Dakota drove his truck along the road that led to the ranch, passing the mailbox and pulling into the drive before stopping the vehicle. Opening his door, he got out and leaned against it. The ranch house, barns, stables, and paddocks were all laid out before him against a backdrop of pastures, rangeland, and, in the background, the imposing peaks of the Tetons. Taking a deep breath, he let the scent and feel of home work its way into his blood. He needed to do this, needed to remind himself that this was home and that he loved it.
“Hey, boss, you looking for something?”
He turned in the direction of the voice and saw Mario walking up the drive. “No, just lookin’.” He did this every time he was away for more than a few hours. Getting back in the truck, Dakota restarted the engine and pulled up to the house. Grabbing his bags out of the back, he walked up the steps and through the front door.
“Hey, look what the cat dragged in.” Bucky got up from a chair and walked over to him, giving Dakota’s back a pat hello. “I was starting to wonder if you’d make it in today.”
“I had to.”
Bucky nodded his understanding, and Dakota dropped his bags by the sofa and walked down the hall, opening the door to the last room.
The nurse sitting by the hospital bed looked up from her book and smiled. “He’s doing just fine.” Grace marked her page and put the paperback into her purse before getting up and walking toward the door. Dakota followed, and they talked in hushed tones in the hall. “It’s been a good day. He had dinner about an hour ago and kept looking at me like he was wondering when I was leaving because he knew you’d be back.”
“Did he say anything?”
She shook her head. “But like you said, he understands and has ways of making himself known.” Dakota had already paid her for the week, but he reached into his pocket and gave her an envelope. “No, Kota.” She tried to push it back, but he pressed harder.
“Then you spend it on those grandkids of yours.” He closed her hand around the paper. “The only reason I can enjoy myself is because I know you’re taking such good care of him.” She was a godsend, and both he and his dad trusted her, which was saying a lot.
She gave up and put the envelope in her pocket. “I bathed him this morning and changed the bedding. He’s been turned, and Doc Hansen stopped in and said he’s doing fine.” Well, as fine as could be expected, but Grace would never say that. The woman was an eternal optimist. “I’ll be going, but if you need anything, just call me.” She picked up her things and turned to leave. “If you need help a day or two a week, give me a call. I like it here, and he’s just a dear.” She gave him another smile and walked away.
Smiling to himself as he watched her go, he pushed the door to his father’s room open and walked inside. The only sound was his soft breathing as he slept, which he did more and more—not that there was all that much difference between his waking and sleeping hours any more. Oh, there were times when his dad was very alert, but those times were becoming fewer and fewer, and his ability to control his muscles less and less every day. “I love you, Dad.” He said that every day, no matter what, just like he had for the last four years. Turning quietly, he cracked the door so he could hear any noise, and then headed back to the living room.
Bucky was asleep in the reclining chair he’d claimed after Jefferson could no longer use it. Officially, Bucky was retired, but he’d been with the ranch for almost forty years and Dakota had told him he’d always have a home here. The man was as much family as his dad, and the sister he heard from about once a month, usually toward the end when she was running low on cash.
“So tell me about this cruise you went on.” Bucky’s eyes slid open as he spoke. “Was the thing as big as it looked in the pictures?”
“Bigger.” Dakota went into the kitchen and got a couple of beers before popping them open and handing one to Bucky, taking a seat on the couch. “The ship had three swimming pools, six hot tubs, a gym, ice skating rink, basketball court, and anything else you could think of.”
“So, you think it’ll last you ’til next year?” The old man took a long pull.
“It’ll have to.” Dakota allowed himself one week away from the ranch a year—one week where he could let himself go and sow all the wild oats he possibly could, and this year he’d gone on a cruise.
“Did you meet anyone?” The man’s eyes swam, and when a smile appeared on Dakota’s face, Bucky slapped his knees. “Well, tell me about her, son.”
This was the part he always hated, and every year he debated coming clean. Before he left on the trip, he’d told himself he wasn’t going to lie to himself or anyone else anymore. “Well, that’s the thing.” He took a long drink from the bottle, downing the rest of the beer before putting it on the table. “I don’t know how to say this, but I didn’t meet a woman. I met a man.” There, he’d said it.
