“Why didn’t you mention your relationship with the reporter before?”
Holly took a deep breath and blew it out slowly. The play of moonlight and shadow over her cleavage drew his gaze. He’d always known Holly had a broad-shouldered, athletic build because he’d spent countless afternoons playing ball in the driveway with her two older brothers a decade and a half ago. Holly had often joined them to even the numbers. She was fast on her feet and had a decent hook shot, if he remembered correctly. But what he hadn’t realized years ago was that her breasts matched her generous height and firm muscle tone. His pulse accelerated. Damn.
“Because I didn’t know Octavia would make this personal. Besides, me buying you was your idea, remember? My plan was to leave the auction alone tonight.”
He lowered himself beside her on his coat. Their shoulders and thighs brushed. Sparks ignited, but he ignored them. Tried to, anyway. He saw where this was headed and couldn’t see any way to avoid it. “Your recommendation?”
“We go through the motions. If Octavia is around then I want you to treat me exactly like any other date. If we’re lucky she’ll soon lose interest in torturing me. If luck’s against us then it’s only eleven dates. We’ll survive. Somehow,” she said with a total lack of enthusiasm.
She’d survive dating him? The comment ripped the scab off his wounded pride, and Priscilla’s comment echoed in his head. The only place you don’t bore me is in bed. If he’d bored his traditional-minded ex-fiancée, then he’d turn a free spirit like Holly comatose, and her friend would report it in the paper. Another public humiliation.
Damned if he dated Holly. Damned if he didn’t. “I can’t treat you like my other dates.”
“Why in the heck not? Am I such a toad?”
She was far from a toad, but commenting on her unique beauty would be unwise. “I sleep with most of the women I date by the third evening, if not sooner.”
Her lips parted and then closed. Her throat worked as she gulped. “Not this time, pal. You got the raw end of the deal. I’m not your type.”
“Nor I yours, I imagine.”
A smile played over her lips. “Not even close. But it’s just dinner and stuff, right? What can go wrong?”
As if in answer to the question, the automatic sprinklers erupted. After a shocked gasp Holly looked skyward. “That was a rhetorical question.”
She snatched up her shoes and then zigzagged through the spurting nozzles like a running back headed for the goal line. Eric grabbed his coat and jogged after her. She stopped on the sidewalk edging the parking lot. Her hair and gown were drenched and plastered to her body. Grass clippings clung to her bare feet and mascara streaked down her cheeks, but instead of complaining Holly laughed and once again looked skyward.
“This is what I get for trying to pull a fast one on my friends? Okay, okay, I get it. I’m sorry.”
Eric couldn’t think of a single woman he’d ever known who would have had anything less than a complete meltdown over having her evening and probably her dress ruined. He extracted a handkerchief from his pocket and offered it to Holly.
“Thanks.” She blotted her face. Droplets glistened on her eyelashes as she grinned up at him. “I don’t suppose you have a beach towel tucked in there do you?”
That unabashed grin twisted something in his gut. He caught himself grinning back. “Not tonight.”
Gravity carried a rivulet over her collarbone and between her breasts. His gaze followed and his smile faded. Wet fabric molded Holly’s body, tenting over her beaded nipples and dipping into her navel. He’d found her satiny dress sexy before, but seeing the fabric adhered to her curvaceous damp body like a second skin ratcheted his response up a level—right into the danger zone. He swallowed hard.
And that’s when it hit him. He’d miscalculated.
His safe way out of the auction had become a minefield of trouble.
Dumped and deserted. A situation with which Holly was becoming all too familiar for her liking.
She shoved her wet hair off her face, plucked at her stuck-on dress and faced Eric. Water had turned his white silk shirt almost transparent. She could see the dark whorls of his chest hair and even the small brown circles of his nipples. Warmth she couldn’t blame on the humid June evening settled low in her belly.
Good grief. You’ve seen him without a shirt before. That might have been years ago, but still, what’s the big deal? Shaking off the unwanted fascination, she met his gaze. “Could you give me a ride home? It appears my cohorts have abandoned me.”
Looking tall, dark and better than any male model she’d sketched in her university Live Art class, Eric motioned toward a black Corvette. “Certainly. We still haven’t finalized the repayment of your substantial bid.”
A smug smile twitched the corners of his mouth. Holly rolled her eyes. “Go ahead and gloat. I know you’re dying to.”
He smiled and looked so much like the guy she’d had a crush on in her teens that it sucked the breath from her lungs. “I’ve never been happier to waste fifteen thousand dollars.”
She snorted. “You guys and your egos. I should have let Prissy have you.”
His smile vanished, and she wondered if having his ex-fiancée join in the bidding had surprised him as much as it had her. Or maybe he’d wanted her to let Prissy win him?
“Thank you for outbidding her.”
Holly tried to gauge his sincerity, but couldn’t. Had he loved Priscilla Wilson? Had his heart been broken when she’d dumped him so cruelly? Or was his sister right? Juliana swore her brother couldn’t squeeze a drop of emotion out of his calculator heart with a juicer. “I promised and, good or bad, I always keep my promises.”
He opened the passenger door and cupped Holly’s elbow as she lowered herself into the leather seat. She wished he’d quit touching her. Each time he did, something tightened and twisted inside her.
She directed him toward her house and twenty minutes later he parked beside the white picket fence surrounding her home. She climbed from the car before Eric could open her door, and a chorus of barks reached them.
“It’s okay guys. It’s just me,” she yelled through cupped hands, and the barks turned from warning to welcoming.
Eric stood with his hands on his hips, appraising the farmhouse. Because she lived alone, Holly had installed several area lights to keep the yard well-lit. The scent of gardenias, honeysuckle and moon flowers saturated the humid night air.
“Not the ramshackle hovel you expected?”
His gaze landed on hers. “It’s nice.”
Pride filled her chest. Her maternal grandfather had built the house for his bride back in the 1930s. Since moving to the farm seven years ago, Holly had steadily made upgrades both inside and out as money permitted. She’d turned the barn where cows and horses used to take shelter into kennels with dog runs and converted the carport behind the house into her work studio. A local farmer leased all but ten of the five hundred acres and kept her supplied with all the corn, cucumbers and tomatoes she could eat.
She paused beside Eric at the base of the stairs leading to the wraparound porch. “I know what they say behind my back, you know. That I live out here in disgrace, exiled to my grandparents’ farm because I don’t know how to behave in polite society.”
Moonlight played off the sharp planes of Eric’s face, casting shadows beneath