Hands grabbed at him, holding him down roughly. His clothes were stripped from his body, torn as threads gave way at the harsh tugging. His pleading for it to stop flooded the room and then screams of agony as he felt his body being violated. The musky scent of sweat and alcohol reached his nostrils, and he gagged as he lay there beneath the unforgiving, thrusting body above his. His mind seemed to shut down, and he felt nothing, heard nothing, was nothing. Fingers bit into his flesh, digging deep and bruising it. Suddenly, hot warmth flooded his insides, and the body above his collapsed.
Before he could try to move, a searing pain split one side of his face, and he screamed again as blood spilled down his face, filling his nose and mouth, choking his cries off. He coughed over and over, trying to keep the coppery liquid from filling his lungs. “Now, no one will want you! You’ll always be mine!”
Kaden James shot upright in bed, gasping for breath, his body sweating profusely and soaking the sheets around him. Terror pounded through him as he remembered what he had tried so hard to forget. His violet eyes wandered around the shabby one-room apartment he rented, searching for any demons hidden in the shadows. He slumped back down onto the bed, struggling to control his breathing and to stem the flood of terror. That day’s events had opened the door to his memories again. Nineteen now, he lived alone, and today he’d been fired from another job. Fear of large men always ended up getting him fired because he couldn’t control his panic attacks. Sighing, Kaden ran a thin, shaking hand over his face. Knowing he wouldn’t be able to go back to sleep, he rolled out of bed to make himself a cup of coffee.
He flicked on a light and wandered over to the sink to fill the coffeepot with water. He set it to brew and sat down to wait, lighting up a cigarette. The apartment he lived in was all that he could afford, dingy and small with only one room that consisted of the kitchen, the bedroom, and a small adjoining bathroom that you could barely turn around in. His hand lifted to trace the ugly scar that ran from the corner of his left eye in a curve down to the corner of his mouth. No one wanted to hire him for anything other than grunt work because of his face. Most people found it difficult not to stare and wonder or be disgusted and turn away. Tomorrow he would have to go back to the labor agency and see if they had anything else for him. The manager had to be getting tired of him, but he couldn’t change the deep-seated fear that crippled him and sent him to his knees.
The coffee finished brewing as he stubbed out his cigarette, and he grabbed the only mug he owned, rinsed it out, and filled it with piping hot coffee. Sniffing appreciatively, he took a hesitant sip, wincing when it burned the tip of his tongue. He’d always been slender and almost feminine in some ways. His shoulder-length black hair, shaggy around his face, gave him an even more feminine appearance. It attracted men in a way he didn’t want. He might look tiny, only five foot six, but he was strong physically due to the many jobs he’d taken requiring heavy lifting. Despite the muscle he’d gained from those jobs, he still cowered when faced with dominating males. Emotionally unstable from everything that had happened in his life, he tried his best not to let those thoughts and memories control him.
Dawn spreading across the sky, Kaden rose to shower and dress in one of the few outfits he owned. Locking his door behind him, deadbolt and all, he trudged down the stairs, stepping around the drunken bum that lay at the bottom. The area he resided in couldn’t be considered the most sanitary, nor the safest, but it was cheap and the only thing he could afford. Traffic had already started flowing heavily along the streets of New York City as he slowly wound his way through the crowds of passersby toward the labor agency. When he arrived, he gave Terry Reynolds, the manager, a tentative smile.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do with you, kid,” Terry admonished quietly. He didn’t know the kid’s story but he knew something bad had happened to him. The haunted look that shadowed the boy’s eyes told him that much at least.
“How many jobs has that been in three weeks? Five? Let me see if I have anything else,” he said with a sigh, and Kaden gave him a grateful look, plopping down into one of the cracked vinyl chairs in the front office while Terry wandered back into his own.
Thirty minutes went by before Terry returned to the front office. He’d come up with a great idea, at least he hoped Kaden thought so. “Listen, Kaden, would you be willing to get out of the city?”
“What?” Kaden asked, his voice hoarse. He didn’t use it much. No friends and fear of strangers kept him silent a good portion of the time.
“Well, I know you have trouble with big groups of people, but my cousin needs someone on his ranch in Montana. To cook and clean. Can you cook?”
Kaden stared at him in surprise. He was an excellent cook, if he thought so himself. He loved to cook and had been doing so since he was twelve. “I… don’t know what they would think. I like to think I’m a pretty good cook. But… Montana?” The idea suddenly appealed to him, getting out of the city and away from the huge crowds of people.
