REISSUED JANUARY 29, 2008
From the sensuous voice of novelist Brenda Joyce comes Firestorm, the extraordinary second book in the Bragg family saga that has captured the hearts of readers everywhere.
Storm Bragg could outshoot and outride any man, but her family decided it was time she traded in her buckskins for a ballgown and made her debut in San Francisco society. Quickly pursued by every eligible gentleman in town, the young hellcat from Texas had eyes for only one, and he was no gentleman. Brett D'Archand was a self-made success — arrogant, impossibly attractive, blatantly sensual — and looking for a wife who would give him respectability.
Storm was completely bewitched by him, but she made him lose his head as well as his heart. And, threatened by scandal and ruin, they are forced to wed — a tempestuous union of free spirits, shackled only by the irrepressible bonds of love.
"Firestorm sizzles, smolders and erupts with sensuality...a fabulous read."— Romantic Times
Chapter One — San Francisco, 1859
Brett sat at the large, leather-topped mahogany desk with a frown of concentration that deepened to a scowl. He turned the pages of the oversized ledger. Damn. He should have known. This was the first time he’d made an error in judgment about a man, and hopefully it would be the last. Furious now, he snapped the book closed and rose to his full six feet, two inches.
He paced to the window and stared broodingly out at the Stockton Street. He was not going to let his bookkeeper’s theft ruin this day. A slight smile formed on his ruthlessly sculpted face. Not that he was being sentimental just because it was his birthday. But…maybe he was. Today he was twenty-six, and he had everything he wanted. His smile widened.
Not bad for the son of a whore.
Not bad for the bastard of a Californio.
D’Archnad did not resemble his mother, who was French, petite, chestnut-haired, and blue-eyed. Instead he was almost an exact replica of his father, Don-Felipe Monterro—tall, broad shouldered, powerfully built, harshly handsome. And dark, very dark, with nearly black eyes that held little softness and short, crisply curling black hair.
The last time Brett had seen his father he had been graying at the temples, Brett recalled, and instantly grew tense and angry. A scene flashed through his head, which he tried, but failed, to ignore.
“I’m leaving, Father,” a sixteen-year-old Brett had said, waiting, begging silently for his father to stop him.
The handsome lean man remained emotionless. “Where will you go?”
Brett refused to feel the pain. He was a fool. He had never been accepted by his father, had never been more than the bastard in the stable, insurance against the possibility that there would be no more heirs. Now he was no longer needed. When he had heard Don Felipe’s new wife’s infant boy begin to cry, he wanted to cry, too. Instead, his face was as cold and stiff as the don’s. “I’m going to Sutter’s Ford,” he answered.
“Ah, gold,” the haciendado said. It was early 1849.
“Yes, sir.” He could barely get out the words.
The don gave him a blooded Arabian stallion and few hundred pesos. Brett rode out that day and never looked back.
Unconsciously, Brett’s fist smashed against the windowsill, the hard planes of his face rigid. “I won’t look back,” he growled aloud. “For all I care, the old sonuvabitch is dead. And good riddance! I don’t need him. I have what I want—success, respectability…everything.”
From outside his office came a loud crash of breaking glass.
Brett froze, listening, but made no move to leave his large, elegant office. It was decorated in a classic style with mahogany doors, an Oriental rug in coral and blue, a large sofa in wine-colored leather. There were two French chairs covered in pinstriped silk, blue velvet drapes, and wall-to-wall bookcases. His first mistress, Suzanne, had decorated the room for him under his watchful, critical eye when he had acquired the Golden Lady and moved out of his other, shabbier offices in the Miner’s Girl—his first saloon and first investment.
He had to smile, remembering how he had scraped together enough gold dust to buy into a partnership in that sinkhole. A profitable sinkhole upon which he had founded the wealth he owned today. He almost laughed.
The Golden Lady was one of San Francisco’s classiest establishments, every inch as plush and elegant as his office. Even the second floor—where hostesses earned top dollar satisfying their customers—was tastefully decorated. Because of the lack of women in San Francisco—even now, ten years after the gold rush—city government and society tolerated its houses of ill repute. Being owner of the Golden Lady didn’t detract from Brett’s reputation, because it was the most elegant establishment in the city. Then, too, Brett had diversified over the past five years. He now owned a hotel, two restaurants, a partnership in a shipping line, a freight line, and shares in a ranch across the bay. He had also acquired land just west of San Francisco, which people were starting to buy and build homes on. At the age of twenty-six, Brett was one of the wealthiest men in San Francisco.
