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"Rumor has it, you've agreed to be one of the bachelorettes in the auction this weekend."
Claire Caldiera looked up from pouring coffee for Rudy Windon, one of the old-timers who frequented her diner, to see Victor Ballard leering at her with one elbow propped on the counter. Suppressing an eye-rollshe so did not need to waste time fending off Vic's advances this morningshe pulled the rag from the waistband of her apron and swiped at the counter near Rudy's coffee cup.
"You need anything else, Rudy, you ask, okay?" She smiled warmly at the aging farmer and school board member.
"Nah, honey, I'll be fine here with my doughnut."
Nodding, she carried the pot back to the coffeemaker and slid it onto the warmer. Vic propelled himself away from the counter and followed her down to the end.
In the small town where they'd both grown up and now lived, Vic fancied himself a great catch. Too bad she knew he was a slimeball.
"Is it a rumor or am I finally going to get a chance to take you out on the town?" Vic asked.
She turned to face Vic, scanning her restaurant, Cutie Pies, for a distraction. Unfortunately, the half dozen customers she had midmorning were contentedly munching away on their meals. She forced a smile. "It's true. I'll be up on the auction block tomorrow night."
Vic's face spilt in a slow smile that would have had half the women in town fanning themselves. The problem was, she was part of the half of the population that was tired of his slick good looks. Vic may have the lantern jaw of a superhero and the clear blue eyes of a choirboy, but his practiced charm made her stomach churn.
"Good thing I've been saving up my change then," he murmured.
As if he'd need to save up money for anything. Vic came from one of the richest families in their small town of Palo Verde, California. But that was the least of her complaints about Vic.
The real reason she'd never voluntarily go on a date with Vic Ballard was the he reminded her too much of his brother, Matt. Matt had all of Vic's good looks and none of the dissipation. To her, Matt was infinitely more appealing. Or rather, he had been back when she was young and stupid. For six brief weeks when she was eighteen, Matt had made her believe a guy like him could really love someone like her. He'd convinced her that the kind of fairy-tale love she'd always dreamed of was possible. She'd never forgive him for that.
Vic Ballard was merely a creep, but it was Matt who had broken her heart.
She considered herself lucky that it was Vic who wandered through her diner at least once a day, whereas Matt never returned to Palo Verde. He hated the small town in which they'd all grown up almost as much as she suspected he hated her. Since their breakup, Matt had gone on to be one of the founders and the current chief technology officer of FMJ Inc., a hugely successful company based in the Bay Area.
Matt and his high school buddies Ford Langley and Jonathon Bagdon had formed the company while they were still in college. Even before FMJ was officially incorporated, they had a long history of pooling their resources in profitable ventures. All of which had made Matt a very rich manand even more out of her league than he had been when they were in high school. Back then, he'd merely been the second son of the town's wealthiest family to her poor white trash.
"So then the rumors are true?" Vic was saying. "You're finally breaking your no-dating rule?"
"What can I say?" She forced a smile. "It's for a good cause."
The Palo Verde Benevolent Society was hosting a huge gala to raise money to stock the children's section of the new library. Bachelorette auction fundraisers were more the domain of sparkling debutantes than of hardworking business owners like her. She knew she was out of her league. But when one of the slated bachelorettes broke her leg at the last minute and had to drop out, the Benevolent Society had talked Claire into stepping up and filling the gap. How could she say no when she'd spent so much of her own troubled youth in the sanctuary of the previous library? It was a cause dear to her heart, even if it meant she'd have to suffer through an evening with a jerk like Vic Ballard.
Why he'd even want to bid on her, she didn't know. Vic had ruined her sister's life. He couldn't seriously believe she was interested in him. Of course, that hadn't stopped him from hitting on her repeatedly over the years. In fact, he was the reason she'd instituted the blanket no-dating rule. But apparently his ego knew no bounds. Besides, it could be worse. It could be Matt Ballard threatening to bid on her instead of Vic. Then she'd really be in trouble.
