Harlequin Superromance January 2014 - Bundle 2 of 2: A Ranch for His Family\Cowgirl in High Heels\A Man to Believe In (35 page)

BOOK: Harlequin Superromance January 2014 - Bundle 2 of 2: A Ranch for His Family\Cowgirl in High Heels\A Man to Believe In
9.46Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Ellie did as he said and the staple eased out of the wood with a sharp metallic squeal. Ryan gave a nod as she dropped the staple—the first of many—into her bucket and then headed off to his end of the fence.

And Ellie, heaven help her, watched him go.

You're pregnant.

But you're not dead.


—no, make that Ellie—awkwardly prying out staples, thinking it was good to put some distance between them and let her work out her own method for removing metal from wood. He just hoped she didn't hurt herself doing it. At first she pulled one staple to his three or four, but she kept at it, getting faster. After a while, he noticed that she kept glancing over at him, as if judging his speed, and then it hit him that she was trying to pull staples as fast—or faster—than he was. He slowed down a little, but if anything she worked even faster. Finally, he stopped for a short break. Ellie kept right on working. So the Ice Queen was a competitor. He wasn't surprised.

“Want something to drink?” he asked.

“Not yet.” Her hair was falling out of the twist on the back of her head and as he opened the water bottle, she dropped the pliers, yanked the clasp out of her hair and shoved it into her pocket. Her hair tumbled down past her shoulders in loose waves and Ryan watched over the top of the bottle as she shook it back and gathered it into a ponytail, fastening it with an elastic band she slid off her wrist. Then, sensing he was watching, she turned toward him.

“What?” she demanded.

“Nothing.” Slowly he tilted the bottle up, holding her eyes as he drank, just because.

Her gaze didn't falter. “Maybe I will have some water,” she said, picking up the fencing pliers and putting them on top of a post before walking to where he sat on the tailgate. He pulled the other water bottle out of the cooler and held it out to her, feeling a ripple of awareness as she took it from him.

“What happens after we pull out the staples?” she asked before removing the cap and drinking. Water dribbled down her chin and spotted the front of her T-shirt. It was sexy as hell.

“We jack the posts out of the ground.” Ryan tore his eyes away from her shirt and put his bottle back in the cooler. He held the lid open and Ellie did the same. Without another word they went to their respective ends of the fence and continued to release the wire from posts until meeting close to the middle. Ryan pulled the last staple, then stepped back, wiping his arm over his forehead before returning to the truck where he lifted the handyman jack out of the brackets. He grabbed the chain and, after shouldering the heavy jack, walked back to where Ellie stood next to the first post. Her arms were crossed over her midsection, her expression cautious as she waited to see what was going to happen next.

“I'll handle this part,” he said, wrapping the chain around the post in a loop and then placing the other end of the loop over the nose of the jack. Steadying the jack with one hand, he started slowly pumping the handle. The chain tightened and the post inched upward until it started to topple. At that point Ryan released the jack, letting the chain go limp, and laid it on the ground.

“And this will be your job next time,” he said, taking the post in a bear hug and wrestling it out of the ground.

“Why don't
do the jacking part?” Ellie asked drily as he let the post fall with a heavy thunk. In reply he held up his crooked left thumb. “A jacking accident?”

“The ratchet slipped and the handle smashed my hand. Hurt like a son of a bitch.” Thankfully it hadn't been his roping hand. “Walt broke a tooth once.”

Ellie eyed the jack with new respect. “Fine. You can handle the jack and I think we both know who's going to take the post out of the ground.”

Ryan smiled as he hefted the handyman and walked on to the next post.

Ellie followed, saying, “I had no idea that a jack could be dangerous.”

“They're not if you're paying attention. I was seventeen, stuck in a bog, worried about getting the truck back to the ranch in one piece—” worried about Walt taking a strip off him “—I got distracted.”

Just as he was getting distracted now. By her.

Ryan pulled out the last post just as the sun hit the tops of the steep mountains to the west. He eyed the long line of posts lying on the ground next to the holes they had come from, then turned to Ellie. “Can you drive a stick?” he asked, fairly certain of the reply.

