The Colliers’ Winter Ball was considered one of the most exciting events of the winter season. It was always held a few weeks before Christmas, and the Colliers’ gifts to their guests were always the guests themselves. No one ever knew the guest list or the number attending. What one could count on, though, was a broad selection of not just the political and social elite but also those of the entertainment industry.
Landra Collier was known for her wide selection of interests and friends, and it was rumored there were very few immune to her charm. Or to her invitations.
Margot Hampstead, wife to the newly elected Senator Davis Allen Hampstead, was one of the few, her daughter, Alyssa, thought. Margot’s unexpected acceptance at the last minute had surprised not just her husband but her daughter as well. Alyssa hadn’t begged her mother to accept the invitation. She’d been certain it wasn’t accepted when she’d seen it in her mother’s wastebasket. The regret she’d felt had been impossible to hide. And Margot hadn’t been happy with her. Weeks later, when she’d told Alyssa to begin preparations to attend the event, Alyssa had been so excited she’d actually hugged her mother before racing upstairs to her room to do just that.
Slipping through a set of French doors leading from the huge oval ballroom to the gardens, Alyssa felt the night’s excitement building. Rumored to hold exquisite works of holiday art tucked within grottos and sheltered arbors, the gardens were one of the main reasons she’d wanted so desperately to attend.
Alyssa had waited all year to attend this one event. She was eighteen, no longer excluded from the Colliers’ parties, and she had already picked out the ball gown she was determined to wear, just in case her mother decided to attend.
The long cashmere gown was such a pale, pale blue that in certain lights it could be mistaken for white. Alyssa hoped few would catch a glimpse of her within the heavy snow that had begun falling over the softly lit mystery of the enchanting wonderland Landra was said to have created this year.
The heated brick walk instantly melted the fluff while all around it several inches of the snow glistened on the ground and clung to the bare branches and evergreens that spread out from the path.
Stepping cautiously along the damp walk, Alyssa made her way as quickly as possible into the shadowed garden, determined to find as many of the sheltered treasures as possible. She’d waited years to see the gardens. And they were just as beautiful, just as mysterious and enchanting, as she’d heard they were.
An ice castle nearly eight feet tall was the first treasure to be found. The soft white lights tucked in the sculptured firs to each side of it reflected off the ice and the shadowed forms of a Christmas tree and presents lightly colored at one window.
An ice door was partially open, and before it stood four ice carolers in front of the ice couple standing at the door, their faces lifted in joy.
It was so beautiful. The workmanship that had gone into it was so precise and detailed, the artistry in no doubt. It was said Landra’s nephews and her son did many of the carvings each year, though the nephews’ names were never revealed. And Landra had a lot of nephews, Alyssa had heard.
Continuing along the brick path, she found an ice angel next to a bed of straw, and on it lay a beautiful carved babe. Farther along the path blocks of ice carved to resembled gaily wrapped presents sat beneath a fir tree along with an ice-carved teddy bear. There were marble figures of children preparing to open presents, a large metal unicorn with a big red bow tied at the base of his horn.
A large wooden Santa painted in all his red and white finery knelt before a gas fire beneath a sheltered arbor where he lifted presents from his sack. A reindeer waited at his side.
Moving deeper into the grotto, Alyssa took a much narrower path that led away from the main walk. The path itself wasn’t as well lit, but a flicker of light along a dark curve filled with thick evergreens drew her attention. The hidden, the mysterious, the rumors and scandalous whispers of some of the more erotic artwork pulled Alyssa into the darker areas.
She found out why. Wide-eyed and curious despite her astonishment, Alyssa found a sculpture that held her spellbound, certain her imagination was playing tricks on her as she saw two male forms embracing a female, her long hair flowing around them.
It was an incredibly sensual piece of ice art, or a rather strange form due to a bit of melting. Alyssa couldn’t be completely certain. But it made her heart beat faster at the perceived vision before she drew away and continued deeper into the gardens.
All around her heavy flakes of snow fell gathering higher alongside the path. It held to branches and fir trees, piled atop glittering lights, and gave them a fractured, otherworldly look. The fantasyland atmosphere began to soften and ease a tension she hadn’t known she’d possessed until she felt it dissipate.
