GOD, I REALLY HAD to pee.
Only ten more minutes to go until I got there. Come on, come on, come on. I willed my car to go faster as I zoomed down a country road out in the middle of nowhere. The last thing I wanted was to have to stop and find a bush. I squeezed my thighs together. Since it was a hot June day and I had on denim short-shorts, this just made me sticky and sweaty. Not helping.
It also didn't help that my body was vibrating with excitement from anticipation for my new adventure this summer. That just made me all the more uncomfortable. Gah! When would I get there?
The time of arrival on my GPS app ticked down to nine more minutes.
I pressed the gas pedal down harder. I drove an old Mercedes sedan that had been converted to biodiesel, so I should probably call it the accelerator rather than the gas pedal. California lacks proper public transit (a perennial item on my crusade list), so you have to drive everywhere. I did my best to cut down on my use of fossil fuels. Leftover vegetable oil from Chinese restaurants powered my car and I proudly advertised its alternative fuel source on the back window in big green lettering. It always smelled like kitchen grease wherever I went, but I'd do anything for the environment.
This morning, eager and wired, with my car packed up for the summer, I stopped by the new Santa Barbara location of Southwinds Coffee, the local coffee chain owned by Ryan Fielding, the boyfriend of my best friend, Amelia Crowley. He happened to be working there when I stopped in, so I chatted with him while they made me the most unbelievable coffee. Ryan knows that I'm vegan, so I didn't even need to say that my coffee needed to have non-GMO soy milk and organic coffee beans. He just checked the boxes and handed it to the barista, then smiled at me and asked me about my summer internship.
Boy, he was cute. Yes, he was my best friend's surfer hottie, and they were totally devoted to each other, and I'd never get in the way of that, but I also had eyes and it was impossible not to stare. The fact that I was looking at him, though, probably meant that I seriously needed to get laid.
I couldn't think about that at the moment. All I could think about was that I really shouldn't have ordered the ginormous soy latte.
Seven minutes to go. Now I bounced along a dirt road. The ruts and ribs in the road did nothing good for my bladder.
I didn't know if I'd make it. I felt like a little kid. The bushes on the side of the road were starting to look mighty tempting.
I was driving to Headlands Ranch, my temporary home and job site for the summer. For the past year, I'd been going to school at the University of California at Santa Barbara, getting an advanced degree in Counseling Psychology. I wanted to help people, especially kids. I’d gone back to college after graduating ten years ago, keeping my job as a preschool teacher at a progressive school during the day, and going to school at night. Although I wasn't sure where I wanted to end up, either setting up my own practice or working somewhere, I planned on becoming a therapist.
Hence my interest in this unique counseling job at Headlands.
I'd found Headlands Ranch on the internet after I saw an internship posting on Craigslist. From its website, I learned that Headlands was run by the fourth generation of an old California farming family, with William Charles Thrash, III, now in charge.
Sounded like a stiff old man.
Located on California's Central Coast, about halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, north of Santa Barbara near Santa Ynez, it was beautiful. I absolutely loved this part of the world, less than an hour's drive from my apartment in Santa Barbara, where gentle, rolling hills met the Pacific Ocean.
As I drove looking around at the farmland, it felt like a homecoming. My dad had been a migrant farmworker, my mother, an activist. Affected by the progressive politics of César Chávez, my mother, a tall, blonde German, wandered out into the fields one summer to pick grapes to feel how it felt. I get my crusading nature from her.
She met my dad and fell hard, and they worked side by side that summer. Handsome and unusually tall, my father grew up traveling up and down California's Central Valley with his parents, immigrants from Mexico. Unwilling to leave each other, they got married, had me and my siblings, and my mom followed my dad into the fields. They followed the seasons, picking vegetables, fruit, and nuts. Until I was in the third grade, we never stayed in one place for more than three months, and we always lived in agricultural areas like this. I grew up moving from camp to camp, staying in farmworker housing, which was normally utilitarian and small, but clean.
