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THE DIRTY SECRET, my sexy romance–containing bare walls, nude skin and naked hearts–will be available March 28th. I’ve had some lovely folks saying all sorts of fantastic things, including a starred review from Publishers Weekly:
Gold (The Scent of Flames) packs this story with a wealth of sensory detail, perfectly complementing the emotional and sexual development between the leads, creating a thoroughly satisfying tale.
Here’s the first chapter.
All art is erotic.
A cylindrical aquarium stood in the center of the waiting room, stretching to the ceiling. Hidden lights glowed from the top and bottom of the tank, illuminating the pastel jellyfish inside. The receptionist wrote Vessa’s name and time of arrival on a clipboard and told her to have a seat. The chairs were upholstered in turquoise velvet and distinct marks were left in the nap of the fabric, cheeky prints of their previous occupants. Vessa remained standing.
A man with white hair and a ginger goatee sat in a corner, the only other person in the waiting area. He was an aged tiger of a man, grizzled and dangerous, and handsome. She would have painted him a room in orange and silver. His lips turned up at the corners, under his mustache, when he met her glance through the fish tank. She looked away, wondering what it would feel like to kiss a man with that much facial hair.
“Vessa,” the very blond receptionist called. “Donna Edith will see you now.”
The next room held more fish. A tank full of flickering darts with azure and bloodred stripes down their sides sat against a wall, and a glass bowl in a macramé hanger housed a black Siamese fighting fish. It raised its fins at Vessa and swished a fluffy tail. She fluttered her fingers, and it retreated behind a plant.
Someone cleared her throat. Vessa spun around as a woman stepped out from an alcove. She was beautiful in that timeless way of movie stars from an earlier era, ageless and effortlessly sexy, with a cool stare that left Vessa feeling naked and naive.
Vessa made herself smile and mean it. “Hello,” she said. “Your fish are pretty.”
“That is Lucifer.” The woman offered her hand, bare of rings. “I am Donna Edith,” she said, the emphasis on her second name, as if Donna were a title, like Missus, or Doctor. “And you are Vanessa, Simone’s daughter.”
“Yes.” Vessa shook her hand: smooth fingers, perfect manicure, a brief clasp and release. “She said you could help me.”
“I certainly hope to. How is your mother?”
“Good. She’s in Africa right now.”
“And Rudolpho? Is he with her?”
Vessa bit the inside of her cheek to keep her jittery laughter inside. She’d never heard anyone call her stepfather anything but Rollo. “They got a huge grant for the water project last month. They’ll be able to help thousands of people.”
“Simone didn’t seem pleased with your choice to move back to Vermont.”
“She worries.” The walls in the spacious office were dusty mauve, with a deeper shade below a white chair rail. Neutral and noncommittal, yet strangely intimate, like the conversation.
“She says your decision is based on rebellion rather than a need for roots and family.”
“My mother understands a fight against authority. But she’s never wanted to belong anywhere.”
“And you do. Fair enough. Why now?”
“My grandfather had a stroke this spring,” Vessa said. “Not a big one, but enough to make me realize how important family is.”
“Are you two close?”
Vessa looked out the window, toward the lake, where her dad’s father had taught her to swim and to fish. He’d let her help paint his boat, when she was six, the first time she’d ever held a paintbrush.
“As much as we’ve been allowed to be,” she said. A few weeks every July, and phone calls on holidays and birthdays—except this last one, when he’d been in the hospital.
“No time like the present, then,” said Donna Edith. “Have you found a place to live?”
“Yes. A loft. Above an antique shop. Brass and Bones. The owner is my landlord.”
“Manuel Luna. He’s a lovely man.”
“You know him?”
“I do.” Donna Edith raised an eyebrow and Vessa squirmed, embarrassed. Of course Donna Edith knew her landlord. She knew everyone. She even knew who Vessa was, when very few did.
“Did your mother explain what my agency does?” the woman asked.
“She said you place people.”
“Precisely. I only accept referrals because it is too easy to misconstrue what we do. We are not an escort service, nor are we a temporary employment brokerage—though both structures are similar. Clients come to me with a need, and I match them to other clients with needs. Some are longstanding or repeated requests. For example, Mrs. Zimmer prefers to bring her own partner to her ballroom dance lessons, and several young men have benefited from the social guidance of an older woman. Rudolpho needed a spokesperson for his crusade. Your mother needed a cause for all her restless energy.”
