A Bravo Homecoming
“Honey, are you seeing anyone special?” Travis Bravo’s mother asked.
Travis stifled a groan. He should have put off calling her back.
But he’d already done that. Twice. In a row. Aleta Bravo was a patient and understanding mom and she got that he wasn’t real big on keeping in touch. But she did have limits. After the third unreturned call, she would have started to worry. He loved his mom and he didn’t want her worrying.
Besides, when Aleta Bravo started to worry, she might get his dad involved. And if his dad got involved, steps would be taken. The two of them might end up boarding a helicopter and tracking him down in the middle of the Gulf.
No joke. It could happen. His parents had money and they had connections and when they tracked you down, you got found.
So now and then, he had no choice but to call his mom back, both to keep her from worrying and to keep from getting rescued whether he needed it or not.
She was still talking, all cheerful and loving—and way too determined. “I only ask because I have several terrific women I want you to meet this time. Do you, by any chance, happen to remember my dear friend, Billie Toutsell?”
He did, vaguely. Not that it mattered if he knew the woman or not. He knew what she had.
At least one, probably two or three.
His mom continued, “Billie and I go way back. And I’ve met both of her girls. Brilliant, well brought up, beautiful women. Cybil and LouJo. It so happens both girls will be in town for Thanksgiving week...” In town meant in San Antonio, where his mom and dad and brothers and sisters still lived. “…and I’ve been thinking it would be nice to invite both of them out to the ranch over the holiday weekend, maybe Friday or Saturday. What do you think?” Before he could tell her—again—that he didn’t want to be set up with any of her friends’ daughters, she went right on. “Maybe Billie and her girls would even like to come for Thanksgiving dinner and our reaffirmation of vows.”
After forty years of marriage, his parents were reaffirming their wedding vows. Which was great. They’d had some troubles in the past few years, even separated for a while. He supposed it made sense that they would want to celebrate making it through a tough time, coming out on the other side still married and happy to be together.
But did his mother have to invite him and every available single woman in South Texas to the big event?
What made him so damn special? His mother had six other sons and two daughters and they’d all been allowed to find their own wives and husbands. In fact, as of now, he was the only one who had yet to settle down. That, somehow, seemed to have triggered a burning need in her to help him find the woman for him.
Hadn’t she done enough? She’d already introduced him to both of his former fiancées. Rachel, whom he’d loved with all his heart, had been killed eight years ago, run down by a drunk driver while crossing the street. He’d thought he would never get over losing her.
But then, three years later, he’d met Wanda at a family party, over the Christmas holidays. His mother and Wanda’s mother were friends. He shouldn’t have gotten involved with Wanda. But he had. And it had not ended well.
Evidently his mom thought the third time would be the charm. “Oh, Travis. I’m so glad you’ll be there.”
“Wouldn’t miss it,” he muttered. “But mom, listen. I really don’t need any help finding a girlfriend.”
“Well, of course you don’t. But opportunity is everything. And you’re always off on some oil rig somewhere. How many women are you going to meet on an oil rig?”
She didn’t even let him finish his sentence. “It’s been years. You have to move on. You know that.” She spoke gently.
“I have moved on.”
She sighed. And then she said briskly, “Well, it never hurts to meet new people. And, you know, I’ve recently been acting as a docent—twice a month at the Alamo. It just so happens that I met a lovely young woman there, also a docent, Ashley McFadden. I know you and Ashley would hit it off so well. She’s perfect. Great personality. So smart. So funny.”
Travis winced and sent a desperate glance around the lounge. He could a use a little help about now. He needed someone to rescue him from his own mom.
But rescue was not forthcoming. He was alone with a wide, dark flatscreen TV, a row of snack and drink machines, random sofas and chairs and a matched pair of ping-pong tables. Across the room, a couple of roughnecks were Wii bowling on the other TV. Neither of them even glanced his way.
Faintly all around him, he could hear pounding and mechanical noises and the mostly incomprehensible babbling from the PA system, sounds that were part of life on the Deepwater Venture, a semi-submersible oil platform fifty-seven miles off the coast of Texas.
His mother chattered on, naming off more charming young women she knew, more of the still-single daughters of her endless list of women friends. He was starting to think he would just have to back out of the Thanksgiving visit, to tell her he wasn’t going to be able to make it home, after all.
