“Okay, then I’m going back inside. Dessert’s up next.” Ella kissed her on the cheek and left.
Mallory walked around the rest of the auction items. She checked the parking lot again for Mysterious No-Longer-So-Cute Guy. By then, dessert was just about over. When the lights dimmed and the PowerPoint slide show started—the one she’d put together to showcase the auction items—she sneaked in. Tip-toeing to one of the back tables, she grabbed the first empty seat she could find and let out a breath.
So far so good.
She took a surreptitious peek at the people at her table but it was too dark to see across from her. To her right was an empty chair. To her left was a man, sitting still in the shadows, his face turned to the slide show. She was squinting, trying to figure out why he seemed so vaguely familiar when someone came up behind her and put a hand on her shoulder. “Mallory, there you are.”
Her boss. Crap. She craned her neck and smiled. “Hello, Jane.”
“I’ve been looking everywhere for you. You’re late.” Jane Miller was the director of nurses, and probably in her previous life she’d been queen of her very own planet. She had a way of moving and speaking that demanded attention and subtly promised a beheading if she was disappointed in the slightest.
“Oh, I’m not just getting here,” Mallory assured her. “I’ve been behind the scenes all night.”
“Hmm,” Jane said. “And…?”
“And everything’s running smoothly,” Mallory quickly assured her. “We have a full house. We’re doing good.”
“Okay, then.” Rare approval entered Jane’s voice. “That’s terrific.” She eyed the chair to the right of Mallory. The empty spot. “Your date didn’t show up?”
And here’s where Mallory made her mistake. She honestly had no idea what came over her: simple exhaustion from a very long week, or it might have been that her heels were already pinching her feet. But most likely it was sheer, stubborn pride—which her grandmother had always told her would be the death of her. “My date is right here,” she whispered. As discreetly as she could, she gestured with her chin to the man to her left, praying that his date didn’t take that moment to come back from the restroom.
“Lovely.” Jane smiled politely at the back of his head. “Aren’t you going to introduce us?”
Oh for God’s sake. Mallory glanced over at the man, grateful he was paying them no attention whatsoever. “He’s very busy watching the slide show.”
Jane’s smile didn’t falter. She also didn’t budge. It was her patent alpha dog stance, the one that hospital administrators, politicians, and God himself bent over backward for.
Mallory gritted her teeth and again glanced at her “date,” expecting him to still be watching the slide show.
He was looking right at her, and naturally the slide show ended at that very moment and the lights went up.
He had a bandage above his eye, which she knew covered stitches, and there was a small bruise on his cheek, where she’d nailed him with Grace’s cell phone.
Mysterious Cute Guy.
Do Not Disturb: Chocolate fantasy in progress.
Mallory’s first thought at the sight of Mysterious Cute Guy: Holy smokes. The night of the storm she hadn’t gotten a good look at him, but she was getting one now. Edgy expression, dangerous eyes, long, hard physique clothed in the elegant, sophisticated packaging of a dark suit. He’d managed to pack a wallop while prone and bleeding but that had been nothing compared to what happened to her now when he was upright and conscious. Before she could speak, a spotlight hit the stage, revealing a microphone.
“That’s you,” Jane said, pulling Mallory out of the chair. “You’re introducing the auction, yes?”
Saved by the bell. Or by the end of the slide show. “Yes, that’s me.”
“Well?” Jane said to Cute Guy. “You’re her date, aren’t you? Escort her up there.”
The expression on his face never changed from that cool, assessing calm. And even though Mallory had no idea what he did for a living, or even his name, she’d bet the last three dollars in her wallet that few people, if anyone, ever barked an order at him. “Oh,” she said in a rush to Jane. “It’s okay, he doesn’t have to—”
But he was already on his feet, setting his hand at the small of her back, gesturing for her to go ahead of him.
Craning her neck, she stared up at him.
He stared back, brow arched, mouth only very slightly curved.
Hot, he’d called her. Sure, he’d also called her “bossy,” and he hadn’t been in full possession of his faculties at the time, but even now, the memory gave her a tingle in some places that had no business tingling.
“Mallory,” Jane said in that Displeased Queen voice again. “Get on with it.”
“Yes, Mallory,” her “date” said, his voice low and grainy, with just a touch of irony. “Let’s get on with it.”
