- Pub. Date:
Jilted at the altar, celebrity chef Meghan Finnegan flees the sceneand the baying pressonly to run straight into the muscled torso of Cash Sullivan.
The former rodeo champion knows what it's like to have your life crumble in the spotlight, so he offers Meghan a place to lie low at his ranch.
Fresh air, no paparazzi and the brooding rancher's lazy smile are making Meghan not want to leave her sanctuary. But she and her unborn baby can't stay here forever can they?
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Why do people insist on pledging themselves to each other? Love was fleeting at bestif it existed at all.
Cash Sullivan crossed his arms as he lounged back against the front fender of his silver pickup. He pulled his tan Stetson low, blocking out the brilliant New Mexico sun. From the no-parking zone he glanced at the adobe-style church, where all of the guests were gathered, but he refused to budge.
His grandmother had insisted he bring her, but there was no way he'd sit by and listen to a bunch of empty promises. Besides, he'd met the groom a few times over the years and found the guy to be nothing more than a bunch of hot air. Cash would rather spend his time wrestling the most contrary steer than have to make small talk with that blowhard.
He loosened his bolo tie and unbuttoned the collar of his white button-up shirt. Gram had insisted he dress up to escort her in and out of the churcheven if he wasn't planning to stay.
What he wouldn't give to be back at the ranch in his old, comfy jeans, instead of these new black ones that were as stiff as a fence rail. Heck, even mucking out stalls sounded like a luxury compared to standing here with nothing to do.
A woman in a white flowing dress caught his attention. She was rushing along the side of the church. Abruptly she stopped and bent over some shrubs. What in the world was the bride doing? Looking for something?
This was certainly the most entertainment he'd had in the past half hour. He shook his head and smiled at the strange behavior. When she started running down the walk toward his vehicle, he tipped his hat upward to get a better view.
A mass of unruly red curls was piled atop her head while yards of white material fluttered behind her like the tail of a kite. Her face was heart-shaped, with lush lips. Not bad. Not bad at all.
Her breasts threatened to spill out of the dress, which hugged her waist and flared out over her full hips. She was no skinny-minny, but the curves looked good on her. Real good.
He let out a low whistle. She sure was a looker. How in the world had boring Harold bagged her?
He couldn't tear his gaze from her as she stopped right next to his pickup and tried to open the tan SUV in the neighboring parking spot. Unable to gain access, she smacked her hand on the window. Obviously this lady had a case of cold feetas in ice coldand hadn't planned an escape route. At least she'd come to her senses before making the worst decision of her life.
The bride spun around. Her fearful gaze met his. Her pale face made her intense green eyes stand out bright with fear. Alarm tightened his chest. Was there more going on here than a change of mind?
She glanced over the hood of his truck. He followed her line of vision, spotting a group of photographers rounding the corner of the church. In the next second she'd opened his passenger door and vaulted inside.
What in the world was she doing? Planning to steal his truck? He swung open the driver's side door and climbed in.
"What are you doing in here?"
The fluffy material of her veil hit him in the face as she turned in the seat and slammed the door shut. "Drive. Fast."
He smashed down the material from her veil, not caring if he wrinkled it. He'd never laid eyes on this woman before today, and he wasn't about to drive her anywhere until he got some answers. "Why?"
"I don't have time to explain. Unless you want to be front and center in tomorrow's paper, you'll drive."
His gaze swung around to the photographers. They hadn't noticed her yet, but that didn't ease his discomfort. "You didn't kill anyone, did you?"
"Of course not." She sighed. "Do you honestly think I'd be in this getup if I was going to murder someone?"
"I'm not into any Bonnie and Clyde scenario."
"That's good to know. Now that we have that straightened out, can you put the pedal to the metal and get us out of here before they find me?"
He grabbed the bride's arm and yanked her down out of sight, just before the group of reporters turned their curious gazes to his pickup. Luckily his truck sat high up off the ground, so no one could see much unless they were standing right next to it.
"What are you doing?" she protested, struggling.
"Those reporters don't know you're in here, and I don't want to be named in your tabloid drama. Stay down and don't get up until I tell you to."
His jaw tensed as he stuffed the white fluff beneath the dash. He was caught up in this mess whether he wanted to be or not.
