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Lessons Learned

Nora Roberts

  Lessons Learned

  Nora Roberts

  Coordinating the publicity tour for Italy's most famous—and most adorable—chef was just the kind of assignment Juliet relished. Carlo Franconi could gather a crowd just by smiling, and watching him prepare a meal was like witnessing a lesson in passionate lovemaking. By the time the tour was over, Juliet planned to have Carlo packaged as the world's sexiest chef. Women everywhere would fantasize about him preparing an intimate meal for two.

  But Juliet hadn't counted on being part of the dinner plans. Candlelight, pasta and romance…Carlo distracted her with his charms, setting his romantic recipes simmering in her heart.

  For Jill Gregory, aka The Baby,

  one of my favorite roommates.


  Chapter One

  Chapter Two

  Chapter Three

  Chapter Four

  Chapter Five

  Chapter Six

  Chapter Seven

  Chapter Eight

  Chapter Nine

  Chapter Ten

  Chapter Eleven

  Chapter Twelve

  Chapter One

  So he was gorgeous. And rich…and talented. And sexy; you shouldn’t forget that he was outrageously sexy.

  It hardly mattered to Juliet. She was a professional, and to a professional, a job was a job. In this case, great looks and personality were bound to help, but that was business. Strictly business.

  No, personally it didn’t matter a bit. After all, she’d met a few gorgeous men in her life. She’d met a few rich ones too, and so forth, though she had to admit she’d never met a man with all those elusive qualities rolled up in one. She’d certainly never had the opportunity to work with one. Now she did.

  The fact was, Carlo Franconi’s looks, charm, reputation and skill were going to make her job a pleasure. So she was told. Still, with her office door closed, Juliet scowled down at the eight-by-ten glossy black-and-white publicity photo. It looked to her as though he’d be more trouble than pleasure.

  Carlo grinned cockily up at her, dark, almond-shaped eyes amused and appreciative. She wondered if the photographer had been a woman. His full thick hair was appealingly disheveled with a bit of curl along the nape of his neck and over his ears. Not too much—just enough to disarm. The strong facial bones, jauntily curved mouth, straight nose and expressive brows combined to create a face destined to sabotage any woman’s common sense. Gift or cultivated talent, Juliet wasn’t certain, but she’d have to use it to her advantage. Author tours could be murder.

  A cookbook. Juliet tried, and failed, not to sigh. Carlo Franconi’s The Italian Way, was, whether she liked it or not, her biggest assignment to date. Business was business.

  She loved her job as publicist and was content for the moment with Trinity Press, the publisher she currently worked for, after a half-dozen job changes and upward jumps since the start of her career. At twenty-eight, the ambition she’d started with as a receptionist nearly ten years before had eased very little. She’d worked, studied, hustled and sweated for her own office and position. She had them, but she wasn’t ready to relax.

  In two years, by her calculations, she’d be ready to make the next jump: her own public relations firm. Naturally, she’d have to start out small, but it was building the business that was exciting. The contacts and experience she gained in her twenties would help her solidify her ambitions in her thirties. Juliet was content with that.

  One of the first things she’d learned in public relations was that an account was an account, whether it was a big blockbuster bestseller already slated to be a big blockbuster film or a slim volume of poetry that would barely earn out its advance. Part of the challenge, and the fun, was finding the right promotional hook.

  Now, she had a cookbook and a slick Italian chef. Franconi, she thought wryly, had a track record—with women and in publishing. The first was a matter of hot interest to the society and gossip sections of the international press. It wasn’t necessary to cook to be aware of Franconi’s name. The second was the reason he was being pampered on the road with a publicist.

  His first two cookbooks had been solid bestsellers. For good reason, Juliet admitted. It was true she couldn’t fry an egg without creating a gooey inedible glob, but she recognized quality and style. Franconi could make linguini sound like a dish to be prepared while wearing black lace. He turned a simple spaghetti dish into an erotic event.

