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It was like William knew his weakness already.

Shane took a drink, reluctant to admit the guy had both good taste and a talent for brewing. The heady, hoppy ale was as good as the craft beers Gus got in seasonally at the saloon, and blew away the cheap crap he used to buy at Joja. Strong too. He’d only emptied three bottles, but to his buzzing brain it felt like five.

Proper fucking apology, at least—if William had come to Shane with orangey pisswater, it would’ve been a hell of a lot easier to turn down the job.

Well. No. That was a lie.

Shane reached into his pocket and pulled out his balisong. The triple-spoked knife was like an extension of his arm these days. Any time he sat at the dock with booze in one hand, out came the knife in the other. He flipped a few simple pinwheels, staring at the water, the act as soothing and familiar as the beer washing down his throat.

Joja was closing in two weeks. Much as the job had sucked, it’d been his livelihood. It was the money that provided for Jas, and helped Marnie cover rent and utilities. It was the paycheck that made his nightly booze possible, and seeing as two bottles of whiskey was lucky to last him three days, that shit wasn’t cheap.

He flipped another knife trick.

He really needed this job.

Almost fourteen fucking years he’d worked at Joja. Ever since eleventh grade. And sure, he’d had to transfer to Pelican Town from one of the Zuzu stores, but it’d been a smooth lateral slide after filing a request with the manager. No interviews. No pressure. Minimal room for fucking up and falling flat on his face, like he’d certainly have done with a new job. Then there was Marnie, the goddamn safety net. Even if Shane was unemployed she’d never have the heart to kick him out, especially with Jas in their lives. And being the anxious, selfish moron he was, he’d taken advantage of her kindness to hide from the bitter truth: that he’d have to put himself out there for the first time in his adult life.

In his own pitiful way, he’d tried. Gone on Marnie’s computer, browsing the job listings within twenty miles. Wandered the town, an eye out for establishments that might be hiring. Accepting the tip-offs Marnie gathered from her gossip circles, about how so-in-so was hiring in Poplarville, and why didn’t he give them a call?

Why? Because Shane was a fucking idiot, that was why, and you couldn’t teach a dumb old dog new tricks.

The idea of interviewing at a new place made him want to hurl. The thought of phone calls or resumes was enough to make his anxiety implode. Some days he didn’t understand how his seventeen-year-old self had even had the balls to turn in that one-page application to get hired at Joja in the first place.

It’s ‘cause you didn’t do it, dipshit. Garrett did. He walked up to the desk and asked for the damn application when you couldn’t. He stuck the pen in your hand and told you how to fill it out.

These days it was so much easier to turtle in his bedroom, drink, and pretend the looming joblessness didn’t exist. Or better, that it’d take care of itself. And it kind of had; a shiny new job, handed over to him on a silver fucking platter. A job whose interviews he’d shown up for unknowingly. One that only seemed to care about where he’d learned his right hook, and whether he’d be on-call for cow duty. Even he wasn’t a big enough idiot to turn that down.

Well, no. That was a lie too. He was a big enough idiot to turn it down. Almost had, until William had brought up Marnie.

The ranch was struggling. She rarely talked about it, but Shane knew it was in trouble. If his paychecks disappeared for good, their household would snap under the weight of the two extra dependents.

He closed his eyes, drained the beer to the bottom, and when it was gone immediately reached for another. Cracking it open, he stared at the wisps of smoke curling from the neck, wondering if he was crazy. William had kicked the shit out of him a week ago. Now Shane was going to work for him? What kind of dumb fuck took a drunken beatdown from a guy one day, then put that same guy in a position of financial power over him the next?

A dumb fuck like you, obviously. Suckered in by good beer and smooth talking.

William could totally be pulling Shane’s leg. What about his ominous parting words that night? Until next time, Daniels. Maybe round one was to bruise the body, and round two would be for the pride. Maybe Shane would skip Joja on Monday, and when he arrived at the farm that fucking tattooed boulder of a guy would be waiting for him, laughing at what a gullible moron he was.

