Still, she wasn't sorry that Shelly had asked her to attend with her. It was a fun and festive affair, and they got a great deal of amusement out of watching the other women desperately bidding, in hopes of being the lucky one to win a date with their favorite star. Shelly made a couple of attempts during the evening, but was quickly outbid both times. Maria didn't even try, because frankly, she just wasn't interested in throwing away a big chunk of her hard-earned cash for the dubious privilege of spending an evening with some self- absorbed celeb du jour. She'd just make a modest donation to the cause herself, and leave it at that.
Maria smoothed the hem of her knee-length crimson satin dress and took a sip from her champagne flute as she glanced over the program listing the bachelors up for auction that night. Only a couple more to go, then she could finally go home.
But after the final gentleman had been auctioned off to a grinning middle-aged matron in the front row, the announcer took the microphone and made an announcement.
"Ladies, we have a last-minute addition to our auction this evening. He originally had to turn us down because of a scheduling conflict, but luckily for us, that commitment fell through, and he's able to take part after all. Please welcome, for your consideration, the very handsome, very single host of Family Feud, Mr. Richard Dawson!"
Maria's eyes were as big as saucers.
The curtains parted to a flurry of cheers and applause, and out walked Richard, dashing and utterly gorgeous in a perfectly-tailored black tuxedo, with a vest and a red pocket square.
He smiled, looking a bit shy about being there, but instantly turned on the charm when the DJ, as a joke, turned on "Do Ya Think I'm Sexy?" prompting Richard to remove his jacket and swing it over his shoulder, hand on one hip, doing an exaggerated model's pirouette on the catwalk. He brought the house down in fits of laughter and squeals of delight.
Shelly poked Maria in the ribs and grinned. She knew the crush that Maria had on Richard ever since she first laid eyes on the sexy, charming Brit on the Feud two years ago. "Here's your chance, girl, go get him!" she laughed.
"Yeah, right," Maria retorted, "That's all I need, to make a blithering idiot out of myself." The room was in an uproar of bidding frenzy.
"You'll be an idiot if you let this chance pass you by," Shelly responded. "Come on, it's for a good cause.... and it'll be fun!"
The auctioneer's voice rang out above the crowd. "I've got $150, do I hear $175?"
Maria looked at her friend, and at Richard, and back at Shelly again. With a resigned sigh and a smile she held up her numbered bidding card. She blushed when she saw Richard looking at her and smiling. Shelly giggled.
The bidding war went on for several heated minutes. Finally, it was down to Maria and a blonde in the back row.
"$850" said the auctioneer. The blonde smiled and held up her card.
"We've got $850. Do I hear $900?" Maria bid.
"When I said to go for it, I didn't mean to go broke doing it!" joked Shelly.
"Oh well," Maria grinned, "I didn't really need that trip to Hawaii I was planning next summer anyway."
Shelly rolled her eyes. "I've created a monster!"
With a laugh, Maria saw that the bidding was back in her court, and held up the sign to bid an even grand. That was about her limit, and she hoped it would be enough. She glanced back at the blonde in the back row who considered the bid for several excrutiating moments, before finally shaking her head and conceding the auction.
"Sold for a thousand dollars to the lovely lady in the red dress!"
As the announcer made his closing remarks, thanking everyone for coming, and letting them know that they had raised over $10,000 for the charity that evening, Maria wrote a check and gave it to the cashier.
The woman handed Maria a card to fill out with her name, address and phone number so she could be contacted about setting up her date with Richard. She wrote down all the information and handed the card back to the cashier.
It was getting late, so the two women departed, and Shelly dropped Maria off at her apartment, who remained in shock over the events of the evening.
What she had done was so unlike her - spontaneous, frivolous, outrageous. And yet, somehow, it just felt right. She tossed and turned for quite a while before managing to get to sleep.
