Sabine was sighing over her checkbook when an out-of-breath Joe finally ran in and skidded to a stop beside her.
“Did you win?” he demanded.
“Of course I won,” Sabine declared. “And my now empty bank account can attest to that fact.” She handed the check over to a giggling woman who congratulated her on her win.
“And just how much did you have to pay for his rescue?” Joe asked.
“Six thousand, hotshot. There was some crazy woman bidding on your diamond in the rough that ran his price up to four thousand in like a minute. She was a real piece of work, let me tell you. It felt so good to outbid her that I’ve decided to split the difference with you, so you only owe me three thousand. Plus I really enjoyed rescuing him. You were right—it was the most fun I’ve had in ages.”
“Six thousand? You paid six thousand dollars for Todd?” Joe exclaimed.
Sabine laughed at his genuine disbelief. “Yes. Apparently, every woman in the place saw the same diamond quality in him that you did. Now come on. I’ve got to go get my picture taken with your stud who’s waiting for me in the winner’s circle.”
“I can’t believe they got through nine bachelors so quickly,” Joe commented as they walked.
“It was only five. Todd was bachelor number five—not number nine,” Sabine corrected.
“No, Todd was going to be number nine. I got a text about ten minutes ago confirming his place in the auction line-up.”
Sabine snorted. “Simply not possible, Joe. The auctioneer said Todd Lake and the room erupted in bid fans going up in the air. I bid on your Todd—trust me.”
“Todd Lake? Sabine . . . oh my God. That’s who you bid on and won? For six thousand?” Joe bent from the waist as he laughed. When he straightened, he turned and started back toward the sign-up table. “I’m going to have to go bid on Todd myself. This is too funny. Wait until I tell him.”
“Joe, what the hell are you talking about? Come back here. This is not the time for a joke.”
Joe stopped, laughing as he turned to look at Sabine’s blank face again. “Sweetie, do you have any idea who you won tonight?”
“Yes. I won Todd Lake,” Sabine said. “It has to be your Todd. There couldn’t have been two Todds in the auction. You said so yourself.”
Joe laughed. “What are the odds of two Todds? Sounds like a riddle, doesn’t it? Now I wish I could stick around to meet The Sexy Chef in person, but I need to go save my Todd. Have fun with yours.”
Sabine stomped her foot. It was childish. Plus it didn’t help. “I already did save him. He’s waiting on me to take a freaking picture with him, Joe. Now stop fooling around and come with me. I don’t want to do this alone.”
“Sabine, you bid on the wrong man. But don’t worry, I’m sure you’re going to have a wonderful time tomorrow on your expensive date. Todd Lake is a Polynesian chef and you love pineapple. I’m sure it will be fine. Oh, and I think he’s a bit younger than you. See how great this has worked out? Win-win and you didn’t have to hit a single bar.”
Shocked at Joe’s revelation—and assumption—Sabine remained frozen in place, staring after him. Todd Lake was a real chef? What the hell? She didn’t watch cooking shows.
“Oh dear God—now what am I going to do?” she asked aloud as she watched Joe walk away.
A deep masculine voice followed by a laugh had her spinning to face the speaker. Up close, Todd Lake was even larger and more impressive than he had looked on stage. His athletic cut suit fit him perfectly. The shaggy black hair and day’s growth of beard didn’t do the suit any favors, but social defiance somehow suited those piercing chocolate eyes of his. He looked very real as he grinned at her shock.
Her sigh of resignation over what he must have heard was long and loud. Sabine ignored her face heating and sought for the composure she normally exhibited in uncomfortable situations. As a public relations specialist, she had handled some funky clients in her career, and certainly had her share of embarrassing moments. She just didn’t usually cause them for herself.
“I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean for you to hear all that, Mr. Lake. My error is not in any way your fault nor a judgment of your appeal. I’m sure you’re worth every penny I paid—for the charity donation, I mean.”
“So if I heard your friend correctly, you rescued me thinking I was someone else?” Koka asked.
“Well—yes, but it wasn’t as bad as it sounded. I promised a friend that I’d rescue a guy he’s . . . no let’s skip Joe’s story. It’s too complicated to get into. Plus I’m still not convinced the other guy even exists. Long story made short—apparently I bid on the wrong bachelor named Todd,” Sabine said. “I hope you’re not too offended.”
Koka smiled—really smiled. The movement was so real and genuine for once that his face actually hurt. He put a hand up to rub the stiffness from his bristly jaw as he answered. “On the contrary, I am happy for the first time this evening—maybe this year. Thank you for rescuing me—whatever the circumstances.”
Sabine sighed in relief as she smiled back. She put out her hand. “That’s very nice of you to be so understanding. I’m Sabine Blakeman by the way, not Kendall any longer. They took my name off my driver’s license and checkbook. I just haven’t changed it legally yet.”
