Khloe Richardson braucht dringend ein Date - eines, das ihren Traummann so richtig eifersüchtig und endlich auf sie aufmerksam macht. Doch der Mann, den sie auf der Bachelor Auction einer Wohltätigkeitsveranstaltung ersteigert, ist ausgerechnet der Millionär Niall Hunter, der ehemals beste Freund ihres Bruders. Khloe kann ihm eigentlich bis heute nicht verzeihen, wie er sich damals ihr gegenüber verhalten hat. Doch er ist der perfekte Mann für ihren Plan und Niall hilft ihr – denn er hat einst ein Versprechen gegeben…
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About the Author
Die USA Today-Bestsellerautorin Naima Simone schreibt seit 2009 Romances und Liebsromane. Sie ist verheiratet und lebt mit ihrem Mann und ihren Kindenr im Süden der USA.
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The Millionaire Makeover
By Naima Simone, Tracy Montoya
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2016 Naima Simone
All rights reserved.
Three years later
"Remind me again why I agreed to this asinine idea?"
Khloe Richardson paused in the entrance of the cavernous ballroom that glittered from the crystal chandelier to the bejeweled guests. She clutched her purse to her stomach as if the ridiculously small and sparkling bag could calm the nerves playing kickball with her intestines. God, she felt like such a fraud. She belonged in a small, messy office filled with computers, modems, and technical manuals. Not in this brilliantly lit room where the formally attired men and women of Boston's social elite congregated and socialized.
Beside her, Morgan Lett — her best friend, co-worker, and enabler — plucked a fluted glass off a passing tray. She sipped with an appreciative hum. "Oh my God, this is better than sex," she purred. Then, arching a perfectly waxed, blonde eyebrow, she said, "And the answer to your question is we're here so you can avoid spinsterhood like it's a cubic zirconia."
Actually, there were some pretty nice fake diamonds out there, but since Morgan probably wouldn't appreciate the observation, Khloe instead murmured, "Oh yeah, that's right."
Still, attending the Rhodonite Society's annual Masquerade Bachelor Auction just smacked of ... Match.com meets flesh peddling.
And desperation. Couldn't forget desperation.
This scheme of Morgan's to find Khloe a date at a bachelor auction, of all places, reeked of impulsiveness, lunacy, and a whole lot of Hail Mary. The exact antithesis of Khloe's usual predictability, sanity, and OCD-ish need to plan, chart, and graph. But love did that to a person. It stripped away common sense, persuaded a woman who reveled in algorithms and code to buy a formal gown, death-defying heels, and take part in this ... spectacle. More specifically, love for Bennett Charles — brilliant, successful, handsome, sophisticated, and chief operating officer of System Solutions Unlimited, the firm she and Morgan worked for.
An image of the company's executive unfurled in her mind's eyes. She'd been adoring him from afar for the past six months. But other than the occasional conversation before a staff meeting or a friendly but slightly vacant smile, Bennett didn't seem to notice she existed. And if not for a terrifying car accident a month ago that she'd miraculously managed to walk away from with little more than scrapes and bruises, she might have been content with moseying along, quietly crushing on him. Her older brother, Michael, had died in a car accident three years earlier. Her brush with death and knowledge that tomorrow wasn't guaranteed had jolted her awake from a catatonic, emotional slumber. Not one more second would she sit on the proverbial shelf, a spectator in life and gathering enough dust to create a sandstorm.
Trouble was, she didn't have a great résumé where men were concerned.
One had stolen a project idea from her, received a promotion as a result of her hard work then took off for a new European office, breaking up with her via a PM on Facebook.
The other? Well, the other had stolen her virginity and broken her heart ...
Anyway, Bennett — with his genteel, warm manner, brilliance, and kindness — was her chance at a life filled with affection, companionship, and stability.
All she had to do was get him to realize how perfect they could be for one another. And buying a date at this auction and taking him to her company's annual gala so Bennet would realize that someone — a handsome, wealthy someone — wanted her would be the perfect wake-up call. Well, according to Morgan, it would be. Honestly, Khloe had her doubts this crazy plan would work. But, here she was, going along with it. Desperate times, desperate measures 'n' all that.
"Here." Morgan liberated another glass of wine from a passing waiter and pressed the flute into Khloe's hand. "Drink this. It'll help you look more let-the-festivities-begin and less headed-to-a-dinner-date-with-Hannibal-Lecter."
Khloe lifted the drink, carefully stepping on the ballroom's gleaming ebony and marble inlaid tiles, not trusting her newly purchased heels on the slick floor.
"Maybe I look that that way because — damn it," she grumbled, quickly steadying herself after her heel skidded, and she lisped to the side. "Because it's exactly how I'm feeling. When I mentioned hiring a date for the gala, I was joking." Sort of. "But I definitely didn't mean ..." She waved a hand in the direction of the brightly lit stage. "This."