He pulled a gold watch on a chain from his silver brocade vest. He had just enough time for a short interlude with Audrey, his current mistress, before meeting his partner in the shipping line, Paul Langdon. He slipped on a black suit jacket and automatically adjusted his black necktie. He had just added his black Stetson when another crash and a woman’s scream came from somewhere in the building.
Linda, one of his girls, thrusts open the study door. “Brett, you’d better—“
He was already striding past her, his face taut. “What is it?”
“Some loony,” she said, hurrying behind him down the shining waxed floor of the corridor. “He has a gun, and Susie.”
Brett paused on the threshold of the saloon, which was embellished with rich mahogany, brass, and green velvet. At this early hour of the afternoon half the chairs were empty. A dozen men dressed in well-cut suits were standing uneasily at various tables. The dealers in their brocade waistcoats looked equally wary. Two of Brett’s girls stood white and immobile at the end of the long bar. The bartender, James, stood frozen facing the middle of the room.
There on the floor lay Luke, the two-hundred-pound bouncer, his temple bleeding.
A few yards away stood a dirty man in a flannel shirt and muddy boots. Clenched in a harsh embrace in front of him, the barrel of a gun pressed against her right temple, was Suzie, pale and wet with sweat, her kohled eyes huge.
Moving forward to face the man holding Susie, Brett spoke quietly. “Is he dead?”
“No, I don’t think so,” one of his regular customers answered.
“Linda, go get Doc Winslow.” He didn’t have to look at her to know she was still frozen in the entryway. “Now, Linda,” he commanded softly.
Linda turned and fled.
“I’m going to tend to Luke,” Brett told the man holding Susie. He started forward, his eyes never leaving Susie and her captor. The man immediately pressed the gun harder, and Susie cried out. Brett froze. “I just want to check his wound,” Brett explained.
“He ain’t dead,” the man said harshly. “I only hit him with the butt. He’s just stunned.”
Relieved, Brett wanted to look at Luke, but he didn’t dare. He heard James say from behind him. “It’s true, boss, I saw it.”
The man turned wild eyes on him. “You the boss man here?”
“Yes, I’m Brett D’Archand. And you are?”
“I’m her husband,” the man spat. “I’m Bill Hawkins, and this whore is my wife.”
Brett momentarily met Susie’s gaze and saw her terror. He tried to reassure her with his eyes. Calmly, he asked, “Is that true?”
Susie whimpered what sounded like an affirmative.
“This little whore is my runaway wife, and I’m taking her back. No way you can stop me—but I’d like an excuse you bastard, so just try.”
“Brett,” Susie whimpered, “Please.”
He had known she was married. Brett did not sleep with his employee’s, but he carefully screened them all, and when Susie had first come to him he had known he should throw her out instantly. She was just showing her pregnancy, and her face was bruised from a beating. But for just that reason, he couldn’t deny her. He’d given her a warm meal and listened to her plea for work. There was no way he could hire a pregnant women in his establishment, although he knew that other places would take her. So, because she was young, and pregnant, and running away from her husband who had obviously beaten her, he had given her a job as a maid. Because of his support, Susie had asked him to be the baby’s godfather, and Brett had agreed, secretly delighted.
After the baby was born, Susie had gone to work as one of the hostesses, wanting the better money. He had objected because of her child, which brought back stinging memories of his own youth. But somehow she managed the child and her job, with help from the entire staff. Even found himself tending the infant once when suddenly there was no one else available.
Now, as he faced his goddaughter’s father, he remembered vividly how Susie had looked when he had first seen her, and he knew he could not let this man take her and the child away.
“There’s no need for the gun,” Brett said quietly. “Why don’t you move it from Susie’s temple.”
Bill just stared. Then there was the sound of footsteps behind him, and Brett saw Winslow pushing through the front doors. Bill turned to look. Brett moved.
He leaped at Hawkins, one hand going for his wrist with the gun. Susie screamed, breaking free and running.
Brett’s years growing up on the streets of Mazatlan had taught him a few tricks. Though Bill was bigger, they were at a standoff. The gun went off harmlessly at the ceiling, angering Brett, who was thinking of his chandelier and the hole in the plaster. He raised his knee, yanking Bill’s gun bearing arm against his leg again. He knew he was close to breaking the man’s bone, but he didn’t care. Bill cried out, and the gun fell harmlessly to the floor. Brett released the arm and delivered a shattering blow to Bill’s face. The man jerked backward, but Brett caught him and brought him forward as he swung a hard left into his bulging abdomen. A whoosh of air sounded as Bill crumpled forward. One more blow did it. Brett felt the man pass out in his hands and let him thud to the floor.
