‘I Do. . .or Die’ by Donna Cummings

BOOK BLURB:“Always a bridesmaid, never a bride” is Shelby Atwood’s personal credo. She’s managed to avoid commitment all her life — no pets, no plants, not even a long-term lease. Heck, she’s had colds last longer than her romantic relationships. How could she be any other way when she has a gigolo for a father? But then gunfire erupts at the latest wedding she’s agreed to be in, and it ends up being the best thing to happen to Shelby’s love life.

Detective Ryan Nichols is assigned to the case, and when the shootings don’t stop, he becomes her 24-hour bodyguard. Shelby wouldn’t mind except Ryan is too appealing, too sexy, and too happy to remind her of the raucous bachelorette party when she mistook him for a stripper.

Shelby’s plan is simple: find the shooter, have a fling with Ryan, and return to her non-committal life. Unfortunately, the shooter is very elusive. Shelby’s feelings for Ryan are way more than adrenaline-fueled lust. And returning to her normal life is now impossible since, despite her lifelong resistance, she’s managed to put her heart smack dab in the line of fire.

EXCERPT:

You just don’t expect to see gunfire at a wedding.

I know, because I’ve been in a lot of weddings, despite my well-known aversion to them. “Always a bridesmaid, never a bride” is not just a cautionary adage, it’s my personal credo.

Having a gigolo for a father might have contributed something to that philosophy. Who really knows for sure?

Today Alexa, my best friend since grade school, glided down the aisle of the chapel to the accompaniment of a string quartet playing an elegant Handel air. For this wedding, she wore a white strapless dress, complete with tulle and beaded embroidery that made all the women sigh as she passed. The low v-back and body-hugging mermaid shape, along with her icy blonde beauty, provoked quite a different response from the males in the congregation.

I clutched my single calla lily, watching her entrance with a mixture of awe and disbelief. How had Alexa persuaded me to be her maid of honor, again?

And again.

And yet again.

“Shelby, you’re my good luck charm,” she had cooed while I suffered through the circle of hell known as “trying on bridesmaid dresses.”

“How do you figure that?” I had asked, peeling off a poufy satin monstrosity the color of Mountain Dew. “Every time I’ve been your maid of honor, you’ve gotten divorced!”

“Oh, that has nothing to do with anything. Everything goes off without a hitch when you’re there.”

“Maybe that’s the problem. If I weren’t around, there would be some sort of hitch, and then you wouldn’t be hitched.”

I admired Alexa’s wildly unwavering enthusiasm for weddings, and commitment, and all that “’til death do us part” stuff. Especially since none of her marriages seemed to last very long. Two years was the record so far, and that was because her husband was working overseas for one of those years. Which was supposedly the reason for the end of that union.

That, and the next husband was already in her sights.

When the evil wedding consultant gleefully rolled in another torture rack crammed with dresses for me to endure, I shuddered. “Have you ever thought that maybe, just maybe, marriage isn’t right for you?”

“That one.” Alexa pointed to a strapless hot pink mini-dress that could have worked—if Hooters ever decided to cater weddings. “And why all these concerns? Don’t you like Jordan?”

“Of course I like him, silly. He seems perfect.”

He was handsome, loving, and completely ga-ga for his bride. Alexa told me during our numerous wedding planning get-togethers, which thankfully required a great deal of wine, about Jordan’s great sense of humor, and even greater job. Who wouldn’t want him for a husband? If I were the marrying kind, even I would want him for a husband.

Although, as I recall, Husbands One through Three were pretty darn perfect too.

Alexa smiled, spinning her index finger to indicate I should twirl in front of her. “Maybe, Shelby, you’re afraid all of these weddings will change your mind about marriage.”

“Ha!” I, the eternal bachelorette, scoffed, and quite eloquently. Alexa raised her eyebrow as if debating whether to get out of her chair and start the Heimlich maneuver on me.

In the end, I gave up trying to make Alexa see the multiple incredible benefits to staying single. I’ll probably be her bridesmaid when we’re bunkmates in the nursing home, although by then I’ll be adjusting the tapes of her adult diaper, rather than the tiers of her lace-edged wedding veil. I agreed to be her maid of honor this one last time.

Of course, I didn’t realize when I made the promise this would be Alexa’s final chance to stand at the altar.

At the minister’s signal, Alexa handed me her bouquet of cascading white lilies and then she faced Jordan, ready to promise to love, cherish, and obey the (fourth) man of her dreams. She beamed at him, eliciting a few more wistful sighs behind us at the evidence of true love. Or maybe it was for the handsome groom in his single-breasted designer tuxedo, beaming right back at her.

