The whole thing started because of Lizzy’s Jeep. If it hadn’t been for that, I might not have met Matt. And maybe he wouldn’t have felt the need to prove himself. And maybe nobody would have been hurt.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Like I said, it started with Lizzy’s Jeep. Lizzy is the wife of my brother Brian, and they were expecting their first child in the fall. She decided that her old Wrangler, which she’d had since college, just wasn’t going to cut it as a family vehicle. So she parked it out front of our shop with a handwritten For Sale sign in the window.
The shop was started by my grandpa. Originally it was a hardware store, but at some point, auto parts had been added as well. When my grandpa died, my dad took over the store, and when he died, it passed to Brian, Lizzy, and me.
It was a gorgeous spring day in Colorado, and I was sitting with my feet up on the counter, wishing I was outside enjoying the sunshine, when he came in. He definitely caught my attention right away, simply because he wasn’t from around here. I’ve lived in Coda my whole life, not counting the five years I spent in Fort Collins, at the university, and I knew everybody in town. So he was either visiting somebody in the area or just passing through. We’re not a tourist town, but people do bump into us occasionally, either looking for four-wheel drive trails or on their way to one of the dude ranches that are farther up the road.
He certainly didn’t look like one of the middle-aged suckers who frequented the dude ranches. He was probably in his early thirties. He was taller than me by two or three inches, putting him just over six feet tall, with military-short black hair and a couple of days’ worth of dark stubble on his cheeks. He was wearing jeans and a plain black T-shirt and cowboy boots. Broad shoulders and big arms showed he worked out. He was gorgeous.
“That Jeep run?” His voice was deep with a little bit of a drawl. Not Deep South drawl, but the vowels were a little longer than a Coloradoan.
“You bet. It runs great.”
“Hmmm.” He was looking out the window at it. “Why you selling it?”
“Not me. My sister-in-law. She says it’ll be too hard to get a car seat in the back. She bought a Cherokee instead.”
He looked a little confused by that, which told me he didn’t have kids himself. “So it drives okay?”
“Perfect. Want to try it out? I’ve got the keys right here.”
His eyebrows went up. “Sure! You need collateral or something? I can leave my license.”
I think at that point, he could have talked me into about anything. My knees were feeling a little wobbly. I was trying to determine if I really was seeing a touch of green in those steel-gray eyes. I hoped I sounded casual when I said, “I’ll go with you. I know the roads around here. We can take it up one of the easy trails so you can see how it handles.”
“What about the store? Hate to leave you short-handed during rush hour.” He raised an eyebrow toward the empty store, one corner of his mouth barely twitching up. “Won’t your boss be mad if you leave?”
I laughed. “I’m one of the owners, so I can slack off if I want to.” I turned and called into the back room, “Ringo!”
Our one employee came warily out of the back. He was always skittish with me, and if Lizzy wasn’t around, he made a point of keeping his distance. I think he was expecting me to make a pass at him. He was seventeen, had stringy black hair, bad skin, and probably weighed a buck five soaking wet. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that he wasn’t my type.
“Hold the fort. I’ll be back in an hour or so.” I turned back to my tall, dark stranger. “Let’s go!”
Once we were in the Jeep, he held his right hand out to me. “I’m Matt Richards.”
“Jared Thomas.” His grip was strong, but he wasn’t one of those guys who had to break your hand to prove how macho he is.
“Turn left. We’ll just drive up to the Rock.”
“What it sounds like—a big fucking rock. It’s nothing spectacular. People go up there to picnic. And of course, the teenagers go there sometimes to park or to get high.”
He frowned a little at that. I was starting to think he didn’t smile much. I, on the other hand, knew I was grinning ear to ear. Getting out of the store for a few minutes, especially to head into the mountains, was enough to brighten my day considerably. Doing it in the company of the best-looking guy I had seen in a hell of a long time sure didn’t hurt either.
“So what brings you to our fine metropolis?” I asked him.
“I just moved here.”
“Really? Why in the world would you want to do that?”
“Why not?” His tone was bantering, although his face was still serious. “You live here, don’t you? Is it that bad?”
“Well, no. I love it here. That’s why I’ve never left. But, you know, the town is dying. More people moving out than moving in. Towns along the front range are booming, but nobody wants to live up here and commute.”
“I was just hired by the Coda PD.”
“You’re a cop?”
He raised an eyebrow at me and said with some amusement. “Is that a problem?”
“Well, no, but I wish I hadn’t told you about the kids coming up here to get high.”
He raised his eyebrow at me again and said lightly, “Don’t worry. I won’t tell them you’re the rat.” The good officer wasn’t completely without humor. “So, you’ve lived here your whole life?” He didn’t sound curious so much as like he was just trying to make casual conversation.
“Yep. Except for the years I spent in college.”
“And you own the store?”
“Me and my brother and his wife, yeah. It’s not a big money maker or anything, but we manage. Brian’s an accountant, and he has other clients, so he mostly just does the books. Lizzy and I run the shop.”
“But you went to college?” Now he sounded genuinely curious.
“Yeah, I went to Colorado State. I have a degree in physics and my teacher’s certificate.”
“Why aren’t you a teacher?”
“I didn’t want to let Brian and Lizzy down.” That wasn’t entirely true, but I didn’t want to tell him the real reason: that I didn’t want to deal with the fallout of being a gay high school teacher in a small town. “There isn’t really anyone else to cover the shop. We can’t afford a full-time employee. Well, we could if they didn’t want benefits, but they do. So instead, we just have Ringo, part time. We get half his salary back, ’cause he spends his paychecks on stuff for his car, so it works out okay.” I laughed. “Ringo! That can’t be his real name.” I realized I was babbling. “Sorry I’m talking so much. I’m sure I’m boring you.”
He looked right at me and said seriously, “Not at all.”
We had reached the end of the trail. “You’ll have to turn around here.”
He stopped the Jeep and looked around suspiciously. There were no other cars. “I don’t see any rock.”
“Just up the trail a bit. Want to walk up there?”
His face brightened a little at that. “You bet.”
So we walked down the trail, through Ponderosa pines and Douglas firs and aspens that were just starting to bud to one of the rocky abutments that must have helped give the Rockies their name. The Colorado mountains are full of these giant piles of stationary rock, rounded and covered with dry sage- and rust-colored lichen. This one was about twenty feet high on the downhill side. If you walked up the hill, you could practically walk right out onto it. But what’s the fun in that? Those rocks just beg to be climbed.
Once we reached the top, we sat down. The view isn’t really any different from there. We could see down the trail to the Jeep, but other than that, we were still just looking at more trees, more rocks, more mountains. I love Colorado, but this type of view can be found in hundreds of spots. I was surprised to hear a contented sigh from Matt. When I looked at him, his face showed amazement.
“Man, I love Colorado. I’m from Oklahoma. This is better, believe me.”
He turned to look at me, and I almost quit breathing. He was squinting a little against the sun. His skin was tan, and his eyes were shining. There was definitely a hint of green in them. “Thanks for bringing me up here.”
“Anytime.” And I meant it.