Chapter One



I SIGHTED down the arrow nocked against the bowstring, trying to focus on the target instead of the chill breeze blowing across my bare ass.

Quite aside from the fact that I was shivering alone, I would not allow Kurt to have the last laugh in this little contest. He remained admirably silent in spite of watching my attempts to aim between shudders, although I knew he was dying to bust out laughing and demand another piece of clothing as forfeit. I was running out of things to take off.

Taking advantage of a lull in the breeze, both for my comfort and for my aim, I released my arrow. It flew with a slight upward curve, slicing through the air and coming down in perfect alignment with the gold ring in the near center of the target. The znng of the bowstring still hissed near my ear when the arrow struck—I’d learned to hold my stance those extra seconds to avoid introducing a bad vector to my shot.

“Good one, Jake!”

Kurt Carlson, my lover, my self-appointed archery coach, and my current opponent, had spent a big chunk of last summer’s ranger season chivvying me into a semblance of competence with his long bow, which was both shorter and with a heavier draw weight than I needed. This year, I was armed, literally, with a bow that suited my reach, and my prowess had increased by leaps and bounds.

Not enough to keep me dressed in our game of strip archery, though. Even with well-fitted equipment and improved skills, I was standing at the shooting line wearing nothing but socks and boots. Kurt still had his ranger-green T-shirt and utility pants on, though my one very good shot cost him his hat.

My hat, utilities, shirt, and underwear lay in a ranger-green heap near a clump of mountain mahogany. At this point, I could only hope that the sight of my near-naked body would distract Kurt into muffing his shot. So far it wasn’t working—he’d seen me often enough in the last year that the novelty had to have worn off a little, although his enthusiasm for the view certainly hadn’t. Maybe if I was rubbing against him, or was slightly erect, but the breeze had raised a couple of goose bumps on my back end and done that shrinkage business in front. A safety measure, really. The last thing I needed was a close encounter between my dick and the bowstring.

“Your shot.” I ceded the shooting line to him, prepared to lose a sock.

He lifted his bow, arrow to the string, the late afternoon light filtering through the trees that ringed our little meadow to tip the ends of his blond hair with gold. With his back to me, his arm holding out the bow, and his face in profile, all he needed was a hunting horn to turn our Colorado mountain into Sherwood Forest. Looking at him, I knew I was lucky to have won even one round.

In spite of the stakes, we played fair; he didn’t laugh at me, and I didn’t cough or otherwise distract him. But should I warn him about the fly?

Not knowing if it was the biting sort, though it was big, dark, and not flying in a straight line, I held my tongue. Kurt pulled his bowstring back. I covered my groin.

It whizzed at me, veering off when I swatted at it with my free hand. Cutting past Kurt’s ear, it bzzed away without stopping for a taste.

But the damage was done.

Kurt danced sideways to avoid the fly at the exact moment he released the bowstring. The arrow arced up and came down near a low clump of yellow flowers, yards from the hay bales that supported our target.

“Agh!” He waved his bow to chase away the fly, and then an even louder, “Agh!” when he realized how badly he’d shot. “Interference.”

“Natural hazard.” I grinned at him. A puff of wind had stolen one of my earlier shots out of the gold ring and onto the edge of the red ring, costing me my utilities, so I wasn’t exactly sympathetic.

“Where’d it go?” He scanned the meadow. The pink fletching that should have made the arrow easy to find made the arrow look like a wildflower now, though the columbines, closest in shape and color, preferred the shade of the aspens.

“I shot an arrow in the air; where it fell I knew not where,” I quoted. “The bad shot will make me go bare, the arrow landed over there.” Between mangling Longfellow and pointing, I earned one of Kurt’s glares, his Colorado-sky-blue eyes slitted against the sun and bad rhymes. “Shirt. Off.”

“I’m still ahead,” he mumbled through the cotton he dragged over his head. He tossed his T-shirt at the pile of clothing.

“We both win,” I pointed out reasonably. “Could be worse.” I slid one hand over my chest and down to my hip, my sense of fair play succumbing to the magnificent sight of his exposed, muscular torso. If my next shot was going to be tougher because of his naked chest, I’d even up the distraction.

