“ARE you still here?”
Troy Gardener looked up from his desk as Cameron Jarvis stood in his doorway, dressed in jeans and some fancy designer T-shirt. Troy checked the clock.
“I think the more important question is why you’re here at this hour. You never work this late,” Troy responded, narrowing his eyes suspiciously. They were both up for the same job as director of the Interior Department, and while Troy had always put in long hours, once the list of candidates had been announced, Cameron had started working later as well.
“I had some papers I wanted to review this weekend, and after taking Gail and the kids to Savage Mill for dinner, I stopped in to get them,” Cameron said lightly with the easy smile he always seemed to have. The man was too annoying for words, with his designer jeans and shirts. Troy would never admit it to anyone, but Cameron was always just too comfortable in his own skin, and that irked Troy no end. He worked hard to fit in and to appear competent and knowledgeable, and for Cameron it always seemed to come so easily. “You have a great weekend, and tell Jeanie I said hello. And tell her Gail would love to get together with her again soon.” Cameron hoisted the file in a farewell gesture. Even his own wife was cavorting with the enemy. Troy realized how stupid he was being the moment the idea crossed his mind. No matter who got the promotion, he’d still have to work with Cameron; he just hoped he’d be doing it as his boss. Troy returned the wave and went back to his work, finishing the task Cameron had interrupted before shutting down his laptop and removing it from its docking station and sliding it into his bag for the trip home. Troy then left his government office building and drove home.
It was summer, but the skies were already darkening as he pulled out of the parking lot and drove down the manicured, tree-lined driveway toward the street, the gate opening when the security guard recognized him. He returned the man’s wave and began the drive home. Even though it was Friday, he’d still worked until almost nine o’clock. “I want that promotion to director,” he’d explained to Jeanie that morning when she’d asked him to come home early. “It shouldn’t be much longer,” Troy had added, even though he really didn’t know how long it would be before the head of the agency made his decision. Troy tightly gripped the wheel at the thought of that promotion going to Jarvis. Troy deserved it; hell, he wanted it more than the other man. Troy put the thoughts out of his mind the farther he got from the office and the closer he got to what he hoped would be a quiet weekend.
Jeanie had called a few hours ago to remind him that their daughter Sofia was at a sleepover at Callie’s, and that she and her sister were taking their mother out for her birthday, so Troy was expecting a quiet evening at home by himself. He reached into his pocket for his smart phone before remembering that he’d forgotten it that morning. He’d done that all day, and it annoyed him no end that he’d left it at home; he sort of felt naked without it.
Turning onto his quiet street, he expected the house to be dark. Instead, he saw lights on, and when he turned into the driveway, there was a car he didn’t immediately recognize parked in the driveway. “Damn it,” he swore softly as he recognized it as his brother’s. He’d forgotten that Kevin was spending the night at the house. Parking behind his brother, Troy grabbed his bag off the passenger seat and closed the door behind him before striding up the walk and climbing the stairs to the porch.
Troy couldn’t help stopping to look around. He and Jeanie had admired this particular house for years, an original Queen Anne Victorian with a round turret and plenty of character. When the house had come on the market two years ago, they’d put in an offer right away, and Jeanie had spent every spare minute working on it once it was theirs. Troy’s wife was amazing—she could do just about anything, and Troy had seen the house transform from a rough building into a home. He’d helped as well, because he hadn’t been working the long hours then, but once the house was done, Troy had found the time he spent at work growing more and more.
His brother’s voice pulled him out of his thoughts, and Troy saw Kevin stand up from where he’d been sitting in one of the porch chairs. “Jeanie asked me to tell you that she has some chicken salad for you in the refrigerator.”
“Thanks,” Troy answered before going inside. He set his bag next to the table in the hallway before walking up the stairs to his and Jeanie’s bedroom. Pulling off his work clothes, he placed them with the other dry cleaning before pulling on a comfortable pair of jeans and a shirt. Stepping back down the stairs, Troy heard his phone vibrate, telling him that he had a text, and he scooped it up off the hall table, shoving it into his pocket, knowing he’d read the message later.
Kevin followed him into the kitchen, and Troy opened the refrigerator door, pulling out the plate Jeanie had set up for him, and while he was at it, he pulled out two beers as well. Troy didn’t say anything as he handed Kevin a beer and walked out to the front porch, where he sank into one of the chairs. “What time is your flight in the morning?” Troy held the plate and began to eat. Jeanie was an amazing cook, and the food tasted wonderful.
“Eight o’clock. This is a long one.” Kevin settled in the chair, appearing slightly agitated about something.
“Where are you going?” Troy asked, more to be polite than out of curiosity.
“Australia for two weeks. Peter wishes he could go with me, but he can’t get the time off work.” Peter was Kevin’s partner of almost ten years now. They’d had their commitment ceremony two months before he and Jeanie had gotten married.
“That’s too bad,” Troy said, returning his attention to his plate, and he heard Kevin set his beer bottle on the porch ledge. Kevin didn’t say anything, and Troy could feel his brother staring at him. His first instinct was to snap at him, but Troy held his tongue. He and Kevin had tentatively built a relationship as adults after years of avoiding each other after their teenage years where they had fought like cats and dogs. Troy knew he was probably largely to blame. He’d hated having a gay brother because of the way it reflected on him. And Kevin had never hidden who he was—he’d been out and proud since he was fifteen. “So work is going well?” Troy asked to break the silence.
