“Fine. We’ll play.”
They swept their notebooks to the first blank page and grabbed their pens. Valerie stared down at the blank page for a long time. She wasn’t a kid anymore, with childlike dreams of fame and fortune and big houses, expensive cars and the man of her dreams. Real life didn’t work that way. But oh, to dream . . .
She put her pen to paper and started filling out the dwellings, the cars, the occupations, where to live and even the number of kids she wanted to have. Jolene was right. It was fun getting into the game again, imagining all the what-ifs. But when it came time to fill in the guys—men she wanted to marry—she drew a blank.
“You stopped again,” Jo said.
“What are you, my warden?”
“You paused at the guys, didn’t you?”
“What makes you think that?”
“Because Brea did the same thing.”
“Hey,” Brea said, tilting her notebook away from Jolene’s prying eyes. “Quit peeking.”
“It’s not like I’m going to copy the guys you write down. I already know who I want.”
Valerie’s brows perked up. “Really. That confident, are you?”
“About who and what I want? Hell yes. Now if I could just get him to see it my way . . .”
“And which guy would this be?” Valerie still found it hard to believe her baby sister was old enough to date, let alone fall in love or have sex. But Jolene was twenty-six, and more than capable of running a ranch by herself. She could certainly fall in love. Get married. Raise a family. Time had passed too quickly. And Valerie had missed a ton of it.
“Ahh, I thought I saw you making eyes at him over supper,” Brea said, a knowing smile spreading across her face. “He’s hot, with that coal dark hair and stormy eyes. Yummy.”
Jolene licked her lips and scribbled in her notebook. “That he is. And what about you, Brea?”
Brea shrugged, tapping her pen against the paper. “I don’t know. I don’t really . . . get out much.”
“If you’d quit spending all your time falling in love with fictional characters in those books you read and experience real life, maybe you’d have some names to write down,” Jolene suggested.
Brea lifted her chin. “There’s nothing wrong with reading.”
“There is if that’s all you do. There’s a big ol’ life out there just waiting to be lived. Why don’t you try it?”
Brea glared at Jolene, then turned her gaze on Valerie. “What about you, Val? Any new guys in Dallas spark your interest enough to put them on paper?”
There had only been one man in her entire adult life, and that had been Mason. He was past, not future. Yet she didn’t have anyone else to list there; she didn’t date, wasn’t interested in it, really. Her life had been about work, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, for as long as she could remember. And the only thing that had disrupted her goal had been Mason.
She jerked her head up and looked at Jolene. “What?”
“You done yet?”
She slid her gaze back to her paper. “No. I’m still thinking.”
“It never used to take that long,” Brea said. “What’s the holdup?”
“Give me a minute.” She wrote Mason’s name . . . then nothing, realizing he was the only man she’d ever wanted. Since she was a teenager, he’d been the only man in her life. How pathetic was that? After Mason’s name she listed the names of men who didn’t exist. “Okay, done.” They switched notebooks to prevent cheating.
“All right, then,” Jolene said. “Time to draw a number.”
“I’ll start the spiral,” Brea said. “Valerie, you tell me when to stop.”
Brea started a spiral in her notebook, drawing a continuous, gradually outgoing circle. The rule was that you couldn’t look at the person drawing the circle so you couldn’t guess at how many rows of circles there would be, thereby guessing the outcome. So instead Valerie looked at Jolene, who smirked at her.
“Did you write Mason’s name down, Val?” Jolene asked.
“Of course not.” She turned to Brea. “Stop.”
Brea lifted her pen from the paper. “Okay, time to count.” Brea counted the numbers of swirls. “There are seven. Start crossing off your list.”
They crossed through the list every time they got to the seventh item, until each category only had one item left. Then they handed the notebooks back. Valerie noticed a few familiar names in Jolene’s notebook—ranch hands—and a few unfamiliar names, too. But she’d definitely seen Walker Morgan’s name on the list, the man who’d eaten supper with them, the man Jolene couldn’t seem to take her eyes off of.
