Branded by Firelight Chapter One
Branded by Firelight
Book 3, Sweetheart Brand series
Copyright 2018, Paula Altenburg
Claire Brand sat in her car in the parking lot of the Bar-No Sweetheart Ranch, swilling beer from a bottle and staring at the stars. The panoramic view might be astounding, but October nights in Sweetheart, Montana were cold and her peach-colored, slim-fitting, one-sleeved satin bridesmaid dress hadn’t been crafted with that in mind.
She scrolled idly through the photos on her phone with her thumb, glancing at them only occasionally, and willed herself not to cry. It was her daughter’s first birthday, and while the couple who’d adopted her meant well, the pictures of the adorable, curly-haired tot in the pink dress and ribbons pushed Claire’s composure straight to the edge.
She didn’t think she could stand one more minute of all the happiness oozing from her baby sister’s wedding reception when her own heart was broken. She’d tried to convince Alayna that this wasn’t a good day for a wedding—yes, it was selfish—but short of telling her family and friends the whole sordid story, there wasn’t much else she could have done about it. Her new brother-in-law Patterson had refused to get married before Alayna’s twenty-fifth birthday, and Alayna had refused to wait a single day longer than she had to.
They were such a cute pair.
Claire took another long swig of beer and considered digging her coat out of the trunk before she went hypothermic, but she was too tired to care. It took all of her energy to bolster the floodgates. The only tears she’d shed at her sister’s wedding would be ones of joy, and those weren’t looking hopeful.
The passenger door opened and Patterson’s best man slid into her car, the six-plus feet of him sucking up any extra room in the compact space.
He slammed the door behind him, then looked at the bottle in her hand. One eyebrow arced up. “If I’d known this was BYOB, I’d have brought my drink with me.”
Ben Nichols hadn’t changed much since high school. She’d been a year behind him. He’d thought he was God’s gift to women back then, and he still did today. He’d dated at least three of her friends, but thankfully, she hadn’t been his type—meaning easy. She’d been too studious, intent on getting out of Sweetheart and making something of her life.
Instead, she’d screwed it up. Completely pooched it.
She reached behind the bucket seat and tossed Ben a bottle from the box she’d stowed there for the occasion. She wasn’t driving. Alayna had arranged for her to sleep in the Bar-No’s bunkhouse with the other bridesmaids. But she’d wanted to drink alone, and her car was the only private spot she could find.
Ben stared at the bottle in his hand. The stunned expression on his face was priceless.
“What?” Claire demanded, without any real heat. She was too dead inside to get worked up about his opinion of her. “Do I give the impression I’m too good to drink beer?”
“Kind of.” He cracked the cap and tipped the neck of the bottle her way. “But I’m not here to judge. I was told to find you so that the happy couple can have their first dance. You and I are supposed to join them on the dance floor. Remember?”
The cowboy looked as hot as she’d expected in a tuxedo. Really hot. The broadness of his shoulders stretched the fabric of his fitted jacket. When the jacket came off—she was surprised he still had it on now that the ceremony was over—the fine white linen shirt underneath wouldn’t conceal the layers of muscle he liked to show off. Brown hair, and the warm tone of his skin, hinted at hours spent outdoors, as well as a trace of the Salish and Kootenai tribes she suspected lived in his family tree. His light blue eyes were the startling contradiction.
The past few weeks leading up to the wedding had been rough, and watching him flirt with any woman over fifteen, including a great-aunt of the groom who had to be at least eighty, had provided endless hours of distraction. She wasn’t even depressed by the fact the only woman he hadn’t flirted with was her. She was immune to tall, dark, and anything handsome, anyway.
“I remember,” she said.
Which was another lie. Wrapped up in her own misery, and anxious to escape so she could check her phone messages, she’d completely forgotten about that first dance. “Just let me finish my beer.” She needed one more minute. That was all.
She leaned across him to open the dash and toss her phone, and the photos, inside.
“No big hurry,” Ben said. “They’ll wait for us.”