She nearly let out a short, half-hysterical laugh but she slapped her hand over her mouth. Later. She’d die of embarrassment later. She forced a smile for anyone looking at them, and everyone was looking at them. Speaking out of the corner of her mouth for his ears alone, she whispered, “You don’t have to do this, pretend to be on the date you didn’t want in the first place.”
For the briefest flash, something flickered in his eyes before he smoothed it out and went back to his impassive blank face. Confusion? She wasn’t sure, and it no longer mattered. Sure, an apology for standing her up would be nice, but beggars couldn’t be choosers. For whatever reason, he was willing to play along, and at the moment, with Jane staring holes in her back, Mallory was grateful.
She threaded her way through the tables to the stage, managing a smile at everyone who caught her eye. But she couldn’t have come up with a single name to go with those faces. Not when she was so completely aware of that big, warm hand at the small of her back to go along with the big, strong, gorgeous guy escorting her. He was close enough for her to catch his scent.
Which, by the way, was still fantastic, damn him.
As they got to the stage stairs, she caught the fact that he was limping. She glanced down at his leg. What had happened? He hadn’t injured his leg in the storm that she knew of. “Are you okay?”
“Later,” he said, and nudged her up the stairs to the stage.
With five hundred sets of eyes on her, she let it go and took the mic. “Good evening, Lucky Harbor,” she said.
The crowd hooted and hollered.
In spite of herself, she felt a genuine smile escape at their enthusiastic greeting. She’d grown up in this town, had found her life’s passion working as a nurse in this town, and knew that even if she somehow ended up on the other side of the world some day for whatever reason, she’d always smile at the thought of Lucky Harbor. “Let’s make some money for health care tonight, okay?”
More wild applause. Then someone yelled out, “Who’s the hottie with you?”
This was from Tammy, of course, sitting at one of the front tables, her hands curled around her mouth so that her voice would carry to the stage.
Mallory ignored her sister’s heckling as best she could and turned to the big screen behind her. “Okay, everyone, get your bidding paddles ready because we have some great stuff for you tonight. Our favorite auctioneer, Charles Tennessee, is going to come up here, and I expect to see lots of action. I want cat fights, people. Hair-pulling if necessary. Whatever it takes to keep the bidding going. So let the fun begin—”
“We want to meet your date!”
Mallory let out a breath and looked down at Lucille, sitting at another front table.
Lucille gave her a finger wave, which Mallory also ignored, but it was hard to ignore the “Do it, do it, do it” chanting now coming from Tammy’s table. Her brother was there too, looking every bit the part of the mountain biking bum that he was, with the perpetual goggle tan, the streaked, long brown hair. Tall and lanky lean, Joe sat with an arm slung around the blonde he was dating this week. Mallory caught movement at her right and glanced over as her so-called date strode up the stairs to the stage. Oh God, this wasn’t going to help anything, and she shook her head vehemently at him to stop, to go back.
Instead he joined her.
She shook her head again, and she’d have sworn he was laughing at her without his mouth so much as twitching. His eyes were sharp with intelligence, wit, and absolutely no hint of remorse or shame at standing her up. She should probably get over that—and quickly—because the entire audience was now fixated on both of them, the anticipation palpable. With no choice but to be as gracious as possible, Mallory shook her head at the crowd. “Bloodthirsty lot, all of you.”
“One of these days,” she said. “You’re all going to get a life.”
Everyone laughed again, but she knew no one was going to move on to the auction until she did this, until she introduced Mysterious Cute Guy. “Fine,” she said. “But don’t try to tell me you don’t know the man standing next to me. I’ve seen his FB stats.”
More laughter, and what might have been slight bafflement from the man himself. “Everyone,” she said. “Meet…” She trailed off with one thought. Crap. Hard to believe that she could possibly have yet another embarrassing moment in her tonight, but she shouldn’t have underestimated herself. Drawing a deep breath, she had no choice. She turned to him and she knew damn well that he knew what she needed.
Again, the very hint of a smile touched the corner of his lips as he looked at her, brow quirked. He was going to make her ask, the big, sexy jerk. Well, that’s what she got for wanting Mr. All Wrong. Mr. Bad Boy. Mr. Smoking Hot. He was going to burn her, for sure, and she would lay the blame at the chocoholics’ feet. But she’d yell at Amy and Grace later. For now, she had to deal with this. The question was how? She hadn’t a clue. Uncle, she finally mouthed to him.