"Why haven't you ever introduced me to him?" Come to think of it, Madison realized, Kat went out of her way to see that their paths never crossed.
"What kind of friend would I be, throwing my dearest pal to a—"
"He has a bit more subtlety than that. You've nothing to worry about. Your kind scares him."
The auctioneer mentioned the next "item" up for bid.
"Then we'll probably see his smoke trail when he hightails it out of here first chance."
Katherine smiled agreement, then slipped beyond the drapes. The crowd applauded.
Dismissing Donahue from her mind, Madison briefly closed her eyes. Oh, Lord a'mighty, she thought. If Daddy could see me now.
The curtain peeled open.
Applause splattered the sultry air, and Madison smiled brightly, scanning the crowd. Crystal stemware sparkled, white-jacketed waiters bearing silver trays moved between the clusters of elegantly dressed people. She didn't know a single one. She didn't travel in those circles. Not anymore. I bet not one of them could toss a shrimp net, she thought, absorbing the sea of white dinner jackets and glittering evening gowns. The last time she saw that many sequins it was a corporate party in the Trump Tower. Her practical side thought briefly of how many people could live on the price of her borrowed gown alone. Though incredibly glamorous, it seemed like such a flagrant waste of money. Madison didn't hate the rich, yet she disliked anyone who just hid inside their restored mansions and threw money around to make the problems go away. Katherine was here to see that they threw it in all in the right places.
"After Kevin passed away," Katherine was saying to the audience, and Madison heard the catch in her sorority sister's voice, "I was left with plenty of money but few marketable skills, except how to dress properly and throw a great party. Like this one y'all are enjoying."
The crowd laughed agreement, but Madison knew Katherine had an MBA in business. How did they think she got this far?
"Yet it made me see there were other people out there in the same predicament, whose skills were going to waste because they were most useful with a marriage license. Wife Incorporated employs mostly women to fill in for anyone who needs those special, and often unrecognized, talents – household organization, grocery shopping, cooking, housekeeping, kid wrangling, sometimes a replacement mother for a vacationing couple, a wedding coordinator or a hostess for a party, a temporary wife for a divorcé or widower trying to get his life back together."
Madison tipped her head to smile at Katherine, infinitely proud of her sorority big sister. As she had when they were in college, she'd taken the best from bad situations and made them flourish.
"All Wife Incorporated employees are bonded, trained in infant and adult CPR, emergency first aid and self-defense."
The crowd murmured approval.
Madison and Katherine exchanged a smile forged over years of friendship.
Then the auctioneer stepped up to the podium.
* * *
Alex would have bid on her for her face alone.
She took his breath away. Far away. And instantly she intrigued him. Perhaps it was her sable-brown hair coiled loosely at her crown and giving her a sexy, disheveled look – a little free spirit in the middle of tight-laced society. Or the slight disdain in her round cognac eyes as she scanned the attendees. Or the strappy deep-plum-colored gown, saturated with bugle beads, heavy and shaping her every curve. And showing all the really good ones, he thought with pure male appreciation.
Maybe it was that no matter how incredibly alluring she looked, she was off-limits. Wife material. Though, she didn't look very domesticated right now. She looked almost … wild. A sleek cougar with the longest legs he'd ever seen.
The bidding increased, and Alex twisted to look over his shoulder. Brandon Wilcox. He could see the man had ideas of a French maid costume or seeing the woman vacuuming in the nude. Pathetic.
Cookie Ledbetter strolled closer, leaning to whisper, "This is the third function you've attended with Elizabeth, Alex. Are we looking at the future Mrs. Donahue?"
Elizabeth heard and smiled at him over the rim of her champagne flute before taking a sip.
Alex didn't respond, grinding his teeth, feeling as if dungeon doors were slamming shut. A half dozen people had already mentioned that little fact this evening. "Aren't you bidding, Mrs. Ledbetter?"
Her smile was tight before she glanced at the Wife Incorporated woman. "I prefer my help to be a little older and…"
She tapped his arm, smiling kindly. "Shame on you. There is a good reason I've been married to Harrison for thirty years, young man," she was bold enough to say, her expression dancing with innuendo.