“I’m done waiting,” Branna announced, flinging down her padded denim jacket as she slid into the red booth opposite two of her three best friends.

The crazy idea had popped into her mind last night, just before falling asleep, and had been the first thought upon waking. She was going to be twenty-one soon. Twenty-one. If Jonny waited any longer, she’d be a veritable old maid of Bulwark, joining the likes of Miz Pearl and Senorita Sanchez, pining away with half a dozen cats for company. And she didn’t even like the standoffish felines. 

No! She, Branna Clare O’Connor, was determined to not see another birthday unmarried. So, before the end of April, she would be wed, and to Jonathan Lawson, come hell or high water.

“I’m just gonna have to ask him myself,” she stated, taking off her green-and-blue striped gloves and the matching knitted cap, placing them on the jacket beside her as she glanced outside. It was as cold as a darned witch’s tit out there.

“Where’s Sandy?” Branna asked, suddenly aware the fourth woman to make up their inner circle was missing.

“Kurt has the flu,” Ivy supplied.

“Poor Sandy,” Branna muttered. A sick toddler could not be fun. “I’ll call her later.” Branna flicked back her hair — darn bangs were forever in her eyes, but she was trying to grow them out — and leaned forward. She placed both hands flat on the Formica tabletop and whispered, “Valentine’s Day is coming up.” 

But her friends didn’t seem very interested in her statement.

Ivy wriggled uncomfortably, brushed a hand over her forehead, shooting Marlene a look before shifting her eyes to peer around the diner. In fact, they were downright squirrely.

Marlene moved closer, taking one of Branna’s hands in hers.

Uh-uh. Branna knew the I’m-sorry-do-not-kill-me-but expression on Mar’s face. Whatever her friend had to say, she was not going to like it.

“You’re not gonna talk me out of it,” she said. Mar had already talked her out of the shotgun wedding idea. Next best was proposing to the love of her life. “I know he loves me,” she announced, as sure of Jonny’s love as she was head over heels with the brown-haired, brown-eyed cowboy.

Marlene squirmed and looked away.

“He does,” Branna insisted.

Her confidence waned as Marlene pursed her lips. “Mar?”

Marlene’s eyes, the soft brown of chestnuts, fixed on Branna’s. “Of course Jon loves you. Everyone knows he’s ass over teakettle, honey. It’s just” — Marlene huffed — “I bumped into Jason earlier,” her friend whispered, squeezing her fingers.

Branna’s stomach flipped. And not in a nice way. “He’s back?” she asked, swallowing hard. She hated—

No, Mama said to never hate. She disliked Jonathan’s cousin. Intensely. Both her friends nodded. 

Branna leaned over the table, her hand still clasped tightly in Mar’s. “All the more reason to get hitched. Then he’ll have to back off.”

Ivy reached for her other hand. “Have you ever told Jon about Jason?”

“Are you mad? Jonny’ll kill him.” And then she’d die a virgin — ’cause she couldn’t imagine any man except Jonny touching her so intimately.

A virgin and an old maid. She shuddered at the thought.

It would not do. No, siree, not at all.

“Who’s Jon gonna kill?” Fred, Mar’s brand-new husband — Marlene was a lucky one, because Fred didn’t wait a gazillion years to get his business up and running before marrying her — placed their milkshakes down, sliding the glasses along. Lime for her, chocolate for Ivy, and strawberry for Marlene. 

“Jason. He’s finally back,” Marlene informed him.

“Yeah. Heard he took to losing real bad.”

Branna snorted. “Jason always hates losing.”

How those two men, Jonathan and Jason Lawson, were even related floored her. Despite sharing similar features — both tall with wavy brown hair, strong jaws, and full lips — the cousins couldn’t be more different. There was Jason, competitive in an ugly, dog-eat-dog kinda way, lending a hard, mean look to him, turning his sky-blue eyes soulless. And then her beloved Jonathan, laid back, always looking for the good in people, his mouth ready to smile, and when his soft brown eyes crinkled …

Oh, my, be still my beating heart. 

The only time she’d seen him truly angry was Christmas three years ago when Mama had invited the two cousins for dinner, and Jason tried to kiss her in the kitchen. Accost her was more like it, as he’d held her arms in his hands, his fingers tight bands — she’d had bruises for days after — forcing his mouth upon hers. Jonathan walked in and climbed into Jason. When Mama and Daddy rushed in, Jason was on the floor, her hero on top of the brute, beating him to a pulp.

Daddy had broken up the fight, and when Branna sobbed and told her Mama why … well, let’s just say Jason would never be welcome in the O’Connor house ever again.

