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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 hot-wired 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 1. So appropriate. On the day for fools, Marnie knew herself to be the biggest fool of all.
The day before, Wednesday, March 31, her life had imploded when Mark Drury broke up with her. Mark was not only her live-in lover of five years, but 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 say 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 of 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 guesthouse 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 Marnie, 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 any more. 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 went by.
Everything was so quiet. Had they left suddenly, for some reason? She paused at the curving iron-railed 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 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."