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Runaway to Romance

Book 1 in Wedding Town Romances

“Southern ladies didn’t make a scene. Her mother would tell her to march her hiney back into that church and marry the man.”

Cassie’s in her wedding dress and ready to walk down the aisle. Minutes later, she’s a runaway bride on her way to nowhere. Two Hearts, Tennessee, fits that description perfectly.

She’s also a wedding planner. When someone in her profession is a runaway bride, the story’s so sweet that she needs to stay hidden for a while.

Greg returned to Two Hearts to be the sheriff after years as a big city cop—and his fiancée dumping him. He’s living over the garage at his mother’s house (how did that happen?) and just doing his job.

Then he gets a call about a redhead in the diner wearing a wedding dress.

His life and the town are turned upside down.

Cassie wants to help Two Hearts while she’s hiding from her ex-groom and the media. She may have some ideas to give a boost to the dying town.

Cassie has a thriving business in Nashville. Greg’s tied to Two Hearts.

Will she be able to help the town AND avoid falling for the sheriff? The town, maybe. The sheriff? She’s pulled closer to his heart every minute she’s there.

Author’s Note: A runaway bride. A charming small town. Laughter and fun. A hero who has to stay. A heroine who needs to leave. Sweet and clean.

Chapter One

Cassie jumped over the church pew and raced toward the exit, dodging well-wishers. She launched through the church doors and knocked down the groom’s best friend. He yelped and scrambled out of her way. She took the stairs sideways so she wouldn’t break her neck on the high heels Bella had talked her into and reached the curb at the exact moment the limo pulled away.

Waving her arms and yelling, she hoped the driver checked his rearview mirror. When he turned the corner at the next street and vanished from sight, she knew she had a problem.

Well, two problems.

Her groom had cheated on her. And she had no way to get out of here to save herself from the chaos that would ensue when her mother learned she’d run.

With Sandra Van Bibber, it was all about the show. Southern ladies didn’t make a scene. She’d tell Cassie to march her hiney back into that church and marry the man.

A motorcycle roared down the street and stopped in front of her. It was as though God had sent her an exit plan.

The man pulled off his helmet and stared in confusion at the woman in the wedding dress.

“Hi, I’m Michael.” He held out his hand. “I hope I’m not late to the wedding.”
At her puzzled expression, he added, “Jonathan’s boss.”

She nodded slowly. He knew her former groom well, so he’d have no qualms about loaning his motorcycle. Cassie glanced over her shoulder toward the church doors as her mother stepped out.

“I need to get out of here.” When she made the mistake of making eye contact with her mother, the woman moved swiftly toward her—as swiftly as could be elegantly achieved.

Now! She pointed at the motorcycle. “Can I borrow that?”

He gripped the handlebars more tightly and stared at her as though she’d lost her mind. “I can’t loan my bike to an unlicensed driver.”

Cassie dug in her bag. If her mother had worn flats, she’d be here by now, but thankfully, she’d go to her grave in heels. “Here.” Cassie held up her motorcycle license. The one she’d used once for the biker-themed wedding last September.

With one longing glance at his motorcycle, he climbed off. “Okay. I guess I can trust someone who’s marrying my top employee.”

Not in this lifetime.

Cassie climbed on, hiking her dress up to her knees to keep fabric out of the spokes.

He handed her his helmet, which she slipped on as she heard the shouted words, “Cassandra Van Bibber!” No one except her mother called her Cassandra. She hit the gas. Talk about a narrow escape.

An older woman stepped into the crosswalk, and Cassie hit the brakes. The woman glared at her as only a grandmother could before moving again. Cassie waved and sheepishly smiled.

Lesson learned: don’t kill anyone when you escape a wedding fiasco.

Glancing over her shoulder, she saw a man and woman running down the sidewalk toward her. Only her mother could wear that shade of green well, so that meant her parents were on their way.

The words “Don’t you dare do this to me!” floated to her over the gruff engine sounds.