She gestured to the alcove, where a kettle hissed from the hot plate. “Would you like a cup of tea?”
“Yes, thank you,” Vessa said, and Donna Edith smiled, like Vessa had passed a test.
Donna Edith stepped to the tiny kitchenette. The pins in her hair were tipped with black pearls. They glimmered, like the iridescent fish in the bowl.
“Come choose.” She beckoned to the tiny room.
The shelves above the burner and the mini-fridge were filled with boxes and tins, some with handwritten labels, some with gorgeous packaging of high-end specialty stores.
Vessa mouthed the name on one that had fancy vowels. “What would you recommend?” she asked.
The woman set two glass mugs on the counter. “For you?” She made a show of looking Vessa up and down, then pulled a tin from a shelf and gestured to the couch by the window. “Have a seat.”
Vessa sat while Donna Edith poured the water over the tea strainer, a hinged, holed spoon. She brought a tray to the table at the sofa, dropped a cube of sugar in one mug and stirred the spoon three times. When the liquid turned amber, she handed over the mug.
Vessa took it carefully, terrified she would spill it but grateful to have something to do with her hands. Donna Edith’s tea turned dark gray and smelled of burnt wood. Vessa sniffed her own. The steam was scented like whiskey and roses.
“Tell me about yourself, Vanessa.” Donna Edith leaned back in the cushions, sliding one foot out of her shoe and tucking it beneath her.
“It’s Vessa. Or Vess. Nobody calls me Vanessa except my father’s wife. She doesn’t care for me much.” The second hand on the desk clock clicked, out of sync with her heartbeat. She wove her fingers through the handle of her mug, staring through the liquid to the star in the bottom made by the cut crystal base.
“My bachelor’s degree took five years at three different schools. Then it turned out being a scenic artist requires an MFA to get hired anywhere that actually pays. But grad schools want a year in the field and a professional portfolio before they’ll even look at your application. And in L.A., no matter how good you are, to get work—even an internship—you have to mingle, to network and be social and talk about yourself.”
Vessa blew across the mug and took a tiny sip. The tea tasted like it smelled: smoky and floral with a touch of sweetness. “That’s lovely.”
The betta fish preened in its bowl, like it had been the one to make the tea. The woman at the other end of the couch watched Vessa over her own mug.
“So, basically, college was half a decade of me learning to paint walls that get torn down after three weeks, and the credentials to wait tables with a name tag that says ‘Tess.’”
Donna Edith cocked her head to the side, pinning her with eyes as sharp as icicles. “How would you paint these walls, Vessa?”
“Oh!” The question was unexpected and she sloshed her tea, a single drop falling to her wrist. She set the cup on the table, stood and turned around in a slow circle, considering the walls, the window, the furniture and the woman on the couch. This was a test she could pass with flying colors. “Spanish?” she murmured. “Or maybe colonial Brazil—” She reached for her bag. “Can I show you? It’s easier to draw than explain with words.”
Donna Edith nodded. Vessa grabbed her sketchbook and a handful of pencils, and knelt on the floor in front of the tea table. The familiarity of her art supplies calmed her more than the tea. “Your furniture runs to the baroque, all solid and dark, but the window brings in so much light. Those are nice contrasts to play with.”
She sketched some fast lines of the walls, the window and the tank with the flickering neon fish, her confidence settling into place. “The mauve is pretty, but it’s not the best for skin—especially the satin finish. In artificial light it can bounce shadows that look like bruises. The sunlight would have more impact, too, if the walls were brighter. Maybe taken to ivory, and then softened with a glaze of terra-cotta. Then you’d have a palette that matches the time period of your furniture.”
She shaded with the side of a pencil, then dipped a paintbrush in her tea and wet the watercolor pigment, softening her pencil strokes. “Almost a Titian red. It would only read in the shadows, but the auburn in your hair would catch it and shine. You have great legs—do you wear shorter skirts a lot?”
Vessa instantly regretted her forward question, but Donna Edith nodded once, like a queen.
“So a dark color below the chair rail, to really bring out the silhouette. Deeper even than your furniture. Ebony.” She painted a navy layer on her sketch, then another of evergreen. “With color washes over it, a dark rainbow of them because you like pearls and fish that look like opals. And maybe, if you wanted to set the whole look off, instead of the woven plant hanger thing for Lucifer’s bowl, something wrought iron because it adds a touch of that medieval badass feel that is so sexy, and kind of intimidating, too.”
