Saturday, September 20, 2014

Sexy Italian Love Affair IN BETWEEN #Romance #Drama #Kindle

Book One of the Dancing Barefoot Series
ebook exclusively on kindle (at this time)
paperback available on Amazon, CreateSpace, and Barnes and Noble

In between responsibilities and dreams… 

Jessica Moriarty has always played by the rules: dutiful daughter, outstanding student, productive employee, and loyal friend. But in between graduate school and her 'real life,' she's indulging in her dream of being an artist and abandoning inhibitions while living in Florence, Italy. When she meets sexy photographer, Jacques Sinclair, every fantasy she's had is surpassed by reality. He sweeps her into a romance that pushes her to question what she really wants out of life and tests her resolve to risk it all on love. 

But Jacques is wanderer who prides himself on being a citizen of the world while Jessica has responsibilities pulling her back to the States. Will the crush of real life undermine the love they've discovered in between…?

Chapters 1 thru 3 

Chapter One
Bella Italia.
Jessica leaned out of the window until her hips pressed against the sill and her toes barely touched the floor. If she twisted her body to the left and arched her back just so, she could see the dome of the Duomo Santa Maria del Fiore peeking above the row of buildings lining the streets of Florence. A breeze tossed black curls into her face as she laughed with joy and disbelief. Finally, after years of scrimping, saving, and studying, she had made it to the city of her dreams.
"You like?" The landlord asked from behind her.
"I like." She slid back to her feet and looked around the apartment that would be hers for the next four months.
Wide windows encompassed the street facing wall, a low hanging ceiling fan spun slowly above a sunken living room furnished with a golden sofa that had seen many lives, behind it and up two steps rested a double-bed barren of linens.
Already knowing she would sign the lease but pretending to take more than five minutes to make her decision, she walked around the space. She dragged her fingers over the walls with chipped paint, imagination already dancing with possibilities.
"There is plenty of light here. We are close to everything you could possibly need." A cigarette bobbed in the corner of the landlord's mouth as he spoke. His gaze moved over her with lazy appreciation when she leaned her hip against the kitchen counter. Standing no taller than five foot four, a good three inches shorter than her shoulders, with black hair speckled with gray, a sharp nose, and dark eyes that saw everything, he resembled a silver fox. "We have a deal, yes?"
"Oh, yes. Definitely." She rubbed her hands along the countertop. She couldn't stop smiling.  So much for playing it cool.
Graduate school and an internship had come and gone. She'd insisted on taking this time for herself before returning to Boston for a career in architecture. It had taken some negotiating and a whole lotta charm to finagle four months of freedom, but she'd done it.
Excitement and disbelief bubbled through her blood. She ached to be alone so she could dance around the room and soak it all up.
"We sign the lease then. Six months?"
"I can only do four." Ever since landing in Italy, she couldn't stop smiling and was starting to feel like a fool for the unfamiliar giddiness welling up inside of her.
"A lot of artists live here. You will be happy. Six months." Luca cigarette bobbed in the corner of his lips with each word he spoke.
"Four. I need to go back to Boston to work." She pushed her hands in the back pockets of her jeans, surrendering to laughter when he muttered something in Italian she couldn't understand. Two years of studying the language, yet the words weren't tumbling off of her tongue with ease.
"I thought you were an artist." He squinted at her, finally removing the cigarette and smiling.
"I paint," she said the word hesitantly, even though that's why she'd come here. Years of keeping her hobby closeted to do the responsible things like taking care of her mother and working two jobs to get through her undergrad and then graduate school made it hard to embrace that this was now reality. Temporarily. 
He shrugged his narrow shoulders, his gaze skimming over her one more time before he turned toward the hallway.
She followed him down three flights of rickety stairs to his office where she'd abandoned her luggage. The passageway was barely able to accommodate two people shoulder to shoulder so she walked a step behind him, not wanting to get too up close and personal with the landlord. Music from one of the apartments echoed through the space. A woman hummed along, her voice drifting through the air like a haunting melody. Outside a horn honked, someone cursed in Italian. The place smelled as if all the scents that had ever been cooked there had been absorbed into its walls.
It was better than she'd ever dreamed.
"I'll pay you for the four months in advance. Is that okay?" She signed the paperwork without looking up, her mind already thinking about the budget.
"I do not turn down money. It's good." Luca leaned back in his chair and tapped the cigarette against an overflowing ashtray. "How long have you been in Italia?"
"About three hours," she said with a smile. When she looked up, she noticed his amused grin.
"You artists are all the same. Impulsive. It is good for me, though, so I don't mind." He winked and reached for the money she'd put on the desk.
Artist. Her smile widened at the word. How long had she waited to claim that title for herself? Back home she was the dutiful daughter, brilliant graduate student, hard working intern, and loyal friend who hid her artwork behind closed doors. For too many years she'd been told how silly it was to paint, that she needed to do something useful with all of that architecture. Here she could indulge in her love of both worlds.
Luca smiled when she just stared at him in silence. "I mean it, Ms. Moriarty. You will be happy here."
"I already am." She pushed away from the desk, anxious to unpack, roam the streets for a market, and settle into her fantasy life a world away from where anyone knew her. Artist. She tossed the word around in her mind, appreciating the way it made her feel.
"I will help with your bags." He looked toward the suitcases she'd stacked in the corner of the room.
"No, no, I have it. I can manage." She looped them together, already accustomed to dragging them through airports and down sidewalks to get here.
"As you wish." He shrugged and settled back into his chair, good humor shining in his dark eyes.
Key in her pocket, she used both hands to tow the bags from the room. She paused at the bottom of the stairs, blew a long curl from her eyes, and looked at the narrow passage. Undaunted, she turned sideways and slowly started her ascent. It wasn't until the second landing that she regretted her decision not to ask for help. The stairway trapped all the heat from the building like a sauna. Sweat slid between her shoulder blades. More hair had come loose from her haphazard ponytail and now either snaked over her face or plastered against her neck.
At the sounds of male voices below her, one of them being the landlord's, she sighed. Onward and upward!
Sweaty palms caused her to lose her grip on the bags behind her. They thudded and rattled before crashing into the wall and continuing their wild descent. Slam! Curses!
She abandoned the other two on the step in front of her and ran after the wayward luggage only to stop short at the sight of the blond man spread out against the stairs covered in camera cases and her baggage.
