Chapter One

 

WILSON EDWARDS walked up the long driveway toward the house he’d just purchased. “Isn’t this great?” he asked with a huge smile on his face. He could already feel the tension leaching out of his body. Greenish-brown grass stretched out to the Wyoming mountains, and as far as he could see, there wasn’t a house, a car, or any evidence of another human being. In fact, the only thing he could hear was the wind rushing past his ears, and that was perfect. Trees and fences dotted the horizon, but mostly what he saw was land, land, and more land.

“No,” Howard said sullenly from next to him. “It’s dirty and there’s nothing here.” Howard somehow made his opinion sound like a pronouncement from God. “Willie, let’s get out of here and find a decent hotel, preferably one with a bar.”

Wilson whirled on the other man, balling his fists in sharp impatience. “Willie doesn’t exist here. He’s someone you made up to sell records ten years ago, and I’m really sick of Willie. I’m tired, Howard, and if I hear another crowd chanting my name right now, I’ll wring your neck. I need a vacation, and this is where I’m going to take it.” Wilson looked down at his manager in total exasperation. Howard was in worn cowboy boots, old-looking jeans, and even an old leather jacket. Well, actually, every stitch of Howard’s clothes was very nearly new, just made to look old. It was a costume, just like the clothes Wilson wore. They were cut and made to look Western because that went with his image, but the clothes came from an exclusive shop on Rodeo Drive that made everything to Wilson’s measurements, as opposed to the dry goods store or the JCPenney, where real people bought their clothes. “I don’t want my life to be fake any longer.” Wilson continued walking up the drive, ignoring Howard as he huffed behind him.

“Couldn’t we at least have driven up here?”

Wilson looked over his shoulder. “No. I want to actually see the place,” he snapped before turning back to look at the small ranch house. Someone had obviously taken care of it because even the shrubs around the house were neatly trimmed, and the house was painted. The barns and stables looked in good repair. Not that he’d really know, but things didn’t look dilapidated or run-down. “It’s perfect,” Wilson said softly, a little more of the underlying tension leaving his body. For months, his back had ached from hotel beds and sleeping on a rolling bus as it moved from one city to another, but all that seemed to leave him as his lungs sucked deep and hard on the clean, fresh air. Wilson’s mind settled and cleared as he got closer to what was going to be his home.

“It’s a dump,” Howard mumbled from behind him.

“I know it isn’t Los Angeles, with its houses in the hills, swimming pools, movie stars,” Wilson sang from the Beverly Hillbillies theme.

“How long do you intend to stay here before you come home?” Howard asked as Wilson stepped onto the empty front porch. Its new owner could see it decorated with a rocking chair and comfortable furniture.

“Howard, the house in Malibu has been sold, and the house in Brentwood is on the market. I’m done with that rat race and all the fake people living in fake Mediterranean houses on streets that look more like Hollywood sets than real life.”

“What about rehearsals?” Howard looked around. “And where will the band stay, as well as the rest of the team?”

“They’re not, and before you ask, neither are you. We’ve been joined at the freaking hip for a decade, and it’s time I was out on my own.”

“You’re firing me?” Howard nearly shouted, and Wilson shook his head.

“No, I’m not firing you. I’m kicking you out of my private life. You’ve been living in my house, running my career, my personal appearances, everything, for a decade. You will continue to run my career, but that’s all. I want my own life, so you’ll need to get your own place to live.” Wilson had grown to resent his friend and manager’s intrusions into his life lately. He knew Howard was looking out for him, but Wilson was a big boy, and he could take care of himself.

Wilson fished the key to the house that the Realtor had given him out of his pocket, unlocked the door, and pushed it open. After stepping inside, he waited for Howard, who followed along behind like a kicked puppy.

“If you’re really going to do this, you’re going to need me here,” Howard said and began looking around, and Wilson could see his manager’s mind was already whirling. “We could blow out that back wall and enlarge the place, add a master suite and a great room with a studio off it.”

