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THE first time Cooper Nelson felt his blood flow faster again after many years was when he bumped into Kelly Freed in town.

For the last eight years, he’d survived by keeping his head low and his eyes averted. It was the only way to live in a small town where he’d been the subject of a big scandal. So why hadn’t he moved away? He’d had his reasons at the time—reasons that no longer seemed valid, but were replaced by loyalty to the owner of a big-ass ranch who’d harbored him when the rest of the town would have much rather lynched him.

Although Coop kept to himself, he’d found a home on the Blue River Ranch and a kind of family, still, he didn’t let the men he worked with come too close. He got along with everyone, but very few people knew the man behind the scruffy exterior and often grumpy manner.

And now a part of his past—one older than the scandal—had walked into town, and it unsettled Cooper more than he could have ever predicted.

When Cooper had walked out of the clothing store, he had his hat on, and out of habit, he hadn’t looked the stranger in the eye as they’d crossed paths. His hand on his Stetson, he’d shielded his eyes from the stranger’s gaze, masking it as if he was tipping his hat at him, and to this day he didn’t know what had triggered his memory. Was it a smell or a particular movement? He’d never know, but he’d felt compelled to turn around to take a better look.

Kelly Freed looked barely older than how Cooper remembered him. Had it really been fifteen years? Kelly wore a tan deputy’s uniform, pants with a perfect crease down the front and his shirt tucked into them, a belt breaking up the two. Cooper couldn’t resist remembering the body that filled up the rear of those slacks so perfectly, the bubble butt he’d worshiped all those years ago. When Kelly turned slightly, resting his hand on the counter as he waited for the shop girl to pick something out for him, there wasn’t even a hint of a beer gut visible around the tight belt and gun holster. Cooper felt his jeans grow tight, and only then realized he was staring at the man, so he hurriedly averted his eyes and continued on his way, letting the door of the store fall shut.

He returned to the truck, his mind still on the man at the store.

“You look like you saw a ghost. You okay, Coop?”

Cooper looked up and remembered why he was in town. Izzie Conroy was smiling at him from the passenger seat, bags and packages all around her. “Yeah, I’m good,” Cooper replied, not even believing it himself and hoping Izzie wouldn’t inquire further. She was the foreman’s wife and the owner’s sister and Cooper liked her a lot, but she was a little too inquisitive for Cooper’s taste. “You need to stop at Calley’s?”

“Yup,” Izzie replied. “She said the apples would be in today, and I want fruit for the kids. You know, maybe we should plant some apple trees by the river. The blossoms would look nice in spring, and we could probably grow enough for all the kids and the men at the crew house too. Everyone likes a nice juicy apple, right?”

“Sure,” Cooper answered flatly. What he liked about Izzie was that she kept rambling, and as long as he nodded to agree with her from time to time, he didn’t need to reply. For now, the talk about the ranch kept his mind off Kelly Freed. At least partially.

“Could you go inside, Coop? I’m all settled in here with everything else I bought. She knows what I ordered.”

Cooper stopped the truck in front of the grocery store owned by Calley Haines. She delivered to the house, but occasionally, when her wholesalers were late, she had to come by a second time. Since they were in town now anyway, Izzie had decided they’d pick up the missing item from the delivery list.

Andy and Vicky, Calley’s twins, were playing in the yard next to the shop and Noah, Calley’s foster son, was leaning his bike against the side of the fence.

“Hi, Noah,” Cooper greeted the seven-year-old. “How was school?”

Noah smiled. “I like my teacher.”

“Well, that’s a start. Is Calley inside?”

Noah shrugged. “Just got home from school.”

They walked in together, where Noah’s sixteen-year-old brother was stacking apples.

“Hey, Ryan.” Cooper pointed at the apples. “I’m here for those. Don’t know how many Blue River ordered, but I came to pick some up.”

Ryan stopped what he was doing and walked behind the cash register, his actions the only acknowledgement that he’d actually heard Cooper. Ryan picked up a folder and started leafing through the contents, then put the folder away again before walking back to the apples and filling a small crate.

Cooper knew better than to try to coax words out of Ryan. Ryan occasionally lent a hand at the Blue River when they were short a few men, so it wasn’t like they were strangers. It paid to give Ryan space. If you didn’t get on his case, he was a hard worker. When Ryan handed him the crate, Cooper tried to make eye contact, but he didn’t insist. Cooper knew all too well how to avoid it himself. “Thanks, Ryan. Tell Calley I stopped by for these, so she doesn’t need to deliver them.”

