Raymond’s eyes narrowed. “What’s that on your neck?”
Oh, fuck! I must have left some whisker burn.
Paige blanched, slapped a hand to her throat, and started dragging her nails up and down. “I think a mosquito got me.”
Her second seamless falsehood made him scowl. Quickly sweeping away the memories creeping from the shadows in his brain, Austin told himself he was reading too much into her actions. Paige couldn’t tell the old man the truth. Her little white lies were nothing but self-preservation.
“Well, stop scratching it before it gets infected. When we get home, put some calamine lotion on it.”
“Go on and grab them boots. I’ll have Bubba add them to my bill,” Nelson instructed.
Paige complied with a soft, loving smile that Austin would give his left nut to have her beam on him. “Thank you, Grandpa.”
“You’re welcome, honey.” Nelson draped an arm around her shoulder and pressed a kiss to her cheek. “It’s not every day an old man gets to buy a pretty girl a present.”
As they walked away, Austin stood in the back room, slack-jawed. If he hadn’t seen it with his own eyes, he never would have believed that buried beneath Nelson’s hateful exterior lurked a loving, affectionate man. The discovery clashed with the animosity that had been drummed into his head since birth. Still, the warmth Raymond showed Paige ignited an ember of respect.
Austin hung back, aimlessly wandering the aisles and stealing glances at Paige until she and the old man left. He was anxious for the day to end, to receive her text and spend the night wrecking her lush lips…and more. Before his stirring cock grew to full attention, he made his way to the front of the store. With a smile, he nodded to Bubba—who, at six foot one and three hundred plus pounds, had earned his nickname—and placed the vitamins on the counter.
“Find everything you need?”
“Maybe a bit more than you need?” Bubba smirked.
“Step around the counter for a minute, son. There’s something you need to see.”
Confused but curious, Austin trekked around the well-worn wooden structure. Without a word, Bubba pointed beneath the cash register to a small glowing monitor. On the screen were video images of various locations in the store. Seeing the image of himself wearing a shell-shocked expression, Austin raised his head and studied the camera mounted on the ceiling.
His gut twisted.
The air stilled in his lungs.
And an inky rush of dread flooded his veins.
He wouldn’t make it to his truck before everyone within a ten-mile radius of Haven—including his dad, brothers, and Old Man Nelson—was buzzing with gossip. Any chance of mending the rift between their families and openly spending time with Paige was gone.
“Easy,” Bubba murmured. “Don’t pass out on me, son.”
“I’m not. I’m fine.” Liar. “I know I have no right to ask, but will you do me a favor?”
“Give me a half hour before you tell anyone, especially Pa. I’d rather him hear about this from my own lips than the gossip—”
“Whoa. Whoa…hold on. I ain’t saying shit to nobody…especially Duke.”
“But you two have been friends—”
“Since first grade. Yes, we have. And while I have nothing but respect for your pa, this war between him and Raymond is…well, it’s stupid and ridiculous.”
“What are you saying?”
“Absolutely, nothin’. I don’t have a dog in that fight. I ain’t saying shit to anyone about you and Paige. Whatever you two adults got goin’ on between you is nobody’s business but yours.”
A rush of relief crashed through him.
“But I will say, be more careful,” Bubba warned. “If anyone else sees you two…together, they might not mind their own business.”
“I will. I’ll be extra careful. Thank you. Thank you so much.”
“No problem.” Bubba smiled.
Austin glanced at the image of the back room, of the exact spot he’d pressed Paige up against the wall, and scrubbed a hand over his face.
As he returned to the other side of the counter, his mind raced. He’d let his hormones ride roughshod over common fucking sense. It was only a matter of time before he and Paige got caught. Not only would their game of Russian roulette piss off his dad and Raymond, but it might also destroy the one thing that mattered most…saving his ranch, as well as the others. Austin had to get his priorities in order and fast. First he had to shut down Hale and end this buyout bullshit. Next he had to end this stupid Hatfield and McCoy war. Then, and only then, could he focus all his attention on Paige and see where this crazy attraction might take them.
“Hear you got a new colt on the ranch.”