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All Violet Tandy had ever wanted out of life was a place to call home. A home of her own, not a foster home like the myriad ones where she grew up. The kind of home people had in old movies, with white clapboard and black shutters and full-grown sugar maples canopying the front yard. And a picket fence. Had to have a picket fence. And a broad front porch with a wicker swing where she could reread all the books she'd loved as a childJane Eyre and Judy Blume, Lassie Come Home and Louisa May Alcott. Only she'd own the books and not have to return them to the library every week.
Roses and lilac bushes would grow lush and fragrant around the perimeter of her house, morning glory would zigzag up the chimney and wisteria would drip from the eaves of the back porch. She would crochet wispy sweaters and bake cheerful pastries to support herself. She would live and let live and be content with her solitary existence.
And she would never, ever harm another living soul. Yep, a tranquil, unsullied life in a comfy, uncluttered cottage all to herself was the only thing Violet Tandy had ever wanted.
Which was why she wrote a memoir about being a high-priced, high-society call girl.
Not that Violet had ever actually been a call girl, high-priced, high-society or otherwise. And not that her memoir was actually a memoirit was a novel written to read like one, a trend she had noticed was becoming more and more popular with readers these days, herself included. Gracie Ledbetter, her editor at Rockcastle Books, had been so swept away by the story, that when she called Violet to make an offer on the book, she had admitted that if she didn't know better, she would have thought Violet actually was a call girl, and that her noveland that was how Gracie had said it, as if she were italicizing itwas actually a novelizationagain with the italicsof her real life experiences.
In fact, now that Violet thought about it, Gracie continued to do thatspeak of the novel in italics, as if she'd never quite been convinced that the book was complete fiction. Even now, a year after Violet had signed the contract on the completed manuscript and a few weeks after the book's debut, Gracie still asked things like, "Does the Princess Suite at the Chicago Ambassador Hotel really make you feel like a princess when you're lying on the bed staring up at the castle mural on the ceiling?"
Well, how would Violet know? The only reason she'd even seen the Princess Suite at the Ambassador was because she'd worked there as a housekeeper and had changed the sheets on the bed. Whenever she reminded Gracie of that, however, her editor would reply, "Oh, riiight. Of cooourse. You worked there as a housekeeper. Not as a you know," in a way that wasn't quite as convincing as Violet would have liked.
And once, Gracie had asked if the croque monsieur with truffle sauce at Chez Alain really could fill up a person for three days as the review of the five-star restaurant had claimed.
Well, how would Violet know? The only reason she'd even tasted the croque monsieur with truffle sauce at Chez Alain was because she'd worked there as a hostess, and all the employees had had a bite or two of new dishes every time the menu changed. Whenever she reminded Gracie of that, however, her editor would reply, "Oh, riiight. Of cooourse. You worked there as a hostess. Not as a you know," in a way that wasn't quite as convincing as Violet would have liked.
No matter. She was certain that the reason Gracie asked such questions was simply because she got so carried away by thequite fictionalprose. With any luck, the reading public would react similarly, and the book would soar to the top of the New York Times bestseller list, something that would earn Violet enough money to buy the snug little Norman Rockwell house in the Chicago suburbs that she'd always dreamed about.
Her initial advance for the book had actually been rather modest, but thanks to the reaction Gracie's executive editor had had to the revisions on the manuscript, they'd bumped up its initial print run, changed the title to High Heels and Champagne and Sex, Oh, My! and convinced Violet to take a pen name that sounded a lot racier than her own: Raven French. Although Violet had been hesitant about that last, she'd conceded, and the combination had worked brilliantly. Its first week of sale, High Heels had debuted at number twenty-nine on the list and gone back for a second printing. Then it jumped another four places the following week. Now it was poised to enter the top fifteen and, having gone back to print for a third time, would doubtless climb higher still in the weeks to come.
