Carter Bravo's Christmas Bride

ISBN: 978-0373659265

Carter Bravo's Christmas Bride

December 2015
Compatible? Check. Chemistry? 
Check. Love? Check…mate! 

When Carter Bravo decides it's time to settle down this Christmas, the once-burned, no-strings-attached hunk chooses the one woman who isn't looking to be swept off her feet. Not only does his business partner and best buddy, Paige Kettleman, say yes—the chemistry sizzling between them is further proof that she's his ideal mate.

Carter's no-nonsense proposition isn't exactly the romantic proposal Paige dreamed about under the mistletoe. After five years of building a business and sharing confidences, her dearest friend still has no idea how she really feels about him. If he did, he'd go running for the Colorado hills. Unless Paige can show Carter how to turn a test-run engagement into the real thing: a holiday wedding with all the trimmings—including love!

The Bravos of Justice Creek: Where bold hearts collide under Western skies

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What Readers are Saying

"It takes a magazine quiz to convince Paige Kettleman she's in love with her BFF--but what if he doesn't love her? Carter Bravo believes that his best chance at having a successful marriage is with his totally compatible non-drama-queen best bud Paige.  Who needs love when you've got friendship?  Rimmer's latest romantic comedy has tears and laughter sharing center stage with schemes, lies and one big, happy dysfunctional family. Her premise is wonderfully clever, but it's her couple's entertaining banter and her teen co-stars that steal the show."

4 Stars, Debbie Haupt, RT Bookreviews

Chapter 1

It all started three days before Thanksgiving with a silly magazine quiz.

Paige Kettleman and her best friend and business partner, Carter Bravo, sat in the plush Denver offices of Leery International Drilling. They were waiting to meet with president and CEO Deacon Leery, who had already commissioned five big-ticket custom-redesigned cars from their company, Bravo Custom Cars.

Carter was getting fidgety. He spent most of his working life in old jeans and T-shirts, with his head stuck under the hood of one of his soon-to-be beautiful custom creations. He’d never enjoyed taking meetings.

But Deacon was a major customer. And Deacon liked Carter to come to his gorgeous office and listen to him ramble on about classic cars for a while before getting around to the dream ride he wanted Carter to build for him next. As far as Deacon was concerned, Paige didn’t really even need to be there. But she ran the business end of Bravo Custom Cars. She always went along to visit Deacon for that special moment when they started talking money.

Carter had already taken off his sport coat and tossed it across the back of his chair. Now he sat forward, elbows on his spread knees. He braced his square jaw on his big fist and tapped his booted foot impatiently.

Paige watched him and tried not to grin.

He sent her a quick, challenging glance. “So what? I hate sitting around. That’s a crime?”

She stifled a chuckle. “Who said a word about crimes?”

He grunted. “Smug. You know you are. Sitting there all cool and calm in your preppy little suit, tap-tap-tapping on your tablet.”

She gave him a bland smile. “I’m sure it won’t be long now.”

He grumbled something. She wisely did not ask him what. And then he grabbed one of the glossy magazines from the low table in front of them. Hitching one boot across the other knee, he slumped back in his chair and began thumbing through it.

She returned her attention to her tablet and her email correspondence with Kelly Cobb, the Realtor they’d hired a few weeks before. Bravo Custom Cars was looking to expand. Electric cars were the future, and Carter wanted to start building custom electric cars along with the gas hogs most of his clients favored.

Carter and Paige had their eye on a new location. They’d made one offer and been turned down. The owner had rocks in his head. Nobody else in town wanted that property. The building and large, fenced concrete yard had been sitting on an ugly stretch of Arrowhead Drive on the outskirts of their hometown for over a year with a big For Sale sign on the gate. Paige and Carter were waiting for the seller to get real and lower his asking price a little before they tried again.

Carter nudged her with his elbow. “You got a pen?” She took one from her black leather tote and handed it over. “Thanks. You listening?”

