A PLACE TO HEAL
When Linnea Holland's plans for her dream wedding collapse, she flees to the safest place she knows: Blue Falls, Texas. At her best friend's family ranch, nobody asks for details. The Brody boys just welcome her with open arms and a whole lot of brotherly love.
Trouble is, the feelings between Linnea and Owen Brody are a little warmer than that. They practically grew up together, but she has suddenly noticed that Owen has grown into one hot cowboy. And his protective instincts kick in when he sees how much Linnea is hurting. He's the perfect antidote to her lying ex-fiancé. But can their feelings be loveor is Owen simply a guy she can rely on for the rebound?
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Linnea Holland only had five minutes before opening time for her bridal boutique and a busy day of catering to the romantic dreams of Dallas brides-to-be. Still, that was enough time for one more peek.
She hurried to the back of the building, to the room that held the most gorgeous wedding gown Linnea had ever seen. And it was hers. In two weeks, she would wear the Ellen Clare original design as she walked down the aisle toward her very own prince.
Okay, so Michael wasn't an actual prince, but he certainly treated her like a queen. The past six months together had been a whirlwind of fancy dinners in fine restaurants, beautiful flower bouquets delivered to her at the store when he had to go out of town on business and an engagement ring that had taken her breath away. As she stood and stared at the dress with lace so delicate it looked as if it might float away into mist if she touched it, she still couldn't believe she was going to be Mrs. Michael Benson. Sometimes she pinched herself to make sure she wasn't in the longest, most realistic dream imaginable.
Not only was Michael a successful executive with a big investment firm and drop-dead gorgeous, but somehow out of all the women he could have, he'd chosen her, the middle daughter of two teachers. And it had all started when she accidentally bumped into him coming out of a coffee shop, dousing his crisp white shirt and designer suit with a caramel latte. She'd been mortified, and he'd asked her out on the spot, stunning her speechless. He'd just smiled until she'd remembered how to utter a "Yes."
It had been the kind of first meeting you saw in movies, and the moment he asked her to marry him she'd been determined to make her wedding like something out of a fairy tale.
She glanced at the clock and hurried out of the room. She might have a fairy-tale wedding on the horizon, but until then she had a business to run. She reached the front door just as she heard Katrina, her business partner, coming in the back.
"Sorry I'm late," Katrina called out.
Linnea turned the lock on the door, then headed toward the curved white counter in the middle of the store. "You're not late."
"Well, late for me," Katrina said as she shoved her purse into a drawer behind the counter.
Linnea smiled at Katrina. "Considering you're here at least half an hour early every day, I think one day of right on time isn't going to mar your record."
The truth was, Linnea couldn't have asked for a better partner in her business. Katrina possessed a lot of business savvy, loved the boutique as much as Linnea did and was an excellent salesperson. Michael liked to tease them by calling them the odd couple because Katrina was petite with a stylish black bob, while Linnea stood several inches taller and had long, wavy red hair. They might look different, but in all the ways that mattered they were a perfect business match.
"So, how many times have you been back to stare at your dress this morning?" Katrina asked before taking a drink of her coffee.
Katrina laughed a little. "Going into withdrawal yet?"
Linnea bumped Katrina's shoulder with her own. Before she could think of an appropriate response, however, their first appointment of the day arrived Rena Cavendish and her very demanding mother. Lin-nea put on her best smile and went to work.
By the time Rena's mother finally agreed on the last of the details for her daughter's wedding, Linnea felt as if she needed about twelve hours of sleep to recuperate. Still, she didn't let her smile waver as the Cavendish women made their departure. It was her job to make them happy, to make them believe helping them was the absolute highlight of her day. Most of the time, she did love every minute of her job. But there was the occasional mother like Marilyn Cavendish or a true bridezilla who made keeping her smile from faltering extra challenging.
When Rena and Marilyn disappeared around the corner, Linnea felt like massaging her aching facial muscles. She glanced across the store to where Ka-trina was aiding a young bride who, by contrast, was as sweet as pie.
The door chime drew Linnea's attention. A woman perhaps a few years older than her with blond hair pulled back in a chignon walked in.
"Good morning," Linnea said, smiling more naturally this time. "How can I help you?"
"You're Linnea Holland." The fact that the words weren't a question left Linnea with an odd feeling. Maybe it was the way the woman was staring at her without looking away.
"Yes. I'm sorry, have we met?"
"You're engaged to Michael Benson?"
Linnea searched for a reason for the strange conversation. "I am. Do you know Michael?"
"You're going to want to call off that wedding."
Linnea jerked back a bit at the woman's words and what seemed like anger barely banked below the surface. "And why would I do that?"
"Because he's already married. To me."
Linnea gripped the edge of the counter to steady herself. Before she realized Katrina had moved away from the customer she was helping, she was there next to Linnea, placing a comforting hand on her arm.
