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Branded with a Kiss Chapter One

Book 2

Branded with a Kiss

© 2017 Paula Altenburg

All rights reserved

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Chapter One


The tall beauty with the amazing eyes and waist-length, honey-brown hair at the far corner table looked familiar.

Country music, provided by a popular local band, blared from speakers installed in the rafters. The Lake Street Tavern dance floor was packed with line-dancing tourists because that was what they thought Montanans did on a Saturday night.

Patterson Campbell was in a bit of a funk and nursing his second beer as consolation. His family owned the Bar-No Sweetheart Ranch, an equal-parts working operation and high-end dude ranch destination. His father was making noises about retirement and how Patterson needed to step up to the plate. Everyone who knew James T., however, knew he wasn’t ready for his son to pinch hit.

As an only child, Patterson had always known the Bar-No would be his someday. And he wanted it. Make no mistake about that. But at twenty-eight, he was no more eager to take on a leadership role than his father was ready to hand it to him for real. This was a game James T. had been playing with him off and on for a year or so now. Show some responsibility. Quit chasing skirts. Find a nice girl and settle down.

In reality, James T. and his wife Georgia wanted grandchildren. The onus was on him. The pickings in Sweetheart, Montana for a prospective mother, however, were slim. He’d found lots of girls who were fun, but few who sparked more than a passing interest. The keepers were already taken.

As for stepping up to the plate…

He’d do that when James T. was ready to give up the bat and not a minute before. He loved his parents, he loved his home, and he loved his freedom. Since James T. didn’t know the first thing about playing with others, and Patterson liked his free agent status, Patterson was content to sit on the bench until the final inning was over.

The honey-haired beauty stood up and worked her way through the crowd, inching toward the restrooms. Patterson stared after her. Lord, those legs were long. The cowgirl boots were a nice added touch. A short skirt tacked onto a pretty yellow sundress as an afterthought swirled away from enticing bare thighs. His gaze traveled upward, getting as far as the swell of her hips and the curly-tipped tresses of hair at her slim waist before she disappeared into the ladies’ room.

His attention was now fully engaged. At six-five, he liked his women tall and she had to be closing in on six feet. He debated his options. She’d eyeballed him a few times, but he wasn’t going over until he had a name. Nothing would earn him a set down faster than approaching a woman and discovering he already knew her.

He nudged his friend and team roping partner, Ben Nichols, sitting beside him on a stool at the bar, with his elbow. Ben, bleary-eyed, looked around.

“Do you know who the tall girl sitting at that table over there is?” Patterson pointed.

“I dunno. A figment of your imagination?” Ben guessed.

“Funny. She’s gone to the ladies’ room. You’ll see her when she comes out. She’s hard to miss.”

He didn’t bother mentioning because she was gorgeous. Ben could figure that out for himself.

The beauty emerged. She shot another look in Patterson’s direction. A shy smile touched her lips before she looked away, dropping long lashes over those wide, intriguing eyes.

Patterson’s south forty sprang to attention. He knew her. He just couldn’t place her. It made his brain itch. But if he’d gone out with her, he would’ve remembered. That, he could guarantee.

“Dang…” Ben breathed, sitting straighter and staring. “That’s Damon’s little sister.”

“No way.”

Patterson didn’t believe it. They’d gone to high school with Damon Brand. He was a few years older than they were, but he’d ended up in their graduating class because he’d had to drop out for a bit after his father passed away.

But Patterson knew Damon’s sisters. Claire had left Sweetheart for parts unknown a long time ago, and Hannah worked in Polson, he believed. They were pretty enough for him to take note. To the best of his recollection, however, their youngest sister, Alayna, was a gangly, plain, beanpole of a thing. She’d been a little girl when they’d hung around at Damon’s house. This girl was…

All grown up.

He tried to do the math in his head. She had to be at least twenty-one, the legal drinking age in Montana, or she wouldn’t be here. That meant there was no harm in asking her to dance, even if she was a friend’s sister.

“I’m going over,” he said.

“Five bucks says you’re wasting your time,” Ben replied. “Look who she’s with.”

Mary Beth Layton, wearing a conservative white blouse and tan-colored shorts, and Lea Terlecki—the short, plump daughter of the high school’s opinionated secretary—who’d poured herself into spandex and high heels. All three women had a glass of wine in front of them. Patterson reassessed his chances of getting Alayna out on the floor. If he did, politeness meant he’d have to ask the other girls to dance too.

