With Valentino caressing her body, Louboutin gracing her feet and Bulgari glittering from her ears, neck and wrists, Ana strode into the grand ballroom of the Totally Five Star Chamonix. The envy and admiration in the eyes of all who turned to gaze at her were almost palpable, despite the other women wearing couture of the same caliber.
Under the arching intricately veneered wood ceiling, Ana waded through the throng, eyes sharp, head held high. The fine fabric of her deep-red gown swished decadently around her legs as she moved. Though it was nearing Christmas, she had chosen a dress that left her arms, shoulders and most of her back bare. The anxiety and excitement of simply being there were enough to blast any and all discomfort away.
It had been a long time since she’d been in any room dressed as she was. Even longer since she’d been in a room with people who exuded this much wealth. Ana could almost smell it in the air. But then she’d always had a good nose when it came to finding money.
She had to take a moment, however, to just take in the amazing ballroom. She didn’t know where to look first. From the gleaming floor to the vaulted ceiling, complicated designs were played out with inlaid wood. Plush red-velvet curtains tied back with braids of gold decorated the massive multi-paned windows. Three golden chandeliers lit the room from above while man-sized floor candelabras provided pools of light strategically around the room.
It was as if she’d walked into a fairy tale.
As calm and nonchalant as she might have appeared, Ana had already started scanning the gloriously opulent room the instant the doors parted, automatically appraising and separating the genuine from the fake. Even with the number of imitations she saw, there was enough real glitter to cause her knees to weaken a little.
Her pulse sped up to a gallop and her palms grew slick. It wasn’t fear. It wasn’t that she felt out of her depth. It was the adrenaline. The excitement coursed through her. Something that hadn’t happened in a very long time.
Ana clamped down on her impulse to liberate a few of the glittering beauties as she walked past.
“Anastasia? Is that you?”
The lilting Irish voice drew her attention. As did the use of the name of a long dormant identity.
Ana put on a big smile and turned on her heel to face the willowy brunette gaping at her in delighted amazement. “Ciara, how lovely to see you.”
“I’m astonished to see you. You haven’t been out and about in far too long.” Ciara grasped Ana by the shoulders and air-kissed her, bringing with her a cloud of perfume that reminded Ana of exotic night-blooming flowers. “We all thought you’d dropped off the earth.”
In a way, she had. Not that she was about to share the reason with anyone. “I’ve been busy. You know what it’s like when you’re on the charity circuit.”
“But I haven’t seen you at any of the events. We were really beginning to wonder.” Curiosity and speculation were clear in her big blue eyes as she swept her gaze over Ana again. It was just like her to take in every detail in order to better relay the meeting later to the ‘we’ she’d mentioned. The close-knit group of women who used them as much to gather gossip as to help.
They were obviously very concerned about her disappearance since no one called or ever bothered to even email her. There hadn’t been so much as a text. Not that it mattered. If they had approached her, it would have only been to sate their curiosity more than any true concern about her well-being.
It made her glad that this world wasn’t the one she truly belonged in.
Ana shrugged. “I’ve been working behind the scenes.” As if that explained everything.
Ciara nodded sagely. “I see. Tired of the limelight?”
“You could say that.” Ana swept her gaze around the room. “So who’s all here?”
The tall brunette linked her arm with Ana’s and started a slow promenade into the crowd. “Everyone who’s anyone, darling. It’s the Winter Ball, and no one misses it.”
She vaguely wondered what the crowd thought of her having missed the last two. The extravagant affair happened every year, acting like a homing beacon for the rich and famous who had time and money to splash out from Christmas Eve to New Year’s Day.
It had also become a smorgasbord for the discerning singles looking for that special, very wealthy someone.
Ana made sure her smile was predatory as she took in the attendees. “That, I gathered. Anyone new and noteworthy?” Those would be the ones Ana needed to know about.
Ciara’s tinkling laugh drew gazes from around them. “On the prowl?”
“I might be.” Ana could only imagine her reaction if she knew the truth.
A knowing smile on her face, Ciara nodded. “I should have known. You wouldn’t have shown up looking so fabulous in a dress like that without an ulterior motive. Unless it’s to make the old biddies choke on their tongues.”
