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Given the choice between sticking flaming skewers up her nose and attending her own parents' thirty-fifth anniversary party without a date, Annie Davis would, without hesitation, reach for the lighter fluid and a match. Instead, she was reaching for her checkbook. Wondering just how far she could gohow much she could spendto ensure she avoided a fate worse than burned nostrils.
"Twenty-five hundred, that's all I can swing," she murmured, reminding both herself, and her friend Tara, who sat beside her at an empty table near the back of the hotel ballroom. Twenty-five hundred was about as much as she could stretch it and still make her bills, as well as eat next month.
Tara, who occasionally helped out at Baby Daze, Annie's successful day care center, had come only to this charity bachelor auction for moral support. Her aspiring actress's checkbook wouldn't allow room for a guy auctioned off in a Salvation Army parking lot, much less one at Chicago's glamorous Inter-Continental Hotel.
If she were honest, Annie's couldn't bear the strain, either, and her savings account was strictly for emergencies only. Sheer desperation had driven her here tonight. Desperation caused by the thought of a weekend back homesans a guybeing pitied and clucked over by all the women in her family, teased by all the men, especially her brothers, and set up by everyone else in her small hometown. Not to mention answering the inevitable questions about why she was alone when her entire family knew she'd been dating a nice, handsome man for the past several weeks.
Looking into her parents faces and admitting that nice, handsome man she'd been seeing had been a marriedjerk? She'd sooner add raw meat to those flaming skewers and call herself shish kebab. Wiping out her checking account seemed a small price to pay to avoid the agony. Maybe the savings, too.
No. Not a chance. Not unless Johnny Depp and Josh Duhamel both appeared on that stage, offering a weekend of pure carnal exploitation to the high bidder.
"Nobody has gone for less than three thousand so far," Tara reminded her. The petite brunette, usually bubbly and sassy, sounded uncharacteristically pessimistic. "Not even the wimpy-looking blond dude who made a complete dork of himself doing that pretend striptease."
Annie cringed, wishing she had a bar of soap to wash away the mental image of the pale twenty-some-thing doing a white-men-can't-dance bump-and-grind that had women near the front pretending to swoon. Ick. Bringing someone like that home to meet her family? She'd probably do better picking up a homeless person who wanted to make a few bucks for a weekend holiday in small-town U.S.A.
Now there's an idea .
It would definitely be cheaper than this ritzy charity auction. "Maybe I should just check out the park benches near the El. There's bound to be some guy who will do it for a whole lot less than twenty-five hundred."
"You're desperate," Tara reminded her. "Not suicidal."
"Is that any riskier than what I'm doing now? These guys are all strangers, too."
The only difference was they were being paraded and hawked in front of a crowd of rich, half-past-tipsy-and-well-on-their-way-to-being-drunk women in a hotel ballroom. Yes, they were offering legitimate datesromantic dinners, beach walks, afternoon cruises and picnicsto the highest bidder. But these men were still complete strangers to her.
Besides, she wasn't even certain she'd be able to talk any bachelor she won into going along with her visit-the-folks date rather than whatever he'd offered.
So why was she doing this again?
Tara seemed to read her mind. "Desperate times call for "
"An escort service?"
Tara snorted. "Sure, show up at your folks' with a male hooker. That'll go over real well."
"He wouldn't necessarily be skeevy. He could be nice, normal, handsome."
"Stop channeling that movie The Wedding Date." Tara smacked Annie on the arm with her rolled-up auction brochure. "Professionals like that one don't really exist."
"But I need a Plan B," she mumbled, knowing time was running out. Maybe some decent-looking young man coming out of the unemployment office? As long as he had all his teeth and four limbs, how would her family know he wasn't the one she'd been dating?
Or even three limbs he could be a noble accident survivor.
Noble was good. Very good. Which was why she'd immediately scanned tonight's program looking for firefighter, rescue worker or policeman types. Her dad would totally be into that.
