The Bravo Bachelor
ONE VISIT TO HER RANCH HAD LANDED HIM IN THE DELIVERY ROOM!
All Gabe Bravo wanted was to convince Mary Hofstetter to sell him her land. But the young widow had barely told him to hightail it off her property before going into labor. Being an honorable Bravo bachelor, he stayed by her side, even after her little bundle of joy appeared.
There was no denying Gabe had declared himself permanently single—and proud of it. But with his feelings for Mary growing deeper, he was suddenly torn: walk away from mother and child, or do what he’d sworn he’d never do—get hitched!
Bravo Family Ties... Stronger than ever
That March morning, Mary Hofstetter dragged herself out of bed at dawn. It was going to be a beautiful, sunny day and Mary felt lousy. Her back ached. All night, the baby had played football with her ribcage. She’d gotten maybe two hours’ sleep.
Mary trudged outside to feed the two aging horses, the chickens and the goats. Inside again, she prepared breakfast; she brewed herb tea, made toast and whipped up a protein shake.
The plan was to go straight to the computer once she’d eaten. Instead, she started cleaning. Nesting instinct, she told herself. After all, she was due in three weeks. She whipped the kitchen into shape, made her bed, dusted her bedroom and the living room. After that, she cleaned the shower and mopped the kitchen floor.
By then, it was a little after ten and the work that really needed doing could no longer be put off. Strangely, in the past month or two, as her stomach got bigger, her mind got…dreamier. This was normal, she knew from her reading on pregnancy and childbirth, and would pass eventually after the baby came. To bad that knowing she would someday have her focus back didn’t help her meet her deadline now.
With a sigh of resignation, Mary sat down at the computer in the corner of the living room. Her two thousand-word article on canning summer fruit was due at Ranch Life magazine the next day. She’d have the article finished and emailed in by five, if it killed her. Which, considering how tired and unfocused she was, it just might.
She booted up the PC—and stalled some more, fiddling with stuff on the desktop, straightening the tape dispenser and the stapler, moving the coffee mug full of pens from the left corner to the right. Another sigh and she made herself bring up the document she’d started yesterday.
Enjoy Summer’s Bounty All Winter Long.
“Blah.” Mary made a face at the title. And then she yawned. From the rug near the fireplace, her dog, Brownie, lifted her head and yawned, too. “I know, I know,” she told the dog. “Bo-ring.”
Then she scowled at the screen again. And shook her head. Later, if she finished with time to spare, she could stew over the title. Right now, she needed to get some serious words on the page. She started typing.
Four sentences later, she heard the crunch of tires on gravel out in front. Brownie lifted her head again, gave a half-hearted “Woof,” and then dropped her head back to her paws.
Mary wasn’t expecting company, but hey. Any excuse to get up from that desk sounded wonderful to her.
Groaning softly at the effort, she put her hands on the desktop and pushed herself to her feet. She arched her back to get the kinks out and then waddled over to the front window to see who’d dropped by.
Her visitor was still inside the car. It was a Cadillac SUV, that car. Black as a polished patent leather shoe, with pricey gold rims that gleamed proudly in the Texas sun. It looked more than a little out of place in her dusty front yard.
Mary rubbed the base of her spine with one hand and supported her heavy belly with the other as she watched a tall man emerge from the fancy vehicle. Dark glasses covered his eyes. Though the vehicle blocked most of his body, she could see he wore a western shirt.
But the guy was no cowboy. If he were, he wouldn’t be driving an Escalade with shining gold rims. And he certainly wouldn’t be hauling out a briefcase and laying it on the roof of the car. Plus, something about the arrogant set of those broad shoulders spoke loud and proud of money and privilege. He stood for a moment without closing the door, his dark-gold head turned toward the house. Bright morning sun sparkled like stars in the lenses of his sunglasses.
