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Silence descended like a dark thundercloud over the room. The only sound came from the rugby game blasting from the televisions. Jonas Carruthers stopped wiping the wooden bartop and looked toward the door to see what had made the afternoon patrons of his pub cease their conversations. He blinked once, then again, convinced his eyes were playing tricks on him.
But no, they weren’t.
Standing in the doorway surveying the room was a bride. An honest-to-goodness I’m about to walk down the aisle bride. And she definitely wasn’t a Bunya Junction resident. If she was, Jonas would know her. He knew everyone in the place.
How she managed to squeeze the dress she wore through the door was a feat in itself. The top was moulded to her body like it had been painted on. Delicate lace covered her creamy coloured shoulders. The bodice was sprinkled with crystals, which caught the light and cast tiny rainbows around her.
The bottom of the gown ballooned out at the waist like a bell. A mass of frothy white fabric he was sure both his sisters would love. And the only reason he had any knowledge whatsoever to do with wedding dresses, was because his older sister, Sindy, had just got engaged and she made a habit of spreading her bridal magazines in front of him, asking for his opinion. What the heck did he know about which wedding dress style would suit her? His love for his sister was the only reason he listened to her go on about empire waist, A-line, and mermaid-style dresses.
The mysterious bride’s blonde hair was piled up in some intricate design of twists and curls, which Sindy would probably love. A few tendrils escaped and teased her neck, as if tickling her soft flesh.
From where he stood he could make out that her face was made up beautifully, a hint of pink highlighting high cheekbones, her lips a shiny claret colour. His youngest sister, Yolanda, would be envious of the makeup job and would call her dramatic eyeliner on point. All through her teenage years, Yolanda spent hours in front of the mirror experimenting with eyeshadows and eyeliners. It drove his mother crazy, but they indulged her because she was the baby of the family and she’d been so sick as a child that there were times they all worried the next illness would take her from them. Over the years he’d always tried to guide her onto the right path, but in the end she’d done her own thing.
It seemed like no matter what he said to the women in his life, they always did the opposite.
Pushing thoughts of his youngest sister aside, he noted the large diamonds glittering at the runaway bride’s throat and dangling from her ears. Whoever she was, she’d spared no expense with her dress and accessories.
Which posed the question: why the hell was she in Bunya Junction? And where was her groom?
Conversation began to pick up again, but like him everyone was watching, waiting to see what the bride was going to do next. She strode toward the bar as though she was walking a fashion runway. Her head held high, no hiding from the scene she’d created for this woman.
The train from the dress billowed behind her as if lifted by a wind machine.
She stopped opposite where he stood behind the bar and the scent of roses engulfed him, though there was not a bouquet in sight.
Jonas placed a coaster in front of her, as he did with any patron who stepped up to the bar. “What can I get you?”
He bit back a smile as her eyes widened in surprise when he didn’t immediately ask her what she was doing there, as if random brides turning up on a Saturday afternoon was a usual occurrence. The question had been on the tip of his tongue, but he’d seen the hint of vulnerability shining in her blue eyes and her chin had lifted half an inch as though she was daring him to question her. “Scotch on the rocks, thanks.”
Scotch, huh, not the drink he expected her to ask for, but it wasn’t his place to question a customer’s request. Her husky voice washed over him like a warm shower. Whoever she was getting married to was a lucky man. Or maybe not getting married to, seeing as she was standing in his pub in the middle of rural New South Wales. He reached for a glass and measured out her drink.
“Should we expect an angry groom and other members of a wedding party to come crashing through the doors shortly?”
There went his intention not to ask her why she was standing in front of him and not in front of her partner.
“As if,” she mumbled before looking him directly in the eye. “You’re safe. I walked off a country bridal photo shoot. The only person you’d likely encounter is a temperamental Brazilian photographer. Although he’s so up himself he probably hasn’t even realised I’m missing.” Her chin notched up another inch. Defiance replaced the vulnerability he’d glimpsed earlier. Did she think he was going to kick her out if he didn’t like her answer? Or was the defiance directed toward the photographer?
He had his answer, though, she was a model and not a bride. As far as models went, she didn’t look that familiar to him. Then again he didn’t make it a point to know who the top models of the country or world were. His sisters, most probably Yolanda more than Sindy, might recognise her.
The sense of relief flowing through him at the thought that she didn’t have a significant other, didn’t make sense. Although just because she wasn’t a bride didn’t mean she was single. The woman was gorgeous. She had a face that could sell wheat seeds to a wheat farmer who had a silo full of grain. The chances of her not having someone special in her life were slim.
“What about family or significant other, are they likely to come looking for you or file a missing person’s report?” Although she probably wouldn’t stay long enough in Bunya Junction, anyway, to be classed as a missing person. Clearly she was letting off some steam over something that had happened on the shoot. Once she calmed down she’d more than likely leave in whatever she used to get to town and forget all about her short visit to a rural pub.
The bride lifted the glass he’d set in front of her and tossed back the contents in one swallow. Impressive. She didn’t even flinch and the scotch had to be burning a trail down her throat. “Why so many questions?” She definitely didn’t appreciate being quizzed.
Jonas chuckled. “Don’t you know, everyone unloads their troubles on the local bartender.”
“Well, you don’t have to worry, I’m fine. There’s no family and no significant other who will miss me. Happy?” Even though she sounded tough, as though she didn’t care what anyone thought, the shadows had returned to her eyes along with that hint of vulnerability.
What secrets was she hiding behind her I don’t give a shit about anyone attitude? An attitude that she was trying so hard to hang onto, but it kept slipping.
“Sure, but what about the people on the photo shoot; won’t they miss you?”
She huffed out a breath. “Possibly.”
