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Samantha entered the luxurious lobby of the Atlantian Hotel with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. Her pace slowed as she looked around, taking in every detail. The spacious lobby was amazing, ceilings that soared at least twenty-five feet supporting crystal chandeliers that sparkled and gleamed with light. The floor alternated glowing hardwoods with lush Persian carpets centering seating arrangements of plush sofas and deep easy chairs. Sidestepping from a direct line to the ballroom, she deliberately walked on one of the crimson carpets, her heels sinking in dangerously. Glancing around to make sure no one was watching, she savored the luxury, smiling in sheer delight.
She felt like a schoolgirl let out into the real world for the first time. Only this was not her world. Elegant hotels, fabulous balls, expensive gowns and jewels were only things she normally read about. This was a firstto actually be participating. She couldn't believe she'd actually let Charlene talk her into attending.
Samantha assumed an air of casual sophistication and crossed to the cloakroom hoping she appeared as if she attended events like this routinely. She checked in her coat, her practical wool a poor showing beside the cashmere and silk.
Clutching her small purse and purloined ticket, Samantha raised her chin and walked to the huge double doors opening into the ballroom. Atlanta's Black and White New Year's Eve Ball was one of the most prestigious charity events of the winter season. A recent tradition, its goal was raising funds for the Children's League while celebrating the beginning of each new year. With such sponsors as Gideon Fairchild and Vanessa Winters, it attracted the crème de la crème of Atlanta society. And tonight Sam was mingling with them all!
Samantha smiled at the white-gloved man at the door checking the coveted tickets. She showed hers wondering if he'd immediately recognize she should not be here and block her entry.
He merely glanced at the embossed ticket and said, "Table twenty-one is near the dais."
She nodded and entered the enchanted ballroom. Her gaze moved around the room taking in every lavish decoration. White lights sparkled from a dozen chandeliers reflected in the antique mirrors that lined one wall. Even more gorgeous than the ones in the lobby, the crystal illumination offered a rainbow of colors matched only by the glittering jewels displayed by guests.
Round tables were set with fine linens, bone china and real silverware. Small, discreet signs with table numbers sat in each center. Waiters circulated with champagne, filling flutes expertly. Uniformed waitresses offered hors d'oeuvres. People were already sitting at some of the tables, even more were roaming around greeting friends. Sam took her time sauntering through the lavishly appointed room. She felt like Cinderella at the ball. She didn't know anyone here, but that wouldn't dim her excitement.
People smiled at her and she returned the silent greeting with an answering smile and slight nod. Her gaze moved to the dais where a table for those sponsoring the event was already filling up. There she recognized one or two famous residents of the city from photographs in the newspaper.
True to the nature of the event, everyone wore either white or black or a combination. The men looked superb in their dark tuxedos. Occasionally she'd spot one wearing a white dinner jacket. Young and old alike looked more polished and debonair in a tux. She wished there were more events that required formal attire. Not that she'd likely attend any of those, either.
The gowns the women wore were fantastic. The only colors were the jewels that sparkled at throats, ears and wrists. Her own string of pearls seemed subdued in comparison to the emeralds and rubies and diamonds that predominated. But they had belonged to her mother and she loved them. She could only pretend so much.
Normally when Samantha thought about white gowns, she envisioned wedding dresses. Not tonight. The creations ranged from sleek and sophisticated to almost indecent. More black gowns were present than white, but all were obviously designer creations.
Her own gown blended in perfectly. On loan from her friend Margaret who owned a vintage clothing shop, the white satin strapless bodice gradually faded into gray then black at a wide band at the bottom of the floor-length skirt. It was more than fifty years old, but had been lovingly cared for and Sam felt as comfortable in it as she would have in one of today's couture gowns. Because of its age, there was not a high likelihood of seeing another like it tonight.
She felt like a princess and held her head even higher to show off her gown. She had never worn anything so elegant before. Her hair, normally worn down or tied back in a ponytail, had been done by her sister into an upswept loop with a few curls cascading down her back. She repressed the urge to twirl around in giddy delight, feeling excited like nothing before. There would be dancing after the dinner. Would she get a chance? An assessing look around her showed most people seemed paired. Sighing softly, she made up her mind to enjoy every momentwhether she danced or not. It was unlikely she'd ever have another opportunity to attend a Black and White Ball.
