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THE minute Kate Hayden saw Tyler James again, her world turned upside down.
Okay, maybe nothing quite so dramatic, but it sure seemed as if her axis tilted way off kilter as the gut-wrenching desire that had been a feature of their brief relationship eons ago was back, overwhelming in its intensity.
It had been six, long years since she'd last seen him so why were her hormones going haywire at the sight of him now?
She'd gotten over him a long time ago. She'd prepared for this.
She'd psyched herself up for weeks ever since she'd seen his name on the list of 'Odd Bods', the rather quaint name given to the charity man auction the magazine was sponsoring, and known she had to see him.
So she was curious? No big deal. She'd been nosy her whole life and the trait served her well in her job, giving her a head-start on the next big story, helping her make a name for herself.
But this insatiable curiosity about Ty was different and she'd known it the minute her tummy had tingled at the sight of his name on the auction list.
This wasn't just the natural curiosity of an investigative journalist. Uh-uh. away from the best thing that had ever happened to her. First loves weren't supposed to last and she'd moved on long time ago, but somehow seeing his name on that list brought back a rush of memories, all good, and she had see him.
She'd hoped he'd be shrunken and balding and his muscles had wasted away. Although where would the fun be in that?
She sipped her champagne, hoping the bubbly liquid ease the sudden dryness of her throat as the guy she'd thought she'd spend the rest of her life with strutted the stage.
Oh, my. The champagne momentarily soothed her thirst but it didnothing for her erratic pulse, which skipped all over the place the sight of the sexiest guy she'd ever met standing on display a room full of women as if he didn't have a care in the world. Ty looked incredible, far hotter than she rememberedand remembered a lot! If anything, the years had enhanced his good looks. Fine lines radiated from the corners of his eyes doing little to detract from the tanned, hard planes of face, his high cheekbones hinting at arrogance. Rich brown streaked blond by the sun, cut in the traditional short-back-and-sides he favoured. And those finely shaped lips
Oh, yeah, she remembered those lips all too well, seducing her with their skill, giving pleasure, wreaking havoc.
The memories still lingered, imprinted on her brain, branded there, utterly indelible. She'd deliberately blocked them over the years, concentrating on her career, trying to build a life for herself in a new country.
Leaving Sydney for LA had been a huge decision for a twenty-one-year-old. But meeting Ty shortly after she landed in the US had made that transition a lot less scary; in fact the guy had lit her world back then.
Squirming in her chair, she took another sip of champagne. This wasn't the time to get caught up in memories of Ty. She had to focus her attention for the next ten minutes, at least till she'd given her speech. Senior editors needed to be cool and poised, not hot and bothered while practically drooling over an old flame.
'So, without further ado, ladies, I present our last Odd Bod for the evening. Though from where I'm standing there's nothing odd about this particular bod!'
A soft twittering swept the room as all eyes turned to the stage. Kelly Adams, the glam local TV station presenter, gestured to the man on her right as she continued her spiel.
'I know you'll like what you see, ladies. Tyler James is a Navy SEAL instructor. By the way, SEAL stands for Sea, Air and Land, for those of you who don't know, and they're an amazing bunch of Special Forces guys. Tyler stands at six feet four with muscles to die for, has amazing blue eyes, is equipped to handle anything and likes to take charge!'
Catcalls and whistles filled the air while the man in question squared his broad shoulders and grinned, not in the least embarrassed.
'So, what am I bid for Tyler? Come on, ladies, dig deep. The Ramirez Orphanage is a good cause that needs your help to stay open. Besides, who wouldn't want this man doing their odd jobs for the next week? Perhaps a spot of gardening? Car washing? Cooking? Housework? Your call, ladies. I'd bid myself though I think my husband would have something to say about it. Who'll start the bidding?'
As Kelly's announcement sank in Kate pondered his change in career. Ty had become an instructor? When they'd first met he'd been a proud SEAL, resplendent in his uniform and bristling with macho ideals. No behind-the-scenes action for that guy. He'd been committed and passionate with a genuine love for his career. Why the change of heart?
She stared at the man on stage, questions swirling through her head.
Why hadn't they given it a go?
Had chasing their careers rather than following their hearts been worth it?
Had growing up changed them?
Needing a distraction from her futile questions, she glanced around the table and noticed every woman's attention riveted to the stage. Not that she could blame them, considering what was on show up there.