“Yes. Too much travel lately, but I think that should change after this trip, and this winter Peter and I are taking a cruise to the Caribbean, just the two of us,” Kevin answered before taking another swig of beer, and silence descended once more. Troy heard Kevin shifting nervously in his chair. Truthfully, Troy barely noticed it. Kevin had always been the nervous type, and Troy had used it to his advantage more than once when they were kids. Now he barely paid attention to it. Troy finished eating and set his plate on the small table next to his chair.
“Troy.” Kevin caught his eye, and Troy saw him look around like he was making sure no one could hear. “I think it’s time we cut the crap.” Troy glared at his brother. “You left your phone at home, and it kept beeping, so I switched it to vibrate. I saw your text messages.”
Troy jumped to his feet, standing over Kevin. “What the hell were you doing looking at anything in my house!” Troy knew he could always intimidate Kevin, but this time Kevin stared back at him levelly, almost calmly.
“Like I said, cut the shit, Troy. I saw your texts. I know the kind of messages you’re getting from Harry.” Kevin kept his voice low, which unnerved Troy even more. “What is it you’re playing at?”
Troy picked up his plate and left the porch without saying a word, walking into the kitchen to put it in the sink. “You had no right.”
Kevin lightly touched his shoulder with one hand. “Does Jeanie know?”
Troy couldn’t move or breathe as he stared into the sink. He expected to blink and wake up at any minute from this nightmare. But he didn’t—this was real. Troy shook his head once before shrugging off his brother’s touch and walking into the family room. He didn’t have to look to know that Kevin had followed right behind him. Troy turned on the television before glaring at his brother, daring him to say another word. But for once it didn’t seem as though it was going to work.
“Talk to me, Troy. I’ve known you longer than any other person on earth, and I most certainly know what you’re feeling.” Kevin sounded so understanding, but Troy didn’t want to talk about this, not in the least. All he wanted to do was get Kevin to shut up about it so he could go back to his life the way it was. “Troy, is this why you’ve been working yourself to the bone? You’re never home; I know that. You and Jeanie rarely take vacations together, and when you do, it’s always with a group of people. The two of you are never together anymore.”
“I do not want to talk about it!” Troy ground out between clenched teeth.
“I don’t really give a crap right now,” Kevin told him firmly. “You need to deal with this. You have a wife and a child, and you’re getting texts from some guy about meeting you at a gay bar.” The excuse, the cover story, was right on the tip of his tongue, but Kevin cut him off. “We aren’t teenagers, and this isn’t you getting drunk and covering it by saying you ate bad pizza. This is your life and your peace of mind.”
“Then leave me alone,” Troy said.
“I can’t. There’s more than your happiness at stake. What about Jeanie and Sofia? You aren’t doing them any favors sneaking around behind their backs. Let me help you.”
“I don’t need your help,” Troy countered feebly. He’d wished these feelings away for years, and he’d stayed far away from anything and anyone who might interfere with his life, the life he’d built with his wife and child. Troy had supported his brother once they were no longer teenagers. He and Jeanie had attended his brother’s commitment ceremony and had helped with the arrangements. Troy was proud of his brother, and at the same time, he was as envious of him as he could possibly be.
Troy reached for the remote and turned up the volume. He knew if Kevin said anything, he would simply deny it and offer Jeanie an explanation and she’d accept it. He was sure of that. To calm his nerves, he tried to watch the television, but then it clicked off, and Kevin stared at him like he was a child dragged in front of the principal. Troy stared back, waiting to see what his brother would say, but Kevin remained quiet. Then Kevin sat next to him on the sofa and did something totally unexpected: he hugged him, tight. Troy began to struggle, but Kevin wasn’t about to let him go. “I know what’s in your heart, little brother. I know about your shame and how you cover up who you really are. It doesn’t matter, because I love you no matter what.”
Troy heard the hitch in Kevin’s voice but did his best to ignore it. He was not going to let anyone get under his skin. He couldn’t. “Kevin,” he said forcefully, but his brother would not let go.
“I know you’re gay, Troy, and I know you’ve resented me all these years. I came out and you hid. That’s eaten at you for a long time, and you need to let it go and allow yourself to be who you are. Who you always were.”
Troy stood up, shrugging away from Kevin. “Who I am is Jeanie’s husband and Sofia’s father. There’s no way I can be gay.”
Kevin sat back on the sofa, looking at him patiently. There had not been many times in his life that Kevin had managed to rattle him, but he was sure doing it now. “You are gay. It’s just part of who you are, and the sooner you face it, the easier your life is going to be. You’ve been skirting the issue all your life, and you’re still doing it now. I noticed that you didn’t deny it—you just tried to deflect, but it won’t work. So go on hiding if you want, but I know you for who you are, and you can’t hide forever, no matter how hard you try. It’ll eat at you from the inside, because every time you think about being with someone else for any reason, you know you’re cheating on Jeanie.”
“What in the hell am I supposed to do?” Troy asked, more loudly than he meant to, and he heard his voice crack as some of his willpower deserted him. “If you have all the answers, then what am I supposed to do so everyone doesn’t get hurt?”
