The Wanted Bride

Read the Excerpt

One

“I need a one-way ticket to anywhere,” Valerie Burrows commanded the girl behind the bus counter in downtown Dallas. A charred piece of her wedding veil sagged onto her face. Impatiently, she flipped the singed lace away, her throat closing off the tears that threatened her vision.

On what was supposed to be the happiest day of her life, she reeked of smoke, not flowers, saw red not white, tasted bile not cake.

Glancing up from the counter the clerk’s eyes widened, making Valerie acutely aware of her appearance. On what was supposed to be the happiest day of her life, she felt traumatized, not joyous.

 “Whe...re do you want to go?” the clerk stammered.

            “Anywhere, as long as I leave in the next five minutes,” Valerie insisted, wishing people would stop staring. So she looked like a crazy woman. After this morning maybe she was a little loco.

            “The bus to Amarillo is loading now,” the agent advised, her large brown eyes riveted to Valerie. “I have one seat left. The one-way fare is sixty-five dollars.”

            Though she preferred to travel by plane, there was no time or way to get to the airport. She could take the bus or stay and face the consequences of her actions.

Valerie dug the cash out of her Bottega Veneta purse and handed the money to the ticket agent. “I’ll take it.”

            Dirty lace from her wedding veil fell onto her face again, so she yanked the offending garment off her head and threw the veil on top of her matching Louis Vuitton luggage.

The beautiful lace of her Vera Wang wedding gown was streaked with gray and black. Burn streaks made a crazy pattern on the silk that didn't accessorize the seed pearls.

            The heel of one of her Stuart Weitzman pumps had snapped several blocks ago, and her feet were blistered. And yet her heart beat on in spite of her ruined wedding.

            The clerk handed her the ticket, sympathy in her dark eyes. “The bus is ready. You’re the last one to board.”

            Not even time to change. Head held high, spine locked in place, she limped to the white steel carriage, her suitcases trailing behind.

There, she handed her two suitcases to a gawking young man. He opened his mouth to speak, but she held up her hand. “Just load my luggage.”

She glanced up to see faces pressed against the glass windows of the bus, gaping at her like she was a freak show.

Hadn’t these people ever seen a runaway bride in real life before? Julia Roberts may have made the movie, but she didn’t own the copyright to wedding disasters.

            With her carry-on bag hanging from her shoulder, Valerie marched up the steps of the waiting bus as if she walked around in a wedding gown every day. The babble of sixty voices ceased as she handed the driver her ticket.

            He mumbled, “Lord, I need to retire.”

            Her silk dress pressed against her legs and swished as she made her way to the only empty seat on her getaway bus. Thank God she’d ditched the petticoats in the Corvette.

A gray-haired woman glanced at her as she put her luggage in the overhead bin.

            “Hm hm hm, I can’t wait to hear this story,” the elderly Hispanic woman said. “Are you all right?”

Valerie plopped in the seat, her ruined silk gown making a mighty swish. She exhaled loudly, her heart aching, her eyes blurring with unshed tears. For the last hour she’d been holding her breath while making her escape.

But now, now all the pain she'd carefully controlled broke free and she chuckled. Hysterical laughter rumbled from deep inside her, echoed through the bus. A single tear rolled down her cheek.

“I am now.”

#

In forty-eight hours a girl’s life could change completely. Valerie stepped off the bus in the small town of Springtown, Colorado. Population 294. Salute!

In Amarillo she’d bought a ticket to Denver and pitched her wedding gown in the trash. After sitting beside a drug dealer all the way to Albuquerque, being proposed to by a parolee on the way to Santa Fe, and awakening to an elderly woman riffling through her Louis Vuitton carry-on, it was time to ditch public transportation. She’d take a taxi to the nearest car rental place and continue her journey in her own set of wheels.

The air brakes hissed as the driver released them, and the bus pulled away from the depot, which consisted of a bench in front of a café. The cold wind whipped right through her thin clothes as she stood alone on the street.

She pushed open the door to the small diner. A “Help Wanted” sign banged against the glass. The greasy spoon was filled to capacity in the late evening, but suddenly her stomach growled, reminding her the Snickers bar she’d eaten in Albuquerque was not a five-course meal.

