No matter what is thrown their way, true love will endure…
I can’t do this. I can’t go through with it.
Moments from the altar, dressed in an ugly wedding dress that is the least of her problems, Jenna Sinclair has a moment of clarity. For weeks she’s been living in a fog, trying to piece together her life after the accident that almost killed her. Believing, all the while, that she has no other option but to proceed with a marriage to a man she doesn’t love. Now she finds herself torn between her trust in family and the attraction she feels for a man who’s a complete stranger. But if she doesn’t even know who she really is, how can she know if she can trust the stranger who is claiming her as his?
‘Stop! This wedding is not taking place!’
Max Bennett has only ever loved one woman-Jenna. Time after time her family has ripped them apart but now, when Jenna’s life is in danger and she needs him the most, there’s not a chance in hell he’ll let her go. All he needs to do is reignite the love she once had for him … which means keeping a secret that could destroy her trust.
With danger stalking them, can Jenna and Max find their way back to each other before it’s too late?
‘I can’t do this, James!’ Jenna blurted. ‘I can’t go through with it.’
Despite the uncharacteristically warm British weather, her hands were clammy as she halted abruptly in front of the medieval church in Gloucestershire. The unique beauty of the yew tree-framed doorway was lost on her as the enormity of her situation pressed in and made each breath so difficult, she felt she’d suffocate.
‘We’ve been through this,’ her step-brother reasoned. ‘You can’t back out now.’
Casting a quick glance his way she thought she glimpsed tight displeasure in his features. No. Her nerves must be making her imagine things because James sent her a warm smile.
‘Come on, Jenna.’
Guilt twisted its way through her gut as she stared at the church doors.
‘I’m sorry.’ Her hoarse apology pushed past taut vocal cords. ‘I don’t want to be difficult. I know you and Sally have taken such good care of me and I wouldn’t have coped without you.’ She touched one hand to her face and tried to calm herself, marshal her thoughts and express them rationally. ‘I realise you’ve put your lives on hold for me for months.’
‘Yes, we have,’ came the gentle but firm rebuke. ‘We’ve done it because we love you and we want what’s best for you. This is what’s best for you.’
Desperate to try to make him understand, she reached out to place one hand on his arm. ‘I don’t want to be unappreciative, but these arrangements have happened way too fast.’ He knew she’d been in emotional turmoil but he and his wife had forged on regardless to finalise plans that’d been started months ago.
Jenna’s mouth twisted in self-contempt. At the eleventh hour she was blaming James and Sally when she’d been the one who’d spinelessly buried her head in the sand.
‘You only think this has happened quickly, Jenna. This day’s been planned for years.’
Yet another of her protests was met by a counter-argument, making all her fears seem baseless. Everything James said was logical yet her head continued to war with her heart.
Gnawing at her lower lip, Jenna realised she’d been so completely lacking in strength and direction, she’d allowed herself to be manoeuvred into this position. Uncertain of everything and unable to explain her deep-seated reservations, her remonstrations had been feeble. Every objection she’d raised had been swept aside by her step-brother and his wife.
Sally had intimated they knew best, and who had Jenna been to argue when she hadn’t even known her own name?
The church bells continued to ring.
James sent her an encouraging look. ‘Everyone’s waiting, Jenna. You don’t want to let them down.’
No, she didn’t. Inherently she knew that disappointing others wasn’t in her nature. Deep within her there was a conviction she didn’t want to let anybody down, but her stomach churned and, at this rate, she might be the only bride in history who threw up over the groom.
There were one hundred or so people packed into the church ready to witness her marriage. Were they so important to please?
Was it vital to acquiesce to her step-brother’s wishes? And, more importantly, was it fair of him to expect her to?
She was so conflicted, pain lanced through her temples.
At almost thirty years of age, she should’ve been sure of herself yet, in decision-making, she may as well have been a child. These last five weeks it’d been all too easy to fall into a pattern of allowing her step-brother to make all her decisions.
With every decision he’d made, she’d become more reliant on him.
With everything he’d told her, she’d become more uncertain.
She hated being in the position of having to rely on anyone. But, lost in a dark abyss, she’d been consumed with navigating each new day. She’d struggled to maintain any pretence she was coping. The simple task of hauling herself out of bed took monumental effort and it’d been impossible not to fall into the dependency trap when her head had ached and her thoughts were impossible to muster.
This is your last chance to back out, the voice of her inner guardian warned.
‘This is the best thing to do,’ James insisted.
It didn’t feel like the best thing to do, yet it did seem like the only option immediately available to her—an option that’d relieve James and Sally of their responsibility of her and deliver her to David to be the wife he professed to have always wanted.
Could she even be the wife he expected, or would she be a monumental disappointment?
‘You know this is the right thing to do, Jenna.’
Panic made her want to jump up and down on the spot. ‘I don’t know anything, James. That’s the whole problem.’
James patted her hand as it rested on his forearm. Perhaps the contact was meant to comfort her, but Jenna was so overwrought, the gesture came across as patronising. Again, she had to squash down a rising tide of resentment towards her step-brother.
‘You mightn’t know but I do. You can trust me,’ he told her with more gentle insistence. ‘We’re family. You know I’ll always have your best interests at heart.’