It was a sacrifice he was willing to make. He liked Lea. She worked at the feed store and was funny as hell. Her fiancé was a nice guy, too. Mary Beth he wasn’t as sure of. He only knew her to see her. If she didn’t want to dance with him, she could say no.

Alayna darted another side-glance his way. This time it lingered before those eyelashes lowered, fanning her cheeks.

“I’ll take that bet,” he decided.

“Suit yourself.”

Ben shrugged and went back to his beer. He was on his fourth or fifth, so it was a no-brainer as to which of the two of them would be the designated driver. Normally good-natured, Ben had gotten dumped by a girl in Marietta mid-week, and tonight he was surly about it and being a bit of an ass. To top it off, they’d had to withdraw their entry in an upcoming team roping event the following month because of a last-minute corporate retreat booking at the Bar-No. They’d promised James T. that work would come first.

There was no reason for them both to have a lousy Saturday night, though. If Patterson had to spend it sober, he wasn’t wasting it moping. He skirted the edge of the dance floor, weaving his way through the crowd.

“Good evening, ladies,” he said when he reached their table, nodding to each of them in turn. “Mary Beth, Lea… And well, well. Alayna Brand. I haven’t seen you in a long while. How’ve you been?”

She actually blushed. He didn’t know women still did that. Then she lifted those eyes to his and lust sucker-punched him in the gut.

“Fine, thank you,” she said. “Yourself?”

Her voice was so soft he had to bend closer to hear. From the corner of his eye, he caught a city slicker coming their way with a determined look on his face and his attention fixed on her too.

That wasn’t going to happen.

“I’d be doing even better if you’d dance with me,” he said. He didn’t give her a chance to make a polite refusal, but took her hand, and with gentle but polite insistence, urged her to her feet. She came with him willingly enough, casting him shy glances from beneath her lashes that had him sliding a proprietary arm around her waist under the pretext of guiding her through the crowd.

He spun her around the dance floor to the beat of a high-spirited and popular new country release. She wasn’t a great dancer—a lack of confidence seemed to be a problem endemic to tall girls—but she moved with a natural grace that was a pleasure to watch. She smiled at him whenever he was lucky enough to catch her eye, but the bass was cranked up so loud that his internal organs were bouncing and it was impossible to strike up a decent conversation.

The song ended and the cosmos, which had been conspiring against him of late, relented. The next dance was a slow one. She flipped her hair behind her shoulder, looking as if she wasn’t sure what to do once the music began. Her eyes flashed toward her friends at their table, as if hoping for rescue.

She was adorable. “Don’t abandon me now,” he said, reeling her into his arms. “I’d look foolish out here, dancing all by myself.”

* * *

When Alayna was thirteen, she’d crushed on Patterson Campbell. Hard. In the nine years since, he’d never once noticed her—and so she was amazed that tonight, he’d known her name.

Now she was dancing with him, pressed against him so tight, with his thigh wedged between hers, she could feel every male inch. She didn’t know if he’d intended for them to become this intimately acquainted, but he had to be as aware of it as she was, and yet he didn’t seem bothered.

“Relax and let me lead,” he whispered in her ear, sounding amused. He had to bend his head toward hers. She wasn’t used to men being taller than her, and he made her feel almost dainty.

She couldn’t keep the heat from scorching her cheeks. Mary Beth and Lea would be dying with laughter at her expense. They’d been teasing her about how she should get out there on the dance floor and grab herself an available man, but that was easy enough for them to say. Mary Beth was living with a fellow graduate student, and Lea was getting married at Christmas to Sam, her love since junior high. They didn’t know how hard she found dating to be. Her height made her stick out in a crowd and feel so self-conscious.

And she was certain they hadn’t meant for her to set her sights on someone like Patterson, even if he did have an added checkmark of at least five inches on her. Blond-haired and dimpled, with green eyes that screamed trouble, he was catnip for the majority of Sweetheart’s women aged anywhere between fifteen and ninety. He had bedroom written all over him. A man like this was made for a good time. Or so she assumed. She didn’t have any personal experience to go by.

She’d felt so left out of the tittering wedding-night talk at their table. Mary Beth and Lea might be good friends, but she was too embarrassed to admit that she was twenty-two years old and still a virgin. She’d never been good at oversharing, and her sex life—or lack thereof—ranked as TMI in her books.

