Son of a bitch.
Growling in a rough tone that caused a young cowboy to look up from a stall twenty feet away, Jed Hastings strode toward the exit of the makeshift stable as if hell itself swirled around his scuffed cowboy boots. The rodeo had ended, the time had come to take care of the stock and load them into the trailers, and that good-for-nothing fuck Blake was nowhere to be found. Not surprised one goddamned bit, Jed dug his cell phone out of his pocket and dialed his boss’s number. If the man once again refused to fire Blake, Jed swore to everything holy he would quit on the spot and look for new work. It’s not like the bastard pays me enough to do one man’s job, let alone two.
The moment a disinterested “Hello” reached Jed’s ear, Jed spewed like a drill hitting a reservoir of oil. “That asshole must be out fucking one of the leftover groupies the riders didn’t want, because he sure as hell isn’t here with me, and he won’t pick up my calls.” Jed paced in front of the stable’s wide doors, glaring at anyone who had the nerve to shoot him a disgruntled look. “If you don’t fire his ass this instant, you won’t have anyone to drive half your stock to the next event, because I will be gone.”
A sigh resonated through the phone. “Be reasonable,” Cliff replied. “I can’t get rid of him. Who the hell is going to drive the travel trailer while you and I drive the stock?”
“I don’t care.”
“You haven’t given me enough time to find a replacement.”
Fucking shit-eating bastard.
Every molecule in Jed’s arm ached to take a swing at something. Employing supreme will, he tucked his fist against his side and paced a ditch into the dirt instead. “I’ve been telling you to get rid of this useless asshole for two months. Don’t give me that shit. You’ve had plenty of time to hire someone else.” Jed spoke freely with Cliff, knowing Cliff didn’t like him any more than he liked Cliff, but that until Cliff unloaded this rodeo stock operation, they needed each other—with Cliff needing Jed more than Jed needed Cliff. “You don’t even mention that you’re looking for someone new unless I bring it up.”
“Trust me,” Cliff replied. “Everyone who has dropped off an application makes Blake look like a winner.”
Jed snorted and rolled his eyes. “That’s bullshit. I could throw a fucking nickel and find someone better than Blake.”
“Feel free to try.” Cliff’s response, the first like this, made Jed jerk up straight. “If you find someone who will do this job for what I’m paying Blake, then he will be history.”
A picture of the young cowboy hanging around the stables flashed like a 3-D image in front of Jed’s eyes. He’d seen the kid trolling around all weekend, and he knew what that meant. Yes.
Jed spun on his heels and headed back to the animals. Seriously, kid. Please don’t be an idiot.
“It’s already done,” Jed assured Cliff. “Pick up your phone in ten minutes and be ready to tell Blake he’s out of a job.”
Jed didn’t wait for Cliff to say good-bye. He reentered the temporary stock barn and immediately zeroed in on the young cowboy. The kid still mingled with the animals, this time stroking the flank of a speckled mare. Upon closer inspection, Jed cataloged dark hair sticking out from the edges of the young man’s pristine white Stetson, the length of the black stuff nearly dusting his shoulders. A blue shirt and dark denim covered a body taller and lankier than most cowboys looking to get into bull or bronc riding, and his boots looked brand-spanking-new too. He’s just a groupie.
As fast as Jed deflated, he perked back up. The mare the kid was looking at shimmied in her stall, but the guy crooned to her and calmed her as if he’d cared for horses all his life—and was damned good at the task. So maybe the kid was only a rodeo fanatic, but he had developed some skill somewhere or maybe just possessed a natural gift. Jed stepped closer, his senses now homed in even tighter on this young man. With a second look, Jed figured if the cowboy was a groupie, he was here for the animals and not the men and women riding them. And that’s exactly what I need.
Moving in next to the cowboy, Jed asked, “How bad do you want a job with these horses?”
The guy whirled, his hand plastered to his chest. “Shoot.” He slumped against the stall. “You scared me.”
Jed quirked a brow. “You saw me a few minutes ago. I cursed loud enough to get your attention.”
The young man glanced toward the open doors. When he brought his focus back to Jed, red crept up his face. “I also saw you leave. I didn’t hear you come back.”
“I wasn’t being especially quiet.” When the kid only grew redder, Jed figured he was shy, and so Jed dialed his grilling down to a murmur. “I guess you were just into the animals more than anything else around here and didn’t notice.”
The guy’s angular face softened, and a new light saturated the green in his eyes. “They’re beautiful.” He rubbed the mare’s nose once more, and she nickered at him as if he was no stranger to her at all.
Almost mesmerized, Jed studied the ease between this stranger and horse. “You ever worked with animals?”
The guy shook his head.
“You ever worked any job?”
“Fast food officially.” With a shrug, the wannabe cowboy shoved his hands into his pockets and rocked back on the heels of his boots. “But I’ve been walking dogs, mowing lawns, and stuff like that since I was twelve.”
“How long have you had your fast-food job?”
“Over two years. I started when I was sixteen.”
“So you’re reliable.” Jed could work with green but eager in a trainee. “Do you have family? A girlfriend?” Speed bumps and possible derailments flew fast and furious through Jed’s thoughts. “Anyone who would get up in arms if you weren’t around every day? Are you getting ready to start college?”
“I have a sister, but she’d be okay without me. Cherise—that’s my sister—she’s older than me.” The kid tucked his shoulders into an even deeper slouch and softly added, “I don’t have a girlfriend, and college isn’t happening for me right now.”
