Axel Hansen stopped whistling and stared in disbelief at the text he’d just received from his brother, Gunnar.
G: I thought you said we had interns arriving from K-State not scientists from CPARC
“What in the hell is CPARC?” The phone buzzed again.
G: Pops says they’re arriving in 20?
“Jesus.” Axel gripped the phone harder, wishing like heck he could toss it into the nearest water trough. So much for enjoying a quick swim in the creek before his interns arrived. He’d been looking forward to a dip in the icy water all morning, too. He could always count on Pops putting a damper on his fun.
If he sorted this quickly, maybe he could at least stick his feet in the water for five minutes. Enjoy the fresh spring air and breathe in a little peace and calm before channeling the frenetic energy of college kids. He might not have the same tireless energy as an undergrad, but he wasn’t too old to inject a little fun into each day. Have a few laughs. Why work if it couldn’t be fun too? He glanced at the time as he stalked out of the bunkhouse in search of Gunn and Pops. Maybe luck would be on his side. He tapped his phone.
A: Where are you?
G: Training arena.
A: On my way
Axel jammed the phone in his pocket and tried to rein in the stream of irritation shooting through him. Of course Pops was interfering in his decisions again. Ruining his perfect balance of fun and hard work. Why should he expect something different? “He’s still in charge,” Axel spoke to a horse munching lazily in the paddock.
And Eddie Hansen would be until the day he finally decided to let Axel and Gunnar buy him out. Axel had been waiting ten years to take over the ranch operations with his brother. To update and innovate. And for ten years he’d struggled under the hawkeye of his overbearing father. Been undermined and bossed like he was still an unruly teenager. And today would be no different.
By the time Axel reached the arena, he’d clamped down on his ire enough to have a conversation, although it simmered just under the surface. Going at Pops head on never worked. Humor was the only way he’d ever managed to deal with his father. Especially when Pops got a burr stuck up his a*s. For starters, it beat breaking things with his fist. And Pops wouldn’t listen to him anyway, so why give the old man the satisfaction of knowing he’d gotten under Axel’s skin?
The arena door stood wide open and Axel paused a moment just inside to let his eyes adjust to the dim interior. His dad and brother stood on the far side of the arena, heads bent together. A thread of worry snaked through him, which he immediately brushed away. Maybe this time Gunn would help deflect some of the tension that always seemed to arise between them. He squared his shoulders, put on his cheeriest smile, and called out as he crossed the empty space. “What’s going on, Pops? We’ve got interns coming later this afternoon. Gunn says we have scientists too?”
Eddie Hansen’s blonde head snapped up. “That’s not my problem, son. That was your harebrained idea.”
“You mean hosting interns was my brilliant idea,” Axel grinned, letting his mouth stretch a little wider. “Which I ran by you three months ago.”
Eddie’s eyes widened in disbelief.
“At poker night with Uncle Warren.” Axel stroked his chin, ignoring the press of frustration below his collarbone. “I seem to recall you saying it was a great idea then.” Of course, Pops might have had three beers in him and was feeling pretty relaxed when Axel had broached the subject, but he still should have remembered. He remembered the deals he made over poker games, why not this?
“Hmph.” Eddie answered dismissively, and turned back to the clipboard Gunnar held. “You’ll have to call them off.”
These arguments always felt worse in front of Gunnar. Gunnar the golden child. Gunnar the perfect. A tendril of jealousy licked through him. He loved his brother, had worshipped him when they were kids. And that was part of the problem – everyone loved Gunn.
But him? He was an afterthought. The sidekick. The joker. And no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t shake that perception.
But he was sure as hell going to try again today.
Axel bit his tongue and counted to three. “I can’t, pops,” he said evenly – a win given how close he was to blowing his stack. But he’d never throw a temper tantrum. Not in front of Pops or Gunn, or anyone else for that matter. It was bad for relationships and business. And he’d never give either of them the satisfaction of losing his cool. Not today, not ever. “I won’t,” he amended. “It would be bad PR for us.”
That got Eddie’s attention. It was the only card Axel had to play today, but it would be enough. His father was prideful. Overly prideful, so he pressed his point. “How would it look to the alumni association that one of their biggest donors bailed out on a bunch of interns?” Axel let that sink in. The K-State community was small, and Hansen stables relied on many alums for business.
“Furthermore,” Axel continued, “they’re giving us a stipend. Are these scientists from CCRAP paying you?”
