Harlequin Superromance January 2014 - Bundle 2 of 2: A Ranch for His Family\Cowgirl in High Heels\A Man to Believe In (46 page)

BOOK: Harlequin Superromance January 2014 - Bundle 2 of 2: A Ranch for His Family\Cowgirl in High Heels\A Man to Believe In
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“Ellie's not making the decisions.”

Ryan merely smiled. “If there's nothing else, I have a few things I need to catch up on.”

“Nothing else,” George muttered. “For now anyway.”

“Just let me know if anything pops into your head,” Ryan said congenially. He walked away gritting his teeth, glad his day with the consultant was over. He didn't know if he could ever shape Walt up to be the manager Milo Bradworth would want, but he was going to go down swinging.

His phone, which he'd left on the table in the name of professionalism that day, was lit up when he walked into the kitchen. He picked it up, then cursed when he saw the number. The lawyer. Shit.

He pushed the play button, listened to the voice mail, cursed again.

Had he come to a decision? Yes, he had. Ryan had chased this particular problem around for days now and his gut instinct was still to tell Charles to take his money and shove it. The only thing stopping him was his mother. Lydia would be pissed. She wouldn't take the money herself, but she damn well wanted Ryan to have what she considered to be his.

His mother was going to have to learn to forgive him. Ryan dialed the law offices and wonder of wonders the receptionist picked up, even though it was five minutes to five. “I'd like to talk to Mr. Myers.”

“Who's calling, please?”

Ryan told her, waited on hold and less than a minute later Myers came on the line. “I have made a decision,” Ryan told the man. “I'm not signing anything.”

“I'll relay that information,” the lawyer said, and Ryan hung up, hoping that was that.

Opening the fridge, he stood for a long moment studying the contents, wondering if beer was going to do the trick. A shot or three of bourbon sounded good, but in the end he reached for a can.

Drowning his problems in hard liquor never worked for him. They just popped up again once his head had cleared. He settled on the sofa, propped his feet on the old coffee table and opened the beer. Through the window he could see the main ranch house; he wondered what it was going to be like when Ellie's aunt and uncle took residence. She'd probably be gone by then, and he didn't like thinking about that. She'd gotten under his skin in a big way.

Did it matter that she was pregnant?

He could deal with it...if she'd let him.

* * *

S
OMETHING
WAS
OFF
with George. His report on the condition of the pastures and forage, as well as the rundown of the strategies he was going to research, was less verbose than usual. Ellie half wondered if he'd already given his report to Milo and was therefore giving her the condensed version.

When he was finished, George stored his bullet-point printout in his eel-skin folder, which he tapped on the table. But he didn't leave.

“Is there something else?” Ellie asked, dreading the thought that there might be and she'd be trapped here listening to it, when she was thinking about finding Ryan.

George exhaled loudly. “This is a touchy matter,” he said.

“What's a touchy matter?” Ellie asked as a nasty prickle went up her spine.

George hesitated for a moment, as if debating the pros and cons of professionalism, then said, “How long have you known Ryan Madison?”

“How is that any business of yours?” she asked, instantly sensing this was personal, not professional.

“I don't want to seem—” He broke off. Started again. “I have concerns...”

“Let's just put it this way, Mr. Monroe. I've known him long enough to know that I don't want to see any crew changes here at the Rocky View. I was going to discuss this with you further at the end of your sojourn, but perhaps I may as well make myself clear now. Feel free to offer suggestions for staff improvement, but this crew will not be fired and replaced by another.”

George went red to his roots. “If I've made recommendations such as that in the past, they were warranted by the situation.”

“No doubt. And I'm telling you that this situation doesn't.”

George leaned forward. “How well do you think Walt Feldman is going to do working for your uncle?”

“You've met with Walt?”

George leaned back. “I went to his place late today. He was not congenial and he smelled of alcohol.”

Damn. Ellie pressed her lips together for a moment. Debated. “Do you ever consume alcohol on your days off?”

