Belle’s Secret

by

Victoria Purman

Isabella Martenson never expected to be a runaway bride. She never expected to be a bride, period. She simply has the wrong DNA to do the whole happily married thing. Until one night in Vegas with a handsome winemaker changes everything…

A year later, Harry Harrison’s bride is still a mystery. Who was she? Where was she? And why did she run? When Harry flies to a Australia for his best friend’s wedding, he runs straight into the woman he’s never been able to forget.

All she asks is for their marriage to be kept a secret. All he asks is for a divorce. But after a week together, Harry and Isabella are forced to face what they really want.

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“Do you, Amanda Noble take Simon Patterson as your companion, through time and space, for all eternity?”

The bride nodded and the two buns perched over her ears wobbled precariously. “I do.”

“And do you, Simon Patterson take Amanda Noble as your princess, through time and space, for all eternity?”

“I do,” the groom replied.

“By the powers vested in me by the Commonwealth of Australia, I now pronounce you husband and wife.”

And so, with those simple, fanfic-inspired words, marriage celebrant Isabella Martenson officiated over her one hundredth wedding.

As the newlyweds kissed and hugged, wiped away their tears and erupted in joyous laughter, Isabella stepped back. She closed her leather-bound folder, in which she had placed two printed copies of the vows the couple had written, and looked on as family, friends, and a couple of people dressed as small furry animals, crowded around the happy couple, offering embraces and congratulations. The late-January sun shone down on the native garden. Lemon-scented gums perfumed the air and the dappled shade offered some respite from the heat. Off in the distance, the apple-green leaves of nearby vineyards shimmered, and a kookaburra called as if to herald the newlyweds.

Isabella sighed and allowed herself a self-satisfied smile. Who said romance was dead?

She experienced the same, warm feeling after every marriage she performed. But there was something altogether extra special about this place: Wirra Station. Here, in this stunning country location, she could have sworn that the love and happiness seemed to be bigger, closer somehow. She’d been living here for a year now, a few kilometres out of the nearest town of Wirralong in northern Victoria, as the resident marriage celebrant at her best friend Maggie Walker’s wedding venue. How much had Maggie accomplished since she’d inherited this historic sheep station? Her determination, passion and plain-old elbow grease had transformed the run-down heritage homestead and outbuildings and created one of Australia’s most authentic country wedding venues.

Isabella loved her new life. She hadn’t once regretted the move from big city Melbourne. Swapping skyscrapers and traffic jams for fresh air and sunsets was about the best thing she’d ever done.

She loved her job. Really loved it. She adored shepherding blissfully loved-up couples through the process of a civil wedding, guiding them as they took the leap of faith into marriage. Every couple she married believed heart and soul in that elusive happy ever after. When they sat in front of her during the pre-marriage interview, she loved seeing in their eyes how earnestly and sincerely they believed that the person whose hand they were holding would be the one, the only, their lifelong love. With their heart and souls, they believed that their wedding would be the first day of the rest of their perfect lives. They believed, in those hopeful, love-struck moments, that love would last forever.

Isabella’s job was like watching an endless loop of all her favourite romantic comedies spliced into one long film montage. Happy ever after followed by happy ever after followed by happy ever after. She was able to leave work every day with a lump in her throat and a tear in her eye. Her job and this location made her a very contented woman.

“Congratulations to the happy couple!”

The pronouncement – and then a huge cheer from the crowd – snapped her back to the present. She watched on as the groom dipped his princess backwards and laughed along with the guests when one of her hairpieces, shaped like a pastry, became detached from her ear and tumbled onto the grass. The groom smacked a loud kiss on his wife’s lips before picking up the hairpiece and flinging it into the crowd like a Frisbee.

Isabella sighed contentedly. She had a good feeling about these two. A bride and groom who could laugh about something like that would most likely be laughing together for the rest of their lives. They were lucky to know what they wanted, and they’d held on to it, nurtured it, made it real.

