EVEN though it was late for it, just after seven, I had stopped at the local market to pick up groceries on the way back to the ranch. I wanted to surprise Rand when he got home, with me being there and with dinner. Originally I had told him that I would have to stay late for a department meeting, but it had been cancelled, and instead of going for drinks with the others, I bailed. Even after two years, I still got excited at the thought of going home and being there when the man I loved walked through the door at the end of the day.
So since I had decided to cook, I had to stop and pick up supplies, and I was standing in the checkout line when Mrs. Rawley, who owned the store, came out of the back to see me. It was nice of her to make the effort.
In the small community of Winston, where her store was, the people were divided between those who didn’t give a damn that I was gay and lived with my boyfriend, rancher Rand Holloway, owner of the Red Diamond, and those who were vocally and adamantly opposed to the idea. And while those who whispered when I walked by, muttered under their breath, or tossed off slurs when my back was turned were in the minority, there were still enough sprinkled around town to make me conscious of where I chose to conduct my business and spend my money.
After so long, I knew where I would and would not be accepted, but now and then, people still surprised me. What was nice was that more often than not, someone who I thought was just waiting to do or say something hateful or snarky was actually just looking for the opportunity to offer a warm handshake or a smile.
“Can I have Parker carry that out to the car for you, Stef?” Mrs. Rawley offered.
“I was gonna ask,” Donna said, clearly exasperated. “For crap’s sake, Mama, I wasn’t raised in a barn.”
I enjoyed the mother-daughter interaction, which was mostly exasperated and sarcastic. “I’m good,” I told Mrs. Rawley. “Be nice to your kid.”
“Thank you,” Donna snapped.
“Respect your mother,” I said, grabbing my bags.
“What he said,” she shot back at her eighteen-year-old as I left with the jingle of bells at the front door.
As I started toward my car, my snazzy red and black MINI Cooper, I saw the police cruiser parked beside me and the SUV that had me blocked in.
“Really,” I called over to the two deputies in the car. They could not miss the irritation in my tone.
Both men got out, both smiling at me, and I noticed that one of the deputies, Owen Walker, had a cup in his hand. He moved fast around the front of the cruiser, and as I reached him, I could smell the chai as he offered it to me.
“C’mon, Stef, you know this ain’t our call.”
I took the warm cup, and he took the bag of groceries and looked inside.
“What’re you makin’?” he asked me.
“Just some breaded pork chops and a salad, Deputy.”
He looked up at me. “That sounds good, and it’s just Owen, all right?”
“Sure.” I nodded, smiling at him.
“There’s wine in here too.”
“And wine,” I chuckled. “Can’t have good food without wine.”
I smiled at him. “If it wasn’t so late, I’d invite you and your family over.”
“Maybe you’d like to have us another time,” he said, his eyes suddenly on mine.
I wasn’t sure if he was serious. He looked it, but I decided to test. “Maybe one Saturday we could barbecue if you want. The kids could see the horses.”
“They would certainly love that, and my wife is dying to see how the house runs with the windmill system and the solar panels you all put in. She wants us to go green as well.”
“Okay then, I’ll give you a call.”
“You do that.” He nodded as he lifted his hand, motioning with his fingers.
“Gimme the damn keys so I can put this in the trunk for you.”
“I can put my own—”
“Just give ’em to me,” he growled, grabbing them from my hand.
“This is harassment,” I told him.
He flipped me off.
“Stop yelling at him,” the second deputy, James, call me Jimmy, McKenna ordered me.
I turned to look at him, and he pushed his hat back on his head. “Is it true?”
“Is what true?” I yawned, so glad it was Friday, so ready to just sit and veg and do nothing for my long three-day October weekend. Monday was Columbus Day, so I had it off. Not that my cowboy would be observing a federal holiday, but at least he would probably take off early to spend the evening with me.
“Is Rand really going to build a school in Hillman?”
My eyes watered as I rubbed them a minute before I turned and focused on Deputy McKenna. “Who told you that?”
“All your hands know, Stef, and most of ’em got wives and kids. How long did you think it would be ’til the whole town knew?”
I exhaled before I took a sip of the chai latte.
“Why does that smell weird?” Deputy Walker suddenly asked me, turning my attention back to him as he passed me my keys.
“It’s chai,” I told him. “You ordered it. How could you order it if you didn’t know what it was?”
“I didn’t order it. I went in and said gimme what Stefan drinks, and the girl, whatshername with the messy hair—”
“They’re dreadlocks, Deputy.”
“They’re dreadlocks, Owen.”
“Whatever. She gives me this smile like I made her day and gets to work, and five dollars and twenty cents later, I’m carrying around something that smells like cinnamon and cloves and somethin’ else.”
“How did you guys know I was stopping in town instead of going right home?”
“Lyle’s out on the highway, camped behind the ‘Welcome to Winston’ sign, and he saw you drive on by and make the turn toward town.”
I nodded. “How is Lyle?”
“He’s good. He and Cindy are expecting again.”
My eyebrows rose. “Really?”
He grunted. “Don’t I know it? That’s number five he and my kid sister are havin’. I told him they should take up bowlin’ to give them somethin’ else to do together.”
I couldn’t stifle the snickering.
“I thought my mama was gonna explode.”
“I think the sheriff was hopin’ to have a word with you,” Jimmy chimed in. “It’s why we’re here interceptin’ you.”
“That’s right,” Owen agreed. “And back to the coffee,” he began, and Jimmy rolled his eyes. “I really don’t get why everyone loves that new place so much. My wife wants to live there, and my daughter stops in every afternoon now after school, and there’s gettin’ to be a line.”
The new coffee/bakery/sandwich shop that had gone up four months ago between the bed and breakfast and the senior center had been, for me, a blessing. I made sure to stop in every morning on my way out of town to grab my chai latte and a homemade blueberry scone. They saw me coming and made my drink, the four people who worked there all knowing my face and name on sight. It was nice.
