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Can't Keep a Bad Bride Down
By MIRANDA PARKER
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2013 Miranda Parker
All rights reserved.
Saturday, 9:00 PM Tybee Island Wedding Chapel, Tybee Island, Georgia
While at Lana Turner's wedding reception, after the most handsome man in my universe placed the prettiest ring ever seen on my finger, I decided to do something very uncharacteristic of me. I squealed in the octave of a high school cheerleader and said, "Yes."
Justus Morgan lifted me off the floor with his strong arms and then kissed me so sweetly, I almost forgot that the U.S. marshal I had recently kissed was also in the chapel and could very well ruin all this yummy goodness. Although the manhunt was over and I had killed our man, not everything had been resolved. There was still a leak in the marshal's office. But now was not the time to be in bail recovery agent Evangeline Crawford mode.
Now we were on Tybee Island for Lana's wedding at a chapel appropriately called "Tybee Island Wedding Chapel." The chapel looked like something you'd see in a Nicholas Sparks movie. It was nestled between magnolias, oak trees, and other Georgian greenery only seen in this part of the state. The chapel was white, and tonight every post and window was decorated with a deep purple satin ribbon, white lace, and a single magnolia stem. Inside the chapel a lavender color-wash illuminated every dahlia, hydrangea, and mini calla lily and rose centerpiece with just enough sparkle to melt a cold heart. It was elegant, romantic, simple, and breathtaking. I almost felt blessed to be there.
To perform my bridesmaid's duties, I looked like my Southern belle identical twin, the evangelist Ava: caramel skin accented with a rose blush, feline-shaped eyes done up nice, but instead of a sophisticated coif, I sported a pixie haircut. I was a bridesmaid by default (long story) and my younger sister/housemate Whitney was Lana's maid of honor. Mom had been here earlier with my seven-year-old daughter, Bella, but without my not-so-new, yet-absent-lots-lately stepfather. By the end of the ceremony, Bella had been tired, so my mother had taken her back to the cottage. Ava, was back home in Atlanta, more than likely secretly dating my only client, Big Tiger Jones of BT Trusted Bail Bonds. A lot of foolery was going on between them, but none of their issues were as messy as the one lurking in my periphery.
Marshal Maxim West stood inside the chancel of the chapel between the black baby grand piano and the all-male jazz singer quartet. He didn't stand out to the wedding party, because he wore a black tuxedo and matching bowtie, which was similar to the quartet's uniform. But to me he looked out of place and more handsome than the last time I'd seen him. Although I didn't know him well, save for a stolen kiss, I knew enough to know that dressing like a penguin was not the marshal/my teacher's thing. He was the black-Stetson-hat-blue-jean-cowboy-boots-wearing type. Tonight he looked like a jilted boyfriend, lurking in the shadows.
Justus, my new fiancé, placed me back onto the floor, but I didn't want to come down. It was safer in his arms, because we were immediately mobbed by well-wishers once he let me go.
"You've made me the happiest man in this room tonight—except the groom," he said.
I heard a round of applause from everyone watching except Maxim. He hadn't moved. He didn't clap. I gulped.
Justus lifted my chin up with his hands and surveyed my eyes. "Is everything okay?"
My new fiancé shouldn't have done that. I wasn't any good when he looked me in the eye and in that way. Justus was so handsome, the kind of handsome that girls like me only saw in movies or in men's health magazines. He had this golden brown–colored skin that glowed when he was happy and blazed when he was angry. His bright smile teased my lips. His lips were perfect for smooches and long kisses, and his sultry deep voice calmed me when I had the urge to do something stupid. He had long lashes that made it incredibly hard for me to think about God when he closed his eyes to pray.
Justus prayed often. He was my pastor, and until today that fact didn't bother me at all. The only thing that bothered me was now walking toward us. I had to set things straight with Maxim and assure him that what happened after I shot Biloxi "The Knocker" James was a mistake.
A big, stupid, good-woman-trying-to-let-go-of-her-bad-girl-tendencies kind of mistake.
I turned my attention back to Justus and shook my head.
"I'm in shock. That's all."
"I am, too. I didn't think you would say 'yes.'" He smiled.
"I'll say yes every day if you like...." I held his face with both of my hands and leaned forward to try to kiss him.
Then I heard a shriek. I turned toward the sound's direction. It was Whitney running toward us, screaming my name. Her maid of honor dress's train was hoisted over her head, as if it were the Olympic torch. Everyone—even Mom—parted to let her through. I stepped back into Justus. She almost took my breath away when she buried her big head into my chest. I almost toppled over, but Justus kept me steady.
"You two owe your first-born's first name to me," she said, while squeezing me tighter.
I peeled her off of me and pushed her toward Maxim. "And what if he's a boy?"
"Hmm." She scrunched her nose, tightened her lips, and squinted. "'Whitman' will do."
"Not in this lifetime," I said as I scanned the room. Maxim had disappeared.
"What about 'Whitmore Morgan'? It's my uncle's name. Would you be fine with that, Evangeline?" He nudged me.
