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Leigh Vaughn sat in a car with one of her best friends, staring at the imposing beach-cliff house where her mystery date was supposed to take place tonight.
As she kept staring, she swallowed. Hard.
Margot spoke from the driver's seat. "'Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.'"
Leigh pulled her gaze away from the house. "What?"
"That's the first line from Rebecca." Margot raised a well-manicured brow, turning her light green-blue gaze to Leigh. Her high cheekbones and tousled, layered dark hair gave her a look that fell somewhere between a pixie and a wild child, but her designer knit dress was all high-class. "Don't you get a certain vibe from this place, just like the narrator in that book did after she found out her new husband's first wife, Rebecca, pretty much haunted Manderley?"
Leigh wished she hadn't brought Miss Cal-U English Major with her. Better yet, she just wished that Margot would lay off teasing her about tonight. Some moral support would be nice right about now.
"It's only a date," Leigh said, echoing the words that had been going through her head all day. She wasn't sure if she was just trying to shut Margot up or calm herself down.
"A date," Margot said, a sparkle in her gaze. "In a huge Gothic house. And with a man who won't tell you who he is."
"Why don't you make this sound even more intimidating, Marg? Because I'm not nervous enough."
"Maybe you should be very nervous." Margot gave an "Ooo, how scary" look to the mansion that loomed above them at the end of the gated driveway under the dusk-burnished November sky. "When Mystery Man bought your basket at the charity auction, I didn't think you'd actually go through with this. But you've surprised me, Leigh. Maybe you've got a little adventure in you, after all."
Good Godthat was what she'd come here for, wasn't it?
She followed Margot's gaze toward that gray stone mansion again, with its imposing balconies and arches. The man who was waiting for Leigh in there had spent $5,000 to win her basket about a month ago during a reunion for her college sorority, Tau Epsilon Gamma, and its counterpart, the agricultural business-centered fraternity Phi Rho Mu.
Leigh took in a deep breath. Even back in college, smack in the middle of the rural San Joaquin Valley, she'd never done something this crazynot during pledging, not during all their parties never. True, she, Margot and their friend Dani had been good-time girls, best friends enjoying their youth, but that was when the silliness was supposed to endafter they graduated and became adults.
But no. She and Margot just had to go and put on that auction at the ten-year reunion. They'd just had to hold out for the highest bids on all those baskets that contained materials for a date with the women who'd created them. Margot had called her basket Around the Girl in Eighty Ways, and after her spicy encounters with the man who'd purchased the baskether archenemy from college, of all peopleshe'd ended up getting engaged to him.
Leigh had taken a sweeter route. She'd stayed true to the wholesome country-girl Tau image and named her basket "A Taste of Honey"; she'd intended to give whoever won it a down-home dinner laced with the main ingredientand maybe more, depending who bought the basket.
But she hadn't expected what happened nexta fellow sorority sister, Beth Dahrling, had been the highest bidder, and she'd revealed that she was acting as a liaison for a man who refused to disclose his identity.
Leigh would've never guessed that she was eventually going to end up in front of a mansion that belonged in some kind of "It was a dark and stormy night" book.
She slid down in her seat. "I can't believe you got me into this, Marg."
As Margot waited for an answer, Leigh realized that she'd been plucking at the seam of her jeans, and she stopped. Her date had requested that she "dress casual," just as she did on the country-cooking show she hosted on the Food Networkdenim, boots, yee-haw blouses and all.
And what the hell? She'd gone along with it. But now her lacy flowered blouse seemed to show too much cleavage, and her jeans clung too tightly, reminding her of what she'd felt like over a year ago when she'd still been packing extra pounds.
Margot chuffed, "You're not squirming out of an answer to this one, Leigh. How is it my fault that you ended up in this situation? You're the one who said yes to the conditions after Beth bought the basket."
Right or wrong, she was so on edge that she said the first thing that came to mind. "You're the one who made up the baskets in the first place. When we heard that Dani was going to give up on her big wedding plans, you thought of the date auction to help her raise money for her extravaganza."
"Not that it did much good since Dani refused the money and decided to go small." Margot lasered a knowing look at her. "You're only ticked off because I made my basket as sexy as hell, and you didn't want to be outdone. Say itI'm totally right, aren't I?"
Leigh shot her an irritated glance, but it wasn't exactly all about Margot. She was merely stalling by sitting here saying dumb stuff and creating an argument.
But she wasn't sure just why she was so reluctant to get out of the car. There'd been a restless growl rolling through her ever since she had heard about Mar-got's hot basket and what Leigh could put in hers, too. Hell, if she were telling the whole truth, she would even have to admit that the growl had started about a year ago, when she'd dropped the weight she'd carried since she was a kid.
The growl made her stay up most nights, running her hand over her belly, circling, then going lower, trying to give herself what she'd never gotten from all the ho-hum sex she'd had before with the lights off so that her few, steady partners wouldn't see all her bulges and cellulite.
And so that they wouldn't call her "Cushions," just as they had in college when she'd been pledging with Margot and Dani.
"Sorry," Leigh finally said, absently toying with the seam on her jeans again. "I'm pretty nervous, and I'm saying things I don't mean."
Margot softened. "Are you sure it's not excitement you're feeling?"
That could've been it, too. "There're just a bunch of second thoughts attacking me right now, I keep thinking that if you hadn't been so adventurous with your basket. I probably wouldn't have been so daring with mine. Dumb, dumb, dumb. Why didn't I just offer an innocent little picnic at the reunion and leave it at that?"
Margot bit her lip, and Leigh could tell she was stifling a laugh. They'd always been competitivewhen they were dorm roommates, when they'd lived together at the sorority house, even after college when Margot, the Girl Most Likely to Succeed, had shot to infamy with all the "single woman on the go" travel books she'd written. Margot had always made Leigh want to be better, to keep up with her, and the baskets had been no exception.
