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Runaway Girl by Bailey, Tessa (1)

CHAPTER ONE

Naomi

I’m fifteen minutes away from marrying the man who ordered me the wrong white wine at our rehearsal dinner last night. There are definitely far better reasons to get cold feet, but the lemony Pinot Grigio clings to all sides of my throat now like a reminder.

He doesn’t know you.

I scan my reflection in the mirror, looking for flaws. The smallest thing counts. A flyaway blonde hair, a wrinkle in my custom Pnina Tornai wedding dress, my diamond pendant being slightly off-center. But no. I may as well have stepped right out of a bridal magazine. A real-life Photoshop job, primped, airbrushed and ready to be shipped down the aisle.

That’s exactly what this feels like. I’ve been packaged. My attributes were all selected from a pull-down menu. Pageant queen. Check. Hostess skills. A must for any Southern housewife! Writes a mean thank you card. Why, of course!

After all, I’m preparing to marry the next mayor of Charleston. The rest of my life will be lived beneath the finicky microscope of old money and my own peers, who judge twice as harshly. I’ve been groomed for this my whole life. Cotillion. Finishing school. Private tutors. Non-stop critiques from my mother. I am in this to win it.

But with ten minutes on the clock, I’m not sure what winning is anymore.

What. Is. Winning?

I fall onto a cushy divan—gracefully, of course—and force air to enter my nose and leave my mouth. In. Out. In the full-length mirror’s reflection, I watch my bridesmaids plow through a bottle of champagne behind me, speculating in hushed tones on what my wedding guests will wear to the big day. It’s the tip of spring, so yellows, blues and pinks are likely to make an appearance. They talk about it like the weather report. I should get up and join them, right? Any second now, they’re going to realize I’ve been quiet too long. I have been quiet too long. Where are my manners? They’re here for me. I should be thanking them for their support and handing out their Tiffany charm bracelets, but all I can do is think of Pinot Grigio.

I’m a Sauvignon Blanc girl. Everyone knows that.

A little hiccup leaves my mouth, but I disguise it with a polite cough and stand up once more, smoothing creases from the embroidered satin of my dress. I notice my maid of honor watching me with a wrinkled brow and give her a pinky wave, forcing a smile until she returns to a conversation that has now turned to which of the groomsmen are single.

Five minutes. Oh God.

The sick citrus flavor has now traveled to my stomach, stewing and gurgling. I haven’t thrown up due to nerves since my first pageant at age four. I won’t start now. I can’t. This is a thirty-thousand-dollar dress. A vomit stain wouldn’t exactly match the beading. And worse, my friends have eagle eyes. They would definitely notice and they would know. They would know I’m panicking. I can’t have that. The future mayor’s wife is a cool customer. Unflappable. She makes everything look easy. That is who I am. Not a jittery girl with back sweat.

Years of etiquette classes, a structured diet and a well-rounded social calendar have guaranteed the prominence I will acquire as soon as I say “I do.” I should be grateful for the opportunities I’ve been given, even though there have been moments over the years—moments like right now—when I look around and recognize nothing. Or feel like a mannequin that has been styled and positioned by someone else. Here is an example to follow! Look how she holds her pose!

It has never been harder to hold the pose as it is right now. I can balance a book on my head and tap-dance simultaneously, but walking down the stairs and pledging my future to someone who only knows the mannequin is scary. I’m scared.

Because I’m not sure I know the girl trapped inside the mannequin, either. Who is she?

A flash of black outside catches my eye. Not exactly an eye-catching color, but among the pastels, the dark figure crossing the street outside the church draws me closer to the window. It takes me a moment to place the identity of the black-haired woman stomping up the church steps with a defiant expression, but when I do, my feet go from cold to frostbitten.

Addison Potts.

What is my estranged cousin doing at my wedding? Lord knows she wasn’t invited. Her side of the family hasn’t been welcome at so much as Sunday brunch in decades. I haven’t seen her in Charleston since we were in our twenties. Possibly longer than that, since we never ran in the same circles. My circle is currently popping open their second bottle of champagne—and an answering pop happens somewhere in my midsection as Addison pauses outside the church doors. Not hesitating, exactly. Just giving guests a chance to look at her. Encouraging them.

Shaking things up.

A small laugh puffs out of me, creating condensation on the window.

Where has she been? What has she been doing while I prepared to be the keeper of someone’s social calendar? She left Charleston for New York years ago, all by herself. That much I do know. Looking at her now, that innate defiance in her every movement…I bet whatever she did since leaving South Carolina, she did it for herself. On her own terms. She’s been living. That much is clear.

Addison frowns and glances up at the window, but I duck back before she sees me. My heart beats wildly in my throat. What would Addison see if she looked at me? Exactly what I am. A pampered Southern belle with the appropriate amount of friends. An inner circle of four, an immediate network of thirty-two and a broader outer circle of two hundred and fifty. A blonde beauty queen whose interests include scrapbooking, creating signature cocktails for parties and fancy gift-wrapping. My long-lost cousin would probably laugh at me.

Maybe she should.

When I look back down at the church steps, Addison has disappeared into the church, leaving a stir in her wake. And for the first time in my life, I understand envy. I’ve never caused a stir. Not once. I’ve inspired approval. Matching sweater sets don’t exactly drop jaws, do they?

“Naomi,” calls my maid of honor, Harper. “I promised your mother we’d have you walking down the aisle at three o’clock sharp. We should head down.”

A bridesmaid leans a lazy hip against the liquor cart, jostling the bottles. “Yes, let’s not cross the woman. I want to make it to the reception with my limbs intact.”

