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"IF ANYONE HERE today has a reason why these two people should not be joined in holy matrimony, may they speak now or forever hold their peace." Reverend Fitzhumme gave the wedding guests a cursory glance, just out of habit. The bride remembered he'd told them at the rehearsal that in his twenty-seven years of performing marriage ceremonies no one had ever spoken up, though he'd been certain a great many had held their peace–if not forever, at least until the reception.
"Reverend?" the bride asked softly, while all eyes in the church were trained on her and her future husband. She ran a slender hand over the skirt of her white satin gown and tucked a stray strand of her flame-colored hair beneath the cap of her veil. "May I take a moment here, please? I have something I'd like to say."
The groom turned and looked down his aquiline nose, his dark brows drawing together in annoyance. "Bronwynn, what are you doing?" he whispered.
She beamed a smile up at him. "I just have a few thank-yous I'd like to say now, Ross."
He sighed impatiently. Reverend Fitzhumme gave his permission with a motion of his hand.
Bronwynn turned and looked out at the assembled guests. An eerie calm had settled inside her, as if her mind had flipped off all the switches that worried and wondered and made decisions. Her gaze settled on no one person, but scanned the faces and hairstyles and ridiculous hats of the men and women of Boston's upper crust. A brief stab of pain penetrated her heart when she saw the empty pew where her parents would have sat had they lived to see this day. It was just as well they weren't there, she thought as her gaze homed in on her cousin Belinda.
"I would like to take this opportunity to thank you all for coming today," Bronwynn began calmly. A genuine smile lit her face as she saw her sister Zane's worried look. Zane sat in the first row of pews next to her daughter, Rebecca, who had become bored with the role of flower girl and toyed with the lace trim along the edge of her petticoat, unconcerned with the proceedings. "I would like to thank my sister, Zane, for all her help in planning this wedding, but most of all I would like to thank my cousin, Belinda Hughes . . ."
In the third row Belinda's pretty face dropped.
". . . for being so unspeakably contemptible as to sleep with my fiancé two nights before my wedding, thereby showing me just what kind of a despicable, lowlife, money-grubbing scum he really is." She turned and thrust her bouquet of white roses and trailing English ivy into Ross's hands. His face was as white as the flowers. Bronwynn's eyes sparked fire for the first time in days. "Ross Hilliard, I'd have a sex-change operation before I'd marry you!"
"This property is ideal, Murph. There must be three hundred acres of rolling fields and woods. There's a ramshackle old house, but nobody's lived there for years." Wade Grayson paced back and forth in front of the deep green sofa, the telephone dangling from the long fingers of one hand while he held the receiver to his ear with the other. Across the comfortable living room a big yellow Labrador sprawled by the stone fireplace watching his master pace.
"Sounds great, Wade, but I thought we sent you up there for R and R, not to investigate business ventures for the two of us."
He set the phone on the pine coffee table, picked up a bottle of antacid and took a swig. The stuff was actually beginning to taste good to him. The thought sent a shudder through his body as he lit a cigarette and took a long drag.
"Sure," he said, grinning as he flashed the even white teeth that had won over more than one female voter, "but why waste an opportunity? We've been looking for a spot for three years. I was walking by this place yesterday–it's less than a mile down the road from here–and it hit me how perfect it would be. I could see it all–a comfortable lodge, miles of cross-country ski trails. If you're interested in making the investment, I'll check into it. What do you think, pal?"
By the time he hung up Wade was ready to take another long walk down the dirt road that wound back through the trees. He'd been in Vermont trying to relax for three days, and he still was strung tighter than a new tennis racket. His nerves hadn't even begun to unwind. He couldn't quite remember what it was like not to be tense.
A few uninterrupted weeks of peace and quiet were supposedly a reward for having worked countless sixteen-, eighteen-, even a few twenty-four-hour days to push his clean-water bill through the House before Congress had adjourned for the summer. He found his position as one of Indiana's representatives fulfilling in many ways, but it took its toll on him emotionally and physically. Lord, he thought, his drive and ambition had warped his thinking to the point that he looked sideways at the offer of a vacation. But, then, he realized, he never had been one for lying around. He was a doer. Relaxation made him nervous. He was haunted by the idea that while he was busy relaxing, other people were getting things done.
