Alessandro wanted to cut out his tongue. Why had he jumped down Pepper’s throat? Particularly in front of her sister? He was an idiot.
What else was new?
He’d had no idea Pepper had a twin. The pair couldn’t be more different, and he suspected Cinn tired of hearing that. It had to be difficult standing alongside the natural beauty of Pepper, who had such exquisite bone structure. Pepper’s eyelashes were long and dark, her fingers unmarked and slender despite hard physical labor.
Had Pepper noticed the way he’d looked at her over the past six weeks -- undressing her with his gaze? Christ.
She was his apprentice. Nothing should happen. Alessandro resigned himself to months of frustration. Maybe years. His shoulders slumped as he walked back toward the museum entrance.
The truth was he’d had his eye on her for far longer than she could ever know. The stonemasons’ world was a small one. Eighteen months ago, on a visit to Talbot’s quarry, Alessandro had seen a lone woman working as a sawyer. Talbot told him she wanted an apprenticeship but no one would take her on. Alessandro had neither the time nor money to take on more apprentices but even at a distance, he could see Pepper was good.
Next time he saw her was a year ago in the dress made from the Ganim slipcover. With the museum contract, he had the money to set on three apprentices. Christ, if Pepper hadn’t applied, he’d have found out where she lived and posted the application form through her letter box. When she came for an interview, he had to tug his shirt outside his pants to hide his erection. The decision over whether to hire her was never in doubt. If she’d turned out to be useless, he’d have found her something else to do.
But she was brilliant. She’d impressed him more than any other apprentice he’d seen. Amazingly strong, innovative, energetic, and intelligent -- she was also funny and so sexy he’d walked around for the last six weeks with a cock that thought it was a yo-yo.
Thank Christ for loose-fitting pants and long shirts.
He never tired of watching her work. Pepper could drag, entice, and seduce a story from the most unlikely lump of rock. She had the “feel” that couldn’t be taught. Still fresh and naive, she hadn’t been jaded by life, and when Alessandro looked at her, he felt like he’d swallowed sunshine.
Taking a deep breath, he walked into the museum. The oppressive feeling swamped him as he stepped over the threshold. Every bloody time.
Was it the air? Some chemical he was allergic to? He hadn’t been sure he could work here until Tarik Weston, the director’s assistant, had shown him the suite of rooms and open courtyard they were to use. No bad vibes there. Well, only from an easily identified source, which was what had him fired up and blazing a path to Theodora.
Studiously ignoring the exhibits he passed, Alessandro wound around groups of wide-eyed visitors, his mind, as usual, sidetracked by Pepper. He’d thought it was a nickname, but now he wondered what her parents had been thinking. They give one twin a name that sounded delicious in its entirety and seductive when shortened, whether to Cinn or Cinna, and the other baby something -- odd. He supposed Cayenne Pepper was better than Peppermint. Just.
He wondered what she’d do if he called her Cayenne. Alessandro grinned. He was tempted to try, but then he didn’t want her to call him Aless. It stirred memories he preferred undisturbed.
Alessandro knocked on the door and walked in. Tarik sat behind a desk, smiling, and Alessandro stuffed his hand into the pocket of his pants. What the hell was wrong with him? He didn’t even fancy Tarik, though this place was full of temptation. He wondered if the HR department only chose attractive employees. Alessandro sent a message to his cock to stop swelling or else. When that didn’t work, he pinched his balls.
“Theodora’s expecting you.” Tarik arched perfect brows. “Please go in.”
How was she expecting him? He hadn’t called. Maybe Tarik had seen him stomping into the museum. The blond Adonis returned to his paper. Alessandro crossed the room, took his hand from his pocket, and opened the door. Theodora stood by the window, the view already marred by crisscrossing scaffolding poles. She turned and held out her hand.
“Good afternoon, Alessandro. I trust everything is to your satisfaction?”
No, it fucking isn’t.
But the moment he shook her hand, Alessandro felt the heat of his anger dissipate. He pulled away, stepped back, and took a deep breath.
“You didn’t tell me I’d be sharing workshop space with your stonemasons,” he said.
Alessandro cut straight to the point. “Who’s in charge?”
Theodora smiled. “I am.”
What had he asked her? Alessandro struggled to think straight. Oh yes.
“My banker masons, carvers, and fixers work for me, not for Robert Harvey, nor for anyone else.” Including you, he thought but didn’t say.
“Of course your employees must obey you and not Robert.”
Alessandro stifled a laugh. That wasn’t the word he’d use. They cooperated if he asked nicely. Unfortunately, his first inclination was to shout.
“I shall tell Robert you’ll be allocating him and his team a section of the building to work on. I’m sure you’ll be able to keep out of each other’s way.”
Alessandro left not quite remembering why he’d been so fired up.
* * * * *
When he opened the door leading to the series of rooms that made up the workshop, Alessandro heard male laughter. He walked into the main chamber and found both his employees and Robert Harvey’s chuckling together. Pepper was in the arms of Saxon -- the large hound belonging to Alessandro’s ex-lover. The pair tottered around as though they were dancing until Pepper’s back hit the wall, and Saxon pinned her there, his paws planted on her shoulders. She looked...resigned.