I looked at him and blushed. I liked the way he said my name. The thought of having a child with him—coupled with his eyes wandering over my dress—made me feel warm all over. I ran my hand down my nape, to calm my hormones. I didn't think this would be a long engagement.
"Can we talk about babies after we've been married for a while? Thank you," I said and then sat down in the nearest dinner-table chair I saw. The conversation was making my ovaries ache.
"Whatever," Whitney scoffed. "But don't forget. If it wasn't for me, you two wouldn't be a couple."
I nodded. "You wouldn't let me forget it if I tried."
"True. True." She giggled. "Well, at least make me maid of honor."
"Honey, you're maid of honor by default, because Ava is a widow." I chuckled. "She's matron of honor."
"You know what I mean, so stop playing...." Whitney pursed her lips and threw her hands on her hips, then paused. Our little sister was a spitfire unlike Ava and me. "I've had your back since Charlie went overseas, and when Ava wouldn't answer your calls. Just because y'all are back to yin and yang, don't mean throw me to the curb. I earned maid of honor."
Charlie was my best friend. The last time we'd talked, she was planning on coming home soon.
I looked at Justus. "Are you sure you want to be a part of this family?"
He nodded and grinned. "The sooner the better."
"So am I your girl?" Whitney asked.
I winced at her for interrupting us. "Depends on whether or not you complete your maid-of-honor duties for Lana."
She fanned me off with her hand. "The reception is almost over."
"And so that means you need to be helping your bride gather her things for the honeymoon, especially the honeymoon gift from the bridesmaids."
"You got that right. That poor child will leave all our hard work behind and have a sucky honeymoon. She has to blow her new hubby's mind...." Whitney scurried off, although I could still hear her telling us Lana's business.
Justus and I both watched her leave and then laughed. She was a hot, funny mess.
He stepped closer toward me and extended his hand. "Since this is more than likely the last dance of the night, will you do me the honor?"
I laid my hand inside his and allowed him to scoop me up. "With pleasure."
Justus placed his hand in the small of my back and then leaned me down into a slow dip. I giggled, but he didn't laugh. He was observing my lips, then my eyes, waiting for me to say yes to his kiss. I relaxed in his arms, moaned in anticipation of his kiss, and closed my eyes.
He cleared his throat. "I hate to cut in, but ..."
My nose crinkled. That didn't sound like Justus, but it did sound familiar. I opened one eye. It was Maxim. He had returned from wherever he had run off to. I hissed at him.
Saturday, 9:30 PM Tybee Island Wedding Chapel, Tybee Island, Georgia
"Marshal West, what a surprise," Justus said as he pulled me back up onto my feet.
I was pissed.
Justus let go of me to shake Maxim's hand, while I straightened my dress and asked God to not let him ruin this good thing between me and Justus. Then I repented and prayed the truth. God, forgive me for putting myself in another jacked-up situation.
"It's good to see you, Marshal. You look well," Justus said.
"And you look like a man on top of the world. Congratulations to you and your beautiful bride to be." Maxim took Justus's hand into one of those manly man's handshakes. I pursed my lips at bride to be. "Now that's the kind of dress you should wear at a party."
Oh no he didn't. Thank goodness my mom had retired for the night—she'd be appalled by this exchange. I tried not to roll my eyes at Maxim, as he referred to that time he'd made me play the decoy for an illegal moonshine distributor. I had worn a metallic blue dress that was short enough to get us in and out of there in record time. I'd thought it was hot; he'd thought it would get me killed. I'm a bail recovery agent. The risk is part of the trade.
"We got our man with that dress, didn't I?" I asked. Sarcasm dripped all over my usually honeyed voice.
He scoffed and turned away.
Last month, Maxim had asked me to be a part of the U.S. Marshals Southeast Regional Fugitive Task Force (SERFTF). My job was to serve as a private investigator, to help them find a wanted hired hit man contracted by heavyweights in the underground moonshine distilling community. During that manhunt, Maxim had gotten shot and I'd kissed him.
I'd thought he was dying. It was a "farewell to heaven" smooch. Nothing personal, but it seemed like he was going to turn that kiss into my private hell. I could kick myself for being so stupid.
A few months ago, the antics of Riddick Avery, owner of A1 Recovery Agents and my peer, competition, and frenemy, sent me on a wild-goose chase that made me question my career choice, my faith, and the love I deserved with Justus. But if I had to come clean to Justus about the kiss, I would face the consequences. I really didn't have a problem putting my big-girl panties on.
"Maxim, I was told just the other day that you were still in the hospital," I said in a tone that appeared nonchalant, yet concerned.
"I got out early," he replied just as nonchalantly. I wanted to cut him.
"More like record time ..." Justus said. "I'm sure Elaine is ecstatic to see you."
The Honorable Elaine Turner was the bride's mother, a Georgia state senator, and my mentor. I had captured and killed the man who murdered most of her staff, including her aide, Sean Graham. Maxim got shot saving my life.
