Her sister made herself comfortable on Valerie’s bed, flopping stomach-first onto it.
“Ran into Mason outside, didn’t you?”
Damn Jolene for being so perceptive. “Yes.”
“He still has the ability to make your heart hurt, doesn’t he?”
When had her sister grown up and become so wise? She started to deny it, but what was the use? “Yes.”
“That’s why you don’t come back here.”
Valerie sat on the edge of the bed and blew out a breath of defeat, feeling like she’d failed at running away from the one thing she didn’t want to talk about. “Not all of it, but that’s part of the reason.”
Jo rolled over onto her back and leaned against the pillows. “What’s the other?”
That she wouldn’t get into. Instead, she lifted her shoulders. “I just needed to move on, to find a life outside the Bar M. I wasn’t meant to be a rancher, Jo.”
Jo cocked her head to the side and studied Valerie. “I’m not sure I buy that. You were as good at ranching as I was.”
“I just didn’t love ranching like you do. I was good at it, yes, but you love it. I don’t.”
“Being good at something doesn’t mean you have to love it.”
She felt the squeeze in her heart. “Loving something doesn’t mean you won’t destroy it.”
“Ah,” Jolene said. “So we’re not really talking about the ranch now. You’re talking about your marriage to Mason.”
She lifted her gaze to her sister. “What?”
“Mason. You’re talking about loving Mason.”
“No. I’m not.”
“You’re talking about loving and destroying. That’s not the ranch you’re talking about, Valerie.”
Dammit. Why did everything get turned around to talk of Mason? “There’s a damn good reason we’re not married anymore. And I’d appreciate if you and Brea would keep your matchmaking fingers out of our relationship.”
Jo raised her hands. “Whoa. Okay. Hands off. I get it.”
Jolene swung her legs over the side of the bed and headed for the door. “But, Val?”
“I think you still love him. And he’s not destroyed, so maybe there’s still hope.”
But Jolene had already pulled the door shut and hadn’t heard Valerie scream at her.
Somehow Valerie didn’t think that topic was closed.
the funeral was surprisingly well attended considering
how much everyone had hated their uncle Ronald. But Valerie supposed most people were better bred than she was and would willingly pay their respects to the mean son of a bitch even if he’d never had a kind word to say to a single soul.
Lila said people attended out of respect for the family. Maybe so. Valerie’s parents’ funeral had been standing room only. There’d been weeping. Then again, her parents had been kind people. Maybe someone had left Uncle Ronald in a basket on her grandparents’ doorstep, and they’d taken pity on him and raised him as their own. Because no way in hell would Valerie ever believe Uncle Ronald and her father were of the same blood. Ronald had been mean as a rattle-snake, always coiled and ready to strike out at whatever innocent victim was foolish enough to get close. And every eye at the church and cemetery that day was bone dry. No one cried over his death. What did that say about a man’s character?
They held a luncheon at the ranch after, and lots of folks attended, which gave Valerie a chance to catch up with people she hadn’t seen since she’d left town two years ago. That was both a good and a bad thing. She loved catching up, but hated fielding the same old questions about where she’d been, why she left the ranch, and what was going on with her and Mason.
In that her sisters were her lifesavers, especially Jolene, who steered people away with talk of cattle and horses and the exorbitant price of feed. And Lila, who stuffed everyone’s faces with enough food their mouths were too full to talk. Fortunately, Mason had begged off attending the luncheon, claiming he had ranch work to do, so she didn’t have to face him along with the questioning stares of everyone from town.
According to them, you didn’t leave ranch life. You were born and bred to it, you married into it and you died doing it.
Why in hell weren’t they badgering Brea with questions? Probably because she knew how to hang out in a corner and resemble a potted plant. No doubt not a single soul even recognized her behind her scraggly hair and boho outfit. If only Valerie could be obscure. As the oldest, she was the best known other than Jolene.