Except that didn’t feel right, and he knew it. He flicked his knife closed and took another drink.

William’s words had been too honest today. Shane hadn’t missed the frustration in his voice. Fuck, he’d lived on the ranch long enough to know how stressful and time consuming this line of work could be. The ranch’s chicken coop was his responsibility every morning before leaving for Joja. On the weekends he cleaned the barn and stable, mowed the lawn, and helped Hunter, Marnie’s part-time kid, bundle the feed orders. No such thing as a day off when you had crops to tend and animals to feed.

Shane sat and drank, gazing over the water, and when his current bottle was finished he opened another and drank some more. The sun was setting, a dusky, navy curtain pulling down on the world. Cicadas and crickets became musical in the grass. A breeze rippled the lake, and the traps that William had laid along the shore gave soft clanks as they bumped together. It was growing quite late when Shane finally reached in the cooler for another, only to come up empty.

Like chain-smoking in bottle form; he’d just polished off nine of William’s home brews in a matter of hours. Nine brews that felt more like thirteen.

Shane dumped the melting ice in the lake. He tossed his empties in the cooler with a series of clangs, then stood, grabbing it by the handle and swaying on his feet.

It was good shit, he’d give William that. He was, to put it mildly, as drunk as a goddamn skunk.

After a slow, stumbling walk home, Shane paused at the ranch door and looked at the cooler in his hands. He knew he’d have to tell his family about the job at some point this weekend…but maybe not tonight. He ducked into the chicken coop, tucking it behind the feed. It’d be safe until morning coop duty, and then he could find a better spot to stow it until Monday.

Monday.

He’d been brooding so hard about the legitimacy of William’s offer, he hadn’t stopped to think about what it meant. Not truly. Until that very moment it hadn’t sunk in, and now it did, like aloe on his burnt fucking soul.

Come Monday, no more JojaMart.

No more customers.

No more listening to some old lady prattle on about why she could eat only green bananas. No more being verbally abused when the bakery department ran out of a certain type of bread. No more being given the look, the one that said Shane was put on this planet to inconvenience people, his pallet of cereal boxes blocking their all-important sojourn to the Oaties.

No more unflattering, uncomfortable uniform. No more cleaning wads of toilet paper off the restroom floors. No more rounding up shopping carts in the sludge of winter.

Fourteen years later, no more JojaMart.

Of course, there would’ve been no more JojaMart soon regardless. But having another job lined up, being able to kick that shithole to the curb guilt-free? Shane closed the coop, grinning, and returned to the front of the house. He opened the door, his heart so light he was walking on air, drunk off one of the most delicious beers he’d had in ages, and nothing—fucking nothing—could piss on his night now.

“Evening, Shane!”

Whomp, whomp.

“Lewis,” said Shane, crashing back to earth.

Three people were gathered around the table. Aunt Marnie, Jas, and Lewis, who was the mayor of Pelican Town and Marnie’s steady boyfriend. By the looks of it, they’d been finishing up a late supper of chicken parmesan and green beans when Shane’s drunken ass wandered in.

He and Lewis had not gotten off to a great start when Shane first moved to the valley.

Lewis, for one reason or another, had chosen to keep his relationship with Marnie under wraps at the time. A sixty-year-old man, playing dirty little secret like a fucking kid in high school. And while Shane didn’t wish to devote any time to thinking about his aunt’s booty calls, it’d fired up something fierce and protective in him to know Marnie was visiting Lewis’s house midday, yet the asshole wouldn’t even hold her hand in public.

For months Lewis had filled his aunt’s head with promises about how, when the time was right, their relationship would go public. And Marnie believed him. Repeated those promises to Shane as evidence that things were headed in a good direction, while Shane believed she was being as naive as the ‘other woman,’ waiting on the promise of a man to leave his wife.

And then Lewis, the fucker, pulled through, forcing Shane to eat all his words.