  Sex. Juliet tipped back in her chair and wiggled her stockinged toes. That’s what he had. That’s just what they’d use. Before the twenty-one-day author tour was finished, she’ll have made Carlo Franconi the world’s sexiest cook. Any red-blooded American woman would fantasize about him preparing an intimate dinner for two. Candlelight, pasta and romance.

  One last study of his publicity shot and the charmingly crooked grin assured her he could handle it.

  In the meantime, there was a bit more groundwork to cover. Creating a schedule was a pleasure, adhering to one a challenge. She thrived on both.

  Juliet lifted the phone, noticed with resignation that she’d broken another nail, then buzzed her assistant. “Terry, get me Diane Maxwell. She’s program coordinator on the Simpson Show in L.A.”

  “Going for the big guns?”

  Juliet gave a quick, unprofessional grin. “Yeah.” She replaced the phone and started making hurried notes. No reason not to start at the top, she told herself. That way, if you fell on your face, at least the trip would be worth it.

  As she waited, she looked around her office. Not the top, but a good ways from the bottom. At least she had a window. Juliet could still shudder thinking of some of the walled-in cubicles she’d worked in. Now, twenty stories below, New York rushed, bumped, pushed and shoved its way through another day. Juliet Trent had learned how to do the same thing after moving from the relatively easygoing suburb of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

  She might’ve grown up in a polite little neighborhood where only a stranger drove over twenty-five miles per hour and everyone kept the grass clipped close to their side of the chain-link fences, but Juliet had acclimated easily. The truth was she liked the pace, the energy and the “I dare you” tone of New York. She’d never go back to the bee-humming, hedge-clipping quiet of suburbia where everyone knew who you were, what you did and how you did it. She preferred the anonymity and the individuality of crowds.

  Perhaps her mother had molded herself into the perfect suburban wife, but not Juliet. She was an eighties woman, independent, self-sufficient and moving up. There was an apartment in the west Seventies that she’d furnished, slowly, meticulously and, most important, personally. Juliet had enough patience to move step by step as long as the result was perfect. She had a career she could be proud of and an office she was gradually altering to suit her own tastes. Leaving her mark wasn’t something she took lightly. It had taken her four months to choose the right plants for her work space, from the four-foot split-leaf philodendron to the delicate white-blossomed African violet.

  She’d had to make do with the beige carpet, but the six-foot Dali print on the wall opposite her window added life and energy. The narrow-beveled mirror gave an illusion of space and a touch of elegance. She had her eye on a big, gaudy Oriental urn that would be perfect for a spray of equally gaudy peacock feathers. If she waited a bit longer, the price might come down from exorbitant to ridiculous. Then she’d buy it.

  Juliet might put on a very practical front to everyone, including herself, but she couldn’t resist a sale. As a result, her bank balance wasn’t as hefty as her bedroom closet. She wasn’t frivolous. No, she would have been appalled to hear the word applied to her. Her wardrobe was organized, well tended and suitable. Perhaps twenty pairs of shoes could be considered ex
cessive, but Juliet rationalized that she was often on her feet ten hours a day and deserved the luxury. In any case, she’d earned them, from the sturdy sneakers, the practical black pumps to the strappy evening sandals. She’d earned them with innumerable long meetings, countless waits in airports and endless hours on the phone. She’d earned them on author tours, where the luck of the draw could have you dealing with the brilliant, the funny, the inept, the boring or the rude. Whatever she had to deal with, the results had to be the same. Media, media and more media.

  She’d learned how to deal with the press, from the New York Times reporter to the stringer on the small-town weekly. She knew how to charm the staff of talk shows, from the accepted masters to the nervous imitators. Learning had been an adventure, and since she’d allowed herself very few in her personal life, professional success was all the sweeter.

  When the intercom buzzed, she caught her tongue between her teeth. Now, she was going to apply everything she’d learned and land Franconi on the top-rated talk show in the States.

  Once she did, she thought as she pressed the button, he’d better make the most of it. Or she’d slit his sexy throat with his own chef’s knife.

