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After a short drumroll from the band, the emcee, Lance Wocek, stepped forward. "Here's our own beautiful Katherine Ransome," he announced, taking her hand, "talented artist, successful businesswoman and stunning bachelorette."
Smiling into the ring of bright spotlights on Fort Worth's Oak Hill Country Club's impromptu stage, Katherine waved to no one in particular. The patrons in tuxes and designer dresses made a ritzy gala of the elegant charity benefit for homeless children. Katherine was in sympathy with the cause, but she wished again that she had written a check instead of participating herself.
"Gentlemen, for an evening with the charming and beautiful Miss Ransome, what am I bid?" Lance asked. "Who'll start the bidding?"
"One thousand dollars," called a male voice and guests applauded. Trying to gaze beyond the lights, Katherine looked at a blur of faces turned in her direction, probably men she had known all her life.
"One thousand dollars! Good start! What am I bid?" Lance asked, circling and smiling at his audience.
"Two thousand," a man called, and she recognized local attorney Wes Trentwood's voice. She was glad men were bidding, remembering her brothers teasing her that no one would bid because she had been so cool in the past to the local males. So far, between the two bidders, she preferred an evening with Wes to anyone else.
"Two thousand dollars," Lance repeated. "We have a bid of two thousand dollars. Who'll make it three thousand for an evening with one of the most gorgeous ladies in the county?"
"Three thousand," came another bid that was raised immediately to four.
"I bid five hundred thousand dollars," a deep male voice said. While an audible gasp rippled through the room, heads turned. Stunned that anyone would pay so much for an evening with her, Katherine peered in the direction of the voice.
As she watched, a man stood and applause broke out over his bid. He threaded his way between the tables of onlookers. Unable to distinguish his features because of the lights, Katherine could see his black hair and broad shoulders. He wasn't local, yet something about him struck a chord of familiarity. She could only stare in amazement, and then she reminded herself the money went to a good cause and his bid was a magnanimous donation.
As he approached the stage, even though she couldn't see him well because of the blinding lights, she discerned that he was tall and moved with the grace of a panther.
As he narrowed the distance between them, her heart thudded. Katherine's pulse roared in her ears. Time hung suspended while she was flung back nine years. For an infinitesimal second, everything in her cried out to throw her arms around his neck and hug him. He stood as still as she, and the electricity jumping between them made her wonder why flames didn't scorch the air.
Her brain began to function, and the moment was gone. Longing vanished, replaced by surprise.
Dressed in a black tux and a snowy white shirt, he stopped in front of her and looked at her solemnly. "You're more beautiful than ever."
She knew his voice, knew the pitch and timbre, knew his brown eyes. Even if he had changed in appearance and manner, his voice was the same and sent tingles spiraling through her as if he had touched her.
Dismayed, she gazed at him while her head spun and her heart pounded, drowning out all noise. For an instant she thought she would faint.
"Cade," she whispered. Cade Logan, the man she had planned to marry was standing in front of her, close enough for her to touch. It was her first time to see him in nine long years, since the week before their wedding.
Lance spoke to Cade or to her. She had no idea which one. Someone called Lance's name and he excused himself, leaving without either one of them answering him.
She was held in a gaze that shut off the rest of the world. Nine years ago and suddenly, here Cade was standing before her. She had thought about this occasion over and over again, and played multiple versions of it in her mind. Now that it was actually happening, she was unprepared, and the moment wasn't like anything she had rehearsed in her fantasies.
Everything in her screamed a protest. And deep down, most disturbing of all, her first thought was, he was too handsome for words. She had a response to him that she despised, yet could not control. Her reaction rocked her because she had thought she was over him long ago and immune to ever seeing him again. There was nothing resistant in her system. Every nerve was raw; the beat of her heart was faster.
He stood holding out his hand to her. She moved automatically, going through the motions without thinking about them, numb as she offered her hand. His warm hand enveloped hers in a surprisingly gentle shake, and the moment they touched, an electric jolt went to her toes.