However, when Dr. Jameson, his physician and good friend, had handed him the key to his vacation house in Vermont and told him to go or else, Wade had accepted. Even though he had felt compelled to get back to his district and in touch with his constituents, common sense and his doctor had prevailed. He wasn't going to be any good to anybody lying in a hospital with a bleeding ulcer.
His shoes kicked up little puffs of dust as he walked down the road with a purposeful stride that should not have belonged to someone on a vacation. In the west the summer sky was ablaze as the sun reluctantly slid down on the other side of the Green Mountains. Behind Wade, Tucker the Labrador dragged himself along, his body language clearly saying he had been perfectly content lounging on the plush carpet by the fireplace, chewing on a rawhide toy.
They turned in at the break in the trees that led back to the old house they had explored the day before. Wade's gaze fastened on the dilapidated, old Victorian house that had once been painted pink. At one time it must have been a grand home with its turret and fancy gingerbread trim, he thought, but its day had come and gone long ago, and he easily could picture a cedar and stone ski lodge in its place.
It wouldn't be a huge resort. They would keep the number of skiers down so the trails wouldn't be crowded. It would be a great investment and a great place to get away to when the pressures of government started turning his stomach into a blast furnace. Relaxation wasn't so bad if he could ski and make money while he was at it.
"And take that, Ross Hilliard, you incomparable louse!"
Wade stopped in his tracks at the sound of a woman's voice followed by a loud pounding noise. Tucker sat down and leaned heavily against his master's legs, trying to muster a growl. It came out sounding more like indigestion. The woman rounded the corner of the wraparound porch, her brilliant white wedding gown hiked up to her knees, wads of material bunched into her right hand. Wedding gown? he wondered briefly as he watched her. In her left hand she carried a hammer, which she let fly at a large brown suitcase on the top of the porch steps. Never taking his eyes off her, Wade moved into the trees along the drive and tried to work his way closer without calling attention to himself.
Bronwynn charged up to the luggage with the old hammer she'd found. She gave the lock on her erstwhile fiancé's suitcase a vicious whack and then another, all the while calling him every name she could think of. Anger had spurred her on all day since her announcement at the wedding, and it was showing no signs of running out. After she had found Ross out she had wandered around like a zombie in shock, not able to think of what she should do. Finally she had snapped out of the trance. Now she made no effort to calm herself. She deserved to be furious. She deserved to go berserk. She gave the suitcase another smack, springing the lock.
Staring at the contents, she realized there was something else she hadn't known about Ross, he didn't know how to pack a suitcase. All his expensive, tailored clothes had been mushed into a wrinkled mess, and in among his underwear he had packed a bottle of cod liver oil.
"Uck! Yuk!" Bronwynn wrinkled her nose in distaste. "I should have asked to see him pack a suitcase months ago. Then I would have known better than to marry him. Not only is he a philandering pig, he can't pack a suitcase and he drinks cod liver oil on the sly. Yuk!"
She grabbed the handle of the suitcase and dragged it, bumping and thumping, off the porch to the dirt driveway, leaving a trail of socks and shorts in her wake. Then she went to her Mercedes and dug through the grocery bag on the passenger seat for the butane lighter she'd bought at the local convenience store especially for the ceremony she was about to perform. Printed in blue on the slim white case were the words: The more I know men, the better I like my dog. Setting fire to the edge of Ross's airline ticket for their honeymoon in France, Bronwynn let a malicious grin spread across her face. She dropped the burning paper into the suitcase and stood back to watch at least eight hundred dollars' worth of men's wear go up in smoke.
"What the hell are you doing?"
