“So… you brought her out in a blizzard to show her all the fun she’ll miss out on if she turns the job down?” Freddie scratched his neck as if trying to figure out the logic behind it. “You should have let Dallas or Dan handle her interview for you, boss man. You forget how to hire women. You don’t give them the bad news up front.”
“I’m not hiring a woman—I’m hiring a case manager for a position that happens to be on a working ranch, where we all end up doing work outside of our formal job descriptions,” Ryan said, with a touch too much smugness for Elizabeth’s liking.
Her lips pressed together. Just as she suspected. Heathcliff really was trying to discourage her from accepting the position. She’d see about that.
She got her other glove off—calfskin might not have been her most sensitive choice, given the circumstances—and unzipped the front of the canvas coat he’d loaned her. “Gentlemen, part of the reason I applied for this position is precisely because it’s on a ranch. I’m happy to feed orphaned calves, and any other orphaned babies who require it.”
“There’s the right attitude,” Freddie congratulated her, his gray-stubbled face creased with a smile. “This one’s big enough to be weaned”—he indicated the calf he’d been feeding from the pail—“but the three little ones under the heat lamp will need bottles. Let me get you started.”
He grabbed a large plastic jug sitting in a bucket of warm water and poured a thick, yellow liquid into a baby bottle he’d taken from a cupboard next to the fridge, then screwed on a nipple as big as her thumb.
“This milk looks spoiled,” she said, crinkling her nose doubtfully as he passed the bottle to her and began filling another.
“It’s colostrum,” Ryan explained. He’d been watching her as if this were some sort of test, which it unquestionably was. “We keep it on hand for the newborns. It contains natural antibodies. If they don’t get it in the first few hours, most of them will sicken and die.” Freddie passed a second bottle to him.
Minutes later, they each had a newborn calf under their care. Freddie showed her how to moisten her fingers with the warmed liquid and stick them in the calf’s mouth. It took a few tries, but soon the calf began an instinctive suckling, its rough little tongue tickling her skin. By the time Freddie helped exchange the nipple for her fingers, she was in love with the soft, sweet-smelling, rusty-haired baby and entranced by its large brown eyes, which were half-closed in bliss.
When the calf finished feeding, she reluctantly allowed Freddie to return it to its place with its bunkmates under the heat lamp.
“What will happen to them?” she asked.
“We’ll try to get them back with their mothers once the weather lets up,” Freddie said. He checked the tags on their ears, an adornment she hadn’t noticed. “These three have seasoned moms, not first-timers, so it shouldn’t be too much of a problem. Sometimes the first-timers won’t take them after they’ve been handled by us, and if another mother won’t step up, we have to keep bottle-feeding them. That’s what happened to this big girl, over here.” He indicated the calf with the pail, now curled up and asleep in its pen.
“This is where you’ll come in,” Ryan said gruffly.
Elizabeth thrilled at his wording, although solid confirmation that the job really was hers would be nice, because he sounded far from excited. It didn’t take a clairvoyant to figure out he wasn’t happy to be bringing a woman on board, but if it was such a problem for him, why go to the trouble of flying her out here in the first place?
The two men talked for a bit, then she and Ryan bundled up and struck out for the house. The storm, barreling along like a runaway train, showed no signs of losing steam. She was relieved when they made it safely inside. They shucked their wet clothing and washed up. A quick check of the clock in the kitchen said the hour fast approached seven o’clock.
“I hope you’re okay with bacon and biscuits,” he said, reaching under a counter to extract an enormous black, cast-iron frying pan. He plunked it on top of an industrial gas range. “I wasn’t expecting company for supper.”
Elizabeth rested her toes on one rung of a stool at the island to keep from sliding off. It was either that or leave her feet dangling like a six-year-old child’s. Then, she studied her potential employer.
He was a good-looking man. Or he could be, if he didn’t come across as even more remote than his ranch. Physical labor gave him shoulders and a chest a bodybuilder would envy. She’d bet under that sweater lurked a decent six-pack, too. Brown hair—short on the sides and slightly longer on top, barely enough to give it a curl—and deep, dark, brown eyes added to the whole “loner” mystique.
Those endless eyes harbored secrets. She knew it. And it was in her nature to want to know what they were, but that wasn’t what was important right now.
“I get the feeling you weren’t expecting me at all,” she said.
She’d decided directness was the best approach in this situation, but not too direct. It wouldn’t do to put him on the defensive. Besides, Heathcliff would never admit that his reluctance involved her being a woman.
And while she wanted the job, a hostile work environment would hardly benefit either of them, not to mention the unhealthy spillover effect it would have on troubled teens. It wasn’t as if he could avoid her. The Endeavour Ranch was the equivalent of a deserted island. The vast majority of the county’s real estate belonged to the ranch, and at a whopping six thousand, the town of Grand housed half of the county’s population. The entire state of Montana possessed only one-tenth that of Chicago.
He pulled a paper-wrapped packet of meat from the fridge and began laying cold slabs of Canadian bacon in the pan. Elizabeth didn’t dare ask about vegetables—like maybe a salad—because she suspected the answer already.
“Dan McKillop arranged for your interview,” he said. “What with one thing and another, and everyone so busy, we didn’t get a chance to discuss any of the details. I guess it slipped both our minds.”
She wondered how Dan had dared. She got the sense Ryan didn’t much care for surprises. He had control issues for sure. She recognized the flaw because she had it, too.
She didn’t give up easily, either. “I’m aware of the pitfalls for a woman working with teenaged boys.” That was the whole point of her study. “It also has its advantages, particularly since some boys have difficulty with male authority figures. I’m excited by the opportunity to get to do hands-on research for my dissertation and I’m happy to help around the ranch in any way I can. Since Montana has a mandatory six-month probationary period for new employees, why not give me a chance to prove my ability?”
The meat began to sizzle in the pan. The smell of maple and smoke made her empty stomach sit up and take notice. Ryan rummaged in a cupboard and found an enormous tin. He pried the lid off the tin and shook thick, golden-topped biscuits onto a plate. She could practically see the wheels in his head spinning as he tried to come up with an argument that would hold water, and isolated the exact moment he caved.
“Welcome to the Endeavour Ranch,” he said. “Your six-month probation will begin at the first of the month.”
A flicker of emotion stirred in his eyes. It might have been resignation. Annoyance was another distinct possibility. Whatever it was, she didn’t care. The job was hers. Excitement victory-danced all over her hunger, trampling it into oblivion.
Now, to go home and break the news to her parents.