CHAPTERS 1 & 2 – THIS MUCH IS TRUE

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Chapter One

Laina

“What do you mean you’re on the run?”

Stephanie’s question is valid. So is the curious but mostly nonchalant way she asks it. It’s me we’re talking about, after all. But she should’ve been more prepared.

“Do I really need to break it down for you—darn it!” I pry my heel out of a slit in the asphalt. “Besides, when your best friend calls and says she’s on the run and needs your help, the only question you should ask is whose car are we taking?”

“You’re so funny.”

I glance to my right, then to my left. A trail of sweat trickles between my shoulder blades. Aside from two men in fitted suits and sunglasses from the security team, I’m in the clear.

“There’s nothing funny about this,” I say, darting across the parking lot as gracefully as possible despite the layers of tulle.

“The last time I saw you—which was approximately fifteen minutes ago, give or take—you were in your wedding dress, looking stunning, I might add, waiting for your father to show up to walk you down the aisle.”

Fifteen minutes? Man, I work quick.

The crowd roars from the other side of the safety barrier Landry Security erected three days ago to keep fans and paparazzi—mostly paparazzi—away from the church. Brickfield has been teeming all week with spectators eager to see what the media has deemed the wedding of the century. Former classmates were interviewed. My kindergarten teacher was on the front page of Exposé magazine this week. Alleged encounters with the “men in my life” since I became famous have been dissected and analyzed to death. If only half of what was printed were real, my life would be far more entertaining.

I would’ve felt bad for Sheriff Jones in his plight to organize a response to this level of anarchy in a town of five thousand people if he hadn’t used my wedding as the launch of his re-election campaign.

“What’s going on, Laina? Are you joking around, or is something really the matter?”

“Considering I’m currently hiding between two sheds and hoping no one is flying drones overhead, I’d say something is the matter.”

“Why are you between two sheds?”

I spit a piece of my veil out of my face. “I can’t marry him, Steph.”

My best friend goes silent. I imagine her face—mouth agape, brows arched higher than the lamination treatment should allow, and a wrinkled forehead defying her Botox. She wore the same expression when I told her I was marrying Hollywood heartthrob Tom Waverly a year ago—complete and utter shock.

“I should’ve listened to you,” I say, taking a steadying breath. “I never should’ve accepted his proposal at all, let alone plan a wedding and invite one hundred fifty people to the church and another two hundred to a reception that cost more than …” Dread rolls through the pit of my stomach. “Let’s not even go there.”

“Okay.” Her voice is cool and tempered. “What do you need?”

“Ironically enough, I need you to ask whose car we’re taking because the answer is I don’t know. I didn’t think this through. I excused myself from the room, shut the door, and left.”

“We’re throwing a plot twist at the last second, but that’s okay. I think quick on my feet, so don’t panic.”

“Strangely, I’m not. I don’t know whether that’s because I’m blocking out the ramifications of this wholly impulsive decision or if this is my gut’s way of thanking me for following it.” I peer around the side of one of the sheds, nearly getting busted by the best man. “I’ll take it either way.”

“We’re going with the latter. Now, where are you, exactly?”

“Behind the church. There are two sheds with a hedgerow behind them. I’m between the buildings.”

The crowd roars once again. But instead of the ordinary screams and whistles, they begin to sing the chorus of the most popular song on country radio.

“Guess Sam’s here,” I say, sighing.

“Don’t worry about who is here. Let’s worry about getting you out of here.”

“Therein lies my problem.” I nibble the lip stain that took me six months to pick out. “People are everywhere. I can’t just walk out the gate and onto the street. I get recognized in a wig, hat, and sunglasses, let alone a freaking wedding dress.”

My heart pounds as the weight of my actions sinks in.

Tom will be humiliated. The biggest movie star in the world will be left standing at the altar by the pop star the world is quick to label frivolous. My parents’ fury will be immeasurable. How dare I be so careless with my image when so much of their success is riding on it? My PR team will be inundated with calls and emails. My assistant must stay out of sight until this cools down, and my fans will jump to conclusions and assume the worst about me. About Tom. Critics will claim this was a publicity stunt when it’s nothing more than a woman trying to salvage her future amid a few bad choices.

“Maybe I should just go through with it,” I say, a chill prickling my skin. “The ramifications of this—”

“It’s ten years from now, and you’re on a beach.”

“Can we talk about vacations later?”

“And you look to your left, and there’s Tom,” she says. “How do you feel?”

Sick.

Uneasiness stirs in my stomach. Instead of imagining Tom gazing adoringly back at me, I instantly notice the angry lines around his eyes. His voice sweeps through my head.

“There are calories in those drinks, you know.”

“We’re going to have to talk about you easing up on the music thing when I start filming my next project in the winter.”

