“It helps to hear your voice,” he said, “even when I’m busting your balls. It feels good to be normal. That you don’t talk to me like I’m a bomb that’s about to go off.”

“Well, I’ve known you all our lives. You’ve always been like that, so why would I be skittish now?” I joked.

“Thanks,” he said, and I knew he was sincere.

I knew he was rudderless since he’d left the Marines; that he didn’t have any direction. I wanted to help with that. I wanted to step up and be there for my brother. And I wanted to get Maggie back, which was priority one. There were only a handful of people in my life I really loved, and I’d do anything for them. It was something that made Maggie and me alike—she just cared about her whole community and had a sense of family with them that I didn’t have. So it would piss her off to admit it, but we’d both go to the wall for love. I was about to prove it.

I just had to drive out west of town and turn north when I saw the goats. I had some farmers to talk with.



I was dragging my feet when I showed up at the B&B to help out at the front desk while my mom caught up on the bookkeeping. She took one look at me and reached into the little fridge behind the counter and handed me a Diet Coke. I cracked it open gratefully.

“Got anything stronger?” I joked.

“I’ve got a couple White Claws in there. For when it’s slow,” she said.

My eyebrows shot up, “You drink on the job?” I said.

“No, I’m kidding. But look at you.”

“Yeah, I look like I feel. Like I’ve had my ass kicked by life in general.”

“You’re looking out for everyone but yourself,” she said with a tsk sound.

“I have to take care of my staff. They threw their lot in with me when I was so young I barely qualified for a loan, and they believed we could make a go of it. And we did.”

“Yes. And we’re so proud of all you’ve done. How’s the job hunt?”

“Dismal. There are no childcare positions in driving distance that would be anywhere close to what I was earning with the Fun Factory. I don’t want to move away, so I’m looking into taking some classes back at the community college.”

“Oh really? What kind of classes?” she said.

“I could get my LPN and get a job at the hospital. Hospitals are recession-proof and the benefits there are great. Layla thought I could even get on at the Health Department with just my CNA while I’m finishing up my LPN course work.”

“That’s great,” she said flatly, “Except you hate needles.”

“Well I won’t be getting shots, I’d be giving them. It’s not my first choice. I mean—I like to run things. But unless I want to manage a freaking Ann Taylor Loft in Pendleton for ten bucks an hour, I better get over it.”

“You could never work at Loft,” my mom said. “I’ve seen your closet. They don’t let the staff wear Pete the Cat t-shirts.”

“Nice, Mom. Real supportive,” I said, rolling my eyes.

“Hey, I turned away your Hadley drone when he wanted to stay here again.”

“He came here?”

“Yes. I sent him on his way with an earful about how he treated my daughter.”

“Oh, God. Mom. You didn’t.”

“Of course, I did,” she said proudly. “Who do you think taught you how to give people a piece of your mind? Not your father, that’s for sure. That man would eat soup with a fly in it before he’d send it back. I let that boy know exactly what I thought of the way he does business. Seducing an innocent young girl like my daughter—”

“Mom, you realize I’m not Sleeping Beauty, right?”

“I can pretend you’re totally innocent if I want to. It’s a mother’s privilege,” she said sarcastically.

“What did he say?” I said.

“You really care?”

“No. I just wondered if you made him cry or wet his pants or anything like that one time in Kohl’s when you got that assistant manager to apologize and he just put his nametag down and walked out?”

“That was an exciting day. And if they’d just honored my coupon it wouldn’t have been an issue. Anyway, your young man held his own.”

“He isn’t mine.”

“I think you may be mistaken in that,” my mother said archly.

“What are you talking about?”

“He was respectful and said he understood why we couldn’t accommodate him, but he didn’t grovel or act tragic.”

“Didn’t you want him to? I mean, you did it to humiliate him.”

“No, I did it to get my message across. My daughter is worth more than he could ever fathom,” she said. I admit, that made me smile. “I liked his response.”

“Which was?” I prompted.

Tags: Natasha L. Black Romance
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