The Lawman's Convenient Bride
FIRST COMES MARRIAGE....
Feisty, fearless Jody Bravo's set to do everything for her baby. She doesn't need anything from anyone—especially the stepbrother of her baby's late father. But lawman Seth Yancy won't leave her to face parenthood alone, no matter how prepared she is. And even though Jody resists, soon she's taken in completely by his charms—and agrees to be his wife…
THEN COMES LOVE?
Hunky Sheriff Yancy's not without his fair share of admirers in Justice Creek. After a terrible tragedy years before, though, he's faced life alone. Now the real-life woman of his dreams just happens to be his bride—and pregnant with the child of his heart, if not his reality. So "father" is a role that will come naturally to Seth. And will "husband" really be that far behind?
What Readers are Saying
Sheriff Seth Yancy worked hard for his community. He lived to serve the citizens of tiny Broomtail County, Colorado, and he would do just about anything for his constituents.
But a bachelor auction?
No way would he agree to be a prize in one of those. Being raffled off to the highest bidder was beneath his dignity. Plus, he would have to go out with the winner. Seth hadn’t gone out with anyone in almost four years. And way back when he did go out, it hadn’t been with a woman from town—or anywhere in Broomtail County, for that matter.
He was single and planned to stay that way. Dating someone who lived in his community, well, that could get messy. Seth didn’t do messy. As sheriff, he tried to set a good example in all aspects of his personal life. And that meant that when the president of the library association asked him to be a prize in her upcoming bachelor auction, Seth went right to work gently and regretfully turning her down.
He sat back in his new leather desk chair in his brand-new office in the recently opened Broomtail County Justice Center on the outer edge of the small town of Justice Creek and said, “The last Saturday in May? I’m sorry, Mrs. Carruthers. That’s a bad day for me.” It wasn’t really a lie, he reasoned. Because if he said yes to the woman in the guest chair across from him, it would be a bad day.
“Call me Caroline.” She crossed her slim legs and folded her hands on her knee.
“Sure, Caroline. What time did you say the auction was?”
“We’re planning an all-day event in the park. But you would only need to be there between, say, two and four.”
“Two and four,” he repeated, stalling a little, as though he really did want to help her out. And he did. Just not for this.
Caroline beamed at him from behind her cat’s-eye glasses. “So then. We can count on you as one of our bachelors. I’m so pleased.”
“Hmm. Hold on, now. I’ll have to check.” He clicked the mouse on his desktop and made a show of frowning at the screen. “I’m sorry, but between two and four is impossible.” It was an outright lie this time. And Seth did not approve of lying. But to get out of being raffled off like a prize bull, he would sink pretty low. “I just can’t make it.”
Caroline’s sweet smile never wavered, though her eyes were a flinty, determined shade of gray. “Sheriff, I can’t tell you how much it would mean to us if you could find a way to rearrange your schedule and say yes.”
He cleared his throat, the sound downright officious even to his own ears. “I’m sorry. Really.”
She adjusted her glasses, causing the beaded neck strap to twinkle aggressively. “Did I mention yet that the auction will help finance the library’s new media center?”
“Yes, you did and I—”
“It’s a great cause. An important project. Children who don’t have access to the internet need a chance to become familiar with the life tools others take for granted. And how many of our seniors wish they could broaden their horizons and move into the digital age? The center is so much more than just a bonus for our community. It’s an out-and-out necessity.”
“Yes, I understand that. But I really can’t—”
“And it will take so little of your time, Sheriff. A couple of hours in Library Park the day of the auction and then one date with the lucky lady who bids the most for you. We’ve gotten Silver Star Limousine from Denver to donate a limo for your date. The winning ladies will each get a spa day at Sweet Harmony Day Spa. You’ll be expected to pay for the date, of course, and I know you and the happy girl who wins you will choose something memorable and fun to do together.”
“I understand, but as I keep trying to tell you, Caroline, I really can’t.”
“Oh, yes, you can.” She blasted that smile at him, brighter than ever. “We all do admire the important work you do here. We’re grateful for your service to this community.”
“Well, thank you, I—”
“Of all the eligible bachelors in our county, I believe you are the most respected.” Eligible? Seth might be single, but he was far from eligible. To be eligible, a man had to be willing to get involved in a relationship, and he wasn’t. Caroline’s gray eyes seemed to bore right through him. “Respected and so greatly admired. Word does get around. I’ve heard about your fan club….”
His fan club. He supposed that didn’t sound so bad. At least she hadn’t called them badge bunnies, which a lot of civilians considered cool police slang. Seth found the term sexist and objectifying—and, yes, he knew all about sexism. It was part of his job to know about it and to squelch it whenever it reared its ugly head. He didn’t approve of terms that objectified anyone. And as for his “fan club,” there weren’t that many of them. But they were certainly enthusiastic, always dropping by to see him with baked goods and big smiles. Seth skirted a fine line with the women in question. He tried to be polite and appreciative while never letting any of them get too close.
If he gave in and said yes to the auction, one of them would probably “win” him. How awkward would that be?
He didn’t even want to think about it.
And Caroline was still talking. “A tweak of your calendar, a few hours in the park and a date with a generous, community-conscious woman. Just one date. For the needy children who can so easily be left behind, for the seniors with ever-narrowing horizons.”
He willed Garth Meany, the dispatcher, whose narrow back he could see through his inner-office window, to get a call—nothing too serious, a drunk and disorderly or someone creating a public nuisance. No one should get hurt. All Seth wanted was a chance to “notice” Garth on that call. He could bounce to his feet, mumble something about a “390” or a “507” that required his immediate attention—and hustle Caroline right out the door.
Unfortunately, it was a Tuesday afternoon in April, and the citizens of Broomtail County were apparently sober and behaving themselves. “Caroline, I’m so sorry, but I have another appointment in—”
“Just say the magic word, and I’ll get out of your hair.”
“Please.” Now her eyes were huge and mournful behind the slanted, glittery frames. “Sheriff. We need you.”
He opened his mouth to say no again. But Caroline looked so sad for all those disadvantaged children with no access to the internet, all those shut-in seniors who didn’t even know how to send an email. He really did hate lying. And did she have to keep using that word, need?
Seth Yancy was a bitter man in many ways. His life hadn’t turned out the way he’d once hoped it might. And the last few months, since the sudden death of his only brother, Nick, had been nothing but grim for him. Nicky was a good guy, the best. And way too young to die. It just wasn’t right, that he’d been taken.
Too many were taken. And always the ones who deserved long, full lives.
But even though he’d been feeling more down than usual lately, Seth still liked to believe he was a good public servant, that when the people of his county needed him, one way or another, he would come through.
Caroline regarded him steadily, waiting for his reply.
And by then, for Seth, there was only one answer to give. “All right. I’ll rearrange my schedule.”
An hour later, Caroline was long gone, off to corner some other poor schmuck and badger him into making a fool of himself on the bachelor auction block. Seth was still in his office reviewing last month’s budget overages, with the jail’s operations report still to get through.
But enough. He was done for the day.
The budget and the reports could wait until tomorrow. After being bested by that Carruthers woman, he needed a fat, juicy steak and a twice-baked potato, and he knew where to get them.
The Sylvan Inn sat in a small wooded glen a few miles outside of town. At four-thirty in the afternoon on a weekday, the parking lot had one row of cars in it—the row closest to the front entrance. Seth pulled in at the end of that row.
Inside, the hostess led him straight to a deuce by a window that looked out on a shaded patio. Perfect. He felt the cares of the day melting away.
Never heard of her.
His waitress, Monique Hightower, appeared. Seth had known Monique for a good twenty years, at least. They’d attended Justice Creek High about the same time, with him graduating a couple of years ahead of her. She’d been working here at the Inn for a decade, maybe more.
“Hey, Seth. You’re earlier than usual for a weekday.” Monique refilled the water glass he’d already emptied and set the bread basket in front of him. “Everything okay?” Monique was a good waitress, but she talked too much. And she had a rep for being overly interested in other people’s business.
He replied, “Everything is just fine, thanks,” in a tone that discouraged further conversation. “I’ll have the house salad with blue cheese, a Porterhouse, bloody, and a fully loaded potato.” A beer would really hit the spot, but he was still in uniform. “And bring me a nice, big Coke.”
Monique jotted down his order. “Be right back with your drink and that salad.” She trotted off, blond corkscrew curls bouncing in her high ponytail.
She was as good as her word, too, bouncing right back over with a tall, fizzy Coca-Cola and a plateful of greens.
Seth buttered a hunk of hot bread and got down to the business of enjoying his meal. By the time the steak and potato arrived, he felt better about everything. The auction was almost six weeks away. He’d put it on his calendar, and he’d promised Caroline he would pose for a picture and work up a bio that would make the women of Justice Creek eager to bid on him. He wasn’t looking forward to either activity, but as soon as they were accomplished, he could forget about the whole thing until he had to show up at the park the last Saturday in May.
“All done?” Monique stood at his elbow.
“Yeah. It was terrific, as always.”
She took his plate. “Wait till you see the dessert cart. On the house for you, Seth.”
“Thanks, Monique. Just the check.”
And off she went, returning in no time with the bill. He gave her his credit card. Not three minutes after that, she set down the leather check folder on the white tablecloth. He put his card away and picked up the pen.
“So. Jody seems to be doing great, don’t you think, all round and rosy?” It was Monique. For some reason, she’d remained standing right behind him.
He added the tip and scratched in his signature. “Jody?”
Monique leaned a little closer and spoke very softly. “Jody Bravo.”
He remembered then. Jody Bravo. Pretty brunette. Daughter of Frank Bravo, deceased, and Frank’s second wife, Willow Mooney Bravo. Willow Bravo was a piece of work. She’d carried on a decades-long affair with Frank while his rich first wife, Sondra, was still alive. Sondra had given Frank four children. Pretty much simultaneously, Willow had given him five. Including Jody, who owned a flower shop on Central.
Jody and Nick had been friends there for a while, at the end.
Monique said, “She’s due next month, right?”
This was getting weird. “Due to…?”
“Have the baby, of course.”
Evidently, Jody Bravo was pregnant. Given that she’d been a friend of Nicky’s, he probably should have known that.
But why, exactly, did Monique Hightower think she ought to bring it up to him?
He dropped the pen on the open check folder. “Monique.”
“Come on around here where I can see you.”
She sidled into his line of sight looking uncomfortable now, giving him big eyes and a sweet never-mind of a smile. “So. Can I get you anything else?”
He hit her with his lawman’s stare, dead-on with zero humor. “You went this far. Better finish it, whatever it is.”
“Ahem.” She slid a glance toward the kitchen, scoping out the location of her boss, no doubt. “I…thought you knew, that’s all.”
“Well, I mean that the baby Jody’s having…” The sentence wandered off into nowhere.
“Well, Seth. It’s, um, Nick’s baby.”
Seth heard a strange roaring in his ears, as though the ocean were right outside the window, giant waves beating on that pretty shaded patio. “Did you just say that Jody Bravo is having Nick’s baby?”
Monique’s curly knot of hair bobbed frantically with her nod. She leaned close and whispered, “I can’t believe you haven’t heard. I mean, I know he was your stepbrother, but you two were closer than most blood-related brothers. And it’s not as if Jody’s been keeping it a secret. Everybody knows that baby is Nick’s, that it’s a girl, due at the end of May.”
The roaring of the invisible ocean got louder.
…it’s a girl. Everybody knows….
Everybody but him.
Come to think of it, Nicky’d had a crush on that Bravo woman, hadn’t he?
That was back in the late summer and fall, not long before Nick died. Nick had told Seth he had a thing for Jody, but that Jody didn’t feel the same, so they were “just friends.”
Just friends. That had pissed Seth off. He’d wondered if that Bravo woman was leading his little brother on. After all, she had to be, what, eight or nine years older than Nick?
And Nicky had always been too easy, too tender and open, his big heart just begging for someone to break it. Maybe Jody Bravo had some idea that Nick wasn’t good enough for her because he was a simple guy, happy to work the family ranch for a living, a guy who hadn’t been to some fancy college.
If so, she was a fool. There was no man better than Nick.
And wait a minute. She came to the funeral, didn’t she? Walked right up and shook Seth’s hand, said how sorry she was.
But she didn’t say a single word about any baby.
“Oh, look,” Monique piped up nervously. “One of my other customers needs more coffee. Good to see you, Seth. Have a great day…” She was already bouncing away.
Seth let her go. He needed more information, but he knew better than to seek it from Monique. The invisible ocean still roaring inside his head, he rose, pushed his chair back under the table and headed for the door.
Once back in his cruiser, he started the engine and got out of there, turning back on to the highway going east, away from town. For a while, he just drove, tuning out the chatter on the scanner, willing his blood to stop thundering through his veins.
Had he planned to go home? Kind of. But he didn’t. He blew right by the turnoff to the Bar-Y.
Maybe it wasn’t even true. Monique was hardly a reliable source, after all; she could so easily be wrong about everything, or even lying.
But what if it was true?
Was that Bravo woman ever planning to tell him?
Halfway to I-25, at the small town of Lyons, he did turn the cruiser around. He went back the way he’d come. But he didn’t take the turnoff to the Bar-Y then, either. He drove on past it and straight into town, where he found a parking place right on Central a few doors down from Jody Bravo’s flower shop.
At twenty past six, he stood between the tubs of bright flowers and thick greenery that flanked the shop’s glass door. His pulse thundering louder than ever, he went in. A little bell tinkled overhead, and Jody Bravo, behind the counter across the room, glanced his way.
Even with the counter masking her body from the waist down, he could see she was pregnant. And pretty far along, too. That belly looked ready to pop.
He let his gaze track upward to her face. Did she pale at the sight of him? He couldn’t be sure. But she definitely looked wary, her soft mouth drawn tight, a certain watchfulness in her eyes.
“Sheriff,” she said coolly. “I’ll be right with you.” And she turned a friendly smile to the older man she was waiting on. “Roses and lilies.” She passed him a paper-wrapped cone full of flowers. “Excellent choice. I know she’ll love them….”
Seth hovered near the door, not sure what to do with himself. Another customer came in, and he moved to the side to clear the entrance. And then he just stood there, surrounded by greenery, breathing that moist, sweet smell created by so many flowers and growing things pressing in close.
“Seth?” asked the Bravo woman as the second customer went out the door.
He realized he was staring blankly at a hanging basket full of cascading purple flowers. “Right here,” he answered, though she was standing directly behind him and no doubt looking straight at him. He turned around and met those wary eyes. “We need to talk.”
Resigned. She looked resigned. His certainty increased that Monique had not lied; that giant belly cradled his brother’s child.
Nicky’s baby. He didn’t know what he felt. Joy, maybe. And something else, something angry and ready for a fight.
She said, “It’s time to close. I need to bring in the stock from out in front and deal with the register.”
“No, it’s fine. I can—”
“I said, I’ll help.” It came out as a growl.
She stiffened, but then she answered calmly, “Well. All right then. If you’ll bring in the flowers.” She gestured at a section of bare floor space not far from the door. “Just put them there for now.”
“I’ll take them to the cooler in back later.”
“As long as I’m bringing them in, I can take them where you want them to go.” He put out a hand toward the glass-doored refrigerator full of fancy arrangements that took up much of one wall. “You want them in there?”
She bit her lip like she was about to argue with him. But then she said, “No, there’s a walk-in cooler in back.” She pointed at the café doors near the check-out counter. “Through there.”
All right, then. I’ll bring everything in.”
They got to it. She turned off the Open sign and closed out the register while he carried in the tubs of flowers, trekking them through the inner door to the other fridge. Once all the tubs were in, she locked the shop door. There was an ironwork gate between her shop and the one next door, but it was shut, the shop on the other side dark and quiet.
She must have seen him glance that way. “My half sister Elise owns Bravo Catering and Bakery through there. She closed at six.”
And so they were alone, with no chance of interruption.
He got to the point. “I heard a rumor that you’re having my brother’s baby.”
He didn’t know what he’d expected. Denial? Nervousness? An apology for holding out on him?
But all he got from her was the barest hint of a shrug, followed by a quietly spoken confirmation. “Yes. Nick was my baby’s father.”
The soft words struck him like blows. All at once, his ears were burning. His stomach clenched, and he really wished he hadn’t eaten so much steak.
Sucking in a long breath through his nose, he accused, “You were at the funeral.”
“You stepped right up to me. You shook my hand. You had to know there was a baby then.”
“Yes, I did.”
“But you said nothing.” He gave her a look meant to make her knees shake and waited for her to explain herself. When she only regarded him steadily, he demanded, “What is the matter with you? Why am I the last to know? My brother has been dead for almost six months, and until Monique Hightower shared the news today, I had no idea there was a baby involved.”
That seemed to get through to her. Scowling now, she whipped up a hand, palm flat in his face. “Don’t you get on me, Sheriff. I thought you knew—and didn’t care.”
Didn’t care? That knocked him back. He took a moment to gather his composure. And then he said, deadly calm, “You thought wrong. Did Nick even know?”
Slowly, she lowered her hand to her side. Her diamond-shaped face was all eyes at that moment, eyes of a blue so deep they looked black. Those eyes stared right through him. “He knew.”
Seth couldn’t help but scoff when she said that. “Oh, no. Uh-uh.”
“Why even ask if you’re not willing to accept my answer?”
“I guess I had some crazy idea you might tell me the truth.”
“That is the truth.”
“How long did he know?”
“I told him a few days after I found out myself. That was about six weeks before he died.”
“I don’t believe you.”
Twin spots of color flamed high on her cheeks. “Keep calling me a liar, and I’m just going to have to ask you to leave.”
Was he out of line? Probably. A little. But she should have told him that his dead brother had fathered a child. And that she’d told Nicky? He couldn’t see it. “Nick was a stand-up guy. If he’d known there was a baby, he would have wanted to marry you. That was who he was, a simple man with a big heart and high standards, a man whose own natural father deserted him and his mother. Nick wouldn’t do that. If he knew about that baby, you’d have a ring on your finger—and there is no way that he would have…” His throat locked up. He swallowed hard to loosen it and then tried again. “If Nick knew he was going to be a father, he would’ve told me.”