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As the first notes of the wedding march played, Dr. Joshua Towers closed his eyes. His gut twisted, and a wave of dizziness washed over him. God, he'd made a mistake. A terrible mistake.
The music stuttered, the verse died away, and a murmur arose from the guests. Had the old lady playing the organ had a heart attack? He lifted his lids and looked over at the woman, who wore a wide-brimmed hat bedecked with flowers. Although her hands were frozen above the keys of the old organ, she appeared fine. Her gaze met his, then slid away.
Josh turned toward the pews in front of him, noting all the people watching him as he waited at the altar. Like the organist, their gazes dropped from his. What the hell ? Weren't they supposed to be facing the back of the church, where the bride was about to come down the aisle, holding the arm of her older brother, who was giving her away?
But Molly's brother stood alone in the aisle. Unlike everyone else, Clayton McClintock wasn't staring at Josh. The dark-haired man focused instead on one of the bridesmaids, probably the blonde. Josh turned toward the bridesmaids, too, but his attention was drawn to the red-haired maid of honor.
Brenna Kelly returned his look, her wide green eyes warm with concern. For him? Despite weeks of e-mails and phone calls regarding the wedding, she barely knew Josh. But then again, she probably knew him better than his bride did. Brenna had been the one handling the wedding details. He'd thought his bride had been too busy, but maybe she just hadn't cared. Did Brenna Kelly care?
As she drew in a shaky breath, her breasts strained the bodice of her strapless red satin dress. The red should haveclashed with her bright auburn hair, waves of which flowed around her bare shoulders. But instead the crimson satin highlighted her alabaster skin, glowing with myriad colors from the sunlight streaming through the arched stained-glass window behind them.
Guilt tightened the knots in his stomach and he closed his eyes in shame, breaking the connection between himself and Brenna Kelly. There he was, in church, about to marry another woman. It didn't matter that Molly McClintock had apparently changed her mind. Josh had no business ogling his fiancée's best friend, her maid of honor. Maybe he had no honor.
A hand closed around Josh's shoulder, squeezing. "God, man, I'm sorry," the best man murmured in a hoarse whisper.
Josh turned his head toward his friend and narrowed his eyes, trying to gauge Dr. Nick Jameson's sincerity. He'd known Nick since they were in preschool, and together they'd fought playground bullies, chased girls and crammed all night for tests. Because they'd known each other so long, they were more like brothers than friends, so they were always honest with each other. Nick had thought that Josh was even crazier for proposing to a woman he hadn't known that long than he'd been in marrying his first wife, who'd left Josh when their twin boys were just babies. Nick had been right about both women. But he was such a good friend that he genuinely was sorry.
Clayton, the brother of the bride, finally tore his attention from the blond bridesmaid, Abby Hamilton. At the rehearsal dinner the Kellys had hosted, Josh had met everyone in the wedding party except for the one groomsman who'd backed out. Now Clayton addressed the guests. "The wedding is going to be slightly delayed," he announced. "The bride is not quite ready yet, so we appreciate your patience. Thank you."
Finally, his eyes full of regret, Clayton faced Josh. He knew this was not going to be just a slight delay. The bride wasn't ever going to be ready to marry him.
Abby, probably anxious to see if her friend was all right, took off down the aisle at a run. As Clayton caught up with her and slowed her to a trot, the music resumed. Josh's four-year-old twins, Buzz and TJ, in their black tuxedoes, ran after Abby, probably thinking a game of tag had begun. When the rest of the wedding party filed out, leaving Josh standing alone at the altar, he realized he was it. The loser who still couldn't catch a bride after the first one he'd caught ran away. He'd been dumped once after the altar, and now, this time, before.
A woman's hand wound through his arm, tugging him toward the aisle. He hadn't been left alone. The maid of honor led him out of the sanctuary, past all the gawking guests. While the pews on both the bride's and groom's sides were equally full, only a few of the guests were there because of him. So he wasn't too embarrassed at being stood up. In fact, his heart lifted. The pressure on his chest, which had been there ever since he'd proposed to a woman he hadn't known that well, finally eased.
