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Runaway Groom

Saved by Desire Series

Book Nine





Rebecca King

© Rebecca King 2018



























“What’s wrong?” Ben whispered out of the corner of his mouth.

He studied the groom’s face and knew his friend, Jasper, was a worried man. Tension lines hovered around the corners of Jasper’s mouth. When combined with the deep furrows on his brow, it was evident to anybody with eyes in their head that Jasper was tormented.

“God, Ben,” Jasper swore with a heavy sigh.

He shifted nervously from one foot to the other and struggled not to look over his shoulder for the thousandth time. It was difficult not to look longingly at the main church doors several feet behind him, but it wasn’t because he was eager to see his bride. He dreaded the moment Cecily, his bride-to-be, appeared in the doorway, and blocked his means of escape.

“Second thoughts?” Ben teased, only half-joking. He made no attempt to hide his grin when Jasper threw him a look that was frantic. Ben’s mirth vanished instantly, though, when that frantic look turned dark. It was then that Ben realised something was terribly wrong. He shifted uneasily, and glanced warily around the church in search of a way to ease his friend’s sudden doubts.

“Are you all right?” he mouthed when he could offer his friend nothing else in the way of encouragement or support. Nothing came to mind because, as far as Ben was concerned, anybody who willingly married was a fool.

“No, I am not,” Jasper declared firmly, not caring who overheard them. “Not at all.”

Ben went still. His gaze sharpened as he studied his friend’s face more carefully, and saw the chilling intent in Jasper’s eye.

“What is it? What’s wrong?” he prompted with a furtive glance at the door.

Jasper didn’t laugh nervously and assure him everything was fine after all as Ben expected, and almost willed him to do. To his consternation, when he followed Jasper’s blank stare, he too found himself looking longingly at the vestry door. Ben knew that if Jasper made a bolt for the door he would be able to out-run him, but did he want to? Could he really force his friend to return to the church and go through with a wedding he clearly wasn’t happy with? Ben knew he wouldn’t want to ever be forced into marriage. He knew he couldn’t be the one to make Jasper enter such a lifelong curse, no matter who he was to be married to.

What he couldn’t understand was why Jasper had agreed to the wedding if it wasn’t something he wanted.

“What is her name again?” Ben whispered, hoping to engage his friend in his wife’s many attributes, and distract him enough that he forgot his apparent need to flee.

To his surprise, Jasper’s lip curled. Rather than answer, Jasper shook his head almost morosely.

“I thought you wanted this,” Ben hissed, his voice sharp.

“No, I don’t,” Jasper replied firmly. “This was a big mistake. I should never have gone this far.”

Ben lifted a brow. “Gone how far?” he murmured.

Unsurprisingly, Jasper didn’t answer. All sorts of possible situations flew through Ben’s mind, but he was at a loss to see how anybody could have forced a strong, capable man like Jasper to the altar against his will. Now was not the time to ask, though, but he would, just as soon as they were away from the church.

Because of the presence of the unusually small congregation behind them, a stilted silence settled between Ben and his friend. With each minute that ticked by, even Ben, a usually calm and unflappable fellow, began to feel on-edge. He couldn’t quite shake the feeling that everyone was waiting for something to happen, but it had nothing to do with a wedding. Strangely, he didn’t think there was going to be a wedding today.

“Damn,” he muttered.

“What?” Jasper grunted.

“You are not going to do it, are you?”

Ben shook his head in disbelief when Jasper didn’t reassure him. In desperation, he looked sideways at the woman sitting at the end of the pew. He knew that if anybody had any clue what was going on, or was able to talk Jasper out of abandoning his wedding, Beth would. From the look on her face, it appeared she too realised something was horribly wrong, and was willing her brother to look at her. Of course, he didn’t. He was too busy staring at the exit before him.

“Don’t do anything rash,” Ben whispered once he had torn his gaze away from Jasper’s stunning sister, Beth.

This was the first time he had met her in person. It was safe to say that Jasper’s description of his younger sibling hadn’t done her any justice. Beth, or Beth to those of her acquaintance, was small, petite even, and more rounded than the women who usually drew his attention. Her glossy black hair was piled atop her head in a tidy cascade of curls which bobbed about her face gaily whenever she moved. They cupped the delicate oval of her face, and caressed her jaw ever so slightly, in a way he knew she found annoying. He watched a small hand flick away an annoying curl that persisted in teasing her cheek, and was unsurprised to see a tiny frown appear on her brow.