“Of course,” she replied offhandedly, having no idea how glad he was to hear her unexpected answer. The rest of his workday had just gotten a whole lot easier.

“Great. You drive, I'll load.”

“All right,” Ellie said in businesslike way. She opened the driver's-side door and got inside, moving carefully as if afraid of stirring up dust. It was a valid concern. It took her a few seconds to shift the stubborn seat forward, and then she adjusted the mirror, making him smile. Yeah. A lot of traffic coming up from the rear out here.

She started the truck, tested the gearshift then swung the rig smoothly past him in a circle and came to a stop next to the first post. Ryan followed, hefted the wooden post into the bed with a loud clatter, then waved for Ellie to move on to the next one as he walked behind.

Once the truck was loaded, he went around to the passenger seat and got in. Ellie shot him a quick glance, then put the truck back in gear and started driving down the rutted road leading back to the ranch. When she stopped at the first gate, Ryan got out and opened it, and from her expression as she drove through, he got the feeling that she rather liked being the driver. Or maybe she just liked being the boss. The one in control. Ellie parked the truck behind the barn and pulled out the key.

“Just leave it in the ignition,” Ryan said.

Ellie shrugged and put the key back before gathering up her borrowed gloves from the seat beside her. “This was an interesting day,” she said, reaching for the door handle. “And you didn't make a case for Walt once. I kind of thought you would.”

“I will. When the time comes.”

“You'd best be eloquent in your argument,” she said as she pushed the door open.

Ryan got out on his side and walked around to meet her at the back of the truck. She held out the gloves, but he shook his head since she'd need those tomorrow. “What if the consultant recommends Walt be kept on?” he asked. As if George would recommend keeping Walt. But maybe if someone threatened him...

“He'd still have to develop a better style of communication.” Ellie took hold of the gloves with both hands, working the leather with her fingers. “Whether he likes it or not, he's employed by Milo and Angela now. They'll never put up with the kind of behavior he's shown me. They're kind of used to special treatment.”

“How about you?” he asked.

“Am I used to special treatment?” Her eyebrows lifted in a way that told him she was patently insulted. “Why? Do you think I'm spoiled or something?”

Ryan sucked in a breath and went for damage control. “Not spoiled so much as I don't think you've had to rough it a lot.”

“Maybe you don't know as much as you think you do,” she said abruptly.

“How so?” Ryan asked, more interested in her reply than he wanted to be.

Ellie simply shook her head. “Same time tomorrow?” she asked in the reserved voice she used when her guard was up.

“Same time,” he said. She started toward the house without another word, and he watched her go before heading for the barn to feed the calves. If she ever asked him about her butt, he wouldn't have to lie to her. He pulled the door open and waited a moment for his eyes to adjust to the dim light.

The day had gone better than he'd expected—much better. He'd thought there'd be more questions and complaints. More prima-donna attitude. Oh, Ellie had attitude, but he was beginning to suspect it was a means of protection, not a manifestation of privilege, and her last statement about roughing it had reinforced that. More to Ellie and her life than he had first supposed.

So why was she so guarded? And why was she here on the ranch, where she seemed uncomfortable? And lonely. Was she here because she was between jobs as she had indicated, or was there more to the situation?

And was it really any of his business?

Nope, but he was interested all the same.

Once in his house, he pulled off his dusty work boots before checking his phone. One missed call, one voice message. Automatically he clicked the voice mail icon and brought the phone up to his ear to hear, “Mr. Madison, this is the office of Benson, Harding and Myers calling to discuss of a matter of some importance. Please contact us at your earliest convenience...”

Instantly, Ryan's stomach knotted. Why in the hell would lawyers be contacting him? Ignoring the fact that he was going to be late for roping practice, he turned on his computer and plugged the names into a search engine. A law firm in Billings. That made no sense at all, since he knew no one in Billings, and if the caller hadn't mentioned him by name, he would have thought it was a wrong number.

And now he was late. He jammed his feet into his cowboy boots and grabbed his hat as he headed out the door to load his practice horse. He wouldn't be able to get cell service in the pasture tomorrow, so that meant he either had to go out late or come in early—neither great options while trying to demonstrate to Ellie that he wasn't cheating the ranch out of hours.

