Jeannie stood in front of the makeshift stage in the ballroom, and nodded with approval at the setup. She was wearing what she hoped was a passable cowgirl get-up consisting of a short-sleeved checkered blouse, tight jeans, and high-heeled Western boots that wouldn't allow her to take a single step on a dirt road. The bachelor auction was Western themed; flannel was the dress code and hay bales were scattered throughout the hotel ballroom as decoration. Her assistant, John, had come up with the idea, claiming no one can resist bidding on a dream date with a cowboy.
"What the hell is this?" a familiar voice rumbled behind her.
Jeannie spun around at Clark's question and wobbled on her impractical shoes. He grabbed her waist to keep her from landing ass-first in a trough, and desire surged through her. When she looked into his eyes, she saw irritation, shock and awareness. At her quiet gasp, his fingers tightened around her. God, it felt good.
The world around them disappeared like smoke in a breeze. She saw and felt nothing but the man holding her, and all she wanted to do was taste his full lips, mere inches from hers. But she stopped herself short and focused on the present, and finally noticed what he was wearing.
"You're in a tux." Her voice was steady despite her surprise, but it seemed to jolt him awake.
"Yes, I'm in a goddamned tux," he growled, stepping back abruptly from her. She swayed slightly and widened her stance to steady herself. "Why is everyone else dressed for country line dancing?"
She'd forgotten to tell him about the dress code. Damn it. But a part of her didn't regret her omission. The man looked fine as hell in a tuxedo.
Snap out of it. There was no time to waste. After two deep breaths, Jeannie smoothed her expression until it betrayed no trace of the attraction that had gripped her moments ago. She fisted her hands with a frustrated growl and shot into action. Jeannie grabbed Clark by his forearm and tugged him to follow.
"John," she bellowed, making Clark jerk his head back. Silence fell for three seconds in the room as volunteers turned around and stared at her. Hell. Too many eyes. She hurriedly led him behind the stage area, where there were some screen dividers they could step behind. "All right, folks. Back to work. The curtain goes up in twenty minutes. There's nothing to see here."
"Mr. Nobu, I'm John, Jeannie's right-hand man," her assistant said as he walked briskly toward them and they all retreated behind one of the screens.
"Nice to meet you. Call me Clark," he said, extending his hand.
Enough with the niceties. She'd called her assistant over for a reason. "John, take off your pants."
Without waiting for an answer from the two shocked men, she grabbed Clark's lapels and pushed his jacket down his shoulders.
"Whoa, sweetheart…" His words seemed to dry up when she pulled off his bow tie and began unbuttoning his shirt.
"You're wearing an undershirt, right?" She finished with the last button and opened his shirt before he could answer. "Okay. Good."
"Not that I'm complaining…" When she reached for his belt buckle, he gripped her wrist. "May I ask why you're undressing me in a room full of people?"
"Why do you think I pulled you behind this screen?" she shot back in frustration. Hell. This wasn't his fault. And what was she thinking undressing him like that? She sighed deeply and pulled half-heartedly at her hand, which he still clutched against his chest. "The question is why am I undressing you in the first place? I'm so sorry. I'm a little high-strung right now. I should've made it clear that tonight's event was Western themed…and the event starts in about fifteen minutes. Oh, for heaven's sake. John, your pants. Now."
"Fine, fine. I'll take them off." Her assistant scooted over to the next screen. After a moment, he came back and held out his jeans like a ceremonial offering, his jacket wrapped around his waist. She really should've given them more privacy but she didn't trust them to move as quickly as she needed them to.
"Clark." She leveled a steely gaze on him, and handed him John's jeans. "Put these on."
He shrugged and unhurriedly unbuckled his belt and stepped out of his tuxedo slacks. She swiftly turned her head away, but her jaw had already gone slack at the utter sensuality of seeing him undress. Because she couldn't help herself, she turned to sneak a peek at him. Of course, Clark caught her. Wearing a cocky grin, he pulled on the jeans hijacked from the younger man. He had trouble getting them past his thighs even though the waist had room to spare. Jeannie fanned her face with agitated hands, hoping to chase away the desire thrumming inside her.
"Christ, man." He turned to John while tucking his shirt in. "Are these supposed to fit like tights?"
John choked down a snort. "They're skinny jeans, sir."
Clark grunted with irritation.
"You're going to have to wear his tuxedo pants," she said apologetically to John.
"That's okay. My roommate is motorcycling over with an extra pair of jeans. I should be presentable by the time the auction starts."
"Oh, that's great news. Thanks, John." Jeannie stepped out from behind the partition and clapped her hands. "Okay, everyone. Doors are opening in ten minutes."
"Do you need any help?" Clark asked.
"No, I think we're ready. Just join the other bachelors in the ballroom and mingle when the guests arrive."
