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Her father reached over and patted her hand. "Relax," he whispered.
Relax? How on earth could she relax? She glanced at the long white runner that stretched ahead of her, at the pretty white satin bows at the end of the pews, the tall white wicker holders filled with fresh pink and white rosebuds and baby's breath. Her maid of honor and five bridesmaids, all dressed in shades of mauve and carrying bouquets of pink carnations, stood there looking far happier than she felt, no doubt remembering their own weddings or dreaming of ones to come. Cindy's two brothers, Lance and Joe, stood beside Paul, together with Paul's two brothers and his cousin.
Why had she let her father talk her into this marriage?
From the corner of her eye, she saw her mother sitting in the front row, looking proud and sad at the same time.
Her father winced as she dug her fingernails into his arm.
Another few steps and they were at the altar. The scent of roses filled the air.
Her dad leaned over and kissed her cheek and then placed her hand, her cold trembling hand, into Paul's. Feeling abandoned, Cindy sent a mute appeal to her father, who smiled reassuringly and took a step backward. With a sigh of resignation, she turned to face the minister.
"Marriage is an honorable estate," the pastor began, "and not to be entered into lightly.... "
She slid a furtive glance toward Paul. He was tall and blond and handsome, with light brown eyes and a fine straight nose. He was ambitious, even-tempered and even richer than her father. But did she want to spend the rest of her life with him? Cindy tried to tell herself that her doubts were caused by nothing more than last minute jitters - very last minute jitters, to be sure. But she knew her uncertainty went far deeper than just a case of nerves. Paul wanted to be in the limelight. He had high ambitions and saw himself running for public office in a year or two, but it wasn't the kind of life she wanted. All she wanted to do was get married and raise three or four happy, healthy children with a man who would put his wife and children first.
Paul had made her forget that for a while. He had swept her off her feet, wined her and dined her in all the best restaurants in town, showered her with flowers and candy. Caught up in the whirlwind that was Paul VanDerHyde, she had let him convince her that she loved him.
Why hadn't she listened to her mother?
"He'll never make you happy, honey," Claire Wagner had told her not twenty minutes ago. "It's not too late to change your mind."
"Mom, are you crazy?" Cindy had met her gaze in the mirror as her mother pinned her veil in place.
Not too late? There was a mountain of wedding gifts back at the house, a stretch limo waiting to take them to the airport. The bridal suite at The Plaza in New York City was reserved for them. She sighed. She hadn't wanted to go to New York on her honeymoon, but Paul had swept away her objections, saying they would have a wonderful time, assuring her that his business there would only take one day, two at the most. They could go to Hawaii some other time.
The minister's voice brought her back to the here and now. "And do you, Cynthia Elizabeth Wagner, take Paul Raymond VanDerHyde ..."
Her mouth was dry, her palms damp. She heard her mother's voice in the back of her mind: Do you love him so much you can't imagine life without him? And Cindy knew the answer was no.
She looked at Paul and, for one wild moment, it was another face she saw. A strong masculine face framed by long black hair. And that, she thought, was the real reason she couldn't go through with this wedding. Not now. Not ever. There was only one man she couldn't imagine living without, and it wasn't Paul VanDerHyde.
Overcome by a sudden sense of panic, she tugged on Paul's hand to get his attention. "I can't do this," she whispered. "I'm sorry."
She almost tripped on the hem of her dress as she freed her hand from his, then turned and ran down the aisle as fast as her high heels would permit, her veil billowing behind her. How could she have let Paul's money, his romantic endearments, the large engagement ring, outweigh her doubts and cloud her judgment? How had she ever thought to find happiness with Paul when she was marrying him more to please her father than herself?
She ran faster, her eyes blurred by her tears, a sob building in her throat as she rounded the corner, pushed through the big double doors and hurried down the stairs toward the waiting limo.
The driver opened the rear door for her. Holding her veil with one hand, she ducked into the back seat.
"Go!" she said. "Now. Go. Hurry!"
The driver nodded, as if runaway brides were an everyday occurrence in his line of work. Sliding behind the wheel, he turned the key in the ignition just as Paul and members of the wedding party burst through the doorway.
"Where to?" the driver asked.
"I don't know." She sank back against the butter-soft leather seat. "Just drive."
"Yes, ma'am," he said, and pulled onto the street.
She stared out the window, watching the scenery pass by in a blur of tears. Where did runaway brides go? Where could she hide where no one would find her? A place where she wouldn't have to explain what she had done or why. Some place where no one would know who she was.
They had been driving for several hours when she saw the billboard on the side of the road. Leaning forward, she read:
Elk Valley Dude Ranch 15 miles ahead.
Hunting. Fishing. Horseback riding.
Cabins with or without cooking facilities.
Available by the Day, Week, or Month.
Elk Valley Dude Ranch. Just reading the words sent unwanted frissons of excitement running through her.
Cindy closed her eyes, wondering if going there would be wise. She knew no one would look for her at a dude ranch, but there was always a chance he might show up there. For the last five years, every time she had seen a tall, broad-shouldered man with long black hair, her heart had skipped a beat in anticipation.
She hoped he would be there. Seeing him again might be a good thing, she decided, wiping the last of her tears from her eyes. Maybe confronting him again would banish him from her heart once and for all.
Excerpted from Dude Ranch Bride by Madeline Baker Copyright © 2003 by Madeline Baker
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.