The Stolen Bride (Harlequin Intrigue Series)

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The Stolen Bride

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780373228003
  • Publisher: Harlequin
  • Publication date: 9/1/2004
  • Series: Harlequin Intrigue Series , #800
  • Format: Mass Market Paperback
  • Pages: 256
  • Product dimensions: 4.12 (w) x 6.64 (h) x 0.67 (d)

Read an Excerpt

The Stolen Bride


By Jacqueline Diamond

Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.

Copyright © 2004 Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-373-22800-7


Chapter One

Erin Marshall first noticed the van a little before 6:00 p.m. She wasn't sure why it caught her eye, since there were still quite a few cars parked in the paved area roped off from the Healthy Children's Fund carnival, which she'd helped organize.

It wasn't just the peeling beige paint or dented bumper that drew her attention. Despite Orange County's reputation for affluence, the daylong carnival in the centrally located city of Tustin had drawn not only late-model cars and SUVs, but also plenty of old clunkers.

Maybe it was the way the van lurked to one side, half-hidden in the shade of an office building that sat empty on a Saturday. And the fact that, despite an obscuring shadow, she could tell there was someone sitting behind the wheel, unmoving as the minutes ticked by.

Was he waiting for someone? Why didn't he come out and enjoy the September sunshine?

"Wanna buy a candy bar?" a girl's voice asked.

Erin tore her gaze away from the van. Before the booth where she'd been handing out pamphlets stood a teenage volunteer with one thick, nutty chocolate bar left on her tray.

"I just have to sell this one and I can go home," the girl said. "You look hungry. How about it?"

It was on the tip of Erin's tongue to say, "I can't eat that stuff." Even though she was only twenty-six, she'd stuck strictly - well, almost strictly - to health food since a heart attack killed her father two years ago.

What was a couple of dollars? And she had skipped lunch, and for heaven's sake, it was one chocolate bar.

"Sure." She fished a few crumpled bills from her shoulder bag.

"Thanks!" With a grin, the girl handed it over and hurried toward the cashier's booth. Beyond her, workmen were disassembling the carnival rides on a far section of the asphalt. The scents of popcorn and cotton candy lingered in the air as the vendors closed up shop.

People streamed by, heading home. From the parking area, Erin registered the sound of cars starting. No one seemed the least bit interested in taking a pamphlet describing the fund's free health screening programs.

After tucking away the candy to savor at leisure, she decided to make the rounds to see if anyone needed help closing up shop. Although many tradespeople had decamped, it was her responsibility, as administrative assistant at Conrad Promotions, to keep things running smoothly.

Erin glanced toward the building. The van hadn't gone anywhere.

It probably belonged to one of the craftspeople, she told herself. Any minute, the driver would get out and begin loading unsold wares.

Still, she felt vulnerable. For comfort, she instinctively touched the gold pendant nestled against the front of her blue Healthy Children's Fund T-shirt.

It was hard to say why she'd worn it today. Although she sometimes took it out of the drawer simply to enjoy the precious memories it stirred, Erin couldn't remember the last time she'd worn the jagged half heart design. Maybe it was because, after tomorrow, she'd never be able to wear it again.

It reminded her of someone she'd once loved, someone who'd probably thrown away the other half of the heart years ago. Erin wished that didn't bother her so much.

A tablecloth flapped in her path, startling her.

"I'm sorry! I didn't see you," called a woman shaking wrinkles from the fabric. She'd already tucked her unsold teddy bears into a box beneath her display table.

"I hope your sales went well," Erin said.

"Terrific!" That was good news, since the fund netted a percentage of everything sold.

Erin moved on through the nearly empty carnival section. She was about to check on the van again when a boy of about four pelted toward her. Behind him lagged his weary mother, pushing a baby stroller.

"Whoa!" Erin held out one arm. "Wait for your mom."

The boy halted in front of her. "I want to go home!"

"Are you planning to drive the car yourself?" she asked.

"Can I?" he asked hopefully.

"Well, no, so I guess you better wait for your mother."

That seemed logical to Erin, but the little boy's face reddened. "I'm hungry!" he wailed.

"I'm sure your mom will feed you as soon as she can," she said.

The woman caught up in time to hear the last remark. "We ate about an hour ago, but he was too excited to finish his sandwich. I promised to split a chocolate bar with him, but I can't find any."

At the thought of the candy tucked into her purse, Erin's stomach growled. Despite her devotion to health food - or perhaps because of it - she could almost taste the chocolate melting on her tongue and the nuts crunching between her teeth.

The little boy whined. His mother's shoulders sagged.

"Here." Erin took out the bar and handed it to the woman. "It's courtesy of Conrad Promotions. We want everyone to go away happy."

"How kind! I'll pay for it, of course." She reached for her wallet.

"It's on the house."

"Are you sure?" Receiving a nod, she said, "That's great! Thank you." The mother broke the candy bar in two and gave a piece to her son.

The smell of chocolate drifted through Erin's senses. Her stomach rumbled again. She hoped nobody heard it over the clamor of workmen dismantling the rides. "Have a good evening."

"You too!"

After the family left, Erin couldn't find a single food stand open. Well, she'd eat a yogurt later at her apartment.

"Erin!" Bea Conrad waved from the cashier's booth. The owner of Conrad Promotions had a friendly face and fluffy honey-colored hair. The T-shirt and slacks she'd worn instead of one of her usual tailored suits made her look younger than her late thirties.

Erin strode in her direction. "Anything I can do?"

"Actually, yes. I have a favor to ask," Bea said.

"Name it." Too late, it occurred to Erin that she might get stuck here without dinner. Well, she'd survive. Maybe.

"What a great attitude! I hope I'm not going to lose you." Bea shook her head apologetically. "Don't mind me. Chet's a real catch. When are you giving him your answer?"

"He's driving down tomorrow." Erin felt an inexplicable urge to touch her heart pendant again. She didn't want to talk about Chet. "How were the receipts?"

"Even better than last year," Bea said. "I don't have the final numbers, but I'm guessing the profit will be around fifteen thousand. That's not counting our mysterious benefactor. I can't believe it! Someone managed to sneak a cashier's check into the donation box again this year."

"Let's not complain about it," Erin teased. "How much was it this time?"

"Twenty thousand," Bea said. "It's from Friend of a Friend Foundation again. I'm surprised you never heard of them. I mean, you are from Sundown Valley, and that's where they're located. But I guess you don't pay much attention to what goes on there anymore."

Erin shrugged and said nothing. In fact, she subscribed to the Sundown Sentinel and kept close tabs on her hometown.

"I don't know why they're so mysterious." Bea had telephoned the previous year and learned only that the foundation made donations to worthy causes on behalf of an anonymous sponsor. "Well, I'm not going to look a gift horse in the mouth."

"What was the favor?" Erin asked.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from The Stolen Bride by Jacqueline Diamond Copyright © 2004 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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