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Kirsty Walker has had a mad crush on Geoffrey Holland for as long as she can remember. Now, at her parents’ annual masked garden party, she’s invited him up to her room so she can offer him her first kiss. Only when she makes good on her promise she discovers that the man behind the mask isn’t Geoffrey at all, but her cousin Stuart! The man who’s despised her all his life…
Stuart Knight, billionaire owner of Knight Enterprises and veteran of two tours of duty, is not a man to be trifled with. When it comes to protecting his family and its reputation, he’s absolutely ruthless. So when he learns that his cousin Kirsty has decided to offer herself to well-renowned playboy Geoffrey Holland he decides to take matters into his own hands. What he didn’t bargain for was Kirsty’s kiss. Or that it would leave him wanting more. A lot more.
around their grandfather’s bed the three men stood, stiff and awkward. They would have shed tears, knowing that very soon now death would lay claim to the old man, but Knight men didn’t cry, and neither did they allow their emotions to run riot, even when faced with yet another tragedy, so soon after the death of their father.
Abraham Knight made a valiant effort to speak, and his grandsons Stuart, Michael and Steven had to strain their ears to catch his final words. “Don’t make the same mistake your father made,” the old man rasped, in what sounded like it might very well be his last breath. “When you take a wife, always put family first. Marry wisely so that the Knight name regains the respect your father so casually squandered.”
His last words were almost inaudible, and the three brothers leaned in.
“Don’t exhaust yourself, Grandpa,” Stuart murmured. He was the oldest of the three, and, like his brothers, possessed the muscular physique his military training required.
But the old man knew that time was running out, so he wheezed, “Put the family name first. Never let any woman allow you to destroy your legacy.”
Stuart’s jaw tightened. He knew his grandfather was right, of course. Their father, before the accident that had taken his life, had allowed himself to become besotted with the worst kind of gold digger. The kind of reality TV star who’d introduced him into her hard-partying, hard-drinking world of glamour and glitter. Before long, the former CEO of Knight Enterprises and proud head of the family had been reduced to a shell of his former self, a coke-addled, sex-addicted attention-seeker, daily tabloid fodder until he famously wrapped his Aston Martin around a tree after a night of boozing and partying, leaving a very publicly grieving widow, a family reputation in tatters and three sons to pick up the pieces after his highly publicized untimely demise.
“Marry a woman who will be a boon to both you and the family,” the old man continued, relentlessly driving his message home. “Don’t afford the gold diggers and tarts of this world a second glance.”
Stuart knew his grandfather was referring to Caroline Popping, the reality TV star their father had married and who was now their stepmother. Though also present in the Aston Martin that night, she’d miraculously survived the crash with only minor scrapes and bruises and had lived to tell the tale—and had told it extremely well, in all the tabloids and on all the daytime talk shows she’d graced with her exuberant presence. She’d even wrote a book about the ordeal—or rather paid a ghostwriter to pen the thin tome for her and share the profits.
“Choose a wife who will be a credit to the Knight name, not an encumbrance aspiring to fritter away the family fortune until there’s nothing left.”
The old man’s voice was barely above a whisper now, and a coughing fit momentarily claimed him for its own. When finally he recovered, in no small part because of the sheer tenacity of his personality, he croaked, “And never marry for ‘love’! That’s how we got into this mess in the first place!”
The three men nodded stiffly. If anything lessened the hurt as yet another father figure teetered on the edge of the grave, it was this simple truth: they were the last male heirs of a proud and ancient lineage, and the wives they chose would either ensure the future of that heritage or be the last nail in its coffin.
Standing at the deathbed of Abraham Knight, the three brothers murmured their assent, vowing with bowed heads a sacred oath to marry wisely and guard the fortune and restore the reputation of the name that was their birthright.
a hand to her chest to still her violently beating heart. She wasn’t feeling so well. Not so much because of the heat of one of the first real summer days but the fact that today was the day she’d been looking forward to for years. She could hardly contain her excitement and glee that it had finally arrived.
Today she would kiss the man she’d loved for as long as she could remember. She would finally celebrate that love and see it reflected in his eyes, as they both reveled in the heat of that first all-important kiss.
She checked herself in the full-length mirror of her bedroom after picking and choosing from her extensive wardrobe the perfect dress for the occasion. She was going for a bright red cotton sleeveless dress that hugged her shapely figure and accentuated her thighs, the halter strap showing off quite some skin. As well it should, if she wanted to dazzle Geoffrey and entice him to kiss her.
