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Branding the Virgin(6)

By:Alexa Riley

I come up short when I enter the open kitchen, the morning light shining in through the windows. Everything looking different from the day before, including the woman standing at the kitchen island. She turns towards me, her wild mass of red hair bouncing with the movement. A smile pulls at her round face, and she looks to be a few years younger than me. Her pale skin is a stunning contrast to her big blue eyes and fire-red hair.

She looks like she fits here. Like she actually belongs on a ranch, with her cowboy boots and blue flannel shirt tucked into her jeans. But she’s not the only thing that’s different. The house has come alive. I have to bite my lip to keep from laughing because I don’t know if the woman in front of me decorated the place. It looks a mess, like someone just threw a bunch of stuff together with no rhyme or reason, but it’s still better than the cold that coated the space yesterday. Only now it’s a decorated mess.

“Hi, I’m Dolly Jennings.” She takes a step towards me, holding out her hand. Of course her name is Dolly. It even falls off her lips with a sweet twang. I smile back, then her last name hits me hard. Oh God, is this his wife? My stomach drops, and I slowly raise my hand to meet hers.

“I’m, ah…” I take a deep breath, trying to get myself under control. I knew this was a possibility, but the reality is so much harder to take. Would this be the other woman in my child’s life? “I’m MJ,” I finally push out. I try to get myself under control, fighting an inner battle I’ve been having for days since I found out about Ty. I’ve always known that I could rip his world apart if he did have a wife, but I try to find the good. That it would just be one more person who could love our child. But it still feels like I’m losing something, and I’m not sure what that something is.

She cocks her head to the side, studying me, before she suddenly pulls me in for a hug, squeezing me tighter than I thought someone her size could. I have to hold my body away from her a little out so she doesn’t feel my baby bump.

“Ah, he’s not that scary. I promise Ty doesn’t bite,” she says as she pulls back from me. That smile is still lighting up her face. This close I can see freckles sprinkling her nose and they make her look even younger than I initially thought. “The big scary ones are always the ones with marshmallow in the center. You’ve just got to…” She makes a hand motion and a pop sound with her mouth. “…Crack them open.”

With that, she goes back over to the kitchen island, picks up her coffee mug, and takes a sip.

“Don’t you have class?” a deep voice rumbles from behind me. I don’t turn to look. I know it’s Ty. He still has the grumpy voice from yesterday, or maybe that’s just how he always talks.

“What happened to this place?” Dolly looks around the kitchen, then towards the living room. “I mean, anything’s better than what is was, but this is still kind of…” She scrunches her face, her distaste for the decor clear. I know now that this wasn’t her doing. “…Weird.”

“Class, Dolly,” Ty grumbles again, and I can feel him move farther into the room. Closer to me. It takes everything in me to not turn and look at him.

“Chill. It’s summer.” She takes another sip of her coffee.

“Where are you staying?” Ty asks. I glance to my side and see him standing there with no shirt on. His eyes are trained on me, but I just look back at Dolly, wondering about his question.

“The little cabin over by the lake.” She raises her hand. “Don’t even start. I own part of the land, and I’m eighteen. I’ll stay there all I like and you can’t stop me. You can’t make me stay here. I mean—”

Ty cuts her off. “I’m good with the cabin.” I can’t help but glance over at him again, and I’m surprised to see his eyes still on me. It takes all my willpower to look away and not down his naked chest.

Dolly’s mouth hangs open like she can’t believe what Ty just said, and I’m just as confused. Maybe they don’t live together. That would explain why the house was kind of bare. Maybe she took most everything with her. I hate that I like that idea a whole lot more than them being under the same roof.

“You don’t like the shit I got?” Ty asks, and I keep looking at Dolly, uncertain who he’s talking to. I’m not going to speak up, just in case. That cliché if you don’t have something nice thing to say… rings loudly in my head.

I feel a little tug on my hair, and I look over to see Ty has a strand twirled around his finger. “You don’t like my shit?” he asks again, staring down at me.