Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength; loving someone deeply gives you courage.
HATE, bigotry, prejudice, injustice, stupidity—all things Conner had encountered throughout his life, and he’d fought against them all. Had he changed them? No, but he’d risen above them and made a damn good life for himself and John. Inoperable cancer wasn’t something he could fight or rise above. He was going to lose what he’d fought so hard to obtain. He was losing his heart.
Careful of the multiple tubes and wires attached to John, Conner eased silently into the hospital bed and laid his head gently on the thick chest he’d used as a pillow nearly every night for the last thirty-seven years. The rise and fall of John’s chest and the steady thump-thump of his heart comforted Conner. Over the last week, Conner had gotten used to the constant beeping of heart machines, the hourly interruptions from doctors and staff, and the smell of disinfectant. Hell, he’d even gotten used to the shitty food in the cafeteria. What he couldn’t get used to, refused to get used to, was sleeping on the lumpy cot a nurse had brought into the small, sterile room. He just couldn’t sleep next to John’s bed, hear the soft snuffling snores, the rhythmic intake of breath, and not be able to touch him. It was too much to endure.
Why? Why are you taking him from me? Tears blurred Conner’s vision, and he squeezed his eyes shut to prevent them from falling onto the beloved chest below his head. “You don’t think I have endured enough?” Conner whispered.
Wasn’t it enough that he’d been born into a screwed-up family? He’d been the first offspring to a woman who hated children yet kept having them to increase her welfare check each month. Seven times his mother’s income had increased. His most vivid childhood memories were a steady parade of nameless men who came in and out of their home, left unattended with vulnerable children, which resulted in both Conner and his siblings being abused, both violently and sexually. At seventeen, he was kicked out of the house and disowned, because while child abuse was acceptable there, being gay was not.
Every challenge life had thrown at him, he’d endured it, survived it, and refused to let it define him. He hadn’t allowed those who had knocked him down to keep him down. More importantly, he hadn’t let them turn him bitter. Never once had he stooped to their level, but instead rose above them, living a good life and treating others with care and thoughtfulness. Nearly half his life had been a struggle, one obstacle after another thrown in his path, but he found a way around them, over them, or through them.
How am I going to get past this one?
Maybe the doctors are wrong. Conner ran a hand tenderly down John’s chest, his heat warm and familiar against Conner’s palm. The steady heartbeat was strong, the even breath didn’t sound like a man who was dying. Dying. Conner’s stomach rolled, nausea threatening as his chest constricted painfully around his heart, as the word flashed into his thoughts. He couldn’t be dying.
“I won’t let you,” he whispered, turning his head to plant a soft kiss on John’s chest.
Conner snuggled in closer to his strong, warm lover as a new conviction settled into his soul. The doctors were wrong. Misdiagnosis wasn’t a rarity. It happened all the time. And even when the diagnosis wasn’t wrong, there were those who beat the odds. Medical miracles, they were called. John would be a medical miracle! Conner wouldn’t accept anything less. He hadn’t fought his whole life only to be left alone in his golden years. This was a time for him and John to retire. Travel to all the places they had dreamed of going and explore all the things they wanted to see. The Eiffel Tower in France, men in kilts in Scotland, and a romantic ride on a gondola in Italy. He was going to those places, dammit, and John would be by his side.
A smile, which had been absent for the last week since hearing the term inoperable cancer, curled Conner’s lips. “I love you, John Price, and God be damned, you won’t leave me! We are going to have such an amazing time traveling the world together.”
To the higher powers that may be, he shot a silent challenge. You can’t have him! He’s mine, and you’ll have to go through me to take him. Conner drifted off to sleep, not the least bit afraid that he may have pissed off the man upstairs. He was safe and warm in the knowledge that he would move heaven and hell to save his man, even if he had to go toe-to-toe with God himself.
Thirty-seven years earlier
Conner cocked his hip and put a hand on it, stuck out his chest, and met the gaze of the owner of Whispering Pines Ranch with a challenging look. “I said I’m your new cook.” He thrust the flyer he’d ripped down from the gas station wall at the large man looking down at him. “You need a cook, and I need a job. Looks like both our problems are solved.”
The cowboy ran an appraising eye down Conner from his head to his cowboy boots. Conner didn’t so much as flinch at the shock in the dark-blue eyes of the ranch owner. He was used to people looking at his small, delicate frame and assuming one of two things. One: that he was much younger than his twenty-nine years, which didn’t bother him at all. Since who wanted to look their age or, God forbid, older? The young’un effect was heightened by the fact that he couldn’t grow facial hair to save his life. Or two, that he wasn’t capable of hard work. Neither were true, especially the latter. He was proud of his abilities in the kitchen and wasn’t afraid to bust his ass and get the job done. And done damn well, I might add. There was a third look he was used to as well: disgust. However, he didn’t even give that reaction a second thought anymore.