"Oh my God, are you okay?" She rushed to his side, squeezing between the narrow walls to bend over him.
"American. Why am I not surprised?" He pushed her bag off of his face and twisted onto his side, her other suitcase somehow trapped between his legs.
When he looked up, all thoughts evaporated from her mind. Her limited knowledge of Italian...gone. Poof! Hell, all memory of forming a word disappeared.
Green eyes glared up from beneath dark blond hair. His face looked like someone she needed to draw or paint or...touch. Sculpted cheekbones showcased not only the angry glare, but also a full mouth set in a frown. He looked away and grabbed the straps of the various camera cases now strewn about her feet.
She looked down and noticed she stood on one of the straps. His accent wasn't Italian, but she couldn't place it. When he moved, his t-shirt pulled across his back and showed off the lean hardness of his shoulders.

Self-conscious of her travel worn and sweaty self, she looked away, bent to retrieve one of the stray suitcases, tripped over his forearm, and crashed face-first against his thigh. Pain burned through her nose. Certain she'd broken her entire face, she whimpered against his leg. Grabbing his knee to push herself up, she accidentally slammed her foot against his head. Blood stained his jeans where her face had been.
Damn. A bloody nose. She rubbed a hand over her face and winced at the blood staining her fingers.
"You are a disaster," he said, more amusement than annoyance in his voice. "Do not move. Hold on."
Again she wondered about the accent beneath his English. Not British. Not Italian. She flattened her palm against the wall above his hip and tried not to look at her blood dripping onto his crotch.

He had propped himself on his elbows and watched her with a twisted grin. His hair skimmed across his eyes, giving him a dangerous look when paired with that smile that didn't need any translation given their positions. "You're bleeding, I hope you did not break your nose."
"You and me both," she muttered beneath the hand that pressed against her face while she struggled to maintain her balance with the other. If she didn't adjust herself, she'd slide right down his legs into a heap over her bag. Deciding that she needed both of her hands to get out of this situation, she grabbed his knee with the bloody hand, and slid her legs along the wall until she was in a less precarious position.
"Narrow stairway," she said, feeling like an idiot.
He used his elbows to pull himself up one more stair, sliding his body out from beneath hers. She couldn't help but stare at him as he finally stood. The man defined the word 'sexy', long , lean, and with a presence about him that screamed 'fuck me.' The fact that he smiled at her like she was the most amusing thing that had happened in his life in years dampened the appeal.
She tore her gaze away and grabbed her stray bags, wishing her first meeting with a hot neighbor had gone a lot better.
"Let me help you." He grabbed one of the bags from her hands and met her gaze. "Do not argue. You nearly killed me."
"Killed is a slight exaggeration, don't you think? Maimed maybe, but not killed."
"I could have broken my neck." He laughed, not breaking eye contact. "You must be the new neighbor. I live across the hall from you with my sister, Ava."
Mouth suddenly too dry, she ripped her gaze from his. "I have two other bags ahead of you. Don't trip."
Oh, God, did I just say not to trip? She sighed and pretended to adjust her sweaty grip on the bag in her hand.
"I will try to be careful. Stairs can be dangerous places. You never know what is coming down on you." That would drive her crazy not knowing where he was from.
She couldn't stop staring at his ass as he walked in front of her. How could she help it? It was right there at eye-level. That butt in those jeans combined with the long legs...definitely a view worth soaking up.  She glanced at the blood on her hand and winced. What a mess. He'd called her a disaster and she wasn't doing much to prove him wrong.
Thud, thud, they progressed up the steps. He took the other two suitcases in stride, without looking back at her for permission.
Luca had left the door to her apartment ajar. The blond man walked ahead of her and dropped her luggage near the bed. He glanced around before disappearing into the bathroom.
She dropped her bags and went toward the kitchen sink hoping for something to help with her nose. Nothing. Glasses, plates, and utensils filled the cupboards but not one washcloth or towel.
"Here. Let me." He gripped her shoulders and turned her. His shirt was off displaying rippling muscles and a suede necklace. He'd soaked the t-shirt with cold water, which he now shoved against her face. All she could do was stare at his chest.
It seemed all he could do was laugh at her.
"You didn't need to sacrifice your shirt," she muttered from beneath the material.
"Small sacrifice." He winked and stepped away, letting her hold the t-shirt.
"Thank you. I'm sorry about losing control..." her gaze focused on the center of his chest, "of my luggage, I mean. Of course I mean the bags, I mean...I'm sorry for knocking you down."
He shrugged in response, as if being taken out by a pair of flying suitcases was an every day occurrence. Grinning, he turned his back on her and looked around the apartment. "Nice light in here. Bigger windows than we have, but we have a balcony. We are two doors down, across the hall."
He stepped down the two steps into the sunken living room, hands shoved into the back pockets of his jeans. He moved like a man who had all the time in the world to do whatever he damn well pleased.  
He looked at her over his shoulder and smiled a take-me-to-bed-and-let-me-worship-your-body smile complete with dimples she hadn't noticed until now.
"I am Jacques Sinclair," he said.
"I'm Jessica Moriarty."
"Where are you from, Jessica Moriarty?"
"Boston." The word tore from her throat like sandpaper grating against dry wood.  She looked at the balled up t-shirt held against her face and sighed.
He paused a few inches in front of her and let his gaze slide over her face before roaming down her body. "It is good to meet you, Jessica Moriarty. Do you need anything else?"
"No, I'm fine."
"Of course you are. You are Ms. Independent-Do-Not-Help-Me, yes?"
She winced at the amusement in his eyes and the memory of falling face first into his lap. Warmth flooded her face.
She gulped when he stepped around her and walked into the hall. She didn't move until she heard the door close behind him.
Muttering about her lack of grace, she walked to the bathroom to check out the damage and stopped at one look at her reflection. Black curls stuck to her sweaty face and neck, mascara had melted to create shadows beneath her eyes, and blood stained the front of her blue blouse. She tossed his white t-shirt into the sink, again noticing the lack of towels, and added more cold water to it before pressing it again to her face.
The shirt still smelled like him despite the water and blood. Smiling beneath the material, she sank onto the toilet and thought about his naked chest.
Bella Italia. Definitely.
* * *
Jacques leaned heavily against the inside of his apartment door and cursed under his breath for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. For a man accustomed to dealing with models and women in general, he had been rattled by the sexy brunette with the wide blue eyes. There was something about her that felt other-worldly, which he knew was absurd. A woman is a woman, period, and this one had already proven to be a menace.
