Jesse Grey was the most beautiful man Michaela Townsend had ever seen in real life.
So absurdly, dizzyingly, inarguably gorgeous that it didn’t matter that he was scowling at her—that he’d been scowling pretty much nonstop since he’d slouched out onto the makeshift bachelor auction stage in the Montana saloon, in this pretty little town where Michaela’s mom had grown up and where so many of her aunts and cousins still lived, supposedly to sell himself for a good cause.
She’d realized he was beautiful then, of course, through the din of the relatively polite applause of the assembled, primarily female, crowd who’d gathered for this event. It wasn’t something anyone was likely to miss on that rangy, six-foot-and-then-some frame of his. All that mussed-up, dirty-blonde hair, as if he couldn’t be bothered to tame it, so busy was he being growly and attractive, even in a situation like this charity auction where some of the other gentlemen had opted to spruce themselves up a little bit. The better to kick start the bidding, no doubt.
But not Jesse Grey, who looked as if he’d just swanned in from moving heavy things with those sculpted arms of his, or had, perhaps, spent his afternoon riding motorcycles hither and yon like the epitome of some testosterone-fueled fantasy man. Then there were those delicious, milk chocolate, melt-in-your-mouth eyes to consider—not that eyes could melt in someone’s mouth, Michaela chastised herself—and of course, that alarmingly fit body of his packed into jeans and a dark t-shirt, which she hadn’t actually realized could exist in the real world.
That body, she clarified to herself, not the battered, vintage concert t-shirt he wore like a second, expertly distressed skin. It was all… washboard abs and the suggestion of those crazy diagonals dug over his hips and that masculine hollow between his pectoral muscles—
“I’m so sorry,” Michaela said, blinking to clear her head, which was how she realized she’d been gaping at this man in the first place, there near the back wall of the bar in all the post-auction excitement. “I’m babbling. In my own head. I didn’t actually know that was possible.”
His scowl deepened. Improbably, it only made him sexier.
“I’ve never bought anybody before,” Michaela said brightly. That mouth of his flattened, which seemed to have a direct relationship to that odd tugging sensation, low in her belly. She charged on, not sure what was spurring her along—that strange, new sensation, or the sense of something like panic that went along with it. “Not that I bought you tonight, of course—my family did that! I’ve never attended a bachelor auction in my life! Even for charity! Although, I don’t know, maybe they’re all for charity or they’re just a Magic Mike strip club thing? My cousin Missy made it sound like she travels the world on a grand and rotating circuit of bachelor auctions wherever they might pop up, but maybe she meant she goes to Chippendale’s a lot? Anyway, it was all her idea. She and all my aunts and cousins and they only each gave a little but that’s why it added up so fast and—”
“Hey,” he said then. Really, it was more of an order. “Breathe.”
His voice was flat. Casually certain, as if he was used to instant obedience. And yet still a rough kind of velvet as it slid over her, like a caress—
An engaged woman should not have such thoughts, Michaela reprimanded herself, and then was instantly annoyed she’d had such a dramatic, conservative thought in the first place. Because her fiancé Terrence would more than understand. Terrence and Michaela were rational, reasonable adults who had long ago agreed that monogamy was silly and possessiveness was unattractive, and Michaela hated that she kept finding these little corners of ugly, outdated ideas inside her own head.
It was because this was her own pseudo-bridal shower, she thought then, and so what if her cousin Missy had somehow commandeered the initial shower idea involving baked goods and her aunt’s living room and turned it into a bachelor auction at a saloon? That didn’t excuse the weird, old-fashioned things that kept popping up inside of her at the strangest moments. More and more often, the closer they got to the wedding, if she was honest. She shoved that aside.
“I’m sorry,” she said again, trying to focus on Jesse Grey, supernaturally beautiful human, as if he was a mere mortal. Because he was. Of course he was, despite appearances. That was the point. “I’ve never been given a—uh—contractor? Local-boy-turned-tycoon? Whatever you are?—as a bridal shower gift before. I’m not sure about the appropriate way to handle this situation.”