My father had grown up with his head in a book and despite the constant moving, he cobbled together an education, earning a high school diploma. My grandparents weren't particularly supportive, believing that you needed to work hard and make money—school just got in the way. Nevertheless, he banked the coals of a dream of becoming a teacher. After he was married and had kids, my mom gave oxygen to his dream by talking about it in a way that made him believe he could do it despite his upbringing and despite our circumstances. And after a while, she talked him into getting a college degree from a community college, and later a full degree and a teaching credential. She got one too and became a Spanish teacher. And so eventually he became a high school teacher, working at my mom's rival school and settling down.
But those years of constantly moving, living out of an old army rucksack with my idealistic parents, meant that I never really got to know anyone and I got constantly uprooted. Sure, we’d run into acquaintances as we moved from place to place. There was a community. But I didn't have any consistent friends, at least not as a small child. Like a military kid, I got really good at making friends quickly, the kind of friends for right now, not forever. And as I got older, I learned to be the life of the party. But I never really had any consistent friends until Amelia, who I met in third grade. Even though I’d lived in Santa Barbara since then, I still had the belief that I was going to have to move on at any time.
This latest adventure was another part of this pattern of moving on to the next thing.
While the ranch was a diversified farming operation, with apparently everything from strawberries to blueberries to avocados to citrus to grapes for wine, what interested me was its affiliated nonprofit association where I had my internship. Headlands Ranch ran a therapeutic horsemanship and agricultural program, called the Headlands Program, my new employer.
It had two types of programs. The first was for urban Cali kids, the type who’d never seen a cow. They came to experience ranch life, learn to take care of animals, and do teamwork skills. The other program was for special needs kids, who’d ride therapy horses and spend time in the fresh air. I’d been hired as a glorified camp counselor, to plan and run the activities. It counted for credit for my graduate degree program.
This was going to be so much fun!
But not when I had a full bladder. As the clock on the GPS ticked down to five more minutes until arrival, I passed through a gate with an arch overhead that read HEADLANDS RANCH, ESTABLISHED 1910 in rustic font, very old-fashioned and Western-looking. I continued down an undulating dirt road and pulled up at a collection of farm buildings at the end of the line. I saw a huge, old, white farmhouse, what looked like a bunkhouse, some newer looking ranch houses, and barns, corrals, and other accessory buildings.
I parked my car and got out immediately, hoping against hope that there was a place to go pee, like, now.
A tall, thin woman came out of the bunkhouse to greet me. I’d guess she was around forty with sea green eyes and blonde hair pulled back in a no-nonsense ponytail. "You must be Marie Diaz-Austin. Welcome. I'm Janine Thompson, the head wrangler for the Headlands Program."
I stuck out my hand. "It's nice to meet you." Then I blurted, wide-eyed and pleading, "Can I use the bathroom? It's been a long drive and I'm dying."
She smiled and pointed to the closest building, the farmhouse. "Sure, go in there. Second door on the left down the hall."
I felt embarrassed enough already, so I tried not to run. But I failed miserably, and instead walked really, really fast to the building, like they speed-walk in the Olympics. I ran up the outside stairs, flung open the front door, scooted down the hall at a clip, and opened the second door on the left—
—and literally ran, full body, full bore, into a naked, wet man, who staggered with the impact of my weight against him. My breasts hit his back, my legs straddled the sides of his, and I grabbed onto his soaking nude waist to keep from falling. The front of my shirt, my shorts, and my legs got wet from the water on him.
"The fuck?" he grunted.
"Ohmigod, I'm so sorry," I started, as I jumped back immediately, hands up like I was being arrested, and then I got a look at him. He turned around to look at me, hands on hips, completely unabashed at wearing his birthday suit.
Well, this was interesting.
He was totally naked, as in just stepped out of the shower naked. He had not even had a chance to grab his towel, he was so naked. Did I mention that he was naked? And he was standing there, glaring at me, dripping on a bathmat, with the water that had not rubbed off on me running in rivulets down his legs.
