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Brianna Wright pulled up to the Townsends' elegant Boston Back Bay mansion under a starry black sky, handed her car over to the valet with a forced smile and rushed up the stairs breathlessly. Darn it, she was late. Really late. Ten o'clock. No, almost eleventhank you so much, gridlocked airport traffic!
Now she'd missed three hours of her own partywell, the party her company, Breelie's, had produced, anyhowand Townsend's fiftieth birthday bash was already in full swing. Music and laughter poured through the open, brilliantly lit windows.
Too much laughter, perhaps, so early? She frowned. The open bar must be getting a workout.
Oh, well. Townsend was a tire magnate, and his millions could cover the liquor tab no matter how high it went. At least it sounded as if the guests were having fun.
She didn't know why that should surprise herthe parties planned by Breelie's rarely flopped. But something about this event had always bugged her a little. Maybe it was just that the "harem" theme had never appealed to her. That didn't matter, of course. Whatever the client wanted, he got. Or, in this case, whatever the client's trophy wife, Liana Townsend, wanted, she got.
Bree just hoped Charlie hadn't gone overboard. Not that she thought he had. As her fiancée and her business partner, he deserved her complete trust. And he had it of course he did. It was just that
She'd been out of town for most of the planning, which obviously accounted for some of her discomfort. She trusted Charlie implicitly, of course, but
She did wish he had answered his cell phone more often this week. When Charlie went dark, it usually meant he was spending more money than he felt like justifying over the phone. He trusted his ability to persuade anyone of anything, but only as long as they were within the target range of his surface-to-surface ballistic charm.
As she passed under a faux ogee arch and into the unrecognizable entry hall, she suddenly froze in place. She stared, openmouthed, at the glittering, jingling, splashing, sparkling madness before her.
For an instant, she couldn't decide whether to laugh or cry.
This was the high-society party she had hoped would put her event-planning company on the Boston A-list? This this circus?
What in God's name had Charlie been thinking? The room writhed with half-naked humanity. Belly dancers. Sword swallowers. Eunuchs. Champagne fountains, ruby-grape pyramids, peacock-feather fans and tables groaning with bacchanalian treats. Charlie had created an entire fake Persian seraglio, complete with a hundred over-the-hill sultans flirting with two hundred giggling harem "girls."
Bree's temples throbbed, and her airplane-food dinner suddenly turned poisonously acidic.
Damn it, Charlie! She'd told him a thousand times that, in the upscale Boston society event-planning business, reputation was more important than anything else. Anything. Even more important than the bottom line.
And, long before this, she'd had a niggling feeling they were getting a reputation for being.
She set her jaw as a trio of belly dancers wriggled by with a tinkle of gold coins in the air and a skitter of gold flickers on the walls. A sword swallower followed behind, ogling the dancers' hips. Behind hima snake charmer with a real live snake slithering around his shoulders.
Oh, dear God. If vulgarity were an Olympic event, this pretentious absurdity would definitely take the gold.
Her hands tightened into fists at her sides. Charlie might be a genius at coaxing money out of rich women, but Bree was going to strangle him for this.
If she could just find him.
Instead, as she scanned the crowd, the only person she recognized was Bill Townsend, the guest of honor himself. But he didn't look honored. He looked furious. His dark eyes and full lips glowered, and he moved like an angry bull, his bulky shoulders plowing a path through the guests as if they were so many inconveniently placed mannequins. His bushy mustache and eyebrows resembled Tom Selleck more than Yul Brynner, but the scimitar at his side suddenly seemed more lethal than any prop ever should.
Though he passed within two feet of Bree, he didn't notice her any more than he noticed any of the others. He kept up his furious stride until he reached the burbling, three-tiered champagne fountain in the center of the ridiculous room.
Liana, his forty-five-year-old trophy wife who always looked like a beautifully embalmed twenty-year-old, was nowhere in sight. Had the couple been fighting? Great. If the host and hostess ended up having a big row tonight, Bree's party would be remembered for that, not the hours and hours of work she and Charlie had put into it.
An elderly, diffident sultan, whose headdress was bigger than his whole body, approached Townsend, hand outstretched, a "happy birthday" smile on his face. Townsend turned his back on the man rudely. He grabbed a silver chalice from a passing waiter, thrust it under the honey-colored stream, letting the bubbles spill all over his fingers, then knocked the champagne back in one harsh toss.
