshake can impact the smoothness of his oil and tan at this late stage, “How are you feeling?” he asks.
“A little nervous that I’m gonna screw up.”
“No way. Amy is a great posing coach. Just don’t let the nerves get to you.”
He surveys my face and hands. “You’re good and dark.”
“Just got my last round done.”
“You carb up this morning?”
“You have more carbs and some weights to get your pump before you go on?”
He smacks my shoulder. “I think you’re going to do great. You’re a natural. Let’s take a look at that tan.”
I unzip my top.
Franklin frowns. “She was in a hurry. I see some areas where it could’ve been blended better. Take that off.”
In any other situation, having two people examining each other’s mostly naked skin would mean something else entirely. But here, it’s happening all across the room. Women adding bronzer to the cleavage of other women. Dudes kneeling in front of other dudes’ junk, adjusting the fit of an elastic band.
Frankin tilts his head. “It’s probably good enough. Turn around, though. Your rear lat spread is where it’s at. You don’t want to have points deducted after all the work you’ve done on it.”
He’s right. My back is my strong suit, according to our posing coach. It’s where I’ll have an advantage.
I turn and hear a sudden intake of air. Franklin’s voice could peel paint. “I don’t know what the hell she did, but you’ve got a white line going down your spine.”
“What?” I turn my head as far as it will go, like a dog chasing his tail.
“The spray has to dry before you relax a pose or it will pull the color. It can even wreck an old tan.” Franklin says. “The most amateur tanning artist should know that.”
My gut twists. Pro Tan had me wait. I remember that now. Miss Ride ‘Em Shiny had rushed me through. “How bad is it?”
“Enough to blow the score on your rear lat.”
Well, shit. “What do I do?”
“Let me see if I can track down Camryn.”
When I turn around, Franklin already has the phone to his ear. His eyebrows are drawn together and his expression is murderous. I want a mirror to see how bad this is, but despite all the people preening in the room, there aren’t any.
I watch Franklin, tempted to pull my jacket back on, afraid of feeling ridiculous. How can I go on stage like this?
He finally speaks. “Yes, I know I’m supposed to text you. I was afraid you wouldn’t look at it.”
He pauses. “My buddy Max is doing his first show today and some craptastic amateur gave him a spine line.”
The squawk in his ear is so loud he pulls the phone several inches away from his head.
When it quiets, he says, “Over by registration,” and shoves the phone in his bag.
“So your sister can help?” I ask.
His jaw hardens for a moment, and I have no idea why. I’ve never met his sister. Maybe they don’t get along.
He leads me over to a quieter corner. “She’s a pro among pros and booked solid today, but I can’t let you go up like that.”
“So she’s coming?”
“She’s going to squeeze in a three-minute patch job on you.” He walks behind me again and grunts in irritation. “Bro, next time you need a tan, sign up in advance.”
“I got the first two done by Pro Tan like you said.”
“And who did this horrid last-minute job?”
I don’t want to say the name. But Franklin’s in my face. He probably feels like he blew all the time he’s put into me.
“Ride ‘em Shiny,” I finally admit.
Franklin spins away, his hands on his head. “Ride ‘em fucking Shiny? Do you know who their primary clients are?”
“No.” My voice sounds a stony as I feel, but my gut drops when Max utters his next two words.
I might be short, but I’m hard to intimidate.
The woman in front of me is over six feet tall even before you account for her three-inch heels. She towers over my head like an alien creature ready to devour me whole. I’m five-two. My rainbow sparkle Converse do not help with the height differential.
And this woman is pissed.
“I have been your client for two damn years,” she hisses down at me. “And you’re saying you can’t give me ten minutes right now?”
This woman could break me in half. No doubt she could bench press my measly body weight when she was ten. She wears a sunny yellow competition bikini over her even deep-black skin, her hair swept up in a burst of perfectly arranged white braid extensions.
Her false eyelashes blink at me as if I don’t have the mental competence to understand her problem.
I steady my breath. “Tanisha, you are one of my star clients, and you know how much care I put into every single competitor on my list. But competition day gets booked solid. You didn’t even tell me you were competing today, or I would’ve left a big lovely spot for you.”
