Christmas at Bravo Ridge
The doorbell rang at nine o’clock. Corrine knew it would be Matt, bringing Kira home from her regular weekend visit with him. He was right on time, as always.
“Come on in,” Corrine called.
She heard his key turn in the lock. The front door opened and shut with a soft click. And then silence, except for the creak of a loose floorboard under his feet. The lack of happy chatter, of, “Mommy, we’re home!” told her that Kira must be asleep.
Matt stuck his head around the wall that marked off the entry, his straight brows drawing briefly together at the sight of Corrine on the couch, knees drawn up under her chin, ten half-full wine bottles arrayed on the coffee table in front of her. “She’s conked out,” he whispered.
Their daughter was draped over his shoulder, her legs, in her favorite pair of pink, footed pajamas, dangling loose. At Matt’s whisper, Kira lifted her blond head, yawned hugely, and then turned her face the other way, nuzzling against his neck with a contented little sigh.
“Carry her on up?” Corrine mouthed the words, gesturing at the stairway behind him.
Matt turned and went up. Corrine watched him go. Kira’s little feet swayed gently with each step. Once he disappeared from sight, she settled her chin on her knees again and stared at the mess she really should start clearing up.
She was still sitting there, in the same position, when Matt came back down the stairs a few minutes later. He went straight to the fireplace and turned his back to the flames.
“Cold out there?” She gave him a lazy smile.
“Oh, yeah.” It was supposed to get below freezing that night, rare for San Antonio in early November.
“Kira wake up when you put her to bed?”
“She didn’t even open her eyes.”
“The usual. Lessons on Saturday.” Kira took tap and ballet, karate and modern dance. She went to kindergarten and daycare at the best Montessori school in SA. These were just a few of the many benefits that came from having a rich, hardworking daddy and a mom who ran a successful business of her own. “We went to a movie Saturday night,” he added. “Today, I took her out to the ranch.” Bravo Ridge, his family’s ranch, was a short ride north of SA, on the Southwestern edge of the Hill Country.
Corrine lowered her knees to the side and tucked them in close. “Your mom still at the ranch?”
“How was she?”
He shrugged. “She seemed okay, but you know how she is, always trying to put the best face on things.”
Corrine let out a small sigh of understanding. “So true…”
And then he did what she’d been waiting for him to do. He gestured at all those bottles on the coffee table. “And what the hell, Corrie? Pastor Bob know about this?” His tone was teasing, but she didn’t miss the underlying note of disapproval.
She resisted the urge to say something snippy and settled for simply putting him in his place. “I’m not drunk, not even buzzed—and if I was, it’s not like I’m driving anywhere. And don’t you start picking on Bob. Bob’s the best of the best. I’m lucky to have found him.”
He tried to look innocent. “I wasn’t picking on Bob.”
“Yeah, you were.”
He put up both hands, a gesture of surrender. “Okay, okay. I’ll never say another damn word about Bob.”
“Bob knows what I do for a living. He’s not the least judgmental—unlike some people I could mention.”
Matt huffed a little. “I’m not judgmental.” Beneath the huffing, he was hurt. She could tell.
And she felt suddenly sorry. Matt Bravo was a great guy, really. A fine father, who doted on their little girl. And over the years, strangely enough, he’d practically become Corrine’s best friend. She shouldn’t be calling him judgmental—even if he sometimes was.
Time to change the subject. “Want some?” She tipped her head at the thicket of green bottles. “I’ve got plenty.”
“Why not?” He was already shrugging out of his pricey leather coat.
She had half a tray of unused wine glasses. She grabbed one and chose a bottle at random, turning it to read the label. “A little merlot?”
He dropped into a wing chair across the coffee table from her. “Sounds good to me.”
She poured, passed him the glass and then poured one for herself. “To our amazing, beautiful, brilliant daughter.”
He leaned toward her so he could touch his glass to hers. Then he sat back. They both sipped. He gave a nod of approval. “Not bad.”
“And the price is right.”
He frowned at the tray of torn bread and the pitcher of water on another table nearby. “Wait. I get it. A wine tasting.”
She nodded. “It went well, thank you. There were six of us, including me.” She named off three of her employees and a couple of longtime friends from school. Then she raised her glass again. “I’m always looking for good values for the bar, and a few of these are pretty nice.” Matt worked at BravoCorp, the family business. She worked in her family’s business, too. Her bar, Armadillo Rose, was a San Antonio landmark. It had belonged to her mother before her and before that, to her grandmother.
