He patted his flat stomach. "Hayley's cooking."
Grace glanced between the two as they stared at each other.
Hayley noticed Grace's interest and sent her "forget it" look just as the girls arrived, hair flying. After they hugged their grandmother, Hayley excused herself to go braid their hair.
"Well?" Nash said when he and his mom were alone.
Grace's eyes were still on Hayley as she escorted the girls into the guest bathroom. Finally she met her son's gaze. "That's one scared woman, Nash."
She gave him a playful smack on the shoulder.
"Ow. What did I do now?"
"That's for letting her get away."
He smiled down at his mother. "Not this time."
She frowned back. "I don't think you'll have a choice, honey."
"Everyone has a choice, Mom."
* * *
"If I have to drag you in there and feed you myself, Hayley, I will," Nash said, trying to keep his temper out of his voice and low enough that the ranch hands sitting in the dining room wouldn't hear.
"I double dare you." She smiled.
He wasn't amused and leaned closer. "Don't tempt me."
"You can be such a tyrant."
"I'm your boss."
She reared back. "Is that an order?"
He sighed, pushing his fingers through his hair. She was so stubborn. "Of course not, but you've been moping around since the girls left."
"I have not."
He eyed her, though he was touched that she missed them as much as he did.
She sighed. "All right, so what if I am? I don't have a lot to do without them around."
"Any other woman would be enjoying the free time. Why don't you take a break?"
She glanced in the direction of the dining room. "Having supper with y'all … it's not right."
"It's my house and I say it is."
She had to give him that and she did feel more alone without the girls around. "Okay, fine. No one can ever call me a party pooper."
Spinning around, she walked into the dining room with Nash behind her. There were three extra ranch hands she hadn't met before, and every one of them stood when she entered the room. Jimmy Lee rushed around the table to pull out her chair.
Nash eyed him back to his seat as Hayley sat down.
It was strange being in here with all of them. She'd made it a point when she took a job like this not to join in the meals. But after a quick comical prayer, they dug in and made her feel welcome. They discussed plans for the auction, and Nash assigned duties for the next few days. Hayley made mental notes to keep quick meals and sandwiches around for them since they weren't on their normal routine. Rounding up all the horses grazing on more than a thousand acres would take a while, and she needed to be prepared. She passed a dinner platter, glancing up to find Nash staring at her from the opposite end of the table. She lifted her chin and motioned for him to mind his own plate. He simply stared and she could feel the message down the length of table. He wanted her there, and the small fact scared the hell out of her.
Nash relaxed in his chair, eating, but not really tasting the incredible meal she'd prepared. Watching her was far more interesting. That and listening to her draw out Bubba and refusing to call him anything but Robert. Pride seeped through him. She'd told his mother she didn't fit in, but here she was, making every man hang on her words. She asked about their hobbies, interests, their families, their homes, and Nash heard a little envy in her voice, yet she held nothing back, teasing Ronnie about his long hair and treating Beau like a man when he was scarcely out of high school. When she stood to get the water pitcher, Beau leaped to her aid. She had them at her command and Nash was a willing soldier.
"That was great, as usual, Hayley." Nash gestured to the empty platters and bowls on the table.
She smiled, her fingers steepled under her chin even as she accepted compliments from the men. "Y'all still have room? I made dessert."
Good grief, he thought, when?
She went into the kitchen and came back with peach cobbler and a chocolate cream pie. At the sideboard, she dished up the cobbler and set a plate before Nash. He stared at the cobbler, then lifted his gaze to her.
"You remembered." It was his favorite.
Twisting slightly, she winked, then turned back to the sideboard to serve up the rest.
When the hands stood up to leave, each offered compliments, saying they were glad to finally dine with her.
She beamed, then started to collect the dishes. Nash helped.
"I have it," she said.
"So do I," he said in a no-nonsense tone. Hayley shrugged and went to the kitchen. Nash brought in the rest of the dishes, tossing the linens into the laundry room as she washed and rinsed, filling the dishwasher and scrubbing pots.