Nothing said he had to like the guy.

“Was a last minute thing, Lewis joining us for dinner,” Marnie said. “He wanted to wait for you, but we didn’t know how late you’d be out.”

“Old Joja making you stay overtime until they shutter the place down?” asked Lewis.

“Something like that.” Shane opened the fridge, searching for the leftover pasta salad.

Marnie tsked. “Shane, you sit down and eat something at the table. We’re not done yet, and the food’s still warm.”

“I’m good with pasta salad.”

Shane.

He closed the fridge, sighing, and grabbed a roll as he plopped down at the table.

Marnie beamed. Christ, it drove him fucking batty, the way she beamed over silly shit. 

“How’s the job hunt going, Shane?” said Lewis conversationally, patting his moustache with a napkin.

Shane struggled to flatten a hard pat of butter against the roll. “Just ducky.”

Jas giggled.

“Is that so?” said Marnie.

Shane looked up. He’d expected scolding for his smartass answer, but instead she was looking at him inquisitively.

“Er—yeah.”

“So does that mean Farmer Bill found you today?”

Shane’s knife slipped and stabbed a hole in his bread. He’d already forgotten that William had talked to Marnie.

“Er…” He focused on the bread. “I guess.”

Marnie blinked. “You guess, Shane? Either he did or he didn’t.”

Shane sighed, giving up on the butter. “He did.”

“Ah!” said Lewis. “I’d heard Pierre say Bill was considering taking on help. He’s grown that farm into quite the operation these last two years.”

“Oh, it’s a monster of a business for one man alone,” Marnie agreed. “I’ve no idea how he’s done it so far, but wish he’d share his secret with me.” She looked at Shane. “You accepted?”

Only reason I asked is because Marnie said you might be interested.

How, exactly, had that conversation gone down? Because it didn’t matter if William said he’d kept hush-hush about the fight. Shane knew there was no way in Stardew’s green fucking Valley that Marnie had offered him up for employment without getting to the bottom of the violence. Not after the hard time she’d given him all week. Not after the hand that had covered her mouth that night, the ‘It can’t have been Bill!’ falling in disbelief from her lips.

“Um. Yeah. I accepted.”

“You’re gonna work on the farm?” Jas’s interest was finally piqued. “Aunt Marnie says he’s got way more cows than we do!”

Marnie peered at him critically. “You really accepted?”

“Yes,” he said, annoyed at having to repeat himself.

Her expression was hard to read. Shane couldn’t tell if she was pleased or not.

Lewis cleared his throat. “Well! Congratulations on the new job, Shane.”

“Yeah.”

“Though…” Lewis hesitated. “That scuffle in the saloon last week.” He chuckled, sounding nervous. “No bad blood? I mean, if you’re accepting a job from the man…?”

“Now, Lewis,” said Marnie, touching his arm. “Bill and I had a long talk. Cleared up a lot of misunderstanding there.”

Another wave of irritation darted through Shane. Why couldn’t they just call the fucker William? It was like they weren’t even talking about the same damn person.

“A long talk,” he repeated, glaring at Marnie.

“Yes. He paid me a visit this morning. Brought those melons you see on the counter, actually. Beautiful things. I have one cut up in the fridge for dessert.”

Shane stared. “He visited to bring melons.”

“To put in an order for feed, Shane. The melons were just to butter an old lady up, I think. He was…concerned, after your incident.”

Great. They were going to talk about the fight in front of Jas, when she’d been terrified by it. In front of Lewis, when it was none of his goddamn busybody business.

“So you talked about me,” he said flatly.

Marnie waved her hand. “I sell to the man. My relationship with him long precedes yours. I think he wanted to make sure there was no bad blood between us, as business partners.”

Shane glanced at Jas to see if she was following the conversation, but she was busy lining green beans into the shape of a stick man on her plate.

“And?” he said, irritated. “You get that sorted, yeah?”

