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Oh,God. She wasn't going to be able to do it.
Her wedding day had finally arrived. The day she was to marry Max Santana. Though for years he'd done nothing more than humor her, she'd been in love with the man since puberty. Her wildest dream, her most fantastic hope was about to come true.
And she couldn't do it.
Hands shaking, Rachel Blair reached up to unhook the lacy white veil from her hair. Her father, the Reverend Donald Blair, was going over the last-minute details outside on the acre of green lawn in back of the First Trueblood Presbyterian Church, where he was scheduled, in less than an hour, to perform the ceremony for the wedding of his only daughter. Guests would be arriving soon. As would Max. If he hadn't already.
Rachel's long red hair tumbled around her shoulders and down her back as she removed the pins the hairdresser had put in earlier that morning. Even that little freedom was a relief. And an ache.
She wanted, more than anything else in life, to marry Max. To live side by side with him, share the aches and joys of daily life, to eat with him every day and sleep with him every night
The hairpins hardly made a sound as they slipped from Rachel's fingers to the tile floor of the choir changing room, which was serving double duty as the bride's dressing room this Saturday morning.
Jumping up from her stool, Rachel glanced around frantically. She had to get changed, get out of here, before it was too late. Before anyone came in and tried to stop her. Ashley Garrett Blackstone, the youngest daughter of the Trueblood Garretts, was already a couple of minutes late and would be running in any moment in typical Ashley fashion, strong, sure, ready to go. Pregnancy hadn't changed her a bit. And with her take-charge friend there, Rachel wouldn't stand a chance.
With their goals scattering them in different directions, Rachel and Ashley hadn't seen each other all that much since leaving Trueblood for college. Rachel, hankering for home, had settled in at the Isabella True-blood Memorial Library, after a brief stint as a librarian in San Antonio. Ashley lived in a high-rise in the heart of San Antonio and worked as an account executive at a top advertising firm. She knew nothing about the year that had changed Rachel's life.
And Rachel couldn't seem to tell her. Couldn't bring herself to tell anyone. Not even Max.
Only her father knew the truth. But it wasn't something they talked about. That long, debilitating year of Rachel's life was still too painful for both of them.
Her father. He'd had such hopes for today. Hopes for her. And her future. Hopes that she'd finally be happy, truly happy, again.
She had to get out. Get away.
Hearing a car door and Ashley's voice outside the window, Rachel picked up the folds of her wedding gown and ran through the connecting door to the choir loft at the front of the deserted sanctuary, past the silent pulpit, down through the rows of pews and out the side door of the church. Until the guests started arriving and walking back to the rows of chairs set up on the lawn, the side parking lot would be empty. Thankfully, blissfully, sadly empty.
Running was a little difficult in her spike-heeled wedding shoesthe ones the saleslady in San Antonio had insisted would make her calves looked sinfully sexy to her new husband when he helped her out of her wedding dress later that night.
Kicking them off, Rachel barely felt the sting of the stones beneath her feet as she headed for the parsonage, the building that had been home to her the majority of her life. Her suitcase and purse were there, all packed and ready for the honeymoon. They had everything she'd need. Essentials, credit card, cash. And some things she wouldn'tlike the negligees she was terrified to wear.
Damn Neil Harris and his groping hands, his superior strength. Tears streamed down Rachel's face, almost unnoticed, as she slipped into her father's house, grabbed her things and ran out again.
And damn her own naive stupidity. And her recklessness. She was to blame for everything that had happened. She knew that. Had always known, even though her father had never once pointed the finger of blame in her direction.
She was to blame, and somehow she was going to have to find a way to come to terms with the events that had taken place that fateful night in Austin, in a car not far from the University of Texas. And everything that had happened afterward as well. The choices she'd made. The things she'd done.
She'd thought she was over it all. Beyond it as much as she ever would be. At least enough to get on with the rest of her life.
She'd thought she'd recovered. Right up until she came face-to-face with her wedding night.
She just couldn't do it.
With one last, tearful glance back, Rachel disappeared into the warm May sunshine, leaving her beloved groom standing at the makeshift altar, the solid gold band they'd chosen together nestled in his pocket.
Never one to socialize much, thirty-five-year-old Max Santana shifted his weight restlessly from one foot to the next, waiting for Reverend Blair to give the signal for ''The Wedding March'' to start. The anticipatory trill emanating from the crowd of well-wishers seated in the white folding chairs before him fed his restlessness.
