by the next day it was clear that woodman didn’t
have a leg to stand on. No one in the ranch community was going to support him other than a couple of his close friends, and they didn’t have the power to wield. Woodman might have one of the bigger ranches in the territory, but the Bar M nearly equaled his in size. Couple that with ten other ranchers and their buying power, and Woodman was outnumbered. He could blow smoke as much as he wanted, but he was on his way out the door.
Mason had also talked to a few hands at neighboring ranches who had amassed some very compromising photographs of one Celia Woodman, all taken with Celia’s knowledge and permission. Mason didn’t want to play that trump card unless it was necessary, but he personally went to talk to Woodman and let him know just what he had in his possession and that if Woodman didn’t back down and shut the hell up, those pictures might start making the rounds. Mason made it clear that Woodman had started this game, but the Bar M family was going to finish it.
Jolene threw her arms around Mason and kissed him on the cheek.
“I don’t care for anyone who thinks blackmail’s an option,” Mason said. “I hated playing that card with the pictures, but you should have seen Woodman’s face. And Celia’s, because she was listening in around the corner.”
Valerie grinned and slid her arm around Mason. “My hero.”
Mason shrugged. “He’s messing with one of my best hands. In fact, I’m going to make him assistant foreman, if I can find him.”
Jolene frowned. Come to think of it, she hadn’t seen Walker all day yesterday, or yet today. She assumed Mason had kept him busy.
“I thought maybe you had things for him to do.”
Mason shook his head. “Haven’t seen him since the party in town.”
Dread drilled holes in her stomach. “I’ll go check the bunkhouse. Maybe he’s sick.”
She hurried down to the bunkhouse and knocked on the door. The rest of the hands were all at work, so she expected it to be empty. She opened the door and went in search of Walker, hoping she wouldn’t find him slumped unconscious somewhere.
He wasn’t there. All his things were there, but his truck was gone. That dread turned to panic and she ran back to the house.
Mason frowned. “What do you mean he’s gone?”
“I mean he’s gone. His truck isn’t there either.”
“You talking about Walker?”
Jolene pivoted to face Lila. “Yes. Do you know where he is?”
“No, honey, I don’t. But I have an envelope. He left it for you yesterday. It slipped my mind and I forgot to give it to you.”
Jolene took the envelope and tore it open, hurriedly reading Walker’s note.
I’m sorry, but it isn’t going to work this way. Everyone will talk and assume the worst about you because of me. I can’t let that happen.
I love you,
She stared at the note, tears filling her eyes.
“He left. He just left. He was in such a hurry he didn’t even bother to pack. I can’t believe he did this.”
She crumpled up the note and tossed it in the nearby trash can. “That son of a bitch. After everything we’ve done for him, all we went through. He went yellow belly and snuck out like a scared dog. He couldn’t stick it out for me.”
Valerie put her arm around her. “Honey, I’m sure he loves you.”
Jolene’s gaze shot to her sister’s. “Does he? When you love someone, you endure. Even when things are bad you put up with it, because the good times are worth it. As soon as it got bad, he took off. That’s not love. His words are empty. They mean nothing.”
Valerie squeezed her shoulders, but Jolene shrugged her hands off. “I need to be alone.”
She pushed through the front door and went to the barn, saddled up Paradise and rode her hard, probably harder than she should have, but she wasn’t thinking straight. She only knew she needed the wind in her face and had to get away from everyone who would feel sorry for her.
She’d made such a stupid mistake, had chosen the wrong man. She’d thought Walker was strong, that he would stand by her side through thick and thin, through the worst of it. But as soon as the wind blew rough, he’d crumbled.
He wasn’t the man for her. She was a lousy judge of character.
She knew nothing about love. She’d spent years brazenly going after the wrong man.
it was almost dark by the time jolene finished
brushing and feeding Paradise. She’d ridden out to the west pasture and worked cattle with Joey and the other guys, losing herself in mindless tasks that were so familiar she didn’t have to think about them, anything to keep her mind off Walker.
