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The grand ballroom was a sea of masks. Black, white, sequined and feathered masks everywhere Lexi Austin looked.
As she waded through the crowd of revelers, excitement pulsed through her veins. In half an hour the clock would strike twelve, ushering in a new year. Lexi could think of no better way to celebrate than by attending a masquerade ball at a luxurious chateau owned by legendary fashion designer Asha Dubois. The glitzy soiree was the hottest ticket in France every year, attended by everyone who was anyone in the fashion industry. Which meant that Lexi could be rubbing elbows with the likes of Miuccia Prada and John Galliano without even
A man in a feathered black mask suddenly jostled her, murmuring apologetically, "Excusez-moi."
Lexi smiled beneath the jeweled white mask that covered the upper half of her own face. "Ce n'estpas grave," she assured him, the words rolling smoothly off her tongue.
The stranger returned her smile before moving off.
Lexi continued across the crowded room, taking in the sights and sounds as if she'd just arrived at the party. A canopy of twinkling lights hung from the frescoed ceiling, and ornate wall tapestries and marble columns evoked the grandeur of the French Renaissance. A fifteen-piece orchestra performed a dreamy Viennese waltz that had lured many couples onto the dance floor, the swirl of white ball gowns transforming the scene into a shimmering fairyland.
As Lexi paused to watch the dancers, she couldn't help wishing she had a date that evening. What could be more romantic than ringing in the New Year wrapped in the arms of a man she loved?
But she'd been woefully unlucky in that department, so tonight she was flying solo.
A soft smile curved her mouth when two of her closest friends, Michael and Reese Wolf, whirled into her line of sight. Michael was darkly handsome in a black tuxedo, while Reese was positively radiant in a long white gown that flowed gently over her round, protruding belly. Being eight months pregnant hadn't slowed her down that evening; her head was thrown back in laughter as her husband twirled her gracefully around the dance floor.
As Lexi watched the happy couple, she thought of the missing member of their group. Quentin Reddick had called last night to let them know he'd be unable to join them in France, citing an unexpected development in one of his upcoming court cases. Lexi had been sorely disappointed. Quentin was her best friend. Over the years they'd attended numerous parties together, often serving as each other's "mock date."
Not that Quentin ever had any trouble finding real dates, Lexi thought wryly. The man was a veritable chick magnet. If he'd been at tonight's ball, he would have spent the evening surrounded by gorgeous, leggy supermodels. God knows there were plenty in attendance.
Still, despite his popularity with the ladies, Lexi had always known she could count on Quentin to save her a dance or two. When she returned home to Atlanta in a few days, she'd be sure to give him an earful for abandoning her.
With one last envious glance at the dancing couples, Lexi made her way across the ballroom toward a row of French doors that opened onto an ivy-draped terrace. She'd decided to ring in the New Year outside on the balcony, which was preferable to remaining indoors, where she'd be surrounded by couples kissing and embracing at the stroke of midnight.
When she reached the doors to the terrace, she was relieved to see that it was deserted. The cool temperature had undoubtedly deterred the other guests from wandering out there to steal a romantic moment under the stars or enjoy the breathtaking view of rolling green hills, beautifully landscaped gardens and lush vineyards.
Standing at the white stone balustrade, Lexi closed her eyes and inhaled the crisp night air. She almost imagined she could detect the scents of lavender and fermenting grapes that would permeate the French countryside during warmer months.
She'd been thrilled when Michael and Reese invited her to celebrate the New Year with his family in France. Lexi would have been content to spend the holiday with her friends anywhere. Never in her wildest dreams could she have imagined staying at a sprawling twenty-bedroom chateau nestled deep in the country's most famous wine region. Burgundy was a chef's paradise, a French mecca for lovers of gourmet cuisine and exquisite wine. Lexi couldn't wait to go exploring tomorrow.
Belatedly, she realized that the orchestra had stopped playing inside the ballroom. An air of hushed excitement swept over the crowd moments before Asha Dubois's lilting, cultured voice came over the loudspeaker. "Bonsoir, mes amis. I hope all of you are having a splendid time this evening."
