The Accidental Bride
A Big Sky Romance
Releasing January 2012
From Thomas Nelson
The bell above the diner’s door jingled and—despite her most valiant effort—Shay Brandenberger’s eyes darted toward the entry. An unfamiliar couple entered, tourists. She could tell by their khaki Eddie Bauer vests and spanking new hiking boots. Look out, Yellowstone.
When her heart rate returned to normal, she checked her watch and took a sip of coffee. Five minutes till she met Miss Lucy at the Doll House, forty till she met John Oakley at the bank. What if he said no? What would they do then?
“Mom . . . Earth to Mom . . .” Olivia waved her hand too close to Shay’s face, her brown eyes widening.
“Sorry, hon.” The one bright moment of her Saturday, breakfast with her daughter, and she couldn’t enjoy it for the dread. “What were you saying?”
Olivia set her fork on her pancake-sticky plate and heaved a sigh worthy of her twelve-year-old self. “Never mind.” She bounced across the vinyl bench, her thick brown ponytail swinging. “I’m going to meet Maddy.”
“Right back here at noon,” Shay called, but Olivia was out the door with the flick of her hand.
The diner buzzed with idle chatter. Silver clattered and scraped, and the savory smell of bacon and fried eggs unsettled her stomach. She took a sip of the strong brew from the fat rim of her mug.
The bell jingled again. I will not look. I will not look. I will not—
The server appeared at her booth, a new girl, and gathered Olivia’s dishes. “On the house today.”
Shay set down her mug, bristling. “Why?”
The woman shrugged. “Boss’s orders,” she said, then made off with the dirty dishes.
From the rectangular kitchen window Mabel Franklin gave Shay a pointed look.
So Shay had helped the couple with their foal the week before. It was the neighborly thing to do.
Fine. She gave a reluctant smile and a wave. She pulled her wallet from her purse, counted out the tip, and dragged herself from the booth, remembering her daughter’s bouncy exit. Lately her thirty-two years pressed down on her body like a two-ton boulder.
She opened the diner’s door and peeked both ways before exiting the Tin Roof and turning toward the Doll House. She was only checking sidewalk traffic, not hiding. Nope, she wasn’t hiding from anyone. The boardwalks were busy on Saturdays. That was why she hadn’t come to town for two weeks. Why their pantry was emptier than a water trough at high noon.
She hurried three shops down and slipped into the cool, welcoming air of Miss Lucy’s shop.
“Morning, Miss Lucy.”
“Morning, dear.” The elderly woman, in the middle of helping a customer, called over her rounded shoulder. “It’s in the back.” Miss Lucy’s brown eyes were big as buckeyes behind her thick glasses, and her white curls glowed under the spotlights.
“Okeydoke.” Shay forced her feet toward the storeroom.
A musty smell assaulted her as she entered the back room and flipped on the overhead fluorescents. She scanned the boxes of doll parts and skeins of yarn until she found what she was looking for. She approached the box, lifted the lid, and parted the tissue.
The wedding gown had been carefully folded and tucked away. Shay ran her fingers over the delicate lace and pearls. Must’ve been crisp white in its day, but time had cast a long shadow over it. Time had a way of doing that.
Her fingers lingered on the thin fabric. She remembered another time, another dress. A simple white one that hung on her young shoulders, just skimmed the cement of the courthouse steps. The ache that squeezed her heart had faded with time, but it was there all the same. Would it ever go away?
Shaking her head, Shay turned back to the task at hand. The gown seemed too pretty, too fragile to disturb.
Oh well. She’d promised.
She pulled it out and draped it over the box, then shimmied from her jeans. When she was down to the bare necessities she stepped carefully into the gown. She eased it over her narrow hips and slid her arms into the long sleeves. The neckline was modest, the gathered skirt fuller than anything she ever wore. Here in the air conditioning it was fine, but she would swelter next Saturday.
Leaving the button-up back gaping, she hitched the skirt to the top of her cowboy boots and entered the store.
Miss Lucy was ushering the customer out the door. When she turned, she stopped, her old-lady shoes squeaking on the linoleum. “Land sakes.”
Shay took two steps forward and dropped the skirt. It fell to the floor with a whoosh.
“Fits like a glove,” Miss Lucy said. “And with some low heels it’ll be the perfect length.”
Shay didn’t even own heels. “My boots’ll have to do. Button the back?”
Miss Lucy waddled forward, turned Shay toward a small wall mirror flecked with time, and began working the tiny pearl buttons.
Shay’s breath caught at her image. She forced its release, then frowned. Wedding gowns were bad luck. She’d sworn she’d never wear another. If someone had told her yesterday she’d be wearing this thing today, she’d have said they were one straw short of a bale.
Miss Lucy moved up to the buttons between her shoulders, and Shay lifted her hair. The dress did fit, clung to her torso like it was made for her, wouldn’t you know. Even the color complimented her olive skin.
Still there was that whole bad luck thing.
And what would everyone think of Shay Brandenberger wearing this valuable piece of Moose Creek heritage? A white wedding gown, no less. If she didn’t have the approval of her closest friends and neighbors, what did she have? Not much, to her thinking.
She wanted to cut and run. Wanted to shimmy right out of the dress, tuck it into that box in the storeroom, slip back into her Levi’s and plaid button-up, and go back to her ranch where she could hole up for the next six months.
She checked the time and wished Miss Lucy had nimbler fingers. Of all days to do this, a Saturday, when everyone with two legs was in town. And she still had that infernal meeting with John Oakley.
Please, God, I can’t lose our home . . .
“I’m obliged to you, dear. I completely forgot Jessie was going out of town.”
“Baloney. You’d rather be knee-deep in cow dung.” The woman’s marionette lines at the sides of her mouth deepened.
“It’s one hour of my life.” A pittance, after all Miss Lucy had done for her.
Miss Lucy finished buttoning, and Shay dropped her hair and smoothed the delicate lace at the cuffs.
“Well, bless you for being willing. God is smiling down on you today for your kindness.”
Shay doubted God really cared one way or another. It was her neighbors she worried about.
“Beautiful, just beautiful. You’ll be the talk of the town on Founders Day.”
“No doubt.” Everyone in Moose Creek would be thinking about the last time she’d worn a wedding gown. And the time before that.
Especially the time before that.
Third time’s a charm, Shay thought, the corner of her lip turning up.
“Stop fretting,” Miss Lucy said, squeezing her shoulders. “You look quite fetching, like the gown was made for you. I won’t have to make a single alteration. Why, it fits you better than it ever did Jessie—don’t you tell her I said so.”
Shay tilted her head. Maybe Miss Lucy was right. The dress did make the most of her figure. And she had as much right to wear it as anyone. Maybe more—she was born and raised here, after all. It was just a silly old reenactment anyway. No one cared who the bride and groom were.
The bell jingled as the door opened behind her. She glanced in the mirror, over her shoulder, where a hulking silhouette filled the shop’s doorway. There was something familiar in the set of the man’s broad shoulders, in the slow way he reached up and removed his hat.
The sight of him constricted her rib cage, squeezed the air from her lungs as if she were wearing a corset. But she wasn’t wearing a corset. She was wearing a wedding gown. Just as she had been the last time she’d set eyes on Travis McCoy.
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