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Christine Rimmer New York Time Bestselling Author
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Christine Rimmer - New York Times Bestselling Author

A Bravo Family Christmas Reunion

Chapter One
by Christine Rimmer

Marcus Reid knew damn well that he should stay away from Hayley Bravo.  Far, far away.

Since she dumped him and left Seattle, he’d worked harder than ever, rising before dawn to push his body to the limit in his personal gym, burning the midnight oil at the office, driving himself to exhaustion every day.  Evenings when he didn’t have to be at his corporate headquarters, he kept himself good and busy.  He dated, making it a point to get out more—with gorgeous, attentive, appreciative women.  Women more glamorous than Hayley, women more sophisticated than Hayley.  Agreeable women.  Women who had sense enough not to ask the impossible of him.

Yeah.  It had taken him months to get over Hayley.  A lot longer, if you wanted the hard truth, than he’d expected.  Getting over Hayley had turned out to be one hell of a job.  Almost as hard as dealing with his ex-wife Adriana’s final desertion.

But he’d managed it.

Or so he kept telling himself.  He was over Hayley.  Done.   Finished.

So why was he standing on the doorstep of her Sacramento apartment on that cold evening in mid-December?

Since Marcus had no intention of answering that particular question, he banished it from his mind with a shake of his head.

The complex she lived in was perfectly ordinary, built around a central courtyard, the boxy units accessed from outside.  Low-to-midrange in price, he would guess.  She’d lived a lot better when she worked for him.  He’d seen to it.  Not only a fat salary, but a big expense account and a luxury car, compliments of his company, Kaffe Central.  And then there were the gifts he’d showered on her…

Now she was on her own, she’d be watching her budget.  That bothered him, the thought of her pinching pennies to get along.  Though their relationship had ended, some part of him still wanted to take care of her.

 Light glowed in the window to the left of her door.  Through the partly open blinds, he could see she had put up a Christmas tree.  And he could hear music, faintly.  A Christmas song?

Hayley was into the Christmas crap big-time.  Strings of lights twined on the railing of her second-floor landing, where she’d made herself a sort of patio with a couple of wicker chairs and a wooden crate for a table.  A miniature tree, tiny lights twinkling, topped the crate—and he was stalling, checking out her Christmas decorations instead of getting on with it.

Time to make a move.  Ring the bell.  Or get the hell out of there.

He sucked in a big breath, lifted his hand and gave her doorbell a punch.

After a few never-ending seconds, the door swung wide.  The music from inside swelled louder: White Christmas

And there she was, the light from behind her haloing her red hair.  Those eyes that managed to be blue and gray and green all at once went wide with surprise. And a bright smile died unborn on that mouth that he’d loved to kiss.

“Marcus!”  Her expression was not encouraging.  Far from it.  She looked… pained.  Slightly panicked, even.  She brought her hand to her mouth and then lowered it—to her stomach.

He tracked the movement, watched as her palm settled on the round shape of her belly, fingers curving gently.  Protectively.  He stared at her pale hand and the roundness beneath it, trying to accept what he saw.

It was…enormous, her stomach.  It looked like she had a beach ball tucked in there, beneath the tentlike red sweater she wore. 

Too stunned to fake politeness, he shut his gaping mouth—and then opened it again to accuse roughly, “You’re pregnant.”  He lifted his gaze and met her eyes again.

She was frowning, more worried now than panicked.  “Marcus.  Are you okay?  You look—”

“I’m fine.”  Outright lie.  His stomach churned, spurting acid.  He needed to hit someone.  Preferably whatever bastard had dared to put his hands on her, to do that to her.

God.  Hayley with some other guy, having that other guy’s baby…

It didn’t seem possible.  He couldn’t believe it.

At the same time as he knew this couldn’t be happening, some rational part of his mind saw clearly the ridiculousness of his disbelief.  Why the hell wouldn’t she be with some other guy?  Some guy who made her happy.  Some guy who loved her and cherished her and wanted to make a family with her….

