Another pasture, another herd of cows. While it goes without saying that I can’t tell the diff erence, Garrett explains that this group is all fi rst-calf heifers, as in fi rst-time moms. Given that, they’re kept separate from the other cows, graze on the best-quality pasture, and get a little extra attention—and a few bonus calories.
Garrett is ambling through the herd, carrying a tub fi lled with feed pellets. Evidently, these protein-packed bits are the bovine equivalent of a Twinkie to a pothead. Because the moment they figure out what he has, they come running—well, not running, as much as clomping and plodding. But with a slobbering, unwavering gait and a penetrating gleam in their big cow eyes. It’s hilarious and terrifying at the same time.
Garrett, however, isn’t the least bit scared, and is able to avoid losing a hand or a fi nger to the more overzealous gals of the group. I can see his mouth moving, but with all the mooing and the fact I’ve stayed back by the truck while he works, I can’t hear what he’s saying. Chances are it’s the cow translation of fl irting. Because Garrett.
At the edge of the herd, he manages to turn my way and lifts the tub high in the air. “Cara! Bring me that other tub of pellets, will you? The girls are hungry.”
Oh, time to be helpful. Watch this city girl slay. I push off the dropped tailgate of his truck and haul forward the second pail sitting in the bed, but it’s heavier than expected, so I have to brace my hips and use both hands. Once I swing it down, I start Garrett’s way while avoiding the largest mud puddles. Garrett meets me halfway and immediately swoops in to take the pail. I turn around to head back to the truck, but I’m in the middle of the herd now, gazing out into a sea of bobbing cow heads. I try to stay cool and collected, even when I now have a close-up view to the size of their mouths and the bottom row of big, flat teeth working away inside those mouths—while knowing the only tool available for swatting or shooing is my scotch cap.
Speaking of swatting, my body goes rigid when I feel a nudge of something against my lower back. I can’t quite identify what’s at play here, but whatever it is starts to move southward.
Is that . . . ? No. Can’t be.
This gentle pressure, now squarely centered on the back pocket of my jeans, cannot be Garrett. He is not copping a feel. Not here, not now. Not absent of any attempt at seduction. Like, by way of dinner and a movie, some excuse to end up on the couch together when he drives me home, then using that to lean in for a kiss. Only after that would he go for the ass grab, right? He’s a raised-right country guy. Those rural roots alone must trend toward slower courtships.
And slow courtships would not involve descending his touch from my jean pockets to a place lower and more . . . between my legs.
Must. Set. Boundaries.
That’s what I need to do. Quickly. I don’t care if he does bring about lust-itis symptoms I can’t quite keep in check. This is not my speed—the fast-forward, skip-a-few-chapters, here’s-the-moneyshot speed. I take a deep breath and turn, fully prepared to lock eyes with Garrett and spell out my boundaries. Clearly and firmly.
Except Garrett isn’t next to me. I spot him fifteen feet away, carrying on another one-sided conversation with the cows. Most important, his hands are occupied—one gripping the pail handle and the other scooping out pellets.
A snort emerges from behind me, followed by my mind freight-training through the essentials of what’s happening right now.
Garrett is way over there.
I’m in the middle of a herd of cows. And something is touching me in a far-too-familiar way. All this is followed by a not-so-subtle poke in the ass—by a cow that either really likes me or really doesn’t.
Followed by me screaming.
My screaming does two things: elicits a very wet-sounding grunt from my cow paramour and prompts Garrett to whip his head our direction. He freezes, all except for his jaw dropping open. Another poke in the butt and I’m off, with only one objective in mind: to make it back to the truck so I can barricade myself inside. Whether cows lack opposable thumbs or not and locking the doors might be unnecessary, I don’t care. I barely register the mud bogs in my path because my feet are working at a squirrelly Flintstones pace, so what happens next is pretty much inevitable. Because when I plop a foot down in what looks like another shallow puddle, I find it’s actually a gully. A swamp-sized bog. A quagmire of epic proportions. Large enough to obscure the rock lying in wait to turn my ankle and fling me face-first into a pond of mud.
The fall and the cold and the mud take my breath away. Wet dirt seeps between my splayed fingers, splashes onto my face, and begins to soak the front of my clothes. And it doesn’t smell as if it’s composed entirely of dirt. Other stuff is mixed up in here. Other, more odorous stuff.
Garrett appears, sweeping to a stop in front of me before crouching down. Then he poses an obvious question. The inevitable, stupid, rhetorical question nearly anyone would feel compelled to ask in this situation. And he asks it with a look on his face like he’s dying to burst out laughing, but knows that wouldn’t be wise on his part, which makes the whole thing even worse.
“City. Whoa there. Are you OK?”
Point proven. The obvious answer to this obvious question would be to claim that I’m fine.
But I’m not.
My clothes are soaked through with sludge, my already tiny chest feels as if the impact may send me back into a training bra, and my face—where it isn’t covered in mud—is hot from humiliation. I push myself up and onto my knees. After a deep, shuddering breath, I stand up, take two steps to the right, where drier ground lies, then give my form a once-over to assess the situation.
Verdict is in. The situation sucks.
“Cara, answer me. Are you OK?”
I flick my gaze over to him and pin it there, biting my tongue both literally and figuratively, hard enough that tears are welling in my eyes. Garrett’s face falls, all traces of his stifled laughter having temporarily dissipated. He puts his hands to my upper arms, grips them gently.
“Fuck. Don’t cry, OK? Don’t cry, don’t cry. Just nod so I know you aren’t hurt.”
Just nod. This fucking guy. Mr. Rational Instructions Guy. Dreamy or not, he’s within striking distance, and I’m pissed at everything.
I take another deep breath and lay it on him good. “No! Of course I’m not OK! I’m covered in mud and cow shit!” I jab a finger in the air toward him. “And you’re trying not to laugh, I know it. Just laugh; you know you want to.”
Then I stamp my foot. Because I’m mature like that. More mud sloshes and lands on the backs of my hands.
And that’s all it takes. Garrett starts to howl, laughing so hard he doubles over, bracing his hands on his knees—and he doesn’t even have the decency to hold back his cackling, just lets it all out for what feels like a good ten minutes. When he’s finally able to breathe and stand upright again, his still annoyingly pretty hazel eyes are watering with gleeful tears. He wipes them away with the heel of one hand.
Garrett cups my face with his hands. “You’re fucking adorable.”
“You’re not,” I huff .
He tugs his hoodie sleeves down over his hands and starts to wipe the mud off of my face.
“If it makes you feel better, you wouldn’t believe how jealous I was of that heifer. That was a bold move she pulled. Knew what she wanted and went for it. Not the girl-on-girl action I usually go for, but still.”
He grins, a few residual laughs escaping him, and I groan. Garrett scans the front of my body, then takes my hand, leading us to the truck. After rustling around in the back, he extracts a stack of clothing from under the driver seat. Garrett holds up a pair of jeans, swinging a look between me and the pants. He drapes them over his forearm, tosses a T-shirt and a hooded camo sweatshirt onto the pile, and extends it my way.
“Redneck shenanigans often involve mud. This means always being prepared with a change of clothes. Come on, we’ll find a place for you to change.”