One look at her lovely face, and Hart Sanders knew. Magnolia McCabe was going to run.
It didn't matter that Maggie's fiance, plus her twin sister and her groom, and all their families, had taken the coveted Wedding Train to the very top of Sanders Mountain and were now standing in Nature's Cathedral.
Nor was it important that the minister had gotten halfway through the ceremony that would join Maggie and her intended husband forevermore.
The only thing that mattered to Maggie in that instant was how trapped she felt.
And Hart knew from his years of military training that cornered people did one of two things.
They either cowered and froze. Or said to heck with the consequences and bolted for freedom. His gut told him that the beautiful brunette was about to choose the latter option.
As if on cue, Maggie McCabe shoved her bouquet at her maid of honor and picked up the hem of her wedding gown. She revealed a pair of fancy white cowgirl boots that sure seemed to be made for running as she dashed past the four hundred startled guests and made her way toward the thick woods surrounding them.
A collective gasp echoed through the flower-strewn clearing. "Maggie!" her fiancé, Gus Radcliffe, yelled as the white-satin-and-lace-clad bride disappeared into the cover of green. "What the??"
"Go after her!" another guest shouted hysterically.
Not about to see one calamity turn into two, Hart stepped forward and lifted a staying hand. "Everyone, stay put! The last thing we need is anyone getting lost in the woods." He looked out into the crowd reassuringly. "I'll find her and escort her to safety."
Hart turned to Maggie's twin sister, Callie McCabe, feeling a little sorry for her. This was her wedding, too, that her sister had just disrupted. "If you want to get married today while there is still daylight, you better go on with your part of the double-wedding ceremony," he advised, kindly.
Callie appeared to waver.
Her parents, Drs. Jackson and Lacey McCabe, seemed to understand the wisdom of limiting the damages as best they could. Jackson leaned down to whisper something in his remaining daughter's ear.
Realizing enough time had been wasted, Hart left the rest of them to sort it out, and followed the runaway bride's path.
Maggie couldn't believe it. She'd barely been gone five minutes and she was already completely lost. Knowing, however, if she stayed where she was and tried to get her bearings, someone would likely come after her, she kept right on plowing through the heavy cover of cedar, oak and pine trees.
The old logging road she'd seen from the train had to be here somewhere, Maggie reassured herself. All she had to do was find it, and?
Caught up short, Maggie bit down on an oath. The hem of her long skirt had snagged on the branches of a thick, thorny bush. Hurriedly, she tried to work it free and stabbed her fingertips in the process. "Ouch!" She pressed the bleeding appendages to her mouth, and when that did almost nothing to abate the sharp pain, another string of very unladylike words escaped her lips. "Nice."
At the sound of the deep male voice, she swore again. Louder and more virulently this time. And was rewarded with a chuckle.
"Need some help there?"
Maggie dropped her still-stinging hand, drew a breath and turned.
Of course it was him. Hart Sanders. The just-out-of-the-military son and heir to the Double Knot Wedding Ranch. Temporarily at loose ends, he'd been tapped?unwillingly, it seemed?into service as the official escort for the McCabe double wedding. She had noticed him in the foreground at the rehearsal dinner the evening before. And yet, disinterested as he had appeared to be in the festivities, he could not seem to stop looking at her. Or, if she were honest, she at him.
Embarrassed color heating her face, Maggie lifted her chin. This crazy attraction she seemed to be having for Hart Sanders was nothing but a symptom of the in-advisability of her marriage plans. A symptom she desperately needed to ignore.
Aware he was the only thing between her and escape, she retorted, "No. I do not need any help." She made a shooing motion. "So you can go on about your business."
He smiled grimly. "Hate to break it to you, but at the moment you are my business."
Maggie glared. "Like heck I am! I got myself into this mess, and I can darn well get myself out."
"Well, this will be fun." He folded his arms in front of him. Waited.
Determined to do this on her own, she knelt down and gave another, less delicate, tug. This time, to her satisfaction, her skirt did come free of the thorn bush. It also ripped from shin to midthigh, revealing way too much stocking-clad leg, as well as her silk magnolia blossom-studded garter. Although at this point, Maggie thought wearily, what did that matter?