“Can’t you choose more conservative costumes? You’re a grown woman, for fuck’s sake. I don’t want my wife out there looking like a whore.”

I grapple with how to phrase that, but Stephanie saves me the trouble.

“Now imagine that you look to the left, and he’s gone,” she says. “How do you feel now?”

Peaceful.

Relief eases the tension in my shoulders and quells the knot in my stomach. I don’t try to answer her this time; it’s unnecessary.

“The ramifications of going back in that church and marrying Tom are far worse than the inconvenience it will cause everyone else if you don’t,” she says. “I’ll support you either way. But your father was just in here looking for you, and while I can stall him for a little bit, you need to decide.”

A shiver runs the length of my spine. A flush stings my cheeks. My heart somehow lodges in my throat, and each beat reminds me of the seconds ticking by.

I can’t do it. I can’t return to that church and walk out as Mrs. Tom Waverly. The thought makes me want to hurl.

“The media will have a heyday with this,” I say, my back pressed against the shed. “I can see the headlines already.”

“Ignore all of that. You’re going to wake up married or not. What’s it going to be?”

My breath quickens. “I’m not.”

“You’re sure.”

“Yes.”

A door closes in the background. “Okay, this is the plan.”

A smile tugs at my lips.

“I could borrow a car and pick you up, but someone has to be here to head off your parents and Tom until you’ve made your exit,” she says. “The security team is our best bet, I think. They’re under an NDA, and you hired them, right? Not Tom?”

“Yeah, I did.”

“Okay. Let me find one of them and get them to pick you up. You stay put. I’m going to bide you some time with your father. Who should I contact on your team?”

“My assistant,” I say. “Tell Cassidy I’m sorry and ask her to contact the PR team. Tell her I’ll call her as soon as I can.”

“I’m on it. Do you need me to do anything else?”

I take a long breath. “Don’t be the one to tell Tom. Let someone else do it.”

“Got it. Now, hold tight. I’ll have a car there as fast as I can.”

“I love you, Steph.”

“Love you more.”

The call ends. I drop my arm to the side and avoid looking at the phone screen. People are probably already sending texts and looking for me. I can’t deal with it. Not yet.

I’m really doing this. I’m really running away from my wedding.

My head begins to spin with all the immediate decisions I must make. I have to get my things from the hotel before it’s taken over by the wedding party again. Can anyone track my phone? How will I get out of here without alerting the media and bystanders?

Is that even possible?

Before I can go too far down the rabbit hole, a black SUV rolls up perilously close to the shed. The windows are jet black, making it impossible to see inside. Nerves ripple low in my stomach as a man in one of those tailored suits slips alongside the vehicle.

He takes his glasses off so I can see his gray eyes. Troy Castelli. Thank God. 

“Ms. Kelley, I heard you’d like a ride.”

A chuckle escapes me. “I can’t believe I’m doing this, Troy.”

“I’m happy to take you wherever you want.”

“I just want to get out of here without my picture being splashed on social media. Can you pull that off?”

He opens the back door. “Absolutely.” He turns to offer me a hand and then sees, for what seems like the first time, the tulle that must also go in the SUV. “How do we get all of … that in there?”

“It’s tulle.” I bunch as much of the fabric in the front as I can. “I hate it.”

“Then why did you choose it?”

The question makes me pause. Why did I choose tulle over lace? Surf-n-turf over chicken strips and sliders for the reception? The diet drink over the full sugar soda at the rehearsal dinner?

“Troy, it seems I’m a bit of a pushover.”

“No offense, ma’am, but a lot of people inside the church would probably disagree with you.”

I grin, standing a little taller. “You’re right. Now shove this godforsaken dress in the car, and let’s get out of here.”

With a little work and a lot of pushing white fabric into every vacant space in the back of the SUV, we make it work. Troy is in the driver’s seat in the blink of an eye.

“We’ll go out the back service entrance,” he says, holding my gaze in the rearview mirror. “You can breathe, Ms. Kelley. It’s going to be all right.”

I exhale, the sound taking up all the room the tulle isn’t. I hope you’re right.

My heart pounds as we roll to the back of the church. Troy makes a hand signal to a police officer at the makeshift gate, and it’s immediately moved.

The crowd has nearly tripled since I arrived two hours ago. The streets have been closed, and people have filled the block surrounding Mt. Calvary Church. Lawns of the nearby houses are littered with bodies. Television crews are set up on sidewalks with vans and microphones.

It’s a mess.

And about to get messier.

I glance at the clock on the dash. The ceremony is set to start in two minutes. I squeeze my eyes closed and try to ignore the fire blazing in my stomach.

“Ms. Kelly?”

I open my eyes. “Yes?”

“Where are we headed?”

Oh. Right. 

Good freaking question.

Adrenaline flows through my veins, and my palms start to sweat. Where are we headed?