She turned Ana around and pointed into the crowd at a group that were listening avidly to a story being told by a rather animated man whose stomach rolled and bounced with every wave of his arms.
“That’s JJ or AJ… or something.” Ciara waved away his last name as if it meant nothing. “Some upstart from Texas. More money than God, but less personality than a gnat. Says he’s going to revolutionize…something. To be honest, I stopped listening about three seconds into the conversation. The halitosis…” She groaned. “He’s no one’s type. Moving on…”
Ciara scanned the room with her vivid blue eyes until they landed on her next target. She nodded at the tall, leggy blonde who could have passed for a supermodel. “That’s Arabella Ignatius. She’s the daughter of Hendrik Ignatius, the Norwegian industrialist. She’s just come into her trust and is spending it as fast as she can. Rumor has it most of it is going up her nose while the rest is wasted on a string of men and trinkets for them. And when I say trinkets, I’m talking about cars, plastic surgery and holidays abroad.”
Lovely. A blowhard and a girl who thought love could be bought. Ana had no interest in either of them. They weren’t who she was here for. “I can’t say I’m looking forward to meeting them.”
“Then don’t. There are a few more.” She pointed at a group of young men deep in conversation. “Some new pups with even newer money.” Then she steered her to look at another group swilling champagne. “And the usual penniless aristos playacting as if they’ve still got a few coins left.”
She paused in her sweep of the room and a smirk spread over her lips. “There’s the mysterious Mr. Cabral who, between you and me, stinks of cartel money.” She jerked her head toward a swarthy man with a roguish smile who had a veritable harem surrounding him. “If you want to take a run at him, you’d better get a head start to get through that.”
Ana definitely took note of him, not because of his looks, but because of the vibe she got from him. He was dangerous.
She averted her gaze before he could sense her attention on him.
“Oh! And over there!” Ciara turned Ana around and pointed into the crowd at a tall, broad and darkly handsome man. “That’s Armand Cassells. He’s that famous chef from the Caribbean, if you remember. He’s taken over as director of dining and entertainment for the Totally Five Star. I think that’s the mighty Claudia Bauer with him now.”
Everyone knew who Claudia Bauer was. The dragon guarding the gates to the CEO of Totally Five Star Hotels himself, James Conroy III. If anyone wanted to see him, they had to get through her first. Ana vaguely wondered if the CEO was making an appearance for the ball this year.
“And I have to introduce you to my date.” Ciara grinned as she searched the room. “He’s gone off to get drinks. I think you’ll like him. You’re into the tall, dark and handsome types, aren’t you?”
And there was the catty Ciara Ana remembered. The one who loved to gloat and lord her prizes over everyone else.
Ana shrugged. She might have been into the tall, dark and handsome type of man before, but she was no longer interested in wasting time with any. She had found the love of her life once and had lost him far too soon. No one would replace him.
Her heart throbbed as she thought back to the gorgeous, romantic man and the blissful few months they’d had together before tragedy struck. She hated to remember it, hated that it had happened, but she had to remember that it had all turned out okay.
Ciara’s voice tore through her morose thoughts.
“Are you all right?” Ciara’s smug expression turned into concern. “You look as if you’re going to be ill.”
“I’m fine.” Swallowing the emotions, Ana patted her friend’s arm. The pain that came from remembering had lessened over the past couple of years, but she doubted it would ever go away.
“If you’re sure.” She gave her one last look before returning her gaze to the crowd. “He’s quite wealthy on top of being drop-dead gorgeous. Wickedly smart, as well.”
Clenching her teeth, Ana mustered the strength to meet Ciara’s latest fling then she needed to get moving. A smile, a few pleasantries, then she was done. The sooner she could get away, the sooner she could get out of there and back to her quiet life.
“Ciara, there you are.”
The man who approached certainly was tall, dark and handsome but there was something about him that came across as less than refined. The smarmy glint in his eyes, as they lingered on her breasts and exposed skin, made Ana want to take a shower.
“Estefan, I’d like to introduce you to Countess Anastasia Deveaux. Ana, this is my Estefan.”
He took her hand and brushed his lips over her knuckles. Ana made a mental note to bathe it in hand sanitizer.
