Happy Is the Bride
“I’m getting married. Say you’ll be my man of honor.”
Air Force Major pilot Shane Freemont stared at his foster sister and best friend in the whole world, Ellie Carson, feeling a band of hot tension knot up his shoulder blades the same way it did at the end of a dangerous mission.
During the heat of the battle, he was fine. Cucumber cool. Ice in his veins. It was the aftermath that got him. The moment when everything fell silent. The sapping ebb of adrenaline and testosterone catching up to his muscles and bones.
They were standing in line at an Austin, Texas, vegan bakery at ten a.m. on a Sunday morning in late May. Ellie wore a lacy white maxi dress, her long curly blond hair braided at the temples and held back with daisy clips. With the powder-blue wall behind her and a radiant glow spilling from her pores, she looked like an angel.
“Married? To whom?”
“Why, Brady, of course. I told you all about him.”
“That’s impossible.” Shane grunted. “You’ve only known the guy two months. You can’t be serious.”
“Don’t give me that look.”
“The I’m-the-big-brother-and-I-know-best look. Just be my friend, okay?”
“Can I be the rational friend who points out when you’re about to make a big mistake?”
“No,” she said solidly. “You must be the supportive, nonjudgmental friend today.”
“I was afraid of that.”
“Please listen. I knew from the first date that Brady was The One.” Ellie folded her delicate palms over her heart, a honker of a diamond ring glittering on the third finger of her left hand.
The happiness shining from her dear face scared the crap out of him. He didn’t trust it. Feared she was leaping right off a cliff without looking down to see if there was a net.
Shane clenched and unclenched his hands. “What if it falls apart?”
“Supportive friend,” Ellie chirped.
“Um . . .” Shane cast around for something supportive to say. “No judgment. I just want to know if you’ve fully thought this through. Marriage is a big deal.”
“I have faith.” She said it as if that made perfect sense. That faith would solve everything. “You have to take risks to reap rewards.”
Shane believed in taking risks. Calculated ones. Risks based on analysis and experience and preparation. Risks that left nothing to chance or affairs of the heart. That belief had kept him alive for thirty years and nothing was going to change his mind.
“But is the risk worth the reward?” he persisted.
“Without a doubt. I’ve never felt this way about anyone. This is happening. Get used to it.”
“When is the wedding?” he asked, hoping for a date three years in the future.
“Of next year?”
“This June eighteenth.”
“As in three weeks from now?”
“As in.” Ellie did a little happy dance right there in the bakery. “I wanted to do it while you were on leave. I can’t get married without my best friend.”
Shane felt like a shit heel for what he was going to say next, but supportive friend or not, it had to be said. He took her small hand in his, ran his thumb over the back of her knuckles. “You don’t have to go through with this wedding. Even if you’re pregnant. I’ll help you. You won’t have to go it alone. I’ll be there for you, Ell. Always.”
Ellie’s dark eyes dimmed and her sweet smile evaporated. She tugged her hand from his, blinking at him as if he’d reached out and slapped her. She sucked in an audible breath. “I’m not pregnant.”
He cocked his head, confused. “Then why the rush? You don’t have to marry the guy, Ellie, just because you said yes. Think it through. You got caught up in the moment. A shiny ring. A declaration of love. Understandable. It’s not too late to change your mind.”
Her chin trembled slightly, and for a moment he thought she was going to cry, but she hardened her jaw and said, “What you’re failing to understand is that I love him with all my heart and soul.”
But how can you love him? He wanted to yell some sense into her, but instead he said in the softest voice he could muster, “You don’t even know him.”
“But that’s the thing. I do know him. From our very first date when we saw into each other, soul to soul. Brady and I are soul mates.”
Soul mates? Oh Lord. Shane jammed his fingers through his hair in frustration. “Ellie, I’m trying here, but that sounds wacky.”
“Just because you’ve never experienced love at first sight doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.”