The recliner lowered slowly, Bucky’s feet resting on the floor. “Are you telling me you’re queer?”
“Gay, Bucky, I’m gay.”
“Oh, sorry… gay.” Bucky took another drink of his beer. “What I want to know is why you took so long to say something.”
“You’re not upset?” Dakota had built up this moment in his mind into such a dramatic production that the reality was kind of a letdown.
“Hell, no. What happens between two people in the privacy of their bedroom ain’t nobody’s business.” Bucky’s eyes narrowed. “So, are we gonna have a boyfriend showing up? ’Cause, laddie, you shouldn’t be alone all the time.”
Dakota could barely believe what he was hearing. He never expected this type of reaction. “I don’t understand.”
“What?” Bucky sat back in the chair. “You thought I’d turn my back on you?” He shook his head. “You should know better than that. You’re as close to a son as I ever got, and I’ll be damned if something as ridiculous as that is gonna change anything.” Bucky reclined in the chair. “So, does anyone else know?” Dakota shook his head. “Not even him?” Bucky inclined his head toward the hall.
“No. I was going to tell him the summer he got injured and never got the chance. After he got hurt, it didn’t seem as important.” Dakota got up and got another beer from the fridge, then returned to the sofa. “Since then, I’ve kept it to myself.” And he had, except for the one week a year he went on vacation and let himself cut loose. “I mean, this is Wyoming, Matthew Shepard country.”
“So what’s the difference this time?”
The simple question made him think. On his previous trips, he’d always gone to larger cities and fucked his way through a bevy of men until his balls ached and he couldn’t move. ‘I’m not sure.” He was lying to Bucky and to himself. This trip, he’d spent the entire time with one man, a dark-haired beauty with the body of an angel and the imagination of a devil. More than that, he’d found that he’d engaged his heart.
Dakota wasn’t naïve enough to think he’d fallen in love with Phillip. But Phillip had awakened something in him that he’d kept closed off—and that Pandora’s box, once opened, couldn’t be closed. And Dakota found himself taking the first tentative steps toward opening up.
“Something happened on that cruise, didn’t it, laddie?”
“Yeah, I just wished I understood it.”
Bucky shook his head. “You have to be yourself, laddie.” Bucky finished the beer and set the bottle on the table by the chair. “And you need to be happy. Not everyone’s like me and content with their own company their entire life.”
Dakota thought the older man was done, but Bucky surprised him and continued.
“You gave up medical school when your dad got sick, and have taken care of him almost every day for the last four years. So you don’t owe me or anyone any explanations for how you live your life. Besides, there ain’t a man on this ranch that you haven’t helped in one way or another, that’s what matters. ”
Bucky picked up the remote and turned on the television. Ten minutes later he was asleep, just like he was every night, and Dakota sat on the couch and watched him in complete, surprised awe. Not that he was going to go out and start carrying flags in the pride parade they had in Cheyenne every year, but he felt better knowing that maybe it wasn’t that big a deal to some folks.
Getting up, Dakota finished his beer and put the bottles in the trash before heading outside. At the paddock, he stood and watched the horses for a few minutes until Sadie walked up, bumping him on the chest. “Hey, girl.” He hadn’t brought any treats with him, but she didn’t seem to care. “I missed you too.” He stroked her neck until a high cry echoed over the range, deepening to a low, rumbling howl. Sadie spooked slightly and backed away, looking around and tossing her head.
The door to the bunkhouse banged open and the guys poured out. “Did you hear which direction that came from?” Mario asked, on the run.
“From the northwest.” The men were still pulling on coats as they headed for the trucks and down the drive.
What’s going on, laddie?” Bucky called from the porch.
“Wolves. I’m heading out with the men. Will you stay with Dad?” Bucky nodded, and Dakota knew part of Bucky wanted to go along and part of him was relieved to be staying. Knowing his dad was taken care of, Dakota hurried to his truck, making sure his rifle was under the seat before hurrying in the direction of the wolf call. They weren’t supposed to shoot them, even if they caught a wolf among the cattle, because technically, the wolves were the property of the federal government. But they could scare them away, and if one got shot in the process….
