THE roads may have been dusty and dry, causing clouds to swirl around each booted step he took, but at least the skies were clear. Thank heaven there was a slight chill in the air, as Lorcan didn’t think he would have been able to take another step had it been as hot as it had the day before. The worst part was that it was his own damn fault that he was in this predicament to begin with. His mama had warned him that it was “rough out there” and had ended her speech with “I’ll see you in a week.” His foolish pride had his twenty-one-year-old butt walking all over this godforsaken country looking for adventure. All he had gotten for his troubles was nine cents in his pocket, no prospects for work or a place to stay, and some nasty-ass blisters on his feet. The last thing he wanted to do was put his tail between his legs and crawl back home to a round of Mama’s “I told you so.” He had one last prospect for work and a place to stay. One last chance to avoid seeing that smug grin on his mama’s face. Or the look of exasperation on Daddy’s face.
The gas attendant a few miles back had told him that the Whispering Pines Ranch was looking for hands, and although he was headed out in the direction the attendant had pointed, he wasn’t feeling all too confident. The way the man had sneered and laughed when he’d asked about work hadn’t surprised him. The way he’d suggested Lorcan was exactly what “those folks” were looking for had even had him fighting back his usual tendency to lash out. Had he not been so I-need-to-find-work-or-starve-to-death-on-the-side-of-the-road desperate, he would have let his fist teach the country bumpkin some manners.
Lorcan was used to people looking at him and assuming they knew his sexual orientation. Because of it, he had learned young how to use his fists to prove he was male enough. Puberty hadn’t improved the delicate, almost feminine features he’d inherited from his mother. Nor had his tall, lean body taken on the bulk and mass of muscles like his father and brothers. Yet he had proven himself over and over to be by far the toughest of them all. Lorcan had eventually found a perverse pleasure in taking down his tormentors. He took to growing out his thick chestnut hair, provoking others further, flaunting his waist-length braid. Only thing he could hope for now, as he walked the back dirt roads of another nameless town, was that “those folks” out at Whispering Pines could use a man with a good work ethic and a strong back, even if his braided hair did curl down around his ass.
As the Whispering Pines Ranch house came into view, Lorcan nearly turned around and hightailed it back the other direction. The big two-story house looked like it would be more at home on the cover of a magazine featuring haunted houses than Ranchers Weekly. Shutters hung from the paint-peeled siding, the porch tilted dangerously to the right, and it didn’t look as if the lawn had been mown or weeded in forever.
He made his way through the calf-high lawn and gingerly placed his boot on the front step, testing its strength before adding his full weight. Remarkably, the half-rotten porch seemed sturdy enough. Lorcan made his way to the front entrance, swung open the scarred screen, and then knocked firmly on the more solid door beneath. Lorcan removed his hat from his head and wiped his brow of sweat as he waited for a response. He strained to listen for any signs that there might be someone approaching the door. When he neither received response nor heard anyone moving around on the other side of the door, he knocked with a little more force. When again there was no sound coming from within, he made his way around to the back of the house and was surprised that the barn and fencing seemed to be in excellent shape. Obviously the owner cared more about the animals and their living arrangements than his own.
An old water pump called to him like a siren, and he headed for it, not realizing until that moment how thirsty he was. He pumped the handle several times before the water began to flow, and he gorged himself on the clean, cold water. Once his thirst was quenched, he took his bandanna from his back pocket, wiping his waterlogged face as he leaned against the fence. He was beginning to regret not cutting his hair before leaving home. He needed to make a good impression, one that would ensure him a job. Lorcan didn’t want to have to make the trek back to his mama’s home, and he damn well didn’t want to have to do it today. With nothing in his belly in over twenty-four hours, an untold number of miles under his boots, and no sleep, he didn’t think it below him to beg the owner for some food and a hay bale to curl up on if they couldn’t offer him a job.
“GODDAMN sons of bitches! If one more of you nasty beasts breaks through this fence, I swear I will be holding a beef sale like this county has never seen.”