Brenna hurried down the aisle, clutching the jilted groom's arm close to her side as if she could absorb the pain her friend Molly had just inflicted on him. At the same time she curved her lips into a smile, just to reassure the guests. Everything will be all right. She couldn't say those words to Dr. Joshua Towers, though. She couldn't say anything as they walked into the bride's dressing room and joined the rest of the wedding party.
Except for the bride. Molly was gone. Brenna had known that the moment Clayton appeared without her. Unlike Abby, who'd taken off down the aisle hoping to find their friend, Brenna had known right away that Molly wouldn't be nervously pacing the dressing room. When she'd shooed out her bridesmaids minutes before the ceremony was to start, Molly had been absolutely calm. Brenna had been the one riding a roller coaster of nerves and emotionsalmost as if she were the bride. But Brenna was always the bridesmaid, never the bride.
From a hook on the dressing room wall hung Molly's wedding dress, its layers of lace and satin lifting in the warm summer breeze blowing through an open window. Oh, Molly, what have you done?
Molly had always been the smartest member of the group of friends, to which she, Brenna and Abby Hamilton had belonged since kindergarten. In second grade, when he'd moved to Cloverville, Michigan, Eric South had joined them. Molly had always been the most sensible of the friends: she wasn't the type to go out a window on her wedding day. She wasn't the type to accept the proposal of a man she'd only been seriously dating for a few months, either. And yet she had.
Molly's younger sister, Colleen, the tagalong of the bunch, had always been the impulsive McClintockback when they were kids. After Mr. McClintock had died eight years ago, Colleen had restrained her impulsive nature. Hanging on to the arm of the handsome best man, however, she appeared a bit wild-eyedas if she were wrestling some strong impulses now. And Dr. Jameson, his jaw clenched and his green eyes hard with anger, was obviously wrestling with his temper.
He wasn't the only angry one. Clayton McClintock argued with Abby. Despite the fact that she'd been gone for eight years, the minute the single mother had set foot back in Cloverville, she and Clayton had picked up where they'd left off, with their animosity barely masking the attraction for each other that they kept fighting. Brenna shook her head, wondering if they'd ever call a truce.
Abby uncrumpled a sheet of paper, apparently a note Molly had left, declaring, "It's a good thing that she ran off before making the biggest mistake of her life."
Next to her, Josh gasped. Still Brenna could say nothing; she couldn't argue with Abby's statement, not when she wholeheartedly agreed. If Molly had had any doubts, she'd had no business accepting Josh's proposal, no business setting a wedding dateand no business breaking the heart of a good man. While Brenna had never been left at the altar, she'd been stood up enough times to be able to commiserate with some of Josh's humiliation and disappointment. But she knew nothing about heartbreak. She'd never been in love.
"Josh, I'm sorry," Clayton said.
He wasn't the only one. But Brenna couldn't say the wordsthey stuck in her throat. She, who'd been bossing around everyone since they were kids, couldn't speak.
Abby's four-year-old daughter, Lara, dressed like a miniature bride in a lacy white dress, reprimanded her mother. "Mommy, you're not s'posed to run in church or talk loud."
"I'm sorry," Abby said, both to Josh and her daughter. "She doesn't say that in the note about making a mistake. She's just really confused right now."
"What's going on?" asked Molly's younger brother, Rory. The teenager tugged loose the knot of his bow tie. "Did she really skip out?"
"Ask Abby," his older brother said. "She's the one with the explanation."
Abby. Not Brenna, whom Molly had asked to be her maid of honor. Guilt had tears stinging Brenna's eyes. Had Molly noticed that her maid of honor had developed feelings she had no business feeling for the groom? Even before she'd met him in person at the rehearsal dinner the night before, she'd been drawn, through phone calls and e-mail, to his wit and self-deprecating humor.
And his kindness.
"Is she all right?" Josh asked about his runaway bride. His deep voice held only concern, not a trace of anger.
"She's okay," Abby assured him. "She's just confused right now. She needs some time alone to figure out what she really wants."
Brenna thought she understood why, for the first time in her life, Molly McClintock had acted on impulse, temporarily put on hold her plan of becoming a doctor and accepted Dr. Joshua Towers's proposal of marriage.
