Some dreams do come true.
Julianne skipped along the Paris boulevard. Not very ladylike, especially in heels, but to hell with decorum. Moments like this demand a giddy skip.
An apprenticeship with Nicolai Stavros—the
Nicolai Stavros—was the opportunity of a lifetime. An initiation into the art elite. A pardon from the cultivated captivity of her privileged world. A liberating chance to open a door and step through to a new life.
Art was her only freedom. Today, it had become her escape.
Nicolai Stavros personified the haut monde
yet gave the finger to the same high society he seduced. One of them but apart. Above. They labeled his work “high art.” Some praising it as “dynamically erotic, provocative, and innovative.” Others condemning it as “obscene, perverted, and a corruption of moral boundaries.” Their critique was nothing more than voyeurism of something none were bold enough to taste.
To be bold.
To be daring.
To taste life and suck its marrow. Nicolai Stavros was everything Julianne aspired to be.
And he’d chosen her.
Who wouldn’t skip?
By the time Julianne arrived at the gallery, the youthful glee was tucked behind her carefully crafted exterior. The lady reached for the handle on the door and grinned at Nicolai’s tacit dare. The sentinel marking the threshold to his world was a nude male in brass; his female counterpart graced the opposite door. They were lovers. Frozen in time. Separated by inches.
Do you yearn for someone like that, Nicolai?
She let her fingers linger discreetly as she entered. “Bonjour, monsieur.”
Julianne raised her palms to her cheeks. Sculptures dotted a gleaming hardwood floor. Huge paintings hung on stark white walls. Her gaze snaked up the curved railing of a floating staircase to find photographs displayed in an upper gallery. Genius. There was no other word.
“Come,” a man’s voice called from the back.
Dabbing the sweat from her forehead and neck with the sleeve of her dress, Julianne hurried toward the voice. Her heels clacked; she cringed. Nicolai expected an apprentice, not a horse. Sweating palms smoothed an already smooth skirt. She took a deep breath and went forward on her toes.
Nicolai didn’t greet her or raise his eyes from the papers on his desk when she entered his office. Good thing or he would have seen the shudder.
. My God.
The masculine beauty in front of her eclipsed every treasure in his gallery. He was Botticelli beautiful, more beautiful than most women, and he dressed better than them too. Oh, the allure of a man in a suit, especially one who wore it like a second skin. Wavy chestnut hair fell in loose tresses around the aristocratic planes of a stunning face. But what fixated her the most were his hands. Artist’s hands, long and elegant.
Hands that create so much beauty.
Two quick taps snapped her to attention. She met his cerulean eyes. Honed by a thick brush of lashes, those eyes were far older than the face that held them, and they were staring right through her as if her reserved veneer was as clear as a pane of glass.
, Mademoiselle Giroux.” Welcome.
His crystal eyes lit with amusement. “You’re welcoming me? I thought this was my gallery.”
A witty comeback would have been perfect; a voice would have been nice.
Let me die.
“Ah, she’s quiet,” Nicolai said with an air of indifference. “Most people make a horrible noise. Silence can be so much more appealing. And you did get something right, mademoiselle. While you are in my
gallery, you will address me as monsieur or Sir. Do you understand?”
“Obviously not.” His tone was firm but not unkind.
The angles of his face softened with a smile. “Much better.”
Nice smile… Oh, a smile. A smile is good
Julianne smiled back and glanced around. Like Nicolai, the office was polished and crisp. The furnishings were all sleek lines and contemporary, but the decor wasn’t simply modern. An antique Bukhara carpet that belonged on the wall of a museum rather than the floor provided the only color. That and his books. Floor-to-ceiling shelves of art books filled two walls. The warmth of an intimate sitting area tucked between them didn’t seem to fit. Her eyes scanned the shelves, searching for clues to this fascinating man.
” Shit. “Did I just say…” Julianne clapped an open palm over her loose lips.
Nicolai laughed, a suggestive laugh that touched like warm fingers, and raised a brow. “The lady is not quite as she seems.”
“I’m so sorry, Sir.”
“Don’t be.” He flipped one hand through the air. “Everything tastes better with a hint of spice.”
Her jaw dropped.
“Did I just say that?” Nicolai moved his amused eyes over the border of her gaping lips, then shifted them to the spot where her gaze had been. “Courbet? Interesting choice.”
Julianne forced her mouth to close and bit her bottom lip to keep it that way.
