"Rob?" Ethan asked him. Rob realized he’d missed something.
"You’re a million miles away. Something wrong?"
"I’ve really got to find some extra work. Not that I don’t appreciate what you’ve done," he hastened to say when he caught Ethan’s eye. "It’s a far sight better to buy the land from you than to have my father looking over my shoulder and bossing me around the rest of my days. It’s just, I don’t want to start my life together with Morgan by breaking a promise."
"Yeah, I get it." Ethan stared out over the landscape. "You know where most business deals get done, don’t you?"
Rob raised an eyebrow at him.
"The feed store, horse auctions, and the bar. Try Rafters. Someone might know something."
Ethan shrugged. "Worth a shot. Twenty thousand dollars is a hell of a lot of money, though. Might need to go to North Dakota and work on one of those oil wells."
Rob looked thoughtful. "I could look into that."
"Start closer to home," Ethan advised him, standing up, still cradling the kitten. "You’ll want to get going now – before all the old geezers with money get too drunk to spend it."
* * * * *
"What are you doing?"
Morgan glanced up as Ethan entered the living room. She was sitting on the couch, notepad in hand, writing down every expense she could think of for starting the vineyard and winery. They were adding up fast. Four kittens were exploring the room, climbing the furniture and playing with the curtains.
She put the notepad down. "Talking myself out of starting a winery."
"Why? I think it’s a fantastic idea. A few years from now it will be a great partner to the guest ranch business. You can take our guests on tours – get them out of our hair for a few hours – and we can serve your wines at dinner."
"That’s more than a few years away. We have to purchase rootstock, grow the grapes, erect a distillery and tasting room, buy the machinery…and even once we bottle some wine, it still needs to age."
Ethan sat down next to her. "So, every step you take is one step closer to your goal."
"I barely know Rob." She hadn’t meant to say that out loud, but now that she had, she pushed forward, voicing the doubts that had crept back into her mind. She pushed a lock of hair out of her eyes and sighed. "What if he turns out to be a lousy business partner?" What if he’s a lousy husband?
Ethan leaned back and stretched his arms out along the top of the couch. "I think Rob’s underrated. His family’s never given him any real responsibility and everyone else thinks he’s a playboy."
Her stomach contracted with unease at this reminder of the number of women Rob had dated over the years. Back before she’d gotten interested in him, Autumn had told her all about his checkered past. "You don’t?"
"No. He’s just been bored. Rob’s smart, and no one gives him credit for that, either. Back in school he got all B’s and a few A’s."
"So?" That wasn’t too impressive. She’d gotten good grades, herself.
"So, Rob never studied. Never did the homework, even though he loved school. His brothers would pick on him if he did. You have to understand Holt Matheson’s all about work. He always said school was for sissies. He worked those boys to the bone and praised them to the hills when they carried their own weight, but if they brought home a report card they’d be lucky if he looked at it, let alone complimented them on their grades."
"That’s too bad."
"Yeah. Rob could’ve been an engineer, or something like that. He should have gone to college."
This was a side of Rob she’d never thought about. "He seems like every other cowboy."
Ethan laughed. "Ignorant and oafish?"
She elbowed him. "More interested in horses than books."
He shrugged. "Leave some books around. See what he does." He got up. "The way I see it, you promised to marry him and he promised you a winery. Everyone has second thoughts when they make big decisions. Don’t let your cold feet stop you from getting what you want."
He retreated to the kitchen, leaving her to think over his words. Before she could think over it too much, the front door banged open, making her jump.
"Sorry, it’s just me," Rob said, coming into the room.
Morgan’s heart gave the little hitch it always did when she saw him. "Hey, come sit with me."
"Can’t. I’m getting changed and heading out again."
"Where?" Morgan asked, glancing at her watch. It was past eight. Wasn’t he ready to pack it in for the evening?
"I’m going to head downtown, check out the Dancing Boot and Rafters – see if anyone knows of a job that needs doing."
"I’ll come, too," Morgan said, delighted at the prospect of putting aside her calculations for now.
"Sorry, honey. I’ll take you out for a night on the town real soon," Rob promised her and gave her a peck on the cheek. "Tonight’s going to be all business." He continued into the bedroom without waiting for her answer.
Morgan slumped down on the couch again. "All business at a bar?"
"A lot of business gets done at the bars around here," Ethan said, coming back into the living room. Rob reappeared, too, in a clean shirt.
"Don’t wait up."
"Good luck," Morgan said as he headed for the door. A kitten struggled onto her lap and she petted it distractedly as Ethan sat on the other end of the couch and clicked on the television.
"Thanks. I’ll need it."
* * * * *
The Dancing Boot was nearly dead on this weekday night, so Rob made his way over to Rafters, where the older cowboys and ranchers tended to congregate – men who wanted to sit and ruminate over past days or the price of cattle feed, rather than listen to music, or chase pretty girls. A quick scan of the bar from the doorway told him his father wasn’t here. He didn’t expect he would be – Holt saved his tame version of carousing for Friday and Saturday nights – but if he was, he’d turn around and go home.
Instead there were a handful of familiar faces, a couple he didn’t know, and Carl Whitfield alone at a table in the corner.
Rob frowned. At least the man wasn’t trying to buddy up with anyone, regaling them with how much money he made, like he had when he first arrived in town. Carl seemed different these days. A little more subdued. Rob stifled a chuckle. He guessed Lacey Taylor could do that to a man.
Lacey had dated Ethan for years, all through high school and beyond, and everyone assumed they were as good as married. When Lacey found out Ethan was having money problems after his parents died, however, she took off like a shot and left Ethan eating dirt. Pretty soon she hooked her carriage to Carl – self-made millionaire and wanna-be cowboy. People around here didn’t like him much, since he bought his ranch for a song from a couple whose dreams had disappeared with their savings during the last recession. He hadn’t thought the fellow would last long.