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Tina adjusted her mask and breathed a sigh of relief. The masquerade party was in full swing with the house band slipping into a hip-hop number. For the next two hours, she could be anyone she wanted to be. In her case, that would be anyone other than the older sister of Her Highness Fredericka Anna Catherine of the small kingdom of Chantaine.
Thank God her college friend, Keely, had invited her to Dallas to celebrate her daughter's christening and catch up. Tina couldn't bear any more of the pitying glances she received when people talked about her beautiful younger sister's marriage to a wealthy Parisian film director. It was all so glamorous, so exciting, and while she was happy for her sister, she was sick of everyone asking when she was getting married. After all, she was older than Ericka and the event had stirred up her brother's suggestion that Tina should marry someone who could aid in Chantaine's political interests.
But she wasn't going to think about that tonight. Tonight the only person who knew her true identity was dancing with her husband at the other end of the room. Keely caught her glance and waved.
Tina waved in return, glad to see her friend enjoying a night out with her hubby.
"Wanna dance?" a man said.
She glanced up, surprised at the invitation. "Oh, no, thank you very much. I'm enjoying watching right now."
"Maybe a drink would help you loosen up," he suggested.
A little pushy, she thought and gave him a once-over. He stood about an inch shorter than her in heels. She didn't like his slicked-back hair or his voice. It was whiny sounding.
Tina had always had a weakness for a sexy voice, though she'd kept that to herself. She shook her head. "No, thank you. Excuse me, I see a friend," she fibbed and moved away.
She accepted a crab cake appetizer from one waiter. Another offered her a glass of champagne. Seconds later, Keely appeared by her side. "How's it going? Are you sure you don't want me to introduce you around?"
"Absolutely not," Tina said. "I'm ecstatically anonymous."
"If you're sure," she said in the warm friendly twang that had welcomed Tina since they first became roommates in college. "I guess it's nice not to have to put on your princess face."
Tina felt a twinge of guilt. She knew her position carried both benefits and responsibilities and she'd tried to never shirk from her duties, but lately it had felt overwhelming. "Just a little break," she said. "I'll be headed back to Chan-taine day after tomorrow. I can't tell you how much I've appreciated having this time with you."
"We've loved having you," Keely said. "Are you sure you can't stay a little longer?"
Tina shook her head. "No. Remember, the wedding takes place in two months."
Keely shot her a look of sympathy. "Duty calls. You're always giving up what you want for others, Tina. One of these days you're going to rebel and shock everyone."
Tina laughed. "Not likely. Someone's got to toe the line in Chantaine and it looks like it's going to be me." Uncomfortable with the discussion, she pointed to the dance floor. "As you would say, time's a wasting. Enjoy your time with your husband."
Keely gave a mocking dip of her head. "Yes, your highness, but there's no reason you can't kick up your heels yourself. If a gorgeous guy asks you to dance, promise me you'll do it," she whispered.
"I don't know," Tina said, thinking of the man who'd approached her earlier.
"Promise," Keely said.
"Oh, okay," Tina relented, because she knew there wasn't much of a possibility for such a thing happening. "But he has to be gorgeous."
"Agreed," Keely said and left to drag her husband out on the dance floor.
Tina took a step back and observed the crowd. She enjoyed the novelty of being the observer rather than the observed. To her left, she heard a group of men discussing the fate of the Dallas Cowboys. To her right, she noticed a man seductively feeding his date an appetizer. Feeling a strange stab of envy at the romance oozing from them, she immediately looked away.
When had a man wanted her just because she was a woman, just because she was herself, instead of wanting her because she was Princess Valentina Catherine Marie of Chan-taine? Try never, she thought and immediately felt frustrated with herself. She led an amazing life. Why had she been so dissatisfied lately?
"Let me take you on the dance floor," the man who'd approached her earlier said. "I can show you a good time."
Be careful what you wish for, she told herself, but this was not the guy of her dreams. She sighed. "No, again," she said firmly. "But thank you."
His hand on her arm took her off guard. "No need to be so shy. We could have some fun."
