The Replacement Fiance

ipadmini_707x1018 (16)“Hey, Mariah! Merry Christmas!”

I look up from the paperwork in front of me to see Logan Garrison walk into the tiny office of Garrison Motors, the repair shop he and his older brother Liam both own and manage.

“Hey, Logan. Merry Christmas to you, too.” I slide the paperwork back to Liam, the colorful tattoos peeking from under the collar of his t-shirt the only way I can tell the brothers apart.

“What are you still doing in town?” Logan asks.

“Having everything checked before I head up north. Fluids, air pressure, oil, tire balance… that kind of thing.”

Logan studies the job estimate from over his brother’s shoulder. “Pretty late for you to set out, isn’t it? You’re usually gone by the 20th.”

“I had some last-minute arrangements to take care of before I left. It’s for a New Year’s Eve wedding my shop is doing. I had to make sure everything was in place before I left, suppliers, deliveries, third party vendors, that kind of thing.”

Liam’s brow furrows. “Is that the celebrity one that’s all over the news? You’re the one doing it?”

“Yup.”

“That’s awesome, Mariah. Congratulations!” Logan says as he unclips sheets of paper from his clipboard and stacks them on top of a pile of receipts on the desk behind the counter where a retro Christmas tree made of neon-green aluminum stands in the corner. I don’t know why they keep putting it up every Christmas but given the other retro decorations around the office like vintage road signs and a candy vending machine that actually works, I have to admit it’s finally grown on me.

Liam hands me a copy of my job estimate. “We’ll get it done as fast as we can. Could take an hour or two, maybe longer because we’re slammed.”

“Don’t worry. I’ll put a priority tag on it. Just don’t tell anyone,” Logan whispers as Liam shoots him a look.

I bite my lip. “Look, guys, if there are cars ahead of me–”

“I’m kidding, Mariah. You always get priority around here,” Liam says. “Anyway, are you having someone pick you up or are you going to wait?”

I pull out my iPad from my purse. “No, I’ll wait. I’ve got some work to do anyway. Same Wi-Fi password?”

“Yup,” Liam replies as I hand him the keys. “Triumph123.”

“Thanks.” I watch Liam head toward the shop where the other guys are working, whirring sounds punctuating the air as he opens the door. Between the brothers, he’s the serious one while Logan’s the more outgoing and friendly one.

Logan starts typing on the keyboard, checking something on the monitor. “So you excited to be heading home?”

“Kinda.” Even though I don’t sound too excited, I’m always happy to head back home. But that was before Mom called me last week to tell me that she saw my ex-fiancé and his wife arrive at the house next door where he grew up and it looked like they were staying until New Year’s. It doesn’t even matter that we may never see each other at all, but if Elliot’s parents use some of the hiking trails that go through my family’s property, chances are, Elliot will, too. And I don’t want to take any chances that he and his wife will see me two years later, still single. Still alone. Too bad my mother didn’t approve of my plans about putting up signs barring Elliot and Minerva from using the trails.

Minerva. My former best friend’s name makes me grit my teeth but only for a second. Two years is a long time to hate someone for stealing your man, but it was always more than just the cheating. It was the years of friendship and trust that grates at me the most.

That’s when the lie was born, that I was engaged. Before Mom could ask me any details, I told her I had customers and that I’d call her back. Only I never did. Instead, I went online and searched for an escort service who matched me with a man named Cooper Reed, a Nordic god with blond hair and piercing blue eyes.

In many ways, he’s a copy of Elliot—only more gorgeous—but I didn’t care. My choices simply defaulted to him because he was the only one available on such short notice. In fact, he was so new to the service that no one had snagged him yet. After a few emails back and forth and one phone call where I got to hear his deep voice, the terms were set and the fee paid.

And just like that, I was engaged.

Now all I have to do is pick Cooper up at Sacramento Airport and during the drive to Soda Springs, we’ll iron out the details of our engagement—where we met, what we like to do together, little things couples know about each other without being too explicit. It shouldn’t be difficult. After the holiday, we’d quietly “split up” and go our separate ways. No one outside of my family would even need to know I was ever engaged at all.

“So when did you get engaged?” Logan points to my left hand. “You weren’t wearing that when I came by the shop yesterday.”

I follow his gaze to the solitaire diamond ring gracing my ring finger. It was a last-minute purchase, something I needed to back up the surprise engagement story. At least, it wasn’t expensive, just a few hundred dollars and one I can have a jeweler reset when the charade is over.

