Plus, on her days off, she was still lurking around. It was as if she had no fucking life outside the ranch. Her favorite pastime was talking to the livestock as if someday they’d talk back. I knew Dottie well enough to know that she didn’t care a lick about what Hazel was saying—she just wanted those damn apples.

All the other guys on the ranch seemed to be fine and dandy with Hazel wandering around like a lost dog. James said she stayed out of the way and even came in handy when he needed an extra pair of hands. Marcus and Eric found her equally helpful, and I swore Old Man Eddie had kissed Hazel’s cheek when she’d offered to help him in the chicken coop.

It seemed I was the only asshole who didn’t want her around, and I knew damn well that it was because of my personal issues with her connections to Charlie.

Seeing Hazel every day reminded me of Charlie, and thinking of Charlie reminded me of my parents. I tried my best not to think about them. I worked hard to keep them buried deep in the back of my mind, but seeing Hazel made that near impossible.

I didn’t know the girl, but the taste she left in my mouth made me sick. If she was connected to a snake like Charlie, no good could come from her working around the ranch. She came from a world of toxicity.

“And you’re a pain in mine,” Big Paw replied, sitting at his desk in his home. He scratched at his overgrown beard that Grams had been trying to get him to shave down and yawned without covering his mouth. “She’s been working harder than half the blockheads out there. Every time I’ve passed by the ranch, I’ve seen her working hard, struggling sometimes, sure, but working. Unlike half your team that I find slacking off and shooting the shit.”

“Yeah, but . . .” I groaned, knowing I didn’t have a leg to stand on but still wanting a fucking leg to stand on. “Did you know she’s Charlie’s stepdaughter?”

“You think I don’t do my research before hiring hands? Of course I knew that.”

“And you still brought her on?” I asked, flabbergasted. “You know that Charlie is the reason Mom and Dad—”

“Don’t start, boy,” Big Paw sneered, his voice coated in annoyance. He flicked his finger against the bridge of his nose. “I don’t got time for you bringing up this issue. Hazel Stone is working at the ranch, and you will be the one overseeing her work. End of story.”


“I said end of story!”

How could he push it away so fast? If it weren’t for Charlie, Mom and Dad would’ve never gotten hooked on meth all those years ago. They wouldn’t have run off in a drug haze, chasing their next high. They would’ve still been the parents I needed in my life.

So fuck Charlie, and fuck everyone who was attached to him. He ruined lives—including mine.

I wished I hadn’t known my parents before the drugs slipped into their lives. I wished I hadn’t seen their good side, but I had for thirteen years of my life. I had a slew of memories in my brain that reminded me of what Mom had been like before meth. I remembered how she’d loved to help Grams garden. I remembered her laugh, her rose-scented perfume, her smile. During the summers, Dad would let me go down to the dump and use the forklift out there to help him move around busted-up automobiles.

The worst part of having parents who developed a drug habit over time was remembering that they hadn’t always been so fucked up. If they had always been tragic people, I would’ve had an easier time when they’d left.

“You should think about letting her go. Or at least having someone else look after her,” I offered. That would’ve made it less annoying for me—if I didn’t have to look after Hazel.

“I can’t let her go. I owe it to someone close to her to give Hazel a shot.”

“Who? Who could you possibly owe?”

His brows knitted, and he avoided my question. “How much are you paying for rent at the property on the ranch?” he asked, his question loaded, and I knew exactly what trap he was setting up.

“Big Paw—”

“Easy question, boy. Now answer it.”

I slumped down in my chair. “Rent-free.”

“I was talking to Tyler down at the marketplace the other day, and he was telling me that ranch house was easily worth over two hundred thousand. He asked me if it was up for sale. I’m debating if I should take him up on that offer.”

“Okay, I get it.”

“I don’t think you do.” He clasped his hands together. “I could be making money on that ranch house, but I don’t because you’re my grandson and I knew you wouldn’t be able to find a nice spot on your own without the help. I lend the barn house to you and your bandmates to rehearse in, even though I could be making a profit from renting it out to others. In a town where so many people are struggling, you’re living like a goddamn king, and you have the nerve to come into my office whining like a baby because you don’t like a girl who works harder than most people? Well, tough cookies. If you want her to have a new trainer, then quit. But Lord knows you’ll be losing everything that comes with your comfortable life.”

I didn’t say another word, because Big Paw was right. I was being a little shit and throwing a fit because I wasn’t getting my way.

“You were given a good shot at life, Ian. A few crappy things happened to you with your parents leaving, but overall, you’ve been gifted with blessings that most people in town would kill for. Don’t let your ego get so big that you don’t think others deserve a shot at that same blessing. Hazel hasn’t done a damn thing to prove herself to be anything like Charlie. She was just dealt a shitty hand. Let her play her cards the best she can, and stop being a whiny little dickhead about it.”