Undertow Anthology

Contemporary Romance/23,771 words

Riptide

Cheated on, dumped and fired—all by the same man—Ava Hollins’ only goal on her Caribbean vacation was to forget men existed. When she wins hot, wealthy, resort owner, Bret Wright, during a charity “man auction,” she’s not sure what to do with her suddenly acquired “love slave.”

Fortunately, for Ava, Bret knows exactly what to do with her.


Other Books by Elizabeth


Excerpt

Chapter One

The reggae music so common to the Virgin Islands could barely be heard over the hoots and wolf-whistles of the women in the crowded resort bar. A single file of men had begun to take the stage for a charity “man auction.” Ava Hollins was not interested. Her plans included drowning in liquor and UV rays this weekend, not men.

“You’re not drinking fast enough.” Ava tilted her head back and swallowed the last of her second martini. “See? That’s how it’s done.”

“We’re going to have to carry you back to the room aren’t we?” Ava’s friend, Marguerite, was still on her first frou-frou Singapore Sling.

“I can crawl on my own, thank you very much. Where is our waitron?” Ava strained her neck toward the bar seeking their server. She planned on staying rip-roaring drunk, a little alcohol-induced anesthesia from her recent “life events.”

Shel, Ava’s other vacation partner-in-crime, also looked suspiciously sober. “I think you’re drinking enough for the two of us, Ava.”

Their waitress magically appeared and slapped down a small booklet and three paper paddles on the table. “Happy bidding ladies.”

Marguerite snatched up the brochure. “Oh, score. Shel, you have the best ideas.”

“Of course. Why else would I want to stay in the resort bar tonight? This way Ava will be a few steps from her room when she wins herself a man.”

“Are you kidding me?” Ava said. “No way am I—”

“Oh, yes, you are. This is part of the Ava-Starts-A-New-Life program. First, we jet off to St. Thomas. Second, we win you a love slave.” Shel shimmied her ample breasts at her last words.

Marguerite tilted the bright pink booklet back and forth in front of Ava’s face. “It’s for charity. We have to. It’s for the children.”

Ava plucked the booklet from her hands. Regal Resorts presents Charitable Man Raffle. Ladies, snap up a good/ talented/ funny/ smart/ gorgeous man and do something worthwhile to support The Virgin Islands Women and Children Shelters… .

She thumbed through the profiles of men, each with a picture and a description of the date he’d take the winning bidder on. The words swam in and out of focus, but she deciphered an afternoon of sailing, a beach-side dinner for two, snorkeling, hikes. Romance. When was the last time Ava had a date? A real bona-fide, take-me-out-to-dinner-and-hold-the-door-open-for-me-date? Did anyone do that anymore? Had Andrew ever done that?

Ava couldn’t read anymore. “This is supposed to be a girl’s weekend. I hate men.”

Marguerite tilted her head and pursed her lips. “You need someone to make you forget about him.”

“Andrew. He has a name. Andrew Steven Collins, to be exact.”

Shel finally finished her drink. “You shall never utter that serial cheater’s name again. “At least not until we go home and sue his butt for termination without cause.” She pointed to a man with caramel skin so smooth he looked coated in chocolate. “Now that guy will make you feel better.”

Marguerite snatched up a paddle and began to fan herself. “God, I love the islands.”

Ava did not pick up a paddle. A smorgasbord of gorgeous men held no interest for her. I need time alone. Time to forget about Andrew.

“Stop thinking about A-hole, Ava. Think about that guy.” Shel pointed at a man who looked like he’d stepped from a golfing ad. Ava raised her now-empty gin martini to her mouth and nearly missed her own lips when he swiped a shock of dark hair from his forehead and winked in the direction of their table.

Marguerite nodded. “He’ll make you forget that loser.”

“He’d make me forget my own name.” Shel winked back at him. “And that’s saying something coming from me. I wonder if he’d let me watch… .”

Ava wanted to forget more than her own name this week. She wanted to forget her entire life. She intended to submerge her memories in alcohol—of her job in D.C. and the lying, cheating, asshole boss who said he loved her. Ava set down her empty glass. “I need more gin… pronto.”

A smiling pudgy man with a microphone waved from the stage at the crowd. His voice broke through the screams. “Are you excited?”

A deafening shrill filled the room. “I can’t hear you,” he teased.

Oh, God, Here we go. Tonight might call for tequila. Tequila made her sloppy drunk, but look what being fastidious about her life had led to. Nothing, that’s what.