Her struggles ceased. He fired up the truck and threw it in Reverse. Mustering some restraint, he eased down on the accelerator. Damn. He didn't want to be the driver for this bride's getaway, but what choice did he have?
He knew all about reportersthey were like a pack of starving wolves, just waiting for a juicy story. For their purposes he'd be "the other man." Scandals always made good salesit didn't matter if you were an innocent bystander or not. In the court of public opinion, when your face hit the front page you were crucified. He should know.
Cash pulled his cowboy hat low, hoping no one would recognize him. He didn't want to draw the attention of the reporters who were searching behind rocks, shrubs and cars. There would be no quick getaway. Slow and steady.
When the bride once again attempted to sit up, he placed his hand on the back of her head.
"Hey, you!" a young reporter, standing a few yards away, shouted through the open window.
Cash's chest tightened as he pulled to a stop.
"Did you see which way the bride ran?"
"She ran around back. Think there was a car waiting for her."
The reporter waved and took off. Cash eased off the brake and rolled toward the exit. He hadn't had a rush of adrenaline like this since his last showdown with a determined steer.
"What'd you say that for? You're making things worse," the bride protested, starting to sit up.
He pressed the side of her face back down. "Stay down or I'll dump you in this parking lot and let those hungry reporters have you."
"Try me." He was in no mood to play around with some woman who didn't know what she wanted.
Now he needed to get rid of this bundle of frills so his life could return to its peaceful routine.
Before he could ask where she wanted to be dropped off she started to wiggle, bumping the steering wheel.
"Watch it." He steadied the wheel with both hands. "What are you doing down there?"
"Trying to get comfortable, but I think it's impossible. Are we away from the church yet?"
"Just approaching the parking lot exit, but don't get any ideas of sitting up until we're out of town. I'm not about to have people tracking me down and bothering me with a bunch of questions I can't answer."
"Thanks for being so sympathetic," she muttered.
He slowed down at the exit, checking for traffic before merging. "Hey, I didn't ask you to hijack my truck."
"I didn't have any other choice."
"Get cold feet?"
"No yes. It's complicated." She squirmed some more. "I don't feel so good. Can I sit up yet?"
The rush of air through the open windows picked up the spicy, citrusy scent of the colorful bouquet she was still clutching. A part of him felt bad for her. He'd heard about how women got excited about their wedding day and, though he personally couldn't relate, he knew what it was to have a special moment ruined, like getting penalized after a winning rodeo ride.
He checked the rearview mirror. No one had followed him out of the parking lot. He let out a deep breath. So far, so good.
He tightened his fingers around the steering wheel, resisting the urge to run a soothing hand over her back. "Where am I taking you?"
"I I don't know. I can't go back to my apartment. They'll be sure to find me."
"You're on the run?" He should have figured this was more than just a case of cold feet. "And what was up with the reporters?"
"My boss thought the wedding would be a good source of free publicity for my television show."
"You certainly will get publicity. Runaway Bride Disappears Without a Trace."
She groaned. Her hand pressed against his leg. The heat of her touch radiated through the denim. A lot of time had passed since a woman had touched himback before his accident.
He cleared his throat. "I suppose at this point we should introduce ourselves. I'm Cash Sullivan."
He waited, wondering if there would be a moment of recognition. After all, he hadn't retired from the rodeo circuit all that long ago.
"Meghan Finnegan." When he didn't say anything, she continued, "I'm the Jiffy Cook on TV, and the reason those men are armed with cameras is to see this hometown girl marry a millionaire."
Nothing in her voice or mannerisms gave the slightest hint that she'd recognized his name. Cash assured himself it was for the best. His name wasn't always associated with the prestige of his rodeo winssometimes it was connected with things he'd rather forget. Still, he couldn't ignore the deflating prick of disappointment.
"I don't watch television," he said, gruffer than intended. "Okay, we're out of Lomas and this road doesn't have much traffic."
When she didn't say anything, he glanced over. Her complexion had gone ghostly pale, making her pink glossy lips stand out. "You feeling okay?"
"No." Her hand pressed to her stomach. "Pull over. Now."
