The Peacock and the Firebird - Julia Talbot This book, released as early as 2005, is one of those early gems of our genre that doesn't deserve to be forgotten amont the wealth of great new books released every day. Part of the "Rossi Family tales" series, this book features rich Italian businessman Santino Rossi and expatriate American Anthony Tardino, who has abandoned his well-paid job in NY in order to become a maschiere, a mask maker, in Venice. Anthony is a quick study, and he becomes so good in his trade of choice that he soon has his own mask shop right in the heart of Venice. This is where he first meets Santino, who is going to hold a big masked ball at his palazzo and comissions Anthony with a huge amount of custom-made masks. Right from the moment they first meet, both men feel a strange attraction. At first they don't act on it, held back by conventions, but soon it becomes too much to resist. As they get closer to each other, and as the day of the ball approaches, Anthony again and again experiences strange visions which lead him to run away from Santino several times. It gets worse when Santino's widespread, eccentric family comes into play. Santino has visions of his own, but he reacts differently to them - they make him feel protective of Anthony and only deepen the feelings he has for the American. Soon it becomes evident that it is shadows from the past that haunt Anthony and Santino, something to do with Santino's ancient house.They realize they must find and break the spell, or they will never find peace and happiness together. The Venice setting and the unusual topic of maskmaking clearly worked in favor of this story; more than a backdrop, the Serenissima was almost a character of her own. Santino was just as much the stereotypical Italian hot-blood as he was a sensual, possesive, slightly imperious nobleman. He could have made an appearance in a historical novel without any other changes than the clothing. Anthony, the more sensitive and delicate of the two, was still determined enough to escape the damsel-in-distress-cliché; and the other Rossis were vivid and colorful characters in their own rights. I loved the way how the ghost story and the modern narrative streak interwove and blended into each other, finding a culmination point in the masked ball in the end. Once again, Venice was the perfect setting for this kind of tale since this time-honored city breathes history and never seems to have entered the 21th century entirely. The writing mirrored the shift in Anthony's and Santino's relationship, going from rather stilted and formal telling to vivid showing the closer both heroes got. This subtle shift pulled me right in and made the book a page turner. It certainly didn't hurt that the sex scenes were scorching hot while at the same time managing to convey tender and loving feelings. This book could have easily been a classical off-the mill bodice ripper with two male protagonists, but Venice, the quirky secondary staff and the deeply emotional portraying of the male heroes made it was something much better. Highly recommended.