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A selection from The Game Show Bride

Kelli Walters was late for work again -- half an hour late this time. She jiggled the fussy toddler on her hip as she slid her time card through the punch at Danbury Department Store’s distribution center. To make matters worse, she was showing up for her shift with two kids in tow, one of whom was irritable and running a slight fever from teething.

“Remember, Katie, you need to keep Chloe with you in the break room,” she reminded her seven-year-old. “You both need to stay out of sight until Mrs. Baker can pick you up.”

That plan went up in smoke when Kelli turned the corner and ran straight into a man’s broad chest. She stumbled back, an apologetic smile on her lips.

She didn’t know the man by name, but she’d seen him the week before walking through the distribution center with one of the assistant managers. The instantaneous tug of attraction she’d felt then had caught her off guard. She’d chided herself for it, even as she’d returned the smile he’d sent her way.

And here he was again. Only this time he wasn’t smiling.

“Sorry,” she said.

He acknowledged her apology with a curt nod.

“What are those children doing back here?”

At the man’s harsh tone, Katie slid behind her mother and Chloe sent up a wail of distress.

Kelli jiggled the baby and kissed her rosy, heated cheek. “It’s okay, pumpkin. Don’t cry.” She transferred her gaze to the man. “Who exactly are you?”

“Sam Maxwell.”

The name seemed familiar, although she couldn’t quite place it.

“Ah, the new guy,” she said at last, reasonably sure he

was the distribution center’s new manager, a position for which she had applied and never received even the courtesy of an interview.

Rumor had it that this guy was some shirttail relation to the personnel director, although Kelli didn’t think he looked much like the short and bald Mr. Elliott. No, he was tall, at least six-two, with a full head of black hair and blue eyes that glared out from beneath a slash of dark brow.

He must be pretty full of himself, she decided, taking note of the nicely tailored suit he wore. Khaki pants and a button-down shirt would have been acceptable management attire in the warehouse. The suit was overkill and now it bore the unmistakable imprint of a child’s runny nose just above the impeccably folded silk handkerchief that peeked from the breast pocket.

Serves him right, she thought none too charitably.

“New guy.” He scowled. And then said dryly, “Yes, I guess I am the new guy.”

Manager or no manager, handsome or not, he didn’t need to upset her children.

“Well, Mr. Maxwell, did you really need to shout?” She tilted her toward Chloe, who was still whimpering.

Dark eyebrows shot up over icy blue eyes. Clearly, he wasn’t used to being reprimanded, especially from someone who obviously ranked low in the company’s pecking order. Still, he lowered his voice when he said: “I asked a question. What are those children doing here?”

So, he was going to be one of those managers – the overbearing, inflexible kind who believed in following rules to the exclusion of all else. Employees weren’t people with families and problems to this type of boss. No. They were automatons that needed to get the job done without asking questions or voicing complaints.

Unbidden and utterly inappropriate came the thought that it was a pity his good looks didn’t extend to his personality. She brushed it aside, denying the attraction she had felt from that first glance across the room a week earlier. Her girls came first. They always came first.

“They’re my kids. My sitter had a doctor appointment this morning. She’ll be here soon to pick them up.”

“Soon? This is a business, not a day care.”

She sighed in exasperation. As if that had escaped her notice. Kelli didn’t know why she had expected him to understand or to care that even on good days being a single mother could be a trial. On days like this one, it was all she could do not to sit down and cry along side her cranky toddler.

Chloe had kept her up most of the night. She was getting molars and wanted to ensure her misery had company. Of course, it hadn’t helped that Chicago was in the grip of a major heat wave, making Kelli’s fourth-floor apartment stiflingly hot. Two electric fans merely moved hot air around the small rooms, doing nothing to cool them. The coup de grace had come that morning when the sitter had called. Kelli was ready to sell her soul for one hour of peaceful slumber in an air-conditioned room. Instead, she had eight hours of drudgery to look forward to and then an hour at home before heading to her night class. She’d be lucky to fall into bed before midnight and only then if she ignored the sink full of dirty dishes and mountain of laundry growing out of her closet.

“I’m aware that this isn’t a day care,” she replied, trying to keep her tone civil. “But I couldn’t get anyone else. My backup sitter is out of town for a few days.”

“Your personal problems are just that, personal. But they could become Danbury’s problems if one of your children were to get hurt.” He motioned with one hand toward the stacked pallets of inventory. “This is no place for children to be roaming around free.”

“Roaming?” She sucked in a deep breath, swallowing an oath in the process. And to think she’d smiled at him on that first day. It only went to show how sorely lacking her judgment remained when it came to men.

Voice tight, she replied, “I promise to keep them on their leashes.”

“And how can you do that and perform your job?” He didn’t wait for her to reply. “You can’t. Punch out and go home.”

“Punch out and …. Am I being fired?”

“No, but this will go in your personnel file. Now it’s my turn to ask, who are you?”

So, the hotshot was determined to hone his reputation at her expense. Between gritted teeth she said, “Kelli Walters. That’s Kelli with an I. Walters is the standard spelling. My middle initial is A.”

“Well, Kelli Walters, you can consider this a warning. Bring your kids to work with you again and you will be punching out for good.”

She was still gaping after him when someone said, “I see you made friends with Mr. Maxwell.”

Kelli turned to find her co-worker, Arlene Hughes, standing behind her. Arlene was two decades older than Kelli’s twenty-eight, with Lucille Ball red hair and the dramatically bowed lips to match. Despite the difference in their ages, the two women had been fast friends since Kelli hired in just after Chloe’s birth.

