Bound, Branded, & Brazen

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Bound

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valerie mcmasters didn’t know if the old adage “you can’t go home again” was true or not, but as far as she was concerned, the thought of home made her want to turn tail and run like hell. Yet here she was, pulling into the Bar M Ranch, a place she swore she’d never come back to again.

She parked her car under the giant blackjack oak tree, several steps back from the sprawling, two-story white frame house where she’d lived since she was born. It had been two long years since she’d last been here. She wanted to get a full-on view of the place, to take it in like a picture.

The late afternoon sun rained down on the gray-shingled roof, highlighting the three gabled windows arranged in neat order along the second story. Her, Brea’s and Jolene’s bedrooms. When they were kids, all three of them had climbed out those windows at night and sat on the slanted roof to watch the stars and talk.

Shaking off the memories, Valerie grabbed her suitcases out of the trunk, walked through the front door, set her bags down in the gleaming, polished hall and realized that it wouldn’t have mattered how long she’d been gone.

Nothing would ever change at the Bar M Ranch. Not the layout of the house, the dusty ride up the long road, the mooing cows greeting her as she took the winding drive along the property line or the barking dogs that wound through her legs as she maneuvered her way to the front door.

The only thing different today was that her uncle Ronald was dead. She wouldn’t have to deal with his disapproving looks and his condemnation, or hear his lectures about how she should have stayed on the ranch and how disappointed her parents would have been in her for leaving.

Not that his opinion on things had ever mattered to her anyway. He’d always been full of shit and she’d been old enough to know better. Her parents had loved her. They would have wanted what was best for her, would have understood why she left. Uncle Ronald never knew her at all, never understood how hard it was for her to be here. No one understood.

His funeral was tomorrow. Not that she’d shed a tear for the old bastard, even if he was her father’s brother. She’d cried enough when her parents had died, when she and her sisters had to have a double funeral and put both their mother and father in the ground on the same day.

That was the last time she had cried. She hadn’t even shed a tear when she packed up and left her husband, left this ranch, left her sisters behind.

She hadn’t looked back. Hadn’t come back. Not in two long years.

Until now. The only reason she was here was because Jolene had called her, told her she was now one third owner of the Bar M, and she’d better get her ass here for the funeral and help figure out what they were going to do about the ranch once and for all. Jolene had demanded Brea and Valerie give her a month to figure things out.

A month! Like Valerie had that kind of time. But Jolene could be relentless, and yes, she and Brea had kind of abandoned their baby sister to deal with the house, the land, the cattle and everything else. They’d even left Jolene to deal with Uncle Ronald, so they kind of owed her. So Valerie had agreed. Not because she wanted to come back here. Not because she had a stake in the Bar M. As far as Valerie was concerned, the ranch and all it contained belonged to Jolene now. That was going to be her decision and nothing was going to change that.

She had a good life in Dallas and a career that was just about to take off. None of her old life here on the ranch mattered anymore. She’d kissed it all good-bye the day she’d told Mason she wanted a divorce. Then she’d run like hell and hadn’t looked back. Hadn’t come back.

Until now.

She took a deep breath, unable to hold back a smile at the smell of furniture polish and Pine-Sol. Old memories, old scents. Something was in the oven in the kitchen, the fresh smell making her stomach rumble. She hadn’t eaten this morning when she left Dallas, had just grabbed a latte as she drove through Starbucks on her way out of town.

She climbed the long staircase with her bags in hand, walked down the hall to her bedroom and opened the door.

Yeah, some things never changed. The room was exactly as she’d left it, the bronze lace curtains billowing in the breeze from the open windows, the hope chest that had belonged to her mother sitting just underneath the window. The top of the old, scarred chest was always adorned with fresh flowers thanks to Lila, their housekeeper—“manager” was more appropriate, since Lila took care of everything related to the house. The dresser and nightstand gleamed as if freshly polished.

