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Reduced to lurking behind a tulle-draped pillar, Natalie Wentworth's stomach did a flip-flop. Where was Hannah? Just a glimpse of her daughter was all she needed. Her first glimpse ever, though Hannah was eighteen months old now.
The early April sunset painted the big Texas sky in purples and pinks above the outdoor reception. A bright red barn provided background for the bridal party in denim and lace, with cowboys and cowgirls in full gear gathered in clusters laughing and eating. A few couples two-stepped to the twangy music. But no kids.
Wyatt had to be here somewhere. The newspaper said the bride and groom attended that church he'd tried to get her to visit back when she'd first gotten pregnant. And the groom was backup announcer at Cowtown Coliseum, Wyatt's stomping grounds.
A familiar swagger caught her attention. The dishwater-blond cowboy stopped at the dessert table. Wyatt. Her daughter's father. With a dark-haired woman. Natalie ducked farther behind the pillar. Why wasn't Hannah with him? Did the new woman in his life not like kids?
"Natalie?" A baritone voice directly behind her sent a shudder through her.
She knew that voice. Her legs threatened to give way. It couldn't be. Her heart clamored. Her breath stalled as she turned around in slow motion.
Lane Gray. In the flesh. A gentle spring breeze tousled his dark hair. His green eyes turned the deepest parts of her heart into mush and sapped all the moisture from her mouth. Butterflies took flight in her stomach.
As brain-dissolvingly handsome as ever. The first and only guy she'd ever loved. The one who'd broken her heart into tiny jagged pieces.
"What are you doing here?" Their voices blended together.
He flashed a heart-stopping grin. "The bride invited me. You?"
Wedding crashing for a glimpse of my daughter. She shrugged. "I know everyone in Aubrey."
"You look great."
Great! Nine years since she'd seen Lane and here she was in a blah dressnavy, high neckline and the hemline barely above her kneesborrowed from her sister to crash a wedding unnoticed. Nothing she'd normally be caught dead in. She felt as if she were dressed more for a funeral than a wedding. Her funeralif Wyatt caught her here.
She had to get rid of Lane before he drew attention to her.
"So, Nat, what have you been up to for the last nine years?"
Fun. With no strings attached. You taught me not to let my heart get involved. "I went to college, got my marketing degree, worked as the publicist for Six Flags Over Texas and just signed on as publicist for the Stockyards."
She tugged at her sister's demure pearl necklace. Had a babyhere to see her, not you. And Lane Gray wouldn't blow it for her. "Don't let me keep you."
"Imagine that." He stepped closer to her. "Both of us back in Aubrey?"
Her breath caught. Aubrey wasn't big enough for both of them. Maybe the commute from Garland wasn't so bad, after all. But for the last eighteen months, she'd tried to forget Hannah. And her life had disintegrated. She couldn't sleep. She couldn't focus. She couldn't function.
If she could just get a glimpse of her little girl, maybe she'd be okay. Maybe she could get on with her life.
A woman carrying a baby, surrounded by toddlers, joined the gathering at the punch table. Clay's momalways the designated babysitter. Was one of the children Hannah?
Natalie stepped closer to get a better look.
"Nice seeing you, too." Sardonic humor laced Lane's tone.
A redheaded girlprobably Clay and Rayna's. A boy. Natalie scanned another little girl. Dark hair, blue eyes, heart-shaped face. Just like her own. Hannah. Something in Natalie's chest exploded. She followed the toddler as if pulled by a magnetic force.
"Natalie." Wyatt stepped in front of her, blocking her path. "What are you doing here?"
She strained to see around him. Her eyes scalded. "I just wanted to see her."
"It's a bit late for that, don't you think?" His teeth clenched.
Why hadn't she stayed hidden, stuck with the plan for Wyatt to never know she was there? She'd wanted a glimpse of Hannah, but all other thoughts had flown from her head when she got that glimpse.
"Wyatt, what's wrong?" The dark-haired woman joined them. Her hair was a shade lighter than Natalie's and her eyes were a faded blue.
"You need to leave, Natalie. Now," Wyatt ordered.
"Natalie?" The woman's jaw dropped.
"Don't ruin Lacie's wedding day. You know what she's been through." Wyatt grabbed Natalie's arm.
She tried to pull away. He held fast, but he was gentle. Maybe he had changed.
"Let go of her," Lane growled from behind her.
"I'm just escorting her out. She wasn't invited."
"The newspaper said all friends and family welcome." Natalie's gaze stayed riveted on Hannah.
Wyatt's hand fell to his side. "You're not in either category and you know it, Natalie. This whole thing is a ploy."
"Wyatt, please." The dark-haired woman begged. "Don't cause a scene."
"Let me take you home, Nat." Lane offered her his arm.
"I have my car. And don't call me Nat." She spun on her heel and stalked away. Tears blurred her vision, but she held it together.
Go home alone and drown her sorrows in chocolate and tissues? No. She knew the perfect cure. But could she go through with it?
As she neared her car, movement in a pickup truck caught her attention. A girl and a boy in an intense embrace. She averted her gaze, until she heard a door open.
"Don't be mad, Jeff. I'm not sure." The girl stood outside the passenger side now.
Natalie ducked behind another truck. She didn't want to witness this scene or embarrass the teens. She just wanted to get out of here.
The boy got out of his truck and came around to the girl. He rubbed his hands up and down her arms. "Maybe I can convince you."
"If I leave, what if my mom starts looking for me? And besides, I don't think I'm ready."
"Huh?" His hand clamped on the girl's upper arm. "Listen, Brittany, I don't know what kind of game you're playing, but you've led me on for weeks. And now you don't wanna play?"
With everything in her, Natalie wanted to stay hidden, to not get involved, but she couldn't let this brute manhandle the poor girl.
Nonchalantly, she stepped into view as if she hadn't been hiding. "Let go of her."
That deer-caught-in-the-headlights look passed over the boy's face before his Mr. Too Cool mask slipped firmly back into place. "Make me."