“They knew what you wanted when I said your name,” Owen told me.
“Not a lot of chai drinkers in this town,” I assured him.
“I expect not.”
I tipped my head at the SUV blocking me in. “Where is the big man?”
“The sheriff is picking up his campaign posters from Sue Lynn’s.”
“Why?” I asked them. “No one is running against him. Why does he need campaign posters?”
“I suspect he likes to see his face really big,” he said, gesturing, showing me how mammoth the sheriff’s head would be on the banners. “I mean shit, that’s your tax dollars at work there, Stef.”
I laughed at them and saw how at ease both of them were in my presence. “Listen, Deputy McKenna—”
“Jimmy,” he corrected me like he always did.
“Jimmy,” I sighed. “Why do you guys care if Rand is building a school? How does that affect you in any way?”
“I just think it’s funny that he’s building in Hillman instead of in his own town, is all.”
I leveled my gaze on him. “He was kicked off every committee in this town as well as having his property lines rezoned so that the Red Diamond is no longer even in Winston but in Hillman instead.”
“So your question makes no sense, as Rand is actually building in the town that the Red Diamond resides in.”
His eyes narrowed. “Rand’s been making a lot of donations and changes to Hillman lately. Do you know anything about that?”
“You know I do,” I said, taking another sip of my latte.
He cleared his throat. “I heard the new school was gonna be a charter, but I ain’t sure what that is.”
“It means that they can pick and choose the curriculum and—”
“Curriculum is what you get taught, idiot,” Owen snapped at him. “Go on, Stef.”
I couldn’t control my smile. “Rand wants things that the elementary school in Winston doesn’t offer. He wants them to learn agriculture, which makes sense, and he feels that Spanish should be taught to the English-speaking kids and English taught to the Spanish-speaking kids. He wants them all to be bilingual.”
“What for?” Jimmy asked.
“Because it will help them culturally and economically, and learning a second language improves your mind.”
“Yes,” I assured him. “And little kids soak up language. It’s easier to teach a little kid a new language than it is an adult.”
“And so Rand’s gonna build a school in Hillman just for that?”
“Right now all the kids on the ranch go to Winston Elementary, but there’s no bus that comes all the way out to the Red Diamond, so they’re all carpooling. But if Rand builds the school at the south end of Hillman and buys a couple of buses, then all the kids on the ranch as well as the ones who live on the north side of Winston can all go to school in Hillman. The bus can pick them all up every morning.”
“When he builds the school, I want my kids to go there,” Owen told us.
“You do?” Jimmy asked him, clearly surprised.
“Sure.” He shrugged. “I think learning a second language is a great idea.”
“There you go,” I said, turning back to Jimmy. “It just makes sense.”
“Rand sure has made a lot of changes since you got here, Stef,” he told me.
“I think the sheriff wants to talk to Rand about that and about maybe taking his seat back on the community board of directors,” Owen said softly.
But Rand had been voted off. When he had outed himself by moving me onto the ranch with him two years ago, the Winston community leaders had booted him from the seat that his father had held before him. They didn’t even take the time to make it look good; instead they let it be known that the reason for revoking his seat was because of me, because Rand was gay. The Red Diamond Ranch was the largest in Winston as well as in the outlying areas of Croton and Payson, but that had not stopped the mayor and the rest of the city fathers from finding a loophole to get rid of my then boyfriend and now partner. They were homophobic assholes, every last one of them, and when they had rezoned the county three months later, officially relocating the Red Diamond to Hillman, that had been the last straw. I had been surprised that Rand didn’t fight it, but when he explained, I understood.
The day the rezoning had gone into effect, the mayor of Hillman, Marley Davis, along with her entire staff, had made a special trip out to the ranch to welcome Rand and the Red Diamond to her county. She had been the one to give her permission to have the county lines redrawn and was thrilled to have Rand join her community and just knew that he would be too. She was hoping that Rand would come to the next city council meeting, as they would be interested in hearing any thoughts he might have. He was also more than welcome to bring me.
I was stunned, and Rand’s smile had been huge as he recounted the events that Friday when I got home.
“Everything happens for a reason, Stef,” he told me, drawing me into his arms. “I never thought too much of Hillman before, but suddenly I can’t think of them enough. I feel like we got us a home all of a sudden, and I think I wanna help those folks out. I got some money that I think will do us all some good if you help me. I mean you got the background in acquisitions and finance and all. Will you take a look at some things and see what you can do?”
Of course I could, and would, and did.
And while it had been hard for Rand, severing all ties with the town he had grown up in, his warm welcome in Hillman twenty miles to the east had been overwhelming. Hillman had not been able to boast of having a large, thriving, eight-hundred-acre ranch in their county, but now they could. I had thought at first that it was the money he represented that they were responding to, but it was also the man himself.
Hillman had become Rand’s new hometown and was, as a result, reaping the benefit of both his philanthropy and his loyalty. He made a generous donation to the senior center, built a huge gas station/mini-mart with his friend AJ Myers that had already increased traffic in town, and donated five tricked-out computers complete with scanners and printers to the county library. He built a feed store, and put a new roof on the gymnasium of the high school when he found out it leaked during the last thunderstorm. In the next year, there were more city improvements in the works, and the proposed elementary school was at the top of the list. When Rand had been invited to attend school board meetings, he had been very touched. He was an important citizen in Hillman, his voice appreciated, his opinion courted, and his patronage counted on.
Wrenched from my thoughts, I found myself standing in front of Sheriff Glenn Colter. “Oh, Sheriff, what can I do for you?”
“You bought the Silver Spring from Adam Weber last week.”
I had to catch up with the conversation that we were apparently having.
“I didn’t,” I told him, taking another sip of my latte. “Rand did.”
“Adam said that you negotiated the deal.”
