The woman walking by Sean was in heels so high she looked like a ballet dancer en pointe. From the way she lurched unsteadily, the champagne in her glass slopping side to side, she wouldn't be performing a pirouette any time soon, though.
Sean rolled his eyes and glanced around the crowded bar. The Pendleton's main ballroom, opening off the bar, was also packed with rich people looking to spend a little to improve their images. In Sean's opinion, they'd have to do a lot more than donate a pittance to charity to achieve that aim. His cynicism wouldn't help children born with HIV--but tonight's auction would--and he told himself to behave.
For a potential junior partner of Carney Enterprises, good behavior was mandatory. He knew that, but sometimes, surrounded by this much wealth and privilege, he felt suffocated.
He took a sip from his champagne flute, nursed so long the fizz had gone and the champagne had warmed past the point of being drinkable. He smiled at no one in particular.
His smile faded abruptly when Andrew Carney--grandson of the founder of Carney Enterprises and son of the senior partner, Harris Carney--wandered into his line of sight. A stunning redhead clung to Andrew's arm, her low-cut jade-green dress revealing two of the reasons Andrew had chosen her as his date.
Her matching shoes were lethally sexy, all straps and winking diamante buckles, the heels slender spikes. She could at least walk in them. The arm-clinging was more a way of staking a claim. Andrew's attention span was renowned for being short, and if another woman caught Andrew's eye, Sean had no doubt Red would have to find her own way home.
Andrew was such a fucking jerk. Sean's lip curled before he could remember he was supposed to be looking pleasant.
As an experiment, Sean tried watching the younger man as an impartial observer might. Andrew couldn't have been more than thirty, and looked a few years younger with his fair skin and sharp hazel eyes. His hair, a light brown, was artfully arranged with gel that showed off the blond highlights at its tips. His height made him difficult to ignore under the best of circumstances.
Of course, Carney's golden boy was usually surrounded by people who jumped to do his bidding, including a personal assistant who was rumored to tie his shoes for him. Sometimes, when he was feeling particularly pissed off and in no mood to be fair, Sean wondered if Andrew ever did any work or if Andrew just delegated it to others and then took the credit. He'd been tempted to ask a few pointed questions on the subject. But he'd refrained because Andrew seemed to be so well-loved that it would be career suicide to even hint he was nothing more than a spoiled brat.
Was Sean jealous? Well, yes, a bit. After all, he'd worked incredibly hard to rise as far up the company ranks as he had, while Andrew-damned-Carney had everything handed to him on a silver platter and hardly seemed to appreciate it. Red leaned in close to Andrew's ear and said something. Andrew patted her hand and nodded. She put her glass on a passing waiter's tray and disappeared into the crowd, no doubt headed for the ladies' room, where she'd do things like "fix" her already perfect hair and add another layer of lipstick to her deep red lips.
Sean watched her go, not sure why. It wasn't as if he had any personal interest in the subtle jiggle of her impressive breasts or the wiggle in her walk as she detoured around a group of men too busy talking shop to notice her until she was past them. Their heads turned in perfect unison, and Sean grinned, his good humor restored. Straight or gay, men were predictable, he guessed.
"I think that's the first time I've seen you smile, Darrow."
Sean turned to find Andrew beside him. Andrew smelled indefinably expensive, and the tie around his neck had probably cost more than Sean's first three suits. Sean earned enough these days to be able to afford custom-made suits himself, but he could never shake the feeling they were a sinful extravagance, even though at his level, they were more of a necessity.
They were a costume for him, a uniform. For Andrew, they were just clothes.
"It's scaring me." Andrew faked a shiver. "It's not natural. Go back to glaring at me."
Sean bit back a retort that would've verged on rude. Being labeled a grouch by a playboy wasn't something to get worked up about. To Andrew, the world was probably full of boring people who insisted on taking life seriously and doing the job they were paid to do. He had to shrug it off. "Why would I want to do that?"
"I'm used to the glare. Besides, you aren't fooling anyone; that's not a real smile. I can tell." Andrew sipped his champagne and scanned the room. It was irritating the way he looked so confident, like the world belonged to him and everyone in it was there just for him.
"What happened to your...date?" Sean knew it would be inaccurate to refer to her as a girlfriend, but maybe the hesitation would annoy Andrew.
"She went to freshen up." Andrew smirked at him. "You're here alone, I take it?"