Morgan looped an arm through hers and guided her through the throngs of people. "First, we're buying, not hiring. Big difference." She smiled and murmured a "hello" to an older woman with so many diamonds around her neck — very likely not cubic zirconia — Khloe was certain there was an insurance adjustor somewhere praying as he white-knuckled a policy on those gems. "And while this might seem extreme, desperate times call for desperate measures. And sweetie," she patted Khloe's hand, "I love you, but you're desperate."
An immediate objection leaped to Khloe's tongue, but after a moment, she swallowed it. What could she say? Morgan was right. Hadn't she just thought the same thing? Still, attending a bachelor's auction to lease a hopefully hot date poked too close at a wound that remained sore to this day. Morgan, who had probably been born with her expertly streaked blonde hair, perfectly straight teeth, and gorgeous body, wouldn't know anything about begging her brother to take her to the prom so she wouldn't end up with the monosyllabic, arachnid-obsessed son of her parents' fellow professor at Cambridge College.
Khloe slid a glance at her beautiful best friend and tried not to feel like Quasimodo in a dress. Not that she was a hunch-backed, warty recluse, but next to her friend's regal, cool loveliness, Khloe had to fight the urge to change her career path to include bell ringing.
Middle class to Morgan's wealthy Boston Brahmin roots, quiet where Morgan was outspoken, unassuming to Morgan's boldness, and duckling to Morgan's swan, she and Morgan should have been the unlikeliest of friends. But underneath the stylish clothes, ennui, and dry, sometimes cutting wit existed a woman with a heart of gold. Dented maybe, but still gold. And if Khloe suspected a little bit of pity dwelled beneath her friend's insistence on taking her beneath her perfectly coiffed wing, well ... she tried to ignore it.
"No need to rub my woeful lack of options in," Khloe grumbled. "How much do people bid at these things anyway? All I have to spend is my vacation money. Three thousand dollars. That's my limit." Just the thought of squandering away her hard-earned and saved fund on a single date twisted her stomach into knots a nautical engineer would've been hopeless to untangle.
"Don't worry about the cost. Since the auction was my idea, it's my treat." Morgan waved off Khloe's concern and avoided directly answering the question. Which caused another vicious wrench in her belly. "Let's go grab our table down front. The festivities are about to begin."
Smothering a groan, Khloe followed her friend to a round table surrounded by six chairs. A "Reserved" placard with "Lett" printed underneath identified the setting as theirs ... or rather, Morgan's. She pulled a chair out and gingerly lowered to the seat.
"You're still looking worried," Morgan admonished, leaning back from the table, dark eyes gleaming. "Get into the spirit of it. The mystique of not knowing who you're bidding on? It's exciting, if you'll allow it to be. Just think. You could end up with a gorgeous Joe Manganiello or a debonair Cary Grant."
"I hope not, since Cary's dead," Khloe mumbled, lifting her glass of champagne for a quick sip to wet her parched throat.
Morgan snorted. "Good point, Khloe," she murmured, covering Khloe's claw-like clench on her purse with her own hand. "I know this is out of your comfort zone." Now there was the understatement of the, oh, millennia. "But you have to stay focused on your end game. What better way to guarantee landing a hot man, shocking the hell out of everyone at that party, and finally getting Bennett Charles to notice you as more than the nerd in the second office from the left?"
Ouch. The truth didn't just hurt, it threw a freaking haymaker like the playground bully, then waved na-na-na-na-boo-boo.
"Bennett just needs to see you as a desirable woman," Morgan continued. "Then he'll realize his perfect mate was right under his nose all along. And the number one thing a man finds desirable about a woman? Another man wanting her."
Morgan emphasized her statement with a decisive nod. And her conviction almost convinced Khloe. Her friend should know, since her beautiful taste in style and men were often commented on in the society pages. Still ... Khloe gulped down more wine and battled the nerves, the doubts.
"The auction's starting." Morgan claimed the ivory paddle with the number 82 emblazoned across the front before facing the stage dominating the end of the room. The lights in the room dimmed, the large spotlight on the platform the main source of illumination.
"I do get a say in who you bid on, right?" Khloe whispered.
"Of course," Morgan assured her, gaze fixated on the stage.
Music that sounded as if it'd been pirated from Dancing with the Stars rolled through the ballroom. The spotlight widened and contracted before stretching to include the entire platform. A woman with a slit in her dress so high, she risked exposing her Victoria's Secrets with each step, emerged from backstage and sashayed out, waving to the crowd with a big smile.
Oh boy. Khloe fought not to roll her eyes.
"Welcome to the Rhodonite Society's eleventh annual Masquerade Bachelor Auction," she announced. "And a wonderful night filled with luxurious dates, fun, and ten of Boston's most handsome, eligible bachelors. Every penny of the proceeds will benefit the Blake Literacy Foundation, which raises awareness of illiteracy as well as provide programming, tutoring, and technology to Boston's underprivileged youth."
The room filled with applause and chatter. Khloe refrained from rolling her eyes. Who would've guessed literacy caused so much excitement?