She’d fallen in love with Geoffrey from the moment her cousin Stuart had first brought him over. Tall and big, with floppy chestnut-colored hair, his gray eyes always twinkling and his mouth always curling up into a mocking grin, she’d fallen hard for him at a tender age and now, at twenty-one, had decided that the time had come to inform him of the fact and make it clear that she didn’t want to go on living without knowing if he loved her back.
She’d never been kissed before, saving that special moment for Geoffrey if and when he was ready to return her affections. And today, at her parents’ annual garden party, that moment had finally arrived, she knew. For he’d happily accepted her invitation when she’d gathered her courage and had called him out of the blue, and had even flirted with her on the phone! And then he’d sent her a cute text about little girls growing up into beautiful young women, and she’d known then that he felt the same way about her as she felt about him!
She whirled around in front of the mirror, wondering if she hadn’t overdone things. She was looking positively sexy, not the tomboyish girl her mother had always professed her to be. And usually she did favor her simple jeans and T-shirt combo, but today was special. Today she was finally becoming a woman, and she had the womanly curves to prove it!
Her cornflower blue eyes sparkled, her freckled face only sporting a touch of make-up, and her long, red hair glowing like embers in the light streaming in through the window. Her gaze dropped to her breasts, pushed up slightly by the halter neck, and a blush crept up her cheeks at the sight of the pale swell, rising and falling with her breathing. Her mind flitted to Geoffrey’s hands describing a path along her hips up to her sides, caressing her jutting mounds, drawing her nipples into hardening peaks of delight. Geoffrey’s hands sliding down the front of her dress, cupping her aching flesh, his fingers curling and moving against that special spot that no man had ever touched…
A small keening sound escaped her parted lips. Today she would finally know what it felt like to be touched by the man she loved, and all the pent-up desire and heartfelt longing would finally be celebrated in the arms of that man.
“Kirsty! Are you ready?” her mother’s voice called out from downstairs.
She grimaced. She could already imagine what her mother would have to say about this dress. She would probably tell her it was too provocative—too sexy. Well, too bad. She knew from experience that men didn’t give a tomboy a second look—and Geoffrey was no exception. If she wanted to capture his attention she needed to go the extra mile and prove to him that she was a woman—not a girl. She quickly applied some lip gloss to her cupid’s bow lips and placed the eye mask over her eyes. This year’s garden party sported as its theme a Venetian carnival motif, and participants were expected to cover at the very least their eyes. She gave herself one final glance. She looked quite the enchantress, she decided with a nervous little grin. Now if only Geoffrey would think so, too…
“Coming!” she yelled in response to her mother’s second call, and quickly moved to the door, the movement causing her dress to whisper sensuous promises of enchanting and positively magical things to come.
* * *
in the mood to party. He’d only accepted his aunt’s invitation because she’d been so adamant he join her and her friends. He’d recently returned from his second and final tour of duty in Iraq, and his wounds were still fresh. Not physical wounds, fortunately, but emotional wounds after helplessly watching one of his comrades in arms perish at the hands of a sniper, his life snuffed out so brutally and unexpectedly that he still had trouble putting the experience out of his mind. The blood spatter still caused him nightmares, as did the sight of his friend bleeding out, in spite of the pressure he’d put on the gushing wound.
He cursed under his breath as he sipped from the sangria Aunt Linda had provided him with. He knew most of the people present, of course, but didn’t feel like socializing. Right before he’d left for the Middle East, he’d buried his grandfather, and right before that, his father. He’d much rather be subjected to the hot blast of the furnace that was Iraq at this time of year than have to endure the kind of inane banter his friends and relatives were subjecting him to.
At least his brothers would be arriving soon. Steve had also recently returned from the war, and Mike had gone through the same training he had, so he knew where he was coming from. He listened with stony-faced indifference to an off-color story Geoffrey Holland was telling him about some woman he’d recently dated. The kind of sexual innuendo that was so popular amongst a certain type of young man. He hardly paid attention, wondering instead if he’d ever been like Geoffrey himself. Young and stupid. He reckoned he had. Even stationed in Iraq he’d been prone to the kind of juvenile hubris that was typical for men his age. At twenty-eight he’d thought he possessed superhuman qualities. That he was bulletproof and impervious to harm. But he wasn’t, and the day hot young blood was spilled and turned the desert sand crimson had wiped away what arrogance he’d had left after his father’s and grandfather’s deaths.
