BUTLER RANCH CHRISTMAS
The magic of Christmas can be found in the stories of these beloved characters.
The two most requested stories from the Butler Ranch series are finally available in one book!
Laird and Sorcha Butler are the glue that holds not just their own family together, but the countless agents and operatives who have trained and worked with them. Their story unfolds from the streets of Belfast to the vineyards of the Central Coast of California.
Ainsley Butler is the only of her siblings not married. She's engaged, but it could go down as the longest engagement in history. Cristobal Avila is the boy next door who became the love of her life. So why is he in Northern California setting the genetic research world on fire, while she's five hours away helping to run her family's winery operations.
“When are you leaving for Christmas break?” asked Bryn.
I bit my lower lip. “I’m not sure. What about you?”
“I don’t know either, but I can tell you I’m not too excited about it. I’m thinking about coming back on the twenty-sixth. I’d drive home Christmas night if I didn’t think my mother would have a stroke.” Bryn was my friend, former roommate, and colleague in the research department at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business.
She folded her arms. “You don’t remember that when I came back from Thanksgiving break, I told you Greg is engaged?”
“Sorry. Um, yeah, I remember.” I was too caught up in my own relationship drama to think about Bryn’s high school boyfriend’s engagement announcement.
“Too bad we can’t go home together.”
“Right.” How would that work? Bryn’s family lived in Mendocino, which was in the opposite direction of where my parents did.
“What’s going on with you and Cris?”
I was less sure of that than I was about when I’d head home.
As much as I’d hoped I would, I hadn’t seen or talked to Cristobal Avila since I left for my brother Brodie’s wedding, which took place on Thanksgiving Day.
“I want to spend the holidays with you,” he’d said when we talked about our plans. “I’m done hiding our relationship. My sister is marrying your brother on Christmas Eve.”
It’d been hard to believe that by the end of the year, all three of my brothers would be married or that, two months ago, they’d all been single. There were times I’d doubted any of them would ever marry.
“Ainsley? Are you listening to me?” Cris had asked me.
“I’m not sure the timing is right to tell our families about our relationship.”
“For God’s sake, we’ve lived together for six years.”
Cris and I had grown up next door to each other. Sort of. Both our parents owned ranches on the Central Coast of California in Paso Robles’ wine country. Given acres of land separated our houses, it wasn’t like we could’ve waved at each other. Not that we would’ve. The relationship between our two families was almost as bad as the Hatfields and McCoys.
Cris blindsided me that night by giving me an ultimatum. Either he and I went home—and to the wedding—as a couple, or we were finished.
I’d left Stanford the following Monday with every intention to talk to Brodie and ask if I could bring Cris with me. Instead, I’d chickened out.
When he called later that night to see how the conversation went, I stalled. “The wedding isn’t until Friday. I’ll talk to him tomorrow.”
“That’s it, Ainsley. I can’t do this anymore.”
He’d hung up then, and when I tried to call him back, he didn’t answer. I’d called again and texted, but he never responded. When I got back the following Monday, he’d moved all his stuff out of our apartment.
Part of me had hoped he’d show up at Brodie’s wedding anyway, surprising my family and me. But he hadn’t. He’d left it to me, and I hadn’t had the courage to tell our families I was in love with him. If I had, someone might have asked how long I had been. Honestly, it was since I was nine years old.
The day before Cris left home at eighteen to begin his journey in medicine at Stanford, I went looking for him. At first I thought he hadn’t noticed me watching him from high in a tree near the split-rail fence that divided my family’s property from his.
“What are you doing up there, little one?” he shouted.
“I came to say goodbye.”
“How do you know I’m leaving?”
“Alex said you were.” I hoped he wouldn’t ask when I’d talked to his sister, since I’d been spying on her and my brother at the time.
“I’m glad I took a walk out this way today, then.”
I scrambled to climb out of the tree, but slipped and fell instead. Cris raced over and checked my arms and legs to make sure I hadn’t broken anything.
“You’ll be a good doctor someday.”
He’d smiled and ruffled my hair and, for a split second, touched my cheek with his fingertip. I knew then that I’d love Cristobal Avila forever.
