Can’t Buy My Love

Shelli Stevens

Chapter 1

I had sex again last night. This time with Mr. Walden three rooms down.”

I didn’t want to hear this. God, I didn’t want to hear this. We strolled down the produce aisle at the Grocery Guru and I grabbed a peach, pretending to check its damage.

“I do have to say, he wasn’t nearly as proficient in bed as Mr. Nickels was last month… Jessica Davis, are you even listening to me?”

Okay, obviously feigning indifference wasn’t going to work with her. “Yes, I’m listening, Grams. You had sex with Mr. Walden.”

My grandma gave a quiet harrumph and shot me a skeptical look. “It just doesn’t make sense. Surely if someone my age can have a healthy sex life, then someone as virile as you should be getting some too.”

Getting some? God, when would she quit?

My friends seemed to think it was great that I had a grandma who was still comfortable with her own sexuality and even acted on it. But being on the receiving end of constant sex stories and talks about improving one’s love life just wasn’t that fabulous.

“You know, there’s this young man who works in the Peaceful Woods cafeteria.” She gave me a thoughtful look and I could practically hear the wheels in her head turning. “You should let me introduce you to him. He seems young and healthy. Why, I bet he’d have wonderful stamina.

Okay, surely she wasn’t talking about the pimply faced kid who’d just turned twenty-one a few months ago. I’d been there when the entire community of senior citizens had thrown him an impromptu party. Brought him balloons shaped like beer bottles, a bag of condoms, and then pinned a button on his shirt that said, “Trust me, I’m legal.”

“Maybe you’ve seen him? His name’s Andy. Red hair, pretty blue eyes…”

Yup. She was definitely talking about the kid. I wasn’t sure why my grandma was so determined to set me up, but for God’s sake, couldn’t she pick someone who wasn’t a decade younger than me?

“Hey, grab me a couple of those avocados, Jessie, and make sure they’re squishy. I don’t like them too hard.” She poked me in the ribs with her cane and guffawed. “Well, my fruit that is.”

I obliged her request and swallowed a groan. Could this have sucked a little more? I mean, I loved my grandma, but, seriously, there was a line and Grams was notorious at crossing it.

“Anyway, I have a favor to ask you.”

“Another one? I’m still trying to recover from the last one.” Chaperoning a dance full of senior citizens. I swear there was something in the water at Peaceful Woods, because the folks there were the horniest batch of AARP members I’d ever seen. “Okay, what’s up, Grams?”

“Do you remember the Buy a Dame auction that happens every summer?” Yuck. How could I forget?

The auction was a notorious fundraiser that the town put on every August to raise money for the public schools. Women dressed up in revealing clothing and paraded in front of the single male population on Leaf Island. Overall, it was a bit sleazy, with the highest bidder getting to keep the woman for twenty-four hours. The men loved it, and the women who were within the age of participation usually scrambled to get in.

Technically, it was supposed to be rather innocent. Just cooking, cleaning, and a woman to take out on the town—there were no sexual expectations. But I knew for a fact more than one woman had met their husband that way.

Gotta love life in small towns. Thank God I was too old for that kind of pony show though.

“I’m the one hard of hearing, not you. Answer me, girl. You remember that auction?”

I smiled at the produce boy who was arranging the apples, and tried not to get annoyed by her tone. “I remember it. What’s going on?”

“We’re short of girls this year.”

Ah, I’d forgotten Grams was on the committee. Had Leaf Island never had the auction? What would they do if they were short of women? Would they cancel it? Though I hated the auction itself, I knew the money went to a good cause.

“Are you going to have to cancel?”

“No. I want you to go up for auction.”

I clenched my fingers around the red apple I was loading into a plastic bag. Surely, I heard that wrong. But just in case I hadn’t, “I’m too old, Grams.”

“Bah!” She rolled her eyes. “I spoke to the committee and they’re willing to make an exception for you. You’re thirty-one so you only missed the cutoff by one year. You’re pretty enough—have good skin. And you could probably pass for twenty-nine.”