  “Ah, mi amore. Squisito.” Carlo’s voice was a low purr designed to accelerate the blood pressure. The bedroom voice wasn’t something he’d had to develop, but something he’d been born with. Carlo had always thought a man who didn’t use God-given gifts was less than a fool. “Bellisimo,” he murmured and his eyes were dark and dreamy with anticipation.

  It was hot, almost steamy, but he preferred the heat. Cold slowed down the blood. The sun coming through the window had taken on the subtle gold texture with tints of red that spoke of the end of the day and hinted at the pleasures of night. The room was rich with scent so he breathed it in. A man was missing a great deal of life if he didn’t use and appreciate all of his senses. Carlo believed in missing nothing.

  He watched his love of the moment with a connoisseur’s eye. He’d caress, whisper to, flatter—it never mattered to him if it took moments or hours to get what he wanted. As long as he got what he wanted. To Carlo, the process, the anticipation, the moves themselves were equally as satisfying as the result. Like a dance, he’d always thought. Like a song. An aria from The Marriage of Figaro played in the background while he seduced.

  Carlo believed in setting the scene because life was a play not simply to be enjoyed, but to be relished.

  “Bellisimo,” he whispered and bent nearer what he adored. The clam sauce simmered erotically as he stirred it. Slowly, savoring the moment, Carlo lifted the spoon to his lips and with his eyes half-closed, tasted. The sound of pleasure came from low in his throat. “Squisito.”

  He moved from the sauce to give the same loving attention to his zabaglione. He believed there wasn’t a woman alive who could resist the taste of that rich, creamy custard with the zing of wine. As usual, it was a woman he was expecting.

  The kitchen was as much a den of pleasure to him as the bedroom. It wasn’t an accident that he was one of the most respected and admired chefs in the world, or that he was one of the most engaging lovers. Carlo considered it a matter of destiny. His kitchen was cleverly arranged, as meticulously laid out for the seduction of sauces and spices as his bedroom was for the seduction of women. Yes, Carlo Franconi believed life was to be relished. Every drop of it.

  When the knock on the front door reverberated through the high-ceilinged rooms of his home, he murmured to his pasta before he removed his apron. As he went to answer, he rolled down the silk sleeves of his shirt but didn’t stop for adjustments in any of the antique mirrors that lined the walls. He wasn’t so much vain, as confident.

  He opened the door to a tall, stately woman with honey-toned skin and dark glossy eyes. Carlo’s heart moved as it did whenever he saw her. “Mi amore.” Taking her hand, he pressed his mouth to the palm, while his eyes smiled into hers. “Bella. Molto bella.”

  She stood in the evening light for a moment, dark, lovely, with a smile only for him. Only a fool wouldn’t have known he’d welcomed dozens of women in just this way. She wasn’t a fool. But she loved him.

  “You’re a scoundrel, Carlo.” The woman reached out to touch his hair. It was dark and thick and difficult to resist. “Is this the way you greet your mother?”

  “This is the way—” he kissed her hand again “—I greet a beautiful woman.” Then he wrapped both arms around her and kissed her cheeks. “This is the way I greet my mother. It’s a fortunate man who can do both.”

  Gina Franconi laughed as she returned her son’s hug. “To you, all women are beautiful.”

  “But only one is my mother.” With his arm around her waist, he led her inside.

  Gina approved, as always, the fact that his home was spotless, if a bit too exotic for her taste. She often wondered how the poor maid managed to keep the ornately carved archways dusted and polished and the hundreds of windowpanes unstreaked. Because she was a woman who’d spent fifteen years of her life cleaning other people’s homes and forty cleaning her own, she thought of such things.

  She studied one of his new acquisitions, a three-foot ivory owl with a small rodent captured in one claw. A good wife, Gina mused, would guide her son’s tastes toward less eccentric paths.

  “An aperitif, Mama?” Carlo walked over to a tall smoked-glass cabinet and drew out a slim black bottle. “You should try this,” he told her as he chose two small glasses and poured. “A friend sent it to me.”

