Same Time, Next Christmas
They’re each other’s Christmas present.
But what about the other 364 days?
Ex-soldier Matthias Bravo likes spending the holidays hunkered down in his remote Oregon cabin. Until Sabra Bond seeks refuge from a winter storm. Now they meet every year for a no-strings Yuletide romance. But Matthias is changing the rules. This Bravo bachelor finally knows what he wants—Sabra forever. Is she ready to commit to love not just at Christmas but every day of the year?
The Bravos of Valentine Bay:
They’re finding love
—and having babies!—
in the Pacific Northwest
What Readers are Saying
“I loved the roller coaster of emotions over the years as Matthias and Sabra worked their way through their fears, hopes, and dreams. The strength of their feelings was never in question, only what they would do about them. I loved their times in the cabin as they grew closer physically and emotionally.”
5 stars, Susan Frank, Goodreads Reviewer
“Loved this story. It does move very fast as one year moves on to another pretty quickly. We learn more about each of them and the trials they need to overcome.”
5 stars, Janie Evans, Goodreads Reviewer
“This was the perfect Christmas love story.”
5 stars, Therese Lopez, Goodreads Reviewer
December 23, four years ago…
Even with the rain coming down so hard he could barely make out the twisting gravel road ahead of him, Matthias Bravo spotted the light shining through the trees.
The Jeep lurched around another twist in the road. For a few seconds before the trees obscured his view, Matt could see his getaway cabin in the clearing up ahead. Yep. The light was coming from the two windows that flanked the front door.
Some idiot had broken in.
Swearing under his breath, Matt steered his Jeep to the almost nonexistent side of the road and switched off the engine and lights.
The rain poured down harder, pounding the roof, roaring so loud he couldn’t hear himself think. Out the windshield, the trees with their moss-covered trunks were a blur through the rippling curtain made of water.
Should he have just stayed home in Valentine Bay for Christmas?
Probably. His injured leg throbbed and he was increasingly certain he’d caught that weird bug his brothers had warned him about. He had a mother of a headache and even though he’d turned the heater off several miles back, he was sweating.
“Buck up, buddy.” He slapped his own cheek just to remind himself that torrential rain, a sliced-up leg, a headache and a fever were not the worst things he’d ever lived through.
And at the moment, he had a mission. The SOB in his cabin needed taking down—or at the very least, roughing up a tad and kicking out on his ass.
Matt kept his rifle in a hidden safe at the back of the Jeep. Unfortunately, the safe was accessed through the rear door.
“No time like the present to do what needs doing.”
Yeah. He was talking to himself. Kind of a bad sign.
Was he having a resurgence of the PTSD he’d been managing so well for over a year now?
No. Uh-uh. Zero symptoms of a recurrence. No more guilt than usual. He wasn’t drunk and hadn't been in a long time. No sleep problems, depression or increased anxiety.
Simply a break-in he needed to handle.
And going in without a weapon? How stupid would that be?
He put on his field jacket, pulled up the hood, shoved open his door and jumped out, biting back a groan when his hurt leg took his weight.
The good news: it wasn’t that far to the rear door. In no time, he was back inside the vehicle, sweating profusely, dripping rain all over the seat, with the rifle in one hand and a box of shells in the other.
Two minutes later, rifle loaded and ready for action, he was limping through the downpour toward the cabin. Keeping to the cover of the trees, he worked his way around the clearing, doing a full three-sixty, checking for vehicles and anyone lurking outside, finding nothing that shouldn’t be there.
Recon accomplished, he approached the building from the side. Dropping to the wet ground, he crawled to the steps, staying low as he climbed them. His leg hurt like hell, shards of pain stabbing him with every move he made. It was bleeding again right through the thick makeshift bandage he’d tied on the wound.
Too bad. For now, he needed to block the pain and focus.
As he rolled up onto the covered porch, he swiped back his dripping hood and crawled over beneath the front window.
With slow care, he eased up just enough to peer over the sill.
He got an eyeful.
A good-looking brunette—mid-twenties, he would guess—sat on the hearth, warming herself at a blazing fire. She wore only a bra and panties. Articles of clothing lay spread out around her, steaming as they dried.
Was she alone? He didn’t see anyone else in there. The cabin was essentially one big room, with bath and sleeping loft. From his crouch at the window, he could see the bathroom, its door wide open. Nobody in there. And he had a straight visual shot right through to the back door. Nada. Just the pretty, half-naked brunette.
She looked totally harmless.
Still, he should check the situation out from every possible angle before making his move.
Was he maybe being a little bit paranoid? Yeah, possibly.
But better safe than sorry.
He dragged himself over beneath the other front window. The view from there was pretty much the same. The woman looked so innocent, leaning back on her hands now, long, smooth legs stretched out and crossed at the ankles. She raised a slim hand and forked her fingers through her thick dark hair.