Pretty enough? I bristled. “I don’t think so, Grams. You know I love you and would do almost anything for you. But I draw the line at being pimped out for an auction.”

“Oh, but…” Her lips started to tremble and she shook her head. “Think of the children. The school district has already gone through most of their allotted budget, and if—”

“All right.” Jeez, she sure knew where my guilt button was. I adored kids, and thoroughly planned on popping out some of my own. Grams knew that all too well. “I suppose I could do it. When is it?”

The moment the words left my mouth I regretted them. Why? Why had I just agreed to do it?

“Wonderful! I figured you’d say yes, so I signed you up. The auction is later today down at the senior center.”

My stomach clenched, and my hands got sweaty. I didn’t even have time to be pissed that she’d already signed me up. “Today? I couldn’t possibly be ready that soon.”

Sure you could. I have an appointment booked at Betty’s Beauty Boutique in a half hour. She’s going to give you a manicure, pedicure, and wax your eyebrows.”

“Wax my eyebrows?” Heat spread up into my face. Oh God. I’d never even taken tweezers to those suckers. And now she wanted someone to dump hot wax on them before ripping them off my face?

“You know, I changed my mind. This really isn’t my thing. I’m not auction material—I’m an accountant.”

“That doesn’t even make sense.” Grams straightened to her whole five-foot-one height and glared up at me. “You have the potential to be a beautiful woman who knows how to have fun. And it’s about time you realize it.”

Potential to be beautiful? I glanced at the mirrored walls above the bananas. Was I so bad to begin with? My brown hair wasn’t too exciting, but it was long and it had never garnered any complaints. I had contacts if I chose to wear them, but glasses were just easier. “Come on, girl, my ice cream is melting. And we need to get you to Betty.”

And just like that, my night and possibly the next two days were lined up for me.

Chapter 2

Just a few hours later, I stood in a back room at the senior center, now dubbed the dressing room. I stared in the mirror, poking at my face and fluffing my new shoulder length cut. It was incredible. Grams had been right. I was actually pretty. Not just passable, but pretty.

The area around my eyebrows was still slightly red from being waxed and plucked to trendy standards. And damn if they didn’t look good. With my unibrow gone and my arch perfected—who knew there was a technique to the arch?—my blue eyes really stood out. Especially since I now wore contacts.

Anna Emmerson, who at twenty-one had just turned of age to participate in the auction, shouldered me out of the way so she could look in the mirror.

“I hope Matt Donaldson bids on me. He’s loaded and just going through a divorce.”

“Yeah, because he’s addicted to prescription pain meds,” I muttered under my breath.

“You aren’t going up for auction, are you?” she asked me while stroking on enough eyeliner to look like she’d been in a fight.

“Actually, I am.”

“Oh. You’re kind of fa…old.”

My vision blurred and I could feel my blood pressure rise. She’d been about to call me fat. Fat! I was a size twelve, the nationwide average nowadays. Or was it fourteen? Why was I doing this auction again?

“All right, ladies, time to line up! Three minutes!” Grams called.

The giggling women tossed their hair, adjusted their boobs, and smacked their lips while trailing out into the hallway.

One last glimpse in the mirror showed that I really did look pretty damn good. I narrowed my eyes and then reached into the neckline of my black dress, pulling my breasts higher up in my bra until I had an impressive amount of cleavage. Another swipe of red lipstick and I was ready.

Spinning toward the door, I realized I was already a ways behind the other women. I ran from the room and collided into something so hard it sent me reeling backward.

Strong hands caught me before I could fall on my butt and I reached up to steady myself, grabbing solid biceps. Lifting my gaze, I saw the nicest pair of brown eyes I’d ever seen. Eyes that glittered down at me with interest and what seemed like recognition.

Did I know him? Goose bumps broke out on my body and my pulse quickened.