Reverend Deering asked Alexa to repeat the vows she most likely had memorized several ceremonies ago. I had heard them often enough that I could have stepped in to recite the words if either of them were prevented from completing their duties.

“I, Alexa, take thee Jordan—”

A ray of June sunshine chose that moment to burst through the chapel windows, highlighting the promise contained in the newlyweds’ expressions. Even I felt swept up in the optimism that accompanied each and every one of Alexa’s weddings. My heart beat with hopefulness, and I wondered if someday I would—

Out of nowhere, gunfire erupted, a quick succession of pop, pop, pop.

Screams quickly followed, along with the frantic sounds of the congregation scrambling for shelter under the wooden pews.

“Sonofabitch!” I tossed the bouquet over my shoulder, as I’d seen Alexa do millions of times, and darted toward my suddenly bleeding best friend, knocking her to the floor to prevent any further harm.

I looked up and saw the minister cowering under a pew, tugging at the tulle swag that moments ago had been decoration, not flimsy protection against wayward bullets. My heart pounded while my brain struggled with two wildly different thoughts.

One, the blood spurting from Alexa’s shoulder ensured I would never have to wear this peach-yogurt-colored dress again.

And two, who could possibly hate weddings more than I did?”

FEATURED AUTHOR: Donna Cummings

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‘His Mistletoe Bride’ by Vanessa Kelly

BOOK BLURB: Blame It On The Mistletoe–

When Major Lucas Stanton inherited his earldom, he never dreamed his property would include the previous earl’s granddaughter. Phoebe Linville is a sparkling American beauty, yes, but with a talent for getting into trouble. Witness the compromising position that forced them into wedlock. Whisked away to Mistletoe Manor, his country estate, it isn’t long before she is challenging his rules–and surprising him in and out of bed– 

Phoebe has no intention of bowing to Lucas’s stubbornness even though he offers all that she wants. His kisses and unexpected warmth are enticing, but Phoebe is determined to show the earl of Merritt what real love is all about. And if that takes twelve nights of delicious seduction by a roaring fire, she’s more than willing to reveal her gifts very slowly–

EXCERPT:

The maid led her downstairs and through a simply ornamented entrance hall to the door of the drawing room.  “There, miss.  They’re waiting for you.”

Phoebe nodded, suddenly so nervous her knees shook.  She silently ordered the starch back into her muscles and opened the door.   What she saw brought her up short.

Mrs. Tanner sat in a low chair by the fireplace.  A very tall, broad shouldered man stood opposite her, on the other side of the chimneypiece.  He was very handsome—quite the handsomest man Phoebe had ever seen.  And when his attention, narrowed and intense, jumped to her it struck her with an almost physical force.

Alarm skittered along her nerves.  Absurdly, she had the impulse to back out of the room as quickly as she could.

Silly.  Why be afraid of someone you have never met? 

But as they stared at each other, she sensed some ill-defined peril, and she instinctively knew something dreadful was upon her.

Mrs. Tanner rose from her seat, momentarily splintering the tension.  “Phoebe, please come in.  This is a member of your grandfather’s family, Major Lucas Stanton, come to welcome thee to London.”

Phoebe slowly entered into the room, trying to shake the notion that she was approaching something awful and irrevocable.  The guarded expression on Mrs. Tanner’s face did nothing to dispel that impression.

Major Stanton took a step forward, looming—and looming seemed the only correct description—over her.  He was broad across the chest and shoulders, and every part of him looked hard and muscular.  Phoebe did not make a habit of dissecting the male figure, but he wore a well-tailored dark coat, pale, skin tight breeches, and tall leather boots, all of which showed off every line of his impressive physique.  Just looking at that brawny, masculine strength made her body hum with tension.

Cheeks flushing, she fixed her gaze on his face.  She found it disconcerting too, since his hard-cut, impassive features served as a stark contrast to eyes the color of a stormy sea.  The emotions she thought she perceived in their depths struck her as dangerous as the gales that had bedevilled her trip across the Atlantic.

“Major Stanton,” said Mrs. Tanner, “This is Miss Phoebe Linville.”

Phoebe stared up at him a moment longer, transfixed by his slashing cheekbones and the granite line of his jaw.  All the men she knew were farmers and shopkeepers, simple men who dressed plainly and looked nothing like this man.  Next to them, he resembled…well, she did not know what.  But she knew she had never met anyone like him, though they had yet to exchange even a simple greeting.

His gaze, somber and wary, turned to one of puzzlement, jolting her into motion.  The poor man must think she was a wordless half-wit.

Though Quakers generally made it a point not to bow or curtsy before those of higher station, she dipped low, ignoring Mrs. Tanner’s tsk of disapproval.  Why risk offending the first relative coming to greet her?  “Major Stanton, thank you for coming to meet me.  It was kind you to do so,” she said, offering her hand in greeting.

