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Prologue – Katya
I got married in a fast-food restaurant booth, on an extended lunch break squeezed into a sixty-hour crunch workweek.
Not gonna lie, this wedding was far from the stuff of dreams. My soon-to-be husband on the other hand? He’d probably starred in several—or even dozens—of fantasies. Not mine, of course.
This marriage was strictly a professional transaction. Ahem.
Lucas Walker, my co-worker, erstwhile nemesis and now bridegroom sat across the Formica table from me. He was tall and broad shouldered, with sultry eyes the color of melted chocolate. And he had that angular cut to his scruffy jaw that transformed a good-looking man into a remarkably handsome one.
My future husband. When we walked out of this burger joint, Lucas would be my legal spouse.
And I’d be his wife.
“Okay, let’s do this.” My friend and roommate, Heath Bowman, cracked his knuckles. Then he pushed aside the receipt for our lunch order so he could spread out the marriage license paperwork on the table. He turned to dart a glance at me beside him. “Thanks for filling all this out, by the way. That’s going to make this go a lot quicker.” His blue eyes flicked back to the page and he tensed as if remembering something. “Oh shit, I forgot we need someone else.”
Lucas leaned forward, staring through narrowed eyes at Heath with that intense gaze. “Someone else? Why are we involving anyone else in this insanity?”
Heath looked up. “At least one witness. It’s California law.”
We all froze and stared at each other. Should we call in a co-worker? No, definitely not. A friend of mine or of Lucas’s? My gaze flicked to his and he stilled. I knew he was going to blame this on me somehow. I saw it in his glare. He did it at work often enough.
Cranberry, you are always getting into these weird-ass situations, he’d intoned at me when I’d proposed this whole thing at a coffee shop the week before. Now you’re dragging me into it?
I blinked, my eyes focusing on the stylized red palm trees lining the tiled walls all around us.
Record scratch. Freeze Frame.
Yep, that’s me. You’re probably wondering how I ended up in this situation…
So yeah. It all started about three weeks ago. Just before New Year’s, I’d left the U.S. to go to my friends’ fancy Caribbean destination wedding. As you do. But Customs and Immigration nailed me when I came back into the country.
They made the wild accusation that I, a hardworking, somewhat innocent Canadian girl, who minded her own business, had been working in the US illegally. With no special visa or permit! And no legal residency!
The actual nerve.
They were correct. No alternative facts. But damn, they didn’t have to be so mean about it, threatening to kick me out of the United States of America for good.
The feds didn’t care that I’d rebuilt my life anew, kissing the old one goodbye—for so many reasons I was grateful they didn’t dig into. In the US, I was working my dream job and putting past troubles behind me. I had a new group of friends here who loved me probably more than my own family did.
But to them, none of that mattered.
In that tiny room at the airport, they’d threatened me with deportation. And I’ll admit, I panicked. In the heat of the moment, with all their fingers pointing straight at me, I’d blurted out the first lie that popped into my head: I was getting married. To Lucas, my team member from work. An American citizen.
And boy, did that lie multiply and divide and reproduce like a feverish virus. Since popping the question, my life had taken an even crazier turn. Once I’d explained my predicament in intricate detail, to my shock Lucas had agreed to help me.
Heath spoke again. “In order to be legally married in the state of California, you’re required a licensed officiant.” Heath placed a large hand on his own chest. “That’s me. Then you need to declare out loud, when asked, that you take each other as your legal spouse. And we need a goddamn witness to sign this license.”
Someone from the booth behind Lucas jerked his head in our direction. His look said it all… WTF?
Yeah buddy, I’m right there with you.
Lucas looked like he was ready to bolt, so I had to act fast. At that moment, I recognized our new eavesdropper’s uniform. He wore the white collared shirt and matching white nametag complete with In-N-Out Burger logo, the remains of his lunch on the empty tray in front of him. An employee on his lunch break.
Slipping out of the booth, I asked Heath, “You got cash on you?”
“I have a couple twenties, why?”
“Be right back with a witness,” was all I said while my future husband stared at me, wary and wide-eyed. Deer in the headlights.
In less than five minutes, I returned with our new “witness” who I instructed to squeeze into the booth beside my bewildered spouse-to-be. His nametag read Rob, so I introduced him to the other two.