"No, thank you," she said, pulling back her arm and frowning when he didn't release her. She didn't want to make a scene, but this man was making things difficult. In other circumstances, her security detail would handle this, but tonight she'd successfully ditched them. She hadn't done that since college.
"I'm really not interested"
"Excuse me," she heard another man say. A deeper, sexier male voice slid down her spine like the smoothest cognac in the history of the world.
She glanced up and saw a tall, broad-shouldered man with black hair wearing a black Stetson, a black mask and a tux. "I believe you promised this dance to me," he said, his blue eyes searing into hers through the slits of the mask.
Tina's heart tripped over itself. She met his gaze and felt an instant inexplicable trust and attraction. She gave it a second thought, then dismissed it. "Yes, I did," she said and accepted the hand he offered.
"Well, I guess," the whiny-voiced man began.
The lone ranger, however, led her onto the dance floor and guided her into a slow dance to a romantic song. "It looked like he was causing you trouble."
"I suppose so," she said, hyper-aware of his strong chest and clean, musky scent.
"Should I not have interrupted?" he asked.
"No," she said then corrected herself. "I mean yes." She swallowed a groan.
His hard mouth lifted into a slight grin. "Which is it? Yes or no?"
"Both," she said, stiffening her spine. "He was causing me trouble, but I should have handled it."
He spun her around then drew her back against him. "Now you don't have to."
She couldn't help smiling. "So I don't."
Tina danced through another song with the mysterious stranger, then the band took a break and he lifted her hand to his lips. "Maybe later," he said and moved away. The crowd closed behind him like the Red Sea.
Tina looked around for him but couldn't see him.
Keely appeared in front of her. "I'm sorry, sweetie, but the babysitter called and Caitlyn won't stop crying. Brent and I are going home."
"I'll go with you," Tina said.
"Absolutely not," Keely said with a firm shake of her head. "This is your last chance to have fun for a while. We've already asked a friend to look after you."
Tina cringed. "That's not necessary."
"It's either that or your security," Keely said. "There's no need for you to leave now."
Tina thought of the handsome man who'd danced with her earlier. Why not? "Okay. But I'll probably get to your house in less than an hour."
"Don't rush. Remember, you've got Ericka's wedding coming toward you like a freight train."
The very thought exhausted her. "Okay, you've convinced me."
"Hey," Keely said. "The crab cakes are great."
Tina laughed and gave Keely a hug. "Go home and comfort your baby."
"Yeah, yeah," Keely said then pulled back. "Call me if you need me."
As Tina watched her friend walk away, she felt a combination of exhilaration and terror. She was officially all alone at a party. Except for Keely's mysterious friend.
Zachary Logan watched the brown-haired beauty accept a glass of champagne from the tray the waiter offered her. She also accepted a crab cake.
He smiled to himself. He liked a woman with an appetite. His good friends Keely and Brent McCorkle had asked him to look after Tina Devereaux. The only thing he knew about the woman was that she was Keely's guest from out of town. He owed Brent a favor so he would do what his good friend asked despite the fact that he had been counting the seconds until he could escape this party.
Zach had been cajoled into attending this party by both friends and relatives. It had been two years since his Jenny and their baby had died, and he'd gone into seclusion at his ranch outside of Fort Worth. The pain of his loss still stabbed at him, the memories gutting him like a fish.
For the first time, the gaiety of the social gathering lifted his spirits, and Tina flat-out made him smile. Full-figured, with good manners and an accent he couldn't quite place, she looked at him with a feminine curiosity that grabbed at him and drew him.
She took a sip of bubbly, then licked her lips and he felt an odd twist in his stomach. With the mask covering much of her face, it was easy to focus on her full, puffy mouth, the color of a deep rose. Soft and sensual looking. He rubbed his thumb over his own mouth, feeling a slight buzz.
He shook his head at himself. Where had that thought come from? Noticing how she tapped her toe to the music, he took the hint and walked toward her.
"Another dance?" he suggested, extending his hand.
Her green eyes lit up. "That would be nice," she said and looked around for a place to put her glass. He took it from her and nodded toward a waiter who came to collect it, then led her onto the dance floor.
