Prologue

 

STONEY DIDN’T know about this whole “bring a blind man to the stables” thing, but Ford said this guy needed to see a horse, and he’d be damned if he was going to let someone else be in charge of that.

If someone was fixin’ to get into big trouble, it might as well be him.

He stroked Copper’s face, the big old gelding the most easygoing of them all. “You’d best be nice, old man. This guy’s like some Santa Fe artist that makes my Ford about stupid with joy.”

Copper bobbed his head as if nodding, blowing those big lips at him. Yeah, Copper knew his job.

He heard the scrape of Ford’s boots on the gravel outside the barn. “Here we go, bud.”

A tall, buff blond with dark glasses and a great smile appeared in the doorway, holding on to a lovely Native American guy. Pretty.

“Hey, y’all. I’m Stoney River, Ford’s husband.”

“Pleased. This is Bleu Bridey. I’m Dan Klah.” The bolo tie of silver and enormous turquoise spoke of relative wealth, and the guy had Navajo written all over him, from the raven wing hair to the cheekbones you could ski off.

“Pleased, y’all. So, you want to learn about horses.”

“I need to see one. Touch one. I can hear it breathing,” Bleu said.

“Him.”

“What?”

Stoney grinned. “Copper’s a him. He’s a nine-year-old gelding. He loves to meet people.”

“Oh.” Bleu’s cheeks went pink. “Right.”

“Here, take my hand and I’ll ease you in.” He held Copper by the halter firmly while reaching out for Bleu.

Dan put Bleu’s hand in his, so Stoney waited for the feller to step close.

“This is a little unnerving,” Bleu admitted.

“Sure it is, because he’s a big old thing, but he’s gentle. He’s a good boy.” And the guy needed to chill, because Copper knew he was okay.

“Okay.” Bleu put his hand where Stoney directed it, right on Copper’s nose. “So soft!”

“I’m going to lead your hand at first, just so you don’t get his eyes.”

“Thanks. I don’t want to hurt him.”

His level of respect jumped up. “I appreciate that.”

“He sounds impatient. That’s his hooves on the floor, right?”

Stoney laughed. “He’s just shifting his weight. If he was impatient, he’d be swishing his tail or nibbling you.”

He showed Bleu the heavy cheeks, the way that Copper’s head flattened out over his forehead, the little swirl of hair at Copper’s forelock.

Copper took it all for long moments before he started snuffling at Bleu’s shirt pockets.

“Would you like to give him a carrot?”

“Can I?”

“Sure, I need you to…. Uh….” Stoney stretched out his fingers, trying to explain. “Make your hand flat and keep it that way.”

“Like this?” Bleu held up a hand, palm up, fingers extended.

“Just that way. Now, make sure you keep your fingers flat.” He dropped a cut carrot on Bleu’s palm.

Copper nibbled it up, velvety soft lips teasing Bleu’s skin.

Bleu laughed out loud. “Feel that! He’s very sweet.”

“It’s like velvet, isn’t it? So soft. His lips come up to his nostrils.”

“He’s giving me goose bumps.” Bleu drew away. “Can I lean on him?”

“You can.” This was way better than Stoney had worried it would be. Seeing Copper through a blind guy’s touch was really neat.

Bleu rested against Copper’s neck, expression pure wonder. “Oh God. Dan. Dan, I can hear his heart.”

“He’s gorgeous, Bleu. Deep in the chest, long in the legs. He’s this rich, glorious color with a white blaze down his nose.” The Dan guy sounded like he knew his way around a horse.

Copper lipped at Bleu’s shoulder curiously, but stayed calm like the practiced trail horse he was.

“His mane is like his tail, coarser, and his ears are so soft.”

Stoney just stood and watched, guiding Bleu every so often to touch somewhere else. This was the best part of his job; he got a huge kick introducing people to ranch life.

Periodically he’d see Ford watching him with this goofy-assed look on his face.

