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"Lucienne, may I have a word?"
Standing between his office and the main gallery of El Dorado Auction House, Alejandro Aguilar crossed his arms, blocking the uncharacteristic nervousness attempting to sneak past his defenses. He wasn't a sixteenyearold schoolboy. He was a grown man, a titan in the art world. He assigned prices to priceless artifacts and exposed fraudulent fakes in museums and private collections worldwide. By design, his name had become synonymous with honor, integrity and control.
And yet, the woman sitting at her desk in the gallery, typing determinedly on her computer without a glance in his direction, had reduced him to a twisted mass of raw, exposed wiring in a structure marked "condemned." Any minute, a spark could flare. One accidental touch, one misread innuendo and he'd go up in flames.
For six weeks, he and Lucienne Bonet had worked side by side to prepare El Dorado's inventory for liquidation. He'd come to San Francisco from Spain specifically to handle the auction because the man who'd collected the pieces, his father, had died.
The death had meant nothing to him. Alex had not seen Ramon Murrieta since he'd walked out on Alex's mother when he was three years old. But Ramon's passing had given Alex something he'd never had beforea brother. One who worked for the FBi and had no idea what to do with their deceased father's business holdings. At his invitation, Alex had traveled halfway across the world, expecting to spend two months getting to know his surprise sibling while breaking up the collection his fickle father had built.
What he had not expected was meeting a woman he could no longer resist. "Lucienne?"
Her fingers continued to fly across her keyboard. She'd touched him just as quickly this morning, when they'd both reached for a diamond bracelet, one of the last items left for appraisal.
The contact had lasted less than a split second, but the effect had been like the strike of a match. Her smile over his wry retort had stoked a barely banked flame. Alex had endured yearlong love affairs with less incendiary power than this.
Of course, he'd slept with those women. The quickest way to burn out a fire was to smother it. But Lucienne was, at the moment, his employee. And since he never mixed business with pleasure, he'd had to suffer the conflagration.
Unless he changed the circumstances, which was what he aimed to do.
He opened his mouth to call to her again, but then thought better of it. He had no idea how she'd react to the indecent proposal he was about to set forthfor all he knew, she'd slap him soundly and walk out. As he wasn't a man who embraced risk, he opted instead to watch her work for a minute more.
Without sound, she mouthed the words as she typed, drawing his attention to her lips. She glossed them with a dark purple color that reminded him of a cabernet sauvignon or a fine Spanish riojo. Would her flesh taste as rich, as deep, as intoxicating?
That intimate question, among others, had driven him to this decision. For the first time in his life, he'd decided to put his personal needs above his professional ones.
It was insane.
But he was still going to do it.
He called her name again, louder this time. She looked up from her laptop, her gaze momentarily unfocused until she spotted him. She popped out the earbuds hidden beneath her luscious brown hair and gave her head a little shakea shake that he felt from across the room.
"I'm sorry, Senor Aguilar, did you need something?"
"Si," he responded, disconcerted by the rasped quality of his voice and the content of her question.
Yes, he needed something. He needed her.
He cleared his throat. "Could we speak in the office for a moment?"
"Of course," she replied, then turned back to her computer long enough to click her mouse and save her work. "I'm sorry I didn't hear you. I was caught up in transcribing the last interview for the catalogue. It was brilliant of you to suggest that we include firstperson narratives about the pieces for the Hollywood collection. The stories are fascinating. The added text will undoubtedly double the expected opening bids."
Her grin lit her face from those seemingly delicious lips to her wide brown eyes, intensifying the tightness in Alex's chest. She reacted to the prospect of fetching a higherthanestimated price for an auction item like another woman might react to diamonds and chocolates and roses.
Another man might have suspected he was in love. Alex, however, knew himself well enough to realize this was only lust, plain and unadorned.
Sometimes, even he appreciated the simple things in life.
"Actually, the narratives were your idea," he replied. Her delectable mouth arched into a smile that reduced his insides to ash. He really had it bad.
