Hello, Ladies and Gents, and welcome to the 2010 revised version of To the Gentleman in the Back.
Major changes include:
* The setting has changed from Tokyo to New York.
* Lita has an almost brand new storyline.
* Chapter 10 has been divided into two more manageable chapters (it was eye-exhaustingly long).
* New scenes have been added in chapters 4, 7, and throughout the party chapters.
Please note that this story is rated T for Teen, as it contains "minor coarse language and minor suggestive adult themes."
To the Gentleman in the Back
Chapter One: Saturday Night
In Which the Heroines Meet Their Fates
"There are so many men out there!" Mina said, peeking through the royal blue curtain while thirty women primped and prodded in the backstage area behind her. "Serena, check out number forty-two. He's positively delicious."
"Mina, stop gawking and help us get ready!" Raye scowled at the blonde, who looked like she'd walked right off the pages of a fashion magazine, while she and the other girls were all struggling with their final touches. She pulled a stick of Phoenix Red lipstick from her makeup bag and grumbled beneath her breath, for the third time that evening, "I can't believe I'm doing this."
"Don't worry, Raye. It's going to be fun," Serena said. "And you look gorgeous."
Mina sighed longingly at the sea of men on the other side of the curtain, then turned and surveyed her four best friends. Amy was the farthest along, as she wasn't fond of extravagant makeup and her short blue hair had the perfect natural curl without requiring the touch of a curling iron. She wore a conservative white dress that was reminiscent of World War II nurses' outfits, complete with an antique stethoscope.
"Amy, put this on your legs," said Mina, tossing her a bottle of liquid bronzer. "And you look fabulous. And smart. You should do that Playboy nurse thing next Halloween."
"I can't wait until this is over," Amy said, looking paler in the face than the legs.
"Mina, would you do my hair?" Serena, habitually tardy, was the least ready of the bunch. Still in only a slip and nylons, she stood in front of a mirror filing her nails, an array of makeup products scattered on the vanity before her. Ever glad to be of service, Mina grabbed a curling iron and started wrapping Serena's long locks around the barrel.
Opposite Serena, Lita sat with her ankles up on her own vanity. She was wearing only the bare necessities of makeup and had her hair up in its signature ponytail—Mina had been able to convince her to tie a black velvet ribbon around it, but it was the only concession Lita would make. Of the five girls, she was the least glitzy and also the least frazzled as she watched the others primp with a bemused smile on her lips.
It only took Mina a few minutes to have half of Serena's hair piled up on top of her head in a mess of glossy ringlets, the rest cascading down her back. "There. Some blush and eyeliner and you're done. Raye?"
"Help me!" Raye said through a mouthful of bobby pins.
Clucking her tongue, Mina scooted behind Raye and set to fixing her hair in a chignon with drooping curls off to one side. "Honestly, what would you do without me?"
Raye spat out the pins and eyed Mina in the mirror. "I wouldn't be in this mess in the first place."
"But aren't we having fun?"
Raye deepened her glare.
"So, Mina, are you going to tell us about number forty-two?" asked Lita, fingering the pearl necklace around her neck.
"Five minutes, ladies!" an announcer yelled from the other side of the curtain.
Raye cursed. "Mina, hurry!"
"I'm almost done."
"Amy, would you zip me up?"
"Did anyone remember to pack my shoes?"
"They're in the canvas bag with the hairspray."
"Okay, I know we decided on the rhinestones, but what do you think about this necklace instead?"
Mina simultaneously grimaced at the necklace, kicked the duffle bag with the shoes toward Serena, and clamped the tips of Raye's hair with a straightener. "This reminds me of being at a fashion show."
Dizzy with the chaos, Lita stood and grabbed Amy's hand. "Come on, Ames, let's go check out number forty-two for ourselves."
"Lita, I don't feel so well."
"Don't worry, you'll be great. Just don't trip on your heels." She pulled Amy toward the stage and held back the curtain.
The Maritime Hotel's Hiro Ballroom had been set up with close to fifty dinner tables and there was hardly an empty seat in the place. Wait staff circled the room, passing out flutes of champagne and small plates of cherry-topped cheesecake, the finale in a three-course meal served to the generous contributors.
The generous contributors who were there largely for the auction about to be conducted.
Every November for the past twenty years, Manhattan General Hospital had held a charity dinner and auction. In the beginning, they'd auctioned off bake-sale goods and gift baskets. After a while it had elevated to art and fine antiques donated by local merchants. But this was the first year they'd decided to try something different, something that would earn them a bit more publicity: a date auction. Which was about the time Mina had decided that she and her four roommates needed to start contributing more to charity.
"Do you recognize anyone?" asked Lita. When Amy didn't answer, Lita glanced over and noticed her blue eyes wide in terror. "Oh, boy. Amy, relax. Remember, the people in the audience want to see you succeed."
"Succeed at what?"
"I don't know, that's just something my high school speech teacher used to say. Would it help if you imagined the audience in their underwear?"
Amy took in a shaky breath, then gasped and pointed toward the audience. "Look, there's Dr. Kepstein. Number fourteen. He used to give guest lectures for my physiology class."
Lita spotted a kindly-looking man in his late-sixties. "Not bad. Are you imagining him in his underwear?"
Amy screwed up her face. "Lita, that's awful!"
