Eric refused to submit to the highest bidder. Instead, he targeted Holly — a woman he could trust — to be his date. The transaction would be simple no strings attached. Yet the attraction between them was too magnetic to ignore and too explosive to continue.
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
"Another one bites the dust," Holly Prescott grumbled as she watched the second of her two best friends sashay out of the Caliber Club with a newly purchased bachelor by her side.
If you had any sense at all you'd sneak out right behind them. Instead she was stuck here in hooker-high heels and a dress that ought to be illegal — on her, anyway — fulfilling her part of the ridiculous pact she, Andrea and Juliana had made.
How had she let herself be bamboozled into this disastrous plan? Buying men, for crying out loud! She could think of at least a dozen more useful things she'd rather have for her upcoming thirtieth birthday.
So what if she hadn't had sex in so long she'd forgotten how it went exactly? She'd hold on to her born-again virgin status until she'd nixed her tendency to choose men who needed fixing because she couldn't afford any more strays of the two-legged variety. The last one had cost her a bundle and put her hard-won independence in jeopardy. Not that she intended admitting her gullibility to anyone. Too humiliating.
A blast of chilly air from the overhead vent made her curse her clothing for the umpteenth time this evening. Where had her brain been vacationing when she'd allowed her friends to pour her into a dress that looked more like underwear than outerwear? If she had so much as a mosquito bite — or panties — beneath the form-fitting bronze silk, every one would know it.
Crossing her arms over her breasts, Holly scanned the ballroom filled with well-heeled guests. She didn't belong here. Never mind that her father owned the place. She didn't fit in. Story of her life.
"See if I ever trust Andrea or Juliana again," she groused without worrying about being overheard by the women swarming the marble floor. The auction attendees had two hours' worth of free champagne in them, and the normally dignified ladies were too busy screaming their lungs out like rock band groupies to pay any attention to a misfit like her.
On a positive note, their lack of inhibitions could work to her advantage once the bidding on her bachelor began. "Twenty more minutes and I can go home."
"Talking to yourself?" The rich baritone behind her made her cringe. Eric Alden, her best friend's brother, had already read them the riot act once tonight about this foolhardy plan. As far as Holly was concerned, he was preaching to the choir. She didn't need to hear another sermon. But she'd promised to give bachelor bidding the old college try.
Now that her friends had abandoned her, Eric would focus all his cutting wit on her. Might as well cork him before he got started. She turned, but her retort stuck in her throat. Wow. How could she have forgotten how good he looked in a tux? His banker-short dark hair looked freshly trimmed and his strong jaw gleamed from a recent shave.
Holly scrambled to rally her brain cells. "I'm cursing your sister. The dress she and my other so-called friend chose for me is indecent."
Eric's navy blue gaze raked over her, and Holly mentally kicked herself for drawing his attention to her attire — or lack thereof. Before tonight, she didn't think Eric had ever seen her in a dress — certainly not one like this. The nostrils of his straight nose flared, and then he slowly, deliberately circled her, appraising her as if she were the one going on the auction block instead of him.
Holly straightened, tucked her tush, sucked in her stomach and prayed he wouldn't guess she was completely naked beneath the dress except for the blush coating her skin.
He halted in front of her with only inches separating them, crowding into her personal space. "Definitely indecent. Indecently beautiful."
The husky timbre of his voice combined with his proximity made her heart beat a quick rat-a-tat-tat and sent a weird frisson down her spine. Hold it. This is Juliana's brother. Juliana's rule-following, workaholic, socially prominent brother. That triple nono-absolutely-no whammy made tingles of any kind taboo. Holly tried to back up, but the tipsy socialites behind her blocked her path.
"You look lovely, Holly. I almost didn't recognize you without your baseball cap and work boots."
So much for his ego-boosting flattery. Could she help it if her job required protective clothing? "You don't look too skanky yourself, Alden, but then Armani probably helped design your birthday suit, so it's no surprise you look decent in a tux."
Eric's smile seemed a little forced. "If that was a compliment, thank you. May I speak with you a moment?"
She glanced left and then right and found women ogling him on either side. They might ignore her, but they didn't ignore the heir to a banking empire. In fact, they looked as though they'd enjoy nibbling hors d'oeuvres off Eric's naked body. "Me? Sure."
