The heat of the spring sunshine made the air thick and heavy like midsummer as Cotton and Bay rode back toward the ranch after a long day rounding up cattle for market. A faint breeze caught strands of Cotton’s hair, blowing it into his face beneath the tan Stetson. He lifted the hat off and ran his fingers through his damp mop of hair. Then, pulling a band from his wrist, he secured the locks into a familiar small bunch, leaving a fingerbreadth of tail hair at the nape of his neck.
Glad for the momentary relief from the heat, he placed the hat back on and took in Bay’s broad shoulders as he rode in front. For some reason today, Cotton had not been able to break away from studying each movement Bay made. Twice before, Cotton had stared at the man too long and noticed Bay’s brown eyes searching his own. Has he noticed me watching him?
The man’s deep, smoky cedar scent carried to Cotton on the wind, the smell so rich and bountiful it made his senses stir with desire.
Starting to get darn near obsessed with the man who doesn’t even notice me—not in a carnal way anyhow.
Bay and Cotton were boss and hired help. Bay didn’t chase, pursue, desire—or even demand anything of Cotton, which served to make the man more attractive. Bay’s sensual deep-brown eyes tugged at Cotton with each glance, and Bay’s thick lashes fanned out, flattering his dark bronze skin. A simple, meaningless smile had far-reaching and significant implications for Cotton. Put simply, it meant Bay approved of him and the things he did. The rancher’s soft, full lips framed milk-white teeth and sent urgent ripples right through Cotton’s body, leaving his fingertips tingling and the reins slippery with his sweat.
Today at work, Bay had seemed untroubled, without the frown that so often knotted his brow when he focused on symmetry, uniformity, and tidiness.
The rancher dropped back to ride alongside Cotton, who kept his gaze low, surveying Bay’s dignified hands, which sported tufts of thick dark hair that ran up his forearms. More silky fringes of it appeared from the top of his shirt, taunting Cotton. He’d spent many days considering what the sensation would be like if Bay ran his rough hands over Cotton’s skin. Bay would touch him with the pads of his fingers at the nape and then down lower onto his back, making the muscles bunch in response to Bay’s caress. An ebony curl had become stuck to Bay’s forehead where the sweat ran down, and his jaw flexed as it frequently did.
“You want to go into town for a beer?” Bay’s words were deep and rough, his meaning always definite and transparent.
Shaking the thoughts from his mind, Cotton rubbed his neck. “Yeah, that’d be good—I sure could do with an ice-cold beer.”
At a gentle trot, they continued back to the stables. Even the silence between them was comforting. The soft snorts of Fusion didn’t rouse them from the lull of the ride. Cotton loved each moment with Bay, and he always tried to make their time together last as long as he could. Cotton hung on Bay’s every word. He didn’t want Bay to realize he was the object of most of Cotton’s thoughts. Cotton was sure he’d have to leave if Bay ever found out. Cotton’s secret love. He wanted it that way.
Bay’s gaze fell onto Cotton’s skin, and goose bumps prickled over every inch of him. His breath caught when their eyes met, and Bay immediately looked away. This was odd. Cotton had never noticed Bay staring at him like that and for his boss to turn away so nervously was completely out of character. Perhaps it was simply Cotton’s imagination running away under the heat.
The depths of Bay’s eyes always held an unmistakable intensity. Cotton had even felt it that first day when he arrived at the ranch on the pretext of looking for work. He hadn’t intended to stay. Hadn’t intended to make friends with the man, work for him, and harbor secret desires about making love to him. Still, it had all happened anyhow and without a single mention that Cotton had come to find his biological daughter. Kristen, the daughter Bay believed to be his own. I’m a pathetic coward, plain and simple
. Each time he’d built enough courage to say the words to Bay, Cotton had chickened out under the warm, benevolent glow that radiated from his boss. For eighteen months this secret had been the biggest millstone around his neck. Now really was the time to say something, with Kristen’s eighteenth birthday approaching. It was the deadline he’d set. It couldn’t go on any longer.
In the tack room, he noticed something different about the way Bay carried himself, but couldn’t pin it down. He liked how Bay’s dexterous fingers fiddled with the bridle, turning it around to make it just so
before it went on the hook. Same again with the halter. Nothing different there. Cotton continued with his own tack, but half his attention was fixed on Bay’s movements. He’d seen Bay go through the same motions many times, but it never failed to fascinate—something hypnotic about watching the gorgeous man clean his tack and saddle. Bay preferred objects in their places, but Bay didn’t seem as though he had the strong compulsions for order the ranch hands talked about behind his back. Perhaps there wasn’t anything wrong in being methodical.