I pull a brush from a sling lined with tools like a soldier carries bullets. “Let me blend your jawline a touch.” I run the soft bristles over her skin. She doesn’t need any fixing. She just needs me.
“Let me see your shoulders. You know those are what get you points.” She turns and I run the brush in all the shadows.
“There,” I say as she makes her way back around. “You are perfect. You have the Camryn stamp of approval.”
Her eyes mist a bit, and she touches a finger to the corner of her perfect lashes. “Thank you, love.”
“Book me for the real deal next one, okay? Send me your calendar.”
She leans down for an air kiss, then I hurry for the door.
I do feel bad that I can’t do a final prep on her. Women in particular have extra needs on competition day. Cleavage shadowing, extra taping. Blending their face makeup into their neck and shoulders.
But even though I’m careful not to overbook, today is especially crazy. It’s the first regional competition of the season, and everybody’s hungry, stressed-out, dehydrated, and on edge.
It’s my job not only to make them look good, but also to keep them calm, and most importantly, avoid letting them psych themselves out.
I feel like an absolute misfit among the bronze and oiled skins. My complexion is incredibly fair, and even though I am known for my perfect tans, I rarely apply one to myself. I’m sort of like the handyman who never fixes his own sink. Or the gardener whose rosebushes always need pruning. I’m bathed in chemicals, oils, and bronzers all day long. When I’m alone, it’s nice to escape it.
I glance at my phone. This was supposed to be my five-minute sandwich break before attending to the next set of clients preparing for prejudging.
But no, my brother Franklin has called me with a charity case, a new training partner who apparently thinks any tan will do for competition.
It’s unlikely I will be able to do much other than fill in some splotches or blend a stripe. If it’s an overall hack job, I won’t be able to fix it. No time.
I haven’t met this new partner. I know they’ve been training together a while, but I have to limit my time with my brother. I love Franklin, but he’s got the mother of all big-brother complexes, and he tries to control more of my life than he has any reason to.
Hopefully, his friend isn’t the same alpha, overbearing sack of machismo. If both of them try to tell me what to do, I’m going to have to walk away.
“Camryn!” squeals Amanda Johnson, a trainer who sends me lots of referrals. She’s fit and perfect in a hot pink exercise bra and matching cheetah print yoga pants. She likes to be seen.
I notice a fine white line in the crook of her elbow and a subtle streak across her shoulder. She should have me do her tans, but she doesn’t like my rates. Still, she looks good. Her green eyes sparkle as she gives me a quick hug. “I don’t want to keep you from your busy day. Did you finish up on Sean?” He’s one of her clients.
“I did. He looks great. He’s probably already getting out there, right?”
“He’s all lined up. We’re hoping third time’s the charm!”
She tweaks my hair, pulled back in a ponytail so it doesn’t get caught in my work. “Love these auburn streaks. It’s glorious.”
I can’t even thank her for the compliment before she’s off. I try to hurry, but I’m stopped three more times by clients. I try to give each of them just the right amount of loving attention while also making clear I need to move on. The sandwich will have to wait. I have pretty much zero time to help out Franklin’s friend before I locate my ten o’clock.
The sharp scent of chemicals and oils in the air makes me feel buoyantly alive. This is my scene. I started out doing tans and brow waxes in a low-end nail salon where I was paid by the hour.
But I studied and trained and decided to be the best at one thing only. It was Franklin’s idea to start catering to the bodybuilder crowd. I could command higher prices there, and during competition season, I can make enough money to last all year. Suggesting it was one of his finer moments.
I’m my own boss, and I love what I do. When one of my clients wins, I feel like I had a little part in that. Six of my bodybuilders have earned their pro cards. Of course, traveling to shows all over the world means that they have to leave my client list, but maybe one day I will have a great rapport with someone who hits it so big that they can afford to take me along.
I grew up in L.A. and have never left it, but I have dreams of other cities, glitzy dressing rooms, and the biggest show of them all — Mr. Olympia.
I enter the main registration area, and it’s a madhouse. The light heavyweights are about to go on stage, including my brother. Heavyweights are starting to filter in for registration and weigh in. I’m not sure if this friend is in the same class as my brother or not. I guess I’ll find out.
