SHOVEL. Flick. Shovel. Flick. Tommy flung another shovelful of muck into the wheelbarrow with a vicious twist and started again. The ranch hand had been mucking out the stable for an hour, but it was debatable whether he was actually achieving very much. Pain in his bottom lip made him conscious of the way he was gnawing on it. It was raw from constant chewing, and the coppery tang in his mouth suggested he had actually drawn blood this time.
His next shovel of muck went astray, splattering his boss as he came into the stall. Tommy looked up at the grunt to see Luke standing in the doorway, straw and muck covering his flannel shirt and jeans, a few stray bits caught in the light stubble on his jaw.
“Heck, boss, I’m so sorry,” Tommy said, watching as Luke brushed himself down.
“I think you need to work on your aim,” Luke griped, picking off what definitely didn’t look like straw with a disgusted look.
Before Tommy could respond, Luke’s partner and foreman of the Lost Cow Ranch, Simon, appeared in the doorway, his large body blocking out the light. “Luke, I’m going now. See ya later.” He stopped as he caught sight of his partner covered in horse shit. “You been rolling in the hay without me?”
Guiltily, Tommy said, “It was my fault. I didn’t know the boss was standing there.”
“Obviously,” Luke said wryly. “Are you nearly done? I was coming to see if you wanted a lift over to Noah’s. Momma’s got a meeting over at the church, and she was offering a ride.”
Tommy felt his face heat at the knowing looks of his bosses. “No thanks,” he said shortly and went back to shoveling shit, being more careful this time where it landed. There was a long silence, and Tommy could imagine the unspoken conversation going on above his head.
“Is everything all right, Tommy?” Simon asked him, his tone concerned.
“Fine,” he muttered, not looking up. “I just want to finish my chores.” He knew that he was the color of a ripe tomato all over by now. Cursing his red hair and the fact he flushed so easily, Tommy kept his eyes firmly trained on the dirt floor. He only wished it were that simple.
Noah was… Noah was amazing. The pastor of St. Mark’s was a walking wet dream as far as Tommy was concerned: smooth chocolate skin that fascinated him, and huge dark eyes that seemed to know everything there was to know about him. Hell, the only other man he’d ever been attracted to was Luke, and that was one fantasy that was never going to happen. He’d known Luke all his life; the older man had been the subject of all his jerk-off fantasies for years until the advent of Noah, but Luke had never once noticed his crush. Aching with a fierce jealousy, Tommy gripped the handle of the shovel so hard he was white-knuckled.
“Tommy?” A large hand on his shoulder made him jump. “You know you can talk to us if there’s a problem?”
He looked up at Simon, whose expression matched his gentle tone. “I know that,” he muttered. “I’ve just got work to do.”
“Okay, Tommy. Just remember we’re here if you want us.” Simon squeezed his shoulder and nodded at Luke, who picked off some more muck with a grimace.
“All right, then. I’d better change before Momma complains about the smell.”
“Sorry, boss,” Tommy apologized again.
Luke waved his apology away. “No worries. I got in the way of your work. C’mon, Si, I’ve got to get Momma to St. Mark’s before I visit Pops.”
Luke’s father was in the hospital following a heart attack, but he was finally off the critical list, and for the first time in weeks, there wasn’t a member of his family sitting beside his bed at all times. After a car accident, Momma Murray was finding it difficult to drive despite intensive physical therapy, and one of the boys from the Lost Cow acted as her chauffeur when possible.
Tommy watched as Simon dropped a kiss on Luke’s lips, missing the dirt on his face. They grinned at him and walked away, shoulders and hips brushing together. It was hard to hate Simon for having what Tommy wanted. Luke was completely smitten where Simon was concerned. God help anyone who tried to come between them. Sighing, Tommy went back to mucking out the stalls, trying not to think about Luke and Noah, so very different, both gorgeous and both totally unavailable.
Church was tricky. His parents insisted that he attend church every Sunday morning unless there was a crisis on the Lost Cow. To his amazement, his God-fearing mother had wordlessly switched to St. Mark’s church, which meant seeing Noah every Sunday, watching the young pastor as he talked about love and forgiveness, about inclusivity and understanding. The pastor was a sodomite and totally open about his sexuality. Tommy knew that half the congregation were folk who weren’t welcome elsewhere: gays, young unmarried mothers, and now the Lost Cow ranch, who swelled the numbers every Sunday, pleased to have somewhere to worship. His parents weren’t the most tolerant of people, and Tommy couldn’t work out why on earth they had switched to Noah’s church instead of staying with that bigot, Pastor Jackson. Tommy didn’t swear—being brought up with a wooden spoon over his knuckles for every curse word, he had soon learned to curb his language—but whenever he thought about the trouble the Jacksons had caused Luke and Simon, he would have earned himself swollen knuckles for the blue storm he kicked up.
