The tall, dark and handsome forest ranger has a way of making Daphne Carruthers feel safe. Her brother's buddy is also awakening feelings deeper than friendship. Daphne wants to believe in the future Cory's offering, but first she must come to terms with her painful past.
Helping Daphne recover from a difficult relationship, Cory knows he has to be careful where her heart is concerned. And Cory is hiding a secret of his own that could destroy the fragile trust they're starting to build. Can he stop their pasts from sabotaging their future togetherand convince Daphne he's the best man for her?
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As Daphne Carruthers dabbed the tissue to her eyes she looked around at all the other women seated nearby, who were also wiping their eyes. Women watching the wedding ceremony with men who were obviously boyfriends or husbands. Not their brothers. She wasn't so lucky.
She turned to Rick, sitting beside her with his arms crossed and scowling at the latest of their friends to get married. Any moment she expected to hear him mumble, "Sucker."
Again she turned to the front as Brad and Kayla faced the pastor, their attendants at their sides.
If the wedding wasn't so romantic, the picture could have been funny. Kayla and her maid of honor and one bridesmaid stood at about five foot five inches, give or take an inch, which was several inches taller than Daphne. Brad and his groomsman were about five foot ten, but the best man, Cory, towered above them all. She didn't know his exact height, but she would have guessed that Cory was taller than her brother by three or four inches, and her brother was six feet even.
She wondered if he had ever played basketball.
She also wondered how often he'd been asked that very thing.
Because Cory was the quiet one in her brother's group of friends, she didn't know the answer. In fact, she didn't even know how Cory and Rick had met. All she knew about him was that he was a forest ranger, which was probably a good job for him because of his size. He didn't need to be afraid of the bears; the bears were probably afraid of him.
The pastor's happy voice rang out through the building. "I pronounce you husband and wife! You may now kiss the bride."
Before the pastor finished speaking, Brad had already lifted Kayla's veil. After the pastor's words he kept kissing her until the pastor cleared his throat, not once, but twice. A number of the ladies giggled and a couple of the men hooted. When they finally separated, the pastor introduced them as Mr. and Mrs. Kendall and they began their trip down the aisle as a married couple.
Daphne sniffled again. "Isn't that romantic?" she whispered to Rick.
Rick grunted, then actually muttered, "Sucker."
She wanted to poke him with her elbow, but it was pointless.
While Brad and Kayla and their attendants posed in front of the old brick building for a few pictures, Daphne stood back with Rick. The photographer moved the bridal party back to the door, where he could pose everyone on the steps. He positioned Cory to stand one stair lower than everyone else, so his head was only slightly higher than his friends in the wedding party. Friends and family snapped photos behind the photographer.
"Are you going to get any closer?" Rick asked when she snapped a few pictures from where they stood.
"No, I'm good."
As a young couple beside them exchanged a quick kiss, Rick stiffened. Daphne knew he was wary of love. Personally, he'd seen too many women fall in love with his policeman's uniform, then be unable to handle the life of the man beneath the uniform. Because her brother was singleand planned to stay that wayhe was happy to be at her side when needed, and that was what Daphne wanted. No one messed with Rick; therefore, no one would ever mess with her.
Not ever again. At least they wouldn't if they knew Rick was never far away.
And that was why, as brother and sister, they were together as the only non-couple at Brad and Kayla's wedding.
From her purse, Daphne's phone sounded with the tone that she'd received a new text message.
"I can't believe you didn't turn that off," Rick grumbled, then automatically patted his pocket where he kept his own phone, which was always set to vibrate.
"I don't know who would text me now." The few people who would text her were either already there or knew she was at a wedding today.
She pulled her phone out of her purse. "This is odd. It's Frank, my boss." Her stomach tightened. She'd applied for a promotion into the marketing department. Word had it that the final decision was now between her and one other employee. "I don't know why he's sending me a message today. This is going to be either really good or really bad." She sucked in a deep breath and pressed the screen to read his message.
"Which is it?"
Daphne read in silence, then read it again to let the words sink in. "There's a chamber of commerce dinner tomorrow, and Frank suddenly can't go. He says he asked Ken, the other guy who wants the job in marketing, and Ken said he won't work weekends. Frank says the job is mine if I go."
"That's good, isn't it?"
"I I think so."
For the first time all afternoon Rick smiled. "What's not good? Aren't those things usually at a five-star restaurant downtown? All you need to do is smile and listen to a few boring speeches."
She gulped. "That's true, but I can't go alone. Frank says I need a date, and you're working tomorrow."
Rick's smile dropped. "This means the difference between getting that job and not getting it, right?"
"It sounds like it. These things don't happen often, but when they do, they're important. I think the point is that he'll give the job to whoever makes it a priority, and Ken blew it. I need to go." She gulped again. "And not alone. He was specific about bringing a date. I don't know why."
"Does he know you're not dating?"
"Not really. Everyone knows I'm not in a relationship, but no one knows why. What do I do? I really need that promotion."
"Are you ready to go out on a date without me?"
She shook her head. "I don't know." Besides work, she'd only been out in public with one personher brothersince the terrible day that had changed her life. Now, six months later, the thought of being alone with a man still made her feel like throwing up.
"Your words say yes, but your head says no. I'm inclined to go with your head."
Daphne pressed her hand over her heart, which was pounding. "You're right. I'm really scared. But I need this promotion. If I ever want to move out of Mom and Dad's house I need a better job, and this one is perfect." She also needed to show her parents that she was okay, even if she wasn't, to stop them from constantly worrying about her.
"Then you'll need to go with someone I know. Someone we both can trust."
