She stepped outside. A stiff wind carried the soft lowing of mothers calling to babies from the pastures nearest the ranch. The sound filled her heart, while air, several degrees cooler even though the sun hadn’t yet set, soothed her hot cheeks. He’d rattled her. That didn’t happen very often.
“You cheated,” she accused him, even though it made her sound childish, because she preferred to attack rather than wait to defend. They had that in common, although their power dynamic was definitely unbalanced. She scurried to keep up with his longer stride. If she thought there was anything even remotely sexual about what he’d done, they’d be having a far different conversation.
He cast her a sidelong look of amusement, which she resented. “Damn straight I did. How many men—or teenaged boys, for that matter—do you think will play fair in a real-life situation?”
“Don’t worry. Next time, I’ll break your leg,” she said, with feeling.
A smile played with his lips, making him look moderately less terrifying. “If you ever try that move on a man for real, see that you do. But for what it’s worth, I don’t believe you could do it.”
What she couldn’t believe was that she was about to defend her ability to break someone’s leg. The man was a barbarian, and so, she responded in kind. “Don’t discount me because I’m a woman. I’m stronger than I look.”
“It’s got nothing to do with your size, your gender, or your physical strength,” he said. “Most people don’t have the capacity to harm another human being. The civilized part of the brain throws a switch and warns you to stop what you’re doing and reassess your emotional response. You’re normal.”
She knew all of that. But he acted as if human decency were some sort of defect, and she wouldn’t be in her profession if she didn’t trust in its power.
“I disagree. I believe the majority of people react to direct violent stimuli in one of three ways. Fight or flight are the first two. The third reaction is to try and reason. To bargain your way out of the situation.”
He stopped so abruptly she bumped into him. “And how does bargaining usually work out for women?” he asked quietly, the smile gone. He didn’t say it, for which she was grateful, but she could read it in his expression—How did it work out for your sister?
Her chest burned. A visceral pain she’d thought long-buried threatened to burst free. She fought it back. Thinking about Marianne’s final moments did no one any good. A million responses ran through her head, not one of them appropriate to say to her boss.
The boss who’d groped her in front of three men.
“No more impromptu ‘teambuilding’ exercises,” he said. “If you find yourself in a position where you have to use a rolling knee bar on someone, don’t waste energy trying to reason with them, either. You break that leg, Elizabeth. Don’t think twice about it. That’s an order.” He didn’t wait for her to answer but began walking again. “Now come on. I’ll show you where you’ll be staying so you can unpack and get settled in.”
Ryan had helpedElizabeth unload her car because he wasn’t asking one of those douchebags to do it.
As a consequence, he was running late.
The road from the Endeavour Ranch meandered the same path as the Tongue River, which emptied into the Yellowstone River not far from the Lucky Lil Casino. The casino and the taproom serviced far different clientele, although both businesses were hotbeds of activity most nights.
Hannah Brand had set up the Grand Master Brewery and Taproom on the outskirts of town in a small residential neighborhood populated by an eclectic mix of people, giving it a strong hipster vibe. Many were first-time home buyers just starting their families. Others were retirees who didn’t require a whole lot of space. She’d wanted to give her business the feel of an old English pub where the neighborhood gathered, but also to offer people something to occupy them while they were there, so she’d added board games.
The drive from the Endeavour to the taproom normally took twenty minutes. Ryan made it in fifteen. The small parking lot behind the taproom was full when he arrived, forcing him to park a few blocks away. He jogged the short distance.
The incident with Elizabeth was fresh in his mind. There was a good chance he’d overreacted. The men already thought him hard and unreasonable. But at the sight of her, restrained and defenseless, he’d become seven years old again, peering in terror through stair rails, while his mother, screaming below, was forced to watch his dad being murdered.
Bargaining had gotten her nothing.
Such was the life of a Chicago mobster’s daughter married to the mob’s light-fingered accountant. He’d been an amazing dad, and Ryan held tight to what few memories of him he had, but his life choices had been questionable at best. One would think the crooked accountant cliché alone should have been deterrent enough. His mother believed he’d been set up, but Ryan was never so sure. Little bits and pieces of conversations he’d been privy to—because no one paid attention to children—had surfaced during countless sessions with child psychologists.
God, how he hated Giaco the “Jackal” Cienetti. It was especially galling that his grandfather died in his sleep, the cold, arrogant old bastard. Hopefully, he’d face judgment in the afterlife, because there’d been no justice served against him on earth.
He skidded to a halt at the Grand Master Brewery’s front door and squeezed white-knuckled fingers around the brass door handle. He’d go in, gladhand for the appropriate amount of time, and get out. The whole Elizabeth issue had left him in a bad mood, so it wasn’t as if he’d be a whole lot of fun.
“Mr. O’Connell,” a woman called out. He looked around and a bright light flashed in his face.
He blinked to clear his vision. He recognized her—Adriana Gallant, a television tabloid reporter trapped in a forty-something-year-old woman’s body. Some men might find her even features, sleek hair and clothes, and toned legs attractive. He thought she was plastic and lacking in character. She held her phone in her hand with the video on, angled to capture the encounter.
“This is a private event,” he said tersely, and jerked the door open. He closed it in her face and fought off the urge to lock it behind him.
She’s only interested in the story behind three brand-new billionaires and the Endeavour Ranch.She’d never be able to follow the trail back to Chicago. He was confident of that. He’d looked for it himself over the years so he could be sure.
He shook off the encounter and hung his coat on the coatrack next to the entry.