A fine sweat broke out between Hutch Carmody's shoulders and his gut warned that he was fixing to stumble straight into the teeth of a screeching buzz saw. The rented tux itched against his hide and his collar seemed to be getting tighter with every flower-scented breath he drew. The air was dense, weighted, cloying. The small church was overheated, especially for a sunny day in mid-June, and the pews were crammed with eager guests, a few weeping women and a fair number of skeptics.
Hutch's best man, Boone Taylor, fidgeted beside him.
The organist sounded a jarring chord and then launched into a perky tune Hutch didn't recognize. The first of three bridesmaids, all clad in silly-looking pink dresses more suited to little girls than grown womenin his opinion anyhowdrag-stepped her way up the aisle to stand beside the altar, across from him and Boone.
Hutch's head reeled, but he quickly reminded himself, silently of course, that he had to live in this townhis ranch was just a few miles outside of it. If he passed out cold at his own wedding, he'd still be getting ribbed about it when he was ninety.
While the next bridesmaid started forward, he did his distracted best to avoid so much as glancing toward Brylee Parrish, his wife to be, who was standing at the back of the church beside her brother, Walker. He knew all too well how good she looked in that heirloom wedding gown of hers, with its billowing veil and dazzling sprinkle of rhinestones.
Brylee was beautiful, with cascades of red-brown hair that tumbled to her waist when she let it down. Her wide-set hazel eyes revealed passion, as well as formidable intelligence, humor and a country girl's in-born practicality.
He was a lucky man.
Brylee, on the other hand, was not so fortunate, having hooked up with the likes of him. She deserved a husband who loved her.
Suddenly, Hutch's gaze connected with that of his half brother, Slade Barlow. Seated near the front, next to his very pregnant wife, Joslyn, Slade slowly shook his head from side to side, his expression so solemn that a person would have thought somebody was about to be buried instead of hitched to one of the choicest women Parable County had ever produced.
Hutch's insides churned, then coalesced into a quivering gob and did a slow, backward roll.
The last bridesmaid had arrived.
The minister was in place.
The smell of the flowers intensified, nearly overwhelming Hutch.
And then the first notes of "Here Comes the Bride" rang out.
Hutch felt the roomhell, the whole planetsway again.
Brylee, beaming behind the thin fabric of her veil, nodded in response to something her brother whispered to her and they stepped forward.
"Hold it," Hutch heard himself say loudly enough to be heard over the thundering joy of the organ. He held up both hands, like a referee about to call a foul in some fast-paced game. "Stop." everything haltedwith a sickening lurch.
The music died.
The bride and her brother seemed frozen in mid-stride.
Hutch would have sworn the universe itself had stopped expanding.
"This is all wrong," he went on miserably, but with his back straight and his head up. It wasn't as if he hadn't broached the subject with Brylee beforehe'd been trying to get out of this fix for weeks. Just the night before, in fact, he'd sat Brylee down in a vinyl upholstered booth at the Silver Lanes snack bar and told her straight out that he had serious misgivings about getting married and needed some breathing space.
Brylee had cried, her mascara smudging, her nose reddening at the tip.
"You don't mean it," she'd said, which was her standard response to any attempt he made to put on the brakes before they both plummeted over a matrimonial cliff. "You're just nervous, that's all. It's entirely normal. But once the wedding is over and we're on our honeymoon"
Hutch couldn't stand it when a woman cried, especially when he was the cause of her tears. Like every other time, he'd backed down, tried to convince himself that Brylee was righthe just had cold feet, that was all.
Now, though, "push" had run smack up against "shove."
It was now or never.
He faced Brylee squarely.
The universe unfroze itself, like some big machine with rusted gears, and all hell broke loose.
Brylee threw down her bouquet, stomped on it once, whirled on one heel and rushed out of the church. Walker flung a beleaguered and not entirely friendly look in Hutch's direction, then turned to go after his sister.
The guests, already on their feet in honor of the bride, all started talking at once, abuzz with shock and speculation.
Things like this might happen in books or movies, but they didn't happen in Parable, Montana.
