Chapter One

Texas, 1890


CARLOS HERNANDEZ stood in the center of Bent Oak Ranch’s largest paddock, with a dappled gray yearling on the end of a long lead rope. Little vegetation grew in the enclosure due to the steady stamp of horse hooves and cowboy boots, and dust settled on Carlos’s boots as he turned in slow circles while the horse galloped around the perimeter of the wood rail fence with a saddle on her back. The September sun was bright and still hot, making both Carlos and the yearling sweat, but the Texas summer heat was receding, and the nights were getting cooler at last.

Carlos’s responsibilities had increased since Gil Porter, the owner of Bent Oak, decided to move away from raising cattle and toward breeding horses. His experience in working with horses had gotten him a job at the ranch, and his hard work and dedication had gotten him put in charge of breeding and training. He had plenty to do to keep him busy, and he ended each day tired but proud of his part in helping Bent Oak succeed. But of late, he yearned for something more.

Gil and Matt Grayson, the ranch foreman and Gil’s lover, had found a way to be together discreetly even here on the ranch, surrounded by other people. Matt had moved out of the foreman’s house and into the big house after his sister Jeanie got married and moved into town. Gil claimed he found it more convenient to have his foreman under the same roof, and no one had questioned him. Now they lived together, happy and in love, and Carlos found himself longing for what they had.

He was lonely. But he wanted more than a warm body to share his bed. He wanted to share his life with someone. He wanted the closeness and connection that Gil and Matt shared. He wanted the love and passion he had known—and foolishly thrown away—once before.

“That filly has a pretty gait,” a voice called out from the fence line, and Carlos glanced over to see Matt tying his own horse, Wendigo, to the railing. Matt was a big, sturdy man, with dark brown hair and hazel eyes, and he leaned on a wooden crossbar, regarding Carlos with a raised eyebrow. “Too pretty for you to be looking like someone done rained on your picnic.”

Carlos gradually brought the yearling to a stop and let her rest while he went to talk to Matt.

“I believe she will be one of our best,” he said, ignoring Matt’s observation about his mood. “We might want to keep her.”

Matt nodded and grinned, but he didn’t take his eyes from Carlos’s face. “I trust your instincts when it comes to horses, so if you say we keep her, that’s what we’ll do. I’m sure the fact that she’s named after your boss ain’t got nothing to do with it.”

In fact, the filly’s name was Gilla, and Gil Porter had assisted with her birth, an event that had helped the Boston-born-and-raised man develop a bond with the ranch.

Carlos tried to remain objective and fair when it came to judging the horses, but he had to admit he didn’t always succeed. He had a soft spot for Gilla, and he knew Gil did too, so he was inclined to look for reasons to keep her at Bent Oak.

“Not a thing. I am always impartial,” he said, although a quirk of his lips gave away his teasing.

“Uh-huh.” Matt’s eyes crinkled at the corners, but then his expression turned more serious. “That’s a little better, but I still miss seeing you smile. Seems like you don’t think you got too much to smile about lately, and I’m getting worried you’re thinking about moving on. I wouldn’t like that, and neither would Gil. So… you gonna talk to me about what’s wrong? I was your friend long before I was foreman of this place. I hope you know you can tell me anything.”

“I am not going to leave Bent Oak,” Carlos said, reaching out to stroke Wendigo’s velvety nose. “I like my job and the ranch. I have no desire to leave when I can work solely with horses as I have always wanted to do.”

There was no mistaking the relief on Matt’s face, and he nodded. “I’m glad to hear it. I want you to feel like your home is here at Bent Oak, and not just because there ain’t no one better with horses than you. Not because we were once lovers, neither. You belong here, just as much as me or Gil or the horses. And me and Gil both want you to be happy.”

“You need not concern yourself about me,” Carlos said. Gilla walked up behind him and nudged his shoulder with her nose, and he pivoted so he could give her the attention she wanted. Gilla had been doted on by Matt, Gil, and José—her dam’s owner—since birth, and she was accustomed to being petted and spoiled. “My wandering days are behind me. Bent Oak is my home, and I am happy here.”

“You may be content enough, but you ain’t happy.” Matt’s tone was certain, and he did know Carlos better than anyone else. “I’ve seen that new hand, Caleb, making eyes at you when he thinks I ain’t looking. Just in case you ain’t noticed it for yourself. Time was that a handsome man casting his eye your way would’ve put a spring in your step and a gleam in your eye.”

Carlos stroked Gilla’s neck as he considered how to respond. He’d noticed Caleb, of course. How could he not when Caleb’s golden curls and big blue eyes reminded him of the only man who had ever captured his heart? But he’d also recognized Caleb’s immaturity. Caleb was much like Gilla: accustomed to getting attention whenever he wanted it. Carlos didn’t doubt that Caleb thought he could get any man he wanted thanks to his pretty face, mainly because Carlos had once been the same way himself.

“I see too much of my younger self in Caleb,” he said at last. “We would not suit.”

Matt’s gaze sharpened, but he only nodded in response. “Well then, if you’re at loose ends this evening, what do you think of coming into Mercy with me and Gil? There’s that reception for the new schoolmaster tonight. I know you don’t get off the ranch much, so this might be a good time to look at what else is on offer, so to speak. There ain’t been nothing big in town since Fourth of July, so I’m thinking there’ll be a lot of people there.”

Carlos doubted there were any more men who shared his preferences in town than there were the last time he went, but he liked the idea of seeing something different for a few hours. He never felt closed in thanks to the rolling plains that stretched out to the horizon, but the flatness of the land also meant the scenery stayed pretty much the same.

“Very well,” he said, inclining his head slightly. “What time should I be ready?”

“Gil and I are taking the carriage, and we’ll be leaving about four,” Matt replied. He reached out, put a hand on Carlos’s shoulder, and gave it a squeeze. “If you don’t see no one to your liking, we can go have a few drinks after the tea and cake stuff is over, if you’d like. Gil won’t mind. Hell, he’d probably want to come along.”

Gil had arrived at Bent Oak as a stuffy Boston socialite who preferred the parlor to the stables. But Bent Oak had liberated Gil from the shackles placed on him by his dictatorial father and by Boston society, and now he was more likely to be outside in jeans and a chambray work shirt like the rest of the hands, far more comfortable in his own skin here than he ever had been in Boston.

“He probably would,” Carlos said, chuckling.

Matt nodded, releasing Carlos’s shoulder with another squeeze. “All right, then,” he said, unwrapping Wendigo’s reins from the rail. He stepped back, then swung up into the saddle with the ease of a natural-born horseman. “Wear something pretty,” he added and then grinned wickedly as he turned Wendigo in the direction of the stables.

Carlos unfastened the lead rope and grasped Gilla’s bridle. She’d had enough saddle training for one day, and Carlos needed to wash off the scent of horses and sweat before going into town. He didn’t expect the reception to be all that interesting, especially since he didn’t have school-age children, but at least he would get the chance to socialize with people he didn’t see often. That alone would make the trip worthwhile.

And if the new schoolmaster was a handsome man who shared Carlos’s preferences, so much the better. Carlos shook his head and smiled at his own foolishness. The schoolmaster was far more likely to be an absentminded scholar with soft hands and a round little wife. But, Carlos thought as he led Gilla to the stables, a man could dream.