In today’s episode of Cat and a Book, we have something a little different. Truth be told, the tags list on Marriage Contract by AJ Sherwood had me seriously laughing. This won’t be everyone’s jam. If it isn’t, just look the other way and enjoy the picture of today’s kitty. (It’s cool, we just don’t want to hear about it if you don’t like it.)
Enjoy the kitty, and if it’s to your taste, we hope you like the book!
What’s a man to do when his security company is hacked with a message from the hacker asking for a job? You hire him, of course.
Which is precisely what Aleks does. At first, he’s conflicted to learn Harris is only seventeen and on the run from a past he refuses to talk about, but that confliction soon morphs into feelings for the tragic genius, and he desperately wants Harris to open up and trust him.
Maybe it wasn’t the best decision to start off his new life by hacking into a well-known security company to ask for a job, but Harris is surprised by what he finds there—a boss who genuinely seems to care about him. As the months pass, Harris finds he wants to tell Aleks everything. To stop hiding. To finally stop running, unless it’s into the man’s arms. But fear’s grip is strong, and doesn’t let go easily.
So, when Harris’s past does come calling? Aleks must prove he will do whatever is necessary to protect his new employee and friend—including fake marrying him, despite being in love with him.
Brazilians have no concept of personal space, Kizomba, I climbed the trope tree, and hit every branch on the way back down, shy character, underage runaway, bad parenting, May/December, Fake Marriage, Boss/Employee, friends to lovers, virgin character, sharing a bed, Aleks protests all the cockblocking, hurt/comfort, told you I hit every trope, wait I might have missed one
AJ has been kind enough to provide a sample of Marriage Contract. If this seems up your alley, keep on reading!
Aleks was not having the best of days. First of all, it was Monday. Very established that Mondays had it out for him. Second of all, to support the previous statement, he’d spilled coffee all over himself and his brand-new truck this morning on the way to work. All to avoid a stupid squirrel. (Oh don’t worry. The squirrel lived.) Third of all, also in support of the first statement, he was forced to do payroll on his own, which never ended well. For him. He always accidentally overpaid someone. And yes, his people were good and deserved bonuses, but three-thousand dollar bonuses? Fortunately, on his last major screwup, his employee had not only caught it but was honest enough to give it back.
He was fairly sure he didn’t deserve his employees.
So, it being Monday, Aleks wasn’t too surprised when a panicked yelp rang from the end of the hallway. “BOSS!”
Oh hell, now what?
Aleks heaved a great sigh, then hauled himself out of his comfy executive chair to see why his resident hacker—ahem, IT Specialist—was yelling like someone had just stolen his firstborn. More than a few heads popped out into the hallway to see what was going on as Aleks jogged down to the end office. Well, it’d started out life as an office, anyway. Now it was more like a lair where interesting and illegal tech lurked on dusty shelves. From behind the forest of CPU towers and monitors, a harried, heavyset man was bouncing in his seat and pointing at the screens. One look at him put Aleks on red alert. Larry had possibly the darkest skin he’d ever seen on a human being, but right now he was so panicked he looked white.
Crossing around to his side, Aleks barked out, “What?!”
Larry whimpered and kept pointing. “Boss, I have no idea how they got in.”
On all of the screens were two words, all caps, in red: KNOCK KNOCK.
Well shit. Of course, on top of everything else today, his security company would get hacked. Aleks had been through a lot in this business. He’d set it up nine years ago, and to say he’d come through some rough patches would be an understatement. So while this was potentially devastating, he didn’t let it panic him. Plenty of time to panic later. Preferably with Scotch in hand.
“Have you tried turning everything off?”
“Short of pulling the plug on the servers, there’s nothing I haven’t tried,” Larry answered in a high, thin voice. “And I really, really don’t want to do that. It’ll cause a catalytic failure and do a lot of damage.”
That did sound bad. Aleks knew enough about computers to use four programs, and not even that reliably. He had a tech department for a reason. “Okay. How long has this guy been in?”
“About five minutes. If you want me to pull the plug, I will.” Larry sounded like he’d suggested sacrificing his left arm.