If she had to choose between philandering jerks, she'd gladly choose the one who wasn't her first love.
"You're bidding a thousand dollars for what is that? Muffins?" The woman's voice came from just over Matt's shoulder. "For someone who didn't want to come tonight, you're sure spending a lot on muffins."
Matt finished writing his paddle number on the silent auction form and straightened before turning around. After all, the sardonic purr of Kitty Biedermann's voice was one he was familiar with. Earlier that year, FMJ had bought up Kitty's company, Biedermann Jewelry. FMJ usually specialized in buying out tech companies, rather than chains of jewelry stores. But the decision to branch out had been profitable for FMJ. As an added bonus, Ford had fallen hard for the sultry Kitty. Matt couldn't blame him.
As always, she looked gorgeous. Dressed in a crimson cocktail dress that could have been painted on, with her hair an artful tumble around her shoulders, she outshone every woman there. He gave her a buss on the cheek. "They're good muffins," he said.
She returned his smile, layering on the flirtation. "I bet they are."
Kitty was a hell of woman. He might just be tempted to hit on her, if she wasn't already married to one of his best friends. "So when are you going to ditch Ford and run away with me?"
Her gaze shifted to the bar on the far side of the patio where Ford stood in line waiting for drinks. The country club patio overlooked the verdant golf course and the rolling foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains beyond.
Looking over at her husband now, for an instant Kitty's eyes held a love so compelling, it made Matt's chest tighten with some emotion he didn't want to examine too closely. Probably indigestion from being back in this damn town.
Then her expression shifted to mock sympathy. "Oh, you couldn't get a date to drive all the way out here?" She shook her head, clucking in disapproval. "It's all these skinny models you date. Their butts just aren't made for long car rides."
He chuckled, despite his grim mood. "Yeah, it's a real epidemic. Models who are too skinny."
Kitty's lips curved into a sultry smile. "They should have a gala fundraiser for that."
"I'll organize it myself if it means I can get out of this one."
Just then, Ford approached with the drinks and handed Matt an Anchor Steam. "Let me guess. He's trying to sucker you in with all that ‘My parents didn't love me enough' garbage."
Matt forced a smirk, tucking the auction paddle into his back pocket as he took the beer from Ford. "Hey, would I try to charm your woman?"
"In a minute."
Before Ford could respond, Matt's mother zeroed in on them.
"There you are, darling! The president of the Benevolent Society has been begging me for an introduction." She spoke with boisterous false cheer as she kissed the air near his cheeks.
"Hello, Mommy dearest," he said drolly.
She frowned, but said nothing. After brief greetings, Ford and Kitty discreetly excused themselves. As soon as the others were out of earshot, his mother moved closer and whispered, "Please don't call me that."
"It's term of affection," he said drily between sips of his beer, suddenly wishing he'd asked Ford to bring him something stronger.
"It isn't. It's an insult. You know I don't like it when you call me that." Her mouth pursed in disapproval. Without the benefit of Botox injections her face would probably be permanently fixed in a scowl.
"And you know I don't like it when you introduce me to your friends like I'm your prize pony."
She leveled a shrewd gaze at him. Finally she nodded. "Very well. No introductions then." She linked her arm through his, preparing to parade around the room with him. Apparently, her no introductions agreement didn't exclude merely showing him off. "I hope you've been bidding generously in the silent auction."
"I know you have."
When she saw his bid, she clucked with disapproval. "Really, Matt. A thousand dollars for muffins is hardly appropriate."
"You're the one who said I should bid generously."
"Now you're being purposefully obtuse."
"I happen to like the muffins from Cutie Pies."
Hanging out at the town diner had been one of the few bright spots of his teenage years.
His mother merely shook her head. "How in the world is Chloe supposed to deliver a muffin to you every day, when you live three hours from here?"
"I'm sure she'll figure it out." He was scanning the room, hoping to find Ford and Kitty again and then quickly extract himself from his mother's tentacles, but they must have already loaded up with plates and headed into the ballroom where the tables and dance floor were set up and where the live auction would take place. Because of his search, it took a moment for his mother's words to finally sink in. "Who? Doesn't Doris Ann still run Cutie Pies?"
