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The untouchable Samantha Danvers was called a snow queen. No one knew her heart was more vulnerable than many because of Mike Trent, who’d stolen it five years before. So she made the vow to never love again. A pact that was easy to keep until he returned to melt her icy exterior and reveal the warm loving woman within.
By Linda Wisdom
Deep violet eyes surveyed the filled ballroom with a bored air. An observer would think their owner wished to be anywhere else but at one of the most famous costume balls held by Charleston society.
“If the orchestra plays ‘Dixie’ just once more, I’m going to be violently ill.” The low murmur sounded just as uninterested.
The speaker moved away from a flower-decorated archway and walked along the outskirts of the crowded dance floor. Her face, the likeness of a delicate cameo, was expressionless, giving no hint of what thoughts lay behind her lovely features. Her shiny raven black hair was gathered into a cluster of curls that fell midway down her back, with pale blue silk ribbons threaded through them. Men’s eyes eagerly followed her slim figure clad in a delicate blue silk and lace gown. Then they recognized the cool smile designed to keep admirers at bay.
“That’s Samantha Danvers, better known as Aggie Pendleton’s ‘Snow Queen’,” one man muttered to another, his voice slightly louder than he had intended. “She’s as cold as ice and no man can get next to her without being frozen off. She isn’t worth the trouble.”
The object of their low-voiced conversation half smiled to herself. The name didn’t bother her. After all, if not for Aggie, she wouldn’t have a job she loved. Of course, she also wouldn’t be where she was this evening. Agatha Pendleton, the leader of Charleston’s society, had headed the social committee for the ball but had been unable to attend due to a cold. Samantha, as her private secretary, had been sent in her place.
Samantha moved among the people, unaware that one particular pair of narrowed eyes watched her with studied interest. She stopped near a small table, not at all disturbed that no one had asked her to dance so far. After all, being there was part of her job, and that included standing by while others danced and enjoyed themselves. But there had been one magical evening long ago when Samantha had been part of the happy and laughing dancers. She swiftly quashed the thought before it could take form. For a moment a disturbing prickling sensation ran along the nape of her neck, but she dismissed it and kept walking.
She had no time to react when a hand grasped her wrist and pulled her out onto the dance floor and into a pair of masculine arms.
“I beg your –!” Her icy tirade was abruptly cut off when she met a pair of tawny gold eyes that regarded her with mocking amusement. The color momentarily drained from her face before she could regain her composure. This man wasn’t the type to be dissuaded by a pair of frosty violet eyes and an equally chilly manner. Tall and lean with tobacco gold hair and a pair of tawny eyes, he had the instincts of a jungle cat. He was a man who wouldn’t back down from anyone, something Samantha knew only too well, just as she knew the workings of his mind from seven years earlier. Thoughts of the past were enough to stiffen her backbone. She tried to pull away from her partner’s magnetic circle, but he merely tightened his hold on her arm, bringing her even closer to him.
“Let me go, Mike,” she said fiercely, although her cool, polite mask didn’t reveal the tumultuous emotions inside.
“I’m flattered that you remember my name.” His eyes were expressionless.
“I don’t care to dance with you,” Samantha argued in a low voice, unaware of the striking picture they made as they moved fluidly together on the dance floor to the strains of the ‘Blue Danube Waltz’.”
“Now, now, Strauss would be hurt if we didn’t take advantage of his hard work,” Mike said smoothly, steering her through the dancing couples. “I’ll even let you step on my feet to get back at all those men who undoubtedly step on yours when they’re dazzled by your oh-so-cool beauty.”
“And what brings you back to Charleston, Mr. Trent?” she asked in an artificial voice designed for social functions, superficial and brittle. “Business? Or is this a vacation for you?”
“Cut the act, Sam,” he said softly, his eyes turning hard and brilliant. “I know better.”
