It’s 2002, and South Dakota third grade teacher Ellen Jeffers has signed up for a photography summer course and assistantship at an art academy in Minneapolis. Thirty-three, divorced from her college boyfriend for nearly a decade, she’s not seeking major change. She just hopes the course will enhance her teaching skills and her resume.
Aaron Brewster comes from privilege, and he has used that status to flaunt his family’s values and carve out a successful career as a photographer specializing in black and white erotic portraiture. Has he ever loved? His love is for beauty, sensuality, eroticism. His new uptight teaching assistant will never fit that vision. Should he send her packing? For reasons he cannot fathom, he takes her on as a challenge.
Aaron’s frontal assault shocks Ellen, but it also triggers something deep inside she’s never been willing to acknowledge. Is her beloved prairie a safe refuge, or will it become a crucible for transformation? The choice is not merely Ellen’s.
Fixing his gaze on the rather stoic woman sitting across from him at the small table in his academy office, Aaron Brewster tried his best to get a good read on her. He’d spent much of his life reading women—their moods and their desires. He’d developed a reputation for being adept at capturing feminine subtleties in black and white.
Ellen Jeffers was one of those rare women who defied immediate description. She vacillated between projecting an air of haughtiness—which he supposed came with being a schoolteacher who seldom believed her audience understood her—to projecting an air of innocence characteristic of a girl from the South Dakota prairie making her way in the unfamiliar big city. And in between those poles, he witnessed prim and proper, mystery, smugness, disdain, awe, shyness, self-censure, and thankfully a spark or two of humor.
If she was going to work with him, he’d have to get her in front of the camera. It was through the camera lens that he could best sort out the nuances of a woman and his own feelings about her. Keeping his smile to himself, he wondered if his summer teaching assistant had ever posed in the nude.
He needed help with his tits-and-ass study, but the way Ellen Jeffers blanched at some of nude pics hanging on his office walls, he wasn’t sure she’d be helpful with that project. He’d take a wait-and-see position about her usefulness. At the very least, he needed an assistant comfortable enough in her own skin to help models prepare themselves for the scrutiny of the camera.
“Do you only do nude portraits?” Ellen asked, glancing quickly from one photo to another and back to him.
“Some subjects are partially clad,” he said dryly. “So does nudity bother you, Ellen? Is it okay if I call you Ellen? Given how close we’ll be working together, first names seem more natural.”
“Of course, please do.”
“And nudity?” He arched an eyebrow. “You are comfortable with nudity, right? You’ve been married. You’ve hung around art students, and you applied to this program.”
“My undergraduate college didn’t allow nude modeling.” She didn’t blink. “I had hoped to expand my knowledge of landscape photography or taking action pictures of children.”
“I see. You’re avoiding my question, but that’s okay. In case you’re wondering, I didn’t select you as my teaching assistant. You were the only person available when I returned from a conference. So if you want to blame someone for your misfortune, blame my colleagues. This is sort of like going on a blind date.” He paused. “I’ve only been on one. I didn’t like it.”
Ellen’s laughter came quick and a little harsh. “At least we can agree on that.” She swallowed. “So I guess it’s safe to assume that you don’t do weddings, family portraits and such.”
He shook his head. He’d love to have a window into the strawberry blonde’s brain as she appeared to check off her options. She didn’t have many, and he knew it. She could go back to South Dakota, but he’d already witnessed her grit. Ellen Jeffers wouldn’t run if she could manage at all.
She smacked her lips. “I haven’t spent much time around nudity”—she gave him a wry smile—”and much of that was in the dark. It may take me a while, but I’m sure I’ll be comfortable enough.”