Picture Perfect

an excerpt



Chapter One

Aaron held his daughter Maisy's hand as they entered the zoo's nursery. She was dressed up in her zookeeper outfit that Bryce had gotten her. She tugged on his hand, talking nonstop like she had been since leaving the house. He just smiled and indulged her, answering as many of her questions as he could. Bryce, his husband and caretaker of the lions, was waiting for them. He kissed Aaron and hugged Maisy as he greeted them. His husband and daughter's excitement was infectious. This was Maisy's first time getting close to the lions that her Papa cared for every day. Both he and Bryce agreed with the cubs being little it would be the perfect introduction and the safest too.

"C'mon, this way." Bryce scooped Maisy up and walked toward a room in the back with Aaron following. "Simba and Kovu are waiting for you, sweetheart."

"Really?"

"Yep, just remember no running and you need to stay with Daddy, okay?"

Maisy nodded. "Promise."

Bryce stepped into the room and grinned as he passed Maisy to Aaron. "Ready to see what Papa does?"

"Yes!"

Aaron chuckled as he knelt down where the lion cubs were playing. "Okay, Maisy, let's watch Papa give the baby cubs treats, then you can meet them," Aaron said, sitting their four-year-old daughter on his knee so she would keep still.

"Yay, Simba!" Maisy squealed as the lion cub pounced his brother, Kovu. The two rolled and growled playfully on the mat.

Bryce knelt on the mat. He held out one of the treats he kept stuffed in his khaki pants, and got the cubs' attention. They were only a month old, small and adorable, as they toppled over one another to get to him. Simba climbed up and wrapped his little paws around Bryce's arm, nuzzling him as he took the treat. Kovu was more impatient and went for Bryce's pockets, tugging at the pants and inhaling the treats that spilled out.

"Silly Kovu." Maisy giggled as both Bryce and Aaron laughed with her. With Maisy's help Aaron took a few pictures.

After cuddling both cubs, Bryce scooped Simba up and turned to them. The cub nudged his hand as Bryce moved toward them. "Now remember, May, butterfly touch. And don't be scared, okay? Papa wouldn't let anything happen."

Bryce held out Simba and Maisy squealed again as she got to pet the cub. Aaron managed to keep her on his knee though she was bouncing excitedly. Simba pawed her long brown curls playfully and she laughed, hazel eyes twinkling. He snapped a few quick photos with his camera, then recorded a vid as well.

"I love Simba!" Maisy's smile lit up the room as she hugged the cub. "And Kovu too!" Bryce shared a look with Aaron.

"She gets that from you," Aaron said with a grin of his own.

"Yep. We'll have her running the zoo in no time."

Kovu, not wanting to be left out, stood on his hind legs for attention. Bryce picked him up too and the cub threw his paws around Bryce's neck, hugging him.

Aaron turned the camera to get a few shots of his husband. The cubs adored him and he remembered fondly the first time he and Bryce had met. It had been a moment just like this where he had fallen head over heels in love with Bryce.

* * *

Aaron was a successful photographer and had steady work for an online photography magazine. Life was good and he wanted to give back so he volunteered to do a free shoot to raise money for the local zoo that needed to raise funds. They'd recently expanded and had a few births, including three lion cubs. It sounded like fun and it was a good cause so Aaron volunteered.

He got a tour of the zoo once all the details had been worked out. Taking pictures of the baby elephant, the tigers, the chimps, the polar bears, and lastly the lion cubs. He was brought to an enclosure and told the cubs' zookeeper would soon bring them in. He made sure his camera was ready and he waited; he'd already gotten some great shots but was most excited about the cubs, as the lions were his favorite.

The zookeeper came in alone. Any questions died in Aaron's throat as hazel green eyes met his. A shiver raced down his spine and judging by the falter in the other man's step he was probably having a similar reaction. Aaron couldn't help but give him a once-over. The guy's dark brown hair was tousled and messy, he had an easy smile, and dimples. He was gorgeous. Aaron's heart stuttered. He was smaller than Aaron but he liked that. Aaron imagined picking him up and kissing him for all he was worth. And where had that thought come from? Damn, was he still staring? He wanted to lift his camera and get some pictures even if it would be totally unprofessional.

