Authors: Colette Howard
Tags: #Romance, #Paranormal
His Black Pearl
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Copyright ©2009 Colette Howard
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His Black Pearl
There are two cardinal rules to any contract. Artist Hallie Brandt just broke both of them. First, she didn’t pay attention to what she was signing. Sure, she knows she just agreed to paint a portrait of certain dimensions. But she’s too focused on the fact that, after more than a decade of paint, sweat and tears, she’s about to become a name artist. So what does a little detail like the model’s identity really matter? Second? She hasn’t a clue in hell who her new patron is. Yes, she’s met Aaron Ioannides and knows his reputation as a world-class art collector. But just who is this man with the body of a Greek god and hands as skilled as her own?
The painting was tucked into a recess along the corridor, its dark mahogany frame lit from the sides. A table of the same dark wood and bearing the weight of an ornate glass case stood beneath the portrait. Hyper-aware of Aaron Ioannides, her host, standing behind her, Hallie Brandt approached the canvas. She tucked her hands into her jacket pockets to quell the urge to reach out and touch it.
“I’ve never seen anything this old that wasn’t behind a velvet rope.” She glanced over her shoulder to find Ioannides had dropped his gaze to her ample bottom. She stole a few seconds to study him in return. He was in his late thirties, powerfully built with thick black curls crowning his head. He was about half a foot taller than her five-feet-eight, his skin a sun-kissed bronze to her deep ebony. He’d been blessed with the kind of face, body and money that would leave all but the most devout nun fantasizing about him after an up-close meeting like this.
She sure as hell wasn’t a nun.
Not even Catholic
, she thought, turning back to the painting before he could catch her ogling him. They would be talking business in a little while and he already had her at a disadvantage.
He stepped beside her and reached up to adjust one of the lights. “Are you familiar with the Carracci family?”
The painting in front of her was of Hades. He was sitting nude, Cerberus curled protectively against his side. On the god’s head rested the black crown of hell; in his hands were its keys. Not her favorite of the artist’s work, although she could hardly admit to Ioannides what her favorite Carracci was. Not, at least, when he was standing so close.
Biting back a smile, she cleared her throat. “Somewhat. Late 1500s. This one is Agostino’s?”
“Yes.” He ran his hand along the side of the glass case sitting on the table and another display light came on. “As is the engraving.”
Knowing the nature of Agostino Carracci’s engravings, Hallie felt a prickle of heat fan across her face before she so much as dropped her eyes to the engraving. Reaching out, she touched the glass, resting only the weight of her fingertips against the air-conditioned surface.
Ioannides had shown her dozens of museum quality pieces; this was the first to be so explicitly erotic. The engraving depicted Achilles stepping onto a bed platform. He was carrying a woman -- Briseis. Both were naked from the waist down. Achilles was already inside Briseis as he carried her, his thick cock spreading the heavy folds of her labia.
“Right again, Miss Brandt.” He flipped off the light. “Great skill in technical detail, of course, but the pleasure -- the passion -- it never quite reaches their faces, does it? Not that we can blame Carracci. He was painting for his times.”
His voice had changed from contemplative to cold. Following him out from the recess, Hallie braced herself. She’d spent enough time at gallery showings to recognize the tone -- Ioannides had gone from amiable host to art critic.
“In some ways, his work reminds me of yours.” They had reached the open door to his library -- the room they had started in -- and he motioned her to a long table. “You use a strong, rich palette. On the surface, the characters and settings are intriguing, full of promise.”
Here it comes
. She forced a smile onto her face.
“But then I look at the faces, at the way they connect to one another, to their surroundings.” He stopped, seemed to pull back, and she urged him to continue with a lift of her brow.
“Well, I’ve seen more emotion at a Botox clinic, Miss Brandt.”
“Hallie, please.” She had reminded him of her first name half a dozen times during the tour of his personal collection. He nodded, just as he’d done the other times, and she went on. “Certainly you find something to recommend my work. You’ve purchased several pieces.”
She studied his face, looking for the slightest hint that his criticism was a bargaining tactic. A self-made millionaire, he had a reputation for being a tough negotiator.
“Yes, and I’ve been waiting for you to put aside the cold precision, the over reliance on technical form.” He had a sheet of papers in front of him -- the commission contract -- and he rifled one corner with his thumb. “Do you think you can do that?”
