Excerpt from Kayla’s Challenge, a Coming Home novella.

Chapter One

With her hand tucked in her father’s elbow, Kayla Mullins strolled, step by measured step, down the carpeted aisle, crushing the delicate rose petals scattered about by her toddling, soon-to-be nieces. Peach-hued petals. White. Yellow. All from roses brought in for a September wedding, all bruised by her champagne-colored sandals peeking out from beneath her satin gown as she walked. Right foot. Left foot. Pause. Right foot . . .

She really should raise her eyes and look at her groom, Nicholas Weatherby. She should sneak a glance at the one hundred fifty-eight guests who right this minute were staring at her. Out of everyone in the sanctuary, she knew probably fifteen. Twenty tops. Row upon row of the attendees on the bride’s side were her parents’ contacts and clients. Row upon row of the attendees on the groom’s side were his parents’ contacts and clients. And the tiny cluster of groomsmen, ushers, and bridesmaids standing near the altar were actual friends of the bride and groom.

What a spectacle.

As she reached the steps to the altar, she finally glanced up at Nick. His handsome brow glistened with beads of sweat, his tanned skin seemed pale.

The preacher asked, “Who gives this woman in marriage?”

“Her mother and I do.” Her father’s voice broke, bringing a lump to her throat. When he’d first seen her in her gown, with her hair done up and Grandma Mullins’s emerald against her throat, he’d choked up right then and there. First time Kayla had seen him cry since Grandma passed.

He grazed her cheek with his lips, offered a whispered I love you, and disappeared somewhere behind her. She closed her eyes. I love you too, Daddy.

She sighed and looked again at Nick. His aristocratic stance. His perfect, jet-black hair. His broad shoulders beautifully filling out his navy tux. His once-starched collar, now limp and stained with sweat.

She could do worse. He was a good man, fun and funny. And he’d be a good provider. It wouldn’t be a loveless marriage, not entirely. They’d been friends forever. They got along well. It would be . . . comfortable.

He reached for her hand, and she gave it as she lifted her hem and stepped up to the dais. Then he pulled her closer than he should have and whispered in her ear, “Do you really want to do this?”

She caught her breath and searched his eyes, then glimpsed her brother standing in the position of best man. Kade was the gilded son, and their younger sister Shari was the indulged baby, leaving Kayla in the position of the obedient—and invisible—middle child, even though she and Kade were only minutes apart in age. Kade and Shari did as they pleased. Kayla, on the other hand, buckled and did as expected.

Not anymore.

“No,” she said softly. “No, I don’t. You’re a great guy, Nick, but we’ve always been friends. I’ve never thought of you in terms of marriage.”

The preacher made a point of clearing his throat, and murmurs rose from a crowd that seemed miles away as she focused on Nick.

He kissed her forehead. “You’ll always be one of my best friends, but I can’t do this. Pleasing our parents isn’t a reason to marry.”

“I agree.” She glanced to the right at the anxious faces on the first few rows below. At her mother, whose tear-reddened eyes reflected the questions racing through her mind. And again at Kade, who winked and offered a devious smile. She returned her focus to Nick. “What do we do?”

“Leave it to me. I’ll make the announcement.” He shifted her toward Kade.

Her brother took her elbow. “We’re getting out of here. Grab your skirt. We gotta run.”

Whatever the guys had in mind must’ve been insane. Cock-eyed crazy.

Good.

She loved her parents, but she suddenly felt like the strings had snapped on a too-tight corset, and at last she could breathe. Laughing, she tossed her bouquet over her shoulder to the bridesmaids behind her, grabbed the yards of material that made up her grandiose gown, and let Kade whisk her out of the sanctuary through the choir door. Their heels clattered in the church’s empty corridors until he tugged her to one of the exits.

“This way.”

In the last rays of the sunset, his Ford pickup gleamed a soft, heather gray. Her chariot.

He opened the door and helped her in, then stuffed the satin gown around her. “I couldn’t let you do it. And when I found out he didn’t want to get married either—at least not to you—I had to get you out of there.”

“What do you mean, not to me?”

“He’s in love with a girl at the office. Just hadn’t been able to ask her out because he was engaged to you.” He closed her in and jogged around to the driver’s side, yanking off his bow tie as he went. Once he landed behind the wheel, he jerked a thumb toward the back seat. “Brought something to change into so you can get out of that princess costume. I hope I got what you need.”

“Whatever it is will be perfect.” She pulled the tiara and veil from her hair and tossed them in the back. “Daddy’s going to kill us. You know that, don’t you?”

He turned into traffic from the church parking lot. “That’s why I’m taking you to my place. Let him cool down for a bit.”

She twisted to look at the suitcase he’d brought. “If we’re waiting for him to cool down, you didn’t pack enough.”

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