The Ultimate Seduction
“I’m about to make you an offer you can’t refuse.”
Tiffany Davis takes her first delicious step into the exclusive masquerade ball hosted by the secretive Q Virtus gentleman’s club. Here, behind the mask, Tiffany can hide her scars and reveal her true self—a powerful businesswoman with an offer for the president of Bregnovia, Ryzard Vrbancic.
Astounded by her audacity, only the fire in Tiffany’s eyes makes Ryzard look twice. He has no interest in her business deal, but the promise of a woman who can match his ruthless determination makes him eager to seduce from her the one thing she’s not offering….
Welcome to Q Virtus, the 21st Century Gentleman’s Club, where the rich, powerful and passionate come to play! For years, there have been rumours of a secret society, where only the richest, the most powerful and the most decadent can embrace their every desire. Nothing is forbidden in this private world of pleasure.
Enjoy all three books in this Ultimate trilogy:
The Ultimate Playboy, by Maya Blake
The Ultimate Seduction, by Dani Collins
The Ultimate Revenge, by Victoria Parker
"I'm about to make you an offer you can't refuse."
— Tiffany to Ryzard, The Ultimate Seduction
Imagine you’ve been assigned a new editor and imagine she’s calling you for the first time. Got the nerves fluttering? Convinced you’re going to say something stupid? Okay, that was me when I was waiting for the phone to ring. I didn’t know what to expect, but I certainly didn’t expect her to say, “Dani, I literally just picked up this email. We’re wondering if you’d like to be part of a collaboration?”
I’ve been over this elsewhere, but I’ll say it again. When an editor asks me if I’d like to write something, the words that come out of my mouth are, “Of course.” I was insanely flattered and I didn’t even know yet what the project was. Well, it was amazing. So fun. A modern take on that old English staple: the Gentlemen’s Club. This turned into The 21st Century Gentlemen’s Club.
Better yet, my collaborators were the awesome Maya Blake (The Ultimate Playboy) and the amazing Victoria Parker (The Ultimate Revenge). You’ll want to look for their contributions to this series as our characters brush elbows here and there.
We must have exchanged a zillion emails asking each other about details, trying not to step on each others’ toes or paint our fellow authors into corners. And all the way along we were trying super, super hard to hide the identity of Zeus. Wouldn’t you know, however, after all that work, the big secret wound up in the blurb of Victoria’s book.
Even with that small spoiler, I hope you enjoy your peek into this very exclusive playground.
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The Ultimate Seduction
Tiffany Davis pretended she wasn’t affected by the hard stare her brother and father gave her when she entered her father’s office. It wasn’t easy to let people she loved pass judgment on whether she’d used sufficient concealer on her scars. Sometimes she wanted to throw the bottle of liquid beige into the trash and scream, There. This is what I look like now. Live with it.
But her brother had saved her life pulling her from the fiery car. He felt guilty enough for putting her in it. He still grieved for her groom, his best friend, and everything else Tiffany had lost. She didn’t have to rub salt in his wounds.
Good girl, Tiff. Keep biting back what you really want to say. It’s not like that got you into these skin grafts.
She came to a halt and sighed, thinking it was probably time for another visit to the head doctor if she was cooking up that sort of inner dialogue. But her harsh exhale caused both men to tense. Which made her want to rail all the louder.
Being angry all the time was a character shift for her. Even she had trouble dealing with it, so she shouldn’t blame them for reacting like this. But it still fed her irritation.
“Yes?” She clicked her teeth into a tight smile, attempting to hold on to her slipping patience.
“You tell us. What’s this?” Christian kept his arms folded as he nodded at the large box sitting open on their father’s desk. The lid wore an international courier’s logo, and the contents appeared to be a taxidermist’s attempt to marry a raven to a peacock.
“The feather boa you asked for last Christmas?” Lame joke, sure, but neither man so much as blinked. They only stared at her as if they were prying her open.
“Be serious, Tiff,” Christian said. “Why is the mask for you? Did you request to go in my place?”
A claustrophobic band tightened around her insides. A year in a mask had left her vowing to never feel such a thing on her face again. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
The frost in her voice made both men’s mouths purse. Why did all of this have to be so hard? The touchiness between her and her family was palpable every minute of every day. If she was short, they were defensive. If she was the least bit vulnerable, they became so overprotective she couldn’t breathe.
They’d nearly lost her. She got that they loved her and were still worried about her. They wouldn’t relax until she got back to normal, but she would never be normal again. It made the situation impossible.
“Where is it you think I want to go?” she asked in as steady a tone as she could manage.
“QVirtus,” her father said, as if that one word sufficed as explanation.
She shook her head and shrugged, still lost. Did they realize she was in the middle of an exchange worth five hundred million dollars? She didn’t have much, but she did have a job now. Seeing as it involved running a multibillion-dollar company, she tried to do it well.
“Ryzard Vrbancic,” Christian provided. “We put in a request to meet him.”
Pieces fell together. QVirtus was that men’s club Paulie used to talk about. “You want to meet a puppet leader at one of those rave things? Why? The man’s a despot.”
“Bregnovia is asking for recognition at the UN. They’re a democracy now.”
She snorted in disbelief. “The whole world is ignoring the fact he stole the last dictator’s money and bought himself a presidency? Okay.”
“They’re recovering from civil war. They need the sort of infrastructure Davis and Holbrook can provide.”
