Excerpt: The Bride's Broken Bond

Excerpt: The Bride's Broken Bond

Book 2: Sacred Bond Series

Chapter One

“Rock’s here.”

“Thank heavens! He’ll know what to do.”

“Dude! It’s about time!”

The murmurs floating through the small gaggle of twenty-somethings in tuxes and gowns put Rock Anderson slightly more at ease, despite his own black t-shirt and jeans. He climbed the steps to the DeMille mansion two at a time, only marginally aware of the limousines that lined the drive and the extravagant flower chains climbing elegant Roman pillars.

Thanks to his benefactor, Samuel DeMille, Rock knew how to act in this world, so many miles away from his own inner-city one.

That didn’t mean he felt at ease there, or liked it. But if someone needed him for something, as Samuel’s urgent gestures indicated, then he’d get through it okay.

Helping out he could do. He was comfortable in that role.

“What’s the problem?” he asked Samuel as soon as he reached the portico. From the corner of his eye he noticed Hope’s mother and more of the wedding party hovering. “Is Hope all right?”

“No, she’s not all right.” The older man cursed and ran a thumb inside his too-tight tuxedo collar. Though he’d made boatloads of money and climbed the social ladder, Hope’s father had been raised in the projects and when he was under stress, it showed. “Rock, you gotta talk some sense into my little dingbat. She listens to you.”

“Brides aren’t supposed to be sensible on their wedding day.” He was pleased at how offhandedly he could make the remark.

And why not? Hope’s marriage was a good thing. Very appropriate. She was marrying her perfect socioeconomic match.

“Hope and Milton had some kind of fight,” explained one of Hope’s sorority sisters. Rock could never remember her name even though he’d bailed her out of jail not once but twice. “She says she can’t go through with the ceremony, and she won’t talk to any of us.”

That wasn’t happiness surging through him. More like anxiety, because here was another Hope problem he had to solve, this one in front of several hundred of Pittsburgh’s elite.

“You go tell her to get herself cleaned up and get down here,” Samuel said. “She has ten minutes. We’ll just do the photographs after the ceremony.”

“Tell her Town and Country is here to cover the reception,” Hope’s mother added with that certain slur in her voice.

Couldn’t she have stayed off the sauce for her only child’s wedding?

“I’m gonna go backhand my future son-in-law for upsetting my baby.” Samuel gave Rock a punch in the arm as he strode past. “Thanks for helping us out.”

It was a sad statement on Hope’s family that they even needed his help. They hadn’t invited him to the wedding—not that he’d have come—but they’d gladly called him to handle their recalcitrant daughter.

Rock looked at Hope’s mother’s watery eyes and decided he wouldn’t get good information there. “Where is she?” he asked the sorority sister.

She waved toward the grand staircase. “Her bedroom. Do you know where it is?”

“Yep.”

He certainly did.

He took those steps two at a time, too. The portraits of family ancestors and the gilt-and-velvet wall coverings blurred as he hurried past.

Fighting the feelings that rose in him at the thought of seeing Hope—for the first time in months—he knocked at her door. “Hey. Open up.”

“No way.” Her sulky voice sounded like the teenagers he worked with.

“It’s Rock. I have to talk to you. Open up or I’ll break the door down, and you know I can do it.”

“You can only come in if you’ll help me.”

He gave the door a big thump, a little bigger than he intended, and it rattled on its hinges. Didn’t begin to break, though. This place was well-built.

The door opened a couple of inches. “You’re not changing my mind,” Hope said from behind it. Her voice sounded hoarse.

“I’m coming in.” He pushed against her slight resistance.

She let go of the door and walked back over to her bed. Flinging herself down on her side, without regard for her wedding dress, she buried her face in a pillow.

Rock followed her, glimpsing his dark-clad hulking self in her white-and-gold vanity mirror, stepping over silky little somethings he didn’t dare study too closely. He sat down on the edge of the bed in the curve made by her slender waist. The springs creaked under his weight, and she shifted back a little, which was good. This wasn’t an occasion for snuggling. Even though Hope clad in white lace looked like every fantasy he’d ever had.

