The only husband Lorelei Wilkins ever wanted was Sean O'Brien, but she's wasted too much time waiting for him to love her back. When another man proposes, she acceptsuntil she stands at the altar and realizes she can't marry without love. Bolting out of town toward a fresh start, she never suspected her parents would send Sheriff O'Brien to bring her home!
After an innocent mistake leaves Lorelei and her reluctant rescuer with compromised reputations, marriage is their only option. But first they must triumph over suspicious locals, shady characters, an inconvenient groom and the bride's own stubborn heart. Will it take putting their lives on the line for Sean and Lorelei to realize that only love can conquer all?
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Lorelei Wilkins, will you take this man to be your lawfully wedded husband, to live together after God's ordinance in the holy estate of matrimony? Will you love, honor and keep him, in sickness and in health: forsaking all others, keeping only unto him so long as you both shall live?"
Lorelei's eyes widened as she stared silently at Reverend Sparks. Did he have any idea how formidable those words sounded? If she was making a mistake, it would be irreversible. Yet, he stood there waiting. Waitingjust like the man beside her who'd gone through the trouble of slicking back his hair, shining his boots and donning a fancy shirt. She glanced at her groom. Lawson Williams swallowed nervously.
"I.." Her gaze slipped to Lawson's best man. Sean O'Brien's green eyes watched her carefully. He was probably wondering if she was going to prove that his suspicion about her had been right all along. Hadn't he secretly warned Lawson not to court her? Some secret.
She'd heard the words he hadn't intended for her ears two years ago, and they reverberated in her thoughts even now.
"You 're making a mistake. Lorelei isn't the kind of girl you can count on. She's always been flighty and insincere. If you aren't careful, you 'll end up with a broken heart."
She turned back to Reverend Sparks. "Will you repeat the second question?"
Nervous laughter spread through the church behind her, but she listened carefully as he repeated. "Will you love"
He continued, but that one word was all she needed to hear. Would she love Lawson, as a wife should love her husband, for as long as the two of them lived? She couldn't do this to herself, and she certainly couldn't do it to Lawson because the answer was no.
Shaking her head, she took a halting step backward. Gasps tore through the air as she lifted her white skirt and ran down the aisle she'd just marched up. The doors of the church burst open with a bang, and light flooded the sanctuary as she tripped quickly down the stairs onto the lawn. Gasping in quick hard breaths, she only escaped a few feet before she heard footsteps behind her.
"Lorelei!" a strident voice called.
She ignored it. Pressing the back of her hand to her lips, she felt the lump of her engagement ring. A hand caught her arm. "Lorelei?"
She swung around to face her intended. "I can't. I can't do this. I'm so sorry, Lawson."
His handsome face noticeably paled. "What do you mean you can't do this? We're getting married today. Right now."
She swallowed. "It isn't right."
"What are you talking about?" Painful silence lingered in the air until he stepped toward her. "I thought you loved me."
"I do love you, Lawson, but not in the way a woman should love the man she's going to marry. I wish that I did," she said sorrowfully, then tilted her head to survey him carefully. "Do you love me like that, Lawson? Can you honestly tell me that you do?"
He turned away from her and dragged his fingers through his hair before he met her gaze again. His answer was halting, almost inaudible. "No."
She pulled in a deep breath and tugged the ring from her finger. "Then this shouldn't belong to me."
His eyes filled with resignation as he took it from her. He allowed her a curt nod before he walked back toward the church where his best man waited on the steps. Her gaze caught only briefly on that figure before she turned away.
She'd barely made it to Main Street when her delicate white boots began to pinch her feet. She allowed herself a grimace as she leaned against the wall of Maddie's Cafe and rustled through the satin overlay and layers of tulle to reach her shoes.
"If you wait here, I can get the buggy and drive you home."
Her heart stilled at the sound of Sean's voice. She gritted her teeth. "No, thank you. I'll walk."
"Now, Lorelei" His deep voice drawled.
