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Wedding of the Century
By Patricia McLinn
Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.Copyright © 2003 Patricia McLinn
All right reserved.
Chapter OneSeven-and-a-half years ago
"If anyone knows just cause why these two people ..."
Annette heard the side door of the First Church of Tobias, Wisconsin, emit a high-pitched protest at being opened, but didn't turn.
It was the day of her wedding to Steve Corbett, the man she loved. The man who had pledged to love and protect her.
The man who'd withdrawn into abstraction and politeness in recent weeks.
The man, so went the dark whispers that had filtered to her, who had been seen recently in intense conversation with his old girlfriend.
Gossip. That's all. From people who'd never believed the elder Corbett son would marry Annette Trevetti. She'd been among those nonbelievers at first. She'd insisted they were dating casually for a full year. He would give her that half smile and say, "Maybe you're not serious...."
But this was their wedding day. A day full of promise, hope and joy. The happiest day of her life. It had to be. It was, as she'd been told times past counting, the wedding of the century in Tobias. The music, flowers, dress and ceremony were all exquisitely tasteful. Even the bridal party had been chosen with an eye to balance and proportion, which was the reason, she had been told, that her brother couldn't be in it - he didn't fit.
"That's crazy!" she'd blurted in front of the wedding consultant. Lana Corbett had gone stiff at that violation of the Corbett code of never acknowledging the existence of anything as ordinary as laundry, much less washing the dirty stuff in public. And Steve had uttered that Corbett standard, "We'll talk about it later." How could she both admire how self-contained he was and hate it?
When they had talked about it, Steve had said he would make sure Max was in the wedding - over his mother's objections and Max's refusal to wear a tux - if it was important to Annette. Annette had wanted to say there'd be no tuxes to worry about if the wedding had remained the simple, personal and small ceremony they had planned. She'd hoped Steve would stand up for that version without her demanding it. But he seemed so distracted that she wondered if he even noticed what the wedding had become.
Then he'd held her and said that what mattered was the two of them spending the rest of their lives together. How could she argue with that? And how could she push him into another family fight when she knew - thanks to the Tobias rumor mill - he was already defying his mother by marrying her?
So Lana Corbett decided every detail of their wedding, since everyone in Tobias knew that Annette, poor all her life and motherless the past seven years, didn't have the faintest idea how to go about having a wedding worthy of a Corbett.
But these past weeks she'd begun to wonder. What if the wedding said something about the rest of their lives together?
"Why these two people should not be joined in holy matrimony -"
Despite the packed church gasping and the minister gaping, Annette didn't turn toward the side door - pleased that Lana Corbett couldn't blame this wrinkle in the master plan on her. The first real concern trickled up her spine when Max half rose from his seat behind her, his face set in his protective-brother mode.
Then she felt Steve stiffen beside her.
In that instant, the meaning of that all-wrong "I do" sank in like a blade into flesh.
She turned and saw Lily Wilbanks with her hands spread across her notably rounded abdomen.
"I'm the one who should be up there marrying him. Because this is Steve Corbett's baby."
The gasps turned to outcries. Distantly, Annette was aware of Lana demanding that someone remove that woman.
Lily had to be wrong. Mistaken. It couldn't be Steve's baby.
The rumors. Steve and Lily, sitting in his car at Lake Tobias Park, with their heads close together and their faces intent.
No. He hadn't asked Lily from the oh-so-perfect family to marry him, he'd asked her. He wouldn't betray her this way.
It was Steve's voice. The same soothing tone he'd used over losing control of the wedding - their wedding, the start of their marriage. It held calming sympathy, but it held even more of the stiff Corbett proceed-with-dignity credo. Not to make a scene. Not to get emotional.
Not to be herself.
Through the gloves his mother had insisted she wear, Annette felt Steve's fingertips. They felt cold. Or maybe her skin was cold.
She stepped away from his touch but couldn't take her eyes off his hand, still extended in the gap between them, as she demanded, "Did you get Lily pregnant?"
The gasp from the wedding guests was louder, more shocked. Focused on Steve's face, she saw the stiffness come over him. Watched the life of the man she loved disappear behind the Corbett code.
"Annette," he said with a reasonableness that made her want to scream, "we'll talk about that later. For now -"
"No. We won't talk about it later. Tell me now."
If she let this go until later, she would let him - and her love for him - explain it away. And now she knew why she'd never asked him about being seen with Lily, why she hadn't pushed him about his mood these past weeks. She'd been afraid of the answers.
"Now, Steve. Or never."
Something in his eyes flickered. "This isn't -"
"The time? The place? Well, I'm tired of having my feelings scheduled so they're more convenient for the Corbetts to ignore. And a church is the perfect place to face the truth - that this isn't going to work."
She turned, half kicking the full skirt out of her way, and escaped through a door to the minister's office. She tried to pull her engagement ring off, forgetting the hated gloves for an instant. Yanking at the material, she heard a rip, and it released, pulling inside out as it came off her hand. She dropped the glove on the desk, pulled the ring off and dropped that atop the huddled glove.
She had the outside door open when she turned at the sound of someone behind her.
Steve stood at the far door as if frozen in midstride, his lips parted but no sound coming out. His gaze locked on the glove and ring on a corner of the desk.
She kept going, hearing the door close behind her with a solid thud.
Excerpted from Wedding of the Century by Patricia McLinn Copyright © 2003 by Patricia McLinn
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.