Step one of William’s plan was complete: lure the scared motherfucker out so he could smooth over his own bullshit.
It had been a week of long, hard thinking about the best way to apologize and make amends for the fight. And it wasn’t just the fight he had to make good on—it was the banning from the Stardrop, the rumors, and of course, being an asshole. There was no real reason to forgive him, so he was relieved Shane had agreed to follow him out. A bucketful of beer could only get his stupid ass so far.
The traps made a fine excuse to hang around the dock near Marnie’s place anyway. He’d kept a few of them around since realizing how good the crawfish were in the lake. His mom would have paid top dollar for what he could haul out for free.
He glanced sideways at Shane, taking in his appearance. It wasn’t that dissimilar to the way he’d looked last week in his ragged JojaMart hoodie, though this time there was a hat shoved in his back pocket. Clutched to his chest was the molded cooler that William had stocked with his home brews.
Guy needs some jeans that fucking fit, he thought critically. Those look like they were stocked in the clearance rack of the Joja shelves.
Not wanting Shane to think he was judging him or some shit, William pulled his gaze away. It wasn’t like clothes mattered in the grand scheme of things. Shane’s jeans didn’t keep his fist from slamming into William’s jaw. The ratty hoodie hadn’t made him slower when driving into William like a damn linebacker.
He pulled a mesh bag out of one of his cargo pockets to distract from focusing too much on his walking companion. The bag jingled the tools he kept in the large pockets, and reminded him of his other reason for smoothing things over with Shane.
He needed to see if the guy would be willing to get a job from the same shithead who’d kicked his ass last week.
Hello, HR? I’d like to file a complaint?
There was no getting around it. He couldn’t keep doing it alone.
This morning he’d had to bury a cow. Poor girl had been sick for days, and though he’d called the vet out and had been dosing her with medicine, she’d unfortunately given up the ghost. Burying her alone was a pain in the ass. Milking the herd took hours, and that was just his herd. He still had summer harvest coming up, and shuddered to think what he was going to do during calving season.
Each step reminded him of his multiple fuck-ups with learning farm life. Not having wire cutters when one of his yearlings had gotten her udder stuck in the fence. Not having a utilitool when his tractor died two hours before a rainstorm. Not having a decent pair of pliers or roll of duct tape when fixing the sprinklers. The first year on the farm had given him a crash course in being prepared.
He kept his attention forward, though listening to Shane's reluctant footsteps behind him.
Maybe he won’t even go for it.
He flashed back to a conversation he'd had with Marnie earlier in the day. The normally gentle livestock broker had been furious—scolding him for their altercation, citing Shane’s injuries as more severe than he’d expected. He’d never intended to destroy the guy, but then, he’d never been accused of rationality when his blood got too hot.
They arrived at the dock and William knelt down by his first crab pot. He surreptitiously observed Shane, who moved stiffly, though no obvious pain crossed his face.
"Whatever happened? It can't happen again. Shane doesn't exist in a vacuum, much as he'd like to think he does. He has a goddaughter, and if you'd seen the look on that little girl’s face when she saw her uncle Friday night…"
William looked back down, dumping the crawfish into his mesh bag.
It can’t happen again.
Shane lifted the lid of the cooler as William emptied traps, and he realized, like a dolt, he'd forgotten to include a bottle opener.
Smooth move Ex-lax, he groused, pulling himself out of Marnie’s afternoon lecture and back to the business at hand. He retrieved a coin-sized opener from his back pocket.
“Hey, heads up,” he called, tossing it towards Shane.
For a guy who was apparently beat to hell, his reflexes were quick and he snatched it out of the air.
William looked away, frowning down at the crab pots. Reflexes like that would be damn useful for manual labor. And hand-eye coordination was good. He popped open the next pot and tipped the crawfish into his net bag, trying to decide how to approach this.
Bet he’d rather walk through glass than take this job.
Shane put the opener to the side after catching it. At first William wondered if it was a rejection of the beer, but then Shane popped his thumb under the crown top and snapped it free from the bottle.
Tough bastard like that and Marnie was worried about his arms? How well did she even know her nephew?
William went back to work, letting him settle and make his way through that first beer. Might as well let the guy chill and get in a good mood before he laid down his offer. The minutes passed and he finished emptying all the traps, then wiped his brow with his forearm. Finally, after tying the last of the catch into the net bag, he let himself look over.
Shane sat, drinking, his eyes on the water. The lake was calm this afternoon, the warm breeze barely enough to ripple its surface.
“You mind sharing one of those?” William asked, hanging his bag on a hook along the side of the dock to keep his crustaceans submerged.
There was the sound of the cooler opening, then another cap being snapped off. He wondered if Shane had ignored the bottle opener again, and for some reason the little quirk made him smile. He shook the excess water off his hands, then pulled out a handkerchief to finish drying them. After he was done he stuffed it back in his pocket, and sank down slowly and a bit stiffly next to Shane. His back gave a warning twinge.