Bree groaned under her breath. This could get ugly. Where the heck was Charlie? He needed to find Liana, who might be able to handle her drunk husband. The women were always Charlie's responsibility. He was good with bored trophy wives. He could always pump out an extra squirt of charm and coax them into ever-higher displays of extravagance.
Unfortunately, at the moment, he seemed to be just as absent as the hostess. Bree shut her eyes, trying to swallow her fury. But really. Maybe strangling was too good for him.
She opened her eyes. A tall "eunuch" stood in front of her, holding a tray of wineglasses. She eyed them carefully, wondering how many bottles they'd run through. If Townsend was already in a foul humor, he might balk at an astronomical liquor tab, after all.
"Everything okay, Ms. Wright?" The eunuch hesitated, looking nervous. Poor guy. She had a reputation, she knew, for being a stickler.
"No. I mean yes, everything's fine." It wasn't this poor guy's fault. He appeared as miserable as she felt. So she propped up her artificial smile, hearing her guardian's voice in her head. Kitty Afton, the Boston divorcee who had taken Bree in after her mother's murder, had believed that cheerfulness was next to godliness. Even in the early days, when surely she knew Bree was heartbroken and traumatized, Kitty had scolded her new protegee for letting her lips lose their pleasant feminine curve. "No one likes a sad sack, Brianna. You'll catch more flies with honey."
The waiter-eunuch nodded uneasily, then moved on. Bree checked Townsend again. He hadn't budged from the fountain. He was refilling his chalice, though his eyes glittered, and a sparkling trail of champagne already trickled from his chin like golden spit.
She couldn't wait for Charlie or Liana. She'd have to try to handle Townsend herself. Reluctantly, Bree merged into the melee of guests, somehow keeping the smile on her lips.
He turned, the chalice halfway to his mouth, and glared at her over the rim. As he took in her simple slate-blue sheath, his eyes narrowed. "What are you supposed to be? Didn't you get the memo? This is a costume party. You've got to look like an idiot or you don't get in."
She deepened her smile, as if he'd meant it as a joke. But the bitterness in his voice was unmistakable. The drinking was a symptom of a deeper problem not the cause. She really needed to find Liana and get things patched up.
"I'm not actually a guest," she explained. "I'm Brianna Wright. My company, Breelie's, is the one you hired to"
"You're " He lowered the golden vessel, spilling liquid precariously close to her shoes, but ignoring it. "Fou are Bri-anna Wright?"
"I am," she said. She'd met him twice, during the initial negotiations, but she wasn't surprised that he didn't remember. He'd spent most of both meetings pacing the hall outside her office, barking at someone on his cell phone.
He shook his head for a minute, and then let out a loud, seal-like honk of laughter. Now, that did surprise her. She had traveled in a very uncomfortable, very dressy getup, complete with three-inch heels and panty hose, just so that she would look professional when she arrived. She'd even denied herself the luxury of a nap, so that she wouldn't muss the sleek French knot of blond hair at the nape of her neck.
"You seem amused," she observed coolly, irritated in spite of her determination to remain calm.
"Oh, I am definitely amused, sweetheart." He grinned, showing six very white front teeth surrounded by neighbors far less brilliant. "I really, really am."
She frowned and opened her mouth to respond, but then, without warning, his large hand flicked out and grabbed hers.
"Hey!" She recoiled instinctively from his damp, sticky clutch and the aroma of stale champagne that wafted from his skin. But he had clamped on tightly and didn't let go.
"Come with me, Brianna Wright," he said, turning away from the fountain, tugging her along without so much as glancing back to see if she was willing, or whether she would have to be dragged. "There's something I want to show you."
People were staring at her now, which was saying something, since surely she was the least outlandish spectacle at this particular party. "Mr. Townsend, I really don't think"
He looked back at her over his shoulder, his eyes suddenly clear and sober. "Your company is in charge of this party, right? Well, there's a problem, and I think you should know about it."
She didn't have much recourse after that, though she did manage eventually to extricate her hand and follow him with a little more dignity and at least the appearance of free will.
The guests seemed to part before them, as if they were just props operated by stagehands pulling levers behind the scenes. Maybe the people smelled danger radiating from their host. Bree certainly did.
When Townsend reached the big central staircase and began to climb, her internal sirens started to go off wildly. Why would he need to show her anything on the second floor? Kitchen, her problem. Buffet table, her problem. Decorations, liquor, security and even valet parking all Breelie's problems. But her company's responsibilities didn't extend beyond the first floor.