“I’m sure they do. Why go the cloak-and-dagger route? Call him up and pitch our services.”
“It’s not that simple. Our country hasn’t recognized his yet so we can’t talk to him openly, but we want to be the first number on his list when recognition happens.”
She rolled her eyes. Politics were so fun. “So you’ve set up this clandestine meeting—”
“It’s not confirmed. That happens when you get there.”
“That would be the broad ‘you,’ right? Like the universal ‘they’?”
Christian’s mouth tightened. He lifted out the feathery contents of the box. It was actually quite beautiful. A piece of art. The blend of blue-black and turquoise and gold feathers covered the upper eyes and forehead and—significantly—splayed down the left side in an eerily familiar pattern. Ribbons tailed off each side.
It was like looking in the mirror, seeing that reflection of her scar. A slithery feeling inside her torso made her heart speed up. She shook her head. She wasn’t going anywhere, especially in public, with or without a crazy disguise.
“You understand how QVirtus works?” her brother prodded. “This mask is your ticket in.”
“Yeah, Tiff, it is.” He turned it around so she could see where her name was inscribed on the underside, along with Isla de Margarita, Venezuela. “See? Only you can attend.”
His terse tone and shooting glance toward their father made it clear they’d spent some time pondering alternate solutions. Both men showed signs of deep frustration, a level of emotion usually reserved for when approval ratings were low. To see them so bent out of shape activated her don’t-make-more-waves genes.
Your father is under a lot of pressure, dear. Do as he asks for now.
No, she reminded herself. She was living her life, not waiting for it to make everyone else’s list of priorities. Still, she’d been raised to have civilized conversations, not be outright defiant. “I would think that taking off the mask to show your name defeats the purpose.”
“There’s a chip embedded. They know which mask belongs to which person, and as you can see, they only fit one face.”
“They obviously know a lot about me. That’s creepy. Doesn’t it seem weird they would know how to cover my scars?”
“QVirtus has an exceptional history of discretion and security,” her father said, defending it with a kind of pompous grumpiness that surprised her. “Whatever they know about us, I’m sure it’s kept very well protected.”
A remarkably naive comment from a man who’d been in politics and business long enough to mistrust everyone and everything. Heck, he’d dragged her in here because he thought she’d undermined him with his brotherhood of secret handshakes, hadn’t he?
“Dad, if you want to become a member—”
“I’m can’t.” He smoothed his tie, one of his tells when his ego was dented.
“Too old? Then Christian—?”
She was quite smart, had always had better marks than her brother, who fudged his way through just about everything, but she was missing something. “Well, Paulie was a member. What does it take?”
“Money. A lot of it. Paul Sr. was a member and once Paulie inherited, he had the means to pay the fee,” her father said in a level tone.
Of course. Therein lay her father’s envy and reverence. It must have eaten him alive that his best friend and rival for her mother’s affections had possessed something he hadn’t.
“When you were still in the hospital, I applied on your behalf, hoping to go as your proxy,” Christian explained. “I didn’t hear back until today.” Glancing at their father, he added, “It is kind of creepy they know Tiff has finally recovered and taken over the reins of Davis and Holbrook.”
“Everyone’s talking about it. It’s hardly a secret,” her father dismissed with a fresh heaping of disapproval.
Tiffany bit back a sigh. She would not apologize for grappling her way into running the company now that she was well enough. What else would she do moving forward? Trophy wife and having a family was out of the question with this face.
Still, it was so unladylike to work, her mother reminded at every opportunity.
“I don’t understand why they’ve accepted her. It’s a men’s club,” her father muttered.
She eyed the mask, recalling the sorts of stories Paulie used to come home with after attending one of these QVirtus things. “It’s a booze-fueled sex orgy, isn’t it?”
“It’s a networking event,” her father blustered.
Christian offered one of his offside grins. “It’s a chance for the elite to let their hair down,” he clarified. “But a lot of deals are closed over martinis and a handshake. It’s the country club on a grander scale.”
Right. She knew how that worked. Wives and daughters stood around in heels and pearls planning the Fourth of July picnic while husbands and fathers colluded to keep their money amongst themselves. Her engagement to Paulie Jr. had been negotiated between the seventh and ninth holes of the top green, her wedding staged on the balcony by their mothers, her cake designed by the renowned chef, and all of it exploded into flames against the wrought iron exit gate.
“This is all very interesting.” It wasn’t. Not at all. “But I’m in the middle of something. You’ll have to sort this out yourselves.”
Her father’s stern tone was the one that made any good daughter spin, take a stance of dutifully planted feet, knees locked, hands knotted at her sides. She caught her tongue firmly between her teeth. “Yes?”
“Our friends in Congress are hoping for good relations with Bregnovia. I need those friends.”
Because his hat was in the ring for the next election. Why was that always the only thing that mattered?
“I don’t know what you expect me to do. Pitch our services while wearing a showgirl costume? Who would take that seriously? I can’t go into a meeting without it, though. No one likes face-to-face interactions with this.” She pointed at where her ear had been reconstructed and a cheekbone implant inserted.
Her father flinched and looked away, not denying that she was hard to look at. That hurt more than the months of screaming burn injuries.