Brett stood, regaining his breath, then hurried to where Winslow knelt above Luke. “Is he okay?”
“Gash’ll need a few stitches. Jimbo, bring me some whiskey.”
One of Sheriff Andrew’s deputies had arrived and was dragging Bill Hawkins to his feet as the blinked groggily. “You gonna press charges, Brett?” the deputy asked.
“Absolutely,” Brett said. “How long can you lock him up?”
“How long you want him locked up?”
Long enough to help Susie and the baby, he thought.
“A few days, to start.”
The deputy nodded and started out while Hawkins, stumbling alongside, cursed Brett. Brett watched, then turned to Linda. “Where’s Susie?”
“She ran upstairs.”
Brett went after her. He found her in her room, rocking he daughter, crying. He sat down on the bed next to her. “It’s all right now. He’s been arrested.”
She looked up at him with frightened, glazed eyes. “Brett, what am I going to do? He’ll hurt her, I know he will.” She moaned and started sobbing.
Her tears made Brett feel uneasy. “I’m friends with Judge Steiner,” he said. “How would you feel about a divorce?”
“Oh! Could you?”
“I’m sure it can be arranged.”
She hugged him, almost crushing the baby, and he was embarrassed. “But what about Bill? He’ll be so angry.”
“I’ll take care of him,” Brett said
Brett smiled slightly. “I’ll pay him off.”
And if that didn’t work, there were always other means.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
“Will you look at that!” exclaimed a man clad in navy woollen trousers.
“I see, I see, I ain’t blind,” exclaimed the second sailor.
The object of their attention was Storm, standing in front of a hitching post and bakery on Stockton Street, holding the reins of two large stallions and waiting for a companion. She was clad from neck to toe in skin-tight, well-worn buckskins, which molded her superb and striking figure. A worn Stetson on her head shadowed her face, and a brown and gold braid the thickness of a man’s forearm hung to her waist.
“I ain’t seen anything like that,” said the second man, starting eagerly forward.
Storm heard not only their approach but also their remarks and the undisguised lewdness in their tone, and she was flushed and tensed. This would never happen in San Antone, she though fiercely. No one there would ever dare to talk about her behind her back, knowing full well that is one of her brothers didn’t pursue the matter, her father would. Which made her look at the saloon next door to the bakery where he had told her to wait. Where was he?
“Howdy, li’l lady,” said the bulkier sailor, grinning.
Storm ignored him, stiffening her spine as his body odor assaulted her sensibilities. Both her mother and father were sticklers for cleanliness. It was something she had grown up with, and she was acutely aware now of the need she had for a bath—and a bed.
“C’mon, gal, don’t turn that pretty back on us,” said the other sailor.
She purposely let her thoughts continue, hoping they would walk away. It had been a month she’d had a decent bed. A month since they’d left Texas—and home. Even now she couldn’t believe that they were here. Already. A combination of dread and excitement mingled pleasantly and disturbingly in her veins.
“Hey, gal, you shore are rude, now, ain’t ya?”
When storm felt the large hand closing on her arm, she yanked back, angry for losing herself so completely in her thoughts. “Let go,” she warned, meeting the man’s gaze for the first time.
He gasped at the sight of her deep blue eyes, at the striking and unusual features he finally glimpsed. This was no heart-shaped, bow-mouthed, doll-like face. Her cheekbones were very high. Her nose was straight and proud and flaring. Her strong jaw was determined. He’d never seen a face quite like this, except-maybe on a half breed squaw.
“Get your hand off me,” Storm repeated, her tone not indicating any fear. If she’d outridden a dozen Comanche’s by herself when she was twelve, why should she be afraid of two decadent sailors? Especially when her father was bound to come out of the saloon at any second.
The sailor reached up to remove her hat. His friend whistled, and Storm furiously jerked back her head, eyes blazing. His hand touched her hair, a glinting riot of browns and golds. Storm sucked in her breath and then, before anyone knew it, she’d drawn a buck knife from its sheath and was flicking it down the length of his arm. He yelped and jumped back, eyeing the scratch she had made from his wrist to his elbow.
