Goddammit. She would not be jealous. She’d expected Mason to move on with his life, and he obviously had. Good for him.
At least that’s what she was supposed to think. But her stomach churned and her hands formed into fists. She wanted to march over there and rip that blonde away from Mason. She wanted to scream that he was hers and no other woman was allowed to touch him. Ever.
What the hell was wrong with her? Isn’t this exactly what she wanted? Mason with another woman represented freedom—closure to that chapter in her life. Did she expect him to hide out on the ranch and pine away for her forever? How stupid could she be?
Yet she couldn’t get past the blonde’s hands all over her man—correction—all over Mason.
She had to stop looking. It wasn’t her business what he did or with whom. It shouldn’t hurt.
But it did. She hated that it did.
“Who the hell is that woman?” she asked.
“Candy? She’s some bar slut who’s been trying to get her hands in Mason’s pants for a year or so,” Jolene offered.
“And? Has she succeeded?”
Jolene snorted. “Mason isn’t interested in her. Doesn’t stop Candy from trying every time he steps foot inside Dirk’s.”
He didn’t look like he was trying all that hard to extricate himself from Candy’s clutches. “I need another drink.”
“Don’t you think you’ve had enough?” Brea asked.
Valerie gathered up a few of the empties. “Oh, honey, I haven’t had nearly enough. I’m just getting started.”
mason’s ex-wife was rip-roaring, on-her-ass drunk
as a skunk, which was pretty damned amusing since she usually didn’t drink much at all. She was clinging to the bar stool, one arm hung over the back, her ass cheeks barely registering on the seat. Her heels dug into the floor as if they were the only thing keeping her from slithering to the ground and passing the hell out.
He gave her about five more minutes and she’d be on the ground facedown in the discarded peanut shells.
Brea and Jolene were trying to pull her upright onto the seat. No luck, there, especially since Valerie was belligerent and uncooperative, swatting them away like annoying flies in hot August.
“I fine. I kin get home jus fine wishout y’all pishing me off.”
He snickered at the slurring. The bar had closed about ten minutes ago, was practically empty. Sandy, who was wiping down the counter, caught his eye and shook her head. He smiled at her and headed toward the McMasters sisters.
“Mason, help. She’s a giant pain in the ass,” Jolene said, holding Valerie up by the back of her shirt.
“I’ll get her home. You two go on.”
“Bless you,” Brea said, extricating herself from under her sister’s arm.
Valerie pushed at Brea. “See, told ya I could drive.”
Jolene shook her head. “Girl never had any sense about drinking.” She patted Mason on the arm as she walked past. “Hope she doesn’t puke in your truck.”
Great. He scooped Valerie up into his arms and her head fell against his chest. She tilted her head back and opened two bloodshot eyes to stare up at him.
“Why aren’t you with your girlfriend? Jush leave me here and I’ll drive myshelf.”
He didn’t answer, just nodded to Sandy and pushed open the front door. The night was cool. Maybe it would help clear Valerie’s head.
“Oh my God, who put me on a roller coaster?” she whined as he walked to his truck.
“You did.” He stopped and leaned her against the side of the truck long enough to dig for his keys.
She slumped against him. “I don’t feel so hot.”
He picked her up again and put her on the passenger side, clicked her seat belt into place, then got in and started up the truck, making sure he drove slow and straight, though the mean streak in him wanted to hit every goddamn bump in the road. But he didn’t. Not that it mattered, since even in the dark he saw her face grow pale.
“I really don’t feel good, Mason.”
He punched the button and rolled her window partway down.
“Suck in some fresh air.”
She did, inhaling and exhaling. And grew white as a sheet.
He turned down a gravel side road, threw it into park, raced around to her side and jerked her out of the car just in time. She dropped to her knees and he held her hair while she vomited up the contents of her wild party tonight. When it seemed like there was nothing left to give up, he grabbed a bottled water he had stashed in the side pocket of the truck and washed her face, then told her to take a sip. He put her back in the truck and drove back to the ranch, then carried her inside and up to her room.
