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Beauty and the Bachelor (Bachelor Auction)
A Bachelor Auction Novel
By Naima Simone
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2015 Naima Bryant
All rights reserved.
During Lucas Oliver's first week as a new transfer student to the Chicago public school system, he'd witnessed a fight between a kid who should've been a sophomore in college, not high school, and a tall, skinny freshman.
Well ... "fight" was a bit of a misnomer.
The skinny kid, Terrance Wallace, had tried to walk away — probably applying that "turn the other cheek" rhetoric he'd learned in Sunday school. He'd ended up sprawled on the floor, that cheek busted.
The following year, Terrance returned to school beefed up and full of 'roid rage. The prey had suddenly become the predator, handing out the same beatdowns he used to suffer.
Lucas had learned two valuable lessons then. Well, two and a half.
One. Get before you get got.
Two. Preparation is the key to successful revenge.
Two and a half. Steroids are some nasty shit.
Now, years later, standing in a crowded ballroom at an event hosted by the Rhodonite Society, a philanthropic organization comprised of Boston's wealthy elite, Lucas possessed an affinity for Terrance. True, Lucas's own revenge plan had taken considerably more time to set in motion than a summer of pumping weights and shooting up. Fifteen years longer.
Still, as he hovered on the cusp of realizing his dream of retribution, reflecting on every long, hard year felt sweet. As sweet as it must've been for Terrance to plant his fist in the mouth of the thug who'd made his life a living hell.
He lightly traced the thin, flattened ridge of scar tissue under his right eye, picturing its twin that bisected his eyebrow. Bitterness throbbed inside him like a wound unable to heal because his memories insisted on ripping off the scab, keeping the injury fresh and angry.
Every scar. Every agony. Every humiliation. Every moment of fear — they were all worth this moment. He watched his quarry hold court among his peers, laughing and basking in his power, his glory, completely unaware he was being hunted. This moment of happiness would be the man's last before he suffered the same pain and devastation he'd so carelessly meted out to others.
Lucas studied the face of the man who'd betrayed Lucas's family so deeply, the scars on his face didn't compare to the ones carved into his soul.
"Oh, shit, you're smiling," a voice said to his left.
He slid a sidelong glance at Aiden Kent, his business partner and best friend since high school. Hell, his only friend. Most people called Lucas the Beast of Bay Bridge Industries — or "cold-blooded," "bastard," or "son of a bitch." But not "friend."
"Since you've ignored my advice up until this point, I'm not holding out hope you'll listen to me at this late date. But, once again, I'm going to put it out there. I don't agree with this," Aiden stated. "Buy his business, ruin his reputation. Those are fair game. But you should leave his daughter out of it. She's innocent."
Lucas glanced across the room again, his gaze landing on the "she" Aiden mentioned. Statuesque. Elegant. Hair straight as a ruler and the color of sun-bleached wood. Skin like the richest, purest honey.
And guilty by association.
"Your concern is duly noted ... again," Lucas drawled.
Aiden swore under his breath. "All this damn intrigue." He shook his head, his eyes troubled. "There's something about you blue bloods with your plots and schemes. Us blue-collar folk? We might not have been born with silver spoons in our mouths or McMansions on the Gold Coast, but at least you can immediately tell if we don't like you. A fist to the face transcends race, religion, creed, and social and economic lines."
"I'm not a blue blood," Lucas stated flatly, tone carefully void of emotion.
Aiden sighed. "You were born into the same world these people live in, even though the streets of Chicago raised you as they did me. Still, the tax bracket your parents belonged to doesn't make you any less, or more, of a man. But what you've set in motion here" — he nodded in the direction of the man and woman under discussion — "doesn't speak to the person you've become. Luke, let the rage and hatred go before it eats you alive and leaves you with nothing."
You have no idea what the hell you're talking about.
The words surged to the back of his throat, scalding the lining like bile. But he swallowed the hot rebuke. Aiden might have been born and raised in Chicago's rough South Side, but somehow his spirit hadn't been sullied with a bitterness that had been embedded inside Lucas since he lost his family at fourteen. And also underneath the unsolicited kumbaya-why-can't-we-all-just-get-along advice, he detected Aiden's affection and love. And worry.
"I made a promise, and I'm not going back on it. Not even for you or my highly debatable soul."
"Oh, you have a soul," his friend scoffed. "It might be a little charred around the edges, but it's there." Aiden scrubbed a hand over the back of his neck. "Fine. I can't talk you out of going through with it. But just ... be careful. Ever hear the saying, 'Unforgiveness is like drinking a poison and hoping the other person dies'?"
Lucas stared at Aiden. Blinked. "What the hell? Did you read a box of Hallmark cards before coming here tonight?"
"You know the redhead I met last week?" Aiden shrugged a shoulder. "She was watching Dr. Phil earlier. The show was about warring in-laws, but I thought the quote seemed appropriate for the situation."
