“What about a one-night stand? Or a series of them?” Trish asked.
Emily Rollins cast a sideways glance at her friend. “I think I need to swear off men altogether.” She gathered her billowing crimson skirt in her hands and climbed the stairs toward the hotel entrance, placing each step with precision. Practicality wasn’t on the list of requirements when she selected her costume for the Masked Movie Character Ball, and the last thing she needed was to trip on a layer of satin and tulle and tumble down before she even got inside.
Trish adjusted her mask. “You can’t punish yourself forever, Em. You promised you’d try to have fun tonight.”
She sighed and peered out over Canal Street, the dividing line separating the French Quarter from the rest of New Orleans. An October breeze raised goose bumps on her arms, and she shivered as she turned and drifted up the stairs.
“I’m not punishing myself. I’m just…” She swallowed the sour taste in her mouth. “It doesn’t feel right to have fun so soon.”
As they stepped inside the Maison Des Fleurs, soft classical music replaced the roar of outside traffic, and green carpet squished beneath her stilettos.
Trish touched her elbow. “It’s been more than a year. It’s time to move on.”
“I know.” She drew her shoulders toward her ears and wrapped her arms around her middle. “But after Jessica died…”
“Well, tonight you’re the Queen of Hearts, darling, and you’re smoldering. Every hot-blooded man who’s passed through this lobby has checked you out.”
Emily rolled her eyes, but her friend’s abrupt change in subject did help loosen the vise-grip squeezing her chest. Now the damn corset was the only thing keeping her from breathing properly. “Trish…”
“Seriously. At least ten different men have given you a once-over in the five minutes we’ve been standing here.”
She laughed. No one was checking her out, and she’d prove it. She whirled around to face the room, daring someone to look at her. A Captain Jack Sparrow look-alike wearing a simple black eye mask bowed formally, wiping the smug smile right off her face.
Trish nodded. “Look, babe. All I’m saying is you’re new in town. It’s a masquerade, so the whole point is mystery. You can be anybody you want to be tonight, and no one will know the difference. Let me teach you how to have fun for a change.”
She crossed her arms. “I know how to have fun.”
“Sure, if you like wet blankets and cold showers. Come on.” Trish linked arms with Emily and dragged her toward the ballroom.
Emily stopped outside the door and yanked her arm free. Her friend’s teasing words stung. She’d come to New Orleans for a fresh start—to get away from the guilt that had been chewing her to bits and spitting out the pieces—and she had moved on, hadn’t she? She’d done plenty of new things.
An indoor skydiving place opened near her apartment a month ago, but she hadn’t worked up the nerve to check their prices. Iconic street cars chugged along the tracks every ten minutes in front of the urgent care clinic where she worked, but she’d never hopped on one. Hell, the only reason she’d been to Bourbon Street was because Trish dragged her there. Aside from her occasional walks through Jackson Square, she hadn’t explored the city she now called home. Her throat tightened. Maybe she hadn’t moved on at all.
“All right. If I’m a wet blanket, what do you suggest? Should I make out with the first guy I see? Dance on the tables?”
“Just let loose. Relax. Maybe hook up with a bad boy for once in your life. That’s what you need. A sexy New Orleans man to show you the city, get your mind off things.”
“I’ve dated bad boys before.”
Trish laughed and pulled her away from the door as a couple dressed as Princess Leia and Han Solo stepped past them. “Who? Phillip?”
“He rode a motorcycle once.”
“He’s an actuary, Em. You can’t get any more boring than that.”
She chewed the inside of her cheek. “He cheated on me. That makes him bad.”
Her friend wrapped her arm around her shoulders. “That’s the wrong kind of bad, babe. And anyway, that jackass cheating on you turned out to be for the best. If he can’t stick by you through the tough times, good riddance.”
“It was quite a wakeup call, wasn’t it?”
“And now you’re here with me, learning to live the life Jessica would have wanted for you.”
She chuckled. “From the authority on having fun.”
“You got that right.” She led her through the double doors into the ballroom.
