“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.
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.
. 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?”
“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?”
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.
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?”
“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.”
“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
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.
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.
“Supper is at six thirty,” Lila said again.
“Have you forgotten that no one misses supper around here?” Jolene whispered over her shoulder. “Better get unpacked in a hurry.”
“I heard that. And you, missy, had better go wash your hands and face before you sit your butt down at my table.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Jolene said, then winked at her sisters. “Guess I’d better get my butt upstairs to my room, then.”
Jolene sauntered off, leaving Brea to lug her suitcases up the stairs.
“Thanks for the help, sis,” Brea yelled after Jolene.
“Quit whining. It builds muscles,” Jolene hollered over her shoulder as she took the stairs two at a time, her boots leaving a trail of dust behind her.
“She thinks we’re lightweight city girls now. Little does she know how hard I worked during my internship and residency. You build muscles rolling bodies and running down hallways, always on your feet.” Valerie grabbed one of Brea’s bags.
Brea started up the stairs behind her. “I have an awesome gym membership and I work out two hours a day. Pool, weight room, running track. I’ll show her ass who’s not in shape.”
Valerie grinned. Wasn’t this month just going to be oh so much fun?
as soon as the obligations of supper and conversation
were over, Valerie went up to her room to get away, until Jolene knocked on her door and told her Lila wanted them in the family room. Valerie blew out a sigh of frustration. She’d really hoped to hide in here for the rest of the night, but Lila obviously wanted to talk to them. And if there was one thing she’d learned over the years, it was that you didn’t tell Lila no.
She made her way downstairs and into the oversized family room complete with three sofas, five lounge chairs and a huge plasma television that hadn’t been there the last time Valerie had been home.
“Who bought the television?” Valerie asked when she walked in.
“I did,” Jolene said. “We have movie night every now and then when the weather’s too bad to go to Dirk’s bar in town. Anyone who’s around comes. Beer and snacks.”
“Fun.” Brea kicked off her grotesque sandals and pulled her feet up onto the sofa, tucking them under her skirt.
“What’s with those hideous flip-flops?” Jolene asked.
Brea looked over the sofa at her shoes. “What? They’re comfortable.”
Jolene scrunched her nose. “They’re horrible. Are you freakin’ homeless or something?”
“You could use a pedicure, too, Brea,” Valerie added, grimacing at the state of Brea’s feet.
“You guys are so funny. Just because I don’t dress straight out of the pages of a fashion magazine like Valerie, or as a cowgirl like you, Jolene, doesn’t mean I don’t have it going on.”
“Oh, you certainly have something going on, Brea,” Jolene said. “I just have no idea what
Brea shot a pleading look to Valerie, who shrugged. “I don’t like the shoes, either. And you need to do something with your hair.”