George all but sneered at her. “Somehow I don't think my alcohol consumption is the same as Walt's.”

Neither did Ellie, but she had yet to see Walt inebriated on the job, which made her believe it wasn't a problem and made her wonder why George was so immediately certain it was...almost as if he was looking for something to latch on to.

“I think you're jumping to a conclusion,” she said reasonably, deducing from his subtle shift of expression that George took exception at being challenged. “You have no reason to assume Walt is an alcoholic because of one meeting.”

“He has a reputation in the ranching world,” George said witheringly. “It's common knowledge that the man drinks to excess.”

“Common knowledge is akin to rumor,” Ellie said, noting that George was doing his best to stare her down. She'd been dead eyed by the best in the course of her job and George was going to have to try harder. “I don't believe rumors and I want my uncle to keep Walt on. I want you to recommend he do so.”

“That would go against my professional ethics. The man is a menace.”

“This crew stays in place,” she said.

George stood. “You make your recommendations and I'll have to make mine.”

Ellie paced through the house a few times after George had left. She wanted to see Ryan, tell him what had happened, but she didn't want to add ammo to George's arsenal by going to his place late in the evening.

Screw George.

She let herself out of the house and walked across the gravel yard. Ryan opened the door almost as soon as she knocked, ushering her inside with a quick glance at George's trailer. Ellie took a quick look around as he closed the door and pulled the small curtain on the window closed.

He definitely lived in a guy place—sparsely furnished with ropes and boots and horse gear scattered about—but it was still relatively neat considering the fact that he didn't have much free time for housework.

“What's up?” he asked as soon as the door was closed.

Ellie crossed her arms over her chest, wishing she wasn't so intensely aware of him. “I made a stab at getting George to recommend keep Walt.”

Ryan's gaze sharpened. “And?”

“George went to Walt's place today. I think it left a mark.”

“Damn. He must have snuck down there after we parted company. I was hoping to be there.”

“Well, you weren't.” Ellie leaned back against the door. “If George recommends that Walt stay, then Milo will believe that the guy has merit, even if he is cantankerous. That's the way Milo works—he believes his experts. If, however, George says Walt should go, but I insist he stay, then he'll stay...” Ellie was fairly certain of that, despite Milo's assertion that George was the expert.

“But...”

“When he has his first run-in with Angela, and he will, because everyone does, they'll have it in the back of their minds that George said he should go. And eventually he will, because there'll be another run-in and another and I won't be here to save him.”

“Is there any chance your aunt and uncle won't take up residence?”

“That would be the one thing that
would
save him,” Ellie agreed. “But right now Milo is set on living here.” Her fear was that they'd fire Walt, live on the ranch for two years and then move back to California. A very real scenario.

“Will your uncle last here?” he asked, reading her mind.

Ellie met his eyes candidly. “My gut tells me that he might, but Angela won't.”

“That's what I'm afraid of. Walt's old,” Ryan said. “I want him to stay on his land.”

“Me, too,” Ellie said softly. But it was more for Ryan than for Walt. Ryan, who appeared stressed to the max. Was all that stress due to George? She pushed off the door. “I should be going.”

“Wouldn't want to scandalize George,” he agreed.

Ellie gave a small smile. Truer than he knew.

“I assume you know that I have to leave tomorrow.”

“Overnighter,” she said.

Ryan closed the space between them. He didn't touch her, but her body responded almost as if he had. “You want to come along?”

Ellie shook her head. “Someone has got to keep an eye on George.” She took a backward step. She still hadn't categorized exactly what was developing between them—but it felt more serious than she had anticipated, and for the moment, she was going to bide her cautious time.

For as long as she could anyway.

I can't stop thinking about you.
His words that night outside the barn had burned themselves into her brain.

She took another step, smiled at him then turned and started back to the safety of her house.