The café grew quiet as Valerie pulled her luggage across the wooden floor, the wheels thump, thump, thumping. She sat down, sighing in relief, and the chatter resumed. She desperately needed a latte grande.

A woman with stained white sneakers and a food splattered dress stopped at her booth.

“What can I get you?” she asked.

“I’d like eggs Benedict with a skim, no whip, pumpkin spice latte. Make it a grande.”

The waitress glanced at her matching luggage.

“Honey, I think you must have missed your bus stop. This here is Springtown, not Vail. I’m not Martha Stewart, and I don’t do lattes.”

Valerie frowned and bit back the quick retort that sprang to her lips. Had the woman never heard of Starbucks?

“What do you have?” she asked, wondering if the bus had dropped her off on Mars, or if she was starring in her own personal Twilight Zone episode.

“Did you look at the menu?”

“No.”

“I’d suggest you start there,” the waitress said.

“Give me two eggs over easy, with coffee.” Valerie replied. “Do you have any hazelnut cream to go in the coffee?”

“Here in Springtown our cows don’t produce flavors.” She pushed her pen back behind her ear. “My name is Fran if you need anything else.”

The waitress hurried off. Valerie gazed around the café and noticed the sheriff and a guy whose dark looks would normally have taken her breath away occupied a booth across the room. However, in the last forty-eight hours she’d sworn off men. Today her heart pounded a little harder, but only because the sheriff sat across from the tall, dark, handsome man. Surely two states away no one would be searching for her.

Yet.

With the number of criminals loose in this world, why would law enforcement be interested in a good girl with a temporary case of wedding insanity from Dallas? Her crime was minor compared to the act of her two best friends. Or since they’d betrayed her, were they really her friends?

Lonely and weary and sad, Valerie stared at the menu. Her mind reeled, unable to comprehend the idea that her own father had taken Carter’s side. She swallowed hard to keep the tears at bay.

A thousand miles away and still her mind staggered from the pain of their betrayal.

The waitress brought her plate of eggs and set them on the table. Her stomach rolled as the smell of fried bacon smacked her in the face.

“Two eggs over easy with a side of bacon.”

“No meat!” Valerie grimaced at the greasy bacon, her stomach clenching a warning signal.

The waitress reached down and with her fingers scooped the bacon off the plate.

Valerie gasped. She wasn’t in Dallas anymore.

“Two eggs over easy without bacon. Anything else?”

The sooner she got out of this one-horse town, the better. “Yes, where is the nearest car rental office?”

The waitress laughed as fear spiraled along Valerie’s spine. Somehow this couldn't be good.

“Honey, who are you visiting in town?”

“No one. Why?”

She gazed at Valerie’s luggage.

“You just got off that bus, right?”

“Yes.”

“Did you know where you were when you got off?”

“Not really. I couldn’t take the people on the bus any longer and decided to rent a car.”

The waitress shook her head. “Sugar, the nearest car rental place is in Denver, and you’re a good two hours from there. The next bus stops here on Wednesday. Until then, you can cool your heels at the Springtown Inn. It’s old, but the rooms are clean.”

“There’s no car rental place in this town?” she asked in disbelief, needing to confirm she’d heard correctly.

The waitress chuckled. “No. We barely have a stop light.”

Valerie felt like someone had just kicked her in the shin. She had no choice. She refused to call her father and give him the satisfaction of knowing she’d fallen on her face again. Besides, he was furious with her and would tell Carter her whereabouts. By now they’d probably found Carter’s beloved car. Or what was left of it. She was stuck in Nowhereville with no cell phone and no one to call for help. Not even her ex-best friend, Blair.

Valerie practiced her yoga breathing to control the panic rising within her. She was an adult. She had a college education. She could take care of herself. She would get through this.

Maybe being in such a small town wasn’t a bad thing after all. Who would search for her here?

A couple of days in a hotel room could be time spent deciding what to do with the rest of her life. She could get a massage, maybe a pedicure. She would survive.

