She’d never intended to be a predator, but life had other plans.
Delilah “Lila” Darrow kept her spine straight and her chin up as she walked across the crowded ballroom. She was conscious of the click of her heels—she shouldn’t have been able to hear that click, not over the band’s passionate music, not over the murmur of voices that filled that cavernous space—yet she did. Two inches, spiked, they tapped on the floor with every step she took.
The heels weren’t her normal style. Neither was the dress that fit her like a second skin. The dress cost more than her first car, not that she’d paid for the dress. It was a loaner, just like the shoes. Cinderella was at the grand ball, and, come the stroke of midnight, the fake trappings would disappear, and she’d slip back to her normal life.
But it’s not midnight yet. And you have a job to do. Makeup had been carefully applied. Highlights put into her hair. The new haircut was stylish and sexy, and she could feel her hair sliding across her shoulders with every step that she took. Delilah didn’t glance to the left or right as she advanced. She didn’t need to look around her.
Her prey waited dead ahead.
Archer Radcliffe. Tall, muscled, looking far too gorgeous and sinful in his perfectly cut suit. He was rich as hell, wickedly smart, and, quite possibly…a killer.
Archer wasn’t alone as he stood near the bar. A man like Archer was rarely alone and that was part of the problem. Getting close to him, getting into his inner circle, wasn’t the easiest task in the world. Luckily, Delilah didn’t particularly like easy. She enjoyed the thrill of a good challenge.
She would enjoy bringing Archer to his knees.
At that moment, he looked up and his gaze—dark from a distance—locked on her. She saw the slight stiffening of his jaw. The faint flaring of his eyes. She thought he might do a sweep of his gaze down her body. After all, the fancy dress was designed to show off her assets. But he didn’t let his gaze shift. He just held her stare.
Her steps didn’t falter. She knew what would interest Archer. She knew how to draw him close. And close was exactly where she intended to get him.
Never looking away, Delilah continued to advance. Her heels kept clicking and she could feel the vibrations, just as she could feel the too fast drumming of her heart. If Archer saw through her, if she messed this up, then all of her careful work would be for nothing.
It can’t be for nothing.
As she closed in on him, the man to Archer’s right kept talking. Archer inclined his head toward the fellow, but Archer’s gaze never left Delilah’s face. The closer she got, the more she could see that Archer’s eyes weren’t just dark. Though she knew that, of course, from his file—the file she’d carefully created. The file that told her exactly what Archer liked. The file that told her how to become the perfect woman to enchant him.
To obsess him.
If Cinderella had been able to access the tech that Delilah possessed, she wouldn’t have needed to worry about catching the prince’s eye at the fancy ball. She would have just baited him and gotten Prince Charming to fall straight into her web.
Gold. That was the real color of Archer’s eyes. Not brown. Battered gold that gleamed as she got within five feet of him.
The man with Archer stopped talking, as if he’d finally realized he’d lost the attention of his audience. Archer had turned fully toward Delilah. One strong hand gripped a champagne flute—the champagne appeared not to have been touched. His expression was absolutely unreadable. A light growth of stubble covered his strong jaw, but she was fairly certain she’d seen his jaw tighten a moment before.
She stopped in front of Archer.
One dark eyebrow rose. “Hello.”
Play it right. Do this.
“I don’t believe I’ve had the pleasure…” Archer began.
“And you won’t,” she finished for him. “Because unlike everyone else in this room, I’m not here to bow down to the great Archer Radcliffe.”
The man to his right—a guy with carefully tousled blond hair—seemed to choke on the champagne he’d just lifted to his lips.
Without glancing away from her—that golden stare of his was truly quite disconcerting—Archer reached over and slapped his companion on the back. “That is disappointing to hear,” Archer noted with a faintly amused twist to his sensual lips. Up close, he was even more attractive. It seemed a sin for one man to be so diabolically gorgeous. Perfect jaw. Long, straight blade of a nose. High forehead that was punctuated by a faint widow’s peak. So much dark hair. Thick and luxurious, twisting just a little with a natural curl.
Archer had an undeniable, almost animalistic sensual allure. A vibe that seemed to roll off him. A vibe that had, no doubt, served him very well over the years. She was sure that vibe had made plenty of panties hit the floor.
The gorgeous killers are always the most dangerous ones. They just seduce their victims into surrendering.
Archer stopped slapping his companion. His gaze finally swept over her. But the golden eyes didn’t heat. Just remained impassive. “If you’re not here to bow, then why are we having this conversation?”