So why was he avoiding Noah? Chewing again on his abused bottom lip, Tommy refilled Lulu’s stall with fresh hay and water. Inexperienced he might be, but Tommy knew that Noah was attracted to him. Every time the pastor saw Tommy’s face in the congregation, his eyes lit up, and the warmth in them as they rested on Tommy just got a little more intense. For Tommy’s part, he felt his cheeks flush every time he caught sight of Noah staring at him. But Noah was gay and Tommy was straight, at least as far as his parents and the rest of the world were concerned. There was only one person Tommy had been completely honest to about the feelings he had for other men. Scared and frustrated at having to hide his sexuality, and needing to talk to someone, he had confided in Luke when he’d first started at the ranch. His boss had kept his secret for five years, only admitting that he had told Simon after Tommy had said he was leaving. Tommy could trust both men, though. They were discreet, and none of the other hands suspected he was anything other than shy. Tommy wanted to move across the state, maybe find somewhere he could meet other men, away from his parents’ disapproving attitudes. Yet now they were willingly going to a church populated by homosexuals and other fallen, and he was the object of the attention of the most gorgeous man that walked the earth. The world had tilted on its axis, and Tommy was sliding off the edge.
He started on James’s stall, aware that in his interminable inner monologue, Tommy was avoiding the question. Why was he avoiding Noah? Simple. He was scared shitless. And a virgin. Twenty-three years old and never even been kissed. He’d hoped to go to college away from home and sow his oats there, but his parents had made it clear there wasn’t any money for college and they expected him to start working on a ranch as soon as he left high school. Tommy wasn’t an outstanding scholar or a jock, there were no scholarships for the likes of him, and he had no choice but to accede to his parents’ wishes. They hadn’t been pleased when he’d started at the Lost Cow, but as long-time friends of Greg and Pamela they were careful not to voice their protests in front of Luke’s momma.
There was a noise outside the stable, and he paused, not wanting to coat another person in shit. Tommy looked up to see Luke back again, frown lines between his eyes.
“Is something the matter, boss?” he asked.
“I’ve got to go down to the back pasture. Chuck wants me to look at some plants he’s found. Can you take Momma to the church? Jack can cover you here.”
He was going to see Noah! Cursing himself for the way his heart leaped in his chest, Tommy muttered, “Sure. Give me ten minutes to shower and change. Tell Momma I’ll be over in half an hour.”
“Will do,” Luke agreed. “And Tommy….”
Tommy looked up to see a mischievous grin playing across Luke’s face.
“Just relax, okay? He likes you. You like him. Don’t fret about it.”
Knowing his face was beet red, Tommy wished he could jump in the hay and hide, away from those all too knowing eyes. Luke was never going to let him live this down. “It’s not that simple.”
Luke’s green eyes turned sympathetic. “It really is, Tommy. Noah isn’t going to hurt you. He isn’t that kind of guy.”
“But my parents…,” Tommy began, still clutching the shovel in front of him. How many times had he defended his place in the closet with those three words?
“I’m not saying it won’t be hard, but your parents can’t live your life for you. They moved to the church knowing Noah is gay. See how they cope with you making a friend first.” Luke smiled at him. “Now, git, or Momma will be chewing my hide. You know what she’s like when there’s a cards afternoon.”
Startled, Tommy almost dropped the shovel. “Your momma’s playing cards? I thought she was meeting with the ladies.”
“She is. Except the ladies have an interesting way of studying the Bible. But don’t you tell her I told you,” Luke warned.
There were footsteps outside, and Jack hove into view, a smile on his face. “Ready to get going, Tommy?”
“Sure. I’ve only finished Lulu. I kept being interrupted.” He shot a look at Luke, who laughed and clapped him on the back.
“Say hello to the pastor. Liz and I’ll be there on Sunday. She’s got the day off.” Jack and his wife lived off the ranch and got to church as much as her shifts at the local hospital allowed.
Tommy couldn’t help the flush that spread across his cheeks at the thought of talking to Noah. “I’ll tell him,” he mumbled as he brushed past the two men.
“I’ll call Momma. Don’t take too long making yourself look pretty,” Luke called after him.
Stumbling over his feet, Tommy nearly turned around, horrified at Luke’s obvious implication, but then he heard Jack say, “You sure you want to send him? He’s fair game for all those women.”
“Why do you think I don’t want to go?” Luke retorted, and they both laughed.