“Howard!” Wilson raised his voice. “You are here for just a few days, and then you’re going back to LA. I’m not adding on to the house so you can stay here. I want my own life, Howard. Why is that so hard for you to understand? I want you to do your job and to keep doing it as well as you have been. You’re a great manager, but I expect you to listen to me.”

“You can’t be serious about living… here?” Howard asked him as he stood in the middle of the living room, motioning around him.

“At least it’s real here, and it feels right.”

“But you’re contracted to do that movie in a few months, and they paid you a lot of money already.” Howard had snapped back into business mode, which was a relief to see, because it meant he was processing what was happening.

“I’ll still do the movie, and then come back here. I plan to live here. This is going to be home. I’m going to put down real roots, far away from groupies and fake parties, where everyone is more concerned about what you’re wearing and who you are than the person on the inside.” Wilson walked to where Howard stood gaping at him, his boots clicking on the wood floors, the sound echoing off the walls in the empty room. “I need this, and so do you. You’ve been living for me for so long you don’t know how to do anything different. Find yourself someone to love. Settle down and have a house full of kids, if that’s what you want. But I’ve decided what I’m going to do.” Damn, that felt good to say.

Howard continued looking around. “While we’re here, we may as well look around. And then can we head back to the car and the hotel? I have calls to make.” Wilson didn’t pay Howard much attention as he looked around the house again. He’d bought it based on website photos and a virtual tour, and the place looked exactly as he expected it to. The house wasn’t fancy, but it felt comfortable. “We could bring in a designer to make the place livable,” Howard said from across the room, and Wilson ignored him. He wanted to furnish the house the way he wanted it. No designer geegaw, and no fancy crap like the place in LA.

“No thanks,” Wilson said with a touch of pleasure. He wanted this to be his place and to feel like him, not someone else. “I’m going to do it myself.” Howard laughed, and Wilson turned and glared at him. “You’re treading on thin ice, Howard,” Wilson said very sternly.

“Come on. I had to do the place in LA for you. It had to fit your image.”

Now it was Wilson’s turn to scoff. “You mean your image. You furnished it the way you wanted it when I was out of town, remember? But that’s okay, considering you helped pay for the place.” Wilson waited for Howard’s brain to process what he’d said.

“No, I didn’t. That house was yours… is yours.”

“And you think I let you live there all those years for free? Please. My accountant has deducted your rent from your percentage for the last decade, at market rates, I might add. Your percentage did not include free rent.” Wilson walked over to Howard, staring him down. “When we started, you were my best friend, but somewhere along the way, you figured you were entitled. Well, I figured you weren’t. You’re a good manager, but you turned into a crappy friend who only told me what I wanted to hear. We grew up in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, for Christ’s sake, and as soon as I hit it big, you glommed onto all the LA lifestyle my money could afford. I’m tired of it, and I need a rest.” If possible, Howard’s expression looked like a deflated hot-air balloon.

“Jesus, Willie, I—”

“Don’t call me Willie here. It’s Wilson or Will, like when we were kids. We had such dreams, and they never looked like that crap in LA, remember? We were going to help our families and make great music. We made the music, but we helped no one but ourselves.” Wilson stared into his friend’s eyes. “I don’t want to do that anymore, and I expect you to listen, or I’ll find someone who will. And if I get the slightest hint that you can’t be trusted, I’ll pull the plug on you so fast it’ll make your head spin. Am I making myself clear?”

“You don’t trust me?” Howard asked, looking a bit like the kid Wilson had known back in eighth grade, when they’d first met.

“I don’t know,” Wilson answered honestly. “So if you want me to, you’d better demonstrate it. I’m sorry it has to be this way, but it does. Now, tomorrow I want you to go back to LA, and I want you to arrange for the sale of all the god-awful crap in the Brentwood house. I’ll be back in LA in a few days, and we can talk then. I suggest you think about what you really want. We’re not kids anymore, and I don’t want to live like one.”

“I think I understand.” Howard looked serious and focused, a look Wilson hadn’t seen in a while.