Ava eased off the tall stool. “I need… something.” She wove her way through the sea of women who pressed toward the stage. She leaned onto the sticky bar surface and waved to the bartender at the other end. Even from ten feet away his teeth blinded her. Bartenders must have teeth-whitening clauses in their employment contracts. Stop thinking about the help in this place. Old habits were hard to break when you spent five years planning events and making sure other people had a good time.

“I’ll have three shots of your best tequila,” she said to the bartender. “Patron or Milagro. None of that Jose crap.”

He flashed her another brilliant smile. “Lady knows her liquor.”

“Ava! Ava!” Shel’s voice boomed over the crowd. She wildly gestured to a new guy who had joined the ever-increasing crush of men on stage, a surfer dude 100 percent not her type. Ava pursed her lips in response. Shel pointed to a guy who looked like he belonged on a yacht and lifted her eyebrows in question. Ava shook her head furiously. Shel nodded slowly and raised her paddle. Oh, no. Don’t you dare, Shel. She had to get back to the table before she found herself chained to a love slave she didn’t want.

Ava turned her attention back to the bar where Mr. White Teeth ran his fingers through his sandy hair and grinned at her. He’d set out three shots on the bar. Hmmm, not bad service.

She sipped a small amount to check the quality of the amber liquid. Years of working with catering staff taught her to always check. You couldn’t count on anyone getting anything right.

“What do you think?” When he leaned both hands against the bar, the muscles in his arm flexed. Not that I’m looking at his gorgeous muscles, nope, not looking.

“Not Patron or Milagro.”

“Very good. What do you think it is?”

She smacked her lips as if she was tasting fine wine. “Smooth with a hint of citrus.” She giggled. Tequila made a beeline for her brain, bypassing her stomach altogether.

“This isn’t what I ordered, though.” She had to shout given the announcer had launched into another pep talk. The crowd’s screaming made Ava wonder if she’d be able to hear in the morning.

“I like surprising beautiful women.” He threw her another blinding smile.

She chuffed. Bartenders also had a clause in their contract stating thou shall flirt with every patron. She’d know. She spent the last few years of her life telling her catering company’s bartenders to do the same.

He lifted a bottle she didn’t recognize and filled her empty shot glass. “On the house.”

“Oh, uh, thanks. Take one for you.”

“I’m on duty. But thanks. So what are you here for?” He settled onto his forearms, drawing closer to her.

“You don’t need to do that, ya know.”

“Do what?” Little crinkles formed around his dark grey eyes.

“Flirt. I’m in the business myself.” Well, she was.

“Professional flirting. Now that must be some job.” He smirked in a lazy, sexy way.

She laughed. It felt good to laugh naturally, not like the timed chuckling she’d learned to make her clients feel like they were the wittiest humans on earth. Yes, this bartender was good. He had the charm-your-panties-off act down pat.

He pushed himself off the bar and held out his hand. “I’m Bret.”

“Ava. Thanks.” She shook his hand. Stop noticing his arm muscles. She lifted her gaze. His hair looked like he hadn’t brushed it in days. It still fell across his forehead the right way. His eyes weren’t grey, but darker, like the color of the night ocean.

“Sure thing, beautiful. Enjoy your Gran Patrón Burdeos.” The words rolled off his tongue in a perfect Spanish accent. His hand descended to her forearm. “If you need anything, let me know.” His smile dropped. His face changed from boy-next-door to swarthy-and-dangerous in a nanosecond. Now he looked like a smoldering hot guy—DEFCON ONE material.

“No thanks.” She pulled her arm free. “I’m not in the market for—”

“Fun? You’re in the wrong place then.” His smile returned with such intensity she almost stepped backward. She watched Bret disappear into the crowd. Way to sound ungrateful. The guy—Bret—handed her the best tequila she’d ever had and given her a compliment. How did she repay him? Not only had she lost her ability to relax, she’d grown snarky.

She wormed her way back to Shel and Marguerite, holding her three precious shots. As soon as her butt hit her seat, she tossed one back.

“Where do you think they find them?” Marguerite hadn’t taken her eyes off the line-up of men.

Ava refused to look at the men on the stage. “Who cares? I do not want a guy.” She lifted one of her full shot glasses. “This is my date tonight.”

“Well, I want a guy and a date. Him,” Marguerite breathed. A tall, brown-skinned man with an ear piercing waved at her. Marguerite’s face softened into a lustful cloud.

The announcer flapped his hands and the nearly-all female patronage finally calmed—sort of. “Ladies, we have recruited every eligible bachelor on the Virgin Islands. Tonight they have graciously offered to turn the tables and let you choose them. Each man has pre-planned a date, so when you win him you get a guaranteed good time.” He whistled and the women’s squealing moved into new deafening territory.