“Maybe I could be your date,” Christian said. “I don’t know if members are allowed to bring an escort, but…”
“Bring my brother to the prom?” That certainly reinforced how far down the eligibility ladder she’d fallen. Her hands stayed curled at her sides, but mentally she cupped them around her tiny, shrunken heart, protecting it. Love yourself, Tiff. No one else will.
“Get me into the club and you won’t have to leave your room until it’s over,” Chris said.
Hide the disfigured beast.
She had to close her eyes against her father’s intense stare, the one that willed her to comply.
You weren’t going to let yourself be a pawn anymore, she reminded herself.
“How long is this thing?” she heard herself ask, because what kind of family would she have, if not this one? Her friends had deserted her, and dating was completely off the table. Her life would be very dark and lonely if she alienated her parents and brother.
“We arrive at sunset on Friday night, and everyone is gone by Sunday evening. I’ll make the travel arrangements,” Christian said with quick relief.
“I wear this thing in and out. That’s the deal, because I won’t do this if I’m going to be stared at.” Listen to her, talking so tough. She was actually scared to her toenails. What would people say if they saw her? She couldn’t let it happen.
“As far as I know, everyone wears masks the whole time,” Chris said, practically dancing, he was so elated.
“I’ll be in my office,” she muttered. Searching for my spine.
Ryzard Vrbancic abided by few rules beyond his own, but he left his newly purchased catamaran as the shadow of its mast stretched across the other boats in the Venezuelan marina. If he didn’t climb the stairs before the red sky had inked purple, he would be locked out of the QVirtus quarterly.
Story of my life, he thought, but hoped that soon he’d be as welcome worldwide as the famous black credit card.
Security was its usual discreet step through a well-camouflaged metal detector that also read the chip in his mask. One of the red-gowned staff lifted her head from her tablet as he arrived and smiled. “We’re pleased to see you again, Raptor. May I escort you to your room?”
She was a pretty thing, but the petite q’s were off-limits, which was a pity. He hadn’t had time to find himself a lover for weeks. The last had complained he spent more time working than with her, which was apparent from her spa and shopping bills. They were as high as his sexual frustration.
His situation should improve now, but he’d have to be patient a little longer. Like the music that set a vacation tone, the petite q’s provided atmosphere. They could stroke an ego, dangle off an arm, flirt and indulge almost any reasonable request, but if they wanted to keep their job, they stayed out of the members’ beds. Being smart and career minded along with attractive and engaging, the petite q’s tended to side with keeping their jobs.
Such a pity.
His current escort set up his thumbprint for the door then stepped inside his suite for his briefing. “You have a meeting request from Steel Butterfly. Shall I confirm?”
“A woman?” he asked.
“I don’t have the gender of our clients, sir.”
And if she did know, she wouldn’t say either.
“No other requests?” He was hoping for a signal from international bodies that his petition to the UN was receiving a nod.
“Not at this time. Did you have any?”
Damn. He’d come here knowing he had a meeting request, hoping it would be a tip of the hand on his situation. Now he was under lockdown and liable to be taking a sales pitch of some kind.
“Not at present. I’ll accept an introduction on that one, nothing longer.” He nodded at her tablet.
“The time and location will be transmitted to your smartwatch. Please let us know if I can arrange anything else to ensure your satisfaction while you’re with us.”
He followed her out, confident that everything he’d preordered was in the suite. Zeus was exceptionally good at what he did. Ryzard had never had an issue of any kind while at QVirtus, which made the exorbitant membership fee and elaborate travel and security arrangements worth the trouble.
Entering the pub-style reception lounge, he saw roughly thirty people, mostly men in tuxedos and masks. They stood with a handful of gorgeous petite q’s wearing the customary red designer gowns.
He accepted the house drink for this session, rum over ice with a squeeze of lime and a sugared rim, then glanced at his watch. At his four o’clock, a collection of dots informed him the small conclave of men to his right included Steel Butterfly.
He had no idea where Zeus came up with these ridiculous nicknames, but he supposed Raptor was apt for him, coming from the Latin meaning to seize or take by force. The bones of several dinosaurs in that category had been uncovered in his homeland of Bregnovia, too.
Eyeing the group, he wondered which one was his contact. One accepted a drink from a petit q and handed her his watch. It didn’t matter, he decided. He wasn’t interested in beginning a conversation in public that he was scheduled to have in private tomorrow. He waited until he was out of range in the gambling hall to activate his identity on his own watch. This resulted in an immediate invitation to join the blackjack table.
He sat so he could read the screen mounted near the ceiling in the corner. It subtly manifested and dissolved with blurbs on presentations and entertainment to be held over the course of the QVirtus Quarterly. Tastemakers, trendsetters and thought leaders were flown in to provide rich, powerful, political forces such as himself with the absolute cutting-edge information and samples of global economics and technology. Meanwhile, at tables such as this one, he would pick up the other side of the coin: gossip about a royal’s addiction, a cover-up of a coup attempt on a head of state, a lie that would be accepted as truth to stem international panic.
He could only imagine what was said about him, but he didn’t let himself dwell on what was likely disapproval and distrust. His people were free, his country independent. That was the important thing.
Still, thoughts of what it had cost him crept in, threatening to inject disappointment and guilt into an otherwise pleasant if staid evening. He folded his hand, left the table and lifted a rum off a passing waiter’s tray as he moved outside in search of entertainment.
Tiffany was stuck and it was a sickeningly familiar situation, the kind she’d sworn she’d never wind up in again.
