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This one's going to come back to bite you, Andrea. Please choose another bachelor."
Andrea Montgomery's heart bumped along faster than a roller coaster. Her stomach alternated between the rise of anticipation and the plunge of trepidation. She sipped her complimentary champagne, tucked her numbered bidding paddle beneath her arm and then reached for her dearest friend's hand and squeezed.
"Holly, I can't. You know I have to do this."
"Buying him is a mistake. Remember how torn up you were when he left?"
As if I could forget that kind of pain. "That was then. I'm totally over him now." And she was. Absolutely. Without a doubt. How could she not be over a man who'd led her on for years and then dumped her without giving her a believable reason?
Andrea released Holly's fingers and then plucked at the black silk charmeuse of her gown. What little fabric there was in the garment clung to her like a second skin. The neckline plunged almost to her navel, and if the slit in the ankle-length skirt were an inch higher no one would have to wonder whether or not she wore panties.
She shifted on her stiletto heels -- the only part of the outfit she liked -- and scanned the crowd of overexcited, expensively attired women consuming free champagne and bidding on bachelors. No one in this affluent, conservative country club crowd suffered from the same overexposure as her.
"What were you and Juliana thinking when you chose this dress? As much as I love sexy clothing, this gown is too obvious and over the top. Couldn't you have chosen something more subtle? Subtle is sexy. Obvious is tacky. I feel like a high-priced call girl. No wait. Even a working girlwould leave a little mystery and cover more skin."
Holly didn't even crack a smile. "When seduction's the name of the game you bring out the big guns. You're planning to bring Clayton Dean to his knees. Juliana and I thought you should dress the part of femme fatale."
Clayton Dean. Hearing his name wound Andrea's nerves tighter. "You've miscast me. A femme fatale seduces the man in question. I have no intention of revisiting the sheets with Clay. He had his chance eight years ago and blew it.And how many times do I have to tell you? I'm not out for revenge. All I want to do is show him that there are no hard feelings."
"Uh-huh." Holly didn't attempt to hide her skepticism. Her friend knew her too well. "Okay, so I won't mind if he eats his heart out just a little over what he could have had. But that's all. I'd be a fool to hand him my heart again."
"I agree. That's why I'm going to keep repeating, this is a bad idea like a broken record until you get it."
"Holly, I've lived through the humiliation of Clay dumping me once. My coworkers' pity was hard enough to swallow the first time. And according to Mrs. Dean, Clay's staying in Wilmington only until his father is well enough to return to the helm at DeanYachts, and then Clay will sail back to Florida. I promise I won't forget this is temporary."
"You're trying awfully hard to sell yourself on a bad idea, Ms. Marketing Director."
"Cut it out. Remember this is not just about me. Without Clay the business might have to temporarily shut its doors, putting me and a thousand other employees out of work. Joseph Dean has been like a second father to me. I've been worried about his mood since his stroke three weeks ago. He and Clay need to work this out before it's too late." The possibility of losing her mentor put a lump in her throat.
Holly's frown deepened. "What if father and son do kiss and make up and Clay returns for good? He'll be your boss. Will you still love your job then?"
Andrea winced. Good point. Darn it. As if she didn't have a boatload of doubts already about working with Clay. "I need to move forward. I can't do that until I put the past behind me. I'm a loser magnet, Holly. I have to break the cycle, and to do that I need to know what's so wrong with me that Clay and every guy I've dated in the past eight years dumps me just when I start to believe there might be something to the relationship."
Holly stamped her foot in irritation. "I could smack you. How many times do I have to tell you there's nothing wrong with you?"
Holly's attention shifted to something beyond Andrea's shoulder. "I hope you're right about being over him, because Clay looks good. Really, really good."
Andrea choked on her champagne. After catching her breath she discarded the flute on a passing waiter's tray and braced herself before following Holly's gaze to the other side of the opulent Caliber Club ballroom. Her first glimpse of her former lover knocked the wind right back out of her.
Clay did look good. Amazing, in fact. Damn him. The last thing she wanted or needed was to still find him attractive. His shoulders were broader than she remembered, and his tuxedo hinted at muscles he hadn't possessed as a lanky twenty-three-year-old. A nostalgic smile tugged her lips. He may look more sophisticated, but he still hadn't learned to tame his beaver-brown hair. The longer strands on top curled in disarray just as they had after she'd rumpled them when they made lo --
She severed the thought instantly. No need to travel that heavily rutted dead end road again.
She didn't think he'd spotted her yet, and she wanted to keep it that way -- right up until she bought him. A combination of anticipation and unease traversed her spine.
"Putting the past to bed will be worth every penny I have to bid on bachelor number thirteen tonight."
One of Holly's eyebrows lifted. "Bed? Freudian slip?" Andrea scowled at her friend. "You know what I mean. I want this over and done with. Final. Finished. Forgotten."
"If you say so." The doubt in Holly's voice didn't instill confidence. "We knew our trust funds would come in handy one day, but I don't think our grand daddies intended us to buy men -- even if it is for a charitable cause. Juliana certainly dropped a bundle on her rebel."
Juliana had been the first in their close-knit trio to buy her man.Andrea hoped her straight-laced friend could handle the rebellious biker bar owner. "I hope that goes well."
"Amen. I hope none of us regret tonight's nonsense."
"Holly, we agreed -- "
"No, you and Juliana agreed. My arm was twisted, but I'm in for better or worse."