Flipping them both off, Tommy made his way into the bunkhouse. It was empty, and after collecting fresh jeans and a shirt, he made his way to the bathroom. Whatever happened, he couldn’t go stinking of horse shit. Luke’s momma wouldn’t approve.
St. Mark’s was about an hour away from the ranch, and Pamela spent most of the ride holding her injured arm against her body, thin lines of pain etched around her mouth. She didn’t seem to want to chat. Too busy worrying about her husband, Tommy imagined. The parking lot was two-thirds full as they arrived. As he put the truck in park, Tommy looked at Pamela. “Do you want me to pick you up later, Momma?”
She frowned at him. “Luke said you’d be staying. I think Noah is looking forward to having some male company. He uses it as an excuse to pretend that he doesn’t know the poker game is going on.”
Tommy’s jaw dropped. The ladies of the church were playing poker? “Please tell me my mother isn’t there.”
Pamela snorted as she reached for the door handle. “She’s one of the best we’ve got. That woman is a card shark. The others say we’ve raised more money since she arrived than in the previous six months.”
Tommy felt a little dizzy. “But she’s only been going three weeks.”
“Yes,” said Pamela grimly. “As I said, card shark.” She took a look at his face. “Don’t look so shocked, son. It’s just like quilting but with cards.”
“But you’re gambling in the Lord’s house,” he said faintly.
“With Monopoly money,” she assured him. “Then we agree to match it in donations to repair the church roof. It’s all controlled very tightly. The menfolk don’t like it if you spend too much beer money.”
Shaking his head in disbelief, Tommy walked around the truck to help Pamela out and waited while she got her balance. She beamed at him, the lines in her face easing as they started walking to the side door of the church.
“It’s much more fun than sticking a needle in some tatty old fabric. I wish I’d found this church years ago.”
“No wonder my mom likes coming here so much,” he mused, more to himself than Pamela. “She always hated the sewing and baking sessions.”
“Parents always surprise their kids,” Pamela said sagely. “Now, let me find the ladies, and you can keep the pastor company.”
Tommy shot a look at Pamela, but she was walking on ahead. He wasn’t fooled, though. That woman never missed a thing. Pushing open the door for Pamela, he followed her as she walked into a room with about half a dozen women already around a table, his mother being one of them. Tommy grinned at the sight of the Monopoly money. Evelyn caught sight of her son and ducked her head, flushing deeply. His lips twitched. It was the first time in living memory he could remember seeing his mother discomfited. Caught ready to gamble in church. Evelyn was never going to live this down.
A hand landed on his shoulder, startling him. Tommy was acutely aware of Noah’s spicy cologne and his body, warm against Tommy’s back. He froze like a startled rabbit, caught between the object of his fantasies and his mother. The only small bit of comfort was that his mother looked even more uncomfortable with the pastor’s eyes upon her.
Pamela turned to look at the pastor over Tommy’s shoulder. “Morning, Noah,” she said brightly. “We’re just about to start quilting, so if you want to escape now….”
The pastor sighed, his breath tickling Tommy’s ear. “I’m not sure what’s worse. The fact you’re gambling or the fact you’re outright lying to my face, Momma.”
“Why, Pastor Taylor, how could you say such a thing?” she gasped in mock indignation. “Now shoo. Take this nice young man and go and talk man things while the good ladies and I talk… about things you don’t need to hear.”
“Come on, Tommy.” Noah’s hand slipped to Tommy’s waist to guide him away. “Let’s run before they corrupt us even more.”
“Hush now.” Pamela grinned and virtually pushed them both out of the room. “See you later. You boys play nice.”
Now that was going too far in front of his mom. Tommy turned to glare at Pamela, but she shut the door in his face. When he turned back, Noah was grinning at him.
“I wasn’t expecting to see you today,” he said, beckoning Tommy further down the hallway, leading him into a small kitchen. “Do you want a Coke or a tea?”
“Uh… Coke would be great.” Tommy stumbled over his words. Jesus! He mentally apologized upstairs for taking the Lord’s name. He really had to get his head together around this man.
Noah opened the fridge door and surveyed the contents. “I can offer Coke or Dr Pepper,” he advised.
“Coke, please.” Tommy held out his hand for the can, suppressing a shiver as their fingertips brushed lightly, and took a seat at the kitchen table. It was a tiny whitewashed room, only just accommodating the table and chairs. Cups and saucers were laid out on a tray, presumably ready for the ladies when they had finished “quilting.” It was much easier to think of it like that. The thought of his mother gambling was just too much.
“How is Greg?” Noah asked. “I’ve not been in to see him in a few days. He was looking good the last time I saw him.”