I swallowed hard and took a step backward, expanding my line of vision and taking all of him in. Whoa. The arms that had kept me from falling had some type of Celtic symbols circling both forearms before disappearing under his T-shirt.

Jerking my gaze from his arms, I looked into his face again. Above a scruffy goatee was a mocking smile.

“What’s your hurry?”

I blinked. “I need to go sell myself.”

“Sell yourself?” He raised an eyebrow. “Sounds kinky.”

For some bizarre reason, my body got all warm at the way he looked at me. And the way he said “kinky” hadn’t helped.

“It’s not. Well, it’s not supposed to be.”

“Ah.”

The heat spread to my cheeks as his gaze moved from my head down to my toes. Did he like what he saw?

Stop gawking at the man and get your ass moving.

I forced myself to walk past him. “I need to go.”

My grandma came running out from the other room, glaring at me. “You need to get your fanny on stage. The bidding is about to start.”

She turned to look at Mr. Tattoo and narrowed her eyes. Before she could accuse him of being a punk ass liberal, I grabbed her elbow and steered her back into the auction room.

Grams pushed me toward the stage, where the rest of the cattle, er, women, waited to be sold.

I took my place in line, which now was last, and waited for the bidding to begin. Looking out over the room, I saw it was packed with men. Men in suits who likely worked at the one company on the island that required them to be worn. Men in hard hats that had taken an extended lunch hour from the construction site. Men in cowboy hats, baseball caps and—damn there were just men everywhere. But no Mr. Tattoo. Annoyed at myself for even looking, and wondering why the heck I cared, I smoothed my hands down my black dress.

How much would I go for anyway? What was standard? A couple of hundred? Jeez, the way I looked, I could probably get half a grand.

I watched Grams wrestle with the microphone and wave to the room. “Hello, boys. You ready to bid on girl number one?” There was a roar of excitement. “All right. Then first up Can’t Buy My Love we have Anna Emmerson. Anna, step forward, please. Bidding starts at five dollars.”

Anna stepped forward. Young, thin, blonde, perky boobs, and she made the best strawberry shortcake in town. She would bring in some serious bids. I shook my head, already doing the math in my mind.

The bidding started, and I could barely keep up as she went from five dollars to three hundred within minutes. She sold for five hundred dollars in the end. I was completely blown away, but then, some cattle rancher who’d moved to town bought her.

I bit back a smile, thinking if Anna could get half a grand without a college education, then I was going to bring in some serious dough.

The rest of the women sold just as fast, ranging anywhere from fifty dollars to three hundred, though nobody matched Anna. It seemed like a lot to pay for just twenty-four hours with a girl, but then again the men in town saved up for this auction.

“And last, we have Jessica Davis, my lovely granddaughter.”

Ah, finally my turn. Placing a hand on my hip, I stepped forward with an “I’m the next Miss America” grin, and waited to hear the bids shouted out.

This was it. This was my moment of glory. This was…dead silence.

My smile froze a bit as I glanced around the room. Had I suddenly lost my hearing? Most of the men were looking at me like I was the horse that might have to be put down. A handful of guys even got up and left.

Cold sweat broke out over my body, as panic caused my pulse to skyrocket. Oh God. It was actually happening. The reason I’d never bothered to sign up for this auction before.

The fear that nobody would bid on me.

There was literally nobody bidding on me.

Grams cleared her throat. “Jessie makes a wonderful apple pie from scratch. Don’t you, Jess?”

I’d never made a pie in my life. I could barely manage to push a frozen Sara Lee in the oven.

“Sure,” I mumbled, my lips numb even though I kept smiling. A few of the girls behind me snickered and my cheeks burned. I wanted the stage to just crack and swallow me whole.

“Four dollars and fifty cents.” A shaky voice finally rang out.

Grams sighed. “Oh, dear. Mr. Smith, this isn’t a bargaining auction. Bidding must actually start at five dollars.”