The next time I saw him, I was eighteen myself. I recognized him right away when I saw him walk across the main quad of the farm—known to most as Stanford University. He was impossible to miss, given he was the most beautiful man I’d ever seen.
“Hey, there,” I said when he walked past. “I was hoping I’d run into you.”
“Um…hi. Do I know you?”
It was like someone had popped my balloon when he didn’t recognize me. The bravado I’d felt when I said hello was gone, leaving me feeling horribly embarrassed.
“Hey, Cris.” My older sister walked up behind him and handed me a cup of coffee.
“Hey, Skye. Wait.” He looked at me a second time. “Ainsley? What are you doing here?”
“Orientation. It’s always been her dream to attend Stanford,” Skye answered before I could.
“Yep,” I said, rolling my eyes, more embarrassed than I had been, if that was possible. “My dream come true,” I muttered.
I wanted to kick Skye when she added, “It was Stanford or nowhere.”
“Well, wow. This is great. It’s nice to see someone from home.”
“Are you a doctor yet?” Skye asked.
“Yep. Second year of residency at Stanford Medical Center. What are you here for, Ainsley?”
You, I wanted to answer. “Business,” I said instead.
“It’s a tough school to get into. Congratulations.”
When he leveled his perfect smile at me, his two dimples creased his face, and I swooned. I longed to run my fingers through his thick, inky, perfectly unkempt hair and my lips over the stubble that made him look as rugged as he was handsome.
“Thanks,” I mumbled, trying to look anywhere but at him. I couldn’t, though. He was magnetic.
“She’s a brainiac,” said Skye. “Kind of like you. I don’t know where she gets it from. No one else in our family is.”
“I’m sure that isn’t true, Skye,” Cris said, looking at me in a panty-dropping way. When his gaze left me and settled on his watch, my heart dropped.
“I gotta go, or I’ll be late, but again, it was really good to run into you. Let’s get together when I have more time. Maybe we can even carpool home sometime.”
“I’d love that.”
“Soon,” he’d said, waving as he hurriedly walked away.
Soon turned into three years. We never carpooled home. Not once. And as hard as I’d tried to, I’d only gotten close enough to speak to him once between then and my twenty-first birthday.
I was walking up the stairs of the Stanford Clinic and saw him a few steps ahead, in the empty stairwell. When he reached the landing, he looked right at me. I raised my arm to wave, but Cris looked away. “I can’t do this,” I thought I heard him mutter.
After that, I stopped looking for him. I didn’t need more humiliation. Even if I had seen him, I would’ve walked in the opposite direction.
The night of my twenty-first birthday, my roommates and best friends, Gwen and Bryn, took me out to—in their words—get me drunk. It wasn’t as though I’d never had alcohol before; my family owned a winery, for goodness’ sake.
We ended up at Antonio’s Nut House on California Avenue in Palo Alto, where Grateful Dead music played loudly and there was an endless supply of peanuts to eat. The place was known for cheap drinks, billiards, retro arcade games, and decent Mexican food in its adjoining restaurant.
Given I was usually the designated driver, I was stunned when not one, but three shot glasses appeared in front of me along with my third or fourth pint of beer. I’d lost count.
“The Fireball is from me,” said Gwen. “The Scotch Whiskey is from Bryn, and the shot of tequila is from this handsome man I found sitting at the bar. He says he knows you. Is this true, Ains? Have you been holding out on us?”
Gwen’s gaze traveled up and down the length of Cristobal Avila’s body, whose eyes met mine.
“Come on, then. Line ’em up.” Gwen held up her shot glass and waited for me to do the same.
The Fireball burned as it slid down my throat, and the thought of having two more shots made me nauseous.
“My turn.” Bryn pushed in front of Gwen. “I want a full report tomorrow,” she said, looking over her shoulder. “He’s so hot,” she mouthed, raising her glass. “Sláinte, my friend.”
“Bathroom break,” Gwen shouted after she and Bryn downed their whiskey. I stood to join them even though I didn’t need to go.
