Ryan stared stupidly,first at the note in his hand, then the open bedroom closet door, and finally, the scattered feminine belongings. A pink scarf. A pair of impractically high heels. A long red hair snagged on one of his discarded socks that had missed the laundry basket in the corner.
His tired brain was running on fumes so the information took longer to process.
Elizabeth was gone.
The overwhelming sense of loss knocked the floor from beneath him and he had to sit down. The bed protested his assault on its box spring by shying beneath him. He hadn’t experienced such a catastrophic event in his life since he’d been seven years old.
He crumpled the note. He must have begun breathing again because he was conscious. Perhaps her leaving was for the best. He’d driven around all night and hadn’t come up with a solution that might work for them both.
He’d have the ranch’s lawyer draw up an agreement for financial support. She didn’t need his money—she likely wouldn’t want it—but this whole mess was as much his fault as hers. More so, because he’d been aware of the stakes and she wasn’t. She didn’t understand that he’d dodged turning into another Giaco only because he’d seen what his grandfather had done to his father.
Thank God for the ranch, his friends, and Montana. They all kept him human.
The sun was up. Fingers of light clawed a path through the bedroom, grabbing at the walls and the floor. He didn’t have the luxury to sit here, wishing he could crawl into bed and wake up with Elizabeth beside him, and discover the past sixteen hours had been a bad dream. She was gone and he had a ranch to run.
He didn’t know what to do about the first, but the second was easy.
He went to work.
He was in the machine shed a week later, checking over the equipment so he could prioritize repairs, when Dallas’s voice crackled over the hand-held radio on one of the roughly hewn wooden shelves.
“Dan and I are taking you to Lou’s for supper. Doctor’s orders. You have half an hour to shower and get ready to go.” The set crackled. “Dan says the shower was ordered by the Department of Health and Human Services.”
Lou’s Pub was a favorite local hangout. The friends often ate there, and played a few games of darts, although since Dallas and Hannah had gotten so close, they’d begun spending evenings at Hannah’s taproom instead.
Ryan set his wrench down. The slight stir in the air gave his nose a clue as to why a shower had been demanded. He went off to comply.
A few minutes before seven, the men walked into Lou’s. The inside smelled of stale beer and hot grease. Ryan’s empty stomach rejoiced. He hadn’t been paying a whole lot of attention to meals the past week, and today, he’d missed lunch.
They chose a table near the back.
“You’ve been working too hard,” Dan said once they’d placed their orders. “You need to slow down.”
Dan was wrong. He slept better at night when he was worn out and too tired to think.
“You’ve been doing this ever since Elizabeth left,” Dallas butted in, adding his unwanted opinion. He was one of those people who genuinely cared about others and friendly concern wafted off of him now. From anyone else, Ryan would find it enraging. “Want to talk about it?”
“Nothing to talk about,” Ryan said.
He wasn’t about to be dragged into a discussion about Elizabeth, which was where this was headed. He’d destroyed any possibilities for reconciliation there. Besides, she might have better luck raising the ticking time bomb she carried if he stayed out of her way. She knew what a sociopath was, so she had that advantage.
“I beg to differ.” Dan played with his fork, a sure sign he was troubled. “We’ve had a number of people ask us to speak with you on their behalf. Let’s start with Miles. He has issues over the rodeo.” He cleared his throat. “I’m trying to find a kind way to say this… You’re in his way.”
“The rodeo was my idea,” Ryan said.
“Yes, it was your brainchild. But you hired Miles to take charge. You have to allow him to make his own decisions. If you don’t, he’ll leave. There are plenty of other circuit towns that would gladly hire him away. Besides”—now Dan looked downright uneasy—“Grand’s chamber of commerce prefers working with him. It seems you can be—and I quote—’a real pain in the ass.’”
Ryan didn’t give a damn about the chamber of commerce’s collective opinion of him, but felt he should protest for appearances’ sake. “That’s harsh.”
“It’s a valid assessment,” Dallas said. “No offense.” He was facing the door, and as he glanced past Ryan’s shoulder, he blanched. “Uh-oh. Incoming. Don’t look around. Maybe she won’t see us.”
Ryan didn’t know who “she” was, but based on Dallas’s reaction, he could take a wild guess. Could his life possibly get any worse?
He kicked his low, round-backed chair away from the squat wooden table. “Gotta go to the bathroom.”