“Estefan Rocha. It is always a pleasure to meet one of Ciara’s friends. Especially one so beautiful.”
Ana nodded. “Charmed.” She couldn’t be less so. Ana didn’t recognize his name. He was more than likely the typical playboy type who showed up to occasions like this in hopes of landing a wealthy socialite like Ciara.
The kind of man she despised.
Unfortunately, Ciara seemed totally taken with him.
Ana smiled politely. It wasn’t any of her business.
He went on about something that Ana couldn’t have cared less about. Watching Ciara fawn over him like a lovesick puppy rolled her stomach so much that Ana was sure that her cheeks were beginning to tinge green.
She let her gaze wander every now and again, hoping the hint that she was losing interest would be picked up, but neither seemed to notice her inattention and continued to regale her with the tale of the time they were in Majorca and saw a turtle.
A goddamned turtle.
It was on the eighteenth or so time that she looked away that her gaze was snared by Cabral across the room. Even someone that made her skin crawl as he did was preferable to listening to Ciara simper and giggle any longer.
She gave him a coy half-smile that was enough to have him cleave a path across the room toward her.
He was good-looking, but he had an aura of danger. Menace. The closer he got, the more Ana agreed with Ciara’s initial assessment. He held himself with smarmy self-confidence. That, coupled with the scar she detected on his neck that disappeared into the open collar of his shirt, told her this was a man who had known violence. Might have even incited it.
Ciara’s scandalized gasp when he swept in mid-sentence, took Ana’s hand and kissed it was loud enough to draw even more attention than he already had by abandoning his little circle of admirers.
“Diego Cabral.” He kissed her hand. “I apologize for intruding, but I couldn’t help myself. I can’t recall ever seeing you around before. Surely, I would have remembered one as beautiful as you.”
“This is Countess Anastasia Deveaux.” Ciara had puffed up with indignation at his overfamiliarity with Ana. “You will treat her with the proper respect.”
The title sparked more interest in Cabral’s dark eyes. “A countess. How fascinating. Come, you can tell me all about your undoubtedly exciting life over drinks.”
“Ana…” Ciara’s whisper had a warning tone to it.
“I’ll be fine. We must catch up again soon.” Ana linked her arm through the one Cabral offered. “Nice to meet you, Estefan.”
They were well out of earshot when her new companion broke the silence. “I hope you don’t mind me taking you away from your friends.”
Ana had to chuckle. “Not at all. I was losing interest in their inane travel stories. Anyway, I think I’ve found someone much more interesting.” She almost gagged saying the words, but she knew he would be more than likely to lead her to what she sought.
He led her farther into the crowd and waved over a waiter carrying a tray glittering with champagne flutes. Retrieving a couple, he handed her one, tapping the rim of his with hers as he did. “Salud.”
Ana kept the smile stiff on her lips as she took a tiny sip.
“So, a countess. I’m fascinated already.”
“I’m not that interesting, I assure you. Just your run-of-the-mill titled lady.”
He chuckled as he let his gaze wander over her. “Titled, perhaps, but run-of-the-mill? Never.”
If he only knew…
Ana listened to his banal chitchat. Most of it was boastful. All of it was about himself. She couldn’t imagine having to spend more than a few minutes with someone like him.
She caught glimpses of what was going on around them while he talked. Ana did her best not to make it too obvious, but when he launched into a tale about how he had blown a tire and had changed it by himself, Ana had reached her limit.
“So, Mr. Cabral, I can’t imagine I’m the most interesting person you’ve met at this party.”
He studied her with a calculating gaze. “Fishing for compliments, or are you truly interested?”
“Interested, of course. I’ve missed the past few events and am curious to see who’s popped up on the radar.”
Cabral nodded. “Keeping tabs on any upstarts—I love it. Very wise.” He swept his gaze around the room contemplatively. “You wouldn’t be worried by any of the young ones, I’m sure. None have any of your charm.”
Ana took a long, slow breath, wanting him to just get on with it. She disguised it with a sip from her drink.
“There are a couple of new faces I met earlier. The man was forgettable enough, but the woman… Beautiful, yes, but far too intellectual for my liking.”
Because, presumably, he preferred his women large-breasted and only smart enough to draw air regularly.