Shyness was another childhood affliction she hadn’t yet overcome. She hadn’t started university until she was twenty because the thought of leaving Sweetheart for the city had terrified her. Towering over other people, and standing out in a crowd, being stared at as if she were some sort of freak, didn’t help. She was only here tonight because Mary Beth and Lea insisted on a night out on the town and the Lake Street Tavern was it.

She fought back a tremor of nerves. Patterson was a good dancer, even if he did hold her too close. He also carried most of the conversation, making jokes that, after she got accustomed to their proximity, had her loosening up and even giggling a little.

Good lord. She was giggling. What was she—twelve?

When the dance ended, he escorted her back to her table and invited Lea to dance. After that, he danced with Mary Beth. Then he asked if he could sit with them, and proceeded to order them drinks. Mary Beth, who was driving, thanked him and changed hers to a soft drink. He ordered one of those for himself as well.

Alayna hadn’t planned on having more than one drink. First, she couldn’t afford it. All the money she earned from her minimum wage summer job at the new riding stable in Sweetheart was slated for school. Her brother Damon paid for her board, and scholarships helped with tuition, but she was on her own for her personal expenses.

And because she didn’t drink very often, alcohol went straight to her head. Chugging back the second glass of wine because she was nervous wasn’t her smartest decision.

Patterson slid an arm along the back of her chair and leaned in so only she could hear him over the deafening music. “The cherry festival dance is coming up soon,” he said. “Would you like to go with me?”

The unexpected invitation left her speechless. Her heart began pounding. Sweetheart’s annual cherry festival was one of the biggest events of the summer. The dance was the grand finale—a semi-formal event that, this year, would be held at the newly-renovated Montreau Hotel. And Patterson Campbell, one of the two biggest players in town, had just asked her to be his date.

She might be inexperienced with men, particularly of Patterson’s caliber, but she knew what was what. She also knew what she’d be getting into if she accepted his invitation.

The real question was whether or not she was willing to play along.

He noticed her hesitation. Those dimples flashed. “You don’t have to give me an answer tonight. You can call me.” He picked up her phone, which she’d left on the table. “Here. Let me give you my number.”

He programmed it into her phone, then a disturbance near the bar caught his attention. Ben Nichols, Patterson’s friend, was arguing with the bartender.

“Whoops, duty calls. Someone’s been cut off and not taking it well.” Patterson unfolded his lean frame from the cramped space between the table and chair. The chair behind him was butted up against his, its occupant an immovable force, and he had to pry himself free. “It looks like it’s time I took him home. He’s had a rough week.”

“It’s time we left, too,” Mary Beth said.

The women gathered their phones and their purses. Out in the parking lot, cool air washed over Alayna’s bare shoulders. She took the backseat of Mary Beth’s eleven-year-old Camry, leaving gunshot to Lea.

Mary Beth didn’t start the car. She hooked one elbow over the back of her seat and peered around it at Alayna. She pointed a finger at her. “Stay away from Patterson Campbell.”

Alayna blinked. “What?”

“He’s like a hound on a scent. He couldn’t keep his eyes—or his hands—off of you. And what were you thinking, letting him hold you like that? Sweetheart’s hardly the place to take up dirty dancing. Don’t be fooled by those dimples and a little sweet talk, Alayna. He’s after one thing. He’s exhausted the supply of available women in this town—and every other town within a fifty-mile radius—and you’ve hit his radar.”

Lea nodded agreement. Her pretty, round face reflected concern as she chimed in with her opinion. “I love you, Alayna. You know that. But Patterson’s a little too… one-track-minded… for you. You’re too nice. You’ll get your heart broken. Don’t even think about calling him.”

Mutiny kicked in. Since when did her friends get to decide what was in her best interests?

She had four older siblings for that.

Besides, she wasn’t thirteen anymore, harboring a silly crush. She was an adult, and should expect to be treated as one. She was attracted to Patterson, yes, but she was well aware of his reputation. She’d heard all the same talk about him her friends had.

Underneath the surface, however, was one tiny nugget of truth that her friends, and the gossips, hadn’t taken into consideration. Patterson liked to have a good time and made no secret of it, but he never bragged about his conquests. Not to her knowledge. Her brother wouldn’t be friends with him if he did. She’d once overheard Damon giving their other brother, Blaise, his unequivocal opinion on the matter—gentlemen don’t discuss ladies. I’ll kick your ass if you do.