She’d love to blame Christian. He had urged her to step through the door when he’d been refused entry. Go in and ask, he’d hissed, annoyed.
Since her worst nightmare these days was being stared at, she’d forgone arguing on the stoop and stepped through the entranceway. Inside, pixies in designer nightgowns had fawned over the arriving men in masks. She’d looked around for a bell desk, and a stud named Julio had come forward to introduce himself as a petite q.
She, a seasoned socialite, had become tongue-tied over the strapping young man in a red footman’s uniform. It was more than two years since she’d been widowed on her wedding day. Even without the scars, that would be bad mojo. Men didn’t call, didn’t ask her out. If she was in a room with a live one, they rarely looked her in the eye, always averting their gaze. She didn’t exist for them as a potential mate.
Julio didn’t attract her so much as astonish her. He didn’t know what lurked beneath the mask and was all solicitous manners as he offered his services. “I see this is your first visit with us,” he said after a brief glance at his tablet. “Please allow me to orient you.”
She was completely out of practice with his type—the valet who never overstepped his station, but still managed to convey that he appreciated being in the presence of beauty. She’d haltingly fielded his questions about whether her travel had been pleasant as he smoothly escorted her into an elevator.
When he asked if she had any specific needs he could attend to while she was here, she’d come back to reality. “My brother needs a hall pass, or a mask. Whatever. Can you make that happen?”
“I’ll send the request to Zeus, but the doors will be closing in a few minutes. Once we’re in lockdown, no one comes or goes. Unless it’s an emergency, of course.” He’d lifted his head from tapping his tablet.
Lockdown? Alarmed, she’d tried to text Christian only to be informed that external service was cut off while inside the club.
“Cell phones and other cameras are discouraged, as is the sending of photos outside the club. Security will locate him and communicate his options,” Julio assured her, then explained that if her requested meeting was accepted, the time and location would be sent to her Inspector Gadget watch.
“Where are we? A hollowed-out volcano?” she asked as he set up her thumbprint entry to her room.
“No, but we’re working on obtaining one,” he said, deadpan. “Now, you’ll want to wear your watch throughout your stay. It tells a lot more than time. May I show you?”
Hearing that her scheduled meeting with the Bregnovian dictator wasn’t a sure thing was a relief. Her father would be furious if she didn’t go in Christian’s place, but if the request was rejected, she would be off the hook. Still, she hoped her brother would be granted entry and save her worrying about any of it. She pressed Julio out of her suite with instructions to inform her about Christian as soon as possible.
Her suite was enough of an oasis to calm her nerves. Her privileged upbringing had exposed her to some seriously nice digs, but she had to admit this was above and beyond. No expense had been spared on the gold fixtures, original art or silk bedding. The new clothes in the wardrobe were a pleasant distraction. Christian had said something about samples of prototypes being handed out to members. If you don’t want them, I do.
She supposed he was referring to the spy watch Julio had shown her, but she was more interested in the designer gowns. Discreet labels informed her they were from the best of the best throughout South America, all in stunning colors and fabrics. Several were off-the-shoulder, figure-enhancing styles that would cover her scars.
Not that she had anywhere to wear them. She didn’t intend to leave her room, but she would make the most of the in-suite amenities, she decided. Call it a vacation from her family. She’d work in peace for a few days.
Work, however, was next to impossible without Wi-Fi service to the external world, and besides, a calypso band was calling to her from below her open French doors. She loved dancing.
Full darkness had fallen, so she sidled into the shadows behind a potted fern on her balcony and gazed longingly at the party below, feeling rather like Audrey Hepburn in that old black-and-white. It was such a world beyond her. The pool’s glow lit up ice sculptures on the buffet tables. Bartenders juggled open bottles, putting on a cocktail show as they poured fast and free while women in red gowns cha-cha’d with men in tuxedos and masks.
This whole mask thing was weird. As they’d flown south in the company jet, Christian had explained it allowed the world’s elite to rub shoulders in a discreet way. Sometimes it was best for the biggest players to take their meetings in secret, so as not to cause speculative dips in the stock exchange. Certain celebrities stole these few days to relax without interruption by fans. QVirtus catered to whatever the obscenely rich needed.
I need a new face, she thought sourly, but even the cavernous pockets her husband had left her weren’t deep enough to buy a miracle.
She looked to where she’d left her mask dangling off a chair back’s spire.
Despite her anxiety with the abrupt change of plans when she arrived, she had felt blessedly anonymous behind her mask as she had walked through the lobby and halls to her room. It had been an extraordinary experience to feel normal again. No one had stared. She had looked exactly like everyone else.
Hmm. That meant she didn’t have to stay here like Rapunzel, trapped in the tower with the real world three stories below and out of her reach.
With her heart tripping somewhere between excitement and trepidation, she fingered through the gowns hanging in the wardrobe. The silk crepe in Caribbean blue would expose her good right leg, but not so high as to reveal where her grafts had been taken. After months of physiotherapy, she’d moved back into her old workout routine of yoga, weights and treadmill. She possessed all of her mother’s vanity along with the genetic jackpot in the figure department. Only family saw her these days, and she hardly dressed to impress, but she was actually very fit.
Alone in the suite, she held the gown up to her body, then, without her mother there to discourage her, dared to try it on.