With the senior citizen safely across the road, Cassie accelerated and left the scene of the crime.

His crime, not hers.

She always felt calmer when surrounded by countryside, so she put Nashville’s skyline in her rearview mirror. Her time with Jonathan replayed itself as she headed toward open, green spaces.

After a brief but wonderful get-to-know-you period, the two of them had decided to get married. He’d suggested eloping. Cassie had had problems with that. First, she was a wedding planner, so she would have been setting a bad example. Who wanted a formal wedding planned by someone who didn’t believe in them? Second, her mother would have pitched a hissy fit.

At thirty, Cassie had long since stopped trying to please her mother at every turn. But she could already hear her comments at every family gathering through the end of time: “This is my daughter, who didn’t think enough of her family to have a wedding we could all attend,” or some variation of that.

An image of Jonathan popped into her mind. He had been sweet and loving.

It had all been an act.

“Jerk. Jerk. Jerk!” she shouted as she roared down the street and turned onto a two-lane highway.

Subdivisions became scattered houses, then open fields with single farmhouses and barns. She could feel her blood pressure dropping as tension melted away.

Then she remembered her morning, and it slammed into her again like a freight train.

**

She’d floated around her condo this morning and fixed her smoothie—the only thing she had felt like eating with the excitement of the day already filling her. Then her best friend Bella drove her and her dress to the church for the early afternoon wedding. Her mother had decided that the mother of the bride should arrive in a limo, but she’d conceded that the driver should return to take the newlyweds to the airport after the reception.

Her bridesmaids crowded around in their pink-confection dresses until her mother had cleared the room so “the bride could prepare.” An updo by a hair stylist made her feel special compared to her usual ponytail. Then makeup by a professional had done wonders for the dark circles brought on by the usual nerves. Bella stayed to help her into her wedding gown.

The barely off-white dress suited her vibrant red hair, fair skin, and brown eyes much better than white had when she’d tried on Bella’s sample dresses. Her friend’s custom design had surprised her with its elegant simplicity. Cassie’s mom had wanted a ball gown, but she’d been brought around to the fit-and-flare style her daughter had preferred.

The sheer sleeves gave it a sweet touch, and the beaded bodice with lace added the elegance. The bodice met satin at the waist, and the skirt flared out to the floor, where it had the same length all around instead of a train. And Bella had surprised her with a hidden pocket on each side, “in case you have essentials to carry.” You had to love a friend who knew you that well.

That friend stood beside her at the mirror. “You look beautiful!”

Cassie stared into the mirror, and a vision in almost-white stared back. Though the woman didn’t look like her, she did look great. Grinning, she spun, tottering on the ultra high heels.

“I’m so happy!”

Bella clapped her hands with glee. “I’m so happy for you. Just the smallest bit jealous, but still happy.”

“I’d hug you, but I’d probably mess this up.” One more glance in the mirror confirmed that she made a beautiful bride. “I wonder what Jonathan looks like in his tux.”

“Girl, he looks good in jeans and a T-shirt. I’m sure he’ll knock your socks off. And other things later tonight.” She waggled her eyebrows.

“Stop that!” Cassie swatted at her friend’s arm. So far, her plans for the day had gone well, but what if her groom was facing problems she didn’t know about? The tux might not fit right or a button could have fallen off. She usually knew everything about a client’s wedding down to the tiniest detail.

Her wedding-planner tote bag lay off to the side. It held everything she might need for a wedding and had saved her on too many occasions to count. It also had her phone tucked into a side pocket. “I think you’re going to try to talk me out of my next idea.” She pasted on her best smile. “Isabella—”

“Ooh, that smile and the use of my full first name means trouble is coming.”

Cassie placed her hand on her chest in her best Scarlet O’Hara gesture. “Why, whatever do you mean?”

Bella fixed her eyes on her. “Just tell me what the idea is.”

“I want to make sure Jonathan’s tux fits and that there aren’t any problems.”

