A Bravo for Christmas
The girls had been decorating Darius again.
Ava Malloy entered the Blueberry troop clubhouse to find him surrounded by ten laughing Blueberries, ages six through eight. He wore jeans, boots and a thermal work shirt. The girls had added a pink paper crown dusted with glitter, an oversize pair of red cat’s-eye glasses and a giant purple pop bead necklace. And someone had tied a length of rumpled blue velvet around his neck—for a cape or possibly a royal robe.
Ava’s seven-year-old daughter, Sylvie, caught sight of Ava at the door and crowed, “Mommy, look! Darius is king of the Blueberries!” as the other girls giggled and clapped.
Ava played along and sketched a bow. “Your Majesty.”
Darius was already looking her way. He did that a lot—watched her. Teased her. The man was born a shameless flirt. At her greeting, he lifted a dark eyebrow and returned a slow, regal nod that caused his paper crown to dip precariously near one gleaming blue eye.
He should have looked ridiculous. But no. Somehow, glittery paper crowns, tattered velvet capes and giant toy necklaces only made Darius Bravo seem more manly.
And he was so good with the girls. Ava hadn’t expected that. She’d known him since high school, and he’d been with lots of women. He’d never settled down with any of them, though, never started a family. She’d always assumed that kids didn’t interest him.
Yet somehow, he’d let himself get roped into helping out with the Blueberry Christmas project this year. For the last six weeks, he’d been supervising the troop as they assembled, painted and furnished five kit dollhouses for five local children’s charities. He’d done most of the work, while at the same time managing to get each girl involved in a constructive way.
So yeah. Darius was hot and charming and he had a way with children. Ava’s Sylvie adored him. And that made Ava like him more, made her more susceptible to the teasing glances he lavished on her and the jokingly suggestive things he said.
For so long, she’d considered herself totally over whatever had made him so tempting to her in high school. Now she feared she might be coming down with a slight crush on the guy all over again. She might even have fantasized about him once or twice.
Or a lot.
And so what? She needed her fantasies. When it came to romance and passion and sex, fantasies were all she had.
And no, she didn’t feel sorry for herself because she didn’t have a man. Ava didn’t want another relationship. She’d loved Craig Malloy and lost him, had the medals and the folded flag to prove it. Six years after the casualty notification officer knocked on her door, grief at Craig’s passing still haunted her. It wasn’t the clawing agony it used to be. However, it was bad enough that she didn’t want to get serious with any guy. Not yet. Maybe never.
But was it so wrong to yearn for a little magic and passion? Ava wanted the shivery thrill of a hot kiss, the glory of a tender touch.
To put it bluntly, she would love to get laid.
A man for Christmas. Was that too much to ask? A lovely holiday fling. Yeah. That would work perfectly for her. No strings attached—and over and done by New Year’s Day. Scratch where it itched.
And move on. To her, that sounded just perfect. But she had a daughter to raise and a demanding real estate business to run. Somehow, she never found the time to track down the right no-strings lover.
The door opened behind her, letting in a gust of icy November air. Chloe Bravo, one of Darius’s sisters-in-law, slipped through. “Hey, Ava.”
Ava dismissed her absurd Christmas-fling fantasy and smiled at Chloe, whose six-year-old stepdaughter, Annabelle, was also a Blueberry and Sylvie’s best friend. Leaning close to Chloe, Ava asked softly, “How are we doing for Saturday?”
Chloe was tall, blonde and drop-dead gorgeous. She and Ava both worked with Bravo Construction, which was owned and run by two of Darius’s half siblings, Garrett and Nell. “I’m still waiting to firm up the delivery on a sofa, two bedroom suites and most of the wall and table decor.” An interior designer, Chloe was staging a Bravo-built home for the open house Ava would be holding on the weekend.
Ava pulled Chloe to the side of the mudroom/entry area, and away from the laughing Blueberries and their blue-eyed king. “You know I’ll help when it comes to the crunch.”