Grimly, he pulled up his hood and crawled down the steps into the deluge again. Circling the cabin once more, close-in this time, he ducked to peer into each window as he passed.
Every view revealed the leggy brunette, alone, drying off by the fire.
By the time he limped back to the front of the building and crept up onto the porch again, he was all but certain the woman was on her own.
Still, she could be dangerous. Maybe. And dangerous or not, she had broken in and helped herself to his firewood. Not to mention, he still couldn’t completely discount the possibility that there was someone upstairs.
He’d just have to get the jump on her, hope she really was alone and that no damn fool hid in the loft, ready to make trouble.
Sliding to the side, Matt came upright flush against the front door. Slowly and silently, he turned the knob. The knob had no lock, but he needed to see if the dead bolt was still engaged. It was. He took the keys from his pocket. At the speed of a lazy snail, in order not to alert the trespasser within, he unlocked the dead bolt.
That accomplished, he put the keys away and turned the knob with agonizing slowness until the door was open barely a crack. Stepping back, he kicked the door wide. It slammed against the inside wall as he leveled the barrel of his rifle on the saucer-eyed girl.
“Freeze!” he shouted. “Do it now!”
Sabra Bond gaped at the armed man who filled the wide-open doorway.
He was a very big guy, dressed for action in camo pants, heavy boots and a hooded canvas coat. And she wore nothing but old cotton panties and a sports bra.
No doubt about it. Her life was a mess—and getting worse by the second.
Sheepishly, she put her hands up.
The man glared down the barrel of that rifle at her. “What do you think you’re doing in my cabin?”
“I, um, I was on my way back to Portland from my father’s farm,” she babbled. “I parked at the fish hatchery and started hiking along the creek toward the falls. The rain came. It got so bad that I—”
“Stop.” He swung the business end of his rifle upward toward the loft. “Anyone upstairs? Do not lie to me.”
“No one.” He leveled the weapon on her again. “Just me!” she squeaked. “I swear it.” She waited for him to lower the gun. No such luck. The barrel remained pointed right at her. And, for some incomprehensible reason, she couldn’t quit explaining herself. “I was hiking and thinking, you know? The time got away from me. I’d gone miles before the rain started. It kept getting worse, which led me to the unpleasant discovery that my waterproof jacket is only water resistant. Then I found your cabin…”
“And you broke in,” he snarled.
Had she ever felt more naked? Highly unlikely. “I was just going to stand on the porch and wait for the rain to stop. But it only came down harder and I kept getting colder.”
“So you broke in,” he accused again, one side of his full mouth curling in a sneer.
Okay, he had a point. She had broken in. “I jimmied a window and climbed through,” she admitted with a heavy sigh.
Still drawing a bead on her, water dripping from his coat, he stepped beyond the threshold and kicked the door shut. Then he pointed the gun at her pack. “Empty that. Just turn it over and dump everything out.”
Eager to prove how totally unthreatening she was, Sabra grabbed the pack, unzipped it, took it by the bottom seam and gave it a good shake. A first aid kit, an empty water bottle, a UC Santa Cruz Slugs hat and sweatshirt and a bottle of sunscreen dropped out.
“Pockets and compartments, too,” he commanded.
She unhooked the front flap and shook it some more. Her phone, a tube of lip balm, a comb and a couple of hair elastics tumbled to the floor. “That’s it.” She dropped the empty pack. “That’s all of it.” When he continued to glare at her, she added, “Dude. It was only a day hike.”
“No gun.” He paced from one side of the cabin to the other. She realized he was scoping out the upstairs, getting a good look at whatever might be up there.
Apparently satisfied at last that she really was alone, he pointed the gun her way all over again and squinted at her as though trying to peer into her brain and see what mayhem she might be contemplating.
Hands still raised, she shook her head. “I’m alone. No gun, no knives, no nothing. Just me in my underwear and a bunch of soggy clothes—and listen. I’m sorry I broke in. It was a bad choice on my part.” And not the only one I’ve made lately. “How `bout if I just get dressed and go?”
He studied her some more, all squinty-eyed and suspicious. Then, at last, he seemed to accept the fact that she was harmless. He lowered the rifle. “Sorry,” he grumbled. “I’m overcautious sometimes.”
“Apology accepted,” she replied without a single trace of the anger and outrage the big man deserved—because no longer having to stare down the dark barrel of that gun?
Just about the greatest thing that had ever happened to her.
As she experienced the beautiful sensation of pure relief, he emptied the shells from his rifle, stuffed them in a pocket and turned to hang the weapon on the rack above the door. The moment he turned his back to her, she grabbed her Slugs sweatshirt and yanked it on over her head.