The hotel is out. The bridal party will inevitably return to their rooms to gather their things. Not to mention, there’s no way I could get into the hotel discreetly and make it to my room. My parents’ house is a definite no. I’d be emotionally and physically burned at the stake. I could ask Troy to drive me to the airport, but that’s an hour and a half away, and no reservations have been made. My passport is at the hotel. And what do I do with all this damn tulle?

Breathe, Laina.

There must be somewhere I can go.

I sort through every person I still know in Brickfield—which isn’t many. I’ve lost contact with nearly all my old friends since I left six years ago. I can’t trust anyone to hide me until I figure this disaster out, anyway. I can’t even get a room in Peachwood Falls because someone would wind up seeing me, and I’d get trapped with no way out.

“How about …” Before I can ask him to find a back road to kill some time while I think, the answer pops in my head.

It is safe. Probably.

I may not exactly be welcome, but I won’t be forced to leave. I don’t think.

There will definitely be nothing to eat, the bedding will need to be washed, but I’ll be able to let myself inside.

My lips curl slowly into a smile. And, for the first time today, I don’t feel like the sun is setting on my soul. 

“See that sign for Peachwood Falls?” I ask. “Head there.”

Chapter Two

Laina

The asphalt, busted with potholes but asphalt all the same, turns into gravel. Troy slows the SUV as its tires crunch across the rocks.

The field on the right side of the road has a path leading to a smaller field in the rear. It’s on top of a hill, surrounded by trees, and was too much of a pain in the ass to farm, according to the old farmer who used to tend to the land. My friends and I spent many weekend nights back there listening to music, building bonfires that almost got away from us, and drinking cheap wine and even cheaper beer like the adults we weren’t.

If only we knew how overrated adulthood really was

On the left is a cornfield. A small brown home is tucked off the road. The family who lived there were so sweet. The father worked for the Department of Natural Resources and adopted a fawn that was left behind when its mother was shot during hunting season. The little thing would eat an apple out of your hand.

I wonder what happened to it.

“Just down this hill and around the curve,” I say, shivering. Why is it so chilly in here? “The driveway is hard to see but on the right.”

Troy nods. “Should I wait with you outside the house, or would you rather I wait down by the road?”

“With all due respect, I would rather you return to the church.”

A frown darkens his face. “I’m sure you understand I can’t do that, ma’am.”

I hold his gaze in the rearview mirror, anger from being told what I can and can’t do in my own damn life boiling inside me. But that’s not Troy’s fault. He’s doing what he’s paid to do. 

And he’s being paid by me.

“Look, I appreciate your concern and understand the challenge of returning without me,” I say. “But I need a minute to myself, and I really need no one to know where I am for a while.”

He watches me warily.

“Trust me. I don’t want to get whacked by a crazed stalker more than you don’t want me to be, okay?”

“I will have to tell my boss, Ms. Kelley.”

Great.

My response is delayed as the SUV slows at the end of a small bridge crossing a creek. The driveway is next to a mailbox that’s seen better days. We slip between the mailbox and guardrail and follow the bend around a hedge of trees.

And there it is.

My heart hammers against my rib cage as the yellow house with brown trim comes into view, its attached garage and large barn behind it. The lake below reflects the clear blue sky, and if I weren’t running on adrenaline and eagerness to extract myself from this situation, I would appreciate the beauty and stillness of the moment.

The vehicle pulls to the top of the driveway and stops.

I stare at the door, wondering if he’s home. What will he say? What will he do? Despite the chance that Luke Marshall won’t be pleased to see me, my anxiety is the lowest it’s been all day.

My shoulders slump against the seat.

“This is it?” Troy’s sunglasses are gone, and he’s surveying the landscape for threats. “Want me to walk the perimeter or, better yet, clear the inside?”

I sit up. “Promise me you won’t tell Tom or my parents,” I say, holding on to the back of the seat. “If you have to tell Ford Landry, then fine. But let him know that if he shares my location with anyone … I’ll fire you all.”

His eyes blaze with frustration, but he heeds my request.

“Yes, Ms. Kelley.”

I open the door handle, but nothing happens. Troy triggers the unlock feature and hops out of the driver’s seat. When he’s around to my side of the SUV, I’m gathering the tulle.

“I can stay out of sight,” he says, clearly struggling with leaving me on a random doorstep. “I assure you that you won’t know I’m here.”

My bare feet hit the sharp rocks on the ground, and I wince. “Nope. I got this.”

“I’ll wait until you’re inside.”

“Nope.” I square my shoulders to his. “I got this.”

He hesitates. “Call me if you need me. Do you have my number?”

“Yes. And, Troy? Thank you.”

He mumbles something I can’t hear, closes my door, and then goes to the other side. I quickly crack it open, turn my phone off, toss it onto the floorboard, and close the door again. My management’s insistence that I memorize my most important phone numbers is finally coming in handy. 