His big hand closed around hers and he lifted it to his lips, brushing a lingering kiss across her sensitive skin.  The breath seized in her throat.  Quaker men did not go around kissing hands, much less making a show of it.

Fortunately, he returned her hand and her lungs recommenced function.

“Phoebe,” said Mrs. Tanner, sounding horrified, “please sit.”

Her friend nudged her to a sturdy, brown-colored sofa next to the fireplace.  With a severe nod, Mrs. Tanner indicated to the major that he should take the seat facing them.  He did not bother to repress a low sigh as he carefully settled on a small caned chair that gave an alarming creak in response.  The sofa would have been a more appropriate choice for his large frame, but Mrs. Tanner clearly intended to punish him for his forward behavior.

“Major Stanton, how is my grandfather?” Phoebe asked impulsively.  “Did he ask you to fetch me?”

The swift glance he exchanged with Mrs. Tanner brought Phoebe’s anxiety rushing back.  Its chokehold tightened when the older woman reached over and took her hand in a comforting clasp.

“Phoebe, thee must prepare for unfortunate news.  But I ask thee to remember that the Father’s hand is in all things, and that he will watch over thee always.”

Fear swept through her.  “What are you talking about?”

When Mrs. Tanner hesitated, Phoebe shook off her restraining hand and jumped up.  The major rose immediately.

“Please, sir,” she implored.  “Take me to my grandfather.”

Compassion softened the grim lines of his face.  He struck her as a man not much given to that tender emotion, so whatever the cause it must be dire.

He stepped closer, reaching out to take her hand in a gentle grip.  “Miss Linville, you must sit.”   He had a firm, deep voice that held a compelling note of authority.  As it washed over her, she had to resist the impulse to automatically obey.  He smiled, as if to soothe her, and one finger stroked lightly over the back of her hand.  “I’m certain you should have a cup of tea before we have any further discussion.”

Unnerved by his touch, she pulled her hand away.  “I do not want a cup of tea.  I want you to tell me about my grandfather.”

He ran a thoughtful gaze over her face, as if taking her measure.  “Very well.  Miss Linville, it grieves me to inform you that your grandfather—my great uncle, Lord Merritt—died from an infection some weeks ago.  I didn’t write to you, since my letter would not have arrived prior to your departure.  I hope you will believe I would have spared you this trip, if it at all possible.”

A strange buzzing noise arose in her ears, then her knees buckled and she sank onto the sofa.  Her heart throbbed in her chest, straining against the shock.  For a terrible moment, she could not draw a breath.

Mrs. Tanner gasped her name and Major Stanton let out a low curse.  Swiftly, he came down on one knee before her and gripped her shoulders, holding her steady.  Until he touched her, Phoebe had not realized she needed someone to keep her upright.

“Hold her while I get some water,” exclaimed Mrs. Tanner as she rushed from the room.

“Steady on, Miss Linville,” Major Stanton murmured in her ear.  “Just lean against me.”

Coming up onto the sofa, he eased her into his embrace, resting her head against his broad chest.  As if controlled by some unseen force, her eyelids fluttered shut as, for the first time in her life, she found herself in the arms of a man other than her brother or father.  Her morals registered a faint objection, but her body wanted nothing other than to collapse against that solid wall, her cheek nestling comfortably against the soft wool fabric of his coat.  Tumult swirled in her brain, but his gentle embrace staved off the screeching panic that hovered at the edge of thought.

The door opened.  Footsteps hurried across the floorboards, as Mrs. Tanner rustled up to them with a glass of water in her hand.  “Major, thee must allow me to tend to Miss Linville.  Please let her sit up.”

Phoebe flinched at the note of censure in her friend’s voice.  Mrs. Tanner had every right to be offended because Phoebe had no business clinging to a man, no matter what the circumstances.  But she could not help shrinking further into his embrace.  Her stunned brain had latched onto the idea that as long as she remained in his arms she would be safe, that all the hurtful things in the world could not harm her.

Ridiculous, whispered the voice of reason.  She started to pull away, but Major Stanton gently adjusted his hold to keep her close.  Phoebe had to bite down on the whimper of relief that almost escaped her lips.

“I assure you, Mrs. Tanner,” he said, “I will release my cousin as soon as I know she won’t keel over in a dead faint.”

Phoebe frowned.  She never fainted.  And now that her wits were slowly returning, she felt the first flush of humiliation that she had allowed a perfect stranger to hold her so intimately.  Pushing herself upright, she began to withdraw from his arms.  For a second he resisted, keeping her fast in his embrace.  And, for a second, she did not want him to let go.

FEATURED AUTHOR: Vanessa Kelly

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