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Elizabeth Benson rang the front bell of the Endeavour Ranch’s main house. No one answered.
Flecks of ice stung her cheeks. She shrugged deeper into her fleece-lined coat and contemplated her next move—getting out of the wind. As a Chicago-born native, she was no stranger to raw, rainy weather, but late March in Montana on a cold, blustery day certainly gave her hometown a run for its money.
She’d been treated like royalty the moment she’d entered the FBO executive lounge at Chicago O’Hare International Airport. The private plane had been a nice touch. From Billings-Logan International, she’d transferred to a charter flight that had flown her to the small Custer County airfield outside of Grand, Montana, where a cab had been waiting for her.
Then the cab driver abandoned her here, in the middle of nowhere, with the sky’s low-hanging, gray belly due to explode any second.
“There’s always someone about,” he’d cheerfully informed her while waving away her attempt to give him a tip. “No need for that. Bill’s been paid.”
She rang the doorbell again, leaning a little heavier on it this time. Still nothing, which didn’t make sense. Why go to all the expense and trouble of flying her from Chicago to Montana for a job interview, then not be here to greet her?
She tried the door, which was unlocked, and peered inside. Calling this Goliath a house was like calling the Grand Canyon a crevice. An enormous lounge with a high-beamed ceiling and stone floor unfolded before her. Other than heavy leather furniture and a big-screen TV, it was empty and silent. On the other side of the lounge was an office. The door was open and the lights were off. Also empty. Since the lounge space appeared communal, not private, she dragged her suitcase inside. No one responded when she called out.
Her bootheels echoed off stone as she crossed the room to one of three imposing doors. A brass panel on the first door read, Dan McKillop. Since Dan was the person who’d arranged for her interview, she rang the bell next to the brass panel. No answer. Of course there wasn’t. She rang the next bell. Dallas Tucker. No one here either. She was beginning to feel a lot like Goldilocks. The third door belonged to Ryan O’Connell, the man she was here to see. No one home here, either.
The lounge area had a public restroom, so that took care of her most pressing concern. When she emerged, she debated curling up in one of the leather armchairs for a nap and completing the whole fairy-tale image. Eventually, someone would find her. This was a working ranch, after all, and while she didn’t know much about ranching, she did know that the odd assortment of outbuildings she’d seen as she’d driven up the long drive in the cab had to support some sort of labor.
Therefore, discounting an apocalypse, the entire ranch couldn’t possibly be deserted at three-fifteen in the afternoon. The cab driver hadn’t thought so either, but since he’d been prepaid and there was no reason to put himself out, his opinion was suspect.
She tucked her bags out of sight between two leather chairs—she didn’t care how deserted the place seemed—and again braved the fierce, icy wind raging outside that suggested the aforementioned apocalypse should not be ruled out. Chicago weather had nothing on this.
She covered her face with the sleek suede sleeve of her jacket and leaned into the wind as she battled her way to the first outbuilding. Inside, the shed smelled of grease, oil, and rust. Two boys, who had to be junior high students, not cowhands, glanced up as she entered.
“I’m looking for Ryan O’Connell,” she said.
“He’s in the calving shed, next to the heifer pen,” one boy replied. He pointed to his right. Both boys went back to their task, which appeared to be tearing an engine apart, letting her know they’d given her all the directions she was likely to need.
Armed with this new information, Elizabeth backed out of the shed and into a flurry of wet, giant-flaked snow that clung to her eyelashes and melted upon contact with her cheeks. She’d heard blizzards weren’t rare in the spring. It seemed the rumors were true.
And a heifer was some sort of cow, right?
She scanned the yard. To her left—in the direction the boy indicated—she spied a cluster of brown and black humps coated in white, bunched up to a fence, their skinny tails to the wind. A sloped shed with more of the ubiquitous steel siding butted the enclosure. She leaned into the wind and fought her way to the door of the shed. The slickened, muddy ground turned to ice under her feet and she slipped as she forced the sliding door open, saved from tumbling to her knees by her grip on the vertical handle.
“Close the damn door!” someone barked.
She regained her footing along with her composure and did as commanded. The warm interior of the calf shed was a welcome respite from the storm despite the frigid tone of its occupant. A barrage of foreign invaders attacked the inside of her nose. The scent of sweet-smelling hay mingled with urine and dust. The tang of manure with an overlay of coppery blood. Antiseptic—which quite frankly, was wasting its time.
