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MASKED AND BEAUTIFUL

A free short story featuring Autumn's best friend, Lexi.

A STORM LOOMED on the horizon.

Lexi Henderson eyed the bruised clouds that rolled across the dusky sky. This year’s fall had been particularly nippy…not to mention grisly. With the recent string of murders and the wretched weather, it truly felt like Halloween.

“Is she here?”

Lexi watched as Riley, dazzling in her slinky, cream-colored, floor-length dress with its illusion bodice, stepped up onto the curve next to her. Only someone with her figure—tall and breathtakingly thin—could have pulled that look off.

“She’s here,” Lexi responded.

A thread of anxiety tugged at her core. Wincing, Lexi ran her hands over her bare arms. It wasn’t her feeling anxious, but rather Riley. Unfortunately, as an empath, Lexi felt everyone’s emotions. One day, she knew it would drive her batty, as it had her great-grandmother. Somehow the talent had skipped her grandmother and mother. But genetics were a bitch that way. Skipped two generations only to slap her with the empathy stick. Thanks Gigi.

“It’ll be fine,” Lexi commented. “We’ll find Autumn, and you two can make things right.”

Riley blew out a heavy breath. “She’s just so frustrating.”

Sardonic laughter slipped past Lexi’s lips. For twenty-two years, their sisterly rivalry had been the bane of her existence. Tonight’s fiasco was all thanks to a wardrobe misfire.

As one of three local necromancers, and the only one willing to work with the police, Autumn’s timetable was often jam-packed with investigations and interrogations. The most recent of which had denied Autumn the opportunity to shop for her own gown for the annual Halloween Ball. So, she’d asked her sister to do it, and Riley had chosen a rather… unconventional dress. Not that Riley’s was any better. But Autumn was here on business, contracted out by the hosts of tonight’s event to work the party. And nothing about that dress said business.

An hour ago, the two sisters had shared in a particularly terse phone call that had resulted in the exchange of some angry words and hurt feelings. Autumn had apparently chosen to attend the ball alone rather than wait for Riley and Lexi as originally planned.

Personally, Lexi didn’t mind. On Autumn’s itinerary were séances and aura readings, which Lexi avoided like the plague. She’d enough issues with the living without tossing the dead in for good measure. This was supposed to be a fun night out for her—something she didn’t get to do often. Being dragged into the middle of the sisters’ next battle was hardly fun.

Glancing up at the clouds once again, Lexi gestured toward the entryway. “Shall we go in? I’d rather not be out here when it starts raining.”

Riley followed her gaze and nodded, her oxblood lips pursed in a severe frown. Thanks to the intricately painted butterfly mask hiding most of her face, it was all Lexi could see.

Gathering her own glittering skirt in hand, Lexi approached the door and slipped inside when a young gentleman held it open. Of course, it was the beautiful brunette next to her who held his attention, rather than the midget with the vibrant blue and purple hair. But hey, the midget could still accept the offer with grace and charm.

Lexi’s mouth curled into a pleased smile the moment she caught sight of the Hawthorne Hotel’s interior, decorated as it was in an array of colors and ornaments. Every year they outdid themselves, and this year’s Masquerade theme was no exception.

“You ready?” Lexi asked.

No response.

Turning, Lexi sighed when she caught sight of Riley standing off to the side of the room, flirting with some masked gentleman. Some things never changed. But, inside, Lexi knew the truth. Though Riley held every male’s gaze in the room, her heart belonged to one person. It was just ironic that the man she cared for hardly noticed her while every other Y chromosome did.

“Lexi!” a cheerful voice called from the ballroom doors.

Speaking of which

With a smile, she drank in the sight of Dawson Hayes, Salem Police Department’s most dedicated lieutenant—and the man Riley was head over heels in love with. He strode toward her, tall and proud in his uniform. Quite a few officers would be on hand tonight, to ensure the festivities weren’t too rowdy. Seemed Dawson was one of the lucky few.

“Hey Dawson.” Lexi reached up and rearranged her mask. “How’d you know it was me?”

“Not many ladies I know would sport a multicolored Mohawk to a ball.”

She couldn’t help but laugh. She’d opted for a classic Venetian look, but had styled her hair with a feathered Mohawk that blended with the violet mask.

“Guess I don’t exactly blend in, hey?”

“You never do, but that’s what we love about you. You here with Riles?”

She bobbed her head, then jerked a thumb back over her shoulder. “She’s charming some poor schlep.”

Even if she weren’t empathic, Lexi would have known the moment he caught sight of Riley. The poor boy’s eyes shot wide and his heart sputtered in his chest. She felt her own respond in kind.

Touching a hand to her stomach, she studied him from beneath her thick fringe. Could it be? Had he finally been gobsmacked by Riley? It’d only taken their entire lives…

Dawson had been a part of the Kane sisters’ lives long before Lexi had joined the fray, which said a lot considering Lexi had met them when they were eight. But throughout their entire life, Riley had been nothing more than a little sister to him, even while she shamelessly flirted and fawned over him.

Tonight, however, something had shifted.

A strange sensation took wing in her chest, as though her heart had sprouted wings. Lexi choked down a stuttered breath. Every inch of her had come alive. Blood flooded her cheeks, her breath quickened. Hell, even her fingers tingled.

“Dawson?” she forced out.

“I gotta go.”

