When Bria Quinlan, one of my fellow 2011 Golden Heart® finalists, tweeted her need for “Excerpt Monday” participants, I decided to jump into the fray.

What follows is the first few exchanges in my as-yet only completed single title MS, “Blind Date Bride.” I chose it instead of my GH-finaling MS because “Beauty and the Ballplayer has been getting all the attention lately. Poor Kari and Damien are feeling neglected.

Here goes nothing — or everything. Be gentle; it’s my first time. Never having done this before, I had no idea how long my excerpt should be. This is about half of Chapter 1.

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Chapter 1

Of all the terrifying outcomes Kari Parker considered when she asked her best friend to help her finally get over her crippling shyness, ending up married to a stranger wasn’t one of them.

She figured Bethany would force her to start socializing more. Stop accepting Kari’s “no” when she suggested bar-hopping. Finally make good on her years-old threat to teach Kari to dance something more complicated than the box step. Maybe even introduce her to a few safe, non-threatening guys.

No matter how many times she insisted a man wasn’t in her short-term plan, Beth wouldn’t stop trying to fix her up. That tendency, coupled with her friend’s addiction to Romance TV, had now landed Kari in a pickle of epic proportions.

“Pickle” was the only word she could think of to describe the situation without getting vulgar — and today was not a day for vulgarity. No, most people would say today should be the happiest day of her life.

Happy? Ha!

Kari’s gaze dropped to the floor. Rust, brown and orange swirls danced across the ugly carpet of what she’d dubbed “the torture chamber.” Everyone else — including Bethany, the traitor — called it “the bride’s room.”

Beyond the closed door and up the stairs, a TV crew was busy setting up equipment at the back of the soon-to-be-packed church. She glanced at her watch. In less than an hour, she’d be a Mrs.

“Bethany, I don’t want to go out there.”

“You know we can’t do this without you.”

Even mostly resigned to her frightening fate, Kari didn’t have to pretend she liked it. “You probably should have thought of that before you signed me up for this farce.”

Bethany bent to inspect the hem of the white dress Kari had reluctantly donned just moments ago. “Maybe it won’t be as bad as you think.”

“How can it be anything but bad, Beth? I’m about to marry a man I’ve never officially met and only seen once — and that was at a distance of 100 yards!”

“It’s not my fault the contest rules prohibited the two of you from meeting before today,” Bethany protested. Then she grinned. “Besides, you have to admit you liked what you managed to see.”

Kari’s cheeks grew warm as she nodded. Somehow — she hadn’t dared to ask how — Bethany had managed to secure her husband-to-be’s address. They’d loitered across the street from his apartment building one morning until the doorman flashed them a thumbs-up, signaling his imminent exit. And what an exit it had been. “Tall, dark and handsome” didn’t begin to do the man justice. Kari’s mouth went dry even now, remembering.

When Bethany’s grin turned triumphant, she rushed on. “That may be — but I’d like to at least have a cup of coffee with the man before we make a lifetime commitment. Call me old-fashioned if you must.”

Beth cracked a smile, then started rummaging in her purse for something. Kari began pacing from the still-closed door to the window and back. She didn’t know what Bethany was looking for, and she didn’t much care, either.

She wondered again how Bethany had gotten her into this mess — a mess that, for all her bluster, she had no choice but to see through.

“Here it is!” Bethany waved a worn piece of hot pink paper.

Kari groaned. “Not those cursed rules again.”

She didn’t need her friend to read them to her for the thousandth time. She knew what was on the dog-eared sheet by heart: “As grand prize winners of Romance TV’s ‘Get a Love Life’ contest, you will be married in a live ceremony televised as a Romance TV special. You must stay married for three months. At the end of that time, you — along with the other prize winners — will be featured in another TV special. As long as the judges are satisfied that you did, indeed, cohabitate during the marriage period, you will collect $500,000 in prize money to split.”

Even the promise of that much cash — an amount it’d take her almost a decade to make — didn’t make the idea of marrying a complete stranger appealing. There was just one reason she was here — besides a passing curiosity about her admittedly desirable groom: That prize money could help her parents save their restaurant.

The diner, which had been in at least a little financial trouble for as long as she could remember, was struggling even more now that her parents had insisted on taking out a second mortgage to help one of her brothers buy a house.

“Just finish getting ready, will you? You don’t have much time.”

Her friend’s tone made Kari want to fight back. Beth had no right to be upset. A voice in the hall cut off her protest with an announcement. “Thirty minutes to air time.”

Across the hall, in a room a lot like the one Kari and Bethany were having it out in, Damien Walker was scowling at his former best friend.

“Come on, Damien. You can’t be serious about staying in here until everybody heads home.”

“I’m dead serious. I don’t care how long they wait. After all, most of them are journalists — and you know what that means.”

“They’ll go home as soon as the free food runs out?”

Leave it to Cody to be thinking of his stomach at a time like this.  “No, Cody. It means they’ll leave as soon as they realize this might not be the wackiest wedding of the year.” After a pause, he added, “What made you think I was in the market for a wife, anyway?”

Cody grinned guiltily. “I didn’t expect you to win the grand prize, man. I thought for sure there’d be someone in America with a love life more pathetic than yours. I was hoping you’d take second prize.”

Damien strode to the mirror, frowned at his badly knotted tie and untied it. “If a blind wedding was considered the top prize, I can’t wait to hear what the second-place chump won.”

“A trip for you and a friend to a singles resort in the Bahamas.”

Damien turned from the mirror. “I suppose you thought you’d be the friend I chose?”

“Who else? The rest of our friends are married.”

He turned his attention back to the mirror — and his still badly tied tie. At least Cody sounded earnest. He was right, too. All their other friends were off the market. “In that case, I think I’d have to make a new friend.”

“Twenty-five minutes to air time,” the woman in the hall announced.

“Twenty-five minutes?” Bethany wailed. “You still need to check your pantyhose for runs, decide whether to wear 1-inch or 2-inch heels, put on your makeup and fix your hair. There’s no way you’ll be ready in 25 minutes.”

What Kari needed was to make sure Bethany was calm. She definitely couldn’t get through her so-called wedding without Beth’s support — and she needed to get through it for her parents’ sake. The $250,000 prize would more than pay off the loan they’d taken out to expand the restaurant and help her brother buy his house — the one the bank was insisting be paid back even though the tanking economy meant fewer customers and less cash coming in.

Helping her parents keep the diner was the least she could do. They’d always been generous with what little money they had. They even sent her to fat camp the summer between seventh and eighth grade, after a year of merciless teasing from her older, much more svelte sisters. She credited the camp with the foundation in nutrition that allowed her to keep her weight under control today. Her parents had also sent her to see a shrink a couple of times, for all the good that did. Oh, she tried to love Shannon and Claire unconditionally, but she still sometimes hated them for torturing her.

Kari shoved aside her resentment — completely out of place on her wedding day, farce that it was — and refocused attention on her mom and dad, who’d given her so much. They paid for the bulk of her college education. They even gave her the deposit to put down on her apartment.

Until now, she’d never been in a position to give back.

“So, Beth,” she began, deliberately speaking slowly in an attempt to get Bethany to do the same, “tell me again why you decided to nominate me for the dubious distinction of being the ‘blind date bride.’”

Bethany gaped at her like she was asking whether the sun rose in the east. “We’ve been over that already.”

“I get tongue-tied talking to cashiers! How could you possibly think I’d enjoy marrying a man I’ve never even met?”

A troubled look shadowed Bethany’s green eyes. “Would I do that to you?”

“You obviously did.”

“Look, Kar — I just wanted to win you a six-month membership to ‘Matches R Us.’ I thought it would be a nice, non-threatening way to meet a few new guys. You need more men in your life.” When Kari opened her mouth, Bethany rushed on. “Before you ask, your cats don’t count.”

Kari started pacing again, plucking at the sleeve of her dress. It felt like bugs were crawling over her skin. As far as she knew, they could be: The white satin wedding gown had been provided by Romance TV. Who knew where it had been?

“Instead of meeting a man or two, I’m sequestered in the basement of a church. Worse yet, the ceremony will be broadcast live to millions. What if I trip on my way up the aisle? What if I stumble over the words ‘I do’? I don’t want all of America to think I have a speech impediment.” She groaned. “Why couldn’t you have just taught me how to salsa?”

Bethany shrugged. “I honestly didn’t think you’d win the whole enchilada, Kari. Who’d-a thunk the judges would single out yours as the love life most in need of improvement in all of America?”

“Yeah. Who’d-a thunk it?” she echoed glumly, settling into a chair in front of the mirror so she could start putting on her makeup. She wasn’t about to let those TV people make her into some over-painted clown on her wedding day — and, like it or not, this was her wedding day.

“God help me.”

In the hall, the voice announced, “Twenty minutes to air time.”

Damien ran his fingers through his thick, coal-black hair and loosened his tie for the hundredth time that morning. “Give me your tie,” he demanded, holding his own out to make a switch.

Cody slowly handed over his tie.

Damien frowned at his friend’s reluctance to part with the uncreased red and gold paisley print. Sure, the green- and gold-striped strip of fabric he offered in return was looking decidedly mangled, but if anyone could make it work, it was Cody, who had a style all his own. Besides, sacrificing good style was the least his buddy could do after getting him into a wedding he wasn’t convinced he wanted.

He was willing to admit he was in a rut. He spent too much time working and not enough having fun. He just didn’t know if a wife — even a temporary one — was the answer. Women were a lot of work.

“Cheer up, Damien.”

“What? I should be happy that a panel of romance experts including Dr. Ruth and Danielle Steel voted my personal life pathetic?” He’d actually received a call from Danielle Steel, congratulating him on having the worst love life in America. Man, that had been hard to take.

Cody’s grin widened. “You know my motto, man: Be all that you can be.”

“Remind yourself to write the Army a thank-you note when you get home, will you?”

“Only if you promise to lighten up a little. Jeez, Damien — it’s only three months of your life … and when it’s over you get $250,000. That’s not a bad deal.”

Damien yanked Cody’s tie from around his neck and it dropped to the floor. Hell — if he couldn’t even manage something as basic as correctly knotting a tie, how could he hope to succeed at marriage? And if he was going to go through with this joke of a wedding, which it increasingly looked like he was, he would succeed. He never did anything by halves.

Except, apparently, tying this tie. He scowled at the neckwear now crumpled on the floor. “Easy for you to say. You’re not the one who has to live with a complete stranger for a quarter of a year.”

“She might be a stranger, but I know one thing about your bride-to-be: She has great legs.”

As he squatted to retrieve the damn tie, Damien felt a ridiculous stab of jealousy. It wasn’t right that Cody should know something about his bride that he himself didn’t. Of course, it was even more wrong to be possessive of a woman he’d never met.

Cody held up his hand. “Easy, dude. When I looked out the window earlier, I happened to see her climbing out of the limo she came here in. She looked awesome in a short skirt. Blonde, curly hair and legs that go on for miles.”

“What about the rest of her?” Damien asked. He was furious with himself for asking, as if her appearance really mattered. At 32, he’d gotten choosier about his bedmates. It took more than a great body to hold his interest. Still, he found himself fascinated by the picture Cody was painting.

“She had all the right curves, if that’s what you mean,” his buddy assured him, grinning.

Damien couldn’t help but grin back. Apparently his soon-to-be-bride was tall, blonde and stacked — just the way he liked his women.

He shook his head at his foolishness. A fantastic body didn’t necessarily make this woman a good lifelong mate — and, unless a major natural disaster interrupted the proceedings, that’s what she was about to be. Life was too short to run when opportunity came knocking.

Like it or not, that’s what this contest win — if you could call it that — was: an opportunity to shake things up. And no matter how much he wanted to run in the other direction, he wouldn’t.

The recent congratulatory call from Danielle Steel had somehow turned into a thirty-minute therapy session with the author. He’d told her how dull things were in his world, going from work to home and back again. Occasional visits to his parents’ house hardly broke the monotony. Ms. Steel had pointed out that, while good for the animals in his care, such tunnel vision did nothing for his mental and spiritual health.

Even now, the memory made Damien scowl. He wondered when he’d turned into his parents, wrapped up in work to the exclusion of everything else. He recalled how lonely he’d been, playing alone while his parents conducted “important” research in their respective studies — and how he’d sworn he’d never be as boring at them.

Too late. A new woman could be exactly what he needed to spice things up. But was this woman the right one? It couldn’t hurt to try. She just might be his lifeline back to a world in which work wasn’t priority number one.

Still, he wasn’t crazy. He had to approach marriage to a stranger with trepidation. “Since I’ll be living with this woman, I’d rather know what kind of annoying habits she has. … I’ll bet she doesn’t even know how to squeeze a tube of toothpaste properly.”

Cody’s laugh grated on his nerves. “Trust me, Damien — with a body like that, she doesn’t need to know how to squeeze the toothpaste tube.”

Damien’s gaze narrowed. “If she’s all that, why would she need to enter a ‘Get a Love Life’ contest?”

“Who knows?” Cody shrugged. “Maybe she’s like you and just doesn’t make time to date.”

“Well, excuse me for putting my veterinary career before a social life!”

Cody shook his head. “You need to loosen up, man — have more fun.”

The comment gave Damien pause. Wasn’t that exactly what he’d decided while talking to Danielle Steel? As a matter of fact —

He wasn’t ready to give in just yet, though. Cody would be insufferable if Damien didn’t put up more than a token protest.

“What I need is to make enough money so that I can have something that passes for a social life. I still have student loans to pay off, dinner and a movie aren’t getting any cheaper — and you might as well forget tickets to a concert or the theater.”

He heard the excuses — all true — coming from his mouth and knew they were just that: excuses to bury himself in the work he found more fulfilling than any of his relationships with women. It was time for change.

Cody rolled his eyes. “Astronomical!”

Damien glared at his friend. “You’re mocking me again, aren’t you?”

“Would I do that?”

“Actually —”

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