Ana forced a smile. “She sounds intriguing.”
“She’s duller than dust.” Cabral gazed at her critically. “You’re not seriously interested in talking to the woman.”
“Why wouldn’t I be?” Ana smirked when his face fell. It had finally dawned on him that she wasn’t as dim-witted as he’d hoped and he had little chance of bedding a countess that night. Ana smiled charmingly and placed a hand on his arm. “Please, introduce us?”
Muttering something under his breath, he led her through the crowd. It didn’t take long before it was clear that they were headed for a voluptuous redhead in a skin-tight golden gown.
She turned to smile in recognition at Cabral, nearly dislodging her barely captured breasts at the same time.
“Mr. Cabral! How nice to see you again.” She shook his hand before turning her gaze to Ana. “I don’t think we’ve met.”
“Christine Nowak, I’d like you to meet Countess Anastasia Deveaux.”
Her honey-colored eyes widened at the title. “A countess! How exciting! Should I bow or something?”
Ana shook her head. “It’s a pleasure.”
She toyed with a tendril of her fiery hair. “I’m just really excited to be here, you know? I’ve already met more millionaires and billionaires tonight than I thought existed on the planet. And so many models and heiresses. Whew!” Christine fanned her cheeks as she reined herself in. “This isn’t something I do on a regular basis. Obviously.”
“Oh?” Ana leaned in. “What is it that you do?”
A proud smile lit up her face. “I’m a gemologist.”
Ana smiled in earnest for the first time that night. “How fascinating. Gems are among some of my favorite things.”
Cabral laughed gruffly. “Two women who love sparkling gemstones. Never would have expected that.”
“You know what they say about women and diamonds,” Ana purred. She ran her fingers over the glittering specimens at her neck. “So, Christine, what brings you out tonight? I assume it must be a special occasion since it’s not something you do very often.”
Ana hadn’t thought it possible, but the woman’s face lit up even more.
“I’m here for the exhibition. I’m representing Claiborne Diamonds.”
“How exciting.” Ana’s palms grew slick at the thought of all the gems simply waiting to be plucked—but she had to focus. “You’ll have to show me around the exhibits. An expert eye like yours would be invaluable.”
“Of course! I would be honored to.” Christine bounced a little, nearly vaulting her unruly chest out of the bodice of her dress. Cabral definitely seemed more interested in her now. “I do have a date. He’s gone off somewhere getting us drinks, but I’m sure he won’t mind if you join us.” She turned to Cabral, obviously thinking he was Ana’s date.
“The more the merrier, I always say.” The man next to her obviously had more than the exhibition in mind.
Ana ignored him, shrugging his arm off her when he went to wind it around her shoulders. “You don’t have to accompany us, Mr. Cabral. I’m sure you have other people you have to see before the night ends. Besides, it will be rather boring with us gushing over jewelry.”
“Not at all. It might give me some ideas on what to get as a gift for my next special someone.” He winked almost lasciviously.
As if the hint of the possibility of him buying her something outrageously expensive would turn her head. If he knew the worth of the gems she had held in her hands in her lifetime, his head would spin.
Ana shrugged. “Suit yourself.” She linked her arm through Christine’s—who had been watching, enraptured by the interplay—and started walking. “Shall we take a look, then?”
“But my date…”
“Will find you,” Ana cooed. “A gorgeous woman like you stands out. If he’s smart, he’ll make it back before someone else steps into his place.”
Christine giggled, turning a bright shade of pink at the blatant flattery. “I hardly stand out. Not compared to you.”
Was she kidding? Her breasts alone were causing eyes to bug all around them. “Oh, you do. That hair. That dress. Anyone who lets you think that you belong in the background is a fool.”
Cabral, now forgotten, trailed behind like a lost puppy as they wandered through the crowd into an anteroom and soon disappeared into the crowd.
Not that Ana cared.
Focused now on the job, Ana’s attention went straight to the glass boxes of various sizes that stood on lit pedestals displaying their treasures.