She shimmied to a dance club tune, laughing throughout the song as if she were getting away with something. Her attitude was contagious and he caught himself smiling more than he had in months. The song blurred into another and another until a slow tune began and he pulled her into his arms.
"I just realized I don't even know your name," she said. "I'm Tina."
"Zach," he said. "Zach Logan."
"I would have never expected it, but this is the most fun I've had in" She paused, a surprised look coming over her face. "Forever," she confessed.
He chuckled. "Maybe you're like me. Maybe you need to get out more."
"Oh, I get out," she said. "Just not like this. I hate to see it end, but I need to leave before the big reveal."
"What do you mean?" he asked.
"I need to leave before everyone takes their masks off at the end of the evening."
"Why? Do you want your identity to remain secret?"
She shot him a cautious glance and shrugged. "Something like that." The music stopped and she started to pull away. "I should go. Thank you, Zach Logan."
He couldn't let her leave on her own. He'd promised Keely and Brent he would make sure she got home safely. "Let me take you," he said. "Can't have a beautiful woman like you leaving by herself. And I know a place close by that serves the best ice cream floats if you're interested."
She looked tempted. "I shouldn't," she said, her voice oozing reluctance.
"Why?" he challenged, not eager for the evening to end either. He would go back to his apartment, full of memories that reminded him of how much he'd lost. "It's just ice cream with a local boy."
"Boy," she echoed in breathless disbelief, giving him a once-over.
"Okay," he amended. "It's just ice cream."
"Well, you did rescue me from that creep," she said, caught in indecision. She squished her eyes together for a half beat then opened them. "I really shouldn't get into a car with a man I've just met."
"I can get you a cab," he said.
"Thank you," she said, disappointment leaking through her tone. He escorted her to the door of the private club and waited with her while the valet waved a car forward.
He opened the door and just before she stepped inside, she glanced over her shoulder. "I could still meet you for that ice cream float if I knew the address."
"Calahan's Diner on 54th and Poplar," he said to the driver and her. "See you soon."
Forty-five minutes later after Tina removed her mask, she sat across from the rugged man with the magnetic eyes. "I can't remember the last time I had one of these," he said as he drained the last drop.
Her gaze slid down his hard jaw, taking in the slide of his Adam's apple, then lower to his broad shoulders. Watching him drink the float was the most seductive experience she'd had in a long time.
Tina wondered if that was just plain pathetic as she took another sip of her own float. She liked the way his bedroom eyes crinkled at the corners. The fact that he was knocking back an ice cream float made him seem a little less dangerous than if he'd been swilling whiskey. She supposed that if she were ever going to do something wild and impetuous with a man, he might be a good choice. Not that she ever would.
"You never mentioned where you live," he said.
"Out of the country, right now," she said. "But I attended college at Rice."
"Is that where you met Keely?" he asked.
Tina blinked, digesting his comment and what it meant. She felt a rush of self-consciousness. "You were the one Keely asked to look after me."
He nodded and his lips tilted into a half smile. "My pleasure."
She resisted the urge to fan her heated face. "This is a little embarrassing. I didn't know you were assigned to look after me. I shouldn't keep you any longer"
His smile fell. "No," he said. "When I said it was my pleasure, I meant it. I haven't been out in awhile. Being with you has" He broke off and shrugged those broad muscular shoulders. "It's been great. I haven't felt this good in a long, long time."
His eyes darkened with emotion, and she felt a visceral tightening in her stomach.
"I don't want it to end," he said.
His words echoed her own feelings. She sucked in a quick breath, determined to clear her head. She had responsibilities. Her duty was most important. Always. "I don't either, but it must end." She closed her eyes for a quick moment, trying to stiffen her resolve. Opening her eyes again, she shot him a smile that she knew was weary. "Grown-ups have to be grown-ups."
He nodded, giving a slight chuckle as he slid his gaze over her from head to waist, heating her from head to toe. "Damn shame, isn't it?"
"Yes," she said, wishing she were a little less responsible, wishing she could be impetuous and follow her heart or hormones .
"I'll get the check, then get you a cab," he said.