A bright, overhead bulb spotlighted the scene. A dark-haired man crouched on his heels at the back end of a prone cow, one arm wedged well up under her tail, while the cow moaned her opinion in unhappy terms. Since he was the only person here, he had to be Ryan O’Connell. Her first impression of him was of dark, single-focused intensity wrapped up in excrement-splattered, heavy, blue-cotton coveralls.
He withdrew his arm, covered in a long, clear plastic glove that extended to his armpit, as well as a thick coating of stuff she didn’t dare dwell on. The two tiny hooves in his hand explained a few things—number one being what the term calving shed meant.
Before she could recover her speech, he barked out another command without turning around. “Don’t stand there. Make yourself useful. Hand me that chain on the wall.” He jabbed an elbow behind him and held out his palm, jerking his fingers in a come-hither motion with all the patience of a Catholic school nun after a wad of contraband chewing gum.
She hoped he didn’t plan on shouting at at-risk teenagers this way or they were going to have words.
A length of linked steel chain with two triangular handles on either end hung from a hook. She lifted the chain gingerly, questioning what some of the crusty stains on it might be, and dropped it into his waiting hand.
He stripped off the glove and tossed it aside, wrapped the chain around the two dangling front legs, grasped the handles in both hands, planted a rubber boot against the cow’s nether end, and leaned back, tugging hard. His face reddened with strain as the cow’s displeasure increased. Seconds later, a small, wet body slithered free to land on a padding of thick yellow straw. The man flipped the limp calf over, wiped it down with his bare hands, then cleared its nostrils to make sure it was breathing.
The cow, like any new mama, immediately forgot her recent distress and got in a few licks with her tongue as she explored the world’s newest member. The calf struggled to its knees, its efforts to rise hampered by its mother’s effusive attention.
“That was incredible,” Elizabeth breathed, unable to hold back her wonder at the miracle she’d witnessed.
The man glanced around. Surprise livened his face, stripping off years. He was a lot younger than she’d thought. And obviously, she wasn’t who he’d expected to find standing behind him.
“Elizabeth Benson,” she added, holding out her hand before thinking better of it and hastily jamming it into her jacket pocket. His look of confusion persisted, so she prodded his memory. “If you’re Ryan O’Connell, I had a job interview scheduled with you for this afternoon?”
Never again would Ryan let Dan McKillop vet resumes for him. He’d told him three times that this particular candidate wouldn’t suit, and yet, here she was—in the calving shed, of all places.
Amber-eyed Elizabeth Benson, with curly strands of fiery red hair escaping the hood of a form-fitting, camel suede jacket, and sporting a pair of black, knee-high leather boots drawn over black spandex leggings, looked like the tooth fairy’s super-hot sister. The online footage of her didn’t come close to the real thing. She had a perky, uptilted nose and full, pink-tinted lips. Her smooth, milk-white skin was unmarred by wrinkles, freckles, or anything so crass as a pimple. Long eyelashes had been dipped in milk chocolate, leaving them brown at the tips and dark red near the roots. The form her suede jacket fitted was fine. Very fine.
Too fine. What the hell had been going on in Dan’s head?
They couldn’t have this girl living on-site as a case manager for a group of delinquent teenaged boys. She was a walking, talking, wet dream. Hiring her would be asking—no, pleading—for trouble.
“Was your interview this afternoon?” he said, stalling, even though it made him sound disorganized and stupid, which he wasn’t, but he couldn’t very well tell her that he hadn’t intended to interview her.
“According to the travel arrangements.” Which you made her tone added.
But he hadn’t. Dan had.
He cursed his friend. Crap, amniotic fluid, urine, and blood covered his clothes and his hands. Likely his hair, too. The odds suggested his smell might not be daisy fresh, either. He’d ended up on birthing duty this afternoon because the night manager was off for another three hours and the two stooges in the machine shed had sissied out. They’d noted the heifer, a first-timer, was taking too long to deliver, brought her into the calving shed, then hauled him out of his office to come take a look. He cursed them out too.
Fortunately, the heifer showed the makings of a good mother. He lifted the calf—also a heifer—to its feet and helped it find one of the business ends of the udder. Once he had it latched on and was sure the mother’s milk had let down, he returned his attention to Elizabeth. He hated to tell her she’d come here for nothing, but better to yank that particular Band-Aid off quickly.
