Excerpt: Camellia

The metal sign that projected out from the shop read Camellia in curling script, the word cradled by delicate painted flowers that looked almost real. The shop itself was set up in a row house, one of many little boutique stores tucked away on Lark Street. The exterior was weathered red brick, and empty flower boxes lined the front window. In the warmer months, they were probably beautiful, but in December, they just looked a little sad.

Danny got out of her car; an old VW Beetle her dad had fixed up for her as a graduation gift, and fed the meter. She had just enough change for an hour. Surely that would be more than enough to do the interview and hopefully get the gig. Most employers who were looking for “alternative models” in the city of Albany went to her agency, and Danny hoped to be a popular choice soon, though she wasn’t quite there yet. She had some gorgeous tattoos, ranging from brilliant explosions of color on each of her forearms to the grayscale raven that decorated her chest right above her heart. She grew her dark hair out long enough to mimic anything from a pin-up girl to a geisha, and teaching yoga at the local YWCA helped her stay in photo-worthy shape. She had been at this modelling thing for only a few months, but the jobs she’d had were promising, and the agency had assured her of more soon if this one worked out, because she’d done well at the shoots so far.

Not that this job was a photo shoot. Danny barely restrained an eye roll as she stepped over the curb and headed to the front door. Live model wanted for a kink convention was the headline of the email she’d received from her agency only a few hours ago. Wanting the work and the experience, she’d accepted it without giving it a second thought. She guessed that meant she’d probably be bent over a table and spanked for an audience, all while wearing squeaky black latex that would likely make her uncomfortably sweaty. Danny was pretty sure she could handle that sort of thing, though she hadn’t done anything like it before. The bit with the tea, though … where was that supposed to come into it? She’d never been told to review a video before coming to an interview before, and all she’d gotten from the thing was that making tea wasn’t always as simple as popping a mug in the microwave and hitting Start. Maybe if she’d had more time to go over the video, she might have gotten something useful from it. But that hadn’t been possible.

Danny opened the door to the shop, stepped inside, and just … stopped for a moment. The bone-deep chill of the winter day melted away to welcoming warmth, and the air was filled with bright, grassy scents almost covering up a dark bitterness that might be chocolate. She looked around at the interior of the tea shop and felt a little like Harry Potter taking his first steps into Diagon Alley.

Camellia seemed a lot bigger on the inside than it had on the outside. The floor was a beautifully polished cherry wood, and the front of the shop had four little tables covered with lacey cloths, each one crowded with people sipping tea. Up and to the left looked like where a customer would place their order, and there was a line of people almost as far back as the front door waiting patiently for service from the two baristas.

On the other side of the shop was a series of long shelves that stretched along the wall, and neatly stacked on each shelf was a series of carefully labeled ceramic containers. A slim young man wearing an apron and a serious expression scooped some of the loose tea from a jar and bagged it for an older woman, who thanked him profusely. She headed to the checkout to pay, and Danny stepped forward before another customer could divert his attention.

“Excuse me,” she said, feeling a little gratified when he did a double take. She knew she looked good, in a tight red dress that perfectly matched her lipstick, a black leather jacket, red scarf, and knee-high boots, but it was always nice to get a confirmation. Admiration made bearing the cold a little bit easier. “I’ve got an appointment with Lucy Culpepper. Could you tell me where to find her?”

“Are you Miss Breaker?” Danny nodded. “Miss Culpepper said you’d be coming by. She’s in her office. Would you follow me?” She nodded again, and the young man led her past more shelves and small, tasteful displays featuring teapots, mugs, and one china service set decorated with marigolds that made Danny’s fingers twitch with a desire to pick a cup up and just hold it, just to admire it for a while. She mentally snorted at herself. Breakers were coffee people. They didn’t drink tea, and they certainly didn’t drink it out of ceramic so delicate she could almost see the light shining through it.

“Miss Danielle Breaker, I presume?”

