"Well, I bet this is a first."
Madison Holt stood still as her friend Katherine arranged the beaded gown around her ankles. Tinkling crystal and murmurs of conversation filtered through the curtain hiding her from the guests assembled in the lavish, stone garden.
"What's that, sugah?"
"The oldest living virgin auctioned off to the highest bidder, and it isn't even my virtue that's up for sale."
Something close to a snicker sounded behind her, and Madison twisted as Katherine straightened and faced her, giving her that Davenport smile, the one that preceded her dignified Southern delivery that usually cut the strongest men off at the knees.
"White slavery is frowned upon in Savannah." Absently Katherine adjusted the thin, beaded strap on Madison's bare shoulder. "But if you prefer, I can put your virtue on the block for the auction?"
"It is a thought." Might be the only way she'd lose it, Madison thought, before she reached twenty-five.
"Of course there would be a riot, I'm afraid."
Madison folded her arms over her middle and cocked her hip. "A rush of men? I don't think so."
Katherine pulled her arms apart with a warning look. "No. Women."
Madison's brows rose questioningly.
"I bet there isn't a single virgin out there." Katherine inclined her head to the velvet curtain. "And you know how they don't like being upstaged."
"Perish the thought," Madison said, her nervous stomach easing a bit.
But Katherine recognized her apprehension. "You can walk away right now, sugah. I won't force you to do something you don't want to do. Especially when it's my company that's donating an employee's time to this charity auction."
"No, I agreed. I'm here, in this gorgeous gown—"
"—which looks better on you than it ever did on me."
Madison glanced down at the borrowed plum-colored gown, hugging her figure like a second skin. It made her look like a mermaid. She was afraid to move in it or flop like a dead flounder on the stage. "I still don't see why I needed to dress like this."
"Showing my breasts off like NASCAR trophies hardly speaks for my ability to whip up a balanced meal in twenty minutes."
Katherine blinked. "You can really do that, can't you? In twenty minutes?" Madison nodded cautiously, catching the admiration in her voice. "I can't get out of the shower and dressed in less that thirty."
Because Katherine never had to do it, Madison thought. But when the push was there, she thought, people did things they didn't normally consider. Like this.
Allowing herself to be displayed for auction.
Whoever bought the services of Wife Incorporated received a week of paid domestic service. It was Katherine who lost money by the donation. But then, God bless her generous heart, Katherine could afford to lose it.
Madison couldn't. It's why she'd agreed, even though she already had another part-time job. That and the double pay.
Madison gestured to the curtain. "Tell them I'll swap a hog for a clean house. Nothing under a hundred pounds dressed out, though. I don't want to look cheap."
Katherine rolled her eyes, smiling. "Not a chance, honey. Dress or not." She nodded to the X on the floor. "Take your place. It's show time."
Madison's stomach clenched again, yet she stepped center stage behind the curtain leaning as Katherine bussed her cheek, then smiling when she rubbed away the lipstick smudge. Madison released a slow breath. Beyond the velvet curtain stood the cream of Savannah society. Anyone who lived north of Gaston Street, she thought with a smirk. They were dining on caviar canapés and sipping expensive champagne, waiting.
To make a bid on her.
She didn't think a clean house and home-cooked meals were going to make a difference to the affluent of Savannah. They'd likely bid and never use the certificate. Or maybe give it away. Madison didn't care. It was easy money as far as she was concerned.
"I know you don't like being displayed like this, sugah," she said in a loud whisper, and Madison glanced to her right. "And frankly it gets my garters in a twist, but the committee—"
"It's all right, Kat. And I'd simply die if your garters got twisted."
Katherine winked. "You're a peach, sister. Just pray Alexander Donahue doesn't get some wild notion to bid on you."
Madison's tapered brows shot up. Savannah's wealthiest most-eligible-and-meaning-to-stay-that-way bachelor needing a wife for hire? It was almost laughable. He had a notorious reputation of never staying with a woman for more than a date or two, and since Katherine's late husband and Alexander Donahue were once partners, Madison knew there was more than a little truth to the rumors and speculation surrounding the man. And the reason behind his cavalier attitude was a well-kept secret.