Maybe that frown has more to do with her brother, he mused wryly as he watched her throw her brother a slightly affronted look.

He turned a thoughtful gaze on Jasper, who appeared to be becoming more alarmed by the second, and wondered what on earth was going on. The longer he stood amongst the congregation, waiting for the service to begin, the more he began to suspect he was the odd one out by not having any secrets. It was obvious that both Beth and Jasper had them, the biggest one of all was why the wedding had been planned in the first place.

I should never have agreed to be his best man, Ben mused. But it was too late to back out now. Having recently attended Kerrigan’s wedding, he hadn’t seen anything wrong with accepting Jasper’s plea for help, and being his best man for one of the most important days of his friend’s life. He had been on his way back to London anyway, and had been practically passing Jasper’s house. What could possibly be wrong with stopping for a while and being a part of something so important?

What could possibly be wrong indeed? Ben sighed ruefully. Everything, it appears.

“The groom not wanting to marry evidently,” he murmured.

“Eh? What’s that?” Jasper demanded imperiously.

Ben lifted his brows. “Calm down, old man. She will be here soon.”

Jasper threw him a dour look, as though it was all Ben’s fault, and turned his gaze back to the vestry door.

Ben glanced down the aisle but couldn’t see Jasper’s bride yet. Mentally, he began to pray that she wouldn’t be too long, not least because he was curious to know what she looked like. Jasper was undoubtedly a handsome man. It was only reasonable to assume he would warrant an equally engaging wife, wouldn’t he? Ben began to wonder if that was indeed the case, and if so why Jasper would want to do something rash like abandon her at the altar, like he was quite obviously going to do.

“Just calm down,” Ben soothed quietly, now desperate himself to stop the debacle unfolding. “It will all be fine.”

“No, it won’t,” Jasper snapped, his voice sharp and panic-stricken.

“You asked her to marry you, didn’t you?” Ben demanded.

To his shock, Jasper began to shake his head. At first slowly, the vigour of his denial increased the longer Jasper moved.

“No?” Ben snorted. “You didn’t ask her?”

Jasper continued to shake his head. “No. You don’t understand.”

“Understand what?” Ben persisted.

“I can’t do it,” Jasper bit out, his voice barely above a whisper.

Ben went still. “What do you mean, you can’t do it?”

“Get me out of here,” Jasper pleaded. “I can’t do it.”

“But you must,” Ben protested. “You can’t just leave. What will the congregation think? They have all come here to see you marry her.”

“I don’t care. This isn’t a show,” Jasper snapped.

Ben looked at Beth, silently pleading with her to do something. Before he could speak, the vicar signalled that it was time to start the ceremony.

Ben glanced over his shoulder and mentally groaned when he saw a quite large woman of indeterminable age standing at the end of the aisle. The superior, almost smug look on her face as her gaze ran over the reluctant congregation could only be described as spitefully arrogant. It was so imperious that it immediately made Ben dislike her. It was safe to say that she was no natural beauty either. Her pock-marked complexion and slightly greasy hair, coiled in a haphazard style which resembled an unkempt bush perched atop her head, together with a buxom form confined quite forcefully in a dubiously ill-fitting gown, was not the kind of woman he could ever see married to a man as handsome and debonair as Jasper.

“What the Hell have you done?” Ben growled. He looked at his friend who, after that first panicked look over his shoulder, faced forward and didn’t move.

“Shit,” Jasper snapped.

Ben looked back at the bride. Or, rather, the great bear of a man whose chest was puffed out with self-important pride beside her. Their eyes met. From his time within the Star Elite, Ben had learned to spot a scoundrel from twenty feet away, and knew that Jasper’s soon-to-be father-in-law was trouble. Stature aside, there was something almost bullish about him that was distinctly unnerving. His heavy jowls and bulldog eyes gave him a heavy set, almost street-fighter appearance that made Ben instinctively tense in readiness. His gaze fell on the three younger men, identical in size and girth as well as meanness to their father, and knew that they were all nothing more than thugs – street thugs - and were most definitely people to avoid.

