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"I'd bet you've never seen one this big before, have you?"
Emma Black forced a smile to her face. "Wow. It's really big."
"Thank you, my dear." Eighty-year-old billionaire Xavier Franklin gently placed the eighteen-inch-tall antique perfume bottle on a shelf along with other examples of his priceless glassware collection. The brightly lit glass and chrome showroom felt more like something out of a museum than one that would be found in a private home. "But enough about my hobbies, I've been monopolizing your time for far too long. You likely want to get back to the party, don't you?"
No. What Emma really wanted was to get her hands on the potion bottle she'd been sent here, to New York City, to retrieve. When she'd arrived at Franklin's twelve-thousand-square-foot mansion on Central Park West, it had seemed like such a simple assignment.
That had been two hours ago.
She'd arrived to find one of Franklin's infamous masquerade parties going on. She'd read about them beforeglitzy events put on by a man who still thought of himself as one of the city's most eligible bachelors. With a lot of time on his hands and a ton of money at his disposal, his parties had become the place for the most beautiful and important people in the Manhattan social scene to meet up, drink fountains of champagne, andWell, whatever happened, happened.
And here she was, being given the grand tour by the eighty-year-old bachelor himself. She supposed she should feel honored. There weren't a lot of glitzy parties in Mystic Ridge, the town where she lived, unless you counted going for a few drinks at the local bar.
Since Emma had arrived sans costume, she'd been handed a mask at the door. The billionaire also wore a mask, a green one with a large feather.
"Actually, Mr. Franklin" she said, wanting to move things along.
"Please, my dear. Call me Xavier."
It was obvious he'd had a few too many glasses of champagne. He grinned at her like a tipsy teenager, the deep wrinkles fanning out around his eyes.
Maybe he needed a little direction to remember the task at hand. "Xavier you called us, remember? I'm here to pick up your potion bottle and take it back to PARA."
PARA was an acronym for the Paranormal Assessment and Recovery Agency, of which Emma was an agent. She assessed. She recovered. Since her psychic ability was clairvoyance, she sometimes spoke to ghosts to help direct them on to the next plane of existencekind of like a supernatural flight attendant. Some of the ghosts even listened to her.
If someone had something they believed was enchanted or cursed, PARA would send an agent to check it out. If it was determined to be dangerous, the article in question would be kept under lock and key in the vault until it could be disenchanted, decursed or destroyed.
PARA was a privately funded business and Xavier was one of its biggest benefactors. Basically, whatever Xavier wanted, PARA provided for him. He'd just acquired a rare bottle of potion, but the potion wasn't working as he'd been told it would. He wanted it assessed to see if he'd been duped into buying a fake. It wasn't an important or a dangerous job. It was simply time-consuming. Since her car was in the shop, the bus ride from Mystic Ridge to New York City had taken three hours.
Yes, Xavier Franklin always got what he wanted. He'd, in fact, requested Emma by name after they'd met at a fundraising cocktail party a few months ago put on by the PARA board of directors. She was trying to take it as a compliment, even if it meant she was being used as a glorified courier.
Xavier's cell phone buzzed and he pulled it from his pocket. "Yes, the bottle. Of course. I'll get it for you in a moment, my dear. In the meantime, please enjoy yourself. Have some champagne."
He wandered off with his phone pressed to his ear, the enormous peacock feather set into his mask flopping around at the top of it with every step he took.
The shoes Emma wore pinched her feet. Since she'd always disliked how short she wasall of five-foot-oneshe never left her apartment without high heels, the higher the better. This pair had been on sale for a price she couldn't resist, but she'd been paying the real price for her frugality every minute since she'd put them on.
"Such a glamorous life," she said under her breath as her gaze moved over the hundreds of colorful glass bottles, vases and bowls lit up and displayed on shelves and tabletops. The main party was being held in the parlor at the front of the house with a two-storey-high ceiling, a dome-shaped skylight, and a chandelier so large and grand that it likely would impress even the Phantom of the Opera.