Chloe removed her bright red beanie and shook off a light dusting of snow. “Thank you. There’s way too much going on. Thanksgiving’s in three days, and then there’s Black Friday. I may have to skip the family shopping trip if I want to get it all pulled together by Saturday.”
“You can’t miss that.” The Black Friday shopping trip was a Bravo family tradition. The Bravo women got up at three in the morning and caravanned to Denver. “Just give me your design plans at dinner on Thursday.” Ava and Sylvie were having Thanksgiving with the Bravos this year. “I’ll go in first thing Friday morning and set up whatever you didn’t get to. Then you can come by after the trip to Denver and double-check that it’s all ready to go.”
“I couldn’t. You have enough on your plate—and aren’t you going to Denver?”
“Stop.” Grinning, Ava shook her head. “I know you really want to go. I’ll take care of the last-minute stuff, no problem.”
Chloe beamed. “You’re a lifesaver. And I owe you.”
“All right, everyone.” Out in the main area of the clubhouse, Janice Hayes, the troop leader, clapped her hands lightly for attention. “Moms and dads are arriving. Let’s get everything picked up and put away.”
Laughing and chattering, the girls set to work stuffing their cubbies and cleaning up their supplies and tools. Darius shrugged out of his regal finery and enlisted the aid of a few moms to help him move the five fully assembled dollhouses back to their assigned spots along one wall.
Ava helped, too. She put away paints and craft supplies.
Then Janice waved a bright pink clipboard for attention again. “We have three weeks until the Holiday Ball.” The dollhouses would go on display in the ballroom lobby during the annual Haltersham Hotel Holiday Ball. After the ball, the dollhouses would be given to five different centers for disadvantaged or seriously ill children in the Justice Creek area.
“It may seem like plenty of time, but there’s still a lot of painting, furnishing and accessorizing to do. And we all know how it is at the holidays. Everyone’s busy and things get away from us. Anyone who can put in a few hours next week or the week after, let me know. I’m working out a schedule.” Hands went up. Janice jotted down names and times as daughters and parents volunteered.
In the buzz of activity, Ava had almost forgotten the Blueberry king. But then, there he was, moving in just behind her left shoulder. She felt the air stir with his heat. His wonderful scent of leather, sawdust and soap tried to seduce her.
A shiver of yearning lifted the hairs on the back of her neck.
And all at once, she was fifteen again, turning from her hall locker, worn backpack sliding down one arm, to find him standing right behind her…
“Ava Janko.” He’d said her name that day like he was daring her to do something crazy and thrilling and probably dangerous.
He might have saved his breath.
Ava didn’t do dangerous, not ever again—not by choice, anyway. Her parents were dreamers. They’d always claimed they lived on love. The way Ava saw it, living on love just made you broke. Somebody had to consider the future, behave responsibly and remember to pay the rent. She was only fifteen, but she babysat, helped her aunt Rae clean houses and worked part-time at Deeliteful Donuts on Creekside Drive a few blocks from the family double-wide.
“Dare Bravo,” she replied, wrapping both arms around her backpack, using it as a lumpy, faded shield between them, a shield she really needed. Because those blue eyes burned into hers, and that too-full bottom lip of his made her wonder things she shouldn’t—like how it would feel to kiss him.
“Party Friday at Cal’s house.” Cal Flanders was a linebacker on the Justice Creek High football team. Everybody knew about the parties at Cal’s. His parents didn’t spend a lot of time at home. “Come with me. I’ll pick you up at seven.”
Her heart did something really scary inside her chest—kind of froze, twisted and then rolled. For a second or two Yes tried to jump right out of her mouth.
But she didn’t let it.
Uh-uh. She tipped her chin higher. “No, thanks.”
Her refusal didn’t seem to faze him. “Why not?” he asked with a definite smirk.
So she lowered her voice to keep others from hearing and said, “Because you’re the rich-boy quarterback of the Justice Creek High football team who’s got a different cheerleader hanging on his arm every time I turn around—not to mention, I’m too young for you, and you know it, too.”
He stuck his hands in his pockets and went on smirking. “You’re too young for me? What girl thinks like that?”