Storm eyed them angrily and watched them mutter and back off, finally disappearing down the street. She sheathed the knife, and just in time, too, for her father appeared with his long, deceptively easy stride, his handsome face smiling. “Sorry, sweetheart,” he said as she handed him the reins.
Storm grabber her stallion’s mane and vaulted on, Apache-style. “Did you find out where Paul lives?”
“Sure did. Not far from here.” His topaz eyes were warm “It won’t be long now.”
His words echoed, making her tense, until the new sights of the city captured her attention. As they rode gingerly through the muddy streets of San Francisco, Storm was wide-eyed. Never had she seen a city this big, not even San Antonio, which was completely different—so old and so Spanish.
San Francisco was made up of a conglomeration of ramshackle huts, sturdier wooden Victorian-style buildings, and brick and stone edifices with strange pediments and cornices. There were mansions with elaborate facades enclosed by wrought-iron fences. There were saloons and stores and eating-places. Many of the streets had boardwalks and were cobbled, and she saw why—no one could walk through the foot-deep mud on the shoddier side streets. And there was activity everywhere.
Men and woman elegantly dressed in the latest fashion mingled with roughly clad men in flannel shirts and denim pants. Short, slim Chinese men with braids mingled with the black men and Mexicans in serapes and sombreros. There were sailors and Dutchmen. Wagons drawn by mules vied for the right of way down thoroughfares crowded with elegant carriages carrying chaperoned young ladies. Noticing one such barouche—and inside it, the two parasoled, bonneted young women dressed in frilly white dresses, their blond curls carefully escaping to cling to white necks, and the matron in green beside them—Storm felt a rush of fear. She could never, ever dress or look like that. She would be a complete laughing stock! Both horrified and mesmerized, she continued to stare at the two girls. The barouche had stopped and they were laughing coyly with a gentleman on a palomino who appeared elegant in a brown suit and top hat. Her father followed her glance.
“Pretty, aren’t they?”
Storm couldn’t speak. Surely no one was going to get her up like that. With her height and funny looks, it would be ridiculous. Besides, she hadn’t worn a dress in so long she wondered if she’d trip trying to walk in one.
The urge to flee intensified. “Pa? Please, let’s turn around and go home.”
He reached out and took her hand as they walked their horses side by side down Market Street. “Honey, it’s natural for you to be nervous. But after a few weeks you’ll outshine every woman in this town. I know it.” His golden eyes were shining.
Storm looked away. He was prejudiced. He had always been prejudiced about her. Her father thought she was beautiful and perfect.
They passed through very different parts of the city as they rode toward Rincon Hill, where her cousin’s house was located. The hill was less densely developed, and Paul’s house had been described to them, so they spotted it instantly, set almost at the top of the hill. It was a huge brick mansion with white pillars and a white pediment, with balconies on the second and third floors and towers on the roof. The surrounding gardens were just starting to bloom with azaleas and bougainvillea and wisteria. A brick wall topped with a curtain of wrought iron surrounded the grounds. The front gates stood open, and they rode through them.
“Pa,” Storm whispered as they walked their mounts up the muddy drive. “It’s so big.”
Langdon’s done well for himself,” Derek agreed.
“When he wrote and said he’d made some investments that paid off and built himself a home, I had no idea.”
To Storm, the mansion looked like one of the castles in England that her mother had described to her.
They tied their horses at a hitching post shaped like a black jockey, one hand outstretched with a ring to hold the reins. Storm hung back behind her father, her heart thumping, torn between the desire to stay and experience something new and exciting, and the fear of being left alone, away from her family and everything that was familiar to her.
The man who opened the front door looked like an English butler or majordomo. He ushered them indeed, not even batting an eye at their appearance, and Storm found herself standing in a black and white marble-floored foyer. A huge curved staircase on their right wound up to the second story, and all around them were doors. The manservant stepped to a pair of splendid mahogany doors and knocked. Both Storm and Derek could hear from within the hushed sounds of men conversing.
“Sir,” the man said. “Derek Bragg and your cousin are here.”
“Good God!” Paul exclaimed, jumping up. In several strides he had crossed the room, leaving two men seated within. Derek strode across the foyer to meet him, and they clasped hands warmly in the doorway of the library. “Derek! I didn’t expect you and Storm for another few weeks!”
Derek was smiling in pleasure as well. “We left a week early to take advantage of the weather. After all,” he added grinning, “I do have a ranch to get back to.”
