“One thing, J.B.”
“If you want the job, you don’t mess with my sister. I’d have to kill you.”
Shit. What did Kevin know? How had he given himself away?
J.B. didn’t look up until he’d efficiently drawn the wire tight and tapped the fence staple with the hammer. He figured that’d hold the fence up for a while. Probably it should’ve been done a long time ago, but there’d been too much other work in the past two weeks. He made sure not to hurry, not too look too startled.
When the job was done to his satisfaction, he smiled slightly at the taller man in front of him. “Why, I’d be real interested in seeing how you did that, Kevin. It’s been a while since we had a tussle.”
Kevin shrugged. “I’m not saying it would be easy. But she is my baby sister. I’d have to do it. I thought I’d give you a friendly warning. In case.”
J.B. had learned how to lie convincingly a long time ago. “All I want is a job, friend. I think my life is safe.”
Kevin wiped the sweat from his face. “You do? You’d take the job?”
“I think I can do the job. It hasn’t been offered to me.”
Kevin swiped his forehead again. J.B. could tell his old army buddy was thinking hard about just what to say next. If Kevin was planning to tell him he wasn’t gonna work out, J.B. would be … relieved. Annoyed. Like he’d escaped. Like he’d missed out on something extraordinary.
He was starting to make himself at home in the small guest house. He’d been getting to know the horses. They had potential. A lot of potential. But the horses and the house weren’t the only things he had to live with on the ranch.
There was his boss. Molly Turner.
“Molly was pretty damn exhausted after the funeral.” Kevin stretched, rubbing his back. “Taking care of a dying man and a newborn was no picnic. She looks a little better now. I’ll bet she talks to you about a job really soon, Boyd. She knows I can’t stay here much longer and she needs help pretty badly.”
J.B. thought Kevin was being overly optimistic about how much better his sister looked. If she did, he’d hate to think how she’d been before this. Right now she was a walking zombie. A sexy, beautiful zombie, but still someone who wasn’t quite with the rest of them. She smiled, sweetly, when she needed to. She did what she had to. But J.B. could tell she didn’t give a damn. He’d never seen a woman grieve harder—or more quietly.
He shouldn’t be thinking about her as anything more than his boss or someone who was hurting. Why the hell had Kevin threatened him? Had his buddy sensed what J.B. didn’t want to say—didn’t even want to think? Could be other folks knew when he saw Molly he didn’t see the sad woman who stood there. Instead he thought of silky legs wrapped around him, of short, sharp nails clawing him, of a broken voice begging him to take her—
He shouldn’t take the job. Kevin’s baby sister was off limits for too many reasons. He’d do better to leave before Molly decided to take him up on his offer. He didn’t need the job. He needed to work at something and the ranch intrigued him, but right now he could leave tomorrow without a backward glance.
Almost as if her brother had willed it, the ranch truck came up the rutted tracks and lurched to a stop near them.
“Bet she came to talk to you.” Kevin tilted his hat back. “She’s no fool. You’re the best thing that could happen to her and the ranch right now.”
Or the worst.
* * * *
She had to get a grip. She had a ranch, a veterinary practice and a baby to take care of. Molly shut her eyes, fighting back tears. It was stupid to cry. She’d save her tears for real problems. Not for trying to get up enough courage to face her own brother and his friend.
She was just so tired. Hot, tired, and almost at the end of her rope.
The baby whimpered a little from the car seat tucked in next to her.
Well. She’d agreed to take on all this. If it proved to be a little difficult, that was just too damned bad. No one else was around to step in now. Daniel was dead. The neighbors had left. Tomorrow Kevin would be gone, too. She had to make her decision.
A panicky voice in the back of her head shrieked she shouldn’t hire the man. She needed his strong back but there was something about him that made her shiver.
Maybe the problem wasn’t him. Most likely it was her.
She couldn’t stand to deal with anything more. No more strangers. No more changes. Nothing that threatened that numbing calm she’d managed to achieve these past few days.
But she had to have someone take care of the ranch. She had to think. To choose. To take control.
Molly almost turned the truck around right then, running from the two men before her.
Coward. When had she become so afraid? She’d get out and talk to Kevin’s friend.