“Um.”

“Good. Because you’ll love this. ‘Is he really your best friend or are you secretly in love with him?’ It’s a quiz and you need to take it.”

She zipped off the email to the Realtor. “No, I don’t.”

“Yeah, you do. It’s all about us.”

Paige reached over and snagged the corner of the magazine so she could get a look at the front of it. “Girl Code? You’re reading Girl Code?”

“I’m broadening my horizons, trying to understand women better. Everyone says I need to.”

She stifled a snort and pointed at the other magazines on the low table. “There’s a Car and Driver right there.”

His broad shoulders lifted in a dismissive shrug. “I’ve read that one. First question. ‘Do you compare all your dates to him?’ You know you do. So that’s a yes.” He scratched at the page with the pen she’d foolishly given him.

“It’s obvious you don’t even need me here,” she wryly observed.

He actually had the nerve to smirk. “You’re right, I don’t. I know all the answers. Because, face it, I know you better than you know you—which proves I know a thing or two about women, after all.”

“So then shut up,” she muttered out of the corner of her mouth. “Take the damn thing silently if you just have to go there.” A text popped up from Mona, who ran their front office. Mona was closing up for the night. Paige sighed and replied Still @ Leery’s. C U 2morrow.

And Carter went right on to the next question. “‘Can you tell him anything without feeling at all uncomfortable?’ Oh, hell to the yes.” He scratched on the page again.

“That’s not fair. You have no idea the things I don’t tell you.” There weren’t a lot of them, to be strictly honest. But he didn’t need to know that right now.

“Oh, come on. You tell me everything, Paige. That’s how you are with me. Constant oversharing. A thought pops in your head and I’m the only one there? Comes right out your mouth.” She elbowed him. Hard. He snickered, leaned away from her so she couldn’t do it again and asked, “‘Do you care about his happiness more than you do the happiness of your other friends?’” Another snicker as he checked the answer. “‘Do you think about drunk-texting him every other weekend?’ I’m going with yes for that, too, because if you were drunk, you know it would be me you drunk-texted.”

Best to just ignore him, she decided. So she did—or at least she pretended to.

And he kept right on, asking the questions and answering them for her. There were twenty in all.

When he finally answered the last one, he announced, “You scored twenty out of twenty. Hate to break it to you, Paige. But you’re desperately in love with me.”

She considered taking off one of her high-heeled shoes and bopping him on the head with it. But if she hit him once, she would only want to hit him again.

He tossed the magazine back on the table. “I gotta ask.”

“No, you don’t.”

“Why does every woman I meet just have to fall in love with me?” he went on as though she hadn’t spoken. “I don’t get it.”

She scoffed, “You’re not the only one.”

“Wait a minute, hold on. We both know you get it. We just found out you’re hopelessly in love with me like all the rest of them, remember? So, what is it that you adore about me?”

“Not a thing.”

“I think we need to make a list.”

“Carter, stop.”

He was wearing that smile now. The one that drove all the women right out of their panties—except for her. As his best friend, Paige reminded herself, she was totally immune to that smile. And he was still talking. “Yes. Definitely. Let’s make a list.”

“Let’s not and say we did.”

He started ticking off his supposed lady-killing qualities. “Okay, I’ll admit it. I’m better-looking than most. And I have a great personality. I’m a god in bed—not that you would know that. And I’m well off, but come on. Half the time, I’m covered in axle grease.” He gave her one of those looks, serious and teasing, both at the same time. “Paige.”

“What?”

“We both know I’m not really all that.”

“You think I’m going to argue with you and tell you you’re wonderful and not to run yourself down? Ha. Think again.”

He spread his arms wide and she had to jerk back in her chair to keep from getting smacked in the chest with a rock-hard forearm. “Why can’t someone explain it to me? What is this thing I have?”

Before Paige could manufacture a suitably quelling reply, the receptionist said pleasantly, “Mr. Leery will see you now.”

