Just before I turned to writing erotica, I penned the start of what was supposed to be a hot, sexy romantic novel. Here it is, offered up as a little freebie. Let me know if you think I should finish it ...
“Here we go, Ma'am. The Reiner Academy.” Negotiating the East 70th Street traffic, the chauffeur eased the limousine to a stop in front of a building that sat uneasily among the department stores, boutiques and high-end art galleries. It was small by comparison with its neighbours, its terracotta facade gnarled with protuberances that reminded Cici of knitted brows.
Cici sucked on the ear-piece of her sunglasses for a moment, put off by something grim and serious in the look of the place, then said, “Alrighty. Give me half an hour, George. If I'm not back, something interesting's happened and you should go on home.”
“Maybe I'll come running out with a skeleton under my arm.”
George opened the door for her. Putting on her sunglasses first – they were large and encrusted with Svarovski crystals – Cici stepped out. At once the humid heat of the Upper East Side of Manhattan in the middle of June was all about her, but Cici cut a cool figure, tall and willowy, in a Rochas tank-top and hand-embroidered hipsters. Honey-blonde hair, artfully straightened, framed a placid face. She had a tiny dimple in her chin, a pale band of freckles on the bridge of her nose, and lips that hovered on the edge of a smile.
With a last wave to George, she pressed against the unwilling revolving doors and disappeared.
Inside, the sound of car horns and ticket hawkers was reduced to hardly more than a whisper. The Reiner Academy, the oldest art school in New York, looked to Cici's eye more like a museum than a living institution. A huge travertine foyer confronted her. Behind the reception desk, with her back to the door, was a grey-haired receptionist, upright and formidable. Her voice reverberating off the marble walls, she spoke into a telephone. “ ... I'm terribly sorry, sir, I know it's inconvenient, but I gather there's a replacement on the way ...”
Without hesitation, Cici slipped off her slingbacks and darted for the stairs. The steps, like everything else, were vast and made of stone; they sent a refreshing chill through her toes. On the first landing, she perched her bottom on a window sill, and wriggled her shoes back on again. A pair of students, boy and girl, both smelling authentically of turpentine, came across her. She asked, “Lucas Task's office?”
“Next floor, the Parrish Room,” said one of them. “Knock first.”
As she breezed past, the boy goggled back, half-recognizing her. A few minutes later he would be saying, “Hey, wasn't that – you know – that girl who - ?” Cici wasn't sure whether to feel flattered or alarmed at her enduring notoriety.
There were people who called Princess Celestine Amelie of Szollenhohen-Marigsingen – Cici for short – a professional exhibitionist. She just thought of herself as someone who was willing to try anything once, and then perhaps a second time for luck. True, she had appeared wearing nothing but an odour of violets in the infamous Milan nude catwalk organized by the most illustrious names in the scent industry. And she had featured in that notorious sexy zombie video for Gomorrah, her favourite thrash metal band. But she'd put such behaviour behind her now.
“Not very princesslike,” had been her father's comment on both occasions, but he'd stomached them because they were paying jobs, and the Szollenhohen-Marigsingen, who had lost all but their titles one hundred and fifty years ago, weren't the kind of family to turn up their noses at a fresh stream of revenue. But the time she was caught by the paparazzi falling out of a Hummer-limo with no knickers on, or that other occasion when an anti-fur protest at the Vienna Zoo went all wrong and she had to be rescued from the cage of an amorous mandrill – things like that had worn his patience thin, and she was on notice to reform.
Cici was reforming, or at any rate she would be reforming this Autumn, when she came into her late mother's inheritance. Her plan was to open a new fashion label in London. She already had some designer friends throwing together ideas for their first collection. It would be a lot of work, a lot of stress and responsibility.
To charge her batteries beforehand she had planned a long, restful, mildly naughty summer in the Adriatic aboard the yacht of another friend called Po. But here again her father had caused a problem. He had decided that, with her twenty-first birthday looming, it was time for her portrait to be done.
