Theo Sutton had never been angrier in all his adult years. Not when his parents called him a disappointment for dropping out of college or when they predicted his life would be a failure for taking a job as a ranch hand.
With the sweat from battling the shed fire still slicking his body, and his Wranglers hanging low around his hips, he stalked into the barn.
Though silent, the space seemed to be super-charged—because the kid was hiding in here, and Theo knew it.
Tilting his head up to look at the loft, he spotted a plaid shirt sleeve before it vanished behind a hay bale. Theo had bought the kid that shirt, along with jeans, socks, boots and toiletries, put food in his belly and given him a dozen other things since Jordy had been hiding on the Bellamy Ranch as a runaway.
And how did he repay Theo for hiding him…helping him? By setting fire to the shed.
“Come out!” he barked at the kid.
No answer but the loud drum of his own heart, beating fast with fury.
“Dammit, Jordy, you better show yourself. If I come lookin’ for you, you won’t like it!” Theo braced his legs wide and sent a glare upward, hot enough to make it burst into flame like the shed.
The rustle of cloth against hay sounded, and then Jordy poked his blond head over the side of the loft. Their gazes met, and Jordy had the smarts to look away.
Theo pointed to the rough barn floor he stood on, his stance brooking no arguments about what he wanted from the kid. At fifteen, Jordy was a smart-ass little shit, but Theo overlooked those traits as teenage rebellion. But after this prank, he wasn’t so sure the kid wasn’t a common thug who’d run away from home because he was more spoiled brat than not.
Chest heaving, he watched Jordy calmly descend the ladder of the loft as if he hadn’t just committed arson—even by accident.
Theo studied the set of the boy’s shoulders—thrown back in defiance—and then the twist of his lips. Fisting his hands, Theo fought for calm, patience and understanding. All the things a parent used on a daily basis in raising children. But he wasn’t Jordy’s parent or even a relative.
“Was it you?” Theo grated out.
Jordy remained silent, though a glimmer in his eyes had Theo wondering if he’d managed to instill any love for the ranch into him.
“Gimme the truth,” he demanded. “Were you smokin’ and burnt the shed?”
His lips compressed, and for a moment, Theo thought he might break down in tears for the first time since he’d known him. His throat worked, and his face got red.
In the end, Jordy only gave a short nod.
“I assume besides burning down the shed, you’ve got thievin’ on your conscience too. Did you take cigars from Max’s belongings?”
Another small nod. He should earn points for being honest, even if Theo wanted to turn him over his knee and tan his backside.
They stared at each other.
“You want me to leave.” Jordy’s words didn’t come out as a question but as a statement.
Hell, how did he even respond to that? On one hand he was so mad he felt all his teeth might break off from grinding them so hard. On the other, the kid had nowhere to go, or he wouldn’t be hiding out on the Bellamy, unbeknownst to the owners or the rest of the ranch hands. Theo alone knew of the boy’s presence. He’d discovered him sleeping in the very shed that had burned to the ground, given him a blanket and some food.
Now, months later, Jordy had become a permanent fixture around here, though hiding was becoming more and more difficult as the ranch became more productive.
“I didn’t say you had to leave.” His voice grated with emotion he wished to hell he didn’t feel for the boy.
A glimmer resembling relief flitted through Jordy’s green eyes. His arms hung at his sides, gangly and out of place against his skinny body.
“You realize they suspect Max burned the shed.”
Jordy jerked. “What? Why?”
“Because fire doesn’t break out without a source. And since it’s a picture-postcard blue sky out there”—he waved a hand toward the barn door—“and not a storm cloud with lightning in sight, they’re accusing the only smoker on the ranch.”
“I thought I stubbed the cigar out.”
Theo swallowed his growl of irritation. “You shouldn’t be smokin’ at all!”
Jordy’s defiant streak surfaced, and he raised his jaw a notch. “I’m old enough to smoke.”
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