“It’s not my first commission piece,” she reminded him.
Leaning back, he folded his hands behind his head and stared at her. Her lips warmed at the touch of his gaze until she had to look away.
“I can do it.”
“Are you sure? There are no nudes in your portfolio.”
She looked at the sheaf of papers in front of him and the checkbook beside it. She’d already read through the contract, aside from the few details that remained to be filled in -- price, size and the model.
The money didn’t matter. Well, not a lot. It was more a matter of reputation. A commission with a collector of Ioannides’ reputation would make hers. After a decade of scratching out a living with her paintings, she’d become the poster child for overnight success.
She had hidden her hands beneath the table earlier and she brought them out now, palms up. “Not a problem.”
Dark blue eyes sparkled at her as he picked up his pen. “It will need to be a full-length nude.” He ran the fat pen through his fingers, his gaze on her once again, as speculative as it had been in front of the Carracci when he didn’t realize she was looking. “Full size, too, dimensions of eight feet in height by six.”
She nodded and he wrote the measurements down on the paper.
He tapped the pen tip against the paper. “As to price. Something this size from your portfolio would usually run fifteen, yes?”
Hallie nodded. Putting her hands back in her lap, she knotted them together. He was giving her statements to agree with, softening her up and putting her in a passive position. It didn’t help that she knew he was doing it. He did it so damn well, his voice soft as silk over powdered skin, his gaze moving across her face like a lover’s kiss.
Shifting in his seat, Ioannides leaned halfway across the table.
“Since it’s a commission and I plan on being very exacting…” His mouth quirked in a smile and he tapped the pen again. “I’ll double that. Another fifteen for the modeling arrangement --”
“Fifteen?” She’d hardly expect to pay a model more than a thousand. She didn’t need a real beauty, just a warm, poseable body to throw light on. “You have someone in mind, then?”
“Yes. The commission is dependent on the model’s availability.”
“At that rate, she must be famous.”
Again, his mouth quirked in a smile. He wrote the sum of forty-five thousand dollars down on the contract’s first page, just below the painting’s dimensions. He flipped to the second page and recorded the model’s name, the first sheet of paper blocking her view. “I’d say she’s known, not famous. Not yet.”
He turned to the third and final page and signed his name with a flourish before passing paper and pen to her. The contract was opened to his signature. She signed the line below his name and then dated it.
Flipping to the second page, she dropped the pen and looked up at him. “You’ve made a mistake. The model’s name is supposed to be here.”
“No mistake, Miss Brandt. No mistake at all.”
Hallie glanced back down at the contract. There, with the same elegant strokes he’d used in signing his own name, Ioannides had written the name of the woman she would have to paint nude --
He stood up and quickly collected the contract from her. “I’ll just have my assistant make a copy of this for your records.”
She reached for the paper and he pulled back, smiling. “Now, Miss Brandt, it’s signed. Nothing to do about it but get to work on the painting. Don’t worry…” He took another step back, his dark blue gaze sweeping over her. “You’ll do fine. I’ll make sure of it.”
Watching him disappear into the next room, she sat back hard in the chair. He’d have plenty of opportunity to “make sure” of it. The contract required preliminary sketches he had approval over. Not only did she have to deliver him a final full length nude of herself in oil, now she had to show him concept drawing after drawing until she came up with the one he would ultimately choose to have her paint.
Three weeks later, Hallie sat in the same chair. Ioannides stood before one of the library’s floor to ceiling paned windows. Sunlight haloed around him, the highlights in his black hair showing a burnished mahogany. His suit from the last meeting had been replaced by a thin, granite-colored sweater that hugged his sculpted back and arms while black dress slacks seemed as if they’d been painted on his tight, muscled ass.
Hallie’s gaze flickered between his body and the sketchbook he held. He’d spent the last thirty minutes moving between the pages with no hint of approval on his face.
She’d tried. Damned if she hadn’t. She’d bought two full length mirrors and spent hours in front of them, first in her best bra and panties, complete with garters and high heels, before she had shed every last bit of modesty and brought out the big lights.
“Did you even look at your naked body, Miss Brandt?”
