Authors: Kay Hooper
insisted she didn't believe in
yet shed agreed to attend the masquerade ball as Cinderella; dashing entrepreneur
had no use for fairy tales but made an impossibly handsome Prince Charming. He never expected to meet a mysterious, masked enchantress who would steal his heart in a moonlit garden--and leave only a glass slipper behind to persuade him she'd been magically, passionately real! Amanda reveled in Ryder's fierce possession, adored being pursued for herself alone and not her wealth, but she knew the fantasy would end as the clock struck midnight... or would it? When Ryder arrived without warning at her Wyoming, ranch Amanda wondered how long her secrets would be safe from this hero whose caress overwhelmed her – and made her dare to dream. Ryder's love was a prize worth winning, but could she trust this dangerous, irresistible knight enough to admit she longed for happily ever after?
"This is the most absurd idea either of you has had.
The only reason the statement wasn't wailed was that Amanda Wilderman hadn't been heard to wail since her infant days, some twenty-odd years before.
"It's an excellent idea," Amanda's seventeen-year-old cousin Samantha countered, "if only to get you out of your jeans and off your horses. Dammit,
put your foot in!"
Amanda obeyed, but when she stepped into the other shoe and looked down at what was adorning her small, narrow feet, she really came close again to wailing. "You're out of your minds!"
Her other cousin, sixteen-year-old Leslie, giggled as she stood back, observing the effect of the costume Amanda wore. "This is going to be great!"
"It won't work," Amanda said, her voice taut as steel. "I've seen the guest list for this damned masquerade, and I know for a fact there are at least fifty women attending who can, and no doubt will, knock the socks off even so jaded a man as Mr. Ryder Duncan Foxx. So what makes you think I'm going to bowl him over?"
Samantha and Leslie exchanged glances, and the former said dryly, "Don't tell her; it’ll only make her head swell."
Amanda gave both her cousins a disgusted look. "Funny. That's funny."
"Look, Manda," Sam said gravely but with a twinkle lurking in her eye, "you gave your word, remember? Any favor short of breaking the law, which this isn't. We've been collecting IOUs from you since last Christmas, and tonight's your night to pay up—in full."
If Amanda gnashed her teeth, at least it wasn't audible. "I should have known you two were up to something when you taught me to play poker. Why can't I just pay up in cash like any normal person?"
"Because we play for favors.
"I agreed to too
many things, it seems." Amanda frowned suddenly. "I have an awful hollow feeling in the pit of my stomach. Have you two been planning this for six months? No...
"Guilty." Leslie grinned. "That's when the masquerade was announced."
In a reasonable tone Sam said, "Ryder Duncan Foxx is absolutely perfect for you, but you'd shy away in a minute if he knew who you were. This way he won't know anything about you. All hell
is a mysterious, beautiful young woman who’ll steal his heart."
Amanda made a sound. It was a choked little sound, a sound that was an odd mixture of anguish and horror. "You two aren't safe. You aren't sane. And I hereby revoke any deals made with you on the grounds of insanity.
Not mine. Also on the grounds that neither of you is of legal age yet. God help the men of America when you do come of age, but that's their problem, not mine. Get me out of this costume."
Sam frowned. "No. A deal's a deal. Come on, Manda, what's one lousy night? You can leave on the stroke of midnight. In fact, we insist you leave before the stroke of midnight, otherwise it won't work."
"Otherwise it won't work," Amanda repeated dazedly. "I never realized that when I was reading fairy tales to you ten years ago they would corrupt you. Uncle Ed has to have you committed.
Briskly Leslie said, "Manda, if you're so convinced it won't work, why
protesting this much?"
Amanda pulled herself together. "You're right.
What do I have to be upset about? I'm going to a costume ball, where I shall find at least a score of Cinderellas and an equal number of Prince Charmings. I shall dance and have my glass slippers trod upon. I shall drink champagne, and promptly flee before the stroke of midnight. The man you two demons have decided is my Prince Charming will never even know I was there."
Sam started to examine her fingernails. "Well, not exactly. Only one Prince Charming, you see.
And only one Cinderella."
Amanda felt that hollow feeling again. "What?"
"Hmm," Les muttered, "we could hardly let anyone steal your limelight, could we? Ryder Duncan Foxx is coming as Prince Charming because he was asked to by the committee. Of course we couldn't have other Cinderellas there, so we booked up all the Cinderella costumes in town months ago."
"That," Amanda said, "must have cost you two a bundle."
Cheerfully Sam said, "Our allowance is in hock until the turn of the century anyway. Besides, one must expect a considerable cash outlay in any investment. You're ours."
"You sound like Uncle Ed." Amanda got a grip on herself again.
Samantha was pleased. "Thank you."
"Except that he's the sanest man I know." Amanda drew a deep breath. "Okay, fine. If your prince manages to find me in a crowd of two hundred people, he can have his dance—if he wants one—and I'll do my best to gladden your sweet little hearts and vivid imaginations. And that's all."
"He'll find you. You're going to make an entrance," Les intoned dramatically.