Cotton watched Bay’s firm hands scrubbing down the saddle, twisting the soap shut each time he poured a glob on the rag. He’d close the soap, putting it back squarely in its place between the saddle wax and the oil. Cotton predicted what would come next as Bay washed off the soap. After drying the thirsty leather, Bay stroked down the smooth surface with his hand.
Then after he’d used a soft cloth to buff the saddle, Bay brushed some oil on and left the leather absorbing it, going back to the rest of the tack. As Cotton circled round Bay, the man’s firm backside called out for love.
Heat rushed to Cotton’s groin, and he averted his gaze. Bay shifted around to face Cotton again, putting one foot across the other as Bay always did. He held the beeswax without the lid and brought it to the saddle, then plunged his fingers into the wax, bringing out a blob to the leather. His digits slipped over the surface, and as always, the movements had Cotton mesmerized.
Bay’s hands paused, and his dark eyes grew almost inky with intensity. “What you looking at?” He’d never asked that before.
Say something for God's sake.
“Nothing… Well, I’m thinking you don’t seem quite so—so, OCD as everyone says, that’s all.”
Bay massaged the leather slower than before. Managing his Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder must be a constant hindrance. “Hmm, is this your way of telling me people talk about me?”
“No. You’re already aware some of the guys talk about you.”
“Laugh at me, you mean?” Bay said with a flat note.
“Sometimes.” In truth, the guys on the ranch did laugh occasionally but in good humor.
Cotton had a pipe dream that friendship could grow into something else between them, but there seemed to be no spark of interest from Bay. Though Cotton’d arrived at the gay-friendly ranch for a specific purpose, he’d found himself attracted to the one man he shouldn’t have been attracted to. Despite himself, he hadn’t been able to conceal his reaction. But Bay hadn’t picked up on it.
Bay’s grandma said he couldn’t see what was right in front of his face. It seemed a bit of a mean thing to say—but it was often true, all the same. Always absorbed with order, Bay had too much filling his mind to observe the details of other people’s emotions unless he chose to do so in the event of a problem.
Bay didn’t put up with ridicule and abuse. Friendly fun would be tolerated, and anyone who couldn’t cope working the ranch his way—the tidy way—left. There were often arguments. Being no pushover, Bay would get angry and shout if things weren’t in the right places. He couldn’t help the way he was, but Cotton could see past all the rancher’s flaws and adored his idiosyncrasies. Cotton tucked away odd things left behind by the boss, like randomly jotted notes, hiding them in his pockets during the day until he could put them in his kit bag in the bunkhouse in the evening. Maybe Cotton was turning into an obsessive type himself, hoarding notes? Who did such a thing?
He’d also saved a torn T-shirt Bay had taken off on a hot afternoon and discarded in the barn trash barrel. When Cotton was tired and alone, he’d take it out and smell it to be near to the man. I’ve got to stop this.
“I’m sorry I didn’t mean…” The last thing Cotton wanted to do was make Bay self-conscious of the cowboys’ attitudes.
“It’s all right. No offense taken.” Bay continued rubbing in the beeswax, flexing the leather as he went, turning it over and massaging the other side with his dexterous fingers.
What a fucking turn-on.
Bay had no idea of his own sex appeal, saying he’d not bothered dating in the belief that not many people could tolerate his obsession with order. This ignorance of his sexiness served to make him more attractive. During that conversation, Cotton had wanted to speak up, telling Bay his quirks were endearing or that the kindness in his eyes pulled Cotton into arousal, and the way Bay ate a hoagie was enough to set off fireworks. But instead he’d settled on, ”Don’t worry about it. I don’t think anyone notices.”
Grow a pair, Cotton.
“How are Oak and Hart getting along?” Cotton asked.
“Pretty good, it seems.” Bay’s son, Oak, had started a relationship with one of the new ranch hands, Hart, and Bay had given them one of the cabins to live in. Cotton wished the loving couple well, but he wanted it to be him and Bay. “Good. I’m glad. I like Hart.”
“I do too.” For a moment, Bay’s hands stilled. “He say anything to you?” The question was vague, but his tone determined.
Cotton stilled. “About what?”
“Nothing.” Bay shook his head.
“That was weird.” Cotton let out a soft laugh. Has Hart told him I’m interested?
Bay dismissed the comment. “Come on. Let’s go wash up; then we can get down to Nancy’s.” Bay wiped his hands down with a cloth.
“Sure.” Sometimes Cotton made himself laugh at the way he went along with almost anything Bay said so he could be near him, but something troubled his friend, and maybe Cotton would ask about it again later.