Copyright © 2011 Robin L. Rotham
All rights reserved — a Samhain Publishing, Ltd. publication
“She’s giving me that starved puppy look again.”
Joe’s murmur made Brent look up from his laptop. They sat across from each other at the dinette, and if his back weren’t to AJ, he might have checked her out covertly. But he didn’t really need to—she’d directed a similar look his way several times in the last few weeks.
“Is that a problem?” he asked in a low voice. The RV wasn’t the best place for this conversation, especially with AJ sitting right behind them, but she had the TV turned up loud enough to drown them out.
Joe rubbed his knuckles on his unshaven cheek. “It might be if you don’t find someplace else for her to bunk.”
Brent studied the man who’d been his right hand and best friend for over six years. He’d never seen Joe this on edge. His jaw was tense, his blue eyes furtive, and his dark brown hair stood on end as if he’d been shoving his hands through it for the last hour while Brent was absorbed in his bookwork. When had he gone so salt-and-pepper? Even his moustache and beard stubble glinted with a considerable helping of silver.
Actually, it was kind of surprising that AJ would be so attracted to a man showing as much wear as Joe did. Big, gruff and work-hardened, he looked older than his forty-seven years. Her attraction to Brent made more sense—he was younger, fairly laid-back and had the kind of lean blond looks that had attracted a lot of ladies over the years.
“You think so?” he asked doubtfully. “She seems more like the type to just lust from afar rather than put the moves on a guy she works with.”
“It’s not her moves I’m worried about.”
Brent narrowed his eyes. “Don’t tell me you’re interested.”
“You’re way out of her league.”
He hadn’t intended it to be a warning, but that was how it came out. At thirty-four, AJ Pender might not be in the first blush of womanhood, but she was quiet, reserved and obviously still young and innocent in all the ways that counted. She wouldn’t have the least idea what to do if guys like them took her up on the unconscious offer in her eyes, and he’d just as soon it stayed that way.
“Tell me about it,” Joe said impatiently. After another quick glance at AJ, he said, “Let’s get out of here. I need a drink.”
Brent shut down his laptop without hesitation. Shoving the receipts back into their file folder, he stood up and unbuckled his belt to take off his pliers holster while Joe did the same. After he’d tucked the tail of his flannel shirt back into his jeans, he turned to look at AJ. The lanky blonde farmhand was curled up on one end of the couch in a baggy sweatshirt and faded jeans, dividing her attention between her own laptop and some medical drama on TV. Judging by the lack of keyboarding sounds, she’d been mostly reading rather than writing.
If he were polite, he’d ask her to go along with them. Instead he asked, “Whatcha readin’, AJ?”
Red flags appeared on her cheeks as she looked up, and she put on hand on the laptop’s lid as if she intended to slam it down if anyone came near enough to see what was on the screen. “Um, nothing. I mean, nothing much. Just an e-book. They’re a lot easier to carry around than a stack of paperbacks,” she hurried to explain.
“An e-book, huh?” He tried not to grin. “We know someone who writes e-books, don’t we, Joe?”
“We sure do,” Joe drawled, shrugging into his jacket. “Ever read anything by Amanda Garrity?”
AJ’s blue eyes widened. “You know Amanda Garrity?”
“Yup,” Brent said. “So you’ve read her books?”
He wouldn’t have thought it possible, but she turned even redder. “Well, um, I think I, uh—”
“That’s okay, honey.” Brent winked at her. “We won’t tell anyone if you don’t.”
Instead of protesting her innocence, AJ just let her eyes slide to the TV and chewed on her lower lip. The confirmation that she read dirty books drew his balls up tight.
Ignoring the reaction, he said, “So we’re headed to town. Need anything?”
“Not unless you can get me a new pair of boots at the bar,” she said without looking at him. She was obviously uncomfortable with their knowing about her choice of reading material. It made him think, though. If AJ read the kind of books Mandy wrote, maybe she would know what to do if one of them—or both of them—put the moves on her.
Don’t go there. You don’t fuck the hired hands, remember?
But Joe had been known to once in a great while. It wasn’t a comforting thought.
Her words finally registered and he asked, “You need boots?”
“Yeah, I knocked the corner off a heel this morning. But that’s all right,” she said, keeping her eyes glued the television. “I’ll pick up a pair when we go through Sioux Falls.”