Though not particularly interested in town gossip, he had been planning on stopping by in the morning to catch up with the bustling older woman who'd been like the mother he'd wished he had. Generous and kind, despite her gruff exterior.
"No, Doris Ann retired years ago. Her niece took over. Chloe something. Or maybe Clarissa."
When Estelle realized he'd stopped walking, she turned back to him. "Is something wrong, darling?"
He shook his head to clear it. "Claire. Her name is Claire Caldiera." Forcing himself to meet his mother's calculating gaze, he grinned and added a shrug for effect. "She was a couple of years behind me in school."
Seeming to accept his explanation, his mother slipped her hand into his arm once again. "You always did have a mind for details."
Praying his tone didn't convey the depth of his curiosity, he said, "I didn't realize she'd moved back."
The last time he'd seen her, she'd been heading to New York with dreams of an exciting new life with her boyfriend, Mitch.
She'd known Mitch for exactly seventy-six hours before dumping Matt and hopping on the back of Mitch's motorcycle in search of adventure. No doubt he remembered that fact precisely because he had such a mind for details.
"Oh, yes. Years ago."
His thoughts had been so focused on Claire, he hadn't noticed that his mother had been steering him toward the dining room where the bachelorette auction was about to take place. As he held the door open for her, he forced his attention back to her words.
" but you know how your brother is. Once his mind is made up, there's no changing it."
"Yes, he is as stubborn as an ass," Matt said drily.
The emcee of the event was already onstage, gushing about all the hard work it had taken to get this event off the ground.
His mother glared at him. "That's not nice."
"It's not meant to be a compliment. What's he being stubborn about this time? " he asked, gently redirecting her attention away from his flaw and toward his brother's.
"This bachelorette thing."
Matt's gaze settled onto the stage to where a row of six elegantly dressed, perfectly coifed women stood right behind the emcee like a parade of beauty contestants. Five of them were blandly lovely and completely unremarkable. The final one was Claire Caldiera.
The sight of her, after all these years, simultaneously sucked the air out his lungs and brought all of his senses into sharp focus. Just in time for him to catch the end of his mother's rant.
"So why he's so determined to bid on this Chloe girl, I'll never know."
"Claire," Matt muttered as a dull pain thudded through his chest.
"Yes, Claire. Chloe. Whoever, the point is "
But Matt had once again stopped listening to his mother's words. Not only was Claire back in town, but she was here tonight. Right in front of him. Up on the auction block.
So, his competitive, obnoxious ass of a brother was determined to win a date with Claire? Well, he'd have to get through Matt first.
After all, Matt and Claire had unfinished business.
The stage lights shone so brightly on the emcee and the bachelorettes that Claire could barely see into the ballroom. It was a disconcerting experience for someone not used to standing in the spotlight. She wished now that she'd been the first to go instead of the last.
Mostly she just tried not to fidget during the interminable wait while each of the successive women was auctioned off, amid cheerful catcalls and good-natured heckling. By the time her turn came, the audience was getting restless. The low murmur of chatter and the clattering of silverware on dishes had been slowly inching up.
Finally it was her turn to step forward and stand beside the emcee, Rudy Windon.
Holding the microphone down so the audience wouldn't hear him, Rudy leaned in close and whispered, "You look terrified, Claire."
She tried to smile but felt her lips quiver a bit. "What can I say, it's the first time I've sold myself for charity."
He chuckled and gave her shoulder a quick squeeze. "You'll do fine, hon." At the sight of his friendly smile, something inside of her relaxed.
Then he raised the microphone to his mouth and talked to the audience. "Up next, gentlemen, we have local beauty Claire Caldiera." He paused for a faint smattering of applause. He flashed that good-ol'-boy smile of his at the audience. "Now just about everybody in town knows that Claire here has sworn off dating." The audience chuckled. "You want to tell us why you're not giving the men of Palo Verde more of a chance?"