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The bachelor auction, p.11
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       The Bachelor Auction, p.11

           J. C. Reed
 
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  Unattached status.

  I despised those two words strung together because they sounded like an incurable disease. Given that I was only twenty-three, there was still hope. Unfortunately, some people in my life thought differently, which was why I had fled across the country to be far away from Waterfront Shore. Far away from high expectations and an old life that harbored too many dark secrets.

  Regarding myself in the floor-to-ceiling mirror, I couldn’t help but give an approving nod at my reflection. The jeans emphasized my butt, drawing attention away from the wide hips I used to hate as a teen. The shirt sat tight around my bust, but slightly loose around the waist area so I wouldn’t look like a stuffed turkey. And the jacket gave me an academic flair that screamed “business administration professional.” I might not be as tall and thin as Jude, or as stunningly pretty, but I knew how to complement my strong points, which were my eyes and my full lips painted in a sheer burgundy red. I was so pleased with my choice of attire that I turned to Jude proudly.

  “How do I look?”

  “Well, you certainly won’t have to fend off any advances, if that’s what you’re so worried about. It’s, simply put, hideous.” Jude pointed at my suit jacket, grinning. “You sure you want to wear that? I wouldn’t hit on you dressed like that.”

  I turned back to the mirror to give myself a critical once-over. “What’s wrong with it?”

  “Better ask, what’s not wrong with it. It reminds me of an eighties music video, and not in a good way.”

  Jude loved surfing YouTube for old and horrendous music videos. She said it helped with her job as an Internet entrepreneur. After watching her dabble in this and that for the last two years, building websites and blogging, I was still not sure how exactly she was doing it job-wise, but she made more money than I did and paid more than half her share of the bills, so who was I to complain? I loved this jacket and should have felt offended, but the beauty of our friendship was that whatever the other said was accepted as constructive criticism. Given that Jude was also a bit of a fashion fanatic, I knew I should listen to her advice, which I usually did.

  Just not today.

  “The jacket’s staying. End of discussion,” I said, and began to apply a thin layer of lipstick. “I’m not meeting this guy to impress him. I’m hiring a professional actor, so he’d better be good and decent. If he so much as looks like a creep, never mind talking or behaving like one, I promise I’ll hold you responsible for the rest of your life. After all, it was your idea.”

  “Relax.” Jude laughed. “Tonight isn’t just any night. It’s your big night.”

  No idea what she meant by that, and I certainly didn’t want to know.

  By five to seven, I was more nervous than I cared to admit. I hadn’t been on a date in forever. Come to think of it, it had been more than two years. It wasn’t from a lack of requests and interest, but more that I was a busy person. There had been college and my search for work, which took up most of my time now.

  “I don’t think it’s a good idea. I don’t even have time for Chase,” I muttered. His name rolled off my tongue so naturally, it was almost scary. Like it belonged there, with all the implications a sexy male name brought with it.

  There, I had said it. He sounded sexy as hell and even looked the part. And we were going to spend time together.

  This isn’t a date, Hanson.

  Damn right it wasn’t. We were talking a business proposition. A job—if he was half civilized and up for playing the doting fiancé bull. Unfortunately, the knowledge that he was an actor probably desperate to be hired wasn’t helping in taking the edge off.

  “Hey.” Jude snapped her fingers in my face again. I flinched and shot her a WTF look. She glared at me, but there was something strange about her. She was laughing at me, I realized.

  Damn it!

  Jude knew I was nervous, and she enjoyed every torture-filled second. My cheeks caught fire. I could feel the onset of a blush crawling all over my face and neck, and spreading down to my chest.

  To my chagrin, the bell rang and Jude jumped up, dashing for the door before I could stop her.

  “Wait. No, Jude.” My voice came out all croaky and weak. My heart began to beat so hard I might just be on the verge of having a heart attack. Voices carried over from the hall. Then the tinkle of laughter. Turning toward the open door, I strained to listen. The voices were muffled, but from Jude’s eager chatter, I could tell she was delighted and made no secret of it.