Mary knew by then why he’d come. The Bravos must have sent him. Her tired shoulders slumped. So much for a nice diversion. She would rather be back at her desk, racking her fuzzy brain for a fascinating way to describe sterilizing canning jars, than dealing with the man who’d just taken off his sunglasses and tossed them casually to the seat of his pricey SUV.
He shut the driver’s door, grabbed the briefcase and came around the front of the vehicle. Mary dug her fingers into the aching muscles at the base of her spine and wished he would just turn around, open that door again, get back in that beautiful car and drive off. How many times does a woman have to say no before the big-money types take the hint and go away?
As he mounted the steps to her front porch, she actually considered not answering his knock. After all, she was feeling like a beached whale, she’d already told the Bravos no three times and meant it—and she had work that truly did need doing.
But then, with a certain bittersweet sadness, she thought of Rowdy. Rowdy had always been the soul of politeness. Though he was fourteen years older than she was, he’d called her “ma’am” for weeks after they met—until their first date, as a matter of fact. A gentle, soft-spoken, old-fashioned man, he would always take off his hat in the presence of a woman.
Rowdy would never have given those Bravos what they were after. But he would do them the courtesy of answering the door and telling them no straight to their faces. Again.
So when the rich man knocked, Mary answered.
She pulled the door open and there he was, so handsome and fit-looking, he might have been a model. Or even a movie star. He had a sexy smile ready—a smile that only wavered slightly when he got a look at her ginormous stomach. Apparently, if someone back at the BravoCorp high-rise in San Antonio had told him that the Hofstetter widow was pregnant, they’d failed to mention how pregnant.
He gestured for her to open the glass storm door that still stood between them. With a sigh, she flipped the lock and pushed it open a crack. He took the handle and pulled it the rest of the way, until it caught and held wide.
“Mary Hofstetter?” He had a voice to match his looks. Deep and manly. Smooth as melted butterscotch.
She drew her shoulders back and forced a smile. “Yes?”
“I’m Gabe. Gabe Bravo.” Well. Darned if they hadn’t sent a real Bravo this time. He took out a card and handed it over.
Without giving it so much as a glance, she stuck it in the back pocket of her jeans and got right down to the business of getting rid of him. “I’d invite you in, but I’ve got work that won’t wait. And there’s really no point in us talking, anyway. I’ll only be telling you what I’ve told the others you sent. I don’t care what the offer is, I’m not selling. So you have a nice day.” She granted him a nod, parsed out a tight smile and started to shut the door.
“Mary.” He spoke softly, but with clear command. His tone made her hesitate with the door half-closed. Sky-blue eyes reproached her—and somehow managed to gleam with wry humor at the same time. “You haven’t even heard what I’ve come to say.”
“I’ve heard enough from those other men you sent.”
“But since then, we’ve rethought the offer. There’s more now.”
“Doesn’t make a bit of difference.”
He put on a hurt look. “How can you say that?”
Mary looked at him straight on. “Easily.”
“You’re making a big mistake. You don’t know yet what we’re willing to do to come to a satisfying solution to this problem.”
“But Gabe, I don’t need to know. For me, there is no problem. I’m already satisfied.”
“Come on.” He wrapped his hand around the doorframe, a supremely casual move. “Let me surprise you.” His eyes were alight with humor, as if he dared her to shut the door now—and crush his tanned fingers with their buffed-smooth nails. “Please.”
She stared into those gorgeous eyes and found herself thinking that maybe a surprise wouldn’t be half-bad—and then she blinked and shook her head. “Seriously. I’ve already decided. I don’t want to sell. Now, I really do have to—”
“You’ll never be sure unless you hear me out.” He slanted her a sideways look, mouth curved in a hint of a smile, as if they shared a secret, just the two of them.
She knew the guy was working her, knew she should simply say no thank you, ask him to move his hand, and shut the door the rest of the way. But she didn’t. Nervously, she guided a few stray strands of hair away from her eyes, tucking them behind her ear. “No, really. I’m sorry you drove out here for nothing. But I just…don’t have time right now.”
