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"Is our uptight account auditor ready to be corrupted? Your bachelor's coming up next."
Juliana Alden downed her complimentary champagne with the grace of a beer-guzzling dock worker in hopes of drowning the second thoughts swarming around her midsection like angry bees. She discarded her glass on a passing waiter's tray and grabbed another for courage before facing Andrea and Holly, her two best friends and cohorts in tonight's foolhardy scheme.
"I've never felt more naked in my life. I will never grant the two of you carte blanche with my wardrobe again. My nightie covers more skin than this slip dress."
She yanked the thin strap of her dress back onto her shoulder again, and then tugged downward on the short hem, which barely covered her hips. Sneaking out the club's back door gained appeal with each passing second, but if she bolted Andrea and Holly would never forgive her. Then again, they were the ones responsible for garbing her in a dress that could send her father into cardiac arrest if he ventured out of the cigar room long enough to see it, so their opinions were suspect.
Andrea waved away her objections. "You have the figure for it and red is a great color on you. Don't wimp out now, Juliana."
A sea of screaming, nearly hysterical women surrounded them, bidding on the men being auctioned off in the name of charity with the same ferocity as the shark feeding frenzy Juliana had witnessed at a nearby aquarium. She'd bet her monthly pedicure the walls of the prestigious Caliber Club ballroom had never reverberated in quite the same way before. The pandemonium only increased her doubts about the plan the three of them had concocted over quesadillas and, clearly, one too many margaritas.
Praying for courage and finding none, Juliana took a deep breath and then another sip of champagne. What in the world had possessed her to believe she could cast off thirty years of being a Goody Two-shoes to bid on the baddest bachelor on the auction block tonight? She should have started with a smaller rebellion, but no, she'd chosen to launch a massive insurrection on her first attempt.
As an account auditor in her family's privately owned banking chain, she was cautious by nature. She worked a predictable job and drove a sensible sedan. She found comfort in following the rules, having her life add up in precise, orderly rows and in steadily ascending the career ladder the way her mother had before her.
But the sudden pressure to marry for the good of the company had shaken that ladder and made Juliana feel more like a commodity being bartered in the merger negotiations between Alden Bank and Trust and Wilson Savings and Loan than a human being.
"I can't believe I let you talk me into this. Maybe I'm not ready for the tarnish-your-halo type of man. Perhaps I should choose someone a little less..." At a loss for words, she shrugged. How could she describe the man whose picture in the bachelor auction program had given her hot flashes?
"Studly?" Holly asked with a wicked grin.
Understatement of the year. Juliana nodded.
Bachelor number nine took the stage and Juliana's heart cha-chaed erratically. The crowd of usually dignified ladies hooted, whistled and stomped their expensively shod feet. If any man could tempt a woman to take a few risks and break a few rules, that one could. Looking completely at home in the spotlight, he flashed an I-dare-you grin and encouraged the already rowdy crowd to make more noise by clapping his hands and swinging his hips to the loud music like the headlining performer he'd once been.
The man knew how to move. She'd grant him that. A shiver skipped down her spine.
His tight black T-shirt stretched across broad shoulders, molding a well-developed chest and encircling bulging biceps. Jeans, faded in those intriguing places she ought to be embarrassed to look at rode low on lean hips, and he wore cowboy boots — something you didn't see often in the port city of Wilmington, North Carolina. Given that every other man who'd crossed the stage before him tonight had worn a tux, the bar owner's casual attire screamed renegade — coincidentally, the name of his bar and the word emblazoned across the back of his shirt.
Juliana's pulse boomed so loudly she could barely hear the MC's long-winded introduction. Had the woman never heard the old cliché"silence is golden"? If she'd hush and let people look at Rex Tanner, then her job would do itself. What woman wouldn't want to be carried off in those muscle-corded arms or be coerced by that naughty I'm-gonna-get-you smile? "Feel the power between your legs — one month of Harley and horseback-riding lessons," Andrea read aloud from the program. "Juliana, if this guy can't show you what you've been missing, then I'm going to check to see if you still have a pulse. He's exactly what you need to derail you from your mother's insane idea."
Juliana gulped the remainder of her drink. The bubbles burned her nose and brought tears to her eyes. "I'm still not convinced there's anything wrong with my mother's suggestion. Wally is a nice guy."
"You're not in love with him and he's boring," Holly stated.
"More effective than a sleeping pill," Andrea added. "And he's a pushover.You'd be wearing the pants in that relationship."
And that was a problem? The woman-in-charge role had worked for Juliana's parents. "I love you both for worrying about me and I understand your concerns, but logically, Wally is a good choice. He's steady, even-tempered and ambitious — like me — and he's the only man I've ever dated who understands the demands of my career and the hours it requires. We can talk for hours without an awkward silence."
Andrea snorted. "About work. What happens when that subject gets old or, God forbid, you're still with him when you retire? Are you going to discuss credits and debits in bed? I know you, Juliana. Once you commit to a job — or a marriage — you'll never give up on it. Forget logic for once in your life. This is your last chance to see that there can and should be more than convenience to a relationship."
Last chance. The phrase stuck in Juliana's head. Her last chance before agreeing to marry Wallace Wilson — son of the owner of the bank poised to merge with Alden's — in a sensible, but loveless match.
She shifted uneasily. Okay, maybe her friends had a point. Wally wasn't Mr. Excitement, but he was kind, pleasant-looking and steadfast. If she married him, they'd probably have predictable Saturday-night-duty sex for the next fifty years. On the other hand, routines were good and sex wasn't everything. It certainly shouldn't be the basis for something as important as marriage. Emotions were volatile and unpredictable. Similar ethics and mutual respect were far more important and dependable qualities. If she married Wally, they'd develop other shared interests and love would grow over time like a safe investment....