“You are late,” Ava announced. “Where is your shirt?”
He opened his eyes and looked at his older sister with apprehension. Dressed in a form-fitting red dress that fell to mid-thigh, she dangled a pair of high heels from her fingertips and glared in his direction.
“Well, what is wrong with you? You look like a crazy person standing there and staring like an idiot. Do you know how late you are? Where have you been?”
If he told her about their new neighbor, she’d overanalyze his reaction. When it came to trouble, Ava knew how to stir it up. So he said nothing, simply placed his camera cases on the narrow kitchen counter.
“You have blood on you.” She followed at his heels. “What has happened? You look like you saw a ghost, there is blood on your jeans, your shirt is missing--”
“I don’t need a list.” He shoved his hands into the back pockets of his jeans and laughed. “I fell down the stairs.”
Ava leaned her hip against the wall, crossed her arms over her chest, and squinted at him. “Where? Here? Why? How did you lose your shirt?”
“So many questions. Leave me be.” He walked to the narrow room—more of a closet really—that he used as a bedroom and slammed the door in his sister’s face.
She enjoyed wielding her eighteen-month's more of life experience in his face. Maybe she had gotten him the job in Florence, but the price he paid for sharing the apartment often felt too great. Models in and out at all hours of the day. Some men might think he had a dream set-up, but they weren't living with their sisters.
He peeled off his jeans, but his mind wandered to Jessica Moriarty. He was the one with the questions. What was she doing in Italy? How long was she staying? Why weren’t there any linens in her apartment? The former tenant must have taken them all. Why didn’t Luca restock them? Would she need help shopping for some? He sank down on the edge of his cot and sighed. Damn it, he didn’t want to have questions about her.
Ava opened his door and loomed like an angry shadow in the entrance. “Why are you not ready? Put on some clothes.”
“Do we have any extra sheets?”
She blinked and shrugged elaborately. “Why do you need more sheets? What is going on with you?”
“For a full size bed...the new neighbor doesn’t have any and it is getting late. I thought maybe I...we...could give her some. Towels, too. Luca rented a fully furnished apartment devoid of all linens, can you imagine? She has come all the way from the States and--”
“She has your shirt, doesn’t she? An American, you say? Interesting.”
He bit his lower lip, certain he’d said too much.
“You get dressed, I will take her some linens.” Ava turned with a wicked smile.
“No, don’t go. Ava!” He grabbed a clean pair of black jeans and a button down black shirt. Muttering under his breath, he pulled on a pair of black boots before following her. Seeing that the door to the apartment stood open, he feared the worst. When did she get so fast on her feet? He grabbed his wallet and keys as he heard Ava’s overly cheery voice greeting Jessica in the hallway. Not bothering to button his shirt, he followed.
He stopped short at the sight of Jessica standing in the doorway, long black curls free of their bonds and cascading to her elbows, bare feet sticking out of the frayed hem of her jeans, blood staining her green t-shirt, and nose red from their collision. She stood several inches shorter than his sister who chatted about towels and sheets like a fool.
“Pardon Ava,” he said as he closed the door to his apartment behind him. “She has no manners, you would think she was raised by gypsies with the way she acts.”
Green eyes that were the mirror image of his own glared at him. “Pardon my brother, he was born stupid. You must come to dinner with us. We can wait while you change clothes. From what Jacques has said, you have nothing here.”
Ava walked past Jessica and left them alone in the hallway.
He shrugged, his fingers inept on the buttons of his shirt. “Ava is nosy. I am sorry for her intrusion.”
“No, really, I appreciate the towels. Very thoughtful.” She had the most beautiful eyes he’d ever seen, like the blue of the deep ocean.
He stopped fiddling with his shirt. “You stopped bleeding.”
“Nose bleed, nothing serious.” Her gaze traveled down his body and then up again with slow appreciation.
He couldn’t help but remember her head in his lap and fantasize about a different scenario. He hardened at the thought. “You should come with us to dinner. We are meeting friends; they are nice people from all over the world. A few other Americans as well.”
She looked over her shoulder into the apartment when Ava said something about needing to go to the market. “Your sister is rather glamorous. I’m not. I don’t even remember if I packed any high heels.”
“I like what you’re wearing now, except for the blood stains. Other than that, you look perfect.” He smiled at her obvious discomfort. It had been a long time since he’d met a woman who didn’t flaunt her beauty. Jessica’s was the kind of pretty that didn’t need make-up or fancy clothes. His photographer’s eye had noticed it as soon as she’d looked up at him from their collision. The sharp cheekbones, the oversized blue eyes, the pouty mouth quick to smile, and the hair that seemed to have a life of its own all begged to be caught on film.
“We will wait, we have all the time in the world,” Ava said, leaning into the hallway with a knowing gleam in her eyes. “I have dresses for you to borrow if you want, although Jacques seems to think you don’t need one.”
If looks could kill, he hoped the glare he gave Ava would get it done. Although they were as close as siblings could be, there were boundary lines that she refused to acknowledge. His love life was one of them. Forever trying to set him up with some friend of hers “because it would be fun,” she never got the hint about when to back off.
Jessica made him nervous for reasons he couldn’t explain. As a photographer, he’d been working his way up in fashion photography so beautiful women weren’t new to him. But there was something about Jessica that made him want to come out from behind the lens and get to know her.
“I will get some wine,” Ava announced in her grand way that left no room for argument as she sashayed past them toward her apartment.
“I should leave you alone so you can change clothes...” he couldn’t look away from Jessica’s eyes.
“I’m not really sure I should go.” She licked her bottom lip. “I just arrived a few hours I have towels so I should shower or...something.”
“Why waste one night in Italy if you don’t need to?”
“I’m a mess.”
“I noticed.” He smiled when she blushed. “It looks good on you.”
“A mess looks good on me? Your sister looks like a fashion model.”
“She is.” He laughed at her stunned expression. “Don’t hold that against her. She is nice, but I will never admit to saying that. You must come with us. I won’t leave until you say yes.”
“Will there be other models there?” The look of horror on her face when she said the word ‘models’ made him laugh again.
“I’m afraid so, yes.”
“Are you a model?” She stepped back and assessed him again from head to toe.