C’mon Spine. Don’t fail me today.
Shane must’ve been thirsty, a finished bottle already between them on the wooden dock. Watching William with those same wary, deep-set eyes, he handed over the open beer and grabbed a second for himself.
William nodded in thanks. He took a long drink, then made the plunge. “So. Marnie says you're good with animals and shit.”
Shane popped the bottle cap off with that thumb trick and pocketed it, as if it was a habit. “You talked to Marnie?”
William risked a look over and could see practically every muscle in Shane's neck bulging in tension. He leaned back on an elbow, casually giving the guy a touch more space, and for a moment examined the glass bottle in his hand. The brew had come out well, a blend of sweet wheat and hops. He weighed his words. Should he tell Shane that he'd been looking for him? Should he tell him Marnie had reamed him out for that beautiful black eye he wore? Should he tell him he felt like shit, that he’d caused Shane to scare his goddaughter?
Nah. The dude was too squirrelly and on edge.
“Yeah, I talked to her,” William said, keeping his voice lazy as he rolled the bottle between his thumb and forefinger. “Needed to get a feed order in.” He took a swig and sat up, letting his elbows rest on bent knees, looking out at the lake.
Totally had nothing to do with imagining the way you sounded against that tree. Nothing to do with wondering if you were okay. Not a damn thing to do with your green eyes haunting my thoughts.
Shane didn't speak, his foot jiggling slightly, as if agitated. Nervous tell. Or maybe an angry one. William kept his breathing even, the way he did when trying to line up a shot during target practice. Did Shane think that he’d been trying to mess with his family? Or worse, maybe he thought William was trying to justify his own damn behavior.
“I didn't say anything about, uh, last week,” he said, risking another explanation.
Shane still didn't respond.
William drank another long swallow of his brew. “I figured that shit was private. Between us.”
Finally Shane shifted, his bottle tilting then going back to vertical. William wondered if his arms hurt still—wondered if those bruises brought the memories back to him whenever he strained or pulled himself. He knew that when he’d been loading hay, his back had screamed. Shane might’ve missed his spine, but the muscles around it were soft enough to have spasms for two days after the conflict. Playing whack-and-chase across half the green of the country club hadn’t done a damn thing to help either. Yet he didn’t regret a twinge, each pain flash a burst of color against the greyness of his days.
He drank, using the beer to hide his smile. They wouldn't be having this conversation if Shane had a single, solitary clue about the twisted pleasure William had taken in that beat-down.
“She had a fucking cow over my face,” Shane finally muttered.
His voice was so soft. William stilled, memories of being banished from brunch like a bad dog helpfully reminding him of how fucked up they’d both probably looked.
“Saw my parents this weekend,” he confessed, rubbing the back of his neck. “Told them I had a disagreement with a bulldozer.”
He glanced at Shane for his reaction, but Shane just continued to stare at his beer. Probably he figured William was going to slug him again. Yet that energy was long gone, and all he wanted to do was figure out what exactly had happened...why they'd connected in such an explosive way.
He tried one more time.
“They didn’t seem to take that as a good answer. Cue the lecture. Think I’d rather get that right hook of yours than listen to that bullshit again.”
Shane’s bottle was raised, and he paused before it touched his lips. “Told Marnie I walked into a door.”
So. He hadn’t wanted to give details either. Discretion was an attractive quality to have in a potential employee. His fingers tapped on the bottle in thought. If Shane wasn’t going to go around spreading the nature of their fight, maybe he could be trusted not to spread information about William’s business too.
“Look,” Shane added darkly. “You picked a damn good night to annoy me is all.”
William watched, fascinated by the sudden play of emotions that rolled across the other man's face.
Shane’s cheeks reddened. “I'm not…I mean, just—I don’t give a shit what people do on their own, okay?”
The words were hard won, and William turned them over in his head.
Interesting. So Shane had been thinking about it. But because he felt bad about calling William a faggot—not because he’d felt that lightning hot connection.
Not everyone is as twisted as you are, you psycho.
“Yeah,” William said, “don't worry about it. I was picking a fight.” He took a long, final swallow of beer. “I fucking knew it man. I started it.”
Shane only stared into his drink, foot tapping a more erratic pattern.
Keeping that restlessness in his peripheral vision, William flexed his grip on the glass neck of the bottle and added, “I'm an asshole like that.”
There was a beat of silence.
“Yeah, you kinda are an asshole,” Shane agreed. Another beat. “But so am I.”
The laugh escaped before William could keep it in. God, what a pair they made. Two assholes sitting by a lake. He reached out and clapped Shane on his back—and immediately felt a flash of guilt when Shane flinched from him.
Just fucking move into his personal space and build a damn house, asshole.