I'm pregnant. I have no job.... I can't handle more complications...but I can't stop thinking about you, either.

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

R
YAN
LEFT
EARLY
the next morning, leaving Ellie alone on the place with George and Francisco. Ellie spent her morning as usual, working her way through the job postings for which she was qualified, sending out another barrage of applications. She had plenty of experience, but the competition for the few jobs out there was fierce. What was going to happen if she didn't land something? Would she continue to be a charity case here on the ranch?

That wouldn't do. She needed to establish herself in a job before the baby was born, so she could afford child care, health care.... It was enough to put a permanent knot in her stomach. The only thing that seemed to still her growing anxiety on the job front was working in her garden, tending the plants, celebrating new life, new growth.

Over the past weeks she had started to think that the calves running roughshod over the backyard may have been the best thing that could have happened—because of it she'd discovered that she liked tending plants. Having never in her life grown anything except for an avocado plant in science class, she was amazed at how much satisfaction she got from playing in the dirt. Angela still had nothing to speak of to make her house more homey—Ellie had truly failed on that front—but she thought that her aunt was probably going to be quite happy with her flowers.

She'd bought several daisies on her last trip to the town, which were going to look perfect scattered near the base of the pine trees, and had just started to work the soil to plant them when a scream brought her up to her feet—an honest-to-goodness man scream.

What was that...?

Heart pounding, Ellie dropped her trowel and ran to the side gate in time to see George take hold of the shovel she'd leaned against the post newel the night before and start marching toward her.

“Stand back,” he commanded as he brandished the shovel. In front of him Hiss slithered through the grass, trying to get to the safety of the cracks between the rock steps before George attacked.

“No!” Ellie said, racing through the gate and jumping over Hiss to take a stance between George and the snake. “Don't you dare touch my snake!”

George stopped dead. “
Your
snake?”

“My snake,” she growled. “He's harmless and he eats rodents.”
Which makes him more useful than you.
Ellie looked over her shoulder just as the last bit of Hiss's tail disappeared into a crack. She looked back at George, who was staring at her with a bemused expression. “Do we understand each other?” she asked in a deadly tone. “Leave my snake alone.”

“Ellie...you don't want a snake around the house,” he said, lowering the shovel. “Even if they seem harmless.”

“I don't want you around the house, either, but here you are,” she retorted, still shaken by Hiss's near miss. For one long moment, she held George's stunned gaze, before turning and walking back through the side gate, thinking that tonight's George meeting should be very, very interesting. She couldn't wait.

* * *

R
YAN
WAS
IN
the last section of roping, but he was not in the mood for mingling or socializing prior to his run, so he stayed close to his truck, listening to the scores and focusing on the event ahead of him.

This was definitely going to be his last season of trying to make Nationals—and if he didn't make it, he could live with it. He was a better roper than his brother as far as natural talent went, but he lacked the resources to pursue world standings year after year, and maybe it was time to face that reality.

He was just about to open his tack room door when someone came up behind him. He turned to find the last guy on earth he wanted to see. His father.

What the hell?

“Are you holding out for more money?” Charles demanded in a low voice. His face was red, contrasting vividly with his silver hair, and he seemed to have maybe lost some weight since the last time Ryan had seen him, not much more than a month ago.

“No.” Ryan shouldered by the man to get his saddle.

“Bullshit. Your mother set this...extortion...up and now you refuse to sign. What the hell's the deal?”

Ryan squared his shoulders. “The deal is that I'm not signing. I don't want your money.”

“But you do want something to hold over my head,” Charles blustered.

“I want you out of my life,” Ryan said. “Now would be a good time.”

His father gave him a long, hard stare. “I tried like hell to talk her into terminating, you know. I should have tried harder.”

The admission shouldn't have stunned him, shouldn't have hurt, but for some reason it did. Ryan sucked in a breath, trying to come up with a response when Charles growled, “You have one more week to come to a decision and I need to warn you, you can try to hurt me, but I have influence in more areas than you do. I can make you and your mom wish you'd signed. Do the smart thing, boy.”