He refused to give up. “I promise you,” he coaxed. “It won’t take long. Don’t make me go back to my board of directors without being sure I’ve done all I can to change your mind.” Another smile, a hopeful one.
Mary couldn’t stop herself from smiling in return. What was it about him? She’d allowed the first guy they’d sent into the house. It had seemed only right—to hear the offer before giving her answer. Once was enough, though. She hadn’t let the other two past her front door.
But this guy…well, he did have a way about him. All smooth and sociable. Too good-looking to be real, much too slick—and yet somehow, he still managed to come across as down-to-earth. As if the two of them were longtime friends and he was just stopping by to see how she was getting along.
“I could make a pot of coffee, I guess…” The words came out almost of their own accord, at the same time as she found herself stepping backward, opening the door wide.
“Mary.” He granted her another of those I’m-your-best-friend smiles. “I think you must have read my mind.”
Gabe followed the Hofstetter widow through her living room, taking it all in—the worn, mismatched furniture, the scuffed hardwood floor, the scraggly looking mutt sleeping in the corner, the cluttered desk and ancient PC. And the widow herself, in baggy jeans, red Keds and a white shirt shaped like a tent that billowed out over the giant bulge of her belly.
The floor plan was a simple one. An alcove near the front door held a narrow stairway and a half bath. The living room opened onto the single dining area, with a small U-shaped kitchen to the right of a square table. As he reached the table, he saw that a door opposite the kitchen led into a shadowed bedroom. He could see a rocking chair with a red bag hooked over the backrest, a pine night table and a section of a bed with a pine headboard.
“Have a seat.” She gestured at the table as she turned to the kitchen nook.
Gabe took the straight-back chair she offered and watched her as she loaded up a coffee filter with grinds from a can and filled the reservoir with tap water. Her giant stomach pressed the tiled counter as she worked. And her brown hair needed a cut. She had it tied back in a sloppy pony tail from which limp strands escaped along her nape and around her face.
Once she had the coffeemaker going, she lumbered on over and took the chair opposite him, lowering herself into it with a soft grunt of effort. “All right,” she told him once she was seated. “Coffee’ll be ready in a minute.”
“Thanks, Mary.” He made his voice sincere and respectful, with just the right easy touch of warmth. Gabe was a master at reading people, at gauging how they saw themselves and how they wanted to be treated. It was part of his job as the family lawyer and so-called “fixer,” the one they sent in when things weren’t going as planned. Most women, whatever their age or marital status, liked a little harmless flirting from a man. They liked to be noticed and appreciated.
Not this woman. She preferred her interactions simple and direct and she didn’t flirt with strangers. Gabe had known that at the door, the moment he gazed into those big brown eyes with the weary dark circles beneath them.
“You might as well go ahead and…” She stopped in mid-sentence. Wincing, she laid her hand on the side of her giant stomach.
Alarm had him sitting up straighter. “What is it, Mary?” Was she going to drop the kid right there at the table? “Is something wrong?”
She let out a long breath and patted the air between them with her palm. “No. It’s fine. It’s nothing. A cramp. Please. Can we get on with this?”
“Absolutely.” He preferred to start out with at least a few minutes of conversation, to establish a better tone—less dry and rushed, more casual. And friendly. Most people found it hard to say no to a friend. But she wanted him to move it along. So he pretended to do that. He got out his laptop. “This’ll just take a minute…” He aimed the back of the screen her way and punched a few keys, to make it look like he was setting things up.
She said, sounding really tired, “You know, you can stall all you want to, trying to figure out the most effective way to come at me, but it won’t do you any good.” She had leaned back in the chair and rested her hand on the swell of her stomach. Her eyes were closed and she spoke with the drowsy voice of someone seriously in need of a long nap. “I meant what I said to you at the door. And what I said to those three other guys you sent before. It makes no difference how much you offer me, I will never sell the Lazy H.”
Never say never, Mary. “Why not?”
She opened her eyes and frowned at him. “It doesn’t matter why not—except to me.”