Of course it would. If she had doubts, all she had to do was look at her parents. They'd married almost four decades ago to join two banking families, and they'd remained married when many of their friends had divorced.
The archway leading toward the exit drew her gaze again. Should she escape before diving off the bridge of sanity? No. A promise was a promise. But she truly hated going first. She turned back to her friends. "Swear to me you won't back out. You will buy bachelors tonight no matter what."
Holly and Andrea smiled angelically and raised their right hands as if taking the oath on a Bible. Juliana didn't trust those smiles. While her friends' lives might not be as methodically plotted out as hers, tonight's escapade was totally out of character for all three of them. Surely one of them would come to her senses before the evening ended?
The microphone screeched, jerking Juliana's attention back to the hunk commanding center stage — the one she'd been trying hard to ignore. How could any woman resist him? The man was a Grade-A gorgeous devil from his thick black ponytail to his worn low-heeled boots. He wouldn't need to read an instruction manual to know how to pleasure a woman — assuming that woman could be pleased.
But purchasing the cowboy's package would take more than recklessness and champagne courage. It meant flagrantly disregarding her mother's wishes — something she'd carefully avoided until now for fear of the repercussions. But Juliana had to admit the proposed engagement combined with her thirtieth birthday had left her wondering if there was more to life. She'd promised Holly and Andrea she'd investigate the possibility before meekly agreeing to the future her mother had planned for her.
That didn't prevent Juliana from wondering if she'd taken on a bigger challenge than she could handle when she'd selected her bachelor — a man the complete opposite of anyone she'd dated in the past. She said a silent prayer that the rebel's price would exceed the limit she, Andrea and Holly had agreed upon, and then she could choose a less intimidating man.
Coward. If you do, then your plan will fail.
Her plan was beginning to sound more than a little like tequila madness. For once in her life, Juliana had decided to break the rules and, since she didn't have the first clue where to start, she'd chosen Rex Tanner, a hell-raising rebel who she hoped would lead her astray. For the next month, she'd put herself in his corrupting hands and then once she had this last fling out of the way and she was certain she wasn't missing out on anything worthwhile, she could marry Wally with no regrets.
"Go home before you get into trouble."
Juliana nearly tumbled off her flimsy sandals at her bossy older brother's growled warning. She refused to admit she'd like nothing more than to turn and run as fast as her heels would carry her. To annoy Eric, she raised her numbered fan, offering the first bid on Mr. Too-Hot-To-Handle.
Andrea and Holly grinned and gave her thumbs-up. Juliana didn't dare glance across the room to where her mother, the charity event's chief organizer, watched with an eagle eye.
She tilted her head back to glare at her brother. "How much trouble can a month of riding lessons cause? Go away, Eric."
"I'm not worried about the horseback-riding lessons because you already know how to ride. It's the other half of the prize that concerns me. You'll kill yourself on a motorcycle. Be reasonable, Juliana. You are not the most coordinated person on the planet."
The barb stung — mostly because it was true. In fact, these days she limited her exercise routine to swimming because then she wouldn't fall off anything and get hurt when her mind strayed to work issues.
Eric attempted to take her numbered paddle, but Juliana snatched it out of his reach and stabbed it into the air. "I'm thirty years old — too old for you to be telling me what to do."
"Somebody needs to. You and your friends —" he glared at Holly and Andrea " — must have been out of your minds to come up with this plan. Buying men, for crissakes. If you want to support the charity, buy Wallace and not this —"
"Hunk," Holly interrupted, earning a scowl from Eric. Juliana pasted on the placating smile she reserved for difficult customers. "Actually, Eric, our mother came up with the bachelor-auction idea. Andrea, Holly and I are merely supporting her efforts."
"Dammit, Juliana, you can't handle a guy like him. He'll chew you up and spit you out. Use your brain. Buy Wally. He's...safe." He snatched at Juliana's fan again and once more she jerked it away.
Safe. Those four letters said it all. She'd played it safe her entire life and where had that gotten her? Ahead in her career, but pathetically far behind in her personal life. She'd never fallen head over heels in love or even lust, and she couldn't help wondering if she was capable of such intense emotions. Not that she wanted the heartache, but was it too much to ask for bells, whistles and earth-moving orgasms? For a woman like her — one who trusted cold, hard facts more than fickle emotions? Probably. But for once in her life, she didn't want to play it safe.
She glanced at the man on the stage. Safe didn't make her skin tingle or her breath quicken. She shoved the paddle into the air this time holding it high above her head and slightly behind her. Her brother was taller, but he was as conservative as she was. He wouldn't make a scene or wrestle her to the ground to keep her from bidding.
"I don't want to buy Wally. Saturday-night suppers? How unimaginative is that? Besides, I already have a standing dinner date with him on Fridays. What's wrong with having a little fun? You should try it sometime."
And then she winced. Eric had been very publicly jilted a few months ago and fun was probably the last thing on his mind. She suspected his heart hadn't been broken, but his pride had to have taken a serious blow. The worst part was that since he'd failed to marry into the Wilson banking family, her mother had decided Juliana should.
She waved her paddle — a little more desperately this time. "Eric, I have carefully thought this out, and I know what I'm doing, so leave me alone."
"Sold to number 223," the MC shouted from the stage.
"Pay up and collect your prize, young lady."