Leaning in close so that his broad chest bumped her shoulder, he wrapped his fingers around hers on the mic. They were tanner than hers, and work-roughened. And the touch of them made her shiver.
“Mallory’s just being shy,” he said to the audience, then slid her a look that she couldn’t begin to decipher. The man was most excellent at hiding his thoughts. “I’m Ty Garrison. The…date.”
Shy her ass. And she knew damn well he hadn’t known her name either, not until Jane had said it. And now he was giving her that bad boy smirk, and she wanted to smack him, but at least she finally knew his name.
It suited him. She’d known a Ty once in first grade. He’d pulled her hair, torn up her homework, and told Mrs. Burland that she’d stolen his. It fueled her temper a little bit just thinking about it. “So there you have it,” she said, commandeering the microphone. “Now let’s get to the auction, and have a good time.” She quickly introduced the auctioneer and gratefully stepped down off the stage, happy to be out of the spotlight.
She walked quickly through the crowd, even happier to note that no one was paying her any attention now; they were all glued to the auctioneer.
Lucille, in a silver ball gown that looked like a disco ball, snapped a photo of Mallory with her phone and then winked.
Mallory sighed and was bee-lining for her seat when she was waylaid by her mom, who pulled her down for a hug. Mallory had no idea where her supposed date had gone. Apparently he’d vanished when she’d left the stage, which worked for her. She did not want to subject him to her mother.
The auction had begun with her bracelet, and Mallory quickly grabbed an auction paddle from Ella’s table, unable to help herself. No one else was bidding, so she told herself it was a sacrifice for the cause, and raised her paddle.
“Mallory,” her mother admonished. “You can’t afford that bracelet.”
This was true. Annoying but true. “I’m thirty, mom. I get to make my own dumb decisions now, remember?”
“Like going out with a man whose name you didn’t even know?” She sounded scandalized. “That’s as bad as finding a man on…” She lowered her voice to a horrified whisper, as if she was imparting a state secret. “—the Internet!”
“I’m not looking for a man on the Internet. And it’s just a one-night thing with Ty.”
Someone behind them won the bracelet, and the auctioneer went on to the next item.
“Listen to me, honey,” Ella said. “Ty Garrison is not the kind of man who’s going to marry you and give me grandchildren.”
Well, her mom was absolutely right on that one. “I’m not looking for that, either.” At least not right this moment.
“What are you looking for?”
Good question. “I don’t know exactly.” She looked around at the social crowd, who were all far more into the party atmosphere than bidding. “I guess I’m…bored.”
Her mother looked as if she’d just admitted to smoking a crack pipe.
“And I’m restless too,” Mallory said. “And…sad, if you want to know the whole ugly truth.” She hadn’t even realized that was true until it popped out of her mouth without permission, but she couldn’t take it back now.
“Oh, honey.” Ella squeezed her hand, her eyes suspiciously damp. “Out of all you kids, you’ve always been my easy one.” The crowd got louder and so Ella did too. “The good one, and sometimes I forget to check in and make sure you’re okay. Especially after Karen—”
“I am okay.” And if she wasn’t, well then she could handle it. But dammit, she was tired. Tired of doing what was expected, tired of feeling like she was missing something.
“Mallory,” Ella said softly, concerned. “You’ve also always been the smart one. I depend on that from you, honey.” She paused. “You’re not going to do anything stupid tonight that you’ll regret later, right?”
Well, that depended on her mother’s definition of stupid. As for regrets, she tried hard to live without them. “I hope so.”
Her mother looked at something over Mallory’s shoulder and made a funny little noise in her throat. Mallory froze, closing her eyes for a beat before turning to find—of course—Ty.
Looking bigger than life, he stood there holding two glasses of wine. He handed one over to her while she did her best to stay cool. Downing half the glass went a long way toward assuring that. Please let him not have heard any of that.…
“Ty Garrison,” Ella said as if testing out the name. “Is my daughter safe with you?”
“Mom,” Mallory said quickly. “Jesus.”
“Don’t swear, honey.” But Ella held up a hand in concession. “And fine. I’ll reword.” She looked at Ty. “Are you going to hurt my daughter?”
Ty looked at Mallory as he answered. “She’s too smart to let that happen.”
