“In other words, you’ll egg him on.”
Lisa smiled and patted his hand. “I wouldn’t do that, now would I?”
“I don’t know. You seem to want that trip awful bad.”
She chuckled. “I do want that trip, but your father sure doesn’t. Besides, Holt likes Mia. He’ll growl a bit about her situation, then calm right down when the time comes. Mark my word.”
Luke didn’t believe her. “More like he’ll drive her away before the wedding. You know Dad.” He checked his watch. “She ought to be home by now. I’m going to find her before he does.” He needed to warn her that Holt was on the warpath. The thought of his father giving Mia hell made his chest tighten.
“Wait—did you show Luke the topiary?” Hannah asked Claire.
“The one Rob made?” Luke spoke up, glad for the change in topic. “I saw it yesterday. Didn’t turn out quite like he wanted it to, did it?”
“If you saw it yesterday then you didn’t really see it. Someone decided to improve upon his effort.” Claire dug in her pocket and pulled out a smartphone. She pulled up a photo on her screen.
Luke stared at it. “Holy—” He glanced at his mother. “Holy smokes. He must be hopping mad. Is that a dog…?”
“Lifting its topiary leg and taking a topiary piss on the next bush? Yes, that’s exactly what it is,” Claire said. “Rob read Cab the riot act this morning.”
“Cab did that?” He remembered Cab making fun of Rob, although he couldn’t picture the sheriff standing outside in the freezing cold last night snipping away at a box hedge. Nor did the sheriff have an artistic bone in his body as far as he knew.
“He says he didn’t,” Hannah put in, “but Rob doesn’t believe him.”
“What did Autumn and Ethan say?”
“Oh, Ethan thinks it’s a hoot, as long as it’s fixed before their next batch of guests come. Autumn’s too wrapped up in Arianna to care one way or the other,” Claire said.
Luke shook his head and left. For a few months there’d been a hiatus on practical joking around these parts, but it looked like they were back with a vengeance. At least he wasn’t mixed up in any of it. He wouldn’t allow himself to get pulled into it, either—he’d keep his attention squarely where it belonged, on Mia and her baby.
Besides, he didn’t have time for practical joke feuds. He didn’t have time for anything anymore—not with the bulk of the Double-Bar-K’s chores falling squarely on his shoulders.
His very sore shoulders.
He opened the cabin door five minutes later to find Mia humming as she prepared a simple dinner. He watched her for a moment, warmed by the knowledge that she was cooking for him. He loved having Mia close by and he would do anything—work any amount of hours—if it meant he could be the man to provide a home for her. In a way he felt like he was handing her a canvass to paint the picture of her life on. That’s what he wanted to be—the bedrock that she stood on, the palisade that protected her. Luke struggled to arrange his thoughts into coherent words. He knew he wasn’t the most eloquent of men, so he could only hope she understood his desire. It went so deep he could hardly comprehend it himself.
He entered the main room and sniffed appreciatively. Mia’s cooking had improved during the time she’d hung around with Fila and Camila, and the meals she made relied far less on packaged food than they used to. Holt must not have found her yet—her mood would be darker if he had. He wondered where his father had spent the day. He hadn’t seen him since he stumbled out of the office, struck dumb by the news that Mia’s baby was Ellis’s, but he knew he’d see Holt soon enough. If his father didn’t want this wedding to take place, he’d do everything in his power to prevent it, no matter what bet he’d made with Lisa.
The thought of what Holt might get up to had bothered him all day. For all Luke’s bluster about Holt not kicking him off the ranch, he knew his father was perfectly capable of cutting off his nose to spite his face. What if Holt did give him the boot? How would he make a living and support Mia and the baby? Ranching was all he knew.
“My dad’s on the warpath,” he said without preamble when he entered the kitchen.
Mia stood on tiptoe to kiss him on the cheek and for a moment he lost track of his worry, distracted by the deliciousness of her so close to him. “Dinner’s in half an hour,” she said. “I’ve got some news, too.”
“Did you hear what I said?” He let go of her reluctantly and leaned back against the counter.
“I’m going to start a business.” Mia whirled around and picked up a wooden spoon, then stirred the pot on the stove.
“Dad’s—what? What kind of business?”
“I’m going to be a wedding planner! I’ll do everything from helping brides pick out their stationary and word their invitations, to handling receptions, the setup of party rentals, to finding the best location for destination weddings.…”
“Wait, hold on.” He couldn’t keep up. “What are you talking about?”
“Me. Becoming a wedding planner. Working for myself. At first I’ll still work at the restaurant while I’m building my business, but maybe someday I’ll move into it full-time. Of course I’ll refer all my brides to Fila’s for catering. I’m going to practice on Rose. Isn’t it a great idea?”
Mia wanted to start a business? Now? Where would she get that kind of cash? It wasn’t like either of them had much to spare; between the ring and the truck he’d just spent a small fortune. “Are you kidding?”
“No.” Her cheeks flushed pink. “I’m not kidding. I thought you’d be happy for me.”
The tension that had tightened his muscles for hours threatened to do him in. Wasn’t it bad enough that the ranch chores were out of hand, Amanda Stone probably needed a new roof, and he’d just taken on enough debt to keep him walking a tightrope for years? Now she wanted to add more chaos to the mix? “You can’t do that,” he managed to say finally.
“I can’t?” Mia looked furious, her hands planted on her hips. “Guess what, Luke Matheson—you don’t get to tell me what I can and can’t do with my money.”
“Our money, you mean.”
Something flickered in her eyes. “It’s not our money yet. And even when it is you don’t get to take control of it.”