“I hope you do.” Wilson walked toward the bedrooms. “And one more thing. You are forbidden from telling anyone where I am under almost any circumstances. I don’t want reporters or wannabes beating a path to my door. I want a home. You are welcome here as long as you can be civil and as long as you respect my boundaries.” Howard nodded. “You’ve been good to me, but I’ve been good to you as well.”

“I never knew you felt this way,” Howard said with a touch of regret.

“You would have if you’d have listened. I’ve been saying for months that I haven’t been happy and wanted to get out of LA, but you kept passing it off.” Wilson knew in his heart that Howard hadn’t been malicious. He’d been focused on business and Wilson’s career instead of on Wilson himself. “So I’m going to live here, and I’ll commute when I need to.”

Howard nodded and let out a huge sigh. “I guess I haven’t been much of a friend, have I?” Wilson didn’t answer. Howard’s question was enough for Wilson to know that he’d finally gotten through to him. Wilson finished his walk-through of the house before stepping outside into the late-afternoon sun. “Can we go back to the hotel? I really do need to make those calls, plus a few more now.”

“That’s fine. You can make your calls, and I’m going to look around town. We can go to dinner at that steak place we passed on the way. I’m in the mood for a good old-fashioned steak dinner, and since this is beef country, I bet it’ll be damned good. I’ll even let you buy.” Howard actually laughed, and Wilson put his arm around his friend’s shoulders.

 

 

THE restaurant was hopping when they walked in, and the hostess looked frazzled and worn. She must have been running to beat the band all evening. “I’m sorry. It’ll be a while,” she said. “We just got a large group. Would you mind waiting?” she said as pleasantly as she could.

“No problem, darlin’,” Wilson answered in his deep voice, and he saw her eyes widen and then her cheeks flush. Wilson had gotten used to having that effect on women; it was part of how he made his money. “I’m Wilson, and you can call us when our table’s ready.”

“Of course, sir,” she told him, and Wilson saw her look at him like something in the back of her mind said she should know him, but she couldn’t quite place him. That was fine. Wilson didn’t really want to be recognized or given special treatment. Whenever he was recognized in LA, people fawned all over him, tripping over their own feet to get him whatever he wanted.

“You know, if you’d told her who you were, you wouldn’t have to wait,” Howard whispered from next to him once they’d sat on one of the benches.

“That’s not what I want here, and waiting for a table is fine.” Wilson rested back against the wall. He loved watching people, though it was something he rarely got to do. The door opened and a large group of men entered.

“You did make a reservation?” an attractive shorter man asked the tall man behind him.

“Of course, Wally,” the tall, broad-shouldered man answered patiently before walking to the hostess. She must have told them it would be a few minutes, because the six of them walked to where he and Howard were sitting, filling the bench across from them. They began to talk animatedly amongst themselves, but Wilson noticed the smaller man, Wally, peering at him every few seconds. Finally, Wally stood up and walked over.

“Excuse me, but you’re Willie Meadows, aren’t you?” Wally asked in just above a whisper. “I have all your CDs, and we just love your music.”

“Thank you,” Wilson said. He encountered this all the time, although rarely was he approached so politely.

“Are you waiting for a table?” Wally asked, and Wilson could see the excitement behind Wally’s eyes looking like a cherry bomb about ready to burst. “We made reservations for eight, but one couple couldn’t make it. You and your friend would be welcome to join us. I promise we won’t gush over you… too much. They’re busy tonight, so the wait could be awhile.”

Wilson’s stomach had been grumbling for a while, and he knew Howard was hungry as well. “If you really don’t mind, but only if you promise to treat me like everyone else.”

“Dakota,” Wally said, turning to the other man, “these two gentlemen are joining us. They’ve already been waiting awhile, and we have extra room.” Just like that, Wilson found himself included. He wasn’t sure this was a good idea, but Wally seemed nice, and unlike other people who had recognized him, Wally didn’t yell out his name or make a scene. It also occurred to Wilson that if he was going to live here, he would need to be a part of the community and make friends.

The hostess approached and led the group back toward a large, round table. “I’m Wilson, and this is Howard,” he said, shaking hands all around.

