**Formerly published as THERE GOES THE BRIDE.
The summer issue of Society Bride declared the marriage of Houston’s hottest bachelor, Dr. Evan Van Zandt, to his childhood sweetheart, oil heiress Delaney Cartwright, a classic friends-to-lovers fairytale.
Texas Monthly, in its folksy way, decreed their union the high society equivalent of beef barbecue and mustard potato salad. Delaney and Evan simply belonged together.
A sentimental write up in The Houston Chronicle dubbed their romance a heartwarming Lone Star love story.
Delaney’s mother, Honey Montgomery Cartwright, pronounced them the perfect couple. Lavish praise indeed from a Philadelphia blueblood with impossibly high standards.
Her father grumbled, “This thing’s costing us more than her liberal arts degree from Rice,” as he wrote out a very large check to cover the nuptials.
And Delaney’s long deceased sister Skylar, who occasionally popped up in her dreams to offer unsolicited advice, whispered with unbridled glee, that the ceremony was a glorious train wreck just waiting to happen and she insisted on front row seating.
Skylar, being dead, could of course sit anywhere she chose. Everyone else had to cram into the River Oaks Methodist Church.
The cherry wood pews overflowed with five hundred guests, including a dozen members of the press and a sprinkling of enterprising wedding crashers. The laboring air conditioning system was no match for the double punch of a too thick crowd and sweltering, one hundred degree heat.
“Who gets married in Houston during August?” Delaney heard a woman murmur.
“I’m getting a heat rash in these panty hose,” another woman replied.
Feeling chastised, Delaney ducked her head. She stood just outside the open door of the chapel waiting for the wedding march to commence, her arm looped through her father’s.
“I heard it was originally supposed to be a Christmas ceremony, but the bride postponed it twice,” the first roman said. “Do you suppose we’ll have a runaway situation?”
“Hmm, now that would make an interesting spread in the tomorrow’s society page.”
At that comment, her father tightened his grip. No turning back now, his clench said.
Delaney’s hopes sank. Her mind spun. A coyote would gnaw her paw off.
The bridesmaids’ reached their places. Her best friend, Tish, wedding videographer extraordinaire, was filming madly. Every gaze in the place was glued to Delaney.
Everything was perfect. It was a true celebrity style wedding, just as her mother had planned. The purple orchids, accented with white roses, were on lavish display—in bouquets and boutonnières, in vases and corsages. Her size four, ten thousand dollar Vera Wang wedding dress fit like a fantasy. The flower girl was cute. The two-year-old ring bearer even cuter. And both children were on exemplary behavior. Delaney’s antique wedding veil fetchingly framed her face, even though her scalp had been tingling weirdly ever since she’d put it on.
This was it.
Her big day.
The seven-piece orchestra struck the first notes of the wedding march. Dum, dum, de-dum.
Delaney took a deep breath and glanced down the long aisle festooned with white rose petals to where Evan stood at the altar looking stunningly handsome in his tux, love shining in his trusting blue eyes.
Her father started forward.
But Delaney’s beaded, white Jimmy Choo stilettos stayed rooted to the spot. No, no this was all wrong. It was a big mistake. She had to call it off before she embarrassed everyone. Where was her cell phone?
“Delaney Lyn Cartwright,” her father growled under his breath. “Don’t make me drag you.”
A hard throb of distress surged through her temples. What have you done? What have you done? What have you done?
She forced herself to move forward. Her gaze searched for the exits–two on either side of the altar. And of course, the one directly behind her.
But Daddy wasn’t letting go.
Closer, closer, almost there.
Evan made eye contact.
Guilt whirled like a demon tornado in the pit of her stomach. She dragged in a ragged breath.
Smiling brightly, her husband-to-be held out his palm and her father put her hand in Evan’s.
Delaney’s gaze shifted from one corner exit to the other. Too late. It was too late to call this off. What time was it anyway?
“Dearly beloved,” the portly minister began, but that’s as far as he got.
A clattering erupted from behind the exit door on the left. And then, there he loomed. Dressed head-to-toe in black. Wearing a ski mask. Standing out like crude oil in a cotton field.
Thrilled, chilled, shamefaced, Delaney held her breath.
The intruder charged the altar.
The congregation inhaled a simultaneous gasp.
The minister blinked, looked confused.
“Back away from the bride,” the dark stranger growled and waved a pistol at Evan.
Excitement burst like tiny exploding bubbles inside her head. Prop gun, Delaney thought. Nice touch.
Evan stared at the masked intruder, but he did not move, apparently he had not yet realized what was transpiring.
“Move it.” The interloper pointed his weapon directly at Evan’s head. “Hands up.”
Finally, her groom got the message. He dropped Delaney’s hand, raised his arms over his head and took a step back.
“Don’t anyone try anything cute,” the man commanded at the same moment he wrapped the crook of his elbow around Delaney’s neck and pressed the revolver to her temple. The cold nose of it felt deadly against her skin.
Fear catapulted into her throat, diluting the excitement. Delaney dropped her bouquet. It was a prop gun, wasn’t it?
The crowd shot to its collective feet as the stranger dragged her toward the exit from whence he’d appeared.
“Follow us and the bride gets it,” he shouted dramatically just before the exit door slammed closed behind them.
“You’re choking me,” Delaney gasped. “You can let go now.”
He ignored her and just kept dragging her by the neck toward the white delivery van parked at the back of the rectory.
A bolt of raw panic shot through her veins. What was going on here? She dug her freshly manicured fingernails into his thick arm and tried to pry herself free.
He stuck his gun in his waistband, pulled a pair of handcuffs from his back pocket and one-handedly slapped them around her wrists.
“What is this?” she squeaked.
He did not speak. He wrenched open the back door of the van just as the congregation came spilling out the rectory and into the street. He tossed her onto the floor, slammed the door and ran around to the driver’s side.
Delaney laid face down, her knees and elbows stinging from carpet burn. She couldn’t see a thing, but she heard anxious shouts and the sound of fists pounding the side of the vehicle.
The engine revved and the van shot forward, knocking her over onto her side.
“What’s going on?” She struggled to sit. The veil fell across her face. She pushed it away with her cuffed hands and peered into the front of the van. “What’s with all the rough stuff?”
He didn’t answer.
She cleared her throat. Perhaps he hadn’t heard her. “Nice execution,” she said. “Loved the toy gun, but the handcuffs are a definite overkill.”
He hit the street doing at least fifty and she tipped over again.
Her heart flipped up into her tightly constricted throat. She dragged in a ragged swallow of air. This guy was playing his role to the hilt.
When they made it to the freeway entrance ramp, he ripped off the ski mask, threw it in the seat beside him and then turned to look back at Delaney.
Alarm rocketed through her. Saliva evaporated from her mouth. Something had gone very, very wrong.
The man who’d just taken her hostage was not the kidnapper she had hired.
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