Ranch work didn’thalt for holidays. Ryan gave everyone the afternoon of the Fourth of July off, anyway.
The counselors had taken their charges to the swimming hole in the Tongue River for a few hours. Two propane barbecues had been set up in the outdoor kitchen on the Endeavour’s back lawn. Elizabeth, pretty in a blue sundress and sandals, with her red curls in a high ponytail that brushed her cheek whenever she bent her head forward, laid out condiments, salads, and sweets on a skirted buffet table.
She insisted on maintaining a level of formality between them outside of the bedroom. Meanwhile, he took advantage of every opportunity that presented itself to remind her they were living together. It had turned into a game. A fun one.
But she’d been distracted for the past week and he wanted to know why.
He dropped a quick kiss on her cheek as he walked by, catching a tormenting whiff of the almond-scented sunscreen she’d slathered herself with in the process. The sun caught the amber in her eyes and turned them to gold. She smiled for him, spreading lightness and warmth through his chest.
The subject of the future hadn’t come up yet. He was thinking about how to approach it, though.
He’d never seen himself settled down, and he definitely didn’t see himself turning into a family man, not like Dan and Dallas, but since Elizabeth was so focused on her career, there was a good chance a traditional family life might not be all that important to her.
He wasn’t quite ready to discuss it. They’d only known each other for three months. They’d been living together for less than two of them.
But he was definitely thinking about it.
Hannah tapped him on the shoulder. Dan and Dallas both had the day free, so she and Jazz had shown up to help out with the cooking.
“The sixer is in Dallas’s kitchen,” Hannah said. A sixer was a small keg that held forty-two pints. “That seemed the safest way to keep it from tempting the kids.” She liked to experiment with new recipes for her brewery by trying them out on her friends, so she’d brought a smoked porter with jalapenos for the adults to taste.
Elizabeth’s face paled. Her hand flew to her mouth. “I don’t think I can drink that.”
“You won’t hurt my feelings,” Hannah reassured her, her pretty face sincere. “Not everyone likes beer, and a porter is an acquired taste.”
“Especially a smoked porter with jalapenos,” Ryan added. Anticipation didn’t sing through his veins either, even though he’d never tried one of Hannah’s experiments to date that wasn’t top notch. She had great instincts when it came to her craft.
He spotted Owen racing up the path from the bunkhouses, waving his arms. His first fear was that someone had drowned. He didn’t wait for Owen to come to him, but began running toward him. Elizabeth was running too, but he quickly outpaced her.
“Fight,” Owen panted out when they met, pointing behind him. Outside the horse barn. “Ace said to get you.”
Ryan charged around the barn at full throttle to find Ace holding Angel in a headlock and Colin with Jonas’s arms pinned behind him.
“What’s going on here?” he demanded.
Whatever it was, Jonas had come out ahead. A few months of fencing had given him serious muscle.
“He called me a faggot,” Jonas said, his voice high and angry and his entire body quivering. He kicked out at Angel with both feet, causing Colin to stagger as he tried to carry Jonas’s full weight.
“I did not,” Angel protested, red-faced. He had a bruise building under one eye. “I was politically correct. I told him to quit acting so gay.”
Ryan was overjoyed to leave it to the counselors to deal with whatever had brought on that particular request. “Let them go.”
As soon as Ace let go, Jonas lunged for Angel, but Ryan was ready. He hooked him around the upper body with both arms, hauling him back.
“You and me,” Ryan said. “Let’s go blow off some steam.”
Elizabeth had arrived by now, slightly out of breath from running, going all case manager and business on them, which would have been funny if tempers weren’t raging. The cute ponytail didn’t lend her a whole lot of credibility in this particular crowd.
“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” she said.
“It’s an excellent idea,” Ryan assured her. Her level of confidence in him was flattering. “I’m not going to kill him.” Although a little fear might do Jonas some good.
He marched the boy toward one of the farm trucks and hustled him into the passenger seat. “Stay there. Don’t move. If I have to chase you, it won’t put me in a good mood.”