Chapter 1 – Hand Me The Reins
I was the last single man standing. All the others had been sold off like bulls at the county fair. Bought by the highest bidding woman, who most likely wanted a wild ride with a prime stud. I was sure that wasn’t what Reverend Abernathy had in mind as he MC’d the charity bachelor auction. A coffee date. Maybe lunch or a summer evening ice cream cone.
Alice, our family housekeeper and the woman who’d volunteered me and my brothers for the event, probably agreed. But she wanted us paired off and knew it wasn’t going to happen playing Scrabble. Maybe naked Twister. Now that could be fun.
“Last but not least,” Reverend Abernathy said, clapping his hands once, joining me backstage. “This has turned out to be a bigger success than we ever imagined.”
The glee on his face at the sum being raised to help the youth program at the community center couldn’t be missed.
“I’m glad it’s working out,” I replied.
“You can do it again next year,” he encouraged.
Next year? Hell, no. I’d been debating an offer to run his bar in Cozumel for the winter while he went on a once in a lifetime trek across Africa. My buddy Kent had called a few weeks ago, giving me time to consider. I had the job qualifications. Besides needing a lot of sunscreen and buying a pair of swim trunks, I could easily take over. But the reverend’s suggestion of me being in another bachelor auction had me in Mexico before the first frost and maybe staying longer than just the winter.
I hadn’t made a final decision yet, but the man of God sure was helping.
He tapped his lip with a finger. “I have a feeling the pool of eligible bachelors may be a little smaller.”
“You mean Huck and Sarah.” My brother and Sarah O’Banyon had been sweethearts years ago, but they’d broken up. Hadn’t talked since. Until just now when Sarah had bought Huck in the auction. I had no idea why she’d done it, but she’d put in the only bid, and a high one, so she had a reason.
He shrugged. “There is hope they will have their happy ending.”
I hoped I could have a happy ending with my date, and not the permanent kind. A quickie that left us both sweaty and satisfied was just fine with me.
With that eager thought in mind, I set my hand on the reverend’s shoulder and gave him my patented smile. “Let’s do this.”
He nodded and led me out onto the stage, then picked up the microphone to be heard over the rowdy group of women. I gave a little wave and they clapped.
“Last up is Thatcher Manning. Let’s see if he can top his brothers’ high bids.”
“Ten dollars,” a woman from the back shouted.
Everyone laughed at the small amount and I offered a small bow.
The bidding slowly rose and I recognized a few of the women who’d called out.
Everyone looked to the latest bidder who was at one of the round tables in the center of the room. Miss Turnbuckle. The elderly town librarian. Gray hair pulled back in a bun. White blouse beneath a pale blue cardigan. Reading glasses dangling by a chain.
Sawyer, Huck and I had joked earlier in the week that she’d probably bid on one of us.
And she had. Me.
Inwardly, I sighed. There was going to be coffee. Idle chatting, although Miss Turnbuckle and I both had a love of reading and we could discuss books. Books. No happy ending, that was for fucking sure.
I felt a twinge of disappointment. Sawyer had carried a redhead over his shoulder, fireman style, from the auditorium. Huck had been bought by an old flame.
“Any other bids?” the reverend called.
No one spoke up. Only whispers and murmurs could be heard.
Of course no one was going to now. Who would ruin the older woman’s chance? I didn’t know if Miss Turnbuckle had bid on any of the other guys, but it seemed she’d let the other women have their turn at winning a bachelor. Now it was hers.
Actually, this was good. Fine. I didn’t need any kind of clingy woman thinking that buying me at a bachelor auction was going to be more than a date. I didn’t do attachments. Girlfriends. Long term.
A night of sweaty, energetic sex was one thing, but a relationship? Not a chance.
That wasn’t going to happen with Miss Turnbuckle.
The date would be simple. I’d pick her up at her door, take her for coffee, behave like the perfect gentleman and talk about the latest mystery bestseller and deliver her safely and happily back home.
I’d still give her a sly smile at the library whenever I went in, but she wouldn’t read into it or make assumptions.
I could do this. A few hours and my good deed for the kids of The Bend would be done. I winked at the librarian, who narrowed her eyes seeing right through my charm. As usual.
“Twice… sold!” Reverend Abernathy called. “Thank you all for coming and supporting the youth center. For those who have upcoming dates with this fine group of bachelors, have fun.”
The ladies clapped at the reverend’s closing remarks.
I nodded to him and made my way to Miss Turnbuckle. It took some time to cut through the crowd now that the event was over.
The seat beside her was open and I settled into it, taking off my hat. “Looking forward to our date, but remember, I’m an impressionable young man, Miss T. I need to be home by ten or Alice will ground me.”
She tipped her head back and laughed. I always liked the woman. I’d actually enjoyed going to the library with my mother when I was little. Still did. Unlike Sawyer and Huck, I liked to read and spent the long winters in the overstuffed chair by my fireplace with a good book. Miss Turnbuckle often set aside something she thought I would enjoy, and she was usually right.
“No doubt.” She looked up at a someone who passed and gave her a wave, then returned her attention to me.
“If I were fifty years younger, Thatcher Manning,” she began, reaching out to give my hand a pat. “We’d go to Lake Delta and do some things that would frighten the fish.”
