That was the last time she had cried. She hadn’t even shed a tear when she packed up and left her husband, left this ranch, left her sisters behind.
She hadn’t looked back. Hadn’t come back. Not in two long years.
Until now. The only reason she was here was because Jolene had called her, told her she was now one third owner of the Bar M, and she’d better get her ass here for the funeral and help figure out what they were going to do about the ranch once and for all. Jolene had demanded Brea and Valerie give her a month to figure things out.
A month! Like Valerie had that kind of time. But Jolene could be relentless, and yes, she and Brea had kind of abandoned their baby sister to deal with the house, the land, the cattle and everything else. They’d even left Jolene to deal with Uncle Ronald, so they kind of owed her. So Valerie had agreed. Not because she wanted to come back here. Not because she had a stake in the Bar M. As far as Valerie was concerned, the ranch and all it contained belonged to Jolene now. That was going to be her decision and nothing was going to change that.
She had a good life in Dallas and a career that was just about to take off. None of her old life here on the ranch mattered anymore. She’d kissed it all good-bye the day she’d told Mason she wanted a divorce. Then she’d run like hell and hadn’t looked back. Hadn’t come back.
She took a deep breath, unable to hold back a smile at the smell of furniture polish and Pine-Sol. Old memories, old scents. Something was in the oven in the kitchen, the fresh smell making her stomach rumble. She hadn’t eaten this morning when she left Dallas, had just grabbed a latte as she drove through Starbucks on her way out of town.
She climbed the long staircase with her bags in hand, walked down the hall to her bedroom and opened the door.
Yeah, some things never changed. The room was exactly as she’d left it, the bronze lace curtains billowing in the breeze from the open windows, the hope chest that had belonged to her mother sitting just underneath the window. The top of the old, scarred chest was always adorned with fresh flowers thanks to Lila, their housekeeper—“manager” was more appropriate, since Lila took care of everything related to the house. The dresser and nightstand gleamed as if freshly polished.
Valerie stared down at the queen-sized bed that Mason had always complained wasn’t long enough, that his feet hung over the edge. Though they’d had plenty of room to make love. She stared at the patchwork quilt, remembered how she and Mason would kick it down to the end of the bed every night during their tussles together.
There had been so many things wrong with their marriage, but the sex? That had been oh so right. She still remembered the feel of his unshaven jaw rubbing against the skin of her face. She used to love his scratchy beard, would slide her palm across his jaw because it made her tingle all over.
And his kisses—good Lord the man could kiss. Even now, years later, she had vivid memories of his mouth on hers, the fullness of his lips, the taste of sweat and outdoors and the earthy scent of him whenever he came in from working cattle. He was such a . . . man. He felt like one and smelled like one and God he could turn her knees to jelly.
He was so masterful at what he did, as if he’d been born to pleasure a woman. And even when she’d been young and inexperienced and asked him to take it slow, she’d felt the fires of passion barely banked inside him, and knew how explosive his desires were.
His touch on her breasts, between her legs, the way he could coax her to orgasm faster than a brushfire in the hot, dry summer . . .
She shuddered. Two long years of drought, without a man, without Mason. And just thinking about him could light that flame again.
There were a lot of reasons she’d divorced Mason Parks, but sex definitely hadn’t been one of them. If there’d been a way she could still jump that man’s bones, without the ties of marriage, she’d have been on him in a heartbeat.
But somehow walking out on your husband and serving him with divorce papers didn’t make that man look kindly on his ex-wife or in any way make him want to swoop her up and give her an orgasm.
“I heard you were coming in today.”
She pivoted, her heart in her throat as she faced the man she’d just been reminiscing about, and reminiscing in a decidedly sexual way, too.
Two years hadn’t changed him much. Still tall, still with that unshaven look, still wearing dusty blue jeans, cowboy boots and a work shirt with the sleeves rolled up, showing off impossibly muscled forearms. He took off his cowboy hat and ran his fingers through his hair. Yeah, everything was still the same. His hair was still brown, his eyes the same color as his hair, and he still goddamned took her breath away.
He swaggered into the room—because he didn’t even walk like a normal man. More like a man who commanded a woman to look at him. And really, what woman wouldn’t?
She stood frozen to the spot as he circled the bed and moved toward her. Her first thought—run. Run like hell. Her heart started pounding as he stopped in front of her.
“Jolene said she’d asked you to come.”
He cocked his head to the side. “Didn’t think you would.”
“Because you couldn’t wait to get away from here. And when you left you said you’d never be back.”
Damn him for remembering. “I’m here for the funeral.”
“You hated Ronald.”
“I’m here for Jolene.”