Danny looked up at the sound of the gentle, faintly British voice behind her and turned to face the woman, her eyes going wide as she caught sight of her surprising outfit. From the elaborate strawberry blonde braid that fell down her back to the tips of her shiny black riding boots, this woman exuded class. She wore a flowing poet-style cream shirt tightly fitted under a brown corset that screamed steampunk to Danny, with its brass rings and buckles decorating the front panel. Though little of her skin was exposed, the corset and tight riding pants she wore left nothing to Danny’s over-active imagination.

Though she was surprised by the woman’s outfit, it was her eyes that ultimately refused to let Danny go. Or, more specifically, the way in which she was looking at Danny. Like she was somehow unimpressed with her before Danny even opened her mouth. It wasn’t a look Danny was familiar with or found herself particularly liking.

But the look also made Danny want to step up to the challenge, whatever it would be. “I usually like to be called Danny, but you can use Danielle if you really prefer it,” she said, bristling under the woman’s discerning stare as she stuck out her hand and tried not to be defensive.

She took Danny’s offered hand in her own and gave it a firm, brief shake before pulling away. “I appreciate your punctuality. Dalton,” she turned to address the young man, “bring the covered tray I’ve prepared in the kitchens to the ceremonial tea room. Miss Breaker, follow me, if you please.” Lucy turned and walked away at a brisk pace.

Danny trailed along behind her through a narrow, dimly lit hallway until Lucy turned into a brightly colored room awash with rich purples, greens, and reds. The room’s only window was shut; naturally, the view through it shielded by a sheer purple curtain. The rest of the four walls were solid brick, mostly hidden and softened by long, elegant pieces of fabric that were draped all around the room. The effect was pretty, and Danny wondered if Lucy did it herself or if she’d had someone else do it for her. Multiple chairs and a few chaise lounges sat around a low ebony coffee table in the middle of the room. The colors made the room feel exotic, a lot less like winter in Albany and more like summer in the Caribbean. It kind of made Danny wish for a Mai Tai.

“Have a seat,” Lucy said. She indicated a chair across from her as she took a place in the largest one at the coffee table: an antique wingback with a green and gold swirled pattern. Danny sat down across from her and made herself comfortable on its silky fabric. It was pretty cozy for something she was a little afraid of breaking.

“Let’s get started, then. Please tell me about your most recent job?” Lucy asked her. “I have reviewed your résumé, admittedly briefly, as the previous model only quit this morning, but would prefer to hear the details from you.”

Danny was used to people with clipboards and manila folders that read over her resume and looked at her headshots while obviously wondering what she had under her clothes. Lucy appeared to simply be making conversation with her, and the difference between her last experience with a client and this one was startling. Danny found herself relaxing and offered Lucy a small smile, which she was surprised to see her return, her perfectly painted red lips parting and her stiff porcelain expression cracking for an instant, dissolving the illusion of the prim British woman that Danny had started with.

“A car company wanted shots with next year’s model,” Danny replied. It had been an easy job with a group of four other women, all of them dressed as sexed-up adaptations of jobs that had to do with cars. She’d been a mechanic, and the oil smudge they’d put on her cheek to make her look the part had made her break out. Not fun, but at least there hadn’t been much to it. As far as the second modeling job of her life went, it wasn’t too bad.

Lucy nodded. “Did you enjoy it?”

Danny pursed her lips and shrugged. “Sure. I didn’t have to do much. Just standing around looking sexy and touching a car. Will this job be similar?”

Lucy tilted her chin toward her and folded her hands on her lap. “At times, possibly. At other times, decidedly not. Tell me, how long have you been with the modeling agency?”

Danny was used to getting asked these kinds of questions when she went to an interview. It was a way a client could professionally make simple conversation with her while satisfying their own curiosity. People always seemed to think that modeling was more glamorous than it really was. Danny didn’t mind Lucy drawing things out, because she found that she was relaxing and becoming more comfortable with her as the minutes passed. “Three months.”

“And what is your experience with BDSM?” Lucy continued, not missing a beat.

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