Quinn angrily tossed his tools back in his saddlebag and mounted Jeb. He was getting too old and too damn tired to be having to tend to an entire ranch practically single-handedly. Two months ago, that bastard Henderson had started rumors about Quinn’s sexuality and offered his hands nearly twice what Quinn could afford to pay them. Since then, he’d lost everyone who’d worked for him except Ole John and his partner Conner. They’d been with the ranch when his daddy had owned it, and since they had never hidden their preferences, he was sure Henderson had used them as his next attempt to shut him down.
The bitch of the thing was that no one had ever suspected him before. He’d always been very discreet the few times he’d gone over to Jackson to scratch his itch. Hell, he’d only gone three times in the five years since his daddy had passed and left him the ranch. The only damn grudge Mr. Henderson could have against him was the fact that he’d refused to sell him his daddy’s land. The old fart had spent the last five years trying to run him into the ground and make him go belly-up. It was now like an ugly obsession for them both, Henderson doing everything in his power to ensure Quinn lost the ranch and Quinn, in turn, doing everything in his power to prove the evil fuck wrong.
He couldn’t begrudge his hands for going where the money was. Before they left, most of them made sure to let him know that they either didn’t believe the rumors or didn’t care, that it was purely for financial reasons. He couldn’t blame them for wanting the extra cash flow. Still, no matter the reason, he was stuck trying to do the work of ten men and wasn’t sure how much longer he could keep it up. Sighing, he reined Jeb around back toward the barn. No sense worrying on things he couldn’t control. He had stalls to muck and critters to feed, and hopefully, when he was done, Conner would have him a nice spread on his dinner table.
When he reached the corral, Quinn swung down from Jeb, grabbed the reins, and led the horse to the barn for a much-needed grooming and some sweet feed. Jeb was a damn fine horse and hadn’t let him down, no matter how much he’d been demanding from the stallion lately. He’d just cleared the side of the barn when the sight before him stopped him dead in his tracks.
Leaning back against the fence by the old water pump was either the most beautiful man he’d ever seen or one hell of a big woman. The vision before him had fine, delicate features, a thin nose, and high cheekbones. Dark brows and thick lashes lay against golden, sun-kissed skin. Though the eyes were closed, Quinn was sure they’d be as dark and stunning as the long chestnut hair that hung, braided, down the entire length of back to a firm, denim-clad ass. Quinn’s dick twitched as a pink tongue darted out to lick full, lush lips. Jesus, he needed to get laid if just the quick flick of a tongue was enough to make his dick stand up and say hello. Maybe a little trip down to Jackson was in his near future.
Quinn took a step forward and cleared his throat before yelling out, “Something I can help you with?”
The man jerked his head up and straightened himself to his full height, nearly stumbling. He was definitely male. The sun glinted off slight stubble on a narrow chin as he turned his head towards Quinn. If that wasn’t enough to convince him, then the fact that Quinn instantly knew the man dressed to the right was a dead giveaway.
“Jesus, sir, you just took a year off my life.”
Quinn’s blood rushed south at the sound of the deep, velvet-smooth voice. Oh, yeah, definitely time to head to Jackson.
He held his hand out. “Sorry about that. Didn’t mean to startle you. Thought you’d have heard me and Jeb coming up.”
The stranger wiped his hand on his thigh before taking the one offered in a nice, firm grip. “Sorry, sir. Guess I zoned out for a moment there.”
A jolt of electricity raced up Quinn’s arm from the contact, and he was sure by the widening of black pupils and the slight flare of nostrils that he wasn’t the only one who had felt it. Quinn reluctantly released the man’s hand, petting Jeb’s nose when he leaned in with a curious sniff. “Was there something I could help you with?”
The man, obviously just realizing his manners, snatched the hat off his head, kneading the brim nervously. “Yes, sir. I, well… I was hoping… I mean….” He huffed out a frustrated breath and tried again. “I heard you may be looking for some help.”