He studied her face for a moment, thinking that his job here would be easier if she were a little needier and not quite so smart. “Here’s what matters,” he told her. “Sell that overgrown hundred and twenty acres out there to BravoCorp at the price I’m going to offer you this morning and you’ll be a wealthy woman. You—and your baby—will never want for anything for the rest of your lives. You can go to bed and get some rest when I leave because you won’t have to work. Not today. Not ever again.”
With another soft grunt, she sat a little straighter. “There are worse things than not having a lot of money. And better things than being rich. Things like a place you love to be. Like having good people to care for, who care for you. This ranch is the place I love to be. And as for having to work, well, isn’t that a lot of what life’s about? It’s true I’m pretty beat today, but I like to work, most of the time. And if I sold out to BravoCorp so you could carve the land my husband loved into pricey half-acre lots, well, I’d never forgive myself.” The coffee-maker sputtered. She glanced toward the sound.
“Let me.” He half-rose.
“No.” She waved him off and pushed herself upright. “I’ll do it. I don’t mind at all.” She went on over there and got down a mug. “Milk and sugar?”
She filled the mug and brought it to him, her belly leading the way. “There you go.” Resting one hand on the back of his chair, she set the mug beside his laptop. He found himself staring at her throat, for some reason. Her skin looked soft. A loose curl of hair curved against her cheek. She smelled of soap and lemons—and she had seen the laptop’s screen. “Well, what you know, Gabe? I think it’s finally all ready to go.” She glanced at him, those tired, dark eyes suddenly dancing.
Too damn smart, he thought. Too smart by half.
He pulled the nearest chair closer. “Sit down here.” He patted the seat. “Where you can see.”
She sent him a look of ironic good humor. “It’s not going to matter if I can see that screen or not.”
“Sit down, anyway. Listen to what I have to say, watch what I have to show you.”
With reluctance, she did. “All right, Gabe. Hit me with the pie charts and the tricolor graphs.”
He sipped his coffee, made a sound of approval. “So many fancy ways to make coffee now. But I still prefer it fresh out of a can, brewed in a regular coffeemaker. Or boiled on an open fire, with eggshells at the bottom of the pot to cut the bitterness.”
She folded her arms on top of her stomach. “Go out camping a lot, do you?”
“My family owns a ranch not far from here, Bravo Ridge. I’ve spent a lot of nights outside around a campfire, mostly when I was growing up.”
“Brothers and sisters?”
“Six brothers, two sisters.”
“Big family.” She seemed surprised.
She asked, “You the oldest?”
“No, second born.”
“So why don’t you build your fancy houses on your own ranch?”
Had he seen that one coming? You bet he had. He sipped more coffee and told her why his family ranch wouldn’t do—even if the family had been willing to let it go. “Bravo Ridge is too far from a major highway. The plan is to build a top-quality San Antonio bedroom community that’s just far enough out to be considered in the country. With energy and oil prices so high, access and reasonable commute times are going to be key.”
“Plus, it’s your family ranch, right? Your…heritage. Your history. No way you’d let some developer build tract homes on it.”
She had it right. He changed the subject. “Mary. Please. Not tract homes. Each house will be one of a kind. It’s a fine plan we’ve put together.” He gestured toward the glass-topped back door. It opened onto a patio—he could see the rusting metal patio cover. Beyond that, across a rough patch of drying grass and a wide dirt driveway, there was a barn and a few other rundown outbuildings and pens. “Your land will be put to good use.”
“My land is already put to good use.”
He spoke gently again. “You’re a freelance writer, Mary, not a rancher. We both know you barely have time to take care of the few animals your husband left you. With the baby coming, it’s only going to get more difficult for you.”
“Your land is overgrown.”
“I like it that way.”
It’s dangerous that way, he thought. A damn wildfire waiting to happen. But she might take such a remark as some kind of veiled threat and that wasn’t the tone he was going for. “I’m only saying that the land itself would be better served if it got more care.”
Now she was studying him. “More care, huh?”