They drank their beer in silence. For a manho, he at least seemed to know when to mind his own business.
He polished off his beer and then ruined her warming opinion of him. “I’m going to go out on a limb and take a guess that you aren’t enjoying yourself,” he said. “Is it being back in Sweetheart? Is it the wedding? Or is it me?”
Claire cast him a side-eye as she drained her drink. “It’s you.” She took his bottle from him, stashed the two empties in the box behind the seat, then breathed deeply a few times. “Okay. Let’s get this over with. Try not to step on my dress.”
Ben didn’t move. “First, you might want to get rid of whatever bug’s crawling around in your panties,” he advised her, unsmiling. “This is Alayna’s night. She’s happy. Don’t spoil it for her.”
Claire paused with her hand on the door handle, genuinely astounded. “Why on earth would you think I’d do anything to spoil my sister’s wedding?”
“Because she’s been worried about you ever since you came home. She seemed anxious when she asked me to come looking for you.” He eyeballed her with disapproval. “It’s understandable if you’re jealous. I mean, Patterson’s a great guy and he’s my best friend, but the happy vibes they give off are kind of nauseating.”
She got out of the car. Ben exited too. The cold air bit through her thin dress and licked her bare skin. She’d needed a few minutes alone. Was that too much to ask?
“Whatever happened to ‘I’m not here to judge’? For the record—I’m not jealous and I don’t hate Sweetheart. It’s nice to be home and with family. I love Alayna and I’m happy for her and Patterson, who seems to have turned out decent enough.” She wasn’t normally this big a bitch, and he had a valid point about the bug in her panties, so she tried to rein it in. “And you aren’t so bad, although that might be the beer talking. I have PMS. It makes me moody.”
“If PMS makes you this moody, I’d hate to see you pregnant,” Ben muttered under his breath.
His words came at her from out of left field and hit her so hard the pain had her gasping out loud. Her hand flew to her belly—her flat, non-gravid belly—bringing it home once again that a whole year had gone by.
He took a few forward steps as if about to come around the front of the car to her aid, then seemed to think better of it. “What’s wrong?”
“Cramps,” she bit out, waving him off. “Women get them this time of the month.”
“No worries, then,” he said easily, not at all unsettled by a feminine complaint. “I can dance the first dance with Hannah or Mary Beth. I’ll tell Alayna you’re drunk and passed out in one of the barns.”
“Thanks. You’re a real prince.”
But she appreciated his attempt at humor. She straightened, pulling herself back together. She was shivering in earnest now, which helped clear up the alcohol buzz—something she didn’t want—and she wrapped her arms around herself to try and warm up. God, Montana was cold. When she’d left Redmond, Washington a week ago, they’d been having a heat wave.
The ranch’s well-lit, paved parking lot faced the smooth, black-mirrored waters of Flathead Lake. Behind her, the mountains of the Mission Range cut a backdrop against the velvety, star-studded sky. Music and laughter drifted from one of the barns. The wedding reception was in full swing. She sucked in a few lungsful of crisp mountain air. Montana might be cold, but Sweetheart was beautiful enough that she didn’t mind. She was home. She never wanted to leave here again and it was going to be hard when she did.
“I think I can make it through one dance,” she said. She would never, not in a million years, ruin her baby sister’s big day. “I’ll see what I can do to dial the PMS bitchiness back a few notches, too.”
“Much appreciated. For what it’s worth, weddings don’t bring out the best in me either.” Ben shucked out of his tuxedo jacket and draped it around her shoulders. It was warm and held the faint scent of his cologne. “Now let’s see how fast you can hustle in those fancy shoes. I didn’t spend a month taking dance lessons to see them go to waste.”
* * *
Ben was no stranger to women and their periods, and while PMS might well be part of Claire’s problem, it was by no means the whole of it.
Whatever was wrong, however, they didn’t know each other well enough for him to get nosy. He’d been friends with her brother Damon for years, but that friendship was casual, so he only had a vague recollection of her from when they were growing up. Claire had been a geek, but not the shy kind. He conjured up an image of a girl in long braids and low rise jeans who was always in charge of the special events at school.
