Bound, Branded, & Brazen - By Jaci Burton

one

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