It's a tale of two brothers... and maybe a cousin... and another dude that we don't know how he's related but they're all at the same masquerade... and one of them could be a murderer? Nalini Singh started our Holiday Round Robin back in December with a first line of “Everyone wore a mask.” With that mysterious starter, it was all up to you guys from there, and you delivered! From what we can understand, here's the scoop:
Janet is a full-time marketer, and part-time caterer and sleuth! She's uncovered the Ranier family secret: Papa Ranier was murdered! Now, gathered together with her former lovers, their cousin, and another guy who may or may not be related, she's set to unmask a killer, but with all that going on, she still has to watch out for her cousin, Joy. But which woman will find love? And with which man?
Thanks to contributions from authors Nalini Singh, D.D. Ayres, Karen Booth, Shirlee McCoy, Darynda Jones, Celia Aaron, Elizabeth Davis, AJ Pine, Darlene Marshall, Janna MacGregor, Michele Manon, and, of course, the Heroes and Heartbreakers community
Everyone wore a mask.
Janet Susan looked around at the array of false faces in the room, amused at how many masks being worn tonight reflected the truth so often hidden behind her coworkers' normal, day to day masks.
She shook off the ennui of the night, determined to have a good time, and grabbed a glass of champagne from a waiter in a jester's mask. As her eyes met his over the tray of glasses, a thrill of recognition swept through her, but that was crazy...right?
She'd recognize those green eyes anywhere, behind any mask.
It had been 12 years since she had set eyes on David Ranier—not since he broke her heart on the day of their high school graduation. And here the asshole was, serving hors d'oeuvres, dressed as a clown.... fitting. But, she still knew those eyes, could still picture his grin, the quick flash of his dimple, the sardonic curve of his lips. Why had he returned after all those years? He had been college bound, good family, destined to helm some finance company in New York, yet here he was, serving drinks at a low end marketing firm's holiday party. Before she could speak, Don Ranier, the firm's hot-shot new executive and her childhood sweetheart’s brother, grabbed her arm.
“You're supposed to be circulating among the guests,” Don said, his grip turning painful as he tugged her away from the wall. “I didn't hire you to stand in the corner and daydream.”
Janet Susan looked down where he gripped her arm still and gave Don a scathing look.
“You didn't hire me at all Don. Trayna did. You remember Trayna, right? Owner of the company, the person who hired youas well?”
She gave him a cool gaze from behind her own mask and said, “I agreed to come with you tonight, but I didn't say I'd enjoy myself.”
“Then fake it. We both know you're good at faking, especially where David’s concerned” Don sniped back.
Refusing to acknowledge the sting, Janet jerked out of his grip and turned back toward David… but he was gone.
“That depends on who I'm with. With you, yes. But your step-brother, for instance . . .” She let her words trail off as she glared at him.
Janet turned her back on both Don and David—both total assholes… she would have to reassess how she got so many assholes in her life—and walked toward the buffet table. There was a cheesecake calling her name!
Sidling up to the dessert table, Janet picked up a dish and piled it high with cheesecake and a few macaroons for garnish.
“Do I need to defend your honor?” Janet whipped around, fork raised halfway to her mouth, to see the stormy expression of her best friend.
“I'm quite capable of defending it myself, thanks,” she said, just a touch of coolness to her tone.
Janet knew that her best friend, Liz, thought David weak, and easily lead—in fact she dated him first, before she met Ryan, her husband and the father of her adorable twin boys.
Liz always thought more of Don than David—but then again Liz didn't have to work with Don on a daily basis, like Janet did—or have to put up with his animosity and daily digs.
She couldn't help letting her mind travel back to a decade before, to a David she thought only she knew...until he blindsided her and ended their relationship just when she thought she'd found something real.
Now that she thought about the past—even then Don had a chip on his shoulder, making Janet's relationship with David's family unsettled and tense—although David's mother seemed to love her.
Had she only been a “beard” for David, hiding the truth in the rumors that he was gay?
But enough about the past… she'd moved on… finally able to enjoy the Holidays without painful memories.
Just then Janet spotted a tall dark handsome Ghost of Christmas Present and decided for once in her life to live in the moment. Grabbing another glass of champagne, Janet headed for the dance floor, where she could forget about the Rainier family, and the many memories that revolved around them.
Dev couldn't believe he had to wear this dumb costume to the holiday party, but a bet was bet. And didn't he look hilarious—served him right for betting against her. Dev—of course, another Ranier—had always been in Janet’s life. And while Janet and the Raniers got along like cats and dogs, Dev would do anything for her. Of course, he would be lucky if he still had a job tomorrow after wearing that costume to the holiday party. But still. Worth it.
Looking across the ballroom, he caught Janet's eye, and followed her out to the terrace on the ballroom. Dev followed the mosaiced floor until he saw a pair of high heels and followed his gaze up Janet's fine legs to meet her stormy expression.Turning to his left, Dev saw David and Don enter the terrace from two separate doors. All three men turned to Janet in confusion.
