Misadventures of a Backup Bride by Shayla Black


  are kids involved. I know firsthand that it sucks for everyone.

  I rub my palms together—a nervous habit when I’m thinking. There must be some way out of this mess. I refuse to believe that Gregory Shaw has one-upped me and I’m going down.

  “If we could have longer to get to know each other…” She pours the first batch of eggs into the pan. “If I could be sure my sisters would be all right without me in California… If there were some way for me to pursue my acting in North Carolina…”

  I completely see her point. Everything she’s said since Shaw left has been bouncing around in my brain. “You said something earlier about exploring all possibilities… What if our solution has no resemblance to any of the options that bastard gave us?”

  “Go on.” She sounds intrigued.

  “You’re an actress, and I can pretend fairly well, I think. He wants to call our bluff. What if we let him? What if we change up this poker match to play a game of chicken? First one to flinch loses.”

  “Why would he flinch?” Ella frowns.

  “Deep down, he wants me to marry Kendra. After all, he doesn’t know this Brayden dude. Okay, so his parents need money. But why would Shaw trust a stranger—and a poor one at that—with the multimillions Kendra will inherit when she comes into her trust fund? He knows I don’t personally need her money and I’m not greedy, but Brayden…” I shrug. “He might be a great guy. But if he’s not…well, in the South, they have a saying. And Shaw is too smart to let a fox into his henhouse.”

  “Yes.” She smiles like she knows we’re on to something, like she can feel it, too. “You’re right.”

  “If Kendra marries Brayden, once the vows are spoken, Shaw will have virtually no leverage to control him. But if I marry her, he’ll have his interest in Sweet Darlin’ to ensure he maintains some power over me, at least for a few years until I’ve repaid him. The minute he truly believes I’ve walked away from Kendra and intend to marry you, he might be willing to negotiate.”

  “So you’re suggesting we upgrade our pretending from girlfriend to fiancée?”

  “Exactly.”

  Ella’s face sobers before she turns to add veggies to the beaten eggs heating in the pan. “What happens when we don’t go through with the wedding?”

  “Not the right way to look at the situation. You should ask what happens if you don’t go through with it. Before you came here, I told Shaw that I was exploring my feelings for you. I didn’t know what yours were for me. I made that clear.”

  “Maybe so.” Her cheeks turn slightly pink. “But he overheard my feelings on the dance floor at the benefit. We admitted them earlier this morning to his face.”

  “But I don’t think that precludes us from using the rationale we crafted when we first planned our ‘breakup.’ Remember, your life is in LA and all that?”

  “I do.” When she turns to face me again, it’s obvious she’s catching on. “So instead of merely breaking up with you at the end of my visit, I’ll simply jilt you at the altar. After all, you can’t control me. And I have a suspicion about Gregory Shaw. He thinks his own daughter is flaky, so I’m pretty sure he would believe that’s true of most women. Does he have any female executives?”

  I do a mental scan of his staff. “Other than his assistant, no. All men, cronies who have been with him for decades.”

  “That’s what I mean. It’s possible he’s a closet misogynist. So you can’t help it if you were perfectly willing to proceed with the wedding but I backed out at the last minute and left you brokenhearted. I mean, it’s not your fault if I’m flaky. I am one of those Hollywood types, after all. And I’m just a woman…”

  Ella is incredibly down-to-earth. I can’t think of anyone less stuck on herself or more likely to keep her promises. But Gregory Shaw won’t take the time to get to know her. He should buy this.

  “Of course,” I drawl, glancing at Ella, who looks as if she wants to punch my rival in the face for his screwed-up attitude.

  “The only problem is, he thinks our whole relationship is a ruse. We have to find some way to debunk that notion.”

  She’s right. “What can we do that seems permanent to him during our ‘engagement’?”

  “I could fly home and drive my car back out.” She wrinkles her nose, glancing over her shoulder to check the eggs. “But it’s pretty crappy and I doubt it would make the long trip without dying altogether.”

  I shake my head. “That drive is too long for you to make alone, especially in an unreliable car. And I can’t get away from work right now to travel with you. Every day in the office is critical until we get Sweet Darlin’s balance sheet under control. What about…a job?”

  “Like, actually accept a position to work here in North Carolina?”

  “Exactly. And what I have in mind is up your alley, too. The children’s charity is hoping to build those after-school programs, so they have an open position right now for an activities director. The role would put you in charge of kids’ workshops. You can introduce them to the arts. You can help them learn music and stage plays…”

  She raises her brows like she’s actually interested, but then she scowls. “What makes you think they’d hire me?”

  I send her a grin. “I know a guy who works there…”

  “In other words, with you being such a big donor, they owe you a favor or two?”

  “Something like that.” It’s sad she’s not staying, because I honestly think she’d do great work there.

