Ben chuckled. “If anyone asks, let’s tell them we’re too busy fucking like rabbits to find someone decent to settle down with.”
“I swear if anything remotely close to that leaves your lips, Bennett McKay, the only thing you’ll be fucking in the very near future is your fist.”
“Understood.” He smirked. “Come on. You can ride with me.”
“Wouldn’t it be better if I drove? So if it gets too uncomfortable I can leave?”
“Why do you think I wanna give you a ride? That’ll give me an excuse to leave too.”
Ainsley convinced him to stop and pick up flowers for his mother, so they were late.
As he sensed the questioning looks from his family members, Ben realized it’d been fucking idiotic, lying to Ainsley, telling her that he didn’t want to show up at his folk’s place, acting like she was his girlfriend. He wanted to hold her hand and lead her through the maze of relatives, introducing her as his. He wanted to sneak a kiss from her in the food line. He wanted…so much more than she did, apparently, because his question about her going just as his friend had been a test of sorts, but he wasn’t sure which one of them had failed it.
He watched as she made the rounds with his family, so beautiful and confident and real. For the first time he allowed himself to wonder what would happen when the month was up. Would Ainsley be interested in seeing more of him? And if so, did she want him as Bennett, the man who took great pleasure in awakening her darker sexual needs? Or would she want Ben, the rancher? Maybe she’d want neither and she’d just walk away. That made him want to punch something.
Ben stared out the dining room window to the darkness beyond, mentally planning his weekly to-do list instead of obsessively watching Ainsley. A hand clapped him on the back and he stiffened. He hated Steve Talbot’s fake show of camaraderie.
“Ben. Good to see you.”
“Talbot. Thanks for comin’.”
“I wouldn’t miss it for the world.” Steve tossed a glance over his shoulder. “But I’ll admit I’m surprised you brought my competitor to a family event.”
Ben couldn’t very well point out the fact Steve wasn’t family and he was here. “The community event was Ainsley’s brain child, so she should be here. Besides, Chase wouldn’t have had any local recognition if not for Ainsley’s efforts on behalf of National West.”
“She is…determined to fit into the community right away, isn’t she? That might be seen as trying too hard. Being too aggressive. Few folks around here like a pushy woman like that.”
His brain urged him not to take the bait, but his mouth had already gulped the hook. “That’s a damn sight better than not tryin’ at all.”
Steve’s laugh was forced. “I see the lovely Miss Hamilton has a champion in you, Ben.”
“I just don’t find fault with supporting a hard worker—regardless of gender.” A phrase that had never applied to Steve Talbot. With that, Ben walked away.
Hopefully his prickly behavior with Talbot wouldn’t bite him in the ass if he needed to call on the man for a loan. Made Ben shudder to give that man more power and leverage over him.
He snagged a soda and found a spot in the dining room where he could keep an eye on Ainsley in case she needed rescuing.
Right. You just wanna watch her ass wiggle in that sexy tight skirt.
As soon as Tell and Dalton saw he was alone, they approached him. Tell spoke first. “So you got any news for us?”
“I haven’t talked to Rielle yet.”
“Why the hell not?” Dalton demanded.
“Because she can be prickly as a damn cactus. Any time I’ve seen her, she’s in one of them moods.”
“That’s because everything is closing in on her.” Tell leaned closer. “You need to get this deal done, Ben. Soon.”
He was half tempted to tell them to take a shot at talking to her if they thought it was so fucking easy. “I get that.”
“Do you?” Dalton’s gaze flicked to the banker. “What were you and Talbot talking about?”
“Nothing important. Why?”
“We were just wondering if you were asking him about a loan, to cover, you know, your portion. Because if this is about money, we can front you some cash—”
“It’s not about money. Jesus.” His cheeks heated. “I said I’d take care of it.”
“See that you do because we don’t wanna lose out on this,” Tell warned.
Then they took off, leaving Ben to brood.
Fifteen minutes later, Chase slumped against the wall next to him. “You been hidin’ over here the whole time?”
“Hiding.” Ben snorted. “As if anyone could hide in here. I’m glad Mom and Dad built that three-season room or we’d only get to invite half the family.”
“Neither of us would’ve minded that.”
“True. But Mom’s really happy everyone is at our place for a change. Seems we’ve always had to go to Uncle Carson’s house for get-togethers.”
