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“I can’t breathe.”
Kara Montgomery pressed a hand to her aching lungs. If she were allergic, the shortness of breath could be blamed on the half-dozen bouquets of lilies and orchids decorating the bridal room at the church. But she wasn’t. And Kara already knew the cause. What she didn’t have was the cure.
In the full-length mirror in front of them, her mother’s face glowed. “You look beautiful, Kara. A true princess.”
Despite the bejeweled bodice and wide tulle skirt of her ball gown, Kara didn’t feel like a princess. Neither did she feel beautiful. She just felt sick.
“Now don’t you worry, honey. It’s natural to be nervous on your wedding day.”
No doubt it was, but Kara was suffering from more than nerves.
“Mom, this isn’t nerves. This is—”
“Kara.” Her mother smiled patiently. “There’s a church full of guests waiting to see you walk down the aisle.” She wrapped an arm around her daughter’s waist and squeezed. “This is a good thing. Keith will give you a good life. Everything you’re accustomed to.”
Kara frowned. “I don’t care about the lifestyle, Mom. It’s not important to me the way it is to you and Dad.”
Anna shook her head. “That’s easy to say when you’ve never had to go without. The ranch your father was raised on wasn’t the fairy tale you remember from the times you visited your grandparents. They sheltered you from the realities of how hard it was. It wasn’t all happy smiles on a porch,” she said.
Anna was referring to the dog-eared photo Kara kept of her grandparents. The one that did indeed show them arm in arm on the front porch of their small ranch house, faces beaming with love and happiness. The one her mother had scowled at when she’d gone looking for tissues in Kara’s purse the first time they’d gone bridal gown shopping and found the picture in the process.
Because her father, when they’d fought about her college major, had taken it, frame and all, and thrown it outside in the dumpster. Later that night, Kara had gone in search of it and had kept it hidden ever since.
No doubt her mother would be livid if she knew Kara had it tucked in the satin clutch purse she’d set next to a vase of white lilies. But the picture was the least of it as Anna reached for the bridal veil, causing Kara’s stomach to curl into a tight ball.
“They were happy, Mom,” Kara argued. “And they were in love.”
Anna’s mouth pursed. “They were broke, is what they were. And love didn’t pay the bills, did it?” She took a deep breath. “Enough of that, now. Let’s get your veil on.”
Feeling panic palpitating in her chest, Kara grabbed her mother’s wrist. “I don’t think I can do this. I love Keith but I’m not in love with him, not like I should be to be marrying him.”
Anna’s smile shriveled. Her eyes sharpened and her voice hardened.
“Marriage isn’t all about hearts and rainbows, Kara. It’s a lifetime commitment and for it to work you need to find a good, stable man who’ll work hard to provide for his family. Keith is exactly that. He comes from a good family, is well respected in the community, and he has been a wonderful asset to Montgomery and Associates. There’s no telling what you two can accomplish.”
She pulled her arm from Kara’s grip and secured the veil at the back of Kara’s head.
Seeing it all together, the makeup, the gown, the veil, Kara’s stomach cramped into a hard knot. A cold sweat draped over her shoulders like an icy shawl. Kara spun around, faced her mom. She had to get through to her.
“I know you love Keith but—”
“He’s the perfect man for you.”
“That’s just it, Mom. I don’t think he is.”
“That’s silly talk, now. You accepted his proposal.”
“Technically, I didn’t. I never said yes.”
It was just assumed. She’d been stunned when Keith proposed last year. They’d already been dating for a few years and it was just sort of comfortable and routine, and when marriage came up, it was always in a “one day” context, never anything imminent. They were both focused on their careers, which was why Kara had assumed “one day” wouldn’t be anytime soon. She’d never expected it to happen during one of her mother’s dinner parties.
Yet there she’d been, with a dining room full of people looking at her with smiles shining brighter than the chandelier hanging over the long, food-laden table. Her mother, tears filling her eyes, had wept as Keith went down on bended knee. Her father had swelled with pride. Both had kept her from uttering the refusal that had leapt to the tip of her tongue.
