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Chapter One

Christian Romanov had picked one hell of a night to be sober. He adjusted his black half-mask and scanned the elaborately decorated ballroom. Okay, so he hadn’t picked tonight, but his agent had.

Glancing out of the corner of his eye, he spied his agent, Martha Alfred. She stood by a huge pair of ornately carved doors, greeting guests as they arrived to the press event disguised as a masked ball. Of course he had to arrive early. Martha didn’t believe in fashionably late or arriving once one’s hangover had time to absorb a bit of the hair of the dog.

He grimaced, snagging a glass of champagne from a passing server and downed it in one gulp. Technically, he wasn’t breaking her rules by drinking. She’d said sober. It took a whole hell of a lot more than a half-filled glass of champagne to get him drunk. And he was adult for God’s sake.

Martha looked his way, and he shoved the glass behind his back. Her brows raised then lowered in disappointment, like he was a naughty toddler she’d caught eating (or rather drinking) his favorite forbidden treat.

Dammit.

He looked for the nearest exit and made his way there, depositing his glass in a potted plant. Once outside, the smell of brine hit him, clearing his head of overpowering perfumes and colognes. Leaning on the balcony railing, he closed his eyes and tapped the ring on his thumb against the metal. What a way to spend his birthday—alone. Something he could remedy after the ball. But he wasn’t in the mood for company. He was in the mood to lose himself in a little birthday present he’d purchased this morning. The need to find utter oblivion and all that went along with it hit him hard.

Hell, he could leave now, take a hit, return to the ballroom, and no one would be the wiser. Not even his agent. The little pack of pills waited for him in his room, only five minutes away at the most.

“Oh I’m sorry,” a woman said, the sound of her voice making his eyes pop open. “I didn’t know anyone was out here.”

So much for escaping without notice. Pasting a smile on his face, he turned. “It’s okay. I was about to—” His voice got caught in his throat and he froze. Bright red hair illuminated by torches glowed like live embers. Dark eyes framed by a golden mask enticed him to come closer. A black evening gown, clinging to the voluptuous curves of her body made white hot lust flash through his veins.

“About to what?” she asked, a little smile appearing on her lush lips.

No damn clue. He swallowed, stuck his hands in his pocket and frowned.

Her smile disappeared and she began backing away, bumping into a stone bench. Rushing over, he caught her in his arms, her hands coming up to grip his biceps. “You really should be more careful.”

“If I had someone like you around at all times to rescue me, than I wouldn’t need to be more careful,” she said, a teasing light in her eyes. “My hero on demand.”

Laughing, he helped her up, then gestured at the bench. “Sit with me.”

“Less dangerous to be sure in this dress.” Her accent was hard to identify. It sounded as though she was trying very hard not to stretch out some of the vowels. Then again he hadn’t been to every part of America, so there were bound to be accents he wasn’t familiar with.

“You find me safe?” The things running through his head right now weren’t remotely safe. He wanted her under him, with her dress shoved up to her waist as he drove himself inside of her.

She gave him a sidelong glance. “Safer than my dress or earthquakes.”

“The one we had last week barely made the news.”

“It rocked my world anyway.”

There were so many inappropriate things he wanted to say at that moment. Instead he settled on, “Did it now?”

“It’s why I left the ballroom. The chain for the chandelier didn’t look very shake proof.”

Pointing to the roof, he said, “Have you seen the water spouts on the corners of the house?”

“Oh crap,” she whispered, glancing up and then back at him, panic filling her pretty eyes. “Stone gargoyles would do a lot of damage to our heads. Worse than the chandelier.”

“They’ve been there since the last century and survived more earthquakes than either of us. We’re fine, but in case the unthinkable happens, I’d like to at least have a name.” He stuck out his hand. “Hi, I’m—”

“Ian Romanov,” she said, putting her hand in his and giving a little squeeze.

“Your name is Ian, too? Small world, eh?”

She laughed and shook her head. “No.” It pleased him to see her put back at ease. And it pleased him even more to be the cause of it. “I attended the premier of My Beloved last night.”

Pulling a face, he said, “Then you know I die in the middle.” First major picture and he dies. Dies. His father and brother must have loved every second of that scene-if they ever watched the film.

“You made me cry.”

That little tidbit should have made him extremely proud, instead he felt like an arse and wanted to comfort her. “I’ll make sure it won’t happen again.”

“Ironclad clause in all future contracts?” she asked with another one of her gorgeous smiles.

“Of course,” he said, then adjusted his half mask again. He couldn’t wait to take the damn thing off. “What’s your name?”

Placing her hands in her lap, she twisted the material of her dress. What did she have to be so nervous about? Trying to set her at ease, he placed his hand over hers. “I have to call you something. ‘Hey you’ seems a bit impersonal.”

“Amber,” she said, her black lashes flickering.

Chocolate colored eyes met his and a sense of déjà vu washed over him, but he couldn’t bring himself to ask her if they’d met before. Hell, earlier this evening he’d asked that of a major producer and Martha had nearly killed herself as she sought to do damage control.

“A very lovely name.” He leaned into her, wanting to kiss her. No, he needed to kiss her, needed to taste her and—

She stood, so quickly that he bumped his forehead against her hip. “I’m sorry,” she gasped, “I didn’t mean to—”

Sitting up and rubbing his head, he said, “Perfectly alright, love.” Maybe she’d knocked some sense into him. It was madness sitting out here, in the moonlight, talking of dying and lovely names while a ballroom full of women awaited him inside. “Are you an actress?”

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