The Bachelor's Promise (Bachelor Auction)

By: Naima Simone

She closed her eyes, pinching the bridge of nose, wishing she could shut off the queasiness she felt as easily.

“And now the moment you’ve all been waiting for…” Blondie trilled as all ten men filed back out on the stage. “Bachelors, please remove your masks.”

Unbidden, Noelle inched forward, focused on one person. The only one who mattered. The one who would determine the path of her future—whether it would be hard, or hard as hell.

Slowly, bachelor number six lowered his mask, and Noelle glimpsed the features of the man she hadn’t seen in six years.

Moisture fled from her mouth as if chased. There were the same chiseled planes that never failed to make her fingers itch to grab a graphite pencil and draw them. Try to capture his vitality and masculine beauty with paper, lead, and ink. He still possessed the same mouth that seemed incapable of losing the full, sensual curves whether flattened into a grim line or quirked in a lazy half smile. The same hard jaw that begged for a woman’s lips to brush over it.

As many probably had. She clenched her fingers into fists at her thighs. Not that who kissed him where was any of her business. She didn’t give a damn. Not anymore. Who he fucked, how many—and according to the Boston society gossip pages, there were many—wasn’t what had brought her here. Only a promise.

Cautiously, she edged from the safety of the trees. No one had noticed her yet, and she took comfort in the inattention while it lasted. Because it wouldn’t last.

Her heart lodged in her throat, each beat threatening to cut off her air supply. With feet that became heavier with each step forward, she eased toward the crowd of gowned and bejeweled women and tuxedo-clad men. Like the Red Sea, they parted, staring and murmuring at the oddity in their midst. Heat blazed up her neck and poured into her face, but she jacked her chin higher, dragging on the I-don’t-give-a-fuck attitude she’d acquired early on in life.

Ahead of her, Aiden greeted the redhead who had won the date with him. He lifted one half of that beautiful mouth in a teasing, flirtatious smile that still haunted her. The seductive gleam in his green gaze caused the breath to stutter in Noelle’s lungs, and it wasn’t even aimed at her. He clasped the woman’s hand, but as if sensing the tension whispering through the ballroom, he glanced up.

The warm light in those brilliant eyes dimmed, replaced by a coldness that sent a shiver tripping down Noelle’s spine. Her slow tread stumbled, halted. Go, a voice urged. Keep going. But her body, frozen by the shock and growing rage in his hardening expression, paralyzed her muscles.

Well, Aiden had finally noticed her.

And now there would be hell to pay.

Chapter Two

There were times in life when a person had to take a deep breath, step back, and analyze a brewing situation with calm, logic, and a cooler head.

This wasn’t one of those times.

As Aiden Kent regarded the petite, denim-and-leather-clad woman standing several feet from him, the viselike band strangling his lungs and chest couldn’t be described as calm or cool.

It’d been six years since he’d last laid eyes on Noelle Rana. And never again would’ve been too soon.

Memories bombarded him with brass-knuckled fists. His mother, wan and thin, trudging in the house from an extra shift at the nursing home. His mother, sitting at the kitchen table, bent over her checkbook, robbing Peter to pay Paul because her long-time boyfriend had once again wasted bill money on booze or another get-rich-quick scheme.

His mother, lying on a hospital bed, her body wasting away with cancer, her tired gaze shifting to the door, waiting for the man she loved to walk through the door and be by her side before she died.

Aiden, standing in his mother’s home two days after her funeral, staring at the wreckage her boyfriend and his son had left behind after they’d ransacked it.

Aiden, sitting in a motel parking lot as his fiancée knocked on a first-level door—room 132—and watching as she kissed the man who appeared in the doorway. The man who happened to be Tony Rana, Noelle’s brother.

And jumbled amid those images were ones of Noelle. Her face lighting up with relief and gratitude when he’d busted into a house full of blaring music and drunken college students. Noelle, laughing as she watched a DVD during one of their movie nights. Noelle…her blue eyes bright with desire, golden skin flushed with the heat Aiden ignited in her… Only once had he lost control and touched, and it still had the power to haunt him. Fuck. Fury, grief, resented arousal, and an overwhelming sense of helplessness pounded at his temples and pressed against his sternum. Just one glance—one goddamn glance—at the daughter of the man who’d stolen his mother’s youth and broken her heart, the sister of the man who’d betrayed Aiden with his fiancée, and he was right back there. Immersed in the past he’d left behind. Doused in the pain and powerlessness that had strangled him. Wrapped in the suffocating embrace of guilt that squeezed the breath from his lungs.

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