“Not you,” said Bryn, who pushed me back down on the barstool and walked away.
“It’s your birthday.” Cris leaned close enough to kiss my cheek, but I shrugged away. He smiled and rested his arm on the table.
“It’s my turn,” he said. “I’ve been waiting a long time for this.”
I closed my lids and shook my head. Had he really just said he’d waited a long time to do a shot with me, or was I imagining things in my alcohol-addled state? I took a sip of beer and looked into his mossy-green eyes.
He brushed the hair away from my face and leaned forward again. “Happy birthday, Ainsley.”
I thought about the day in the stairwell. Why was he being nice to me now, when then, he wouldn’t even say hello?
“Are you sure you want to do this?” he asked.
His lips almost touched mine. Was he asking if I wanted to kiss him? Absolutely. I wanted to do that all night long, but no, I couldn’t. I closed my eyes again, shook my head, and heard him laugh.
Oh, God—I was a joke to him. I grabbed my purse and tried to push past him, but he snaked his arm around my waist.
“Where are you going?” His mouth was close enough to my ear that I could hear him whisper even though the bar was packed with people.
“I have to go.” I had to get away from him before I made an even bigger fool of myself or had more to drink, in which case, I’d turn into a full-blown idiot.
“I meant the shot,” he said. “Are you sure you want another one?”
I tried to wriggle away, but Cris tightened his grip.
“Ainsley Butler,” he breathed. “You’re all grown up now. And just as beautiful as I knew you’d be.”
He was drunk. He had to be. Or I was dreaming. That was more likely. Cris Avila had completely forgotten I was at Stanford and that he’d told me he’d see me soon—three years ago. Except for that one time when he’d intentionally ignored me.
He took my purse off my arm, set it on the table, and handed me the shot glass. When he lifted it to his lips and tossed it back, I did too, disregarding the lemon slices and salt sitting on the table.
I weaved a little and sat on the stool. I closed my eyes, but that didn’t help. In fact, it made the vertigo worse.
“Come on,” he said, taking my hand. “Let’s get you out of here.”
I jerked out of his grasp. “I’m not going anywhere with you…You…ignored me.”
Cris sat on the stool next to me and ran his hand through his hair.
“I’m sorry,” I saw him mouth.
He studied me, focusing on my lips.
“I know you saw me.”
We sat that way, staring at each other, for what felt like a long time. Neither of us spoke. Finally, Cris took a deep breath and then let it out. “Do you know how old I am, Ainsley?”
I took another sip of beer, then another, even though more alcohol was the last thing I needed. “What did you mean before, when you said you’d been waiting a long time for this?”
He shook his head and turned away.
“Forget it.” I grabbed my purse and wound my way through the crowded bar, looking for Gwen and Bryn.
After searching everywhere and not seeing them, I went to the ladies’ room. I stood in the long line of women waiting outside the door until the vertigo got bad enough that I had to sit.
I found a bench, plopped down on it, and covered my face with my hands.
I closed my eyes tight, wishing I knew where my friends were. They wouldn’t have just left me here, would they?
I felt a hand touch my hair, and when I opened my eyes, Cris was crouched down in front of me.
“Are you okay?”
“I’m fine.” I leaned away from his hand that was still stroking my hair.
“I don’t think you are.”
I tried to stand, but he had me caged between him and the bench.
“Why are you here? Why tonight?” When my eyes filled with tears, I cursed the alcohol for making me so emotional. “Please, just go. Leave me alone. Haven’t you humiliated me enough?”
He shook his head. “I can’t do that.”
“You can.” I pointed in the direction of the front door. “Just go.”
“I never meant to humiliate you, niña bonita. I had to stay away from you.”
“W-w-w-h-y?” I full-on cried, only adding to my embarrassment.
He tweaked my nose, making me feel like I was nine years old again.
Yes, I knew our families were enemies, but wasn’t that between our fathers? Alex and Maddox had been together forever, but that wasn’t a good argument since, even though almost everyone knew about them, they still kept their relationship a secret.
“You spoke to Skye when she brought me for orientation.”
