Authors: Francis Ray
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The four couples met in secret, their usual smiling faces serious at the enormity of the challenge before them. None were used to failure, but they all knew that in life, there was a first time for everything.
The Red Cactus restaurant was closed for the night. Brandon Grayson, the owner, sat next to his wife, Faith McBride Grayson, in the family booth. With them were her older brother, Cameron McBride, and his wife, Caitlin; Duncan McBride, the oldest, and his wife, Raven; and Sierra Grayson Navarone and her husband, Blade Navarone.
“We all know why we’re here. We just have to figure out how to handle the situation,” Duncan McBride said, his arms braced on the wooden table.
“I can’t stand the thought of Mama and Daddy being apart and so unhappy,” Faith said, her voice unsteady, her arm looped through Brandon’s.
“They still care about each other,” Cameron added. “At our wedding, I caught them several times sneaking looks at each other.”
“When they came to New York to see Cameron accept the Sprint Cup, I saw the same thing.” Caitlin glanced at her husband. “When we first got back together and they came to visit us in Charlotte, I thought Mr. McBride didn’t care—until she left. He looked … shattered.”
“But when Duncan and I invited them to visit us on the ranch, they always asked if the other would be there. If we said yes, neither would come.” Raven placed her head on her husband’s broad shoulder. “I wish there was something we could do.”
“There is,” Brandon said. “That’s why we’re here.”
“But what?” Caitlin ran her hand over her short curls. “No one knows better than we do how miserable it is being away from the one you love. Knowing it’s your fault is hellish. Mrs. McBride made a mistake and doesn’t know how to fix things. I was the same way.”
Cameron hugged Caitlin tighter. “You had your reasons. We’re together now and have Joshua. Nothing is going to keep us apart again.”
Faith swallowed. “When Mama divorced Daddy and remarried, it almost killed him. I didn’t think he was going to make it for a while. I’m not sure what would have happened if he hadn’t become interested in competitive trout fishing.”
Duncan held out his calloused hand toward his sister. “And you had to go through taking care of him and run Casa de Serenidad Hotel while Cameron was on the NASCAR circuit and I was at my ranch in Montana.”
She smiled at the older brothers she loved and admired. “You both had problems of your own at the time. Besides, running the family-owned hotel eventually brought Brandon and me together.”
“And proved the McBride curse—lucky in business and unlucky in love—was a myth.” Brandon kissed Faith on the cheek.
“Love is stronger than any myth.” Sierra grinned at Brandon and winked at Blade. “You just have to believe.”
“And be strong enough to grab love when it comes around,” Blade added.
Murmurs of consent came from the four couples sitting around the booth. “So now that Mrs. McBride has been divorced for some time and took McBride back as her legal name, how do we get them to stop running and admit they care enough about each other to try again?” Raven asked.
There was silence and worried faces for several long seconds until Sierra braced her arms on the table. “What do Mr. and Mrs. McBride want more than anything for their children?”
“Happiness,” Faith immediately answered.
“Love,” added Raven.
“Grandchildren.” Caitlin smiled. “They spoil Joshua rotten. He loves them right back.”
Sierra smiled. “Right on all counts. With each wedding of their children, I’ve seen a distinct thawing of Mr. and Mrs. McBride toward each other. We just need to turn up the heat, so to speak.”
“I’d say we should ask Ruth since she has such a fabulous track record, but since you’ve proven you can be just as intuitive when you helped Duncan and me, how do we do that?” Raven asked.
“By giving them a reason to be together in a setting they can’t resist.” Sierra picked up her diet soda. “Then all we have to do is sit back and fan the flames.”
“What would be strong enough to do that?” Faith asked.
“Their love for their baby girl who put her life on hold after graduating from college to take over running Casa de Serenidad and turning it into a five-star hotel.” Sierra placed her glass on the table. “You, Faith McBride Grayson, are going to ask them the one thing they can’t refuse you.”
“What?” asked those sitting around the table.
Sierra smiled and leaned in closer.
Stella McBride didn’t want to wake up. The comfortable bed in one of the most lavish suites in Casa de Serenidad Hotel wasn’t the problem. Nor was money the issue.
Stella was well aware that she was precariously close to becoming depressed, but at the moment she couldn’t dredge up enough energy to care. After all, she’d ruined her life all by herself. There was nothing anyone could do to repair the awful pain and damage she’d done to the man she loved, and to their three children.
Although the custom-made draperies and blinds were tightly drawn, the bright Santa Fe sun still managed to push faint light inside. The last time she’d looked at the clock it had been a quarter to ten. As usual, she hadn’t slept well. Actually, she hadn’t been sleeping well for months now. She could hide the dark circles beneath her eyes with makeup, hide the weight loss by purchasing smaller-sized clothes, but nothing could be done for the constant ache in her heart.
And she had done it to herself.
