Authors: Donna Alward
For Ella, marrying Devin had seemed like a good idea at the time. Friends since childhood and in love with him for as long as she could remember, marriage had been the next logical step. Then the real world called, and Ella’s feet had itched to get out of Backwards Gulch, Colorado.
Now, with a new opportunity on the East Coast beckoning, it’s time to put her past behind her once and for all. When she sees Devin standing on a charity auction block, she decides it’s the perfect opportunity to finally get his signature on the divorce papers he never signed.
Devin’s certain about one thing when he sees Ella for the first time in twelve years—she’s not the girl he married. The way she left him still stings, and if she wants him to sign on the dotted line he’s going to make her work for it…for the full forty-eight hours she paid for.
When the old attraction flares between them, the years apart disappear and resolve melts faster than high-country snow in summer. But when Ella awakens with the same determination to get back to Denver, divorce papers in hand, she has a problem…
Devin still hasn’t signed them.
Warning: Bourbon shooters, shirtless cowboys, and a hot rendezvous or two…
They cannot be sold, shared or given away as it is an infringement on the copyright of this work.
This book is a work of fiction. The names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the writer’s imagination or have been used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to persons, living or dead, actual events, locale or organizations is entirely coincidental.
Samhain Publishing, Ltd.
577 Mulberry Street, Suite 1520
Macon GA 31201
Sold to the Highest Bidder
Copyright © 2010 by Donna Alward
Edited by Heidi Moore
Cover by Kanaxa
All Rights Are Reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.
Samhain Publishing, Ltd.
electronic publication: April 2010
Sold to the Highest Bidder
To my readers, who make this job such a joy.
Smoke, whiskey and old grease.
Ella’s delicate nostrils flared, assimilating it all within a step inside Ruby Shoes Saloon. The neon sign above the bar glared out a pair of crimson shoes with one stiletto heel unlit. The noise was deafening. Lynyrd Skynyrd blared from speakers on either side of what was normally a huge dance floor. Seeing the way a biker’s eyes were following the gyrations of a woman in a red mini-skirt, Ella curled her lip. She was beginning to see that the bar was the catwalk for a meat market. Now the dance floor was extended into some sort of makeshift stage, a long black runner rolled down the center of it.
Around her, shouts mingled with the slamming down of shot glasses. Catcalls echoed as one leggy brunette leaned over the pool table. Ella straightened her black pencil skirt and ran a hand over her smooth twist of carefully tinted blonde hair. She pushed away the dark sense of déjà vu.
Damn. She never thought she’d be here again.
She edged her way over to the bar while several pairs of eyes stared at her. She should have known better than to wear work dress here. She stuck out like a sore thumb in her tidy skirt and blouse. Her only hope was that if she did see someone she knew, they wouldn’t recognize her. She looked as much like a stranger as she felt, and that was exactly how she wanted it. The last thing she needed was for anyone to put two and two together and remember her.
Skynyrd changed to the Steve Miller Band and she hid a smile. They were still playing the same music now as they had over twelve years ago. The bar was still battered and scarred and the glasses old and foggy from too many washings. She bit her lip and stepped up to the walnut-colored counter. She just had to get through this night. An hour, that was all. After that she could check into her hotel. Then tomorrow she’d see Dev and clear up the small matter of their legal issues. She raised a finger and thanked the Lord she didn’t recognize the bartender.
“White wine. Whatever you’ve got’s fine.” The bartender angled a wry eyebrow in her direction and she looked away. Ruby’s certainly wasn’t the trendy martini bar she was used to frequenting. And to think that many years ago she’d been nervous wondering if she was going to be IDed at Ruby’s doors. Now she was simply wondering if ordering a house white was living a little too dangerously.
Ha, living dangerously. Her thoughts immediately turned to Dev and a shiver of nervousness skittered up her spine. He had to have changed in the years since she’d seen him. At eighteen he’d already been grown, sure of himself and oh so sexy. She hadn’t been able to resist him. For a brief moment she wondered if she should have ordered something stronger for fortification. Just the thought of seeing Dev tomorrow made her hands sweat. Twelve years of silence made a girl wonder. What was he doing? How would he look? And how would she react seeing the man to whom she’d willingly given her innocence, not to mention her heart?
No, it would be fine. She wasn’t a love-struck girl anymore, full of hormones and dreams and willing to take risks. That bubble of idealism had been popped.
She slid the bartender a bill and set her lips. Worrying about it also made her feel like the world’s biggest coward, and she hated that. But right now she had a job to do. She had to remember that. She pushed her thoughts about Devin to the side. She’d deal with him later.
