New Orleans, Louisiana
“Jared, so good to see you.”
Jared VonBrandt handed his invitation to the perfectly-put-together middle-aged woman behind the table, and smiled. “You know I’d never miss one of the LaBlanc Charities. My family’s company has supported the LaBlanc Cancer Research Institute for years.”
“Probably a decade now,” she said, handing him his number. The large card was white, with the number fifteen printed in bold black at the top. “You’re at table three, hon.”
He tipped his chin down and smiled. “Thank you.”
The crowd of people at the LaBlanc event was dressed in their absolute finest. The family had a way of bringing wealth from all over the country to support their institute. Cancer research was definitely worthwhile and this charity received at least a quarter of VonBrandt Oil’s budget for donations.
Straightening the bowtie at his neck, Jared took a deep breath and readjusted his tuxedo coat. He didn’t mind getting dressed up, but if he had a choice—boots, jeans, and a T-shirt were his go-to choices. Didn’t need anything else on the ranch. He worked from his desk eighty percent of the time anyway, never leaving his house except for events like this one.
He ran the promotional department of VonBrandt Oil. At least it gave him something to do, other than sit on his porch in a rocker like an old man. He was only thirty-two. His cousins had lots of friends in town, but he preferred the solitude of the ranch and the woods.
Jared ran daily with the hybrid wolves his cousin, and alpha, Aaron kept at the main house on the ranch. The dogs were good companions and he enjoyed soaking up the sun and scent of the pine forest. He’d been born a werewolf, and embraced it completely. Being a wolf was as much part of him as being a person.
An excellent business degree from the local university, in Somewhere, Texas could’ve gotten him a job anywhere in the country, especially with his extended family connections. But his only desire was to stay on the ranch, eventually find a mate, and have a family. So far no one in particular, even the visitors during the full moon runs, had piqued his interested.
For now, he’d just continue on with life. Tonight his mission was to find a piece of artwork for Tonya, Aaron’s wife. She’d requested something for the redesign of her formal living room. Something with blue preferably. He’d hugged her and assured her he’d keep an eye out.
The massive ballroom was filled with people. Several women looked his way and gave him a smile, but he merely returned the polite gesture and moved through the crowd to his table. It was near the front. Another perk for being part of a very wealthy and influential family.
Since two of his cousins had married into powerful east coast families, he’d been invited to several functions in the Hamptons during the summer season. Still, the LaBlanc dinner was phenomenal. The food was prepared by a Michelin—star Chef—and well worth the five hundred dollar donation for his dinner plate. The auction after dinner was always a good place to find unique items, too.
Jared found his place, marked by an elaborately penned calligraphic version of his name. The waiter filled his water glass and he ordered from the provided wine list while the rest of the dining room began to take their seats.
He enjoyed his wine, shortly followed by a stellar five course meal. A photo slide show played, and the LaBlanc’s head of PR narrated the progress the Institute had made over the previous year. They also shared plans for the upcoming one.
Mr. and Mrs. LaBlanc got up, once dinner had concluded, and gave their sincerest thanks to everyone attending. They announced that the dinner tickets were sold out and had raised one hundred and fifty thousand dollars.
“We need your absolute generosity again this year. Last year the auction raised $2.6 million dollars. We have some very special things in store for you this year and we know you’ll all help the institute reach its three million dollar goal this year. Thank you,” Mrs. LaBlanc said, blowing a kiss to the audience. “Your catalogs have been delivered to the table. Let the bidding begin.”
Jared picked up the pamphlet catalog and skimmed through the pages. Several paintings in particular caught his eye for Tonya, but he stopped on one spread that showed pictures of four women. Glancing at the top again, he reread the headline.
Win a dinner date with one of the four loveliest debutantes in New Orleans.
He read through their bios and sighed. Jared might be wealthy, but he wasn’t the least bit interested in any of these blonde-haired-blue-eyed women. They weren’t his type, never would be. Didn’t waste his time dating humans anyway. He wanted to settle down with another werewolf, whose family recognized and understood the pride and history of being a supernatural being. Two of his nephews had chosen human mates recently, not that the ladies were bad choices —just complicated ones.
One of the paintings he’d earmarked for his sister-in law Tonya came up on the block, and he raised his card. He went back and forth with someone else from a table behind him. But they only gave a couple of tries before stopping.
“Sold. Lot twelve. Two hundred thousand from bidder fifteen.”
Mission accomplished. Hopefully she’ll like the weeping willow by the pond. The midnight blue sky and moon reflected in the still water with the tree was perfect. It’d been his personal favorite out of the artwork being sold tonight. The painting was only worth a few thousand, so the rest of the money spent on it would be a good deduction for the company.
The waiter refilled his glass of wine and Jared leaned back in his chair to enjoy the rest of the auction.
“This is what I’ve been waiting for.” One of the men at this table gave him a wink. The slimy vibe from the middle-aged man in a very expensive tuxedo made his hair stand on end.
Jared frowned. These were dates for charity. It wasn’t real. These women were just giving their time for a good cause.
