The auctioneer’s gavel came down with a final slam, and Boston’s 28th most eligible bachelor walked off the stage of the Worth Hotel ballroom—and straight into the open arms of his new female owner.
Her prize was one Jerold Klein, a forty-year-old rare bird dealer with a hooked nose and graying head to match his prize cockatiels. Geraldine Hawkins let out a squeal of joy at her successful purchase, as if she’d just nabbed a four-thousand dollar ermine bargain on the fur rack at Macy’s.
Daniel Worth IV scowled. Why the hell he’d signed up for this, he didn’t know. Actually, he did know. He’d agreed after the third or fourth round of a damned good Scotch, too mellowed by the liquor to refuse when Kyle Montague had asked him to participate in the early February “charity” event.
Yeah, it was a charity all right. One where men who knew better gave away their dignity and called it a tax deduction.
All night, the women had been straining forward in their seats, waving their checkbooks like dollar bills while the auctioneer listed the assets of the each bachelor with the drama of Bob Barker giving away a Caddie.
This was as much charity as a Chippendales performance was a garden party.
“For our next eligible bachelor, we have Percival Howard the Third,” the auctioneer began. Percival, who’d always been on the pink side of shy, lingered beside Daniel in the shadows, his white-knuckled hands glued to the wrought iron railing.
Daniel shook his head. What the man in front of him needed was a good shot of testosterone, or at least a fourteen-ounce rib eye. Babied by his mother, because of his “weak constitution” and his inability to digest anything containing protein, Percival’s diet was filled mostly with carrots, his vegetable of choice. The result—a perpetual orange tint in his skin.
It gave “you are what you eat” a whole new meaning.
Percival’s dietary choices had had the dual effect of greatly improving his eyesight but leaving him with the unfortunate nickname of “Persimmon.” Being known as a fruit hadn’t exactly helped Persimmon develop his social graces. The poor orange man shook and sweated his way up the two steps to the stage.
Regardless of his menu restrictions, the audience wanted its next bachelor. Particularly one who had a second house in Tuscany and a reputation for treating women like crystal. Still, Persimmon lingered outside the glare of the spotlights, the color in his cheeks deepening from under-ripe carrot to crimson.
“Where is he? Give him to us!” shouted someone in the back.
“Yeah, get him on stage!”
“Are these the same women who organize the annual Support an Orphan party?” asked Jake Lincoln, sidling up beside Daniel. “That fancy shindig where we pay a grand a head to eat Marcy Higgins’s cousin’s crappy version of standing rib roast and listen to her father drone on about the tragedy of growing up alone?”
“Wasn’t he raised in a family of twelve?” Daniel said.
Jake chuckled. “The rich empathize with everyone, don’t you know that?”
Daniel knew that spiel. Particularly around tax time, when Grandfather Worth was looking for an extra deduction.
“Give us your poor, tired and hungry,” Daniel said. “Just don’t make us walk in their knock-off high heels or eat their store-brand canned food.”
The auctioneer went over to coax Percival onto the stage. A cheer went up from the crowd, checkbooks raised in tribute. Moments later, a price was put on Percival’s persimmon-colored head.
“Ain’t that the truth.” Jake shook his head. “You want to mosey on over to the bar or continue watching our peer group being sold off like prize livestock?”
“Sold!” The auctioneer declared again, giving Boston’s 29th best a nod and a slam of his gavel. “And now, our final bachelor of the night, our piece de resistance,” the auctioneer said, waving his hand to add a touch of drama to his words, “and the man you ladies have been waiting to see. The one Boston magazine called ‘the most eligible bachelor in the city.’”
“Can’t,” Daniel said to Jake. “I’m up.”
“You’re the piece de resistance?” Jake laughed. “The icing on the cake? The cherry on the sundae? The—”
Daniel raised a finger in warning. “Don’t forget, I know about that slightly illegal thing you did trading small caps last year. So if I were you, I’d stop right there.”
Jake clapped him on the back. “Go get ’em, tiger. Remember, this is for…” He paused. “What the hell charity is this for, anyway?”
“I don’t know.” Daniel let out a long breath that said he’d been to too many of these things in recent weeks. It seemed this had become his job. It wasn’t a job Daniel liked, but it was one Grandfather Worth insisted Daniel do, exerting his iron grip on everything in Daniel’s life, as he had for twenty-eight years.
Daniel could think of several things he’d much rather be doing, but Grandfather would have his head—and his inheritance—if he stepped off the carefully planned family path.