White Christmas ended.  Bells jingled as Winter Wonderland came next.

“Marcus…” She reached out a hesitant hand.  “Please come in and—”

He cut her off by moving back just slightly, out of the way of her touch.

“Oh, Marcus…”  She looked at him with what might have been pity.

He wanted to shout at her then, tell her loud and clear that she never, ever had to feel sorry for him.  But he didn’t shout.  Far from it.  Instead, he said what he’d planned to say. He doled out the stock phrases, just to show her that finding her big as a house with some other guy’s kid didn’t affect him in the least.

“I’m in town on business.  Thought I’d stop by, see how you’re doing…”

She wrapped her arms around herself, resting them on that impossible belly, and looked at him steadily. Now those eyes of hers looked sad.  “I’m all right.”

 He parodied a smile.  “Great.  Did I catch you having dinner?”

She pressed her lips together and shook her head.

He craned to the side, hoping to see beyond her into the apartment.  “Your, uh, husband home?”

She took forever to answer.  Finally, so gently, she told him, “No, Marcus.”

He waited, his gaze on her face, carefully not glancing down again at her bulging stomach.

Finally she heaved a big sigh.  “Look. Are you coming in or not?”

“Yeah.”

She stepped back.  He crossed the threshold.  She shut the door, closing the two of them in that apartment together.

The place was small.  Straight ahead a hallway led into shadow.  To the right was a narrow kitchen with a tiny two-seater table. On the left was the living room area.  There, the brightly-lighted tree already had a pile of festively-wrapped presents beneath it.  The TV cabinet dripped garland and fake red berries.  She even had a Nativity scene on one of the side tables.

Leave it to Hayley to do Christmas full-out.  Last December, she’d…

But he wasn’t going to think about last December.  Last December was gone.  Over.  Done.  He was only here to say hi and wish her and her baby—and the guy, too, damn him to hell, whoever he was—a nice life.

“Your coat,” she suggested softly, reaching out.

He dodged her touch again.  “It’s all right.  I’ll keep it on.”

She dropped her outstretched arm.  “Okay.”  It was her turn to fake a smile.  “Well.  Have a seat.”  She indicated the blue couch in the living room.  Obediently, he marched over there and sat down.

“A drink?” she offered, still hovering there on the square of tile that served as her entrance hall.

He realized a drink sounded pretty damn good.  He needed a drink at a moment like this.  Something to numb his senses, blur his vision.  Something to make it so he didn’t care that Hayley was having someone else’s kid.  “Great. Thanks.”

“Pepsi?”

“No.  A real drink.  Anything but whiskey.”

She blinked.  She knew how he felt about booze, as a rule.  “Well, sure. I think I’ve got some vodka around here.  No tonic or anything, though…”

“Vodka.  Some ice.  Whatever.”

She turned toward the kitchen.  He watched her in there as she got down a glass.  She disappeared for a moment.  He heard ice cubes clinking.  And then she was back in his line of vision, glass in one hand, a bottle in the other.  She poured the clear liquor over the ice, put the lid back on the bottle and came to him, that belly of hers leading the way.

“Thanks,” he said, when she handed it over.  He knocked it back in one swallow and held out the glass again.  “Another.”

She opened her beautiful mouth to speak—but he glared at her and she said nothing.  Silent but for a sigh, she took the glass and waddled back to the counter, where she poured him a second one.  She approached again and held out the glass.  He took it.  And then he watched with bleak fascination as she moved to a chair across from him and carefully lowered herself into it.

The liquor, thankfully, had no smell.  He considered knocking back the second glass.  But he had a feeling if he did, it might just come right back up again.  So he sipped the disgusting stuff slowly and told himself to be grateful that it had no more taste that it had smell, just a slight unpleasant oiliness on the tongue.

She asked, her chin tipped high, “How did you know where I live?”

“I kept track of you.”  Did he sound like some stalker?  He qualified, “Just your address.  Your phone number…”  It was nothing obsessive, he’d told himself. But he did feel a certain…responsibility for her.  He’d hired someone to get her address and phone number after she left him.