Okay, he wasn’t getting through to her. Time to try another tactic. “Why can’t you wait? What’s the harm in waiting? It would give you time to plan the wedding of your dreams.”
“I’ve been waiting for twenty-eight years for my Prince Charming. I don’t want to wait a second longer. I want my life to start now. I don’t have parents to pay for the wedding and I can’t expect Brady to foot the bill for an elaborate shindig. A small, intimate wedding on a budget works fine.”
“But if you waited until your friend Kelly’s tour in Afghanistan is over, she could be here. And you would have a proper maid of honor.”
“You’re my best friend.”
“Kelly’s a woman.”
Ellie straightened, ironed her mouth flat. Her bottom lip trembled again and this time she was unable to fortify it. “If you don’t want to be my man of honor, just say so. I understand. You’re a traditionalist. A macho pilot. Maid of honor duties are too girlie for you even with the name change.”
Shane’s heart stumbled. The last thing he wanted was to hurt her feelings. When he looked at her, he saw that scared, defenseless eight-year-old with thick glasses and a severe overbite who the other kids picked on. He’d come to her defense, punching out the bullies and getting in trouble for it. He felt that same surge of protectiveness for her now.
“Whoa there, Ell. Don’t misunderstand. I’m humbled to be your man of honor if that’s what you want.”
All right, maybe not thrilled. That would be overstating. And yes, the thought of leading the bridal party and helping Ellie shop for a dress and planning the bachelorette party made him twitchy, but he was an Air Force pilot. He thumbed his nose at death every week. He could handle that froufrou, estrogen stuff without feeling like he had to surrender his man card.
“If it’s not the maid of honor thing, why are you so against me marrying Brady?”
“You really want to know?”
“The two of you don’t have anything in common. He’s from old Texas ranching money and you and I are from the way wrong side of the tracks. He’s country and you’re city. He’s a cattleman and you’re a vegan.”
“Big deal. He’s handsome and kind and he loves me as much as I love him. We can work through anything else.”
“Just because you’re in love with someone doesn’t mean they’re right for you.”
Ellie hitched in a stuttering breath and whispered, “You’ve never been in love, have you, Shane?”
“I love you,” he said staunchly.
“It’s not the same thing.” She folded her arms and shook her head, and he couldn’t help feeling he’d disappointed her in a hundred different ways. “And if you can’t be happy for me, I don’t know if you should come to the wedding at all.”
A flood of heat flushed his body. “You don’t mean that.”
She tilted her head and studied him, her eyes soft and sad. “I’ve known you since I was eight years old, and you’re the only family I have. No biological brother could have been better to me than you. But Brady is about to become my husband and—” Her eyes rounded and her jaw dropped.
“Ell?” Alarm raised the hair on the back of his neck. “What is it?”
“I get it now. You’re jealous of my relationship with Brady because you don’t have someone to call your own.”
“What?” Shane snorted, incensed. His pulse quickened and heat burned through his bloodstream. “No. That’s not it.”
He was not jealous that she’d found love and he hadn’t.
Shane gulped. Maybe he was.
Ellie placed a hand on his forearm. “You don’t have to worry. No man could ever take your place in my heart. And we’ll still talk on the phone and text as much as we ever did. Things will stay the same between us. You’ll see.”
“Things will change.”
“For the better,” she said. “You have a friend in Brady. He already respects the hell out of you and he appreciates all the ways you took care of me when we were growing up.”
Shane exhaled on a loud chuff. He wasn’t holding his breath on that one. He didn’t let many people into his close circle of friends. “Your mind is made up.”
She smiled gently at him like he was a deluded child who understood nothing and nodded. “I’m doing this with or without you.”
He shrugged, offered up a half smile. “I had to take a shot at talking you out of it.”
“I can appreciate that. But since you can’t, I need to know. Are you with me?”
He chucked her lightly under the chin. “I’m always with you, kid. I have your back until the end of time, and if it all falls to pieces, I’ll be there to put you back together again.”
