Read an Excerpt
"Going once…going twice…"
With anticipation thick in the air, the announcer called out, "Sold!"
And Sebastian Sinclair watched as the man just purchased was led off the stage to the sounds of raucous feminine cheers. Soon it would be his turn.
How the hell did I get myself talked into this? he wondered. Wearing a suit, watching huge amounts of money change hands with no consideration of the cost, being the center of attention—he hated it all. It reminded him of his youth and the fact that he had nothing in common with these shallow blue bloods.
Most of all, he hated the idea of being bought like an expensive toy for the amusement of rich women— regardless of the cause.
He seemed to be the only male not thrilled with the prospect of displaying himself. The others, in ages varying from late twenties to early forties, were smiling, flaunting their wares, so to speak, and generally getting into the spirit of the thing. Only one man remained in line before Sebastian now and judging by the brawn of the guy and his rough-whiskered chin, he wouldn't last long. The women were really going berserk on the macho ones.
Which was probably why the construction workers had on very snug, tattered jeans and T-shirts too tight for men half their size—an adjustment for their female audience, no doubt. There was absolutely no way a man could work comfortably in a shirt that tight.
Likewise, the landscapers wore their work boots and jeans, some of them with no shirts on at all. And the carpenter—he had a heavy tool belt hanging low on his hips. The ensemble was complete with wrenches, a nail pouch and the largest hammer Sebastian had ever seen, no doubt a pitiful attempt at symbolism. Sebastian shook his head and tried, without much success, to mask his amusement.
The announcer, a woman with a very wide, toothy smile, led a man around the stage by one finger hooked in his belt loop. The audience roared, then roared again when she had him turn, showing him to advantage. The spotlight moved over his backside and feminine shrieks filled the air.
Sebastian wondered if any of these rich people realized the seriousness of the benefit, the purpose the money would serve in assisting abused women. He doubted it. To them, it was a lark, not a humanitarian deed to build shelters and help those in need.
To Sebastian, it was much more personal.
The brawny guy ahead of him bounded onstage, anxious for his turn to titillate the giggling masses, and Sebastian was left with a female attendant, waiting for his cue.
As he'd guessed, the bewhiskered fellow went quickly, the last bid coming on a crescendo of womanly squeals and bawdy jests. The attendant took Sebastian's arm and directed him forward.
As he reached the center of the stage, hot lighting flooded over him. He stared out at the audience, satisfied with their reckless spending, but thoroughly disgusted by their careless attitudes. None of them gave a thought to where the money would go or how badly it was needed. They were all the same, full of glitz and shine; shallow, frivolous, concentrating only on their own pleasures. He was disdainful of them all.
And then he saw her.
She stood alone, a small dark-haired woman with huge eyes that dominated her face and expressed her fascination. She didn't smile as he met her stare. She didn't yell out suggestions or a bid as the other women were doing. She didn't laugh or joke; she didn't do anything but watch him. He no longer heard the announcer, no longer felt the heat of the bright lights. His boredom and disinterest seemed to melt away. Her face was upturned, her lips slightly parted, as if in surprise. And he knew—she couldn't look away. Somehow he held her physically by the connection of their gazes.
Sebastian didn't dare blink. She seemed awestruck and innocent and he found her utterly irresistible. For some insane reason, because something inside him had stirred and heated at the sight of her, he had no intention of letting her go.
Maybe he wouldn't berate Shay after all. He just might end up thanking her.
She wanted him.
Brandi stood in the middle of the floor, right beneath the stage. The men had been coming and going, none of them overly remarkable to her mind, but then, she wasn't here to buy a man. She was only attending this benefit to support her sister, Shay. In truth, she avoided gatherings like this one, where the testosterone filled the air so thick you could choke on it. And there were any number of ways she would have preferred to spend her birthday.
But none of that mattered at the moment. The man onstage was incredible, and once her gaze locked with his, she couldn't stop staring. She felt an irresistible connection to him, and she couldn't seem to find the wit—or the will—to walk away.
