“If you say so.”
“The Endeavour has a code of conduct with regard to staff fraternization,” Ryan added, because he hadn’t liked the way Miles and Elizabeth looked at each other. Miles had bought a house in Grand, for which Ryan was now thankful, although he’d be assigned quarters on the ranch for his personal use, too. “It’s informal right now, but we’ll be firming it up over the next couple of weeks.”
“I see.” Miles cocked his head, frowning as if this information required serious and deep consideration, and might well be a deal breaker. “How many women are on staff?”
“So far, just Elizabeth,” Ryan said grudgingly, because admitting it made it sound as if the code of conduct had been something he’d come up with on the spur of the moment, which it was. It also sounded as if he were warning Miles off—also true. And he wasn’t the least bit comfortable with that particular discovery, either. “But once the rodeo is up and running, we’ll have room on staff for more women. The Endeavour is an equal opportunity employer.” He could already hear Dan laughing over that particular statement.Since when?
Since Dan was the one who insisted he give Elizabeth a chance, making everything his fault. That was when.
He and Miles spent the next hour discussing plans for the rodeo and how to keep it competitive in a difficult market. It would take place over a full week. They’d start off the first day with horse races, followed by a bull auction, another event Ryan had his eye on as part of a long-term business plan. There would also need to be live entertainment each evening. And, of course, they’d have bull and bronc riding, as well as barrel racing, competitions.
After Miles left, Ryan spent a few quiet moments considering the untouched mug of coffee. He picked it up and sniffed it. Then, he took a cautious sip. He tasted nothing but cold coffee.
She was good.
The slip of paper he’d stuck under his day planner caught his attention. He unfolded it.
I think you’re pretty.
He folded it again, smoothed it carefully, then placed it in a drawer out of sight. He tapped his fingers on his desk and stared at the framed photo on the wall of him with Dan and Dallas, arms around each other’s shoulders, grinning like fools. The photo was from a corporate retreat disguised as a fishing trip.
He’d taken a big risk by drawing them into his grandfather’s money, but he’d wanted to make their lives easier. He’d wanted to help make their dreams come true. He’d also been terrified of handling all that money alone, without any purpose for it.
If they ever found out the true source of the money, their friendship might well be ruined. He’d been willing to gamble because the risk had been worth it. Besides, the chances of them finding out were so small as to be next to impossible.
He wasn’t willing to gamble with Elizabeth’s well-being, however. Therefore, she’d be on the next flight home to Chicago.
She was on the phone when he entered her office. She held up one finger and waved him into a chair. He waited while she finished a conversation with the public school over the enrollment of two of the boys, Angel and Paisley. Paisley was one of the next boys to arrive.
“Sure. Let’s send the two sex offenders to the local high school,” Ryan said when she got off the phone. “That will make us popular with the parents in Grand.”
Elizabeth’s long, dark-red curls shrouded her shoulders. She’d dressed in her version of casual today, meaning she looked young and fresh and appealing—all of which translated to vulnerable, as far as he was concerned.“Looks can be deceiving.”
He’d actually said that to Miles.
“Angel isn’t a sex offender,” she said calmly. “By law, and according to the information I have on file, he’s a victim. The guidance counselor at Grand High is aware there might be more to his story. And Paisley had a relationship with a sexually aware twelve-year-old girl who’s admitted she told him she was sixteen. So, while technically he is considered a sex offender, in reality, he’s also a teenager who is immature for his age, and whose real crime is poor judgment.”
Ryan got all of that. His major concern was which of the exhibitors of poor judgment in residence was responsible for the note in his desk drawer.
“Let’s talk about that note for a moment, shall we?” he said. “I assume you didn’t give it to me because you think I’m pretty.”
Amber eyes gave him a frank and decidedly nonclinical examination that left him feeling… bothered. How did she always manage to get under his skin?
“I would never have used the word pretty to describe you,” she said when she was done. Her smile was sweet. “By the way—how was your coffee?”
“Cold,” he said sourly.
“Odd. It was hot when I gave it to you.”
He’d like to give her something hot…
He had to get rid of her. Now. “Let’s get back to the note.”
“Let’s put it in perspective,” she countered. “You’ve got a group of misfit teenaged boys with rampaging hormones and terrible judgment stuck on an isolated ranch with one woman on staff. After all, I am pretty, you’ve got to admit.” Her eyes dared him to argue.
“You aren’t exactly helping your case for why I shouldn’t send you packing tonight,” Ryan replied, ignoring the taunt, because while yes, she was pretty—the understatement of the year, by the way—he was no teenaged boy, and taunting him might not be in her best interests.