Olivia Davenport peered over the glossy wood balustrade of the balcony to the ballroom below. What an array of dazzling colors and costumes. And the orchestra! Didn’t a girl dream of nights like this? Glimmering gowns. Men in tuxedos. Enchanting music. But best of all…a masquerade. She nabbed a dance card from a basket at the head of the stairs and stuffed it inside her small black velvet purse before drawing the strings tight and looping it over her arm.
“You are absolutely stunning,” said a low voice from somewhere in front of her.
She looked up, certain some gentleman was speaking to his wife or a date, but there was only a man leaning against the wall across from her, his arms crossed over his chest, staring at her. At least, she assumed he was staring at her. Laughter bubbled out of her throat at the incongruous sight he made.
His lips formed a smirk. “I don’t usually get that reaction when I tell a woman she’s beautiful.”
Olivia gestured at her own mask then pointed to his. “It must be that Star Trek visor. I wasn’t aware this was a character ball. Are you Geordi from Star Trek the Next Generation?”
“Actually, my nephew seemed to think this was a more suitable mask.” He shoved away from the wall and approached Olivia. “I’m crushed you don’t like it, when I find you eminently suitable, even hauntingly provocative.”
Olivia laughed again. He was ridiculously outlandish, and she liked him for it. “You are either the cheesiest pick-up artist I’ve ever met or…”
“Or?” He leaned close to peer at her eyes. “My, my. Are your eyes…amber? Positively mesmerizing. Please tell me you don’t wear colored contacts. I’ll be crushed.”
“You are definitely a practiced flirt, but you’d need to be with that visor. It doesn’t exactly fit the well-groomed image portrayed by this expensive black tux and…” She reached a hand to his chest and raked a fingernail past the buttons, inordinately pleased at his sudden intake of breath. “Jet studs?” She looked up at the visor where his eyes should be. “That is genuine jet, is it not?”
“Why would you say the tux is expensive?”
She crossed her arms over her chest. “Really? First, the quality of the workmanship. Second, it fits you perfectly, as if it were custom-made. But, I’d lose the visor. It ruins the entire image.”
“You wound me. I thought it lent a rather dashing air.” His hand slid in his pocket. “But I also brought aviator glasses…just in case. This thing was made for a juvenile. It’s horribly tight.”
He reached up to pull the visor off, and Olivia grasped his hand. “No! You can’t. We mustn’t learn each other’s true identity.”
“Ahh, a game. I like games.” He tilted his head slightly. “If you promise to stay just there, I’ll go in that men’s room and change.”
“I promise to wait on the settee.” She pointed. “If I have to wear these heels all night, I’m going to take every opportunity to rest my feet.”
He took her arm and walked her to the settee and waited while she sat and spread out her dress. The huge skirt took up most of the seat. He swiveled on his heel and walked toward the restroom. Just before entering, he turned back to her. “Now, you promised. If I have to spend the remainder of the night hunting you down, I will. Believe me, you’d find me an awful pest.”
“Oh, I believe you.”
He grinned at her, reaching for the door. What a devastating smile. Perfectly even, white teeth that had surely been obtained through braces and bleach. He was dangerously handsome, even with that silly visor. But why was she waiting on him when there was a ballroom full of men at the bottom of those stairs? She wanted to dance the night away, not sit here idly waiting on a lunatic.
She smiled. A comical lunatic, who was quite possibly one of the loveliest men she’d ever seen. He might not be the tallest, probably just under six feet, but he had at least five inches on her, and wide shoulders with a very firm torso. She knew this from running her finger down his shirt. What had possessed her to be as forward as he was acting?
It must be the gorgeous black and gold mask. It made her bolder. Perhaps anonymity made him bolder as well.
Suddenly, the door opened, and he rushed out. “Oh, good. I was afraid you’d left.”
“I thought about it.”
He dropped beside her, picking up the edge of her dress to settle against her side as if he had every right. “And why would you do that when I couldn’t wait to get back to you?”
She tilted her head to examine him. In those mirrored glasses, he appeared even more handsome…except for the red indentations left by the visor. She reached up and rubbed at them. “Does it hurt?”
“Feels like heaven.” His low, sultry voice stilled the movement of her fingers. “Don’t stop. Don’t ever stop.”
“I didn’t come to give a facial massage.”
“Why did you come? Please tell me it was to meet me.”
“To dance…and to meet you.”
His face transformed with delight as he captured both her hands in his. “I have a proposition for you.” He shook his head when she opened her mouth to speak. “Not that kind of proposition. To be brutally honest, I’m a Christian and I don’t have sex with young ladies.”
“That was rather brutal. So, you’re saving yourself for someone special?”
“I am. Now…about the proposition-”
“Aren’t you going to ask my views on promiscuous sex?”
“It isn’t polite.”