  “It sounds like something I’d enjoy. But…I’d hate to hire on, then walk off the job abruptly. I’d be leaving them in a lurch.”

  I can’t exactly refute her, but I’m a step ahead of her on a couple of salient points. “First, they’re currently accepting résumés, so they’ll still have a fresh stack of them when you—” I can’t say leave. I don’t want to think about Ella waving goodbye and getting on a plane forever. Somehow, we’re going to find a solution to be together, damn it. “When you no longer need the job. At that point, they can slot in another qualified candidate. Hell, I’ll even help them with a donation of holiday candy for their annual Santa Parade to ease the pain. Trust me, they’ll be fine. Second, I don’t want to screw anyone, either, but I love you and you love me…and getting Shaw off our backs could mean a lot for us.”

  Ella bobs her head as she reaches absently for the shredded cheese and tosses it into the omelet. As it melts, she does a little spatula magic, folds the concoction in half, and flips it over. “I just hate being dishonest. In fact, if you hadn’t been the one to offer me this assignment, I might well have turned it down.”

  “I hate lying, too. But we can’t afford to bring scruples to a gunfight.”

  “It sucks but it’s true.” She sighs, sprinkling a little more cheese on top of the omelet before sliding it onto a waiting plate and setting the steaming eggs in front of me.

  “Thanks.”

  “You’re welcome. Do you think me being gainfully employed in North Carolina will be enough to convince him that I intend to stay? He’s a business owner, too. He must know people quit or abandon their jobs every day for all kinds of reasons.”

  “Good point.” I smile absently as she hands me a fork and I dig into my breakfast. She also passes me a blueberry muffin I bought at the grocery store when I shopped the night before her arrival. I’m not surprised they haven’t been touched. She’s been watching every bite that crosses her lips since the indulgence from the steakhouse.

  I take a bite out of both—and realize I’m hungrier than I thought. “I’ve got another idea. Something that should convince him we’re serious is buying a house. I’ve been wanting to give up this cramped apartment and put down roots here. I haven’t made the time to go house hunting. I really don’t know what I’m looking for, other than something less temporary with more space.”

  “If we appeared to buy a house together…” She nods enthusiastically. “A job is easy to give up. A house isn’t. If you’re really okay with buying a
place, I think that’s a great idea.”

  “Let’s do it. I’ll make sure Shaw finds out when we pick the perfect one.”

  Suddenly, Ella laughs. “This tangled, twisted plot is making us pretend we’re engaging in a lot of life-changing events all at once—starting a job, buying a house, getting married… It’s crazy. You know that, right?”

  “Batshit,” I confirm with a nod. “But if anyone can manage it all, it’s us.”

  She beams a smile at me. “Absolutely.”

  I reach across the breakfast bar and take her hand. “And Ella, we might be manipulating him, but we’re right. Kendra and I don’t belong together. I shouldn’t have to give him years of my life or ten percent of my company. When you and I don’t make it to the altar on Shaw’s timetable, well…I’ll hope that he’s willing to fall back to standard business practices and simply lend me money in exchange for a small but temporary chunk of Sweet Darlin’. If he won’t give me the money, I’ll deal with it then.”

  “That’s all you can do. So, if we’re going to pretend to be engaged, what do we do first?”

  “Let me call Kendra and give her the news. Then I’ll contact her father and tell him that we intend to take that free wedding he offered. After that, we’ll start playing the happy bride and groom. And we’ll hope for the best in the end—for all of us.”

  As Ella whips up another omelet for herself, she gives me an absent nod, clearly still pondering the situation. I can’t help but suspect she’s thinking what I am: What happens to us after the ruse is over?

  I don’t have the answer to that question. I’m aware that our remaining time together probably isn’t enough to make her want to give up everything she’s built for herself in California and move here with me. But I have to try.

  What other choice do I have that doesn’t end in abject, miserable loneliness?

  Chapter Eight

  ELLA

  After our discussion over breakfast, Carson and I both agreed we had tasks to accomplish if we intend to pull this ruse off successfully. He’s stepped into his home office to call Kendra. They deserve the privacy of a quiet end to their ill-fated engagement. I clean the dishes, even though he told me he’d help me as soon as he made his fiancée his ex. It gives me something to do…other than call my younger sisters.

  I hate lying to them, and I’ll take a lot of crap for it later. But right now, I can’t tell them I’m getting fake married. Eryn might be a mere two years younger than me, but she’s about a billion years more cynical. I don’t know if it’s middle-child syndrome, her given personality, or the breakup she never recovered from. Either way, if I clue her in on what’s happening, she’ll tell me I’m crazy, that Carson is using me, and that the whole thing will only end badly. The baby of the family, Echo, is fun and bubbly and always has a smile. She’s the sunshine to Eryn’s rain cloud. I love her to pieces, but she can’t keep a secret worth a damn.

