Maria Lantos is a post grad Yale student researching illicit 18th-century literature. She’s become exceptionally well-versed in the narratives of classic erotic fantasy.
She’s also Claudine, an in-demand escort specializing in sexual role play for an elite clientele. Anonymous. Satisfying. And discreet.
Until the tenuous separation between her worlds starts to crack. It begins with the murder of a stranger. Where it leads is to two men who will test Maria's limits of control and awaken her own sexual desires.
As her private nights bleed into day, Maria will discover the dangerous places that extend beyond the imagination, and secrets no longer consigned to the dark.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.10(h) x 0.90(d)|
|Age Range:||18 Years|
About the Author
The author is a bestselling, international award-winning Canadian novelist whose work has been published in many countries. She’s writing under the pen name Barbara Palmer, inspired by the famous 17th century English courtesan and royal mistress.
Read an Excerpt
Claudine’s appointment was for eight P.M., and by design, she arrived precisely two minutes late. She stood between two elaborate topiaries under a portico at one of the residences making up the grand flank of white stucco town houses in London’s Grosvenor Square, Belgravia. It was a pleasant evening, if over-warm for April. She fanned herself and pressed a tentative finger to the bell. Chimes echoed inside. She smoothed the plain gray skirt that reached just below her knees, adjusted her glasses and pulled in her stomach. She fought back a flurry of nerves at the sound of steps approaching the entrance.
The door opened. A housemaid in stark black shirt and slacks gave her a quick, appraising glance and beckoned her inside, accepting the business card Claudine presented as she passed through a wide rotunda. “This way, please,” the maid said without warmth, leading her to a room on the right. “The earl will be with you presently.” The door closed behind her with a soft click.
The room had all the trappings of a male den, with bronze leather wingback chairs, somber oil paintings, an Oushak rug on the glossy parquet floor and a bar. Heavy damask drapes across the front window hid the room from prying eyes out on the street. Silver-framed photographs of a woman and three boys cluttered an antique davenport desk, and glass-fronted mahogany cases filled with books stretched across two walls. This wouldn’t be the earl’s main library, she surmised, but it was an impressive display.
She sat in one of the deep leather chairs, kept her spine ramrod straight and crossed her legs primly. Her oversized faded leather bag lay across her lap; she noticed with dismay the fraying straps, tucked them inside the bag and took a deep, steadying breath. Had she dressed appropriately? Was she too dowdy? Or would her severe apparel give just the right impression of a young librarian applying for access to the earl’s substantial book collection? She took out her compact and gave herself a quick once-over. Her naturally long lashes required no mascara but she wondered if she should have softened her features with nude lipstick and a little blush.
Claudine waited; checked her watch. It had been over fifteen minutes. She got up from the chair with the intention of surveying the volumes in the nearest case. She’d just plucked a handsome calfskin folio from the shelf when the door opened and the earl strode into the room.
“Ah, there you are,” he said with a posh accent that hinted of exclusive clubs. “How do you do?” He gave her a friendly nod. “I’ve kept you waiting. I appreciate your promptness.”
Claudine inclined her head in greeting and returned the book to its place. “Very pleased to meet you, sir.”
He gave her a long look. “Splendid. Let’s have a drink, shall we?”
Since it was the evening hour and she wanted to appear collegial she obliged. “Yes. That would be fine, thank you.”
A quick smile lit up the earl’s features, and he went over to the bar. She took in his large blue eyes, thick hair—blond generously sprinkled with gray—and a ruddy complexion that made him look athletic and outdoorsy. Quite handsome, in an affluent, imposing kind of way. His smart burgundy smoking jacket with silken lapels was securely belted around his waist over dark trousers. He wore oxblood leather loafers.
He held up a bottle of Campari, the bitter ruby red liquid sloshing a little as he did. “An Americano, in honor of your native country?”
“Perfect,” she replied. In truth, she hated the taste of the sweet vermouth he added to the drink.
He shot the drink with soda from a seltzer bottle, then fixed a whiskey, neat, for himself. He handed her the glass, took a seat in a leather wingback and motioned for her to settle in its mate.
“I didn’t expect a librarian to actually look like one.” He surveyed her modest skirt and glasses with approval.
She risked a cheeky comeback. “Occupational hazard. Does that mean you’ve decided to grant me access to your collection?”
He relaxed, crossed his legs. Claudine got a whiff of his sweet, smoky cologne. “Let’s not jump to conclusions just yet. Tell me, why should I trust you with my very valuable books?”
“I believe you’ve already reviewed my résumé but just in case, I brought a copy with me.” As she bent to retrieve the papers from her purse, he waved his hand in the air.
“That won’t be necessary. In your own words, please.”
“Well,” she began, “I’ve always loved books. As a child I . . .”
“And you spent your childhood where?” he interrupted.
“Boston. My parents were high school teachers who encouraged my love of reading. I studied English at Wellesley and took my masters in library science.”