"Say, look at that blonde guy over there, in the back. Does he look familiar to you? I swear I've seen him somewhere."
"Maybe a med student?" Lita's eyes landed on the blonde man Amy had pointed out. She furrowed her brow. "You're right, he does look familiar." She suddenly jerked away from the curtain. "Oh my god."
"What? What's wrong?"
"It's Andrew," Lita said, already wishing she had spent more time on her hair.
"Amy, don't you remember? Back when we were in high school and we went to the arcade every day after school, there was that adorable clerk that we all had huge crushes on?"
Recognition dawned on Amy's face. "You're right, it is him! I wonder what he's doing here." She drew back the curtain to look again.
"He's probably here to help the children. He was always the sweetest guy. Do you think he'd remember me?"
"You did flirt with him every day for three years."
"One minute, ladies!"
"We should get back, Ames."
"Oh no." Amy's hand tightened around the curtain. "Look who he's with."
Lita crowded in beside her. "No way."
"Ladies, we need you to step back from the curtain."
Without argument, Amy and Lita pulled away and shuffled back toward their friends. "Serena's going to freak," said Lita.
"Should we tell her?"
They spotted their friends—Raye swiping blush on her cheeks, Mina zipping up her dress, and Serena clopping around in four-inch heels.
"There you guys are!" said Serena. "Hurry, it's about to start." She scurried to where the rest of the ladies were gathering in a line, where they would wait for the emcee to call them to the stage. Her face glowed, although it was difficult to tell if that was from the glaring lights or the dewy-moonlight-glow moisturizer Mina had made her put on or just plain excitement.
Amy glanced at Lita. "They've both grown up, right? What are the chances Serena would make a scene here?"
Chewing on her lip, Lita cast a nervous glance to the closed curtain. "Are we talking about the same Serena?"
"You're right," Amy said, gripping her stethoscope. "But maybe she won't notice him."
"Why do I let you talk me into these things?" Darien asked, grabbing a flute of champagne as a waiter passed by.
Andrew pulled the last bite of cheesecake from his fork and scanned the night's program—which read more like a sales catalogue than anything else. "Charity. Building relationships with other medical professionals. Oh, and something about hot, single girls. You have your paddle?"
"I'm not bidding on anyone. I paid my 250 dollars and now I just want to get through the night unscathed."
"Listen to this one. 'Jill Anderson, age twenty-six. Retail clerk at Victoria's Secret. Loves Cosmopolitans and getting lost in the snow.'"
"Sounds like a bad pop song."
Andrew feigned a disappointed look. "You know, you are about to have thirty beautiful women paraded in front of you and you can have your pick of any one of them. How can you not be in a good mood?"
"There are hundreds of guys here. What makes you think you'll be able to outbid any of them? Besides, the mere thought of paying for a date just seems… desperate."
"Darien, when was the last time you went out on a date?"
Darien sipped at his champagne.
"Exactly. Maybe it's time to get a little desperate." Andrew returned to his perusal of the catalogue. "Listen to this one. 'Lita Kino, age twenty-three. As the youngest person to ever make it to the position of head chef at Martucci's Ristorante, Lita is known for her famous crème brulee. Out of the kitchen, she's a star at kickboxing and soccer.' Yum, crème brulee sounds good right now. And you know, the quickest way to a man's heart is through his stomach."
"Your originality continues to astound me."
"Lita Kino… why does that name sound familiar?"
"Ladies and gentleman, welcome to Manhattan General Hospital's first annual date auction. I want to start by thanking everyone who has helped to coordinate this extravagant evening, as well as Martucci's Ristorante for agreeing to provide a lovely atmosphere for the high bidders' dates. And of course, a huge thank you goes to everyone in the audience tonight. All proceeds go directly to the hospital for the purchasing of much-needed equipment, as well as cutting edge medical research. Please give yourselves a round of applause."
As the audience applauded, Andrew leaned closer to Darien, pointing at another entry in the catalogue.
"This name, too. Didn't we used to know a Serena Tsukino?"
Knuckles reflexively tightening around the stem of his glass, Darien glanced down at the entry.
Serena Tsukino, age twenty-two, has recently graduated from St. John's University with a degree in public relations. Her passions include throwing parties, watching classic romance films, and spending quality time with her four fabulous roommates.
"Not Serena from the arcade?"
"This evening's auction will begin with me introducing each girl in the order that they registered. I will read the entrant's name and the brief biography which you can also find in the program. Bidding for each girl will begin at 100 dollars and escalate in increments of 25."
"The girl with the cute hairstyle?"
"Meatball Head?" Darien sat back in his chair, memories of a fourteen-year-old girl flooding his thoughts. He'd been nineteen and one long, tedious year on his way to becoming a surgeon. She'd been young and loud and had worn the strangest hairstyle every day—two buns on either side of her head with streamers of long blonde hair dangling past her waist. He'd dubbed her Meatball Head, because the style reminded him of spaghetti and meatballs. She'd hated him for it and since their first meeting they'd spent hours, days, bickering with each other. He'd hated her for her immaturity, but in hindsight, his behavior hadn't exactly been that of a straight-A med student.
By the time he and Andrew were twenty-two, Andrew had gotten a better job than afternoon clerk at the local arcade, and Darien's patronage of the high school hangout had come to an end, along with his increasingly tolerable relationship with the teenager.