“In addition to the men listed in your program we have one more addition to tonight’s auction, ladies. Bret Wright has graciously offered to join our auction at the last minute.” Ava’s face shot up. Bret, the bartender? Well, of course, he’d have to join his colleagues. She knew how these events worked. Every bartender in town lent themselves to these types of causes.

Ava felt his gaze descend on her when he stepped between Mr. Sailing Yacht and the Island God who Marguerite couldn’t tear her eyes from. Bret swiped his hair in a boyish way and grinned at her. She snapped her lips together mortified she’d been caught staring. He scanned the room and threw the crowd one of his million watt smiles. The screams became more deafening. Ava swore she could feel the floor move… but that might have been the tequila.

A female voice from the next table cut through the shrill. “Oh, my God. I can’t believe he’s doing it. We have to win him, Patty. What’s left on your dad’s credit card?”

The hairs on Ava’s neck bristled and she turned her head sharply toward the high-pitched voice. A tall Barbie doll-like girl, who looked barely legal, bit her lip and stared at Bret like he was dinner. Her brunette friend typed furiously on her phone. Checking her credit card balance? Seriously?

Ava turned back to her own friends. “Seems like the room is going to give you some competition.” She jerked her head backward to signal the two jail baits sitting at the table next to them.

“Nope. You’re going to win him,” Shel said. “He’s got Ava’s love slave written all over him. Look how he’s staring at you.”

Ava huffed out a half laugh. “Bret? Are you crazy?”

“See… you’re already calling him by his first name.” Shel smiled and nodded. “Oh, yeah. Ava’s love slave.”

They must have been too loud because Drunken Barbie leaned—or fell—toward Ava. “Give it up ladies. That fine man is mine.” She tilted her chin toward Bret so emphatically Ava feared for his life.

“Good luck.” Ava meant to sound friendly but the girl glowered in return.

“It’s so unattractive when desperate older women troll for younger men. Don’t ya’ll have husbands at home?”

“Excuse me?” At twenty-seven, Ava was hardly old. “Did you use a fake ID to get in here?”

“Screw you.” The brunette threw back the last of her cosmo.

Whatever.

Ava returned her attention to the stage. Through the women’s cheers, she caught every fourth word of the announcer. Mystery Date. Surprise. At your service.

Come to think of it, she could use a servant. Fetch me more tequila and then carry me back to my room. She giggled. Oh, yes, the tequila had begun to work its magic. She really should drink more.

As predicted the event was as organized as the chaotic last minutes of the Kentucky Derby. The announcer brought each man to the front of the stage and announced a starting bid of $50.

As the men were picked off one by one, the crowd began to grow more rowdy. The noise threatened to knock Ava off her chair. Girls grasped their winnings by the hands and hauled them from the stage as if someone might try to steal them.

Mr. Sailing Yacht went for $300. The surfer dude went for $270. Ava began to add up the winnings in her head. After the red-head went for $400, she thought, hmmm, not a bad night.

What was she doing? She slammed back another shot. Come on, tequila, do your thing. Make me forget about work and men and, well, everything.

Marguerite’s Island God sold at $550 to another woman, earning a deflated huff from Marguerite. They’d put up a good bidding war.

“Don’t you worry, Marguerite. Ava will share Brett with you.” Shel had breathed his name in an exaggerated way.

Drunken Barbie smacked Ava on the shoulder. “Bret Wright is not your type. He wants fun.”

Ava felt a scowl cross her face. She swung her head back to face the six men left on the stage. Fun? I’m fun, dammit.

Finally, Bret stepped forward and his face stretched into a lazy, comfortable grin. Like he’d done this a hundred times. Because he probably has. Ava adjusted on her stool. Whoopsie! Nearly fell off.

“You okay?” Marguerite asked.

“I’m fine.” I’m drunk—finally.

Bret threw Ava a wicked smile. Daring me? Perhaps she could use a weekend with someone who held no potential for a future or for breaking anything but the monotony her life had begun to epitomize. Break her losing streak, but not her heart?

Out of her periphery she watched Drunken Barbie hold up her paddle and leave it there. “I’ll outbid anyone in this room,” she said. “Especially her.” She tipped her paddle toward Ava.

What the hell? “Oh, really little girl?”

Shel arched her eyebrow at Ava and lifted her martini glass. “Now are you ready?”

Ava brought her final tequila shot to meet Shel’s toast and clinked. “Game on.” Ava threw back the liquid courage and stood. She lifted her paddle. “One thousand dollars.”

Who cared if she was about to blow a week’s salary on a guy she’d never see again? Andrew’s guilt had provided her a fantastic severance package. It was time she lived a little. Ava threw Credit Card Barbie a saccharine smile. “It’s for the children.”