It was a long-standing tradition for all the Szollenhohen-Marigsingen women to be painted by a celebrated artist of the day. The house in Surrey was full of canvases that had the Christie's experts drooling. Her poor mother was there, by Hockney, and there was even a cubist painting of her great-grandmother by Duchamp. Now it was Cici's turn.
Somehow – she had no idea how her father had done it, but it must have involved the writing of a large cheque – he had secured the services of Lucas Task. British-born Task was one of those paradoxical figures, a renowned recluse, a world-famous hermit. Secretive, shadowy, he was Europe's premier figurative artist. His portraiture included personalities as diverse as Stephen Hawking and Sigourney Weaver, but it was for his nudes – frank, unvarnished, yet somehow deeply romantic – that he was most revered.
In the public eye, though, he would always be known as 'the man who turned down the Queen.' When Buckingham Palace approached him on behalf of Her Majesty, they couldn't even get him on the phone. Someone in the Palace leaked the story to the newspapers. It was a rare appearance in the headlines for a man who shunned publicity.
When Cici tried to research him on the Internet, she was amazed at how little genuine information about the artist was out there. No date of birth, no photographs. What she did find out, though, was that he had recently separated from his wife and long-time model, Karla, who was now attempting to bring out a kiss-and-tell about their life together. Not surprisingly, Task's lawyers had been doing their best to keep the book out of the shops, and were now in a wrangle with some newspapers who had purchased the serialization rights. No wonder he suddenly needed money.
At the end of June, Cici was supposed to be spending an indefinite amount of time – at least a fortnight – with Task at his home near Montpellier in the South of France. But it could easily be longer. From what she heard, he could sometimes spend months on his canvases. Months, stuck in the middle of nowhere with a rancorous hermit, when she should be on Po's yacht! The final summer of her gilded youth ruined! No thanks. Cici was determined to get out of it.
But when she'd tried to get in contact with him, the princess had had no more luck than Elizabeth II. He didn't have a telephone or email, just a couple of PO Boxes in various countries. She was on the verge of hiring a private detective. Then a friend who worked on the New York Times tipped her off that Task taught life drawing for a fortnight of each year at the Reiner Academy. It was a invitation-only class for the best of the city's young artists, all very hush-hush and low key. Perfect timing! Cici was at the family apartment in New York anyway, on her way to a house party in the Hamptons. She would beard the lion in his lair.
Quite what she was going to say when she met him she wasn't sure, maybe persuade him to schedule some sittings before summer, or work from a photograph, or postpone things for a couple of months, or join her for a week on Po's yacht, or she might even see if she could get him to drop the commission altogether. Her schemes were always spur of the moment.
But one thing was for sure – when she was finished, this shrinking violet wouldn't know what had hit him.
Cici found the Parrish Room and rapped crisply on one of the large, ornately carved double doors. Hearing a voice inside, she didn't wait for an answer but walked straight in.
The studio was another large space, with so much glass that it looked a little like a conservatory. Gauzy sheets hung like sails across some of the lower windows. The parquet floor was scratched and speckled. Around the walls were painted backdrops on huge mahogany frames and large, free-standing plaster props that seemed to belong to a much earlier age. Huddled in the middle of all this space was a kind of stage under a cloth, surrounded by perhaps a dozen easels. A tall fan was set up next to it.
In one corner, behind a desk cluttered with marble hands and feet and strange optical instruments, a man was hunched over a phone. “ ... See what you can do ...” he grumbled. He slapped the receiver back into its cradle.
The man straightened and snapped his head around. He was in his late twenties, thirty at most, and just over six feet, although he had the kind of presence that made him seem much taller. Dressed in jeans and a rumpled cotton shirt, he plainly didn't take the slightest care with his appearance, but was strikingly handsome nonetheless. His hair was medium-length, very dark and tumbling forward. His face was long and triangular, his eyebrows thick and arched, so that even as he scowled there seemed a trace of humour in them.