Kevin stood and placed his hand on Troy’s shoulder, the warmth soaking through his clothes. “I don’t have all the answers. I never did. And I don’t see a way to keep people from getting hurt. When you’ve been hiding who you are for as long as you have, making a change is going to hurt people. And in this case, it’s going to hurt the ones you love most. I know that. I will tell you this: you don’t have to do anything right away. Think things through. You need to be honest with yourself about how you feel before you can be honest with anyone else.” Troy saw his brother swallow hard. “But you know it doesn’t matter to me. I’ll love you no matter what.” Kevin hugged him again, and this time Troy returned it. He could feel some of the walls, some of the barriers he’d spent a lifetime building, begin to crumble, and he held on to Kevin as the emotions he’d held at bay surged to the surface. As Kevin hugged him, Troy wiped his eyes, trying desperately to hold himself together.
The sound of a car door closing outside brought him back to reality, and Troy stepped away from Kevin, swallowing around the lump in his throat. Walking away, he went into the bathroom, running cold water and splashing it on his face before staring at himself in the mirror. Troy always thought he knew who was staring back at him from the mirror, but now as he stared, he saw a stranger. Everything he thought he knew about himself was wrong, and he wasn’t sure if he could live with this image or not. Taking a deep breath, Troy steadied his nerves as he heard Jeanie saying hello to Kevin, and then their voices grew softer and faded away.
Clamping his eyes closed, Troy shut out the image from the mirror and tried his best to keep his emotions from bursting to the surface, but the genie had been let out of the bottle, and he couldn’t shove those feelings back down. The images of the bathroom tile became watery as tears welled in his eyes. What in the hell was he going to do? The last thing he wanted was to hurt Jeanie and Sofia. They were his entire life.
Troy had been married before. His first wife, Mary, had been extremely career-oriented to the point that there was no way she ever wanted children. Troy had, and for that reason, as well as others, their marriage had eventually ended. Troy could always chalk the end of his first marriage up to differences that he and Mary could never work through, but now that he was facing some of the truth in his life, he wondered just how much Mary had known or sensed, because she had since remarried, and Troy had learned that she’d given birth to twins.
The truth of his life and the decisions he’d made began to hit him all at once, and Troy felt his knees begin to shake. Then he felt the floor coming up to meet him, and he offered no resistance as he crumpled onto Jeanie’s pale yellow bathmat. Covering his eyes with his hands, Troy did his best not to make a sound as his mouth opened and he gasped for air, crying silently until parts of the mat felt as though he’d actually taken a shower. Troy had no idea what he was going to do, but no matter what he decided, the tears he was shedding were not going to be the last ones, that was pretty plain.
Forcing himself first to his knees and then to his feet, Troy stared into the mirror again as he heard a soft knock on the door. “Are you okay?” Kevin asked from the hallway.
“Yes,” Troy answered softly, not really trusting his voice not to give him away. Turning on the water, he wiped his eyes with a cold cloth before flushing the toilet and then opening the door. Troy found Jeanie and Kevin on the porch enjoying the fresh summer evening, and all Troy could think about was the pain and heartache he was going to cause his family. And the biggest question on his mind as he sat and stared at the lightning bugs that lit the trees around the property was how easily he could end it all.
DAMN, his feet hurt, along with everything else. A car approached, and Liam stuck out his thumb, trying desperately to hitch a ride to anywhere, but the car continued on past, kicking up a cloud of dust that added another layer to what was already caked onto every inch of his skin. There was so much dirt on him it hurt to move his arms from the grit that had worked its way beneath them. It felt like weeks since he’d been clean, and even longer since his belly was full and he’d had a proper chance to sleep. He felt as though his eyes wanted to close on their own and like his legs were made of lead, but still he walked. Liam looked around for the millionth time, but all he saw was flat land and cattle. He knew that someone had to own the cattle and someone had to live around here, but he hadn’t seen a house in forever. At the last one, some old guy had waved a gun at him.
The low rumble of another car caught Liam’s attention, and he turned around, thumbing for a ride once again. This car looked fast, and Liam tried to appear hopeful. As the low red car approached, it veered toward him, and Liam stepped back, falling into a shallow ditch, landing hard on his ass as the car screamed by without the slightest sign of slowing down. Closing his gritty eyes, Liam took inventory and realized that at least nothing hurt more than it had before. He supposed he should feel lucky, but it was hard with your ass in a ditch and what little you had in the world strewn on the ground. Moving slowly, because it was all he could do, Liam gathered up his things, sticking them back into his pack. He clamped his eyes closed to stop the cry of frustration and maybe something else as he watched the last of his water leak out of his now cracked and useless water bottle. To make matters worse, the sun was setting, and Liam could already feel a slight chill in the air. He should be used to it by now, but he was so tired and hungry, his brain had stopped working well. Somehow, through sheer will, Liam got back to his feet and continued down the road, walking and shuffling as the sky continued to darken. He kept scanning around for lights that might denote a house or any kind of building, but he saw nothing.
Liam had long ago stopped swallowing because his throat felt like sandpaper. He was only adding more pain to what he was already feeling. It was now nearly pitch black, with only the stars providing any light at all. No cars had passed in hours, and Liam could feel his body giving up. Stumbling over nothing, he tumbled down by the side of the road and stayed there. He no longer had the energy to move or the strength to go on. Not that it mattered. No one wanted him around, and it would be easier if he simply lay down and died, which was sounding better and better all the time. Shrugging off his pack, Liam rested his head on it as the cold from the night, the hunger, the pain, and the tiredness that went to his bones all receded to nothing.
