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The second time was in church. In a wedding.
Thank God, not as the bride. He stood at the front of the First Baptist Church of Heartbreak, Oklahoma, with Jace Barnett, the best man, and Reese Barnett, the groom, on his right and Del, Reese's father, on his left. As the organist played a slow processional, he gazed out over a full church and watched the bride's attendants come up the aisle. First were Emma and Elly Harris, wearing matching dresses and scattering baskets of petals. A few yards behind them was the first bridesmaid - a petite china doll with silvery-brown hair cut as short as a boy's ... though with those delicate features, no one would ever mistake her for one.
Bringing up the rear was the maid of honor. She was of average height, athletic looking, her also-short hair also silvery-brown. Despite her lack of curves, no one would ever mistake her for a boy, either - but neither would they figure her for a private investigator, which she was.
And in the middle was Hallie. His mystery woman from two nights ago. She hadn't offered her name or asked for his, and he'd been satisfied not knowing. He should have asked. Even if he'd known she was sister and soon-to-be sister-in-law to his best friends, he still might have gone to the motelwith her ... but he wouldn't risk money on it. Most likely, if he'd known, he would have high-tailed it out of that bar and spent the night regretting what he hadn't done.
Better than spending his time regretting what he had done. Hallie was about five foot eight and slender, but with curves in all the right places. Her hair was silky and blond and past her shoulders, her eyes were hazel - he hadn't realized he knew that until just now - and her smile was bright and cheery, but anyone who looked closely could see the tension underlying it. For whatever reason, this wasn't a great time for her, but she was doing her best to hide it for her sisters' sake.
There they were - the Madison sisters. He'd heard a lot about them from their oldest sister, Neely. There was Kylie the pretty one, Hallie the popular one, and Bailey the smart one. If Hallie made a habit of doing what she'd done with him two nights ago, he could understand why she was popular.
But he didn't think she did. Maybe his ego needed to think that he'd been special, though he knew too well that wasn't true. While Hallie might not routinely pick up sex partners in bars, he did, and he knew special had nothing to do with it. Being lonely did. And alone. Not interested in a relationship. Not able to connect with people except in the most superficial way.
The bridesmaids took their place opposite the groomsmen, and the organ music swelled as Neely appeared at the back of the church, putting the other women out of his mind. Her ivory gown was all lace and satin, sleeveless with a deep V, and a stream of lace was attached to a band of flowers worn in her hair. She was more beautiful than anyone he'd ever seen. She was the only woman he'd had any sort of relationship with in the past fourteen years, and he'd been half in love with her ever since they'd met. Not that he'd ever expected or even wanted anything to come of it. Neely belonged to Reese, heart and soul.
Lucky guy. When she reached the front, the guests took their seats and the wedding party turned to face the minister. Brady's one and only wedding seventeen years ago had been nothing like this. He and Sandra had gone to the county courthouse one Friday afternoon and been married by a judge in a hurry to get to his golf game. He'd worn jeans and a white shirt, and Sandra had worn a flowery dress with a big white collar edged with crimson ribbon.
Funny that he could remember that, but couldn't quite recall her face. He could see the curly brown hair, he could even call up the memory of sliding a plain gold band on her finger, but he couldn't see her eighteen-year-old face.
Of course, he'd spent fourteen years trying to forget everything about her. He'd been a fool to marry her. The good times hadn't come close to balancing out the bad, and in the final months, there had been some really bad times.
Between all the people and the candles that flickered everywhere, the church was a little warm. The reception afterward wasn't bound to be much better, since it was going to be outside and Oklahoma in August wasn't hospitable. But for wedding cake, cold drinks, and dancing, people would forget the heat.
For their friends, they would forget anything. Finally the pastor came to the part they'd all been waiting for. "You may now kiss the bride," he announced, and Reese took him at his word. Amid laughter and clapping, he sealed the promises he'd just made with a kiss, then, prompted by the organ music, escorted his bride to the back of the church.
Too bad Brady had been called out last night and missed the rehearsal. If he'd made it, he would have been better prepared for walking down the aisle with Hallie Madison in front of every soul he knew in Oklahoma. Not that he really needed preparation. No one would get the slightest hint from him how intimately he knew her.
Jace hooked up with Bailey and followed the bride and groom, leaving Brady and Hallie facing each other. He wasn't sure when she'd recognized him - he hadn't caught her looking at him when she'd come down the aisle - but obviously at some point she had. There was no surprise in her eyes - just a sheepish, faintly embarrassed look.
They met in the center of the aisle and he offered his arm. When she slipped her hand through and rested it on his forearm, they started down the aisle.
"Fancy meeting you here," he murmured.
"I bet you thought you were never going to see me again," she whispered while keeping her smile in place. "Sorry to disappoint you."
"Who's disappointed?" He should have known it was bound to happen. For fourteen years he'd allowed himself nothing more than one-night stands with strangers. The odds that he could continue forever without running into one of those women again had been growing slimmer. Now he just had to make the best of it. It shouldn't be hard. Neely and Reese were leaving on their honeymoon after the reception that night, and all the Madisons would be going home the next day - Kylie back home to Texas, Bailey to Tennessee, their mother to Illinois, and Hallie to ... wherever.
How had he learned where home was for the rest of her family, but missed that bit about her?
"I-I'd appreciate it if you don't say anything to Neely about ..."
He fixed a steady gaze on her. "Do I look like the sort of man who would share the details of his sex life with anyone?"
"No," she murmured. They reached the back of the sanctuary, then moved down two steps into the foyer. As soon as Del and Kylie joined them, an usher closed the doors, Reese immediately kissed Neely again, and Hallie pulled away. She clasped her hands together and looked everywhere except at him. "I ... uh ..." An expression of great relief crossed her face when Neely joined them.
"So you two have met," Neely said, hugging her sister before rising onto her toes to brush a kiss to Brady's cheek. "Isn't he gorgeous?" she asked, beaming as she wiped the lipstick from his skin. "But don't get any ideas, Hallie. I've got plans for him and Kylie."
The warning created a panicked look in Hallie's eyes as she glanced from Neely to him to her younger sister. Brady wished he could tell her not to worry. Neely might intend to hook him up with Kylie, but he had no intention of letting her set the hook. He wasn't interested in the baby of the Madison family. He damn sure wasn't interested in anyone who lived in Texas.
"I've been fresh out of ideas of that nature for about six months now," Hallie said, fooling her sister with her careless manner but not Brady. He wondered what had happened six months ago that had turned her off romantic entanglements and most likely put that stress in her eyes. Obviously, she'd been hurt, and more than likely he'd heard something about it from Neely. Damned if he could remember, though.
"Oh, you'll get over it," Neely said, then thoughtlessly added, "You always do. Brady, come on and let me introduce you to Kylie. She is such a doll."
Brady let her pull him down the hall, where she left him while she went to retrieve Kylie from her conversation with Reese and Jace. "Such a doll" was about as accurate as a description could get. Even her voice had a little-girl quality to it. He wasn't sure how old she was - probably somewhere between twenty-five and thirty - but she looked about sixteen. There was no way he could even think about doing anything with her without feeling as if he were committing some statutory offense. But he talked to her, and then to Bailey - or, at least, he listened to them. Like Neely, neither of them appeared to be the least bit shy.
Excerpted from Lawman's Redemption by Marilyn Pappano
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Posted July 23, 2011
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Posted January 13, 2011
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