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The bachelor auction, p.10
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       The Bachelor Auction, p.10

           J. C. Reed
 
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  “Nyctophobia.”

  “Yeah, that.”

  In the darkness, I could feel the smile on his lips, and for a moment I took the time to imagine him. But all that came out was a fuzzy picture of blue eyes and a soft, sexy smile.

  Maybe lopsided.

  Or dimples, because I was a sucker for those.

  “What’s number two?” His voice was hoarse now. Definitely trouble breathing.

  “I’m buried in student and credit card loans. It’s so bad, it’s unreal. Last week I said to my best friend Jude that if I didn’t get this interview, I’d fake my resume just to get a job. Any job. She laughed about it, but I meant it. I’m really that desperate.”

  “The depravity of it,” Sexy Voice said. Was he mocking me? I had just opened my mouth to speak with a comeback burning on the tip of my tongue when he cut me off. “I think, given the circumstances, it’s understandable. It doesn’t make you a bad person…unless you pretend to be a dentist. My point is, there’s far worse out there.”

  “Probably.” I sucked in a deep breath and regretted it instantly. My head felt so dizzy, I feared I might just pass out. I had to hurry up if I wanted to get to the highlight of my little confession.

  “I guess we all revert to lying and cheating if we want to achieve something, because there’s no other way to get there. What about the next one?” Sexy Voice said, as though reading my mind.

  “You’re not bored yet?”

  “Not yet. It’s definitely getting interesting.” His fingers brushed my wrist, and in spite of the macabre of the situation, I found myself relishing his touch, maybe enjoying it a bit more than was proper.

  The next point on my little list was a little tricky. “I’m twenty-two, and yet I’m a virgin,” I said before I could stop myself.

  “Maybe you never found find the right person, or the right situation,” he whispered after a slight pause.

  I laughed, fighting the need to elaborate. “You have an excuse for everything, don’t you?”

  “I’m just a realist.”

  “Or an optimist.” With a sexy voice, and a sexy body, and a face I couldn’t remember. Too bad we were about to suffocate, or else I might have found myself just a little bit drawn to this one.

  The darkness before my eyes began to spin. If it weren’t for his strong arms around me, I would have dropped to the floor, too weak to sit up straight. “I might need to cut to the last point on my list,” I said. “And it’s a big one. I have carried it all my life.”

  “Hold on to me,” he whispered.

  I was. More than he’d ever know.

  “Someone died because of me.” My voice came so low and faint, I wasn’t sure he could hear me. “I’ll never be able to live with myself.”

  Silence. For a second, I wondered if he had even heard me.

  “I’m sure it wasn’t like that. It was an accident,” he said at last.

  No hesitation.

  No blame.

  No mistrust.

  Either he was a good person and believed in the good in people, or he was trying to keep the conversation light because of our situation, and then sprint for the nearest exit—if we ever made it out alive.

  I shook my head. “You don’t know me. You know nothing about me.”

  Another pause. A few seconds passed, during which I could hear his breathing, slow and steady, but slightly labored.

  “Lay down,” he whispered. “The air’s cooler on the floor.”

  Didn’t he hear what I’d just told him? He tugged at my hand, and I did as instructed.

  His arms wrapped around me and he drew me to his chest. I nestled in his arms.

  The minutes passed, and the alarm continued to blare. With every second, breathing became harder. If out of a lack of oxygen or something else, I couldn’t tell.

  “No one’s coming for us, are they?” I whispered inaudibly, my face buried against his strong chest. He smelled so good it was impossible to resist his scent.

  “We should do something to take our mind off it,” he whispered. His voice had become quiet, shaky, heavy, and—was that fear?

  “What?”

  “I could kiss you,” he whispered.

  His hands cupped my face. I looked up, my gaze searching him in the darkness, when I realized that this might just be our last moment.

  I might die with a stranger.

  “Laurie?” he asked, his voice drawing me to reality.

  “I don’t even know your name,” I whispered.

