Miranda Steele stood in the vestibule of Holy Spirit Catholic Church on Northside Drive in Buckhead, Georgia, twisting the old-fashioned Art Deco diamond ring on her finger.
She could get through this.
Just six hours and it would all be over. She’d be on her way out of town—headed toward her last hope to find her daughter.
But the muted strains of Handel coming from the organ made her stomach churn, and her wiry hair was so weighted with gel, it felt like a wad of cotton candy under the veil she’d been forced to wear.
Her palms sweating, she peeked through the open door.
The afternoon sun streamed through the stained glass images of apostles and saints, casting a surreal light over the hundred or so out-of-town guests, who were shifting excitedly in their pews.
Miranda scratched at the stiff taffeta of her dark blue halter dress. She must be allergic to weddings. She’d sure as heck avoided them ever since her disastrous marriage to an abusive psychopath ended thirteen years ago.
The music switched to “Let it Be Me.” The old Michael Jackson song sounded kind of odd on a pipe organ. Miranda gazed down the silk-rose-and-ribbon-lined aisle and caught sight of Parker standing at the end of it.
Her mouth watered and went dry at the same time.
In his fancy tuxedo, so similar to the one he wore the night they met, he stood tall and muscular, wearing that famous, confident Wade Parker smile, a wisp of salt-and-pepper hair falling sexily over his forehead. He might be born to wealth and status, but at his core he was a shrewd, calculating private investigator who had put away killers and who bore scars on his body from street fights.
He was also the desire of every woman in Atlanta. His innate sexuality was so raw and primitive, it was all Miranda could do not to rush down the aisle and tear that tuxedo off him.
Their gazes locked for a moment and her heart swelled. As always, his gray eyes were full of tenderness, compassion, love. No human being had ever cared about her like Wade Russell Parker the Third did.
So why couldn’t she commit to him?
There was a touch on her arm. “Are you ready?”
Miranda spun around, her mouth open.
Her good buddy Joan Fanuzzi stood beside her all in coral satin, looking like a fashion model. Well, as close to it as the saucy, diminutive road crew worker could look.
Fanuzzi wasn’t a beauty queen. She had a longish nose, an oblong face and a gap between her teeth she often displayed in a big grin—unless she was pissed. Right now that face warmed Miranda’s heart.
Today, a band of crystals encircled her waist and matched the band in her dark hair. A demure veil topped off the look.
Miranda let out a breath and smiled. “You make one gorgeous bride, Fanuzzi.”
“Thanks, Murray.” Blushing, her friend nodded toward the bathroom. “Jan’s almost ready. My sister’s always been a slowpoke.” The bouquet in her hand shivered. “I can’t believe I’m marrying my childhood sweetheart. I’m so nervous.”
“Me, too.” Miranda scratched at her belly.
Fanuzzi grabbed her hand. “Don’t do that. You’ll snag the fabric.”
“Sorry.” She snorted. “I don’t know why I’ve got hives. I’m not the one in the wedding gown.”
Fanuzzi wagged her brows. “Maybe soon it’ll be you and Mr. Hot Stuff.”
Mr. Hot Stuff being Parker. Miranda opened her mouth but decided now wasn’t the time to argue about her own marital status. She gave Fanuzzi a punch on the arm. “What are you saying? You’ve got your own Mr. Hot Stuff.”
“Yeah, I do,” she said as she wiggled her fingers at the man standing beside Parker.
Miranda shook her head. It was kind of funny to see her boss next to her two best buds and fellow IITs—Investigators in Training—at the Parker Agency. Tall, lanky Curt Holloway had lost his usual suspicious air. And Becker, the groom, his short, nervous sidekick with his big dark eyes and Groucho Marx nose, had cleaned up pretty nice in a tux. He also looked like a little boy who’d just seen Santa Claus under the Christmas tree—and it was only July.
Fanuzzi and Becker made a cute couple.
“I’m so glad you brought us together,” Fanuzzi whispered in her ear.
“Don’t mention it.”
Miranda glanced over at the Ladies Room door. Still no sign of Jan. “So where are you going on your honeymoon?”
“Disney World. We’re taking the kids.”
She could imagine Becker and Fanuzzi’s three kids giving Mickey a hard time. “Sounds like a blast.”
“Guess you and Parker will have to keep Atlanta safe while my honey’s gone.”
“Guess so, except—”
Miranda stiffened. She didn’t want to talk about her plans with Parker. “We’re going out of town for a few days.”
“Really? You didn’t tell me that.” She sucked in a breath. “You two aren’t going to elope, are you?”
Miranda scowled. “Of course not. It’s no big deal. Just a trip back home.” She winced at the whopper she’d just told. It was a very big deal. Possibly, the biggest deal of her life.
Three weekends ago, in a hotel in Helen, Georgia, her ace investigator boss had given her his best plan to find Amy, the daughter who’d been stolen from Miranda thirteen years ago. They were leaving tonight to follow up on it.
“That sounds nice.” Fanuzzi looked disappointed there wouldn’t be another wedding. “How long since you’ve been back?”
“Back home?” Miranda shrugged. “A while.”
“Really? How long?”
Uncomfortable, Miranda shifted her weight. How could this woman twist so much personal information out of her? “Long time. Over a decade, really.”
“Wow. You must be so excited after all those years.”
“Yeah.” Like celebrating the thirteenth anniversary of your decapitation. “Oh, here’s Jan.” Saved by the bridesmaid.
Fanuzzi’s sister emerged from the john, dressed in a tall, slim-cut version of the same dark blue outfit Miranda had on.
“Sorry I took so long.” Jan whispered with excitement.
Fanuzzi squeezed her hand. “I’m not gonna fuss at you today.” All smiles, she gave the organist a nod and the airy tones switched to the Beatles song, “In My Life.” She sucked in her breath. “That’s our cue.”
“Go on,” her friend hissed through her teeth.
But she couldn’t move. The idea of sashaying down the aisle of a church turned her into a block of ice.
“Murray? You okay?”
With all the will power she had, Miranda shook herself. No way she was going to ruin her friend’s wedding. “I’m fine. Just fine and dandy.”
Slowly she pivoted on her high heel. She could do it. One foot in front of the other. Easy as pie. Her lips quivering in a smile, she started down the aisle.