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Once upon a time, McKenna Benjamin had informed her parents that rebuilding was good for the soul. She’d said it rather forcefully, too, to get the point across that even if she was divorced and pregnant, she was not going to move home and live under their thumbs. It’d been bad enough living under her cheating ex-husband’s thumb.
Of course, she’d said those words before she’d had any inkling as to how much it cost to rebuild in both emotional and financial terms. At the moment, she was dealing with financial and she wrinkled her forehead as she double-checked the total of the estimate the lumberyard sales guy at Big Z’s had just slid across the counter. Surely she’d mistaken an eight for a three.
No. That first number was definitely an eight. This was why one didn’t buy barebones-cross-your-fingers-and-hope-nothing-goes-wrong insurance. Because something invariably went wrong.
The guy behind the lumberyard desk, who wasn’t a Marietta local or she would have known him, gave her an expectant look, as if she was going to pull out her bank card and hand it over.
McKenna maintained her poker face. She’d changed radically since her life started heading south a couple years ago, but there were still things she clung to—like her pride.
“I need to think about this.”
“Lowest bid you’re going to get for the materials on that order.” The guy gave her a once-over that made her feel like shifting under his scrutiny, but she didn’t. Instead, she met and held his gaze, politely waiting for him to look away. He finally did.
“I’ll get back to you on this. Thank you for the estimate.” She hesitated, then tapped the total with her finger. “Did I happen to qualify for the contractor’s discount?”
“Hmm. Doesn’t look like it. They probably haven’t made a final call on that, so these numbers might change.” He gave her another expectant look.
McKenna smiled tightly. “Thank you.”
She sensed that lumberman was probably watching her ass as she headed to the door, but she couldn’t afford to waste energy caring about such things. She had to rebuild a ranch before the snows came. It was late August, so that gave her two or three months to build corrals and a shelter for the sheep and smaller animals, who were currently operating on something close to the honor system, with the exception of her four heifers, who were running with the cows on the Marvell Ranch.
The house had escaped damage in the wildfire that had changed her life not that long ago. She and her young son would have a roof over their heads during the winter. It might not be the prettiest roof, but as long as it kept out the snow, she didn’t care.
McKenna got into her truck the old-fashioned way—by putting a key in the lock, since the vehicle was too old to have an electronic system—and started it up. Next stop was the Main Street Diner to meet with Zach Marvell, the guy who’d helped save her livestock from the wildfire, then off to Sara Morgan’s house to pick up the reason she was determined to not only repair her ranch, but to make it something to be proud of—her two-year-old son, Josh.
After parking on Court Street, fairly close to the diner, she gave a quick look in the rearview mirror, hoping she didn’t look as stressed as she felt.
She was paler than usual, and it was obvious that she wasn’t having a carefree day.
She forced a confident smile, but her eyes weren’t playing along. Fine. She tucked a few dark red tendrils behind her ears, looking forward to the time when they, too, were long enough to be twisted up and clipped to the back of her head with the rest of her mane, then reached for the door handle.
When she’d heard Zach was looking for help on the ranch, she’d sent him a text and they’d set up this meeting—in town because they both happened to have business in Marietta on this fine Wednesday morning. It was a long shot. She wasn’t officially trained in any capacity beyond English Lit, but she’d learned a lot during the two years she’d lived with her son on her own mini-ranch, and she was willing to work. Plus, the Marvell Ranch was much closer to her place than Marietta was, meaning less spent on gas.
McKenna opened the door to the Main Street Diner at the same time that Carol Bingley, gossip extraordinaire, was about to come out. Carol’s eyes widened, which could only mean one thing—trouble for someone.
“I’m so sorry, honey,” she said on a commiserative note.
“Excuse me?” Those words, coming from Carol, were enough to make the bottom drop out of a good day. And that hadn’t been McKenna’s day so far, so the effect was far more chilling.
“You should know before meeting with those two”—she nodded in the direction of the table where Zach Marvell and Brodie Collins, his top ranch hand, were deep in conversation—“that Brodie doesn’t want to hire you.”