Why, indeed? “It’s mine. I’ll be taking home the Princess’s Tear.” A ridiculous name, but, whatever. The Tear was a huge diamond scheduled to go up for auction that night. Because the whole elaborate ball routine? It would end with an auction for the rich and bored. The Tear was the highlight of the event, and she knew that Archer was in attendance just to get his strong, tanned fingers on it.
He smiled at her. For a moment, her breath seemed to freeze.
That smile of his…it was slow and wicked and hot. Another weapon in his arsenal. “I don’t think so,” he told her softly.
Delilah shrugged. “We shall see.” Instead of backing away, she took a step closer. So close that she could touch him, so she did. Her hand rose and her fingers pressed to his chest. Her voice dropped as she said, “Archer Radcliffe, I’m here to take you down.”
She felt him tense beneath her touch. She also felt something else—something she had very much not expected. A jolt of sensual awareness seemed to fly through her body like an electric charge. It started in her fingers—the fingers that pressed so carefully to his chest—and it pulsed up her arm and through her. It was a surge that she didn’t want.
He was prey. A target. Not someone who was going to have any sort of personal—
His smile widened. “I do like a challenge.”
Yes, she knew that about him. We have that in common. That was why she was setting her stage. Baiting her trap. Delilah wanted to snatch her hand away from him but that move wouldn’t work with her setup. “And I like to win.” Her lashes lowered to conceal her gaze.
“That’s something we have in common.” His words seemed to echo her thoughts.
She released a slow breath. From her research, she knew that the great Archer never lost. You will this time. If she could find the evidence to seal the nails in his coffin, Archer would go down.
“I’ll see you at the auction.” Delilah let her fingers trail down him—slowly—then she began to turn away.
He caught her wrist. His hand flew out in a lightning-fast move to curl around the fragile bones on her wrist. Beneath his touch, she wondered if he felt the sudden racing of her pulse. Unfortunately, that was a reaction that she could not control.
“You’re not getting away that fast,” he murmured.
I have no intention of getting away…yet.
The band began to player a slower, more romantic song.
“How about a dance?” Archer’s voice was mild. Faintly amused. “You know, before you rip the Tear away from me and leave me a sad, tragic mess at this lovely event.”
I will leave you a sad, tragic mess. His words had been mocking. Her intention was not. He was literally falling right into her trap. She hadn’t thought it would be this easy.
Delilah forced a shrug of one shoulder. “I guess I have time for one dance. But I hope you’re a good partner. I don’t like to be disappointed.”
He laughed. And, dammit, his laughter was a warm and sensual sound. The man was too lethal.
And you know that’s true.
“I will endeavor not to disappoint you.” His voice dropped. Went molten. “In any way.”
Her lashes lifted. She stared at him. Saw the sexual intent in his eyes. He was still holding her wrist, so she knew he felt the fast racing of her heart, and Delilah wondered just how deliberate him grabbing her wrist had been. She’d been wearing a cool, careful mask, but he would now know—thanks to the fast rhythm of her pulse—that she wasn’t nearly as controlled as she pretended to be.
A worthy adversary. Tread carefully. “Promises, promises,” she replied.
“I’m not a man who gives empty promises.”
The blond who’d been watching the byplay between them cleared his throat. “Um, hello.”
Delilah turned her head toward him.
“I’m Oz Whitlock.”
She knew exactly who he was. Oz Whitlock, attorney. He’d graduated at the top of his law class at Yale, had been best friends with Archer since the first grade, and his primary job was to make sure that Archer stayed out of trouble.
He was very good at that job.
He was also someone she’d prefer to keep at a distance.
“I didn’t catch your name,” Oz added.
Because she hadn’t given it. She stared steadily back at him.
“A mysterious and beautiful woman who doesn’t wish to offer her name,” Archer inserted into the silence, voice smooth. “I am enchanted.” He still had his hold on her wrist. “This is one of those situations,” he added to Oz, “when I believe I have to enact our old first-sight rule.”
Oz shook his head. “Like I didn’t see that coming.”
“Glad we’re clear. Now, if you’ll excuse me, a dance is waiting for us.” Archer led Delilah onto the dance floor. People immediately backed away to give him room, and Delilah was conscious of all the considering stares flying their way.
He’d ditched his champagne flute, pushing it onto a waiter’s tray, and now both of his hands were free. One gripped hers—lightly, as if he feared holding her fingers too hard—while the other rested on the curve of her waist. Even with her two-inch heels, he towered over her. He was big and obviously strong. She could see the strength in his wide shoulders and powerful chest, but Archer danced smoothly. Elegantly.
And he held her as if she was some kind of treasure. Ever so carefully. Ridiculous, of course. She wasn’t a prize. She was punishment.