Samantha wanted only to get away from this man. Seven years … seven years! Why was he back? And why did the first time she saw him again have to be here? From beneath lowered lashes, she secretly studied her partner. A dark blue velvet jacket covered his broad muscular shoulders, and a white ruffled shirt only further enhanced his virile masculinity. The light, musky tang of his aftershave teased her nostrils, as did the male scent of his skin. Although Mike held her correctly — neither too close nor too far away, Samantha was still strongly aware of the warm lean fingers surrounding her hand and the strong hand resting fiat against her back.
“No one could ever accuse you of being a talker,” Mike commented lightly.
“We have nothing to say,” she said coolly. The words were barely out of her mouth when she realized that she was being deftly steered toward a set of French doors that led outside. “What are you doing?” Samantha demanded, vainly trying to twist her wrist free from Mike’s firm grip.
He didn’t answer until they had reached the terrace. The mocking light in Mike’s eyes was a little frightening. He held her hands away from her sides, cocking his head to one side as he studied her with alarming thoroughness. “You’re all grown up now, Sam,” he said quietly.
“Don’t call me that ridiculous name!” she snapped, then demanded, “Why did you bring me out here?”
“I thought I’d see if the moonlight could melt some of that ice you seem to have encased yourself in.” How could a man’s soft voice sound so dangerous?
“There are lots of beautiful women in there who I’m sure would be only too happy to have your attention.” Samantha’s amethyst eyes glowed in the dim light. “Why don’t you go back inside and find one?”
“You haven’t changed, Sam.” Mike shook his head in wonder as he gazed down at her face in the moonlight. “I had almost forgotten how lovely you are.”
“Cut the act, Mike,” she mocked, echoing his previous words, her head thrown back in defiance.
“You’ve also cooled down in the past seven years,” he commented, lifting her hand to brush his lips against her fingers, leaving a warm, tingling sensation on her skin.
“Let me go,” Samantha said tautly.
Mike complied without argument. Leaning back against the railing, he took his time surveying the lovely vision standing before him. Dressed in an elegant old-fashioned gown, she looked as if she had stepped out of a history book. The lovely girl he remembered had matured into a beautiful woman who took a man’s breath away. Mike’s indolent posture didn’t reveal the taut muscles beneath his jacket. His hand lifted, the knuckles brushing lightly against Samantha’s cheek. Startled by the physical contact, she recoiled as if she had been struck.
“I’m hurt, Samantha,” Mike said softly, although he kept his tone impassive. “After all we meant to each other, can’t you even say you’ve missed me all these years?”
Samantha raised her chin. He had a lot of nerve to suggest that she should have missed him after what had happened between them. “Oh, have you been gone?” she asked in a saccharine voice.
“Let’s have dinner tomorrow evening and talk over old times,” he suggested huskily, ignoring her sarcasm.
“No,” she replied without hesitation.
“The next evening then.” Mike was undaunted by her cold refusal.
“No, and you’re insane if you think I would even consider seeing you. I have better things to do with my time,” Samantha declared haughtily, already feeling her emotional half battling it out with her reasonable half. She refused to give him a chance to hurt her again.
With a mocking smile on his lips, Mike pressed two fingers against Samantha’s throat. “Your pulse is racing like the wind,” he informed her. “I must not be as insane as you say I am.”
Unable to face him any longer, or to deny the truth of his words, Samantha turned and ran down the steps that led to the parking lot. Her flight was further spurred by the mocking sound of Mike’s low laughter. She sped to her car, glad that she had her small evening bag with her. She soon had her keys out, and the engine of her Audi instantly roared to life. A half hour later Samantha drove slowly into a darkened garage, stopped the car and entered a huge three-story house.
She crept quietly up a set of back stairs, and then walked down a thickly carpeted hallway until she reached her bedroom. Flipping the light switch on, she walked inside. With its large, old-fashioned furniture and décor in shades varying from deep rose to pale pink, the room was designed as a fitting setting for a young woman dressed becomingly in a Civil War era ball gown.