Looking totally satisfied with himself, he settled deeper into the chair and sipped more wine.
“Just make yourself at home.” She raised her glass again.
“I always do. Got anything to munch on around here—other than chunks of dry bread, I mean?”
“A few cold appetizers.”
She passed him the tray.
He chose a cracker topped with sun-dried tomatoes and mozzarella and popped it in his mouth, reaching out to grab the tray before she could pull it away. “I’ll keep that.” He set the tray on the side table by his chair, grabbed two more crackers and ate them, watching her as he chewed.
With a distant smile, she turned her face to the fire and considered whether or not to bring up his mother a second time.
After a moment or two, he demanded, “What?”
She met his eyes again. “It’s your mom. I’m worried about her. She came in the Rose last night.”
He blinked. “Why?”
“She didn’t say. She sat at the end of the bar and nursed a martini. For over three hours.”
He couldn’t have looked more surprised if she’d bopped him on the head with the merlot bottle. “Three hours. You’re kidding me.”
“No.” Armadillo Rose had live music on the weekends. Rock and hard country. It catered to a young, mostly blue-collar, party crowd. Aleta Bravo was in her mid-fifties, still slim and good-looking. She wore designer clothes and she had a certain air about her, one of money and privilege. Armadillo Rose just wasn’t her kind of place. “She seemed…I don’t know. Lost, I guess. I sat with her every time I could catch a few minutes. She told me how much she appreciated me and how much she loves Kira…”
He held out his glass for more wine. “My dad won’t leave her alone,” he said as she poured. “He’s always showing up at the ranch, working every angle to get her to come back to him.”
“She seemed…so sad last night.”
His expression was almost tender. “You were keeping an eye on her.”
“You’re a good woman, Corrie.” The look in his eyes had her throat clutching.
She glanced away. And then she felt silly and made herself face him again. “She, um, she didn’t cry or anything. But the place was packed and loud and she would watch everyone dancing and having a good time with this expression that was trying so hard to be bright and happy, but didn’t quite make it.”
“It’s a tough time for her.”
“Matt, your dad is not my favorite person. Still, it’s so painfully obvious she’s in love with him and always will be. I don’t get why she doesn’t just go back to him.”
“Hey. Don’t ask me. I don’t get it, either.”
“It’s been over a month since she walked out on him.” In late September, Aleta had left the big house in Olmos Park where she’d lived with Davis for as long as Corrine had known them. Matt’s parents had always kept a suite at Bravo Ridge. Aleta was now staying there. Corrine shook her head. “And it’s not like what he did all those years ago was news to her.” Corrine and Matt had discussed this before. Matt had confided that his mother had already known about his father’s affair. Over two decades ago, right after it happened, Davis had confessed everything.
Matt said, “But she didn’t know that the woman he’d slept with was Luz Cabrera—or that there was a baby.” The baby, now in her twenties, was named Elena. Matt and his siblings had learned they had a half-sister around the same time their mother left their father. And there was more.
A lot more. Matt’s brother Luke had recently married Mercy Cabrera, who was Elena’s adoptive sister. It was all beyond complicated. Especially when you added in the fact that Luz Cabrera just happened to be the wife of the Bravos’ longtime sworn enemy, Javier Cabrera.
Corrine said, “I still don’t get it. Since your dad never knew that Luz had his kid, why is he any more to blame now than he ever was?”
“But that’s just it,” Matt declared, as if that explained anything.
“My dad claims Luz never told him about Elena. I don’t think my mom believes him. And it was always a big deal between them, the whole total honesty thing.”
Corrine poured herself more wine. “So you think maybe your dad actually knew the whole time that he had another daughter?”
“No, I don’t think he did.”
“But you’re not sure?”
He ate another cracker. “I’m sure.”
“Corrie, damn it. I just am.”
“Okay, so. He busted himself all those years ago when he had the affair. At that time, they worked it out and your mom accepted that it was better if he didn’t tell her who the woman was. You say you’re sure your dad didn’t know that Luz had had his kid.”
He gave her a look. “And the point you’re making is…?”
“That I still don’t get it. It was more than twenty years ago. Your parents got past it then. Why won’t your mom get past it and go back to him now?”
“She will. Eventually. We’re all sure of that.”
“That’s right. All. My dad. My brothers. Me. My sisters.” Aleta had given Davis seven sons and two daughters.
Corrine asked softly, “What makes all of you so sure?”
