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"OKAY, LADIES, THE NEXT man up for grabs is Evan Phillips, this handsome real estate broker for Century South." The woman at the microphone motioned to the dark-eyed hunk on stage and added, "Evan, please tell the women in the crowd what they're bidding on."
While the man detailed a romantic evening starting with dinner at Atlanta's infamous Sun Dial restaurant, Nicole Reavis turned to her friend and coworker, Eve Best. "Some days I love my job."
Eve smiled. "As opposed to days when you're stuck in a catfight between girlfriends?"
Nicole winced. As chief segment producer for Eve's cable talk show, Just Between Us, much of her job involved researching topics for upcoming shows. Tonight, it was the annual Children's Charities Bachelor Auction, a glamorous event at a trendy new club where some of the city's most eligible bachelors auction off a night on the town for charity.
Three days ago, the job had her dodging blows between two women who'd claimed to get along beautifully even though they were both dating the same man.
Proof that in the world of daytime television, life was never dull.
"And I noticed you've come here tonight but were conveniently AWOL when I was screaming for security before those women destroyed our conference room." Nicole shook her head.
"Thank heavens we got them together before we put them on the air. How humiliating would that have been?"
"Hey, if I'd been there you know I would have jumped in and helped."
Nicole smiled in agreement, knowing Eve would have come running if she'd been in the studio at the time. Though Nicole was the new girl on the set, she and Eve had hit it off right from thestart. She'd hit it off with everyone on the crew, for that matter, and the catfight incident was quickly becoming known as Nicole's official transformation from newbie into battle-scarred veteran.
"Besides, I needed to be here tonight to help make sure Penny doesn't get herself into trouble." Eve scanned the large crowd. "Where is she, by the way?"
Penny was one of Nicole's new research assistants, a young woman just out of college, barely of legal drinking age, and highly naive, almost too much so for a talk show that focused on relationships and sex. But the eighteen to twenty-five demographic was a hot one, and Nicole was willing to overlook Penny's inexperience for the perspective she brought to the show.
"She's getting the list of participants from the organizers. It'll be interesting to interview them after their dates to see how this sort of thing generally turns out for couples."
"We'll start the bidding at two hundred dollars," the woman onstage said.
The announcement caused a swarm of hands to go up. It looked as though the sexy real estate broker would be a hot commodity this evening.
Admittedly, before she came here tonight, Nicole had faced the evening with skepticism, wondering why this group of obviously successful singles would pay such a high price for what equated to a blind date. Surely, they couldn't expect to find their soul mates under circumstances like this.
But once inside the doors, she realized this wasn't about finding soul mates, it was about fun and fantasy, and the organizers of this event had played every angle to that end. Every year, the auction was held at one of Atlanta's swankiest new spots, tonight's at a bar called Oasis. The place was high class all the way, the interiors alone surely costing the owners a small fortune.
Set up like an underwater tide pool, the walls were painted in murals that gave the feeling one was standing on the ocean floor. Art glass chandeliers hung overhead like floating squids and sea urchins, glass seashells adorned the sconces that lined the perimeter. The floor was tiled to look like sand with touches of mother of pearl embedded here and there, and the moment Nicole had stepped inside, she was swept into the surreal atmosphere.
The place was like entering the soothing realm of an underwater aquarium, deep and mysterious, the ideal canvas for the sensual prospects of what might come.
And then, of course, there was the man across the room. The one she'd been trying to ignore all evening without any success. Not that she had an aversion to sinfully gorgeous men. On the contrary, she happened to like them a lot, and this one in particular kept pulling her attention toward him like a magnet on steel.
That was the problem. She was supposed to be observing the crowd, selecting couples of interest and taking notes for the show, and she was having trouble doing that with Mr. Delicious over there tossing her thoughts between the sheets.
She was a sucker for a man in a suit, and the charcoal gray classic he wore did wonders for a body that probably didn't need the help. The silvery blue tie matched his eyes, bringing them to life even under the dim lighting of the undersea bar. But it was his smile that did the most damage, the kind that could bring a woman to her knees: gentle but teasing, with a faint dimple on one cheek to temper his strong jaw. His dark hair was cut short and brushed back in a style reminiscent of James Dean's rebel days.