At least he had a good excuse to stay in England from now on. Mike couldn’t cope with the business all by himself, and had asked his two brothers to join him at the company’s helm. The livelihoods of the hundreds of men and women working for Knight Enterprises depended on their being successful in turning the company away from the precipice their father’s shenanigans had brought it to.
He watched without interest as Geoffrey waved a mask of some kind.
“What’s this?” he asked without warmth. Even though Geoffrey was a childhood friend, he’d developed a thorough dislike of the man, and had never made a point of hiding this fact.
Geoffrey’s pasty face split into a mocking smirk. “Why, didn’t you read the invitation? It’s a masked party, Stu. Carnival of Venice and all that rubbish.”
He frowned at the contraption, which was supposed to portray a fox.
“Don’t tell me I’ve got to wear this thing?”
Geoffrey grinned and clapped a hand on his shoulder, then quickly removed it when Stuart gave him a death-ray glare. “Not only are you supposed to wear it, my friend, but I was wondering if you could do me a small favor.”
He grabbed the mask from the other man’s hand. “What?” he growled curtly. He wasn’t in the mood for fun and games, and definitely not when they included Geoffrey Holland.
Unaffected by the frostiness in Stuart’s tone, Geoffrey fiddled with his own mask for a moment, which represented a demon of some kind, a pretty apt disguise, Stuart thought. “It’s, erm, it’s your cousin.”
A ripple of alarm shot through Stuart at these words. “Kirsty? What about her?”
He’d seen her arrive and had marveled at the outfit she’d opted to wear. It was actually the first time he’d ever seen her wear something so alluring and provocatively feminine. Usually she went around clad in Levi’s and a hoodie that effectively hid her curves from view. The few times he’d bumped into her at the company headquarters she’d looked more the picture of the reticent tomboy than the attractive vision of womanhood she now presented.
Geoffrey rolled his eyes. “She’s invited me up to her room. Says she wants to give me a present—in celebration of her twenty-first birthday.”
He gave Geoffrey a nasty look. “I see.”
He held out his arms. “So I want you to go in my stead, Stu. Obviously.”
“Obviously,” he agreed slowly.
Geoffrey glanced up to the second floor of the house. The window of Kirsty’s room, Stuart knew, and a sliver of ice passed through his soul. Geoffrey sighed. “Just tell her… I’ve been unavoidably detained.”
“Don’t worry. I know what to tell her,” Stuart told him gruffly. Ever since she was a girl, Kirsty had been infatuated with Geoffrey. He knew it, Geoffrey knew it—hell, the whole family knew about the doe-eyed crush she had on the guy. She hadn’t let a single opportunity go by not to make an utter and complete fool of herself, much to Stuart’s chagrin.
Geoffrey held up his hands in a gesture of defense, a lopsided grin on his face as he started walking away from him. “Just doing what I’m told, buddy.”
He watched him crook his arm into a peppy blonde’s whom he recognized as Geoffrey’s long-suffering girlfriend Giselle. Then he turned to the house, and just caught a glimpse of Kirsty retreating indoors, no doubt on her way to her not-so-secret rendezvous with the recipient of her ‘present’.
He placed the mask on his face with a dark scowl and set foot for the house. He had absolutely no intention to play messenger boy for the likes of Geoffrey, but this was Kirsty, and it was about time someone told her what was what.
Shaking his head as he walked toward the house, he crushed the small voice inside him that was telling him he was making a big mistake. The mistake was accepting his aunt’s invitation in the first place, he told himself savagely. But now that he was here, he was going to correct another mistake.
It was time to put a stop to Kirsty’s ridiculous obsession once and for all.
As he put his foot on the bottom step, he wondered briefly why he suddenly felt so furious with his cousin—so outraged. But then he told himself that it had something to do with his father’s bad judgment in choosing a partner. He, too, had thrown himself into a relationship that everyone had known would be his downfall, and yet he’d persisted and had paid the ultimate price for his mistake.
Kirsty was a member of the Knight family, her mother his father’s sister, and it was time to knock some sense into the young woman before it was too late. His square jaw working, he arrived on the landing and set foot for Kirsty’s room, determined to break her heart and nip this silly infatuation in the bud.