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Mitch Holden had seen some strange things in his days – having a past life as a professional football player and a present life as a high school varsity football coach – gave him lots of scope for strange. But somehow, this one took the prize.
He blinked again.
Nope. He wasn’t seeing things. That was definitely a bride rummaging around the trunk of her car. One just couldn’t mistake a dress like that.
After a few seconds, a pair of heels whizzed past his ear – one landed in the street trash can, the other at his feet.
He picked it up and stared at it. A wedding shoe covered in tiny tartan bows. Well, that was different.
“Oh, darn it. I’m sorry. I meant to throw them in the rubbish bin. After all, it’s not like I’m going to need them.”
It took him a few seconds to adjust to the thick accent. He couldn’t quite place it, then something clicked in his brain. Tartan. Scottish?
He shook his head and deposited the shoe in the trash for her. Small town Marietta seemed to have more than its share of brides. But none quite like this.
He moved forward, sticking his hands in his jeans. He might be crazy but he just couldn’t resist. “So, why won’t you need them?”
She shook her head and hitched her toes up on her trunk, trying to wrestle her foot into a hiking boot. “Let’s just say the groom had a change of heart he didn’t have the nerve to tell me about.”
She put down one foot and lifted up the other. This girl had legs.
She seemed oblivious to the fact that she’d hitched her dress up so high he could see the blue tartan garter around her thigh. The brown hiking boots were worn and well used. She pushed her foot into the second one and put her other back on the ground, dropping her skirts and hiding the best pair of legs he’d ever seen.
She stuck her hands on her hips and looked around. “Where on earth am I?”
He laughed. This was like some weird dream. Any second now he’d wake up and remember he’d spent most of last night in Grey’s salon. But this wouldn’t be a dream if he didn’t see a little bit more of the bride.
He held out his hands. “Welcome to Marietta. Full of cowboys and brides. You’ll fit right in.”
Now he was up close, he could see tiny freckles across her pale skin. All brides were supposed to be beautiful but this girl really nailed it. He’d never seen hair that color before. What did people call it? Auburn? It suited her. And the dress. Oh, the dress. It hugged her curves in all the right places even though she was slim. Tiny little bits glistened in the lowering sun. She almost looked like someone in a movie, highlighted so all her best parts were caught by the camera to engage the audience.
He gave a little swallow. Yup. He was certainly engaged.
Her pale blue eyes stood out, probably because they looked a little bloodshot. Of course. She’d been crying. It made his heart clench in a weird kind of way.
“I need a job.” Her voice had a tiny wobble.
She wrinkled her nose. “What do you do?” She looked around and held out her hands. “What’s around here? I need a job.”
There was an edge of panic in her voice. As if everything that had happened that day had suddenly rushed down upon her.
He held out his hand towards her. “Mitch. Mitch Holden. I’m the varsity football coach at the high school.”
For a few seconds she didn’t speak. It was almost as if she were trying to sort out all the thoughts tumbling around her head. She held out her slim hand. It was cold. “Emma. Emma McGregor. And as you might have guessed – I’m not from around these parts.”
He gave a slight nod and clasped one hand over the other, trying to warm her chilled fingers. “I love your accent. And you’ll be pleased to know you’re my favorite Scots girl in town.” He pulled her forward a little and whispered. “You don’t have any competition. There aren’t any others in town.”
She smiled. The first time he’d seen her smile since she got there.
“How far have you driven?”
The question seemed to throw her. “What? Oh, I’ve no idea. I just got in the car and drove.” She glanced around. “What time is it?”
He looked at his watch. “It’s after six.”
She shrugged her shoulders. “I was supposed to get married at midday. I guess I’ve been driving for around six hours.” She sighed and looked around again. “Where am I?”
He smiled. “Marietta.” Then he paused and looked around at the main street of eclectic buildings and stores.
It was only the end of November but several of the stores already had their windows decked out with twinkling lights and tinsel. Nowhere did Christmas like Marietta.
He took a deep breath. “I call it home.”
It seemed almost odd to say those words out loud. It was the first time he’d actually said it. He’d landed in Marietta and at the time he’d thought it a misfortune. Turned out he’d been wrong. Really wrong. This small town community had welcomed him with open arms. His professional football career was shot after an injury that had had bigger repercussions than he could have ever have guessed.
He needed quiet after that. He needed time and space to process. And he’d found it. Here in Marietta. The place he now thought of as home.
He could almost see the dark clouds cross her vision. “Home,” she murmured. “I wonder where that will be now?”
Her water-filled eyes blinked back tears and he cringed. The last thing he wanted to do was make her cry.
He lowered his head a little closer to hers, letting her gentle, floral scent wind its way around him. “Home is wherever you decide it should be. Home is your choice.” He gave her a rueful smile. “Sometimes a place just captures your heart and before you know it…Boom!” He blew into his fingertips. “It has you.”