It had worked. She was exhausted, filthy and ready to take a shower and go to bed, where hopefully she could fall immediately to sleep.
She came in through the back door and into the kitchen, knowing she’d missed supper, but she didn’t care. She wasn’t hungry anyway. She grabbed a can of pop, opened it and drank it down, letting the icy cold liquid cool her parched throat. She hung her hat on a hook and swept her hair out of her grit-covered face, then headed out of the kitchen into the hall.
Walker was standing there. Her heart slammed against her chest, every nerve ending in her body zinging to life, along with a mix of emotions, from elation to utter fury.
“What are you doing here?”
“I need to talk to you.”
She walked past him and up the stairs. “I’m going to take a shower.”
“I’m not leaving, Jolene. I’ll be standing right here when you get back.”
“Stand away. After I take my shower, I’m going to bed.”
As she headed up the stairs, she refused to look back to see if he was still standing there. She shut the door to her room, leaning against it to catch her breath.
Why had he come back? What did he want? His note said he had to leave, so what was there left to say? She’d been aching ever since he left. He had no right to play with her heart this way.
Screw him. She was angry and she didn’t want to talk to him. She stripped off her clothes and took a long, hot shower, scrubbing the day’s dirt off her body and out of her hair. When she finished, she dried her hair and slid on shorts and a tank top, then crawled onto the bed and stared out her window at the night sky.
The door opened, and Valerie walked in and flipped on the light.
Jolene blinked and covered her eyes. “Do you mind?”
“You’re acting like a child. Go downstairs and talk to him.”
She crossed her arms. “I don’t have anything to say to him.”
“Too bad. He has something to say to you. Now get your ass down there or I’m sending him up.”
She blew out a breath of disgust. “Fine.”
Walker was still in the same spot she’d left him, standing in the hall. Only he wasn’t alone. Lila, Valerie, Mason, Brea and Gage were there with him. Jolene balanced on the last step of the stairs, not sure she wanted to go any farther.
“Jolene, I need to talk to you.”
“You had plenty of time to talk to me yesterday. Instead, you left.”
“I know, but I left for a reason. That’s what I came back to talk to you about.”
“Okay, so talk.”
“I didn’t want anyone on the ranch here, on any ranch around, or in town, thinking I only wanted you because I wanted the Bar M.”
“No one thinks that.”
“Some people do. And I didn’t want that getting in the way of what was really between us.”
“So you left. Once again you couldn’t face the gossip about us, so you ran.”
He scratched his nose and had the nerve to smile. “No, it’s not like that.”
“Then tell me what it is like, because it sure looks to me like you were a coward and don’t care enough about me to stand up to the gossips.”
Again, that smirk. She curled her hands into fists, ready to take him down as she moved off the steps.
“I left because I wanted to do things right by you. It’s not right to ask a woman to marry you until you have your own land.”
She stopped. “What?”
“I didn’t want anyone to think I was after you for a piece of the McMasters land. So I bought my own.”
She tilted her head to the side and frowned, her mind filled with talk of land and . . . Did he say marriage? “What are you talking about?”
He moved toward her, took her hand and led her into the family room, put her in one of the chairs and knelt next to her. She noticed that everyone else followed, took a seat and leaned forward like they were all watching a climactic scene in a movie.
“Walker, you don’t have your own land.”
“I do now. I bought the Reynolds property.”
“Doodie and Rachelle Reynolds, the property that juts down along ours?”
“Yeah.” He smiled and smoothed his thumb over her hand. “They’ve been wanting to retire and move to Florida to be near their son and their daughter-in-law and the grandkids and have been talking for a while about unloading the land.”
Jolene’s gaze shot to Mason. “Why didn’t I know about this? I’ve wanted that land forever. It’s perfect for us. We could have bought it.”
Mason just shrugged, and smiled.