"Do you really think it's the same girl?"
Darien shook his head. "No way. She never could have graduated from college."
"Each winning bidder will receive a gift certificate for two to Martucci's Ristorante and contact information for meeting his date. Now then, would you like to meet the ladies?"
The room was filled with applause. Andrew grabbed the paddle painted with a big red eighty-four. Darien re-read the entry for Serena Tsukino.
Sixteen girls later, the evening had become a raucous success. Over 8000 dollars had been bid, with one girl earning nearly 700 alone. Andrew had bid on a few, but never for more than 200 dollars, claiming that he didn't want to spend all his money without seeing more options.
Darien's paddle, number eight-five, remained untouched beside his untouched cheesecake.
"Our next lovely lady is one that I'm sure many of you have been looking forward to all evening. At twenty-two, she has been a professional model for nearly five years, appearing in such famous magazines as Vogue and Vanity Fair. Some of you may even remember her popular musical release of 2003, Se La Vie. It's the beautiful Mina Aino!"
A slender blonde strutted onto the stage with the grace and elegance one would expect from a professional model. She wore a blue form-fitting silk dress with a mandarin collar and intricate embroidery along the knee-length hem. The heels on her silver peep-toes must have been nearly six inches—and she moved as easily as if they'd been tennis shoes. Darien didn't recognize her, but a lot of the other men seemed to as the bidding skyrocketed. Minutes later, Mina Aino strutted off the stage, having earned the hospital nearly 1200 dollars.
"That'll be a tough act to follow," said the emcee, "but I know our next entrant is up to the challenge. She's the founder and owner of the brand new Hino Art Gallery downtown. Her friends call her compassionate but with a feisty personality that will keep you on your toes. Raise your paddles for the gorgeous Raye Hino!"
Raye swaggered onto the stage and posed with her hand on her hip, the curls from her chignon tumbling over one shoulder. Her shiny black dress fell to her ankles, with a slit on the side that came high on her thigh and showed just a peek of her tanned leg. Paddles shot into the air and when Raye's auction finally ended at 775 dollars, she didn't look at all surprised. With a wink directed at her high bidder, she slinked off the stage.
Darien and Andrew gawked.
"She was gorgeous."
Darien lifted his jaw. "Don't you know who that was?"
"Raye… Raye something." Andrew drew his finger over the program in search of her entry.
"Raye Hino. She used to come to the arcade."
"Are you sure? You'd think I would remember her."
"She was just a kid at the time. Remember, she used to always interrupt when I was talking to Meatball Head."
"You never talked to Meat—Serena. You just made fun of the poor girl. I vaguely remember that Raye girl…. You know, you should have bid on her."
"So this Serena Tsukino is really the same?" Darien picked up the program and read her bio a third time.
"Next we have a member of the hospital's own family, a girl who has been interning with us for just over six months and is currently in her fourth year of medical school. She plans on one day becoming a pediatrician at Schneider Children's Hospital. Her wits alone are enough to leave you drooling. Please welcome Amy Mizuno!"
Amy's adorable nurse outfit brought a few laughs, and more than a few bids, despite the fact that her terror was obvious in the way she clutched the stethoscope around her neck and refused to travel all the way to the end of the stage. She tried to smile, and looked like she might cry, but someone must have found the stage fright endearing because her auction finally ended at 500 dollars.
Darien pointed as Amy dashed off the stage. "And she was that genius that always came in with them. Do you remember her?"
"How could I forget a girl with blue hair? She was so quiet and polite. Did you hear him say she's studying to be a doctor, like you? You should have bid on her."
Darien felt an awkward knot growing in his stomach.
"Oh, this next one is the chef! I hope she's cute."
Darien already knew what Lita Kino looked like, and though she was cute in her own way, she'd always been such a tomboy that it was difficult to notice the underlying sex appeal. She was almost intimidating, but not like how Raye was intimidating with her fiery temper. Lita's intimidation came more from the fact that Darien was pretty sure she could kick his ass at any sport, and probably in a fistfight, too.
"Next we have an up-and-coming star in New York's gourmet restaurant circles. At twenty-three, she's the youngest person ever to make it to the position of head chef at Martucci's Ristorante, our auction's own sponsor. She's most known for her irresistible crème brulee. Out of the kitchen, she excels at kickboxing and soccer. Get ready for Lita Kino!"
Darien remembered her being tall and lanky, but over the past five years she'd gained her share of curves as well, which tonight were exemplified with a scoop-neck coffee-colored dress. The jersey knit clung to her arms and shoulders and flared away from her hips. The skirt ended mid-thigh, showing some of the longest legs Darien had ever seen, though they were half hidden by knee-high boots.
Andrew whistled beneath his breath. "Now I remember her. She sure grew up."
Darien put his champagne flute on the table as he noticed his fingers starting to ache from clutching it too tightly. What had Serena grown into? Had she retained her childlike innocence, or had the cruel world of college and adulthood ruined something so special, so different about her? He half-hoped she would walk onto that stage with her hair up in meatballs.
"Can I hear 425? 425? 425 to number eighty-four! Do I hear 450?"
Darien glanced at Andrew, his paddle raised and a goofy grin on his face. "What are you doing?"