His long fingers curled around her elbow, each one soldering a tendril of heat on her skin. He guided her to the far corner of the ballroom where the noise level registered a few decibels lower and released her. His broad-shouldered frame fenced her against the walls.
"Why are you buttering me up with compliments?" she asked before he said whatever it was he'd dragged her over here to say. At five-ten and wearing four-inch heels, Holly only had to lift her gaze a little to meet him eye to eye — one of the many reasons she never wore heels.
Chagrin briefly flickered across Eric's handsome face. He shoved his hands in pants pockets and leaned closer — close enough that she could taste the mint on his breath — to be heard above the crowd winding up as another bachelor took the stage.
Her mouth dried. Uh-uh. Cut it out. "I need a favor."
Of course he did. Why couldn't a guy say something nice to her just once without having an ulterior motive? She wrestled her wacko hormones into submission and tried to clear her head.
"What kind of favor?" She glanced past him toward the stage. Her bachelor would be up next, and if all went well he'd soon be someone else's bachelor and she could go home. Alone.
Her gaze snapped back to Eric's. Surely she'd misheard him in the din of screeching women? "Excuse me?"
His body radiated heat, which, perversely, made her shiver. She stepped back — right into the wall. The thump of the cool wainscoting against her spine reminded her that her dress bared her to the waist in back except for the pair of crisscrossed strings that held up the two inadequate triangles of her top.
"Save me from this." He indicated the proceedings behind him with a jerk of his square chin.
Why in the world would he need saving? She didn't know what his date package included, but his company alone would bring a high bid. Eric was a handsome, rich hunk, if you didn't mind buttoned-down, uptight types whom she avoided like she would a communicable disease.
"Because you're not looking for a wealthy husband."
"Amen." Being his date wouldn't be a hardship, but Holly didn't want a date. Even if she could afford to buy a bachelor she could not go out with her best friend's brother without risking one of the most important friendships of her life.
"No can do, Eric. I've chosen my guy. So suck it up and hit the stage. I'm sure you'll make some lucky lady very happy."
His palm curved over her shoulder — her bare save-for-that-string-strap shoulder. Her nipples, damn them, tightened — a fact thin silk couldn't disguise. Embarrassed, she crossed her arms. It definitely had been too long since she'd made love if a simple asexual touch could turn her on.
"Holly, please. I'll give you anything you ask. Just save me from this ridiculous spectacle my mother is forcing upon me."
Ah. Spectacle. Now that she understood. Eric had been dumped by his socialite fiancée a few months back. The highly publicized society event of the year had turned into the disaster of the year when the bubbleheaded bride-to-be had literally left him at the altar after screeching a few crushing insults in front of their wedding guests. Eric's pride had to have taken a staggering blow — even if he'd never shown it.
"What would your mother say if you ended up with me, the only girl to ever be kicked out of cotillion?"
His rigid shoulders stiffened even more. "My mother volunteered me without my consent. Her opinion is irrelevant."
Sympathy for him battled with Holly's need to escape. Wasn't she always a sucker for a guy in dire straits? And hadn't she sworn off saving men in need?
She liked Eric, but the VP of Alden Bank and Trust, the largest privately owned bank in the region, represented everything she'd escaped. Pretentiousness. Snobbery. Expectations she couldn't meet.
C'mon, Holly, how can you leave him to the mercy — or lack thereof — of the bidding piranhas? "Your sister would never speak to me again. I promised her I'd bid on 'Light Up The Nights With Franco The Firefighter."
Eric's lips flattened. "I met Franco backstage. He's shorter than you and he has the IQ of a rock. He'll bore you senseless."
Why had she never noticed the sensual fullness of Eric's bottom lip? Or that he had lush lashes that looked frivolous on such a no-nonsense male? And why was she noticing now? She cast off the unwanted discoveries. "I don't intend to date Franco."
Eric's eyebrows shot up, and he reassessed her outfit with one l-o-n-g perusal from those intensely blue eyes. Surprise, speculation and then something she didn't recognize invaded his expression. "Then you're buying him for what? Stud service?"
Holly's mouth fell open and her cheeks caught fire — the curse of a redhead's complexion. Her pride stabbed her with the mother of all stings.
"Do you think I have to buy a man to get laid? I might not be the elegant model-slim sort you usually date, but I do okay in the dating department." If you overlooked her tendency to choose losers. And she'd had her share of sex — none of which rated inclusion in the Memoirs of a Debutante Dropout she intended writing one of these days.