In a matter of moments the storybook Southern belle had been exchanged for a modern young woman dressed in a pale green silk nightgown with narrow straps. In the deep pink and apple green bathroom she carefully removed her makeup and brushed the curls from her hair.
It wasn’t until Samantha was lying in bed that she thought back to the ball … and the man she never thought she’d see again. She moved restively under the covers. Why did Mike have to show up tonight — tonight of all nights? Just when her life was getting in some kind of order, he had come back to turn it upside down again. It had been seven years ago on the night of this very ball that Mike Trent had swept into her life, turned it upside down and then swept away, leaving her behind to pick up the broken pieces. At seventeen, Samantha had been hurt and angry, and as time passed she had buried her emotions so that no man could ever be given the chance to hurt her again. She was determined not to run into Mike again, only to have him pull another disappearing act. Charleston was a large city. There should be no problem.
Samantha’s mind reviewed the past. After her parents’ death when she was four, her grandfather had raised her, and while he had loved her in his own gruff way, he had also been an extremely strict guardian. His own wife had died at the birth of their only daughter, Lenore. Joss Reynolds had been determined that Lenore would stay with him to take care of him during his old age. When she had ignored his warnings about boys, and married at a young age, he had disowned her. He informed her that he had no daughter as far as he was concerned. Then, when his daughter and son-in-law died in an airplane crash, leaving little Samantha an orphan, he had taken the small child in, believing she had been sent to do what Lenore hadn’t.
From an early age Samantha had been discouraged from making friends. It had been drummed into her that she was to learn to keep house and cook for her grandfather in return for his kindness in raising her. But she’d had one friend that Joss didn’t complain about, and that was Jeannie Bradshaw, part of the social elite and daughter of one of Joss’s employers.
Red-haired blue-eyed and with an energetic personality, Jeannie had decided that Samantha’s grandfather was dour and sullen at first glance, and the kind- hearted girl was determined that Samantha would have as much of a social life as could be managed. Using her most demure manner, she had coaxed the elderly man to allow Samantha to spend many evenings at the Bradshaw home, and, occasionally, the entire night. One such night had been the night of the annual ball.
Samantha had expected a quiet evening at the Bradshaw house, but Jeannie had announced instead that they would be attending Charleston’s historical ball.
“Ball?” Samantha’s face had registered dismay. “But I have nothing to wear. I can’t go.”
“Yes, you can.” Jeannie had smiled smugly. “And wait until you see your gown. For once you’re going to look the way you should look.”
Jeannie was right, Samantha silently decided as she later modeled her gown before the mirror in the bedroom she used when she stayed at the Bradshaw house. Her silken black hair had been gathered into a cluster of curls falling down her back, with tiny wisps curling near each ear. Her gown of pale lavender silk and lace reminded her of something Scarlett O’Hara would have worn.
“I do declare, suh,” she laughingly drawled to an imaginary partner, “to think you want to dance with lil ole me?” Her amethyst-colored eyes sparkled with excitement at the evening ahead of her.
A quick tap sounded at the door, then Jeannie poked her head in. “You look fantastic,” she said sincerely.
“Do I really?” Samantha asked eagerly, badly needing reassurance. She looked back in the mirror, noticing her bare creamy shoulders above the lace bodice and tiny nipped-in waist.
“You look older, more sophisticated. Oh, at least twenty-one or twenty-two. The men won’t be able to stay away from you,” Jeannie announced happily.
“Oh, Jeannie, I can’t go!” Samantha wailed, pressing her hands against her churning stomach. “I’m so nervous that I just know that I’ll step on some man’s feet if I even get asked to dance.”
“Oh, you’ll get asked all right,” her friend said confidently. “Actually, I’m surprised I’m willing to have you alongside me. Barney might get ideas.” She laughingly referred to her boyfriend, who couldn’t see beyond Jeannie no matter who stood alongside her.
Samantha grinned impishly. “We make perfect foils for each other,” she decided.
“I’m just glad I have good ole Barney along. At least I know I’ll have someone to dance with while you take over the rest of the men there,” Jeannie said without malice.
