What do you do when your greatest temptation is a dangerously handsome and alluring man? Elena works as an art restorer in Venice, and is in the process of bringing an old fresco to light in a historic palazzo. Art is her world, along with her best friend, Gaia, and Filippo, an old pal who she thinks just might be her new love . . . until Leonardo comes along. A chef with a tempestuous spirit, Leonardo is in Venice to launch a new restaurant, and he pushes all of Elena’s buttons—good and bad. As Leonardo awakens Elena’s senses, she faces the difficult yet exciting choice between the safety Filippo promises and the danger of Leonardo’s embrace. I Watch You is part one of a bestselling erotic trilogy that proves Italians definitely do it better.
About the Author
Irene Cao was born in Pordenone in 1979, and lives in a small village in the Friuli region of Italy. She has a degree in classics and a PhD in archaeology, and she has edited columns in weekly women’s magazines. Her erotic trilogy has already been published in Spain, Brazil, Portugal, France, the Netherlands, and Turkey, and will be released later this year in Germany, Denmark, Finland, and Russia.
Read an Excerpt
I Watch You
By Irene Cao, Emily Kate Price
RCS LibriCopyright © 2014 RCS Libri S.p.A.
All rights reserved.
The yellow absorbs the sunlight, turns to orange, and then burns into a fiery red. A break in the rind reveals tiny beads of sparkling purple. My eyes are fixed on this pomegranate. It's a fundamental detail, the centerpiece of the entire fresco.
It's a snapshot of the rape of Persephone, the moment wrathful Pluto, the lord of the underworld swathed in a cloud of crimson, forcefully grabs the goddess's hips as she gathers a huge pomegranate by a lakeside.
The fresco isn't signed, and we have no idea who painted it. All I know is that he was alive in the early eighteenth century and that he must have been a true genius, given the style of the design and the use of color, the delicate play of light and shade.
You can see the great care he took of every single brushstroke, and I don't want to fall short of his attention to detail. Now, centuries later, it's my job to interpret his creative acts and reproduce them with my own.
This is the first real restoration project for which I've been completely responsible. At the age of twenty-nine, it's a responsibility that I've welcomed and have been waiting for, ever since I finished my training. And now that my chance has come, I want to do everything I can to show that I am able to handle it.
So here I am, spending hours up a ladder, wearing waxed linen overalls with a red bandanna holding back my brown bob—a few persistent strands of hair escaping and falling over my face—staring at the wall, my face marked with weariness and determination.
I step outside of myself for a moment: yes, it really is me, Elena Volpe, standing alone in the huge entrance hall of a old, uninhabited palazzo in the heart of Venice. This is exactly where I want to be.
I've spent an entire week cleaning the fresco, and today I'll be using some color on it for the first time. A week is a long time, too long maybe, but I didn't want to take any chances. It's not like washing a floor; you have to proceed with the utmost caution, because one false move could really ruin everything. As my professor used to say, "If you clean well, then you've done half the job."
Some parts of the fresco are completely ruined, and those spots will just have to be plastered over. The humidity in Venice is to blame; it gets inside everything, drenching stone, wood, and brick. But around some of the damaged patches, there are areas that have maintained their original brilliance.
This morning, as I climbed up my ladder, I told myself, You can't get down until you've found the right shade for that pomegranate. But maybe I was being too optimistic.... I've been up here for I don't know how many hours, and here I am, still testing all the different reds, oranges, and yellows, still dissatisfied with the results. I've thrown away eight little testing cups, in which I mixed pigmented powders with a little water and a few drops of oil, to give the paint the required consistency. I'm on the ninth cup now, and I can hear something ringing. Unfortunately, it seems to be coming from the pocket of my overalls. Almost falling off the ladder, I grab my phone and read the name flashing insistently on the screen.
It's Gaia, my best friend.
"Ele, how are you doing? I'm in the Campo Santa Margherita. Do you want to have a drink at Caffè Rosso? It's busier than usual, it's great, you have to come," she says, all in one breath.
