The distinctive chirps of crickets grew louder as Hart strolled away from the lakeside. Another meaningless encounter had come to an end. He’d told himself he wouldn’t do it again, and yet now he had. At least the guy had been attractive and around his own age. God, I’m scraping the bottom of the barrel. Has my life come to this?
Cruising around parks and restrooms, no comfort, no intimacy, no love.
Climbing into his truck, Hart remembered the ranch name the guy had given him. He checked it out on the Internet, and then, when a much older guy approached, Hart realized he’d been reading the website too long. Oh, no, not another one
. He turned the key in the ignition and started the engine. He reversed in the small gravel parking lot, then sped away.
On the borders of Wyoming’s Yellowstone Park, guys were using this beautiful location to cruise. Narrow paths and hidden patches between trees at the edge of the water proved an ideal location to get it on with someone. As the sunset dipped through water reeds, it could be an ideal romantic spot, but instead the brief rendezvous were impersonal and void of emotion.
After traveling around doing casual work for five years, he needed steady employment, a home, and a life. According to the guy at the lake, the people at the Red Fox Ranch were gay-friendly and hiring. He’d always been quite private about his sexuality, but what the hell? It’d be a change not to hide who I am all the time
. Could even be a novelty. Might even be…nice?
* * * *
Hart pulled up to the front of the big, traditional ranch house, and the midday heat hit him as he stepped out of the air-conditioned truck. A line of tall fir trees stood behind the wooden building where a new job might be waiting, and a lake nestled at the foot of nearby mountains. He tapped at the door and glanced down at his clothing, tugging at the corner of his shirt to straighten it. The sound of the knocker echoed. A young woman, about seventeen, answered. God, am I in the right place?
He pulled his Stetson off.
“Hello, you must be Hart? My dad told us to expect you.” The mellow warmth of her baby-blue eyes made him feel at ease. “Come in.” She opened the door wide, and he stepped inside.
The sound of his boots carried across the oak floor as he followed her to a study at the back of the house. The smell of freshly baked scones wafted on the warm air, making its way into his nostrils, and there were family photographs dotting the walls. He passed the living room where three big sofas cried out comfort in shades of cream, coffee, and chocolate. Everything was settled precisely in its place in the study, and the paperwork stacked in rows stood to attention; files were arranged flush on the shelves. This house was tidy, lived-in, loved—this was a home.
She gestured for him to take a seat in front of the desk. He perched uneasily for a moment and then shuffled back, his shoulders sinking down with light relief.
“My dad’ll be with you in a minute. Would you like a cup of coffee?” she asked.
“Yes, please, miss.”
“I’m Kristen.” Smiling, she offered her small hand, and he took it.
“Pleased to meet you, Kristen.” He nodded as she scooted around the corner of the door into the hallway.
She paused at the foot of the stairs, flicking her long fair hair over one shoulder. “Dad, Mr. Emile is here,” she screeched loudly, the opposite of the ladylike girl he’d shaken hands with moments earlier, the contrast making him snort.
“I’m coming. Kristen, are you fixin’ him a drink?” A man’s deep, rough tone responded from the second floor.
“Yes!” She faced Hart again and politely smiled. He was unsure what to expect from the owner of the voice.
Heavy footsteps thudded down the stairs, but still no one appeared. Peering around the door a little more, he caught a glimpse of a man going backward and forward on the bottom step. What the fuck?
The man came into the study and smiled as he put his hand out. “You must be Hart.”
“Yes, sir,” Hart replied, accepting the firm handshake.
“I’m Bay. We spoke on the phone. Welcome to the Red Fox.”
“It’s good to meet you,” Hart replied.
Bay was about six-three, with dark hairy arms and chest. His inky-black hair and the long stubble on his rugged jaw gave him a masculine aura.
What’s with the performance on the steps?
“Thanks.” Hart sucked in a bewildered breath as Bay sank down behind the desk in front of him. Kristen appeared at his side with two coffees. Bay’s broad hand dwarfed the mug she gave him, and he pulled a coaster from the drawer, placing it in position on the desk. Then he rotated the leather square a little, moved it again, this time to the other side of the desk. There were more rotations until he positioned it precisely before placing the coffee down. Kristen’s cheeks pinked slightly as she glanced at her dad’s performance with the coaster, and she swiftly disappeared.
“Thanks for coming.” Bay rested his elbows on the arms of the office chair. He steepled his fingers, moving back into the creaking leather. “I’m looking for a permanent ranch hand, and you’d be on a three-month trial initially. I sure could use a carpenter and a mechanic around here. Your skills are pretty impressive.” Bay stopped midflow and stared toward the door. Hart followed his gaze to see an elderly lady in the doorway.
“Have you seen my slippers, Bay?”
“Grandma, no, I haven’t. Can you give us a minute?” A big crease came to the middle of the man’s brow.
“Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t see you there, young man.” She peered around the side of the door at Hart, and then she fiddled with a long gold necklace, which had a charm at the end. Snow-white hair curled around her cheeks. She had mischief in those twinkling blue eyes.
“Hart, this is my grandma, Mrs. Redman. Hart’s come to work with us—well, maybe—if he likes us.” Bay inclined his head, prompting Hart.
“Oh, yes. Howdy, ma’am.” What an unusual interview.
Her tiny hand met his, her fingers soft but her grip steely.
“Grandma, I haven’t seen your slippers. Has Skip taken them again? I told you not to leave them out, didn’t I?” Bay’s paternal tone checked her.
“Oh, yes, but I didn’t realize Skip was around.” She put wrinkled fingers to her lips.