“The groom isn’t supposed to see the bride before the wedding.” Bella crossed her arms in defiance.

“I don’t want him to see me. What if—and give this time to sink in before answering—I pushed open the door to the groom’s room, held up my phone, and snapped a photo without him knowing it?”

This time, her friend’s expressive eyebrows shot upward. “That’s just wrong. I’m not going to let you do that, Cassie.”

“Why is it wrong? It isn’t as though I won’t see him in a matter of—” she pulled out her phone “—fifteen minutes, anyway.”

Bella paced across the room, turned, and came back. After a moment’s hesitation, she said, “I’m in.”

When she started for the door, Cassie grabbed her tote bag and followed her.

Her friend put her arm out to stop her. “Why are you taking that? Leave that beast of a bag behind.”

“No way. I may need to fix a crisis on my way from here to there and back.”

Bella chuckled. “Always-Ready Cassie. Remember when the girls in college called you that?”

“At least they meant it in a nice way.” Cassie glanced over her shoulder as she stepped into the vestibule toward the group of bridesmaids and groomsmen clustered to the side, talking.

Good. Jonathan should be alone. The groom’s room was around the corner and had side access to the front of the church so he could reach it and be waiting for his bride when she walked down the aisle.

Carefully turning the old-fashioned doorknob, she felt the door move as it released. She slowly pushed it open a few inches, enough to hold up her phone in the opening, and scanned the room for her groom.

She found him to the left with one of her bridesmaids, a cousin he’d said was like a sister to him. He’d asked her to make Giselle part of the wedding. Cassie pushed the button to start recording a video and watched as his “sister” leaned closer and kissed him. Not a sweet, sisterly kiss, but a full-on kiss with heat behind it.

Jonathan laughed and wrapped his arms around Giselle, tugging her close. Then he leaned in, put his mouth on hers, and kissed her back deeply.

Cassie’s heart stopped, and the phone slipped, but she sucked in a breath, caught the phone, and continued filming.

With Jonathan’s arms still around Giselle, he leaned back and said, “You can’t be caught here.”

“One more.” She moaned as she leaned in.

Jonathan stepped away. “We’re so close to the finish line. I don’t want to mess this up.”

Giselle pouted.

“Remember her father’s money.”

At that, she smiled and kissed him on his cheek, then sashayed away with a swing in her hips. “Just remember the money tonight.”

“I’ll be thinking about it—and you—the whole time.”

After Giselle blew Jonathan a kiss as she exited a door on the opposite side of the room, Jonathan checked his appearance in the mirror and smoothed his recently mussed hair while whistling a happy tune.

Anger surged through Cassie. He’d lied about everything. Nothing about their relationship was true.

She shoved her phone in her bag and raced for the door.

**

The motorcycle ate up the miles, and she got farther and farther away from the city, Jonathan, and everything associated with him. When a cow moseyed onto the road in front of her, she squealed to a stop. Unfortunately, the cow was in even less of a hurry than the old lady had been earlier.

When Bossy had crossed enough of the road to let Cassie drive around her, Cassie gave a glance to the dashboard—or whatever it was called on a motorcycle—and saw that the gas tank was dangerously low. She was in the middle of nowhere, as far as gas stations went.

Mile after mile of farmland, pockets of trees, and charming farmhouses passed by, but nothing that resembled a town and modern conveniences. Finally, a green sign with the distance to a town appeared. She slowed to read it: Two Hearts, 5 miles.

She’d lost her heart, but it seemed they had a lot of love in the next town. She’d be okay if she could put gas in the tank, and surely any place big enough to warrant a highway sign would be big enough to have a gas station. She also hoped there would be someone who knew how to put gas in the tank because she didn’t have a clue where the tank even was, let alone how much to put in.

The promised distance later, she slowed again and tilted her head to the side to read the words on the faded wooden sign that hung sideways: Welcome to Two Hearts. At least that’s what she assumed the barely there words said based on the earlier sign.

