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Chapter Thirteen. God, she was beautiful, Mason thought, as addictive as a drug

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God, she was beautiful, Mason thought, as addictive as a drug. There was something delicious about watching Vienna blush. Her skin was so alabaster pale everything showed. A rosy hue spread beneath her cheeks, driven by an emotion Mason could only guess at. Anger? Guilt? Arousal? Her expression gave nothing away. She wore the mask of cool serenity women of her class hid behind. And apart from the faintest stiffening at their near collision, her body sent no signals. She was the worst kind of Siren, resolutely distant. Blindingly irresistible.

"Well?" Vienna queried tightly.

Mason raised her eyebrows. She was being asked to explain herself. Vienna wasn't used to being stood up, especially by those who were supposed to be grateful for the crumbs she threw.

"I guess I should have phoned," Mason said with mock contrition. "My bad."

"Is that all you have to say to me?"

"Er...you look ravishing tonight." Lowering her gaze to the diamonds, Mason added, "But you should get that necklace cleaned by an expert. I can still see specks of my grandmother's blood."

Vienna's jaws clenched just enough to reveal a struggle for self-control. "If you're trying to upset me, I should warn you, I'm not as a susceptible as I once was."

"That's a pity. You were very fetching when you were... unschooled. I once had quite a crush on you."

"I see you got over it," Vienna snapped. "What are you doing here?"

"I decided I need to get out more," Mason said flippantly.

She wondered why Vienna still bothered to try and pass herself off as straight at this type of gathering. Her "date" was obviously a stranger, one of those solo males hostesses like Buffy kept on ice for women who failed to bring a guest. Mason had just been offered one of the breed, an English poet Buffy could call upon at short notice. She'd offered a better suggestion.

"By the way," she said pleasantly. "I told Buffy you won't be needing what's-his-name...the Italian count. I said she can seat us together for dinner."

"You did what?" Vienna's voice rose slightly in pitch.



"It's only a meal, and we've had more intimate encounters." Mason watched the color wash down Vienna's throat to her breasts. "I told her I've been thinking it's time the Blakes and the Cavenders made up. She agreed. I think she wants to be instrumental."

Mason enjoyed the soft intake of breath that greeted this disclosure.

"And you expect me to participate in that fiction?" Vienna fidgeted with her hair.

"It shouldn't be difficult. You and your family are masters of hypocrisy."

"If you think I'm going to force the issue and make people take sides, you're mistaken. I refuse to be painted as the villain to my friends."

"No, you wouldn't want to appear mean-spirited," Mason said softly. "To shun a woman after her brother's tragic death...then set out to ruin her. Quite unbecoming."

"If I cared what people really thought of me, I would never get a minute's sleep."

"Well, I wouldn't want you tossing and turning at night on my account." Mason smiled. Oh, yes. She was getting under Vienna's skin. Mason glanced down at the idle hand resting on the gray satin. The slim fingers shook slightly.



Vienna cast a distracted glance toward the dining area. People were drifting in and taking their seats. Her fingers jerked to life, plucking at the slippery fabric. "I don't know what game you're playing," she snapped in a terse undertone, "but you're not backing me into a corner. I am not partnering with you for dinner."

"Why not? You have to admit we look good together, and we're the only lesbians here."

No instant rejection was forthcoming. Mason's pulse increased. It had occurred to her that there was more than one way to lay siege to this particular Blake. If they had to wage a war consisting entirely of financial power and legal strategies, Vienna would win: she had more weapons. Mason's opportunity lay in the other battlefield she'd established. When it came to sex, Vienna had definite vulnerabilities. So far Mason had failed to exploit these. She'd been too obvious and revealed far to much of herself.

She let her gaze travel over the beautiful, arrogant face upturned to hers and knew she'd struck the jackpot. Vienna's pupils dilated as their eyes met. She immediately evaded Mason's stare, looking straight through her. But the telltale fickler of awareness told Mason all she needed to know. Nothing had changed. In fact, Vienna seemed even more susceptible to her.