“More bare skin for the fly.” Kurt trailed one finger over his nipple.

Okay, two could play at that game, but since I was six feet of exposed hide, less a few inches protected by my work boots, I was feeling a little more vulnerable. I shook my ass, making my equipment swing. Even with the shrinkage, there was a fair amount of me flapping. “If it comes back, I’ll swat it for you.”

“You’d knock it into next week.” Kurt’s dimple, there at the right corner of his mouth, made an appearance. “If you were hard. I could help with that.”

He most certainly could, and was. Except…. “Two more shots finishes this. Three, maybe.”

I had two socks yet as my stake—we’d agreed that boots were safety, not clothing, when it came to strip archery. We couldn’t afford to be less than effective from something as stupid and avoidable as stepping on a sharp rock barefooted. Not when we’d have a fire to fight sooner or later, or wildlife to evade. Danger in the Uncompahgre National Forest came in more than one flavor.

“Two.” He grinned at me. “If you need to take it to the bitter end.”

Bastard. Okay, I have a competitive streak, not quite as wide as Kurt’s, but it’s still there, and I didn’t plan to give up so easily. I’d make him work for it—with a little luck, I could stretch this out to four shots. I didn’t have any real hope of winning, but a man has his pride.

Besides, I felt the need to test myself under pressure. Last year, when Kurt had been attacked by a biker, I’d driven the guy off by shooting him in the Harley. Since I’d been trying to skewer his big beer belly, nailing his gas tank had to be considered pure dumb luck, both for the hit and for running him off. I didn’t intend to depend on luck like that ever again. Kurt was far too precious to me.

Which didn’t mean that he wasn’t a distraction now. I willed my mind back to driving my eyes and hands instead of my cock. Being very, very careful not to bring the bow near enough to catch on my bobbing semierection, I took position, aimed, and fired.

“Bull’s-eye!” Kurt licked his lips and took his own shooting stance. I’d hit the gold center circle, but it was two inches across—he could possibly come nearer the exact middle.


He did, eying me archly. I balanced against him to pull my boot off. I waved my sock at him, because there had to be some upside to losing again, stuffed my bare foot back into the boot, and added his winnings to the pile of clothing. One last chance to delay defeat.

His hand was warm on my back. “We don’t have to play this all the way out, Jake.” He slid his hand lower, cupping my ass.

“We don’t,” I agreed, pulling him close and finding his mouth. Another game two could play at. I let him sink against me, and for a moment, I was tempted to just call it good right there, break off the competition, and slide my hand under the olive-green denim covering his ass. “But we’re going to.” I finished the kiss with a pop. “You shoot first this time.”

“Not fair.” He was as hard as I was, proving it by thrusting his groin against mine, and I cursed the clothing and my competitiveness. “We shoot at the same time.”

Still not exactly equal: one of us would be in line of sight of the other. I’d do my best to ignore him. “Fair enough.” My arrows had blue fletching; there wouldn’t be any issue knowing which arrow flew truest.

He turned his back to me, selecting an arrow and settling his feet at shoulder’s width apart. Kurt was only two inches shorter than I, which meant that his wide shoulders stayed in my field of vision, and if I dropped my eyes to his narrow butt, I might as well unstring my bow right then and declare him the winner.

With arrow to string, I told him, “Fire at will.”

If Will had been strapped to the bull’s-eye, he’d have been perfectly safe. My arrow hit the edge of the hay, but Kurt’s went wild. Had the fly come back? Surely I hadn’t rattled him that much with a smooch and a grope.

“You okay?”

“Yeah,” Kurt told me, standing abruptly straighter with his chin upthrust. Guess I had shaken his concentration, but I had won the round, even if my shot was lousy.

“Utilities.” Such was the penalty for distraction. Then I had to look away when the globes of his ass thrust out at me as he bent to pull off his boots and slide his britches off. Something heavy sagged the cargo pockets on each trouser leg. His folding knife on one side, probably, but I hadn’t seen him slip anything else in. Kurt tended to go prepared for all eventualities. Better not think about that too hard…. With laces flapping, he poked his feet back into his boots, leaving his utilities in a puddle on the ground. He would have to choose today to go commando.

