Ryan barricaded himselfin his office, scuffed stacks of notes aside, and called Dan on the landline. Since Dan had arranged for the interview with Elizabeth, despite repeatedly being told she wouldn’t suit, he could be the one to give her the bad news.
“No way,” Dan said. “I did due diligence, buddy. She’s got her master’s, her qualifying experience, and she’s licensed to work in Montana as a registered clinical social worker. She specializes in addiction and wants to do research on teenaged violent offenders. She’s the best case manager you’re going to find.”
“She’s five feet tall,” Ryan said. He was exaggerating, but not by a lot. She might be five two, maybe three at best. “And she’s hot. Putting her in front of a group of hormonal boys is like waving a raw steak at a starving grizzly.”
Dan’s low chuckle crackled over the line. “My understanding is that her parents insisted she learn how to defend herself.”
“That’s another thing.” Ryan felt the sweat begin to form at his hairline, followed by a familiar chill that chased through his chest. “You know why they’d insist on it, right? Her sister was murdered. That shit will mess with your head.”
There was a slight pause on Dan’s end, and immediately, Ryan regretted his words. He didn’t like being psychoanalyzed and Dan knew it. And, as law enforcement, Dan was very good at picking up on the things people didn’t say.
“Your goal is to help these boys. If you provide a safe work environment for the qualified professional hired to treat them, your job as an employer is done,” Dan said. “She’ll do her own risk assessments and decide which boys the ranch will take in.”
Ryan leaped on what was important in Dan’s less-than-motivational speech. “How the hell am I supposed to provide a safe work environment for her on a ranch?”
“Add extra lighting around her bunkhouse. Motion sensors would be good. Move her office into the space next to yours. Put in an intercom system so that if she’s ever alone with one of the boys and feels threatened, all she has to do is flip a switch and whoever’s working in the machine shed will get an alert. There’s always someone around if she needs them. But honestly, my take on Elizabeth Benson is that she can look out for herself. I checked her references and they concurred. She’s not a risk-taker. She’s not easily intimidated either.”
Didn’t he know it. “Have a heart, Dan.”
“Do you want what’s best for these boys or are you trying to make things easy for you?” Dan countered, then mellowed his stance. “I get that you’re trying your hardest to fulfill the terms of the inheritance while running the ranch, but you’re taking on too much. You agreed I could find you a case manager and I did. A damned good one, too. The correct response in this situation is thank you.”
So many layers of guilt bombarded Ryan. Dan and Dallas believed the judge who’d given them community service for stealing a police car back in college had left the Endeavour and several billion dollars to them, but with conditions attached. Dan had to provide emergency services, including smoke jumping, to the state of Montana. Dallas Tucker, a doctor, had to operate a free medical clinic. Ryan had agreed to set up and oversee a group home for troubled teenaged boys.
Only, those conditions for the inheritance were bogus. So was the source of the money. Ryan dreaded the day they found out what a liar he was. Correction. They’d known for years that he was a liar. What they didn’t know was the extent of the most recent lie he’d concocted.
“Thanks, Dan. Thanks a whole lot.”
Dan laughed. “I’m sorry you’re stuck all alone in a blizzard with a gorgeous redhead, but the roads aren’t fit to travel. I’m going to have to spend the night with my parents. Dallie’s at the taproom with Hannah.”
Hannah Brand owned the Grand Master Brewery and Taproom, a place where locals went to drink her craft beers and play board games. Dan’s significant other, Jazz O’Reilly, ran the smoke jumping base at Custer County Airport for him. Jazz worked in Helena as a firefighter during the off season, which was where she was at the moment, but Ryan expected that situation to change as soon as she found something more permanent in Grand. The constant trips back and forth had to be killing them both.
“See you in the morning,” Dan said, then hung up.
Ryan dropped the receiver into the cradle and rubbed his eyes. They’d lost power a half hour ago and it wasn’t likely to be reinstated anytime soon. The outage meant Elizabeth would either have to sleep in the main house or the calving shed, the only other building on the ranch with a generator wired in.
He couldn’t imagine her spending the night in a barn, no matter how unfazed she’d been when he’d hauled that calf free. But it gave him an idea.
By the time he returned to the kitchen, the pixie had nestled herself into a deep-cushioned chair in front of a bay window and was watching the storm. Snow blew past horizontally as if propelled by a giant, hidden fan. None of the outbuildings, mere yards from the house, could be seen through the thick wall of white.
“It’s hard to believe it’s March,” Elizabeth said.
“Spring in Montana—the blip between winter and two weeks of summer. After that we get a month of fall before the cycle repeats. If you like skiing and snowmobiling, this place is heaven.”
“I like snow.”
He did too, but he wasn’t trying to sell it to her. Quite the opposite. “It’s great if you don’t have to go anywhere, but there’s nothing within walking distance, so someone’s always out running errands. There isn’t much of an opportunity for a social life here, either.”
“I have a car and I’m fine with running errands to help out,” she said. “The unstructured lifestyle was part of the appeal of the position.”
She was a social worker, all right. They had this perverse desire to present opposing and unusually perky opinions. Worst of all, she wasn’t taking the hint.
“Speaking of helping out…” Ryan parked himself in the chair facing her. The small kitchen nook by the bay window was where he relaxed with his coffee and tablet to read the news after chores in the mornings. “Ranches run twenty-four seven. Everyone who lives here has to pull their own weight. Right now, we have a night manager in the calving shed because babies are dropping right, left, and center, but once calving season is over, he’ll move on to another job for a few months. That doesn’t mean calving stops. We get lots of them born out of season. Any the mothers won’t accept will have to be bottle fed. That’ll be your responsibility. You’ll have a few foals, too. And there are always abandoned kittens around.”
Elizabeth’s eyes lit up with an enthusiasm he didn’t like. “You’d allow me to bottle-feed babies?”