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"It's a stroke of brilliance, Eliza. The place looks great. whispered into Eliza's ear.
From up on stage, Eliza Fortune smiled with satis-faction as her gaze traveled around the large ballroom filled with invited guests, the men dressed in authentic three-piece suits and the women in elegant gowns of the Old West. She'd designed and decorated the ballroom for the event. "Thanks, Nic. It was a labor of love."
"Well, you've outdone yourself this time. Everyone is having a wonderful time and your Basket DinnerAuction idea is going over well. You're raising thousands of dollars for the reparations to the Old West Museum."
The auctioneer announced another dinner basket to be auctioned off. Chloe McMurphy stepped up to the podium and lifted the flap on her basket, retrieving a pledge card to give to the auctioneer. "This lovely young lady will provide dinner for two, three or four. Her specialty is fried chicken and the best dumplings in Minnehaha County. And an added bonus of home-baked apple pie. Now that's what I call a real fine South Dakota meal."
Eliza tensed suddenly and glanced at her friend with apprehension. Only she and Nicole remained up on stage. All the other dinners had been auctioned off. "I hope someone bids on my basket."
"You've got to be kidding. Who wouldn't want to have a dinner cooked expressly by Eliza Fortune? At the Fortune estate, no less. I bet your dinner pledge goes for the highest bid of all."
Eliza scoffed. "Only if my father or brother decide to take pity on me. My family's out there somewhere and they know I'm not the best cook."
"Won't matter," Nicole said adamantly. "You're gonna raise a lot of money tonightand not from Nash orCreed Fortune. Everyone knows how dedicated you are. They saved the best for last. And that's you."
She mouthed a silent thank-you to her friend, then took note of Mr. Phillips at the podium crooking his finger at Nicole. "Oh, look. It's your turn to go up to the podium, Nic. Good luck."
And as her friend approached the auctioneer car-rying a white wicker basket adorned with a large red taffeta bow, Eliza settled back on the wooden bench seat to wait her turn.
Being a benefactor, as well as Sioux Falls Historical Society chairwoman, she'd had no trouble convincing Siouxland's Old West Museum's president to donate some of their Western gear to help her transform a chandelier-ensconced ballroom into a springtime scene straight out of the Old West. Lariats, silver saddles and wagon wheels filled the perimeter, while bound sheaves of grain and husks of corn draped the walls. The din-ner tables, though set with elegant china, rested on blue gingham tablecloths with tall, lumbering sunflowers as vibrant centerpieces. A sunrise backdrop and a large buckboard wagon filled with straw sat upon the stage just behind Eliza.
When all was said and done, Nicole's bid ranked up there with the highest so far. Her dinner pledge of roast lamb and potatoes with carrot soufflé and crÃ¨me brÃ»lée for dessert garnered over three thousand dollars. Eliza joined the group in applauding the generous bidder.
"And now, ladies and gentlemen, you have the distinct honor of bidding on Miss Eliza Fortune's dinner basket. As you all know, Miss Fortune has worked tirelessly to put on this fund-raiser and it looks like she's made it a tre-mendous success." Mr. Phillips reached for Eliza's hand and guided her to the podium. Eliza handed him her pledge card from her gold-trimmed basket and stood as he read her offering. "Ah, I see the winner will have a great treat in store for them. Eliza has pledged to cook any meal of your choosing, beginning with hors d'oeuvres and ending with a decadent dessert with as many courses as you desire. So let's begin the bidding at five hundred dollars."
Eliza stood smiling at her guests, while inside a only once the first bid was announced for five hundred dollarsnot by her father or brotherdid she finally relax. As the bidding continued, she grew more and more confident.
"We have a bid for thirty-five hundred dollars. Do I hear four thousand? Anyone for four thousand dollars?"
Pleased that she'd garnered a respectable sum of money, Eliza was ready to walk away from the podium. She needed to coordinate the country band's perfor-mance on stage so the dancing could begin.
"Going once, going twice for thirty-five hundred dollars and, "
"Thirty-five thousand dollars."
