THE WHOLE thing started because of Lizzy’s Jeep. If it hadn’t been for that, I might not have met Matt. And maybe he wouldn’t have felt the need to prove himself. And maybe nobody would have been hurt.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Like I said, it started with Lizzy’s Jeep. Lizzy is the wife of my brother Brian, and they were expecting their first child in the fall. She decided her old Wrangler, which she’d had since college, wasn’t going to cut it as a family vehicle. So she parked it out front of our shop with a handwritten For Sale sign in the window.
“The shop” had come to us via my grandfather. Originally, it’d been a hardware store. At some point, auto parts had been added as well. When my grandpa died, my dad took over the store, and when he died, it passed to Brian, Lizzy, and me. Normally, I didn’t mind tending the place, but it was a gorgeous spring day in Colorado, and at that moment, I would have rather been outside, enjoying the sunshine. Instead, I was sitting with my feet on the counter, dreaming of what might have been.
That’s when he came in.
He caught my attention right away, simply because he wasn’t from around here. I’ve lived in Coda my whole life, not counting the five years I spent in Fort Collins, at the university, and I knew everybody in town, by sight if not by name. So he was either visiting somebody in the area or just passing through. We’re not a tourist town, but people do bump into us occasionally, either looking for four-wheel drive trails or on their way to one of the dude ranches farther up the road.
He certainly didn’t look like one of the middle-aged suckers who frequented the dude ranches. He was probably in his early thirties, taller than me by several inches, putting him just over six feet tall, with military-short black hair and a couple of days’ worth of dark stubble on his cheeks. He wore jeans, a plain black T-shirt, and cowboy boots. Broad shoulders and big arms showed he worked out.
In short, he was drop-dead gorgeous.
“That Jeep run?” His voice was deep with a little bit of a drawl. Not Deep South drawl, but the vowels were definitely longer than a Coloradan.
“You bet. Runs great.”
“Hmmm.” He glanced out the window at it. “Why’re you selling it?”
“Not me. My sister-in-law. She says it’ll be too hard to get a car seat in the back. She bought a Cherokee instead.”
He looked a little confused by that, which told me he didn’t have kids himself. “So it drives okay?”
“Perfect. Want to try it out? I’ve got the keys right here.”
His eyebrows went up. “You need collateral or something? I can leave my license.”
I think at that point, he could’ve talked me into anything. My knees wobbled a bit. Was there really a touch of green in those steel-gray eyes? I hoped I sounded casual when I said, “I’ll go with you. I know the roads around here. We can take it up one of the easy trails so you can see how it handles.”
“What about the store? Hate to leave you shorthanded during rush hour.” He raised an eyebrow toward the empty store, one corner of his mouth barely twitching up. “Won’t your boss be mad if you leave?”
I laughed. “I’m one of the owners, so I can slack off if I want to.” I turned and called into the back room, “Hey, Ringo?”
Our one employee came warily out of the back. He was always skittish with me, and if Lizzy wasn’t around, he made a point of keeping his distance. I think he expected me to make a pass at him. He was seventeen with stringy black hair and bad skin. He probably weighed a buck five soaking wet. I didn’t have the heart to tell him he wasn’t my type.
“Hold the fort. I’ll be back in an hour or so.” I turned back to my tall, dark stranger. “Let’s go.”
Once we were in the Jeep, he held his hand out to me. “I’m Matt Richards.”
“Jared Thomas.” His grip was strong, but he wasn’t one of those guys who had to break your hand to prove how macho he is.
“Turn left. We’ll just drive up to the Rock.”
“What it sounds like—a big fucking rock. It’s nothing spectacular. People go up there to picnic. And the teenagers go there to park or to get high.”
He frowned a little at that. I was starting to think he didn’t smile much. I, on the other hand, was grinning ear to ear. Getting out of the store for a few minutes, especially to head into the mountains, was enough to brighten my day considerably. Doing it in the company of the best-looking guy I’d seen in a hell of a long time? Yeah. It was already the best day I’d had in ages.
“So what brings you to our fine metropolis?” I asked him.
“I just moved here.”
“Really? Why in the world would you want to do that?”
“Why not?” His tone was bantering, although his face was still serious. “You live here, don’t you? Is it that bad?”
“Well, no. I love it here. That’s why I’ve never left. But, you know, the town is dying. More people moving out than moving in. Towns along the Front Range are booming, but nobody wants to live up here and commute.”
“I was just hired by the Coda PD.”
“You’re a cop?”
He raised an eyebrow at me with obvious amusement. “Is that a problem?”
“Well, no, but I wish I hadn’t told you about the kids coming up here to get high.”
“Don’t worry. I won’t tell them you’re the rat.” So, the good officer wasn’t completely without humor. “You’ve lived here your whole life?” He didn’t sound curious so much as like he was just trying to make casual conversation.
“Yep. Except for the years I spent in college.”
“And you own the store?”
“Me and my brother and his wife. It’s not a big moneymaker or anything, but we manage. Brian’s an accountant, and he has other clients, so he mostly just does the books. Lizzy and I run the shop.”
“But you went to college?” Now he sounded genuinely curious.
“Yeah, I went to Colorado State. I have degrees in physics and elementary education. I have my teacher’s certificate too, for all the good it’s doing me.”
“Why aren’t you a teacher?”
“I didn’t want to let Brian and Lizzy down.” That wasn’t entirely true, but I didn’t want to tell him the real reason: that I didn’t want to deal with the fallout of being a gay high school teacher in a small town. “There isn’t anyone else to cover the shop. We can’t afford a full-time employee. Well, we could if they didn’t want benefits, but they do. So instead, we just have Ringo, part-time. We get half his salary back, ’cause he spends his paychecks on stuff for his car, so it works out okay.” I laughed. “Ringo. That can’t be his real name.” Good lord, I was babbling like an idiot. “Sorry I’m talking so much. I’m sure I’m boring you.”
He looked right at me and said, “Not at all.”
We reached the parking area at the end of the road. “You’ll have to turn around here.”
He stopped the Jeep and glanced around. There were no other cars. “I don’t see any rock.”
“Just up the trail a bit. Want to walk up there?”
His face brightened a little. “You bet.”
So we walked down the trail, through Ponderosa pines and Douglas firs and aspens that were just starting to bud, to one of the rocky abutments that must have helped give the Rockies their name. The Colorado mountains are full of these giant piles of boulders, rounded by wind and time, covered with dry sage—and rust-colored lichen. This one was about twenty feet high on the downhill side. If you walked up the hill, you could practically walk right out onto it. But what’s the fun in that? These rocks just beg to be climbed.
Once we reached the top, we sat down. The view wasn’t really any different from there. We could see down the trail to the Jeep, but other than that, it was just more trees, more rocks, more mountains. I love Colorado, but this type of view can be found in hundreds of spots. I was surprised to hear a contented sigh from Matt. When I looked at him, his face showed amazement.
“Man, I love Colorado. I’m from Oklahoma. This is better, believe me.”
He turned to look at me, squinting into the sun, and I almost quit breathing. His skin was tan, and his eyes were shining. Yeah. Definitely a hint of green in them. “Thanks for bringing me up here.”
“Anytime.” And I meant it.