I’m so darn excited.
I’m doing a book signing tomorrow at Epic Alpaca Ranch’s two-day National Alpaca Days celebration.
I was fortunate to spend one morning at the ranch a few months back when I was researching my book, Nobody’s Cowboy. The heroine of my book raises alpacas, and while you can learn a lot from watching videos and researching information on the Internet, nothing quite matches the hands-on, up-close and personal interaction with your subject matter–especially when you’re trying to describe something as warm and fuzzy as alpaca fleece.
The morning of my interview, Casey and Steve Aitchison gave me the hands-on tour of their amazing breeding facility and home. I learned sooo much, but my biggest take-away was the passion alpaca ranchers bring to their business/hobby/profession. They LOVE their animals–something I hope I conveyed in Nobody’s Cowboy.
And, believe me, one hug from one of the warm fuzzies and it’s easy to fall in love.
Here’s a scene from Nobody’s Cowboy that quite a few readers have mentioned in their reviews. As you’ll see, I had a little fun with this at Austen Zabrinski’s expense. But if you met him in Cowgirl Come Home, you know he deserved this.
He’s too pretty for this kind of job. Pretty boys don’t like to get dirty.
Serena ignored the voice in her head. She had no choice. She needed help and he was the best–the only–option on her plate at the moment. She could almost hear her educator father saying, “When choosing between bad and worse, take bad. But don’t complain later. It was your choice and it could have been… worse.”
“She’s in the middle stall.”
His size made the large barn feel smaller. She was still getting to know her space and make it her own. Having someone as dynamic as Austen Zabrinski on site made her edgy. Luckily, the procedure would only take a few minutes. Then, she could run him home and get back to work.
So. Much. Work.
Her parents kept a herd twice this size running like clockwork for years. Serena hadn’t questioned her own ability to manage a breeding operation until she figured out what was missing from the equation–a partner.
Fat chance of finding one of those . She sized up Austen again. He’d make a good one, if he weren’t so darn pretty.
“Generally, alpacas are very sweet-tempered and friendly, but when annoyed or stressed they do spit. And kick,” she added.
“Good to know.”
She opened the wooden stall door.
He followed her in after a slight hesitation. “Whoa. Two. Is the bigger one her mother? Or a male?”
“Betty is the black. Jezebel’s a rose gray. Alpacas are herd animals. They get very distressed alone. And we keep the males separate. My boys are clear on the other side of the barn. I take the breeding part of this job very seriously. Bloodlines are important, and keeping good records is imperative. No accidental pregnancies allowed.”
He made a garbled sound, as if he’d swallowed a fly. But when he failed to comment, she walked straight to the pair. Arms at her side, she leaned forward, nose first. Jezebel gave her a friendly sniff and nibbled on her hair. Betty took a step closer but didn’t touch her. “Betty Lou’s a little shy. She’s just three. Jezebel is an old hand at this sort of thing.”
Austen closed the gate but didn’t advance. “They’re really cute, aren’t they? It almost looks like they’re smiling.”
A common comment.
“The under bite. Gets you every time. My parents bought a pair–one for me and one for my brother–when I was fifteen. It was love at first sight for me. My brother… not so much. But one of the first computer programs he wrote was for cataloguing each animal by its genealogy. Every alpaca sold has to have a DNA test to prove its bloodline,” she added, acknowledging not for the first time the irony in her choice of hobbies-slash-professions.
Serena considered raising and breeding alpaca to be of equal importance if not more intrinsic to her soul with her day job. She would quit being an auditory specialist in a heartbeat if she could make a living from breeding, selling cria–alpaca offspring– and fiber sales.
One reason she’d moved to Montana was to lower her feed costs. With proper grassland management, she hoped to show a profit in the next couple of years.
“I didn’t know that,” her new helper said stepping closer.
The girls huddled together, nervously glancing at the newcomer. Serena stepped between the two creatures to grab Betty around the neck. Every animal in her herd was used to be touched. Some played hard to get, but most were tolerant and accepting of human hands. “It’s okay, beautiful. This won’t take long and you’ll feel better soon. I promise.”
She motioned Austen to join her. “Hang your hat on that peg. It’ll just be in the way.”
He followed her directions then walked closer, eying the two animals with a mix of curiosity and caution. “Aren’t you going to use a halter?”
“Alpacas are mouth breathers. If the halter slips and obstructs their breathing, they’ll panic. Then I’ll really have a problem on my hands.”
Once Austen stood directly across from her–only a skinny alpaca neck separated them–she realized the magnitude of her mistake. He was far too big, sexy, and his blue-green eyes were so unusual and intriguing. She wanted to map them in her memory.
He reached out to touch Betty. His long manicured–manicured? Really? Maybe just impeccably clean–fingers gently stroked Betty’s shorn back and shoulders. “You clip them? Like sheep?”
“Once a year. Money in the bank.” She didn’t have time to explain that alpaca fleece was one of the softest, warmest, most desirable fibers on the market.
She ducked under Betty’s neck and moved beside Austen to demonstrate what she needed him to do. “You want to secure her neck, gently but firmly. This will keep her still and you’ll avoid getting whacked. Their necks are very powerful.” The atmosphere felt too warm, too intimate, but she couldn’t turn back now.
Jezebel adroitly hopped sideways and abandoned her friend the moment Austen got close. Her nervous reaction was to pee. She straddled the communal potty spot and let go.
