A Texas Wedding Vow
"Where is she?" Cade Dunnigan asked from the front steps of Unity Cathedral in Dallas, Texas.
Not sure how to answer that, even if she was the maid of honor, Laurel McCabe looked upward to the April evening sky. It should have been a perfect night to celebrate the impending nuptials of one of her very best friends. The hot-pink and white crepe myrtles that lined the church grounds were in full bloom. The rush-hour traffic that had clogged the city streets earlier had eased, and dusk was settling around them like a soft, warm blanket.
Cade now stood in front of her, so Laurel had no choice but to look into his ruggedly handsome face. His irritated glance scanned her wavy, shoulder-length brown hair, continued moving over her from head to toe, before returning deliberately to her eyes. "You said she would be here half an hour ago."
The groom-to-be was the kind of take-charge, kick-butt man Laurel usually avoided. Maybe because he reminded her of her five impossibly commanding, know-it-all older brothers.
"Everyone is waiting to go on with the wedding rehearsal," Cade fumed, his lips curving in a frown.
Laurel drew a deep, enervating breath, doing her best not to notice how well his broad shoulders and solid male build filled out his sage-green suit, coordinating suit and tie. Fabulous looks, and fashion sense, too. What was Mary Elena thinking, running the other way? "I know that, Cade," she replied wearily.
Laurel didn't want to tell him what Mary Elena Ayers had really said. Especially when she was certain her friend would change her mind as soon as she got over this temporary bout of prewedding jitters.
"She's..." Laurel paused, doing her best to ignore his increasingly uptight attitude, and her own undeniable awareness of him. Mary Elena had known Cade for years, but they had only started dating a ridiculously short one month ago, before the startlingly fast engagement. Laurel had met him just the day before and been instantly wowed. Pewter-gray bedroom eyes dominated his straight nose, sensual lips and masculine jaw. He was quick-witted, energetic and determined. Had he not been about the marry her very good friend, Laurel might have thrown her own hat in the ring. But he was. So he was strictly off-limits to her. Which was a good thing. Cade Dunnigan in wounded-bear mode was not someone she wanted to tangle with.
Cade shoved a hand through his think, sun-streaked blond hair. The action didn't do much to mess it up, Laurel noted. Maybe because the short, spiky strands looked as if they had been styled by a quick pass or two of a towel over his head, then let dry as is, every which way. The style--if you could call it that--was sexy, tousled, touchable. Very touchable.
"Mary Elena's what?" Cade demanded when Laurel didn't immediately continue.
Laurel started. What was wrong with her? It wasn't like her to move in on another woman's territory, even in abstract fantasy. "She's...not feeling...like herself...today," she said finally. Otherwise, Mary Elena would be answering her cell phone. Or making some effort to let someone know where she was, and when she could be expected to arrive. She wasn't. Which meant her jitters were obviously getting worse....
"What the devil is that supposed to mean?" Cade demanded.
How did you tell a six-foot-one-inch Texan who ran his family company that he had most likely just been stood up on the second most important night of his life thus far, the first being his actual wedding day? Would he believe Laurel if she told him she felt it was just a momentary glitch in what looked to be a long, if uneventful marriage to Mary Elena Ayers?
"It's complicated." Laurel did her best to cover for her friend. "Sort of a woman thing.: She revealed as much as she could, while still maintaining her friend's confidence.
Cade paused, struggling to make sense of that. "You mean...she's...?"
Too late, Laurel saw he had concluded it was a monthly hormonal change. She blushed fiercely in response.
"Why didn't she just tell me she wasn't feeling well?" he continued in concern.
"Her, um, cramps came on rather suddenly." Only they weren't of the feminine nature Cade was imagining. Rather, the type that stemmed from nerves and sent Mary Elena running for the nearest lavatory.
"Is she going to be okay?" Cade asked.
"I'm certain of it," Laurel declared. It was just nerves. Mary Elena had told her so.
Making no effort to hide his unhappiness with Laurel's actions, Cade stepped closer, gave her a measuring look. "Where is Mary Elena now?"
Laurel took a deep breath before answering "Last I saw her, she mentioned something about going home to lie down," she said quietly, inhaling the soapy-fresh cent of his skin and hair, and the brisk masculine fragrance of this cologne. Aware that her heart was racing, she took a step back, widening the distance between them once again, and folded her arms in front of her. She had to stop reacting to him like this! Cade Dunnigan was taken!