Considering how much it had cost to set up the tech in this room alone? Aleks wanted to try Option B first. “Have you tried answering? It looks like the start of a knock knock joke, so…”
Larry looked at him as if he had lost what was left of his mind.
Granted, Aleks didn’t always operate on levels of normalcy. But that seemed a straightforward enough approach to him. He bumped Larry out of the way and leaned over the nearest keyboard to type back: Who’s there?
The screen changed a second later. Don’t worry, this isn’t a knock knock joke. Just needed to get your attention.
Aleks’s eyebrows rose sharply. Huh. Didn’t expect that response. He and Larry exchanged surprised looks. Oookay. How did that saying go? In for a penny?
Aleks replied: You’ve got it. What do you want?
I want to work for you.
Larry made a sound like a balloon losing all its air. Aleks stared at the words for a long moment, waiting for them to make sense. “He wants to work for me? Why not just fill out an application like a normal person?”
A light, feminine voice giggled from the doorway as his vice president sauntered through. Connie was former Agency (which alphabet, no one knew) and she moved like a panther on the prowl. Aleks had known her for years and wasn’t even sure if Connie was her real name. He did know she was badass and he’d not choose anyone else to guard his back in a pinch. It was rather a relief to see her walk in. Maybe she’d know what to do with this sudden attack.
“Connie. We got hacked.”
Her dark brows furrowed together as she hurried around to see the monitors herself. “Huh. I thought you were on a skype call or something. Larry, how the hell did this happen?”
“I don’t know,” Larry whined to her. For such a large man, he could certainly whine with the best of the three-year-olds.
Connie read the screen, her vividly painted red lips pursed. “Our hacker wants to work for us. So, this is, what, his way of proving he’s worth the hire? But if he’s this good, why not freelance?”
“Hard to freelance in this field without going criminal or semi-criminal,” Larry pointed out. “THAT much, at least, makes sense to me. Of course he’d go white hat if he could, work for someone like us.”
Aleks’s company offered overall security packages—bodyguards, hardware installation, and cyber protection. For the most part they gathered the right resources from other places and handed it to their clients in conveniently bundled packages. While they did have a tech department, it was mostly there to help them manage their cyber protection division. It wasn’t something that needed a hacker’s ability, which was what made this all strange.
Aleks hummed in thought. So this guy, whoever he was, wanted to work for a legit company. The way he’d hacked in suggested he couldn’t approach in a regular way. Was he here illegally, and couldn’t fill out an application? That was his first guess, but Aleks could be wrong. His parents had come over illegally from Brazil, and they still shared war stories of how hard work was to find. But if he was this good with computers, surely he could find a job even with that handicap. What else could prevent him from coming in and filling out an application like any normal person?
“He’s either a criminal, here illegally, or a runaway,” Connie announced, still staring hard at the screen as if she could see through it and to the other side.
“That’s about the size of it from where I stand as well,” Aleks agreed. “If it’s the first two, I don’t really care. He won’t be the first employee we have with that background. If it’s the third option, then we’ll help him.”
Connie rolled her big brown eyes at him. “You are such a softie.”
“I like kids well and whole. If he’s managed to escape an abusive atmosphere, I’m not going to be the one to stick him back in it.” Aleks leaned forward and decisively typed in: Get in here. I won’t hire you remotely.
Larry squawked in protest. “Boss! You don’t really mean to hire him, do you?”
“Larry, if he was good enough to beat our security just to chat? Then no way in hell do I want him working for the competition.”
“There’s that,” Connie agreed. She turned on her heel and strode back out.
She missed the hacker’s response: Be there in five.
Aleks sighed gustily. He really did hate Mondays.
Four minutes and thirty-something seconds later, the hacker strode through Aleks’s office door. He was a scrawny thing, like he regularly forgot to eat, ash brown hair in messy curls that fell over his ears and obscured his eyes. He didn’t quite hunch—it was clear he was a little on the short side for a guy, perhaps around 5’7”—but the slope in his shoulders and the way his hazel eyes darted about suggested he was ready to make a run for it. The kid looked like he’d aimed for business casual and missed—white button-down shirt, ragged jeans, and scuffed sneakers was his interview attire. The backpack hanging off his shoulder had clearly seen regular use, and if he was out of high school, Aleks would eat his shoes.