“God, no, I am a photographer.” He snagged her hand when she took another step away from him and halted her progress. “I want you to come with me. We will leave together after a few drinks, I promise. I will buy you dinner, just the two of us, to celebrate your first night in Italy.”
She glanced at his hand holding hers before moving her gaze over his unbuttoned shirt to finally settle on his eyes. “Are you sure you dare be alone with me? I nearly killed you, remember?”
“I like living dangerously.”
Her slow smile sent waves of desire flooding his nervous system. She slipped her hand free of his before walking into her apartment, leaving the door open for him.
“Brother, brother, you are beyond embarrassing.” Ava stood behind him holding a bottle of wine and smiling like the she-devil she could be. “Like living dangerously? That is your sexy pick-up line?”
He finished buttoning his shirt while he walked inside Jessica’s apartment. “You were scaring her with your fancy dress. Why can’t you ever wear normal clothes? I want her to come with us, that is all.”
“Liar. You want to sleep with her. It’s obvious by the way you drool whenever she smiles,” Ava whispered for his ears only.
He shrugged. Siblings had their ways of knowing things. Why deny his attraction? At the sight of the contents of the deadly suitcases now strewn about the bed, he grinned. It looked like a hurricane had blown through the place in the minutes he'd been gone.
His smile faded when Jessica emerged from the bathroom, hair freshly brushed into loose waves, make-up lightly applied to hide the travel weariness he'd glimpsed, nose and lip still a bit swollen from impact, with her body draped in a casual dress that emphasized curves that had been hidden beneath jeans and a baggy t-shirt. If he'd thought she looked drop dead gorgeous before, words failed to describe her now. He doubted his ability to breathe.
Even Ava looked surprised. "You transform quickly. I haven't even opened the wine yet."
Jessica's laugh filled the room. She looked down at the cobalt blue dress that, although casual, perfectly flattered her figure. Modest compared to Ava's, it left her arms bare and fell to her knee. "It's the first thing I grabbed from the suitcase. Are you sure you want to take me to dinner with friends? You don't even know me."
"You knocked my brother off of his feet," Ava said with an appraising gaze, "that makes me want to know you. We are from Belgium. I can tell you are trying to figure us out."
"I am, yes." Jessica smoothed her hands over her hips, easy smile in place. "Your accent is unique."
"We grew up all over the world. Our father is a diplomat. We never lived in the States, though. Jacques is cursed with wanderlust and a complete lack of commitment. Do you know he does not even have an email account in today's world? He finds me when he wants a bed for longer than a few nights." Ava poured them three glasses of wine and met his gaze. "Tell her about us, Jacques."
"You are doing an excellent job." Yes, an excellent job of killing any chance I may have with her, thank you, dear sister. He ripped his gaze from Jessica's legs and coached himself to get control of his hormones. All he wanted to do was throw Ava out, lock the door, scoop his new neighbor into his arms, and kiss her until she begged him to fuck her.
Sighing, he shoved his hands through his hair and wondered if he'd sustained a concussion during the fall. Nothing he was feeling or doing made any sense at all.
"We spent a lot of time in Hong Kong when we were very young," his sister rambled on, accustomed to the spotlight and people being interested in whatever she had to say.
He opened his eyes and met Jessica's gaze. She stared at him with unguarded desire before turning to rifle through the clothes, which gave him a perfect view of her ass in that dress. His erection strained against the zipper of his jeans. Damn it. He shifted his weight and pulled his shirt lower. He focused his gaze on the slow turning blades of the ceiling fan.
I must have hurt myself. I see half-naked women every day. None of them affect me. He closed his eyes again, thought of anything generic that would take his mind off having sex with the neighbor, and counted to twenty.
"What is wrong with you?" Ava asked him as she thrust a glass of wine into his hand. "You look like you're praying or something."
"I am not praying." He took the glass without looking at Jessica. "I thought we were in a hurry. You acted like the world would end when I got home late, now you're telling her our life story and drinking wine like we have no one waiting for us. You drive me mad with your contradictions."
"It's fine, really. I needed a drink." Jessica drank the wine like it was water before slamming the empty glass onto the counter. "But I'm ready to go if you are. I'm afraid jetlag will catch up to me at some point and you'll need to carry me home." She cleared her throat, a self-conscious blush creeping onto her cheeks. "I know...I've only been here a few hours. It's been a lot so...and I appreciate the towels and sheets and...I haven't eaten anything since the plane."
He smiled again at her lack of knowing what the hell to say. "We have our escape plan. Two drinks with friends and then I will take you to the best restaurant on the block."
Ava snorted and corked the bottle. "His idea of best restaurant is questionable, Jessica. I'm impressed, though. He hasn't taken anyone on a date since he's lived with me here."
He gaped at her and wondered how he could be related to someone with zero tact. Date? That seemed too official for his taste.
"I should be taking him after nearly breaking his neck earlier." Jessica didn't meet his gaze, but neither did she protest the word as much as he'd anticipated. "It wasn't a good first impression."
"Must have been the best first impression." Ava winked as she slipped her feet into the narrow high heels. "Let us go then. You two obviously want to be rid of me sooner rather than later."
"Well, I really didn't mean that like it sounded." Jessica pushed a restless hand through her hair before looking at him and sighing. "Why do I feel like I'm saying everything wrong?"
He indulged in touching his hand to her back and guiding her toward the door. When Ava walked ahead, he leaned close to her ear and whispered, "You are stunning."
She grinned up at him, blue eyes mirroring his desire. "Why waste one night in Italy, right?"
When her cell phone rang from deep inside her purse, her expression briefly changed to annoyance before she shook her head. "Probably my mom wanting to know if I'm settled. I will call her tomorrow. Not tonight, not now."
"We can wait for you downstairs if—"
"No." She surprised him by grabbing his elbow and looking him in the eye. "I don't want to wait for anything. Thank you for this, all of it."
He nodded, unsure what to say. She acted almost like she was surprised by their kindness. "You should know that I have ulterior motives. I don't send my sister over with towels for just anybody."
She laughed and pressed her shoulder against his arm. "Good. If I thought you were too nice of a guy, I probably wouldn't sleep with you. Eventually, that is."
He stopped walking and looked at her with newfound appreciation for her directness. "We have the same motives?"
Without answering, she released his arm and walked ahead of him down the narrow steps. Long hair fell to the middle of her back, tight ass sashayed with each step. When they passed the point of their collision, she looked over her shoulder and smiled.
