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It might have been the numerous shots of whiskey and the goading of his fellow drinkers down at The Empire Bar, but Brady Sheppard thought crashing his ex-fiancée's wedding was the best idea he'd had in years.
Too bad he wasn't drunk enough to believe he'd gone through the side entrance of the First Presbyterian Church undetected because of his stealth and military training. He'd caught a break, that was all. It'd been bound to happen eventually.
The sounds of a string quartet masked the soft click of him pulling the door shut. Bracing his weight on his crutches, he slanted forward. To his left, waning sunlight filtered through two stained-glass windows, breaking up the shadows of a long hallway. Glancing around the corner, he spied five women in identical dark purple gowns lined up in a haphazard row, flowers clasped loosely in their hands as they chatted in hushed whispers while waiting for their cue to walk down the aisle.
The door at the end of the hall opened and Brady's heart rate picked up. Backing against the wall, he stayed hidden in the shadows as Jane Cleo Montgomery stepped into the hall. She, too, had on a purple dress and held flowers, her brown, corkscrew curls piled on top of her head. as she passed him unaware, she said something over her shoulder and laughed.
And that was when he saw her. Liz. His Liz.
He didn't move, barely breathed as the woman he was supposed to marry glided toward him, a serene smile on her beautiful face. His hands tightened on the crutches. Of course she was happy. She was getting what she'd always wanted. A fancy, summer wedding in her hometown, surrounded by family and friends. Except he wasn't the groom.
Ignoring the throbbing pain in his knee, he hobbled out into her path. "Hello, Lizzie."
The color drained from her face as she pulled up short, stumbling over her long train. "Brady."
That was it. After everything they'd meant to each other, the years they'd been together, all she could give him was his name. He wanted to shake her. Demand that she take back everything in that goddamn letter she'd sent him over a year ago when she'd blown his life apart. Wanted to see more in her eyes than nerves. Something that told him she regretted what she'd lost. That she was hurting, even just a little.
And how pathetic was he that he'd take whatever scraps she tossed his way?
"I'll get Dad," J.C. said from behind him.
Swinging his crutches forward, he backed Liz down the hallway. Her familiar floral scent confused his already muddled brain. Her gown had a fitted, beaded bodice and puffy skirt that accentuated her hourglass figure. She'd swept her glossy, dark hair up and wore one of those tiara things attached to a veil that ended below her small waist.
She was the most beautiful thing he'd ever seen.
"Glad I'm not too late," he murmured.
She swallowed, her hazel eyes wide. "Too too late?"
"For the ceremony."
"Brady, please " She held out her hand only to curl her fingers into her palm and lower it back to her side. "Please don't do this."
He went hot, then cold, trembling with the effort to contain his anger. Those were the exact same words he'd said to her after he'd read that damn letter. He'd called her from his base in Afghanistan, begged her to give him another chance.
He moved even closer, crowding her. She gasped, her warm breath washing over his face. "What do you think I'm going to do, Lizzie?" he asked quietly.
"I I'm not sure." Her voice was as quiet as his. And when she met his eyes, the strange intimacy of their conversation reminded him of how he used to hold her after they'd made love. How it seemed as if they were the only two people in the world. "Make a scene or or interrupt the ceremony "
He shook his head to clear it. The ceremony. Right. He stepped back, grimacing with the pressure on his left leg.
"Are you all right?" she asked. As if she cared about him. Dr. Elizabeth Montgomery, trying to heal the poor Jarhead's injuries.
He glared at her. "Afraid I'm going to stand up when the minister asks if anyone objects?"
Someone laid a heavy hand on Brady's shoulder. "Son, you need to leave."
Brady glanced at Liz's father. Don Montgomery, tall and pudgy with intelligent brown eyes and thinning dark hair threaded heavily with gray. The physician's round face was red above his starched collar.
"I'm not your son," was all Brady said. Though, until recently, he'd considered Don to be like a second father.
Jane Cleo brushed past them to stand next to her sister, looking from him to Liz and back again.
"Go home," Don said, not unkindly. "Don't make this harder than it has to be." When Brady didn't so much as blink, the older man sighed and reached into the inside pocket of his dark suit jacket. "I'm afraid if you won't leave on your own, I'll have to call the police."