“All right, fine. Five dollars then,” he grumbled. More giggling came from behind me. Waldo Smith? My stomach dropped and I wanted to jump off the stage to end my misery. Heck, I’d risk a broken leg to escape him any day.

Waldo Smith was, like, eighty years old. I’d heard the horrific stories from the girls in the dressing room. Waldo’s sole purpose of buying a girl was to have her read him stories in dirty magazines and wash down his urine-saturated bathroom.

“Wonderful. Do I hear five dollars and fifty cents?”

Dead silence. It was so quiet you could hear the ticking from the grandfather clock in the back. Somebody sneezed. This was it. I was going to spend my time mopping up piss when I wasn’t busy narrating porn.

“Come on, boys, do it for the children!” Grams begged. “Or there’ll be no new books next year.” A few more men got up and left, rather than face the guilt trip from Grams.

I lowered my head. All of a sudden, I didn’t feel so pretty anymore. Obviously, a makeover and a nice dress hadn’t done an ounce of good. Nobody wanted me except a dirty old man that couldn’t hit the toilet.

“One thousand dollars.” A voice ripped through the silence, reverberating in the room.

“Sold!” Grams yelled.

My chin jerked up as my jaw dropped and my eyes went wide. Who the hell had just paid one thousand dollars for me? For me! I looked around the room, desperate to find the voice. The whispers behind me went rampant.

“Did he just say one thousand dollars?”

“Do you see him? Oh my God! He looks like a Hell’s Angel.”

“I’d rather have Mr. Smith.”

I finally found him, leaning against the wall in the back. The same lazy smile on his face that he’d had in the hallway a short time ago. Mr. Tattoo had just bought me.

Chapter 3

You can probably find a way out, you know.”

We were back in the dressing room, packing our things up and getting ready to go meet the men who’d bought us. Anna, the girl who’d called me fat earlier, was more than eager to dump her advice on me.

“He paid a thousand dollars for me. I couldn’t possibly back out.” I couldn’t resist shoving that in her face, in all their faces. “One thousand dollars. We’ve never had an auction go that high before. It will go far for the school children.”

“Jessica, I swear he’s going to sacrifice you to the devil or something,” one of the younger girls said.

“I’ll bet he brings her back to his friends for a gangbang.”

I made a face. Ugh. Had Anna really just said the word gangbang? This was the girl who blushed at the word vagina. They were in a semicircle around me, eyes wide as they tried to talk me out of the date. Until they’d pointed out the horrific possibilities that might lie ahead of me, it had never occurred to me to be afraid of Mr. Tattoo.

I threw my makeup into my tote bag along with a change of clothes and shoes. When I glanced up into the mirror, my cheeks were flushed and my eyes looked unusually bright. Was I actually excited about this?

I pictured the man and how he’d looked at me in the hall. Not like I was the fat girl who got picked last, but like I was prime rib at the local steak house. Little flutters in my tummy started.

“Ladies.” I turned and inclined my head regally. “I know this must seem awfully frightening to you. But if it raises money for the children, then I will honor the outcome of the auction.”

A few of the girls sighed and actually looked impressed. God, they were easy. Anna just folded her arms across her perky tits and frowned.

“Well, don’t say we didn’t warn you. If you come back with chlamydia you have only yourself to blame.”

Now she was flinging STDs at me? Like I was going to actually sleep with Mr. Tattoo?

All of a sudden, I thought about his rigid biceps under my hands, the way his entire body had looked so hard, so muscular. What would he be like in bed? Would he be wild and dangerous, just like his image? The thought was unexpected and made the fluttering in my stomach turn hot and move down between my thighs.

“Have fun, ladies.” I shouldered my tote bag and left the room, my heels clicking on the linoleum floor.

Mr. Tattoo waited for me near the exit sign, watching me as I made my way down the hall. My bravado and excitement slipped a little with each step closer to him. Twenty-four hours. I would be with this man for twenty-four hours.

