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A mysterious, smoky-eyed gypsy fortune-teller gazed back in surprise from the mirror's shiny surface. Madison Baker blinked and looked again, just to make sure the reflection was her own. "I don't know, BiBi. Maybe this costume is a little too much?"
"Too much what?" Bianca "BiBi" Lovato demanded, studying her longtime friend with a satisfied smile. "Too much cleavage? Too much leg? Too much sexy?"
"All of the above." Twisting slowly, Madison eyed her reflection, wondering how the snug-fitting white peasant blouse BiBi had provided added the illusion of several inches to her average-size bustline. The very low, square-cut neckline with off-the-shoulder, short puff sleeves revealed more skin than Madison was accustomed to showing.
Her blond-highlighted hair tumbled from beneath a glittering purple head scarf to brush her bare shoulders. A burgundy corset accented with gold ribbons and threads laced tightly from just below her breasts to the top of her hips, making her waist look startlingly small above a cleverly draped purple sash. The flirty, ruffled skirt in burgundy, purple, gold and black was bunched high on her right thigh, baring her right leg almost to dangerous territory. Large hoop earrings swung from her lobes and bangle bracelets clinked with the movements of her arms. Ridiculously high heels on a pair of BiBi's barely-there gold sandals added a good five inches to Madison's already long legs. She was glad she'd made time in her hectic schedule for a mani-pedi earlier that week.
She lifted her arms a little higher, just to make sure everything that was supposed to be covered remained that way. The bracelets clanged gaily with the movement. "I like it," she decided aloud. "It's fun."
BiBi clapped her hands. "I knew this costume would be fantastic on you. I'm so glad you let me pick one out."
"I really appreciated your offer. I've worked like a crazy person the past couple of weeksincluding two nights on call at the hospitaljust to clear time off for your wedding festivities. There was no way I would've had time to find a costume. Nor did I have room in my luggage to bring it if I'd found anything."
Corinna Lovato, BiBi's younger sister and the maid of honor for BiBi's upcoming nuptials, pushed lightly past Madison to claim the full-length mirror. "BiBi and I chose the outfits from our cousin's costume shop. I love mine."
Corinna did look fabulous in her alien princess garb, Madison had to admit. Sparkly gray shadow and charcoal liner made her almond-shaped dark eyes look big and mysterious against her flawless skin. False green lashes sprinkled with glitter swept her cheeks when she fluttered them. More glitter had been brushed over her cheekbones, throat and cleavage. Her dove-gray gown was floor-length, skintight and cut daringly low, cinched at the waist with an intricately detailed gold metal belt that matched the elaborate headpiece securing her dark hair. Long sleeves ended in flowing points around her hands, revealing nails polished in a gleaming jade.
"You look beautiful, Corinna."
Corinna beamed over her shoulder. "Thanks, Maddie. So do you."
"We all look gorgeous." BiBi smugly included herself and Hannah Thatcher in the comment. BiBi wore a pink-and-red genie costume that bared her midriff and most of her cleavage, and displayed her legs through pink-chiffon harem pants. Her ebony hair was caught up in a saucy ponytail secured by a felt-and-chiffon genie's cap. Hannah, who like Madison was in Dallas to serve as a bridesmaid in BiBi's wedding, had been outfitted as a pirate wench in another low-cut peasant blouse, a short, tattered-hemmed skirt, wide leather belt and a snug faux leather weskit jingling with fake gold doubloons.
The costumes were hardly original, but no one could say they were bland, Madison thought with another glance at the mirror. She'd known when she'd given BiBi authorization to rent her a costume from BiBi's cousin's shop that the results would be interesting.
Madison and BiBi had known each other since college, having met freshman year when they had been randomly assigned as roommates their first semester. By the second week of school, they'd been very good friends. Their complex, sometimes drama-filled but ultimately worthwhile relationship had survived four years of college in Louisiana, then they'd gone on separate paths afterward for the past seven years. Madison had attended medical school in Little Rock, Arkansas, and was now in the fourth year of her psychiatry residency program. BiBi had settled here in Dallas, Texas, to work as a physical therapist. They'd stayed in contact through phone calls, email and social-networking sites, and though they had seen each other rarely during these past busy years, their friendship continued.
