His One-Night Mistress

By: Sandra Field

CHAPTER ONE





GLITTERING. Dazzling. Magnifique!

Lia d’Angeli edged toward the wall in the vast foyer of the hotel, whose floor-to-ceiling, gilt-scrolled mirrors reflected what could have been a scene from one of Louis XIV’s revels. Her fingers tightened around her invitation with its elegant gold script, an invitation given her just yesterday by her Parisian friend Mathieu. “A masked ball,” he’d said with his charming, lop-sided grin. “I can’t go, malheureusement. Take some handsome young man, Lia, eat, drink and dance your heart out.” His grin took on a satyr’s edge. “You could try ending up in his bed–—you’re far too beautiful to have the reputation of a nun, chérie.”

Mathieu’s endearment Lia took with a grain of salt; he was known for romantic dalliance in every district of Paris. But his advice–—at least some of it—she fully intended to take. Eat, drink and dance. Yes, she’d do all three with pleasure. But she had come to the ball alone, and she intended to leave it alone.

Alone and anonymous, she thought with a sigh of pure pleasure. Her fame was new, and not altogether pleasant. But this evening she wasn’t Lia d’Angeli, the brilliant young violinist who’d burst on the international scene by winning two prestigious competitions within six months of each other. No, she thought, glancing sideways at herself in the nearest mirror and feeling her lips curve in a smile. She was a butterfly instead, flirtatious and enigmatic, fluttering from partner to partner with no intention of being pinned down by any one of them.

Her costume consisted of a shiny turquoise bodysuit that faithfully outlined her breasts, hips, gently incurving waist and long, slender legs. Jeweled turquoise sandals were on her feet. Flaring between arm and thigh were her wings, folds of delicate chiffon, turquoise and green. But it was her mask that made the costume. Like a helmet, it covered her high cheekbones, revealing only the darkness of her eyes, and hiding her tumble of black hair in a glimmer of sequins and exquisite peacock feathers. She’d carefully smoothed turquoise makeup over her cheeks, her chin and her throat; her lips were a luminous gold.

An outrageous costume, she thought with great satisfaction. A costume that freed her to be anyone she wanted to be.

No one here knew her. She planned to take full advantage of that, dance her heart out and leave by midnight. Just like Cinderella.

Her eyes ranged the crowd. Marie Antoinette, the Hunchback of Notre-Dame, a cardinal worthy of an El Greco portrait, a sexy dancer from the Moulin Rouge. All masked. All strangers to each other. And perhaps to themselves, she thought with a tiny shiver of her nerves.

She shook off her sudden unease, making her way to the doorman and presenting her numbered invitation. A uniformed official was whispering something in his ear; the doorman waved her into the ballroom impatiently, scarcely glancing at the calligraphy on the card as he added it to the stack beside him. Lia slipped past him quickly; she’d worried a little that there might be some objection to her having Mathieu’s invitation rather than one in her own name. A good omen, she thought lightheartedly, and tucked herself around the corner out of his sight.

The ballroom was alive with the lilt of an old-fashioned waltz, although by the look of the sound equipment the music wouldn’t be that sedate all evening. More mirrors adorned the sapphire-blue walls, while sparkling gold chandeliers were suspended from a ceiling painted with more chubby cherubs than there were springtime lovers in Paris. Against the far wall long tables with immaculate white cloths held a feast that even King Louis wouldn’t have scorned. White-jacketed waiters circulated among the crowd, holding aloft silver trays of wine and champagne.

And then she saw him.

Like herself, the man was standing with his back to the wall, surveying the crowd. A highwayman, cloaked and booted, a black mask making slits of his eyes, a black hat with a sweeping brim shadowing his features.

No costume in the world could have hidden his height, the breadth of his shoulders or his aura of power, of command, of complete and utter self-control. An aura he clearly took for granted.

A man who took what he wanted. A highwayman, indeed.

He, like her, was alone.

As another of those chills traced the length of Lia’s spine, his gaze came to rest on her. Even across the width of the huge ballroom, she felt his sudden, searing focus; his body stilled, like a bandit’s when he sights his victim.

She couldn’t have moved to save her soul.

The butterfly pinned to the wall, she thought crazily, her heart racing against her rib cage. She’d been frightened many times in her life; it was part of the striving for excellence that had driven her for as long as she could remember. But pre-concert nerves, for all their terrors, were at least backed by the sure knowledge of her own technical accomplishments, and by the inner certainty that, once again, she could overcome those nerves.

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