"It was a team effort," she said, her accent round and lush with a European lilt she'd undoubtedly picked up on her extensive travels. But when she crossed the room, her stride was sensual and confident and bold, as if she'd spent her time in ballet studios rather than stuffy museums or private collections, as her resume indicated. Despite the countless hours they'd spent together working on the auction, he knew next to nothing about her beyond what was listed on that impressive document.
But he meant to find out.
"You're being generous," he concluded.
She batted her lashes with exaggerated coynessand nearly knocked the wind out of him.
"Perhaps," she demurred. "But the bottom line remains. The auction is going to be a huge success."
Standing in the threshold between his office and the gallery, she shimmied with barely contained excitement, causing the tendons in his knees to quake. She was inches away from him, her skin flushed by the prospect of huge profits.
Lust just wasn't a sufficient word.
A long moment elapsed before he realized he was blocking her from entering his office. She moistened her lips. Slowly. Patiently.
The move was innocentjust a pink tongue sliding over dry lips while she waited for him to step aside.
Only her lips weren't drythey were slick and full and enticing.
He swallowed thickly and took a step back.
The auction house vibrated with silence, the only sound coming from the tap of Lucienne's sharp stiletto heels on the polished wood floor. In the distant background, the air conditioner hummed, protecting the antiquities and collectibles by regulating the temperature and humidity so that it remained steady and cool and dry.
So why was he feeling as if he'd just walked into a tropical rainforest?
"Please, have a seat," he invited.
Watching her manipulate her glorious backsideenhanced today by a camelcolored pencil skirt that had quickly become one of his favorite piecesinto the chair was performance art of the finest quality. He couldn't help but wonder if she was at all aware of the sensuality of her movements or if her body simply followed an intrinsic rhythm.
With any luck, he'd soon find out.
"Do you have questions about the estimations?" she asked, gesturing toward the spiralbound report she'd delivered to him two days ahead of schedule.
"Not exactly," he replied, crossing to the chair behind his desk and ignoring, per usual, the affresco portrait of his father painted on the wall.
If not for the portrait behind the desk, Alex would not have known what Ramon Murrieta looked likeand yet, he generally avoided the old man's piercing black eyes, dark skin and roguishly wavy hair. Unfortunately, with his father perched over his shoulder, every single person who came into the room remarked on how much Alex resembled him.
Even Lucienne had made the comparisonbut only once. Though he'd never shared any of his resentment toward his father with her, she must have sensed it because she rarely, if ever, mentioned his name. Not an easy feat, either, considering the reason fate had brought them together.
For six solid weeks, they'd spent hours alone together, the auction expert and the appraiser, picking through items his father had amasseditems that evoked stories best shared by lovers. They'd handled the fourteen fur coats owned by a Hollywood starlet who'd slept her way to an Oscar nomination, the bed used by a notorious predepression entrepreneur who'd reportedly seduced an equal number of men and women before dying of autoerotic asphyxia and a collection of gold and crystal phalluses created by a female artist in New York city during the era of free love, who had, it was said, personally tested out both her live models and her creations over the span of a fortyyear career.
Unlike House of Aguilar, the auction house run by his mother's family in Madrid, El Dorado, specialized in the scandalous and notorious. At first, Alex had been appalled by the inventory, which ranged from the sensual to the shady to the macabre. But going through the collection with Lucienne had taken the edge off his inflated sense of artistic superiority and honed his libido instead, which was now sharp enough to cut through steel.
"Your report was perfect," he said.
"Thank you," she replied. "That is what you're paying me for."
"Yes, well," he said, unconsciously patting his jacket pocket. "I cannot complain about the job you've done here, especially under the circumstances."
"I confess " She lowered her voice and scooted forward as if she didn't want to be overheard, even though they were, thanks to him, entirely alone. "I was surprised when you fired all of Ramon's staff. Their knowledge base could have been valuable."
"And they also might have robbed us blind. Their loyalty was to Ramon, if they had any at all. Besides, working alone, just the two of us "
She arched a brow. Her mouth puckered, slightly, just enough for him to imagine those sweet, plump lips on his.
Whatever thought he'd been about to express dissipated on his tongue.