Local friends of the engaged couple were hosting tonight's festivities in a hotel ballroom on this Thursday evening before the planned Sunday afternoon ceremony. Mostly friends of Carl's, BiBi had confided. A member of a wealthy Dallas family with long-standing ties to local civic and charitable organizations, Carl Burleson was an aspiring politician who cultivated contacts almost obsessively. He remained in touch with all his fraternity buddies from college and classmates from law school. He even knew where most of his graduating class from high school had settled, BiBi had added with a rueful laugh. The ones who could prove useful in the future, at least. Carl was a nice guy, and people were naturally drawn to his extroverted personality, but he made no secret of his ambitions.
The costume party tonight was the kickoff to a long weekend of planned events. Even though it was only the middle of October, BiBi's wedding was as good an excuse as any to have an early Halloween celebration, their friends had insisted. BiBi had been thrilled. She never missed an opportunity to be the guest of honor at a party, no matter what the occasion.
Corinna adjusted the top of her dress, displaying just a bit more cleavage. She looked toward her sister as she asked wistfully, "Do you think he'll even notice me tonight?"
BiBi answered immediately. "You bet he will. He's probably going to take one look at you in this sexy costume and his jaw will drop to the floor. Isn't that right, girls? How could any man not notice how gorgeous Corinna looks tonight?"
Though she had no idea who the sisters were talking about, Madison joined Hannah in assuring them that Corinna was definitely irresistible. Having an over-protective sister of her own, Madison recognized the fierce loyalty in BiBi's expression. Whoever the object of Corinna's desire happened to be, he'd better be wary of hurting BiBi's little sister.
The way Corinna sighed suggested it was already too late for that. "Yeah, right. He made it clear enough that he's not interested in me as anything other than a longtime family friend. I know I'm just wasting my time hoping he'll change his mind, but still___"
"He's a jerk," Hannah suggested.
Corinna shook her head with a slightly sad smile. "That's the problem. He's totally not a jerk. He's so kind and compassionate and thoughtful. I could tell it hurt him almost as much as it hurt me when I finally got up the nerve to ask him out and he had to tell me he wasn't interested in me that way. I thought maybe he would see me differently after I came back to Dallas from those five years in Austin, but I guess he still just thinks of me as BiBi's little sister. There's never going to be anything between us."
"Don't give up," BiBi said. "He's not seeing anyone else right now, as far as I knowand trust me, I've asked around. Maybe he's still stinging a little from the breakup with Samantha, but that was months ago. And he's been really busy with work lately. Maybe seeing you around this weekend, looking so gorgeous and grown-up, will make him realize what he's been missing out on."
Losing interest in the conversation, Madison leaned toward the mirror to touch up her lip gloss. She had to admit she was a little tired. She felt as though she'd been running full speed ever since she'd landed at the Dallas airport a few hours earlier, and that after a very difficult month crammed full of work and fellowship interviews. As a medical resident, she was used to long, busy days, but she could feel her energy flagging. An evening of lying in bed watching TV actually sounded more tempting than a sure-to-be-rowdy costume party.
That thought took her abackTV in bed rather than a lively costume party? She was only twenty-eight, for crying out loud.
What had happened to her? Of the three overachieving Baker siblings, she was the most relaxed, the most determined to have a life outside of work, the one who'd always enjoyed fashion and parties and music and fun. Yet as hard as she'd worked lately, she could barely remember the last time she'd just cut loose and had a blast.
Tossing her hair, she glanced toward the door of BiBi's suite, where they had gathered to change into their costumes. BiBi's other three bridesmaids all lived in the area and planned to meet them at the party, but BiBi had thought it would be fun for those staying in the hotel to primp together. And no one was arguing with BiBi this weekend, Madison thought with a stifled smile. The bride was in full diva mode, and no one had the heartor the courageto thwart her wishes.
Somewhat high-strung at the best of times, BiBi was a bundle of nerves and determination as the wedding she'd been planning for more than a year drew closer. Madison had already heard of a few tense moments between the bride and her wedding planner, the caterer, a couple of hotel employees and even BiBi's long-suffering parents. As fond as Madison was of her friend, she was well aware that it would be a good idea to walk on eggshells that weekend, just to keep everything calm and comfortable.
