Raising cattle to be butchered is what he does. I didn’t come here expecting to change that, but dammit, it hurts. Maybe I’m an emotional bleeder after all.
He knots the end of the rope on the saddle horn and swings up onto the horse. “Ready?”
“Yeah.” I nudge Chicken forward, helping her navigate the rocks.
Jarret leads the way, guiding Ginny along the ledge with the rope connected to the saddle.
A few minutes into the water-logged hike, he leans down and nudges up his hat. “Why Chicken? If you’re going to name her, it should be Big Mac or Tenderloin or Angus.”
I shoot him a glare. “She represents all the chickens that need to be saved.”
With a grunt, he straightens and focuses on the path ahead of him.
It’s a long goddamn walk. Not because I’m wearing wet jeans that won’t stay up. Or because the sun beats down on my shoulders like a furnace. Or because Chicken stops every few feet to fight the rope that pulls her forward.
It’s long because every time I run a hand over the little white cow licks on her head, my heart bleeds. I can’t bear the thought of her ending up in a cardboard box tossed out a drive-through window.
When the walls of the creek give way to sloping banks, Chicken runs up the dirt ramp and bounces through the tall grass around Ginny’s hooves.
“That was longer than a mile.” I shuffle out of the creek and collapse on my back in the mud, eyes closed.
“It was closer to two miles.” Jarret’s shadow falls across my face. “I can take you back to the house if you need to rest.”
I crack an eye open. “Is there more work to do?”
He laughs and folds his arms across his bare chest. “The day just started.”
I might not have his physical stamina, but I’m not quitting until he does. “What’s next?”
“I thought you had a guy on that?” I push myself to a sitting position and fight a bout of lightheadedness.
“You need water.” He retrieves a sports bottle from the saddle and offers it to me. “With ten-thousand acres to fence in, there are more repairs than we can keep up with. It’s the second worst job on the ranch.”
I drink deeply, savoring the cool refreshment. “What’s the worst?”
I try to smile, but I don’t have the energy to make my cheeks move.
He glances back at the frolicking calf. “I need to take Chicken to her mother.”
My heart swells. “You called her by her name.”
“You like her.” His brows knit.
“It was a harrowing journey of bonding and friendship. I love her.”
“Look at that cute black nose. It can’t be helped.”
“She won’t be weaned until winter.” He shuffles his boots. “We can work something out after that.”
I gasp. “You won’t sell her?”
He shakes his head, frowning.
“No way!” I leap up and tackle him in a hug. “Thank you!”
“Just this one.” He frames my face with his hands and gives me a stern look. “You can’t save them all.”
“Stay away from the other calves.”
“Don’t even look at them.”
I nod my agreement.
“You’re a mess.” He swipes a thumb across my cheek. “A beautiful mess.”
His gaze dips to my mouth, and I’m certain he’s going to kiss me. My body aches for it, pulsing in places that haven’t been touched in so long. I’ve forgotten what it feels like to lose myself in another person.
“This is the first time I’ve ever considered missing a day of work.” His hands lower from my face.
“You love it that much?”
He nods. “Not as much as I love the look in your eyes.”
I glance away. “I’m ready to earn my keep and…” I wave a hand at Chicken. “Whatever it’ll cost to keep her happy indefinitely.”
His chuckle slides across my skin like velvet. “You have a lot of pliers and stretchers in your future.”
“I really hope those are tools for fence repair.”
He gives me a wicked wink and hoists me into the saddle.
Crouched beside a mangled portion of the fence, I wipe the sweat from my brow and sit back on my heels. We’ve been repairing barbed wire for hours in the heat, and Maybe hasn’t tuckered out yet.
Not only is she a fast learner, she doesn’t fill the silence with empty chatter. While I prefer to work alone, I find I actually enjoy her company.
A few yards away, she rises from the section she’s fixing and stares along the fencing that goes on for miles.
“There’s not enough daylight for everything that needs to be done.” She pulls down the brim of the hat to shade her eyes. “No wonder you inhale your food.”
When we stopped for lunch, she gave me hell for wolfing down my sandwich. Meanwhile, she nibbled on cheese and lettuce between slices of bread, as if it were a normal thing to eat.