His hand engulfed hers and Sabine wondered how those large hands could possible manage in a kitchen. His fingers were long and the skin on his hands meticulously soft and clean.
“They have a saying where I’m from, Ms. Blakeman. Mahalo E Ke Akua No Keia La,” Koka said.
Sabine smiled. “That’s certainly a beautiful mouthful. Is it Polynesian?”
“It’s the Hawaiian way of saying thank the goddess such a pleasant woman won me,” Koka explained.
When she laughed at his compliment, the ruggedly handsome behemoth towering over her tugged her hand gently until she just sort of naturally fell into step beside him. “Well, at least the mean woman in the back didn’t get you.”
“Never. Not even when we dated briefly. I think she may still be angry about my refusal,” Koka said.
“Oh,” Sabine replied, the single word encompassing her total understanding. The woman had insinuated as much, but she didn’t like to jump to conclusions. Then thinking about the sexually frustrated woman bidding four thousand for another shot at him, she snorted in evil laughter herself and felt triumphant all over again. “As good looking as you are, you can do a lot better than someone like her.”
“My grandmother didn’t like her either,” Koka said, shrugging off his narrow escape. “So . . . shall we take the obligatory picture for the paper?”
Sabine sighed and nodded. She might as well have something to show for her zero bank balance. Why not get a picture taken with her six thousand dollar wrong Valentine?
“Sure. Why not? Otherwise tomorrow this is just going to seem like every other nightmare I’ve ever had and woken up from relieved to still be alive. I thought some of those women might murder me before I managed to write the check.”
Koka laughed and the sound coming from his chest surprised him. He couldn’t remember the last time a woman had sparked humor in his soul. He took a closer look at her.
“I am suddenly very glad you won me, Sabine Blakeman. Tomorrow I will make you the best dinner you have ever had. I heard your friend say that you like pineapple. Not one of my usual ingredients, but I’ll see what I can do.”
Sabine groaned at his sarcasm and felt a blush climbing her face again. “I am so sorry. My friend Joe has an extremely big mouth. Make anything you want and I’ll eat it. Promise. I’m not picky at all when it comes to food, but then I guess that shows, doesn’t it? And for the record, I do like pineapple.”
“You’re very accommodating. It is a wonderful trait in a beautiful woman,” Koka said, smiling again.
“Wow, if that’s flirting, Mr. Lake, you’re really good at it. My accommodating nature is because I’m feeling a bit unbalanced. You’re going to be my first actual date with a bachelor in twenty years,” Sabine said, quote marking the dreaded “d” word in the air with bent fingers.
The photographer motioned them in front of a blue screen. They were asked to hold a large paper that had his bachelor number, the winning bid amount, and both their names.
Sabine sighed. “You wouldn’t happen to have a black marker in your pocket would you? I’d love to change my name on this paper.”
Koka ignored her teasing question to ask what he really wanted to know. “Twenty years is a long time to not date. Are you freshly divorced?” Koka asked.
“More like irrevocably divorced. My ex has already re-married,” Sabine said.
Koka smiled. “Well, I’ll try to make the evening memorable enough for your first real date in twenty years.”
“Oh, I think that’s guaranteed by our odd circumstances,” Sabine said. “Where do you want to meet tomorrow?”
Koka had been going to take the winner to the Seattle Live stage kitchen, which he considered neutral territory. He was going to ask Edwina to come by and take network photos and chaperone in case it was awkward. His plan had been to let fame be the woman’s payment for her contribution to the auction. Now he wanted something more—he wanted time to get to know Sabine Blakeman.
“If you don’t mind, I’d like you to come to my house. My grandmother’s health is not good. I don’t like to be away from her for any longer than I have to,” he said.
Sabine nodded. “Sure. I don’t mind that at all. She’s welcome to join us for dinner.”
“After spending all that money, I find it interesting that you are willing to share my attention with other people,” Koka said, frowning at her open expression. Would the woman really not mind sharing his company? And why did that idea bother him? She was being nice.
“Why would I mind if she ate with us? It would be rude to exclude your family. Besides, the dinner is a charity event. It’s not like tomorrow is a real date.”
“But what if it was? Would you still feel the same?” Koka demanded.
Sabine frowned. “Well, it’s not a real date, so that’s a rhetorical question not in need of a definitive answer.”
Koka laughed at her sharp response. His pride was stung a little, thinking Sabine Blakeman didn’t want to be alone with him. What a strange response to a woman who was only being kind.
His gaze traveled over her blonde hair and lush womanly figure covered in sparkling gold. Her sheer comfort with herself made her more alluring than any woman he’d seen screaming his name tonight. Evidently, his grandmother’s prayers to the goddess had been answered in his rescuer.