“I gotta be back at work in fifteen,” Rob said in a tight, high-pitched voice. “You said there’s forty dollars in it for me?”
“Yup! Heath will pay you when you sign. This shouldn’t take that long, right?” I arched my brow at Heath, silently demanding he agree with me.
Heath blinked a few times, mouth opening at least half a minute before he spoke. “Uh, yeah, sure, sure. Fifteen minutes for the long version. You can split after you sign.”
Rob glanced between the three of us while tucking a longish strand of dark blond hair under his red cap. “Okay, then.”
Heath’s gaze flicked to me. “Do you, Katharina Rose Ellis, take Lucas Walker—” Heath squinted at the name I’d squeezed into the form. Until yesterday, I had no idea that my husband-to-be had another last name and Walker was his middle name. And that last name, it was a doozy. I’d run out of space in the blank while filling in the surname box, the letters spilling out into the margin.
“Lucas Walker van den Hoehnsboek van Lynden,” Lucas rattled off.
“That’s enough names for four people.” Heath snorted.
Lucas only responded by rolling his eyes and making a gesture that clearly meant, Let’s get on with this.
Heath’s gaze flicked back to me. “Okay, so Katya, do you take Lucas to be your legal husband?”
I couldn’t look Lucas in the eye, even knowing that he had his own good reasons for helping me. Things just got weird, so I stared at the tacky plastic tabletop and croaked out a quick “yes.” If I could’ve gotten away with a mere nod, I would’ve.
Heath moved on to the next question. “And Lucas, do you take Katya as your wife?”
His hands on the table, where they were laced together, seemed to tighten, the knuckles turning white. Other than that, he made no movement. He gave a sharp nod and an even sharper, “Yes, I do.” He stated with the same tone he might use for announcing that he’d contracted an STD.
Heath nodded, satisfied “Okay so… by the power invested in me by the state of California, yadda, yadda, yadda, I now pronounce you husband and wife—”
“Number ninety-three, your order is ready!” came a disembodied voice over the overhead speakers.
“Ooh, that’s us.” Heath offered the pen to Rob. “If you’ll kindly sign right here…” He dug out his wallet to pull out some bills.
Rob had slid out of the booth, checked his watch and then with a sigh scratched his name out on the table. “Weirdest thing ever, but yeah, witnessed it.”
Shit, what if immigration asked for Rob’s testimony for whatever reason? I reached out and covered Lucas’s large hand with my own, squeezing it. “I’m sorry. We’re just so desperately in love that we need to be married immediately.” I sent a warning glance to Lucas, who grunted and nodded along with what I said. Yeah, he’d never be in danger of winning an Academy Award, for sure.
Rob handed the pen back to Heath and as he scooped up the cash, his phone bleated out the cheesy synthesized beat of Rick Astley’s Never Gonna Give You Up.
Heath pushed out of the booth. “Gotta go procure the wedding feast. You two sign here while I’m gone.”
The rick-roll was the pièce de resistance to add to the surreal list of this strange day. The semi-hostile bridegroom. The yadda-yadda-yadda-ing of our marriage vows. The interruption over the loudspeaker. To say nothing of the imminent marriage “feast” of Double-Double burgers, milkshakes and skinny fries.
Our witness, Rob, answered his phone, sauntering away without a further word of congratulations or thanks for the easy forty bucks. And I was left to stare awkwardly at my bridegroom.
Shit. He was my husband now. Didn’t feel that different, though. He still glared at me with the same nonchalant annoyance as before.
With almost robotic jerks, Lucas reached over, dragged the form in front of him. He signed with quick, decisive flicks of his pen scratching across the surface of the table. He then scooted the paper to me.
But instead of signing right away, I held up my waxy paper cup of soda and tilted it toward him in a clear sign of a toast.
Our gazes met. The air between us crackled and popped.
My gaze flicked to his hands, fingers laced together tightly atop the table. My eyes lingered on them, realizing for not the first time how much they fascinated me. They were strong, masculine. Long fingers, prominent veins crisscrossing lightly hairy hands. My gaze traveled up the solid, muscular arms under his flannel shirt.
