"You all are going to have to get used to running the spread soon without me, anyhow," Rob said, annoyed.
"How do you figure that?" Holt loomed large, his ire up.
"Once I’m married and working my own land, I won’t be working here anymore." Rob forced himself not to back down. They stood like two peacocks almost chest to chest. He was glad Morgan wasn’t here to see this.
"I never said nothing about you shirking your obligations once I hand over that land. You’ll still be a part of this family and this ranch. You’ll help your brothers and that’s final."
Holt waved him away, and Rob expected he meant to storm off, but the steps of his porch seemed to give his father a little trouble. Holt leaned on the railing heavily as he made his way down, and while he stalked off, his pace was slower than usual. Rob bit back the angry words he’d meant to say.
When had his father gotten old?
It didn’t matter; he knew what Holt was up to. He meant to keep Rob so busy he couldn’t possibly earn enough money to give to Morgan before the wedding, let alone start his own business after they were married. He’d get his 200 acres, but they’d be worthless to him – he’d be right back in the same position he always was, working for his father, never his own man.
Normally he’d give his father hell for playing a trick like that. First he needed to figure out what was wrong with him.
Turning his attention back to the wedding unfolding in front of him, he watched Jamie and Claire exchange vows. He supposed he should have known his childhood friends would end up together, but the days when Claire used to try to boss them all around remained too clear in his head. Time was passing swiftly, and suddenly he understood why his father was in a hurry to see his sons married.
He wasn’t going to live forever.
* * * * *
"I can’t believe you’re moving here permanently," Autumn said as she and Morgan sat at the bridal table watching Jamie and Claire dance their first dance together.
"I know. I’m so happy."
"I’m happy, too." Autumn smiled at her.
Morgan wanted to hug her for that. Ethan seemed genuinely thrilled that she was going to be their neighbor, but Claire had been a little quiet last night when they’d talked about it. Perhaps it was only wedding nerves, but Morgan had a feeling something was going on. She hoped Claire wouldn’t see her as intruding into her family.
"Be careful around Claire," Autumn said, echoing her thoughts.
"What do you mean?"
"It’s just…" Autumn twirled her fork as she searched for words. "She’s been going on about your mother – about how things don’t add up."
"The money," Morgan said glumly.
"And the time. Claire thinks you’re downplaying how much time Aria spent with you."
"And how much money she spent on me," Morgan said.
"Well," Autumn looked thoughtful. "She does seem a little obsessed about money."
"I understand why. It must have been awful to find out the ranch was in debt after Aria and Alex died. I’d suspect me, too, I guess. But it’s still depressing."
"Well, she’ll get over it," Autumn said, doubtfully.
"No, she won’t. But if she digs hard enough, maybe she’ll find out the real answers."
Autumn speared a piece of chicken. "Does that idea scare you as much as it scares me?"
Morgan laughed. She already was coming to love her sister-in-law, especially her sense of humor. "It scares the crap out of me."
* * * * *
"You left us short-handed, you know," Ned said, shouldering up next to him as Rob waited for the bartender to hand him a bottle of beer.
"Had to get out of town for a little bit. I had a woman to propose to," Rob said. He was determined not to get into a fight with either his brothers or his father today.
"Yeah, you’re pretty set on getting that free land. You even love Morgan, or did the two of you work out some kind of a bargain?"
"Watch it," Rob said, keeping his voice quiet.
"No, I don’t think I will." A few wedding guests turned their way as Ned’s voice rose. Rob wondered how many drinks he’d already had. Couldn’t be too many. It was early yet. More likely Ned relished the chance to have a good argument. He liked arguing, especially with Rob. They always seemed to be in each other’s way.
"If you haven’t noticed, you’re at a wedding," Rob said. "Show some respect."
"What do you know about respect?" Ned said. "When’s the last time you ever showed any of your family any respect?"
"Hey, what’s going on here?" Jake appeared out of the crowd and stepped between them. "This ain’t no time for a fight."
"That’s what I said."
Ned cast Rob a disparaging look. "Just telling him we missed him last week. Could’ve used the help."
Jake opened his mouth to speak, but Rob beat him to the punch. He wanted to say something cutting and sarcastic, put Ned in his place, but Raoul and the other men in the fields of Cassidy Wineries popped into his mind. Their respect for their jobs. Their respect for how the work they did put food on the tables of their families, and added something good to the world. As much as he hated to admit it right now, his father and brothers did work like that, too, and he’d walked away from the job without a second thought. If Raoul or the other men pulled a trick like that, they wouldn’t have a job to come back to. Far more than their pride was on the line every day. He’d been acting like a spoiled brat for years, and though it galled him to admit it, Ned was right.
He’d been thinking about his father all day, and when he’d gotten over his anger, he’d had to admit that Holt was right, too. He had expected his folks to put him up in his cabin while he worked for someone else to save up the money for Morgan, and why should they? He was a grown man, after all. The deal he had with them was that he worked in exchange for his room and board. He needed to figure out another way to go about all of this, starting with the way he answered Ned.
"I know you could have used help, and I’m sorry I left you in the lurch," he said.
Ned gaped at him. Jake’s brow smoothed. "Well, I don’t blame you for being in a rush to get hitched, under the circumstances."
"You don’t mind I beat you to the punch?" Rob said. Hell, this was practically turning into a conversation. When was the last time he’d had one with his brothers? Usually it was all orders and snide remarks.
"I didn’t say that," Jake tilted his hat back and scratched his forehead. "I thought about it, but I couldn’t come up with anyone I wanted to get hitched to that bad."