Under Her Skin, page 1
Who would believe that the world-famous supermodel Iris Lujan has a care in the world? Only Mexican gardener, Torien Pacias, who sees through Iris’s facade and offers gentle understanding and friendship when Iris most needs it. Though Torien senses the passion smoldering between them, she doesn’t dare imagine a future with Iris. She is like royalty, and Torien is a woman of simple needs and weighty family obligations. But, how long can Torien resist the charms of this untouchable woman she longs to claim for her own?
Second in the Amigas y Amor Series
Under Her Skin
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By the Author
Amigas y Amor Series
Little White Lie
Under Her Skin
Under Her Skin
© 2010 By Lea Santos. All Rights Reserved.
ISBN 10: 1-60282-162-3E
ISBN 13: 978-1-60282-162-0E
This Electronic Book is published by
Bold Strokes Books, Inc.
P.O. Box 249
Valley Falls, New York 12185
First Edition: August 2010
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
This book, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.
Editor: Stacia Seaman
Production Design: Stacia Seaman
Cover Design By Sheri (GraphicArtist2020@hotmail.com)
Thank you to the BSB family. Thank you to my family, both genetic and chosen. Most of all, thank you to the family of readers who support lesbian fiction so fervently. You all totally rock.
To my abuelo, Eusebio, and my sweet abuelita, Amada, for showing me every day that everyone—regardless of race, ethnicity, appearance, religion, socioeconomic status, weird grooming habits, or a penchant for drinking OJ straight from the carton—is worthy of love. And to my amazing, exasperating, brilliant dad. We butted heads like two stubborn rams, but thank you for trusting me to join the crew and be one of the “invisible Mexicans with the leaf blower” that college summer long ago (although the bikini probably didn’t help with the invisibility factor, but hey, I was nineteen). Still, it’s one of the best memories of you and me. Twenty-one years have flown by. I miss you.
“You have got to be kidding me.” Dismay gripped Iris Lujan’s stomach as tightly as she white-knuckled her BlackBerry. “Tonight?”
“It’s short notice, sweetheart, but I just got word myself,” said her longtime business manager, Geraline Moreno, as though completely disrupting Iris’s schedule was the least of her worries. “It took artful maneuvering to work a Denver layover into Antoine’s schedule.” Geraline sniffed. “He’s due here in Milan day after tomorrow. The least you can do is work with me.”
Antoine, Schmantoine. Iris would rather shave her head shiny bald than spend the evening in the brain-melting company of Ego Boy. So what if he was the modeling world’s newest designer underwear sensation. Every time she’d been around him, he’d acted like a shallow, conceited, Generation Millennial twit. It shamed her enough just knowing they shared the same career. Being seen in public with him? Over the top. “Can’t he go alone?”
“You’re better with the media.”
“A potted plant is better with the media, Geraline. That’s not my problem,” she said in a peevish voice. “Why should I have to suffer because Antoine’s a dumbass? I’m supposed to be on vacation, you know.”
“I’m asking for one night.”
“Vacation,” she sang.
“One short evening. Is that too much to ask?”
“One long, tedious evening with the big blond womanizing egomaniac, just because he can’t handle his own career where the media is concerned? Damn right it’s too much to ask. I’m not a babysitter.”
“I know, dear.”
“You know, some models should just be photographed and remain silent.”
Iris massaged her temples. “Do you realize how long it has been since I’ve taken a real vacation?”
“I’ve been your manager for thirteen years, cupcake. Of course I know.”
“Yeah, ever heard of a rhetorical question? And don’t call me cupcake.” She emitted a humorless huff and padded barefoot out onto the vast stone terrace overlooking Geraline’s perfectly manicured gardens—Iris’s favorite part of Gerri’s Denver estate. The warm spring air swirled the ankle-length sundress around her calves.
“Look,” Geraline said, in a conciliatory tone. “I know you don’t particularly like Antoine—”
“He’s a twenty-one-year-old, self-absorbed dumbass!”
“But once you get past the cameras at the restaurant opening, just avoid him, okay?”
Iris shook her head in dismay. “If you’ll recall, Antoine is harder to shake than a smoking habit. And he continues to hit on me, Ger, even though he knows damn well I’m gay. That infuriates me. You know it does, and you said you would talk to him about it.”
“Settle down, Iris. Like you said, he’s twenty-one. And male. It’s hormonal.”
“Not my problem.”
“Well, having a hot commodity like Antoine hit on you in public is good for your image.”
“Ger, get it through your head. I don’t care if people know I’m gay.”
“You don’t. But some of your big accounts may.”
Iris scoffed. “Do they know what year it is, for God’s sake?”
“Just smile and sparkle and do your thing, that’s all I’m asking.” Geraline paused, then turned on the charm. “There will be lots of media VIPs there. Where’s that can-do attitude you’ve always had?”
Iris scowled. Gerri’s schmoozing wouldn’t cut it this time. “It went from can-do to did-too-much to don’t-wanna-do-no-more, because I’m burned out. And, hey—check out this fresh concept—I’m on va-ca-tion. That’s supposed to mean six whole weeks without working.”