Chase sipped his beer. “How much do you think Mom’s happiness has to do with Gavin showing up?”
“Some, I reckon. But I also figure that’s the reason the whole fam-damly is here. To get a good look at him. No offense, bro.”
“That’s what I thought too. I still think it’s weird he ain’t stayin’ here. Especially since Mom and Dad stayed at his place in Arizona.”
“You and Ava ain’t stayin’ here either,” Ben pointed out.
“You can’t fault me’n the missus for wanting to stay in Kane’s trailer, since it holds special significance for us.” He waggled his eyebrows.
“Right. You and Ava are afraid Mom and Dad will hear you two havin’ loud sex all night long.”
Chase shot him a sideways glance. “We are newlyweds. Besides, maybe me’n the missus are afraid we’ll hear the folks havin’ wall-thumping sex all night long.”
“Now I’ll have to scrub my brain with scotch to erase that image. And gee, ain’t it cute how you’re always calling Ava the missus now?”
“Fuck off. We’ll see how you act when you fall in love with the woman of your dreams. You won’t wanna wait to put a ring on her finger and call her yours.” Chase hadn’t let grass grow under his feet where Ava was concerned. As soon as she’d agreed to marry him, he’d whisked her off to Hawaii for a private ceremony on the beach.
“I doubt I’ll ever get married.” Ben’s gaze automatically sought out Ainsley. She was talking animatedly with his Uncle Carson and Uncle Cal. And she didn’t miss a beat when Steve Talbot horned in on their conversation. What a rude asshole.
“You seem to know the new bank prez pretty well.”
“Sundance is a small town.”
“So there’s nothin’ goin’ on between you and the banker?” Chase asked.
Ben curbed his intent to remind Chase that Ainsley had a name beyond the banker. “Nothin’ worth mentioning.”
“That wasn’t really an answer. You lyin’ to me? Or just lyin’ to yourself?”
Both. “It’s not something I can talk about, okay? Can we just leave it at that?”
“I guess. But I’ll remind you of all the times you felt entitled to poke your nose in my love life.” He laughed. “Although, to be honest, it only became a love life after I met the love of my life.”
“Don’t you mean the missus?” Ben made soft kissing noises.
“Jesus, you’re an asshole sometimes. And nice try, deflecting my questions. I just wanted to throw out that anytime you wanna talk about this, or anything else…just call me. I owe you, for all the times you pulled my head outta my ass.”
“Thanks, Chase. I appreciate it.”
“I ain’t one to brag, but I’ve gotten good at this touchy feely shit since meeting my Ava Rose.” Chase belched. “Speakin’ of…gotta see what my missus is up to.”
Ben had a strange pang of jealousy when Chase swept Ava into his arms and plopped her on his lap, kissing her soundly. They were so in love, so attuned to each other—so oblivious to assorted family members shouting at them to get a room.
He had time to study how his family clustered together. His cousin’s wives, Channing, Macie, AJ, Ginger and India had babies propped on their hips. His mom, Aunt Carolyn and Aunt Kimi were carting around their grandkids. Tell, Dalton, Brandt and Jessie had formed their own group in the living room corner. The rest of his cousins were outside because it was damn hot in here. The horde of kids running in and out every ten seconds hadn’t done much to cool the place off.
No one bothered him. The groups shifted. He saw his sister-in-law Libby bustling around in the kitchen with Domini and Skylar. No surprise Keely had cornered Gavin, but from the looks of it, Gavin was holding his own.
He realized while amusing himself with his family’s antics, he’d lost track of Ainsley. He turned and there she was. “Hey. I was wondering where you’d gone off to.”
“I’ve been behind you the last fifteen minutes.”
“It’d be easy to get overlooked in this family, wouldn’t it?”
Ben let her insightful comment pass. “You’re welcome to share my section of wall if you don’t mind bein’ overlooked.”
“Thank you.” She scooted next to him, but not right next to him. “You’re pretty quiet around your family.”
“Sorta hard to get a word in edgewise, if you hadn’t noticed,” he said dryly.
“I met Quinn. He’s…reserved.”
“Only around people he doesn’t know.”
She blinked at him. “He doesn’t know his family? Because he hasn’t said much to them either.”
He shrugged. “It’s always been that way with us.”