Which, of course, was a far different lecture than the one she’d gotten from her sister Claire. Hers had been along the same lines as the one she was getting from her friends now.

A flutter of tiny wings, deep in her belly, took flight. She was so tired of being overprotected by family and friends, as if she couldn’t think for herself simply because she’d always been shy. Because she was nice.

It was high time she grew up and got over a childhood affliction that was ruining her life. She’d been asked out exactly once in university, and the date had been a disaster. She hadn’t said more than a few words the whole night, and it had ended with an excruciatingly embarrassing fumble-and-kiss in his car. He’d expected more than she was willing to give, and when she’d refused, he’d called her cold. Only he’d used different words.

Not the stuff dreams were made of.

This might be her best chance to gain hands-on experience from someone who knew what he was doing—and who she also found attractive. It wasn’t as if she had men with those two crucial qualifications beating her door down with offers to educate her. Patterson was fun and he knew how to make her relax. She knew him well enough not to take him too seriously. If all he wanted from her was sex, she could live with that. He didn’t have to take her to the festival dance to get it either. They could go somewhere private instead, and if one thing led to another, then well… She’d finally know what the big deal was about.

But if she chickened out, or he wasn’t as interested as he’d pretended, no one would be the wiser. No one would get hurt. All that was really at stake was her pride, and right now, it was her best friends who were giving it a sound beating.

They didn’t know her as well as they thought if they expected her to sit here and take it.

“Thank you for your concern,” Alayna said, “but you’re worrying about nothing.”

* * *

Ben was a jerk the whole way home in the truck.

“Fifty bucks says you can’t get her out of her panties,” he said.

Patterson downshifted the truck into second gear and took the turn off the highway, then drove through the main gate that led to the Bar-No Sweetheart Ranch. His headlights swept the dark drive. They’d made similar bets when they were younger, but he’d thought they’d outgrown the stupid. And he was getting tired of the bad attitude. It wasn’t his fault Ben had been dumped by a girl. It wasn’t the first time and it wouldn’t be the last.

“Losing five dollars already wasn’t enough?”

“Not willing to admit there might be a girl who can resist you?” Ben fired back.

“Fine, I’ll take that bet,” Patterson said, hoping it might shut his friend up.

He pulled up to the bunkhouse, then helped Ben from the truck. Ben slung an arm over Patterson’s shoulder and leaned heavily on him.

“She told me I was too imma-imma-immachurrr for her,” Ben slurred in his ear. The smell of stale beer wafted across his face.

“A schoolteacher might have been aiming too high,” he replied.

“But I like women with brains.”

“I guess I can understand that,” Patterson conceded. “One of you should have them.”

Ben drunk-kissed his cheek. “See? I knew you’d understand. That’s why we’re best friends.”

Patterson wrestled him into the bunkhouse, tucked him into his bed, said good night to a few of the hands who’d been woken up by their noisy arrival, then hiked the short distance to his own place on foot.

He’d converted one of the ten guest cabins on the ranch into his personal space. It had a single bedroom, a bathroom with a shower, and a combined living room and tiny kitchenette—although he took most of his meals in the cookhouse next to the main lodge where his parents lived. Beyond heating a can of beans, he wasn’t much of a cook.

He crawled into bed, knowing morning was going to come far too early, and yet he couldn’t fall asleep. He kept picturing a sweet smile and long-lashed blue eyes, and reliving the thick fall of hair as it swept against his arms as they’d danced. She’d let him hold her a lot closer than was decent. If her brother had been present, it might have invited a polite tap on the shoulder and reminder of whose sister he was holding. But she’d nestled into his arms without protest, smiled up at him from under those lashes, and acted as if nothing untoward was occurring. He’d been in a persistent state of discomfort ever since.

When had she grown up and turned into such a beauty? How had he missed the transition from duckling to swan?

It didn’t matter. What he had to focus on now was making sure no one else noticed before he’d staked his claim. If she didn’t call him within forty-eight hours, he’d contact her.

The next day, not long after supper when he was on his way to fix a broken latch on one of the pens, his phone rang. He didn’t recognize the number, sending his hopes soaring.

His hopes weren’t in vain.

A soft, feminine voice crackled through the connection. “If you were serious about taking me to the festival dance, I was wondering if we could meet up some night this week to… discuss it?”

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