Until now, Hutch reflected dismally.
He started to follow Brylee out of the church, not an easy proposition with folks crowding the aisle. He didn't have the first clue what he could say to her, but he figured he had to say something.
Before he'd taken two strides, though, Slade and Boone closed in on him from either side, each taking a firm grip on one of his arms.
"Let her go," Boone said quietly.
"There's nothing you can do," Slade confirmed.
With that, they hustled him quickly out of the main chapel and into the small side room where the choir robes, hymnals and Communion gear were stored.
Hutch wondered if a lynch mob was forming back there in the sanctuary.
"You picked a fine time to change your mind about getting married," Boone remarked, but his tone was light and his eyes twinkled with something that looked a lot like relief.
Hutch unfastened his fancy tie and shoved it into one coat pocket. Then he opened his collar halfway to his breastbone and sucked in a breath. "I tried to tell her," he muttered. He knew it sounded lame, but the truth was the truth.
Although he and Slade shared a father, they had been at bloody-knuckled odds most of their lives. They'd made some progress toward getting along since the old man's death and the upheaval that followed, but neither of them related to the other as a buddy, let alone a brother.
"Come on out to our place," Slade said, surprising him. "You'd best lay low for a few hours. Give Bryleeand Walkera little time to cool off."
Hutch stiffened slightly, though he found the invitation oddly welcome. Home, being Whisper Creek Ranch, was a lonely outpost these dayswhich was probably why he'd talked himself into proposing to Brylee in the first place.
"I have to talk to Brylee," he repeated.
"There'll be time for that later on," Slade reasoned.
"Slade's right," Boone agreed. Boone, being violently allergic to marriage himself, probably thought Hutch had just dodged a figurative bullet.
Or maybe he was remembering that Brylee was a crack shot with a pistol, a rifle, or a Civil War cannon.
Given what had just happened, she was probably leaning toward the cannon right about now.
Hutch sighed. "All right," he said to Slade. "I'll kick back at your place for a whilebut I've got to stop off at home first, so I can change out of this monkey suit."
"Fine," Slade agreed. "I'll round up the women and meet you at the Windfall in an hour or two."
By "the women," Slade meant his lovely wife, Joslyn, his teenage stepdaughter, Shea, and Opal Dennison, the force-of-nature who kept house for the Barlow outfit. Slade's mother, Callie, had had the good grace to skip the ceremonyold scandals die hard in a town the size of Parable and recollections of her long-ago affair with Carmody Senior, from which Slade had famously resulted, were as sharp as ever.
Today's escapade would put all that in the shade, of course. Tongues were wagging and jaws were flapping for sureby now, various up-to-the-minute accounts were probably popping up on all the major social media sites. Before Slade and Boone had dragged Hutch out of the sanctuary, he'd seen several people whip out their cell phones and start texting. A few pictures had been taken, too, with those same ubiquitous devices.
The thought of all that amateur reporting made Hutch close his eyes for a moment. "Shit," he murmured.
"Knee-deep and rising," Slade confirmed, sounding resigned.
Kendra sat at the antique table in her best friend Joslyn's kitchen, with Callie Barlow in the chair directly across from hers. The ranch house was unusually quiet, with its usual occupants gone to town.
A glance over one shoulder assured Kendra that her recently adopted four-year-old daughter, Madison, was still napping on a padded window seat, her stuffed purple kangaroo, Rupert, clenched in her arms. The little girl's gleaming hair, the color of a newly minted penny, lay in tousled curls around her cherubic face and Ken-dra felt the usual pang of hopeless devotion just looking at her.
This long-sought, hard-won, much-wanted child. This miracle.
Not that every woman would have seen the situation from the same perspective as Kendra didMadison was, after all, living proof that Jeffrey had been unfaithful, a constant reminder that it was dangerous to love, treacherous to trust, foolish to believe in another person too much. But none of that had mattered to Kendra in the endshe'd essentially been abandoned herself as a small child, left to grow up with a disinterested grandmother, and that gave her a special affinity for Madison. Besides, Jeffrey, having returned to his native England after summarily ending their marriage, had been dying.