Marnie’s eyes narrowed. “Why, yes. We did.” A pause. “I was wary when I first met him too, you know. He had that reputation, after the altercation with Morris. But then he started doing all those things to help the community, just really turning things around for folks here. And of course, learning he was ex-military. Not to excuse the violence, but goodness—doesn’t that just do a number on a man? The things one sees out there…” She shuddered. “Look at poor Kent. Hasn’t been the same since he returned home.”

In a place the size of Pelican Town, gossip flowed in a steady and constant stream. Voices at Joja while Shane was stocking the aisles, which apparently made people think he was deaf. Voices in the background of the saloon, while he nursed a beer or whiskey neat and attempted to drown them out. Until the night of the fight, he’d only known William by sight and reputation. Big old farmer. Had a temper, but proved himself a ‘hero,’ saving the community center and helping drive JojaMart to the ground. Stand-up fucker at heart.

And now, Shane remembered, ex-military.

It made so much fucking sense.

The things William had hissed while pinning him to the ground. The preternatural control during his peace-talk, and the sudden flare of ‘Sit your ass down!’ when Shane doubted his intentions. That temper, coupled with that sense of command…he wondered for a moment what William’s ranking had been. Guy like that? Surely he hadn’t remained some scrub at the bottom of the chain.

“—for years now, so friendly and professional in business,” Marnie continued, when Shane finally tuned back in. “Never had a problem with Bill before now, and it’d be a shame to start because of ‘a couple guys letting off steam after a long week.’” Marnie shook her head. “Lord knows if he wasn’t so stressed by the workload, that steam might’ve come off in a healthier way.”

Shane paused with his fork halfway to his mouth.

William had said that? A couple guys letting off steam? And Marnie fucking believed him?

He crammed the chicken in his mouth, suddenly wanting to extract himself from the table as soon as possible. How many conversations had he had with his aunt this week, trying to convince her the fight meant nothing? And she’d pressed and released, pressed and released, never satisfied with his answer. Then in waltzes hipster farm boy, probably puffing up his chest and delivering that that line with some stupid charismatic smile, and she accepts it.

Of-fucking-course.

“Yes, boys will be boys,” chuckled Lewis. “Got into a few scrapes myself as a young man. None quite so impressive as yours, Shane, but a few scrapes all the same.”

Marnie swatted his arm. “Just because we’re choosing to look past this doesn’t mean we condone violence, you cad. And don’t be sexist.”

Lewis stopped chuckling, but when his aunt turned her head, he looked at Shane and winked.

Shane—suddenly envisioning William’s wink at the bar—stared down at his chicken, reddening.

“Anyway,” Marnie continued. “He mentioned how badly he needed to hire someone, and what was I to do? Ignore the one person whose got both experience and need of a job? So yes, we talked, Shane. After everything that happened I was hesitant, but Bill put my mind at ease. Seemed more concerned that you might not be interested.”

Shane’s eyes flickered up.

She shook her head. “I truly hope this hasn’t happened to him here in Pelican Town, but he says some men have a problem working for a gay man. I told him you’d be just fine, of course. That you’re a hard worker and a good boy, and you leave people’s business to themselves.”

A good boy? She’d told William he was a good boy?

Well, great. Now Shane wanted to hurl.

Jas, it seemed, had grown tired of making pictures with her vegetables. She’d also apparently grown tired with the conversation, looking up and saying, “Vincent is jealous that I have two last names. He told me so today.”

Marnie turned, a look of amusement crossing her face. “Did he, now?”

“He should be jealous,” Lewis said, as if they were in on this together. “Jas Prevost-Lorie. Gosh, what a beautiful name for a little girl.”

Shane stabbed his chicken, an even greater darkness stealing his mood.

“I’m not little,” Jas protested. “And I told Vincent you get two last names if your parents die.”

“Jas!” Marnie chided. “That’s not the reason.”

