Cindy cares for her stepmother and sisters because she’s the oldest daughter, but they can’t understand why she’s determined to hide at home away from the snickers of gossipy townsfolk.
As Everland’s most eligible bachelor, Maxwell has been able to dodge the marital bullet. He needs a special kind of woman—one who doesn’t fear his darker, dominant sexual needs—one he can trust with his heart.
The mysterious beauty who appears at his father’s annual masquerade fulfills him like no other. When she disappears at midnight, he vows to find her, bind her, and never let her go again.
A small smile curved her lips, and flames licked her cheeks. She dipped her chin, uncertain whether she wanted him to see how bad he made her blush.
Her gaze dropped back to that whip, and a shocking sense of heady anticipation streaked through her body. A thrill she’d never before experienced.
It added a touch of danger she found somehow exciting, or maybe she sensed an adventure just from being able to speak to him again after so many years of watching him from afar. Though she tried to calm her nerves with a mental reminder that he was the host and therefore expected to mingle among all of his guests, she was still happy to have had him approach her first.
And I’m not the klutz with strewn groceries this time.
Thank God for my mask!
He tipped his head to the side, still smiling. “Are you hungry?” He glanced at the food-laden table at their side.
She shook her head and licked her lips, then forced herself not to make a face at the taste of lipstick.
He’d spoken softly, almost a husky whisper, and the topic of conversation was innocent, but the man was dangerous to her equilibrium. Just standing there so close to her, he made her desire things she shouldn’t, yearn to do things she mustn’t, and yet, anonymity made her bolder than she’d expected. Cindy felt liberated with her mask in place.
She realized she could be as brazen as she’d always dreamed she could be. Tonight was the one night she was free of her normal responsibilities, free to be herself—the only night she might ever have to enjoy time with a man she was very attracted to—and not have to worry about the consequences or deal with the physical pain that normally limited her to a daily routine of safe, dutiful solitude.
“Thirsty?” He made a point of looking at the glass she still held in her hand.
She shook her head again.
“Mute?” he asked with a hint of humor behind the word.
She laughed—giggled really, something she couldn’t remember doing in a very long time. “No, I’m not mute.”
“Well then, while we converse and get to know each other, perhaps you’d like to dance.” He’d spoken it as a statement more than a question and gave her scant time to react. Before she could even decide how she should respond, he took the glass from her, deposited it on the tray of a passing waiter, and led her by the hand into the milieu of dancers.
“Uh…well…” Her fingers tingled where his touched hers. “I… It’s been…” And then she was in his arms, her hand clasped firmly in his and her other laid upon his shoulder as he swung her around in a lively waltz.
“It’s been…?” he queried.
She tried counting her steps. One, two, three. One, two, three. The last thing she wanted was to step on Maxwell Princeton’s toes! “A long time…” Two, three. One, two, three. “…since I danced. I’m not very good.”
“Ahh, but you’re as graceful as a ballerina.”
The counting forgotten, she looked into his eyes as pain pierced her soul. “Only tonight,” she whispered to herself.
Maxwell heard her murmured words and wondered at the sadness he noticed, but he didn’t comment on it because he sensed a query now would spoil the moment. So instead, he pulled her slim body closer to his and weaved through the dancers.
In the brief amount of time he’d spent with her, he’d learned a lot about his mysterious party guest. Before he’d even greeted her, he’d discovered she was much more than a pretty woman. With a unique mix of spunk and sincerity, she was more genuine than anyone else there. The joy in her eyes was as evident as the concern that dampened her smile.
What he didn’t know was her identity, and that was about to drive him mad.
“Tell me your name,” he said, wanting to banish the melancholy expression from her face. His command worked better than he could’ve hoped.
Her brilliant blue gaze collided with his. Her eyes seemed to twinkle with merriment, and her ruby lips curved anew.
“Now, Maxwell, you should know better. What kind of spoilsport do you take me for that you’d ask me to reveal my identity at a masquerade?”
So she knew him. His gaze narrowed. She appeared delighted that he did not recognize her. He tried to place her by voice, but no name came to mind. Her eyes? They were a pale aqua, almost gray, and very beautiful. No, he would’ve remembered her eyes if he’d ever seen them.
The feel of her body next to his? That thought made his cock hard as granite, but it brought him no closer to solving the mystery of her identity. She didn’t feel familiar. She felt new, unique, and perfect in his arms. Not familiar at all.
Needing a distraction from his body’s reaction to her presence, he muttered, “You have me at a disadvantage, ma’am.”
She laughed, a light airy sound that made him smile. “I’ll bet that’s rare indeed, sir,” she said, taking on the same formality he’d used, although her words were laced with amusement.
She was right. He seldom found himself at a loss for words or confounded by events in his life. He was a man mature enough to know what he wanted, strong enough to work hard for it, and powerful enough to achieve it. He was also man enough to admit that her ability to thwart him intrigued him. She attracted him and his deeper desires like none other.
“But I disagree,” she added, which brought him back to the matter at hand.
“Yes.” She smiled up at him from behind a pretty mask of small feathers. “You have many advantages that supersede my own.”
He twirled them around and murmured in her ear, “Oh, and what might they be?” He already knew she looked beyond superficial wealth and privilege; she’d made that clear when she put Josh in his place, but what did she value?
“You’re taller and stronger than I am.”
His lips quirked. “That’s only advantageous if we were to arm wrestle.”
She grinned. “And you’re armed.”
Ah, yes, the whip. He’d caught her curious glances earlier. Could she possibly share his interests? She didn’t seem as appalled by its presence as his father had been. His father had frowned at him the instant he spotted the black leathery coils and Maxwell’s lack of more formal attire.
“And just what do you intend to do with that, young man? This isn’t a costume party.”
That had led to a debate—he refused to consider it an argument—over Maxwell’s independent nature and his father’s desire to see him settle down.
“I would’ve expected a sword,” she said, drawing him from his rumination.
“A sword?” No, he wasn’t into knife play.
“Yes, a sword or foil, like Zorro.”
“But I think the whip suits you.”
This conversation had taken an agreeable turn. She appeared comfortable enough now to tease him. He smiled as he dipped her over his arm to end the dance on the last note of music. “You do, huh?”
Breathlessly, she answered, “Yes, a darker, more dangerous Indiana Jones is definitely your style.”
Laughing, he lifted her back onto her feet, but when she moved to step away, he pulled her closer. She fit against him as if she’d been made for him. “Not so fast.”
“The music is over,” she said, although she didn’t try to pull away.
“Since you won’t reveal your name, tell me this. What ‘style’ do you prefer, my mysterious lady?”
“Oh, definitely dark and dangerous. And you? What’s your preference?”
“I like ladies of mystery who take pleasure in a taste of danger,” he answered, enjoying their exchange enough to ignore the start of the next song. While others took the floor around them, he remained still with her held in his embrace.
“Do you know…” she began but stopped.
“Know what?” he murmured, wanting her to finish the thought, praying she was thinking what he was.
“You do know how to wield it, don’t you?” He felt her give the whip at his hip a nudge or tug.
Their breaths mingled as she stared up at him, and though he couldn’t see her whole face, her eyes told him all he needed to know.
“Come with me.”