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Stepbrother Master(46)

By:Ava Jackson

I felt a little guilty. I hadn't even bothered to wonder why Celeste acted the way she did; I had just written her off as a bitch. She'd lived a rough life before and would probably do just about anything to avoid it again. That wasn't an excuse, like Griff said, and I was sure she didn't want my pity—especially not if she learned I'd dug up her past. But now I knew we needed to have a conversation. Soon.

First, though, I had to take care of my job situation. I thanked Griff for listening one last time, then went back to the house and upstairs to fire up my laptop. A quick search showed that there were indeed two centers, segregated by gender. The one for boys was on the other side of the county, but the girls' center wasn't too far from the ranch house—an easy daily drive. Holy crap, this idea might actually work. Excitement sparked in my chest.

A pair of warm arms settled around me from behind, creating a different kind of spark. Ford's chin rested on top of my head. “What are you up to?” he asked. “Lunch is ready.”

“Do you really want me to stay here? At the ranch?” I blurted.

He went still, only his breath just barely ruffling my hair. Damn it, Emma, you could have led into that a little more smoothly. I hadn't meant to ask him to evaluate our entire relationship right on the spot. I waited nervously, half-hearing the Jeopardy! theme song in the background.

Finally he answered, “I don't think I ever intended to let you leave.”

My stomach fluttered with relief and pleasant surprise. “Sorry for being awkward,” I said. “It's just that … if I am going to stay, I need to find a replacement job. Something with purpose, where I can be confident that my work makes a real difference in the world. Griff suggested teaching at the youth correctional facility.” I hesitated, then continued, “I told Griff about us. I'm sorry. I should have checked with you to make sure that was okay.”

I wasn't sure how he'd react to me blabbing our dirty little secret. But all my fears were dispelled when Ford replied, “Don't sweat it. Griff sees every goddamn thing that happens on this ranch anyway … I ended up talking to him, too, but he probably knew already.” He smiled. “And I think his job idea is a damn fine one. In fact, I know the guy who runs the place. I'll call him right now and ask for a tour.”

I leaned back, tilting my head over the chair to kiss him upside-down. It was a long time before I let Ford make that phone call.

* * *

The next day, after I spent twenty minutes cobbling together an impressive outfit from my mishmash of vacation clothes, we drove out to the county line. The detention center looked much more like a typical school than I expected: half a dozen low, red-roofed buildings spread out over a huge, fenced lawn. In the main office, Ford introduced me to the facility superintendent, a middle-aged man with thinning blond hair named Ted Wright.

Ted shook hands like he was trying to throw me. “Welcome to the Oak Creek Rehabilitation Center, Miss Carter,” he boomed. “This facility serves up to twenty female delinquents between the ages of ten and eighteen … Where did you say you went to college?”

Distracted by how much he sounded like a brochure, I almost didn't catch his question. “Um, I don't think I did say. But I just graduated from Stanford.”

“Small world—and a great school. My wife's nephew just got his acceptance letter.” Ted stepped into the hall, waving us along. “And what did you study?”

This time I had an answer ready to fire back. “Secondary-level math and science, with an emphasis on remedial education and at-risk youth. I did my student teaching in a high school. But I've also taken a few classes in pedagogy and developmental psych that were focused on the primary-school level.”

As he showed us the classrooms, counseling rooms, and dorms, Ted kept abruptly throwing questions at me from out of left field. Ford followed us a step behind, hands in his pockets, letting me do all the talking. Eventually the tour ended back at the main office. Waving over a short-haired woman in a dark green pantsuit, Ted said, “I want you to meet Maddie Baker. She's the head case manager here. Maddie, this is Emma Carter.”

“Nice to meet you,” I replied, shaking her manicured hand and wondering what the hell was going on.

“Based on your education and experience, Miss Carter, you're overqualified.” Ted cleared his throat loudly, giving my hopes a moment to plummet. “But rural youth facilities like this don't receive many applicants … especially ones as well trained, talented, and eager as you seem to be.”

Maddie interrupted, “What Ted means is that we'd be honored to have you.”

Ford gave me a quick sidelong look that said: Damn right they would.