“Single gentlemen. This is your time to shine,” said the announcer. “We have four dates with four beautiful women. One of the debs had to drop out due to illness, but we have a lovely substitute from Pier Nelson’s TechCorp Industries. I met her before dinner. She works personally for Pier and is absolutely lovely. So please give her a huge round of applause for stepping in at the last minute.”
Jared clapped with the rest of the audience and rolled his head from side to side. He could smell the excitement in the air and the flood of testosterone. It was like a show during shark week. The air was frothing with hunger and impatience.
A lovely young woman stepped up onto stage that looked nothing like the debutantes in the catalog. She was wearing a long purple beaded gown with a slit up the left side that showed a gorgeous flash of skin with each step she climbed. Her hair was in a half twist, and silver earrings hung long, skimming the edges of her bare shoulders. The dress was held in place by a halter strap with more beading that hung down her naked back.
He swallowed and inhaled slowly, tasting the air. It was difficult to decipher scents in human form, but not impossible. There was something very different in the air now. She hadn’t been in the room yet this evening. It would’ve been too noticeable. Her scent was deliciously werewolf. Her name—Elise Blanchard—wasn’t familiar. What pack did she run with? Belong to. Why hadn’t he ever heard her name before?
By the gods, she was stunning too. Curves and legs that would make a man stay awake all night.
She turned to face the crowd. Her pale skin was a gorgeous contrast to her chocolate tresses.
He grinned when she turned to face him and tilted her head to the side. She even sniffed the air ever so slightly.
“Gentlemen, I’m pleased to introduce you to our lovely Miss Elise Blanchard. She’s an administrative assistant at TechCorp Industries. Elise enjoys a wide variety of foods. She loves to read, try new wines, and watch the latest shows on her streaming service when she’s at home. She did the charity a huge favor, so I know you’ll give her your utmost generosity. Let’s start the bidding at one thousand dollars for a lovely dinner date tomorrow night, right here at the Triton Grand Hotel in the heart of the French Quarter.”
Bids flowed in around the room. In a few moments, the lovely brunette was bringing in ten thousand dollars for her date.
Jared raised his card for twelve, and the man across the table tensed.
“She’s mine, VonBrandt. Leave her be,” the stranger said under his breath.
He felt his wolf stir with jealousy for the first time. The entire table looked at the stranger with suspicion, but something was off. She was on auction for a one-time date. It wasn’t meant to be the start of a relationship. Surely she wouldn’t have volunteered if she was attached…to this man?
“Who are you?”
“Pier Nelson.” The guy had a look of smug satisfaction smeared across his face.
Jared opened his mouth to reply, but stopped himself, and raised his card again.
“Sixteen thousand from number fifteen!” The announcer’s voice rose. “Seventeen thousand from number eight.”
He turned his gaze from Pier, unable to stomach looking at the creep. What kind of boss would use an auction to go out on a date with one of his employees? It stank of sleeze and he wasn’t about to let Elise be won by anyone other than himself. Even if he had to dig into his personal accounts to do it.
The bidding was between only himself and Pier now. Everyone else had dropped out and the room was silent as the watched the war.
“Twenty five thousand,” Jared said, raising his card again. He didn’t bother making eye contact Pier, instead he held the lovely pinking gaze of Elise as she watched in worried silence. Her fate was in his hands and he could smell that she was terrified of Pier winning the bid.
Pier bid again.
“Twenty six thousand from number eight.” The announcers’ voice was barely more than whispered awe.
“Thirty,” Jared said, upping the bid again.
“Fuck you, VonBrandt,” Pier hissed across the table. “No bitch is worth that much money. I’ll have her back in my building come Monday morning anyway.”
Jared’s skin crawled. He was sick over the harassment Elise must be dealing with each and every day.
“Sold to bidder fifteen for thirty thousand dollars. Thank you, Mr. VonBrandt.”
The room erupted in applause, but the look of relief on Elise’s face would’ve been worth any amount of money he’d had to spend. No way in hell was Pier Nelson going to have any excuse to feel even the tiniest bit of ownership over the beautiful woman on stage.
Elise stepped down from her spot near the announcer and the other three women each stepped up for their turn, but Jared barely paid them attention.
His mind was totally on Elise. He steeled himself against scanning theroom. She was still present, he could smell her like she was standing next to him. That floral scent might not ever leave his brain.
What’s wrong with me?
The auction closed for the night with the last item in the catalog, a small antique gold broach, donated by a one of the wealthiest families in New Orleans. It went for twenty-two thousand dollars. Less than he’d paid for several hours of Elise’s company at dinner tomorrow night.
The money wasn’t bothering him, it was knowing he probably wouldn’t see her until tomorrow night.
“Enjoy your date, VonBrandt. You paid enough for it,” Pier sneered before standing and stalking off.
Jared didn’t reply, he merely scanned the room looking for Elise. She’d disappeared, taking the majority of her lovely scent with her. A hint clung to the air as he moved through the ballroom to the back table. He turned his card in and wrote two very large checks—one for Tonya’s painting as well as the extra payment to have it couriered to the ranch. The other for his date the next evening with Elise Blanchard, the mystery werewolf.