Some men might have turned to family for help in such a situationJeffrey Chamberlain came from a very wealthy and influential onebut in this case, that wasn't possible. Jeffrey's aging parents were landed gentry with a string of titles, several sprawling estates and a fortune that dated back to the heyday of the East India Company, and were no more inclined toward child-rearing than they had been when their own two sons were small. They'd left Jeffrey and his brother in the care of nannies and housekeepers from infancy, and shipped them off to boarding school as soon as they turned six.
Understandably, Jeffrey hadn't wanted that kind of cold and isolated childhood for his daughter.
So he'd sent word to Kendra that he had to see her, in person. He had something important to tell her.
She'd made that first of several trips to the U.K., keeping protracted vigils at her ex-husband's hospital bedside while he drifted in and out of consciousness.
Eventually, he'd managed to get his message across: he told her about Madison, living somewhere in the U.S., and begged Kendra to find his daughter, adopt her and bring her up in love and safety. She was, he told her, the only person on earth he could or would trust with the child.
Kendra wanted nothing so much as a child and, during their brief marriage, Jeffrey had denied her repeated requests to start a family. It was a bitter pill to swallow, learning that he'd refused her a baby and then fathered one with someone else, someone he'd met on a business trip.
She'd done what Jeffrey asked, not so much for his sakethough she'd loved him once, or believed she didas for Madison's. And her own.
The search hadn't been an easy one, even with the funds Jeffrey had set aside for the purpose, involving a great deal of web-surfing, phone calls and emails, travel and so many highs and lows that she nearly gave up several times.
Then it happened. She found Madison.
Kendra hadn't known what she'd feel upon actually meeting her former husband's child, but any doubts she might have had had been dispelled the momentthe momentshe'd met this cautious, winsome little girl.
The first encounter had taken place in a social worker's dingy office, in a dusty desert town in California, and for Kendra, it was love at first sight.
The forever kind of love.
Months of legal hassles had followed, but now, at long last, Kendra and Madison were officially mother and daughter, in the eyes of God and government, and Kendra knew she couldn't have loved her baby girl any more if she'd carried her in her own body for nine months.
Callie brought Kendra back to the present moment by reaching for the teapot in the center of the table and refilling Kendra's cup, then her own.
"Do you think it's over yet?" Kendra asked, instantly regretting the question but unable to hold back still another. "The wedding, I mean?"
Callie's smile was gentle as she glanced at the clock on the stove top and met Kendra's gaze again. "Probably," she said quietly. Then, without another word, she reached out to give Kendra's hand a light squeeze.
Madison, meanwhile, stirred on the window seat.
Kendra turned again. "I'm here, honey," she said.
Although Madison was adjusting rapidly, in the resilient way of young children, she still had bad dreams sometimes and she tended to panic if she lost sight of Kendra for more than a moment.
"Are you hungry, sweetie?" Callie asked the little girl. Slade's mom would make a wonderful grandmother; she had a way with children, easy and forthright.
Madison shook her head as she moved toward Ken-dra and then scrambled up onto her lap.
"It's been a while since lunch," Kendra suggested, kissing the top of Madison's head and holding her close.
"Maybe you'd like a glass of milk and one of Opal's oatmeal raisin cookies?"
Again, Madison shook her head, snuggling closer still. "No, thank you," she said clearly, sounding, as she often did, more like a small adult than a four-year-old.
They'd arrived by car the night before and spent the night in the Barlows' guest room, at Joslyn's insistence.
The old house, the very heart of Windfall Ranch, was undergoing considerable renovation, which only added to the exuberant chaos of the placeand Madison was wary of everyone but Opal, the family housekeeper.
Just then, Slade and Joslyn's dog, Jasper, heretofore snoozing on his bed in front of the newly installed kitchen fireplace, sat bolt upright and gave a questioning little whine. His floppy ears were pitched slightly forward, though he seemed to be listening with his entire body. Joslyn's cat, Lucy-Maude, remained singularly unconcerned.
Madison looked at the animal with shy interest, still unsure whether to make friends with him or keep her distance.