Sorry, Mom. Something big has come up, something really big. I just can’t be there….
But then he heard swearing. And the swift pounding of heavy boots on the stairs. The sounds were coming closer, descending on him from the deck above.
He knew the voice: Sam Jaworski, the rig manager in charge of the drilling department—aka, the tool pusher. Sam was one of eight women on the rig. The safety officer was also a woman. And the rest worked in food service or housekeeping.
Sam, in coveralls, safety glasses and a hard hat, stomped into the lounge at full volume. She was on a roll with nonstop, semi-dirty, surprisingly imaginative language.
His mother was still talking. “…so you see, I have found several fun, smart, attractive girls you’ll get a chance to meet.”
Sam sent him a quick acknowledging glance. He raised a hand in greeting. She gave the roughnecks a wave and then clomped over to the coffee machine. She poured herself a cup. There was a patch sewn on the right butt cheek of her coveralls. It read, I ain’t yo’ mama. She had to stop swearing to take a big swig of coffee.
But as soon as she swallowed, she was at it again. “…and then dunk his sorry skinny ass in a burnin’ barrel of bubbling black crude…”
Travis grinned for the first time since he’d picked up the phone to call his mom. Sam’s swearing was always more enthusiastic than obscene. And it never failed to make him smile.
And then he said, without even stopping to consider the possible consequences, “Mom, I already have a girl.” He held back a chuckle. Well, sort of a girl.
Sam took off her hard hat and safety glasses, turned toward him and propped a hip against the counter. She slurped up a big sip of coffee—and swore some more.
On the other end of the line, his mom let out a delighted trill of laughter. “Travis. How wonderful. Why didn’t you say so?”
“Well, Mom, you haven’t exactly let me get a word in edgewise.”
“Oh, honey.” She was instantly regretful. “I’m sorry. I was just so glad to hear from you. And I wanted to…well, it doesn’t matter now. Forgive me for being a poor listener?”
“You know I do.”
She asked, eagerly, “What’s her name? Do I know her?”
More choice expletives from Sam. He turned to the wall, cupped his hand around the mouthpiece of the phone, and told his mother, “Samantha, Mom. Samantha Jaworski—and no, you don’t.”
His mother made a thoughtful sound. “But you’ve mentioned her, often, haven’t you, over the years?”
“Yeah, Mom. I’ve mentioned her.” He’d known Sam for more than a decade now.
“And she’s nice, isn’t she? You two have been friends for a long time, as I recall.”
“Yeah, we have. And she’s…she’s lovely.” He slanted a glance at Sam as she sniffed and rubbed her nose with the back of her grease-smeared hand. “Very delicate.”
Sam stood six feet tall and she was stronger than most men. She had to be, to get where she’d gotten in the oil business. Most tool pushers were older than she was. And male.
On a rig, the buck stopped at the tool pusher. Sam was on the drilling contractor payroll. She did everything from making sure work schedules were met to setting up machines and equipment. She prepared production reports. She recommended hirings and firings and decided who was ready for promotion. She supervised and she coordinated. And she did most of the scheduling. She trained workers in their duties and in safety procedures. She requisitioned materials and supplies. And if it came right down to it, she could haul and connect pipe with the best of them.
On this job, Travis had had the pleasure of working closely with her. He was the company man, paid to represent the interests of the oil company, South Texas Oil Industries. Some pushers didn’t get along with the company man. They didn’t like being answerable to the exploration and operation end of the business. Sam didn’t have that problem. She not only had her men’s respect, she also worked well with others.
She was an amazing woman, Sam Jaworski. But delicate?
Not in the least.
“I get it now,” his mother said. “I’ve been chattering away and the whole time you’ve been trying to tell me that you’re bringing her to Thanksgiving, to the reaffirmation of our vows.”
Crap. He should have seen that coming. Suddenly, his little private joke took on scary ramifications. “Uh, well…”
“Honey. I understand how it’s been for you.” She didn’t, not really. But he knew she meant well. She kept on, “You’ve been…hurt and let down before. I can see where you might be afraid to let it get serious with Samantha. But that’s all right. Just ask her to come with you. Just take that step.”