Ana’s pulse roared in her ears. A rainbow of gems in a myriad of sizes winked teasingly at her from their displays, some mounted in dazzling settings, others loose and begging her to snatch them up. Diamonds sparkled icily. Grass-green emeralds, warm amethysts, cool sapphires and red-hot rubies winked provocatively from their prisons. Uncut. Cut into glittering shapes. Necklaces. Rings. Earrings. Tiaras. Even belly chains and anklets. Everything imaginable was there to tempt and tease. It was a stunning display and almost too much for Ana’s senses to handle.
Overloaded, she dumbly let Christine lead her to the closest display, though she barely heard a thing the woman said as she described the gems and shared little anecdotes about them.
All of Ana’s senses were attuned to what was enclosed on the other side of the glass. Her first instinct was to look for vulnerabilities, security flaws…
She snapped herself out of it and turned her focus to the woman still prattling on about carats and inclusions, nothing that Ana couldn’t already see herself. But she let Christine talk. In her experience, the more people talked, the more relaxed and confident they became. And that was exactly what Ana wanted to happen so she could pump her for more information.
“…and that’s how they found this beauty.” Christine pointed at the emerald the size of both Ana’s fists pressed together.
“How fascinating.” There wasn’t a gem in the room that Ana didn’t already know every detail about, thanks to the boasting the event planners had done online. Color, weight, clarity, even the sponsors of each display had been gleefully shared. All it had taken was a few minutes of reading on the flight over. But, it had all been superfluous information in her mind.
What she was looking for was one diamond in particular… Where was it?
“Are you interested in certain gems? I’m sure there’s something here that will capture your fancy. ” Christine smiled expectantly.
Ana pretended to think about it a moment. “I’m into diamonds. The bigger the better.”
Christine’s grin grew. “Who doesn’t think that?” She winked. “I do believe I know of one that will stun you. Follow me.”
She led Ana through the thick crowd of people toward a display case near the center of the room.
Now that was more like it. Ana stepped as close as she could without pressing her nose against the glass. “It’s incredible.”
“It is.” Christine smiled almost proudly as she gazed at it. “Three hundred carats, nearly flawless, almost completely colorless…” She sighed wistfully.
“What I could do with that.” Ana knew that she seemed as though she was looking at the gem covetously, and she was, up to a point, but, in truth, she was assessing the diamond, its case and the security warding it.
“It’s big enough to do just about anything with, but I think cutting it would be such a waste. Something that magnificent would need to stay intact.”
“It would make a stellar knuckle duster.”
Christine chortled gleefully. “That it would.”
The redhead seemed quite happy to let Ana stand and stare and even joined her in companionable silence. Their quiet regard of the stone was interrupted too soon.
“Christine, I thought I would find you here.”
The confident, urbane British-accented voice came from behind them. For a moment, Ana thought she had imagined the voice that still haunted her dreams. But when she turned, she wondered if she might be dreaming after all.
Ciara hadn’t been lying when she said her type was tall, dark and handsome. This man fit the description.
The world turned into a fuzzy haze while the noise filtered away to a droning hum, as if her mind barely had the capacity to focus on the man and the powerful impact simply seeing him again had on her. And the memories that came flooding back when their gazes met.
There was no doubt about who he was. Rhys was still tall and rangy, but his dark hair was shorter, the clipped accent was a far cry from the husky whispers she could recall and he was in a crisp tuxedo rather than a ratty T-shirt and jeans, but it was definitely the man she remembered. Had longed for. Dreamed about.
She reached out to touch him. Needing to determine that this wasn’t a hallucination.
The man she loved. A man she’d seen die…
Rhys’ smile faltered as did his feet when he saw her, but he quickly regained his equilibrium and handed his drink to Christine with a smile before casually winding his arm around her waist. The stunned expression on Ana’s beautiful face as her arm dropped to her side mirrored what clawed at his insides.
Her shock was quickly hidden behind a hard, icy façade. He wasn’t prepared for how quickly she seemed able to shutter herself off to him. Not when he wanted—expected—to see at least a little joy at seeing him again.
Rhys wasn’t quite able to do the same, at least not inwardly. As he kept the polite smile on his face, his hands itched to touch the one whom he’d been dreaming about seeing again for two seemingly endless years. God, she was still as beautiful as he remembered. Curvy, long-limbed, sloe-eyed and tumbling waves of chestnut hair all put together in a combination that made his mouth water and other parts of his anatomy throb.