“It’s not going to fall to pieces.” Her face glowed with certainty.
And he realized he’d never been that certain about anything in his life. “I’m at your service. Tell me where to start.”
“Help me pick out the wedding cake,” she said.
“Oh, and I want you to meet Brady.” She turned as they reached the counter so she was looking out the bakery window.
“I’ll have to meet him if you’re going to marry him.”
“That’s good. Because here he comes.” She waved over Shane’s shoulder as the bell above the door chimed.
Ah, she’d planned a surprise attack all along. Damn. Ambushed by his best friend.
“Oh,” she said. “And Brady’s got his best woman with him.”
“Yes.” Ellie giggled. “Gender-bending wedding attendants on both sides of the aisle.”
Shane grunted. He loved Ellie and he’d move heaven and earth to make her happy. If this was what she wanted, he was all in. Clenching his jaw and forcing a smile, he turned toward the door.
And came face-to-face with the most gorgeous woman he’d ever seen.
* * *
From the second Meg Stoddard laid eyes on Ellie Carson, she distrusted her.
Although, to be fair, Meg had distrusted her from the moment her best friend, Brady Cutwright, had told her how he’d met Ellie.
Through a matchmaking service that professed they could teach anyone how to fall in love with anybody.
Warning bells had sounded in Meg’s head and she’d immediately thought, gold digger.
“Don’t look so disapproving,” Brady had said. “Ellie and I are so different and come from opposite worlds. We would never have met any other way.”
Maybe you shouldn’t have met, Meg couldn’t help thinking.
Being in the hospitality business as the manager of her parents’ dude ranch, Meg had honed her ability to read people and situations quickly and to listen to her gut. And her gut was telling her that a starving graphic artist who’d grown up in an orphanage saw Brady as a shiny meal ticket.
Of course, she hadn’t actually met Ellie yet, so yeah, she was being a bit judgy. She and Brady lived on adjoining ranches and they’d been best friends since they could walk. She couldn’t feel more protective of him if he’d been her brother.
They’d seen each other through everything—college, career challenges, relationship potholes . . . They’d gone on trips together. Gotten drunk for the first time together. Shared laughter and tears.
Brady was the salt of the earth. Kind, loyal, generous. The one true constant in Meg’s life, and she knew without a shadow of a doubt he would always be there for her, come what may.
Which was why she felt so protective of him.
What troubled Meg most was that she’d never seen Brady this smitten over a woman and she feared he was in for a big crash. Particularly because he was refusing to draw up a prenuptial agreement.
The woman they’d come to meet was standing at the bakery counter.
Ellie looked like an ethereal, big-eyed, hippy-chick waif. Meg recognized her from the photographs Brady had shown her and from Ellie’s social media pages.
Yes, Meg had checked her out. What loyal friend wouldn’t snoop under the circumstances? Brady seemed to go in for the damsel-in-distress type. One of the reasons why she’d never taken their relationship beyond friendship.
Keep an open mind. Tacking on a smile, she softened her face. This is me. Being supportive. Muttered a silent mantra: reserve judgment, reserve judgment.
“Angel!” Brady exclaimed and rushed into Ellie’s embrace.
“Pookie!” she cried and strapped her slender arms around his waist as they melted into each other’s mouths.
A collective “Aww!” went up from the bakery patrons.
For the life of her, Meg couldn’t keep from rolling her eyes and she was grateful Brady’s back was turned so he couldn’t see her.
But the guy standing beside Ellie saw it, and an amused smile tipped up his lips. Meg’s heart skipped a beat.
Six foot. Black hair, short military cut, wicked dark eyes, five-o’clock shadow, motorcycle boots. Great posture. Cheekbones straight from Last of the Mohicans casting call. Brown bomber jacket. Cocky jaw. An even cockier stance.
And just who might you be?
Meg sucked in air as every muscle in her body tightened and tingled. Heat filled her pelvis, flared up her spine, lodged in her brain. Her cells came alive, wriggling and tingling. It was instant. Electric. A throb of energy strong enough to buckle her knees and hijack her brain.
