Read an Excerpt
To my readers,
Dante following Virgil up the mountain.
Engraving by Gustave Doré, 1870
The poet dropped the note to the floor with a shaking hand. He sat for several moments, motionless as a statue. Then, with a great clenching of teeth, he stood to his feet and swept agitatedly through the house, ignoring tables and fragile items, disdaining the other inhabitants of his home.
There was only one person whom he wished to see.
He strode quickly through the city streets, almost breaking into a run on his way to the river. He stood at the end of the bridge, their bridge, his moist eyes eagerly scanning the adjacent riverbank for the barest glimpse of his beloved.
She was nowhere to be found.
She would never return.
His beloved Beatrice was gone.
“And of that second kingdom will I sing
Wherein the human spirit doth purge itself,
And to ascend to heaven becometh worthy.”
-Dante Alighieri, Purgatorio, Canto I.004-006.
Professor Gabriel Emerson was sitting in bed, naked, reading La Nazione, the Florentine newspaper. He’d awoken early in the Palazzo Vecchio penthouse of the Gallery Hotel Art and ordered room service, but he couldn’t resist returning to bed to watch the young woman sleep. She was on her side facing him, breathing softly, a diamond sparkling on her ear. Her cheeks were pink from the warmth of the room as their bed was bathed in sunshine from the floor-to-ceiling windows.
The bed covers were deliciously rumpled, smelling of sex and sandalwood. His blue eyes glimmered, traveling lazily over her exposed skin and long, dark hair. As he turned back to his newspaper, she shifted slightly and moaned. Concerned, he tossed the paper aside.
She brought her knees up to her chest, curling into a ball. Low murmurings came from her lips, and Gabriel leaned closer so he could decipher what she was saying. But he couldn’t.
All of a sudden, her body twisted and she let out a heart-wrenching cry. Her arms flailed as she wrestled with the sheet that shrouded her.
“Julianne?” He placed a gentle hand on her bare shoulder, but she cringed away from him.
She began muttering his name, over and over again, her tone growing progressively more panicked.
“Julia, I’m here,” he raised his voice. Just as he reached for her again, she sat bolt upright, gasping for air.
“Are you all right?” Gabriel moved closer, resisting the urge to touch her. She was breathing roughly, and under his watchful gaze, she fanned a shaking hand over her eyes.
After a long, tense minute, she looked at him, eyes wide.
He frowned. “What happened?”
She swallowed loudly. “A nightmare.”
“What was it about?”
“I was in the woods behind your parents’ house, back in Selinsgrove.”
Gabriel’s eyebrows knit together behind his dark-rimmed glasses. “Why would you dream about that?”
She inhaled, drawing the sheet over her exposed breasts and up to her chin. The linen was full and white, swallowing her petite frame whole before billowing cloudlike over the mattress. She reminded him of an Athenian statue.
He ran his fingers gently over her skin. “Julianne, talk to me.”
She squirmed under his piercing blue eyes, but he would not let her go. “The dream began beautifully. We made love under the stars, and I fell asleep in your arms. When I woke up you were gone.”
“You dreamed I made love to you, then abandoned you?” His tone cooled to mask his discomfort.
“I woke up in the orchard without you once,” she reproached him softly.
The fire in his belly was instantly quenched. He thought back to the magical evening six years ago when they first met, when they simply talked and held each other. He’d awoken the following morning and wandered away, leaving a sleeping teenage girl all alone. Surely her anxiety was understandable if not pitiable.
He unwound her clenched fingers one by one and kissed them repentantly. “I love you, Beatrice. I’m not going to leave you. You know that, right?”
“It would hurt so much more to lose you now.”
With a frown he wrapped an arm around her shoulder, pressing her cheek to his chest. A myriad of memories crowded his mind as he thought back to what had transpired the evening before. He’d gazed on her naked form for the first time and initiated her into the intimacies of lovemaking. She’d shared her innocence with him, and he thought he’d made her happy. Certainly it had been one of the best evenings of his life. He pondered that fact for a moment.
“Do you regret last night?”
“No. I’m glad you were my first. It’s what I wanted since we met.”
He placed his hand on her cheek, tracing her skin with his thumb. “I’m honored to have been your first.” He leaned forward, his eyes unblinking. “But I want to be your last.”
She smiled and lifted her lips to meet his. Before he could embrace her, the chimes of Big Ben filled the room.
“Ignore it,” he whispered fiercely, his arm stretching across her body, pushing her to recline beneath him.
Her eyes darted over his shoulder to where his iPhone lay on the desk. “I thought she wasn’t going to call you anymore.”
“I’m not answering, so it doesn’t matter.” He kneeled between her legs and lifted the sheet from her body. “In my bed, there’s only us.”
She searched his eyes as he began to bring their naked bodies into closer contact.
Gabriel leaned forward to kiss her, but she turned her head. “I haven’t brushed my teeth.”
“I don’t care.” He lowered his lips to her neck, kissing across her quickening pulse.
“I’d like to clean up first.”
He huffed in frustration, leaning on one elbow. “Don’t let Paulina ruin what we have.”
“I’m not.” She tried to roll out from under him and take the sheet with her, but he caught hold of it. He gazed over the rims of his glasses, his eyes sparkling with mischief.
“I need the sheet to make the bed.”
Her eyes traveled from the white fabric that was clutched between her fingers, to his face. He looked like a panther waiting to pounce. She glanced over the side of the bed at the pile of clothes on the floor. They were beyond her reach.
“What’s the problem?” he asked, stifling a grin.
Julia blushed and gripped the material more tightly. With a chuckle, he released the sheet and pulled her into his arms.
“You don’t need to be shy. You’re beautiful. If I had my wish, you’d never wear clothes again.”
He pressed his lips to her earlobe, gently touching the diamond stud. He was certain his adoptive mother, Grace, would have been happy that her earrings found their way to Julia. With another brief kiss, he turned away, sliding over to sit on the edge of the bed.
She slipped into the washroom but not before Gabriel caught sight of her alluring back as she dropped the sheet just outside the door.
While brushing her teeth, she thought about what had transpired. Making love with Gabriel had been a very emotional experience, and even now her heart felt the aftershocks. That wasn’t surprising considering their history. She’d wanted him since she spent a chaste night with him in an orchard when she was seventeen, but he’d been gone when she awoke the next morning. He’d forgotten her in the aftermath of a drunken, drug-induced haze. Six long years passed before she saw him again, and then, he didn’t remember her.
When she encountered him again on the first day of his graduate seminar at the University of Toronto, he was attractive but cold, like a distant star. She hadn’t believed then that she’d become his lover. She hadn’t believed it possible that the temperamental and arrogant Professor would reciprocate her affection.
There were so many things she hadn’t known. Sex was a kind of knowledge, and now she knew the sting of sexual jealousy in a manner she’d never experienced before. The mere idea of Gabriel doing what they’d done with some other woman, and in his case many other women, made her heart ache.
She knew that Gabriel’s trysts were different from what they’d shared—that they were assignations not brought about by love or affection. But he’d undressed them, seen them naked, and entered their bodies. After being with him, how many of those women craved more? Paulina had. She and Gabriel had maintained contact over the years since they conceived and lost a child together.
Julia’s new understanding of sex changed her view of his past and made her more sympathetic to Paulina’s plight. And all the more guarded against losing Gabriel to her or to any other woman.
Julia gripped the edge of the vanity as a wave of insecurity washed over her. Gabriel loved her; she believed this. But he was also a gentleman and would never reveal that their union had left him wanting. And what of her own behavior? She’d asked questions and talked when she expected that most lovers would have been silent. She’d done very little to please him, and when she tried he’d stopped her.