The gavel sounded like a starter's pistol. Andrea nearly jumped out of her skimpy dress. Bachelor twelve left the stage to meet his date, and the women in the audience went wild in anticipation of the next offering. She covered her ears as the decibel level rose and wondered if she should chalk this foolish plan up to too many margaritas and walk away.
No. She couldn't. She wanted a life and that meant dealing with her messy, painful past. The band's drum roll rattled in tandem with her rapidly thumping pulse as the emcee announced the next bachelor.
Her bachelor. Clayton Dean.
Andrea pushed the tousled mass of her hair -- the style another contribution from her friends -- away from her face. Sure, she talked a good game by pretending that buying and confronting the man who'd shattered her heart and her confidence eight years ago was going to be a piece of cake, but her insides quivered and her knees knocked beneath her trampy dress. She'd loved Clay, had planned to marry him, have his children and run Dean Yachts by his side. His abrupt departure had nearly destroyed her.
What if her plan went terribly wrong?
She squared her shoulders and squashed her doubts. It wouldn't. At thirty years old she was more than mature enough to face a former lover without making a fool of herself. Besides, she'd strategized every last detail -- the same way she would an extensive marketing campaign.
Buy him, thereby obligating him to seven dates and giving her seven opportunities to:
Impress him with her acquired business savvy.
Tempt him, but keep her distance.
Question him to find out why she was so easy to leave. Dismiss him from her heart and her head.
The women surrounding her screamed maniacally as Clay took his place center stage. Who wouldn't want a series of dates with a handsome naval architect and award-winning yacht designer? But she was determined that Clay would be hers. Temporarily. Andrea clenched her numbered fan so tightly the wooden handle cracked.
An omen? Goose bumps raced over her skin.
Holly leaned closer and spoke directly into Andrea's ear to be heard above the din. "Are you sure you can handle Seven Seductive Sunsets with Clay?"
"Of course." She waved away Holly's concern, but tucked her free hand behind her back when she realized her fingers trembled.
And then she lifted her paddle and cast the first bid on her former lover -- the man who would soon be her boss.
If he didn't love her, he'd kill her. Clay glared at his mother as he took the stage.
Smile, she mouthed and pointed to her own curving lips. He turned a big, phony smile to the crowd. His mother could have warned him about the bachelor auction for charity, but no, she'd planned the date package, put his picture in the auction program and then shanghaied him the moment he'd docked today. He'd tried to buy his way out of this fiasco with a hefty donation, but nobody bulldozed Patricia Dean once she set her mind to something, and she'd set her mind toward making a fool of her only son.
But he owed her, so he let her get away with it.
As if he didn't have enough on his plate running his own company, he had to take control of Dean Yachts until he could hire an interim CEO. That meant working with Andrea, Dean's marketing manager, on a daily basis. Regret tightened like a fist around his heart.
He did not want to be here -- not back in his hometown or up on this stage being auctioned off like a repossessed yacht. There was too much flotsam under the bridge, and there were too many disappointments, too many broken promises.
The women -- tipsy from the sounds of it -- called out lewd suggestions, but he'd be damned if he'd shake his wares or prance around like a male striper for his audience. If the other bachelors wanted to act like fools fine, but he wouldn't. Being stuck babysitting some bubble-headed socialite was already beyond the call of duty.
Clay stood in the hot lights as stiff as a mast. One spotlight baked his skin.Another panned the crowd as the emcee rattled off Clay's vital statistics. Staring out at the hysterical women, he mentally dared any one of them to buy him.
And then he saw her -- Andrea -- in the crowd. His lungs deflated like a sail without a breeze and his stomach shriveled into a hot lump of coal. Damn. What was she doing here? He'd thought he had until Monday to prepare himself for seeing her again.
He'd loved her -- almost enough to turn a blind eye to the discovery that had knocked his foundations out from under him.
The spotlight shifted back to the stage, blinding him. The bid climbed higher, embarrassingly high compared to the last two saps. He should be proud he wasn't going as low as a junked schooner, but he wasn't. He wanted off the stage. The sooner, the better. The bidders used numbered paddles instead of calling out bids, and he couldn't see who wielded the numbers because of the damned lights, so he didn't have a clue who bid what.
The gavel hit the podium. "Sold," the emcee shouted. "Come and collect your prize, number two-twenty-one."
Good. Finally over -- at least the first part of his torture. Clay gladly vacated the stage. His eyes adjusted to the dimness at the bottom of the stairs in time to see Andrea hand a check to the woman behind the desk. Shock locked his muscles.
Andrea had bought him!
He caught a glimpse of her wavy blond hair and caramel-colored eyes a split second before the visual impact of her black dress nearly knocked him to his knees. Her pale breasts poised on the brink of spilling from the gashing deep neckline, and a slit cut nearly to her crotch displayed one long, satiny leg. His breath lodged in his throat and he almost swallowed his tongue. Heat exploded in his groin.
She strolled in his direction, smiling at him with a cool confidence he didn't recall her having when she'd been his lover. "Hello, Clay. Shall we find a quiet corner and make our arrangements?"
Her voice slid through him like smooth, aged whiskey. How could he have forgotten her soft, southern drawl or the temperature-raising effect it had on him?
"Hold it," a thirtyish African American woman called out. A tall, pale guy holding a camera stood beside her. The woman made a squeezing motion with her hands. Clay moved closer to Andrea. "Arms around each other, please, and smile.