Aware that Hart was still watching her intently, she lifted her skirt in her hands and continued on her way, stumbling along on the uneven ground.
He said nothing more.
Surprised, she turned and found he had been following her. Soundlessly. Effortlessly. To the point they were now just a mere two feet from each other.
She stared up at the six-foot-four Texan, born and bred. He was solid muscle. Combat ready. And gorgeous, head-to-toe, from the top of his short light brown hair and deep sable eyes. She stared at his square jaw and the ruggedly masculine planes of his face, wishing he weren't so damned confident.
"I said," she repeated, wearily, "that I did not need your help!"
Hart nodded sagely, about as movable as a two ton boulder. "I heard you."
Apparently, he just hadn't believed her.
She swallowed as he stepped even closer, feeling the heat radiating from his body. She drew in another breath, taking in the scent of him, so utterly crisp and male. Like the men in the wedding party, he was wearing a tuxedo and white shirt. Black alligator boots. How he managed to look gallant and disreputable all at once she did not know. She only knew that standing so close to him was making her tingle in a way that was not in the least bit appropriate. "Then why are you still here?"
He stood, legs braced apart, arms folded in front of him. "Because, like most Texas gentlemen, I was brought up to never, ever, leave a lady in distress."
Ignoring the tension headache that had been dogging her all day, Maggie balled her fists at her sides and blurted out angrily, "Look, I can see you mean well, but I really can handle this."
His gaze moved over her in another long, thoughtful survey. "You sure seem to be doing a bang-up job so far."
No one had to tell her she'd made a terrible mess of things by once again allowing herself to be caught up and swept along by events that were oh-so-exciting at the time and oh-so-wrong for her later. But she was not about to tell any of that to the arrogant, infuriating man standing in front of her. Maggie admitted instead, "I just didn't want to get married, okay?" He shrugged and lifted his brow, seeming to reserve judgment on the workings of her fickle heart. "Nothing wrong with changing your mind," he said, quietly. Then, as if unable to resist, he added, "Even if your timing did suck."
Aware that she really was drawn to him, a fact that was as shocking as it was unacceptable, Maggie took another step back. She was not going to fantasize about what it would be like to feel the force of that much masculine confidence and testosterone. She was not going to wonder what it would be like to experience the skill of those big hands and sensual lips, or feel the weight of his body stretched over the top of hers. Not when what she really needed here was to be free.
Jerking in a stabilizing breath, she forced herself to return to the matter at hand. "Look, I know you're a man on a mission, but I just want to limit my embarrassment and get out of here."
He extended a hand. "Then come back up the mountain with me."
Maggie thought about everyone she had let down, the beautiful ceremony she had willfully?and wrongfully?ruined. And all because she didn't know her own mind. "Thanks, but no. I'm getting out of these woods on my own," she declared.
Another cool lift of the brow, as he regarded her with those gorgeous dark brown eyes. And then once again, he moved swiftly and patiently toward her.
Hart would have preferred not to have to do this, but given the alternatives, he had no choice. Ignoring the runaway bride's swift gasp of dismay, he caught her against him, slid a hand under her knees, another behind her back and swung her up into his arms. The five-foot-seven brunette was every bit as supple, slender and feminine as she looked.
He'd carried heavier loads when he was in the army, but trekking back up the mountain with a woman struggling in his arms would be no easy trek.
The beautiful Maggie McCabe knew it, too, and used the notion to her advantage. She slammed a fist on his shoulder. "Put me down, before we both fall down, you big lug!"
He held her even tighter, assessing her all the while. There was no way he was dropping her, but there were also significant disadvantages to holding her soft, warm body so close?the least of which was what it was doing to his lower half. "Believe me, I wish I could. But since I have no desire to get lost in the woods and spend the night on the mountain with you, fending off armadillos and snakes."
And way too much desire.
Her chin lifted defiantly. "One, you wouldn't get lost because I'm betting you know this entire mountain like the back of your hand. And two, I'm not scared of Texas wildlife?I grew up with it." She wiggled restlessly in his arms, prompting an even fiercer rush of blood to his lower body. "So forget trying to scare me into behaving the way you want me to behave.'cause I am not going with you!"