She yanked her hand away and narrowed her eyes, while her anger surfaced and overrode other emotions.
Rage, pure and deep, shook Katherine, sending tremors through her body. She wanted to wave her fists and shout at Cade, to scream at him and pound on his chest. Instead, she lifted her chin and gazed away coolly in disdain as if she hadn't even recognized him.
"This is Friday night. As I understand it, I've acquired the privilege of taking you to dinner tomorrow night," Cade said. She ached to decline. But she had made a commitment and little kids were depending on her.
"How dare you! How can you show up here like this?" she hissed between clenched teeth unable to hold back, yet aware they still stood spotlighted on stage. Her fists doubled and she shook. "You can't possibly expect me to go out with you, of all people."
"I not only expect it, I just paid a hell of a lot of money for the evening with you," he answered quietly, thoroughly scrutinizing her, which only heightened her fury.
"There are several others you can take to dinner tomorrow night who will be much more receptive. Perhaps you'd rather go with someone else."
"No, Katherine. I knew what I was doing when I bid for an evening with you," he answered with a note of steel in his voice. Beneath her anger was a dim awareness that he was far more self-assured and confident than he had been nine years ago. He had to be worth a royal fortune to have tossed away five hundred thousand dollars to go out for a few hours with her. Occasionally, she had read about him in newspapers or seen articles or pictures in magazines and she knew he was a successful business entrepreneur, but she hadn't dreamed the extent of his fortune. How had he made so much money in such a short time? Why was he back? Questions buzzed in her head.
Lance returned and his voice finally penetrated her shock. Lance extended his hand toward Cade and they shook hands.
"Thank you, sir, for your overwhelming donation to this fine cause. Your generosity will be deeply appreciated for years to come. You'll change many children's lives. And in return, you get an evening out with one of Fort Worth's most beautiful women, Katherine Ransome.
"Before we go any further, let me introduce myself. I'm Lance Wocek. We're overwhelmed by your donation that's the largest we've ever had in any local charity event from a single donor that I recall." He looked expectantly at Cade.
"Lance, you two know each other," Katherine interjected in a tight voice. The two men had grown up in Cedar County and gone through Rincon High School together and she had been four years behind them. "Remember Cade Logan?" she asked. "Cade, I'm sure you recall Lance."
Lance's jaw dropped, and his eyes grew round while he stared at Cade. "Cade Logan? From high school? You've changed," he stammered. "I didn't recognize you," Lance said as if talking to himself, and Katherine remembered the wild, slender boy who had won her love.
She could clearly see his shaggy long hair, tattered T-shirts and faded jeans and she had to concede that he did look different. She herself hadn't recognized him at first. She surveyed the differences, noticing he had filled out his lanky six-foot-four-inch frame with broad shoulders. His black hair was neatly trimmed and combed. There was a subtle difference in his demeanor, a presence about him that indicated a "take charge" personality that hadn't been there before.
But the sexy bedroom eyes with thick lashes were the same. He could still flash the penetrating look that always made her feel as if he knew her every thought. His full, sensual lower lip was the same, as was his wide, sculpted mouth.
"I'm the same Cade Logan," Cade said easily. "It's been a while."
"None of us—" Suddenly Lance broke off and looked back and forth between Katherine and Cade. "You two..." His voice trailed away, and he looked stricken.
"I'll make arrangements with Katherine for our evening together," Cade said smoothly. "I have a check here for the five hundred thousand. Shall I make it out to the Slade House Children's Foundation?" Cade asked, pulling out his checkbook and pen.
"That'll be fine," Lance said, staring at Cade until someone spoke to him and he had to turn away again.
Katherine couldn't believe what was happening. She hoped it was a nightmare that would vanish upon waking.
Only it wasn't disappearing. Cade gazed at her with unfathomable brown eyes, and she didn't have any idea what was running through his mind.
"Why are you doing this? You can't possibly want to go out with me."
