Unmasked, p.1

Unmasked, page 1

 

Unmasked
 


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Unmasked


  Cinderella is about to get wicked...

  But can a naughty fantasy have a happily-ever-after?

  Lainey Kline has one goal before she leaves Melbourne forever: transform herself into a sexy siren, sneak into the season’s most glamorous masquerade ball and seduce Damian McKnight. Only there’s a teeny little problem—one deliciously hot night isn’t nearly enough. Now Lainey wants more. But while getting naked is one thing, taking off their masks is quite another...

  “DARE is Harlequin’s hottest line yet. Every book should come with a free fan. I dare you to try them!”

  —Tiffany Reisz, international bestselling author

  USA TODAY bestselling author Stefanie London is a voracious reader who has dreamed of being an author her whole life. After sneaking several English Lit subjects into her ‘very practical’ business degree, she got a job in corporate communications. But it wasn’t long before she turned to romance fiction. After leaving her hometown of Melbourne to start a new adventure in Toronto, she now spends her days writing contemporary romances with humour, heat and heart.

  For more information on Stefanie and her books check out her website at stefanie-london.com or her Facebook page at facebook.com/stefanielondonauthor.

  Get rewarded every time you buy a Harlequin ebook!

  Click here to Join Harlequin My Rewards

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  If you liked Unmasked, why not try

  Her Dirty Little Secret by JC Harroway

  The Marriage Clause by Alexx Andria

  Inked by Anne Marsh

  Discover more at Harlequin.com

  UNMASKED

  STEFANIE LONDON

  To Canada, thanks for letting me stay.

  Contents

  Chapter One

  Chapter Two

  Chapter Three

  Chapter Four

  Chapter Five

  Chapter Six

  Chapter Seven

  Chapter Eight

  Chapter Nine

  Chapter Ten

  Chapter Eleven

  Chapter Twelve

  Chapter Thirteen

  Chapter Fourteen

  Chapter Fifteen

  Chapter Sixteen

  Epilogue

  Excerpt from Inked by Anne Marsh

  CHAPTER ONE

  LAINEY KLINE STARED at the chocolate cake, which had the words sorry I’m leaving you piped in shaky white icing. Was an apology dessert over the top? Subtlety had never been her style, and announcing that she had secured a new job—and planned to relocate from Melbourne to London—required a special touch. A special chocolate touch.

  Her two best friends, Imogen and Corinna, stared at her. “You’re breaking up with us via cake?” Imogen said. “Seriously?”

  “This isn’t a breakup,” Lainey replied, trying her hardest to replicate the positive spiel she’d practised in front of her mirror. “I’m simply suggesting a long-distance relationship.”

  Imogen shook her head. “A month is not enough time to say goodbye.”

  “I can’t believe you kept it quiet for a whole week.” Corinna grinned.

  The three of them sat at the picnic table in Corinna’s parents’ backyard. Even though Corinna had moved out two years ago, the three women still loved to congregate at the McKnight family home, especially during the summer. Their lush, sprawling garden was filled with native trees that attracted colourful birds like rosellas and galahs. Their song usually soothed Lainey, but not today.

  “It wasn’t easy, believe me.” Lainey watched the bubbles race to the top of her champagne flute. “When I booked the flight, I wanted to scream it from the rooftops. But I had to tell you both at once, and you two are so difficult to coordinate.”

  Between Imogen’s long hours and Corinna’s bustling social schedule, it’d taken a week to find a day where they were both free. But that was their deal—all news had to be shared as a group. Easier to avoid the whole “three’s a crowd” issue if there were no favourites. But it wouldn’t be like that for much longer. Worry stabbed Lainey in the gut. She knew her best friends would grow closer once she left; hopefully they wouldn’t forget about her altogether.

  Hence the cake. Hard to forget about a person who piped her apologies in buttercream.