And about that phone number?   More than once, when he was pretty sure she wouldn’t be home, he’d dialed that number, just to hear her voice on her answering machine and know that if he needed to get in touch with her again, he could.

“I wanted to be sure,” he said.  “That you were doing okay.”

“Well.”  She lifted both hands, as if to indicate everything around her—the cramped apartment, the blue couch he sat on, the tree in the window, the baby inside her.  And the husband who wasn’t home yet.  “Doing fine.”

He should have had the guy he hired find out more.  He would have gotten some advance warning about that other man, about the baby coming.  If he’d known, he wouldn’t be here now, drinking vodka and looking like a fool.

“Your husband…” he said, and then didn’t know how to go on.

She shook her head.  “Marcus, I—”

“Stop.”  He tipped his glass at her.  “On second thought, I really don’t want to know.”  Another gulp and the second drink was finished. So was he.  He set the glass down and stood.  “I can see you’re okay.  That’s good.  You have a great life.” He headed for the door.

“Marcus.  Wait—”

But he wasn’t listening.  Four long strides and he reached the door. 

As he yanked the door open, she called again, “Damn it, Marcus!” He shut the door behind him.  Ignoring the sound of her calling after him, he made for the stairs, taking them two at a time, his throat tight and his chest aching.

In under a minute, he was across the central courtyard of her apartment complex, out the wrought iron gate to the street and behind the wheel of his rented Lexus.  He stuck the key in the ignition and turned it over.  The engine purred.

But he didn’t pull out into traffic.  Instead, he flopped back in the seat and stared blindly at the dark windshield, seeing not the night beyond, but Hayley staring back at him through solemn eyes.  Hayley, coming toward him with that second drink he’d demanded, her huge stomach leading the way.

She hadn’t been wearing a wedding ring.

He sat up straighter.  She’d quit her job as his assistant and left him in…May.  Seven months ago.

In his mind’s eye, he saw her answering the door again, her hand on her stomach.  Her beach ball-size stomach.

Marcus was no expert on pregnancy.  But didn’t she look farther along than seven months?  Really, she looked to him to be almost ready to have the kid…

His heart slammed into his breastbone and his stomach rolled as the world seemed to tip on its axis.

No ring on her ring finger.  And the husband.  He wasn’t there because…

There was no husband.

Marcus yanked the key from the ignition and got out of the car.   He raced across the sidewalk and up the three stone steps to the gate. 

Which was locked.

He swore, a harsh oath, though there was no one but the night to hear him.  Earlier, he’d lucked out and slipped in behind a couple too busy groping each other to notice they had company as they entered the complex.  Not this time.  He stood at the gate alone.  Muttering another bad word, he punched the button that went with Hayley’s apartment number.

She answered immediately, as if she’d been waiting by the receiver for him to finally add two and two and come up with four.  “Marcus.”

“Is it mine?”

By way of answer, she buzzed him in.

She was waiting in her open doorway when he reached the top of the stairs.  Waiting in silence.  No Christmas music now.

He asked, low, “Well?”

And she nodded.  Slowly.  Deliberately.

“And the husband?” he demanded. When she frowned as if puzzled, he clarified. “Is there a husband?”

Her head went back and forth.  No husband.

He stared at her.  He had absolutely zero idea what to do or say next.

She gestured for him to come in. Moving on autopilot, he reentered her apartment.  She indicated the blue couch.  So he went over there and lowered his strangely numb body onto the cushions again.

He watched as she reclaimed the blue chair, those ringless pale hands of hers gripping the chair arms.  His gaze was hopelessly drawn to her belly.  He tried to get his mind around the bizarre reality that she had his baby in there.

His baby.  His…

“Oh, Marcus,” she said in a small voice at last.  “I’m so—”

He cut her off by showing her the flat of his palm.  “You knew, didn’t you, when you left me?  That’s why you left me.  Because of the baby.”