The next morning was Saturday, and Maria was glad that the weekend had arrived, bringing with it precious time off her work as a sales clerk at a small clothing store. As she finished her leisurely late breakfast and perused the morning newspaper, the telephone rang.
"Good morning, is this Maria?" said the familiar voice on the other end.
"Richard?" Maria exclaimed.
"Yes, it's me," he replied, a smile coloring his soft, raspy voice that Maria could feel down to her toes. "I wanted to call and set up the day and time for our date."
"Oh, I see...." she stammered. "I'm sorry, I guess I expected your secretary or someone to call."
He chuckled softly. "No, my love. A beautiful woman who thought it was worth a thousand dollars to go out with me deserves a personal phone call, at least." Maria was glad he couldn't see her bright pink cheeks.
"So, when would you like to do the town with me?" he asked.
"Well, I'm pretty flexible..." she said. Catching herself, she tried to correct herself. "My schedule, I mean..." Maria lost it, helplessly succumbing to tears of laughter.
Richard fared no better in trying to keep a straight faced voice. He cleared his throat. "A thousand dollars, you say? Sounds like a fair deal to me, would you take a check?"
They laughed and decided to meet that very evening at seven. Maria confirmed that he had her address, and hung up to prepare for her big evening.
She called Shelly to come join her and help her get ready. They looked through her closet, and decided a shopping trip was definitely in order. "Hey, I've already spent a grand, so I might as well go all out!" Maria laughed.
They headed to the store she worked at and told Alice, the kindly middle-aged owner, about the previous evening's events, and sought her advice on what to wear.
"Well, dear, a girl can never go wrong with basic black," she insisted, going into the back room for a moment, emerging with an embroidered ebony silk chemise with matching wrap. "This just came in - here, try it on," Alice told her, running her hand through her rambunctious copper penny red curls.
It fit like a glove, flattering her curves and her pale skin and dark hair perfectly. Shelly and Alice both vigorously approved, and Maria looked at the price tag.
"I think it was a wonderful thing you did, bidding so high for such a worthy charity," Alice smiled. "So let's just call this your Christmas bonus."
"Thank you!" Maria said as she hugged Alice, and then departed with Shelly to the hairdressers, popping the boxed and bagged dress in the trunk of her car.
Shelly giggled as they drove off. "Oh, you're so generous and giving. Imagine the sacrifice you're making for the children, it makes my heart glow!"
Elbowing her friend in the side as she continued driving, Maria laughed. "Hey! You dragged me to the auction, don't blame the fish for biting when you baited the hook, girlfriend!"
"Okay, okay!" Shelly grinned. "Let's go get you glammed up!" They pulled into the salon, where Maria had a facial, haircut, manicure and pedicure. Shelly had her nails done too, and then it was time to go back to Maria's place to relax for a while before she finished getting ready.
After watching a comedy they rented at the video store on the way back to her apartment, which helped lighten the mood and relieve her nervousness, Maria took a long bubble bath and, powdered and lotioned and perfumed, she put on her white terry robe and skillfully applied her makeup.
Slipping into the appropriate underpinnings, sheer hose, black strappy heels, the new dress and simple pearl stud earrings, she emerged from the bedroom to model for Shelly.
"Wow!" she exclaimed, "You look great! Richard won't be able to take his eyes off of you all night!"
She was pretty certain she'd have the same problem with him, and the thought brought a smile to her ruby lips. "Thanks, and thank you for your help."
Shelly hugged Maria. "That's what friends are for. That, and knowing when to make a graceful exit. So on that note, I'm out of here." She opened the door and stepped outside, pausing and turning back. "You know the drill..."
"Yeah, yeah," Maria grinned, "Have fun, and call you tomorrow with all the details."
"You got it! See ya!" And with that, she was gone.
It was 6:45, and by the time she'd dropped all her little necessities into her black evening bag, there was a knock at the door.
It was Richard, wearing that amazing tuxedo again, and carrying a large bouquet of long-stemmed red roses. "Good evening, Maria!" he exclaimed with a kiss to her cheek, handing her the flowers. "These are for you."
