Aware of the eyes watching him, Hunter swallowed down the comment that he would test his new gloves at his apartment and bring them back if they didn’t fit. Uncomfortable as hell, feeling on display, he slid the black leather onto his damaged hand. Hunter had lost his pinkie and ring fingers on his left hand over a year ago. The scar tissue had completely healed, but he’d never acclimated to leaving his damaged hand uncovered. He had never gotten used to the questions that came from complete strangers as a result; he hated even more the memories of so many other crushing losses the curiosity stirred in him. Don’t think about being overseas. Think about your new job.
Hawkins Ranch had hired Hunter a couple of weeks ago. Unfortunately the gauze bandages he’d been using to cover his missing digits weren’t working out for a job on a ranch. Right away he’d realized he’d need something more durable that wouldn’t snag or unravel while doing so much physical labor. Through Risa Boone’s store, Nate’s Bait and Saddle Shop, Hunter had been able to place an order for a specially made glove.
Hunter adjusted the glove on his hand, letting his thumb and two fingers slip through the appropriate holes, and nearly sighed as smooth, cool leather covered the area where his ring finger and pinkie used to be, protecting it and the other scar tissue mapping his palm. He worked the extra-long armhole up past his wrist, careful to keep his shirt cuff over his arm, blocking as much skin as he could from prying eyes. Finally he pulled the tabs across his forearm that would tighten the glove and keep it from catching on anything while doing ranch work.
A creamy hand came into Hunter’s vision but quickly pulled away before touching the leather. The hand belonged to his sister, and the withdrawal was yet another time she stopped herself from doing what came so naturally to her. She wanted to soothe and show her love for him, but she’d picked up on Hunter’s body language not to and respected it. Every time she pulled away, it pierced Hunter’s soul. He wished he could open his mouth and tell her to look at his wound, touch it, and do everything she wanted to try to make him feel better. But he couldn’t. Just letting her and Risa look at him right now stirred up a quickening in Hunter’s heart. He had to take repeated deep, slow breaths to keep at bay the desire to cut into his skin with his pocketknife.
Using his other hand, Hunter fingered his knife in his pocket. Just the contact with the hard metal casing helped settle him enough to go on. Take another breath
. Once done Hunter even managed to lean his hip against the counter, hold up his gloved hand, and grin at his sister. “What do you think?”
“It looks good on you,” Sarah replied, giving him a quick squeeze around the waist and then allowing him his space again. “I like it.”
From the other side of the counter, Risa whistled softly. “It looks pretty badass, if I’m allowed to say that.” She waggled her brows at him comically. “You have a black glove now to go with the black Stetson. Plus you’ve got the stubbly jaw thing going. I think you’re starting to look a bit like an outlaw.”
“He did cut his hair though,” Sarah told Risa. “He’s back to having this little cowlick I used to remember from when we were kids, so that takes some of the edge off the bad boy thing.”
Hunter couldn’t believe it, but his shoulders loosened and a rusty chuckle actually escaped. Maybe for the first since he’d come back to the States. “I meant do you think it’s practical?” he asked. “Not if I look good in it. Will it hold up at work?”
Sarah turned to Risa with an unspoken Whatdo you think
? in her raised brow.
“Oh yeah, I think so,” Risa answered. “The workmanship is top notch, so there’s nothing to worry about in that regard. It’s just going to be a matter of getting used to it. It’s really not a bad idea.” She picked up a brown glove cut in the same design and held it against the back of her palm. “I mean, I have my own work gloves of course, but I only use them about half the time. It’s not doable for all ranch work. But something like this, where you have your palms protected with a nice thin layer of leather but still have fingers free…” As she put the glove back down, she fingered the soft leather once more before pushing her strawberry-colored braid over her shoulder. “I might have to get myself a pair.”
“Good.” Dipping his head, Hunter offered a tight smile. “It means a lot to know you think it’ll be good for me. Thanks.”