Was this Task? It couldn't be, could it? The reclusive artist, shunning publicity, refusing to allow his photograph to be taken – this man who was almost a work of art himself? It rocked all of Cici's assumptions, and dashed her confidence at her feet. But he was still staring at her expectantly, so she said:
He wasn't expecting her to turn up like this of course, but she took it for granted that he knew who she was. After all, absolutely everyone did. Even the judges in her occasional court appearances were star struck.
“I'm Task. You're the model?”
Client would have been her preferred term, but she nodded complacently, only to find him seizing her arm and pushing her towards what looked like a large dark storeroom.
“You can take off your clothes in here,” he said, switching on the light and trying to shut the door after her.
“But -” She swung around.
“You did bring a robe?” he asked, frowning.
“Never mind,” he said testily. “You'll find one hanging up in the locker, but really -”
He slammed the door in her face.
Cici blinked. What had just happened? An old brass ceiling fan – it had come on at the same time as the light – began clattering overhead, the noise getting worse as its rate of rotation increased. It made it impossible for her think. Hugging herself, she turned and looked at her surroundings. Although spacious, the storeroom was full to choking with mouldering props and ripped canvasses, and one rather startling object, a sturdily-built pair of wooden frames, hinged together, that could be extended up and out and from which hung half a dozen silk ropes ending in velvet manacles. What bizarre piece of BDSM apparatus was this? It would have sent her on her way screaming if she couldn't see that it was pale with dust and obviously hadn't been used in years.
As well as these, there was a bench, and the locker he'd mentioned. She flicked the locker open with her foot, and saw a faded blue kimono inside, not fit to dry a dog with.
So Lucas Task was going to paint her ... now! Right now? Just like that? In the nude? She shouldn't have been so surprised. It was what he was famous for, after all. Artists thought nothing of making a girl take off her clothes. But was that really what her father wanted? To hang a up a big juicy nude next to the Hockney, for the Belgian Ambassador and the President of Venezuela to see? It seemed unlikely. Not that Cici would mind. In fact, it made things a little more interesting ... Maybe, maybe he had to draw her naked before he could draw her clothed, sort of get to know her from the inside out ... yes, maybe that was it ...
Her thoughts went around in circles. She was still suffering from a double shock. Not just the shock of being thrown into a storeroom and told to come out in her birthday suit, but the shock of meeting Lucas Task in the flesh. So handsome. And so much younger than she'd expected. Good grief, he'd been famous for years! She was at school when that story about the Queen was in the news. Yes, so young. And did she say handsome?
Drat! He'd said to hurry, and here she was dawdling. Shrugging off her doubts, she quickly took off her clothes and folded them up small, trying to limit their contact with the grubby bench. Then she pulled on the robe. It rasped against her bare skin, making her shiver.
With a deep breath, she tightened the belt and opened the door -
Only to see people, ten or fifteen of them, and lots of drawing pads.
A life class.
“Ah,” said Lucas Task, “our model's ready.”
Cici's eyes took in the scene in a gulp. Easels were being banged about, pencils sharpened, brushes washed, jars filled with water. Like the foyer, the studio had an echo that made everything seem louder and more percussive. At the moment it was like being on a factory floor.
How was it she hadn't heard?
The fan – the wretched fan clattering overhead.
But she tossed that question aside. The real question was – how on earth could this have happened? Lucas Task had somehow got it into his head that she, Princess Celestine Amelie of Szollenhohen-Marigsingen, was a life model. A nude model for artists. It was baffling and not a little insulting.
She would have shrunk back, but faces had already turned, eyeing her expectantly. She gazed back like a rabbit confronted with the Indy 500 starting line-up.
Lucas was suddenly next to her, tipping his head on one side curiously. “Sorry, what did you say your name was?”
“Uh -” Part of her wanted to shout Bye!, then grab her shoes, jeans and handbag and dash for the exit. But another part of her, the part that was in control of her legs, was held fascinated by his gaze.
“You seem lost.” A furrow appeared between his eyebrows. “This is your first time, isn't it? I asked for experienced models only. I know you're a last minute replacement, but -”
“I'll be fine,” she blurted out suddenly, surprisingly herself. And as she said it she knew she would be. It always happened this way when she was in a corner. Something like snow-melt ran through her veins, cooling and steadying her.
