More than a Mistress(6)

By: Sandra Marton


Panic whispered along Alex's skin. She would never be alone with this man, or with any other. She had learned that much from her marriage. Forgetting that lesson, tonight, had been an aberration, a foolish reaction to an overheard whisper that had called back painful memories.

What did she give a damn, if Carl had told his new wife she was frigid? Let him say what he liked, so long as he was no longer saying it to her.

Alex tore her gaze from Travis Baron's. People were crowding around her, offering congratulations.

"What will you do with that gorgeous hunk for an entire weekend?" a woman said, and a roar of laughter went up.

She knew it was only a joke. The auction was a legitimate fund-raiser. What the winners did with their bachelors was play tennis, or golf, go dancing or to dinner...

Except, that wasn't what she'd intended to do with him.

The thought was enough to send another wave of panic rolling through her blood. Alex smiled. She hoped she smiled, anyway, and laughed, and said she'd think of something...

With the laughter still ringing in her ears, she fled up the aisle toward the double doors that led to the lobby, and to sanity.

"Mrs. Stuart?"

Just keep walking, Alex. Smile, and keep...

"Mrs. Stuart." A hand clasped her arm.

Alex shook off the hand. "No," she said ...and looked into the puzzled face of a gray-haired woman.

"I'm terribly sorry, Mrs. Stuart. I didn't mean to startle you."

Alex swallowed, pulled her lips into another parody of a smile. "I'm sorry. I don't—"

The woman smiled, too, and looped her arm through Alex's. "We've met before, Mrs. Stuart. Perhaps you'll recall? I'm Barbara Rhodes. Our husbands served on the water conservation committee together."

"My ex-husband," Alex said. "I use my maiden name. I' m Alexandra Thorpe now."

The woman winced. "Yes, of course. Sorry. I'd forgotten."

"That's quite all right. Now, if you'll excuse me..."

"Oh, I know you're in a hurry to pay for your purchase."

"My purchase," Alex said, and felt the color shoot into her face.

"Yes. We've set up a desk, in the lobby." The woman led Alex toward the double doors. "But I wanted to take a moment to thank you, personally, for making tonight's high bid."

"Ah." Alex smiled again and wondered if it were possible for your lips to stick to your teeth. "No need," she said brightly. "I'm more than happy to—help out."

"If only everyone felt that way. But let me tell you, Ms. Thorpe, they don't. As chairperson of the auction these last two years, I know how rarely people make such generous donations."

"Yes." Someone batted the doors open and Alex and the chairperson stepped through them. "Well, I know—I know what fine work your organization does, Mrs. Rhodes..."

"Have you decided what you'll do with your bachelor, Ms. Thorpe?"

Alex swallowed dryly. "No. No, I... Actually, I doubt if I'll, ah, if I'll use him at all, Mrs. Rhodes. I, uh, I already have plans for the weekend."

"Oh, that's too bad."

"Yes, it is, isn't it?" Alex came to a stop, opened her beaded purse and dug inside it. "Look, why don't we do this right now? I'll make out a check, give it to you—"

"Well, you're supposed to pay at the desk... Oh, never mind. I'm happy to make an accommodation for you."

Alex took out her checkbook. "The Children's Hospital Fund, right?" Her hands were trembling. Could she write out the check and sign it so it was legible? She scrawled the name of the fund and the amount she'd bid—the incredible amount she'd bid, for a man she could only pray she'd never see again—signed her name, ripped out the check and handed it to the chairwoman, who beamed happily and clutched it to her ample breasts.

"Wonderful, Ms. Thorpe. And now..."

''And now,'' Alex said with false gaiety, "I'll just be on my way.''

"Certainly. But first, if we could just prevail upon you to stay for a few pictures, while you dance with Mr. Baron. For publicity purposes, you understand."

Alex shook her head. "No! I mean, I just explained, I have plans..."

"For the weekend. Yes, but this will only take a few minutes." The woman took Alex's arm. "Do you know anything about him?"

"Not a thing," Alex said briskly.

"Oh, he's a fascinating man. So handsome! And those cowboy boots..." The chairwoman sighed. "Oh, if I were only twenty years younger. Unmarried. Well, and forty pounds lighter..."

She laughed gaily, and Alex tried to do the same.

"It will only take a minute, Ms. Thorpe." She beamed a happy smile in Alex's direction. "The TV people are here. If you and your bachelor could give them a few pictures. And a ,short interview? It would be wonderful publicity for the auction."

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