“If you marry me, it’s the same damn thing as it being McMasters land,” Walker said. “It’ll be our land. Where we can build our own place.”
“Our . . . Did you just ask me to marry you?”
“Twice, actually, but you don’t seem to be following me.”
She shuddered, unable to believe all this. “You bought land. For us.”
“Nothing to spend my money on, until now. I’ve been saving for a long time and I had plenty. We can’t all live in this house. It’s getting too crowded. Besides, you’re loud. I want a place far away from everyone else so we can have some privacy.”
Mason snorted, Gage laughed out loud, and Valerie and Brea snickered. Lila just coughed.
“Walker!” Jolene blushed to the roots of her hair.
“So does that mean you say yes?”
“Yes. Hell yes, I’ll marry you. Now, if you all don’t mind, I’d like to continue this conversation in private.” She stood, grabbed Walker’s hand and headed out the front door, grinning at the sounds of claps, laughs and hollers from her family.
After shutting the door behind them, Walker pulled her into his arms and kissed her until any residual anger she might have felt melted. But she wasn’t angry anymore, not after knowing why he’d left. It was the sweetest surprise. Unnecessary, but she understood why he’d done it. And she liked the thought of having their own place, quiet and far removed from the craziness that was her family, yet still close enough if she needed them. When they pulled apart, she slid her palm against the rough beard of his jaw.
“You did all that. For me.”
“For us. To shut up the gossips.”
“Oh, I don’t think there will be any gossiping.”
At his questioning look, she filled him in on what had transpired with Woodman.
He laughed. “I’ll have to thank Mason for that.”
“We’re family. We take care of each other. And you’re part of this family now. Now, let’s take a ride and see our new land.”
They climbed into the truck and took a ride to where the McMasters property ended and the Reynolds property began. It was just a fence line, but to Jolene, it represented something significant—a new beginning.
“Our land,” she said as they climbed out of the truck and sat on the hood, looking out over the fields.
“A new start.” Walker turned to her, bracketing her waist. “How about we toast that new start by climbing the fence and making love in the field on our new land?”
She laughed. “Since the Reynolds’ house is about three miles from here, I’d say that’s a fine idea.”
Once they were over the fence, it didn’t take long for clothes to go flying. They didn’t even get everything off. Jolene was in a hurry to wrap her fingers around Walker’s already hard cock. He pushed her up against the fence pole and lifted her onto his shaft.
She was ready for him. Even being away from him for a day was too long. Wet and pulsing with need, she accepted him inside her, quivering with anticipation. His mouth found hers, and he kissed her with the same kind of desperate longing coursing through her.
He slid his hand under her shirt, found her breasts and fondled her nipples, making her arch her back, craving more of the touch that set her on fire. She rocked against him, then reached down to rub her clit, needing that climax that would bond them together.
It was fast, furious, a coupling borne of passion and a deep love Jolene hadn’t been looking for, but had found with Walker. He slipped his hands under her butt and lifted her, driving her onto his cock and pushing deeper inside her. She held on to his shoulders and rode him, grinding against him until she felt the pulses she couldn’t hold back.
“I’m going to come,” she said, staring into his stormy eyes, wanting him to come with her.
He did, pumping into her with hard thrusts that sent her sailing over the edge with a groan. She kissed him as they climaxed, both of them ending up trembling and shaky and laughing as they nearly fell over.
Later, they got dressed and made their way back over the fence, then lay on the truck and watched the stars overhead.
Jolene couldn’t remember ever feeling so contented. A few months ago she was fighting her uncle, fighting to get her sisters here, and chasing after a man who paid no attention to her—or so she thought.
Now her family was here to stay, and so was Walker. Maybe going after what you really wanted wasn’t such a bad idea.
She flipped over onto her belly and kissed Walker. “I love you. Stay with me forever.”
He tapped her nose with his finger and kissed her back. “I love you, too. And I’m not goin’ anywhere. Not without you.”