"Champagne?" A waiter stepped close, a tray of filled flutes in his hand.
"Thank you," she said, taking a glass. When he'd passed on, she took a tentative sip. Mmm. Another sip. Champagne was not normally in her budget. This was delicious.
Before she could move, a man stepped in front of her.
"I'm sure we have met," he said with a grin. He sipped from his own flute of champagne and from the slight swaying on his feet she wondered how much he'd already had.
"I'm afraid not," she said with a smile.
"Fred Pearson. At your shervice." He shook his head. "Service."
He reached out and caught her arm. "Here alone? I am. Don't like to come to these events alone. Too shhhtupid, ya know? But I recognize you. I'm sure we have met."
"No. I'm Samantha." She didn't want to be rude but Fred was impeding her way to her table and she caught a couple of people looking at them. The last thing she wanted was anything to call attention to herself. What if someone questioned who she was and when she'd bought the ticket?
"I need to get to my table," she said, hoping he'd release her.
"Ah, my table is right over" He looked around, peering at the numbers on the nearby tables, still holding on to her arm.
Sam began to wonder if it were to keep him upright.
"somewhere," Fred ended, obviously giving up on finding his own table. "Do you want to dance?"
"The music hasn't started yet," Sam said, trying to pull away without making it too obvious.
Fred glanced around again, finishing the last of the champagne in his glass. "It'll start soon."
"I think dinner is first. It was nice to meet you. I need to get to my table."
"My table is around here somewhere," he said, stumbling a step as he turned to look around, almost pulling Sam off her feet.
"There you are. I was thinking I'd missed you."
Sam looked to her left where another man in a tux spoke to her. He looked at Fred.
"You need to let her go. I'll take over now," he said.
"Oh. Thought she was lost," Fred said, swaying a little. He looked at his hand holding Sam's arm and slowly released it. "Think I need another drink."
"I think we don't belong here," her rescuer said. A warm hand grasped her upper arm and urged her quickly to the left. Guiding her through tables and making a way through the couples standing in conversations, she was soon whisked to the sidelines.
She turned and looked properly at her rescuerand promptly caught her breath. Her heart fluttered, her breathing stopped. He was gorgeous, tall and dark and breathtaking. He just oozed sex appeal. She'd read about that before, but never experienced it. Now she knew what the books meant. Feeling slightly light-headed, she finally remembered to breathe.
He was so tall, her head barely cleared his shoulder. Wide shoulders that gave a new meaning to wearing a tux made the suit look as if it were designed with only him in mind and the ruffles on the shirtfront served to highlight his masculinity. His hair was cut just long enough to entice a woman's fingers to thread through and dark eyes were framed by lashes a starlet would envy. His jaw was rugged. His sensuous lips curled into a slight smile, which showed a dimple indenting his left cheek. His gaze was firmly focused on her. Oh, dear, had he said something?
She blinked and looked away, her heart pounding. Good grief, she never paid attention to such things. Did coming to a ball like Cinderella give rise to Prince Charming expectations? She almost laughed, except she felt giddy with her conflicting emotions.
"Are you all right?" he asked. For the second time?
"I certainly didn't expect a confrontation at this ball," she murmured, glancing back to where Fred was making his way through the crowd. "Do you think he'll be all right?"
"Probably. But you never know with Boozer."
"Boozer?" she repeated.
"Fred's nickname. Rumor has it he drinks bourbon for breakfast. He's already three sheets to the wind and he's only just arrived. Stay clear of him."
"I shall. If I had seen him coming I would have gone the other way. Thank you for rescuing me."
A waitress stopped by them, offering tiny crackers covered with caviar.
Samantha hesitated. She had never tried caviar before and had heard mixed reviews from friends who had.
Her companion had no compunctions. He took a couple, then looked at her.
"Not having any?"
"I'll try one," she said, feeling daring. But with her small purse and the ticket in one hand and the other holding the champagne, she wasn't sure how.