God, he was so fucking dismissive. Sean wished he could get away with punching him right in his smug, rich-boy face. "This isn't a social occasion," Sean said coldly.
"If free alcohol's involved, I'm pretty sure it is." Andrew finished his drink and traded the empty glass for a full one. "Come on, drink up. You look like you need it."
"I don't have to take orders from you." Sean placed his glass on the small table beside him, finding room for it between two plates with half-eaten canapes on them. Looked as if he wasn't the only one who'd thought the crab puffs were too salty. "Not at work and not here."
"Well, aren't we touchy." A spark of something--hostility? amusement?--glittered in Andrew's eyes. "Is that a--"
"If you were planning to say 'gay thing,' I'd reconsider." Sean smiled at Andrew for the benefit of anyone watching, as if the two of them were sharing a joke, but there was no warmth to his voice. "I'd hate to mess up that pretty face of yours and scare your escort before you get your money's worth out of her."
That last was a cheap shot, and he knew it. There was no reason to think Andrew had ever needed to pay for sex or arm candy, not with his looks, wealth, and connections, but Sean had the satisfaction of seeing Andrew blink.
"I'm sure she'd be worth any amount of money," Andrew said finally. "And I'm sure she'd be the one messing up your face if she knew what you were accusing her of, so I'll be nice and not pass that little tidbit on. This time." Some of the tension in his jaw relaxed, and he smiled. "Besides, have you seen the way she fills out that dress?"
"Hard to miss," Sean said, keeping his voice neutral this time. He'd let Andrew provoke him into overreacting, not for the first time. Everything about the man bugged the hell out of him--including the need to be at least superficially pleasant, given Andrew's father placed a lot of emphasis on teamwork and cooperation among his top-flight employees.
In public at least. Generous bonuses and perks awarded to those hedge fund managers who brought in the most assets encouraged them to be as competitive as starving dogs thrown a scrap of meat.
"But not your thing, right?"
Sean met Andrew's challenging stare. "Oh, I like my men to fill out their pants, so I guess we're on the same page there." He let his gaze drop below Andrew's waist and pursed his lips as if considering what lay beneath the charcoal-gray trousers Andrew wore. He shrugged dismissively, though it was impossible to judge what was hidden behind the material. "I'm sure you're never going to get any complaints--at least not to your face. Honesty makes for small tips."
Andrew's lips tightened. "Spoken like someone who comes to events by himself." He lifted his champagne glass in a silent toast. "I guess it must be hard to find anyone who can put up with you for a few hours."
You have no idea. Sean's love life was currently stagnant, something that contributed to his bad mood. He didn't consider himself ruled by his dick, but there was no denying he was more fun to be around when he was getting laid on a regular basis.
A brief attempt at a relationship three months ago had ended abruptly when Luke, who'd never really moved in, tossed his still-wet toothbrush into the trash after Sean told him from the shower he was going to be working late again. By the time Sean had gotten dry and dressed, still working out how to get the toothbrush back in its mug--metaphorically at least--Luke had slammed the apartment door with a nicely dramatic finality.
Sean could've gone back to club pickups or the short list of exes who were still speaking to him, but his workload had gotten crazy. Jerking off when he was awake enough to make it to the money shot was about all he'd managed recently.
Apologizing to Andrew Carney was never going to happen, though, even if Sean knew he'd been an asshole. He nodded at Andrew's date, who was making her way toward them with a tiny frown puckering her forehead. "Yeah, I'm a handful. And here comes your double handful, so you don't need to blow a brain cell thinking up another insult."
"I thought you were lost," Andrew told the redhead as she joined them.
"Just distracted," she said, smiling widely so her brilliantly white teeth were visible. "There was a woman with the most amazing shoes, you wouldn't believe."
"Probably not," Andrew agreed.
"Oh, I'm sorry. Elizabeth Montville." She held her manicured hand out toward Sean, who took it carefully.
"And do you work with Andrew? You look like an investment type."
"What does an investment type look like?" Sean was genuinely curious to hear her answer.
"Hmm, well. Clean-cut, nice suit, conservative tie." Elizabeth gestured at him, then smoothed her hand over Andrew's lapel.
"What do you know, Darrow? Looks like we have something in common after all." Andrew raised an eyebrow.
Elizabeth glanced around. "Are you by yourself, Mr. Darrow? Oh, was that your date freshening up with me? The one with the killer shoes?"