Maggie made her way to the front of the crowd. She clapped her hands together a couple of times and the crowd hushed.

“Thank you everyone,” Maggie began. “Thank you so much for coming along to Wirra Station for Amanda and Simon’s most special day. The newlyweds are going to stay behind here with Isabella for a few moments to complete the official paperwork and then have some photographs taken and while they’re doing that, they invite you to head to the marquee right across the lawn over by The Woolshed for some refreshments.”

The promise of refreshments was all everyone needed. Isabella watched the happy crowd disperse and glanced at the table in front of her to check that the paperwork was in order. She’d set out a little wooden table and two chairs, covered in white silk, on the verandah of a historic cottage on the property, set to the side of the main house. Maggie had told her that it was the original servants’ quarters, from the days when people had such things. Now, its shaded verandah was protection from the sun (no bride wanted their makeup to be melted away in the heat) and rain (no bride wanted to look drenched in her wedding photos). The potted ferns against the subtly painted woodwork of the cottage created a lovely backdrop for photos of the ceremony.

Everything was in order. Two gold ballpoint pens sat alongside the official certificate of marriage, the final piece of paperwork the bride and groom were required to sign before they were considered legally wed under Australian law.

This was a good day, Isabella thought. Another couple married. More love in the world.

The newlyweds walked towards her in a daze, as if no one else existed in the world but them. They stopped, whispered to each other, shared a kiss.

Isabella cleared her throat. “Amanda? Simon?”

They looked up to Isabella.

“This won’t take long. Once you’ve signed the certificate, all the formalities are out of the way and you’re free to go celebrate with your families and friends.”

Simon stepped up to the verandah, reached for a chair and held out a hand to his bride. She joined him and then sat down. “Thanks, Husband.”

“You’re welcome, Wife,” Simon replied.

The banter made Isabella laugh.

Amanda looked up. Her eyes were glossy. “We can’t thank you enough, Isabella. Everything was just perfect.”

Isabella patted the bride on the shoulder.

“I should thank you. This is my first sci-fi inspired wedding. I’m honoured.”

She handed Simon and Amanda a pen each and they signed the certificate with a flourish. Isabella made sure to check they had both signed in the correct places. She couldn’t lodge the form if it was incomplete or incorrect. She always made sure to have a spare form in her folder, in the event either party forgot their name or signed in the wrong section. She checked closely. All was in order.

Simon held out a hand and vigorously shook Isabella’s. His brown costume vest had slipped off his shoulder and he tugged it back up. “Whoops. Got to look good in the photos! Thanks a million, Isabella.” He turned and reached for his wife’s hand. “Come on, honey. Let’s go. I can’t wait for folks back in the States to see the photos.”

Isabella swallowed a smile. “Oh, Amanda?” She surreptitiously pointed to her own head to remind Amanda that she was only wearing one bun.

Amanda laughed. “I’m going directly to the bathroom to rip this other one off. It’s itching like crazy!”

The bride and groom sauntered off across the lawn, hand in hand. Amanda’s white gown trailed behind her and if you didn’t look at her hair, she looked quite the traditional bride.

It was suddenly quiet.

Isabella put her leather folder on the table and slipped out a large envelope. She carefully slid the marriage certificate inside, sealed it for safekeeping, then tucked it back inside her folder. She looked around Maggie’s property with a warm sense of satisfaction.

She’d taken a huge leap of faith when she’d moved to Wirra Station almost twelve months before. She’d had a thriving business in Melbourne, was busy Saturdays and Sundays all year round, and had good friends she loved spending time with. Of course, she’d missed Maggie when she’d inherited the property and left Melbourne, but her own life was busy. She’d had chances to settle down. She met lots of men. So many she’d lost track.

Oh, who was she kidding?

They were inevitably fiancés. Fathers of the bride. Fathers of the groom. Brothers. Creepy uncles. Nervous groomsmen. Bored husbands. Extremely annoying sixteen-year-old boys who thought it was fun to flirt incompetently with the “old lady” conducting the wedding ceremony.