Whoever this Zeus guy was, he sure knew how to dress a woman. Especially one with defects to hide. The single sleeve went past her wrist in a point that ended in a loop of thread that hooked over her middle finger. The bodice clung to her waist and torso, plumping breasts that remained two of her best original features. She had to give her backside the credit it deserved, too. When she buckled on new shoes that were little more than sky-high heels and a pair of saucy blue-green straps, it was like being hugged by old friends. She almost wept.
Filtering her image through her lashes as she looked in the mirror, she saw her old self. Hi, Tiff. It’s nice to see you again. `bout time, too.
Makeup didn’t completely cover her scars, nothing could, but she enjoyed going through her old ritual after using the concealer, taking her time to layer on shadow and liner, girling herself up to the max. By the time she was rolling spirals into her strawberry blond hair, she was so lost in the good ol’ days, she caught herself thinking, I wonder what Paulie will say.
The curling iron tagged her cheek where she would never feel it, and she nearly broke down. You’re not Cinderella, anymore, remember? You’re the ugly stepsister.
No. Not tonight. Not when she felt confident and beautiful for the first time since her wedding day. Had she been happy then? She couldn’t remember.
Don’t go there.
Gathering the top half of her hair over her crown, she tied the mask into place, then let her loose curls fall to hide the strap that circled her skull. Oddly, the mask wasn’t as traumatic to wear as she’d feared. It didn’t suction onto her face and make her feel trapped in a body that writhed in agony. It stood cocked like a fascinator to cover the left side of her face, while the feathers arranged around her eyes gave an impression of overly long lashes that layered backward to cover her forehead and hairline. She had expected it to be heavy, but it was as light as, well, feathers. They tickled the edges of her scars, where her skin was extra sensitive, making her feel feminine and pretty.
Staring at herself in the full-length mirror, she allowed that she was pretty. After painting on a coat of coral lipstick, she did a slow twirl and caught herself grinning. Smiling felt odd, as if she was using muscles that had atrophied.
She lifted the weighty watch on her wrist, the one that identified her as Steel Butterfly. More like a broken one. Her sides didn’t even match.
It didn’t have to make sense, she assured herself as she tossed her lipstick into her pocketbook then realized she didn’t need either room key or credit card. Such freedom! For a few hours, she would be completely without baggage.
Taking nothing but lighthearted steps, she left to join the party.
Ryzard could drink with the best of them. He’d spent the older half of his childhood in Munich, had managed vineyards in France and Italy, and had lived in parts of Russia where not finishing a bottle of vodka was a gross insult to the host. He was restless enough to get legless tonight, but so far he’d consumed only enough to become mellow and hungry. The cashmere breeze and the scents of beach and pineapple and roasting pig aroused his appetite—all his appetites. He’d mentally stripped the nearest petite q’s and was considering a pass at one of the female members currently being scouted by every other bachelor here—along with some of the married members.
Not Narciso, aka the Warlock of Wall Street, though. He chatted with his friend long enough to see the man wasn’t just here with his wife, but besotted by her. Lucky bastard. Ryzard countered his envy by reminding himself that love was a double-edged sword. He wouldn’t ruin his friend’s happiness by saying so, but he had once looked forward to marital bliss. Luiza had died before they found it, and the anguish was indescribable. No matter how pleased he was for his friend, he would never risk that toll again.
He’d stick to the less permanent associations one found, enjoyed and left at parties such as this one.
Glass panels had been fitted over the lap pool, turning it into a dance floor that glimmered beams of colored light beneath the bouncing feet. People were having a lively time, keeping the band’s quick salsa beat rapping. The drummer stared off to the left, however, his grin male and captivated.
Ryzard followed the man’s gaze and his entire being crackled to attention.
Well beyond the pool’s light, in a corner mostly blocked by a buffet table and ice sculpture, a woman undulated like a cobra, utterly fascinating in her hypnotic movements timed perfectly with the music. Her splayed hands slid down her body with sexy knowledge, her hips popped in time to the beat, and her feet kick-stepped into motion.
She twirled. The motion lifted her brassy curls like a skirt before she planted her feet wide and swayed her weight between them. The flex of her spine gave way to a roll of her hips, and she was back into motion again.
Setting down his drink, Ryzard beelined toward her. He couldn’t tell if the woman had a partner, but it didn’t matter. He was cutting in.
She was alone, lifting her arms to gather her hair, eyes closed as she felt the music as much as heard it. She arched and stretched—
He caught her around the waist and used the shocked press of her hands at his shoulders to push her into accepting his lead, stepping into her space, then retreating, bringing her with him. As he moved her into a side step, she recovered, matching his move while her gaze pinned to his.
He couldn’t tell what color her eyes were. The light was too low, her feathery mask shadowing her gaze into twin glinting lights, but he reacted to the fixation in them. She was deciding whether to accept him.
A rush of excitement for the challenge ran through him. After a few more quick steps, he swung her into half pivots, catching each of her wrists in turn, one bare, one clad in silk, enjoying the flash of her bare knee through the slit of her skirt.
How had she been overlooked by every man here? She was exquisite.
Lifting her hand over her head, he spun her around then clasped her shoulder blades into his chest. Her buttocks—fine, firm, round globes as if heaven had sent him a valentine—pressed into his lap. Bending her before him, he buried his nose in her hair and inhaled, then followed her push to straighten and matched the sway of her hips with his own.
