Texas Rascals, Book 8

She couldn’t go through with it.

Deannie Hollis sat on the antique four-poster bed in the south bedroom of the rambling Texas ranch house that until fifteen years ago had belonged to the Hollis family for four generations. Her parents had conceived her in this very bedroom.

Now all she had to do to reclaim her birthright was to walk down the aisle and say “I do” to Brodie Trueblood. It was that simple, and that complicated.

Tears slipped down her cheeks and pooled on the white lace collar of her western-cut wedding gown. A bouquet of white roses and baby’s breath rested in her trembling hands, and a salty lump burned her throat.

Twisting Brodie’s engagement ring on her finger, Deannie shook her head, trying her best to fight the guilt clutching her heart. Her pearl cluster earrings danced below her earlobes, and the mesh bridal veil brushed lightly against her shoulders.

She could not do this. Brodie deserved so much better. Sniffling, she reached for a tissue.

A knock sounded at the door.

“C-c-come in.” Deannie hiccupped and smoothed her white satin skirt with one hand.

Her sister-in-law to be, Emma Trueblood, poked her head in the door. “Preacher’s here. Everyone’s waiting.”

“Could you give me ten more minutes?”

“Cold feet?” Emma swished into the room in a lavender whirl and shut the door behind her. She plopped down on the bed beside Deannie.

“Sort of.”

“Oh, honey, you know you’re getting the best man in Presidio County.”

“I know.” That was the problem.

Emma patted her hand. “It’ll be all right, I promise. If you love Brodie, and he loves you, nothing else matters.”

But Emma was wrong.

Dead wrong.

Because Deannie had a dark secret.

“I know my marriage to Kenny isn’t perfect,” Emma chattered, “but we’re working things out. And believe it or not, after seven years, our life together is better than ever.”

Deannie knew. She’d seen Kenny’s transformation firsthand. “I’m glad you guys are happy. You deserve all the happiness in the world.”

“We owe it to you and Brodie. If it weren’t for you two, Kenny and I would still be separated.”

“Naw, Kenny’s a good man. He would have come to his senses eventually.”

Emma hugged Deannie. “Come on, woman, don’t let marriage scare you. It really is worth the effort.”

Marriage didn’t scare her, deceiving Brodie Trueblood did.

“I need five more minutes alone,” Deannie pleaded. “Please, Emma.”

“Okay.” Looking puzzled, her matron-of-honor left the room.

Deannie tried to take a deep breath, but anxiety twisted around her throat, and claustrophobia gripped her stomach.

She had to get out of here.






This minute.

Before it was too late.

Springing to her feet, she dashed to the window and pushed back the curtain. Brodie’s pickup sat around back, already desecrated by well-wishers. White shoe polish announcing Just Married muddied the windows, and dozens of aluminum cans dangled from the bumper. Even if she had access to the keys, they parked cars around the circular driveway, blocking her exit.

Stuck, stranded.

What to do?

She couldn’t face Brodie, couldn’t call off the wedding while looking him in the face. She was too big a coward for that. Couldn’t bear to see the trust go out of his eyes.

Strains of the wedding march came from the living room as their neighbor, Bonnie McNally, played the piano.

In her mind, she saw the gaily decorated living room—vases of roses, white crepe paper streamers, satin doves, silk bows. She knew little Buster was there, clutching a pillow with their wedding rings pinned to it. And so was sweet Angel, dressed in ruffles and lace, carrying a basketful of white rose petals. Their friends, dressed in their best finery, gathered in the living room, waiting to witness the union of Brodie Trueblood and Deannie McCellan.

Only she wasn’t Deannie McCellan as everyone believed.

Closing her eyes, she saw Brodie standing before the altar, his dark hair combed back off his forehead, his brown eyes shining with radiant love. A love that would die the instant he learned the truth about her.

Deannie moaned and fisted her hands as sorrow writhed through her. Better to leave him at the altar than marry him and live a lie.

She’d tried to convince herself that love was enough. Self-denial had led her this far, but her conscience balked at finishing her mission. She could not do it.

Peering out the window again, Deannie searched the grounds below, desperate for a solution. She spotted Brodie’s horse, Ranger, saddled in the paddock.

Yes. That was it. She would take Ranger and clear out. Once she got to Rascal, she’d figure out where to go from there.

Decision made, Deannie moved aside the sash and raised the window. With both hands, she pushed out the screen. Hiking her dress around her waist, she placed a booted foot on the sill. One look at those white boots and her heart lurched in her throat.

Just two weeks ago, she and Brodie had gone to El Paso, where he’d picked out the boots especially for their wedding, saying they were perfect for his cowgirl bride.

Don’t think about it. Just go.

She hesitated a moment, calculating the distance to the ground from the second story. Taking a deep breath, she gathered her skirt in her hands.

“Here goes,” she whispered and jumped.

Deannie landed feet first and stumbled backward from the impact. Recovering, she ran across the yard toward the paddock, flung open the gate, and clicked her tongue at Ranger.

Obediently, the horse came to her. Pulse thudding, Deannie swung into the saddle.

The cool September breeze ruffled her hair as she grabbed the reins and aimed Ranger west toward the setting sun. Clouds bunched on the horizon, threatening rain.

Any minute now Brodie would discover her gone. Any minute the atmosphere would change from festive to gloomy. Any minute Brodie’s heart would break, shattered just as surely as her own, their hopes and dreams crushed like rose petals in a hailstorm.

Oh, why had she fallen in love with him?

Regret, heavy and unshakable, filled her. Blinking back more tears, Deannie galloped across the prairie. Her veil streaming out behind her, her train whipping against the saddle. Her hands, encased in soft white gloves, clutched the reins in a death grip.

Her mind jettisoned back to that fateful day four months ago. The day she returned to Rascal, hell-bent on revenge.