“Since you told me your real name, I suppose it is only fair that I should tell you mine. I will ask you to please not reveal it to the world. My real name is Koka Whitman. Todd Lake is my TV show name,” he whispered.
Sabine smiled up at him as the photographer made lens adjustments. “Koka? That’s a very different kind of name.”
Koka waited, grinned, and then let it drop. “Yes. It’s Hawaiian for Todd.”
Her rolling belly laugh had him smiling down into her open face again. The camera snapped and for once he didn’t care. All he cared about was making the woman beside him belly laugh again until her eyes danced.
“You made that up because you heard Joe say that I bid on the wrong person,” Sabine declared. “Just because I’m a natural blonde doesn’t mean I’m gullible and stupid—unless you count letting a friend talk me into this stupid auction—wait, I didn’t mean that the way it sounded. I’m not unhappy to have won you.”
Koka laughed hard as Sabine bit her lip and stared a little fearfully at him. He was both charmed and offended by her honesty. The camera snapped again. Remarkably, he still didn’t care. He had even forgotten to count. Now he would have to guess at how many photos had been taken.
“Could we please try for one normal picture?” the photographer asked.
Sabine felt a blush climbing her face again as she looked forward at the camera. “Oh God—I’m really sorry. Of course . . . oh . . .” She stumbled a little when Koka’s arm came around her and pulled her closer to him behind the paper they held between them. Good thing she’d worn the flats and not stupid stripper shoes like so many of the bidders had been wearing.
“That’s a pretty strong grip you have there—Koka Whitman,” she whispered.
Koka chuckled. “Smile at the camera Sabine—and stop making me laugh.”
“I wasn’t doing it on purpose. You started it with your fake Todd story.” But Sabine did as he ordered, vastly relieved when the photographer finally said he got one he was happy with for the paper.
“We want copies of all the pictures you took,” Koka said firmly, staring at the photographer. “It was part of my participation agreement. I believe there were four prior to your good shot. I will be looking for that many at least.”
“Certainly, Mr. Lake,” the photographer answered. “There’s only one acceptable shot, but I’ll send the others along to your producer as well.”
Koka nodded. “Please do that. Thank you.”
He looked down at Sabine Blakeman.
“Can I have your phone number? I will need to call you with details for our date.”
“My phone number? Oh . . . sure,” Sabine said, as she nodded and dug into her purse for a business card and a pen.
Seeing no surface to write on, she picked up one of his large hands and put her card in it. She raised and lowered his arm until her vision focused. No way was she digging for her reading glasses. Flipping the card over to the back, she wrote her cell number on it. All the while, he laughed at her.
“Am I really that funny to you?” Sabine asked.
“The word I would use is charming,” Koka said.
Sabine snorted as she capped her pen. Her heart fluttered as she watched him tuck the card into some hidden pocket in his jacket. When his eyes crinkled at the corners, she just had to know the cause. “Do you mind telling me how old you are?”
“Thirty-seven last year,” Koka said. “And you?”
Sabine shrugged. “Forty-three last year.”
“Why does age matter to you?” Koka asked.
“I’ve been teasing Joe about dating a younger man. Now that’s going to be something else I can check off my to-do list,” she said.
Koka snorted. She was an easy woman to read. “How old was the woman your ex married?”
“Okay. You got me. My husband married a woman half my age, but I’m not trying to get even. Men half my age remind me of my children. I joke about it, but I couldn’t go there.”
Koka smiled again, but he wanted to laugh. She was very at ease making fun of herself. “I have a daughter who is nineteen. She started college this year—University of California at Berkley. She is majoring in music.”
“I have a college sophomore and a freshman. Both are at University of Washington. One has been talking about Berkley, but that’s a bit out of my college budget. Neither have chosen majors yet. I’m just happy they’re both in school and getting decent grades. Hopefully they’ll find their calling as they find themselves.”
They stood looking at each other in shared understanding until a flash went off nearby. It was not the professional photographer.
“Sorry, Sabine. It happens to me all the time,” Koka said. “We’ll be on social media later.”
“It’s okay. I’m a PR person. Most of the time those random pictures are a good thing for your popularity, but I can see how it could get old after a while. Is that why you rebelled today and didn’t bother to shave?”
Koka rubbed his jaw as he grinned. “You consider this a sign of rebelling?”
“Yes. Assuming you’re not one of those men who are just lazy about hygiene. I somehow don’t see that being the case with a TV personality,” Sabine said, smiling to soften her statement. “Not that an unshaven man in a well-fitted suit doesn’t have his own rugged appeal. You raised every bidding fan when you walked out on the stage. I’m sure you didn’t miss that.”
