If you follow my social media screechings at all, you should be aware that my grumpy fruit farmer x cynical playboy hate-to-love extravaganza Work for It comes out on the 3rd of September. Here’s a taste of Griff and Olu to keep you going until then…
This, I suppose, is an elderflower plantation. It’s naturally fenced in on one side by giant, ancient oaks that disrupt the pale sunlight, casting an ethereal gloom over the very edges of the verdant space. The crops themselves are rows of sprawling bushes dotted by tiny, bright white flowers, and right now a few too many of those flowers are falling victim to slow sheep jaws.
Sheep, sheep, everywhere. And—is that a goat?
Sheep, as a species, have a fundamental flaw: I hate them. They lack charm, and they do not respond to charm. They are difficult to move and impossible to command. Currently, about two dozen of them wander around looking woolly and dirty, with their demonic eyes and their munching mouths. I spot Holly from HR trying to herd one elsewhere, her kitten heels digging into the grass. I suppose she wasn’t expecting to leave her desk today, but apparently, all hands are on deck.
“Keynes,” she calls, catching sight of me. “You’re a big, strong man. Come and help me with this bloody sheep.”
At the sound of my name, several other employees look up and smile at me, waving and shouting greetings. I spot Matt the accountant and Emily from admin and Mary-Margaret—yes, that is her name—who’s always in the orchards. There’s a strangled sound of disbelief from my left, and I turn to find Griffin staring at me as if he seriously suspects I’m the anti-Christ.
“What,” he asks faintly, “have you done to my staff?”
I smirk. “I simply introduced myself. I can’t help it if people like me.”
He appears genuinely baffled, as if he’s wondering how that could possibly be true. As if I’m so unlikeable it does not compute. I set my jaw and turn away. Clearly, he has atrocious taste in humans. Although, his taste didn’t seem so atrocious when he was trying to taste me.
But I fucked that up, didn’t I? And for the first time in a long time, knowing I’m a mess doesn’t make me angry. It just makes me sad.
For Christ’s sake, Olu, now isn’t the time for emotional exploration. I have sheep to deal with. Shudder.
Griffin’s already off, striding over to an anxious-looking, farmer-type man, snapping at him to “Control your bastard sheep, Woodward!” I watch him for a moment—all that massive, commanding bulk, the fearsome scowl, the rough, expressive hands that flex and tense at his sides.
Then I do as Holly asked and help with the damned sheep.
It’s not easy work. The sheep man, it seems, has lost his sheep dog, and also the ability to maintain his fences, so all his stock ambled over here. He’s rather useless at herding them back. This must have happened before, because Griff’s outrage is resigned rather than astonished, and he goes about collecting stray animals with the air of a man who’s done this one too many times. Unlike the rest of us mere mortals, he doesn’t resort to coaxing, chasing, or even pushing. He picks the bleating balls of wool clean off the ground, and carries them a good hundred metres to a fence beyond the trees. Then he dumps his sheep, jogs back, and does it all again.
Before long, the sheep get wise and run faster when he comes near.
The air grows thick and heavy as we work, but I barely notice because the sun is still bright and the temperature is mild. So when the spattering of rain abruptly becomes an outright downpour, I’m shocked and disgusted by nature’s mercuriality.
Peter tromps past me, grinning wide, his red hair plastered to his face. “April showers!” he shouts.
Thank you, Peter, I’ve heard of the term. I just don’t bloody like them. But I keep going anyway. When I find myself next to Holly again, she gives me an assessing look and says, “I bet you could pick up a sheep.” Like Griffin, she means.
My snort is loud and indignant enough to be heard over the rain. “Holly, darling, you don’t understand. Sheep and I barely associate. We are not on speaking terms. This entire situation is pushing me over the edge as it is.”
But she makes a valid point; I could probably pick up a sheep. I really don’t want to, but I could. I’ve certainly been watching Griff closely enough to grasp the, er, mechanics, and my urge to help people with their problems has certainly been awoken by the chaos around me. Alright then; while Holly laughs at my look of disgust, I sneak up on a thoroughly distracted sheep and grasp its odd, sturdy-soft body. Like Griff does, I make sure to secure the head quickly—and as soon as I do, the creature’s squirming lessens. But it’s still heavy as fuck and bleating in my ear.
I’d drop this thing like a hot potato if I weren’t concerned that would damage the creature… and if its presence in my arms weren’t making Griffin Everett stop and stare at me. There’s something rather satisfying about the slack-jawed expression on his face as he stands there, frantic staff and naughty sheep milling around him. He is a veritable column of surprise, and I do like surprising people—which must be why warmth floods my chest, easing the strain of the bloody sheep cradled in my arms. It’s only when the ache in my biceps gets really intense that I realise I’ve been standing here like a sheep-toting lemon, staring at Griff while he stares at me, for far too long.