Voices pierced his peaceful dreams, and he thought they were part of it except they sounded urgent and his dream had been so pleasant and happy. “Be careful,” someone scolded lightly.
“Is he dead?”
He felt someone touch his neck, warm and gentle. “No.”
Liam wanted to move into that touch, but he couldn’t seem to make anything work except his ears, so he let the dream continue. In the dream he was floating on clouds and then the clouds began to bump and jerk. Slowly, Liam’s mind began to work, and he realized he wasn’t dreaming. Opening his eyes was painful, but he saw jittering lights, and he realized he was in some sort of vehicle. He tried to move away so he could get out, but nothing seemed to work.
“It’s okay. You’re going to be all right, I promise. No one is going to hurt you.”
Liam decided to take the voice at face value, not that he had a choice. Liam heard a rush of air and then the voice spoke again. “Mario, he’s awake.” Then the air stopped, and Liam let everything go. Whatever happened to him happened; he was way past caring.
“Drink slowly,” the same voice said, and Liam did as he was told, cool water sliding down his throat. It hurt at first, but then it felt good, and he reached for the glass, but it slipped away. “Not too fast.” Liam took another drink and more water slid down his throat and hit his empty stomach. He kept sipping until the glass slipped away from his lips. “You can have some more in a few minutes.” Liam felt his body settle against something soft, and he was warm. He lost track of time.
“Drink a little more.”
Liam complied, and this time, the water had flavor, and he drank and drank.
“What’s in that?” another voice asked.
“Gatorade mixed with water. He probably hasn’t had anything to eat in days, and he needs something simple to get his stomach working again.” Liam opened his eyes and found he was in a dim room. There were two people staring back at him with worried looks on their faces. “Feeling better?” Liam nodded and took the glass, gulping from it before anyone could stop him. Then he coughed, and the man took the glass back. “You need to take it easy. You can have more when your stomach gets used to working again.”
“Who are you?” Liam croaked, his throat hurting.
“I’m Wally, and this is Mario,” the man answered. “We found you on the side of the road.” Liam tried to sit up, and the man gently pressed him back down. “Take it easy. You’re dehydrated, and we need to get fluids into you slowly. When was the last time you ate?”
Liam shrugged. He wished he could remember. “Couple of days, I guess. I’m Liam, Liam Southard,” he added hastily, remembering his manners.
Wally handed the other man the glass. “Go ahead and fill it half and half with water and Gatorade.”
Mario nodded and hurried away. “What were you doing out there at this time of night? We nearly didn’t see you.”
“Walking. Been trying to find work for weeks. Spent a day or so working on a ranch south of here, but they kicked me off and I moved on. Ain’t had nothin’ to eat since.” Liam tried to turn away from Wally’s concerned gaze. He didn’t deserve that look. Mario returned with the glass, and Liam practically snatched it when it was offered, drinking as much as he could get.
“Hey. Take it easy. You can have more,” Wally told him gently.
Liam drained the glass and then handed it back. “Thank you kindly.” The much bigger man took the glass and left, returning with another that he set on the table. Liam relaxed for a second until he remembered his pack, looking frantically around him.
“Your pack is on the floor by the sofa. Rest awhile and don’t drink too much all at once,” Wally told him, and the two men left the room. Liam looked around and saw pictures on the walls of what was obviously a ranch house. He heard kitchen sounds, and his stomach rumbled loudly, reminding Liam forcefully that he hadn’t eaten in days. Liam reached for the cup and took another drink. He was still thirsty, but the immediate compulsive need had been satisfied, and he sipped from the glass, waiting to see what would happen next. Wally came back into the room carrying a plate with two pieces of toast on it. He handed him the plate, and Liam took a bite before inhaling the rest of the food. “We’ll let that settle, and then I’ll get you something else.”
Liam nodded and handed back the plate, his eyes drifting closed. “Thank you.”
“Just relax. You’re safe.” He felt a warm hand touch his forehead and then move away. Liam’s mind began to drift, and he heard people moving quietly around him, but he didn’t open his eyes. If this was a dream, he didn’t want to do anything to wake himself up.
Liam jumped at the snap of a door closing near him, and then he thumped onto the floor, staring up at the huge man who was staring back at him. Before Liam could speak, he heard footsteps hurry through the house. “Kota!” Wally cried and then launched himself into the big man’s arms. Liam saw them hug, and then to his surprise the two men were kissing. Liam blinked a few times before climbing back onto the sofa, pulling his gaze away from the two men. Pulling up the blanket, he listened as Wally and this Kota person talked softly behind him, and Liam found himself thinking that he might have actually died and gone to heaven.
Liam stared at the ceiling and saw Kota’s large frame looming over him. “Wally said you were really dehydrated. Are you injured anywhere else?” Kota knelt near the sofa and pulled away the blanket. Liam tried to hold it in place. “It’s all right. I’m a doctor, and I just want to make sure you’re not injured.”
“I’m okay,” Liam said nervously. “Maybe I should get out of your hair.”
“You can go if you want. No one will stop you, but Wally said you haven’t eaten much in days, so you have to be hungry. There’s nothing to be afraid of,” Kota said reassuringly, and Liam looked toward Wally, who nodded. “Do you think you can walk?”
Liam nodded and slowly got to his feet. He felt as weak as a baby, but managed to get his legs beneath him before following the two men into the kitchen. Liam pulled out a chair and sat down as Kota sat next to him. “How did you come to be lying in a ditch by the side of the road?”