“That’s what I used to do, Sheriff,” I said, watching the lines in his face tighten. “And even though I teach school now, at Westland Community College, apparently it’s a skill I still possess. The whole background in acquisitions thing doesn’t just go away.”
“Well, Adam said that you were real fair with him so that’s why he sold, but that he didn’t mean to include the parcel of land down by the Dalton place.”
“That’s not what he told me.”
“Well, he wants it back.”
“Really?” I asked drolly. “You talked to him in Vegas, did you?”
“What I mean is,” he said, then cleared his throat, “that’s what he was fixin’ to tell you before he left.”
“You’re talking about the parcel that butts up against the Coleman piece, right?”
He grunted loudly. “We both know that those folks from Trinity want that piece, because the way it’s zoned now if Rand sells them the Silver Spring and clear down to the highway, then they can make their own drive and not run through Winston at all.”
“Yes, I know,” I told him. “And with the gas station in Hillman and a resort between the Red Diamond and Hillman… why would anyone even go through Winston?”
“Rand bought up the land, and now he’s fixin’ to turn us into a ghost town.”
I shook my head. “The people from Trinity—”
“That son of a bitch, Mitch Powell, wants to build a resort and a golf course and God knows what else out here, but only if he gets the land to the east where—”
“Rand sold it to him,” I said, because it was no longer a secret and would actually create a whole slew of jobs for all the neighboring towns. Mitchell Powell, golf pro turned entrepreneur turned multi-millionaire, was going to build the resort in the area. He was about to put Hillman on the map, thanks to Rand, who had basically collected a monopoly that no one had wanted or given a damn about, and sold it for buckets of money that he was poised to do great things with.
The Silver Spring, Twin Forks, and Bowman ranches, none of which had been working ranches in years, would all be converted into a huge, sprawling, hundred-acre monolith of wealth and prosperity. It would be a very posh, very exclusive, very expensive resort, catering to the rich and famous, that would be far enough from the ranch as to not adversely affect it or change the lives of the people who lived there. The Red Diamond would remain the same, and the land that Rand had bought would finally be put to good use. And even though the town of Winston itself would not see the boon directly, as there were no civic projects planned, the people who lived there would benefit directly from the hundreds of new jobs that were about to be created.
If you didn’t work on a ranch, there was nothing to do in Winston. You had to drive to Lubbock, just like I had to, to work. But now, thanks to Rand Holloway buying and selling and Mitchell Powell building, there was about to be a great influx of employment.
“Rand sold all three ranches to Powell?”
“Yessir, he did,” I said, walking around him to the driver’s side door. “Now move the cruiser. I wanna go home.”
The muscles in his jaw tightened as he followed me. “How could he do that to the town he grew up in?”
“He just created thousands of jobs for the people of the town he grew up in,” I told him. “Buildings will go up, and when that’s done, there will be jobs at the resort to fill. This community just got saved.”
“But where the resort would be…. Hillman will be the town the resort is located in, not Winston.”
“Why does that matter? The people you serve will be better off for the influx of jobs.”
“And Hillman becomes the point of interest between Midland and Lubbock while Winston is left as it is.”
“What would you have Rand do about that, Sheriff?”
“You’re a smart boy. You understand what I’m saying to you.”
I squinted at him. “Papers have been signed, Sheriff. Mitchell Powell has come and gone with deeds and rights and more lawyers than Rand said he ever saw in his life. The people who sold their property to Rand did so under no duress. We both know that the Silver Spring and the Twin Forks have been dead for years, and the Bowman place… well, all Carrie wanted to do was sell and move to Oregon to be close to her son. Running a successful ranch in this day and age is hard work, and for some it’s easier to simply get paid and get out. Rand found use for land that was going to waste, and because of that, his own ranch can be that much bigger and that much more lucrative and even more capable of supporting the men and their families, who live and work on it. Now I understand that you’re concerned about Winston, but Rand had to do what was best for the Red Diamond, and in the process, he ended up doing right by the town.”
“The mayor doesn’t see it that way.”
“I suspect Rand won’t give a damn.”
He scowled at me. “I suspect you’d be right.”
I smiled back.
He visibly deflated.
“It’s not your fault, you know. I know that you weren’t one of those who wanted Rand off the board.”
His eyes searched mine.
“I know your only reservations with Rand stem from the fact that sometimes he can be kind of an ass.”
I chuckled, smiling bigger, unable to stop myself. “It’s late, Sheriff. Are you not eating at home tonight?”
“No. Mrs. Colter is visiting her sister in Abilene.”
“Well, would you like to come by the house and have some dinner? I have more than enough for three.”
“No thank you, Stefan, but I do appreciate the invite. I’ve got to go over to the Drake place and talk to them about Jeff.”
It took me a minute because nothing at all ever happened in Winston. It was why Rand and I had been such big news. “Oh, the drag racing,” I chuckled.
“It ain’t funny. They could get themselves killed doin’ that.”
“On the tractors,” I said, trying really hard not to sound patronizing. “Yes, I’m sure they could.”
He thrust his hand at me to shake. “Call me when you’re makin’ the lasagna again.”
“Yessir, Sheriff, I sure will,” I promised, taking the offered hand in mine.
He gave me a smile before I turned to get in my car.
I looked back at him over my shoulder, opening the door.
“Call me if you’re makin’ the pot roast too.”
“Oh, okay,” I teased him. “I didn’t realize you had favorites.”
“Damn right,” he told me before he suddenly froze. “You ain’t makin’ any of those tonight, are ya?”
“No, sir, I’m not.”
He grunted before he got in the mammoth car.
It was actually really nice that the man had favorites. Before I began my life with Rand, my culinary skills were basic at best. But the restaurants in Winston were both barbeque places, and while they were good, sometimes variety was nice, so one of us had to learn to cook, and of the two of us I had more time. He really enjoyed it when I slaved away in the kitchen for him; why, I had no idea, but the look on his face when he came in the house and found me in the kitchen was enough to melt me through the floor. He really enjoyed the hell out of me being domestic.