Emily gasped. Thirty-foot ceilings soared above with two massive chandeliers dripping with crystals, hanging side by side in the center of the room. A polished wood dance floor took up most of the space, and a band on a raised platform belted out a smooth rendition of Frank Sinatra’s “Fly Me to the Moon.” A generous buffet complete with shrimp cocktail, boudin, and oysters on the half shell sat against the wall, and an open bar stood catty-corner to the food. Hundreds of masked people in elaborate costumes representing characters from all genres of movies milled about the ballroom, mingling, dancing, laughing…having fun.
“Drinks first.” Trish led the way to the bar.
Maybe her friend was right. Maybe she did need to let loose tonight. It had been a year since her sister’s death. That fresh start needed to begin sometime; she’d been stagnant long enough.
If a masquerade ball wasn’t the perfect opportunity to elicit change, what was?
Trish handed her a gin and tonic. “So, what’s the plan?”
Emily grinned. “Dare me.”
“Like when we were kids. Dare me to do something outrageous, and I’ll do it.”
Trish sipped her gin fizz. “Seriously? I know you can’t see my eyebrows through this mask, but I am arching one in disbelief.”
Her pulse quickened, and she swallowed before the lump could form in her throat. “Yes. I mean it. I promised I’d have fun, and you’re going to teach me how.”
Her friend slammed her hand on the bar. “Two shots of tequila, please.” The bartender poured the drinks, and Trish handed Emily the tiny glass. “All right. I dare you to kiss a stranger.”
“That’s it? Just kiss someone?”
“Not just kiss. One: it has to be on a man’s mouth. And two: there has to be tongue.”
She chewed her bottom lip and stared at the liquid courage in the glass. A kiss. She could do that, couldn’t she? Taking a deep breath, she tossed back the shot and set the glass on the bar. The tequila burned as it made its way down her throat and into her stomach. “Kiss a man, with tongue. Done.”
Trish downed her shot and grinned. “And you are not, under any circumstances, to give him your number.”
“I don’t want you getting all goo-goo-eyed over the first guy you meet. This city is a living, breathing entity, and it has to be experienced fully before you settle down. Get your fill of fun before you do anything else.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Emily gave her a mock salute and ordered another gin and tonic. She was going to need it.
“Another beautiful party, Momma. Well done.” Sean LeBlanc kissed Madeline on the cheek and tousled the purple feathers adorning her sequined mask. Her floor-length black dress curled up in eight places on the hem—Ursula the Sea Witch’s tentacles. And every time he took a step, he nearly tripped on one and busted his ass on the dance floor. All those years of dance lessons as a kid hadn’t prepared him for waltzing with an octopus.
“Thank you. I do know how to throw a party, don’t I?” Her satisfied gaze swept the room before landing on him.
“You always have.” He twirled his mom across the dance floor, carefully avoiding her tentacles and hoping to evade the question he could tell she’d been biting back all evening. At least she was making an effort tonight.
“Tell me, Son. There are so many beautiful women here, but the only one you’ve danced with is your mother. Why?”
And there went her self-restraint. He faked a smile. “I don’t know. I guess I’m not in the mood to deal with a woman tonight.”
“When will you be?”
Grinding his teeth, he tried to quell his irritation and come up with an answer that would appease her. “I date every now and then, Momma. Nothing to worry about.”
“First dates don’t count. Unless you’ve had a second date I don’t know about?”
“You know I haven’t.” He sighed. “I know what love feels like, and I’m not going to waste my time on someone it could never happen with.” If it could ever happen again.
She narrowed her eyes. “Have you heard from Courtney lately?”
He stifled a groan. She knew the answer to that too. “It’s been almost two years since her spirit made contact. I don’t want to talk about this.”
“Sweetheart, she’s been dead for three. Even her ghost has moved on. Don’t you think it’s time you did too? She would want you to be happy.”
He pressed his hand into her back and eased her into a fast spin. “I’m dancing with the most beautiful woman at the ball. I am happy.”
She playfully swatted him on the shoulder. “Your charm won’t work on me, young man. I taught you everything you know.”
The song ended, and he led her to the bar. Madeline wouldn’t be happy until he was married with a kid or two, and he’d get there eventually. Maybe. But he wasn’t going to force it. If he ever found the right woman, he’d know. Why would he waste his time with anyone else?
His mom had done nothing but worry about him since the day his wife died. Hell, he’d worried about himself for a while, but he really was ready to move on…if the right woman came along. That’s what he told himself anyway.
