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 was 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. Silverware 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, clinging to her torso like it was made for her, wouldn't you know. Even the color complemented 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.
In the mirror, her green eyes turned toward him. A split second later they widened in recognition.
She turned, as if double-checking. Her features had matured. Time had been her friend, had rounded out the sharp angles, filled out the curves. But it had also stolen the sparkle from her eyes, the easy smile from her lips.
Or maybe he'd done that.
Shay's mouth flattened and her spine defied gravity. She faced the mirror.
Okay. He deserved that. His gaze swept over the gown, his mouth going dry as Sandstone Creek in the middle of August.
"Travis," Miss Lucy said, "what brings you in? Did you come to see my girls?"
He scanned the rows of hand made dolls. "Ran into Mrs. Teasley at Pappy's Market. Asked me to tell you about an emergency meeting tonight at seven."
Shay was fussing at the high collar with those long elegant fingers. Fingers that used to—
"Land sakes, what can that woman want now?"
It wasn't like he hadn't known Shay still lived in Moose Creek. That he'd run into her sooner or later. In fact, that had been the plan. But not here. Not today.
Not with her in a wedding gown.
He squeezed the brim of his best hat as he nodded. "Shay."
She tossed her head, flipping her mahogany hair from her eyes, not looking. "Travis."
He'd heard rumors of her and Beau Meyers. But they were just going out casually, was the way he heard it. Having some fun. Kicking up their heels on a Saturday night.
"She say what it's about?" Miss Lucy asked.
A wedding gown, just like the last time he'd seen her. Only this time she wore it for another man. He tried to quell the panic rising high and fast. The rumors had been wrong. Dead wrong.
"That woman." Miss Lucy fussed with the dress. "Mountain out of a molehill. I think that'll do, Shay." She made one final brush on the skirt.
"Little late, aren't you?" Shay met his eyes in the mirror for a split second, long enough to make her point. "Fourteen years, that about right?"
"I'll just be in the back room," Miss Lucy said.
His girl still had fire. The thought kicked up the corner of his lips. Then he remembered she wasn't his girl anymore. That she'd be unleashing that fire on someone else.
"Who's the lucky guy?" The words nearly jammed in his throat.
She stopped her fidgeting. Met his gaze in the mirror, and he saw something. Just as quick, it was gone.
Tell him something he didn't know. All these years. All the waiting, the wishing. Hope rushed down the drain. He tried to plug the hole, but it was useless.
"Beau Meyers?" The name tasted sour on his tongue. Shay was a Thoroughbred, Beau a Clydesdale. He'd never be able to handle her. Maybe that's the way she liked it now.
"Been chewin' the fat with our neighbors?"
Beau would never make her happy—couldn't she see that?
She turned toward the back room. "If you'll excuse me."
Desperation propelled him forward. He had no right anymore. No right to take her slender arm. No right to touch her, no right to say it. "Don't do it, Shay."
Her eyes challenged him. "What's it to you, McCoy?" The question hung in the air between them, a loaded shotgun.
"Sure you want to know?" She wasn't ready to hear his answer, and she wouldn't believe it anyway. Not that he could blame her.
She pulled away, surprisingly strong, and he released her.
"Cool your heels. I'm not marrying Beau, I'm playing Prudence Adams in the Founders Day ceremony."
The reenactment. Relief flooded through him, leaving his legs rickety. Thank You, Jesus. Thank You.
She pulled open the storeroom door, then turned back suddenly, her eyes sparking. "And for the record, Travis McCoy, if I do choose to marry Beau Meyers, or anyone else for that matter, it's no business of yours." She hitched up her skirt, crossed the threshold, and slammed the door behind her with a force that shook the frame.
Travis stared at the door while his thoughts searched for a new gear. This was not the way he'd planned their first meeting. Not even close.
* * *
It was hotter than a furnace inside the infernal dress. "Unbutton me, please."
It took everything in Shay to keep her voice level. She turned her back to Miss Lucy and held her hair off her damp neck, still shaking. She felt the woman's fingers at the buttons.
Sweet merciful heavens. Why'd he have to show up today—with her in a wedding gown, of all things? The irony would've made her laugh if it didn't make her feel like her bones were disintegrating.
It didn't help that Travis McCoy had transformed from lean, wiry boy to brawny cowboy, complete with bull-wide shoulders, slim hips, and long legs. And those stormy gray eyes . . . those hadn't changed at all. They still had the power to suck her under. Cussed man.
She wiped the dampness from her forehead. Could Miss Lucy be any slower?
"Pretty tough on him out there," the older woman said.
"He left me high and dry."
"It was years ago, child."
"At the altar."
"Courthouse steps, I recall."
"It was foolish and selfish."
"Blame right." She had returned to Moose Creek alone. The whispers and stares were almost as bad as losing him. The rejection. Almost as bad as lying on Miss Lucy's couch night after night smothering her sobs in her pillow, yearning for his touch.
"Figured you two would've run into each other by now." Miss Lucy finished the last button and helped Shay peel the dress from her arms. "But I guess not, with you buried away at your place like you've been."
"I wasn't hiding."
Miss Lucy's brows popped over her frames. "Didn't mean that, dear."
The woman's soft voice tweaked Shay's conscience. "Sorry. I'm touchy." She stepped from the gown and removed her boots.
"Don't be. You got a lot of troubles, and you surely didn't expect chemistry to come waltzing through the door this morning."
"That wasn't chemistry, it was animosity."
"Enough sparks between the pair of you to light the town at midnight."
Shay snatched her Levi's off a box. "Hogwash."
"Had me a hot flash and I'm way past that."
Shay heaved a sigh, torn between frustration and humor.
Miss Lucy folded the gown, tucked it into the box, and slipped the lid back on while Shay finished dressing. She still had the meeting at the bank, and she needed a moment to gather herself before she faced that particular hurdle.
Who was she kidding? She'd had fourteen years to get over Travis McCoy, and it still hadn't been long enough.
John laced his fingers, rested his hands on his desk, and gave her the look. She'd seen it the last three times she'd been in. Had to beg for this meeting today.
Please, God. I need some help here. A miracle would be good.
"We've been through this before, Shay," he said in his nasal voice.
"I just need more time."
"You've had time." The look turned smug. He poked his glasses up with his index finger.
Shay pressed her lips together. She wanted to remind him he was no older than she was, no more important just because he had money. She wanted to remind him of the time he peed his pants on their first-grade field trip and point out that his hairline had receded two inches since graduation. But none of that would help her cause.
"May I be honest, Shay?"
She bit the inside of her mouth. Hard. "Sure."
"I know the property's been in your family awhile—"
He tucked his weak little chin. "Right. A long time, no one's arguing that. Your folks both worked it hard and barely kept it afloat."
"I made regular payments for years. I wasn't so much as a day late—"
"Until a year ago. I'm not the enemy here, Shay. When your husband was here running the place, the payments weren't a problem, right? Now, it pains me to say it, but Garrett's desertion, not my bank, put you in a bind. God rest his soul."
He did not just go there.
"It takes two to handle a ranch the size of yours. We've given you plenty of notice, and you're months behind. The bank demands payment in full or an auction date will be set in thirty days, just as the letter said."
Excerpted from the Accidental Bride by DENISE HUNTER Copyright © 2011 by Denise Hunter. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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