Quickly, she finished her eggs and sipped at the rank coffee that didn’t even change color after five creamers. She expected fuzz to appear on her chest at any moment.

The waitress laid the check on her table.

“Hey, sheriff, you want any more coffee?” she yelled across the room.

 “No thanks, Fran. I need to get on the road.”

“You goin’ to chase some dangerous criminals?” the waitress teased.

“Nah, Charlie’s cows are out again,” the man in uniform responded.

“How about you, Matt?” she asked the man sitting across the table, the one who seemed more like a suit and tie kind of guy. His looks were rugged yet refined. “More coffee, or you gotta get back to your lawyering?”

Her last nerve sizzled on high alert.

Another lawyer! Don’t give him a second glance, she thought.

“Not tonight,” he answered. “I spent the day with McKenzie helping her with the kids.”

Was Valerie sick, or did she only appreciate men who were creative with the truth? Was she a lawyer magnet only drawn to cheats and liars? She couldn’t seem to clear their magnetic field.

“I’m sure you spoiled those kids good,” Fran said.

“Every chance I get,” the man replied.

The urge to run all but overwhelmed Valerie. The legal network of lawyers was widespread, and her father well known. He’d find her, and she needed a much deserved break from the drama. She had to leave before she had a panic attack.

She reached into her purse to grab her wallet and pay for her meal.

Her fingers dug to the bottom of her designer purse trying to locate her wallet. Nothing.

She threw back the leather flap, and instead of feeling she started frantically digging, searching for the matching leather wallet that contained her life. The thousand dollars in cash, three credit cards, her driver’s license, her very identity.

Instead she found her Ralph Lauren sunglasses, her Lancôme lipstick, her keys, her Monte Blanc pen, and her Estee Lauder perfume.

Everything except her wallet.

Panic squeezed her chest and her breathing became shallow and tight. Oh God, could her life get any worse? The old woman must have done more than rifle through Valerie’s luggage. She must have stolen the wallet.

Stolen just like Blair had taken Carter.

She was stuck in Springtown, Colorado, with no money and no credit cards. She couldn’t even pay the five-dollar check, and a lawyer and the town sheriff sat across the way. She gasped for breath, needing more oxygen.

The waitress looked in her direction and gave her a puzzled frown.

How did one sneak out the door without paying while lugging two big suitcases? Valerie tried to stand, but her legs refused to cooperate. Her heart pounded in her chest, and the edges of her vision darkened like the closing credits of a show. With sickening certainty she knew she was going to faint.

Dear God, she was going to faint right in front of the two people she didn’t want to notice her! With that she crumpled to the floor around her Louis Vuitton luggage.

#

            Something was terribly wrong. Excited voices seeped into her mind, and the stringent smell of Pine-Sol stole her breath, leaving her coughing and sputtering.

            “Stand back and give her some air,” a vaguely familiar voice said.

“Does she need CPR? I’ve been trained in CPR,” a man said from a distance.

Oh God, it hadn’t been a nightmare. Slowly she opened her eyes and stared into the kindest emerald eyes framed by long dark lashes. Concern reflected from their depths, and she realized his strong arms were wrapped around her. A strange sense of comfort settled over her like a security blanket. For the first time in two days she felt sheltered and safe.

            “Don’t move,” he cautioned. “The sheriff is trying to reach Doc Peters.”

            The gorgeous, truth-spinning lawyer held her. No! Not another lawyer.

The botched wedding, the bus trip, the last forty-eight hours rushed back, the memories weaving icy tendrils of panic through her blood. This attorney probably knew her father’s firm. This attorney could send her home, back to the drama she’d escaped.

“I’m fine,” she blurted, sitting up straight and struggling out of his arms. “I don’t need a doctor.”

            “Honey,” the waitress soothed, bending down beside the lawyer, “no one has ever passed out in my restaurant. I think you best let the doctor examine you.”

            “No, I must have had low blood sugar or something,” she said, making a motion to stand.

            “It wouldn’t hurt to let the doctor check you out,” the handsome attorney said calmly. Why was it that attorneys never panicked? Never got excited. Why did people listen to and obey them?

            Just like she’d believed and listened to Carter.

            “I’m fine.”

