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Daisy looked in the long mirror and saw a stranger. The off-white dress, the dark hair artfully styled, but her face far too pale, her eyes huge with no help from makeup. Her mother stood a few feet away, frowning as she studied Daisy.
“You look very nice, quite respectable. You need some color.” Her mother stepped forward and pinched Daisy’s cheeks hard.
Daisy flinched away. She wanted to ask why she wasn’t allowed to wear makeup when hurting her to bring up color was all right. But that was the least of her problems, and anyway, Mama would have some vague rule to explain it all.
Daisy rubbed at her cheeks. “Mama, I don’t love him.”
“Well, you should have thought of that before you let him get you with child. You’re fortunate William agreed to marry you.”
She didn’t feel fortunate. She felt helpless and terrified. She dragged in air. “There must be another way.”
“You made your bed, and now you can lie in it. Be grateful you’re getting a wedding at all. Your father wanted to haul you off to the courthouse the moment he heard, get you married off and forget all about you. William insisted you have a wedding.”
“I didn’t want one.”
Mama kept talking as if she hadn’t heard. “He even offered to pay for it when your father refused.” Mama shook her head at the foolish waste. “He’s more generous than you deserve.” She patted Daisy’s stomach. “That’s our grandchild in there, regardless of how you came to get him. Now you have one chance to make amends, raise the child right, and earn your father’s forgiveness. A baby will settle you down properly.”
“But Mama, I don’t want—”
“Hush.” Her mother grabbed her wrist, squeezing until the bones ground together. “I don’t want to hear another word.”
Daisy didn’t know how she’d finish the sentence anyway. The last few months had been a tornado of things she didn’t want. She’d never intended to date her boss. She certainly hadn’t intended to get pregnant with his child. She could hardly believe she carried a baby inside her, no matter what the pregnancy test said. She didn’t feel pregnant. She wasn’t in love. That shamed her, but it was true.
Memories crowded. How fortunate she felt when she got the job as William’s assistant despite having no college degree or experience. How kind he’d seemed at first as he trained her to do everything the job required, everything he required. That first dinner, a “work meeting” that somehow turned into a date. She’d tried to say no—she was almost positive she’d said no several times—and yet somehow things kept happening, William kept saying it was all right, he wasn’t going to go any further, and then he did, again and again.
When she’d missed her period and taken the pregnancy test, she went to William because she was scared and didn’t know what to do. She’d only wanted to talk over options, but the next thing she knew she was engaged, and when she tried to back out, he told her parents she was pregnant with his child. That was the end of that.
Now she was standing in a room off the church foyer and the organ music had started to play. She was starting a new life that felt like the end of everything. Her breath came in tiny gasps as her mother led her out to the church foyer. Her father gave her only one glance and a grunt as she stepped up beside him. He turned his attention back to the open doors that led into the nave. He didn’t speak. Daisy’s mother hurried to the front of the church and took her seat.
Daisy looked down the long aisle. William stood with the pastor near the pulpit, too far away for her to see his features or expression. Only a few guests sat in the pews near the front, her older brothers and some friends of William’s. The wedding planning had been rushed and quiet. William said it was for Daisy’s sake, so they’d have five months of marriage before the baby came.
She knew the truth. She was in disgrace. If she’d gotten engaged to William without the pregnancy, they would’ve called it a very suitable match and planned a big ceremony. Under these circumstances, her parents couldn’t parade her in front of their friends. She hadn’t been allowed to invite her own friends and had been forbidden to tell anyone she was pregnant. Did they think no one could count to nine months?
The organ music changed. Her father straightened his shoulders.
Daisy couldn’t breathe. Her rib cage seemed too tight for her pounding heart.
Her father grunted. “They’re waiting.” He shifted his elbow out for her to take, a small, grudging movement.
The edges of her vision grayed. She couldn’t walk down that aisle. She’d faint at William’s feet if she even made it that far.
She couldn’t do this. She couldn’t. She would die if she had to walk down that aisle and pledge herself to William forever.
She pulled up her wedding dress to free her feet, turned, and ran.
Hours later, Daisy pulled into the parking lot of Jamison House, the event center in Last Stand, Texas. She slid her feet back into the ridiculous high-heeled shoes and wriggled her way out of the driver’s seat in the long dress that hugged her from torso to knees. She stood, wincing at the pressure the shoes put on her blisters and stretching as much as the dress allowed. A gas station stop outside of town had relieved the pressure on her bladder, but the brief break hadn’t done much for her aching back or throbbing head.
She had nothing but this stupid dress and the stupid shoes and her purse with a few dollars in it. She was twenty, pregnant, and single. She’d turned her back on her family and the father of her child. They wouldn’t forgive that. “Last Stand,” she whispered, her voice hoarse. “Sounds fitting somehow, although Last Hope would be even better.” She sighed and limped across the parking lot toward the door.
