From See Bride Run!
by Charlotte Hughes Buy
The wedding had the makings of a fairytale. The groom, Eldon Wentworth, was charismatic, movie-star handsome, and came from old money. Eldon had studied abroad, traveled the world, and was considered one of Atlanta’s most eligible bachelors.
Annie Hartford was lovely with her fresh-scrubbed look, large, Kelly-green eyes, and blond hair that tumbled past her shoulders. Her gown—an haute couture Oleg Cassini—was a stunner: a strapless ball gown with a jeweled bodice that shimmered when she moved. From the waist, creamy satin spilled down multi-layered crinoline, creating a voluminous skirt.
A frothy veil was fixed in place by a small tiara with pink diamonds. It had shamed even the larger tiaras with their ornate multi-karat white diamonds, all pulled from a safe in Tiffany’s and placed on a velvet tray for her perusal. Most people would not suspect how unique—not to mention costly—the pink stones were, but Annie had been raised in an environment where women recognized a precious stone at fifty paces, and most husbands purchased at least one ridiculously extravagant car.
That was Annie’s world. At twenty-nine years old, Annie Hartford was sole heir to a billion dollar empire.
Now, on her wedding day, Annie paced about in one of the church’s parlors—it was difficult to sit with all the crinolines—her thoughts swirling like confetti riding a wind gust.
Sitting on a velvet settee, the Hartford’s long time employee, Vera Holmes, fretted. At sixty-something, she was still attractive. She had decided on her sixtieth birthday to stop coloring her hair, and the soft dove gray color only emphasized her nice skin. She was usually calm, but not today. She had picked off most of the light pink polish on her nails.
The wedding planner, Susan, had gushed over the bridal gown and tiara before quickly going over what they’d practiced at the rehearsal. “My assistant will tap on your door once the last of the attendants get near the altar, and you’ll join your father in the narthex. Don’t worry; my assistant will see that your gown and veil are arranged perfectly before you make your way down the aisle. Also, do not let the number of guests intimidate you,” she added, “and remember to smile.” She hurried from the room.
Are you okay?” Vera asked.
“I’m perfectly fine,” Annie said. She knew the guest list of six hundred was her father’s way of showing off, as were the six hundred lobsters flown in from Portland, Maine during the night; and the small orchestra presently playing Mozart’s Eine Klein Nachmusik, to early arrivals. Winston Hartford did not want an old lady with blue-tinted hair playing the organ at his daughter’s wedding.
Annie glanced at the wall clock beside the door.
Forty-five minutes until show time . . .
Annie had not been looking for a husband when she ran into Eldon Wentworth at Hartford Iron and Steel, a 300,000 square foot facility of warehouse and processing center. The facility was massive by Atlanta’s standards and had grown from the small company her great-great grandfather founded in 1930. She and her father were meeting for lunch to discuss an upcoming conference.
Eldon had been at the plant looking at ornamental iron for a property he had purchased. When he spotted Annie, he hurried over and introduced himself. “I attended Duke University with your brother,” he’d said. “I spoke to you briefly at the funeral, but that was what . . . almost ten years ago? Hard to believe.”
Annie looked him over. Dark blond hair, perfect teeth, medium build. Snazzy dresser; Ralph Lauren cashmere sweater, designer jeans, and Armani loafers. He was good looking enough that, under normal circumstances she might have noticed and remembered him; yet unlikely at her brother’s funeral. She shook her head. “I’m sorry.”
“I completely understand,” he’d replied. “I just wanted you to know that I was proud to call Bradley a close friend.”
“Thank you,” Annie said.
Eldon had gone on to share funny tales of her brother’s antics. Annie felt Bradley was nearby, laughing right along with them. “I was the quiet, well-behaved twin,” she said, “and Bradley was the mischief-maker. Hard to believe we shared the same real estate for nine months.” Eldon looked surprised. “Did you not realize Bradley had a twin sister?” Annie asked.
He was prevented from answering when they heard a noise in the doorway. Winston Hartford stood there, looking from one to the other. Annie froze. Despite the passing years, Bradley was seldom discussed in her father’s presence. His death in an auto accident still held the man in a grip. Grief had changed the landscape of his face, scoring deep lines across his forehead and each side of his mouth. His heart seemed as brittle as the leaves on the azalea bushes after a freezing rain.
Annie had watched in disbelief as her father shook Eldon’s hand and invited him to lunch, where they shared stories of Bradley’s shenanigans. Annie could not help but wonder if Eldon was just a likeable sort or if her father was finally chipping away the wall that contained his anger.
Thirty-five minutes . . .
Annie and Eldon dated only three months before becoming engaged, at which time Winston Hartford began grooming Eldon for a managerial role at the plant. Annie had to bite her tongue. That her father did not think a woman capable of running Hartford Iron and Steel was a constant irritant.
With the wedding only weeks away, Annie ran into Bradley’s best friend from high school and college, nicknamed Jimbo. He had taken Bradley’s death especially hard.
“I heard you were engaged,” he’d said. “Who is the lucky guy?”
“Eldon Wentworth,” she’d said. “An old friend of Bradley’s. You should hear some of the funny stories he tells.” She noticed Jimbo’s frown. “What’s wrong?”
“Your fiancé is a liar, Annie. Bradley and Eldon were not friends,” he’d said. “To my knowledge, they never even spoke.”
Annie was stunned.
“Eldon wasn’t at Duke very long. He was expelled during the second semester for cheating on an exam.”
“Why would he lie?” she asked.
“It’s no secret that you are the sole heir to a mega fortune. You need to dump the guy as quickly as you can and be done with him.”
Thirty minutes . . .
Annie had called Eldon and immediately broke off the engagement. “You’re a pathological liar. You and Bradley were never friends. You did not even know he had a twin when we met, which I find odd since he and I spoke by phone almost every day. I also know that you were kicked out of Duke for cheating on an exam.”
“You’re overreacting,” Eldon had said. “Your dad loved hearing the stories and so did you. I gave you what you wanted.”
Twenty-five minutes . . .
When Annie arrived home several hours later, she was summoned to her father’s study. It reminded her of the time he had called Bradley and her in to announce their mother was leaving, and they would live with him. They’d been four years old at the time and did not quite grasp it until later.
“What do you think you’re doing breaking off your engagement?” he demanded.
“Eldon lied,” she said. “He never even met Bradley.” She filled him in.
“I demand that you stop repeating rumors about Eldon. He comes from one of the oldest, most well-respected families in Atlanta?”
“Pass the business to me, Father,” she’d said. “I know more about running Hartford Iron and Steel than most of your managers. I worked in the plant for five summers while growing up. I have ideas, good ones.”
“Your place is by your husband’s side, running the family estate, looking after the Hartford Foundation, and—”
Annie interrupted. “Giving dinner parties for your customers, sending hams to the employees at Christmas for ten years,” she added. “I deserve a chance to prove myself within the company.” She swallowed. “Or I quit.”
He looked shocked. “Do not speak to me that way.”
“I’m not going to marry a liar and a cheat just to make you happy,” she had said emphatically. “I refuse to be bullied by you any longer.”
Her father had slammed both fists on his desk. “You will marry Eldon,” he’d shouted. “You will walk down the aisle wearing the dress and tiara that cost me a fortune. You will not embarrass me in front of six hundred people, not to mention the media. Do you know how I know?”
Annie remained silent.
“I just got off the phone with my banker. I have frozen all your accounts and canceled your credit cards. Your fancy sports car is not available to you at the moment. If you leave this house it will be by foot and with only the clothes on your back. You will be homeless.”
Annie felt as though she’d been punched in the chest. She wondered if he had done the same thing to her mother or worse. That would explain why the woman had seemingly dropped off the face of the earth.
Ten minutes . . .
Vera and Annie gazed out the window of the church where her father’s white stretch-limousine was parked. The plan was, once she and Eldon had taken their vows and the photographer his pictures, they were to be driven to the St. Regis where three adjoining ball rooms would accommodate the reception and luncheon. She and Eldon were to spend the night and board a plane for Venice the following day.
“What are you going to do, Annie?” Vera whispered, bringing her back to the present.
Annie looked at her. “I’m not going through with it. I’d rather be broke and homeless than marry a man I detest.”
Vera smiled and said, “I knew that would be your answer. I slipped two thousand dollars inside your purse. I can drive you to a friend’s house. She will be a good friend to you as well, Annie.”
“Oh, Vera,” Annie said, feeling the sting of tears. “I can never thank you enough for everything.”
Vera was tearful as well. “Would you like for me to call your father in?” Annie dreaded it. Six hundred wedding guests. Her father’s wrath would fly into her face like a horde of angry hornets.
And then it hit her: Winston Hartford was too smart to take a chance on something like this happening. He had changed her entire life within three hours of her breaking off the engagement; he’d had weeks to come up with a plan should Annie try to weasel out of the wedding. But what else could he do to her?
She feared the answer was standing right in front of her. He would go after the only person she had left that she really loved.
Annie frowned when the chauffeur suddenly jumped from the limo and hurried toward the back of the church. “What’s wrong with Snedley?”
“He has prostate trouble, the poor man,” Vera said. “Runs to the men’s room every fifteen minutes.” She sighed and headed for the door.
“Wait!” Annie said. “Where does that door lead?” she asked, motioning to a solid oak door on the opposite side of the room.
“To the back of the church,” Vera said. “The Sunday school rooms and offices,” she added, “plus a big kitchen and a couple of dining rooms. Why?”
“Does Snedley ever leave the keys in the limo? Is there a spare?”
“I don’t know. Why are you asking?”
Eight minutes . . .
“I need for you to detain him when he comes out of the men’s room so I can get away.”
“Get away?” Vera frowned. “How?”
“I’m going to make a run for the limo.”
“Oh, Lord!” Vera said. She looked like she might faint.
“I don’t want you and Snedley to get into trouble. All you have to do is say you had no idea I was planning anything.”
Someone knocked on the door.
Five minutes . . .
“That’s the assistant,” Vera said. “Just a minute,” she called out softly. She looked at Annie. “Check the ashtray for keys. I seem to recall something about the ashtray. Now, listen carefully,” she said. “Take the interstate south to Pinckney, Georgia. It is three hours away. Find Lillian Calhoun. I’ll call you when I feel it’s safe. Your father will be watching me.”
Another knock, this one impatient . . .
Two minutes . . .
“I love you,” Annie said and kissed her on the cheek. She threw open the door, gathered an armful of satin and crinoline and raced toward an Exit sign. The limo was parked some thirty feet away. Fortunately, the media had set up their cameras at the front of the church. There was nobody in sight.
It suddenly occurred to Annie that she had left her purse inside the parlor. “Dammit!” she said. She had no money, no driver’s license or ID, no clothes, nothing! Just a stupid wedding gown.
She could not risk going back. It was now or never. To continue you can Buy See Bride Run!
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