Oblivious to the direction of her thoughts, Cade frowned again. "Her father just checked with the staff at their residence. She isn't there."
Darn. Deep down, despite her friend's assurance to the contrary, Laurel had feared Mary Elena was running away--at least from this evening's festivities. Especially after Mary Elena had gotten the call from Manuel Garcia on her cell phone. The two had pretended to talk about whether or not the planting of the new azalea bushes in front of the Ayerses' Dallas mansion was going according to schedule, but when the tears had welled up in Mary Elena's eyes and her voice had begun to tremble, Laurel had suspected other things were being said on the other end of the connection. Not that Laurel could fault her friend for confiding in the handsome young gardener. Manuel treated her with soulful kindness. It was clear he had quite a crush on her.
"Her father said he hasn't seen or heard from her since breakfast," Cade continued, even more irritably.
Laurel wasn't surprised by that. Lance Ayers had been pressuring his only daughter to "gether future squared away for months now--he hadn't stopped until Mary Elena had agreed to the arranged marriage and accepted Cade Dunnigan's engagement ring. Her running off this afternoon was probably the result of the unrelenting pressure from both men. It hadn't mattered that Cade had been an old--if casual--friend. Mary Elena hadn't loved him, and she had confessed to Laurel this afternoon that she feared she never would, no matter how much they had in common or how much time passed. But none of that was Laurel's to reveal. Especially since she knew her friend would eventually do what her father wanted, anyway. Mary Elena always did.
"Maybe she'll call Mr. Ayers soon," Laurel said finally, knowing she would have felt a lot better if Cade had behaved as if this marriage were a love match made in heaven. But according to Mary Elena, he had been approaching it in the same business-like manner that her father had. Clearly, a move that had disaster written all over it from the get-go. But maybe this no-show tonight would get Cade's attention, make him understand he was going to have to be a lot more romantic in his approach to their marriage. Especially if he wanted a chance at making Mary Elena as happy as every bride deserved to be.
Cade appraised Laurel frankly, suspicion etched in his face. "What else aren't you telling me?"
Tons. "Nothing," Laurel fibbed, struggling between her loyalty to her friend and her conscience, which demanded she be truthful no matter what.
Cade's eyes turned an even deeper gray. "You understand," he stated clearly, looking deeply into her eyes, "I have to be married by midnight tomorrow to collect my inheritance?"
Yet another idiot who valued money above love. Sighing, Laurel planted her hands on her hips. "why are you telling me this?" she demanded.
"Because--" he flashed her a crocodile smile "--you are the maid of honor. And as such, the closest person to Mary Elena at the moment."
She defiantly lifted her chin. "So?"
"So..." Cade arched his brow in return "...I want your word that Mary Elena is going to be here tomorrow evening for the ceremony, or I'm calling off this wedding here and now."
Laurel's hand flew to her chest. "You can't do that! Not without at least talking to her," she cried. The public embarrassment and humiliation would crush a tender soul like her friend.
A muscle worked in Cade's jaw. Abruptly, his patience was at an end. "look, I have to get married. If not to Mary Elena, then to someone else. So unless you're volunteering to take her place if she doesn't show up at the last minute, then--"
"Fine." Laurel cut Cade off impatiently. Like it or not, she knew it was her duty as maid of honor to see the bride made it to the ceremony on time. She was a McCabe, after all. McCabes did not shirt their responsibilities. And that went double if they had given their word. "If I can't get Mary Elena here by tomorrow evening, I'll take her place," she promised.
"And marry me," Cade stated, making sure they understood each other.
"Yes," she vowed in exasperation, deciding she would do whatever it took to end this conversation.
Leaning close, Cade warned softly, "I'm going to hold you to this, you know."
Tension rippled through Laurel's slender frame. "i figured you would," she replied, just as decisively, knowing if she weren't so sure she would win it would be foolish to take on the ruthlessly determined CEO in this battle of wills. "But it's not going to be necessary," she continued flatly. "I've known Mary Elena since we were kids. She is not going to stand you up tomorrow."
In the end, duty and an innate sense of familial responsibility would make Mary Elena follow through on her promise. Laurel was sure of it.