His mouth watered with all he wanted to do with her. His mind raced with all he wanted to know about her. His body ached with need to touch her skin.
Ava laughed at him, her eyes seeing too much as she waited at the entrance to the building. Without saying a word, she hummed and led the way down the block toward where their friends waited.
Jessica's hair tossed in the breeze, she lifted her face to the setting sun, a smile on her lips as she glanced up at the buildings they passed, her hand occasionally grazing his. Energy zapped off her that belied her calm appearance.
"Have you been to Italy before?" he asked, craving knowledge of her.
"Only in my dreams."
"How did you find Luca's apartment building?"
"The internet. I saw the ad and rushed over as soon as I landed. I guess I got lucky." She looked up at him, strands of black hair sliding over her face like a veil in the steady breeze.
Luck. Yes. Definitely lucky. He silently thanked the Fates for being on his side.
* * *

Chapter Two

Jetlag loomed behind her eyelids, but she shrugged it off as best as she could. Surrounded by women who gave new meaning to the word 'stunning' and men who seemed unaffected by them, Jessica felt as if she'd been transported into an alternate reality.
Sitting at an outdoor cafe in Florence, Italy, while drinking wine with new friends reinforced her decision to leave everything behind to come here.  Ancient buildings reflected golden light of twilight. Her artist's eye yearned to capture it all on canvas. The beautiful women laughing without a care, blondes and brunettes, all dressed with effortless flair and drinking to excess. Men pouring them wine while joking with one another. All of various nationalities with good looks and confidence in common, they were an interesting group that captured the attention of most people who walked past their table. Heavy scents of freshly baked bread and aromatic sauces wafted from the restaurant.
Had it only been a day since she'd left Boston? It all felt surreal.
"You'll regret it. You have no sense. Do you know what you're risking by running off on some folly? You could lose everything." Her mother's last words to her as she'd packed for the trip haunted her now despite how wonderful she felt.
How many times had she heard those same words while growing up? It hadn't mattered that she'd been the only responsible person in a household of two, her mother always in between marriages or on a binge somewhere. It had been drummed into her skull that dreamers ended up in the gutter looking up at the stars or as whores with mattresses strapped to their backs so they could afford rent.
"You have drifted away," Jacques said close to her ear. "Would you like to go?"
She turned her head, nearly colliding with his. He'd leaned within an inch of her. Damn, she'd never wanted anything more than to be kissed by this man. More than that, she ached to rip his clothes off and lose herself in passion. Why waste a night in Italy? His words. Maybe she'd remind him of that later. Why not? She'd come here to live as she chose and to indulge in every whim.
"You mentioned something about dinner. I'm starving." Her gaze dropped to his mouth.
He smiled. "I'm hungry, too. It's been a long time since I've..." his had slipped over her thigh, "eaten."
Snap, crackle, sizzle. She swallowed hard before meeting his gaze. Daring surged through her. She'd never been one to turn down a challenge.
"Look at those two," Ava said from across the table. "They don't even know we are here."
His hand skimmed up her thigh before seizing her hand. "We are leaving. We have better things to do than get drunk with you fools tonight."
"I am sure you do." Mateo leaned back in his chair, looped his arm behind Ava's back, and smiled at them both. "Nice meeting you, Jessica. I am sure we will see you tomorrow night and the night after..."
"And the night after that." Ava winked at her. "We are a predictable group."
"Predictable isn't the word I'd use, more like fascinating and welcoming. Thanks again." She stood with Jacques, liking the way he held her hand.
Jacques led them around the corner before pulling her into a doorway of a random building, pressing her back against the bricks, and leaning against her. "Can I kiss you or do I need to wait for a more appro—"
She kissed him—hard—and silenced his words. Gentlemen were overrated. Senses overrun with wine, jetlag, and him, she fisted her hands in the material of his shirt to remain standing as her legs trembled with desire.
He slipped his hand behind her neck and deepened the kiss with his tongue while his other hand moved behind her waist to hold her as close as they could be without getting naked.
Her panties melted to her skin. She wanted to fuck him then and now. It didn't feel like they'd met only hours ago. Kissing him, holding him, being with him felt like the most natural thing in the world.
"I've been wanting to do that since you looked up from my lap," he muttered against her lips.
She laughed and opened her eyes. "Not my best moment."
"You got my attention." He smiled before kissing her again.
He tasted like wine and all things deliciously tempting. She teased her tongue against his, her hands moving over his shoulders with appreciation. She'd seen the muscles hidden beneath his shirt and wanted to sink her teeth into his skin.
When he muttered in French before sliding his mouth along her neck, she smiled against his hair. She didn't need to speak his language to know they were communicating perfectly.
"We are dangerously exposed," she said when a group of laughing strangers passed them on the street.
He looked up, smiled, and framed her face with the palm of her hand. "I like living dangerously. What about you? What do you like?"
"I like this." She dropped the back of her head back against the brick and observed him through narrowed eyes. Hands still on his shoulders, she smoothed them down the front of his chest and grinned. "I like you."
He winked, sighed, and stepped back from her. "I don't know what I'm going to do about you, Jessica Moriarty. I sense trouble ahead."
"I think you know exactly what to do with me, Jacques Sinclair." Feeling like a bird freed from its cage and soaring toward the sky, she grabbed his hand and yanked him back against her. "One more kiss before dinner."
"You are the most dangerous kind of woman." He paused a fraction above her lips and looked her in the eye. "And I am the most dangerous type of man."
"Are you? Why do you say that?"
"Because I have nothing to offer and nothing to lose."
Heartbeat shook her eardrums. He was like no one she'd ever met before, mysterious and foreign with confidence oozing from his pores.
"Neither do I. Not a care in the world," she lied.
"This will be fun."
"Oh, I have no doubt."
He laughed again before pulling her back to the sidewalk and resuming their walk toward an unknown restaurant. "Tell me, Jessica Moriarty, why are you in Florence?"
It was obvious that he liked saying her full name, as if allowing the words to slide off of his tongue gave him pleasure. Or amused him. She couldn't tell. Ever since crashing into him, he'd been impossible to define.
She wanted to know all of his secrets, his history, his dreams. Astounded by the idea of being so rattled by a stranger, she ripped her gaze from his face to focus on the street ahead of them. Night had fallen. People roamed about, street musicians played for money, lights illuminated arches, and she felt like her feet weren't touching the ground.