She wanted to become a part of the magic and erotic sensuality unfolding around her forever. She wanted to find a way to hold it just as it was, never allow it to melt. Never allow it to be taken from sight.
Lifting her face to the falling fluff, eyes closing, she inhaled the cold air, feeling it settle along her bare shoulders where the cashmere dress draped away from the curves.
She belonged here, she thought dreamily. Amid the rich treasure trove of lovingly carved ice and fantasy dreams. Here, where sensual art could be found tucked in the most unlikely of places, deep within the snow-filled night and the fantasies she dared not reveal were being brought to life inside her.
It was that damned carving of the two males with their female lover, she thought with a dreamy smile. How secure would that feel? How completely surrounded with sensuality and eroticism it would have to be. And she would never know, she told herself in amusement as she found another of the sensual poses. One of a reclining female, resting on her elbows, head tipped back, her back arched to lift her breasts closer to the male at one side of her, while the one kissing her cupped one breast as though offering it to his partner.
Wow. Alyssa was going to begin sweating soon. She was amazed the ice wasn’t melting from the sensuality of the carving itself.
Landra’s nephews had placed the explicit art pieces in an area certain not to be walked through as often. She might have thought there was nothing farther along the way if the snow hadn’t picked up a shimmer of light farther ahead.
As she moved quietly along the path a faint shiver caught her, the chill of the snow reaching past her fascination. Interspersed among the carvings here and there were the arbors with their gas fireplaces and enclosed padded seats. That was what she needed to find; otherwise she’d have to return to the ballroom or risk turning into a block of ice herself.
Rounding a bend in the brick walkway, she sighted one of the enclosed shelters and hurried toward it. The sound of whispers took a moment to register, though. Not until she was at the entrance of the arbor did she come to a stop, certain she wasn’t seeing what she was seeing.
Just as she tried to step back, the female pressed between the two tall males gave an outraged gasp.
“How dare you!” she exclaimed.
“Because you asked?” Dark, amused laughter spilled into the night along with the faint foreign accent.
“You obviously misunderstood.” The false outrage was familiar, Alyssa thought, peeking around the evergreen branches that grew slightly over the walk.
Ah yes. Millicent Raye. She should have recognized the other woman’s voice instantly. Recently divorced and looking for her next wealthy meal ticket, the socialite was known for her promiscuity as well as her displays of innocence.
The divorcée rushed from the shelter without attempting to see who had glimpsed her in the rather scandalous position. Alyssa had no doubt the other woman hadn’t seen enough of her to know who she was. Millicent was too concerned with the innocent act and escaping the fact that she had been caught.
“You can come out now.” The Texas accent was a lazy, amused drawl.
“I wasn’t hiding.” Alyssa stepped from the cover of the branches. “I was merely giving you a chance to escape as well before I borrow the warmth of that fire.” She nodded to the gas flames flickering over fake logs behind them.
“Escape? From an elf?” the darker of the two, the Texan, questioned her curiously, the sound of his voice like a whisper of velvet. “Where are the rest of your kind, little thing?”
“Ha-ha. Aren’t I so very amused,” she stated, stepping slowly toward them and into the arbor. Some days it just sucked being short. Even in heels, she still didn’t gain the height she was trying for. Her delicate build and short stature did very little to convince anyone that she wasn’t a pushover.
She’d put up with these two for a moment, though, she decided, amused by them. They were interesting. She liked interesting people. Her mother called it her reckless streak, the habit her daughter had of finding the very people a parent didn’t want their child involved with, such as the southern belle with an affinity for knives.
With a rather teasing grin she pushed between them, then stepped to the fire before facing them again.
They were rather handsome as well, she thought. Both about six two or so. The Texan with his pitch-black hair and deep blue eyes, his features chiseled with a rough-hewn appearance and infused with arrogance. The other, with the Spanish accent, had surprisingly dark blond hair that lay long against the back of his tuxedo collar, black eyes, with tempered aristocratic features. There was nothing soft about either man. They were tall, muscular, and far too masculine.
“That isn’t an elf, Cousin.” The faintly foreign accent stroked over her senses like a verbal caress. It was damned freaky how much her entire body seemed to like their voices. “She’s not quite tall enough, I don’t believe. Perhaps a wingless fairy of some sort?”
