Monday, December 26, 2005

EXCERPT: Dark and Dashing

By Devon Vaughn Archer




The celebrity auction had been held at the Shoreline Hotel and Casino for the past five years. Luminaries had come from around the country to the resort town of Oak Cliffs on Oregon’s central coast to participate in this year’s autumn charity event to promote literacy. The money raised would be divided among various foundations and nonprofit organizations specifically aimed at eliminating illiteracy, as well as supporting local and national programs that encouraged reading among youth.
Conneca Sheridan, local owner of the Sheridan Seaside Inn and a member of the Oak Cliffs Business Association, was participating in her third auction. She sat amidst what seemed to be a sea of mostly women, distinguished by her brilliant butterscotch complexion and unusually attractive midnight colored hairstyle, which included Senegalese twist rolls up front and layers of long individual braids in the back, cascading across her narrow shoulders. Conneca’s tall, model slender frame further separated her from the pack. She wore an Ann Taylor sleeveless black squareneck sheath dress, covered by a beige jacket with padded shoulders and high-heeled mules. A simple pearl necklace and matching earrings completed her look.
Though quite busy with her life, Conneca gladly volunteered her time and was prepared to donate a bit of her hard earned money for an evening with a celebrity, even if she generally had a disdain for the egotism and arrogance that seemed to go with the territory for most who wore that banner. After all, she reminded herself, it was for a most worthy cause.
Conneca had been particularly concerned with child illiteracy. When she was in college, she voluntarily taught inner city kids who had dropped out of school to read. It was part of a project between the University of San Francisco and the city to rescue children from illiteracy and its devastating implications for both their individual lives and society as a whole. Since that time--or for the last nine years--Conneca had tried to be involved in some form of volunteer work in helping people with one of the most basic necessities and joys of life: the ability to read and write.
Now thirty, still single, childless, and seemingly eons away from her dream of being someone who could truly make a difference in life, Conneca brushed aside past reflections and future yearnings and concentrated on the moment at hand. Beneath thin, slightly arched brows, she focused her big, bold café au lait eyes on the next celebrity to be bid on.
Almost immediately, Conneca felt a shiver sweep through her as if she was hit with a gust of wind. An air of familiarity took center stage. She watched as the tall and elegant looking, handsome brother--built like he never missed a workout a day in his life--walked down the runway with the poise of a person running for office. He was in his early thirties, she guessed, and was a rich fudge chocolate in color. The man abruptly came to a complete halt in front of her as if to flaunt himself in her face.
Conneca batted her lashes at first in annoyance, then in abashment, sure that all eyes were on her--and him--at the moment. But while she may have wished she could shrink into nothingness, that would probably be playing right into his hands, so to speak. Just be cool, girl, she told herself determinedly.
Following her own advice, Conneca managed to gather herself, feeling there was no other choice in the spirit of things but to appraise him. At well over six feet, he was resplendent in a double-breasted black tuxedo, white shirt, and black bow tie. His head was clean shaven with only a hint of the raven hair he could have had, which would have been the perfect match for deep dark, soulful eyes. She noted that on his right earlobe was a small ruby earring. On a taut, square jawed face was a cute little nose that expanded as a toothy grin spread across a sensual full mouth, as if he was immensely enjoying having every woman in there bidding to be at his beck and call for the rest of the day.
Or maybe me, in particular, thought Conneca with a shudder. Who was he? She was sure she had seen him before. How could one ever forget such a man machine of a human being, if there ever was one?
Conneca suddenly became aware that he was looking directly at her, seemingly amused by her almost hypnotic stare. She hastily averted her eyes, refusing to give him the privilege of thinking that she might actually be interested in paying for his company in specific, charity or not. She would leave some other sister or sister wannabe to feed his ego.
I’ll set my sights elsewhere, thank you.
But that didn’t stop Conneca’s mind from working overtime as to who he might be as a celebrity figure. Perhaps the man was an actor? she scanned her brain. Or maybe a musician. An athlete. A journalist. Or even a politician, heaven forbid! Admittedly, Conneca didn’t make a habit of watching many movies or TV programs that he might have been in. And she was more into older music like classical jazz and Motown sounds. She could imagine him being more hip-hop, if anything. If he was into politics, forget it, she thought. She knew the faces, but at times lost the message in an atmosphere where it was all about me, me, me, and often you couldn’t really distinguish one person from the next who ran for or were already in office.
The reality, knew Conneca, was that she was far too busy with the inn and everyday life to keep track of who was who in the world of celebrities. Yet that didn’t quell her curiosity about the drop dead gorgeous brother before her or, for that matter, stop the frustration over her inability to place his face.
