One night, that’s all it was supposed to be, but fate decided otherwise.
New Year, new promotion, what more could Sophie Franklyn ask for? Her one night stand not turning up at work would be top of her list. Unfortunately, luck isn’t on her side and in the middle of a medical emergency, Alex Scavoni shows up like an avenging angel. Life just got a little more interesting. Or was it more complicated?
Waking up to an empty bed after the best night of his life could’ve been a blow to Alex’s ego. But it wasn’t. He knew he’d see his masked woman again. Best of all, he had the element of surprise on his side.
Fate, however, has a plan for these two lovers. When they find out their night together has consequences neither of them expected, they must decide if it’s going to remain as a one and done deal. Or will it become forever?
Sophie adjusted her feathered mask, smoothed down her dress, and took a deep breath before pressing the button that would whisk her into a world she tried hard to avoid.
The doors whispered open and an empty cart greeted her. She was glad. She needed a few more minutes of peace. A few moments to cool down before being caught up in the vortex of New Year’s Eve celebrations.
As she stepped in, the mirrored back wall reflected an elegant vision in silver. The woman in the mirror looked in total control of herself.
Looks could be deceiving.
The last thing she felt was calm and in control. Her father backing out of attending this function at the last minute annoyed her immensely. It was clear his latest lover wanted to hail in the New Year at some trendy nightclub, not a boring annual hospital fundraiser at Perth’s premier Casino Complex. An event that was extremely important to Sophie, his only daughter. But her father always pushed her feelings aside. At least she had friends attending. She could spend the night celebrating with them. It didn’t matter that she was now arriving alone.
Pressing the little white disk, illuminating the floor number she required, she waited as the doors closed.
She was preparing for yet another year without a memorable New Year’s Eve kiss. When she’d confirmed her attendance, she had been engaged.
Now she was single.
She had no time to worry about her single status anymore as the doors opened and the buzz from the people congregating in the foyer reached her.
Sophie glanced around, excitement replaced her despondency. She loved New Year’s Eve and regardless of what her father did to her, she was going to enjoy herself. Tonight, all the guests were in masks. It was difficult to recognize anyone, and she should know quite a few of the guests. The mysteriousness added to the excitement.
She plucked a flute of champagne from the tray of a passing waiter, and took a fortifying sip. As she continued looking around the foyer, she noticed the pictures of the children the ball was raising funds for. Their laughing smiles, in the face of their illness, made her feel selfish for her earlier thoughts. These kids faced trials every single day and here she was, worried about her father ignoring her.
“Wow, Sophie, you look fabulous. The description you gave of your dress was way off.”
She whirled around at the sound of her best friend’s voice, glad Phoebe had somehow found her. Sophie leaned in to give her friend a slight hug. Phoebe looked gorgeous in her red dress. Red was proving to be a popular color among the female guests. Sophie was glad her dress was silver. She’d briefly played with the idea of not wearing it. But it had winked out at her, enticing and pulling her under its spell.
“Thanks, I really needed to hear that.”
Behind the mask, she could see Phoebe’s eyes fill with sympathy. “I know tonight is probably going to be tough, but you’re better off without that loser hanging off your arm.” Phoebe flung her hand with a flourish of twists. “The room is littered with eligible bachelors. Hook up with one, even if it’s only for the required New Year’s Eve kiss.”
“I’ve sworn off men for the time being. My career is going to be my focus now,” Sophie said as she ran her eyes over the mingling guests. Trying to imagine what some of the men looked like behind their masks. All men looked handsome in evening attire. The mysterious allure of what lay beyond the mask only added to the ambience of the evening.
She was about to turn her attention back to Phoebe when someone walked into the room. Their eyes met and Sophie caught her breath. She was too far away to see the color of his eyes, but he had an undeniable presence that called to her in the most basic of manners. She wanted to answer the call, but after what she’d been through the last few weeks, she had to protect herself. She pulled her gaze away from his. It was likely she wouldn’t encounter him again that evening. Besides, he was probably with someone. Still Phoebe’s words ran around her mind, like a mouse running around a tumbling wheel.
Could she hook up with a stranger? Just for a midnight kiss? As tempting as it was, after her recent appearances in the tabloids, it would be wiser not to give in to the temptation of a masked man dressed to kill in a tuxedo.
Turning her attention back to her friend she smiled. “That’d look good in the gossip papers. It’s the last thing I need. It was pleasant to read the paper today and not see my and Neil’s names and our broken engagement mentioned.”
Concern laced her Phoebe’s voice as she asked. “You are over him, aren’t you?”