"I am here to paint. I'm an...artist." Again she stumbled over the word. "I want to absorb everything about Florence from the art to the culture to the architecture. I'd like to go to Milan and Rome, too. I want to see it all, do it all, paint it all."
"You are a traveler?"
"First time out of the States," she admitted with a tinge of embarrassment. Hadn't Ava said they'd lived all over the world?
He moved his hand to the small of her back and guided her down a hallway toward a hidden away entrance to a restaurant off the beaten the path. "They make the best tortellini here. It's where the locals go, away from the tourists."
She laughed at the idea that, for now anyway, she fit the label of local. It felt good to squeeze into the crowded space toward two chairs vacant at a communal table. Well-lit, full of people who greeted Jacques as if he were their lost son, it was the opposite of romantic yet it felt intimate none-the-less.
Without asking what she wanted, he ordered for them in flawless Italian, grabbed a bottle of wine from the waiter, and squeezed next to her along the wall. He introduced her all around, again saying her full name with flair as if the sound of it gave him a rush.
She knew without questioning that this would become their place, that they would be here together amidst these people again and again. Laughing from the simplicity of it all, she gladly accepted the too full glass of wine he'd poured for her.
"I love it here." Her gaze settled on an elderly couple nestled at the far end of the table, their hands clasped between them and eyes full of affection for one another.
"I had a feeling you would." He twisted to rest his back against the wall and leaned in for a kiss. "I ordered us both tortellini. It is really all they make here, which is why it is the best."
She laughed against his mouth. "I love tortellini."
He kissed her, their laughter catching between their joined lips.
They ate in much the same way. Taking a bite, drinking some wine, kissing in between, touching beneath the table, laughing with each other about everything from her plans to paint to his relationship with his sister. 
They couldn't stop touching each other. All the way to their apartment building they'd take turns pulling each other into alleys or doorways for stolen kisses that promised so much more.
Jacques lifted her off her feet and carried her up the narrow stairway, his lips creating havoc on her neck.
"Careful. You wouldn't want to slip and fall," she teased against his ear. "A fall like that could kill a man."
"Dangerous." He lifted his head and smiled. "What am I going to do with you, Jessica Moriarty?"
In front of her apartment, she slid down his body until her feet were firmly on the floor. His hands were already on her ass beneath the hem of the dress.
"I'm sure you know exactly what to do with me." She turned long enough to unlock the door, enjoying the way his hands moved beneath her dress and over her skin.
Not only was she confident that he knew exactly what to do with her, she had a few things of her own that she wanted to do to him. All of them involved nudity and inhibition.
He kissed the side of her neck, his hands already unsnapping her bra and sliding over her breasts while she locked the door behind them. Dress pushed up to just beneath her shoulders, she took the initiative and ripped it over her head. He moaned his approval while his fingers toyed with her nipples.
Nothing in life had prepared her for this complete surrender. She hadn't known she was capable of it. She pressed her hands against the back of the door and let him touch her as he pleased. Pushing her hair aside, he kissed the back of her neck before running his tongue toward her ear. One hand on her breast, the other moved over her abdomen and slipped beneath her panties. 
Smiling, she turned within the circle of his arms and unbuttoned his shirt. This wasn't going to be a one-sided affair. She craved his skin as much as he wanted hers. Tossing it over his shoulders, she pressed her mouth to the center of his chest and indulged in the salty sensation beneath her tongue. 
He walked backward until falling on top of the discarded clothes on her bed. "You didn't get a chance to settle in yet."
"Oh, I'm settled." She reached for the zipper on his jeans. "This is how I settle into a new place, just shove it all onto the floor."
He raised an eyebrow, a laugh on his lips as he did as instructed.
Her hand cupped his erection beneath his jeans before bending over to kiss his abdomen. The promise of his hardness drove her to madness.
His hands wrapped themselves in her hair as she yanked his jeans past his hips. Her mouth closed over the tip of his penis that was hard and throbbing against her lips.
He had the body of a Roman God; the fact that he was Belgian meant nothing. Being in Italy, she preferred the Roman idea as she licked his length with deep appreciation for what it was about to do to her.
"Jacques," she whispered against his abdomen, needing him inside her. Fast. Hard. Deep.
Hands still in her hair, he pulled her up until their mouths fused with passion. In one move, he rolled her onto her back and slipped his hand between her thighs.
Their gaze connected through the darkness as his finger moved inside her. He dipped his head to suck on her breast. His fingers moved in and out with a slow rhythm that drove her to the brink. Glancing up, he reached for his discarded jeans for a condom.
"You came prepared," she whispered against his chin.
"I'm an optimist." He smiled in the dark while ripping open the package.
No more words. He rocked into her with a force that pushed her deep into the mattress. She sank her teeth into his shoulder, grabbed his ass, and spread her legs wide. Harder and deeper he thrust into her, his hands propped over her head until he shouted with orgasm.
She arched her back, body shuddering with ecstasy, eyes squeezing shut with the force of pleasure.
He collapsed against her, face buried into the top of her head, and chest heaving with rapid breaths.
She had no more strength, doubted her ability to move. From somewhere deep down in her soul, from the tip of her toes upward, a laugh rolled up and out until she quaked with joy.
He propped himself up on his elbows, smoothed the hair from her face, and smiled. "Is the laughing a good thing?"
"It's the best thing." She leaned up and kissed him, eyes wide open. "I want more wine, then more of you."
"I can deliver both of those things." He winked before slipping himself from her, taking a minute to kiss each breast before pushing away from the bed and walking toward the kitchen counter.
Lights from the street illuminated the room just enough for her to indulge in a beautiful view of his naked body. Hair a complete mess from her hands and muscles highlighted by streetlights and shadow, Jacques Sinclair was definitely gorgeous. Now if only she could think of way to keep him naked most of the time so she could indulge in the view as much as possible.
Hugging her knees to her chest amidst the discarded clothes on the bare mattress, she grinned when he sat next to her and handed her the open bottle.
"What are you smiling about?" He kissed her knee.
"Ways to keep you naked."
"Maybe we should have a nudity policy whenever we are in your apartment."
Her iPhone's ring broke through the silence of the room from where she'd dropped it beside the door. Laughter faded while she debated answering. She knew who it was and knew the right thing to do; she simply didn't want to do it.