“A smart girl.” She clutched her backpack harder and refused to drop her gaze.
He leaned a little closer. “I know you like me. If you didn’t, you wouldn’t be keeping track of who I go with.” His minty breath touched her cheek, and longing burned through her—to be like every other girl her age and take a chance now and then, to flutter her eyelashes, to blush and smile and say she would love to go to that party at Cal’s.
But she had plans for her life, and they didn’t include ending up where she was right now—in a double-wide at the Seven Pines Mobile Home Park. He was too popular and too good-looking, and it wouldn’t last and she knew it. When it was over, he would move on to the next pretty girl, leaving her with her heart in tatters. She had no time for a battered, broken heart. She needed her focus on what mattered: a better life for herself.
She tried to explain. “It’s just…a bad idea. You’re nothing but trouble for a girl like me, Dare.”
He scoffed. “‘A girl like you.’ I don’t know what that means.”
“I already told you. I’m too young for you, and I’m from the south side of town.”
“I don’t care where you live. And I’m not asking for anything that’ll get either of us in trouble. I just want you to go to a party with me. You’re putting limits on yourself because you’re scared.”
He refused to understand. But why should he? He was a Bravo and he had it all.
Of course she put limits on herself. Limits protected her from making the kinds of bad choices that could mess up her life all over again. “I am not scared.” Her voice didn’t shake at all. “I have no reason to be. `Cause I’m not going to Cal’s with you.”
He leaned in even closer. She should have jumped back. But her pride wouldn’t let her. “Liar,” he whispered. “You are scared.”
“How many times do I have to tell you? I’m. Not. Scared.”
“Fine. Be that way. But someday you’re gonna say yes to me, Ava.”
To that, she set her shoulders and shook her head. Darius backed off then. He gave a low laugh, as though he knew things she didn’t have a clue about and now she would never find out what those things were. And finally, with an easy shrug of those sexy broad shoulders, he turned and walked away.
She heard a week later that he took Marilyn Lender, head of the cheerleading squad, to Cal’s party. Marilyn didn’t last long. Dare was with someone else by Homecoming. And someone else soon after that. He didn’t ask Ava out again, so she never got a chance to prove to him that he had it all wrong and she would never say yes to him.
And then that spring, he graduated and left town. She heard that he moved to Las Vegas for a while, of all things. And then to LA. Eventually, he returned to Colorado and got a business degree from CU. By the time he came back home to take over his father’s metal fabricating business, she’d married Craig and moved to San Diego.
Seventeen years had passed since those few moments by her locker at Justice Creek High.
And yet somehow, today, as Dare stood at her shoulder in the Blueberry clubhouse on the Monday before Thanksgiving, seventeen years ago felt way too much like yesterday.
He moved, bending closer. She knew what was coming: a teasing fake pass. She was right.
“Tonight,” he whispered. “Eight o’clock.”
She should have done what she always did when he pretended to put a move on her, given a shake of her head, stepped away, maybe let out a little chuckle of mingled amusement and annoyance. It was only a silly game between them, and they’d been playing it the same way for months now, ever since she’d begun working with Bravo Construction, made friends with his sisters and started getting invited to Bravo family gatherings. They did this all the time, and it didn’t mean a thing. All she had to do was stick with the program.
Shake your head. Move away. Her mind told her what to do, but her body and her heart weren’t listening. She had so much yearning all bunched up and burning inside her. The yearning had her hesitating, frozen on the brink of a dangerous emotional cliff.
Maybe it was her crazy Christmas-fling fantasy. Or his sweetness with the girls. It might have been loneliness stirred up and aching from too many years of self-control and strict self-denial.
Or maybe it was simply the perfect manly scent of him, the low, rough sound of his voice that had haunted her as a teenager and now, as a grown woman, stirred her way more than she ought to allow.
Whatever it was that finally pushed her over the edge of the cliff, she went. She fell. She turned her head back toward him behind her and whispered so low he probably shouldn’t have been able to hear it, “Great. See you then. I’ll be naked.”
back to excerpts page