Quinn stiffened slightly, suspicion creeping into him. With all the shit that he’d been through lately with Henderson, he couldn’t help but be a little leery. What were the chances that someone would come looking for work just when he was starting to consider giving up and handing Henderson what he wanted? Not to mention he wouldn’t put it past the prick to hire someone that looked like the kid in front of him just to tempt him. Still, he wasn’t convinced that the old man would be lucky enough to hire a guy that tripped every attraction switch Quinn had. Plus, the kid did look to be pretty desperate and didn’t sound too sure of himself. He was either one hell of an actor or, in fact, just someone looking for work. His instinct told him it was the latter, but he’d still best take this offer with care.
Quinn pulled at Jeb’s reins and started leading him into the barn. “I gotta brush this boy down. Why don’t you help me get him settled, and we can talk.” He didn’t look back as he walked into the barn. Instead, he concentrated on trying to get his growing arousal under control, threatening his dick with a nice hard thump if it didn’t behave.
Once he had Jeb tied to the stall, he grabbed a couple of brushes, throwing one at the kid. “Got a name, kid?”
“Lorcan, sir. Lorcan James.” He began to groom Jeb like he knew what he was doing but mumbled under his breath what sounded like “Not a kid.”
“Well, Lorcan, I’m Quinn Taylor, and I guess if there’s anyone here at the ranch you should be inquiring about a job with, it’d be me. You got any experience with cattle?”
Lorcan continued to groom the horse, long, slim fingers following the path of the brush. Quinn couldn’t help but think that such delicate hands would look more at home on a piano’s keyboard than roping and ranching. Then, of course, there was that image that popped into his head for a fleeting second. The one that had his heart speeding up when he imagined how those fine, delicate hands would look even better wrapped around something a little hard and getting harder by the minute. He shook his head and walked over to the supply stall to get the sweet feed for Jeb, trying like hell not to be too obvious that he was having more than a little trouble walking right. Lucky enough for him, Lorcan was too busy concentrating on Jeb and what he was going to say next to notice him.
“Yes, sir. My family runs a dairy farm back home in Indiana.”
“Not too different from beef cattle, but no morning milking and a lot more bulls.”
He stared—okay, it was more like gawking—as Lorcan gave Jeb his cool-down. Quinn’s long experience in schooling his emotions and controlling the look on his face hid his arousal. An arousal that had his dick nearly punching through the denim of his jeans, his breath catching when the kid bent to clean Jeb’s hoofs. The man was a little too skinny, but the tight ass and long legs had Quinn struggling to control the tremors surging through his body. Quinn wasn’t sure if it was the fact that it had been so long since he’d had anything other than his hand for company at night or the fact that Lorcan was just that damn gorgeous. The way he moved as he encouraged Jeb to pick up each hoof, pushing into the animal with ease, he had the grace of a large cat.
He waited until all four hoofs were properly cleaned and inspected. He told himself he was watching the man so intently not because he was enjoying the way his dick pulsed or the way jolts of electricity raced through his veins but to make sure the guy knew what he was doing and didn’t cause Jeb any undue stress. Lorcan held out the grooming tools and looked at him expectantly, a question of “What next?” in those big, dark eyes.
Quinn looked down at the brush in his hand and embarrassingly realized he hadn’t helped with Jeb’s cool-down. He’d been too busy watching. He took the tools from Lorcan and returned them to the tack room, mentally chastising his lack of control, and grabbed Jeb’s reins. “Let me just turn Jeb out, and we’ll discuss this job you’re looking for over a bit of lunch.”
The kid looked like he was about to keel over from starvation and exhaustion, and wouldn’t that just be a last drop in the bucket? Henderson would have it turned around ’til he was accused of kidnapping and killing a beautiful, innocent boy. He turned the horse out, motioning for Lorcan to follow; he could use a bit of lunch himself, and hopefully he’d find a distraction from the wanderings of his naughty mind.