McKenna blinked, but Carol just smiled, as if she’d done McKenna a big service.
“Knowledge is power,” she added. “I’m late for an appointment. Good luck.”
McKenna had the feeling if Carol hadn’t been late, she would have settled herself back at the table behind Brodie, which a server was now tidying up.
One could not grow up in Marietta and not be familiar with Carol Bingley and her busybody ways, but the woman was right. Knowledge was power and, thanks to Carol’s well-honed eavesdropping abilities, McKenna was going into this situation with eyes wide open.
Zach caught sight of her then and raised a hand, as if she hadn’t already spotted him. He and Brodie would be hard to miss, dressed in their ranch work wear while sitting in a diner filled with shoppers, tourists, and locals having lunch. They were definitely the most interesting individuals there and as she made her way to the table, McKenna noted a couple of women casting sideways looks at the men. If she didn’t know them, she might have looked twice herself.
“Hi. Thanks for meeting with me.” McKenna smiled at first Zach then Brodie—the guy who didn’t want to hire her—before taking the seat next to Brodie so she could talk more easily with Zach, the guy who hopefully would hire her. Encountering an obstacle had always given McKenna a little extra drive and, if what Carol Bingley said was to be believed, she was now seated next to a walking, talking obstacle.
What could Brodie Collins possibly have against her? They barely knew one another. In school, he’d been a quiet kid who’d focused on his studies and did rather incredible pencil drawings of people and animals, while she’d been busy with what she’d perceived as the important matters of her social circle, pep assemblies, dances, and student government.
A decade-old reputation. That’s what he has against you.
She had to admit the Benjamins were an entitled lot, and she’d unquestioningly taken her privilege for granted, until poor choices had shifted her life firmly off the Benjamin track. Now she was no more one of the powerful few than she was a Canada goose swimming peacefully on Miracle Lake.
“You know Brodie, right?” Zach asked.
She gave Brodie a polite look as he angled his chair so that they were no longer sitting shoulder to shoulder. “We graduated the same year.”
“Good to see you, McKenna.”
McKenna had information that told her otherwise, but she accepted his white lie with a nod, her gaze meeting his and holding for a moment—but not because she was trying to stare him down as she’d done the lumberman. No. It was because she was kind of stunned by the color of his eyes, which were half hidden by the old-fashioned wire glasses he wore. Ocean blue, shot with turquoise; eyes she could have gotten lost in once upon a time, before her life path had changed so abruptly.
And there was something about Brodie having crazy sexy eyes that kind of ticked McKenna off.
She couldn’t afford to be ticked off, so she pulled her gaze away and prepared to get down to business. But his eyes had her nerves humming in a way she didn’t find comfortable. Brodie had changed since high school. She’d never peg the guy sitting next to her as a quiet kid who spent his free time drawing instead of raising hell like most of the young cowboy types tended to do.
“Do you want coffee or something?” Zach asked.
Both he and Brodie had cups in front of them, and even though it was rude to sit in a place and not order, she shook her head. “No thank you.” Although a good stiff belt might bring her nerves back to where they should be.
“I’ll get to the point,” Zach said.
Coming from a family that played elaborate mind games, McKenna found it refreshing to deal with a man who said what he meant.
“Finley has decided that it’s high time I got off the ranch and she wants it to happen before winter comes.”
McKenna nodded, fully understanding Finley’s position. The dead of winter was never a good time to travel in Montana.
“And normally we could make it work crew-wise, but Brandon is starting his first semester at U of M.”
“Good for him.” Brandon was the Marvell ranch hand who’d driven her tractor to safety during the wildfire, thus saving her a lot of money.
“I need someone to do general ranch work and help out with the horses as needed.” He took a drink of coffee, then leveled a serious look at her. “I’m looking for someone with a work ethic.”
A full-time, steady job fairly close to home? What a godsend that would be, even if it was temporary. She glanced at Brodie, who’d been doing a fairly decent sphinx impersonation, silently watching the action. What was the man thinking? More than that, what was he going to be like to work with if she managed to land this job?