Her ex-boyfriend’s words came screaming back at her, swirling in her mind with condemnation:
You’re going to be a lousy lay.
She turned away from the mirror as she contemplated what might happen if Gabriel was dissatisfied with her. The specter of sexual betrayal reared its maleficent head, bringing with it visions of finding Simon in bed with her roommate.
She straightened her shoulders. If she could persuade Gabriel to be patient and to teach her, then she was confident she could please him. He loved her. He would give her a chance. She was his as surely as if he’d branded his name on her skin.
When she stepped into the bedroom she caught sight of him through the open door to the terrace. On her way, she was distracted by a beautiful vase of dark purple and paler, variegated irises sitting on top of the desk. Some lovers might have purchased long-stemmed red roses, but not Gabriel.
She opened the card that was nestled amongst the blossoms.
My Dearest Julianne,
Thank you for your immeasurable gift.
The only thing I have of value is my heart.
Julia reread the card twice, her heart swelling with love and relief. Gabriel’s words didn’t sound like they were penned by a man who was dissatisfied or frustrated. Whatever Julia’s worries, Gabriel didn’t seem to share them.
Gabriel was sunning himself on the futon, his glasses off, his chest gloriously exposed. With his muscular, six-foot-two frame, it was as if Apollo himself had deigned to visit her. Sensing her presence on the terrace, he opened his eyes and patted his lap. She joined him, and his arms enveloped her as he kissed her passionately.
“Why, hello there,” he murmured, brushing a stray tendril back from her face. He peered at her closely. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing. Thank you for the flowers. They’re beautiful.”
He brushed his lips against hers. “You’re welcome. But you look troubled. Is it about Paulina?”
“I’m upset that she’s calling you, but no.” Julia’s expression brightened. “Thank you for your card. It said what I desperately wanted to hear.”
“I’m glad.” He squeezed her more closely. “Tell me what’s bothering you.”
She toyed with the belt to her bathrobe for a moment, until he took her hand in his. She looked at him. “Was last night everything you’d hoped for?”
Gabriel exhaled sharply, for her question had taken him by surprise. “That’s a strange question.”
“I know it had to be different for you. I wasn’t very…active.”
“Active? What are you talking about?”
“I didn’t do much to please you.” She blushed.
He stroked the flushing skin lightly with the tip of his finger. “You pleased me a great deal. I know you were nervous, but I enjoyed myself tremendously. We belong to one another now—in every way. What else is troubling you?”
“I demanded that we switch positions when you would have preferred me on top.”
“You didn’t demand, you asked. Frankly, Julianne, I’d like to hear you demand things of me. I want to know that you want me as desperately as I want you.” His expression relaxed, and he drew a circle or two around her breast. “You dreamed about your first time being a certain way. I wanted to give that to you, but I was worried. What if you were uncomfortable? What if I wasn’t careful enough? Last night was a first for me too.”
He released her, pouring coffee and steamed milk from two separate carafes into a latté bowl and spreading the tray of food between them on the banquette. There were pastries and fruit, toast and Nutella, boiled eggs and cheese, and several Baci Perugina Gabriel had bribed a hotel employee to run out and purchase along with the extravagant bouquet of irises from the Giardino dell’Iris.
Julia unwrapped one of the Baci and ate it, eyes closed with pure pleasure. “You ordered a feast.”
“I awoke ravenous this morning. I would have waited for you but…” He shook his head as he picked up a grape and fixed her with a sparkling eye. “Open.”
She opened her mouth, and he popped the grape inside, tracing his finger temptingly across her lower lip.
“And you must drink this, please.” He handed her a wine glass filled with cranberry juice and soda.
She rolled her eyes. “You’re overprotective.”
He shook his head. “This is how a man behaves when he’s in love and he wants his sweetheart healthy for all the sex he plans on having with her.” He winked smugly.
“I’m not going to ask how you know about such things. Give me that.” She grabbed the glass from his hand and downed it, her eyes focused on his, as he chuckled.
She stuck her tongue out at him before fixing herself a breakfast plate.
“How do you feel this morning?” Gabriel’s face grew concerned.
She swallowed a piece of Fontina cheese. “Okay.”
He pressed his lips together firmly, as if her answer displeased him.
“Making love changes things between a man and a woman,” he prompted.
“Um, aren’t you happy with, uh, what we did?” The pink of her cheeks faded immediately, leaving her pale.
“Of course I’m happy. I’m trying to find out if you’re happy. And based upon what you’ve said so far, I’m worried that you aren’t.”
Julia picked at the fabric of her robe, avoiding Gabriel’s probing gaze. “When I was at college the girls on my floor would sit around and talk about their boyfriends. One night they told stories about their first times.” She nibbled at the tip of one of her fingers.
“Only a few of the girls had good things to say. The other stories were awful. One girl had been molested as a child. Some of the girls had been forced by a boyfriend or a date. Several of them said that their first times were completely awkward and unfulfilling—a boyfriend grunting and finishing quickly. I thought, if that’s all I can hope for, I’d rather stay a virgin.”
She fixed her eyes on the breakfast tray.
“I wanted to be loved. I decided it would be better to have a chaste affair of the heart and mind through letters than a sexual relationship. I had my doubts that I would ever find anyone who could give me both. Certainly, Simon didn’t love me. Now I’m in a relationship with a sex god, and I can’t give him anything like the pleasure he gives me.”
Gabriel’s eyebrows shot up. “Sex god? You’ve said that before, but believe me, I’m not—”
She interrupted him, looking him straight in the eye. “Teach me. I’m sure last night was not as, um…fulfilling as it usually is for you, but I promise that if you are patient with me, I will improve.”
He cursed obliquely. “Come here.” He pulled her around the breakfast tray and into his lap again, wrapping his arms around her. He was quiet for a moment, before sighing deeply.
“You assume that my previous sexual encounters were completely fulfilling, but you’re wrong. You gave me what I’ve never had—love and sex together. You’re the only one who has ever been my lover in the true sense.”
He kissed her gently in solemn confirmation of his words. “The anticipation and the allure of a woman are crucial to the experience. I can safely say that your allurements and my anticipation were like nothing I’ve ever experienced before. Add to that the experience of making love for the first time…Words fail me.”
She nodded but something about her movement disquieted him.
“I promise I’m not flattering you.” He paused as if he were pondering his next words carefully. “At the risk of being Neanderthal, I should probably tell you that your innocence is tremendously erotic. The thought that I can be the one to teach you about sex…that someone so modest is also so passionate…” His voice trailed off as he looked at her intently. “You could become more skilled in the art of love by learning new tricks and new positions, but you can’t become more attractive or more sexually fulfilling. Not to me.”
Julia leaned over and kissed him. “Thank you for taking such good care of me last night,” she whispered, her cheeks turning pink.
“As for Paulina, I’ll deal with her. Please put her out of your mind.”
Julia turned her attention back to her uneaten breakfast, resisting the urge to argue with him. “Will you tell me about your first time?”
“I’d rather not.”
She busied herself with a pastry as she tried to think of a safer subject. The financial woes of Europe came readily to mind.
He rubbed at his eyes with both hands, covering them briefly. It would be far too easy to lie, he knew, but after all she’d given him, she deserved to know his secrets. “You remember Jamie Roberts.”
Gabriel lowered his hands. “I lost my virginity to her.”
Julia’s eyebrows shot up. Jamie and her domineering mother had never been very pleasant to Julia, and she had always disliked them. She had no idea that Officer Roberts, who had investigated Simon’s attack on her a month previous, had been Gabriel’s first.