"I doubt it," Andrew said with a chuckle. "There's one thing at least Darrow and I don't have in common."
"You're not as funny as you think, you know," Sean told him.
Elizabeth sighed, managing to look both bewildered and charming. "I don't get it?"
"I'm gay," Sean said bluntly. He'd never denied it, not once he'd figured out what got him going. His father had brought him up to despise polite evasions or cowardice. He was what he was, and it was no one's business but his. "And no, my date isn't in the men's room or at the bar. I'm here by myself."
Elizabeth smiled at him again, and this time it was his lapel that got patted. "Well, you were, but you're with us now. Isn't that right, Andrew?"
Sean grinned. Carney's jaw didn't drop; he was too well trained in keeping his face smooth and impassive in front of clients for that. But for someone who could read the signs, he'd lost some of his composure. Andrew tugged at his shirt cuff and checked his watch. "Of course, but the auction's about to begin, and I'm sure Sean would excuse us if we go to our seats." He nodded at Sean. "Catch you later. Just make sure you don't scratch your head at the wrong moment. The bids are going to be out of your league once they finish with the penny-ante stuff like gift certificates and fruit baskets."
Deciding not to dignify that with a reply, Sean focused on Elizabeth and said, "It was nice to meet you."
"You too." She still seemed slightly bewildered as Andrew led her away.
The crowd was definitely thinning as more people moved into the ballroom where the charity auction was taking place. Sean was grateful these huge social events only happened a few times a year--at least the ones sponsored by Carney Enterprises--because he'd much rather have been almost anywhere else. Oh well. Only a couple of hours of this and he'd be off the hook until Monday morning. Tomorrow he'd sleep and sleep.
It wasn't that Sean didn't love his job--he did, on one level. And he was good at it. Better than that poser Andrew by a mile. But for him it was more about being successful than anything else.
The auction got off to a slow start. People from the company wanted to be seen to be spending big, and spa days and low-end electronic gadgets just weren't splashy enough. Sean was planning to bid because he supported the charity, but like his fellow employees, he was cynically aware of the need to be seen to be doing good deeds.
Image was everything. He'd read through the list of items and earmarked a few he was interested in--definitely not a spa day--and he waited more or less patiently for the first of them to come up.
When it did, Sean joined the bidding halfway through, taking a mildly malicious pleasure in seeing Todd from accounting drop his program when he saw who he was competing with for a set of skydiving lessons. Todd was one of the people at Carney Enterprises who got skittish around Sean, as if they expected him to break into a show tune or pinch their asses.
Todd had nothing to worry about. Sean saved his singing for his car, and Todd's ass wasn't worth a look, let alone a touch.
The bidding continued, with the high bid rising well past the point at which Sean had decided he'd drop out. Todd gave up shortly after, with the winner of the lessons paying nearly double what they would have cost normally. If Sean had been interested, he would have paid that much, especially considering what a high winning bid did for one's reputation. But he'd already taken more than one set of skydiving lessons, and when it came right down to it, he preferred to save his focus for something more unusual.
It hadn't come as too much of a surprise when he'd discovered people in finance professions had a penchant for high-risk activities. Investment advisers, bond traders, and portfolio managers--they were drawn to extreme sports, from the more common surfing and snowboarding to the unusual. Sean had tried bungee jumping as a college student and been immediately hooked on the rush of adrenaline, the sheer heart-thudding terror followed by the glorious realization he'd live to jump another day.
The bidding had moved on to a wine-tasting weekend in Paris, so Sean relaxed and leaned back in his chair. It was an item that had garnered a lot of interest, but it wasn't on his list due to the simple fact it was a weekend for two. He could have found someone to take, even just a friend, but it was one of those things that screamed romance, something his life was severely lacking just then. And would probably continue to lack until he found someone as caught up in his career as Sean was himself.
The high bid was at nearly ten thousand dollars--an absurd amount of money under any circumstances other than a charity auction--and only just beginning to show signs of slowing. A movement of bright color off to his right caught Sean's eye, and he realized it was Andrew's friend Elizabeth, her red hair vibrant against the sea of dark suits. She was holding her hands clasped together in front of her face, probably in shock anyone would pay so much money for a couple of days in Paris.
Actually, considering she was Andrew Carney's date, maybe she was horrified the people bidding were so damned cheap.
