A Thrill to Remember
WHO WAS THAT masked woman?
Spellbound, Caleb Greenleaf watched the auburn-haired lady in red strut through the front door of the Bear Creek, Alaska, community center and into the rowdy, masked costumed ball hosted by New York City’s trendiest women’s magazine, Metropolitan.
“Red, hot and rockin”’ he muttered under his breath, narrowing his eyes and studying her more closely in the muted, atmospheric lighting.
Tall. Curvy in all the right places. Good legs.
Correction. Very, very good legs.
In fact, showcased so fetchingly in those four-inch, heartbreaker-red stilettos, they might even be the most stupendous pair of gams he’d ever clamped eyes upon.
The tight, scarlet bustier she wore snugged her luscious body like a second skin. The satiny material flared out provocatively over those generous curves before nipping in again at her narrow waist.
Below the bustier she had on crimson tap pants that barely covered her bodacious bottom. Then came vermilion fishnet stockings topped with a black lace garter that set his pulse charging like a stampeding bison. She was as vibrant as a Vegas showgirl and three times as sexy.
The term brick house permeated his brain.
He recognized the lingerie. Had seen similar attire at Dolly’s House, a brothel museum in Ketchikan, gracing the voluptuous wax figure of Alaska’s most notorious gold-rush madam, Klondike Kate.
What a costume.
What a body.
What a woman!
Who was she?
Brazenly, Caleb ogled, not the least bit ashamed of himself, which wasn’t like him at all. No hound dog, he. In fact, he was leaning against the wall in the insouciant slouch he’d carefully perfected for unwanted social occasions such as this.
An introvert by nature, he found his job as a naturalist for the state of Alaska suited his personality. Caleb spent a great deal of his time alone, in the outdoors, and he treasured his freedom. He avoided big parties, but since he was one of the guests of honor, he couldn’t steer clear of this shindig. Even though townspeople, husband-hungry wannabe brides, curious tourists and an assortment of media types packed the community center, he was suddenly very glad he had come.
Just inside the foyer, she hesitated. He observed her make the conscious decision to proceed in spite of her fear. She squared her shoulders, pasted a smile on her luscious lips and sallied forth. That split second of vulnerability, followed by her resolute marshaling of courage, touched him in an oddly tender way, and he almost applauded.
In she stalked. Boom-shaka-boom-shaka-boom. Her breasts bounced jauntily.
Watching her bottom sway caused Caleb’s body to tighten, his temperature to spike and his breathing to quicken. A seething longing gripped his gut. In conjunction, the wistful flavor of yearning burned on his tongue. He wanted her. Badly.
She aroused him with the stunning impact of blunt force trauma. No woman had aroused him quite like this since the object of his very horny teenage fantasies—Meggie Scofield.
He grinned crookedly at that memory. At one time he’d been so infatuated with his best friend’s sister Caleb had thought he would never get her out of his head. And unfortunately, Meggie, who was two years older, had never seen him as anything more than a surrogate kid brother. It had taken both a stint in college and his stepbrother Jesse marrying Meggie for him to let go of his youthful obsession.
As the last of the four Bear Creek Bachelors who had advertised for wives in Metropolitan magazine, Caleb had just about surrendered all hope of finding someone who inflamed him in the same way Meggie once had. But then, out of the clear azure sky, in marched sexy Klondike Kate, piquing his interest and stirring long dormant passions.
Was she a tourist? He knew everyone in town. She certainly wasn’t a local. Maybe she was with the magazine.
He couldn’t stop staring at her. She sashayed over to the bar, ordered a glass of wine and started chatting up the bartender. Lucky bastard.
Look at me, Caleb willed her. Forget that joker and look at me.
As if compelled by his silent entreaty, she raised her head and glanced across the room.
Their gazes clashed like lightning striking. Hot. Intense. Compelling.
Her eyes widened behind the showy red-feathered mask that hid the upper portion of her face. She moistened her lips with the tip of her pink tongue and Caleb just about came undone. In an instant, his overactive imagination transported him to a world of his own making.
She’s splayed spread-eagle across his big, king-size bed in that daring damned underwear.
“Come here,” she invites.
He’s out of his clothes and beside her quicker than you can melt butter in a microwave.
She kisses him with a vital pressure, thrusting her honeyed tongue against his. Heat rushes to his groin, whetting his voracious appetite.
He unhooks her bustier, allows it to fall open and expose her full, creamy breasts. When he growls low in his throat, she closes her eyes and softly coos, “Help yourself.”
Bending his head, he takes one budded pink nipple into his warm mouth. She hisses drawing in a breath. Desire shoots through him. She encourages him to continue by holding his head in place.
“Harder,” she whimpers. “Don’t be gentle.”
Reaching down, she runs her hand over the length of his shaft, greedily signaling to him exactly what she needs. Her fingers tangle with the leather strings on his pants and she gives a series of short firm jerks that send a shower of sparks scorching through his groin.
He is beside himself with cravings for this marvelous creature. He could take her right here, right now, with no thoughts except to quench his undying thirst for her. But he doesn’t. He wants her to be as desperate for him as he is for her.