Stoney did adore that. God, he loved his life.

“Thank you for this. Seriously. I needed to see this.”

“Not a problem. If you want to try riding, Copper is your guy. I can take you out anytime while you’re here, as long as the weather is good.”

“Really?”

“Absolutely. I live for this shit.”

The Dan guy laughed. “You do, huh?”

“Yep. That and my husband and son.” Stoney winked over but realized Bleu would miss that.

“I can’t think of anything better. Oh, Dan, I do love it here.”

“Hey, I thought you would. I chose well.” Dan winked back at Stoney. “Inspiration.”

“I have to appreciate anyone who’s inspired by the Leanin’ N.”

“Well, I am. I would love to go riding tomorrow,” Bleu said.

“Sure. How long are y’all staying?”

“A week or so.” Dan grinned. “We’ll see.”

“That’s a good amount of time.”

“Yeah. I wanted immersion.” Bleu shrugged. “And the food is amazing.”

“I love the meatloaf best, but pizza is a huge favorite.”

“I loved that brown sugar pie thing,” Bleu murmured.

Stoney grinned and nodded. “You’ve had the coffee?”

Bleu leaned against him, easy as pie, unselfconscious as anything. “Oh my God, better than sex.”

“You know it.”

Both Dan and Ford went “Hey” at the same time.

Stoney snapped his teeth at Ford, teasing. “We should go have some. Coffee, I mean.”

Bleu’s laughter was loud enough that Copper tossed his head. “Coffee sounds great.”

“Okay. Dan, can you help guide Bleu out so I can give Copper here some oats?”

At the word oats, Copper shifted his weight hard, and Bleu staggered, laughing again when Dan caught him.

Stoney did appreciate a guest with a sense of humor. Around the ranch, a guy needed one or he’d always be mad.

“Coffee sounds good,” Ford said, leading the others off.

“Come on, buddy, let’s get you some oats.” Stoney got to work, whistling as he did.

He loved the ranch almost as much as he did Ford and Quartz. Almost. They were all part of it.

It was in his blood, these days.

He finished up before hurrying back to the house.

Stoney didn’t want to miss that coffee.

 

 

 

Chapter One

 

“ARE WE there yet?”

“What? Are you five, man?” Dan’s voice was warm, amused. “The weather is a little challenging, you know?”

“Well, I can see the snow building up everywhere….” The sarcasm was tempered by his good mood. Bleu chuckled. Snow was good, though. The big reveal of his sculpture for the Leaning N coincided with the opening of ski season and the big gay ski gala.

He’d been tickled as all get-out when Ford Nixel had asked him for a statue for Stoney and the Leaning N. Stoney had taught him about horses, about cowboys, about barns and hay and saddles.

He felt like family at the Leaning N, as if he would always have a place there.

“You’re just wanting Geoff’s pizza.”

“You know it. You think he’s too busy getting ready for the party to make it?” He could live a lifetime on that shit. Sausage flatbread….

“I bet he has one vegan and two meat lover’s waiting for us.”

“Thanks for bringing me and Floyd up, Dan. I know you didn’t have to.” It was funny, the things that caused a relationship to break apart—money, infidelity, an allergy to your Seeing Eye dog.

Dan was still one of his best friends, though, and he adored the ranch too.

“Hey, I wasn’t gonna miss that coffee.”

“The cinnamon latte….” He leaned against Dan, the solid body so strong beside him.

“Yeah. With a tiny bit of Fireball….” Dan didn’t drink hardly at all, but he did like a bit of hot stuff.

“Hell yeah. You know how I feel about the burn.” Bleu got off on it.

“I know. Such an experience whore.” Dan nuzzled his hair briefly. “I love the N, as you are well aware. Like I was going to say no.”

“I know. Still, I appreciate it. Stoney’s going to shit when he sees what Ford’s done.”

“I hope not. That sounds like hell.”

