The front door opened into a miniscule foyer with stairs leading to the unfinished attic space directly ahead. When her grandparents had built the house, they’d intended to finish off the upstairs as the children and the need for additional bedrooms arrived, but they’d only had one child, Holly’s mother, so the expansion had never happened. Holly’s living room lay to the left and her bedroom immediately to the right. “Would you like coffee or something while I change?”
The sound of canine nails clicking on hardwood floors approached from the kitchen and then the mutts surrounded them. “Down, Seurat and Monet.”
“You named your dogs after painters?” Eric bent to scratch each dog’s scruff.
“Yes. Seurat is dotted and Monet’s colors blend with no defined lines. They’re staying inside while recovering from surgery. They need homes if you know anyone who’d love a mutt.” Fat chance of that. Eric’s contemporaries preferred purebreds.
“And you have them because…?”
“I live in the country. People dump their unwanted pets out here all the time, and then, of course, others have heard that I’ll foster unwanted animals, so…” She shrugged. “I have the vet check them over and neuter them and then I try to find someone to adopt them.” She gestured to the sofa and chairs. “Have a seat in the den. Give me a minute to get into some dry clothes and then we can work out the date details.”
Holly stepped into her bedroom, leaving Eric to find the den on his own, and pushed the door almost closed. She peeled off her damp, clingy dress and then draped it over the corner of her grandmother’s cheval mirror. The ceiling fan overhead stirred the air, causing chill bumps to rise on every inch of her body. She scrubbed her upper arms while she debated whether or not she had anything clean to wear. When had she done laundry last?
“I have to confess, Eric, that until the MC described your auction package I didn’t even know what your dates would be.” She raised her voice to be heard through the quarter-inch door gap as she bent over her T-shirt drawer. With her booming, un-ladylike voice—a curse, according to her parents—Eric would be able to hear her from the den.
And then she heard a familiar creaking hinge and straightened abruptly. Her gaze darted to the mirror. Seurat had pushed open her bedroom door, and Eric was not in her living room. Instead, he stood exactly where she’d left him, and right now he was getting an eyeful of her naked backside and a clear view of her front side reflected in the mirror.
Holly snatched the wet dress from the mirror, clutched it to her chest and spun around. But the wet fabric bunched and stuck and refused to cover what needed covering. Eric, damn him, didn’t look away. In fact, his dark gaze raked over every exposed inch of her skin.
Her heart stuttered like a jackhammer. “Excuse me.”
Holly lunged forward, shut the door, forcing it past the sticking upper corner and leaned against it. That hadn’t been revulsion in Eric’s eyes. Worse, the heat swirling in her stomach like a water spout didn’t remotely resemble shame or disgust.
The only thing worse than getting involved with another needy man would be getting involved with a man who came from a world where she’d been a complete failure, a world to which she’d have to crawl back amidst a chorus of “I told you so’s” if she couldn’t locate the ex-lover who’d suckered her into borrowing against her trust fund and loaning him money.
Oh, man, why hadn’t she broken her promise to buy Eric and bolted when she’d had the chance?
Promises were the pits.
Eric’s sister stormed through the office door early Monday morning without bothering to knock. “What are you doing?”
“Good morning, Juliana. I’m working on an account analysis to determine which of the branches we’ll have to consolidate when the merger goes through.” His sister had a vested interest in the Alden Bank and Trust-Wilson Savings and Loan merger—an interest she’d jeopardized Saturday night by buying the wrong bachelor. “One of us needs to think about the merger.”
Anger darkened Juliana’s complexion and glinted in her eyes. “I meant with Holly. Besides the fact that she’s my friend and therefore off-limits to you, how dare you take advantage of her generous nature by conning her into buying you? She deserves a man who’ll sweep her off her feet and treat her like the special person she is. You don’t know anything about romance.”
Her verbal stiletto nicked his ego. His ex-fiancée had shouted similar words and a few other choice phrases at him instead of the traditional “I dos” in front of their wedding guests right before she’d stormed back down the aisle. Alone and unwed.
“And what about you? You should have bought Wallace Wilson, your fiancé, instead of that bartending biker. You know what a tight-ass Baxter Wilson is and how concerned with appearances he can be. He’ll be offended that you didn’t buy his son. Did you even consider the ramifications of your actions before you chose unwisely, Juliana?”
“Wally isn’t my fiancé yet, and this is not about me. This is about you. You go through women faster than you go through neckties. I do not want Holly to be one of your discards.”
“I have no intention of becoming involved with Holly more than superficially. Neither of us wants to go on the dates, but her reporter friend is pressing the issue. We’ll go through the motions until Octavia Jenkins loses interest. My goal was to avoid vicious gossip which could be detrimental to the merger, and I thought Holly would be a safe alternative to a marriage-minded female.”
And he’d never been more wrong in his life. Even though Holly had pulled on jeans and a baggy T-shirt Saturday night, once more camouflaging her generous curves, he’d kept seeing her naked and his usual razor-sharp concentration had taken a hiatus. As much as he disliked loose ends, he’d been relieved when the phone rang and Holly had had to rush out to pick up his sister before they finalized the date details.
He’d called Holly this morning and scheduled a date for tomorrow night. It had taken him promising to bring her a reimbursement check for the auction cost to get her to agree.
“Holly? Safe?” His sister had the nerve to laugh. “You don’t know what you’re in for.”
“What is that supposed to mean?”
“It means, big brother, that Holly isn’t one of your usual dimwitted debutantes. She’s not going to be impressed with your stock portfolio or the fact that you play tennis with the mayor and golf with a judge. She’s more interested in what’s on the inside than net worth or connections, Eric, and you, like our mother, have a calculator for a heart.”
Surprised by his sister’s unusual vehemence, he rocked back in his executive chair. “You don’t think I’m capable of showing Holly a good time.”
“Frankly?” She folded her arms and cocked her head. “No.”
His competitive instincts, never far from the surface, reared. “Then prepare to eat your words, little sister.”
Eric had enjoyed his dinner at one of Wilmington’s finest restaurants as much as he always did, and yet the only enthusiasm he’d seen from Holly had been for her crème brûlée. Throughout the rest of the meal, she’d appeared tense and uncomfortable.
He signed the credit card slip and rose. Apparently eager to leave, Holly sprang to her feet without waiting for him to pull back her chair, thereby proving his sister’s prediction true. Holly wasn’t enjoying the evening. Eric was determined to change that.