She shook her head.

“What?” he demanded.  “You’re telling me you didn’t know you were pregnant when you walked out on me?”

“I knew.  All right?  I knew.”  She pushed on the chair arms, as if she meant to rise.  “Do we have to—?”

“Yeah. We do. ”

She sank back to the chair.  “This is totally unnecessary.  Really.  I’m not expecting anything of you.”

“Just answer me.  Did you leave me because you got pregnant?”

“Sort of.”

“Damn it.  Either you did, or you didn’t.”

She shut those shining eyes and sucked in a slow breath.  When she looked at him again, she spoke with deliberate care.  “I left because you didn’t love me and you didn’t want to marry me and you’d already told me, when we started in together, you made it so perfectly clear, that you would never get married again and you would never have children. I felt guilty, okay?  For messing up and getting pregnant.  But still, I wanted this baby.  And that meant I couldn’t see it as anything but a losing proposition to hang around in Seattle waiting for you to feel responsible for me and this child I’m having, even though you didn’t want me and you don’t want a kid.  It was lose/lose, as far as I could see. So I came home.”

Her tone really grated on him.  As if she was so noble, just walking away, telling him nothing.  As if, somehow, he was the one in the wrong here.  “You should have told me before you walked out on me.  I had a damn right to know.”

Spots of color stained her pale cheeks.  She straightened her shoulders. “Of course I planned to tell you.”

“When?”

She glanced away.  “It’s…arranged.”

“Arranged.” He repeated the word.  It made no sense to him.  “Telling me I’m going to be a father is something you needed to arrange?”

She let go of the chair arms just long enough to throw up both hands.  Then she slapped them down again.  Hard.  “Look.  I was stressed over it, all right?  I admit I didn’t want to face you.  But I have it set up so you would have known.”

“You have it…set up?”

“Isn’t that what I just said?”

“Set up for when?”

“As soon as the baby’s born.  You were going to know then.”

“You were planning to…call me from the hospital?”

She swallowed.  “Uh.  Not exactly.”

“Damn it, Hayley.”  He glared at her.

She curved a hand under her belly and snapped to her feet.  “Come with me.”

He stayed where he was and demanded, “Come where?”

“Just come with me.  Please.”

“Hayley…”

But she was already moving—and with surprising agility for someone so hugely pregnant.  She zipped over and grabbed her bag, flung open the entry area closet and dragged a red wool coat from a hanger in there.  She turned to him as she shrugged into the coat.  “Where’s your car?”

“Out in front, but I don’t—”

“Are you drunk?”

“Drunk?  What the hell?  Of course I’m not drunk.”

“Okay.”  She flipped her hair out from under the coat’s collar.  “You can drive.”

He muttered a string of swear words as he rose and followed her into the cold, mist-shrouded night.

(#)

Ten minute later, she directed him to turn into the driveway of a green-shuttered white brick house on a quiet street lined with oaks and maples.

He pulled in where she pointed, stopped the car and took the key from the ignition.  “Who lives here?”

“Come on,” she said, as if that were any kind of answer.  A moment later, she was up and out and headed around the front of the vehicle.

Against his own better judgment, he got out, too, and followed her up the curving walk to a red front door.  She rang the bell.

As chimes sounded inside, he heard a dog barking and a child yelling, “I got it!”

The lock turned and the door flew open to reveal a brown-haired little girl in pink tights and ballet shoes.  The dog, an ancient-looking black mutt about the size of a German shepherd, pawed the hardwood floor beside the girl and barked in gravelly tone, “Woof,” and then “woof,” again, each sound produced with great effort.

“Quiet, Candy,” said the child and the dog dropped to its haunches with a sound that could only be called a relieved sigh. The child beamed at Hayley and then shouted over her shoulder, “It’s Aunt Hayley!”

Aunt Hayley?  Impossible.  To be an aunt, you needed a brother or a sister.  Hayley had neither.