Despite the cyclone brewing in my belly, my tinkling laugh fills the room. “Ladies, would you mind terribly if I have a moment alone with Harper? We’ll be down in a shake.”

“Of course,” chirp three bridesmaids, far too brightly.

What am I doing? This impromptu meeting is not on the agenda. A quick glance at the clock tells me I am now late for my own wedding. If my mother has to come up the steps, she will be breathing fire, and that’s the last thing I need right now. We don’t want to keep Elijah waiting. No. No, we never want to do anything to upset this perfectly perfect ideal life I’ve landed. This is what I’ve always wanted. Wifehood to a rich, respected man. A military hero who inspires sighs of envy and pride when he walks down the street.

A good man. An honest man who will stay true to his vows. A kind, compassionate human being. That is Elijah Montgomery DuPont, the next mayor of this fine town. He just happens to think I prefer Pinot Grigio. That’s only the tip of the iceberg, though, isn’t it? I spent hours getting coiffed for the rehearsal dinner last night and he looked right through me. Sure, he kissed my cheek and nodded as I spoke. Made sure I arrived at my assigned seat without injury or assault. I love Elijah.

He just doesn’t love me. And after seeing Addison Potts outside on the church steps, I know exactly why. Where my cousin is vivacious and exciting, I’m a cookie-cutter, boring-as-beige debutante who’s never lived outside of the staunch parameters laid out for her. I haven’t experienced anything, unless someone planned it for me. I’m not interesting or worthy of anyone’s undivided attention. My fiancé is probably standing in front of the altar right now, dreading the next fifty years of eye-glazing conversation about the country club and charity planning committees.

Me. I’m going to be inflicting the boring.

Oh Lord. No. I can’t do it. I don’t want to do it.

I have to get out of here. I have to save Elijah.

And, more importantly—I think I have to shed my outer mannequin shell and go do some living. I’ve existed these last two and a half decades for my parents. Now I’m going to dedicate the next five to a husband without knowing what I really have to offer beyond small talk and juice cleansing tips? What do I want from the future? I don’t even know. But I have to go experience more before I’m sure it’s this.

“Naomi.” Harper waves a hand in front of my face. “I’ve been calling your name, honey. What did you want to talk to me about?”

“I’m not going down there,” I whisper, wide-eyed.

Well, now. There it is. My first dropped jaw. “What now?”

My gaze bounces around the room, cataloguing everything I need to take with me. Purse. My car keys are zipped in the inner pocket. I definitely need those because my suitcase is in the trunk, my laptop and honeymoon clothes inside. As long as I have those things, I won’t need to go home and risk my mother hog-tying me and dragging me back to the church.

I can just…go.

Excitement is building in my chest. I’m really doing this. I should be terrified, but knots are loosening inside me instead. I’m not getting married today. I’m making this choice.

With a shaky swallow, I swish toward the secretary in the corner and scribble out a note with a trembling hand. I’m sorry, Elijah. I couldn’t do it.

I hesitate before penning the next part. Am I going to completely sever ties with my fiancé? Yes. And no. I need to give Elijah his freedom. It’s only fair after what I’m about to do. I can’t ask him to wait while I figure myself out. That wouldn’t be fair. But I know I could search this entire world and not find a more decent man. So while I’m going to break off our betrothal? In my heart…I’m going to keep hope alive that we’ll find our way back to each other. If we’re meant to be, he’ll forgive me one day, won’t he?

I didn’t want it to end this way, but it’s for the best.

Those final words blur together as I stare down at them, until the clock drags my attention away. I’m now ten minutes late for my own wedding. Unheard of. My mother is probably on the way—no, those are her footsteps coming up the stairs now. I have to move.

I shove the folded note into Harper’s hands. “I’m sorry to do this to you, sweetheart, but I need you to give this to Elijah.” She starts to shake her head. “You’ve been a good friend, Harper. I wish I had more time to explain, but right now, I need you to stall my mother while I escape down the back staircase.”

“But why?” Harper breathes, fanning herself with the note. “Elijah is just so handsome.”

There’s no time to answer, though, and I turn from my wide-eyed friend, snatch up my purse and jog toward the staircase door. Not an easy feat in my crystal-embellished pumps I had designed to match Cinderella’s slippers—which, heavens, seems so trite and cliché now. It’s dark on the way down to street level, making it feel like a dream. Or a mistake. I’m not supposed to be in the dark, I’m supposed to be walking down the aisle adorned in refracted stained-glass lighting. We tested several different positions of the sun before deeming three o’clock the optimal aisle time. I can already hear my mother grinding her molars. We’re losing the sun.

Who cares? I laugh as I throw myself through the exit door and click quickly through the parking lot, purse in one hand, the hem of my wedding dress in the other. There isn’t a soul around. No one wants to miss the upper-crust betrothal of the town hero and his trophy wife, do they?

While that harsh thought stings like an angry bee, it makes me move even faster toward my white Range Rover, parked in the valet section. I want to be more than someone’s blonde Stepford Wife. I want to be…more like Addison. More like the black sheep cousin who walked with her chin up into a church full of people who dislike her. I want to be brave like that. Before that can happen, I need a reason to be brave. I need to see and learn and do.

Go back, says a voice in the back of my head. You can’t really be doing this.

You don’t have what it takes to survive.

That might be true. But I am doing this, regardless.

I’m a runaway bride.

Within moments, I’m peeling out of the parking lot and gunning it toward the freeway, my veil blowing in the wind. Before I take the on-ramp, though, I pull over and map a sensible route to Florida on my voice-guided navigator.

One ditched wedding does not a spontaneous woman make.

After that, though, I’m on my way.

To what?

I guess I’ll find out.

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