Waves of relief crashed over Elizabeth, leaving her knees about to collapse. She’d never been so glad to see him, even though this was no white-hatted, cowboy hero, swooping in to save the day. This was an angry black angel who looked ready to tear the whole world apart.
“Pack up what you need for tonight and the morning. I’ll wait. Tomorrow, we’ll move your belongings into the guest suite,” he ordered her, sounding a lot more in control of himself than he looked.
If she’d had the night to think about it, she’d likely have found a reason for why she should stay put. As it was, she was concerned enough about his mental state that she had no interest in arguing with him—not simply for the sake of it. He was in no mood.
He bounded up the steps and pried the wilting flowers from her hand that she hadn’t realized she still held. He flipped the interior light on and carried the flowers to the trash can beside the sink in the small kitchenette. The lid opened and closed with a bang. The frigid look in his dark eyes when he returned to the bunkroom eclipsed anything a mere, brooding Heathcliff could have conjured. It was truly frightening, although she wasn’t afraid for herself.
“Jonas is just a boy,” she began. “But—”
“I know what he is.” Ryan’s gaze thawed somewhat when it settled on her, although it became no less wild and alarming. “He’s an undersized kid trying to prove he’s a big man by intimidating someone smaller and weaker than he is. He enjoys pushing people to their limits because he’s never had to face consequences. He takes what he wants, and if for some reason he can’t get it, he has to diminish or destroy it. He’s an egomaniac with an inferiority complex who’s just earned himself a month’s worth of fencing. And don’t bother telling me it’s too heavy for him, or it might interfere with his schoolwork, because you’ll be wasting your breath.”
She didn’t know much about fencing, but she did know it involved a lot of hard work and that the hired hands complained incessantly about it.
She also knew self-recrimination and guilt when she saw it. It blazed behind the ice in his eyes. In his head, worst-case scenarios were playing out as to what might have happened if he hadn’t turned back.
The reason why he’d decided to turn back was a whole other matter.
She threw her arms around his waist and hugged him, pressing her forehead to his chest and the knitted softness of his jersey shirt beneath his partially unzipped jacket.
“I was going to say thank you,” she said.
A cute littleperson.
Elizabeth’s arms closed around him. He folded his around her, mostly in an automatic response, because he’d entered uncharted territory as far as his interactions with women were concerned. The ones he normally pursued tended to be what polite people called worldly. They didn’t particularly inspire this need to protect. Any one of them would have had that boy on his knees, doubled over in agony, cradling his damaged goods. For all Elizabeth’s education, work experience, self-defense lessons, and talk, overprotective parents had left her idealistic and that translated to vulnerable.
“I’m fine. I just need a moment,” she assured him, the warmth of her breath cutting into his skin.
The raging inferno inside him slowly burned itself out and he found himself talking. He didn’t know why. Maybe he wanted to give her something different to focus on. Maybe he wanted her to know that he wasn’t planning to kill Jonas, even though the little shit was lucky he hadn’t kicked his ass all the way back to his bunkhouse. Maybe he needed to remind himself of why that would have been a really bad idea, because he’d been sorely tempted—but violence was his grandfather’s approach to problem-solving and would never be his again.
“As a kid, maybe eleven or twelve, I used to get in fights almost every day,” he said, absently rubbing the heel of one hand in a circular motion between Elizabeth’s slender shoulders. God, she was fragile… The rage threatened to reemerge, so he tucked his chin into her crown of glossy red curls and talked faster. “It didn’t matter how big the other kid was. The bigger, the better. Win or lose, I didn’t care. My mom got to the point where she couldn’t take it anymore, so she dumped me back into therapy. The therapist told me I had an unresolved need to take control of situations and not be a passive victim. She suggested I come up with a way to address that need other than resorting to violence. So I started stealing cars.”
“I’m impressed you listened to her, although I’ll assume she suggested a different sport—something like football or rugby. I would have recommended track and field if I were her, though. To minimize physical contact.” Then, after she had him all twisted around so he wasn’t sure where she was going with her train of thought, she asked, “Why were you in therapy in the first place?”
He hadn’t seen that question coming. Served him right for opening up. He tried to decide how much history he was comfortable in revealing to her. It went with a high level of trust.
He did trust her, though. “This is in confidence, okay?”
She nodded her understanding.
Her calmness went a long way toward cooling his anger. He spoke to the top of her head, glad she wasn’t watching him, because he couldn’t bring himself to tell her the whole story. He’d never told it to anyone—not therapists, not Dallas and Dan. Secrecy was what kept the Adriana Gallants of the world from his doorstep. His mother had drummed that message home.
The Day of the Jackal…What kind of lame-ass, unoriginal title for a fakeumentary was that?
“When I was seven, my father was murdered. I was in bed asleep, but I woke up when I heard noises downstairs. They didn’t know I was there. I was supposed to be at my grandfather’s, but my mom and I came home early. They were all in the front foyer and I watched it happen from the upstairs landing.” And he watched it again and again in his nightmares, although only every few months now, as opposed to every night.
“Where was your mom during all this?”
She sounded like Dan, who turned everything into an interrogation. But he could feel her relax, so he didn’t object. “Does it matter?”
“I think so, yes.”
“She was in the foyer too, being restrained by two men.”