"Mingle?" He raised an arrogant brow.
"You know, talk to the guests. Flirt a little." She shrugged. "The more they like you, the more they'll bid."
"You don't sound confident about my marketability," he said, a shade of annoyance coloring his words.
"Sure, you clean up nice, but you have a reputation for being antisocial, reclusive, even downright rude…" Jeannie had never thought of his blunt honesty as rude but that was her. Then again, wasn't ghosting her for two years rude?
"I'm flattered you think I clean up nice," Clark interrupted with a cocky grin. "But I hate to see you worry about the price I'll command, so how about a friendly wager?"
"I'm not worried." Curiosity and wariness warred inside her. "A wager?"
"I bet I could get twenty grand tonight."
"Twenty grand?" Her voice rose and an incredulous smile curved her mouth. "This is a pretty low-key event. I doubt we could get more than a few thousand per bachelor."
"Do we have a wager?" His crooked grin made her heart trip.
"But what are we betting?" Wagers were always fun, but she didn't exactly have money to burn.
"I'm not asking you to risk your hard-earned money on me, Jeannie." With his thumb and index finger, he gently turned her to face him. "Why don't we say we'll owe each other a favor?"
"Okay. You're on," she said, not liking how breathless she sounded.
"Good." Clark nodded once and strode away, brimming with determination.
After going over some last-minute details with John, Jeannie blended into the gathering crowd. She made her way toward the back corner of the ballroom. It gave her a hawk-eye view of the guests and allowed her to run the show from the shadows. When she settled on a spot, she pulled on her earpiece and brushed her hair forward to obscure it.
Her gaze was drawn halfway across the room toward a dark head that rose inches above the crowd. Clark was buttering up a crowd of women who blushed and laughed at what he was saying. Jeannie fought the urge to stick her tongue out at his broad back.
She could see he meant to win the bet. The irony was if she let her competitive edge take charge and sabotaged his efforts then Package Deal would be the real loser. The smart, logical thing to do would be to let him work his perfect ass off to raise as much money as possible for them. But a small, secret part of her still hoped he would fail, so she could win a favor from him.
What could she want from Clark anyway? He'd already given her organization a generous donation.
Her mind quickly filled up with images of exactly what she wanted from him, and need pooled low in her belly. Every time she saw him, he got more irresistible, and all her reasons for not wanting to succumb to her attraction seemed unimportant.
When she got away from her ex-husband, she swore never to let another man into her life. Her heart wasn't broken. It was her soul that broke. She could never let anyone hold such power over her again. Clark was nothing like her ex. He was kind, gentle and warm. But hadn't he shut her out for two years? He'd been grieving, but she still couldn't trust him not to hurt her. Not completely.
Was there a way for them to explore this attraction between them without either of them getting hurt? The sex didn't have to mean anything. They were grown adults who liked and respected each other. And their chemistry was off the charts. Maybe they could enjoy each other while still being friends. Friendship was safe, and her heart wouldn't be in the mix. She and Clark would make the perfect friends with benefits.
"Jeannie?" John's voice sounded in her ear, jerking her out of her tangled thoughts. "Shouldn't we get started with the auction?"
"Yes." She shook her head to clear it. "I'll round up the bachelors and have them line up by the stage. You have the mic."
The crowd hushed in anticipation when John took the podium. Their first bachelor was a firefighter and poet who happened to look like a handsome, gentle giant. Needless to say, the guests loved him. And the "sale" of the second bachelor made dollar signs light up in Jeannie's eyes. She was greedy when it came to fundraising for Package Deal.
"And now, it's my honor to introduce you to Bachelor Number Three… Clark Nobu!" The roar of the crowd drowned John's game show host voice. "I guess the man needs no introduction."
Clark Nobu strutted—strutted!—onto the stage, his thumbs hooked in the belt loops of his jeans. Was that his ranch hand impersonation?Her guests went into some kind of a feeding frenzy, hands shooting up to signal bids faster than John could call them.
The casual bidders usually dropped out after the first few rounds, but the competition for Bachelor Number Three remained fierce. And she mostly hoped—and fretted just a little—that she would lose the bet.
"Wow. This beats tonight's record by far." Her assistant was jumping up and down in excitement. "Nineteen thousand dollars for Bachelor Number Three. Going once. Going twice…"
"Twenty thousand dollars," a distinguished older woman near the stage shouted, shaking her fist in the air.
"Twenty thousand. Do I hear twenty-one thousand." The second-highest bidder immediately shook her head, bowing out gracefully. "Okay, I have twenty thousand. Going once. Going twice. Sold!"
Jeannie hooted and hollered along with the cheering crowd. She'd lost the bet, but it was a win for Package Deal.
Now the question was…what would Clark want from her?
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