Branded

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Authors: Laura Wright
From Mac’s perspective, she’d loved her kids more than anything and seemed to go out of her way to make ’em happy, make each event in their lives somethin’ special. Cass had told Mac more than a few times that after having three boys, her mama had been so excited about having a little girl she’d had the nursery painted pink and ready to go six months in advance.
    It’s funny how life can change on a dime. How one horrific event can cancel out all the good, all the memories, cut ties and sever deeply woven relationships. The day Cass was taken—the day that dime flipped over and landed on tails—she’d been at the movies with her brothers. Halfway through, she’d gotten up to go to the bathroom and had never come back. A few days later, when they brought her body home, Lea Cavanaugh broke—inside and out. And from what Mac had heard, she never healed. Mac hadn’t seen things firsthand, as she was grieving herself and Everett just hadn’t wanted visitors around. But she’d seethem in town, all five of ’em, looking like they were barely existing.
    Six months later, the case was cold. A few months after that, Everett put Lea in a hospital, where she passed away not eight weeks later. Poor Deacon, James, and Cole. They left River Black days after her funeral without a word to anyone. Seemed as though everybody just wanted to forget and move on.
    Blue made a sound, a sound so close to a moan it brought Mac’s head around. “I wonder if she knew,” he said. “Lea. I wonder if Everett told her.”
    â€œOh, Blue . . .” Mac began.
    â€œI’m not staying here.”
    â€œWhat?” Panic claimed her suddenly.
    â€œYou heard me.”
    â€œThat’s bullshit,” she said back. The idea of not having Blue in her life turned her insides out. He was like family. Closest thing she had. “You’re not going anywhere.”
    â€œI can’t, Mac.”
    â€œThis is your home. Now, more than ever.”
    His gaze found hers, and under the warm, Creamsicle light of the late-afternoon sun, he said with deep conviction, “I’m not fighting those boys over their ranch—their home.”
    Passion and fear overtook the panic, fueling her blood. “Yes, you are, and you’d better.”
    Blue’s eyes filled with confusion, pain. “Mac . . .”
    â€œYou heard Deacon at the service today. What he said in front of everyone in this town.” The breeze whipped her hair around her face, cooling her skin. But her blood remained hot. “You know what he plans to do to this place and to everyone who needs it. Everyone who relies on it to survive.” She laughed bitterly. “I have no idea what James and Cole are thinking, what they want, but they have lives outside of River Black. Odds are they’re planning on going back to them. You and me, we belong here. You can take over.”
    â€œYou’re not thinking—” he began in warning.
    â€œYou
have
to stay,” she implored him. “You have to help me. Fight with me.”
    â€œCome on, Mac. Shit.” His eyes softened, and he reached out, brushed a strand of hair away from her face. It wasn’t a romantic gesture, but a tender one. A brotherly one. “You know I’d do anything for you, but this . . .” He shook his head.
    â€œYou belong here, Blue,” Mac said, continuing the fight. “You and the family you might have someday. I know that’s what you want. And a Cavanaugh should carry on here. Keep building, keep growing. Not destroying.”
    â€œCavanaugh,” he muttered, looking away.
    She grabbed his arm, forced him to look at her. “That’s right. Blue Cavanaugh. Everett’s son.”
    â€œSon,” he repeated. “Son. Goddamn. My daddy?Shit, Mac, if this is really true . . .” His eyes implored her. “It’s not fair. I

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