Authors: Rachelle J. Christensen
erek craned his neck
, trying to follow the woman in the purple dress. Her blond curls were pinned up loosely around her feathered mask, which covered more of her face than some of the other masks he’d seen. The way she moved reminded him of Lexi. From across the room he’d been certain it was her, but Lexi always wore her hair straight.
In his hurry to follow her, he almost ran into Eliza Crowe, who gave him an appraising look. “Well, good evening, Derek. Are you enjoying yourself?”
“I am. It looks like the night will be a success.”
“Oh, this is just the beginning.” Eliza ran her fingers down Derek’s forearm. She wore black gloves that reached past her elbows. “There are some huge sponsors here, and I happen to know that one of them is interested in you.”
Derek pretended not to be concerned, but he was starting to worry. What if JoNelle was helping front a bid for Eliza? He recalled Lexi’s warnings about his overzealous competition. For the first time, he wished he’d taken her advice and found a sponsor.
Eliza scrutinized him, waiting for an answer. “You have a lot of talent, and people are starting to take notice,” she purred.
“Thank you. I enjoy my work—for me, it requires solitude to get into the zone. I’m just grateful that my photography can do something positive for Kauai and the local economy.” He tightened his jaw because he sounded like a dork, but he hoped Eliza caught the hint. She narrowed her eyes, and Derek remembered how hard she’d tried to convince him to form a partnership with her when he first came to Kauai.
“You’d be wise to consider all of your options.” Eliza placed a hand on her chest, as if he should consider her as one of his options.
“I told you before that I’m not interested in working with you, regardless of the circumstances.” Derek’s words were flat.
Eliza shrugged and took a step away from him, but then she turned her head and called over her shoulder, “Oh, did you hear? They’re changing up the booth spaces at art night. I doubt Hanapepe will be seeing much more of Fuse Photography.”
Derek swiveled on his heel without a reply. How could Eliza mess with his space at art night? He strode across the room toward the stage, looking for JoNelle. He needed to do something to keep Eliza from bidding on him. Lexi had been right—whatever Eliza had planned, it wasn’t good.
He scanned the room, but when he found JoNelle she was holding a microphone. “Ladies and gentlemen, it’s time for the auction to begin. The bachelors are on their way to the stage now. Please prepare yourselves for this exciting event.”
Derek’s steps were robotic as he moved toward the stage. JoNelle’s announcement faded behind the ringing in his ears. He tried to reassure himself that Eliza couldn’t hurt him, but the fact that she knew about his booth at art night was not a good sign.
As he climbed the steps to the stage and turned to face the crowd, looking for Eliza, his eyes landed on the blond woman in the beautiful purple-and-gold dress he’d seen before. She was watching him, but she ducked behind someone else when he caught her eye.
Derek took a deep breath.
Lexi’s not here,
but I wish she was.
exi had barely escaped
when Derek spotted her. It thrilled her that his gaze had turned to one of recognition and curiosity, but at the same time, she panicked as she hurried through the ball gowns, trying not to trip in her six-inch heels. The masquerade ball was glorious, with Hawaiian greenery, plumeria, bougainvillea, and palm trees dotting the room. White twinkle lights were draped around the entryways, and the stage looked like it was a cross between a medieval castle and a Hawaiian paradise. But Lexi wasn’t concentrating on the décor or the food; she kept her attention glued to the predator she’d seen stalking Derek moments before.
Eliza Crowe’s sleek black hair was styled in a tight chignon, and her mask was wreathed in black feathers with sparkling rhinestones. The feathers climbed up in a tuft above her head, which made her easy to spot across the ballroom. She wore a sleeveless black gown with iridescent panels that reminded Lexi of the black crows she’d seen on the roadside. Lexi pressed her lips together and willed the ball of nerves between her shoulders to relax. Eliza would not win tonight.
The first bachelor stepped forward next to JoNelle, who opened the bidding at ten thousand dollars. Lexi’s mouth dropped open when the man was awarded to the highest bidder a half a minute later at the sweet price of sixty-five thousand dollars. Lexi’s palms were sweating in her purple gloves as she considered how much preparation Eliza must have put into her plan if she really thought she had a chance to win Derek.
Eliza walked toward the center of the room and then stopped to whisper to a couple dressed in elegant evening wear. The woman’s teal gown reminded Lexi of a peacock, and the man held a mask that resembled a fox. They laughed and watched the stage. Eliza leaned toward the woman and whispered something else before walking to a table with two men. What if Eliza wasn’t planning to purchase Derek after all? She could have teamed up with anyone in her quest to sabotage Derek. Lexi’s mouth went dry. She’d arrived at this ball intending to watch and make sure that Eliza didn’t win, but now she wasn’t sure who her rival might be.