“Wellesley, did you?” He swirled the whiskey in his glass. “They must pay high school teachers very generously in America.”
“Scholarships,” she answered a tad too sharply, hoping he wouldn’t detect the lie in her words. “Is your full collection housed here?”
“Goodness, no. It’s a library of over twenty thousand volumes. The bulk of the collection, natural history and English letters, is kept at our family estate in Cheshire. This is only a small, eclectic selection.” He finished his whiskey and rose to pour another. She had barely taken a sip of her drink. “My wife and sons are settled there now,” he said, with his back to her.
“I see. It must be quite lovely, especially as summer comes on.”
“Excuse me, my dear,” the earl said, settling down once more in his chair. “I’m a touch nearsighted and wonder if you’d consider removing those glasses. I want to take your measure.”
“Look you square in the eyes. Examine your character.”
Claudine folded her glasses and tucked them carefully into her purse. She had a way of widening her eyes that had a hypnotic effect. It worked its magic on the earl.
“That’s better. You can tell much from a face, you know. And I see your eyes are . . . dazzling. A most remarkable green.” He threw back a generous slug of his drink.
“Getting back to my suitability, I graduated summa cum . . .”
“Yes, yes,” the earl said, his voice clipped and impatient, “your credentials are excellent. Yet few references. Why is that?”
“Discretion is essential to my work. Clients are understandably concerned about their private affairs becoming public. Though you might be surprised by how secretive some are about their collections.”
He stared her down.
She’d worn a fine-gauge knit cardigan over her crisp white blouse and sweat trickled down her spine. She shifted uncomfortably in the chair.
“I warrant this room is a trifle hot,” the earl continued. “I’m sure that sweater is making you warm. Please don’t stand on ceremony. Feel free to breathe a little.”
“Thank you. I am a bit overheated.” She took a quick sip of her drink, recoiled inwardly from the tangy taste and set it down again. She fumbled with the tiny buttons and shrugged off the sweater, arching her back slightly, which caused her breasts to press against the thin cotton of her blouse. The earl’s gaze fastened on her chest. She quickly rounded her shoulders to mitigate the effect. “As I was saying, the private collectors I’ve worked for don’t wish to be contacted; however, I forwarded a very good reference from the New York Public Library.”
“Where you worked as a summer intern. That’s neither a satisfactory nor sufficient reference in my view. But let’s leave that topic for now. What brings you to London?”
“I’m surprised at your question, sir. For anyone who admires books as much as I do, London is the center of the universe. The hours I’ve spent at the Bodleian have been pure paradise! I planned a year’s stay in the city. Unfortunately I miscalculated the cost and will be forced to return sooner than I wanted to. That’s the reason for the urgency of my request.”
“The Bodleian’s in Oxford.”
“Only a quick train ride from London.”
He tossed back the rest of his drink. “Well”—he slapped his thigh—“I find I’m ready for another glass. And look—you’ve barely touched yours.” As he stood up, she noticed his jacket fall open, revealing a prominent bulge at his crotch. She quickly averted her eyes.
While he busied himself once more behind the bar, Claudine tried to collect herself. The interview was progressing reasonably well, though she was growing uncomfortable under his scrutiny.
When he returned with a freshened drink, she saw his belt had come loose and the smoking jacket was still open. He flopped back into his chair. “It is damn hot in here. Young lady, please forgive my brusque manner. You don’t take umbrage, I hope?”
She gave him a tentative smile and shook her head.
“Excellent. One must have a strong character to impress me. I’ve been told I have a tendency to steamroll over people. If it’s any consolation, I might add that so far your answers have been admirable—except, of course, the lack of suitable references.”
His words boosted her confidence. “I’m glad you find them so. I think you’ll learn I can be quite assertive if the occasion calls for it. And I prefer frankness to subterfuge.”
His blue eyes twinkled. “Well, then. In the spirit of directness, I have a request. I’d like to see what lies beneath that blouse you’re wearing. It’s buttoned right up to your neck. Very constricting, especially in this heat. And if you venture to whet a man’s appetite, you must not leave him hungry.”
She scrambled to her feet, indignation causing her color to rise. “You’re implying I’m deliberately tantalizing you? That’s in your imagination, sir. What you’re suggesting is totally improper. And offensive. I’m beginning to think you agreed to see me under false pretenses.”
“All the same, I must insist.”
“But this is the twenty-first century,” she protested. “Men can’t take that sort of advantage anymore—no matter what their station in life.”
“You see I remain seated in my chair,” he said. “I’m not intimidating you or threatening you in any way. It is a request only. Whether or not you choose to comply is entirely up to you. You’re of age. What harm can there be in that?”
She paused as though weighing the pros and cons and sighed. “Very well, then.” She slowly undid each button and her blouse fell open, revealing a pretty white lace bra. She had big breasts; her nipples poked against the thin white fabric. “There,” she said. “I trust that’s satisfactory.” A tiny smile tugged at the corner of her lips.