Could she trust him?
Instantly, she admonished herself for the unworthy thought.
James was trying to help her—trying to do the right thing for her, and she was mentally casting aspersions against him—taking out her own insecurities and helplessness on the one person, above all others, who’d set aside his own life to try to help her get a grip on hers.
‘This is what you wanted,’ he reminded her. ‘This was your decision.’
Even while she tried to convince herself to stop being difficult, she couldn’t help but insist, ‘It may have been what I wanted months ago, but it doesn’t feel right now.’
‘It will,’ he said firmly. ‘Give it time.’
‘But I haven’t had enough time. I’ve been rushed into this when it’s only been—’
‘Your marriage to David will make everything clear.’
Jenna was unconvinced this wedding would provide any clarity. Why was she the only one so certain that marrying David would merely make her life more complicated?
‘But, how can I marry him when I don’t love him?’ Each word emerged in utter despair. ‘I’ve told you and Sally over and over, and David knows I have no feelings for him at all.’
Surely she should feel love for the man who’d be her husband? She may as well be marrying a complete stranger off the street.
‘Yes, we all know it.’ There was definitely a note of weary aggravation in his voice now. ‘You’ve hardly been very sensitive to his feelings. You should consider yourself lucky he’s still prepared to marry you.’
She didn’t feel lucky. The church bells should be sounding a death knell instead of chiming in celebration. ‘I don’t understand how he can want to marry me under these circumstances.’
‘You loved him once and he’s confident those feelings will return.’ He pulled up the cuff of his sleeve and glanced at his watch.
What if the love didn’t return?
What if she’d changed and those feelings for David never resurfaced, or if she’d changed somehow and he discovered he no longer loved her?
As hard as she tried to convince herself she was worrying unnecessarily—that she should place her trust in James—she couldn’t shake the feeling there was a bigger picture—something she didn’t understand.
Why, when she understood nothing, did she sense a hidden agenda behind the hastily arranged wedding?
Pain pounded through her temples and the constant ringing of the church bells only added to her distress.
James placed his hand at the small of her back and urged her forward.
Biting down on her lip, her legs tensed and she stood her ground. ‘I don’t want to marry David.’
For a moment she thought she saw a frown flash across his face, but her brain must be truly overwrought because his features relaxed and he laughed off her protest. ‘It’s a case of bridal nerves, that’s all. Sally had reservations on our wedding day and look how happy we are.’
His words only added to her concerns. At times, the happiness between her step-brother and his wife struck her as a fragile facade. ‘It’s no laughing matter, James. I’m serious.’
‘You’ll laugh at this too and thank me one day for keeping you on the right path.’
Every word pressed in on her conscience.
‘Come on. No more of this, Jenna. The man who loves you is waiting to become your husband.’
For a second, she pictured David standing inside the church as she made her way down the aisle to exchange their wedding vows. Her total lack of excitement made her want to turn and sprint in the other direction.
Could she force herself to make these wedding vows without meaning them?
The hand that carried her bridal bouquet lowered to rest against her twenty-one week baby bump. The life her body nurtured gave a slight kick. Was it a kick to urge her forward or did the baby sense her hesitation and was he or she telling her to follow her instincts and flee?
Jenna was damned.
There was nowhere to run and no-one else to run to. All she knew was how vital it was for her to consider this baby’s future. Sally had assured her marrying David was the best option and it was true Jenna hadn’t been able to figure out any other way forward.
Resisting the urge to cry with helplessness, Jenna pressed her lips tightly together and willed her tears away. Crying wouldn’t help. Emotion wouldn’t make things any clearer. She had to be pragmatic about this marriage.
The irrefutable truth was that David was the baby’s father.
He was prepared to make her his wife. He’d told her he still loved her and wanted to take care of her and the child—to make a family together.
Holding out no hope of regaining her career any time soon, Jenna didn’t have the financial resources to support herself, let alone a child.
A small sob broke through her lips. Her hands trembled because the whole concept of having a baby scared her witless. She didn’t only lack the financial means to support a child. Jenna didn’t know how she was going to cope with the physical demands of caring for a child when she was still so lacking in energy, she hadn’t even had the inclination to cook her own meals. Worst of all, Jenna hadn’t been able to feel any emotional connection with the baby.
The baby needed David in more ways than one. It should at least have one parent who could care for it, provide for it and feel some connection with it.
‘Jenna!’ James shifted from one foot to the other, growing increasingly agitated at her side. ‘Everything is as you wanted it. You know Sally’s planned this day down to the last detail the way you always said you visualised it.’
Yes, Sally had planned it. Jenna had been disconnected from the entire process—merely assenting to a few details here and there as a formality. Sally had informed Jenna what she had always said she’d wanted at her wedding. Even though Jenna’s tastes had evidently changed, she’d been so bewildered she hadn’t opposed the plans.
So, when she would now have preferred something less ruffled, here she stood in a wedding dress that made her look like a puffed up meringue.
Her guests would sit down to a wedding breakfast containing dishes Sally said were Jenna’s favourites. Jenna couldn’t comprehend how the things on the menu had ever appealed to her.