“It was not the greatest of experiences,” he said quietly. “In fact, I would say it was scarring. I didn’t love her. There was some attraction, of course, but no true affection. We went to Selinsgrove High School together. She sat next to me in History one year.” He shrugged. “We flirted and messed around after school and eventually…
“Jamie was a virgin but lied and said she wasn’t. I wasn’t attentive to her at all. I was selfish and stupid.” He cursed. “She said it didn’t hurt much, but there was blood afterward. I felt like an animal and I’ve always regretted it.” Gabriel cringed, and Julia felt the guilt radiating from him. His description made her almost ill, but it also explained a great deal.
“That’s horrible. I’m so sorry.” She squeezed his hand. “Is that why you were so worried last night?”
“She misled you.”
“That’s no excuse for my behavior, before or afterward.” He cleared his throat. “She assumed we were in a relationship, but I wasn’t interested. That made it worse, of course. I graduated from being merely an animal to being an animal and an asshole. When I saw her at Thanksgiving, I hadn’t spoken to her in years. I asked her to forgive me. She was remarkably gracious.
“I’ve always felt guilty for treating her badly. I’ve stayed away from virgins ever since.” He swallowed noisily. “Until last night.
“First times are supposed to be sweet, but seldom are. While you were worrying about pleasing me, I was worrying about pleasing you. Perhaps I was too careful, too protective, but I couldn’t have borne it if I’d hurt you.”
Julia put her breakfast aside and stroked his face. “You were very gentle and very generous. I’ve never known such joy, and that’s because you loved me with more than just your body. Thank you.”
As if to prove her point, he kissed her deeply. Julia hummed as his hands tangled through her hair, and she wrapped her arms about his neck. He slid his hands between them to the front of her robe, parting it hesitantly. He lifted his head, his eyes questioning.
He began whispering kisses against her neck and drew his mouth up to tug at her earlobe. “How do you feel?”
“Great,” she whispered as his lips skimmed down to her throat.
He moved so he could see her face while one of his hands traveled to rest atop her lower abdomen. “Are you sore?”
“Then we should wait.”
He laughed, his lips curling up into his signature seductive smile. “Did you mean what you said last night about making love out here?”
She shivered at the way his voice inflamed her but returned his smile, winding her fingers in his hair, tugging him closer. He opened her robe and began to explore her curves with both hands before dropping his mouth to kiss her breasts.
“You were shy with me this morning.” He pressed a reverent kiss over her heart “What changed?”
Julia brushed against the hint of a dimple in his chin. “I will probably always be a little shy about being naked. But I want you. I want you to look into my eyes and tell me you love me as you move inside me. I will remember that as long as I live.”
“I’ll keep reminding you,” he breathed.
He divested her of her robe and positioned her on her back. “Are you cold?”
“Not when you’re holding me,” she whispered, smiling. “Wouldn’t you rather have me on top? I’d like to try it.”
He threw off his robe and boxer shorts quickly and covered her body with his own, placing a hand on either side of her face. “Someone might see you out here, darling. And I can’t have that. No one gets to see this beautiful body except me.
“Although the neighbors and passersby might be able to hear you…for the next hour or so…” He chuckled as she inhaled sharply, a tremor of pleasure coursing all the way down to her toes.
He kissed her, pushing her hair away from her face. “My goal is to see how many times I can please you before I can’t hold back anymore.”
She grinned. “I like the sound of that.”
“So do I. So let me hear you.”
The blue sky blushed to see such passionate lovemaking, while the Florentine sun smiled down, warming the lovers despite the gentle breeze. Beside them, Julia’s coffee and milk grew stone cold and sullen at being ignored.
After a brief nap, Julia borrowed Gabriel’s MacBook to send an email to her father. She had two important messages in her inbox. The first was from Rachel.
How are you? Is my brother behaving himself? Have you slept with him yet? Yes, it is COMPLETELY inappropriate for me to ask that question, but come on, if you were dating anyone else you would have told me already.
I’m not going to volunteer any advice. I’m trying not to think too much about it. Just let me know you’re happy and he’s treating you properly.
Aaron sends his best.
PS. Scott has a new girlfriend. He’s been secretive about her so I’m not sure how long they’ve been dating. I keep bugging him to introduce me but he won’t.
Maybe she’s a professor.
Julia snickered, glad that Gabriel was showering and not reading over her shoulder. He’d be annoyed at his sister for posing such personal questions. She took a few moments to phrase her response before typing her reply.
The hotel is beautiful. Gabriel has been very sweet and gave me your mother’s diamond earrings. Did you know about that?
I feel guilty about it, so please let me know if this upsets you.
As to your other question, Yes. Gabriel treats me well, and I am VERY happy.
Say hi to Aaron for me. Looking forward to Christmas.
Love, Julia. XO
PS. I hope Scott’s girlfriend is a professor. Gabriel will never let him hear the end of it.
Julia’s second email was from Paul. It could be said that he pined for her, but also he was grateful to have maintained their friendship. He would rather keep his longings to himself than to lose her entirely. And he had to admit that since she’d begun seeing her boyfriend Owen, her very skin glowed.
(Not that he would have mentioned it.)
Sorry I didn’t get the chance to say good-bye before you went home. I hope you have a good Christmas. I have a gift for you. Would you give me your address in Pennsylvania so I can send it?
I’m back at the farm trying to find time to work on my dissertation in between large family gatherings and getting up early to help my dad. Let’s just say my daily routine involves a lot of manure…
Can I bring you something from Vermont?
A Holstein of your very own?
P.S. Did you hear that Christa Peterson’s dissertation proposal was accepted by Emerson?
I guess Advent really is the season of miracles.
Julia stared at the computer screen, reading and re-reading Paul’s postscript. She wasn’t sure what to make of it. It was possible, she thought, that Gabriel accepted Christa’s proposal because she threatened him.
Julia didn’t want to bring up such an unpleasant topic during their vacation, but the news troubled her. She typed a short reply to Paul, giving him her address, then she emailed her father, telling him that Gabriel was treating her like a princess. She closed the laptop and sighed.
“That doesn’t sound like a happy Julianne.” Gabriel’s voice sounded behind her.
“I think I’m going to ignore my email for the rest of our trip.”
She turned to find him standing in front of her, wet from the shower, hair tousled, a white towel wound around his hips.
“You’re beautiful,” she blurted before thinking.
He chuckled and pulled her to her feet so he could embrace her. “Do you have a thing for men in towels, Miss Mitchell?”
“Maybe for one particular man.”
“Are you feeling all right?” He raised his eyebrows expectantly, his expression hungry.
“I’m a little uncomfortable. But it was worth it.”
His eyes narrowed. “You need to tell me if I’m hurting you, Julianne. Don’t hide things from me.”
She rolled her eyes. “Gabriel, it doesn’t hurt; it’s merely uncomfortable. I didn’t notice it during because there were other things on my mind—several other things. You were very distracting.”
He smiled and kissed her neck loudly. “You need to let me start distracting you in the shower. I’m tired of showering alone.”
“I’d like that. How are you feeling?”
He pretended to ponder her question. “Let’s see—loud, hot sex with my beloved inside and outside…Yes, I’d say I’m great.”
He hugged her close, and the cotton of her robe absorbed some of the water droplets from his skin. “I promise it won’t always be uncomfortable. In time, your body will recognize me.”
“It already recognizes you. And misses you,” she whispered.
Gabriel moved the top of her robe aside so he could kiss the slope of her shoulder. With a gentle squeeze, he walked to the bed, retrieving a bottle of ibuprofen and handing it to her.
“I have to run over to the Uffizi for a meeting, then I have to pick up my new suit at the tailor’s.” He appeared concerned. “Would you mind shopping for a dress by yourself? I’d go with you, but my meeting won’t leave me with much time.”
