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Misadventures of a backu.., p.1
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       Misadventures of a Backup Bride, p.1

          
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  Chapter One

  CARSON

  “So I’m a little behind where I want to be in school, but the great news is that the DKEs chose me as their little sister in August! Isn’t that awesome, since it’s my last month of being single?”

  I look across the dinner table at Kendra Shaw, my fiancée. Bubbly, flirty, twenty-two. Sweet, lovely, kind. She likes puppies and parties…but she has no idea what she wants to do with her life. We have zero in common. I would never have considered marrying her if I hadn’t been coerced by her dad—my business rival willing to float me a loan so I can keep the confectionary empire I inherited from my late biological father afloat.

  “DKE?” I ask, shoving salad around with my fork and trying to envision my life with this woman.

  She tsks at me and rolls her eyes. “Delta Kappa Epsilon, silly.” I must still look at her blankly, because she shakes her head at me, blond hair brushing her shoulders. “They’re a fraternity on campus. The best.”

  Kendra seems proud of her accomplishment, and I try to be a supportive fiancé. “That’s great. How did they choose you? Because you helped with the charity walk over spring break?”

  “No. They pick their favorite Chi Omega each month, since we’re their sister sorority. I may have influenced the vote a bit after I had too much tequila at the DKE end-of-year bash and danced topless. At least that’s what my friends tell me I did. I don’t remember.” She winces. “Are you mad?”

  Actually, I’m not. I should be. We’ve been engaged since April, and that probably happened in May. I’m just hearing about this regretful moment toward the end of summer. The man in me knows I should care that other guys have seen my bride-to-be’s boobs. I wish I could say it mattered. I want it to.

  It doesn’t.

  I keep trying to connect with this woman, figure out how we’re going to relate to one another, and find some common ground. So far I’ve got nothing.

  “Carson, did you hear me?”

  “I did.” I’m simply not sure what she wants me to say.

  Deep down, I doubt she’s ready to get married. Oh, she’s enjoying picking out pretty things with her wedding planner. She’s selected a grand wedding dress. I’m told it has a cathedral train that two of her ten bridesmaids will have to carry as she walks down the aisle. She’s spent a nice chunk of her father’s money to make this the event of the season. But I’m not sure she’s comprehended yet that we have to get along afterward.

  “And you’re not mad?”

  “Well, I don’t think you should repeat that stunt.”

  “I won’t.” She nods solemnly. “I’m going to be a responsible wife soon.”

  She reaches across the table and grasps my hand, making promises with her blue eyes I don’t think she has any chance of keeping.

  I wish I could be enthusiastic. After all, I like Kendra. I’m simply not sure what I’m going to say to her for the next forty years. We’re not married yet and we already run out of conversation in minutes.

  “Are you really ready for marriage?” I ask her gently. “To be my wife?”

  Her smile falters. “Is anyone ever really ready? I mean, we speak a few words, set up our house together, and try to get along. Isn’t that what everyone does?”

  No, it’s not. I’m thirty, so I’ve seen a few of my buddies tie the matrimonial knot. Luis seems sublimely happy. Derek is really content and is excited for the birth of their son in a few weeks. Sam is already divorced and says he’ll be an eternal bachelor from here on out. I don’t know much about marriage except what my mom and stepdad taught me before they passed away. First and foremost, you should be friends with your spouse. You should like and respect the person you intend to spend your life with. Your significant other should make you laugh, be your greatest comfort, know you better than anyone.

  My life would be much simpler if I felt that way about Kendra. I’ve tried. I’ve looked for common ground. We don’t agree about politics or religion. We don’t agree about where to live, how many children to have, or how to manage money. We might be able to overcome all that…if we loved each other. For months, I’ve done my best to foster a connection with her, but nothing has worked. And I doubt very much she’s feeling it for me, either.

  My head is telling me this engagement is a mistake. My ambition is trying not to hear it.

  I shoot her a direct stare. “Don’t you think marriage is more complicated than that?”

  “Um…” She frowns, looking somewhere between concerned and lost. “I don’t know. I guess we’ll find out.”

  Her phone dings, and she lunges for it as if she’s glad for the distraction. She flips through her messages with one hand and lifts her wineglass with the other.

  A good five minutes pass in silence. She texts her sorority sisters about someone’s botched home bikini wax, Instagrams her dinner, then waves at a passing waiter she apparently dated last winter.

  She barely eats her meal and passes on dessert. I’m completely okay with that. I have her home by ten.

  “Good night, Carson,” she murmurs in her shadowy living room.

  “Sleep well.” I cup her shoulder—and hope the physical contact stops there.

  With a wan smile, Kendra brushes a kiss across my cheek and escapes to her room. She moved out of the sorority house at the end of last semester and has been staying at her childhood home all summer. In less than a month, after the wedding, we’re supposed to move in together.