Up until now, Mason had been afflicted by some misguided notion of chivalry, and hadn't forced the issue. She'd allowed Vienna to slip through her hands unscathed, but she would not make the same mistake again. This time she would do whatever it took to teach her a lesson. Vienna's smug words repeated in her mind: Mason is exactly where I want her to be. She was in for an unpleasant surprise.

Mason already had a verbal agreement from Sergei Ivanov. He'd virtually salivated when he examined the diamonds she'd brought to the party. A man whose wife loved jewelry as much as his did was keenly aware of the market for Azaria's product. He wanted a piece of the action and Mason had arranged for him to see the factory tomorrow. Once he watched a real diamond growing inside a machine, he would be throwing money at her; he'd almost written a check tonight. Instead Mason had him sign the nondisclosure agreement Josh had given her.

As soon as she'd secured the investment, she would dispatch Josh to their bankers and beg for an extension to the loans about to fall due. In the meantime she had to hold Vienna at bay and keep their negotiations alive. So long as the bankers thought the Blake deal was still in play, they would feel secure about getting their money in the end. A takeover process was usually punctuated with drawn-out discussions and legal wrangles before the final deal was closed. Mason would drag that process out for as long as she could, but Vienna Blake was no fool.

If she suspected she was being toyed with to buy time, she would go straight for the jugular.

Mason knew it was time for the unexpected. Lust was a powerful urge. In its thrall, Vienna had already shown she would abandon her good judgment. And she'd been ready for a repeat encounter. Mason smiled. It would be hell finding out just how far Vienna was willing to go to, and this time there would be no backing out.

"I was about to leave." Vienna's mouth tightened, only narrowly avoided a pout.

"How inconsiderate of you. After all, you're the main attraction."

"They'll get over it." Vienna's chest rose and fell with a short, sharp breath. "And Buffy can find someone else to sit with you."

From the corner of her eye, Mason could see their hostess introducing Stefan to an elderly lady with pink-bronze hair and an insipid young girl. They looked thrilled. Throwing down her next challenge, she said, "Why didn't you bring a real date, by the way?"

"Why didn't you?" Vienna retorted.

"Because they always want me to fuck them and I'm not in the mood tonight." Mason added gallantly, "I'd make an exception for you, naturally."

There was no mistaking the effect of her uncouth compliment. Vienna's nipples rebelled against the confines of her designer gown, forming two small puckers against the shimmering fabric. Sounding breathless, she said, "Don't do me any favors."

"Oh, it would be my pleasure." Mason subjected her to a lengthy appraisal. "And I must say, you look like you need some...relief. You're very tense."

"If that's a pick-up line, you really do need to get out more." Vienna was signaling someone to come to her rescue.

Concealing a grin, Mason followed the direction of her gaze. Oxana Ivanov hadn't noticed the frantic eyebrow lift, and was smiling benevolently on both of them. Mason hoped her husband had kept silent about their agreement. She didn't want the details leaking to Vienna.

Buffy's party planner dispatched his minions to wrangle the remaining guests to their tables. Stefan had the pink-haired old lady on his arm. A beardless youth trailed behind with the mousy girl. Vienna was seething, having been abandoned to Mason's tender mercies. Mason could almost smell her perturbation.

Buffy came toward them, her diamond chandelier earrings swinging. "You two are at my table," she said brightly. "I must say, I'm so happy that you're putting an end to this silly quarrel at last. This is what happens when women finally take charge."

Mason offered Vienna her arm. With a hissed "Christ" Vienna accepted the courtesy and Buffy led them into the dining room, where a wave of applause rippled through the crowd. Mason wasn't sure whether the approbation was for Buffy, or if guests were reacting to the startling evidence of a truce between the Blakes and the Cavenders. She recognized various faces as they made their way to the front of the room. Buffy had assembled the remnants of old New York society, many of whom had long-standing ties to the Cavenders. There were elderly widows who had spent weekends at Laudes Absalom. Younger men who'd played polo with Lynden. Mason had seen the same faces at her brother's funeral.

She could feel Vienna's tension, although no one would have guessed from her graceful nods and genteel smiles. It had always amused Mason that the Blakes were supposed to be so coolheaded and measured, traits that didn't seem to come naturally to Vienna. On the few occasions they'd encountered each other in previous years, Mason was the one in control of herself. Vienna usually seemed to have trouble keeping her temper in check. Right now Mason knew she was ready to throw something.

