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Authors: Sherryl Woods

The Bridal Path: Ashley

BOOK: The Bridal Path: Ashley
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THE ROGUE

He was wild, sexy, too hot to handle—the guy all the girls in school whispered about …and secretly longed for. Now, all grown up, this rogue was even more intriguing to Ashley Wilde. Did she dare to tame Dillon Ford and make him hers for keeps?

THE LADY

She was prim, proper and by-the-books—the priss miss who had every advantage growing up. Now she’d returned to her hometown and Dillon was determined to seduce her. He’d let her get away once, but not twice.

THAT SPECIAL WOMAN!

Stuck in a secluded cabin together, will these total opposites clash…or go down THE BRIDAL PATH?

The Bridal Path: Ashley

Sherryl Woods

Table of Contents

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Epilogue

Chapter One

H
er face had been on the cover of every important fashion magazine in the world. Her long, lithe body had been photographed in everything from slinky lingerie to even slinkier designer gowns. Her perfectly manicured hands had flashed diamonds and displayed crystal bottles of outrageously expensive French perfume in very classy television commercials. Shampoo and hair-coloring companies had pleaded with her to tout their products as the sole reason for the shining beauty of her waist-length, silky blond hair.

Today, however, Ashley Wilde looked and felt like hell. And today was marginally worse than yesterday, she thought miserably as she huddled in an oversize chair in front of the fireplace in her father’s fishing cabin. By the end of the week she could probably become a poster woman for mid-life crisis sufferers everywhere. And she was only twenty-six. What would she look like by the time she actually hit mid-life?

It had been two weeks since she’d fled New York, two months since her traitorous, high-power agent had suggested that her modeling career was all but over unless she could permanently shed ten–okay, fifteen–extra pounds that the camera doubled into thirty. For a man who’d fought like a demon to sign her, he was awfully quick to suggest she was on the skids.

To give him the benefit of the doubt, maybe he’d only hoped to snap her back to reality with his dire warning. Instead, he had plunged her into despair.

Six weeks later, after only a handful of photo shoots, compared to the dozens she usually had, she had begun to take him seriously. When he’d offered her an assignment for a plus-sizes catalogue, she’d blistered his ears with her opinion of his representation, then hung up on him. Blaming the messenger had seemed the logical thing to do at the time.

As absurd as it seemed in retrospect, that night she had stared at her hundred-and-thirty-three-pound image in the mirror and seen a blimp rather than a beautiful, five-foot-nine-inch woman in the prime of her life.

Suddenly the rigid dieting, the even more rigorous exercise and the obsession with appearance had all seemed to be too much. Convinced she couldn’t face one more lettuce leaf or one more step-aerobics class or one more snippy photographer’s comment about the extra pinch of weight on her narrow hips, she had flown home to Wyoming to take stock of her priorities. Despite all the magazine covers, all the worldwide acclaim, she felt like a failure.

That had been a first for a woman who had grown up believing she was close to perfect, incapable of messing up. For a few moments she had actually resented her parents, her sisters, her teachers and every single tongue-tied boy at Riverton High who’d contributed to the building of her self-esteem. The fall from grace had felt far worse because she’d been so sure it could never happen in her charmed existence.

Yet Riverton was where she chose to go to nurse her wounds. She had spent the first night at home at Three-Stars Ranch, in her old bed, in her old room. She’d expected to feel safe, secure, maybe even beautiful again.

Instead, surrounded by framed covers of other models she’d once collected to inspire herself, she’d sunk even more deeply into her depression. By morning she had been knee-deep in feelings of inadequacy. She had refused every single one of the invitations that had started pouring in the minute people learned of her return.

Besides that terrible sense that she’d lost the woman she had once been, knowing that the ranch now belonged to her sister Sara and Sara’s husband, Jake, also made a difference. She had felt as if she was underfoot in the middle of their honeymoon, though both of them kindly denied it. The solace she had sought at Three-Stars simply wasn’t there.

As if all that weren’t bad enough, her oldest sister, Dani, insisted on hovering. Dani had always been able to see straight through her. No matter how adept Ashley was at hiding her emotions from others, Dani could always detect the truth. She had guessed at once that Ashley’s too-bright smiles and too-loud laughter were meant to conceal some deeper hurt. Her gentle, well-meaning prodding had begun over Ashley’s welcome-home dinner and showed no signs of letting up anytime soon.

After insisting there was nothing to talk about for the hundredth time, Ashley had packed her bags once again and taken off for her father’s secluded fishing cabin. She’d left in the middle of the night to avoid another round of questions she couldn’t–or didn’t want to–answer. Her thank-you note, left on the kitchen table, hadn’t mentioned her destination or her reason for fleeing.

How could she tell Dani and Sara that she, the perfect one, the family success story, had been essentially dismissed from her glamorous career? How could she explain that she’d suddenly developed an insatiable craving for real food and had gained a few pounds as a result of it? No one who wasn’t in the business could possibly understand how a few extra ounces here and there could be the difference between stunning success and abysmal failure.

Besides, she was certain that a few days alone in the wilderness would straighten her right out. She would recall the long list of reasons she’d had for going into modeling in the first place. She would remember her desperate desire to flee Wyoming and become somebody. With her resolve intact, she’d have those pounds off in no time and be back in front of a camera quicker than anyone could say, “Smile, please.”

That was the plan, anyway. Unfortunately, the solitude wasn’t exactly working the magic she’d hoped for. She had a cold that could fell a linebacker. Her million-dollar legs had a rash that she probably owed to a patch of poison ivy she’d missed until it was too late. She hadn’t caught a fish since the first day. She’d thrown him back, but he’d probably told all the other fish in the stream to stay the heck away from her.

And, just to add to the general air of gloom, it had been raining cats and dogs for the past twenty-four hours.

As if that weren’t bad enough, she was jumping at every snap of a twig, at every whisper of wind. For a woman who’d blithely braved the New York subway and the equally treacherous Paris fashion runways, she was behaving like a ninny. After living in a world of constant noise, she found the silence of the woods nerve-racking.

The lack of television or radio was more disconcerting than she’d expected. Her father’s collection of books, which tended toward ranching and fishing treatises, provided no distraction at all.

She’d cleaned the small cabin from top to bottom and unless she did it all over again, she was fresh out of things to occupy her time. The only thing left was thinking, and she wasn’t crazy about the direction of her thoughts these days.

All in all, rather than a renewed sense of peace in this serene setting, she was finding her own company unsettling. For the first time in her carefully plotted life, she simply no longer knew who she was.

A soft thump interrupted her thoughts and made every muscle in her body tense. A second thump, even more distinct than the first, had her searching for the baseball bat that hadn’t been far from sight since the moment she arrived. It was the weapon of choice for a woman who abhorred guns and couldn’t imagine jabbing another human being with a knife.

She inched toward the window and peered into the gathering darkness outside. Eerie shapes and shadows wavered with the slightest hint of breeze. Sheets of rain pounded down with such fierce intensity that she shivered, even though the blazing fire had warmed the room to a comfortable temperature.

A muttered curse in a distinctly masculine tone made her grab the reassuringly solid bat. In her determined hands, it was weapon enough for anyone brash enough to try to enter the rapidly darkening cabin.

Another curse, followed by another series of thumps against the wooden deck, had her heart pounding unsteadily. She decided the bat might not be enough. Perhaps an offensive attack would scare the intruder away. She snatched up a heavy brass lamp, sucked in a determined breath and heaved the lamp through a window in the general direction of the commotion.

The racket that followed made the prior curses and thumps seem like no more than a mild warm-up. Clearly, the lamp had hit its mark, but the intruder was now mad as hell and very far from being critically injured or terrified. Ashley couldn’t quite decide, as she stood there trembling from head to toe, if that was good news or bad.

When the front door was kicked open, she decided it was bad. Instead of scaring the man away, she’d infuriated him. She knew she was no contest for a man in a rage, though the baseball bat did even the odds just a little. Pressed against the wall and out of sight, she clung to the bat with a death grip and cursed the fact that her father had refused to install a phone in the remote cabin.

When silence fell, she realized the intruder was anticipating, just as she was, the next move. She saw no point in wasting time waiting for him to seize the initiative. She wanted to ask how the heck he’d gotten there when she’d never heard a car’s engine, but she decided to stick with the basics for now. The phrase know thy enemy came to mind.

She drew in another deep breath, steadied the sturdy bat in her grip, then demanded, “Who’s out there?”

The reply was definitely unsuitable for delicate ears and had something to do with her gender. Apparently her unwelcome caller was put out that he’d been bested--so far–by a mere woman.

“Come out with your hands in the air,” he commanded in a low, even voice that radiated barely controlled fury.

He sounded like a B-movie hero, she decided, taking solace in that. The John Waynes and Clint Eastwoods of the world were tougher and more dangerous. They would have burst in, guns blazing, and had her tied to a bedpost by now. The intruder’s failure to, well, intrude appeared to give her an edge.

“You don’t seem to get it,” Ashley retorted with astonishing–or perhaps foolhardy–bravado. “I’m in charge here. You do what I say.”

A shot, apparently fired into the air since nothing around her quivering body shattered, decisively countered her claim. This confrontation was definitely not going the way she’d hoped.

“I am dialing 9-1-1 right now,” she said in the calmest, most assured tone she could manage with her knees knocking together and no phone within ten miles.

That drew a hoot of disbelieving laughter, which wasn’t quite the reaction she’d hoped for.

“Look, lady, you’re the interloper here,” he declared with surprising conviction. “Once I explain to the cops–assuming you can reach them without a phone line in sight–that you split my head open with…” He hesitated.

“With what?” she demanded with a touch of irony. “A lamp? Hardly a lethal weapon. You’re the one firing shots. Is that gun of yours registered, by the way?”

Apparently he saw the problem. He was silent for a full ten seconds.

“But I’m here at the invitation of the owner,” he said, trumping her even as he ignored the issue of his gun’s legality. “It doesn’t take a genius to figure out whose tush is going to get tossed in jail.”

The bat wavered in Ashley’s hands. This man knew her father?
And
he was bleeding from a wound she’d inflicted with a lamp? Terrific. Her life was on a downhill slide beyond her wildest expectations.

Of course, she only had his word for both the injury and his acquaintance with her father. Trust wasn’t exactly her strong suit these days. If her own agent could betray her, who knew what shenanigans this stranger might be up to. She wanted proof.

“Who owns the cabin?” she asked.

“Trent Wilde.” He audibly sucked in an apparently painful breath, then added, “Look, sweetheart, it’s fun chatting with you, but if I don’t get this cut patched up, I’m probably going to bleed to death. Could we call a truce and continue this conversation inside?”

Ashley felt a slight twinge of anxiety and a faint whisper of compassion but steeled herself against both. This guy was beginning to sound legit, but she needed more solid, irrefutable evidence. Knowing her father’s name wasn’t enough. Everyone in these parts–criminals included, more than likely–knew the cabin belonged to the Wilde family. Trent Wilde had been a powerful figure in Wyoming for years. Few aspects of his life weren’t followed in the local media or spread on the energetic gossip hot line. Certainly his real estate acquisitions would have been big news.

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