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Double The Pleasure
By Julie Leto
Harlequin EnterprisesCopyright © 2002 Harlequin Enterprises
All right reserved.
Chapter OneReina Price licked her lips hoping the action would offset the tightness in her breasts, the growing shallowness of her breath. The glossy feel of her lipstick, moistened by her tongue, only increased the thrill shimmering through her veins.
"Magnificent." She traced the lines of the thick, hard shaft with her French-manicured nails, wondering, planning, devising in her mind the best way to work it. Too bad she didn't blow. She'd love to ply her talents on this masterpiece.
Claudio di Amante leaned forward to see which drawing Reina admired with such delight. "Ah, the pride of the collection. Il Gioielliere himself posed for the mold. Fashioned in delicate, blown glass and strengthened with an intricate web of gold latticework. Legend says his mistress breathed into the glass during the fashioning. It was a gift for her use when he was ... not available."
Reina shifted in her seat, thankful that her desk blocked her guest's view as she squeezed her legs together to offset the pulse flaring between her thighs. Il Gioielliere, a sixteenth-century Italian jeweler and predecessor of Casanova, must have been one impressive lover. Judging by the shape and thickness of the penis represented in the gold and glasswork dildo, the man was particularly well endowed. And to add to his naturalattributes, he'd created a diverse assortment of sexual implements and toys, many disguised as mere jewelry but each possessing a secret, sensual use. Unfortunately, the original collection had been destroyed, and Claudio di Amante, a stranger who'd walked into her gallery in the New Orleans Arts District with no appointment, now wanted her to refashion the pieces in the next two weeks.
Though Reina had been taught to be proud of her sexual responses and impulses, what this man had brought to her in a worn leather attaché proved more evocative than any of the erotic art she housed in her gallery or the erotic jewelry she'd created in her studio. The drawings alone affected her, raising her body temperature and hampering her ability to breathe.
Accepting Claudio's commission would be both a professional and personal challenge. With her libido so hypersensitive, she'd either have to take a lover or resort to putting her own dildo collection to good use. She didn't have a glass one, though they were all the rage, thanks to Il Gioielliere's Diaries, a reprinting of the man's personal memoirs that currently topped the New York Times bestseller list. Shamar, the glass artist who displayed her work in Reina's gallery, couldn't keep them in stock.
Claudio di Amante, il Gio's last remaining descendant, sat back into the tall, leather chair, his athletic, middleaged body molded comfortably into the antique wing chair. Reina tried hard not to stare. Despite his age, he was undeniably handsome, with a glint of a secret dancing in his dark eyes. She supposed he was old enough to be her father but couldn't say for sure since she had no idea how old her father actually was. Still, the man piqued her curiosity on several different levels - starting with why he'd chosen her over other better-known artists to recreate his jewelry collection.
As an only child traveling the world with a famous mother, Reina had turned to crafting jewelry as a way to ward off boredom. At fifteen, her designs began to reflect the sensual, sexual lifestyle enjoyed by her mother, her friends and, honestly, herself. That's when her brooches, earrings, necklaces and pendants caught the eye of people who knew fashion and weren't afraid to pay for it. Her gallery, opened five years ago when she decided to join her mother and settle down in New Orleans, had only recently received notice with the mainstream press. When a famed haute couture designer chose her pieces to accessorize his spring line last year, Reina finally garnered real recognition for her work.
But she was by no means a household name. She fought to keep her gallery in the black, a battle intensified by two recent robberies that threatened the solvency of her business and the future of her designs. So why had Claudio chosen her? And why now?
The man claimed to be a struggling entrepreneur, but he couldn't hide a natural, elegant style. Dressed in a dark suit with thin lapels and an even darker shirt, Claudio's olive skin provided a startling backdrop for eyes the color of onyx and rare mother-of-pearl. Shots of white along his temples toned down the glossiness of his jet hair, a hue that might have, in his youth, matched her own.
Reina swallowed, wondering when she was going to stop trying to find her father in each and every man over fifty that she met. Claudio di Amante was probably the unlikeliest candidate to date. While handsome, the man didn't have much money, and what he did have, he didn't spend without careful planning - at least that is what Reina had gleaned from their conversation. His modest use of money was enough to take him out of the running for any relationship with Reina's mother.
According to his story, he lived just outside Venice, quite near her mother's summer home. But when he spoke of his sprawling yet crumbling palazzo, Reina knew such a place would never have piqued Pilar's avaricious interests. For twenty difficult years, Claudio had lived hand-to-mouth, watching his beloved family home deteriorate around him. After having his ancestor's diaries stolen and published without his consent or profit, he'd decided the time had come to unearth il Gioielliere's schematics and regain his family's lost wealth. And now, he wanted to turn the treasured drawings and priceless gemstones over to Reina. At the worst possible time. She'd listened to his proposal with real interest, although she didn't think she should even entertain the idea of accepting his commission.
Reina gathered the photocopies of the hand-drawn diagrams and took one last look. Her mouth dried, her fingers itched, her eyes ached to study the drawings in greater depth. But she couldn't accept this design assignment. Not when the jewels he promised to deliver tomorrow wouldn't be safe in her possession.
"I'm so sorry, Signore di Amante," she began.
"Claudio, please. I understand Americans don't much stand on ceremony."
"No, they don't. We don't," she amended, still unaccustomed to considering herself American since she'd lived everywhere but in the United States for most of her life. "I learned this lesson over the years."
"But you are American, yes?"
She smiled, aware that a little coy confession went a long way with men like Claudio. "Born in New York City during one of my mother's runs on Broadway. I've only been in the States permanently for five years. I love this country, and New Orleans, but I'm still adjusting. My mother was quite the world traveler during my childhood."
"Ah, your mother. The great stage actress." The hair at Reina's neck bristled. "You know my mother?"
He chuckled, but the sound was soft, secret, as if there was a great deal he knew but wasn't willing to share. "Who in Europe doesn't know the great Pilar Price?"
Who anywhere didn't know of Pilar? Reina reminded herself yet again that while theater grew more and more obscure both in the United States and abroad, save a few big Broadway and East End productions, her mother was still a celebrity of international fame - if not for her profession, then for her lifestyle. Paparazzi still stalked the sidewalk in front of her French Quarter home, hoping to catch a glimpse of a senator or governor sneaking out of Pilar's bedroom sometime during the night.
Reina, however, preferred to draw less attention to her love life, such that it was. Her friend, Chantal Dupre, liked to refer to her infrequent dates as "drive-by lovers," which was fine with Reina. Romantic entanglements and messy emotional dramas were her mother's style, not hers. She chose to concentrate on her business and on using her inherited charm and exotic sex appeal to give her an entrepreneurial edge.
What had started as a persona created to match the evocative designs in her jewelry had become her most useful asset, her most effective weapon. Disaffected, bored and well-sexed worked on men and women alike. The women admired her, wanted to emulate her. The men wanted her in bed but doubted their prowess to please her. Either way, Reina called the shots - choosing friends and business associates with care and protecting her privacy ... and, more important, her heart.
Excerpted from Double The Pleasure by Julie Leto Copyright © 2002 by Harlequin Enterprises
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.