ancers swayed in a sea of color, women in their gowns moving in time to the music and men in black-and-whites and plaid kilts. The ballroom flickered with what must have been a thousand candles, even though it was barely dusk.
Jennifer stood in her rental gown and took another gulp of her mead. She'd never been to the Mead Maker's Ball, but so far, she liked the anonymity of her mask. Nobody saw her as poor Ren D'Amico's widow. With each sip of her sweet, heady honey mead, the better she felt.
The circle danced, around and around, the live band playing louder and louder. A green leafy mask, with deep bronze shining edges glinting in the candlelight's glow, caught her attention. So many masked men. If only her swimming head cleared so that she could count them and report back to her best friend, Maeve, who had been intrigued by the idea of a masque ball and had persuaded her to attend. Jen's business relationship with the local mead companies solidified it. She felt obligated.
The glint of the green-gold mask caught her eye again. She tried to watch him but was pulled in by a well-meaning arm around her waist, sending her mead spilling off the sides of the goblet as she placed it on a table. She smiled politely at her masked partner but kept her peripheral vision on the green-leaf man.
Through the crowdâand at a distanceâhe appeared to be of average height and girthâbut there was something about his movement, so graceful, confident, and strong. Her insides welled with a sudden need she hadn't felt in years. Not since Ren.
Jennifer was a mess of indecision and longing, uncertain of how to handle it. She was in Scotland, for God's sake, and some of their customs confounded her. This masked dance was one of the many things she found herself participating in that she'd have never imagined two years ago when she met the then Detective Renaldo D'Amico. A tradition for generations to welcome the spring and to “make the bees glad,” the ball was the social highlight of the season.
Now, who was this masked man making eye contact with her, sending her heart thumping in her chest? And was it really she he watched or was it an illusion of the candles and the mead?
One more twirl around the circle with her partner, and she needed to break off. Hot, tipsy, and fighting a need to escape.
“Thanks,” she said to her partner. “I need some air. Catch you later.”
“May I escort you?” he asked.
“No.” Maybe it came out too quick and sharp. “That's not necessary.” She softened her voice. No need to make enemies. More enemies, that is. The locals weren't too happy about an American woman taking over a much beloved Scottish home and honey business. She smiled at him, polite but cool enough to put out heated ideas.
You've got to be kidding,
she wanted to say, for she had her suspicions about his identity and she wanted no part of him.
She found her wrap and went outside, where yesterday's sprinkling of snow sparkled in the new moonlight. Finally, it was dark. Scotland's long daylight hours were difficult to like. She pulled her wrap tighter and breathed in the fresh cold air.
She didn't see him approach.
“Would you care for a drink, my lady?” he said to her with a deep and bold voice as he came up alongside her, the man with the leaf mask. His voice reached out and curled inside of her.
“Certainly,” she said, taking the drink he offered. She drank deeply from the goblet. The mead was sweet and strong. It was exactly what she did not need in her current state.
She watched the man's eyes, noted his strong muscular arms, wide chest, the way he moved like a cat in the forest. He tilted his head in curiosity.
Did he know what she had on her mind?
“It's a nice party,” he said, looking around the garden.
“I need to walk and get some air,” she said to him, grabbing his hand, sturdy and calloused as she stood and slipped a little. She felt dormant parts of her sit up and twitch.
What was wrong with her?
She must be drunker than she thought.
“Whoa,” he said, pulling her into him. “You're a bit drunk, I think.”
She didn't pull away. As if she could. He held her there and she allowed him.
The music seemed to get louder from inside the large home, and Jennifer dizzied. From the way he looked at her, the way he felt against her, she thought she could feel him hard and hot pressing up against her. She leaned into him.
“Kiss me,” she found herself saying. The words were a bit slurred. Admittedly.
He laughed. “I won't be taking advantage of a drunken woman.”
Hands to her hips. “I'm not drunk.”
She barely spoke the words when he pulled her closer and kissed her.
His green mask made things a bit awkward, but his mouth found hers and his hand found her breasts. Her nipples tightened as he fingered them, sending shivers of delight through her body.
Oh, it had been way too long.
She should pull away.
But damn. She simply did not want to.
His hands cupped her breasts. His lips pressed on hers, giving her a delicious sinking fuck-me feeling. He tasted of the meadâgood, sweet, earthy.
“Okay, then,” he said, pulling away from her, “if you're not drunk.” His voice thickened with lust. A gleam in his blue eyes spoke of his amusement, and he held her even tighter as his hands explored the curve of her back now, down to her rear end, sending a rush of heat through her body.
Her leg wrapped around his sturdy, hard as a boulder, thick leg. She fit snug on his leg as she gave him easier access to her lower half. His touch on her lower back and nether regionsâshe simply wanted more.
“My, aren't you a pretty little pussycat,” he said in a whisper of a hoarse voice, his hand lifting her chin to his mouth again. Her mask. She was a cat tonight. A nameless, faceless cat.
And she felt quite unlike herself. She hadn't counted on this mask giving her a sense of freedom. She felt as if she could do anything, be anything, and nobody would know.