Lexi clenched her hands into fists as the next bachelor went for seventy-six thousand dollars. She scanned the crowd and made eye contact with Derek. With a squeak, she stepped to the side and ducked behind a professional basketball player. She gripped her bidding paddle and moved surreptitiously through the crowd along the back wall in semi-darkness. Derek was the twelfth bachelor up for auction, and Lexi didn’t have much time left to figure out the best strategy to protect his photography business, keep Eliza’s grabby hands off her man, and save their relationship.
erek kept catching
sight of the woman in the purple ball gown, but it was only a glimpse before she disappeared again. Every time he saw her, he wanted to leap off the stage and remove her mask to see if jade eyes hid beneath the rim of rhinestones, feathers, and glitter.
JoNelle had instructed all the bachelors to appear confident and happy because they didn’t have anything to worry about. Derek looked at the center of the room and his mouth tightened into a thin line. Eliza sat near two men who, by the looks of the expensive cut of their tuxedos, were probably sponsors. They sipped from wine glasses, and Eliza appeared cool and poised, her bidding paddle resting on the table in front of her. Her demeanor changed when the announcer started reading Derek’s bio; she straightened, picked up her paddle, and smiled at Derek as if he were a plate of lobster. Derek forced himself to look away from Eliza and smile at the crowd. He prayed that someone, anyone, besides Eliza would win the bid.
JoNelle kept upping the starting bid as the night progressed, so Derek’s spot opened up with a bid of fifty-five thousand dollars. The amount of money was dizzying when Derek thought of all the ways he could use even half of that. But he stood up straighter and smiled wider, because the cause was a good one. The number of refugees tonight’s benefit could help was just as staggering as the bidding prices—the goal of one million dollars didn’t seem insurmountable anymore.
Someone in the crowd called out a bid for seventy thousand dollars. The woman wearing a teal gown was not Eliza, so Derek breathed a sigh of relief. But then Eliza stood and waved her paddle. “One hundred thousand dollars for Derek Mitchell,” she called out, her face triumphant.
Several people stopped talking and turned to stare at Eliza. Derek narrowed his eyes, studying the two men next to her. Their eyes flicked to his and he straightened once again, smoothing his features.
“Wonderful!” JoNelle clapped. “We have a bid from Eliza Crowe for one hundred thousand dollars for Derek Mitchell.” She paused and scanned the crowd, where several people clapped appreciatively toward Eliza as if she had won him already.
With a jolt, Derek realized that no one was bidding against her. His breath hitched as he watched JoNelle in slow motion, gavel in hand, step back to the stand where she would finalize the sale.
“One million dollars for bachelor number twelve,” a clear voice shouted from the back of the ballroom.
The sea of glittering ball gowns and expensive tuxedos parted to reveal the woman in purple holding up her bidding paddle. The number was 117, printed in black on her white card. Derek shook his head as the rush of voices reached him.
“Did I hear that correctly?” JoNelle asked as she stepped forward.
The beautiful blonde with cascading purple, white, and gold flowers trailing from her mask held her paddle up higher. “Yes, one million dollars for Derek Mitchell!”
Applause erupted all over the room as the gavel fell. Derek stared at the woman, her stance, the way she held the paddle high above her head. It was all familiar, and his gut twisted as a dozen theories swirled in his head.
But none of those theories were as powerful as the words he heard next.
“And the highest bidder is number one-seventeen, Kauai’s newest billionaire. She has worked for several years with Jordan Burke Enterprises, and recently the company exploded on the international market, making her worth just over a billion dollars. Congratulations to the beautiful and generous Lexi Burke.”
flamed underneath the mask, and her insides writhed in agony as she watched the shock slide over Derek’s face. As the crowd moved to congratulate her, she lost sight of Derek and dropped her paddle to the ground. They weren’t supposed to know it was her. She hadn’t put her name on anything, but somehow they knew. She thought back to the check-in that night and the knowing look the man had given her when he’d handed her the bidding number—“Burke Enterprises, huh? Guess you’re going to make a splash tonight.”
Lexi had been speechless. The fact that he even knew about her business was confusing, but now it made sense. All of the applications had to be vouched for so that people could actually afford to pay cash for the bachelors they bid on. They had done their homework, but because it was a masquerade ball, she thought there might be anonymity involved in the actual bidding.
By the time Lexi made her way to the front of the room, the last bachelor had been sold for a healthy sum of one hundred twenty-five thousand dollars. She should’ve been smiling because she had just helped to change the world and Derek’s life in the same night, but she kept seeing his face when they announced her name. The shock and betrayal cut to Lexi’s core. On her way to the masquerade ball, she’d convinced herself that it wouldn’t be so bad if Derek found out that she was rich, but JoNelle had announced that Lexi was Kauai’s newest
. Lexi would just have to explain to Derek that she really wasn’t a billionaire. Burke Enterprises must have increased in value.
“Oh, there you are, Lexi dear.” JoNelle came up beside her. “That was impressive. We’d like to get some pictures, if you don’t mind. Your costume is absolutely divine, by the way.”