“Um… yeah…. Got a name, kid?”
Assumption number one… check. “First of all, I’m not a kid. I’ll be the big three-oh on my next birthday,” Conner said with a snicker, and held out his hand. “And the name’s Conner. Conner Burnett.”
“Cole Taylor,” the man replied, accepting Conner’s hand in a firm grip and shaking it. “You sure don’t look like you’re gonna be thirty.”
“Good genes,” Conner replied with a shrug. About the only good thing his parents had given him. Well, his sexy butt and handsome face were probably due partly to his genes as well since he was naturally thin and, other than his nightly ritual of slathering cold cream on his face, didn’t fuss too much with his looks. I’m legitimately sexy.
Cole tipped his hat back and wiped a meaty paw across his brow before settling his black Stetson firmly on his blond head. “I got eight regular hands, plus me and the wife, twice that many during hay season. You think you can handle cooking for that many hungry folks?”
Assumption number two… check. “I’m the oldest of seven kids, and my mama sure as hell never learned to cook. I’ve worked as a line cook in different diners all over this great country. I’m pretty sure I can handle your folks.” Conner waved a hand at Cole. “I bet I could add some weight to your scrawny butt in no time.”
Cole threw his head back and laughed. “Scrawny? I haven’t been called scrawny since I was a kid.”
“Yeah, well, you’ve got yourself a big frame, I’ll give you that, but you need more meat on your bones.”
Cole Taylor was a large man, a large and very sexy man with his dark-blue eyes, dishwater blond hair, and thick stubble on his strong jaw. But he could still use a few pounds added to that bulk of muscle. A bit more of a belly, a thicker chest, and he may just be close to perfect. Especially if that barrel chest and belly are covered in a dark pelt. Yum! Heat started to infuse his groin area, and he reminded his hardening shaft that Cole Taylor had a wife, they needed this job, and he’d rightly appreciate it if things didn’t start growing until later when they had a little alone time.
The answer to his silent pleading was a tingling sensation that ran down his shaft as it began to swell. Stubborn bastard!
“C’mon in,” Cole said, shaking his head and jabbing a thumb over his shoulder to the back door. “I’ll show you the kitchen.”
Conner followed Cole into the house, taking a relieved breath when he didn’t see any of the disgust in Cole’s eyes. Two out of three he could handle.
“Take your boots off,” Cole said with slight embarrassment in his voice as pulled off his boots. “Sorry. Cindy—that’s my wife—doesn’t like boots on in the house. There’s a basket in the corner filled with slippers.” He pointed to a large wicker basket filled with what looked like various shapes, colors, and sizes of slippers. All of them looked brand new.
Conner turned a questioning look toward Cole as he toed off his own boots.
“Yeah, I know,” Cole said with a shrug. “My city girl has a few strange ideas, but she means well.”
Eyeing the basket, Conner pulled out the smallest pair, bright yellow with fur lining, and slipped them on his feet. It was his turn to shrug at Cole’s questioning look. “I think it’s sweet.”
The kitchen was bright and airy; delicate lace curtains waved with the warm breeze coming through the small kitchen window. Conner’s bright yellow slippers were obviously a favorite color of the owner since the sunny color was predominant in the flower-patterned wallpaper. The aroma in the spotless room was also in theme with the décor; a lemony, citrus scent hung pleasingly in the air. Picking up a lemon-shaped dish filled with a yellow sponge, Conner said, “I take it your Cindy likes the color yellow?”
“Yup, and trust me when I tell you, the color matches her happy personality too,” Cole responded with a real fondness in his voice.
South of Conner’s waistband was disappointed, but it was nice to know that Cole obviously had a soft spot and cared deeply for his wife. Conner returned the ceramic lemon to its spot at the sink and turned to face Cole, leaning back against the Formica countertop. “So what room is mine, and is there anything special you want on the menu tonight?”
“You’re a pushy little shit, aren’t you?”
“Not really,” Conner said easily. “You need a cook and I’m a damn good cook, just that simple.”
Cole pulled his Stetson from his head and ran a hand through his hair, making his short blond locks stick up in a spiky mess around his head. “You got a point. What can you cook?”
“Easier question would be what can’t I cook,” Conner snickered. He turned and started opening cabinet doors, familiarizing himself with the layout. Oh now that’s a surprise. The plates, mugs, and bowls all had the same yellow coloring as the rest of the kitchen. Cindy may have had a preference for everything yellow, but she obviously hadn’t ever heard the expression “Less is more.” He opened the door to a large, very nicely stocked pantry, nodding his approval at how clean and organized the kitchen was. “You just tell me what you want to eat and I’ll make it happen. I’ll need authorization to make purchases on your account down at the market. I don’t have time to be coming and looking for you when I need supplies.”