Ryan stood staring at his father, blood pounding in his ears, willing himself to keep his mouth shut and not give Charles the satisfaction of responding to his threat. Then, with a throaty snort, his asshole father turned and walked away.

* * *

T
HE
PHONE
RANG
late in the afternoon as Ellie was washing mud off her hands in the kitchen sink. She'd started out with gloves, but they'd gotten so wet that she'd abandoned them and gone au naturel as she planted some pansies. Now she was dealing with some serious dirt-under-the-fingernail issues.

“Hey, Milo,” she said, recognizing the hospital number and then recalling that he was supposed to be on vacation. “Why are you at work?”

“Something came up—a staff issue, and it's kind of gnarly, so we came back a few days early.”

“So when will you be arriving here?”

“I don't know when I can get away. There's a potential lawsuit brewing here. I wouldn't feel right leaving until a few issues are settled.”

“George will be upset. He's planning a long face-to-face with you next Tuesday.” Emphasis on
long.

“Actually, I'm calling about George.” Milo cleared his throat. “Mr. Monroe thinks that Ryan Madison is trying to, as he put it, ingratiate himself to you.”

That son of a bitch.
Well, maybe this was what she got for indicating she'd liked a snake better than him.

“Really?” Ellie asked wearily, pushing her hair back from her forehead. “This is his business how?”

“He thinks the guy is trying to sway your opinion by romancing you.”

Ellie felt as though steam would be coming out of her ears in a few seconds. “Damn, Milo. Do you really think I wouldn't be able to figure out if a guy was coming on to me in order to sway my opinion?”

“Well,” Milo said gently, “you kind of missed the boat on the last guy.”

Ellie closed her eyes at the touché. “Does Angela know about this?”

“I thought I'd talk to you first.”

“Thank you. Trust me, there is nothing going on that George needs to concern himself about. And, Milo...if I do get involved with someone, as much as I appreciate your concern, I'm quite capable of looking out for myself, despite what happened before.”

Ellie hung up and leaned back against the counter, debating whether or not to walk over to George's trailer and throttle him. She ultimately decided against it. Too hard to hide a body. But she would be taking a different tone in their meetings from now on.

When Ryan arrived home later that evening, Ellie put her coat on and headed out of the house, wanting to share what had transpired between her and Milo...and George. She knocked on the door and when Ryan opened it, she took one look at his set expression and said, “You lost.”

“Family issues,” he said, stepping back.

Ellie came in without an invitation and he closed the door behind her, walking over to the fridge. “You want something?”

“I'm good,” Ellie said as Ryan grabbed a beer out of the fridge. He popped the top and poured a great deal of it down his throat.

“Must be some family issue,” Ellie said, taking a seat on the edge of the sofa.

He nodded. “Families can be rugged.” Then he sat beside her on the old sofa, sprawling his long legs out in front of him, staring off into the distance.

“I can leave,” she said softly.

“Don't.”

For a long moment they sat in the semidarkness, Ryan still seemingly lost in whatever had happened.

“Your mom?” she finally asked.

“My dad.”

“Want to talk?”

He slid his hand along the sofa so that his fingers rested lightly on her shoulder and shook his head. “The last thing I want to do is talk.”

Ellie didn't press matters, but moved closer. Seconds later Ryan brought his arm around her, pulling her against him, and she rested her head on his chest. And there they stayed, Ellie feeling the steady beat of his heart, breathing in the scent of arena dust and man. She closed her eyes, wondering how something she'd been unfamiliar with a few months ago could now make her feel like she was somehow at home.

“George tattled on us,” she finally said. “I think he did it because I wouldn't let him attack Hiss.” She cleared her throat. “I might have indicated I liked the snake better.”

Ryan moved his head so he could look down at her, a wry smile twisting his lips. “Good for you, and who did he tattle to?”

