Misadventures of a Backup Bride by Shayla Black

  “Morning,” I murmur, trying to keep the surprise out of my voice.

  “Good morning,” Shaw returns smoothly.

  When the other man isn’t looking, Carson gives me a subtle little shrug. So he doesn’t know what’s going on or why his nemesis has invaded his home turf yet. A little knot of worry starts forming in the pit of my stomach.

  The silence in the room grows awkward. No one speaks. Carson and I remain quiet because we’re confused. I can only guess what’s running through Shaw’s head.

  “The benefit last night went well. It looked as if the charity will receive a nice payday,” I venture.

  Shaw nods with a polite smile. “We won’t have all the details about the final totals until tomorrow, but I suspect this year’s donations will exceed last year’s. The charity does important work, and I’m glad to be a part of it.”

  “As am I,” Carson points out. “It’s a cause I believe in.”

  “It looks fantastic,” I add to keep the conversation rolling.

  “With this year’s funds, they’re hoping to begin some after-school programs for kids and teenagers to keep them safe and off the streets,” Shaw says.

  “Then I’ll hope this year’s tally is really fat. Living in Los Angeles, I see a lot on the evening news about what happens in rough neighborhoods when gangs and drugs take over.”

  “It’s happening everywhere.” Shaw looks at Carson, hooking his thumb in my direction. “This one has a soft heart.”

  “She does, and I wouldn’t want her any other way.”

  I hear the subtle warning in Carson’s tone. Shaw didn’t threaten me, merely made an observation. But one reason I love Carson is his protective side. He takes care of me in ways little and big. After having virtually no one to rely on for most of my life, it’s a lovely luxury. I can handle myself—while taking care of my younger sisters, too. But I love the way Carson watches over me.

  I cross the kitchen. As I do, he pours me a cup of coffee. With a kiss on my cheek, he hands it over before wrapping his arm around me. I nestle against his body. I don’t like Shaw being here. It feels like an invasion. But being this close to Carson makes me feel safer.

  He leans against the counter, keeping me pressed against him. “What brings you here this morning?”

  Shaw chuckles. “Technically, it’s afternoon. I’ve been up since six.”

  “After a late night, we slept in.” Carson gives him a tight smile.

  I refrain from elbowing him in the stomach. Maybe that statement could be taken several ways, but since he’s wearing his bathrobe and still has bedhead, I doubt Shaw misunderstood Carson’s meaning. Why announce to your prospective father-in-law that you spent all night in bed with another woman? Is he making a point—again—that he isn’t attached to Kendra? I’m not convinced another reminder will help Shaw get the concept. He knows. He just doesn’t care.

  “As it happens, so has Kendra. I was concerned when she didn’t come home last night. I texted and called… Of course I know she’s a grown woman, but she didn’t mention that she had plans to…go out. But she’s fine.”

  “Brayden?” Carson asks.

  Shaw clears his throat. “That’s my understanding. She came home about seven this morning looking very…happy. Hours of worry followed by her glowing smile gave me some perspective. Oh, and your very insightful speech at the benefit last night.” He pauses, his smile almost self-deprecating.

  I don’t trust it.

  “And?” Carson prompts.

  “It will take me a moment to explain. If you’ll bear with me…” He turns his attention on me. “You love Frost?”

  Carson and I exchange a glance. It’s not as if we haven’t been saying the words to one another all night, but we also haven’t voluntarily shared our feelings with anyone else. They’re new. They’re precious. I know I need to call my sisters and tell them how deeply I’ve fallen. But for right now, what’s in our hearts has just been for us, despite what Shaw overheard.

  Still, I’m not going to lie. “Yes.”

  Shaw flips his gaze over to Carson. “And you—”

  “Yes, I love her, and she knows it. I assume this question has a point?”

  “Well, love is in the air, it seems. Kendra tells me she thinks she’s in love, as well.”

  I hear the sarcastic drawl in his voice. He doesn’t believe his daughter’s feelings are true. I’m not sure he believes what Carson and I have is real, either.

  “Well, if she is, I applaud her. I think everyone deserves to find someone who makes them happy and completes them.” I say the words almost defiantly, as if willing Shaw to admit that he doesn’t believe in love or care about his daughter’s heart.

  “If she is, perhaps. But one has to be practical, as well.”

  Beside me, Carson tenses. I grip his hand at my waist. Is Shaw really going to give us a speech that love is all good and fine, but money and power are more important?

  “I don’t think any amount of money is worth a lifetime of misery, Mr. Shaw. If you had to choose between your fortune and having your late wife back, which would you pick? Have you been happy without her?”

  Shaw cocks his head and stares at me with a considering glance before he addresses Carson again. “Beautiful, a big heart, and a smart cookie, too. She’s the real deal.”

  But I notice he didn’t actually answer the question.

  “Say what you came to say.” Carson sounds curt, on edge.