He solved that dilemma. "May I?" he asked. He fed her one, his fingers barely brushing her lips. She didn't even taste the caviar, her whole being was riveted on the reaction to his barely felt touch. She shivered slightly, but not due to cold. She gazed up into deep brown eyes and felt her bones weaken even as every cell seemed to stir in anticipation of more. Oh, help, she was in trouble.
"Another?" he asked, offering a second.
She nodded and he fed her again. This time she paid attention to the strong taste by looking away.
"Mmm," she said, wrinkling her nose. She was not sure caviar would ever become a favorite.
He laughed and took another cracker for himself before the waitress moved on to the next guest.
"Not your thing, I take it," he said as he popped the hors d'oeuvre into his mouth.
Sam shook her head, her gaze on his lips as he chewed the tidbit. Get a hold of yourself!
"I'm glad I got to sample it. Now I know I don't have expensive tastes," she said.
"Is this your first time here?"
He glanced around. "Will your date know where to find you?" he asked.
"I came alone. I think FredBoozerpicked up on that." Did that make her sound odd? Should she make up something about her date getting sick at the last moment or something?
"So did I. If you are ready to find your table, I'll escort you," he said genially.
She smiled, suddenly feeling like anything could happen tonight. Taking another sip of her champagne, she wondered why a man who looked like he did had come alone. Maybe his date really had got sick.
"Your wife was unable to attend?" she asked, fishing for an answer without being too obviousshe hoped.
"I'm not married." His demeanor changed, instantly becoming somber.
Bad topic. She swept her arm toward the dais. "Mine is table twenty-one. The doorman said it was near the dais."
He paused for a moment, staring at her. "How interesting. That's my table also."
She went on alert. For a moment tension rose. Surely he didn't think she had deliberately set out to sit at his table? He had rescued her after all. Yet his reaction had definitely been odd. She still had the ticket out and showed it to him. He inclined his head slightly and gestured for her to walk toward the front of the large ballroom.
"My friends call me Mac," he said, placing his hand at the small of her back as they wound through groups of guests chatting and laughing with enjoyment of the evening.
"Mine call me Sam. Short for Samantha," she murmured, her heart pumping wildlyfrom his touch, or adrenaline, or just plain old fear of exposure, she wasn't sure. No one had challenged her so far. She should feel safe. But she couldn't help glancing around to see if anyone was paying special attention to her. Apparently not.
"Mac and Sam, sounds like a rock group or something," he responded. Twice he spoke to people as they wound through the conversing groups, but he didn't stop to introduce Sam.
The tables were set for eight. A couple was already seated at table twenty-one when Mac and Sam reached it. Everyone introduced themselves with first names as Mac seated Sam then took the chair beside her. It was obvious the others thought they had come together. She waited for him to deny it, but he ignored the assumptions.
By the time the salad was served two others had joined them. Conversation became general and Sam relaxed as the meal progressed. It looked as if her gamble had paid off. She could give herself up to the sole purpose of enjoying the evening and no longer worry about discovery. How long had it been since she'd gone out for fun and nothing more?
Longer than she cared to remember, thanks to Hurricane George.
Mac was a perfect partner for dinner. He spent his time talking with her and the woman on his other side. Two places remained empty at the table. How odd that those people had not used their tickets. Or had they, too, been trashed? The sponsors of this event had declared it to be a sellout. Was that just hype, or had something at the last moment prevented some ticket holders from attending?
When the final dinner plates had been removed and coffee served, the waitstaff quietly vanished and the night's speaker was introduced. The speech was short and poignant, urging everyone present to take up the cause of the Children's League and to be generous in support for disadvantaged children.
Then the wall to the right began to fold into panels and open revealing the dance floor and the orchestra providing the music. Along one wall a buffet table lavishly displayed desserts of all types. Two large open bars flanked the buffet tables. The rest of the room sparkled beneath the crystal chandeliers that illuminated the space, dimmed slightly to provide a sense of intimacy in the huge ballroom.
The music began and Mac turned to Sam. "Care to dance?"