“You know, I can see why they send you in to make the impossible happen, to…how did they put it in the Godfather movies?”
He saluted her with the mug and reluctantly provided the words she was looking for. “Make them an offer they can’t refuse?”
So much for avoiding any hint of a threat. “The Bravos are hardly the Mafia, Mary.”
“Of course you’re not.” She rubbed the side of her big stomach, frowning. “But you are used to getting what you want.”
“And so are the people we deal with. We do our best to make every transaction a win/win.”
She pulled a face at that. And then she shrugged. “Anyway, as I was saying...” Her brows drew together and she slid her hand around behind her to rub her lower back. “I can see why they sent you. There’s something about you. It’s partly your looks.”
“Thanks. I think.”
“I’m just stating a fact. It never hurts to be good-looking when you show up to try and charm a person into doing something she’s repeatedly refused to do. And you are charming.”
“Well, it’s working.”
“Good to know.”
“Plus, you seem…so calm. And patient. And interested, too. Interested in me and my welfare.”
“I am interested, Mary.” It was true. Not so much in her welfare. But in her. She wasn’t what he’d expected. To bend her to his will, gently, so that in the end she decided she wanted to sell, would be a challenge. And challenges interested him. But the truth was, even if he hadn’t been interested, he would have said he was and made her think he meant it.
She smoothed another lock of hair behind her ear. “I mean, we both know you’re only trying to manipulate me into signing away my ranch.”
“But yet you seem so relaxed about it. As if you don’t really care if you make it happen or not, as if you’re just enjoying sitting here in my kitchen with me, drinking regular coffee that came out of a can.”
“I am enjoying this, Mary.” He leaned closer. Her scent drifted to him: Ivory soap and citrus. He lowered his voice. “That’s my secret. I enjoy making things…work out.”
“Work out for BravoCorp, you mean.”
“And for you, Mary. Believe it or not, I’m on your side.”
She didn’t roll her eyes, but she did make a small sound of disbelief.
He sat back in his chair. “Ready for the presentation?”
“As I’ll ever be.”
Mary couldn’t hold back a laugh when the name of the housing development appeared on the screen.
Gabe punched the pause button. “What? You don’t like the name?”
“Bravo River? There’s no Bravo River on my property. There’s no river at all.”
“True. But there’s a nice, wide creek.”
“Skunk Creek, you mean?”
“That’s the one. We’ll change the name.”
He wouldn’t be doing any such thing, since he was not getting his hands on the Lazy H. But she’d already told him that about a hundred times, so she kept quiet. He punched the key again and the show continued.
In spite of herself, Mary was impressed. The presentation started with a great little movie. There was stirring music and a narrator who sounded like Robert Duvall.
The movie showed how BravoCorp, its architects and builders would respect the land when they built on it, designing each house to fit the terrain of the lot it would stand on, so that existing trees and geological features would remain, as much as possible, the way nature had created them. The houses themselves would employ green technology, using renewable resources, incorporating solar energy. There would even be Bravo River buses available between the development and San Antonio, so people could use mass transit rather than driving their cars and contributing to greenhouse gases and the oil crisis.
A montage of images showed the housing development taking shape, and then an aerial tour showed how it would look when it was completed. And even though she would never let it happen on her land, Mary had to admit, it was going to be beautiful when they finally found a place to put it.
He also had the pie charts and graphs she’d expected. They detailed how great Bravo River was going to be for the area, for the economy, for everybody. Mary, especially. Now, not only were they offering her a whopping price for the Lazy H, they were throwing in a percentage of the project’s profits.
If there was any chance that Mary might have changed her mind, she would have done it after seeing Gabe’s presentation. But there was no chance, as she’d made more than clear. She was only waiting for him to finish so she could say no. Again.
Finally, the theme music swelled and the BravoCorp logo filled the screen.
Gabe gently reached out and pulled the laptop shut. “Let me answer your questions and then we’ll—”
“No,” Mary said. “Really. I don’t have any questions.”
