A Bride for Jericho Bravo
It was a very bad day in a very bad week in what would no doubt turn into a really rotten month. Otherwise, Marnie Jones would never have stolen that chopper. Plus, there was Jericho Bravo. First, he scared her to death. And then he made her mad.
Really mad. And he did it at the end of her very bad day. His making her mad was the final straw, or so she told herself when she hotwired that beautiful motorcycle.
If she hadn’t been feeling so crazy, so desperate and miserable, she might have been able to be more objective about the whole thing. She might have reminded herself that it wasn’t his fault that he had scared her silly. And when he made her mad, well, he was only telling the truth as he saw it.
But she was feeling crazy and desperate and miserable. That day, she was in no mood to be objective about anything.
The very bad day in question? It was April first. So appropriate. On the day for fools, Marnie knew herself to be the biggest fool of all.
The day before, Wednesday, March thirty-first, her life had imploded when Mark Drury broke up with her. Mark was not only her live-in lover of five years, he was also her best friend in the world since childhood, her blood brother since the age of nine.
The house they shared in Santa Barbara belonged to him. So when he dumped her, she had nowhere to go and no best friend to talk to. She threw all her things in the back of her old black Camry and got out of there.
She started to go home—home being the tiny town of North Magdalene northeast of Sacramento, in the Sierras. But after about ten minutes behind the wheel, she realized that she simply couldn’t do it, couldn’t go back there. Couldn’t face the worry in her dad’s eyes, the tender sympathy her stepmother would offer, the endless advice of her crazy Grandpa Oggie. Couldn’t stand to be the one the whole town was talking about.
Yeah, she knew they would only be talking about her because they cared for her. But still. She couldn’t take the humiliation.
So instead of heading north, she went east. She had no idea why, no clue where she was going. Just somewhere that wasn’t Santa Barbara or North Magdalene.
Seven hours later, as she rolled into Phoenix, her destination became clear. She was going to San Antonio, going to her big sister, Tessa.
She kept driving. After thirteen hours on the road, she reached El Paso. It was getting dark. She got a burger and fries from a drive-through, found a cheap motel and checked in for the night.
She tried to sleep. Not happening. And her cell kept ringing. It was Mark. She didn’t answer, just let his calls go to voicemail and then deleted them without listening to them. She didn’t need to hear him saying he only wanted to be sure that she was all right. She wasn’t all right. She didn’t think she would ever be all right again. And he, of all people, ought to know that.
At dawn, she dragged herself out of the motel bed and started driving.
She made it to San Antonio at ten past noon. Fifteen minutes later, she was pulling up in front of her sister’s new place, a gorgeous Spanish-style house in a very pricey neighborhood called Olmos Park.
Marnie’s big sister, notorious in North Magdalene for her bad luck with men, had finally found the guy for her. His name was Ash Bravo. Ash was killer hot and he had lots of money. But what really mattered was that he was long-gone, over-the-moon in love with Tessa—as she was, with him. They’d been married for two years now and had recently moved from his house, in another high-priced area of San Antonio, to this one, which they’d chosen as a couple.
Marnie sat in the car for a while, thinking how she probably should have called her sister first, given Tessa a little warning, at least. Somehow, she just hadn’t been able to bring herself to dial her sister’s number. There was too much to explain. Marnie hardly knew where to start.
Eventually, she shoved open her door, shouldered her purse and got out of the car. Her legs felt kind of rubbery and her head swam. She’d had nothing to eat since that greasy burger the night before. She shut the door and braced both hands on the dusty black roof of the Camry. Head drooping, she took a few slow, deep breaths as she waited for the light-headedness to pass.
When she looked up again, a skinny, fortyish, deeply tanned woman in cross-trainers, bike shorts and an exercise bra jogged past across the street. The woman frowned in Marnie’s direction. Marnie couldn’t really blame her. She knew she looked like hell and her car was old and dusty, the backseat packed with just about everything she owned. The skinny woman probably thought she was some homeless person.
Which, come to think of it, she was.
The realization brought a laugh to Marnie’s lips, a brittle, angry sound. The woman in the cross-trainers ran faster, quickly disappearing around the corner.
Marnie pulled herself up straight, turned and started up the long, winding front walk, which curved beneath the dappled shade of a pair of handsome pecan trees, their branches arching prettily to mesh like joined hands overhead. Attractive flower beds flanked the wide, red-tiled front step and the outer door was of iron lace. Marnie rang the bell.
A few moments later, the inner door swung inward. Tessa stood there, in jeans and a pretty gauze shirt. Her hazel eyes darkened. She sucked in a small, shocked gasp.