Lucas snorted. "I remember her. What worries me is you were with a gorgeous woman, and the only thing you could find interesting to do was watch Dr. Phil."
"Unlike you, I know there's more to romance than sex." He clapped Lucas on the shoulder. "I'm out. Only ten of these women will leave with a bachelor. The others will need consolation."
"Real romantic," Lucas called after him.
With a wicked grin, Aiden walked away, and damned if several appreciative gazes didn't follow him. The attention didn't surprise Lucas. With his dark blond hair, green eyes, and classically handsome features, Aiden drew women like flies to shit. Not that Lucas had ever experienced any problem attracting women, either. Aiden was just prettier to look at.
He slid his hands into the pockets of his tuxedo pants and returned his attention to the older man surrounded by family, friends, and those who wished they were friends.
Pleasure stole through him, filling him like the hearty beef-and-carrot stew his uncle used to cook on the coldest Chicago winter nights. Thick. Warm.
It'd taken fifteen years, but finally Jason Blake would pay for everything he'd cost Lucas.
His father.CHAPTER 2
"Welcome to the Rhodonite Society's tenth annual Masquerade Bachelor Auction." The cultured voice of the mistress of ceremonies echoed throughout the brightly lit ballroom. "We have a fabulous night planned for you. In just a few minutes, ten of the most handsome and eligible bachelors the city of Boston has to offer will take the stage offering ten romantic, luxurious dates! And every penny of the proceeds will benefit the Blake Literacy Foundation, which raises awareness of illiteracy as well as provide programming, tutoring, and technology to Boston's underprivileged youth. So bidders, have your checkbooks ready!"
As the MC's announcement gave way to excited chatter, Sydney Blake worked to maintain the gracious smile ingrained in her since she was old enough for tea parties with her dolls: a polite curve of the mouth with the corners tipped just enough to be demure but not so much to appear garish or bold.
A perfect lady's smile. For the perfect daughter. For the perfect fiancée.
Lie. Lie. Lie.
"I am absolutely determined to go home with a bachelor this evening. Of course, some of us don't have to worry about snagging a handsome, rich man. I heard congratulations are in order, Sydney." A young blonde with the sharp, dangerous beauty of a bejeweled sword purred and air-kissed Sydney's cheeks. "I was so delighted to hear about your engagement."
"You two make such a beautiful couple," a stunning brunette cooed. "Your wedding is bound to be the biggest social event of the year. Have you set a date yet?"
Sydney murmured a "thank you" and a "not yet" as the other woman clasped Sydney's hand and elevated it so light from the chandelier bounced off the three-carat diamond solitaire. Wow. Really? Squelching the spurt of irritation, she pressed her tongue to the roof of her mouth, saying nothing. Still ... if the other woman snatched out a jeweler's loupe, all bets were off.
"How beautiful," the blonde murmured, her expression warm, but the ice in her eyes matched the hardness of the gem weighing down Sydney's finger. "You're so fortunate." While stated in a sugary, butter-won't-melt-in-your-mouth voice, the barb possessed razor- sharp teeth.
"Yes, we are fortunate to add Tyler to our family," Sydney's father, Jason Blake, boasted with a broad grin. Hurt, embarrassment, and a weary resentment swarmed over her skin and swirled in her chest like an aggravated hive of bees. They were lucky. Not, "Yes, Tyler is indeed fortunate to have my daughter for his wife," as other proud fathers would've bragged. God, after so many years, she should be accustomed to his casual dismissal of her. Yet even at twenty-five years old, she hadn't managed to develop that Teflon skin required to deflect the offhand barbs and comments that were part and parcel of possessing a vagina in the Blake household.
But, really, what did she have to complain about? Her fiancé was the only son of real estate mogul Wes Reinhold, and heir to the Reinhold financial empire. Her father was ecstatic Sydney had finally done something to prove herself worthy of the Blake name.
"Where is the happy groom-to-be?" the blonde asked, her greedy gaze scanning the crowded ballroom.
"He's graciously volunteered to participate in the auction tonight. Already supporting the family," Charlene Blake, Sydney's mother, explained. Every year, proceeds from the Rhodonite Society's annual Masquerade Bachelor Auction benefited the Blake family's literacy foundation. Tyler's inclusion in the popular auction was just another tick in the Tyler's-the-perfect-son-in-law column.
"Oh, how sweet," the blonde purred.
Yes. Sweet. Of course, the mistress of ceremonies had already pulled Sydney aside and provided her with Tyler's number to ensure Sydney would win his company for the evening.
According to her mother, there was altruism and then there was stupidity. And apparently, trusting her fiancé with a woman like the hungry, flinty-eyed blonde for the length of an evening weighed on the unforgivable side of foolishness.
