Wearing only the clingy short nightgown she’d tossed on after her bath, she figured she was safe since it was late enough that everyone would be in bed. She snuck downstairs and brewed a pot of steaming-hot coffee, knowing the caffeine wouldn’t keep her awake. Years of medical school had taught her to sleep when it was time to sleep, no matter what was buzzing around in her system.
She grabbed a blanket off the back of one of the sofas, stepped out onto the back porch with coffee in hand and took a seat on one of the cushioned, wicker love seats. She pulled her legs underneath her, wrapped the blanket over her and sipped her coffee, staring out at the stars. Now this she had missed. The night was clear and quiet, the sky clear of clouds and the stars so close it seemed she could reach out and grab one. She couldn’t see the stars like this in Dallas. Too much congestion, too many city lights and buildings, got in the way. Out here there was nothing but her and the endless sky.
Until she heard the crunch of boots on gravel. The good thing about a quiet night in the country was that no one could sneak up on you.
And okay, maybe she’d expected to see him. She knew his patterns, knew he was often the last out at night, roaming the pens, checking the cattle. But if she delved too deeply into why she was out here, she might not like what she discovered.
He stepped up on the porch and took a seat next to her, stretched his long legs out, tipped his hat back and didn’t say a word. She liked that he didn’t hit her with questions about why she’d disappeared earlier today, or where she’d been.
“I’d forgotten how peaceful it is here at night.”
He nodded. “The quiet at the end of the day is one of the things I like best. Gives me time to settle my mind, organize my plans, go back over what I did today and all that needs to be done tomorrow.”
“Being a ranch foreman is a big job. You’re doing great at it.”
She caught the hint of a smile curling the corners of his mouth. “Thanks. Jolene does a lot of the work, too. She’s a one-woman tornado.”
Valerie laughed. “Always has been. She was born with excess energy.”
“And she uses every bit of it running herd on all the cowboys and the cattle. She was born to run this ranch.”
“I know. Dad would have been so proud of her.”
“Of you, too. Look at you, a doctor now. He’d have busted his suspenders sticking his chest out with pride.”
Valerie pushed back the melancholy and settled for a smile as she pictured her dad doing just that. “Thank you.”
“So tell me about this new job in Dallas.”
“It’s a four-physician general practice. One of the docs is moving to Atlanta, so that left an open slot. I worked with all three of the others doing my residency rotation, got along with them well, and they offered me a position when Dr. Greene decided to pull out and move.”
“Sounds like a good spot for you.”
She took a swallow of coffee. “It is. I lucked into it.”
“I don’t think luck had anything to do with it.” Mason rose, grabbed her cup. “Want a refill?”
He went inside, came back out a couple minutes later with two steaming cups and handed one to her.
He resumed his seat next to hers and took a couple swallows of coffee, staring out into the darkness. “Seems to me you worked your ass off in school and during residency. I’d say if you got a good offer it’s because you’re a damn fine doctor. It’s that practice you’re going to work for that lucked out.”
She didn’t know what to say to that, was still surprised he was even speaking to her, much less complimenting her. “Thank you. I am very excited about the opportunity. It’s nice to finally
a doctor instead of a student.”
“You’ve always been a doctor, Val. You’ve been taking care of everyone around here for as long as I can remember. You put everyone else’s needs above your own.”
She snorted. “I’m hardly the self-sacrificing sort, Mason. You give me too much credit.” She’d always thought herself selfish, putting what she wanted above what was best for the ranch, for her family. For her marriage.
“Aren’t you? You put off a semester of college when Brea came down with pneumonia. You nursed her back to health, stayed by her side, then fought like hell to catch up when you went back to school.”
“She’s my sister. She needed me.” Valerie had become the de facto parent after theirs had died. Sure there’d been Lila, but Valerie had always felt that because she was the oldest sister, Brea and Jo were her responsibility.