Valerie stared down at the queen-sized bed that Mason had always complained wasn’t long enough, that his feet hung over the edge. Though they’d had plenty of room to make love. She stared at the patchwork quilt, remembered how she and Mason would kick it down to the end of the bed every night during their tussles together.

There had been so many things wrong with their marriage, but the sex? That had been oh so right. She still remembered the feel of his unshaven jaw rubbing against the skin of her face. She used to love his scratchy beard, would slide her palm across his jaw because it made her tingle all over.

And his kisses—good Lord the man could kiss. Even now, years later, she had vivid memories of his mouth on hers, the fullness of his lips, the taste of sweat and outdoors and the earthy scent of him whenever he came in from working cattle. He was such a . . . man. He felt like one and smelled like one and God he could turn her knees to jelly.

He was so masterful at what he did, as if he’d been born to pleasure a woman. And even when she’d been young and inexperienced and asked him to take it slow, she’d felt the fires of passion barely banked inside him, and knew how explosive his desires were.

His touch on her breasts, between her legs, the way he could coax her to orgasm faster than a brushfire in the hot, dry summer . . .

She shuddered. Two long years of drought, without a man, without Mason. And just thinking about him could light that flame again.

There were a lot of reasons she’d divorced Mason Parks, but sex definitely hadn’t been one of them. If there’d been a way she could still jump that man’s bones, without the ties of marriage, she’d have been on him in a heartbeat.

But somehow walking out on your husband and serving him with divorce papers didn’t make that man look kindly on his ex-wife or in any way make him want to swoop her up and give her an orgasm.

“I heard you were coming in today.”

She pivoted, her heart in her throat as she faced the man she’d just been reminiscing about, and reminiscing in a decidedly sexual way, too.

Two years hadn’t changed him much. Still tall, still with that unshaven look, still wearing dusty blue jeans, cowboy boots and a work shirt with the sleeves rolled up, showing off impossibly muscled forearms. He took off his cowboy hat and ran his fingers through his hair. Yeah, everything was still the same. His hair was still brown, his eyes the same color as his hair, and he still goddamned took her breath away.

“Hi, Mason.”

“Val.”

He swaggered into the room—because he didn’t even walk like a normal man. More like a man who commanded a woman to look at him. And really, what woman wouldn’t?

She stood frozen to the spot as he circled the bed and moved toward her. Her first thought—run. Run like hell. Her heart started pounding as he stopped in front of her.

“Jolene said she’d asked you to come.”

“Yes.”

He cocked his head to the side. “Didn’t think you would.”

“Why not?”

“Because you couldn’t wait to get away from here. And when you left you said you’d never be back.”

Damn him for remembering. “I’m here for the funeral.”

“You hated Ronald.”

“I’m here for Jolene.”

He arched a brow. “Seems to me that Jolene asked you plenty of times to come. And you didn’t. Why now?”

She shrugged, clasping her hands together so he wouldn’t see them shake. “It’s time Jolene and Brea and I settle a few things about the ranch.”

“You could do that by phone and mail.”

She circled around him, moved toward the window, needing some air to clear her head. Being near Mason jumbled her brain cells, made her think of the past, of what she’d missed. She finally turned to face him. “I didn’t come back here to argue with you, Mason.”

“No, you never liked doing that, did you? God forbid you should say what was on your mind.”

He moved in on her again, trapping her between him and the window.

She lifted her gaze to him. “I’m not going to do this with you.”

He didn’t say anything for a few seconds, then, “So you’re finally a doctor. It’s been a long time for you.”

“Yes it has.”

“You worked hard for it. I guess you’ll get exactly what you wanted, won’t you?”

Not everything. “Yes, I will.”

They used to be married. She used to throw her arms around him whenever she saw him, kiss his neck, feel the beat of his heart as he pressed against her. She loved when he held her. It made her feel safe.

She’d never have that feeling anymore, would never feel his body slide against hers in the darkness, would never see his na**d silhouette walk across the bedroom at night.