  Oh, my god.

  Any moment, I’d have to face him. I turned my head left and right, pondering whether I should maybe climb out the window and just leave. I could always pretend later that I had to pick up some milk and forgot all about the meeting.

  “Laurie!” Jude yelled. I flinched and jumped back at the prospect of having been caught eavesdropping. Two pairs of footsteps thumped down the hall. I froze to the spot. She couldn’t possibly have asked him—

  In they stepped.

  I stared in horror at Jude’s toned body and then at the brown-haired guy towering behind her, and for a moment the entire situation began to play in slow motion before my eyes. Jude said something, but all I could do was stare at the guy behind her as I broke out in a sweat.

  Fuckety hot!

  That was all my mind could come up with, even though my monosyllabic and simplistic description of him couldn’t possibly do him justice.

  He was stunning.

  I should have been more articulate, but only six words came to my mind straight away.

  Unbelievably stalkable. Fuckably sexy. Simply tastylicious.

  He was so hot he couldn’t possibly be real. Perfect in every way, with dark brown hair framing a masculine face with a straight nose, and the kind of bedroom eyes that invited you to gaze into them right before you screamed his name as you came over and over again.

  Hell, I wanted to scream his name, and he was probably not even that good. I mean, anyone who was physically that flawless must have an ego the size of the White House. The guy’s impossibly blue eyes turned on me, and an amused flicker appeared in them. He stepped around Jude with a wicked smile on his lips. My heart dropped in my panties.

  Sweet cow.

  He was smiling at me—as if knowing I was attracted to him. That was the last thing I wanted. I forced myself to look away from this impossible beauty, only for my gaze to settle on his chest. Unfortunately, my hormones didn’t seem to care much just how unfortunate and awkward the entire situation was.

  I wanted to run. I wanted to hide. But all I could do was stay glued to the spot while staring at the way his shirt seemed to emphasize the strong muscles in his arms and draw attention to his flat abdomen and strong thighs. I wondered if they were as hard as they looked.

  “Laurie, this is Chase,” Jude said, pointing at him. Did I detect a hint of amusement in her voice? And if so, why was everyone laughing at me? Was it that obvious that I was terrified of being alone with this man?

  I wanted to say something clever—something that would show him he hadn’t turned me into a half-wit—yet. But all I managed was a weak smile. I even found myself holding out my hand, then flinching as he leapt forward and grabbed it in his. I almost shrank back at how warm his skin was.

  He had manly hands. Capable but groomed, and I realized in his line of work manicures were probably mandatory. Embarrassed, I pulled back, because, let’s be honest, I couldn’t remember the last time I had a mani-pedi, but he held on tight, not yet willing to let me go.

  “Hi, Laurie.”

  God, even his voice was perfect.

  All deep and sensual, and way too sexy.

  He sounded like he had just stepped out of my soft rock iTunes collection. It was the kind of voice that urged a woman to dream of places far away from her office. Places that might end up with him being in my bed. And what woman with her panties in the right place wouldn’t be attracted to that? Besides, I was a sucker for long, dark lashes, broad shoulders, and bedroom eyes. I loo
ked away, mortified, because I thought my experience with the male species had taught me to look beyond physical attributes and into a place called “personality.” And, judging by the way he looked, all self-assured and arrogant, Chase couldn’t possibly have much going on for him in the personality department.

  “I think this is all a mistake,” I said.

  I didn’t know why I was so angry all of a sudden, but I yanked my hand away a bit too harshly and threw Jude my most venomous look.

  “Gotta go. Good luck, you two,” Jude said, and before I could protest, she was out the door.

  The traitor!

  She was the one who had brought this on me. So, obviously, she shouldn’t be the one running. Besides, the guy could still be a creep. Or a killer. Or both.

