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Authors: Crystal Cierlak

Tags: #Romance

Candidate Four

BOOK: Candidate Four
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Like most college graduates, Natalie Harlow is swimming in debt. Her post-graduate job can barely afford her the chance to move out of her parents' apartment, or make any headway on her $700 a month student loan.

 

So when her glamorous, dresses-like-she-isn't-hurting-for-money co-worker Quinn offers her the opportunity to make a lot of money for just one night of work - a "job" that is as secretive as it is lucrative - Natalie is hesitant, but curious.

 

Twelve glamorous “Candidates” line up for twelve gentlemen bidders in a luxurious, private residence high in the hills above the city. The item up for auction? One night with a Candidate.

 

He pays, she stays. What they do is up to him.

 

Is the lure of cash enough for Natalie to lay herself aside for one night as Candidate Four?

CANDIDATE FOUR

 

Book One of the Bidden Series

 

 

 

 

 

Crystal Cierlak

CANDIDATE FOUR is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this novel are either fictitious or used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons is purely coincidental.

 

Text copyright © 2014 Crystal Cierlak

 

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or distributed in any format, digital or otherwise, without the expressed permission of the author.

As always, for Jeffrey P.

Contents

 

 

PROLOGUE

She stood fourth in a line of twelve girls arranged in single-file just outside the nondescript entrance to a windowless room on the first floor of a secret location. A luxury car far too expensive for her post-graduate salary had arrived at her family’s apartment promptly at 9:30pm
,
and a man in an expensive suit who referred to himself only as the
Concierge
greeted her with a formal ‘
Good Evening, Miss Harlow’
,
before escorting her to the vehicle and insisting on a blindfold as soon as the seatbelt buckle clicked into position.

“Where are we going?” she had asked, but The Concierge remained silent and she spent the remainder of the drive wondering what she’d truly agreed to do. And with whom.

The other eleven girls were a variation on a theme — just as Quinn had explained to her — and none of them appeared to be as new to this as she was. They were a mixture of the same shade of brunette or blonde, plus one other who looked like she’d used no less than two boxes of fire engine red color on her long hair. They were all tan, fit, well groomed and dressed in suggestive clothing that formed to their figures like skin. They were exactly like Quinn, though with seemingly less personality.

Natalie, with her deep copper hair, fair skin and silvery blue eyes, stood out from the others. Her body had deeper and more natural curves than any other in line with her, a fact that she tried desperately to ignore.

What have I gotten myself into?
she asked herself, regretting yet again having ever agreed to that evening’s events. But she needed the money and there was no turning back. As soon as the nondescript door opened Natalie convinced herself that everything would be fine.

The windowless room had but one source of illumination — a chandelier that produced a light no brighter than the glow of a single candle. When the twelfth girl was in and the door closed behind her, they each turned and the chandelier’s light brightened, casting down on a row of finely dressed men seated opposite them in the room.

Natalie’s eyes quickly swept over the line of them, giving quick ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers to the question of whether she would sleep with any of them if it were her choice instead of theirs. They were obviously doing the same; eleven men in a row whose eyes roamed over their bodies like they were starving and the women were buffet offerings.

Except the twelfth and most handsome man whose eyes, to Natalie’s tremendous surprise, were only on
her
.

Please pick me
.

 

 

 

ONE

36 HOURS EARLIER

 

Natalie fell back dejectedly into her desk chair and let out an exasperated sigh instead of the expletive that was flashing in her brain in bright neon lights. It was 10am on Thursday morning and the week had quite possibly been the longest of her life. Or so it felt. Natalie was all too familiar with the expression
‘when it rains it pours’
, especially when it came to her finances, and a dark cloud had just opened up above her.

In the six months since finishing grad school she’d floated by with the help of her parents and whatever savings she’d managed throughout her academic career, and salvation had come in the form of a respectable job with a decent salary. She knew this day would come, but pretended it wouldn’t just to save her the expense of her sanity. But the allotted grace period was over and her lenders wanted a return on their investment in her scholastic abilities. And they wanted almost $700 of it every month.

There went any hope of moving out of her parents’ apartment any time soon.

“I’m going for some coffee,” her friend and co-worker Quinn Potter interrupted her thoughts. “Want anything?”

Natalie’s cheeks ballooned into a smile that was more forced than natural. “I may not actually be able to afford coffee anymore. Check it out,” she pointed to her computer screen.


Eeugh!
Where’d you go to grad school? Pepperdine?”

“The same state school for both undergrad and grad. I think I’m single-handedly contributing to the state of California’s budget deficiencies with this repayment.”

“Well in that case I’ll treat you!” Quinn beamed. She grabbed a sticky note and a pen from Natalie’s desk and placed them in front of her. “Write down what you want before you politely reject my offer. You know you’ll just change your mind anyway.”

Natalie blew a tangled mess of curly hair from her forehead and jotted down her preferred drug — a triple shot in a white mocha — then handed it to Quinn without protest. “Thank you.”

“But of course,” Quinn smiled before sauntering off, a beautiful leather wallet tucked chicly under her arm. She had quite a natural grace and seemed to float more than walk, her designer clothes swishing around her like she was making her way around an expensive yacht or country club rather than the open-concept floor plan of the new media company they both worked for. Though why Quinn had to work at all seemed beyond Natalie’s comprehension. She
looked
the part of a wealthy young woman, and the endless supply of designer handbags and red-soled shoes did nothing to dispel Natalie’s theory that Quinn was rich through and through.

