Charlie was Mama’s husband—my dear ol’ stepfather—and he’d been in our lives as long as I could remember. I’d never known snakes could be people until I’d grown up to find out the type of person Charlie was. He was the dark spot in Eres, a toxic infection that spread throughout town. He was the biggest drug dealer and the main cause of the meth habit that had taken over.
Charlie Riley was trouble—and he was too damn good at his job to ever get caught.
There were many reasons to loathe that man, but my main reason was based on the person he’d turned my mother into.
Mama always said she loved Charlie, but she didn’t like him that much. At least not when he was drunk, and if there was anything Charlie was good at, it was being drunk. Sometimes, Charlie would get so drunk and so loud he’d throw things and hit Mama until she started crying and apologizing for things she’d never even done.
Once I’d asked her why she wouldn’t leave him, and she’d told me, “Everything we have is because of that man. This house, the clothes on your back, the food you eat. Don’t you see, Hazel? Without him, we are nothing.”
I didn’t understand that. I didn’t get why someone was allowed to hurt you just because they gave you things. Maybe she was right about Charlie giving us stuff, but if we had nothing, that would’ve meant she’d have no black eyes either.
She’d told me to drop the conversation and not bring it up again, because she loved Charlie and she’d never leave him.
It’d been three years since we’d had that conversation. I was now eighteen years old, and it seemed like day in and day out, Mama was beginning to side with Charlie over me. I knew it wasn’t her true thoughts, though. Charlie had poisoned her body and mind to the point that Mama hadn’t a clue which way was up. She was a slave to his control and his drug supply. When I looked into Mama’s eyes nowadays, I hardly saw my real mother looking back at me anymore.
I would’ve moved on completely if it weren’t for the fact that Mama was four months pregnant. I felt somewhat responsible for my soon-to-be sibling. Lord knew Charlie wasn’t looking after Mama’s care.
I needed the job at Eres Ranch in order to save up money for my sister or brother. I needed money to buy prenatal vitamins for Mama. Money to make sure her fridge was full. Money to make sure that somehow the baby could come into the world with a little bit more than I had.
Then, with the rest of the money, I’d buy a one-way ticket and leave Eres and never look back. Somehow, I’d convince Mama to come with me, too, with the new baby. The last thing she needed to do was raise a child with Charlie around.
Mama was right—we did have a roof over our heads because of Charlie. But just because someone gave you four walls to stay in didn’t mean they weren’t a prison. I couldn’t wait for the day that I collected enough money to get myself my own four walls. Those four walls would be filled with love, not threats. With happiness, not fear.
And the name Charlie Riley would be a distant memory.
Big Paw rubbed the back of his neck. “We were looking for ranch hands, not some girl who’s probably too afraid to get her hands dirty.”
“I’m not afraid of that at all. I’ll get down and dirty with the rest.”
“You have to be able to lift over sixty pounds.”
“I’ll lift seventy.”
He cocked an eyebrow and leaned forward. “You have to be here before the sun rises, and if you don’t finish the task, you stay after dusk, and there ain’t no overtime. You get paid by the daily tasks being completed, not by the hours you spend here. If you get done early, you can leave early. If you get done late, you’re stuck here late. Also, I don’t believe in three strikes. I believe in one. Mess up, and you’re gone. You understand, girl?”
If anyone else called me “girl,” I’d slam my fist straight into their nose to show them just how much of a girl I was, but hearing it come from Big Paw wasn’t an insult. He called it as he saw it in a straightforward way. He’d call any man younger than him “boy,” too, because he could. I was sure people who identified differently would be offended by the title Big Paw would give them, but he was too old to bother correcting himself.
Old dog, new tricks and all.
“I understand.” I nodded. “I’ll be the hardest worker out there, I promise.”
He grumbled some more and rubbed his beard. “Fine, but don’t come complaining to me when you ruin your favorite pair of shoes in the pigpens. You report to the stables tomorrow at noon sharp for training with my grandson, Ian. He’ll be in charge of getting you up and running.”
I sat up a bit straighter as my stomach tightened. “Wait, Ian is training me?” I frowned. “Are you sure Marcus or James or someone can’t take me on?”
“No. Those boys are already training a few other ranch hands.” He raised his brow once more. “You aren’t already making yourself difficult, are you?”
I shook my head. “No, sir—er—Big Paw. Sorry. That is fine. Noon tomorrow. I’ll be there.”
The idea of being trained by Ian Parker made me want to gag. He was known as the playboy rock star of Eres. Ian had graduated three years before me, and I’d been the lucky girl with my locker right beside his during my freshman year. Which meant I’d had a front-and-center viewing of him swapping spit with whatever small-town groupie was wrapped around his pinkie at the time.