"And here I thought it was those gorgeous blue eyes that kept Harry home, ma'am."
Cookie scoffed, inclining her head to Miss Holt. "One does not leave fresh game before a hunter, Alex. And be careful—" her glance slid meaningfully to Elizabeth Murray standing beside him and her voice lowered "—hell hath no fury like a Southern woman scorned."
Alex arched a brow, nodding, and her deed done for the evening, she swept away like Spanish galleon in full sail.
He looked down at Elizabeth and thought how polished she appeared: her neatly twisted blond hair, her flame-red gown, the exact way she stood holding the fragile crystal flute of champagne. She possessed all the qualities he found attractive in a woman – poise, grace, good conversationalist and, above all, she had no inclination to exchange her social calendar for a marriage license. She'd consider the evening a success if a snapshot of her made the latest edition of the Savannah News Press. And though he realized it was disgustingly shallow, they both understood the parameters. He knew that after this party was over, she'd either want to spend the night with him or be off to another late-night celebration. She did little else with all her family's money. He just didn't want her to sink her teeth into his. Or demand a wedding ring.
That road in his life was closed. Permanently.
Yet Cookie's comments rang in his mind. Though he'd planned to ask Elizabeth's help with hostessing a corporate party for him next week, their relationship would be blown further out of proportion if she did. He didn't want to hurt her feelings, but obviously he needed to do something. Quickly.
His gaze slid to Madison Holt.
If he won the bid for the Wife Incorporated services, he'd have the perfect solution to defuse this matchmaking society. A hostess with no personal connection. And that's what he wanted most. No attachment. No guilt by virtue of association and making uncomfortable excuses. And Madison Holt, simply by being who she was, was forbidden, and that made her a quick, easy solution.
He made eye contact with the auctioneer and nodded, sipping champagne and wishing it was brandy.
"Alex," Elizabeth said from his side. "What do you need a maid for?"
"She's a temporary wife, Liz. And I don't need either." He set his unfinished glass on the tray of a passing servant and caught Katherine's eye. His former partner's widow, elegant in beaded white, moved across the candle-lit garden and warmly kissed his cheek. Elizabeth inched a bit closer, looping her arm through his. Alex gave it only a moment's thought.
"How's business, Alexander?"
He smiled. She was the only person who called him that. "Not as easy on the eyes as yours, apparently. Do all your employees look like that?" He felt Elizabeth's gaze sharpen on him as he nodded to the woman on stage.
"Madison is special." There was a warning in her tone he didn't mistake.
He arched a brow and upped the bid with a slight gesture. Elizabeth's hand tightened on his arm. Katherine smiled and called him a rascal.
Alex twisted slightly to gather flutes of champagne from a waiter's tray and hand one to each woman, forcing Elizabeth to let go. Another bid aired and he heard an indrawn breath. His gaze flew to Madison Holt and stayed there.
Everything in him jumped to life, and when she shifted her feet, the slit in her gown exposing her leg up to midthigh, his entire body tightened. Beautiful legs, muscular. A guy could get ideas, the wrong ones, and he was certainly indulging in a few. It was sexist, displaying her up there, and she looked as if she'd had enough, her gaze flipping from one bidder to the next as if waiting for her execution. She doesn't like this at all, he realized sympathetically and decided to put her out of her misery. He stepped forward and raised the bid a thousand dollars.
"Alexander, no!" Katherine whispered behind him.
He glanced over his shoulder, noting her concern, then shrugged.
Madison choked, and he swung his attention back to her, trapped by her soulful brown eyes. The auctioneer waited for a second bid. None came. The gavel slammed, and his domestic goddess in plum flinched. He stepped up to the stage and offered his hand. She stared at him as if he'd grown antlers.
"I don't bite."
She scoffed. "That's not what I heard."
He arched a brow, a small smile tugging at his lips. A look of pure challenge.
Madison recognized it and met it head-on. She wouldn't give him the chance to bite anything on her, and despite his ruthless reputation in business and with women, she didn't think his expensive palette had a taste for homegrown. If his date was any indication, he was interested only in her domestic capabilities, and that was fine with her. She had no intention of being one of his conquests.
She accepted his hand, his warm fingers wrapping firmly around hers as she walked down the short staircase to the applause of the crowd. He stood close, close enough for her to feel the heat of his body and his slow lingering gaze. Madison told herself it was the display of bosom that made his look feel like a wolf salivating over a potential kill. At least he's living up to his reputation, she thought, immediately pulling free.