He straightened. She was even prettier up close. And, given the length of her legs, a lot shorter than she’d appeared when he’d been crouched on his heels, looking up. The top of her head maxed out at the middle of his chest and she had to tilt her chin to look him in the eye.
“I’m sorry, Ms. Benson, but—” he began, only to get cut off before he could finish.
He had an unholy urge to see how she’d react if he called her Beth. Or maybe Betty. Neither of which would suit her. Everything about her, from her overall appearance to her work experience, screamed money and privilege. Even her name. The Endeavour was no place for her.
“Elizabeth,” he amended. “I apologize for not being better prepared, but this is how life goes on a ranch. There’s a storm rolling in, meaning all available hands are out on the range, feeding cattle and gathering up any babies they think might not survive the weather.” He began to feel like a jerk for making it sound as if she didn’t matter. She was a human being, not a farm animal. “Come on up to the house. You can have a coffee while I take a quick shower. Then I’ll run you into town before the storm settles in. You’ll spend the night at the Yellowstone Hotel.” He didn’t know what arrangements Dan had made for her and couldn’t very well ask. He did know that planes weren’t going to fly. Neither were pigs.
If she’d noticed he said nothing about the actual interview, she didn’t let on. Ms. Elizabeth Benson didn’t appear to be the type of woman to waste words, a definite point in her favor, if there could be such a thing.
He ducked into the operating room where C-sections were performed to wash his hands so he didn’t spread bacteria over every surface he touched. Then, beckoning for her to follow, he slid the steel outer door back on its tracks. It stuck, meaning the temperature had dipped below freezing, and he leaned in to work it free. A blast of un-March-like winter struck him full in the face and bit through the heavy weave of his damp coveralls. Two inches of snow had buried the ground while he was delivering the calf. Montana did nothing halfway.
The wind caught Elizabeth, who likely weighed a hundred pounds at the most, and he seized her arm to keep her from blowing away. He reevaluated his plan. Common sense said driving her into town in these conditions would be stupid, especially when they had plenty of empty rooms at the house. Or she could stay in the bunkhouse they’d set up for permanent staff if she didn’t like the thought of sleeping at the main house with three strangers—although Dallas, a doctor, and Dan, the county sheriff, would likely stay in Grand for the night rather than tackle the roads in a blizzard.
He brightened. Having her spend the night at the ranch was the better solution, at that. She’d get to see how isolated they were. There were no other women within a twenty-mile radius.
They stumbled through the storm, although headway was slow. Ryan did his best to keep the brunt of the wind, snow, and sleet off Elizabeth, who struggled behind him. Finally, they entered the house through a side door that led directly into a mudroom off his private apartment. The mudroom had a shower attached for these types of situations.
He brushed the snow off as best he could, then kicked off his boots and began to unzip his coverall. Elizabeth remained on the mat in front of the door, dripping water and looking uncertain. Since he wore jeans and a flannel shirt underneath his coverall, meaning he wasn’t stripping down naked, he didn’t know what that look was about.
“Where do I leave my boots and coat?” she asked.
“Hang your coat on that hook and you can leave your boots on, if you like,” he replied.
“My feet are wet.” Delicate eyebrows rose a half inch as she pointed out something that probably should have been obvious. Those knee-high leather dress boots might be sexy as hell, but practical, they weren’t.
He cast around for a solution. “Here.” He scrabbled through the contents of a shelf in the closet and withdrew a pair of thick wool socks for her and a stack of clean clothes for himself. He passed her the socks. “Put your boots by the heater. You can wear these while they dry. The kitchen’s through there. The coffeemaker’s on the counter—it’s press and go. The pods are beside it and the cream is in the fridge. Help yourself to whatever you like in the cupboards.” He gestured to the tiny bathroom and shower. “I’ll be a few minutes.”
She peeled off her coat and hung it to dry. Underneath, she wore a black tunic with a flared skirt over the black leggings. A funky checkered gray scarf topped her ensemble. None of it hid her curves. A mass of cherry-red, spiral curls played with her shoulders. The cute nose and delicate skin glowed faintly pink from the cold. Again, he was struck by how pretty she was.