With visible effort, he wrenched his gaze away from Riley and stormed back into the ballroom, leaving Lexi to catch her breath. She was no stranger to the strong emotions lust evoked. But this went beyond that. Poor Dawson was downright terrified. She’d never seen him like that. And rather than do anything about it, it seemed he was bound bent and determined to ignore the attraction.

Shrugging off his emotions, Lexi straightened her mask and started for the ballroom herself. Tonight was supposed to be her night off. A difficult challenge when assailed by the emotions of other’s, but she was just as determined to relax and have a grand time.

Dawson’s and Riley’s problems could wait another day.

She eased into the ballroom and perused the festivities before venturing over to the hors d’oeurves and fancying herself a plate. The cheeseball made up to look like a jack-o’-lantern, in particular, caught her attention. Chuckling at the black, triangle nachos that made up the thing’s eyes, she snapped one in half and dug into the spread.

“Oh, the humanity!” a deep voice chimed next to her.

Lexi shied away, her hand cupped beneath her mouth to keep from spilling crumbs. Only when she’d finished chewing did she glance up and blink.

My, my. Hello tall, dark, and gorgeous.

Not that she could actually see his face, hidden as it was by a labyrinth of silver vines and swirls, culminating in two elegant griffons. Still, the espresso-colored eyes peering out from within the mask rendered her speechless, as did the full-bodied mouth that tipped up at the corners.

Clearing her throat, she brushed her hands off. “The humanity?”

“You just ate his eye,” he stated, a sparkle twinkling in the depths of his gaze. “Worse. You knowingly did it. I don’t think Jack of the Lantern, here, appreciated that.”

Lexi blinked, unsure what to make of the man. “And you are?”

“Call me Jack.”

“Like the cheeseball?” she asked, glancing back at the pumpkin shaped snack.

“Sure. Why not?”

“That’s not your real name.”

“Says who? Isn’t the point of the evening not to reveal yourself?” With a broad grin, he jutted his hand forward in introduction. “Jack of the Lantern at your service. And you would be?”

Lexi chuckled, then slid her palm over his. The moment their hands connected, the entire ballroom vanished. For a brief moment, there was nothing but him and her. Her heartbeat surged against her ribs, her pulse roared in her head. Lexi sucked in a sharp breath and swayed against him.

“Whoa there,” he murmured, his other hand bracing her elbow. “Are you all right?”

Cursing quietly, Lexi wrenched away from Jack and stumbled back into the table.

“Whoa!”

“Leave me alone,” she hissed, her gaze flicking around the room in search of Dawson.

This wasn’t happening. This wasn’t happening! Not tonight. Not ever.

“Miss?”

She shook her head, then raked a hand through her hair. Air. She needed air. And space. And…just away from him.

“Did I do something wrong?”

Her attention darted back to him, and her discomfort waned at the look of utter devastation lining his face. He truly had no idea. Lucky bastard. But she did. Of course she did. Because her Gigi had cursed her with this ability to feel everything.

When she’d set out for a night of fun and relaxation, the very last thing she’d intended was to stumble across him.

Her Gigi had once told her that the moment she’d first touched her husband, she’d known. A sensation had swept through her, the sands in the hourglass froze, that sort of rubbish. But her Gigi had known right then and there that the man she’d touched was her true love.

Lexi had asked her once how she’d known. And Gigi had simply smiled, patted her hand, and said ‘You’ll see’. Shaking her head, Lexi reached out and gripped the table for support. Oh, she’d seen it all right. The moment Lexi had slipped her hand into Jack’s, she’d known. Exactly as Gigi had said.

He was the one.

“Miss?” He took a step toward her, his hand once again on her elbow.

Lexi sagged backward, her lashes fanning her cheek as she railed tooth and nail against the sensations pummelling her. What she’d felt from Dawson was nothing compared to this.

And she hated it.

Cupping the back of her neck, she took a second to gather her thoughts. “Sorry. A…uh…sudden headache.”

He studied her with an inquisitive stare, his concern for her almost overwhelming. “Do you need to sit down? I can get you some water.”

She shook her head. “No. I’m, uh, feeling a lot better now.”

Which was a downright lie. Where the hell was Riley when Lexi needed her?

“If you’re sure?”

She nodded.

“Thank goodness. Because I actually came over here to ask you to dance.”

Lexi’s wide gaze cut to the dance floor. Oh, hell no. Maybe others were interested in finding their one true love, but she wasn’t. Her Gigi and Papa might have made it work, but love was different these days. It was volatile and mind-numbing. Day in and day out, she was hounded by everyone’s emotions. Her heart had shattered alongside Autumn’s when she’d divorced her husband. Nothing was sacred, not to her. That was when she’d promised herself it would never be her. Even if she experienced the moment, as Gigi had called it, she wouldn’t succumb. She was an empath. Surely, she could control her own emotions.

“May I have the honor?” Jack extended a hand, once again.

Worse, every inch of her longed to take it. She curled her fingers into a tight fist to keep herself from doing just that.

“I—I’m sorry,” she stammered. “I can’t.”

“You can’t dance?”

She shook her head, her eyes slipping closed for a moment as she mustered up the courage to say what needed to be said. “I can’t dance with you. I’m sorry. I—I need to go.”

Without another word, she swept up her skirts and practically ran from the room.

Don’t look back. Don’t look back.

She repeated the dark mantra in her head all the way out. If she looked back, she’d cave.

Loving someone was dangerous. Just ask her friends. She had no problems helping them find their way and their true loves.

But she refused to become another statistic.