Sophie took a sip of her champagne, the bubbles tickling her throat on the way down, and thought again about Phoebe’s question. She loved her friend dearly, but sometimes her insightful questions bothered her.
Was she truly over Neil? Had she even been in love with her ex-fiancé? A resounding no echoed through her mind. She’d been in love with an illusion. The real Neil was the man she’d found with his face and other parts buried in his assistant. The man whose actions had made her remove her rose-colored glasses. The man who’d been the hospital’s CEO, and her boss. She was so glad he’d taken up a new position at another hospital and soon, she would never have to see him again.
She gave herself a mental shake, firmly putting all thoughts of Neil and their ill-fated engagement out of her mind. Neil didn’t warrant her time or energy anymore.
“I’m well and truly over him.” She linked her arm through Phoebe’s. “Let’s make this a night to remember.”
“You’re on.” They touched their glasses. “I heard the new director of emergency could be here tonight.”
Sophie laughed as she looked around the room once again. “And just how are we going to tell which one of these masked men is the man in question?”
“You have a point. Guess we’ll just have to be on our best behavior.”
The announcement for everyone to make their way into the ballroom sounded. She waited a few moments until the crowd lessened before searching for her name on the seating chart. She rolled her eyes when she saw the organizers had seated her at one of the main tables.
For once, she just wished she could go to a hospital function as herself, Sophie Franklyn, emergency nurse. Not Sophie Franklyn, the one and only daughter of property tycoon Richard Franklyn. She was sick of being referred to as “the princess playing at being a nurse.” She was anything but that. Her job was her life and she loved every single second of it.
She made her way to the table, weaving her way past people who’d spared no expense with outfits or visiting the high-class jewelry stores around the city. Women’s masks and necks glittered. Jewels sparkled, dresses shone and shimmered under the glow of the chandeliers. She reached her table and found she was the first to arrive. No doubt everyone else wanted to make a late but grand entrance.
She sat down and waited for the rest of the guests to seat themselves, wondering where the man she’d seen earlier was seated.
“Good evening, may I take this seat?”
Sophie turned her head to the sound of the warm masculine voice as it washed over her skin. A slight accent colored his words. It took all her willpower not to let her jaw drop open. Standing next to her, looking too good to be true, was the guest she’d locked eyes with earlier. Sophie didn’t know how she was so certain it was the elusive guest, she just did. The unbidden thought that maybe the night wouldn’t be too bad after all flittered across her subconscious.
She nodded her acquiescence and he seated himself next to her. Behind the plain strip of black, which emphasized his presence more than a highly decorated mask, she was able to make out his eyes, which were a dark chocolate brown.
Sophie tried to recall the names of the other guests due to sit at the table, but her mind was drawing a blank. Aware that she was still staring at him, her manners kicked in and she smiled, holding out her hand in greeting. “Hi,” her voice squeaked out and she swallowed quickly. “I’m Sophie Franklyn.” This time she sounded like herself.
He took her pale hand in his darker one. A tingle of electricity zigzagged its way up her arm at the contact. The sensation quickly intensified to high voltage as he gallantly placed a kiss on the top of her hand. His lips were warm and soft on her skin and his eyes bored directly into hers, holding her captive once again.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Sophie. I am Alessandro Scavoni, but everybody calls me Alex.”
Masculine and strong and commanding, the name suited him. She could now also identify his accent—Italian.
He was still holding her hand when the person taking the seat on the other side of her knocked her chair. It broke the spell that had woven itself around them. He relinquished his hold, but her hand still throbbed as the table filled with the remaining guests. The urge to cradle her hand to ease the sensation was strong, but she battled it down.
Most of the people seated were associates of her father, now she knew why she’d been placed on the table. Damn her father and his business. Even when he wasn’t there, he was trying to ram it down her throat at every opportunity, reminding her of what she’d turned her back on, and what had provided the trust fund she rarely touched.
The anger she had pushed aside earlier was back. It simmered and bubbled away as the emcee made the formal introductions of the important dignitaries, including her.
Open up, earth, and swallow me now.
As the spotlight shone down on her all she could think was so much for being anonymous behind her mask. She and the other guests who were introduced may as well have arrived without masks.
The emcee wound up his introductions and a string quartet started to play some soft background music as the entrée was served.
She pierced a king prawn with more force than was necessary.
“I take it the entrée isn’t to your liking?” Humor laced the softly spoken words.
She was still fuming from the position her father had put her in and really didn’t feel like being polite, but the social skills her mother had drummed into her screamed loudly in her ear. She placed her fork down and swiveled slightly in her chair, her shoulder brushing Alex’s fine wool jacket.
