I was shocked that mono wasn’t being spread around more due to Ian Parker and his manwhore ways. Nothing said I hate you more than having to wedge my way between him and blonde-chick-of-the-week to get into my locker. Now, he was responsible for training me at the ranch.

I doubted he even knew who I was, seeing as how I’d spent a good amount of my time in high school trying hard to not stand out. My wardrobe consisted of black on black with a sprinkle of black. It matched my charcoal hair, inky-black nails, and deep-green eyes. The darkness of it all went with my personality. I was a loner and found life a bit easier that way. Most people called me the solo goth of Eres and thought me unworthy of their time. Though a good handful of girls had muscled up the energy to bully me through the high school years, as if I’d been some bully charity case. Oh? Look at Hazel Stone minding her business—let’s make her stand out more by throwing food at her during lunch. That’s the attention she’s craving.

If I disappeared, no one would probably come looking for me. Not to be overly melodramatic, but it was true. Once I’d run away from home for two weeks, and when I’d come home, Mama had asked me why I hadn’t done the dishes. She hadn’t even noticed I was missing, and if my own mother wouldn’t notice, I doubted anyone else in Eres would. Especially someone like Ian. He was too busy with his hands either wrapped around a woman or strumming his guitar.

The next day, I showed up at the ranch two hours before I had to meet with Ian. I hung around the stables, wasting minutes before it was time to get to work. I didn’t have a car to get to the job, so it had taken me nearly thirty minutes to walk from Charlie’s place. The sun stung against my skin, forcing sweat to trickle down my forehead. My underarms were Shrek’s dreamland based on the swamp-like moisture attacking them. I held my arms away from my body, trying to stop the sweat stains from deepening, but the summer sun in Eres was unapologetic to the mere human beings it attacked.

When two hours had passed, I headed to the ranch office, where I was supposed to meet with Ian. I sat there for thirty minutes. Then forty-five minutes. An hour went by.

I hadn’t a clue what I should do. I’d checked my watch about five times, making sure I hadn’t blacked out and missed my appointment with Ian.

After waiting over an hour, I began walking around the ranch, hoping to cross paths with Ian or someone who could lead me to Ian. The more time that passed, the more nervous I grew, thinking that if Big Paw found out I wasn’t being trained, he’d cut me loose before I even had a shot at nailing the job.

“Excuse me, can you help me?” I asked a guy carrying a stack of hay on his back. He turned to me with an exhausted look. It had to be around fifty-some pounds of hay resting on him, and I felt bad for even interrupting him, but I couldn’t lose my job.

“Yeah?” he breathed, beaten to his core. I’d seen him around school too. He was James, Ian’s best friend. James was much less of a manwhore than Ian. He smiled a lot more, too, even with heavy hay about to break his spine. The two guys were in a band together called the Wreckage, and even though Ian was the lead singer, James was the heart of the music. People craved Ian, while they wanted to be James’s best friend. He was that nice of a guy. James wore a white T-shirt with the sleeves ripped off the arms and a backward baseball hat. His shirt looked like it’d seen better days, covered in dirt and rips, but still, he found a way to smile at me.

“My name is Hazel, and I’m supposed to be meeting with Ian for my training. It’s my first day.”

James arched an eyebrow before dropping the hay down to the ground. He brushed the back of his palm against his forehead and cleared his throat. “You’re working here?” he asked, sounding more baffled than I would’ve liked.

“Yes, I am. It’s my first day,” I repeated.

His eyes moved across my body, and he shook his head, making every insecurity I could’ve ever had come to the surface. It was funny how a simple look could light up one’s diffidence so easily.

James must’ve picked up on my discomfort, because he gave me one of his free smiles and leaned against the stack of hay. “You’re going to die out here, dressing in all that black. Black denim jeans and a long-sleeve shirt? Are those combat boots?” He laughed. “Are you sure you’re not supposed to be at the Farmhouse?”

His laughter wasn’t insulting. It was coated more with confusion, but still, I didn’t like it. “I’m not worried about my wardrobe. I just want to get to work.”

“You should be worried about your wardrobe, seeing as how the sun on this ranch doesn’t let up. Heatstroke is a real thing.”

“Do you know where Ian might be?” I asked through gritted teeth. I hadn’t come to the ranch for fashion criticism. I was there to work.

“Knowing Ian, he’s probably off in the office outside of the horse stables. But a little heads-up—” James started, but I cut him off.

I didn’t have time for a heads-up.

I was already almost an hour and thirty minutes late.

“Thanks,” I said, hurrying off in a jog toward the small office attached to the stables. Had Big Paw mentioned I was supposed to meet Ian at the horse-stables office? Had I misunderstood him by showing up at the main office? Oh crap. I only had one strike, and I’d already messed that up.

The moment I got to the office, I swung the door open, already having my apologies sitting on the edge of my tongue. “Hi, Ian, I’m Hazel, and ohmygosh!” I blurted out, looking up to see a girl on her knees in front of a half-dressed Ian. His white T-shirt was still on, but his blue jeans and boxers were wrapped around his ankles as a woman’s lips were wrapped around his—