“Why can you talk to her and not me?”
“Because I never wanted to kiss Skye.” Cristobal held me still with the hand he’d woven into my hair and kissed me.
At first he was tentative and sweet, but then he pushed his tongue between my lips and into my mouth. I could taste lingering tequila and licked his bottom lip. When I did, he kissed me harder.
I looked up and saw Bryn. Gwen was behind her. “I’ve been looking for you. Where were you?” I asked, hating how much I sounded like a little girl.
“Mm-hmm.” Gwen stood, hands on her hips, looking at Cris, whose hand was still woven in my hair.
“We’re on our way to the Stube,” said Bryn, looking at Cris as well. “Wanna come with us?”
Instead of answering my friend, he looked at me.
“Go.” I pushed him away, and he let go of my hair. “I’m going home.”
“Come on, Ains,” Gwen pleaded. “It’s your birthday; we’re supposed to be celebrating.”
“I don’t feel like celebrating.” I crossed my arms and hoped I was being a big enough bitch that he’d just leave.
“I’ll make sure Ainsley gets home okay. I don’t think she needs anything more to drink,” Cris said to Gwen and Bryn as though I wasn’t there.
“Hey!” I swatted him. “First of all, I’m right here and can hear you. Second, I can make my own decisions about whether I’ve had enough to drink or not.” I glared at the grinning man.
“If you’re sure…” Gwen said, and Cris nodded.
My friends were leaving without me? Seriously?
He grasped my hand. “Come on, niña bonita. I’ll take you home.”
Bryn walked away, waving and blowing a kiss.
“See you tomorrow,” said Gwen, waving too.
I followed Cris, knowing that as soon as I got out of the overly warm bar and breathed some fresh air, I would feel better. Then I’d tell Cris I could find my own way back to the apartment I shared with my two so-called friends who had just deserted me.
When we got outside, Cris whistled so loud it hurt my ears.
“Sorry,” he said when he saw me wince. “It’s the only way to get a cab on a Friday night.”
Instead of feeling better as we stood waiting, I felt woozier. I grabbed Cristobal’s sleeve to steady myself.
“Come here,” he said, tucking me under his arm.
“Where to, lovebirds?” the taxi driver asked when he met us at the curb.
“Twelve Beacon Way,” he said and helped me into the backseat.
“Where are we going?” I asked when the car began moving.
“No, I can’t do that. I have to go home.”
A wave of wooziness hit me again, but this time it felt like I was going to be sick. “Um, please pull over. Hurry.” The driver crossed two lanes of traffic and came to a screeching stop.
I made it out of the cab in the nick of time, losing the contents of my stomach in a nearby shrub. Cris had gotten out too. He stood beside me, rubbing my back as waves of nausea reverberated through me.
“My apartment is around the corner,” he said once my heaving subsided. “Come on.”
I wiped my mouth with the back of my hand. “Okay, but then you have to take me home. I mean my home.”
When I woke the next morning, my head felt fuzzy, but I wasn’t nearly as hungover as I’d expected I would be.
I opened my eyes, looked around, and cringed. On top of what I assumed was his bed lay a fully clothed but sound asleep Cristobal Avila. Thankfully, I was fully clothed, too.
His eyes opened, and he caught me staring.
“How do you feel this morning?” he asked.
“Better than expected. I guess I didn’t have as much to drink as I thought.”
“No, you did. Three shots on an empty stomach, plus beer—that’s a lot.”
“How did you know I had an empty stomach?”
“I guess you don’t remember begging me to go get us a couple of burgers last night.”
I gasped and brought my hand to my mouth. “Oh, God, did I really? I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be. I didn’t go.”
“I had them delivered.”
I brought the pillow to my face and groaned. “I’m so mortified.”
“Hey. Look at me.”
I gazed into his perfect eyes.
“It’s okay, Ainsley. I feel at least half responsible for how inebriated you got last night, which was only one of the reasons I wanted you to stay here—so I could look after you.”
“What was the other reason?”
“Are you sure you want me to answer that?”
“I’ll tell you over breakfast.”