Over the loudspeaker, a woman announced in a voice filled with giddy admiration: “All the way from Denver, Colorado is the dashing, cool as he wants to be, Maurice Templeton. He’s the very male half of the wildly successful romantic suspense novel collaboration team known by most of us readers as Alexis Maurice. Won’t you please make Maurice feel welcome to Oak Cliffs?”
A rousing round of applause followed, and shortly thereafter the bidding began for the right to temporary custody of the clearly more than willing author.
So that’s who the mystery man is, Conneca mused, wondering how she had missed the connection. She knew now where she had seen Maurice Templeton. Or at least his face. It had been on the back of one of his books. A friend had lent her a copy of Alexis Maurice’s latest best selling novel last year called Danger At Sea. Conneca had found it a fascinating, suspenseful read with just the right amount of romance and mystery to keep her thoroughly satisfied, completing the book in only two days, though it was over three hundred pages long. She remembered thinking--in seeing the glossy color photograph on back of book of the attractive authors cheek to cheek--that they seemed like the perfect couple and madly in love or, perhaps, lust.
In fact, she recalled her friend, Nadine, telling her that the two were once married, but far from perfect. Divorced now, they remained connected as writing partners for their novels. Conneca had fixed Nadine with a look of disbelief, and said, rolling her eyes: “They must be using smoke and mirrors, or something. If they couldn’t make the marriage work, it seems like anything else would be asking way too much.”
Nadine had hunched her shoulders, chuckling. “Money makes for strange bedfellows, girl! They may hate each other’s guts in private. But so long as the books are selling like hotcakes with plenty of butter and syrup, they’re keeping the dirty laundry where it belongs and making like they are still lovebirds for public consumption.”
Conneca thought the whole thing sounded more like the fiction they wrote than real life, where love obviously didn’t always conquer all. But, she thought, hey, whatever worked for them, if not for her.
Conneca had to admit she still found herself curious about the two authors and ex husband and wife. Or more like the one, she realized now in considering Maurice Templeton, who had already moved smoothly to the other end of the runway and seemed to really be enjoying this king for a day scenario. As did virtually all those in attendance, judging by the catcalls and whistling for this handsome king.
The bidding had gone up to nearly five thousand dollars, by far the most that had been pledged during the auction for any celebrity. Conneca gasped at the notion and wondered who would be crazy enough to donate such an outrageous amount to spend time with this one man who was probably already spoken for, very conceited, and dullsville behind the brilliant mask--even if it was for a good cause...?
Her answer came quite shockingly as she inadvertently raised a hand to scratch her cheek. The auctioneer--a rotund man in his fifties, who looked as if he was wearing a grayish toupee--saw this as her bid of five thousand dollars, and pounced on it like a leopard.
“The pretty lady with the beautifully braided hair has brought the bid to five thousand dollars,” the auctioneer bellowed gleefully. “Does anyone care to top that for the privilege of Mr. Templeton’s enchanting company, and a most charitable contribution to one of society’s hidden ills?”
Realizing that no other bids were forthcoming, Conneca tried to right her wrong. She muttered some undecipherable words of mistake and protest to no avail.
It was too late.
“Going once... Going twice--” The auctioneer strained his voice, while peering at his audience, as if trying to will the ante to be upped by some wealthy soul, perhaps an elderly woman who thrilled at the prospect of being rejuvenated on the arm of the famous, handsome author.
It was not to be.
“Gone!” the voice bellowed with finality.
Conneca had just bought the temporary rights to Maurice Templeton for far more than she had been prepared to contribute to promoting literacy. It suddenly left her with a sick feeling in her stomach. She was barely breaking even with the inn and was hardly in a position to donate five grand for the company of a man who didn’t appear as if he needed such expensive companionship to take pity on.
“Damn,” muttered Conneca under her breath. “Smile for the folks.”
She flashed pearly white, straight teeth for all to see. Inside, Conneca felt as if she had been sucker punched. She would just have to make the best of it, she decided.
And him.
She looked up at the stage, expecting to see Maurice Templeton’s broad grin as he sized her up and considered the possibilities the evening might entail. Instead, Conneca found that the man she had unwittingly won the bid on had suddenly vanished like a thief in the night.
The breathing that raised the hairs at the nape of Conneca’s neck was warm and gentle, almost soothing. Before she could turn around back stage, the velvety deep voice practically sang Stevie Wonder’s Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours, baby...for the rest of the day.”
Conneca met the intriguing, dominating eyes of the author that bore down on her at an angle attesting to his height of at least six feet four inches, compared to her five foot seven inches. His features were even more arresting and virile up close, as was his natural scent mixed with Royal Copenhagen. Conneca found it intoxicating.