Olivia pulled one of her hands from his grasp and covered her mouth as she laughed. “There’s been nothing polite about our conversation. Rather shocking, don’t you think?”
“I think I like holding both your hands.” He captured her fingers again then sighed dramatically. “Much better. As I was saying…I propose we say whatever outrageous thing comes to mind. Being completely truthful and transparent with one another all night…Oh, and you have to dance every dance with me.”
“What if I’ve already had young men sign my dance card? You wouldn’t want me to disappoint them, would you?”
“I absolutely want you to disappoint every man in the building, save me, but I saw you pick up a dance card. I’d wager it’s still blank…unless someone made a move on you while I was switching headgear…” He looked around the balcony, but there was no one present. “Well?”
“Excellent. My name is-”
“Ah. Ah. Ah. No names…that’s part of the game. I agree to your terms as long as we remain anonymous. We say whatever we feel but only under the cover of this masquerade. You reveal your identity, you forfeit my company.”
He pursed his lips. “That doesn’t sound at all fair. I can’t say, hey you, all night. It doesn’t suit your beauty.”
“You’re such a charmer.”
“Am I really?”
“Oh, yes. Are you always like this, or has the mask given you courage?”
“I’m probably not this audacious in the light of day. In point of fact, I may be rather dull. It’s you. I saw you standing there, and I had to…know you.”
Olivia stared at him for a moment. Without being able to see his eyes through those mirrored lenses, it was difficult to tell if he was jesting. His lips formed the barest smile as he waited for her answer. She really had nothing to lose. He didn’t know her name. She didn’t know his. She could walk away at the end of the masquerade. No harm done.
“You may call me Jane, and I’ve never…been…with a man.”
He offered her the most beautiful smile yet. “Thank you, Jane. Might there be a particular reason you’ve never…been…with a man?”
He really did mean to say whatever he thought. Could she be that uncensored?
“I want to be married before I experience that type of intimacy…because I’m a Christian.”
“I so want to kiss you right now.”
Laugher bubbled out of her mouth. “Virginity is an aphrodisiac?”
“You have no idea. Don’t you want to kiss me? Remember…full disclosure.”
“I do, but I think I’ll wait.” She leaned closer, smiling, as she whispered. “And save the best for last. You may kiss me at the stroke of midnight.”
Inches from her face, he didn’t move, breathing in and out, but his fingers caressed hers, light touches that made her hands tingle. Finally, he leaned very close, until their faces were almost touching. “I agree, but you’ll have to give me something to tide me over.” He dropped her hand and pointed at his cheek. “Right here…a kiss to seal the deal. You’re mine for the evening, and you kiss me on the lips…at midnight.”
Olivia cupped his cheeks and brought her face to his. The scent of his cologne was enough to drive her senses wild. She’d never understood when women said that, but this man smelled divine. Before she could change her mind, she licked the tip of his nose.
He gasped and jerked away. “You little minx. Now I want to kiss you even more.”
“Then I achieved my purpose. What am I to call you?”
“John. John and Jane. It has a nice ring to it.”
An older couple came, laughing, up the stairs, and Olivia pulled away from him. The privacy of their seclusion may have made her foolish. What was she thinking? To offer to kiss a complete stranger?
“No, Jane. I won’t have it.”
“It’s written all over your sweet face. You aren’t changing your mind about our night together. We made a deal. You sealed the deal, remember? We’ll still respect one another and honor the Lord, but we play the game. For the duration of the masquerade.”
“Masquerade ’til midnight.”
He stood and held out his hand. “Want to dance? I hear a waltz.”
“I’d love to.”
Several couples had drifted upstairs now, and Olivia perused their costumes. Some of the men wore a tuxedo like John, but many favored medieval or renaissance costumes. Most sported a mask, at the very least, the simple black masks found at the entry to the ball.
“Why didn’t you grab one of those masks at the front door? They had an abundant supply for anyone who’d forgotten.”
“I didn’t come in there.”
“How did you get in?”
“Through the servant’s entrance.” He whisked her around a potted palm and past several couples lining the refreshment stand. “No more questions.”
“Are you always this bossy?”
He stepped on the dance floor and pulled her against his chest as one arm wrapped around her waist. “I usually know what I want, and I’m authoritative because my job requires it, but I wouldn’t say I’m bossy in personal matters. But we aren’t supposed to discover personal details, so I’m merely steering you from questions I can’t answer.”
“I see.” But she didn’t. How did entering through the employee’s door tell her who he was? “What is it you do?”
“I can’t tell you that either. What do you do?”
She thought of the number of hours she’d spent designing tonight’s charity event, and she couldn’t even tell him. He swirled her around, and she leaned into him so her mouth rested near his ear. “I can’t say.”