  “So, hairdresser to the stars, huh? Maybe you’ll end up doing the royal family.” Imogen forced a smile, but her eyes glimmered with moisture. “Well, Prince Harry, anyway. Poor old Wills hasn’t got much left. He’s already in comb-over territory.”

  “I doubt they’ll let me near the royals,” Lainey said, reaching for the big knife next to the cake and slicing straight through sorry. “Besides, I’ll be more focused on the social media side of things.”

  Lainey had been a hairdresser ever since she walked out of school on her sixteenth birthday. Now she had eight years in the industry, which was by far the longest time she’d ever stuck to anything. Certainly longer than her failed attempts at reading tarot cards or working as a Red Bull promo girl. Two years ago, bored and desperate for creativity, she’d started posting her hairstyles on Instagram. Within a year, she’d amassed over a million followers and had brands foaming at the mouth to work with her.

  Then she’d parlayed that into a gig as a social media consultant with a well-known celebrity hairstylist in London.

  “But the contract is only six months, right?” Imogen asked as she handed a slice of cake to Corinna. “Then you’ll come back?”

  “I’m hoping they’ll put me on permanently.” The finality of the move settled in the pit of Lainey’s stomach.

  “Of course we’ll miss you,” Corinna said, shooting Imogen a look, “but I’m glad you’ve found a way to turn your passion into a job. This sounds like an amazing opportunity.”

  With the scent of eucalyptus on the breeze and the late-afternoon sun beating down, Lainey wondered if she should have picked another location for her big announcement. There were so many memories here. And, as excited as she was about her new job, the thought of leaving her best friends behind made her feel ill. Like her body physically rejected the idea of them being apart.

  It’s for the best. You’ve been miserable, and a fresh start is exactly what you need.

  “I’m happy for you, too,” Imogen said, her words a little blurred around the edges. The girl was a total lightweight—two champagnes and she was already entering tipsyville. “But I do wish you’d been able to find such a cool job here.”

  “I need to get away.” Much to her horror, Lainey’s voice wobbled.

  Imogen frowned. “Get away from what?”

  A confession hovered on the tip of her tongue. She wanted to blurt her secret, but what was the point? The decision was made. She was leaving in one short month, and Lainey made it a rule not to dwell on the negative.

  “I just meant there are more opportunities overseas,” she said carefully. “I’m going nowhere here. Marsha didn’t seem to care that I resigned, since she thinks we’re all replaceable, and it’s not like I have a relationship to tie me down. Thank God.”

  She hoped the booze would prevent Imogen from noticing how false Lainey’s voice sounded. Corinna raised a brow but mercifully didn’t press for more information.

  “But you’re sworn to secrecy,” Lainey went on. “I want to tell everyone else myself.” She looked them both in the eye and smiled when they nodded. “I’d rather people hear it directly from me.”

  Although the interview process for this job had been going on for almost two months, Lainey hadn’t breathed a word of it to anyone until she
d signed a contract and booked her flight a week ago. Part of her hadn’t really believed it would happen. Even now, the whole thing felt a little surreal.

  “Have you got a ‘before I leave the motherland’ bucket list?” Corinna asked. “There must be something you want to do before you go.”

  Not something, but someone. Lainey’s move was as much about chasing her career dreams as it was about escaping the futility of her situation in Melbourne. She’d done something dumb. Idiotic. Monumentally stupid.

  An action that might one day be documented in her memoir, under the title “Ways I Like to Torture Myself.”

  Over the years, Lainey had developed a gigantic crush on the one guy who was totally and utterly out of reach. The one guy who wouldn’t look twice at her—Corinna’s big brother.

  Worse, seeing Damian McKnight get married, divorced and then pimped out on Australia’s Most Eligible had torn her up inside. All her dreams for turning her adoration of rom-coms into a romantic reality had vanished. The only solution was to be somewhere else, so she could focus on the important stuff—like her career—and forget that she was doomed to have a miserable love life because she wanted the one man she couldn’t have.