Which was how Violet-Tandy-slash-Raven-French came to be sitting behind a table stacked with copies of her book at a packed bookstore on Michigan Avenue one sunny afternoon in October. And how she came to be staring into the most extraordinary pair of blue eyes she had ever seen that belonged to one of the most gorgeous men she had ever beheld. He was sitting in the back row and hadn't taken those blue eyes off her once since seating himself. And his scrutiny, although not exactly unwelcome since he was, in case she hadn't mentioned it, gorgeous, was beginning to make Violet feel a tad squirmy.
He was just so intense. So overwhelming. So gorgeous. And God, so big. Even though he was sitting, he was head and shoulders taller than all of the womentaller than even the handful of menwho were present, and his shoulders completely eclipsed the chair back. His hair seemed even blacker than her own, but where she'd let hers grow past her shoulders, his was cut short by an expert's hand. And those eyes Pale, nearly translucent blue, startling in their clarity and framed by sweeping, dark lashes. Although it was Saturday, he was dressed in a dark suit, something else that made him stand out from the otherwise laid-back crowd.
Even Violet-slash-Raven wore a casual outfit, picked out by the publicist Rockcastle Books had assigned to her. Marie had advised the fashion-challenged Violet on every aspect of her authorial self. Today, she wore a pair of black trousers and three-quarter-sleeve black top with a deep V neckline, coupled with more-strap-than-shoe stilettos. All were, of course, from the finest couturiers, since Violet Tandy.ah, she meant Raven French.needed to look like the wildly successful author she was supposed to be.
Of course, Violet couldn't afford the expensive labels Raven needed on the rather modest advance for her book. Fortunately, Marie had pointed her toward a boutique off Michigan Avenue that specialized in the short-term rental of haute couture and expensive jewelry for Chicago women who wanted to pretend they were members of the high society that was normally denied them.
For her outfit today, Violet or, rather, Raven had opted for clothes by Prada and shoes by Stuart Weitzman. To complement both, Marie had chosen a dazzling Ritani jewelry seta pendant, earrings and bracelet fashioned of exquisite diamonds and amethysts that matched the eyes that had given Violet her nickname.
Her real name, regrettably, was Candy. Candy Tandy. It was only one of the indignities her mother had bestowed upon her before the final one of abandoning her at the age of three in a discount store with a note pinned to her Smurfette sweatshirt describing her as a problem child that no one would ever be able to love.
But that, along with everything else that had happened in the past twenty-nine years, was the past. These days, Violet thought only about the future. A future in her wisteria-laden house where she would take in strays of all kindscanine, feline, equine, bovine, she didn't care. She might even become a foster parent herself someday. But only if she could guarantee that the children in her care would stay in her care and never be shuttled from one place to another, as she'd been. They'd be able to make friends who wouldn't be taken from them, the way hers had inevitably been, and they'd make emotional connections to other people that went beyond superficial, the way she'd never been able to do.
For some reason, that drew her attention back to the blue-eyed man in the back row. He was still staring at her. Intensely. Overwhelmingly. Gorgeously. He was in no way the kind of person Violet had expected would read her novel. In fact, he seemed more like the kind of person who might have shown up in the book as a characterperhaps one of her fictional heroine's many fictional clients. Each was an amalgam of men Violet had modeled after the clients and patrons of her former places of employment. Rich men. Successful men. Powerful men. Men who cared more about their images, their reputations and their status in both business and society than anything elseanyone else.
Somehow she managed to tug her gaze free of the man in the back row and drive it across the other people who had come to hear her speak about her book before having their copies signed. Mostly female, these were her real readers. Women who were fascinated by the idea of sex for sale and by female protagonists who were in charge of their own sexuality. Who used their sexuality, the most powerful weapon they possessed, to get whatever they wanted. Who enjoyed no-strings-attached encounters with powerful men who paid exorbitant amounts of money to have women do things to themand to do things to the women in returnthat many would never even consider doing or having done to them during regular lovemaking with their usual partners.
Frankly, Violet wasn't sure she got that. Not that she was so worldly in her own encounters. Certainly she'd had boyfriends from the time she was old enough to want one, and she'd lost her virginity when she was a teenager. But she'd never quite understood the fascination with sex that most people had. The men with whom she'd been involved hadn't been all that specialor made her feel all that special. Which, she supposed, was why there hadn't been all that many. The way she saw it, sex was a normal physical need, like eating or sleeping or bathing. Except needed a lot less often.