They were the same things that had convinced her to change her career path from business to accounting. The same things that kept her at a job in an office with a view of other high-rises when what she dreamed of was wide-open spaces and work that fulfilled her.
Her dad might not have liked it when Kara visited her grandparents before they lost their ranch, but it had been heaven to Kara and the place that let her heal after her brother’s death in Iraq. While it had been a struggling cattle operation in the eyes of her parents, to Kara it had been so much more. Just being outside, away from the noise of the city had helped her heal. And though her grandparents only had an old nag that couldn’t be ridden any longer, Kara had found peace walking beside it, brushing it, and more than once, giving it a hug and crying against its neck.
She knew her grandparents had made mistakes but that was why Kara wanted to go into business. So she wouldn’t make the same ones. So she’d be smarter about things. So she wouldn’t fail.
But her parents wouldn’t hear of it. Especially her father, who was looking to her to take over the firm now that his only son wouldn’t be coming back from the war.
“He’d be honored if you did this, Kara. If you followed where he’d intended to go. We’ve already talked to the university and you’re meeting with them tomorrow to pick your new classes.”
She’d been hurt and angry that they’d gone behind her back but when she’d tried to reason, to explain, they spoke over her.
“This will be perfect, you’ll see. And I’ll go with you, of course,” her father had said.
She hadn’t necessarily gone quietly, as she’d voiced her opinion many times, even refused to get in the car the next morning.
“Really, Kara, after all we’ve been through, you’re going to balk at this? At a chance at a bright future?”
“I could have a bright future in business too.”
Her dad’s face had twisted in pain. “Not like taking over the firm one day. Why would you throw that away? An opportunity your brother would have taken in a second. Instead he’s buried and—”
In the end, she’d altered her plans, her dreams, not only because she didn’t want to add to their pain and grief, but because they wouldn’t listen anyway.
So she’d changed her career to keep them happy. To try to keep the light that had dimmed in their eyes since Colin’s death from fully extinguishing. And it was why she hadn’t said no to Keith that night. She’d managed a trembling smile that had been taken as a yes and before she knew it, before she could find a way to sit Keith down and explain, she had a ring on her finger.
The very next day, she had a wedding planner sent to her office, appointments hers and Keith’s mother thrust upon her, and “save the date” cards ordered.
There’d never been a good time to say it wasn’t what she wanted. As the wedding plans grew bigger and bigger, as cakes and invitations and linen choices were made, as she sat wondering how it had come to this, her voice had become smaller and smaller. Mostly because when she did bring up her reservations, they were dismissed as the jitters, or bridal nerves. Everything that was perfectly normal. Except it wasn’t. It never had been. And this was her last chance to set it right before it was too late.
“Well, it doesn’t matter now,” her mother said, referring to Kara’s comment about never having actually said yes. “There’s a church full of people, the Vineyards at Chappel Lodge is expecting two hundred and fifty guests for the reception, and one doesn’t change one’s mind at the last minute, Kara.” Anna stepped back, admired her daughter. “Perfect. Positively perfect. I’ll get the others and we’ll have that toast now.”
Kara was talking to her mother’s back as Anna rushed into the other room to fetch Keith’s mother, grandmother, her own maternal grandmother, and her maid of honor.
Kara felt sick. Dammit, she should have tried harder to get through. She should have demanded to be heard. But even the eleven years after Colin’s death hadn’t given her the courage to break her parents’ heart. To find a way to make herself heard.
She pressed her fingers to her temples as confliction tore at her. It was so late. She had to marry Keith now. But if she did . . . Kara shuddered. God, if she did, then every hope, every dream she’d ever had would be lost. Though she’d put them aside for years, she’d never completely given up on them. The photo in her purse was proof of that.
The door opened and everyone hurried in. Despite the collective clipping of their heels, not to mention their excited chatter acting like a barrage of pellets to her throbbing head, Kara lowered her hands and blinked away tears. She’d wait until she once again had her mother alone before demanding to call off the wedding.