  “This is the perfect opportunity to go wild,” Corinna said. “You can do whatever you like here, then flit off to England without consequences. Surely there’s someone you’ve always wished you could have it out with. Maybe a crazy customer that you hate?”

  “Or maybe I should tell your brother I think he’s hot,” Lainey said with a wink. Corinna pretended to stick her fingers down her throat, and the three women laughed.

  It was a running gag—both Lainey and Imogen considered Damian McKnight to be the highest level of hotness—usually reserved for the Hemsworth brothers and Prince Harry. But jokes were the only thing keeping Lainey’s deep-seated attraction a secret—because the more she overplayed it, the less they believed it was anything serious. Therefore, she could hide in plain sight.

  He was her Prince Charming, her Mr. Darcy, the Harry to her Sally. The Danny to her Sandra Dee. The only guy who’d ever truly known her.

  “Speaking of Damian,” Corinna said, “did you know he scored a ticket to the Carmina Ball?”

  “Wow.” Imogen blinked. “My sister’s stupid fiancé is going...without her, I might add, which has shocked absolutely no one.”

  The Carmina Ball was something Lainey only knew about from drooling over red carpet dresses online. It was invite only and distinctly too upper-crust for lowly hairdressers like her.

  “Apparently it’s five grand to attend,” Imogen added. “Five. Freaking. Grand!”

  “I bet that’s a drop in the ocean to them,” Lainey said, rolling her eyes. “But still, Damian must be excited he scored an invite.”

  “Who knows with him?” Corinna shrugged. “That guy seems to have a permanent scowl on his face these days. I told him to be careful—the wind might change and then he’ll be stuck with that ugly mug for the rest of his life.”

  Lainey snorted. “I’d still do him.”

  Imogen almost choked on her cake as Corinna visibly shuddered and said, “You guys are disgusting.”

  “He’s cute, Cori. I know you’re related, but you have to admit it.” Imogen grinned.

  “We are not talking about my brother,” Corinna said. “Besides, I want to know what the gossip is with your sister, Immie. You’re telling me Richie Rich couldn’t afford to get her a ticket?”

  “He said that it’s going to be all business and that he’d rather spend the money to take her on a romantic getaway to some fancy-pants resort in Thailand than get her a ticket to the ball.” Imogen’s lips curled back into an uncharacteristic sneer. “But I think it’s because he’s cheating on her with someone who’ll be there.”

  “Whoa.” Lainey held up her hands. “Since when is he cheating on her?”

  “Penny said something that has been bothering me for ages. Dan goes to Sydney a few days each month for work.” Imogen toyed with her pearl earring. “Last month I was at the Boatbuilders Yard in South Wharf having drinks with people from work, and I saw him.”

  “But he was supposed to be in Sydney?” Corinna asked.

  “Yep, and I’d spoken to Penny that afternoon. She said he wasn’t coming back until the following night.” She gritted her teeth. “I didn’t know what to do. He was with this blonde and they looked like they were flirting, but I lost him in the crowd.”

  “Did you tell Penny?” Lainey asked.

  Imogen sighed. “I tried to, but she accused me of hating him from day one. She wouldn’t listen.”

  “Perhaps he came home early,” Lainey suggested. “He might’ve been called back for a meeting. It could be completely innocent.”

  “I can’t explain it...” Imogen sighed. “I know something is going on. I’m sure of it.”

  “What are you going to do?” Lainey asked.

  Imogen fished her phone out of her pocket and pulled up a photo of a woman wearing a mask. It was covered in pink stones, the colour of rosé. White feathers sprayed up from the top, and lengths of super-fine chain in rose gold hung down in elegant loops on either side.

  “Is that you?” Lainey asked, and Imogen nodded. “I’m not following.”

  “I’m going to sneak into the Carmina Ball. Then I’m going to catch him in the act and make sure my sister doesn’t walk down the aisle with the wrong guy.”

  Lainey squinted at the picture, the intricate design of the gems and beads mesmerising her. It was impossible to see Imogen’s features. Add some dramatic makeup and a wig or change of hair colour, and her identity would truly be concealed.

