Author: Jaci Burton


She finally had a chance to stop at the bar, grab a mineral water, and take a breath before doing her next circuit through the gallery. Since things seemed to be running smoothly, maybe this time she could stop and ogle all the art.


She was admiring a great piece of metal sculpture when she heard a round of applause and commotion the next room over. She wandered in that direction and stopped dead in her tracks when she saw Mick, dressed in a very fancy dark tux, smiling for the photographers who were taking his picture.


His back was to her, but she’d know him anywhere, from the slightly shaggy look to his dark hair to the way he stood, right hand in his pocket, the casual stance like he was comfortable in any situation. She caught his profile and was about to go over and say hello when he shifted, bringing the woman on his arm to the center of attention.


A beautiful woman with short raven hair, stunning chandelier earrings that dripped in diamonds, and a multilayered black dress that showed off a considerable amount of cleavage, and oh, God, did she have killer legs, too.


Tara recognized her instantly as the actress making all the buzz in that new television drama on Tuesday nights. She was young, single, and talented. And her incredible violet eyes seemed to be planted right on Mick. She had her body cemented against Mick’s, her arm wrapped around his while he smiled down at her and gave her his full attention as if she were the only woman in the room. Then the two of them turned their heads toward the camera. They looked like the perfect couple.


Tara’s stomach dropped, and she stepped back.


“Hey, Tara, isn’t that Mick?”


She fought back tears as she nodded at Maggie. “Yes, it is.”


“With Alicia Brave. Wow. What’s he doing with her?”


Tara turned and walked out of the room, her heels clicking on the marble floor. “Posing for the cameras.”


Maggie hurried after her. “Aren’t you going to say something to him?”


She stopped, turned. “Maggie, this isn’t the time. Go check on the canapés for the auction area. They looked a little thin and might need to be restocked.”


Maggie gave her a worried look but nodded. “Okay.”


Tara moved off, determined to tamp down the hurt and anger.


They were exclusive, dammit. At least she thought they were. She’d met his parents—she and Nathan both had. Didn’t that mean something to him? In Tara’s world, it did. Maybe to him it meant nothing, which just illustrated how their worlds differed.


She’d so wanted this to work, had started to think they could somehow bridge the gap between his lifestyle and hers, but if this was the way he intended to carry on, then something was going to have to give, and it wasn’t going to be her.


Dammit, this hurt, and she had no time for her heart to hurt.


She was working, and that’s what she needed to concentrate on. She went to the bar and checked on things. Maurice said they were well-stocked and not to worry, so she hid out in the kitchen for a while until Stefan gave her the evil eye one too many times. The last thing she wanted to do was piss off a high-strung chef, so she hightailed it out of there and once again checked the silent auction bids, but there were quite a few people milling about, and it was nearing time for the end of bids. She was in the way, and last-minute bidding could be crucial.


“Tara. Is something wrong?”


She lifted her chin and offered a comforting smile to Evan Jervis, the manager of the fund-raiser. “Of course not, Evan. Everything is perfect. Don’t you think so?”


Evan visibly relaxed and grabbed her hands. “Yes, I do. You’ve done a remarkable job on tonight’s event. I can’t thank you enough.”


His compliment helped her more than she could say. “I’m so glad you think so. And the bidders are going crazy at the moment, with only ten minutes left until the cutoff. I have a feeling the charity is going to make a lot of money tonight.”


“From your lips to their checkbooks, honey,” Evan said. “I guess I’ll go monitor the bids for the last few minutes, then get ready for the announcements of the winners. Will you be in place to help me?”


“Of course.”


Tara did her last walk-through of the gallery, then settled in at the front with Evan once he pulled the bids at the conclusion of the silent auction. Evan made his announcement on the loudspeaker that the silent auction had concluded, and everyone gathered to hear the winning bids.


“I want to thank you all for being here tonight. I hope you’ve had a good time.”


He continued on, thanking the sponsors of the event and those who donated prizes. Everyone applauded since some of the prizes were pretty magnificent, from beautiful artwork to private, in-house chefs to trips and luggage to designer jewelry.


“I also want to thank our glorious event planner for putting tonight’s party together—Miss Tara Lincoln of The Right Touch.”


Tara hadn’t expected Evan to acknowledge her, but she was thrilled. She stepped up and gave a gracious bow to the applause, and that’s when she caught Mick’s eye. He looked as surprised to see her as she had been to see him. In her flurry of last-minute activity before the end of the auction, she’d almost forgotten he was here. Almost. But as his gaze met hers and she caught the beautiful Alicia Brave clinging to his side, the pain inside renewed, and she looked away, smiled at the crowd, and stepped aside so Evan could continue on with his speech, finally getting to the winners of the auction items.


One by one the highest bidder was revealed, and they had to come up, claim their prize, and pay their money. Applause and squeals of delight could be heard when the auction items were awarded.


“And now for the romantic weekend getaway to a private Caribbean island, complete with your own butler and fully stocked food and bar service for the entire weekend. This is the ultimate in decadence for two. The highest bidder is—San Francisco’s own Mick Riley!”


Tara swallowed and waited for Mick to come claim his prize. She held on to the envelope, waited for him to write his check to the charity’s accountant, then handed him the envelope.