She paused, chuckling softly as a chorus of cheers and applause went around the room. "Tres bien. I'm very pleased to hear it. Well, my dear friends, we're just minutes away from welcoming a new year. If you haven't already, please be sure to take a flute of champagne from one of the servers circulating around the room. After all, darlings, you can't toast the New Year empty-handed."
Glancing down at her empty hands clasped over the balustrade, Lexi smiled ruefully.
"For those of you who have never attended one of my masquerade balls," Asha continued, "we observe a very simple tradition. At the stroke of midnight, everyone removes their masks and reveals themselves. So without further ado, I'd like to wish all of you a wonderful New Year. May you experience love, laughter and joyand have plenty of hot, mind-blowing sex!"
Lexi grinned as the crowd roared with laughter and approval. And then the revelers joined together to belt out the last ten seconds of the countdown: " five, four, three, two"
As fireworks erupted into the night sky, a pair of strong arms curved around Lexi's waist and swept her around. She had only a fleeting glimpse of a black mask and impossibly broad shoulders before the stranger lowered his head.
She gasped at the shock of soft, warm lips covering hers.
Her first instinct was to jerk away. But the sudden onslaught of pleasure engulfing her body made it impossible for her to move.
The stranger increased the pressure of his mouth against hers as his hands slid up her back, holding her close against his hard, muscular frame. Dazedly her mind registered that he was very tall, at least six-five. And he tasted deliciousan irresistible combination of chocolate, peppermint and man. Her blood ignited, and her heart thundered furiously.
The stranger, whoever he was, could kiss like no other man she'd ever kissed before. As he traced the shape of her lips with his tongue, violent pulses of sensation charged through her body. She opened her mouth and his tongue dipped inside, lazily stroking hers. A tiny sound caught in her throat, a whimper of pleasure.
He deepened the kiss, exploring her mouth with slow, sensual licks that left her quaking all over. She arched against him, craving more.
All too soon, he released her and lifted his head.
Disoriented, Lexi swayed on her feet before strong hands gently gripped her upper arms, steadying her. She opened her eyes slowly.
"Happy New Year." A deep, familiar voice greeted her.
Lexi went rigid, her eyes widening with shock. No, it couldn't be. "Quentin?"
Slowly he reached up and removed his mask. A kaleidoscope of bright colors flashed across his wickedly handsome facea face Lexi knew almost as well as her own.
She staggered backward, stunned and shaken. "Wh-what the hell do you think you're doing?"
"Wishing you a Happy New Year," Quentin murmured.
"You couldn't do that without kissing me?" she cried in exasperated disbelief.
Another burst of fireworks illuminated the devilish gleam in his hazel eyes. "Come now," he drawled. "What's a little kiss between old friends?"
Lexi gaped at him. There'd been nothing remotely "little" about that kiss. Good Lord, her knees were still knocking together!
"That wasn't some chaste peck on the lips, Quentin," she said darkly. "You French-kissed me."
His eyes glimmered with amusement. "We're in France."
One broad shoulder shrugged. "When in France "
Lexi shook her head, her eyes narrowing suspiciously on his face. "Have you been drinking?"
"No," Quentin said with a laugh, slipping his hands into his pants pockets. He looked like a million bucks in a classic black tuxedo that fit his body like a dream.
"What're you doing here anyway?" Lexi grumbled. "I thought you couldn't make it."
Instead of answering, he took a step toward her.
Alarmed, Lexi backed away until she came up against the stone balustrade. Trapped, she stared up at him, afraid he might try to kiss her again. "Quentin"
"Relax." He reached out, gently pulling her mask off her face. She'd completely forgotten she was wearing one, and now she felt utterly exposed without it.
Quentin set the mask down on the banister. His lazy gaze raked over her, taking in the low neckline and cinched waist of her strapless white gown before sliding back up to her face. "You look beautiful, Lex," he murmured.
"Thanks." She inhaled deeply, appalled by how uneven her breath was, how hard it was to draw air into her lungs. "Asha had gowns designed for me, Reese and Samara. I really lucked out by having a close friend whose stepmother is a famous fashion mogul."
Quentin's eyes glinted wickedly. "That was one helluva toast she made. Words to live by."