“Well, I…” He stalled some more, grasping for the right words, the magic words that would get his mother off his back about this once and for all. Those words didn’t come. “Mom, really. I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
“I just don’t, okay?”
His mom finally gave it up. “All right. If you don’t want to invite her, if your relationship hasn’t gotten to that point yet, well, all right.” She sighed. And then she brightened and teased, “At least Cybil and LouJo and Ashley will be happy to know they still have a chance.”
Trapped. His gut churned and his pulse pounded. And then he heard himself say, “As a matter of fact, Sam and I are engaged.”
It just kind of popped out. He blinked at the wall. Had he really said that?
His mother cried out in joy. “Travis. How wonderful! I can’t believe you didn’t tell me until now.”
Had Sam heard him say that? He sent the tall, broad-shouldered woman in the grease-streaked coveralls another furtive glance. Uh-uh. She’d turned back to the sink to wash her hands. As he faced the wall once more, he heard her rip a paper towel off the roll.
He looked again. Clomp, clomp, clomp. Coffee mug in hand, she sauntered over to the nearer TV and grabbed the remote. The screen came alive and she started channel-surfing.
Meanwhile, on the other end of the line, his mother was on the case. “And that settles it. You must bring her with you. I won’t take no for an answer, not now.”
He stared at Sam’s I-ain’t-yo’-mama backside, at her short brown hair, creased tight to her skull from the hard hat’s inner band, at her big steel-toed boots. Had he lost his mind? There was no win in lying to his mom—especially not about being engaged. “Uh, well…”
“Please, Travis. Invite her. I’m so happy for you. And you know we’re all going to want to meet her.”
“Please.” Her voice was so gentle. And hopeful. And maybe even somewhat sad—as though she knew that, in the end, he was going to disappoint her, that Sam would not be coming with him, no matter what his mother said to encourage him to bring her.
Now he felt like a complete jerk. For lying about Sam. For disappointing his mom. For everything. “Look, Mom. I’ll…check with Sam, okay?”
Dear God in heaven. Where had that come from? Bad, bad idea.
“Oh, Travis.” His mom was suddenly sounding happy again. “That’s wonderful. We’ll be expecting both of you, then.”
What the hell? “Uh, no. Wait, really. You can’t start expecting anything. I said I would ask her.”
“And I just know she’ll say yes. Two weeks from today, as planned. Love you. ‘Bye now.”
“Mom. I mean it. Don’t...wait! I…” But it was no good. She’d already hung up.
He took the phone away from his ear and gave it a dirty look. Then he started to call her back—but stopped in mid-dial.
Why ask for more trouble? Hadn’t he gotten himself plenty already?
Grumbling under his breath, he snagged the phone back onto the wall mount, yanked out a chair at the table a few feet away and dropped into it.
Sam had been waiting for Travis to finish on the phone. She watched as the two roughnecks wrapped up their bowling game and went back up the stairs.
Good. She didn’t need anyone listening in.
She heard Travis hang up, and then the sound of a chair scraping the floor as he pulled it out from the table. She switched off the TV and turned to him. “That roustabout, Jimmy Betts? Born without a brain. A walking safety hazard. Give that boy a length of pipe and someone is bound to get whacked in the frickin’ head.”
He seemed distracted, slumped in the chair, a frown on his handsome face. But after a second or two, he said, “He’ll learn. They all do—or they don’t last.”
Sam let a snort do for a reply to that. And then she tossed down the remote and went to join him. She plunked her coffee on the table, swung a chair around and straddled it backwards. Stacking her arms on the chair back, she leaned her chin on them. She studied him. He stared back at her, but his brown eyes still had a far-away look in them.
“Your mama, huh?” she finally asked. “Driving you crazy again?”
He grunted. “That’s right.”
“She still trying to find you the new love of your life?”
He grunted a second time and looked at her kind of strangely. She got the message. He wasn’t in the mood to talk about his mother and her plans to get him hogtied and branded.
Sam could read Travis pretty well. After all, they’d been friends since way back when he was nineteen and she was eighteen. Back then, Travis had worked on the oil well at her dad’s South Dakota ranch.
So all right. Not talking about his mother was fine with her. She had something else on her mind, anyway.
