He hadn’t planned on getting this deep into the story. The memory of it made his chest hurt. Normally, whenever forced to confront it, he managed to separate himself enough to relay it as if it were a movie he’d watched. Talking to Elizabeth about it was different.
Her clasped hands tightened against the small of his back. She leaned back slightly to look up at him. “There were three attackers altogether, as well as your mother and father? Was it a robbery gone bad, or was your father the target?”
“And… this is now one of those conversations I wish I’d never started,” Ryan said lightly, forcing humor into his words. It had happened so long ago, and to people who were now dead, that the grip it maintained on his life was nothing short of ridiculous. “It was a hit, okay? My dad wasn’t one of the good guys.”
“Which is why they weren’t interested in your mother.”
They’d been interested in her, alright. They’d hauled her off to his grandfather’s—who had ordered the hit, as it turned out. He’d huddled in his bed with the lights out for hours, waiting for her to return. When she did, her face was swollen and bruised. Her lip split. He never learned what had happened to his father’s body and he no longer wanted to know.
“She moved us to Montana soon after that,” he said. He left out the part about the witness protection program. “I’ve been told that seeing the murder and being unable to do anything about it is why I have control issues. It’s also the reason I don’t go after anyone smaller or weaker than me, which is why I brought up this sordid story in the first place—if you’re worried about what I might do to Jonas, don’t be. I don’t condone violence. I understand it, mind you. But we don’t engage in corporal punishment here. I provide the facilities, recreation, and program funding for the group home. Any therapy is up to the case manager and counselors. Handy will take charge of him while he’s fencing.”
Elizabeth seized on a detail he hadn’t intended. “Why would your mother move you to Montana?”
“Probably because it’s about as far from Chicago as you can get in this country, at least in terms of lifestyle.” Plus, no one would ever have thought to search for his glamorous, socialite mother here. Sadly, they were right not to expect it. She’d chosen it for his sake, not hers, and she’d slowly withered away.
She sounded so incredulous. He found that amusing.
“It’s a big city. You aren’t the only person ever born there,” he said. “I haven’t lived there since I was seven years old and I don’t remember much about it. I’d prefer that not to become public knowledge, though.” Adriana Gallant would fall all over that piece of gossip.
Elizabeth patted his back. “Your secret is safe with me, Heathcliff.”
“Did you call me Heathcliff? As in the emo guy fromWuthering Heights?” He wasn’t sure how he should take that, although he supposed he’d been called worse.
“I think I’ll call you Black Bart from now on,” she said.
This ought to be good. “Because…?”
“He was a gentleman bandit with a questionable past who supposedly disappeared into the wilds of Montana after his release from San Quentin.”
Sure. That sounded like him. He was impressed that she knew who Black Bart was, though. “You really studied up for this job, didn’t you?”
“I really did,” she said smugly.
“Then you know Bart was also afraid of horses. I’m not. I’ve got the Tennessee Walkers to prove it.”
“But you prefer horsepower to horses,” she said. “Your garage is far more impressive than your stable.”
He couldn’t argue with that. And the tag Black Bart was better than Heathcliff. “Try calling me Ryan,” he advised her, disengaging himself from her arms. She’d relaxed her death grip on him while they talked and it was time to move on from him and his sordid past. “Gather your things. I’ll get Steve or Young John to take care of the orphans for you so you can sleep in.”
She wasn’t finished with her interrogation. “Why did you come back?”
The way she tilted her head when she posed the question made him feel as if his brain were exposed so that she could see inside his head and already knew the answer—because she was the brightest, prettiest distraction he’d come across in forever, with her cascade of curls, amber eyes, and bright mind, and he wanted her.
He’d been standing off to one side of the path, avoiding the light, watching the bunkhouse from a safe distance, and debating whether or not he should return and take her up on the challenge she’d thrown down.
Because I wanted you to.
“I saw a shadow move where there shouldn’t be one,” he said.
Then he’d spotted Jonas on the veranda, trapped by the porch light when she opened the door. He’d waited just long enough to see how she’d handle herself. Poorly, as it turned out. She’d given Jonas the benefit of the doubt and he’d seized on it as a weakness. As a result, he’d gotten too close.
That wouldn’t happen to her again. She’d become far too important.
He touched her cheek. She caught his hand in hers and turned her lips into his palm, searing a kiss into his flesh. Heat-licked amber eyes, wide and steady, lifted to his.
“We shouldn’t do this,” she said.