Excerpt

Almost a Bride

Almost a Bride

Chapter One

Reid Dalton pumped gas into his GMC pickup, one ear tuned to the conversation going on between his friends inside the truck. Grant was giving Brett a hard time for missing a two pointer during the basketball game they’d just finished, and Brett was serving it straight back at him with both barrels.  

Reid grinned to himself, feeling pleasantly tired after an hour of belting up and down the court, trouncing the boys from Bozeman Fire Department. The informal competition between the police department and the fire guys had become a regular thing over the past few months. Reid wasn’t sure which part of their weekly matches he enjoyed the most - the rapid-fire pace of the game itself, or the inevitable shit giving and taking that occurred afterward. 

“You want to know my opinion?” he asked as the pump clicked off, signaling the tank was full. 

“Not particularly,” Brett said, which earned him a guffaw from Grant. 

“You both need to lift your games. Drink less beer, run a few more miles,” Reid said. 

Grant made a rude noise, while Brett gave him a one-fingered salute. Reid was still laughing as he headed into the gas station to pay the cashier. 

Then he saw the couple exiting the motel next door to the Gas-And-Go Mart and his step faltered.

The girl he didn’t recognise, but she was young and blond and clinging to her man as though her very life depended on it. Reid watched as Simon Garfield said something before kissing her in a way that left no doubt whatsoever as to the nature of their relationship. 

Damn.  

Just...damn. 

Tara would be devastated. 

For a moment he was frozen as he absorbed all the implications of what he’d just witnessed. Tara had been planning the wedding for the past few months and as her patrol partner, there was precious little Reid wasn’t privy to. Like the fact that Tara and Simon planned on having the reception at Le Petit Chateau in Bozeman, and that Tara was limiting her attendants to just her twin, Scarlett, and that today she had an appointment at Marietta’s one and only bridal salon to pick out her wedding dress...

Belatedly he glanced back at the car, hoping the other guys hadn’t seen, but they were both frowning, staring out the windshield at the sordid little drama unfolding in the parking lot next door. There wasn’t a doubt in Reid’s mind that they recognised Tara’s fiance. They’d all attended the engagement party Tara and Simon held back in February.     

Reid mouthed a four letter word.   

What a nightmare. 

Simon and the blonde were climbing into separate cars. Reid automatically noted the blonde’s license plate before she turned onto the highway, heading toward Marietta. 

She was a local, then. 

Simon waited until a few cars blew past before following suit. 

Reid shook his head in disgust before heading inside to pay for the gas. The guys were both silent when he returned to the truck. Brett waited until they were heading for Marietta themselves before speaking up. 

“What are you going to tell her?” 

Reid didn’t take his eyes off the road. “The truth.”

Because no way was he sitting on this. The last thing he would ever want to do is hurt Tara - the thought literally made his gut ache - but there was no way he was going to look the other way and tell himself it was none of his business. 

She’d want to know. Even if the truth was going to tear her world apart.

“When is the wedding?” Grant asked. 

“Four months,” Reid said.

There was a profound silence in the car as they all processed that particular piece of information. 

“You think she has any idea...?” Brett asked. 

Reid shot him a hard look. Tara was the most straight-up, no bull person he knew. She wouldn’t live with that kind of deceit. Wouldn’t tolerate it for a second. 

“Yeah. You’re right,” Brett said. “Stupid question. Forget I said anything.” 

Silence reigned for the remainder of the twenty minute drive into town. Reid dropped both guys off at Brett’s place, where Grant had left his car. 

“Listen... Give me a chance to talk to Tara, okay?” he said after the guys had hauled their gear out of the back of the truck.

Grant looked offended. “Like we’re going to be running around telling anyone what we saw. Give us a bit of credit.”

Brett simply nodded. They all knew that Grant told his wife, Sally, everything sooner or later, something that was only underlined by the dull red flush coloring the other man’s face. Once Sally knew, it would simply be a matter of time before the story spread like wildfire.

“See you guys tomorrow,” Reid said before pulling away from the curb. 

His jaw set, he drove straight into the heart of town. The pink and white facade of Married in Marietta came up on his left and he pulled into the nearest empty parking spot. Then he sat and stared out the windshield and tried to work out how he was going to do this. What he was going to say. 

Because he needed to do and say something pretty quick smart - he figured he had a couple of hours max before Grant blabbed to his wife and the phone lines of Marietta began burning up with the news that Simon Garfield was cheating on Tara Buck. Tara needed to know so she could brace herself for the oncoming storm.

First things first, though. Pulling out his phone, he rang through to the Station and had a quick chat with Dave on the desk. Sixty seconds later, he had the registration details for the car the blonde had been driving. Paige Donovan. One mystery solved.>

It was Saturday afternoon, and there were plenty of people out and about, but Reid didn’t register any of them as he stared into the distance. He was too busy remembering the look on Tara’s face when she’d told him Simon had asked her to marry him. Her smile had been shy as she showed Reid the modest solitaire diamond her fiance had bought to seal the deal. Reid had said all the right things, asked all the right questions, but there had been a hot feeling in his chest and it had taken him a few minutes to own it for what it was - jealousy. A fruitless and useless emotion, given who Tara was and what they were to each other: partners and friends, nothing more, nothing less. He had no right to be jealous of the man in her life. 

