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"Do you, Paige Michelle Bancroft, take Brent to be your lawfully wedded husband, for better or for worse, in sickness and"
A strange buzzing filled Paige's ears, drowning out the minister's voice and ramping up the panic constricting her chest. The hand holding her bouquet shook, making the imported orchids tremble. Her mother's antique pearl choker strangled her.
No, no, no, she wanted to scream. I don't love Brent. I don't want to spend my life with him.
"as long as you both shall live? " The minister raised an expectant gaze to her, cuing her to respond.
"I do," she rasped. Her answer seemed to come from the bottom of a deep well, a hollow, disembodied voice with its own will.
Brent squeezed her free hand and gave her a smile, which she dutifully mirrored, despite the legion of butterflies battering her stomach and the doubts shouting in her head.
She cast a quick glance to the front row where her mother joyfully dabbed her eyes and her father beamed at her triumphantly. Her parents' happiness bolstered her courage.
"I'm so proud of you," Neil Bancroft had whispered to Paige as he escorted her down the aisle moments ago. "Brent is your perfect match."
She'd swallowed the bitter uncertainties that rose in her throat, wanting to reply, "No, he's your perfect match. Don't make me do this!" Instead, she'd forced a grin and nodded.
Marrying Brent was her destiny, her obligation. Marrying the man who would soon be the CEO of Bancroft Industries meant control of the family business would stay within the family. More important, she was making her father happy. Her father doted on Brent as if he were the son he never had.
Paige had long ago come to terms with the fact that her marriage was more a business merger than a love match. As the oldest daughter in the family, she knew her father expected her to put family obligations first. When Brent had proposed to her, with her father sitting across the table from them, she'd seen how the prospect of her marriage to his protégé had thrilled her father. Her engagement had earned her unprecedented praise and acceptance from her hard-to-please father.
A tug on her hand called her attention back to her groom, who was slipping an extravagant ring on her finger. "With this ring, I thee wed."
Her heart tap-danced as she turned to hand her bouquet to her sister Holly and receive from her Brent's ring.
Holly gave her a curious look, whispering discreetly, "You okay?"
Another fake smile and a tiny nod. "Of course."
Paige shoved down the twinge of envy for her sister's loving and happy marriage to a handsome doctor. Holly and Matt's Christmas wedding last winter had been a small affair but bursting with heartfelt affection and joy.
Paige drew a deep, steadying breath as she faced her groom with his wedding band in hand and prepared to recite her vows. She could make this marriage work if she kept the right attitude and put aside her childish dreams of a fairy-tale prince to sweep her off her feet. The kind of romantic dreams her youngest sister, Zoey, was chasing.
"I can't pretend I'm happy to see you marrying someone you don't love," Zoey had declared in the same phone call in which she explained her reasons for skipping Paige's wedding. Not having Zoey at her wedding broke Paige's heart, but her temperamental youngest sister had always been stubborn, opinionated and unpredictable. And so Zoey was God-knows-where with her latest loser boyfriend, protesting Paige's practical decision by boycotting the wedding ceremony.
Brent might not be her dream love match, but he had his good qualities. He was thoughtful, intelligent, generous, polite and ambitious. He tried hard to make her happyand he tried even harder to make her father happy. He was comfortable, like her favorite old pair of slippers.
With a mental kick in the pants, Paige shook off the doubt demons plaguing her and firmed her resolve. Zoey was wrong. Marrying Brent Scofield was the right thing to do. She'd be fine, and she'd learn to love him. She'd make her marriage work.
With shaking hands, she lifted the gold band to Brent's finger. "With this ring, I"
The door at the back of the sanctuary crashed open, and Paige jerked her head toward the source of the distracting noise.
A man in a long trench coat strode down the center aisle toward the altar. "Sorry I'm late. But I didn't want to show up too soon and give the groom a chance to escape."
Brent snatched his hand from Paige's and stiffened as he faced the intruder. "Who are you, and what do you want?"
"Who I am doesn't matter. And you know what we want, Scofield."
Jake McCall surreptitiously reached for the sidearm hidden at his hip under his tuxedo coat and stepped smoothly
between the intruder and the groom. He'd been so caught up in deciphering the odd reluctance and anxiety in the bride's expression that he'd allowed his vigilance over the groom's safety to lapse for valuable seconds. He shoved down the self-recriminations that would only serve as further distractions and shifted into battle mode.
