He’d had her three times so far—twice last night and again this morning—and it hadn’t taken more than the edge off. He’d even allowed her a game of bondage—something he’d normally never agree to—all because the idea intrigued her. He’d entertained thoughts of her with him while he showered, the water flowing over her pale, lovely skin, her legs wrapped around his hips, and was considering ways to make that fantasy happen.
What he wouldn’t think about just yet was how they’d deal with her probationary period when it was up. Their boss-employee relationship was almost as great a complication as Jonas’s obsession with her, but they’d traveled too far down that road to reverse course and they might as well enjoy the trip while it lasted. He didn’t know where it might end.
He made a few calls and arranged for the broken window to be boarded up with plywood until it could be replaced. When he emerged from his bedroom, Elizabeth was cutting through the living room on her way out.
“Where are you going?” he asked.
“The cookhouse. It’s lunchtime.”
“Or we can eat here. Together.”
“Boundaries, remember?” She exuded patience as she reverted to her professional persona. He settled in to be wowed by her logic. “I think we should carry on business as usual. I missed breakfast, and soon, everyone will be wondering why I moved to the main house. What should I tell them?”
“That we needed the space for Dallas’s brothers. The boys are planning to come up next weekend. The oldest is twenty-one and the youngest is nineteen. That’s where they usually stay when they’re here.”
Her lower lip puckered as she flipped his suggestion around, searching for flaws. It never failed to amaze him that she believed he was the one with control issues. Even bound to the headboard, she’d been bossy. The recollection sent his thoughts in a whole different direction.
“No one will think it weird?” she asked, drawing him back.
He didn’t care if they did. “Dallas was complaining because it meant he wouldn’t have Hannah all to himself. They were complaining because they didn’t want to—how did they put it—listen to the horizontal mambo all night long.”
“That’s sweet. I mean that Dallas wants Hannah to himself,” Elizabeth said.
And he wanted Elizabeth all to himself, so she should be more understanding as to why he didn’t want her hanging out in the cookhouse with the men anymore. Yes. He had a streak of possessiveness. It wasn’t his worst character flaw.
“Dan’s mother keeps our kitchens well-stocked for us. There’s no reason for you to eat at the cookhouse while you stay here.”
Stubbornness came naturally to her. It was one of the many reasons she intrigued him so much. Normally, no one argued with him. The ranch hands certainly didn’t. She drew herself up to her full height of five nothing, prepared to explain why she was right and he was wrong until she’d beaten him down. Meanwhile, the curly red ponytail and freshly scrubbed face, along with the soft curves of her breasts under the pearl-buttoned pink sweater, had him thinking lunch was overrated and maybe they should return to bed for the rest of the day.
“Are you listening to me?” she asked.
He dragged his eyes upward to hers, where impatience burned through the amber, sparking off buried flecks of gold. He liked playing this game with her, where she tried to defeat him with logic. She usually won, too—which was why he didn’t mind cheating every now and then to keep things somewhat even.
“Yes, I’m listening. You said you expect me to treat you the same as I would every other employee on the ranch, although I hope you mean outside of the bedroom. I’m good with that, and here’s how it’s going to be. Since I’m in charge, and I expect my employees to do as they’re told, from now on, you’ll eat your meals here.”
If she’d been anyone else, she would have flipped him off, but she was too classy for that. He stayed an arm’s length out of reach though, in case she decided more teambuilding was warranted.
“I’ll be working on my dissertation after lunch,” she said, giving up with an ease that left him suspicious, then turned her back on him and walked out of the room—headed, no doubt, for the outdoors and the cookhouse, in direct violation of his orders and how she claimed she wished to be treated.
That was okay. The pint-sized pixie was an endless source of entertainment. He hadn’t expected anything different from her, since she’d already made up her mind. He could eat in the cookhouse too, if that was how she wanted to play this. She wasn’t the only one who knew how to get their own way.
He gave her a head start. When he arrived at the cookhouse, she’d joined Ace, Jonas, and Tyce at their table and was carrying on a conversation with them as if last night never happened.
Considerably less entertained now than before, he grabbed a tray, loaded it with a bowl of chili and biscuits, then set his tray next to hers on the table, forcing Tyce to make room. He dragged a chair over, sat down, and grinned across the table at Jonas, who ducked his head over his food to avoid making eye contact.
“How are we all doing?” Ryan asked, looking around to include everyone present before singling him out. “Jonas. I hear you’re helping out with the fencing all summer.”That’s right, pal. That broken window bought you the whole summer.
He’d forgotten to tell Elizabeth about it, though. He’d have to remember to do that later.
“Handy says I’ll build muscle,” Jonas replied, accepting the news as if it were some sort of privilege, which would have pissed Ryan off a lot more, except he’d been a jerk as a teen, too.
Still could be. “Bet he didn’t mention the blackflies.” Elizabeth kicked his ankle under the table. He rested his elbow on the back of her chair in retaliation. The tip of her ponytail tickled his sleeve, providing a bright splash of color against the drab gray of the fabric. “You’ll see plenty of wildlife, too. Better stick close to Handy. He’ll have the bear spray and the rifle.” Because it wasn’t as if anyone would let the kid carry a weapon.
“This is why you should stay in your bunks after lights out,” Ace said to the boys. “If you don’t, we feed you to the bears.”
“You aren’t funny.” Elizabeth seared both men with her case manager glare, a reminder they were supposed to be the adults in the room.
“We weren’t trying to be funny. I’m serious,” Ryan replied. “Stay close to Handy,” he said to Jonas. The kid was too cocky by far. He’d like him to learn a lesson or two, but he didn’t intend for any harm to come to him while he did. “Cattle attract bears because they make an easy meal, especially the calves, but at the end of the day, bears aren’t too fussy about what they eat.”
Elizabeth picked up her tray, her lunch barely half finished. “There goes my appetite. Have a nice afternoon, gentlemen.”
Ryan reviewed what he’d said. Bears might not have been the right topic to bring up in front of a city girl who was already wary of night noises on a ranch. She was pretty attached to the bottle-fed orphans, too. She’d be thinking of them out there without any mother to protect them.
And oddly enough, even after last night, she genuinely cared what happened to Jonas. He did too, when it came right down to it. But the little dumbass was here to learn lessons, and the lessons were about to begin.
Owen, who’d been following the conversation with unabashed interest, leaned over from his table beside them. “Maybe next Saturday night, you should be the one to pick out a movie that will impress girls,” he suggested to Ryan. “You sound like an expert.”