Still, he had to do something to get her off his back tonight, or she’d be throwing women at him every time he turned around. “I’ll make you a deal. I’ll dance with the first person who recognizes my costume.”
“Hasn’t anyone gotten it right yet?”
“It’s a classic eighties movie. Someone will recognize it.” He picked up a Scotch on the rocks and took a sip.
His mom grinned. “It would be more convincing if you had a Buttercup.”
“Maybe I’ll find her tonight.”
“I hope you do.” Mint julep in hand, she patted his cheek and sashayed into the crowd to mingle.
The chances were slim. He’d been called Zorro seven times already, and he certainly couldn’t see himself dating a woman who didn’t recognize the main character of one of his favorite movies. His mother was right though. Courtney had only come back to console him the first year after her death. He hadn’t heard from her since, so she had obviously moved on. It was time he did too.
“Mr. Sean.” A tiny cold hand tugged on his.
He smiled at the little girl, and her blonde ringlets bounced as she giggled and pointed to a large, framed sketch hanging on the wall.
“That’s me.” She vanished and reappeared next to her brother across the room. Sean and his team had investigated this building many times. He knew all the ghosts that resided here, and most of them were friendly. The portrait of the children was his donation to the charity. This ball and every event his mom planned this year benefited the local animal shelters. A hotel the size of this one would pay thousands for a sketch of the spirits that haunted it, and he was more than happy to donate the proceeds to a good cause.
He still hadn’t figured out how or when the siblings died; they didn’t do much more than play and giggle. Her name was Alice; her brother was Jonathan, and that was the most they’d been willing—or able—to share so far. That they’d shown themselves to him tonight was a good sign, though. He’d have to get his team back for another investigation.
But now, he had a promise to keep. He scanned the crowd, searching for friendly faces. No need to waste his time on a woman who couldn’t have fun at a party like this. If the food and free-flowing alcohol weren’t enough, the band was on fire. But all these damn masks made it hard to see people’s eyes. He’d have to go for smiles.
A blonde and a redhead sat at a high table near the dance floor. The Red Queen and the White Queen from Alice in Wonderland. Nice choice. Red laughed heartily at something the blonde said. Her crimson lips curved into a smile that lit up her whole face. She was definitely having a good time.
He ambled closer to their table to get a better look, and damn, did he like what he saw. Fiery red hair flowed over her shoulders and down her back. Her creamy breasts nearly spilled out the top of her tight-laced corset, and her shiny red high heels peeked out from beneath a flowing skirt that unfortunately blocked his view of her legs. Something about all that red had him burning inside.
The Lone Ranger escorted the White Queen to the dance floor, and Red’s smile didn’t fade. She sipped on a clear drink and swirled the ice in the glass. His pulse quickened.
Maybe he was in the mood to deal with a woman tonight after all.
Emily laughed as the Lone Ranger dipped Trish on the dance floor and nearly dropped her on her head. The bartender wasn’t stingy with the alcohol, and after the shot of tequila and her second gin and tonic, her head spun in a delightful way. She pushed the glass away. Any more, and it might affect her judgment. She was on a mission. But not just any guy would do. If she was going to kiss a stranger tonight, she wanted to feel something.
Passion. Her life had been devoid of that emotion for nearly a year. Of course, she was mostly to blame for the downward spiral her last relationship had fallen into, but she could change. Trish only asked for a kiss. Emily would one-up her friend and make sure the kiss made her burn.
She scanned the ballroom. Plenty of men appeared attractive, but the costumes and masks made it hard to be sure. Captain Jack Sparrow looked cute, and she’d always had a thing for pirates. But he’d blackened his teeth to go with the costume, and the thought of kissing that made her skin crawl. A wolf-man character looked big and muscly, but she couldn’t tell if the blanket of hair peeking out of his shirt was real or part of the costume. This was going to be harder than she thought.
She picked up her drink and downed the contents as a man in all black approached her. He wore knee-high boots and black pants that hugged his muscular thighs. His Renaissance-style shirt revealed a smooth, sinewy chest, and a long sword sat sheathed at his hip.
So far, so good.