Tessa pushed open the outer door. “Marnie. What in the…?”
“I couldn’t make myself go home. And I didn’t know where else to go.”
Tessa did just the right thing then. She held out her arms.
By three that afternoon, Marnie still felt like crap. But marginally better crap.
Tessa had let her cry, listened to her long sad story, fed her lunch, and given her a space to park her Camry in the five-car detached garage behind the house. She’d also helped Marnie carry her stuff along the walk that circled the pool to the guest house out in back. It was a cute little two-bedroom stone cottage, a much-smaller version of the main house, complete with a bright, galley-style kitchen and a nice view of the pool.
“Take a long, hot shower,” Tessa instructed after helping her put her things away. “And maybe a nap.”
“I could sleep straight through till tomorrow.”
“Dinner first. You need to eat.”
“You sound like Gina, you know that?” Regina Black Jones was their stepmother. She had married their father when Tessa was twelve and Marine, nine.
Tessa laughed. “Gina was the best thing that ever happened to us.”
“I know. Regular meals. Rules. And a boatload of unconditional love.”
“We needed her then.” Just like I need you now. “Tessa?”
“Thanks are never necessary. I’m here, always. For you.” Tessa stroked her hair. “You’ll be okay.”
Marnie answered with more confidence than she felt. “I know.”
“A long, hot shower. And then rest. Dinner around seven or so. Just family, nothing fancy. You and me and Ash and Jericho.”
“Jericho. One of the brothers?” It was a big family. Ash had six brothers. And two sisters. And also a half-sister named Elena.
Tessa was nodding. “Jericho is sixth-born. After Caleb, before Travis.”
“Ah.” Marnie had met Ash’s family at the wedding. But that was two years ago. There were a lot of Bravos and they all kind of blurred together in her mind.
Tessa cupped her face, kissed her on the cheek, and left her alone.
Peeling off her road-wrinkled clothes as she went, Marnie headed for the bathroom. After her shower, she stretched out on the sofa, where she could look out the French doors at the gleaming pool and the main house beyond. She closed her eyes and tried to sleep, but sheer exhaustion had every nerve humming. And in spite of the big lunch Tessa had insisted she eat, she felt hollow inside.
Her cell rang. She grabbed her purse off the coffee table, fished out her phone and saw it was Mark. Again. He wasn’t going to stop calling until he knew she was safe.
With a sigh, she pushed the talk button and put it to her ear. “Do you mind? Leave me alone.”
“I just want to know that you’re all—”
“All right?” She made a hard, snorting sound. “Well, I’m not. But I’m safe. I’m at Tessa’s.”
“Tessa’s.” He sounded stunned. As if she’d caught a flight to the moon or something. “You went all the way to Texas.”
“Stop calling me. I mean it. I’m alive. I’m okay. And I’m none of your damn business. Ever again.”
“Leave me alone.”
“Say it. I mean it. Just say you will leave me alone.”
“Say it, Mark!” She shouted the demand into the phone.
A silence. And then, at last, “All right. I’ll stop calling.”
“Good. Goodbye.” She disconnected before he could say anymore. Then she powered the phone off and tossed it on the coffee table next to her purse.
She flopped back to the couch cushions and shut her eyes. She didn’t expect to sleep. But she did. Like a rock dropping into a bottomless well, darkness sucked her down.
A loud rumbling sound woke her.
For a moment, she thought maybe there was an earthquake.
But then, groggily, she remembered where she was: not California. Tessa’s. In San Antonio.
It all came flooding back, in total awfulness. Mark had dumped her. She’d fled to Texas….
The rumbling sound died away. Probably some motorcycle out on the street.
She grabbed her phone, powered it on and checked the time. Six-thirty. A half hour till dinner. So she got up, brushed her hair, put on some lip gloss, grabbed her purse and headed back over to the main house.
The charming rock path went both ways around the pool. For a little variety, she crossed around away from the garage that time, pausing to watch fat koi gliding beneath the surface in a pond near the far fence and to take comfort from the soothing sound of the small waterfall that gurgled over rough black rocks.
She went in through French doors to the kitchen, where the walls were a warm gold, the counters of brightly painted Spanish tile and the appliances chef-quality. Tessa’s old, nearly deaf bulldog, Mona Lou, was asleep in a dog bed in the corner. The dog got up, stretched and waddled over for a pat on the head. When she whined, Marnie opened the door again and let her out into the backyard.