“The Boss is doing great.” Tommy smiled as he thought of Luke’s dad the last time he’d seen him. It had been touch and go for a long time, but against the odds, Greg Murray was starting to pull through, although he still wasn’t stable enough to have the triple bypass.
“And Luke and Simon? How are they?” Noah inquired.
Tommy frowned a little. Noah knew how Luke and Simon were, having seen them a couple of days ago.
“They’re fine, and Chuck is as well,” he said shortly. “Would you like to ask about the horses?”
Noah gave him a startled look, and then he laughed ruefully. “He was probably next on my list,” he admitted, looking embarrassed.
“I never thought you’d have problems finding something to talk about,” Tommy said with a smirk.
“I don’t think we’ve ever had a conversation alone before,” Noah pointed out, his fingers unconsciously smoothing away the beads of condensation on the soda can.
Unable to drag his eyes away from Noah’s long fingers caressing the can, Tommy licked his lips.
“Don’t do that!”
Tommy looked up. “Huh?” he said, confused.
Noah’s dark eyes were intent on his mouth. “Don’t lick your lips like that. It’s distracting.”
“I didn’t… I…. ” Tommy stopped, unable to complete the sentence, nervously licking his lips again.
Noah made a low noise in the back of his throat. “Tommy Bradley, you are a tease.”
“I don’t mean to be,” Tommy said honestly, bewildered by Noah’s reaction.
“I know you don’t, and that’s what makes it so enticing.”
Tommy was shocked when Noah leaned over and covered his hand with his own. He tried to pull back. What if his mom saw them holding hands; what if anyone saw them? Noah refused to let him go.
“Do you like me?” the pastor asked bluntly.
“I… uh… you’re… my pastor,” Tommy said faintly.
That provoked an eye roll. “Look,” Noah began, “I’m not going to lie to you. I’m attracted to you, Tommy. I know you’re attracted to me.”
Tommy looked at the kitchen door, tugging to retrieve his hand. What if someone walked in?
Noah gave him an understanding look and let go of his hand. “I know you’re not out,” he said more quietly. “Luke knows, doesn’t he?”
“And Simon now.” Tommy swallowed hard. “That’s all. How did you know I was…?” He paused, not even wanting to say the word here. He was blinded by the leer Noah gave him.
“My gaydar is never wrong.”
Noah’s confidence was annoying. Tommy was tempted to tell him he was straight just to prick that bubble of smugness.
“My parents…,” Tommy muttered, resisting the urge to poke his tongue out.
“Don’t know.” Noah nodded. “I know.”
“They think I’m straight. I want to move away. Find somewhere I can….” He trailed off.
“Be yourself?” Noah suggested, his eyes gentle on Tommy’s face.
“They’d throw me out if they found out.”
“Have you ever been in a relationship with a man, Tommy?”
Tommy shook his head. “I’ve never even kissed a man, kissed anyone, for that matter.”
Noah looked surprised. “Not one?”
“No opportunity. I’m not out anywhere, and I don’t know any gay men except Luke and Simon, and it’s not like—well, they’re completely exclusive.”
“Yes, they are. I’ve never met a couple so tight. You know a few more gay men than that now you come to my church.”
“So do my parents.” Tommy shrugged. “I never thought I’d see that day. Why do they come here?”
Shaking his head, Noah said, “You know I can’t tell you that.” His eyes softened. “I can tell you that maybe you ought to try talking to them.”
Tommy stared at him incredulously. “Have you tried talking to my mom? She cheered when Pastor Tony said that all queers burn in hell.”
At Noah’s raised eyebrow, Tommy squirmed. “She agreed, anyhow.”
“Just talk to them, Tommy. They feel real bad for what’s happened to Greg and Pamela.”
“But not what happened to Luke and Simon,” Tommy pointed out.
Noah huffed out a breath. “I think people need time. You can’t expect them to change overnight.”
“I don’t expect anything from people around here. Not anymore.” Tommy couldn’t stop the bitterness in his voice. As far as he was concerned, he couldn’t wait to see the back of his childhood home. Tommy had had nothing but good times at Lost Cow, apart from the frustration of his feelings for Luke, but as for the people in the town, he wouldn’t give them the time of day.
“It’s been a difficult time,” Noah agreed.
Tommy had to bite back the angry words. Noah had no real idea what he was talking about. And then Tommy looked at Noah, really looked at him, and saw the understanding in his eyes. Noah was an out and proud black homosexual living in Texas.
“Was it bad?” he asked awkwardly.
“Pretty awful,” Noah agreed easily, not put out by the question.
Tommy opened and closed his mouth, not really sure what to say.
“Maybe I’ll tell you one day,” Noah said, patting Tommy’s hand. “Would you like another drink? I have some danish as well.”