She drew a chain from the ceiling to suspend the globe, with the curling fins of the black fish inside. “Like that.”
She blew across the paper, and then passed it to Donna Edith. The woman’s eyes widened, glancing to Vessa and then back to the paper in her hands. Vessa was used to that reaction, the surprise that her work was good, more professional than her Bohemian appearance led on. Donna Edith held up the sketch, comparing it to the room. “You think I want to intimidate people?”
Vessa rolled her lips inward, wincing. “No woman wears a leather skirt by accident.”
Donna Edith set her cup on the tray and leaned back into the cushions, still holding the sketch. “And what do your clothes say about you, I wonder?”
The rose flavor in the tea sat in Vessa’s mouth like old perfume, musky and sharp. She picked up her pencils and brush and put them in her bag with her sketchbook, her self-assurance ebbing away as the other woman’s gaze lay heavy on her skin.
“Cheap leggings under a thrift store designer dress—you recognize quality but back it up with practicality. Your shoes say the same. Comfortable, but well made and formal enough for an interview. The strap on your brassiere is violet lace, and I would guess your lingerie cost more than your entire ensemble. You may hide your sensuous nature, but privately, you revel in it.”
Vessa touched the collar of her dress at the shoulder where it had had slipped, revealing her bra. She dropped her hand to her lap without fixing the fashion faux pas.
“You’re wearing no jewelry,” Donna Edith said. “So no strong religious affiliation, and no boyfriends, either.” She paused, as if she’d asked a question.
Vessa shook her head. “Nothing that ever lasted beyond final curtain.”
“What a shame,” Donna Edith said with no sincerity at all. “Your eyes are painted like opals, and your hair is dyed three different colors, meant to draw attention away from the girl behind the artifice, yes?” The woman’s tone turned gentle. “But the world becomes a very lonely place if you can’t let people see who you really are.”
The sunlight faded from the room, stripping the mauve walls of their pink and purple, leaving only gray behind. Vessa twisted the strap of her bag between her fingers and looked at the floor, tears pricking hot in her eyes.
“Does your father know you are here?”
“Not yet.” Vessa raised her chin and the tears receded. “But he’ll be pleased.”
“And your stepmother? Will she?”
Vessa took a deep shaky breath. “Not so much.”
“From what your mother told me of the situation, I gather you’d like to be financially solvent before your father’s wife discovers you are here.”
“In all the fairy tales, no one mentions that the evil stepmother is the one paying the bills.”
“Of course not.” Donna Edith laid the drawing on the table. “But I think you’re delightful, and I know exactly where I’m going to place you.”
* * *
Killian tapped the stylus icon and drew another line across the top of the digital drawing, then took off his glasses. The lenses weren’t blurry, he discovered—his eyes were. He rolled his head on his neck, listening to the vertebrae pop one by one.
“I’ve called a budget meeting for two o’clock tomorrow,” the accounts manager said, dropping an expense report printout on top of his keyboard. “The entire company needs to be there.”
“I’ve got a project review scheduled with the contractors then,” Killian said.
The accountant shrugged. “You’ll have to change it.”
“You want me to skip a meeting called by our investors, just so you can read aloud the email we all got yesterday? My name isn’t even on this.”
“Take it up with Bergman if you don’t like it.”
From the next workspace came the noise of crumpling and the rattle of a paper wad hitting a metal trashcan. The accountant sniffed and walked off. Killian glanced at the expense report and circled a column of numbers with a highlighter pen.
His cell phone rang. When he saw the number he snatched it from his desk and stood up.
“This is Fitzroy,” he answered, keeping his tone calm and professional. He crossed the architecture firm’s design room in long strides and stepped into the empty boardroom.
“Killian, Donna Edith here.”
A thrill ran down his spine at her voice, a schoolboy’s response to the sexy teacher. “Good morning,” he said, closing the door.
She didn’t return the greeting. “I have someone I’d like you to meet.”
“Will she take the job?” he asked.
“Only you can ask her that. But I believe she is a perfect fit for your situation. She’s an artist who is comfortable with deadlines and working under pressure. She’s also very feminine.”
“That sounds perfect.” He dropped into a seat at the table, relief sagging his bones. “Thank you. What’s her background?”
“Theater. She’s a scenic charge artist. That’s the set painter, in layman’s terms.”
