Elizabeth had spentthe better part of her first month clearing up the last of the red tape so the group home could open its doors.
It was now May.
Two counselors had been hired, Colin and Ace, both young men with ranch experience who’d double as cowhands and share bunkhouses with their young charges. Elizabeth had one of the smaller bunkhouses—the one closest to the ranch house—to herself. Handy told her it was used mainly for the younger family members of Dallas and Dan whenever they came to stay.
Discreet inquiries determined Ryan had no family other than a mother who’d passed away almost a decade ago, which might explain why he was such a loner. Elizabeth wondered if they’d been close and how her death had affected him.
She’d been assigned an office next to his in the ranch house. She closed the last of the case files she’d been reviewing and drummed her fingers on her desk as she stared thoughtfully through the glass-paneled wall overlooking the central lounge. Four of the ten boys accepted into the program had arrived on Monday. Two more would arrive in two weeks’ time, then two more every second week throughout June.
She was a little appalled by how much labor Ryan expected of them. It seemed he took the tough-love approach to child rearing. She pushed away from her desk.
They should talk.
He was in his office. The glare of his computer screen reflected off a pair of glasses that lent him a more scholarly air and added another facet to his complex personality. The jeans and casual shirt he wore were expensive and deepened the mystery. She had yet to figure him out—other than that he could be prickly when things didn’t go the way he expected or planned. The best approach in dealing with him was head-on and to stand strong.
She tapped one knuckle on his open door. “May I come in?”
His chin rose a fraction. He aimed it in her general direction. Bemused eyes flickered away from the computer screen for the briefest of seconds. Untidy brown hair sported trails where fingers had raked through it. “Sure.”
Then again, now might not be the best time. Whatever he was working on appeared to require his undivided attention. “I can come back later.” She prepared to retreat.
“Wait.” He removed the glasses, tossed them on his desk, and rubbed his eyes. He indicated the chair across from him. “Sit. What’s up?”
She smoothed the skirt of her dress and sat, knees together, her stiletto-clad feet crossed at the ankles and tucked under her chair. She’d embraced the ranch’s standard jeans-and-coveralls uniform for her morning start feeding babies, but hadn’t yet been able to come to terms with the almost equally casual dress code during office hours.
“The workload you’ve laid out for the boys,” she began. “It seems somewhat…” She searched for the right word.Harsh. Unrealistic. Excessive.“Heavy, considering they’ll also have schoolwork to complete. Montana’s child labor law states children sixteen to seventeen must work outside of school hours, and between seven in the morning and seven at night, for a total of eighteen hours per week during the school year.”
His brows slammed together. “I assume you’ve read their files. These aren’t exactly top-tier students we’re talking about.”
His reaction to her concern was hardly encouraging. Nevertheless, she persevered. She couldn’t complete her six-month probation and feel she’d done her best for these boys by tiptoeing around his opinions when hers were backed up by research and law. Besides, he’d seen something of value in them or they wouldn’t be here. They deserved a genuine chance.
“And they’re never going to become good students if they don’t have the time or energy for their studies,” she said.
“Our goal is to provide therapy, supervision, and structure in order to keep them on the right side of the law. We can worry about their academic performance later. They’re all smart. They’ll catch up.”
“Part of their therapy involves them learning to properly interact with their peers. Six of the boys can function in the local public school system, which is where I recommend they be placed. They can’t go to school all day, get their studies in, then spend eight hours doing hard labor, too.”
Ryan folded his arms and tipped back in his chair. “Think of it as chores, not labor. Maybe on-the-job training. Better yet, let’s call it extracurricular activities. Believe it or not, a lot of teenaged boys consider working on a ranch fun. For that matter, some women do, too. I haven’t heard you complain about feeding the orphans at six o’clock every morning.” A glimmer of amusement sparked shards the color of iced coffee crystals in his eyes.
“That’s different,” she said, proving how much he rattled her when he smiled, because what kind of educated rebuttal was that?
“Really? How so?”
Because she was an adult. Because she found the ranch to be an exciting adventure. “Because I’m not a seventeen-year-old boy.”
“No, you’re not. I used to be one, though. Maybe you should see them in action before you pass judgment. It might change your opinion.” He threw it down like a challenge.
“It might at that.” She doubted it, but he appeared to derive a great deal of pleasure from arguing and she had no intention of being obstinate simply so he could have fun. Especially when it came at her expense. “Why don’t I join the two mucking out the horse stalls tomorrow morning?” she suggested.
Ryan owned eleven Tennessee Walkers, a breed known for its four-beat running walk. She had no idea what any of that meant, but she did know the horses were lovely. She’d been introduced to them on the weekend, shortly after a newborn palomino foal rounded off the herd count to twelve, and was secretly disappointed that its mother showed no signs of abandoning it. That didn’t mean she wanted to shovel out their stable.
Let’s see how much joy that activity brings to teenaged boys’ lives.