Contract Bride

By: Kat Cantrell

CHAPTER ONE


Women must have some kind of manual they passed around to each other, opened to the section labeled “How to Dump a Man.”

If so, it would explain why for a record fourth time in a row, Warren Garinger had received the same text message: You’re the world’s worst workaholic. I hope you and your company will be very happy together.

He didn’t think the women meant it as a compliment. Nor did they understand what it took to run a billion-dollar conglomerate. The Garinger family bottled and sold nearly half the world’s pick-me-ups. You couldn’t escape the logo for Flying Squirrel, the number one energy drink, no matter where you looked.

Women did not appreciate the effort that had gone into that kind of success.

Tilda popped her head into his office. “Got a minute?”

Except that one. He nodded instantly.

Tilda Barrett was the one woman he always had time for. Partly because he liked her Australian accent more than he should. “Sure. Come on in.”

But mostly Warren liked Tilda because, as his marketing consultant, she’d exceeded his expectations. And that was saying something. His expectations were always sky-high, for himself and for everyone in his orbit. Flying Squirrel wasn’t performing as well in the Australian market as he’d like, and Tilda was changing that. Slowly but surely.

“I saw the numbers on the new campaign. They’re promising,” he said, as Tilda strode into his bright corner office overlooking downtown Raleigh. Of course, he rarely glanced out the window unless he needed to gauge the weather in advance of a sporting event Flying Squirrel had sponsored.

Today was no exception. Tilda commanded his attention easily, both because of her professional role and because of the one she played in his head. Yeah, he’d had a fantasy or two starring Tilda Barrett, and he refused to be ashamed that he’d noticed she was very feminine beneath her buttoned-up exterior.

Not one strand of swept-up hair dared escape her severe hairstyle and, not for the first time, he wondered what would happen if it did. Most likely, her sheer will would tame it back into submission. She was the most hard-core professional woman he’d ever met. They got on famously.

“The numbers could be better,” she countered. Nothing ever satisfied her save absolute domination, and the fact that she was on his team made him downright gleeful.

Tilda took the straight-backed chair to the right of his desk, as was her custom when they had briefings. The company’s main competitor, Down Under Thunder, owned the Australian market, and Tilda’s strategic expertise filled a gap in Warren’s roster that he’d been thus far unable to bridge any other way.

“But that’s not why I’m here,” she said—and hesitated.

Tilda never hesitated.

Something was up. The dynamic between them had shifted. Normally they worked so well together that he scarcely had to speak before she’d already read his thoughts, and vice versa. But he couldn’t get a bead on her blank face.

Warren leaned forward to steeple his hands on the desk that had nothing more on it than his laptop and cell phone. Paperwork was for other people to handle, a hallmark of the CEO philosophy that had allowed him to focus on ideas and game plans instead of minutiae. Thomas had taken to the role of chief operating officer like a duck to water, and Warren had never questioned letting his younger brother assume the reins of daily control while Warren got to have all the fun in the corner office.

“Please speak freely,” Warren said, a little concerned he’d had to clarify that when Tilda had spent hours in his company during this project. Normally, he preferred people respect the distance and reserve he deliberately injected into all of his professional relationships. But he hadn’t insisted on being so formal with her. There’d been no reason to. Tilda had always struck him as the female version of himself—dedicated, professional and, above all, never overtly familiar.

In this moment, however, things felt different, and he didn’t like it.

“Right-o. The thing is, I’m not sure how free I am to speak about this issue,” she began cautiously, her accent rolling through him accompanied by inappropriate heat, especially given the gravity of her expression. “At this point, all I can say is that I’m being pulled from this project.”

“What?” Warren shot half out of his seat before catching himself. He sat back in his chair with deliberate care. “You cannot be pulled from this project. The contract I have with your firm is for a full year and we’ve barely covered a quarter of that.”

She nodded once. “The contract doesn’t specify that I will be the consultant for the full year, and unfortunately, there’s an issue with my visa that they’ve chosen not to address. I’m being chucked back to Australia and they’ll provide you with an American replacement.”

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