She was still staring, wasn’t she? It was like the whole crowd around them had disappeared somehow into the chocolaty goodness of his gaze, more compelling than the most wicked, decadent dessert—
“I’m Michaela,” she said, sticking her hand out, in some parody of a normal person. A normal person who really, really wanted dessert. “Michaela Townsend.”
Jesse Grey, the most gorgeous man she’d ever seen outside of a Hollywood movie, shifted slightly, so he was no longer leaning there against the back wall of Grey’s Saloon. He looked down at her proffered hand as if it was spiked and potentially poisonous, and that seemed to take a very long time. But then, at last, he took it.
Mistake! Everything inside Michaela screamed, and she would have been annoyed with herself for that, too, but she was too busy being caught up in what was happening between them.
His hand was warm. Slightly rough, as if he sandpapered his palms or perhaps actually worked with those hands of his, with the long fingers she was tempted to consider elegant despite their obvious strength. That tugging thing inside of her shifted. Became heat.
He scowled as if she’d given him an electric shock, but he didn’t jerk his hand away the way she was tempted to do. The way she should have done, she realized, a long beat later, when she only stood there, gripping him as if he was a brilliant burst of light and some kind of savior, too.
He was the one to let go. Eventually.
“Jesse Grey,” he introduced himself, a considering sort of gleam in his dark eyes that made that heat bloom. Spread. “But you probably got that from the auctioneer.”
It was only to be expected, Michaela thought in a slight daze, that a man who looked the way he did should also sound the way he did. All dark, sinful things and that rough edge besides.
“Like the bar!” she said. Idiotically. “The one we’re standing in right now.”
“This is a saloon, Michaela,” Jesse said in a voice that was not quite a drawl, but wasn’t quite so surly, either.
She opted not to reflect on what her name sounded like, coming out of that mouth. Like a month of desserts, all of them too decadent to be believed.
“This is the Wild West. And if you look behind the bar, you’ll see an old man I vaguely resemble, also named Grey. It’s the family curse.”
Michaela pivoted obediently and blinked in the direction of the figures behind the bar. All good looking men in that rugged, Montana way, and none what she’d consider particularly old—but only one man was standing still, half in shadow, his arms folded over his chest while he glared out at the crowd as if they were doing something to him by drinking his liquor.
“The surliness is the curse?” she asked. “Or the family resemblance? Oh, or maybe the saloon is the curse? Though I guess all those things could be connected.”
She regretted that the minute she said it. It took a moment or two to look back at Jesse, though she could feel the way he looked at her, as if he’d set that whole side of her body on fire. Obviously, she told herself, this was what men like him did. That was why normal people didn’t have much to do with such creatures, with all that fire and brimstone and drama, to say nothing of the intent way he gazed at her, then.
The room fell away again. As if it had never existed. As if the pack of her relatives, stuffed into two gleeful booths on the other side of the saloon, was little more than a memory. As if he was the only thing in the whole of Montana and the great, wide world beyond it.
“So,” he said, his voice even, in a way that made her insides feel shaken loose from their moorings. “You won me. Or more specifically, a date in Seattle. Let me know the dates that work for you and I’ll fly you out. We’ll have fun.”
The way he said the word fun seemed to dance down the length of her spine like the obvious lie it was. Or maybe it was that his definition of fun wasn’t quite the same as hers. His, she was quite certain, included all manner of dark and tangled and needy things she didn’t know anything about. She could see that as easily as she could see that ridiculously beautiful face of his.
“Oh, well.” She almost let out a horrible, inappropriate giggle, but somehow kept herself from it. She’d felt this way once as a little girl, when she’d come face-to-face with a coyote on a hiking trail in the hills of southern Oregon where she’d grown up. Her parents had gone on ahead, around the next curve in the switchbacked trail, and she’d been briefly and terrifyingly alone. Just like back then, it was as if everything inside of her stilled, yet went on high alert. As if this absurd specimen of beautiful male was as dangerous, as predatory, as a wild animal. But that was ridiculous. “I actually live in Seattle.”
That considering gleam in his gaze became more intent. “Do you now.”
Nervous, she thought. A little bit wildly. He makes me nervous. She cleared her throat and told herself that was absolutely the right word to describe the sensations dancing inside of her. She was nervous, nothing more.
