WILD CARD (7 Stud Club #5) by Christie Ridgway




Chapter One





As Rafael “Raf” Rodriguez strolled into his mother’s kitchen, she looked up from the birthday cake she was decorating and her eyes widened. “You look more like your father every day.”

He smothered a wince. She didn’t mean it to sting, but it did all the same. He’d been acting more like his father every day, and no one would consider that a compliment. Guilt had been weighing on him, to the point where he’d decided just last night that he’d stop listening to the devil on his shoulder and pay better attention to the rival angel on the other side.

He’d been aware of both most of his life.

“Nice to see you, Mom,” he said, and bent to brush his lips against her cheek. In a practiced move, he went to dip a finger in the chocolate frosting. In a counter-move, just as practiced, his mother blocked his attempt.

“Not before dinner,” she scolded.

He shrugged, then glanced at his younger sister who sat at the kitchen table, attention focused on her phone. “Hey, Nina.”

She wagged a free pinkie in his direction. At twenty-seven, she looked just like their mother, except without the silver threads in her dark hair. Then she smiled, setting down the device normally affixed to her hand. “Done, Mom. Tad will bring a platter of his famous ribs for our Thanksgiving buffet.”

“Good.” Their mom, Ana, smiled and nodded with satisfaction. “We’ll have a full table and plenty of good food.”

Understatement, Raf thought. Every holiday and birthday included a mass of people as two families gathered, a matriarch and three siblings in each, as well as tagalong friends or significant others. Thanksgiving, coming up in a week and a half, was any normal get-together times 1000, with his mother, Ana, and his father’s other ex-wife, Lise, in an unspoken but dead-serious competition over who could present the most varied and mouth-watering feast.

This year it was his mom’s turn to host, thus the glee over the addition of ribs to accompany the standard turkey and ham. Who knew what else might show up on the groaning sideboard. Lamb? A roasted goat?

The cake iced, his mom bustled to the sink with the spatula and bowl. Without missing a beat, Raf swooped in and took them from her, immediately bringing the utensil to his mouth to take a lick of the sweet concoction. Delicious. Ana’s Mexican chocolate frosting, with its hint of cinnamon, was everyone’s favorite. He wasn’t surprised that his half-sister Astrid had put in the request for her twenty-first birthday celebration.

“What about you, mijo?” his mom asked.

“Me what?” Raf finished off the last of the icing and ran water into the bowl.

“Are you bringing a date to Thanksgiving?” She was trying to sound offhand, he knew.

“Well—”

“You should bring a date to Thanksgiving,” she said, her fake-casual dropping away. “A nice woman.”

Nina snickered. “Mom, Raf doesn’t date nice women.”

He shot his sister a grin. “That’s what I was about to say.” It was true. And the nice woman who’d caught his attention recently, so quickly and so surprisingly, wasn’t someone he could date. He knew that. Or the angel on his right did. The devil on the left had yet to get the message.

Footsteps sounded and a tall blonde woman entered the kitchen. Though middle-aged, she, like Raf’s mother, wore her years well. “Hey, Lise,” he said, and moved to take the grocery bags in her hands. He kissed her cheek and she patted his with one warm palm.

“You look just like your father,” she murmured.

Turning to place the bags on the counter, again he tried to let the comment go. Fact was, his dad had been a handsome man, still was a handsome man, though Raf hadn’t seen him in quite some time. He supposed the man’s good looks were what had sparked the initial interest of Ana and Lise, both beautiful themselves.

“Did you bring the candles?” his mother said, peering into one of the bags. “I’m sorry I forgot them.”

“Twenty-one,” Lise confirmed, and rummaged through the supplies she’d carried in. The two began chatting about the evening ahead and what dinner preparations were left to accomplish. Raf tuned out their discussion, but enjoyed the melodious blend of the voices, a familiar sound. Comforting, even. How the two women had managed to combine families despite their shared deceitful ex-husband amazed him. But the siblings were all close—Ana and Lise’s goal.