No, this was an occasion for urging the woman of his dreams to marry another man.

And no matter how much it ate at him, Hope’s marriage would be a good thing. She’d move seamlessly into the life she’d been bred for. As for Rock, with Hope safely married, he could put his full concentration into his work.

He touched her hair, brown and glossy, and was glad she hadn’t worn it in some kind of hairsprayed ‘do. His hand wanted to linger, but he pulled it back.

“Hey,” he said, getting down to business, “what’s going on? You’ve got a couple of hundred people downstairs waiting to help you celebrate your big day.”

“I’m not doing it.”

“Why not?”

“I can’t. Something’s happened.”

He let his hand tickle her neck. “You’re being silly,” he said in the same tone he’d used when he was an older teen and she was in grade school. “And you know what happens to silly girls?”

“Don’t you dare!” She rolled over onto her back, away from him, and met his eyes for the first time.

Her brown eyes were swollen. And a red mark slashed across her cheek.

Dangerous rage rose in him. “Who hit you?”

Her hand flew to cover her cheek, stayed there to trace the welt gingerly. “Um, it’s nothing. Someone was drinking and flailing around. I should have ducked it, but I wasn’t at my best.”

“Hope, if Milton’s been—”

“It was an accident, okay? Just me being klutzy. End of story.”

Given Hope’s crazy lifestyle, he decided to believe her. And not to lecture her, because there were more immediate problems to solve. “Your dad’s very upset. Worried about you.”

Hope’s eyes darkened. “He’s worried about me? What, my delicate feelings? Give me a break.”

“I’m sure he’s worried.” Honesty compelled him to add, “Plus, he’s dropped a lot of money on this event, and he’s got two hundred potential investors looking at their watches down there. So up we go…” He took hold of Hope’s arms, “and let’s get you married.”

She got an expression on her face that he’d always loved, ever since she was a girl. She’d worn it learning to play one-on-one basketball with him; she’d worn it putting her mother to bed after a particularly hard-drinking evening; once she’d even worn it to stand up to her father, when he was verbally abusing a young cleaning woman. It was a particular set of her lip that said “I can be strong when it matters. I can do this.”

But this time, the set lip trembled. She looked away from him, staring out the window.

If she was that upset, the problem was serious. Rock’s arms folded around her, and his hands went into a pat-and-stroke pattern as involuntary as the beating of his own heart.

Which had just picked up its pace considerably.

Although they hadn’t gotten this close in two years, he still remembered how it felt to hold her. She was so delicate compared to any other woman he’d ever touched. She smelled like orange blossoms. The smoothness of her skin rivaled the satin she wore.

Part of him, the bad part, wanted to stay there the rest of his life, holding Hope.

But he put her away from him, pushing temptation to arm’s length. “You’ve made a commitment to Milton, and you have to go through with it. Come on, Hope.”

“He d-d-d… Give me a tissue, will you?”

He pulled out his bandana-style handkerchief and handed it to her, wincing as she blew her nose with a loud honk. So much for delicacy.

“He doesn’t even want to marry me.” She wiped her eyes and took deep breaths.

“What kind of impossible test did you set for him?”

“He loves somebody else.”

“That’s ridiculous.” Rock wavered between wanting to sucker punch the upper crust twit who’d put that hurt expression into Hope’s eyes, and discounting her claim entirely. How could any man who had the opportunity to marry Hope even look at another woman?

“Would you just listen? I sneaked over to the North wing to see him before the ceremony. I know it’s supposed to be bad luck to see your groom beforehand, but something happened, and I wanted to talk to him about it.”

“Uh-huh.” Why were women so roundabout with their stories? Rock checked the time on Hope’s phone, wondering how long he could tolerate sitting in this intimate position. Hanging out on a woman’s bed might be no big deal among Hope’s ultra-cool friends, but where Rock came from, it meant action. He felt like the proverbial moth drawn closer and closer to a dangerous flame.