I watched as the sheriff moved his SUV, honking as he drove away. The deputies both followed suit, and when I was headed for home, I had time to think about the transformation my life had gone through in just a short amount of time.
TWO years ago, Rand Holloway and I had gone from enemies to lovers in sizzling style over the course of his sister Charlotte Holloway’s four-day wedding blowout. The bride, my best friend in the world, had asked, ordered, commanded me to be her man of honor, and because she needed her brother there as well… Rand and I were forced to share space. It was a recipe for disaster, as he and I could barely manage to be civil for any extended period of time.
Rand and I had never been anything but a horror to each other, but that weekend the reasoning for ten years of guerilla warfare had become clear. Rand liked me, had always liked me, and in fact it was actually way more than that. He was sort of crazy about me. But putting an out and proud gay man together with a cattle rancher from Texas had been a tough idea for him to come to grips with. Once he had, though, once he had figured out the truth about himself, what he needed and what he wanted, he had been ready to let me know.
The path to true love had not been an easy one. While Rand and I were navigating the change from enemies to friends to lovers, my ex-boss, Knox Bishop, had been trying to kill me and frame me for fraud and embezzlement. It had been a very interesting week of my life and one that had, in the end, prompted my move across the country to live on a cattle ranch. And though I loved the man desperately, the transition was anything but easy.
Rand was a cowboy, and I was a city boy used to having access to all the things a metropolis had to offer twenty-four hours a day. Not that I didn’t love the ranch or the man who owned it, but there had to be a happy medium, and I ended up making all the changes while Rand’s life stayed pretty much the same. And while I understood that there was no other way for that to work—his ranch was the unchangeable, unmovable piece in the equation—even though logically I did get it, I ended up angry nonetheless.
I took my frustration out on Rand until I realized that the person I was really mad at was me. I was trying to live my old life and my new one all at the same time, and it wasn’t working for anyone.
What was nice was that I even had the opportunity to try out what didn’t end up working in the first place. I had been able to make the transition from Chicago to Lubbock because I was hired by Abraham Cantwell, my best friend’s new father-in-law, to restructure his financial office. Unfortunately, with the changing economy, my new job was short-lived. Mr. Cantwell had to let all but two of his staff go and eventually closed his business, retiring later that year. In looking for new gainful employment, I had been faced with the decision to either look for a job in an even larger city than Lubbock or stay there and take a position at a much lower salary than what I was used to. I could either commute, and keep an apartment in Dallas or Houston and visit on the weekends, or I could stay in Lubbock and go home every night to Rand. It was time to make a decision about my future, and since I had dived into the deep end two years earlier, I chose my cowboy and life on the ranch, even though the idea of losing myself there terrified me. When I fell back on my minor and took a position at the community college teaching Intro to World History, Rand had been beside himself.
“I have no idea why you’re so happy,” I had told him as I set up my small—tiny—cubicle of an office in late August in preparation for the fall semester.
“You chose us, Stef,” he had said simply, his smile out of control as he looked around the broom closet that was posing as my new work space. “I don’t think you know what you really did here.”
But I did. I had trusted him and believed in him, put faith in the life we shared, and had chosen to lean on him instead of standing alone. I had been halfway in and halfway out for two years and had finally, completely, committed.
I looked over my shoulder at him and realized how big he seemed in the tiny office.
“You know I just signed that three-year agreement with Grillmaster to be the beef supplier for their entire restaurant chain.”
He had spoken so casually, but I knew it was a big deal. I had helped him get ready and coached him on the contract. His lawyer had appreciated my help, and now, apparently, it was all signed, sealed, and delivered. I was thrilled for him and his ranch and so rushed across the five feet and launched myself into his arms.
I was surprised when he caught me and put me down on my new desk, wedged himself between my legs, his hands on my face, in my hair, as he looked down at me from his towering height.
“This is the biggest thing that’s ever happened to the ranch, Stef.”
It was a huge account, and one that I knew Rand and his lawyers—there were four now—had been working on for a while. “Why didn’t you tell me before?” I asked excitedly. “We have to go out and celebrate
“You know why I wanted that deal so bad?” He cut me off, stilling me.
“Yeah, so you could be that much closer to financial—”
“It was for you, Stef,” he told me, pushing my hair back from my face, tracing my eyebrows with his thumbs, my cheekbones, to my chin. “That account is yours to take care of and grow and work. It was your idea to begin with. I wasn’t even gonna bid on that contract, but you convinced me to try. Without you being my champion, I would have never thought that I could do something like that.”
I smiled up at him, sliding forward on the desk, my hands on his hips, inhaling him, the smell of the summer sun on his clothes and sweat and the musky scent that was just Rand. “I’m happy to be the voice of reason in your head.” I teased him.
His thumb stroked over my bottom lip, and as he looked at me, his eyes narrowed to slits of electric blue. My stomach flipped over.
Slowly, he bent toward me, and when I felt his fingers on my jaw, I tilted my head back as he wanted and received the claiming kiss. His mouth slanted down over mine possessively, his tongue parting my lips, rubbing over mine. I moaned deeply, and his hands were on my thighs, lifting, wanting my legs wrapped around his hips.
“Why are you wearing that shirt?” he asked me, the words spoken against my throat, his hot, wet breath on my skin.
“What?” It was a strange question.
“Why are you wearing my shirt?” he asked pointedly.
From the low, husky sound of his voice, I understood that my wearing his clothes had touched something very primal inside of him. He liked it a lot. “Because it was clean, and we need to do laundry,” I said, shoving my groin against his abdomen, pressing into him.
“It’s so fuckin’ hot.”