"Hi, I'm Bryce Sanders. I wanted to introduce myself before I brought the little terrors in." Bryce held out his hand. Aaron shook it, liking the firm grip and quiet strength coming from the other man. "And I wanted to thank you for doing this. It means a lot to me that you're helping."

"I'm happy to, it's for a good cause and I can see how well the animals are cared for," Aaron replied. "Oh, I'm Aaron Matthews by the way."

"Yep, I know. I read your magazine." Bryce's smile grew and once again Aaron was distracted. "Your photography is stunning. When they told me you were the one doing this I was excited."

Aaron felt his cheeks redden. "Thanks. I'm not that great, but thanks."

"Modest too. I'm liking you, Aaron." Bryce winked and Aaron's heart did a flip. "So, let me get Raja, Aslan, and Ary. Do you want separate shots or...?"

Trying to focus Aaron answered, "If it's not too much trouble that'd be great. I could get pics of each of them, then together with them playing."

"It's no trouble. I'll go get Kasey to help and be right back."

"Sure, take your time. I'm not going anywhere."

Aaron got pictures of each cub then ran through a roll of film capturing the cubs' antics as they chased, pounced, and climbed around the enclosure. Bryce stood beside him watching them like a proud parent.

"Watch this," Bryce told him.

Bryce moved over to a tree log and clicked his tongue. All three lions followed him as he sat. Raja, the bigger cub who was the size of a small Labrador, ran to him and hopped into his lap.

Aaron kept snapping shots as either Ary or Aslan tried joining their sibling. Raja hugged Bryce, paws resting on the man's shoulders as the cub playfully growled and nuzzled Bryce. Aslan was shoved off by his bigger brother who clearly wanted all the attention.

Aaron kept taking pictures as the cub tried to lick Bryce's face, as if he was grooming him. "Yuck, Raja." Bryce wiped his face and looked over at Aaron. "Sometimes he gets really affectionate and jealous." Bryce rubbed Raja's back then sat the cub down so he could cuddle Ary and Aslan. "But you two want some attention too, huh?"

With his focus on Bryce, Aaron saw the love and care he had for the cubs and it warmed his heart. He tried his best to capture that on film. Aaron watched in amusement as Raja stood up to wrap his paws around Bryce's neck from behind. He playfully butted his head against Bryce's. Aaron managed to get a shot of Bryce throwing his head back, laughing like a little kid as he rubbed Raja's ears. Enamored, Aaron wanted the shoot to last all day just to stay with Bryce.

"You've got your hands full with that one," Aaron said.

"I really do. Would you like to give me a hand?" Bryce gestured to Aslan and Ary. "They're all friendly."

"Sure, I'd love to." Putting the camera in his bag, Aaron decided he had enough shots. He'd have to find another way to prolong his visit. He climbed up on the log and sat beside Bryce. "What do I do?" Ary was immediately in his lap, and in awe Aaron stroked the lioness's back as she purred and cuddled him. "Oh wow." He hadn't gotten this close to the other animals, but it was incredible. As Bryce's eyes met his he knew he'd never forget this.

"They like you. Ary is usually really shy."

"I'm glad they do. I wouldn't want to be on a lion's bad side." Aslan rubbed against his legs. "How old are they?"

"Four months next week. Before I know it they're going to be bigger than me."

Aaron chuckled. "It's amazing I bet. You must love your job. This is pretty awesome getting hugs from a lion." He scratched Ary's head as she curled up on his lap.

"I do love it. I started working here about two years ago after finishing my internship."

"What made you decide to become a zookeeper?"

"Are we doing an interview?" Bryce joked.

"No, just curious." Aaron leaned back. "If you don't mind."

"Nah, I was kidding. My parents were vets. I helped lots as a kid caring for rescued dogs, cats, and other animals. When I was ten I helped my mom nurse a dog, Chance, back from the brink. I thought I was going to be a vet myself until my grandpa took me here and I fell in love with this place." He paused. "What about you? Why photography?"

"Because it's a way to capture special moments forever. And you know it changes how you see the world when you take the time to notice light, shapes, colors, textures, people, buildings, the beauty in everything really. When I'm behind the camera I see it all and it's amazing to me." Aaron realized he was rambling on. "My mom bought me a camera when I was eleven and from then on I've always had one in hand."