“So there was Milt with another woman. And he was saying, ‘It’s my only chance. Look around you, look at all this. You know Dad’s company is near bankruptcy.’ And she was crying and saying ‘it doesn’t matter, don’t marry her,’ and he was saying, ‘I’m sorry, babe, I’m sorry.’” She paused, then spoke again. “What got me was that he was crying, too.”

“You’re kidding.” Rock got up and paced back and forth in a small stretch of carpet that was clear of fallen lace and lingerie. “Are you sure you understood the situation right?”

“He’s in love with her.” Hope’s voice was glum. “I could tell.”

“And you saw no sign of this before? In the, what was it, three years of dating? And weren’t you engaged?”

“Three years off and on,” Hope defended herself. “I was away at school a lot of that time. He gave me a ring last Christmas, but we weren’t in any rush to make wedding plans. Then Mom and Dad sprung this stupid graduation present on me…”

“What graduation present?”

“That they’d planned my whole wedding and sent out invitations.” Her restless fingers picked at the pearls sewn onto her dress. “Milton went abroad right after that and only got back two weeks ago. Everything’s been so crazy since then. I never found the time to sit down with him and talk.” Her attempt at a smile looked stretched. “Typical brilliance on my part.”

Rock let her self-deprecation go and asked the real question. “Maybe I’m missing something. Why did you agree to marry this guy?”

“Oh, you know me. Only the smartest of reasons. I wanted to get married. And Daddy really wanted me to. And Milton loves kids.” Her face softened, and then it got sad. “He just doesn’t love me.”

“Good Lord.” He looked heavenward, needing assistance. It was crucial to his peace of mind and his work that Hope get married. Then she’d be absolutely, completely off limits. Then his foolish fantasies could be laid to rest. Her wedding was to put the last brick into the wall that separated them.

“I know, I know, I was stupid!” She rubbed the back of her neck and then rotated her shoulders. Rock could tell she was trying to pull herself back to her usual cool, carefree self. Trying to have grace under pressure. It was a noble effort, but why on earth had she let things go this far?

“You were both acting stupid,” he said. “Marriage is serious.”

“Like you know so much about marriage, Mr. Perfect.”

“I know enough not to do it.” Especially with someone as mixed up and purposeless as you. He squatted down before her where she sat on the edge of the bed. “Your Dad thinks Milton’s a great guy. How could he be so wrong? Did you tell him what you overheard?”

“I did.” She stared at her satin-covered knees. “He told me to grow up, that a marriage isn’t like a movie, a lot of marriages are made for financial and business reasons. He told me our family has a lot riding on this merger.”

He tried not to show his anger. “He called it a merger?”

She nodded.

“Your mom?”

Hope shrugged. “Mom took me aside and said, ‘Marry the right man.’ And then she started drinking.”

Rock closed his eyes and shook his head, wondering what to do.

He was here to convince Hope to go through with her marriage. Samuel had done a lot for Rock during his troubled teenage years, had paid part of his college tuition on the expectation that Rock would help him expand his real-estate business into lower-end markets. Since that hadn’t worked out, Rock felt even more obligated to fulfill the rest of his and Samuel’s unspoken bargain by keeping Hope out of trouble and getting her to toe her father’s line. Samuel had his reasons for this “merger,” as he called it, and he expected Rock to support him.

Besides, if he didn’t support Samuel, Samuel wouldn’t support FaithWorks. And twenty inner-city teens would spend the summer on the streets.

He might be able to convince Hope to go through with the wedding. She generally respected his opinions, and right now she was confused and vulnerable. The trouble was, from what he was hearing, he didn’t think the marriage had a chance.

But if he helped her get away, he’d betray both his benefactor and his own work.

Not to mention adding fuel to a flame that would be far, far better doused.

“Did you talk to your pastor?” he asked, buying time.

She snorted. “Please. Mom made me choose Reverend Dunn because he marries everyone who’s anyone. He wouldn’t have time to do any pastoral counseling. In fact, this delay is probably making him late to his next event.”

