BULLETPROOF BRIDE, page 1
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"You have stolen my heart with just one glance of your eyes."
—The Song of Songs
"Another bad omen. You have to call off the wedding!"
Tessa Beaumont glanced up from her desk in alarm as her best friend and maid of honor, Melody Parrish, stormed into Tessa's office at Oregon Pacific Bank, a large garment bag flung over one shoulder. Tessa's stomach pitched. What now? "Mel? What's wrong?"
Her sapphire eyes snapping, Melody shoved the door closed with her foot. "Every time you progress with your wading plans, something terrible happens. A freak fungus down south wiped out the orchid farm. Your photographer slipped on a stray gefilte fish at a bar mitzvah and broke his arm. The caterer went belly-up after food poisoning flattened three hundred gastro-enterologists at a hospital benefit."
"Coincidences," Tessa soothed, setting her paperwork aside in a neat pile. "Stuff happens. And we found replacements."
Melody thrust the garment bag under Tessa's nose. "You think so? Well, maybe this will convince you."
Tessa glanced at the clock. It was after 1:00 p.m. They'd been two tellers short all week, and she hadn't taken a break or even lunch in days. She rose and circled the desk. "Ten minutes, then I have to get back to work."
Mel unzipped the bag. With a flourish, she whipped out two dresses and hung them on the brass coat rack beside the door. "I hope you haven't eaten."
Tessa's jaw dropped. Speechless, she stared at the ugliest ruffled white monstrosity she'd ever seen, accompanied by a hideous bluish-purple bridesmaid's dress. "Wha—what's that?"
"Lucille changed your order. Imagine my surprise when I picked up our dresses today."
"Oh, no!" Tessa hurried over to finger one of the hundreds of flounced organza ruffles on the horrible bridal gown. "I'll look like a refugee from Gone With The Wind. A hoop skirt, for Pete's sake. One misstep, and I'd give a whole new meaning to the term flash photography."
"Not if you were Little Bo Peep." Mel snickered. "At least your fashion holocaust is white. My 'elegant eggplant' number looks like a black eye. What was Lady Stalin thinking?"
"I don't know, but she went too far this time." With quick, efficient movements, Tessa zipped the awful dresses back into the bag. "These are going right back. I jumped at Lucille's offer to help with the wedding because my mother couldn't care less. But I refuse to let her bulldoze me."
"Yeah. Your future mother-in-law has the personality of a Zamboni."
"Well that's no reason to meekly lie down and let her shave my … ah … ice." Tessa tucked a wayward auburn curl into the gold clip at the nape of her neck. "I hope the bridal shop can deliver our original choices in less than two weeks."
Her friend grew somber. "That's the least of your worries. You know, you still have plenty of time to change your mind."
Tessa winced. "You think I should? I chose the candlelight empire satin gown because of the high waist, but I was afraid my big caboose sticks out way too far anyway."
"You've been comparing yourself with the models in those bride's magazines again, haven't you? There is nothing wrong with your butt." Mel sighed. "Not the gown. The wedding. Please don't marry Dale just because you think he'll give you the security you crave. Do you really want to spend the next twenty years trying not to rock the boat with Lucille?"
For a moment, the only sound was the muted hum of voices from the outer lobby. Then Tessa shuddered and forced a strained laugh. "You know better than to mention boats to me."
"Don't change the subject. You don't really love him. Admit it."
"I do love him. For two years, Dale has been my closest friend, besides you. The wild, passionate version of 'love' is just an attack of raging hormones. Ten minutes of pleasure—a lifetime of consequences. My mother for instance—"
"Yeah, you had a new 'uncle' every time you phoned home, but Vivienne is a bad example. Lots of actresses have revolving doors on their bedrooms."
But Vivienne's unfaithfulness had caused the death of the only person who had ever loved Tessa. Her dad. Her mother's flighty lifestyle was the reason Tessa had chosen a financial career. Numbers never lied, never changed and never let you down. "Dale and I are perfect together. He's an accountant and I'm a banker. We both enjoy books, music and playing in Lucille's charity concerts."
