I try to get up to make new glasses of water for us, but she keeps me seated right beside her, insisting Jack can do it. He serves dinner as well, making sure to ask which of the steaks I want and heaping up a mountain of homegrown vegetables on my plate. I expect him to sit across from me, on the other side of Edith, but he takes the seat right beside me, so I’m sandwiched in between them. We don’t talk about the glass at all, even though I know they’re probably both wondering why I had the bizarre reaction that I did. Edith carries the conversation for the pair of us, but even so, I hardly listen.
By the time dinner is over, I’ve only eaten a quarter of the food on my plate and I’m ready to dart back to the shack and bury my face in my pillow. I want a few minutes of peace and quiet to process what the hell just happened and try to figure out how to stop it from ever happening again.
I finish loading the dishes in the dishwasher—a task neither of them could talk me out of—and then Jack finds me in the kitchen with some Neosporin and Band-Aids.
“Can I see your hands?” he asks, but it sounds more like a demand than a question.
I wave him off. “It’s nothing. I don’t think I need any of that.”
“I don’t believe you,” he says, his voice gruff and full of all the annoyance he harbors for me.
I hang the dish towel and offer up my best version of a reassuring smile. “I appreciate your concern.”
He ignores me, steps forward, and takes my hands in his, turning them palm up. I want to yank them away, but I don’t want to look like a petulant child. Besides, I’ve caused enough drama for one night.
He holds my hands like they’re delicate little birds, and the gentle touch cracks my chest wide open. There’s something about a man capable of such strength choosing tenderness instead. I can’t remember the last time Andrew touched me like this—I’m not sure he ever did.
“You’re right, it doesn’t look too bad,” he says, sounding relieved.
I nod and try to pretend my throat isn’t growing tighter.
I turn my head away and blink back tears.
Finally, he releases my hands, and I take the ointment and bandages from him with a quick nod of thanks. Then I’m out the back door as quick as my feet will take me.
The next day, Edith and I meet outside for our yoga session.
“You got something delivered this morning,” she says as we roll out our mats.
“Oh yeah? What was it?”
“Flowers from your ex-husband. Yellow roses.”
Wonderful. I guess he got the ranch’s address from Helen.
“You want me to trash them?” she asks.
“Yes please—or better yet, isn’t there a burn pile out back?”
“I brought the note that came with them in case you want to read it.” She’s holding out a tiny white envelope. I take it and rip it open. Now that my eyes are open to his insidiousness, the words are almost comedic. The same artfully contrived remorse that might’ve fooled me before rings utterly hollow now.
“Want me to trash that too?” she asks with a pragmatic tone.
I hand it off to her. “Please.”
I love Edith. I love her because she takes that envelope and doesn’t bring up the flowers again. I love her because she understands exactly what I need before I even work up the courage to ask. I love her because she never asks me to open up to her and never demands my secrets. Still, she offers hers. While we’re out there under the oak tree that day, Edith confides in me that before she met Jack’s grandfather, she was in a rotten relationship, one she didn’t think she’d ever make it out of.
“He had a real mean streak,” she says, staring off into the distance. “He’d get drunk and hit me every now and then, and I’d let him because it’s not always clear what love is, what love allows. I was lucky though—it didn’t last long. My family moved south and I never saw him again. Didn’t bother following me, though a part of me thought he might.”
“I’m a little worried about that,” I say, more to myself than her.
“The bastard following you?”
I don’t answer.
“Well,” she says, “you know what? It’s one thing to follow, and another thing entirely to get. We have a little saying down here in Texas—a taunt, from a battle where a small group fended off a powerful army.”
I look at her questioningly.
“It goes like this, dear: Come and take it.”
I know Meredith and Edith do yoga every day at 10:00 AM because productivity stalls around the ranch. On Wednesday, I head outside and find half my ranch hands congregating near the fence beside the oak tree. A few of them have the decency to act like they’re working—Max has a hammer in his hand (though not a single nail)—but most of them are just openly gawking.
“This is now the most solid and secure section of fence we have on this whole damn ranch.” My voice booms and they scatter like cockroaches. “You think we can get to work on the east pasture now?”
There are muffled apologies and half-hearted excuses, but most of them are smart enough to get to work without another word.
Chris doesn’t scatter. He comes right up to me and hands me some wildflowers wrapped in parchment paper.
“Can you deliver these to Meredith for me?”
“Why in the hell would I do that?”
He frowns like I’m a blubbering idiot. “Because you just said I need to get back to work.”
He misunderstands me.
I look down at the colorful flowers. “No, I mean why are you trying to deliver these to Meredith?”
He smiles extra wide, really proud of himself. “Oh, yeah. Well, she sent me home with those cookies last week, and I wanted to return the favor. These are from my mama’s garden.”
I yank them out of his hand and motion for him to get back to work, mumbling under my breath.
I don’t deliver the flowers to Meredith. I carry them up to my office and set them down on my desk. I stare at them so long they should catch fire, but they don’t. They stay wrapped up, a pretty gift for the pretty woman everyone on this damn ranch seems to be in love with, and I study them right up until a phone call distracts me.
I answer with a clipped greeting.
“Jack! This is Tucker—Tucker Carroway. How are you?”
“I’m fine, busy.” I push the flowers out of my line of sight. “What can I do for you, Tucker?”
“Oh I’m good too, thanks for asking.” His sarcasm annoys me, and I’m reminded why we didn’t get along in high school. “I’m calling for Meredith. She’s supposed to be my date for Dan and Leanna’s wedding this weekend and I just wanted to confirm pickup time with her.”
“So call her cell phone. I can’t have you two blocking the ranch’s main line.”
“I would, but she never gave me her number.”
I lose the fight against a smug smile.
“Sorry to hear that, man. I hope you figure it out.”
“McNight, why do I get the feeling you’re intentionally being obstinate?”
I hang up.
The phone rings, I pick it up off the base just long enough for him to get the silent message, and I hang it up again.
In the late afternoon, I stroll into the kitchen, though not because I need anything. I’m still full from lunch, and I’m not thirsty since Meredith brought me some lemonade an hour ago. It was a nice gesture, but her gentle smile successfully distracted me for the half hour after that. Now, I’m down here again. I have enough to occupy me upstairs, but I still tug open the fridge and stand in front of it like I’m looking for something. I even shuffle around some yogurt cups for good measure.
“Was lunch too light? I can make you something else if you want to top it off?”
Meredith is by the sink doing dishes. I’m not looking at her, but I still know exactly what she looks like today. She’s wearing cutoff denim shorts and a white t-shirt, her dark hair piled high up on her head in a messy bun. She has more freckles across the bridge of her nose today than she did last week, and I wonder if it’s because of her outdoor yoga sessions with Edith.