I couldn't tell you what I noticed first about him, except that he was belongs-in-a-naughty-magazine's-centerfold attractive, but I’ll give it a shot. I stared at him from his head to his toes.
He was really tall, like at least six inches taller than me, and I'm a not-short five foot ten.
His hair? Longish, wavy, wet (obviously), and a lush, dark brown.
Deep, dark, chocolate brown eyes glared at me, rimmed in enviable thick lashes that curled.
His classically handsome face had strong eyebrows, a straight nose, and high cheekbones, with hollows underneath, and yummy stubble along his square jaw.
His body? Tan everywhere. In other words, although this was a farm, he didn’t have a farmer tan. And, since he was naked, as I might have mentioned, I could tell. He had a brawny chest, defined arms, a washboard waist, and strong legs.
And, his junk. Yep. There. Unlike a turtle, it was not hiding in a shell. He stood at half-staff and boy, full-staff would be a treat. His junk was the kind of junk that you used feet rather than inches to measure. As in more than half a foot, unerect. Well beyond.
A fucking gorgeous man.
Totally pissed at me.
I so knew how to make an entrance. I tried to salvage the situation, by mumbling "Janine told me I could use this bathroom," but he interrupted.
"Ever think of knocking?" he snarled, as he reached for a white towel and wrapped it around his waist, now looking like an ad for razor blades.
"I'm sorry," I said, aiming for sincerity. "It's been a long drive and I really have to pee." This last part came out of my mouth desperately.
"Go down the hall, there's another bathroom. I'm using this one." And he pushed me out, by physically pushing my shoulders, and shut the door.
Way to start the interactions with my fellow staff.
I took off running down the hall where I found the bathroom and relief. All was well, finally.
As I headed back down the hallway, his bathroom door opened and he came out, dressed in dark blue Wrangler jeans, with a belt and a huge belt buckle, a tight, faded blue t-shirt, and cowboy boots, hair still messy, curly, and wet.
He looked me up and down. Then he reached into his back pocket and pulled out a can of Copenhagen and stuffed a wad of chew in his cheek, staring at me.
He turned and started walking away, muttering to himself, “Another fucking liberal.”
“Hey!” I yelled. “What’s wrong with that?”
My politics were extremely liberal, but so what? How could he tell? I wore normal clothes—my denim short-shorts, Tom's shoes, and a white cami that was probably see-through due to my literal run-in with Mr. Shower. I'd have to change.
Well, I suppose my nonconservative status was obvious, given my tattoos and my eyebrow piercing. I normally dyed my hair in colors that were not found in nature. But right now, it was bleached blonde and would probably stay that way for the summer. Naturally, my medium brown hair matched my medium brown eyes. I was skinny, with long legs (it was genetics, my parents were that way) but I had some boobage going on (again, genetics).
But how dare he judge me so quickly? And what do my politics have to do with my job?
He stopped, turned around and looked at me again, eyes traveling from head to toe and back again. Then he spoke.
"Darlin', life's too short to list all the things that are wrong with being a liberal," he drawled and sauntered out the front door and down the steps of the ranch house.
Oh, now I was pissed at him for being such a gross, judgmental asshole. But I didn't want to get into a fight in the first five minutes of my new job so I kept my mouth shut. For now. But this run-in did nothing good for my first day jitters.
Still, I couldn't help but watch him go. He had a damn sexy walk, almost like he owned the land he was walking on. Now, I'm not one who goes for cowboy hats and big belt buckles—my favorite type of music is anything but country—still, I couldn't help but notice that he filled those Wranglers out well. While I was still appreciating the craftsmanship of his jeans, he turned around. "This is Reagan Country, and don't forget it."
He turned back around just as quickly and kept going until he was out of sight.
Reagan Country? Was he kidding? Was he even born during the Reagan years?