Juanita bounded into the room, looking upset. “Mama, Victor won’t let me help with the fence posts. Ethan said I could.”
“’Nita, you know that it is a man’s work,” her mother gently scolded. “Let Victor feel important today and not as your little brother.”
The girl scuffed her sneakers against the floor, her lower lip protruding. “But he only gets in the way. He’s bothering Ethan.”
“Did Señor Ethan say so?” Rita asked.
“No,” Juanita answered petulantly. “But I can help, I know I can! Why can’t I ever do the fun things?”
Jessica heard her younger self in the girl’s frustrated words. She saw herself at that same age, wearing similar ragtag jeans, her long hair in pigtails, trailing after her father and Robby, her chin set in fierce determination to do everything that her big brother could.
“Enough, Juanita,” Rita said firmly. “You can take Maria outside to play. It is getting too warm inside. We will come outside soon and set the tables for lunch.”
“Yes, Mama.” Juanita took her cousin’s hand and led her outside.
“That child,” her mother said with a mother’s sigh. “She loves Señor Ethan. When he is here she is attached to his side. But I would have done the same at her age. He is a good man.” She looked at Jessica, begging confirmation of her lofty opinion.
Jessica hedged. “I’m afraid I haven’t known him long enough...” Good? That wasn’t the first adjective that came to her mind when she thought of him.
Rita chattered on. “We are glad he is back at the farm. His grandmother is happy when he is there. He is like his grandfather, God bless him. Always giving. Always taking care of the farm workers. Manuel did not ask Señor Ethan to help build the fence today, but when Señor Ethan heard, he said he would help. With Anna’s husband and Manuel and Señor Ethan, it will be finished much sooner.”
Anna gave Jessica a coy look. “He is a good man and handsome, sí?”
Jessica pressed her glass of iced tea to her burning cheek. “Hmm, I suppose he is handsome...in a rough sort of way.” Her breath quickened as she recalled the feel of his hand against her bare skin the night before.
Rita clasped her hands together in glee. “Ah, look at you. Soon you will follow him just like my Juanita.”
“Está loca. She is crazy,” Anna soothed Jessica, rolling her eyes towards her sister. “She likes to play matchmaker. It was she who introduced me to my Pablo.” She arched an eyebrow at her sister. “Rita, we should make the salad.”
“I can help,” Jessica offered, starting to rise.
“If you can hold little Pablo?” Anna asked.
Jessica held the sleeping baby on her lap while she watched the two women work. They conversed in a mixture of English and Spanish as they prepared the midday meal. Once everything was ready and placed in the refrigerator to keep, they invited Jessica to follow them outside to help with the tables. There was a small vegetable garden, swing set and sandbox behind the house. Beyond that lay a green parcel of land that the men were fencing off to create a sheep pasture. A beautiful willow tree with lacy branches sweeping the ground stood in the center of the pasture, two wooden picnic tables beneath it. Jessica continued to hold the baby while the two sisters spread tablecloths and utensils. When little Pablo stirred and began to whimper, Anna came to fetch him.
“Time for his lunch,” she said, sitting down at one of the tables. She loosened her cotton blouse and held the baby to her breast.
Juanita and Maria soon joined the women under the willow tree, the swing set having lost its appeal. Jessica could tell that the older girl was still unhappy about not being allowed to help the men. Juanita leaned against the tree trunk, hands tucked in her back pockets as she watched them work. Jessica’s own gaze swerved uncontrollably towards the far end of the field.
Ethan seemed to tower over the other two men as he worked alongside them. It was his task to dig the holes for the round fence posts. Once the hole was deep enough, one of the men set the pole in place and held it steady while the other two shoveled the dirt back into the hole. A boy, no more than five years old, hovered at the ready, plastic toy shovel in hand. The last scoop of dirt was left for him to pat down as the men moved on to the next position. It was hard work, more so under the warm sun.
As Jessica watched, she saw Ethan pause to wipe the tail of his shirt over his face, exposing a chiseled bronze chest that held the sheen of sweat. Sinewy stomach muscles moved like liquid in motion beneath glistening male skin. She released a quivery sigh, realizing only then that she’d been holding her breath. As if he’d heard her, he suddenly turned his head towards the willow tree. Although certain that she was well concealed in the shade, she felt as though his piercing gaze sought and found her with intense accuracy, holding her still and cautious like a deer in the sights of a hunter’s rifle. The air seemed to turn sultry around her, encompassing her, stifling her. It was all she could do to drag her eyes away from him and settle them on Juanita.
“Why don’t you play in the sandbox?” Rita was suggesting to her daughter.
“That’s a baby thing,” Juanita sulked.
“I’ll play with you,” Jessica offered with a coaxing smile.
The girl perked up. “All right.”
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