Elizabeth had arrivedat the Endeavour Ranch promptly on schedule only to find that, despite having called ahead to ensure she was expected, once again, she’d been forgotten.
A lesser woman might take it personally, but she’d decided that her reclusive new boss had issues with women in general that had very little to do with her. How deep those issues ran she couldn’t be sure, so rather than wait around for him, as he likely intended, she again went off in search of signs of life.
She’d found the ranch hands eating their dinners, and once she’d explained who she was and why she was here, they’d invited her to join them. Since they were now her coworkers, she thought she might as well get to know them. One thing had led to another, and…
Naturally, Heathcliff would choose the worst possible moment to make an appearance.
Young John—whose name, in actual fact, was John Young—dropped the chokehold and backed away from her, but slowly, as if afraid he might trigger a wild animal attack. Elizabeth could hardly fault him for his use of discretion. Ryan had a feral, bone-chilling look in his dark eyes and a tenseness to his body that did, indeed, indicate predatory aggression.
She leaped in to defuse the situation.
“Hello,” she said brightly. She straightened the hem of her shirt and dusted off the seat of her jeans. “We were having a teambuilding moment and I was showing the men how to do a rolling knee bar.” Sort of.
John had assured her all of the hands on the ranch were at her disposal if she had difficulties with her young charges and she’d informed him she could take care of herself. They expressed polite disbelief—she was impressed by their nice manners as they went about it—and she’d been more than happy to prove it to them. It was all in good fun until Heathcliff showed up.
“A teambuilding moment,” Ryan echoed. She didn’t need her degree to pick up on his opinion. What a shame that a man as at ease in a trench coat and business suit as he was in stained coveralls should be so dark and dour, personality-wise.
“She already threw me once, but only because she caught me off guard. I bet her she couldn’t take Young John down, now that he’s seen how she does it,” Handy overexplained, possibly risking death, since the velociraptor’s focus shifted to him. He stuck his hands in his pockets and jiggled from one foot to the other. He was one of the two young men she’d met in the machine shop when she was looking for Ryan the day of her interview. Steve, who’d wisely kept quiet, was the other.
“Would you like a demonstration?” Elizabeth said to Ryan, as if offering to toss her boss on his duff was an everyday occurrence for her. “You never know when you might need to defend yourself in a dark alley.”
“Because everyone hangs out in dark alleys,” Ryan said dryly. Then, he surprised her. He shrugged. “Why not?”
She hadn’t expected him to agree. Now things were weird.
He stripped off his trench coat and tossed it over a chair. He stepped up behind her and crooked his elbow around her throat. He pressed her against a whole lot of work-hardened body, reinforcing how much bigger he was than her.
His grip scrambled her brain. The warm scent of the crisp cotton sleeve so close to her nose created a second distraction. It smelled of lemon laundry detergent, a hint of the disinfectant used in the calving shed—which wasn’t at all unpleasant—and a maleness unique to him, reminding her of the night of the storm and the sweater he’d loaned her. It was amazing how much power the human sense of smell held when it came to association. A sense of trust in him filled her, which made no sense of all, because there was absolutely nothing about the tension in him right at this moment that should make her feel safe.
The discovery that he’d made such a positive impression on her—or on her subconscious, at least—was unsettling. Maybe it wasn’t unusual, though, given she also associated him with bringing a new life into the world. Women, whether through societal pressures or natural instinct, tended to rank nurturing high as a positive trait.
Plus, he was hot. That was hard to forget.
“Whenever you’re ready, Houdini,” Ryan muttered into her ear, disrupting her self-analysis.
You asked for it, Heathcliff.
She sagged, using her body weight to drag herself lower, and thrust her jaw into the crook of his arm. She jerked down with her hands at the same time, then rammed an elbow into his midsection while she stomped on his instep with her heel. She slid her shoulder into his armpit and pulled one of his arms forward, rolling him over her hip to land on his back on the floor.
She landed with him, and immediately flipped around, wedging her thigh between his, and jammed it hard against his groin. She grabbed his left leg, arched her hip into his kneecap, and jerked backward, hard, but not hard enough to do any damage to the joint.
But that was where things went awry. Elizabeth, already smaller and lighter than he was, hadn’t taken dirty play into consideration. He slid a hand over her buttocks from his position behind and beneath her, inserted it between her legs where she straddled his thigh, then cupped an intimate part of her body in a bold move no one had ever tried on her in any class she’d ever taken. She relaxed her grip on his leg, shocked, and before she could recover, she was on her back on the floor and he had her arms and legs pinned while he sat on her stomach. He immediately released her, jumping up to pull her to her feet.
Her hot face had to be beet red, and not from exertion.Ever hear of the #MeToo movement, buddy?
“Find yourselves a new teambuilding exercise,” Ryan advised everyone present. His glower made him seem all the more feral and her three coworkers flinched. “First and last warning. The next man who puts his hands on a female employee for anything other than a life-saving emergency is fired. Elizabeth.” He rounded on her. A sinking sensation dislodged her stomach from its proper location. “Let’s take a walk. I’d like to speak to you in private.”
And wasn’t she off to a great start in her new, probably short-lived, position?
“Thanks for dinner. Let me know when it’s my turn to cook,” she said to the men. Her face was still flaming—the curse of redheads the world over—even though she wasn’t the one who’d done something wrong.
She picked up her coat from one of the chairs and followed Ryan to the cookhouse door. He held it open for her, which threw her off, because the action was so gentlemanly, and he’d just behaved anything but.