“Skip’s our new shepherd-mix pup, Hart. I’ll take you to meet him shortly. Grandma, can you give us a minute?” Bay’s gaze beseeched her.
“Oh, yes, sorry. I’ll get back to my baking. Did you get Hart some coffee?”
“Kristen did.” Bay gestured to the mug on the edge of the desk next to Hart.
“Okay, I’ll say good day to you, then.” She wandered off down the corridor.
God, is this the right place? Even if it’s not, I’m not going to say anything. There’s something a bit…different. I like it here.
“Now, where was I?” Bay pulled the coffee from the coaster again, fiddling with it some more.
“The ranch—” Hart said expectantly.
Bay’s cell rang.
“Excuse me.” Bay eased it out of his jeans pocket. “Hello? He’s what?” His eyebrows knitted. “Yes, okay. I’m coming.” He buried the phone back in his pocket and stood.
“I’m sorry about this, but Skip’s got one of the chickens again. I’m going to have to go get him. Come with me if you want. Bring your coffee. There’s always some crisis happening here. There isn’t much normal about this ranch, I’m afraid.”
Hart followed Bay across the wooden floors of the house, their steps echoing. At the chicken coop, Kristen held a struggling black-and-brown puppy by his collar.
“What in the hell was he doing in there?” A muscle twitched in Bay’s neck as he opened the coop.
“I don’t know, but he’s mauled another one of the hens.” Kristen barely hid her concern as a hen lay on its side with a wing flapping a little. Feathers were scattered across the ground.
“For God’s sake, you’re supposed to be watching him. We can’t have him running wild all over the ranch.” Pushing the gate shut from inside, he glanced at Hart. “If it’s not foxes or coyotes or wolves…it’s this damned untrained puppy.”
“Can I help?” Hart asked.
“Go with Kristen. I’ll be back in a minute when I’ve sorted this mess out.”
Hart strolled back to the porch, where Kristen took his coffee mug. She passed him the wriggling puppy, which licked his face uncontrollably.
“Wait here. I’ll get the leash.” She disappeared into the house and returned to hook the clip onto the dog’s collar. He jumped from Hart’s arms.
“I’ll bring you a cup of fresh coffee. Yours’ll be cold by now. I’m sorry about this. I’d like to say it’s not usually like this, but it kind of is
He chuckled, and she slipped through the door again, taking Skip with her. Hart leaned on the porch railing and watched Bay leave the chicken run, holding the now dead bird and hooking the gate closed behind him. He rounded the corner of a shed and moved out of sight.
Kristen appeared at Hart’s side, still holding Skip on the leash, and handed him a steaming mug. “Please take a seat.” She settled into one of the chairs.
“Thanks.” He perched uneasily on the wooden chair.
“We have seven ranch hands living here in the bunkhouse. Are you going to stay there too?” she asked.
“If you’ve got the room.” He shuffled back, trying to relax, and tossed his Stetson in his hands idly.
“I think so. My dad’ll know.”
The house phone rang; Skip followed her inside as she went to answer it. While Hart waited, a wind chime tinkled in the breeze. From down near the barns, a cowboy headed toward the porch, his tall figure backlit by the sun. Broad shoulders tapered to a small waist. The man couldn’t be older than nineteen. The hairs on Hart’s arms stood on end. The young cowboy mounted the steps and glanced at Hart, lifting his lush, delicate features into a sweet smile.
It was enough to make Hart melt.
“Hi. I’m Oak, like the tree.” His voice held a vibrant, acquiescent note, and he reached out, taking Hart’s hand. A good, firm handshake corresponded with big, honest baby-blue eyes. High cheekbones filled with a flush of pink flattered his brown skin. Lust roared through Hart as a faint scent of cinnamon made its way to his senses. Those full, deep-pink lips needed kissing. A well-crafted bicep showed off a tribal tattoo peeping from under the sleeve of Oak’s T-shirt. The muscle beneath twitched intermittently.
Hart shifted in the dry air on the porch, and a bead of sweat trickled down the back of his neck, making him shudder. “I’m Hart,” he replied, unable to get another word out.
Kristen opened the porch door and smirked at Oak. Immediate embarrassment rushed heat to Hart’s cheeks. Had she noticed his jaw dropping in awe of the rancher’s son?
“Oh, right, my dad told me you were coming,” Oak said, ignoring Kristen.
Dad? Oh, no. Could Oak be the boss’s son?
“Dad, there’s a call for you!” she shouted as Bay approached the porch.
“Kristen, honey, can you deal with it? I’m showing Hart around.” Bay stopped and rested his foot on the bottom step. “I’m sorry about the interruptions, Hart. I see you’ve met my boy, Oak.”
“Yes.” Of course, the most beautiful man he’d ever seen would
be the boss’s son.
“Come tour the ranch now.” Bay gestured for Hart to follow. “So, how many years’ experience did you say you have?”
Pushing up from the wicker chair on the porch and barely able to distract himself from lean, athletic Oak, Hart followed Bay. “Nice to meet you, Oak,” he called over his shoulder, hoping to catch another of Oak’s sweet smiles. He probably has a great ass too.
He took an extra step to catch up. “I worked on ranches my whole life, sir.”
His new boss had arrived in the nick of time, because he sure as hell didn’t know what to say to Oak. Especially as Hart needed to keep his mind on the job, and not on Oak. Hart suspected Bay wouldn’t be best pleased to know Hart had one eye on his son. He should take the job seriously anyway. Crazy place—but somehow he liked it.