“We just are.”
“Don’t roll your eyes at me, Corrie. I know my own mother.”
“I’m only saying, even given that she still loves him, it is possible that this time she’s finally had it with him.”
His brows drew together. “Had it? How?”
“Come on, Matt. You know what I mean. Maybe there’s more going on here than we realize. Maybe she’s fed up with him on more levels than just the affair he had so long ago. Maybe she’s decided she’s not going to take it anymore.”
“Take it? Take what?”
“You know. Him. Your dad. The way he is, like he thinks he runs the world or something. Maybe she’s left him for good this time.”
He gaped. “You mean divorce?”
“I do, yeah.”
“Hell, no.” He said it fast. Too fast.
He put up a hand. “Uh-uh. No way—yeah, okay. They’re living apart. Temporarily. But making it permanent? Never going to happen. Divorce is…not who they are. They’re solid, married over thirty years. They would never split up for good.”
Though she thought he was in serious denial, Corrine resisted the urge to keep arguing the point. Really, what did she know about marriage and how a good one works? Her dad had abandoned her and her mother when Corrine was nine. Her mom had never remarried.
And Corrine herself had yet to take the plunge. Though she was about to, with Bob.
Corrine smiled to herself. Sometimes she could hardly believe it was really happening. She was getting married at last. To a minister, of all people—a very special kind of minister. The kind who never judged or acted superior.
Bob’s church, the New Life Unification Church, was open to people of all beliefs and faiths. Corrine, never much of a church-goer before, had gone to New Life after her mom died, in search of comfort mostly. A girlfriend had sworn she would love it there. And she had. Slowly, she’d gotten to know the pastor, never guessing at the time that Bob would turn out to be the man for her.
She glanced down at the diamond on her finger. It wasn’t big or flashy. But it gave off a nice sparkle in the light from the fire. And Bob was such a good man, generous, sweet and true…
Matt shifted in his chair. She looked up into his gray eyes and they shared a smile.
“So what else you got here?” He gestured at the bottles between them.
“You’ll end up drunk if you don’t watch it.”
“It’ll do me good to loosen up a little.” He held out his empty glass. “I’m a stick-up-the-ass corporate guy, remember?”
She winced. “Did I call you that?”
“To my face. More than once.”
“Forgiven. You know that. More wine.”
“A modest little Cabernet, maybe?”
Matt could have sat in that chair across from Corrie forever.
They tried more of the wines. A Pinot Noir and something Spanish. They talked and laughed. An hour went by.
Matt was having a good time. A great time—but then, except for a while there after she told him she was pregnant, he always did have a good time with Corrie. Sometimes lately, when he brought Kira home at the end of the weekend, he would find himself wishing he didn’t have to leave.
Corrie’s house was in an older neighborhood, with lots of big, mature oaks. It had been her mom’s house before Kathleen Lonnigan died and left it to her only daughter. It was nothing fancy, but it sure was comfortable, cheery and cozy, the furniture a little worn. Lived-in. In the past couple of years, since she lost her mom, Corrie had put her own stamp on it, things like fifties-style lamps and bright, geometrical-patterned rugs on the scuffed hardwood floors.
Tonight, with the fire going and too much wine making him feel all sentimental and pleasantly fuzzy, he kept thinking of that first night he met Corrie. It was almost six years ago now.
He’d been twenty-four. It was the night he came home from the University of Chicago with an MBA in finance. He went out clubbing to celebrate the milestone and ended up at Armadillo Rose, where he went crazy for the bartender. Until then, he’d never gone crazy over anyone. He wasn’t the crazy type.
If he closed his eyes now, he could almost see her, the way she looked that night. Her blue eyes inviting him, that blond hair their daughter had inherited hanging over one eye. In painted-on jeans and a skimpy tube top that showed her navel ring. She’d danced on the bar that night. And he’d known he had to have her…
“You falling asleep on me?”
He scrubbed his hands down his face, shook his head to clear the fuzziness, and dragged himself up straighter in the chair. “What time is it?”
“I should get going.” He ordered his body to drag itself upright. But before he could actually make that happen, she got up and circled the coffee table to stand above him. He squinted up at her. “Huh?”
She leaned down and put her hands on his shoulders. Those blue eyes were so serious and she was frowning. “No way you’re driving anywhere tonight.” She captured his hand. “Come on. You can have the spare room.”
He liked the feel of her hand in his and also the way the firelight made her hair shine like spun gold. “Naw.”
