The Bachelor's Promise (Bachelor Auction)

By: Naima Simone

Like shit happened. Usually bad shit.

“Right,” he drawled. “I have to admit, I’m pretty surprised at the tactic you chose. From what I remember, your brother was the showman with a flair for drama. You were a little more…subtle.” Conniving. Sneaky. She could easily read between those lines. “Is he act two? Does he or your father plan on showing up soon, too, if you don’t seal the deal?” He sneered.

Just the mention of her father, even when it was laced with revulsion, momentarily stole her breath. Pain lanced her heart, and she curled her fingers into a tight fist as if she could contain the grief, the loss, inside her hand.

“Tony isn’t with me, and Dad…” She paused, swallowed past the wedge of emotion clogging her throat. “Dad’s dead,” she whispered. “He passed four months ago.”

Years of drinking alcohol had taken its toll in the past two years. Frank’s health had steadily declined as he suffered first from hepatitis, and finally, dying from cirrhosis of the liver in July.

Silence permeated the room. Not a flicker of emotion touched Aiden’s face.

“I’m sorry for you,” he said, his tone quiet, soft…surprising her. Considering his hatred for her family, she hadn’t expected anything from him. Yet his four words somehow seemed more sincere than the effusive but empty, hypocritical platitudes from her father’s drinking buddies and cohorts.

“Thank you,” she murmured. Frank wouldn’t have won any awards for father of the year. However, when it would have been easier for him to abandon her like her mother had, he’d stayed and raised her to the best of his ability. And she’d loved him, warts and all.

“None of that explains why you’re here, though. You want something. So why don’t you just tell me so we can cut this”—he waved a hand back and forth between them—“short.”

Now or never. She tipped her chin up, steadily meeting his eyes when at the moment, she wanted nothing more than to run back to her beat-up old 2000 Honda Civic, get behind the wheel, and not stop until she hit the Illinois state line.

But when she’d packed up that same car with everything she owned two days earlier, she’d vowed to stop living for others and just start living. For her future. For her dreams. For herself.

“I need you to keep your promise.”

There wasn’t a need to elaborate; he’d only made one vow concerning her. And it’d been to his mother, the one person he held in the highest esteem. She was counting on that deep respect and love. Aiden would sooner break a promise to God than to Caroline Kent.

If possible, his face hardened even more. His full mouth flattened into a grim line, the slashes of his cheekbones and the lines of his jaw seeming more pronounced, more forbidding. His emerald eyes glinted. For an instant, Noelle was reminded of a sleek, silent cat, motionless and hidden, only the unblinking gleam in his eyes warning his prey of the danger stalking them.

“You really want to bring my mother into this?” he asked, the almost silken tone sending an ominous shiver tripping down her spine. A wise person would heed the danger in the deep, soft voice and back away slowly before getting the hell out. But desperation defeated wisdom as assuredly as a royal flush trumped a four of a kind.

“No,” she breathed. “But I don’t have a choice.”

She didn’t. Not when the stakes were so high. Her chance to rise above her past, to be something more than a “no-good Rana” teetered on this. Her dreams and plans hung in the balance.

“It isn’t enough that your father sucked my mother dry of everything—her joy, her money, her security, her home? It isn’t enough that he trashed her home, stole from her after she died? It isn’t enough that your brother…” He bit off the rest of the sentence, and Noelle fought not to flinch.

“It isn’t enough that my brother cheated with your fiancée behind your back,” she murmured.

A frigid silence descended between them.

“So you know about that?” he asked, voice as soft as hers, but with a menacing note that had the hair on the back of her neck not just rising but cowering in fear.

She nodded. Tony had never admitted his betrayal to her, but Noelle had overheard his confession to their father. Shame slid through her like an oily sludge. Hell, he’d been bragging. But she’d keep that tidbit to herself.

“And yet you want me to fund a free ride for you,” Aiden continued. “That’s what you’ve come here to get out of me, isn’t it, Noelle?”

“That’s not fair,” she said, amazed her voice didn’t waver. Especially while, inside, she was shaking like the freaking Cowardly Lion. “I wouldn’t be here if I wasn’t—”

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