As he drives off, rounding the turn and effectively going out of sight, I blow out the deepest, heaviest breath of my life.

I face the house that holds so many memories. The walkout basement that Luke and I used when we didn’t want his grandfather, Poppy Marshall, to know we were there. The birdbath next to the house has a permanent crack down the side because Luke hit it with his truck one winter while sliding on the ice. I glance at the front porch. And the old pair of boots behind the porch swing—the one with the house key.

“Ouch,” I hiss, stepping lightly on the gravel toward the stairs.

My mind drifts away, carrying me back to the situation at the church. How is Stephanie handling the drama? I envision the statement Tom is composing for the press. He’s undoubtedly feeding me to the wolves. It takes little imagination to picture my parents’ displeasure. Did they outright take Tom’s side, or do they wonder, if even for a moment, what my side of the story might be?

Tears flood my eyes, fogging my sight.

If I had stayed, I’d be a married woman right now.

My hands shake as if I’ve just avoided being mugged.

The thought of cutting it so close—almost being Mrs. Tom Waverly—makes me nauseous. Even though I’ll undoubtedly be on the receiving end of nasty vitriol in the coming days, it’s a small price to pay for avoiding a marriage that would’ve ended in divorce. Tom may not understand it, but I did us both a favor.

I grab the rail and pull the tulle behind me up the stairs. Poppy’s standing ashtray from decades ago is still next to the swing. The sight of it surrounded by the ridiculous white fabric makes me grin.

I press the doorbell and wait. There’s no movement inside the house. I press it again.

My heart pounds as I dip my hand into the right boot.

“So predictable, Luke,” I say, pulling out the spare key. I stick it in the lock, and the door swings open as if waiting for me. The thought makes me smile.

The hardwood is warm on my bare feet. An earthiness unique to this place—mud mixed with tobacco and kissed by the sun—greets me like an old friend. I shut the door behind me and venture into Luke’s house.

A bigger television hangs on the wall. The refrigerator has been replaced. A few more pictures have been added to the collection of family photos on the unused dining room table. Not much has changed in the six years since I was here. Yet …

Every move I make is like a pin dropping to the floor. It’s as if the house is holding its breath like me. Somehow, it feels like I just came in after a shift at The Scoop to do homework with Luke.

My dress swishes against the floor as I cross the kitchen to inspect the photographs.

So many framed memories have been here for years—pictures of Poppy and Luke’s grandma and Luke’s parents. There are photos of Luke and his siblings. My favorite one is in the center of the table, and I pick it up.

Luke gives the camera the cheesiest grin. To his right are his oldest brothers, Chase and Mallet. On his left is his little sister, Kate. Crouched in front of them, as if he might attack the person taking the shot, is their brother Gavin. God, I love these people.

It’s hard to breathe as I gaze at the faces I haven’t seen in a long time—faces of some of the best, most hardworking, salt-of-the-earth people I’ve ever met. They loved me like their own. I loved them right back. Until everything fell apart …

I wipe away the tears rolling down my cheeks and set the picture back in its place. 

“I shouldn’t be here,” I whisper, looking around the house. “What am I doing?”

Panic surges, using the crack in my willpower to make itself known. My stomach clenches like I might puke. Fight-or-flight instincts kick in. My brain screams at my legs to move, to walk—to leave before I make a mess of things, but my heart whispers no.

There’s nowhere else to go, anyway.

I’m royally screwed.

I sit on the brown plaid couch. The springs bite through all the fabric attached to my butt and bite into my bones. At least I can feel it. At least I’m not that numb.

Gravel popping under the weight of a vehicle rings through the silence. I bolt upright, unsure whether to run out the back door or sit still and take whatever comes my way. For the briefest of seconds, I regret asking Troy to leave.

A door shuts. Boots climb the stairs. The handle turns, the hinges creaking.

I grab the edge of the couch, holding my breath and waiting for my eyes to meet Luke Marshall’s.

When he enters, his head is down. He shuts the door with his foot. With his phone in his hand, he lifts his face and stops mid-step.

The phone clatters to the floor.

I gasp as our gazes collide, and the world outside this room ceases to exist. The collision takes my breath as heat sizzles through my body, snaking down my spine in a slow, torturous curl. 

I struggle to catch my breath amid the butterflies sweeping through my stomach. 

Oh, my

Luke Marshall is all grown up. 

Age has done fine things to this man, filling him out in all the right places—broad shoulders and a barrel chest. A belt shows off his trim waist. Angled jaw. Long lashes. He wears a day’s scruff that makes me shiver. 

No amount of social media stalking could’ve prepared me for this moment.

He tilts his head in surprise, then in confusion. 

A sardonic smile parts his kissable lips. “What in the hell are you doing here?”

