Streamers and balloons dotted the wide yard behind the massive house so no one missed the party, as if anyone could. The massive outdoor barbecue was an acre of people solid. Nonessential work at the White Ranch was suspended for the sixty-fifth birthday of the patriarch and owner. The families from the three bordering ranches and their staff were also invited.
Blake Louis hadn’t seen that many people outside a big city, and he rarely went to the city. His muscles ached for any excuse to hop on a horse and ride out into the open fields. As a ranch hand here for all of four months, he knew the White family, but everyone else was just by reputation and gossip.
After working his hour at the barbeque, Blake hung back and helped where needed. He didn’t have shiny new boots, crisp collared shirts, or even new jeans. The event was far from black tie, but even the White boys brought out their best hats and boots for the occasion. So Blake just watched, content in the fact that he liked his new job and had eaten his fill of excellent barbeque.
A well-built man with curly brown hair nodded to Blake from several feet away. Blake smiled and almost looked behind him. His attempt to be invisible had failed. The man was from the Chester ranch and had been strictly hanging with that group most of the day. It took time, but Blake was starting to catch on about some of the rivalries and egos. Even on a huge Montana ranch, politics and games still happened. That didn’t mean Blake couldn’t enjoy the view of hot men.
Blake stoked the fire and pretended not to notice the attractive man coming closer. The four ranches were neighborly and competitive at the same time. Blake was still new and didn’t want to step on the wrong toes. The flutter of arousal was hard to ignore.
“Are you the master chef?” the man asked.
Blake lifted his worn hat and wiped his forehead. “No, not me. Just a ranch hand helping out. I’m not the best at being social. Blake Louis.”
The other man extended his hand. “Randy. Nice to meet you, Blake. You should circulate and meet some new people.”
Shaking Randy’s hand, Blake felt a playful squeeze. The sexual undercurrent tormented him. “I’m fairly new to White’s Ranch. It’s a big place with plenty of work.”
“Gotta have some fun, though. It’s a party.” Randy took two steps closer and slowly pulled Blake in a bit before releasing his hand. “I haven’t seen you at the Love Shack. You should come by the Chester ranch some time. No work, just a ride or something. It’s nice to have fresh blood around here.”
The term left Blake uneasy. “A good ride is a nice way to spend a day off.”
“I’ll hold you to that,” Randy said.
Blake nodded as Randy was called away by one of his earlier companions. Avoiding major personal entanglements was a goal of Blake’s, and he’d managed to succeed since getting this job. He wanted to find a place to settle, and this place had potential. Moving on all the time had grown old.
None of his previous employers had treated employees as well as the Whites did. The family members worked every bit as hard as the staff and weren’t snobs. The pay was better than fair, and the food was great. Blake wanted a future here.
The only problem was the crush Blake had on the sexy youngest son, Jared White. Over the months the attraction had grown to friendship and a longing for something more. Blake did his best to hide his affection, but Jared was friendly.
The target of Blake’s interest crossed his path, and he stopped short. “You did your time, you’re supposed to be enjoying yourself.”
Blake grinned at his biggest temptation. The man was just shy of thirty and haunted Blake’s dreams. “I was just people watching.”
The fact that Jared was the main guy he’d been watching until Randy had interrupted him hopefully remained a secret. Jared had short black hair, blue eyes, and plenty of muscles to make women and men stare. A sturdy six feet two, Jared made it hard for Blake not to lean on that sexy shoulder. But Blake had years of practice at self-control on many levels.
Jared made this job complicated for Blake. Every place he’d worked, he ran into an issue. White’s was a nice place. Crushing on the boss’s baby boy wasn’t smart—even if Blake was two years younger than Jared. Blake had bigger reasons to stay away and his shifter secret was harder to explain than his turbulent childhood.
“I’ve been trying to drag him to the keg, but he’s trying to impress you.” Frankie Saunders wandered up next to Jared.
Blake shot the other ranch hand a look that said shut up
! Frankie was a lean, mean, blond, spiky-haired, gay flirting machine in his mid-thirties who loved to stir any pot nearby. He’d become Blake’s friend and the only one who knew about his crush. However, thanks to the picnic, Blake had learned that gay wasn’t something that needed to be a secret here.
“You’re a hard worker, Blake. Enjoy your time off. We don’t do huge parties like this all the time. Come to the Shack tonight and have some fun.” Jared smiled and patted Blake’s shoulder.