The Franklin Mansion, considered a pre-war historic home, was at least 150 years oldold enough that Emma was surprised no other phantoms were wandering around. It was a good thing she didn't sense anything otherworldly. She wasn't there for an exorcism, just a simple courier job.
While she was in Manhattan, though, she'd decided to take care of some other business. Along with being a paranormal investigator, Emma had a bit of a sideline going that very few people knew about. She was a writer. An author, in fact. She'd written an erotic novel and it had just been published a week ago.
It was her naughty little secreta bit like wearing black lace panties and garters under an old pair of jeans.
Her editor was thrilled with Inevitable, a book she'd written under a pseudonym and she'd asked Emma to swing by the office today for a quick visit, during which she'd given Emma a stack of extra copies of the release. She wanted to offer Emma a contract to write more, but Emma wasn't sure she had more books in her. The only reason she'd written this book was because she'd had a certain set of fantasies that wouldn't let go of her imagination until she'd put them down on paper. Now they were down. They were published. And Emma felt she should focus on her career with PARA. After all, that's what paid the bills.
If she'd known she'd have to lug a dozen books in a tote bag around a masquerade party for hours on end, she might have stashed them in a locker somewhere until it was time to head back home. Within the next hour, she needed to grab Xavier's bottle and then catch her bus back to Mystic Ridge at eleven o'clock.
But then, out of the corner of her eye, she saw a familiar face.
It felt as if someone had just punched her in her gut. Ryan Shephard.
"Son of a bitch," she whispered. What the hell was he doing here?
Her eyes narrowed. As if she had to ask. There were tens of millions of dollars worth of art and collectibles under this roof.
It was the perfect place for a thief like Ryan.
She moved to the archway between the rooms and watched as he slowly made his way through the crowd, pausing to chat with the other masked party-goers as if he belonged there when it was obvious to her he'd crashed. He'd never get an invitation to a fancy event like this one with his reputation.
Even with the red mask that covered half his face, she'd recognize him anywhere. The line of his jaw. The shape of his lips. The way his tall, chiseled frame filled out that black tuxedo.
She bit her bottom lip. Just because the man had betrayed her, lied to her, and walked away without even trying to explain himself, that didn't mean she still didn't find him painfully attractive.
It had been six months since her former partner at PARA had been caught stealing from the vault, intending to sell the enchanted objects and treasures within to private buyers.
They'd been partners for a year. Friends. Confidants. They'd laughed together, shared secrets, and gotten to know each other very well. Too well. Along the way, Emma had felt something much stronger than friendship for Ryan growing inside her. Just as she was gaining the courage she needed to act on it, he began dating her friend Charlotte.
Emma took that as the hint that he saw them as just friends, although the fantasies about him that plagued her were difficult to deal with. Constant. Erotic. Distracting. They were the same ones she'd needed to get down on paper, exorcizing them from her mind as if they were pesky ghosts.
She'd thought those fantasies were long gone now, captured on the page. But one look at Ryan had brought them all flooding back to her.
There'd also been another man she'd once trusted with all her heart before he betrayed her. Her father. He'd been a gambling addict and alcoholic who'd taken off and left her and her mother far behind when Emma had been in her late teens. No excuses, no apologies. He was just gone.
Then ten years later, Ryan had worked his way under her skin. She felt comfortable with him in a way that she'd never felt with other mencoworkers or boyfriends. And just when she'd been ready to put absolute trust in him, he'd shattered it in one fell swoop.
Ryan Shephard was a liar and a thief. Just because he was also drop dead sexy did nothing to help balance the scales. The last time they'd spoken, she believed she'd said something like: "I never want to see you again, you bastard."
Perhaps she hadn't been quite as polite, but that had been the gist of it. He'd been using her all along, trying to get into the good graces and trust of a long-time PARA agent like her, so he could get access to the office after hours.
And he'd lied about it by saying he hadn't done anything wrong. Then he'd turned tail and left Mystic Ridge without another word.