Gerri’s long, put-upon sigh carried over the transcontinental phone lines, but she remained otherwise silent.
Uh-oh. Here it came, seeping in like groundwater through a poorly sealed basement. The big “G” began to slowly drown Iris’s conscience, and she flailed. Guilt had always been her downfall, damned Catholic upbringing. Since Geraline was in Milan, she had generously invited Iris to spend her vacation at the Denver estate. This option simultaneously gave Iris the breathing space she needed to recharge, and allowed her to be near family and friends without the inconvenience of invading their guest rooms and disrupting their daily routines. She supposed she owed Geraline one stupid night, no matter how horrific she knew it would be. “Fine. If you’re going to subject me to the silent treatment, I’ll go. But I’m not happy about it.”
“That’s my girl.” Geraline’s triumphant smile oozed through every syllable, which only increased Iris’s grumpiness. “I don’t even mind if you sulk, sweet cheeks. Just look pretty while you do it.”
Look pretty? Zing! The grumpiness meter shot off the scale. Iris clenched her jaw and wondered just how many times she’d heard that phrase pop out of Geraline’s mouth over the years. Thousands? Millions? “Gimme a break,” she mumbled. Gerri’s money-obsessed brain held Iris trapped in a gilded box. She was the visual package—period
There were models like Antoine; then there was her.
“What’s with you lately, kiddo?” Geraline seemed unduly solicitous all of a sudden, having won the battle of wills. “You used to be so enthusiastic about your job.”
The subtle caring notes in Geraline’s voice urged Iris to succumb. She didn’t want to bear this mental burden alone anymore. She sank onto a chaise and pulled her shades off the top of her head onto the bridge of her nose. The late-afternoon sun glared over the jutted blue frame of the Rockies. She sighed. “I don’t know. My heart’s just not in it.”
“Now, there’s a news flash,” Gerri said in a wry tone. “My question is why? Especially at this stage in your career.”
Iris bristled at Gerri’s flippant manner, not to mention the veiled insult. Her emotional drawbridge creaked back up, slammed closed. “Meaning I’m old?”
Geraline’s hesitation gave Iris all the answer she needed. Still, Gerri added, “Well, we both know modeling years are like dog years, babe. You’ve got to admit, you’re getting a little gray around the snout.”
“Thanks a lot,” Iris groused, irritated partly because she knew Geraline was right, but mostly because she’d almost been dumb enough to forget Gerri’s relentless business agenda long enough to think, even for a split second, that spilling her guts to the woman would be a comfort.
Facts were facts, however. Iris had been modeling since the age of seventeen, and at thirty, she truly was edging over the hill, by industry standards. According to Geraline, Iris should be grateful for every contract she received.
Ironically, it was precisely her stage in life that made Iris feel so…unsettled. She had recently signed a new high-dollar but demanding print contract with Jolie Cosmetique, which started in six weeks. In Paris. It was a great assignment, one she would’ve celebrated landing only a couple of years ago. But she wasn’t the only one aging; her parents had grown older, too. Did she really want to live so far away from them—and her friends—for the next three years? Alone?
Come to think of it, that was getting old, too.
After thirteen years, the fast-track, jet-setting lifestyle wasn’t quite so fun anymore. She appreciated all the luck she’d had. Modeling—especially at the level she’d reached—had been extremely lucrative. It had secured her future and made her famous, and for that, she’d be forever grateful. But none of it—fame, money, world travel—mitigated the degradation of being treated like a piece of meat who should shut up and look pretty, or the sense of isolation that had begun to weigh heavily on her.
The last time she’d met with the heads of Jolie, they’d walked around her poking and prodding, talking about her in third person as if she were 110 pounds of horseflesh on the bidding block. She hated feeling less than human, yet that’s exactly how this industry had begun to make her feel. That incident hadn’t been the first.
“Did she put on a couple pounds?” the prospective clients would ask, directing their questions to anyone but her. “Her stomach looks poochy.”
“Too ethnic. Will she go blond?”
“She’s ill? Well, drug her up and get her over here. We’ve got a schedule to keep. Besides, the junkie look is red hot right now.”
Blech. A seventeen-year-old ingénue might be able to tolerate such demeaning treatment, but it was slightly harder to stomach at thirty. She’d begun to feel like a sell-out, sacrificing who she was for what she did. Was it wrong that she yearned for a deeper purpose, for something to make her feel more…rooted? But how could she explain this soul-deep need to a businesswoman like Geraline, for whom success was measured in designer labels and dollar signs?
“Iris?” Geraline’s voice had softened, and a swirl of worry ribboned through it. “What’s going on with you?”
“Nothing. Really,” she lied, resolutely unwilling to bare her soul now. “Just tired.”
“You’re excited about Jolie, right? I mean, that’s a big one. I hope you realize that.”
What could Iris say? If she admitted her reluctance to spend three years in France, Geraline would hound her daily trying to bolster her spirits, which would only have the opposite effect. “It’ll be fine, but right now I’m in desperate need of relaxation, and that’s all I’m thinking about. I just…I need these six weeks off to recharge.” That was as honest as she could be. “Don’t worry, I’ll go to the opening with that asshat Antoine, so stop sucking up.”