He favored her with a steady, amused grin, as though reading her mind and feeling his potent effect on her body. It made Conneca all the more determined to resist being overwhelmed by the man. Or his celebrity status.
“Maurice Templeton,” he said routinely, as if she didn’t already know. “And you are...?”
“Conneca Sheridan.” She willed herself to keep from shaking on the outside like she was on the inside.
He nodded. “Nice to meet you, Conneca. I like your’s very intriguing.”
I’ll bet you do, Conneca thought skeptically. Don’t read anything into it that’s not there, buddy.
Maurice stuck out a hand, the long fingers spread like a turkey’s feathers. Conneca shook his hand, which was as soft to the touch as it was hard. His skin was smooth as silk, and she noted a half moon shaped scar on the back of his hand.
“Happened when I was just a boy,” Maurice explained perceptively. “Was fishing with my old man--or trying to--when I ended up being hooked myself instead of the fish. It was really more embarrassing than painful.” He gave an uneasy chuckle and pulled his hand from hers, burying it self-consciously in the pocket of his trousers. “Are you always so generous with your money? Or are you one of those can’t put ‘em down fans of Alexis Maurice novels?”
Part of Conneca wanted to tell him that she had not intended to write a one thousand dollar check to chaperone him for the evening, much less five times that amount! And though she had very much enjoyed the one Alexis Maurice book she’d read, she would hardly call herself a diehard fan of theirs--or his. Or some sort of crazed groupie.
But what was the point in that? Conneca asked herself. She didn’t want to come off sounding cheap or irresponsible in bidding much more than she could afford. Why not feed this man’s obviously inflated ego and try to just get through it? After all, she’d probably never see him again once they said their goodbyes in a few short hours, she thought.
Pasting a smile across her thin lips, Conneca said in a self-compromise: “Let’s just say that I’m a big supporter of ending illiteracy in this country.”
Maurice touched the tip of his shiny nose and said without making waves: “Fair enough. That is, of course, what brought us to this point--even if it is a lofty goal by any standard. Wouldn’t you say?”
She fluttered her curled lashes. “Isn’t that true for any worthwhile aim? That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.”
“I couldn’t agree more,” he seconded.
Conneca didn’t doubt that the task would require a considerable amount of cooperation and education across the spectrum. But in this case, it was worth each grain of hope for every child who could improve upon his or her reading skills.
“Every little bit counts,” she told him, as if to justify her involvement...and five thousand dollar investment in the effort.
Maurice favored her with one brow raised. “True enough. It’s always the little things that grow into big things.”
Conneca turned away from his gaze, feeling its warmth like basking in sunlight. Or perhaps like being in an oven with the temperature continuing to rise to the point of broiling.
A moment of awkwardness stood between them like a brick wall. It seemed to signify the mutual attraction that neither was ready to acknowledge to themselves, much less each other.
Maurice finally broke the deadlock by saying: “So, are you going to the literacy conference in Denver next month?”
Are you inviting me? Conneca asked herself sardonically, knowing full well he was doing no such thing.
“I’m thinking about it,” she told him. In fact, she had received information in the mail about the conference, but had not committed one way or the other, knowing that the inn had to take precedence over anything else--including leaving town. But she didn’t need to tell him about her business. “Will you be there?” Conneca decided to ask.
Maurice seemed to ponder the question as if he hadn’t previously considered it. “Not if I can help it,” he said honestly. “I try to stay away from these high profile events so close to home. You agree to one and the vultures are banging down the door trying to lock you in for every charitable event known to man, woman, and child...”
Conneca was only mildly surprised. She imagined that, realistically, successful writers could only give themselves to so many causes before they ended up spending more time on the social and charity circuit than writing. The same was true as well, she thought, of innkeepers. Still, the notion of visiting the Mile High City next month had its own appeal all of a sudden, if only in her mind.
Maurice leaned forward slightly. “Look, I don’t know about you, but I’m starved. What do you say we go get something to eat?”
That was always a safe bet, thought Conneca, remembering the previous times she had won the rights to a celebrity guest for a charitable cause. One had been a seventy-nine-year-old male world famous concert pianist. The other was a thirteen-year-old boy genius. Everyone had to eat, regardless of his or her claim to fame.
Conneca had a feeling that anything she did with Maurice Templeton would be a different story altogether. And this both excited and scared her like never before. Whether that was a good or bad thing remained to be seen. I’ll just go with the flow, she thought.
“Sounds like a wonderful idea,” Conneca told him in a thick voice.

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