“Right.” God, Dan was a dear man, but… sometimes Bleu just wanted to be crass and not perfectly reasonable. He hated having to censor his humor, which was… well, his theory was people with physical limitations could be a little off-color.

Off-color. He snorted, the pun amusing the fuck out of him.

“You coming down with something?” Dan asked.

“Nope. I was amusing myself, since I don’t seem to amuse you.” He kept it light, but God knew it was the truth.

“Stop it. You know I adore you.”

“I do.” He patted Dan’s leg. “I wouldn’t know what to do without you as my friend.”

“You’d have to find a driver, of course, and someone to call when you can’t identify a sound in your house.”

“Right?” He would have to do all that again once Dan found another lover, but for now, they had a system.

“The landscape is changing. I’m glad we stopped and had chains put on.”

“Yeah. I guess it gets rough up here.” Bleu wanted to feel the difference in the snow, one from the other.

“Deep, you know?”

“Yeah. Like the ski mountain.” He clapped his hands. “Which is why we’re here, right?”

“Yeah. You’re really considering skiing?”

“I am. How impossible can it be?”

“You can’t see, you know, Bleu.”

“Oh my God!” he proclaimed. “I can’t?”

“Oh, stop, you could kill yourself running into a tree.”

“I could die falling out of the bed, from a heart attack, a giant alligator attack.”

Dan snorted. “You could, but you have a dog for the first, and where are you going to find a gator?”

“I bet you can buy them on Amazon.”

Dan hooted. “They have them at the zoo in ’Burque.”

“They have them at that weird snake museum on the other side of Austin.”

“Right.” Dan laughed harder. “No killing yourself, regardless.”

Bleu laughed softly. “You worry too much, honey.”

“I always do.” They turned off, the direction change and road texture obvious.

“We’re heading up, right?”

“To the ranch, yeah.” Dan hummed with the radio, and Bleu was a little glad it was past Christmas music. Dan was an addict.

Ford had asked him for a sculpture of him and Stoney together, the ranch and horses added in. He’d thought about it for a few months, and then he did an amalgam of the guys’ hands, the ranch, and a horse.

It had been a task, keeping it secret from Stoney. There had been a lot of spontaneous “looking” with his fingers and making Stoney believe he was just… kinda forgetful.

Thank goodness Ford always had business to do in Santa Fe and could bring Stoney to him. Bleu loved going, doing, but life was easier in his little adobe house and studio, where he might be bored, but he rarely face-planted. Floyd helped with that out and about, but home was so many paces by so many, and he banged his shins less.

He grinned. Good thing he couldn’t see the bruises to mind.

“What’s funny?” Dan asked.

“I was just thinking how many times I had to feel up Stoney.”

“He’s very taken, you know.”

“I totally know. Completely.” Stoney was the most taken. The takenest. He and Ford… well, you could feel the energy between them on the air. He didn’t need to see it.

It reminded him a lot of him and…. No. No thinking about that. No borrowing trouble.

He didn’t need to open up even more old wounds.

“Now you’re frowning.” Dan touched his leg again, the contact comforting. “You okay?”

His face always gave him away. Bleu had no way to school it.

“Just fine. Ready to get out of the car.”

“Well, we just crested that long rise, and I can see the ranch.” Dan was always willing to be sympathetic. He was a good man.

“Is it beautiful? Is it…?” He had to imagine how it was, because he had no true concept of colors, of shadow. Those would have to be appreciated by everyone else.

“It’s amazing. The sky goes on forever, and the mountains rise up all around like sentries. It’s cloudy, so there are all these moving shapes that change as we drive.”

“Oh….” God, sometimes it hurt, how much he wanted to see like everyone else.

“It’s kinda like one of your sculptures.” They coasted to a stop, and he could hear hustle and bustle as soon as they opened the doors.

He went to get Floyd and harnessed his good friend up. They would navigate the landscape here together. He was amazed Dan wasn’t sneezing.

Good thing they had a two-bedroom cabin this visit.

