Branded

By: Tori Carrington

1


WILDEWOOD RANCH LAY an hour and a half outside San Antonio and had been in the Armstrong family for four generations. It boasted over twenty thousand acres of rich southwest Texas land, twenty-six ranch hands and five thousand head of Angus cattle.

And twenty-nine-year-old Trace Armstrong was the successful manager and half owner of the whole operation.

Or, rather, had been for the past six years. But with his older brother, Eric, a marine, coming home for good this weekend…well, Trace expected everything would be thrown into a state of flux.

“Now that’s the type of filly stallions will stand in line to service.”

Trace tilted his cowboy hat back on his head and stared at the town’s sheriff, who stood beside him on the bunkhouse porch. Had the old son of a bitch just said that about one of his ranch hands? Yes, he had. Trace knew this not because he’d followed John Brody’s line of vision—even though it had been his own moments before—but because Jo Atchison was the only “filly” currently on the premises.

A couple of cowboys chuckled behind him.

Trace grimaced and rubbed the back of his neck, which the day’s drive had coated with dust and grime in the June heat. He was born to this land, so he supposed he should be used to the often explicit nature of the men’s exchanges. But for reasons he preferred not to identify, Sheriff Brody’s commentary didn’t sit well with him.

“Too bad she’s already got one,” another of the ranch hands said.

Trace squinted into the bright orange ball that was the setting sun, watching Jo talk to her sometimes boyfriend, who had just pulled up on his Harley outside the stables. She was some two hundred yards away, so Trace could make out little more than her silhouette, but oh, what a silhouette it was. Legs that went on forever, full breasts and long, flowing dark hair. Jo was one of the ranch foreman’s more recent hires. She’d started six or seven months ago, and had become the guys’ favorite topic around this time of day, if only because of the absence of any other female on the ranch, and Jo’s lack of response to their interest.

Trace turned away and leaned against the porch railing of the modern bunkhouse, ignoring his own desire to watch her. He told himself he wasn’t like the other men, but in the end he was no different. Despite Jo’s considerable talents as a wrangler—she bested a lot of the guys on a bad day, and on a good day bested them all—he caught himself staring after her more times than he’d care to admit.

“I don’t think you came all the way out here to drool after one of my ranch hands, did you, Sheriff?” he said quietly, taking a couple of beers from the nearby cooler, which had been set out with the barbecue dinner for the two dozen cowboys. He handed the older man a bottle.

“Hell no.”

Trace found his gaze wandering back to Jo, his gut tightening at the sight of the biker reaching out for her, and her swatting his arm away. She’d never given Trace cause to think she needed protection from anyone. On the contrary, she went out of her way to prove she was capable of taking care of herself.

He rubbed his chin, hiding his grin as he recalled his exchange with her earlier in the day. They’d been four hours on the range when he’d found his steed steering toward hers. He knew a few details about her. Some were on the form the ranch required all hands to fill out, others the result of an official background check they ran as a matter of course. She was from Beaumont, an only child. She’d had a few run-ins with the law in her teens—assaulting an officer, disturbing the peace and public intoxication—but her record had been clean since.

She had also been a U.S. Marine for six years, honorably discharged the month before she came to work on Wildewood Ranch.

This morning, he’d watched as she took her hat off, piled her black hair on top of her head and put the hat back on, the result making her look not one bit less feminine.

“In the service…where’d you serve?” he’d asked her.

Her blue eyes had registered surprise. But only for a split second, before she recovered her trademark grimace. One of the guys had said she always looked as if she’d just gone for a dump behind a tree and had used poison ivy for cleanup because there was nothing else around.

“He speaks,” she’d said, rather than answering his question.

Trace had grinned. “Fair enough.”

He hadn’t said more than a handful of words to her since she’d hired on, and he remembered all of them—“Welcome” and “See you back at the ranch” the most prominent. His reticence was partly because the other hands had been within earshot, but mostly because he was attracted to her in an awful way.

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