A college-aged woman who worked for the bookstore announced it was time to begin, bringing Violet's attention to the matter at hand. Namely, the gorgeous, overwhelming man in the back row.
No! she immediately corrected herself. To the talk she was supposed to give to the gorgeous, overwhelming man in the back row.
No! she corrected herself again. To everyone who had come to buy her book todayshe did a quick count, multiplying the number of seats across by the number of rows deep, adding another fifteen for the people standing and figured the total to be.carry the six, add the eight. around fifty-twopeople who had come to buy her book today. Wow.
Ka-ching. She could smell the wisteria already.
She spoke for twenty minutes, having chosen as her topic the aforementioned philosophy of women in charge of their own sexuality and the appeal of having sex without the hindrance of emotion to muck things up. She followed up with the conundrum of how something so physical could even be tied to something so emotionallike love, of all thingsin the first place.
She avoided talking about her own life experiences since, one, she was something of a private person in that regard and, two, she really didn't think anyone would be interested in her poor-poor-pitiful-me background. Instead, she focused on the motivation, goals and journey of Roxanne, her book's protagonist. She talked about how each of the men who became Roxanne's clients symbolized some aspect of the human condition, and how her heroine's submission to each represented another milestone in her personal growth.
Oh, God, she was good.
In fact, Violet she meant Raven had organized the book so that each chapter after the firstin which Roxanne was hired by a Chicago madam named Isabella, who herself personified society's obsession with using sex to promote consumerismwas subtitled by the name of one of the character's many clients. There was introverted Michael, who represented Roxanne's need to let go of her inhibitions. And uncompromising William who showed her how following the rules wasn't always a bad thing. Studious Nathaniel kindled her quest for knowledge, while carefree Jack helped her recognize her capacity to feel joy. And all of themit went without sayingwere lovers of Olympian caliber who gave Roxanne mind-blowing orgasms along the way.
The book culminated in the final chapter, Ethan. Ethan was the idealized notion of the perfect man, the one who fulfilled Roxanne in ways none of the others had managed alone, and who carried her to both sexual and emotional heights that Well, that didn't exist, quite frankly. Talk about a work of fiction. Ethan was ultra-masculine in every way, but could still respect a woman for all her strengths, desires and independence.
Yeah, like that was ever gonna happen in real life.
After finishing with her talk, Violet-Raven opened the floor to questions, and a dozen hands shot up. Not from the man in the back, though, she noted, in spite of the fact that he continued to study her with even more intensity than before. In fact, his intensity seemed to have turned into something akin to anger, because those amazing blue eyes narrowed now when he looked at her, and that full, luscious mouth turned down at the corners. She had no idea why he would react in such a way to a talk she'd thought was pretty danged insightful, so she turned her attention to the woman sitting next to him, an owner of one of the hands in the air.
"You there," she said with a smile as she pointed to the white-haired, apple-cheeked woman in her seventies or eighties.
The woman smiled as she stood, the sort of smile that made Violet feel warm and wistful inside, because she looked like the grandmother Violet had always fantasized about having when she was a child. Someone who would bake cookies and darn socks and say, "Oh, my stars," and wear sweaters with horse appliques.
"Is it true," the woman said in a sweet, gentle voice, "that you're the one who invented the sexual position called the 'centerfold spread?'"
Oh, my stars, Violet thought, struggling to keep a straight face. Clearly the woman's years were so advanced that she'd confused Violet-Raven as the heroine of the book, not its author.
"Um, no," she said. "That wasn't me. It was my book's protagonist, Roxanne."
Nana's eyebrows knit in a sign of clear confusion. "But I thought you were Roxanne."
"No, ma'am," Violet told her. "I'm, uh, Raven."
"But didn't you write the book?"
"And the book is a memoir about a call girl."
"Then you're the one who invented the position."