“A little over a week ago. I wasn’t supposed to start until next week, but he called yesterday morning and asked if I could start work today.”
Yesterday morning, after threatening to blow Austin’s head off.
Some of the puzzle pieces were snapping into place.
“That was kind of you to rearrange your schedule.”
“It wasn’t any trouble. After Raymond told my grandpa Ralph about his recent trip to the hospital and was looking to hire someone to help out here, I jumped at the chance.”
“Well, a couple reasons. Your grandpa needed help. But when he said the job included full run of his place, I jumped at the chance. See, I’m the third son of six. The chance of me ever inheriting our spread is slim to none.”’
“So you took the job simply because you wanted to run a ranch?”
“Yes, ma’am. It’s always been my biggest dream.”
Paige had to give the man props. At least he knew what career path he wanted to follow. She had a bachelor’s degree and a brain full of worthless knowledge of the pharmaceutical industry but couldn’t stomach going back for her undergraduate studies. Paige was simply flailing without a clue what to do with her life.
When she saw her grandpa’s pickup heading toward the house, Paige jumped to her feet and hurried down the stairs. After pulling into the driveway, he climbed from the cab. His red face, narrow eyes, and furious scowl told her Duke Carson wasn’t the only one who’d heard a rumor. The little girl within wanted to run into the house and hide, but the woman needed to stand her ground.
“Paige Marie Nelson,” he bellowed.
She held up her hands. “I know you’re angry, but it was just a dance.”
“I told you yesterday never to talk to that land-grabbing bastard again, and you deliberately went behind my back. Did you think I wouldn’t find out?”
“I didn’t do anything deliberately. I wanted to dance, so he asked me. I said yes. That’s all.”
“You disobeyed me, Paige.”
The hurt in his voice crushed her.
“Don’t you ever do it again. You hear me?”
For the love of God, I’m not five anymore, Grandpa! Yeah, yeah, you didn’t like me dancing with Austin. I get it. What I don’t get is why you insist on perpetuating this stupid feud.
Biting back all the things she wanted to say, things that might get her a one-way ticket back to Branson, Paige curtly nodded.
“I’m sorry, I don’t mean to intrude,” Johnny stated, easing up behind her.
No, please intrude. I’ve had enough lectures for one day.
“Who the hell are you?” Raymond barked.
“I’m Johnny Tassel, Mr. Nelson,” he stated, extending his hand. “Ralph Tassel’s grandson. I’m here to start working for you, sir.”
“My goodness. Yes. You got here fast,” her grandpa exclaimed, shaking Johnny’s hand. “Thank you for coming on such short notice.”
“I always say, make hay while the sun shines, sir.” Johnny grinned. “Where would you like me to unpack my things, sir?”
“Please, call me Raymond,” he said with an affable smile.
Paige didn’t know if Raymond—as he liked to be called now—was done lecturing her or not, but she was glad Johnny had offered her a reprieve.
“Follow me. The bunkhouse is around back. It’s a little rough still, but you can fix it up any way you like.”
With an eager nod, Johnny jogged to his battered, brown pickup, then started lifting his luggage out of the bed.
As her grandpa turned her way, the smile fell from his face. “I’m gonna get him settled in, then you’re going to tell me what possessed you to dance with that bastard.”
“I already told you…I just wanted to dance.”
“There were plenty of other men in that bar, young lady. I know because Donald Jankowski was there that night…told me everything.”
“There wasn’t any everything, Grandpa. It was just a stupid dance.”
“You was rubbing bellies with him.”
“Oh, for the love of…” Paige blew out a sigh.
“Talking to him is bad enough, but rubbing bellies with him…” He scowled, then spat in the grass.
“I get it. I get it,” Paige bit out. “Now I have a question. Why did you hire Johnny without telling me?”
“Because this is still my ranch until you marry or I die. I’ll hire whoever I choose, whenever I choose without your or anyone else’s permission.”
“Wait, what do you mean until you die or I marry?”
Her grandpa eyed her for several long seconds. “Are you pulling my leg? Your momma didn’t tell you?”
“Tell me what?”
“Shit.” He heaved out a heavy sigh. “I thought your momma had gone and spilled the beans just to spite me.”
“I have no clue what you’re talking about, Grandpa.”
“I might as well tell you now that everyone in town knows my business thanks to that ballsy, pestering Carson boy.”
“Which Carson boy?”
“That snake you danced with, girl. He was waiting for me outside the post office like a goddamn rattler.”
A shiver slid up her spine. She didn’t know what Austin had said or done, but her curiosity meter was pegged in the red.
“The second summer you came to stay with me…when your momma married her second or third husband, I knew you needed some stability in your life, so I drew up a will. When I die, or if you get married, you inherit all this.” He swept his arm through the air toward the house and the land.