“I’m Wally, and this is Dakota, Phillip, Haven, Dan, and Mario. It’s nice to meet you.”

Greetings were exchanged all around the table, and then everyone sat down.

“This is a bit of a celebration,” Wally said from across the table. “Dakota just finished his residency, and he’s opening a medical practice here in town.” Wally looked at Dakota, and Wilson immediately knew they were a couple. It was obvious just by the way they looked at one another. Wilson felt Howard tense slightly next to him, but Wilson ignored it. As he watched the others, Wilson realized they were all couples. Wilson knew he was gay, he’d accepted that some time ago, but for career reasons he’d always been very careful, because fame and success were fleeting. Wilson knew that all it might take was one small thing to end everything he’d worked for. So while he’d spent a lot of time around gay people—he lived in LA, after all—his own sexuality was a closely guarded secret.

Their server approached the table, and everyone placed drink orders. Pretty much everyone ordered a beer, including Wilson, but Howard ordered a martini. Thankfully, no one other than Wally seemed to have recognized him, and Wally hadn’t said a word. “So what brings you to our little town?” Dakota asked from next to Wally.

“I just bought a place and I’ve decided to move here. It’s a little north of town.”

“That wouldn’t be the Henfield place, would it?” Dakota must have seen the surprise on Wilson’s face, because he explained, “It’s a small town. There may be lots of land, but there’s a lot more cattle than people, and everyone tends to know everyone else.” Dakota sipped from his beer. “Did you buy the horses as well? Henfield had some amazing animals.”

“No. The place is very clean, but all the animals were gone by the time I looked at it. I would have liked to see the place with horses in the paddocks.” Wilson could feel a touch of excitement shoot through him as he thought of raising horses on his land.

“Have you decided what you’re going to do with the place?” Haven asked.

“Not yet.” He really hadn’t thought much beyond finding someplace with room to spread out and get away from the city. “I happened to see an ad for the place on a real estate site, and the idea of living here appealed to me. I haven’t made many decisions beyond the actual purchase.” Wilson hoped he didn’t sound like too big a fool. What sort of person buys a small ranch sight unseen with no plans as to what to do with it? Maybe Howard was right and he was being stupid about this whole thing.

“Have you thought of raising horses? That land is perfect for it, but Mrs. Henfield couldn’t keep up with everything once her husband died. That’s why she sold,” Wally explained.

Wilson nodded but didn’t commit. Saying anything would mean revealing the fact that he didn’t know a thing about horses, or anything else about the country, for that matter. Thankfully, as Wilson’s nerves began to ramp up, their server approached the table and took their orders. Once she left, the conversation veered around to other subjects. Wilson learned that Wally, Dakota, Haven, and Phillip owned quite a large ranch, and that they’d been friends and business partners for a few years now. He also learned that Dan and Mario worked on the ranch as well.

Howard elbowed him under the table and looked toward the restroom. Wilson knew what that look meant, he’d seen it a number of times before, but for now Wilson chose to ignore it. Whatever was bothering Howard would wait until the ride back to the hotel.

“So what do you do?” Phillip asked, and Wilson heard a humph as Wally appeared to elbow him in the side.

“It’s all right,” Wilson said to Wally, and Phillip glared indignantly at his friend. “I’m a singer,” Wilson said in a low voice, and he waited. Wally had already recognized him, and he thought Dakota might have as well.

“Willie Meadows,” Wally stage-whispered, and Wilson watched as the others’ eyes widened. Wilson got ready to bid a hasty retreat from the table.

“Wally listens to your music all the time,” Dan said. “Nearly drove us crazy when your last CD came out.” Dan’s matter-of-fact tone, combined with the no-nonsense looks he was getting from around the table, allowed Wilson to breathe a sigh of relief. “So why are you really here?” Dan asked.

“I needed time away from the city and everything that goes with it. I bought the ranch because I needed room to breathe without managers and all the hangers-on that come with what I do.”

