“Did no one ever tell you it’s wrong to sneak up on a woman?” she demanded, hand on her chest, completely rattled by now.
Ryan took a step back and threw his palms in the air. He stared at her as if she’d lost her mind. “Why—because you might try your rolling knee bar maneuver on me again?”
She had no comeback for that.
Tyce, who’d witnessed their face-off, began to laugh, even though he wasn’t in on the entire joke. Ryan shifted his attention to him. “If you and Angel would both use pitchforks and take turns dumping the wheelbarrow, you’d be done twice as fast.”
Tyce spread the love by glaring at Angel, who trotted up with the now-empty wheelbarrow. “That’s what I told him we should do.”
Angel skidded to a halt, unconcerned. “My way is faster because I’m stronger.”
“You aren’t stronger than me, little man.” Tyce propped his pitchfork against the side of the stall, tines down, and squared off as if preparing to settle their difference of opinion the old-fashioned way.
Ryan pushed between them, retrieved the abandoned pitchfork, and thrust it into Tyce’s hands. “You. Get back to work.” He turned on Angel. “You. Go get another fork. If the two of you aren’t done here in half an hour, no one is saving breakfast for you.”
Angel, to his credit, did as he was told, although if his swagger was meant to annoy Tyce, it accomplished its purpose. Tyce, it appeared, had a short fuse. Good to know.
“Arming them doesn’t seem wise,” Elizabeth whispered to Ryan. “And that makeshift ramp they’re using isn’t safe either,” she felt compelled to point out.
Ryan’s scowl deepened. Irritation spun in a dark cloud around him as he glowered at her. “Why are you even here?”
Welcome back, Heathcliff.She raised her eyebrows, drew her chin back, and skewered him with one of the infamous stares she’d learned from her mother. He had no business getting snippy with her. She was an innocent bystander, doing her job. “Because you wanted me to see how happy the boys are with their extracurricular activities, remember?”
“Jesus.” He scrubbed his hands up and down his face. “Let’s go eat. I’ll send Colin to referee.”
Elizabeth started inon him the second they emerged from the stable.
“A ranch is hardly a safe work environment, particularly for someone who’s never worked on one before and doesn’t know what to expect. Why wasn’t anyone supervising those boys?”
Ryan inhaled. The sweet, earthy smell of approaching rain filled his lungs. He loved a good storm and it looked as if they were in for one any minute. Fat-bellied clouds inched across a morning sky slowly turning to gray. A haze in the distance said it had already begun and was sweeping their way. The temperature dipped with its approach.
He focused on anything to distract him from how crazy Elizabeth made him. He’d never survive the remaining four and a half months of her probation. Not that he was counting the days. He shortened his stride enough for her to keep up—as long as she worked for it.
“Because they aren’t little kids and I’m not starting off by treating them as if they are, or as if they can’t be trusted,” he said, in response to her question.
“Um…” Elizabeth’s pretty amber eyes voiced her opinion on that.
“You don’t think they should be trusted?” He would have thought she’d be all for giving them the benefit of the doubt. He was the only person she seemed to have zero faith in—which proved her instincts weren’t one hundred percent off.
“Of course, I think they should be trusted. I’m surprised that you do,” she said.
“Oh, I don’t,” he assured her, glancing down at her lovely face and the topknot of red curls. She looked adorable in her coveralls, which hadn’t been the goal when he’d ordered them, but no one could claim they were suggestive. A tendril of hair had sprung free of the knot and clung to the curve of her throat like a question mark. “Everything of value is either locked up or kept under wraps”—case in point being the attractive woman beside him—“including the keys to the ATVs in the shed. The garage for the cars is always kept locked. The buildings are all equipped with security cameras. We’re miles from anywhere. If anyone tries to run away, they’ll have to steal a horse. Since none of them can ride yet, we’ll worry about that particular pony once it’s been saddled.”
She crinkled her nose. “Funny.”
“I thought so.” He combed his brain for the right segue into the next topic, which was somewhat more sensitive, but since he wasn’t good at sensitive, he gave up and jumped in. “You might want to be extra careful around Angel.”
“Thank you for your concern, but I know all about the teacher he was involved with, if that’s what you mean. I have his file, too.”
So much important information never made it into those files. He was being overprotective, even though she was a professional and had a background that made her warier than most, but he couldn’t help it. He didn’t have it in him to stand by while potential disasters unfolded.
“Do you also know about his friend’s mother, the wife of a business acquaintance of his father, and a local librarian?” he asked.
“No… Those details weren’t included in the files given to me. I’m curious as to where you got them?” The crook of an eyebrow indicated she expected an answer, but when he didn’t offer her one, she carried on. “Although the only thing that truly surprises me is that he knows a librarian. I feel confident I can resist his charms.”