Alyssa gave them a forgiving smile. “You should try for more originality, gentlemen. The elf and fairy jokes were boring by age ten. Would you like to try again?”
* * *
She was completely enchanting.
Shane Connor was mesmerized and he fully admitted it. For the first time since he’d realized how exceptional females were, there was one he simply couldn’t imagine taking his eyes from or allowing out of his life.
The night had begun as a simple drop from the lovely divorcée, a particularly adept agent with a talent for acquiring information others couldn’t. The flash drive with all the information a particular Middle Eastern diplomat carried on his laptop now rested safely in Shane’s pocket where Milly had deposited it as she was pressed between them.
“On second thought,” he drawled to his cousin, wondering if he sounded as shell-shocked as he felt. “Perhaps not an elf or wingless fairy, ’Bastian. I believe we may have within our sights the sweetest of all fairy creatures. A rare, mesmerizing siren. One that comes out to play in the snow rather than the seas.”
Damn, he was getting as good at the poetic descriptions as his cousin.
“Can we keep her?” Sebastian’s voice was low and filled with a dark, pulsing hunger Shane could feel invading his own body. “Hurry, grab her. We’ll hide her in our pocket and slip out with her.”
“Goofy.” She laughed, believing Sebastian’s demand to be a joke.
Damn, there was nothing more Shane wanted to do than run away with her right now. The urge was so damned strange he made himself ignore it. Kidnapping came with penalties, he’d heard. His bosses, not to mention his family, wouldn’t like that.
“Sadly,” she answered for him, her gaze sparkling with the laughter still lingering on her lips. “No. I fear the dark queen would have far too much to say about that one.” There was a hint of regret in her tone, though. As though she were as fascinated as they were.
“We’ll slay her,” Sebastian promised instantly, but Shane was watching her eyes, and he had a feeling she wasn’t talking about some imagined fantasy figure.
“Unfortunately, I’m still rather fond of her.” The impish little thing gave them a rueful smile. “Too bad it was here you found me. Perhaps, in another lifetime where the rules of this land no longer exist.” She gave a little shrug.
Where the rules of her world didn’t exist, Shane thought as denial raged through him. Yet the thought of letting her go before he knew her, before he could claim her, clear to her soul, had his entire body tight with denial.
“These rules don’t exist in every land,” Sebastian assured her then, stepping closer until he could lean against the post supporting the arbor, less than a foot from her. “We could find a land where the rules don’t apply, little siren.”
She flicked him a sideways glance and a small, knowing smile. “Ah, dark knight,” she said softly. “The rules I live by apply in every land, I’m afraid.”
There was true regret in her soft gray eyes. Sebastian could see her curiosity as well as a hint of the sensuality that ran through her. Innocence marked her as well. Such innocence that even in the knowledge of the sexuality they’d turn loose in her, she appeared as pure and without artifice as the snow falling around them, insulating them.
She was … a treasure. The gown she wore lay like a caress from breast to hip before flowing down and away from her delicate frame. The color was indescribable. It wasn’t white, nor was it blue or gray. It shifted between the palest of those colors, though, as she moved and the light of the flames flickered behind her.
He wanted to touch her. Taste her.
His hands actually tingled at the thought of touching the silken flesh rising above the gown. And what lay beneath … He wanted nothing more than to taste, stroke, possess. She was a siren indeed, and her mysterious song was entrancing him …
And she was young, he realized. Eighteen perhaps, no younger. But definitely no more than twenty, and he’d wager his trust fund she had no more than one, perhaps two lovers.
“Rules were made to be broken,” Shane assured her. “And here in this fantasy, they can be hidden.” He stepped closer as well, moving to stand within inches of her, their warmth now surrounding her.
“As the lovely Ms. Raye was hidden?” she asked, but her breathing was faster, her voice filled with curiosity. And wariness.
“We were unaware Millicent wanted to be hidden,” Sebastian assured her. They enclosed her, their larger bodies blocking the doorway. “I dare you. Just a kiss. See if you can choose which of us you’d prefer.”
Alyssa felt a heavy lassitude settling over her senses as she looked up at the goof. He wasn’t so goofy now, though. He was dark, sensual, and she was dying to have them both kiss her.
