The Way Back to Erin

By: Cerella Sechrist

CHAPTER ONE

WHEN THE CLOUDS first rolled in, Burke had felt disappointment. Thirty minutes later, he wondered if the weather had known what was coming well before he did and had conspired to provide an appropriate backdrop to the day.

As he stood there with the June rain pouring down, soaking through his tuxedo and slipping down the back of his neck, he shivered. The guests had retreated, taking shelter in the tent where the reception was to be held. He felt like he should take charge, make an announcement, tell them to go ahead and enjoy the dinner that had already been bought and paid for. But his father-in-law…no. He brought that thought up short.

Allan Worth would not be his father-in-law after all. Not since Tessa had failed to show up, disappearing from the Delphine Resort where their wedding was being held.

She was gone, as completely as the sun. The rain pelted his face, but he stubbornly remained outside, welcoming the hammer of the elements. It soothed his disappointment, his embarrassment, his confusion.

Tessa didn’t want to marry him. Or so the note in his clenched fist claimed. It was a paltry offering with no excuses. Just two simple lines.

I can’t marry you. I’m sorry.

Burke raised his eyes and looked toward the portico of the hotel where his and Tessa’s closest family members and friends congregated. Paige, Tessa’s oldest sister, was gesturing wildly. Though he couldn’t read her lips, they were moving at a fast clip, probably worrying more over the blow to the family’s reputation that a runaway bride would deliver rather than the fact that Tessa had disappeared. Harper, Tessa’s other sister, had her arms wrapped around their mother and was staring at her cell phone screen, as though willing it to ring.

Allan Worth was nowhere to be seen. Tessa’s father was likely doing damage control among the guests, apologizing for the inconvenience, offering refreshments. Like Burke should be doing. But he didn’t have the strength to face the expressions filled with sympathy, the strange condolences for someone who hadn’t died yet had disappeared just the same.

He shifted his gaze from the small crowd on the portico and caught sight of Molly Callahan, Tessa’s niece by marriage, playing tag with several other children, oblivious to how the rain stained their fine dress clothes. His lips tugged upward at the sight, and he wished he could abandon his dark mood and join them.

He searched the group of children for his nephew, Kitt, and wasn’t surprised when he didn’t see the little boy among them. Ever since his father’s death two years before, Kitt had become a very serious child. Running through the rain wasn’t something he’d take part in.

Burke moved his eyes back to the portico and found his nephew seated at Great-Aunt Lenora’s feet, the old woman’s hand absently stroking his hair. She leaned down and said something to the boy, but he didn’t respond.

Burke’s heart twisted anew. Not for his own loss but for his nephew’s. Would Kitt never laugh again?

Then again…would he? Between his brother’s death almost two years ago and now Tessa’s defection, he didn’t think there was much to smile about these days. His eyes continued to scan the group gathered on the portico, the kids scattered around the lawn, and the guests huddled in the tent, drawing into the center to avoid the rain that was blowing in through the open flaps.

It wasn’t until he saw her approaching that he realized he’d been looking for her in particular.

Erin. His brother’s widow, braving the downpour to get to him. Funny that no one else had bothered.

When she reached his side, she held out an umbrella, and he almost—but not quite—laughed at the sight. She’d picked her way across the grass, letting the deluge soak her, and hadn’t opened the umbrella. What good would it be to either of them now?

“Aunt Lenora says you should come in out of the rain.”

He could only blink in reply. Erin took a step closer.

“Burke, I’m sorry. But she’s not coming back. There’s no point in standing out here, waiting for her.”

“I’d rather be out here than in there—” he gestured toward the tent “—where they can all stare at me.”

Erin took his hand, the warmth of her fingers startling him. His own were chilled straight through to the bone.

“No one’s staring, Burke. You have nothing to be embarrassed about.”

Her words penetrated, and he laughed, an empty, bitter sound. “I’ve just been stood up by my fiancée on my wedding day, which was already ruined by this freak rainstorm. I kind of think I have something to be embarrassed about.”

Erin’s eyes sparked. “Well, I imagine standing out here in the rain like an idiot only makes it worse.”

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