"Giving up my life's savings. Oh! She sees us!"
Darien looked at Lita, who flashed them a thumbs-up.
"She remembers me."
"Of course she remembers you. Don't you think that if you wanted a date with her you could just go ask? You don't have to pay—"
"475 to number eighty-four! Do I hear 500?"
"Darien, what part of charity don't you understand?"
"The part where it demeans women and turns them into objects for purchasing."
"Hey, they signed up for it. And I think it shows a lot about their generous spirit."
On stage, Lita was encouraging Andrew, clapping each time he put in another bid, but also casting flirtatious grins at his competition.
"Can you afford this?"
"SOLD to number eighty-four for 550 dollars!"
Andrew waved back to Lita as she left the stage. "Sure. After you loan me 200 dollars."
Darien grunted and downed the last of his champagne, the bubbles tickling his nose.
"Our next lovely lady has recently earned her B.A. in Public Relations from St. John's University. She loves to host impromptu parties and is a nut for classic romance films such as Casablanca and Breakfast at Tiffany's. She's also mad about Miss Kino's famous crème brulee. Lucky for her, they're roommates! Here is the delightful Serena Tsukino!"
Darien held his breath. Sat forward. The audience applauded. The curtain swayed.
And then she was gliding onto the stage in a white dress lined with six-inch fringe, reminiscent of the roaring twenties. Her beaming smile lit the room as she teetered on strappy stilettos. When she reached the center of the stage, she twirled once and gave the men in the room a sexy sashay.
Darien's mouth turned to chalk.
There wasn't a meatball in sight, the signature hairstyle now replaced with a mass of ringlets at the nape of her neck, and the rest of her gloriously long hair cascading in a golden waterfall.
"Wow," said Andrew.
Darien clutched his champagne flute. "If you place a bid, I'll kill you."
Andrew's eyebrows shot up. "Excuse me?"
Clenching his teeth, Darien listened as the bidding grew to 300 dollars, 400, 500. He searched the crowd to find the top bidder and his eyes landed on number sixteen. A guy in his early thirties. He was laughing, as if it was all fun and games, his paddle raised haughtily in the air. Darien looked back at Serena. She was coaxing number sixteen with a Betty Boop pose, batting her eyelashes, flirting.
Every muscle in Darien's body tensed. Surely someone would outbid that schmuck!
"600! 625! Do I hear 650? 650 dollars for this lovely young woman with the vibrant smile? No? 625 going once! 625 going twice…. Ah! 650 to number eight-five!"
Darien looked down at his traitorous hand clutched around paddle number eighty-five. From the corner of his eye he could see Andrew gawking at him, but he ignored him, gulped, and slowly lowered the paddle to the table.
"675 anyone? Yes, 675 to number sixteen! 700, sir?"
Darien forbid the paddle to rise. He gave it the evil eye. He threatened it with silent thoughts of ping-pong balls and bon fires. The paddle was not to rise again.
But rise it did.
"700 dollars to number eighty-five! 725, number sixteen? 725? Yes! 750?"
Darien stole a glance at Serena, saw the shock and disbelief on her face, and didn't even bother lowering the paddle. He forced an uncomfortable smile and waved the paddle in mute greeting.
She stumbled a tiny bit in her heels, looking as if she might faint.
"850? 875, sir? 875? I have 850, going once… going twice… SOLD to the gentleman in the back!"
Serena stumbled off stage, wondering if this was some horrible prank. Had she only imagined Darien Shields in the audience, waving that paddle around with all the arrogance of a peacock? It was like some awful phantom coming back from the dead to haunt her and make her adult life as miserable as her adolescence.
She couldn't go on a date with that.
"Serena, you show stealer!" Raye said, grabbing a dazed Serena by the elbow and dragging her back toward her circle of friends. "I thought for sure I'd earn more money than you."
"I saw the guy bidding on her," Mina said. "Total stud. You are one lucky space cadet." She growled like a tiger to prove her point.
"No!" Serena said, tearing her arm away from Raye and rounding on Mina. "You do not know that man, that monster! He is anything but a stud!"
Mina flinched back from Serena's vehemence. "You know him?"
With a wail, Serena threw her arms up over her head. "It was Darien! Oh god… someone please tell me I'm hallucinating."
"Darien who? Darien Shields?"
Serena cried at the name, burying her face in her hands.
Behind Mina, Lita hummed to herself and stared off toward the vanities. Amy chewed on her recently-manicured nails and looked as if she'd just been caught reading smut manga hidden between the covers of her bio textbook.
"Darien Shields is out there?" Raye asked, inching toward the stage though she knew the coordinator would never let her steal a glance through the curtain. "I haven't seen him in ages. Did he look as sexy as ever?"
"Yes," Mina said. "Not that I would know, but he is one gorgeous piece of—"
"No, he's not!"
"How do you know him? And how come you never introduced me?"
"Mina, you do not want to know that man," said Serena. "He's despicable. He's the biggest jerk to ever walk the face of the planet. He's—"
"Not nearly as bad as Serena makes him out to be. Darien and I always got along fine."
Serena leveled her glare at Raye. "Yeah, because you would tease me as much as he would! And you always took his side, which is just poor best-friends behavior."
"Only because he was always right."
"Does anyone care to explain this to me, or am I going to have to march out there and meet the man myself?"