He’d never met two sisters who, personality-wise, were less alike. Alayna, the youngest in the Brand family, was tall and strikingly beautiful, but she had an unassuming sweetness and warmth about her that drew a man in. Claire wasn’t as tall as Alayna, and while only a shade less striking—although granted, that might be personal preference talking—the vibe she gave off was definitely look but don’t touch.
Whatever her problem was, Claire knew her own worth—and tonight, she looked like a million bucks. Her shoulder-length, brownish-blond hair had been pinned up in a pile of loose, cascading curls that Ben particularly liked. Tiny white flowers had been woven throughout. The slim-fitting cut of her dress showed off a great pair of legs when she moved, and the color—a pale cross between orange and pink—brought out the cornflower blue of her eyes.
Claire was too thin, though. And a few times over the past week he’d caught a haunted expression in her eyes when she thought no one was looking that was none of his business.
He planned to keep it that way. He was so done with women with issues.
The solar-illuminated walkway leading from the parking lot to the barn housing the reception was lined with gravel. Claire wobbled slightly on her high heels. The male in Ben warned him to keep his hands to himself or he might lose a few fingers. The inner gentleman said to quit being a pussy and help a girl out. He compromised and held out his arm for her to take hold of, if she so desired. The decision was hers.
Slender fingers settled into the crook of his elbow and her shoulder bumped his. The Brand women were tall. The three-inch heels put her at eye level with him, and he was six one.
“I’d appreciate it if you didn’t tell anyone where you found me,” she said. “My mother thinks I drink too much.”
It was possible her mother had a right to be concerned. “Do you?”
Her fingers dug into his sleeve. “No. I rarely drink.”
Interesting. And yet she’d brought a twelve-pack of beer to a wedding reception as if preparing to tie one on, country-style. In the parking lot. Alone.
Mind your own business, my friend.
The wide doors on one of the empty barns had been thrown back. Inside, thousands of glittering string lights crisscrossed between the rafters, creating a low, artificial ceiling of stars. A dance floor had been cleared of the white-clothed tables from the formal dinner earlier. Light and noise spilled into the night.
Ben had to hand it to Georgia Campbell, Patterson’s mother. She knew how to do things up right. This wasn’t the first wedding the Bar-No Sweetheart Ranch had hosted, but it was the one most important to her—Patterson was her only son. Alayna was going to be smother-in-lawed.
And Ben really was envious of his best friend, but in a happy for him, sorry for me kind of way. Much, he suspected, as Claire was feeling right now, despite her refusal to admit it. Patterson had a beautiful new bride and two parents who loved him, as well as an established business he was the sole heir to. Life wasn’t always fair, but at least good things really did happen to good people, and Patterson and Alayna were two of the best.
The beautiful new bride in question caught sight of them as they entered the room. She pivoted and started toward them, a vision of leggy loveliness in a white dress cut similar to Claire’s, but Patterson waylaid her by grabbing her hand. He signaled to the band to start up the music.
Claire slipped off Ben’s jacket and passed it to him. He tossed it over the back of the nearest empty chair. The men in the wedding party had a surprise planned for the bride and her attendants, and he wouldn’t need it.
First, however, they had to get the formalities out of the way. Alayna had chosen a country tune for the first dance. He waited for his cue as best man. As soon as Patterson’s dad cut in, and Patterson asked the bride’s mother to join him, Ben slid an arm around Claire’s slender waist.
Yep. She was too thin. For some reason, that bugged him. What was it with women and their weight? What was wrong with a few curves?
“Showtime,” he said.
Once they were out on the floor, he took her into his arms. She’d only had the one beer—he’d taken a casual count of the bottles—but he was fairly certain she hadn’t touched much of her dinner to counteract it, so she was a little unsteady. The heels she wore didn’t help. That was no problem. He was somewhat of an expert at navigating girls who’d had a few drinks around a dance floor.