  I took a deep breath and let it out slowly as I turned to Chase, almost struck speechless again. But only almost, because I thought I had found the perfect recipe for dealing with those blue eyes and the strange expression in them. I’d either ask him to leave, or I’d deal with him like a professional adult. Seeing that he was already here, I decided to give him a chance.

  One opportunity to prove himself. If he blew it, that was it.

  “Mr.…” I trailed off, waiting for him to fill in the blanks.

  “Just Chase.” He crossed his arms over his broad chest and regarded me coolly. “Is that what you’re wearing?” He raised a brow and pointed at my jacket, the slightest hint of amusement on his lips.

  I frowned, perplexed by his sudden straightforwardness.

  Jerk with a capital “J.”

  “Actually, this is just camouflage for my real outfit,” I said coolly. “You know, the one I’m hiding underneath it.” I fought the urge to roll my eyes. Seriously, why were people ganging up against my outfit? Was it really that bad? I raised my chin defiantly and narrowed my eyes on him, challenging him. “Why? You don’t like it?”

  “I do. I’m just used to women wearing”—he paused, and his mouth twitched at the corners—“let’s just say, other kinds of clothes whenever they have a date with me.”

  I bet.

  “This isn’t a date. It’s a job interview,” I muttered, and grabbed my handbag, heading out the door in the hope that he’d follow. He chuckled behind me, and I called over my shoulder, “I’m interviewing you,” just in case his mighty ego might have misinterpreted the situation.

  With guys like him, you never knew.

  Actually, with guys like him, you needed to spell out that they weren’t the only male specimens in the world. “Just so you know, I have a date after this meeting”—I made sure to emphasize the word—“so we’d better hurry.”

  “Great. Let’s get this over with.” In spite of his choice of words, he actually sounded excited.

  I clamped my mouth shut and let him take the lead.

  Chase’s car was parked outside, and, to my surprise, it was the sort of sleek sports thingy you’d usually see on television, racing or involved in a road accident.

  “Here you go.” He opened the door, and I stopped to stare. For a low-paid actor, he seemed to be able to afford an expensive car. Even the doors didn’t open sideways, but upward, which was unnatural. But kind of cool. The thought managed to irritate me even more.

  Chase held the door open, and I slumped into the black leather seat, marveling at how smooth and cool it felt against my skin. I followed him from the corner of my eyes as he rounded the car and slipped into the driver’s seat. Then I asked casually, “Where are we going?”

  “It’s a surprise.” The engine roared to life. The noise was so loud I slumped deeper into my seat before one of the neighbors could see me and think I had joined a gang.

  Chapter 2

  Take a leap of faith, Laurie.

  Following Jude’s words, I breathed in and out to calm my nerves. Upon my request, Chase had opened the window, and now I was literally swallowing whole chunks of the cold air as it wafted in, in the hope that the wind would infuse some sense of reality into me. It had been such a long time since I’d last gone out with a man that I had forgotten how to make small talk, let alone lead a meaningful conversation. Luckily, Chase knew how to fill the uncomfortable silence that had been looming over my head like a curse ever since our meeting.

  “I thought you might like a good, old Texan meal.”

  “It’s fine,” I croaked, damning myself for demanding he open the window in the first place because my throat had turned dry and sore.

  “I can still take us somewhere else.” Raising his brows, he looked at me sideways, and for a moment our eyes connected in the semi-darkness of the car. My heart took another unwelcome dive.

  I shook my head, unable to utter a single word, and interlaced my fingers in my lap, squeezing hard until the skin felt painfully taut.

  Wherever he was taking me was okay.

  I wasn’t planning on staying for dessert anyway. I smiled at myself because I had it all figured out. Get a salad or something while asking him a few questions while pretending that he was a suitable candidate, then fire him. Not on the spot, of course, because, obviously, I didn’t want him to be offended, or—worse yet—seek revenge for wasting his time. But fire him nevertheless, after I called a cab home, which would be right after one drink. Until then I would stay friendly. Professional. Endure his boring chats and his obnoxious confidence.

  Because, to be realistic, good looks or not, Chase wasn’t suitable for the job.