He threw on his right-turn signal and pulled to a stop in a barren stretch of desert. Meg barreled out of the vehicle, leaving the door ajar. She rushed over to a large rock and hunched over. So this was what she'd been doing when she ran out of the church. Must be a huge case of nerves.
He grabbed some napkins from his glove compartment and a bottle of unopened water. It was tepid, but it'd be better than nothing. He exited the truck and followed her. He wasn't good with womenespecially not ones who were upset and sick.
"Um I can hold this for you." He reached for the lengthy veil.
He didn't know if he should try talking to her to calm her down or attempt to rub her back. He didn't want to make things worse. Unsure what to do, he stood there quietly until her stomach settled. Then he handed over the meager supplies.
"You okay now?" he asked, just before his cell phone buzzed.
His grandmother. How could he have forgotten about her? This bride had a way of messing with his mind to the point of forgetting his priorities.
He flipped open his phone, but before he could utter a word Gram said, "Where are you? Everyone's leaving."
"I went for a little ride. I'll be there in a few minutes."
"Hurry. You won't believe what happened. I'll tell you when you get here."
He hated the thought of going back and facing those reporters. Hopefully there'd be too much confusion with the missing bride and the exiting guests that they wouldn't remember he'd been the only one around when Meg had disappeared.
He cast a concerned look at his pale stowaway. "We have to go back."
Fear flashed in her eyes and she started shaking her head. "No. I can't. I won't."
"Why? Because you changed your mind about the wedding? I'm sure people will understand."
She shook her head. "No, they won't."
He didn't have time to make her see reason. "I have to go back to the church. My grandmother is waiting. I can't abandon her."
Meg's brow creased as she worried her bottom lip. "Then I'll wait here."
"What?" She couldn't be thinking clearly. "I can't leave you here. You're not well."
"I won't go back there. I can't face all of those people especially my mother. And when the press spots us together they'll have a field day."
"You can hide on the floor again."
She shook her head. "We were lucky to get away with that once. With all of the guests leaving, the chances of me staying hidden are slim to none."
She had a good point, but it still didn't sit right with him. "Leaving you here in the middle of nowhere, in this heat, isn't a good idea."
"This isn't the middle of nowhere. I'm within walking distance of town. I'll be fine. Just go. Your grandmother is waiting. There's just one thing."
"Leave me your cell phone."
He supposed it was the best solution, but he didn't like it. Not one bit. But the chance of discovery was too great. Not seeing any other alternative, he pulled the phone from his belt and handed it over.
"You're sure about this?" he asked, hoping she'd change her mind.
"Then scoot around to the other side of that rock. No one will see you thereunless that veil thing starts flapping in the wind like a big flag."
"It won't." She wound the lengthy material around her arm. A look of concern filled her eyes. "You will come back, won't you?"
He didn't want to. He didn't want anything to do with this mess. All he wanted was to go home and get on with his life. But he couldn't leave her sick and stranded.
"I'll be back as fast as I can."
Meghan Finnegan watched as the tailgate of the cowboy's pickup faded into the distance. The events of the day rushed up and stampeded her, knocking the air from her lungs. How could Harold have waited until she'd walked up the aisle to tell her he'd suddenly changed his mind? He didn't want her.
And he wanted her to get rid of their unborn babya baby they'd agreed to keep secret until after the ceremony. Meghan wrapped her arms around her midsection. She loved her baby and she'd do whatever was necessary to care for it.
She sagged against the rock before her knees gave out. Sure, she knew Harold hadn't wanted childrenhe'd made that clear from the start. And with her rising television career she'd accepted that children wouldn't fit into her hectic lifestyle. But this was differentit had been an accident. When she'd told Harold about the pregnancy a few weeks ago he'd been stunned at first but then he'd seemed to accept it. What in the world had changed his mind?
The sound of an approaching vehicleperhaps departing wedding guestssent her scurrying behind the outcrop of large rocks. She wasn't ready to face the inquiring questions, the pitying stares or the speculative guesses. At twenty-eight, she'd prided herself on having her life all planned out. Now she was pregnant and she didn't have a clue what her next move should be.
She sank down on a small rock and yanked out scads of hairpins in order to release the veil. At last free of the yards of tulle, she ran her fingers through her hair, letting it flow over her shoulders.