Molly stepped out of the truck, balancing a covered dish in one hand and her baby in the other.
“I brought some cookies,” she called. “Don’t worry, Kevin, I didn’t make them. Someone brought them over this morning along with their condolences. If I ate everything people left, I’d be even fatter than I am now. I thought you might like some with lunch.”
“Sounds good.” Kevin glanced over at his friend, who had stepped back. “Hey, Sis, if you came to talk business with J.B., I can just take Hope and go have lunch out of earshot.”
Well, Kevin was always one to give his little sister a push when he thought she was wavering.
“I’d appreciate that,” Molly responded. She hoped she didn’t look as terrified as she felt. “I hope it won’t take long.”
What about the man scared her? He was quiet. Slight. Sandy hair, gray eyes. Soft voice. You wouldn’t think he could make anyone shake. But she knew better, even without Kevin’s stories. You could tell from the man’s eyes. They always held steady, staring at you as if they could get down into your soul and draw out every secret. The quivering inside her wasn’t all fear. She didn’t want to think about what else she felt when she looked at J.B.
For all his mouthing about her being the boss, all spoken in that West Texan drawl of his—a drawl that was sometimes faint and sometimes bowled you over, depending on his mood—he was no ignorant cowboy. He wasn’t anyone’s subordinate, either. Kevin had told her about his army background and hinted J.B. had gone on to other, bigger things after he left the military.
“But that would be something for him to tell you,” Kevin said. “It didn’t have anything to do with the job he can do for you on the Esperanza. He might not want me telling you everything. I think it’s enough to tell you he was a combat sniper.”
Maybe that was supposed clue her into something. Kevin obviously thought so. But it didn’t mean squat to her. Kevin sighed when he saw her face. “Listen, Sis, combat snipers are a breed apart. They can go underground for weeks. They may have no backup, no supplies, nothing. They’re on their own. You can figure out they shoot, right? And tend to hit what they are aiming at? Sniper, Molly. Is this getting through?”
“I think so,” Molly said. “But this obviously is a big deal to you and I’m not sure I know why. You’re saying J.B. was a very high tech, sophisticated hunter in the military. Sort of an army hit man, right?”
“Well, I wouldn’t put it like that but yeah, I guess.” Kevin hesitated. “I saw some of those guys after they got back from weeks out in the field. They were spooky, man. You didn’t want to get too close. But they would do what they needed to do, pretty much isolated from any help, in the middle of enemy territory. Oh, hell, Molly, you still don’t get it, do you? All right, just remember this. J.B. gets the job done, okay? Whatever needs to be done, he’ll do it.”
Now that she thought about the conversation, it seemed like Kevin wanted her to hire a very competent trained killer. That might be Kevin’s criterion for a good ranch employee, but she wasn’t so sure.
She’d tell him no.
Molly took her cowboy hat off her head and absently fluffed her honey-colored hair. It was hopeless—the hat mashed her hair flat—but it was a familiar habit. Most of the time she didn’t even realize she’d made the gesture, she did it so often.
Molly stared down at J.B.’s boots. They were scuffed, worn—working boots. A rancher’s boots. Somehow that reassured her. Kevin said J.B. would get the job done. He could handle what she needed from him.
She’d be a fool not to hire him. Who else would take this job? The ranch had too much work for one man and too little pay. Lord, why would this man take the job? Surely not just as a favor to Kevin.
“I meant to talk to you earlier but…” She almost trailed off and then got it out, quickly. “Daniel’s attorney still needs to look at the books and get things figured out as to where the ranch stands financially, but I know we need to hire someone. More than one someone, of course, but at least one for a start. Victor Ruiz is my partner but he’s willing to let me make the day-to-day decisions about the ranch. We both know we’ll need help.”
As if he wanted to know any of this. He was just waiting for her to say yes or no. Her heart hammered. This was her first decision about the ranch that Daniel hadn’t agreed to, that they hadn’t talked over together. Not that she had a choice. She had to hire someone and J.B. was her only real candidate.
Damn the man. Why was she hesitating? Her hands were actually sweating.
Go ahead, Molly. Ask him.