“She had Lila. And Jolene. And just about everyone else here who could have seen to her. And what about when Jolene fell off the horse and broke her arm? You were the one to splint it right so we could take her into town to get it set and cast.”
“That’s basic first aid.”
“You were fourteen at the time.”
She smiled, remembering the curse words streaming out of a then ten-year-old Jolene’s mouth when she’d fallen off that horse. And even then Valerie had been immersed in wanting to help the sick and hurt, had rushed to her sister, quieted her tears, had wrapped and splinted her arm against her side. “I love medicine.”
“Like I said, you always take care of everyone. When are you going to start seeing to your own needs?”
Her gaze snapped to Mason’s. “What are you talking about?”
He laid his coffee cup on the table, took hers and put it there, too, then stood. He pulled her up, held his hands in hers. The blanket tangled between them, the only barrier to keep her naked legs from brushing the denim of his jeans.
“I’m talking about having someone in your life, Val. Companionship, sex, a man to lie down next to you at night.”
All those things she’d had and walked away from—with him. The chill of the night evaporated and she was suddenly consumed by heat. Mason’s hands, his body so close, his words evoking just what she needed but hadn’t had in far too long. “I don’t . . . I haven’t . . .”
His brows knitted in a tight frown. “How long?”
She tilted her head back and looked him square in the eye. “Since you.”
He let go of her hands and pulled her against him. The blanket fell to the ground, and her breasts were crushed against his chest. His mouth came down on hers, obliterating thought, objection, anything that was in her mind but the feel of his lips on hers.
On a gasp she accepted the kiss, parted her lips, wound her arms around him. He groaned, one arm sliding down her back to draw her even closer.
It wasn’t a gentle kiss. It was hungry, pent-up passion, the kind of kiss a man gave a woman when he’d gone without for too damn long. Valerie tasted the fierce need in the way he moved his mouth over hers, in the commanding way he laid his hands on her, even in the way he breathed.
He rocked against her, his cock already stone-hard. It shocked her to her toes to realize he wanted her this much. No man who had a steady woman—like that blonde in the bar—or who was getting sex on a regular basis, could be this ravenous.
A part of her was giddy with this knowledge. But her elation fled under the rampant assault of his mouth on her senses.
His hands were everywhere, roaming her body, lifting up her nightgown, baring her skin to the night and to anyone else who might be wandering the ranch property.
“Mason.” She pulled her lips from his. “We’re on the back porch.”
“No one’s around.” He bent, lifted the blanket and draped it over her, shielding her. “I need to touch you.”
“We could go inside.”
His lips lifted in a dangerous smile that made her quiver. “I don’t want to go inside. I want you here. Do you know how pretty you are in the moonlight?”
She’d never hear that from a man in the city. She tucked her bottom lip between her teeth, mesmerized by his face, the lines snaking out from the corners of his eyes because he never wore sunglasses. She reached up, traced the lines on his face, the ones that spoke of working while the elements beat down on you.
He took her wrists in his hands and tucked them down at her sides, then captured her lips again with a slow slide of his mouth against hers that made her forget she was on the back porch, made her forget everything but being in this place with this man. She tingled all over, was singly aware of every brush of his lips, every flick of his tongue against hers.
He cupped his hand at her neck, then let it slide down to her collarbone, burning a path toward her breasts.
“You aren’t wearing much.”
“I took a bath. Threw on this nightgown.”
He leaned back, scanned her body. “Sexy.”
Her nipples were tight points awaiting his touch. He slid his thumb over them and she damned her gown for being in the way. She gasped, wanting more, needing to feel his hand against the taut, aching buds. This tease of his thumbs rolling over her made her legs shake, made her wet and needy and ready to pull the gown off so he could cup her breasts. But he laid his hand between her breasts, then snaked his fingers down over her belly. It quivered in response. He tugged on the hem of the gown and bunched it in his fist.
“I want to take a lot of time with you, Valerie, but I don’t have much patience.”
“I don’t need it.”