Reaching the road, he stepped on it, going as fast as he dared, turning the corner and flying along the west road to the far northern ranges.
As he approached, he saw the other men had already fanned out and heard a shot in the distance, followed by another, and then quiet. He could see headlights dotting the range in places, and his phone rang. It was Mario. “I think Sparky scared one off with his barking. You want us to keep looking?”
“For a while. You know they hunt in packs, and they won’t give up unless we make it hard on them.” Dakota hung up and saw headlights flash. Reaching beneath the seat, he pulled out the gun case and got out the rifle. Loading it, he closed the door and began walking along the fence line. As he did, he could hear his father’s voice. He’d always said Dakota could spot a wolf faster than anyone he’d ever seen.
Large, dark shapes moved around the range in the last light of the day—the cattle grazing, their shadows lengthening. It wouldn’t be long before it would be dark and too late to scare the bastard wolves away. Dakota checked his watch. He had about half an hour to get rid of the wolves or he’d lose a few head to them, and he had no intention of letting that happen. Walking away from the truck, rifle at the ready, he watched the borders of the range near the stand of trees. He knew if they were anywhere, they were hiding in those trees. The sun kept lowering and Dakota kept watching.
Then he saw it—a slight movement, low to the ground and crouched, scooting in the taller grass. “I’ve got you, ya bastard.” Dakota waited. He could barely see the animal, just its movement, and he knew there were probably others as well. Settling behind one of the fence posts, he waited until the movement resumed, and sure enough, he saw another one at the edge of the trees, watching. Raising his rifle, he sighted it and squeezed the trigger. The explosion he expected, but he didn’t expect the loud, ringing ping. “Fuck!” He’d hit the fence post right next to the bugger. The sound did have an effect, though, and both wolves raced for the trees. Dakota thought he saw them tear out from the other side, heading toward the mountains and away from the ranch. Lowering his rifle, Dakota slowly walked back toward his truck and his phone rang again.
“Mario, I missed, but scared them away. Last I saw them, they were headed back toward the park.”
He heard Mario laugh. “You missed? What happened, you get soft on the big cruise ship?” He heard the other guys chuckling along with his new foreman. “We’ll meet you back at the house.” He disconnected and stowed the rifle before starting the truck. The drive back didn’t take long, and after saying good night to the men, he walked inside.
“You awake, Bucky?” Dakota closed the door gently so he wouldn’t wake his dad.
“Yeah. Did you get ’em?” There was a hint of excitement in the old man’s voice. Bucky was one of the men who’d helped organize protests a decade earlier when the federal government decided to reintroduce wolves into Yellowstone. The animals had done well, and while they generally stayed in the park, the wolves sometimes roamed outside and into rangeland. It was an extremely touchy issue for all the ranchers and farms in the area.
“I missed. Scared the shit out of them, though.”
“Good. Filthy beasts. It took us decades to wipe them out, and the damn government brings ’em back.” It was obviously still a very sore subject. For Dakota, they were a fact that he had to deal with. The wolves were protected, and while he’d killed a few in his time, he tried to abide by the rules, no matter how unfair he felt they were.
“Don’t get worked up over it. They’re gone for now.” Dakota patted Bucky on the shoulder. “I’m going to check on Dad.”
Dakota walked quietly down the hall to the bedroom and pushed the door open, surprised to find his father’s eyes open and scanning the room. “You’re awake.” Dakota could see him trying to move his lips and throat. Sometimes he was able to speak a few words, but it had been a while.
He made a small sound that sounded like a slight whistle and then stopped before trying again.
“Wolf?” Dakota asked, and his father stopped and relaxed. “There were a few out tonight. Harry, the new man, shot at one and so did I.” Dakota settled next to his chair. “He was huge, Dad. Gray and brown, and I think I saw his mate.” As much as he hated what they could do to his herd, he had to admire the creatures. “I only saw him clearly as he ran away, but, man, he was fast, and strong too.” He told his dad about the sunset he’d seen as he’d driven back, how the red and gold light faded behind the peaks in the distance. “It was like their shadows lengthened and covered us in a blanket.” Dakota kept talking until his dad’s eyes closed again.
