Isabella twisted a lock of hair around her finger while they walked. Craig had perfected her Prada costume with a black hair tint. He promised that her natural color would return after a few shampoos, but it was a very dramatic change.
Still, it was fun, like Halloween. She felt completely transformed. Nothing like the normal Isabella. The darkened hair made her skin look milky and her brown eyes smolder. Add the killer dress, the snazzy makeup, and the naughtiest shoes she’d ever seen. Voilà, meet Isabella, the vixen. Very daring if she did say so herself. Even her brothers wouldn’t recognize her.
Maybe she would keep the new hair color. It made her feel like another person, and she wanted to be someone else, at least for a while…
¡Maldita sea! She’d done it again. Opened that self-indulgent door and let the self-pity rush right back in. She was instantly annoyed with herself.
Why the hell not? It’s bucket-list time.
Isabella turned abruptly, heading back to a kiosk they’d just passed. “Wait. I want to stop for a minute and pick something up.”
Craig and Carlo stopped walking and waited. They made a cute couple, but she knew Carlo wasn’t Craig’s dream. He was just a guy. There would be another in a week or two.
She stepped up to the kiosk. “A pack of cigarettes, please.”
“What brand, fox?” A gnarled man leered at her from his box.
“I don’t know. What brand do you like?”
“I don’t smoke,” he said coldly, his eyes fixed on her chest.
The extravagant dress did highlight her girl parts and invite the attention, but ew
. Any other time, she would have been disgusted by the lewd stare, but not tonight. Tonight, let him look.
Let them all look.
“Neither do you, Isla. What are you doing?” Craig was clearly miffed. He hated smokers.
“It’s a night for new experiences. Don’t hassle me, Daddy.”
“Buy Dunhills,” Carlo called to her. “That’s my brand. When you’re hacking up a lung, I’ll finish them.”
That meant Carlo was gone after tonight.
Craig didn’t hide his disapproval while she stepped toward him.
She tried to appease him. “They go with the getup.”
“They go with a coffin.”
Craig had no idea how true that might turn out to be.
Quite the scene greeted them when they arrived at their destination. Nicolai Stavros’s sophisticated gallery provided a perfect backdrop for the fine art and chic people at the opening. Their little trio had no intention—or ability, for that matter—to buy anything, but looking was certainly fun.
Erotic sculptures and paintings were scattered throughout. And the people. Not exactly a shabby bunch. The glitterati of Paris gathered to mingle and flirt among the art. Layers of cultured voices, reserved laughter, and the pop of champagne corks mixed with the scent of expensive cologne and perfume. If wealth had a sound and a smell, this was it.
Isabella’s heart fluttered at the sight of their famous host. You didn’t have to know much about the art world to recognize Nicolai Stavros. He was in the society pages all the time. The gracious artist circulated among his guests, smiling, chatting, and looking more beautiful than most of the women. No one was overlooked, and all were made to feel singularly significant.
Mere moments after stepping over the threshold, another very tall, very handsome man approached. He was elegantly dressed, but there was an edge to his look.
She didn’t miss the flicker of infatuation in Craig’s eyes as he greeted them.
“Bonsoir, Craig. Bienvenue.
” Welcome. “I’m so glad you could make it,” the man said and kissed Craig on both cheeks.
“Bonsoir, Jerard. As if I would miss this,” Craig answered and returned the kiss. “I would like to introduce my friends. This lovely lady is Isabella, and this is Carlo.”
Isabella heard Craig’s disinterest in his date simply by the way he said Carlo’s name. Jerard obviously picked up on it too, because he turned to her and ignored Carlo.
“Welcome, Isabella. It’s a pleasure to meet you. Craig talks about you all the time.”
A waiter appeared, offering champagne. She picked up a flute and raised it to Jerard while she gave him a subtle once-over.
Jerard Gagne definitely fit Craig’s description. Tall and thin, but well built, Jerard oozed unaffected charm. He wore a navy velvet suit that clearly cost more than her monthly rent like it was no big deal. A purple scarf curved seductively around his long neck and dangled over a silk T-shirt. Chunky masculine jewelry, dusky unkempt hair, and a subtle beard—the man bristled with sex appeal, but he had a certain humility in his mannerisms. His eyes were far older than the face that held them, which told Isabella that Jerard had seen a lot of pain.
“Bonsoir, Jerard. Craig has mentioned you more than a few times as well.” And the pleasure is all mine.
She winked at Craig as she kissed Jerard, shifting her eyes to him, then back to Craig. Craig blushed. Unfortunately for Craig, the way Jerard placed his fingers on her skin told her that this man was not gay. His hand slipped into hers, and, ah sí, he had really nice hands.