“Okay then—guess we’ll see you tomorrow,” he said, snagging his jacket and cap off the hook by the door.
She didn’t look up. “Have a good time.”
They were both silent until they got into the truck and then Joe blew out a loud breath. “Well, I didn’t see that coming.”
Brent started up the engine. “Me neither.”
“Shit, why do I feel bad about leaving her there?”
“I don’t know. She seemed glad enough to see us go,” he said with a grin, pulling away from the camper. They could have walked, since the RV park was less than a mile from the bar, but driving everywhere was an ingrained habit. He’d never lived anyplace he didn’t have to drive at least a couple of miles to borrow a cup of sugar from a neighbor.
“Yeah, but she spends too much time alone.”
“That’s her choice, Joe. She knew when she hired on with a custom farming crew that she’d probably be the only woman.” And he tried to show her as little deference as possible for exactly that reason. If he treated her with kid gloves, she’d probably be uncomfortable and the guys would be resentful.
When she’d reported for work at their North Platte job in September, hiring packet in hand and a laptop and duffel bag slung over her shoulders, he’d just about shit a brick. What the hell was Brenda thinking, sending a woman up here? And why the hell hadn’t she warned him?
Well, the answer to that last one was obvious—he’d have vetoed her choice of hire without even giving AJ Pender a chance and Brenda knew it. It was just asking for trouble to put single women on custom farming crews. Hell, the quarters were tight enough already without tossing a decent-looking female into the mix, especially one who wasn’t related to any of the crew. But if he voiced that opinion in the wrong place, to the wrong person, he’d have the ACLU, the IRS, the SPCA, NASA and every other alphabet soup organization under the sun up his ass—assuming he still had an ass after Mandy and Brenda were through with him.
But instead of sending her off, he’d looked AJ over from her crown of short, pale curls to the toes of her scuffed work boots and asked, “So what does AJ stand for?”
“None of your business,” she replied, radiating tension. “I take it you were expecting a man?”
Wisely, he’d held his tongue and given himself a minute to consider the situation. He’d been happy enough with her qualifications when Brenda emailed him her application, and she had that look about her that always got to him when he was interviewing displaced farmers.
“Yeah, I was,” he finally said. “But I’ll get over it. I hope you weren’t expecting a ladies-only camper.”
“No sir. I expect to be treated just like everyone else.”
He pointed to his pickup. “In that case, you can stow your gear in the backseat for the time being and take over for Seth Dietz running that grain cart.”
He’d planned on AJ bunking in with Seth and his younger brother Tim, but that was when he thought she was probably another young horndog. The only viable option was to put her in with Joe, who made no bones about his preference for lovers who disappeared before the sun came up the next morning. Brent had been prepared for Joe to grumble a little about having to share the bunkroom, but instead he’d just smirked and said, “You’re the boss.” That’s when it had dawned on him that AJ’s presence in their camper protected more than just her.
“Come on.” Joe’s skeptical voice cut into Brent’s musings. “You know she wouldn’t be here if she’d had any other halfway agreeable choice.”
Brent sighed as he pulled into the gravel lot behind the Shady Shanty. Joe was right. AJ didn’t say much, but she shared a little here and there—enough for them to know that her mother had died of cancer when she was in high school and she’d farmed with her daddy until he had a stroke. The man had spent months in the hospital before dying and his land had been sold off to pay the medical bills. Probably all she’d had left was her pride, something most farmers had in spades.
Farming had been a risky proposition since the beginning of time, but it was also rewarding in a way few jobs were these days. It afforded a man—or a woman—the kind of independence that was hard to give up. After running his own custom farming business for so many years, Brent thought he’d probably rather just end it all than spend the rest of his life flipping burgers in some fast food joint, so he’d understood and sympathized with AJ’s desire to join his crew.
Seeing her squared shoulders and the proud set to her chin that first day, he’d known she was fully prepared for him to show her the door. If he’d gone that route, she wouldn’t have cried or thrown a tantrum or threatened him with legal action like a lot of women would have—she’d have given a short nod and headed back down the road with her head held high, then looked for another crew to join.
It was her desperate pride that had finally clinched it for him. He couldn’t turn her away. He’d had to give her a chance to prove herself, and so far, she’d done a damn fine job of it.