“Yeah, but he doesn’t know tha—”

“I’m finished,” Shane declared, shoving his chair back from the table with a squeak.

He walked his dishes to the sink. Jas and Lewis continued their conversation, but Marnie got up, following him. She frowned.

Shane knew that frown. It was the frown that replaced the smile when, after he’d been drunk in a social setting, she’d finally gotten him alone long enough to show her disapproval. He waited for it, the shake of her head, the passive aggressive comments. But this time they didn’t come. She only touched his shoulder.

“Come sit back down for dessert. Bill’s melon…”

Shane’s jaw tightened.

“I don’t want,” he said, “his goddamn melon.”

He rinsed his plate, shoved it in the drying rack with soap spots still on the back, and left for his room without saying goodnight.

 


 

When William opened his eyes every morning, he came to consciousness in a kaleidoscope of pain. There were colors of cramping and throbbing that swirled his vision, and locked him on his back while he processed the daily trial.

He took stock of the aches and their sources. Scar tissue in his back muscles caused stiffness. Spasms made his shoulders tight. He could picture his spine, one long string of stacked cuffs along a curve. The doctors had warned that he was at risk for degenerative disk disease, tapping fancy screens with the white bones against a black background.

William clenched his teeth, then forced his jaw to relax. He inhaled and exhaled, each breath a raft over the wave of aching. Slowly, so slowly, he pushed up, rolling to get vertical. There was a familiar churn in his stomach. He reached over and dumped a few antacids from the bedside table into his hand, chewing the chalky disks. A flat burst of fake berry coated his tongue, but the tablets eased his stomach of the morning queases. He didn’t rush, letting his body settle, and looked at the clock. A few minutes after five.

With a groan he got to his feet and padded into the bathroom to shower, letting the hot water loosen the last of the morning pains.

Shane starts today.

Saturday he’d spent the entire day laying out how he’d utilize the extra help, making a list of things that someone else could do, and separating out the tasks that would take more training. On Sunday he’d made another appearance at his mom’s. His bruises had finally faded enough that she deemed him acceptable company.

William shoved those memories away, firmly not in the mood to replay that particular discomfort. Today had enough discomforts without borrowing yesterday’s.

He stared at the mirror. The black eye was almost completely faded, just a light yellow tint over his temple. Any bruising left on the jawline was hidden by the beard. He turned his face left and right, then pulled out his grooming kit and unrolled it on the counter. After putting his hair up in a topknot, he combed and trimmed his beard, and rubbed in a conditioner that kept it neat. Then came two touches of sandalwood cologne. A watch dug out of a box. A fresh handkerchief, tucked in his pocket.

Minutes later the shower was wiped down, the bed was made, and his space was straightened. He headed into the living room and snapped on the weather station.

“—and it’s another hot and sunny day in the Stardew Valley,” the weatherman chirped against a map of the Ferngill region.

William relaxed a touch. Sun was good. A farmer should love rain, but he had reasons to dislike those days.

After making coffee and feeding Ingrid he stepped onto the porch. It was still dim outside, the sun creeping up the horizon. He sat and pulled on the work boots he’d cleaned the night before, then started towards the barns, going over the list of tasks he’d made for Shane.

In the last two years he’d expanded his farm, from the small dirt garden his grandfather had left behind into a sizable working machine. Half of the acreage were fields, his summer harvests close to being ready. His blueberry bushes were fat and heavy with fruit. It had taken him all his time and energy to keep ahead of the crop.

Still, the summer profits were worth the effort, and his animals took care of him financially during the winter. The surrounding area was starving for artisan cheeses and mayo. Slap the ‘organic’ label on his produce and boom—it was like printing gold. His recent brewery forays had also helped make last year extra profitable.

William paused at the barn door and looked over the dim countryside.

