I’m no longer just grumbling under my breath; I’m shouting curse words at the top of my lungs (for every nearby church to hear) as I stare at the insurmountable hill. I’m smack-dab in the middle of a children’s fable, The Little Meredith That Could, except I’m pretty sure I can’t.
I catch another truck coming up the road in my rearview mirror and prep myself for another blaring horn, but it never comes. The driver pulls up behind me, flips on the hazards, and then opens the door. I’m prepared to see a farmer or another ranch hand, not a handsome golden-haired man dressed in a suit. I think he’s a figment of my overactive imagination, but I’m so desperate, I’ll take any help I can get, even in the form of a hallucination. I blink. He’s still there. His tie is a dark blue, and I focus on it in my rearview mirror as he rounds the back of the truck and comes up to the driver’s side window.
“Are you having car trouble, ma’am?”
He leans on the windowsill. I should warn him that the rust will probably rub off on his suit, but I’m too focused on ma’am. If that’s not the cutest thing in the world, I don’t know what is.
I smile gently. “Not exactly. More like driver trouble. It’s, uhh…well, it’s been a while since I’ve driven stick.”
I nod toward the hill and he finally gets it. “Keep stallin’?”
Here is where he could either say, Well, good luck, and head back to his truck or offer to help me out of my bind. Instead, he takes a minute to survey me. I imagine what he’s seeing: wild ponytail, oversized t-shirt, ripped jeans. If he sniffs, he’ll catch the scent of my perfume of choice lately: eau de Lemon Pledge.
“You’re not from around here.”
No question, all statement.
I quirk a brow. “How could you tell?”
He chuckles and shakes his head. “Question is, what are you doing driving one of Blue Stone’s trucks?”
Of course. I’m sure there’s a massive logo somewhere that I overlooked—or maybe this truck is so old, it’s legendary.
“I’m their newest employee.”
I’m all smiles, proud of my new job. Job. Jobjobjob. It stills sounds funny in my head.
His light brown eyes widen. “You’re kidding. Don’t tell me they have you working at the new vineyard.”
“No.” I didn’t even realize there was a vineyard.
“Are you at the restaurant then?”
“The ranch,” I answer simply.
“Ranch hand, huh?” he teases.
“Something like that.”
“Three days ago.”
He nods. “What do you think of the guy who runs the place?”
“Jack? Is he a friend of yours?”
He laughs and shakes his head. “Not exactly. He and I went to high school together. Never could quite get along.”
An enemy of my enemy? This just got interesting.
“We’ve had a rocky start,” I admit sheepishly.
A gleam of interest sparks in his light brown gaze. “I can’t imagine why. You seem sweet enough to me.”
I KNOW, RIGHT! Finally someone gets it.
“I don’t think I’m the problem…”
His handsome smile stretches wider. “No, I doubt you are.”
We are definitely flirting and he is definitely good-looking, a welcome sight in the middle of an eligible-men desert. I know it seems crazy, thinking about men like this so soon after leaving my husband, but it’s been so long since I’ve flirted and not just appeased. It feels good, like scratching a leg that’s been buried under a plaster cast for months.
This guy’s clothes are nice. His face is nicer. He’s cleanly shaven. His hair is trimmed short and he has one of those classic, pearly smiles. I bet he gets along with most everyone, unlike a certain dark-haired, darker-eyed devil waiting for me back at the ranch. I know he didn’t give me the keys to this clunker, but he’s still to blame for my current predicament. I don’t have any proof, but I have a gut feeling he’s somehow the reason I got the flu before my seventh grade trip to Disney and couldn’t go.
“I’ll make you a deal: you scoot over on this seat, and I’ll get you over this hill. Where are you headed?”
I start to slide across the bench seat, and he pulls open the door to take my place behind the wheel. “The grocery store.” I hold up my piece of paper. “According to my incredibly detailed directions, I’m nearly there.”
“Yeah.” He nods before he starts the truck and maneuvers it like a pro. “You should be good. The store’s just around the bend up ahead, and don’t worry, there aren’t any more hills after this one. I’d drive you the rest of the way myself, but I have to be in court in fifteen minutes.”
“Court, huh? Are you the law breaker or the law upholder?”
He laughs. “You’ll be happy to know I have a clean record, ma’am. Good thing considering you just let me hop into this truck with you.”
My eyes widen. How stupid could I be?
“Oh god. I did, didn’t I?!” I drop my face in my palm. “You could’ve been a—a highwayman or something!”
“Aren’t too many of those still around this century.” He smiles. “I just wouldn’t recommend doing it again in the future. Cedar Creek is pretty safe, but you never know when a few bad apples might be passing through.”
It’s kind of fun that small towns have a rosy euphemism for everything. In big cities they’re hardened criminals. Here, they’re just spoiled fruit.
“I’ll remember that for next time,” I promise.
“Maybe I could give you my number and you can call me if you ever find yourself in a bind again, roadside or otherwise.”
I swear he’s blushing a little bit.
If I were in the market for love, he’d be the perfect candidate: handsome but sweet, gentle and kind. He’s a golden retriever, anxious to please in hopes of a treat.
I think it’s best that I don’t lead him on though, so I offer the truth: “I don’t keep a cell phone on me.”
I pat my jean pockets for proof. “Nope. I’m not Amish or anything, it’s just—well, it’s complicated.”
I keep it back at the ranch on my bedside table. I hardly check it, and I would get rid of it completely but I’m scared Helen or my parents will need to reach me. Most of the time I just keep it turned off.
He puts the truck in park. “So I guess that means I’ll have to settle for the ol’ fashioned way: maybe I’ll see you around sometime.”
I smile and shrug. “I’m sure I’ll stall out again soon, or maybe I’ll commit a crime and need a lawyer to defend me?”
He brushes his hand across his chin, brows furrowed. “Won’t work. I’m a prosecutor.”
“Wow, so you really are a hero. Slaying dragons and rescuing damsels—all you need is a suit of armor.” He can’t meet my eyes, as if he’s embarrassed by the attention. I smile and reach over to extend my hand. “I’m Meredith, by the way.”
He smiles as his warm palm meets mine. “Tucker.”
After that, we part ways. Tucker dashes off to court, and I’m left chugging along the last mile or two to the grocery store with a dopey smile on my face. I take my time perusing the aisles, pleasantly surprised by the turn my day has taken. Jack might have started it off with a bang, but thanks to Chris, David, and Tucker, I’m starting to think people in Texas are just as friendly as rumor has it. I check off every item on my grocery list and manage to stay under budget. Food is so much cheaper here than in California, and I even find a section of the store full of organic, local produce from a few of the surrounding farms.
By the time I make it back to the ranch—after only stalling once on the way home, thank you very much—I carry all the groceries in and get to work making lunch. It’s already 12:45 PM and Jack and Edith are hungry. Edith won’t leave the kitchen. She’s taken up residence on one of the bar stools and is watching me work.