The houses became closer and closer together, all of them fairly small and not showing a lot of signs of prosperity. The yards were often overgrown, the buildings covered with faded or peeling paint.

She slowed as a gas station appeared up ahead. Then she saw the boarded-up windows and Closed sign on the awning over the pumps. A few blocks later, a small grocery store with a single gas pump out front came into view. As she pulled in to the parking lot, the motorcycle sputtered once, then again, and died.

“Made it just in time.” Cassie slid off the back of the motorcycle and tugged her wedding dress back to the ground, staggering on her heels after riding for so long. As she wheeled the bike over to the gas pump, she noticed that there wasn’t a soul at the grocery store or anywhere in the parking lot. She checked her watch. Ten minutes after six on a Saturday.

The gas station should still be open, right? Standing in front of the lone pump, she discovered it was not. It turned out that her lack of knowledge about putting gas in the tank was irrelevant. This motorcycle had just become worthless. Worse than that, she needed to take care of it so she could return it to its owner.

Her grandmother had liked talking about the “good old days.” Those had included the ability to knock on a stranger’s door. They trusted you, would invite you inside, and would provide help if needed. Long before cell phones had brought roadside assistance to almost anywhere, people had relied on each other.

Cassie wasn’t sure what she’d discover if she tried that here. She wasn’t even sure where here was. Was she still in Tennessee? Had she crossed a state line?

She stared at the small store in front of her. No gas. No groceries? She was officially stuck in a small town in the middle-of-nowhere Tennessee. What had the sign said? Two Hearts. She wheeled the motorcycle behind the building and parked it out of sight.

Since she had to either sleep here or see what was up the road, she walked ahead. With every step, the high heels got more and more ridiculous. A motel sign came into focus. As she grew closer, she could see that the motel was one of those old-fashioned ones that had a main office and separate cottages. She’d seen one of these once in an old movie with Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert.

When she got close enough to actually see the front of the building, she felt like shouting with glee. A lit Vacancy sign in the window welcomed her. Surely no place would be closed if they had turned the sign on.

Cassie dragged her feet the short distance it took to get inside. Then she took off her high heels and threw them in her tote bag, thankful her dress hid her feet. Her engagement ring sparkled in the sun. She tugged it off and tossed it in her bag, too. That wouldn’t be needed again.

No one was at the desk, so she tapped the bell on the counter. Please, please, please let someone be here.

A woman’s voice called from the back, “I’ll be there in just a minute, Earl.”

Less than a minute later, a dark-haired woman about Cassie’s age stepped through the doorway and froze. “Oh, I’m sorry. I thought you were Earl Finnegan.”

“No. I’m sorry I’m not the man you were hoping for.”

The woman giggled. “I’m not sure Earl is the man anyone’s hoping for.” When she grinned, Cassie felt the first moment of lightness since she’d leaped over the church pew. Maybe this woman would be kind and able to help her.

“I guess I need a room for the night.”

The woman cocked her head to the side. Speaking slowly, she said, “You’re not sure?”

“I’m not sure about a lot of things right now. If there’s any place to get gas—”

The woman shook her head. “There won’t be anything open around here until Monday at 7:00 a.m.”

Jonathan’s boss would probably not be happy about having his motorcycle missing for two days—not that there was anything she could do about it. She didn’t even have a way to contact the man. Monday might work out better for returning it, anyway, since she only had one parking space at her condo, and she could drive the bike directly to his office building. One piece of truth in their relationship was that she knew where Jonathan worked.

“Then I guess I need a room for two nights.”

When the woman sucked in a breath and seemed to hesitate, Cassie said, “Please tell me you have a room, Ms. . . .”

“I’m Randi. And that’s not it. Almost every room in the place is available. It’s just that I have one room ready for Earl. I’m not sure how long it will take me to get another one ready.” She shrugged. “Maybe he won’t need it tonight. Why don’t I put you in there, and I’ll start cleaning another place in case he does stop by.”

