Showing her kindness would only escalate the level of aggravation and worry she caused him. If he could find a way to be rid of her before her six months were up, maybe he’d sleep better at night.
But letting her walk to her empty bunkhouse alone after dark was not going to happen. If she’d moved into the guest suite, like he wanted, life would be easier for him.
He held her sweater for her while she eased her arms into the sleeves. A long lock of curly red hair slid over his wrist. His lungs drew in the soft, feminine scent of her skin, then filtered it into his blood to spread heat throughout his entire body. Yet another source of irritation she caused him.
He opened the door, letting the fresh air clear his head. “After you.”
The night, when they stepped into it, swallowed them up. A sliver of pale-yellow moon cut into a bottomless, star-spangled sky. Although May, the air cooled considerably after sundown. A string of ground-level solar lights lit the shadowy path to the bunkhouses.
They walked side-by-side, their shoes crunching on gravel. Something rustled in the neatly trimmed grass a few feet away. A mechanical churring, followed by a series of chirps, had Elizabeth scrabbling for his arm.
“Is that a snake?”
She pressed up against him, proving she had terrible instincts as far as self-preservation went. If she knew the thoughts he had in his head about her right now, she’d run away screaming, instead.
“No. It’s a nightjar—a small nighthawk. It’s hunting bugs.”
“Sorry for being so jumpy,” she said. “I expected it to be quiet in the country at night, but it’s almost as loud as the city. Just in a different way. I’m not used to it yet.”
He’d never considered the possibility that she might be frightened by the sounds the ranch made at night. He hadn’t forgotten what it was like to lie awake in the dark, listening for footsteps, afraid the bad guys might find him—although the move to Montana had dulled those fears for him.
A comforting hug—the kind Dallie might offer in this situation—was beyond him, however. He was as skittish of her as she was of snakes, and under normal conditions, he made every effort to avoid physical contact with either. Awkwardly patting the hand with the death grip on his arm was the best he had in him.
“I can identify most of the noises for you, if you want,” he heard himself offer. He stopped in the middle of the path. “Listen for a sec. Then, tell me what you think you hear.”
She tilted her head as she focused. The night tightened around them. The sliver of moon and the ground-level solar lighting limned the delicate lines of her face. She crinkled her nose. “I hear a disorganized orchestra led by a conductor gone mad.”
That made him smile. “I’ve never heard spring peepers described quite that way, before.” He’d always found their song peaceful. “You’re going to have to be more open-minded than that.”
“If you say so.” Little by little, she began to parse out different sounds. “I hear the river.”
“That was too easy.” The Tongue River flowed alongside the Endeavour Ranch, meeting the Yellowstone River on the far side of Grand. “Be more specific,” he urged her. “Water makes a particular trickling sound as it flows over rocks—light, but steady. Can you hear it?” She closed her eyes, listened, then nodded. “There are lots of sounds to choose from. Pick one out and think about what might make it—is it the wind, the water, or an animal?”
She stood like she was crafted of stone, not opening her eyes. “I hear the branches of the trees rubbing together. Wind. I hear the leaves rustling. Also wind.” She waited, intent on something new. Less obvious. “I hear a clicking. Animal?”
He heard the clicking, too. “Yes. Bird,” he clarified. “It’s nesting season. It’s a pair of great blue herons snapping their bill tips together.”
A loud splash came from the Tongue. Her fingers bit into his arm.
“What was that? Animal,” she added hastily.
“Pretty sure that was a beaver slapping its tail on the water. Something likely got a little too close so it sounded a warning.” He made a mental note to send someone down to make sure the pests weren’t flooding the fields, although he didn’t say that to her. She might ask questions with answers a city girl wouldn’t much care for.
“It’s so beautiful here,” she breathed, lifting her face. Her wide eyes absorbed the faint trickle of moonlight. “Thank you for showing me how to appreciate it.”
He wished she didn’t look so damned appealing. Certainty churned in his gut—she wasn’t going to leave when her six months of probation were up. She wouldn’t give him cause to dismiss her, either. What was he going to do about it? How was he supposed to deal with her, day in and day out, when she drove him to distraction? How could he ignore the temptation she presented?
Self-restraint wasn’t part of his nature. His mother might have chosen a new name for him, but deep down, he was a Tosaro and a Cienetti—greedy and ruthless and ready to take whatever he wanted. His grand theft auto days were proof enough of that. So was his willingness to accept his grandfather’s money and lie to his friends.
He brought his palm to her cheek, rubbing the blunt of his thumb along the slender line of her throat. He bent his head over hers. “You have to the count of five to tell me you don’t want me to kiss you,” he said, the words scratching his throat, making them raspy and harsh.
Then, on the count of three, he captured her upturned lips with his. Elizabeth absorbed all his senses. The clicking, the peepers, the rustling of the wind… It all disappeared. Instead, he heard the catch of her breath. Felt the slight tremble of her small frame against his. Tasted the warm, sugar sweetness of her mouth. In his head, he envisioned her naked, in his bed, while his hands explored every inch of her ivory skin.
That vivid mental image, tempting as it was, brought his common sense back into play. He lifted his head and dropped his hands to his sides, acutely and painfully aware he’d just made their workplace that much more intense.
He tried to make light of it, even though he’d been profoundly unsettled. “This is where you’re supposed to toss me on my ass and break one of my legs.”
“Over a kiss?” Her light laugh dispelled any worry that he might have unsettled her, too. “If I were going to break your leg for anything, it would have been when you groped me.”