So they got up and entered the inner sanctum where another plum project was waiting for them.

An hour later, they shook hands with Deacon Leery and wished him a happy Thanksgiving. It had gone well. Carter was excited about acquiring and redesigning his next four-wheeled masterpiece. Paige felt pleased with the deal she’d struck. A satisfying transaction in every way.

Except for that damn quiz. For some reason, she couldn’t stop thinking about it.

Ridiculous. Why even worry about it? It was nothing but fluff. Silly, meaningless fluff.

“You’re quiet,” Carter said about midway through the hour-and-a-half drive back to their hometown of Justice Creek.

She made a sleepy noise, closed her eyes and leaned against the passenger-side window, hoping he’d assume she must be napping and leave her alone.

It worked. But Paige was not napping. Far from it. Her brain was packed to bursting with that absurd Girl Code quiz.

Let it go, she told herself. It’s no big deal. Forget about it.

But she couldn’t forget. It was stuck in her mind and it wouldn’t go away. It was like the avalanche that killed her parents, a snowball rolling downhill, quickly gaining speed and mass until it buried everyone and everything in its path.

They weren’t even her answers, she reminded herself. They were Carter’s.

But unfortunately, his answers were the ones that she would have given. And for a silly, meaningless magazine quiz, well, they were kind of good questions, she had to admit.

They were telling questions.

And that was why she couldn’t put it out of her mind. Carter had answered the questions just as she would have. And that meant she couldn’t stop thinking that it might actually be true, that she’d gone and fallen secretly in love with her best friend.

And now just look at her, with that totally unacceptable secret loose and wreaking havoc in her mind and heart.

The only good news?

Nobody else knew. Not even Carter. He had no clue. She was dead certain of that. Thank God. He’d only been messing with her, taking that ridiculous quiz for her. He had no idea what he’d done.

The next morning, when he stopped by the house to walk the dogs and then fix breakfast for her and him and her younger sister, Dawn, he seemed totally oblivious. And then at work that day, he mostly stayed in the shop and she managed to stick to the office, so he had no chance to notice if she acted strange and preoccupied.

Mona, who worked side by side with her, caught on, though. “You okay, Paige? You seem kind of far away.”

“Christmas on my mind, I guess,” Paige outright lied. “And you know, it’s kind of quiet today. We should get out the decorations, get them up. You think?”

Mona loved Christmas. She zipped right out to the shed by the back gate and hauled the boxes of decorations up front to the office. They spent a couple of hours setting up the fake tree and tacking sparkly garland on every available surface. Mona already had her old iPod loaded up with Christmas favorites. She stuck it in the dock at the end of the service counter. Holiday tunes filled the air. Mona hummed along under her breath, thrilled to have the office full of Christmas and no longer worrying about what might be bugging Paige.

Wednesday morning when Paige followed the tempting smells of frying bacon and perfectly brewed coffee downstairs, she found the dogs—her beagle, Biscuit, and Carter’s hound, Sally—sprawled contentedly on the kitchen floor after their morning walk.

Carter stood at the stove. He had his back to her. She hesitated in the doorway in her flannel pj’s and plaid robe and watched him cooking up the bacon nice and slow.

He liked to come over before she and Dawn got up, especially lately, since he’d broken up with his last girlfriend, Sherry Leland. Lately, Carter ended up at Paige and Dawn’s a lot of the time. He would take Biscuit out with Sally, then let himself back in and start breakfast.

And even when he had a girlfriend, Carter still found time to walk Paige’s dog and brew her morning coffee two or three days a week. Most Sunday nights, he came over for dinner and stayed on to play video games or stream a movie.

That he spent so much time at the Kettlemans’ always bugged his girlfriends eventually. They didn’t really like that his best friend was a woman and his business partner. They also didn’t like that his best friend’s teenage sister was kind of a cross between a daughter and a little sister to him. Paige got why it bugged them. She wouldn’t like it, either, if her special guy spent most of his working life and half his free time with another woman. Paige used to suggest to him that maybe he should focus more on the girlfriend of the hour and not so much on hanging with her and Dawn.