"Thank you, come in, please," she smiled, putting the roses in a vase full of water. "I'm all ready to go."
Richard smiled and took her arm as they walked out to the waiting limousine. As predicted, she could hardly keep from staring at him. Most men looked quite handsome in a tuxedo. Richard, however, seemed to go beyond that, as if it were made just for him, and he carried it off as naturally and comfortably as most men would wear jeans and a T- shirt.
They soon arrived at a popular Italian restaurant, cozy and intimate, with some of the best food in town. Richard ordered a bottle of the excellent house wine, and they looked over the menus.
After selecting the Fettuccini Alfredo and salad, they relaxed, sipped their wine and talked, soft music playing in the background.
"You look beautiful," Richard said with a soft smile, his grey-green eyes glowing in the candlelight. "I was skeptical about doing the bachelor auction at first, it isn't exactly the kind of thing I normally feel comfortable with. But I must admit, things certainly turned out quite nicely." He took her hand and gently squeezed it.
Maria smiled. "I only came because my friend dragged me kicking and screaming," she said with a laugh, "But I'm glad I went, and I'm very glad I bid on you!"
"Well," Richard replied, grinning, "I'll do my best to make sure you get your money's worth, my darlin'"
"I already have..." Maria said, honestly. "I've admired your work for quite a while, and you're even more kind and handsome and charming than you are on television. It's a real pleasure to spend this evening with you. Hawaii can wait for another year," she grinned.
"Yes, I was saving up to go to Hawaii, but, well..." she smiled. "Something else came up."
"Oh dear," he said, dismayed. "I hope you didn't give up your trip just to win this date with me."
Maria looked him straight in the eye. "It was absolutely worth it."
A look of surprise and delight lit up Richard's features. "Such a sweet, lovely thing to say, what an angel you are."
The sincerity in his eyes made Maria feel warm all over. Their food arrived and they began to eat as they continued their conversation.
"Well, I meant it," she replied, "Every word. You're the only one I would have even considered bidding on, you know."
"Really? Now I find that even more flattering! " Richard said with a smile. " I know I've got more mileage on me, and a lot more grey hairs than most of the other fellows did."
Maria took a breath to calm herself enough to speak her heart to the amazing man sitting across from her.
"Well, I'm not interested in boys, Richard. I prefer men. Gentlemen. Like you..." She looked into his eyes, and found herself helplessly within their power.
He reached across the table and stroked her flushed cheek with his gentle hand. "And I prefer a woman who is sweet and kind and beautiful. Like you." He kissed her hand.
They finished their meal, and Richard suggested going dancing, which Maria gladly agreed to. The limo took them to a nearby ballroom filled with glamourous, elegant couples dancing cheek-to-cheek. And they were the most elegant couple of all.
Maria took Richard's arm as he led her to the dance floor. She liked how his large, strong hand felt pressed against the small of her back, pulling her close to him as his other hand held hers.
They couldn't take their eyes off of each other as they danced several dances, entranced by the music and the moment. Impulsively, Richard leaned in and placed his lips upon hers, and she closed her eyes and ran her fingers through his hair and over his ear.
When the song ended, Richard excused himself and went to speak to the bandleader. He returned, and the orchestra began playing "Maria" from "West Side Story." Richard held her even more tightly, softly whispering the words in her ear as they danced.
"Maria, I've just met a girl named Maria, and suddenly the name will never be the same to me. Maria! I've just kissed a girl named Maria. And suddenly I've found how wonderful a sound can be..."
They danced until the early hours of the morning. Finally, Richard led her out to the limousine, which whisked them back to her apartment.
At her doorstep, Richard looked at her. "I enjoyed your company so much, Maria, thank you."
She smiled, her eyes twinkling in the light of the moon that bathed them both in its glow. "So did I, Richard. Very much." Standing on tiptoes, she reached up and touched her lips to his warm, soft, scented cheek.