For her, the working day is over and it's time for pleasure. Her fun time normally lasts from four in the afternoon until well into the night. Gaia works for the hippest venues in the city and the surrounding area, organizing events and VIP parties. It's not just her job, it's her vocation: honestly, I think she'd still do it even if they didn't pay her.
"What time is it?" I ask, trying to stem the avalanche of words.
"Half-past six. Are you coming?"
Caffè Rosso is a bar favored by the idle youth of Venice, the people who need someone like Gaia to tell them how to have a good time in the evenings.
"What?" I can't believe it's already so late. Time has flown—I had no idea.
"Ele? You okay?" Gaia shouts down the phone, her voice piercing my eardrums. "That fresco will drive you crazy ... you have to get over here now. It's an order."
"Listen, Gaia, I'll stop in about half an hour, I promise." I take a deep breath. "But I'm going to go home first, okay? Don't be mad."
"Of course I'm mad, you cow!" she blurts out. A classic move. But it's just a game, roleplaying. A couple of seconds later, she's relaxed and upbeat again. "Okay, look, go home, take a nap, and then later on we'll go to Molocinque. All I'll say is I've got two tickets to the VIP area...."
"That's really sweet of you, but I'm just not up to getting squashed in that hellhole," I say hurriedly before she can continue. She knows I hate crowds, that I'm practically a teetotaler and that dancing for me means, at most, tapping my feet to the beat—a beat of my own normally, to be honest. I'm shy. I'm not made for that kind of thing. It makes me feel out of place, but Gaia always tries to drag me along on her evenings out. And deep down, I'm grateful to her for that
"Have you already finished work?" I ask, trying to divert the conversation from this dangerous topic.
"Yeah and today was amazing. I was with this Russian businesswoman. We spent three hours in Bottega Veneta looking at bags and leather ankle boots, and then I ended up taking her to Balbi, and Miss Moneybags went and bought two Murano glass vases. Oh, and I saw some great new clothes from the new Alberta Feretti collection that were made for you. The perfect beige to complement your hazelnut hair.... We'll have to go there one of these days, and you can try them on."
When Gaia's not busy telling people where they should spend their evenings, she's telling them how to spend their money: she's pretty much a personal shopper. She's one of those people who has a strong opinion about everything and knows how to persuade others to do what she thinks. She's so good that some people actually pay her for her powers of persuasion.
Not me, though: I've built up strong antibodies over the course of our twenty-three-year friendship. "Sure, we'll go and then you can buy them for yourself like you normally do. "
"Sooner or later, we'll get you wearing something acceptable. You're my biggest challenge."
Gaia's been on this crusade against the way I dress ever since we were teenagers. For her, going out in a pair of jeans and flat shoes isn't a comfortable way to dress, it's a visible means of self-humiliation. If Gaia had her way, I'd be going to work every day in a miniskirt and five-inch heels—who cares that I have to go up and down dangerously steep ladders and stand for hours in positions that I wouldn't exactly call comfortable? "If I had your legs ..." she always says to me. And then she recites that Coco Chanel mantra: "You must be elegant, every day, because destiny could be waiting for you on the street corner." She doesn't leave the house unless she's perfectly made up with the right hairdo and the finest accessories.
Sometimes it's unbelievable how different I am from this woman.
If she wasn't my best friend, I think I'd hate her.
"But, Ele"—undeterred, she brings the conversation back to the matter in hand— "you've really got to come to Molo tonight."
"Come on, it's not a big deal. I've already told you I can't make it!" I hate her a little bit when she digs her heels in like this.
"But Bob Sinclar will be playing!"
"Who?" I ask her, the sign on my forehead flashing FILE NOT FOUND.
Gaia bursts out laughing, exasperated. "The French DJ, the famous one. He was on the panel at the film festival last week...."
"Oh yeah, him!"