Not that it bothered her. Natalie’s own family was by no measure poor and to be fair she’d had a better upbringing than many others. But she liked to earn, not inherit, and it was only out of necessity that she accepted her parents’ generous offer to help her for so long after finishing her Master’s degree. She intended to pay them back. Some day.

She eyed the dollar amount on the student login screen of her computer again and promptly logged out. She would deal with that later with a reexamination of her finances — incoming money verses outgoing expenses — and decide if she needed to find a second job. Work was not the time or place to question if she’d made the right decision in pursuing so much education in a notoriously bad economy.

She was eyeballs deep in demographics for her weekly analytics report by the time Quinn returned with her very large designer drink and a pastry bag. Natalie peaked inside —
coffee crumble cake, delicious
— and then smiled graciously at her friend.

 

 

By lunch hour Natalie could no longer wait. She sat down in the cafeteria with her home packed lunch, a scrap of paper and a pen, and set to work on listing out her finances.

“Whatchya workin’ on?” Quinn chirped as she sat down at the table. Her meal, in stark contrast to the one Natalie had brought in a pretty gift bag from her previous birthday, came sealed in a restaurant quality black plastic container with see-through lid and consisted wholly of a mixed salad with a light dressing and side of grilled vegetables. Natalie eyed her pastrami sandwich and took a sip of her iced tea before answering.

“Just determining which non-essential organ I can sell first and how much of a dent it would make in what I owe in student loans.”

Quinn’s face fell. “Really?” She was pretty even when she looked like she’d just consumed something distasteful.

“No. Not really. Not that it didn’t
briefly
occur to me.” Natalie took a healthy bite of her sandwich and sighed. After swallowing, she put the pen down and sat back in her chair. “It’s not that I’m surprised by the amount I have to pay back every month. I knew what I was getting myself into when I accepted the loans in the first place. I guess I just overestimated my ability to start paying them back immediately, is all. I love my job; don’t get me wrong. I’m just looking forward to the day when I earn what every school counselor in my life told me I would earn once I got a graduate degree.”

Quinn chewed thoughtfully on a forkful of kale and strawberry. “I’d say you should look for a better paying job but I’m selfish and like having you here every day.”

Natalie’s face softened. “Aww! That’s just about the nicest compliment I’ve heard all year.”

“What about a second job? Would that interfere with your personal life too much?”


Personal life
?” If she didn’t know any better she might think Quinn was joking.

“Yes!” Quinn shuffled her hands around. She often gesticulated when she was looking for the right words to make a point, and every time she did the beautiful rings on her fingers would glisten under the overhead lights. “Friends. Family.
Boys!
You need socialization to keep you from going crazy here and adopting several cats for companionship at home.”

“I’m not entirely sure a second job would take much time away from whatever little social life I have already. You know I’m not much of a partier.”

“Who said anything about partying? I’m talking about going out for drinks, seeing shows, weekend trips to Santa Barbara or Laguna Beach. Stuff like that!”

Natalie laughed to soften the blow of rolling her eyes. “I wish that was my life!” While she and Quinn were friends at work, they hardly ever met outside of the walls of the office. Maybe Quinn really did spend her free time on yachts and at country clubs while Natalie spent the weekends marathoning
Breaking Bad
on Netflix while eating Thai takeout and largely pretending she didn’t live with her parents.

“I’ll figure something out.” Not that she had a choice in the matter. “If you hear of anything that you think I might be cut out for, let me know.” It never hurt anyone to network a little, even with a friend.

“I will,” Quinn promised. “Okay, don’t look up but that hot guy from HR just came in and is looking right at you.”

Natalie flushed into her drink and felt the hairs on the back of her neck stand up straight.

“Wow, I’ve never seen someone’s entire face blush before! Oh! He’s just passing through. But seriously, Natalie, he was checking you out.”

Natalie shook her head. “The guy works in Human Resources. Doesn’t get more boring than that.”

“Maybe he’s just working to pay off
his
student loans!” Quinn gave her a knowing look as she collected what was left of her gourmet salad. “Keep an open mind, Natalie. I’ve got to get to a meeting. See you later, Calculator.”

Natalie looked down at her list of expenses and sighed. Yes, she would figure something out, even if it meant having even less of a social life than she already did.

Suddenly, she had a most curious thought. “Hey, Quinn!” she called out to her departing friend. Quinn turned and smiled as she quickly stepped back to the lunch table.

“Yeah?”

“Not to sound rude or anything but I can’t help but wonder something about you.”

Quinn arched a perfectly groomed eyebrow. “What’s that?”

“How do you afford such nice things on what we make here? I mean you don’t look like you actually
have
to work, but you do. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, by the way. I’m just curious.”

She didn’t look at all offended, thankfully. She merely offered a sweet smile. “I’m well kept.”

Natalie’s eyebrows scrunched into her forehead. “What does that mean?”

For a brief moment Quinn held the smile on her face but looked like she was contemplating something. Then she said, “Tell you what. Ask yourself if you could still be friends with me if you found out something that might change your outlook on me entirely. If you still can, I’ll tell you my secret. If not, then no loss for either of us.”

Now Natalie was even more curious. “Seriously?”

“Yep. Just think about it and if you can handle it, come find me after work. I’ll treat you to a drink downtown. I’ve got a meeting to rush to. Bye.”

Natalie watched Quinn walk off and had the feeling there was much,
much
more to her than just fancy clothes and a seemingly fun social life.

 

 

 

BOOK: Candidate Four
13.94Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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