Since Aleks’s people were all disciplined and professional, there was an immediate scramble for his office door, with all the shoving and near-collisions that entailed. Aleks graciously decided to not notice it as he closed the door in their collective faces. Only Connie and Larry remained in his office, Connie leaning against his window frame, regarding the teenager curiously. Larry was perched on the edge of his visitor’s chair, staring hard at the kid, as if he could see right through his ridiculous hair.
“Mr. De Sousa,” the kid greeted with a shy smile. “Sorry about earlier. Like I said, I needed to get your attention.”
Runaway. Definitely. “It’s not me you need to apologize to. It’s Larry who almost birthed kittens.”
The kid gave Larry an apologetic smile. “Yeah, really sorry. But you’re using VanTech for security and that’s…not a good idea. Not anymore. The creator for that security program is in the wind, and no one’s updating the firewall protocols anymore.”
Larry’s eyes narrowed suspiciously. “How do you know that?”
“I know the creator.” The kid shrugged, like he hadn’t just announced something amazing.
VanTech was the best on the market, bar none. Many a security company used it because it was supposedly unhackable—or as close to it as any program could be in a world of hackers. Aleks knew this because he’d been forced to listen to Larry’s hour-long pitch on why it was worth it to spend ten thousand dollars to buy the software. He was not pleased to hear that this kid had so easily hacked it because the software wasn’t being supported anymore.
“And I suppose you know how to get in because you know the creator?”
“I might have a backdoor or two into it,” he agreed with a mischievous smile. “But I also have a patch to offer so you’re not hacked again. Think of it as an apology.”
Aleks shared a speaking look with Connie. It sounded arrogant, cocky, but this was likely the reason the kid had hacked them before coming in. To prove he could. To make it believable. “You obviously know who we are, but who are you?”
“Harris Jones.” He held out a hand with a disarming smile.
Aleks found himself accepting the handshake. It was a soft hand, not something used to hard labor. “Call me Aleks, Harris. Now, why do you want to work for us?”
Harris met his eyes steadily, although it apparently took effort. The kid shifted uneasily from foot to foot. He struck Aleks as being naturally shy. “Well, a couple of reasons. One, you’re the only company I’ve found in this line of work that’s never had an employee quit. Everyone you hire, stays. That means you and Ms. Hawes are good bosses. That’s kinda a novelty for me. Two, you regularly donate to a charity for domestic abuse. Means your heart’s in the right place. And three, you’ve got four ex-criminals on your payroll, so you’re all for giving people a safe place to land and prove themselves. I figure you’re my best bet for employment.”
That was certainly more frank than Aleks had bargained for. It also exchanged one set of questions for another. “Harris. How many times have you hacked my company?”
“Only twice,” Harris defended with a guilty look at Larry. “Sorry, man. I had to make sure you guys were legit.”
Larry just moaned and slumped into the chair. He was, apparently, done with this conversation.
Tapping a finger to her chin, Connie finally decided to speak up. “Mr. Jones, if I were to search for the records for Harris Jones, how much would I find?”
Harris studied her for a long moment before he answered, “About as much as you’d find if you searched for Connie Hawes.”
Her lips curled up in amusement. “Touché.”
Runaway, then, but tech-savvy enough to change his name. But honest enough to not hack the system and create a false paper trail. Or perhaps smart enough to leave government systems alone. Either could be the answer. Aleks was just intrigued enough by this seemingly harmless kid that he didn’t want to scare Harris off. If Harris was looking for ‘a safe place to land,’ as he’d put it, then he’d give him that. At least until he figured out the better course of action.
“Alright, Harris. I’ll hire you. On the provision you stop hacking my company and give us that patch you mentioned.”
Harris gave him a smile that lit the room and for a moment, just a moment, he was breathtaking in his joy. “Thanks. You won’t regret it.”
Strangely enough, Aleks’s gut said he really wouldn’t.