A smile smoothed out the faint cleft in his chin. “But I was angry, aggressive, and afraid. Anyone who tried to get close to me had to prove I could trust them. That’s how I became friends with Dan and Dallie, you know. I took these two underage country boys I’d barely just met to a bar that didn’t check ID too closely, then stole a police car on the walk home. All because I wanted their friendship. They were either in with me or they were out. They both stuck by me, as hard as that is to believe—although Dan kicked my ass for it later. That ass kicking was totally earned.” He shot her another quick glance. The smile slipped a little. Became serious. “I’m sorry about lunch.”
Her heart bobbed up and down in her chest in a manner that went far beyond fluttering, then began a slow slide into unfamiliar, unexpected, uncharted territory. When he decided an apology was in order, he went about it in a big way. She could take lessons.
“Me too,” she said.
Once a week,the Endeavour’s owners sat down to go over their business.
Initially, they’d met in the common area of the main house. With the growing number of people who lived at the ranch, and the increased likelihood of interruption, they’d gradually shifted those meetings to the garage, where one of Ryan’s cars served as their office.
He owned two Mercedes AMGs—a black one as well as his favorite, the steel blue. Those were the everyday cars. He also owned a Ferrari 488 Spider, custom-painted in British racing-car green, and a bright red Jaguar XE. Dan sometimes took the Jag to the Grand Dragstrip Racetrack and let Jazz heat up the tires whenever she needed to burn off some stress. According to Roman, the racetrack’s owner and chief driving instructor, she was a natural.
Dallas liked the black AMG. He said the grill on the front made it look like Tom Hardy as Bane in one of the Batman movies, which pretty much ruined it for Ryan, because now he couldn’t unsee it.
The black AMG was where they were conducting their business. Ryan sat in the driver’s seat, as usual, with Dan riding shotgun and Dallas flopped in back. Dan and Dallas moved through their reports much more quickly than he did. Jazz wrote Dan’s for him and Dallas had an office manager who took care of his, whereas Ryan preferred to take care of his own.
He plowed through his update on the group home and the ranch’s financial statements, and had started in on the rodeo’s progress report, when Dan interrupted.
“When are you planning to hand the rodeo’s management over to Miles?” he asked.
In his head, Ryan saidnever. Out loud, he was less frank. Every time he was honest with these guys, they tag-teamed him and put his plans to a vote. And every time, he came out the loser. That was how he’d ended up hiring Miles in the first place. Elizabeth too, although he had fewer complaints about that every day.
“In the new year,” he replied vaguely. Dan was good at being a sheriff and had a bullshit detector that worked better than most. Ryan never lied to him outright, although he didn’t always tell him the whole truth. In return, Dan picked his battles.
Dan blew out a breath—half exasperation, half resignation—which meant he was willing to let this battle slide for the moment. “Don’t forget that Miles only hired on because we agreed he could run things his way.”
“You’ve got a lot on the go. Maybe you should give up on the rodeo if you don’t want Miles to run it for you,” Dallas suggested, jumping in with his opinion. “It wasn’t a requirement of the bequest, was it?”
That stupid bequest. He and Judge Palmeter had agreed the fewer people who knew the details surrounding it the better, including Dallas and Dan, to keep the Adriana Gallants of the world from digging too deep. His friends knew part of his history. They didn’t need to know everything, though. The world didn’t, either. Giaco Cienetti Tosaro was dead. Long live Ryan O’Connell.
“It wasn’t,” Ryan said, even though the question was rhetorical because Dallas was fully aware that the rodeo was intended to generate revenue for ranching operations. “But it will benefit Grand too, don’t forget.”
“I haven’t forgotten.” Dallas hung an elbow on the back of the front passenger seat and leaned into the space between Ryan and Dan. His lips pressed into a straight line and curled slightly inward, signaling he’d had a thought of the utmost importance. “I’d like to talk about the requirements around our living arrangements, though.”
“What’s wrong with our living arrangements?” He’d put plenty of effort into them, and couldn’t imagine better options, but Dallas and Dan both eyeballed him as if he’d said something dumb.
Dan answered first. “There was nothing wrong with them while we were all single. So far, it’s been great. But now we have women to factor into our lives and I doubt if they’ll like sharing their space as much as we do.”
“The units are all self-contained. They each have their own patio, too.” He knew he sounded defensive, but seriously. The ranch house was enormous, and the units were actual apartments. Calling it shared space was borderline insulting. Jazz shared living quarters with firefighters. No privacy there. And Hannah lived above her brewery with a parking lot for a backyard.
“Don’t get your panties bunched in a wad,” Dallas said, patting his shoulder. “Have you asked Elizabeth for her opinion?”
“Why would I do that?”
“Was he always this stupid?” Dallas asked Dan.
“Because you’re living together,” Dan said to Ryan, his mild manner, so misleading to others, intimating that his answer to Dallas’s question was yes.
Ryan wasn’t ready to discuss his relationship with Elizabeth with them. He liked living with her, and not just for the sex, although he liked that a lot, too. It was peaceful to sit on the sofa with her in the evenings while she worked on her dissertation and he ran through the ranch’s accounts. She brought stability to his life—a balance, of sorts—that he’d never had. Her presence made his house feel like a real home.
“We are right now, sure, but who knows how long it will last?” he replied.
“How long do you want it to last?”