Try not to focus on that. I forced my attention elsewhere to prevent meeting his gaze again. He had the loveliest big brown eyes. They looked sleepy, even when he was fully alert. And they were fringed with dark lashes. And his mouth…
Stop it, Kat!
I cleared my throat and brandished the cup at him. “Come on, we should at least toast, right?”
He flicked his gaze back to mine, appeared to fight the temptation to roll his eyes. But he complied, tapping his cup of Coke against my sugary pink lemonade.
“And what are we toasting? Excellent deadline margins? To an early beta-release bonus from our bosses?”
I smiled. “To us. Mr. and Mrs. uh, van—van Hoehns—”
He sighed and put his drink down, cocking a brow at me. Letting his eyes drop slowly, they trailed down the line of my long hair, past my shoulders, down my arms where it nearly brushed the table.
His gaze warmed everywhere it touched. But I’d never in a zillion years let him know that.
“Walker. Let’s just keep it simple. And I thought you were keeping your name?”
I shrugged and nodded. “Yeah… sure. Unless it makes a stronger case with immigration to change it. I’ll have to talk to my lawyer.”
“Since this isn’t lasting long, I’d say the less work you have to do to change it all back when this is over, the better.”
I slurped on the last of my lemonade and watched him with wide eyes. “It’s a good thing that I was never all that attached to the typical dream of a big wedding. Expensive dress and bouquet of half-bloomed flowers, a glamorous first dance in front of a roomful of mostly drunk friends and family. This is about as far from that as you can get.”
This time, he did roll his eyes. “Totally overrated anyway. You’re not missing anything. Even if this was for real.”
I twitched my brows, wondering what that cryptic remark meant. I’d have to get used to it. My now-husband was fond of making dry remarks that no one got. At least I knew mostly what I was getting into with marrying Lucas. We’d worked together for over a year and sparred regularly.
His eyes flicked away from where he’d been studying my fidgeting hands, then checked his watch. “We don’t have time to wax poetic with the could have beens, anyway. When we get back to work today, we’ve gotta hit it hard. You promised.”
I raised my right hand as if solemnly vowing—because there hadn’t been quite enough of that today, I guess. “All of my lunch breaks and overtime and all-nighters are yours until we make this deadline.”
He nodded grimly, satisfied. “Good. Because this—” he motioned between himself and me “—is a business transaction.”
I waggled my head, tiredly nodding in agreement. I’d heard this repeatedly in the past week. “Yeah yeah yeah. I get a certified Yankee husband to put on my immigration forms for a green card. You get all my help to make the deadline so you can impress the big bosses for that new promotion you’re coveting. I’ve got it, Lucas, like I had it the twelfth time you told me.”
“Hmm. Well, a few more times can never hurt.”
As game testers, our department at Draco Multimedia Entertainment had to assure the software was clean of bugs and glitches. It was especially important due to the upcoming release of the new Dragon Epoch expansion, War of the Sunderlands. For a game as massive and complex as Dragon Epoch, this was no simple task.
Our bosses had given us a nearly impossible deadline to accomplish this. But instead of pushing back and asking for more time, Lucas, our project manager, had accepted the challenge. Because he had something to prove.
He pressed his index finger into the tabletop between us. “Right?”
I gritted my teeth. “Yes. Right. Jeez. I’m well aware of how much you want the new job. I’ll do everything in my power to help. You know what they say about immigrants getting the job done.”
Damn, he was infuriating and also hot when he got this way. Bossy and insistent with a healthy dose of cranky—that was Lucas in a nutshell. Too bad he was also wrapped in a pretty package that I couldn’t help noticing. Over and over. It’d be so much easier to be irritated by an ugly asshole rather than a beautiful one.
It didn’t help that his bossiness always had me wondering if he was that way in bed, too. Stop it, Kat!
I was lucky, really. So far he hadn’t asked many questions about why it was so vital I stay here in the US and not go back to Canada. My heart raced and my stomach dipped even thinking about that possibility. No. He was helping me stay here and putting himself on the line to do it. So for that, I’d overlook the asshole-ness and be grateful.
My home country was a wonderful place. But the specific situation I’d left… not so much. I fidgeted again, plunging the straw in and out of my empty cup to produce a wailing squeak. After a minute of this, he shoved his hand on top of mine to stop me, that fabulous jaw tensing.