The woman handling the bids chuckled at some jest Brandi had missed, then turned to catch the man's arm. Holding a microphone in one hand, she gripped his arm firmly with the other and cuddled up to him. "Such a generous bid!" she called out sounding very excited, though Brandi, deeply involved in her own scrutiny, hadn't heard the exact amount offered. "He's worth every penny, ladies! Come on now, don't be shy. This one is quite a specimen." She squeezed his upper arm, testing his muscle, then made an "oohing" expression to the audience.
The man didn't look overly complimented. He looked disdainful, and rather than work toward drawing more attention to himself as the other men had, he merely crossed his arms and braced his long legs apart. He seemed impossibly tall and strong and masculine in his rigid stance. As impenetrable as a stone wall. Almost barbaric in his strength. And he continued to look at Brandi.
The announcer struggled to gain his cooperation. She tried to force him into a turn, wanting to display him as she had the others in order to raise the already astronomical sum they'd collected. He resisted her efforts with ease. The announcer couldn't budge him a single inch.
And the women loved it. They called out more bids, made explicit suggestions on what they'd do with him and haggled amongst themselves.
Brandi's fascination built. Never before had she felt it, at least, not in eight long years. And before that, she'd simply been too young. But there was no denying the interest surging inside her now. She'd made a decision earlier that day, a decision that would change her life—hopefully for the better. But this? Could she really consider bidding on a man? On this man?
In answer to her own thoughts, she shook her head no.
The man gave her a slight, devastating smile that stole her breath—and then slowly nodded his head yes, as if to encourage her. Embarrassed color flooded her face. He couldn't possibly know what she'd been thinking! She shook her head again, more emphatically this time, but that only made his smile widen until he gave her a full-fledged grin.
God, he was gorgeous.
And big. Too big. Much, much too big and imposing and… Brandi felt her heartbeat trip, felt heat wash over her, as if someone had opened an oven. She tried to step back, to break the invisible connection between them, but she couldn't manage it. Never in her life had she been the object of such masculine notice. Her sister Shay was so striking—tall and pale and beautiful beyond words—Brandi naturally faded beside her, becoming a mere shadow to Shay's impressive height and inexhaustible energy.
But now a man—this incredible mountain of a man—had latched onto her with his bold gaze and he wouldn't release her. She felt both alarmed and pleasantly flustered.
At that moment, Shay reappeared at her side. Her slim eyebrows lifted in a question. The man's gaze automatically reverted to Shay, who towered over Brandi.
It wasn't quite jealousy that Brandi felt—she and Shay were very close—it was more like resignation. She had no business staring at a man, inviting his interest when she had no intention of returning it. She couldn't return it, not yet, and certainly not with a man like him. Her resolution to start this birthday off differently hadn't yet been implemented. And it never would be with a man like him.
Now that he wasn't looking at her, she could look away, too, and did—with a deep, regretful sigh.
Shay heard that sigh and smiled. "He is gorgeous, isn't he?"
Burdened with her own thoughts, Brandi turned to look up at Shay and asked stupidly, "Who?"
"The man you've been ogling." Then Shay took her arm and led her away from the center of the floor. "Every woman here has been doing the same. But then, he's not exactly the type of man any red-blooded female would fail to notice."
"He isn't enjoying being on that stage."
Shay chuckled. "No, I don't think he is. But did you see how the women are reacting to his disinterest? They're going wild for him."
Feeling choked, Brandi said, "Then I suppose he'll bring in a good amount for your charity auction."
"That's what I'm counting on." Shay slanted Brandi a look. "I could make you a loan, you know."
Brandi stumbled but quickly righted herself. "Good grief, Shay! You're not suggesting…?"
Such a ridiculous question hardly deserved an answer, but it irritated Brandi enough to give one anyway. "You already know why. Did you look at him? He's bigger than a barn and dark as Satan. Even wearing a suit, the man looks like a disgruntled savage. And so far, he's only smiled once."
"Yes, but that smile almost knocked you on your can. I watched the whole thing. Admit it, Brandi, you like what you saw."
Trying to be reasonable, Brandi explained, "He makes my insides jumpy. That's not a good sign."
Shay's face lit up. "Are you kidding? That's a fantastic sign!"