There was nothing remotely sexy about me dressed in an old practice T-shirt of Rand’s that had his number on it, seven, from back when he played football in high school. I had noticed that there was a rip in it only when we were halfway to the college, but had no intention of driving all the way home just to change. It wasn’t a huge hole, more a tear that you would only notice if you stared. And he had promised me a walk to the creek after we visited my new office and had lunch, having taken off the whole day like he never could or did, just to spend some time with me. So because my day would be filled with just us, I had seen no real reason to change. And now I was glad I hadn’t.
“You know, between that there shirt and your hat, I bet none of these folks ’round here expect you to be faculty.”
“No, probably not,” I gasped because his hands had closed on my ass and squeezed tight.
“Fuck,” he growled, and moved fast, taking off his hat, doing the Frisbee throw with it to the chair, and bending to shove the T-shirt up so he could kiss my bare stomach.
“Sometimes I just wanna lick over every piece of you.”
He pressed his lips to my abdomen and kissed and licked and suckled and nibbled until I was writhing under him on the edge of the desk. My belt was hastily unbuckled, the snap tugged on and the zipper roughly pulled. I felt his hands spreading the flaps, sliding over the elastic waistband of my briefs and then his fingers grazing the skin above my shaft.
I lifted up and he peeled everything down, jeans, underwear, and my cock bobbed free, hard and already leaking with just the promise of attention. I shivered when, without a word of warning, he bent and took me down the back of his throat.
“Rand,” I called his name, hands in his hair, loving the feel of his hot mouth and the fierce, exquisite suction, the cold hard wood on my ass, the taboo of being in an office, and the knowledge that we were the only ones in the entire six-story building. School was out until the first week in September, and I was so very, very glad.
The man who had been a novice at blowjobs two years earlier was now well-practiced, with a sense of his own power and an acute knowledge of all my hot buttons. He knew it had to start fast and end slow, knew that I liked it best when he dripped saliva down my crease and pressed fingers inside me at the same time, and knew, finally, that I would come loud and hard if I was manhandled and held down and fucked until I screamed.
“Let’s try somethin’ different,” he growled, and I was bent in half, my knees, still trapped in my jeans, shoved against my chest, his hands on the back of my thighs as I felt his tongue slide over my entrance.
He pressed his tongue inside me, and I had to grip the edge of the desk not to jolt under him. It felt so good, the stubble of his beard on my tender skin, the slow, sensual stroking, and his mouth against my fluttering hole. When he added a finger, my back bowed up off the desk.
I heard him spit, felt the second finger slide in with the first, coated in saliva, and scissor inside me.
“Oh Rand, please.”
He fucked me with his fingers, as his other hand slid over the clenching muscles of my abdomen. “You are so beautiful, Stef,” he got out, his voice gruff and low, as he reached for my jeans, yanking them off my left leg, not bothering with the right, just needing to be able to part my thighs, and spread me before him.
“You get off on looking at me like this, holding whatever position you put me in.”
“Yeah,” he almost snarled.
“You want to fuck me anywhere you want, mark me, and put me on my knees wherever you please.”
There was only a growl from him.
“So fuck me,” I begged him, pushing back on his thrusting fingers, wanting to be fuller, needing deeper, needing more.
“You’re so tight.”
Slowly, he withdrew his slippery, talented digits, and then grabbed hold of my ass, my cheeks, spreading them as I felt the engorged, leaking head of his cock press against my puckered hole.
I lifted up, ready for him. “I need you.”
“And if we had lube, I would bury myself in you so hard you’d fuckin’ scream my name, but we’re gonna go slow until I feel your body wrap around me all tight and wet.”
The man had his own, aching, demanding need, but for him, always, I came first. He pressed forward into me, pushing gently but insistently, letting my inner muscles relax and remember the pleasure the intrusion would bring. They rippled with anticipation.
“Oh fuck, Stef, you feel so fuckin’ good.”
He eased back a fraction and then pushed forward, my channel clenching around the thick, hard silky length of him, precome and saliva mixing together, the slide not as smooth as usual, but the slight burn felt amazing, the pinch sending sizzling heat racing over my skin.
I lifted higher, forcing him to thrust inside to keep me still, and when I lifted a leg, resting my calf on his shoulder, he tugged me forward, and buried himself inside me, sheathing his enormous cock deep inside my ass.
“Rand!” I screamed his name.
His balls were against my ass as he began pumping into me, the smack of skin on skin like a hammer in the tiny room.
He felt too good. I was so full, stretched like I always was, as his shaft slid over my prostate, and he wrapped his fingers around my painfully hard, leaking cock.
I whimpered and moaned, lifting my other leg to his shoulder as he bent over me, driving inside, pistoning in and out of me, the desk shaking with the force of each driving thrust.
“Fuck, Stef, I gotta see!”
He moved me so easily, pulling me close, the angle changing so I was impaled for a moment, the sensation of him so deep that I caught my breath for a second before I was shoved face down on the desk.
“Oh fuck yeah,” he groaned. “Look at your ass take my cock.”
Rand loved to watch his massive dick slide in and out of my small, round, tight ass. Even more, he liked to fist his hand in my hair, yank my head back, and hold there as he pounded into me. His kink was to see the slope of my back, watch my pink hole as it swallowed the veined shaft of his inch by inch. I felt him tremble with lust.
“Fuck me so I feel it, Rand,” I told him. “Fuck me hard.”
The first plunge took my breath away.
“Jerk yourself off, baby.” His voice cracked, lowered. “I can’t do it. I gotta hold on.”
His part was to clench my hip so hard he’d leave bruises, tighten his grip in my hair so I was immobile, and give himself over to the orgasm roaring through him as he drove into me with brutal, savage intensity.
I didn’t have to touch myself. When he nailed my prostate on the second thrust, I came on my desk, shooting my load over the cheap polished wood.