She tugged on his fingers. “Get up, Matt.”
“I’m fine here. Really. You go ahead to bed, I’ll just sit here and a…enjoy the fire.”
“Uh-uh. I know you. You’ll snooze for a while and then get up and go. It’s not a good idea.” She pulled on his hand some more. “Come on with me now. You can make it up the stairs.”
“Acourse I can make it. The question is do I want to make it?”
“You’re going.” She spoke flatly, bracing her free hand on her hip.
He opened his mouth to tell her he wasn’t. But then he shut it without a word. He could see that she’d made up her mind. Corrie’s mind was one thing a man had no hope of changing. Not once it was made up, anyway.
“Come on, I’ll help you.” She yanked on his hand for the third time.
“I’m a little high, yeah, but I’m not totally whacked. I can get up and walk up those stairs just fine on my own.”
“Well, all right. Let’s go.”
He let her pull him up. Then, gently, he extricated his hand from her grip. “I’m going, all right?”
He went. Halfway up the stairs, he realized she wasn’t behind him. He glanced back. She was turning off the fireplace and switching out the lamps. He waited until she started coming up and then he went the rest of the way to the top and down the upstairs hall into the guest room, where she caught up with him. She flipped the switch by the door and the room became blindingly bright.
He blinked against the glare. “Ouch. Do we really need that light?” He aimed himself at the bed.
She grabbed his arm and pushed him down into a chair. “Stay there. I’ll change the sheets.” She started stripping the bed.
He considered the strangeness of that. The bed had been all made up, but she was taking it apart? “What’re you doing?”
She shook the pillows out of their pillowcases. “Getting you fresh sheets. Bob stayed over last week and I never got around to changing them.”
It took him about five seconds to process that, but his fuzzy mind finally picked up her meaning. “Hold on. Pastor Bob slept in here?”
She had the blankets off and the sheets gathered up in her arms by then. “Yeah. So?”
He frowned in thought. “But you and Bob…you’re engaged.”
Her mouth was kind of pinched up. “Is there a point that you’re making?”
“Well, it’s only…I mean, why wasn’t he sleeping with you?”
She only looked at him. Her expression did not invite further comment.
He hit himself on the forehead with the heel of his hand and commented anyway. “Got it. You and Bob don’t sleep together. Right?”
Again, she said nothing.
So he asked, “Why not?” He couldn’t imagine being engaged to Corrie and not having sex with her. What would be the point?
Her chin hitched higher. “Not that it’s any of your business, but if you have to know, Bob has certain principles.”
“And by that you mean?”
She answered reluctantly. “We’re waiting.”
“Waiting.” He pondered the word. “For…Moses to part the waters? For the second coming of…”
She shut him up with a look. Corrie had a talent with the looks. “If you know what’s good for you, Matthew, you’ll stop mocking what I have with Bob.”
Okay, yeah. He was a little juiced. But he did know what was good for him and getting Corrie mad wasn’t it. “Okey-dokey,” he answered cheerfully. Then he slumped back in the chair, leaned his head against the wall and shut his eyes.
He heard her hustle off. A moment later, she was back and bustling around over by the bed. He let his eyes drift open just as she bent to smooth the elastic on the bottom sheet. It was a great view. She had a beautiful, heart-shaped ass. And also this incredibly sexy tattoo of red roses and black vines that curled diagonally up out of her jeans from the left, across her lower back and halfway around the right side of her waist. From where he sat, he could only see a section of it, between the top of her jeans and where her sweater rode up. He hadn’t seen all of it in much too long….
Corrie had a sixth sense as to when a man was looking. Probably from dealing with an endless chain of horny, drunken fools at Armadillo Rose. She glanced back over her shoulder and caught him staring.
“Oops,” he said with a slow grin.
“You are hopeless, you know that?”
“Yep. I am. Completely hopeless.” He tried to look pitiful.
She fired the pillows and a pair of pillowcases at him. “Make yourself useful.”
He put the pillowcases on the pillows. That took about a minute. Then he got up and went to help her tuck the blankets in—just to prove he was more than willing to do his share.
Not that she needed any help. With swift efficiency, she folded and tucked and smoothed. He ended up kind of following her around the bed, tucking what she’d already smoothed, kidding her by bumping against her—with his shoulder and then with his hip.
“Will you cut it out?” She snorted the words through a half-stifled laugh.
He bumped her again. She made a sharp noise in her throat and straightened to fold her arms across her middle. He straightened with her.