Hungrily, he cups her breasts together, filling his palms, so he can easily drift from one to the other with a quick flick of his tongue.
Her moans almost send him over the edge of reason, plunging him headfirst into a world of sensation of which he has only dreamed.
He feels himself grow stiffer, not even realizing such hardness was possible. His brain is addled by the sweet scent of her womanhood, the luxurious touch of her hair, the heavenly taste of her skin, the hypnotic sound of her voice.
More. He had to have more.
“Hey, guy.” A lithesome brunette dressed as Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, sidled up to him and shattered his reverie.
“Yes,” he replied rather curtly. Gee thanks, lady, for interrupting the grandest fantasy I’ve had in years.
“Ooh, the dark, brooding type. My favorite.” She circled her index finger around the rim of her champagne glass and batted her eyelashes at him.
Aggressive women had approached him many times before. Especially after he’d made it rich and even more especially after the June issue of Metropolitan had hit the stands. All too well he recognized that flint-edged expression in her eyes, and he could almost hear the cha-ching sound of a cash register echoing in her head.
Gold digger, he diagnosed, right off the bat.
“So, who are you suppose to be?” Elvira purred.
Her gaze roved over him. “Let me guess. Zorro?”
She snapped her fingers. “I know. You look like Johnny Depp in that movie Don Juan Demarco. You’re supposed to be Don Juan, the infamous Latin lover.”
“Uh-huh.” Caleb nodded, barely glancing at the woman. He wished she’d go away and let him resume his fantasy.
“So say something sexy to me.” She winked.
“Brooding and silent. Okay, then I’ll say something sexy to you. I really love the way your leather pants fit, if you catch my drift.”
Great. He was lusting after Klondike Kate but he’d gotten stuck with Miss Hot-for-Your-Wallet.
Undaunted by his lack of response, Elvira continued. “Somebody told me you’re that millionaire bachelor. Is that true?”
“Sorry.” He shook his head. “Don’t have a penny to my name.”
“Oh.” Her eyes rounded in alarm as if she’d just stepped in a big pile of something unsavory with her expensive designer shoes.
And his friends claimed he was too cynical. Well, he had his reasons.
From the beginning of this whole advertising-for-wives venture, Caleb had been reluctant to join his friends. Not that he was afraid of commitment—he did yearn for the same intimacy and happiness the ad had generated for his three buddies, Quinn, Jake and Mack. But given his family’s history of numerous weddings and divorces, stepfamilies merging and then dissolving, he was a bit leery of marrying for any reason other than true love.
You’re paranoid, Greenleaf. Terrified of getting involved with a woman like your mother who ditches rich husbands for even richer ones. Or of winding up like your dad, down and out after two failed marriages.
Okay, all right. Perhaps he was sensitive on the subject. And maybe he did have trust issues when it came to women.
At age twenty-seven, he had amassed a small fortune by translating his love of the wilderness into a lucrative dot-com company that supplied indigenous flora and fauna to universities and laboratories. When he’d sold the company in the midst of the bull market and parlayed his hobby into a cool million, he’d discovered that other than impressing his hard-to-please, social-climbing mother, the money had been a hindrance rather than a boon.
He realized too late he shouldn’t have worn the attention-grabbing Don Juan costume. He couldn’t say why he’d chosen the guise of the infamous lothario. Perhaps because he was nothing like the gregarious Spanish lover and it was easier pretending to be something he wasn’t. More than likely it was because the outfit had been fairly simple to put together.
But if he was honest with himself he would admit the Don Juan masquerade did elicit a certain confidence in him. Something about these leather pants, shiny black boots, dashing cape, dapper fake mustache and billowy white pirate’s shirt stoked his confidence in a way he couldn’t explain. The costume served as a conduit for the darker side of his personality and dared him to act upon impulses he normally would have suppressed.
Like the urge to glide across the room and introduce himself to Klondike Kate.
He had never been one for casual sex, although in college he’d indulged in a few short-term flings in an attempt to douse his desire for Meggie. But the woman in red made him so darned hot that he was ready and willing and open for just about anything.
Short-term, long-term. He didn’t care. He just wanted to get to know her.
And, after much speculation, he was ready to call off the wife search and plunge headlong into a reckless affair in order to ease his sexual frustration.
Tonight he was suave Don Juan.
Anything was possible.
Go on. Do it.
He searched for his crimson goddess, but she had walked away. He was bereft for a moment, but then he caught a flash of red as she disappeared into the costumed throng gyrating on the dance floor in time to a jivey disco version of “Wild, Wild West.”
“Wild, Wild West” morphed into “Super Freak.” Blood strummed in his temples and his heart pounded like a headhunter’s drum. Panic scratched through him at the thought she might leave the party before he could speak to her.
Where had she gone?
“Will you excuse me?” he asked Elvira, and before she could reply, he pushed off from the wall and went to prowl through the crowd.
After several minutes of searching, he spied Klondike Kate sitting alone in a cloth-backed chair positioned in a dimly lit alcove just off the main hall.
He smiled to himself.