Jonathan had threatened to kill Jason if he so much a looked at her again. Jonathan’s quick actions then had made her fall even more in love with her sweetheart.

But he was taking just forever to ask her to marry him.  

And, in the intervening years, Jason had taken every opportunity to taunt her.

But if Jonny ever found out about last September …

Well, Branna didn’t figure she wanted to spend the rest of her life visiting her beau in prison.

“Also heard he spent his Christmas down in Argentina,” Fred continued, handing out the extra thick straws.

Fred made the thickest, yummiest milkshakes in the entire Blaze county. He’d grown up working in the diner beside his grandpa, also named Fred, and had been taught well.

“Losing the All-Around title in the finals to Ferguson must’ve been a blow to his overbearing, conceited, snooty self.” Branna laughed in a manner that would’ve earned her a look from Mama.

Then again, this was Jason she was talking about.

“Anyhow, ladies, y’all have a fine afternoon gabbing.” Fred clearly understood where this discussion was headed and wanted no part in it.

He blew a kiss at his wife before sauntering back to the kitchen.

Branna watched as Marlene leaned forward to look beyond Ivy and stare at her retreating husband. Or rather, at his retreating denim-clad backside, which reminded Branna about her unfortunate virgin status, and Jonny and his confounded scruples.

Branna passed Marlene a napkin, earning her a frown. “What’s this for?”

“The drool streaming from your mouth,” Branna replied drily.

Ivy giggled softly, and Mar blushed scarlet even as her eyes closed and she got a dreamy cat-in-the-cream look on her face. Blast her friend and her very talkative facial expressions.  

“Sooo,” Branna deliberately drawled the word and poked Marlene’s hand with her forefinger to get her attention. “You are an old married woman now, and seeing as we” — she waved her hand between her and Ivy — “have to live vicariously through you … What’s it like?”

Marlene’s eyes widened. “What’s what like?” she asked, all innocent-like, but couldn’t stop her eyes darting across to the kitchen.

“Sex, Mar, sex. Don’t be obtuse. You know — intercourse, marital relations, coupling, mating, bonking, or, as they say in Mama’s novels,” Branna’s voice lowered to a whisper, “shagging. Or, if I need to be really crude, f—”

“Stop! You’re so funny. Ha-ha.” Marlene held her hand up in mock anger. “Just stop,” she repeated sternly, but a smile started to tip the corners of her mouth, and the starry-eyed look returned. 

“Come on, Marlene Olsen,” Branna encouraged. “Since Sandy is cleaning snotty noses, it’s up to you to give us on-the-shelf virgins some—”

A strangled eep from Ivy had both Branna and Marlene turning to look at their rather shy friend. Raised by exacting elderly parents who insisted on utter obedience, Ivy had grown up timid and with an innate need to please. Sometimes their friend’s shrinking-violet personality had her, Marlene, and Sandy shaking their heads. It was in complete contrast to her features because Ivy was not a small woman. She stood almost six feet tall, was a big-boned, Scandinavian blonde with a prominent nose, high cheekbones, and square jaw. A handsome Viking warrior, her Mama called her. No, Ivy was not pretty by conventional standards. Rather, she was an incredibly striking woman, and when she was called standoffish, it was because she was introverted, not haughty or cold. 

Ivy had a huge crush on the local troublemaker, Arthur Brown, which was bad, because Arthur was a mean-spirited person. He was also a budding drunk like his mother and daddy, got into regular fights, and couldn’t hold down a job.

“Ivy,” Marlene prodded gently, “what have you done?”

Branna was a lot more direct in her approach, and hissed, “Ivy Westergard, have you had sex with Arthur Brown?”

To both women’s surprise, Ivy straightened and lifted her chin. “I have. And it was good. And don’t you go and ruin it for me. He loves me,” she stated, folding her arms across her chest.

“Ivy—” Branna started.

“Not. A. Word.”

Branna and Marlene could only gape at their friend and her surprisingly odd behavior. Marlene was the first to back down. “Okay, Ive.” She lightly touched Ivy’s cheek with the back of her hand. “But if ever you need anything, you tell me.” Marlene prodded Ivy’s chin until she fixed her eyes on Mar’s. “Yeah?”

“Me, too, Ivy,” Branna added. “We love you, girl.”

Ivy’s pale blue gaze flicked between her and Marlene, before nodding.

Branna inhaled deeply. “So, I’m the last woman standing. We have six days, girls. Next Friday is the fourteenth. That night, one of two things will happen: I’ll either get a ‘yes’ from Jonathan, or I’ll get him in my bed.” She grinned. “And if I’m a very lucky girl, I’ll get both.”     

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