A black cloth wrapped around his dark eyes acted as a mask, and another cloth covered his head, concealing his hair. Her gaze traveled up and down his body, and when she met his eyes, he smiled.
Her pulse quickened. She could definitely burn for this guy.
He sauntered toward her with a cocky gait—completely in character—and his playful grin and full, kissable lips sent her stomach flipping.
“What’s the Queen of Hearts doing all alone at a party like this?”
Emily sat up straighter. “I could ask the same question of you, Dread Pirate Roberts. Where is your Buttercup?”
“I’m currently interviewing for the position. Would you like to apply?” His devilish grin widened; her heart pounded harder.
“And how many applicants would I be competing with? It must be a coveted position.”
He chuckled. “So far tonight, ma’am, you’re the only candidate.” He cleared his throat and whisked her glass from the table. “Your drink is empty, and that’s a shame. Let me get you another one.” He examined what was left of the contents. “Gin and tonic?”
“I’ll be right back.”
He strode to the bar, and she got a view of his backside as he moved. Nice. Everything about the man was scrumptious. She inhaled a deep breath to calm the swarm of butterflies in her stomach. What on earth was she thinking agreeing to a dare like this? She didn’t go around kissing strangers.
“One gin and tonic for the beautiful queen.” He slipped into the chair next to her and set the drink on the table.
“Thank you.” She could do this. It was just a kiss, and he was just a man. An incredibly sexy pirate tonight.
He leaned an elbow on the table. “You know, you’re the first person who’s gotten my costume right.”
“Really? The Princess Bride is a classic. I can’t believe people don’t recognize you.”
“I know. It’s one of my favorites.”
“And you look so authentic. You’ve got the mustache and everything. Is it real?”
He smoothed the thin strip of hair above his lip. “Of course. But everyone thinks I’m—”
“Nailed it. By the way, my name is—”
“Westley.” She stirred her drink and swallowed before raising her gaze to his. “Your name is Westley tonight.”
“Oh, we’re being mysterious?”
She shrugged. It was better if she didn’t know his name. Trish was right: she didn’t need to attach herself to the first man she met. And this guy was way too magnetic.
He smiled. “I get it. It’s a masquerade. We can reveal our identities at the stroke of midnight.”
She tilted her head. If she was still talking to him at midnight, she’d be in trouble.
“Okay. Westley, it is. Can I call you Buttercup?”
Covering the tip of the straw with her finger, she brought the other end to her lips and released the contents into her mouth. “I’ll let you know.”
He laughed and downed the rest of his drink. “I promised our hostess I would dance with the first woman who didn’t call me Zorro.” Standing, he offered her his hand. “Would you care to join me on the dance floor, my queen?”
“I would be delighted.” She took his hand and let him lead her to the center of the floor. The band played Billy Joel’s “Just the Way You Are,” and Westley pulled her close. Though their bodies didn’t touch, an inexplicable magnetism held her. His masculine scent, the warmth radiating from his skin—she couldn’t have pulled away if she’d wanted to.
One hand on her hip, his left hand cradling her right, he led her around the floor with the grace of a professional. His strong arms guided her into moves she didn’t know she had in her dance repertoire. He spun her, releasing his hold to twirl her under his arm and pull her back into a firm embrace.
She gazed into his eyes, unable to quell the butterflies flitting their way into her chest. “Wow. You’re an amazing dancer.”
His cocky grin returned as he twirled her. “All those years of cotillion finally paid off.”
“Dance and etiquette classes my mom forced me to take as a kid. I hated every second of it.”
“No regrets at all.” He gave her one final spin and dipped her so low, her head nearly touched the ground. As he brought her back up, she stumbled into him, and he caught her in his arms. “You okay?”
“Yeah. I think it’s the alcohol. I’m not usually this clumsy.”
His gaze lingered on hers, and though she was steady on her feet, he still held her close. The feel of his firm body pressed to hers sent warmth flooding through her limbs, and as he started to let her go, she held on tighter.
“I love this song. Can we dance again?”
A slow smile curved his lips. “As you wish.” He kissed the fingers of her right hand then traced his thumb across the tiny butterfly adorning the inside of her wrist. “That’s a nice tattoo. What does it mean?”
Instinctively, she wanted to jerk her hand away, but she forced herself to hold contact. “It means I like butterflies.”