As she began to rebutton her blouse, the earl held up his hand. “Come, come. Now you are being deliberately provocative. The brassiere must come off.”
Her full lips parted slightly. He caught a glimpse of her small white teeth. “No, sir. That is going too far. I’m afraid the interview is over.” She plucked her bag from the carpet.
“Do you expect me to beg for it? I will, you know.” His smile faded and he caught and held her eyes. “You’re a total stunner, Claudine. Worth every penny.”
She gave a little huff, half-exasperated, half-amused. She tossed her bag to the floor and shrugged the blouse from her shoulders. It fell around her heels. She reached for the catch at the front of her bra and flicked it open to reveal perfectly round breasts with rosy nipples. The earl’s eyes narrowed.
She walked toward him, her breasts swaying hypnotically above her narrow waist and slim skirt. “This is too unfair,” she teased. “You have the upper hand, and I don’t care for that at all. I have just as much right to judge as you.” She stood in front of him, her breasts level with his eyes. His nostrils flared, and she knew he could smell her perfume rising with the heat of her skin, a scent of roses in bloom with a peppery undertone. He tried to rise but she pushed him down. His large hands reached for her breasts and she brushed them away. She squatted, stretching the fabric of her skirt taut over her thighs, and ran her forefinger over the bulge in his trousers.
“What have you hidden in there?” She looked up at him through her long lashes with an expression of mock surprise. He took her hand and pressed it against his cock.
She felt for the zipper and found only a placket, an open seam. She reached in and gently exposed his prick: thick, humid and engorged. She regarded his cock quizzically, as if she’d never seen one before. Kneeling before him, she spread his legs apart and ran her fingertips over the skin of his shaft. He placed his hands on the pearly skin of her shoulders to bring her closer. She could smell the whiskey on his breath.
She brought the head of his cock to her lips and gave it a chaste kiss. Rubbed it against her closed lips and across her cheek. She pouted her mouth and let the silky skin of her inner lip wet the tip of his penis. Opening her mouth wider, she sucked in the whole head of it, pushed her tongue wetly at him, gobbling him up, bit by bit.
Claudine let her mouth fill with saliva, and locked her throat. She took all of him in; let him thrust in and out. Her saliva pooled in his blondish pubic hair when one of his thrusts broke the seal of her lips. His eyes were slits of pleasure. “God, I’m not going to last. Take off your skirt.”
Delighted with his response, she pulled away and smiled. “Not yet.” She drew his cock up, freeing his balls, and lapped at them with her pink tongue.
He watched her ministrations for as long as he could, then let his head fall back against the chair with a groan.
She stood up and moved just out of reach and undid her skirt. It fell in gray folds to the floor. She had a narrow waist that blossomed into full hips and long legs. Her silken panty hose made her legs and pelvis gleam as if her skin had a coat of satin. Underneath the hose she wore tiny white lace panties with a long slit that revealed her shaved cunt. The earl could easily view the pink blush of her vulva.
He sighed on seeing her genitals thus exposed. “Not the innocent you made yourself out to be, Claudine. How delightful.” He rose, dropped his pants and moved toward her, his penis a stiff soldier. She gripped his shoulders. He bent his head to her breasts and sucked and nibbled at her nipples, sending rich tingles deep into her belly. He tucked his fingers into the waistband of her panty hose and slowly peeled them down, squatting lower as he went. As she raised a delicate foot for him to pull the stockings off, he took his opportunity and buried his nose in her cleft. He parted her with his tongue and licked at her hungrily. She braced herself against the davenport desk, spread herself wide with one hand and guided him into her notch. He thrust deeply and grasped her buttocks with greedy fingers, knocking over the silver photo frames. After a few moments of vigorous pumping, he came in an electric rush.
As she always did after a performance, Maria Lantos changed into street clothes, using the Edwardian powder room the maid directed her to. In the restroom she disposed of the female condom she wore. Many of the commercial varieties were clumsy, off-putting contraptions, but she had hers custom-made by a Munich firm and fashioned from a material as soft as her own skin. They fit her perfectly.
• • •
After tidying her wig and refreshing her makeup, she stepped out of the town house door wearing a sleek black dress, her eyes hidden by a pair of large sunglasses. Her black leather, red-soled Christian Louboutin stilettos clicked on the short flight of steps, and she crossed the sidewalk to a sedan idling by the curb. She slid into the passenger seat. Beside her, Andrei Baranov checked his mirror before swinging smoothly into the road.
She gave herself a shake. “I’m still sweaty. You’d think with all his billions the guy could turn up the air-conditioning.”
“You’re finished early,” Andrei said, accelerating past a black London taxi.
She buckled up and pulled down the visor. She lifted her sunglasses, yanked off her brown wig, tossed it on the dash and shook out her own naturally blond locks.