At the memory of Asha's admonition to her guests to have "plenty of hot, mind-blowing sex," Lexi flushed deeplya reaction that confused her. Normally she would have laughed and made some quip about Quentin's notoriously overactive sex life.
But tonight she could only manage a noncommittal "hmm."
Inside the ballroom, the orchestra was playing an extended version of "Auld Lang Syne" as the unmasked partygoers milled around laughing, shaking hands and exchanging good wishes. Some had drifted toward the French doors to watch the fireworks display. No one attempted to join the two occupants of the terrace.
Lexi dragged in another deep breath, striving for composure. "When did you arrive?" she asked Quentin.
"About half an hour ago." Smiling, he touched her face. "I've been looking for you ever since."
She swallowed hard. "Yeah?"
"Well, you found me." Had he ever! "Now you can get back to the party. In case you haven't noticed, there's a roomful of supermodels who are just waiting to be debauched. As a matter of fact, one of them just walked by. I think you caught her eye, Quentin."
She waited for him to take the bait and glance over his shoulder to catch a glimpse of the woman in question. To her surprise, his gaze never strayed from hers.
Frowning, Lexi reached up and laid her hand across his forehead as if to check his temperature. "Sweetie, are you feeling okay?"
He chuckled softly. "I feel fine."
"Are you sure? You don't seem like yourself. Maybe you're jet-lagged. Or"
"Maybe I'm just happy to see you," he finished.
The warm, husky undertone of his voice skated along her nerve endings and quickened her heart rate.
She gave him a wobbly smile. "I'm happy to see you too, Quentin."
And she really was. She just wished they hadn't gotten off to such a nerve-racking start. That kiss Oh, God. If that searing kiss was any indication of Quentin's prowess as a lover, it was no wonder he couldn't keep women out of his bed.
"You owe me a dance," he told her.
Lexi shook her head quicklymaybe too quickly. But she couldn't help it. The thought of being in his arms again scared her senseless. "Sorry, but you'll have to take a rain check. My feet are killing me in these heels."
"So take 'em off."
"Wouldn't do much good. The damage has already been done. Besides, I was planning to cut out soon anyway. Asha had me and the girls running around Paris all day, so I'm exhausted." To demonstrate, she covered her mouth to stifle what she hoped was a convincingly huge yawn.
Quentin tsk-tsked her. "Spoilsport."
She grinned. "Hey, it's not my fault you got here late. But don't worry. I'm leaving you in good hands. The supermodel I just mentioned? Don't look now, but she's back. And it's a damn good thing we're not involved, Q, or I'd have to kick her ninety-pound ass for stalking my man."
Laughing, Quentin sent a lazy glance over his shoulder. The gorgeous woman, slim and exquisitely tall, hovered near the terrace doors. She met Quentin's gaze, smiled coyly and fluttered her fingers in a wave.
He flashed her a smile before returning his attention to Lexi. "I'm staying in the room next to yours." Which was the last thing she wanted to hear. "If you're still awake when I come up, maybe we can play cards or something."
Lexi forced out a laugh. "Trust me, I won't be awake. And something tells me you won't be thinking about cards by the time you make it back to your room," she added with a meaningful glance over his shoulder.
Quentin shifted closer. "Lex"
"Oh, look, there's Michael and Reese!" she exclaimed, grateful for the distraction. "They told me they'd be heading to bed right after midnight. I'll walk out with them. Good night, sweetie." Pressing a quick kiss to Quentin's smooth-shaven cheek, she slipped from between him and the balustrade and hurried across the terrace.
Although she was retiring early, she didn't expect to get much sleep. The memory of Quentin's kiss would keep her awake tonight, and for many nights to come.
The last thought Quentin had before falling asleep was the same thought that greeted him when he woke up the next morning: he'd kissed Lexi.
In the light of day his behavior seemed surreal, like something he'd only imagined. Except he'd never imagined doing something as reckless as what he'd done last night. To Lexi. His best friend. A woman who'd always been more like a sister to him than anything else.
But there was nothing brotherly about the way he'd felt when he pulled her into his arms and kissed her. She'd tasted sweeter than he could ever have imagined, and the feel of her petite, curvy body pressed against his had tempted him beyond all reason.
The scary part was, he hadn't even intended to kiss her when he'd found her on the terrace last night.