A round of polite applause followed a few heart-rending stories about the work the charity had done, and as the auctioneer was introduced, I was tempted to lean over and ask Gavin about why in the hell Forbidden Desires would think this was their kind of crowd.
I knew, of course, that their business wasn’t a prostitution racket—it had been discussed with me by more than one person in the past two weeks I’d worked with them. Still, it felt like that sort of distinction might be lost on the crowd at a gala like this.
I shoved aside my apprehension and gave the important cause the attention it deserved.
The items up for bid were introduced one by one. We watched intently as each was auctioned off to the highest bidder. Fifteen minutes passed, and Gavin hadn’t said a word. I wondered if perhaps he would just be a silent spectator, opting not to bid. Heaven knew the items were way out of my income bracket, as much as I might have been inspired to help.
“The final item up for bid tonight is the luxurious seven-night vacation on a private yacht off the coast of the Seychelles islands,” the auctioneer said.
Clearly, they had saved the best for last. The large flat screen on the stage showed a massive gleaming-white vessel in turquoise waters so clear and blue, it almost didn’t look real.
I’d never heard of the locale before, but the map on the screen showed it was a group of islands in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Africa, and the auctioneer filled in the remaining details—that it was a playground for the rich and famous, and a favorite vacation spot for Britain’s royal family.
“We’ll start the bidding at twenty thousand dollars.”
Gavin surprised me by raising his hand, placing the opening bid.
From there, the bidding went by at a dizzying pace. Apparently, Gavin wasn’t the only high roller waiting for the best item tonight.
When the bidding surpassed fifty thousand, my head swam. That was more than I made in a year.
When Gavin raised his hand to the auctioneer’s request for a fifty-five-thousand-dollar bid, a wave of nausea rolled through me. The bid went unchallenged, and I watched in amazement as the auctioneer counted down and finally pronounced Gavin the winner.
“We got it.” He beamed at me, and I did my best to tamp down my shock and match his enthusiasm.
We? I wasn’t going on his worldwide yachting adventure, but good for him. I was glad he was pleased, but I couldn’t deny that my head was spinning. This was all so far out of my league, I felt like I’d stepped into a dream.
“There are a few people I need to talk to. That okay with you?” I vaguely heard him ask.
I nodded. “Of course. That’s the reason we’re here. But . . .”
The people around us were filing from the seats but Gavin and I stayed put, his hazel gaze locked on mine.
“I was just wondering. Do you really think this is a good outlet for marketing a business like yours? It’s none of my business, but—”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“The people here, aren’t they here because they want to end prostitution?”
Gavin frowned. “I can understand your point.” Depositing our empty glasses on the tray of a passing waiter, he cleared his throat and added, “But you’d be surprised.”
I blinked. “What do you mean?”
“What people fund and what they do . . . they’re not always the same. But, to be perfectly candid, I don’t really come here for the marketing. It’s secondary.”
“Then why come?”
He considered my question for a long moment. “This work is important to me. I know that the women we employ are strong and confident professionals, but that doesn’t mean that a few don’t slip through the cracks. It’s . . . personal. A sort of due diligence.”
And then it hit me. Given what Gavin did for a living, it was even more important that he become involved with causes like this. His heart was bigger than he made it seem, and I found I respected him even more.
Damn it, do not get soft, Emma. You know what happens when you get soft.
My shoulders tensed and I looked at him. “I never thought about it that way.”
“You would have no reason to. Come on, I have to say a few hellos before everyone has gone.”
Still reeling from his surprisingly personal revelation, I followed him as we stood and headed back to the ballroom.
Maybe this was another difference between Gavin and Cooper. Cooper had been all about the business, eager to talk to anyone and everyone about what he did. As we made our way toward the crowds of people, though, Gavin’s lazy pace made it all too clear he wasn’t here for that. Not really.
For him, this was a charity event first and a business event second. It was strangely . . . endearing.
What other surprises did this man have in store for me?
We approached a group of older men and spoke with a few corporate bigwigs. Gavin was smooth and in command, mesmerizing to watch. He didn’t have the easy charm Cooper did, but his confidence more than made up for that fact.
“Gavin.” A younger man with a crooked smile reached for Gavin’s hand. “It’s good to see you again.”
“You, as well, Mister . . . ?”
The man chuckled. “It’s Dave.”
“Right. It’s good to see you. Let me know if I can help with anything.” Almost imperceptibly, he handed the man a card and then ushered me to a new crowd of people.
After several similar brief conversations, we came to yet another group of men old enough to be my father.
“Dr. Barton,” Gavin said, extending a hand. “I trust you’ve been well.”
“Not as well as you’ve been, I see,” the older man said, eyeing me eagerly. He had a short goatee and glasses, but his silver hair was the only thing distinguished about him. He leered at me, sizing me up. His gaze roving over my skin made me want to crawl out of it and hang it elsewhere like a suit. Anything to get him to stop staring.
“Not still rooting for the Bruins, are you?” Gavin asked Dr. Barton.
“Of course.” The man laughed.
“That’s a damn shame,” Gavin joked.
They continued teasing each other for several minutes while I stood beside Gavin, smiling politely and trying to blend into the background. But I couldn’t escape the unfamiliar and somewhat creepy feeling. Even as he spoke to Gavin, the man’s gaze hardly left me . . . or my cleavage.
“If you’ll excuse us, we can’t stay, but if you’re in need of a companion to an upcoming event, I can help.” Gavin handed out his business card again, this time a little more obviously.
Relieved that we were finally close to leaving, I pasted on a polite smile. This process wasn’t yet familiar or comfortable, but I was trying. I wasn’t sure if this would ever feel natural for me, and in a way, I hoped not.
“And how about a night with her?” Dr. Barton grinned at me through crooked teeth. “What do you say, sweetie?”
Cringing, I stammered. “I—um . . .”
Gavin’s arm wrapped around me possessively, gripping my waist to draw me close to the warmth of his body. “She’s not available.”
Seconds later, he dragged me away, hot anger rolling off him in waves.
Once we were in sight of the front doors, he paused, turning me to face him. His nostrils flaring, he took a deep breath, obviously fighting to get himself under control. But when he spoke, his words surprised me.
“I’m sorry. I have no idea why I acted like that. I had no right to decide for you. If that’s what you want . . .”
It took me a moment to understand what he was saying.
“God, no. I have no interest in that. You saved me. I should be thanking you.”
His sharp exhale was confirmation that I’d said the right thing. We were on the same page.
“I’m sure you and Cooper will keep me plenty busy. I’m not interested in anything more than that.”
“Good. Ready to get out of here?”
I nodded, but as Gavin watched me, his expression changed from one filled with longing to one laced with . . . regret?
I wondered just exactly what it was I was agreeing to. Looking down at my shoes, I fought to compose myself. Tonight had been filled with so many conflicting emotions, I was almost dizzy.
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