“I tried everything but he was only good for one go. Big drinker. We spent the rest of the time talking about his book collection. It surprised him I actually knew something about literature—though, apparently, I do make a very convincing librarian. He wants me back tomorrow night. Wouldn’t take no for an answer.”
“Of course he does. What did you say?”
“Said I’d make an exception for him.”
Andrei frowned. Maria laughed wickedly and cuffed his shoulder. His disapproval had no weight with her, though he’d proven fundamental to her success. He was her guard and business manager all rolled into one. She and Andrei were close, but he was her employee, not her pimp. She ran the show.
She glanced at her business cards in the divider pocket. On simple black stock embossed in silver were the words: UNIQUE EVENTS—ONE NIGHTONLY. Underneath that, her stage name, CLAUDINE, and below it a website address and cell phone number.
“They never take it seriously, do they?” Andrei said. “Those men are so used to everyone doing their bidding, they can’t conceive of anything different.” Concern made tiny wrinkles at the corners of his deep hazel eyes. “One of these days, Maria, it’s going to backfire on you.”
“It hasn’t yet,” she said brightly, paying his caution no heed. “I haven’t eaten anything since breakfast. Will the Grill Room still be open?”
Andrei checked the time on the dash. “Should be.” He took his eyes off the road for a moment to look at her. “You don’t want to go clubbing tonight?” He straightened his tie in the rearview mirror. He was dressed immaculately in an English-tailored navy suit. Claudine glanced at him approvingly. His suit fit perfectly, just hugging his broad shoulders, and like his other gear, always the height of fashion.
“No, not tonight. I’m not feeling up to it. Just a quiet dinner—the two of us. Sound good?”
“Fine by me.”
“Where are we tomorrow?”
Andrei took his cell phone from its holder and used his right hand to scroll through a menu while keeping his left on the wheel.
She looked at the screen when he handed her the phone. “Oh yes, Frankfurt. We have a transition day there and then next night I see my client. Who is it? Remind me.”
Andrei was forced into a crawl behind a line of backed-up vehicles. He shook his head in irritation. “Gridlock even at this time of night. It’s the one thing I hate about London.”
“You should be used to it. New York is worse.”
“I’ll never get used to it. Your client’s a businessman—Hirsch. Imports electronics. But the appointment is for his son. The father’s worried because the young man’s turning twenty and still doesn’t show much interest—in either sex. Spends all his time gaming.”
“Oh, that’s right. I’m the birthday present and I’m playing his favorite female avatar. Commander Shepard, I think. From something called Mass Effect 3. Should be fun.
“Mass Effect 3? I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
She laughed. “Neither do I. And the politician in Milan is two days after that—right?”
“Yes. A party at a villa just outside the city.”
“And then Rome at the end of the week?”
“Andrei, no! Any chance of making it up this close to the appointment?”
“Sure. There’s a waiting list. But I won’t have time to do a proper background check.”
“See what you can do. You know we need it to offset the cost of the hotel and the flights.”
“It’s not the only consideration. You’ve got to think about your security.”
“That’s what I have you for.” She snuck a glance at his handsome profile. He was smiling.
• • •
Maria walked into her London hotel room and pecked Lillian on the cheek. “Thanks for waiting up, sweetie. We stopped off at the Grill Room.” She stripped off her clothes as she headed for the bathroom, “Did you have a good night?”
“Not bad. I watched Britain’s Got Talent on TV. You’re back early.”
“I know! Lucky break, huh? Because I’m exhausted.”
She emerged from the shower ten minutes later, her skin damp and steaming.
Lillian had the bedsheets turned down, a second cover thrown over to protect the sheets from the oils. Maria flopped onto the bed and turned facedown on her stomach. Lillian tucked a pillow underneath her lower legs and squirted citrus-scented oil on her hands.
“Not too long tonight, Lil. I’m not feeling great.”
“You aren’t coming down with something, are you?”
“Just tired, I expect.”
“I’m not surprised. You’ve been keeping an insane pace. You need a holiday.”
A muffled sound came from her mouth and she lifted her head. “I have time for holidays?”
“That’s exactly what I mean!”
Lillian was the only person who dared to boss Maria around. A petite Filipino woman who barely topped five feet three inches, she was, nevertheless, a bulldog. An affectionate bulldog. A former movie makeup artist and hair stylist, she came recommended by another courtesan, a French film star who occasionally plied the trade.
Lillian knew how to exert just the right amount of pressure to untie the knots in Maria’s muscles without causing pain. She ran her strong brown fingers down Maria’s spine, worked on her shoulders and neck and along the pale, beautiful skin that glowed with an inner radiance. It was completely unblemished except for the small scar on the inside of Maria’s right wrist. She’d had the scarification etched into her skin in the shape of a nightingale feather to hide the only blemish on her body: a discoloration caused when, as a child, her right hand had been tied to her crib railing.
“Your skin is getting really dry,” Lillian said disapprovingly, applying more oil. “You should drink more water.”
“It’s the flights. The air is parched.”