He wouldn’t listen. He said he liked being with her and Dawn and if his girlfriend was jealous, she needed to get over that.

Paige always felt kind of sorry for Carter’s girlfriends. Somehow they all fell so hard for him. And the deeper they fell, the more he pulled away from them. And the more he pulled away, the more upset they got. There would be scenes. Carter hated scenes, mostly because his childhood had been one long, dramatic scene.

His mother, Willow Mooney, had loved his father, Franklin Bravo, to distraction. Franklin was already married when he met Willow. But Frank Bravo didn’t let a little thing like a wife get in his way. He set Willow up in a house on the south side of town. Willow kicked Frank out of that house on a regular basis. But she always took him back, remaining his mistress for over two decades, giving Frank five children while Frank was still married to his first wife, Sondra, who gave him four.

Yeah. Falling for Carter? Not a wise move.

This can’t really be happening, Paige thought for about the fiftieth time since Monday and that awful, terrible, silly, pointless quiz. This can’t be happening to me.

But if it wasn’t, then why was she lurking in the doorway to the kitchen, staring longingly at Carter’s broad, thick shoulders and fine, tight butt?

It just made her feel sad. Beyond sad. Carter’s shoulders and butt had never mattered in the least to her before Monday. Why should they mean so much now?

He sent her a quick smile over one of those far-too-fine shoulders of his. “Coffee’s ready.”

As if she didn’t know. Carter was a great cook. And he had a way with coffee. She would know a Carter-brewed cup of coffee blindfolded. All it took was one sniff. Heaven in a cup.

“Thanks.” She shuffled over and filled a mug with the hot, wonderful brew. And then she stood there, leaning against the counter, sipping it slowly, her heart breaking at the hopeless absurdity of it all as Carter cracked eggs into her mother’s favorite cast-iron pan.

(*)

Carter woke on Thanksgiving morning to the sound of his cell ringing. He stuck out a hand, snared the damn thing off the nightstand and squinted at the display. It was 5:49 and his mother was calling.

When had Willow Mooney Bravo ever climbed out of bed before six in the morning? Never, that he could remember. Even when he and his brothers and sisters were small they knew not to bother Ma too early in the morning. She tended to throw things if you messed with her beauty sleep.

His sweet redbone coonhound, Sally, lifted her floppy-eared head from the foot of the bed and blinked at him questioningly.

“Hell if I know,” he said to the dog, and put the phone to his ear. “Ma? What’s going on? Did somebody die?”

“Happy Thanksgiving, darling. Everything is fine and no one has died. But I know you’re an early riser and I wanted to catch you before you left the house. I want a private word with you—today, I hope. I’m leaving for Palm Springs tomorrow and I’m not sure when I’ll be back.” Since his father had died four years ago, you could hardly catch his mother at home. She traveled the world, flitting from one luxury destination to the next. “I wonder if you could drop by for a drink before you join the rest of the family at Clara’s.”

His half sister Clara Bravo Ames had invited the whole family to her house that afternoon for a big Thanksgiving dinner. Paige and Dawn were coming, too. “Won’t you be at Clara’s?”

“It was sweet of Clara to include me, but no. Big family gatherings exhaust me and I have an early flight tomorrow morning—and besides, I want to speak with you alone.”

He didn’t really like the sound of that. “About what?”

“Darling. Honestly. Don’t be so suspicious. I’ll explain everything when we talk.”

“We’re talking now.” At the foot of the bed, Sally picked up the tension in his voice and whined. He snapped his fingers and she slinked up the bed, slithered in a circle and settled beside him where he could throw an arm around her and scratch her silky red head.