“Not at all.”
“If you can be ready in half an hour, we can walk out together.”
Julia followed Gabriel into the bathroom, all thoughts of Christa and Paul forgotten.
After her shower, she stood in front of one of the vanities, drying her hair while Gabriel stood at the other. She found herself glancing over at him, watching as he carried out his shaving preparations with military precision. Finally, she gave up putting on lipstick and simply leaned against the sink, staring.
He was still naked to the waist, the towel now low on his hips, as he painstakingly shaved in the classical style. His brilliant blue eyes narrowed in concentration behind his black glasses, his damp hair impeccably combed.
Julia suppressed a laugh at the degree to which his quest for perfection was manifested. Gabriel used a shaving brush with a black wooden handle to mix European shaving soap into a thick lather. After spreading the foam on his face with the brush, he shaved using an antiquated safety razor.
(For some professors, disposable razors simply aren’t good enough.)
“What?” He turned, noticing that she was perilously close to ogling him.
“I love you.”
His expression softened. “I love you too, darling.”
“You’re the only non-British person I’ve ever heard use the term darling.”
“That isn’t true.”
“Richard used to call Grace that.” Gabriel gave her a sad look.
“Richard is old-fashioned, in the best sense.” She smiled. “I love the fact that you’re old-fashioned too.”
Gabriel snorted and continued shaving. “I’m not so old-fashioned, or I wouldn’t be making mad passionate love with you outside. And fantasizing about introducing you to some of my favorite positions from the Kama sutra.” He winked at her. “But I am a pretentious old bastard and a devil to live with. You’ll have to tame me.”
“And how shall I do that, Professor Emerson?”
“Never leave.” His voice dropped, and he turned to face her.
“I’m more worried about losing you.”
He leaned over and kissed her forehead. “Then you have nothing to worry about.”
Julia stepped out of the bedroom, feeling nervous. Gabriel had made arrangements for her to shop on his account at the local Prada boutique, and she’d chosen a Santorini-blue V-necked, sleeveless dress made of silk taffeta. Its A-line shape boasted a full pleated skirt and was reminiscent of the kind of dress worn by Grace Kelly in the 1950s. It suited Julia perfectly.
However, the boutique manager had wanted the accessories to modernize the dress, and thus she chose a sleek silver leather clutch and a pair of tangerine patent leather stilettos that Julia found perilously high. To complete the ensemble, a black cashmere wrap was provided.
She stood hesitantly in the sitting room, her hair long and loosely curled, her eyes bright and shining. She wore Grace’s diamond earrings and her string of pearls.
Gabriel had been seated on the sofa in the living room, making last minute changes to his lecture notes. When he saw her he took off his glasses and stood.
“You’re stunning.” He kissed her cheek and twirled her so he could admire her dress. “Do you like it?”
“I love it. Thank you, Gabriel. I know it cost a fortune.”
His gaze drifted down to her shoes.
She blinked. “Is something wrong?”
He cleared his throat as his attention remained riveted to her feet.
“Nice. Aren’t they?” She giggled.
“They’re a good deal more than nice.” His voice grew thick.
“Well, Professor Emerson, if I like your lecture, perhaps I’ll continue wearing them after…”
Gabriel straightened his tie a little and gave her a cocky grin. “Oh, I’ll see that you like my lecture, Miss Mitchell. Even if I have to deliver it to you personally, between the sheets. And it isn’t my bedroom, it’s our bedroom.”
She blushed, and he pulled her into his arms.
“We should go,” he said, pressing a kiss to her hair.
“Wait. I have a present for you.” She disappeared and returned with a small box that had Prada emblazoned across the top.
He seemed surprised. “You didn’t have to do that.”
“I wanted to.”
Gabriel smiled and carefully lifted the lid. He pulled back the tissue paper to find a lightly patterned Santorini-blue silk tie.
“I like it. Thank you.” He kissed her cheek.
“It matches my dress.”
“Now everyone will know that we belong to each other.” He immediately removed his green tie, tossing it onto the coffee table, and began tying Julia’s gift around his neck.
Gabriel’s new suit had been custom made by his favorite local tailor. It was black and single-breasted with side vents. Julia admired the suit a great deal, but even more so, she admired the attractive figure in it.
There is nothing sexier than watching a man put on a tie, she thought.
“May I?” she offered, as Gabriel struggled in the absence of a mirror.
He nodded and bent forward, placing his hands around her waist. She adjusted his tie and fixed his collar, running her hands down his sleeves until they rested on the cufflinks at his wrists.
He gazed at her curiously. “You straightened my tie when I took you to Antonio’s. We were sitting in the car.”
“There’s nothing sexier than having the woman you love fix your tie.” He took her hands in his. “We’ve come a long way since that first night.”
She reached up to kiss him, taking care not to sully his masculine mouth with her lipstick.
He brought his lips to her ear. “I don’t know how I’m going to keep the Florentine men at bay this evening. You’ll have to stay very close to me.”
Julia squealed as he put his arms around her, lifting her so he could kiss her properly, which required Julia to reapply her lipstick and both of them to check their appearance in the mirror before they left their room.
Gabriel held her hand during the short walk to the Uffizi and even after they were whisked to the second floor by a rather pudgy gentleman wearing a paisley bow tie who introduced himself as Lorenzo, Dottore Vitali’s personal assistant.
“Professore, I’m afraid we have need of you.” Lorenzo glanced between Gabriel and Julia, his eyes darting to their conjoined hands.
Gabriel tightened his grip.
“It’s for the—how you say—on the screen? PowerPoint?” Lorenzo gestured to the room behind them where guests were already congregating.
“Miss Mitchell has a reserved seat,” said Gabriel pointedly, irritated that Lorenzo was ignoring her.
“Yes, Professore. I shall accompany your fidanzata personally.” Lorenzo nodded respectfully in Julia’s direction.
She opened her mouth to correct his characterization, but Gabriel pressed a kiss to the back of her hand, murmuring a promise against her skin. Then he was gone, and Julia was escorted to her place of honor in the front row.
She took in her surroundings, noting the presence of what looked like members of Florence’s glitterati mingling with academics and local dignitaries. She smoothed the skirt of her dress, enjoying the whispering sound of the taffeta beneath her fingers. Given the appearance of the other guests, along with the presence of a bevy of photographers, she was glad that she was well-dressed. She didn’t want to embarrass Gabriel on this most important occasion.
The lecture was being delivered in the Botticelli room, which was devoted to the finest of his works. In fact, the lectern was situated in between the Birth of Venus and the Madonna of the Pomegranate, while Primavera hung to the audience’s right. The artwork on the wall to the audience’s left had been removed, and a large screen had been hung, on which Gabriel’s PowerPoint slides would be projected.
She knew how unusual it was to have a lecture in such a special space and silently said a prayer of thanks for this incredible blessing. When she’d spent her junior year in Florence she’d visited the Botticelli room at least once a week and sometimes more often. She found his art both soothing and inspiring. As a shy American undergraduate, she never would have imagined that, two years later, she would be accompanying a world-renowned Dante specialist as he lectured in that very room. She felt as if she’d won the lottery a thousand times over.
More than one hundred people crowded into the room, some even spilling into the standing area at the back. Julia watched Gabriel as he was introduced to various important looking guests. He was a very attractive man, tall and ruggedly handsome. She especially admired his glasses and the way his sleek, dark suit fit perfectly.
When he was blocked from her view by other people, she focused her attention on picking out his voice. He chatted amiably, switching seamlessly from Italian to French to German and back to Italian again.
(Even his German was sexy.)