It was positively indecent. Her mother would ship her off to a convent to make certain she never did anything so scandalous again. But she would know …
And a part of her knew, these men would probably find her.
“One kiss?” It was hard to breathe.
“Two,” the dark cowboy whispered from behind her. “One for him, one for me.”
“Just a kiss?” She had to be certain. “On the lips only.”
The wicked chuckle behind her was filled with sensual knowledge. “An intelligent siren. She’ll steal our hearts if we’re not careful.”
Black eyes stared into hers; mystery, secrets, wicked, carnal delights gleamed in the dark expanse. “Perhaps she’s already stolen mine,” he murmured, his lips lowering to hers.
She was a virgin, not a robot. Alyssa knew what sex was. Many of the young women she socialized with had been having sex for years. Many, with men far older than they. What they’d described as the perfect kiss had no resemblance to this.
This was dangerous. It should be outlawed.
Her arms wrapped around his neck as he eased her to him, lifting her from her feet and holding her secure as his lips slanted over hers and his tongue forged past them taste hers.
Hot forays past her lips, little licks, tempting, teasing thrusts into her mouth as he dissolved her common sense with no more than the kiss he was taking.
Behind her, her Cowboy brushed his cheek lightly against her bare shoulder, nipped, flicked his tongue teasingly against her flesh. Those kisses roved from her neck to her shoulders, along her back, just beneath her nape, to the other side.
Pleasure was whipping through her senses, heat suffusing her flesh as a heightened sensitivity began building through her body. Every cell she possessed seemed to be demanding this touch.
This kiss. Everywhere.
Dazed, unbidden moans falling from her lips, she tried to follow as he eased back.
Lifting her heavy lashes, Alyssa stared up at him, shocked, her virginal senses pierced to the core.
Alyssa shuddered, suddenly not certain of the bargain she’d made. But her Cowboy didn’t give her a chance to object. His lips were more demanding but no less gentle. Holding her to him as her Spanish jokester slid one hand from her thigh to her rear, cupped the flesh of her buttock and breathed a kiss against her spine; her Cowboy kissed her with dark, heady hunger.
The pleasure built, whipped through her, around her, spiraling through her senses and leaving her weak, unresisting to whatever they demanded. To whatever they desired.
As that knowledge whispered through her, the kiss was broken and she found herself back on her feet, swaying as powerful hands steadied her and two strangers stared down at her with a carnal hunger she’d never imagined possible.
“Siren, you should go.” His accent thicker than before, the one behind her pressed his forehead to her shoulder. “Before we do something all of us might regret jumping into too quickly.”
Her common sense snapped back into place.
Wrong place, wrong time, wrong … something.
God, she hoped they didn’t expect her to choose one of them from those kisses alone, because it wasn’t happening.
Easing from him, her knees weak, lips tingling, she stared back at them, and she wished things were different.
“Perhaps, one day,” she murmured. “But not tonight. As much as I wish lives and rules were different. Besides, knowing the divorcée’s reputation, she’ll no doubt be awaiting you once you retire tonight.”
She didn’t like the thought of that. Sebastian watched her lashes fall over her incredibly soft gaze to hide the flash of jealousy, but it was there.
“Or perhaps we’ll be awaiting you in your room,” he suggested.
“Not tonight.” She shook her head and stepped from them.
Reaching the entrance to the arbor, she looked back, gave them a long, regretful glance before turning and drifting away as though she were no more than the fantasy they had accused her of being.
She disappeared amid the fall of snow and twinkling lights, the color of her gown hiding her amid the white blanket covering the gardens.
“I believe my heart may be broken,” Shane murmured. “The rejection is devastating.”
“Rejection? I don’t accept rejection, Shane. Not from her.” Moving from the arbor, Sebastian stepped into the snow, moving to follow her.
Shane shook his head. Sebastian was rarely a volatile person, but that young woman had somehow managed to reach inside them into a hunger they hadn’t known they were capable of, he guessed.
“She’s young, ’Bastian,” he commented, sliding his hands into the pockets of his tuxedo slacks as he caught up with his cousin. “Perhaps too young.”