“Well, all right.” He bent to his briefcase and pulled out a sheaf of papers. “Let’s go over the particulars.”
Mary felt the strangest twinge in her back right then—like a big rubber band, snapping. Swallowing a gasp at the unpleasant sensation, she spread her legs to make room for her stomach and leaned forward, trying to stretch the weird feeling away. She rubbed the base of her spine some more. As she rubbed, she repeated what she’d told him way too many times already.
“Seriously, Gabe. It’s not going to happen.” She massaged the achy spot, but the ache only seemed to spread, slithering out from her spine on both sides. She bit back a groan as the twinges moved from beneath her ribs to the sides of her belly and kept going, encircling her giant waist like a belt, and then yanking tight. Somehow, she managed to speak in an even, clear tone in spite of the pain. “I’ve made it more than clear that I’ll never sell.”
Gabe behaved as if he hadn’t heard her. He set the stack of papers on the table and rapped his knuckles on them. “I think we should go through these. What can it hurt?”
“But there’s no point.” Trying hard to ignore the pains and keep her voice firm and reasonable, she explained, “I will raise my child here. I love it here. I’m not leaving—and besides, my husband loved this place, too. I swear Rowdy would turn over in his grave if I ever gave up his beloved Lazy H to be carved into little plots, each with its own spacious and gracious McMansion on it.”
Gabe Bravo didn’t miss a beat. “You’re not getting it, Mary. We’re not talking about any cookie-cutter McMansions. Each home at Bravo River will be one-of-a-kind. And constructed with care and concern for the land and the environment.” His blue eyes changed, grew soft with sincerity. “And I am so sorry that you’ve lost your husband.” He really did sound like he meant it. He coaxed, “Mary. Come on. I can’t believe your husband would want you to pass up an offer like this, especially considering that you’re about to have a child. I know if Rowdy were here, he would be thinking that his baby should have all the good things money can buy. His baby—your baby—deserves a broadened horizon. That means the choice of elementary and high schools. And college. When the time comes, you’ll be able to foot the bill for the very best in higher education without having to think twice. Mary, if Rowdy were here, I know he would surprise you with what he would do for you and your baby, with the choice that he would make, the choice for your future, for the kind of security you’ll have with a fortune in the bank.”
Mary masked her increasing discomfort and put on her sweetest smile. “Since you never knew my husband, how can you possibly know what he might have wanted? And the truth is, I love this place as much as Rowdy ever did. Maybe more. I’m doing all right and my baby will be just fine, thank you. And now, well, I’ve enjoyed visiting with you, Gabe, but seriously. I have to get back to work.”
He looked at her steadily. “Are you kicking me out, Mary?”
“That’s right, Gabe. I am.”
He slipped the papers in the briefcase. His laptop followed. He slanted her a look as he snapped the latches shut. “You know I’ll be back, right?”
“And after this, I won’t be offering any coffee. You won’t get past the door again, so don’t waste your time. Please.”
“Don’t worry, Mary. I never waste my time.” Briefcase in hand, he rose.
Mary pushed herself upright, too, with effort. The weird cramping was worse than before. And all at once, she was sweating, at her hairline, on her upper lip and under her arms.
And the cramps really were bad. They scared her, shooting around her distended belly from the now-constant pain in her back. It hurt so much, she had to grab the back of the chair to keep from crumpling to the floor. A soft cry escaped her.
“Mary.” Gabe’s voice came to her. He sounded really worried. Gabe Bravo. Mr. Smooth. Worried. Somehow, that scared her more than anything. More than the sudden sweat dripping down her face. More than the horrible, squeezing pain. “Mary, what’s wrong?”
She couldn’t talk, couldn’t answer. She clutched the chair back, groaning.
And then something shifted down low inside her. A dropping sensation, as if someone had bounced a boulder on the floor of her womb. She let out a guttural cry as she felt the wetness in her panties. It couldn’t be…
But it was.
Her water had broken.