Even as Jake drew his SIG Sauer P226 and moved into a more offensive position, Brent shifted out from behind him, addressing the man in the trench coat. "And if I refuse?"
As if on cue, several more men, all armed with rifles, appeared in the balcony and stepped through the side and back doors of the sanctuary.
A murmur of distress whispered through the congregation, and the bridesmaids huddled together behind the altar rail.
Jake's grip on his pistol tightened. Quickly, he began recalculating his best strategy to protect his client and avoid getting anyone else shot in the process. He sent a quick glance around the sanctuary, monitoring the other gunmen, then returned his attention to the ringleader. The man's trench coat, out of place on a rain-free summer day, bothered Jake. Not knowing what might be under that long coat bothered him more.
Trench Coat sent Brent a gloating smirk and jerked a nod toward Jake. "I see you were expecting us." Turning, he narrowed a menacing glare on Jake. "Drop it. Or my men will drop you and anyone else in the line of fire."
Jake hesitated only a moment before setting his pistol on the floor and kicking it toward Trench Coat. Ordinarily, he'd keep his weapon at all costs, but being outnumbered and outgunned with so many civilians at risk changed everything.
"Now " Trench Coat faced the groom once more. "If you give us what we want, nobody has to get hurt."
"Brent? What is he talking about?" the bride asked, her expression stunned, terrified.
Matt Randall, who'd been introduced to Jake as the bride's brother-in-law, rose from the front pew and eased up behind Trench Coat.
Jake tensed. Clearly, Matt had some form of well-intended, but ill-advised heroics in mind. He tried to make eye contact with Matt to warn him off, but Matt's focus was on the man threatening the wedding party.
Just before Matt reached his target, Trench Coat jerked his head around and whipped open his coat to reveal the explosives he wore on his chest. He pulled his hand from his large coat pocket, his thumb hovering over the switch of a detonator. "I wouldn't try anything if I were you, pal."
The bridesmaids issued a collective gasp.
Brent raised both hands in a conciliatory gesture. "Take it easy. Your business is with me. Leave everyone else out of it. Let everyone else go, and II'll cooperate."
Trench Coat cocked his head and twisted his mouth in an eerie smirk. "Good to know. Hand over the bead, and we'll be on our way."
Brent cut a desperate glance to Jake. "I, uh, don't have it."
Trench Coat's face hardened. "You're lying. You knew we were after it, and you wouldn't leave it unprotected. It's here somewhere, and I'm getting tired of asking nicely." He glanced to one of his cohorts. "Scofield needs a little encouragement to cooperate."
The gunman gave a tight nod. Raised his rifle.
And shot the man at the end of the pew closest to him.
Screams rose from the congregation. Terrified people scrambled from their seats to run for the door. More shots were fired toward the escaping crowd as the gunmen moved in to block the door.
"Sit down!" Trench Coat roared.
A terrified hush fell over the church, and Trench Coat turned so everyone could see the bomb strapped to him. "I have enough C4 taped to me to blow this church to hell and back."
A prickle of intuition chased up Jake's spine. He'd worked with C4 during his navy SEAL training. The claylike material Trench Coat wore wasn't C4.
And these men weren't religious or political extremists on suicide duty. They were mercenaries after something Scofield had. Blowing themselves up would serve no purpose. The bomb was likely a fake, a scare tactic to win cooperation from the congregation and deter would-be heroes like Matt.
But the rounds in the goons' rifles were real enough, as they'd demonstrated.
With the hand not holding the fake detonator, Trench Coat pulled a .38 revolver from a coat pocket and leveled the gun at Brent. "The bead, Scofield. Now!"
Jake rocked to the balls of his feet, prepared to launch himself in front of a bullet or knock Trench Coat to the floor in an instant. "Brent, give him what he wants," he hissed through clenched teeth.
How could Scofield play his game of chicken with these terrorists when so many lives were at risk?
Brent sent him a stunned glance. "No!"
Trench Coat's aim shifted twenty degrees. Toward the bride. The .38 clicked as he cocked the hammer.
"No!" Brent threw himself on his bride, knocking her down just as Trench Coat fired.
In one rapid move, Jake dived for his pistol, rolled to his back and dropped Trench Coat with one shot to the head.