An emcee stood at the mic and raised his hands for quiet. Someone turned down the music. Good Lord, was that Scooter Brown at the mic? He tilted his battered cowboy hat back on his head as he leaned into the microphone. It
Scooter, who’d run the garage out on the highway for as long as she could remember. Ella sipped her wine and shuddered. She shouldn’t have taken the risk on the chardonnay. Whiskey would have been much safer.
“Well now. I see everyone’s greased their wheels…thank you. Betty Tucker thanks you too.” Scooter nodded at the people now gravitating to the stage. “We’re sure glad you showed up to the benefit tonight. We all want Betty on the mend as soon as possible. ’Course the insurance companies couldn’t give a good damn—”
Someone in the audience coughed. Ella put down her wine and fished into her purse for a pen. She was here to work. It would do to remember that.
“Right, right.” Scooter cleared his throat loudly. “Well, let’s get on with our show. Now the truth is the best thing to come out of Backwards Gulch is its stock. And we ain’t talking the bovine or equine type.” Scooter laughed uproariously at his own joke while several whistles and whoops erupted. “No, sir,” he drawled. “Tonight Ruby Shoes is holding its first ever bachelor auction.”
Ella’s mouth almost dropped open before she resolutely clamped her lips together again. A bachelor auction? Charlie Donovan wouldn’t have sent her here. To
. She’d been begging for a big story for ages but had remained stuck in Lifestyles for what seemed like forever. Donovan had pitched the charity benefit and Amy had lifted her hand for her, the traitor. Damn that Amy—she called herself a best friend but she had some answering to do. She was the only one in Ella’s life that knew Durango was
. And that Devin McQuade was unfinished business.
If Ella wanted a promotion—if she wanted the limelight—she couldn’t afford to let Dev be a skeleton in her proverbial closet. She’d known it for years. Now her chance was so close she could taste it, and Devin McQuade was one annoying albatross hanging around her neck. She poised her pen over her notebook. Somehow she’d turn this small-time auction into a major story—it was all a matter of finding the right angle and exploiting it. It would put her one more rung up the ladder of her career. Then she’d put Devin behind her once and for all. The albatross was getting heavy after all these years.
“So let’s get on with the auction!” Scooter’s voice boomed through the speakers. More whistles pierced the air as ladies jostled for a position at the front of the stage. Ella turned up her nose. This sure as hell explained the larger than normal proportion of females to males tonight.
“Miss Carbunckle here is gonna read out the intros, if you will. And I’m going to do the bidding. Remember, ladies, this is for a good cause. Betty’s chemo ain’t comin’ cheap, and this is your chance to help out a neighbor.”
Ella swallowed more wine, and quickly. She flipped to a clean page in her notebook, knowing she could scribble faster than type into her PDA. Later, in her hotel room, she’d transpose everything into her laptop. She had to remember why she was really here. To get the scoop on a benefit for Betty Tucker. And if Ella had her way, tonight’s auction was only the tip of the iceberg. This was one measly step in the big story—blowing the HMO to pieces. She just had to ask the right questions.
Ruby Shoes, on the outskirts of Durango, was where everyone in Backwards Gulch went to tie one on or simply kill a Friday night. And if that was the case…a sudden thought struck.
. How many of the bachelors would she actually
? How many would remember her? Heat rose in her face at the very idea, and she slid farther back into a corner where she could get a good view and attempt to remain inconspicuous.
“First up for bid is Jason O’Leary.”
Lewd music played from the speakers and Ella smothered a laugh. Jason O’Leary had been the fat kid two years behind her in school. But as he came through the makeshift curtain in the back, her mouth clamped shut. Jason wasn’t the fat kid anymore. Nope. He was actually looking good—really good—in what was most of a fireman’s uniform. At least the pants. The suspenders lay flat against a very tanned and muscled torso. Miss Carbunckle gave the short bio as he walked to the end of the catwalk. And then the bidding began.
Ella put her wine glass down on a nearby table and jotted down impressions. A trip down memory lane wasn’t why she was here, thank God. She was smart enough to know there was a more to it than a bunch of blue-collar buddies raising a few grand to help a neighbor. Charlie wouldn’t have sent any of his reporters here for a simple auction. As the bidding went higher, she watched as Jason took a slightly awkward turn on the stage. Her story was only a small part. But this time, she’d angle it right and get a piece of the pie. And get the hell out of the Lifestyles section for good.