  God, it was such a fantastic plan!

  Jude would be pleased that I had done my best to find a suitable fiancé, and I could go back to brainstorming a less vacuous idea. Duty done, and no hard feelings.

  The car took a sharp right, and we drove in silence for another minute or two before Chase asked, “Do you mind if I turn on the music?” Without waiting for my reply, he turned on the radio and closed the window.

  Great, he probably thought I was boring. Possibly the worst company he’d ever had. My smile was wiped off my face. I sank deeper into my seat, ready to drown in my mortification.

  “So, what’s this job all about?” Chase asked, tapping his fingers to some pop charts tune—exactly the kind of music I would have expected him to like. The question didn’t exactly take me by surprise. I had thought about my answer and knew exactly what to say.

  “I need a fiancé. A future husband.”

  Only it didn’t come out as clever and poised as I had planned. I pushed a stray strand of hair out of my face and turned to catch his reaction. He was smiling—the kind of smile I’d have gladly slapped off his face if I weren’t against violence.

  “I didn’t mean—” I began, then closed my mouth as his gaze turned on me, and heat rushed to my face.

  “Usually, I need a proposal first, but I’ll make an exception for you.”

  He was laughing at me.

  Damn him!

  I cringed as another hot wave of humiliation washed over me.

  “I’m twenty-two, a college graduate, and very much in love with my independence,” I said through gritted teeth. “Unfortunately, where I come from, that’s not an acceptable status.”

  I shrugged because that was all I wanted to explain. In fact, I didn’t need to explain myself to this stranger at all. The guy would be history by tomorrow anyway, and then he could go back to his manicures and scantily clad women kind of life, while I’d gladly return to my matchbox apartment and boring nights in.

  “And I’m twenty-eight, not a college graduate, and very much in love with my independence.” He shrugged. “You see, we already have one of three things in common. If that doesn’t make for a great pretend engagement, then I don’t know what will.”

  The car pulled abruptly into a dark side road. To either side stretched what looked like warehouses closed for the night. The moon was obscured by dense rain clouds, bathing the area in scary darkness. Apart from a car or two passing us by, nothing stirred. This was absolutely what I had expected—the knowledge hit me like a rock in the pit of my stoma
ch.

  My date was a psycho.

  My gut feeling had been right all along, and Jude sucked—big time. I swallowed hard and gently pushed my hand into my handbag, my fingers fishing for my cell phone, ready to call the police and communicate my whereabouts…as soon as I found out where we were. Or, if there wasn’t enough time, I’d fish out the pepper spray I always carried with me.

  I craned my neck to look for a street sign, anything to give away my whereabouts, when the tires screeched on the wet asphalt.

  Chase pulled into a parking lot and killed the engine. I peered up at the dimly lit building in front of us, and my jaw dropped.

  “Is this a—” I almost choked on the word.

  “A biker bar?”

  A strip joint, I wanted to ask, but realized I might have gotten the picture before me all wrong. The blinking lights of a woman standing in front of what looked like a stripping pole were open to interpretation. In fact, I wasn’t even sure it was a woman. Maybe a guy with really tall legs leaning against the corner of a building? Or maybe it was supposed to be a very thin slice of bacon wrapped around a fork?

  “It used to be a strip club. They haven’t changed the sign yet,” Chase said, sensing my confusion.

  “Exactly your thing, I bet.” The words left my mouth before I could stop them. To my surprise, Chase just laughed and opened the door, then walked around the car to help me out.

  I grabbed my handbag, pressing it against my chest in case we were mugged, even though, from the look of the dark parking lot, there were only a few parked cars and no people around. It probably wasn’t a particularly popular place, I deduced as I watched Chase lock up behind us.

  “Initially, I wanted to take you to a nice restaurant, but I figured you might need to loosen up a bit.” His eyes bored into mine, and for a moment we just stared at each other. In the moonless night, the ocean-blue color looked like a raging storm.

 
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