“So,” Valerie said, ignoring her own list. “Looks like you and Walker Morgan are going to be very happy together in your mansion in Paris with your two children.”
Jolene snorted. “Yeah. You could see me in Paris in a mansion, couldn’t you?” Jo shifted her gaze to Brea. “And who were the guys on your list? Didn’t see anyone I know except our own Gage.”
Brea shrugged. “I just tossed him on there for fun.”
“Uh huh,” Jolene said. “He looks like he’d be fun. And dangerous. That man is wicked sexy. Think you can handle him?”
Brea blushed. “This is just fantasy.”
“Gage is some fantasy, isn’t he?” Valerie teased.
Brea lifted her chin. “What about you, Valerie? Who were the guys you had on your list?”
No one real except Mason
. She put the notebook aside. “This game was a lot more fun when we were kids.”
“And guys were just a wish list instead of reality?” Jolene asked.
“Something like that.”
“You wrote Mason’s name down, didn’t you?”
Valerie nodded, unable to meet her sister’s eyes.
“Did something happen between you two today?” Brea asked. “Supper was damned uncomfortable.”
Valerie inhaled, then let it out. “He came to see me in my room when I arrived.”
“Uh oh. Did you two argue?” Jolene frowned. “I’ll kick his ass if he was mean to you.”
“He wasn’t mean to me. We were talking, and then all of a sudden we were kissing.”
“Whoa.” Brea’s eyes widened.
“Yeah. I didn’t mean for it to happen. We’re divorced. He and I are history.”
“Apparently not,” Jolene said, her lips lifting. “You two have always had combustible chemistry.”
Valerie pushed herself into a standing position and paced the room. “I shouldn’t have come home. I need the distance between him and me.”
Jolene reached for her hand. “Hiding isn’t going to solve what’s wrong between you and Mason.”
“It’s been working just fine the past two years.”
“Has it? Five minutes together and you’re tearing each other’s clothes off.”
She pinned Jolene with a glare. “Nothing happened. I stopped it.”
“Dumbass,” Brea mumbled. “You two are meant for each other. You have been since the first day you laid eyes on each other.”
Valerie shook her head. “I don’t think so. His life is here. Mine is in Dallas. We want different things.”
“Only because you think you can’t live here.”
She turned her gaze to Jolene, swept her hand across her baby sister’s cheek. “I can’t live here. I tried.”
Jolene hugged her. “Then I guess you’ll have to figure out a way to bury the past and your feelings for Mason. And we’ll be here to help you pick up the pieces.”
Brea moved in and hugged her, too. “We’ll always be here for you.”
Shit. Tears pricked her eyes and she forced them back. She threw her arms around her sisters. It had always been her job to take care of them, and now they were shouldering her burdens.
“You know, as much as I hated the thought of coming here, I’m so damn glad to be with you two again. Bickering and all.”
Jolene pulled away and grinned. “That’s not bickering. That’s just sisterhood.”
they sat and went through their mother’s box of
memorabilia for a while longer, drinking wine and reminiscing about their childhood until Jolene and Brea decided to go up to bed.
Valerie wasn’t ready for sleep yet. She needed some air, so she pulled the doors open, went straight for the front door and down the porch steps, out into the chilly spring night. By the time she made it all the way to the barn, she wished she’d put on warmer clothes and a jacket; she’d forgotten how cold the nights could get out here in the spring. Goose bumps pricked her skin, making her shiver all over.
She should head back to the house, but too many memories clung there. Instead, she opened the barn doors, and was enveloped in the warmth from the horses.
“Hey, babies,” she said in a soft, gentle voice as she closed the door, letting the darkness surround her. She inhaled the scent of hay and horses and smiled. Such familiar smells. Sometimes the things of home just felt right. This felt right. She moved in, careful not to make too much noise in the dark. “It’s just me.” She wanted to assure them she wasn’t some stranger there to harm them.
She heard the movement of hooves, the occasional wuffling of their breathing, but otherwise all was quiet. She moved along each stall, refamiliarizing herself with horses she’d ridden before, and meeting some of the new ones. The smell reminded her of being in here with her father. He’d loved the horses. He’d loved everything about this ranch, about this life. She had, too, until her parents had been abruptly taken away from her. Then she’d hated everything about the Bar M.