* * *

she was out of shape. Before coming to Montana, she'd done her fair share of gym time, but apparently working out hadn't prepared her for one day of standing in the sun, prying staples out of fence posts. Her face was sunburned and her body ached from using muscles that were not involved in treadmill running or biceps curls. She absently rubbed her upper arms as she headed for the shower.

Her mother would have died had she seen her daughter wielding fencing pliers.

Her mother, whom she needed to call.

She wasn't certain what kept her from picking up the phone now that she'd eased out of the land of denial and accepted that she was pregnant. It wouldn't be a pleasant conversation, but Ellie wasn't afraid of Mavis or her judgments. Heaven knew she'd had practice enough deflecting them.

Resentment, maybe? Ellie was going to be a mother in a matter of months, and she had no idea how to do that. Instinct was good, but modeled behavior from her mother would have been nice, too.

Ellie cranked on the shower and water obligingly flowed out of the spigot—something she'd never take for granted again. She stepped under the spray, letting the water beat on her tight muscles until she decided they were never going to loosen up and turned it back off again. After twisting her hair up into a towel and slipping on a robe, she headed into the kitchen, where she poured a bowl of cereal and sliced a banana on top. A movement outside the kitchen window caught her eye and she glanced over in time to see Ryan's truck and trailer drive past.

Really? She was ready to collapse and Ryan was heading out with his horse?

Okay, so he had more stamina than she did. Big deal. He wasn't pregnant.

Secretly pregnant.

Ellie set her spoon back into the bowl. The time for secrets and avoiding her mother were over. Before she could talk herself out of it, she picked up her cell phone and punched in her mother's number. The call went straight to voice mail and Ellie ended the call, realizing as she set the phone down with a shaky hand that her heart was racing. She was afraid to tell Mavis...or maybe she didn't want to hear that her mother wasn't all that interested.

Yeah, that was what was twisting her stomach into a hard knot. A knee-jerk reaction with its roots in her childhood; the recurring reminders that she really didn't matter that much.

Ellie settled back in front of her cereal bowl, her hands folded in her lap as she regarded the banana slices and cornflakes floating in milk. She was thirty and still hadn't come to terms with her mother issues—no matter how many times she convinced herself that she had. The child in her still hurt.

Her child wasn't going to hurt like this.

Ellie let out a breath and reached for the phone again, this time dialing Kate's number.

Kate picked up on the second ring. “Ellie!”

“Don't make it sound like you never thought you'd hear from me again,” Ellie said, wishing she'd come clean with her friend days, or maybe even weeks, ago. She could have used the support and Kate didn't judge. At least she hoped she didn't judge.

“How are you?” Kate asked, her voice edged with concern. “
are you?”

“Still in Montana, and to be honest...I'm not sure how I am.” Ellie hesitated for the briefest of moments before confessing, “I'm pregnant.”

“I thought so.”

“You did not!”

“Yeah, I did. Along with about twenty other possible reasons for you to quit your job and disappear. It's someone at work, isn't it?”

“Yes,” Ellie said as she sank into the leather chair and curled her feet up under her. She told Kate the story of how she'd indulged herself with a hot guy and then how her world had pretty much fallen apart when she—one, got pregnant; two, found out he was newly married; and three, he got promoted to district manager.

“The lying asshole,” Kate muttered.

“I could have dealt with the lying,” Ellie said, leaning her head back against the leather. “I would have been pissed, but I could have worked with him.”

“But you got pregnant.”

“Yeah,” Ellie said, her voice growing husky as she thought of how he'd tried to buy her off—pay for either an abortion or silence. “I don't want him anywhere near me or my baby.” She felt the phone pressing into her cheek as she said, “I can't believe he's the father.”

“He's out of the picture, El.”

“And I'm out of a job.”

“Now I understand why you went to Montana.”

“I needed a place that was cheap to stay where I could think. Plot. Plan.”

BOOK: Harlequin Superromance January 2014 - Bundle 2 of 2: A Ranch for His Family\Cowgirl in High Heels\A Man to Believe In
9.46Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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