Masquerade Cara Lockwood by Cara Lockwood

CHAPTER ONE


            THE THINGS ONE did for love...and revenge, Asha Patel thought as she squeezed between two men in custom-made tuxedos wearing silver masks in the glittering gold ballroom of the Grand Hotel in Stockholm. Everyone, in fact, wore them, except Asha, who was—not so subtly, she realized now—crashing this shindig. Also, a small point, but it seemed this might be a black-and-white ball. Everyone wore some combination of one or the other, and her Chanel red strapless gown stood out like a police siren. So much for subtlety.

            She moved past a golden column, past the gilded mirror windows lining the walls on either side of the opulent space, feeling like she’d fallen into a costume drama. She checked her reflection in the mirrored windowpanes. She might be standing out like a sore thumb, but she still looked like a damn fine one with the strapless floor-length gown clinging to her curves like a glove. The slinky dress with the thigh-high slit and matching red stilettos suited her perfectly, because she paid her in-demand stylist top dollar to ensure it did.

            She wore her long, wavy, nearly black hair down, and it hit midback. She’d kept her makeup heavy and dramatic, her lips the same Chanel red as her dress. She scanned the well-heeled crowd, noticing a few pointed stares in her direction. Not that she cared. She was here to catch her cheating boyfriend, Connor, whom she knew was here was that empty-headed lingerie model, Kayli. She grabbed a glass of champagne from a roving waiter, who also gave her the side-eye and a slight raised eyebrow. Okay, so how was she supposed to know she should be wearing a mask? That hadn’t been mentioned in Connor’s texts to his model mistress, but then, most of his texts included dick pics, so she supposed he was busy doing more important things like trying to get the best lighting for himself.

            Asha had been monitoring Connor’s phone for weeks. He was the one dumb enough to use her father’s app to proposition models. Enlisting the help of one of her father’s engineers had been easy. And what she wanted now was to find her boyfriend and tell him to jump off a high balcony. Of course, boyfriend was a strong term. Although not as strong as fiancé, the word he’d been hinting about with phrases like “ring shopping” and “popping the question.”

            They’d only been dating three weeks. Hell, they’d not even slept together. Not for lack of Connor’s trying. He came in hot and heavy, declaring his love, telling her she was his soul mate, smiling his legendary smile. Except, it became increasingly clear, Connor didn’t like brunettes, even though he was one. Clearly, he preferred empty-headed blondes. Asha, whose father immigrated to Seattle from India, and built one of the most successful tech companies in recent years, knew from experience growing up in Seattle that she wasn’t everyone’s type. How often had she smiled politely when someone called her an “exotic beauty”—making her sound like she came from Mars? But the worst, by far, was discovering that the men declaring love to her were really declaring love to her billion-dollar fortune.

            She was here to make Connor pay. And pay he would. Except, glancing around her, with all the guests hiding behind silver eye masks, she realized finding Connor and Kayli would be more challenging than she thought. And what was this mystery party anyway? Lord help her if she’d stumbled upon some weird kinky sex party. Was Connor into that? Well, he was an actor desperate for any publicity he could get. Who knew what he really felt about anything? She glanced around her and saw many of the guests whispering to each other and staring at her. She got the impression they were all talking about her. Her eyes scanned the crowd, but all she saw were masked faces. Impossible to pick out Connor’s or anyone else’s, unless she knew what the jerk had planned to wear.

            “Ms. Patel?” Asha whirled and came face-to-face with a pristine tuxedo shirt and tie, and the dark satin lapel of an expensive black jacket. She looked upwards and saw a strong jaw and full, sensual lips, curved up in a smile. Sharp, cool blue eyes stared at her from beneath the ornate silver-and-gold eye mask he wore. Dark hair rolled back from the mask and curled beneath his ears, thick and soft enough to want to touch.

            “How do you know my name?” she asked, suspicious, heart thumping in her chest, because she couldn’t shake the feeling she’d been caught red-handed. Not, of course, that that meant anything. She could usually bribe or cajole her way out of any problem. Trespassing had to be among her most minor offenses of late.

            “Everyone knows the heiress of The Skycloud—founded by your father?” He spoke with a faint French accent, soft and sexy. “Also, I believe you have more followers than he does on social media.” Damn her social media feed, a blessing and a curse. Mostly a blessing, since her influencer powers also made her a decent amount of money. Money that she’d need if she ever wanted to get out from under her father’s thumb. “Your reputation proceeds you.”

            It always did. She’d made her social media reputation as a party girl with loose morals, someone who courted and discarded actors and pop stars on a whim. Some people loved her, some hated her, but they were all interested. That’s how she kept selling all those mascaras and lips glosses, and how her followers kept growing every day.