  He chuckled. “It doesn’t matter now, does it?”

  No, not really. “I want to kiss you, too.”

  In a bold moment, I raised my mouth to meet his. He ran a thumb across my lips before our mouths connected, warm and tender. For a second, I could sense his hesitation, and then his lips opened to claim my mouth with a hunger that took my breath away.

  The sound of an alarm continued to carry over, but I didn’t care. All I wanted were this stranger’s lips on mine and the hot waves of want he sent through me, helping me to forget, keeping me alive—on the brink of sanity—with nothing but a kiss. I had never felt this way before. I had never been in such a state of fear and gratitude that I wasn’t alone. Then again, I had never been so close to dying.

  My fingers tangled in his hair, pulling him closer, our mouths meeting once more, when something hard crashed against the walls, resulting in a loud thud. I turned my head toward the door.

  A shrill noise, like metal scratching against metal, echoed, followed by the sound of a different alarm, the noise increasing in volume. I pressed my palms against my ears, and watched how something pried the door open.

  “They’re here for us,” I said, relief streaming through me. He didn’t say anything.

  “Did you hear what I just said?” I asked again, touching him. “You were right. They came back for us.”

  Suddenly, a bright light blinded me. I raised my hand to shield my eyes from the blinding brightness.

  Arms wrapped around me and pulled me to my feet, and something cold was pressed against my face. I inhaled automatically, then with more fervor as I realized someone was holding an oxygen mask against my mouth and nose.

  “I’ve got her,” a male voice yelled in my ear, the sound almost as loud as the blaring in the background. “We’re coming out now.”

  My head snapped back toward the elevator, in the stranger’s direction, and I opened my mouth to speak. To my dismay, I realized he wasn’t behind me, or maybe I couldn’t see him through the thick curtain of charcoal smoke that had filled the hall.

  “No. Please help him,” I croaked, planting my feet firmly on the ground, but the arms around me were stronger. My voice could barely reach my ears, let alone penetrate the shrill sound of the alarm.

  Struggling against the iron grip, I was carried away before I could turn to get a glimpse of the stranger in the elevator. “No,” I pleaded. “Please. You’ve got to help him. Please.”

  But my voice was too weak to get anyone’s attention.

  As I was carried down flights and flights of stairs, I glimpsed more people being helped out—their faces reflecting their shock and disbelief. Figuring someone might need it more than I did, I tried to remove the oxygen mask, but my rescuer pressed it against my mouth, his gesture urging me forcefully to keep it on. Eventually we burst through the reception area and onto the street outside, where hundreds of evacuated office workers and onlookers had gathered, some filming the event on their cell phones, others commenting loudly.

  “I’m fine,” I said to a concerned woman and scanned the faces around me, even though I knew better than to expect a miracle.

  My heart was slamming so hard against my chest, I was sure it would break. If the stranger had been rescued, he couldn’t possibly find me in the crowd, not least because we hadn’t exchanged names. We didn’t even know what the other person looked like. As I was guided to the waiting medical assistance, a crashing sound rang behind me so loud that the rumble rocked my body a
nd the ground beneath my feet vibrated. A cloud of dust billowed into the sky.

  My heart stopped.

  “The library,” a woman in the crowd shouted. “It’s the library. It’s gone.”

  “The whole floor’s collapsed.”

  “People are still trapped inside,” a fireman shouted into what looked like a radio, and began to gesticulate. “Send another unit. I repeat, send another unit. We need as many people as possible.”

  Oh, my god.

  I stared at the building, my fingers clasped over my mouth in shock as the disaster unfolded. I didn’t know if he had survived, but I hoped he was safe. That he had made it out in time. Chances were slim. I realized if he didn’t survive, he’d be my sixth secret—the man with the sexy voice whose name I didn’t know.

  Chapter 1

  Three months later

  * * *

  I needed a husband—and fast. Not literally, of course. Just for the weekend, or as long as my stepfather would be in town. A relationship was the excuse I had given for not visiting Waterfront Shore for the last three years. Three years of running away from the place of my dreams and nightmares, and a past better left buried forever. And now my lie was catching up with me, because there was no husband or fiancé in sight, not even a boyfriend or a date to play the part.