“And I’ll need access to a vehicle to do the shopping. My old truck is on its last leg, and besides, it’s your groceries, so your gas.”
“I usually have them deliver whatever it is we need,” Cole said.
Conner shut the pantry door and pulled open drawers, checking the contents of each one. “No offense, but I’d rather get my own meats and veggies, so I’ll do my own shopping. Either you can give me the keys to your truck, or you can take me into town each time I need to go. Don’t make no never mind to me either way.”
“I guess you can take the old Chevy. The keys are hanging on the hook by the back door.”
Conner didn’t turn around, just nodded and opened first the freezer, then the refrigerator. Looks like I’ll be making a run to the market today. The old Frigidaire, unlike the pantry, wasn’t well stocked and was seriously lacking in the fresh vegetable department.
Southwestern chili con carne. Conner started searching the fridge, making a mental list of what he’d need. Green bell pepper, red onion, Roma tomatoes, cloves of garlic, and ground chuck. Shutting the fridge, he turned and met Cole’s curious gaze. “Okay, you can show me my room, and don’t even think about putting me in a bunkhouse with the rest of the hands. They’d skin me alive, waking them up early each morning before breakfast was cooked. Not to mention, we’re having chili tonight, and I’d rather not be around for the aftershocks of that.”
Cole’s eyes were wide, and his mouth open and shut a couple of times before he seemed to resign himself to the idea. “We don’t have a bunkhouse, but um….” Cole scratched at his temple, looking at Conner, head cocked to the side. A small smile curled his lip, and then he stretched his arm out. “Right this way.”
The room Cole assigned him was simple. Hardwood floors, whitewashed walls with white sheets and comforter. It lacked color, but it was clean, large, and had potential. After retrieving his pack from the front porch, Conner unpacked his meager belongings into the oak dresser. He stepped into the small private bathroom and washed his face and hands. As he dried his face with a soft terry cloth towel, he winked at his reflection in the large vanity mirror. “Well done, no sleeping beneath the stars tonight.”
Normally Conner wasn’t a coward. He’d stood up to haters in the past, but he’d despised the last town, couldn’t stand his job at the diner, and had been completely dispirited with his life in Hickville. It had been time to move on. Sometimes it was better to turn and walk away—or in this case, run away—rather than stand up to stupid people. He’d learned at a young age that using smarts, picking battles that were worth fighting, kept him from fighting on a daily basis. The shithole he’d been living in sure as hell hadn’t been worth fighting for.
Coming on to the wrong cowboy, in the wrong town, at the wrong time, had nearly cost him his life. His ability to read people was usually dead on, but whether it was because he’d had a couple of shots of tequila or that he hadn’t been laid in months and was out-of-his-fucking-head horny, or both, his gaydar had been on the fritz. However, later when he’d thought about it, he knew the cowboy had been hot for him. Who wouldn’t be? It wasn’t until his new conquest’s friends showed up that the man turned into a complete asshole. It was the day and age of free love, peace, flowers for your picnic, and all that shit. The folks in Homophobiaville, Oklahoma, obviously hadn’t gotten the memo, and he’d barely been able to grab a few clothes, shove them into a pack, and book it out of town before the lynch mob surrounded his little house. Well, mob might be stretching it a bit, but a large, burly cowboy who was trying to save face in front of his buddies and said buddies loading up in their pickup truck and showing up in his driveway were just as bad as a lynch mob. No doubt if he hadn’t snuck out the back door as the yahoos were hootin’ and hollerin’ about “killing the faggot” on the front lawn, the results would have been the same: his ass beat to a bloody pulp and hanging from the nearest tree.
Besides, I’m all about sex and loving rather than fighting, he thought wryly as he sat down on the bed, bouncing a few times to appreciate its softness. Very nice!
Whispering Pines Ranch seemed like a nice place. The house was clean and well cared for, the owner seemed nice enough, and the idea of living and working on a ranch rather than working at a greasy spoon and living in a shit hole was a whole lot more appealing. Now if I can keep my eyes and hands off the ranch hands, I should be okay until I’m ready to move on down the road. He hadn’t ever stayed anywhere for any great length of time, a year, maybe two at the most. Conner viewed himself as like the Lynyrd Skynyrd song, “I’m as free as a bird.” He liked traveling, meeting new people, experiencing new things. Ranch life was just another adventure he was looking forward to enjoying for a while. Besides, how hard can it be to keep my libido in check? It’s not as if I don’t have a shitload of lotion and a more-than-able hand.
Smoothing out his jeans as he stood, Conner surveyed the room that would be his sanctuary from the elements, at least for now. It was nice enough, and he could set aside his desires for the time being. When he got tired of ranch life, he’d move on down the road. Hopefully he’d get laid before then.