Suddenly, the tension within the church increased tenfold. The congregation on Jasper’s side of the church all shifted uneasily and began to look almost fearful of the new arrivals. Ben studied them. He suspected most of them were locals; friends of Jasper and his sister. All were neatly turned out, of clean-cut appearance and, although clearly on edge, were sitting politely while they waited for the service to begin.

In contrast, on the bride’s side, the disparity of social status was clear to see. While there were more people on the bride’s side of the church, they all looked as surly and menacing as the bride and her family. None of them were sitting calmly. Most were openly chatting, engaged in raucous laughter, or slapping each other and throwing insults about as if they were in a tavern in an evening. There was nothing remotely respectful about any of them, and it was clear to everyone that none of them had ever learned the proper etiquette of being in a place of worship.

Instantly, Ben understood why Jasper didn’t want to marry into it. Again, he had to wonder what Jasper had gotten himself involved with to lead him to this situation in the first place. While he didn’t have the answer to that yet, what he did know was that there was going to be a heck of a lot of trouble before the day ended.

I can only be grateful they don’t look agile enough to outrun us, he mused as he studied the man’s ample girth.

Suddenly, Jasper shifted. Ben’s gaze flew to his.

“Sorry,” Jasper murmured.

Ben opened his mouth to speak but didn’t get the chance to do anything more than draw breath before Jasper began to move.

“Look after Beth for me,” he whispered.

“What?” Ben called, but Jasper had already gone. He had lunged toward the vestry door with a speed that was alarming, and slammed out of the church without a backward look.

“Jesus,” Ben whispered as he watched the door slam closed. He glared at Beth, who looked blankly back at him before she too lunged for the door.

Determined to find out what was going on, Ben started to follow her, but stopped again when the oaf in the doorway began to bluster – loudly.

“What in the blazes?” Drummond Calhoun, Cecily’s father blustered. “Get him back here now.”

Ben slammed to a halt and glared at the man. He threw the men who began to surge down the aisle toward him a daring look. He lifted an arrogant brow and placed a hand on his stomach.

“A few last minute nerves. He will be back in a moment,” he called, even though affability was the last thing he was feeling right now.

Without waiting to see if that sorry tale was believed, Ben went after his friend, fervently hoping that Beth had used the few precious minutes head-start he had given her to leave the churchyard.

To his disgust, he got outside just in time to watch Jasper’s horse vault over the low stone wall at the rear of the churchyard. Jasper was hunched low over the saddle, too intent on his flight to bother to look behind him. If he had, he would have realised just how precarious a situation he had left his sister in.

“Damn it all to Hell,” Ben growled, placing his hands on his hips.

“Where is he going?” Beth cried.

“How the Hell should I know,” Ben snapped.

Beth glared at him. “Don’t swear. You are in a church yard, you know.”

Ben threw her a sarcastic look and waved to his tall, formally clad frame. “Do you think I dress like this for fun?” he challenged.

Before she could answer, he headed toward his horse.

“Where are you going?” Beth demanded, panic stricken at the thought that he might vanish too. “You can’t just leave.”

“I am going to see where your brother has gone,” Ben sighed. “You cannot have a wedding without a groom, can you?”

“But there can’t be a wedding now. The groom has gone. Even if you do find him, he won’t come back,” Beth protested. “You need to help me deal with that lot.”

Ben looked at the church. He knew they only had seconds before the angry father-in-law and his sons appeared, and looked dubiously at Beth. He wanted to leave, and let her deal with it, but couldn’t bring himself to simply abandon her to such sordid people.

It’s a bit like feeding a lamb to the wolves, he mused with a heavy sigh.

Still, he didn’t dismount as he knew he should do.

Beth scowled up at him when he was seated atop his horse. She placed her hands on her hips and positioned herself directly in the horse’s path so that Ben had no choice but to stop and speak with her. She saw his heavy sigh and purposefully ignored the slight pang of hurt that began to form somewhere in the region of her chest.

She had no idea why Ben seemed to dislike her so much. As far as she was concerned, she had neither done or said anything to have caused him any offense. They had barely spoken before today. Why, then, did he seem to hate her? Beth hadn’t a clue, but his dislike of her had never been more obvious than it was now. The glare he was giving her at present was so full of arrogant distaste that she wanted to slap him.