“Jessica Davis.” A slow smile spread across his face. “So you’re gonna be my bitch for the weekend.”

My feet stumbled. He’d just called me his bitch. How the hell was I supposed to react to that?

“Uh, I guess so. Although you might not wanna call me your bitch if you want to keep on my good side.” I took the last few steps that separated us.

“My apologies. Trying to be funny. Guess I missed the mark.”

“Just a little bit. I don’t remember seeing you around the island. You’re not local, are you?”

He raised an eyebrow and shook his head. “Technically I’m from Augusta.” Ah, that made more sense, but what was he doing on Leaf Island?

“My grandpa was Randal Thomas. He owned Fisherman’s Feast.”

My eyes widened and suddenly I wasn’t looking at a grown man, but a sixteen-year-old boy who’d loved to attack me with squirt guns. Who’d made me shriek while chasing me with the fish he’d just caught. Who’d been my first kiss so many years ago.

He nodded. “Ah, so you do remember me.”

It suddenly seemed hard to swallow. “Yeah, I do.”

Josh Thomas. Now I recognized him. It’d just been a little hard with the tattoos and goatee. Talk about a change! He used to spend his summers on the island. Man, I hadn’t seen him since the summer I turned sixteen. After he graduated high school and our little kiss was long forgotten. By then he’d moved on to Tina Schillings, who’d already slept with half the teenage boys in town.

“I was sorry to hear about your grandpa, Josh.”

He shoved his hands into the pockets of his jeans and offered a brief smile. “Yeah, me too. He was a good guy. I would have gotten down here earlier, soon after the funeral, but some things came up.”

Somebody passed us in the hall, bumping into me and sending me stumbling up against Josh. Once again, he reached out to steady me.

“Thanks.” I looked up and our gazes locked. I watched his pupils dilate, heard him inhale quickly.

My stomach did a little flippy thing again, and I stepped away quickly.

“Are you ready to go?” His voice had turned gruff.

I nodded, and my new bangs fell into my eyes. I pushed them away.

“All right.” He gave a quick nod. “Follow me.”

He pushed open the door, stepping outside as the sunshine spilled into the hallway of the senior center. I took a deep breath, looking at his silhouette against the bright Maine sky, and then walked outside.

“So where did you park?” I asked while following him through the parking lot. He glanced back at me with another big smile but didn’t answer my question. We kept weaving between cars, until I saw it all by itself at the end of the row. I stumbled in my heels. It was a motorcycle. A big one.

“Umm…” I bit my lip.

“You ever been on a Harley before?”

“The only bike I’ve ever ridden was my Huffy when we were kids.”

“Well, then, aren’t you in for a treat?” He laughed and tugged off the jacket he now wore. “You’re going to need to wear this over that tiny dress.”

“Thanks.” I slipped my arms into his jacket but didn’t bother to zip it up. It hit well past my hips and smelled like him. Leather and sandalwood.

“Looks good on you. Now this.” He handed me a spare helmet and then fastened his own on.

I struggled with the helmet, managing to put it on, but the straps part eluded me.

“Here, let me.” He closed the distance between us and deftly secured the helmet on my head. His breath was warm against my face, the smell of him teasing my senses.

He didn’t pull away immediately, and the tiny hairs all over my body lifted as I became aware of the differences in our bodies. He was so tall, so muscular, and just so hard everywhere. I felt almost dainty, and I was not a dainty woman by any means.

“Jessie.” My name was a whisper on lips that hovered just above my mouth.

I think I moaned, or made some kind of strange sound. His gaze dropped to my mouth and I leaned toward him, closing my eyes. Nothing happened. Then he sighed and the heat from his body was gone.

“We should go.”

My eyes snapped open and a blush heated my cheeks. He turned away and straddled the bike. Lord, what had I been doing? Trying to get him to kiss me?

“Hop on, I’m gonna take you for one helluva ride.”