Sam indulged in a glum look around the lounge. It was a large room. But the low ceiling, the absence of windows and the fluorescent lighting gave the space a sort of subterranean glow. It made Travis look tired, turned his tanned skin kind of pasty. She didn’t even want to think about how it made her look.
Travis’s dark brows drew together. “Got something on your mind, Sam?”
Oh, yes, she did. “You have no idea how frickin’ tired I am of being on this rig. And I could seriously use a tall, cold one about now, you know?”
They grunted in unison then. There was no liquor allowed on the rig.
Most rig workers had the usual two-weeks-on, two-weeks-off rotation. Not the pusher. Sam had been on the rig for over a month now, working twelve-hour shifts seven days a week. A week more and she would be back on land at last. She could not wait. And the rock docs—the engineers—were saying that the four-month drilling process was within days of completion. Her job on the Deepwater Venture was ending anyway. She wouldn’t be signing on to another rig to start all over again.
“Travis, I’ve been thinking…”
He waited, watching her.
She sat straighter and swept both arms wide, a gesture meant to include not only the lounge, but every inch of the semisubmersible rig, from the operating deck and the cranes and derrick soaring above it, to the ballasted, watertight pontoons below the ocean’s surface that held the giant platform afloat. “I used to love the challenge, you know? Doing a man’s job and doing it right. Earning and keeping the men’s respect—in spite of being female, even though I was younger than half of them. But lately, well, I’m thinking it’s time to change it up a little. I’m thirty years old. It’s a time when a person can start to wonder about things.”
He tipped his head to the side, frowning. “What things?”
“Things like getting back to the real world, like living on solid ground fulltime, like…I don’t know, letting my hair grow, for cryin’ out loud, getting a job where I don’t end up covered in drilling mud and grease at least once a shift. Sitting in an employee lounge that has actual windows—windows that look out on something other than water and more water.”
He made a low noise. Was it a doubtful kind of sound? What? He didn’t think she could make it in a desk job?
She scowled at him and raked her fingers back through her sweaty, chopped-off hair. “And you can just stop looking at me like that, Travis Bravo. Yeah, I know what working in an office is going to mean. I get that I’m going to have to clean up my language and maybe even learn to wear a damn dress now and then. And I’m ready for that.”
He kept on looking at her. Studying her, really. What the hell was he thinking?
She threw out both arms again, glanced left and then right—and then directly at him again. “What?” she demanded.
He swung his boots up onto the molded plastic chair next to his. Way too casually, he suggested, “So Sam. Want to come to my parents’ wedding?”
Okay, now she was totally lost. “Your parents wedding? Didn’t that already happen? Y’know like, oh, a hundred years ago? Travis, I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
One corner of his mouth quirked up. “Well, okay. Technically, it’s a reaffirmation of their wedding vows. It’s happening out at Bravo Ridge.” He’d spoken of Bravo Ridge often. It was his family’s ranch near San Antonio. “It’ll be on Thanksgiving day.”
She sat back and folded her arms across her middle. She’d always wondered about his family, the high-class, powerful San Antonio Bravos. It would be interesting to meet them all, to match the real, flesh-and-blood people to the faces in the pictures Travis had shown her over the years.
Then again, maybe not. “I don’t think so…”
“Come on. Why not?”
“Well, to be honest, from everything you’ve said about your family, I don’t think I’d fit in with them.”
“Sure you will.”
“I don’t even have the clothes for something like that. Let alone the manners. And I don’t have any fancy pedigree, either. I’d probably embarrass you.”
“You could never embarrass me. You’re the best. And what do you mean, pedigree? It’s America. We’re all equal, remember? And if you’re nervous about your clothes, I’ll deal with that.”
She looked at him sideways. “How, exactly are you going deal with my clothes?”
“I’ll buy you some new ones.”
“No way. I buy my own stuff. But even if I maxed out my credit cards getting a whole new wardrobe, well, I still wouldn’t know which frickin’ fork to use.”
He swung his feet to the floor and canted toward her in the chair. “So we’ll get you a coach. A few days in Houston beforehand should do it.”
“Um. Travis, I’m not really understanding what exactly you’re up to here.”
“I just said. You’ll have time. A whole week to get ready after you’re back on land, plenty of time to buy the clothes and work with the coach.”
“The coach,” she repeated blankly.
