Bound, Branded, & Brazen(4)

By: Jaci Burton

To see her standing beside that bed was like tumbling back to the past. Time had frozen.

She’d lost some weight. She was still beautiful, her golden brown hair teasing her chin, her green eyes still wary. Valerie had always had secrets. The one thing that had kept them apart was her inability to tell him what was really on her mind, to open up about how she felt—about anything—but especially about him. In the end he couldn’t live with that silence, figured he deserved better.

And yet there he stood in her room, welcoming her back with his mouth and his hands. He’d been all over her like a goddamned dog in heat. Thinking what, that maybe she’d changed? Not fucking likely. He knew better. She was incapable.

Maybe he’d expected that after two years he wouldn’t care anymore, that seeing her wouldn’t be a gut punch of emotion and need. That time would have healed his desire for her, his love for her.

For Christ’s sake, he was a man. Nothing weakened him. He hadn’t cried since he’d broken his arm when he was four years old. He was the toughest son of a bitch on the Bar M. Nothing brought him to his knees.

Except this one woman. The one woman he’d loved since he was sixteen years old.

The one woman who could never manage to love him back.

“miss valerie!”

It had taken her a good half hour to pull herself together after that visit from Mason, to feel like she could face her family. Determined not to spend the day hiding in her room, she’d washed her face and firmly pushed Mason out of her mind. Valerie stepped off the bottom stair and ran toward Lila, the family housekeeper, the matriarch of this place. The pain in her stomach dissolved, replaced by pure joy.

Lila had been here . . . forever, had taken over caring for Valerie and her sisters after their parents died. Lila ran this house, kept the men in line, cooked, cleaned, and had become her substitute mother when, at age fifteen, Valerie’s world had shattered.

She threw her arms around Lila’s wide frame and hugged her tight. She inhaled Lila’s scent, always a mixture of cleaning products and baking flour.

“Lila. It’s so good to see you.”

Lila squeezed her hard. “Girl, you’re like a stranger.”

Lila was right. She felt like a stranger in her own home. It had been twelve years since she left for college, and two years since she and Mason had divorced. And in between those times she’d barely been here. Even when she and Mason . . .

Well, no sense in dwelling on that.

Lila pulled back. “Let me look at you.”

Used to the woman’s examinations, she stood still and waited.

“You don’t eat enough.”

She was used to hearing that, too. According to Lila, if you didn’t consume at least an entire cow a day, you weren’t eating enough. “I eat just fine. I exercise. I drink a lot of water.”

“Bah.” Lila waved her hand in the air, dismissing Valerie’s claims of health. “Come with me. I just made biscuits.”

Already imagining the five pounds about to be added to her butt, Valerie went willingly to the kitchen, which was, as always, spotlessly clean despite all the mud and dirt dragged in by cowboys several times a day. Lila was a godsend, though she was getting on in years. Valerie wondered if Jolene had given any thought to bringing in help for Lila. Lila had to be in her late sixties by now, and the kitchen was enormous, the size of many home’s entire first levels. The wood floor gleamed like it had just been polished, the granite countertop sparkled from end to end, and Valerie was certain she could see herself in the chrome sinks.

“Go help yourself to some juice,” Lila said as she scooped out two biscuits from the platter on the center island.

Valerie opened the oversized refrigerator—stocked to overflowing as always—poured a glass of orange juice and took a seat at the trestle table that had been in her father’s family for generations. She smoothed her hand over the scarred surface, each groove reminding her of times spent with her parents and sisters. She still remembered eating at one of the smaller tables when she was a child, wishing she could be at the “big table” with the grown-ups, where sounds of raucous laughter could be heard as the cowboys traded stories from their days.

Now she was one of the grown-ups and she longed for the simpler times of her youth. Times when her father would pull up a chair at her table, play with her pigtails and kiss her cheek. Or her mother would eat her meal with the girls and leave the men to their stories.

But you could never go back, and remembering just hurt.

“Here,” Lila said, setting down a plate of two homemade biscuits, butter and jelly that no doubt Lila had also made herself.

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