“I’ll find out.” Sebastian shrugged. “I’m betting not. Hell, Shane, have you ever wanted to taste a woman’s flesh as badly as you wanted to taste hers?” The edge of frustration in his voice was as telling as the brisk pace he was setting to catch up with her.
“You’ll frighten her, ’Bastian,” he cautioned. “She’s too young, too innocent.”
“And far too curious,” Sebastian muttered. “You saw it as well as I. Young and innocent, yes. Frightened? Hell no, she wasn’t. There wasn’t an ounce of fear in her.”
As they passed the entrance to the gardens they watched her slip into the ballroom, turning to cast a final glance toward them. There was no fear of the meeting in the garden being revealed, no fear of drawing the ire of the dark queen. But as the light reflected fully on Alyssa’s face Shane reached out and drew his cousin to a halt.
“I know who she is,” he drawled quietly, satisfaction filling him as he stared at the brightly lit ballroom and the guests milling about.
“Who?” Sebastian’s tension was a tangible thing.
Hell, she had both of them off balance, almost uncertain of themselves. A rather odd feeling, Shane admitted.
“The dark queen is her mother. There’s only one person in that damned ballroom that such a title applies to—”
“Fuck. She’s Margot Hampstead’s daughter.” Sebastian’s tone was a hard grumble. “Alyssa.”
“And shall I tell you what Landra was discussing with Cousin Jeb earlier?” Shane grinned.
Landra often discussed property decisions with her son, since her husband’s death the year before.
“Come on, Shane, get to it,” Sebastian demanded impatiently.
“Our little siren is indeed eighteen as of this past fall. In May she’ll be heading to Barcelona for three months, and Landra offered the Hampsteads use of her seaside apartment for their daughter,” he informed his cousin.
“Barcelona.” Irritation filled Sebastian’s voice now. “And you think I’ll be able to wait until May?”
“She’ll be there for three months. Come on, ’Bastian, it’s going to take us that long to finish the job we’ve taken. If we wait, we’ll have the summer with her. Let’s get this finished and then we’ll meet her there,” Shane assured him.
Like Sebastian, Shane found the thought of waiting was hell, though.
“We’ll be waiting for her,” Sebastian growled. “And if we don’t leave quickly, Shane, all bets are off. It’s all I can do to stay the hell away from her now.”
Shane well understood how he felt.
“We’re losing it.” He chuckled as he clapped Sebastian on the back. “Come on, let’s go break into Landra’s private bar and get a nice, strong drink. We’re overworked, Cousin. Otherwise, a woman wouldn’t have our dicks in a twist like this.”
Shrugging his shoulders, Sebastian turned and followed his cousin along a narrower part of the walk that led around the ballroom to a private entrance into the rear of the main house.
Staying away from the ballroom was imperative. Staying the hell away from one innocent little siren was without question. Whether exhaustion, stress, too many drinks, or too much excess, she’d suddenly began to embody every fantasy they’d ever had individually, or combined, of a woman. And that was very dangerous.
Right now, it was too damned dangerous.
He didn’t want to leave her. For some reason, one Sebastian couldn’t make sense of, he didn’t want to leave the United States without her. He wanted to slip her away, kidnap her pretty ass, and take her with them now.
Hell, what had she done to him?
“I think a little distance at the moment would be a good thing,” Shane suggested. “Perhaps we should meet the divorcée in her room and expend a bit of the lust driving us both crazy.” He blew out a hard breath then. “Fuck that. I can wait.”
There was a complete lack of desire for any other woman now. There was only Alyssa. Far too delicate, too innocent, and hiding a vein of sensuality that would burn them alive once it was ignited, Sebastian sensed.
“I say we head to Spain in the morning then.” If he waited, Sebastian knew there would be no staying away from her.
Even now, he wanted nothing more than to stride into the ballroom and sweep her into his arms. He wouldn’t stop to dance, though. He’d carry her from the mansion and rush her straight to the limo, where he’d order the driver to take them to the airport and the private plane awaiting them.
“I feel mesmerized, Shane,” he admitted with a rueful smile and a hard shake of his head. “Perhaps ‘siren’ isn’t far from the truth.”
“You’re not by yourself, Cousin,” Shane admitted, his tone far too serious. “You are not by yourself.”
Five months? Waiting was going to be hell.