Ryan nodded almost imperceptibly, and Cooper walked out with his apples. He put them in the back of the truck before climbing in again.

“You planning on feeding an army with those apples, Izzie?”

Izzie grinned. “Six kids eat a lot of grub, Coop. And we do try to feed you guys some healthy stuff occasionally too.”

Cooper just smiled and watched the road.

A sheriff’s car passed them, and Cooper found himself trying to see whether it was Kelly behind the wheel. The truck was too high compared to the car, though, so he couldn’t tell. He shook his head, trying to dispel the wicked thoughts that entered his mind.

“Are you in some kind of trouble, Coop?” Izzie asked, genuine concern in her voice.

“Nope,” Cooper answered dismissively.

“I saw you looking at Deputy Freed when you walked out of the clothing store, and now at that car. Like you’re worried about something.”

“It’s nothing, Izz.” He couldn’t just come out and tell Izzie that he knew what the deputy smelled like up close, how he felt under his hands, how he moaned…. Cooper closed his eyes just for a moment, then stared intently at the car driving away from them.

Izzie was the most open-minded of the women at the ranch. She’d been instrumental in her brother Hunter’s acceptance of his love for Grant and had always stood by him through thick and thin. She was also the only one of the women who actually worked the ranch, although that had changed some after she’d had her two girls. Still, whenever they were hands short, she’d be the first to braid her impossibly long hair and saddle her horse to ride with them.

If Cooper could tell anyone at the ranch about his feelings, it would be her. She knew he was gay. Everyone who lived anywhere near St. Anthony eight years ago knew about the scandal, and after that, no closet was big enough to hold Coop. Izzie was no exception, yet they never talked about his private life. Basically, because he had none. Like most people who knew Cooper in his former life, Izzie never opened that can of worms. Unlike Tim, Izzie’s brother-in-law, Cooper didn’t go to the one gay bar he knew of, and he didn’t usually go to the Barrel Run with the other ranch hands on Saturday night either.

“Kelly Freed seems nice enough. I think I’ll vote for him,” Izzie said resolutely. “He’s cleaning up around here now Sheriff Hanson is retiring, and I think I trust him more than the other guy, who only seems to be moving back here for the election.”

“Freed’s not from around here either,” Cooper said.

“I know,” Izzie replied, apparently not perturbed by what Cooper said, “but he seems more genuine, and he’s younger, more energetic. The other one looks like he’ll park his butt in his chair and never leave it again. Deputy Freed is always around town, talking to people, helping them out, even with the smaller things. He rescued Davinia Lloyd’s cat the other day, after she was stuck in a drainage pipe.”

Cooper couldn’t resist smiling. So Kelly was still doing that. Always helping people. He used to tease Kelly about that when they were still in law school, and at the time, Cooper’s intentions of becoming a lawyer weren’t exactly fueled by something as altruistic as helping his fellow man. After having grown up in abject poverty, he wanted to make money. Lots of it. Unlike Kelly, who was always going to be the one to rescue the kittens. Anything to make people like him. It had taken way too many years for Cooper to see things Kelly’s way, and now it was too late. Now he had the life he deserved and so did Kelly. Karma was definitely a bitch.

Cooper chewed his thumb and then realized Izzie hadn’t said anything in a while. He looked over at her. The window was rolled about halfway down, and the wind was blowing her dark-brown hair away from her face. She was smiling, her eyes narrowed against the sunlight and gusts of wind coming through the open window. Cooper’s mood lightened when he thought about how much the image of Izzie reminded him of Tim’s rescue dog, Maul, who looked just like that when he sat in her place. Must be nice to be so content, Cooper thought as he turned into the driveway to the Blue River Ranch. Suddenly, another image flashed through his mind, of Kelly borrowing a friend’s convertible to drive them to the countryside between the end of term and Cooper’s graduation from law school. Since Kelly had another two years to go, they knew their ways would part, but they wanted one more blissful day together. It was the end of an era for Cooper, although he didn’t know it then.

Cooper felt his throat constrict, so he cleared it before parking the truck next to the biggest homestead.