Quickly, she stiffened her legs and dropped her gaze before she burst into flames. Who cared who he was? That was just estrogen talking, and the fact that she hadn’t had a date in oh . . . quickly, she mentally counted on her fingers and came up short. Thirteen months.
Neither was she the only one ogling Mr. I’m Too Sexy for This Earth. Half the women in the bakery were giving him come-hither glances. He was definitely blessed with a deep gene pool. Who could miss those broad shoulders, pearly whites, and proud nose?
Oh, the damage he could do to her.
Unsettled, Meg loudly cleared her throat. “Ahem.”
Sheepishly, Brady and Ellie broke apart.
With her cheeks blushing pink, Ellie turned to the man behind the counter. “I called earlier. We have an appointment to sample wedding cakes.”
“Jan will be right with you,” the man said and motioned for them to step aside so he could wait on the next customer.
“Excuse me for being rude. I just had to have some Brady sugar first,” Ellie said and extended a petite hand. “I’m Ellie.”
“Hi.” Meg upped the wattage on her smile, giving it her best I-Run-a-Dude-Ranch welcome. “Megan Stoddard.”
“Brady’s told me so much about you.” Ellie’s dark eyes sparkled like rainbow obsidian in direct sunlight. “I just know we’re going to be close. I’ve never had a sister.”
The woman possessed an arresting combo of natural blond hair and ebony eyes. She was even more beautiful in person than in pictures, and Meg could see why Brady was attracted to her. Not only beautiful but intelligent, too.
Brady wrapped his arm around Ellie’s shoulders, pulled her close, pressed his lips to the top of her head.
“He’s told me a lot about you, too,” Meg said, holding on to her skepticism in the face of Ellie’s overwhelming optimism.
Yes, Ellie seemed really nice and genuine, but she might just be a truly gifted swindler. Meg noticed Mr. I’m Too Sexy for This Earth looked as dubious as she felt. At least they had something in common: mutual mistrust of their friends’ marriage madness.
“This is my best friend, Shane Freemont,” Ellie introduced. “He’s my man of honor.”
Shane stepped forward, an I’m-barely-civilized smile on his handsome face, a roguish glint in his blue eyes. He stuck out his hand. Big. Square. Neatly trimmed nails. Callused palm.
Meg took it.
And was totally unprepared for the jolt of skin-to-skin contact. Her heart flipped up into her throat. She gulped it back down. It flipped up again. Her palm was seared to his. She wanted to pull it away, pull it out of the fire.
But she was transfixed by his lush, full smile. Mesmerized. Awestruck.
Commanding, steely, and yet somehow totally genuine, he carried his Top Gun good looks like he had no idea he was a rare eagle.
“Good to meet you,” he said, his words normal, pedestrian even, but his voice . . .
Oh my God, that voice! Low and deep and smooth. A charming voice, so warm and cozy it stoked images of crackling logs in a fireplace, snowbanks outside the window, and bare skin on plush rugs.
Hot sex, Meg thought and blinked at him vacantly, struggling to keep her breathing slow and easy. “You too.”
He was still holding on to her hand, pumping it leisurely. His stare pinned on hers.
She should look away. A smart person would look away. She didn’t look away. Stupid.
Meg hissed in air through her teeth. “You . . .”
“Yes?” His blues eyes were incandescent. Or maybe it was just the bakery lighting. And he smelled so good. Like sandalwood and leather and sage. A musky, manly scent that unraveled her.
“You can let go now,” she murmured.
“Huh?” he said, as if he’d been so busy peering into her he’d gone momentarily deaf.
“My hand. May I have it back?”
“Oh.” His face dissolved into a genuine smile. “Sure. Yes. Right.”
But he didn’t drop her hand. Instead, he leaned in, tugged her toward him slightly, and she thought, Holy vegan cupcakes, he’s going to kiss me.