"Anyway," she carries on, inexorable, "I've heard from several sources that there'll be other celebrities in the VIP area, like ... Are you listening carefully?" Stage pause. "Samuel Belotti!"
"What, that cyclist from Padua?" I shudder in total disapproval. He's one of the many 'famous' pseudo-boyfriends that she has all over Italy, and from all over the world, for that matter.
"I just don't get what you see in him: he's an arrogant idiot. I really don't know what you find attractive about him." Gaia and I don't have the same taste in men, either....
"Hmm, I know what I find attractive about him ..." She sniggers.
"Okay," I say, moving on. "So you're hoping he'll give in to your advances tonight?"
"I've texted him. He hasn't replied, he's with that TV bimbo, but I'm not giving up, because it's not as if he's really blown me off, he's just playing for time."
"I don't know how you meet these people. Maybe that's a good thing."
"At work, darling, just at work," she says, and I can hear the sarcastic smile on her face. "You know, public relations requires a lot of hard work."
"The words hard and work lose all meaning when you say them," I say to provoke her, hiding a tinge of envy. I'd like to be more like her in that respect, I admit.
"You just don't appreciate me, Ele. You're my best friend and you don't appreciate me!" She laughs.
"All right, go to Molo and have a good time. But try not to wear yourself out, okay?"
"I knew you'd say no ... but I don't care. I'll keep on calling you, you know that, right?"
Of course I know that. This little piece of theatre is our way of saying that we love each other.
"It's just a really bad time for me right now: if I stay up till three, I'll never get up on time tomorrow."
"Okay, you win this time." Finally. "But we're seeing each other this weekend, promise?"
The ninth testing cup, full of Titian red, has to go as well. I've just held up a touch of the color to the rind of the pomegranate, and it's still not there yet. I resign myself to starting all over again, but a noise behind me stops me. Someone has come in through the main door and is climbing the marble staircase. I can hear a man's footsteps—for a second, I was worried Gaia had dropped by unexpectedly. I hurry down the ladder, taking care not to fall over the little testing cups scattered across the protective cloth on the floor.
The door to the entrance hall opens earlier than I'd expected, and the lean figure of Jacopo Brandolini appears on the threshold. He's the owner of the palazzo, my client.
"Good evening." I greet him with a professional smile.
"Good evening, Elena." He smiles back at me. "How's it all going?" His eyes descend to the small cemetery of discarded cups at our feet as he ties a knot in the sleeves of his cashmere sweater, draped over his shoulders.
"Really well," I lie, but I don't want to go into all the details that he wouldn't understand anyway. I have to say something, though, to make myself look professional. "I finished cleaning yesterday and starting today I can focus on the color."
"Great. I leave it all in your capable hands," he says, shifting his gaze up from the floor to me. He has small, narrow eyes, two blue slits. "As you know, I love this fresco, and I'm very keen to see what's really underneath. Even if it's not signed, you can tell it's very well done."
I nod. "It's certainly not the work of a minor artist," I say hurriedly. "This was definitely done by a great craftsman."
Brandolini smiles, showing his satisfaction. He's forty, but he seems older. He has a very old family name—he's a descendant of one of the greatest noble Venetian families—and he himself gives the impression of being something of an antique. He's super thin, with kind of translucent skin, and a sunken, nervous face, and he's going bald, with thin hair that's more gray than brown. He dresses like an old man, too. Or rather, it's not that he really wears an old person's clothes, because right now he's wearing a pair of Levi's and a short-sleeved blue shirt; it's just that on him, these clothes have a strange, retro effect. He seems to be swamped by them, he's so skinny. Yet they say that he enjoys a certain amount of success with the ladies. He's very rich; that's the only explanation I can think of.
"How are you getting on here?" he asks, looking around as if to check that everything is as it should be.
"Really well!" I untie my bandanna at the back of my neck, realizing that I really must look a sight dressed like this.
"If you want anything, just ask Franco. If you need materials, send him out to get them."