Solar-powered lights lined gravel paths that he’d laid down himself, and fences delineated the fields. He’d gotten a tractor last summer that cut down his tilling and sowing by a ton. It was parked in one of his barns, and he had a whole system of those. One barn for his tools and supplies. One for milking, one for calving. One for his cow’s winter quarters and overnight area. They all opened into the huge pastures where his herd spent their time. There was also his massive chicken house, up to almost a hundred birds.

Maybe…it was impressive. But William could only see all the work that needed doing.

Well, Head On, he thought, when he realized he was waffling on whether to wait for Shane or start his normal routine. After all, it was work. Not a social club.

William cut on the lights, stepping into a huge space of musty cow smells and moos. No matter how clean he kept it, that distinctive, earthy smell of livestock infused the very wood. He pulled open the doors and then the pens, funneling the herd towards the milking barn. The cows, heavy with their morning milk, started down the shoot. There was a battery-powered radio on a hook in the corner and he snapped it on, country music filtering into the big room as he hauled the milking lines used to collect the day’s dairy.

He glanced once at the door but then turned away, determined to focus and not be caught staring at it.

He’ll get here when he gets here.

With that thought firmly in mind, he got back to work.

 


 

The kitchen was dark and quiet. Shane, freshly showered, stood in the shadows of the humming refrigerator while the coffeemaker gave its final sputters. He pulled out the carafe, and by the light of the glowing blue button on the machine’s front, poured himself a mug, listening to the sizzle-hiss of the final drips on the hotplate.

Marnie bustled into the kitchen and flipped on the light. It was like she’d pulled back curtains over his dark bed to let in the sun. Shane groaned, squinting.

“First day!” she said cheerfully.

He grunted, shoving the carafe back on its plate.

She crossed to the cupboard and grabbed a mug for herself, along with a loaf of bread. “I was thinking you ought to drive the truck up to the farm.”

Shane warily watched her. “Just gonna walk.”

She held the loaf out, silently asking if he wanted some too. He shook his head.

“Well,” she said, shoving two pieces into the slots of the toaster. “It’s just that I plum forgot—Bill placed a feed order on Friday. Hunter’s working this morning, and he should have it ready by ten. Might be more convenient just to drive back and pick it up for him at that time.”

“I’ll walk.”

“Don’t be ridiculous, Shane. It’s a twenty minute walk, or a two minute drive. You’ll be on the clock remember. And I don’t need the truck today.”

Shane closed his eyes. He had his own reasons for never driving to work, but there was no good argument for this. Screw her stupid logic.

“Fine, whatever.”

Marnie rolled her eyes. “Careful not to dish out too much of that morning charm on your new boss.”

A cold spread through his body.

He’d spent all damn weekend thinking about this job. Thought about it while scrubbing the troughs of the coop and sweeping the stalls of the horse barn. While sitting through dinner conversations he couldn’t seem to follow, and after, when holed up in his bedroom to drink. All weekend twisting his stomach in knots over this damn job, over realizing he’d have to spend the day working alongside William…

…and he’d never thought about the fact that William hadn’t just given him a job. He was indeed Shane’s new boss.

The new Morris.

Shane scrubbed a hand through his hair. Coffee in hand, he turned down the hall before the conversation went on any longer. Marnie was a morning person, bouncing out of bed as if she’d spent the night prepping how many words she could fit in during the first ten minutes of the day. Even without the hangover it was maddening.

Once in his room, Shane set the mug of coffee on his dresser.  He stared down at it.

What are you gonna do now, you idiot?

When living in the city, he’d taken the bus to JojaMart. After moving to Pelican Town, he walked. He didn’t even mind walking, as it gave him an extra half hour before and after his shift to be alone before dealing with people. But what both methods had in common: Shane was not behind the wheel of a vehicle, and so his morning routine could go undisturbed.

The routine being spiking his coffee with at least three shots of whiskey.

It ironed out the cramps in his head. It eased the nausea in his gut. And on a day like today, it would’ve done a hell of a lot for his nerves.

Shane looked into the black surface of the coffee, seeing his own wavering reflection.

The shakes were coming on.