Besides, she was now seeing things in a different light. This case of mistaken identity might not be such a bad thing after all. Say she posed, then happened to mention who she was afterwards. He was bound to feel pretty humiliated. And apologetic. It might give her the edge she needed. One week instead of two? No problem. A couple of sittings on Po's yacht, with the tequila flowing and a Cafe del Mar compilation on the sound system? Why not? The least I can do for my – hah – model.
And even if none of the above was true, she was gripped by another motivating factor. Places like the Reiner Academy – stuffy, dowdy, apparently unchanged since the day they were founded – always brought out this streak in her (streak being the operative word in this case.) And so, it seemed, did Lucas Task.
Yes, she was overwhelmed by the compulsion to do something really really berserkly stupid.
He was still frowning at her.
“No, it's cool.” She smiled at him. “And my name's ...” She looked around the room for inspiration and spotted a girl wearing a baggy crochet hat. “Hattie.”
Without a glance to left or night, she made quickly for the podium. The students straightened. They were her own age or slightly younger, goths and punks, hair streaked and bleached, with the occasional retro look thrown in for contrast. They seemed terribly out of place in this milieu, so ornate and historic, like a group of trolls who had broken into an elfish palace. As they stared up at her seriously, she felt a moment of alarm, then told herself she was riding on the subway in her bathrobe and these were her fellow passengers, that was all. Then Lucas jumped up beside her and they shrank into a kind of twilight.
He didn't stand so very close – almost half a foot away – but her body reacted with a bell-like tingling. She wriggled her toes.
“Right,” he said. “Mel's sprained her ankle, so, er, Hattie's stepping in. As usual, we'll begin with some gesture poses. Hattie?”
Cici nodded. A warmth rose from her stomach as she loosened her belt. She pulled the kimono away from her body. Slipping behind her, Lucas lifted the robe from her shoulders. Lightning bolts struck her collar bone as his fingertips brushed her skin for a split second. Her stomach contracted and her breasts heaved.
Thinking back to her catwalk experience, she'd been planning to strike a fierce pose, hands on hips, but her body went soft and she hesitated.
Lucas read her indecision. “Why don't you wrap one arm across your ribs, then hold your other hand up to your cheek?”
Casting her eyes down, she did as he suggested. Her cheek felt feverishly hot under her fingers. No wonder Mel needed a day off; Cici was overwhelmed after only a few moments. Her exposed body, so honed and athletic, seemed tiny and vulnerable in this setting, the old studio as disapproving as a church. And she couldn't help wondering about the windows ... But then as the blood beat through her, all these concerns were blotted out. The students were unreal to her, scribbling and squeaking, busy mice. It was him. He was making her feel this way.
“Hattie,” his deep voice broke in on her reverie, “would you like the fan on?”
There was a little titter from someone, she didn't see who, at her reaction, then cold air caressed her and a fluttering sound rose from some of the easels. A little fantasy popped into her head, that the cold air was his hand holding an ice-cube ...
She jumped at his voice. An arm shot up among the easels. Cici blinked and focused her eyes on a chubby little girl dressed like an extra from Grease.
“Mr Task, could Hattie put her hair up? I'd like to draw her neck.”
Retro girl (as Cici christened her) smiled ingratiatingly. Cici's naturally curly hair had been painstakingly straightened only the day before, but never mind. There was a great yawning wait while she stood there, bare as a newborn baby, then Lucas was back with a little rattling tin. He moved close to her and she felt her skin prickling.
“Here we are.”
The tin was full of hair-clips, and she knew was supposed to take one, but all she could think was that he was standing within inches of her nude body, able to command every millimetre of it with his eyes. Only her masseur, her Brazilian waxer and a couple of photographers had ever had this good a look at her ... Her hand trembled as she groped in the tin. Her breasts swelling between them, she reached behind her head. As her balance shifted from foot to foot, her nipple grazed the hairs of his bare forearm. Warm, delicious static rolled across her skin.
A small frisson passed through him too, a small exhalation from his lips.