“Saxon, down,” Alessandro called.
The dog ignored him, and while she tried to push the animal away, he vigorously licked her face, his tail wagging hard enough to raise bruises.
Not going to work. Pushing Saxon back made him think she wanted to play. This dog got so much exercise throwing himself at women, there was no need to walk him. It wasn’t the first time he’d launched himself at Pepper. It seemed that the mere smell of her made his nose twitch in delight. Alessandro felt the same. Unfortunately he had about as much control over the dog as he did his feelings about Pepper.
“Saxon, get down,” Alessandro shouted.
Saxon licked harder, his long tongue sweeping up and down Pepper’s cheek. It annoyed Alessandro no one had tried to help her. They were too busy laughing. Newt walked in behind him, tsk-tsked when he saw what was happening, and then shot Alessandro a condemning look. Newt was right. This was Alessandro’s fault. Partially. Saxon dropped to all fours and stuck his nose in Pepper’s crotch. Lucky dog.
Pepper squealed and tried to shove him off.
“Down,” Alessandro bellowed and strode forward.
Saxon took no notice.
“Saxon, down,” Alessandro yelled, and this time the huge black crossbreed hound dropped to his haunches, though he stayed right in front of Pepper, tongue out, panting, nose inches from her crotch, his tail gathering dust as it swept the floor.
“I’ll get him.” Newt dragged the dog back into the interior courtyard where Alessandro had left him with food and water.
“Who let him in here?” Alessandro snapped.
No one owned up. There was a wet patch on Pepper’s pants where Saxon had slobbered into her groin, and Alessandro couldn’t drag his gaze away from it.
“Can I put a claim in for sexual harassment?” Pepper asked with a forced laugh.
“Has any work been done in my absence?” Alessandro growled.
Men crept back to their stations, and Pepper shot to hers.
Damn, had he needed to sound so short?
Masks and goggles were donned, and the air filled with the sounds of chipping, chiseling, and hammering. Karl had begged Alessandro to look after Saxon while he went away for a few days. Alessandro tried to say no, but Karl resorted to emotional blackmail. His employees thought Alessandro was as hard as granite, but in matters of the heart he was soft as chalk. He and Karl might be over, but he still cared for the big lug. Just not the dog.
“Seems like you have as much control of that animal as you do your staff,” Robert Harvey said.
Alessandro turned to glare at the squat, florid-faced man. They’d taken a dislike to each other the moment they met. Alessandro guessed Harvey believed he could repair the entire building single-handedly and saw Alessandro as some know-it-all upstart muscling in on his territory. They had the same goal. Surely they could work alongside each other.
“Theodora suggested I allocate a section of the building for you to work on so we don’t get under each other’s feet,” Alessandro said.
“Fine. I’ll take the front.”
“That’s mine. You take the east wing. Start at the rear. I’ll have a team start in the same place in the west.”
Harvey sucked in his cheeks and nodded, recognizing the challenge set, though it wasn’t a matter of speed but quality of work. Alessandro would make that clear to his masons. He strode through the rooms until he reached the benches of his three newest apprentices, then stood behind Newt and watched him trace from a template onto a stone block. Newt’s ears reddened, and Alessandro bit back a smile. Nervous because he was being observed or because he fancied his boss? Probably both.
“Good work,” Alessandro said. “Careful on the apex. Check the angle before you touch it with a chisel.”
He moved on to George. He and Newt could hardly be more different. Apart from the fact that Newt was blatantly gay and George aggressively hetero, Newt was also creative and artistic while George could only do what he was told. Newt always had a smile on his face, while George looked as though he didn’t know how to be happy. If he had a head for heights and could master the requirement for precision, George might make a good fixer but never a carver. It had taken George the longest of the three of them to get through the first test in their interview.
Alessandro had driven them to a quarry and picked out three blocks of stone, roughly the same size. The test was to turn them into reasonably precise cubes using a chisel and mallet in a process known as bonding in. The end result told Alessandro all he needed to know. Newt finished first, followed by Pepper. George had produced a cube half the size of the others because he hadn’t used the wooden blocks correctly to stop him removing too much stone. Pepper’s cube had been the largest and the most accurate. Alessandro wasn’t sure George had ever forgiven her. When asked to repeat the test, George was as speedy and almost as accurate as the other two -- which was why Alessandro had taken him on. He was a fast learner. Alessandro had praised him, but he feared the damage to George’s ego had been done.
“Solid work, George,” Alessandro said and moved on.
Perhaps that was all George would ever manage, but Alessandro needed masons who were good at the basic work. Not everyone could be a star.
The moment he stood behind Pepper, her scent rose above the smell of dust and rock, and his cock twitched. Alessandro stuffed his hand into his pocket and gave the offending organ a vigorous twist. Too vigorous, and a slight yelp escaped. He coughed to disguise it. Maybe he’d be better carrying a pin in his pocket to prick his thigh, because any more twisting, and he’d do himself some serious damage.