“Mr. Understanding? Oh, yeah, he’s going to be a load of fun to work for. He makes the last manager seem warm and fuzzy by comparison.”

“He’s not the new warehouse manager.”

For the second time, Kelli found herself asking, “Who is he?”

“Samuel Maxwell. I believe there’s a third after his name. You know, the new vice president of Danbury Department Stores.”

Kelli felt her mouth drop open, even as her eyes slid shut. Way to make friends and influence people. If she ever hoped to climb the corporate ladder at Danbury’s once she earned her master’s in business administration – assuming that happened at some point before she needed support hose and a walker – this was not the way to start out.

“Is he important, Mom?” Katie asked.

“Oh, yeah, Katie-did. He’s really important.”

“Well, I didn’t like him,” her daughter announced. “He yells. And he made Chloe cry.”

“I think I might cry,” Kelli mumbled.

She blew out a breath that caused her overly long bangs to stir. She needed a haircut and maybe some highlights to pep up the color of her mousy blonde hair, but she had neither the time nor the money for such frivolous things. And that seemed to be the story of her life lately. No matter how hard she worked, she never seemed to get ahead. She felt like a hamster on a treadmill, only a hamster got to sleep all day. Kelli just had more running to do.

Anger and frustration bubbled to the surface. People like Samuel Maxwell the Third, who’d probably been born with a silver spoon in his mouth, would never understand what it was like to sacrifice and scrimp and do without and still wind up dodging creditors.

“I bet that man drinks bottled water, buys designer underwear and has his nails professionally buffed once a week. His kind wouldn’t last an hour doing what we do day in and day out. He might get his hands dirty. Or his clothes.”

She chuckled then, perversely pleased. “Oh my God! Just wait till he realizes he has baby snot on his pricey suit.”

Arlene laughed, too, a great booming sound that had the Danbury’s logo on her T-shirt bouncing on her impressive chest.

“He’s awfully good-looking, though,” the older woman mused. “Kinda reminds me of Pierce Brosnan with all that dark hair and those blue eyes. If I were ten years younger I wouldn’t mind taking him for a tumble.”

“If you were ten years younger and built like a Playboy centerfold, he still wouldn’t notice you. His kind dates humorless women named Muffy and Babs. He’s too busy looking down his nose to really take notice of working stiffs like us. If I didn’t need this job, I’d take him down a peg or two.”

“Hey, you know what you should do?” Arlene didn’t wait for her to reply. “You should go on that new reality show, ‘Swapping Places.’ ”

Kelli rarely watched television. She simply didn’t have time. “Never heard of it.”

“It airs every Tuesday night. It’s kind of like ‘Survivor’ meets ‘Big Brother’ with a corporate twist.”

“Sorry, I’ve never seen those shows either.”

Arlene shook her head in dismay.

“I know you take classes three nights a week, but what do you do for relaxation?”

“I sleep,” Kelli said dryly.

“That’s depressing, kiddo. You’re young. You’re in the prime of your life. You’ve got a nice shape, a pretty face. You should get out more. Date. Live it up a little.”

“I have too many responsibilities to ‘live it up.’ As for dating, I’m not interested.” She recalled the smile she’d sent Sam Maxwell the first time she’d seen him, and her resolve hardened. “I don’t need a man in my life.”

Arlene sighed, knowing her protest was useless. This was an old argument. “Okay, at least hook up to cable or get an antenna so you can escape through television.”

“I can’t afford cable, and besides, the television works just fine with our old VCR. This way, the only things the girls can watch are the educational videos we check out at the library.”

“If you go on ‘Swapping Places’ you could win half a million bucks. That would buy a lot of educational videos.”

“Yeah, well, I could win ten times more than that playing the lottery, and the odds are probably better.” She shook her head. “No thanks. I’ll make my money the old-fashioned way: I’ll work hard and earn it.”

“Oh, you’d earn it on ‘Swapping Places’,” Arlene replied. “If Samuel Maxwell agreed to do the show, too, you’d be the vice president of Danbury Department Stores for an entire month.”

Kelli stopped in her tracks. “Get out.”

“I’m serious. Why do you think they call it ‘Swapping Places’?”

“And he’d be here in the distribution center, doing my job for the month?”

When Arlene nodded, Kelli snorted out a laugh. Glancing down at her calloused hands, she said, “I’d almost pay to see that.”

“More than just trading jobs, you’d trade lives. He’d be living in your apartment, taking night classes, making do on your budget.”

“He’d be in my un-air-conditioned apartment, eating mac and cheese, dealing with backed-up sinks and leaky faucets while I’d go live in the lap of luxury for an entire month? Sounds like a dream.”

Chloe began crying and the dream ended.

“So, what do you say? You want to do it?” Arlene asked.

“Oh, yeah. Sure,” she replied with a roll of her eyes. “Sign me up.”

Arlene cleared her throat. “I’m glad you feel that way, because I already did.”

“You did what?!”

“I signed you up for ‘Swapping Places’,” Arlene replied as Kelli bounced Chloe on her hip. “I went on the show’s Web site and typed in your name and information.”

“When? Why?”

“A few weeks back. Right after you applied for the manager’s job and didn’t get asked for an interview.”

“So, what, I’m supposed to go on national television and show Danbury’s head honchos what I can do?”

“That was the general idea.” Arlene shrugged. “But if you aren’t interested, when the show’s people call – if they call – you can simply say no.”

“You’d better believe I’ll tell them no.”

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