"no," J.C. and Liz said at the same time.
Liz pushed between them, facing her father. "Brady would never do anything to hurt me." Then she turned to him, pleading with her eyes. It just about cut him off at the knees. "Would you?"
Damn it. Damn it! She was right. No matter how much he'd had to drink, no matter how pissed he was, he'd rather die than hurt her.
He was as big of a fool for her as he'd always been.
"Goodbye, Brady," she said softly before linking her arm through her father's and tugging him down the hall, J.C. following.
He stood in that dark hallway while the music changed to a classical song he'd heard before but never in a million years would be able to name. All he knew was that as that song played, Liz was walking down the aisle toward the man she was going to marry.
He wiped a hand over his mouth. He wanted a drink. Needed it to dull his mind.
Instead, he found an empty spot in the back where he could stand unnoticed. And torture himself by the woman he'd loved for half of his life become someone else's wife.
"I need a favor."
J.C. licked sweet buttercream icing off her fork. "I'm not holding your dress while you pee again," she told Liz quietly, hoping the other members of the bridal party seated next to her at the head table couldn't hear. "Once in a lifetime is one time too many."
An elderly couple walked past, congratulating Liz. She thanked them before turning back to J.C. "This is serious," she said in a harsh whisper.
"More serious than wedding cake?"
Liz had detached her veil but kept the tiara firmly in place. She always had liked to pretend she was a princess. Which left J.C. to play the role of lady-in-waiting.
Liz picked up J.C.'s plate and carried it with her as she pulled her sister to her feet. "Come on."
They made their way across the large room, weaving around the tables and chairs tied with wide, purple taffeta. The tables were topped with narrow glass jars of varying heights filled with water, lavender rose petals and lit, floating white candles.
Liz stepped behind a large column. "Get him to leave."
J.C. didn't need to be told who him was. Brady Shep-pard. She peeked around the column. Yep. There he sat at the end of the bar, all scruffy and brooding in his rumpled T-shirt and faded jeans, his dark blond hair still military-short. He stared at the spot where she and Liz stood. No surprise, given he hadn't taken his eyes off the bride ever since he'd hobbled into Pine Hills Country Club a few hours ago.
Poor Brady. She should be ticked at him for crashing her sister's weddingand she was. A little. But after everything he'd gone through, everything Liz had put him through, it was tough to work up a good mad. Especially when he seemed so.lost. So alone.
Taking her plate back from Liz, J.C. scooped up a small bite though she could no longer taste the delicious vanilla cake and milk chocolate ganache filling. "Ignore him. Don't let him ruin your special day."
It was a refrain she, the other bridesmaids and the mothers of both bride and groom had repeated numerous times already.
"I have ignored him and he's already ruined my day. And now it's time for him to leave." She nodded toward the other side of the room. "Before Carter's frat brothers talk him into doing something stupid."
J.C. looked over to where her new brother-in-law stood by the presents table. Pale blond hair, green eyes, chiseled features Carter Messlermake that Dr. Carter Messlerwas not only handsome, funny and smart, he was also the most easygoing guy J.C. had ever met. Usually. Surrounded by his groomsmen, though, they had one thing in common: they were all scowling at Brady. Carter's scowl was the darkest.
"But Carter's a pediatrician," J.C. said. "Pediatricians don't go around getting into fistfights."
"I've never seen him so angry." Glancing nervously at her new husband, she lowered her voice. "Brady could get hurt."
J.C. smashed the remaining cake crumbs under her fork. Brady had never backed down from a fight. Which was probably what had made him such a good Marine. And she doubted he'd let a bum knee and crutches stop him from taking a swing or two.
Liz was right. He had to go. And not just because J.C. didn't want to see him get his stubborn head bashed in. The disheveled, ex-Marine partaking in the open bar was preventing Liz and Carter from enjoying their day.
"What do you want me to do?"
Liz squeezed J.C.'s hand. "Whatever you have to. He'll listen to you," she said desperately, as if willing it to be true. "He's always liked you. He used to tell me you were like the little sister he never had."