"So, let's bring on the bachelors!" the woman proclaimed, and within moments, a tuxedo-clad man strolled onto the stage. Shoulders straight, head tilted at a cocky angle, he paused in the center of the platform, his self-assuredness as evident as the tailored cut of his black formal clothing. Even the white mask concealing his face couldn't hide his confidence.
"Our first bachelor may be a transplant from the West Coast, but he proudly calls Boston home. In the ten years he's lived here, he's become a bleeding heart liberal, is a rabid Patriots and Sox fan, and understands that war — and driving — are hell." Laughter erupted in the room, and Khloe grinned at the stereotypes that many associated with native Bostonians. "A busy investment banker, he's been accused of being married to his job, but he would one day love to divorce the fifteen-hour work days to fall in love with a woman of humor, wit, and a philanthropic heart. The woman lucky enough to win him for the evening will travel west with him to enjoy a charming weekend getaway in gorgeous, picturesque Aspen, Colorado. Three days of skiing, romantic sleigh rides, fine dining, and wine before crackling fireplaces. And of course, shopping." Their female emcee — whom Khloe had named Peek-a-boo — smiled at the ripple of animated murmurs and continued reading off her card. "This sounds absolutely dreamy, doesn't it? Let's open the bidding at $5,000." Someone in the audience immediately responded, and Peek-a-boo nodded in acknowledgement. "We have $5,000? What about $6,000? Six. Seven?"
Morgan lifted her paddle at seven thousand, and Khloe's chest seized in horror.
"Seven thousand dollars?" she hissed, latching onto her friend's arm when she went to hike her arm again. "Are you crazy? I can't let you spend that much money on a date! Who does that?"
Morgan shot her an exasperated look, but Khloe shook her head, adamant. Heaving a loud sigh, her friend lowered the paddle.
After a round of whirlwind bidding, the first bachelor went for $14,000. Good God. She'd allotted three thousand for this fool's errand. No wonder Morgan had waved off her financial limit. Hell, the bidding didn't even start at her limit.
She might be going home bachelor-less after all.
The evening progressed, bachelor after bachelor striding out onto the stage and standing stoically as women waged war over them with paddles, money, and looks at rivals that promised painful retribution. Morgan jumped in on bachelor number four whose favorite movie was Mildred Pierce — how could he not be awesome? — and number six, whose idea of a romantic getaway was days holed up in his home on the Cape, talking, sleeping, and making love to his special woman. Wow. The heat level had ratcheted several degrees with that tidbit. But for each man, the price had risen well over ten thousand dollars, and she couldn't justify allowing Morgan to spend the money for her. Morgan's sighs had segued into mutterings and growls of impatience.
Soon, Peek-a-boo announced the last bachelor of the evening. Khloe's heart thudded against her chest, sweat dampened her palms. This man was her last hope. Either she won him, or she'd go home alone with no chance in hell of finding a date for her company's gala, which loomed six short days away. At five feet, five inches tall, with dark brown hair she kept bound in a ponytail or a knot at the back of her head on more formal occasions — like tonight — and a body that carried ten more pounds then was fashionable in her breasts, hips, and ass, she was more Paula Deen than Paula Patton. She didn't inspire lustful fantasies.
Which was why she needed to buy a man who pretended to have them.
"And our final bachelor of the night."
A man appeared from the left wing. Unlike the other men, he didn't saunter or swagger. He stalked — with purpose, with intent ... with might. Each long-legged stride ate up the distance to the middle of the stage. Her breath stuttered in her throat.
He wasn't the biggest man to grace the platform tonight — that honor belonged to Mildred Pierce-loving bachelor number three — but his tall, lean frame fairly hummed with power and a grace reserved for hunters and predators on four legs. Unlike the other men, he didn't wear a tuxedo. But his flawlessly cut black jacket and pants coupled with an equally dark shirt emphasized his ... stunning masculinity. And sexuality. She blinked. O-kay. Where had that thought come from?
"Though bachelor number ten has offices on both sides of the Atlantic, he claims Boston as his hometown. A man of culture, he enjoys a night at the opera as much as an evening in the local pub. His favorite musicians include Luciano Pavarotti, The Dubliners, and U2, and in his estimation, no movie tops The Godfather. The woman who eventually wins his heart will possess interests as varied as his own, will be adventurous, and well-traveled."
Well, that left Khloe out. Most of her life revolved around her job, her idea of adventure was online gaming, and she'd been to Dublin, Ireland exactly once. And the less said about that trip, the better.
"The fortunate woman to win him for her date will spend two days and a night in glamorous New York City where she will enjoy romantic dinners for two at five-star restaurants, a Broadway play, a concert, museums, and a personal appointment at Harry Winston's Fifth Avenue location." A wave of low voices rose and ebbed at the mention of the famous New York jeweler. Peek-a-boo's smile widened as if she could sense the money this date would rake in. "We'll open the bidding at five thousand."
Excerpted from The Millionaire Makeover by Naima Simone, Tracy Montoya. Copyright © 2016 Naima Simone. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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