His mother went on, sounding way too casual for his peace of mind. “How about this? I know you’re expected at Clara’s at three. So let’s say two o’clock at my house, just you and me.” Her house was the Bravo Mansion, which his father had built for his first wife, Sondra. The mansion was full of beautiful things that used to be Sondra’s. When Sondra died, Frank married Willow and installed her at the mansion. By then, Carter had been twenty-three and on his own. He’d never had to live in the house he still considered Sondra’s, and he was damn glad he hadn’t. He didn’t want to go there today, either. “Carter. Are you still there?”

He patted Sally’s smooth flank. “Yeah.”

“Two o’clock, then?”

He reminded himself that she was his mother and he really didn’t see her all that often these days. “Yeah, Ma. See you then.” Disconnecting the call, he tossed the phone on the nightstand. Then he turned to Sally. “Walk?”

Sally let out a happy whine of agreement and lifted off her haunches enough to give a wag of her red tail.

“Let’s go pick up Biscuit and get after it, then.”

(*)

Ten minutes later, he stood on Paige’s front porch and stuck his key in the lock. Biscuit was waiting on the other side. He grabbed the beagle’s leash from the hook by the door and clipped it to Biscuit’s collar. Then he clicked his tongue and Biscuit trotted out the door to wiggle over and butt against Sally, who waited patiently for Carter to lock up again so they could get going.

Half an hour later, he was back in the kitchen at Paige’s, getting the coffee going, trying to decide between French toast and oatmeal. He settled on the oatmeal because of the huge dinner ahead of them at Clara’s. Paige and Dawn came down together as he was turning off the fire under the oats.

Through breakfast, Dawn chattered away as usual, about the afternoon dinner at Clara’s, about how she and her best friend, Molly D’Abalo, were going to the movies with friends in the evening.

Dawn was a great kid. Not an ounce of bitterness in her, though she’d lost her mom and dad suddenly when she was only ten. Erica and Jerry Kettleman had been buried in an avalanche while off on a twenty-fifth anniversary skiing trip. Paige had come home from college to take care of her little sister. Together, they’d made it work. And now, at eighteen, Dawn had boundless enthusiasm and a smile for everyone. She was an A student and first chair clarinet with her high school band.

Babbling away happily between bites, Dawn inhaled her oatmeal. Once her bowl was empty, she jumped up, carried it to the sink, ran water in it and rushed off upstairs to get dressed.

Carter turned to Paige, who wore her heavy plaid robe, with her brown hair loose and uncombed on her shoulders. Her eyes looked kind of puffy. She’d hardly said a word since she came downstairs. “You okay?”

She blinked and seemed to shake herself. “Uh. Fine.”

“Sure?”

“Positive.”

He couldn’t really get a read on her, couldn’t decide whether he ought to keep pushing her to tell him what was going on with her or let it go. It was odd. As a rule, he never had to push her to tell him if she had a problem. She always came right out with it and asked his advice.

Okay, so maybe this time she needed a little encouragement. He was just about to try that when she jumped up. “Thanks for the breakfast, Carter. You’re the best.”

“Gotta keep my girls fed.” He watched her bustle to the sink, rinse out her bowl and bend to stick it in the dishwasher.

“Well.” She shut the dishwasher door and straightened. “Better get after it. The day’s not getting any younger. Leave everything. I mean it. I’ll clean up.”

“Will do.”

“Quarter of three?”

“I’ll be here.”

And then she darted to the door and took off down the hall.

He didn’t get it. They always spent a few minutes together in the morning after Dawn went back upstairs. But today—and for the last couple of days, now that he thought about it—Paige couldn’t get away fast enough.

Her rush to leave the kitchen right after breakfast hadn’t bothered him much yesterday or the day before. Today, though, he’d really wanted to tell her about the weird call from his mother. He wanted to get her take on Willow suddenly asking him to come to the Bravo Mansion and have a drink with her, alone.

But so much for wanting Paige’s input.