She met his kiss with open mouth and twirling tongue, eliciting a long, low, husky moan from him.
The next thing she knew he led her through a glade of trees, snow falling again now. She felt no cold. Her legs trembled beneath her long dress in their wool leggingsâbut not because of the cold.
Was she really allowing herself to go off with a strange man like this? Maeve would be so proud. After years of listening to Maeve's sexual exploits, Jennifer was going to have one of her own.
She shoved aside the sick feeling that crept up her throat as he took off his jacket and placed it on the ground. What a considerate, perhaps romantic, gesture for such an elicit encounter.
“My lady,” he said.
She sat down on his jacket, feeling a bit like a raunchy, yet sexy, princess. “Iâ”
“Shhhh,” he said, laying her back and kissing her once more. She looked into the night sky with snow falling all around her, catching in the tree boughs they were tucked beneath. His hands reached under her skirt, a mess of silk and petticoats. He fumbled around, then found his entry.
“I knew you'd be ripe,” he said, laughing. “So warm and wet, I bet.” He slipped his hands down her underwear and found her already moist with want.
Jennifer reacted with an intake of a steamy hissâundone by his touch. She had been so alone. So wanting. Maybe she didn't realize this until right now. This very moment. She arched with urgency and pulled him into her.
She couldn't think, only react. This is what she wanted. And she wanted more.
“You there!” A voice came down through the glade. “What are you doing? Is everything all right?”
“Fuck,” he said. “We've been spotted.”
“We're fine,” he said louder. “Just enjoying some night air.” But he helped her cover herself, and his eyes met hers. In that instant, she sensed a protective air about him. She felt safe. Odd.
But Jennifer's legs snapped shut, brought back fast to reality. She bolted to the house, faster than she thought a half-drunk, thoroughly swollen woman could manage.
atching her was way too easy.
And that made him anxious.
Surveillance was not his favorite part of the job. He found it easier with a partner, but his had just had a baby and was off on maternity leave. The agency was supposed to send a replacement. He wasn't holding his breath.
He often sat at the edge of Jennifer D'Amico's property, high on a slope. This afforded him the best view of her huge stone houseâand most importantly her bedroom, where she had been spending way too much time until recently. Now she was in the office. A lot. He was glad that it was a home office in a recently built outbuilding, where he also observed her and her small staff.
He liked her ass. Heart shaped, firm looking, with just a bit of a sexy jiggle.
But it didn't get in the way of his observation, of his job and task at hand.
Find out what she knows.
He knew that she rose every morning at six, walked around the property, ate breakfast, showered, then to the office. On Tuesdays and Thursdays she made the long drive into town, sometimes coming home with groceries and other packages, and sometimes not.
Once a week she had a Skype session with her friend Maeve Flannery, a cookbook author married to Jackson Dodds, famous photographer.
Jennifer didn't appear to associate with many of the locals, except for a young man a few times. A Liam Grady.
Grayson's mouth twisted into a grin. That didn't last long. Grayson was glad of it. The likes of Liam Grady were not good enough for a woman like Jennifer D'Amico.
Even from a distance, she oozed substance.
She was only married to Grayson's long-lost second cousin Ren D'Amico for two months when the “accident” happened. Instead of selling the homestead, the honey business, and moving back to the States, she stayed and was trying to make a go of the business. The “Widow D'Amico” some of the guys called her in the pub. Figuring she was worth a fortune, many of them vied for her attention.
If only they knew.
His cell phone buzzed.
“What are you doing?” the voice said.
“Having my coffee and getting ready to perch in my tree like a good boy.” He couldn't resist. She knew how he hated this assignment. He was a trained special agent, in great shape, and wanted a more physical assignment. She knew that. But she asserted her new boss status.
“Well, have you read the want ads lately?”
“No. Why would I?”
“Your local honey business is hiring a beekeeper,” she said. “Someone who can work with the hives, manage other beekeepers, and do sales and marketing.”
“No way,” he said.
“I'm serious. Get your ass down to the D'Amico place,” she said. The tone in her voice allowed him to picture her sitting behind that big desk of hers, with those boobs and legs and ass that had once driven him to lusty madness.
“I don't know, boss,” he said, hesitating.
“What's the issue?”
“You know how I feel about the bee business.”
“Your experience makes you the best man for the job. That's why you're in Scotland,” she said, and hung up.
Could he never get away from the bees and honey of his youth?
He hated the business, wanted to strike out on his own from his family, and it was a bitch, but he did it. He was damned good at what he did, had worked his way into a good position, and then Kasey got the job he wanted. And she was making him pay.
Making him pay for that one night. That drunken, miserable, one mistake. He'd spent the next few years trying to get back in Kasey's life. Unsuccessfully. He sighed, a long, stretching lion sigh. Kasey, like the Widow D'Amico, was a woman of substance and there was no going back. Women like her didn't forgive.
All for the best. For if Grayson knew himself at all, he knew he wanted nothing to do with being a man of substance.