Her lack of worry about the job she’d walked away from didn’t sit well with him. Did she do it often? Was she a flighty model who let other people clean up her messes? He’d had a few girlfriends who didn’t care about the consequences of their actions. He tried not to be judgmental, but sometimes it was hard not to after being burned a few times.
What did it matter anyway what she did; it wasn’t really his problem. He held out his hand toward her. He was in the hospitality business, it was time to make her feel welcome, even if it was only for a short time. “I’m Jonas Carruthers, owner of this fine establishment. Welcome to Bunya Junction.”
She looked at the hand he held out and then back up at him, before shrugging and grasping it. “Pandora Sebastian.”
Shivers radiated up his arm from the connection and he tightened his grip momentarily. “So, Pandora Sebastian, are you planning on staying in Bunya Junction or are you heading back to your photo shoot?” Her getting behind the wheel may not be the best idea, though, what with the way she’d downed that glass of scotch as if it was a tumbler of water.
Pandora looked away from him, releasing his hand. A warmth from the contact lingered and the urge to grab her hand back ripped through him, but he tamped it down. A totally unnecessary reaction to someone he’d just met. Her small smile disappeared at the mention of returning to her job.
Didn’t most models love the lives they led? Flitting from one photo shoot to another. Going to and from exotic locations. Not having to get up until midday and only working two or three hours every day?
Jonas checked his thoughts—why was he being so judgemental and cynical toward a complete stranger? He had no idea what a model’s life was like. He didn’t know her life circumstances.
What was the real reason for Pandora to flee from her photo shoot? And why did she think she wouldn’t be missed? There was no way they wouldn’t notice she wasn’t where she was supposed to be.
“Did someone hurt you? Is that why you ran?”
“I don’t know where you went just then, but no I didn’t get hurt. I just needed … space.” Pandora’s fingers brushed his forearm and another shot of electricity sizzled through his veins.
“So no going back to the photo shoot then? Do you want me to contact someone for you?” He didn’t know why he was pushing the issue. It wasn’t his place to act as her saviour, even though he wondered if she needed one in her life. Clearly she didn’t want to go back. She was also an adult and could make her own decisions about how she wanted to handle the situation.
“You just can’t let go of being the sympathetic-ear bartender, can you?” Her smile softened the words.
Yeah, time to back off. Why did he have this urge to fix things for her? He’d known her all of five minutes and yet he wanted to solve her current situation for her. Yolanda had always yelled at him for his knightly complex. To always want to ride in on his white stallion and conquer all her dragons, when she had everything under control. Perhaps Pandora did have a handle on her situation and what she was going to do to fix it. Yet, he couldn’t stop himself.
“No. Although it’s not necessarily a bad thing to offer help to someone, should they need it.”
“I suppose so. Unless they don’t need it and just want to be alone.” There was no snark to her tone, but the words weren’t lost on him. She didn’t want him invading her space. Then again, she was the one who’d walked into his space wearing a wedding dress on a Saturday afternoon.
“Can I get you another drink?”
“Yes. I’ll have a Coke, thanks. And not the diet variety.”
Full-strength Coke? Again she was bucking the model edict of watching what they ate and drank. Was this normal, or all part of the rebellion that caused her to walk away from a shoot?
“Coming right up.” Jonas grabbed a glass and proceeded to get her drink.
Surveying the room, most of the patrons were back watching the game, but he noticed a couple of people with their phones in their hands. No doubt the Bunya Junction gossip train was in motion. He suspected he’d be getting a few customers in the next ten or so minutes. All wanting to see the mysterious bride who’d dropped in on their small town.
Again the protective instinct to keep Pandora away from prying eyes welled inside of him. He let it consume him for a few seconds before he firmly pushed it away. He didn’t understand this visceral reaction to her. Perhaps it was because of the hint of vulnerability that had shone briefly in her eyes. Whatever the reason, he would bet the pub that Pandora wouldn’t need any help or appreciate his assistance in fending people off. She probably had plenty of experience dealing with crowds of photographers and others in her line of work. Or she had an entourage that kept them far away from her.
The door Pandora had walked through not too long ago opened and his oldest sister, Sindy, and her fiancé, Ryan, walked in.
“Hey Jonas, what’s up?” Sindy asked, her eyes darting to where Pandora sat looking like she went to pubs in a bridal dress every day of her life.
“Just the usual. Watching the game, serving drinks.” He placed the glass of Coke in front of Pandora and whisked away her empty scotch glass, before lifting his chin in the direction of his future brother-in-law. Ryan’s eyes conveyed an I’m sorry message.
Yep, as he suspected, the gossip had spread that there was a runaway bride in the bar. Not that he was really surprised. The people of Bunya Junction loved a little excitement.
Of course, no one in the bar, except him, would be aware that Pandora was far from a runaway bride. His sister propped herself on the stool right next to Pandora. While he was happy that she’d found the love of her life, her need to know everything going on wasn’t what he wanted, or needed, right at that moment. She certainly hadn’t been that way when she’d returned to town a year after him. Finding love with Ryan had chased away the melancholy that had seemed to engulf his sister and simultaneously turned her into a nosy parker.
Sindy swivelled on the stool and faced Pandora. “Hi, I’m Sindy, Jonas’s sister. This is my fiancé, Ryan. I didn’t know there was a wedding in town.” She looked around the bar expectantly, but he wasn’t buying her innocent act at all. “Where’s the rest of the wedding party? Can I also say your dress is gorgeous; who’s the designer?”
He mentally rolled his eyes at his sister’s less-than-subtle approach. “Leave it, Sindy.”
Once again Pandora’s delicate fingers reached out and landed on his forearm. Perhaps she did need help after all. The gentle pressure of the connection was enough to keep the spark of fire, ignited from their first touch, smouldering and ready to combust into a full-blown bonfire.
Yeah, he so didn’t need this.
End of Excerpt