And yet he had been, and sitting here now, he couldn’t deny that even though he dreaded the upcoming conversation, there was a part of him that was relieved because he wouldn’t have to stand in a church in four months time and watch Tara marry someone else.

Which pretty much made him a selfish bastard of the highest order, he figured.  

He shoved the car door open, walking away from his own thoughts. 

His heart started to bang away as he approached the salon. He wiped his hands down the sides of his shorts. Man, this was going to be hard. How on earth was he going to deliver such a painful blow to someone who deserved only happiness?

Gritting his teeth, he pushed open the door to the salon, entering a plush-carpeted world painted in soft neutrals. Fragile-looking velvet upholstered chairs dotted the space, along with tall vases filled with flowers. The walls were lined with racks bursting with white frothy dresses, a veritable sea of satin and tulle and silk, and a crystal chandelier fractured the light from half a dozen globes overhead.

A couple of women were browsing the racks, and they turned to stare at him in much the same way he imagined they might if he’d wandered into the womens’ restroom. A slim, middle-aged woman dressed entirely in black bustled out from behind the counter, an alarmed expression on her face. 

“Hello. Can I help you?” she asked. 

“I’m looking for Tara Buck. She was supposed to be here today, trying on dresses,” Reid said. 

He was suddenly very aware of his mussed hair, sweat-dampened T-shirt and shorts. Probably he could have taken the time to change into something more appropriate before coming here. 

“And you are...?”

It occurred to him belatedly that she was worried he was the groom. 

“I’m a friend. We work together.” 

“I’ll just check and see what I can do for you,” she said, giving him a dubious head to toe. 

Reid.”

He turned toward the familiar voice - and forgot to breathe.

Tara wore a flowing white gown that hugged her body in all the right places - breasts, waist, hips. The way the lustrous fabric wrapped around her mid-section emphasized how slender she was, while a neckline with a little dip in the middle drew his attention to her breasts and the bare expanse of her shoulders. A froth of lace was pinned to her upswept blonde hair, completing the bridal ensemble. 

She was beautiful, absolutely heart-stoppingly gorgeous, and for a moment he could do nothing but stare. 

“What on earth are you doing here?” Tara asked, laughing uncertainly. “I’m pretty sure you’re not supposed to see the bride before the wedding. Isn’t it supposed to be bad luck or something?”

Scarlett, Tara’s non-identical twin, joined them, dressed more conventionally in jeans and a T-shirt, her crazy red hair pulled back in a pony-tail. 

“That’s the groom, dufus,” she said. “You are the worst bride ever. How can you be getting married and know so little about weddings? Lucky Mitch made an honest woman of me in April or you wouldn’t have a seasoned pro around to show you the ropes.” Her gaze was curious as she glanced at Reid. “Hey, Dalton. What are you doing here?”

“I need to speak to Tara.”>

Tara’s smile faded. “Why do you have that look in your eye?”

“What look?” Scarlett asked, frowning.

“His cop look. Has something happened? Oh, God, don’t tell me something’s happened to Simon?” Tara’s eyes were wide now, and she pressed a hand to her stomach as though bracing herself for bad news. 

Reid glanced around, aware that everyone in the salon had stopped to stare at them. 

“Simon is fine.” For now, anyway. Reid wasn’t prepared to guarantee his future good health, however. “Is there somewhere private we can talk?” 

“What’s going on?” Tara asked, taking a step toward him. 

No way was he doing this out here, with all these people watching. He turned to the sales assistant. 

“Do you have an office?”

“Yes. It’s out the back...”

Reid was already moving, reaching for Tara’s elbow as he hustled her toward the rear of the store. 

“You’re freaking me out, Reid,” Tara said.

She came with him willingly enough, though, because she trusted him. Trusted the hours they’d spent in the patrol car together and the confidences they’d shared and the deep knowledge they had of one another. 

And he was about to break her heart. 

“I’ll just wait out here, then,” Scarlett called after them, clearly miffed to be excluded from whatever was going on. 

Reid spotted an open door, ducking his head in to find a desk, along with a filing cabinet and bookcase. He pulled Tara in after him and kicked the door shut. 

They stood there eyeing each other for a long beat. Then he took a deep breath and did what needed to be done. 

“I just saw Simon leaving the motel out on 98 with another woman.”

For a heartbeat Tara didn’t understand what Reid was saying. She was so disconcerted by his sudden appearance during her dress appointment, her brain seemed to be on vacation. He looked so out of place in the salon, with his mussed-up dark hair, broad-shoulders and lean, hard body kitted out in work-out gear. 

Then she blinked and his words hit home. She flinched, opening her mouth to deny him, to insist that he must have gotten it wrong, but Reid was watching her with his coffee-dark eyes and she knew that he wouldn’t be here telling her this if it wasn’t true. If he wasn’t sure. 

“Tell me,” she said. 

“We were heading home from our weekly game - ”

“We?”

“Brett and Grant.”