“I shouldn’t be horning in on the two of you.” Samantha was apologetic.
“Nonsense!” Jeannie dismissed her words with a wave of her hand, then added seriously, “You deserve an evening at a ball, and unlike Cinderella, you won’t have to leave at midnight.”
“I do feel like her, with you as my fairy godmother.”
“Then, my dear, our carriage awaits!”
Charleston’s annual costume ball was always the social event of the year. Lingering on the fringes of the ballroom, Samantha watched the dancers with avid interest. Her shy manner had effectively kept many of the men away from her, although her beauty had drawn many admiring glances her way. She was afraid of someone asking her to dance, and at the same time equally afraid that she would remain a wallflower all evening.
Samantha was turning away, when a hand grasped her wrist and swung her out among the dancers. Her lips pursed in a surprised “Oh” as she looked up at her unknown partner.
“What are you doing?” she asked breathlessly, unable to believe that a man would just calmly walk by and sweep her onto the dance floor without saying a word.
“Dancing with you,” he said smoothly. “No one as lovely as you should be on the outskirts, so I decided to rescue you.”
“I don’t even know you.” Samantha was flustered that such a gorgeous man would notice her. She had never even dreamed that something like this could happen to her.
“You will.” His words took on a cryptic meaning.
Samantha flushed delicately under her partner’s gaze. Well over six feet in height, he had the lithe grace of an athlete. Tobacco gold hair gleamed under the bright lights, while eyes the color of tawny gold, like those of a jungle cat, watched her. She judged him to be in his late twenties, possibly even early thirties. In his well-tailored white evening jacket and black pants, he was the epitome of sophistication, someone way beyond the scope of Samantha’s experience with men and she knew it.
“The name is Mike Trent.” His voice was a husky growl in her ear. “What can I call you, rebel beauty?”
“Samantha,” she said in a small voice, not understanding the strange pounding of her pulse at this man’s touch.
“Samantha, ‘the teachable one’,” he mused, then, seeing the puzzled look in her eyes, hastened to explain. “That’s the meaning of your name. Tell me, rebel beauty, are you?”
“Am I what?”
“Teachable.” Mike’s voice dropped to a whisper as his arms tightened a fraction around her.
“It depends on the teacher,” Samantha said lightly, her smile a shining beacon.
A sharp indrawn breath hissed through Mike’s teeth. Was she aware of how lovely she really was? He judged her to be in her very early twenties, probably not more than twenty-one, and already on her way to becoming a beauty.
“I’m surprised you don’t have some young fellow following you around,” he commented. Had she come with someone after all, and if so, why had that man been so stupid as to leave this prize alone?
Samantha smilingly shook her head. It wasn’t in her nature to be coy. “I came with Jeannie Bradshaw and her boyfriend, Barney Foster,” she explained. “Since you’re obviously not from around here, how did you manage to get invited to this exclusive gathering?”
Grinning, he said, “I have connections. I have a relative on the social committee. And you’re right about me not being from around here. I grew up in New York.”
It took a moment for Samantha to realize that while they had been talking, Mike had deftly steered her away from the crowded ballroom and outside into the cool spring air.
“Oh, no,” she protested. “I have to go back in.”
“Not just yet.” Mike’s hand dropped down to enclose hers. “I want to learn more than just your name.”
“There’s really nothing to tell.” Samantha glanced nervously about. They were the only ones walking along the flagstone terrace, which wasn’t very reassuring. She didn’t even know the man. Mike’s hold on her hand was firm, vaguely impersonal, yet his touch sent messages speeding through her body. “I live with my grandfather, and I guess you could say I’m here because of my connections, too.” She didn’t explain any further, afraid that this devastatingly handsome man would discover how quiet her life really was and desert her for someone more to his sophisticated taste. She couldn’t bear that. Not just yet.
Smiling brightly, copying the smiles she had seen other girls use on their newest conquests, she swung around and leaned against the stone wall. “You haven’t told me a thing about you,” she said in a teasing voice. “Why, for all I know you could be a spy for the Yankees.”