Searching this crowded room is a lot like someone from Munchkin Land trying to see through giants. I mainly get an eyeful of well-oiled backs and beefy biceps.
I pause, not sure I’m ever going to be able to spot my brother without standing on a chair, when one of my clients known as The Behemoth spots me craning my neck.
“Sweet Camryn,” he says, taking my hand in his two enormous bear claws. His head is bald and shiny and as perfectly tan as his face and body.
I completed his look early this morning even though his competition isn’t for hours. He likes to strut around the grounds and talk to all the competitors, old and new. He’s in his fifties, which shows a little in the crinkles around his eyes, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at his physique. He’s never hit the big time, and probably never will, as his symmetry is off. But he’s a friendly beast, and most everyone loves him.
“Big B,” I say. “Do you see my brother in all this chaos? I’m trying to find him.”
The Behemoth scans the room. “Yeah. He’s in the far corner.”
“I’ll take you to him.”
The Behemoth clears the way as we cross. I spot tons of people I know, clients of mine, trainers who refer them to me, and people who are on my waiting list. Everyone wants to curry my favor. Now that I’ve sent so many people into the pro level, I’m something of a good-luck charm. Everyone wants to tweak my hair and shake my hand, hoping that pixie dust will rub off on them.
As we approach, I spot Franklin standing next to a tall man who looks like a deer caught in the headlights.
It always amazes me that these outrageously built men can get completely paralyzed by the idea of going out on stage. They could break a log over someone’s head with ease, but ask them to step in front of an audience and they turn into timid frogs.
This one is awfully handsome, though, and his anxiety is apparent in his how he bites his extraordinarily kissable lip.
My heart squeezes for only a second, then I remind myself that the last person I would ever want to be interested in is a friend of my brother.
He bounces on his feet, full of nervous energy, worried he’s screwed up.
And if Franklin is right, he has.
I guess I’ll have to save his damn day.
When the registration crowd starts parting, I wonder if there’s some bodybuilding celebrity entering the room. People smile. Others wave. But everyone seems to know whoever’s coming.
Franklin says, “That’s her. Come on.”
She must be tiny, because even as people step away, I don’t see her. There is, however, some giant brute of a bodybuilder pushing the crowd aside.
I follow Franklin until a diminutive woman steps out of the masses.
And my heart turns over. She’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before. Her hair is long, almost to her waist despite being pulled into a ponytail, alternating in streaks of rich brown and deep mahogany red.
Her eyes are the ever-changing gray of storm clouds and fringed with dark lashes. If she wears any makeup, it’s too natural for me to see it.
I tighten every muscle in my body involuntarily, realizing that even in my outrageously fit state, I still pale in comparison to many of the bronzed gods throughout the room. And judging by their interest in her, she can have any one of them she wants.
She’s dressed no-nonsense in a black tank and gray yoga pants. She might not be muscular like the other women, but every inch is perfectly toned. In this room of dark, shining skin, she is a perfect pale moon.
Only when Franklin lets out a feral growl do I realize that he’s practically challenging every man who might be looking at his sister. Thankfully, his angry gaze targets the crowd and not the best friend behind his back.
I blink a few times to clear my horn-dog expression and give her a quick nod. “You must be Camryn,” I say, since Franklin is too involved in his glaring matches to introduce us. “Apparently, I screwed up.”
Franklin snaps to attention at that. “Ride ‘em Shiny,” he tells her.
Camryn shifts her weight to one hip, cocking it out in an are you kidding me stance. “How bad is it?”
“Turn around,” Franklin orders me.
I’m still holding everything tight and suck it in even harder as I pivot in a half-circle, my jacket and bag clutched in my fist.
“Good Lord,” she whispers.
This lets the air out of my sails, and I relax my muscles in defeat. “Can you fix it?”
Her voice is sharp. “I have exactly negative two minutes to get to my next paying client, but yes, I can fix it.”
My manners tell me to let her off the hook, to learn my lesson and take the loss in points. But before I can say a word, her finger presses against my spine.
“Back into your rear lat pose,” Camryn barks. “Don’t let up until I say so.”