Mel snorted, making her short blond locks bounce. "I admit, I've never had a relationship longer than two dates, so I'm the last person to give advice. But don't settle for blue-eyed bland. You deserve the best."
"Maybe Dale isn't as exciting as 007, but he's loyal, responsible and sweet, and he loves kids. I'm getting my heart's desire." She frowned. "In two weeks, I'm going to marry Dale and have a family of my own. Children to cuddle. A dog shedding hair on the carpet. Noisy, bustling holidays. And nothing on this earth will stop me."
"Okay, have it your way. I just don't want you to wake up in thirty years and realize you've wasted your whole life with a man who doesn't trip your trigger."
Tessa chuckled. "Gee, don't hold back. What do you really think?"
"After twenty years, you're more than my best friend—you're like my sister. We've been soul mates since our teary eyes met that first awful day of boarding school and I want you to be happy."
"No tears, see? I am happy. Very happy. Everything is on track and according to plan." She glanced at the clock again and a groan slipped out. "Except I'm out of time. Trask has been on my case all week because we're so far behind. And he'll relish throwing it in my face at the promotion interview."
"He's lucky to have you. Any woman who alphabetizes her spices and arranges her canned goods by expiration date is a pillar of organization." Mel grabbed both Tessa's hands in hers. "I'm telling you, this dress fiasco is another sign. Mark my words, Tessie, Dale is not your destiny. If you don't wise up, The Man Upstairs will resort to something drastic."
Her friend's pronouncement resonated in the throbbing pulse at Tessa's temples. Dale is not your destiny.
A shiver crawled up her spine. She shoved the eerie feeling aside. Practical and steady, she didn't believe in destiny. A person made her own fate, and her course was perfectly charted and firmly set. She wouldn't let anything thwart her lifelong dream for a family and security. Not now, not when it was finally within her reach. Tessa gave her friend a reassuring smile. "It'll be fine. Everything will run smooth and well-oiled from now on, you'll see."
The door flew open and her vault teller, Carla, burst inside. "Sorry to interrupt, but everything just went to hell. We've got customers lined up to the door. The cash shipment arrived, and needs to be verified. The kiosk ATM isn't working again, the newbie on window three is having a panic attack, and Darcy went home with that flu that's going around." She groaned. "Oh, and Mr. Trask pitched a fit because he didn't get your weekly report yet. He wants it ASAP."
Tessa sighed. As operations supervisor, her job was to ensure the branch ran efficiently, especially during Mr. Trask's frequent absences. With customers up the wazoo and another teller gone, she'd have to keep Carla at a window and manage the vault herself. That meant spending an hour after work trapped in the vault counting stacks of bills. And she had a dinner date with Dale and Lucille to discuss wedding plans. At the thought of confronting Lucille, her heart sank. According to Modern Day Bride, newlyweds fought about three major topics: money, sex and in-laws. She grimaced. Her hopes to be the exception didn't look promising.
"Give the newbie a pat on the back, tell her to take a deep breath and focus on one thing at a time. Then go back to your window. I'll count the cash."
"Maybe so, but I need you out front."
"Don't you think you should go out front? That newbie looks pretty shaky, and with Darcy sick, we're now three tellers short. And don't forget, today is payday for the biggest companies in town. I'd better do the count."
Tessa frowned. Carla usually obeyed without question. "Exactly why you belong at a station. I'll get it done as fast as possible, and I can pop out if needed in the meantime."
"But—wait—" Carla's brown eyes widened in near panic.
"I know how much you despise manning a window, but it can't be helped. Buzz if you need me."
Her face clouded with reluctance, Carla departed, and Tessa turned to Mel. "I've gotta run."
"Yeah, I know. Trask is such a bozo!" Mel huffed. "He's always gone, and he works you like a six-handed cherry picker while stalling your promotion for months." The tiny blonde planted her hands on her hips. "For five bucks, I'll take him out for you. Lucille, too. I learned two killer moves in kickboxing class last week. I'd do it for free, but I'm dead broke."
In spite of her exasperation, Tessa chuckled. "You might have defended me all through boarding school, but I'm a big girl now. I'll work things out with Trask and Lucille. Negotiation and logic."
"Negotiation and logic. Right. And sometimes, a good swift kick in the chops." Mel picked up the garment bag. "I'll return these and demand the originals back. I wouldn't have accepted them in the first place, but I knew you'd have to see 'em to believe 'em." With a wave, she headed out the door. "Bye. And think about what I said, okay?"
"I doubt I'll have time to breathe, much less think." Her friend left, and Tessa's stomach grumbled, reminding her she'd gone without lunch. Again. Since she had to stay late, she needed something to keep her on her feet. She rushed to the break room and gobbled two stale chocolate doughnuts before hustling into the vault.
Inside the locked room, she cut the first bag's seal to remove a bound package of twenties and then placed it in the money counter. The machine whirred as the crisp bills spilled into a neat rectangle. Humming "Jailhouse Rock," she picked up the next package.
The process went smoothly until the very last package, when she found a number of client payroll checks mixed in with the cash. How odd. Frowning, she flipped through the pile. The checks amounted to fifty thousand dollars and belonged in the main vault downstairs.
She had to report this serious security breach immediately.
After replacing the checks in the bag, she stepped out of the vault. An eerie silence shrouded the room, everyone frozen in place. "What's going—"
The sight of a tall man in black, his face concealed behind a black quilted nylon ski mask choked off her words. With a sick, breathless lurch, her stomach bottomed out. She had just stepped into the middle of a robbery.
Gabriel Colton watched the vault gate swing closed. The faint click echoed like a gunshot through the hushed lobby. He sized up the woman frozen in the doorway. The baggy cut of her plain brown suit nearly disguised her curvy figure, and her long chestnut curls were clasped at the nape of her neck in a conservative ponytail. This little kitten wouldn't give him any trouble.
Then his eyes locked with her sharply intelligent gaze, her golden-brown eyes wide with horror. A jolt of recognition slammed into him. For a split second, his concentration splintered. Impossible. He'd never even seen her before. He shook his head to clear it. "You the vault teller?" he snarled in his best bad-guy voice.
Her face blanched fish-belly white and she nodded.
Man, he hoped she wasn't about to pass out on him. "Get the cash delivery." His jaw clenched at the fear shimmering in her big amber eyes, but he didn't have time to reassure her. He needed to grab the goods and get out.
She stood rooted to the spot, stunned and staring.
Feeling as low-down as the guy who shot Bambi's mother, he dropped his voice to a menacing rumble. "Now! Move it, sister!"
Kitten squared her shoulders. Color flooded her cheeks. She raised her chin and shot him such a blazing glare he needed asbestos boxer shorts. He got the message loud and clear.
Uh-oh. His kitten had morphed into a lioness. No heroics, sweetheart. Please. He glared at her. "Do it!"
She hurried inside, quickly returning with six canvas bags. She stalked toward him and tossed the bags at his feet.
Gabe reached for the money, but the sight of the cut seals brought him up short. Damn! This operation was going to hell on a torpedo. "Did you look through these?"
After a heartbeat's hesitation, she nodded. Then understanding flashed across her face.
He was too late. She must have seen the checks! Gabe assessed the situation with the speed of experience and reacted on instinct. His gloved hand shot out and grabbed her wrist, hauling her up against him. She stiffened. "Pick them up," he growled into her ear. As she complied, her softly rounded bottom brushed intimately against his groin and her warm vanilla fragrance teased his senses. He shook his head. Get a grip, Colton, before all your brains rush south and get you killed.
What the hell was wrong with him? He never lost his focus. Ever. Especially not over a woman. Consciously tempering his strength, he yanked her out the entrance, hustled her to his black Corvette, and flung open the driver's side door.
His captive tried to wrench free. "What are you doing?"
