Contractual Obligation


Tymber Dalton


As always, to my Hubby, who believes in and loves me. Also, to Mr. B, who apparently has a bottomless well of patience. Thank you, guys. I don’t know what I’d do without you.

Also, to our friend, Annie, who touched us and many others in ways she’ll never know.

Chapter One

Harper Wells stormed into her office and slammed the door behind her.

Fuck. Him.

She could think it even if she couldn’t scream it at the top of her lungs so it rang through the entire floor of office suites like she wanted.

Who the hell does that son of a bitch think he is? Just because Harrison Wells was her father didn’t mean he could treat her like a little girl.

Dropping her notepad onto her desk blotter, she plopped into her cushy leather chair where she kicked off her Manolos under the desk and rubbed her feet together.

Her administrative assistant, Gorden Smith, opened her door a crack after gently rapping on it. “You okay?”

She nodded and waved him in. He stepped in, softly closing the door behind him. “Want to vent?”

“What good will it do?” she groused.

“Have you eaten lately?”

When she waved him off, he walked over to the small minifridge behind her desk, took out a cup of fruit yogurt, opened it, and handed it and a spoon to her. “Eat. Now.”

She glared at him, but dutifully picked up the spoon and started eating. He knew her schedule even better than she did.

What am I going to do without him?

She shut down that thought.

As if reading her mind, he propped himself on the corner of her desk. “Have you thought about interviewing prospects yet?”

She didn’t want to look at him. At his greying hair and the lines around his eyes. How could she even think about replacing him? He wasn’t just her right hand, he was both hands, her left foot, and three of her right toes.

She shook her head as she took another bite of strawberry yogurt. “I don’t want to think about it.”

“I’m retiring in three months. You need time for my replacement to learn the job.”

“You don’t have to retire.”

He smiled. “No, but if I don’t, I’ll have to get a divorce and move in with you. Olivia will kill me, you know that.”

She brightened. “I’ll marry you!” she offered, only half joking.

He laughed. “I don’t think that’s exactly what your father meant. Nor do I think it would satisfy him.”

Fortunately, the meeting’s attendees had only consisted of her, her father, Gorden, and one of her father’s flunkies.

“You need a personal life, Harper,” her father had chastised her. “You need a boyfriend, or a hobby, at the very least. I want to see you get married and have a family. If you don’t figure out a way to take more time for you, I’ll force you out of the company so you have no choice. You need balance in your life.”

She stewed and turned to Gorden. “What right does he have to say something like that? I’m twenty-eight. I can run my own life. I run this company pretty damn good. He of all people knows how much time and energy it takes to do well in this business.”

Gorden shrugged. “I’m sure he thinks he’s doing the right thing. If your mother were still alive, however, she would have ripped his balls off for saying it.” He stood and stretched. “Regardless, unless you file a lawsuit against him for workplace harassment, you’re pretty much going to either have to do what he wants, or quit.”

She didn’t like any of those three options. “I do a damn good job. I enjoy my job. The company has seen ten percent growth in profits every year since I took over the CEO position from him three years ago. And that’s a damn sight better than he’d been doing the past several years!”

Gorden nodded. “Did you ever stop to think maybe there’s a pinch to the old man’s pride as well?”

She stopped eating and looked at him. “What?”

He shrugged. “I think it’s one part fatherly concern. Not wanting your life to be like his, consumed with a career and your personal life suffering as a result. And another part that probably enjoys your success and feels proud of it, but maybe also feels like he’s being shown up by his own child.”

“You can’t be serious.”

“I’m not saying I’m right. But as a man your father’s age, and someone who’s worked for your father for twenty-five years, and been his personal friend longer than that, I’m telling you it’s not outside the realm of possibility.” He stepped toward the door. “It’s something to consider.”

He reached for the doorknob when an idea hit her. “Hey, isn’t there a job fair in town this weekend?”

He paused. “There is. It starts tomorrow, and we have a booth there. We’re taking applications for the new Sebring facility. Why?”

She sat back, tapping the spoon against her teeth. “Who’s handling the booth?”

“I don’t know. Someone from human resources, I would imagine. Why?”

She smiled. “Can you do me a favor and find out who and send them up here to talk to me?”

A playful smile tweaked his lips. “Harper, what are you thinking?”

She grinned. “I’m going to teach that old dog father of mine a new trick.”

Gorden left her office, the sound of his laughter cut off by him closing her office door behind him. She finished her yogurt, washed the spoon and plastic cup in her bathroom, and dropped the cup into the recycling bin outside the bathroom door.

She opened the medicine cabinet and took out the blood sugar monitor. She should have tested it before eating, but oh well. She did well enough on her crazy schedule. She did the test—fine—then put the monitor back. Looking in the mirror, she ran her fingers through her shoulder-length hair. She was due for a touch-up at the hairdresser. Her ugly brown roots were starting to show under her streaked and highlighted dark blonde hair. She noticed dark circles under her hazel eyes and cursed that she hadn’t touched up her makeup before the meeting with her father.

That had probably contributed to her father’s insistence that she needed to balance her personal and work lives more evenly.