I laugh nervously. “Oh, that’s right. I did get engaged. I… I didn’t tell you?”

Logan leans over the counter and peers at me. “I didn’t even realize you were seeing anyone.”

The fact that Logan Garrison would know whether or not I’m dating someone is sad, but that’s been the state of my love life for the last two years ever since Elliot and I broke up. Sure, I see other people and even do the whole ‘swipe-right’ thing, but nothing has ever gone past the second date. There was always something going on that had to do with my flower shop, Always on a Tuesday Flowers, whether it was a wedding, a funeral, or a quinciñera to oversee. It left me no time to devote to anything else but my shop.

I also have to admit that at twenty-eight, I just might be enjoying being on my own a bit too much, running my own business, and not getting bogged down with the nuances of being in a relationship. But that doesn’t mean I never fantasize about dating the man standing in front of me, Logan Garrison of Garrison Motors, but that’s another story altogether. Some relationships are best left the way they are—as friendships—even if I have to remind myself every time he stops by the shop on Fridays to stop imagining how it would feel to be kissed by him.

“Seriously, Mariah, what’s with the ring? How come I know nothing about this?”

“Just because I see you every week doesn’t mean you get to know everything I do, Logan. It’s called minding your own business.” I gather my purse from the counter and sit down on the worn-out leather couch along the far wall. Suddenly, I find myself wishing they had a shuttle service that could drive me home. But Garrison Motors is a small family owned repair shop and they don’t have the luxury of air-conditioned reception areas or drivers who can drop me off at my apartment. But as much as a shuttle service would have been perfect right about now, I also believe in supporting small businesses just like the Garrison brothers believe in supporting my little flower shop.

I met them three years ago at a business networking event and we hit it off really well. They maintain the vans I use for my shop and my SUV and I provide them with flowers for whatever occasion they need them for.

“So who is this guy? Do I know him?” Logan’s expression is serious now as he studies my face.

“No.”

“Where’d you meet?”

“Online.”

“How?”

“One of those swipe-right things.”

“When?”

“A few weeks ago.”

“And he already proposed?” Logan looks at me incredulously before stepping from behind the counter to join me on the couch. “I mean, hell, Mariah, I can’t blame him for wanting to propose to you so quickly. You’re a keeper. But that was a bit too fast, don’t you think? When’s the wedding?”

I hold up my hand to look at the ring. Why couldn’t I have waited to wear it tomorrow? Why wear it now and have nosy Logan Garrison wanting to know more about my sudden engagement?

And why do I suddenly want to tell him about it?

I let out a sigh. Whatever. Logan might as well know. After all, someone has to know I’m heading to the mountains with a total stranger. What if he turns out to be a serial killer and I end up disappearing? What the hell do I know about Cooper Reed?

“Can you keep a secret?”

Logan draws a cross over his chest. “Cross my heart.”

“I hired someone to pretend to be my fiancé.”

“You what?”

“Just for three days, and then we conveniently break up after.”

He stares at me. “You’re not kidding.”

“No.”

He leans back and looks at me incredulously. “You really hired someone to be your fiancé?”

“Pretty much, yeah. I’m picking him up from Sacramento Airport tomorrow. I could have flown but I didn’t want to have to rent a car while I was up there.”

“Why?” he asks. “I mean, why hire someone?”

“Because my ex-fiancé is spending the holidays next door where he grew up and I don’t want him to see that I’m still single two years after we broke up.”

Logan shrugs. “So what? You’re over this guy, right?”

“Of course, I am!”

“So why all the pretense? Not to mention the expense of hiring someone. I bet he wasn’t cheap.”

“No, he wasn’t.” I sigh again. “I know it sounds shallow but I just didn’t want people seeing me still single.”

“You mean you didn’t want your ex seeing you’re still single.”

“It’s a her, actually. Minerva, the woman he ended up with.”

“Why?”

“She used to be my best friend and now she’s his wife.”

Logan winces. “Ouch. I’m sorry, Mariah.”

“Yeah. Ouch is about right. Anyway, don’t tell anyone, okay? It’s bad enough that you know. It’s downright embarrassing, now that I think about it. It makes me look so… so desperate.”

“Actually, it doesn’t. If my girl ended up cheating on me with my best friend, you bet I’m going to show her I’ve moved on to someone even better. Like a total upgrade,” Logan says, grinning. “And don’t worry. I’m not going to tell anyone. It’s our secret.”

“Thanks.”

“Come to think of it, you could have just asked me. I’m sure I know you better way more than that guy you hired,” he says, pausing. “Where do your folks live again? Lake Tahoe?”