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Chapter One

Laina

“What do you mean you’re on the run?”

Stephanie’s question is valid. So is the curious but mostly nonchalant way she asks it. It’s me we’re talking about, after all. But she should’ve been more prepared.

“Do I really need to break it down for you—darn it!” I pry my heel out of a slit in the asphalt. “Besides, when your best friend calls and says she’s on the run and needs your help, the only question you should ask is whose car are we taking?”

“You’re so funny.”

I glance to my right, then to my left. A trail of sweat trickles between my shoulder blades. Aside from two men in fitted suits and sunglasses from the security team, I’m in the clear.

“There’s nothing funny about this,” I say, darting across the parking lot as gracefully as possible despite the layers of tulle.

“The last time I saw you—which was approximately fifteen minutes ago, give or take—you were in your wedding dress, looking stunning, I might add, waiting for your father to show up to walk you down the aisle.”

Fifteen minutes? Man, I work quick.

The crowd roars from the other side of the safety barrier Landry Security erected three days ago to keep fans and paparazzi—mostly paparazzi—away from the church. Brickfield has been teeming all week with spectators eager to see what the media has deemed the wedding of the century. Former classmates were interviewed. My kindergarten teacher was on the front page of Exposé magazine this week. Alleged encounters with the “men in my life” since I became famous have been dissected and analyzed to death. If only half of what was printed were real, my life would be far more entertaining.

I would’ve felt bad for Sheriff Jones in his plight to organize a response to this level of anarchy in a town of five thousand people if he hadn’t used my wedding as the launch of his re-election campaign.

“What’s going on, Laina? Are you joking around, or is something really the matter?”

“Considering I’m currently hiding between two sheds and hoping no one is flying drones overhead, I’d say something is the matter.”

“Why are you between two sheds?”

I spit a piece of my veil out of my face. “I can’t marry him, Steph.”

My best friend goes silent. I imagine her face—mouth agape, brows arched higher than the lamination treatment should allow, and a wrinkled forehead defying her Botox. She wore the same expression when I told her I was marrying Hollywood heartthrob Tom Waverly a year ago—complete and utter shock.

“I should’ve listened to you,” I say, taking a steadying breath. “I never should’ve accepted his proposal at all, let alone plan a wedding and invite one hundred fifty people to the church and another two hundred to a reception that cost more than …” Dread rolls through the pit of my stomach. “Let’s not even go there.”

“Okay.” Her voice is cool and tempered. “What do you need?”

“Ironically enough, I need you to ask whose car we’re taking because the answer is I don’t know. I didn’t think this through. I excused myself from the room, shut the door, and left.”

“We’re throwing a plot twist at the last second, but that’s okay. I think quick on my feet, so don’t panic.”

“Strangely, I’m not. I don’t know whether that’s because I’m blocking out the ramifications of this wholly impulsive decision or if this is my gut’s way of thanking me for following it.” I peer around the side of one of the sheds, nearly getting busted by the best man. “I’ll take it either way.”

“We’re going with the latter. Now, where are you, exactly?”

“Behind the church. There are two sheds with a hedgerow behind them. I’m between the buildings.”

The crowd roars once again. But instead of the ordinary screams and whistles, they begin to sing the chorus of the most popular song on country radio.

“Guess Sam’s here,” I say, sighing.

“Don’t worry about who is here. Let’s worry about getting you out of here.”

“Therein lies my problem.” I nibble the lip stain that took me six months to pick out. “People are everywhere. I can’t just walk out the gate and onto the street. I get recognized in a wig, hat, and sunglasses, let alone a freaking wedding dress.”

My heart pounds as the weight of my actions sinks in.

Tom will be humiliated. The biggest movie star in the world will be left standing at the altar by the pop star the world is quick to label frivolous. My parents’ fury will be immeasurable. How dare I be so careless with my image when so much of their success is riding on it? My PR team will be inundated with calls and emails. My assistant must stay out of sight until this cools down, and my fans will jump to conclusions and assume the worst about me. About Tom. Critics will claim this was a publicity stunt when it’s nothing more than a woman trying to salvage her future amid a few bad choices.

“Maybe I should just go through with it,” I say, a chill prickling my skin. “The ramifications of this—”

“It’s ten years from now, and you’re on a beach.”

“Can we talk about vacations later?”

“And you look to your left, and there’s Tom,” she says. “How do you feel?”

Sick.

Uneasiness stirs in my stomach. Instead of imagining Tom gazing adoringly back at me, I instantly notice the angry lines around his eyes. His voice sweeps through my head.

“There are calories in those drinks, you know.”

“We’re going to have to talk about you easing up on the music thing when I start filming my next project in the winter.”

“Can’t you choose more conservative costumes? You’re a grown woman, for fuck’s sake. I don’t want my wife out there looking like a whore.”