Her stomach churned as she thought of the guests, the expense, the embarrassment, but she couldn’t marry Keith. She settled her hand over her roiling midsection. God, she just couldn’t.
Her maid of honor, Kathy, hurried over and hugged her. Kara held on tight as she fought to contain the emotion threatening to overwhelm her. She’d have loved to sit with Kathy before now, tell her everything. But after college, they’d both gotten distracted with their lives and mostly just kept in touch through Facebook. That was hardly the place to have the conversation she wanted to have with the only woman she’d ever considered her best friend.
And her best friend had no idea how miserable and conflicted Kara really was. Over the ten-month engagement, Kara had had her ups and downs about Keith and the wedding. But usually her parents’ sureness soothed the worst of her doubts. It was after an evening with her mom and dad that she’d called Kathy to ask her to be her maid of honor. But between running her three children around, there hadn’t been time for more than a ten-minute conversation.
How Kara yearned now to have the room to themselves.
“You look amazing!” Kathy gushed as her gaze traveled over the gown. “Keith will be gobsmacked when he sees you.”
“Yes, he will,” her mother said as she handed them flutes of champagne.
“Were you nervous?” Kara whispered as her mother fluttered about the room, passing out glasses.
“About marrying the love of my life? Not once.” Kathy’s eyes shone brighter than the sun beating through the window. “I was excited and happy to start a new chapter in our lives. I couldn’t wait to be Mrs. Oliver Hill. Other than the birth of our kids, it was the best day of our lives.”
The love of her life. The best day of her life. Kara lowered her gaze. She couldn’t say the same. She was marrying a good match, a good man. But never had she considered Keith the love of her life.
Concern furrowing her brow, Kathy grabbed Kara’s hand. “But it’s normal to be nervous,” she hurried to reassure.
“Or course it is,” her mother said as she stepped to Kara’s side. “Let’s toast, everyone.” She raised her glass. The rising bubbles caught the sun.
“To Kara. My beautiful daughter. Today you make me and your father so proud. We couldn’t ask for a more kindhearted, loving daughter.”
“To Kara!” everyone cheered as Kara fought not to throw up.
Glasses clinked. Hugs were given and then her mother ushered everyone out. When it was just the two of them, Anna once again hugged her daughter. Tears filled her eyes.
“If Colin were here, this day would be perfect.”
Kara’s heart sank to her Louboutin pumps. Her own eyes filled. Not only because she’d have given anything to have her brother there but because her mother’s words reminded Kara why she hadn’t had the heart to stand up and decline Keith’s proposal in the first place, not to mention put her foot down on the wedding plans before they’d escalated this far.
Because the wedding made her parents happy. Because they deserved it after losing their son. Because she was all they had left.
Kara knew she deserved happiness as well, but the words stuck to her mouth like peanut butter. Her heart raced as the seconds passed. She twisted her hands together as she worked to loosen her tongue. Finally, she opened her mouth.
“I’ll send your father in shortly,” her mother said before kissing Kara on the cheek and gliding toward the door.
Anna turned. Her stern stare bored into Kara, scattering the little confidence she’d managed to find.
“I’ll give you ten minutes to pull yourself together and then I’m sending your father in. You will do this, Kara.”
And with those orders, Anna shut the door behind her. Though it closed with little more than a soft click, the sound crashed around Kara’s ears like the doors slamming on a jail cell. Not that she’d ever been in one but she suddenly felt as though she were. Because at the moment, she couldn’t see a future. Certainly not one she wanted. The one she was headed for was joyless and uninspiring. Not to mention without passion and excitement.
Like a prisoner, the walls closed in. The flowery smell in the room choked her. Breathing through her mouth, each inhale loud in the silence, Kara went nearly blind with panic. Her mind cleared of every thought but one. She had to get out of there.
Racing through the room, Kara yanked open the drawer on the secretary desk against the wall. A shrill giggle escaped as she found a pad of ivory stationary and a pen, no doubt there for last minute vow writing.