"If you'll excuse us, we need to go to our table," Sydney said, glancing toward the stage and the subtle flickering of the lights. Thank God. Her nice-nasty limit was fast approaching critical mass.
Murmuring a final good night, she headed to the table reserved for her family. Skirting a cluster of people, she plucked a champagne flute off the tray of a passing waiter. Common sense advised the sparkling wine wouldn't beat back her encroaching headache, but it would make persevering through this evening a hell of a lot easier. The constant ingratiation, the dagger-wrapped-in-silk comments, the ever careful treading of shark-infested social waters — her mother was a gold medalist swimmer. But Sydney?
Too little patience, too thin skin, and too short a bullshit meter made her dead weight in the society maven pool.
Much to Charlene Blake's disappointment.
Glancing down at her slim, simple gold watch, she noted the time — nine fifteen p.m. The doors of the youth center would have been bolted fifteen minutes ago for the lock-in.
Yolanda and Melinda Evans, the no-nonsense sisters who ran the Maya Angelou Girls' Youth Center in Brighton, would have their hands full tonight and tomorrow morning with the twenty twelve- to fourteen-year-old girls expected to attend the sleepover. A heavy bank of wistfulness rolled through her. She should be there with the sisters and the teens. She'd been just as excited about the lock-in as the children who were her heart, her passion. They accepted and loved her unconditionally. They didn't see Sydney, the pampered socialite daughter of Jason Blake. They didn't see an unlimited bank account, an entrance into Boston society, or a wormhole into her father's good graces ... or business deals. The girls at the center saw her. Sydney, who helped with their homework and offered them a listening ear and nonjudgmental heart. Sydney, who wasn't afraid to get sweaty in a game of kickball or join an impromptu Just Dance 4 competition. Sydney, who told them how beautiful they were and believed every one of them was destined for greatness.
But while her volunteer work mentoring teens was fulfilling to her, to her parents, it didn't compare to organizing a tea, sitting on the beautification committee ... or purchasing a bachelor. And when duty called — or rather, her parents' duties called — Sydney was required to answer.
The noose of family loyalty, obligations, and responsibility tightened around her throat, and she sipped from her glass, hoping to ease the rope burn.
With a sigh, she lowered to her satin-upholstered seat, her parents appearing moments later.
Applause erupted, and the level of animated conversation rose as the night's MC stepped up to the microphone once more. Somehow she doubted the enthusiasm was due to iPads in classrooms.
"Without further ado, let's bring on the bachelors!" the woman proclaimed. Moments later, a tall, slim man in an immaculate black tuxedo sauntered onto the stage. Even though a white mask hid his face from hairline to chin, he oozed confidence from every pore. Not that his self-assuredness was a surprise. Though she didn't recognize him, she assumed he was most likely very aware of his desirability to the women packed into the room — after all, a requirement of every bachelor was at least a six-figure income.
Cynicism, thy name is Sydney.
"Our first bachelor of the evening may call Boston home, but the world is his office. As a financier, he's visited the white sands of Dubai, the wild cliffs of western Ireland, and the old-world beauty of his favorite city, Rome. The three adjectives that best describe him are driven, stubborn, and wildly romantic."
Appreciative laughter rippled through the crowd. The MC smiled and continued reading off her card. "Though he's never married, the woman he falls for will be spontaneous, independent, and have a wicked sense of humor. The woman who snags him tonight will enjoy dinner on a rooftop ... in Rome." She waited for the exclamations to abate to a dull roar before continuing. "Dinner will be followed by a midnight walk in one of the city's famous squares and a shopping spree the next day before flying back home. Doesn't this sound divine? Let's open the bidding at twenty thousand." She nodded, beaming as she pointed at someone on the floor. "We have twenty thousand. What about twenty-one? Twenty-one. Twenty-two?"
And so the furious bidding began. Many paddle flicks later, bachelor number one went for seventy thousand dollars to a woman old enough to be his grandmother. For his sake, please let her have bought him for her granddaughter, or even her daughter. Otherwise ... Sydney shuddered.
Bachelors two and three raised thirty and forty thousand dollars, respectively — they didn't offer dinner reservations in Italy — and as number four strolled off the stage after going for a respectable fifty thousand, Sydney zoned back in.
Tyler was bachelor number five. And in case she'd somehow forgotten, her mother's tap on her thigh was a not-so-subtle reminder.
"And bachelor number five," the hostess announced seconds before Tyler emerged from the wing. He strode out to the center of the stage and paused, his hands in the pockets of his tuxedo slacks. The stance accentuated the flatness of his stomach and the width of his chest. Maybe it was the spotlight or maybe that he stood on the wide stage alone with nothing to detract from him, but his six-foot frame seemed taller somehow. Under the stark black jacket his shoulders appeared wider ... more powerful.
Excerpted from Beauty and the Bachelor (Bachelor Auction) by Naima Simone. Copyright © 2015 Naima Bryant. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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