Gunnar sniggered. At least someone thought his joke was funny.
Eddie scowled. “Hold on a fat second, son. Zack Forte is a personal friend and I’m doing this as a favor to him.”
“And he’s a gazillionaire who can afford to pay you a little something for your trouble,” Axel countered, his voice becoming more clipped. “A lot of something.”
“He buys our livestock. That’s enough.”
Axel shook his head tsking. “This is why we’re barely in the black. You gotta think with the business brain.” He tapped his temple, giving his father a saucy wink. “I mean, we all know you’ve got a man crush on the dude, but seriously… didn’t you always teach us to think with the brain up here?”
Gunnar snorted, covering a laugh.
Eddie’s eyes flashed. “What are you saying, Son? That I don’t know how to run my ranch?” Eddie’s voice grew cold.
Goddammit. He’d pushed his father too far. Again. Axel stretched his hand at his side to avoid making a fist. He knew better than to take on his father when the steely glint flashed in his eyes. “You know that’s not what I meant.”
Eddie’s hard gaze swept between Axel and his brother. “Let me remind you boys I’m still in charge here, and I will be until the day I’m ready to let you buy me out.”
Axel rolled his eyes. He hated it when his dad pulled the boss card. Hamstrung his ideas for innovation or cost-cutting. He clamped his jaw down, grinding his teeth. He was thirty-two for chrissakes. Not a kid anymore. How much longer was he going to have to wait before he could run things the way he saw fit? “And when’s that gonna be, Pops? Gunn and I aren’t getting any younger.”
Eddie narrowed his eyes. “You can start by settling down. We’ve got a legacy to pass on, and all you two are concerned with is joking around.”
“That’s all Axe,” Gunn offered with a little smirk.
“Aww, c’mon.” Heat raced up Axel’s spine. “You’re not all business, and you know it. You can have fun and still have a good business.” These conversations exhausted him. They happened so often he could predict what would be said next.
Eddie crossed his arms, mouth flattening. “You two don’t like the way I run things? No one’s keeping you here.”
Axel clamped his jaw and took a slow breath, hands on his hips. There was the rub. No one was keeping him here. His dad had made it perfectly clear for years that he was welcome to leave if he didn’t like it. But there was a cost to leaving Eddie had laid out years ago that was unacceptable to Axel. So he’d stuck it out, chomping at the bit to be his own man.
Axel’s heart thudded heavily against his ribs. He loved his family more than anything. Losing them wasn’t an option. “You’re right, Pops.” It hurt him to say that, but he’d just have to keep trying to find a way to be at peace with his dad’s decisions. Especially when they conflicted with his own. Resignation sank through him. “I’ll figure something out.” He spun on his heel and stalked out of the arena, mind spinning with alternatives. If he was successful at one thing, it was coming up with new ideas. His brain teemed with them.
The bright sunshine momentarily blinded him and he reached for the sunglasses he kept in his breast pocket as he dialed his sister.
“’Sup Axe?” Hope’s voice held a cheerful lilt.
Axel couldn’t help but smile. Married life suited his sister. She’d softened in all the right ways and her confidence was contagious.
“I’m hoping you can help me out of a jam.”
She chuckled low. “Let me guess, Pops have you over a barrel again?”
“Something like that.”
Her voice grew serious. “You don’t have to stay, Axe. Everyone can see you’ve only got a half a heart in your work.”
“You would too, if the rug was pulled out from under you at every turn.” Bitterness rose in his throat. “He won’t take me seriously.”
“Welcome to the club,” she said wryly. “But you don’t exactly make it easy. It’s not like you take anything very seriously.”
That chapped him. “What else am I going to do? Why shouldn’t we have fun? What’s the point if we’re not?”
“Exactly. What is the point, Axe? You don’t have to stay.”
Except that he did. Eddie was so hung up on a Hansen legacy he’d made it clear that if Axel wanted a future stake in Hansen Stables, he’d not only have to stay, but produce an heir. With Eddie it was all or nothing. Axel reached the training pen on the far side of the complex and paused, kicking at the post.
“I’ve sunk the last ten years of my life into the stables. And Dad would disown me. And now that Maddie has a baby…”
Hope snorted. “He didn’t disown me.”
“You’re a girl.”
“You’re a sexist. Now, do you want my help or not?”
“I’ve got four students from K-State set to arrive later this afternoon for a two month internship. Dad informed me that there are two scientists coming from Zack Forte’s group and he’s insisting we put them up here.”
