goofiest brother, looked worried. And why shouldn’t he be? Everything was wrong. This wasn’t a wedding march, this was a funeral dirge. The black cloud that appeared over Harmony Falls the day Justin’s daddy died had grown into a full-blown storm with Justin directly in its path. And he didn’t deserve to be. He was a good man who spent his days helping everybody else. Now it was time for somebody to help him.

The honorable thought carried Alice to her feet. She gulped a few mouthfuls of air, trying to gain courage. “Stop.” The shaky command travelled a few pews.

Half the church looked at Alice instead of the bride.

“Can I talk to Justin?” Alice spoke louder this time, pushing out of the pew and into the aisle. “It’ll only take a minute. I promise.”

Alice hadn’t heard so many gasps since she fell off the pavilion stage into the shrubs during opening night of A Chorus Line. But she kept her eyes on a gaping Justin, and blocked out the rest.

“Daddy, she’s ruining my wedding.”

Mayor Parrish stepped in front of his whining daughter and cut off Alice’s view of the groom.

Alice stopped cold, watching the mayor move closer. “Justin, I … ”

A couple hands wrapped around her upper arms, and Alice felt tugged from behind. “Let’s go, little lady. No time for drama. This here ain’t a thee-a-ter.”

Alice didn’t know whose hands were dragging her from the church. Frankly, she didn’t care. Her character shoes caught on the runner as Mayor Parrish turned to console his daughter, and that was when Alice saw Justin, his mouth still hanging open.

“She’s missing her tiara.” Alice looked away from Justin and over the gaping crowd. “Charlie has it.” Her voice cracked.

“Get out,” Morgan screeched.

The next thing Alice knew, heavy doors shut in her face and Gilbert Hoover plopped her on a cement step. “Go home, little lady. Fix yourself some tea. It’ll be all right. You’ll see.”

What did Gilbert know about all right? He pumped gas for a living. He lived in a doublewide. The pancake breakfast was his idea of gourmet “eats.” This town was mad, and she was neck-deep in their insanity. Well, no more. It might be honorable to help a man who was making a terrible mistake, but from now on, Alice Cramer was only helping herself.

Justin could marry the banshee. Alice was going home. She lifted her skirt and stomped barefoot down the church steps.

“Where’re your shoes?” Gilbert called.

It seemed her dignity wasn’t the only thing Alice left lying in the aisle.

* * *

Justin stared at his beet-red bride-to-be as she cowered in her father’s arms. Strands of inky silk slid from her hair combs and stuck to her wet cheeks. “What’s going on?”

She burrowed deeper into her father’s chest. “Alice is crazy.”

Maybe. Charlie’s little sister had done a lot of crazy things in her life, but standing up in church without good reason seemed extreme, even for a Cramer.

Between Morgan’s sniffles, Justin could’ve heard a boutonniere pin drop in the stricken church. He glanced at his mother, sitting stoically in the front pew. No doubt she figured he had a plan to get the situation under control. But for the first time since his father died, leaving the job of diplomacy to him, Justin was at a loss for words.

He should probably start with an apology to his mother and permit her the ‘I-told-you- so.’ She’d warned him time and time again about the damage Charlie could do to his reputation. He glanced at Morgan, picturing her missing tiara sitting atop her head. Apparently she didn’t get the same lecture.

Sickness swirled in Justin’s stomach, and a flash interrupted his speculative trance. The bright light drew his attention down the aisle to a large man with an even larger camera taking photos of the twirling flower girl. At least someone was having fun. But as soon as the sarcastic thought faded, another more ominous thought formed. That man, that camera, could ruin Justin by capturing an unsavory, unscripted moment and putting it on display.

Justin’s chest clenched. He had a choice to make. He could either go through with what he once thought of as a politically advantageous wedding solely to save face and as a result, risk life with a duplicitous woman, or he could step back, take a breather and make certain he was doing the right thing by marrying a woman he didn’t trust and didn’t love simply to follow through on his father’s promise.

With an inhale and an exhale, Justin raised his hands. “I need a minute.”

“Don’t you dare walk out on me,” Morgan threatened through clenched teeth.

He hadn’t thought about walking out until she suggested it, and now that she had, he wanted to. Walking wouldn’t solve the big problem, but if he walked, nobody would see him blow. And for the first time in years, he heard the ticking of a time bomb with each beat of his heart.

Months’ worth of frustration trapped between his cummerbund and bowtie. He’d allowed himself to be a pawn in a game his father started years ago. There were no more clandestine whiskey and cigar meetings between Marvin Mitchell and Robert Parrish, but their plans for power remained. If their dreams for political dominance had died along with Justin’s father, Justin wouldn’t be standing here today. But he was standing here, a willing accomplice, because as Marvin’s oldest son, it was his duty to follow through with his father’s best-laid plans, plans which included a Congressional seat and a loveless marriage.

Crazy? Maybe. But his father said powerful families arranged marriages all the time. They were business transactions of mutual benefit. In this case, Justin would get a beautiful, poised, politically-appropriate wife, who happened to come with a dowry of several hundred million dollars in the shape of an international plastics plant, and Morgan would get a wealthy husband with power, influence and title. Everybody won, unless, of course, you counted love, which Justin didn’t. Love didn’t win elections. Love didn’t balance the measly budgets of rural Pennsylvania towns. Love was one of the few luxuries powerful people couldn’t afford.

Or so he’d been told over and over again by the most unlikely source, his bride-to-be. He’d been focused and methodical about marrying Morgan for the power and stability her family could offer this town, and yet he stood here, shaken by the unknown. Was it possible Morgan had risked his reputation and all they planned to accomplish together by carrying on with Charlie?

When Justin looked at Morgan, she looked away.

On the first wave of impulse Justin had permitted in years, he threw up his hands. “I apologize, but this isn’t going to happen today.”

“I’ll kill her,” Morgan roared. So much for poise under pressure.

Any other time, Justin would’ve placated her for the sake of keeping appearances, but now he simply wanted to get away. He walked up the aisle with gasps and gossip to his back. He could only imagine his mother’s fear and confusion. It was almost enough to turn him around. Almost.

“When I get my hands on that little … ” Morgan’s threats against Alice faded and somewhere in the distance a door slammed.

Justin didn’t stop to see what happened. At the moment, he was too numb to care. His mind warned that this could be political suicide, but he needed the truth. Once he knew what Alice knew, he could form a plan.

He reached down to scoop up the pair of shoes that littered the aisle. Alice Cramer had given him grief since the day they first met. She had better have a damn good explanation now.

To purchase this ebook and learn more about the author, click here.

Also check out Change My Mind and Save My Soul from Elley Arden.

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