  I sigh. I’m past hoping sex will bring us closer. I know from experience it won’t. The aftermath is more awkward than glowing. We haven’t bothered in a month. I’ve been accused of having an overactive sex drive in the past. But since becoming engaged to Kendra, it seems completely dead.

  That’s not a good sign.

  Suddenly, I see the orange-red flare of a cigar in the dark. The smoker inhales deeply. The pungent scent of tobacco fills the air. Gregory Shaw saunters into the room, wearing charcoal trousers and a pristine white dress shirt, despite the late hour. I know he’s fifty-one, but he doesn’t look a day over forty. He has nearly thirty years’ experience in this industry, building his candy giant, Dulce Lama, from the ground up. By comparison, I’ve been running my late father’s company, Sweet Darlin’, for ten minutes.

  Shaw exhales, leaving a cloud of smoke in his wake as he comes closer. “That didn’t look like the satisfying end of a date.”

  It’s on the tip of my tongue to ask if he thought I should have taken his daughter to bed, but he wouldn’t appreciate the snark. This guy is brutally direct. I need to be the same.

  “It wasn’t. I have serious doubts this arrangement will work.”

  “Make it work, Frost. Otherwise, I’m not loaning you the twenty-five million.”

  Damn. He’s got the bargaining chip I need. I don’t see any way around that.

  My late father’s confectionary might be worth about a billion dollars, but I must have liquid cash to keep it from going under right now. Shaw has been salivating for the opportunity to get his hands on any part of Sweet Darlin’. He can’t control me with the five percent interest I negotiated with him in exchange for some ready cash…but over the last few months I’ve come to realize that seizing power is his ultimate goal.

  I wish I could sever the deal we struck in my moment of fiscal weakness. But that’s impossible. Still, I can’t let him think I’m totally out of options. “Then you’re not getting any stake in my company.”

  He laughs as he cocks his head. “Let’s cut to the chase. You don’t want to relinquish any part of the organization, even temporarily. It bothers your considerable pride to be beholden to me—or anyone, I suspect. And you don’t want to let down the old man, even if you barely knew him. I understand that. But what’s the real problem, the one you’re obviously having with Kendra? Isn’t she a pretty girl?”

  “She’s beautiful.” I can’t give her appearance anything but accolades. When I first clapped eyes on her, I was patting myself on the back. Twenty-five million dollars and a trophy wife? Win-win. But as I’ve gotten to know her, I’ve discovered we have zero in common. I realize more each day that, as a couple, we’re doomed.

  “Isn’t she kind?”

  “Very much.” I nod.

  “Funny?”

  Not in the way he means. She’s comical when she’s not intending to be, and not for reasons either she or her father would like.

  How do I tell a man who potentially holds my future in his hands that his daughter is too immature for marriage? That I require a woman with more intellectual capabilities? That I’m too much of a serious-minded workaholic to make her anything but miserable? I can’t simply blurt that our chemistry is nonexistent. I’ve tried that already, when I first began to have concerns. His answer was to send us to Aruba together for a week. It didn’t help then. It will help even less now.

  “Look… It’s not that simple.”

  “Because…?” Brow raised, he draws furiously on his cigar with an impatient glance.

  I rack my brain. Shaw will find the truth unacceptable, somewhere between noncommittal and ridiculous. He’ll deliver me another platitude wrapped in a threat—whatever he thinks is necessary to yank me back in line.

  The simple fact is, I can’t wish myself in love with Kendra. And vice versa. But he’s more likely to hear what I’m saying if I assure him the fault doesn’t lie with his daughter.

  “Kendra is wonderful, sir. The problem is me.”

  He scowls. “Are you gay?”

  I almost choke. Is he kidding? “No.”

  Most assuredly not.

  “Then how are you the problem?” His voice is a razor-sharp warning to tread very carefully.

  I realize my options are limited and I pick the best of an unpalatable bunch. I lie. “I’m, um…in love with someone else.”

  That takes him aback. The crafty bastard sends me a frown. He’s suspicious, but he has good reason to be. “You told me when we began negotiating that you weren’t dating anyone.”

  “I wasn’t. I’m still not seeing anyone else.” I haven’t for months.

  Climbing the corporate ladder back in LA after finishing my MBA a few years back, I was working seventy-hour weeks. Learning that I lost the biological father I’d met a handful of times was more of a blow than I expected. Finding out I’d inherited his empire stunned me even more. Some days, I still find myself reeling.

  But Shaw doesn’t need to know all that.

  “I don’t want to play a game of semantics with you, Frost. What the hell is going on?”

  Shit. Why couldn’t he just accept me at face value? Yeah, because he’s too smart.