Gerri didn’t. “I appreciate the team player attitude, Iris. I really do. I know more than anyone how hard you work, and I promise I won’t spring anything else on you after this until I see you at De Gaulle Airport in six weeks. Okay?”
Iris smiled wearily. “I’m holding you to that.”
“Deal. What are your plans for vacation?”
“I haven’t set any yet,” she said. Sleeping and visiting her friends and family were high on the list. Anything to take her mind off her troubles and doubts. “I’m sure I’ll find something enthralling to keep me busy.”
“Good. You get over this hurdle with Antoine, and you’re home free.” Geraline chuckled. “Try to have a good time tonight. I’ll call you tomorrow and see how it went. Oh”—she clucked with regret—“one more teensy little thing. I told Antoine he could stay there at the house tonight—”
“What?” Iris’s backbone went rigid. Geraline always dropped bombs just when Iris had let her guard down. “Damnit, Geraline!”
“Listen, you don’t have to entertain him—the house is plenty big enough for the two of you—but please don’t kill him before he boards his flight to Milan tomorrow morning. That’s all I ask.”
“Talk to you later, Iris. Play nice.” Click.
Fuck. Iris slammed her cell phone onto the table next to the chaise. She hated being manipulated, yet it seemed to be happening more frequently lately. Or maybe she’d just grown less tolerant of it.
A honeysuckle-scented breeze from the gardens wafted up and caught her attention. She turned toward it, hoping it would wash over her face and dispel some of her annoyance, but a movement below caught her eye. She stretched up to investigate. Aha, Geraline’s new gardener, Torien. She’d just emerged from behind the gazebo, freshly cut cream and red roses cradled in her sun-browned arms.
Iris floundered up out of the chair with all the grace of a woman with her ass stuck in a barrel. Smoothing her dress, she tiptoed to the railing for a better look, even though doing so made her feel like a voyeuristic tramp. But, holy crap, if anything was worth gawking at… Iris bit her lip.
Torien’s sleeveless shirt was buttoned low enough to expose a good portion of her sports bra, like she’d thrown it over her body as an afterthought. Sweat glistened on her defined delts and the exposed area of her chest. Mud caked the bottoms of her worn jeans and work boots. Her callused hands—Lord, get a load of those hands—were clearly unafraid of hard, honest, sweaty work.
“Hijole…” Iris watched Torien walk in lanky strides to the side of the potter’s cottage and lay the roses gently on a workbench. Bending, she cranked open the garden hose spigot, removed her shirt, and proceeded to splash cold water over her face and chest. She seemed oblivious to the water drenching her baby blue sports bra until her nipples stood at delectable attention, unmindful of the fact that streams traversed the hard planes of her abs to soak into the waistband of those faded, just-baggy-enough-to-be-hella-sexy jeans.
Iris’s throat constricted. Oh…my freaking God.
She could use a little cold splash herself.
If the designers had any sense at all, they’d hire real women like Torien to model their underwear rather than emaciated, vacant-eyed teenage girls. They’d make a killing.
Torien twisted the faucet closed, then arch
Iris pressed a hand to her swirling tummy. Nothing compared to the look of hard, physical work on a woman. She wondered what someone like Torien daydreamed about while she dug her hands in the cool, black soil. Certainly not money and designer suits and image.
Iris hadn’t met Torien in person yet, though she’d heard the head housekeeper and one of the young cooks tittering about her the other night. Now she understood why. Torien was one hundred percent unassuming hotness. Dark. Gorgeous. And awfully tall. At an inch short of six feet herself, Iris appreciated Torien’s stature. Not that she didn’t find petite women attractive, mind you. But every once in a while, she yearned for an even playing field.
Iris tilted her head to the side and studied Torien’s solid, shapely form, strictly for comparison’s sake. Yep. They’d be just about eye to eye, mouth to mouth, chest to—
Torien’s hot, direct gaze flicked to Iris’s and held, as though drawn by Iris’s unabashed thoughts and brazen scrutiny. Yikes. Iris was full-on ogling the woman. She knew she was ogling, knew she’d been busted. Still, she couldn’t make herself stop.
Instead, she ventured a goofy little finger wave and a tremulous “caught me lookin’” smile. For a moment, Torien’s eyes widened with something akin to surprise, recognition, maybe even shock. But no smile followed. No wave. The muscles in her jaw moved before she hastily threw her shirt back on and jerked her attention back to her work.
Iris released a breath of absolute admiration. Now, there was a woman.
The contrast between Torien and Iris’s ex-girlfriend, a pop/rock singer on the platinum rise, was staggering. Hard to believe the two of them belonged to the same species, let alone the same gender. Still, as mesmerizing as Geraline’s new gardener was, that annoyingly familiar bedfellow—guilt—assailed Iris again. Torien wasn’t a piece of meat, and regardless of her world-class, pulsating sexual draw, Iris shouldn’t have stared at her like that.
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