A woman appeared behind the child, a woman with softly curling brown hair and blue eyes, a woman who resembled Hayley in an indefinable way—something in the shape of the eyes, in the mouth that wasn’t full, but had a certain teasing tilt at the corners.   “Hey,” the woman said, wiping her hands on a towel.  “Surprise, surprise.”  She cast a questioning glance in Marcus’s direction.

And Hayley said, “This is Marcus.”

“Ah,” said the woman, as if some major question had been answered.  “Well. Come on in.”

The kid and the old dog backed out of the way and Hayley and Marcus entered the warm, bright house.  The woman led them through an open doorway into a homey-looking living room.  Just as at Hayley’s place, a lighted Christmas tree stood in the window, a bright spill of gifts beneath.

“Can I take your coats?” the woman asked.  When Hayley shook her head, she added, “Well, have a seat, then.”

Marcus hoped someone would tell him soon what the hell he was doing there. He dropped to the nearest wing chair as the kid launched herself into a pirouette.  A bad one.  She stumbled a little as she came around front again.  And then she grinned, a grin as infectious as her mother’s—and Hayley’s.

“I’m DeDe.”  She bowed.

“Homework,” said the mother.

“Oh, Mom…”

The mother folded her arms and waited, her kitchen towel trailing beneath her elbow.

Finally, the kid gave it up. “Okay, okay.  I’m going,” she grumbled.  She seemed a cheerful type of kid and couldn’t sustain the sulky act.  A second later, with a jaunty wave in Marcus’s direction, she bounced from the room, the old dog limping along behind her.

Hayley, who’d taken the other wing chair, said, “Marcus, this is my sister, Kelly.”

It occurred to him about then that the evening was taking on the aspect of some bizarre dream:  Hayley having his baby.  The kid in the pink tights.  The decrepit dog.  The sudden appearance of a sister where there wasn’t supposed to be one.

“A sister,” he said, sounding as dazed as he felt.  “You’ve got a sister...”

Hayley had grown up in foster homes.  Her mother, who was frail and often sick, had trouble keeping a job and had always claimed she wasn’t up to taking care of her only daughter.  So she’d dumped Hayley into the system.

“Oh, Marcus.”  Hayley made a small, unhappy sound in her throat.  “I realize this is a big surprise.  It was to me, too.  Believe me. My mother always told me I was the only one.  It never occurred to me that she was lying, that anyone would lie about something like that…”

“Ah,” said Marcus, hoping that very soon the surprises were going to stop.

The sister, Kelly, fingered her towel and smiled hopefully.  “We have a brother, too...”

Hayley piped up again. “I just found them back in June—or rather, we all found each other.  When Mom died.”

His throat did something strange. He coughed into his hand to clear it.  “Your mother died…” 

“Yeah.  Not long after I moved back here.  I met Kelly and our brother Tanner in Mom’s hospital room, as a matter of fact.”

“When she was dying, you mean?”

“Yes.  When she was dying.”  Before he could decide what to ask next, Hayley turned to her sister.  “Could you get the letter, please?”

Kelly frowned.  “Are you sure?  Maybe you ought to—”

“Just get it.”

“Of course.”  Kelly left the room.

Marcus sat in silence, staring at the woman who was soon to have his child.  He didn’t speak.  And neither did she.

It was probably better that way.

The sister returned with a white envelope.  She handed it to Hayley, who held it up so that he could see his own address printed neatly on the front.  “Tell him, Kelly.”

Kelly sucked in a reluctant breath and turned to Marcus.  “I would have mailed it to you, as soon as the baby was born.”  She held up two balloon-shaped stickers, one pink, which said, It’s a Girl and the other blue, with It’s a Boy.

Hayley said weakly, “You know.  Depending.”

Marcus looked at the envelope, at the long-lost sister standing there holding the stickers, at Hayley sitting opposite him, eyes wide, her hand resting protectively on her pregnant stomach. 

I’m going to wake up, he thought.  Any second now, I’m going to wake up.

But he didn’t.

 

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