He can barely be civil to me, she thought morosely.

She only allowed herself a moment of melancholy, though. Within seconds, she squared her shoulders and glared up at him almost militarily.

“Isn’t it the best man’s job to help in situations like this?” she snapped. “Am I to take it that you are shirking your duties?”

Ben’s brows lifted.

“I am here to support your brother. That’s my job,” Ben retorted coldly. “Ergo, where he goes, I go. So, I am going after your brother, and that’s the end of it.”

“Is it?” she challenged. “But he has already gone. Do you know this area? Do you have any idea where he is heading?”

Ben mentally cursed because they both knew he didn’t.

“So, you don’t know,” Beth challenged.

“He has gone that way.” Ben pointed to the rapidly retreating figure disappearing into the trees at the edge of the village as though she couldn’t already see it. “I need to get after him before he is gone for good.”

Beth wanted to protest and assure him that Jasper would come back eventually. Even with all its problems at present, Meddlemead was his home after all. But then she remembered who was inside the church and suspected that it might be a long time yet before her brother was able to come back, assuming Jasper wanted to return at all.

“I can’t deal with those people on my own,” Beth hissed.

“Let me take you home then,” Ben suggested. “If you stay here you will have to deal with them, won’t you?”

Beth opened her mouth to speak but the loud bang of the vestry door being slammed open shattered the silence of the morning.


“Oh, no,” she moaned when Calhoun lumbered, panting heavily, out of the church, his sons and angry daughter behind him.

After a brief search of the church yard, Calhoun’s spiteful gaze fell upon Beth, who glared back at him with such belligerence that Ben did a double-take and scowled at her. He knew it would be unwise for her to challenge men like Calhoun, but it was too late to warn her. Sensing danger was afoot, Ben calmed his horse and watched carefully while he waited to see what happened.

“Where is he?” Calhoun demanded loudly.

“He has gone home. He has made a mess of his shirt,” Beth lied.

She threw a look at Ben and wondered if he would take her to task for her deceit. When he merely studied Calhoun as though he were an insect Ben had never seen before, Beth heaved a sigh of relief and turned her attention to how she was going to avoid the forthcoming fracas.

“Get him back here at once,” Calhoun ordered.

“I would, but I don’t have a horse,” Beth murmured unhelpfully, seeing no reason why she should jump to his command. “He will be back to marry your precious daughter.”

Beth threw both Cecily and Calhoun an arch look, leaving both bride and father in no doubt about what she thought about them. When Calhoun began to bluster, Beth promptly turned her back on them both and glared at Ben.

“I will go and fetch him. You stay here. The congregation will be happier if they know you are here waiting for him to come back,” Beth argued.

Ben was already shaking his head. He had no intention of spending the rest of the day trying to calm an unsettled congregation when he knew the bridegroom was never going to return.

Well, not unless he is at the wrong end of a pistol, in any case, Ben thought ruefully.

“No, you stay here and settle that lot and I will go and find – fetch – your brother,” Ben corrected.

Beth mentally cursed at his faux pas and glared at him as her temper began to stir. She was in the process of contemplating whether to just ignore him and leave when a hard, cruel hand suddenly clamped around her elbow.

“Ow!” she cried. “What are you doing? Unhand me at once.”

She looked up, straight into the fierce gaze of Cecily’s father and immediately clenched her fist. The man was, without doubt, a bully of the worst sort and took advantage of being able to use his sizeable weight against her. Still, Beth was made of stern stuff and had learned a trick or two during her three and twenty years. Within seconds, and a flick and twist of her wrist, she twisted Calhoun’s hand around until he was forced to release her. Within second she was free, and able to put several feet of distance between them. Once safely out of arm’s reach, she turned an evil glare on the belligerent oaf.

“Don’t you dare manhandle me again,” she seethed.

Calhoun, coldly furious that his precious daughter had just been abandoned at the altar, leaned toward her. Beth wrinkled her nose when she was hit with the fetid stench of the man’s warm, alcohol-laden breath. She turned away to try to avoid it, but could do little about shutting the man up.