She grew warm as she remembered what Gabriel looked like under his suit, his form naked and strained above her. She wondered if he was having similar thoughts whenever he looked at her, and in the midst of her private musings, he made eye contact and winked. His momentary display of playfulness put her in mind of their interlude on the terrace that morning, and a pleasant tremor traveled up and down her spine.
Gabriel sat politely through Dottore Vitali’s introduction, which took no less than fifteen minutes as he painstakingly rehearsed the professor’s accomplishments. To the casual observer, Gabriel appeared relaxed, almost bored. His nervousness was telegraphed by the way he unconsciously shuffled his lecture notes, notes that were merely an outline to the remarks that would come from his heart. He’d made a few last minute changes to his lecture. He couldn’t speak of muses, love, and beauty without acknowledging the brown-eyed angel who’d bravely given herself to him the evening before. She was his inspiration, and she’d been so since she was seventeen. Her quiet beauty and generous goodness had touched his heart. He’d carried her image with him as a talisman against the dark demons of addiction. She was everything to him, and by God, he’d say so publicly.
After much flattery and applause, he took his place behind the podium and addressed the crowd in fluid Italian. “My lecture this evening will be somewhat unusual. I am not an art historian, yet I will be speaking to you about Sandro Botticelli’s muse, La Bella Simonetta.” At this, his eyes sought Julia’s.
She smiled, trying to suppress the blush that threatened her cheeks. She knew the story of Botticelli and Simonetta Vespucci. Simonetta was referred to as the Queen of Beauty in the court of Florence, prior to her death at the tender age of twenty-two. To be compared to Simonetta by Gabriel was very high praise, indeed.
“I am tackling this controversial topic as a professor of literature, choosing Botticelli’s artwork as a representation of various female archetypes. Historically speaking, there have been many debates as to how close Simonetta was to Botticelli and to what degree she was the actual inspiration for his paintings. I hope to skirt some of those disagreements in order to focus your attention on a straightforward visual comparison of a few figures.
“I shall begin with the first three slides. In them, you will recognize pen and ink illustrations of Dante and Beatrice in Paradise.”
Gabriel couldn’t help but admire the images himself, transported as he was to the first time he’d welcomed Julianne into his home. That was the night he’d realized how much he wanted to please her, how beautiful she looked when she was happy.
As he gazed at the quiescence of Beatrice’s expression, he compared her countenance with Julia’s. She sat with rapt attention, her lovely head turned in profile as she admired Botticelli’s handiwork. Gabriel wanted to make her look at him.
“Notice Beatrice’s face.” His voice grew soft as his eyes met those of his sweetheart. “The most beautiful face…
“We begin with Dante’s muse and the figure of Beatrice. Although I’m sure she needs no introduction, allow me to point out that Beatrice represents courtly love, poetic inspiration, faith, hope, and charity. She is the ideal of feminine perfection, at once intelligent and compassionate, and vibrant with the kind of selfless love that can only come from God. She inspires Dante to be a better man.”
Gabriel paused a moment to touch his tie. It did not need straightening, but his fingers lingered against the blue silk. Julia blinked at the gesture, and Gabriel knew that he’d been understood.
“Now consider the face of the goddess Venus.”
All eyes in the room except Gabriel’s focused on the Birth of Venus. He looked over his notes eagerly as the audience admired one of Botticelli’s greatest and largest works.
“It appears that Venus has Beatrice’s face. Once again, I’m not interested in a historical analysis of the models for the painting. I’m simply asking you to note the visible similarities between the figures. They represent two muses, two ideal types, one theological and one secular. Beatrice is the lover of the soul; Venus is the lover of the body. Botticelli’s La Bella has both faces—one of sacrificial love or agape, and one of sexual love or eros.”
His voice deepened, and Julia found her skin warming at the sound.
“In the portrait of Venus, the emphasis is on her physical beauty. Even though she represents sexual love, she maintains a venerable modesty, clutching part of her hair in order to cover herself. Notice the demure expression and the placement of her hand across her breast. Her shyness increases the eroticism of her portrayal—it doesn’t diminish it.” He removed his glasses for dramatic effect and fixed Julia with an unblinking eye. “Many people fail to see how modesty and sweetness of temper compound erotic appeal.”
Julia fidgeted with the zipper on her purse, resisting the urge to squirm in her seat. Gabriel replaced his glasses.
“Eros is not lust. According to Dante, lust is one of the seven deadly sins. Erotic love can include sex but is not limited to it. Eros is the all-consuming fire of infatuation and affection that is expressed in the emotion of being in love. And believe me when I say that it far outstrips the rivals for its affections, in every respect.”
Julia couldn’t help but notice the dismissive way with which he’d pronounced the word rivals, punctuating his expression with a wave of his hand. It was as if he were casting aside all previous lovers with a mere gesture, while his blazing blue eyes fixed on her.
“Anyone who has ever been in love knows the difference between eros and lust. There’s no comparison. One is an empty, unfulfilling shadow of the other.
“Of course, one might object that it is impossible for one person, one woman, to represent the ideal of both agape and eros. If you will allow my indulgence for a moment, I will suggest that such skepticism is a form of misogyny. For only a misogynist would argue that women are either saints or seductresses—virgins or whores. Of course, a woman, or a man for that matter, can be both—the muse can be lover to both soul and body.
“Now consider the painting behind me, Madonna of the Pomegranate.”
Again, the eyes of the audience shifted to one of Botticelli’s paintings. Gabriel noticed with satisfaction the way Julia intentionally fingered one of her diamond earrings, as if she understood his revelations and received them gladly. As if she knew he was revealing his love for her through art. His heart swelled.
“Once again, we see the same face repeated in the figure of the Madonna. Beatrice, Venus, and Mary—a trinity of ideal women, each wearing the same face. Agape, eros, and chastity, a heady combination that would make even the strongest man fall to his knees, if he was fortunate enough to find one person who manifests all three.”
A cough that sounded suspiciously as if it were covering a derisive remark echoed throughout the room. Angry at being interrupted, Gabriel scowled in the general direction of the second row, over Julia’s shoulder. The cough was repeated once more for dramatic effect and a testosterone fueled staring contest began between a clearly annoyed Italian and Gabriel.
Conscious of the fact that he was speaking into a microphone, Gabriel resisted the urge to curse and, with a scathing look at his detractor, continued.
“Some have argued that it was a pomegranate and not an apple that tempted Eve in the Garden of Eden. With respect to Botticelli’s painting, many have argued that the pomegranate symbolizes the blood of Christ in his suffering and his subsequent new life through the resurrection.
“For my purposes, the pomegranate represents the Edenic fruit, the Madonna as the second Eve and Christ as the second Adam. With the Madonna, Botticelli hearkens back to the first Eve, the archetype of femininity, beauty, and female companionship.
“I’ll go further, by asserting that Eve is also the ideal of female friendship, the friend of Adam, and thus she is the ideal of philia, the love that emerges out of friendship. The friendship between Mary and Joseph manifests this ideal, as well.”
His voice caught, so he took a moment to sip some water before continuing. Something about the comparison between Julia and Eve made him feel vulnerable, naked, hearkening back to the night he’d given her an apple and held her in his arms under the stars.
The audience began murmuring, wondering why a polite pause to take a drink had extended into a break. Gabriel’s color deepened as he raised his eyes to look at his beloved once again, desperate for her understanding.
Her ruby lips parted into an encouraging smile. Instantly, Gabriel exhaled.
“Botticelli’s muse is a saint, a lover, and a friend, not a cardboard cut-out of a woman or an adolescent fantasy. She is real, she is complicated, and she is endlessly fascinating. A woman to worship.
