Read an Excerpt
"You can't be a coward forever."
Carlie chuckled, despite her nervousness. "Quit pushing, Bren. You're not going to provoke me into rushing out into the party dressed like this."
"Rushing? You're already ten minutes late." She had parked in the back of the house, away from the main flow of human traffic entering the party. Small, twinkling lights surrounded the pool and pool house, even though the weather was too brisk for swimming.
"And that's your fault. What were you thinking, to pick me a costume that was so so " Carlie couldn't quite find the words to describe the skimpy harem outfit her best friend had chosen for her. If she had to go to Brenda's stupid Halloween party at all, she would have preferred to be a pumpkin or a witch. Anything that was less revealing.
"So what? You look fantastic. What's wrong with that? I want you to have fun tonight. I want you to loosen up a little and try socializing. Talk to people."
"You mean men, don't you?" Carlie shook her head. "I'm not a hermit, Bren. I have my students and more than enough school activities to keep me busy." Then she glanced down at herself. "What were you thinking?"
"You said you didn't have time to pick out an outfit yourself." Brenda lifted one shoulder in a halfhearted shrug. "Besides, you make a very sexy harem girl. All the single men here tonight will drool. It'll do you good to realize how attractive you can be when you aren't hiding behind those hideous suits."
Carlie winced. She was feeling far from attractive. Exhibited, displayed and downright exposed was more accurate. She was pretty certain she looked ridiculous more than anything else. "Which single men, exactly, did you invite?"
Brenda waved her hand in dismissal. "You've met almost everyone, I think. Some of Jason's associates, a few neighbors, friends Tyler."
Carlie went perfectly still for a heartbeat, then frowned at Brenda. "Tyler Ramsey at a costume party? I didn't think your notorious brother-in-law would bother with something so"
"Don't make fun of my party, Carlie."
"I wasn't. I just thought fancy banquets were more his speed." Carlie couldn't imagine Tyler dressed in a costume. He always seemed so suave. And he always had a very sophisticated, very elegant woman on his arm.
"Tyler came because Jason asked him, and he would never let his brother down. You know how close they are." Brenda shook her head and added, "You know, you and Tyler actually have a few things in common."
Carlie turned away. "You're dreaming, Bren. We live in different worlds."
"You just don't understand Tyler. He had it pretty rough growing up, too." Then she touched Carlie's arm. "But at least Jason was always there for him."
"My brother had his own life," Carlie said. "And he was right, my problems were my own."
"Jason would never turn Tyler away if he needed help."
"Jason's a terrific guy. But he and Tyler are nothing alike."
"Not now, maybe, but they used to be," Brenda said with a grin. "But then, Jason met me. I think Tyler will be the same. When he finds someone he cares about "
Carlie narrowed her eyes and stiffened her shoulders. "That will be a little hard for him to do when his relationships rarely last long enough to get to know a woman."
Brenda stared at Carlie, her eyebrows raised. "You seem to be keeping pretty close track of my young brother-in-law."
"He's not that young." But Carlie flushed at being caught. "I mean, he's a grown man. He must be in his early thirties oh, never mind."
"Tyler's a good guy, Carlie. He may change dates a lot, but that's because the women he usually hooks up with are only impressed by his status in the community and his expanding financial portfolio. Tyler thinks he wants a no-strings attachment, but he's never satisfied with it."
Carlie had a feeling it was Tyler's looks and outrageous charm that really attracted women, but she kept her mouth shut. She certainly didn't want Brenda to get the idea she had a crush on Tyler Ramsey.
Good grief. A crush! No, she didn't. Certainly not.
Carlie was shaking her head at her errant thoughts, even as she said, "You don't have to defend Tyler to me, Bren. What he does is no concern of mine."
"Fine. Then if you're done stalling, can we get back to the party now? I think it's about to rain."
Carlie glanced up at the dark sky and smelled the moisture thick in the air. "You go on, Bren. I think I'll just wait a few more minutes."
Brenda hesitated, then she nodded. "Don't be too long."