She jotted down notes, satisfied with her beginning. It just so happened that the trip was convenient, that’s all. Divorce papers currently sat on the front seat of her rented Miata in a lovely, virtually indestructible Tyvek envelope. Getting her marriage officially over with was merely a happy by-product of an assignment, killing two birds with one stone. She’d sent papers to Dev several times over the years, and they just kept coming back to her. Without a signature. The one benefit of coming to Durango was having the opportunity to get Devin to sign them. No matter what. Tonight the story, tomorrow the divorce. And before she knew it her life would finally be on the path she wanted. Free and clear of any of the ties holding her back.
Ella turned her attention back to the auction. The bidding got fast and furious as the hour wore on, and she started to relax. No one had recognized her yet. She ordered a soft drink, paying and putting the change in the Betty Tucker tip bucket. Her pen flew over her notepad. Betty was loved by her neighbors, that was obvious. One by one, the bachelors were auctioned off—the winners getting forty-eight hours of beck-and-call service. She smiled behind a finger as she watched some of the women lead off their winnings. It took a brave man to agree to such an arrangement.
“Ella? Ella McQuade?”
Her head snapped around. No one called her that. Ever. A vision in jeans and a slightly too-tight top was bearing down on her. Jesus. Tanya Bryan. Of all the luck. Damn, having Tanya recognize her meant that within the hour Dev would know she was in town. The element of surprise would be shot. His sister, for God’s sake. She cursed under her breath before pasting on a smile.
“Hey, Tanya, how’re you?” Her stomach twisted. The chardonnay-in-a-box was coming back to bite her. She held her fake smile at the older, rounder version of the woman who happened to be her sister-in-law.
“Never thought I’d see you back in these parts again. Have you come to bid, Ella?”
Ella ignored the question. “You get a sitter tonight?” She smiled thinly and looked back at the stage.
Tanya smiled, shaking her head so that her ponytail swished on her shoulders. “Hell, no. Julie’s damn near thirteen. She’s watchin’ the other two for a couple of hours. Thought Bob and I would come out and give Betty a hand, you know?”
There was a successful bid and a rowdy cheer rose from the crowd. Ella had missed it though, due to Tanya’s distraction. She bit down on her lip in annoyance.
Ella hadn’t ever been close to Tanya. She was four years older than Devin and it hadn’t been cool to hang out with a baby brother and his girlfriend. Tanya had gone to secretarial school and then worked keeping the books for a company in Silverton until she and Bob got married. It certainly wasn’t the life Ella had wanted, but she couldn’t help but admire the way Tanya—and the whole community—rallied around a sick woman.
“Yeah, I do know, Tanya.” She tucked her notebook away in her bag. The last thing she wanted was questions and prying. She offered a weak smile instead.
“Are you sure you’re not biddin’, Ella?”
There was something in the other woman’s voice that put her on edge. Her fingers played with her pen, clicking and unclicking it as her discomfort grew. Her brow furrowed at Tanya’s sly grin but cleared instantly when she realized why Dev’s sister was laughing.
Because Scooter said a name and a man walked out on the stage in worn jeans and a long-sleeved navy T. In dusty boots with his hair a sexy study in
who gives a damn
. Her heart pounded and the pen felt slippery in her fingers as she struggled to keep the pasted smile on her face. He was as heart-stoppingly sexy now as he’d been then. Lean where a man needed to be lean, and filled out…exactly where a pair of Levi’s should be filled out. He was older. Rougher. The memory of his hands worshiping her skin slid over her. Her breath caught as she wondered if he still had the pair of dents just above his tailbone. She pushed the memory away. It had no place in her life now.
He smiled down at the crowd and her lips parted at the sight of it. And as one of his dimples popped, he turned his head and looked right at her.
Devin’s smile threatened to falter as their eyes caught. Not the Ella he remembered, but a different one. This Ella had her hair done up and was dressed in fancy clothes and prissy shoes. Still, he’d know her anywhere. The soft curve of her lips, the smoky depth of her eyes. His body flickered to life as that gaze now clashed with his. And…
. She was standing with Tanya. Could this night get any worse?
His gaze held hers and he would swear the air sizzled between them, hitting his stomach and settling between his thighs. It had always been this way between them, hot and electric. He’d be a liar to deny it. He was just surprised he reacted as instantly at thirty as he had at sixteen.
Miss Carbunkle read out his bio—the very basic one
provided, not the promotional claptrap that had recently appeared in
. Thank God. The last thing he needed Ella to hear tonight was the truth about who he’d become. It was bad enough he was offering himself up for sacrifice. He was only doing it for Betty. Never had he expected to see his wife here. But here she was. Honest to God, in the flesh, in Ruby Shoes. At the very moment he was on the bachelor block. And he could tell she was as surprised as he.