“So, okay, then,” he said to the dogs, because there was no one else there to hear him. He rose. “Come on, Sally. Time to go.”

(*)

Built less than forty years ago on top of a hill at the west end of Grandview Drive, the Bravo Mansion seemed a product of a much earlier age. Georgian in style, with big white columns flanking the front door, the mansion bore a striking resemblance to the White House. Let it never be said that Frank Bravo didn’t dream big.

The housekeeper, Estrella Watson, must have been told to watch for him. Before he was halfway up the front steps, she pulled the wreath-hung door open and gave him a big smile of greeting. “Happy Thanksgiving, Carter.” She reached for a hug.

He wrapped his arms around her. “Good to see you.” He’d always liked Estrella. She’d been the mansion’s housekeeper for years, from before Sondra died and Carter’s mother moved in. Well into her fifties now, Estrella kept the house and grounds in great shape, hiring and supervising maids, gardeners and repairmen. She lived in, cooking for Willow whenever his mother was at home. She seemed to enjoy her job and treated everyone kindly.

A jumble of boxes filled the front hall, most of them opened, bright decorations and shiny ornaments spilling out. “It’s a weeklong job, getting the house ready for the holidays,” Estrella explained. “And I’m not preparing Thanksgiving dinner this year, so I thought I might as well get a head start.”

What for? he couldn’t help wondering. Only she and his mother lived there, and his mother was leaving for California. But Willow liked the mansion just so, whether she stuck around to enjoy it or not. And Estrella had a gleam in her eye, as though nothing pleased her more than decking the halls of the big, empty house.

She took his coat. “Your mother’s in the library.”

He thanked her and went on through the formal living room to the large, book-lined room behind it, where a fire crackled in the ornate fireplace and the mantel was already done up in swags of green garland studded with shiny ornaments and twinkling lights.

“Carter.” His mother rose from a silk-covered chair. She looked beautiful as always, in snug black slacks and a fitted green cashmere sweater, her chin-length blond hair combed back from the classic oval of her face.

He kissed the smooth, pale cheek she offered. “Ma. How are you?”

She fiddled with the diamond stud in her left ear. “Perfect. Thank you. How about a martini?”

He looked at her patiently. “Got a beer?”

She sighed. “Of course.” She had a longneck waiting in an ice bucket on the fancy mirrored drink cart, right next to the Bombay Sapphire and the Vya vermouth. She also had a chilled glass for him.

“Just give me the bottle.”

Another sigh. His mother had been born with nothing. Her own mother ran off when she was three weeks old and Willow grew up in a double-wide, just her and her father. Gene Mooney, deceased before Carter was born, had had trouble holding a job and drank too much. It probably wasn’t all that surprising that, over the years, Willow had developed a passion for elegance and gracious living. The way Willow saw it, if a man insisted on drinking beer, he should at least use a glass.

Too bad. Carter took the beer, sat in the chair across from hers and watched as she skillfully whipped up her martini—stirred, not shaken.

Willow took her seat again and raised her glass. “To happiness.”

Happiness? His mother had never struck him as a person who put a lot of store in happiness. She’d wanted Frank Bravo and the good life he provided for her. And she’d fought tooth and nail to get both.

But hey. She was getting older. Maybe she missed the happiness that had never seemed all that important to her while Carter was growing up.

“Happiness it is.” He lifted his bottle in answer to her toast and resisted the urge to come right out and ask her why she’d summoned him here. It wouldn’t kill him to try a little friendly conversation. “So, what’s happening in Palm Springs?”

“The usual. Shopping. Spa time. And the weather is lovely there now.”

“Well. Have a great time.”

“I will, darling.”

Ho-kay. So much for cordial conversation. He took one more stab at it. “We’ll miss you at Clara’s.”

She smiled her cool smile. “Somehow I doubt that.”