Lillian’s strong hands kneaded Maria’s plump buttocks and finished with her lower legs, the arches of her feet and her toes. Then she tapped Maria’s shoulder to turn over. After oiling and massaging her upper body, Lillian noticed several blond hairs on her pubis.
“Some hairs are growing back. You’ll have to get another laser treatment when we get home.”
Maria groaned. Her skin was sensitive and her whole pubic area had been tender and red for several days after the last treatment. It stung horribly when she urinated. She hadn’t been able to work for a week. Yet the laser produced wonders; the hairs pulled out as easily as clumps of dead grass. She had to have a treatment every six weeks; this time she’d gone for seven. “Can you wax me instead? The laser treatment hurts too much.”
Lillian tutted, pushing one side of her black bob behind her ear. She massaged Maria’s arms. “Yes, but now is time for sleep.”
Maria rolled off the cover. Lillian swept it away and tucked the bedsheets over Maria’s legs while she sat up. She got a glass and a cold bottle of Iceland Spring from the half fridge and handed them to Maria along with her sleeping pill.
“That’s too mild. Don’t I have any Benadryl?”
“It’s too strong. You shouldn’t be taking that just to sleep.”
Maria closed her eyes.
“Is there anything else you want?” Lillian asked a little more affectionately.
“No, that’s all, thanks.”
Maria opened her eyes again in time to intercept Lillian’s worried glance. Maria had been relying on sleeping pills too much and had started taking Xanax during the day as well to keep herself on an even keel. Even that hadn’t been enough to produce a good night’s rest.
“How was it tonight?”
“Just fine, Lillian. Not to worry. He was a perfect gentleman.”
Lillian harrumphed and turned off the lamps, leaving only the bathroom light on because Maria was unable to sleep in total dark. After bidding her good night, Lillian went to the adjoining room. Andrei had a separate suite across the hall.
Maria waited until the sound of her companion’s movements next door ceased—once Lillian fell asleep, not even a bomb could wake her—and then slipped out of bed. She always packed two cases: one held lube, extra condoms and sex toys, the other cosmetics, nail polish, and hair and body care essentials. She rooted through both. No Benadryl. Nor could she find anything tucked away in the bathroom cabinets. Damn. Lillian was keeping it all in her room, to dispense as she saw fit. Maria grew annoyed, although part of her knew Lillian was right. Loading her body with drugs was a bad idea.
In addition to the sleeping aids and Xanax, she took Lybrel to stop her periods. In her profession, they meant too much time away from work. She wondered if it was taking a toll on her body. She took a long look in the bathroom mirror. No one would guess she was twenty-six. But there were small signs. She ran her fingers over the tender skin underneath her eyes. A line or two. Almost imperceptible, but there. And she’d found a gray hair at her temple the other day. Just one, yet even that alarmed her. Her breasts were still full and perky—how long would that last? She didn’t have implants, and that set her apart. Most of her clients preferred real to silicone, and a number of them actually asked before they booked her. She’d steadily built her business over five years and was now at the top of her form, in demand around the world and able to command the highest prices. She’d always known her career would be short, like a professional athlete’s. One didn’t last in this game for very long. Her feelings about that were ambivalent: some days she wanted to be a courtesan forever—loving the fame, sexuality and power—other days she never wanted to have sex again.
There were additional considerations too. Maria hadn’t had a boyfriend in months; in the past, they’d either become jealous when they found out what she did, or they wanted to watch. As for women friends, it had become too complicated to avoid the intimate confessions of friendship to hide her double life, to explain her frequent absences from New York and the comfortable lifestyle she enjoyed. Many interesting and intelligent women in her grad program at Yale had made overtures of friendship: invitations to coffee, art house films, drinks at the campus bar. She turned them all down. Who among them would understand her lifestyle? How many would befriend her if they knew the truth? She refused to justify her choices or be judged by puritanical standards. No, casual friendships were out of the question. The risk of discovery was too great and she didn’t want to lose what she’d earned through hard work. She was close to paying off her apartment, and if all went well with her thesis on early erotic literature, she was practically assured of a faculty position. Besides, she had two of the truest friends in Andrei and Lillian. They protected her, took care of her. They were her family and all she needed.
Sleep wouldn’t come easily tonight. She was tired, but keyed up. She felt aroused—inexplicably so. She hadn’t found the earl particularly hot. Still, the sexual tension lingered. She rarely climaxed with clients. It happened spontaneously sometimes, or if she used a sexual aide. But the missionary position did nothing for her. She knew how to simulate orgasm convincingly; it was all part of her performance. Few of her clients ever detected the truth, and those who did probably didn’t care. On nights like tonight, when peace eluded her, an orgasm was the quickest route to a restful sleep.