What was she doing here? And showing enough skin to turn the head of more than one man. Rhys fought back the impulse to cover her with his jacket…as well as run his hands—his mouth—over every inch of flesh that was exposed.
Christine said something and touched his arm to gain his attention. “Richard, I’d like you to meet Countess Anastasia Deveaux. I was just giving her a guided tour of the exhibition.”
Ana smiled tightly at him, ignoring his outstretched hand. If the angry glint in her eyes had anything to say about things, she wasn’t pleased to see him. In fact, she looked as though she was done having anything to do with him and wanted to get as far away as possible.
“Charmed to meet you, Richard.”
The way she practically snarled the name might as well have been an ice pick to the gut. He continued to smile, however. “I don’t think I’ve ever met a countess before.”
And he still hadn’t. Rhys was sure of that much. The way she closed herself off so quickly and the fact that Ana hadn’t even flinched when Christine used his alias led him to think that there was a lot more to her than she had let on during their all too brief romance.
She looked around expectantly, causing Rhys’ gut to tighten in response.
Was she here with someone else? Had she found someone else? Was that so farfetched? Ana was a beautiful, vibrant woman. Who in their right mind would give up the chance to be with her?
And that body…
He was well aware that he’d been staring too long and too hard. It was impossible not to. The combination of her curves and that dress were enough to have his blood flowing south. Rhys had to forcibly stop himself from reaching out and touching skin that he knew would be silky-soft under his hand. Or kissing those lips…
How could she walk in there looking like that, wearing that dress, and expect every man in the room with eyes not to notice her?
Did she dress that way for a man? Was she here to snare one? Or was that what her new man liked? To flaunt her like some trophy? Where was the bastard? Rhys itched to take him down a peg or two.
Still staring daggers at him, Ana sniffed disdainfully. “It was nice talking to you, Christine.” She slid her icy gaze to him. “Richard.”
As if the cold growl was any way to say goodbye. Rhys would make sure that they would see each other again. And soon. “It was my most sincere pleasure meeting you, Countess.”
She barely spared him a parting glance before turning and disappearing into the crowd.
“Do you know her?” Christine asked.
Rhys continued to stare at the spot where she had melted into the throng. “I really don’t.”
Robotically making her way through the room, Ana kept her back ramrod straight in an attempt to keep from falling over. Rhys…Richard…whoever he was…was alive and well and apparently dating scientists and attending parties as if nothing had happened.
He remembered her clearly as well as she did him. Ana had seen it in his eyes. So what was he playing at?
Head reeling, she looked for somewhere quiet so she could gather her wits—or throw up. Not much chance of either in the ballroom with an eponymous ball in full swing. Yet the thought of going back up to her room didn’t hold appeal.
The need to do what she was meant to and get out of there was infinitely more insistent now.
What was he? A con? A cop? More importantly, who was he? He was clearly going by an alias at this party. Or did that mean he had lied to her about who he was before? Was everything that had happened between them a lie? But the most important question was would he be a problem?
Ana shoved aside the emotions threatening to swamp her. Sadness, betrayal…they were all swiftly locked away deep inside. She would have time to deal with them later.
At least Ana hoped she would have that luxury.
She couldn’t afford anything to derail her. Not this time. There was too much at stake.
Taking a moment to center herself, Ana turned her gaze back to the room and the people filling it.
Not that she took anything in. Her head reeled with what had just happened. Rhys? Rhys was alive and here? How could that be? What had happened to him? Why hadn’t he tried to contact her? Had he faked his own death to get away from her? Had things been getting too serious too quickly for him? Or had she been getting too close to finding out the truth about him?
It was all so crazy, but not as mind-boggling as him coming back to life.
It was too much to deal with and she didn’t have the indulgence of time. Ana shoved all the questions deep down with the roiling emotions. Once she was out of there, she could break down or whatever she needed to get over it. But right now, it was imperative to keep her head in the game.
Taking a deep breath, Ana straightened her shoulders and fixed a tranquil expression on her face. She knew what she was after and where to find it. She merely had to get it, and this whole thing could be put behind her.
Then she could get on with her life once more.