Elizabeth Benson rangthe front bell of the Endeavour Ranch’s main house. No one answered.
Flecks of ice stung her cheeks. She shrugged deeper into her fleece-lined coat and contemplated her next move—getting out of the wind. As a Chicago-born native, she was no stranger to raw, rainy weather, but late March in Montana on a cold, blustery day certainly gave her hometown a run for its money.
She’d been treated like royalty the moment she’d entered the FBO executive lounge at Chicago O’Hare International Airport. The private plane had been a nice touch. From Billings-Logan International, she’d transferred to a charter flight that had flown her to the small Custer County airfield outside of Grand, Montana, where a cab had been waiting for her.
Then the cab driver abandoned her here, in the middle of nowhere, with the sky’s low-hanging, gray belly due to explode any second.
“There’s always someone about,” he’d cheerfully informed her while waving away her attempt to give him a tip. “No need for that. Bill’s been paid.”
She rang the doorbell again, leaning a little heavier on it this time. Still nothing, which didn’t make sense. Why go to all the expense and trouble of flying her from Chicago to Montana for a job interview, then not be here to greet her?
She tried the door, which was unlocked, and peered inside. Calling this Goliath a house was like calling the Grand Canyon a crevice. An enormous lounge with a high-beamed ceiling and stone floor unfolded before her. Other than heavy leather furniture and a big-screen TV, it was empty and silent. On the other side of the lounge was an office. The door was open and the lights were off. Also empty. Since the lounge space appeared communal, not private, she dragged her suitcase inside. No one responded when she called out.
Her bootheels echoed off stone as she crossed the room to one of three imposing doors. A brass panel on the first door read,Dan McKillop. Since Dan was the person who’d arranged for her interview, she rang the bell next to the brass panel. No answer. Of course there wasn’t. She rang the next bell.Dallas Tucker. No one here either. She was beginning to feel a lot like Goldilocks. The third door belonged to Ryan O’Connell, the man she was here to see. No one home here, either.
The lounge area had a public restroom, so that took care of her most pressing concern. When she emerged, she debated curling up in one of the leather armchairs for a nap and completing the whole fairy-tale image. Eventually, someone would find her. This was a working ranch, after all, and while she didn’t know much about ranching, she did know that the odd assortment of outbuildings she’d seen as she’d driven up the long drive in the cab had to support some sort of labor.
Therefore, discounting an apocalypse, the entire ranch couldn’t possibly be deserted at three-fifteen in the afternoon. The cab driver hadn’t thought so either, but since he’d been prepaid and there was no reason to put himself out, his opinion was suspect.
She tucked her bags out of sight between two leather chairs—she didn’t care how deserted the place seemed—and again braved the fierce, icy wind raging outside that suggested the aforementioned apocalypse should not be ruled out. Chicago weather had nothing on this.
She covered her face with the sleek suede sleeve of her jacket and leaned into the wind as she battled her way to the first outbuilding. Inside, the shed smelled of grease, oil, and rust. Two boys, who had to be junior high students, not cowhands, glanced up as she entered.
“I’m looking for Ryan O’Connell,” she said.
“He’s in the calving shed, next to the heifer pen,” one boy replied. He pointed to his right. Both boys went back to their task, which appeared to be tearing an engine apart, letting her know they’d given her all the directions she was likely to need.
Armed with this new information, Elizabeth backed out of the shed and into a flurry of wet, giant-flaked snow that clung to her eyelashes and melted upon contact with her cheeks. She’d heard blizzards weren’t rare in the spring. It seemed the rumors were true.
And a heifer was some sort of cow, right?
She scanned the yard. To her left—in the direction the boy indicated—she spied a cluster of brown and black humps coated in white, bunched up to a fence, their skinny tails to the wind. A sloped shed with more of the ubiquitous steel siding butted the enclosure. She leaned into the wind and fought her way to the door of the shed. The slickened, muddy ground turned to ice under her feet and she slipped as she forced the sliding door open, saved from tumbling to her knees by her grip on the vertical handle.
“Close the damn door!” someone barked.
She regained her footing along with her composure and did as commanded. The warm interior of the calf shed was a welcome respite from the storm despite the frigid tone of its occupant. A barrage of foreign invaders attacked the inside of her nose. The scent of sweet-smelling hay mingled with urine and dust. The tang of manure with an overlay of coppery blood. Antiseptic—which quite frankly, was wasting its time.
A bright, overhead bulb spotlighted the scene. A dark-haired man crouched on his heels at the back end of a prone cow, one arm wedged well up under her tail, while the cow moaned her opinion in unhappy terms. Since he was the only person here, he had to be Ryan O’Connell. Her first impression of him was of dark, single-focused intensity wrapped up in excrement-splattered, heavy, blue-cotton coveralls.
He withdrew his arm, covered in a long, clear plastic glove that extended to his armpit, as well as a thick coating of stuff she didn’t dare dwell on. The two tiny hooves in his hand explained a few things—number one being what the term calving shed meant.
Before she could recover her speech, he barked out another command without turning around. “Don’t stand there. Make yourself useful. Hand me that chain on the wall.” He jabbed an elbow behind him and held out his palm, jerking his fingers in a come-hither motion with all the patience of a Catholic school nun after a wad of contraband chewing gum.
She hoped he didn’t plan on shouting at at-risk teenagers this way or they were going to have words.
A length of linked steel chain with two triangular handles on either end hung from a hook. She lifted the chain gingerly, questioning what some of the crusty stains on it might be, and dropped it into his waiting hand.
He stripped off the glove and tossed it aside, wrapped the chain around the two dangling front legs, grasped the handles in both hands, planted a rubber boot against the cow’s nether end, and leaned back, tugging hard. His face reddened with strain as the cow’s displeasure increased. Seconds later, a small, wet body slithered free to land on a padding of thick yellow straw. The man flipped the limp calf over, wiped it down with his bare hands, then cleared its nostrils to make sure it was breathing.
The cow, like any new mama, immediately forgot her recent distress and got in a few licks with her tongue as she explored the world’s newest member. The calf struggled to its knees, its efforts to rise hampered by its mother’s effusive attention.
“That was incredible,” Elizabeth breathed, unable to hold back her wonder at the miracle she’d witnessed.
The man glanced around. Surprise livened his face, stripping off years. He was a lot younger than she’d thought. And obviously, she wasn’t who he’d expected to find standing behind him.