The prep school Daniel had attended, the college he’d graduated from, even the courses he’d taken, had all been decided by Grandfather. All Daniel had to do in exchange was abide by the elder Worth’s rules and the money would continue to flow into Daniel’s bank account, as regular as Old Faithful.
But one misstep—such as the time Daniel had dated a woman whose pedigree Grandfather had deemed “inadequate”, like she was a substandard poodle at Westminster—and the money vanished. A simple break-up, and the floodgates were opened once again.
When Daniel had been young and more concerned with his social life than his future, Grandfather’s rules had been a tolerable annoyance. Slug back a whiskey with friends and he’d forget the future waiting for him at the helm of Worth. Forget how much he’d hated business school. Forget that every element of his adult life was set in a pattern as unchangeable as a DNA strand.
But today, as he waited for the auctioneer to finish listing his assets like he was a 2006 Escalade, the whole thing grated. And made Daniel wish for…
Something. Anything but this.
“Why are you selling yourself anyway?” Jake asked, as they waited for the auctioneer to finish his spirited recap of Daniel’s personal résumé.
“My grandfather makes me do this crap. Says it makes the family look good.”
Jake’s raised eyebrow as Daniel walked away told him what he thought of that.
The women whooped and catcalled Daniel as he made his way across the ballroom stage. He’d known many of these women all his life and they’d never acted like this. What the hell had the waiters been passing around in the drinks anyway?
Was it just the thought of turning the tables, of being in control? Of having a man at their beck and call?
Twin canister lights were directed at the spot where he was to stand—conveniently marked with a duct-taped X. White beams shone like a police interrogation in his face, making it hard for him to see the audience. Just as well. He didn’t want to know if it had been Mary Jo Williamson or Lauren Templeton who’d let out that wolf whistle.
After all, he had to face them in mixed doubles tennis on Tuesday.
“As you ladies know, Daniel Worth the Fourth is single,” the auctioneer paused long enough to allow a few appreciative hollers from the crowd. “He’s twenty-eight years old, and, as a member of the Worth family, valued at ninety-three million dollars.”
Technically, that wasn’t correct. He only had that net worth if his grandfather kept him on the family dime. As long as Daniel towed the family line, there wasn’t any reason to think that would change, considering Daniel had been born into wealth, as had his father, and his grandfather, and all the Worths before them, ever since the first Worth had started a chain of hotels in Boston and made a mint, practically from the day the colonists were looking for housing.
The Worth family excelled at one thing: finding what people wanted in a bed. And charging them a damned good rate for a pillowtop, room service and a maid who would pop in and turn down the covers just before you were ready to retire. A dreamy experience, Grandfather Worth called it, chuckling all the way to the bank.
Now there were Worth hotels in seventeen countries, each pouring a steady stream of money into the family coffers.
Which meant that yes, Daniel Worth was, pun intended, worth a hell of a lot of dough, and he didn’t have to do a whole lot to get the money—besides show up at things like this and eventually take the reins of the family business, carrying on the Worth mantle of ownership.
Daniel had already done all the hard work by being born into the right family. His father had died of a heart attack at forty-eight, leaving a gap between Daniel Worth the Second and Daniel the Fourth—and placing an extra generation of expectations on Daniel’s shoulders.
Expectations he hadn’t been very good at fulfilling. Hell, he wasn’t much good at anything beyond playing the bachelor, as his grandfather reminded him on a weekly basis. That was probably why Boston magazine had done that stupid article on him last month. His reputation, it seemed, had seeped into the collective media.
“Now, who’d like to start the bidding?” The auctioneer looked out over the crowd. “Remember, ladies, this is all going to a good cause: the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation.”
Oh yeah, that’s what they were raising money for. Explained the lack of cake, too.
“Two thousand dollars!” said a woman in the back who sounded a lot like Lauren Templeton.
“Two thousand, five hundred!”
“Four thousand, five hundred!”
Daniel’s stomach twisted. When he’d arrived at the hotel tonight, he’d thought this might be fun. Some woman, maybe one he’d dated before, would buy him, they’d go out, have a few laughs and a few drinks, and he’d have done his charitable work for the year. Might even be able to write off the bar tab.
But with the women yelling out price tags on him—
“Six thousand, three hundred!”
—like he was a twelve-carat yellow diamond they all wanted, he felt—
Hell, this wasn’t fun. It was freaky.
“Nine thousand, five hundred!” Whoever raised that price gave out a little whoop-whoop at the end.
When this was over, he was going to strangle Kyle. Surely Grandfather had enough money and influence to get Daniel off on self-defense. Or at least temporary insanity.