Her cheeks flushed hot and she waited a second before offering a curt “Yes.”
He flipped between the first few pages and then he tossed the sketchbook onto the table. It skidded to a stop in front of her.
“Perhaps you did.” He turned and looked toward her, his gaze unfocused. “Perhaps that’s why you’re holding yourself so far from yourself…”
“What do you m --”
Crossing the room, he leaned across the table and pushed the pad closer to her. “It’s as simple as looking. Look at your arms, your legs… I didn’t commission a female Vitruvian.”
She closed the cover to the sketchbook. “You’re exaggerating. It’s nothing like that.”
“Right, there’s no square, no circle, no extra set of arms and legs.” He placed his palms flat against the table and stared down at her. “But does it look anything like a sensuous nude?”
Hallie answered with a diagonal nod -- half “yes,” half “no.” She could smell his cologne this close, a gently enveloping aroma of clove and honey. She pushed her chair back from the table, reaching for the pad of paper at the same time. He turned quickly on his heels and crossed the distance to the windows.
He looked over his shoulder at her, his gaze calculating. “Well, you made an attempt at performance. You could return the deposit and cancel the contract…”
“Not after you went and announced the commission.” Her agent had sent her a copy of the
’s art section folded to the announcement and a brief overview of her work to date. With one simple email to the newspaper, Ioannides had made sure she wouldn’t back out of the contract.
Cheeks burning, she started shoving her material back into her portfolio case. “I’ll do another set --”
“They’ll be just as bad.”
Damned if he didn’t sound bored.
She stood, grabbed her case and nailed him with her best “pissed bitch” glare. He just shrugged and turned back to his multi-million dollar view of the Tucson valley and the mountains beyond. “How can you paint what you’re afraid to look at, Hallie?”
His use of her first name, so long denied and so intimately spoken, was like a slap upside the head. She sank back into the chair. “I’m not.”
“Are, too.” He offered it sing-song, a schoolyard taunt. He turned back to face her, blinked once, like a cat watching a mouse before it pounced.
She folded her arms across her chest, bit down before the obligatory “Am not!” could escape her lips.
He laughed, the sound deep and rich like his scent. Heading toward the library door, he motioned her to him. “You don’t have as much time as you think. Why don’t we settle this argument now before you waste any more of it?”
Ioannides sauntered through the house. She stomped after him, fists clenched like a soldier marching off to war.
If he thought he was going to announce a premiere date, he had another think and a bitch slap coming.
He stopped in front of the recess that housed the painting of Hades and the engraving of Briseis and Achilles.
“I don’t see what the Carraccis have to do…”
His command stopped her cold, her heart freezing in her chest until she heard a click and the sound of the wall and part of the floor swinging back. She took a deep breath and then coughed it out as she realized he’d just opened the door to his bedroom.
“Just what the hell are you proposing?”
“My dressing room, Hallie, is through here.” Ioannides stepped past the picture with the same easy grace he’d led her through the house and then he disappeared to the right. He called to her, his voice muffled from distance and the bedroom’s wood paneling. “You are coming, aren’t you?”
Standing in the hall, she stared into the room, shaking her head. So this was what a millionaire-cum-playboy’s bedroom looked like. The bed was huge, the deep orange-red and swirling black of the ornately carved Mexican rosewood matched by the plush drapes and bedcovering. It seemed too refined for a rich man’s den of seduction.
She took one hesitant step into the room and looked right. Sure enough, he was standing in a dressing room that appeared every bit as large as the bedroom. She crossed to him slowly, her gaze picking up details from the room as she went.
She stopped at the threshold to the dressing room, her attention caught by an obsidian bust of a Grecian male, a curious winged helmet resting atop the mass of black carved curls.
She reached toward the bust at the same time Ioannides’ strong, warm hand cupped her elbow and guided her the rest of the way into the room. He led her to a three-paneled mirror. His hand moved from her elbow to her shoulder, joined on the opposite side by his other hand as he stood behind her.
Catching her gaze in their reflection, he shook his head. “Don’t look at me -- look at you.”
He chuckled and then his chest touched her back as his arms circled her. “You’re shaking. I don’t suppose there’s any point in telling you to relax?”