Rock thought of his own pastor—intense, street-smart, and concerned about every aspect of his parishioners’ lives.

One more reason not to envy Hope.

One more reason to help her. She had no one else. “What do you want to do?” he asked her.

Hope flopped backward on the bed and stared at the ceiling, and Rock sat back down, carefully, a couple of feet away from her.

“I don’t know! I can’t believe this is happening. I can’t believe all these people are here. And Dad’s probably right, it probably is the best I’m going to get. I mean, what else am I going to do if I don’t get married?” She met Rock’s eyes. “It’s not like I have a lot of job skills.”

“So you’d marry a man for lack of anything better to do?”

“Oh, gee, thanks for making me sound as shallow as…” She frowned for a split-second and then her eyes flew to his, stricken. “As I am. I don’t want to be this shallow!”

He raised his eyebrows and waited while she processed what she’d just said.

Finally she shook her head. “I can’t marry him. I won’t.”

Rock let out his breath. “Good for you.”

“Be my hero?” she asked, cocking her head to one side. “Just once more?”

He felt his face twist into a half-smile. “I said I wouldn’t do that again.”

“I know.” Her voice was quiet, and they were still looking into each other’s eyes, and Rock could see that she remembered the last rescue.

He remembered, too.

Oh, yeah.

After that, he’d sworn to stay away from her, and he’d kept that promise for two years. He’d thrown himself into FaithWorks, and he’d created something that mattered, something with a much bigger significance than the problems of a silly rich girl who hadn’t taken the time to get to know her fiancé.

Except this silly rich girl was Hope.

“Please? Help me just once more?” She bit her full, pretty lips. “You know how Daddy is. He’ll drag me down the aisle.”

Unfortunately, that was true. Samuel DeMille had been good to Rock, but Rock wasn’t blind to the man’s multiple faults. He was greedy and domineering and opportunistic. It didn’t surprise Rock that he viewed his daughter’s marriage as a merger.

No one should be forced into marriage. And, knowing Hope, she probably couldn’t extricate herself from this situation alone.

He let out his breath in a sigh. “Okay,” he said. “I’ll go downstairs and get my car. I’ll be right in front with the engine running. I want you to sit here and think for a couple of minutes about what you’re doing, and then come on down and make your choice.”

“I already know my choice, Rock. I’m sure—”

He put a finger to her lips to silence her, and then, because of the way his finger wanted to caress those lips, he pulled his hand back. “Think a little more, Hope. If you run away today, you're leaving behind this lifestyle.” He waved a hand around the elegant bedroom.

“I don’t care—”

“I know, but think. Your father isn’t going to pay your rent and your credit card bills and the lease on that cute little BMW. He’ll be very angry.”

He didn’t add that Samuel would also suspect Rock of having designs on his daughter. Or that he’d pull out as a major donor for FaithWorks.

Or that driving away from this wedding with Hope in his car would be the stupidest mistake he’d ever made, in a life that held its fair share of them.

Maybe she’d choose to stay. If she did, that would be best. Though it would mean she wasn’t the woman he hoped she was, the bighearted, generous person he sometimes glimpsed behind her party-girl image.

Still, she was spoiled. “Think about what you’d have to give up, Hope.”

 

* * * * *

 

As soon as Rock left, Hope jumped up from the bed, fueled by some odd combination of relief, nerves, and sheer, excited terror. She washed her face and straightened her dress and applied fresh makeup, using a thick concealer to cover the welt on her face.

Beside the mirror, a framed snapshot of herself with Milton made her pause. She picked it up and studied it.

They’d been skiing in Aspen, and had fallen down, and someone had captured them lying together in the snow. They weren’t touching.

If that had been Rock, he’d have been touching her—helping her up, or brushing her off, or…something.

Warmth from the very core of her spread upward, heating her face. What was she thinking? Rock would never go skiing. That wasn’t the kind of thing he did.

As she fastened her veil, she heard a tap at the door.

“Hope? It’s me, Tiff. Rock says you’re feeling better?”