“As I’m sure you’re aware, the preciseness of the Greek language allows one to speak more perspicuously about the different kinds of love. A modern treatment of this discussion can be found in C.S. Lewis’s The Four Loves, if you’re interested.”
He cleared his throat and smiled winningly at the room.
“Finally, consider the painting to my left, Primavera. One might expect to see the face of Botticelli’s muse reflected in the central figure in the painting. But consider the face of Flora, on the right. Once again, she bears a similarity to Beatrice, Venus, and the Madonna.
“Surprisingly, Flora appears twice in the painting. As we move from the center of the painting to the right, you see Flora pregnant, swollen with Zephyr’s child. Zephyr is on the far right, hovering amongst the orange trees with the second depiction of Flora, as a virgin nymph. Her expression is marked with fear. She’s fleeing the arms of her prospective lover and gazing back at him in panic. However, when she’s pregnant, her countenance is serene. Her fear is replaced by contentment.”
Julia flushed as she remembered how kind Gabriel had been to her the night before. He’d been tender and gentle, and in his arms she’d felt worshipped. Remembering the myth of Flora and Zephyr she shuddered, wishing that all lovers would be as tender with their virgin partners as Gabriel had been.
“Flora represents the consummation of physical love and motherhood. She is the ideal of storge, or familial love, the kind of love manifested from a mother to her child, and between lovers who share a commitment that is not based solely on sex or pleasure, but is between married partners.”
No one but Julia noticed the white knuckling as he held the edge of the podium with two hands. No one but Julia noticed the slight tremor in his voice as he pronounced the words pregnant and motherhood.
His eyebrows furrowed as he collected himself, shuffling his papers for a moment. Julia recognized his vulnerability for what it was, fighting the urge to go to him and embrace him. She began tapping one of her tangerine colored stiletto heels in anticipation.
Gabriel caught her sudden movement and swallowed hard before continuing. “In early writings on Primavera, Flora was asserted to be the likeness of La Bella Simonetta, Botticelli’s muse. If that is true, just on visual inspection alone, we can assert that Simonetta is the inspiration for Beatrice, Venus, and the Madonna, for all four ladies share the same face.
“Thus, we have the icons of agape, eros, philia, and storge all represented by a single face, a single woman—Simonetta. To put this another way, one could argue that Botticelli sees in his beloved muse all four types of love and all four ideals of womanhood: saint, lover, friend, and spouse.
“In the end, however, I must return to where we began, with Beatrice. It is no accident that the inspiration behind one of Italy’s best-known literary works was given Simonetta’s features. Faced with such beauty, such goodness, what man wouldn’t want her by his side not just for a season, but for a lifetime?”
He gazed around the room gravely.
“To quote the Poet, now your blessedness appears. Thank you.”
As Gabriel ended his lecture to enthusiastic applause, Julia blinked back tears, overcome with emotion.
Dottore Vitali retook the podium, extending his thanks to Professor Emerson for an illuminating discussion. A small group of local politicians presented him with several gifts, including a medallion depicting the city of Florence.
Julia remained in her seat for as long as possible, hoping that Gabriel would come to her. But he was deluged with members of the audience, including several officious art historians.
(For it was considered brash if not egotistical for a mere literature professor to analyze the crown jewels of the Uffizi’s collection.)
Reluctantly, she trailed behind him as several members of the media plied him with questions. She caught his eye, and he gave her a tight, apologetic smile before posing for pictures.
Frustrated, she wandered around some of the adjoining rooms, admiring the paintings until she arrived at one of her favorites, Leonardo da Vinci’s Annunciation. She was standing close, too close really, noting the detail in the marble pillar, when a voice sounded in her ear in Italian.
“You like this painting?”
Julia looked up into the eyes of a man with black hair and very tanned skin. He was taller than her, but not overly, and was of a muscular build. He wore a very expensive black suit, with a single red rose pinned to his lapel. She recognized him as one of the guests who sat behind her during the lecture.
“Yes, very much,” she responded in Italian.
“I have always admired the depth that da Vinci gives to his paintings, particularly the shading and detail on the pillar.”
She smiled and turned back to the painting. “That’s exactly what I was studying, along with the feathers on the angel’s wings. They’re incredible.”
The gentleman bowed. “Please allow me to introduce myself. I am Giuseppe Pacciani.”
Julia hesitated, for she recognized his last name. He shared it with the man suspected of being Florence’s most famous serial killer.
The man appeared to be waiting for her to respond to his greeting, so she suppressed the urge to run.
“Julia Mitchell.” She extended her hand in a polite gesture, but he took her by surprise when he grasped it between both of his hands and drew it to his lips, looking up at her as he kissed it.
“Enchanted. And may I say that your beauty rivals that of La Bella Simonetta. Especially in light of this evening’s lecture.”
Julia averted her eyes and swiftly removed her hand.
“Allow me to provide you with a drink.” He quickly flagged down a waiter and took two champagne flutes from his tray. He clinked their glasses together and toasted their health.
Julia sipped the Ferrari spumante gratefully, as it gave her a distraction from his intense stare. He was charming, but she was wary of him, not least because of his name.
He smiled at her hungrily.
“I am a professor of literature at the university. And you?”
“I study Dante.”
“Ah, il Poeta. My specialization is Dante, also. Where do you study? Not here.” His eyes wandered from her face to her body to her shoes, before traveling to her face again.
She took a generous step back. “At the University of Toronto.”
“Ah! A Canadian. One of my former students is studying there right now. Perhaps you are acquainted.” He stepped closer.
Julia elected not to correct him about her citizenship and stepped back once again. “Toronto is a large university. Probably not.”
Giuseppe smiled, showing very straight white teeth that glinted strangely in the museum light.
“Have you seen Piero di Cosimo’s Perseus Frees Andromeda?” He gestured to one of the adjacent paintings.
Julia nodded. “Yes.”
“There are Flemish elements in his work, do you see? Also, notice the figures standing in the crowd.” He gestured to a grouping on the right side of the painting.
Julia stepped to one side so she could take a better look. Giuseppe stood beside her, a good deal too close, watching her study the painting.
“Do you like it?”
“Yes, but I prefer Botticelli.” Stubbornly, she kept her eyes on the painting, hoping he would tire of standing closer to her and move away.
(Preferably across the Arno.)
“Are you a student of Professor Emerson’s?”
Julia swallowed noisily. “No. I—I study with someone else.”
“He is considered to be good by North American standards, which is why he was invited here. However, his lecture was an embarrassment. How did you come to discover Dante?”
Julia was about to argue with Giuseppe about his characterization of the lecture, when he reached out to touch her hair.
She flinched and immediately retreated, but his arms were long and his hand followed her. She opened her mouth to reprove him when someone growled nearby.
Giuseppe and Julia turned their heads slowly to see Gabriel, sapphire eyes flashing, hands on hips, flaring out his open suit jacket like the plumes of an angry peacock.
He took a menacing step closer.
“I see you’ve met my fidanzata. I suggest you keep your hands to yourself, unless you’re prepared to lose them.”
Giuseppe scowled before his face smoothed out into a polite smile. “We’ve been speaking for several minutes. She never mentioned you.”
Julia didn’t wait for Gabriel to rip Giuseppe’s arms from his sockets, thus sullying the Uffizi’s pristine floors with his blood. Instead, she stood between the two men and placed a hand on Gabriel’s chest.
“Gabriel, this is Professor Pacciani. He’s also a Dante specialist.”
A look passed between the two men, and Julia realized that Pacciani was the man who’d rudely interrupted Gabriel’s lecture by muttering and coughing.
He lifted his hands in mock surrender.