"Make sure you take a charm to ward away evil with you."
Amy tore her hand away from her mouth and gently rubbed Serena's back, explaining to Mina, "Darien is a guy we knew back in high school. He was in college at the time and we always ran into him at this arcade we used to frequent."
"Serena always ran into him," Lita added. "Literally."
"You were such a klutz back then," Raye said.
"Anyway, Serena and Darien used to have the worst fights after school. Every single day."
"Like… fist fights?" said Mina, raising her eyebrows.
"Goodness, no. Just arguments. He'd say something mean to her, she'd do her best to say something mean back."
"Darien always won," Lita said. "Because, as we all know, Serena doesn't have a mean bone in her body."
Serena grimaced. "I hate that man."
Pursing her lips together, Mina analyzed Serena's irritated pout. "So let me get this straight. You flirted with that divine Greek God out there every day for years, and now, in adulthood, he's paying nearly a grand to take you out on a romantic date and woo you until you forget all the bad blood between you? Holy Toledo, this is a chick flick waiting to happen."
"I did not flirtwith him."
"Honey, that's what we call arguing in high school. And if he looked then how he looks now…"
"This is insane. I'm going to get a glass of wine. Followed by about eight shots of Kahlua."
"Doesn't anyone want to hear about my date?"
They all turned to see Lita, looking as foolishly girly as she ever had. Which was not really that girly, all things considered.
"If you say number forty-two…"
She shook her head. "Better. It's Andrew. From the arcade."
"No way!" said Mina, followed by, "Who's Andrew?"
"Darien's best friend."
"Who Lita, Serena, and Amy all had crushes on." Raye folded her arms and nodded proudly at the brunette. "And it only took eight long years and a pair of knee-high boots to snag him."
After a moment to digest, Serena glowered at Lita. "You get Andrew and I get stuck with his slimey best friend? How is that fair?"
"Ah, come on, Serena. I bet Darien's a great kisser."
Serena blanched and swung around on her heels. "Make that ten shots."
"Not so fast, ladies," interrupted the auction coordinator, blocking their path off the stage. "The auction is just about finished and then we're going to host a bit of a meet and greet, so I need you all to stay put."
"Who are we meeting?" Serena asked, her tone anything but thrilled.
"Your dates, of course."
Serena slumped against Raye and clamped a palm to her forehead. "I feel suddenly ill. I think I need to go home—right away."
"Oh, get over it," said Raye, pushing Serena back to her own feet. "It's been five years since you saw Darien. I'm sure you're both completely different people now, so just buck up and say hello and make some small talk. Voila, crisis averted."
"I'll trade with you, if you want," Mina said. "I mean, my date wasn't bad, but he wasn't nearly as gorgeous as your Darien hottie."
Raye smirked. "Yes, and I'm sure he wouldn't at all mind switching his 1200-dollar date with a semi-famous model to a nobody."
"What do you mean 'nobody'?"
"What do you mean 'semi'?"
"And that concludes this evening's auction!" the emcee's voice boomed from the other side of the curtain. "Congratulations to all of the high bidders. On behalf of everyone at Manhattan General, we sincerely appreciate your generosity and wish you wonderful and romance-filled dates. Now then, in just a moment, we're going to release our thirty lovely ladies into the audience so that you can all meet each other."
The coordinator wandered by again, clipboard in hand. "Raise your hand if you don't know the panel number of your highest bidder."
"I don't know my bidder," Amy said, meekly raising her hand.
The coordinator paused and scanned the list. "Number sixty-seven. He's sitting by the staircase. Anyone else?"
"How could you not have noticed your high bidder?" Mina scolded as the coordinator wandered away. "Weren't you paying attention?"
"It was all I could do to keep from throwing up while I was out there."
Lita clucked her tongue and put her arm around Amy. "You poor, shy little thing. Let's blame Mina for putting you through this, okay?"
"Can I blame Mina, too?" asked Serena.
"All right, ladies, there's your cue! Go on out there and meet your men!" ordered the coordinator, waving a pen around in the air like a cattle-prod. "And remember—be charming!"
"Here we go!" sang Mina as she nudged Amy and Serena toward the curtain. "Aren't we having so much fun?"
The girls found themselves in a mess of activity as the guests who had not won dates made a mad dash for the coat check and the wait staff began clearing away the dirty dishes and empty champagne flutes.
"Well—my date is off this way." Mina patted Amy and Serena on their shoulders. "I'll meet you guys out front. No hanky panky, okay?"
"You're one to talk," Raye said. "Come on, Amy, we're both going this way. Serena, try not to throw a tantrum, all right?"
Serena bristled, but Raye had disappeared into the crowd before she could think of a comeback.
"Ignore her." Lita hooked elbows with Serena and headed toward the back of the ballroom. "Just try to give Darien the benefit of the doubt, Sere. It has been five years—he's probably a completely different man now."
Serena wrinkled her nose, finding it hard to believe that the scumbag could be anything more than an arrogant jerk. But she knew Lita was right; she was just going to have to give him the benefit of the doubt. She had, after all, signed a contract stating that she would go on a date with the highest bidder. And if Darien wanted to spend 850 dollars for one last romp through Insultville, that was his problem.
Mina glided through the crowd on her stilettos with the same commanding presence she always held in a room full of men. She was stopped twice and asked for her autograph and she was only too happy to comply.