I grapple with how to phrase that, but Stephanie saves me the trouble.

“Now imagine that you look to the left, and he’s gone,” she says. “How do you feel now?”

Peaceful.

Relief eases the tension in my shoulders and quells the knot in my stomach. I don’t try to answer her this time; it’s unnecessary.

“The ramifications of going back in that church and marrying Tom are far worse than the inconvenience it will cause everyone else if you don’t,” she says. “I’ll support you either way. But your father was just in here looking for you, and while I can stall him for a little bit, you need to decide.”

A shiver runs the length of my spine. A flush stings my cheeks. My heart somehow lodges in my throat, and each beat reminds me of the seconds ticking by.

I can’t do it. I can’t return to that church and walk out as Mrs. Tom Waverly. The thought makes me want to hurl.

“The media will have a heyday with this,” I say, my back pressed against the shed. “I can see the headlines already.”

“Ignore all of that. You’re going to wake up married or not. What’s it going to be?”

My breath quickens. “I’m not.”

“You’re sure.”

“Yes.”

A door closes in the background. “Okay, this is the plan.”

A smile tugs at my lips.

“I could borrow a car and pick you up, but someone has to be here to head off your parents and Tom until you’ve made your exit,” she says. “The security team is our best bet, I think. They’re under an NDA, and you hired them, right? Not Tom?”

“Yeah, I did.”

“Okay. Let me find one of them and get them to pick you up. You stay put. I’m going to bide you some time with your father. Who should I contact on your team?”

“My assistant,” I say. “Tell Cassidy I’m sorry and ask her to contact the PR team. Tell her I’ll call her as soon as I can.”

“I’m on it. Do you need me to do anything else?”

I take a long breath. “Don’t be the one to tell Tom. Let someone else do it.”

“Got it. Now, hold tight. I’ll have a car there as fast as I can.”

“I love you, Steph.”

“Love you more.”

The call ends. I drop my arm to the side and avoid looking at the phone screen. People are probably already sending texts and looking for me. I can’t deal with it. Not yet.

I’m really doing this. I’m really running away from my wedding.

My head begins to spin with all the immediate decisions I must make. I have to get my things from the hotel before it’s taken over by the wedding party again. Can anyone track my phone? How will I get out of here without alerting the media and bystanders?

Is that even possible?

Before I can go too far down the rabbit hole, a black SUV rolls up perilously close to the shed. The windows are jet black, making it impossible to see inside. Nerves ripple low in my stomach as a man in one of those tailored suits slips alongside the vehicle.

He takes his glasses off so I can see his gray eyes. Troy Castelli. Thank God. 

“Ms. Kelley, I heard you’d like a ride.”

A chuckle escapes me. “I can’t believe I’m doing this, Troy.”

“I’m happy to take you wherever you want.”

“I just want to get out of here without my picture being splashed on social media. Can you pull that off?”

He opens the back door. “Absolutely.” He turns to offer me a hand and then sees, for what seems like the first time, the tulle that must also go in the SUV. “How do we get all of … that in there?”

“It’s tulle.” I bunch as much of the fabric in the front as I can. “I hate it.”

“Then why did you choose it?”

The question makes me pause. Why did I choose tulle over lace? Surf-n-turf over chicken strips and sliders for the reception? The diet drink over the full sugar soda at the rehearsal dinner?

“Troy, it seems I’m a bit of a pushover.”

“No offense, ma’am, but a lot of people inside the church would probably disagree with you.”

I grin, standing a little taller. “You’re right. Now shove this godforsaken dress in the car, and let’s get out of here.”

With a little work and a lot of pushing white fabric into every vacant space in the back of the SUV, we make it work. Troy is in the driver’s seat in the blink of an eye.

“We’ll go out the back service entrance,” he says, holding my gaze in the rearview mirror. “You can breathe, Ms. Kelley. It’s going to be all right.”

I exhale, the sound taking up all the room the tulle isn’t. I hope you’re right.

My heart pounds as we roll to the back of the church. Troy makes a hand signal to a police officer at the makeshift gate, and it’s immediately moved.

The crowd has nearly tripled since I arrived two hours ago. The streets have been closed, and people have filled the block surrounding Mt. Calvary Church. Lawns of the nearby houses are littered with bodies. Television crews are set up on sidewalks with vans and microphones.

It’s a mess.

And about to get messier.

I glance at the clock on the dash. The ceremony is set to start in two minutes. I squeeze my eyes closed and try to ignore the fire blazing in my stomach.

“Ms. Kelly?”

I open my eyes. “Yes?”

“Where are we headed?”

Oh. Right. 

Good freaking question.

Adrenaline flows through my veins, and my palms start to sweat. Where are we headed?

