Bound, Branded, & Brazen(6)

By: Jaci Burton


And even when Valerie had still lived here, she’d been with Mason a lot. He’d stolen much of her time through college and med school—what little time she’d been willing to give to him. Which in all honesty, hadn’t been all that much beyond their first summer together. But oh, what a summer that had been. Would she have married him if not for that hot, sexy summer?

She’d been so impulsive back then.

Ha. Back then? What about now? What about a half hour ago when she’d so easily fallen into Mason’s arms, almost eradicating every vow she’d made two years ago to distance herself from Mason. Yeah, that had been more than a little impulsive. And stupid. But she could still taste him on her lips. How could regret taste so good?

“What put the smile on your face?”

Her head shot up. “What?”

“You’ve got this wistful smile on your face,” Brea said. “What are you thinking about?”

Mason. “Nothing.”

“No, really, what were you thinking about?”

This part she didn’t miss at all. Her sisters always prying into her every thought. “I told you, nothing.”

“Liar.”

“Bite me, Brea.”

“Screw you, Val.”

“Ah, the harmonic tones of my sisters, home again. Picking up where you left off, I see.”

Valerie swiveled around to face Jolene, their baby sister, leaning against the back door. She wore jeans, boots and a long-sleeved work shirt. Her hair was twisted in dark blond braided pigtails, and her entire body, including her face, was covered in dust from a day out working the ranch. And she looked just as beautiful as always.

Valerie took an affected sniff of the air. “I thought I picked up the distinct odor of cattle.”

Jolene snorted. “Nice to see you, too, Valerie.”

“Shut the door, Jo. You’re letting flies in.”

“Yes ma’am,” Jolene said to Lila. She closed the door and sauntered into the kitchen, opened the refrigerator to grab a can of soda, popped the top off and took several long and loud gulps. Then she burped.

“Such a lady,” Brea said.

Jolene burped again.

“Jolene! Mind your manners.”

Jolene giggled. “Sorry, Lila. Couldn’t help myself.”

“Born in a barn, Mama would always say,” Valerie said with an upraised brow.

“Please,” Jolene said. “If I recall correctly, you were the one who always won the burping contests.”

Valerie raised her chin. “I was ten years old at the time.”

Jolene shrugged. “And I live with twenty-five guys.”

“Lucky you,” Brea mumbled with an arched brow.

Or at least Valerie thought Brea arched a brow. Hard to tell under that thick mop of hair.

“It has its advantages,” Jolene said.

“How many pairs did you bring in?” Valerie asked.

“Haven’t hit all the pastures yet, but we’ve gotten about fifty from the northeast.”

“Great. Can’t wait to go look at the babies.”

“You can do more than that. Now that you’re here, you can help process them.”

Valerie rolled her eyes. “Oh, joy.”

“It’s your ranch as much as it is mine, Valerie. And yours, too, Brea. Climb into your old boots, put on your jeans and get to work.”

Valerie took a sip of juice and studied her sister. “Is that why we’re really here, Jolene? Need a couple extra hands for spring cattle work?”

“I think you know me better than that. I never have trouble hiring hands. But this is your ranch. Those who own it work it. So yeah, that’s part of why you’re here. We also have a funeral to attend tomorrow.”

“Uncle Ronald was a prick,” Brea said. “It’s not like we need to pay our respects to a man we could barely tolerate.”

“Brea Louise.” Lila narrowed her eyes at Brea.

“Sorry, Lila. But you can’t tell me that you had any respect for that bast—For that man.”

Lila turned her back to them and ran water in the sink. “What I thought of Mr. McMasters doesn’t matter. You speak respectfully of the dead.”

Valerie rolled her eyes. “Or don’t speak of him at all if you can’t think of anything nice to say.”

“Then I guess his funeral will be a silent one,” Jolene added.

Brea snorted.

Lila turned and gave them all a pointed look.

“That’s our cue to head upstairs,” Valerie said to Brea.

“Your rooms are ready,” Lila said, grabbing a towel to dry her hands. “Supper will be at six thirty.”

“That’s in an hour,” Valerie said. “I just ate two huge biscuits.” Which was more than she usually ate in a day.

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