His words evoked images of another kind of ride that could’ve been fun. But this would have to do. I glanced down, remembering what I was wearing. Ah, what the hell. After hiking the dress up around my thighs, I swung a leg over the leather seat and sat down behind him.

He reached back and took my arms, pulling them around his waist. Oh, Lordy, what a stomach he had on him. Definitely not a teenage boy anymore, but a grown man. A very buff grown man.

My hands seemed to take on a mind of their own and actually started to wander over the taut muscles on his abdomen, which suddenly bounced with laughter.

Oh, this was embarrassing. He probably thought I was some horny chick that hadn’t been laid in months. Which was true, but damn it, he didn’t have to know that. And I wasn’t exactly desperate.

Milton down at my office asked me out five times in the last year. I could’ve gotten a date if I really wanted one.

Grimacing, I laced my fingers together to keep from feeling Josh up again. My nipples were tight now and pressing snug against the leather of his jacket.

The motorcycle roared to life, vibrating between my thighs. As if I wasn’t getting turned on enough by the man himself, the bike was now going to add its support. Moisture pooled between my legs, and I bit my lip to avoid groaning.

The bike shot forward. With a yelp of fear, I forgot my loose grasp around his waist and hung on for dear life, burying my face into his solid back.

The wind whipped at my hair as we tore out of the parking lot and onto the coastal highway. After a few minutes of riding, the fear faded and exhilaration took its place. Adrenaline rushed through my blood and a huge grin spread across my face. I cried out in excitement as he took a corner, leaning the bike through the turn.

Where was he taking me? I stared out at the ocean, watching the waves that crashed onto the beach just below the road. Swiping my tongue over my now dry lips, I tasted the salty sea air.

I lifted my head when he steered the bike onto Rockport Street. Ah, so that was where he was taking me. I should have figured it out earlier. Had his grandpa left him the house?

Josh turned the bike onto the waterfront property and killed the engine.

I pulled away from him and eased myself off the motorcycle. My thighs still trembled as if I were still riding. Fidgeting with the straps of my helmet, I finally managed to pull it off.

“How’d you do?” he asked while pulling off his own helmet and hanging it over the handlebar of the bike.

“That was pretty cool.” I set my helmet down like his on the opposite handlebar and grinned. “Can we do it again soon?”

“Hell yeah.” He stepped forward and settled his big hands on my hips. “But first, I need to make something up to you.”

My body trembled, and it had nothing to do with the aftereffects of the bike this time. “Oh, what’s that?”

“A really bad kiss I gave you when we were kids.” His head lowered, blocking out the sun, and then came the first soft brush of his lips against mine.

He lifted his mouth just slightly, and his breath was warm against my lips as he murmured, “I wanted to do this earlier, in the parking lot. But I didn’t want to freak anyone out for your safety any more than they already were.”

He kissed me again, rubbing his lips on mine in a slow, firm kiss that had my knees going weak. When he outlined my bottom lip with his tongue, I opened my mouth for him.

He slipped inside with a sound of approval, immediately seeking out my tongue with his. He tasted sweet, confident, and dangerous. And I wanted all of it.

His goatee tickled my chin, more tangible proof at how very male he was. I slipped my arms around his neck and pulled him closer. He deepened the kiss, sucking on my tongue and sending darts of pleasure straight to the ache between my legs. He finally pulled back, dragging in air while I did the same.

Tracing his thumb over my swollen lips, he stared down at me with a hooded gaze. “I have to say, Jessie, you sure have grown up.”

His words sent a thrill of excitement through me. “I have news for you. I grew up years ago.” I licked my lips. “You just weren’t around to enjoy the results.”

His mouth stretched into a sexy smile. “But I am now.”

“Yes, you are.” I glanced at him through my lashes, my heart thudding as I stepped past him and headed toward the front door. “And by the way, you didn’t have to make up for anything. You’ve always been a good kisser.”