Annoyance gnawed at him. His half siblings had made it more than clear that they wanted to forgive and forget. Her decades-long love triangle was seriously old news. “You’re wrong. We will miss you.” He took care to say it gently. “And I think you know that.”

She sipped her drink. “I didn’t ask you here to talk about dinner at Clara’s.”

“Well, all right. What’s going on?”

Willow lounged back in the chair and crossed her legs. “Notice I made a toast to happiness?”

“Yeah, Ma. I heard you.”

“That’s because lately I’ve been thinking a lot about happiness, about what makes a man—or anyone, really—truly happy.” She paused. Just to be nice, Carter made an encouraging sound low in his throat. She said, “Take your brother.”

“Which one?” He had two full brothers, both younger than he was—Garrett, thirty-three, and Quinn, thirty-one. And then there were also Sondra’s sons, Darius and James.

“I’m talking about Quinn,” his mother said. A former martial arts star, Quinn had retired from fighting last year and brought his little daughter, Annabelle, home to Justice Creek. Now he owned a gym and fitness center on Marmot Drive. Just recently, he’d gotten together with gorgeous Chloe Winchester, who’d also grown up in town. “Now that Quinn’s married Chloe, he’s a truly happy man.”

Carter wasn’t sure he liked where this was going. “Can’t argue with that,” he answered cautiously.

“I want that for you, too, darling. I want you to find happiness.”

Okay now. He definitely didn’t like where this was going. “What are you up to, Ma? Just spit it the hell out.”

“Love, darling. I want you to take a chance on love.”

He really wished he hadn’t asked. “Oh, well, sure. I’ll get right on that.”

“Don’t give me sarcasm. You’re thirty-four years old. When a man reaches your age and he’s never been married, the likelihood that he’ll find someone to be happy with is…” Another sigh. God. He hated her damn sighs. “It’s not looking good for you. You have to know that.”

Carter sat very still in the silk wing chair and reminded himself not to say anything he would later regret. But she pissed him the hell off. She acted as if he didn’t want to get married. He did. Very much.

But somehow the whole romance thing never worked out for him. And it wasn’t -like he hadn’t tried. He had. Repeatedly.

There was just something about him, something wrong with him. Because he always attracted the drama queens.

Things would begin well. Lots of fireworks in bed, yes, but otherwise the woman would seem like a reasonable person, someone he could talk to, someone easygoing and fun. Early on, his girlfriends reassured him that they wanted what he wanted, a solid partnership and a balanced life. He always explained up front that he expected an exclusive relationship and he planned someday to get married, but if they were after passionate declarations of undying love, they should find a different guy. The woman would say that was no problem; she completely understood.

But every woman he’d ever dated had eventually told him she loved him. He never said it back. And his silence on the subject never worked for them. The downward spiral would start. There would be heated accusations, generally irrational behavior and a messy breakup at the end. He hated all that.

Truthfully, deep down?

Carter thought the whole love thing was pretty damn stupid. The way he saw it, falling in love was a good way to lose your mind.

His mother said, “I know, darling. I understand. I wasn’t a good mother.”

“Did I say that? I never said that.”

“You don’t have to say it. It’s simply the truth. There were way too many big, dramatic scenes. I loved your father to distraction and I wanted him to leave Sondra. Every time I kicked him out, I swore I would never take him back.”

“But you always did.”

“I loved him.” She said it softly, gently. As though it explained everything.

Carter kept his mouth shut. It was stupid to argue about it. To some people, love excused the worst behaviors. All you had to do was call it love and you could get away with anything—steal someone else’s husband, make your children’s lives an endless series of shouting matches and emotional upheavals.

His mother set her empty martini glass on the small, inlaid table by her chair. “I want you to take a chance on love. I may be a bad mother, but I do love you. And a mother knows her children. At heart, you’re like Quinn. A family man. I won’t have you ending up alone because of my mistakes.”

She wouldn’t have it? You’d think he was ten, the way she was talking. “Ma, you really need to dial this back. It’s not all about you. I’m a grown man and have been for quite a while now. It’s on me if I can’t make things work with a woman.”