“Perhaps a crouching pose,” he suggested gently.
Nodding, swallowing, she dropped softly to one knee. The other knee supported her cheek. She wrapped her arms around her calf. The retro girl gave a small sigh of satisfaction. Cici smiled to herself, thinking how she was pleasing him through pleasing her. The fan swept back and forth, and the ice-cube was stroking the small of her back. Lucas was going around the room, making comments that sounded very cryptic to her but seemed enlightening to the students, to judge by their reactions. A kind of artist's shorthand, she supposed. Occasionally, in very serious cases, he leaned forward and made a tiny correction with his pencil. A goth girl he did this to drew in her breath, sucking on her lip-stud.
The fan blew, the pencils scraped, charcoal squeaked and crumbled, the pose was changed and changed again, and then she heard someone say, “Princess Cici -”
She flinched. Gave a visible shudder. Then there was silence, and she thought, I'm imagining things. Besides, no one had said anything, exactly. It had been a whisper, on the edge of her hearing. Then she caught it again, and, eyes racing, locked onto a girl with hennaed hair. Her head was craned sideways, her mouth practically in the ear of the boy next to her. The girl glanced up, caught Cici looking and quirked her lips. Her gaze was freighted with something unpleasant, some sauciness or challenge.
Shit, she's onto me! Cici had had too much experience to be wrong about these things. She's still not entirely sure, maybe seventy per cent. Her skin on the side facing the girl began to pucker with nervous chills. She knows and she knows I know she knows, but will she shut up about it?
Not a chance, she decided, glancing back at the girl gloomily and flinching from the wicked grin that greeted her. This changed everything. It was one thing to pose nude as Hattie; it would be another thing entirely if this blew up into another Princess Cici scandal. Cici felt a freezing claw of dread. Good God, when was she ever going to put her reputation behind her? When you stop clowning about, was her own harsh rebuke. Those kids on the stairs recognized you, why shouldn't these? You were asking for trouble.
Cici was just thinking things couldn't get worse when the mighty double doors gave a bump and a young woman poked her nose through briefly, then backed out again. Lucas went out into the hall to see what she wanted, but Cici could have told him. It had to be the replacement model – the real one, not the shivering impostor. Good grief, things were unravelling by the minute.
In the great man's absence, the henna girl began to spread her theory. A different girl fumbled in her hold-hall, dragged out a crumpled copy of W. The disturbance was rippling out to the whole class now. But Cici wasn't bothered about that for the moment. Her attention was fixed on the magazine. On page five there was a shot of her at some premier (Heavy Metal: the Musical, if she remembered rightly,) her chest bursting out of a sheer piece of nothing. When she'd seen it a few days ago, she'd snuffled with laughter. Now she didn't find it so chortlesome.
Sure enough, henna girl found the shot and slapped it with her finger. A moment later she'd bounced to her feet. Cici braced herself. If she showed any fear now, they'd tear her to pieces.
“Guys, you gotta check this out!” She stood directly underneath the nervous model. “We got a celebrity with us.” She held the magazine over her head so everyone could see it. “It's Princess Cici!”
Most of the students couldn't see the photo very well, but just saying the name caused a stir. One by one the students were electrified, lighting up like so many bulbs. The henna girl glanced up at Cici with satisfaction.
“Is it really her?” someone queried.
“Sure. See for yourself.”
“Woa, Cici.” One of the boys was hooting and clapping. Several others joined in.
Cici still hadn't moved an inch. She'd kept her pose, coolly, angrily, stubbornly, chin high and eyes straight. But then even her nerve faltered as fifteen talented artists – those who weren't applauding – reached for their mobile phones and began snapping and recording her.
“This is so cool!”
“Give us the money shot!”
She stood and endured it for a few more moments, but not out of any great principle. She was frozen with fear. Then Lucas walked in, saw bedlam and slammed the doors so hard it was like a gun going off in everyone's ears.
In the ensuing silence, Cici picked up the kimono, draped it nonchalantly over one shoulder, then paraded slowly to the storeroom.