He shifted his gaze to Andrew with much the same lack of logic as a child picking at a scab to see if the wound it protected had healed. It made no sense, but it was irresistible. If Andrew was around, somehow Sean ended up staring at him, his emotions a solid, curdled lump of dislike. Andrew smoothed back Elizabeth's hair and got an annoyed frown from her before she schooled her expression to something less chiding. She'd probably spent a long time getting it to look that way, and Andrew's caress had ruined the carefully brushed tumble of curls.
Andrew looked suitably penitent, but he was grinning at her a moment later, an easy, relaxed smile that faded when he turned his head and met Sean's gaze.
Sean expected Andrew to look away, but Andrew's eyes didn't shift, his mouth a straight, firm line now. Fuck you, Andrew mouthed.
For a dizzying moment, Sean pictured that as reality, not an insult--himself bent over, waiting for a contemptuous thrust to fill him, make him groan with pleasure and need. He shook his head to clear it, sweat prickling across his back.
Jesus, when he left here, he was going to get laid if he had to do what he'd accused Andrew of and pay for it. Except that would be stupid and risky and when it came to sex, he took chances, but not like that.
When he glanced over at Andrew again, the man's attention was on the auctioneer, a dapper, elderly man with an astonishingly loud voice and a spotted bow tie.
"And now it's time for the grand prize, the moment when all you generous people get to show just how generous you can be. The prize is furnished by Gulliver's Travels, where, big or little, your dreams can come true, and I think we should give them a round of applause..."
Sean tuned out the patter and the enthusiastic clapping. He knew what this prize was, and he wanted it. He had enough vacation time accrued that he was going to lose it if he didn't take some soon, and this was just what he needed to relax.
"Good, yes, thank you." The auctioneer adjusted his glasses and looked down at the podium and his notes. "Now, up for bid is a two-week extreme-sport vacation in the Maldives Islands. The trip is all-inclusive and covers airfare to Male International Airport, and from there to the resort, accommodations, and full board in a luxury resort setting. Activities provided will cater to the winner's interests, but they include bodyboarding, cliff jumping, kite and windsurfing, and both scuba and free diving." He looked up at the crowd. "Please note that the winner will have significant input into the schedule."
Sean could feel the buzz in the air, even though he suspected he'd have little competition during bidding--chances were there'd be half a dozen bidders as it started, but he didn't think many of them would continue past twenty thousand dollars or so. It just wouldn't be worth more than that to most people. For Sean, though, it was the ideal item to bid on, not only impressively expensive, but something he actually wanted.
"This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, ladies and gentlemen. Please keep that in mind as I start the bidding at five thousand dollars."
A man who looked familiar but whose name Sean couldn't recall immediately signaled his bid, and they were off.
"Five thousand, do I have six? This trip, first-class all the way, is valued at twenty-five thousand dollars, and I know how much you all want to support this fine charity. Six, thank you."
That hadn't been Sean's bid either; he was willing to keep quiet now at the beginning while he tried to get a feel for which bidders were most serious.
"Nine thousand," a man's voice said, and Sean realized the bidder was Andrew Carney.
"Ten!" Sean said quickly before he could think too much about what he was doing. As soon as he had, he knew it was a mistake. Andrew might well assume Sean was just bidding against him to be difficult, which meant he'd be all the more determined to win. Shit. What did the man want with an extreme sport trip anyway? He'd probably never had so much as a scraped knuckle in his life.
"Ten, thank you very much. Do I hear more?"
Even without glancing over at Andrew, Sean knew he was getting one of those amused, dismissive smiles directed at him. "Fifteen."
The word, drawled out as if Andrew were talking about fifteen dollars, not a thousand times that amount, lit the fuse for Sean. Unlike his sex life, his bank account was healthy, thriving even. He spent carefully, with an eye to outward appearances, giving the impression of being comfortable--which he was--without wasting money the way some of his associates did.
It wasn't that he didn't like having nice things. It was just that deep down he couldn't bring himself to spend thousands of dollars more flying business class when, as the saying went, both ends of the plane got there at the same time. When he was on business and the company was picking up the tab, yes, but if he flew home to Chicago to see his parents, he bought a seat in coach. Why not? And when he bought his casual clothes, the ones no one in the office saw, he sure as hell didn't drop five hundred bucks on a T-shirt.
He could afford this vacation. "Twenty!" he called out, his voice crisp as an apple.
