Bryn McClure swallowed, trying really hard not to punch her tightly clenched fists into the face of her boss. The small office sweltered in late August heat, adding misery to her fury.
“That’s my money, I earned it.”
“And I’m not saying it’s not.” The pudgy man wiped his forehead with a wrinkled handkerchief. “But the money’s not there. Hell, I can’t even afford to run the air conditioner.”
“Longer Realty is your company, Mr. Thompson. I expect you to do what it takes to cover expenses, especially my wages.”
“Well, I have to wait, you’ll have to wait. That’s all I can say.”
Bryn released her pent-up breath, her fingernails cutting holes in her palms. She should have seen this coming. “The bank won’t wait. You know the situation I’m in.”
He shook his head. “You should listen to me, girl. I told you, I’ve got a buyer lined up. We could get all this settled real quick.
“Mr. Thompson,” she began. Briefly closing her eyes, she forced back angry words. “I don’t want to sell. Most of my paycheck goes to the bank so I can hang onto the place.”
“Yeah, I know you’ve got big dreams of keeping it, family land, and all that. But I can’t make money appear in the company bank account, now can I?” His eyes shifted, glancing up and down her body. “I might could be persuaded to borrow money for you, though, if you were to have that drink with me.”
Bryn turned toward the door. Not one more minute, one more second. If anyone had warned her about this man, she wouldn’t have believed it. How could anyone be this big of an ass? She swallowed again, refusing to dissolve into tears.
“You should have told me you wouldn’t have my pay. I could’ve tried to make money some other way.” Her voice rose, and she bit her lip. One look at his unapologetic face and she knew she was wasting her time. “I plan to make some calls about this. I think it’s against the law to not pay someone.”
He laughed. “Maybe it is, but you can’t get blood out of a stone, Ms. McClure.”
A few choked sobs escaped Bryn as she drove around the small town to put in fresh job applications. Most of the people remembered her; it had only been a few months since she’d made the circuit before getting hired by Mr. Thompson. So frustrating, so infuriating to exert all the effort, the day after day grind trying to keep it together, earn a paltry wage, put it out there, only to end up in this hopeless position. Again.
Really, she could hardly believe it.
And that man made her skin crawl. She wouldn’t be surprised if he lied about the money so he could coerce her for personal favors. The idea of selling the McClure family farm to him or his client made her nauseated.
She’d been so thrilled, so grateful, to be the heir. And she’d done nothing but screw up ever since. If she lost the place… She shut the thought out of her mind.
The narrow winding road climbed another hill as she neared the farm, and she belatedly remembered the things she had planned to do in town. When she thought she’d have money. Her granddad’s old truck barely had enough gas for another trip, but she had zero, well, a dollar-eighty, in her bank account. All the bills were due. The mortgage—her stomach churned, remembering the loan officer’s regretful tone when he spelled out the process. Foreclosure. She knew what it meant.
For months she had haunted the various businesses in the area, trying to make enough money to survive. These rural north Arkansas towns didn’t offer much—a grocery, auto repair shops, a medical clinic, a branch bank, all typically staffed by someone who knew someone. Or the manager’s niece. Most of the people who lived in the area lived on retirement income. A few operated big corporate chicken houses. Some drove the distance to jobs in bigger towns.
If she still had a car, she’d do that, too. But like everything she had worked for, saved for, in the last six years, or really, even before that, taking out student loans for a degree in bookkeeping so she’d have a reliable career, it was gone now, blown up, blasted to hell, by the one person she had thought she could depend on more than anyone else in the world, Ethan Marshall. As in, Ethan, her former husband, the biggest jerk ever to walk the earth.
A year before, when she first escaped St. Louis, Ethan, and the nightmare her life there had become, she had felt so happy. She loved the old farm, and loved the idea of living there. Right away she found a great job in town. Perfect, actually, a full time desk job handling all the bookkeeping for a tractor and implement business. Things were slow, her boss kept saying, but he expected with spring, sales would improve. And even though she clearly saw the company accounts receiving almost no deposits, for some reason she kept believing. She even accepted paychecks that contained far less than her earnings, with his promise that when business picked up, she’d get the rest. Then, boom! he walked in one May morning and announced he’d filed for bankruptcy.
How could this keep happening? Did she have ‘kick me’ tattooed on her forehead?
The beautiful Ozarks stood all around her, each row of mountains slightly lighter blue fading into the summer haze. In the near distance, green thickets of wooded land followed the contours of the hills. Overhead, a few puffs of white cloud dotted the intensely blue sky. Down the slope ahead, her granddad’s old farmhouse sat tucked under gnarled oaks thick with dark green leaves. It was a scene she never tired of, so deeply connected to herself that the changes of season also changed her, as if she herself was the land.
Her empty stomach rumbled as she wrangled the old truck down the driveway, pulled into the carport behind the house, and turned off the ignition. For a few minutes, she sat in the truck listening to the engine tick. Her thoughts circled, chasing from one dead end to another. Maybe it was hopeless trying to earn a living here. Maybe the bank would foreclose and she’d have to sell and spend the rest of her life in some tiny apartment in a city, working a cubicle job, never able to trust herself with another significant decision.
At twenty-eight years, her life was a complete failure.
Scrubbing her wet eyes with the back of her hand, she climbed the kitchen steps into the house.