“Don’t think anyone’s going to give you an easier time around here because you’re a girl,” I ordered her as she shoveled soiled hay into the wheelbarrow.

“I’m not a girl,” she barked, struggling to lift her pitchfork but not giving up.

I glanced back at her and eyed her up and down.

Sure, she wore baggy clothes, but beneath them I could see a set of globes somewhat highlighted behind her shirt.

Before I could comment, she shot her stare my way. “I’m a woman.”

I huffed. “Barely. What are you, eighteen?”

“Yes. Which is exactly the age of becoming a woman. I’m not a girl.”

I rolled my eyes so hard I was certain I’d lose my eyesight. “Woman, girl, chick, whatever. Just finish your job. You’re going to have to move faster than that if you want to work here. You’re wasting time taking so long on that one pen. There’s seven more you got to get to cleaning.”

She gasped. “Seven? There’s no—”

“No what?” I cut in. “No way you can do seven pens?” I lifted a brow, and she noticed. A sinister smirk fell against my lips. It had only been forty-five minutes, and it seemed like little Hazel was already close to waving the white flag.

She rolled her shoulders back and stood straighter. “I can do seven pens. I will do seven pens. Even if it takes all night.”

Judging by the speed she was going, it would take all night. Fine by me—I had rehearsal later that night at the barn house, so I’d be on the property late anyway. If Hazel didn’t want to throw in the towel yet, then she could spend the rest of her evening in the pens if she wanted to.

It took her three hours to finish two pens.

Three damn hours.

It was way longer than it should’ve taken her, but I had to give it to her—she didn’t punk out. She hardly even stopped for water breaks, except for when I forced her to do so. “It’s ninety-six degrees out. Take a damn break. Otherwise I’ll be dragging you out by your ankles and rushing you to the emergency room,” I ordered.

Reluctantly, she’d take her breaks but then be back at it, working her ass off.

Around seven, I gathered my stuff from the office and headed to check in on Hazel one more time. “How many more?” I asked.

“Three.” She sounded exasperated. “Just three more.”

I nodded once. “I’m off to the barn house for band practice. Stop in there once you’re finished, and get me to come check your work.”

She didn’t reply, but I knew she’d heard me. At least she better have, because I wasn’t in the business of repeating myself, and if I didn’t check her work by the end of the night, she’d be SOL on the job front.

I didn’t even know why she was working for the ranch. I didn’t understand why she’d put herself in the position that she was in. She could’ve simply gone to her piece-of-shit stepfather and joined the family business of drug dealing.

After a silent reply from her, I headed toward the barn house to meet up with the other guys. For the past five years, I’d been in the band the Wreckage, which consisted of me and my three best friends. We’d grown close many summers ago when we were all sixteen—except Eric, who was only thirteen—and forced to work on the ranch. I was forced by Big Paw, because he didn’t want me out causing trouble during the summer, and the rest of the guys were forced by their parents to help their families with income.

If you lived in Eres and were sixteen, then there was probably a good chance you had a small job to help bring money into your family’s home. A parent’s salary wasn’t enough to put food on the table most of the time.

The guys and I spent that summer shooting shit and forming a band to help pass time. In a small town, you did whatever you could to make time go faster. The summer days dragged, and the nights were boring. Music changed that for us. It didn’t take long for us to actually give a damn about what we were creating, and over the years, we’d somehow found a touch of success. Not enough to quit our day jobs, but enough to dream of a life outside of Eres.

Plus, we all had enough talent to make our band stand out.

First, there was James, the people person. If there was a soul in need of love, James was right there to give it to them. He played the bass guitar and had such a warm personality that he could make a sworn enemy swoon at his feet. Not only was he a badass on the bass, but he was the smiling face on our social media accounts who brought in the fans.

Marcus was the drummer from the gods and the band’s clown. He was the comedic relief whenever tensions began to build between us all—which happened when you had a group of artists who sometimes had differing views on creativity.

Eric, our keyboard player, was the wizard behind our social media. I swore his brain worked in code. He was the mastermind behind building a following for the Wreckage on all platforms. Even though he was the youngest out of us—he was Marcus’s brother—he was such a key part of the band. It was very much due to him that we’d built up the fan base we had. Over five hundred thousand followers on Instagram, sixty-five hundred on YouTube, and a TikTok number I couldn’t even say. Eric was always looking for a way to expand our reach, and that meant a lot of livestreaming of us in band rehearsals and working our small-town lives on the ranch.

It turned out people liked to watch rock musicians live really country lifestyles. I didn’t get the appeal, but Eric was a professional at giving fans what they wanted to see. If there wasn’t a camera in his hand or set up somewhere nearby, I would’ve been convinced he was terminally ill. Even when you didn’t think he was recording, you should’ve known he probably was.