Okay, once was by a waitress wanting it for her eleven-year-old daughter, but she didn't let that bother her. After all, a fan was a fan.
She was careful not to meet the eyes of her highest bidder, knowing full-well that he would be watching her as she bat her eyelashes at the other patrons and smiled her multi-million dollar smile.
Okay, so her recent paychecks weren't quite in the millions. More like in the multi-thousands. Five digits, really. But a high five digits. So she didn't let that bother her, either.
Finally, after her long, slow stroll through the ballroom, she came to a stop beside a round table covered with a white tablecloth, and winked at the lone man sitting before her.
"Well hello there, number seven," she purred. "What a lucky number you had tonight."
At first, the man only gawked at her, his mouth slightly agape and his fingers clenched around the stem of a wine glass. But soon, he gathered his composure and pulled himself to his feet. "I must agree with that."
Mina was startled by a thick British accent rolling over her, almost instantly turning her knees to pudding. There were few things in life she loved more than a thick British accent. Not only was it devilishly sexy in that James Bond kind of way, but it was also reminiscent of her childhood, as she had lived in London until she was six years old.
Beyond the accent, the man wasn't half bad. Mina was slightly disappointed in his height—he was actually a couple inches shorter than her at the moment, although without the stilettos he would be slightly taller. But still, he was well-proportioned, with wide shoulders and a strong jaw that bespoke a certain tamed masculinity. His hair was dark brown and clean cut and his face was clean-shaven. And perhaps most importantly, in Mina's eyes—he was impeccably dressed in an honest-to-goodness Valentino button-down; Mina would recognize that collar anywhere.
"What part of England are you from?"
"London—the Marlyebone district."
"Really? I grew up in—"
"The Mayfair district."
Mina caught her breath. "Yes. That's right."
"I know, Miss Aino. I… I'm something of a fan."
Her heart fluttered. "Well thank you. It's a pleasure, Mr. —"
"Marcott. Patrick Marcott."
Mina's head rang with the accent, chanting back to her, Bond. James Bond.
"Tell me, Patrick, what brings you to New York?"
He shrugged, but the gesture was more nervous than carefree. "Business opportunities, to a degree."
"What kind of business?"
His smile, Mina noticed, was of the intense variety, as if his dark eyes were looking right through her as his lips curled up. Almost unsettling, but also a little exciting. "I'll tell you what, Miss Aino. Why don't I bore you with all the details over a splendid dinner? Are you free tomorrow night?"
Mina tapped a finger against her glossy lips and tried to look apologetic. "I'm afraid I have an audition tomorrow and I don't know how late it will go."
"Oh? What sort of audition?"
"Oh, just some silly commercial that my agent insists I try out for."
"Well they would be crazy not to take you for it, whatever it is. What about Monday?"
Mina hummed to herself, pondering how it would look for a gorgeous, semi-famous model to be free on a Monday night.
"Oh, I'm sorry, but I believe I have a dinner with Calvin Klein that night…"
Well, nobody ever had plans on Tuesday, right?
"Tuesday sounds great."
Amy could not calm the butterflies in her stomach as she searched all the neglected paddles for number sixty-seven. She didn't want to make eye contact with anyone before knowing whether or not they were her highest bidder, so she kept her gaze low, her hands all the while clutching the stethoscope around her neck. She wished it were a pencil. She always felt better when she was holding a pencil.
On that note, she would have given just about anything to be at home, in sweats, reading next week's homework assignment. The dream felt like paradise compared to this.
Her feet stalled in their kitten heels. Without looking up, she sent her gaze darting to the nearest table. It instantly fell on a forgotten paddle with "67" painted on it. Gulping, she raised her eyes.
He wasn't completely terrifying, and yet Amy felt a rush of blood to her face and the overwhelming urge to shrink into oblivion just the same. She simply wasn't the confrontational type. Or conversational. Or flirtational. Any of those, really.
"H-hello," she managed, her knuckles white around the stethoscope.
"Hi. I'm Joe." His smile bordered on charming. It was slightly crooked, a psychological sign that Amy had once been told meant he was prone to lying. She'd always figured it was probably genetic, though. His hair was a dirty blonde and looked almost wet with gel, his eyes were a pretty, pale blue and he was quite a bit taller than her with a fine physique that could only be achieved by regular gym sessions.
Upon second consideration, he was slightly terrifying after all.
Amy took his hand and let him do the shaking. She managed a quiet, "It's a pleasure."
"Awesome outfit—very original."
She wondered if he was always prone to speak in fragments. "Thanks. It was Mina's idea."
"Yeah, my roommate. The blonde…" She gestured with her thumb toward the stage, but Joe did not seem to remember Mina, so she said, "The model."
"Oh! Seriously, she's your roommate? That's awesome."
Which made two awesomes. Maybe it was a nervous tick. Except he didn't seem at all nervous, which Amy found unsettling.
"So, look, I hate to say it, but I kind of overbooked myself tonight, so I have to head out." Joe gestured toward the exit. "'Cause this friend of mine was going out partying tonight and he asked if I would be his DD, so, you know, I really should get going before he gets into any trouble. But hey, I'm really excited for our date. Are you free this Thursday?"