Not without a fight, anyway, he amended silently. Seething with an aggravation paramount to hers, he set her down. Trapping her slender frame between his big body and the broad, rough trunk of a century-old tree. "Okay, then we'll wait."
She studied him with glittering sea blue eyes. "For what?"
"You. To calm down." Her glare deepened.
"And convince me that indulging in your diva drama is the right thing." When he was pretty damned sure, even without knowing all the details, that it wasn't.
She ripped off her tiara and veil. A scattering of pins followed, unleashing a riot of chocolate-brown curls that looked every bit as silky and delectable as the rest of her. "It is not diva drama!"
Aware this would have been amusing under any other circumstances, he took in the erotic disarray of her shoulder-length mane and tried not to think about what it would be like to kiss her. "Then what was it?" he asked, resisting the urge to reach out and restore some order to the unleashed strands.
Her lower lip trembled, and she offered a tight, officious smile. "You wouldn't understand," she said, finally.
And suddenly, he wanted to do just that. Which was odd, given he usually had little to no interest in other people's private business. Warning himself to get it together, Hart turned his attention away from her lusciously soft lips to the gradually slowing pulse in her throat. "I might. We'll never know unless you try me."
Another silence fell, this one more fraught with tension than the last.
Maggie pressed her lips together, took another deep breath and folded her arms across her chest. "I just can't get married," she confessed with another slow shake of her pretty head. She looked at him again, almost beseechingly this time. "I thought I could.but I can't."
Hart had seen that kind of unease before.in his own ex-fiancée. As he recalled, Alicia had been just as confused then as Maggie was now. "Why can't you?" he prodded, pushing away his own unhappy memories of a breakup he hadn't seen coming.
"Because I don't have it in me to promise to do one thing?like marry Gus?for the rest of my life."
On the surface, her excuse sounded shallow.
Going a little deeper.
Hart thought about the relief he'd eventually felt when his own nuptials had been cancelled. The knowledge that what he had initially interpreted as disaster was really a very good thing in the end. "So what if you don't?" he countered, not about to judge her for that.
She peered at him curiously. "You're telling me that you don't believe in marriage, either.?"
Like her, he'd initially thought he did. Only to be saved by his bride-to-be, who'd had the good sense to call off a relationship that never would have lasted over the long haul, given their very different natures.
"No," he admitted abruptly, aware his ex had been right about one thing. He was too restless to ever settle down in one place for very long. "I don't."
Maggie blinked. She leaned closer in a drift of intoxicating perfume. "But your family owns a wedding business! How can you not believe in happily-ever-afters?"
Good question, Hart thought. And one his parents repeatedly asked him. Aware this wasn't the time to be discussing his issues, however, he moved the conversation back to her dilemma.
"Look, I don't know what happened to cause all this craziness. But I do know you can't keep running. Your family will forgive you." They were, after all, part of the Texas McCabe clan, a family known for their devotion to one another.
Maggie scoffed "I don't think so. Don't forget. I didn't just ruin my wedding, I ruined my twin sister's nuptials, too."
"Not necessarily." At her astonished look, he continued, "I think Callie and Seth went on with it." At least he hoped they had. "And you have to go back."
"I agree," a low male voice said.
Maggie and Hart turned.
Gus Radcliffe stood at the top of the ravine. He looked the way Hart had felt the moment he got the "I Can't Do This After All" speech from his fiancée. Like he'd had the stuffing kicked out of him.
The dark-haired groom made his way down to where they were standing. "Come on, Maggie. I know you're mad at me for what I said after the rehearsal dinner, but you can't end a seven-year relationship over one difference of opinion."
They'd been together that long? Hart thought in shock. He tried to imagine it. Couldn't. Maggie scowled. "I'm not."
Gus harrumphed in frustration. "Running out in the middle of the ceremony says you are. So, Magnolia, if your aim was to put me on notice for not being enthusiastic enough about your plans for our future, consider it done."
Ouch, Hart thought.
Maggie recoiled in shock, but fought back, just as fast. "Contrary to the way you seem to be remembering things, Gus, I never forced you into this. Or anything else, for that matter."