Brea frowned. “Who decided it was pick-on-Brea night?” She shot a glare to Jolene. “You dress like a man.”
Jolene rolled her eyes. “It’s my job, moron. You want me to wear a miniskirt to wrestle calves?”
“The guys would probably enjoy seeing that,” Valerie teased.
“Yeah, I’ll just bet they would. And having dust up my coochie would be oh so pleasant.”
Right now Jolene wore nearly coochie-baring shorts and a tank top that hugged her generous breasts. She’d taken the pigtails out and brushed her hair so the long blond strands lay in soft waves over her shoulders. Really, her sister was naturally gorgeous, even without a bit of makeup on. It was so unfair. Heart-shaped face, full lips, peachy complexion and hazel eyes with long lashes. She didn’t need to do a damn thing to look beautiful. She was country girl personified, and had the face and body to match.
“What are you staring at?” Jolene asked.
“I was just thinking how naturally beautiful you are.”
Jolene’s lashes swept down, then back up again. “Stop teasing me.”
“She’s right, Jo. You’ve always been gorgeous without trying.”
Jolene looked to Brea. “You could be beautiful, too, if you’d cut that mop of hair so people could see your pretty face. And put on some clothes that accentuate your body. Honestly, Brea, what are you hiding from?”
Brea shook her head. “I’m not hiding from anything.” She picked up a book and shoved her face in it.
Jolene looked over at Valerie. “Not hiding. Right. Have you ever known this girl to not have a book glued to her nose?”
“Never,” Valerie said. “Brea. Are you dating anyone?”
“When was the last time you did?”
“Do you even like guys?” Jolene asked.
Brea dropped the book in her lap. “Of course I do. I’ve had sex before. I’m not a virgin. For God’s sake, I’m twenty-eight.”
Jolene shrugged. “Just wanted to know if maybe your tastes ran elsewhere.”
“You’re such a bitch, Jo.”
Valerie laughed. “No, I’d say she definitely likes guys. Didn’t you see the drool on her chin at supper tonight every time she looked at Gage Reilly?”
Brea’s eyes widened. “I was not drooling over Gage.”
“Yes, you were. You couldn’t take your eyes off him. Not that I blame you. He’s gorgeous. All that lean muscle, and his face is gorgeous with his short brown hair and ocean blue eyes. That’s one hell of a sexy package. Any woman would drop at his feet. You might try to hide behind your hair, but I saw who you were looking at.”
Brea picked up her book. “I’m not even going to dignify this ridiculous conversation by participating in it. It’s juvenile.”
“Coward,” Jolene said. “Always hiding on your computer and in your books. Some things never change.” She poked Brea’s shoulder. “Real life is out here, Brea. You should try living it.”
“Fuck off, Jolene.”
In so many ways, this was just like their childhood together. Petty bickering, never seeing eye to eye on anything. Two of them would always gang up on one, and which two would always change—sometimes hourly—depending on which sister needed picking on.
“I see you and Mason still get along well,” Jolene said, turning her attention from Brea to Valerie. “You two hardly said a word to each other over supper. And you did your best to avoid eye contact.”
Brea peeked over the top of her book.
“Let’s not go there, Jo.”
“Oh, I see. It’s okay to take jabs at me and my nonexistent love life. But yours is off limits,” Brea said, picking up the gauntlet.
“I’m not going to talk about Mason. It’s ancient history.”
“Is it?” Jolene asked with an arch of her brow. “Didn’t look or feel that way to me over supper. The tension in the kitchen was thick as morning fog.”
“I mean it, Jolene. What is all this animosity about? You invited us here.” Valerie felt the pressure building in the room and knew she had to do something to try and diffuse it before things got out of hand.
“And it’s about damn time you two slackers showed up. This is your ranch and I’m tired of making all the decisions about it while the two of you sit on your asses and do nothing.”
“Hey!” Brea said. “You need us, we’re here. All you have to do is ask.”
“I’ve asked plenty. And you told me no at least five times in the past year.”