  “Hire an actor,” said Jude, who was looking up from her computer screen. “In fact, he’s perfect.” She jumped up and headed over to me, her chiffon dress revealing long, tanned legs as she sat down on the sofa and tucked her legs beneath her. I stared open-mouthed at the half-naked model on the screen. He looked hot, no doubt about it, but he also looked—

  “Desperate,” I mumbled to myself.

  “I wouldn’t exactly call you ‘desperate.’ More like ‘inventive’ or—”

  “Thanks,” I muttered, cutting her off. “But I was talking about the guy.”

  For a moment we remained silent as I read the text beneath the picture of a man with a strong chin, dark brown hair, and eyes the color of an ocean shimmering in the sunlight, a shade of eye color I’d never seen before. I figured it was either Photoshopped, or they were contact lenses, which only managed to fortify my first impression of him.

  Desperate. Plain desperate.

  And his description in his own words didn’t help improve his image, either.

  Chase is a very nice, humorous, and down-to-earth lover of female beauty. He knows how to cook and offers to carry things when shopping.

  “He sounds dreamy,” Jude gushed.

  I fought the urge to roll my eyes at her. “He sounds like a bellboy with playboy aspirations. Either that, or he’s a crook waiting for gullible women to fall for his creepy charm. I bet the profile’s fake.”

  Oblivious to my sarcasm, or maybe she was just ignoring me, Jude picked up the phone and dialed the number in his contact details. I stared at her, not believing that she was going for it. I figured she’d come to her senses the moment she heard the guy’s voice, which I imagined was old and cheesy, and even creepier than the fake profile.

  “Hey, is that Chase?” Jude held her breath as she listened, then gave me the thumbs-up.

  I shook my head in exasperation and dashed for the kitchen to grab a bottle of water, then pressed my back against the cold wall as I forced myself to take slow sips. Maybe Jude had time to waste on yet another one of her usual absurd ideas, but one of us had to keep her feet firmly planted on the ground. Hiring an actor to play my husband wasn’t going to happen because it would only backfire.

  Just tell the truth, Hanson. How hard can it be?

  I swallowed.

  It wasn’t an option. Not even a possibility. If the truth came out, it’d kill me, meaning I’d have to come up with a plan.

  “Guess who’s got a date tonight,” Jude singsonged from the door.

  I turned my head wearily to regard her. Her cheeks were flushed, and there was a strange glint in her eyes, like she had just run a few miles, or had marathon sex. She grabbed the water bottle out of my hands and took a swig, then handed it back to me. “Come on, play along.”

  I shot her a desolate look.

  Please. Let this be a joke.

  “Who?” I asked halfheartedly.

  “You, Hanson. Chase is picking you up at seven,” she gushed, and I couldn’t keep my shoulders from dropping. “You two are going to have dinner, during which you can talk about the job, and, who knows, one thing might just lead to another.” She winked, leaving the rest unspoken.

  Usually, I would have laughed at her dirty imagination, but right now all I could do was stare at her, open-mouthed. Cold and hot chills ran down my spine at the realization that with picking up she actually meant the guy was coming over.

  “You gave the creep my home address?” My voice sounded thin, but there was a menacing undertone in it that didn’t escape even Jude.

  “How else was he supposed to pick you up?” She shrugged defensively, but there was unease in her eyes. “Besides, I didn’t give him your real name.”

  “That’s a relief,” I said, fighting the urge to shake some much-needed sense into her. “Let’s hope he can’t read the correct name on the mailbox or ask the concierge. Or remember my face and stalk me home from the grocery store.”

  “He won’t. He sounds like a pretty nice guy.” She nodded, probably trying to convince herself as much as me.

  Yeah, like sociopaths didn’t usually masquerade as nice guys.

  I sighed inwardly and changed the topic to more pressing issues.