She hadn’t known where else to go, so she drove across Texas to reach her great-aunt, the one person who might take her in and let her stay for a while. Auntie Rhonda might scold her and call her foolish, but she wouldn’t force Daisy to go back home and get married. When William and Rhonda met, they’d raised more sparks than a fire-starting contest.
Two women stood just inside the Jamison House door, next to a small table that had a couple of printed nametags sitting on it. One woman was in her thirties, petite, with short dark hair and a black pantsuit. The other, dressed in yellow taffeta, was about Daisy’s age but looked as if she’d be nearly a foot taller, had Daisy not been in heels. They smiled and welcomed Daisy.
“Um. I’m not here for the party,” she said. “My auntie Rhonda is supposed to be here. I just need to talk to her for a minute.”
The older woman frowned. “I’m not sure we can let you inside without a ticket, but I can send a message to Rhonda.” She turned away and waved to someone inside the big room.
Great. They probably thought she was trying to sneak in without paying. Rhonda had talked about the fundraising event, and how important it was for her to be there and show her support for the Tomlinson family. Why a family that had won a billion-dollar lottery needed anyone else’s support, Daisy didn’t know. She suspected it was Rhonda’s way of saying she wouldn’t have attended the wedding even if she’d been invited. Rhonda had met Daisy’s fiancé two weeks before, at the farce of an engagement party William had insisted on squeezing in before the wedding. He’d only wanted to show off for his friends. Auntie Rhonda had seen through his smug superiority. She’d called him “all hat and no cattle,” and Daisy had giggled despite knowing she’d pay for it later. Rhonda’s snide remarks were nothing compared to William’s comments later, once Rhonda was no longer around to defend herself.
Daisy should’ve called off the wedding then.
She should never have agreed in the first place.
Really, she shouldn’t have gotten pregnant. Once that had happened, she hadn’t felt like she had a choice about getting married. But apparently she did, because she was here and not on her honeymoon.
“That’s a right pretty dress,” the girl in yellow said.
“Thank you.” Daisy shifted uncomfortably. She’d give almost anything for thick socks and a pair of tennis shoes right then. Should she explain why she was wearing a fancy ivory sheath if she wasn’t attending the party?
Maybe she’d rather let them think she’d been trying to sneak in.
A young man, maybe mid-twenties, crossed the room and exchanged a few words with the woman in black. He headed back into the room, weaving between big round tables. The woman turned to Daisy with a polite smile. “It will just be a minute.”
“Thank you. I’ll wait outside.” Daisy would have loved to sit down, or at least to kick off her shoes and go barefoot on the smooth tile, but she didn’t want to answer questions, and the younger woman looked like she was bursting with them.
Daisy walked alongside the building, away from the bright lights by the door. It was tempting to lean against the building, but that might ruin her dress. Not that she ever wanted to wear it or even look at it after this day, but destroying it would be wasteful. Maybe she could get a few dollars for it at a consignment shop.
She closed her eyes, swaying with fatigue and too many emotions to name. This night had to end sometime, right? The only thing worse than living through it once would be living through it over and over, stuck in a loop like in a movie.
“Miss?” a man’s voice spoke.
Daisy opened her eyes. She’d hunched in on herself at his voice, so she forced herself to straighten as she turned. “Yes?”
It was the young man who’d been sent to fetch her aunt. He wore a tux, so he was probably someone rich, maybe from an old-money family.
“My mama and Mrs. Gillespie and their friends were in the middle of a conversation,” he said. “I didn’t want to interrupt—actually, I couldn’t get a word in—but I left a note. I’m sure Mrs. Gillespie will be out presently. Would you like to come inside to wait?”
“No, thank you.” Daisy preferred the shadows. She hadn’t dared to look at herself in the mirror at the gas station, but she could feel the tendrils that had escaped her fancy updo, and her makeup had likely smeared if not actually streaked down her cheeks while she was crying. She’d tried to blot her face with a damp paper towel, but she didn’t need hundreds of eyes on her in bright light. “I’m fine out here.” Did her tone sound as martyred to him as it did to her?
He looked down at her feet peeking out of the bottom of the sheath dress and back up at her. Then he turned and strode toward the door without a word. Daisy sagged a little. It figured that the rich, fancy folks at a party like this would take one look at her and know she didn’t belong. Still, he didn’t have to be quite so dismissive.
The man returned a minute later carrying a chair. Daisy tried to make sense of it.
He set the chair next to her and gestured toward it. “Please, have a seat. I’ve never worn shoes like that, but my feet hurt in these.” He pointed down to his dress shoes. “Although I guess some women wear high heels all the time and must like it, I suppose?” He looked suddenly uncertain. “I’m sorry if I overstepped.”
Daisy opened her mouth but couldn’t think of a response. She sank down onto the chair and whimpered with the pleasure of easing the shoes away from her blisters. She smiled up at the man. “I’m grateful. Thank you.”
They gazed at each other. Finally Daisy said, “You don’t have to wait with me.”
He shot a glance toward the door. “I’d rather, to be honest.”
Daisy found a smile tugging at her lips. She’d almost forgotten she knew how to smile. “Not your kind of party?”