She gave him a grateful smile. Right now, he’d try anything to reassure her – to lift her spirits.
She blew a piece of hair out of face. “Well, I guess I should find somewhere to stay tonight. Any recommendations?”
He nodded. “Marietta isn’t the biggest place in the world but we do have a fancy-schmancy hotel. It’s a few streets over. It’s called The Graff. There’s also a bed and breakfast on Bramble Lane, if you’d prefer.”
She let out a laugh. It kind of startled him. She’d looked so serious before.
She was shaking her head. “Fancy-schmancy? Really?”
He folded his arms across his chest and met her warm look. This was much better. “Of course.” He gave a little nod. “You’ve not seen it yet, so don’t mock.”
Something flickered across her face and she reached into her trunk and pulled out her purse. “I take it any hotel that’s fancy-schmancy will be expensive?”
Darn it. He hadn’t thought of that. Five minutes ago, Emma had told him she needed a job. The Graff probably wasn’t the best place for her to stay. It would eat into any savings that she had.
He waved his hand the other way. “There’s always Bramble B & B. It will be cheaper, and I think you’ll like it there.”
She opened her wallet and pulled out a credit card, passing it from hand to hand. For a few seconds, she looked deep in thought. The sun was setting, darkening the sky around them and the street lights flickered on.
Glints of orange and gold reflected off her cream dress, lighting her up like a dazzling star, topped off by the gleaming auburn hair.
With a little nod, she gave a big smile. “That looks like a sign to me.”
“A sign for what?”
She waved the credit card. “That tonight will be on my groom. After this, I’ll be on my own. But for tonight I think I deserve a fancy-schmancy hotel. After all, it’s the least he can do.”
Mitch nodded and smiled. “They even have suites. Maybe you should just go the whole hog.”
She gave a little shake of head. “An expensive hotel room and some room service will be enough.” She glanced down at her dress again. “I might look completely crazy but I’m not – well, not all the time.”
It was the first time he’d seen it. That little glint in her eye. On a normal day, Emma McGregor looked like she could be fun.
“I’ve never met a runaway bride before.”
“I’ve never been one before.” She quipped straight back. “But I think to be defined as a runaway it helps if someone is chasing you. Look around. No one is chasing me, pal.”
He liked it. A bit of Scottish sassiness. And it suited her. It seemed to fit better than the kind of shell-shocked girl he’d seen originally.
He put his hand on his heart. “Well, you’re still my first.”
She rolled her eyes. “Are you done with the corny lines?”
He nodded. “I think so. You know, there are some McGregor’s in town. Maybe you’re related?”
“I doubt it. All my relatives are in Scotland.” She put her finger on her chin. “But come to think of it. Old great-uncle Archie was a bit of a goer. And I’m sure he visited America a few times. Maybe he left some gifts behind?”
She was joking. She had that glint in her eye again.
He waved his hand. “Don’t be so cynical. Don’t they say that we’re all only seven steps away from one another?”
She laughed and held up one side of her wedding dress. “You’re making fun of me for being cynical? Me? The runaway bride? Standing in a strange street in a strange town still dressed in my wedding gown?” She gave the dress a shake and let out a sigh, wriggling her back in the laced up bodice. “Boy, do I need to get out of this thing.”
A thought that shouldn’t even enter his head flashed by, practically electrocuting his brain. No. Just no.
She was gorgeous. She was quirky. She was definitely original.
But this was supposed to be her wedding day. And although he hadn’t really gotten to the bottom of it, things obviously hadn’t gone to plan.
For a second their gazes meshed. “Come to think of it, Mr. Holden, you seem a whole lot closer than seven steps.”
He froze. What? But then she blinked and that tiny second was lost.
Maybe he’d just imagined everything?
He gave his head a little shake. “Do you need a hand getting to the hotel?”
She gave a tired shake of her head. “No, it’s fine. You said it’s only two streets back. Even I can’t get lost in the space of two streets.”
She straightened up her shoulders and held out her hand towards him. “Thanks, Mitch.” She looked up and down the street. “I guess in a place as small as this I’ll be seeing you around.”
“I guess you will.”
It took a few seconds for her to pull her hand back. All of a sudden she looked really tired. She slammed the trunk closed and climbed back in the driver’s seat of her car, pulling the mounds of skirt in after her. In a few seconds she gave a wave of her hand and pulled away.
He stood for a second, watching her disappear and turn at the end of the street.
“Welcome to Marietta, Emma McGregor,” he said quietly as he stuck his hands in the pockets of his jeans and sauntered towards Grey’s.
They wouldn’t believe a word of it.
End of Excerpt