She stood, remembering with clarity that she had no money to pay the bill. No credit cards. No place to stay the night. She had nothing. And she refused to call her father.

            She sank onto the chair at the table, needing a moment to think. Her trust held over a million dollars in funds, but a sudden withdrawal would bring the problems she’d run from racing to town.

            “Okay, the excitement is over. Everyone back to their tables,” Fran commanded, shooing everyone with her hands. “Girl, you sit right here. I’ll get you a glass of water.”

            “Thanks,” Valerie said, glancing down at her luggage. The two pieces sat right where she’d fallen beside them. She couldn’t help but be a little suspicious of everyone after today.

            “Hey, look. It’s starting to snow outside,” Fran called.

            “Snow?”

            “Yeah, we’ve got a big storm moving in tonight,” the handsome lawyer replied, standing beside the table, his emerald gaze studying her.

            Oh no, where would she go? Deep breaths. She couldn’t panic.

            “We should have two feet of snow by morning,” he said.

            “Great,” Valerie groaned.

            “Where are you staying the night?” he asked.

            “Um, the waitress mentioned the Springtown Inn. I’ll probably be there.”

            His eyes raked her clothing. “You’re not from around here are you?”

            “No,” she said quietly, wishing he would go away and leave her alone. Though his dark hair and gentle eyes were handsome enough to arouse even her bruised libido, his profession scared her worse than rattlesnakes.

She needed a quick spray of attorney repellant.

“Did you just get off the bus?” he asked, his voice deep and smooth.

            “Yes.”

            “You’re going to need a heavier coat than what you have on. Do you have one?”

            God, the man was persistent with the questions. Why wouldn’t he just leave?

            “Yes,” she lied, hoping he would get the hint.

            “You’re sure you don’t need a doctor?” he asked. “It could be altitude sickness. Where did you come from?”

            “Phoenix,” she fibbed saying the first city that came to mind.

            “No wonder you’re dressed so lightly. The temperature is going to drop into the single digits tonight. You probably have a touch of altitude sickness. Take it easy the first few days you’re here, and drink lots of water.”

            “Absolutely.”

“What’s your name?”

            She swallowed, knowing she had to say something. But what? The police were probably searching for Valerie Burrows. “Valerie.”

            “Valerie…” he asked, gazing at her oddly. “Do you have a last name?” He looked at her suitcases. The monogram shined like a beacon. “DVB?”

            “Valerie Brown,” she muttered glancing over at his friend’s brown uniform. She gave him her best trusting smile. Her heart thudded painfully in her chest, reminding her she was a terrible liar.

            “Brown,” he said sticking out his hand. “I’m Matt Jordan, and the sheriff is Jesse Phillips.”

            His grip was strong and his hands were warm. The pleasant woodsy fragrance of his cologne teased her senses.

            “I’m sorry I’ve caused you so much trouble tonight.”

            Matt smiled. “It was nothing. Kind of nice to have a little excitement for a change. I’m just surprised it wasn’t Fran’s cooking that sent you over the edge.”

            “Hey, I heard that. You legal types can forget the free donuts and coffee.”

            The sheriff closed his cell phone and strolled to the table. “Doc Peters is unavailable. His nurse said to make sure you had plenty of fluids. She thinks it might be altitude sickness.”

            “Really, I’m feeling better,” she lied. Fear pumped through her veins like an adrenaline junkie. She didn’t need a doctor for what ailed her. She didn’t need the sheriff to take her to jail. And she most definitely didn’t need a lawyer to solve her problems. She needed a drama-free zone.

            Matt nodded his head. “Ladies, the sheriff and I need to be going. Take it easy, Miss Brown.”

            “Thanks.”

            “Fran, if you need anything else, call me,” the sheriff said. “Good night, Miss Brown.”

            “Night sheriff,” Fran called.

            Valerie watched the two men walk out the door of the café into the frosty night. The snow shimmied from the sky leaving a white sheen on the roads.

She had no cash, nothing, with a blizzard blowing outside. She was a trust fund baby, a well-bestowed one, though little good it did her now. How did she get herself out of this situation without calling her daddy for help?