"Yes, she was glad to see me." He looked at me and grinned.
I saw his eyes asking me, "Are you glad to see me, too?" I looked away.
"I don't want to take up much of your time, but can I speak with the bride to be?"
"Of course you can. While you catch up, I need to chat with the groom before the couple leaves," Justus said.
Justus wrapped his arm around my waist and kissed me on my cheek. It was not the kiss I had hoped for, but it was hot enough to hold me for now. He walked away and left me alone with Maxim.
I reached for my champagne flute and swallowed the last sip, then turned to Maxim. "Before you say anything, I need to get something straight with you."
Maxim furrowed his brow. "Did I do something wrong?"
"No, I did. Isn't it obvious?" I panted. I was beginning to feel anxious. I acted desperate when I felt anxious. I searched the room for Justus.
"No, not that I know of." He rubbed his chin. "The last time I saw you, I was crumpled on the ground and I saw you shoot The Knocker, a man I had been chasing the past two years. If there was anything wrong, it had to start with me. I owe you a debt of gratitude and an apology. I should have said something sooner, but I was embarrassed. A lady bounty hunter took my thunder."
I gasped, stepped back, and studied his eyes. Maxim didn't have a clue what I was talking about. He didn't remember our kiss. I didn't know whether to shout "Hallelujah" or lick my bruised ego for thinking that my itty-bitty smooch had it going on. But there was little time for any of that and Maxim looked as if he had stood all he could take. Although he wouldn't admit it, he should have stayed in the hospital. He looked exhausted.
"You don't owe me anything, Maxim. If it weren't for me, you wouldn't have gotten shot and Marshal Sanchez wouldn't be dead." I referred to Maxim's right-hand woman, who died during a moonshine explosion. "Apparently, Bill lured me to the swamps to frame me. There's nothing special about that. If anything, I owe you for showing up when you did."
He chuckled. "Let's just call it even."
"I'll accept that." I smiled.
"Now I know that I'm asking under short notice and under awkward circumstances, but I need to ask a favor of you."
I was so relieved that he had forgotten the kiss that I would have signed up for almost anything he asked. "What do you need?"
"I need you to convince Reverend Romance to put off the wedding for a while."
I stared at Maxim so hard my eyes began to ache, but I was fully aware of what was happening around us. The servers were clearing the dinner tables, while the musicians and wedding singers talked of heading to Savannah for a midnight skinny dip. One of the bridesmaids whined and sniffled when she learned her groomsman escort didn't want her phone number. Justus was still away. Thank goodness.
"Are you going to say anything or just look at me?" Maxim asked.
I threw up my hand, to alert him to stop talking. "Before you say another word, let me suggest you choose your words wisely, because I almost forget that you can arrest me for slapping the taste out of your mouth."
He stepped back. "Hold on. Don't jump to conclusions. I didn't say don't marry the man. I'm just saying don't set an early wedding date."
"Who do you think you are to ask that of me?" I hissed.
"I'm nobody and I'm desperate. What am I saying?" He closed his eyes and paused.
He wasn't acting like the suave and cool Marshal Maxim West that I knew. Something was very wrong.
I touched his shoulder. "Maxim, come over here. Let's sit down and talk."
"I'm sorry, Angel. I'm messing up my words. I don't want you to call off your engagement. No, nothing like that. I need you to do a favor for me and I need it now, so if you were planning to elope within the next month or sooner, then I couldn't use you. And I need you.... I need you badly."
His voice held so much desperation I shivered.
"There's something you're not telling me about this favor.
Before I would even consider what you ask, I need you to tell me everything."
I felt Justus enter the room, so I turned to confirm for myself. He was walking toward us. Maxim and I were out of time.
"Meet me at DeKalb Police Headquarters in Tucker on Tuesday. I'll tell you what you need to know."
"I can't remember if I have plans for Tuesday."
Maxim glanced at Justus approaching. "Find out and text me. Don't call the office. You know why."
I nodded. "I remember."
During our manhunt, Maxim had revealed to me that he believed there was a mole in his office. After the time I spent with the team, I couldn't believe that any one of them would jeopardize each other. The only person I'd been suspicious of was Deputy Marshal Sanchez, but that was because she disappeared on us when we needed her. It turned out that she was following my hunch. Although I was right, my hunch had gotten her killed and Maxim shot, and revealed another person was involved. I couldn't see or hear the person, but I knew someone else had been out there with us in those swamps. So I understood where his distrust came from, because I had felt the mole breathe down the back of my neck.
Now I could feel Justus behind me. He placed his hand on my shoulder. I looked over it and up at him and smiled.
"The chapel director is almost ready to close this place down. Do you two need more time?"
"No." Maxim grinned. "I don't want to hold up you guys any longer. Again, congratulations."
As Maxim walked off, Justus turned around toward me. "Whatever he just asked you to do, you're going to have to do it with me."
Excerpted from Can't Keep a Bad Bride Down by MIRANDA PARKER. Copyright © 2013 by Miranda Parker. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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