Gorden didn’t have to say it, but her father probably also worried about the fact that he knew she wanted children one day. Combined with her mother’s death when she was only four, it meant he sometimes had a really strange way of showing his fatherly concern.

And someone like her with type 1 diabetes couldn’t necessarily afford to wait until their late thirties or early forties to get pregnant.

* * *

Harper was back at her desk and going over sales reports when she heard a knock on her door.

“Come.” She looked up and took a moment to recall the name of the woman who walked through her door. Harper stood. “How are you today, Carmen?”

The HR manager broadly smiled. “Very good, Ms. Wells, thank you. Mr. Smith said you wanted to speak with me about the job fair?”

Harper indicated the chair on the other side of her desk as she retook her own seat. “Yes, I’d like for you to do me a special favor.”

“A favor, ma’am?”

“Yes. As you know, Gorden is close to retiring. I’d like you to keep an eye out for a…special sort of candidate. I’ll be working in my office all weekend. I’d like you to use a webcam to let me watch while you’re taking applications for potential candidates for this position…”

By the time Carmen left twenty minutes later, Harper knew her idea would work. If, that was, anyone appropriate applied for the job.

They had to be smart, no doubt about it. With a degree. But they had to be handsome, young, and most importantly, single. She wanted someone from outside the company with no ties to her father or their current corporate culture.

She smiled. Dad doesn’t know who he’s messing with.

* * *

Douglas Holt stood in the living room of his parents’ house, numb shock settling in as he stared at the paper in his hand.

Alone, every noise in the house seemed amplified. His two sisters and father were at the hospital, waiting for his mom to be discharged so they could bring her home.

He reread the paper, which had been delivered certified mail moments earlier, trying to digest what it said.


He collapsed heavily into a dining room chair and stared at the notice from the mortgage company. It looked like his parents were three months behind on their payments. From the records enclosed by the loan company, they’d had a sketchy payment history for the past year.

Ever since his mom had to quit working because of her increasing health problems.

He rubbed a hand over his face in futile hopes the information on the page would change. So great was his shock that he didn’t react fast enough when his older sister, Tina, walked in from the kitchen.

“Doug, they said they’d have to keep her at least one more—what’s wrong?”

He let out a deep sigh and handed her the paper. She read it, gasping. “Oh, no,” she whispered.

“What are we going to do?”

She shook her head. “I don’t know. I’m still paying off my student loans. I’m working two jobs, and I’m lucky if I have two nickels to rub together at the end of each month.”

Doug knew with his paltry salary working as a line cook at a restaurant in Gainesville, he couldn’t really help them out either. He’d been looking for work in the business field around the Gainesville area, but there wasn’t anything he qualified for in a better pay scale. He couldn’t justify uprooting Tate from his job when it paid decently compared to his own. In the nearly two months since their graduation, neither man had been able to secure jobs putting their MBAs to good use.

She shook her head again in disbelief. “Please turn on the TV or something. I can’t stand the quiet in here.”

He went to do it, picking up the remote in the living room and putting the TV on a local Tampa channel. Their five o’clock news was just coming on. “What were you saying when you came in?” he asked.

She looked up from the document. “They’re holding Mom another day. They don’t like her blood work results.”

He slumped onto the sofa. More money his parents could ill afford. It wasn’t fair. They’d worked hard all their lives, and now this.

Tina started walking over to him and speaking, but he shushed her and sat up, intent on a story the news anchor was teasing for later in the hour. “…and for those looking for a job in this down economy, don’t forget the Tampa Job Fair being held this weekend, starting tomorrow. We’ll hear more about it later in our broadcast from reporter—”

“That’s it!” he said, a little of his worry lifting. He looked at her. “I’ll hit the job fair tomorrow.”

“What about Tate?”

“Mom and Dad had already invited us to move back down and stay with them if I couldn’t find work up there. We can move in here and pay them rent, help get them caught up on their bills.”

“You lucky dog. Tate’s such a sweetie.”

“Yeah, I’m lucky all right. I’m lucky Mom and Dad didn’t disown me when I came out to you all.” He impatiently waited for the segment on the job fair to air. Then, he intently watched the newscast for more information. Running from Thursday until Sunday, some of the biggest employers in the Tampa Bay area and from around the state of Florida would be there looking for new hires.

Tina stared at him. “You do realize Mom and Dad need a lot more help than just you getting an entry-level job, right? It’s great you’ve got a business degree, but so have a lot of other people, and this job market sucks. I’m not trying to discourage you, but I don’t want you to get your hopes up.”

He stubbornly shook his head and stood to head for his room. “I don’t care. Somehow, I will take care of this. They’ve worked all their lives, and I will not let them lose their house!”

* * *

Doug was still in his room when his father and younger sister, Eileen, got home. Doug had fired up his laptop and brushed off his résumé. It wasn’t the best, but his grades were excellent, and he was willing to do whatever it took to get a good job. He could sell his car, and he and Tate could share rides. Hell, his parents were just a block from the county bus line. He could take the bus if he had to.