“Being on and off the road all the time, far from home, won’t make you homesick?” Jed pressed. Hell, he had to. He didn’t want the first employee of his choosing to crap out in a month and prove Cliff right. “You opposed to living in a cramped travel trailer with me, a guy you don’t know?”
“Why are you asking me all these questions?” The kid narrowed his stare, but he didn’t slink away. He even pushed up straighter, Jed noticed.
Jed let his gaze slide to the horse nudging at this young man’s shoulder as if they’d been friends for life and then looked back into the cowboy’s earnest eyes. “You’re hanging around because you want a job, aren’t you?” He cut right to the chase. “You want to be near the rodeo and the animals, and my guess is you don’t much care how. Do I have that about right?”
“Yeah.” Folding in on himself again, the guy added, “But I don’t have any experience with horses or bulls, so nobody will give me a shot. I want one, though. I want one more than anything.”
Suddenly spiked full of new adrenaline, Jed whooped and stuck out his hand. “You just met your shot. The name is Jed Hastings.” Jed engulfed the kid’s hand in his and liked the hell out of the strong grip he received in return. “I’m in charge of eight of these horses, and you just got a job as my assistant.”
“Really?” Twin strands of excitement and disbelief came through the young man’s words, and his stare grew wider than any Jed had seen. “You’re serious?”
Jed chuckled. “The traveling schedule is relentless and the pay is for shit, but you get to be around the rodeo and help me take care of some of the best broncs on this tour.” Jed offered a rare, genuine smile. “How does that sit with you?”
“It’s so awesome.” The guy grabbed Jed’s hand with both of his and pumped it with vigor. “Thank you, sir.”
“I’m twenty-seven fucking years old.” Jed shot the kid an exaggerated brow. “Don’t call me sir. Save that for Cliff. He’s your official boss, and he eats up that kind of shit.”
“Sorry. Will do.” Nodding, the guy straightened and patted down the nonexistent wrinkles in his shirt. “Thank you again.”
“What’s your name?” Jed figured he ought to start thinking of him as something other than kid
or wannabe cowboy
“Booker.” Young Booker had a grin a mile wide that tugged another smile out of Jed. “Booker West.”
“Well, all right, Booker. Call me Jed. Work this gig like you think I might fire you every day, and we’ll get along just fine.”
“I can do that.” After moving in a slow circle, clearly absorbing the aftermath of the rodeo in a whole new light, Booker finally looked to Jed once again. “What do you want me to do first?”
“First,” Jed shared with lightness in his tone, “I’m going to look for an application while I make a phone call. Meanwhile I want you to go home, tell your sister you’re moving on and likely won’t see her for a long while, and pack a bag with clothes you can get dirty in. And don’t forget to call your boss at the fast-food joint. Tell him you’re not gonna be able to flip burgers for him anymore.”
“Then you want me to come back here and help you with the horses?” Somehow Booker had a goddamned bounce in his voice, one that matched the way he lifted on the balls of his feet.
“Absolutely.” Jed gave Booker the words he wanted to hear—not to mention that Jed needed to say. “You start tonight.”
Booker grabbed Jed’s hand for a third time and shook with what looked like his whole body. “Thank you, Jed. Seriously. You’re not gonna regret this. I swear. I want this job more than anything.”
Reining in his expectations, Jed thought back to his first ranch and rodeo work and sobered. “Tell me that in a month when you feel like your back is never gonna stop hurting, and you can hardly get a half night of good sleep on what passes for a bed in a trailer, and you miss your sister more than you realize. Get past a thirty-day probation period, and then I’ll let myself believe you’re gonna work out.”
Booker still grinned so big it appeared as if it might crack his face open. “I’ll still be saying the same thing in a month. And in a year. I promise.”
“Your trial run starts tonight.” Jed jerked his head toward the building’s entrance. “Get going.”
Booker began walking backward toward the doors, his attention still locked on Jed. “I’ll be back in less than an hour! Don’t do anything without me. I want to learn everything.” Then he spun, took off at a sprint, and pumped his fist in the air before he disappeared.
Chuckling, unable to help it, Jed shook his head. Green. Green. Green.
Jed could hardly remember when he’d last experienced such infectious enthusiasm for his job. He loved these animals, but Cliff had so frustrated him in the last year—and Blake had only compounded that feeling—that Jed couldn’t recall the last time he’d felt pure, unfettered joy in caring for and prepping these horses for their work.
Jed strolled to where his line of horses was housed and stopped in front of his sturdiest, most proficient bronc. “If he works out, maybe he’ll be good for all of us.” His soft murmurs carried to his favorite horse’s ears. “What do you think, Moses?” Jed rubbed the animal’s nose. “I’m sure young Mr. West has made his rounds and praised you once or twice this weekend. Do you think you’ll like having him around?”
Moses whinnied and pawed his hoof against the hay.
“Yeah.” Jed let his gaze drift to where he’d first noticed Booker in the makeshift stable two nights ago. “Me too.” Christ, Jed never could have known one moment of eye contact would have been enough to make him feel confident about offering a stranger—a kid—a job.
After one more firm pat to Moses’s flank, Jed set off for the horse trailers. He needed to find that application. If Booker West worked out—hell, he might not be a cowboy yet, but he already had the name in place—Jed wanted everything nice and official. There was no way Cliff would fuck him over with an asshole this time. If Booker passed his trial period, Jed wanted the kid around for a long, long time.