Bound, Branded, & Brazen(5)

By: Jaci Burton


Valerie’s stomach rumbled. As a doctor, she was used to going a long time without food. During her internship and residency, she’d gotten used to grabbing a quick energy bar or chocolate milk on the run. To actually sit down and eat was a luxury. Though now that she was about to go into private practice with a group of general practitioners in Dallas, she was going to be able to have more regular hours again. She looked forward to it.

She bit into the buttered and jellied biscuit and let out a soft moan while she chewed. “Oh, Lila. This is heaven.”

Lila’s weathered face brightened when she grinned. “Thank you, honey. You know how much I used to love cookin’ for you girls. Jolene eats her fair share though.”

Valerie waved a biscuit in Lila’s direction. “Yeah, and she works off every calorie wrestling those cows.” Damn Jolene’s skinny little ass anyway.

“That she does. The girl gets in there and does as much as the men do. Sometimes I think she’s going to work herself to death.”

“I doubt that. Jolene’s always been a bundle of energy, and she’s been working the ranch since Daddy set her on her first horse as soon as she could stand upright.”

Lila laughed. “Well, you know that’s the rancher’s way. Put your kids out there among the horses and cattle as soon as they’re old enough to sit a horse.”

“I remember.” Valerie had ridden her own horse at age four, though under close supervision from her father. Each of the girls had followed in succession. Living on a working cattle ranch meant as soon as you were old enough, you were taught to get in there and work. Fun when you were young, and not as much work, but you had to live the life. She’d loved it.

Until the accident.

Which she didn’t want to dwell on. “Where is Jolene, anyway?”

“Out riding the north pasture today. They’re bringing in some of the pairs.”

“Ah. How many mamas had babies this year?”

Lila shrugged. “No tellin’ until they bring ’em in.”

“Guess I’m here at the right time, then.”

“The right time for what?”

Valerie looked up to see her younger sister, Brea, standing in the doorway. At least she thought it was Brea. Valerie hardly recognized her.

Brea sure looked different than she had the last time Valerie had seen her. As a child, Brea had always worn her hair short. Now it was long, stringy, her bangs so overgrown they hid her eyes. And her ankle-length skirt and equally shapeless blouse covered her body completely. It was almost as if she was trying to hide herself.

Valerie rose from the table and went over and hugged her sister. “Brea.”

Brea hugged her back. “Val. You smell like grape jelly.”

Valerie laughed. “Lila made me eat a biscuit.”

Now it was Brea’s turn to laugh. “Of course she did. It’s required before you can unpack your bags, isn’t it?”

“You bet it is.” Lila stepped in to envelop Brea in a bear hug, then held her out at arm’s length. “Let me look at you. Too thin. You don’t eat enough.”

Brea’s gaze shifted to Valerie and they exchanged knowing looks.

“Guess I need a biscuit,” Brea said, then went to the cupboard, retrieved a glass and poured juice while Lila fixed her a plate.

Valerie watched Brea with some amusement. Funny how easy it was to slide into old habits once you got home.

Home. No, this wasn’t home anymore. Home was Dallas, and that’s where her new life had begun. She had to remember that. She was excited about her new job. She’d worked her ass off in medical school. The new partnership was her payoff. She was just feeling melancholy and wistful about being back at the ranch again. As soon as she got the hell out of here and back in Dallas she’d be her old, cheerful self.

“When did you get in?” Brea asked in between mouthfuls of thick biscuit.

“Maybe twenty minutes before you. How’s Tulsa?”

“Good.”

“And how’s life as a freelance programmer?”

Brea smiled and said, “Fine.”

At least Valerie could see Brea’s mouth, which was about the only part of her that wasn’t covered up by hair and clothes. “Staying busy?”

“Always.”

Valerie shook her head. Had it always been this difficult to talk to her sister? Then again, how long had it been since they’d all lived under one roof? Valerie had moved out at eighteen to attend college. That was twelve years ago. Other than visits home in the summer, she hadn’t really lived here full-time since then. She and her sisters had been like ships passing in the night.

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