Knowing time was against her, Kara scrawled a few sentences. Tears blurred her vision, so she had no idea if it was legible or not, but she needed to tell her parents something. At the very least, how sorry she was. When she was done, the pen fell from her numb fingers. Head reeling, heart hammering, Kara ran across the room, grabbed her purse, and threw open the door.
In a frenzied daze, with one hand holding up the miles of tulle and the other clutching her purse, she escaped down the empty hallway and out the side door of the church.
The moment she was outside, Kara pulled off her shoes and sprinted down the sidewalk. She ran until she was out of breath, then ran some more because she could. She ignored the horns honking, the catcalls and comments yelled out of open windows. None of it mattered. All that did was what she saw coming toward her.
Stopping, she hailed the cab with the hand holding her pumps. It took some work and a whole lot of tucking to get into the back seat, but eventually she was able to close the door. Only then did the panic start to ease. She took a deep breath, the first she’d been able to take in months. She closed her eyes and leaned her head back against the seat.
“Where to, ma’am?”
As though coming out of a deep sleep, though her eyes had only been closed mere seconds, Kara struggled to concentrate. She had no idea. It wasn’t as though she’d planned to be a runaway bride.
She buried her face in her hands. Oh God, what had she done?
Well, she knew what she’d done, and she didn’t doubt it was the right thing, but nobody else would see it that way. In a matter of minutes, her father would come for her, only to find her gone. And though guilt sat like a brick in her stomach, she couldn’t face her parents now. The damage was done and she’d help with the cleanup as best she could later, but right then all Kara wanted was to get away.
She needed to sort herself out. Before she faced her parents again, before she faced Keith, she needed to make decisions. All she knew right now was what she didn’t want. She didn’t want to marry Keith. Wasn’t even sure she wanted to be an accountant either. What she needed was to find out who she really was and what she really wanted. She couldn’t do that in Austin under her parents’ scrutiny and judgment. Under her parents’ control.
She had two weeks for her planned honeymoon. So she’d take them to figure out the rest of her life.
But first she needed a place to go.
Lowering her hands, Kara opened her eyes. The first thing that caught her attention was a little cowboy hat with the blue PRCA—Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association—logo on it hanging from the cab’s rearview mirror. She’d always wanted to go to a rodeo. Unfortunately, her family and Keith weren’t into something like that, and she’d never made time.
Well, now she would.
“Do you follow the professional circuit?” she asked, as she pointed to the little hat.
His brows drew together. “Doesn’t every Texan?”
“Not this one,” she admitted. Although she’d watched the odd video on YouTube. “But I’m aiming to change that.” That and a whole lot of other things. “You don’t happen to know of any going on this weekend?”
“There’s always a handful you can choose from at any given time, but this weekend the money’s at the Mesquite Championship Rodeo.”
Mesquite was over three hours away. Perfect.
“All right,” she said. “Let’s go.”
The driver’s jaw went slack. He gave her an incredulous look. “You want to go to Mesquite? You know how far that is, don’t ya?”
“And you still want to go? To a rodeo? Dressed like that?”
Still feeling a little like she was having an out-of-body experience, Kara opened her purse and showed him her platinum card. “I can pay the fare and I can buy clothes once I get there. Now, will you take me, or do I need to call another cab?”
The man’s gaze moved up from the credit card. Incredulity morphed into delight. Excitement danced in his gray eyes. “I’ll take you to Mesquite, ma’am,” he said as he signaled to weave back into traffic. “I just need to stop for gas.”
Kara tucked her card away, then pulled out the picture. She stared into her grandparents’ faces, envisioned their smiles getting a little wider. Her parents might not approve of what she was doing but she felt, to the bottom of her heart, that her grandparents would. With a soft smile, she put away the photo, then once again settled into the back seat. She set her shoes next to her clutch and closed her eyes once more.
Mesquite. She’d never been there before.
But if she was going to change her life, it was as good a place as any to start.
End of Excerpt