“My, my. Are you sure you aren’t a professional temptress? When you whisper in my ear like that, I want to turn all the clocks to midnight.”
“Did you just call me a prostitute?”
Laughter spluttered from his attractive mouth. “I did no such thing. Not intentionally. So, you aren’t a professional temptress. Are you a model?”
“Nothing like that. Are you supposed to be asking such questions?”
“Probably not. How about we get one personal question each…one that doesn’t reveal our names.”
“Fine. Do you live in the city?”
“I do. Are you afraid you won’t ever see me again after tonight?” His fingers slowly burned a path as he caressed the small of her back. She could scarcely think.
“Is that your question?”
“That’s hardly personal.”
“It’s very personal.”
He stopped dancing, and the other couples moved around them on the dance floor. “I want to see you again. Tomorrow, if you’re free.”
“I’m not. We should keep dancing before someone steps on us.”
He moved her back into the circle of those waltzing. “Why aren’t you free? Are you seeing someone else?”
“Is that your personal question?”
He frowned, waiting, as if he had to think about it. “No, and I think I’d like to change that rule.”
“Can’t. That’s one of the rules. Can’t change a rule.”
“Who made these rules?”
“This really hot guy.”
He threw back his head and laughed. “You think I’m hot?”
“I wish it was midnight.”
“I don’t. Our time together will end.”
“So, you do have someone else. How can you have someone else and feel about me as you do?”
“I never said that, and you don’t know how I feel.”
“I know how I feel.”
“How is that?”
Another dancer tapped John on the shoulder. “Can I cut in? The waltz is over.”
It was. They were standing perfectly still in a sea of people while John peered down at her. He twisted his head to gape at the intruder. “Sorry, she’s mine.”
And he led Jane off the dance floor. “May I see that dance card?”
She opened the strings on her purse and pulled out the card to hand it over.
He slipped a gold pen out of his pocket and signed each line. “There. Now, you can say your dance card’s full. Would you like some refreshments?”
She watched him as he looked toward the bar, such a commanding presence. He might not think he was bossy, but he was definitely sure of what he wanted. And he seemed to want her for the duration of the evening. What would happen after that? Could she just forget this chance encounter? Suddenly, she had no desire to meet her brother tomorrow, even though she hadn’t seen him for close to a month. She’d been busy. He’d been busy, on call constantly at the hospital where he served out his residency.
“Jane?” John’s voice pulled her out of her reverie. “What were you thinking?”
“The other man. He isn’t important?”
“Oh, he’s important…hey, is that your personal question?”
“No. I’ve decided to pretend there is no other man. Only you and me.”
“Is that one of the rules?”
“The most important one.” He handed her a bottle of water, but he seemed distracted, his head turning to and fro as if he searched the crowd.
“Is something wrong?”
“I’ll be right back.”
He reached for her hand. “I’ll be back. I don’t want anything to ruin our night together.”
“I’ll visit the ladies’ room.”
He nodded and strode purposefully through the crowd. People moved out of his way. They always would. He had that sort of presence. Commanding. Provocative. Hot.
Whew! Enough of those thoughts.
She slipped into the powder room and found a throng of women, many commenting on how difficult it was to lift heavy ball gowns inside a small stall. Olivia looked down at her gold brocade. Even though she wasn’t wearing a hoop, the full skirt would never fit in a regular stall. She’d have to wait for the handicapped. She explained this to the restroom attendant and leaned back against the wall to wait.
A squeal brought her head around to a woman with deep brown hair, in a figure-hugging burgundy gown. “Oh my gosh! I knew that gold ensemble was the right choice. Especially the gold and black mask. With your blond hair, it’s absolutely stunning. Makes me want to bleach my hair.”
“Paige, don’t you dare. I’ve never seen lovelier mahogany hair. You look incredible. Have you danced yet?”
“Yes, I’m so glad you talked me into dancing lessons. I sailed right around the room. And my dance card’s about full. How ’bout you?”
Olivia held out her card.
“John. John. John… Seriously, one guy? Who is this nut, and why’d you let him take all your dances?”
“There’s just something about him. He’s kinda sweet…and dreamy…and sometimes corny.” Olivia shrugged. “I just like him. If you talked to him for five minutes, you’d understand.”
By the time Olivia finished relating her conversation with John, the attendant was waving her to the handicapped stall.
“My turn. Can you help?”
“Sure. So, tell me, what does this paragon of virtue and dreaminess look like?”
“Tall, dark hair, black tux, white shirt with black studs. I haven’t seen his eyes because he’s not wearing a mask.”
“Wait…is he that stud muffin in the mirrored aviator glasses?”
“Paige, you’re so funny. He’s not a stud muffin, but that’s him.”
“He’s waiting outside. Pretty committed, too. I saw numerous women walk out and give him the eye, but he completely ignored them. I even gave him the once over. He sort of reminds me of one of the interns at the hospital.”