She slid a chair out for Vienna, sparking a few curious second looks, but no one at the table would dream of showing disapproval. Mason had a free pass. She'd never pretended to be anything but the lesbian she was, and anyone who invited her to a party knew exactly what they could expect. She'd never worn a dress in her life and most of the people in this room had probably heard at least one of the rumors about her love life. Her brief affair with a U.S. senator had led to a very public divorce, an outcome Mason had never intended. She'd declined to comment to the press, but that didn't stop the salacious speculation. Not long after the fuss died down over that scandal a set of photos was published in People magazine, showing Mason with actress Kinsey Wade.

They'd met at college and had a short-lived fling before Kinsey landed her first speaking role. She'd been pretending to be straight ever since. After her Oscar loss several years ago and a lead role in a movie that bombed, she hit a rocky patch and contacted Mason for support. Someone had photographed them at a party where Kinsey was baked on substances. The public clinch they'd shared became a headliner on a slow news week. Mason was described as "the lesbian sister of GQ Man of the Year finalist, Lynden Cavender" and the article went on to state that sources close to the actress confirmed the steamy affair.

Kinsey had hired a new publicist to make the most of the exposure and reinvented herself as a hip veteran on the indie circuit, meaning she was over thirty and could act. She'd even appeared on Larry King Live, talking about Mason as if she were some kind of lesbian Howard Hughes. In the weeks that followed, Mason had virtually become a prisoner at Laudes Absalom, with journalists and paparazzi staking the place out in the hopes of seeing Kinsey or some other famous woman visiting "the infamous Cavender love nest in the Berkshires." They'd even pestered her with inappropriate questions at Lynden's funeral.

Mason hoped someone would photograph her with an arm around Vienna. She could imagine how that would turn up the heat at Blake Industries. That vile creep Andy Rossiter was already starting to bypass Vienna. He'd called Josh a few days ago, asking for a status update.

"Where are you staying?" Vienna asked, after indicating her wine preferences to a waiter.

"At Lynden's condo on Bond Street."

"Noisy?"

Mason shrugged. "It could be worse."

"Be thankful you're not in Tribeca. I was down there yesterday and my ears are still ringing. I have friends in the Dietz Lantern Building. The pile drivers never stop."

Mason nodded politely. Noise pollution was always a safe conversation topic in New York. She lowered her gaze to the Cavender Diamonds and pondered the strange twist of fate that saw the necklace around the bitable neck of her enemy. She knew the diamonds had been sold out of financial necessity, but Mason couldn't imagine her father humbling himself by selling the most important family heirloom to his worst enemy. Even at his drunkest and meanest, Henry had his pride. The idea that he would allow his mother's necklace to grace a Blake throat was unimaginable. Mason assumed the necklace must have passed through the hands of a third party.

Vienna didn't seem to know anything about its history and was obviously embarrassed by it. But perhaps she knew how her father had acquired it.

"The necklace," Mason asked. "Did your father buy it from a private collector?"

Vienna looked uncomfortable. "Actually, he bought it directly from your father."

Mason was silent for a long moment, searching Vienna's face for some sign of deception. Finally she managed a comment. "How gratifying for Norris."

"Mason, I had no idea." Vienna smoothed her auburn hair unnecessarily. "Maybe Dad thought I wouldn't wear it if he told me."

"Because it's tainted by generations of Cavenders?"

"No, that's not what I meant." Vienna's long eyelashes descended, veiling her gaze. The chandelier over their table lent a coppery sheen to them. She didn't wear mascara, just some soft brown eye pencil and subtle shadow. Her skin was spectacular close up, its smooth, pale luster virtually unchanged in ten years.

Mason tried not to let her mind slip back to that night, but it was the only time she'd ever been able to look at her for as long as she wanted. There was so much blood, she'd been panic-stricken, certain that Vienna was dying. Mason had cradled her, stroking her face and talking to her until the ambulance came. The EMT responders took over then and Mason had kept her distance, knowing she couldn't remain at the scene. She hadn't spoken about that night for a long while, but Mrs. Danville had brought up the topic recently.