“I apologize, Mr. Scavoni, that was rather rude of me. The entrée is delicious, but I’d really prefer to be seated somewhere less, I don’t know, less pretentious.”
She watched as he glanced around the table at the other occupants. She was sure he must know the connection between them and her after the welcoming speech.
No matter how much she wanted to be a regular guest, out to enjoy an evening of fine food and dancing, it would never happen. She would always be the only daughter of one of the wealthiest men in Australia.
Her life was not her own.
“Honesty is good and I can understand why you would want to be seated with another group of people.” He leaned closer to her ear, his warm breath lifting the fine hair on her neck. “I mean, who would want to be seated at the same table as Cruella de Vil?”
She choked on her prawn and had to reach for her glass of water to stop her coughing fit. She knew exactly who he was talking about and his description was extremely apt. The society doyenne was well known for her demanding ways. Sophie had learned to deal with her and her many challenging requests at parties over the years.
“You should laugh more often. Life’s too short to be damning the weird quirks of fate.” A small amount of steel crept into his voice as he continued. “We may not choose our family, but it’s our duty to represent them in a suitable manner. No matter how much we don’t want to.”
Had he just reprimanded her? She’d just met the man and he was telling her off?
“I beg your pardon?”
“You heard me and you understand exactly what I’m saying. Believe me, you’re not the only person who curses their family on occasions.”
His last comment gave her an insight she wasn’t sure he meant to do. Did he feel the burden of family responsibilities like she did? Still, he didn’t know her circumstances so he had no right to speak to her as if she was a recalcitrant child.
“Don’t make assumptions, Mr. Scavoni, you don’t know me or my circumstances.”
“Alex. Mr. Scavoni is my father. I’m not judging. I’m merely making a general observation.”
General observation my foot, she thought. He was making a judgment and she didn’t like it one bit. She could tick him off her list of prospective New Year’s Eve kiss participants.
“Well, I don’t think that’s the case, but we’ll just have to agree to disagree, won’t we?”
She leaned back in her chair to allow the waiter to remove her plate. She glanced over to where her work colleagues were seated. Tendrils of laughter coming from the table reached out to her, like an offshoot from a clinging vine stretching out to the sun. How she wished she could join them. However, until the meal had been completed she was stuck with judgmental Alex Scavoni and Cruella de Vil. Some New Year’s Eve this was turning out to be. But she didn’t have to talk to him all night. She turned and started a conversation with the man seated on her other side.
Throughout the rest of the meal, she valiantly tried to ignore Alex, but she was aware of his every move. Each time he shifted in his chair, the fine material from his evening suit brushed her exposed leg, sending gooseflesh shooting out over her skin. His laughter resonated deep in her soul, tempting her to find out what had caused such carefree laughter. Her internal radar had narrowed in on Alex, and wasn’t changing direction anytime soon.
She wondered whether he felt it, too. Felt the invisible thread growing between them, as fine as the silky strands of a spider’s delicate web. Beautiful, but dangerous if you got caught in them.
She stole a look at him from beneath her lashes; he was engaged in a conversation with an associate of her father’s. As if sensing her appraisal, he turned slightly and caught her look. His only acknowledgement was a raised eyebrow before continuing his conversation about the current real estate climate.
Her breath whooshed out of her as heat flooded her cheeks; the temptation to roll her water glass over her flushed face in an attempt to cool herself down was high.
What would he look like without the mask, she mused? It only hid his eyes, but because of that, you were drawn to the intensity emanating from them. His jawline was strong and well defined. Was he the same underneath that suit, all muscle and sinew? What would it feel like to be wrapped up in those strong arms?
“I’d be glad to answer any questions that are going through your mind.” A soft touch to her forehead had her jumping.
Being caught off guard daydreaming about him immediately set her on the defensive. “I don’t have any questions. What gave you the idea that I did?”
His finger still lingered near her hair. Her breath caught as he slowly trailed it down the side of her face. All her senses tuned to the man beside her. The noise of the room and the conversations around her all faded into insignificance, her focus totally on Alex. She could see his lips moving, but nothing he was saying penetrated through the sensual fog his simple touch had created. She needed to move away from him.
Abruptly she pulled her chair out, breaking his contact with her skin and the mist that had held her spellbound.
Fortunately, the band had started up, signaling the end of dinner, enabling all the guests to move around until the auction commenced. For once, something was on her side.
“I’m . . . umm . . . I’m going . . . umm . . . excuse me.” She picked up her purse and all but ran over to where Phoebe was sitting, plunking herself down in the first available chair she saw.
