“I was just looking at your work on the bunkhouse. It’s solid and clean. I like that. I’m glad I listened when you were recommended.” McDonald continued to stare at him.

Is this some sort of test?

“Thank you again, sir. I like the work.”

“You’ve got a good work ethic.” McDonald nodded. “Wish more people around here had that. You finish in one day what it takes both Chip and Mitch to do.”

I’d wondered if anyone would notice that.

Cade eyed McDonald with a little more respect. The man had been paying attention. Truthfully, Cade hadn’t seen him around the ranch that much and had wondered how he kept his finger on the pulse of everything.

“Sometimes you must do jobs you hate,” McDonald went on. “But I’ve always believed in giving one hundred and ten percent no matter how shitty the job is or how much you don’t like the people you work with. What’s important is how you feel because you did what needed to be done and you did it well.” McDonald’s eyes were tiny in his bulging, wide face. He always had pink cheeks, but today they seemed more red. His breathing was heavy. Understandable from the effort it must take to move his bulky weight. But he wasn’t a slacker, he was always moving and giving orders.

Cade felt sweat under his armpits. What is he getting at? Is he angry about something?

“Did I do something wrong, sir?”

McDonald’s face lit up. “Oh no, boy. You’ve done good. I couldn’t be more pleased. I just wanted to hear your impressions of the FBI visit.”

“Oh.” More sweat. “They had a photo and asked if I knew him.”

“Did you?”

Cade held eye contact with the large man. “I thought I’d seen him around, but I wasn’t certain. Not enough to say I knew him.”

A thoughtful look came into McDonald’s eyes, and he evaluated Cade’s words for a long five seconds. “He worked around here a bit. It didn’t pan out and I let him go. I don’t know what he was doing at that farm with the fire . . . Maybe he was sleeping in the barn. I don’t think he had another place to go after I fired him.” His eyes seemed to darken. “The FBI doesn’t need to know he worked here. Sometimes I don’t keep the best employment records.”

Cade grabbed the excuse in relief. “Understandable, sir.”

“Sometimes it’s best for an employee if I just pay them under the table. I hate to see the government take more taxes than it deserves.”

“That’s decent of you.”

“Our government takes more of everything than it should. Where does all that money go? They wouldn’t give me a handout when I needed it. How much tax do they need to build and maintain our roads? That’s all I need from them. Something to drive on.”

Cade nodded. He’d heard the refrain all his life. He didn’t necessarily agree with it, although he did hate to see that chunk taken out of his paycheck every other week.

Is he offering to pay me under the table?

Discomfort made him shuffle his feet. That wasn’t a road he wanted to start down. He wanted to build a good work history and stay on the right side of the law—all of it.

“Don’t understand why it takes so many bureaucrats to build something as simple as roads,” continued McDonald. “That’s where a lot of our taxes go—paying unnecessary people. Same thing with the police around here. They don’t work for us; they work for the government and are restricted to enforcing a lot of stupid laws that no one wants. We’re capable of policing ourselves; we know what’s right and wrong. We don’t need a lot of politicians deciding that for us.”

His stare seemed to penetrate Cade’s skull. Am I supposed to agree?

Instead he kept his mouth shut. When in doubt, say nothing.

McDonald continued to stare at him, and Cade felt sweat trickle down his side. Then a big grin cracked the man’s face. “Smart one, aren’t you? I like that you keep your mouth shut even though your eyes say you don’t quite agree with me. Shows you’re capable of listening.”

“Everyone is entitled to their opinion. I try to respect that.”

“Good.” His gaze was thoughtful as he studied Cade. “I’ll see what I can do to find you some other tasks around here. Maybe some more responsibility. But if those FBI agents or any other cops show up, you let me know. We don’t have to answer any of their questions. They’re just being nosy. The government hasn’t liked me for a long time because I don’t put up with their shit. They take every opportunity to hassle me. Something tells me this is just the beginning. I left Idaho because things were getting too complicated. I’d like to avoid that here.”

“Not a problem.” More responsibility? Is he trying to bribe me? Keep me quiet?

What if he finds out my girlfriend’s aunt works for the FBI?

Cade felt a touch of dizziness as the thought struck him. Was he already lying to his boss by not telling him about Kaylie’s aunt Mercy?

What if he already knows and this is one big test?

His gut went liquid and his knees buckled slightly. He continued to hold McDonald’s eye contact, but inside he was ready to collapse, and he wondered if his sweat was visible through his shirt.

McDonald slapped him on the shoulder. “See you around, Pruitt.” He squeezed Cade’s shoulder, turned around, and left, the shed suddenly brighter inside because the doorway was no longer blocked. Cade took two steps and leaned his back against the wall, then bent over and rested his hands on his thighs. He fought back the urge to vomit.

Did I just fail his test?

Now what?

I’ve got to keep Kaylie away from here.

Mercy recognized her brother from the back as he talked to Rose. Rose sat in a booth at the diner, her face turned up to Owen as he stood at her table. Mercy paused, not wanting to intrude, but then she saw a look cross Rose’s face and she stepped closer, blatantly eavesdropping.

Her last discussion with Owen was fresh in her mind. Discussion was a kind word for the way he’d spoken to her, and she didn’t care to rehash any of their conversation, but the expression on Rose’s face overrode her caution. Since she’d returned to Eagle’s Nest, Mercy had discovered she’d walk through fire for any member of her family. Even Owen.

The distaste in Rose’s expression kept her feet moving forward.

“ . . . both think it’s the right thing to do,” Owen was saying firmly to Rose.

“You’re out of your mind,” answered Rose.

“He’s a really nice guy. I met him yesterday for the first time, and I think you’d like him.”

“You’ve met a guy once and you’re ready to marry me to him? Christ, Owen. Do you know how many things are wrong with what you just said to me?”

“Marry?” Mercy couldn’t stay back any longer. Relief filled Rose’s face as she heard her sister’s voice, and Owen spun around.

“Maybe you can talk some sense into Owen,” Rose said. “He and Dad are desperate to find me a husband.”

“A husband?” Mercy whirled on Owen. “You think she needs a husband?”

Owen’s chin shot up and he squared his stance. “She’s pregnant.”

“So what?”

“It’s the right thing to do.”

“What century are you living in?”

Anger shot from his eyes, and Mercy looked away to Rose. “You’re not having any of this, right?”

“Hell no.”

“She needs someone—”

“Are you listening to yourself?” Mercy said. “Do you know anyone more capable or stronger than Rose? She can do anything!”

“You don’t understand,” he started to say.

“I understand just fine,” Mercy retorted. “You think a woman needs a man to take care of her. Yes, it’s wonderful when two people fall in love and start a life together, but jeez, Owen, you don’t force it to happen!”

“Mom and Dad are getting older. They aren’t going to be able to take care—”

“Stop right there.” Mercy held up a hand. “Who takes care of who? From what I’ve seen, Rose takes care of everyone at that house. The only thing she can’t do is drive.” She looked closely at her brother. “Have you forgotten we grew up together? Did Rose ever let her lack of sight stop her from anything?”

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