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
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
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,
"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
"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
"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?
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!"
"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 -- "
"That’s more like it!" George
bellowed into the microphone. "I hear seven hundred, seven hundred, do I
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
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
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
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
"Congratulations, sir, you’ve
bought yourself one expensive evening out!"
His gaze never wavered from her. "Worth