“Leave it alone, Jo.”
“Oh, right. She gets you all riled up and I have to deal with the aftereffects. So I don’t think I’ll leave it alone. What did she do now to piss you off?”
Got him hard, came apart under his hand, then said the whole thing was a mistake. She made him half-crazy, confused the hell out of him. He had no idea what Valerie wanted, didn’t know why he’d bothered to step up on the porch last night. He should have ignored her, walked by without saying a word. But she’d looked so damn lost sitting up there by herself. And he was just fucking stupid enough to want to comfort her.
He should have known that comfort would lead to sex. Or almost sex. She’d gotten off, anyway. Being with her only led to complications. Complications he didn’t need.
“She didn’t do anything. Just let it go.”
“She doesn’t really know what she wants, Mason. And she still loves you.”
He choked out a laugh. “I don’t think so.”
“Don’t you? Bet she’s confused as hell, running hot and cold, isn’t she?”
He didn’t answer.
“Thought so. Let me talk to her.”
He shifted his gaze up to Jolene. “I don’t think that’s a good idea. You know she doesn’t like to talk about the two of us, especially not to anyone else.”
Sunlight shadowed Jolene’s features, but Mason could well imagine the giant grin on her face. “And pissing off my sister gives me a particular pleasure. Since she doesn’t live on the ranch anymore, I’ve missed our tussles. Don’t deny me that.”
He shrugged. “What you do with your sister is up to you. Don’t do it on my account. I can take care of my relationship with Valerie on my own.”
“Yeah. You’re doing a bang-up job so far.”
He sighed, tipped his hat up and leaned one arm against the fence post. “What the hell do you think I should do? You’re right. She runs hot and cold. One minute she says what she wants, and the next she wants something different. She left for a reason, Jo. She didn’t want to stay.”
Jolene laid her gloved hand on top of Mason’s. “She left because she was scared.”
“I know what she’s scared of. I can’t change how she feels. Neither can you. Leave it alone. You might think you can bully her, but she’ll just dig in her heels and run again.”
Jolene sighed, turned away and leaned against the fence. “You’re probably right. But it frustrates the hell out of me when I know she still loves you.”
“I don’t know about that. I used to think she did. Now I’m not so sure. And either way, you can’t force her to stop being afraid. She’s either going to get over it, or she isn’t.”
“You can live with that?”
“I can’t decide it for her. Those choices need to be hers.” He picked up his tools. “Come on, there’s a section of old fence that needs to be cut off and relaid a quarter mile south. Let’s ride.”
Ride, work and not think about Valerie. That’s what Mason needed to do today. He’d done too damn much thinking about her already and it was taking time away from his job. A ranch didn’t run itself.
valerie busied herself going over the ranch paper-work
that Jolene had insisted she and Brea catch up on. Tedious, mile-high financial and inventory reports, but Jolene said they both needed to understand the ranch’s net worth and current inventory before they got together to make any decisions about the future ownership.
Since he had no heirs, Uncle Ronald’s portion of the ranch ownership automatically went to all three sisters, as agreed upon when Ronald and Valerie’s father had generated joint ownership in the Bar M. So Uncle Ronald’s will would have no bearing on the ownership of the ranch.
“And I thought technical reports were hideously boring,” Brea said, pushing the chair back in the office and yawning.
Valerie nodded. “I’m sure Jo is doing this to punish us for leaving the ranch in her hands.”
“In her more than capable hands, from the looks of these reports. The growth in the Bar M the past ten years has been nothing short of phenomenal. She and Mason have done an amazing job.”
Yes, they had. Valerie remembered Mason talking about plans for the ranch. She’d only half paid attention. The Bar M had been her parents’ ranch. After they died, she wasn’t much interested in what happened to it. Now she saw what a mistake that thinking had been. Her parents would be sad to know she hadn’t taken an active part in making the Bar M grow, in nourishing their dream.
But Jolene had. And so had Mason. They’d kept her parents’ homestead flourishing and profitable. “Jo and Mason have done wonders for the ranch.”
Brea sniffed. “I don’t know about you, Val, but I don’t feel like we deserve any part of it. I’ve been so busy with my life in Tulsa, I didn’t pay much attention to what they were doing out here. And to look over these reports now . . . wow.”
“Yeah. Wow, indeed. While you and I selfishly went about our lives, Jolene and Mason have been busting their asses making something out of the Bar M. Mom and Dad would have been proud.”
“Yes. Of them.” Valerie was ashamed of her fear and her cowardice. And yet she still couldn’t see herself staying here, being a rancher’s wife. Being Mason’s wife. Throwing her heart full-fledged into a relationship, knowing that at any moment it could be taken away. Loving someone was dangerous.
Just then Jolene burst through the door of the office, her hands, shirt and jeans covered in blood. “Valerie. Come now.”
Valerie flew out of the chair. “Are you hurt?” she asked as she caught up to Jolene, grabbed her arm and swung her around.
“It’s not me. Come on.”
“Hang on a second.” Valerie dashed upstairs to grab her medical bag, slipped into her boots and practically flew down the stairs. Jolene was waiting impatiently at the door. Without a word, they ran out the door.
“Knife slipped. Got him in the leg.”
“Who?” Valerie asked as they jumped into the Jeep.
Valerie went cold; her heart stuttered and her throat went dry. “Mason? How bad?”
“I don’t know. There’s a lot of blood. He wanted to hop on his horse and come back here. But there’s blood pouring everywhere and I wouldn’t let him.”