“I’ve been looking for work,” Liam answered honestly. “I come up this way from Texas to outside Pinedale because I had this job waitin’ for me, and when I got there, the foreman hired me on like was promised, but after one day, the boss sees me and says he didn’t want no fags on his ranch.” Liam paused to swallow and catch his breath. “The foreman paid me for the day, and I found myself out of a job. I got there by bus and I didn’t have the money for another ticket. I tried to get a job at one of the other ranches, but the boss had put the word out, and no one would hire me.” Liam felt his upper lip begin to shake, and when Wally set a plate of scrambled eggs and toast in front of him, Liam fought to keep all the pain and fear he’d had heaped on him over the past few weeks from bursting to the surface. Lowering his head away from the kind looks he was getting from both men, Liam slowly began to eat.
“That’s almost a hundred miles from here. Did you walk the entire way?” Kota asked.
Liam nodded as he kept eating, the food tasting unbelievably good. “I heard that there may be work up here, but no one would stop to give me a ride,” Liam said around the food, unable to stop eating for anything. “I stopped at a few places, but they weren’t hiring and sent me on my way.” Liam continued eating, scraping the last of the food off the plate. Wally took his plate and brought back some more, and soon Liam was actually starting to feel full, a sensation he’d thought he might never feel again.
Wally took the plate from in front of him, placing it in the sink. “Kota, Liam is dead on his feet, and he needs to sleep. You can talk to him in the morning.” Wally touched the other man on the shoulders, and Liam saw Kota lean into the touch. “I’ll show you the guest room.”
Liam nodded and stood up, retrieving his pack from near the sofa before following Wally down the hall. Liam nearly moaned out loud when he saw the double bed with its homemade quilt. “Is there a place I can clean up?”
“The bathroom’s right across the hall. I’ll set out some clean towels for you. Do you have fresh clothes to put on?”
Liam shook his head slowly, feeling embarrassed and ashamed.
“I’ll bring you some and lay them on the bed. Don’t you worry about it. Dakota’s things may be a bit big for you, but they’ll do for tonight. There’s soap and shampoo in the shower, so help yourself.” Wally hurried away, and Liam stared down at the inviting bed and then looked at himself in the mirror above the dresser. He gasped when he saw his own face: scruffy beard, drawn eyes and mouth, black bags beneath his eyes. His forehead was streaked with dirt, and his hands looked like he had a tan, but it was just layers of dust and dirt. Wally returned and placed some clothes on the edge of the bed before leaving again.
Liam set down his pack before walking across the hall to the bathroom. A new toothbrush and toothpaste, as well as a razor and shaving cream, sat on the counter. A drawer had been left open with travel-size everything inside. Liam slowly closed the bathroom door before leaning against the counter as tears welled in his eyes. These people didn’t know him from Adam, and yet they were nicer to him than his own mama and daddy. He wasn’t quite sure how to take that or understand it. What he did understand was that in the morning he was going to ask Dakota for a job and hope like hell they needed another hand. He’d seen Wally and Dakota together, so at least he knew they wouldn’t be running him off for liking stallions instead of fillies. God, he hoped he could stay here, because if the rest of the people here were as nice as Wally, Dakota, and Mario, he knew this place was damned near heaven.
Pulling himself out of his hopes, Liam began the process of making himself look more human. After stripping out of his clothes, Liam started the shower, and when the water had warmed, he stepped under the spray and closed his eyes. Few things in his life had felt as glorious. Opening his eyes, Liam nearly jumped back when he saw the brown water swirling around his feet. It took him a few seconds before he realized all the dirt was coming off him. Reaching for the soap, Liam began washing every inch of his skin. He found a small nail brush in the corner of the tub and used it everywhere he possibly could.
After washing himself at least twice, Liam turned off the water and stepped out of the tub. The face that stared back at him now seemed more like himself, but he wasn’t quite there yet. Liam shaved and then brushed his teeth. By the time he was done, he felt normal and human. Wrapping a towel around his waist, Liam cracked the door and stole across the hall into the room he’d been given to use. He pulled on the clothes Wally had left for him before returning to the bathroom, where he found Wally cleaning up and gathering his clothes. “I’d wash these for you, but I don’t think they’ll survive the machine. I’ll try, though, and if you have anything else, I’ll wash it as well.”
“You don’t have to do that,” Liam said softly, but just the thought of being clean for a while was enough to make him smile.
“It’s no problem,” Wally said as he took the clothes that Liam pulled from his pack. “And if they don’t survive, we can help you get new ones, so don’t worry.”
Liam nodded and stared at the other man. “Why are you doing this? Why are you helping me?”
Liam saw Wally’s eyes widen. “Hasn’t anyone ever helped you before?” Liam shook his head, and Wally tutted lightly. “Well, we’re helping because it’s the right thing to do. Now, why don’t you get in bed and sleep? No one will get you up in the morning, so come on out when you wake up, and we’ll get you fed.” Wally smiled before he left. Liam noticed that Wally did not say anything about a job, but Liam decided not to give up hope, and if Wally and Dakota asked him to leave in the morning, then he’d go. But at least for tonight, he’d sleep in a real bed like a real person rather than the trash that everyone seemed to kick out of their lives. Pulling back the covers, Liam turned off the light before climbing into the comfortable bed and closing his eyes. The shower, the food, and the comfort all worked on him to the point where he almost instantly fell asleep.
