killer curves
THE HIGHEST BIDDER
Part of The Ashton Dynasty Series Silhouette Desire Books
ISBN 0373766815


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THE HIGHEST BIDDER
Part of The Ashton Dynasty Series

"And the lady is...sold! To the gentleman at Table Four!"

The auctioneer’s gavel smacked the podium and the 450 guests in the Ashton Estate Winery reception hall erupted in a chorus of cheers and boos. The bidding for a date with the blonde Napa Valley socialite, also known as Bachelorette Number Seventeen, had been fast and furious.

She had a name –- the auctioneer had even said it -- but Paige Ashton’s mind worked better with numbers than names. And now that "seventeen" was bought and paid for, there were only three women left before dessert and dancing could commence. Then Paige was done.

She hugged her clipboard and beamed from the side of the stage. They were just shy of the magic number of $20,000, all raised for the Candlelighters of Northern California. God bless the brave ladies willing to parade on that stage, willing to let men shout out dollar amounts they’d pay for a date.

Not only was it a wonderful cause, the annual Candlelighters Bachelorette Auction was a smashing event, and she’d coordinated every detail for the "Take A Walk on the Wild Side" jungle theme right down to rainforest-inspired centerpieces.

"Tiffany Valencia is gone."

The words, whispered to Paige by one of the auction aides, tickled her ear and raised a hair on the back of her neck.

"Gone? Number eighteen is gone?" It didn’t take her usual lightning speed brain to solve this problem. "Get nineteen."

The aide, a young intern for the auction company, shook her head. "No can do. That one just left with Ashley Bleeker for a smoke."

"Bleeker? That means eighteen, nineteen and twenty are gone?"

"We have to take a break."

"No break," Paige insisted. That would ruin the rhythm of the event, and, worse, stop the bidding. The event would ultimately be judged by how much money was raised. "Where the heck is eighteen – er, Tiffany?"

"I think she met a guy and took off with him," the aide said apologetically.

Paige rolled her eyes. "He’s supposed to pay for that privilege."

The aide shrugged and looked up at the stage where the auctioneer was peering at them. "You better tell George. He’s not good at ad libbing. He needs something to auction off."

Paige didn’t waste a moment thinking about what needed to be done. "Get the band in place, we’re almost done with the auction portion. Let me talk to George and see if he can keep things moving until we find her." She gave the aide her clipboard and took a deep breath, her palms suddenly too damp to risk smoothing her silk skirt.

How did these girls do it? Just going on stage to chat with the auctioneer raised her heart rate.

The room quieted a little as she stepped into the spotlights that flooded the stage. Someone whistled from the back.

Good heavens. They thought she was the next bachelorette. Paige threw an apologetic smile into the crowd and shook her head, but the lights blinded her. She could only make out a few faces in the very front, one of them her cousin Walker, looking both surprised and amused.

"Well here’s a shocker!" The auctioneer further hushed the crowd with his booming voice. "Paige Ashton is bachelorette number eighteen."

Blood drained from her head and rushed to her pounding heart. "No, no, I’m not." Her denial was too soft to be heard over the rowdy response. She’d done her job and made sure the Ashton wine flowed freely. Now she had a room full of lubricated men who’d have applauded any female at this point.

"I don’t have a fact sheet on Paige," the auctioneer admitted, his commanding voice hardly needing a microphone. "But I know first hand that she’s a delight to work with. She’s – how old, Paige?"

"Twenty-two!" She recognized Walker’s voice, and one more glance at her cousin revealed his fairly evil grin. He leaned over to say something to another man, missing the dirty look Paige directed at their table.

"How much do we hear for this twenty-two year-old beauty with a well-known last name and an angel’s face?"

Death. Death would be preferable to the lights burning her cheeks – or was that just one massive blush that threatened to explode every blood vessel in her face?

"Five hundred!"

Oh, dear God. They were bidding. She held up a hand to stop them, but the auctioneer grabbed it, spinning her like Fred Astaire. "Just five hundred? Look at this beautiful young lady! Svelte, sweet and smart as a whip!"

"Six fifty!"

"I hear six-fifty for the honey with honey hair, do I hear six seventy-five, six seventy-five..."

Paige felt her legs weaken. Please God, make this end. "This is a mistake, George," she whispered to the auctioneer, her voice hoarse and low. "I’m not number -- "

"Seven hundred!"

"That’s more like it!" George bellowed into the microphone. "I hear seven hundred, seven hundred, do I hear seven-fifty?"

He launched into the forced staccato that had enthralled the crowd all night and someone yelled out a higher amount. The auctioneer’s drone rose in intensity as he dared and defied them to up the ante.

"Nine hundred!"

Her legs would never hold. George spun her again. Twirling, Paige caught a glimpse of Walker, still talking to the other man, but the light prevented her from seeing who it was.

"Nine fifty!" The shout came from the back of the room.

That silenced the crowd for a moment, no doubt because they neared the thousand dollar figure that usually stopped the bidding.

Her cousin laughed at something his companion said, and leaned back, momentarily blocking the blinding light and giving Paige a straight shot at the man sitting next to Walker.

"One thousand dollars!"

She heard the amount called out from the back, but her gaze locked on wolf-like gray eyes that devoured her. A spray of goosebumps cascaded down her spine as they stared at each other.

"Fifteen hundred!" The bid was shouted from the way left side of the crowded room, followed immediately by another.

But the lights seemed to fade, the shouting muted, and the merciless bidding drowned out. She simply couldn’t tear her gaze from the handsome stranger who stared right back at her. Who was he? Who had Walker invited to this fundraiser? Then he lifted his lips in a provocative half-smile.

Whoever he was, he was a heart-throb.

"Two thousand!" With the blood rushing through her head, Paige barely heard the crazy bid barked from the far right side of the room.

The auctioneer roared with glee and urged the frenzy onward.

A trickle of perspiration snaked between her shoulder blades and she tried to swallow, still unable to look away from the man’s riveting gaze.

Then he winked. So subtle, so sneaky, no one else could possibly have seen his secret message. But she did. And it sent an involuntary shudder through her body.
"Ten thousand dollars."

The auctioneer froze and looked toward the front table. "Did I hear...?"

He couldn’t. He couldn’t have said that. The wolf with gray eyes stood to an impressive height. Backlit by a spotlight and looking like a monarch making his pronouncement, his half smile widened to a predatory grin. "Ten thousand dollars for Paige Ashton."

For a long time, the room remained soundless, then the gavel slammed so hard the podium vibrated and Paige’s knees nearly buckled.

"Congratulations, sir, you’ve bought yourself one expensive evening out!"

His gaze never wavered from her. "Worth every penny."