“Great idea,” he said, because it was too much to hope for that he could ever admit he was wrong. “We’ll see you around seven then, right after you finish feeding the orphans. They should still be at it. Normally, one of the hands could have the stalls mucked out in an hour, but as I said, we’re not running a prison camp. The kids have likely never used a pitchfork, before. There’s a learning curve for us all and I expect it will take them a lot longer than average for the first week or so.”
“How very reasonable of you.”
What a smug—
He frustrated her to no end.
But he wasn’t wrong simply because he disagreed with her assessment. As long as the boys weren’t being physically or mentally abused, she had no real grounds for complaint. They were here because they hadn’t thrived in a traditional environment. Perhaps a different mix of schooling and work really would have a more positive effect.
She spent the remainder of the day in her office, not quite out of sorts, but not satisfied with the outcome of their talk, either. She ate her dinner in the cookhouse with Young John, who seemed impervious to Ryan’s threats, and the two counselors, Colin and Ace. Two teens had been assigned kitchen duty along with Handy and Steve. Their facial expressions conveyed their lack of enthusiasm. Since they knew they weren’t here for a vacation, and KP was rotational, she was unsympathetic.
After eating her burger and salad—prepared under conditions best not scrutinized too closely—she took a long bath in her bunkhouse, watched television for an hour, then went to bed with a good book she’d been longing to finish.
She tried to sleep with her window open, but wasn’t yet used to the noises the ranch made at night and they still felt unnatural. She’d never had an overactive imagination before coming to Montana. Now, every rustle of the shrubs under her window had her wondering about bears and the thickness of the walls.
When she did fall asleep, however, it was her boss, not the night noises, that bothered her dreams.
The next morning,she fed the last of the newborns a few minutes before seven, then crossed the yard between the calving pen and the stables. The horses lingered in the paddock outside. The new foal kicked up its heels, sticking close to its patient mother.
The stable doors had been thrown back at either end, allowing fresh air to circulate the entire length of the concrete center walkway, carrying odors of dust, horse, and wet straw in its wake. Something soft crumbled under her boot. Ew. She didn’t check to see what it was in case it might once have been alive.
She’d half-expected Ryan to be waiting for her, but he was nowhere in sight, which was likely for the best. No matter how good her intentions, she seemed to rub him the wrong way. He rubbed her the wrong way too, although she didn’t think he had any good intentions at all.
The two boys assigned to the job had no adult supervision, she noted with disapproval. For a man who believed in making them work for their room and board, Ryan had a lax approach to enforcing the rules.
The boys began to complain the moment she walked in.
“I thought there were child labor laws in this country,” Tyce said, proving Ryan was right and these boys weren’t slow.
Tyce, a petty thief who’d progressed from shoplifting to breaking and entering, had opted out of the foster care system at sixteen without any other means of support. He was tall and blond, with a severe case of acne that would likely clear up in a few years. When it did, he’d be a heartbreaker. He scraped a forkful of detritus and limp hay into a wheelbarrow manned by another one of the teens.
Angel, his partner, was living proof that not all parents hit the mark when naming their children. He looked the part well enough, so that was likely what had misled them. Stockier than Tyce, with startling, pale-green eyes offset by a light-brown complexion and curly, walnut-brown hair, he’d been caught in an affair with one of his teachers, for which she’d rightly been fired. He’d retaliated by trashing the principal’s office. His caseworker had tacked a note to his file saying he had borderline narcissistic tendencies. Elizabeth suspected that was professional polite-speak for a self-entitled, spoiled little brat with an ego to match. His family was upper middle class and had likely bailed him out of trouble numerous times before giving up.
Yet she knew very well that coming from money didn’t preclude problems at home. If anything, money made the problems easier to hide.
“Speak for yourself,” Angel told Tyce. “I’m a man, not a child.” He ran a bold gaze over Elizabeth’s coverall-clad body, as if making his point.
Since Elizabeth was zippered inside enough tough navy cotton to satisfy the sensibilities of a nineteenth-century nun, and her green rubber boots didn’t scream sexy either, she ignored his attempt to provoke a reaction when it only served to reinforce that he really was more boy than man.
“You’re welcome to take up your concerns with Sheriff McKillop, although I’m not sure he’ll agree with your interpretation of what constitutes child labor,” Elizabeth said frankly. Dan, as the sheriff, and Dallas, as the group home’s health care services provider, and also as co-owners of the Endeavour, had each been briefed on the residents and their respective backgrounds. “You do realize that twelve-year-old girls muck out stalls at riding schools, don’t you?”
“Why don’t you grab a fork and help out, then?” Angel said.
“Because this is your assignment, not mine. I’ve finished my chores.”
They grumbled a bit more before returning to work.
A ramp, fashioned out of two long planks of wood, rested against the bed of a truck at the far end of the stable. Angel ran the loaded wheelbarrow to the top of the ramp and wrestled it onto its side, dumping the contents into the bed.
Elizabeth closed her eyes and whispered a one-word, single-syllabled prayer. So many safety violations…
Someone touched her shoulder. Her eyes jolted open and her heart kicked into a live demonstration of the running gait that Tennessee Walkers were apparently so famous for. She rounded on her assailant—and her heart began to race for a whole different reason.
This, boys, is a man.