Pepper was carving a small two-headed fish. The original sat on a low pillar next to the main entrance and had been worn away by the fingers of visitors. She worked from a photograph and drawings she’d made, and Alessandro was impressed by her progress. Christ, she’s good.
Maybe better than he’d been at this stage in his career. Alessandro looked for jealousy, found none, and smiled.
“The head on the left looks...off,” he said.
“I wondered,” Pepper said. “The eye’s too big.”
She was right. That was exactly the problem. Alessandro moved away, wishing he could pinpoint so easily what was wrong with his life.
Christ, now I’m lying to myself?
He knew exactly what was wrong. His love life was completely fucked. After he spoke to Eli Kamen a year ago, Alessandro had hoped they might get together, but the guy had vanished. The only good thing that happened was that Alessandro had finished with Karl.
Karl was as bad at hearing good-bye as Alessandro was at saying no. Their relationship might have officially ended a year ago, but they’d limped along, occasionally hooking up until six weeks ago.
The day Pepper started work.
Alessandro talked about Pepper, and Karl had gotten drunk. The smashing of Alessandro’s favorite sculpture had not been easy to forgive. Nor the three stitches Alessandro needed in his head.
“Fuck her and get over her,” Karl had snapped.
Alessandro had done neither. He was still working on the first. He wondered if Karl had persuaded him to look after Saxon, knowing the dog would pester Pepper.
He went to his office and pulled out the architectural drawings of the museum’s facade. His mind was elsewhere. Had he made a mistake taking on Pepper? In a way, he’d looked for a reason not to because he wanted to go out with her. Except how likely would that have been once he’d told her he wouldn’t be employing her? About as likely as him asking her out now that he did
employ her. Unrequited lust had driven Alessandro to six weeks of self-imposed celibacy.
Apart from the long-standing affair with his fist.
* * * * *
Theodora sat back from a pile of paperwork and stared fixedly at the office door. A few moments later, Tarik walked in.
“You called?” he asked.
“What took you so long?”
“How are the preparations going?”
“Have all the invitations been issued?” she asked.
“All but twenty, in case the scouts find someone too good to resist.”
Theodora sighed. “We don’t want a repeat of last year. Only straight men. We’re lucky that guy wasn’t missed. I could hardly tell the police he was on the roof.”
Tarik moved to the back of her chair and massaged her shoulders. “Everything will be fine. Don’t worry.”
* * * * *
Alessandro noticed George slip into one of the storage rooms. When he didn’t emerge after a few minutes, Alessandro flung open the door. “What are you doing?”
George spun around and looked guilty as hell.
“Checking...” His voice trailed off.
“There’s nothing to do with stonemasonry in this room. Go home,” Alessandro said.
Alessandro switched on the light and looked around. What had George found so fascinating? Shelves with neatly arranged cans of paint. And a gap. Alessandro stepped closer and saw a hole in the wall. Oh fuck.
He put his eye to the tiny circle, focused, and reared back. Competing emotions threatened to tear him in half. He wanted to put his hands around George’s neck and throttle him. He wanted to put his hands on Pepper’s body and caress her. He also wanted to take another look. Shit.
He walked away, but as he reached the door, instead of opening it wider and stepping out, Alessandro closed it. He looked for something to wedge under the handle and found a broom. Even as he yelled abuse at himself, he moved back to look again.
Such a sweet backside. Oh God, a perfect body. Long, lean, curved in the right places. Turn around.
As though she heard him, Pepper twisted. Sweet Jesus.
Alessandro had his pants down and his hand around his cock before he could help himself.
But he couldn’t. He watched Pepper rub shampoo onto her hair and work it to a lather. He rubbed his cock and brought it to a lather too.
Water poured over her, soapy streams trailing down her body, dripping from pale pink nipples. That navel piercing sent ripples of electricity shooting up and down his spine. He wanted to lick the golden bar, suck it into his mouth. She was shaved. So was he. Oh Christ.
He pumped his cock faster, the same way, in opposite directions, fast, slow, straight, and twisting. He never took his eye from the peephole. He hadn’t seen her legs since that night a year ago; now he could see all of her. Nothing disappointed.
He could feel himself coming, the power building behind the barricade. The shower stopped, but Alessandro didn’t. He bit his lip in case he cried out and she heard. Even watching Pepper dry herself was a turn-on. He imagined his fingers stroking her instead of the towel, and he was coming, no way back. The tight band in his head snapped, and orgasm shot down his back, igniting his balls in fiery heat. Cum rushed from his cock into his hand.
So good and so fucking bad. I am such a fucking pervert.
His palm overflowing, Alessandro looked around and grabbed a rag from a shelf. When he was zipped up, he picked up a can of paint and removed the broom from the door.
He stepped out to find George leaning against the wall opposite with the hint of a smirk on his face. Alessandro wanted to slam his fist into the guy’s mouth. George looked at the paint and then back at Alessandro.
“Found what you were looking for?” George asked.
“I told you to go home,” Alessandro said.
“See you tomorrow, maestro?”
What fucking choice did he have?
He could fire the prick, but he’d rather punch him. He needed cause for termination that didn’t involve a crime of which he was also guilty. Alessandro found himself nodding. This asshole’s days were numbered.