“It’s only for three months, though. After that, you’d have to find something else. You see, he has a lot more workers and ranch hands coming in during the next few months because of roundup season and all. So he needs someone who can make food and lots of it. Can I trust you to do this, kid?” Terry asked him softly.
Kaden nodded and then looked down at his hands. “What about my apartment?”
“You’ll have to let it go. But if anything, when the three months are up, you can stay with me until you find another one,” Terry offered eagerly.
“Will your cousin mind that I’m a… guy?” Kaden asked quietly.
“I already called him. He knows you’re a guy and doesn’t care as long as you can cook. It’s not like you’re going to be sleeping with him or anything.”
Kaden’s head shot up and his eyes widened with panic, but Terry’s words sank in, and he nodded. “All right. I guess that’ll be fine.”
“Good. You’ll leave tomorrow. There’ll be a plane ticket waiting for you at the airport,” Terry told him.
He stood up jerkily, unsure of what the hell he had just gotten himself into, and headed back to his apartment to pack up the very minor belongings he had. There were few personal items since the apartment had been partially furnished when he rented it. The only things he had to take with him included several articles of clothing, the coffeepot, and the journals that he wrote lyrics in. He loved to write songs, beautiful heartbreaking songs. Something to get his fears out, and his desire to be loved, even though he knew that would never happen because of the emotional and physical scars he carried.
The next day, as he stood waiting in line at the counter, his duffel bag on the floor beside him, Kaden sensed the curious stares at the scar on his face, and he bit his lip to stop himself from yelling at the strangers to leave him alone. It always happened that way. No matter where he went, people stared at the grotesqueness of his face. The line moved, and then he arrived at the front to claim his ticket. He showed his ID and moments later he sat waiting at the gate for his flight to be called. Taking out the black and white composition book that looked ragged from a lot of use, he started to write. He had almost finished the song by the time they called his flight, and he completed it on the way out to Montana. He wound up falling asleep partway there only to be brought awake by one of the flight attendants shaking his shoulder because he’d started crying in his sleep. He gave her a pained smile and shook his head when she asked if he needed anything.
When Kaden arrived, he stepped out into the airport and looked around, spotting the turnstile baggage claim. He strode forward and looked for his blue duffel bag. He heard a voice behind him call his name by the time the bag reached him. He snatched it up and turned around to find a man a little shorter than himself standing there and looking around the airport. “I’m Kaden James,” he said as he approached the man, waiting to see the same curious stare at his scar, but to his surprise that wasn’t what happened at all.
Instead the little man cracked a smile at him, causing his tan weathered face to crease even further, and his blue eyes twinkled at him merrily. “I’m Charlie. Logan’s foreman. Is that all you have?” he asked, frowning at the bag in Kaden’s hands.
“Yeah,” Kaden said without explanation.
“Okay. Let’s get going. So did you have any trouble on the flight?” The little man led him toward a red beat-up pickup truck just outside the doors of the airport.
Kaden tossed the bag into the back of the truck and slid into the passenger seat. “It went fine.”
“Not much of a talker, hmm? That’s a good thing, I guess, since you’ll be in the house by yourself most of the day,” Charlie replied, starting the truck.
The drive from the airport to the ranch took about forty-five minutes to an hour. Kaden listened to the little man ramble on as he drove and injected one or two word sentences here and there.
“Ah, we’re here,” Charlie crowed, pulling into a dirt driveway leading to the ranch.
Kaden stared around him curiously, wondering what type of ranch it was. White-washed fences lined the dirt road, and he could see several men in the distance, some on horses and others on foot. Fear stuck in his throat at the sight of so many men, but he coughed and managed to ask, “Cows or horses?”
“Cows. Logan has horses for the roundup and all, but he raises steers. Ah, there he is, over by the corral there.” Charlie pointed out a tall man in a denim shirt, faded blue jeans, and a black cowboy hat standing with his back to the driveway. Kaden swallowed nervously when he saw how big the man appeared even from there.
He slowly climbed out of the truck, grabbing his bag from the bed. He winced when he heard Charlie shout, “Logan! Hey, Logan!” Charlie waved his hat to get the cowboy’s attention, and Logan started walking toward them.
His anxiety increased tenfold the closer the man got. At least a foot taller than Kaden, he caused Kaden’s heart to beat even harder against his ribcage when he realized how far up he had to look. What the hell had he been thinking? The man oozed sexuality and danger—nice muscular build, dazzling green eyes, and sandy blond hair, cut ragged, like it had been done with a pair of blunt scissors. His skin seemed almost as tan as boot leather, with fine lines around the corners of his eyes and along the backs of his hands. He had a long-legged stride that ate up the ground between them in seconds.