“Bleu! There you are. Thank God you had chains.” Ford came out to meet them.

“Dan’s always prepared. Always.” He reached out, and Ford gave him the hug he wanted. “I love being here. It feels like home.”

“Thank you. You’re part of the family, man.” Ford was a great hugger. “Did you have a good Christmas?”

“I did. It was cozy and quiet. Me and my folks.” They’d had posole and tamales and biscochitos, just like always. It had been grand.

“We had a ton of guests.” Ford let him go, presumably to hug Dan. “Geoff was in heaven. He mastered high altitude soufflé.”

“Oh wow.” He wasn’t sure what that was, but if it had to be mastered, it had to be hard.

Dan laughed. “Oh man, I love a chocolate soufflé.”

They started moving, and Floyd kept him in pace and on track. The snow underfoot crunched instead of swooshing, so it had to have been really wet and heavy.

When they got settled, he’d ask if Quartz could come play. He did love snow. So did Floyd. Dan, not so much.

“Hey!” A wave of warmth hit them, and Floyd guided him up the kitchen steps. He was enveloped in a hug that smelled like flour, cinnamon, and cloves. Geoff.

“Geoff! My friend!” He buried his nose in Geoff’s neck, inhaling deep. He loved when people let him touch, let him in to see.

“How are you? Hey, Dan.” Geoff never let go, though, just gave him the best hug ever.

“Hey there. Smells like heaven in here, sir.”

“Thanks! I’m trying a new cinnamon roll recipe.”

“Ooh. Big gooey ones?”

“God yes. I like the icing I normally use, but the dough gets… weird up this high.”

He let Geoff go. “I needed that. Thank you.”

“No problem.” Geoff guided him to a chair. “Floyd, my boy, I have a treat for you.”

He felt Floyd’s tail banging on his leg. Someone liked those words. “Sit, boy. You can have a treat.” Floyd was working, so permission was important. Geoff was good about it.

Floyd sat with a thump, and Bleu suddenly smelled peanut butter.

Then he heard Floyd licking and licking. Ah, a Kong.

“You spoil him.” He had to laugh; here, he was family.

“I know, but he’s a good boy. Did I ever tell you about the basset who came for a wedding?”

“Bassets… long ears?”

“Lots of drool. Short legs.” Geoff handed him a cup of coffee, lifting his hand to feel it.

“Oh, thank you. No, tell me everything.”

“Oh my God. He was the cutest old thing….” Geoff told him about this amazing redneck wedding and how many of the guests hooked up.

He had coffee, a cinnamony sweet, good friends, music. It was magic.

The crunch of gravel outside told him someone new had arrived. Ford made a huh kind of noise. “Is someone else scheduled to come in?”

“We have people straggling in for Ski Week all week long, Ford.”

“But I thought I had set it up so only Bleu arrived this afternoon.” The air moved when Ford rose. “Be right back.”

“He worries.” Stoney sat close. “Have you been busy?”

“I have. Good busy, though. I love my job.” Sculpting made him happy, balls to bones.

“I bet. It’s so tactile.” Stoney had opened up a lot for him once they started riding horses together.

“I think you would like it, man. I think you’d enjoy it.”

“Yeah? I’ve got a lot to do, honey.” Stoney was so… Texan.

“You don’t have a couple hours to play? You and Ford could do it together.”

“We’ll try it, then. I mean, not until after ski weekend.”

“Sure. You’re going to be busy.”

“You’ll be leaving with me on Sunday, Bleu, don’t forget.” Right. Dan had to be… somewhere.

“Maybe another time, then.”

“Totally.” Stoney touched the back of his hand.

The door opened, a cold wave of air coming in. “Oh God, what smells so good in here?”

Bleu tilted his head. He knew that voice. He knew it, bone-deep.

Ryan.

Ryan “I Fucked Up Your Life And Left You Heartbroken” Shields.

Goddamn.