“Thank you,” he said, smiling at her as she handed him the envelope.


“You’re welcome. Congratulations and thank you for your donation. Enjoy your prize.” It was her standard speech to all the recipients. She had a smile plastered on her face, and she refused to treat him any differently than any of the other auction winners, no matter how much it pained her.


Private island in the Caribbean, huh? She wondered which of the many actresses and models that were in his little black book he was going to be taking to the island.


You’re being ridiculous and petty. Stop it.


Once the prizes had been awarded, everyone was cut loose to enjoy the rest of the night. Tara moved out of the room, needing air and a cold drink. She headed for the bar and grabbed a drink, then decided to find the nearest corner and wait out the crowd until it was time to go home. She was good at blending in. She could do this, could hide out, and no one would find her.


“Tara.”


Dammit. There were five hundred people here, and she’d tucked herself into a crowd. How the hell had he ferreted her out so easily? She turned and faced Mick, who was surprisingly alone. “Where’s your date for the night?”


“Surrounded by her Hollywood friends for the moment. And she’s not my date.”


“Uh-huh. Look, Mick. I’m busy tonight, and I don’t have much time for idle chitchat. So if you’ll excuse me ...”


She tried to walk away, but he grabbed her arm.


“Are you kidding me? You’re angry at me because I’m here with Alicia?”


She tilted her head back to glare at him. “What did you expect? That I’d be okay with it?” She blew out a sigh. “I don’t know, Mick. Am I supposed to be okay with you seeing someone else?”


“I’m not seeing anyone else.”


“And I guess I’m blind. And stupid. Forget it. We’re nothing to each other.”


Now he had the damn nerve to look mad. “We aren’t?”


“No. We aren’t. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have work to do.”


He threw his hands in the air. “Fine. You go back to work. And so will I.”


“You do that.”


She walked away, her nerve endings blasting out anger signals all over the place. She had to take deep breaths in and out so she wouldn’t look pissed-off at the people she was supposed to be entertaining. Plant a smile on your face and look happy, for the love of God. These are all potential clients, and giving them a death glare isn’t going to endear you to any of them.


By the time she reached the front of the gallery she was calmer, smiling, at least on the outside—though it would probably help to dig her fingernails out of the palms of her hands.


She even stood by and watched all of young Hollywood give interviews for the television cameras, gritting her teeth when it was Alicia Brave’s turn. And there was Mick, right by her side.


Ugh.


Though she couldn’t help but inch a little closer so she could hear what Alicia had to say.


“Mick was my savior tonight,” Alicia said, grabbing his arm. “My fiancé, Phil, came down with the flu at the last minute so he couldn’t be here with me. Mick’s agent and my agent are great friends, so they got on the phone, and Mick agreed to drop everything to escort me.” Alicia laid her palm across her lower stomach. “You see, with the baby on the way, I didn’t want to be alone. Now who better to see to my welfare than a big strapping quarterback like Mick Riley. Anyway, Phil and I are planning to get married very soon ...”


Flashbulbs went off, Mick kissed Alicia’s hand, then stepped out of the way, letting Alicia have the limelight.


“Wow, she just dropped one hell of a bomb, didn’t she?”


Dumbstruck, Tara nodded at Maggie. “I guess she did. Who’s Phil?”


Maggie rolled her eyes. “Really, Tara. Don’t you read the entertainment magazines? Phil Bates from the same show Alicia’s on. There were rumors the two have been in love for a while now. I guess they are in love. And engaged. And having a baby together. Wow. That’s some serious news.”


“Sure is.” But not as much news as the fact that Liz shoved Mick at Alicia as a last-minute escort for tonight’s event. And nothing more. Not because he wanted to hop in bed with her.


God, she was such a flaming idiot.


She stood on her toes and tried to find Mick but couldn’t see him.


There. Heading for the front door with Alicia.


Dammit. She tried to ease through the crowd, but between the reporters and the onlookers, she didn’t have a chance. And this wasn’t the time anyway.


She saw him through the glass, helping Alicia into the limo, then climbing in after her. The driver shut the door, and then they were gone.


Tara turned and walked back into the gallery, feeling stupid and empty and hurt.


She hadn’t trusted him. And she’d said terrible things to him.


Why couldn’t she believe in Mick? Why couldn’t she believe in herself?


And why hadn’t he just told her what he was doing here tonight?


Because you didn’t give him a chance, moron. Quit trying to blame him. You know damn well who fucked this up tonight.


She nodded to herself and kept on walking.


Somehow she was going to have to fix this.


MICK PACED HIS CONDO, DRAGGING HIS FINGERS through his hair and cursing himself and Liz in the process.


Stupid move. He should have known better when Liz called, begging him earlier tonight to bail out Alicia. But Liz had sounded sincere, and Alicia even phoned him asking for his help. This AIDS charity was important to her because her uncle was afflicted, and she wanted to put in an appearance, but her fiancé was sick and she was pregnant and they really had wanted to make the announcement about her pregnancy together. But Alicia had explained she was starting to show, and they couldn’t put it off much longer, so she wanted to do it tonight, and Liz had offered up Mick since he was local.

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