"No buts." Then Brandi softened her tone. She knew Shay only had her best interests at heart, and she wanted to put her at ease. "I made a decision this morning to get my life in order, to start… circulating again."
"Circulating? As in dating?" There was both caution and elation in Shay's tone.
Brandi smiled. "Yes. I'll probably make a fool of myself, and I'll have to start out with someone safe, someone I know well and can trust and who isn't too pushy or overbearing. But it's past time I got on with my life. I'm going to start acting like a normal woman again if it kills me."
Shay grinned. "Well, I don't think death will actually be a by-product. And I'm thrilled with your decision, I really am. But since you already like the guy onstage—"
They both turned as the announcer began responding to a volley of bids. Things were winding up. He'd be sold any second now. Sadly, Brandy shook her head. Shay didn't understand. No one in her family did. She tried her best not to burden them, so she kept her lingering difficulties to herself and merely replied, "Fine," whenever they chanced to ask how she was doing. So far, that seemed to satisfy everyone.
Brandi turned away from the stage, unwilling to witness the final bid. "I'd never buy a man, Shay. I couldn't do it. You know that."
Shay stared down at her, then straightened to her full, impressive height. "Well, I certainly have no problem with it."
And before Brandi could stop her, before she could get a single word out of her suddenly dry mouth, Shay raised her arm and in a loud, carrying voice called out a bid well above any other they'd heard that night.
Stunned silence followed that astronomical bid, quickly replaced by loud complaints and feminine groans. But no one could go any higher. And after a moment, the announcer banged her gavel with obvious satisfaction. "Sold! To Shay Sommers, and pound for pound, he's a hell of a bargain!"
The vagaries of fate were often rather hideous.
Brandi closed her eyes a moment, denying her own despair.
"Well," Shay said, her tone incredibly dry, "that was taken care of rather easily, wasn't it? No one even bothered to counter with a higher bid."
Brandi opened her eyes with that bit of nonsense. "Are you crazy, Shay? Have you totally lost your mind? You can have any man you want, any man! You certainly don't need to pay for them."
"But I wanted that man." Then Shay waved an elegant hand, avoiding Brandi's gaze. "This is my event. My project. Everyone expected me to make a purchase."
Brandi made a choking sound.
"Oh come on, Brandi. It's the same as donating the money directly. Only this way, the men on stage get to advertise their businesses to all the press that's here, displaying themselves as concerned businessmen, and the shelter will benefit since every company represented has promised to donate free labor. They'll do painting, concrete work, landscaping… whatever, to help get the newest shelter up and running. They get great publicity and we get free labor. Everyone is happy."
Except me, Brandi thought, feeling categorically unhappy. She wondered what Shay's man would contribute, but in the next instant, decided she didn't want to know. One could only guess what a big, unsmiling barbarian like him did for a living.
"It's a business venture," Shay continued. "Everyone will come out ahead—even the travel agency that donated the Gatlinburg prize packages because it's fabulous publicity for them. And a lot of the people using the packages will be repeat customers. But most of all, needy families will get housing. Do you realize how much money we've made?"
Brandi understood Shay's enthusiasm. Ever since she'd been widowed, Shay had done her best to become involved in the elite Jackson community of Tennessee, trying to pull resources from the wealthy to help those in need. She had her husband's money, which gave her a lot of clout, and she had the energy and wit to put it to good use. Unfortunately, Shay didn't fit the part of the matronly widow, not with her exceptional looks and outgoing personality. Many of the men refused to take her efforts seriously, and many of the women chose to see her as a personal threat.
Brandi knew her sister wanted desperately to find a purpose in life, some way to make use of the fortune her husband had left behind. And Brandi wanted to support her in every way she could.
"Shay," Brandi said, not wanting to dim her sister's overwhelming exuberance, "You don't owe me any explanations. If you want to buy a man… well, you can certainly afford it and I had no business questioning you. I apologize." She was sorry—sorry she'd ever come here tonight. Now all she wanted to do was go home, eat her birthday cake in private and forget she'd ever seen him.
Shay grinned. "I just wanted to make certain you understood my motives."