UNMASKING JULIET by Teri Wilson

Thus with a kiss, she lived...

 

Midway through the Tenth Annual Mezzanotte Masquerade Ball, Juliet Arabella had the irrepressible urge to flee. The more she thought about what had transpired during the limo ride to the party, the more difficult it became to breathe. What was she even doing here? She didn't belong in this room, with these people.

 

Most of the guests who milled about the grand ballroom with their faces hidden behind Venetian-style masks would be flabbergasted to discover she was even in attendance. She'd thought she would feel secure at George's side, but she'd been woefully mistaken. She doubted she'd ever feel comfortable accompanying him anywhere again. And she hadn't forgotten for a moment about the diamond in her evening bag.

 

There was no way she was keeping it. No matter what George or her parents had to say about it. She was a twenty-eight-year-old woman. She could decide for herself whom she would marry. As much as she loved her family's chocolate boutique, loved bringing smiles to their customers with her special confections, loved the comforting predictability of knowing she could pour heavy cream over hot melted chocolate and end up with a perfect, glossy ganache, she couldn't sacrifice everything for it. Wouldn't. George was not the man for her. And after tonight, he never would be.

 

It was as easy as turning on the glittery heel of her stiletto and bolting for the door. George was deep in conversation with someone she didn't recognize, but she still didn't waste any time getting out of the ballroom before he could catch a glimpse of her escape. She held her breath and didn't release it until she'd pushed open one of the heavy oak doors that led to the outdoor terrace. To freedom, however temporary.

 

There was a chill in the night air, and a crisp breeze nipped at her bare shoulders. She remembered reading somewhere that the cold nights in Napa Valley were what made the area perfect for growing grapes. Her gaze drifted beyond the stone terrace, to the rows and rows of grapevines that followed the hillside in perfect symmetry. Their leaves fluttered in the wind above heavy clusters of red-and-purple fruit.

 

It was so serene, so quiet. Such a stark contrast to the dancing and busy hum of conversation inside. The pounding of Juliet's heart slowed. Her head began to clear, and she found she could breathe again. She took in a lungful of air, perfumed with the sweet scent of ripe grapes.

 

Behind her, the door to the ballroom opened, and a wave of music and laughter drifted out onto the terrace. She wasn't ready to go back. Not yet. And she certainly didn't want to get stuck making idle conversation with any of the other partygoers. So she tiptoed across the smooth tile floor and followed a wide stone staircase that spiraled downward, away from the house.

 

The steps fanned out and grew wider until they leveled out onto another smaller patio. Juliet got the distinct feeling she'd ventured somewhere she wasn't really supposed to be. The terrace had an intimate feeling to it, perhaps because it held nothing but two small chairs and a single café table, upon which rested two half-empty glasses of red wine.

 

She should leave. Whoever that wine belonged to would probably be coming back for it and would be less than happy to find her here. If they recognized her, they'd probably accuse her of spying. Or worse. Not that she'd blame them.

 

She turned around, fully intending to head back to the party, which now seemed like the lesser of two evils. But the sight of what lay beyond the terrace gave her pause. The sunflowers she'd only gotten a glimpse of when the limo pulled up to the vineyard were right there, close enough for her to touch. She took a tentative step forward, reached out and stroked a thick green stem with the tips of her fingers. It was soft to the touch, covered with a faint white fuzz that reminded her of the velvety smoothness of her dog Cocoa's ear. Up close, the flowers were even more spectacular than she'd imagined. The fat gold blooms loomed high above her head, and for an insane moment, Juliet had the urge to kick off her shoes and disappear among them.

 

Why not? George would never think to look for her here.

 

She slid her feet out of her stilettos and stepped off the tile floor onto the cool, damp earth. A chill coursed through her, but she didn't consider turning back. Not for a moment. She wrapped her arms around her waist and took another step. It was crazy, but wading barefoot through the dirt in a ball gown made her feel better somehow. The numbness that had come over her during the awful limo ride began to slip away. She felt alive again. Almost.

 

She pushed a leaf as big as the palm of her hand aside and stepped through the row of sunflowers. Her toes sank deeper in the soil, and she found herself among the intricate rows of grapevines. The vines were heavy with fruit. Thick bunches of grapes hung about waist high, such a deep purple that they appeared almost black in the twilight. And they smelled divine. She closed her eyes and took a deep, intoxicating breath.

 

Elizabeth took a deep breath, wielded the shears over the top of Bliss's head and snipped away a few wisps of downy puppy fuzz. She drew back to take a final look. "Perfect."

 

"An escapee from the party, I take it?"

 

Juliet's eyes flew open. In that first, panicked moment she thought she was hallucinating. Could heartbreak actually make a person crazy? Because there was a masked man standing among the grapevines.

 

Then she remembered—it was a masquerade ball.

 

"Something like that." Her voice trembled slightly from the shock of being discovered. She took another deep breath, this time to steady herself. Why was she so nervous? She couldn't see his face, but he couldn't see hers, either. She blinked up at the stranger from behind her mask. "And you?"

 

He echoed her words. "Something like that."

 

Heavy lidded eyes gazed at her from beyond the silver satin of his mask. They were blue. Startlingly so. She lowered her gaze and took in his dinner jacket, his crisp white shirt unbuttoned at the neck. And his tie, seductively loosened, the exact same shade of blue as his eyes.

 

"Are you a regular at this annual shindig?" His voice carried a hint of disdain, as though he weren't any happier than she was to be in attendance.

 

Who is he?

 

"Not exactly. You?"

 

"God, no." The corner of his mouth lifted in a sardonic grin.