She shut the bathroom door and sat on the rim of the tub, her back to the tiled wall. She took her nipple between her thumb and forefinger and caressed it. Her vagina responded, contracting, growing moist. She closed her eyes, imagined a naked man, his face indistinct but his arms, his shoulders and his hands muscular and well-defined. His cock was ready for her. She put the flat of her palm on her sex and rubbed gently, and then more emphatically, imagining it was the man’s hand there, not hers. Fantasized his tongue tasting her tang, his fingers pleasuring her. She could sense the buildup now, warm sensations at her core, and fondled her clit, coaxing her body to climax. Felt the softening, got ready for the rush. She cried out as she came, an exultant tremble running through her. It was over too soon, followed by a curious flat feeling, as if the world had suddenly lost its color.
Afterward, tucked into the big hotel bed, she fell into a dream-filled sleep. In her dream, she lay, cold and frightened, on a dirty cot in a pitch-black room, a cell. She tried to find the paler outline of the window, high up on the wall, but the darkness was too deep. When her eyes adjusted to the light, she made out a giant blackbird on the sill, with a long black beak and hunched neck—the kind that stole the young from other birds’ nests.
The door creaked open and a vertical bar of light spread across the bare floor. A shadowy bulk in silhouette shuffled toward her. She heard raspy whispering, saw glittering blackbird eyes, felt the brush of wings on her bare stomach. She struggled against the pillow flattened against her mouth to stop her screams. The nightmare of her youth had come again.
NEW YORK CITY
Two weeks later, Maria sipped a cup of coffee while she lazed in bed, the midmorning sun pouring through the open window. She heard a knock, then the sound of Lillian’s voice in the hallway. Something in her tone made Maria sit up, alert. It was the clipped cold edge of fear. She jumped out of bed, ran her fingers through her messy hair, belted a pretty floral silk robe around her body and ran out of her bedroom in bare feet.
“Who’s there, Lillian?”
She heard Lillian pronounce loudly, as if in warning, “Please come into the living room. I will bring Ms. Lantos.” Lillian’s quick steps were followed by louder, slower ones, the heavy tread of shoes on the hardwood floor. She snuck back into her bedroom. Lillian rushed in, her bright expressive face tinged with anxiety.
“What’s wrong, Lillian? Who is it?”
“The police,” she hissed. “They want to see you.”
Her eyes widened. “Me? What for?” She grew pale, and without waiting for an answer, slipped her feet into flats and hurried out the bedroom door. Lillian hovered behind her.
Two plainclothes officers rose from the sofa when she entered the living room. Both darted glances at her cleavage, blinking when they did so, as if to give the impression they were not really eyeing her bosom. The taller one, who had close-cut auburn hair graying at the temples, held out his hand in greeting.
“Detective Steve Trainor and Detective Julio da Silva, 110th Precinct, Queens.” Trainor wore a sharp suit that emphasized his muscles and height; da Silva looked small, rumpled and unkempt in contrast. “Your assistant, Lillian Flores, tells me you are Maria Lantos. Is that your legal name?”
Maria took his hand, gave it a quick shake and stepped back, gathering her robe tighter at the neck. “Yes. What’s the problem, Detective?” She gave him just enough of a smile to appear welcoming. Smiles came easily to her even if they bore no relation to her real mood.
“Can you show us some ID?”
“Of course.” She retrieved her vintage Louis Vuitton wallet from the marble-topped credenza where she’d tossed it last night, extracted her driver’s license and handed it to him.
He checked it and gave it back. “I’d like to see everything. Your birth certificate too, if you have it handy.”
“Okay, but can you tell me what this is all about?”
“We’re investigating a homicide. The victim, a young woman, was found with ID for Maria Lantos that listed her residence as this address. Including a birth certificate. Any idea how she got it?”
“No, of course not. You said she died?”
“We’re investigating a murder, Ms. Lantos.” Trainor spoke slowly, as if to a small child. “So you have no idea how someone got their hands on your ID? Your purse wasn’t recently lost or stolen?”
She shook her head. “No.”
Da Silva took a small spiral-bound notebook from his inside breast pocket and began jotting down notes.
“Well, fake IDs are a big business. Maybe someone with access to your things had it reproduced and sold it.” He gave Lillian a suggestive look.
Behind her, Lillian gasped. Maria turned around and said gently, “It’s okay, Lil. I’ll deal with this. Why don’t you let me discuss it with the detectives?”
White-faced, Lillian hurried out of the room.
Maria turned back to Trainor. “If you’re implying my assistant’s involved, I don’t think that’s the case here, Detective.”
“Can’t be too careful, Ms. Lantos.” Trainor thumbed through her credit cards while she took her birth certificate from the credenza drawer and handed it to him.
“You’re Romanian?” Trainor asked after he’d glanced at it and handed it to da Silva.
“Yes. Born in Romania and adopted by my American mother when I was six.”
“You were adopted but you kept your birth surname?”
“I went back to it later. When I turned eighteen.”
“Hmmm. The deceased was using a New York driver’s license with your name and address,” he said, handing the paper back to her, “and she looks a lot like you. Do you have a sister? A cousin, maybe?”