Serena saw Austen’s nose crinkle in disdain. Pee and poop were part of her daily routine. He probably had people who cleaned up his stalls for him. She intended to hire regular help once school started but even getting a day-helper had proven a challenge.
“Like this?” He put his arms around Betty’s neck, overlapping Serena’s arms momentarily. Betty let out a little hum of concern.
“Less tentatively. You want her to think you know what you’re doing.”
“Instead of being the virgin I am?”
His humor surprised her.
She liked it. “First times can be awkward. But don’t worry. This shouldn’t be painful.”
“I’ve heard that before.”
The rawness in his tone hinted at some pain or disappointment she never would have guessed from his Photoshop perfect smile.
“A little closer to her shoulder. She’s stronger than she looks.” She put her hands on his wonderfully muscled upper arms and turned him slightly. His warmth permeated her skin; his scent–something piney and deliciously masculine–filled her senses.
She blinked quickly, trying to maintain her focus. “Cozy up nice and tight. Let her snuggle against you and get a feel for you. I’ll tell you when to tighten your grip.”
Jezebel’s curiosity got the better of her and she stepped close enough to sniff Austen’s ear.
“No nibbles,” Serena told the elder alpaca.
Jezzie blinked her long curly lashes like an innocent coquette. Serena’s heart expanded with love. Her last boyfriend had called the alpacas Serena’s obsession.
“So?” she’d countered, like a five-year-old. “They’re my family. They’re part of the package. You either take them or leave me.”
Serena shook off the thought and got to business. She took off her gloves and grabbed the bottle of pink liquid and an injector. She depressed the drench syringe mechanism and pulled back, filling the hollow tube to the exact dosage.
“They make alpaca Pepto-Bismol? Who knew?”
“It’s not breed-specific.” She held up the bottle for him to see.
His grin said the question had been in jest. Her cheeks went hot. She thought she had a good sense of humor, but her college roommate had been quick to point out that many jokes went over Serena’s head. Certain social nuances were beyond her ken, simply because she had been today.
She walked around the animal’s hindquarters–keeping outside of the kick-zone. “Okay, now, secure her head. Firmly. Don’t forget, she’s more powerful than she looks. Alpacas and llamas use their heads as battering rams when it suits them.”
“What if I choke her?”
She appreciated the way his brow wrinkled and his jaw set firmly as he turned his focus on his job. He might look like a city boy, but he took orders well–a virtue that spoke to his upbringing, in her father’s opinion.
“You won’t. A nice, firm headlock and tilt her chin up.”
She used her free hand to pull down Betty’s lip so she could wedge the small, spoon-shaped metal end into her mouth. She pressed the plunger sending the pink liquid down her throat. “Keep her head up so she swallows. That’s good. Great job, but don’t let go. She needs some electrolytes, too.”
“Good girl, Betty Lou. Take it easy, sweetheart. We’re almost done.”
Betty gave a squeak and kicked, her small, sharp hooves poking the air behind her. “Easy, girl. This is going to make your tummy feel so much better. Relax.”
The last, a reminder for her. She’d done this a thousand times with her father, but this was her first time on her own. Did that make her a virgin?
She looked at Austen, whose entire focus was on Betty Lou. He murmured in her ear and soothed her with his beautiful hands.
Serena swallowed against the sudden tightness in her throat and grabbed the second bottle she’d brought from the house. It was a human sports drink she’d diluted. She opened the lid and filled the drench syringe a second time. “Almost done, girl. You’re doing great.”
Did her voice really sound that breathless?
“Better hurry. I’m running out of sweet nothings,” Austen said, dancing a bit with the nervous alpaca. He appeared to be sweating. She’d never seen anything sexier. “Can we change places?”
She hurried to his side. “No way. If you don’t get this down the right tube, she’ll aspirate. The last thing I want is a vet bill from an alpaca with pneumonia.”
“Okay. One more dance, Betty Lou?”
That he addressed her alpaca by name was nearly Serena’s undoing. She’d never dated a man who regarded her animals as anything but things, not living breathing beings with individual personalities. Her hand shook a tiny bit as she gave Betty her liquid.
“Good. One more and we’re done.”
She swore both Austen and Betty groaned. This time, Serena did the procedure quickly without hesitation. “Done. Let her go.”
Betty gave a little buck as she leaped to safety to hide behind her friend. Serena disposed of the apparatus and the bottles in a paper bag. She set everything just outside the stall.
This particular stall had an outside exit. “You might want to get out of the way.”
She unlocked the latch then pushed with her right arm. Jezebel, old pro that she was, trotted to freedom without the least bit of drama. Betty, who had been nibbling on a piece of last night’s dinner, glanced around to discover she was alone… with two humans.
She bolted, losing traction on the concrete under the straw. She wheeled to the left and tried to pass Austin on the opposite side he expected. Austen staggered back to avoid being stepped on.
A dainty hop and rock-solid poke of her head against his chest and Austen went down–butt-first into a pile of alpaca poo–the runny, icky reason they’d been treating her.
“Crap,” he muttered.
“You got that right,” Serena said.
She tried not to laugh. Really. She did.
Are you smiling? I hope so. And I hope you have a fabulous weekend with all sorts of great activities. If there’s an alpaca ranch/farm in your area, I suggest you check it out. Hug a fuzzy.