He stood relaxed and casual, as though the suit he wore was as comfortable as a pair of old blue jeans, and he had a laugh that seemed to come from the heart. Everything about the man felt genuine, as if he was oblivious to his own appeal. There was nothing pretentious or calculating in his eyes as they scanned his surroundings, and the more Nicole watched him, the more she felt like she could stand and stare all day.
A sharp knock of the gavel brought her back to attention a moment too late, and she cursed under her breath. This was now the third couple she'd missed by ogling Mr. Delicious, and with a selfdeprecating frown she turned to Eve and asked, "How much did that one go for?"
Eve chuckled. "What's with you tonight? Too many sexy men putting you on overload?"
"No, just one," she said, moving her gaze back to places it didn't belong.
Eve followed her line of sight. "Which one?" "The tall one in the middle," Nicole said absently. "What tall one, what am I missing?"
The question came from Penny who'd just returned with the list from the charity's organizer.
"Nicole's found a man to bid on tonight," said Eve.
"What? No, I haven't," Nicole said. "I just find him attractive, that's all." Though increasingly, the thought of him being taken by another woman tonight brought her an uneasy pang of jealousy she didn't quite understand.
Again her traitorous eyes wandered over in his direction. For nearly an hour, he'd been standing there, one hand in his pants pocket, gracefully pulling back the suit jacket to offer a peek of what looked like the rigid lines of a well-toned chest and abs. And for nearly an hour, Nicole had been trying to keep her mind on the job and off the tall stallion in the corner, but it was becoming increasingly difficult.
He took another sip of his drink and moved his eyes across the room as the man standing next to him continued to fill his ear with conversation. Mr. Delicious had one ear to the conversation while he masterfully surveyed his surroundings. Nicole suspected these types of affairs, this mingling of business and pleasure were a common occurrence for him, and she wondered who he was and what he did for a living.
Once again, the man laughed, the sound reverberating through her veins and numbing her fingers, and just when she felt she should really look away, his gaze swept back over the room and landed directly on her.
Those crystal blue eyes clicked squarely with hers, growing in intensity as she noted the faint rise of interest in his brow. That soulful mouth she'd just been admiring twitched and smiled, leaving her feeling aroused and exposed.
Was she hot from lust or the embarrassment of being caught ogling? And if it was the heat of embarrassment, why couldn't she find the will to dart her eyes away?
His simple glance paralyzed her, freezing every bone in her body to the point where she couldn't even blink. And when he brushed his gaze down her body, it was as though a thousand fingers moved with it, touching every sensitive spot on the way.
That a simple look could heighten so many nerve endings left her anticipating what he could do with the extra sense of touch. Given the way she felt right now, she almost didn't want to find out. If there really was such a thing as spontaneous human combustion, this man had the power to unleash it.
"Oh, if that's not an invite, I don't know what is," Penny said.
It was the jab to the ribs more than the comment that brought Nicole's attention back to the conversation at hand.
She cleared her throat and spun around, feeling ridiculous that for the fourth time tonight, the man in the corner managed to derail her thoughts. Maybe everyone was right that she'd been working too hard in light of the recent fiasco they'd all been thrown into.
As if her life hadn't been complicated enough, Nicole and the crew of Just Between Us had recently won Lot"O'Bucks, the state's biggest lottery. The one-in-a-gazillion shot had transformed the five of them from average working class to multi-millionaires overnight.
For Nicole, the win had been a sign that her move to Atlanta had been the right thing to do. Up until then, she hadn't convinced herself that leaving her home and a promising career back in California had been the smartest decision. At the time, she'd been reeling from the news that her life had been a lie, that she wasn't the person she thought she was, and that her real roots hadn't even been in California.
She was actually a native Southern girl, and like an immigrant looking to make her way back home, she'd come to Atlanta to try and sort through the clutter that had become her life. She'd taken a step down in her career, seeking out the small cable show believing the slower pace would give her time for reflection.
Unfortunately, the job proved to be more demanding and hectic than she'd expected. She hadn't had time to think, much less reflect on where she belonged in this world. She'd become uncertain, a little homesick, and began doubting her move to Georgia. Until the lottery win that changed their lives and her perspective on everything.
Nicole had taken it as Fate assuring her that though this path might be rocky, she was on the right road, and despite the media frenzy the win propelled them into, it had given her a sense of comfort that she'd been longing for.
Until Liza and her lawsuit.