His stomach sank at the hesitation in her voice. “I know. It’s a big inconvenience, but I’ll make it worth your while. K-State is providing us a generous stipend. It’s yours. It should more than cover room and board.”
He hated losing the stipend. Worse, he hated asking his little sister for help. He was the one who was supposed to take care of her, have her back. Not ask her to bail him out. He scrubbed a hand across his jaw. “Any chance you have room over there?”
“Ben is down by the creek today putting the finishing touches on the tree houses. They’d have to double up because we already have bird watchers lined up for two of them… and they’ll be… rustic.”
“I’ll take it.” Relief washed over him. One crisis averted, at least. Question was, when would his dad cause another? Because there would be another, and he’d be the one looking bad. Again. His throat tightened at the knowledge.
“Axe?” Hope’s voice cut through.
“What?” he barked, then instantly regretted his tone of voice. Hope was throwing him a rope, not chastising him.
“I think you need to settle down. You need the gentle touch of a good woman, Axe.”
He rolled his eyes, not missing the laughter in her voice. “Your sarcasm is not appreciated.”
“Give as good as you can get, brother dear.”
Oh, she was enjoying this. Ever since she’d married Ben at Christmas, she’d taken every opportunity to needle him and Gunnar about settling down.
“Why don’t you worry more about producing the heir Pops wants?”
“It’s more fun worrying about you.” Her voice turned serious. “And speaking of, you need to worry more about what you want out of your future instead of pleasing Pops. Blink and you’ll be forty. Then what?”
She was right. Then what? Would he end up a crusty old codger like his uncle Warren? “You can take out an ad for me in Rancher’s Monthly.”
“Ha. Ha. Be careful what you wish for, Axe.”
“Don’t have time for that now. I think Forte’s men just arrived. Gotta run.”
Hope clicked off, and he stayed at the rail, listening to a vehicle skid to a stop at the top of the hill where they kept their trucks.
Just what they needed around the stables. Two crazy-assed scientists tearing up the freshly graded drive. Or worse, spooking the horses.
Best put on a smile and make them feel welcome. Zack Forte had been a valuable client over the years, and Axel didn’t want to piss Forte off any more than his dad did. He was just going to have to make the best of a shitty situation. But he’d be damned if he hurried his a*s up the hill to fall all over them with a welcome mat. No harm in letting them cool their heels.
He shot off a text to Gunnar letting him know their ‘special’ guests had arrived, adjusted his aviators, and trudged up the hill. Might as well get the meet and greet over with so he could get back to his day.
God, he’d need to hit the Trading Post tonight for nothing else than to release a head of steam and maybe find a pretty lady to help him take off the edge. He never suffered for female company, but it had been years since he’d been serious about anyone. Maybe Hope was right. Maybe it was time for him to settle down. Too bad there was no one in Prairie that held his attention for more than a moment.
As he rounded the corner at the top of the drive, he stopped short. Unless he was sorely mistaken, the khaki covered a*s that pointed skyward as its owner reached for something inside, was no man’s.
It was a lovely a*s. Round and shapely. Just the kind of a*s that always got him fired up in all the right places. And inevitably made him think of Haley Cooper – Coop. Because nobody had an a*s as perfect as Coop’s.
His body stirred at the thought of her, and he braced himself for the inevitable sharp twist of pain that always followed. He’d had ten years to get used to it, brace for it – the stirring followed by the hurt. But it still had a way of creeping up on him. He brushed it away like the annoying horsefly it was. Her loss. She was the one who’d left without a backward glance.
He kept telling himself that, but he’d never believed it. It was definitely his loss, too. But they’d made their choices, and for ten years he’d shoved the ache to the recesses of his consciousness. But every time he thought about anything more serious than a casual affair, she was there with her smoke black hair and dark sparkly eyes. Poking at him. Reminding him that love costs. And every time, he said ‘no thanks’, and moved on.
Scowling, he gave himself a shake. No more memory lane this morning. But he couldn’t help the way his pulse kicked up a notch as he perused the pair of shapely legs stretched before him. Maybe having a scientist or two hanging around the ranch wouldn’t be so bad after all. As the figure backed out of the car and turned to stand, his gut clenched, and adrenaline surged through him, buzzing in his ears and blanking his mind.
He went hot, then cold.
“What the hell are you doing here?”