Jacques looked toward the ringing. "Is that your boyfriend from the States? Are we having an illicit affair?"
She looked at him then, wine bottle propped between them, and shook her head 'no.' Heart heavier than it had been moments ago, she touched his face with her fingertips. For the next four months this was home and nothing else mattered. 
"I picked the right apartment," she whispered.
He moved the wine bottle to the floor before pulling her onto his lap. "Have I sufficiently welcomed you to the neighborhood?"
"I think I need more welcoming."
He pushed her hair away from her face, eyes seeing more than she'd intended him to see in the moonlight, and kissed her with an intensity that set her heart on fire and drowned out the incessant ringing of the phone.
The need to break free of the ties that bound her pushed her toward recklessness. She welcomed the rush. Senses on hypersensitive, she savored the freedom of being exactly who she wanted to be in this moment. The wine, the moonlight, the breeze from the window, the taste of him on her tongue, and the feel of his skin against hers obliterated everything else.
* * *

Chapter Three
Jacques parked his motorcycle on the curb outside of the apartment building. It had been a long day of dealing with models, their various agents, and fashion house bosses. Of course the fact that he'd gotten very little sleep last night thanks to Jessica hadn't helped his mood when the six o'clock in the morning wake up call from Ava had arrived via her banging on the apartment door like a lunatic.
"I am never riding with you on this death machine again." His sister stepped off the back of his bike with as much flair as a diva in the making could muster. "From now on, I am going to ride with Giovanni."
He muttered under his breath, not in the mood for a fight. Restlessness quaked beneath his skin to be on the move. This side trip to Florence had proven beneficial to his career in some ways, but fashion photography wasn't his passion. He wanted to go on safari in Africa, perhaps get a job with National Geographic one day, take photographs that people would remember and that would actually serve more of a purpose than selling clothes. He'd been here too long for his liking, but knew he'd stay a few months longer than planned...for personal reasons.
He smiled at the memory of the uninhibited night with Jessica. They had laughed more than anything, shared whispered stories in the darkness while tangled together on a bare mattress with clothes strewn about the floor. They had even laughed while making love. It had been one of the best nights of his life.
So, yeah, he'd extend his stay in Florence and put up with diva models for a bit longer.
"Maybe you would be in a better mood if you didn't stay up all night having sex with the neighbor." Ava flung her long blonde hair over her shoulder, squinted at him over the rim of her sunglasses, and sauntered into the building ahead of him.
Speaking of the neighbor...his gaze drifted up toward the windows of her apartment. All were open to let in the breeze on this abnormally hot day for this time of year.
Adjusting the cameras across his chest, he waited for Ava to have a lead on him up the stairs before taking his time going up to the third floor. He wanted to see Jessica without his nosy sister listening to every word.
  "Hey, you're back." Jessica appeared behind him, arms full of various shopping bags, long hair held back from her face with a headband, and wearing a yellow dress that fluttered over her thighs in the breeze.
Instantly, all his worries and annoyances disappeared. "You've been shopping, I see. Let me help you."
"No, I've got it." She met his gaze and laughed. "Okay. Fine. You can help me."
"Progress." He winked and grabbed two of the bags that looked the heaviest.
"What did you buy?" Ava hadn't gone far. She leaned against the wall of the stairwell, eyes dancing with mischief as she looked between them.
"Art supplies mostly." Jessica adjusted the remaining bags in her hands and grinned. "Some sheets, know, the essentials."
To his surprise, Ava stepped down from her perch and took a few of the bags herself. "How did you manage all of this on your own? Next time, wait until Jacques is back and he will go with you. He is good at waiting on women and doing their bidding."
He rolled his eyes. Sisters were overrated. Instead of saying anything, he motioned for them to go ahead of him, but not for any gentlemanly reasons.
"Did you two have a good day at work?" Jessica asked once she'd unlocked her door and pushed it open with her hip.
"Oh, yes. It was fabulous. We went to the hillside overlooking the city. Very romantic setting." Ava set the bags on the counter and proceeded to look through them as if they were her own.
Jessica met his gaze and smiled. Memories of last night stirred between them and snapped like lightening strikes.
"What do you paint?" Ava held up a paintbrush and frowned. "I'm an artist, too. I draw. I'm hoping to design my own clothing line one day soon. I will show you my drawings, if you'd like. I have started buying fabric. I want to sell a few at the open market, like a test."
"That sounds exciting." Jessica's gaze lingered on his mouth. 
He fought the urge to toss Ava out the door. 
"The apartment is filled with fabric and sketchpads. It's a mess." He shoved his hands into his pockets to control the need to touch her. 
"Sounds like a creative genius at work." Her teeth sank into her lower lip before her gaze slid to his. 
"I would like your opinions on my designs if you wouldn't mind. Your artists' eye could help…Jacques, he is of no use to me." Ava continued unpacking the bag behind her. 
"I'd like to help you, if you need anything." Jessica ripped her gaze from his and focused on his sister. "I'm an architect in real life. Well, back in Boston, I mean."
"Ah, yes...back in Boston." Ava set the brush carefully on the counter. "Florence is a vacation for you, yes?"
Oh, no. He knew that look. She was about to screw everything up.
"We're all just passing through," he said, looking at Jessica's profile and noticing the sadness that had crept up on her. "Four months isn't a vacation, Ava, it's an...exploration."
Jessica's vivid blue eyes looked squarely at him as if he'd said the right thing. "Exploration. Yes, that's exactly what it is."
"I'm not here for long either." He stepped toward her and ignored Ava's watchful gaze. "Another few months at most."
"Are you extending your stay?" Jessica crossed her arms across her chest.
"I am. The work is a nightmare, but there are other attractions that keep me interested."
"Mon Dieu." Ava shook her head, sighed, and walked toward the door. "The world is coming to an end. I have seen it all now."
"Would you like to go out for dinner later?" He stepped closer to Jessica. He'd been tormented all day with questions. Would she want to see him again? Would it be awkward? Had last night been the result of too much wine and jetlag? Would she want to date him?
She bit her bottom lip and swayed toward him. Subtle. A fraction. "Will we go to our usual place?"
Oh, this could get complicated. "Maybe for drinks later. There are other places in Florence beyond this block, you know."
"I'll go wherever you want to go."