He shook his head. “Parties aren’t my kind of party. I’d rather be home with my animals. But the dinner should be pretty good. I just have to get through a couple of hours of listening to people pitching their business plans, and then I can go back to normal.”
“So stoic,” she said. Goodness, was she actually teasing him? She didn’t even know his name. He was apparently some sort of businessman, despite the fact he couldn’t be thirty yet.
“I guess you don’t like parties either, if you don’t want to go inside,” he said.
“It’s not that. Not exactly.” It was too much to explain, and they didn’t know each other. “I’m not in the mood right now. I’ve never been to a party like this one anyway, so I don’t know if I’d like it.”
Music drifted out, a lazy country tune, not some fancy string quartet. This was supposed to be her wedding day. She should have been dancing with her new husband. Instead—
But she’d spent enough time beating herself up over all of that, second-guessing her decision, grieving and panicking and crying until her throat hurt.
“I do like dancing,” she said, for something to say, “but not in these shoes.” She nudged one of them with her bare foot.
He studied her gravely. “The grass is soft over there. We could dance. If you want. While we wait for your aunt.”
She stared up at him. For some reason, her eyes filled with tears, and she blinked rapidly.
He offered his hand and she took it. His hand was warm and callused. The first touch startled her so much she wanted to jerk away, but then her fingers tightened. She wanted to cling to that warm hand like a lifeline. Why did it feel like no one had touched her in years? That obviously wasn’t true.
The sidewalk was rough under her feet, but in a few steps, they were on a soft patch of grass. He started an easy two-step, and she followed along, concentrating on the warmth of his hand and the scent of Texas lilacs and the prickly grass under her feet. She was here, now, in this moment. That was all that mattered.
After a minute, she took a deep breath—maybe the first deep breath in hours—and let it out in a sigh.
He led her into a lazy spin, and at the other side of it she found herself tucked alongside him. She must be too tired for fear, because instead of jerking away, she wanted to lean against him. In any case, he kept his right hand gently on her mid back. His left hand held her hand firmly enough to guide but loosely enough for her to shift her grip or even pull away if she chose. She inhaled his scent, no expensive cologne but something more ordinary and oddly comforting that brought back the memory of attending the county fair.
He spun her again and shifted so they were facing each other. Daisy felt like she was floating. The music, the soft night air, the semidarkness, the cicadas singing—they all combined to turn the moment into a dream. Maybe she was dreaming—she’d fallen asleep and she would awake to find—
“Daisy Mae!” The voice boomed from the building entrance.
Daisy flinched. She’d never gotten Auntie Rhonda to remember that she no longer went by Daisy Mae. Oh well, it was a small price to pay.
She smiled at the man, even though he might not be able to see her expression in the darkness. “Thank you for the dance.”
He gave a small jerk of a bow and headed back inside. Rhonda watched him go with a considering look as Daisy gingerly walked toward her great-aunt.
Rhonda turned the considering look on Daisy. “Oh, honey, you look like chewed twine. Here now, child.” She held out her arms.
Daisy fell into them with a shudder of relief.
Her aunt patted her back. “It’s okay now. I’m sorry I missed your messages. Had my phone in my purse, and it’s noisy in that room. Let’s go home and get comfortable, and you can tell me all about it.”
Xander sat at his assigned banquet table with a group of men and women trying to sell him on business ideas. He put on a thoughtful expression, but in truth, his thoughts were far away. It wasn’t as if he would give someone a big grant or invest in a business based on a conversation at a banquet. All he had to do was be polite and direct people to apply to the Tomlinson family fund. The accountant and business advisor and financial planner and lawyers would make decisions. The family made that perfectly clear, but still, people seemed to think if they could only speak to one of the family in person, it would get them through a side door so they could avoid all the hoops the family had in place precisely to keep con artists and fools from wasting their time.
Why was that girl wearing a long white dress if she wasn’t here for the party? She looked like a beautiful princess, but she seemed sad. Xander usually felt awkward meeting new people, but he hadn’t wanted to escape from her. Maybe it was because she seemed to be in trouble. He’d wanted to help.
His more cynical brothers would probably tell him it was all some kind of ploy to get at the lottery money. Xander knew he wasn’t the best at reading people or guessing their motives. But she hadn’t asked for his help. She’d called on Rhonda Gillespie, who was a tough woman, older than his mama. Rhonda had gotten mad at Mama when Mama bought the winning lottery ticket and shared it with her family instead of her knitting circle. It wasn’t like Mama had known that particular ticket would be a winner when she saved it for the family. It was a matter of astronomical luck. Xander had calculated the odds and still had a hard time believing it.
Rhonda had gotten over her mad eventually, but she was kind of a bully. Xander wouldn’t pick her to help someone in trouble.
What had Rhonda called the girl? Desiree? He hadn’t quite caught the name.
Oh well. He’d probably never see her again. She was likely just passing through, on her way to more important things, the beautiful girl with the beautiful dress and sad eyes.
End of Excerpt