"I think I've shown that I do want to go out with you. I want to see you and this was the quickest, simplest way to do so."
"It was rather costly."
"I didn't want to hassle over you with someone, nor did I want you to back out of the evening. It's far more difficult to change your mind and your promise when so much is at stake for the kids."
"Your donation will be wonderful for the charity."
"I was happy to help that cause. Where should I pick you up and how is six?"
"Six is way too early," she said, hoping she could go late and come home early.You can pick me up at this address," she said, opening a small, black bag and producing one of her business cards. She turned it over, retrieved a pen and scribbled her address before handing the card to him. Again his fingers brushed hers and sent another electrifying jolt to her system.
He glanced at it, looking from it to her in a curious scrutiny that made her want to fidget and ask him what he was thinking.
Instead, she gazed coolly back at him and hoped he couldn't detect her racing pulse or ragged breathing or any other reaction she was having to seeing him. Why was he here? The big question had always been why had he left, but now, the answer to why he had returned was more pressing.
"Have you had dinner tonight?" he asked.
"No, I haven't, but if we go out tonight, that's the night you just bid for and won."
"That's fair enough," he said. "Can you leave now?"
"Leave? They'll serve a very elegant dinner here. That's part of the evening. Then there's dancing afterward," she said, unable to think about dancing with him and being in his arms again.
"I'd rather get out of here where we can be to ourselves. I don't care to be interrupted all evening. Is there any arrangement that as a participant you have to stay?"
"No, not at all. My part in the auction is over. I'll tell them I'm leaving and join you at the door," she said, both relieved they would get the evening together over quickly and on edge about going out with him.
If she ever saw him again, she had always expected that she would hate him, but that wasn't what she felt. Fury was dominant, but she responded to him as a female would to a sexy, appealing male. The evening alone with him made her tingly and excited even though she didn't want it to.
After telling a coordinator she was leaving, Katherine hurried to one of the private rooms that the bachelorettes had been given to use as a dressing room. She paused to look at herself in the mirror, glancing swiftly over her sequined sleeveless black dress with a low-cut vee neckline. She wore high-heeled black pumps.
Taking a deep breath, she left, hurrying toward the exit and experiencing another jolt when her gaze met Cade's as he watched her approach. A few hours with him and the evening would be over, she reminded herself. She could guard her heart and emotions for that long, surely.
He held the door open for her and then walked beside her, sliding his arm around her waist while they stepped outside into a cool October night. She felt the light contact with Cade as if it were a burning brand. She was prickly with raw awareness of his shoulder against hers, his arm circling her waist and her hip lightly touching his.
In the front of the club at the porte cochere, a limousine waited with a driver, who opened the door for her. Cade climbed in and sat beside her, turning slightly to face her.
Gazing back at him, she almost felt as if she were with a stranger. She didn't know Cade any longer. There was only a dim connection to the boy he once was and the person she knew.Yet there was no way to wipe out memories or her hurt or her anger.
"Why are you here?" she asked bluntly.
"Reasonable question. Some curiosity about you and my past. But that part is minor."
"So what's the big reason?" she persisted.
"I've found that ninety-nine percent of the time, when you purchase something, it's worth the difference to get the best."
"So you're here in Fort Worth to get the best of whatever it is you want."
"That's right. Why were you in the bachelorette auction?"
"The Slade Home is one of my favorite projects. Little children shouldn't be on the streets. You helped the children enormously tonight," she said, aware that he deserved thanks for what he had done for the kids.
"But, at the same time, you'd rather I hadn't bid."
"No. The money is more important and it'll do many needed things," she said, thinking how bland their conversation was while sparks ignited the air between them, and she fought the attraction for him that pulled at her as if he had never walked out and the past hadn't been filled with hurt.
"You could have written a check to the charity, so I'll inquire again, why did you participate?" he persisted.
"I've been asking myself that all evening," she remarked dryly, still having the feeling of talking to a stranger, except for his voice. She knew his voice. Even his hands were different—larger, less roughened.