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Shadows Of The Past
By Frances Housden
Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.Copyright © 2004 Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter One"Vanity, thy name is woman," Maria Costello told herself, even as she snapped the clasp of her evening purse closed over her glasses and ditched the last particle of her normal librarian look. If there was one thing she didn't need tonight it was anything that smacked of timidity.
No, if she was to face up to her béte noire, then she had to look as if all the power was in her hands, whether it was true or not. She took a deep breath, tilting her chin, and stared after the lights of her departing cab. Without her glasses they were just two fuzzy red balls zooming into the deep blue of a New Zealand summer twilight.
On any other day, the soles of her feet would have itched to dance to the music pouring out of the early New Zealand colonial edifice that housed the Point restaurant, but tonight nothing could distract her. Not even the song rocking off the overhanging verandas that sheltered sidewalk diners. Tonight the tables were empty. All the action was taking place inside at the party she intended gate-crashing.
Of course, if Mamma knew what she was about to do, she would think Maria's sense of proportion had gone haywire. An opinion that would be voiced in a mixture of English and Italian, the exact mix dependent on the level of her excitement.
Somehow, Maria was positive tonight it would be Italian all the way. One look and Mamma would know she'd gone over the top with her plum-colored dress. Its nunlike high neckline and long sleeves fooled everyone until she turned around.
She'd needed a confidence boost and this was the first time since buying the dress she'd hauled it out of the wardrobe and worn it outside her bedroom.
All her best glamour products, and for what? For the sake of turning the tables on the man she believed was stalking her.
Some people might think she was taking a gamble denouncing him with no more proof than he'd been the only person she'd recognized when the sensation prickled up her neck. But it hadn't started until just after she'd been called to reception at Tech-Re-Search and Randy Searle had handed her some documents from Stanhope Electronics. Nearly every time she turned around quickly, she'd caught him dodging out of sight.
She shuddered, switching her thoughts back to her mother before fear could sneak in a low blow and turn her away from her goal.
The way Maria looked at it, in this life you either had to laugh or cry and she was done crying and ready to do battle.
Clenching her back teeth so hard it hurt she walked into the pool of light spilling from the restaurant door. The happening inside was the Christmas party of Stanhope Electronics, the firm that employed Randy Searle. She'd convinced herself that by confronting him face-to-face, even if he tried to bluster his way out of it, people would know, and in future he'd leave her alone.
Her shoulder-length hair, caught up in butterfly clips, tugged as her scalp prickled, the way it did when she felt him around.
No! No more letting her mind take that track.
One more indrawn breath, one more step, and she crossed the threshold into a world of pure sound.
A quick sidestep helped avoid a collision with the couple leaving. Laughing over their shoulders, they waved goodbye, calling out, "See you next year."
At the last moment they noticed her. "Oops, sorry." The tall blonde's blue-eyed gaze held hers with the soft bleariness of someone who'd had just enough to drink.
"No harm done," said Maria, standing to the side to let them exit, hoping the smile on her face hid her apprehension.
The male half of the couple endowed her with a sloppy grin, and just when she thought she was safe, shouted, "Hey, Franc, hang about, we've got a live one here."
A live one? What kind of party was this?
As she hesitated, he said, "Go right on in. Better late than never, it's one hell of a party."
His blond companion tugged at his sleeve, snagging his attention. "And it can only get better."
A look passed between the two. A look of naked need and desire that pinched at Maria as she watched him practically carry the blonde down to the street in their haste to be alone.
Distracted, she wondered what it felt like to want someone so badly you didn't care who knew.
Mentally reproving herself to get back to the task at hand, she let her eyes adjust to the soft glare of candles reflected in the old-fashioned white-and-black tiles that had first adorned the walls when it was a butcher's shop.
"Looking for someone?"
Maria turned in the direction of the rough-honed male voice and almost replied, "You. I'm looking for you. I have been all of my life."
Uh-oh, was her mouth gaping? She shut it with a snap. In a near daze, she dragged her eyes from the guy's lopsided grin. A grin she'd thought exclusive to her favorite movie hero. Now she knew better. And for worse.
It was as if someone had played a sick joke on her. She'd never thought to meet a man who could actually make her heart jump into her throat. Truth be known, she'd hadn't been sure if she wanted to. But to happen tonight of all nights! Swallowing her instincts to flee, she answered, "Randy. Randy Searle, is he still here?"
Head cocked to the side, he gave her a once-over that was almost insolent in its laziness. "Too bad," he drawled. "I'd hoped you were looking for me."
Her hands fisted tightly round the strap of her purse until her nails dug into her palm. Real life intruded on her fairy-tale moment and let loose the beast to steal her peace of mind. Hopefully a crowded place would keep her safe.
"Am I too late?"
He turned his wrist to check. Dark hairs showed above a gold watch where the cuffs of his white silk shirt folded back.
"Not that late, nine-thirty."
"Is ... is he still here?" she stuttered, watching the only guy to ever make her mind crash come closer, moving with all the lethal grace of a male confident of his own attractions.
His glance caught hers. Brown like her own, but more intense in color - bitter chocolate - his eyes held hers until she forced herself to look away.
Franc had never seen eyes quite that color before, never been one to play favorites, but then...times change. Dark brown washed with violet, they were almost the color of her dress.
And if her eyes had stolen his breath, her mouth stopped his heart, the full top and bottom lips pouted naturally as if shaped by a kiss. Immediately the thought my kiss was born. A tiny black mole enhanced the top right-hand corner and definitely required closer investigation.
"Randy?" he replied slowly, snatching time to think of something other than how her mouth would taste, and stop him cursing that Randy had supped there first.
"Do you know him?"
"Sure. Just give me a minute to think where I last saw him." Which would make at least two minutes since he'd watched her halt in the doorway. One glimpse had sent him hurrying between the tables lining the miniature dance floor, praying she wasn't a trick of his imagination, brought about by a period of abstinence that had ceased to bother him, until now.
"Hmm, maybe he went upstairs, there are a couple of quieter rooms up there by the bar..." His words trailed off as he realized he had seen Randy heading in that direction, but he hadn't been alone. Kathy Gilbertson from the experimental electronics lab had been with him, and Franc wouldn't have laid bets on which of them was in the most hurry to reach the scattering of sofas in the secluded upstairs bar.
"Okay, I could be wrong. Randy is more likely to be in the courtyard out back where all the action is."
"Thanks. I guess I'll try there."
Excerpted from Shadows Of The Past by Frances Housden Copyright © 2004 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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