One high-heeled shoe dangled from her hand and she was slowly massaging her foot. At the sight of those delicate toes, painted not stark scarlet as he might have suspected, but a beguilingly innocent cotton-candy pink, Caleb’s lodged in his throat. She inclined her head, exposing the gentle sloping curve of her neck, and he had to bite down hard on the inside of his cheek to keep from moaning out loud. His gut constricted, his muscles loosened, his body warmed—and extreme reaction he recognized but could not seem to control. His unexplained nervousness scared him, smacking of a weakness he did not want to accept.
Don’t let her get to you.
It had simply been too long since he’d had sex. That was why he was so susceptible to her allure. No other reason.
Yeah, right. If mere horniness was what motivated him, then why not take advantage of the dozens of women who’d thrown themselves at him all summer?
Nope, this was different, even if he couldn’t say why.
Klondike Kate started to lean forward to slip her shoe back on, but stopped short. His gaze tracked her movements. He noticed one of the hooks on her bustier had snagged the chair’s tweed cloth.
Squirming, she tried unsuccessfully to dislodge herself.
This is your chance to meet her, Greenleaf. Don Juan to the rescue.
Heart thudding, he hurried over, boldly leaned down, pressed his mouth to her ear and heard himself whisper in a debonair Spanish accent that sounded nothing like his natural voice, “Please, allow me. It would be my greatest honor to assist you.”
DON JUAN’S MANLY HANDS rested on her bare back, his fingers finessing the hook of her bustier.
Meggie Scofield caught her breath, stunned that the drop-dead gorgeous man in the black leather mask who had been staring so blatantly at her ever since she strolled into the community center was touching her in a most intimate fashion and causing a frisson of heat to spread fanlike over her tender flesh.
No. No. This was much too soon. The guy was more than she had bargained for. She wasn’t ready for this much masculine attention.
It had taken every ounce of courage she possessed—plus generous encouragement from her friends and a hefty quaff of chardonnay—to stroll into the party wearing this skimpy outfit. If she hadn’t been so darned determined to shed her goody-goody image she wouldn’t have made it this far.
But now she was paralyzed, intoxicated by the smoldering nearness of this stranger. He stood so close his spicy cologne filled her nostrils with the bracing combination of orange zest, piquant cinnamon and rich licorice. He smelled like a holiday feast.
Anticipation, charged and fiery, crackled between them. Adrenaline shot through her veins, prickled her sensitive skin, seeped beneath the auburn wig she wore over her coal-black tresses.
Who was he? And why did he seem so fascinated with plain ordinary Meggie Scofield, when a man like him could have any available woman in the room?
It’s the costume, ninny.
Disquieting heat waves shimmered through her body as his fingers tripped down her spine. She shivered and shifted away from him.
“Hold still,” he murmured in a low Spanish accent so erotically seductive it caused the fine hairs at the nape of her neck to lift. “I fear sudden movement will render your beautiful garment worthless.”
“No reason to apologize.”
Her heart hammered restlessly. His leather-clad hip was level with her shoulder. She dropped her gaze to his knee-length, shiny leather riding boots, and had to force herself not to shiver again.
For some reason she could not fathom, Meggie envisioned rubbing her fingers over the soft, fluid folds of his silky white shirt. The unexpected image sent goose bumps skittering up her arm, and the budded tips of her breasts stiffened against the lace of her bustier.
This whole moment felt weirdly surreal, as if she were moving in slow motion through a favorite recurring dream. When she was younger her secret fantasies had been chockful of ferociously naughty characters like Don Juan. Rock stars and motorcycle men. Pirates and Vikings and irascible black sheep. But those days were gone. She’d had her fill of rogues, and she was finished with living vicariously through risk-taking men.
She wanted her own adventures.
Except her body wasn’t listening to her mind’s vehement denial.
“There,” he pronounced. “You are free.”
Meggie leaped from the chair, almost careening into him in an urge to remove herself from his disconcerting proximity.
“Thank you,” she murmured.
Unable to resist peeking, she shot him a sidelong glance. The intense blue eyes lurking behind his black leather mask rocked her, upsetting her equilibrium.
“You’re most welcome.”
He kept his voice low, and she wondered if the Spanish accent was real or if it was simply perfected for his Don Juan persona. She remembered then that she was supposed to be in character, too, and she should be speaking with the bawdy, teasing drawl of Klondike Kate. But bowled over by her body’s unexpected response to this stranger, she couldn’t force herself to speak above a whisper.
Whoever this guy might be in real life, in costume he was a dead ringer for the infamous Spaniard. Had he chosen his costume because he was indeed a masterful lover?
He caught her watching him, and Meggie’s stomach fluttered. Deliberately, he raised a hand and slowly traced an index finger over his pencil thin mustache in a surprisingly intimate gesture.
Her gaze darted from his eyes to his mouth and back again and her chest squeezed.
Look away! Look away!
But she could not.
His audacious gaze collided head-on with hers. Smoldering, fervent, deeply blue. He possessed the sort of eyes to make any woman tremor with sexual anticipation. Eyes that promised a thousand taboo pleasures.
He didn’t smile; his expression remained one of inexplicable containment. His lips were full; his jawline solidly masculine.