“You’re a tiny thing, ain’t ya,” Logan drawled as he drew near. He stuck out his hand in greeting. “Logan Michaels.” He frowned at the haunted look in the boy’s eyes, and how it took the younger man a moment to respond. His eyes were instantly drawn to the scar on his face, unable to imagine what could have left such a mark on the soft, white skin.
Kaden slowly and reluctantly placed his hand in Logan’s. It felt as though Logan’s hand virtually swallowed his whole, and he jerked it back quickly. “K-Kaden James.”
“Come on. I’ll show you the house.” Logan strode up the porch steps, shaking his head at why a slender teenager like this boy would be interested in burying himself on a ranch for three months. His cousin hadn’t told him much, just that the teen desperately needed a job, so he’d said okay.
“I hope you can cook, because otherwise you’ll have a whole group of angry men after you,” he teased gently to try and get the kid to relax.
A small sound of terror escaped Kaden before he could stop it, and Logan came to an abrupt halt, turning back to look at him. “That was a joke, kid,” he said soothingly, his eyes taking in the absolute panic in the boy’s face. “Can you cook?”
Kaden nodded, only relaxing slightly. “Yes. I’ve been cooking since I was twelve.”
Logan gave a short nod before continuing into the house, Kaden hesitantly following. “This is the kitchen. All of the foodstuffs are in the pantry there. Now, there are twenty men on the ranch, and you’ll need to make enough to feed them all. Understand?”
“Yes.” At the mention of the number of men on the ranch, Kaden once again berated himself for being so stupid to come to a place like this without knowing anyone here. Not that he’d really known anyone back in New York aside from Terry.
“Good. Now, whenever you need to restock just make up a list, and I’ll send Charlie into town to get everything. There’s very little to do here at night, so I hope you don’t mind the slow pace. I’ll show you where you’ll be sleeping.” Logan indicated that Kaden should follow him and led him down a hallway on the first floor to a room in the back.
Kaden’s eyes widened in shock. He guessed the room to be about the same size as his apartment, and the bathroom was at least three times the size of the postage stamp he’d had to bear with. “Wow,” he said in awe, unaware of Logan’s small smile at his wonder.
“You’ll have to make breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Breakfast is at 5 a.m. You’ll need to prepare boxed lunches for the men to take since they’ll be eating out on the trail. Except for tomorrow. We’ll still be branding and castrating the steers already brought in. Dinner is usually around six. Make sure to have everything ready by then. Lunch is already over for the day so you’ll only have to make dinner tonight. I would suggest you get started once you’ve got all your things put away, since it’s already two.” Logan watched the boy wandering around the room just looking at things. Amusing, yet sad at the same time, it seemed that it had been a long time since the boy had been in a nice place. That fact made his heart wrench with sympathy and pity. “I’ve got to get back out there. But we’ll be back in at six.”
“Okay,” Kaden replied watching the large man leave. He quickly put away the few clothes he had, set the duffel bag, still containing the coffeepot, into the closet, and put his songbook on the bed before closing the door and heading out to the kitchen.
The pantry contained more food than he’d seen in his entire life outside of a grocery store, and he wandered through the room looking over the contents. After deciding on what would be the easiest to make in bulk, Kaden immediately lost himself in the love he had for cooking. By five thirty, he’d covered the table with huge steaming plates of fried chicken and three baskets of biscuits. Three giant dishes of mashed potatoes and a big pot of gravy sat on the sideboard next to the dining room table. He’d also made a huge pan of apple cobbler for dessert, currently staying warm in the oven. He tensed at the sound of men’s voices as they approached the house, and he backed up into the kitchen, trying to remain hidden.
Logan wondered how the kid had fared, but he needn’t have feared. The moment they came close to the house, his mouth began to water from the smell of the food waiting for them. His eyes opened wide in surprise at the sight of the steaming piles of food on the dining room table, and the men stopped speaking as they filed into the house, their own mouths dropping open. “Whoooweeee. Would you look at that?”
Kaden grinned at the man’s words but stayed inside the doorway, listening to the sounds of chairs scraping the wooden floor and silverware hitting the dishes. Once the men had settled down to eat, Kaden turned on the faucet, letting the sink fill up and piled the pots and pans next to it.
Logan entered the kitchen to see Kaden standing by the sink. “Congratulations, kid.” He gave a broad smile which dimmed quickly at the wariness that flooded the boy’s features. “I… uh… think you’re going to work out just fine. Why don’t you sit at the table with us?”