“When I get the chance, I will introduce you to Nico, but first, come. You should meet Julianne. She’s the model for every piece on display tonight. The exhibit is dedicated to her.”
Isabella picked up a hint of sadness in Jerard’s voice, but the man was a virtual stranger so she resisted her natural urge to comfort and didn’t comment.
Jerard pulled her farther into the crowded room and stopped in front of a petite woman with a dark mane to match her own. “Julí, I would like to introduce Isabella, Craig, and Carlo.”
When Julianne turned, Isabella could only stare. She was so exotic.
“Bienvenue, amis. We are honored to have you attend our opening.”
The intrigue of this woman was irresistible. Julianne seemed quite proper, modestly dressed in an embroidered, chartreuse satin gown, yet there were naked representations of her all around them. She wasn’t simply posing in most of them. Judging from the art, she was a deeply submissive woman and obviously very daring.
The exhibit was titled Beauty in Boldness
. A dramatic understatement, Isabella thought as she looked at the art surrounding her.
How much courage must Julianne have just to do those things, let alone share that level of intimacy with strangers? What would it feel like to live the fantasy?
Before Isabella could speak, someone tugged on Julianne’s arm. She smiled politely as she turned away. “Enjoy the experience. I hope you find inspiration here.”
“Wow. I wish I was beautiful like that,” Isabella whispered to Craig.
Jerard answered, “You are beautiful, Isabella. You could make a grown man cry looking the way you do.”
Craig leaned in to peck a kiss on her cheek and whispered, “My loss. Your gain. Remember what I said about the dress.”
She smiled. Craig was a true friend.
They wandered around the room, looking at the magnificent art and sipping liquid courage. The setting was more than a little intimidating. One piece caught Isabella’s attention. She drifted away from the men toward it.
There, on a floating white wall, was a gigantic painting of Julianne in a very seductive pose. On closer inspection, it was actually a photograph that had been painted over in places. Julianne wore nothing but pink ballet shoes with long ribbons that tied in an elaborate weave up her legs to her thighs. Pink lines ran over the rest of her skin, mirroring the design of the ribbon. Next to the picture was a little placard with The Erotic Dance in Pink by Nicolai Stavros, 2016. 140,000€
written on it.
Enticing sounds echoed from the other side of the wall. Isabella slipped around it to get a peek at the source and found a group watching a film on a huge, high-resolution screen. Julianne was poised, larger than life, against a Lucite fixture. A shirtless man in white pants circled her, wielding a thin cane. Even though his face wasn’t captured in the frame, she knew he was Nicolai, Julianne’s lover.
Isabella’s skin flushed with instant arousal. She felt hot, paralyzed by a foreign yet somehow familiar need, completely captivated by the sexual image. Her jaw went slack while she watched Nicolai hit Julianne repeatedly to leave those pink marks on her smooth skin. It did look like an erotic dance. When he finished, Nicolai leaned over and kissed Julianne tenderly. The intimacy between them burned into Isabella’s imagination. So much love and care, despite the harsh actions.
What would she give to know a passion like that?
Easing against a wall for support, Isabella was mesmerized as the endless loop of film began to play again.
JACQUES WATCHED THE lovely lady in black from a discreet distance. She was oblivious to his deep stare. She was oblivious to everything, except the image on the screen. So fully absorbed that the crowded gallery seemed to have faded from her awareness.
Heavy breath made her voluptuous breasts rise and fall. Little dots of sweat glistened on her brow. Her succulent red lips had fallen open, just begging to be kissed. He could practically feel her arousal and imagined running his hands up those silken thighs to discover her secret wetness. When she squeezed her legs together with a sensuous roll of her hip, his body moved toward her, instinctively drawn to that arousal, but he stopped himself. Too much was going on in his life. He didn’t need another complication.
The lady might be turned on by the sadomasochistic play, but she was clearly not a player. Sexy exterior aside, her smoldering eyes couldn’t hide the complex roil of emotions playing across her face while she watched Nico torment Julianne. She was fascinated and frightened by what she saw. Maybe by her own reaction to it. She might want something like that, but she had obviously never experienced it. The last thing he needed to do right now was train a novice.
But she was certainly pretty.
And Jacques was content to enjoy her private erotic show. It was far more enticing than the one Nico and Julianne had created. For a fleeting moment, he imagined that this woman was like Julianne. Nico found his happiness in an innocent. Took the perfect untouched raw material and crafted her into a masterpiece.
The lady in black might be a novice, but she was no innocent. She was older, edgier, and had seen the darker side of life, like him.
What type of lover could he create with someone like her?
He remembered Julianne’s words. “You’re a good man, Jacques. Maybe if you bring a woman to see the exhibit, you and she will find what Nicolai and I share. You deserve that too. I hope you know that.”
Could that actually happen?
Lightning didn’t strike twice.