She closed her eyes for a long beat. Grant’s wife was the biggest motormouth she knew, hands down. 

“Did he see them as well?”

She didn’t need to refer to Grant by name; she and Reid had been talking in short-hand since their first week on patrol together. 

“They both did.”

“Okay.” She nodded, gesturing for him to resume filling in the blanks. She needed the facts - all of them - before she tried to work out how to respond, how to feel, what to do. 

“Maybe you should sit down,” Reid said, shoving the wheeled chair her way. 

“I’m fine. Tell me the rest.”

“There’s not much more. We stopped at the Gas-and-Go Mart out on 98, and they came out of the motel next door and drove off in separate cars.”

“They were definitely together?” It was a feeble straw, but she owed it to herself - to the future she’d had planned - to grasp it. 

“Yes.” 

Reid’s terse reply and the way he broke eye contact with her said more than any words could. She wondered what he’d seen. Them kissing? Some kind of clinch? 

“Who is she?” she asked. 

Because she knew without asking that he would have gotten the other woman’s plates. She would have done the same for him if she had been in his shoes. 

“Paige Donovan. Do you know her?”

Paige Donovan

She needed the chair then, one hand already reaching for it as her knees suddenly didn’t work any more. She leaned forward in the chair, dizzy with the implications of what he’d just revealed. 

Reid crouched down in front of her, trying to see her face. “You’re not going to faint, are you?”

No. But there was a good chance she might throw up. 

“She’s one of his students,” she said, somehow getting the words past the tightness in her throat. 

She’d heard the girl’s name often enough to know. Paige had been a thorn in Simon’s side since she walked into his class at the beginning of the year. Up until recently, he’d complained about her on a weekly basis.

Reid’s expression was stony. “How old is she?”

Something was tickling her face and she realised she was still wearing the stupid veil. Reaching up, she dragged it free, not caring that the pins pulled her hair with them. 

“I don’t know. She’s a senior. Seventeen. Maybe eighteen.”

Simon was twenty-eight, two years older than Tara. The age of consent in Montana was sixteen, so even if Paige was only seventeen, he was probably in the clear legally. 

Morally... He was toast. On so many levels. He was the girl’s teacher - and he was Tara’s fiance. The man she had lived with for two years. The man she’d planned to start a family with, grow old alongside...

Reid took both her hands in his. Hers were icy, his warm and strong. 

“Whatever you need, I’m here, okay?” 

There was a gravelly note to his voice that made her throat get even tighter. His eyes were full of sympathy, and a worried frown creased his forehead. 

“Thanks.”

Her gaze dropped to his strong thighs, exposed thanks to his workout shorts. He had a tan, she couldn’t help noticing. When on earth did he have time to get a tan, in between pulling shifts at Bozeman PD with her and helping out his parents on their apple orchard?

The absurdity of the thought - the stupid, inappropriate randomness of it - almost made her laugh. She was noticing Reid Dalton’s thighs now, of all times?

It’s easier than dealing with the truth.  

Indeed. 

It was tempting to cling to his hands, to use them as an anchor, but this was her mess. Her life. Her fiance. 

She eased back in the seat, slipping her hands free from his, suddenly overwhelmingly aware of the weight of the dress she was wearing. Not so many minutes ago, the heavy satin fabric and the dress’s boning had felt comforting, supportive, substantial. Now it felt like a cage. A trap. 

She stood. “I need to get out of this dress.”

He stood, too, but she was already pushing past him, opening the door. Her sister was hovering near the change rooms, arms crossed over her chest, her expression worried. 

“What’s going on?” she asked as Tara marched toward her. 

“Help me out of this thing. I want it off,” Tara said. 

She offered her sister her back, every muscle tense as she waited for the hiss of the zipper. 

“Can you please tell me what’s going on?” Scarlett asked, her voice scared now. 

It hit Tara that her sister was probably imagining the worst - death or injury for someone they loved. Nothing as small and seedy as the truth. 

“Simon has been having an affair with one of his students,” Tara said. 

There was a profound silence behind her. Then she felt the tug of the zip being undone. Wordlessly she walked into the change room, Scarlett hard on her heels. Her sister didn’t say anything, simply shut the door. For the first time Tara was grateful that their mother hadn’t been unable to attend today’s appointment, the symptoms from her recently diagnosed Parkinson’s Disease having taxed her severely over the last few days. Tammy Buck had never been good in a crisis, and she would be cursing up a storm and weeping and hollering right now if she were here, sucking up all the oxygen in the room and leaving nothing for anyone else. 

Instead, there was only Scarlett working silently to help her out of the dress. Only when the satin was piled on the chair in the corner did her sister open her arms, her eyes filled with sadness. Tara’s shoulders sagged, and she fell into her twin’s embrace. 

“I’m so sorry,” Scarlett said, her voice raw. 

Out of all the people in the world, only Scarlett knew how truly awful this moment was. 

Tara had worked all her life to avoid her mother’s fate. She had been careful. She had been prudent. She had been wise. 

And yet here she was. 

Disengaging from her sister’s embrace, she reached for her clothes. 

“Let’s get out of here.”

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