“I’m standing right here,” Elizabeth said, without any great hopes. She was well used to having both parents ignore any input from her as they mapped out her life.
Yes, it was beyond time she moved out. The child-parent relationship they shared wasn’t healthy. She never worried about herself. She weighed her options and did what was best for everyone involved—exactly as she was doing now, because parents shouldn’t make life choices for adult children. They should be enjoying a stage in their marriage meant to be all about them.
Before Elizabeth could make any further attempts to insert herself into the conversation, the Milburns arrived. They were old family friends. Their eldest daughter had been a close friend of Marianne’s. Elizabeth had grown up with their youngest son, Nathan. Nathan was blond, very metro, but enjoyed a coarse joke. Despite both families’ attempts to encourage a closer relationship, they viewed each other as brother and sister and squabbled as such. Nathan had come out in his early twenties, putting an end to any matchmaking hopes. He lived with his partner, Phillip, in a condo near the Loop, Chicago’s central business district.
Nathan cornered Elizabeth a few minutes after he’d been handed a drink.
“I’ve been asked to talk sense into you,” he said. “Unfortunately, I don’t see a downside to your move to Montana. You’re finally getting away from your parents—you’ll have to learn how to pay rent, by the way—and Montana is full of cowboys. So. Many. Cowboys. Phillip and I are already planning our visit.”
“I’ll be sure to tell everyone how hard you worked to convince me to change my mind,” Elizabeth said, rolling her eyes.
She was a whole lot less interested in cowboys than she was in her research, particularly if Ryan O’Connell was a prime example. His looks and his money were about all he had going for him. He lacked even the most basic of social skills. He’d make an excellent case study for something or other, although she had yet to figure out what.
“Seriously, though. Are you really going through with this?” Nathan asked, with a hint of genuine concern. “Montana is so far away. I understand why your parents are worried, too. They’ve tolerated all the advocacy you’ve done, but you know as well as I do that taking a job working one-on-one with at-risk teenaged boys was guaranteed to trigger their buttons.”
Yes, she was well aware. It hadn’t escaped her notice that the boy they’d tried to push on her when she was old enough to date turned out to be gay, either.
“I took the job for me. Fighting for victims’ rights was never going to be enough for me and you know it. I want to save lives, not pick up the pieces after the fact.”
The room had begun to fill, and already, there were more than a few people trying to catch Elizabeth’s eye. Since she was the guest of honor, continuing a private conversation was about to become impossible.
Nathan, too, noticed they’d become the center of attention.
“And I love you for it,” he said, wrapping an arm around her shoulders and kissing her cheek. “Mom and Dad plan to keep an eye on your parents for you, so don’t worry about them. But stay in touch, okay?”
The conference roomfor Grand’s chamber of commerce was overly warm and smelled of stale cigars, thanks to a loose interpretation of Montana’s Clean Indoor Air Act and a ventilation system likely installed prior to 1889 and Montana becoming a state. The building itself, located next to the town library off Yellowstone Drive, had once served as a lodging house and dated back to Grand’s founding in 1876, meaning as an historical site, any renovations were grudgingly and sparsely approved.
Ryan, at the lectern, checked the time on his phone with mounting, although carefully hidden, impatience. The new case manager had called from Bismarck, North Dakota, that morning to let him know she was taking the scenic route to Grand, but expected to arrive at the Endeavour by six o’clock.
He’d planned to be home before then, but the meeting had been running long even before he’d used up his allotted minutes explaining the Endeavour Ranch’s application for a Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association-sanctioned rodeo. The chamber hosted an annual bucking horse sale that drew in large crowds and he’d hoped to leverage off it by getting the timing just right.
The executive committee apparently had nowhere better to be on a Friday night, because they asked plenty of questions, specifically regarding the effect a rodeo might have on local businesses already sponsoring events for the bucking horse sale. Fortunately, one benefit to being a billionaire was that the committee hadn’t dismissed his proposal out of hand, even though he could see that several members wanted to do so—mainly because they owned the businesses supporting the horse sale. A few more simply didn’t like change, particularly if there was nothing in it for them.
So, while he might not be getting the enthusiasm he’d have liked, he was also unlikely to receive much opposition, meaning he could move forward.
“The Endeavour Ranch is committed to furthering our philanthropic activities,” Ryan concluded, wrapping up his presentation. “This rodeo will provide an opportunity for us to contribute back to the local community and to the state of Montana. We’ll make all initial investments, and of course, local businesses will be given the opportunity to participate.” He’d saved the best for last because he believed in ending any sales pitch on as high a note as possible. “And, to guarantee we get nation-wide publicity, the Endeavour has hired Miles Decker to be our spokesman.”
That got their attention. Decker had been one of the top professional bull riders in the PBR, and the face of professional bull riding for the past three years, until his famous face was badly scarred in a publicity stunt. He’d made it widely known that he planned to retire from public life.
What Ryan didn’t mention was how he’d also promised Decker the space and the financial backing to begin his own bull breeding program, because it did compete with a local business that already had one up and running, and would definitely create some hard feelings.
The meeting wrapped up and Ryan began a sedate but determined dash for the door, doing his best to dodge those tenacious executive members wanting to chat, without appearing to be in too much of a hurry. The day had been a balmy sixty degrees and he’d had men out fencing the area surrounding the badlands, which was about as much fun as it sounded. They’d be tired and hungry when they landed, and judging by some of the nastygrams regarding his parentage he’d received via handheld two-way radio, out of sorts as well.
He’d go home, smooth some delicate feathers, get the new case manager installed in her bunkhouse, then race back to Grand in time to attend the hospital fundraiser at the Grand Master Brewery and Taproom. Dallie’s fundraiser was the evening’s priority.
He made it to the parking lot and his car and he slid into the driver’s seat with a sense of contentment. He liked cars—the faster, the better—and he’d owned the steel-blue Mercedes AMG since before he’d had billions of dollars dumped in his lap. He loved the car because he’d earned it himself.
Of course, he’d loved every car he’d ever stolen as a kid for the same reason, too—he’d gotten such an adrenaline rush from scouting them out, monitoring the owners’ routines, doing his research, choosing his moment… As a kid, he’d truly believed he’d earned every one of those joyrides.
The cars he’d bought with the blood money were toys. He let Dallas and Dan drive whichever one of those struck their fancy. He had no personal attachment to them. This car, however…
The AMG was his baby. Nobody drove it but him.
A quick check of the clock on the dashboard made him wince. He was late. What were the chances that Elizabeth Benson might be late, too?