  “Less than ten minutes, and I’m already wearing out my welcome.” Shaw chuckles to himself. “All right. After your speech last night and my daughter’s pleas this morning, I came to change the terms of our arrangement. Far be it from me to keep a pair of lovebirds apart, so if you and Ms. Hope truly want to be together, you can have the venue, catering, flowers, cake—everything I’ve paid for when you and Kendra intended to tie the knot. I’ll give it to you and Ella for free. All you have to do is say ‘I do’ on the day you’d already planned to marry. Then we’ll continue our arrangement as normal. I’ll give you the loan for Sweet Darlin’. You’ll give me a five percent interest until the loan is repaid. And that will be the end of our connection.”

  I bite my lip to keep my gasp in. Get married? We haven’t even figured out how to be together beyond my visit here. We haven’t worked out any of the specifics about how we’d spend our lives together. Our relationship is still so new. So are our problems.

  Carson’s grip tightens on me protectively. “And if we don’t get married?”

  “Well, you always have door number one. You can marry Kendra, as planned. Or…” He smiles as if he’s just been waiting to deliver these words. “You can sign over a ten percent interest—and ten percent of the profits—of Sweet Darlin’ and you’ll never have to repay me.”

  I’m shocked. I’m horrified, too. I suspect, given enough time and the right circumstances, Carson and I might naturally want to get hitched. But to have this man coerce us into it within the next two weeks or threaten to take more of the beloved business Carson inherited is outrageous.

  I glare at Shaw. “Listen to me, you—”

  “No,” Carson says flatly. “Ella’s life—and heart—aren’t for bargaining.”

  “So you’d rather marry Kendra? Because I can, with a few choice words, make that happen.”

  “You’re her father,” I say in horror. “Why would you force unhappiness on her?”

  “Precisely because I am her father,” he bites back. “If I don’t guide her, Kendra will wind up without a career and without a guiding hand to steer her life. She’ll blow through her trust fund in five years and spend the rest of her life penniless and alone after I’m gone. I’d like to prevent that from happening.”

  He might have a point about Kendra’s behavior, but I don’t agree with his methods. “If you’re this concerned about your daughter, why push Carson and me to get married? How does that help her?”

  “It doesn’t. He’s calling our bluff,” Carson murmurs in my ea
r. “He still thinks we’re putting on an act so I don’t have to marry Kendra. He’s making us put up or shut up.”

  Is the guy dense? “But you overheard us admit our love for each other on the dance floor last night.”

  As soon as the words are out of my mouth, I realize he’s merely cynical.

  “All for show,” he replies. “I don’t ever like being outmaneuvered, but even less by someone I should be able to plot circles around. So I’m giving you the opportunity to make a decision. Honor the agreement you already made, accept my magnanimous gesture of a free wedding for you and Ms. Hope, or marry no one and forfeit an extra five percent as penance.”

  Somehow, Gregory Shaw has found a scenario in which he wins no matter what Carson picks. Unbelievable…

  “And what happens to Kendra?” Carson asks. “If Ella and I get married in two weeks, how will you keep your daughter from all the terrible consequences you mentioned earlier?”

  “That’s an insightful question. Her beau of the moment, Brayden, seems like the first solid man she’s ever voluntarily dated. He comes from a poor family and his father suffers from chronic medical issues, and they lack the money to pay the bills. Quite sad…”

  I doubt very much that Shaw actually cares. He sees the man’s condition as leverage against Kendra’s latest flame, nothing more.

  “You’ll only be buying her a husband for three years,” Carson points out.

  Shaw shrugs. “I’ve done my digging. Brayden’s a smart, cautious man. He’ll temper Kendra. That’s all I care about. A lot can happen in three years. They might even become deeply attached…”

  I stare at the man, still stunned. He’s not only comfortable in the puppet-master role, he relishes it. I don’t see an ounce of moral discomfort anywhere in his expression. He genuinely believes he’s justified and that he knows better than the rest of us. In fact, I bet that if I baited and shoved a bit, he would commend himself for improving Kendra’s—and Carson’s—situations.

  And I’m unimportant. Expendable. The means to an end. No matter what Carson and I elect to do, Shaw either gets a solid son-in-law or more money. He comes out ahead.

  I want to rail and hate him. Mostly, I just shake my head at his misguided manipulation.

  “Get out,” Carson insists, stepping forward. “I think you’ve said enough. I want you gone and—”

  “Yes, I’ve obviously overstayed my welcome.” Shaw pours the rest of his coffee down the drain and sets the mug on the counter. “There are a few caveats, of course. If you marry Ms. Hope, you must cohabitate and stay married for a minimum of ten years or I’ll take immediate possession of that additional five percent of Sweet Darlin’. You can’t be unfaithful—either of you—for that same period of time. Don’t think I won’t be watching.” He cocks his head. “That covers everything, I believe. You have until noon tomorrow to decide.”


  The moment Gregory Shaw shuts the door behind him, I look over at Ella. She’s shell-shocked. The silence is so complete, the absence of sound is almost a buzzing in my ears. I don’t know what to say. After the corner that bastard just put me in, I’m angry. I’m furious on her behalf, too. I even feel sorry for Kendra. She probably does need a guiding hand, but she doesn’t need her father forcing one on her. She needs time to mature and some real-world experience. Maybe she even needs a good failure or two in her life. I doubt she’s ever had one. Her father wouldn’t allow it. Maybe he should.

