Home > Claiming the Billionaire (Seattle Bachelors #4)(4)

Claiming the Billionaire (Seattle Bachelors #4)(4)
Author: J.M. Stewart

Applause erupted through the ballroom. Several whoops came from various parts of the room. Christina laughed and waved her hands to quiet the crowd.

“All right, gentlemen. Allow me to introduce our first bachelorette, miss Cassandra Stephanopoulos.”

At hearing her name, Cassie drew a deep breath, straightened her shoulders, and moved toward the podium. Drawing her inner vixen around her, she plastered on her flirtiest smile and put a little extra swing in her hips. Applause once again erupted around the room. From somewhere in the back, a wolf whistle pierced the air, though the lights pointed at the stage made seeing where it had come from near impossible.

Christina turned to wink at her as she approached the podium. “It appears you already have fans.”

Cassie laughed and took a bow. “Thank you. I’ll be here all night.”

“Gentlemen, a little about Cassie. Her father owns and runs the chain of Greek restaurants, Ariana’s Greek Café. She paints and designs custom jewelry. Her shop, Creations by Cassie, sits a few blocks from here. In fact, for any ladies in attendance, she designed the necklace I’m wearing. When asked, she said she likens herself to a sorority girl—she’s just out to have a little fun.” Christina looked up from her cards, winking at the audience. “But don’t get any ideas, guys. Her best friend is the big guy in the fifth row.”

Gray stood, humor lacing his tone as he turned his head, addressing the crowd around him. “Consider me her personal bouncer.”

When he bowed, Cassie playfully rolled her eyes. The crowd laughed.

Christina let out a soft laugh as well. “Actually, Cassie told me she thinks life is too short to be too serious. Isn’t that right, Cassie?”

Cassie forced herself to smile and nod, but her heart ached. Thinking she’d lost Tyler, on top of losing her mother and her brother, had taught her something. “I fully intend to enjoy the life I have. Live it to the fullest. Good food, good wine, good friends.”

Christina wrapped an arm around her, giving her a gentle, reassuring hug, before turning back to the crowd. Clearly Gray had filled her in. “All right, shall we start the bidding?”

More applause came from the crowd as Christina stepped back and the auctioneer took her place at the podium. “All right, gentlemen, let’s start the bidding at ten thousand…”

Several minutes passed as bids ping-ponged around the room, each one higher than the last.

“One hundred thousand,” a man’s voice called out from the back of the long room.

Cassie froze.

She knew that voice. She’d know it in the dead of night, in the darkest cave.

The familiar sound of it skittered down her spine, and her playful smile melted. Her hands shook at her sides. Heart hammering, she shielded her eyes, squinting against the bright lights aimed at the stage, and searched the crowd for the face to go with the voice. Even while she searched, rational thought warred with the pain still pounding around in her chest. It couldn’t be Tyler. He wouldn’t have come to see her. She’d hurt him too much, had looked him right in the eye and told him he meant nothing to her beyond sex. And then sent him off to die.

The room fell silent, tension rising over the space.

Christina’s hand slid over her shoulder, her voice warm and low in Cassie’s ear. “You’re three shades of white, honey. Are you all right?”

Cassie’s blood roared in her ears, pounding so hard the room began to spin, but she forced herself to smile and glanced at Christina. “I’m fine. The voice just spooked me. Sounded like someone I know.”

It had to be a trick of the room. The high ceilings made the noise echo. Combined with her grief, her ears clearly played tricks on her. She was hearing things, that’s all.

Christina didn’t look convinced. “Are you sure?”

Cassie nodded. “I’m fine. Continue, please. I’m sorry for the interruption.”

Christina smiled and the auctioneer started the bidding again. As the bids once again ping-ponged around the room, the man in back, whose voice had spooked her, countered every bid. He didn’t say anything else but raised his bidding number repeatedly. Several more minutes passed; as the bids rose higher, the number of men participating dwindling to two. Finally, when the numbers reached four hundred thousand, the second bidder bowed out.

“Sold. To the gentleman in the back.”

As the auctioneer’s voice rang through the room, the man in the back strode toward the stage. Cassie held her breath. The closer he got, the louder her heartbeat pounded in her ears. He looked like Tyler. He had the same tall build and broad shoulders, the same dark hair, cropped close, per army regulation. She couldn’t see the color of his eyes from this distance, though. Not to mention he looked thinner than Ty had been the last time she’d seen him. Ty had always been a big, burly guy, tall and thickly muscled. This guy was tall but lean, and he walked with a slight limp Tyler hadn’t had.

When he came to a stop in front of the stage, head tipped back to peer up at her, her heart stopped altogether. Closer now, she could clearly see his eyes were blue.

Like Ty’s.

Nausea swirled in her stomach, at war with the guilt, the part of her that wanted, needed, this man to be Tyler. She knew better, though…didn’t she?

The room swayed as dizziness swept over her. This was wrong. This was all wrong.

She jerked her gaze to Christina. “Is this some sort of a joke?”

Christina shook her head, looking between Cassie to the audience in helpless confusion. “I have no idea what’s going on, sweetie, but I assure you I had nothing to do with whatever this is.”

Cassie turned to look out over the audience, her heart hammering in her ears. Marilyn’s phone call came rushing back to her. “Tyler’s alive.”

She’d been waiting for this moment. She’d heard Marilyn’s words that day, a week ago now, but hadn’t truly believed them. She needed to see him.

Out in the audience, Gray pushed to his feet and strode toward the stage, his long strides closing the distance in record time. Concern etched his face.

“This isn’t real. It can’t be.” Cassie shook her head, watching Tyler’s eyes, waiting for him to explain, to say…something.

Tyler opened and closed his mouth a few times, but long moments passed in aching silence as he stared at her with tired eyes rimmed in shadows. Finally, his throat bobbed as he swallowed. “I had to see you.”

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