Jolene drove fast, zooming down the road, then off-road as she sailed into the pasture. Valerie held on to the door handle as the Jeep went flying over hard rock and bumps in the field. She saw Mason’s horse tethered along the fence line. He was on the ground, still conscious, thankfully. Before Jolene came to a complete stop, Valerie flew out of the Jeep; she dug her heels in and pushed off into a dead run, her heart pounding.
“Jesus, Valerie, you’re white as a sheet,” Mason said.
“Shut up.” She dropped her bag beside her, slipped on latex gloves and grabbed a scissors.
“Hey. Don’t cut those.”
“Shut up,” she said again, forcing herself to focus on the task at hand. Right now Mason was a patient. That’s all she’d allow herself to think about.
“Jo, go get some of the hands. We’re going to need help getting him into the Jeep when we’re done here.”
“I don’t need—”
“Shut up, Mason.”
“You’re a mean doctor.”
She ignored that, too, and cut away his jeans from the bottom up and over his knee, then gently pulled away the material. The blood was fresh, the gash on the top of his thigh deep. Dear God, it was so close to his femoral artery. A few more inches . . .
“It’s not bad,” he said. “I was just a dumbass and stabbed myself when the clippers slipped.”
“It is bad. You need stitches. You’re damn lucky you didn’t nick an artery or we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”
“Just throw a few stitches into me so I can get back to work.”
She jerked her gaze up to his face. “Are you out of your mind? You’re done for the day.”
His jaw set, he leveled a mutinous glare in her direction. “I’m not a pussy. It’s hardly a scratch.”
Jolene came back with Walker and Gage.
“Trying to commit suicide, I heard,” Walker said with a smirk as he came up to them.
“Fuck you,” Mason said. “You trying to take over my job?”
“You dyin’ today?” Walker asked.
“Then I guess I’ll have to wait until you pull some other dumbass move.”
Gage squatted down next to Valerie. “She scissored right through your Wranglers.”
“That’s a hangin’ offense, cutting through a man’s Wranglers,” Gage said with a smirk on his face.
Valerie finished pressure dressing the wound, taped it, then glared up at all three grinning men. “I can’t believe all you’re worried about is his jeans.”
“Hey, work clothes are hard to break in,” Gage said, standing. He held out a hand for Mason. “Think you can get up or do you need Walker and me to carry you?”
“Assholes.” He jerked on Gage’s hand and stood.
“Hey!” Valerie pivoted to shoot daggers of venom at Gage. “Take it easy. I don’t want that bandage falling off and him bleeding again. I just got it stopped. Now, let’s see if you morons can gently get him into the Jeep.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Walker said, sliding around Mason’s side. “Come on, honey. Let me carry you.”
“You try picking me up and you can pick up your last paycheck when we get back to the house.”
Valerie rolled her eyes as Gage and Walker snickered the entire way to the Jeep. Men so didn’t take injuries seriously.
“Take him upstairs to my room,” she instructed when they reached the house.
“My place is fine,” Mason said.
“I have more medical supplies in my room,” she replied.
Gage and Walker took him upstairs. She ran ahead of them and placed a sheet over her bed.
“Lay him down there. And get his pants off while I get my supplies ready.”
She went into the bathroom and grabbed some towels, ran a washcloth under hot water. When she came out, Mason was alone. On her bed. Wearing just a sleeveless T-shirt and his boxers.
“Where did everyone go?”
“The guys snickered about you ordering me stripped down and what kind of wicked intentions you might have for me, so they said they’d give us privacy. And Jolene and Brea said they didn’t care to see me in my underwear. So I guess it’s just you and your patient, Doc.”
She rolled her eyes. “Whatever.” She eased the bandage off, cleaned the wound area with hot water, then antiseptic. Mason always had been tough and didn’t even wince when she poured the antiseptic in the wound, or when she numbed it with the needle. He just watched her with that unfathomable gaze of his that never failed to make a room heat up a good ten degrees or so.
She pulled off her jacket and long-sleeved shirt, leaving her in only her tank top, and went to work.
mason was enjoying the view. sure, he’d done something stupid today, but at least the end result was turning out pretty enjoyable.
“Hey, I didn’t know a striptease went with the stitching.”
She lifted her head, her bewitching gaze colliding with his. “It’s hot in here and I need freedom of movement.”
“Whatever you say, Doc.”
Her lips compressed and he knew she was trying desperately for control.
He liked her out of control, like she’d been last night. Not thinking, just reacting. The softness of her skin under his hand was enough to make him hard. Which given his current predicament was probably not a good idea. He counted cattle instead of thinking about Valerie’s half naked body next to him.
“Am I hurting you?” She paused, needle in hand.
Yeah, she made his balls ache. “No. Not feeling a thing.”
“This cut is deep. You’re lucky it’s farther down your thigh and not near your femoral artery. Out there, middle of nowhere, stabbing yourself like that. You could have bled to death in minutes if you’d hit the artery. There’s not a hospital near enough we could have gotten you to.”
He was pretty sure she was talking to herself and not to him, so he let her ramble. Her hands were sure as she sewed him up. Part of her hair had escaped her ponytail and fell against her cheek. It didn’t seem to bother her any as she concentrated on her task. He wanted to reach out and sift strands of her hair through his fingers. He already knew the sensation—it felt like silk. He remembered how it used to slide across his thighs when her mouth had been busy on his dick.
She jerked up, stared at his now erect cock lying rigid against his boxer briefs. Her gaze slid to his face.
“Do you mind? I’m trying to work here.”
He grinned. “I have to do something to pass the time.”
She lifted a brow. “Mason.”
He shrugged. “Can’t help if it I was thinking about the last time you were . . . down there.”
Her face turned a pretty shade of pink. “Goddammit, I’m sewing you up here. This isn’t foreplay.”
“Sorry. I’ll think about horse shit instead.”