Only for Rachel would he go through this. For his green-eyed, red-haired temptress he'd do anything.
Dylan Garrett, five years Max's junior and the closest thing to a brother Max had ever had, leaned over.
''You doing okay?'' he asked gruffly.
Dylan looked a lot more at ease in the black tux he was wearing than Max felt in the one that was choking him.
''Fine.'' It was a piece of cake. Or would be. Just as soon as Rachel got her butt out of that church and up the aisle beside him. Nine months was a long time for a man to wait once he'd finally figured out where his future led.
Old-fashioned enough to want to do things rightand with the Reverend Donald Blair as his future father-in-lawMax had been forced to take some mighty cold showers this past winter. But all that would soon be over. Tonight, he was going to have Rachel right where she belonged. In his bed.
She'd be lucky if he let her up before their first anniversary. No man had ever had to put up with as much tempting as Rachel had thrown his way. Hell, she'd been trying out her feminine wiles on him for most of ten years. From the time she'd turned fourteen and decided she was officially a woman.
Heaven help him.
He'd managed to ignore her, for the most part, until that first day she'd come home from college. By God, he'd noticed her then.
And she'd made certain he kept right on noticing.
Or had she? Maybe she hadn't been as much the temptress these last months. But her big green eyes had still shone with that same adoration they'd always had.
She'd grown up at the university. And while he loved her more than any man should ever love a woman, Max was a little saddened by the pixie that had been lost in the transition.
He glanced at his watch. ''The Wedding March'' was supposed to have started two minutes ago.
Max continued to rock. And took a second to look out over the sea of people facing him. William Garrett. William's daughter Lily and her husband Cole and their new baby. Teachers he'd had in school. Ranch hands. Boots. A woman or two he'd bedded along the way. Friends of the Garrett family. Associates from the feed store. Mike from the gas station. Familiar faces, all of them, he thought, warmed by their support. He might not be a Garrett in any official capacity, but he'd grown up with them, attended every holiday, every family celebration as though he were one of them. And today, he was being treated as well as any Garrett.
Everyone in Trueblood had turned out for his wedding to Rachel Blair.
Even Sebastian Cooper had come down for the event. Max had a bad feeling about the man, but he'd been one of Dylan's best friends for years so Max tried to tolerate him. Unlike a good whiskey, the man definitely did not improve with age.
''You think Cole'll be able to oversee the horses?'' Max asked Dylan under his breath.
Dylan's rangy brother-in-law was going to fill in as ranch foreman while Max was away. Cole and Dylan's twin sister, Lily, had a small spread attached to the Garrett ranch.
''I'm sure of it,'' Dillon said sotto voce. ''He ran his own ranch before marrying Lily, remember. And Dad'll be there.''
''Humph.'' Max didn't like to see the elderly Garrett out working the ranch. That was Max's job, so William, who'd put in his time and then some, could sit back and enjoy life.
And maybe find himself a good woman.
''Cole's a dad now, and he's got his own place to see to,'' Max said, his hands clenched behind his back. Where in the hell was Rachel?
Why wasn't Reverend Blair out there, giving the signal? First Presbyterian's organist had been sending covert glances in the direction of the church for several minutes.
And the crowd was getting restless. They reminded Max of a herd of calves at branding time. Overly excited. And getting more nervous by the minute.
''Fatherhood is only spurring Cole on, not deterring him from his work,'' Dylan said through the side of his mouth.
It took Max a second to figure out what his friend was even talking about.
Tempted to yank at the bow tie clipped around his neck, Max ran through a mental calculation of the hands he'd left in charge of the ranch, instead. He didn't spend a lot of time talking with them, but they were honest card players. And hard workers. They could handle things for a week so William wouldn't have to.
He was finding it increasingly hard to breathe.
Max brushed his arm against the inside pocket of his jacket, reassured by the jeweler's box he'd placed there. Traditionally, Dylan should be holding the ring, but Max had wanted to keep it himself. It somehow made him feel more in control of his own destiny.
Rachel was ten minutes late.
People were starting to talk a little louder, to turn around. He'd even seen one or two of them send veiled glances his way.
What? Did they think Rachel would walk out on him? Everyone knew she'd been in love with him for almost half her life.
Of course, most of those years had been nothing more than puppy love. A crush. But still
Did they honestly think she wouldn't go through with the marriage?
Max started to sweat. Could he blame her if she got cold feet? He was almost twelve years older than her. A big, rugged outdoorsman. A ranch foreman. What would a slight, innocent minister's daughter see in him?
