"And the lady is…sold! To the gentleman at table four!"
The auctioneer's gavel smacked the podium and the 450
guests in the Ashton Estate Winery reception hall erupted
in a chorus of cheers and boos. The bidding for a date
with the blond Napa Valley socialite, also known as
bachelorette number seventeen, had been fast and furious.
She had a name — the auctioneer had even said it — but
Paige Ashton's mind worked better with numbers than names.
And now that number seventeen was bought and paid for,
there were only three women left before dessert and
dancing could commence. Then Paige was done.
She hugged her clipboard and beamed from the side of the
stage. They were just shy of the magic number of $20,000,
to be raised for the Candlelighters of Northern
California. God bless the brave ladies willing to parade
on that stage, willing to let men shout out dollar amounts
they'd pay for a date.
Not only was it a wonderful cause, the annual
Candlelighters Bachelorette Auction was a smashing event,
and she'd coordinated every detail for the "Take a Walk on
the Wild Side" jungle theme right down to rainforest-
inspired centerpieces. It had been a breeze after the
balancing act she'd been performing with her family the
past few months.
Still, she'd been a little nervous about executing this
event — her first on her own since she'd returned home to
the winery to help her sister handle the massive functions
held at the world-famous estate. Megan would be proud, if
she weren't in the throes of morning sickness. Paige
planned to debrief her sister on the success the next day,
and they'd share a welcome reprieve from discussing their
father's murder and the various leads the police were
following to find the person who shot Spencer Ashton.
"Tiffany Valencia is gone."
The words, whispered to Paige by one of the auction aides,
tickled her ear and raised a hair on the back of her neck.
"Gone? Number eighteen is gone?" It didn't take her
lightning-speed brain to solve this problem. "Get
The aide, a young intern for the auction company, shook
her head. "No can do. That one just left with Ashley
Bleeker for a smoke."
"Bleeker? That means eighteen, nineteen and twenty are
"We have to take a break."
"No break," Paige insisted. That would ruin the rhythm of
the event and, worse, stop the bidding. The event would
ultimately be judged by how much money was raised. "Where
the heck is eighteen — er, Tiffany?"
"I think she met a guy and took off with him," the aide
Paige rolled her eyes. "He's supposed to pay for that
The aide shrugged and looked up at the stage where the
auctioneer was peering at them. "You better tell George.
He's not good at ad-libbing. He needs someone to auction
Paige didn't waste a moment thinking about what needed to
be done. "Get the band in place, we're almost done with
the auction portion. Let me talk to George and see if he
can keep things moving until we find her." She gave the
aide her clipboard and took a deep breath, her palms
suddenly too damp to risk smoothing her silk skirt.
How did these girls do it? Just going onstage to chat with
the auctioneer raised her heart rate.
The room quieted a little as she stepped into the
spotlights that flooded the stage. Someone whistled from
Good heavens. They thought she was the next bachelorette.
Paige threw an apologetic smile into the crowd and shook
her head, but the lights blinded her. She could only make
out a few faces in the very front, one of them her cousin
Walker, looking both surprised and amused.
"Well, here's a shocker!" The auctioneer further hushed
the crowd with his booming voice. "Paige Ashton is
bachelorette number eighteen."
Blood drained from her head and rushed to her pounding
heart. "No, no, I'm not." Her denial was too soft to be
heard over the rowdy response. She'd done her job and made
sure the Ashton wine flowed freely. Now she had a roomful
of inebriated men who'd have applauded any female at this
"I don't have a fact sheet on Paige," the auctioneer
admitted, his commanding voice hardly needing a
microphone. "But I know firsthand that she's a delight to
work with. She's — how old, Paige?"
"Twenty-two!" She recognized Walker's voice, and one more
glance at her cousin revealed his fairly evil grin. He
leaned over to say something to another man, missing the
dirty look Paige directed at their table.
"How much do we hear for this twenty-two-year-old beauty
with a well-known last name and an angel's face?"
Death. Death would be preferable to the lights burning her
cheeks — or was that just one massive blush that
threatened to explode every blood vessel in her face?
Oh, dear God. They were bidding. She held up a hand to
stop them, but the auctioneer grabbed it, spinning her in
a Fred Astaire-like move. "Just five hundred? Look at this
beautiful young lady. Svelte, sweet and smart as a whip."
"I hear six-fifty for the honey with honey hair, do I hear
six seventy-five, six seventy-five…"
Paige felt her legs weaken. Please God, make this
end. "This is a mistake, George," she whispered to the
auctioneer, her voice hoarse and low. "I'm not number —"
"That's more like it," George bellowed into the
microphone. "I hear seven hundred, seven hundred, do I
He launched into the forced staccato that had enthralled
the crowd all night, and someone yelled out a higher
amount. The auctioneer's drone rose in intensity as he
dared and defied them to up the ante.
Her legs would never hold. George spun her again.
Twirling, Paige caught a glimpse of Walker, still talking
to the other man, but the light prevented her from seeing
who it was.
"Nine-fifty!" The shout came from the back of the room.
That silenced the crowd for a moment, no doubt because
they neared the thousand dollar figure that usually
stopped the bidding.