Killian sat up straight. “Interesting.”
“Wait until you meet her. She’s fascinating. Has an eye for color that is just astounding.”
On the phone, without the distracting vision of Donna Edith—which had him as awkward as Dustin Hoffman gawking at Anne Bancroft in The Graduate—he was able to detect a hesitation in her voice.
“But?” he asked. “There’s more?”
“She’s extremely private, Mr. Fitzroy. Be careful not to pry.”
“I just need the work finished on time. I don’t need to know her life story.”
“You’ll want to know, Killian. In fact, you’ll have difficulty keeping your hands off her.”
He snorted. He didn’t have time to even look at girls, much less get to know one. “When can she start?”
“I told her to be at your house at two o’clock tomorrow.”
He stuck his finger through the venetian blinds of the boardroom window, peering at his desk and the calendar above it with red circles around the date. He hung his head. “Okay. Thank you.”
“Is that a problem?” Donna Edith asked.
“No, ma’am. Not at all.” He let go of the blinds. “What’s her name?”
“Vessa Ratham. And Killian? Let her surprise you.” She hung up.
He walked back to his workspace and sat at the small desk next to his drafting table. His computer beeped with an email, but he ignored it and entered the name into a search engine. All that turned up was a five-year-old announcement of a Vermont charity scholarship recipient, and a few crew photos from a theater production in California. No face stood out as particularly interesting.
His phone rang again. “Fitzroy.”
“Hey, Killer. Pad Thai?”
He hung up the phone. “You can’t just stick your fat head over the cubicle wall?”
A paper clip flew over the upholstered partition in response.
Killian caught it and flicked it back. “I better not take the time, man. I’m so behind, I’ll be here until midnight.” His empty stomach protested.
“You have to eat, dude. You’re a fucking skeleton.” Bengt leaned around the wall that divided their drafting spaces. “And I can’t flirt with the waitress if you don’t come with me.” He swiped a tissue from Killian’s desk and scrubbed at the pencil smudges on the side of his hand.
Killian handed him the paper from the accountant. “You’ll want to keep this. Those are your numbers.” The marketing director waved at him across the workroom, brandishing a flip calendar. He turned away before she could establish eye contact. “Okay,” he told his friend. “Let’s go. Before anyone schedules any more meetings I don’t have time for.”
They escaped out the side exit without talking to anyone. In the lobby, they initialed the sign-out log, pausing long enough for Bengt to tease the middle-aged receptionist. She clicked her tongue when he changed the time by fifteen minutes to give them a longer lunch, but she didn’t correct it. Bengt was Killian’s opposite: blond, muscle-bound and charming. Women rarely denied him anything.
“You don’t need me to hit on a waitress,” Killian grumbled as they walked the half block to Taste of Siam. “Why can’t you perv on girls on your own?”
“Because that would be creepy. And she might take me seriously. I don’t want to take her home, I just want extra peanut sauce.”
The waitress greeted them by name, and sat them at a booth. “Your usual?” she asked.
“Yes, ma’am,” Killian told her, and Bengt complimented her haircut. After she left their drinks at the table, Killian said, “I went to Donna Edith’s.”
Heads turned their direction, with a clatter of forks and chopsticks.
“She’s incredible, isn’t she? Made me feel like I was thirteen again, stammering like a dork in front of the hot mom across the street. What kind of tea did you have?”
“Earl Grey,” Killian said. “My grandmother used to drink it.” It was the only kind he knew by name. “What about you?”
“I told her I’d have what she was having. Big mistake. Stuff tasted like I’d licked Santa’s chimney after he’d been up and down both ways. She told me it was called Lapsang Souchong, after a mountain. But I think it’s really Chinese for ‘tastes like smoked ass on a charred stick.’” He shuddered.
“What did you go to her for?” Killian pulled his disposable chopsticks from their paper and snapped them apart. “If you don’t mind me asking.”
“The first time?” Bengt jiggled the ice cubes in his plastic glass. “Dad brought me in when I was eighteen. He’d overheard me mispronounce the word clitoris, so I got an anatomy lesson.”
“From her?” Killian spluttered, blinking against images of Donna Edith on her couch, reclining on the cushions. He sucked at his Coke until his head hurt from the ice.
“No!” Bengt said.
The waitress stopped, holding his plate inches from the table.
“Not you,” he told her.
She set the plates down and left.
