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Bachelorette for Sale
By Gail Chianese
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2015 Gail Chianese
All rights reserved.
There's an evil truth all women know: Beauty comes at a cost. Some spend years wearing braces. Others hours in a hair salon getting permed, dyed, straightened, crimped, or styled. For Cherry Ryan, it was the four-and-a-half-inch stilettos lifting her to a height above the average thirteen-year-old. And boy, was she paying the price. After only an hour in the killer beauties, her arches screamed at her. Only good upbringing prevented her from cursing in pain.
Hiding behind a humongous ficus plant, she slipped off a shoe to massage one foot against the other while the guests arrived. The beautiful, the rich, the generous. Totally not her crowd. Champagne and caviar and thousand-dollar-a-plate dinners didn't fit within her budget. If it weren't for the fact she was the co-chair of tonight's shindig, security would have booted her out on her derrière by now.
Putting together the fund-raiser had consumed her life for the better part of a year, but it was worth it. The fund-raiser was being held to rebuild her neighborhood community center. The icon of the west end of Providence, where families could send their children to safely play, had stood for decades until last fall, when a hurricane ravaged the building. It had been a staple of Cherry's own childhood.
She shoved the offensive footwear back on and worked the aches of the other foot as she slipped a little farther into the shadows. Lizzie, the event's receptionist, greeted the next set of guests with a genuine smile, quickly sending them on their way to the ballroom. There wasn't much for Cherry to do now. She'd been here for hours setting up, moving things around, hunting down linens, and generally stressing out. Still, she couldn't leave until it was over.
When Cherry had signed up to help with the event—to give back to an institution that had saved her as a child—it had been with one stipulation, that she be allowed to work behind the scenes. Her time in the spotlight had come and gone, (beyond bad) and she had no desire to repeat the experience ... ever again. Satisfied everything in the reception area was moving as precisely as a Rolex, Cherry turned to sneak back to her sanctuary in the kitchen.
"Cherry." A desperate plea stopped her.
"Lizzie, is there a problem?"
The young girl waved her over until Cherry bent down, head to head. "Can you watch the desk for me? I need to go"
Where had all the other volunteers disappeared to? The place should be hopping with staff, yet it was only her and Lizzie in the lobby. "I was on my way to the kitchen to check on dinner. Let me see if I can get someone to cover for you."
Lizzie grabbed her arm, holding her in place. "Cherry, I've asked three other people, all of whom said they'd be right back, and the last one was thirty minutes ago. If I don't go now, I'm going to go right here."
"Oh. Oh. Go, I'm sorry, I've got it covered." Cherry slipped behind the desk, easing her feet out of the heels. Ahh, a few minutes of relief.
"Mind if I grab a quick bite? I won't be but ten minutes," Lizzie called over her shoulder as she ran down the hall.
"Fine, but can you save me a plate in the kitchen?" Cherry asked.
Cherry didn't have time to hear Lizzie's response as a large group entered and she started the check-in process. The steady stream of people left little room for nerves or the urge to hide. As the crowd thinned out and made their way into the ballroom, a slow, satisfied smile spread on Cherry's face. No fans tonight. Not a single solitary person had treated her special. On the contrary, they'd barely acknowledged her presence as she greeted them. No judgments. No condemning looks. It was absolutely perfect. Wish granted, thank you, Fairy Godmother.
Boisterous laughter filled the air. Must have been a good joke shared between the two older gentlemen who made their way across the hotel foyer. Both wore powder blue tuxes with ruffled shirts and bow ties. At one time, say around 1970 or so, they'd have been quite dashing. Sort of like her grandfather, although he'd wear the outdated outfit now just to get her gram's goat and snub society.
"Check out the babe. Now, that's a rack," one of them not so quietly whispered to the other.
Cherry's creep-o-meter hit the red zone and maxed out. Hmm, party crashers perhaps. This wasn't a dive, and the invited guests should have more couth than to make such remarks out loud. If they weren't on her list, she'd call security and have them kicked out on their butts. For now, she'd play along and pretend not to have heard him.
"Welcome to the West End Community Center Gala—"
"Say, aren't you the girl from that reality show? You know, the one with all those men fighting over you and taking you on outrageous dates? I'm surprised you didn't get them mixed up and call them the wrong name."
Inwardly, Cherry growled at the man. Outwardly, she smiled and ignored his question and comments while trying not to choke on the overdose of Aqua Velva and Bengay. "Names, please?"
"Vernon Henderson," the quieter of the two responded and then pointed to his nosy friend. "Burt Bennett."
"You look different," Burt said.
"What?" Cherry shot him a questioning look.
"Not saying it's bad. Women should have some meat on their bones."