"So, now I'm curious." Bryce met his gaze. "What did you see when you were taking pictures?"

How beautiful you are, Aaron thought. "I saw your love for these guys. They're like your kids and they clearly adore you."

"I helped Nala give birth and have been caring for these guys ever since. It's incredible, I couldn't see myself doing anything else."

"Well, you're amazing with them."

Bryce told him all about the care, grooming, and daily routine for the cubs. His eyes lit up and Aaron could hear how proud he was. He was drawn in and could've listened to Bryce talk all day until Raja tugged on Bryce's hair with his paw. "Ow, Raja!" Bryce turned and got Raja off of him. "No." He pushed the cub's paws down and the lion rolled onto his belly, still trying to play.

"Jealous again, huh?" Aaron laughed at the lion's antics.

"Guess so, or he was bored. I hope I didn't bore you with all that."

"Not at all. I'm having a great time."

"Me too. Did you get enough pics?"

"I think so." Aslan dragged the camera bag away from them so Aaron jumped up, tugging it back from the lion and zipping up the bag.

"We should probably get your camera out of here before they wreck it."

"Yeah, I wouldn't want to lose the pics. Would you like copies of them?"

"If you could I'd really like that."

"Consider it done." Ary rubbed against his calf and Aslan tugged on his jeans. He really didn't want to leave. There was something about Bryce, everything just seemed to click into place when he saw him. This couldn't be it; he wanted to get to know Bryce. See if he felt that spark between them. "Um, would you like to get a coffee with me?"

"Yeah, sure." Bryce's grin was infectious. "Let me tell Kasey I'm going to take my break."

Aaron followed Bryce who spoke briefly to Kasey then led him to the nearest coffee stand. He tried to pay but Aaron insisted, it was the least he could do after that amazing experience and he said as much.

"You're giving me a big ego," Bryce joked as they sat on a bench overlooking a lagoon near the tiger's exhibit. "You must have visited what, six other habitats?"

"Hmm, none of the others let me play or cuddle with the animals."

"No?" Bryce shrugged. "If you wanted to I could--"

With a shake of his head, Aaron said, "I wasn't interested in getting to know the other zookeepers."

"Oh." Bryce's eyes widened.

Crap. Had he misread the signals? Was he wrong? Aaron pinched the bridge of his nose. "I'm sorry, Bryce. I thought..." He stood. "I've just made a fool of myself so I'm going to go."

"No, wait!" Bryce grabbed his arm. "You just surprised me is all. Do you know how many guys have gone running when I tell them I care for lions every day? I didn't think you'd be interested."

"Well, they were idiots." Aaron sat back down, closer this time to Bryce. He brushed his hand along Bryce's arm. "I like talking to you. I can't remember the last time I had such a good time. And it wasn't just that I got to cuddle lions--though that was awesome."

Bryce chuckled. "I figured that would get you to stay longer. Maybe even charm you a little into seeing the reason why I love my job despite the danger."

"Oh you charmed me all right." Aaron winked. "I know you don't have a long break, but would you like to go to dinner tonight?"

"Like a date?"

"Interested?"

"Definitely. My treat though."

"Deal." Aaron took out his phone and passed it to Bryce so he could put in his number. He did then handed it back. "I've got my studio in my apartment, maybe you could come back with me afterward and see the photos?" He realized too late that made it sound like all he wanted was to sleep with Bryce. He wanted to all right, but he wanted more than that too. He just kept sticking his foot in his mouth. "Not that anything has to happen," he rushed to say. "I hope you didn't think I...crap...I mean you wanted copies so I was going to let you pick your favorites and--"

"I didn't." Bryce put his hand briefly over Aaron's. "That'd be great." His phone beeped. "I've gotta get back. I'll call you so we can meet later." He brushed his lips to Aaron's before he stood. It was over too quick. Aaron barely got a taste, and he craved more.

Touching his lips to his fingertips, Aaron nodded. "Okay, I'll see you later." He watched Bryce walking away, admiring the zookeeper. He was really glad he had volunteered to do the photo shoot. He had never felt so strongly before for someone he just met but he totally got that whole love at first sight thing now. He couldn't explain it, and didn't need to. All he wanted was to take Bryce to dinner and get some more kisses. Definitely more kisses.