“I'm glad you all followed me out here,“ Janet said with a sneer.
“Because I have a secret.”
Janet paused dramatically.
“One of you is a killer.”
Janet watched as their faces froze with shock, and idly wondered if maybe she should stop dating potentionally murderous dudes whose names began with D.
“Donald Ranier, your father,” she pointed at David, “and your stepfather”, she waved at the other two, “Did not die naturally!”
As Janet looked around, she wondered what hid behind each laughing and happy facade. She felt her own personal “Bah Humbug” feeling stirring deeply within her. She hadn't enjoyed Christmas for several years now. Christmas was for families, something she had lost long ago.
Luckily, she had her catering business, that she did on the side, to keep her busy over the holidays and by the time she had a moment to come up for air it would all be over, except sweeping up the confetti. Of course balancing her catering passion with her full-time job at the marketing firm wasn't easy for Janet Susan, and with murderer on the loose, she had more on her mind than catching up on the newest baking trends.
She had a killer to catch this holiday season.
Now she stands firm showing everyone she is not to be messed with. Tight face, focused and ready to spill all their dirty little secrets.
It didn't matter that David was her first love, and Don, while being a bit of a jerk to work with, was still someone she talked to everyday.
David slowly removed his mask, and Janet Susan held back a gasp at the sight of the pink, puckered scar that wound it's way across his deep brown skin, stretching from chin to eyebrow.
“All these years, Janet, and you still pluck me out of a crowd like a flute of wine off a tray,” he said. “And still the same twisted morbid sense of humor, considering I just talked to my father an hour ago.”
Janet Susan flipped him the bird and tapped her toe while she waited for what he'd say to get even.
A hush fell over the group seconds before the lights on the terrace flickered then dimmed.
She quickly chided herself because this situation, the mysteriousness of who actually was who, could deteriorate very quickly if her nostalgia got the better of her.
A deep voice came from the depths of the bushes next to the terrace, obviously disguised, “Well, well, two of my ex lovers in the same place at the same time, lucky me.”
David and Janet turned to see a tall figure, dressed as Zorro, complete with black mask, hat and cape, step out from the bushes.
Unfortunately, Zorro's renowned grace made a fast retreat when the holly bush caught his pants causing him to fall flat on his back upsetting the perfect placement of his mask.
“Okay, can we just pause a minute and recap what the hell is going on?” Janet Susan asked, throwing her hands up in the air at the ridiculous situation with David, Don, Dev, the not-actually-dead father, possible ex-lovers, and now Zorro. “David, I can honestly say that I'd never wanted to see you again after you broke my heart, especially in a clown mask at my holiday party, and Don, will you stop telling people we are lovers, and Dev, when did you get to the party and who is ZORRO?” she yelled breathing heavily after the long, extended, run-on rant.
It was Dain, the Raniers’ blacksheep cousin, who'd not only embezzled from his employer, but broken her heart.
Janet Susan felt her heart sink, just like her once promising night.
Dain is such a scoundrel, she thought as she stared into his startled eyes. But is he still packing that long, hard sword?
“Dain, why are you back?”
“Does there have to be a reason J?” Dain said, smirking straight back at her. “I'm here to spread Christmas joy”.
“Not likely. What's the real reason?” Janet couldn’t keep the unsteady… note out of her voice. “Joy is here. You stay away from her. She has had enough to deal with because of you.
Dain said nothing.
If you think I am going to let you see her, you have another thing coming,” Janet said. “Please leave and let me get on with my life.”
“I know I was wrong J, but I cannot leave without letting Joy know how I really feel.”
“Dain, are you kidding me?” Janet said, irritated,
Janet clenched her hands into fists, wishing she still had the plate of cheesecake so she could shove it in his face.
“You shouldn't have come back, Dain. I'm over you.”
“Please, J. Give me a chance to explain,” Dain pleaded.
She rounded on him, the urge to slap the hurt expression off his lying face nearly overwhelming.
“You have one minute, Dain. So you better start talking.”
“What do you want me to say? That I was a fool?” He stepped near enough that his warm earthy scent beckoned her closer. Dain's thumb rubbed over the top of her hand and he pulled her into his embrace.
“Let go of me.”
“No,” He brushed his lips against hers and she sucked in a gasp as the electricity that had always been between them reared up and knocked her off her high horse.
Janet Susan stumbled and went flying backwards, literally, over a high horse—a child's rocking horse that stood right behind her.
The fall might have rattled Janet Susan's pride but, as she blinked up at the crowd circled around her, her attention shifted and held on Dain...who'd dropped onto his knee...who was holding a small velvet box in the palm of his hand. Everything seemed clearer. All thoughts about weird masquerade happenings, catching a killer, ex-lovers, her faking it, faded. This was real.
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