  Gina set aside her red snakeskin bag and accepted the glass. The first sip was hot, potent, smooth as a lover’s kiss and just as intoxicating. She lifted a brow as she took the second sip. “Excellent.”

  “Yes, it is. Anna has excellent taste.”

  Anna, she thought, with more amusement than exasperation. She’d learned years before that it didn’t do any good to be exasperated with a man, especially if you loved him. “Are all your friends women, Carlo?”

  “No.” He held his glass up, twirling it. “But this one was. She sent me this as a wedding present.”


  “Her wedding,” Carlo said with a grin. “She wanted a husband, and though I couldn’t accommodate her, we parted friends.” He held up the bottle as proof.

  “Did you have it analyzed before you drank any?” Gina asked dryly.

  He touched the rim of his glass to hers. “A clever man turns all former lovers into friends, Mama.”

  “You’ve always been clever.” With a small movement of her shoulders she sipped again and sat down. “I hear you’re seeing the French actress.”

  “As always, your hearing’s excellent.”

  As if it interested her, Gina studied the hue of the liqueur in her glass. “She is, of course, beautiful.”

  “Of course.”

  “I don’t think she’ll give me grandchildren.”

  Carlo laughed and sat beside her. “You have six grandchildren and another coming, Mama. Don’t be greedy.”

  “But none from my son. My only son,” she reminded him with a tap of her finger on his shoulder. “Still, I haven’t given you up yet.”

  “Perhaps if I could find a woman like you.”

  She shot him back arrogant look for arrogant look. “Impossible, caro.”

  His feeling exactly, Carlo thought as he guided her into talk about his four sisters and their families. When he looked at this sleek, lovely woman, it was difficult to think of her as the mother who’d raised him, almost single-handedly. She’d worked, and though she’d been known to storm and rage, she’d never complained. Her clothes had been carefully mended, her floors meticulously scrubbed while his father had spent endless months at sea.

  When he concentrated, and he rarely did, Carlo could recall an impression of a dark, wiry man with a black mustache and an easy grin. The impression didn’t bring on resentment or even regret. His father had been a seaman before his parents had married, and a seaman he’d remained. Carlo’s belief in meeting your destiny was un
wavering. But while his feelings for his father were ambivalent, his feelings for his mother were set and strong.

  She’d supported each of her children’s ambitions, and when Carlo had earned a scholarship to the Sorbonne in Paris and the opportunity to pursue his interest in haute cuisine, she’d let him go. Ultimately, she’d supplemented the meager income he could earn between studies with part of the insurance money she’d received when her husband had been lost in the sea he’d loved.

  Six years before, Carlo had been able to pay her back in his own way. The dress shop he’d bought for her birthday had been a lifelong dream for both of them. For him, it was a way of seeing his mother happy at last. For Gina it was a way to begin again.

  He’d grown up in a big, boisterous, emotional family. It gave him pleasure to look back and remember. A man who grows up in a family of women learns to understand them, appreciate them, admire them. Carlo knew about women’s dreams, their vanities, their insecurities. He never took a lover he didn’t have affection for as well as desire. If there was only desire, he knew there’d be no friendship at the end, only resentment. Even now, the comfortable affair he was having with the French actress was ending. She’d be starting a film in a few weeks, and he’d be going on tour in America. That, Carlo thought with some regret, would be that.

  “Carlo, you go to America soon?”

  “Hmm. Yes.” He wondered if she’d read his mind, knowing women were capable of doing so. “Two weeks.”

  “You’ll do me a favor?”

  “Of course.”

  “Then notice for me what the professional American woman is wearing. I’m thinking of adding some things to the shop. The Americans are so clever and practical.”

  “Not too practical, I hope.” He swirled his drink. “My publicist is a Ms. Trent.” Tipping back his glass, he accepted the heat and the punch. “I’ll promise you to study every aspect of her wardrobe.”