The teenager shook his head furiously and began edging his way down the hallway leading to his bedroom. “There’s apple cobbler in the oven, warming. Uh… I’m not really hungry right now. I’ll get something a little later.” Suddenly the teenager disappeared, and Logan sighed in frustration.
He made up a plate for his confusing cook, and after wrapping a paper towel over it, placed it in the microwave until later before grabbing his own food. The men were practically licking the bottom of the plates by the time dinner finished. He pulled out the apple cobbler and cut two pieces, one for him and one for the boy, before setting it on the dining room table. “Man, boss, I don’t know where you found this person, but this is the best cooking I’ve tasted since I lived with my mama,” one cowhand said, enthusiastically licking his fork.
Logan laughed and nodded in agreement. It amazed him how someone that young could have such a way with cooking. It killed him not to be able to ask questions about Kaden’s past. Terry hadn’t known much when he’d asked before he’d agreed to hire him. The men brought their dishes into the kitchen, piling them neatly by the sink for washing. Logan waited until the last man left before walking down to the boy’s room and knocking lightly. He heard muffled sounds of movement inside before the door opened. Kaden blinked up at him, caution still lurking in those beautiful violet eyes. He didn’t know why it bothered him so much that the boy seemed so afraid of him, but it rankled something fierce. “They’re gone. I saved you some food since I knew it wouldn’t last long with the men.”
“Th-thank you,” Kaden stuttered, amazed that the man had thought of him. “I’ll do the dishes first.”
“No. Eat first,” Logan insisted, turning to walk back toward the kitchen. He’d saved his apple cobbler to eat with the teen so he could have an excuse to be able to talk to him. He heard Kaden slowly following him down the hall. “Your plate is in the microwave.”
Kaden took out the plate and sat down at the table, almost moaning in dismay when Logan pulled out the seat across from him. He removed the paper towel, setting it aside, then picked up the piece of chicken, and began daintily eating. He tried to ignore the older man but wasn’t very successful.
Logan watched the way the boy ate, the tiny pink tongue flicking out to catch the small pieces of fried coating that stuck to his lips. It made him feel very warm, which confused him even more. He’d never been attracted to a man before, and he’d always been able to get any woman he wanted. In fact, he had a date that Friday night with Helen Chambers from the local beauty salon. Although he never intended to get married. He’d nixed the idea of marriage starting at the age of five as he watched his parents go through fight after fight.
“So, Kaden, how come you decided to come all the way out here to work?” Logan asked curiously, propping his chin in his hand.
Stiffening, Kaden wanted nothing more than to tell the man to mind his own business. “I needed a job. This was the only one available.”
“I’m sure you could have found something in the city. There isn’t much partying going on around these parts,” Logan drawled, not noticing Kaden starting to get agitated.
“I didn’t come here to party,” Kaden said, standing abruptly to go do the dishes.
“I didn’t mean to upset you,” Logan apologized hesitantly, noticing the teen’s stiff shoulders and posture.
“I’m not one for parties, Mr. Michaels. I came to do a job.” The dishes clattered as Kaden rearranged them, stacking them according to size for washing. He set his jaw in a firm line, stifling his anger that the cowboy believed he liked to party.
“It’s Logan. I hate being called Mr. Michaels. Too reminiscent of my father.” Logan grimaced at the thought and stood up, stepping close to Kaden to place his plate on the counter beside the sink.
Kaden felt the man come up next to him and flinched reflexively, causing him to drop the glass he held in his hand, watching in horror as it shattered in the sink. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry,” he whimpered immediately, bringing his arms up to cover his head.
Logan stared in shock at the teenager’s reaction, but instead of commenting he decided it would be best to ignore the situation for the moment and began to pick up the pieces. “It’s all right. They’re cheap glasses, anyway.”
Surprise streaked through Kaden. Logan didn’t seem to be upset. “But… I broke it,” he said in confusion, letting his arms fall to his sides as he watched Logan pick up the pieces.
“Eh. I’ve broken almost one a day since I can remember,” Logan joked, tossing the pieces in the garbage and running the faucet to rinse the tiny shards down the drain. “I’ll dry while you wash, okay?”
Kaden nodded and moved to finish washing the dishes. His head whirled with all of the events of the day. He managed to relax a little as he worked side-by-side with Logan. He’d been so sure that the man would hit him for breaking the glass, but when he’d been so nonchalant and easygoing about it, his bewilderment deepened. Kaden’s stomach twisted painfully, and he finished up the dishes before fleeing the kitchen, tossing a muttered good-night to the large man.