Secrets Behind the Masquerade

Chapter Four

Isabel stirred from her slumber, awakened by an unfamiliar but not unwelcome weight anchoring her to the bed. Glancing down, she found a muscular arm draped over her midriff.

In the dim light of dawn, she admired the man to whom it was attached. His steady breathing suggested he was still deep in sleep, lost in peaceful dreams. The arm was a marvel of strength and masculinity - sinewy muscles rippled beneath the skin, each one defined and, she assumed, shaped by years of physical labor. A smattering of brown hair dusted his forearm, grazing the skin in a pleasing pattern that made her fingers itch to trace.

He was sprawled out on his stomach, his face turned away from her, hidden from her eager eyes. After they’d made love and before sleep had claimed her, she’d dream about seeing his face. He’d been impossibly handsome, a rugged cowboy with a heart-stopping smile and eyes that would make her knees go weak. But now, all she had was the back of his head and a bucket of disappointment.

There was still plenty to admire.

His hair, tousled from sleep and their earlier lovemaking activities, was dark against the white pillowcase. The strands looked soft, inviting her to run her fingers through them again, to feel the silkiness against her skin just once more before they parted.

Her eyes trailed down to his neck, strong and masculine. Smeared with her red lipstick, it bore the evidence of her kisses. The strength in his neck extended to his shoulders, broad and powerful. These were the shoulders of a man who managed his struggles with dignity, shoulders that had held her close as they’d made love.

Further down, her gaze lingered on his back, admiring the play of muscles as he breathed. The curve of his lower back led her eyes to his buttocks, firm and well-shaped. A smile danced on her lips as she appreciated the view, an oeuvre of masculine beauty laid bare for her eyes only.

In the heat of passionate sex, their disguises had been shed, her wig cast aside along with the masks they wore. The room, cloaked in darkness, had provided a veil of anonymity, obscuring the details of his face from her view. And if she was unable to see his, then he, too, was likely blind to hers.

However, this veil of night was fleeting. The first hints of dawn were beginning to peek through the edges of the curtains, heralding the arrival of a new day. Soon, sunlight would flood the room, washing away the remnants of their nocturnal secrecy. Their features, hidden in the dimness, would be revealed in the bright light of day, their anonymity swept away by the morning sun.

But Isabel didn’t want to move from this spot—disturb their moment.

She watched him, her surprise mixed with a sense of wonder. She’d shared her bed, her body, and unfortunately, she feared, a piece of her soul with this sexy stranger, a man who exuded a raw charm that was as intoxicating as it was undeniable.

When she'd decided to surrender to the moment, to yield to the pull of desire, she had convinced herself that he would depart as soon as their bodies had cooled. That he would be just another fleeting memory, a ghost of the night that would vanish with the dawn.

But he was still here.

Against her expectations, he had stayed. He remained in her bed, his body a warm, solid presence next to hers. Her heart fluttered at the realization, a soft stirring of something she dared not name. This audacious cowboy, this man of the night, had lingered in her life longer than she had estimated. And she couldn't help but wonder what that meant.

But what would he do when he found out who she really was? That he’d made love to Isabel Hastings? She hadn’t prepared herself for that outcome.

Panic ensued. Careful not to disturb him, Isabel began the tedious task of disentangling her feet from the sheet and her body from his hold.

Suddenly, he moved.

She froze.

He rolled onto his side, his palm resting on her bare stomach. She kept her eyes shut tight, praying he didn’t wake. When he remained still, she dared to slowly open her eyes and sit up.

Looking down at the hand, she noticed something she hadn’t last night. A silver signet ring decorated with a familiar family crest. In the middle was an ornate letter K.

Why did it seem so familiar. Then, it came to her. It was identical to the one in a photo she knew well, the ring that had belonged to Shane's brother, West. But West had died in a tragic plane crash shortly before she and Shane were wed.

This had to be a mistake, a strange coincidence, a bizarre twist of fate, anything but what the ring suggested. The man resting next to her could not possibly be West Kallo. The idea was preposterous, unthinkable.

But, as the reality of the situation began to dawn on her, a chill colder than the heart of winter swept over Isabel. It was the kind of cold that seeped into her bones, the kind that came with the sudden presence of a specter at one's doorstep. A shiver coursed down her spine, the tiny hairs on the back of her neck prickling in the eerie silence.

Her heart pounded in her chest. Her breath hitched. A wave of disbelief washed over her, followed swiftly by a tide of heartbreak. The emotions swirled within her, a tumultuous storm threatening to swallow her whole. She felt the world tilt on its axis, her world shifting in a way she hadn’t anticipated.

She felt a change in the air, a shift in the energy around her. Her heart gave a lurch as she realized the stranger - West, if the ring was to be believed - was awake, and he was watching her. The intensity of his gaze, even unseen, was nearly tangible, adding another layer to the mix of emotions she was struggling with.

Slowly, her eyes drifted towards the man sharing her bed. His lips, those enticing lips that had explored every inch of her body mere hours ago, were now curved into a smile. It was a smile that carried a hint of smug satisfaction and cunning intelligence, as if he'd known this moment of revelation would come and had been waiting for it.

His eyes held hers, a silent acknowledgment passing between them. The man she'd believed to be a stranger was anything but. He was West Kallo, her former brother-in-law, a man who had been pronounced dead and mourned by all who knew him.

But here he was, very much alive and lying in her bed.

Her eyes traced his face, a face that was now strangely familiar yet infinitely more mysterious. The similarities between him and his brother were not immediately apparent, but now, in the harsh light of the revelation, those shared Kallo features stood out.

His lips, though, were all West – fuller than his brother's, and possessing an enticing curve that was entirely his own. They were the lips of a man who knew the power of a well-placed word or a lingering kiss.

The man lying next to her was a Kallo, yes, but he was not Shane. He was West, a man who held his own secrets and bore his own scars. Had he seemingly returned from the grave to torment her at his brother’s request?

“West Kallo,” she hissed, fighting the nausea rising in her stomach.

His smile, as much as it was infuriating in its smugness, was also disheartening. He leaned closer and pressed a soft kiss to her lips. "Good morning, Isabel." His voice, deep and rough from slumber, elicited a shiver through her.