Her tone could make a drill sergeant stand at attention. I tighten back up. The spread of something creamy cools the middle of my back.
“You’ve got at least six pale blotches back here. When you step on stage, they’ll blast like headlights if we don’t fix them.” Her fingers trail across my shoulders, and an airy floral scent hits my senses. I take her in, the smell, the touch, the memory of her face and luscious hair.
It’s a total sensory assault.
I stay fixed in a hard flex. Every muscle burns, but I can handle it. It’ll get a hell of a lot worse when I’m on stage and have to stay semi-flexed until the judges finish their comparisons. I have this terrible need to impress her, even if I’m way down the list of winning candidates in this crowd.
People move around us, a few pausing to comment on her work. Camryn shifts to my side and a soft breast brushes against my bicep. Her eyes flit up to meet mine, and I’m a goner. Hook. Line. Sinker. I can barely swallow, and if my mouth was dry before, it’s the floor of the desert now.
“I’m going to work on your neck while the back dries. It’s a mess,” she says.
I stand there, chin up, feeling every inch of her near me. It’s been a while since I’ve dated anybody. First it was the deli taking all my time, then my fitness obsession. I’m constantly running to New York for one thing or another, and recently I had to head to the French Riviera to knock some sense into my brother.
I could definitely stand the company of a woman in my life.
Maybe this one.
Something clunks the back of my skull, and I realize it’s the round end of a brush. “Stop sweating,” Camryn commands.
I feel a trickle on my temple. She’s right, but how am I supposed to stop? Just being this close to her is making me perspire like a man on death row.
Franklin comes around to my front. “They just called my class. I have to pump. Knock ‘em dead, Max. Camryn will fix you right up.”
“You too, man. I’ll be cheering from the side when I’m done here.”
Franklin’s eyes quickly dart to his sister, then me, but he gives me a quick nod. “See you after.”
Camryn’s work feels even more awkward with Franklin gone. I can’t squelch the feeling that I’m overstepping. And if he knew what I was thinking, he’d crack my jaw.
I shift my head to look back at her. “I’m sure what you’ve done so far is plenty. It’s my first time to compete. I’m not expecting to place or anything.”
The brush thumps the back of my head again. “Listen here. This entire room has seen me working on you. You have no choice but to let me make you as perfect as everyone expects my work to be.”
I think about the sea of people greeting her. She’s a regular, obviously. “You’re that good?”
She rounds my front and those stormy gray eyes meet mine. My knees waver. I’m so sunk.
But her voice could cut steel. “Whatever you’re thinking of, I’m twice that.”
I grunt out an obliging laugh. “So I should shut up and let you do your work?”
While our eyes stay locked, everything around us fades away. The people, the noise, the pushing and shoving and angst and anxiety.
Something flows between us, an energy that threatens to knock me off my feet. I tune into every detail about her, the long lashes, the upsweep of her hair, one spiraling tendril lying close to her ear. I could stand here a million years, taking in her face.
Someone greets us, and Camryn seems to shake herself, nodding hello, then dropping her gaze to a funny belt that holds a dozen brushes. The moment is over.
I want to say something smart and bold, but I can only point to an empty loop. “You’re missing one.” It’s probably a boneheaded, obvious thing, but my mind feels erased. What else could I say? I think I love you? Where have you been all my life? You must be an angel because I think I’m in heaven?
Nothing runs through my head but bad pick-up lines.
Camryn pats a small zipper pouch on her hip. “I keep the used ones in here until I can clean them. I have a good system.”
“Conscientious. I like that.”
Her phone buzzes. “That’s my next client, no doubt wondering where I am.”
“Like I said, I’m sure you’ve done a great job.”
She pulls out a brush, her eyes on the end as if she’s considering bonking me with it like before. “We haven’t even looked at your legs,” she says. “You’re heavyweight right? So you have an hour until you go on stage?”
“Come with me. My next client is always well prepared. I’m more or less there to give her confidence. I should be able to do a quick bit on her, and then I can finish you before your warm-up.”
She twirls the brush in a small canister. “And we can work as we walk. Go. Toward the hall to the left.”
I do as she says. Somewhere in the back of my head, I think about how I should be running through my poses, warming up slowly, and getting my head straight for this first appearance on stage.