Apparently Vienna had been at Laudes Absalom asking awkward questions. She still remembered almost nothing about that night, but Mrs. Danville was worried. Mason hoped Vienna would let it drop once she found herself faced with a wall of silence. There was a still a reward on offer for any information concerning the "hippy-type guy" EMTs described seeing at the scene, but the case had gone cold long ago.

Over the years Mason had considered turning herself in, but the consequences would have been intolerable. She wasn't willing to go to prison because she'd done something rash in the heat of the moment. The Blakes had cooked up an explanation for Vienna's assault, a love affair between her and Lynden that provoked Henry into a drunken attack. The Cavenders had made no real effort to prove otherwise. The story had served as a useful smokescreen.

Mason glanced around the table, dragging herself present. Ten years had passed since that night and she'd sometimes thought about telling Vienna the truth, but the opportunity never seemed to present itself. Besides, she was reluctant to place another potential weapon in her enemy's hands. Some people might feel honor bound to maintain silence over such a disclosure, under the circumstances, but a Blake?

"I was thinking about the Cavender Curse," Vienna conceded in a strained voice. "Isn't it supposed to be connected to the necklace?"

"The media likes to think so," Mason said.

The Cavender name had been selling newspapers for over a century and reporters had stumbled onto a winning formula with the Curse-supernatural forces destroying the lives of rich people within a powerful dynasty. The only thing missing in their saga was an assassinated president, and they'd tried to make up for that in their recent hype over Lynden's death. One article had claimed he was seen as a future candidate. His lack of qualifications didn't seem to strike commentators as a drawback, and perhaps they were right. Now that the presidential race had turned into something like American Idol-the POTUS edition maybe Lynden could have made the jump into politics. His prospective father-in-law had certainly thought so.

"A necklace didn't cause my grandmother's death," Mason said. "The explanation is much more banal. Your grandfather was a dirtbag, and mine was a murderer."

Ignoring Vienna's nervous cough, she got to her feet and lifted her sparkling water as the guests toasted Buffy. She wasn't drinking champagne, she wanted to be sharp tonight. As soon as the crowd had settled back into their seats, the waiters rolled out the food and the noisy conversation became a polite hum. Mason thought Vienna would take the opportunity to change the subject, but she seemed reluctant to let it go.

"Do you think your father kept a record of the sale?"

Mason frowned. "What does it matter?"

"I was just...curious." Vienna's tone became reflective. "My great-aunt Rachel knew something about the necklace. I remember her at my birthday party, when she saw it."

"Are you talking about Rachel Blake, the aviator?"

"Yes, she's over ninety now, but she still thinks she should be allowed to fly." Vienna sampled a morsel of Kobe beef carpaccio and remarked on its exquisite tenderness before continuing. "She was angry with my father. At the time, I assumed she was having one of her sulks. She'd just had her hip replaced and was feeling sorry for herself."

"I met her once," Mason said. "At Great Barrington Airport. I was taking flying lessons and she showed me how to get out of my plane fast if I crashed." The advice had helped save her life. With faint irony, she added, "I'm sure she didn't know who she was talking to."

"She knew," Vienna said with certainty. "Rachel wouldn't have cared. She thought the feud was ridiculous."

"Ah, a Blake with an independent spirit? What a shock."

"She was friends with your grandmother...Nancy."

Intrigued despite herself, Mason asked, "What did she say about the diamonds?"

"I didn't realize they were talking about the necklace. She asked if Dad knew what he was playing with. He told her she was being silly and superstitious. I remember she said, 'How many has it cursed?' Then they saw me in the doorway and stopped talking."

"You never asked her what she meant?" Mason drizzled vinaigrette on a slice of Mozzarella di bufala. She'd foresworn the Coromandel oysters. Her vegetarian habits weren't confined to four-legged creatures.

"No, I thought it was probably more Cavender angst and I was sick of the whole subject."

Mason understood the sentiment. A week had seldom passed at Laudes Absalom in which the Blakes weren't vilified. She'd learned to tune out before she finished elementary school. As for asking questions about the Curse, why invite another rant?