“One more arrow.” I really didn’t think I could win another round to tie it. Not when I was shooting against a man with more skill and enough aggression to make the US Ski Team, and facing his bare behind.

“One more.”

If I was going to go down, I would do it in style. Regulating my breathing so my body’s motions wouldn’t influence my projectile, I tried to calm myself enough to shoot between heartbeats. Good luck with that, but the blue ring of the target and my arrowhead lined up, with the expectation that gravity would pull it down the few inches to the gold bull’s-eye. I’d learned to aim above what I expected to hit at this range.

“Fire at will.” Kurt gave the signal this time, something I heard only distantly; all my focus was thirty yards away.

Becoming the arrow was beyond me, but this might be the closest I’d ever come to Zen archery. I watched the arrows fly, with time slowed enough to see that one trailed the other slightly, pink fletching to the rear, and when they hit, they seemed to hit together. I came back to myself.

“Can you tell from here?” The fletchings looked like they touched.

“Nope.” Kurt looked surprised. Well, if he was expecting to rattle me with the sight of his naked backside, I’d messed with his perceptions. I should have insisted we swap off who stood to the right.

We wouldn’t be shooting again, so another kiss and cuddle before we went down range to collect our arrows wouldn’t have made a difference, but Kurt strode off, collecting the arrow he’d lost to the fly’s attack. He examined the yellow flowers carefully before marching on.

“Something weird about the plant?” I asked. It was low growing with grayish-green leaves, and I didn’t have a name for it.

“Just checking to see if it’s a native. We were told to keep an eye out for invasive species, remember?”

I did recall, but my ability to tell one gray-green plant with yellow flowers from another was pretty limited—this could be one of three species. “Is it?” I looked closely, trying to decide what the identifying characteristics were.

“Yes, it’s alpine avens. I thought it might be California poppy, but the flowers are smaller and the petals shaped differently. Besides, it’s kind of hard to tell what the home range for California poppy is. That’s found all over the West.” Kurt bent to collect his wild arrow, which had fallen short of the target by several paces. He tucked it between his fingers, careful not to foul the fletching on the arrow he already held.

“I thought poppies were red.”

“The garden kind comes in all sorts of colors, but California poppies are yellow, and prickly poppies are white. Those are native around here. There’s a huge stand of them by the scarp. About knee-high.”

Did we have a field of morphine plants in the middle of our national forest? Nah.

We reached the target and started to remove the arrows, starting with the ones farthest from center, mostly mine. We halted on the last two projectiles, one fletched blue, one fletched pink, that straddled the line between the center gold circle and the gold ring just outside it that made the bulls-eye. Mine was a few millimeters closer to the center. I blinked, unsure of what I was seeing.

Kurt pulled back a fraction of an inch. “Pretty good shooting, Jake.”

“Uh, I guess you owe me a sock.” I touched the arrows again, just to be sure I’d really accomplished this feat, before pulling one out of the target. Faced with nothing but the evidence of really good shooting, no distractions or insects helping, I wasn’t sure what to make of this. Besting Kurt by even this fraction just didn’t match my perceptions. Staying in hailing distance, yes. Beating him, no. I lay the arrow on top of the hay, ready to pull out the evidence.

“I guess I do.” He toed off a boot.

“No, don’t. Not here. You’ll only lose it.” Not anywhere. I yanked out the second arrow. Kurt’s socks led a life of their own, since he couldn’t seem to hit a laundry basket with them, but I didn’t want an escapee on the archery range.

“Looks like a tie.” He touched the holes in the target’s fabric and turned to me, his face tilted enough to reach my lips.

“No, you still won. You didn’t have any underwear on.” That thought steadied me a little.

“Don’t worry about it, Jake. It’s okay.” He brushed his mouth across mine. “That last arrow should take all.” He slipped his hands around my waist to pull me close—I took his shoulders and nuzzled back. “I’m declaring you the winner.” Picking up where he left off earlier, he rubbed his nude body against mine.

“Kurt, what are you doing?” I asked when he dropped out of kissing range, licking a trail down my chest, my belly, to my cock, which perked up under his breath.

“Going down in defeat, Hot Stuff.”