“Come on in.” Tiffany was the only one of her friends who’d grown up as rich as she had, and who knew most—not all, but most—of her family’s secrets.

Tiffany came up behind Hope and straightened her veil. “You’re going through with it?”

“No.” She met her friend’s eyes in the mirror. “I’m faking out Dad, and then running away with Rock.”

“You are?” The ladylike Tiffany actually squealed, and she slapped her hand over her mouth. “Oh my gosh, I always knew you guys had a thing for each other, but I didn’t think—”

Hope spun so quickly that she dislocated her veil again. “It’s not like that. He’s just helping me get away. He’s just Rock, you know?”

“Uh-huh, if you say so.” Tiffany gave her a skeptical look as she adjusted her veil for the second time. “What about Milt? Are you upset?”

Hope considered the question. She wasn’t nearly as upset as she should be, and that said a lot. In fact, she felt more like she was breaking out of prison. “It’s too long of a story. I’ve got to move fast.”

“What do you need me to do?” Tiffany glanced in the mirror. “Gosh, we look so great in our dresses, too!”

“You’re right, we do. What a waste.”

They met each other’s eyes and giggled. Then Hope started laughing harder. Then Tiffany did. And then they doubled over, arms around each other.

So this is how it feels to be hysterical. About to lose it entirely, Hope gripped Tiffany’s arm. “Help me think. What do I need to take?”

“Credit cards,” Tiffany advised.

“Oh, right.” She shifted a handful from her regular purse into the beaded white one that went with her dress. “Won’t Dad think it’s weird if I’m carrying this?”

“He’ll be too mad to notice.”

Packing her tiny wedding purse led to the low-grade anxiety she always felt leaving the house, and when she identified its source, her stomach twisted hard. “What about Mom?”

“You’re worried about her?”

“I’m afraid Dad will take it out on her.”

Tiffany thought. “Could she, like, join the cruise with my mom and I? We’re leaving tomorrow. I’m sure there’s extra cabins.”

“Hmm, maybe. But Dad won’t pay for it if he doesn’t think she should go.” But Tiffany’s idea had given her one. “I’ll figure it out,” she said. “Tell everyone I’ll be right down.”

Tiffany embraced her. “Take care of yourself. Leave a message with our housekeeper about where you end up, and I’ll call the moment we get home.” Tiffany tapped off in her high heels to spread the message that Rock had saved the day again.

Hope took one long, last look around her chaotic bedroom. She’d expected to be leaving for an elegant honeymoon in Italy, and then Milton’s luxury condo where they planned to live until children came.

At that point they’d planned to buy a house with a big yard…

Unexpected tears pushed at the backs of her eyes as that particular fantasy died. She realized she’d looked forward to the children more than life with Milton. Raising kids would be something worthwhile to do with her life. And she’d definitely do a better job at it than her own mother…

Or would you? her inner critic, who sounded a lot like her father, asked. You were certainly being a fool about the marriage.

Shame and self-loathing, her longtime companions, started to gnaw at her, but years of experience reminded her how to tamp them down. Get moving. Do something, anything, fast.

She opened the bedroom door.

From the front of the house she could hear the string quartet launching into the same Mozart Sonata they’d been playing an hour ago. How many times had the audience heard that?

She also heard her father’s voice, raised in anger.

Her stomach tightened. It was so hard to defy him. For most of her life she hadn’t had the courage.

Slowly she walked toward the head of the stairs, straightening her spine, lifting her chin.

If she escaped today, she was going to make something of herself. She was going to get strong, so strong that she’d be a decent role model for kids someday, so strong that she could really help her mother repair her miserable life. She’d never again let other people—whether her father or some other controlling male, like Rock Anderson, for example—push her in a direction she didn’t want to go.

Taking a deep, bracing breath, she started down the stairs.

Her father waited at the bottom. Despite the wedding party that crowded the house’s entryway, he stood alone, fury in his eyes. He’d punish her for this.

She straightened her spine again. “I want to talk to Mom.”