Once she was inside, she sagged onto the bench and heaved a sob.
Stupid, stupid, stupid. How had it all gone so wrong? It was just supposed to be an innocent prank, a way of throwing the famous artist off balance, but now she was the one mortified, humiliated. This would be all over You Tube by the end of the day, the princess buck naked and bayed at by art students ... God, what would her father say?
Opposite her, the velvet manacles swung slightly on their ropes, as if to say, Caught in a web of your own making, aren't you, princess?
She became aware of a draught. The door was open.
“I did knock.” Lucas slipped quickly into the storeroom, then banged a tray on top of the locker. It was full of mobile phones. The W was in there too, almost pulped – crushed in his vice-like grip, perhaps.
Lucas's face was the same as ever, reserved, a little severe, but he was breathing heavily, and as he turned to her a nerve pulsed in the base of his neck.
“I'll delete all the files, or smash the phones if I have to. Don't worry, they're all here. I'm pretty sure no one had time to forward anything, but anyway I've made it clear that if any of that footage surfaces I'll hold them all responsible. They're still hoping to make it to my house this summer, so they won't cross me. I think you're safe.”
Cici nodded, grateful but not trusting herself to speak. Lucas sat down next to her. She was still unclothed, the kimono bundled tightly between her hands. Prising it from her grip, he tucked it solicitously around her shoulders. Even in her misery, Cici shivered with secret delectation at his touch.
Lucas regarded her for a moment, then he commented, “So you're Princess Celestine of Szollenhohen-Marigsingen.” He said her name without a hitch.
“Sorry I didn't recognize you. But you must have known I'd made a stupid mistake. Why didn't you say something?”
It wasn't an easy question to answer. All she could do was moan with contrition. Very lightly, he slid his arm around her, squeezed her to him. Her cheek rested for a time on the warm slab of his chest. She felt his breath on her eyelashes. She glanced up. His lips were very near. They looked as soft as ripe raspberries. She couldn't resist brushing them with hers ...
There was a heartbeat of contact. Then he pulled away, rubbing her arm briskly, like a lifeguard comforting a half-drowned swimmer.
A little disappointed, but seeing the wisdom of his self-restraint, Cici wiped her cheeks and glanced at the manacles. She pointed at them with one now slightly grubby foot.
“What is that thing?”
As though his mind had been elsewhere, Lucas took a moment to answer. “I don't know if it has a name. It's a suspension apparatus. I call it the Chariot of the Gods. A century or so ago they would use it for mythological scenes, when they wanted to depict a flying figure. The poor model would be lifted off the ground on those ropes, sometimes for weeks at a time. Can't have been very healthy for them.”
“Don't look so worried. We don't do it these days. Not even to models who walk out on us.”
She sneaked a sideways look at him, and saw that he was making a joke. It wasn't the funniest one she'd ever heard but it gave her a measure of relief.
“I'm sorry I ruined your class,” she murmured.
He shrugged, detached himself from her. “I won't pretend I'm not upset. When I saw that circus out there, I asked myself why the hell I come here every year. What's the point? Is it worth it? Those idiots have let me down in a way I won't forget. The cream of our young talent turned feral by a little celebrity cleavage ...”
“Well, not so little,” she half-smiled. “And it was a bit more than just cleavage.”
His expression was polite, amused even, but she had felt a sting in his words. She'd waltzed into his class and – unintentionally but without losing any time – turned something that was precious to him into – what was his word? - a circus. She lowered her eyes in shame.
“Well,” she said lamely, “maybe you shouldn't give up on them.”
“Oh, I'm not.”
“Nor are you.”
She looked up at that, very quickly.
He nodded. “Time to get back on that horse.”
“Go out there?” Her whole body stiffened.
“Forget it.” She laughed uncertainly, praying he was teasing her. Then she threw a hasty glance at him.
“You're not serious?”
Lucas Task's handsome face was relaxed, determined. “I want to retrieve what I can from today's lesson. And you're the model.”
“What about the other one – the replacement?”
“I sent her packing just before I found my class in chaos.”