“Now you listen to me, missy, I demand you get that brother of yours back here at once. Do you hear me? If you don’t then I am going to ruin him. You owe me, and I intend to take payment. Here. Today. Got it?”

“We owe you nothing, and you know it,” Beth retorted coldly.

She tipped her chin up belligerently even though deep inside she was mentally cursing her brother for being such a coward. While she knew they owed Calhoun nothing, she needed Jasper to be there to prove it. Otherwise, she ran the risk of denying something Jasper hadn’t told her about.

Damn you, Jasper. You should never have agreed to this ridiculous wedding in the first place. Why? Why? Why?

“Well, I say you do. He, that brother of yours has run up debts, see? I want those debts clearing. Seeing as you can’t pay them, your brother can marry my daughter,” Calhoun informed her.

“My brother has not run any debts up with you at all, and you know it,” Beth protested.

“I say he does,” Calhoun snarled, getting more and more furious by the second.

Beth snorted. “Well, I say he doesn’t. Show me your invoice then,” she challenged. “Where is your bill of business? Show me those before you claim we owe you anything. As far as everyone in this area knows you have no viable trade. My brother certainly doesn’t move about in your circles. There is no earthly reason why he should borrow anything from you. He has enough money of his own. We don’t owe you a single penny, so I suggest you stop trying to defraud us and go away. My brother doesn’t want to marry your ridiculous excuse for a daughter, and that is the end of it.”

Beth flicked a disparaging glance at the woman standing a few feet behind her father. At nine and twenty, she had long since been left on the shelf, and Beth suspected everyone knew why. It was little wonder Calhoun had struggled to find his daughter a husband. Not only had his reputation grown as a thug and outright scoundrel, whose activities were hidden, and wealth grew at other people’s expense, but his daughter’s snobbish and spiteful reputation had become legendary in the area. If that hadn’t been bad enough, the woman’s unfortunate looks mimicked her father’s, although were considerably more effeminate. With her rounded frame, and small, spiteful eyes, it still left Beth perplexed that her tall, handsome brother had even dared to agree to marry the dreadful creature, and risk spending the rest of his life related to the thug, Calhoun. She couldn’t even begin to suggest what on earth had possessed him to think, even for a second, that it was a good idea, but he had.

It left her to question whether Jasper had run up the debts Calhoun claimed he owed, or if there was something else going on she didn’t know about. She could only fervently hope it was the latter, and that they didn’t owe Calhoun anything.

“God, you are merciless, aren’t you? You are so desperate to make something of yourself that you will even try to sell that,” Beth bit out as she pointed to Cecily, who looked outraged at the slur against her.

“I don’t have to prove anything to you, missy,” Calhoun declared arrogantly.

“Yes, you do. If you want my family to pay you a single penny, you prove that Jasper owes you something,” Beth protested. “It’s not an unreasonable request. Why are you trying to force him to marry that? Do you know something? I don’t care what you think you are doing, you are not going to get away with it. My brother isn’t getting married. Now, go away, and take that dreadful daughter of yours with you.”

Calhoun’s face turned puce. When he leaned threateningly toward her, Beth immediately stepped back, but not because she was frightened by him. When she saw a hint of malicious glee in his eyes when he began to suspect she was cowed by him, Beth threw him a filthy glare.

“Do you not consider ever chewing mint? It might help your breath, you know,” she ground out as she turned away and pulled a face.

Calhoun’s pudgy eyes popped wide. He let out a growl but, when one meaty hand reached up to her throat, Ben had seen enough. He dropped off his horse with a speed that was so swift nobody noticed he had even moved until he had Calhoun by the throat. Unable to lift the heavy man off the ground, Ben contented himself with squeezing the heavy jowls tight and leaning forward.

“Touch her again, and I will have you before the magistrate,” he hissed.

Calhoun’s mean gaze flickered to Beth only briefly. When he didn’t offer a word of protest, and merely began to turn an intriguing shade of purple, Ben jerked his hand as he released him and turned away. While Calhoun drew in several deep gulps of air, Ben glared at Beth, marched back to his horse and vaulted into the saddle. He was painfully conscious that with each passing second, Jasper was getting further and further away. It wasn’t that he wanted to find his friend to persuade him to return. He wanted to know just what was really going on, and what connection Jasper had to the thug, Calhoun. Common sense and logic told him to just keep his nose out and leave. Now that the wedding had been cancelled, he was free to go anytime – wasn’t he? Even so, he just couldn’t bring himself to turn around and put it all behind him.

