“Twenty-four seven,” he reminded her, although he began to suspect he was fighting a battle he’d already lost. He took note of the time. “Since you’re stuck here for the night anyway, why don’t we go out right now and I’ll show you what’s involved?”
“In this storm?” She showed her first visible signs of doubt. Snow mixed with ice pellets pinged off the windows like excited atoms colliding with particles. He knew exactly how much they stung when they hit exposed skin.
“Calves don’t wait for fair weather,” he said, shooting out of his chair. “Come on. Livestock eats before we do.”
She stood, but with less speed. Her enthusiasm didn’t die but it dropped a few noticeable degrees. She indicated the pair of socks he’d loaned her that flopped about three inches past the tips of her toes. “I don’t have the right clothes and my boots are wet.”
“No worries. I can fix that.”
He found a thick sweater of his that fit her about as well as the socks. The hem teased her knees and the shoulders drooped midway to her elbows. She had to roll the cuffs up into great, bulky bulges. Dan’s nieces and nephews were frequent weekend guests, so he scrounged around in his space and came up with a coverall and rubber boots suitable for both ten-year-old boys and undersized women. He topped her outfit off with a tin cloth jacket that belonged to Dan’s girlfriend, a wool scarf, and a knitted wool hat. The hat was to protect her hair from picking up barn smells as much as her head from the storm.
Amber eyes buried in wool glittered at him. “I feel like the Michelin Man.”
He gave her appearance a quick, critical assessment. Man, she was tiny. He had a foot of height on her, although dressed as she was, if he measured her sideways, that was up for debate. Her arms stuck out to the sides. All to be seen of her face was her cute little nose, finely shaped brows, and those dark-lashed, amber eyes with the traces of yellow gold embracing the pupils. Not even the layer of mismatched, oversized barn clothes could disguise how pretty she was.
I hate you, Dan.
“If it helps, once you’re covered in snow, you’re going to look like the Michelin Man, too,” he said.
The cute little nose crinkled at him. “Thank you.”
He donned coveralls and boots, plus a hat and coat. “After you, Michelin,” he said, ushering her ahead of him into the maelstrom with a sweep of his arm.
She waddled to the door. He sincerely hoped the wind didn’t catch her again. He had visions of her tumbling across the yard, gathering snow like a giant snowball, and smacking into the barn.
If this didn’t scare her off, nothing would.
Elizabeth had assumedthe job was hers. That all she had to do was show up and prove she was as qualified and capable as her curriculum vitae indicated. The Endeavour Ranch had paid to fly her here, after all.
Now, she wasn’t so sure.
Ryan O’Connell wasn’t what one would expect of a hands-on, billionaire philanthropist with a soft spot for troubled boys. In her head, she’d pictured someone more nurturing. A natural caretaker. Instead, he was darker. Broodier. A whole lot more Heathcliff fromWuthering Heightsand less Mr. Rogers. The slight cleft in his chin gave him a baby-faced appeal, complicating him further. She couldn’t figure out if he was a youthful ninety-year-old or an ancient thirty-something, but she had her suspicions.
She wasn’t about to let Heathcliff find a reason not to give her this job, however, so she pulled up her panties—figuratively, not literally, because who could find them under all of these clothes—and plunged into the storm. Ice bit her cheeks and rendered her blind. Her arms pinwheeled wildly. For a second, she feared she might become airborne and imagined her body landing in Kansas once the storm dropped her.
Then Heathcliff—if she survived, she had to stop calling him that—grabbed the back of her coat and helped keep her borrowed boots on the ground. “Better let me go first,” he shouted over the howl of the wind. “Stay close behind me.”
Easier for him to say. The ground in front of the door to the house had been swept almost bare, but two of the drifts between the house and the calving shed came to her waist. Twice, Ryan had to turn back and pull her free. The speed with which spring could flip back to winter left her in awe. Montana was truly amazing. It made a person appreciate how wonderful it was to be alive.
They reached the shed and Ryan leaned into the edge of the sliding door, heaving it open despite the buildup of snow. Elizabeth stumbled inside. The calving shed was reasonably warm, quiet, and calm, considering the weather raging outside. They brushed the snow off their coats.
A man in his fifties, with a thick crop of gray hair and a slight stoop to his shoulders, looked up from a pail of what had to be milk that he held under a calf’s snuffling nose. The calf headbutted the sides of the steel pail, almost knocking it out of his hands. He propped the pail against one thigh and held it steady with a tight grip as he checked to see who had intruded.
“Hey, Freddie,” Ryan called out in greeting. “Did the men all make it back from the pastures okay?”
“Yep. Young John got an ATV stuck in the mud near the badlands but managed to work himself free. He came in late, but not so late that we had to go looking for him. Steve and Handy brought eight heifer calves and two bull calves in with them. Three newborns are under the heat lamps, thawing out.” Freddie’s eyes, spit-firing curiosity, lit on Elizabeth. “Who have we here?”
Ryan shucked his coat and slung it over a wooden rail fronting one of the pens. He fumbled behind Elizabeth for the ends of the ice-stiffened scarf protecting her face and began to unwrap her, as if peeling an orange. “This is Elizabeth. She’s from Chicago. Elizabeth, meet Freddie Harrington. He’s our night manager during calving season.”
“Pleased to meet you,” Elizabeth said. She stuck a glove under one of her arms and pried it off so she could shake hands, but Freddie, who’d set down the pail, held his own hands in the air, out of reach.
“You don’t want to be touching what I’ve touched,” he said, half apologetically, half smiling.
“She’ll be touching it plenty if she takes the case manager’s job,” Ryan interrupted. “Feeding orphaned calves will be part of her duties.”