"Ma'am, what is the meaning of this?" Katrina said softly to shield her words from the young bride-to-be.
A glance in that direction, however, told Linnea that the unexpected conversation had not gone unnoticed.
The woman also looked toward the customer. The latter held a wedding gown in front of her as she looked in the mirror and failed to do a very convincing job of pretending she wasn't listening to them. Shifting her gaze back to Linnea, the woman claiming to be Michael's wife stepped closer.
"Listen, I'm not accusing you of husband stealing or anything."
"Good, because I'm not," Linnea said with more than a little heat in her response. She wanted this woman and her crazy accusations to go away.
The sympathy that appeared in the other woman's eyes scared Linnea more than anything she'd said.
"My name is Danielle Benson. Michael and I have been married for six years."
Linnea shook her head. "No, you're wrong."
"I assure you I'm not." Danielle pulled a photo out of her purse and placed it atop the counter.
Linnea's breath caught as she stared down at a photo of Michael, a little younger, in a tux and holding the hands of the woman who now stood in front of Linnea. The younger version of Danielle wore a wedding gown and was looking up at Michael as if she couldn't believe she'd gotten so lucky. Linnea knew that feeling. Again, she shook her head. "Photos are remarkably easy to manipulate."
Danielle patted her purse. "I have a copy of our marriage license."
"All that would prove is that you were married at one point." Sure, Michael had said nothing about being married before, but she needed to believe that if he ever had been he was now divorced. The alternative was just too horrible to be believed. Her Michael wouldn't do something like that.
"I know this is hard to hear, and trust me when I tell you that it isn't any easier to say. I didn't want to believe my husband was cheating on me, but when I found out that he was actually planning to marry someone else, someone who had no idea he was already married Well, I knew I couldn't let him hurt you like he has me."
"No, this can't be right. You're mistaken. There are probably lots of Michael Bensons." Even as Linnea tried to explain away Danielle's claims, doubt began to seep in like water finding the cracks in a rock. There might be a lot of Michael Bensons, but they didn't look like her Michael. Linnea's hearing seemed to fade, and the world around her started to spin in nauseating circles as Danielle explained how she'd hired a private investigator to follow Michael and that the PI was the one who'd relayed that Linnea was totally unaware of Michael's marital status.
In the blink of an eye, the meager contents of Linnea's stomach staged a revolt that sent her racing for the bathroom. She slammed the door behind her and made it to the toilet just in time. After she finally stopped retching, she found she didn't have the strength to push herself up from the floor. And then the tears came.
She needed to call Michael, to straighten this mess out. But as she sat on the floor in her favorite teal pencil skirt, doubts and questions began to peck at her like the beaks of sinister birds. The fact that she'd never met Michael's parents, how he'd never taken her to any company function and all the long business trips. She strangled on a sob when she considered those trips hadn't been for business at all but that he'd been going home to his wife.
A knock on the door was followed by Katrina's voice. "Are you okay?"
No, she wasn't okay. She might never be okay again.
When Linnea didn't answer, Katrina opened the door.
"Oh, hon." Katrina kneeled beside her and pushed an errant lock of hair back behind Linnea's shoulder. "I'm so sorry."
Linnea met her friend's gaze. "You believe her?"
The sympathy on Katrina's face, different from Danielle's but no less devastating, caused Linnea's insides to twist into painful knots. "Is she still here?"
"No, she left."
"Please bring me my phone."
"Don't you think you should give yourself a few minutes?"
"No. I need to know the truth now."
Katrina left and returned a few moments later with the phone. Linnea's hands were shaking so much she nearly fumbled the phone right into the toilet.
"You want me to dial for you?"
Linnea shook her head. Katrina knew her well enough that she stepped out of the bathroom, leaving Linnea alone. Linnea closed the door and somehow managed to dial Michael's cell number. She didn't think she'd be able to handle it if she got his voice mail, but part of her dreaded talking to him, too.
"Hey there," he answered, startling her. "How's my favorite girl?"
A surge of pure anger raced through her veins. "I just met your wife."
Please deny it. Please say it isn't true, that Danielle is a crazy woman.
But as moments passed without a response from Michael, Linnea's heart broke completely in two. Her dreams shattered around her like exploding glass.
She ended the call before he could say anything else. Just the tone of his voice as he said her name told her all she needed to know. He'd been lying to her for months, from the moment he met her. And she'd fallen for it, every last word.
She had no idea how much time passed as she sat on the bathroom floor, too stunned to move. Every minute she'd spent with Michael, every conversation they'd shared, every promise he'd made with loving wordsshe went back over all of it, searching for some clue that she was being duped. How could she have been so blind?
A gentle knock on the door was followed by Katrina poking her head in. "Is there anything I can do to help?"
Linnea just stared at her friend, unable to form a response.
"Why don't you go home?" Katrina said. "I'll handle things here."
Something about those words finally penetrated Linnea's mind enough that she found the strength to push herself to her feet. "No, I'll be out in a minute."