He put his hands on the slinky material covering Claire’s hips and drew her closer. In response, her hands went to his shoulders and she tried to pry a few inches between them. Two finely-arched eyebrows went up. Pretty, pink-tinted lips pinched together.
Cool blue eyes challenged his. “You took dance lessons for this?”
“You don’t teach these stellar moves,” he replied, neatly dodging another couple and averting a head-on collision. “This is pure, natural talent.”
She rolled those big, baby blues at him, but the pinched lips loosened into what might, given the source, possibly pass for a smile. She followed his lead with an easy grace and sure footing, but had nothing more to say to him for the rest of the song. Brr.
The last bars of music drifted away. The band, rather than swing right into the next number, seemed to be waiting for something. Dallas Tucker, one of the groomsmen, strode to the front of the floor, facing the lead singer. He stripped off his jacket, swung it over his head, and after launching it onto the stage, he spread his legs wide, then shot a smoldering glance over one shoulder.
That was the signal.
Ben touched Claire’s arm. “Don’t go anywhere. You won’t want to miss this.”
He joined the rest of the groomsmen behind Dallas. The band’s lead singer took the mike. As word spread through the guests that something was about to go down, the floor started to empty.
Dallas was a local family doctor, but he’d worked his way through college as a dance instructor and part-time stripper, and he’d choreographed Patterson’s surprise for Alayna. Ben tapped one foot to the beginning beat of the music, enjoying himself. Patterson and Ben, team roping partners, were both showmen who liked to perform. Alayna and Claire’s two brothers, Damon and Blaise, had been the hardest sell, but they loved their sisters and would do anything for them. Getting Damon to keep a secret from his wife Jess had been the biggest challenge in pulling this off. Those two crazy lovebirds were joined at the hip.
Casey Tucker, Dallas’s teenaged brother who worked summers on the ranch, had been charged with keeping the bridesmaids in a group at the edge of the dance floor. Georgia Campbell—the only woman in on the secret because she would have killed them if something went wrong—had commandeered a chair for Alayna and gotten her into prime viewing position. Georgia was also responsible for the ladies’ dresses. Patterson said Alayna had protested over the revealing design, but his mother knew she and her bridesmaids had to be able to move, so he’d backed her up.
Ben clapped his hands to opposite sides of his chest, wagged his booty with gusto, then threw himself on his knees and skidded across the waxed floor with the others. The men finished their routine to wild applause from the crowd.
That was the end of phase one. Next up was line dancing, something the men had agreed the women could manage without any prior rehearsal. All they had to do was follow Dallas’s lead. Ben ran over to take Claire by the hand and bring her out on the floor with the rest of the wedding party. He worried for a split second that she might not cooperate—she was in a mood of some sort—but she’d said she had no intention of spoiling Alayna’s wedding and he was holding her to it. Dallas grabbed Hannah, the third of the Brand sisters, while Damon rounded up Jess. Even Blaise, who could be a dark cloud sometimes, entered into the spirit of the occasion and partnered up with Mary Beth, the fourth bridesmaid and a friend of Alayna’s from high school.
Claire was laughing as she fell into line beside him, her eyes sparkling so that Ben almost missed a step from surprise.
“Those were the most stellar moves I’ve ever seen,” she congratulated him, shouting to be heard over the band having a blast of their own behind them. “Were they thanks to those dance lessons you spoke of, or more of that pure, natural talent?”
“A little of both,” Ben shouted back.
He swung his left foot behind him and slapped his heel with his right hand. Claire followed suit with impeccable timing and more enthusiasm than he would have credited her for. Despite her years in a city, she still had some country in her. People had their phones out, recording, and he had no doubt that four beautiful ladies line dancing in those slinky dresses was about to go viral online.
The song ended and the live entertainment part of the evening was over. The other guests joined the wedding party on the floor. For his part, he was warm and could use a drink. He wasn’t, however, about to let Claire return to the parking lot and spend the rest of the evening drinking alone. Whatever was troubling her, she could dwell on it tomorrow.
Tonight was about everyone having a good time.