“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 every-thing 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 firefighter 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—”