“Cranberry,” he muttered between his teeth. “Calm down.”
His hand was warm and calloused—apparently from years of rowing crew in college, he’d once said. Warm tingles raced up my arm from where our skin connected. Holy crap. Tingles… shocks… goosebumps. I gulped loudly and extricated my hand from under his. Then I scooped up the pen and added my signature to the license.
After reading over the form again, I sat back, glancing up in time to catch that he was staring intensely at me, his eyes somewhere on my neck or hair. But as soon as I caught him, everything changed. By the time he met my gaze again, that usual granite veil had been replaced in seconds.
He gave me a not-so-convincing nonchalant shrug and looked out the window.
“So when do I move in?” I bounced cheerfully. I already knew the answer to the question. But as usual, I found it almost impossible to avoid the temptation of pushing his buttons once in a while.
His face darkened. “You said—”
I held up my hand. “Kidding. I’m kidding. But I need to make it look like I’m living there with you. I’ll have all my mail sent there, if you don’t mind. But never fear, I’ll keep living with Heath at his condo.”
He turned back to me. “We should also get a joint bank account and I’ll add your name to my bills. You won’t have to pay them.”
I snorted. “Good, because I’d never afford the mortgage on your fancy house.”
“I’ll put together a photo album. Can you send me any pictures you might have? I’ve got some from past work parties. We should pose for a few, too. I’m afraid I’ll have to ask you to do something rare and possibly painful, though, and actually smile in the photos.”
He sighed. “Fine, if I must.”
I couldn’t resist picking up my phone and snapping one of him now, complete with scowl. Then I took a moment to study it. Even with that scowl, he was way too handsome—a fact I once again reminded myself to ignore. “Well, this won’t help me give us a glamorous, romantic wedding for the immigration officers. We’ll have to work on that.”
“You’re filing the paperwork right away?”
I glanced down at the marriage license between us that bore both our signatures. “I have to. By court order. I’ll get it all done.”
“Good. There shouldn’t be any problems with that then. And of course, we have rules for everything else.” I raised my brows at him, almost as if to challenge him to dare to go over that BS yet again. “You do remember the rules, right?”
Aaand here we go…
I shook my head, gaze flying out the window. Jedi Boy and his damn rules. “Yes, I remember. You’re not going to make me repeat them.”
His eyes narrowed. “Wanna bet?”
My gaze snapped back to his. “You’re annoying.”
“Don’t care.” He stared me down.
I blew out a long breath. “Fine. But this is the last time I speak them out loud, got it?” No reaction. I bit my lip and continued. “No acting like a married couple at work, at home or ever. No joking about being married. The secret does not go beyond you, me and Heath. No dating other people.” I slurped at my drink noisily to piss him off. “And I get all the wedding presents.”
“Wouldn’t it be easier to convince the powers that be that your marriage is for real if you don’t keep it secret?” Heath stood at my shoulder with the laden food tray. I had no idea how long he’d been there—long enough to hear me recite Lucas’s ridiculous rules, apparently.
I scooted over to give him room to sit, and he set the food tray down.
“Sorry it took a while. Had to send my burger back. The cashier didn’t put down that it was supposed to be animal-style.”
Heath bit into his hamburger—priorities, after all—before flicking a glance from me to Lucas and back, still waiting for the answer to his question.
“I’ve got my reasons for keeping it on the down low,” Lucas finally answered, his dark eyes avoiding my gaze. “Namely, I’m up for an important promotion and Kat is best friends with the CEO’s wife.”
Heath swallowed his massive bite of burger and snorted. “Wouldn’t that be a good reason not to keep it secret? Hell, I’d advertise it freely to anyone who’d listen.”
I already knew the answer to this, and I sensed Lucas was getting torqued, so I stepped in—magnanimously, I might add, because Lucas was equally annoying. But he was also doing me a huge favor. “Lucas doesn’t believe in nepotism. He wants the job for his own merits.”
Heath shrugged. “Okay, so keep it secret at work but—”
“The family angle is also complicated,” Lucas cut in before Heath could even ask. “Believe me, it’s just easier this way all around.”