"I will pick you up in an hour." He wanted to kiss her, but not with Ava staring a hole through his back. Instead, he nodded and left her alone to unpack her many shopping bags.
"What was all that?" Ava demanded once they were behind the closed doors of their apartment. "You were supposed to go to London next week for that job interview you have been whining about for a month now. A real job, you said. A real career with real people." She rolled her eyes and propped against the back of a sofa. "Jacques, what are you doing? Yes, Jessica seems nice, but I have never known you to act like this. You only met her yesterday."
He shoved his hands through his hair. He couldn't argue because everything she said was factually accurate. "There will be other opportunities for work, but maybe not another chance with her. If I go too soon, then what?"
Shock froze Ava's face. "You are being foolish over a woman. She said she is an architect. She is only here playing with her art for a few months before going back to her safe little life in America. You..." she motioned up and down with both arms, "are meant for greatness, Jacques. Are you going to abandon everything because of some woman you barely know?"
"No, I am not abandoning anything, don't you understand?" Despite her bitchiness, Ava was his best friend. He needed her to see his point of view. "I never wanted to go to London. Not really. I can do what I want, when I want. This..." his turn to motion around the tiny apartment with both hands, "was always just one more stop on my journey. Have no doubt that I will get what I want."
"What about the real job with credibility and all of that nonsense? You act like what I have given you—"
"You gave it to me, that is the problem. Taking pictures of beautiful women may be someone else's grand gift, but I want more."
"More, more, more, that is all you ever say. Do you realize that you insult my passion when you dismiss it as meaningless?" She pounded her chest with a fist. "I want to be a fashion designer, if not in Milan as I'd hoped, then in New York. Will you dismiss me then, too?"
He tossed off his camera cases, walked to the window overlooking the street, and sighed before answering, "Your dream is not mine, Ava."
"What is your dream? A woman you barely know? She has a return ticket back to the States and intends to use it. You will be the story she tells her friends over drinks and nothing more. Think about that before you sacrifice for her."
He pushed open the window and sat down on the sill. He had always been a wanderer with nowhere to call home. Yes, he held a Belgian passport, but he had grown up all over the world and spent much of his adult life doing the same. He refused an email account or any social media, preferring to control the noise in his world. He owned a computer, yes, for his photographs only. It drove the people in his life mad, but he enjoyed living like a ghost with no ties. He had one commitment only, his photography. His portfolio had grown to be quite impressive, but lately he'd begun wanting more.
He lit a cigarette and sat in the open window of the apartment. While Ava muttered and rearranged reams of fabric behind him, he exhaled a long stream of smoke and waited until he could see the American with the wild black curls and smile that made him want to linger.
* * *

Shopping had been incredible. Sheets. Art supplies. Some food. Wine. Towels. Looking around the apartment, she laughed with a sense of accomplishment. She'd done all she'd set out to do, not just today's shopping quest, but establishing a home in the city of her fantasies.
Speaking of fantasy...she smiled at the idea of her pending date.
When the phone rang, she reluctantly answered, "Hello, mom."
"It is about time you answered. I've been trying to reach you for days."
She sighed at the exaggeration and double-checked her reflection in the mirror. She didn't know when Jacques would pick her up for their date, but she wanted to look like a woman on a date rather than a worn out excuse for a traveler.
"I'm here, the apartment is wonderful, and I've met my neighbors. It's better than I imagined." She held her breath and hoped that this time—this one time—her mother would say something encouraging.
"So you're really going to stay there, then?"
If only her mother could be happy for her for once in her life. Was it really that hard to do? "It's amazing, mom—"
"Foolish. What about Marc? What about your career? What about me? Do you expect everything to go on hold while you traipse around the earth?"
"I'm not traipsing. I'm settled in an apartment." Familiar feelings of dread and resentment churned in her gut. "Don't bring up Marc."
"He has started at the firm, you know that, don't you? He came by this morning, brought me breakfast. He can't believe you took a leave of absence after your internship either. It's not practical."
"I don't care what Marc thinks," she said between gritted teeth. Joy from earlier slipped away through the crevices of her heart. "I am fine. You don't need to call every day. It's all going well."
"What about me? You haven't even asked me how I am doing without you. I miss my little girl." Her mother switched to the manipulative voice that had worked for so many years.
Little girl? Jessica snorted and focused on the turning blades of the ceiling fan. At twenty-six, she'd completed graduate school, held an internship at one of the premier architecture firm in New England, and had secured a job for after her return. She'd done it all right. Check off the boxes on the to-do list for everyone else. Now it was her turn.
When Jacques knocked on the door before letting himself in, she smiled. Seeing him dressed in a loose fitting button-down white shirt and black jeans with his hair in perpetual disarray warmed her in all the right places. She liked that he'd simply walked in after knocking as if he'd known she'd welcome him.
"I need to go, mom."
"What are you going to do there for four months? Paint? Won't you get bored? It's time for you to act like a grownup."
"I've been doing that my entire life. I think it's time for me to act like anything I want to be." She disconnected the call without looking away from Jacques who walked toward her with a predatory grin on his face.
He put hands on the sofa behind her back and leaned in for a kiss. "I missed you today."
"Good." Phone tossed on the cushion next to her, she shoved her hands into his hair and pulled him down to her. Kissing Jacques Sinclair could become her new profession.
His mouth teased her lower lip before devouring her as if he'd craved the taste of her like an addict in need of a fix. Exhilaration pumped through her veins and fueled her out of the brief funk her mother had caused.
This was right and no one could convince her it wasn't.
"Let's go. I want to take you to a place outside of the city, near the river. Do you like motorcycles?" His thumb caressed her jaw while his lips still caressed hers with his words.
"I do now." She'd actually never been on one, but there was a first time for everything.
He pulled her up with a gentle tug, waited while she looped a small purse around her torso, and led her outside.
Between the scents of spring flowers and food, something else wafted on the breeze that she couldn't identify, she'd swear to anyone who'd listen that magic filled the air here. Grinning, she put on the helmet he tossed her before straddling him from behind on the bike. Arms circled around his chest, she looked up at the ancient buildings lining the street and laughed.
Grownups live their own lives, mother. I'm living mine. Deal with it.
She held Jacques a bit tighter as he steered the bike into merciless traffic and squealed with laughter when he sped up with reckless disregard to the many cars he passed.  Feeling braver than she'd ever felt, she lifted her hands from him and raised her arms to the sky.
* * *
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