Before she could object, his quick fingers had undone the top button on her blouse. Her hands flew up to block him at the second button. “What are you doing?”
Another chuckle -- this one vibrated against her back, almost breaking her grip on button number two.
Warm breath played against her neck as he answered. “It’s pretty obvious that I’m undressing you.”
They played a game of hand-over-hand as he sought the next unguarded button.
“I assure you, this is artistically motivated.”
She shook her head, unable to offer more than that. With the mixed scent of honey and clove thick in her nose and his broad chest hard and hot against her back, standing was hard enough. She couldn’t add speech to it.
“Are you giving up on the commission?”
She met his gaze in the mirror. Blackmailing bastard!
“You need this. If you go back to your studio now, you’re going to lock up in front of those mirrors. I guarantee it.”
She swatted his hands out of the way and undid the second button. He dropped his hands to her waist, his fingertips trailing the band of her skirt to the back closure.
“You’re fucking kidding me!” She closed her eyes tight, counted to ten. Damn it. He had her so mad she was swearing out loud. Hearing her dead mother’s chiding voice, Hallie undid the third button as her skirt dropped to the floor. One more button -- fingers thick and fumbling -- and then the blouse joined the skirt.
Ioannides dipped down, scooped the outfit up and placed it on a hanger before turning back to her, his gaze teasing as he eyed the rest of her clothing.
“Not on your life,” she warned.
“That depends on you.” He stepped up close to her again, his hands resting on her shoulders.
“Damned right,” she answered.
“Look in the mirror, Hallie.”
She was wearing a red silk bra edged in black lace with matching panties and garter belt. The bra held her full breasts up and out. The panties hugged the curves of her hips and ass while the garter kept the black silk stockings high up on her rounded thighs. She’d bought the sexy little ensemble a year ago for Valentine’s Day, before her last break up. This morning, she’d dug it out of the back of her closet for the extra boost of confidence, not once imagining that anyone, let alone Aaron Ioannides, would be seeing her in it.
“And now you’re holding yourself too close to yourself. You see?”
She looked in the mirror, saw the way she was hugging herself low, her arms wrapped around her waist. Her thighs were tense, held tight enough together that she could feel the clips on the garter belt biting at her flesh.
She wanted to run, to flee all the way back to her little home in the valley. She thought of the news reports -- crazy black woman streaks through downtown Tucson, details at nine. The laugh that erupted was half hysterical.
“Relax, Hallie. Don’t be afraid of what you’re seeing.”
Another laugh, a little less hysterical. He thought it was her body she was afraid of?
“Mister Ioa --”
His hands dropped to her elbow, traced the length of her forearms until he wrapped his hands around her wrists. “Aaron, please. I did relent on the ‘Miss Brandt,’ after all.”
“Maybe we should go back to that.”
He was easing her arms in different directions, her right hand moving up to curl around her opposite shoulder, her left hand dropping to her opposite waist. She was still hugging herself, but as a lover might.
“Too late.” Pressing against Hallie’s back, Aaron slid his foot between hers and gently guided her right leg forward and to the side. It forced her left hip into a sharp cant, instantly turning the pose from fragile to seductive.
She turned her head to the side, closed her eyes.
His fingers smoothed across her thigh and then she felt the release of one of the garter’s clips. Three more clips released their burden and then his palm was pressed hot against her flesh as he eased one stocking down.
She leaned into him, not sure how much longer her legs would continue to support her. The hard line of his cock pressed against her bottom.
Artistic interest, my ass
Literally. She took a deep breath, trying to ignore the contour of his erection, the thick display of his arousal.
“Open your eyes, Hallie.”
She obeyed him, her gaze slow to focus as her mind lingered on the bulge pressing against her backside. Her breasts began to rise and fall in quick succession. A light sheen of perspiration glimmered across her dark skin. She lifted her gaze a little higher, caught the reflection of his face. His attention was focused on her, on the way her breasts heaved, the angle of her hips, the relaxed and too-ready thighs.
“Do you see now what I want you to paint?”
“Mm-hmm.” She nodded slowly, trapped in the lust she heard rumbling through his voice.
“I hope so…” Aaron pulled back, slowly enough to allow her to regain her balance. “Because there’s no way in hell I’m letting you keep your dainties on the next time I bring you in here.”