"Well?" she asked, tucking her lip gloss into a hidden zippered pocket on her wide purple-waist sash, along with the key card to her room. "Ready to go show off how good we look?"
Corinna giggled and whirled away from the mirror, her chin lifted in determination. "Definitely."
BiBi led the charge out of the suite, leaving Madison to close the door behind them.
The minute the friends stepped into the noisy, unconventionally decorated hotel ballroom, they were swept into a welcoming crowd of costumed revelers. BiBi hadn't exaggerated about how many guests would be in attendance tonight. The room was packed, leaving only a smallish opening for a dance floor at one end near the DJ's setup. BiBi and her bridesmaids were only a few minutes late arriving, but the festivities were already well under way. The music was loud, the booze free-flowing, the food plentiful and everyone seemed in the mood to have a great time. BiBi and Corinna were immediately absorbed into the crowd of their friends.
Someone pressed a mixed drink into Madison's hand and she sipped it while surveying the creative mix of costumes in the roomat least, the ones she could see clearly. Some genius had decided that very dim lighting equaled Halloween atmosphere. Colored lights flickered around the dance area, which was still almost empty this early in the evening. The booming music required close proximity for individual conversations, blending into a cacophony of chatter and laughter.
Science fiction seemed to be the predominant theme of the evening. Na'vi, Vulcans, Jedi and assorted other recognizable sci-fi icons mingled among the more generic witches, vampires and pirates in the shadowy room. A very pregnant warrior princess waddled past, nodding to her with a smile. Hannah saw a group of friends and rushed off to speak to them, leaving Madison to fend for herself. Eyeing a nearby Borg flirting with a very busty Klingon woman, Madison chuckled as she lowered her glass after taking another swallow of the deceptively innocent-tasting brew.
"My parents would be right at home here," she remarked to no one in particular.
"Seriously? Your parents would like this party?"
Surprised that anyone had even heard her amid the commotion, she turned in response to the male voice. A tall, lean man in a leather jacket, boots, khaki shirt and pants stood just behind her. A coiled whip dangled from his leather belt. His face was shadowed by a battered fedora, but she certainly recognized the costume. "Indiana Jones, I presume?"
Reaching up to nudge his hat with his thumb, he drawled, "At your service, ma'am."
Oh, my. Turned out there was a very nice face hidden beneath the brim of that dashing fedora. Dark hair, dark eyes, olive skin, white teeth, just a hint of a dint in a strong, square jaw. Yum.
Remembering that he had asked her a question, she silently cleared her throat before explaining, "My parents met at a sci-fi convention in the '70s. My late father was an avid Trekkie, and mom still likes science fiction."
He chuckled, and she took another quick sip of her drink. He was even more attractive when he smiled. She couldn't help noticing that the right side of his mouth tilted into a hint of a dimple just at the corner of his lips.
"And what about your costume?" He lowered his dark gaze from her face to study her revealing outfit. "Are you portraying a particular character?"
She felt a funny little quiver follow the path of his survey all the way down to her exposed leg. Taking another sip of her drink, she shook her head. "Just a generic gypsy fortune-teller."
"You're much too stunning to be described as generic," he commented, his deep tone intensifying her quiver to a full-blown tingle.
"Thank you. You look quite dashing, yourself." She took another long swallow of the drink, looking up at him through her heavily darkened lashes.
"That drink looks good."
She lowered the now-empty glass. "It was. Very good."
"There are some tempting snacks on those tables across the room. Would you like to join me on a food raid, Esmeralda?"
Amused by his wording, she lifted an eyebrow. "Es-meralda?"
With a chuckle, he shrugged. "Sounds like a gypsy fortune-teller name to me."
She hesitated only a moment before setting her glass on a tray and tucked a hand beneath the arm he offered with a flourish. "I'd be delighted to accompany you on a food raid, Dr. Jones."
"Maybe after we eat, you can read my fortune in the champagne glass."
A little giggle escaped her. "That's tea leaves. I don't think they're serving tea tonight."
"Then you can read my palm."
She rather liked the image of cradling his hand in hers. "Maybe I will."
His arm flexed a little beneath her fingers, and she felt the strength there. Obviously this man stayed in very good physical condition. He carried himself with an athlete's grace befitting his choice of costume.