“What the hell is wrong with you? Are you drunk?” David asked.
“Better than drunk. I’m back.” Tony noticed one of the ranch hands in the background, looking like he wanted—but was afraid—to laugh at the scene. Tony said, “Laugh, I won’t fire you. I may never fire anyone ever again.”
David turned to the ranch hand and said, “Don’t listen to him. Go clean out the side paddocks.” When the young man didn’t immediately move, David added, “Before I fire you.” That put some speed beneath the young man’s feet.
Alone with his boss again, David studied Tony’s eyes. “What are you on?”
Tony shook his head, still trying to label whatever had suddenly made the sun shine brighter and everything seem possible. “Nothing.”
Looking doubtful, David pushed back his hat and asked, “Are you smiling?”
I guess I am. “I went to see your old boss the other day, Evan Staten.”
If possible, David looked even more concerned about Tony’s sanity. “And that put you in a good mood?”
I can see his point. But the meeting itself was only part of it. “It helped me sort out some things. Sarah was right: being sorry isn’t enough. I need to do something, and I intend to. I’m going to host a charity expo for the Dolan Children’s Fund. Don’t look so surprised—you told Melanie to give me the phone.”
“Yes,” David drawled slowly. “I guess I never thought you’d agree to it.”
“Well, I did,” Tony said proudly.
Eyebrows furrowed together, David studied him. “I know, and I’m not sure what that means yet.”
Tony stepped closer to David, suddenly serious, and said, “I never thanked you for everything you’ve done for me.”
David took a step back. “Don’t hug me again.”
Tony smiled. “Invite everyone to dinner tonight at my house. I have a few things I need to say.”
“I’ll do it even though it goes against my better judgment.”
Satisfied, Tony almost walked away but then stopped and asked, “Hey, how do you get paid when you don’t have access to my bank accounts? How does anyone here get paid?” He couldn’t believe he didn’t know, but then again, he’d never cared enough to ask. David had always handled the business side, filed the taxes, cut the checks for everyone.
David took a moment before answering, then said, “I bought the first horses we trained here and started an account with the money we got from selling them. We’ve been splitting the profits since then and paying everyone from that fund.”
“So you never actually worked for me.”
“No wonder I can’t remember hiring you.” The realization of how detached he’d become from his own life was frightening. “I don’t know why you stayed, but I’m glad you did.”
David looked away, then said, “Get your overly happy ass out of the barn and find Melanie. She deserves to meet this new you.”
Tony smiled, imagining the look on Mel’s face when he did. She’ll probably think I’m on drugs, too, but it doesn’t matter.
Dean had warned him to “wake up” if he didn’t want to die alone like their father would.
I’m awake, and I’m not wasting any more time.
I am going to make things right.
Now where is my favorite angry housekeeper? If she knows where Sarah is, I may have to hug her, too.
Later that night, Tony, David, Melanie, Jace, and the ranch hands stood in the kitchen of the main house. The men had devoured the country-fried chicken and had moved along to the more serious matter of dessert. Plates in hand, they packed away pieces of Texas sheet cake.
The initial feeling of euphoria that had followed his conversation with Kimberly’s father had passed, leaving Tony with the reality of what he would have to do to piece his life back together. He cleared his throat. “I wanted everyone here tonight so I wouldn’t have to say this twice. I intend to make some changes around here.”
The room fell silent, a general apprehension growing as he took a moment to choose his words. Even David looked concerned. “David has done a damn good job running this place, but I’ll be more involved from today forward. I’ll be hosting an expo for the Dolan Children’s Fund sometime in the near future. The coverage will likely be national. Things will change when we open ourselves to the public. I’ve been there. The press runs with whatever you say, so keep your mouths shut. Learn the game, and you might be able to spin these events into a career for yourselves. I don’t mind saying that I want y’all working on this with me. David’s not going anywhere. Y’all, however, need to understand what has changed. I’m going to try real hard to keep my temper to myself, but from this day forward if I fire anyone—there is no way back.”
David looked on and nodded with approval.
“Now get out of here while I’m still in a good mood.”
The ranch hands hastily put their dishes in the sink and retreated.
Melanie shook her head at his behavior and Tony shrugged, a hint of a smile pulling at one side of his mouth. “I couldn’t let them think I’m getting soft.”
David chuckled. “There is very little risk of that, but it’s good for them to know that you’ll be watching them, too. They respect your skill with the horses, and now they’ll respect you as their boss.”
“They won’t be happy at first,” Melanie said, “but they’ll adjust. I’m sure the idea of working on something public like you said will be a real motivator for them, too.”
“Things are going to change quickly,” Tony said, then pinned Melanie and David with a look. “Which one of you is going to tell me where Sarah is?”
Melanie looked to David for confirmation that she should. He nodded. “She’s staying with my family in Telson. It’s a couple of hours from here.”
Tony checked the clock on the wall and was surprised at how late it was. “I suppose I’ll go collect her in the morning.”
Throwing her hands up for emphasis, Melanie said, “She’s been sitting there for weeks stewing about how it’s over between the two of you. Do you really think you can just go there and pack her up like she’s a horse and bring her home?”
No? Because I’m a jackass?
Yes? Because I love her?
“She loves me,” Tony said.