Her family didn't know what her ex-boyfriend, Blake, did for a living. They knew almost nothing about her relationship with him at all. Just that she'd been swept off her feet by someone tall, dark and handsome. They didn't know specifically what he looked like. So she could introduce practically anybody and say he was the wonderful guy she'd been telling her family about.
Well, anybody except the real wonderful guy, who'd turned out to be nothing more than a wonderful liar.
"Stop thinking about Blake the Snake."
"Are you a mind reader?"
"No, you're just incredibly easy to figure out, Miss wholesome, blond, always-smiling girl-next-door. Whenever you think about him, your face scrunches up, your lips disappear into your mouth and you look like you want to hit somebody." Shrugging and sipping from her beer, Tara added, "Of course, you look that way when you fight with one of the über-mamas, too, but none of them are here."
über-mamas. That was the name she and Tara had come up with to describe some of Annie's more difficult clients. There weren't many, but a few ultraorganized, ambitious, arrogant mothers of the children cared for at Baby Daze seemed to view day care providers as overpaid dog walkers. As if there was no more to watching a toddler than changing his diaper.
"You weren't in love with him, you've admitted that much. And you hadn't even slept with him."
"Thank God." Something had held her back, some intuition. She'd blessed that intuition when she'd found out her Divorced Mr. Wonderful was, despite his claims to the contrary, Married Mr. Cheating Pig.
"So forget him."
"I have. Almost. I just have to get through this weekend and then I can pretend I never knew the man."
"Tell me again why you can't just tell your family what happened? It's not like any of it was your fault."
"You met my folks when they came to visit me last spring. Do you really need to ask that question?"
Tara pursed her lips and slowly shook her head. She'd had a firsthand glimpse at Annie's life as the only daughter in an overprotective, small-town family who wanted her back home, married, and pushing out babiesnow, if not six months ago. If they found out their "little girl" had had a bad affair with a married man, they'd harass her endlessly to give up her dreams of big-city success and come home where she could meet a decent local boy and settle down.
"Forget I asked."
"I'll get someone to play boyfriend, let them all see I'm blissfully happy and fine, then gradually stage a breakup over a series of weekly phone calls."
Satisfied with at least that much of the plan, she reached for her drink, still musing over a possible Plan B. The man she showed up with didn't have to be really handsome just because she'd told her family he was. Somebody much more plain and normal-looking than any of these sexy bachelors being auctioned off to support a kid's Christmas charity would do.
Beauty was, as she knew, in the eye of the beholder, and her family understood that. Just last year her brother, Jed, had convinced them all he'd met a future Miss America. His fiancée, howevera sweetheart whom the family adoredmore resembled a Miss Pillsbury Dough Girl.
So maybe they'd think she'd simply exaggerated about how handsome her new guy was. Or that she was wildly in love, just as her brother had been. She didn't have to bring home a guy who looked like like
Oh, my God, like him.
Once again, as it had been doing all night, her gaze drifted toward the table, and the auction program lying open upon it. About two minutes had elapsed since her previous covetous glance, which was the longest she'd gone all evening without at least a peek at Bachelor Number Twenty, described as a good-natured rescue worker. An all-out hero. Absolutely perfect.
In addition, the man was an all-out hunk-a-holic.
As she stared at those midnight blue eyes, Annie's heart again played a quick game of hopscotch in her chest. Just as it had the moment she'd spotted him, this complete stranger, whose name she didn't know but whose face and body were as familiar as her last erotic dream.
Those cheekbones were high and prominent, the nose strong, the jaw carved from granite. Visible on one earlobe was a tiny stud of gold. His lips were slightly pursed in a sexy, come-hither smile that no real man could pull off and still look so damned masculine. The sleekness of his thick, nearly jet black hairlong, silky and tied back in a sexy ponytailand the violet glint in those fathomless blue eyes simply had to be the product of a photographer with the latest Photoshop software.
Who cares? You're not going to win him. Not a chance. Not with what that last guy went for.