When he faced her again, he demanded, “You got anyone you can call to come get you?” She was flipping her still-damp hair out from under the neck of the sweatshirt, as he added, “Someone with four-wheel drive. They’ll probably need chains or snow tires, too.” When she just stared in disbelief, he said, “That frog strangler out there? Supposed to turn to snow. Soon.”
A snowstorm? Seriously? “It is?”
He gave a snort of pure derision. “Oughtta check the weather report before you go wandering off into the woods.”
Okay, not cool. First, he points a gun at her and then he insults her common sense. The guy was really beginning to annoy her. Sabra had lived not fifteen miles from this cabin of his for most of her life. Sometimes you couldn’t count on the weather report and he ought to know that. “I did check the weather. This morning, before I left on my way to Portland. Light rain possible, it said.”
“It’s Oregon. The weather can change.”
His condescending response didn’t call for an answer, so she didn’t give him one. Instead, she grabbed her still-soggy pants and put them on, too, wishing she’d had sense enough to keep driving right past the sign for the fish hatchery. A hike along the creek to the falls had seemed like a good idea at the time, a way to lift her spirits a little, to clear her troubled mind before going on back to Portland to face finding a new apartment during the remaining two weeks and two days of her vacation from work—a vacation that was supposed to have been her honeymoon.
The big guy grunted. “And you didn’t answer my question. Got anyone you can call?”
“Well, let me see…” Her mom had been dead for six years now. Her dad was three hours away in Eugene until New Year's. Five days ago, on the day before she was supposed to have gotten married, she and her ex-fiancé had called it quits for reasons too upsetting to even think about at the moment. And she just wasn’t ready to ask any of her Portland friends to drive eighty miles through a blizzard on the day before Christmas Eve to save her from a stranger with a bad attitude in an isolated cabin in the middle of the forest. “No. I don’t have anyone to call.”
The big guy did some swearing. Finally, he muttered, “Let me get my tree in here and I’ll drive you wherever you need to go.”
Get outta town. Mr. Grouchy Pants had a tree? She was almost as surprised as when he’d kicked open the door. “Uh, you mean you have a Christmas tree?”
His scowl deepened. “It’s Christmas, isn’t it?”
She put up both hands again. “It’s just, well, you don’t seem like the Christmas-tree type.”
“I like Christmas.” He narrowed his blue eyes at her. “I like it alone.”
“Gotcha. And thank you—for the offer of a ride, I mean. If you can get me to my car at the fish hatchery, I can take it from there just fine. As for the tree, I’ll help you bring it in.”
“You stay here. I don’t need you.”
“Good to know.” She tugged on her socks and boots and not-quite-waterproof jacket as he pulled a tree stand out from under the sink, filled it with water and put it down near the door—and now that she wasn’t terrified half out of her wits, she noticed that he was limping.
His right pants leg was torn up, hanging in tatters to the knee. Beneath the tatters, she could see a bit of bloody bandage—a very bloody bandage, actually, bright red and wet. It looked like he was bleeding into his boot.
He straightened from positioning the tree stand and took the three steps to the door.
She got up. “Do you know that you’re bleeding?” He didn’t bother to answer. She followed him outside. “Listen. Slow down. Let me help you.”
“Stay on the porch.” He growled the command as he flipped up the hood of his jacket and stepped out into the driving rain again. “I’ll bring my Jeep to the steps.”
She waited—because, hey. If he didn’t want her help, he wasn’t going to get it. Still, she felt marginally guilty for just standing there with a porch roof over her head as she watched him limp off into the downpour.
He vanished around the first turn in the road. It was getting dark. She wrapped her arms across her middle and refused to worry about that bloody bandage on his leg and the way he walked with a limp—not to mention, he’d looked kind of flushed, hadn’t he? Like maybe he had a fever in addition to whatever was going on with that leg…
Faintly, she heard a vehicle start up. A moment later, a camo-green Jeep Rubicon rolled into sight. It eased to a stop a few feet from the steps and the big guy got out. She pulled up her hood and ran down to join him as he began untying the tree lashed to the rack on the roof.
He didn’t argue when she took the top end. “I’ll lead,” was all he said.
Oh, no kidding—and not only because he was so damn bossy. It was a thick noble fir with a wide circle of bottom branches that wouldn’t make it through the door any other way.
He assumed the forward position and she trotted after him, back up the steps and into the warmth of the cabin. At the tree stand, he got hold of the trunk in the middle, raising it to an upright position.
She crouched down to guide it into place and tighten the screws, sitting back on her heels when the job was done. “Okay. You can let it go.” He eyed her warily from above, his giant arm engulfed by the thick branches as he gripped the trunk. His face was still flushed and there were beads of moisture at his hairline—sweat, not rain, she would take a bet on that. “It’s in and it's stable, I promise you,” she said.