He pulled his hand back, letting the gesture move naturally.
The cooler was still full and William snagged a fresh beer, reclining again, icy bottle in one hand and giving Shane space. The opener lay on the dock between them and he fished it over to pop the cap. Shane might have thumbnails of iron, but William had enough busted spots on himself without having to impress anyone by opening a crown top.
“So. Now that's settled.” He looked at Shane. “You want a job?”
Shane had just begun to chug the last of his beer, and after finishing he dropped it and stared at William in disbelief.
“Charity?” Loathing dripped from his voice. “Yeah, fuck you.”
He shoved to his feet, empty still in one hand.
William had been prepared to be turned down for being an aggressive fuckhead. He’d been prepared for Shane to tell him to take the job and shove it, after their last encounter. Not once did it occur to him that he’d think William felt sorry for his pile-driving ass. Annoyance burst through whatever guilt he’d been feeling. Charity? Just because he had a beard didn't mean he was fucking Santa Claus.
“Man, fuck you!” William scowled. “Sit your ass down. It ain't charity. I've got over a hundred chickens to feed since last spring. They eat and shit a metric fuckton. Not to mention that it's summer, which means it's time to winter-prep the barns. Do you know how much work over fifty head of cattle are during the summer?”
Shane paused, but didn’t sit back down. William drank his beer and glared into the lake, unable to stop listing the problems he'd been quietly agonizing over for weeks.
“Gotta fix the drainage in the west field, or come winter it's going to be a mud pit. Two of my cows came down with mastitis last month and I had to bury one of them this morning.” He took another swig of beer, feeling stupid for even asking. “If you've ever had to drain a damn abscess, you'd understand it ain't no fucking charity to want an extra pair of hands out there. And if you’d ever had to bury one of the heavy beasts by yourself? You’d save me the trouble and go slap yourself, okay. Jesusfuck. Only reason I asked is because Marnie said you might be interested.”
William glared into the lake, mind roiling. Charity? Maybe charity for his own fucking peace of mind.
If Shane said no, maybe he could find someone in town to help him pour a new concrete apron. The flies were out of control this time of year anyway, but if he could improve the drainage system, next year they’d surely be better.
He drank, irritated. If not Shane, then fucking who? Kent’s boy, Sam? Well. Not that much younger than him, but the skater punk seemed more interested in music than putting in the hard labor a farm required. Alex, the sports-god wannabe? Maybe. He had the muscle for it. But William had an instinct about young men, and that one would swap salt for sugar and then become a defensive fuck about misreading the damn label. He’d trained too many fucking kids to not have a hunch about who would do well in a self-reliant job like farming, and who he’d need to constantly supervise. The point of a farmhand was to get some independent help who knew enough about what he was fucking doing that William wouldn’t have to babysit his ass.
The cows were starting to be more work than he could afford. And though he'd been thinking about expanding into sheep and goats next year, would it be more cost effective to just sell the whole herd?
He glanced back at Shane.
He was a hefty fucker. Getting soft from drinking at the saloon all the damn time, but William didn’t have a problem with having a few beers at the end of a long day. And besides, there was no way that Joja gave a body the type of full workout farming did.
With a sigh, Shane sat back down.
He pulled a fresh beer from the cooler and popped the cap again, this time not careful with his thumbnail. William froze for a second, eye on that single bead of blood that welled up on the dry skin.
“I need a job,” Shane said, pocketing the cap. “But like...that's the only reason. It isn’t to help you.”
Well. Talk about your backhanded compliments.
“Morris sent me home this week,” he continued slowly. “Said I’d scare the customers.”
He dropped words like he was measuring out gold coins, and William couldn’t help but watch him speak. He wondered if that would be the end of the conversation, and decided to count to three in his head. When he got to two, Shane said, “Three. Days. Pay.”
Damn, William thought, not daring to meet his eyes. Instead he drank, remembering an incident that had occurred two years before. He’d just moved to Pelican Town and begun cleaning up The Bowery. He’d gone into town and met with his first customer, Pierre, only to see Morris come into his place of business to drop off coupons for JojaMart like he was some sort of savings genie. It was the most bullshit, bullying act William had ever witnessed in his life.
Sometimes, William had moments where his brain wasn’t exactly in control. His instincts had taken over, and he’d threatened the guy. The threats had lead to Morris puffing up like a damn fish. So William had unpuffed him with his fist. It was damn neighborly, if you were to ask him.
Moments like this? Hearing how Morris had messed with Shane’s money? He felt like the only thing he had to regret from that incident was that he didn’t smash in Morris’s stupid froggy face harder.
He finished his beer and let his forearm rest on his knee, the bottle pinched between thumb and forefinger.
Tread lightly, you shit-kicking stupidass.
“That was shitty of him,” William said. “Not really Morris’s biggest fan. I, uh—” he rubbed the back of his neck “—got in trouble with Lewis a couple of years ago for punching him.”