Seriously, he just called her fat to her face? Like her scale didn't announce the fact every week. As if she needed this prime male specimen to point out her flaws. "Aren't you just the sweetest man? You remind me a lot of my grandpa. Perhaps you know him from the senior center? No? Oh, well. If you hurry you can still snag a good seat before they start serving dinner." She gave a little finger wave as Vernon pulled Burt into the ballroom.
"She's the one who caused that huge scandal with the singer fella on the show," Burt told his friend as they left.
Ouch. Couldn't say she didn't see that coming. Still, if they knew the full truth, she could only imagine how deep their comments would dig. Thankfully, only one other person knew the intimate details of what really went on, and he wasn't talking either.
She reminded herself that all things in life come with a price. Great rewards brought risks, humiliation brought growth, and both created strength. Yep, and smacking a rude person upside the head brought satisfaction. Too bad about the whole time-and-place thing, because this wasn't the time or the place to let her feelings show. Let it roll. Besides, how many people who dropped a grand a plate sat around watching reality shows? Weren't they all reading the next great novel or attending openings for an up-and-coming artist? If ole Burt there was the worst of what tonight could throw her way, then bring it, baby, she was ready.
"Hey, chica, what are you doing manning the front? I thought you were going incognito, which would explain your very server-like outfit." Her best friend and co-chair, Tawny Torres, joined her at the desk, nodding toward the departing men. "They just called me a hot mama. Too funny. Any crazed fans in the crowd?"
What did her friend expect? Unlike Cherry with her pale skin and too-curvy petite frame; at five-seven, with long, sleek brown hair, sultry chocolate eyes, and hourglass figure, Tawny was hot. At least Cherry had great hair, and the auburn color was courtesy of Mother Nature, not L'Oréal. She shook her head and shrugged Burt and his comments aside. "What are you doing out here? You've got to give the welcome speech in a few minutes."
The guests, dressed in their tuxes and gowns, started taking their seats in the ballroom, although the long line at the bar indicated her friend had a few more minutes before starting the program.
"I came to find you to get a dose of sanity before stepping onstage. Do you think I could bribe one of the other committee members to go on in my place?" Tawny's voice cracked with self-doubt and her hands shook.
"Oh my gawd, you're actually nervous. The great and powerful Tawny Torres has found something that scares her." Cherry poked her in the ribs, knowing full well Tawny's real weakness. "You know, George would pay me big bucks to learn of this newly discovered Achilles' heel."
Tawny pulled her shoulders back, head held high, and stared her down. "You will tell my brother nothing. It's our job to torment him, not the other way around." She sank back down in the next moment. "What if I pass out?"
"Then maybe the cute politician at the front table will give you CPR? Besides, your dress was designed to be seen, not hidden in the shadows."
"You're right, it is a showstopper. However, I'll concede you won the slutty shoe competition this time. I don't know how you manage it. I'd kill myself in those things."
"All true. Besides, those babies"—Cherry glanced at the leopard print heels Tawny wore—"are perfectly trashy shoes, and if it wasn't for my pain and suffering, I'd call it a tie this year. Now, are you ready?"
Tawny scanned her notes. "As ready as I'll ever be." She stood and smoothed her dress. "When's Lizzie supposed to be back from her break?"
A faint clatter of utensils followed by the yeasty smell of bread and the tantalizing scent of butter wafted through the air. "She went to get some food before coming back. I told her to save me a plate in the kitchen so I can eat after dinner and the auction are over." What was the hurry? Hot or cold wouldn't change a thing. Chicken from caterers always tasted rubbery.
Movement outside the exterior glass doors caught Cherry's attention. "Mama mia, that's some serious testosterone heading this way." What was it about men in tuxes, especially those who wore them as casually as they would their birthday suits? Primitive, instinctual, internal responses stirred to life inside her, whether she wanted them to or not. Down, girl. Something about the men, their presence, the way they walked, those amazing shoulders, told her these two would be comfortable in anything, but a suit would be their last choice. Nothing at all would be fine with her. But still, they didn't fit in here. A ball game, yeah. A ballroom, no.
"I want the blond. You can have tall, dark, and spiky," Tawny whispered before they reached hearing range.
It was good to know she wasn't alone in her reaction, yet Cherry shook her head and mouthed "no thanks."
"We could flip a coin. Rock, paper, scissors, Spock, lizard. Winner gets first choice."
"You always cheat. Besides, I get the feeling with those two, there is no loser." Pushing her inappropriate thoughts aside, Cherry slipped on her game face. "Welcome to the Providence West End Community Center Gala and Celebrity Auction. Can I have your names, please?"
"Valentine," answered tall, dark, and spiky.
