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More than a Mistress

By:Sandra Marton

More than a Mistress
Sandra Marton

       CHAPTER ONE

TRAVIS BARON stood in the wings of the improvised stage at the Hotel  Paradise, a hint of defiance in the rake of his jaw, waiting to be  auctioned off to the highest bidder.

And wasn't that a hell of a thing for a man to be doing on a beautiful Thursday night in early June? Travis thought grimly.

He ran his fingers through his hair, then smoothed his hand down the  lapel of his tux. He couldn't see the crowd in the elegant ballroom but  he could damn well hear it, every feminine hoot, whistle and catcall.  This was the creme de la creme of L.A. society, Pete Haskell had said.  Maybe so. But they sure sounded pretty down-and-dirty from where Travis  stood.

The wheedling drone of the auctioneer's voice oozed from the loudspeakers like honey from a comb on a hot Texas day.

"What' m-I-bid, what' m-I-bid, ladies, c' mon, c' mon, don't be shy,  don't hold back. Win the man of your dreams for the weekend."

Shy? Travis snorted. Based on what he'd been hearing for the past hour,  the women gathered in the ballroom were about as shy as a herd of  buffalo, and about as delicate in making their wants known. They  cheered, they laughed, they hooted and hollered until the gavel came  down and then they applauded and whistled until Travis figured the noise  level was enough to have the riot cops bust the place. And then they  started up all over again, when the next hapless victim was shoved out  on stage.

Not that all the Bachelors for Bucks had to be pushed.

Lots of them went willingly, grinning and throwing kisses to the crowd.

"Hey, man," one guy had said, after a look at Travis's glum expression, "it's all for charity, right?"

Right, Travis thought, his scowl darkening. But the guy with the smile  had probably volunteered for this nonsense. Travis hadn't. And to make  things even worse, the luck of the draw was sending him out on that  stage last.

How, he thought, how had he let himself get talked into this mess'?

"Sold!" The auctioneer's triumphant shout and the smack of his gavel were drowned out in a burst of cheers and applause.

"Another one gone," a voice mumbled, and Travis turned as a skinny blond  guy stepped up beside him, his Adam's apple bobbing as he adjusted his  tie. "Man, I'd rather be going for a root canal."

"You got that right," Travis said.

"Now, now, gentlemen." Peggy Jeffers, who'd cheerfully introduced  herself as "your friendly slave mistress for the evening" when they'd  all been introduced, tweaked the skinny guy's cheek. "You just relax, go  on out there and have yourself some fun."

"Fun?" the guy said, "Fun?"

"Fun," Peggy repeated, and she put her hand in the middle of his back and gently pushed him out of the wings and onto the stage.

The roar of the audience sent the blood right to Travis's head.

Peggy smiled. "Hear that?"

"Yeah," Travis said, with what he hoped would pass for a smile. "Sounds like a pack of hyenas on a blood trail."

Peggy giggled. "You got that right." She took a step back, then  eyeballed Travis from the top of his sun-streaked chestnut hair to the  toes of his shiny black boots. "My oh my, handsome. They're gonna go  nuts when they spot you."

She grinned, and Travis tried to return it.

"Don't tell me a hunk like you is nervous," Peggy said.

"No," Travis said, lying through his teeth. "Why would I be nervous  about going out on that stage in front of a million screaming women to  get myself auctioned off?"

Peggy laughed. "It's all for a good cause," she said over her shoulder  as she hurried away. "And you'll get snapped up in a second."

Yeah, Travis thought, oh, yeah. That's what he'd been telling himself  all night that, and the fact that he was a sane man, a normal, healthy,  sane, thirty-two-year-old attorney. A bachelor, yes...but a bachelor who  liked to choose his own women.

And choose them, he did. All the time. If he had any problems with  women, it was getting them to understand, when the moment of truth came,  that all good things came to an end. Relationships between the sexes  weren't meant to last forever. A bad marriage and a worse divorce had  finally taught him what the lessons of his childhood hadn't, but those  two blips in the road were long behind him.

It wasn't as if he was opposed to women coming on to him. He liked a  little aggressiveness in a woman, in bed and out. He found it sexy.