  I wouldn’t go to the pretense of dragging them across the country for a wedding that will never happen, except that Gregory Shaw knows my background. He knows I have sisters. He probably even knows we’re close. I’ll never convince the man I’m serious about getting married without them.

  “Here goes nothing,” I mutter to myself, plopping down on a barstool in the kitchen and dialing Eryn’s number. She’s far more likely to pick up since Echo misplaces her phone all the time.

  “Hey!” she answers. “How’s the hush-hush job you couldn’t discuss? Got a southern accent yet?”

  “Seriously? After four days, you think I’ve picked up a twang?”

  “Maybe you should try harder to acquire one. It would be cute at your auditions. Besides, it would give me something to poke at you about. Because you’re otherwise practically perfect.”

  “Hardly true. The job is…” Good? Fine? “Complicated.”

  Eryn pauses, her tone shifting to serious. “That doesn’t sound good. Tell me what’s up. You okay?”

  I grope for something to say. I should have planned this speech a bit better, somehow eased her into it. Hindsight is awesome, but I’ve already stepped in it too deep to climb out now. “Is Echo there?”

  “Right beside me, downing a bowl of Raisin Bran.”

  “I need to talk to you both. Put me on speaker so she can hear, too, okay?”

  “Now you’re really scaring me.”

  “It’s actually a good thing.” I try to sound convincing.

  “Uh-huh,” Eryn drawls. “Hold on.” A moment passes, and the background has a slight hiss that wasn’t there before. “Okay. We’re both here.”

  “Hi!” Echo’s higher, happier voice chimes in, sounding half-full of food. “Can I call you Elly May now?”

  “As in Clampett?” I have to smile. “Um…no.”

  Echo’s laugh is something approaching a snort. “You’ve got to admit, that was funny.”

  “I don’t have to admit that any more than you have to admit the remark was juvenile,” I tease.

  “Spoilsport.” I can picture her sticking her tongue out at me.

  “Whiny brat,” I jab back because that’s what older sisters do.

  “Whatever…” She scoffs at me. “So how are the wilds of North Carolina?”

  “Nice, but hardly wild. Charlotte has, like, almost a million people, so it’s not a rural middle-of-nowhere. It looks like a city, but it has a different sort of charm than home.”

  “Any Gone with the Wind mansions or cowboy hats?” She sounds as if she’s eagerly waiting for me to say yes.

  I roll my eyes. “Not that I’ve seen. But maybe you can look for yourself.”

  “What do you mean?” Eryn cuts in. “Do you need us to come there and help you?”

  “I was hoping you’d hold my hand,” I say in my calmest big-sister voice. “I’m getting married in two weeks.”

  “What? Are you fucking kidding me?” Eryn spits out.

  “That’s so romantic! It must have been love at first sight.” Echo sighs.

  “Actually, we met six months ago.” I don’t say more. What are the odds that my cautious response will prevent Eryn from asking more questions?

  “If you were seeing someone seriously, why is this the first we’re hearing of this?” Eryn asks suspiciously. “How did we not know about him?”

  “When we met, I was on a date with a friend of his. He moved out here soon after that. But he called me recently to tell me he’d never forgotten me…and here we are.” That’s as booby-trap free as I can make that explanation, but I rattle on, mostly to shut Eryn up. “His name is Carson Frost. He inherited a candy company called Sweet Darlin’.”

  “Oh, my god! They make the Eversweet Chewy Pop.” Echo sounds excited. “It’s literally my favorite.”

  “There’s so much sugar in those,” Eryn points out, sounding just shy of scolding. “Focus, Echo. What’s the hurry to get married, El? If you’ve only been with him for a few days, it’s even too soon for you to know if you’re pregnant.”

  “That’s not why we’re getting married. It’s a long story, and I’ll tell you all when you get here. Carson and I are sending you tickets to fly here for the wedding, so—”

  “Wait,” Eryn cuts in.

  “Yeah, hold up. He lives in North Carolina?” Echo jumps in. “You’re going to be moving there?”

  “I’ll explain when I see you. Just make sure you both clear the time off with work. Echo, you might miss a day or two of school.”

  “For you, that’s nothing,” she assures me. “I just want you to be happy. Are you sure this is what you want?”

  No. But Gregory Shaw is a shark who came baring his teeth today, and I can’t leave Carson out in the water, bleeding like chum, without a life raft. I love him too much.

  I don’t know what will become of us. If we want to be together, one of us is going to have to sacrifice something deeply meaningful. If we part ways, my sisters will be taking me home with them, most likely brokenhearted.

  Maybe I should have stepped bac
k and not gotten so involved with Carson. But holding in my feelings isn’t in my nature. I’m so drawn to him that I looked at the man, saw his smile…and fell.

 
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