‘I feel disengaged from the entire wedding,’ she told James. ‘I’ve been operating on auto-pilot from one day to the next and trying to navigate through the foggy uncertainty of my existence. Can’t you understand, James? My life is a giant void.’
‘David is prepared to make it meaningful and, the truth is, Jenna, you can’t rely on us forever. You need to forge a life for yourself and your baby.’ He ran his hand up and down the nape of his neck. ‘Listen to me. You and David planned this baby. You planned to marry. I’m sure it’s just a matter of time before you fall back in love with him.’
Unable to summon even the weakest smile she said flatly, ‘Okay. I’ll do it.’
While bile rose and burnt her throat, James’ relief was palpable. The pace he set as he propelled her through the entranceway and down the aisle to her future husband made it more of a bridal race than a bridal march. His hand gripped hers rather tightly—as though he didn’t trust her not to change her mind again and call the whole thing off.
You’re doing the right thing.
His words echoed in her mind as she cast her eyes upward and focused on the huge wooden cross hanging from the ceiling in front of the alcove which housed the altar.
This must be how brides felt in arranged marriages.
This is crazy. The reality is that you hardly know this guy.
But he’s the father of my child, her voice of reason argued. I’ve known him in the most intimate way possible.
All too soon, they came to a standstill at the foot of the altar.
The elderly rector of St Edward’s church asked, ‘Who gives this woman to be married to this man?’
‘I do.’ James gave her hand to the rector who then placed it in David’s hand.
‘Forgive me,’ the rector said, patting the side of his robes. ‘I seem to have lost my spectacles. I must’ve left them in the back room with the paperwork. I’ll be back in a jiffy.’
Jenna breathed out her relief as the old man went in search of his glasses.
Take as much time as you like.
The wedding guests shifted restlessly in their pews and hushed conversation ensued. Jenna didn’t want to acknowledge the crowd of strangers. Instead, she forced herself to look up at the man she was about to marry. She gulped in a shaky breath as he settled his dark brown eyes on her and sent her an intense look that made her quiver. Written in his expression was intense satisfaction and—worst of all—blatant sexual intent.
No. Oh, no.
Without thinking, she took a step away from him—would’ve backed off even further but he still had hold of her hands.
‘Jenna,’ James said quietly from behind her. ‘Remember what we talked about.’
She shouldn’t be shocked by David’s expression. He’d made it clear he still desired her.
Today was her wedding day.
Tonight was her wedding night.
David would expect to be her lover again in a matter of hours.
Jenna’s molars ground together. Somehow, she’d convince him to wait a little longer. She had no desire to be this man’s lover—couldn’t even contemplate they’d ever been lovers.
He was good-looking enough—a head taller than she was, athletically built, good teeth … Oh dear God, she was looking at him as though she was about to buy a stallion. Any moment now she’d be sizing up his leg confirmation and seeing if he had a good, deep girth!
A giggle bubbled up from her throat and she raised her hand to her mouth as she fought to suppress inappropriate hilarity born of near hysteria. In the end she had to cover the giggle with a cough.
Fancy comparing her future husband to a horse!
A jolt of awareness flashed through her mind.
Where had those comparisons come from?
What did she know about a horse’s leg confirmation?
Something important teased at the edges of her brain and she shook her head slightly as she tried to unravel the tangle. Horses … leg confirmation … deep girth …
‘Are you okay, Jenna?’ A slight frown marred David’s forehead.
His words brought her back to the present. Her groom’s concern for her well-being was written clearly in his expression.
‘Fine,’ she whispered.
He seemed to genuinely care for her.
Why didn’t she feel anything for him?
‘Sorry about the delay,’ the rector announced as he came in with his glasses perched at the end of his nose and the service book in his hand. ‘Now …’
I can do this, Jenna told herself. I have to do this for the baby.
‘David and Jenna have come here today to be joined in Holy Matrimony,’ the rector announced to the congregation. ‘If any one of you can show just cause why they may not lawfully be married, you must now declare it.’
David’s hands tightened fractionally around hers.
Dread weighed down on her. Her ears strained in the hope she’d hear a protest. She looked half-expectantly and even half-hopefully at the sea of unfamiliar faces filling the church pews.
All eyes were trained on her.
Somebody save me.
Not a sound was uttered.
Her heart slowed, pumping the blood around her body sluggishly as everything in her deflated. She may as well have been heading to the gallows with no last minute reprieve.
Clearing his throat, the rector continued. ‘David, will you give yourself to Jenna to be her husband, to live with her according to God’s word? Will you love her, comfort her, honour and protect her, and forsaking all others, be faithful to her so long as you both shall live?’
Dampness pricked at her upper lip.
Despair leached into every cell.
‘Jenna, will you give yourself to James, to be his wife …’
No! she screamed silently. But, what option did she have?
‘… to live with him according to God’s word?’
I can’t! Don’t ask it of me!
‘Stop!’ The word ricocheted around the small church, echoing off the stone walls. It killed the proceedings with the deadly effectiveness of an assassin’s bullet.
There was a collective gasp from all those present, including the rector.
David’s hands fell away from hers.
‘This wedding is not taking place!’