''She probably ripped her dress or cried off her makeup,'' Dylan said, speaking a little louder than before to be heard over the crowd of well-wishers who were simultaneously mingling in conversation with those seated close by and watching the back of the churchyard where Reverend Blair was due to put in his appearance.
Feet sweating in his shoes, Max wished for the cowboy boots and jeans he was at home in. He could tell Dylan was getting a little worried, too.
Max should never have asked her to marry hima woman so much younger than him. Hell, she'd been in second grade when he was a senior in high school.
To think that a quiet set-in-his-ways rancher like him would really attract a young woman like Rachel for life
What was he thinking? Of course Rachel loved him. He might have a hang-up about their age difference, but she certainly didn't.
Max's head shot up as Dylan whispered the word. Reverend Blair had appeared at the back of the rows of chairs and was signalingbut not to the organist. He wanted Max. And his face was lined with worry.
Alarm shooting through his veins, Max made it back to his future father-in-law without even seeing the rows of friends and family sitting there watching him. What they were thinking was unimportant. Something was wrong with Rachel.
''Is she sick?'' he asked urgently, before the good reverend could get out the first word. ''Where is she?''
Reverend Blair shook his head. ''I'm sorry, son .'' He backed into the open door of the church, away from prying eyes.
''Sorry about what?'' Max asked, no less urgently, following Donald Blair step for step. Whatever it was, he'd take care of it.
''She's gone .''
''Gone where?'' Dear God, don't let him say she was dead. Anything but dead. Dead he couldn't do anything about. ''How?''
Had there been an accident?
The minister shrugged his slumped shoulders and Max had the distinct feeling that the other man knew more than he intended to tell Max.
''She ran off, Max.''
Max swung around, seeing Ashley Garrett Black-stone for the first time. Dylan's youngest sister had been standing in the shadows. She was supposed to be attending Rachel.
''Ran off?'' he asked, frowning. This entire day was going from uncomfortable to nightmarish. ''Where?
This wasn't like Rachel at all. Rachel Blair always did what was expected of her. She was the town librarian, for God's sake. He glanced back at the reverend.
Donald Blair's eyes were filled with an unsettling combination of worry and sadness. ''Her suitcase and purse are gone from the house.''
''We found these in the yard between the church and the parsonage,'' Ashley said, holding up a pair of white high heels. ''They were Rachel's wedding shoes.''
''Someone's kidnapped her? She's been abducted?'' Max hollered. ''Why are you all just standing here? Call the police.''
The reverend shook his head. ''I already called,'' he said. ''They don't take missing person reports for forty-eight hours. It would have been pretty hard for someone to take her from the choir changing room, which is where I left her,'' he continued. ''And even if they had, I doubt they'd have stopped by the parsonage for her suitcase and purse. And only her suitcase and purse. In the first place, they wouldn't have known they were there.''
''She ran off, Max,'' Ashley said again, her voice gentle. Ashley's new husband was out there someplace, in that sea of people.
And so was everyone else he knew.
Max hardly cared. Rachel was all that mattered.
''Why?'' he asked, hands in the pockets of his slacks as he tried to make sense of the past twenty minutes. ''How long ago did she leave? Did she take the car? Leave a note?''
''Her car's at my place,'' Ashley said. ''She came into San Antonio this morning to have her hair done and was leaving her car to be serviced while you guys were on your honeymoon. I drove her back to Trueblood. I'd just run out to the ranch to pick up the dress Lily had shortened for me and when I came back she was gone.''
''There was no note,'' Reverend Blair added. ''It looks as though she left in a bit of a hurry.''
''Why?'' Max asked again. And what did he do next? He knew ranching, not women.
Again the other two shrugged. ''She was a bit edgy this morning, but that's natural under the circumstances,'' Ashley said. Max felt the first stab of real pain as he saw the compassion in her eyes. ''She was also undeniably excited. She wanted to be your wife, Max.''
''She did,'' the reverend confirmed.
''More than anything.'' Ashley's slim fingers ran down the sleeve of Max's jacket. Frozen beneath her touch, he hardly felt her at all.
His glance rested on Donald Blair. ''You don't seem all that surprised.''
The minister looked from Max to Ashley, and then away. ''I'm surprised,'' he said quietly. ''My daughter wants to be your wife more than anything else in life.''
The minister shook his head, eyes sad with defeat. ''I can't say anything more. Whatever might be bothering Rachel is between you and her.''