“What am I going to do about you?” She was trying really hard to look disgusted.
They were very close—nose to nose. He found he was getting kind of lost in her eyes. “Blue, deep blue,” he heard himself murmur. “I’ve always loved your eyes. I’m glad Kira got them…”
“Cut it out, Matt.” The words said one thing, but the softness of her lips and her breathless tone said another.
He had the wildest feeling that if he tried to kiss her, she just might let him. It was probably no more than a drunken delusion. They didn’t kiss anymore, not ever, except for the occasional friends-only peck on the cheek.
And yet. As he looked in those jewel-blue eyes, he couldn’t help thinking that she was thinking the same thing he was thinking.
A kiss. What would a kiss hurt?
Soon she would marry Bob Thompson, who actually was a decent guy, damn it, and the possibility of Matt’s ever kissing her again—ever really kissing her—would diminish exponentially. Funny, but he hadn’t thought about that until right now, half-blitzed in her spare room in the middle of the night, staring into those eyes that his daughter had inherited. Those beautiful, crystal-clear, sapphire-blue eyes…
Never to kiss Corrie again.
Uh-uh. It wasn’t right. Wasn’t possible.
Possible. Yeah. That was the word, wasn’t it? That was the thing, the simple possibility. She was not only getting married, she was taking away all the possibilities between them. Just wiping their slate clean. Bare. Empty.
What they were now—good friends, co-parents—that would be the extent of it. If it ever might have been more again, it never would.
“Matt?” She whispered his name. She sounded even more breathless than a moment ago.
He decided not to answer her. Not with words, anyway. He only had to bend his head and his lips touched hers.
“Matt…” She said his name against his mouth. There was tenderness in the way she said it. And confusion. And heat, too.
He focused on the heat. He reached out and pulled her to him, wrapping his arms around her, turning the brushing kiss into something deeper.
It was so good, the heat. The wanting. He’d missed it more than he’d realized. For way too many years.
She put her hands against his chest, pulled her mouth from his. “Matt. No.”
It was the word a man had zero right to ignore. But he did ignore it—at first. The bed was right there, freshly made, waiting for them. He took her down onto the softness. And he kissed her again, pressing her into the mattress, feeling the shape of her beneath him, so womanly and warm, so well-remembered.
And in spite of that no, she was kissing him back, sucking his tongue into her mouth, pushing her hips against him, running her hands up under the sweater he wore. She was acting like no was the last thing she was thinking.
He wanted to believe that. He wanted to believe her kiss and her curvy body moving against him, wanted to forget that a few moments ago, she had told him to stop.
But in the end, he couldn’t forget it. It was only right to make sure.
Yeah, he wanted her. Bad. But even half-plowed, he knew that her no couldn’t be allowed to stand. She had to admit she wanted him, too.
Either that, or they had to stop.
Somehow, he made himself break the hungry kiss. He braced up on his hands and he stared down at her, with her blond hair wild around her pretty face, her mouth wet and red and so damn tempting.
“No?” He dared her. “Did you say no?”
She called him a very bad word, fisted her fingers up into his hair and tried to yank his mouth down on hers again.
He winced as she pulled his hair, but he didn’t give in. “Answer the question, Corrie.”
She growled low in her throat and gave another yank. That time he let her pull him close. “Shut up,” she said against his lips, and kissed him again.
He dragged his mouth away for the second time, caught her wrist, pinned them to the pillow on either side of her head. “Just say yes. Say yes or we can’t—”
“Yes, all right? Yes.” She hissed the word.
“Well.” He stared down at her, satisfied. And aroused, too. She felt just right beneath him. And he was so hard for her. Like a rock, in spite of drinking more wine than he should have. He bent, nuzzled her neck, muttered roughly against her throat, “That’s good. That’s perfect.”
He raised his head again so he could watch her face as he pressed his hips hard against her. She moaned and lifted up, pressing back, showing him her willingness, her desire. Her sapphire eyes went to midnight, the softest, deepest kind of darkness.
She whispered his name. “Matt. Oh, Matt…”
The rest was like a dream he’d been waiting almost six year to have again.
They kissed. Endless, amazing kisses. They pulled at each others’ clothes, unbuttoning, unzipping, pushing everything off.
And then they were naked. Her skin was hot silk. He rolled her under him and she wrapped her legs around him. He sank into her heat and sweetness.
It couldn’t be happening.
But it was.
He was making love to Corrie. Again.
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