Joshua Saxon, the arrogant millionaire who ran New Zealand's premier winery, believed Alyssa Blake had been his late brother's mistress. But the true connection between Alyssa and the Saxons was even more shocking.
From the first moment they met, both Alyssa and Joshua had been shaken by a passion that could not be denied. But what could the future hold for a man and woman with so many secrets and lies between them...?
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The annual Saxon's Folly masked ball was already in full swing when Alyssa Blake crept up the cobbled drive.
"Walk tall," she whispered to herself as she skirted the shadows between the rows of parked Mercedes and Daimler cars. "Look like you belong."
The winery's historic homestead came into sight, brightly lit against the dark sky. A triple-storey white Victorian building that had withstood more than a century of fires, floods and even an infamous Hawkes Bay earthquake. With every step the music grew louder, even though Alyssa couldn't yet see the partygoers.
At the top of the stone stairs a large uniformed man blocked the double, wooden front doors. Alyssa came to a halt.
She wavered for a moment, her heartbeat quickening as her eyes scanned the building.
"I've lost my invitation." She practised the timeworn excuse to herself under her breath. It sounded lame. Particularly as she'd never received one of the sought-after silver-embossed, midnight-blue invitations. If the guard took the time to check, he wouldn't find her on the guest list. But would he check?
Perhaps she could sashay past with a smile? What was the worst that could happen? The doorman, guard—or whatever he was—would fail to locate her on the list of invitees and demand her identity? No one would suspect Alyssa Blake, leading wine writer for Wine Watch magazine, of gate-crashing the annual Saxon's Folly masked ball. Or at least only the few who knew how much Joshua Saxon, CEO of Saxon's Folly Wines, detested Alyssa after the article she'd done a couple of years ago—and most people's memories didn't extend that far back.
There was a chance the burly doorman would let her in without a second glance. Wearing a long, ruby-red dress and her flamboyant black mask decorated with feathers and diamante studs, it was unlikely he'd suspect her being a gatecrasher. Alyssa hauled in a shaky breath.
She'd made up her mind to brazen her way past the doorman—guard, whatever—when a side door opened and light streaked out into the night. A couple slid out into the embrace of the darkness, laughing. The door swung closed but the latch failed to click shut.
Quickly, like a thief in the night, Alyssa slipped into the enormous homestead. She stood to one side of the entrance hall. Ahead of her, an imposing staircase swept upward.
At the top of the stairs Alyssa stepped into a different world—a world of wealth and privilege where women fluttered like designer-clad butterflies in the arms of men in dress suits and bow ties.
After one glance, she dismissed the dancers. Instead she scanned the vast reception room, searching... searching for the man she'd gone to the lengths of gate-crashing a masked ball to find.
"Have you just arrived?"
She looked up into a pair of glittering dark eyes shielded by a black mask.
"I'm a little late," she managed, her nerves rolling as the realisation sank in that she'd made it to the ball.
"Better late than never."
"Never say never," she quipped, wagging a finger at him.
He laughed. "A woman of strong opinions, right?"
"And proud of it."
His voice was husky, oddly familiar... and terribly sexy. A sweeping glance from behind her mask showed her that he was tall, the broad, hard planes of his body showing to best advantage in the superbly tailored dinner jacket. Dark hair topped his head while a black mask concealed his face. A handsome face, she speculated.
"Dance with me." He stretched an imperious arm out. Mr. Tall, Dark and Probably Handsome wasn't taking no for an answer.
Not that those attributes had any effect on her. She preferred her dates kind, caring and capable... qualities that were becoming harder to find. She stared at the demanding arm.
"I take it that silence means yes?"
Before she could object that it most definitely meant no the arm locked around her shoulder and he propelled her toward the dance floor. She started to object. She wasn't here to celebrate the budding of the new season's vines, she'd come with a purpose...and it wasn't to dance with this sexy, cocky stranger. But nor did she intend to cause a scene and be noticed.
If Joshua Saxon discovered her presence, he'd toss her out before she could even try to explain why she was here. Better not to cause a stir by refusing. At least she would blend in better with the crowd. And she could continue her search from the dance floor.
She let him sweep her into his arms and into the throng of dancers. The covetous glances her partner drew made her reevaluate whether this had been a good idea. Perhaps dancing with him would attract the attention she was so keen to avoid. She assessed him through her eyelashes, measuring what the other women saw: broad shoulders beautifully displayed in a dinner jacket, an uncompromising jawline. She glanced upward into eyes that gleamed behind the black mask.
"Do I know you?" he asked, his voice deep.