My name was howled as my channel was filled, thick and hot, and he fucked me through his orgasm and mine, pumping hard as my muscles clamped down, squeezing him, milking him dry, ringing every last bit of pleasure from our savage coupling in my new office.
“Great way to christen my desk, Rand.” I laughed as he finally took a breath, wrapping his arms around me, straightening me up without pulling out, his chest plastered to my back.
He bit down into my shoulder, and I shuddered in his arms, reveling in the feel of him even through his clothes and of his now-softening cock still inside me.
“I feel so good when I’m inside you, Stef, and not just because it’s fuckin’ heaven, but because I can feel your heart. You are all mine when I’m inside you, and I know it, and I just wanna brand you or something.”
I grunted. “Do not get any ideas.”
He laughed, and I felt his mouth open against the side of my neck. The man did like leaving his mark on me. I was lucky that school didn’t start for three more weeks; a hickey on the first day would not make a good impression.
“Thank you for staying,” he said after another minute, turning me suddenly, spinning me around and giving me a full body hug, all of him pressed to all of me.
When we got back to the ranch after lunch, he walked me a different way to the creek than he normally did, along some railroad tracks. He made me wear my cowboy boots like he always did when we walked through grass or over dirt. It turned out that boots were not just decorative; they saved you from things like rocks and snake bites and a myriad of hidden dangers. The walk took longer than I thought it would, and after a while, because it was hot, I decided to go barefoot.
Rand was concerned.
“You’re gonna get splinters.”
What was funny was that of all the things in the world—spiders, snakes, acts of God—he was worried about splinters. It was stupid until I got one.
He bent and then flipped out the knife he carried all the time, and went down to one knee.
I moved back. “It’s a splinter. You don’t need to cut off my foot or something.”
“Don’t be a damn baby. I know what I’m doing.”
I was amazed that the tip of the knife could be wielded so deftly. When he turned his back to me, offering, I climbed on. I had not had a piggyback ride since I was five, and it was kind of fun. I really enjoyed pressing my groin to the small of Rand’s back.
“Stop,” he ordered me. “Or you’re gonna get put on your hands and knees right here, and once a day without lube is probably more than enough.”
I was a little sore, but not enough to say no to Rand being back inside me. “Rand—”
“Wait,” he interrupted me. “Just… I need to say something.”
“About earlier, I want you to know that between the deal with Powell and now this contract with Grillmaster, my ranch, our ranch, is good. I mean if I get caught in a stampede tomorrow, you and my mother and Char are all well provided for and—”
“For fuck’s sake, Rand,” I barked at him, pinching one of his nipples before I pushed off his back, dropping to the ground. “Why would you even say something like—”
“So you’ll believe me when I say that all you were doin’ when you were workin’ that job was annoying the shit outta me.” He growled as he turned around to face me. “I need you here, Stef. I need you to take care of my home and me and my life so I don’t just become this goddamn ranch!”
“But you already are the ranch,” I reminded him.
“No, Stefan,” he said as he grabbed hold of the back of my neck and yanked me forward, forcing me to look him in the eye. “You are my life. Nothing else means anything if you’re not here.”
The way he was looking at me was almost scary. I had no right to be the man’s everything when I was still so messed up, worrying about being able to support myself and save while working at a much diminished salary. I needed to have a safety net, but Rand was telling me it was unnecessary. “I don’t think you have any idea what you’re saying.”
“I’m speaking clear as anything. You’re just bein’ ornery.”
“Ornery?” I laughed at him. “Who uses that word?”
“Listen to me,” he began, ignoring my amusement. “We have us a joint checking account that you never touch. We have a savings account that you don’t touch either. I’m telling you right here and now that I want you to close your account from Chicago and start using the one we share. If you end up not liking the teaching, you can open your own business, do whatever the hell you want, but I need to see your face every night.”
I reached up and put my hand on his cheek. “You really didn’t like it when I had to stay overnight in the city, huh?”
He turned his head, kissing my palm, before he stepped forward into me, face down in my shoulder as his hands slid up under my shirt and touched my skin. I trembled in his arms, the feel of his callused palms on my body making my pulse jump.
“Rand!” I was surprised when he bent and threw me over his shoulder, carried me to a nearby tree, dropped me on my feet, spun me around, and shoved me up against it.
“No, I didn’t like it at all. You should be home when I’m home, period.”
I didn’t have time to speak, to argue with him, to tell him that his ideas about a mate were antiquated, before he reached down and dragged the T-shirt up over my head. I tried to turn, but he held me still, his mouth between my shoulder blades, kissing, licking, sucking on my skin. I got hard with the feel of his hands working open my buckle and belt, freeing my cock but nothing else, making no move to get me naked.
“Your skin makes me fuckin’ crazy,” he confessed, his voice low and husky, so sexy.
He kissed his way down to the small of my back and then turned me around in his arms, kneeling, hands fisted in my jeans as he licked the engorged head of my cock.
“Oh God, Rand,” I whispered hoarsely, my hands clutching his shoulders as I pushed into his mouth, watching his lips slide over my swollen shaft, taking me in until his nose was buried in my groin.
I pulled back, and shoved back in hard, fucking his mouth, feeling his hands gripping my ass now through the denim, savoring his hot, wet mouth and his tongue swirling around my cock.
“Rand,” I rasped out. “Gonna come.”
He tightened his grip on my ass, forcing me down his throat harder, faster, and I came undone under his hands, in his mouth. He swallowed everything, sucked me clean, and then rose and kissed me ravenously.
Tasting myself on him was so hot, I moaned loudly, sucking on his lips, biting gently but firmly, letting him know he was not getting away.
He smiled as he deepened the kiss, making it slower, deeper, ravaging my mouth.
The moan became a whimper, and when I was breathless and shaking, he shoved me back, unbuckled and unfastened himself and shoved his jeans down to his ankles. I was about to drop to my knees in the cool grass in the shade of the tree, but he told me to take off my jeans and ride him.