He had done it. She had no doubt about that. If he'd just owned up to it, admitted he'd made the wrong choice. then maybe she might feel differently about the entire situation. Be he hadn't. And that just made her think about the father who'd run away from a tough situation, with no regard for a wife and daughter who would have stood by him, no matter what.
Bad memories. Very bad.
Emma was surprised that seeing Ryan again affected her so much. Suddenly her palms were moist and her heart pounded like a jackhammer.
She was at the party to do her job and retrieve the potion bottle from Xavier, nothing else. Still, if Ryan Shephard was at this party, she was sure he was up to no good.
Summoning up her courage, she put one heel-clad foot in front of the other and made a beeline toward him. A waiter carrying a tray of champagne passed by and she grabbed a glass, downing it in one gulp before she carried on. Her borrowed mask felt hot and uncomfortable.
The faces around her were all covered in masks as well. Behind them, she knew she'd find local politicians, socialites, businesspeople, and a few celebrities. She didn't pay them any attention. She ignored the classical music coming from the corner of the opulent ballroom. The four string quartet also wore masks. Emma's eyes were solely fixed on her target.
The star of her most erotic fantasies.
Ryan was bad news. And bad news was best thrown in the trash or used to line a bird cage.
He was talking to a buxom blonde wearing a pink feathered mask to match her tight pink cocktail dress when Emma tapped him on the shoulder. His back stiffened and he glanced at her.
"Hi there," he said with a slow smile.
She cocked her head. "Hi there? Really?"
He turned back to the blonde. "Sorry."
"Not a problem," she demurred. "I'll catch up with you later. You have my phone number."
"Yes, I do. Thanks for that."
Oh, brother. Emma crossed her arms and tapped her foot as she waited for the blonde to wander off. Finally, he turned back to face her. The cobalt-blue eyes she remembered all too clearly were jarring behind his mask as he leisurely scanned her from head to toe. He ran a hand through his jet-black hair. It was a little longer than it had been the last time she'd seen him.
The smile he gave her was enough to melt her panties. That is, if he really affected her anymore. And, unfortunately, he did. Unexpected desire, much like a surge of electricity jolted through her.
"Well?" she prompted, wanting some sort of explanation about why he was there and what he was up to.
"Are you enjoying yourself?" he asked casually.
She stared at him for a moment. "Pardon me?"
"It's a great party, isn't it? The food is incredible. Have you been to the rooftop terrace yet?" He glanced toward the spiral staircase. "The view of Central Park is spectacular from up there."
She gaped at him in disbelief. After everything that had happened, every case they'd investigated together, every hour they'd spoken in the past, every sexual fantasy she'd secretly harbored for himhe didn't know who she was under her mask.
Of all the damned nerve.
Ryan wracked his mind for the right movie quote. It was from Casablanca and Bogie had said it. Something about a whole lot of gin joints in the world and Ingrid Bergman had to walk into his.
He wasn't Humphrey Bogart and this wasn't an old movie. But the sight of beautiful Emma Black immediately made him want to head to the bar in the corner of the parlor and consume a great deal of gin.
Even with a party mask on, he would recognize her anywhere. And not just because of her long flame-red hairalthough it did help her stand out in a crowd. She was short in staturenot much over five feet, but she always made up for it by wearing treacherously high heels. Tonight she wore a simple black dress, a little less fancy and shiny than what other women were wearing tonight, but he had to fight his gaze not to skim down her body again. He thought he'd memorized every luscious curve back when they were partners, but unexpectedly seeing her standing right in front of him had been enough to knock all logical thought out of his head.
No, it wasn't just because of her hair or her body that he recognized her.
It was the look in her emerald green eyes. He remembered that look after being on the receiving end of it nearly six months ago.
Sheer unadulterated hatred.
It brought back memoriesbad ones.
His knee-jerk reaction to seeing her standing there glaring at him like he was an insect that had the audacity to smash into her windshield was to pretend he didn't recognize her.
And here they were.
"Anyway" he pushed a facsimile of a charming smile to his lips "have a lovely evening."
He didn't want to scurry off with his tail between his legs, but the compulsion was strong.