But if Camryn’s right, my tan will hurt my chances. And besides, I couldn’t leave her if I wanted to. My gaze is superglued to her, even as she glides a brush along my biceps while we walk.
It’s wild watching Camryn work the crowd as she passes through. She greets everyone, slow and easy, as if she has all the time in the world. But she never actually stops, never gets drawn into a lengthy conversation. And her attention stays on my skin, her brush, the never-ending application of shadows and fill.
We duck into a small side room where a darkly bronzed woman in a gold lamé bikini squeals upon seeing Camryn.
“I’m so glad to see my lucky charm,” she croons.
The two women air kiss. “Dahlia, you look divine,” Camryn murmurs, and it’s the warmest voice I’ve heard from her so far. “I’m going to emphasize these glorious triceps a touch more. This is where your points are. You’re gonna kill them with these.”
Dahlia closes her eyes, her long fake eyelashes resting on her cheeks. She visibly relaxes as through Camryn’s words are a drug to her anxiety.
She’s good. Really good.
“Let me get those cheekbones,” Camryn says, stroking something a shade darker along the woman’s face, and then something shimmery on the line above. Dahlia looked good before, but now her face is absolutely chiseled, like a Grecian statue.
“Run through your routine for me,” Camryn says. “Show me everything you do, and I’ll make sure there isn’t a flaw on you.”
Dahlia shifts and turns, rolling fluidly through the poses I’m familiar with, minus the two that women aren’t required to perform.
Camryn flutters her brush across the indentions in Dahlia’s skin as she moves.
When Dahlia sweeps into her final side bicep pose, Camryn stands back, tapping the blunt end of her brush on her cheek.
“Just one more thing.” She leans forward to add one more brush along the woman’s abs.
Delia catches me looking and gives me a big wink. “Is this your man candy or can anybody take a lick?”
Camryn tucks her brush away. “He’s my brother’s training partner.”
Apparently, I don’t even warrant a name.
“He looks nervous.” Dahlia’s voice drops into a low purr.
Camryn steps away, looking between the two of us. “I’d introduce you, but Dahlia, you’ve only got ten minutes to get to pre-stage.”
They air kiss again. The whole thing has been incredible to watch. I wonder if Camryn’s at all perturbed. If she is, I can’t tell.
Dahlia passes so close to me that the gold fabric of her bikini top brushes my arm. “I could eat you for lunch.”
I flash a rye grin. “Probably not enough carbs for a good pump.”
Dahlia’s perfectly arched eyebrows lift in surprise. “A sense of humor. Do find me later.” Then she’s out the door.
In any other circumstance, I might have given that woman my name, number, and the combination to my safety deposit box.
But now I’d met Camryn. Nobody could hold a candle to her.
Plus the way she watched our exchange makes it clear she expects me to try to hook up with Dahlia.
And I don’t like being predictable.
“All right, Romeo,” Camryn says. “Get out of those pants and let me see what other disaster awaits. I hope you learned your lesson. Stay away from any company that has a last-minute slot on competition day. Every reputable tanner is booked at least two weeks out.”
A woman enters and announces the stage check for the women competitors. The room quickly empties.
Camryn waits for me to shed my pants. I almost trip over them, anxious and unsure. Damn, but she’s getting to me. I toss them on the floor with my bag and hold out my arms.
“Tell me the damage.”
Camryn makes a slow walk around me, tapping the end of a brush against her cheek.
“You smeared it here when you put on your trunks. You should always wear them for your final day tan to avoid this.” Her hand smooths something low on my ass, and everything in my body goes warm.
My eyes blink shut, and I try to concentrate on something other than her touch. I run through my poses, picturing myself on the stage.
Something bonks my nose and I open my eyes to see Camryn standing there again. “I have your back acceptable. You shouldn’t lose any points.”
Before I can even get in a thank you, the end of her brush pokes my chest. “But we have to do something about these abs. You have a light patch just below your navel in the critical area from belly button to…”
She hesitates. “Below.”
I don’t know what she was going to call it, but apparently it’s a word she doesn’t want to use around me.
I can’t stifle my grin. “You saying my happy trail is too bright?”