Breaking the connection feels like the icy shock of being slapped by rain. Ignoring that strange sensation, and my even stranger thoughts, I drag my burden over to the appropriate fence and dump it awkwardly in its own territory. My lower back has served me well for thirty-eight years, so I feel incredibly guilty when it twinges as I drop off the sheep. Why am I subjecting my poor body to this abuse? Oh, yes—because “hard work cures all ills,” and I’m drowning in ills.
Interestingly enough, I do feel much better now that I’ve carried a farm animal. Sort of… real, earthy, human. Simple. Perhaps I’ll snatch another. Griffin certainly isn’t slacking. I can see him now, a few metres away; his shirt is so thoroughly soaked, it’s like transparent tissue painted to his skin, displaying the flex of his muscles as he bends to grab a roaming fluff ball. He thinks he’s got the creature, but at the last minute it rushes out of his grip and comes barrelling toward… me.
I really do hate sheep.
Griff stands, his gaze following the animal’s path straight to me. His wet hair is shoved out of his face, and when I squint through the blur of rain, he looks something other than ugly. Maybe rugged is the word. As if he was raised by wolves on a mountain somewhere, and he kills his prey with his bare hands.
I choke off that line of thought and step back, neatly out of the sheep’s way. Then I see Griff’s eyes widen. Register my calves bumping into something hard. Lose my balance. Trip and fall.
Oh, for fuck’s sake.
Even if Keynes hadn’t apologised earlier—even if the sight of him still caused a burn of shame-edged anger in my chest—I don’t think I’d enjoy watching him trip over one sheep while dodging another. It is kind of slapstick, but he hits the ground way too fucking hard.
On the slippery grass, with this low visibility and sheep running everywhere, he never stood a chance. The one lurking behind him reaches the back of his knees, so when he goes over, he lands badly. This green space vibrates with sheets of rain, but even so, I think I hear his fall. I’m sprinting for him before I realise I’ve moved, because I’m the resident first aider, and because, knowing my luck, he’ll have snapped his fucking collarbone or something, and…
And I’m not sure what else.
He’s already sitting up by the time I crouch beside him, but I know he’s hurt real bad. I didn’t notice, before, how fluidly he moves—only how clumsy it made me feel in comparison. But now that smoothness is gone, and it’s jarring to see him slouch like a normal person. There’s mud smeared on his face and up his side, grass stains on the clothes he wears so well, and a wince freezing his handsome features. He raises a hand to touch his own ribs, then stops, flinching.
I don’t know if he can move his arm. Automatically, I grab his elbow for support. “Pain?”
“Ribs, nothing major.” His answer is clear and no-nonsense, even though his voice is tight. I hesitate for a minute because he’s taking this seriously without a second thought. I suppose I expected angry, macho defiance, a rejection of my help and a denial of any injuries.
I move my hand to check his ribs, but at the first brush of contact he jerks away, his brown skin paling. “Don’t.”
I press my mouth into a disapproving line. “Let me have a look.”
“I think it’s just bruising,” he says, dragging himself painfully to his feet. I can barely hear his words over the rain, they squeeze out so quietly. “I’ll make sure later. If I’m wrong, and I’ve punctured a lung, I promise to call 999.”
Now I’m pissed again, because who the fuck jokes about puncturing a lung? “I know you think you’re the smartest man on the planet, but unless you’re a bloody doctor, you need to respect my authority here.”
He barks out a laugh, then screws up his face and releases a ragged groan of pain. My hands are humming with the need to reach for him. You know, to make sure he’s okay. “Hate to piss all over your authority,” he says with a weak, wicked smile, “but I fucked a doctor on and off through med school. I do believe that gives me the edge over first aid training—unless you’re a nurse as well as a farmer?”
He’s doing it again; shoving me, without hands this time. He wants me to tut and glare and turn away in disgust. Instead, I snap, “Do you think knowledge travels from body to body through come?”
Now he looks scandalised, which is sweeter than it should be. I’ve wiped the tiny, smug smile right off his face. He takes a breath, winces, and cuts it short. Croaks out a sharp, “Shut up.”
I think I want to grin.
“Keynes! I saw you go over, my love. Are you alright?” Holly from HR has hurried over and a crowd of concerned staff members are bringing up the rear. That snuffs out the light in me, replacing it with a jealousy that swallows everything else. I watch, grim and speechless again, while everyone who knows and avoids me drowns Keynes in worry and affection. At times like this, the truth about me is as unavoidable as rain in England: I’m so difficult to care for that the people I’ve lived with all my life still hold me at a distance, but they fall all over this outsider with ease. Twenty-eight years versus, what, three fucking days? The numbers speak for themselves and they’re damning.
I sigh and raise my voice over their questions. “Keynes, come with me. The rest of you, finish up here.”
They nod solemnly because I’m the production manager. But they smile and wish Keynes well as I lead him away, because he’s more than that.
Order Work for It now…