  “You’re crazy,” Corinna said with a shake of her head. Her phone buzzed and she snatched it off the table. “Sorry, ladies, it’s Joe. I need to take this.”

  “Hi, Joe!” Lainey and Imogen chorused when she answered the phone, dissolving into laughter when Corinna rolled her eyes and headed into the house.

  “Where’s the loyalty?” Imogen said as she reached for her champagne and sloshed a little over the edge. They were definitely getting an Uber home tonight.

  “He does seem like a decent guy,” Lainey said. “She has better luck than me, that’s for damn sure. I haven’t been on a date in months.”

  Imogen laughed. “That means your life hasn’t been unnecessarily complicated for months.”

  “I thought you enjoyed hearing about my dating disasters.” Lainey grinned and scooped some icing off what was left of the cake. Her message was now an incoherent mess. “Solid entertainment value there.”

  Disasters was certainly the right word. While Corinna always attracted cute, decent men, Lainey ended up in every kind of impossible, couldn’t-make-it-up dating scenario there was. She’d dated a guy who turned out to be as old as her father, two ex-cons and a circus performer who liked to watch her walk around wearing only a pair of mismatched socks.

  “In a kind of masochistic way...yeah, I do.” Imogen forked some cake into her mouth.

  “Why is it masochistic?”

  “Because I know I’ll be picking up the pieces when it goes bad.” Imogen’s eyes sparkled as an amused smile formed. “What happened when that guy wanted you to move to the hippie commune in Nimben? I told you not to go with him.”

  “I didn’t go with him...well, not all the way.” Lainey bit down on her lip to stifle a laugh.

  Okay, so Imogen was usually the voice of reason. Which made her plans to sneak into the Carmina Ball all the more interesting. The thing was, if anyone was going to break the rules and do it properly, it would be Imogen. She’d have plans and contingencies and all the necessary details worked out.

  “I drove all the way to the state border to drag your butt home,” Imogen said, crossing her arms. “And what about the time you decided to go camping in the middle of nowhere with that guy who got arrested a
nd left you stranded?”

  “I didn’t know the car was stolen.” Lainey shrugged. “Besides, I’m pretty sure Damian bailed me out that particular occasion.”

  Imogen chuckled. “Speak of the devil.”

  Lainey’s head whipped around. The object of her fantasies was in the doorway. Damian McKnight, in all his panty-singeing glory, wearing a pair of faded blue jeans that hugged his thighs to perfection. His blue checked shirt was open at the collar and rolled back at the sleeves, inviting Lainey’s eyes to linger on smooth olive skin.

  “What were you saying about me?” he asked warily as he walked over.

  As usual, Lainey gave him a saccharine smile, which he didn’t return. He might have been all biceps and close-up-worthy eyes, but Damian McKnight was the sworn enemy of all that was fun. Mr. Stick Up His Butt, she’d called him once.

  It was truly baffling why she found his seriousness so damn appealing.

  He used to be fun before Jenny broke his heart into a million little pieces. Maybe you need to show him how to have fun again...

  Yeah, right. Damian had always acted like she was a little bug that buzzed around him, invading his space. Hanging around where she wasn’t wanted. And the one time she’d gotten drunk and tried to kiss him the year after he got divorced, he’d made it clear he wouldn’t go there with her, despite the fact that he’d been giving her eyes all night. She was twenty-one then, and fully aware of what she wanted with him.

  “We were reminiscing about some of Lainey’s finer dating moments,” Imogen said.

  Damian smirked. “Like that time you had to climb out that lawyer’s window because his other girlfriend came home early?”

  “He told me he was single,” Lainey protested, reaching for her drink. “I would never have dated him if I’d known.”

  He shook his head. He often did that around her...they all did. “Where’s your third musketeer?”

  “Inside, talking to her lover boy,” Lainey replied.

  “And what about you?” His gaze skated over her. “Any recent victims?”

 
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