Hank, the oldest of the White boys, called Jared over, and the sexy cowboy was gone. Blake stopped flexing and relaxed.
Frankie’s grin got even bigger. “We need to go to the Shack tonight. He invited
you. Take the hint and hit on him already. Or is Randy more your type? Playing hard to get was smart. Jared noticed.”
“I don’t know Randy at all, and he came up to me. But he mentioned the Shack too. Jared is basically my boss. I don’t want to screw this up. He’s just being nice.” Blake looked out at the crowd and felt like he was being watched. “All these people are making me nervous.”
Frankie shrugged. “There is some checking out the competition at these events. Enjoy the eye candy while it’s here. You have more options than Jared, if doing the boss is so scary.”
“The Love Shack is asking for trouble.” Blake shoved Frankie playfully. Having a job where it was safe to be gay motivated Blake even more not
to slack. The Shack was where men went to drink, hang out, and hook up in the back room. The amenities of the Shack were free to anyone who lived at or worked for the four ranches that supported it; the old pole barn sat on the spot where the four properties met. Rumor was it used to be an emergency shelter when weather turned or vehicles gave out—now it had two functions.
“No, the Love Shack is about having fun. You don’t have to go to the back room. The front has a bar, pool table, TV, and all that. Plus it’s free and not far. Saves hands from blowing their paychecks in bars or on hookers. Keeps them from driving when they’ve had too many—you can always get a ride. Everyone wins. You don’t have to suck anyone’s dick.” Frankie grinned like he knew Blake couldn’t resist.
Blake liked having friends and people who had his back. The Love Shack sounded appealing, but Blake didn’t drink too much. Giving in to temptations wasn’t a habit for him. To say his mother had addiction issues was an understatement. He wasn’t about to repeat her mistakes.
What he really wanted was to move up and have a career, if he could stay here. Love was a fantasy sold by society. “Getting drunk and screwing random guys won’t earn me a promotion.”
“Screwing Jared might. Show him your take-charge side,” Frankie teased.
“I don’t want a job that way.” Blake noticed the big guy from earlier eyeing him. “Who is that Randy guy?”
“Randy. That Randy? He’s a Chester. The middle son of the Chesters’ ranch. There are a zillion Chesters. They employ cousins and all live there. Hell, they reproduce like bunnies,” Frankie said.
“So why’s he looking at us?” Blake didn’t let the flattery or surprise show. Randy was a family member. Here it didn’t matter what color you were or where you came from. You were part of the owners’ level or staff level. They interacted and respected one another, but staff was replaceable. Blood was not.
He’d been invited riding by a Chester? The guy was well dressed, but he could’ve been staff. Crap! Jared was a good guy, but Blake didn’t want to upset any of the owners. He could go and be social at the Shack. Blake shifted his weight and sucked in the fresh air of fall. It was still nice out, but winter was coming. He’d need better clothes to trudge through snow. Being from the south, he didn’t really want to experience a real winter up here.
But he didn’t want to leave White’s Ranch. The thought of leaving knotted up his gut.
“Don’t play dumb. I saw Randy drooling all over you before. He’s the gay one that I know of. Plus he and Jared always had a little competition between them. That little ranch hand hottie next to him is Carter. I’ve seen them screwing at the Shack. But they get into group stuff. Way too wild for you. Come on, you need to know more of these people.” Frankie led Blake by the arm.
“Sure. Thanks.” Blake checked out Randy and the ranch hand. If he wasn’t going to go after Jared, he’d need to have a little fun eventually. Then again, a casual group thing, maybe no one would notice or care?
“Those are the Greens. The oldest son is a closet case, sort of like Hank, but their patriarch isn’t as open-minded as Mr. White. At least that’s the word around the barns. They are known for showing horses and breeding them for racing.”
“Hank’s in the closet?” Blake hadn’t paid much attention to the elder White brother except for work. Tall, broad, and intimidating by any standards, Hank was mid-forties and all business.
“Yes and no. He’s a workaholic. He and Jared never go to the Shack on the same nights. Hank is extremely discreet. He has a glory hole addiction, so nothing personal.” Frankie rolled his eyes.
“You like Hank?” Blake had noticed the glint in Frankie’s eye when he talked about him.
“I like all hot gay men. I don’t discriminate. He might need a little help out of the closet someday, and I’ll probably still be here. But you have a good shot with Jared so stop dragging your cowboy boots.” Frankie glanced down. “You really need to get a new pair too. Not to be a fashion diva, but everything you own is pretty worn. Winter here is rough.”