A current of fear ran through Maria’s body. For a few seconds she was silent, trying to pull herself together. “I don’t have any blood relatives alive that I know of.”
Da Silva had small eyes with overlarge whites bulging out from underneath thick, fleshy lids. He swept his gaze around the room. Took in the chamois leather sectional sofa, the Chinese Ninghsia rug, the Frederick Cooper lamps, noted how costly they were. His gaze settled on her left hand.
“Are you married, Ms. Lantos?” da Silva said.
“No. It’s just Lillian and me here.”
“What do you do for a living?” he asked, eyebrows raised.
She imagined answering him truthfully. I fuck men for a living. Fathers, brothers, uncles, sons. Men who want to be sucked, groped, squeezed. Fat men whose stomachs have grown so pendulous they can no longer see their dicks when they stand up. Young men who think their cocks are gifts. High rollers, doctors, sports heroes, senators, actors. Lonely men who’ve lost their wives or sweethearts. Cheaters. Old men who’ve discovered the little blue pill and whose wives, thinking they’d been released from sex, turn away from them in dismay. Bachelors, husbands, men whose girlfriends say they want to watch but really don’t. Rich men. So many that they blur together in an infinitely repeating refrain you can never get out of your head.
“I’m a postgrad student at Yale.”
Da Silva looked up, alert. “Fancy place for a student. Mind telling me how you afford it?”
“My mother helps me out.” Maria mentioned her adoptive mother’s name, a well-known New York lawyer. Da Silva recognized it immediately. His jaw twitched and he glanced over at Trainor. “I’m sorry for the intrusion,” he said, “We have to ask, you know.”
Trainor reached inside a breast pocket for a thin, fake alligator-skin case. He unzipped it and took out two pieces of paper enclosed in a cheap transparent plastic folder. He held them up. “Do you know this girl?” He handed her the photos. There were two shots, front and back of a thin blond woman. She lay on a stainless steel gurney under bright lights. Her body was rigid and naked. No sheet had been draped over her to protect her dignity.
She examined the frontal first. The murdered girl had the thin hips of a teenager just beginning to mature into womanly roundness; her parched blond hair splayed just below her shoulder was the same length as Maria’s. Her pouty childish lips were the only feature still recognizable in a battered face. Her overlarge breasts looked incongruous on the teenager’s body. Implants, clearly. But the worst sight of all was a jagged open wound on her pelvis, the skin and underlying tissue split apart all the way to her pubis.
She gagged and looked away. She felt a pain in her womb—a pang of sympathy. She looked at the other photo—the back shot. Nestled on the underside of the girl’s right wrist was a raised scar in the shape of a nightingale feather.
“I’ve never seen her before in my life,” Maria whispered, handing the photos back to Trainor.
For an instant, his flinty gray eyes took in her curves, then his face became unreadable again. “Okay. Here, take my card. If you can think of anywhere you might have seen this girl, or someone who might have copied your ID, give me a call.”
“I will. Thank you, Detectives.”
They shook hands again, and Maria was just about to lock the dead bolt behind them, when she changed her mind and yanked the door back open.
Trainor and da Silva turned around when they heard the door open and she motioned for them to come back. “Do you have a suspect?”
Trainor eyed her. “No. Not yet.”
“He’s still out there, then,” she said, more to herself than to them.
“Yes, ma’am,” da Silva replied. He blinked like a reptile. “We don’t know if there’s any connection to you besides the ID, but you should be cautious. We’ll be in touch if there are any developments you need to know about.”
Maria smiled her thanks, closed the door again and sagged against it; her heart flipped around like a bird with a broken wing. She didn’t recognize the girl. That was true enough. But she couldn’t tell Trainor or da Silva about the identical scar; the thought of the police digging into her personal life momentarily paralyzed her. If they discovered her secret, she’d be thrown in prison. She wrapped herself tightly in her robe and called for Lillian. There was no answer.
She found Lillian huddled in her bedroom, her shoulders heaving with the effort to suppress her sobs. Maria put her arms around her, hugging her like a hurt child. “Lillian dear, it’s okay. I don’t believe for one second you took my ID.”
“When they ask questions like that, they’re . . . It’s probably just a kind of test. They’re judging your reactions. They’re likely narrowing things down trying to sift out the truth.”
“No, Maria. Because I’m Filipina they think I’m an illegal. It’s bullshit and I should be used to it. But that doesn’t matter now. How did the dead girl get your ID? Past the doorman, and into the apartment? This is a safe building. That kind of thing shouldn’t happen here.”
“I don’t know, Lil.” Only she, Lillian and Andrei had apartment keys. “No place is one hundred percent secure. I’m less worried abouthow; I want to know why and who.” Maria dried Lillian’s tears with the edge of her robe. “Listen to me. While you were in the bedroom, the police told me the dead girl looked exactly like me. They showed me photos.”