They were a great bunch of girls to work with, all highly talented in their own right: journalists, editors and photographers. Diane, her personal assistant, had organised this gathering in support of the magazine's sponsorship of the orphanage. In fact, Di had been in charge of choosing this year's worthy cause and had taken care of every detail and all she'd had to do was turn up.
As if sensing her gaze, Di turned towards her. 'Why don't you put in a bid, Kate? About time you had some excitement in your life.'
Excitement? Her? No way. Been there, done that and still had the SEAL scars to prove it.
To her mortification, the rest of the girls turned to look at her so she schooled her features into her best 'I'm too busy to have fun' look.
'Sorry to disappoint, everyone. No time for excitement. What would I do with an Odd Bod anyway?'
Though her voice remained steady the idea of Ty trailing after her for a week did strange things to her insides.
Things she shouldn't be feeling or remembering 'My point exactly,' Di smirked. 'If you don't know what to do with a total hunk like that you need more help than I first thought. Why don't you live a little and show us you're human after all?'
The rest of the table joined in, goading her into bidding and she shook her head, chuckling at their enthusiasm.
So Di had a point. She did bury her life in her work, determined to show that effort and dedication were the keys to success. However, being a workaholic had its downside and she hadn't had any fun in ages. She'd been fun and impulsive once, and she was too young to be living the sensible 'all work no play' life. Maybe a brief catch-up off-stage with an old 'friend' could be an antidote to that?
What harm could placing a bid do? It wasn't as if she'd be the only one. Just one look at Ty and every woman in the room would be reaching for their cheque books.
'Okay, okay. I'll do it. Sheesh.'
She held up her hands in surrender and grinned as the girls cheered. Downing the rest of her champagne in two gulps, she raised her hand high in the air and waved it like a cheerleader on a caffeine high.
'Five hundred dollars,'she yelled, buoyed by the alcohol and a sudden rush to do something completely out of character.
Pin-drop silence followed and rather than sinking into her chair with embarrassment she straightened her spine, head up, waiting for the moment Ty laid eyes on his bidder, eager to see his reaction, wondering if they still had a spark.
She had her answer in the next loaded second when Ty focussed that too-blue gaze of his on her, the shock of recognition registering in the imperceptible widening of his eyes across the room as they stared at each other, neither backing down, locked in an invisible battle of wills so reminiscent of the past.
Maybe it was the champagne, maybe it was the number of women packed into the room, but while Kate sat trapped under the intensity of Ty's stare she broke out in a sweat as her body temperature sky-rocketed and she could barely breathe.
'Do I have any further bids?' Kelly queried, surveying the room with a grin on her expertly made up face.
Please. Someone anyone Kate's silent plea preceded complete and utter bedlam as the ladiesand she used the term looselyin the room erupted.
Maybe her initial bid had been a tad on the high side considering the average guy had gone for around three to four hundred all night. But she'd wanted to prove a point to the girls, show them she could lighten up when needed. Unfortunately, she hadn't counted on the speculative gleam in her ex's eyes or the competitive nature of her fellow bidders.
'Five-fifty!' shouted a boppy blonde.
Kate rolled her eyes. Blondes were so not Ty's type. 'Six hundred,' yelled a willowy redhead who looked like Nicole Kidman, her smug smile indicating she thought she'd won.
Kate sat up and took notice of the third bidder, a sultry brunette reminiscent of Catherine Zeta-Jones with breasts that could take out a guy's eye at a hundred paces.
Now she was Ty's type.
Di leaned over and muttered behind her raised hand. 'Hey, are you going to let these amateurs beat you?'
Suddenly, Kate knew that was out of the question. Fuelled by a fierce competitive streak she'd had since birth, she downed her newly topped-up glass of champagne and jabbed her hand high in the air.
'One thousand dollars!'
Chaos ceased as curious eyesand several eyes shooting daggers if she counted the blonde, Nicole and Catherinefocussed on her and she clenched her fists under the table, her heart pounding.
'Going once? Going twice? All done?'
As the gavel in Kelly's hand hit the podium with a resounding thud Kate jumped.
'Sold. To Kate Hayden, whose magazine is our major sponsor today. Well done, Kate. Why don't you come up here and claim your prize?'
'You go, girl,'Di laughed, slapping her on the back. 'Didn't know you had it in you.'