Brea looked down at her lap. “I’ve had projects. I’ve been busy.” “Bullshit. You avoided coming here, just like Valerie.” Jolene turned her gaze to Valerie. “You and your I’m-such-a-busy-doctor routine are just as bad.”
“Oh, come on, Jolene,” Brea said, standing. “Valerie was doing her residency.”
“And she never had time off? Just like you. Everything is more important than coming home.”
“I’ve had about all I’m going to take from you, Jolene,” Brea said, her fingers curling into fists.
Valerie had reached the end of her rope, too. “You must be itching for a fight tonight, baby sister. You need to take a step back and knock this off.”
“Or what? You’ll punch me out? You’ll hurl insults at me? Please. I can kick your ass.”
“In your dreams.”
Brea crossed her arms and moved up next to Valerie. “Are you going to take us both?”
Jolene tilted her head back and offered up a smug smile. “Bring it on.”
“Okay, you three. Enough. You’re acting like children.” Lila walked in cradling a huge cardboard box.
Their squabble instantly forgotten, Valerie moved to the other side of the room to help her. “That looks heavy. Let me help you.”
Lila ignored her and dropped the box on the floor, then swept her hands together and placed them on her ample hips. “Now, you three quit bickering with each other and go through this.”
“What is it?” Brea asked.
“It belonged to your mother.”
“What’s in it?” Jolene asked.
Lila gave her a pointed stare. “If you go through it, you’ll find out. There’s wine and glasses in the bar. Go have a few drinks and remember why you love each other. You’re family. Not enemies.”
Valerie felt thoroughly chastised. “Would you like to stay and hang out with us?”
Lila shook her head. “Some things need to be shared privately among sisters.” With a wink, she turned and walked through the double doors leading out of the family room. “Night, girls.” She closed the doors behind her.
Valerie turned and stared at the dusty box, then up at her sisters. “What the hell is that?”
Jolene shrugged. “I have no idea. I’ll go open the wine.” She went behind the bar, opened a bottle of Chardonnay and poured three glasses, then brought the glasses to them.
They stood contemplating the box while they drank their wine.
“Are we just going to stare at it, or are we going to open it up and look inside?” Brea asked.
Valerie stared down at the box, then again up at her sisters, who looked back at her expectantly. “What?”
“You’re the oldest. You do it,” Brea said.
Valerie rolled her eyes. “What are you so afraid of? Do you think there might be live snakes in here?”
“Well, no,” Jolene said. “But I still think you should open it.”
“Oh, for heaven’s sake.” She dropped to her knees in front of the box and laid her glass of wine on the floor, then tore open the strip of tape and pulled the flap, staring down into the darkness inside. She frowned, then reached into the box and pulled out a pile of . . . paper.
“What is that stuff?” Jolene asked, coming closer.
“I’m not sure.” She handed the first pile to Jolene, who sat crosslegged on the floor on the other side of the box. Then she dove in and grabbed another pile and handed it off to Brea, who had appeared on her other side. By the time she’d dug in and pulled a pile out for herself, Brea and Jolene were chattering among themselves.
“What?” Valerie asked.
“This must be our stuff Mom had kept,” Brea whispered, her voice reverent.
Jolene looked up at her, tears in her eyes. “These are our things. From when we were kids.”
“Really?” Valerie went through the pile in her lap, unfolding yellowed pages of drawings they’d made, school papers, report cards, notes they’d written to one another.
“It’s her box of memories,” Valerie said. “Memories of us.” Valerie’s heart squeezed as she gently unfolded every piece of paper, looking at Brea’s, Jolene’s and her own name scrawled in their childhood handwriting. The box was full of all these treasures.
“I never knew Mom kept these.” Jolene sniffed and held a piece of yellowed paper. “It’s a Mother’s Day picture I drew for her. I even wrote my age. It’s a backwards five.”
