She didn’t say a word, just turned around on her heel and walked away.

James cocked an eyebrow. “You didn’t really make her clean those pigpens all on her own, did you? You know Big Paw normally has three guys on that task.”

“Hell yeah, I did. I figured if I broke her down now, I wouldn’t have to waste my time for the rest of the summer.”

“I would’ve thrown in the towel,” Marcus commented. “It looks like she’s got a lot more heart than you think.”

After enough hardships, hearts had a way of giving in. Maybe Hazel had made it through the day, but over time I’d break her down.

I said good night to the guys, and as I started toward the pens, James chased after me. “Ian, hold up.”

I turned toward him and crossed my arms. “Yeah?”

“That Hazel girl—she’s Charlie’s stepdaughter, right?”

I nodded. “Yup.”

James blew out a cloud of hot air and shook his head. “Listen, don’t be too big of a dick to her because of that. She’s not Charlie. You can’t put your resentment for that asshole on her shoulders.”

“Anyone who’s kinfolk with that man is an enemy of mine.”

“But Hazel didn’t get your parents hooked. She’s not responsible for what happened with them.”

I clenched my jaw and nodded toward the barn house. “How about you make sure everything’s locked up. I’ll deal with Hazel the best way I see fit.”

He didn’t argue, because he knew I was a stubborn asshole and there wasn’t much getting through to me. Like I said, James was the peacekeeper.

Me on the other hand? Not so much.

I headed to the pens, where I found Hazel leaning against one of the gated areas, still looking as if she’d lifted the whole damn moon on her shoulders that evening.

I walked around the pens, and to my surprise, they were fucking perfect. She’d handled every task I’d given her and somehow managed to do better than any of the guys who normally took care of the stables.

Color me shocked.

I wasn’t going to let her know of her job well done, though. I was still convinced she’d screw up somewhere down the line. “It’s a mediocre job,” I told her.

Her jaw dropped. “Mediocre? I worked my ass off in here, and it looks great.”

“How would you know? I doubt you’ve ever spent time in a pigpen before.”

“That doesn’t mean I don’t know what looks good. This place looks the best it can.”

I shrugged. “Whatever. Be back by sunrise tomorrow for more work.”

“That’s it?” she snipped. “Just a ‘be back by sunrise’ comment? No ‘job well done’ or ‘great work, Hazel’?”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t know I was in the business of handing out compliments for employees just doing their jobs. If you need applause for every task, then you’re in the wrong place. Now, if you could get a move on so I can lock this place up and get on out of here.”

She pushed her purse strap higher up on her shoulder and walked toward the front door. “Eight hours.”

“Excuse me?”

She looked over her shoulder toward me. “Eight hours. I lasted eight hours longer than you thought I would.” She gave me a “fuck you very much” smile, and I swore the girl almost curtsied toward me in the most sarcastic fashion before walking away.

Why did I get the feeling that girl was going to be a pain in my ass?



Every single inch of me ached, and when I said every inch, I meant every single freaking inch. From the top of my head down to my toes. I hadn’t even known toes could ache until I’d worked a day at the ranch. By week’s end, I was certain my body was going to rebel against any form of movement. But I kept at it, falling asleep around midnight and waking before sunrise to trek my way to the ranch.

Ian hadn’t been letting up on me either. I was certain he was determined to break me, and truthfully, I wasn’t sure why. It couldn’t have been all because of the blow job, because if it was, that made Ian the pettiest man in the history of the world.

I was certain his anger and grumpiness came from a deeper place than that. I just hadn’t a clue how to figure out where. Truth was, I didn’t really care to figure it out. As long as I did my job well, I didn’t have anything to worry about.

He couldn’t get rid of me if I didn’t showcase any reasons for him to do so.

After walking home after yet another physically draining workday, I found a trashed house. Since I’d begun working, Mama hadn’t picked up the chores that I normally handled. The sink was piled high with dishes, and the laundry was backed up. There were cigarette butts throughout the house, tossed around like the humans who lived there had never heard of an ashtray, and empty beer cans were scattered everywhere.

Mama sat on the couch watching TV. She’d fallen asleep on that couch the night before, and I couldn’t help but wonder if she’d moved from that position since then.

“About time you made it home,” she commented. “Charlie said you need to clean this place up before he gets home.”

A cigarette sat between her lips, and that made my stomach turn. “Mama, I thought we were going to work on you giving up smoking for the baby.”