“You done lecturing me for tonight? Haven’t you made my life miserable enough for one day?”
“You think getting a wife will make you miserable? Getting married was the best thing I ever did. A man can’t run this place by himself. He needs a woman by his side. Someone like your mother—hardworking, level-headed, tough as nails. I’ve waited a long time for you to get to the matter on your own. I didn’t think I needed to play the kind of games I did with Rob.”
“I would have loved to play that game. Where’s my two hundred acres?” A couple of months back Holt had made the announcement that the first son to get married would get a parcel of land for his very own. Then he’d turned right around and told Jake, Ned and Luke they weren’t eligible to win the contest. He’d known Rob was on the verge of flying the coop, so he used the ruse to trap him at home. It had pretty much worked. Rob proposed right away to Morgan Tate and brought her from Victoria to Chance Creek. Now he owned property on both the Cruz and Matheson ranches, but while he was building his home on the Cruz side of the property line, he still helped out on the Matheson side, too, and he lived here in the meantime. Not across town or in another county. Holt was satisfied.
Holt dipped his chin. “You don’t need two hundred acres. You’ll share the whole damn ranch with Ned and Luke.”
“If I marry within a month. Otherwise, you’ll kick me out and the whole place will go to ruin. You know damn well Ned can’t manage his way out of a paper bag. No way can he run the herd.”
“You’d be surprised what Ned can do. A good manager knows the strengths and weaknesses of his workers. You’re so blind you can’t even see your own brother.”
“I see Ned. I see that he’s a hothead who’s as liable to burn the barn down as fix its leak.”
“Ned’s quick with his anger, but he’s quick with his wits, too.”
“Yeah. That’s why he didn’t make it past eighth grade.”
Holt was silent a long moment. “I didn’t make it past eighth grade, either, and I’ve done a sight more with my life than you have. Get a wife, Jake. Or get out.”
Holt rose to his feet and walked stiffly away, leaving Jake to wish again he’d kept his mouth shut. Both Holt and Ned had a way of pushing his buttons until the basest part of him took control. His father treated him like he was still fifteen years old, and he inevitably ended up acting that way. Something had to change. His whole family needed a new way of doing things.
Jake chuckled to himself grimly. That wasn’t likely to happen. A few minutes later he let himself out into the dark and strode the quarter mile to his own cabin. His parents had built a small two bedroom structure for each of their sons when they turned twenty, hoping that would encourage them to stay on the ranch and eventually settle there. He had always appreciated the measure of independence it gave him, while still keeping him close to his work. Now he recognized it for the trap it was.
For years Holt had paid him and his brothers a tiny allowance and gave them room and board in exchange for their work on the ranch. Since they each expected to inherit a share in the spread, and had enough for their trucks and nights out on the town, they hadn’t felt poor. They’d been raised to value ranching and family above all else. To an outsider it probably looked like they were at each other’s throats all the time, but although they fought like wolves, they were as clannish as a wolf pack, too. Faced with any outside threat, they formed ranks and presented a united front.
It was Rob who finally shook things up enough for them to come to their senses and demand real wages for the work they did. That was a recent development, however. Jake still didn’t have much cash. If he struck out on his own it would take him years to save up enough to buy a new spread, and even then it wouldn’t replace the Double-Bar-K in his heart. No, he’d stay and figure this out.
If it killed him.
He stood in his small, sterile kitchen and listened to the ticking of the clock on the wall. If he didn’t get married—fast—he might lose the life he loved so much. And damn it, he wanted a wife. He wanted Hannah. He wanted a family, too.
But he also wanted more than that. Unlike his father or brothers, Jake believed whole-heartedly in innovation and he wanted to be a part of it. Scientists all around the world were talking about the earth’s climate changing and Jake knew that every facet of modern life played into that—including the ranching practices he and his family employed. He wanted to be a part of that discussion. He wanted to experiment with his own herd and ranch. He read all he could, hung out on online forums, and watched the latest talks and movies on YouTube about the subject. But until Holt backed off and let him run things the way he wanted to, he’d remain a bystander in the shift to brand-new ranching practices.
Holt actively resisted all changes to the way things were done on the Double-Bar-K. He distrusted innovation and his dyslexia and bad experience with school had turned him against most forms of education, too. When Jake had talked of going to college after graduating from high school, Holt put an end to that idea by threatening to disown him if he did.
Well, it was his own fault for not sticking up to the man. Holt hadn’t kept him here at gunpoint, after all. He could see now that if he’d demanded to go there would have been all kinds of fuss and bother, but it would have blown over in time. He wished he’d stood up to his father back then. It was too late now. Jake picked up his pace. Time to quit feeling sorry for himself and get a move on. He’d see Hannah at the Cruz ranch tonight for Thursday night poker and pool.
Holt was right about one thing; he had wasted a lot of time. If getting a wife would bring him one step closer to taking over the Double-Bar-K, he’d ask Hannah out before the night was over, just as he’d already planned.
And marry her before the month was up.
Hannah tried to slip in through the front door of the Cruz guest ranch Big House without being noticed, but just like every other time she failed utterly. The Big House was an imposing structure with large windows that overlooked a sweeping view of the ranch and the mountains far in the distance. Originally designed as a private home, Autumn and Ethan Cruz had transformed it into a guest lodge earlier in the year. Their business had done fairly well so far, but as fall turned into winter, the guests had dropped off and they had no bookings at all for the coming weeks.
That was bad for the Cruzes, but good for Hannah, who’d needed a place to stay when she’d broken up with Cody. Ethan and Autumn charged her a very reasonable rent for one of the pretty guest rooms upstairs. At first she’d wondered if it would be strange living with the Cruzes, but she’d found it comfortable so far. Though Ethan and Autumn were in and out of the main floor all the time during the day, they slept down at the converted bunkhouse at night. The bedrooms at the Big House were meant for guests, not family. Hannah knew they intended to build an addition onto the main floor that would make up their personal quarters just as soon as they could afford it, but that hadn’t happened yet. For now they used the fantastic Big House kitchen and living room during the day and retired to the bunkhouse at bedtime.