I felt my cheeks heat as I ran a hand over the back of my neck.
“Don’t scare him, Aunt Jean.” A woman came around behind me, leaned down and kissed Miss Turnbuckle on the cheek. My gaze ran over her. Average height. Brown hair that was pulled back into a thick braid down her back. She had on jeans and a white and blue striped shirt. While the outfit was far from memorable, I couldn’t miss the way the horizontal lines accentuated the full swells of her breasts.
And I was a breast man, for fucking sure. I guessed hers were more than a handful. Two lush mounds to get lost between.
She settled into the seat on the other side of her aunt and pushed a pair of thick glasses up her nose. I hadn’t known Miss Turnbuckle had any relatives. As I thought about it, I had no idea where she lived. In fact, I just assumed she lived at the library.
“He’s thirty years old. He should be past frightening,” Miss Turnbuckle countered.
How she knew my exact age, I’d never know. Another one of the things she filed away in that brain of hers.
“I’m sorry I’m late,” she said, offering me, then her aunt a smile. “God, I hate being late, but the Pardue wedding was relocated at the last minute and no one told me. I barely got the cake there in time.”
“This is my great-niece, Astrid,” Miss Turnbuckle said, then tipped her head toward me. “Astrid, Thatcher Manning. I hooked him into reading with the Hardy Boys series when he was seven and has been reading mysteries ever since.”
I scratched the back of my neck. I was usually known as one of the infamous Manning brothers or the guy who owned the Lucky Spur. Or both. A lover, definitely, but not a book lover.
I shifted my gaze back to Astrid. She darted a glance my way. I couldn’t see a hint of makeup on her face, although there was something white on her flushed cheek.
“Hey there,” I said. I’d have tipped my hat, but it was on the table.
“Hi,” she offered, although her gaze was focused on my chin before she turned her attention to her aunt once again. “I can’t believe you went through with it.”
Miss Turnbuckle patted her hand. “Thatcher will do exactly what you want.”
My eyebrows went up, unsure of what exactly Astrid wanted. When Astrid glanced at me with a hint of panic, I was definitely intrigued.
“Astrid owns the Flour Power bakery on South Chester,” Miss Turnbuckle informed, which explained the smudge on Astrid’s cheek.
Astrid was what I’d call a curvy girl, one who might like to eat delicious treats besides just making them. I liked that. Alot. A guy—or at least me—wanted something to grab onto when he fucked, dips and swells to get touch and kiss and explore.
Fuck, what a way to go.
I wasn’t sure if she was shy or if I scared her. Huck was definitely the scary Manning brother. I was the easygoing one, so for Astrid, I assumed shy.
“I’m sorry that I’ve never been to your shop before,” I told her, making small talk. “I believe Alice bought a strawberry shortcake earlier in the summer.”
There went the flush on her cheeks again. She looked at me, head on, for the first time. Her eyes, behind her glasses, were the greenest I’d ever seen. Like emeralds.
I felt like I was in a cartoon where a huge anvil fell on my head. My dick went instantly hard and I was suddenly pleased she was shy because I wanted whatever she was hiding behind those glasses and modest outfit. I had the insane desire to poke any guy’s eyes out if he noticed her, too.
“Yes, that is a customer favorite during strawberry season,” she replied. “I think it’s the whipped cream since I put Kirsh in it.”
Her voice was soft and gentle but somehow I only thought of dark and dirty things that could be done with whipped cream. I wanted to do them with her. She wasn’t coming on to me like women did at the Lucky Spur. Hell, she wasn’t even trying, only talking with enthusiasm as someone who enjoyed her work.
Still, I had to shift in my chair at the surprised hit of arousal wondering if I licked the sweet confection off her nipples if they would be the color—and taste—of strawberries.
Yeah, I was singleminded.
What exactly did Astrid the baker want from me? Orgasms? Not a problem, especially if she brought her shortcake on the date.
Miss Turnbuckle pushed back her chair and stood. I hopped to my feet. My parents might have died when I was twelve, but they’d drilled into me good manners early on. Alice had finished that job with a wooden spoon a time or two.
I turned slightly and folded my hands together in front of me to hopefully hide the semi I was now sporting. Because of a shy baker. In front of the octogenarian librarian.
What the fuck was wrong with me?
“It’s time for me to take my old bones home to bed,” Miss Turnbuckle said. “I’ve got three more chapters in my book I’m eager to get to. If it ends like I think, I’ll save it for you to check out.”
“Don’t we need to plan when I’ll pick you up?” I asked.
She shook her head, patted my arm, then squeezed the muscle, her white eyebrows winging up. “I might have bought you, but the date’s with Astrid.”
Miss Turnbuckle waved to someone behind me and headed off in that direction.
My date was with Astrid? This bachelor auction was looking better and better by the minute. I turned my attention to the subtle beauty before me. Astrid looked up with those big green eyes.
“I need a man,” she said, then slapped a hand over her mouth.
The four words were followed by a flush so bright I had to wonder if her pussy was that color after a hard fuck.
I bit back a groan at the thought.
This… whatever this was with Astrid, it was happening. If Astrid needed a man, I sure as shit was going to be it. And she’d get her money’s worth.