Something was cooking. It smelled really good. Her stomach grumbled, so she grabbed a banana from the big fruit bowl on the counter.
Munching the banana, looking for Tessa and Ash, she left the kitchen and wandered through the empty family room, where Tessa’s white cat Gigi was sleeping on the couch. Gigi lifted her head and squinted at Marnie as she wandered by.
She went on, down the hall toward the living room in the front of the house. Everything was so quiet. Had they left suddenly, for some reason? She paused at the curving iron staircase in the foyer, and glanced up toward the top floor, but didn’t mount the stairs. Maybe Ash and Tessa were up there, sharing a private moment before dinner.
The doors to the study stood open. She finished off the last of her banana, set her purse on the entry table, and poked her head in there. It was a masculine refuge, with a beautiful old desk and credenza of the same dark, rich wood and tall, carved mahogany bookcases rising to the cove ceiling. Still wondering where everyone had gone, she turned for the living room across the foyer, her footfalls echoing softly on the hardwood floor.
She didn’t see the man until she’d reached the open archway that led into the large, bright room. He stood over by the fireplace with his back to her, his long dark-brown hair tied in a ponytail with a strip of leather, wearing a gray t-shirt, faded, torn jeans, and heavy boots.
Even from behind, he looked menacing. He was at least six-three, with a neck like a linebacker and massive tattooed arms straining the sleeves of his t-shirt. She could even see the pointed black edges of a tattoo rising out of his collar at the nape of his neck.
Maybe it was the silence of the beautiful house, the unexpected absence of Tessa and Ash. Maybe it was the recent collapse of her life as she had come to know it. Maybe it was his size, the sense of power and strength and danger that seemed to radiate off of him. Maybe it was simply her surprise at seeing him there, looking so out of place in her sister’s pretty, upscale living room.
Whatever the reason, a sudden terror filled her. An icy shiver cut a frozen path of mindless fear down her spine, along her thighs, outward over the surface of her arms.
He turned toward her. She saw his face, which was surprisingly handsome for someone so large and scary. He opened his mouth to speak.
She still had the banana peel clutched in her hand. She threw it at him and started screaming.
Feet on the upper floor, running.
She whirled to see her sister and Ash coming at her down the iron-railed staircase.
“Marnie,” Tessa cried. “Marnie, what is it? What’s wrong?”
In seconds they were both at her side. By then, she had stopped screaming. Tessa grabbed her and pulled her close.
She huddled against her sister, already beginning to realize that the man by the fireplace wasn’t an intruder, after all. If he had been, he would have done something other than stand there and glare at her.
Then Ash spoke to him. “Jericho, what’s going on?”
The brother. The brother who was coming to dinner. She should have known that, shouldn’t she?
“What’s going on?” the big man echoed Ash’s question in a voice every bit as deep and rough as she would have expected. “How the hell would I know what’s going on? She saw me and she started screaming.”
Marnie let out a small whimper of abject embarrassment. “Oh, God…”
He held up the banana peel. “She threw this at me. Luckily, I ducked.” He kind of squinted at her. She saw humor in his green eyes—and anger, too. He was trying not to let the anger show. But she recognized it. He didn’t like that she’d mistaken him for some kind of thug.
She pulled away from Tessa and made herself stand up straight. “I, um, I’m really sorry. The house was so quiet. And…you surprised me, that’s all.”
“Yeah?” He came closer. The look in his eyes said she better not shrink away.
She didn’t, though instinct had the skin at the back of her neck pulling tight. He was proud, she knew that, could read it, in his eyes, in the way he carried himself. The kind of guy you shouldn’t cross. Or embarrass. She forced a wobbly smile and confessed, “It wasn’t you. It was me. I’ve had a…rough couple of days…”
He reached out. She was very careful not to flinch when he took her hand in his big, rough paw. He slapped the banana peel into it.
“Uh. Thanks,” she said, because she couldn’t think of anything else to say.
And then Tessa started talking, urging them fully into the living room. She took Marnie’s hand, but only to whisk the banana peel away. Ash gave her a hug and said he was happy to see her, then he went to the wet bar on the inside wall of the big room, to pour margaritas from the icy pitcher waiting there. He gave them each a glass of the frozen concoction. Except for Tessa. She had sparkling water.
They all took seats. Marnie got a wing chair to herself. She leaned back in it and sipped her drink and tried to think of something interesting to say.
Nothing came to her, so she was quiet. The other three talked, about how good the house looked. About the family company, BravoCorp, of which Ash was CEO. About Jericho’s business, San Antonio Choppers, which he ran in partnership with somebody named Gus. He built custom motorcycles, she learned.