I smiled when I saw the butter packet from the diner where we’d had lunch. “That is not lube,” I chuckled, watching as he squirted the imitation butter spread onto the palm of his hand and slathered it over his cock. “It’s gonna get everywhere, and it won’t come off after.”
“Like I give a fuck about after,” he told me, and I saw the heat and need in his steady gaze.
He watched me with hungry eyes as I peeled out of my jeans and stepped over him.
“You’re gonna have grass plastered to your ass.”
“I only care about your ass, Stef,” he said, his voice a deep rumble in his chest. “Now ride your cowboy.”
I shook my head. “That’s so cheesy.” I smiled, my breath shaky as I got down on my knees, straddling his thighs before taking hold of his throbbing cock and lining it up with my suddenly fluttering hole.
“I’m gonna come just lookin’ at ya,” he croaked out, and I saw the desperation and his desire.
“Come inside me,” I exhaled, lowering myself over him slowly, letting him feel my channel ripple around him, the muscles tightening and relaxing, swallowing him, until I was completely impaled.
His hands gripped my thighs tight, and when I lifted up only to plunge back down, he yelled my name.
“Tell me, Rand.”
“Don’t pull away. Just lemme feel you.”
When I was on top, Rand liked it when I pressed down into him and pushed. He loved my inner walls holding him, liked to have me wrapped around him, squeezing. When he was on top, he liked driving into me, thrusting deep, but our present position was his favorite.
And there could never be any doubt of the ownership he demanded and which I blissfully gave.
After we swam naked in the creek, we had climbed out, changed back into our jeans, shoved our underwear into my boots—they needed to be washed—and were lying there together on the end of the tiny dock, feet dangling in the water, baking under the late August sun. I could hear the lazy buzz of insects, a splash now and then as a fish hit the surface of the water, and the sound of the leaves on the trees as the breeze blew through them.
“Best day ever,” I told him, turning my head so I could look at him, his fingers laced behind his head, eyes closed.
His short, wavy, black hair was curling around his ears and sticking to the back of his neck, and his long eyelashes looked dark even against the tan of his face. The man spent his whole life outside in the sun, and only I had made him wear sunscreen and slathered his face at night with moisturizer. He thought it was stupid. I didn’t want him to get skin cancer and leave me. Leaving me was a big deal; he wasn’t going to let any other man have me. He carried sunscreen in his truck now.
Looking at him, I couldn’t help reaching out and running my hand over the wide, muscular chest and down the deep groove in his abdomen to the hard, flat stomach. Rand Holloway did not have gym muscles like I did. I was toned and defined, my own physique reminiscent of the guys in an Abercrombie & Fitch catalog, purposely acquired, whereas Rand actually used his body every single day. He lifted and pulled and dragged things heavier than him. He wrestled animals to the ground, carried fence posts, and swung a hammer. There was a great physicality to his everyday life, and it showed in every carved, hard inch of his massive frame.
“Come closer,” he drawled out, ending with a yawn.
But I was engrossed with looking at him.
The glossy black hair that fell into his bright turquoise-blue eyes, the thick eyebrows that arched dangerously, and his sinful lips that twisted into half a smile whenever he saw me turned me inside out on a regular basis. The man was strength and heat and sex wrapped up in thick muscles and warm sleek skin. I watched women, and a few men, respond to the raw physical presence of Rand Holloway and always understood their trembling reaction. He was powerful and sensual, and when he smiled, which he hardly did around anyone other than his family, his men, and me, it became suddenly hard to breathe.
Everyone who had ever seen Rand Holloway smile wanted to see it again. They enjoyed watching the Technicolor-blue eyes glint, and witness the lines in the corner of those magnificent eyes crinkle in half. But if, by some miracle, he laughed with you, was comfortable enough to let down that barrier and just be himself, treated you like family, Christ, you were hooked for life. The deep rumbling laughter was a sound you never forgot, and he became a drug you had to have. Not that he ever noticed anyone’s reaction to him because he didn’t care if people liked him or not. The only things he cared about were his family, his ranch, the people who lived on it and called it home, and me. There was no way not to love a man like that, heart and soul.
I lifted my eyes, and he caught me in his blue gaze.
“Put your head down.”
I stretched out, laid my head on his bicep, and slid my denim clad leg over his thigh.
He grunted. “You know, I know why you don’t wanna use the joint checking account.”
And just like that, we were back to our earlier discussion.
I was quiet because I didn’t want to fight. I had worked all my life, depended on no one but myself for anything. My stepfather had thrown me out when I was fourteen. My mother had stood there and watched, slamming the door in my face. When I had pounded on the door to be let back in, it was thrown open and the beating had commenced. And while I had no worry that Rand would ever physically hurt me, there was still the possibility that if he ever got tired of me, learned to hate me, that I could be put out of my home. I could never allow that to happen to me again. Money was my security net, money I made myself.
“Rand, I don’t wanna talk about—”
“I won’t ever tell you to pack your things and go, Stef.”
He knew me so well, knew all the fears that rode me.
“I swear it.”
“Believe me. Believe in me. Stefan… please.”
God, the man knew I doubted him, doubted his love, the depth of it, the forever of it, and still he loved me.
“I know you love me, and I know you wanna be here, and I know you still worry.”
“Look at me.”
I rolled my head sideways, and we were eye to eye, only inches separating us. It was very intimate; there was no hiding that close.
“If you want, I can take my name off the joint account, and it can just be yours, and that way you’ll know it can never be taken from you. I’ll still put money in it, but I won’t touch it at all. Would that be better?”
“That’s what’s called being kept, Rand, and no… that would not be better in the least.”
“Fuck,” he grumbled. “I don’t mean it like—”
“I know how you meant it,” I assured him. “It’s a very generous offer.”