By the time the crowds had left, Valerie was exhausted. Tension had drilled her shoulders into hard knots. She was glad this day was over, and she wanted nothing more than to hide in her room. Brea and Jolene were in the kitchen with Lila. Valerie stayed in the great room, searching for leftover cups and spoons and the like.
Her shoulders tensed at Mason’s voice. She turned and managed a smile. “It wasn’t too bad.”
“Sorry I wasn’t here. Bet you had to field a lot of questions about us.”
Dirt smudged his face and rained off his jeans as he moved into the room, his boots tapping on the wood floor. God he looked good enough to . . . eat.
It had been a long, long dry spell. The last man she’d been with had been . . . him.
“You look tense.”
She lifted her chin and dropped her shoulders. “I’m fine, really.”
“I used to know you better than you knew yourself. You’re not fine. There are dark circles under your eyes. When was the last time you slept?”
. “Don’t worry about me.”
His lips quirked. “Old habits die hard.”
He moved in, his fingertips brushing hers. The contact was electric, surprising.
What they had was in the past. It should be dead, buried, along with any feeling she’d had for him. But the
of chemistry was still there, undeniably roaring to the forefront with the simple touch of fingers.
It wasn’t fair that this was happening.
His gaze shot to hers and she was lost in the darkness of his eyes. Memories swirled around her. Their first touch, first kiss, and so many moments after that, mingling together like a movie in fast forward. Despite the self-preserving need to run, her feet stayed rooted to the floor, curiosity and need swirling like a tornado inside her, around her.
“Leave me alone, Mason.” She finally found the strength to take a step back.
“Is that what you really want?”
She’d taken his heart and stomped all over it. Why didn’t he hate her? Hadn’t he moved on? Why did he look at her with the same kind of heat he used to, the all-consuming kind that threatened to drop her to her knees?
She knew she shouldn’t have come, that she wouldn’t be able to handle this. Handle him.
Shuddering an inhale, she backed up another few steps, breaking the spell. “It’s exactly what I want.”
The smile never left his face. “I don’t believe you.”
She skirted around him, unable to meet his knowing look. He’d always known her better than anyone. “Start believing it.”
But as she walked away on shaky legs, needing to grip the railing as she made her way up the stairs, even she didn’t believe it.
The evidence was in her pounding heart, her trembling legs, her hard nipples. One look, one touch, and she was turned on, wanting him, needing him just as much now as she always had.
She might have divorced him and walked away, but she’d never really left him.
She could talk a good game, but when faced with the man she’d loved and left, she was toast.
She couldn’t even convince herself she didn’t want him anymore. How was she going to convince Mason?
mason tossed his gloves on the worn table in the
main room of his small place just down the road from the main house. Only a few rooms and one bedroom, it suited him just fine. It gave him privacy, away from the hands after a long day.
He left the lights off, needing the cool afternoon darkness of the house to quell the heat raging inside him. He grabbed a beer from the fridge and settled in on one of the old comfortable chairs in front of the fireplace, stretching out his legs so he could just breathe for a few minutes.
How could touching Valerie spark such an inferno inside him? He’d have to get a handle on this and quick.
Then again, he’d seen the fire light up in her eyes, the desire flame instant and hot just like it had been for him. It hadn’t been one-sided.
He’d teased her last night in the barn, wanted to irritate her—anything to get some kind of reaction from her other than her usual polite, say-nothing conversation that drove him crazy. And earlier in her room . . . God, he hadn’t expected that wildcat, the woman she used to be. But she’d only given him a glimpse, and then as usual, she’d pulled back, locked herself up tight and wouldn’t let him in.
So he’d done what he normally did when she drew back from him—he’d pissed her off. She’d always had spirit, but she banked it. He’d seen plenty of that spirit, that lust for life, when they were together, when things had been hot and heavy and good between them.
He hadn’t been the one to give up, to run. That had been all her doing. And maybe he should man up and walk away, just let this thing between them die once and for all. But he was also old enough and smart enough to read a cry for help, and Val was screaming loud inside.