“Indeed, you do,” Paul said, a merry light in his eyes. He turned to Storm and gaped.
Storm had met Paul only once before, ten years ago, when he and her grandfather had appeared unexpectedly at the ranch. Paul, a younger son of a English baron, had been on his way to the California gold fields, and her grandfather, the earl of Dragmore, had visited his daughter’s family and the grandchildren he had never seen. She stepped forward, flushing, acutely aware of how she must look in this elegant castle. At least she had had the presence of mind to take off her hat at the front door when her father had done so. “Hello, Cousin Paul.”
“My God! You’re even more beautiful than your mother!” He hugged her.
The instant she had stepped into view, both men sitting in the background had jumped to their feet, staring. Storm, already flushed, noticed Paul’s guests, looking so elegant and urbane, and wanted to die. She wasn’t beautiful, and already she was being made to feel a fool. If only she were a bit shorter.
Paul released her, his eyes warm and admiring. Then, like the confident host he was, he turned slightly, and the two men came forward. “Brett, Grant, I want you to meet Derek Bragg, my cousin Miranda’s husband, and their daughter Storm.”
Storm glanced at the two men, apprehension mingling with indifference. Men meant nothing to her except as amusing comrades—with the exception of Lennie Willis, who had tried to kiss her and feel her breasts one day when they were fishing. She’d blackened on of his eyes for that. But…these men were a bit frightening, just like San Francisco. They were dressed like her cousin, one in a brown suit, the other in black, their sophisticated elegance making her feel out of place and ugly and dreadfully inappropriate. She watched as her father shook hands with both men.
“Grant Farlane,” said the man in brown, smiling warmly, amusement seeming to dance in his eyes.
Storm grasped the hand he held out and pumped it vigorously. “Nice to meet you,” she said, noting the man’s surprise, which he gracefully covered.
She turned to the other man and was instantly stunned. He was staring.
She wasn’t sure what his piercing look meant. It was blazing in its intensity.
Did he think she was a freak? She’d had many hot glances in her short
lifetime, but none like this. She met his gaze and saw that it was almost
black. She had never seen such a dark man, as dark as her father was golden.
She felt the rushing of her blood, the racing of her heart. Her stomach
tightened with a stabbing jolt. He was still staring, but now his gaze
swept her slowly, caressingly, and she had the ridiculous idea that he
could see right through her clothes. She flushed, holding out her hand.
A small smile curved his mouth, and she found herself staring at his lips, which were surprisingly full in the hard face. “Brett D’Archand,” he said, and then, before she knew what was happening, he brought her hand upward and kissed it right above her knuckles. She froze.
His lips were warm, soft, and the skin he kissed tingled. She was suddenly acutely aware that her hands were chapped and callused and dusty.
He released her hand. “A pleasure,” he said, his voice deep and rich, his mouth curved with that slight, predatory smile.
Storm stepped closer to her father, wanting to fall through the floor. That or slap this stranger. Was he making fun of her? And he was still staring, making her feel both oddly uncomfortable and strangely elated.
Derek was smiling. “We need baths,” he told Paul, “And I need a drink or two.”
“Of course,” Paul said. “You both must be exhausted.”
“Paul,” Grant said, “Brett and I will leave. Why don’t we finish this discussion tomorrow morning over breakfast?”
“Wonderful,” Paul said. “Would eight o’clock be convenient?”
The men agreed quickly. “Don’t bother seeing us out,” Brett said, and found himself looking again at Storm. “Enchante,” he murmured with a negligent tilt of his head. Then he and Grant Farlane were gone.
Derek turned to his daughter, who was gnawing her lower lip. “Looks like you’ve already got an admirer, Storm.”
She was aghast. “What? Who? I don’t want any admirers!”
“Brett D’Archand has an eye for the ladies,” Paul told Derek. “So did Grant, until he married Marcy.” He turned to Storm. “You’ll like Marcy. She knows you’re coming. I’m hoping the two of you will be friends. She’s volunteered to help you with your wardrobe.”
“Do I really need a wardrobe?” Storm said in dismay.
Both men stared at her. “I want her to have the best,” Derek said firmly. “I want my girl to outshine every lady in town.”
“The we’re agreed,” Paul said with obvious relief. “You will be the toast of the city, Storm, you’ll see.”
At that moment Storm wanted nothing more than to wake up and find this all a dream. She didn’t want to be the toast of this city or any other.