He arched a brow. “Seems to me that Jolene asked you plenty of times to come. And you didn’t. Why now?”
She shrugged, clasping her hands together so he wouldn’t see them shake. “It’s time Jolene and Brea and I settle a few things about the ranch.”
“You could do that by phone and mail.”
She circled around him, moved toward the window, needing some air to clear her head. Being near Mason jumbled her brain cells, made her think of the past, of what she’d missed. She finally turned to face him. “I didn’t come back here to argue with you, Mason.”
“No, you never liked doing that, did you? God forbid you should say what was on your mind.”
He moved in on her again, trapping her between him and the window.
She lifted her gaze to him. “I’m not going to do this with you.”
He didn’t say anything for a few seconds, then, “So you’re finally a doctor. It’s been a long time for you.”
“Yes it has.”
“You worked hard for it. I guess you’ll get exactly what you wanted, won’t you?”
. “Yes, I will.”
They used to be married. She used to throw her arms around him whenever she saw him, kiss his neck, feel the beat of his heart as he pressed against her. She loved when he held her. It made her feel safe.
She’d never have that feeling anymore, would never feel his body slide against hers in the darkness, would never see his naked silhouette walk across the bedroom at night.
Funny that she never had to think about those things, never had to miss them—until now. Which was why she avoided coming home. Too many memories. Too much pain here. Too much Mason. She inhaled, the scent of leather and horses and him filling her, reminding her of what she’d walked away from.
She shouldn’t have come. She was weak where Mason was concerned, always was. And the way he looked at her. She knew he hated her for what she’d done, for walking away, and yet passion raged in his eyes as he bore down on her.
He took another step closer. She laid her palm on his chest. The contact was electric and her knees went to jelly. “Mason. Don’t.”
He slid his arm around her and jerked her against his chest. “Don’t what? Don’t hate you for leaving me? Don’t hate myself for still wanting you? You swore you’d never come back, but here you are, and I see the look in your eyes. You want this as much as I do.”
His mouth came crashing down on hers and she whimpered, didn’t so much as offer up a weak resistance. Her hand curled around the nape of his neck as she fell against him, opened her lips to him, found his tongue and nearly wept with the joy of it. Every single damn reason for how wrong this was fled, replaced by need and rampant desire for the man she’d hungered for these long two years.
His hand found her breast and latched onto it, tweaking her nipple through her shirt and bra. She damned her clothing and moaned against his lips, arching against his hand, aching for his touch. His erection, hard and insistent, pressed against her hip. She slid her hand between them, palming his cock until he groaned and slid his hand under her shirt, under her bra. And when his fingers found her nipple she cried out against his mouth.
“Yes,” she whispered. “Yes.” She wanted them both naked. She wanted him hard and heavy and thick and pounding inside her right now.
“Goddammit, Valerie.” He was panting as he dragged her over to the bed and threw her on it. She’d always loved his passion and his driving, can’t-wait-for-it need for her. She pulled off her T-shirt and swallowed as he reached for his belt buckle.
A door slammed downstairs, and like a cold bucket of water thrown over her, it slapped her back into reality.
And he knew it. His hand stilled. She scooted back on the bed, put her shirt on.
“No. I can’t do this.”
Mason’s eyes drifted shut for a fraction of a second, and when he opened them again, fury blasted her.
“Did you do this on purpose?”
Her eyes widened and shock spread through her. “Are you serious? Why would I do that?”
He grabbed his hat and took a deep breath. “I don’t know, Val. I’ve never been able to figure out why the hell you do anything. But it wouldn’t surprise me for you to throw yourself at me, fire me up, then douse the fire just like that.” He snapped his fingers.
“Oh! Are you out of your friggin’ mind? Or possibly just plain stupid? Couldn’t you feel my reaction?”
He shrugged as he reached the door to her room. “Hell, for all I know you always faked it.”
Fury made her blood boil. She grabbed a pillow from her bed and threw it at him. “You son of a bitch.”
His lips curled. “That’s more like it. Welcome home, Val.”
After he left, she stared in shock at the closed door, unable to fathom what had just happened.
Passion had always flared hot and heavy between them. But so had anger. And now she was riled up, horny and felt wretchedly guilty for having stirred up the hornet’s nest.
She knew she should have never come home. This was going to be a disaster.
mason parks let the screen door bang shut behind
him, the sound echoing in his ears as he hopped on his horse and rode the pasture, letting the cool spring breeze clear his head.
He’d been riding near the fence line, had seen the car pull up. His horse just found its way to the front of the house. He should have known better than to go in, to walk up those stairs, to go into her room—what had once been
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.
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.”