I quirked a brow, curious, but resisted the urge to ask the obvious question. I actually knew nothing about Lucas’s family, but if not asking him meant he wouldn’t ask me about mine, then so much the better. Scooping up my double-double burger, I lifted the bun to make sure they hadn’t spread it with the “special sauce” that I didn’t care for.
“It’s easy enough to keep things on the down-low.” I said. “Especially when all I’m doing is sending in documentation and then we appear for an interview.” I guess we’d have to know the basics about each other’s families for that… but not for months.
One step at a time. A month ago Lucas and I were at a cabin in the mountains with co-workers right before Christmas. We’d had no idea of what the crazy future would bring.
Now, here we were. Husband and wife.
“I guess that means no wedding rings, then, which was on my list of questions,” Heath asked between bites.
Lucas shook his head decidedly. “No rings.”
Sure. No outward signs of being married for various reasons. It’s not like either of us had much free time for dating because of our hectic work schedule. Dating would make things messy and complicated, to say nothing of making this appear less real. And with his conditions on keeping things secret, we needed all the help we could get.
After we finished our “wedding feast,” he wasted no time slipping out of the booth and prompting us back to work. I took a moment to thank Heath for coming all the way to Irvine from Orange, where we lived, to do this for us on our lunch break.
Because it was going to be another long night at work tonight—and probably for the rest of the week.
Heath carefully wiped the grease off his hands before taking the paperwork and signing it. He tucked it away in an envelope that he assured us would be mailed to the county recorder as soon as possible.
And from where he stood, Lucas watched his every move as if he didn’t trust what Heath was doing. As if he’d just signed his own life away. Because in actuality, for the next year or so—come hell or my green card—he was.
“Keep me posted on any developments or appointments I need to make,” Lucas grunted as we left.
I fought the urge to give him a mock salute in reply.
Not even an hour later, back at the job, it was kind of weird trying to maintain the illusion that nothing had happened. It wasn’t actually an illusion, though. Since nothing really had, except on paper.
I studied our Mission Accomplished leaderboard. It displayed the ranks of a running tournament among my co-workers. These were gamers who, upon feeling overworked, under paid, and undervalued, took a break from debugging Dragon Epoch to play yet another game. Mission Accomplished was incredibly outdated now, but Lucas was a longtime fan of it. Plus, it was the very first game our boss had ever worked on by himself as a teenager.
In the past twenty-four hours, Lucas had moved past me to become the high-scorer on the makeshift whiteboard-and-peg chart we’d devised to measure these things. I cocked my head, chewing a thumbnail, and squinted up at it. Lucas and I had been nudging and one-upping each other on that board for months. The third place holder wasn’t even close.
“You gonna let that stand? You two are so obsessed with beating each other that no one can keep up with either of you.” My coworker Joel’s snarky musing pulled me out of my quiet reverie. I glanced at him as he was pointing to Lucas’s winning score. It was temporary and we all knew it. I’d blow past him the next time I sat down to do another run on the game.
Except… except maybe I wouldn’t. Not anytime soon, anyway. As a silent way to thank him for all he’d done for me, I might let it stand. Even if he only had to miss a few lunches for the marriage license and “ceremony,” it was still a very kind thing he’d done.
Yeah, he needed me to help with the expansion, but… he probably could have done that without me.
I realized that I was smiling, a moment of tenderness tugging at my heart. In his own gruff way, he’d shown me some kindness.
With a shrug, I left Joel’s question unanswered as I drifted back to my desk, taking a few moments to do some full body stretches before I sat down. It was going to be another tedious crawl until quitting time so I had to take these chances where I could.
When I came up for air, pivoting to sink into my chair, I noticed that Lucas had entered the room. His gaze traveled from the leader board, down the length of the room lined with workstations. Most likely he was surveying who was still here and who was packing up to go.
When his eyes met mine, I sent him a tentative smile and a wink.
His neutral expression morphed into a scowl, eyes narrowing. With stiff shoulders and even stiffer bearing, he moved past my desk and grunted out a brusque “Back to work, Cranberry. If you’ve got time to daydream, you have too much idle time on your hands.”
I glared at his receding back, my own eyes narrowing as I sank into my chair. Happy wedding day to you, too, asshole.
Opening up my queue file with gritted teeth, I resolved to blast his lead out of the water as soon as possible.