“Ryan O’Connell isa man with no past,” Theodore Benson announced in a dire tone heavy with prediction and doom, leaving Elizabeth to draw her own conclusions as to what he inferred.
She didn’t respond straight away. Her athletic father, his blond hair scuffed with gray at the temples, could cut an imposing—some might go so far as to say intimidating—figure when he chose, even here, in the feminine surroundings of her bedroom.
Seated in one of the matching pink-and-white Queen Anne chairs tucked beneath the bay window, he exuded disapproval. He adjusted the creases of his trouser legs so they draped neatly and evenly over his knees. He could have been sitting in one of his board meetings, listening to a budget report that didn’t match up to his high expectations.
She was a lot like that budget report to him, sometimes. Her parents had been appalled when she told them she’d accepted a job in Montana and horrified that she planned to drive her car eleven hundred miles alone.
She rolled a sweater and carefully packed it around several fragile items in her bulging suitcase to protect them. She was a little sad to leave Chicago, but also excited. She’d reviewed the profiles she’d been sent on the first ten boys the ranch would take in and they were an interesting mix. Two were violent offenders with extenuating circumstances. A third had been charged with sexual offenses against a minor, but the boy’s probation officer was unconvinced he was guilty as charged.
More interesting, as far as her research was concerned, were the seven boys with no juvenile records who’d all been removed from family homes along with their younger siblings. Foster placement was difficult for their age group and each had begun to act out in what might well be cries for help. Two had vandalized their schools. One stole a car and was caught joyriding at one hundred miles per hour on the interstate. The remaining four had run away from group homes on multiple occasions. None of the seven had a history of substance abuse or addiction, which came as the biggest surprise.
Living in Montana would be an adventure all on its own. She’d been disappointed in Grand at first, mainly because the town was part of the prairies and she’d anticipated mountains, but there were badlands that begged to be explored and mountains not so far off. She’d read up on the Rocky Mountain Range, and the Beartooth Mountains were high on her list of places to explore on her days off. The thought of it left her almost giddy.
“And you know this how?” she asked, circling back to her father’s big revelation, mostly because she was expected to say something and not because this was news to her.
She’d conducted her own research on the Endeavour Ranch’s three owners, and while Sheriff Dan McKillop and Dr. Dallas Tucker were pretty much open books, Ryan was a complete and utter dead end. She’d found the story on how the three men were left the ranch, as well as an estimated four billion dollars, by an unnamed benefactor. She knew there were conditions attached to the inheritance, one of them being the group home for at-risk teenaged boys. She knew prior to that, Ryan had worked as an operations manager for an auction and rodeo house in Houston, Texas. And she knew he’d gone to Montana State University, where the three men met and became friends. That was it. He’d ducked all attempts made to interview him since his windfall. It was rumored that Adriana Gallant, an internet tabloid sensation with a reputation for perseverance, had her sights on him, but so far, with no luck.
Spending a night at the ranch had offered not one single new clue. He started work early in the mornings, so shortly after supper, he’d shown her to a bedroom at the far end of a very long hall, away from his own, and bade her good night. She had an en suite, an entertainment system, and a shelf full of reading material at her disposal. Then, right after breakfast, he’d driven her to the small local airport and flown her by helicopter to Billings himself, where she’d caught her flight home.
“I hired a private investigator,” her father said.
Elizabeth, certain she hadn’t heard her father correctly, ceased trying to zipper the overstuffed bag. “You did what?” She counted to three in her head. “Why would you do such a thing?”
“What did you expect me to do? My daughter is traveling across the country to live off the grid with a bunch of cowboys and juvenile delinquents. When I couldn’t find anything on O’Connell through my business connections, I hired someone to do a more thorough search. The search came up empty. I forbid you to go.”
Elizabeth took a deep breath. She’d been actively advocating for victims’ rights since she was eighteen. She’d had her life threatened on two separate occasions. And yet, the case manager position in Montana was where her father decided to draw the line?
Of course, it was. Because he’d lose any sort of control. Both times she’d been threatened he’d hired bodyguards for her, and she hadn’t protested because it was something he’d had to do for his mental health. She knew he loved her to the full extent of his capabilities, but he’d been so damaged by Marianne’s murder that his capacity for expressing any strong feelings had atrophied. He kept them bottled up. Now she was moving too far away, to a place where he couldn’t monitor her movements, and step in if he felt it was necessary, and he didn’t like it.
But she had her own mental health to consider. She was twenty-nine years old and living at home. She’d stayed for their benefit, not hers, and that had to end.
He’d only react to negative emotion, however, and neither of them needed this fight. Besides, he was all bluster. Short of having her arrested or otherwise held captive, there wasn’t much he could do to keep her from leaving.
“I won’t be living off the grid,” she said, maintaining calm. “A ranch is a twenty-four-hour operation. There are always people around. I’m trained to work with at-risk youth, and one of the Endeavour owners is the county sheriff, so I think I’ll be fine.”
“Do you honestly believe that a college degree and some small town ‘barney’ equal adequate protection?”
“I think guests will be arriving in a few minutes and I don’t want to be late for my own party. Mom will send a search party for us if we don’t hustle.” Elizabeth finished wrestling with the bag’s zipper and set the suitcase on the floor with the others. She bent to kiss her father’s cheek. He wanted the best for her, and she loved him for it, but it changed nothing. “Are you coming, or are you going to sit here and risk her wrath?”
Thirty guests had been invited—most were friends of Elizabeth’s, although a few belonged to her parents. One or two business acquaintances had been thrown in because Theo liked to make clients feel like part of his inner circle. Meredith Benson wouldn’t be pleased if she had to welcome them by herself.
Theo grumbled, but followed Elizabeth out of her bedroom suite, because he knew as well as she did who was really in charge of the family.
The Bensons lived in Lincoln Park, one of Chicago’s better neighborhoods. Their home dated back to the early nineteenth century and had been in the family for generations. The original Bensons made their money off land speculation, and subsequent generations saw no reason not to carry on with tradition. Theo Benson owned a significant portion of the rental properties in Chicago’s downtown business district.
Meredith waited for her husband and daughter in the great room that led to the outdoor patio on the main floor. High brick walls surrounded the patio for privacy, which in turn cut down on the cool, end-of-March winds, so they’d opened the doors and turned on the outside lights. A buffet had been set up on one side of the room with a bar at the end, where a bartender was setting out glasses and napkins.
Elizabeth supposed she’d look a lot like her mother in thirty years—but only if she decided to put in the hours at the gym and the spa. Meredith’s red hair had been artificially deepened to auburn and she wore it in a discreet twist at her nape. Equally discreet makeup enhanced the barely discernable facial work she’d had done. She wore a black-and-white cocktail dress that showed off a dedication to physical fitness Elizabeth doubted she’d ever match. The height of her heels required a balance and grace most sixty-two-year-old women would envy.
Elizabeth’s dress was a light, blushing pink with a low, draping neckline and a breezy skirt that came to mid-thigh and swirled around her legs when she moved. Her heels were as precarious as her mother’s—a workaround for height-challenged women, her father liked to observe. She’d pinned her bright curls in a messy ponytail, and other than a pale lipstick that matched her dress, she wore no makeup at all.
“Did you talk to her?” Meredith asked Theo when he and Elizabeth approached.
“I did, but she refuses to listen to reason,” he replied.