“Anyhow, if you’d like the job of helping keep this ranch going, you have it. Just remember that I am going to make the financial decisions.” She was too close to the edge now to not know where every dime went.
“Suits me fine.”
* * * *
God. He’d thought she’d tell him no. When she’d asked him to stay, he damn near kissed her. It made no sense for him to be worried. She needed him more than he did her.
Molly held out her hand to shake.
He could talk about leaving, but that was just his big head. His little head wanted the opposite. When his pecker talked, he found it damn hard to disagree.
They shook, briefly.
Until Molly his cock had been a little too quiet for a little too long. It was making up for lost time, already stiffening inside his jeans, reminding him how good it would feel inside—Damn it, he should have told her no.
“Yes. Well, then…” Her voice hesitated again, then she spoke more decisively. “You’ll have to stay at the guest house. The bunkhouse is in terrible shape.”
He had to tell her about himself now. It was only fair. Hell, maybe she’d do the smart thing for both of them yet. But he wasn’t gonna make it easy for her. He pitched his voice to its most calm, soothing tone. He could reassure any nervous mare with that voice.
“I should warn you, Miss Turner, that if you take me on, I do have one big drawback.”
He almost saw her wandering thoughts snap back to focus on him. “Yes?”
“I don’t—I’ve been sober almost two years. Before that I was well on my way to being a drunk.” He kept on evenly, refusing to let her see how much the admission bothered him. This wasn’t about what irked him. This was for her. “I know some folks say they are alcoholics. I was going for a step below that before I pulled back. I won’t make any guarantees as to whether I’ll stay sober. I want to stay that way and you’re welcome to kick me off the ranch if I’m not, but—well, you ought to know. I don’t suppose Kevin told you.”
“Why do you smoke like a fiend, Daniel?” She laughed as she took the cigarette from his lips.
“A man has to have some vice.”
“But it could kill you.”
“That is why they call it a vice, Molly.”
Lord. Not another man with a vice that could kill him. She couldn’t stand more.
Well, here was her chance. If she wanted to back down, this would be easy. No hard feelings.
Idiot. As if she could afford to turn him down. As if cowboys never drank.
“I won’t judge your past, but I can’t be your babysitter, Boyd. If you have problems, you’re on your own. And if those problems come to the Esperanza, you’re going to be off of this ranch. You have this job as long as you can work it. No second chances. I don’t believe in them any more.”
He looked a little insulted. “I didn’t ask for any, Boss. I can take care of things on my own. I just thought I ought to tell you where things stand with me.”
“I appreciate it,” she said. “Deal?”
“Please call me Molly. I’m not very formal.”
“Hey, Molly! Hey, shrimp!” Kevin’s voice jarred them both back from their thoughts. “The natives are getting restless here. I’d say little Miss Turner could use a change.”
“The diapers are in the truck, Kevin. I’m sure you could figure out how to do—who are you calling shrimp?”
“That would be me.” J.B. appeared unruffled by the insult.
Molly stared at him. “Why? You’re are a bit shorter than he is, I suppose, but…”
“When I was a boy, my grandfather figured I might be a jockey. I was a real tiny kid. Everyone called me that. I’m afraid I had to disappoint my grandfather eventually, but compared to the rest of my family I am a little puny. Of course Kevin ought to remember what I did the last time he called me that.”
Kevin grinned. “This time I’m holding a baby. You wouldn’t touch me. You might hurt the child.”
“You won’t be holding a baby forever.” J.B. shrugged. “I can afford to wait.”
The two men eyed each other for a minute, identical grins on their faces.
Molly let out a short laugh and relaxed, just a little. If J.B. could tease and be teased, he must be more approachable and human than she had first believed. Besides, anyone with the nickname Shrimp couldn’t be as completely in control of himself as she’d thought.
No, he hadn’t always been in control. She thought about what else he had told her and frowned. Only time would let her tell whether that calm of his was just a façade. She hoped he was half as tough and competent as he seemed. If he wasn’t—well, there were other hired hands to be found in the world, even if she really didn’t want to be bothered with that chore right now. Even if one more thing to do was going to make her sink to the ground and never get back up.
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