SHE SAID WHAT?!?!
I quickly checked the time. Claire had left my office roughly forty-five minutes ago. So I promptly drove to the farm on the other side of the property, hoping to catch her waiting out front.
But she wasn’t there.
I parked my Jeep and walked toward the barn where I caught a few glimpses of movement. I scanned the area, figuring I’d spot her along the way.
Out of nowhere, I heard screeching. Alarmed, I immediately took off running, and when I reached the barn entrance, I was met with laughter. The sight in front of me made me stop so fast I nearly tripped over my own feet.
Claire sat on a stool in front of a goat, looking rather frazzled. At first, I wasn’t sure what I walked in on…but then I spotted the bucket situated beneath the animal.
“Uh, Claire?” I seriously couldn’t figure her out. As soon as I thought I had, she’d prove me wrong. I’d never met someone so skilled at keeping me on my toes.
Claire swiped away errant strands of hair from her forehead with the back of her hand. “Oh, hi!” She beamed at me with rosy cheeks. And just like that, every bit of impatient annoyance etched on her face vanished.
Not one part of this entire scene made sense. She was supposed to be finishing up the vineyard tour or waiting by the grove of fruit trees. Not milking a goat. “What are you doing?”
She stood up straight and arched her back, as if she’d been crouched in that position for hours. “Um…didn’t we already have this conversation in your office? I’m here to pick fruit.”
She was kooky and slightly strange, but in a way that made me want to spend more time with her. I was quickly becoming addicted to her antics and found her quite entertaining. I thoroughly enjoyed myself whenever she was around.
“No, I don’t mean here. I mean there.” I pointed at the tiny stool she vacated a second ago. “Why are you milking a goat, Claire?”
“I was told to.” She must not have successfully removed all the hair from her brow because she pulled her bottom lip to one side and blew the rest out of her eye. “That guy over there said you told him I would.”
I followed her finger, finding my brother Brenden standing near the tack room.
“I don’t mind, but I would’ve preferred to have been told ahead of time that you’d offered up my services. I would’ve worn different clothes.”
I turned back to Claire, who for some reason never questioned the request to milk a freaking goat. “Do you do everything you’re told?”
She shrugged but answered anyway. “I assumed this was my end of the bargain. Like, my way of paying for the fruit. I told him you sent me, and he acted like he knew why. So what reason would I have to question him?”
There were so many reasons she should’ve been able to come up with, but this wasn’t the time to deal with that. “How long have you been in here?”
She stared upward and squinted, making me wonder if she was thinking or literally timing herself based on the sun’s position in the sky. “Well, how long ago was I in your office?”
I glanced at my watch and did mental calculations. “Roughly forty-five minutes ago.”
“Okay, so I’ve been here for forty.”
My eyes practically bulged out of my head. “Are you kidding me?”
I didn’t wait for her response. Instead, I grabbed my phone from my pocket and immediately tapped out a message to Tony.
You didn’t take her on a tour of the vineyard before bringing her to the barn???
I hesitated for a moment before typing “her,” unsure of how to refer to Claire.
Tour Tony: No. You didn’t tell me to.
I scrolled up a couple of lines to our earlier messages, ready to react to the one where I’d specifically asked him to take…
I read and reread my text a few times to myself. Take her through the vineyard to the farm. I assumed it would be obvious what I’d meant, especially since his frickin’ job was to give tours, but I could see where the miscommunication might’ve come from.
Rather than respond, I shoved my phone deep into my pocket and returned my attention to Claire. “You can use the ladies’ room right over there to clean yourself up. I’ll meet you in front of the gate to the orchard.”
As soon as she left, I stormed over to Brenden, not caring in the slightest that he was getting ready to head home. I stopped in front of him with my hands on my hips. “What the hell, Brenden?”
“Good to see you too, nerd.”
I was too bothered by the Claire situation to concern myself what whatever childish name he chose to call me. “Seriously. I send my…friend…over here, and you make her milk your goats? What the hell is wrong with you?”
“Hold up.” He put his large hand in front of my face. If there was one thing he got from our dad, it was his pair of oversized hands. “How was I supposed to know she was your friend? Tony brought her over, and she told me you’d sent her, so I assumed she was someone you found to fill the job.”
“When did I ever say I found anyone?”
“At the meeting, you said you’d find me someone.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. He was the oldest—he should’ve been the smartest, yet he wasn’t. “I said I would ask around.”
“Okay? Again, how was I supposed to know? For heaven’s sake, she didn’t argue one bit. I mean, she appeared a little disgusted by the thought when I first explained what to do, but she never put up a fight or even complained.”
“I’m sorry, but you should be smart enough by now not to bring over anyone you’re dating. I can’t be held responsible.” He acted cool, though I could tell he struggled not to crack a smile.
“Dude. She’s my neighbor. She came to pick some fruit, and you made her touch goats in ways they shouldn’t be until at least the third date.”
I didn’t wait for a response—mostly because I could tell he was dangerously close to losing his composure. And while I could find the humor in this ordeal, I wasn’t ready to give him the satisfaction. After the day I had, I just wanted to be done with this place and go home, so I walked away, ignoring the snickers coming from behind me.
I reached the grove, surprised to find Claire already there and waiting.
“Listen, I’m sorry about my brother,” I said after pointing out which trees she could pick from. “Let me make it up to you. Since it’s so late—and you don’t cook—why don’t you come over for dinner?”
“Tonight?” She sounded surprised.
“Well, I’ve got the slow cooker on, and I’ll have more than enough for one person.”
Claire glanced over her shoulder at me as she plucked apples from the tree. She appeared hesitant, which somehow left me panicked that she wouldn’t accept my offer. The anxiety riddling my nervous system made no sense; this was a last-minute suggestion, so I couldn’t understand why I’d be worried about her turning down my offer.
“I’ll head home and change. Just come over once you finish putting away your fruit and doing whatever else you have to do.” I paused for a moment, thinking of something I could use to help me convince her. Suddenly, I remembered what she said the other day. “I’ve got wine.”
Her eyes lit up, and her brows arched. “Sounds good. Should I bring anything?”
As I walked back to my car, I questioned if I’d made a royal mistake by inviting her over. I probably wouldn’t be the best company. Not to mention, she’d be at my house for however many hours, which meant I wouldn’t be able to do much—if any—work. But considering how concerned I became at the thought of her turning me down, I figured it was out of my hands.
I tried not to overthink it, which was hard when she was all I wanted to think about.