She rolls her eyes. “I’m saying the lack of consistent color won’t do you any favors with the judges.”
“Do with me what you must.”
Okay, now hold up.
I have to pause the story here.
Because this, my friend, is where things really get awkward.
As I look down, my best friend’s little sister gets on her knees in front of my junk. Her eyes flit up to my gaze, and those eyelashes about kill me.
She starts moving her hands along my belly, her fingers spreading something creamy on my skin.
My brain is no longer on this competition. It is not on my poses, or carbing up, or doing my pump, or where I need to be in half an hour.
I’m high, like I’ve just taken a shot of heroin straight to my veins. Every bit of energy in my being is focused on the motion of her hands.
I look down at her duotone hair, the hint of cleavage in that yoga top, and her perfect lips, mere centimeters from my competition trunks.
My swelling trunks.
She’s right there.
And these trunks are small.
Like, my-toddler-nephew-could-wear-them small.
I have to be tucked a very precise way to fit.
And things are moving.
I try to divert my thoughts. Corpses. Zombies. Rotting limbs. The entire cast of Walking Dead stomps through my inner vision.
It’s working, but not enough. I’m closing in on half-mast, and the elastic band of this these tiny trunks is about to pull away from the very belly she’s working on.
“How’s it coming?” I ask, then wince at the word I’ve just used. Coming. Really? Another rush of blood shifts from my brain to the parts of me that I really don’t need to be using right now.
“Almost there.” Camryn’s gaze lifts, and she’s so damn beautiful, and she’s in such a compromising position, that this is it. Full mast. I can feel the cool air hit the tip.
I whip around to face away from her.
But what do I say? Do?
My mind locks up.
“Max? You okay?”
Great. I have a name now. Now that my cock has come out to play. Did she see?
I blurt out the first thing that comes to mind. “I think I sweated. Can you check my back and see if I sweated off your work?”
Hell, yes, I’m sweating. My hairline is drenched.
“Seems okay,” Camryn says. “And I need to finish that patch in front.”
She hasn’t seen. She doesn’t know.
My only goal, the only thing in the whole damn world I care about, is getting this damn dick in place before I turn around. I have to stall.
“Uh, what about the back of my neck?”
I frantically try to shove my dick back in the shorts. Stop this, I warn it, and feel lightheaded when it springs right back out. Oh my God. How do I make it stop?
“It seems fine. Max, are you sure you’re okay?” Camryn tries to move around front, but I turn, too, keeping myself carefully out of view. Except now, of course, I’m facing the door.
“I’m fine. Just nervous. I’m sure my abs are fine.” Sweat pours from my hairline. A trickle runs down my back.
A man enters the room, taking Camryn’s attention. I take the moment to snatch my jacket from the floor to cover my stupid turgid junk. Why now? Damn it! Fuck!
“Male heavyweights on deck,” he says. “Head to the staging area.”
“That’s me,” I say. “Can you send me a bill?”
Camryn grabs my arm and forces me to turn. I pin the jacket to my belly with my arm. I’m not going to let her take a single peek.
“What the hell is going on, Max?” She glares at me, and entire constellations shoot out her eyes like an angry ambush of stars.
“Just nerves. You’ll bill me?” I try to sidestep away from her, but she easily moves in my way.
“That’s it? Bill me? When I saved your damn bacon?” She snatches at the jacket. “What are you doing touching this to your skin? That oil is too fresh to—”
She stops talking abruptly. “Oh!”
I glance down.
And yeah. That’s it.
All the goods.
Standing straight at attention.
And my best friend’s sister just saw every damn inch.
Well, that’s impressive.
I can’t drag my eyes away from Max’s rather exuberant body part.
I’ve seen my fair share of male junk, both in my business, and outside of it.
But this one definitely has my attention.
Long. Thick. A beautiful blue vein pulses along one side.
It’s like it’s happy to see me.
But, it’s not for me.
He’s a client.
And a friend of my brother’s.
And a total stranger.
I take a few steps back. This boy needs some space.
He smacks the jacket in front of his crotch again, and I wince at what the pressure of the fabric is surely doing to his newly oiled belly.