LIGHT streaming through the windows woke him, and Liam stretched, cracking his eyes open, and for a few moments he tried to remember where he was and why he wasn’t sleeping outside and shivering. Then he remembered, and he didn’t want to get out of the bed, but his bladder called to him, as did his stomach. Getting up, Liam walked across the hall to the bathroom, where he took care of business before following the scent of food through the house and into the kitchen. “Good morning,” a strange man said, and Liam looked around for Wally or Dakota. “Don’t worry. Wally and Dakota are out riding together. They probably won’t be back until the end of the day. I’m Phillip, Wally’s best friend. Come on in and sit down. I’ve got some lunch ready for you.”
“Lunch?” Liam asked, looking around for a clock.
“Yeah, it’s after one,” Phillip told him with a grin before putting a plate in front of him. “You must have been tired.”
Liam watched as Phillip returned to the sink, cleaning up the dishes. “Do you work here?” he asked between ravenous bites.
“My partner, Haven, owns the ranch with Dakota and Wally,” Phillip explained, and Liam nearly dropped his fork. “And before you ask, no, not everyone on the ranch is gay. Just most of us.” Phillip laughed softly.
“Is that okay with everyone? I mean, in the town.”
Phillip shrugged. “Some people have a problem with us, but we help our neighbors when they need it. I think people have come to see that we’re like them. As Wally says, it’s hard to hate someone when you know them.”
Liam shook his head. In his experience, what Phillip was telling him was hard to believe, but he knew Phillip wasn’t lying.
“Finish your lunch. Wally and Dakota said that if you’d stick around, they would like to talk to you when they get home.” Phillip finished the dishes and wiped his hands. “I’ll be right back.” Phillip left the room, and Liam stared, his heart jumping at the thought that they might offer him a job. He tried not to get his hopes up, but it was hard.
The front door opened and then the screen banged shut, making Liam jump. “Where’s Phillip?” a strange man asked him in a hurried tone. Before Liam could answer, Phillip returned, pushing a man in a wheelchair.
“What’s wrong, Haven?”
“I just got a call from the sheriff. We have cattle all over the road near the west range. Looks like something spooked part of the herd, and they trampled the fence.”
Liam forgot about the food. “Are they still on the move?” The man stared at him as Liam’s instincts took over.
“Not sure. I need to get out there.”
“I can help,” Liam volunteered, and he saw the man look at Phillip with a perplexed look.
“Come on, then. Phillip, call Wally and Dakota and have them find us. Dakota knows where we’ll be.” The man turned to Liam. “Let’s go. We’ll grab the rest of the men.”
Liam followed the man outside to a large shed across from the barn where a number of ATVs were parked, ready for use. The man motioned toward one, and Liam pulled on the helmet before starting it up. Others approached, and soon there was a chorus of throaty engines zooming out of the drive and down the road. Liam followed where the others went. He had no idea who any of these men were, other than Mario, who’d jumped onto one of the machines, but that didn’t matter, at least not right now.
Liam’s heart pounded a mile a minute as they got farther from the house, and eventually he could see the flattened trail where the cattle had spooked. They followed it, veering to both sides until they came across part of the herd, and they slowed down, letting their engines idle. “Damn it!” the man from the house swore. “It’s going to take us all day to get the stupid animals back.”
“Not if we can get around them. If we start at the far end, we can probably drive the herd back onto itself and pick up most of them. Then we’ll just need to round up the stragglers,” Liam offered, and the other men looked at him, some of them nodding.
“Well, then, let’s do it,” Haven called before issuing instructions, and they took off in different directions, surrounding the herd, and the beasts began to move back the way they’d come. As they approached the downed fence, Liam saw two men on horseback riding toward them. They approached Haven, the three of them talking as they continued driving the cattle back toward the range. Looking toward the others, Liam saw Haven pointing at him as he talked to the men on horseback, who he now recognized as Wally and Dakota. Liam kept his attention on his task, helping to keep the cattle moving in the right direction.
Once they were in the range, some of the men zoomed away after the stragglers, and Liam looked around for some sort of instruction. “Can you fix fences?” he heard Haven yell over to him, and Liam nodded. He could do just about anything on a ranch. Haven motioned for him to follow, and they rode back toward the break before turning off the engines.
A number of the posts had been trampled and bent. “Looks like it’s shot and everything will need to be replaced,” Liam commented as he surveyed the damage.
“Afraid you’re right. Dakota and Wally rode back to the ranch to get supplies. I’m Haven, by the way.” He took off his gloves and extended his hand. “Dakota said you needed a job. We have one if you want it, but I have to warn you, the job’s kind of different. You’ll help out on the ranch, but most of the time, you’ll be working with Wally. He’s the local vet and a sucker for any animal that needs help.”
Liam was confused. “I know all about critters, been around them all my life, but I don’t know anything about being a vet.”
Haven laughed. “Wally will show you what you need to know.”
Liam wasn’t quite sure what he was getting himself into, but he needed a job bad, and this place seemed like what he needed. “I’ll do my best.”
“I know you will,” Haven said with a curious smile that Liam couldn’t read, and Haven must have read his expression because he continued. “I know what you’ve been feeling because I was in a similar position.”
“How can you possibly know?” Liam asked defiantly, narrowing his eyes. “I’ve been through things I can’t begin to talk about, and you meet me for a few hours and know what I’m feeling?” Liam’s gut tightened, and he cringed inwardly. Haven had just offered him a job on a ranch with other gay people, and he was yelling at the man.