“Oh my God!” Lillian cried, jumping to her feet. “What does this mean? Do they think you were the intended victim? We’ve got to do something.” She began to pace. The bulldog was back.
Maria got up. “No. They didn’t say that. I have to phone Andrei.”
Her stomach churned as she dialed his number. He answered after two rings. She gave him a detailed account of the police interview.
He listened without saying anything but sounded grim when he did speak. “I’m coming over, Maria. Right now. Don’t open your door for anyone.”
His order made her bristle. “Absolutely not, Andrei. I’m going to Yale today. I’ve got research to do and it can’t wait. I’ve been too busy with clients lately. I won’t end up being a prisoner in my own home.”
“For God’s sake, Maria. A girl who looks like you, carrying your ID, was killed. Doesn’t that suggest something to you? I’m coming over.”
“Fine. And when you get here, I’ll be gone. So do whatever you need to—install security cameras, extra locks, whatever. But I’m not going to wait for you.”
Andrei was silent for a moment. Maria could hear him breathing heavily and knew how upset he was. When he spoke it was with resignation. “I’ve got some contacts at the NYPD. I’ll keep tabs on the investigation. Give me the detectives’ names again.”
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Barbara Palmer brings readers a erotic tale of a young woman leading a double life. A Yale student by day and a courtesan by night. The name Barbara Palmer alone should give readers a clue as to the nature of this book, given it is inspired by a royal mistress from the 17th century. Palmer gives readers all of the passion and vibrancy of Claudine's role as an highbrow escort and balances it against Maria's intellectual life as a grad student. What I liked: What are you expecting when you pick up an erotic novel? Obviously, strong sexual content, vivid, exciting and passionate maybe and probably some romance. Unfortunately, of late the erotic genre has become somewhat predictable. Most of the books coming out under the title of 'erotic' are dominate/submissive stories that center around clubs or resort destinations. When I picked up Claudine, I was kind of expecting more of the same. Wow, was I wrong. Barbara Palmer was aiming for something different with her book and she pulled it off with flying colors. There were times when I forgot this was an erotic novel. That's not to say that the erotic parts of the book were bad. There was just so much more to this one. It is first and foremost the story of one young woman living a double life. When her life as a courtesan starts to bleed into her everyday life and stalker becomes obsessed with her, the action starts to ramp up. There wasn't exactly a lot of romance in this book, which I found surprising. Maria/Claudine is very comfortable with what she wants and needs sexually and it doesn't have to be about a steady monogamous relationship. I found that to be pretty realistic in some ways. The regular boy meets girl, falls in love and lives happily ever after scenario does not work for everyone. I liked that Palmer understood that and let the reader look at sexuality in a different way here. The suspense aspects of the story were both intriguing and exciting. I was on the edge of my seat throughout the novel and that's not usually what I expect from a erotic book. When a body turns up with Maria/Claudine's identification, bearing a remarkable resemblance to her, right down to her feather tattoo on her wrist, I got the creeps and I'm sure the reader will too. This book will twist the reader in so many directions it might take a while to untangle oneself. What I didn't like: Maria's backstory may be a bit uncomfortable for some readers, though I think it essential to the plot of the novel. Abuse is not a subject to be taken lightly and I believe it has it's place here. I do not however believe that all children who face abuse grow up to be courtesan's, prostitute's or anything of the like. I thought Palmer did a great job of showing that this was Maria's story, not everyone's! Bottom Line: If you are looking for a happy ever after, this is probably not the book for you. But if you are looking for erotica from a totally different perspective, this is just what the doctor ordered. This book is smart, it's creative, it's decadent and elegant. There are parts that will make the hair on the back of your neck stand up and there are parts that will make your heart hurt for the child that Maria was. This is good erotica, not the cookie cutter stuff we usually get. Read it.... it's that good!
My Short and Tweet(-ish) Review Erotic Suspense with a unique, interesting premise. Modern day courtesan with a stalker, murder mystery, and her carefully calculated world comes tumbling down. Sexy. Suspenseful. Dark. Intriguing, and oddly, romantic in the end. A book that read like a psychological thriller. Claudine was very satisfying. Clearly, I suck at Short and Tweet reviews. Ugh. But I'm trying, so there's that. I also want to add a trigger alert, for those who avoid sexual assault/trauma. Maria was sexually assaulted as a child. The details are only alluded to, with everything coming to a head at the end. We do get a brief but very intense scene at the end. I'm not trying to spoil the story or dissuade anyone from reading. I thought the scene fit well with the story. But I do know what it's like to feel ill over reading something that triggers strong emotions. Favorite Quotes: For once, she didn't have to pretend. Her desire was fierce; she wanted to give herself to him without holding anyone back. She didn't want to be a professional tonight, didn't want to dip into her bag of tricks. Tonight she was just a regular girl making love to the man she trusted most in the world. But when she looked up at him, she knew she couldn't deny the decision her body had already made. "I could ask you to go away and I'd be fine, but you'd take half of me with you."