The runner has left and the room is empty, so I close the door and twist the lock.
Max turns to the back wall, staring up and out the high windows, possibly wishing he could fly out of one right now.
I find some words. “So Dahlia got to you after all. You wouldn’t be the first.”
Max grunts. “Hardly.”
Is he saying that I caused this?
Not that no man’s ever had a reaction. You get all up close and personal with people’s skin, and things can happen.
But nobody’s ever actually flown out of their trunks before.
I’m not sure how to help, but I say, “You’ll be fine before you go on stage. The nerves will draw the —”
“Is there anything I can do?”
His body is held so stiffly that he could be made of granite.
I swallow my giggle.
To be honest, I’d take a Max statue in my living room. Especially in his current, er, state. My mind quickly drifts to an image of THAT, and then I have to push the thought away. The man is in distress.
I need to focus.
“I could talk about fire ants. Spoiled eggs. Bathtub mildew.”
“I’ve got plenty more. Sour milk. Roaches in a cereal box.”
He holds up a hand. “Okay, okay. I’ve got it. I’m nearly there.”
Nearly. But not all the way.
“You might have time to take it to its conclusion if you want me to step out. There is a lock.”
His head turns slightly, his jaw set. “This is one hell of a conversation to be having with my training partner’s sister.”
Now I have to bite my lip to avoid laughing. “Would it be better with someone else?”
He shakes his head. His back looks good now. Max may not realize it, but he’s already above two-thirds of the competition. If he can hold it together on stage, he has a shot at placing. I’ve never seen someone arrive at their first competition in such perfect shape.
And I would be lying if I didn’t say a few sparks weren’t flying in my girl parts.
Thankfully, it’s not so obvious as his.
“Should I go?” I ask.
“That might be helpful,” he said. “Apparently there’s something about you I can’t resist.”
“Oh.” Now that’s something. The newbie god has a weakness.
I feel like Meg in Hercules.
I take a few slow steps toward the door. “Well, it was fun. Interesting.”
“Thanks for your help.” His voice is monotone.
“All right, see you around.”
I unlock the door and slip out.
The halls are quieter now, so I take a moment to lean against the wall. My heart is hammering an awful lot over someone I just met.
For a moment, I entertain a little fantasy about going back in there, sliding those trunks right down, and straddling him in the ultimate one-off before sashaying away. I can almost feel those muscles under my hands again.
Max is a rare specimen of a man.
And he preferred me over Dahlia.
I haven’t dated anyone in a while, not since Don the Douche, who is here competing somewhere, despite my brother’s efforts to get him thrown out of the circuit.
That was a bad scene.
And a broken heart.
But that was last season.
Max is now.
He has the most perfect rumbly voice.
And a great sense of humor.
I have already touched a lot of him.
And seen even more.
Yeah, I’ve seen plenty.
I’m more than sparking now. It’s a straight-up ache. I’m not a one-night-stand sort of girl, but I could play one for a day.
My hand is actually on the handle when my phone buzzes.
I’m at the top of my game.
And it’s competition day.
I shake my head at what I was just contemplating.
Pull it together, Camryn.
I take a deep breath and head down the hall. It’s mostly empty now. The majority of competitors are either in prep, on stage, or are sitting in the seats to watch the other classes.
I need to head to the other dressing rooms and tackle my last two clients headed to prejudging. Then I will have about two hours before it all starts again for the evening show.
I won’t have a chance to go see Max on stage, sadly. I couldn’t even carve out time to see my brother.
But he’ll be around. All day.
I run through my phone schedule as I hurry to my next client. I’ll be done with everyone by the time the heavyweights go on for the evening show.
It might be fun to watch this Max fellow when he can’t see me gawking. Mostly naked. In the spotlight. Posing just for me. Well, and a thousand other spectators.
I haven’t thought about seeing someone since last year’s disaster.
Maybe it’s time I did.
Email or message Deanna/JJ with your thoughts.
I’m really looking for: Is it funny? Like “I’m dying” funny?
Is Max what you expected after Big Pickle?
Do you like Camryn?
Is this a MUST READ or is it sort of okay? Would you bump it to the top of your list or just get to it when you could get to it?
Thank you for reading!