The ballroom was a startling blaze of color. In the flickering candlelight the satin-and-silk-draped maidens twirled in the arms of dashing gentlemen, the brilliant flare of their jewels making a rainbow of shimmering fireworks that was reflected in the mirrors that were set in the walls.
The elegant pageantry was near breathtaking, but it was not the passing spectacle that caught and held the attention of the numerous guests.
That honor belonged solely to Conde Cezar.
With the amused arrogance that belonged solely to the aristocracy, he moved through the crowd, needing only a lift of his slender hand to have them parting like the Red Sea to clear him a path, or a glance from his smoldering black eyes to send the ladies (and a few gentlemen) into a fluttering frenzy of excitement.
Much to her annoyance, Miss Anna Randal did her own share of fluttering as she caught sight of that faintly golden, exquisitely chiseled profile. Stupid, really, since gentlemen such as the Conde would never lower themselves to take notice of a poor, insignificant maiden who spent her evenings in one dark corner or another.
Such gentlemen did, however, take notice of beautiful, enticing young maidens who would boldly encourage the most hardened reprobate.
Which was the only reason that Anna forced herself to follow in the wake of his lean, elegant form as he left the ballroom and made his way up the sweeping staircase. Being a poor relation meant that she was forced to take on whatever unpleasant task happened to crop up, and on this evening, her unpleasant task included keeping a close eye upon her cousin Morgana, who was clearly fascinated by gentlemen such as the dangerous Conde Cezar.
A fascination that might very well end in scandal for the entire family.
Hurrying to keep the slender male form in sight, Anna impatiently hiked up the cheap muslin of her gown. As she had expected he turned at the top of the stairs and made his way down the corridor that led to the private chambers. Such a rake would never attend something as tedious as a ball without having a nefarious assignation arranged beforehand.
All she need do was ensure that Morgana was not the beneficiary of that nefarious part and Anna could return to her dark corner in the ballroom and watch the other maidens enjoy their evening.
Grimacing at the thought, Anna paused as her quarry slipped through a door and disappeared.
Damnation. Now what? Although she had seen nothing of Morgana, that was no assurance that she was not already hidden in the room awaiting the Conde’s arrival.
Cursing her vain, self-centered cousin, who considered nothing beyond her own pleasures, Anna moved forward and carefully pushed open the heavy door. She would just take a quick peek and then…
A scream was wrenched from her throat as slender fingers grasped her wrist in a cold, brutal grip, jerking her into the dark room and slamming the door behind her.
The reception room of the hotel on Michigan Avenue was a blaze of color. In the light of the chandelier Chicago’s movers and shakers strutted about like peacocks, occasionally glancing toward the massive fountain in the center of the room where a handful of Hollywood B-list stars were posing for photographs with the guests, for an obscene fee that supposedly went to some charity or another.
The similarity to another evening was not lost on Anna as she once again hovered in a dark corner watching Conde Cezar move arrogantly through the room.
Of course, that other evening had been nearly two hundred years ago. And while she hadn’t physically aged a day (which she couldn’t deny saved a butt-load on plastic surgery and gym memberships), she wasn’t that shy, spineless maiden who had to beg for a few crumbs from her aunt’s table. That girl had died the night Conde Cezar had taken her hand and hauled her into a dark bedchamber.
And good riddance to her.
Her life might be all kinds of weird, but Anna had discovered she could take care of herself. In fact, she did a damn fine job of it. She would never go back to being that timid girl who wore shabby muslin gowns (not to mention the corset-from-hell).
That didn’t, however, mean she had forgotten that fateful night.
Or Conde Cezar.
He had some explaining to do. Explaining on an epic scale.
Which was the only reason she had traveled to Chicago from her current home in Los Angeles.
Absently sipping the champagne that had been forced into her hand by one of the