Elizabeth didn’t turnon any inside lights. She leaned against the door, pressing her hands and her ear against the cool wooden panel, and focused on taking deep, normal breaths, allowing her overtaxed lungs to decompress while she waited for Ryan’s next move.
Because I wanted you to.
She shouldn’t have said that.
All was quiet outside at first. Then, footsteps chewed into gravel. Her pounding heart slowed in correlation to the sound of footsteps fading into the night.
She closed her eyes. It had been a long time since she’d been this aware of a man. Maybe never. Worse, there was interest on both their parts, not only hers, which was going to make it twice as hard for her to ignore.
And she should ignore it. Sexually, they were far too aware of each other for an employer-employee relationship. He was such a fascinating blend of restraint and feral need. He kissed as if the world were about to end and they were the last two people left in it alive.
But she didn’t lie to herself and pretend there was anything more to it than that. She knew what the drawbacks would be. He could no more give up control of a relationship than he could hand over the reins of the ranch. When things ended—which they would, because his weren’t terms she’d ever accept—she’d be the one who’d have to leave.
She heard light footsteps cross the veranda. She assumed it must be him, returning to tell her not to read too much into that kiss. Otherwise, it might be wise to start planning her exit strategy now.
When she opened the door she found Jonas, about to place a small bouquet of spring flowers on the stoop. He stared up at her with a deer-in-the-headlights look in his eyes. It was hard to say which one of them was the more surprised.
She recovered first. “Aren’t you supposed to be in bed?”
Jonas glanced up the dimly lit path to the house. “I figured you would be, too.”
She didn’t like his knowing smile and what it inferred. She wondered if he’d seen her with Ryan, but it might be best not to wonder about that too much. Her takeaway was that not much remained private on the ranch and she’d do well to remember that in the future.
The best way to claim control of this situation was to treat it lightly, while at the same time, exerting authority. “Then why are you here?”
Jonas recovered the cheekiness only teenagers seemed able to pull off. “Angel dared me.”
That was a plausible enough explanation that she was willing to accept as long as it got him off her doorstep. “I guess you showed him,” she said. “If he needs confirmation that you followed through, you can send him to me. In the future, however, when your counselor says it’s lights out, he means for you to be in your bunk.” She began to close the door. “Good night.”
Jonas thrust one hand out to stop it before it could latch. He pushed it wider and held out the yellow buttercups and pink shooting stars. “Here. These are for you.”
She didn’t like the vibe she was getting. She didn’t like the way he tried to see past the door and into her home, and she wished she’d turned on the lights. She definitely didn’t like that he’d muscled the door open, proving how much stronger he was than her, even though he was undersized for his age.
There was also a strong possibility she wasn’t as ready to work with teenaged boys as she’d believed, despite all her formal education. Ryan was right. She was stupid. Theory was one thing. Practice, another entirely.
“Thank you,” she said coolly, falling back on her education, because that was the best defensive weapon she had. “I’ll accept them this once, but it’s inappropriate for you to be bringing me gifts of any kind and I won’t accept them again.”
She debated telling him to stay away from her private living quarters too, because that worried her a lot more than the note or the flowers, then decided against it. She’d leave that to his counselor when she spoke to him about this tomorrow. The goal right now was to de-escalate, not cause direct confrontation.
“Could I get a drink of water?” he asked.
He’d blocked the doorway. He inched a little farther into the room, forcing her to take a step back, making her more conscious of the fact the room behind her was in darkness.
Intellectually, she understood he had a poor grasp of socially acceptable behavior—he wasn’t at the ranch because he fit so well into society. But, while his intentions might be harmless enough, they might also not be, and the situation had progressed beyond her ability to control it.
Was this what had happened to her sister? Had she believed no real harm was intended until it was too late?Could I break this boy’s leg?
That last cold, practical thought flashed into her head as she assessed her next move.
Fortunately, the decision was taken out of her hands.
“There’s water in your own bunkhouse. Go back to bed.” Ryan’s cold voice carried from partway up the path. Long strides carried him toward them with the implacable force of a train.
Despite Jonas’s poor social skills, he seemed to understand self-preservation well enough. He didn’t waste time on explanations or goodbyes, but jumped off the side of the veranda and disappeared into the shadows seconds before Ryan emerged into the light.