Tiffany’s heart pounded so hard she thought it would escape her chest. One second she’d been slightly drunk, lost in the joy of letting the salsa rhythm control her muscles. Now a stranger was doing it. And doing it well. He pulled her around into a waltz stance that he quickly shifted so they grazed each other’s sides, left, right, left.
She kicked each time, surprised how easily the movements came back to her. It had been years, but this man knew what he was doing, sliding her slowly behind his back, then catching her hand on the other side. He pushed her to back up a step, bringing one of her arms behind his head, the other behind her own. A few backward steps and they were connected by only one hand, arms outstretched, then he spun her back into him, catching her into his chest.
The conga beat pulsed through her as he ran his hands down her sides. Her own flew to cover his knuckles, but she didn’t stop him. It felt too amazing. His fingertips grazed the sides of her breasts, flexed into the taut muscles of her waist and clasped her hips to push them in a hula circle that he followed with his own, his crotch pressed tight to her buttocks.
Sensual pleasure electrified her. No one touched her anymore. After being a genderless automaton for so long, she was a woman again, alive, capable of captivating and enticing a man. She nudged her hips into his, flashing a glance back at him.
He narrowed his eyes and held her in place for one deliberate thrust before he spun her into the dance, their energetic quick steps becoming an excuse to look at each other as he let her move to the farthest reach of his hand on hers.
She had been a bit of a tease in her day, secure in the knowledge everyone knew she was engaged. She’d been able to flirt without consequence, enjoying male attention without feeling threatened by it. This stranger’s undisguised admiration was rain on her desert wasteland of feminine confidence. Climbing her free hand between her breasts to the back of her neck, she thrust out her chest then let the music snake up and down her spine as she flexed her figure for his visual pleasure.
His feral show of teeth encouraged her while his sheer male sexiness called to the woman in her, urging her to keep the notice of such a fine specimen. He might have started out his evening in a tux, but at some point he’d stripped down to the pants and the shirt, which was open at the collar and rolled back to his forearms at the sleeves. The mask he wore was vaguely piratical in its black with gold trim and wings at his temple, but the nose piece bent in a point off the end of his nose, suggesting a bird of prey.
And she was the hunted.
Her heart raced, excited by the prospect of being pursued. She wanted to be wanted.
Splaying her feet, she allowed her knees to loosen. The slit of her skirt parted to reveal her leg, and she made the most of it, watching him as she rolled her hips in a figure eight, showing off her body, enticing him with a come-hither groove.
He planted a foot between hers, surrounding her without touching her, hands raised as if he was absorbing energy from her aura. The sultry tropical air held an undertone of spicy cologne and musky man. Reaching out, she shaped the balls of his hard shoulders with her hands and climbed them to the sides of his damp neck, sidling close so they sidestepped back and forth, swaying together in time to the music, bodies brushing.
His wide hands flattened on her shoulder blades and slid with deliberation to the small of her back then took possession of her hips. As his unabashed gaze held hers, he pulled her in to feel the firm ridge of his erection behind his fly.
A flood of desire, not the trickles of interest she’d felt in the past, but a serious deluge of passion, transformed her limbs into heavy weights and flooded her belly with a pool of sexy heat. She became intensely aware of her erogenous zones. Her breasts ached and her nipples tingled into sharp, stinging points. Between her thighs, her loins pulsed with a swollen, oversensitive need.
As if he knew, he shifted and his hard thigh pressed into her vulnerable flesh. She gasped and her neck weakened as he bent over her. She dropped her head back and he followed, taking her body weight on his thigh. His nose grazed her chin, then her collarbone. His lips hovered between her breasts. Slowly he brought her up again and leaned his mouth close enough to tease her parted lips.
He was a stranger, she reminded herself, but her lips felt swollen and she desperately wanted the pressure of his mouth—
A clap of thunder exploded in the sky.
Jolted, she found herself smothered against his chest, his hard arms tight around her, one hand shielding the back of her head, fingers digging in with tension. Her mask skewed, cutting into her temple. Beneath her cheekbone, his heart slammed with power.
The claps and squeals and whistles continued and his arms relaxed enough she could fix her mask and look up. Fireworks painted the starscape in flowers and streaks of red and blue and green that dissolved into sparkles of silver and palms of gold.
As people moved into their space, he steered her away from the crowd, into a corner around a partition where they were hidden in an alcove. She set her hands on the concrete rampart and leaned back into the living wall he made behind her, eyes dazzled by the bursts of color reflected on the water as the fireworks continued to explode before and above them. The band switched to an orchestrated classic that matched the explosions, filling her with awe and visceral excitement.
Already fixed in the moment, they became one being, she and this stranger, their bodies pressed tight as they watched the pyrotechnics. His hands moved over her, absently at first, shaping her to his front. She responded, encouraging his touch by rubbing her buttocks into the proof that she could still arouse a man. When his hands cupped her breasts, bold and knowledgeable, she linked her own hands behind his neck, arching into his touch, reveling in the pressure of his palms and the thumbing of her nipples.
Dropping her head to the side, she turned her face and lifted her mouth, inviting his kiss with parted lips. He bent without hesitation, nothing tentative in the way he captured her mouth. Thorough and unhurried, he continued to caress her as he took sumptuous possession of her lips.