His crooked smile had made a reappearance, so Amy wondered if he was lying. And if so, about which part?
"I have my internship on Thursdays."
"Oh, okay, that's cool."
"But I could do Wednesday?"
"Wednesday! Sure, awesome."
Three awesomes. It had to be a nervous tick, because Amy was certain that she was not a three-awesomes sort of date.
Serena spotted Darien through the crowd long before she and Lita reached the table. Every muscle in her body gripped her bones, making it difficult to walk, as if her body had as little desire to confront him as she did. His voice flooded into her head after so many years of respite.
You're such a klutz, Meatball Head. Keep eating those sweets and you'll turn into a blimp. Are you ogling Andrew again? You know you don't stand a chance with him. What's the matter, Meatball Head? Did you fail another test today or something?
And she'd been starting to think she might get through the rest of her life without ever hearing that horrid voice again. Damn Mina and her stupid date auction idea.
Andrew spotted them first and his face lit up with the charming smile that had made her, Lita, and even Amy swoon when they were fourteen years old. Serena noticed that she felt a little bit of that same swooning and didn't doubt that Lita felt it too.
"Lita, Serena, hi!" Andrew said, standing to greet them.
Darien looked up when Andrew said their names, but he seemed reluctant to stand up himself. Serena made a point not to look at him even as his chair slid away from the table and his figure suddenly loomed in the corner of her eye.
"Hey, Andrew," Lita said. "It's so good to see you."
"You too. You both look great. How weird is it to run into each other like this?"
"So weird," Lita agreed. "And thanks, you look good, too."
"How long has it been? Three years or something?"
"No way. Time goes by fast."
"No kidding." Lita glanced at Serena, who had taken to analyzing a half-eaten slice of cheesecake on the table. "A lot has happened." She turned her attention to Darien, who was standing now with his hands in his pockets, pretending to people-watch as the crowd moved toward the exit.
Equally aware of their two silent companions, Andrew said, "It's good to see you too, Serena."
She pulled her attention away from the dessert. "You too. And uh... hey, nice bidding skills out here tonight."
"Thanks. I do think Darien and I scored the best two dates of the whole auction, if I may say so."
Serena risked a glance at Darien, just in time to see him rolling his eyes. He still didn't deign to look at her and she didn't know if that should make her grateful or irritated. A bit of both, perhaps.
He hadn't changed much, at least physically. He still had that Adonis-like body that made all the other girls tipsy with lust, and made Serena just about want to gag. And he still wore his silky black hair in that unkempt, slightly-tousled manner that surely was meant to give an impression of indifference, although Serena had no doubt he put it an awful lot of effort to have it so perfectly mussed. His blue eyes—still the deepest Serena had ever known—continued to look upon everything with utter boredom. Nothing could ever impress the great Darien Shields.
She already wanted to smack him.
"So, Serena, are you hungry?"
She returned her gaze to Andrew, who was picking up a plate of untouched cheesecake. "I saw you eyeing it before. Darien didn't touch his."
"Seriously? I'm starving. I was too nervous to eat dinner earlier."
"Absolutely. It's great cheesecake."
"Thanks!" She took the plate, grateful to have something to do with her hands. "You want some, Leets?"
"I think I'd better give it a try. See if it's as good as mine."
"Nothing's as good as yours," said Serena, shoveling a bite into her mouth. She couldn't help the moan that escaped her. It wasn't as good as Lita's, of course, but it was still cheesecake, and that was hard to beat any day of the week. "Ish delicioush!"
"I thought so, too," Andrew said as Lita took a bite and nodded in approval.
"Still can't resist the sweets, huh, Meatball Head?"
Serena inhaled sharply, the creamy, seductive treat turning to dust in her mouth. She forced it down even as heat rushed to her face. Lita tensed beside her. Ashamed, Andrew first tried to laugh awkwardly, but followed it with a scolding, "Darien, honestly."
Serena glared at Darien. He wore that same smug grin, that same spark of a challenge in his eye. Fingers tightening on the dessert plate, Serena was just fantasizing of smashing the remains of the cheesecake into his disdainful face when Lita gracefully took the dish from her hand and set it on the table.
"Well then," Lita said. "I work most evenings, Andrew, but I'm off Sundays, so would tomorrow night work for you?"
Andrew shook himself from the irate stupor. "Tomorrow would be great."
"Okay—and I was wondering if maybe we... wanted to do a double-date?" Lita cast a wary glance at Serena. "Just to avoid any potential homicide charges, you know."
"I am not going on a date with him."
A tailored eyebrow—does he pluck or what?—quirked upward. "Oh, I have 850 dollars that says you are."
"Your vocabulary has grown too? Impressive."
"I hate you."
"Now that's a very strong word to use on an old friend, don't you think?"
Serena was just about to let out a barrage of uncharacteristic curses, when Lita put an arm around her shoulder and put an abrupt end to the banter. "Tell you what. Why don't I give you our number, Andrew, and we can work out the details later?"
Andrew wasted no time in digging out a pen and scribbling down her number. Darien and Serena could not tear their glowers away from each other.
"Great, I'll call you tomorrow."
"It was a pleasure to see you, Meatball Head," said Darien with a mischievous smirk. "I look forward to our romantic evening together."
With a snort, Serena spun on her heels and stormed away.