Luckily, she picked up the slack. "It's been a unique experience," she said, her voice throaty. "I've never worked in such an.intimate environment before."
She shifted in her chair, leaning forward just enough so that his gaze dropped from her eyes to her breasts. But only for a split second. Until he'd taken care of the business he'd called her into the office to discuss, this could go no further.
She was still his employeeand until she wasn't, he would keep his gazeand his handsoff the merchandise.
He slapped his palm down on the cover of her report, more loudly than he'd planned. "Thanks to the quiet, we've completed our work in record time. Now that we have solid estimates and opening bid figures for next week's auction, it's time that we moved"
He reached into his jacket to retrieve the paperwork he'd carefully prepared when the buzzer from the outer door crashed into the silence.
They both jumped. She fumbled to hit the button on his phone to activate the intercom, but he reached it first.
The shock of her hand on his nearly zapped the practiced words out of his brain. In fact, he answered first in Spanish, then repeated the greeting in English.
"El Dorado Auction House is currently closed."
"Yeah, no kidding," replied the voice Alex instantly recognized as his brother, Michael. "Let me in."
Lucienne had not removed her hand from Alex's. Her touch was tentative, her sharp intake of breath held in throat. Their eyes locked for a split secondlong enough for him to catch a glimpse of what he'd been searching so valiantly for over the past six weeks.
"I'm in the middle of something," he told Michael, willing Lucienne not to take her hand away.
"This is important," Michael insisted.
Before Alex could form a coherent response, Lucienne scrambled into the gallery. Her heels clicked a quick tattoo against the polished floor that matched the sudden, rapid pounding of his heartbeat.
He cursed, then punched in the code that would unlock the front door.
"He knows his way in," Alex called, but Lucienne had already disappeared. She didn't need to greet his brother, but she had needed to get away.
Maybe he hadn't seen desire in her eyes. Maybe that had been wishful thinking.
He remained at his desk, stewing over the interruption when Michael charged into the room.
"Maybe manners are different here than they are in Madrid, but a call ahead of time would have been appreciated," Alex snapped.
Not surprisingly, his half brother met his ire with an unrepentant grin.
"Was that a skirt I saw disappearing around the corner when we walked in?" he asked.
Michael leaned back so Alex could see that his brother had not come alone. Special Agent Ruby Dawson, one of the members of Michael's team, was strolling around the gallery, her hands hooked behind her back as she lingered by the tables lined with trays of necklaces, rings and bracelets.
Lucienne was nowhere to be seen.
"My appraiser," Alex said.
"Ah, yes, the mysterious Lucienne Bonet."
"What do you mean mysterious?&hat;
Michael shrugged. "You've mentioned her quite a few times, but she never seems to be around when I am."
Alex glanced through the doorway again. Why had Lucienne left in such a hurry if not to show his brother into the office? Of course, Michael had grown up at El Dorado and had inherited the auction house, along with his mother, so he hardly needed an escort.
"She's very busy," Alex snapped. "You know, working. A concept you generally understand on most days,"
Michael snickered. "Sorry to interrupt your busy day, but a case I'm working just took a turn and I might have to leave town before the auction. And since I know you have to return to Madrid right afterward, I decided it's time for us to take care of some important business."
Alex sat up straighter, an unfamiliar pang of worry driving deep into his stomach. He wasn't used to having anyone in his family with a dangerous career. His mother, grandfather, uncle and several cousins worked at the auction house in Spain. He had an aunt who was the executive assistant for the head of a security firm, but he doubted she did more than answer phones and arrange appointments. She certainly never jetted off to cities unknown to catch elusive, terrifying criminals.
Michael, however, did this all the timea fact that hadn't hit Alex until right this moment.
"What kind of business?"
Michael smirked. "You know I can't say. Not yet, anyway. But look, I didn't come here to discuss my case. I have to ask you something important."
Alex motioned for Michael to shut the door, which he did. But instead of taking the seat on the other side of the desk that Lucienne had just vacated, he crossed to the space behind their father's desk and dropped to one knee.
The tension in Alex's midsection evaporated with a laugh. "Are you proposing?"