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His One-Night Mistress

By:Sandra Field

His One-Night Mistress
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.                       
       
           



       

This terror was different. She felt stripped, laid bare, exposed. All  because a stranger had chanced to look at her. A man she'd never seen  before – -of that she was sure – -and need never see again.

Ridiculous, she thought, gathering every vestige of her courage to fight an assault unlike any she'd ever known.

Assault? The man hadn't even touched her.

In a flare of defiance Lia gestured to the nearest waiter, took a glass  of red wine from his tray and, with a mocking salute to the man across  the room, raised the glass in a toast.

He swept off his hat, revealing a crop of untidy, sun-streaked blond  hair, and bowed to her from the waist, a courtly gesture that brought an  involuntary smile to her lips. Then he straightened and started toward  her across the wide expanse of floor.

In total panic she heard a male voice say in clumsily accented French, "Voulez-vous danser avec moi, madame?"

A British soldier from the Napoleonic wars had inserted himself between  her and the highwayman. Quickly Lia put her wine down on the nearest  table and said, in English, "Thank you, yes."

"Cool-you speak English," the soldier said, put his arm around her and  with a certain flair eased her among the other dancers. He waltzed with a  competence for which she was grateful, and didn't seem to require much  from her in the way of conversation, for which she was more than  grateful. From the corner of her eye, she watched the highwayman be  accosted by a group of curvaceous chorus girls, then extract himself  with a remark that left them all giggling. She said breathlessly, "I'd  love to get a closer look at the orchestra – -can we go that way?"

The soldier obediently whisked her to the opposite end of the room. The  waltz ended, followed by a rhumba. A clown with a garish red slash of  mouth cut in; automatically Lia followed the rhythm, her diaphanous  wings fluttering as she raised and lowered her arms. The clown was  superseded by a dignified gentleman who could have emerged from the  pages of a Jane Austen novel.

As the two-step came to its predictable close, another partner loomed  behind the elderly gentleman. The highwayman, his black cloak swirling.  Lia's nerves tightened to an almost intolerable pitch, even though from  the first moment she'd seen him she'd known this meeting was inevitable.  "My turn, I believe," he said pleasantly, yet with an edge of steel  underlying a voice as smooth as brandy.

Lia smiled at her partner, thanked him and turned to face her opponent. For opponent he was; of that she was in no doubt.

She could have refused to speak to him. But pride had always been one of  her besetting sins, and besides, weren't challenges meant to be met?

Before she could even open her mouth, he said with that same steel edge, "You've had your fun. Now it's my turn."

She'd see about that. Raising her chin, Lia said with rather overdone  politeness, "It's very warm in here, isn't it? I'd love a glass of  champagne."

"What's your name?"

"Subtlety certainly isn't yours."

"I don't believe in wasting time."

"Mine or yours?" she demanded.

"Mine."

"Then perhaps you should find yourself another partner."

"Oh, I don't think so," he said.

"So tell me your name," she said, fully expecting him to refuse.

"Seth Talbot. From Manhattan. You're American as well."

Her home base was a tiny apartment in Greenwich Village. She said  coolly, "I was born in Switzerland, Mr. Talbot," and with equal aplomb  gestured to the nearest waiter, who presented her with a crystal flute  of champagne. She raised it to her lips, feeling the bubbles tickle her  nostrils.

"So you take what you want," Seth Talbot said softly.

"Is there any other way?"

"Not in my world. I'm glad we understand each other."

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