“Just before Lake Tahoe. It’s called Soda Springs.”

His brow furrows as he thinks for a few moments. “How far is that from Nevada City?”

“Less than hour, depending on how fast you drive. Do you know the area?”

“Chad Stoker, one of our buddies moved up there a year ago and Liam and I rode our bikes up to see him back in September. Nice place,” he says. “Anyway, if this guy doesn’t make it, you know who to call. You don’t even have to pay me a dime.”

My phone rings before I can say anything. I retrieve it from inside my purse, hitting Answer the moment Cooper’s name flashes on my screen. “Hi Cooper, what’s up?”

“Hey, babe, all flights from JFK are grounded until tomorrow. There’s a freaking snowstorm over here,” he says. “I don’t think I’ll make it. Definitely not in the next five hours.”

“Can you get on a flight tomorrow?” Beside me, Logan doesn’t budge from his spot. I know he’s listening but it’s not as if I’m still keeping a secret from him. When the shop phone rings, he gets up to answer it just as two people enter the front door.

“I don’t know, babe. It looks really sketchy right now.” Cooper pauses as an announcement comes on, something about a list of flights canceled. He waits until the announcement finishes before continuing. “Look, babe, I’m so sorry. I was really looking forward to meeting you in person.”

“Me, too.”

“I’ll try to get on the first flight in the morning. Or any flight for that matter. Right now, it’s a madhouse in here. People are going crazy.”

“Well, tomorrow is Christmas Eve.”

He exhales. “Yeah, I know. I’m really sorry, Mariah.”

“It’s not your fault, Cooper. Do you have the address to the lodge?”

“Yeah, I do. I’ll text you as soon as I get on a plane.”

As I hang up and return my phone back into my purse, I tell myself that it’s probably for the best that Cooper can’t make it. Maybe I should just wear the ring and leave it at that. I’m not exactly lying if I told everyone he got stuck in the East Coast because of the snowstorm. Besides, no matter what I’ll say, I’m sure Elliot and Minerva will think whatever they want to think anyway.

Behind the counter, Logan hangs up the phone and helps the two customers who’ve come in to pick up their cars. As I switch on my iPad, three more customers arrive, keeping Logan busy with repair estimates and invoicing besides needing to go back into the shop area to help the guys.

An hour and a half later and with most of my mobile accounting settled for the day, Liam calls me over to the counter and lists down all the things he and the guys completed. As he finishes ringing me up, Logan comes back into the office area.

“Let me take care of that, man,” he says as Liam steps aside. Logan waits until his brother is out of the reception area before turning to look at me. “So what was your fiancé calling about? Sounded serious.”

I hand him my bank card and watch him swipe it through the terminal. Knowing Logan, he probably gave me a discount like he always does. “He can’t make it. He’s stranded in New York.”

“Yeah, we have the weather channel playing out back and it said something about a storm hitting the East Coast,” he says.

I shrug. “Maybe it just wasn’t meant to be, who knows? So what if I’m still single two years later? It’s not like it’s permanent anyway.”

“Oh, come on, Mariah. Giving up already? Where’s your fighting spirit?” Logan asks, his eyes narrowing. “Do you really want your ex to see that you’re still single? Or your former best friend?”

I feel my anger rising. “No.”

“I can take Cooper’s place if you want.”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“Logan, I can’t let you pretend to be my fiancé. You’re my friend.”

“So? It’s only for a few days, right? We go in, act like we’re together and then head back? It’s no different to how we are with each other… well, except kissing and all that.”

I hold up my hand. “Logan, I can’t, all right? But thanks for offering. It was a stupid idea anyway.”

“No, it wasn’t,” he says. “I think it’s a great idea, but one you can’t pull off alone.”

I study his face. “You really are serious about this, aren’t you? What would your girlfriend say if she knew you were pretending to be someone else’s fiancé?”

“Nothing.”

“Nothing? How can that be?”

“Because I’m not seeing anyone right now,” he replies.

“What about your Christmas plans? Aren’t you spending it–”

“Liam’s spending the holidays with Adriana’s family while I usually just tag along. But I’m always open to new things.” He pauses, his eyes narrowing. “Besides, do you really want your ex and your former friend to see you alone this Christmas?”

“No, of course not!”

“If that’s the case, guess I gotta do this.”

I frown. “Do what?”

Logan clears his throat, reaching across the counter to hold my hand. “Mariah Peters, will you marry me?”

AMAZON

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