The hotel is out. The bridal party will inevitably return to their rooms to gather their things. Not to mention, there’s no way I could get into the hotel discreetly and make it to my room. My parents’ house is a definite no. I’d be emotionally and physically burned at the stake. I could ask Troy to drive me to the airport, but that’s an hour and a half away, and no reservations have been made. My passport is at the hotel. And what do I do with all this damn tulle?

Breathe, Laina.

There must be somewhere I can go.

I sort through every person I still know in Brickfield—which isn’t many. I’ve lost contact with nearly all my old friends since I left six years ago. I can’t trust anyone to hide me until I figure this disaster out, anyway. I can’t even get a room in Peachwood Falls because someone would wind up seeing me, and I’d get trapped with no way out.

“How about …” Before I can ask him to find a back road to kill some time while I think, the answer pops in my head.

It is safe. Probably.

I may not exactly be welcome, but I won’t be forced to leave. I don’t think.

There will definitely be nothing to eat, the bedding will need to be washed, but I’ll be able to let myself inside.

My lips curl slowly into a smile. And, for the first time today, I don’t feel like the sun is setting on my soul. 

“See that sign for Peachwood Falls?” I ask. “Head there.”

Chapter Two

Laina

The asphalt, busted with potholes but asphalt all the same, turns into gravel. Troy slows the SUV as its tires crunch across the rocks.

The field on the right side of the road has a path leading to a smaller field in the rear. It’s on top of a hill, surrounded by trees, and was too much of a pain in the ass to farm, according to the old farmer who used to tend to the land. My friends and I spent many weekend nights back there listening to music, building bonfires that almost got away from us, and drinking cheap wine and even cheaper beer like the adults we weren’t.

If only we knew how overrated adulthood really was

On the left is a cornfield. A small brown home is tucked off the road. The family who lived there were so sweet. The father worked for the Department of Natural Resources and adopted a fawn that was left behind when its mother was shot during hunting season. The little thing would eat an apple out of your hand.

I wonder what happened to it.

“Just down this hill and around the curve,” I say, shivering. Why is it so chilly in here? “The driveway is hard to see but on the right.”

Troy nods. “Should I wait with you outside the house, or would you rather I wait down by the road?”

“With all due respect, I would rather you return to the church.”

A frown darkens his face. “I’m sure you understand I can’t do that, ma’am.”

I hold his gaze in the rearview mirror, anger from being told what I can and can’t do in my own damn life boiling inside me. But that’s not Troy’s fault. He’s doing what he’s paid to do. 

And he’s being paid by me.

“Look, I appreciate your concern and understand the challenge of returning without me,” I say. “But I need a minute to myself, and I really need no one to know where I am for a while.”

He watches me warily.

“Trust me. I don’t want to get whacked by a crazed stalker more than you don’t want me to be, okay?”

“I will have to tell my boss, Ms. Kelley.”

Great.

My response is delayed as the SUV slows at the end of a small bridge crossing a creek. The driveway is next to a mailbox that’s seen better days. We slip between the mailbox and guardrail and follow the bend around a hedge of trees.

And there it is.

My heart hammers against my rib cage as the yellow house with brown trim comes into view, its attached garage and large barn behind it. The lake below reflects the clear blue sky, and if I weren’t running on adrenaline and eagerness to extract myself from this situation, I would appreciate the beauty and stillness of the moment.

The vehicle pulls to the top of the driveway and stops.

I stare at the door, wondering if he’s home. What will he say? What will he do? Despite the chance that Luke Marshall won’t be pleased to see me, my anxiety is the lowest it’s been all day.

My shoulders slump against the seat.

“This is it?” Troy’s sunglasses are gone, and he’s surveying the landscape for threats. “Want me to walk the perimeter or, better yet, clear the inside?”

I sit up. “Promise me you won’t tell Tom or my parents,” I say, holding on to the back of the seat. “If you have to tell Ford Landry, then fine. But let him know that if he shares my location with anyone … I’ll fire you all.”

His eyes blaze with frustration, but he heeds my request.

“Yes, Ms. Kelley.”

I open the door handle, but nothing happens. Troy triggers the unlock feature and hops out of the driver’s seat. When he’s around to my side of the SUV, I’m gathering the tulle.

“I can stay out of sight,” he says, clearly struggling with leaving me on a random doorstep. “I assure you that you won’t know I’m here.”

My bare feet hit the sharp rocks on the ground, and I wince. “Nope. I got this.”

“I’ll wait until you’re inside.”

“Nope.” I square my shoulders to his. “I got this.”

He hesitates. “Call me if you need me. Do you have my number?”

“Yes. And, Troy? Thank you.”

He mumbles something I can’t hear, closes my door, and then goes to the other side. I quickly crack it open, turn my phone off, toss it onto the floorboard, and close the door again. My management’s insistence that I memorize my most important phone numbers is finally coming in handy. 