Richard took her into his arms and brushed aside a stray lock of hair from her face. He leaned toward her and kissed her gently. Looking into her eyes, he returned to her mouth, his tongue lightly touching her lips this time.
With every ounce of inner strength she could muster, Maria pulled away slightly. "Richard, please..."
"I'm sorry for being so forward," he said with regret.
Maria smiled softly. "Oh no, please don't apologize. It's just that... well..." She paused with a heavy sigh. "Richard, I don't want you to kiss me if it's part of the date I bid on, or because you feel obligated to because I paid so much."
Taking her face in his gentle hands, his gaze penetrated her to the depths of her soul. "Maria, I don't want to kiss you out of obligation. I want to kiss you because it's what's in my heart, because you're a wonderful lady who has shown me the best time I've had in so long."
"And more than that," he continued, coming close again, "you are an incredibly beautiful, desirable woman, and every fiber of my being is crying out for the taste of your sweet kisses on my tongue..."
She swallowed the lump in her throat. "Do you mean what you've said?"
"Every word," he replied truthfully.
Maria pulled him to her. "Then kiss me, Richard. Please...."
He gladly obeyed her gentle command, his moist, warm tongue entering her mouth and caressing hers, slowly and tenderly. Maria seized the lapel of his tuxedo jacket, drawing him as near to her as she could, his arms wrapped tightly around her waist, their hot breath forming clouds in the cold evening air.
As he looked at her, he noticed her eyes moving down his chest. "What are you looking at, young lady?" he asked.
She blushed softly. "It's silly."
"It isn't silly, whatever it is. You can tell me," he assured her.
Smiling, Maria replied "Well, I've always been fascinated by your pocket watch chain. It's strange, I guess, but I find it very sexy."
"Do you, now?" Richard said, amused. "Then why don't you take a closer look?" He opened his jacket, taking her hand and leading it to his vest pocket. "Go ahead."
Gingerly, Maria held her breath, slipped her hand inside and pulled out his gold pocket watch, running her finger along the entire length of the chain in wonderment as she held the watch, heavy and solid, in her other hand. She looked at Richard, who was smiling at her with a seductive sideways grin.
"You can open it," he said. Maria pressed on it and the watch flipped open. She read the inscription.
Success is happiness. Happiness is success.
"It's beautiful, Richard," she said. "Where did you get it, if you don't mind my asking?"
He smiled, leaning close to kiss her cheek. "I bought it for myself when I got the job on Family Feud. I love pocket watches, and the inscription reminds me of what I always want to remember. That it's not the money or the fame, but happiness that makes a person truly successful in his life."
She smiled and fingered the watch lightly before snapping the lid shut and slipping it back into his vest pocket. "I hope that you're happy, Richard. You deserve to be."
He pressed her to him. "You made me very happy tonight, and if I could see you again, I'd be even happier." His mouth sought hers again.
"Oh yes..." Maria sighed.
Later that month, Richard and Maria sat sipping cocoa in front of his fireplace. It was Christmas Eve, and the sounds of holiday music wafted from the stereo.
Maria handed him a package. "Here, this is for you," she smiled. He unwrapped a beautiful antique volume of English poetry.
Kissing her on the cheek, he smiled. "Thank you, my love, it's wonderful!"
"I hope you like it," Maria replied.
"I do," he assured her. "And this is for you." He handed her a bright red envelope. She opened it, and found two first class tickets to Hawaii.
"Just a little something to make up for what you gave up to have that first date with me."
Embracing him, she whispered in his ear, "Oh Richard, I didn't give up anything important. Finding you was worth all the money, all the trips in the world." She kissed him. "Thank you, Richard. Merry Christmas!"
"Merry Christmas to you, my angel, And thank you," he replied.
"For what?" she asked, puzzled.
He returned her kiss with warmth, passion and tenderness. "For making me feel like a great success..."
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