Her blue eyes lifted to meet his suspiciously. "Why are you here?"
"Lawson asked me to see you home."
Frowning, she rooted around for the other shoe. "I don't need anyone to see me home."
He lifted an imperious brow, and she barely kept from rolling her eyes. She knew what that meant. Sean was Lawson's best friend. If Lawson asked him to see her home, then Sean would see her home out of respect for his friend's wishes even if he couldn't stand her. No doubt he saw it as his duty, and if that was the case Sheriff Sean O'Brien would never back down.
"Fine," she bit out. "We'll walk." She handed him her boots a little too forcefully, then lifted her skirts out of the dust as she crossed Main Street. It lacked its usual bustle since most of the town was still at the church waiting for word about her wedding. Still, there were plenty of folks around to gape at her, so she darted into the alleyway behind the post office to hide from their curious eyes. She ignored her companion as she led him through the alleyways to the residential area of town. Finally, Lorelei stopped on the stairs of her family's porch and faced Sean to murmur, "Thank you for walking me home."
He frowned and crossed his arms as he surveyed her. "I think you're making a mistake."
He always did. A vague cloud of disappointment settled over her at his disapproval, but she'd come to expect it. For so long she'd waited for her feelings for him to change. They had. They'd gone from a desperate unrequited yearning to a hollow ache. She wasn't sure that counted as progress. She hid her feelings with an impudent tilt of her head. "And I'm supposed to care what you think because.?"
His eyes flashed with annoyance at her decidedly rude tone. She didn't wait for his response. Instead, she stepped into the house and closed the door firmly behind her. Leaning against it, she lifted her shaking hands to cover her face as the impact of what she'd done finally began to settle in. She didn't regret her decision to call off the wedding. She just could not believe she'd let it go this far. At least she'd done the right thing in the end.
Of course, the town wouldn't soon forget the day a bride hauled up her skirts and dashed out of the church rather than finish the ceremony. Facing her parents when they arrived home would be hard. Facing Law-son in town in the days to come would be harder. And facing any more of Sean O'Brien's disapproval would be hardest of all. She shook her head. Somehow she had to get away from the memories, the murmurs and the men.
"Well, why shouldn't I?" she whispered to the empty house. She was already packed and ready to leave for the honeymoon to her great-aunt's house in California. The train ticket was in her reticule. There was no reason not to go. She'd change out of her finery, and if her parents weren't home by the time she was done, she'd just write them a note. Either way, she was leavingnow.
She could only hope that distance would do what time had failed to accomplish by ridding her of whatever feelings she had left for Sean O'Brien once and for all.
The late-afternoon sun burst through the nearby window to gleam off the metal star on Sean's dark green shirt. He heaved a sigh, then tapped his pencil on the paperwork in front of him to expend his frustration and anger. His mind kept replaying the scene that had taken place at the church that morning. How dare Lorelei walk out on his best friend like that? The couple had been together for almost two years, despite his original prediction that the relationship wouldn't last more than six months. He'd started to think Lorelei might not be as impulsive, unpredictable and flighty as he'd imagined. She'd proven him wrongagain.
He'd spent the past several hours sorting out the mess Lorelei had made of the wedding so Lawson wouldn't have to. Lawson had been abandoned by his parents as a child and forced to drift from town to town in order to survive. Sean's family had taken him in when he'd shown up in Peppin at age fourteen. Several months later, Doc and Mrs. Lettie had adopted him, but Law-son had stayed close to Sean and his family. They were practically brothers as far as Sean was concerned. His friend of ten years didn't deserve the treatment Lorelei had just dealt him.
Lorelei Wilkins had been a thorn in Sean's side since grade school days when she'd informed the whole school that they would get married one day. He'd been annoyed then, but by the time he'd turned nineteen the idea hadn't seemed so awful. Lorelei had become the belle of Peppin. She could have had any guy in town, but she'd made him think he was the one she wanted. Nothing had been said between them, but he'd started to plan for her. He'd left his family's farm and accepted the position of sheriff to save up enough money to provide for her. He'd even carved a pitiful wooden promise ring.
