Jack’s jagged handwriting adorns the front of the envelope: Stop wearing my clothes.
With summer in full swing, we’re right in the middle of our busy season for Blue Stone, and the restaurant is more popular than ever. This morning I went over there to meet with the head chef and the GM, and I approved a new seating layout so we can fit a few more tables out on the back porch.
Our vineyard and winery have been expanding for the last few years as well. I’ve been working on opening up a distribution channel between us and a few regional grocery store chains, but we’re still working out the terms. The dry weather last year hit us hard, and we weren’t sure we’d be able to keep up with supply. Funny enough, the shortage sparked more interest than usual, and what wine we were able to stock sold out as soon as it hit shelves. I’ve hired a few more growers to ensure that this season fares better than the last.
The manager for our wedding venue assures me we have more events booked than ever, says brides are having to inquire a year in advance to secure their desired dates, and even then, most of the highly coveted weekends are already double-booked with a wedding in the morning and another in the evening.
The fact is, with everything going on with the various Blue Stone businesses, I rarely find time to step out from behind my desk. It’s a shame considering how much I enjoy working outside, so I take advantage of every opportunity I can get—like right now, I’m in the middle of an all-hands meeting, checking in with the guys about the progress on a few projects around the ranch.
Too bad not a single one of them is listening to me. A few yards away, Meredith is stealing the show.
She’s out on the front porch with Alfred, attempting to conquer her fear by treating him to some of the salmon skin from yesterday’s lunch.
Alfred sits for two seconds, gets overwhelmed with self-pride for obeying, and then leaps excitedly at her outstretched hand.
“I said sit! Sit!”
The problem is she’s holding the treat way over her head to keep it out of his reach, but he thinks she’s giving him a challenge: Oh! You want me to jump higher?!
“Very bad!” she admonishes, wagging her finger as if he’s fluent in sign language. “I’ll feed it to you as soon as you can hold a sit for more than a blink!”
He jumps up again and she squeals and flings the salmon skin away like it’s a hot potato. Alfred makes it disappear in two seconds.
It’s pitiful. None of us can look away.
“Where’d you find her, anyway?” Garrett, my ranch manager, asks. “They got mail-order California brides now?”
“She’s his new housekeeper,” Chris, my youngest ranch hand, interjects. “She just started a few days ago.”
He’s wearing a proud smile I find confusing.
Garrett wags his thumb toward her. “Why’s she wearing your shirt?”
Yes, why is she wearing my shirt? I groan thinking of the note I left on her doorstep yesterday afternoon. Apparently she decided to disregard it. Even worse, it looks like she’s actually cut the sleeves off of this one. Now I don’t even want it back.
“So is she a Russian bride or is she single?” someone else asks, inciting a round of snickers.
All heads spin to me as if they’ve been waiting for the answer to that question all day. A few of them rub their necks from whiplash.
I answer swiftly, tacking on my most gruff tone, the one that makes them pee their pants. “She is nobody’s goddamn business. Show her some respect and get back to work.”
I catch Chris smiling, seemingly happy with me for sticking up for her. What the hell is wrong with him?
I get my answer when he and David catch up to me as I’m walking back toward the farmhouse.
“Hey boss, is there any lumber we could use to fix up that shack you’ve tucked Miss Meredith away in? I figure we could patch up the floor pretty quick, shouldn’t take longer than a day or two.”
“First of all, why are you calling her Miss Meredith like she’s your mommy’s friend? Second, what are you talking about?”
They exchange a glance like, here we go again, and then David speaks up. “Which part are you confused about? The lumber or the—”
“Who said anything about fixing up the shack?”
Chris’ eyes go wide. “Haven’t you been inside there lately? There are gaps in the floorboards this far apart.” He stretches his arms out as wide as they’ll go. It’s an exaggeration…I think. “A snake could crawl in sideways.”
David nods. “Not to mention, it’s about to get hot as hell. Once we fix the floors, we could drop in a window unit from the hardware store. They’re pretty cheap these days—”
I hold up my hand so they’ll both shut their yaps. “Why do you two care? You don’t even know her.”
Chris frowns, clearly offended. “We met her yesterday.”
“Oh yeah? Now y’all are buddies?”
He shrugs. “I gave her directions to the grocery store.”
“And now she has y’all running around working for her?”
He stops walking and props his hands on his hips. David follows suit. “Oh no, she didn’t ask—just seems like the right thing to do. You know she made us muffins this morning, brought ’em out to all the guys, still warm from the oven, just like Gammy used to make.”
What is going on? When did all my ranch hands go soft? And why didn’t I get any of these muffins?
“So what do you think?” Chris asks, his eyes comically large and brimming with hope.
“We’ll do it on our own time if that’s the problem,” David adds.
“I’ll think about it.”
They beam, and I leave them there like two little love-struck schoolboys.
Meredith is sitting on the porch steps, soaking up the sun and watching me approach. When I get within earshot, she holds up her hands. “Before you accuse me of slacking on the job, I’m taking my fifteen-minute break. I asked around and all the guys said we’re allowed two a day.”
I tip my head down to hide my amusement. “I wasn’t going to say anything.”
I reach the stairs and crouch down to pet Alfred, who’s lounging on the grass there. “I’m surprised you’re sitting so close to him.”
“It’s intentional. I’m trying immersion therapy.”
I peer up at her and squint to keep the sun out of my eyes.
“How’s that working out for you?”
She shrugs and scoots a smidge away from him, trying to play it off like she was just readjusting her seat. “It’s not so bad now that his attention is on you.”
I make a point to scratch his belly so he’ll roll onto his back. His tongue lolls out of the side of his mouth and his hind leg starts to kick the air.
“Well now you’re just showing off,” she says in a clipped tone.
“I promise you, he’s a lover, not a fighter.”
“Well, they say pets are a reflection of their owners, but I guess there must be some exceptions.”
I turn to see her lean back on the stairs, a coy smile hinting that she was teasing, not trying to land a punch. I should push to stand and get back to work, but I’m stuck focusing on the sprinkling of freckles across the brim her nose. Were they there when she first showed up?
“The guys said you brought them muffins this morning.”
She tips her head to the side and her smile fades. “If I say I did, will I get in trouble?”
“Of course not. Why would you think that?”
“I don’t know, you sounded kind of annoyed just then.”
I frown. “I think that’s just my default tone.”
She laughs at that—a rich, warm laugh that stops me in my tracks. My gaze hitches on the deep dimple dotting the left side of her smile. When she notices me staring, she clears her throat and motions back to the house.
“I saved one for you, though it wasn’t easy—Edith already sniffed out the two I hid behind the breadbox.” I don’t think she can tell how shocked I am by the gesture because she continues nonchalantly. “I could bring it up to your office with some coffee.”