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Stepbrother Master(49)

By:Ava Jackson

“I’m not sure if that was supposed to be a threat … but you’re definitely missing the mark.”

His rich laugh filled the truck’s cab, along with something that sounded a lot like, “At least I know what we’ll be doing after.”

When we pulled up in front of the garage, Ford put the truck in park and told me to hold on. I waited while he came around to my side and opened my door. He lifted me down from the truck and set me on my feet.

“Don’t worry, Emma, we’ve got this.”

I nodded. “You’re right. We’ve got this.”

Once again, I gripped his hand, and felt like, together, we could take on the world.

* * *

I stepped into the kitchen, my body still feeling the crushing grip of Mom and Russ’s hugs. To say that things had gone better than expected was a mild understatement. The horrified looks and accusatory challenges? Completely absent. The happy smiles and congratulations? Genuine and plentiful. I wasn’t sure that I’d be able to wipe off my own smile for days.

Until Celeste stepped out of the pantry holding a canvas grocery sack, and a sour expression immediately twisted her features at the sight of me.

No. Just no. Montana might be the West, but it wasn't the Wild West, and this ranch was, in fact, big enough for the both of us. The time had come to bury the hatchet. And not in Celeste’s back.

I refused to let my smile falter as her eyes narrowed. “You don’t have to look so smug. Although, I shouldn’t be surprised. You’re probably willing to do whatever—”

I held up a hand. “Enough, Celeste. Just—enough. I’m done doing whatever this is that we’ve been doing.” Her mouth snapped shut, so I took that as my perfect opportunity to continue. “I’m staying here on the ranch. For good. Our parents know that I’m seeing Ford. They’re totally fine with it. So, you don’t have to like me, but we’re going to have to figure out how to get along.”

Celeste stiffened. “Then fire me. That’s what you want to do, isn’t it?”

I shook my head. “No. You have a place here as long as you want one. You’ve made this your home, too, and it’s certainly not my intent to push you out. I just want to make sure we’re clear that Ford isn’t an option.”

I expected a catty response, but what I got was something totally different: laughter. Celeste’s shoulders shook as she wrapped one arm around herself and lifted the other to her face. “I don’t even want Ford. God, I’m such an idiot. I thought … just maybe … if I could get him to notice me, I’d never have to worry again. But Mac had to go and ruin everything!”

Okay, now I was completely lost. “Mac?”

Celeste lifted her face from her hands. “You can’t choose who you fall for … even when you should know better.” Shaking her head, she added, “I told myself I’d never fall for a cowboy, but he just worked his way into my heart, and now there’s no getting him out.”

My brain whirled to catch up. Celeste and Mac? Since when? What the hell?

She pushed up from the table, once again gathering the canvas grocery bag. Celeste caught my confused stare.

“I’m taking care of him while he’s laid up at Griff’s. Griff is going to visit his nephew, so Mac and I can have a little time to ourselves—not that much’ll be going on with his leg busted up.” Her smile softened. “But it’ll be nice to have some time alone. Give us a chance to talk about what’s next.” With that, she strolled out of the kitchen, a wistful look on her face. The backdoor shut with a quiet click, just before Ford’s voice filled the otherwise empty kitchen.

“She still giving you a hard time?”


I rose and turned toward him. I loved not having to look over my shoulder—or his—to see who might be watching. I loved knowing that I could cross the kitchen and wrap my arms around him, and squeeze his tight butt without repercussions—at least, none that I wasn’t completely thrilled to experience. So I did exactly that.

Ford threaded his fingers through my hair and tilted my face toward his. “You’re sure everything’s okay.”

I reached up and wrapped my arms around his neck, lifting up onto my tiptoes while pulling his face down toward mine. “So much better than okay. Absolutely perfect,” I whispered, before pressing my lips to his. Ford’s hand cupped the back of my head, and we didn’t speak for a long, long time after that.



A hot, bone-dry breeze played over our sweaty backs as Mom, Ford, and I rode toward the ranch. It hadn't rained for weeks and the trail dust coated my throat. “Hey, Ford? Can I have some of your water?”