“I know, Liam. My father hated Dakota’s father and Dakota. Simply put, my father hated them and he would have hated me for being gay. But he died before I told him. I know what it’s like to be beaten down to the point where you’d rather lay down and die than go on. I think at some point, most everyone on the ranch did.”
Liam felt his emotions bubble to the surface, and he turned away so Haven wouldn’t see his vulnerability. He’d learned early on from his father that any weakness would be exploited. Haven touched his shoulder lightly. “I won’t ask what happened to you. Not because I don’t care. There are plenty of people, including myself, who’ll listen when you’re ready.” Liam felt Haven’s fingers tighten slightly before his hand slipped away.
“Thank you,” Liam said softly, not trusting his voice not to betray how he was feeling. He could hardly believe he’d gone from basically lying on the side of the road, waiting to die, to finding a job at a place where he just might be accepted for who he was. Liam had spent his life hiding who he was—deeply hiding—and the few times he’d ever taken a chance, he’d gotten grief piled on top of misery for it.
“Let’s get this fencing cleaned up so when Wally and Dakota get here with the supplies we can get this repaired as soon as possible.” Almost before Haven had finished speaking, a truck rumbled down the road, stopping near where they stood. Haven started to unload the truck, and Liam, grateful to have something to do, began helping as well. Haven handed him a pair of wire cutters, and he started cutting the broken wire from the posts, gathering it into a bundle he could carry. Then he worked the bent posts out of their holes, adding those to the pile of scrap. By the time he was done, the new posts had been set close to where they were going to go, and Dakota and Haven had already begun digging the holes. With the four of them, they had the posts in place and were ready to patch the hole as some of the other hands drove the stragglers back through the break.
“Have you got them all?” Dakota asked a dust-covered Mario once he throttled down the ATV he was riding.
“There are still a few we need to find, and the guys are rounding them up. Since they’re closer, they’ll move them into the range area nearest them so you can close the hole.” Mario turned around and gunned his engine, zipping across the land as the four of them ran and attached the barbed wire to the fence posts.
“Looks like you had an exciting day,” Wally said once they were done. “Did Haven speak with you about a job?” he asked, and Liam nodded, smiling even as he wondered just what kind of job he was being offered. “Good. Let’s get back to the house, and we can go over your daily chores.” Wally’s phone rang and he fished it out of his pocket, taking the call before hanging up. “Looks like that will need to wait. Dakota, I need to ride back to the ranch.” They threw the tools in the back of the truck, and within minutes, the truck was bounding away.
“Wally’s a vet,” Haven explained as he looked over their work before climbing onto his ATV. “You get used to the calls.”
“Dakota said he was a doctor,” Liam commented quietly.
“Dakota’s finishing his residency, so he’s still gone quite a bit of the time. I believe he’s only home for the weekend, and then we won’t see him for almost another month.” Haven walked toward his ATV, and Liam followed. They rode back to the house together, parking their ATVs in the equipment shed. “Go on inside. You’ve had a rough few days, and Wally will kill me if I work you to death on your first day.” Haven hurried toward the barn, and Liam looked around him, his head still spinning at the turn of his luck.
Inside the house, everything appeared quiet. The man he’d seen earlier in the wheelchair was in the living room, asleep in his chair. “Young man.” Liam guessed he wasn’t as asleep as he appeared. “Are you Liam?” His voice was slurred, but Liam could understand him.
“Yes, sir,” Liam answered.
“I’m Jefferson, Dakota’s daddy. He told me about you before he left this morning.” A woman in a nurse’s uniform came into the room.
“I have your bed changed and ready for you. Do you want to stay here or go back to bed?”
Jefferson’s head lolled to the side. “Why would I want to go back to bed? I can sleep when I’m dead.”
Liam stifled a laugh as the nurse rolled her eyes. “That’s fine, you old coot,” she teased affectionately. “Then I’m going to get the rest of my work done. If you get tired, have this young man come get me.” She left the room, and Liam sat on the sofa next to Jefferson, wondering what he should be doing. It didn’t feel right to be just sitting around.
“It’s hell getting old, young man,” Jefferson said with a sigh.
“Is there anything I can get for you?”
“A beer,” Jefferson answered, and Liam was about to get up when Wally came in the house.
“You know that alcohol messes with your medication,” Wally scolded lightly, and Liam could tell Wally had a great deal of affection for Jefferson. “Did you meet Liam? He’s going to be working here.”
“Yes,” Jefferson answered, and Liam saw the older man’s eyes begin to close. Not wanting to wake him, Liam followed Wally out of the room and eventually out the back door.
“What is that?” Liam asked, pointing toward what appeared to be fenced cages at the back of the property.
“Those are your new job,” Wally answered mischievously. “Would you like to meet them? We have a large-animal rescue,” Wally went on to explain. “What I need you to do is help take care of these guys.” Wally started walking across the grass, and as they approached the cages, Liam blinked a few times.
“Is that a lion?” Liam could hardly believe his eyes.