Removing the wet leather boots proved to be a bit of a struggle for her. He itched to help out as she balanced on one foot, but the offer might come across as too bold, so he left her to it and ducked into the bathroom where he could breathe. That hot little babe around a bunch of hormone-addled boys?
So not going to happen.
A short while later, he strolled into the L-shaped kitchen.
This was his favorite room in the whole house and where he spent most of his free time. The island was square, with a vegetable prep sink in the middle, built for entertaining. The counters and cupboards, the main sink, and the industrial-grade appliances, were all within easy reach. Along the bottom part of the L, he’d installed a round kitchen table, a sofa and chairs, and a fireplace with a seventy-two-inch flat-screen TV mounted above it. He counted on Dan and Dallas to produce a dozen or so offspring apiece so he could host parties in here. They might not be brothers for real, but they were like brothers to him, and he planned to be the overindulgent uncle who spoiled their kids rotten.
She’d perched on one of the barstools at the granite island and was sipping a cup of coffee, looking as if she belonged here. For some reason that bugged him. The socks he’d loaned her reminded him of those floppy-toed shoes the men wore in the Middle Ages. Her feet had to be inside them somewhere, but where, was anyone’s guess. She’d rolled them down several times and they bulged at her ankles.
He caught a whiff of her coffee. She’d chosen the caramel flavor, his favorite, so he did the same. He pushed the button on the coffeemaker, and thirty seconds later, his drink was ready. He straddled a stool and eyed his companion. Yup. She was much, much too pretty.
The storm had picked up steam, too. Nothing visible but a sheet of white on the other side of the windows.
“So, Elizabeth,” he said, sipping his drink. The shower had gone a long way toward heating him up and the hot coffee sliding into his belly finished the job. “That trip into town’s not looking good at the moment.” He held out hope that the storm would let up before dark. If it turned back to rain, the snow would melt fast. It was March, after all. It could happen. “We might as well get your interview out of the way while we wait for things to improve. Your resume is a little light on detail.” She’d earned a master’s degree in social work at an impressive college, and she had the hours in for her license, but her direct work experience was lacking. He had no idea why Dan thought she was such a great candidate to work with troubled teenaged boys. “Tell me a bit about yourself and why you’d like to work at the Endeavour’s group home.” Convince me.
Amber eyes kicked the heat up a notch in his belly as she answered him with a question. “Can I assume you’ve seen news footage of me?”
He had, indeed. Elizabeth Benson was an outspoken advocate for victims’ rights. She championed anyone who’d been impacted by violent crime. In the past year, she’d helped three families in the Chicago area who’d lost family members—one was a gang-related, drive-by shooting and two involved domestic murder-suicides. Rumor had it she’d lost a sister years ago in some sort of accident, but the details around it were murky. He’d done enough unproductive digging to figure out the Bensons kept a tight lid on their private business.
He knew all about keeping family business private. It made him curious as to whether or not the Chicago-based Bensons might have known Giaco Cienetti. They likely knew of him. Everyone did. The insane bastard.
He stomped memories of his deceased grandfather down where they belonged and got back to the matter at hand. Chicago was another strike against her. He didn’t like the reminder of a place he preferred to forget. Where was she going with this?
“What I never talk about,” Elizabeth continued, those clear, amber irises steady on him and her voice matter-of-fact, “is that my sister Marianne was murdered by her boyfriend when she was eighteen. I was eleven. My parents never recovered from it. They don’t speak of it to this day and they don’t talk about her. Ever. I first got into social work because I wanted to understand them. I thought maybe I could help them work through their anger and grief. But I also wanted to understand the mindset of Marianne’s killer. Why did he do it? What led him to believe that murder was the right course of action? He came from a good home. Or it seemed that way from the outside looking in. That’s why I want this job. I want to learn as much as I can about the way troubled boys think in order to help stop the violence before it begins. Marianne wasn’t the only victim. My parents were too, but so was her murderer. His parents, his teachers, and his friends all either missed or ignored the warning signals, because there had to be something. My research while I’m here will go toward my PhD dissertation.”
The only break in the silence was the clatter of ice pellets striking the windows. The power flickered, then held. If it lost its grip, the generator would kick in.
“Great,” Ryan thought. “Now how am I supposed to tell her she can’t have the job?”
End of Excerpt