She was quiet now. Her eyes were closed, and she was limp as a dishrag and soaked through with sweat.
He laid her on the bed, her hair a tangled mess around her face.
She looked like shit.
He walked out into the hallway. Brea’s and Jolene’s rooms were both dark. As a matter of fact, Jolene’s truck hadn’t been out front. Maybe they’d stopped at the all-night diner in town for breakfast. He supposed he could wake Lila . . .
Well, hell. It wasn’t like Valerie had anything he hadn’t seen before. He went back into her room, watched her chest rise and fall with deep, even breaths. He pulled off her boots and socks, then undid her belt buckle and unfastened her jeans. He pulled down the zipper and tugged the jeans over her hips and down her thighs, revealing purple silk panties, tiny strings holding them up on her hips.
Christ. His cock twitched to life as he drew the jeans down her legs, his knuckles brushing the softness of her skin. He felt like a pervert undressing an unconscious woman. A woman whose body he knew all too well.
Sucking in a breath, he took the hem of her shirt and pulled it up, baring her flat stomach, her ribs, and over her breasts. Her purple bra matched her panties. She sighed, inhaled deeply, her breasts rising with that breath.
He was fully hard now, mentally cursing this really stupid idea. He lifted the shirt over her head and threw it on the floor, then slid his hands under her back and undid the hooks of her bra in about two seconds flat. Hell, he’d always been good at undressing her, especially when they’d been frantic about getting naked and getting skin-to-skin with each other.
Thoughts like that weren’t going to settle his dick down soon. He pulled her bra off, stood there looking at her dusky pink nipples that hardened to tight points in the cool bedroom, and wished he were anywhere but here. He was no freakin’ Boy Scout. He was hard as a fence post and his balls were throbbing. This was the woman he’d spent half his life thinking about sinking his cock into. And here she was, lying in the bed they used to make love in together, nearly naked, her legs softly parted, her nipples hard, just like his dick.
“Come on, darlin’, let’s get you under the covers.” He scooped her up long enough to jerk the covers down. She moaned, softly, while he repositioned her, pulled the covers over her. Then she rolled to her side and shoved her nose in the pillow.
He turned off the light and pulled the door handle.
“Thank you, Mason,” she mumbled from under the covers.
He closed the door and tiptoed downstairs and out the front door, slamming into his truck and peeling off down the road. He rolled the window down, hoping the cold breeze would chill the heat roaring through his body.
He still wanted her. Even worse, he was leveled by how much he still cared for her, still wanted to care for her. She was still as vulnerable now as she was when her life had been shattered all those years ago after the death of her parents. He’d always thought she’d leaned on him then because of that. Maybe she had. And maybe it had been something more than that. Something that couldn’t separate them no matter what.
She’d walked out on him, had made it clear she wanted no part of his way of life. And yet he knew that they were still bonded. He felt it. So did she, even if she tried to deny it.
Maybe they always would be.
And maybe he was just a damn fool.
there wasn’t enough coffee and acetaminophen on
earth to obliterate the hangover Valerie had woken up with. But after a shower, nearly half a pot of coffee and some of Lila’s heavy-on-the-carbs breakfast, she decided she might live through the day.
What an epic idiot she was. Thinking she could down all those beers and shots of whiskey when she normally didn’t even drink was a lesson in stupidity. Even worse, she hadn’t been nearly drunk enough to forget Mason driving her home, or her throwing up on the side of the road, or Mason putting her to bed.
He’d taken care of her when she’d gotten sick. He’d held her hair and kept her from falling on her face in a sick, drunken stupor. Then he’d tenderly washed her face, driven her home and carried her up to her room. He’d undressed her and pulled the covers over her. She didn’t deserve such treatment after the way she’d unceremoniously dumped him, divorced him and left him. Why couldn’t he be an asshole like so many guys she knew? Most men would have left her in the parking lot of the bar and told her she was on her own.
Then again, Mason wasn’t most men and never had been. That was one of the reasons she’d fallen in love with him in the first place.