When she thought he wasn’t looking, she studied him and tried to remember meeting him at Tessa and Ash’s wedding. She couldn’t recall ever seeing him before. Maybe he hadn’t been there. Because really, he wasn’t the kind of guy a person forgets.
Once, as she snuck a glance at him, he caught her at it. He looked straight at her then, green eyes dark and deep as a mountain lake where no one ever goes. Cold. Wild. Untouched.
Marnie blinked first. She turned away and found her sister looking at her. Tessa smiled. A tender smile—and a worried one. Then Ash said something. And Jericho said something. The conversation continued without her.
After the margaritas, Tessa led them to the dining room, where the table was set for four. She brought in the food from the kitchen and Ash opened wine. Only the men drank it. Tessa was sticking with sparkling water. And the last thing Marnie needed was to get blasted on top of everything else.
Most of the conversation centered on some big charity event that was set for the first of May. Jericho was offering one of his custom bikes to be auctioned off for the cause. Ash seemed very pleased over this—even excited. Jericho only shrugged a giant shoulder and said he was glad to help.
Marnie hardly said a word. Encased in her own private cloud of misery, she tuned out the others and picked at the excellent dinner.
Dessert came. Some sort of slippery, cinnamon-flavored flan thing, really good, like the rest of the meal had been. She ate a few bites of it, to be polite.
Finally, after what seemed like a long and excessively grim lifetime, the meal was over. The men went to Ash’s study and Marnie helped Tessa clean up—or tried to.
“Leave it for now,” Tessa said, when they had carried the plates to the kitchen. “The housekeeper will take care of it all in the morning, anyway. You go ahead to bed, get some rest.”
Marnie slowly shook her head. “I feel really bad about Ash’s brother…”
Tessa reached out and touched the side of her face with a tender hand. “Don’t. You’re tired and on edge. You need a good night’s sleep.”
“I think he hates me now.”
“Of course, he doesn’t.”
“And I embarrassed Ash. And you.”
“Go to bed. It’ll all look better in the morning.”
She blew out a hard sigh. “Yeah. I’m sure you’re right.” She got a last hug from her sister and left as she had entered, through the French doors, going around by the pond again, not as comforted by the chuckling fountain as she had been earlier.
In the larger of the guest-house bedrooms, she put on her sleep shirt and trudged into the bathroom to brush her teeth. She really looked awful, bags under her bloodshot eyes, her skin kind of splotchy. Way too pale. Even her hair seemed depressed. It hung limp as a dirty brown curtain, to her shoulders.
She made herself not look at the mirror again as she squirted toothpaste on her toothbrush and cleaned her teeth. Then it was back to the bedroom and the nice, fresh white sheets on the comfy bed. She climbed in and pulled the covers over her and shut her eyes.
And remembered that she’d left her purse in the house.
Why had she taken it over there, anyway? She had no idea. She hadn’t needed it then—and she didn’t really need it now.
But then, it did have her phone in it. What if someone called her? Other than Mark. What if she needed to make a call?
True, there was a landline on the nightstand—and no, she couldn’t think of a single person she wanted to call. And yet…
Fine. She would get the damn purse.
She shoved back the covers, pulled her jeans back on under the sleep shirt and stuck her feet in a pair of flip-flops. That time she went around in front of the garage to get to the back door, so she saw Jericho’s chopper parked in the turnaround area between the house and the garage. It was beautiful, big and black with metal-flake cobalt-blue trim and shiny chrome. Even in the shadows of twilight the gorgeous thing gleamed, its stretched front forks looking so dangerous—and fast.
The sight of it made her throat clutch, brought a sharp pang of longing for home, where her dad ran the local garage, had since she was a kid. Sometimes bikers would bring their choppers in when something went wrong during a mountain ride.
Once, before she and Mark started dating, when he was only her blood brother and very best friend, one of those bikers had taken her for a ride. It was thrilling and scary, rounding sharp mountain turns, the wind tearing at her, blowing her hair out from under her borrowed helmet, as the bike picked up speed.
She remembered the biker’s laughter, blown back to her on the wind, the smell of road dust and pine forest all around, the engine roaring in her ears, vibrating through her body, making her feel a little afraid, stunningly alive. And utterly free.
What happened to you? Mark’s voice. Filling her head, saying all the cruel things he’d said yesterday morning. Marnie, I hardly know you any more. You used to take chances. You used to be willing to rise to any challenge, the bravest girl I ever knew. Where did that girl go? I think you need to find out. Marnie, I think that you and me, we’re not meant to be. Not in this way. I think you need to ask yourself. Where is your spark?
