Kasima Wilder gripped the black-velvet clutch in her lap as if it were a release-triggered bomb set to explode. Downing the last swallow of her wine, she signaled to the bartender. “Another, please.”
All around the nightclub, gossamer drapes hung like the spidery webs of a temptress’s lair, giving glimpses into dark alcoves, ripe with secret liaisons, while the carnal pulse of sensual music flowed from hidden speakers.
Though Kasima knew all about the infamous nightclub, Ever Nights, and its owner, Cortez, a vampire who had practically founded Riverstone, raising it up from a desolate war-torn patch of land to a rare, thriving destination spot, she never thought her first visit would be attending the annual masquerade ball. This was not a normal night for the club. Tonight was special, catering to guest’s baser desires.
The entire town went nuts for tonight’s event. Mostly because it drew in rich tourists from all over the continent, both human and vampire, which greatly benefited Riverstone’s economy as a whole, but also because in the days leading up to the event, Ever Nights offered a chunk of tickets to locals at a discount. That was how Kasima first assumed Brian had gotten hold of their tickets. Turned out he’d bought them months before.
She was still stewing over that. And yet here I am.
There were three types of people here tonight: club members who could afford the astronomical yearly membership fee, friends of those wealthy club members invited to share a single wild night, and a handful of lucky locals. Of all of them, Kasima was probably the only one who regretted coming.
Ass planted firmly on a barstool, she waited for her refill. Coming over, the bartender flashed a movie-star smile, showing off his sharp fangs—of course he was a vampire, as were many of the staff—which he seemed to enjoy showing off, if only for the shock-and-awe reactions he received from some of the out-of-towners.
Though Kasima lived in Riverstone, she didn’t make a habit of hanging around the prevalent vampire community, and knowing she was in a den full of them was unnerving. When the bartender once more flashed those pearly whites at her as he refilled her glass, she played it cool, even as the hairs on the back of her neck sizzled. She held her clutch tighter, till her knuckles screamed. She didn’t belong here. Surely everyone could tell.
Once more alone, she fiddled with her mask. The pressure around her nose and cheeks wasn’t bad, per se. Just a nuisance. When the air around her stirred, the tiny white feathers that lined the edge tickled her skin. She would remove the thing altogether if she didn’t think that would draw attention. Maskless at a masquerade? She’d be a goddamned spectacle.
She peeked around the room—one out of many currently in use. Though there were probably hundreds of people in attendance tonight, they were all scattered throughout the many lobbies and lounges within the twenty story club that also doubled as a hotel for its wealthier members. Her dark little room boasted maybe thirty or more guests, many dancing and smiling and otherwise deep in reverie while several others either lounged on a set of sofas that curled around each of the four corners or sat at the booths that lined three of the walls. The three-sixty bar was the centerpiece, though she felt practically invisible sidled up next to it. Perfect.
The atmosphere here was surprisingly subdued compared to some of the other rooms. Before she’d claimed her little out-of-the way corner, she’d taken a quick tour of the club. She shouldn’t have been surprised—she’d heard the rumors about Ever Nights’ masquerade ball—but still, she was surprised by the openness with which some individuals groped one another, exploiting the anonymity of their elaborate, bedazzled masks. After stumbling into a room where an orgy was in full swing, she’d ducked in here and hadn’t moved since—leaving her far too much time to fret about what her wayward boyfriend was getting up to.
Just as she was contemplating sneaking away to another room to ride out the rest of the evening, a stout man in a golden-brown fur-lined mask slinked into the seat next to hers, scanning her with open interest. So not ready for this. She fidgeted with the stem of her wine glass and avoided eye contact, but she could feel his eyes on her. When she checked to see if he was indeed watching her, he licked his lips suggestively.
He asked, “What’s your mask supposed to be? Is it a pussycat?”
She kept her body facing away from him. “It’s a dove.” Cheapest mask she could find. It did the job just fine. Some of the other masks in here were a hundred times more gorgeous and had to be worth three times her annual salary.
“Ah.” He leaned in to get a better look. “Well, can you guess mine?” He smiled as if this were a great game they were now playing.
She gave an uninterested shrug. “Um. A dog or something?”
He laughed with exaggerated fervor. “It’s a lion.” He reached under the bar and patted her on the knee, letting his hand linger. Her muscles stiffened and clenched. She hadn’t invited him into her space, and his touch repelled her.
He either didn’t notice her distress, or was inclined to ignore it. “You know. Like the king of the jungle.” His smile widened.
“O-Oh,” she stammered, and tried to swivel her chair away from him.
His grip on her knee tightened, halting her retreat. “Do you want to make me roar, Little Dove?”
Her mouth dropped open at the blatant proposal. “Not in the slightest,” she shoved his hand away.
He frowned, surprised by her swift and ardent rejection, but then his lips curled back up into a sly grin. He thought she was playing hard to get. Crap.
“Perhaps you’d rather make me purr like a kitten?”
“I’m here with someone,” she blurted.
He cocked his head. “I’ve been watching you. You’ve been alone all night.”
She shivered, suddenly feeling unsafe. She glanced around the room. How many others watched her even now? Waiting to see how she’d handle this first suitor? Suddenly it was as if a sea of masks faced her way, dead black eyes trained on her.
It was a pretty safe bet that if you attended the masquerade, you were looking for a hookup. A woman sitting alone on a night like this was basically an open invitation. This shouldn’t freak her out so much. She just needed to let this guy down.
Even though Brian had encouraged her to find a partner tonight, she realized now she wasn’t interested in a one-night stand. Her oats didn’t need any sowing. Especially not with this self-proclaimed king of the jungle…whose hand returned to her leg!
A hint of revulsion slithered up her spine. She hadn’t invited the touch, and resented that he’d taken the liberty. Just as she was about to slap his hand away, a deep, baritone greeted her from behind. “Darling!” A warm palm landed on her shoulder. For a second, the sense of being surrounded filled her with panic, but then Mr. King of the Jungle yanked his hand away, and she was grateful for the reprieve.
“Sorry I’m late,” the stranger behind her continued as if they’d made plans to meet up here. Had someone misidentified her? She was about to tell him he’d confused her with someone else when he bent to kiss her cheek. She was too stunned to react. Then he whispered, “Just go with it.”
He sidled around to face her, inserting himself between her and Mr. King of the Jungle.
She gazed up at him, speechless for a whole other reason. Even with that black strip of loose fabric masking his upper face, she could tell he was gorgeous. His jaw was well-defined with a touch of stubble that rode up his cheeks. His dark hair was tousled around his face and mask, framing an unusual set of green eyes that almost seemed to shine from within. His mouth spread in a small, rakish grin that drew her gaze to his full lips.
He winked at her.