Katrina looked as if she might argue, but instead she gave a small nod and left Linnea alone again.
Linnea brushed her teeth and rinsed out her mouth. She smoothed her hair and took a deep breath that did little to fortify her. Still, she wasn't going to let Michael rob her of anything else, certainly not the joy she derived from her job.
But as she walked out into the showroom filled with stunning white gowns, ethereal veils and all manner of happily ever after, it all suddenly felt like a bigger lie than the ones Michael had told.
She placed her hand against the roiling in her stomach. "I think I will go home." Needing to get away as fast as she could, she grabbed her purse and raced for her car.
Her phone rang as she crossed the parking lot. When she saw Michael's name, she ignored the call. He called back almost immediately and again as she was driving home. To keep from tossing her phone out the window, she turned it off and shoved it deep into her purse.
When she pulled into the parking space in front of her condo, she couldn't remember how she'd gotten there. Her bottom lip quivered, her fragile hold on her emotions threatening to disintegrate. Through some miracle of self-control, she made it inside before the fresh wave of tears would no longer be denied. On wobbly legs, she barely made it to the couch before the silent tears turned into heart-rending sobs.
Linnea woke slowly to realize she must have cried herself to sleep. The angle of the sun indicated it was sometime after noon. The throbbing in her head and the fact that her eyes were itchy with dried tears told her the horrible events of the morning hadn't just been a nightmare.
She lay there staring at the dust motes floating in the beam of sunlight coming through the window. Part of her wanted to go back to sleep, but she knew it wouldn't help her feel any better. It wasn't going to make the truth go away. She pushed herself to a sitting position and wondered how she was going to break the news to her parents, her sisters, her friends. How did she tell all of them that her fairy tale was nothing but a cruel lie?
Anger welled up inside her, competing for space with the pain gnawing away at her. Why would Michael do this? Had he truly never cared about her? About his wife?
There was nothing she wanted more in that moment than to be done with all the hard conversations. Actually, what she wanted even more was to run away from her life. How could she go back to peddling the dream of wedded bliss when hers had been snatched away in the most awful way possible?
Knowing that breaking the news wasn't going to get any easier if she waited longer, she dug her phone out of her purse and turned it on. The screen revealed she had a dozen missed calls. She listened to one from Katrina asking if she needed anything, but the ten calls from Michael she deleted without listening to them. Nothing he could say could make her forgive him for breaking her heart and making a complete fool out of her. The other call was from Chloe, her best friend since they'd roomed together in college, the woman who was supposed to be her matron of honor.
"Hey, Lin. Just calling to finalize some details." In the midst of the call, Chloe suddenly laughed. She sounded as if she'd pulled the phone away from her mouth when she said, "Cut it out." Next came a distinctively male chuckle, no doubt Chloe's new husband, Wyatt. Linnea's heart squeezed at the sound of her friend so happy and in love, even if she was scolding her husband. "Sorry about that," Chloe continued. "Call me when you get a chance."
Linnea deleted the message as if it would erase the sounds of marital bliss, as well. She was happy that Chloe had found a good man to love and be loved by, truly she was. At least she hoped Wyatt was everything he claimed to be, not like Michael and his web of lies.
She shook her head, not wanting to let what had happened turn her into someone who was suspicious of every man in the world. After all, she knew deep down there were lots of good guys like her father, like Chloe's dad.
She scrolled to her parents' number, but she couldn't make herself hit the Call button. Her mother had been just as excited about the wedding as Linnea, if not more so. The news that Michael wasn't who he'd seemed to be would break her mother's heart, too.
Deciding to wait awhile longer to make that call, she instead forced herself to dial Chloe's number. Better to test out her ability to share the news on her best friend instead of risking turning into a blubbering mess on the phone with her mother. Her mom would no doubt rush right over to wrap her baby in her arms when Linnea just wanted to be left alone. The last thing she wanted was to look into anyone else's eyes and see the pity she'd detected in Katrina's.
Her fingers shook as she hit Chloe's number, and she bit her bottom lip to keep from crying again.
"Hey," Chloe answered. "I was beginning to think you were ignoring me."
Despite her best efforts, a tear broke free and ran down Linnea's cheek. "No, I It's just been a bad day." She sniffed against a fresh rush of tears.
"Lin, what's wrong?"
"The wedding's off," she said, her voice shaking.
"Off? What happened?" The sound of a closing door came through the phone.
"Michael is " She stopped to swallow against the large lump clogging her throat as if she'd swallowed a lemon whole. "He's already married."
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
A heartbreaking revelation leaves a bride reeling. Needing a place to collect herself, she finds solace at the home of her best friend. Along the way she may also find love where she least expects. Her Cowboy Groom by Trish Milburn is a story about finding the courage to get back up when you feel you like all is lost. This is a beautiful read about finding your heart in least expected. Received this book for an honest review.