Dakota sat with him almost every evening, telling him everything that happened on the ranch. He had no idea how much he understood, but that didn’t seem to matter to either of them. Even though the conversation was now one-sided, for years, before the disease had advanced this far, they’d talked until his dad couldn’t talk anymore.
“You remember when I was a kid and you used to tell me all kinds of stories about cowboys and Indians, even the time Great-grandpa met President Roosevelt when he was visiting and Yellowstone was new?” Dakota turned the light down as low as he dared. “You’d tell me story after story until I couldn’t keep my eyes open. Every night you’d sit with me.” Dakota rested back in the chair, a blanket folded next to it. “I think it’s going to snow soon.” His father’s head shook slightly, and Dakota wasn’t sure if it was a shake or him agreeing. He took it as the latter. “I used to love the snow, do you remember? You bought me my first sled.” Dakota remembered his dad running and sliding, pulling him on it across the yard.
Looking up, he saw his dad’s eyes were closed and his breathing even. “’Night, Dad.” Dakota got up and squeezed a hand lightly before placing it back beneath the blanket and walking next door to his bedroom. Sidestepping the as-yet-unpacked suitcases, he got cleaned up.
As he climbed beneath the covers, his phone rang. The number wasn’t one he recognized, and Dakota almost sent the call to voice mail, but then on impulse answered it.
“Dakota? It’s Phillip… from the cruise.” His voice was deep and rich.
Damn, he sounded good right now, and Dakota’s dick stood right up. He remembered that voice so well, along with the feel of that hard body as it moved beneath him.
“Did you make it home okay?” Phillip asked, and Dakota’s mind flashed on the image of Phillip on the beach on Saint Martin, naked, all laid out on a lounge chair. He went with the memory and let it settle on him.
“Yeah, it was a long trip, but good.” The sheets shifted lightly over his length, and he stifled a groan and pushed back a wish that Phillip was here with him. Dakota wasn’t in love with him, and he knew Phillip didn’t have any illusions about them, either, but it was nice to talk and have a good fantasy. “I’ve already been out chasing wolves, keeping them away from the cattle. And you, no troubles getting home?”
“No, it was easy traveling.” Phillip was quiet for a second or two. “I just called to say thank you for a great time. You were terrific, and….”
Dakota laughed into the phone. “I know, you always wanted to fuck a cowboy. If I remember, that went both ways.”
“It certainly did.” Phillip chuckled lightly. “Listen, I don’t want to keep you, but I wanted you to know I had a great time and that you made the cruise extra special. And I wanted to ask if it would be okay to call every once in a while.” There was more of that rumbling laughter. “I mean, I know I’m not the love of your life. Lord knows I’ve got enough of that with Gary. The man moped the entire way home.” Now it was Dakota’s turn to chuckle at Phillip’s queeniness. “But I thought we could still be friends.”
“Lord, of course.” Phillip had Dakota worried there for a second. “If you’re out this way, I’d love to have you stop for a visit, and maybe a ride.” Phillip burst out laughing, and Dakota realized what he’d said. “On a horse,” he clarified with mock indignation. “You’re a complete nut.” Although his body definitely liked the idea of the other type of ride, he wasn’t going there, and certainly not on the ranch. Dakota figured he should change the subject or the conversation would turn into phone sex. “So how is Gary taking the separation from Scott?”
“Not good. He’ll get over it, but he’s one of those happy-ever-after guys who really want to meet the love of their life, and unfortunately, he thinks he has with Scott. And having to go their separate ways after the cruise is tearing him up.”
Dakota understood; he’d been able to see it on the cruise. Those two had been inseparable. Fortunately for Dakota, both he and Phillip knew they were having a bit of fun—really hot, steamy fun.
“It’s late and I know you’re an early riser, so I’ll say good night.”
“Thanks for calling, Phillip, and I mean it, the invitation’s open for a visit.” They disconnected, and Dakota set the phone on the nightstand and turned out the light.
For the past week, while he was on the ship, his dreams had been of the ranch and home. Now he dreamed of the wind and waves, the roll of the ship, and the incredibly sexy, dark-haired spitfire who’d shared his bed for much of the voyage. That’s what his vacations were for—to fill his dreams. And for now it would have to do.