Okay, so he had heard every word. Terrific. God, she was so far out of her league she could no longer even see her league. Her mom had asked if she was going to do anything stupid. And Mallory was pretty sure that the answer was a resounding yes.
As if he could read her thoughts, Ty gave her a sardonic little half toast with his glass, then surprised her by moving away.
Which meant he was smart too. “Well,” Mallory said. “This has been lots of fun.”
“I’m going to assume that was sarcasm,” her mom said.
“Always knew I got my smarts from somewhere.” Mallory leaned in and kissed Ella’s cheek, then went back to her own table where she’d left her purse. That’s when she realized that her problems were bigger than her own stupidity issues. Although the room was filled with the sounds of happy, well-fed people, they really were doing far more socializing than bidding. When a “Boating at the Marina” package came up and no one lifted their paddle, Jane locked her unhappy gaze on Mallory’s.
Mallory smiled reassuringly while quivering inside. Someone bid, someone please bid, she thought with desperation, trying to make it happen by sheer will.
Finally, someone did, but it didn’t bring in the money she’d expected.
The next item was a big ticket one, an expensive night on the town in Seattle, which included a limo, a fancy dinner, and an orchestra concert. The bidding began at another low, modest rate, and Mallory’s heart landed in her throat.
They were going to have to do better than this. Much better. Again her gaze locked in on Jane, and her unease grew. Someone sank into the chair next to her and since her nipples got hard, she knew it was Ty. “Go away,” she said, not taking her gaze off the stage.
Ty said nothing, and she glanced over just as he rose his paddle, bidding two hundred dollars higher than she could have even thought about offering.
She stared at him. “What are you doing?”
He didn’t even look at her, just eyed the crowd with interest and a smile she hadn’t seen from him before. It was a killer smile, she admitted to herself, and when someone joined him in the bidding across the room, he flashed it again and raised his paddle to up the bid.
And then the oddest thing happened.
More people joined in. Unbelievably, the bidding for the “Night on the Town” continued for five more minutes, until the money offered was nothing short of dazzling.
Apparently satisfied, he set down his paddle and leaned back, long legs stretched out in front of him, perfectly at ease as he watched the proceedings. Mallory should have been watching too, but couldn’t take her eyes off him, while around them the night kicked into full gear with a new excitement. Everyone in the whole place was now bidding on all the items, playfully trying to outdo each other, or in some cases, not so playfully. It was…wonderful. But she couldn’t get her mind off the fact that Ty had spent hundreds of dollars to get it going. “What are you going to do with that package you just won?”
“Have a night on the town, apparently.”
There was no way he was an orchestra kind of guy. “But—”
“Trouble at three o’clock,” he said casually.
She turned to look and found Lucille and another biddy from her blue-haired posse bidding fiercely for the next auction item—a date with Anderson Moore, the cute owner of the hardware store in town.
“This Anderson guy,” Ty said to Mallory, still watching the old ladies upping the bid with alarming acerbity, “he’s ninety, right?”
The auctioneer jokingly suggested the two older women share the date, and the bidding ended peacefully.
Ty winced in clear sympathy for Anderson, who now had to date not one, but two old ladies.
“Don’t feel sorry for him,” Mallory said. “He’s got it coming to him. He goes after anything with breasts.”
Ty slid her a look. “You have a little bit of a mean streak.”
She laughed. It was true, even if not a single soul in Lucky Harbor would believe it. She had no idea what it said about her that Ty, a perfect stranger, saw more of her than anyone who actually knew her.
At her smile, Ty leaned close, his gaze dropping from her eyes to her mouth. “I like a woman with a mean streak.”
She stared into his eyes, nearly falling into him before letting out another low laugh, this time at herself. God, he was good. Really good. “Save the charm. I’m immune.” And look at her displaying another shockingly bad girl characteristic—lying through her teeth.
“Explain something to me,” he said.
“Why does everyone think I was your date tonight?”
She stared at him. “Last weekend, when I pulled you out of that storm, Amy told you about the auction and how I needed a date, remember?”
She gaped at him. “Seriously?”
“I remember the storm,” he said slowly, as if wracking his brain. “I remember getting hit by the tree. I remember you.”