"I'm sorry, sir," the auctioneer said, "we already have a bid for thirty-five hundred dollars."
"I said thirty-five thousand dollars," a commanding voice echoed from the back of the room.
All conversation stopped in the grand ballroom, as heads turned in the direction of the voice.
Eliza stood perfectly still. Her smile faded, while her heart pounded up in her ears. She knew that voice. She would never forget the low, raspy timbre that would send her nerves spiraling out of control. She shut her
It couldn't be, she told herself.
But she knew better.
She had always known that this day would eventu-ally come.
Mr. Phillips glanced at Eliza with a baffled expres-sion, but when she offered no help, he turned back to his task. "Uh, sorry, sorry, indeed. The bid stands at thirty-five thousand dollars," he emphasized. "Going once, going twice, sold to the gentleman in the back of the room!"
Just like that, Reese Parker stepped into her line of vision.
And back into her life.
After six years. Their gazes locked from across the room. For a long moment they just stared at one another. His eyes held no warmth, his face no joy. He hardly looked like the gentle jeans-clad rodeo rider she'd met one summer in Montana.
Oh, he was as handsome as she remembered. May-be more so now, with a chiseled jawline and dark, piercing eyes. But this man looked as though he be-longed here amid South Dakota's wealthiest patrons, dressed in a dashing ink-black Western tuxedo with lines cut to perfection. A golden nugget clasped the bola tie that lassoed his neck and settled into a single-breasted brocade vest. A black felt Stetson covered shocks of short-cropped sandy hair and, as if he needed it, snakeskin boots added flair to the whole look.
Heavens, he could have stepped off the pages of GQ. Eliza was aware of the hush that settled onto the crowded room. But she couldn't tear her gaze away. She simply looked at the man she had once loved.
Goose bumps erupted on her flesh.
Memories poured in, and her breath caught as myr-iad emotions ran havoc through her system, but the one that remained, the one she couldn't banish, washed over her like a deluge of rain.
Mr. Phillips took his cue then and concluded the auction, asking that the bidders make good on their bids at the reception table, while the HoneyBees made their way on stage.
Eliza was grateful for the reprieve. She broke eye contact with Reese and scurried off backstage. A gentle hand grabbed her from behind, startling her.
"Eliza, where are you running off to?"
Eliza turned around, relieved to see that it was Ni-cole. She blinked and couldn't formulate an answer. The last few minutes had seemed like a dream. No, she cor-rected, a nightmare.
"That gorgeous guy bid a ton of money on you, Eliza." Eliza couldn't fake a smile. "I know."
"And you two couldn't take your eyes off each other."
"I know that, too."
"So? Are you going to tell me who he is? You must know him. Either that or he's flirting big-time."
"No, trust me, he wasn't flirting." The very thought was absurd. She didn't know exactly why Reese had come to Sioux Falls, but she couldn't entertain any warm thoughts about him. He had nearly destroyed her with his betrayal. No one knew the whole truth, and she'd hoped to keep it that way for as long as possible.
"Who is he, Eliza?" Nicole pressed. "Please tell me." Eliza had kept her secret for six years. Her own hu-miliation aside, she hated to think of the damage her revelation might do to the Fortune good name.
Good Lord, but she'd been a fool in the past. If the truth got out, Eliza would lose all credibility with her numerous charitable organizations, not to mention the headlines it would cause. One scandalized romance was enough in a girl's life. She'd managed to survive it, but this one she doubted she would ever live down.
She heaved a sigh. Keeping this from her best friend had been hardest of all. She stared into Nicole's earnest amber eyes.
"Something's going on, Lizzie," Nicole whispered, using her childhood name, reminding Eliza that she and Nicole had a long history of devoted friendship. They'd been close for more than half of Eliza's thirty-one years. Eliza had wanted to tell her countless times. She decided she'd kept her emotions bottled up long enough. Besides, if the manure were destined to hit the fan, at least she'd have an ally in Nicole.
She spoke the words she'd never said aloud to any-one in Sioux Falls, especially her family. "His name is Reese Parker and, he's my husband."