Shut up, Mark.
She shook herself and turned away from the beautiful bike, toward the main house again.
Tessa wasn’t in the kitchen. The dishes they’d brought in from the dining room waited on the counter, just as they’d left them. Marnie went through the family room where the white cat still slept and down the hall to the foyer to get her purse from the entry table.
The doors to the study were open. She could hear voices in there, male voices: Ash and his brother. She would have to cross the open doorway to get her purse. The thought of doing that, of having the two men see her and wonder what she was doing wandering around the main house without Tessa, made her nervous—which only proved Mark was right about her. She was scared of her own damn shadow.
Where had her brave self gone?
As she hovered there at the foot of the stairs, admitting how pitiful and silly she was being, she heard Jericho’s rough voice, painfully clear, from inside the study.
“No, man. I mean really. You probably ought get her to a shrink or something.”
Ash said, “She’ll be fine. She’s had a rough couple of days, that’s all.”
“She didn’t say a word through dinner. Just sat there, staring. Didn’t you notice?”
“Rico. Come on.”
“She got a drug problem, maybe?”
“Her boyfriend dumped her and she drove all the way here from Santa Barbara. She’s beat and her life’s in chaos. And you scared her.”
“I didn’t do crap. I was just standing there. That woman is not okay, I’m telling you. She needs—”
Marnie didn’t stick around to hear what she needed—let alone to get her purse. Her cheeks burning and her heart pounding hard and fast with shame and fury, she whirled to go back the way she had come, pausing only to yank off her flip-flops so neither Ash nor his bigmouth butthead of a brother would hear her retreat.
Barefoot, clutching her flip-flops in her fist, she took off down the hall, racing through the family room and the kitchen and, at last, out the French doors to the backyard. Once outside in the gathering dark, she stopped and sucked in a few deep breaths of the cool night air.
The deep breaths didn’t help much. Her heart still knocked against her ribs like it wanted to break right through the wall of her chest. Her cheeks still flamed with humiliation. She started running again, not quite so fast now, jogging back the way she had come.
The chopper was still waiting there, chrome shining, metal flake blue giving off a kind of sparkle even in the growing darkness. She slowed as she approached it, and then veered toward it instead of running on by. A helmet waited on the seat.
In her head, Jericho’s voice now warred with Mark’s.
She got a drug problem, maybe?
What happened to you?
You probably ought to get her to a shrink or something.
You used to take chances.
That woman is not okay, I am telling you.
…Willing to rise to any challenge. The bravest girl I ever knew.
…didn’t say a word through dinner.
I think you have to ask yourself…
Just sat there, staring…
Where is your spark?
Marnie put on her flip-flops.
Her spark? Mark wanted to know what had happened to her spark?
Well, maybe she’d just show him. Maybe she would show them all, on Jericho’s fancy bike. Maybe she would take that chopper for a nice, long ride.
Yeah, okay. She knew it was a bad idea. A very bad idea.
It was not only dangerous, it was grand theft.
Where is your spark?
She’d learned a thing or two back in North Magdalene, in her dad’s garage. Like how to start an engine without a key.
The job required something to pry with. So she hustled into the garage, flip-flops slapping concrete as she went, and got a screwdriver from the tool kit she kept in her trunk. Once she had that, she ran back outside. She stuck the screwdriver in a pocket, grabbed the helmet and put it on. It was too big, but she tightened the strap as much as she could.
Squeezing the right brake lever to avoid any surprise wheelies, she straddled the bike and eased it upright between her legs. From atop the beautiful machine, it was a long way down those front forks to the front wheel.
In fact, the bike seemed bigger, now she was straddling it. Really big. And really dangerous. Even if she could get it started, the thing weighed more than she did and it would be a stretch for her feet to reach the pegs. It was way too much bike for her to handle…
She shut her eyes tight and called up Mark’s words in her mind.
Where is your spark?
When she opened her eyes again, she was ready. She was going to do it. She would not wimp out.
Using her heel, she guided the side stand up. She put the bike in neutral, released her grip on the brake and walked it around so it faced the driveway on the side of the house.
Then she turned the fuel valve to the on position and used her screwdriver to pry off the metal ignition cap, revealing the battery and ignition wires.
After that, it was so simple. She stuck the screwdriver in one back pocket and the ignition cap in the other and she twisted those wires together.
The big engine roared to life. She turned on the lights, pressed the clutch, shifted into gear, and eased the clutch out as she gave it the gas.
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