Truth was, Isabella hadn’t met a decent prospect in a while. And truthfully? She liked it that way. Of course she believed in marriage and happy ever afters. For other people, you understand. Not for herself. Absolutely, definitely not for herself. Guaranteed happy ever afters only happened in books and movies, right? She knew that happy ever afters had a bad habit of turning into miserable ever afters. Her own childhood had taught her that firsthand. No matter how much she’d wished for it, her parents had proved to her that happy ever afters only last until someone is bored or angry or unfaithful.

To do her job well, she let herself believe that bitterness and acrimony didn’t exist. And as for Maggie and her husband, Max? Well, clearly they were some kind of anomaly, some disturbance in the force.

She smiled and let out a chuckle. She’d obviously spent too long studying Amanda and Simon’s wedding vows.

No, marriage wasn’t for her. She was perfectly content with her single life. It was precisely that single life that had given her the freedom to pack up her Melbourne life and her business and move to Wirra Station.

And on days like this, when she was able to breathe the country air instead of city fumes, look around at the gums and the big sky, and sniff eucalypts, freshly mown grass and flowers in the garden beds in front of the cottage, and then drive the two minutes across the property to her own grace-and-favour cottage, she decided the risk had been worth it.

Isabella gathered together all the items on the table and took out a basket from underneath, loading it up. Her work for the day was done. She’d had another wedding that morning—two second-chancers who’d met playing bingo in the local pub—and she was now free for the rest of the day and the evening. Amanda and Simon had invited her to stay for the reception, but she always politely declined those invitations. She didn’t want to mix work and play, and marrying people was definitely work. She really needed a coffee. Perhaps two. And then a night on the sofa with a good movie. Perhaps she was due for another screening of Notting Hill. Perfect.

“Excuse me?”

Isabella looked up. A man was walking across the lawn to her, strides long on the soft grass, a glass of white wine in his hand. All the guests had moved off to the marquee for drinks. Had he dropped his phone or wallet or something?

Isabella held a hand above her eyes to block out the afternoon sun flashing bright in her face. She couldn’t quite make out the man’s features. He had a tall silhouette. “If you’re looking for a wedding guest, I’m afraid they’ve all moved over to the marquee.”

“I’m looking for someone.” Broad-shouldered, taller the closer he got, he wore a stylish navy suit with a crisp white shirt and a paisley tie. His dark hair was swept back from his forehead in a thick wave. His eyes were hidden behind sunglasses. Isabella heard an American accent and decided he must be one of the wedding guests from the groom’s side. There was something about his voice that prickled the hair at the back of her neck.

“Is there something I can help you with?” she asked politely.

“Mrs Harrison?” His voice was deep and it carried in the distance between them, and it reverberated in her chest like the throb of techno music.

“I’m sorry,” Isabella managed, clutching her folder to her chest. “I’m not sure of the names of all the wedding guests. You might want to go and check the tables list at The Woolshed.”

Isabella was on the verandah and when he reached her, they were at eye level. He lifted his sunglasses from his face. His dark eyes flashed.

She swallowed hard and her mouth was all of a sudden filled with cotton balls. Oh no.

“I think I’ve found who I’m looking for.” He chuckled but there was an edge to it, a mean edge. “Mrs Harrison. As I live and breathe.”

A shiver scratched at the base of Isabella’s neck. Sweat beaded on her top lip even though she suddenly felt cold. Something clenched at her insides and she swallowed a wave of nausea.

“What did you say your name was again?” she stammered, trying to buy a few seconds to think, to stop herself from going into shock.

“You mean you’ve forgotten already? It’s Harry. Harry Harrison.”

Oh no. Oh please God no.

“Your husband.”

A year ago. This man. Her biggest mistake.

A year ago, she’d run all the way from Las Vegas with more regrets than she could stomach.

And the cause of that regret was now right here at Wirra Station.

This was one hell of a gotcha moment.

End of Excerpt