Ben found it deeply unsettling to realise just how much he wanted to sweep Beth onto his horse and ride away with her, and keep her with him where she was safe. The memory of the way Calhoun had tried to grab her by the throat was troubling; deeply so. A deep sense of chivalry inside him refused to simply abandon her to such a callous rogue.

The man is mercenary enough to off-load his daughter. He is willing to blackmail the husband-to-be into marrying the dreadful creature, even knowing how much unhappiness it will cause. There can be little doubt he is cold-hearted, and will have no qualms about turning that merciless nature onto other women.

“Not while I draw breath,” Ben breathed but then mentally berated himself for giving a damn.

“Pardon?” Beth asked blankly when she saw him muttering to himself.

“Look, are we getting out of here or not?” he asked Beth impatiently. “Where is your carriage?”

“It is back at the house,” Beth murmured.

“Well, let’s go and get that scoundrel of a brother of yours. He isn’t getting out of this,” Calhoun interrupted, as though at perfect liberty to involve himself in their conversation.

Ben looked at him in annoyance.

“You are not invited,” Beth snapped pertly. “It is our home. You are not going to bully him while he is changing.”

Calhoun threw Ben a quick look before he edged a little closer to Beth, although didn’t try to touch her again.

“If he has run off, I warn you now that I shall have to take you in his place,” he snarled suddenly, having lost none of his vile menace.

Beth felt sick at the very prospect of this man coming anywhere near her, but did her very best to hide the fear his threat instilled within her.

“Go to Hell,” she seethed, tipping her chin up defiantly.

Calhoun smiled spitefully. “My son, Eddie, needs a wife. You will do just fine.”

Beth couldn’t help it. She blanched, and couldn’t even bring herself to look at the leering young oaf who had appeared behind his sister, Cecily. Just the thought of the heavy-set dullard coming anywhere near her made her want to hit something, especially him, and she wasn’t usually a violent person.

“Beth is already spoken for,” Ben growled in warning. “Touch her and I will rip your fingers out – slowly.”

Calhoun opened his mouth only to close it again with a snap when he realised Ben had, yet again, moved without him either seeing him or realising it. Ben used his height to his advantage and towered menacingly over the shorter man. His sons immediately straightened as if to square off to him, but Ben didn’t give them a second glance. Instead, with his gaze locked on Calhoun’s, he slowly pulled his jacket back and placed a hand on his hip. He knew that in doing so he was showing the world the heavy gun strapped to his side, but he wanted these thugs to know they had met their match.

“Now back away. Stop making threats against women, and go and take your awful brood back inside,” Ben suggested.

“You can threaten whatever you please but even if you were insane enough to arrange a forced wedding, you could never make me say the vows that would commit me to that. I would never commit myself to such a reprobate as your son, no matter what you threaten me with. Go to Hell, Cahoon. If you think for one second any of my family is going to be shackled to any of you lot then you are out of your minds,” Beth retorted flatly.

She didn’t wait to listen to any more of Calhoun’s threats and promptly left. She had no idea where she was going, but kept walking anyway. If she tried to walk home, she had little doubt Calhoun would just follow her and they would have another confrontation on the doorstep of her family home, or worse, inside. While she suspected her brother was long gone, she couldn’t take the risk that he might be hiding somewhere in the house, and that Calhoun would hunt him out. The man had no respect for anything. There was no reason to believe he wouldn’t help himself to her property and search it against her wishes.

She was so lost in her musings that she wasn’t aware that Calhoun tried to follow her, until Ben positioned his horse very firmly in Calhoun’s path and stopped him. The warning look Ben gave him, together with the animal’s bulk, made Calhoun glare up at him darkly. Within seconds, Beth was on her way home, and putting more and more distance between her and her enemy.

That, as far as Ben was concerned, was the best thing that had happened all morning. Once she was out of sight, he turned to glare at the man now waving frantically to his sons. Ben withdrew his gun.

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