“Yeah. The coach. Someone who’s an expert on all that stuff—on the clothes, the makeup, the…use of the silverware, whatever. By the time you meet my mom, you’ll be more than ready.”
“More than ready for…?”
“Everything.” He smiled. It wasn’t a very sincere smile.
She rubbed her temples with the tips of her fingers. Really, he was making her head spin. “Travis. Cut the crap. What, exactly, are you trying to talk me into?”
He glanced away, and then back. “Before I get too specific, I just want to know you’ll keep an open mind about the whole thing, okay?”
“Yeah, well. Before I can keep an open mind, I need to know what I’m supposed to be keeping an open mind about.”
He hoisted his feet back up on the chair again. “It’s like this. I want you to help me get my mom off my back.”
She followed. Kind of. “You mean about all the, er, suitable young women, right?”
He nodded. “I need you to be my date—for a week, including Thanksgiving.”
“You think if you bring a date, your mom will stop trying to fix you up?”
He pulled a face and scratched the back of his head. “Well, yeah. For a while. If my date was…more than just a date.”
“What do you mean, more than just a frickin’ date?”
“Okay, it’s like this. I want you to pretend that you’re my fiancée.”
Travis didn’t find the look on Sam’s face the least bit encouraging.
She swore. Colorfully. And then she jumped up from the chair, strode around the table to him—and slapped him upside the back of the head.
He shoved her hand away. “Ouch! Knock it off.”
She gave a disgusted snort. “Have you lost your mind?”
He put up both hands to back her off. “Look. It just…slipped out when I was talking to her, okay?”
“She was all over me, pressuring me, going down the list of all the women she wants me to meet. And then you came down from the deck and I, well, all of a sudden, I was saying I already had a girl. I said you were my girl and we were engaged.”
Sam did more swearing. And then she returned to her chair, grabbed the back of it, spun it around, and sat down in it front ways that time. “What have you been smoking?”
“Not a thing. You know that. And can you just think it over? Please? Don’t say no without giving it some serious consideration. You get the coach and the clothes to help you change up your life. And I have a few strings I can pull, too, for you. To make sure you get the job you want.”
She had her arms folded good and tight across her middle by then. “There’s just one teensy problem.”
“It’s a big wonkin’ lie.”
“I know that. But it can’t be helped.”
“Sure, it can. Call your mom back. Tell her you lied and I’m not your girl, after all. And when you want a girl, you’ll find her yourself.”
“Sam, come on…”
She pressed her lips together, blew out a breath—and flipped him the bird.
But he refused to give up. The more he thought about it, the more this looked like a solution to his problem.
A temporary solution, yeah. But still. Even temporary was better than no solution at all.
“Look,” he said. “You do this for me, I figure it’s good for up to a year of peace and quiet on my mother’s part.”
“Why don’t you just talk to your mother? Tell her how you feel, tell her you want her to back off and mind her own business.”
“You think I haven’t? It doesn’t matter what I say, she thinks she’s doing the right thing for me. She thinks it’s for my own good. And when my mother thinks what she’s doing is for the good of one of her children, there’s no stopping her. There’s no getting her to see the light and admit that she’s got it all wrong.”
“But making up some big old lie is not the answer. It’s…just not you. You’re a straight-ahead guy. No frills and no fancy footwork. I’ve always liked that about you.”
He laid it right out for her. “Sam. I’m desperate. I need a break from this garbage. I need to be able to go home for once without having a bunch of sweet-faced Texas debutantes in their best party dresses lined up waiting to meet me. I need to be able to call my mom without being beat over the head with all the women she wants to introduce me to.”
“Maybe if you just gave it a chance with one of them, you’d find out that—”
“Stop. Don’t go there. You know I’m not up for that. I had the love of my life. She died. And I already tried it with the woman who could never take her place.”
“But it’s been years and years since you lost Rachel. And just because it didn’t work out with Wanda doesn’t mean there isn’t someone else out there who’s right for you.”
He gave her a really dirty look, and then he glanced away. “You’re starting to sound like my mother. I don’t need that.”
“Travis, I only—”
He turned to meet her eyes again. “Help me out, Sam. Help me out and I’ll help you out. Win/win. You’ll see. You can have the new life you’ve been dreaming of. All you have to do to get it is a little favor for a friend.”
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