Branded

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Authors: Laura Wright
wasn’t sure how he’d react if Mackenzie Byrd put her head on his shoulder like she had the cowboy’s. Wasn’t sure if his arm would steal around her waist, too, or if he’d pull her close to his side and brush his lips over the curve of her right ear.
    He frowned. Thoughts like that were dangerous. This was Mac he was talking about. The foremanof the Triple C. Cass’s best friend. Blue Perez’s . . . undetermined. She was annoying, muddy little Mac. Sure, she’d grown, in all sorts of ways he couldn’t help but notice. But she was, and would always be, troublesome. And he didn’t have time for troublesome.
    A yard or two before she hit the bottom stair of the porch, she looked up and spotted him. Her expression tightened instantly, and even in the shadowed light, Deacon noticed how stormy her blue eyes had turned. She was pissed. As usual. But this time, he wasn’t exactly sure who she was pissed at.
    â€œGiving my new baby brother a little comfort, darlin’?” he called out.
    â€œâ€˜Course. That’s how friendship works,” she returned, her tone as thunderous as her gaze. She moved up the steps and around the porch railing to face him. “All right, Deacon. Let’s have it. What are you going to do?”
    He inhaled deeply, glanced at the driveway and his truck parked there. “I haven’t decided. Get to bed early, or maybe head into town for some supper.”
    â€œDammit, that’s not what I’m talking about and you know it. I’m sure you’re concocting a plan as we stand here. How to get Blue off the Cavanaugh ticket.”
    He turned back and regarded her. “He’s not on the ticket yet, sweetheart.”
    â€œYou don’t believe it?” she said incredulously.
    â€œWhat I believe is that science is unbiased,” he said. “Except when you pay it not to be.”
    Her eyes widened to the size of silver dollars. “Are you accusing Blue or . . . or Everett of a bullshit DNA test? Blue didn’t even know he’d been tested.”
    â€œExactly,” Deacon said, pushing away from the railing. “This time around, everyone will know.”
    â€œThis time around . . . Christ, you’ve already made the call, haven’t you?”
    â€œSomeone’ll be here by tomorrow.”
    Dark brows lifted over stunning blue eyes. “That quick? That easy?” She snorted. “Have someone who handles this type of problem on staff, do you?” She leaned in and whispered, “Maybe you need to start wearing protection, darlin’.”
    She was close. Too damn close. He could smell that perfume again, and something else, too. The heat off her skin or the shampoo she used.
    â€œYou haven’t changed, Mackenzie Byrd,” he growled softly.
    She drew back, a serious expression moving over her face. “No, I haven’t. I’m still the girl from River Black who loves this ranch, remembers good times here, remembers her best friend. I’m still that girl who lives for the land, loves a goodhorse underneath her, loves causing some trouble.” She locked eyes with him, and her voice softened. “I’m the country girl who’s saying to you—don’t do this, Deacon.”
    His eyes dropped to her mouth. “Do what?”
    â€œDestroy the Triple C.”
    He watched the movement of her lips as she spoke. Had a strange, hypnotizing way about it. “Did your boyfriend ask you come over here and beg me to abandon my plans? Walk away?”
    She snorted. “Please. I only beg if chocolate’s involved.”
    His eyes flipped up.
    â€œAnd,” she added, “Blue’s not my boyfriend.”
    Deacon’s lips twitched. “You might want to tell him that.”
    â€œI don’t have to. He knows. I know. We have an understanding.”
    Deacon grinned at her now. “You don’t know how guys think,

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