Koka laughed and shrugged. “Will you expect me to shave for our date tomorrow?”
Sabine giggled. The man had such a funny way about him. “Expectations haven’t worked out well for me lately. I think I’ll just take whatever presentation you’re offering and be grateful.”
“Are you flirting with me?” Koka asked, grinning at her head ducking.
Sabine sighed. “Why? Am I doing a terrible job of it? I’m really rusty.”
Koka shook his head as he turned. “No, I can’t remember the last time I looked forward to a woman’s company. I’ll call you tomorrow.”
“Sure. Oh that answers your other question. Your phone call is one thing I will be expecting,” she teased.
Koka walked away laughing, heading in the direction of the back door.
Sabine smiled and sighed softly as she turned back toward the front of building. Joe and a man she figured was his actual diamond in the rough were standing nearby and grinning at her.
Sighing again, but this time in resignation, she lifted her chin and braced herself.
“I’m so proud of you, Sabine. It’s all I can do not to start dancing in joy,” Joe said. “You were flirting with The Sexy Chef and he was flirting back. I can’t wait until I see Martin again, just so I can tell him you’ve officially moved on.”
“Stop teasing me,” Sabine said firmly, her palm smacking Joe’s chest. She turned her attention politely to his companion. “Hello. You must be the right Todd.”
“Not sure how to answer that. I guess I must be if Todd Lake is the wrong one,” Todd said. “Pleasure to meet you, Ms. Kendall. I’m Todd Masterson.”
“It’s Blakeman—Sabine Blakeman. Kendall was my married name. It’s my pleasure to meet you, Todd Masterson. Joe says we’re in the same line of business.”
“Actually, Joe says you would very much like to do business with my company,” Todd said, laughing when Sabine Blakeman blushed. “How charming. A PR person who isn’t jaded.”
“Joe talks way too much. And it’s been a day for blushing at everything that’s said. I paid six thousand dollars for the wrong man. I think I’ll probably be doing more blushing tomorrow when he fixes me my six thousand dollar pineapple dinner,” Sabine said.
“And I imagine speculation will be rampant about my orientation preference when I go out with Joe,” Todd said. “I may be blushing the whole evening as well.”
Sabine chuckled. “Well, at least you have the satisfaction of knowing I would have paid more money for you than Joe ever would have. He told me I had to stop at six hundred.”
To her delight, Todd laughed while Joe flushed and swore she was lying. At least the right Todd had a keen sense of humor. Maybe the man was worth all the trouble he had indirectly caused her.
“Joe, I need a drink and you’re buying because, thanks to you, I’m broke,” Sabine said. “Todd, are you interested in joining us? When I’m out with Joe people tend to think we’re a married couple. The question of your orientation should be moot if you want to chance it.”
“Only if you make mine a double. Joe bought me for three hundred dollars. Knowing you paid thousands for the wrong Todd, my ego is now totally deflated,” Todd said.
“Three hundred?” Sabine repeated, glaring at the snickering man next to her. “Joe—I’m going to hurt you.”
“No you won’t. I was eavesdropping and heard what Todd Lake said to you. I will bet you half the money you spent on him that The Sexy Chef asks you out for a real date tomorrow,” Joe said.
Sabine laughed. “Deal—and I’m not even worried that I don’t have any money left to pay you in case you win. The man was being polite and friendly, Joe. He was fun and a lot more real than what everyone thinks.”
She saw Joe and Todd exchanging a look over her statement.
“What was that look for? I’m telling you Mr. Lake was just playing nice for the cameras. I bet he can’t go anywhere without being tagged. My ignorance was just a refreshing change for him.”
“And she already cares about how he’s perceived,” Joe said, shaking his head and sighing dramatically as Todd laughed. “My brother never deserved this woman. She’s great at her job too. Unlike some public relations agents, her clients get to maintain their dignity.”
Sabine’s face flamed again at Joe’s praise in front of a potential client who now knew too many intimate details about her life. But there was no retracting what had been said.
“Well, at least I’m spending Valentine’s Day Eve with two handsome men instead of being alone,” she said sweetly.
When the right Todd smiled at her, Sabine saw exactly what Joe had seen. Todd Masterson was interesting and very nice, which was sometimes better than being extremely good-looking. A mind that sharp would probably be fun to challenge too.
“Tell you what, Sabine—Rundgren supports many charities. If you get The Sexy Chef to cater a meal for one of them, I’ll make sure you get a contract for some of our work,” Todd said.
Sabine belly laughed. “Oh sure. I’ll just ask him tomorrow, right after the grilled pineapple entrée that Joe made sure I would get.”
She listened to Todd laughing while she glared at Joe’s shrug of indifference. But she also felt envious of her friend’s extraordinary luck with recognizing good men.