She ran her fingers into his hair, greeting his tongue with her own, inhibition melted by pure desire. Distantly she was aware this was out of character, but she wasn’t Tiffany. Not the Tiffany of today and not the old one either. Tonight she was the woman she wished she could have been. She was everywoman. Pure woman.
Tonight she had no man to think about but this one. She didn’t care that she didn’t know him. She and Paulie hadn’t known each other either, not really, not the way a husband and wife should. Not in the biblical sense. She hadn’t slept with him or any man.
But she wanted to. She had ached for years to experience sexual intimacy.
A strong male hand stroked down her abdomen and skimmed off to the top of her thigh, making her mewl in disappointment. Then he fingered beneath the slit of her skirt and she had to pull away from his kiss to draw in a gasp as he followed bare skin into the sensitive flesh at the top of her leg.
His arm across her torso tensed and the hand on her breast hesitated briefly before he continued caressing her, lightly and persuasively, both hands teasing her with the promise of continued pleasure.
A moan of craving left her and she shuddered in acceptance.
A streak of light shot skyward and his touch moved into her center, exploring satin and lace that were damp with anticipation. She couldn’t help covering his hand with her own, pinning his touch where she ached for pressure.
He seemed to know what she needed more than she did. As he fondled her, her eyes drifted closed and her head fell back to rest against his shoulder. She bit her lip, ripples of delight dancing through her. Was she really doing this? Rubbing her behind into his erection, not caring they were in public, that she didn’t know him, that this was all about her pleasure?
He started to draw his hand away and she turned her face to the side, a cry of disappointment escaping her, but he was only hooking her panties down her hip and returning to trace and part and seek and find.
She released a moan of pure joy.
He caught her chin in his other hand and tilted her face up for his kiss while his touch on her mound became deliberate and intimate and determined.
She let it happen. She held very still and kissed him back with naked passion, aware of the light breeze caressing where she was exposed to the shadows of the rampart and the velvety night air. She let him stroke her into delirious intensity, her awareness dimmed at the edges so she was focused on the pleasure he was delivering, plucking and teasing and bringing her closer.
Over the water, the biggest rockets exploded like thunder, sending shock waves through her that made her quiver in stunned reaction. The reverberations echoed inside her, sparking where he stroked, sending a wild release upward and out to the ends of her limbs. He pinched her nipple, and like a flashpoint, she was blind to everything but white light and astonishing pleasure. Glorious waves of joy crashed in, submerging her in tumultuous ripples that he seemed to control, pressing one after another through her with the rub of his fingertip.
As the fireworks dimmed to puffs of smoke surrounding a barge in the bay, her climax receded, leaving her a puddle of lassitude in his steely arms.
He adjusted her panties and started to turn her. She obeyed the command in his hands, wanting to kiss him, to thank him—
Without a word, he drew her across the balcony to a set of shallow stairs leading to the beach. She wobbled, partly because her legs were wet noodles, partly because her heels couldn’t find solid purchase in the sand. He scooped her up, carrying her along with easy strength into a cabana encircled by heavy curtains.
Inside he set her on her feet and steadied her with one hand while he raked the cloth door closed behind them. Without a word, he scraped the mask off his face and yanked his shirt open, peeling it off his shoulders and throwing it aside.
She couldn’t see his face, not really. It was barely a shade above pitch-black in here, but the glow of satin skin increased as he toed off his shoes and opened his fly, stripping without ceremony.
Sweet Lord, what a man. He stepped closer and she couldn’t help reaching out to test the flat muscles of his abdomen, learning them by feel more than sight. Hot and damp, he reacted to her touch with a tense of muscles and a muffled curse, making her smile in the dark, pleased she had an effect on him.
Her hand bumped into his. He was applying a condom.
Curious, she lightly explored his latex-covered shape. As she did, the pressure of her mask shifted.
She knocked his touch away before she thought about what she was doing.
Stillness came over him.
She tried to penetrate the dark and read his face—which was what he was likely doing. He probably thought she was having second thoughts.
Hell no. She might never have another chance to lose her virginity. Not like this, so caught up in desire she was shaking with it.
“Leave it on,” she whispered.
His hands lowered to her shoulders, one skimming down the edge of her bodice under her arm. She knew what he was looking for.
“That too.” Catching his hand away from her zipper, she drew him toward the bed.
In the same way he’d taken her over on the dance floor, he took the lead. A tip of his weight, a knee in the bed and she was lifted and placed half under him in one smooth motion. Her startled exhale clouded between them as a hand sought beneath her skirt, catching at her panties then pausing.
She couldn’t help chuckling, understanding the implicit question. Lifting her hips, she invited him to strip them off her. They caught on her shoe, and neither of them bothered to finish the job.
He hitched her skirt then tucked her neatly under him, his legs moving with practiced ease to part her knees wide.
More surprised than shocked, she stilled, bracing herself, wanting this, but not as lost in the moment as she’d been. That was okay. She’d had her fun and she wanted to remember everything about this encounter. Cataloguing the flex of his shoulders under the stroke of her hands, the weight of his hips, the roughened texture of his legs on her smooth inner thighs, she waited.
He teased her, rubbing the head of his erection against her and reawakening her senses. As she hummed a response, he kissed her, deeply, dragging her back into the well of desire she thought she’d left outside on the ramparts.
