“Where are you taking me?” Jonas asked. He slumped in his seat, doing as he was told, but not hiding how he felt about it. Wariness warred with belligerence.
Elizabeth, who’d followed, wedged herself between Ryan and the driver’s side door. “I’m coming, too.”
He boosted her into the cab before climbing in after her. They weren’t going far. He drove the ten miles to the airport, bumped the old truck down a dirt road that parted two fields, then pulled up next to one of the hangars.
“Wait here,” he said. He eyed Elizabeth, who’d pokered up as if prepared to fight to the death to protect Jonas from him, which seemed unfair, since he hadn’t started the rumble with Angel. “Break his leg if he does anything you don’t like,” he said, to annoy her a bit more. “I’ll break the other one when I get back.”
“No one is breaking anyone’s legs,” she reassured Jonas, making Ryan wonder whose side she was on.
He entered the hangar, which housed the smoke jumper base that Jazz ran, and grabbed a key from the wall next to her office. He jotted his name on the sign-out sheet. He returned to the truck, where Elizabeth and Jonas both clammed up when they saw him. Whatever they were discussing, they didn’t want him to hear it. No problem. He’d get it out of her later.
“Let’s go,” he said.
He led them across the tarmac to a hangar on the far side. The ranch had built an obstacle course that Jazz and the firefighters used for training. He’d planned on bringing the kids to check it out over the winter, but right now, during the fire season, it was technically off-limits.
Bright pinks, blues, and yellows, assaulted the eyes when they entered. The course sprawled from one end of the hangar to the other, and towered in places. Thick mats padded the floor. A simulated helicopter fuselage, some fifty feet overhead, could only be accessed by a zipline from above or the knotted rope dangling from the platform to the ground.
“Dope,” Jonas breathed, his head swiveling to take it all in.
Ryan peeled off his shirt and kicked off his shoes. “Handy tells me you’re a good worker. He says you’re tough. You want to prove you’re tough to the world, this is the best way to do it, because there’s nobody tougher than smokejumpers. They run this course in full firefighting gear. Fighting just proves you’re an asshole.”
He picked up a stopwatch that hung next to the training gear and tossed it to Elizabeth. “You can time us to keep it fair. I’ll go first to show him how it’s done. He beats me, he can call it quits with the fencing. I beat him, he apologizes to Angel. Deal?” he said, turning to Jonas.
Jonas’s eagerness as he examined the course was almost painful to see. It told Ryan he should have taken more of an interest, not only in Jonas, but all of the boys. They were all misfits, same as he’d once been, which was why they were here—but they each had their own talents and strengths, and the Endeavour was the perfect place to help sort them out.
“You can take as many tries as you need. Only the helicopter is off-limits,” Ryan said. “Jazz won’t allow anyone but the smokejumpers to climb fifty feet.” He squared off at the start and nodded at Elizabeth. “Ready.”
There were ten obstacles in all. The first was a glaring pink rope bridge, stretched across twenty feet of red matting. The purpose was to cling to it upside down and shimmy across underneath. Next up came horizontal cargo netting, meant to be crawled under, then a vertical net, which had to be climbed.
Ryan slowed a fraction at the tire obstacle, leaping with precision from one to the other, then swung across the monkey bars, taking a few seconds longer than he should. He cleared the next wall and eased back on the throttle again. He crossed the balance beam, wobbling with a complete lack of grace, before ending the course with a stump hop an old man could beat.
“Your turn,” he puffed to Jonas, resting his hands on his thighs to give his lungs a chance to catch up. The course was a lot harder than it looked. Otherwise, what was the point?
Jonas swung into action. He must have paid close attention, because the only obstacle that caused him any real trouble was the pink rope bridge at the very first of the course. The hard work of fencing had gone a long way toward physical endurance, too. Ryan almost wished he hadn’t spotted him those extra few seconds.
Jonas jogged up to Elizabeth, eager to hear how he’d done.
“You won by four seconds,” she said, delighted.
“You don’t have to sound so happy about it,” Ryan said. He clapped Jonas on the shoulder. “Congratulations. No more fencing for you.”
“Oh, I’m sticking with the fencing,” Jonas assured him, red-faced from spent energy and beaming with pride. “But I’m not apologizing to Angel. He’s still a dick.”
Jonas hopped fromthe truck before it had rolled to a complete stop, but he headed for the horse barn instead of the barbecue. Since he wasn’t in the right frame of mind to socialize yet, Ryan let him go.
Elizabeth remained where she was, with her thigh pressed tight against his. Her eyes smiled up at him in a way he particularly liked. It made him feel special. It told him she was his, whether or not she said it out loud.
He loved her. He knew it as surely as he knew the sun rose in the east. He loved the way she bossed him around. He loved how she doubted him, and yet always seemed to believe he meant to do the right thing—even those times when he didn’t. She ranked his motives higher than his actions.
And she looked at him right now as if she really believed he was a far better man than he was. Which only served to make her distance the past little while all that more perplexing. He wished he could be as confident of her feelings as he was of his own.