Bedlam erupted as the congregation ducked for cover or ran for the door. The other terrorists fired at will, trying to regain control of the frightened crowd.
Jake scrambled forward and seized the .38. The fake detonator lay beside the dead terrorist, forgotten.
Over the gunfire and screams, Jake heard the bride shout, "Brent! Someone help me!"
As he rushed toward the bridal couple, lying together on the floor, Jake spotted the blood spreading at Scofield's tuxedo collar.
He reached his client at the same time as Matt. The other man muscled him out of the way. "I'm a doctor! Let me help him!"
Jake yielded to the doctor but assisted in ripping open Brent's ascot and tux collar. He balled his own cravat to stanch the flow of blood from the wound at Brent's jugular vein.
The bride huddled beside Brent, crying and clutching her groom's hand. "Hang on, Brent. Stay with us. Matt will help you."
Brent's fading gaze found his bride's, then shifted to Jake's as he rasped, "McCall "
Guilt kicked Jake hard in the gut. He gritted his teeth in frustration and self-reproach. "I know. You hired me to protect you, and I didn't."
"Listen to me!" Scofield grabbed Jake's wrist with a grip that was surprisingly strong considering how much blood he'd lost.
Jake hesitated when he met the determined fire in his client's eyes.
"New assignment. Paige has what they want. Get her out of here. Hide her." Brent struggled for a breath, the life light in his eyes dimming. "Keep the bead safe at all costs. National security ."
Jake frowned, straining to hear over the continued tumult in the sanctuary. "What bead?"
"Homeland compromised. No police"
"What bead?" Jake demanded. "Where is it?"
"In her " Scofield paused, gasped, gurgled on the blood in his throat. Brent's gaze darted to something behind Jake. "Go!"
Jake whipped a glance over his shoulder in time to see one of the riflemen approach the altar, then pause to take aim on them.
Hooking an arm around the bride's waist, he hauled her to her feet and shoved her behind the pulpit. He took cover with her, shielding her with his body as the bullets whizzed past, missing them by inches. Peering around the side of the pulpit, Jake fired back at the rifleman. Hit him in the chest. The man slumped to the floor.
Burying his mouth in the bride's hair, he shouted directly into her ear. "We're going out that side door to the limo. Move fast and keep your head down."
She shook her head, her eyes wide with terror. "But Brent"
"Just do as I say! We run on three. One, two, three!"
Numb with shock and fear, Paige stumbled as Brent's hulking best man tugged her arm, propelling them toward the sanctuary's side exit. Her foot caught the hem of her Vera Wang gown, and she immediately tumbled to her knees. She bit her tongue as she landed with a jarring thud.
Jake sent her a dark scowl of impatience, as if she'd tripped on purpose, as if running in high heels with yards of satin and lace draped around her legs should have been easy.
Shaking from head to toe, she fumbled to untangle herself, fighting the billows of her skirt out of her way. In a daze of disbelief, she watched Jake knock away the muzzle of the rifle that a thug by the side door had swung toward them. Lobbing a fist to the thug's chin, Jake sent the guy sprawling on the floor, then turned to her. His square jaw was taut, and a lethal intensity blazed in his dark eyes.
Without warning, Jake planted his shoulder in her stomach. Wrapping his arm around her legs, he tossed her over his shoulder in a fireman's hold. The air whooshed from her lungs, and her world turned upside down. Dangling over his shoulder, she scrabbled for something to hold as he charged out the door. Paige fisted his tuxedo coat, but as Jake raced down the steps and across the churchyard, the heavy stomping of his feet bounced her like a rag doll. She groped frantically for a more secure hold, wrapping her arms around the expanse of his wide back.
Jake's shoulder gouged her belly. His fingers dug into her thighs. His feet and the ground filled her line of sight with a dizzying blur of motion. The bright sunshine and thick humidity of the Louisiana summer day beat down on them as he ran toward the front driveway.
A beautiful day for my wedding, she'd thought that morning when she arrived at the church. The perfect day for my perfect wedding.
Now bile and adrenaline soured her stomach and threatened to come up as she clung to Jake for dear life. The surreal screams from her friends and family, under assault in the sanctuary she'd been dragged away from, faded as they made their escape.
But the deafening gunfire followed them. A series of blasts thundered through the air. Paige winced as bits of concrete flew up at her when bullets peppered the ground. Bullets aimed at her and at Jake.