But a woman hitting on a guy she spotted at a party was one thing. Bidding for him, as if he were a slab of meat...

That was something else.

He'd been conned. And it had happened during a partners meeting at Sullivan, Cohen and Vittali a few months ago.

If only he'd realized that Pete Haskell was setting him up.

"Hey, Baron," Pete had said casually, as he bit into a bagel, "I was  talking about you the other day with some guys from Hannan and Murphy."                       
       
           



       

"Ah," Travis had said, with a smile, "were they telling you how much  they wish I'd accepted a partnership there instead of here?"

Pete chuckled. "Actually, we were talking about the Bachelors for Bucks thing. You know, the annual charity auction?"

"That's still going on?"

"Yup." Pete buttered the other half of his bagel. "They're figuring the  new guy they hired is gonna come in at an all-time high bid."

"No way," one of the other partners said.

Pete shrugged. "They're taking bets he will, John. They figure nobody can beat him, considering his record."

"What record?" John reached for the sweetener. "The guy talks too much,  you know what I mean'? Any man blabs endlessly about all the broads in  his life, well, right away, I have my doubts. No man has that much time,  much less stamina." John grinned. "Well, except for ol' Travis, here."

Pete nodded thoughtfully. "I agree." lie shot Travis a look. "But Travis  never talks. Never lets us in on what he'` been doing, and who and how  often he's been doing it with."

Travis looked up from his coffee and grinned. "I am a man of honor," he  said. "I never talk about my women." His grin broadened. "And the  silence just kills you, pal, doesn't it?"

"But," Pete said, undeterred, "we all know what a stud our Travis is.  Talk about his latest conquest is a staple in the secretaries'  lunchroom. We spot the newest lady getting out of a taxi in front of the  building at quitting time." He grinned. "And we watch the bouquets of  long-stemmed roses fly out of the florist's shop next door, when Trav  decides it's time to dump a broad."

"Please," Travis said, his hand to his heart. "I'd never send roses. Everybody sends roses."

"So, what do you send'?"

The partners all looked up from their coffee. Old man Sullivan was the  one who'd asked the question. It was the first time he'd said a word  during a meeting in six months.

"Whatever flowers seem appropriate for that particular lady," Travis  said, and smiled. "And something small but tasteful, with a note that  says-"

"Thanks, but no thanks," Sullivan suggested, and everyone laughed.

"The thing is," Pete said, "I told the guys from Hannan and Murphy that  they could boast all they like about their man getting the high bid,  considering that our man didn't even enter."

"Which he hadn't, and isn't," Travis said firmly.

"Oh, I know that. We all know that. Right, boys?"

Later, Travis would remember that everybody in the room, even the two  female partners, nodded vigorously, then put their heads down as if on  cue. But right at that moment, Pete's comments had seemed casual.

"And they said?"

Pete sighed. "They said that we're all lawyers, and we should know  better than to present a case with nothing but hearsay evidence."

Someone groaned. Someone else laughed, but old man Sullivan narrowed his  rheumy eyes and leaned forward in his chair at the head of the  boardroom table.

"And, Peter?"

"And," Pete said, after a barely perceptible pause, "they challenged us. They said we should put our boy, Travis, on the block."

"No way," Travis said quickly.

"Then, they said, we'll really see which guy wins." He paused  dramatically. "And the firm that loses has to treat the other to a golf  weekend at Pebble Beach."

"Cool." somebody said, and then a wild cheer went up around the walnut-paneled room.

"Now, wait just a minute," Travis had started to say, but old man  Sullivan was already smiling across the table and assuring Travis that  they all knew he'd carry their banner high into battle, and make them  proud to be partners in Sullivan, Cohen and Vittali.

Trapped, Travis thought grimly. It had been a conspiracy.

Old man Sullivan had probably been the only one not in on the scheme.  Not that it mattered. There'd been no way out of the setup, not without  hearing about it forever from the rest of the partners. And so now here  he was, a man about to go onstage before a crowd of estrogen-crazed  females like a lamb being led to the slaughter, and if he came in at a  penny lower than five grand-which was what Hannan and Murphy's entry had  gone for-he'd never live it down.

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