She was convinced her face must be the same shade of red as Phoebe’s dress. She couldn’t believe she’d acted like a highly-strung virgin on her first night out. She was far from that. She’d had her fair share of relationships. Hell, up until a month ago she’d been engaged, but just one touch from Alex and all that experience had disappeared.
“Hey Soph, you okay?” Phoebe’s voice penetrated her thoughts.
She pasted on a smile and faced her friend. “I’m fine. It’s been great so far. Have you been having fun?”
Sophie watched as Phoebe’s eyes narrowed, disbelief etching her every feature. If she wanted to avoid any further questions she needed to convince her friend right now that everything was, as she said, fine.
“Seriously, Phoebe, it’s all good. I survived dinner and the unwanted scrutiny my father put me under. Now I’m ready to kick back and welcome the New Year in with a bang.”
She made herself stop—she chatted like a monkey when she was nervous or covering up how she really felt.
“Hmmm, well, I’m not sure I believe you,” her friend said. “But I’m with you on having a good time. Speaking of good times, who was that gorgeous hunk you were sitting next to?”
Sophie groaned inwardly.
“I don’t know, probably some associate of my father’s. He was talking about house prices before I escaped over here. Anyway, I don’t know how you could possibly tell whether he was gorgeous or not; half his face was covered with a mask.”
She knew she was babbling again, but she just couldn’t help herself. He was nowhere near her, but her nerves were still frazzled.
“Half his face, honey? I don’t know who you were looking at, but that mask only covered his eyes. Even from here you don’t need to see the face to know whether a man is handsome or not. They just have a presence about them.”
Sophie knew exactly what she was talking about. She’d been thinking the same thing. Before she could comment further a sexy, accented voice intruded in on them.
“So, Sophia, are you going to introduce me?”
Gooseflesh broke out over her skin at the way he said the Italian version of her name.
She turned and looked over her shoulder. Sitting next to him had given her a false impression of the man. His suit was clearly handmade. The fit was flawless. The jacket molded his broad shoulders lovingly. He stood with the buttons undone and a hand rested casually on his hip, exposing the fine white cotton of his shirt as it stretched across his broad chest.
“Ahh, this is . . . ”
Words escaped her once again.
“Hi, I’m Phoebe and this is John.”
She sent Phoebe a grateful smile for coming to her rescue. She knew her payment would be a full explanation of what had happened to her ability to form coherent words.
“Alex Scavoni. It’s a pleasure to meet you.” He pulled up a chair and slung a casual arm around Sophie’s shoulders. She sat perfectly still so as not to let him know how much that slight touch affected her. All it would take would be a miniscule shift and she’d be leaning into his hard length. “So, is everyone enjoying themselves?”
A general murmur of agreement went around the table. Who wouldn’t enjoy a rare night off from the emergency ward? The only reason neither she nor Phoebe was working was because they were about to take a week-long trip to Thailand in a couple of days, although that had taken some careful planning to organize.
“How about you, Alex? Are you enjoying yourself?” asked Phoebe.
His fingers danced lightly over Sophie’s bare shoulders and she couldn’t control the shiver that roared through her.
“Yes, it’s turned out to be a better evening than I expected.”
Sophie tried not to squirm under the speculative gazes of the people around her. No one spoke for what felt like hours, but in reality was mere seconds.
“So, who wants to dance?” asked Phoebe, breaking the tension that had settled around the group.
The band was doing a cover of a popular song, so Sophie stood and placed her bag on the table, wanting to move away from Alex’s commanding aura. “Count me in.”
A few others all stood and made their way toward the dance floor. Sophie stopped—guilt at how she’d quickly jumped at Phoebe’s suggestion gnawed at her. Looking at Alex, she asked, “Do you want to join us?”
His arresting gaze held hers. She stiffened her spine against the urge to melt into the vats of milk chocolate beckoning her.
“I think I’ll sit this one out, but save the last dance for me.” He stood and raised her hand to his lips once again. “The final dance before the countdown to midnight starts.”
He walked away, leaving her standing there in a puddle of emotions. She couldn’t believe she was feeling this way after only meeting him a couple of hours ago. Maybe it was the mask that was heightening her emotions and reactions toward him.
She’d often heard people refer to flirting with their eyes, but she’d never experienced it herself. Right at this moment, she didn’t care what he looked like. She even wondered if the spell would be broken once the masks were removed.