Too long? Carlie wondered if another hour or so would be too long. She truly didn't relish the idea of going inside, not that anyone would recognize her. Dressed so differently, no one would see her as Carlie McDaniels, grade-school teacher and spinster extraordinaire. Her persona this evening was as far from her usual self as a woman could get. Even her hair and eyes were different, thanks to the wig that came with the costume, and the colored contacts she was wearing.
She was a coward, true, but it had been two long years since her divorce, and though that had been enough time for her to gain her independence and put some order to her life, it hadn't been time enough to repair her confidence in herself as a woman. Brenda claimed Carlie was attractive and appealing. Carlie's ex had made an entirely different claim.
Shivering, she forced her mind away from the disturbing memories, mustered her courage and started toward the door. She could make Brenda happy by mingling for an hour or so, then she could make her escape. The thought of her small, tidy, empty house seemed very nice all of a sudden.
Tyler Ramsey hated parties.
Looking around in mild amusement, he tried not to appear bored. Everything was the samethe ritual, the games. There were several women, alone and obviously on the hunt, who had been eyeing him since he'd entered. A Cleopatra, an elf, an Indian maidenthey all were playing their phoney roles to the hilt. They were drawn to his reputation, he knew. The funny part was, most of it wasn't even true.
Turning away, he wondered why he'd allowed Brenda to talk him into coming. True, he'd been bored for a while, at loose ends with himself. He needed a spark; he needed someone who could make him laugh.
His brother laughed a lot these days.
Not that Tyler wanted to settle down. He hadn't met a woman yet with whom he could consider spending the rest of his life. Jason was lucky to have found Brenda; she was the best. But women like her were rare. Glancing around the room again, Tyler realized just what a find Brenda was. The house was filled with females, but none of them held his attention. They were all the same. Laughing, flirting, drinking. They stood poised to best advantage, their gestures predictable.
He'd been told more than once now how dashing he looked in his pirate costume. Everyone knew it was him. He wasn't wearing makeup as some of the other guests did. His only concession was an eye patch, worn rakishly over his left eye. A billowing white shirt that he found extremely comfortable, and tight black trousers completed the costume. His beltwide, with a huge brass buckle held a scabbard, with a sword resting inside it. His black boots came to his knees.
He sat in a chair, observing the crowd dispassionately. Immediately, a blond Valkyrie, brass breastplate shining in the glow of party lights, came to perch on his knee, and gave him a sly smile. He recognized that smile. It belonged to his ex-companion, Valerie. It was a smile that signaled her intent, and he used to respond to it appropriately. All he felt now was irritation. She leaned close, and he forced a polite expression to his features. They'd shared something brief, and by her insistence, with no strings attached. The outcome had been predictable.
She'd wanted a man who knew the score, who could afford the best, who moved in certain circlesher circles. She liked his sports car, his professional connections, and sex. In that order.
And he'd needed someone to help him fill his time, to give him something to think about other than his legal cases and the fact that his personal life was basically empty. But it was over.
He knew it. Why didn't she?
"Don't you recognize me, Tyler?"
There was no place to put his hands, so he rested one on her back, the other on her naked thigh. "Of course. You're a beautiful Norse goddess." His legendary innate charm surfaced through his impatience.
Valerie chuckled throatily "You make a very believable pirate. Have you made any plans to plunder the party and steal away with female captives?"
He didn't feel like playing, so he conjured the lie without hesitation. "Actually, sweetheart, I have."
She pouted, and ran her fingers through his hair. "You look so dashing, Tyler."
He barely restrained himself from rolling his eyes. He thought of going home to his empty houseand the thought no longer seemed so unappealing.
He glanced up, and saw his sister-in-law, Brenda, standing by the kitchen door, talking with a man dressed as a Roman general. Tyler was just deciding to go home and nurse his discontent in the privacy of his own home, when Brenda turned toward the kitchen with an expectant look on her face. She gave a wide smile, and the Roman nearly dropped his glass of liquor.
Tyler felt anticipation for the first time that night. He stared, waiting. Brenda suddenly appeared to be very delighted, and he wondered why. She seemed every bit as impish as the fairy she was dressed to be.
Slowly disengaging himself from Valerie's clinging hold, Tyler stood, his curiosity swelling. He was so intent on watching Brenda, he didn't hear Valerie's complaints. His eyes were glued to the kitchen doorway.
And then he saw her.
