(original opening scene for The Hungry Heart)
If there was ever a time to get drunk, this was surely it.
Hunter Graham leaned back the collapsible chair and closed his eyes, ignoring the cold metal bar pressing into his back.
The hyperactive event organizer had been called away to attend to an emergency, and this was likely the only few moments of respite he was going to get all evening.
Down the hall, the dull drone of the crowd rose in volume and then broke off suddenly as the emcee cleared his throat to bring them back to attention. The next item was going up for bid. He strained to hear what it was, but couldn’t make out the words, only the rapid-fire syllables of the auctioneer.
He shifted his weight, tipping the chair further back so he’d have to focus on keeping his balance on the two rear legs.
Yup, it really was too bad he didn’t drink anymore.
Wait. Check that. He didn’t regret his abstinence, but a little oblivion would make this whole thing bearable.
His grandmother had lectured him on how he was to behave, which was ironic since it was his scandalous reputation that everyone was counting on to raise a lot of money for the children’s hospital.
A bachelor auction. How had he let her talk him into this?
He shouldn’t be surprised, though; here he was back in Santa Fe despite a promising career as New York City’s newest superstar chef. “It’s your home,” she’d insisted. While home and family were important to her, Hunter knew it was her home and her family that mattered to his grandmother—his paternal side be damned. If coming back to Santa Fe aggravated his father and uncle so much the better.
He’d hesitated at first, not sure he was willing to re-engage in the battle at Rancho Tres Hermanos. In the end, though, he’d relented, as she’d known he would. The lure of his own restaurant was too great for him to resist whatever the location, whatever the family politics.
Still, did it require him to demean himself like this?
Of course, it would only be demeaning if no one bid on him and that wasn’t going to happen. Hell, he’d likely break the record for bids tonight—probably the all-time bid record.
His eyes flew open and he leapt to his feet to stop from falling. The chair crashed down behind him.
“Please, Marion, call me Hunter.” He gave the matronly woman his slow, seductive smile, and saw her flush slightly. “Is it time?”
“Ah, yes,” she replied.
“Then we’d better go,” he said, tugging on the cuffs of his tux—his grandmother’s insistence although the cowboy boots were non-negotiable—and tucked her arm through his. “We don’t want to keep them waiting, do we?”
The hum from the ballroom grew as they walked down the long service hallway towards the entrance by the stage. It was late in the evening and the black-tie crowd had already supped on that universal staple of these events, chicken, followed by the even more insidious, crème brulé. All evening they’d been asked to open their wallets to bid on a variety of items from rare wines and hand-woven carpets to foreign trips and exotic adventures. He was the final item, the pièce-de-resistance—a one-on-one cooking lesson with the city’s celebrated Cowboy Chef.
Did they see him as the crème brulé of the event? he mused. Hell no. He was more a semifreddo—a dessert with greater substance and flavor, and a whole lot more potential.
It was called a “private cooking lesson” so the well-to-do wives of the city’s wealthiest would feel comfortable bidding on him, raising his price and benefiting the charity. The not-so-subtle subtext called it a “date” and that was how everyone was approaching it—everyone except Hunter. He would flirt with whoever won, flatter her, and make her feel like a goddess. Then, after he’d prepared an amazing dinner, he’d give her a chaste kiss goodnight and send her back to her husband.
“Can we count on your support, Representative Martinez?”
Hunter slowed his pace and looked around, but he couldn’t see the woman attached to the voice.
“Excellent. With your vote the bill will definitely pass.” The voice grew louder. “Of course, the bigger the majority the clearer the signal it will send…. Yes, sir, anything you can do to that end would be welcome…. I’m heading to my office right now and I’ll email that to you this evening. Good night and thank you.”
A flash of pistachio tweed hurtled out of an alcove and crashed directly into them. Hunter released Marion’s arm to steady the surprised woman, and then picked up the cell phone she had dropped. He barely had time to take in her subtle butterscotch features and the striking cocoa brown of her eyes before she murmured “sorry” and hurried away, distracted once again by trying to dial and walk simultaneously.
He watched her retreat, amused and slightly aroused. There was a tease to the way her hips swayed in her too-tight skirt and a promise of sensuality in the long dark hair that had escaped the tight knot at her neck to flow gracefully in her wake—strong coffee being poured from a carafe. She wasn’t young—probably in her mid-thirties—but likely the youngest woman here.
And she was leaving. Too bad.
“Well!” Marion huffed.
“No harm done, Marion. Let’s go.” He strode towards the entrance of the ballroom. He didn’t take her arm this time and she had to trot to keep up.
The emcee announced Hunter’s name and he mounted the steps two at a time before crossing the stage to take the microphone from the surprised auctioneer.
“Hello Santa Fe,” he called out to the crowd.
The crowd roared its welcome.
“I don’t usually wear a tux, but I thought I should look my best for you folks.”
“What do you usually wear?” came the expected cry from several audience members.
Hunter stepped to the edge of the stage and looked down at one of the women who had responded. He allowed his gaze to travel slowly up the length of her body before focusing on her face. Her strikingly clear blue eyes glowed even brighter as the pink tinge of her cheeks darkened into a full blush. Attractive, Hunter thought, taking in her coiffured silver hair and trim waist. He could do worse. Then he gave her his slow, sexy smile.
“Why don’t you open the bidding, darling, and maybe you’ll find out?”
The crowd cheered as the woman screamed, “Two hundred dollars.”
Hunter thanked her and handed the microphone back to the hovering auctioneer.
For the next ten minutes he strutted around the stage applauding each bid and teasing the women to raise his price. He experienced a bit of panic when he realized one of the final bidders was a well-groomed older man—surely he was bidding on behalf of his wife. Fortunately, the man dropped out and it came down to two women—the woman who had begun the bidding and another in the back whom Hunter couldn’t see.
The mystery woman at the back not only outbid each of the previous bids, she did so by a considerable amount. In the end it proved to be too much for the first woman. She shook her head once to indicate that she couldn’t go on. Disappointment was evident in her expression.
“It’s all right, darling,” Hunter said as the auctioneer closed the bidding. “You come visit me at my restaurant, Prime, and I’ll whip you up a nice fillet on the house.”
He raised his gaze, curious to see who was so determined to spend an evening with him.
An attractive brunette in her early fifties approached the stage, check book in hand. He sighed in relief. He knew her type: lots of money, lots of time, and lots of connections. All in all, not too bad. He’d make sure she got her money’s worth.