“Your mother is about to get walked down the aisle. Half an hour late, thanks to you.”

“Please, Daddy?” She hated the childish sound of her voice, but she knew it worked better than outright defiance. If I get out of here, I’m going to stop doing that, she decided.

“Aw, that’s sweet,” Tiffany said. “She wants last words of advice from her mother. Mrs. DeMille, c’mere.”

Thank you, Tiffany. She pulled her unsteady mother to the anteroom beside the main hall.

“Mom,” she said, “we’ve got to find somewhere for you to go for a while.”

“Why?”

“Daddy.” She hesitated, then said, “He’s about to get really upset.”

Her mother drew herself up. “I can handle your father.”

Hope’s heart ached at the fragile dignity in her mother’s voice. “I know you can,” she lied, “but just humor me, okay?”

She peered through glass windows into the main hall. Among the restless guests, Aunt Kate sat right up front. “Listen. When the usher takes you in, ask to be seated next to Aunt Kate. As soon as you sit down, tell her you want to come visit her for a while.”

“Are you actually considering…” The last word came out “con-shid-er-ing.”

“I’m really considering. Will you go with Aunt Kate?”

Her mother met her eyes. “All right. If it will make you feel better.”

Staring into the misery and resignation just below her mother’s drunkenness, Hope wondered why she’d ever wanted to get married. Her parents certainly hadn’t provided a good example of the institution.

But she knew why. One reason, the one she admitted to, was children. The other reason, the one she could hardly acknowledge even to herself, was escape.

Impulsively she pulled her mother close. “I’ll come back and help you as soon as I get it together.”

“Hope!” her father called.

She led her mother out of the anteroom. “We’re coming, Daddy.” She delivered her mother to the waiting usher, leaning close to whisper to both of them. “Remember. You sit by Aunt Kate.”

As the string quartet swung into some kind of march, Hope watched her mother walk in. Six bridesmaids lined up to follow.

Hope looked toward the front of the hall to see Milton. Slim and handsome in his tux, he stretched his neck to one side, then the other. He looked uncomfortable, and she wondered how long he’d been standing there. Half an hour?

But she realized, with sudden clarity, that she’d never really loved him. Examining her heart now, she didn’t find much besides general human sympathy for someone who was about to experience something really embarrassing.

She felt so odd—like a frozen place inside her was just starting to thaw.

And then, finally, she let herself look back out the doors, flung open to let in the warm, fragrant late-spring breeze.

Leaning against his modest black sedan, legs wide, bodybuilder arms crossed over his chest, dark hair blowing across his forehead, was Rock.

And what, what on earth, was that surge of delight in her heart?

Rock was too bossy and too moralistic, in some ways more overbearing than her father. He thought of her as a child and often treated her that way. He belonged to a world she didn’t understand.

It must be stress-induced insanity that made her want to throw herself into his arms.

Her father caught her looking. “What’s Anderson doing out there?” He strode back to the door. “Hey, Anderson! What are you waiting for? There’s a wedding about to start.”

She was behind her father, and he reached to take her arm while Rock put a hand to his ear, pantomiming that he couldn’t hear what Samuel was saying.

She’d waited too long. Her father’s hand was tightening on her arm, and she knew he was capable of literally forcing her into the hall to get married. She cast a desperate look at her maid of honor.

Tiffany came back toward them. “Hope! It’s time for me to go down the aisle. Let me hug you, honey. You know I want the best for you.” She pulled Hope away from her father and gave her a fierce hug.

“Tiff, can you—” she whispered.

“If you’re going to do it,” Tiffany hissed in her ear, “do it now.”

Hope didn’t wait for further encouragement. “I’ll go get Rock!” she called, and ran out through the doors.

“Not in that dress, you little fool! That cost me—”

When her father’s shout broke off Hope glanced back and saw that he’d gotten entangled in the long train of Tiffany’s maid-of-honor dress.

“If you leave now, I’m through with both of you,” he father bellowed.

Rock opened the passenger door for her.

For the first time in her life, Hope felt free. She meant to stay that way, too.