Why would a man stop by for a motel room? Was this a motel where people came for illicit affairs? Glancing around, she found the décor too attractive for the business to be that unsavory.

Either she was exhausted or this woman was confusing. Probably both. Cassie rubbed her eyes and leaned her elbows against the counter. “Anything is fine. I probably shouldn’t bother asking this, but is there somewhere I can buy some clothes and other basics?”

The woman leaned over the counter and checked the floor around Cassie. “No luggage?” She asked in a tone that made it sound as if she were questioning Cassie’s sanity at the same time Cassie was wondering about the other woman’s.

“I left in a hurry. Don’t worry. I’m not a wanted criminal.” That was the truth. Well, nothing was wanted except her money, and it wasn’t even hers yet. She wasn’t even sure she would accept her inheritance. It would have been a surprise to Jonathan if he’d married her for the cash, and she’d turned her dad down when it had come time to give it to her.

Randi lifted a key off of a rack. “Follow me. You can park your vehicle in front of your unit.”

“My vehicle is a motorcycle, and I parked behind the grocery store when there wasn’t any way to put gas in it.”

The hotel clerk stopped and turned around. “You pushed it down the road and into the gas station?”

“No. I actually ran out of gas as I pulled in.”

“This is your lucky day!” The woman continued walking as Cassie stood there.

Lucky day? Make that worst. Day. Ever.

They walked past several buildings, all in good repair, and then the woman stopped in front of one. Randi opened the door to the cottage, and Cassie was immediately charmed by what she saw. It felt like she’d stepped back into that 1940s movie. All the furniture was vintage and in great shape—probably because early owners had bought it new for the motel. There was even a small kitchenette in the corner. She peered into another room and found a tiny bathroom with a shower.

“This is quite nice.”

Randi beamed. “I’ve tried to do what I could with the place. I put on new roofs last summer.”

“New roofs? By yourself?”

The woman waved her hand in front of her face. “Of course not.”

Cassie envisioned a team of roofers.

“My brother helped me some.”

Cassie stared at her, dumbfounded. What strange place had she come to?

“There isn’t any food in the fridge, of course. And as you saw, the grocery store is closed.”

“That’s okay. I can just go out to dinner to get a bite to eat if there’s something within walking distance.”

The woman didn’t dispute that option by saying nothing was open, so Cassie’s hopes rose for a decent meal.

“As to your other question: there’s nowhere good to shop in this town and nothing open over the weekend. We have a consignment store that’s open three days a week. The next one of those won’t be until Wednesday.” She stared at her. “You can’t exactly walk around in that, though, can you.” Her words came out as a statement, not a question. Randi stared a little longer before saying in an exasperated tone, “I’m sorry. I just have to ask. Is that a wedding dress you’re wearing?”

Cassie shrugged. “It is. I was supposed to get married this morning.” The sadness of the situation caught up with her for the first time, maybe because she was tired now and the anger had held it at bay. “It didn’t go as planned.”

She could tell that this woman wanted to ask more. Who wouldn’t? “By the way, what state is this?”

After an odd look that Cassie couldn’t quite put her finger on, Randi answered, “Tennessee. Where did you think this was?”

“I honestly couldn’t remember if I’d seen a sign saying I’d entered Kentucky or if I’d driven south and gone to Alabama.”

“You didn’t have any idea where you were driving?” The woman seemed to be shutting down and putting up barriers against what seemed like an unstable woman not only in her presence but in her motel.

“If you knew the morning I’d had, that would not seem so strange.”

Moments later, Cassie watched the door close behind her landlord. Two Hearts seemed to be less than happy right now.

She had a room so she was safe. She couldn’t beg Bella to drive here because she was busy. A rideshare or taxi would be ridiculously expensive and leave her alone with a stranger in sparsely populated countryside, which didn’t sound wise.

Unless there was a surprise solution to the gasless motorcycle, which she didn’t feel like she could abandon, Two Hearts would be her temporary residence.

She was stuck here for days.

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