Sliding her knee up to his hip, she hooked her calf over his buttock and quite suddenly, it was happening. His flesh was pressing for entrance, stretching her. Oh wow. It hurt, but not bad. She’d experienced pain way worse than this, but it was still very intimate. She bit her lip and concentrated on accepting him, breathing through the sting and countering her instinctive tension—
He swore and the hand in her hair tightened enough to pull, even though she suspected it wasn’t intentional. His big body shook with tension.
“I’m hurting you,” he said in a voice so gruff she couldn’t discern what kind of accent he had.
“It’s okay. It feels good. I like it.” This was so primeval. Drinking in his scent, she licked his neck, wanting this delicious, mysterious man imprinted on her for all time.
Arching, she discovered there was more of him to take. Squeezing her leg to encourage him, she met resistance. Rather than press into her, he kissed her again, using his tongue, and lifted enough to sidle a hand between them, caressing where they joined. In moments he had her twisting in excitement, and a second later, he slid deep into her.
Ah, this was what it was all about.
Eyes wide open to the dark cabana, she hugged his rugged body and learned the dip in his spine and the shape of his buttocks. His tense muscles flexed as he retreated from her depths, pulling strings of sensations through her: echoes of sting, loss, but delicious friction, too. He smoothly filled her again, his big body trembling with strain as he controlled his movements. The smart was still there, but the pleasure was incredible.
Purring, she lifted her hips to his, clasping him with her inner muscles, kissing him with extravagant joy, telling him she loved everything he was doing to her.
For a second, he let her feel his full weight, the full power of his muscles as he caged her beneath him and pressed a hard, hungry kiss on her. The fingers tangled in her hair pulled again, and he held himself in stark possession of her. She could swear she felt him pulsing deep inside her.
Then his fingers massaged her scalp in gentle apology and he lifted slightly, withdrew and slowly began to thrust again. The music dimly entered her consciousness from far away as they danced, him leading her through the erotic steps as he lowered her zip and exposed her breast to his hand and mouth.
She sang breathy notes of acute pleasure and sensual agony, wanting this twisting, exciting play to go on for the rest of her life. But everything he did made the sweet pleasure intensify. Their lovemaking grew better and better, driving her up the scale of passion to exquisite heights. When he ran his hand up the bare thigh that bracketed his hip, and branded her buttock with his palm, lifting her into his quickening thrusts, she moaned in approval, needing that faster pace, that wild stimulation.
Climax arrived suddenly and more powerfully than the first. She clawed at him, stunned by the release, fixated by the intense sensation of his fullness inside her while she orgasmed. He cried out raggedly and shuddered over her and within her, pushing to take deep possession of her, holding them both on that place of ecstatic perfection.
Suffused with bliss, she didn’t move afterward, just waited for her heart to slow and listened as his breath settled. In the distance, the music continued and voices rose in conversation and laughter.
At the first shift of his body to relax and leave hers, the first easing of his implacable lock of his hips against hers, she dropped her hands and removed her leg from his waist. Her long history with bandage changes gave her the knowledge that quick and ruthless was best, even though it hurt like hell.
He surprised her by merely shifting his weight off her a little before he pressed a kiss to the corner of her mouth then nuzzled his lips down her bare cheek to her ear. “That was incredible. Thank you.”
She couldn’t help the smile that grew unseen in the dark, or the way she warmed with pride and eye-stinging gratitude. “Thank you. I didn’t expect anything like this to happen tonight,” she confessed, even though she could hear the delight in her voice. He thought she was incredible.
“I’m pleased I could make your first time memorable.”
Her heart stopped. “You could tell it’s my first time?” She felt like the most gauche girl alive.
“I come to all of these. I know the regulars, and I’ve never seen you before. I would have remembered,” he added with another buss of warm lips against her cheekbone.
Oh God, that’s what he meant. She swallowed her relieved laughter, then stiffened as voices approached their cabana.
“We should go somewhere more private.” He gently lifted off her, chivalrously flicking her skirt to cover her as he rolled away.
Everything in her protested, but she sat up on the other side of the narrow bed. As she tucked her breast back into her dress and closed the zipper, his hand curled around her upper arm, hot and commanding, drawing her into tipping back against him.
“I’m on the top floor. Are you closer?”
“I can’t,” she whispered with genuine regret, senses distracted by the musky scent surrounding him and the damp heat of his chest so close to her nose. She tilted her face to find his lips in a soft kiss of reluctant goodbye.
He didn’t move his lips against hers except to say, “Why not?”
“It’s complicated. I shouldn’t have come out at all.” Their breaths mingled. “I hope you will remember me,” she admitted, feeling safe to reveal the bald longing here in the anonymous dark.
“I’ll always wonder why, won’t I?” he said with edgy dismay.
“And then you’ll remember I wanted to keep this unspoiled by real life.”
This time when she pressed her mouth to his, he kissed her back. Hard and thorough, so her heart rate picked up and her arms wanted to snake around his neck.
She wasn’t about to hang around until the lights came on, though. She didn’t want to see his face when he saw hers.
Pulling away, she stood and shook out her skirt, stepped her underwear off her heel and left them on the mat. Quite the cheeky Cinderella move. Her mother would never quit the slut-shaming if she knew.
Tiffany felt no guilt, however, no shame and no embarrassment as she slipped out of the cabana and up the stairs, past the pool and its raging party, toward the elevators and back to her room. Only sensual satisfaction and poignant what-ifs followed her steps.