She realized she was gazing into empty space, so she went and joined her friends on the dance floor, grateful for the loud music inhibiting any conversation between her and Phoebe. Sophie knew she would be in for a battering of questions from Phoebe that would rival the Spanish Inquisition. She let herself be carried away with the music in a vain attempt to put Alex Scavoni’s mysteriousness behind her.
The evening wore on and when the auction occurred, it raised a record amount for the hospital. Sophie noticed that Alex had bid and won a few times.
There was one particular painting she’d admired and had started to bid for, but the price had risen quickly and exceeded her allowed budget. Disappointment had her tuning out, and in the end she hadn’t seen who had scored the final bid. She was convinced the seascape would’ve looked fabulous in her riverfront apartment, her only acknowledgment of her father’s wealth.
She was vain enough to admit she wanted to live in a nice place. A place all her own where she could relax after a tough day at the hospital. She knew a nurse’s wages wouldn’t allow her that luxury, so she’d used a portion of her trust fund to buy the apartment.
She made sure her door was always open to her fellow workmates and they often dropped around after they’d finished their shift for a drink and catch up. They were the first group of people who didn’t care about her wealthy background. They accepted her on face value and her dedication to her job.
The witching hour was closing in and Alex’s words resounded in her ears. Save the last dance for me. With that in mind, she made a quick trip to the powder room to freshen up. Phoebe and her other friends had headed down to the casino after the auction to ring in the new year, and Phoebe had pestered her to join them, but Sophie had her dance with Alex and she wasn’t going to miss that.
Giving her appearance a once over she was pleased to see that even after all her dancing, her hair still looked good and her makeup still looked attractive. She renewed her lipstick, though, and made use of the facilities.
She’d turned the corner to head back into the ballroom when she saw Alex leaning casually against the wall just outside the ballroom’s main entrance, chatting to another guest. As if sensing her presence, he turned his attention toward her.
She stopped, the carpet gripping her shoes and not letting her go. Transfixed, she watched as he finished his conversation and wandered over to her. Amazingly, her feet moved again and she met him halfway.
“I was about to start looking for you. The band will be playing our dance shortly.”
“With over five hundred guests here, finding me might have been a challenge for you.”
“Not really, I’ve known where you’ve been all evening. I never lose sight of my goal.”
She didn’t like the sound of those words. “Goal? I’m not some sort of team-building incentive.”
“Believe me when I say there is no way I’m thinking of you as a team-building incentive.” He closed the distance between them and softly touched her hair. “You’re like a forbidden fruit I know I shouldn’t take. But try as I might, I’m unable to resist the temptation.”
The man was talking in riddles. One minute he was calling her his goal and the next he was calling her forbidden fruit.
“So which am I, your goal or your forbidden fruit? Not that I like either reference—I’m a person first and foremost.”
“You’re both. I’ve been drawn to you since I walked into the room. But I can only offer you tonight.”
Sophie glanced around. Had she just stepped into the Twilight Zone? The conversation was surreal and she had no idea what to make of it. Was he offering her a one-night stand?
“So let me get this right. You saw me and I became your goal. But in the process of becoming your goal I turned into your forbidden fruit and now you’re offering me just one night?”
“Yes. I’m not in a place where I can offer you anything more than tonight.”
What did he mean? Was he in town on business? Could she do it? More to the point, did she want to?
Before she could voice any questions he continued.
“But I think you can’t offer anything more than one night, either.”
How could he tell? How could he know that tonight, for the first time in months, she felt she was an attractive woman? Could she throw caution to the wind? No one would have to know and they would never meet again.
“I should walk right into that ballroom and leave you standing here.” She shook her head in an attempt to shake some sense into it. “You’re wearing a mask. I have absolutely no idea who you are or what you look like. You could be an axe murderer, for all I know.”
“I’m not an axe murderer.” He flicked the feathers on her mask. “It adds to the mystery of it all, don’t you think? Let me reassure you, there will be no regrets and no expectations on my part.” He took a step away, holding out a hand toward her. “Now it’s up to you whether you want to take a chance. Your choice, Sophie. Come and dance with me, or leave now and join your friends.”
Some choice that was. If she danced with him, he’d already told her where he wanted the evening to finish. If she walked back into the ballroom, leaving him standing there, she would miss out on something she instinctively knew would be out of this world and amazing.
She was never one to go for one-night stands, but there was also something so decadent about it. The masks, the mystery, and the fact it was New Year’s Eve only added to the decadence.
What a way to bring in the New Year.
She reached out and gripped Alex’s outstretched hand. Decision made. No regrets. This next year was going to be her year.
“So it begins.” Alex’s words whispered down her spine. Sophie knew it was the beginning in so many different ways.