Mike stood in front of her, enjoying the way the moonlight spilled across her face. “I’m a writer.”
“Oh, what do you write? Books, magazine articles, newspaper stories?”
“Books,” he replied carelessly. “Spy thrillers. James Bond type characters.”
Samantha’s forehead creased in thought. “Trent,” she murmured to herself. Then it dawned on her exactly who Mike Trent was. “Michael K. Trent?” she asked in a small voice filled with awe.
“Guilty as charged, your honor.” He briefly inclined his head.
“You wrote The Night Deceivers.” Samantha couldn’t recover from her astonishment.
Samantha remembered the book well. It was the story of a Rumanian double agent and his love affair with a beautiful undercover agent from Interpol. She had read it in secret, knowing her grandfather would have punished her for reading a “filthy book.” Even thinking of it brought bright flags of color to her cheeks, especially remembering the love scenes and their explicit detail. Since Samantha had read the paperback version, she hadn’t seen a picture of the author and had always wondered what kind of man could write love scenes in such haunting detail. Now meeting the author in person, Samantha had no doubt that he had drawn on his own personal experiences with the opposite sex, and for some reason, she wasn’t sure she liked the thought.
She finally found her voice again. “Are you here to write a new book or to see your relatives?”
“A little of both.” Mike’s grin was charmingly boyish. “My aunt has an attic apartment that I use when I’m in town. She may adore me, but I know my erratic hours get on her nerves, so I try to keep out of her way.”
“I can’t imagine anyone complaining about you,” Samantha teased lightly.
Mike opened his mouth to say more, then shut it again as several people walked out onto the terrace to enjoy the fresh air. “Let’s dance,” he said abruptly, reaching out and pulling her to her feet.
The evening passed by in a whirling kaleidoscope of colors for a dazed Samantha. She danced every dance with Mike, who arrogantly refused to relinquish her to any of the young men who dared to approach them. While she had been pretty before, Mike’s undivided attention had added a luminescent glow to her features and brought a bright smile to her lips. That smile dimmed when Jeannie took her aside to say that it was time to go, all the time casting curious glances in Mike’s direction. Samantha performed the necessary introductions, her voice unconsciously warming over Mike’s name.
“If it’s all right with you and your date, Miss Bradshaw, I’ll drive Samantha home.” Mike’s smile quickly charmed Jeannie, just as it had Samantha.
“Well, I guess it’s all right,” Jeannie replied, already under his spell. “I’ll see you at the house, Samantha.”
Fifteen minutes later, Mike assisted Samantha into the passenger seat of a dark blue Lancia, an elegant Italian vehicle. She held her breath as he hesitated before turning on the engine, silently hoping that he would kiss her. She wanted her first kiss to be from him. Instead, Mike merely adjusted the rearview mirror before he turned back to the steering wheel.
“I’ll need directions to your friend’s house,” he said matter-of-factly.
Hoping her disappointment didn’t show in her voice, Samantha murmured the address.
Mike made no attempt to keep up a conversation during the short drive to Jeannie’s house, a stately mansion belonging to her father, a well-known newspaper publisher. Mike was very proper and correct as he escorted Samantha to the door.
“Well, thank you for a lovely evening,” she said hesitantly, not wanting him to leave, afraid she would never see him again.
Mike looked down at Samantha’s upturned face and read her thoughts in her eyes. Picking up one of her hands, he examined the slim tapered fingers with their neatly buffed fingernails. With deliberate slowness, he raised those same fingers to his lips. At the warm touch, Samantha’s breath caught in her throat. For some reason this kiss seemed much more intimate than if he had kissed her on the lips. The light touch had the power to jolt her down to her toes.
“Good night, lovely Samantha.” Mike’s warm breath fanned out over her skin. “Thank you for a memorable evening.” Without asking if he could see her again or how to get in touch with her, he released her hand and turned away, walking back to his car without a backward glance.