Numbness flooded Kate's body as she walked towards the stage mechanically putting one foot in front of the other as thunderous applause rang out, almost succeeding in drowning out the pounding of her heart, which still reverberated in her ears.
Well, wasn't this just peachy?
She'd envisaged a brief catch up with Ty tonight, but not like this. A short, impersonal meeting off-stage had been her goal, not an up-close-and-personal encounter in front of the whole room.
As she dragged her feet up the steps she looked Ty in the eye and tried not to crumple into a pathetic heap at his feet. Up close he was even more handsome if that were possible. His vivid blue eyes, the spectacular colour of the Pacific Ocean at Malibu on a fine day, had a quizzical edge as his glance raked over her, setting her body alight.
Damn, he was hot. Hotter than hot and she was burning up from the inside out just being this close to him.
'You're looking good, Katie. Long time no see.'
His deep voice flowed over her in a warm caress just as it used to and her knees wobbled, an instant reminder of her foolishness when it came to this guy.
Rattled by her reaction, she aimed for cool. 'Yeah, it has been a long time. Amazing what I'll do for charity, isn't it?'
The momentary warmth in his eyes sparked into fire, the same fire that had scorched her with its brilliance on more than one lucky occasion.
'Now, now. Is that any way to talk to your fiancé?' 'Ex,' she muttered, unable to keep her mouth from twitching at the teasing glint in his eyes.
Those incredible eyes she was convinced they had the power to make her do crazy things. Why else would she be standing here like a hypnotised chook unable to look away?
Kelly's head swivelled between them, her catlike eyes glowing with interest.
'Well, well. Seems like these two are going to get along famously. They're already chatting. Why don't you say a few words, Kate, before we wind things up?'
Kate tore her gaze away from Ty's mesmerising stare and strode to the podium, hoping that her professionalism wouldn't desert her while her mind was a useless jumble of unexpected memories.
'As senior editor for Femme magazine I'd like to thank you all for attending our Odd Bod Man Auction here tonight.'
Glancing at the piece of paper thrust into her hand, she continued, 'Thanks to your generosity we've raised over ten thousand dollars for the Ramirez Orphanage. Well done, ladies.'
Particularly well done to her considering she'd contributed one tenth of that money to 'purchase' the guy she had every intention of cutting loose once this evening was over. The money didn't irk nearly as much as the fact he now knew she'd outrageously overbid to beat every other woman in the room to have him, not once, but twice.
The smattering of applause died down and she forced herself to concentrate on finishing up the speech.
'I'd also like to thank the men who generously volunteered their time tonight and for the next week. I'm sure the ladies will be more than thrilled to have personal Odd Bods for the week ahead. I know I am.' Not.
There, that last remark should show him that he hadn't affected her. Not much, anyway.
Squaring her shoulders, she turned to Ty and flashed him an uneasy smile. Once again loud applause filled the room as he blew her a kiss.
Damn it, her knees wobbled again. All it took was one 'Thank you, ladies. We hope to see you at our next fund-Ty said, swinging their bound arms into the air in a salute.
The applause crescendoed, accompanied by raucous hooting and laughter, and light bulbs flashed in a continuous wave as the contingent of photographers lapped up the opportunity. Kate clenched her jaw and grinned, determined to appear in control when in fact she wanted to bolt.
'Yeah, I'm having a real ball,' she said through gritted teeth, keeping her smile in place and giving a subtle yank on the chain binding them.
'Just a little longer. Plenty of time to get reacquainted later.' His subtle, husky emphasis on 'reacquainted' set her pulse racing and she took a deep breath, knowing the faster they got off-stage and unlocked, the happier she'd be.
She lowered her arm forcefully, pulling his down, and Ty tugged on the chain linking them, reinforcing the fact that if he hadn't wanted to lower his arm she wouldn't have succeeded in moving him one inch.
She marched off the stage, leaving him no option but to follow.
Now was her big chance.
To do what?
Exchange pleasantries? Make small talk?
Chewing her lip in frustration, Kate picked up the pace. For someone who spent her life making decisions over which words sounded better or which articles went where, she hadn't thought this through at all.
Seeing Ty on stage was one thing, having him attached to her up close and personal another.
She'd wanted to catch up? Well, looked as if she had her opportunity considering she'd spent a small fortune to have him bound to her for a week.
Not that she'd hold him to it. They'd have a quick catch-up backstage and she'd let him go.