“You – let me get this straight - you want me to strip off for -?”
“Some young people who have behaved very badly but are still important to me. Yes.”
“Well, if they're so important, you pose for them!”
He glowered with disgust at the suggestion. Artists! They expected you to bare all, but were horrified when you hinted they might do the same ...
Cici jumped up and began pulling at random at her clothes. After that sweet, soft kiss and the gentleness of his touch, his words had come like so many slaps. She fought back angry tears.
“What do you think you're doing?”
“Getting out of here before you find some wolves to throw me to!” She bunched up the kimono and hurled it at him.
Lucas didn't blink. “Calm down. Trust me. It'll be fine.”
“Trust you? You're nuts.”
“I'm nuts?” He grinned. “You're the one who impersonated a life model.”
“You mistook me for a life model. It was your balls-up.”
“That's not how I remember it.” The grin deepened into an expression that verged on cruel. “You misled me. Now I think about it, I should call security. Or your father.”
“Your Highness, guess who turned up in my life class this morning?”
“For Art?” He leaned forward, like a cat watching a bird. “Oh yes, I would.”
Cici froze with her jeans halfway up her thighs. Their eyes met, his dark, hers scorching. Then she sat down with a muffled curse and began tugging the denim from around her ankles.
“You're a git,” she told him.
“You better have this back.” He tossed the kimono her way. “Sorry it's not Hermes.”
She dragged it on with a sneer. Lucas Task steered her out of the door by the elbow.
Cici felt a little better when she saw the art students. They were crouched here and there, infused with gloom, like a coach party broken down miles from home. They shuffled nervously at her approach. One of them – retro girl – was actually sobbing, her polka dot handkerchief limp with tears. Good grief, what on earth had Lucas said to them? Cici couldn't help a small twitch of satisfaction.
Urged on by a terse nod from the artist, she climbed onto the podium again. Her feet felt heavy. For a second, her eyes misted over, then she cleared her throat and a fraction of her old courage returned. She looked at the class, ready to beat them down with her gaze, but there was no fight in them, only a kind of anxious dolefulness. No one had spoken.
“Well,” said Lucas from the side of the class. “So far this lesson has to count as one of the blackest hours in the history of the Reiner Academy. But all that is about to change. Cici here has agreed to overlook your odious behaviour. I ought to tell you that she's a good friend of mine. She only agreed to pose today, incognito, as a personal favour to me. And you oafs spoiled it. I can't help wondering how many other chances you'll have to paint a real princess.” He moved forward soundlessly. “Anyway, she's forgiven you. The only way I'll do the same is if you put your heart and soul on paper for the next hour.”
It wasn't true that she'd forgiven them, but she did hate them a little less after they'd squirmed under this lashing.
“By the way, Princess,” Lucas turned to her. “I thought you might appreciate a posing partner.”
She blanched at that, wondering what on earth he might have planned. But after a quick rummage among the backdrops, he returned carrying a life-size statue, planting it next to her on the podium. It was a female nude, very old-fashioned, and it looked like solid marble, but the slightest brush sent it rocking on its base.
“Don't put any weight on it,” he told her, “it's only plaster.”
He had her give it a cuddle. There was something in the contrast, she supposed, the classical nude and her, the modern girl. But she wasn't in the mood for art appreciation. With the minutes crawling past, she dug deep and did what she was asked. Meanwhile she made an effort to press to the back of her mind her feelings of almost frenzied loathing for Lucas Task, or 'that bastard Lucas Task,' as she now thought of him. At the end of the lesson, she bolted for the storeroom. The jeans and top went on quickly, then the sunglasses. God, clothes were wonderful. She would never parade around naked again. Returning the old blue kimono to the locker, she moved to the door and opened it a crack. The Parrish Room had already cleared, the fearful students no doubt only too eager to get away.
Cici flung open the door. With all the fierceness in her long, aristocratic bones, she walked briskly for the exit.
“We haven't quite finished,” said a voice.
She longed to keep going, but instead found herself jerking to a stop as if on the end of an invisible bungee. She sighed and turned.