Several seconds passed in silence, and for some reason she thought of James Bond. The man definitely had the arrogance of the famous British spy. Then he turned serious blue-green eyes with flecks of brown to meet her gaze. Her breath held for the split second he kept eye contact, and then with the blink of an eye, he dismissed her to scan the ballroom. Aloof and impatient, he drummed his fingers along his lean thigh while he waited. According to her list, he was Valentine ... Jason Valentine. Yeah, that worked.
"Thank you, Mr.—" He walked off mid-sentence without a second glance. The man was nice eye candy—the kind that looked sweet and yummy and when you bit into it found out it was sour and made your mouth pucker.
"David Farber," answered his friend. "How are you lovely ladies this evening?"
Cherry searched for his name on the guest list and retrieved their tickets from the will-call envelope.
"If there's dancing later and either of you need to be rescued from any two-foot lefties, just give me a sign. Unlike others," he nodded toward Valentine, "I like to dance and am as light on your feet as I am on mine."
"Thanks, but I don't know if my toes can take any more abuse. If you'd like to proceed into the ballroom, dinner is being served now and the auction will begin at eight. Thank you for attending, your donation is greatly appreciated," Cherry said.
"I definitely want him," Tawny whispered as David walked away to join Valentine in the ballroom.
"You can have him and tall, dark, and arrogant. I've sworn off dating." The tables were packed and the names checked off. One step closer to being done for the night.
"Again?" Tawny asked.
"Yes, and you can thank Todd for my decision."
"Which one was he?"
Really? In the past year she'd been on two dates. "I know it's difficult to keep track, what with the long line outside my apartment and the turnstile next to my bed, but he's the bartender from Harry's Place. Turns out he's trying to break into modeling and wanted me to hook him up. He's not even five-six. I wish I'd never gone on Finding Mr. Right, aka, Desperately Seeking Prince Charming. Emphasis on 'desperate.' Everywhere I go I get someone who thinks they know me and totally feels my pain or they stare at me like a monkey in a cage waiting for my next amazing trick."
"Like that guy earlier tonight?"
Dear ole Burt was just the icing on the cupcake compared to some of the people she'd met. "No worries, I'm sure for the majority of the guests I'm nothing more than a lowly staff member. And I'm fine with that. You, my dear friend, are the star of the show and had better get the party started."
Tawny reached out and touched Cherry's arm, giving it a light squeeze. "A few more hours and we can call the event a success, barring any catastrophes that might pop up between now and the end of the night."
"You know you just jinxed us, right?"
Shaking her head in denial, Tawny stepped toward the ballroom, stopped, and spun around. "Hey, have you seen the radio host? I've talked with all of the other participants in the auction except her."
Scanning her check-in sheet for Heather Judson, Cherry shook her head. "No, but there's a chance Lizzie forgot to mark her down. I'm sure she's here. The auction is all you've heard about on her show, can't see her forgetting about it."
Tawny hurried away, concern pinching her face. For months the two of them had been working on tonight's event. They'd sold out all five hundred seats. The money they raised wouldn't cover all of the repairs, but it was a start, and they had more plans in the works to expand the center so they could provide after-school programs as well as more summer sessions. Resources for these families were limited. Day care and summer camps were luxury items they couldn't afford. Cherry understood their needs all too well.
Twenty minutes later, the soft click of the door at the far end of the hall, followed by the quick click-clack of a pair of heels, had Cherry looking up. Oh, no!
Shaking, Tawny grabbed Cherry's hands, squeezing tight.
"We've got a big problem, chica. Heather isn't here. She called and can't make it. She's got food poisoning from bad sushi or something." Tawny released Cherry to pace back and forth, wringing her hands.
Another win for Mr. Murphy and his stinking law. Cherry dropped into the chair she'd previously been relaxing in to think. They had to find a replacement—this was their one big chance to bring in the money they needed, her one big chance to redeem herself in her community's eyes, a chance to pay the center back for helping her all those years ago. She shuddered to think what would have happened to her without their help and guidance.
Tapping her pen on the clipboard, Cherry calculated how much money the radio host would have brought in. Tall, leggy, blond, and stacked. Damn, she probably could have funded their entire entertainment system or someone's salary for a month. "We've got some big shots here tonight. Maybe we can talk one of them into volunteering?"
"I've been asking. No one is willing or else they're not available. Cherry, we really need the money. Those kids need the center." She gave Cherry her big, brown-eyed puppy stare. Slowly a smile spread across her face, sort of like the Grinch as he plotted his evil plan to steal all the presents from Whoville.
A hard rock drumbeat broke out in Cherry's chest, her palms started to sweat, and cold spread throughout her veins. "Whatever you're thinking, Tawny Maria-Isabella Torres, you can forget it. Every time you get that look on your face, I regret it." Cherry stood up and backed away from her friend until her back was against the wall.
Excerpted from Bachelorette for Sale by Gail Chianese. Copyright © 2015 Gail Chianese. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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