“Christ, now you’re making it sound dirty,” he groaned, and I sat up as he moved his hands, raking them through his thick hair.
“Very generous for a guy like me.” I smiled, turning to look down at him, waggling my eyebrows. “A man with my background.”
“Stefan.” He warned me.
“A guy from the wrong side of the tracks.”
“It ain’t funny.”
“It’s a little funny,” I chuckled.
“You don’t… you ain’t hearin’ me,” he said, and my laughter died in my throat when his voice cracked. He sat up beside me, crossing his legs so his left knee bumped me. “For a long time, all the guys would go home at night to their wives and their children and lit-up houses that smelled like food and got to hear all the good and all the bad that happened that day. I used to go home, and there weren’t none of that.”
“Rand,” I began, putting my hand on his knee.
“Lemme finish,” he said gently, taking my hand, sliding his fingers between mine, pressing my palm against him. “After you came, though, suddenly I’m just as excited to go home as everybody else. I open my front door and the music is on, and the lights are on, and the place smells amazing, and goddamn, Stef, even when I was married before, it wasn’t like that. Even if you’re runnin’ late and I get in first, just you walkin’ in the house makes it feel different. And I get it, ya know? You’re it, you’re my home.”
I looked away because I was nothing. I was an orphan, and he had a home and a family and a ranch and everyone counting on him, and I was just… how could Rand want to build on me? How was I a foundation for anything?
I turned back, slowly, taking a breath.
His hand went to my cheek, his thumb sliding over my bottom lip, and I saw the warmth infuse his eyes, saw them darken, soften, because he was looking at me.
“You don’t really know what you did today, so I’m gonna tell you.”
I nodded because my voice was gone.
“When you told me that you weren’t gonna look for a job in Dallas, I knew for sure you wanted to stay with me and have a home.”
My focus became breathing.
“I mean, before that, when you were runnin’ back and forth, doin’ all that driving, well, maybe you were tryin’ to keep one foot in your old life and one in your new one, ya know?”
I did know and that was exactly what I had been doing.
“I saw you needin’ air. Saw you gettin’ all panicky ’cause your life was fallin’ into place around you. The happier you got, the more you started fittin’ in and gettin’ comfortable, the more you started pacin’ like an animal that was caged up. You were snappin’ at everyone, ready to bite and scratch to get away, and sick that you had to. I ain’t never seen a man who so wanted to belong and who was scared to, all at the same time. It makes me tired just watchin’ you wrestle with yourself.”
I cleared my throat. “So I’m a crazy person who—”
“Just… hush. You showed me how it was gonna be ’cause when it was time to decide, you chose me and the ranch and your life here.”
He narrowed his eyes, and as he squinted, I saw how red-rimmed they were. I had no idea that anything I could ever do would touch him so deeply.
“It’s why I can barely keep my hands off you. That’s why I attacked you in your office today, ’cause it’s your office. It’s where you’re fixin’ to be because of me.”
I finally understood. To Rand, until he physically saw the reality of my new job, he had not let himself believe it. To me, the space, my cubicle at the community college, was a dump. To Rand, it represented me putting down roots.
“You told me that you wanted to belong to me, and today I believe it.”
I looked away from him because my eyes filled and my vision blurred with hot tears.
“Along with workin’ there at the college, I still want you to oversee the Grillmaster account, you hear?”
“And if it don’t work out for you at the school, you can just do that, all right?”
But how would that work?
“Are you afraid of how it will look to everyone if you work at the ranch?”
That was some of it, I would admit to that. “People will think I’m sponging off you,” I said to the creek instead of Rand.
“But you’ll know different.”
“I just can’t be a—”
“Soon no one will wonder why you’re on the ranch, once we have kids.”
What? “What?” I asked breathlessly, my head swiveling around to look at him. God, when had I missed him planning his whole life with me in it?
“You’ll have to stay home and take care of them.”
Even though he had said kids before, in the past, all I had ever heard was child. But I processed the word that time. Kids. As in plural. As in more than one. As in them.
When had he decided that he wanted to have children with me? “I have no idea what you’re even talking about right now. You—”
“I wanted you to practice takin’ care of me so you’ll be ready to take care of your children, and I was so scared that you wouldn’t. I was thinkin’ just maybe you were ready to leave me, but then you took this job so you could keep on seein’ me and cookin’ for me and—”
“I am not your wife!” I yelled at him. “And I won’t be made to take on the role of—”
“I know that, but you have to get ready to take care of your children!”
“You’re gonna be the one who picks ’em up from school every day. You’ll be the one who helps ’em with their homework and watches them wash up and makes their dinner. I’ll be the one who plays with ’em and watches TV and talks to ’em at the dinner table. I’ll be their father, and you’ll be—”
“Oh God.” I couldn’t breathe.
“I asked Charlotte if she would be inclined to help us start our family, and she said she’d help ’cause she always wanted to have babies with you anyhow.”
Jesus Christ, the man was planning on putting me into a Norman Rockwell painting. “Rand—”
“No! I will not discuss this with you. The time to talk is over and done. When you asked me if I wanted you and I said yes, I started planning my whole life right then. When you lost your job, you decided to only look as far as Lubbock for a new one so you could come home every night to me. That tells me all I need to know, Stef.”
Running was easy; staying was hard.
“I ain’t tryin’ to take anything from you, least of all your freedom.”
“I know,” I told him as he pulled me close. I ended up lying between his legs, my back curled into his chest, his arms draped across my collarbone.
“I drive you nuts, huh?”
“You make me fuckin’ crazy.”
“I’m sorry.” I snickered because I wasn’t at all. He had to deal with me, thorns and all.
“No, you ain’t.”
“I love you.”
I turned and looked at him over my shoulder.
“Don’t ever leave me. I won’t recover, okay?”
“Okay.” He exhaled, like he had been holding his breath. “Christ, you’re a giant pain in the ass.”
There could be no argument.