Raye had seen her top bidder from the stage, and even from such a distance she could tell he was handsome. Dark hair and a smile that radiated across the room were all she had been able to pinpoint, but that was enough. And yet a feeling of apprehension filled her as she made her way back to his table. Would any self-respecting man ever bid on a girl at a date auction? And even if he did turn out to be a decent guy, what kind of a relationship could ever be built on a 775-dollar check?
To be fair, she also had to ask what kind of a girl would ever let herself be bought for such an amount, but then, she hadn't wanted to do this stupid date auction in the first place. She had better things to do than to try and impress overindulged bachelors with fat penchants. She had a brand new art gallery to run: artists to contact, promotional materials to disperse, paintings to sell. She didn't have time for some silly date.
Mina and her stupid ideas.
Her thoughts vanished when she nudged her way through a crowd of tuxedoes and spotted her highest bidder. He was not looking at her, but rather sharing in conversation with an elderly couple at his table. He was leaning forward with both elbows on the table, eyes attentive, lips curved upward. His hair was short and neatly styled back from his face. His jaw strong, shoulders broad. His fingers, clasped loosely together, looked created for a fine pianist. She placed him in his early thirties, but with a schoolboy charm that made it impossible to tell for sure.
A different girl would have felt nervous, intimidated, even shy. But Raye wasn't that kind of girl.
She approached the table without hesitation and drew a seat for herself as the three people turned to her.
"Pardon my interruption," she said, smiling at the couple across from her. Leaning back, she crossed her legs so that the slit of her dress revealed a glimpse of thigh. Sadly, when she turned her smile to the gentleman beside her, his gaze wasn't anywhere near her legs, but rather trained to her face. "Raye Hino," she said, holding her hand toward him. She'd hoped for a kiss against her knuckle, but received a gentle shake instead.
"Daniel," he responded with a smile so charming Raye was suddenly grateful she'd taken the seat. "A pleasure to meet you, Miss Hino. Might I introduce Dr. Maki Morioka and her husband, Jun."
Raye inclined her head to them and when Jun reached across the table to take her hand, she received that kiss she'd been looking for.
"What a lovely girl!" Maki exclaimed. "I do believe you have made quite the bargain, Danny."
"I do have impeccable taste." Something in the way he said it—not quite sarcasm but not quite arrogance, either—made Raye's heart flip.
"You get that from your father," Maki said, pushing her chair back from the table. "Well I suppose we should let these two kids get to know each other."
The husband followed her lead and they both offered hugs to Daniel, Maki kissing him on the cheek and then squeezing Raye's hand, before they left the ballroom.
"Friends of my parents," Daniel explained, turning toward Raye and resting one ankle on the opposite knee. He was dressed only semi-formal in khakis and a pale blue sweater that contrasted with the suits and tuxes elsewhere in the room, and yet if he knew he was underdressed, he pulled it off with a disarming confidence. "Would you like a glass of wine?" He gestured to a near-full bordeaux glass beside him. "It was Jun's but he never takes more than a sip. You would think after forty years one would realize they don't like the stuff."
Raye thought it was probably a sweet offer, if also a peculiar one. "No thanks. I think my roommates and I are going out for drinks after this."
"I see. Where are my manners? I must say you look stunning."
"I should maybe confess that this is the first time I've ever been to one of these. I don't really know what I'm supposed to say."
"Well, I'm an old pro at this date auction thing, so just follow my lead."
"No. Not really. I do want to thank you for your generous contribution to the hospital, though."
"Ah," Daniel chuckled, tapping his slender fingers on the table. "I'd like to thank them as well."
"And I should tell you now that I'm not going to sleep with you."
Daniel guffawed, the first break in his composure that Raye had seen, and it made her a little proud to have achieved precisely that reaction.
"I promise I had no intentions of any such thing," he said, adding with a shrug, "Nevertheless, I hope you won't fault a guy for being a tad disappointed."
"It's a natural reaction. Now that that's all cleared up…" She folded her hands primly on her knee. "What night works for you?"
"My evenings are pretty open. Do you have a preference?"
Saturday seemed the obvious answer, and what she normally would have suggested, and yet, a whole week seemed like an awfully long time to put it off.
A hand fell on her shoulder. "Raye, we need to go."
She glanced up to see Amy and Lita standing over her. Amy looked panicked. Lita simply looking resigned.
"What's going on?"
"Serena's drunk," said Lita.
She perked in her seat. "Did you just say Serena?"
"Because Mina I would believe, but Serena?"
"I know, it's bad. Things didn't go so well with Darien."
"Shocker. But we just left her ten minutes ago. How is it possible that she's already drunk?"
Lita shrugged. "She said 'kahlua,' the bartender heard 'tequila'?"
"Is there anything I can be of assistance with?"
Raye shook her head as Lita and Amy passed curious looks over Daniel. "We'll be fine, thanks. Do we know where Mina is?"
"Also getting drunk."
"See, now that makes sense." She offered an apologetic smile to Daniel. "It was nice to meet you."
"The pleasure was all mine. I guess I'll call you tomorrow to set up a date then."
Raye handed him the address before being whisked away by her roommates.
BIG NEWS! I'm going to be published! My debut novel, CINDER, is scheduled for release in Spring 2012 under my real name, Marissa Meyer. Please see my profile for more details!