She motioned for Lexi to follow her onto the stage, where a group of men in sport coats and tuxedos stood. The group shifted, and there was Derek in his striking gray sport coat and hair spiked in all the right places. His new camera sat next to him, the supple leather strap hanging off the table. He didn’t look at Lexi.
“Okay, Derek, work your magic,” JoNelle said.
He nodded and adjusted the camera over his neck. Then he climbed off the stage and focused on Lexi. She turned to JoNelle with a questioning look.
“Oh, Derek had a fantastic idea. He thought it would be great to have us take a picture of him taking a picture of you.”
Lexi forced a smile. “Yes, that’s nice.” She saw another photographer to the side of Derek with his camera aimed on the two of them. Lexi tilted her head toward Derek, but she didn’t smile. Her lips could be described as a demure pout, and if someone looked too close, they might see her bottom lip trembling slightly. She held the pose until the photographer grabbed the shots he wanted.
“Let’s have a few of you together now,” JoNelle said.
Derek climbed back on stage, leaving his camera hanging from his neck. He stood next to Lexi and when his fingers brushed hers, it was like a flash of heat.
“Derek, I couldn’t let Eliza win that bid,” Lexi whispered.
“Later.” He smiled for the camera until JoNelle announced that they could leave.
Derek offered his arm to Lexi as they walked off the stage, but she could feel the anger radiating off him like the tiki torches outside the building. He moved stiffly, and with each step Lexi felt like she was walking toward a boiling volcano. They exited the ballroom and stood in a semi-darkened hallway that led to the kitchen.
“One million dollars?” Derek said as soon as the door clicked shut behind them.
“I didn’t know how much they were willing to spend. I wanted to put a stop to it quickly.” Lexi grabbed his arm. “Derek, I’m sorry, but Eliza had something planned and I didn’t want to risk you getting hurt.”
Derek shrugged his arm from under her. “You vouched for me?” Derek spat. “This camera? How much did you have to shell out to get that little deal done?”
Lexi stepped back. The venom in his voice burned through her. He wasn’t listening and he’d already jumped to the topic of his new job. She’d been right to be worried. “I didn’t pay anything—”
“Oh, that’s right, I’m sure you didn’t. But Burke Enterprises did.” Derek raked his fingers through the spiked part of his hair. “A billionaire? You never gave me a clue. I thought you were like me!”
“I am like you.” Lexi ripped her mask off. It tangled with her curls, and she winced. “I’ve worked hard my entire life for every dollar and it paid off. Why does that make me a bad person?”
“You lied to me.”
“No, I never lied, but I couldn’t tell you everything when you were so busy bagging on anyone you thought had ten dollars more than you.”
He rocked back on his heels. “Is that how you see me? Poor little Derek who can’t make it on his own?”
Lexi rubbed a hand across her forehead. “No, that’s how you see yourself. You’re always comparing yourself to someone you think has more than you when you have everything right here. You have the life people would pay millions for.” Lexi blew out a breath. “You’ve always had everything, but you’re too busy going to your own pity party to see it.”
Derek shook his head. “I don’t understand.”
“I don’t expect you to, but you should at least try. Derek, don’t you know me? I am not my money.”
“But a billion dollars?” He looked down at the camera hanging from his neck and scowled. If he tried to give the camera back, Lexi would snap.
She had to get him to understand. “Derek, listen. I didn’t even know I was worth that much until they announced it tonight. Jordan told me he was going to sell some of our factories in China. He must have made quite the profit. And they could be combining my total worth with all of Burke enterprises, so maybe I’m not a billionaire after all.”
“It doesn’t matter.” Derek clenched his fist. “You’re just as bad as every rich snob who’s kicked me along the way. Maybe worse—at least I knew who was kicking me then.”
Lexi gasped and shook her head. “You don’t mean that.”
“Well, you can vouch for someone else, because I’m through with this charade.” Derek turned and stomped down the hall.
His footsteps pounded out a cadence that matched the blood pumping through Lexi’s temples. An instant headache seared behind her eyes, and she slumped back against the wall, covering her face. Derek was a volcano, spewing lava everywhere. Even if Lexi fled Kauai, she’d still be covered in ash, her skin burned and raw, just like her heart.
his car into gear, cursing at the rusty piece of junk as the engine sputtered and groaned to life. A new car to Lexi would be like pocket change. He punched the dash and cried out when a jolting pain shot through his wrist. He wanted to feel the pain—a physical pain instead of the emotional turmoil boiling his insides.
How could he be so stupid? He’d ignored all the signs: Lexi lived in Princeville, she’d quit her job, she didn’t have another job, and she spent her days painting on the beach. Without closing his eyes, Derek could conjure her up like some ethereal ghost. A flash of her golden hair, her soft mouth with that curve in her upper lip, the way she kissed him until a fire roared inside strong enough it might never go out. All that was left now were the burning embers of betrayal.