Bronwynn stared at the man storming toward her out of the trees as if she'd never seen a man before. She certainly hadn't expected–or wanted–to see one there. He was good-looking, not that that impressed her in her present state of mind–much. Okay, she thought, so he was disgustingly cute in a harried, yuppie sort of way. So what? So her mouth had gone dry at the sight of him. It wasn't attraction, it couldn't be. How could she possibly be attracted to a total stranger after the day she'd had? No, it wasn't attraction that was making her palms sweat. It was either angst or the giant soft pretzel with jalepeño cheese she'd eaten at the New Hampshire-Vermont border.
All-American Businessman was the label that came to her mind from her modeling days, when everyone's look had had a certain name and marketability. In tan dress slacks and a white shirt, he looked as if he'd just stepped out of his BMW after a long, hard day of corporate ladder climbing. His sleeves were rolled up past his elbows, and his tie had been yanked loose. Thick, tawny blond hair fell across his forehead, not quite carrying out its threat to be unruly as he bent and scooped up a couple of handfuls of dirt and threw them into the burning suitcase. He flipped the lid shut with the toe of his shoe and stood glaring down at her with eyes the color of good Irish whiskey.
"What are you trying to do, start a forest fire?" he asked in a hoarse, incredibly sexy baritone voice.
Bronwynn looked down at Ross's smoldering Gucci suitcase. She'd been planning this little piece of revenge for hours, envisioning it again and again as she'd sped northwest on the freeway. Now this overgrown eagle scout had ruined it. Handsome or not, she was furious with him.
"How dare you," she said, her anger ready to boil over inside her like a pot on a hot stove. She flicked her Bic at him. "Get away from me. Get out of here you–you–you man!" She spat the word out as if it was the dirtiest thing she could think to call him.
Wade snatched the lighter away from her before she could accidentally set her veil on fire. "Give me that. What are you, lady, some kind of kook? Where's your husband? I'm sure he won't appreciate your setting the luggage on fire."
Bronwynn stepped back from him, her patrician nose in the air. "I don't have a husband. I gave him away at the wedding along with the bouquet."
Hands planted on his lean hips, Wade studied her a moment as she gazed off toward the woods. The cap of her veil was askew, revealing a thick head of baby fine, brilliant red hair. Her face was delicate with high cheekbones and a sculpted jaw. Almond-shaped eyes and a full, sensuous mouth lent her a rather exotic look. The wedding gown she wore hugged a tall, slender, model's body. She was barefoot. Her toenails were painted pink and had little red roses on them.
She was breathtaking, the way a purple orchid would be in a field of dandelions. Still Wade told himself he had no business letting her unusual beauty affect him. He wasn't the kind of man to stick his nose into a hornet's nest for no good reason.
Tucker wandered up, woofed tiredly at the smoking suitcase, and plopped down at his master's feet to rest.
Abruptly Bronwynn turned and marched back to her car without a word to the man who had so rudely interrupted her fun. Her anger suddenly had been extinguished. The flame inside her had turned to a lump of ice, and she felt oddly detached. Maybe this was what it was like to lose your mind, she thought. Guilt assailed her at the notion that she had survived the deaths of her parents but would lose her marbles over Ross Hilliard. That would have been a huge insult to her parents, whom she had loved with all her heart. Ross Hilliard was no more worth the trouble than the lowliest worm beneath the earth.
She pulled the bag of groceries up into her arms and marched up the steps into the house. Wade watched her go, annoyed that she had simply walked away from him as if he were a servant she had dismissed. His gaze ran admiringly over the red Mercedes 450SL. He wondered if it belonged to the missing groom. What had she meant when she'd said she had given him away at the wedding? he wondered. Running around barefoot in a wedding gown, setting suitcases on fire–the woman obviously was dangerously unbalanced.
"Who are you?" he asked, stepping inside the open front door. She was standing in the middle of the parlor looking at the moldy cabbage-rose wallpaper that was peeling off the walls in rippling sheets.
Her right eyebrow arched higher as she stared at him. "Bronwynn Prescott Pierson," she said as if he should have recognized her. "Who are you?"
"Wade Grayson," he said slowly as his sharp mind called up the information he had stored to go along with the name she had given him.