It took everything within her to not shake her head. The few who knew understood, but being understood didn't help her right now. This was her worst fear come to life: she was going to be alone in a crowd of strangers, knowing only one person. But if her brother knew the man who would accompany her, then she didn't need to be afraid when the event was all over.
Not like the last time.
She cleared her throat. "I really need to do this. But all your cop friends are working tomorrow, too, aren't they?"
Rick nodded. "Yeah. There's a big heavy metal rock concert at the park, and everyone who didn't have a regular shift is working overtime to make sure there's no trouble."
Daphne's mind went blank, so she turned to watch the wedding party.
While the photographer positioned the wedding party again, Brad reached out and gently tucked a stray lock of Kayla's hair out of her eyes. The dreamy smile they exchanged was the thing fairy tales were made of.
That was what Daphne had wanted once. But now she didn't think she could ever let her guard down to take the risk.
The photographer snapped a few more pictures, sent the attendants away, then motioned for the bride's and groom's parents to take their turn with the happy couple.
The bridesmaid and matron of honor joined their boyfriend and husband, respectively. The groomsman joined his wife. Cory stood alone, looking quite lost.
Rick waved one hand in the air until Cory noticed him. Cory looked from side to side, probably checking in case Rick was motioning to someone else. Then, satisfied Rick meant him, Cory walked toward them.
"There's your man," Rick said to Daphne, then turned to Cory when he reached them. "Cory, my friend, are you busy tomorrow?"
Cory Bellanger opened his mouth to reply but no words came out.
As Rick asked the question, Daphne's face turned from a cute pink to ghostly white. The change was so sudden and so drastic he thought she was going to faint.
He reached toward her in case she toppled. "Are you okay? Do you need to sit down?" If she sank to the grass she'd probably get green stains on her pretty dress. He glanced at the church's park bench, but it was halfway across the property.
Instead of leaning toward him, Daphne stepped back, wobbling slightly but managing to keep upright.
Rick's face tightened. His fingers clenched into fists, then opened stiffly.
As Cory looked into his friend's face, the question drifted back to his mind. "No. I'm not busy tomorrow. Why? What's up?"
Rick turned to Daphne, so Cory did the same.
Daphne cleared her throat and turned her head, but as she spoke she didn't meet his eyes. "I need someone to join me at a last-minute business dinner tomorrow night. Can you come with me? Dress is business casual."
As Cory waited for more details, he fought to keep himself from grinning like a kid who'd just gotten everything he wanted for Christmas.
A year ago he'd wanted to ask Daphne out, but she'd been going steady with another guy. Then suddenly it was over, and just as suddenly it was almost as though she dropped off the face of the planet. Whenever he'd asked Rick about her all Rick said was that she'd had an accident and needed some time to herself. That had been months.
No one had ever told him what kind of injury. The first time he'd seen her since her breakup, she'd looked pretty much the same, although thinner. But looks aside, whatever had happened had made her very withdrawn. Her spirit had dimmed.
And the smallest mention of Daphne to her brother turned his friend into a mother bear protecting her cubs. Rick had made it clear that she wasn't interested in dating him and that had been the end of that.
Now, six months later, apparently that had changed. Except, even though she'd asked him, she looked like a scared rabbit with an eagle circling overhead.
She quickly told him where the dinner was and then clutched her purse to her chest. "Excuse me. I need to phone my boss back." She'd barely finished speaking before she dashed off. When she reached the bench he'd seen earlier, she sat, pulled her cell phone out of her purse and made a call.
Cory turned to Rick. "Is she okay?"
"Not really. You need to stay with her every minute, and not let her out of your sight. Like a bodyguard. Do I make myself clear?"
"Bodyguard? I don't understand." His stomach clenched. "Does this have something to do with her last boyfriend? Is she afraid of him coming after her?"
"Something like that."
Cory again waited for more details but none came.
Rick stiffened and assumed the stance, every inch a cop on alert. "And if I hear you did something to scare or hurt her, I'll forget I'm a cop and break your arm. Maybe both arms. Don't forget that."
The hairs on the back of Cory's neck stood on end. Whatever happened to Daphne had been more than a car accident injury, as everyone had assumed. It was personal. Very personal. Now, if he ever saw her old boyfriend, maybe he'd be the one breaking arms.
Cory shook his head to rid himself of the thought. That was exactly what he couldn't do, for so very many reasons. "She'll be safe with me. You don't have to worry."
"This is really important to her. That's the only reason she's going. Don't forget that, either."
He wasn't really sure what Rick was saying, but if he had to act a part as well as be her protector, he would do that.
They both watched as Daphne finished her call then tucked her phone into her purse.
Slowly, she stood and began to walk toward them. While she did, he couldn't help but really look at her because it had been so long since he'd seen her, and now he could just watch without being noticeable.
Her hair had grown longer and somehow seemed darker; not just dark brown, but almost black. It hung past her shoulders, straight instead of slightly wavy. Instead of bangs, it was now parted to the side.
From a distance her dark hair seemed the same shade as the frames of her dark glasses, contrasting with her pale skin, telling him that she hadn't been outside much, if at all, since the last time he'd seen her six months ago.
She'd also lost weight. She'd had a little bit of weight on her frame before, just right to give her some curves, but now she was too thin. He didn't think she'd done it on purpose. She'd never been shy about eating, not like other women he knew who were perpetually on a diet.
As she continued to move closer, he kept watching. The weight loss emphasized her high cheekbones and slightly long nose, something that had always embarrassed her. Not that he understood why anything on such a gorgeous face could embarrass her.
He wanted to feed her. For someone so short, probably more than a foot shorter than he was, being so thin made her look almost waiflike.
Since he was joining her for dinner tomorrow, maybe he could start a real friendshipand help get her back to what she'd been before whatever had happened.