There may be squatters.
Danny’s voice rings in my head as I slowly make my way up the long drive through the vineyard to where the crushing barn stands. Judging from the fancy cars lining the road and spilling into the vine rows themselves, these are pretty f*****g wealthy squatters. Even before I can see the building, I hear music thumping into the night air, the low bass reverberating in my chest. What the f**k is going on here? Not for the first time, I wonder if my man Danny’s pulled a fast one.
As I come over the rise, I see cars crammed in the open area like sardines. Holy Christ, there’s valet parking. A young man wearing a reflective vest and holding a light wand waves me over. “Good evening sir,” he says with a hopeful smile. “Can I see your invitation?” I’m sure the kid has made bank tonight. There have to be at least three-hundred people here.
I cut the engine and push open the driver’s side door.
“Sir?” the kid asks again, this time with a note of concern in his voice. “Can I see your invitation?”
I glare at him. Actually, I do more than glare. I pin him with a look so stern I’m pretty sure I’ve made him piss himself. “I don’t need an invitation.”
Golden light spills out of the raised garage doors as I stalk toward the building. I’ll give them props for being well-organized, whoever they are. And the guests look like a Who’s Who from the society rags my mother’s always perusing, glittering in Valentino and Dior, and wearing heavily adorned Venetian masks. Definitely not the unwashed, pot-smoking tent-dwellers I’d envisioned chasing off this evening. I’ve never had to hire security for any of the properties I own, but that starts tomorrow. As does a call to an architect I know to rebuild the house that burned down in last year’s fires. Once the house is constructed and the outbuildings repaired, I should have no problems flipping this little estate, and making a pretty penny in the process.
I might be a prince in wine royalty, but my interest lies more with the distillery Danny’s setting up on the property I just swapped with him in Kansas City. At the moment, I think he got the better part of the deal.
“Invitation please,” a bouncer-type intones as I reach the party.
I blink, ignoring him. The inside of the crushing barn has been transformed into what amounts to a Vegas nightclub. Red silk fabric hangs from the rafters with scantily clad women undulating and twisting themselves in the strands. Scores of candles and twinkle lights create an air of mystery around the scene. What surprises me though, are the lingerie models in various states of undress, moving through the crowd as if it’s perfectly normal to wear next to nothing to a party. In an abandoned crushing barn in the middle of Napa. They’re beautiful. Otherworldly. More like models in an art studio than Victoria’s Secret models. Not an ounce of tawdry to be seen. Whatever is going on here, there’s bank changing hands, and that pisses me off even more.
“What the f**k is going on here?” I growl.
The bouncer crosses his arms, biceps bulging. “No entrance without an invitation,” he says firmly, jaw set.
“Who’s in charge here?” I bark.
“Who wants to know?” he barks back, widening his stance.
“The property owner.”
If he’s surprised, he doesn’t show it. He pulls another big guy over, says something to him I can’t hear over the music, and the guy disappears into the throng. I spend the next minute in a staring contest with the first guy, heat rising through my body by the end of the second. I do not have time for this s**t. Or the patience. Not after the week I’ve had.
The crowd parts and a vision in gold and black glides toward me. For a moment I can’t breathe. My lungs simply stop working. She’s like a Klimt painting come to life, erotically styled in black and gold fabric so sheer it leaves nothing, yet everything to the imagination. I can see the swell of her breast, yet the folds obscure her n*****s. The top is open to her belly button, which is pierced and adorned with a gem as glacial as her eyes. Darker lace covers her treasure and a skirt - if you can even call it that - of the same magical fabric falls away in a vee shape drawing the eye down to gold stiletto sandals.
My mouth turns to dust.
She moves with a grace, a purpose… and a confidence that demands complete attention from everyone around her. I’m rooted to the spot, fire sparking from each of my cells as if I’d just stuck a fork in a light socket. I burn. And for a brief second, I wonder if I’m having a stroke, or a heart attack, or if I’ve developed some kind of neurological disorder, because this is the second time in the span of a week I’ve felt like this. Not from the gentle sway of her hips or her perfect posture, or in the elegant lift of her hand, but in the way her eyes see into the deepest, darkest part of my soul. All my secrets, all my sins, my vices… Everything.
I’m being flayed open by glacier blue eyes, and the result is a reckless arousal, a longing - a need - coming from a place so deep inside me, I don’t recognize it. Hell, I don’t recognize myself, and yet every urge with her feels so… inevitable. As if we were destined for this moment, even though I’m not religious and I don’t believe in anything but the luck you make. On a cosmic level, my reaction makes no sense. It’s brash, this overwhelming desire that courses through me. Feckless. But I can’t stop it. I don’t want to. I want her, in the most elemental way that two humans can connect.
“Who are you?” I demand roughly, mostly because I’m knocked off my game.
Her eyes widen, then flare with a heat that goes straight to my groin. “Who are you?” she parries with an amused smile.
I go still. I know this voice. But the woman in front of me doesn’t match the woman whose voice I know. She’s demure. Gracious. Elegant. A gift meant to savor. And absolutely unattainable. Except for the eyes, the woman in front of me is her polar opposite - hot where she is cool, unbridled instead of composed, yang to her yin. Cleopatra to her Elsa. Her voice is husky and soft, and sends prickles of recognition skating across my skin. Her plump mouth looks achingly, mouth wateringly familiar. I know the taste of lips like that, and the memory of it nearly drops me to my knees.