Later, much later, he’d regretted the assault. Not that it mattered. Lewis, who’d known Pops, had slapped him with the barest of recriminations. His reputation on the other hand...well, Pelican Town’s rumor mill ground that into flour.
William took a long swallow. Wasn’t like reputations and him were good friends anyway.
“Man,” Shane said. “You got anger issues.”
And you’ve got eyes.
“I should add that to my ink.” William took another long pull of the home brew, then turned and met Shane’s gaze. “When can you start?”
Shane looked down at his lap. “Monday,” he said quietly. “If it means I can screw Morris over without a two weeks notice.”
Petty revenge. A guy after his own heart.
“I’ll drink to that,” William said, amused. “Pay? What you looking for payment wise?” He frowned. “I never hired no one before.” He hadn’t thought this part out. What was the standard rate for farm work?
Ah. He was embarrassed setting a pay scale. William waited, fingers sliding the bottle back and forth.
“Just…match the wage at Joja, at least,” Shane mumbled.
William shrugged. He’d look that up when he got home. Minimum wage with basic benefits for stocking shelves didn’t seem quite fair for the type of manual labor he’d need, but he’d figure it out later.
Then he realized there would be more to it.
“Listen, I know it’s a pain in the ass,” he said, staring out at the lake. “But during calving season, you’ll need to be like, on call. I have an extra room at my place. Last season I nearly lost one of my big milkers and her calf to a breach birth. It was pretty touch and go.”
“You can just call the ranch,” Shane said.
“Sure. As long as you don’t mind getting the call at 3 am. Calves like to be really considerate about when they’re born.”
Shane frowned. “Might wake my goddaughter up.”
“Look,” William said. “I’m not trying to jerk you off here.” As pleasant an activity that might be… “It’s serious work. More serious than I realized when I took it on from Pops.”
He glanced over, but realized the conversation was reaching a wall.
“Never mind,” he said. Calving season was months off, anyway. “We’ll cross that bridge when we get there.”
He finished his beer and put the dead soldier to the side, then reached across Shane to get another from the cooler. Shane pulled back, and for a second William wondered if he was afraid of him. That thought didn’t sit comfortably.
“Something wrong, Daniels?”
“Nothing,” Shane said, voice stiff. “Just, let me talk to my aunt. I’ve got responsibilities there too.”
William leaned back, popping the cap, and took a swig of his beer. “Fair,” he grunted. “Just let me know if there are issues. I’m flexible.”
Shane didn’t respond to that, which probably meant the flirt had gone over his head.
You’re going to be one of those deliberately obtuse motherfuckers, aren’t you?
William cast around for a change of subject and felt his back twinge from the hit Shane had laid on him the week before. In as conversational a tone as he could muster, he asked, “So who taught you how to hit like a jackhammer, Daniels? You box or something?”
Shane grew stiffer, only staring into the neck of the beer, eyes dark.
He swings and he misses…
“Alright,” William said, shifting to his feet. “None of my business. You wanna start Monday? Be there at 6 am.”
William regarded him for a minute, then looked at the beer in his hand.
He’d done it. He’d convinced Shane to take the job. And even if he looked as excited as a brick, William didn’t need him excited—just serious enough to show the fuck up on Monday.
He tilted his beer and chugged the rest, letting the thick brew slide down his throat. After finishing he sighed, contemplating the bottle. “That,” he said, wiping his bearded chin, “was a decent batch. I should charge Pierre more.”
Shane continued to peer into his own bottle. “It’s good shit,” he agreed quietly.
“The Good Shit. Maybe that’ll be the new name,” William said, unable to help feeling flattered at the compliment. He pointed his bottle out over the lake, as if he was directing a crowd. “That batch is Okay Shit. That one over there?” He pointed to the murkier side of the lake. “We give that to the relatives we want to fuck off. That’s the Bad Shit.”
He glanced to see if he was getting a reaction, but Shane was now staring the water—more than likely embarrassed by William’s theatrical gestures.
William looked back at his bottle, and in a less ridiculous tone said, “But this one? This is the Good Shit.”
He realized he wanted to linger, but he had a rule about striking out. Retreat and try again later. He leaned down and picked up his three dead soldiers, then the catch he’d gathered from the water. Slinging dinner over his shoulder, he nodded at Shane.
“You get the Good Shit, Daniels. Enjoy it. See you Monday.”
Then he started back towards his place. Just as he’d gotten to the gate that signaled the edge of his property, he turned his head and captured that image of the lone man sitting on the dock, his outline making William’s heart pound. He swallowed and turned away again, letting the gate swing closed behind him.
It was just professional business, after all. Just a job. And if he was smart, he’d keep it there.
Because, William thought ruefully, I’ve had so much fucking luck with being smart.