“I didn’t know,” he whispered, lowering his head and removing the cigar from his lips. “Everything. I didn’t know my daughter and her boyfriend were already getting into trouble. They had a three-year-old, and I figured they were just finding their way as parents. After you were born, you spent a few months at my house with your mother until your mother decided she wanted to move in with my daughter in the ranch house. That was when my Sarah introduced her to Charlie.”

The air was knocked out of me as I sat back in my chair, completely taken aback by this revelation. I’d lived in that ranch house before with my mother? My mother had met Charlie because of Ian’s parents?

My mind was moving a million miles per minute. I had so many questions, but I didn’t even know where to begin. Big Paw must’ve seen the confusion on my face, because he sat up straighter in his chair, and for a moment, I thought I saw a flash of emotion hit his stare. A flash of guilt.

“I blame myself a lot for what happened to your mother over the years. If she hadn’t gotten tied up with my daughter, who knows what your lives could’ve been? She would’ve had a college degree. She would’ve made something of herself. She would’ve never gotten involved with Charlie.”

“Maybe.” I shrugged. “Or maybe she would’ve ended up worse off. Maybe she would’ve ended up dead if you never took her in. Big Paw, you can’t blame yourself for the choices that your daughter or my mother made. It’s not your burden to carry.”

“Then why does it feel so damn heavy on my back?”

I smiled and reached my hand across the desk and placed it on his. “Because your heart is so big you blame yourself for others’ tragedies.”

His eyes moved to my hand on his, and then he gave me a stern look. I pulled my hand away slowly.

Okay, we’re not at the touching comfort stage of our relationship. Duly noted.

“All I’m saying is, my mother made choices that affected her life. You took her in when she needed a home, and that was more than most people would’ve done. On top of that, you took me in.” I paused and narrowed my eyes. “Did you do that to make up for what happened to my mother?”

He slowly nodded. “I owed you. I wanted you to get the chance at making your life into something, like your mother wanted to do but never got the chance to tackle.”

For a big, grumpy man, Big Paw had to be the sweetest person alive. I could see how Holly had fallen in love with him. Behind his big, mean exterior was the softest man alive. Ian must’ve taken after him. They were both like Warheads—extremely sour until the sweetness was revealed.

“I won’t let you down, sir.”

He cocked an eyebrow.

I cleared my throat. “I mean, Big Paw. I won’t let you down, Big Paw.”

“Good, which brings me to the next topic I wanted to discuss—you working here on the ranch. Do you enjoy your job?”

“Yes. More than I could ever express.” For the first time in my life, I felt like I belonged somewhere. I’d never really had time to dream big, because I’d figured dreams were only for people who hadn’t grown up in the world that I had, but working on the ranch had changed that for me. I’d never thought I’d be a girl who loved working on a ranch, but there I was, talking to horses and chasing chickens and loving every second of it.

“Good, good. I won’t beat around the bush—your work ethic outshines everyone who has come before you, my grandson included. You go above and beyond with a smile on your face. You’re quick to help others too. That’s very important in my mind. I need good ranch hands who aren’t afraid to help one another out. That’s why I want to offer you a raise. I want you to take over Ian’s manager position.”

My eyes bugged out of my face. “What? Seriously?”

“Yes. I think you’re a great fit and showcase great leadership skills. I think, if you’re interested, you could keep climbing the ladder around here.”

“I’m honored, Big Paw, and I swear I will work harder than ever to prove to you that you won’t regret your decision.”

“I believe that. There is one stipulation.”

“And what’s that?”

“You must enroll in a college program. You can take classes at the community college right outside of town, or you can do an online program, but either way, you need to attend college, Hazel. You are bigger than just being a small-town girl. You can get a degree toward your future. Don’t worry about the costs either. Holly and I will take care of that. If running things like the ranch is something you might be interested in down the line, a business degree could go a long way. I want you to have all the possibilities that your mother missed out on. I want you to have more.”

It was in that moment that I knew Big Paw truly cared for me, deep down in his soul. He believed in my future, too, which made tears well up in my eyes. I didn’t cry, though, because I knew that kind of emotion would make him uncomfortable. You cried to Holly; you appeared strong in front of Big Paw. That was how it worked with Ian’s grandparents. The grandparents of Eres.

I shook Big Paw’s hand and stood up from my chair to get back to work. After I was done for the day, the first thing I’d do would be to hop on a computer and start researching colleges.

“Thanks again, Big Paw. This is life changing for me.”