A ripple went through the crowd: excitement, curiosity maybe. It added to Sean's determination. He didn't like making a fool of himself in public, so he pasted yet another fake smile on his face. God, when he was in the Maldives, he swore he wouldn't smile even once unless he wanted to. His face ached from the artificial grimaces.
"Do I hear more than twenty?" The auctioneer clearly knew he would. His head was already turning in Andrew's direction.
"Twenty-two," Andrew said.
"Twenty-four." Sean kept his eyes fixed on the auctioneer, refusing to glance in Andrew's direction. Apparently they were going to do this all on their own. Sean wondered how high this would go. Was there a point at which he'd stop? Or would he stubbornly continue for as long as Andrew did? He wasn't sure he cared.
"Twenty-five." There was an edge to Andrew's voice as he topped Sean's bid.
"Thirty." This trip was Sean's. It didn't matter how much he had to pay; it was his, and no way was Andrew going to take it away from him. The jump in bidding would show Andrew he was serious and possibly end their battle.
Andrew stood up. "Forty thousand."
A gasp went around the room, and there was a brief pause before the auctioneer said slowly, "We have a bid for forty thousand dollars. Do I hear more?"
The only time Sean could remember a bid having gone this high before was when an acclaimed fashion designer had offered a custom, one-of-a-kind wedding dress. Forty thousand for a two-week vacation was insane, and as he opened his mouth to continue the insanity, a hand gripped his arm from behind.
Sean turned his head and saw his boss, Harris Carney, leaning forward with an intense look on his face. "That's enough." Harris raised his voice and beckoned imperiously to his son. "Andrew? A word, please."
A rustle of whispers followed them as they moved to the side of the stage, out of earshot of the crowd. The auctioneer stood watching them but had the sense not to interfere. They'd be talking about this for weeks, Sean thought with a sick anger burning in his gut. He felt like a schoolboy hauled off to the principal's office for fighting--which wasn't far from the truth.
"What the fuck is going on?" Harris asked them, his voice tight with anger, if discreetly lowered. "This is supposed to be a charitable event, not a public airing of whatever feud the two of you have going on."
"Sir, I--" Sean didn't get any further. Harris chopped his hand down sharply, a gesture that Sean was all too familiar with. Judging by his wince, so was Andrew. It signaled a loss of patience and an imminent explosion.
"I know what you make. Both of you. And I know you can afford this, but how far would you have let it go? Fifty thousand? Sixty?" He glared at Sean. "Bankrupt yourself if you like, but you're making the company look foolish, and I won't stand for it."
Sean swallowed and nodded. That was it, then. He'd lost, and Andrew was going to come out on top. Shit, he'd never live it down.
"Fifty thousand," Harris said, loudly but calmly, directing his attention to the auctioneer so there was no question whom he was addressing. It was clear to Sean he was supposed to keep his mouth shut, which he did even when the auctioneer asked if there were any more bids and then hurriedly declared Harris Carney the winner.
Andrew looked as irritated as Sean felt. "I don't think Mom's going to be too thrilled with you going scuba diving."
"Don't be an idiot," Harris said. "I bought the trip for you." He looked at Sean sternly. "And I'm going to pay for you to go too, so don't go getting all righteously angry."
Shock and anger held Sean speechless for a moment, which gave him time to get both under control before he spoke. "Sir, I appreciate the offer, but--"
"It isn't an offer," Harris told him. "It's a condition of continued employment. I think under the circumstances the best option is for the two of you to take this trip together. Give you some time to work out whatever it is that has you at each other's throats. I can write the money off; don't worry."
Sean studiously avoided Andrew's eye. This was worse than losing. Panic filled him, clawing at his throat as it tried to escape along with the angry words that were about to spill out. He could not, would not do this. If it cost him his job, he was going to refuse.
A hand touched his arm and he spun around, scowling. Andrew was pale, his eyes bright with as much annoyance as Sean had ever seen there, but he was smiling and his hand was out, waiting to be shaken.
"You don't have a choice," Andrew told him, the words barely audible, spoken through his teeth. "Now shake my hand and make nice, you stubborn bastard."
Harris Carney gave an approving grunt, and Sean reached out, numb now, and shook Andrew's hand, not even trying to make his grip painfully tight.
When he went to bed that night, he could still feel the answering pressure of Andrew's hand as it clasped his briefly.