Wally laughed softly. “We have three lions and four tigers right now. I try to find permanent homes for them with zoos and animal parks, but some of these guys are so old, no one wants them.” Wally stepped close to one of the doors and watched as a large male lion with an impressive mane loped over to him, yawning. “This is Manny. He’s getting quite old, but don’t let him fool you or think he’s a pet, because he’s a wild animal, and unpredictable. The first lion I got was Schian, and he loved to have his belly scratched. He was the only one I ever trusted enough to be in the cage with, and even then I was always wary. He died a little over a year ago.” Liam saw the loss momentarily in Wally’s expression, and he couldn’t help wondering what a full-grown lion looked and sounded like when he had his belly scratched.
“What do you want me to do with them?” Liam took a step back from the cage as Manny let out a roar that echoed over the land before settling back down onto the ground. “You must think I’m crazy.”
Wally chuckled again. “You need to be wary and careful, but never afraid. Manny is just reminding himself that he’s a big boy. He thinks all these cats are part of his pride and that he’s the head honcho.” Wally moved to the next cage. “There are four enclosures in each group, with a shared exercise area. All you need to do is open the gate in the cage, and they’ll amble out when they’re ready. I try to give each one a chance in the yard every day.” Wally stopped at an enclosure with the most beautiful cat Liam had ever seen.
“Wow,” Liam mouthed.
“She’s impressive, isn’t she? That’s Shahrazad. She’s a Bengal tiger. She’s also the biggest bitch I’ve ever had. Don’t get too close to the enclosure under any circumstances,” Wally warned.
Liam had no intention of getting anywhere near her. “Then how do you feed her?” Liam asked tentatively, and Wally opened a chute in the back of the cage. “The food goes in here and the water here.” Wally showed him what he needed to do. “Once every few days, we enclose each animal in the common area and clean its cage.” Wally stopped talking and looked at Liam appraisingly. “Do you think you can do this? It requires vigilance and patience.”
Liam nodded slowly. “I never thought I’d be taking care of lions and tigers.”
“There’s more,” Wally explained, and he began to lead him away. By the time Wally had told him all about the care of big cats and the other exotic animals he had, Liam’s head was spinning. “I know this is a lot, so we’ll work together for a while. I’m not expecting you to do this alone, but I get called away, and I don’t want to worry about their care.”
“I can do it,” Liam answered with more confidence than he felt. If it meant food and a roof over his head, Liam could do just about anything. Manny roared again, making Liam jump slightly, and then all the other cats began growling, and Liam saw many of them pacing their cages. “What’s wrong?”
“I don’t know. They sense something. Look at the way their ears are down and their hair stands on edge. Something has them all a bit spooked.” Wally began looking around; Liam did as well.
“There’s smoke,” Liam said, pointing up into the hills surrounding the ranch. “The wind must be carrying the scent this way. It doesn’t look like the forest is on fire.”
“No, but that’s still a lot of smoke, and as dry as it’s been, that fire could spread and take out the entire ranch and half the valley.” Wally was already hurrying back toward the house.
“What are you going to do?’ Liam asked as he followed behind, and Wally stopped, like he hadn’t thought that far ahead. “Like I said, I don’t think the forest is on fire—the smoke isn’t moving or spreading. If you tell me the way, I could try to go up there and see what’s up,” Liam offered. He didn’t want to sit around doing nothing when he could be of help.
“There’s not much up there. I think Dakota told me once that there was a track up there at the end of the road on the west edge of the ranch, but I’ve never been up there.” Wally turned and looked at the smoke again, worry plain on his face.
“Is it okay if I take one of the ATVs? I can ride out there and see what’s going on. It shouldn’t take very long,” Liam offered, and Wally nodded absently. There wasn’t any reason to assume it was anything other than someone camping up there, although it seemed to Liam that there was too much smoke for just a campfire.
“Go on, but be careful,” Wally cautioned, still looking worried.
Liam hurried to the equipment shed and hopped on the ATV he’d used before, grateful that he was doing something that didn’t involve animals that could rip him apart. He started the engine and pulled out of the shed, traveling along the road in front of the ranch before turning down a dirt road at the end of the range that went back toward the hills. The warm, dry air ruffled his hair as he opened the throttle until the road appeared to end at a path just wide enough to allow the ATV to pass. Liam slowed and began to climb steadily up the hillside. Through breaks in the overgrowth, Liam could occasionally see the plume of smoke getting closer and closer.
Liam drove carefully, mindful of washouts and limbs across the path. A few times, he had to move limbs before he could pass, and as the trail got thinner, Liam began to wonder how he’d turn around if he couldn’t go any further. Then the trail dumped him onto what looked like a two-track that appeared to have been used recently, and Liam turned. He hadn’t gone far before he began to smell the odor of something unpleasant burning. Liam wrinkled his nose as he continued up the path, the scent becoming more pervasive and strong enough that his eyes began to water and his nose to run. What in the hell could be burning?
Finally, Liam rode to the edge of a clearing where he saw a large fire burning in a pit, the smell making him gag, and he tried his best not to throw up. Of course, he forgot all about that when he saw a man approach him, a rifle leveled at his chest. Liam didn’t know what to say and sat totally still as he watched the man walk toward him. “What are you doing here?”
“I… we saw the fire, and it was dry, so I was just checking it out,” Liam answered nervously and watched as the gun wavered for a second before slowly lowering.
“You’ve done that, so now I suggest you leave.”
Relieved that the man was no longer pointing a gun at him, Liam looked at him and felt his mouth drop open. He removed his helmet to get a better look. Beneath the rough clothing and hard eyes was the most beautiful man Liam had ever laid eyes on.