Except Mason. But he hadn’t been enough to keep her here.
“You could turn some light on in here.”
She pivoted, her heart crashing against her chest at the sound of another voice. Mason’s. “You scared the hell out of me.
could have turned a light on so you wouldn’t frighten me half to death.”
He flipped on the overhead lights and headed toward her. “I was in the tack room. Heard someone come in. Since I wasn’t sure who’d be in the barn this late at night, I figured I’d come out to investigate before I announced I was here. Just in case it was an intruder who wasn’t supposed to be in here.”
Her goose bumps returned and she wrapped her arms around her chest to hide her upraised nipples. Mason’s gaze strayed to her chest, his lips lifted, then he looked at her face again.
“What are you doing out here? And why are you half-naked? You should know it’s cold outside.”
“I needed some air, I’m hardly half-naked, and I forgot it was so cold until I was already at the barn.”
He shook his head. “You never had a lick of common sense, woman.” He pulled off his jacket and moved so close she felt his body heat. “Come on. Slide into this.”
Irritated at his attitude, she wanted to say no, but that would be childish, so she put his jacket on. It was warm from his body. It smelled like Mason. She pulled it tighter around her, the smell of leather and male almost overpowering to her senses. “Thanks.”
They stood that way for too long, Valerie staring up into Mason’s so familiar face. He didn’t seem to be in a hurry to move away, and he smelled so damn good. And that’s exactly what had gotten her into trouble earlier today. She stepped back and turned around. “So you got some new horses?”
“Yeah. Gage is doing a great job training. He’s gotten us some beauties.”
She walked along the stalls, stopping at a few to lay her hands on some of the new mares. “I can see that.” There were so many parts of ranch life she missed. The horses, the cattle. Riding alongside Mason.
She missed Mason.
No, she didn’t. She missed sex with Mason. That part had been incredible. Everything else between them had been a disaster.
She reached up to pet a mare, doing her best to ignore Mason’s presence. “I guess you stay busy. Not much time for any . . . social life or anything.”
“I haven’t gotten married again, if that’s what you’re asking.”
She jumped when she realized he was right behind her. She turned to face him. “I assume you wouldn’t have been all over me in my room today if you were married to someone else.”
“I was all over you?”
“I think you threw yourself at me because you’re starved for sex.”
If there had been a shovel nearby he’d have been a dead man by now. “You are so full of shit.”
“So you’ve often told me.” He didn’t seem at all irritated; in fact he looked downright amused. Which just pissed her off even more.
But she refused to let him get to her. “And anyway, that wasn’t what I was asking. I was just . . . concerned about you.”
He crooked a smile around a piece of straw resting in the corner of his mouth. “Sure you were, darlin’.” He turned and walked away.
She followed. “Don’t you ‘darlin” me, Mason. I’m not at all interested in your sex life.”
He stopped and pivoted, then pushed his hat back and arched his brows. “Oh, so now we’re talking about my sex life?”
Her entire body heated, from the tips of her painted toenails to the roots of her hair. “No. We are most definitely not talking about your sex life.”
“Okay. Let’s talk about yours, then. Gotten any lately?”
Her eyes widened. “Dear God. You haven’t changed a bit.” She spun on her heel and headed for the barn door.
“What?” She wasn’t about to stop.
“I’ll come by and pick up my jacket . . . later.”
“Asshole,” she muttered, shrugging out of his jacket and letting it drop to the barn floor. If the cosmos smiled on her, maybe it would fall into a pile of horse shit.
There was no refuge anywhere—at the house or in the barn. But at least the house only contained her sisters. She went through the front door and up the stairs directly to her room.
Unfortunately, Jolene was at the top of the stairs waiting for her.
“What?” Valerie asked.
“What are you running from?”
Valerie rolled her eyes. “Nothing.” She brushed past Jolene and went into her bedroom. Jolene caught the door before Valerie could shut it.