His knees locked and he felt his thighs tense. The woman stood uncertainly by Brenda, apparently oblivious to the stares she was drawing. She was magnificent.
Long, dark curly hair fell to her shoulders, and her costume left little to the imagination. Lush, was the first thought to come to mind.
She wasn't slim, but her curves were in all the right places. Her long legs were beautifully shaped, lightly muscled, teasingly displayed in the wispy, transparent harem pants. Her waist was trim, her navel a soft shadow in the gentle swell of her belly. Her shoulders, straight and broad for a woman, were held proudly, despite her obvious reluctance, and her pale breasts were very full, firm and high. She was wearing an ornate mask, that covered her face from her nose to her hairline. He didn't care.
She bent and whispered something in Brenda's ear. Brenda lost her smile, and looked around the room as if seeking encouragement. Her eyes passed over Tyler, then seeing his rapt stare, she turned to the harem girl. Her eyes soon followed.
He caught her gaze, literally. Even from the distance that separated them, Tyler could feel her nervousness. She seemed startled by his awareness, and displeased. She was poised for flight.
He didn't smile. He pulled off his eye patch and started toward her. She seemed unable to move, her eyes widening. As he came closer, he saw that she was very pale and that her eyes were a startling, unnatural shade of vivid blue. Contacts? As part of her costume?
He was intrigued.
With only a few feet separating them, he was pulled to an abrupt stop by Valerie.
He glanced at Valerie with stark impatience. "I have to go."
"Tyler, wait! I wanted to talk to you." Her hand slid up his arm to grip his shirt. Her voice lowered to a purr. "I need a date tomorrow. For a banquet. It will be fun."
He didn't have time for this. Valerie always came around when she wanted something from him. He had no doubt she needed him to gain entrée into the charity banquet. With plates going at a thousand dollars apiece, she knew there would be influential people there.
He wasn't interested.
Shaking his head, he turned back toward the woman in the harem costume but she was gone. He moved to the kitchen in time to see her ducking out the back door. A hundred thoughts flew through his mind.
She was exquisite, exciting, and she was evidently running. From him?
He didn't want to lose sight of her, didn't want to take the chance that he wouldn't be able to find her again later. It was ridiculous, really, the urgency he felt, but he acted on it, anyway.
Brenda caught his arm as he tried to go past her.
"Tyler!" Her grip was firm, effectively stopping him. "Aren't you going to say hi?"
"What?" His question was a bark, filled with impatience.
Brenda stared at him. "What's the matter with you?"
"Who was she?"
Her eyebrows arching, Brenda looked behind her. "Oh just one of the guests."
Tyler narrowed his eyes. "She's leaving already?"
"No, she " Brenda shook her head. "She's a little shy. I had to talk her into coming tonight and now she's having second thoughts."
"I think I'll go get some fresh air."
Her smile slipping, Brenda seemed startled by his abrupt statement. "It's starting to rain, Tyler. Why would you ?"
Starting to walk away, but at a more reasonable pace, he said, "Don't worry about it, Brenda. I promise not to track in any mud." Then he stepped out the back door and peered through the cloudy night, trying to catch sight of her. A lighted path led to the pool house, and more lights, in an array of party colors, circled the small building. Through the smattering of raindrops falling on his face, Tyler was able to see a flash of movement. Ignoring the rain, he followed.
His heart was hammering heavily, his stride rapid on the wet flagstone walk. His muscles were so tight, his movements seemed rough and jerky. He couldn't remember the last time he'd felt so anxious to meet a woman.
Impatience and anticipation were riding him, and he forced himself to stop outside the door of the small house. He tilted his head back, letting the rain cool his face. He was overreacting. She was only a woman, after all, he told himself.
But then he remembered her wide, startled eyes and felt his stomach clench.
He put his hand on the doorknob, half expecting it to be locked. It opened silently, allowing the muted sounds of the party to intrude.
Colored light filtered through the windows in diminished shades, elongating shadows and playing over various forms and furnishings. He gave his eyes a moment to adjust to the dim interior, and then he saw her.
She had been standing turned away from him, one hand pressed to her forehead, the other knotted at her side. But when the door closed with a soft click behind him, she jerked, then swung around to face him.