 

Juliet's mood lightened ever so slightly. The mystery man wasn't a Mezzanotte. He couldn't be. This masquerade ball had been an annual thing for a decade. "I suppose I look crazy, wandering around out here in the dark. I just had to get out of there."

 

"No explanation needed. As hiding places go, this is a rather nice one." His smile grew more genuine.

 

He had a nice mouth—full lips, perfectly balanced by a strong, chiseled jaw lined with just a hint of stubble. Not that Juliet was particularly prone to evaluating such things. But with the mask covering the rest of his face, it was hard not to notice.

 

Maybe it was the moonlight. Maybe it was the sense of mystery evoked by their Venetian masks. Or maybe she was simply at loose ends after all that had transpired, but this secret conversation had an oddly intimate quality. She wondered if he felt it, too.

 

"For the record, you don't look the least bit crazy." Yes, he did feel it. She could tell.

 

She wiggled her bare toes and glanced down at her dress. The rhinestones scattered among the folds of deep blue tulle glittered in the starlight. "I don't?"

 

His gaze swept her up and down. "Far from it. In fact, you look quite lovely."

 

Butterfly wings fluttered in her belly. Why did a compliment from this total stranger carry so much weight? "Thank you."

 

"You're quite welcome." Behind his mask, he gave her a devilish wink. Then he plucked a grape from the closest vine and popped it in his mouth.

 

Nervous laughter bubbled up her throat. "Did you really just do that?"

 

"What?" He shrugged.

 

He had a muscular build. Juliet could see that much, even through the tuxedo jacket. "Steal a grape and eat it, right off the vine?"

 

"Surely they won't miss just one." He plucked another grape from the cluster. "Care for a taste? You don't know what you're missing."

 

His voice was low, rich and emphatically masculine. Had he purposely added that note of innuendo, or was she simply hearing things?

 

And why did she get the feeling that he was right, and that up until now she'd been completely clueless as to how much she'd been missing for a long, long time?

 

"I dare you." He took a step closer, holding the grape between his index finger and his thumb. In his eyes, Juliet saw an unmistakable challenge.

 

Before she could stop herself, she closed her eyes, tipped her face toward him and slowly opened her mouth.

 

What am I doing? This isn't me, flirting with a complete and total stranger, at the Mezzanottes' party, of all places.

 

But that's exactly what she was doing. And it felt good.

 

"Here, taste." His thumb brushed across her bottom lip in a feather-light touch.

 

Then the grape dropped into her mouth. She bit down, and an explosion of flavor burst on her tongue. Sweet, tangy and forbidden. It was the best thing she'd ever tasted. At the moment, even better than chocolate. She felt the last vestiges of her numbness slip away. In its place was a kaleidoscope of sensation—the taste of sun-ripened fruit, the sound of her full tulle skirt rustling in the night wind, the perfume of sunflower blossoms and the feel of the cold, damp earth between her toes.

 

"Well?" he asked, his voice barely a murmur in the darkness.

 

He must have come closer. She could sense his warmth on her face, across her bare shoulders. She leaned into it and felt as though she were soaking in the heat of the sun after an unbearably long winter. "Delicious doesn't even begin to describe it."

 

She opened her eyes.

 

He stood a whisper away. His proximity sent a ripple of awareness dancing across her skin. She bit her lip and took in the sudden seriousness of his expression, the distinct look in his eyes she was surprised she could even recognize.

 

Desire.

 

It positively smouldered in his blue eyes. George had never come close to looking at her like that. No one had. Not with this kind of intensity. To think she'd spent her entire life on this earth without a man ever looking at her like he wanted to devour her was almost inconceivable. And sad. Maybe she needed to start spending less time in the kitchen making chocolate and more time with people. Specifically, people without the last name Arabella.

 

 

Now, however, was not the proper moment to re-examine her priorities. He was right there, his predatory gaze sliding over her, as though he was aware of her on some unparalleled level.

 

How could this be happening? She was a mess. A barefoot, lost mess. And he was a total stranger.

 

She swallowed. He might be a stranger, but right now he was looking at her as though he knew exactly who she was. And that look made her...

 

Breathless.

 

This was it. This was what had been missing for so long. Maybe she'd even been running from it. Was it possible that her passion for her work had become tangled up with her sense of duty to her family's chocolate boutique to the exclusion of everything else? Had she really come that close to losing herself?

 

He took a step nearer. He didn't make a move to touch her, but somehow Juliet knew exactly what his hands would feel like on her waist, her shoulders, sliding through her hair. Exquisite.

 

The way she saw it, she had two choices—she could either go back to the party and be the dutiful Arabella daughter, or she could stay right here and, even if only for a moment, finally know what it felt like to be wanted by someone with no ulterior motive, who didn't even know her last name. Someone who just wanted her.

 

Her heart thundered beneath the sparkling bodice of her ball gown. And suddenly, walking away was no longer an option.

 

Before she could change her mind, she lifted her hand, wrapped her fingers firmly around his tie and yanked. Then she kissed him. Hard. With the confidence of a woman who acted this way all the time.

 

It was a beautiful thing, that kiss. The thrill of it sparked a memory from long ago of the very first time a boy's lips had touched hers.

 

His hands found her face, tipped it back so his lips came down on hers instead of the other way around. He kissed her with purpose, as though he was dying of thirst and she was a pool of glistening water. And she found she was no longer capable of coherent thought. Everything slipped away—the limo ride, the party, even that elusive memory of her first kiss.

 

There at the Mezzanotte Masquerade Ball, Juliet Arabella was swept off her feet by a man whose name she didn't even know, carried away on a wild grape-scented river of kisses, sweeter and more decadent than any chocolate she'd ever tasted.

 

TERI'S BOOKS