He twisted his hands in his hoodie sleeves; a forest green one today. It was that and jeans, an unusual outfit for a Monday in Shane’s world. For the first time his week was not going to be spent in the ratty blue Joja jacket and dockers, which were currently wadded up at the bottom of his hamper. If this new job was the real deal, Shane was going to chuck them into the wood stove when he got home.

If this new job was the real deal, that meant he was officially farmhand at The Bowery.

With William.

His new boss.

If, you know, he managed not to puke and chicken out in the next ten minutes.

With one hand Shane grabbed the knob of his dresser drawer. Slowly he tugged, and it glided open to reveal a jumble of underwear and socks. Tucked into them were a few glass bottles, shimmering under the harsh iridescent light of the room. There was one brand new fifth of whiskey, another with only a few inches left, and an empty pint.

He pulled out all three and unscrewed their caps. With shaking hands, he filled the little pint container full. He hid the big bottles back in the drawer, while the small one was slipped into the baggy side pocket of his jeans, where it was slim enough to be invisible. In case of emergencies. Because Shane knew himself well enough to know anxiety and panic were, categorically, emergencies. Ones he was better off not experiencing too deeply his first day.

Turning to leave the room, he caught a glimpse of his reflection above the dresser. His heart sunk.

Too bad you can’t spare William. Sorry fuck’s gonna see a lot of your ugly mug if you keep this job.

Shane resisted the urge to tear it down, with a silent promise that he’d burn the stupid mirror with his Joja uniform later.

“Have fun!” Marnie called, when he walked through the kitchen.

He scooped the keys off the counter, making a noncommittal noise in return.

The countryside was quiet and peaceful before sunrise. Marnie’s pickup was parked out front and Shane turned on the engine, a mechanical roar piercing the silence, headlights illuminating dark bushes. He sat staring into that light for several minutes with the exhaust sputtering. Finally, talking himself down from driving straight through those bushes and into the trees beyond, he shifted the truck into gear.

The dirt road was bumpy, the old pickup creaking as he drove.

He thought of the fiery burst of William’s fist in his eye.

Bounce, rattle, rattle.

William stalking Shane from behind, and the bribe of long brown necks in a cooler.

Bounce, rattle, rattle.

The scent of warm cologne, lifting from William’s skin when he leaned across Shane at the dock to grab a beer. The tight black t-shirt around his arms. The sleek blond hair, pulled back in a knot.

Bounce, rattle, rattle.

Shane’s own sorry reflection, dark bags beneath tired eyes.

Bounce, rattle, rattle.

The drive was less than a mile, over before it began, and Shane was soon parked in the gravel on the north side of the property. He cut the engine, looking over fields lit by the faint rays of dawn. It was the first time he’d ever seen it up close, despite the farm being one of the ranch’s closest neighbors. Marnie said the property had belonged to William’s grandfather, but once William took over he’d turned it from overgrown flower gardens into a booming business.

Still, nothing prepared Shane for the sheer fucking size of it.

I was right. This guy is fucking crazy. No one in their right goddamn mind would take on this much on their own.

The farmhouse was dark, but there were lights on in one of the bigger barns, and its door was wide open. Shane glanced at the watch on his trembling wrist.

Still a few minutes early.

Getting drunk on his first day would be stupid. But it’s not like his three morning shots ever got him that far. Beyond their warmth smoothing his nerves, he never even felt them. Besides, William was nowhere to be seen yet, and he was parked now, with over four hours before he had to drive again.

He slipped the whiskey from his pocket, uncapped it, and took three steady shots. Just to ease his twisting stomach—make himself fucking presentable and shit.

Shaking his head after it went down, he tucked the bottle into the center console, then rubbed his palms on his jeans to wipe away the sweat settling into their creases. He had to get out of the truck and walk over to that barn. All there was to it. Showing up late wasn’t going to make day one any easier.

Shane took a deep breath and got out of the vehicle, slamming the door behind him.