This morning, she told me to go easier on her.
“She’s a nice girl,” she said in Meredith’s defense. “One who, for reasons beyond my comprehension, puts up with you.”
“Yeah, well it seems everyone’s seen Meredith’s ‘nice girl’ side but me.”
“A mean dog doesn’t ever see a cat purring. You make her hackles go up. You’ve been nothing short of cruel since she first arrived.”
Maybe that’s why Meredith has changed her attitude around me. Maybe she agrees with Edith about how I’ve been acting and she’s sick of me losing my temper with her.
Who cares? I remind myself I don’t have time to worry about Meredith or her opinion of me.
After I wrap up work for the day, I go looking for Alfred. It’s been a few days since I’ve played fetch with him. Normally he hangs around me all day, but he’s been noticeably absent lately.
I don’t find him around the farmhouse, and when I ask Edith, she says the last time she saw him he was heading down to the creek.
He’s never wandered down that far without me. Our property is huge, but he prefers to stick close to the house, which is convenient for me because then I don’t have to chase him down at the end of the day.
I set off down the trail, appreciating the solitude. I haven’t gone down this way in a while. When I was a kid, I lived at the creek in the summer. My friends and I would fill our inner tubes and hike over to the top of the property so we could catch the current and float all the way back down. For my twelfth birthday, my dad installed a rope swing on one of the oak trees and I spent months doing fool-ass backflips to impress the Carrie Suthers. My efforts weren’t in vain—she let me kiss her at the end of summer, right on the edge of the bank.
I’m smiling, thinking about that summer, when I stumble upon a pile of clothes stowed on the path just up ahead. I don’t hear any voices, but Alfred’s definitely down here swimming with someone, and from the look of the jean shorts, it’s Meredith.
I continue down the path, hear a small splash, and spot Alfred swimming in a circle in the creek, barking and whining with worry. There’s no Meredith in sight, but then a few seconds later, she breaks the surface of the water with a wild laugh.
“There!” she declares proudly, wiping her dark hair away from her face. “Did you time me like I asked you to? I counted to 35 Mississippi, which is like four minutes in dog time!”
Alfred barks right in her face, obviously glad to see she wasn’t drowning like he thought she was, and she doesn’t even flinch like I expect her to.
“Okay, well then,” she continues, “you’ll just have to take my word that I just set a world record.”
When I take a step toward the creek, a stick crunches underneath my shoe. Alfred’s ears perk up as he turns, spots me, and a second later, he’s bounding out of the water to say hello.
Of course, he stops a foot in front of me and shakes like crazy, covering me with water. I hold out my hands, but it’s no use.
“All right, all right! You got me!” I crouch down and pet him while he pants. He’s breathing hard and his barrel chest is heaving, which means they’ve probably been swimming for a while.
“Okay, you’ve had your look! You can go now!”
I jerk my head up and find Meredith retreating to the deep area, leaving only her head visible above the surface.
I frown. “What?”
“I don’t have a bathing suit on!”
Jesus Christ, she’s naked?! Fuck. My gut clenches at the idea and in a flash, I push to stand and prop my hands on my hips. “You’d better not be skinny dipping in my damn creek!”
Of all the idiotic things she could be doing. Any ranch hand could easily wander down here and find her like this. I thought we discussed this the other day—her respecting the fact that this is a working ranch with dozens of young, hormonal dolts wandering around.
“I’m not skinny dipping! I have my underwear on, you perv!”
“Then there shouldn’t be a problem, and for the record, I came down here to find Alfred, not spy on you.”
She stands and her shoulders become visible above the surface. They’re tan and freckled from the sun.
“He followed me down here, uninvited—clearly takes after his master.”
I glance down at my dog, who looks mighty proud of himself. “Yeah, well, he loves this place, and I haven’t taken him in a while.”
“You know why.” I sigh. “I’ve been busy.”
I glance over to see her bottom lip sticking out just a bit, her eyes downcast on the water. It almost looks like she feels sorry for me and I’m about to tell her not to bother, but then her eyes brighten and she smiles, snapping her attention up to me. I can see an idea forming in that pretty little head of hers.
“Actually, I’m glad you’re here! Does that rope swing still work?”
She’s pointing over to the old oak tree.
“What do you mean?”
“Is it safe? Like if I try to swing off will it break and send me to my death?”
I wipe away a smirk. “It’s sturdy. It’s been up there for years and it’s held much heavier than you.”
She thinks about that for a second before replying, “Oh, you’ve used it before? So it’s held, what, like 400 pounds?”
My eyebrow quirks like she just issued a dare. “Ha ha. You’re looking at the reigning backflip champion of Cedar Creek.”
“Well, perfect. The truth is, I’ve been working up the courage to use it for the last thirty minutes, but I don’t want to go first.”
I look around as if trying to find another willing participant. “I don’t see how you have any other option.”
Her eyes meet mine as she smiles, and the air leaves my lungs like someone just drove a dagger straight into my chest. In that moment, there’s no denying that she’s gorgeous—not just pretty or sweet, but the most tempting heartbreaker I’ve ever seen. Her dark hair is wet and hanging in a tangled sheet around her face. Her eyelashes are long and thick, boldly framing expressive blue eyes. Her lips are dark red, and her small nose has the same dusting of freckles her shoulders have. She’s the girl next door all grown up, and she’s swimming in my creek in nothing but her underwear.
“I want a tutorial from the supposed champ.”
“I don’t have my bathing suit on.”
My voice is flat and emotionless. I’m trying hard to step back in time to a few minutes ago, to when I hadn’t allowed those thoughts about her to take root in my mind. Acknowledging my attraction to her is a dangerous game I don’t want to play.
“That’s a pitiful excuse,” she says, completely oblivious to what she’s doing to me right now. “I got in without a bathing suit. Also, I wash enough of your underwear to know you don’t go commando, so either shimmy out of those Wranglers and show me how it’s done or prepare to lose the crown.”
I can’t resist giving in to the subtle temptation to flirt with her.
“Y’know, you’re trying pretty hard to get me to strip. In fact, the last time a woman told me to take my jeans off and ‘show her how it’s done’, she wasn’t talking about a rope swing.”
Her face goes beet red. “That’s not what I meant and you know it!”
I grin and turn back to make sure we’re alone. If it’s just her and me, I can pretend like this isn’t a terrible idea. I can give in to the here and now and worry about the rest later.
“Wait!” she shouts. I pause. “If you do stay and swim, you can’t get weird on me. Just pretend I’m wearing a tastefully conservative bikini instead of my undies.”
I roll my eyes and start to work my t-shirt off over my head. “Meredith, don’t kid yourself. I’m not like those hands back there—I don’t lose control of myself at the first sight of bare skin.”
“You’ve never seen my skin,” she taunts.
“What the hell does that mean?”
“I don’t know. It sounded cool in my head. Now just promise me.”