Cain Carpenter has it all—looks, money, a beautiful home, and a successful business. What he doesn’t have is someone to share it with, someone to love and who loves him in return.
In spite of his belief that if he kisses enough frogs he’ll eventually find the prince of his dreams, Cain’s search is proving far from simple. As owner and manager of The Peony, the town’s classiest restaurant, Cain doesn’t have much time for a social life. He’s tried all the usual avenues for meeting people, including a dating agency, and he’s about given up...
Until he accepts an invitation to a singles masquerade party and meets a masked man in an elaborate headdress of black feathers. The stranger invites Cain to dance, and from the instant they touch, Cain is positive he’s finally found that one special person.
Then the man’s cell rings. He answers, mutters something about an emergency and disappears. Cain doesn’t know if he’s left or if he’ll be coming back, and he starts to panic. The rules of the masquerade include no removal of masks and no exchange of names. If you can’t somehow figure out the identity of the person who sparked your interest, you lose. This is one time Cain doesn’t want to lose, but all he has to go on is that “Black Feathers” is a little taller and heavier than himself. Is it enough for him to track down the alluring stranger and discover who is hiding behind the mask?
...One of the guests, who was dressed as a pirate and standing right next to Cain, said, “I take it you’ve never been to one of these singles masquerades before tonight?”
Cain laughed. “I didn’t even know there were such things. I thought with a costume ball you’re supposed to try to figure out who the other people are, but at some point in the evening, everyone’s identity will be revealed. Is the not telling part something new?”
“No, I understand it’s the way these things first started. The whole point of a masquerade is to pose as something or someone you are not and this, in turn, creates the magical feeling of mystery and romance. In my opinion, any telling of names destroys the magic completely.”
“You’d rather be kept guessing?” Cain hazarded.
“Of course. And it’s almost certainly the reason why masquerade parties are gaining in popularity on the singles’ scene. It’s bad enough being footloose and fancy free, but attending those boring get-togethers where you sit around the host’s pool or living room and watch people hook up, then wonder if it’s just for tonight or forever, has definitely passed its sell-by date. These parties are a much better idea.”
“In what way? Say, you’d like to get to know someone better. It would be impossible if you don’t know their name.”
“Ah, but that’s where the mystery and romance comes in. You don’t know them, and they don’t know you, but think of all the fun you’ll have trying to figure out who the person was who caught your attention. Or perhaps it was you who caught theirs. Maybe you talked for a few moments, or even better, you danced together, but whatever happened, it was enough to set sparks flying or work up a little chemistry. You can even be a little outrageous if you wish. After all, who’s to know?”
“Oh right, thanks.” Cain hadn’t thought about the mystery angle; he’d been too concerned about opening his mouth and putting his foot in it. Now he realized it worked both ways. Both parties were at a disadvantage when it came to figuring out who said what to whom.
Just then, the band began to play another set. Cain felt someone touch his arm, and a voice said softly, “Would you care to dance?”
Something about the honey-on-velvet voice, which he thought might be a man’s but he wasn’t one hundred percent sure, caught Cain by surprise. It was rather like being touched without warning in a sensitive spot, and Cain’s body reacted accordingly.
He turned toward the speaker, someone a little taller and at least a few pounds heavier than himself, who wore an enormous headdress composed entirely of long black feathers. A gold half mask surrounded by a fringe of small black and white spotted feathers covered the eyes and forehead, while the lower half of the face was painted chalk white. A black velvet jacket and knee britches, white stockings and black, buckled shoes completed the outfit. The area between the chin and the collar of the jacket was swathed in purple chiffon patterned in silver.
“Well?” The voice pressed a little louder, confirming the speaker was a man.
At that precise moment, everything the other man had said about the mystery and romance of masquerade took over Cain’s imagination. “Yes, of course. Absolutely. I’d love to,” he replied before the stranger got the idea he wasn’t interested and moved on. “Sorry, you’ll have to excuse me,” he continued as the man took his hand and led him onto the floor, “but your headdress is quite amazing. How on earth do you manage to keep it in place?”
“It weighs less than a pound,” his partner replied, “so it’s really no problem. I barely remember I have it on.”
As they began to dance, he brought Cain just close enough so their bodies were touching from knee to chin in a hold that was light yet struck Cain as possessive. It was clear the man was a good dancer, and while there was nothing suggestive about his movements or the way he held Cain, there was something about him that made Cain’s pulse race and sent his imagination into overdrive.
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