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By Debra Webb
Harlequin Enterprises LimitedCopyright © 2002 Harlequin Enterprises Limited
All right reserved.
Chapter OneJennifer Ballard stared at her reflection in the cheval mirror once more, anticipation swirling inside her. A veil of French netting draped her shoulders and the exquisite headpiece adorned her upswept blond hair. The fitted bodice of her gown was heavily embellished with pearl and sequin detailing and the flowing satin skirt and chapel-length train were the stuff of which Cinderella-dreams were made.
She drew in a deep, calming breath. This was her wedding day - the day she'd waited for her entire life.
She'd always dreamed of a wedding exactly like this. A fairy-tale chapel set upon a wooded hillside ... a handsome groom who would love and protect her from this day forward. Though much older than she, David Crane was both kind and compassionate. She respected him personally as well as professionally. He didn't quite make her heart go pitter-patter, but there was much more to life than that. He understood her, respected her work, and more important, her father trusted him implicitly.
Her father. A fresh wave of tears brimmed. If only he was well enough to be here, but he wasn't. He'd insisted she not delay her wedding for him. Instead, he'd asked his old friend, Russell Gardner, to be his stand-in and give her away. Jenn smiled a little at that. Sheloved Russell, too. She'd called him Uncle Russ for as long as she could remember. If her father couldn't give her away, there was no one else she would prefer to do the honor.
The sound of the dressing-room door opening startled Jenn from her musings. She turned to see who'd violated the strict rule that no one was to see the bride until the wedding march sounded.
She smiled in spite of herself. "Uncle Russ, what -?"
He lunged, half stumbling, across the tiny room and grabbed her by the shoulders. "You must run, Jenn. Run as far and as fast as you can."
Worry stole into her heart. "I don't understand. Has something happened to my father?"
Russ shook her hard. "Listen to me," he said hoarsely. "Run!"
Only then did Jenn notice the pallor of his complexion, and the tiny beads of sweat forming on his brow. "What's wrong? Tell me what's happened?"
"It's Crane," he said tightly, as if it pained him to speak. "You mustn't believe anything he says. He's lied ..." A strangled groan rendered the rest of his words unintelligible.
"What are you saying?" She couldn't have heard him right. She knew David. He would never lie, certainly not to her. Russ tried to continue, but swayed as if too weak to stand. She steadied him. "Please tell me what's wrong!"
"The Kessler Project. There's something very ... wrong," he murmured. "He's lied about all of it. Your life is in grave danger ... there are things you don't know ..."
His knees buckled and he collapsed in Jenn's arms. "Oh, God!" She staggered beneath his weight as she lowered him to the floor. He was unconscious. She started to shake him, but the bright crimson stain painted down the front of her dress captured her attention.
Blood. Now, with the lapels of his tuxedo jacket flared open, she could see that Russ was bleeding. She stared down at his still form, shock settling over her. A small round hole in his chest was steadily leaking the dark lifegiving fluid.
He'd been shot. Commanding herself to act, she checked his pulse. Her own heart pounded. Her fingers shook with fear. No pulse.
Dear God, she had to get help.
"He's in here."
Jenn's head snapped up at the sound of David's voice. She hadn't even realized he'd come in. Three of his friends followed. Had something happened outside? Something she hadn't heard? Thank God he was here.
David would help. "Russ needs an ambulance!" she shouted, hot tears streaming down her cheeks. Please, she prayed, make them hurry.
"Get him out of here," David directed. Two of David's friends picked up a deathly still Russ and started for the door.
"What are they doing?" Jenn asked, a new kind of terror welling in her chest. "Where are they taking him? Someone needs to be doing CPR. He isn't ..."
David just looked at her, his eyes completely empty of emotion.
She pushed to her feet. Her knees wobbled. The whole scene felt surreal ... like a nightmare. This couldn't be happening. "Didn't you hear me?" she demanded of her fiancé. "He needs help. He's dying!"
David adjusted the jacket of his elegant tux, then turned to the man at his side. "Kill her."
Excerpted from Contract Bride by Debra Webb Copyright © 2002 by Harlequin Enterprises Limited
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.