His hair was nearly as black as his tux except for the glints of blue that shimmered under the fluorescent lights. His eyes echoed the deep blue. With his tall, muscular build and finely chiseled face, Dr. Towers was easily the handsomest man Brenna had ever met. Not that there were all that many handsome, eligible men in this small town where Brenna had grown up and to which she had returned, after college, to manage the family bakery.
But Josh wasn't eligible, Brenna reminded herself. Even though his bride might have taken off, they were still engaged, still involved. He loved her. He must love her, or why had he proposed?
While the others talked, Josh focused his attention on his sons, kicking himself for having set them up for more disappointment. First their mother had deserted them, and now their almost-stepmother. A smile tugged at his lips as he watched the two. They actually didn't seem that upset. Buzz and TJ plucked petals off each other's boutonnieres. Bits of red carnations dropped like confetti onto the beige carpeting.
She loves me. She loves me not. Definitely not.
But, hell, he hadn't loved her eithernot in the way a man should love the woman he was marrying. He had proposed because he'd thought he could love her like that, since he already cared for her as a friend. Molly was beautiful and smart, with a generous nature, and he'd enjoyed the time he'd spent with herwhen their crazy schedules had allowed.
He'd thought that a relationship built on friendship first would be stronger and last longer than one built on lust. Like his first marriagealthough he'd been so infatuated with Amy that he'd thought it was love at the time. And that had ended with his becoming a single father.
After that fiasco, he should have known better than to rush into another relationship. Molly had been smart to leave him at the altar. He didn't deserve the sympathetic looks the rest of the wedding party kept casting his way, especially the maid of honor. Her green eyes warm with sympathy, she seemed more upset for him than his best man did. But Nick was just pissedprobably as much at Josh as for him.
Josh had convinced Nick to open the private practice, which they'd talked about since they were premed, here in Cloverville. It hadn't been easy to sell his friend, who'd only ever lived in cities, on starting a business in the small town of Cloverville. But because of their friendship, Nick finally had agreed, albeit begrudgingly.
"Maybe she should have figured that out before she accepted Josh's proposal," Nick griped, referring to Molly's need to decide what she wanted. "It's pretty damned flaky to back out at the altar."
"Molly is not flaky," the bride's younger sister, Colleen, defended her.
Josh had to agree. "It's my fault," he admitted. "I rushed her into this, even though I knew she wasn't ready."
Nick squeezed his shoulder reassuringly. "Don't blame yourself. She could have told you no. This just goes to show you, they can't be trusted."
Once Nick calmed down, he would undoubtedly rub in that "I told you so." Josh deserved it, too. It wasn't the women who couldn't be trusted, thoughit was Josh's judgment. He'd developed the unfortunate habit of picking the wrong ones. Or maybe he'd just never come across the right one. Until now?
He glanced sideways at Brenna Kelly, who'd been quiet since the bride had failed to walk down the aisle. She'd worked so hard on the weddingfar harder than Josh, who'd been busy with the boys and work, and harder than the bride, who'd been busy finishing up schoolor putting it on hold and closing up her campus apartment. He wasn't exactly sure what his bride had been doing. But he knew what Brenna had been doingworking her ass off to make this day special for her best friend. She had to be upset. Guilt, over being relieved that the bride had bailed, twisted his gut.
When Mrs. McClintock and the others began to squabble over whether or not they should cancel the reception, Josh agreed with the woman who'd almost been his mother-in-law. Her reasons for not canceling were that everything was paid for, so many people had worked hard on the preparations and she didn't want to disappoint the townspeople who'd been anticipating a party.
Josh's reason was Brenna. He didn't want to disappoint her.
Josh squinted against the sunlight as he followed the boys outside the church, leaving everyone else inside. Clayton had taken it upon himself to make the announcement to the guests that the wedding was off, but Josh still had to make the announcement to his sons.
"Race you down the stairs," TJ challenged his brother.
"Wait, boys," he said as he settled on the top step of the stairs leading down to the sidewalk. "Sit with me a minute."
The twins exchanged one of their glances, speaking to each other without words, and joined him. Perhaps they hadn't been as oblivious to what had gone on in the church as he'd thought.