“I remember her telling me once that she saved everything we ever did. But I thought that was just her being kind. I guess she really meant it.” Valerie was elated to find the treasures of these memories, but ached at how bittersweet it was to know her mother had kept them all. It was times like these she missed her mother so much it hurt.
“What’s this?” Jolene pulled out a weathered black notebook and flipped through the pages, her wistful smile transforming into a wide grin. She lifted her head and looked at both of them. “It’s my M.A.S.H. notebook.”
“Are you kidding me?” Brea asked.
“I’m so not kidding. Look.” Jolene handed the notebook to Brea, who flipped through the pages and started laughing.
M.A.S.H.” Brea handed the book to Valerie, who took it and flipped to the first page.
Sure enough, it was Jolene’s M.A.S.H. notebook. Valerie was stunned. “Mansion, apartment, shack, house. Oh, God, how many times—how many years—did we play this game?”
“Look at these pages. I remember so many of these,” Jolene said, flipping through the notebook. She glanced up at Valerie and Brea. “Are yours in there, too?”
“I don’t know.” Valerie rose and dug through the box, pulling out all the notebooks she could find. Six of them in total, two for each of the sisters. “They’re all here!” Her pulse raced with the thrill of discovering her old notebooks. She handed the others their books and sat down to page through hers, smiling at her childish handwriting and what she’d written there. They’d started these notebooks when Jolene was eight, Brea was ten and Valerie was twelve. And they’d kept them up until Valerie was—what?—seventeen?
“Dave Exton?” Valerie wrinkled her nose at the circled name under the “Guy I’ll Marry” category. “What was I thinking?”
“You were thinking you had a thing for red hair and freckles when you were twelve years old,” Jolene said.
“And lanky, gawky guys,” Brea added. “Oh, God, Brett Stanton? Gag. What was
“Brea and Brett,” Valerie said. “I remember we teased you mercilessly about that name combination.”
“Funny how one’s tastes in guys could change over the years, isn’t it?” Jolene said. “And of course, we all chose the mansion.”
“And we wanted to live in Paris and drive the Lamborghini,” Brea added.
“And have two kids, and be schoolteachers. Those were all the popular wants. But none of us managed to reach those lofty goals, did we?” Jolene said, going quiet as she studied her pages with her lips pressed together.
“We used to have such fun playing this game,” Valerie said, smoothing her hand over the yellowed pages of her notebook.
“We played it a lot,” Brea said.
“Especially whenever a new boy caught our eye. We wanted to make sure we would end up with him,” Jolene added.
Wineglasses were refilled and the room went quiet. Valerie lifted her gaze from the pages of her notebook now and then to watch her sisters, knowing they were lost in their own memories, just as she was, back in a time when it was such a thrill to be in love. How long had it been since she’d felt that way about a guy?
Not since Mason. And not again after him.
“Oh, I have the best idea ever,” Jolene said, her lips lifting in a wide grin.
“What?” Brea asked.
“You’re going to love this.”
“What’s your idea?” Jolene always had wacky ideas that usually got them all into trouble, Valerie thought. But they were usually the most fun ideas, too.
Jolene lifted her glass to her lips and took a sip.
“Jolene!” Brea repeated. “What?”
She put her wineglass down.
“Let’s play the M.A.S.H. game again. Right now.”
|WHAT KIND OF HOUSE?||CAR?|
|WHERE TO LIVE?||NUMBER OF KIDS|
|On the Ranch||2|
“play the game?” valerie gaped at jolene. “are you
nuts? We’re not kids anymore.”
Jolene took a long swallow of wine, then went to the bar and refilled her glass, bringing the bottle over to refill her sisters’ glasses, too. “Oh, come on. What’s the harm in having a little fun? How long has it been since we played this game?”
“Ten, twelve years or so, at least,” Brea said.
“Exactly. So let’s do it.”
Jolene looked so eager and excited. Even Brea was digging in her bag for a pen.
Valerie didn’t want to be the one to spoil their fun, and even she had to admit she was eager to take pen to paper and play again.