  “All right. How much is he charging for the first hour?” I asked casually. “Surely, if he’s a professional actor, he’s mentioned his rates.”

  “Actually”—she looked so guilty I knew she was about to drop the next bomb—“Chase said the first hour is free so you can get to know each other. He’s saving you money.” Jude beamed. “Isn’t he great?”

  “It’s free?” I said slowly. “Since when is something free? Jude, are you realizing how he sounds? He sounds like a major creep with that little extra killer factor thrown in. Like someone who—”

  “I think I got the message,” Jude said, cutting me off, her lips pressed into a tight line that reflected her annoyance. I just couldn’t figure out if it was aimed at herself or me. “You’ll be okay, right, Laurie? If something happens, you’ll call me, and I’ll come and pick you up.”

  I laughed darkly. As emergency plans went, calling her was a no-brainer under normal circumstances. However, these weren’t exactly normal circumstances. If something bad happened to me…I doubted I’d be able to call while he was busy harvesting my organs and selling them on the black market.

  “Besides, he looks too hot to be a madman,” she said.

  “I guess you’re right,” I said sarcastically. I should have been angry with Jude for making this hole I had dug myself even deeper, but we had been best friends for a long time. We were never angry at each other—that was the secret of our friendship. Besides, the fear in her eyes told me she realized that she’d made a mistake, one she couldn’t wait to rectify.

  “Phone him back and call the whole thing off, Jude.”

  Narrowing her eyes at me, she shook her head vehemently. “No.”

  “No?” I asked incredulously, realizing the glint in her eyes wasn’t one of fear. She was proud of her brainless plan and excited to get the ball rolling.

  “I’ve just sorted out all your worries. Just like that.” She snapped her manicured fingers in my face. “And you’re being an ungrateful little brat. Now, get a life, which you desperately need, Hanson, and start planning your outfit for your date with the most gorgeous guy you—or I, for that matter—have ever seen, because we want to make quite the impression. Come on, we have less than two hours left.”

  Before I could protest, she grabbed my arm and yanked me after her. I had no choice but to follow, albeit hesitantly, because the prospect of meeting a complete stranger both fascinated and terrified me.

  What if he turned out
to be completely illiterate? Or arrogant to the point of being a complete ass? I didn’t want to have to find a lame excuse to get the hell out of there, because I was the worst liar, and no one ever bought my bluffs.

  “I don’t want to go.” It was a weak attempt at protest, but, truth be told, deep inside I had sort of made the decision long before I even realized it. Jude’s plan, as odd and completely absurd as it sounded, was the only option I had at this point. If Chase was only half as good-looking and cultured as he gave the impression in his online profile, and as nice as Jude believed, he might just be fake-fiancé material…if he agreed to play along and didn’t kill me in the first place.

  “What about this?” Jude retrieved my little black dress and held it up.

  I grimaced at her, mortified. “I want to hire him, not bed him.”

  “Or you could do both,” Jude said, grinning.

  Jude was a free-spirited soul, but not as free of inhibitions as she liked to pretend to be. Basically, she dated—a lot—but she never jumped into bed with any of the guys, because by the end of the second date she had already found a long list of things to fault, which she hid behind a sparkling smile and a run to the bathroom in order to call me in a desperate attempt to come get her. And every time it was my job to help her out by finding excuses as to why she couldn’t see her dates again. It had been like this ever since we met in college and bonded over a watery chai latte served in the café across from her grandparents’ townhouse. After telling hundreds of lies to cover for her over the years, I would have expected to be an expert in lying, but fat chance.

  Sighing, I threw the dress on the bed and squeezed into a pair of skinny jeans, a black shirt, and a suit jacket that was fitted but covered only half of my butt. Once I’d paired the outfit with flat boots and my fake diamond earrings, and with my hair piled up on my head, I thought I looked modern and fun, but also conservative—yet not too severe to give the impression I might have scared off every guy entering my life, and consequently might be to blame for my current unattached status.

 
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