“A thousand apologies. I should have realized from the way you looked at her during your…speech that she was yours. Forgive me, Simonetta.” His eyes moved to hers and rested there, his mouth parting in a sneer.
At the sound of his sarcasm, Gabriel took a step closer, his fists clenched.
“Darling, I need to find somewhere to put my glass.” Julia shook her empty champagne flute, hoping it would distract him.
Gabriel took the glass and handed it to Pacciani. “I’m sure you know where to put this.”
He grabbed Julia’s hand and quickly pulled her away. The guests parted like the Red Sea in front of them as they made their way through the Botticelli room.
Julia saw person after person stare at them and she blushed even more deeply.
“Where are we going?”
He led her into the adjoining tiled corridor and began walking toward the end of it, far beyond earshot of the other guests. Pushing her into a dark corner, he positioned her between two large marble statues perched high atop plinths. She was dwarfed by the towering forms.
He grabbed her purse and tossed it aside. The sound of the leather hitting the floor echoed down the corridor.
“What were you doing with him?” Gabriel’s eyes flamed, and his cheeks were slightly red, which for him was a rare occurrence.
“We were just making small talk before he—”
Gabriel pulled her into a searing kiss, one hand tangling in her hair and the other sliding down her dress. The force of the contact propelled her until she felt the cold wall of the Gallery against the naked skin of her upper back. His hard body aligned with hers forcefully.
“I don’t want to see another man’s hands on you again.”
He parted her mouth roughly, penetrating with his tongue, while his hand slid over the curve of her backside, massaging the flesh with his fingers.
Julia realized instantly that he’d been careful with her every other time he’d touched her. He wasn’t careful now. Part of her was inflamed, desperate for him. Another part of her was wondering what he would do if she said stop…
He lifted her left leg, pulling her thigh around his hip and pressing against her.
She felt him through the fabric of her dress, hearing the silk taffeta rustle like a breathless woman. The dress clearly wanted more.
“What do I have to do to make you mine?” he groaned, mouth against mouth.
“I am yours.”
“Not tonight, it seems.” He tugged her lower lip backwards into his mouth, nipping it with his teeth. “Didn’t you understand my lecture? Every word, every painting was for you.” His hand slid up her dress, teasing the skin of her thigh until it reached the string that stretched across her hip.
He pulled back to see her face. “No garters tonight?”
She shook her head.
“Then what’s this?” His fingers tugged at the very thin string.
“Panties,” she breathed.
His eyes glinted in the semi-darkness. “What kind of panties?”
He smiled dangerously before pressing his lips to her ear. “Am I to assume that you wore this for me?”
“Only for you. Always.”
Without warning, Gabriel lifted her, pressing her against the cold wall. His lips on her neck, he pushed their hips closer. The long, thin heels of Julia’s tangerine stilettos caught the curves of his ass. He fixed her with wild, blue eyes.
“I want you. Right now.”
With one hand, he tugged at the string until it tore. Suddenly, she found herself bare. He reached back to stuff the thong in his jacket pocket, and her heels shifted, digging into his ass so much that he winced.
“Do you know how difficult it was for me to control myself after the lecture? How I longed to take you in my arms? Conducting small talk was torture when all I wanted was this.
“I wish you could see how sexy you are with your back against the wall and your legs wrapped around me. I want you like this, except I want you panting my name.”
Gabriel dipped his tongue in the hollow at the base of her throat and Julia’s eyes closed. Her passions were struggling with her mind, which urged her to push him away and take a moment to think. In a mood such as this, Gabriel was dangerous.
All of a sudden, Julia heard voices echoing down the hallway. Her eyes flew open.
The sound of footsteps and merry laughter grew closer. Gabriel lifted his head, bringing his mouth to her ear. “Don’t make a sound,” he whispered. She could feel his lips curve up into a smile as they pressed against her.
The footsteps stopped a few feet away, and Julia heard two male voices conversing in Italian. Her heart continued to race as she strained her hearing for any sign of movement. Gabriel kept stroking her gently, swallowing her sounds with his mouth. From time to time, he’d whisper sensual things to her—phrases that made her flush.
One of the male voices laughed loudly. Julia lifted her head in surprise, while Gabriel took that opportunity to kiss her throat, nibbling at the delicate skin.
“Please don’t bite me.”
The murmuring voices echoed around them. It took a moment, but eventually the import of her words sliced through his aroused, frantic state. He lifted his face from her neck.
With their chests pressed so tightly together, he could feel her heart. He closed his eyes, as if entranced by its staccato rhythm. When he opened them again, most of the fire was gone.
Julia had carefully concealed Simon’s bite mark with makeup, but Gabriel found it with his finger, tracing its perimeter lightly before kissing it. He exhaled slowly, very slowly, and shook his head.
“You’re the only woman who has ever said no to me.”
“I’m not saying no.”
He looked over his shoulder and spied two older gentlemen, deep in conversation. They were close enough to see him if they looked in his direction.
He turned back to Julia and gave her a sad smile. “You deserve better than a jealous lover taking you against a wall. And I’m not in favor of being caught by our host. Forgive me.”
He kissed her and traced below her swollen lower lip with his thumb, removing the slight smear of crimson lipstick from her pale skin.
“I’m not about to undo the trust I saw in your eyes last night. When I’m in my right mind and we have the museum all to ourselves…” His expression darkened as he fantasized. “Another time, perhaps.”
He removed her heels from his backside and placed her on her feet, leaning over to straighten the skirt of her dress. The taffeta rustled breathlessly at his touch and then forlornly, was silent.
Fortunately, Dottore Vitali and his companion chose that moment to return to the party, their footsteps growing fainter and fainter as they walked away.
“The banquet is supposed to begin shortly. I can’t insult them by leaving. But when I get you home…” His eyes fixed on hers. “The wall just inside our room will be our first stop.”
She nodded, relieved that he wasn’t angry anymore. Truthfully, she was somewhat nervous but very excited about the prospect of wall sex.
He adjusted himself through his trousers and buttoned up his suit jacket, willing his body to calm. He tried to smooth his hair but only succeeded in making it look more like he had dragged his lover into a dark corner for museum sex.
Museum sex is a peculiar compunction of certain academics. (But it should not be disdained without trying it.)
Julia fixed his hair and straightened his tie, checking his face and collar for lipstick. When she was finished, he picked up her clutch and her sweater, handing them to her with a kiss. Smirking, he adjusted her panties in his suit pocket so they were no longer visible.
She took an experimental step forward, finding the absence of her panties surprisingly liberating.
“I could drink you like champagne,” he whispered.
She reached up on tiptoe to kiss his cheek. “I wish you’d teach me your tricks of seduction.”
“Only if you will teach me how to love as you love.”
Gabriel escorted her through the empty corridor and down the stairs to the first floor, where the banquet was just beginning.
Professor Pacciani stumbled back to his apartment by the Pitti Palace in the wee hours of the morning. This was not an unusual occurrence.
He fumbled with his keys, cursing as he dropped them, and entered the flat, closing the door behind him. He walked to the small room in which his twin four-year-old sons were asleep, kissing them before shuffling to his study.
He smoked a leisurely cigarette as he waited for his computer to boot up, then he logged into his email. He ignored his inbox and composed a short message to a former student and lover. They had not been in contact since her graduation.
He mentioned meeting Professor Emerson and his very young Canadian fidanzata. He mused that although he’d been impressed with Emerson’s monograph with Oxford University Press, the Professor’s lecture smacked of a pseudo-intellectualism that truly had no place in a professional academic lecture. One should either be intellectual and academic, or one should be a public speaker and entertaining, but not both. Pacciani queried churlishly if this was what passed for excellence in North American universities.