“Why don’t you try on the brown one too, just in case?” Risa suggested. “That way if there’s a problem I can get Leigh to make a call and take care of it right away.”
“Right. Good idea.” Hunter worked off the black glove and slipped on the brown.
He had purchased two gloves for his damaged hand: one for work and one for everything else. He figured it wouldn’t take long for the work one to get rank. People wouldn’t want to see and smell it when he had to go to the grocery store or when Sarah managed to drag him to a restaurant or her house for a meal. Different colors would make them quick to identify. Plus if something happened to his work one, he’d have a second one immediately available to relegate for work, and then have a new one made to replace the everyday one.
The brown glove fit as beautifully as the black, and since Sarah had cornered him into a meal with Jace and Jasper at the diner tonight, Hunter went ahead and left it on. Might as well start getting used to it
. He paid the remainder of his balance on the special order, said good night to Risa, and followed his sister out of the store.
Sarah slipped her hand into the crook of his elbow, and Hunter jerked at the contact. Immediately Sarah pulled away, murmuring an apology.
. Every time Hunter reacted on instinct, it hurt the people around him. People who just wanted to help. Shit
. “You can hold my arm, you know.” Hunter forced himself to jut out his elbow in welcome. “It surprised me for a minute, that’s all.”
“It’s all right.” Rather than grabbing him again, Sarah rubbed his shoulder. “We have a little bit of time before meeting Jace and Jasper. Do you mind if we run inside the youth center for a minute?” She waited for a couple of cars to pass, and then nudged him across the street. “I need to talk to Ty about one of the kids.”
“Yeah. Fine,” Hunter answered. Sarah trotted up the few steps to the entrance, but Hunter held back. “I can wait outside. There’s a nice breeze in the air this evening.”
“I shouldn’t be more than fifteen minutes. Oh!” Sarah collided with someone exiting the building. As soon as she looked up, she smiled.
From the sidewalk, Hunter automatically stiffened as he recognized the blond hair, classically handsome face, and tight body. They’d not crossed paths since banging into each other the day Hunter had returned to Quinten, but enough of Hunter’s coworkers and people in town had been buzzing about the rich guy fixing to build fancy houses that Hunter knew this was the outsider
to whom they referred, Alexander Quick.
“Hi, stranger.” Sarah gave the man one of her fast squeezes. “I haven’t seen you in forever.”
Alex grinned back at Sarah. “I know. I had to go out of town for a while, and I missed you when I popped back in to sign the contracts.” The breeze picked up and rustled through the man’s hair, bringing to Hunter’s attention that the neat, shorn style of their first meeting wasn’t quite as perfect today. “I just wanted to check in with Ty and give a quick session to the kids in my program before I head out for the weekend again.”
A frown marred his sister’s pretty face. “Is everything okay?”
“Handling some stuff that can’t be
ignored.” For a split second, the man’s mouth pulled down at the edges,
but a smile slipped back in the next second. He added, “I’m fine.”
“Not that you’d tell me if you weren’t,” Sarah grumbled. “You’re pretty much like all the other men in my life that way.”
Hunter swore pink tinged Alex’s cheeks just then. The guy’s shoulders pushed back so straight it made him look a good two inches taller.
“You honor me by putting me in that company,” Alex shared softly, but Hunter still heard him. Couldn’t ignore the flutter the gentle tone evoked low in his belly either.
Oh no. No. No
. Heat suddenly burned down Hunter’s back, and terrible, panicky thumping erupted in his chest. You are not attracted to him.
“Speaking of…” Sarah tugged Alex down the steps. “You have not officially met Hunter. Alex Quick, please meet my favorite brother in the world—”
“Your only brother,” Hunter cut in, trying to force a joke. Laughing sometimes helped calm him down.
“Still my favorite.” Sarah glanced at Hunter with a mock scowl. “Don’t kill my intro, Bro. Alex, meet Hunter.” Christ
. She easily curled her arm around this newcomer’s elbow, clearly without worrying about him flinching. “And,
Hunter”—giving Hunter a few seconds of eye contact, Sarah then lightly touched his arm—“this is my friend, Alex.”