And wasn't that enough to make her ego take a serious nosedive.
"I'm not making any promises" she said, handing her plate to Liz. "But I'll do my best."
J.C. resolutely kept her gaze forward instead of glancing at her reflection as she passed the mirror behind the polished bar. She didn't need visual confirmation that her hair was rebelling against the dozens of bobby pins the stylist had used. Unlike Liz, ignoring problems usually worked pretty well for J.C.
She stopped in front of him. "Hello, Brady."
"Janie." He sipped from a squat glass of amber liquid. "You look different."
She'd heard a variation of that statement all day from numerous friends and relatives who hadn't seen her in the past two years. And while it usually pleased her to have people notice the sixty-five pounds she'd dropped, she could've sworn she'd run into Brady since then. "I lost some weight."
His narrowed eyes roamed from her head to her feet and back up again. "I was talking about the dress." Her skin prickled.
"Oh," she said breathlessly as she wiped a damp palm down the front of the simple, halter-style gown. "Is there someone I can call to come get you?"
Resting one arm against the bar, he leaned back. "Am I going somewhere?"
"I think it's for the best if you did."
His light blue eyes sharpened. "You do? Or Lizzie does?"
"Me. Liz. Carter. My parents. The other bridesmaids I'd say it's unanimous."
"What if I'm not ready to leave?"
She fisted her hands around the material of her skirt. She felt for him. Honest, she did. But just because Liz had moved on with her life didn't give Brady the right to act like an ass. It wasn't as if he was the only person in the world to be in love with someone who didn't love him back.
Moving to his side, she was careful not to touch him. "I get it. You're upset and you want to hurt her back. Well, congratulations, you succeeded. But enough's enough."
Other than a momentary twitch of his left eye, he remained expressionless.
After a moment, he raised his glass to her, downed the remaining drink, then set the glass on the bar. "Don't bother calling anyone on my account. I'll see myself home."
Positioning the crutches under his arms, he stood, gazing somewhere over her left shoulder. She glanced back to see Liz and Carter, arms around each other as they swayed to the band's version of "Unchained Melody." When she turned back, Brady was already halfway to the door.
What she wouldn't give to have Brady look at her with even a fraction of the longing she'd seen in his eyes when he stared at Liz. To have him see her as Jane Cleo instead of just Liz's little sister.
Lips pressed together, she watched him until he went out the side door of the clubhouse. Could he drive with his injured knee? Would he? No. The Brady she'd known most of her life would never drink and then get behind the wheel. She pushed a loose bobby pin into her hair, jabbing her scalp in the process. Of course, the old Brady didn't have a permanent glower, would never crash a wedding or suck back whiskey as if it were the only thing getting him from one minute to the next.
She headed to the rear of the bar where the bridal party had stashed their personal items. No one would miss her if she slipped away for a little bit. Long enough to make sure Brady got home safely.
Twenty minutes later, J.C. wondered which of them of them was the bigger idiot. Him for thinking he could walk the ten miles home on crutches. Or her for leaving her sister's wedding to give him a ride, all because she still hadn't gotten over her stupid, childhood crush.
Her. Definitely her. She'd not only driven him, but helped him inside and onto the couch and even made coffee.
She frowned as it dripped into the pot. Well, wasn't that what people did when they cared about someone?
Carrying a cup of coffee, she made her way to the living room where Brady was slumped on the couch, his head resting against the back of it, his left leg out straight.
"I thought you could use this," she said, holding the mug out as she sat next to him. When he made no move to take it, she put it on the coffee table and then clasped her hands together in her lap.
Other than to tell her he was staying at the cottage on The Diamond Dust, the historic plantation the Shep-pards called home, he'd remained silent on the drive over. So there she was, in the middle of the woods in a sparsely furnished living room with her sister's stoic, drunk ex.
Finally she cleared her throat and made a move to leave. "I'd better get going."
Nothing. No "Thanks for getting me home." The man didn't even blink. She'd taken one step toward the front door when his gravelly voice stopped her.
"I didn't want to hurt her."
He finally sat up and took a long gulp of coffee. Stared down at the mug. "I didn't go there to hurt her."