“I like them too.”
Her heart fluttered as he slid his hands to the small of her back and held her with firm yet gentle pressure. Cheek to cheek, she clutched his shoulders and tried to slow her breathing. His woodsy scent filled her senses, making her head spin, and as the slow, sultry music played on, she melted into his embrace.
She lost track of how many songs ended, how many new ones began as they held each other on the dance floor, softly swaying to the rhythm. She could’ve held on to this mysterious man all night. His strong arms. His intoxicating scent. The way his breath tickled her ear when he turned toward her.
He slid his hands up and down her back, his gentle touch raising goose bumps on her arms. His heart pounded against her breast as she glided her hands across his shoulders to cup the back of his neck. It was time. She was going to kiss him.
Her cheek brushed against his masculine stubble as she pulled away to look in his dark brown eyes. He inhaled deeply, dropping his gaze to her mouth. Her eyes fluttered shut as he leaned in. Something vibrated against her hip, and she opened her eyes. His gaze lingered on her lips.
“Your pants are vibrating.”
He chuckled. “They can leave a message.”
“It might be important.”
He pressed his forehead to hers and slid his hand up her neck, into her hair. “Nothing is as important as dancing with the most beautiful Queen of Hearts I have ever seen.”
Heat flushed her cheeks. “I’m sure you say that to all the ladies.”
“I can assure you I don’t.” He twirled her around the dance floor and stopped close to the edge.
Emily wasn’t the type to swoon, but something about Westley made her knees weak. “You really are a fantastic dancer.”
“It’s all part of my diabolical plan.”
He smiled. “To keep you here until midnight, when the masks come off, and the identity of the most beautiful woman in New Orleans is revealed.”
Her heart slammed into her throat. She wanted to know this man. More than his identity, she wanted to know him. But she couldn’t. Trish was right. She shouldn’t latch on to the first hot guy she met.
She needed to kiss him and walk away.
His phone vibrated in his pocket again, and he let out a disappointed grunt.
“You should answer that. It’s probably important if they’re calling again.” She released her hold on his shoulders, but he tightened his grip around her waist.
“You’re not getting away so easily.” He fished the phone out of his pocket. Checking the screen, he sighed and pressed the device to his ear. “This had better be important, Jason.”
He closed his eyes and listened. “You have got to be kidding me. Did you call Syd?” He stroked his fingers down her cheek and mouthed the word sorry. “How many over are we? Twenty-five? No, I’ll be there in fifteen… Yeah. On my way.”
He mashed the screen with his thumb to end the call and shoved the phone into his pocket. Wrapping his arms around her, he pulled her into a tight embrace and pressed his lips to her ear. “I have to go.”
She fought the shiver running down her spine. “I figured as much.”
“Can I see you again?”
She bit her lip to keep from saying yes. “Tonight, for me, was about learning to live again. To enjoy life, and I’ve enjoyed every second I’ve spent with you. But this is all I’m able to give right now.”
He pulled back, disappointment evident in his eyes. “How about this? I’ll give you my number, and if you ever decide you have a little more to give—and I’m not asking for much…just a little of your time—then you can call me.”
The temptation overwhelmed her. She couldn’t form an appropriate answer, so she did the only thing she could.
She crushed her mouth to his.
A deep groan rumbled in his throat as he parted his soft lips to let her in. He tasted sweet, like honey laced with warm whiskey, and when his tongue brushed against hers, fire shot through her veins. He tightened his arms around her, and she allowed herself to get lost in his embrace. They were the only two people in the world, and being in his arms was all that mattered. The kiss slowed to a gentle brush of the lips, and she had to get away before she gave in.
She took a step back and rested her hand on his cheek. “Thank you, Westley, for a lovely evening I will never forget.”
His gaze was heavy and filled with longing. “Can I at least know your name?”
“My name is…” She shouldn’t. The moment with Westley was ending, and sharing names would only quell the mystery. She stepped toward him and placed a soft kiss on his cheek.
“Call me Buttercup.”
He chuckled and lowered his chest into a formal bow, his heated gaze never straying from her eyes. “As you wish.” He lingered for a moment as if hoping she’d change her mind.
“Farewell, Buttercup.” He nodded and walked away.