She hesitated, her hand on the polished onyx railing. He hadn't climbed more than four steps when his sixth sense obviously told him he'd lost her. He turned again, and laughed.
"Really, Ms. Wright," he said, his eyes glittering with some secret, inexplicable mirth. The effect was decidedly unwholesome, and a shiver ran down her spine. "I have a houseful of half-dressed concubines. You think I have designs on your icy virtue?"
"No," she said. His tone was so dismissive she found herself flushing, which was ridiculous. She'd worked hard to cultivate "icy" and had always considered it a compliment when people described her that way. Better "icy" than half-mad with uncontrolled passions, as so many in her dysfunctional family tended to be. "Of course not."
"Well, then?" He gestured impatiently.
Still, she hesitated. Something about the moment felt profoundly off. Why was he furious one instant, sardonic the next? And why on earth did he want to take her upstairs? Only the bedrooms were up there .
He laughed again, shook his head as if despairing at her naivete, then abruptly leaned over the banister.
"Ladies and gentlemen!" His voice rose over the chatter, over the bubbling champagne fountain, even over the string quartet in the corner alcove. "Follow me! I have a surprise for you!"
All the faces tilted up toward him, though half the crowd was clearly too drunk to fully process his words and didn't stir. But at least a dozen laughing sultans and belly dancers churned toward the staircase, ready for anything that sounded different and amusing.
Bree wanted to be relieved. Whatever he had in mind, at least it didn't require privacy. That ruled out the most unpleasant scenarios, surely. So why, as the costumed guests surged up the stairs, creating a tidal wave that swept her along, did she have a sudden instinctive desire to turn around and flee?
She didn't do it, of course. That really would have set the gossips buzzing. Instead, she trailed along as Townsend made his way down the wide hall, turning occasionally to put his forefinger theatrically against his lips to shush his followers.
With every step, though, she felt herself retreating deeper into the numb bubble that had protected her from painful situations in the past. In the sixteen years since her mother's murder, she'd perfected the art of plunging her emotions into a frozen state, much like a medically induced coma, even while, on the outside, she appeared utterly serene and confident.
Icy, as she was always being told.
Finally, in front of the last door on the left, Townsend paused. He made one more "shh" gesture to his guests, then crooked his finger invitingly toward Bree, offering her the place of honor beside him. Unseen hands prodded her from behind, urging her toward her host, and before she could react, she was close enough to see the unholy gleam in his eyes.
"Mr. Townsend," she tried again uneasily. But he put his finger against her lips and grinned down at her, like an evil mime. She felt her heart accelerate. Whatever lay behind this door evoked a strong emotion in him. She wished she knew him well enough to interpret that glitter. Was it anger? Or was it glee?
With an elaborate flourish, he reached out for the doorknob and turned it slowly, so slowly it didn't make a sound. Neither did his guests, who obviously had caught the mystery fever and were craning forward in eager, hypnotized silence.
They pressed so fervently that when Townsend finally pushed the door open, Bree almost stumbled across the threshold.
Before her lay a beautiful room, decorated with a champagne-colored carpet and hunter-green bed linens and drapes. The overhead light was off, but a green-and-gold stained-glass dragonfly table lamp cast an amber circle onto the king-size bed, like a spotlight picking out the important actors on a stage.
In that amber circle, something palely pink and subtly obscene jerked and twisted, making rough, breathless, wordless sounds.
For a shell-shocked moment, Bree's mind wouldn't work. She somehow couldn't identify what she was looking at. It wasn't human, surely that monstrous shape, with too many limbs, white-soled feet rising out of what looked like a tanned and muscled back.
Only when the people behind her began to gasp, and some to titter, did she finally jerk awake and understand. Two or three in the crowd laughed out loud; those more brazen, who had probably known from the start what the "surprise" would be.
With a cry of alarm, the monster on the bed separated into two parts. Charlie, who had been on top, leaped up, grabbing the green bedspread and awkwardly trying to cover himself with it in a pathetic display of selfishness that left his partner completely exposed.
Furiously, the woman on the bed, who was now recognizable as Liana Townsend, yanked at the bedspread, too. Charlie, whose face was red and pop-eyed with terror, wouldn't let go, and the momentary tug-of-war was such a farce that everyone in the doorway burst out laughing.