“She placed me with a girl who wanted her labia pierced, but didn’t want to go to the shop all alone.”
“What happened?” Killian shook red pepper flakes onto his chicken pad Thai.
“I got a whole lot of insight into female genitalia. And sixteen-gauge nipple rings.”
“I always wondered why you got those.” Killian fought with his chopsticks for a moment before giving up and stabbing a heap of noodles. He bit through the tangle.
Bengt drew a breath, pulling his shirt taut across his chest, and circled a nipple with a fingertip. “You want to touch them?”
“No!” Killian said through his food, then shook his head at the waitress again. “Not you.”
The woman gave Bengt a wide-eyed look as he toyed with his chest. She set the fresh Cokes down and backed away, while Killian laughed at his friend’s dismay. “You said ‘the first time.’ So what about the second?”
Bengt reached for the soy sauce bottle. “I was curious about something.”
“Your sexual orientation?”
“Not exactly.” Bengt stared off at some vision only he could see, but there was a glint in his eye, some savage satisfaction that made him more than the spoiled son of the boss, more than the big blond flirt who was good with girls. “So did she Sherlock you?”
“Right from the start.”
Last Tuesday, he’d been shown into her office by the receptionist. Donna Edith had glanced at him and told him to have a seat.
“Yes, ma’am,” he said, and she turned from her tea pantry to reappraise him. She was older, ten years and probably more, and so elegant he felt like a maladroit teenager staring back at her.
“Bengt Bjorn referred you to me, did he not?”
“Yes, ma’am. We went to college together. I work at his mother’s firm.”
“There’s more to you than just that, Mr. Fitzroy.” The woman sat at the other end of the couch, and crossed her magnificent legs. Her movements were smooth, her expressions deliberate, like all the actresses who had ever played Catwoman. “You’re from the South, but not very deep. Appalachia.” She pronounced it like a native, with each A short. “Eastern Kentucky?”
“Harlan County.” Three years in New England had not frozen his accent much, but no one had ever guessed so close to home.
“You’re not a wealthy man,” she continued. “Your shirt is more than seven years old, and fraying at the neck. You do not have a woman in your life who would buy you a new one, nor do you take the time to pay attention to such things yourself. You wear a tie, even though it makes you uncomfortable, perhaps because it gives you a certain white-collar status, above the roots from which you were raised. Are you the first in your family to go to college?”
“Yes, ma’am,” he said. “The first to graduate high school.”
“You’ve worked hard for your education, then. You’re driven and clever. But you’re not arrogant—you’re here, which means you aren’t afraid to ask others for help. You say you work at Bergman and Bjorn, not for, which indicates you have some status there, and your calluses suggest you use a pencil as much as a keyboard. Mr. Bjorn referred you to me, so he sees you as much more than a fellow alum or a coworker.”
He didn’t bother nodding.
“You’re starved for sex,” she said with a knowing look in her dark eyes that went straight to his gut and groin, “but you’re not here to satisfy that hunger. Your desperation is professional, not personal. Now, what would a humble, talented, resourceful architect possibly need that he couldn’t ask his wealthy best friend to provide?”
“I have never asked Bengt for anything,” Killian said.
“I see. You’re looking for something that will set you apart—and even above—anything that the Bjorn’s money and connections can offer. You want obvious uniqueness. A display of your own creativity.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he said. “Exactly.”
“Would you like a cup of tea?” she’d asked, rising from the couch.
“It’s almost creepy, isn’t it?” Bengt asked, pulling Killian back to the present. “The way she can read you cold. What did she ask for as payment?”
“She had me draw up plans for an addition to her neighbor’s house. A foyer with wheelchair access. What did she ask from you?”
“I designed a tree house for her niece. It was awesome. Two rooms and a porch, with running water and electricity. So are you going to tell me what she’s helping you with?”
“She found me a decorator.” Killian didn’t meet his friend’s eyes. “I meet her tomorrow.”
Bengt coughed and grabbed his drink. “You went to her about work?” He wheezed. “You had the golden ticket, the genie in the lamp, and you asked for someone to pick out your curtain fabrics? I don’t even know you anymore.”
Killian picked at his food, thinking about the next day. How the hell was he going to manage being in three places at two o’clock tomorrow?
And what kind of girl would a woman like Donna Edith find fascinating?
The rest will be available in just a few weeks! To pre-order, click your favorite e-book retailer below: