Yes, I’m a single dad who needs a nanny for the summer.
But hire the stranded runaway bride who shows up on my doorstep in a wedding gown with no references, no skills, and no experience?
No one is that desperate.
Except within twenty-four hours, down-on-her-luck Veronica Sutton manages to charm my kids, my family, and half the population of Cherry Tree Harbor into believing she’s perfect for the job.
And for me.
It’s not that I can’t see the appeal–those baby blue eyes? The endless legs? That mouth made for trouble? But I’ve got enough on my plate, raising two kids on my own and keeping the family business alive. I don’t have the time or the inclination to fall for an outspoken city girl.
So I should have kept my hands to myself.
Holding her in my arms was a big mistake. Even worse? Spending the night together. She ignites a possessive fire in me that I’m finding hard to snuff out.
But the most unforgivable? Growing attached to the sound of her laugh, the scent of her skin, and the way her body wraps around mine in the dark.
At the end of the summer, she’ll be gone.
And if I’m not careful, she might run away with my heart.
Release date: May 4, 2023
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Runaway Love: A Small Town Single Dad Romance
Sometimes, when the universe wants you to change the course of your life, it sends you a sign.
Perhaps a recurring dream. Or you keep seeing the same numbers everywhere. Or hearing the same song over and over again.
I got a sext.
I had very little experience with sexting—none at all, really—but in my opinion, this one wasn’t bad.
It was from my fiancé, Cornelius “Neil” Vanderhoof V.
Hey Valerie. I can’t stop thinking about your naked body in my bed last night. Your sexy mouth. Those hands all over me. The way I licked every inch of your skin.
There were even some emojis. An eggplant. A cat. Some raindrops.
While I was taking it all in, another text arrived.
Suddenly I was subjected to an up-close and personal pic of the Vanderhoof family jewels, making it very clear that Neil was eager to repeat last night’s activities, right now if possible.
Look how bad I want you right now. Think we have time for an afternoon delight?
An afternoon delight?
There were a few obvious problems with this.
First, my name wasn’t Valerie.
Second, I hadn’t been in his bed last night.
Finally, we were going to be busy this afternoon.
In fact, I was already tucked away in the little “bride’s room” off the vestibule of Cherry Tree Harbor’s charming little Chapel by the Sea. I was wearing the big white strapless dress Neil had liked best. My veil was pinned above the elegant chignon he had suggested. My makeup had been professionally done, and it was understated and classic—just like Neil had requested. He’d even sent me a photo from Pinterest so I could get the look just right.
A natural eye. A faint blush on the cheeks. A demure, nude lip.
“But I like a red lip,” I said.
“I know you do, teacup, but that’s more of a showy thing, isn’t it? Like stage makeup?”
My shoulders stiffened. Was that a dig at my past? When Neil and I met, I was a Radio City Rockette. He was in the audience one night, and he said when the curtain went up, he took one look at me and knew in an instant he had to have me. He waited with flowers at the stage door every night for a week before I finally gave in and had dinner with him.
“It’s just that Mother would prefer we keep things toned down,” he went on.
“Things like my personality?”
“Don’t make such a fuss, teacup. It’s just lipstick. And you know how she is.”
Did I ever.
I’d been putting up with Bootsy Vanderhoof’s subtle judgment and criticism for a solid year. She handed out her opinions like they were gold coins, about everything from my wardrobe (too black) to my job (too splashy) to my complexion (too pale) to my laugh (too loud).
“Yes,” I said through my teeth.
“Good.” Neil had given me a patronizing kiss on the cheek—he’d perfected that move—and moved on to how he’d prefer me to wear flats with my wedding dress instead of heels. He wasn’t short, but I was a solid five-foot-ten, and two-inch heels made us about even in stature.
This was not in keeping with the way Neil saw the world.
“But Neil,” I said, “I wore heels when I had my final fitting. If I wear flats with my dress, it will be too long.”
“No need to fuss, the shop will hem it for you,” he said confidently. “We’ve still got two weeks, and we’re certainly good enough customers. All three of my sisters bought their wedding gowns there.” His voice took on the haughty tone of someone who’d done a massive favor for you that you didn’t properly appreciate. “The Vanderhoof family has practically kept that shop in business.”
I pressed my lips together. I knew alllll about his three older sisters’ weddings—where they bought their gowns and what flowers they carried and what foods were served at dinner and what music was played at the yacht club receptions. Every one of them had done practically the same exact thing, as if the same June wedding was on repeat three years in a row—ours would be the fourth. The guests had to feel like they were in the movie Groundhog Day at this point.
But if I’d learned anything in the last year, it was that the Vanderhoofs of Chicago’s Gold Coast believed in tradition. Tradition ruled the day. You did not ignore it, buck it, or break it. You didn’t dare criticize it. You embraced it, reverently, eagerly, yet nonchalantly—no one likes a fuss—and then the Vanderhoofs would approve of you.
And the crazy thing was, I’d wanted that approval. I’d worked so hard to earn it, to be treated like I fit in to their family. Twelve months of allowing myself to be shaped into a different person. Of trying to distract myself from grief. Of doing my best to keep a promise I never should have made in the first place. I’d been so desperate to belong.
But as I stared at those texts, it was like a fog began to lift.
This was all wrong.
I didn’t want to marry him.
And he didn’t really want to marry me—not the real me, anyway.
I glanced at my phone again, certain that this wasn’t the first time he’d cheated and would not be the last.
There had been several times over the last year that I’d suspected Neil wasn’t entirely faithful—the smell of a strange perfume on his clothes, a flirtatious wink at a pub waitress, a knowing look exchanged among his male co-workers at the office Christmas party.
He always brushed aside my worries or had a decent enough excuse, but doubt lingered at the back of my mind. His father was a notorious cheat—a philanderer, whispered the ladies at tennis—and Neil had been groomed his entire life to step into his father’s polished wing tips.
Like father, like son, was what everyone said about them.
“I don’t want to marry him,” I said out loud. “I don’t want his name or his money or his Lake Shore Drive high-rise or his family connections. I don’t need to be Veronica Vanderhoof—I’ll be plain old Roni Sutton, and I’m fine with that.”
“Are you okay, dear?”
I jumped at the sound of the voice behind me.
It was Irene, the church’s wedding coordinator, who’d entered the room so quietly I hadn’t heard her.
“Yes.” I was surprised at how calm I sounded. “I’m actually okay.”
Irene moved closer to me with tentative steps, hugging her clipboard to her chest. “Are you sure?” She glanced around the empty room. “Where are your friends? I thought you had . . .” She checked her notes. “Three bridesmaids?”
“I do, but they’re not my friends. They’re the groom’s sisters. I think they’re with the family, greeting guests.”
“Oh. I see.” Her eyes moved down the page. “No maid of honor?”
“She had a baby two days ago, so she couldn’t make it.” I felt a pang of longing for Morgan, who’d been so loyal to me.
“And no father of the bride, correct? You’ll be unescorted down the aisle?”
I wasn’t going to walk down the aisle, escorted or otherwise, but Irene didn’t need to know that yet.
“That’s the plan,” I said.
Suddenly I was grateful for the sneakers hidden beneath the ballgown skirt of my newly hemmed dress, rather than the ivory Chanel ballet flats Neil had gifted me last week. It had felt like a monumental act of defiance to wear them, even if they couldn’t be seen—I saw it now as a little sign that not all of my spirit had been snuffed out.
Also, I might have to make a hasty exit.
“Well, try to relax.” Irene smiled without showing any teeth. “Guests are starting to arrive, but you’ve got about thirty more minutes.”
“Actually, could you send Neil in here?”
Irene looked aghast and steepled her fingers above her pearls. “Neil? The groom?”
“But it’s before the wedding! You can’t see each other before the wedding.”
“I know what the tradition is. Just send him in.” Hopefully he didn’t still have his hand in his pants when she found him.
Scandalized, she left the room. I glanced at my phone again, rereading the words he’d sent Valerie, his assistant. She’d worked for him for about six months, a pretty young blonde I’d heard Bootsy refer to behind one hand as a “social climber.”
She must have stayed last night at the Vanderhoof’s sprawling summer home overlooking the bay (they referred to it as a “cottage,” but the place had eight bedrooms, a tennis court, and a name—they called it Rosethorn), although I found it hard to believe Bootsy had issued such an invitation. Maybe Neil had snuck her in.
I’d stayed at a quaint little inn just off Main Street that was walking distance from the salon and spa where Morgan and I had made hair and makeup appointments. After she’d called me sobbing that she wouldn’t be able to come in from New York since she was going into early labor, Bootsy had suggested I keep the reservation since all the bedrooms at Rosethorn would be occupied by family. Neil hadn’t argued.
More missed signs.
As I stuck my phone back into my bag, I remembered why I’d been digging through it in the first place. After studying my classic and understated makeup in the full-length mirror bolted to one wall, I’d decided I looked so unlike myself that I’d started to panic.
Getting married shouldn’t mean losing yourself completely, right? I knew marriage took patience, acceptance, and compromise, but did it have to take beige lipstick?
I’d decided to add a little bit of color to my look—I’d stuck my own makeup case in my bag—and was hunting for the tube of Don’t F*ck With Me, my favorite shade of red, when I noticed the new text on my phone from Neil.
Pulling the head-turning color from the small, zippered bag now, I took out the tube and painted a bright, confident, badass red over the demure nude on my lips. I rubbed them together, puckered, and squared my shoulders.
“I’m calling it off,” I promised the girl in the mirror. “I don’t know where I go from here, but it won’t be with him.”
At the knock on the door, I jumped. “Come in!”
“Veronica, what is this?” Neil yelled through the door. “I’m not supposed to see you.”
“Oh, just come in,” I said crossly, shoving the lipstick back into my bag. “I’m not in the mood to play games.”
“Mother said absolutely not.”
I fumed, my nostrils flaring. “Fine. Then I’ll come out.”
“I don’t think that’s a good idea. Just stay where you belong, and we can talk later.”
But I was done following his commands. I’d let him tell me what to do ever since he put a ring on my finger, as if the diamond gave him the right.
I flung open the door to see my fiancé standing there, looking handsome in his tux but undeniably perturbed. The famous slab-like Vanderhoof chin, identical to his father’s and grandfather’s, was thrust forward and rigid. He ran a hand over his impeccably styled dark blond hair without really touching it. “Is this necessary, teacup?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said, glancing behind him at the guests entering the vestibule. “And I didn’t want to do it out here, but I will if I must.”
“Is this about the lipstick?” His eyes narrowed as he focused on my mouth. “Because I thought we agreed, no red.”
“It’s not about the lipstick. I got your texts.”
“What texts?” Now his eyes shifted toward the church’s double doors, which were propped open to the June sunshine. His family stood on the steps.
“Of course, you got my name wrong—it’s Veronica, not Valerie—or maybe it’s me who had it all wrong when I said yes to this wedding.”
Neil’s tanned complexion, golden from hours spent on the outdoor tennis courts or sailing on The Silver Spoon, his family’s boat, suddenly went pallid. “What?”
“You texted the wrong woman, Neil. And you cheated on me.”
Understanding of his error registered, and shock crossed his face. But he cleared his throat and composed himself quickly. “Veronica, please. Don’t make a fuss. People can hear you.”
“Well, if you’d have listened to me, we could be having this discussion behind closed doors. But you always think you know best.”
People behind Neil were politely pretending nothing was wrong and making their way into the sanctuary. He glanced over his shoulder again and tried to take me by the arm, as if he wanted to steer me into the bride’s room, but it was too late for that.
I shook off his hand. “I’ve had it, Neil. I can’t believe I’ve wasted so much time trying to be someone I’m not.”
“Veronica, what’s come over you?”
“Do you even love me?”
“I’m marrying you, aren’t I?”
“My god.” I put the heels of my hands to my forehead. If the sext was a road sign, this conversation was like being knocked over the head with an iron skillet. “No. You are not marrying me.”
“What are you talking about? The wedding is today.” He adjusted his cuffs. “You are the bride, I am the groom, and we can deal with this misunderstanding tomorrow.”
“This isn’t a misunderstanding. It’s a betrayal. And it’s one I should have seen coming.” I shook my head. “I’ve been a complete fool.”
His eyes hardened. “On the contrary. Saying yes to me was the smartest thing you’ve ever done. I’m giving you a life you’d never be able to afford.”
“I don’t care about the money.”
“Your mother did.” Neil knew where to stick the knife. “On her deathbed, your mother asked me to take care of you, and I said I would give you everything you ever wanted, and you’d never have to worry about money again. All you had to do was say yes.”
“And I did. Because I’d promised her I would at least give this life a chance. But your money can’t give me what I want.”
Neil laughed, a dismissive huff. “Of course it can. The only people who say money can’t buy happiness are those who don’t have any. Money can buy everything.”
I lifted my chin. “I’m not for sale.”
“Darling, everything—and everybody—is for sale. Now get back in that room before Mother sees you out here. And wipe off that lipstick.”
I folded my arms over my chest. “No.”
“We’re getting married today,” he said furiously, pointing a finger at the ground between us. “And that’s final.”
“And if I refuse to marry you?”
“You wouldn’t dare. Because you realize, teacup,” he said, a sneer on his lips, “that I own or control everything you have. Our apartment. Your job. Your credit cards. Your car. Your phone.”
“You might as well add my friends and my clothes and my personality too,” I told him. “You took everything I was and replaced it with who you wanted me to be. You made it impossible to leave.”
“And you went along with it, because you knew it was in your best interest.” He looked smug. “Face it. I’m the best thing that ever happened to you. You’re nothing without me.”
Fuck you was on the tip of my tongue, but since nothing I said seemed to be sinking in, I kept my mouth shut. Clearly, I was going to have to get more dramatic if I wanted to make my point.
And if I know how to do anything, it’s put on a show.
I adopted a serene expression, as if I’d given in. “Okay, Neil. You can have it your way.”
Neil nodded. “That’s more like it. I’ll see you at the altar.”
I watched him walk away and almost felt sorry for him.
He had no idea what was coming.
* * *
Twenty minutes later, I still wore the angelic smile as I glided up the aisle on my own, the pews on either side packed with Vanderhoof family and friends. Neil looked a bit put out that I hadn’t wiped off the red lipstick, but he could hardly throw a fit about it now. The first half of the ceremony passed in a blur, the voice of the minister muffled and far away, my pulse quick and loud inside my head.
Then came the vows.
Neil and I faced each other. He looked sweaty and annoyed. I felt surprisingly cool and composed.
“Cornelius,” said the minister, “do you take Veronica to be your wedded wife, to live together in marriage? Do you promise to love her, comfort her, honor and keep her for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and health, and forsaking all others, be faithful only to her, for as long as you both shall live?”
“I do,” said Neil.
What a crock of shit, I thought.
“And Veronica, do you take Cornelius to be your wedded husband, to live together in marriage? Do you promise to love him, comfort him, honor and keep him for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and health and forsaking all others, be faithful only to him, for as long as you both shall live?”
I pretended to think it over, then shook my head. “Nah.”
The minister’s expression was confused, as if I’d spoken a foreign language. “I’m sorry?”
“I don’t take him.”
“Veronica.” Neil spoke through his teeth, his eyes warning me to stick to the script. “Say the words.”
“No way. You’re not the boss of me.”
His eyes hardened. “Stop this ridiculousness right now. You’re acting like a silly little girl.”
“I’ve been acting like a silly little girl for a year. Now I’m acting like a grown woman capable of making her own decisions. And I’m not going to marry you.”
The minister looked completely baffled. The guests had started to get anxious, and I could hear tense murmurs echo throughout the sanctuary. Possibly a snicker or two.
“Goodbye, Neil.” I started to walk back down the aisle and he grabbed my shoulder, spinning me around to face him again.
“You can’t leave me,” he said, his neck stretched forward like a goose. “I chose you. I pursued you. I rescued you from that tacky, low-class life and offered you a place in real society. I won’t be dumped by a—a—two-bit, uneducated, red-lipped showgirl!”
The crowd gasped.
“Showgirl!” Shrinking back, I gathered up my dress in my hands, revealing my sneakers. “I am a motherfucking Radio City Rockette, you two-timing, overgrown frat boy, and I’ve got more class in my pinkie toe than you’ll ever have!”
And I let loose with a ball-change, grande battement that caught him squarely beneath the Vanderhoof chin.
“Ow!” Neil grabbed his jaw. “Veronica, what the hell are you doing?”
“I’m making a fuss!” I shouted joyfully. Then I threw the bouquet on the floor, pitched my engagement ring at his chest, hiked up the bottom of my dress, and took off running.
I was broke, I was stranded, and I was probably homeless.
But I was free.
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