Lucas was sitting behind his desk, examining the palm of a small marble hand. He put it down.
“I told you it would be alright,” he said.
“Very character-building,” she snorted. “That was the whole point, wasn't it, to teach me a lesson?” She glared at him, stretching herself tall, her calves trembling with tension.
He, in turn, stiffened in his chair. With an impatient gesture, he pushed a lock of black hair from his eyes. “I was trying to help you save face.”
“Thanks. A bit of blackmail and domination does wonders for a girl's self-esteem.”
There was a scrape as Lucas leapt to his feet. He stared at her, his brows lifting in hurt surprise. Her body met his gaze with a tremor, as though it was a physical thing exploring her. Her breasts rose and fell under their thin covering.
Cici gathered herself and managed a cool smile. “Mr Task, I know certain men like to dominate. I can even go along with it. Just don't pretend it's for my good when you're the one obviously feeling the benefit.”
She dropped her eyes to his crotch. He blushed. Then he stepped lightly towards her.
“No wonder the class was hooting and clapping. All the world's a stage for you, isn't it? Just tell me one thing. What on earth did you think you were doing? Was it a joke?”
His brows knit together, intrigued but vastly unsympathetic. Her reasons had become so tangled, it was now hard to pick them apart, but even in her confusion one thing stood out for Cici: a moment when, beguiled by his otherworldly handsomeness, she would have done literally anything for Lucas Task. But that was a secret she would take to her grave.
He stepped a little closer, taking a shallow breath, the muscles in his face working. “Or – or was there actually some purpose to it? Were you somehow hoping to put me at a disadvantage?”
A small tightening of her lips told him the truth, and his mouth reacted in a way that was half smile, half grimace. “Is that what this is all about? The portrait? You wanted to wriggle out of it?”
“Yes.” It wasn't quite true, but she wielded the word like a small, sharp stone he had pressed into her hand.
He turned away to laugh.
“I've got other plans,” she continued in the same frosty tone.
“A busy summer?”
“Something better to do than spend a fortnight in the Languedoc, being painted by one of the finest artists of our times?”
“Definitely.” She hiked the strap of her handbag higher on her shoulder, then faced him, the skin tight around her mouth, glad she was wearing her glasses. “And after what's happened today I'd say it's out of the question, wouldn't you? Can I take it you'll return my father's cheque?”
“Hell, no.” He laughed sourly, sitting down on the edge of his desk and rocking back.
His reaction left her breathless. Suddenly she felt unbearably hot. She tore of her sunglasses. “Hell, no. What does that mean?”
He lounged there casually, elbow on knee, fingers stroking the instep of his handmade brogues.
“It means I'm not painting you for the aesthetic pleasure of it, or to be uplifted by your company. I'm doing it because I'm financially embarrassed. My accountant says I have a cash-flow problem. I'm in the throes of an expensive separation. And I've blown what's left on lawyers, trying to stop something they now tell me is unstoppable. I've been a damn fool and now I've got to pay the price.”
“Painting me is paying the price?” She felt so cold, she was sure it would burn him to touch her.
He nodded. “But if it's any consolation, I see potential in you.”
“It doesn't matter. I'll never pose for you. Never.”
“What?” she demanded, incensed. “You think you can make me? Blackmail me?”
“No.” His face broke into a smile, one different from any she had seen before, boyish and cheeky, the private face of this tough and dangerous man. “But I've a feeling I'll be seeing you again all the same.”
“You'd have to tie me down in front of the canvas.”
He tipped an eyebrow wickedly.
She snorted again, turned to leave.
Once again, against her will, she froze at his bidding. Unhurriedly, he rose to his feet and crossed in front of her. Eyes locked on hers, smiling to himself, he reached one hand slowly behind her head. She braced herself for the stroking of his fingers on her nape, for the firm grasp that would direct her mouth to his ...
She felt something like a gentle flick high on her crown. Her hair spilled silkily around her ears. Lucas held up the clip. “You forgot this.”
Boiling with fury, she pushed him aside and ran.