An oh-so-fucking sexy, warm chuckle jerked Hunter’s attention to Alex. The guy waited with his hand extended in Hunter’s direction.
“I’ll try this without crashing into you this time,” Alex said. “It’s good to meet you, Hunter.”
Hunter furiously rubbed at the knife in his pocket. His mind flashed on making a good, deep cut into his thigh before he could command his body to extend his right hand and force himself to clasp this stranger’s in return. “I was the one with my head down that day. It was my fault.” Hunter couldn’t seem to focus on anything but the strong grip holding his. It feels so fucking secure
. “I apologize,” he murmured, his stare still on those long fingers wrapped around his.
“Not necessary,” Alex said, still clasping Hunter’s hand.
“Shoot.” Sarah grabbed Alex’s wrist and turned it to reflect the big, chunky face of his watch. In doing so, she severed the contact between Alex and Hunter. “I need to grab Ty before he starts gathering up the kids who need rides home.” She tore back up the stairs, calling over her shoulder, “I’ll be right back!”
Now alone, silence reigned between the men. Hunter didn’t know where the hell to look or what to do, but he didn’t think staying trapped in this man’s intoxicating green gaze ranked anywhere near the top of his list of good ideas. It made Hunter think about those eyes getting all hazy with desire and then going cloudy as the man shouted in the throes of release while Hunter had every inch of his cock buried deep in his ass. Damn it
. Hunter grunted and turned away, squeezing his eyes shut as the first stirring of an erection twitched his prick against his jeans. Jesus Christ
. The reaction sucker punched him. He hadn’t experienced genuine arousal in too many years. He couldn’t even remember the last time he’d had sex with another man. And now I can’t even trust myself to attempt it anymore.
Alex cleared his throat, and the deep, scratchy sound snapped Hunter back around and his attention off the ground. Hunter had studied his own tension enough in a mirror to detect it in another person a mile away, and Alexander Quick showed all the signs of stiffness right now.
Fuck. Now I’m making complete strangers uncomfortable too.
“Okay, well…” Alex pointed behind him and started backing down the sidewalk. “It was nice to meet you, but I have to get going. Can you tell Sarah good-bye for me? I’m heading back out of town early tomorrow morning, but I just got my new trailer delivered to the property, so I still need to check out of the motel and move my stuff before I leave. No sense in paying for a room for two more days that I won’t be in.” The pink slashes across Alex’s cheeks became full-on ruddy red. “Which you didn’t need to know. Right.” Hands returned to Alex’s pockets, and he spun away. “Bye.”
Before realizing it, Hunter strode the two steps it took to catch up to Alex. “Even though people are calling you an outsider, I’m sure what you’re doing is fine.” Holy hell
. Why in God’s name had he blurted out that? “I don’t think you’re trying to take over the town.” Fucking A
. He’d done it again.
Alex turned on a dime and closed the distance between them in a shot. “What did you say?” He spit that out faster and deadlier than a sniper’s bullet.
Heat, fire, life
swirled all around Alex in an invisible arc, one that invaded Hunter’s space and tagged dormant circuits inside him he’d long thought dead. Sparks began igniting within, and the more Hunter stood this close to this man, the hotter he grew. His blood felt like it had turned to lava, and looking into Alex’s cool, green stare made Hunter think touching this person and kissing him would be the only way to soothe the burn within. At the same time, Hunter’s need
to touch kicked up his heart rate in a terrible, familiar way, and he battled an overwhelming desire to get away before he did something stupid, ugly, and violent and gave his secrets away.
Jutting, aggressive lines changed Alex’s face to something full of unforgiving beauty. “Talk, damn it.” He grabbed Hunter’s arm just as Hunter made to move away. “You can’t just say shit like that and then go mute.”