“Yes, and in fact, I think that’s why my aunts and cousins pitched in to buy you,” she told him. With perhaps a bit too much nervous in her voice. “They know who you are, of course, because so many of them are from here, and they really thought it would be a great idea to spend some time with you.”
“For five thousand dollars.” His voice had gone flat again.
Cool. Though his silky chocolate eyes were anything but.
“You probably could have just asked, sweetheart. I wouldn’t say I’m a nice man, necessarily, but I don’t bite.” He didn’t smile. She wasn’t sure he could, despite the hard gleam in his dark gaze that felt like acrobatics deep in her gut, like a wicked grin from a different man. “Much.”
There was a loud, buzzing sound. It took Michaela a breathless moment, then another to realize it was a kind of white noise and it was filling up her head. Her body’s defense mechanism against imagining this man and his… bite. She thought maybe she was coming down with something, suddenly. She was hot, then cold. She could hear Terrence’s reproving voice in her head then, warning her for the nine millionth time that if she insisted on reading those filthy romances in what little spare time she ever had, her mind would turn to mush. She always agreed with him that she should stop, that she should read Worthy and Important Works That Would Expand Her Mind and Impress Others, and then she went ahead and downloaded more of the books she actually liked onto her e-reader anyway.
Jesse Grey made her feel… mushy. Like a really good romance novel, in fact. The kind that took her breath away and kept her up half the night, desperate to see how it ended.
But it was the thought of Terrence that finally penetrated the haze she’d been in since her cousin Missy had shoved her toward this man to “collect her prize.”
“It’s not for me,” she assured Jesse. Or maybe herself. “It’s for Terrence.”
He eyed her. “Terrence?”
“My fiancé,” she supplied. Helpfully, she thought.
His gaze then seemed to pry off the top of her head and rummage around inside, and Michaela would have had to have been half-dead or an idiot not to recognize the danger in that, something far more precarious than nerves—but she didn’t do a thing. She didn’t look away, step back, run from him the way she should have. It was as if she couldn’t. As if her body was going to do exactly as it pleased, and what it pleased was to stand right there in front of this beautiful, lethal man and… wait.
“You in the habit of setting up your fiancé on dates with other men?” Jesse asked, and there was a different note in his voice. Lazy, maybe, with an edge. It colored his gaze, too, making his eyes seem shot through with whiskey—
Or maybe Michaela had had too many of those slushy drinks her cousin Missy had insisted upon ordering by the table-load earlier.
“Only when it might help him out,” she said, feeling something much too close to drunk. It was definitely the slushy stuff, she assured herself. Nothing else. Not that focus of his, turned on her like that, as if she was somehow as fascinating as he was. Certainly not. “Terrence has had a run of bad luck, you see. It could happen to anyone these days, with the economy being what it is.”
“Is Terrence an economist?”
Michaela thought the question was on the dry and pointed side, which was only one of the many reasons she needed to ignore all the stuff going on inside of her. She pushed on.
“My aunts seem to think you might be able to point him in a better direction, since you’re the construction guru of Seattle. Their words, not mine.” She laughed nervously. Definitely, that was nerves. “Do you prefer ‘tycoon?’ Is that pejorative? I know successful men sometimes prefer to pretend they’re not all that successful, for various privacy reasons. Terrence was involved in this kind of weird hotel situation but it fell apart about ten months ago and he—”
“Please tell me you’re not talking about Terrence Polk,” Jesse said, his voice back to flat and a different, assessing light in his chocolate liqueur gaze. A light that made her think yes, this lazy, dangerous, coyote of a man could indeed be the successful businessman her relatives seemed to think he was, despite all that natural beauty of his, which had made her doubt it.
“Oh, do you know him?” Michaela asked in a rush of… something. Something she knew had to do with that cool, crisp knowledge in Jesse’s eyes that she very much wanted to avoid examining any more closely. With every last particle of her being. Because maybe the truth was, despite what she’d told Terrence and herself a thousand times, she wasn’t actually that mature after all. “We’re getting married in June.”
End of Excerpt