Cade Patterson grew up on the wrong side of the tracks. From afar, he has always carried a torch for Kara Knight, a fiery redheaded homecoming queen whose rich rancher daddy would never approve of Cade.
But now they're all grown up. She's a teacher; he's a lawman. They haven't seen each other in almost 10 years. And that's about to change.
Did I mention they are from Texas? That there are dark family secrets that must be overcome before their love can bloom?
Or that Cade is not just hot, but hawt?
Cade is not a real person; he is the protagonist of a yet-to-be-published romance novella called "Blind Sided."
He will be brought to life by a chiseled model named Jason Aaron Baca, who, at the moment, is standing under lights in one of California's countless dream factories — a small photo studio — wearing jeans, boots and nothing else but a smoldering look on his chiseled face.
The author of "Blind Sided" is the prolific, bestselling romance novelist Eileen Nauman, who publishes romances under the pseudonym Lindsay McKenna. The story will be part of a multi-author, western-themed collection with the tag line: "12 cowboy lawmen who are so hot it's criminal."
Nauman has chosen Baca to represent her hero because she believes his face and body sell books.
"Jason," said Nauman, "is probably one of the most wanted and desired models, and the reason is this: Most male models cannot emote, which means if you want them to look sad or sexy or thoughtful, their face never changes. But this guy has a range that is spectacular."
And why is that important?
"My readers want to look into the hero's eyes," said Nauman, who has sold more than 20 million books in 33 countries. Sometimes Baca's eyes are his natural dark brown. Sometimes they are Photoshopped into a piercing blue.
"We try to fold, spindle and mutilate the covers into what readers desire," she said.
Which is, at the moment, Jason Baca.
"He has an incredible body," Nauman said. "I drool over it."
The debate over the relative merits of the romance genre is so tired it's not even worth having anymore. The market is huge, generating an estimated $1.4 billion, making it by far the top-selling literary genre, outperforming mysteries, inspirational books, science fiction and fantasy, and horror.
Romance has spawned an academic discipline with its own forum, "The Journal of Popular Romance Studies," which describes itself as "a double-blind peer reviewed interdisciplinary journal exploring popular romance fiction and the logics, institutions, and social practices of romantic love in global popular culture."
Websites like Smart Bitches Trashy Books make no apologies for their taste in books.
Personally, I read "Fifty Shades of Grey" holding my nose against the stench of bad writing (and I couldn't even finish it), but I cannot deny that women have an appetite for romantic and sexual fantasy, no matter how ineptly executed, and that a fired-up imagination is the best aphrodisiac in the world.
"My readers tell me this all the time," Nauman said. "They will see how the hero treats the heroine and vice versa, and they say, 'I am going to try this in my own relationship.'"
The advent of e-books and print-on-demand have enabled the rise of the self-published author, who makes all her design, marketing and publicity decisions herself. (Romance writers are almost always women.)
Even though many books are sold digitally these days, cover images are critical.
"A good story is always No. 1," said Scott Carpenter, a Modesto graphic artist who has designed covers featuring Baca. "But you have to have a cover that catches someone's eye, because when you go to Amazon, there are 500 to choose from."
In the studio, as he poses for Santa Cruz photographer Portia Shao, Baca tells me he became a model because (A) he's good looking and (B) he has no acting chops.
In 1997, he worked as a double for Freddie Prinze Jr. in "I know What You Did Last Summer" and for Wil Wheaton in "Flubber."
But when it came time to audition for a speaking role, he froze. "Nothing came out of my mouth. I felt so humbled at that moment. But it brought me to modeling."
Over the course of a three-hour shoot, Baca, 42, who also appears in fitness magazines, posed fully clothed, half dressed or with his shirt open to reveal his rippling abs. He held a lariat. He held a bullwhip. He held my attention.
"Are we boring you yet?" he asked.
Several times he dropped and did 25 push-ups to make his veins pop against his taut skin.
And when he stood up, I confess, I spied veins in places I'd never seen on any other man.
By day, Baca, who lives with his wife in Saratoga, works for the Santa Clara County Housing Authority. No one at work, he said, knows that he has appeared on more than 430 covers, posing as a Roman gladiator, a winged dark angel, a superhero and, of course, a cowboy. Modeling can be lucrative, but he doesn't earn enough to quit his day job.
Still, he might hang up his sexy, imaginary spurs if he can beat what he has heard is the 460-cover record held by Fabio Lanzoni, the Italian stud with the flowing blond locks who parlayed his success as an object of romantic fantasy into a career as a commercial pitchman and actor.
"I don't drink much," said Baca, whose greatest caloric indulgence is the occasional whole avocado, "but I'll crack open a Coors once I get past Fabio here."
That image did not exactly make me swoon, but it did bring a smile to my face.
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