  “Um…” Quickly, I try to remember the last woman I met who intrigued me. Her bright face pops into my head. Despite the three minutes we spoke, she left an indelible impression on me. “I met her at a party. Her date was the host. Because he’s a friend, I saw her off and on before I moved here. Naturally, I couldn’t poach. I’ve heard they’ve since broke up, but…in the time we spent together, I fell.”

  That’s a huge embellishment, but the truth simply isn’t an option.

  Shaw stares at me like he’s judging the veracity of my claim. “And you never saw fit to mention this earlier?”

  “I’m sorry. I’ve been trying to forget her. Unfortunately, it’s not working.” I shake my head as if I have no control over my heart. “With all due respect, why not let Kendra find her own husband? She’s a lovely, independent woman. I’m sure she’ll meet someone—”

  “She meets many someones,” he drawls. “They’re all deadbeats and louses. She has abysmal taste in men. My daughter can sniff out the worst loser in any crowd and be hopelessly attracted to him. So I made it clear to her that, if she wants her trust fund when she turns twenty-five, she’ll marry who I tell her to.”

  That explains why, despite her obvious disinterest in me, Kendra hasn’t bowed out.

  “In five months, you’ve reversed a great deal of the damage done to your father’s company during his protracted illness.” Shaw sounds impressed. “It’s obvious you’re smart, resourceful, hardworking, and a leader. You’ll take impeccable care of Kendra. And I’ll erase your cash flow issue, which won’t go away on its own. You have more loans coming due in forty-five days.”

  I do, and the bastard knows I lack the short-term liquidity to satisfy them. I have contracts that will pay off at the end of the year…but I will have defaulted by then. I’ve tried restructuring the debt, but it’s a no-go. The interim CEO who ran Sweet Darlin’ before my arrival panicked and used the entire company as collateral. If I can’t untangle this problem, I’ll lose the empire my biological father sacrificed everything—even me—to build.

  “All that’s true, but it doesn’t change the reality. I can’t make your daughter happy.”

  “Because you’ll never love her?”

  “Exactly. I can’t give her the kind of devotion she’ll want.”

  “She’s too young to know what she wants.” He waves his hand dismissively.

  “Doesn’t she deserve a husband who will love only her for the rest of her life?”

  He frowns. “Not if he isn’t in her best financial interest. You’re far too smart to be this sentimental.”

  “I once thought so, too. But we all have a heart.” I subtly remind Shaw that includes him, which is why he’s trying to see Kendra settled. “Mine is taken. However, I still have something you want. You have something I need. There must be another arrangement we’ll both find suitable and profitable.”

  Shaw falls silent for a long time, studying me as if dissecting me with a glare. I steady myself and meet his stare head on. If I can save this company without shackling myself for life, that would be the best of both worlds. Maybe I’ll even stop waking up in a cold sweat.

  “You know what, Frost? I think you’re full of shit. You want free money. That’s not the way the world works. There’s always a price to be paid. What’s this woman’s name?”

  I’m obviously a terrible liar because he hasn’t bought a word I’ve said. I hide a wince and force myself to stay calm. “With all due respect, my personal life is private. Besides, you’ll only hire a private investigator to look into her, and I’ve never told her how I felt. Something that important shouldn’t come from anyone except me.”

  “Ah, unrequited love, is it? How convenient.”

  “I’m not finding it convenient in the least,” I quip. “My life would be much easier if I could love Kendra.”

  At least I can say that with all honesty.

  “Well, if that’s not going to happen and matters of the heart are suddenly so important to you, I think you should bring this woman to North Carolina and tell her how you feel face to face. After all, unless you’re able to win her over or find a way to fall out of love, you’ll be alone for the rest of your life. So sad.”

  He’s toying with me. He’s trying to back me into a corner.

  “That might be awkward. I’m sure she’ll be shocked to suddenly hear about my devotion.”

  “Maybe so, but telling her also might bring great rewards.” He raises a dark brow. “Remember, nothing ventured, nothing gained.”

  We could exchange parry-and-thrust platitudes all day. I’m over it. “What do you want?”

  Shaw acts as if he’s considering my question, but I know damn well he’s already made up his mind. “I want to meet this woman you can’t live without. If you win her over, we can talk about changing the terms of our arrangement. If not, and you don’t marry Kendra, I won’t give you a dime. I can’t think of a single bank that will help you in your current financial position. And I’ll be happy to stand on the sidelines and watch Sweet Darlin’ crumble. Less competition for me. And maybe I can buy up the pieces on the cheap.” He takes another long drag of his cigar. As he blows out the smoke, he snuffs the stogie. “You have a week to introduce me to the ‘love of your life.’ Until then, get the fuck out.”

  ELLA

  “Hello. Ella Hope? I’d like to hire you to jilt me.”

 
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