Jolene and Brea had gone to Tulsa for the morning, which meant she couldn’t avoid her ex-husband, unless she wanted to spend the day hiding in the house. And it was a warm spring day, and she was no coward.
She slid on a pair of the darkest sunglasses she had, put on her cowboy hat to shield her devastated head from the sun and found Mason out at the cattle pens, roping the calves for branding. She swung over the fence and walked toward him.
“Hey,” she said, squatting down and ignoring the smell of burning calf flesh as one was branded with the Bar M mark. Branding calves was as much a part of her life as breakfast.
“Kind of busy here, Val,” he said, holding a branding iron to a squalling calf.
“I need to talk to you.”
He let the iron up, and the two hands holding the calf’s legs let go. The calf sprung up and sauntered off, and was let out of the pen and into the pasture, while the next calf was brought in, roped—or wrestled—into lying down.
“If you’re going to insist on being in my way, put on some gloves and get to work.”
She sighed, looked around and found a pair of work gloves, then took her place at the front end of a calf, replacing one of the cowboys, who went off to perform another task. She held tight to the calf’s forelegs while Mason applied the brand.
They worked silently for a while, her, Mason and Bobby, one of the hands. Valerie found the rhythm relaxing. It had been a long time since she’d done any ranch work. She’d always found it enjoyable, a distraction that required a lot of physical effort, but didn’t overtax her mind. And after eight years of having her brain cells filled to bursting with medical school, this was a slice of heaven.
“Thank you for last night,” she finally slipped in between brandings.
“Don’t worry about it.”
His tone was gruff. Probably because he was busy, concentrating on what he was doing.
“Well I do worry about it. I didn’t set out to get stinking drunk. Or to have you take care of me.”
His gaze lifted to hers while they waited for Bobby to bring the next calf over. “Someone had to, since you were in no shape to take care of yourself.”
She leaned back on her heels. “You’re not responsible for me.”
His gaze was direct. Unnerving. “I’ll always be responsible for you, darlin’. You may have walked out on our marriage, but I never walked out on you.”
And just like that, the floodgates opened. Tears welled in her eyes and threatened to spill over. She pushed off her feet and stood, jerking the gloves off as she walked away in such a hurry she had no idea where she was going, only that she knew she had to get away from him. Away from here.
She climbed over the fence and kept walking, no destination in mind. She could walk for hours, days, and not reach the end of the Bar M’s land. It didn’t matter. She only needed space and distance, away from the knot of emotion Mason’s words had caused.
But no matter how far she walked, she couldn’t escape what he’d said.
She hadn’t wanted to come home, hadn’t wanted to see Mason. Coward that she was, she’d known what would be waiting for her here. The old feelings, the emotions she’d tried to tell herself were long gone, but weren’t. They hadn’t died, even if she’d tried her best to kill them.
She still loved him. She’d never stopped. She’d just run away from what she felt, too afraid to stick it out, to see if she could handle loving someone so intensely it made her heart hurt.
She’d loved her parents like that, and had lost them. It had left a hole in her heart so deep she’d never recovered from it. And when she’d fallen in love with Mason, the depth of her feelings for him had scared her to death. Because if she ever lost him, she wasn’t sure she’d survive it. So instead, she’d walked away.
Better to have lost than ever to have loved. It hurt a hell of a lot less in the long run. And you win your sanity that way.
Two years later, she didn’t feel like she had won a damn thing. Her victory was hollow.
valerie avoided mason and the family the rest of
the day. Fortunately Jolene and Brea stayed busy and didn’t bother her except when Brea showed off her new look, which was spectacular, as Valerie had known it would be.
Valerie stayed in her room, didn’t come down to supper; instead she ate alone upstairs.
Yeah, she was brooding and avoiding, but it worked for her. Better to avoid than to face the truth. She was really good at avoiding truths, had been doing it for years now.
But by night she was bored and restless. She tried a bubble bath and a book, but that didn’t help at all. She was tired of staring at the four walls. Some air might help.