“Who are you?” I ask again stepping forward. “Answer me.”
The bouncers move to block me, but she raises a hand. “It’s okay, gentleman. Come with me.”
She smiles at me like she knows me. It must be her. There’s no way it’s anyone else. But the more I try to make sense of it, the more I think my head is going to explode. I can’t shake the feeling that this scene feels like something out of a Bond movie, and I half wonder if I’m going to get iced by some high-rolling gangster.
All I wanted was a quiet night on my new property, and some space to think while I figure out how to work around my father’s latest manipulation. Instead I walk into exactly the kind of party that has cost me my trust-fund. How long before people just start f*****g openly? Already, I can see writhing bodies in darkened corners of the barn.
I’m gonna f*****g rip Danny’s balls off.
But that can wait until I get back to Kansas City, because I will be paying Danny a visit after this fiasco. In the meantime, I want to get to the bottom of the mystery woman in front of me, although with each passing second, the bells of recognition peal louder.
The crowd parts again as she moves through them like a boat through water. I follow mutely, scanning the faces for some clue. But they’re all masked. And likely drunk, or high. I recognize the signature cufflinks of an investment banker I know, but he doesn’t acknowledge me. So… whatever game is going on here, the players involved prefer to stay anonymous. How very interesting. It’s not much to go on, but maybe I can use that tidbit of information to my advantage at some point.
I follow her across the building to a door on the far side, covered by two more bouncers. She slips through and beckons me to follow. I shut the door behind me, heart pounding erratically, and more than a little irritated she knows my property better than I do. The sounds of the party die to a muffled thump of the bass. I open my mouth to ask the first of my million questions, but she’s already halfway down the stairs, stilettos clacking and echoing off the dimly lit stone walls. This must be the way to the wine cellar. I dimly recall Danny mentioning there might still be barrels down here.
Her footsteps slow as she reaches the bottom of the stairs and another door scrapes open. I hurry to catch up, unprepared for what greets me as I round the corner and follow her through the second door. Instead of a large empty room, not only are there barrels upon barrels, but there are piles of fabric, feather boas, shoes, and clothing tossed about like a tornado swept through. The cellar is in utter chaos. “What the f**k is going on here?”
Worry flickers through her dark fringed eyes, but just as quickly she flashes me a brilliant smile, then turns to root through a mound of clothing piled on a folding table. “I could ask the same of you,” she calls over her shoulder, before turning around and handing me a gold embossed invitation printed on heavy, black cardstock. “Why are you crashing a private event?”
I’ve received enough invitations, I can tell this cost a small fortune to print, just by the feel. I glance down to read the elegant script.
ONE NIGHT ONLY
Luxurious Lingerie by Madame M
5th Annual Trunk Show.
Your privacy will be scrupulously protected
Entrance by Invitation Only
My mind races as I tuck the invitation into the inside pocket of my suit jacket. How do I play this? My mother’s dragged me to more trunk shows than I care to count, and I’ve never seen a trunk show like this. This is more like an invitation to a debauchery-fest. “I assume you’re Madame M?”
Her eyes flare again, and her mouth twitches. I can almost see her eyebrows rising behind her mask. “Does it matter?” she asks coyly.
I take a step forward. “Oh, yes. Very much.” I’m close enough now, that I can see her pulse fluttering erratically in the hollow of her neck. I’m overcome with the urge to bite it. Lick it, taste it. Hear her moan for more, the way she did last time, even while she begged me not to leave a mark.
Her mouth drops open, and her tongue slicks her lower lip, breaths becoming shallow. She’s playing a dangerous game, and she knows it. And this time, I’m going to win. I drop my gaze, following the vee of exposed skin to below her navel, and slowly back up. It’s ten degrees cooler down here, but I’m hot under the collar, in part because her t**s have hardened to tight bullets, pushing through the material like soldiers standing at attention. It would be so easy to brush the fabric aside, see the gooseflesh arise with the brush of a knuckle. “Why is that?” she asks on a breathy exhale.
I give her a wolfish smile. “For starters, you’re trespassing on my property.”
She pales as her eyes widen to saucers. She gives a little shake of her head. “Impossible.”
I nod. “Very possible, my dear.”
“But Danny…” she trails off, speaking more to herself than me.
A flash of hot jealousy spikes through me at the thought of the two of them together. “Never take the word of a man whose great-grandfather was a notorious gangster.” I’ve known Danny for years, and I like him. But I don’t trust him.
Her eyes jerk to mine. “How do you, how do you-”
“Know Danny?” I supply. “I think the more important question is how do you know Danny?”
“That’s none of your business,” she snaps, standing taller.
I step closer and brush a knuckle along her jaw. Goosebumps erupt across her exposed skin. “It’s very much my business, because you and I have a connection, don’t we?”
Her breath is coming in shallow puffs now, her pupils blown wide as I reach behind her head to loosen the gold ribbon that keeps her mask in place. The ribbon slides apart between my fingers, and for a moment I hold the mask in place, waiting for her next move. Will she beg me to stop? Will she push me away? I should have known she’d remain still as a statue, challenging me with those eyes that seem to be my undoing.
My breath catches as I remove the mask. Although I prefer her naturally platinum hair over the black Cleopatra wig, she’s no less captivating. “Hello, Emmaline.”
She holds my gaze with an almost defiant look that quickly melts into hunger. The air between us sizzles with attraction and the corner of her mouth tilts up with a rueful quirk. “Hello, Declan.”