The final twoboys arrived the last week in June, filling the group home to capacity. Ryan charged into Elizabeth’s office one morning soon after.
“I’m about to head out on one of the ATVs to check on how the breeding program is doing,” he said. “Want to come with me?”
She’d heard a lot about the breeding program over the past month or so, and she knew the Endeavour was working toward a sixty-day season, but they hadn’t yet hit that goal. She’d witnessed the first phase, which was artificial insemination, because AI—as it was known—was easier to track and had a higher fertility rate. The larger and older bulls on the ranch were used for cleanup toward the end of the season, meaning any cows that came into heat after they should have been bred.
“Don’t the bulls know what they’re doing?” she asked.
“For the most part.” The cleft in his chin flickered along with his grin. “But Miles is conducting some genetic research for a program he’s running, which means taking samples, plus we have to vaccinate and deworm them before we can turn them loose on the ladies. Handling bulls requires as many men as we can spare. Colin and Ace are taking the kids.”
“That doesn’t sound safe.”
“They get to move gates around to help contain them. They don’t get to ride them.”
“I’d better come along to make sure they don’t do anything stupid,” she said. “We’re talking teenaged boys. You know someone is going to dare someone else to do exactly that.” Besides, fresh air would be good. She’d been working long hours, and lately, had begun to feel the effect.
“I’ll meet yououtside the machine shed in ten minutes.”
Elizabeth ran to change into boots and jeans, then joined Ryan at the machine shed. The ranch owned six ATVs and four half-ton trucks, because for the most part, machines were more practical than horses. They sometimes used the helicopter for roundup, but not if they had to land close to the cattle. The trucks and two of the ATVs were already gone.
“Do you want your own or do you want to ride with me?” Ryan asked.
“I’ll ride with you.”
She hadn’t had motion sickness since she was a little girl, but bouncing through the fields on the back of an ATV brought back old memories, none of them fond. By the time they reached their destination, she’d made up her mind to ride home in one of the trucks.
Nineteen bulls, weighing between two thousand and twenty-five hundred pounds each, waited with growing impatience. They looked like cattle on steroids when compared to the more delicate ladies. Muscle bulged across their shoulders and necks. One end of their pasture had been fenced off and metal gates, to be used as hand-held chutes by the men to force the bulls into the makeshift corral, sprawled on the ground, ready for action.
Boys swung their legs from truck tailgates and lolled on the ground, waiting to be told what to do. One of them hung from the wire fence, waving at the bulls to attract their attention, until Colin grabbed him by the collar of his shirt and dragged him away.
Colin dumped the boy next to one of the trucks. “What did I tell you guys?” he demanded. “You don’t think that fence will hold those beasts back if you wind them up, do you?”
Elizabeth was certainly no expert, but that didn’t sound safe.
“Go sit in the back of one of the trucks and watch,” Ryan said to her. “That way I know where you are.”
“Do you really think the boys are going to be of any use?”
“None whatsoever,” he replied cheerfully. “Except maybe Jonas. He’s been out in the fields and sort of knows what to expect.”
The day proved enlightening as well as uneventful. The bulls weren’t only vaccinated and dewormed. They were sprayed for flies and had their penises disinfected. None of it made them happy.
The boys did their part by holding the gates to the chute. Elizabeth’s lungs forgot how to function when the first irritable bull approached them, but the boys used their gates as barriers, and the bull obediently veered away and into the narrow chute opening. The same for the next.
The more experienced ranch hands took care of the treatments. Ryan and Miles supervised.
Ryan was the one who hoarded her attention. He hadn’t bothered wearing a hat. Dark glasses kept the sun out of his eyes. He’d rolled up his sleeves. Jeans strained over muscular thighs as he squatted to lift one of the metal kits containing the medication. Lust, interlaced with affection, jacked up her heart. He’d be easy to love, if she wasn’t more careful.
But working together as well as sharing their private space continued to wave bright red flags. They hadn’t yet had their first fight, and how they handled the fallout remained to be seen.
He caught her staring at him. Black Bart emerged, reminding her of what they’d been doing earlier, before they got out of bed, and she felt herself blush. This was the one area of their relationship that wasn’t complicated at all—except it caused all the complications.
By suppertime, she’d been out in the sun for most of the day, and as a result, had a headache. She reconsidered riding home in one of the pickups with the boys. Cutting across country through the fields would be faster. She wouldn’t have to listen to them, either.