He ended his email with an explicit and detailed suggestion of a prospective sexual rendezvous, possibly in the late spring. Then he finished his cigarette in the darkness and joined his wife in their matrimonial bed.
Christa Peterson had a privileged upbringing, so really, there was no excuse for her vicious nature. She had two parents who loved each other and their only daughter very much. Her father was a well-respected oncologist in Toronto. Her mother was a librarian at Havergal College, an elite, private girl’s school that Christa attended from kindergarten through grade twelve.
Christa went to Sunday school. She was confirmed as an Anglican. She studied Thomas Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer, but none of these actions touched her heart. And when she was fifteen years old she discovered the immense power of female sexuality. Once she discovered it, it became not only her currency but her weapon of choice.
Her best friend, Lisa Malcolm, had an older brother called Brent. Brent was handsome. He looked like so many other graduates of Upper Canada College, a private boy’s school that catered to Canada’s old moneyed families. He had blond hair and blue eyes and was tall and fit. He was a rower for the University of Toronto’s men’s team and could easily have starred in a J.Crew commercial.
Christa had admired Brent from afar but because of the four-year age difference, he’d never noticed her. But then, late one night while sleeping over at Lisa’s house, Christa ran into Brent on her way to the bathroom. He’d been extremely taken by her long dark hair, big brown eyes, and youthful, nubile form. He’d kissed her gently in the hallway and brushed tentative fingers across her breast. Then he’d taken her hand and invited her to his room.
After thirty minutes of making out and feeling one another through their clothes, he was eager to take things further. Christa hesitated, because she was a virgin, so Brent began making wild and extravagant promises—gifts, romantic dates, and finally, a Baume & Mercier stainless steel watch that had been a present from his parents on his eighteenth birthday.
Christa had admired his watch. She knew it well, for Brent treasured it. In truth, she wanted it almost more than she wanted him.
Brent fastened the watch on her wrist, and she stared at it, marveling at the coolness of the steel against her flesh and the way it slid easily up and down her narrow forearm. It was a token. A sign that he desired her so intensely, he was willing to give her one of his most prized possessions.
It made her feel wanted. And powerful.
“You’re so beautiful,” he whispered. “I won’t hurt you. But God, I want you. And I promise I’ll make you feel good.”
Christa smiled and let him place her on his narrow bed like an Incan sacrifice on an altar and gave her virginity up to him in exchange for a three-thousand-dollar watch.
Brent kept his word. He was gentle. He went slowly. He kissed her and softly explored her mouth. He paid homage to her breasts. He prepared her with his fingers and tested her to ensure that she was ready for him. When he entered her, he did so carefully. There was no blood. Just large hands rubbing circles on her hips and a low voice that murmured instructions on how to relax, until her discomfort disappeared.
As promised, he made her feel good. He made her feel beautiful and special. And when it was over he held her closely all night. For he was not an entirely vicious soul, driven as he was by carnal needs.
They would repeat this act many times over the next three years, despite other romantic entanglements. Before Brent entered her, he would always place a gift in her hand.
He was soon followed by Mr. Woolworth, Christa’s grade-eleven Math teacher. Christa’s encounters with Brent taught her much about men, how to read their wants and desires, how to tantalize and provoke, and how to string along and tease.
She teased Mr. Woolworth unmercifully until the man cracked and begged her to meet him at a hotel after school. Christa liked it when men begged. In the plain hotel room, her teacher surprised her with a silver necklace from Tiffany. He placed the delicate links around her neck and kissed her flesh softly. In exchange, Christa let him explore her body for hours until he fell asleep, exhausted and sated.
He was not as attractive as Brent, but he was far more experienced. For every subsequent gift, she would allow him to touch her in old and new ways. By the time their affair ended and Christa moved to Quebec to attend Bishop’s University, she’d amassed an enormous amount of jewelry and an extensive knowledge of sexual relations. Moreover, Christa had become one of few women who viewed the role of the man-eating seductress as something to emulate.
When Christa completed her master’s degree in Renaissance Studies at the Università degli Studi di Firenze, her pattern of relationships was fixed. She preferred older men, men in positions of power. She was excited by forbidden affairs—the more remote, the more improbable, the better.
She tried for two years to seduce a priest who was assigned to the Duomo in Florence, and right before graduation, she succeeded. He took her in the single bed of his tiny apartment, but before he touched her, he wrapped her long, warm fingers around a tiny icon that had been painted by Giotto. It was priceless. But so, she reasoned, was she. Christa would allow men to have her, but only at a price. And she’d always bedded the men she wanted—eventually.
Until her first year of PhD coursework at the University of Toronto when she met Professor Gabriel O. Emerson. He was by far the most attractive and sensual of all the men she’d ever met. And he appeared very sexual. His raw, smoldering carnality oozed from every pore. She could almost smell it.
She watched him hunt at his favorite bar. She noted his stealthy, seductive approach and the way women reacted to him. She studied him the way she studied Italian, and she put her knowledge to good use.
But he spurned her. He never looked at her body. He would gaze into her eyes coldly, as if she wasn’t even female.
She began to dress more provocatively. He never glanced below her neck.
She tried to be sweet and self-deprecating. He was impatient.
She baked him cookies and took to leaving anonymous culinary treats in his mail box at the department. The treats would remain untouched for weeks until Mrs. Jenkins, the departmental secretary, threw them into the garbage, worried about a potential infestation of vermin.
The more Professor Emerson rejected her, the more she wanted him. The more she became obsessed with having him, the less she cared about receiving gifts in trade. She would give herself to him freely if he would only look at her with desire.
But he didn’t.
So in the fall of 2009, when she had the opportunity to meet him at Starbucks and discuss her dissertation, she was eager to see if their meeting could turn into dinner and possibly a visit to Lobby. She would be on her best behavior, but she would be alluring. Hopefully, he would stop resisting her.
In preparation for her meeting, she spent six hundred dollars on a black Bordelle chemise, along with garters and black silk stockings. She disdained the matching panties. Every time the garters pulled across the surface of her skin, she felt inflamed. She wondered how it would feel when Professor Emerson released her stockings from their bonds, preferably with his teeth.
Unfortunately for Christa, Paul and Julia had chosen to inhabit the same Starbucks at the same time. Christa knew without doubt that any impropriety on her part would be eagerly watched and noted by her fellow students. The Professor would know this too, and thus be far more professional than usual.
So when Christa confronted Paul and Julia, she was beyond pissed. She wanted to insult the two of them so they would leave before the Professor arrived. She did her damnedest to make sure that happened. Nevertheless, her attempt at intimidating her fellow graduate students went horribly awry. Professor Emerson arrived earlier than expected and overheard her.
“Miss Peterson.” Gabriel pointed toward an empty table far away from Paul and Julia and indicated that Christa should follow him.
“Professor Emerson, I bought you a venti latté with skim milk.” She tried to hand it to him, but he waved it aside.
“Only barbarians drink coffee with milk after breakfast. Haven’t you ever been to Italy? And by the way, Miss Peterson, skim milk is for wankers. Or fat girls.”
He spun on his heel and walked over to the counter to order his own coffee while Christa tried valiantly to hide her rage.
Damn you, Julianne. This is all your fault. You and the monk.
Christa sat in the chair that Professor Emerson had pointed out, feeling almost defeated. Almost, for from her vantage point, she had a lovely view of Professor Emerson’s ass in his gray flannel trousers. Rounded like two apples. Two ripe, delicious apples.
She wanted to take a bite out of them.
At length, the professor returned with his own damn coffee. He sat as far away from her as possible, while still technically sitting at the same table, and gazed at her harshly.