The second Alex touched him, Hunter flashed on twisting the man’s arm behind his back and taking him to the ground in two quick moves. He even wrapped his hand around Alex’s wrist and started to turn him. Abruptly he
let go and jerked away, realizing what he’d almost done. This man is a civilian. Shit
. Once again Hunter shoved his hand into his pocket and rubbed his thumb over the folded knife, again, again, and again. What did he say before you almost broke his arm? Focus. Breathe
. Rubbing the knife in Hunter’s pocket didn’t ease a damn thing within him. Think.
Hunter forced himself to meet Alex’s scrutinizing stare. “I apologize for twisting your wrist like I did.”
Shaking his head, Alex said, “No need. I shouldn’t have grabbed you in the first place.”
“My sister obviously likes you,” Hunter said, reaching for normalcy and common ground. “If you were intending to do something destructive to Quinten, she would have figured you out by now.”
Alex whispered a litany of foul words through tight lips. Tunneling his fingers through his hair, he picked up disheveling it where the wind had left off. “I am not
trying to take over this town or hurt its well-being or charm in any way.” Shards of green glass glinted cool chips within the blaze burning Alex’s stare. “I bought property. I’m allowed to do that, you know.” He practically snarled as if daring anyone within his range to contradict him and risk getting bitten. “I’m going to hire a bunch of local people and pay them to build some damn nice houses a number of the residents in this town can afford to buy. That’s it.”
Alex finally exhaled, but it was clear a snapping animal still had hold of him.
“Nothing more. Nothing less.”
Unable to look away, even though he couldn’t unleash his hidden grip on his knife for anything, Hunter whispered huskily, “I believe you.”
His stare narrowing, Alex suddenly appeared confused. “Good. Now if you’ll excuse me”—he patted himself down as if he couldn’t find something that was supposed to be on his person—“I really do have to go.” He gave one more sharp nod, added, “Have a good night,” and strode away at a fast clip.
By the time Alex rounded the corner to the parking lot, Hunter had slipped into the narrow gap between the youth center and the building next door. Closing his eyes, Hunter leaned his shoulder into the brick, but Alex’s intense stare still lived front and center in Hunter’s mind. Alex’s obvious intelligence was so very clear. He even had some arrogance living in his eyes, yet there’d been a flash of bewilderment too, and that made Alexander Quick so very human. Hunter’s cock stirred along with the rapid beating in his chest. Sweat pooled at the small of his back, creating new fingers of panic when he realized he could not use his knife. Not here. He didn’t have anything on him to clean up the blood. And he couldn’t leave. It would crush Sarah. He’d already canceled on her too many times since coming home.
Pictures of Alex still haunted Hunter, though, making his balls and dick swell with the reminder that his body had been asleep for a long time and missed intimate contact with another man. The sexual interest dangled itself like a key in front of Hunter’s caged emotions, threatening to unlock the steel door and let loose every ugly thing hiding inside him. No.
Quickly, Hunter turned his body at an angle to best shield himself from passersby. Praying for privacy, he used one hand to force back the fingers and wrist on his other to an unnatural angle. Motherfucking shit
. Hunter clenched his teeth as he applied steady pressure, more, more, more, until every pain receptor in his body screamed at the concentration of acute discomfort searing through his fingers and wrist. Hunter knew how far to push to make it hurt like hell without snapping
anything, and soon the perspiration filming his back and neck had nothing to do with overwhelming sexual attraction and everything to do with overcoming the incredible physical pain he inflicted on his hand. Within moments, all hints of
arousal fled. Thank you
. Hunter released his death grip on himself, instigating shooting pinpricks in his hand to let him know the blood had rushed back. Once more, everything started to return to normal. Okay. It’s okay now.
Hunter just needed a couple of minutes to breathe and he would be able to go back out to the sidewalk to wait for Sarah. It would be better now that Alex was gone.
Attraction was not good for Hunter.
Love could never exist in his life again.