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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 achance 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 of him. "Just water, please."
He beckoned to a waiter who arrived at breakneck speed.
So much for getting rid of him. Alyssa resisted the urge to swear.
"Just water?" His eyes gleamed through the mask. At her nod, he turned to the waiter. "Two bottles of Perrier."
Alyssa forced herself not to look for Roland, but she was anxiously aware that if she didn't find him now, she might lose him again.
"I need the cloakroom," she improvised. "I'll be back in a minute," she flung over her shoulder, and dived into the crowd.
A glance back showed that her Mr. Tall, Dark and Probably Handsome had been detained by two women who each kissed him enthusiastically on both cheeks, the mask clearly an ineffective disguise to the ambitious Cinderellas. Impatience was carved into every line of his tall, muscular body, but he murmured a polite response.
Good, he wasn't following.
Then Alyssa put him out of her mind as she wove her way between men in tuxedos, women in silk and satin dresses, intent on finding the man she'd come to confront.
But Roland—and his fiancée—had vanished.
Alyssa hurried out onto the balcony outside, brushing past Rhett Butler and Scarlett O'Hara flirting in the shadows, and a couple of men smoking alone.
She peered over the white wrought iron railing, through the criss-cross shadows cast by a clump of tall Nikau palms, into the well-lit garden below. Two couples stood under the trees. Her breath caught. But neither man sported that distinctive red hair. Her pulse quickening with urgency, Alyssa hurried along the wide balcony and down a set of steep narrow stairs and slipped through the side door back into the homestead.
Sweeping up the long skirts of her dress, she hurried, peering into rooms she passed. A quick scan of the large dining room with tables laden with finger food failed to reveal Roland.
Roland must've taken his fiancée—Amy—upstairs. Alyssa hesitated, eyeing a staircase that appeared to lead to another wing. The bedrooms must be up there. What if she disturbed them in an intimate moment?
Her teeth played with her bottom lip. She'd come so far, she couldn't chicken out now. Drawing a deep breath, she moved toward the stairs.
But before she got there, the door on her right swung open and a brunette burst out. Amy. Her colour was high, her hair mussed. Alyssa stopped, and then Roland came rushing into the corridor, his eye patch in his hand, his expression determined.
"Amy, listen to—"
"Roland?" Like a sleepwalker Alyssa reached out and touched his arm. "Roland Saxon?"
She knew exactly who he was but she couldn't help enunciating the name that had been imprinted on her mind for years.
He gave her an impatient glance. "Yes?"
"I'm—" She hesitated, her mind suddenly blank. Everything she'd planned to say withered under the attack of doubt devils. Dare she reveal herself as Alice McKay? He hadn't responded to any of her letters or e-mails, so why should he be any more welcoming now?
He glanced past her to where the brunette had taken the main stairs and disappeared in the direction of the ballroom.
Concerned that he would brush by her and vanish again, Alyssa thrust out her hand and said, "I'm Alyssa Blake. I'm—"
Recognition flared in the eyes that met hers in astonishment. "The journalist who did that hatchet job on Saxon's Folly. Yes, I know who you are."
No, you don't.
Finally, to her immense relief, he took her hand and shook it, before letting it drop. "What are you doing here?"
Alyssa found she was shaking. Roland had touched her. His skin had been warm and solid. Real. She'd met him. At last.
Struggling for composure, she said, "I'd like to arrange to interview you for a feature in Wine Watch."
Now she had his full attention, but his expression had shifted to wariness. "What would the focus of the story be?"
"I'm doing a story on how some of the strongest brands in the industry have been built. As the marketing director of Saxon's Folly Wines, I'd like your comments."
"You haven't been too complimentary about Saxon's Folly in the past, Ms. Blake."
"Maybe I've had a change of mind." Please, God, let him believe it. She needed a chance to meet with him one-on-one. They had so much to talk about.
"I don't know—"
"Please." She was practically begging now. "It will be a positive article. I promise."
"Why should I trust you? Joshua believed you were going to do a feature on the estate. Instead you lambasted his management methods."
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