He tightened his hold on the fabric, lifted it over her hips to bare her lower body to the cool night air.
“You naked under this?” he asked, his gaze direct, probing, hot.
“Damn. Part your legs.”
Mason was no-nonsense about everything, including sex. He went after what he wanted, a trait that had always thrilled her, especially now when she didn’t want hearts and flowers and sweet-talking. She wanted him with a primal passion that belied her usual reserved nature.
She broadened her stance, giving him access.
He wasted no time, sliding his palm across her sex. She gripped his shoulders at the first contact of his calloused hand on her flesh, his touch sparking pleasure peaks along her clit. She shuddered at the contact, arched against him, craving more.
He was relentless, not giving her time to breathe as he rubbed her flesh and slid his finger inside her. Heat and moisture pooled as her pussy gripped his finger in a tight vise.
“Look at me, Val.”
She tilted her head back, her body shaking with desire as she read the tension on his face when he touched her. Mason knew her body like no one else ever could. Maybe that’s why she’d never let another man touch her. Who could give her this kind of pleasure but him?
She rose up on her toes to draw closer to his touch, waves of pleasure undulating around her. She arched against him, rocking her sex against his hand, silently begging him to take her there.
“I’ve missed being inside you.” His whispered words were harsh and filled with promise as he wrapped his arm around her back, drove his hand against her clit and shattered her.
He dipped down and took her mouth, drinking in her cries of pleasure as wave after wave crashed over her, leaving her shaky and senseless. He took her down easy, his finger still inside her, pumping slow and easy.
He’d always mastered her body like this, made her forget where she was, who she was. Who they were.
And who they weren’t anymore.
He eased his finger out of her, smiled down at her, made her ache inside for more. It would be so easy to touch him, to unbuckle his belt, slide her hand in his jeans and wrap her fingers around the hot, hard heat of his cock. Even the thought of fucking him outside, sheathing him inside her, made her weak in the knees.
But she’d already lost her mind once tonight, had connected with him in a way she’d sworn never to do again. And she wanted to again, wanted him inside her so fiercely it shook her to her core.
She shouldn’t want that much. She shouldn’t want Mason. This was wrong. Hadn’t she spent two years away from the ranch so she could get over him, so she could stand next to him without feeling the bone-melting desire for him that had always made her lose her senses?
Maybe two years hadn’t been long enough.
She took a step back and his smile died.
She smoothed her hair back, bent down and reached for the blanket to wrap it around her like a shield of armor. “We shouldn’t have done this.”
He arched a brow. “Why not?”
She felt awful, like she’d led him on. She hadn’t meant to, hadn’t meant for this to happen at all. “I think you know why not. We’re divorced.”
His jaw set in what she knew was irritation, he said, “Doesn’t mean we can’t fuck.”
“Is that all we are together?” Then again, he should be pissed. At her. He had every right. God, she was confused. “And don’t you have a girlfriend? What is she going to think?”
He rubbed his temple. “What the hell are you talking about? What girlfriend? I don’t—”
She held up her hand. “Never mind. Maybe I’m wrong. And why don’t you have a girlfriend? It’s been two years, Mason. You have to let me go.”
He stared at her, shook his head. “Woman, you make no sense at all.” He turned and walked away, down the stairs, blending into the darkness.
Valerie stood on the porch, watching him disappear, feeling a hundred times stupid for letting this happen. For hurting him, when she should have known better.
She was always hurting him. And herself in the process.
She should have never come back, no matter how much Jolene demanded it.
Two years hadn’t been enough time.
“you’re grumpy as a horny bull with no cows,”
Jolene announced the next day.
Mason decided to ignore Jolene, instead putting all his concentration on rewiring the section of fence they’d set out to work on today.
“Are you deliberately ignoring me?” she asked.
She bent beside him, clipped off the end of the wire that Mason had just wound tight around the top of the post, then stood, moving down the line next to him. “It’s Val, isn’t it?”