"I suppose it's strange to see me wearing it." The color deepened around Vienna's throat in stark contrast to the icy glitter of the diamonds. "Really, it should have been passed down to you."

Mason met her troubled gaze. Surprised by the show of sensitivity, she said, "Seriously, do I look like the kind of woman who'd wear a fancy necklace? I'm sure Dad knew it would just sit in a drawer gathering dust if I had it."

She'd inherited most of her mother's jewelry, at least the pieces Henry didn't think were worth selling. The only item she wore constantly was an old-fashioned bloodstone pinky ring etched inside with her mother's initials. She kept Lynden's family crest ring in a trinket box in the library.

Vienna eyed her quizzically. "You don't seem angry."

"What would be the point? What's done is done. Besides, it looks good on you."

Mason studied the heavy Titian ripples drawn back from Vienna's temples. Her face was strong. Even in the soft golden lighting, her cheekbones were high and her nose a little too long to be girlish. It went with her Blake chin, stubborn and solidly formed. Her mouth laid claim to a sensuous femininity she could have enhanced with dark red lipstick, but she'd chosen a modest shade. The same understatement was evident in her elegant gray satin dress. The gown was form-fitting but not revealing, seductive but not overtly sexy. It spelled out the woman Vienna had become-sleekly untouchable.

Mason pictured her naked and abandoned, pinned beneath her. Begging. Moaning. The tantalizing image faded fast as she found herself wondering if she could persuade Vienna to let herself go again, or if their kisses, and that pent-up moment in the great hall, were nothing more than a concession to curiosity, after years wondering how it would feel. Maybe she'd blown her chances by backing off and leaving Vienna in the wind for the past two weeks. And maybe the child who'd rebelled against her family and reached for Mason's hand so long ago was truly lost.

The thought stabbed her. With one look, Vienna had owned her. Savage providence...it had gnawed at her all these years, the belief that Vienna was meant for her. That somehow the joyous innocent she'd stolen from the Blakes that day would be hers. She'd never been able to shake that conviction. Over time she'd crushed the senseless adoration she harbored for the girl next door, only to face a darker enemy. Her desire for Vienna had packed on muscle in its lonely prison, sucking strength from her connections with other women and affecting her with a sense of helplessness.

Mason stared down at her food. If there was a Curse, she lived it, the Cavender who wanted a Blake. She resented her condition bitterly and resented the woman at its core. Even now, wearing the guise of civilization, she was aware of the pawing, insistent creature within, the predatory self wrestling its chains. If she had a pelt it would be standing on end in Vienna's presence, at the merest possibility of her touch. She wondered if Vienna sensed that hungry presence. Was that why she kept looking away?

What was she afraid of-that she would succumb once again and allow Mason to kiss her, to force her open? Mason's mouth trembled. She took a sharp breath, inhaling the mix of scents around her. Jasmine. Grape. Tannin. Honey. Juniper. Her own musk and sandalwood were also detectable, because she was perspiring. Her body tingled, as it did when Vienna ruled her mind. She was never free of her fierce yearnings and a pounding sorrow over what might have been.

She should have risked everything and told Vienna the truth a long time ago, back when there was a chance that they could write different rules. When they were too young to have hardened themselves. They could have thrown off the swaddling of their birth and drawn strength from each other. But too much had happened since those callow days. Even if they tried, Mason doubted they could be anything but foes now. She no longer trusted that fate would contrive in their favor and deliver happiness as if by entitlement. Reality had intervened.

The only question now was how to make her new game plan work. She needed Vienna to believe that she was going to do the deal, but she didn't want to lie outright. The sexual tension between them made a chink in Vienna's armor, but it wouldn't be enough to blind her. She was naturally suspicious and also forearmed, having allowed herself to explore the forbidden two weeks ago. Her ambivalence had been apparent even then, and still Mason wondered if that night in her bed would have happened, even if they'd had dinner together. She suspected not. By then, Vienna would have changed her mind and suppressed the impulse.

If Mason wanted to manipulate her, she would have to dismantle that formidable self-control. Luckily, rocket science would not be required. Jerks through the ages had fallen back on the same reliable seduction method.

Intoxication.

 


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