“Not entirely. I know very well that my actions when you were growing up have made you afraid of strong emotions.”

He looked at her sideways. “Have you gone into therapy or something?”

“No. I’ve only been thinking—as I’ve already told you. These days, I have plenty of time for thinking.”

“Well, think about something other than me and my supposed need for true love and a wife, why don’t you?”

She didn’t answer, only sat there in her chair, watching him for about fifteen seconds that only seemed like an hour and a half. He was just about to jump up, wish her a safe trip to California and get out of there when she said, “I asked you here to offer a little something in the way of motivation, a little something in the interest of helping you get past your fears.”

He stood and set his empty beer bottle on the drink cart. “You never suffered from a lack of nerve, Ma. I gotta give you that. Look, this…whatever it is you think you’re pulling here is more than I’m up for, you know? You really need to mind your own damn business.”

His mother didn’t seem a bit bothered by his harsh words. She gave a shrug. “I can that see you’re ready to go.”

“More than ready.”

“Just listen to my offer before you leave. Please.”

“Offer? You’re kidding me. There’s an offer?”

She draped an arm over the chair arm and crossed her legs the other way. “Yes, there is. I know that you and Paige have been eyeing a certain property on Arrowhead Drive, with a large cinder block industrial building on it.”

“What the…? How do you know that?”

She waved a hand. “It was all really quite innocent.”

“Innocent,” he repeated. Not a word he would think of in connection with Willow. “Right.”

She fiddled with her earring again. “I drove by there a few weeks ago and saw the two of you standing outside the gate. And then I recalled how, several months ago, you said something about wanting to expand Bravo Custom Cars. I added two and two. Voilà. Four. Tuesday, I paid a visit to the owner. He had a price. And I have paid it.”

“You’re not serious.”

“Oh, but I am. I’ve bought that property.”

“What for? What possible use can you have for a fifteen-thousand-square-foot cinder block building and a concrete yard rimmed in chain-link fence?”

“None, of course.”

He wanted to pick up his empty beer bottle and hurl it at the garland-bedecked fireplace. “I’m going to leave now, Ma. Happy Thanksgiving and have a nice trip to Palm Springs.” He turned to go back through the formal living room and out the way he’d come in.

And she said, “The property is yours, free and clear. But only as a wedding present.”

Keep going, he thought. Don’t give her the satisfaction of taking her seriously. But then he just couldn’t let it go at that. He halted and turned back to her. “Reassure me, Ma. Tell me you didn’t just say that if I get married, you’ll give me the property.”

“But that is exactly what I said.”

Unbelievable. “What if you’ve got this all wrong? What if Paige and I have zero interest in that property?”

“Ah, but I’m not wrong, am I?”

He could strangle her. He’d probably get the death penalty and go to hell for murdering his own mother. But right at that moment, murder seemed like a great idea. “Just curious. Did you have any particular bride in mind for me?”

“Of course not. It has to be someone you choose for yourself.”

He made a low, scoffing sound in his throat. “Wow. I get to choose the woman myself.”

“I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

“I gotta say it, Ma.”

“Go ahead. Whatever you need to tell me, I’m here and I’m listening.”

“The way your mind works?”

“Yes?”

“It’s always scared the hell out of me.”

“Don’t be cruel. Can’t you see that I’m doing this for you? It’s a nudge, plain and simple, an opportunity for you to start thinking about giving love and happiness a chance. I just want you to entertain the idea of making a good life with the right woman. The property is an incentive, that’s all.”

He laughed. Because it was funny, right? And then he said, “You have a great holiday, Ma.”

She granted him her coolest smile. “Thank you, darling. I will.”

He turned on his heel then. That time, he didn’t pause or turn back. He strode fast through the front room and into the giant foyer, where he collected his coat from Estrella and got the hell out of there.