“You won’t believe what Dad did.”
“I bet I will.” Ned flung a forkful of muck into a wheelbarrow.
Jake hesitated. Ned was right—they all knew Holt was capable of just about anything. “He forced Hannah to sleep with me.”
Ned chuckled. “Did he now?”
“He did! The old man is a lunatic.”
Ned stopped shoveling. “Know what I’ve seen every day this week?”
“You and Hannah cuddling and kissing every minute you think you’re alone.”
Jake frowned. “You’ve been spying on us?”
“I didn’t have to spy. You’re out on your front porch smooching every damn morning.”
“Still what? Maybe Dad pressured her into something, but it ain’t sleeping with you.”
Jake blew out a breath. “It still isn’t right; the way he interferes with us.”
“Kind of like the way you interfered with me? Forcing me to rent a room to Mia?”
Ned had him again. Damn, this wasn’t going the way he wanted it to. “That’s different.”
“Really? How?” Ned leaned on the end of the pitchfork and waited for an answer.
“All right, maybe it isn’t different. But what the hell am I supposed to do now?”
“About everything! Take Hannah, for instance. She’s going to marry me and then leave me high and dry for four years.” At Ned’s puzzled expression Jake gave him a rundown of the situation. “So I get a wife and I get to stay in control of the ranch, but I end up alone for the next four years. What’s the good of that?”
“Seriously? You’re asking me? If you keep control of the ranch, I get shafted again.”
“You’ve always known that’s the way it would be.” Jake didn’t need one of Ned’s sulks right now, even though his brother was right. Ned couldn’t help being born second any more than Jake could help being first. It was pure luck. Good luck for him, bad for Ned. Wouldn’t he be as sour as Ned was if the tables were turned?
“Fine. You’re right—I always have known I’d get the shaft in this family. So let’s talk about you.” Ned’s voice was thick with sarcasm. “You know what your problem is? You’ve got to turn around your thinking. Stop looking at Hannah’s four-year absence as an obstacle.”
“How else can I look at it?”
“As an opportunity.”
Jake found his temper fraying. “What kind of opportunity could it possibly be?” For once couldn’t someone just answer his questions directly? Did everyone in his family have to play games?
“It’s an opportunity for me to run the ranch if you go with her.” Ned’s quick grin didn’t reach his eyes.
“Perfect. That’s just perfect. Thanks for the help.” Jake knew he should never have brought this subject up with Ned. It wasn’t fair of him to complain in front of him, anyway.
“If staying here is your goal, I guess you’re right; you’re in a tough place.” Ned resumed his work.
Jake’s hands itched to grab his brother and shake him. Of course that was his goal. It had always been his goal. Instead, he grabbed the pitchfork from Ned, overcome with an anger that demanded immediate action. “Go on. Get out of here. I need to think.”
“Sure thing.” Ned disappeared swiftly.
Jake didn’t notice the wooden handle of the pitchfork in his hands, or the smell of the old hay and horse dung he scooped out of the stalls. When he ran the wheelbarrow outside and dumped the manure to age in a pile, he didn’t notice the cold air biting his cheeks. If that was his goal. He could see Hannah going to Colorado as an opportunity. Just like Ned had said—an opportunity for his brother to win.
Still, Ned’s words stuck with him while he worked. Could he choose another goal? One served by moving to Colorado with Hannah?
Jake trudged forward with his wheelbarrow load. What the hell would that be?
All day the glittery diamond on her ring caught Hannah’s attention and each time it did, her stomach gave a little twist of hope and anticipation.
Mixed with fear.
What had happened between Holt and Jake after she left? Had they come to blows? Would Jake still want to marry her?
It was too good to be true, the way Jake had capitulated to her demands. Could he make good on those promises?
What if he didn’t?
Jake finally texted her at noon to let her know he’d handled Holt and she didn’t have to worry about him anymore. He sent her a picture of Gladys, too, which made her smile. Maybe Jake did understand what was important to her. Maybe this would all work out.
By the time she made it home she was all pins and needles. She couldn’t wait to be with Jake again. Couldn’t wait to talk to him more about their plans for the future. Couldn’t wait for a repeat of their previous night, either.
She knew the talking should come first. They needed to make sure they were really on the same page as far as plans went, but all thoughts of that went out the window when she walked in the door and found the table lit with candles. She’d planned an easy dinner, but Jake was there before her. She recognized the logo of a local Chinese restaurant on a bag on the counter. He’d placed the food in serving bowls and set the table for two.
“Wash up and have a seat.” He met her at the door with a soul-searing kiss. Tingles of desire swept through her, but she did as she was told and met him at the table a few minutes later. They took their time eating, but kept their conversation light. Jake held her hand through most of the meal and she could barely taste her food when his blue-eyed gaze held hers. She knew the night ahead of them would be one to remember. How would they make love tonight? Where would they make love?
The possibilities were endless.
After they’d cleaned up the meal, Jake led her to the couch and pulled her down onto his lap. She met his kisses eagerly, relishing the slow pace he was setting tonight. For once there was no question about the outcome of their relationship. They would be married. They would spend their lives together.
Starting with tonight.
Jake was on fire. He hadn’t thought he could want Hannah more than he already did, but tonight was different. Tonight he knew without a doubt he’d be sleeping with her, so he could anticipate it all day. After working outside all morning, he’d come to a single conclusion; there was no way around the years that Hannah would be gone. He’d have to suck it up like a man and endure them until they were over. Then he’d have Hannah beside him for good.