He knew Valerie better than anyone ever had. He knew her pain, knew her fear. What he’d told her today was true—he knew her better than she knew herself.
Maybe he’d let go too easily before. Maybe he hadn’t given her what she’d been really been asking for two years ago.
Maybe it was time he did.
“so what’s going on tonight, guys?”
Twenty pairs of shocked eyes gaped up at her. Valerie stared the cowboys down, having marched to the bunkhouse in an effort to prove once and for all that she did not, in fact, need Mason in her life anymore. She figured the best way to do that was to actually get a life.
“Uh, we’re headin’ into town for some pool and beer, Miss Valerie.”
Bobby, one of the younger hands, nearly knocked over the chair at the long table where a bunch of the guys had been playing poker.
“That sounds like fun. Can I catch a ride with you?”
They all looked at one another. Not at her—at one another.
“Um. We’ll check in with Mason first, see if that’s all right with him.”
Her blood pressure ticked up a notch, but she kept the smile plastered to her face. “Oh, you don’t need to do that.”
“Uh, yes, ma’am, we sure do. You’re his wife.”
“Don’t matter. We wouldn’t dare take you anywhere without askin’ him first.”
They had all started to back away from her as if she was some kind of pariah with leprosy.
What a bunch of pussies. Could they take a piss without Mason’s permission?
“Fine,” she said, clenching her jaw. “I’ll just take the truck into town.”
Imbeciles. Were they children or grown men? She stormed back into the house and stomped up the stairs, threw open her closet and glared at her clothes.
“What bug crawled up your ass?”
She ignored Jolene. Which, of course, meant Jolene came in and threw herself on Valerie’s bed.
“Got a date?”
“Where are you going?”
“Into town. Some of the hands are hitting the bar for drinks and pool.”
“Sounds great. I’m in.”
“In for what?” Brea had come in, too. Of course. God forbid her sisters stay out of her business.
“Town. Bar. Drinks. Pool.”
“Ooh,” Brea said. “Awesome. Let me go change.”
“Wait for us,” Jo said, sliding off the bed and hurrying out the door.
She was about to object, but it would actually be fun to unwind a bit with her sisters. She needed something—anything—to get her mind off Mason. A little drinking and dancing should do the trick.
An hour and a half later they pulled up in front of Dirk’s Downtown Dive, a misnomer since downtown was pretty much the actual town itself. The small municipality about forty minutes south of the ranch was the only town around other than Tulsa. And it was the only place to go if you didn’t want to take the two-hour drive into the city. So Dirk’s it was. And it was hopping tonight. The parking lot was full and the sometimes-worked-sometimes-didn’t neon sign was actually working tonight. A cloud of dust flew up as Jolene slid the truck into one of the last available spots in the dirt and gravel parking lot. Which meant the next customer would be parking on the grass.
They climbed out of the truck and Valerie smoothed her shirt down over her jeans, getting used to the feel of cowboy boots again.
Even Brea had changed out of those hideous gypsy skirts and put on a pair of jeans and boots tonight. Jolene had convinced Brea to pull her hair back in a ponytail, which had done wonders for her appearance. At least Valerie could see Brea’s face now.
“You look like a different person,” Valerie said. “Beautiful.”
Brea looked down at the ground. “Thanks. Maybe I’ve been neglecting myself a bit. I need to do something about that.”
“A bit?” Jolene said, a look of shock on her face. “Christ, Brea, you look like you’ve been living in a fucking cave or something. Tomorrow’s Saturday and I’m taking you into Tulsa for a makeover. Hair, nails, pedicure, the works.”
Brea grinned. “That might be fun.”
Valerie elbowed Brea. “You just want to look hot for Gage.”
Her sister blushed under the neon lights. “Dear God, Val. I do not.”
“Liar,” Jolene said, pulling the heavy wooden door open. “Now, let’s party.”
The bar was noisy, smoky, and crowded as hell. With lots of cowboys and very few women.