“Twelve thousand, three hundred and twenty-two dollars!” called a woman’s voice Daniel didn’t recognize. He scanned the crowd but couldn’t see past the blazing lights. A heavy hush descended over the elaborate ballroom.
Everyone was probably wondering the same thing he was—who had put that large, precise dollar tag on Daniel Worth…and why?
More importantly, what did she intend to do with him once she had her bachelor? Each woman was paying for the right to twenty-four hours with the man of her choice.
Twelve grand… What was she expecting to get for her five hundred dollars an hour?
“Do I hear twelve thousand, five hundred?” The auctioneer looked around the room. Apparently, most of the bank accounts in the room had been drained by the first twenty-nine offerings. None of the women leapt to the next level in bidding. Granted, not a man tonight had gone for more than eight grand. Why should he think he’d go for the equivalent of two dozen pairs of Jimmy Choos?
Hell, he’d already dated half the women in the room. Sort of took the air of mystery out of the equation. He stepped forward, out of the glare in his eyes, and scanned the group again, all seated in a room as familiar as the back of his hand. Okay, half might be an exaggeration.
“Twelve thousand, three hundred and twenty-two going once, going twice,” the announcer paused, his gavel hovering over the wooden stand, “and sold! To the woman in the back row.”
Just like that, it was over. The lights dimmed a bit, Kyle Montague was back on the stage, thanking everyone for their donations, and Daniel was being shepherded off to sign some papers, probably saying he wouldn’t sue for abuse of a donated object or something.
Outside the ballroom, he saw the twenty-nine other paired “couples” for the evening. Persimmon had been bought by moon-faced Sadie Yearwood, whose nouveau-not-so-riche mother had thrown her a debutante ball eight years ago—at a Holiday Inn. Sadie had one arm tucked into Persimmon’s, and was smiling up at him with the adoration of a kitten who had latched onto a fishmonger.
“Hefty price tag on you,” Jake said, handing Daniel a new scotch on the rocks. “Think you’re worth it?”
“Want to poll the ladies?”
Jake scoffed. “Half of them would say you’re a terrible boyfriend.”
True enough. Daniel had never had much interest in settling down, because that meant growing up and being a “Worth man”—working in a field he hated, going to a job he’d dread. Daniel had had enough of a taste of business in his hands-on practicum at Harvard.
If things had been different, if he’d had a last name like Jones or Smith, then maybe—
Stupid thoughts. His last name wasn’t changing and neither was his future. Daniel returned his attention to Jake. “I doubt she bought me to be her boyfriend.”
“Now you’ll see what it feels like to be a kept man.” Jake put a finger to his lips. “Oh wait, you already know about that. You’ve been kept all your life.”
“Ha, ha, very funny. So have you and most of the men in this room.”
Jake shrugged and tipped more drink into his mouth. “Yeah, it sucks being rich.”
“Did you see who she was?”
“The woman who bought me.” Daniel took a swig of scotch, the alcohol a smooth hot burn on his throat. “Damn, that sounds so—”
“Cheap? Tawdry?” Jake grinned. “Welcome to my world. I live there every day, remember. I work in Hollywood.” Jake’s family owned a studio with a hit cop show on NBC that often shot on location in Boston. He’d been an extra in seventeen episodes and had dated more starlets than Warren Beatty had in his heyday. It kept him in People magazine, which he said was good for his career, such as it was.
Daniel knew Jake. Had known him all his life. His best friend had no designs on a career any more complicated than calling for room service the morning after. What he did do, he did for fun. Anything more was work, something Jake avoided like most people avoided public toilets.
Work was the one word that made most of the people in Daniel’s peer circle shudder with fear.
And yet, as the crowd milled around him, paying for their “purchases” and talking about the same things with the same people, Daniel wondered—not for the first time—what it would be like if he wasn’t living this life. If he hadn’t grown up in a world that told him he needed a Swarovski crystal chandelier over his head and an Oriental carpet beneath his feet to be happy.
Daniel tipped the glass into his mouth again. Yeah. And maybe he just needed more scotch.
He pivoted at the voice. It was softer and sweeter than when it had been shouting out dollar amounts, but still, he recognized it. The voice was paired with wide, deep green eyes and a heart-shaped face framed by long brunette curls. Lithe and petite, she lacked the designer labels, nine-hundred dollar high heels and ten-pound diamond earrings the other women wore. Instead, she was clad in simple black satin slacks and a soft teal sweater that skimmed over her curves and had a small, teasing scoop in the front. Interesting. And different. Very different.
He didn’t know her…but he knew he would, soon. “It’s you.”