“What’s the first-sight rule?” The question just sort of spilled from her. Not what she’d intended to say at all.
Little shivers slid through her. Dangerous. So very dangerous.
“Ah, now, surely you’ve heard of the rule before?” He spun her effortlessly. The room whirled, then he brought her back up against him. “Two men, one incredibly gorgeous woman. Whoever sees her first…”
Her shoulders stiffened.
“Gets her,” he finished.
“I am hardly some thing that you get.” Sharp. And she just stopped dancing. Right there on the dance floor.
Voices murmured near her. A twitter of gossip.
“No,” Archer replied, and he didn’t seem to care at all that she’d brought their dance to a complete standstill. If anything, his eyes gleamed. “I think you are someone who must be won.”
Delilah laughed. “No, I’m not that, either. Your thinking is highly outdated—and unamusing.” She made to move away—
But he still held her hand, and he pulled her right back.
“My deepest apologies.” A statement that was as smooth as silk. He began to dance again with her. Light, easy steps. “I certainly did not mean to offend you. I merely wanted you to know that I think you’re incredibly beautiful, and I am very, very interested in you. That’s why I basically told Oz to go fuck himself.”
Her steps faltered. Her ankle had twisted in the stupid heels. She fell forward, and his arms immediately curled around her. “Got you,” he said.
No, I have you.
“First-sight rule. It means I saw you first, so he has to fuck off.”
Her head tipped back. She was pretty much plastered to him, not part of the plan. Stupid shoes. “And if I’m not interested? What if I want you to fuck off?”
“Is that what you want? Because if so, just say the word.”
Instead of answering, she pulled her mask back into place. Let her body sway against his. Anyone watching would not realize that she hadn’t even known how to do a simple box step two weeks ago. Luckily, she was a fast learner.
His hand was still at her waist. She could feel the heat of his touch through her dress.
His hand shifted a bit. Stretched. The back of her dress dipped low, sliding to the base of her spine, and his fingers brushed over her skin.
More electricity. The kind she hadn’t planned for, dammit.
“Unusual,” Archer murmured.
“The way I feel when I touch you. It’s like sparks fly under my skin.”
Her breath caught because he’d just described exactly how she felt.
“That kind of reaction doesn’t happen often. Actually, I’m not sure it has ever happened before. Makes me think that if we were in bed together, we’d be incredible.”
“We’re not in bed together.” Her voice was steady. Amazing. “We’re dancing.” They were in a ballroom. Surrounded by strangers. So why did she feel like they were alone?
His fingers slid to her hip. Away from her skin. “Why do you want the Tear?”
“Because it’s beautiful. I like beautiful things.” Lie. She didn’t care at all about beauty. Give her scarred. Give her different. Give her savage. She’d take that any day of the week over a fake perfection. “Why do you want it?”
“Because it belonged to my grandmother. My father gave it to a mistress years ago. She promptly sold it, and I’ve been searching for it ever since.”
The honest answer surprised her. “Sentimental value?”
“Don’t I strike you as the sentimental type?”
“No.” Not at all. “But you do strike me as the possessive type. If you think something belongs to you, I believe that you will do anything necessary to keep your prize.”
His head tilted toward her. His eyes narrowed. Such a deep gold. Very unusual color. “Insightful. You should remember that about me.” His low words sounded like a warning.
They probably were. “I’m not going to back off. I want the Tear.” Lie, lie. The Tear was a means to an end. He was that end. I want you.
The song was winding down. The dance had come to an end.
“I don’t back off, either, and I usually get what I want.”
The music stopped. The band was taking a break. No, not a break. It was probably time for the auction. Delilah had deliberately arrived late so that she would only have to stay a short time at the event. She slowly pulled from Archer’s embrace.
“Don’t I get a name?”
Cinderella hadn’t given her prince a name. She’d just left him with a fancy slipper. He’d been resourceful enough to track her down. Granted, he’d used all his guards and power, but he’d gotten the job done. “Why kill the mystery?”
“Because I want to see you again.”
And someone is taking the bait.
Pleased, Delilah offered him a slow, sensual smile. It was one she’d practiced in her mirror over and over again until she’d gotten it just right. “We don’t always get what we want.” With that, she turned away. Kept her back straight. Kept her chin up. And she left Archer Radcliffe standing alone in the middle of the dance floor.
Step one, complete. Archer was falling into her trap.
She just had to be careful. Her heart still beat too fast. Her body seemed to quake a little. Archer was supposed to get caught in the illusion. She wasn’t.
Delilah glanced back.
And found Archer’s golden gaze locked on her.