"Sorry, sweetheart. You're now my hostage."
"No!" Her elbow stabbed his solar plexus.
The breath slammed out of his lungs. Gabe lost his grip and she slipped under his arm. She sprinted toward the bank and he lunged, grabbing her jacket to yank her back. "Nice try." He shoved her into the car, tossing the money behind the seat.
She tried to climb out. "I can't be your hostage. I have an important appointment this evening."
He frowned. Poor Kitten probably didn't even realize what she was saying. Damn, he hated scaring her, but if she knew anything and he left her behind, she was dead. He pushed her back inside and threw himself into the seat. As he twisted the key, she scrambled away from him, over the console.
"I won't hurt you," he attempted to reassure her. Sirens screamed, and the sweet, heady rush of adrenaline glittered through his veins. He grinned. A conscientious employee had tripped the alarm. Now life was getting interesting. Exactly the way he liked it. He turned to his wide-eyed passenger. "Fasten your seat belt." The engine roared, and he tore out of the parking lot.
The ski mask interfered with his vision, and he ripped the mask and gloves off. He'd deal with the repercussions of letting her see his face later. Right now, he had to get them out of here in one piece. He wasn't about to add either of their names to the long list of casualties on this one. His foot slammed down on the gas pedal.
"Hey!" his captive squeaked. "You're running the red lights!"
"No kidding." Chuckles burst out of him. "A traffic citation is the least of my worries, honey."
"You've committed robbery, don't add kidnapping," she said in a reasonable tone, though her shaky voice gave away her panic. "You're lengthening your sentence by at least five years. Let me go. Please."
"No time to explain. I'm taking you for your protection." He ignored the screaming sirens behind them. The 'Vette responded to his touch like a familiar lover as he wove from side to side. Revved up to sixty, the car screeched around a corner. He skidded and spun into another sharp turn and they nearly rocked up on two wheels.
A moan leaked out of his passenger and Gabe glanced over at her. Stiff and unmoving, she clutched the armrest like a life preserver, her face a bilious pea-green. Unless he missed his guess, she was about to yodel in living Technicolor. "You okay?"
"Motion sick," she murmured through white lips.
Wonderful. Just what he needed. "Take deep breaths." He stabbed the window button. Fresh air. Get the lady some fresh air.
The window slid down and Tessa leaned out like a wind-drunk poodle, gulping in cool autumn air. She clun
The police would want a description. She forced together her scattered concentration and studied her captor. Six foot one, around a hundred and ninety pounds. All hard, male muscle in a black jacket, T-shirt and snug jeans. His thick black hair was cut military-short at the sides and back and left just long enough in front to stand straight up. Long, sooty lashes fringed light-colored eyes. She couldn't see the shade in profile and the slits in the ski mask had concealed them in deep shadow before.
The shifting light played over a tanned classical face with strong cheekbones and a Roman nose. His sculpted lips were quirked in a smile over even white teeth and his square chin cradled a dimpled cleft in the center. Her gaze followed his wide shoulders downward. His lean, tanned hands-—musician's hands—controlled the wheel with grace and power.
She knew firsthand how much strength those hands possessed.
Suddenly his eyes narrowed and he sucked in a sharp breath.
She jerked her gaze to the front. A thousand yards ahead, two police cars charged toward them, blocking both lanes and thwarting their escape. She was saved! But instead of slowing down, the bank robber shifted gears, his muscled thigh tensing beneath the tight denim as he stomped on the gas. The car leapt forward at a blood-curdling speed. "What are you doing?" she yelled.
An unholy grin of pure joy split his face. He looked like he was having the time of his life! "Playing chicken."
Was he insane? Dumb question. He'd robbed a bank and was attempting to outrun the cops in a high-speed pursuit. Of course he was insane. Fear clutched at her chest as they closed the distance with incredible speed. Stay calm. Humor him. Wrestling down her dread, she tried negotiation. "Do you know how unlikely that is to work?"
He chuckled. "Never tell me the odds."
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