  But Kendra isn’t my problem now. I need to focus on Ella, on what we do next. I need to say the right thing. What is that?

  “I’m sorry.” I wrap my arms around her.

  To my relief, she hugs me back. Somewhere in the back of my head, I worried she would resent that I’ve inadvertently dragged her into this fucked-up mess.

  “It’s not your fault and not your doing. I hate the position he’s put you in.”

  “Me, too.”

  Ella sips her coffee. “Hungry?”

  After a night of sex, I was. But following a visit from Gregory Shaw… “Not so much.”

  “You need to eat. Let me make you something. While I do, we’ll talk. Maybe there’s a scenario we haven’t explored yet that won’t leave anyone in a bind.”

  I nod, but I don’t think it’s possible. Shaw isn’t stupid. He’s thought of all the angles. I feel perpetually one step behind the asshole, and I need to catch up. He’s been manipulating me toward the outcome he wants. I have to figure out how to maneuver him to my conclusion instead.

  “Thanks.” I sit on a barstool and watch Ella make herself at home in my kitchen.

  I’m usually more of a loner, but I’m glad she’s here. When I first made the agreement with Shaw to marry Kendra, I stewed in bottled-up silence because I was in the untenable position of having to wed a stranger or lose my father’s legacy. This time, I’m not swimming in the cesspool of crap alone.

  She rummages through the refrigerator. “Spinach and mushroom omelets okay?”

  Nothing sounds terribly appealing at the moment… “Sure. That sounds great.”

  “Liar.” Ella laughs. “You don’t have to coddle my feelings, Carson. Just tell me how you see this situation with Shaw unfolding next. You can choke down the omelet if you need.”

  “Choke?” I frown.

  “I said I would cook. I didn’t say it would be gourmet.”

  Even when everything is shitty, this woman still makes me laugh.

  But my temporary mirth runs out. I sigh. “I can’t marry Kendra. Really. It would ruin both our lives. I know Shaw doesn’t see that. But she would come to resent me, and I have no doubt I’d feel trapped and angry and, over time, bitter. Even if we split up in three years when she got her trust fund, I…” I shake my head. “I don’t want to be without you. I wouldn’t ask you to wait for me. It’s not fair.”

  As Ella whisks the eggs in a mixing bowl, I see her expression. That’s her thinking face. Lips slightly parted, tongue just touching her bottom lip, a little frown furrowing between her brows. “Well, nothing about this is fair, so let’s remove that word from this conversation.”

  Her observation makes me chuckle again. “You’re right.”

  “As it happens, I think marrying Kendra is your worst option. It’s the choice in which no one is happy except Gregory Shaw. I mean, I don’t know your—I hesitate to use this word—fiancée very well…”

  “Ex. I’ll make that official ASAP,” I assure her. I have to.

  “I think that’s a wise choice. I’m sure it will give both of you some relief. You wouldn’t have hired me in the first place if you’d been even slightly excited about making her your wife.”

  It’s true. “So that leaves me trying to choose between the two least shitty options in a steaming pile of poo.”

  “And they both smell to high heaven.” She sends me an empathetic glance.

  “Exactly. If I give that bastard ten percent of my company, I’ll never be rid of him. He’ll keep trying to exert his influence and stick his nose where it doesn’t belong. He knows most of my executives and plant managers. He’ll try to persuade them that, as a partial owner, he has rights and he should be involved at every level of the organization. With only five percent, most of them will laugh him off. But at ten?” I wince. “It’s not a controlling interest, but it’s a more effective argument since no one but a Frost has ever owned a smidgen of Sweet Darlin’. I can also buy his five percent back if we stick to the original terms of the loan. And honestly, the last thing I can afford to do is give Shaw a glimpse of my recipes or plans for the future.”

  “You’re right. Can anyone else help you financially?”

  “I’ve had several offers to buy the company, but they were all crazy lowballs. If I took one, I’d feel as if I were cashing out because it was easy. I don’t want easy. I want amazing. I want rewarding. I want to control my own destiny. That means helming the company that’s mine, not to mention choosing my own wife.”

  “That’s understan
dable. And I don’t want you to dishonor your biological father’s memory. The connection you’re forming with him, even posthumously, is important to you, I can tell. You shouldn’t have to give up something that’s become meaningful. So that leaves one option.” She bites her lip. “I don’t know where you’re at emotionally, Carson, but I have to be honest. I’m not ready to commit to getting married. Besides all the reasons we’ve already identified, I…” She shrugs and tosses her hands in the air. “I think a couple should know each other more than four days before they decide to exchange forever vows.”

  She’s absolutely right. My mother and Edward Frost are a great example of what happens when you marry someone you’re passionate about but don’t know well enough to determine if you’re truly compatible. I’d rather not wind up divorced, especially if there
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