Franco is the caretaker at the palazzo. He's a friendly, brawny man, but quiet, too, he keeps to himself. In ten days, I've only run into him twice, once in the garden of the interior courtyard when he was watering the agapanthus, and again when he was engrossed in polishing the brass handle at the front entrance. He never comes inside, he's always outside, and he goes home at about two in the afternoon. He's a quiet and reassuring presence.
"I can manage on my own, thank you." I realize too late that this sounds a bit abrupt and bite my tongue.
Brandolini raises his arms as if to say: Okay, I give up.
"By the way," he says out loud, his voice brightening, "I came by to let you know that starting tomorrow there'll be a lodger staying in the palazzo."
No. I'm not used to working with other people hovering around.
"His name is Leonardo Ferrante, he's a famous chef, from Sicily," he says, evidently pleased. "He's coming straight from New York for the opening of the new restaurant. As you know, it's opening in three weeks' time."
In partnership with his father, the count already runs two restaurants in Venice, one behind Piazza San Marco, and the other one, slightly smaller, next to the Ponte di Rialto. The Brandolinis also have a restaurant, two private clubs, and a condominium in Los Angeles. Last year, they opened businesses in Abu Dhabi and Istanbul, too. You can often find them in the glossy magazines that Gaia loves so much.
I don't care about any of this high-society stuff. I'm just worried about the chaos it will cause.
"We've worked tirelessly to get everything ready as quickly as possible, and the logistics here in Venice haven't helped," he continues, unaware of my dismay. "But, you know, when you really, really want something, the obstacles you have to overcome don't really bother you."
Oh, a bit of life coaching now. I nod automatically, pretending to be okay with it. The thought of working with a stranger hanging around in the palace bothers me a lot. Why can't Brandolini understand that my work is very delicate? That it takes just the slightest disturbance to ruin my concentration?
"You'll see. You'll get on well with Leonardo. He's a great guy."
"I'm sure he is. It's just that this entrance hall ..."
He cuts me off. "You see, I didn't want to put him up in a cold hotel room," he continues, with the self-assurance of a person who never has to ask anyone's permission for anything. "Leonardo's a free spirit and he'll be at home here. He'll be able to cook when he wants, have breakfast at night and lunch in the afternoon, read a book in the garden, and enjoy the canal from the terrace."
I was just about to point out to him that the entrance hall where I work leads to all the other rooms in the palazzo, that his guy will be coming and going I don't know how many times a day. What I do know is that he has clearly decided not to worry about this. God, I'm pissed off!
"How long will he be staying, this chef?" I ask, hoping for a favorable response.
"At least two months."
"Two months?!" I echo, not even bothering to hide my annoyance.
"Yes, two months, but maybe even longer, at least until the restaurant's got off to a good start." The count rearranges his sweater again and then looks me in the eye, stubbornly.
"I hope this won't be a problem for you." His way of saying: Don't make this difficult.
"Well, if there's really no other way ..." My way of saying: I'm not okay with this at all, but there's nothing I can do about it.
"Great, so, good luck with the work." He holds out his hand. "Good-bye, Elena."
"Do call me Jacopo, please."
Is he trying to get me to forgive him, by being so familiar?
As soon as Jacopo leaves, I sit myself down on the red velvet sofa against the eastern wall of the room. I'm really exasperated—I've lost my concentration now. I don't want to know anything about his restaurant, its fancy chef, this bloody launch like something out of the Arabian Nights. I just want to get on with my work in peace, on my own, in silence. Is that too much to ask? I put my head in my hands and glance at the testing cups, full to the brim with dried-up tempera, that seem to be lying there with the sole purpose of reproaching me for my failure. I force myself, with difficulty, to ignore them. Screw this stupid fresco. It's six thirty and my concentration is shot to hell. That's enough. I'm worn out. I'm going home.
Excerpted from I Watch You by Irene Cao, Emily Kate Price. Copyright © 2014 RCS Libri S.p.A.. Excerpted by permission of RCS Libri.
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