Paige rolled her eyes. “Randall’s.”
“When are you going to pick a hospital and commit?”
“I don’t know. There’s something I like about each one. And I get paid more as a floater.”
“But you don’t get vacation time or benefits. Randall’s is the closest. Why can’t you work there?”
“Your brother drives me crazy…and not in a good way.”
“It’s a big hospital. You’d hardly see him.” Olivia smoothed her dress in place. “How do I look?”
“Picture perfect.” Paige tugged at the bodice of her own ball gown. “Do they have to make these things so authentic? Just because some Renaissance wench let her tatas flop out the top of her dress does not mean I want to.”
“What are you talking about? I can’t even tell you have boobs.”
“I meant peeking out the top. You’ve got plenty of boob right where it’s supposed to be…hidden in that dress. Some men prefer a little mystery and don’t want the whole world to see what should be theirs and theirs alone.”
“Preachin’ to the choir, sistah! You better get out there before stud muffin lets someone else take a bite of him.”
As soon as Olivia exited the door, John took her hand and placed it in the crook of his elbow. “What shall we talk about?”
“Let’s forget all the small talk and get down to what really matters.”
“What really matters?”
“Rainbows and unicorns.”
“Rather cliché for a fantasy ball, don’t you think?”
“I could have said mermaids and unicorns. You’re one to talk. You came wearing a total geek visor.”
He chuckled. “True.”
“Am I what?” He stopped at the edge of the dance floor, waiting for the orchestra to begin the next number.
He shook his finger at her. “You’ve already had your personal question, but I’m not a geek. Well, maybe a geek, but I was giving my nephew Alec a ride on the way here. His father is stationed in Afghanistan. Alec switched out the visor for the black mask I had hanging with my tux.”
“Your brother’s in Afghanistan?”
“Brother-in-law. I try to help my sister by lending a male voice of authority and by generally being around.”
“Aren’t you sweet!”
“Alec’s doing me the favor. The kid’s a riot. Eleven years old and knows more cheats on video games than I knew sports stats in college.”
“You went to college.”
“Not fair. I think you should do some talking.”
The band leader announced the next dance, and John bowed to her. “Milady…”
This dance required more shuffling with other partners, so Olivia didn’t have as much of an opportunity to speak with John. Every time they came together, they managed to say something.
“Star Trek or Star Gate?” he asked.
“Both. Definite geek. You?”
He disappeared around another woman then came back to her. “Star Gate, but not the last series. They completely lost me on that one.”
They bobbed, turned, and traded partners again. Olivia was left gawking up at an older, silver-haired man, slightly wrinkled and smiling as if he were having the best time. “May I have the next dance?”
“Sorry, I’m occupied.”
He trailed behind her, following the steps of the dance until he faced her again. He really was a beautiful dancer. “Perhaps the next?”
“I do apologize, but my card’s full.”
John took her hand again, and they formed a circle with the other dancers. “Call of Duty or Halo?”
“Need you ask? Aliens, every time.”
“I’m torn. I basically like to shoot things. There are definite advantages to both games.”
Olivia laughed as she was claimed by yet another dancer. When she reached John’s side, he raised a chagrined face to hers. “You meant, do I like music, didn’t you?”
“I did. Well?”
“Just about anything…but not Cajun or opera.”
“Pity. There’s an opera here in a couple of weeks.”
“I’d love to.”
“Just kidding. I like ballet, but not opera.”
“You didn’t just ask me on a date?”
“No. I’ll probably be working anyway.”
The song came to an end, and they bowed to the other dancers. John pulled her flush to his side and glanced from the orchestra on the stage to the refreshment table then raised a brow at her as if in question.
“Let’s dance,” she said.
The next dance was another waltz, and John held open his arms as the music began. She walked into them, and rested her cheek on his chest. She quite possibly could stay this way for the rest of the evening, even though her hat made the close contact slightly lopsided. His heartbeat sounded strong against her ear, and his hand at the small of her back was warm and so personal as his thumb formed little circles against her dress.
“What are you thinking?” he asked. “Full disclosure.”
“I could stay right here for the remainder of the night.”
“Just tonight? I think I could sleep like this. Days could go by.”
Olivia raised her head, laughing up at him. “Don’t like it so much when the tables are turned, do you?”
“Not true. I could stay this way because you fit perfectly in my arms, you’re beautiful, funny, intelligent, and kind to unicorns.”
“Don’t forget the mermaids.”
She waited for him to answer, peeking up at his face, one that had become extremely familiar to her in a short while. She felt she would know him anywhere, but for his eyes. If only she could see his eyes and not this reflection of herself. A reflection that told her she was letting this man see inside her very heart. Was he looking? She had to get him to take off the glasses.
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