Blake always wore his stuff totally out before splurging on new things or used things. “I’ve moved around a lot. Money is tight. Not every ranch is cool with gay hands or pays decent. Plus, I don’t like waste. When something wears out, I replace it. But it’s still warm out—no reason to pull out the new winter stuff.”
“You’re good here. Everyone likes you, even Hank is impressed. Clothes I get, but those boots look older than you are. Okay, fine, I’m dropping it, but you’re on your feet a lot. Solid quality is what I mean. It’s not all
“I’ll look into it.” Blake had resoled his uncle’s old pair a few times. Maybe someday…
Frankie turned and pointed at the small circle. “Last of the four families are the Austens. They are more proper, very religious and conservative. Heavy into traditional cattle, they don’t diversify and don’t socialize except when it would be rude not to. See, they’re all clustered together. None of their staff is here.”
“Weird. They don’t let their staff come? Glad I didn’t get hired over there. I’ll try to keep it all straight. It’s a lot of people to learn. Their staff comes to the Shack?” Blake asked.
“Austen staff? Sure, but they don’t want to get caught with their pants down. The Austens only support the Shack as an emergency shelter but understand the social outlet keeps the barn well maintained. It’s not all about the sex. Plenty of the straights come for a free drink and premium sports on a big TV. When they’re horny, they venture into town, but the rest of us enjoy the perk of the back room. You’re missing a huge benefit of working here. Lots of stress-relieving, hard, sexy cowboys. They’d love to have you there.” Frankie bit his lower lip.
“Subtle.” Blake laughed, but the temptation grew bigger. “Jared asked me so I guess I should go.”
Frankie nodded. “It’s not a date so don’t get weird. Get him in the back room and enjoy. That’s a step in the right direction.”
The idea sounded great, but Blake didn’t want to be just sex. That’s all he’d really had from men all his life. He didn’t want to get his heart mangled when he was finally feeling safe here.
Maybe it was a mistake, but he’d begun to hope for more in life than hard work, poor wages, and random gay bar hookups. Love was a mysterious thing that happened to others. Security was real. He had the ranch skills and somewhere he’d be more than just a hand.
“We’ll see.” Blake shrugged.
“Hedging your bets. Blake, you’re good. You’re the best hand here. Everyone knows that you have a diverse background, and you’re an asset. Hank wants you on his dairy addition project,” Frankie said.
“I know nothing about dairy cows. I’ve worked goats, pigs, cattle, and horses, but dairy is not my area.” Blake had already told that to Hank.
“Right, but you learn fast and you’ve done a bunch of different stuff. Pigs and goats—Hank has talked about both. Moving around and working ranches all over is good experience Hank and Jared don’t have. Most of us grew up locally without opportunities. We ranch what we know. Cattle and horses. That’s Montana.” Frankie nodded to the big blue sky.
The view made Blake never want to leave. Acres of rolling grass and countless heads of cattle grazing in the distance. The Whites’ main house was a huge two-story aptly painted white with maroon trim. The employee housing was the nicest Blake had ever seen. “Winters will be rough.”
“Brutal, but it’s every bit as pretty with the snow. We find ways to stay warm.” Frankie headed toward the dessert tables.
“Did you boys get enough to eat? You both look a little lean to me,” Mrs. White fussed.
“I’m stuffed, thank you, ma’am,” Blake said.
“It was delicious,” Frankie added.
“I hope you saved room for the main cake. You have to try it.” She wagged a finger at them.
“We will. Can’t wait.” Frankie nodded.
Blake wanted to contribute, but he found himself tongue-tied. Women always found fault with him. His mother. His aunt. Nothing he ever did was good enough or right. Mother figures especially made him uneasy.
Men he could handle. Men he understood. He took off his hat and smiled politely at Jared’s mother.
Jared walked up next to his mother. “Where’s Hank? It takes two to carry that monster cake out. Why can’t you just make a few shorter cakes?”
“It’s not as impressive.” She put her hands on her hips.
“This isn’t a wedding.” Jared rolled his eyes at Blake.
“If one of my two single boys would give me a wedding to throw, maybe I wouldn’t need to go all out for your father’s birthday? Get these two to help you. Hank is dealing with the Greens. They’re always trying to buy all our best horses.” She pointed out her eldest son.
“I’ll help,” Blake said a little too enthusiastically. Then it was too late to take it back.
He followed Jared into the big house, enjoying the view of Jared’s ass in tight denim.