He drew back and compressed his lips. "I didn't say that." Holly gathered what was left of her dignity. "For your information Juliana, Andrea and I wanted to support the charity. No, that's not exactly true. Your mother — " she poked his chest " — the event organizer, ordered us to support the charity. So the three of us agreed to bid the trust fund money we'll receive on our thirtieth birthdays on bachelors tonight."
She held up a hand when he would have interrupted and wished she hadn't touched him when her finger wouldn't quit tingling. "But here's the good part. We set a price limit. The fire-fighter will go for more money than we agreed upon. When that happens I'm home free. No bachelor. No broken promises. No unwanted dates."
"And if he doesn't?"
Then she'd be stuck with a guy with more brawn than brains. Worse, she'd be in a financially sticky situation. "He will. He posed for a firefighters' calendar last year. I'll bet most of these women have a copy and want to see if the real Franco lives up to the promise in that G-string."
The crowd roared as the firefighter took the stage. "See. They love him. And they can have him."
Frustration rolled off Eric in waves. He faced the stage and folded his arms across his chest, looking as stoic as a captain going down with his ship. A muscle ticked in his jaw.
Holly waved her numbered fan high over her head, launching what she hoped would be a bidding frenzy. Time inched past as if in slow motion and then the bidding stalled thousands below her maximum allowance.
"Just my luck," she muttered under her breath and then glanced quickly at Eric. She worked alone ninety percent of the time and had picked up the habit of talking to herself — a habit she needed to break before the men in white coats arrived to cart her to an asylum somewhere. But if Eric had heard her, his face didn't show it.
The audience remained unresponsive despite the MC's attempt to draw more bids. Resignation settled over Holly like a cold, wet blanket. She was going to be stuck with a male blond bombshell — one she couldn't afford — all because of a tequila-induced promise and a case of pride that wouldn't let her admit to her friends that thanks to not her first bit of misplaced faith she needed her trust fund money to live off.
"You don't want to be here any more than I do," Eric said without turning his head. "You got that right. My life is almost perfect. Why would I want a man to screw it up?" More than one already had.
She tightened her grip on the wooden handle, but before she could lift the fan to bid again Eric's fingers curled around her wrist, trapping her hand by her side with a firm grip. Her knuckles brushed his hard thigh and her stomach did that taboo fizzy thing again. No doubt he'd feel her sprinting pulse beneath his fingertips.
"Buy me, Holly, and we can skip the dates. I'll reimburse you whatever you pay and you can use the money for veterinary bills or buy yourself a truckload of pet supplies for that menagerie of yours."
Holly's dogs always needed something. How wise of him to hit her where it counted. But then she'd never doubted Eric's intelligence — except for the day she'd heard about his engagement to Prissy, the pretentious witch. Tempted more than a little, she considered his offer while the MC launched into another recitation of Franco's physical assets.
Holly had promised Juliana and Andrea that she'd bid on a bachelor tonight. Eric was one. What's more, she didn't think there was another man on the docket who would exceed her price limit. So she had a choice. Eric and reimbursement, or Franco and financial difficulties in the months ahead. Either way, she'd be stuck with a bachelor she didn't want. But doing a good deed, getting out of the dates and holding on to her money seemed like a win-win-win proposition.
She lifted her gaze to his. "No dates. You swear it?"
"Yes. Buy me, and if my price exceeds your limit — "
She snorted inelegantly and punched him lightly in the biceps. "Jeez, Eric, you have a big ego if you think you'll go for more than ten grand."
" — I'll cover the cost no matter how high," he continued as if she hadn't interrupted.
Juliana and Andrea would be miffed, but surely she could make her friends understand. Guilt rode Holly like a hair shirt for twisting the bet to fit her needs, but buying men hadn't been her idea. She'd argued against it from the moment of inception and been outvoted. "All right, Eric. I'll buy you."
As soon as she said the words, the MC whipped out a copy of the sexy calendar and Franco stripped down to the thong he'd worn in the picture with a bump and grind worthy of a Chippendales dancer. The bidding frenzy Holly had expected erupted.
When the gavel hit, her stomach sank. Her bachelor's price had exceeded her limit. She could have been scot-free, but instead she'd been burned by the second promise in one night.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews