James Bravo's Shotgun Bride
Waking up tied to a chair is bad.
But waking up tied to a chair staring down the deadly single barrel of old Levi Kenwright’s pump-action shotgun?
So. Much. Worse.
James Bravo stifled a groan. Not only did it appear he was about to eat serious lead, but he had the mother of all headaches. Surely Levi didn’t really intend to shoot him. James shook his head, hoping to clear it.
Still a little fuzzy. And still hurt, too. And Levi still had that shotgun trained right on him.
The old man wasn’t at his best. His wiry white hair looked as if he’d combed it with a cattle prod and his craggy face seemed kind of pale—except for two spots of color, burning red, cresting his cheekbones. Sweat shone on his wrinkled throat and darkened the underarms of his worn checked shirt.
His aim, however?
Way too steady. Levi grunted as he sighted down the barrel. “Good. You’re awake. I was beginnin’ to worry I’d hit you a mite hard.”
James winced, blinked in another failed attempt to ease his pounding head and cast a careful glance around him. Judging by the lack of windows, the knotty pine paneling, the faint smell of cool earth and the stairs leading upward along the far wall, Levi had brought him to a basement. Was it the basement of the house at Red Hill Ranch, where Levi lived with his way too damn attractive granddaughter, Addie?
On the battered pasteboard side table a few feet away, James spotted his phone, his wallet and his keys. So even if he managed to get his hand in his pocket, there was no phone in there to use to call for help.
And just how in hell had all of this happened?
James remembered standing on the porch of his nearly finished new house ten miles outside his hometown of Justice Creek, Colorado. It was a cool and sunny March afternoon. He’d been gazing off toward the big weathered barn at Red Hill, hoping that Addie would soon ride by on one of those horses she boarded and trained.
The crazy old coot must have come up on him from behind.
Cautiously, James inquired, “Er, Mr. Kenwright?”
“No need for formalities, son,” Levi replied downright pleasantly as he continued to point the shotgun at James. “We’re gonna be family. I want you to call me Levi.”
Had the old man just said they were going to be…family? James’s head hurt too much for him to even try to get a handle on that one. “Levi it is, then.”
A wry little chortle escaped the wild-haired old man. “That’s better.”
Better? Better would be if Levi put down the gun and untied him immediately. But James didn’t say that. For the time being, he would say nothing that might rile his captor. A riled Levi could suddenly decide to fire that shotgun. That would be good and bad. Good, because James would no longer have a headache. Bad, because he wouldn’t have a head, either.
“Levi, do you mind if I ask you something?”
“You go right ahead, son.”
“Why am I tied to a chair in the basement of your house?”
Another chortle. And then, very slowly, Levi lowered the shotgun. James drew a cautious breath of relief as Levi replied, “Good question. And one I am sure you will know the answer to if you just give it a little more thought.”
James closed his eyes. He thought. But thinking gave him nothing, except to make his head pound harder. “Sorry, but I honestly have no idea why you’re doing this to me.”
“Well, then.” Levi backed three steps, sank into the battered leather easy chair behind him and laid the shotgun across his knees. “Allow me to explain.”
“Wonderful. Thank you.”
“Think nothin’ of it—I know you know my granddaughter, Addison.”
“Of course I know Addie.” Was she somehow involved in this? Why? He’d done nothing to cause her to make her grandfather hit him on the head, drag him to Red Hill and tie him to a chair.
“Means everything to me, that girl,” Levi said. “She and her big sister, Carmen, are what I got that matters in this world—well, them and my great-grandkids, Tammy and Ian, and their dad, Devin. A fine lad, Devin. Like you, he needed a little convincing. But once he understood the situation, he stepped right up. Same as you’re gonna do—and where was I?”
“Uh, Addie and the rest of your family mean everything to you?”
“Right. Family, son. Family is everything. So you can imagine my concern when I recently discovered that Addie’s in the family way.” Addie pregnant? Could that be true? Levi went right on. “Naturally, I want my new great-grandbaby to have two parents. That’s the old-fashioned way, which is to say, it is God’s way. And that means it’s the best way. And of course, I know very well that you are my new great-grandbaby’s daddy. So I’m just helping things along a little here, just nudging you down the path known as doing the right thing.”
James cleared his throat. Carefully. “Hold on a minute…”
James had a strong suspicion that there was a lump on the back of his head where Levi had hit him. The lump throbbed. It felt like a big lump, a lump that was growing bigger as he tried to make sense of what Addie’s crazy grandpa said to him. “Did you just say that Addie’s having my baby?”
Holding the shotgun between his two gnarled fists, looking weary as a traveler at the end of a very long road, Levi rose to his feet again. “Your baby needs a daddy, son. And my Addie needs a husband.” He raised the gun and aimed the damn thing at James’s aching head once more. “So tell me, is the path becoming clearer now?”
James had never had sex with Addie. Never kissed her, never done more than brush a touch against her hand. True, he would very much have liked to do any number of things to Addie. But he hadn’t. So if Addie had a little one on the way, he wasn’t the man responsible.
And that he wasn’t really pissed him off.
But James’s jealousy of some mystery man who got a whole lot luckier than he ever had was not the issue here.
The issue was that Levi had kidnapped the wrong guy.
Not that James had any intention of setting the old codger straight. Not at the moment, anyway. James had more sense than to argue with a man who’d already coldcocked him, abducted him and tied him to a chair.
Yeah. Levi meant business, all right. And it was looking more and more likely that the old guy had a screw loose. James was a lawyer by profession. He’d dealt with more than one screwball client in his career. Arguing with a nutcase had never gotten him anywhere.
So instead of insisting he’d never laid a hand on Addie, James announced with all the sincerity he could muster, “Levi, the right thing is exactly what I want to do.”
“Glad to hear it, son.”
“Great, then. If you’ll just untie—”
“Not. Quite. Yet.” Levi shook his head, but at least he lowered the gun again.
Keeping it cool, James breathed slowly and carefully. “All righty, Levi. When, exactly, do you plan to untie me?”
“Soon as I’m absolutely certain you’re not gonna pull any tricks on me. Soon as I know I can count on you to…” Levi’s sentence died unfinished as a door slammed shut upstairs. The old man gasped. His rheumy eyes widened as footsteps echoed from above.
Addie. James’s heart leaped as he his head pounded harder. Had to be Addie.
And it was. “PawPaw!” she hollered, the sound far away, muffled, not coming from whatever room was directly overhead. “Where are you?”
James and Levi both stared at the ceiling, tracking the path of her quick, firm footsteps on the floor above as those footsteps came closer.
They passed right overhead.
The basement door squeaked as it opened. James couldn’t see that door, not from where he was tied in the middle of the basement floor. But he heard Addie crystal-clear now as she called down the stairs, “PawPaw?”
“Don’t you come down here!” Levi glared at James and waved the shotgun threateningly for silence. “I’ll be up in a minute!”
The door only creaked wider, followed by more creaking: footsteps on the stairs. A pair of tan boots appeared, descending, bringing with them shapely legs in a snug pair of faded jeans. “What are you up to down here?” The curvy top half of Addie came into view, including those beautiful breasts of hers in a tight T-shirt and all that softly curling ginger hair. About then, she turned and caught sight of James. Big golden brown eyes went wide in surprise. “What the…?” She stumbled. A frantic screech escaped her as her booted feet flew out. She windmilled her arms.
“Addie!” James and Levi shouted their useless warnings simultaneously.
But then, with another cry, she grabbed the iron stair rail and righted herself just in time to keep from tumbling the rest of the way to the concrete floor.
“Get hold of yourself, girl,” old Levi grumbled as she made it down the last step and sagged against the railing. “A woman in your condition has got to be careful.”
Those baby-doll lips of hers flattened in a scowl and two bright spots of color flared high on her round cheeks as she put a hand to her stomach and tried to catch her breath. “PawPaw, you’re scaring me to death. Put down that gun and untie James immediately.”
Levi lowered the gun, but he didn’t put it down. “Now, Addie, honey.” His tone had turned coaxing. “I can’t untie him right yet. First, James and I need to come to a clear understanding.”
“An understanding of what?” Addie drew herself up, stuck out her pretty, round chin and glared daggers at Levi, who stared back at her sheepishly but didn’t answer. He must have known she would figure it out—and she did. Her eyes went wide again as she put it together. “Have you lost your mind? I told you. James is not the guy.”
Levi granted her a patient, disbelieving look—and explained to James, “Morning sickness. That’s how I knew. Just like her grandma, her mom and her big sister, too. Morning sickness early and often. Then I found that little stick she used to take the test. I put it all together, yes, I did. Levi Kenwright is no fool.”
Addie made a growling sound. She actually seemed to vibrate with frustration. “You had no right, PawPaw, none, to go snooping through my bathroom wastebasket. I told you what I think of that. That is just wrong. And now to kidnap poor James, too? What is the matter with you?”
“Nothing is the matter with me,” Levi huffed. “I’m fixing things for you and James here, just like I fixed them for Carmen and Devin.”
James decided he couldn’t be hearing this right. Surly Levi wasn’t implying that he’d kidnapped Carmen’s husband, too?
Addie shrieked again, this time in fury. Waving her arms as she went, she started pacing back and forth across the big rag rug that anchored the makeshift basement living area. “How can I talk to you? You are impossible. You know very well that it was wrong of you to kidnap Devin.”
Levi just stood there, cradling his shotgun, looking smug. “Worked, didn’t it? Eight years later, he and Carmen and the kids are just as happy as bugs in a basket.”
Addie stopped stock-still beside the ancient portable TV on its rickety stand. She sucked air like a bull about to charge. “I can’t talk to you. I want to kill you.” She planted her fists on her hips and commanded, “Untie James right this minute.”
Levi didn’t budge. “Now, Addie honey, don’t get yourself all worked up. James has told me the truth, accepted his responsibility to you and the baby and promised to do the right thing.”
Addie gasped in outrage and whipped her head around to glare at James. “You told him what?”
Oh, great. As if all this was his fault? He suggested mildly, “Given the situation, arguing with your grandfather didn’t seem like a good idea.”
“I don’t…I can’t…” Addie sputtered, furious, glancing back and forth between him and the old man. And then she pinned her grandfather with another baleful glare. “Of course James confessed. What choice did he have? You held a shotgun to his head.”
Levi blustered, “He confessed because it’s true and we both know that it is.”
“No. No, it is not true. James is not my baby’s daddy. How many ways can I say it? How in the hell am I going to get through to you?”
Levi made a humphing sound and flung out an arm in James’s direction. “If not him, then who?”
By then, Addie’s plump cheeks were beet red with fury and frustration. She drew in a slow, hard breath. “Fine. All right. It is none of your business until I’m ready to tell you and you ought to know that. But if you just have to know, it’s Brandon. Brandon is my baby’s father.”
Levi blinked three times in rapid succession. And then he let out a mocking cackle of a laugh. “Brandon Hall?”
James fully understood Levi’s disbelief. A local poor boy made good who’d designed super-successful video games for a living, Brandon Hall was never all that hale and hearty. Recently, he’d died of cancer, having been bedridden for months before he passed on. It seemed pretty unlikely that Brandon had been in any condition to father a child—not in the last few months, anyway. And Addie’s stomach was still flat. She couldn’t be that far along. Uh-uh. James didn’t buy Addie’s story any more than Levi did.
“Yes,” Addie insisted tightly. “Brandon is the dad.”
“I may be old, but I’m not senile,” Levi reminded her. “There is no way that Brandon Hall could’ve done what needed doing to put you in this predicament, Addison Anne, and you know that as well as I do.”
Addie fumed some more. “You are so thickheaded. Honestly, I cannot talk to you…” She turned to James and spoke softly, gently. Soothingly, even. “I am so sorry, James, for what my Grandpa has done.” She gave him the big eyes. God, she was cute. “Are you hurt?”
He nodded, wincing. “He got the jump on me, whacked me on the back of the head, hard, out at my new place. Knocked me out cold. I’m not sure how long I was unconscious, but when I woke up, I was here.”
She hissed in a breath and whirled to pin her grandfather with another accusing glare.
Levi played it off. “He’s fine. Hardheaded. All the Bravos are. Everybody knows that.”
“You hit him, Grandpa.” She threw out a hand in James’s direction. “You hurt him. And you have restrained him against his will.” Levi started to speak. “Shush,” she commanded. “Do not say another word to me. I can’t even look at you right now.” She turned back to James. “I really am so, so sorry…” James sat very still and tried his best to look appropriately noble and wounded. She came closer. “Can I…take a peek, see how bad it is?”
“Sure.” He turned his head so she could see.
And then she was right there, bending over him, smelling of sunshine and clean hay and something else, something purely womanly, wonderfully sweet. “Oh!” she cried. “It’s a big bump. And you’re bleeding…”
“I’m all right,” he said. It was the truth. The pain and the pounding had lessened in the past few minutes. And the closer Addie got, the better he felt. “And there’s not that much blood—is there?”
“No, just a dribble of it. But blood is blood and that’s not good.”
He turned and met her enormous eyes. “I’ll be all right. I’m sure I will.”
She drew back. He wished she wouldn’t. It was harder to smell her now she’d moved away. “I don’t know what to say, James. I feel horrible about this. We need to patch you up immediately…”
“Don’t untie him!” shouted Levi.
Addie just waved a hand in the old guy’s direction and kept those big eyes on James. “Of course I will untie you.”
No!” Levi hollered.
She ignored him and spoke directly to James. “I will untie you right now if you’ll only promise me not to call the police on my crazy old granddad.”
“I’m not crazy!” Levi huffed. “I’m not crazy and he’s the dad—and you are not, under any circumstances, to untie him yet.”
“Grandpa, he is not the dad. Brandon’s the dad.”
“Yeah—and if you just have to have all the gory details, Brandon was my lifelong friend.” She choked a little then, emotion welling.
Levi only groaned in impatient disgust. “I know he was your friend. I also know that’s all he was to you—nothing like you and lover boy here. Come on, Addie honey. I wasn’t born yesterday. I’ve seen the way this man looks at you, the way he’s been chasin’ after you—and though I know you’ve been trying to pretend nothing’s going on, it’s plain as the nose on my face that you are just as gone on him as he is on you.”
“She is?” James barely kept himself from grinning like a fool.
But no one was looking at him anyway. Levi kept arguing, “James is the daddy, no doubt about it. And Addie girl, you need to quit telling your old PawPaw lies and admit the truth so that we can move on and fix what doesn’t need to be broken.”
“I am not lying,” she cried. “Brandon was my best friend in the whole world and he grew up in foster care, with no family, with nothing.”
“Stop tellin’ me things I already know.”
“What I am telling you is that he wanted a child, someone to carry on a little piece of him when he was gone. Before he got too sick, he took steps. He had his sperm frozen…” Addie sniffed. Her big eyes brimmed. She blinked furiously, but it was no good. She couldn’t hold back her tears. They overflowed and ran down her cheeks. “And then he asked me if just maybe I would do that for him, if I would have his child so that something would be left of him in this world when he was nothing but ashes scattered on the cold ground…”
By then James was so caught up in the story he’d pretty much forgotten his own predicament. Everyone in Justice Creek knew that Addie Kenwright and Brandon Hall had been best friends from childhood. People said that, near the end, she’d spent every spare moment at Brandon’s bedside. As the dead man had no one else, Addie had been the one to arrange the funeral service. She and Levi and her sister, Carmen, and Carmen’s husband, Devin, had sat together in the front pew, all the family that Brandon had.
James asked her gently, “So, then, it was artificial insemination?”
Addie sniffed, swiped the tears with the back of her hand and nodded. “We tried three times. What’s that they say? The third time’s the charm? Well, it was. But Brandon died the day after the third time. He died not even knowing that he was going to be a dad.”
James realized he was in awe of Addie Kenwright and her willingness to have a baby for her dying friend.
Levi, however, refused to accept that he’d kidnapped the wrong man. “That’s the most ridiculous bunch of bull I’ve ever heard. And I’m -seventy-eight years old, Addie Anne, so you’d better believe I’ve heard some tall tales in my lifetime.”
Addie only swiped more tears away and moved to stand behind James again. He glanced over his shoulder at her. She met his eyes and said softly, “I just hope you’ll be kind, that you’ll take pity on an old man who never meant to hurt anyone.”
“I will,” he vowed quietly. “I do.”
“Thank you.” Her cool hands swift and capable, she began working at the knots Levi had used to bind him.
Levi let out another shout. “No!” He started waving the shotgun again. “Don’t you do that, Addie Anne. Don’t you dare. Under no circumstances can James be untied until I am absolutely certain that he’s ready to do the right thing!”
Addie said nothing. She kept working the knots as Levi kept shouting, “Stop! Stop this instant!” He ran in circles, the gun held high.
Just as the ropes binding James went slack, Levi let out a strange, strangled cry. He clapped his hand to his chest—and let go of the shotgun.
The gun hit the floor. An ungodly explosion followed and a foot-wide hole bloomed in the ceiling. Addie screamed. Ears ringing, James jumped from the chair. Sheetrock, wood framing and kitchen flooring rained down.
And Levi, his face gone a scary shade of purple, keeled over on his back gasping and moaning, clutching his chest in a desperate, gnarled fist.
“PawPaw!” Addie cried, and ran to him. She dropped to her knees at his side.
Levi gasped and groaned and clutched his chest even harder. “Shouldn’t’ve…untied him…”
“Oh, dear God.” She cast a quick, frantic glance in James’s direction. “Call an ambulance. Please…”
James grabbed his phone off the side table and called 911.
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