Carol Bingley might like to stir up trouble, but there was usually a kernel of truth to the information she passed along, and McKenna fully believed what the woman had told her on the way out of the diner.
“I have a work ethic.” She said the words to Brodie, then turned back to Zach, her expression earnest as she cupped her hands together on the table. “I learn fast, and I can’t afford to disappoint.”
She pressed her lips together, teetering between doing whatever it took to land the job and dealing with consequences later, or dealing with them right now and risking mucking up the deal.
But if the guy didn’t want to work with her, better to deal with it now.
“I’d like the chance, if Brodie thinks he can work with me.”
There. Gauntlet dropped. If the man had reservations about her, if he was going to be trouble later, she needed to know now rather than have him working against her once she was hired. If the Marvell Ranch job wasn’t going to work out, she wanted to know now rather than waste time and then find herself looking for a job just before winter hit along with everyone else who’d worked a summer job.
“Well, Brodie?” Zach said in that direct way of his. “Can you work with McKenna?”
McKenna waited for him to make a case against her, but instead he met her gaze with a thoughtful frown and said simply, “I can.”
Those words, when spoken to Zach Marvell, were essentially a vow.
“What about childcare?” Zach asked McKenna.
Zach cupped his hands around his coffee mug as he gave her a curious look. Childcare could be tricky out in the boonies.
“I have a temporary roommate,” McKenna said. “My cousin, Isabella.” After returning to Livingston following a broken engagement, Izzy’s family had driven her nuts trying to take care of her. Moving in with McKenna was a great way to escape, plus she could use the very real excuse that McKenna needed help with the expenses. So they’d hammered out the deal that appeared to be a win-win. Izzy would watch Josh while telecommuting and McKenna, who hadn’t the job skills Izzy had—something about majoring in English Lit and living in rural Montana—would nail down whatever work she could get.
“Sounds like a good solution.”
“It’s nice when things fall into place,” she said, stopping before she added, “For once.” She’d done her stint with self-pity, and had found it to be less cathartic than expected, and essentially a waste of time. Action was what changed lives.
“Do you want to give this job a try?” Zach asked.
“Yes.” Her mouth felt dry as she grabbed the opportunity with both hands.
“Hours are seven to four or five. Weekdays only, except in emergencies. Working conditions vary, and I don’t put up with any kind of hassles or infighting among my crew.”
McKenna’s breath caught a little. Had her gauntlet drop come off as being belligerent to Brodie? She didn’t think so. “Pay?” she asked, more because it was a logical question than because it would have any effect on her taking the job.
Zach gave her a number she could live with, and, after another quick glance at Brodie, she said, “Thank you, yes. I appreciate the opportunity. I…”
She took a moment to collect herself.
She’d been close to outlining her circumstances to convince Zach that she wouldn’t let him down. Until the fire, she’d made ends meet via a small income stream her late grandmother had set up for her and her brother. It just covered the basics with nothing to spare, and she knew she was lucky to have the income which allowed her to stay at home with her baby and build a life she could be proud of. Extras she bought when she sent animals to market.
After the fire, a bare-bones income stream would no longer cut it—not if she was going to keep her animals and rebuild what she’d once had. She had to work, and a degree in English Lit didn’t give her a lot of traction in the competitive job market, especially with gas and childcare factored in.
“I’ll do my best for you,” she finally said.
“When can you start?” Zach asked.
“Would Monday be okay? Izzy’s going to start moving in tomorrow and the next day is Friday.” Which struck her as an odd day to start a job.
“Monday will work. Finley and I will be gone, so Cody will give you the forms and Brodie will be the guy who lines you out on a daily basis.” Zach tilted his head ever so slightly. “You okay with that?”
McKenna gave a how-could-I-not-be-okay-with-that shrug. “Of course.” She held her hand out to Zach, sealing the deal. “Thanks again,” she said softly. “My son and I appreciate it.”
End of Excerpt