With a shrug, he let go.
The tree stood tall. It was glorious, blue-green and well shaped, the branches emerging in perfectly balanced tiers, just right for displaying strings of lights and a treasure trove of ornaments. Best of all, it smelled of her sweetest memories, of Christmases past, when her mom was still alive. Ruth Bond had loved Christmas. Every December, she would fill their house at Berry Bog Farm with all the best Christmas smells—evergreen, peppermint, cinnamon, vanilla…
“Not bad,” he muttered.
She put away her memories. They only made her sad, anyway. “It’s a beauty, all right.”
He aimed another scowl at her. “Good, then. Get your gear and let’s go.” Was he swaying on his feet?
She rose to her height. “I don’t know what’s wrong with your leg, but you don’t look well. You’d better sit down and let me see what I can do for you.”
“Get real. You are not fine and you are getting worse.”
He only grew more mulish. “We’re leaving.”
“I’m not getting in that Jeep with you behind the wheel.” She braced her hands on her hips. He just went on glaring, swaying gently on his feet like a giant tree in a high wind. She quelled her aggravation at his pigheadedness and got busy convincing him he should trust her to handle whatever was wrong with him. “I was raised on a farm not far from here. My mom was a nurse. She taught me how to treat any number of nasty injuries. Just let me take a look at your leg.”
“I’ll deal with that later.”
“You are wobbling on your feet and your face is red. You’re sweating. I believe you have a fever.”
“Did I ask for your opinion?”
“It’s not safe for you to be—”
“Just get your stuff, okay?”
“No. Not okay." She made a show of taking off her jacket and hanging it by the door. "I’m not leaving this cabin until we’ve dealt with whatever’s going on with your leg.”
There was a long string of silent seconds—a battle of wills. He swayed and scowled. She did nothing except stand there and wait for the big lug to give in and be reasonable.
In the end, reason won. “All right,” he said. He shrugged out of his coat and hung it up next to hers. And then, at last, he limped to the Navajo-print sofa in the center of the room and sat down. He bent to his injured leg—and paused to glance up at her. “When I take off this dressing, it’s probably going to be messy. We’ll need towels. There’s a stack of old ones in the bathroom, upper left in the wooden cabinet.”
She went in there and got them.
When she handed them over, he said, “And a first-aid backpack, same cabinet, lower right.” He set the stack of towels on the sofa beside him.
“I’ve got a first-aid kit.” It was still on the floor by the hearth where she’d dumped it when he’d ordered her to shake out her pack. She started for it.
“I saw your kit,” he said. She paused to glance back at him as he bent to rip his pants leg wider, revealing an impressively muscular, bloodstained, hairy leg. “Mine’s bigger.”
She almost laughed as she turned for the bathroom again. “Well, of course it is.”
His kit had everything in it but an operating table.
She brought it into the main room and set it down on the plank floor at the end of the sofa. He’d already pushed the pine coffee table to the side, spread towels on the floor in front of him and rolled his tattered pants leg to mid-thigh, tying the torn ends together to keep them out of the way.
She watched as he unlaced his boot. A bead of sweat dripped down his face and plopped to his thigh. “Here.” She knelt. “I’ll ease it off for you.”
“I’ve got it.” With a grunt, he removed the boot. A few drops of blood fell to the towels. His sock was soggy with it, the blood soaking into the terrycloth when he put his foot back down.
“Interesting field dressing.” She indicated the article of clothing tied around his lower leg.
One thick shoulder lifted in a half shrug. “Another T-shirt bites the dust.”
“Is it stuck to the wound?”
“Naw. Wound’s too wet.” He untied the knots that held the T-shirt in place.
When he took the bloody rag away, she got a good look at the job ahead of her. The wound was an eight-inch crescent-shaped gash on the outside of his calf. It was deep. With the makeshift bandage gone, the flap of sliced flesh flopped down. At least it didn’t appear to go all the way through to the bone. Blood dripped from it sluggishly.
“Let me see…” Cautiously, so as not to spook him, she placed her index and middle fingers on his knee and gave a gentle push. He accepted her guidance, dipping the knee inward so she could get a closer look at the injury. “Butterfly bandages won’t hold that together,” she said. “Neither will glue. It’s going to need stitches.”
For the first time since he’d kicked open the door, one side of his mouth hitched up in a hint of a smile. “I had a feeling you were going to say that.” His blue eyes held hers. “You sure you’re up for this?”
“You really know what to do?”
“Yes. I've sewn up a number of injured farm animals and once my dad got gored by a mean bull when my mom wasn't home. I stitched him right up.”
He studied her face for a good five seconds. Then he offered a hand. “Matthias Bravo.”
She took it. “Sabra Bond.”