She considered that. If he was a member of the wine fraternity, they might have met at a wine show. It was possible he might have seen her during the occasional appearance she made on television, a guest spot on a food show... or perhaps he'd read her Wine Watch articles or the column she wrote for The Auck-lander newspaper. But none of those meant he knew her.
So she shook her head.
"Well, I'm going to enjoy seeing your face when we unmask at midnight—it's a tradition." As a pair of dancers jostled them, he leaned toward her. "Do you have a name, Oh Silent One?"
Alyssa hesitated, transfixed by the way the hard line of his mouth tilted up into a smile. The contrast was intriguing. "Alice," she said finally, using the name on her birth certificate rather than the name she'd reinvented herself under as a teenager.
"Alice?" Those lips curved further, deepening the sensual smile. "Do you feel as if you've stepped through the looking glass, Alice?"
If he only knew.
"A little," she confessed in a low voice.
He bent his head closer. "Does that mean this is the first spring masquerade you've attended?"
"That explains why you're not wearing a costume."
She let her gaze linger pointedly on his dinner jacket. "You're not in costume, either."
He shook his head. "Didn't have time to plan it this year."
A busy man, then. But he didn't need the trappings of a Robin Hood or a regency rake, she decided. He was commanding enough in his own right.
"Most women live to dress up."
His comment set her teeth on edge. "I am not most women."
He laughed softly. "I'll be even more intrigued to meet you face-to-face at midnight. So Alice, you don't like to dress up, but are you like all the Cinderellas—" he waved a dismissive hand at the beautiful women around them "—here to find a wealthy Prince Charming?" A tinge of cynicism coloured his deep voice.
"Definitely not here to find Prince Charming, wealthy or otherwise." But she shivered at his percipience. She was certainly here to find someone.
"You're not given to much conversation." He sounded far too curious for her liking.
"All these people," she simpered. "I'm not used to it."
His gaze raked her. "I'd peg you as a sophisticated city girl—not someone who'd be nervous around people."
Alyssa glanced down at the plunging V-neckline of her ruby-red dress. She'd better take care... he was altogether too astute. Her pulse pounded in her head. She couldn't afford to be thrown out—this was her best chance. "Perhaps it's the excitement. The music...the beautiful people, the handsome masked man." Her voice was sweeter than syrup. She glanced up through the satin strip of her mask to see how the flattery was going down and caught a white flash of teeth.
"As long as you're not nervous, Alice," he whispered. "That's not allowed."
Alyssa shuddered as his warm breath skimmed her sensitive ear and arousal shot unexpectedly through her.
"You are nervous. You're trembling."
She couldn't remember the last time a stranger had had such an immediate effect on her. Safer to say nothing.
"You're the most silent woman I've ever met," he growled, and pulled her closer to avoid a couple dancing with far too much enthusiasm in the mass of bodies.
"Not always." Not when she wasn't watching every word—her normal stock-in-trade—in case she slipped up. This disturbing stranger was far too confident... and she was not in the frame of mind to handle him.
A flash of red hair caused her head to whip around, and reality came crashing in.
Roland! She couldn't mistake him, not even with a rakish pirate's eye patch. The red hair was a giveaway. He held a slim, dark-haired sprite in his arms. Across the crowded room Alyssa followed the couple's progress over her partner's broad shoulder, saw Roland say something to the brunette and watched her reply.
Alyssa had read that her name was Amy...and she was Roland's fiancée. The two of them slowed and left the dance floor.
Panic surged through Alyssa. She couldn't lose them— him. Not when she'd come so close.
"I'm parched, I need a drink," she said, not caring how abrupt she sounded, and freed herself unceremoniously from her partner's hold.
"What would you like?" Her stranger showed every sign of coming with her.
"I'll find myself something." Alyssa glanced anxiously after her quarry and back to the partner she'd failed to shake.
She mustn't give herself away.
He was much too distracting, too perceptive. She didn't want any third parties overhearing what she had to say to Roland. This was private. Too important. "You don't need to worry about me. I'm sure there are other people you should be mingling with... dancing with."
He wouldn't lack for partners. He danced like a dream... confident... moving with rhythmic grace, a man aware of his attraction and power. She jerked away from him.
His sensuous mouth twisted. "None as interesting as you, Alice. What would you like to drink? A glass of Saxon's Folly Sauvignon Blanc? I can recommend last season's vintage."
Perhaps letting him get her a drink would get rid o...
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Book Description Harlequin, Mills & Boon, 2009. Book Condition: Good. This book has hardback covers. Ex-library, With usual stamps and markings, In good all round condition. No dust jacket. Bookseller Inventory # 3766039