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She seems to be weighing her options. She pulls her shoulders back and lifts her chin. “I don’t know how else to say it, but I have to ask. Have you ever hit a woman?”

I jerk back, this time fully offended. “Fuck no. I’d never raise my hand to a woman, and I’d never let it happen around me either. I promise if you come work for me, you won’t have to worry about that.”

Eddie the cook walks up beside Violet and hands her a to-go bag and a Styrofoam cup. She hands them both to Heather. “Here you go, honey. Have Brett bring you to come see me the next time he’s in town.”

The woman looks at the food in her hands, up at me, and then at Violet. “How’d you know I’d need it to go?”

Violet just shrugs her shoulders, but I catch her knowing look. “I wasn’t positive, but I was pretty sure.”

She thinks she’s matchmaking again. She’s been known around these parts to set a couple up before, but she’s definitely lost on this one. I’ll help the woman out and give her a job, but that’s it.

“All right, you ready... I don’t even know your name.”

She looks up at me. “My name is Emma... Uh, Heather.”

I’m confused, but I just nod. “All right, let’s go grab your stuff. See you, Violet.”

“Thanks, Violet,” Heather says.

“Is your car here?” I ask her as I open the door for her to walk through.

She doesn’t even have to duck to fit under my arm. “No, I don’t have a car.”

I’m sure there’s a story here, but the way she’s clammed up since we left Violet, I don’t think I’ll get it tonight. I point to my truck and follow behind her. When we get to the passenger door, I open it for her and offer to hold her things while she climbs in. She struggles a little bit, but once she’s seated, I hand her her food and drink. “Go ahead and eat.”

“I don’t want to eat in your truck,” she says, as she eyes the bag in her hand.

“You’re fine. I do it all the time. I’m going to put your bag in the back.”

I walk around to the driver’s side and put the bag in the backseat as I climb in. Already, she has the bag open and is eating her food. I don’t comment, because I don’t want her to stop. She’s obviously hungry.

3

Heather

I don’t know what I’m thinking. I can’t believe I went off with some strange man in his truck. And I’m going to his house. Of all the stupid things, this one takes the cake. “So who all lives at your ranch?” I ask him.

“Me, Raymond and Peter. Raymond and Peter live in the bunkhouse.”

“So it’s just you in your house?”

He pauses for just a second. “Yes – well, you and me now.”

I suck in a deep breath and start to panic. “Let me out. Please, let me out,” I beg him. I need to go, I need out. I start to jerk on the car door, and he pulls to the side of the road in a fast stop that no doubt leaves skid marks on the road. I open the door and jump out, my hands over my head, pacing back and forth. No doubt he thinks I’m a lunatic, but I don’t care. How could I be so stupid?

A warm hand on my back has me spinning around and backing up at the same time. I trip over my feet and Brett catches me before I fall. He has concern in his eyes. “Are you okay?”

I nod, frozen.

He notices the way my body tenses, and he pulls me up and lets go of me.

“What is it? What’s wrong?”

I shake my head side to side. “I shouldn’t have come to your ranch.”

He’s gruff and probably offended as he tells me in a thick voice, “It didn’t look like you had a lot of options.”

I get mad because he’s right. I hate not having options. It’s like I’ve never had them my whole life and now look at me – I still don’t. I’m away from my father and still can’t make my own choices.

I wait for Brett to get in his truck and drive away. I can’t blame him if he does. This is definitely more than what he thought he’d be dealing with tonight. But he surprises me by standing right next to me. No pressure, just letting me breathe.

“Why do you not want to go to my ranch?”

I mean, hello. Isn’t it obvious? “Because I thought there would be people there. I didn’t know I’d be there with you and just you,” I ramble.

He shakes his head and laughs. “Is that all you’re worried about? Look, Heather, you seem nice enough, but really I just need someone to clean my house and cook something edible. You don’t have to worry about me coming on to you or anything like that. You can even lock your door at night.”

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