As he drives off, rounding the turn and effectively going out of sight, I blow out the deepest, heaviest breath of my life.

I face the house that holds so many memories. The walkout basement that Luke and I used when we didn’t want his grandfather, Poppy Marshall, to know we were there. The birdbath next to the house has a permanent crack down the side because Luke hit it with his truck one winter while sliding on the ice. I glance at the front porch. And the old pair of boots behind the porch swing—the one with the house key.

“Ouch,” I hiss, stepping lightly on the gravel toward the stairs.

My mind drifts away, carrying me back to the situation at the church. How is Stephanie handling the drama? I envision the statement Tom is composing for the press. He’s undoubtedly feeding me to the wolves. It takes little imagination to picture my parents’ displeasure. Did they outright take Tom’s side, or do they wonder, if even for a moment, what my side of the story might be?

Tears flood my eyes, fogging my sight.

If I had stayed, I’d be a married woman right now.

My hands shake as if I’ve just avoided being mugged.

The thought of cutting it so close—almost being Mrs. Tom Waverly—makes me nauseous. Even though I’ll undoubtedly be on the receiving end of nasty vitriol in the coming days, it’s a small price to pay for avoiding a marriage that would’ve ended in divorce. Tom may not understand it, but I did us both a favor.

I grab the rail and pull the tulle behind me up the stairs. Poppy’s standing ashtray from decades ago is still next to the swing. The sight of it surrounded by the ridiculous white fabric makes me grin.

I press the doorbell and wait. There’s no movement inside the house. I press it again.

My heart pounds as I dip my hand into the right boot.

“So predictable, Luke,” I say, pulling out the spare key. I stick it in the lock, and the door swings open as if waiting for me. The thought makes me smile.

The hardwood is warm on my bare feet. An earthiness unique to this place—mud mixed with tobacco and kissed by the sun—greets me like an old friend. I shut the door behind me and venture into Luke’s house.

A bigger television hangs on the wall. The refrigerator has been replaced. A few more pictures have been added to the collection of family photos on the unused dining room table. Not much has changed in the six years since I was here. Yet …

Every move I make is like a pin dropping to the floor. It’s as if the house is holding its breath like me. Somehow, it feels like I just came in after a shift at The Scoop to do homework with Luke.

My dress swishes against the floor as I cross the kitchen to inspect the photographs.

So many framed memories have been here for years—pictures of Poppy and Luke’s grandma and Luke’s parents. There are photos of Luke and his siblings. My favorite one is in the center of the table, and I pick it up.

Luke gives the camera the cheesiest grin. To his right are his oldest brothers, Chase and Mallet. On his left is his little sister, Kate. Crouched in front of them, as if he might attack the person taking the shot, is their brother Gavin. God, I love these people.

It’s hard to breathe as I gaze at the faces I haven’t seen in a long time—faces of some of the best, most hardworking, salt-of-the-earth people I’ve ever met. They loved me like their own. I loved them right back. Until everything fell apart …

I wipe away the tears rolling down my cheeks and set the picture back in its place. 

“I shouldn’t be here,” I whisper, looking around the house. “What am I doing?”

Panic surges, using the crack in my willpower to make itself known. My stomach clenches like I might puke. Fight-or-flight instincts kick in. My brain screams at my legs to move, to walk—to leave before I make a mess of things, but my heart whispers no.

There’s nowhere else to go, anyway.

I’m royally screwed.

I sit on the brown plaid couch. The springs bite through all the fabric attached to my butt and bite into my bones. At least I can feel it. At least I’m not that numb.

Gravel popping under the weight of a vehicle rings through the silence. I bolt upright, unsure whether to run out the back door or sit still and take whatever comes my way. For the briefest of seconds, I regret asking Troy to leave.

A door shuts. Boots climb the stairs. The handle turns, the hinges creaking.

I grab the edge of the couch, holding my breath and waiting for my eyes to meet Luke Marshall’s.

When he enters, his head is down. He shuts the door with his foot. With his phone in his hand, he lifts his face and stops mid-step.

The phone clatters to the floor.

I gasp as our gazes collide, and the world outside this room ceases to exist. The collision takes my breath as heat sizzles through my body, snaking down my spine in a slow, torturous curl. 

I struggle to catch my breath amid the butterflies sweeping through my stomach. 

Oh, my

Luke Marshall is all grown up. 

Age has done fine things to this man, filling him out in all the right places—broad shoulders and a barrel chest. A belt shows off his trim waist. Angled jaw. Long lashes. He wears a day’s scruff that makes me shiver. 

No amount of social media stalking could’ve prepared me for this moment.

He tilts his head in surprise, then in confusion. 

A sardonic smile parts his kissable lips. “What in the hell are you doing here?”

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