“My uncle. He told Milo you're trying to romance me into letting you keep your job.”

“Of course that's what I'm doing,” he said, a touch of amusement finally lighting his eyes. He set the beer on the end table and brought his fingers up under her chin. “What other reason could I have for making out with you?”

“Are you going to make out with me?”

He brought his lips down to hers in the lightest of kisses. A delicious tremor shot through her. “I'm thinking about it.”

“Mmm.” Ellie smiled against his lips, her hand sliding up around his neck, thinking how differently she reacted with him than with other men. Even with Nick—her wild fling—she'd
planned
to be impulsive. With Ryan, she went with the flow. And right now the flow was carrying her deeper into his arms, bringing her mouth up to meet his in a kiss that started out soft but became hungry in a matter of seconds.

The next thing she knew she was being hauled up onto his lap and was curling into him as he kissed her again. Then his mouth left her lips to trace a trail down the side of her neck to the V of her blouse. Ellie gave a soft moan and he kissed the fullness of her breasts.

She put her hands on his face, brought his lips back up to hers. “I told Milo what I do is none of George's business.”

Ryan wrapped his arms around her, holding her close as he pressed his face against her hair. Ellie let out a long breath and snuggled against him. She could feel how aroused he was, but this was new territory for her. Making love while pregnant.

But damn, she wanted to in the worst way. She wanted to feel close to a man. This man.

Ryan continued to kiss her, his hands traveling over her, caressing, exploring, making her want to strip his clothes off. She started undoing his shirt, releasing the buttons one at a time until she could get her hands on his broad chest and flat, hard abdomen.

He sucked a breath in from between his teeth when her fingers trailed down his chest to the curl under the edge of his jeans.

“Are you honestly good with this?” he whispered.

“If I wasn't I wouldn't have my hand where it is right now,” she said. Slowly they undressed one another, tossing the clothing on the floor beside them, reveling in the touch of skin against skin, and she was thankful that Ryan had enough respect for her to believe that she was doing what she wanted when she'd chosen to make love to him.

He gently laid her down, kissing her deeply as he slowly pressed into her. He stilled once he was inside and then, when she closed her eyes and let out a deeply satisfied sigh, loving the way he filled her, he started to move.

Ellie came before he'd stroked more than a dozen times, shattering against him and then clinging as he finished his ride, burying her face against his damp chest until he gave one final shuddering thrust.

“That was so fast,” she murmured, then raised her head to meet his eyes. “I mean me, not you.” Apparently there was an upside to pregnancy hormones.

“Thank you for clarifying,” he said with a half smile. He rolled to the side, gathering her in his arms and taking her with him. Ellie cuddled against him, feeling well loved. Satisfied. She smiled against his chest and thought about telling him about how much she'd enjoyed feeling like herself again, but instead she closed her eyes, only for a minute.

That was the last thing she remembered.

* * *

R
YAN
KISSED
E
LLIE
before getting out of bed the next morning. She opened her eyes lazily and watched as he picked up his clothes, dressing as he went. He was so gorgeous with that hard roping body. Eye candy of the highest magnitude.

“Awake?” he asked with a half smile as he buttoned his shirt.

“A little,” she murmured. “I'm never going to be a morning person.”

He came to sit next to her on the bed, smoothing the hair back from her face. “Go back to sleep.” She smiled at him, happy to comply. He bent to kiss her cheek. “Thanks for helping me through a rough evening.”

“Anytime.” And maybe, if she played her cards right, he'd tell her what had made it such a rough evening in the first place. “Do you really have to go?” she asked as she pushed herself up on one elbow. The sheet drifted down and Ryan's gaze followed the movement. “Right now—” she arched her eyebrows “—as opposed to later?”

BOOK: Harlequin Superromance January 2014 - Bundle 2 of 2: A Ranch for His Family\Cowgirl in High Heels\A Man to Believe In
10.53Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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