"I suppose you're right," Margot said. "This is all my fault, I'm an awful person for making you want to have some fun."
A moment passed; then they both laughed and for a moment Leigh's nerves actually mellowed.
But the sight of the mansion on the hill remained in her peripheral vision, and she didn't laugh for long.
Seriouslywhat was she getting herself into?
That familiar growl gnawed through her belly, making her ache a little between her legs. Admit it, she thought. You want this.
She wanted to let go of all her chubby-girl neuroses, wanted to see what it would be like to come out of her modest closet in a big way. She wanted to go on a mystery date with her own sexy basket and the taste of honey it offered, literally with a humdinger of a meal, and figuratively with
Oh, God, she had no idea what else was in store for her tonight.
Margot got out her smartphone, dialing it as she glanced at Leigh. "You need an extra push out of this car, sweetie." Then she smiled brightly. "Dani? I'm putting you on speakerphone with me and Leigh."
Dani, who rounded out their best-friend group, was laughing when she came on the line. Leigh could almost imagine her, with her curly bobbed red hair, her doe-gray eyes and her milk-pale skin. She tried not to think about the look on Dani's face that she caught sometimes . Was it disappointment that she wouldn't have the grand nuptials she'd always dreamed of, ever since college when they'd nicknamed her "Hearts"? Or was it the cold feet Leigh and Margot suspected Dani might be suffering after an engagement that had lasted for years now?
"You haven't gone into his place yet?" Dani asked Leigh.
Leigh rolled her eyes. "Aren't you supposed to be catering for someone?"
"I'm on a break at work, just like I was when I gave you a pep talk before you left the hotel. I wish I could've driven down there with Margot to meet you."
Leigh shot the phone a disgruntled glance as Margot laughed and said, "You've got work, and I've got this covered, Dan. Except I wish you were here to help me kick Leigh's butt up this long driveway. You should see what's at the end of it. The mansion is straight out of Jane Eyre or"
Leigh cut her off. "Margot is having a grand old time, Dani. She's playing on my last nerve because it's hilarious to her."
Margot shrugged innocently. "You're so easy to mess with, though."
"Just don't listen to Margot," Dani said. "It's not like you're going into an unsafe place, Leigh. Beth Dahrling said she'd meet you there, right?"
Beth Dahrling, the woman who'd bid on Leigh's basket in place of the Mystery Man.
"Right," Leigh said. "But I doubt she'll be chaperoning the whole night. She's just a friend of this guy, and she set everything up."
"She's a fellow sister. Plus, she told you that Mystery Man was a brother in our very favorite fraternity, and a brother would never put you in a bad situation."
True. Riley, Dani's fiance and a Phi Rho Mu brother to boot, had all but promised Leigh that one of his own would never harm her. Besides, Beth would be here. Still, Riley had no idea of Mystery Man's identity, although he'd done enough online research to try and uncover it. Margot put a hand on Leigh's arm, and it was a comforting touch. "It'll be a good time, you'll see. My bet is that he's just one of the fraternity brothersa San Joaquin cowboy whose ranch is making the big bucksand he's having some fun with you. He'll ask the TV chef to cook him dinner, and while you're eating, you'll have a major laugh over this whole secrecy thing."
Leigh locked gazes with Margot, her frenemy, the woman who'd always had everything come so easily to her. The person Leigh had wanted to emulate in college and beyond, even as they went toe-to-toe with each other.
It was as if Margot saw all of that in Leigh's eyes, and for some reason she glanced away.
This wasn't the first time Margot had acted like this recently, and Leigh had been wondering why. Her friend had started a new book about a city girl living the country life on Clint's cutting-horse ranch, and she had a new blog that was drawing all kinds of interest. So why did she occasionally look as if she was hiding something?
Leigh wanted to ask what was going on, but Dani was already speaking on the phone.
"Well?" she asked. "Are you going to stay in that car all night or are you going to have an adventure?"
Leigh sent one last look to the mansion, her stomach in knots.
And that growl combing over every inch of her.
Adam Morgan leaned against the wall near a barred window in the top story of the rented house. He was watching the Prius that was parked at the end of the long driveway, near the open iron gates that separated him from the eucalyptus-shrouded lane that led up here.
"She's not coming in, is she?" he asked.
Next to him, his good friend Beth Dahrling was also peering out the window. "Well, Leigh's here, at least. I don't think she would come this far to turn around."
She had to be right, because he had hired a small plane, in cash, to fly Leigh down here to the Pismo Beach area from her home up in Lodi. He'd decided to have this dinner away from Avila Grande, where they'd both attended Cal-U.
For a short time, in Adam's case.
He glanced over his shoulder at Beth, whose long dark hair was swept back into a tortoiseshell barrette. In her chic printed silk wrap dress and with her rosy-brown skin, she seemed colorful and exotic, but the melancholy expression she wore gave him pause.
"You still think this is a bad idea," he said, a trace of amusement in his voice.
"I think it's an odd one." She turned her liquid-brown gaze on him. "I think all you had to do was bid on Leigh's basket and reveal who you were."
"She wouldn't remember me." He hadn't stuck around the university long enough for there to even be a picture of him on the walls of the fraternity house, where he'd pledged for only a short time before he'd had to drop out and return home.
But several months ago, when he'd seen Leigh on TV for the first time, he'd certainly remembered her. And when Beth had mentioned the basket auction that was being held at the reunion for their connected organizations, he'd thought of Leigh as she had been fourteen years ago, laughing all the time, taking a moment to smile at the shy freshman pledge who didn't say much to girlsthe kid who'd disappeared without ever becoming an official Phi Rho Mu brother.