And suddenly, she couldn't stand to see who did win him. Nor did she really want to see the man in the flesh, because, honestly, the picture had to have been majorly touched up. No man was really that good-looking in person.
Before she could move, however, Tara pointed at the stage, where the announcer was milking the audience, building things up to the final moment of the night. The big finish. Bachelor Number Twenty.
"This auction was your best chance, and this next guy is your last chance. So don't blow it."
"We should just go." Annie put her hands flat on the table to push her chair back. "This isn't going to work."
"Come on, what's money for if not to blow? We both know this last guy's the one you've had your eye on all night."
Had she really been that obvious? Maybe only to Tara, who had been the first friend she'd made when she'd moved to Chicago five years ago. Then again, her family had always told her that she should never play poker because she wore her emotions the way rich women wore their jewelry: blatantly.
"Have you noticed how much emptier the room is?" Tara leaned close, trying to convince her as much with her calm tone as with her words. "Half the women in the place got up and left after that last guy went, the international businessman."
Annie had noticed, though she didn't understand it. "Still can't quite figure out why though," she mumbled.
Ten minutes ago, when Bachelor Number Nineteen had gone for an unbelievable sumtwenty-five thousand dollarsthe crowd had begun to rapidly disperse. As if some of the bejeweled, fur-wearing women had come only for that one man. Entire groups of women had flounced out, thinning the room considerably and emptying a dozen tables near the front.
The brown-eyed bachelor had been good-looking. But, in Annie's opinion, he couldn't hold a candle to the last man of the night. "I bet the high price scared everyone away because it means this next guy's going to go for fifty thousand."
"I don't think so." Tara leaned even closer. "The Junior League set is gone. Look who's left Just rowdy blue-collar chicks like us."
Annie cast a quick look around, noting the laughter and easy, laid-back atmosphere in the room. And she began to wonder if Tara was right. These looked more like two-for-one happy hour girls instead of the Dom Perignon types who'd been involved in the bidding frenzy for Bachelor Number Nineteen.
Tara tapped the tip of a red-painted nail on the face of the sexy bachelor. "You can win him, Annie. And you deserve to."
"Look at his picture," Tara snapped. "Talk about saving the best for last. Go for it or I'll never speak to you again!"
On some days, that would probably be a blessing, but Annie was too caught up in the moment to think about it.
As the auctioneer began reading the last bachelor's bio, the remaining women quieted. Annie's pulse, which had accelerated throughout the evening as she pretended interest in some of the other meneven halfheartedly bidding on a few of thempicked up its pace. Her blood began a steady gallop through her veins, her quick, shallow breaths leaving her a little light-headed.
"You can go higher than twenty-five hundred. You know you can squeeze out a few more bucks," Tara whispered.
"You're pretty quick to empty my bank account," she muttered. How much do I have in savings?
"Raid the penny jar in the playroom. The kids won't miss one more alphabet puzzle. They hate those stupid educational toys, anyway."
Willing the announcer to hurry up, she watched for a movement behind the black curtain, half wanting to flee to avoid disappointment, but wanting even more to catch a firsthand glimpse of that man in the flesh. Just to find out if he could possibly be real.
"I'll share my PB and J's every day next month if you end up on the verge of starvation." Grinning impishly, Tara added, "But hopefully you'll be so satisfied by your purchase that you won't be hungry at all."
Annie shook her head, denying that possibility to both of them. "This is a business arrangement. A weekend to get my family off my back, without them ever finding out about "
"Blake the Snake."
"There's nothing personal about it. I've learned my lesson about hooking up with handsome, sweet-talking men. You're looking at a woman in complete control of her libido."
She meant it. Every word. She was confident, strong, secure, and certain she could handle just about anything.
But then the curtain opened and a black-haired god stepped out. Even from here, Annie could see the glint of something wicked and suggestive in his expression.
The photo hadn't conveyed the broadness of his shoulders, the leanness of that tall male body. He was wrapped in a black tux that looked as if it had been sewn around him, it fit so perfectly.