Funny that she never had to think about those things, never had to miss them—until now. Which was why she avoided coming home. Too many memories. Too much pain here. Too much Mason. She inhaled, the scent of leather and horses and him filling her, reminding her of what she’d walked away from.

She shouldn’t have come. She was weak where Mason was concerned, always was. And the way he looked at her. She knew he hated her for what she’d done, for walking away, and yet passion raged in his eyes as he bore down on her.

“Valerie.”

He took another step closer. She laid her palm on his chest. The contact was electric and her knees went to jelly. “Mason. Don’t.”

He slid his arm around her and jerked her against his chest. “Don’t what? Don’t hate you for leaving me? Don’t hate myself for still wanting you? You swore you’d never come back, but here you are, and I see the look in your eyes. You want this as much as I do.”

His mouth came crashing down on hers and she whimpered, didn’t so much as offer up a weak resistance. Her hand curled around the nape of his neck as she fell against him, opened her lips to him, found his tongue and nearly wept with the joy of it. Every single damn reason for how wrong this was fled, replaced by need and rampant desire for the man she’d hungered for these long two years.

His hand found her breast and latched onto it, tweaking her nipple through her shirt and bra. She damned her clothing and moaned against his lips, arching against his hand, aching for his touch. His erection, hard and insistent, pressed against her hip. She slid her hand between them, palming his c**k until he groaned and slid his hand under her shirt, under her bra. And when his fingers found her nipple she cried out against his mouth.

“Yes,” she whispered. “Yes.” She wanted them both na**d. She wanted him hard and heavy and thick and pounding inside her right now.

“Goddammit, Valerie.” He was panting as he dragged her over to the bed and threw her on it. She’d always loved his passion and his driving, can’t-wait-for-it need for her. She pulled off her T-shirt and swallowed as he reached for his belt buckle.

A door slammed downstairs, and like a cold bucket of water thrown over her, it slapped her back into reality.

And he knew it. His hand stilled. She scooted back on the bed, put her shirt on.

“No. I can’t do this.”

Mason’s eyes drifted shut for a fraction of a second, and when he opened them again, fury blasted her.

“Did you do this on purpose?”

Her eyes widened and shock spread through her. “Are you serious? Why would I do that?”

He grabbed his hat and took a deep breath. “I don’t know, Val. I’ve never been able to figure out why the hell you do anything. But it wouldn’t surprise me for you to throw yourself at me, fire me up, then douse the fire just like that.” He snapped his fingers.

“Oh! Are you out of your friggin’ mind? Or possibly just plain stupid? Couldn’t you feel my reaction?”

He shrugged as he reached the door to her room. “Hell, for all I know you always faked it.”

Fury made her blood boil. She grabbed a pillow from her bed and threw it at him. “You son of a bitch.”

His lips curled. “That’s more like it. Welcome home, Val.”

After he left, she stared in shock at the closed door, unable to fathom what had just happened.

Passion had always flared hot and heavy between them. But so had anger. And now she was riled up, horny and felt wretchedly guilty for having stirred up the hornet’s nest.

Shit.

She knew she should have never come home. This was going to be a disaster.

mason parks let the screen door bang shut behind him, the sound echoing in his ears as he hopped on his horse and rode the pasture, letting the cool spring breeze clear his head.

Stupid move.

He’d been riding near the fence line, had seen the car pull up. His horse just found its way to the front of the house. He should have known better than to go in, to walk up those stairs, to go into her room—what had once been their room.

To see her standing beside that bed was like tumbling back to the past. Time had frozen.

She’d lost some weight. She was still beautiful, her golden brown hair teasing her chin, her green eyes still wary. Valerie had always had secrets. The one thing that had kept them apart was her inability to tell him what was really on her mind, to open up about how she felt—about anything—but especially about him. In the end he couldn’t live with that silence, figured he deserved better.

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