Rolling over onto her back, Stella placed her forearm over her eyes. She had an appointment with her daughter, Faith, at eleven at the Mesa restaurant for an early lunch. She seriously contemplated pulling the covers over her head and pleading illness. But that would be the coward’s way out.
But hadn’t she done that before? Hadn’t that been how she’d ruined her life as well as Paul’s, her ex-husband? Thank God she hadn’t done the same to their children. Swallowing, she fought tears that seemed to come so easily these days when she thought of Paul.
Paul, the kind, wonderful man who loved his family, and who had begged her not to leave him. He wasn’t begging how. He didn’t even look at her, and he made a point not to be in the same room with her if at all possible. Their three children were married and at each wedding, he’d never stood beside her for photographs or sat next to her. On every occasion, the pain in her heart had deepened.
And she had to live with the damning knowledge that she had no one to blame but herself.
Stella had been so flattered when Trevor Allen, the handsome and famous movie producer in town for a movie he was working on, began seeking her out for research on hotel management for a future movie project. At the time, she and Paul had begun drifting apart. She’d thought spending time with Trevor would make Paul jealous.
Paul had always been a man of few words. Trevor had been full of compliments and so charming, and he’d traveled all over the world. He’d shown her pictures of his New York penthouse, his other properties in Los Angeles and Palm Springs. He was successful and powerful. People catered to him. To her everlasting regret, she’d become one of them. She should have walked away when it became apparent that he wanted more. She hadn’t.
Shame knotted Stella’s stomach. She drew up her knees as if she could make the image go away. At the time she’d told herself she was in love, that she was entitled to happiness, to the exciting life she’d always wanted instead of helping to run the hotel that had been in her husband’s family for generations.
She’d reasoned that her marriage was doomed because of the McBride curse and staying wasn’t fair to her husband when she didn’t love him. Faith was out of college and her two older brothers had successful careers.
Lies and rationalization eased her conscience because she’d been too weak and selfish to realize what she was throwing away for a pretty illusion that quickly tarnished. She’d never achieved the happiness she’d hoped for with her marriage to Trevor. In New York he’d remained attentive and loving, but it hadn’t taken long to realize she had been in love with the idea of a successful man loving her. She’d stayed out of obligation and the misguided belief that he loved her. She hadn’t wanted to ruin another man’s life.
Stella needn’t have worried. Less than a year later, Trevor began seeing other women. Miserable and with no close friends, she viewed his infidelity as her punishment for betraying Paul. Six incredibly long and miserable years later Trevor asked for a divorce to marry for the fourth time. She was finally going to be free. The generous alimony settlement hadn’t mattered.
She’d wished them well and caught the first flight back to Santa Fe. She’d been so sure Paul would forgive her. But one look into his cold eyes and the words had remained locked inside her. Like her mother had always said, “Once you make your bed you have to lie in it.”
The phone on the bedside table rang.
. Stella struggled up onto one elbow and reached for the cordless receiver. She’d put her children, especially her daughter, through enough. “Good morning, sweetheart.”
“Good morning, Mama. It’s ten after eleven. Are you all right?” Faith asked, worry in her usually cheerful voice.
“Of course,” Stella lied, something she’d been doing too much of lately. “I’m just tried from the flight from New York.” She’d come in late last night. Faith and Brandon had picked her up at the Albuquerque airport. She’d ridden in the backseat, glad to be able to hide from them during the hour-long drive back to Santa Fe.
Once there, they’d shown her to her room where a beautiful bouquet of fresh flowers, a food basket, and a late-night snack waited. Once alone in her suite, she hadn’t been able to hold back the tears. Despite everything, her daughter still loved her.
“Then a good meal will make you feel even better,” Faith said, her usual happiness returning to her voice. “Afterwards, I want to show you something.”
Stella almost smiled. Faith was a nurturer and a natural at running the hotel. She had enough confidence to be the project manager during the complete redecoration of the hotel and the two restaurants.
It had been Faith’s brilliant idea to display local artists’ original artwork in the suites and in the lobby. As a result, Casa de Serenidad had been featured in several art and travel magazines. The three-star hotel was now five-star, the hotel rooms were booked solid, as were the ballroom and conference rooms, and it was all because of Faith’s hard work and determination.
“Another splendid project for the hotel?” Stella finally asked.
“I’ll tell you when we get there. I’m ordering your favorite breakfast which you’re going to eat, unlike last night,” Faith told her. “I expect you in fifteen minutes. Dress comfortably. Bye.”
Frowning, Stella hung up the phone. She had no idea what Faith was so excited about. She just hoped she was able to keep faking that she was happy.
Stella got out of bed and headed for the luxurious black marble bathroom with a separate shower and a Roman bathtub. She had planned to stay a week. She wasn’t sure how she’d pull it off. Faith had caught her at a down moment. Tired of being alone, she’d accepted the invitation. Her children worried enough about her. She’d see how the day went. If she picked up on Faith being overly concerned, she was checking out and returning to her lonely existence in her apartment in New York.