“Do you enjoy erotic art, mademoiselle?” he asked.
She kept up the assault on her lip.
“Of course you do, or you would not be here. Courbet’s nudes are wondrous. Are they not?” When she didn’t answer, he repeated, “Are they not?”
Clearly a man accustomed to getting his way and uncompromising when he did not, yet Nicolai didn’t scold or mock or even raise his voice. He didn’t have to.
Power doesn’t shout; it speaks with a whisper.
“Yes, they are. I admire Courbet’s work.”
Her gaze shot to her twisting fingers. “L’Origine du Monde.
“And you expect me to scoff at that choice?”
“Ah, the world’s small minds. Rest assured, mademoiselle, you are not the one I scoff at. Why that painting?”
There was comfort in Nicolai’s confident manner, encouragement in his unwavering expectation of an answer, and no need for embarrassment. While some failed to appreciate the beauty in Courbet’s painting of a faceless woman lying on a bed with legs spread, Julianne viewed The Origin of the World
as a celebration of the female form. She peeled her gaze from the jewel tones of the carpet beneath her feet.
“The painting is beautiful in its boldness.” Keeping her eyes fixed on Nicolai, she added, “I admire any artist brave enough to challenge and push boundaries.”
Nicolai laughed, and she felt those invisible fingers caress her again. “Good to know, mademoiselle.” Then his eyes drifted back to the shelves. “Beauty in boldness. True of every artist in those books. Perhaps true of you, Mademoiselle Giroux,” he mused. “Inspiration comes from many places. I find much of mine in those books. Odd, I think, that someone else’s creativity allows me to create something uniquely my own, but it does. Where do you find your inspiration?”
“I, um, I…”
Julianne had no answer, but one glance told her silence was not an option. She licked her lips, and on a mere breath of sound, admitted that she didn’t know.
His eyes flared. “I can see that I have my work cut out for me.” Then they gleamed. “And I do love a challenge, Julianne.”
A flush of excitement ran over her skin. She’d challenged him. To what exactly, she wasn’t sure, but the glimmer in those world-wise eyes told her…um
. She tried not to fidget.
Nicolai leaned back in his chair and cocked his head to one side. His stare meandered from her Lanvin heels to her Chaumet hoops. He raised one captivating hand to his chin, and a single elegant finger trailed over his bottom lip. He said nothing.
The visual perusal left her too warm. Too exposed. Her cheeks heated under the weight of that stare. As the seconds ticked by, other things heated too.
What was Nicolai thinking? Was he trying to focus her attention on those wide ruby lips, that strong jaw? Mon Dieu.
That long finger traveling back and forth over his beautiful mouth was so…
Stop. Pay attention.
When she shifted from one foot to the other, he lowered his hand. It made a small clap on the desk, and she jumped.
“Well then, we’ll leave inspiration for another time.” Nicolai swirled his elegant hand through the air above his head. “This gallery, this studio, is my world, and during your time here, you belong to me. I expect obedience and discipline, and I won’t tolerate the lack of either.”
“I understand, Sir.” Better than you know
“Do you? We’ll see.” There was a hint of something in his voice; then it was gone. “I intend to challenge you, Julianne. If you put your trust in me, I will make you a better artist.”
“I do trust you, Sir,” she insisted.
His eyes narrowed, drilling into her. “Trust is not easily given, or earned.”
Her gaze found the carpet again. She’d been referring to art; Nicolai meant something much deeper.
Merde. I messed up again
“Look at me, Julianne.”
When she met Nicolai’s stare, something inside her stirred. Something deep and elemental. As if to him, her eyes were open doors to her soul.
But that was impossible. No one saw the real her.
“Fascinating,” he murmured, then shattered the fleeting connection with another flit of his hand. “You cannot paint in Dior. I’ve provided suitable dress. Go. Change. Then we shall begin.” He fluttered his fingers toward the door.
For a moment Julianne stood, breathless from Nicolai’s impact, unable to convince her feet to move. Starstruck didn’t even begin to describe her response. His authoritative aura combined with the sharp sting of humility at the challenge he posed created a heady cocktail. Especially for someone like her. Add the sex appeal in a suit, and she practically swooned.
She’d found the perfect mentor. The perfect mentor wrapped in the most unbelievably stunning package.
Biting her bottom lip, she turned to leave him alone in the office.
This time, she hid the skip.