Amanda closed her eyes briefly. "I knew you were going to say something like that, you little monster
She was, by this time, resigned. Sighing, she said, "At least I can wear pink tonight."
"That's why we made you a blonde," Les explained. "With your red hair, you never wear pink. And everyone knows it. Honestly, Manda, nobody'll recognize you. Even your voice is different."
A little dryly Amanda said, "Because I've just gotten over a cold, and I'm still hoarse from coughing. Don't tell me you planned that."
"No," Les said, faintly dissatisfied. "We couldn't, of course. We were going to have you speak very softly, but this is a much better disguise."
"And the best disguise of all," Sam said, "is your contact lenses. We knew your spare set was tinted blue, so when you took the other set out to clean them last night, we—um—switched them."
Amanda sighed. "I wondered. Thought I was going nuts. So my eyes are now blue-green instead of merely green."
"Actually," Les said, "they'll look completely blue. The mask is black, so your eyes will look darker. And Ryder Duncan Foxx will find himself dancing with a blue-eyed blonde instead of a green-eyed redhead."
"Maybe he doesn't like blondes," Amanda suggested with a faintly hopeful air.
"Well, actually—" Leslie broke off with a yelp as Samantha kicked her.
"Actually, he loves blondes," Sam said.
Amanda eyed her cousins suspiciously. "Actually," she said, "I wonder how you demons know that."
"We must be overusing the word," Samantha said innocently to her sister.
"Must be," Leslie agreed in a murmur, rubbing her abused shin.
Amanda clasped her hands together in front of her and glanced down at the spangled pink silk ball gown that was, in all fairness to her cousins, something straight out of a dream. Then she cleared her throat and spoke carefully.
"I really hate to burst your pretty bubble, kids, but there are a few tiny elements missing from your plan."
"Have you looked out a window lately? Surprise! We're in the twentieth century. Ryder Duncan Foxx is not, from all I've heard, a prince in search of his princess. In fact, I imagine anything out of a fairy tale would get pretty short notice from him; by all accounts, the man is quite firmly rooted in the logic of business. And, in case it escaped your attention, I don't believe in princes."
"We know." Samantha's voice was suddenly and unexpectedly soft, and her eyes were very bright. "You've had that knocked out of you."
Amanda was conscious of a lump in her throat. "Well, don't sound so unhappy about it, dammit," she said irritably. "I'm twenty-eight; if I haven't learned about the absence of princes by now, I should be locked in a padded cell."
Sam smiled. "Manda, you've been like our big sister our whole lives, and we love you. Tonight is our present to you. Tonight you're Cinderella. When the clock strikes midnight, Cinderella leaves the ball, as anonymous as she came. And tomorrow, when the society press does its bit about the latest charity affair, they
have their usual paragraph about Miss Amanda Wilderman and how much money she has in the bank."
Amanda managed a smile. "It's a lovely present, Sam, Les. Thank you." She forced herself to keep quiet this time about her inevitable doubts.
"Just remember," Les said firmly, "you must leave before midnight. If you have to take your mask off, everything's ruined. We'll be waiting in the limousine out front at eleven forty-five."
"We wanted a pumpkin coach," Sam explained, "but we couldn't find one anywhere."
"But it is a white limousine," Les said with an air of having made the best of things.
"Where do I drop the glass slipper?" Amanda asked, chuckling.
"Anywhere you like," Sam murmured.
Amanda eyed her cousin but wasn't sure if she was supposed to take that seriously. She decided not to; it was just too absurd—even for Samantha.
Ryder Duncan Foxx had finally gotten accustomed to his costume, although he still thought it was damned silly. While dressing he had mentally composed a letter to the committee, in which he made it plain in blisteringly polite language that the next time they chose his costume, should there be a next time, he would inspect it before agreeing to wear it.
For tonight, however, he was stuck in this one. Prince Charming indeed! He didn't mind the paste-jewel crown so much, or even the short cape, but the glittering tunic could have used a few more inches; he was hardly ashamed of his legs, but encasing them in white tights wasn't his idea of suitable evening wear for a man of thirty-two.
He would have been more upset about it, but there were at least a score of other men in tights of varying colors, so he took comfort in the knowledge that he wasn't suffering alone.
Perfectly aware that he was considered one of the five most eligible bachelors in the country, Ryder found the committee's choice of costume for him ironic in the extreme. Since most of his energy had been channeled into his business these past ten years, he hadn't had time or energy for being charming. And he had yet to encounter a woman who sparked in him even the faintest inclination to slay dragons or foil the evil spell of some demented witch.
Or the modern version of either, whatever that might prove to be.
Still, it was amusing to play the part, complete with royal dignity and princely bows, and somewhat surprising to discover he was really quite good at it.
The committee had pulled out all the stops. Thomas Brewster's garden had been transformed with the aid of a temporary wooden floor and innumerable lanterns into a ballroom fit for any fairy tale. The weather had cooperated nicely, supplying a cool, dry autumn night complete with stars and a full moon. And the orchestra had apparently been given every suitable piece of romantic music for the occasion.
The guests, paying charity for the privilege, were dressed to the teeth and having a grand time.