I’m excited to have three books coming out in the second half of the year from Harlequin Blaze. The first release, TOO HOT TO TOUCH, will be part of the 10th Anniversary of Blaze! It’s the first book in my “Legendary Lovers” series and will be followed by TOO WILD TO HOLD (September, 2011) and TOO WICKED TO KEEP (October, 2011).
The spirit of a masked legend lives on…
Art expert Alex Aguilar is an honest man. When he inherits an auction house dealing in shady merchandise, he’s desperate to catalog everything before the goods tarnish his sterling reputation. But even if the merchandise isn’t exactly hot, his scorching new assistant, Lucienne Bonet, definitely is. Too bad his pesky moral code means he has to keep his hands off…or does he?
Lucienne isn’t quite what she seems. She’s a thief and she’s after a very valuable ring that once belonged to a legendary masked hero…Alex’s ancestor. But as Alex deliciously undoes her plans—and her clothes—Lucienne realizes that eventually, her mask will have to come off, too!
“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 sixteen-year-old 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 world wide. By his 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 of Alex’s mother when he was three years old. But Ramon’s passing had given Alex something he’d never had before—a 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.
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 last 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 year-long 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 as he never mixed business with pleasure, he’d had to suffer the conflagration.
Unless he changed the circumstances, which is 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 forth—for 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 the source of the sound. She popped out the earbuds hidden beneath her luscious brown hair and gave her head a little shake—a little shake that he felt from across the room.
“I’m sorry, Señor 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 to 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 first-person 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 higher-than-estimated price for an auction item like another woman might to react to diamonds and chocolates and roses.
Another man might have suspected he was in love. Alex, however, knew himself well enough to know 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 sensual and confident and bold, as if she’d spent her time in ballet studios rather than in stuffy museums or amid 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 coyness—and 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 was not a sufficient word.
A long moment elapsed before he realized he was blocking her from entering his office. She moistened her lips. Slowly.
The move was innocent—just a pink tongue sliding over dry lips while she waited for him to step aside.
Only her lips weren’t dry—they 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 backside—enhanced today by a camel-colored pencil skirt that had quickly become one of his favorite pieces in her wardrobe—into 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 spiral-bound 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 portrait of his father painted on the wall.
If not for the painting behind the desk, Alex would not have known what Ramon Murrieta looked like—and yet, he generally avoided looking into 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 he resembled him.
Even Lucienne had made the comparison—but 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 amassed—items 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 pre-depression 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 forty year career.
Unlike Aguilar’s, 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 it on his libido, 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 just 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 employee—and until she wasn’t, he would keep his gaze, and his hands, off the merchandise.
He slapped his hand 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—the documentation that would free them to act on what he hoped was their mutual attraction—when the buzzer from the outer door crashed into the silence.