He'd waited for the perfect moment to express his intentions. Then, just when the time seemed right, she suddenly chose his best friend. She'd become Lawson's girl practically overnight, and Sean had finally gotten a glimpse of her true characterimpulsive, unsteady and completely unreliable. He hadn't said a word to anyone about her betrayal. Instead, he'd pretended she hadn't just landed a punch to his heart that would leave him reeling for years.
He realized his pencil was tapping in cadence with the ticking of the nearby clock and threw it aside. He'd be better off pacing the streets than sitting at his desk. He was just pushing his chair aside when the door flew open. Richard Wilkins, the president of the town's only bank and Lorelei Wilkins's father, stepped inside with Lawson right behind him.
Sean's eyebrows lifted at the grim looks on the men's faces. He settled back into his chair, then motioned them to the seats across from him. He gaze bounced between their worried eyes questioningly. "What's wrong?"
Richard settled into his chair with a dejected slump. "Something has happened to Lorelei."
Sean frowned. "Is she hurt?"
"No." Lawson shook his head. "She's gone."
Sean's stomach dropped to his boots with a surprising amount of dread. He stared at the men. "You mean she's dead?"
Richard abruptly straightened in his seat. "Of course not, boy! She just up and disappeared while we were all shutting down the wedding and packing up the reception."
Sean sighed. That was exactly the kind of stunt Lorelei would pull in a situation like this. Nevertheless, he readied his notebook and grabbed a pencil. "She couldn't have gone far. How long has she been missing?"
Lawson shot a glance at Richard. "Well, she isn't missing exactly."
The pencil hovering over the notebook hesitated as he glanced up at the men across from him in confusion. "Then y'all know where she is?"
"No," Lawson said just as Richard said, "Yes."
Sean lowered his pencil in tempered exasperation.
"Well, which is it?"
"My daughter has run away."
"You mean she truly ran away, as in she's left town?" At Richard's nod, Sean frowned. "Are you sure?"
"I'm sure because she left this." Her father handed him a folded piece of paper.
He studied the written note carefully. "She says she wants a new life for herself and is going to live with her great-aunt in California."
"She begs you to let her go and" he glanced up sharply to meet Lawson's gaze before continuing quietly "and not to send Lawson."
Lawson nodded firmly. "That's why we chose you."
"You chose me," he echoed as a sense of foreboding filled his chest. "To do what?"
"To bring her back." Lawson swallowed. "Not to me, of course, but to her parents."
Richard cleared his throat. "I'd go myself but my wife says I'd just end up letting Lorelei have her own way like I always do. As much as I hate to admit it, the Lord knows Caroline is probably right. That's why you've got to do it."
Sean leaned forward to set his arm against the desk. "Listen, I'm sorry, but I am not the man for this job. I'll tell you what I can do instead. I'll send my deputy"
Lawson laughed skeptically. "Jeff Bridger? He's the only man in town who's gotten lost walking down Main Street."
"His sense of direction isn't that bad anymore," Sean protested. "I've been working with him and he has definitely improved."
"I'm glad, but do you really think I'm willing to trust that man to find my daughter, let alone bring her back? Besides, I think you're a little confused here." Richard's fierce gaze told Sean he wasn't to be trifled with. "This isn't about you, Sheriff. This is about my daughter, who, as a citizen of Peppin, deserves your protection just like everyone else. She has no chaperone. She has no supplies and hardly any money. She's a target for every charlatan from here to California."
Sean cleared his throat as he tried to regain control of the conversation. "I understand that, Mr. Wilkins, but I can't just leave town for several days to run after your daughter. I have a job to do here."
"Actually, that seems like a good job for Jeff." Law-son crossed his arms. "After all, the man can't get lost just sitting in an office, can he?"
"I guess not." Sean stared at the men before him with a mixture of bemusement and dread.
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