Dakota looked at the others around the table. “If you want peace, that’s what you’ll get. None of us will mention anything to anyone. Holden Ranch is just a few miles away from your place, and you’re welcome there anytime.” The food arrived, and once again the conversation continued, and thankfully it didn’t center on him. Instead, they talked about cattle, horses, and of all things, the price of feed and hay. For the first time in almost a decade, Wilson felt like a regular person, and damn if that didn’t feel good.

Once dinner was over, everyone paid their bills, which was eye-opening for Wilson. He was so used to paying the bill for everyone whenever he went out that he nearly choked when his check came and it was for fifty bucks plus tip. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen a check that small or had food and company that good. Leaving the restaurant, Wilson shook hands with each of the guys. “It was great to meet all of you,” Wilson said, feeling surprisingly comfortable.

“I was serious—if you need anything, just give us a call.” Dakota gave Wilson his phone number, shook his hand firmly, and the guys headed toward their trucks as Wilson headed to the rented Lexus.

“I had a great time,” Wilson said once he was belted into the passenger seat next to Howard.

“Those people were just interested in you because of who you are,” Howard cautioned. In LA, most people had to get to him through Howard. He was used to playing Willie Meadows’s gatekeeper, and he took that duty rather seriously.

“I don’t think so. Most of them had no idea who I was, and once they knew, they didn’t really care.” Wilson smiled at the thought that he might be able to actually have friends—real friends. He shifted on the seat so he could look at Howard. “Do you have any idea how long it’s been since I had friends of any kind?” A wave of sadness hit Wilson in the gut like a punch.

“I know, and I don’t blame you,” Howard said as he started the car. “But what you have comes with a price. You know that and you have to be careful. Remember Calvin?”

Wilson shuddered and tried to put the humiliation out of his mind. “I know,” Wilson said quietly. He knew that very well.

“I’m also worried about you hanging around with them. This may be a small town in the middle of nowhere, but it’s a small world, and your career hung by a thread for a while. It’s been forgotten now and you want it to remain that way, especially out here.” Howard’s voice held an edge, and Wilson knew exactly what he was talking about.

They pulled into the hotel, and Wilson got out of the car, heading straight to his room. Once the door was closed and he knew no one could see him, he opened his bag and pulled out the whiskey bottle that he seemed to keep perpetually close at hand. He opened the bottle, poured some into one of those disposable hotel cups that came wrapped in plastic, and downed it in a gulp. The warmth, as false and fake as the clothes he wore, slipped down his throat before settling in his stomach. He knew this wouldn’t do him any good, and it never made the loneliness go away for long. He thought about having more, but closed the bottle and stared at it for a while before opening it again and pouring the liquor in the sink. It was time to make some changes. Throwing away the cup, he was about to get ready for bed when a knock on the door was quickly followed by Howard walking into the room, his phone at his ear. It was going to be another long, lonely night. Wilson reminded himself not to give Howard a key to his room.

 

 

WILSON knew that Howard would sleep for hours in the morning, so he got up, showered, and dressed. After leaving his manager a note, he took the car and drove back out to his house. He really wanted to be able to take a good look around without Howard explaining what was wrong with everything. When he turned into the drive, Wilson was surprised to see an old truck pulled off into the yard near the barn. And when he parked the car, Wilson saw someone come out of the barn.

“Morning, mister,” the man said, and as he walked toward the car, Wilson saw he couldn’t have been much more than twenty, skinny as a beanpole, but with an earnest expression that Wilson found endearing. “Do you know what happened?” he asked, motioning around him. “I was supposed to come here for a job, but everything’s gone.” He looked almost brokenhearted.

“I’m the new owner,” Wilson explained through the open car window.

“What happened to Mrs. Henfield?” the kid asked, and he started to shake a little. “She wrote me some months back, offering me a job training her horses. I got hurt and told her I needed to heal up, so she told me to come when I was better.” Dang, if he’d been sick, he certainly didn’t look like he’d had time to heal. His face was slightly drawn and thin. Wilson also couldn’t help noticing that the end of his belt hung a little long, like he was notching it in a lot more than he used to.

“I’m sorry, but her husband died, and she sold the ranch,” Wilson explained.

The kid definitely looked heartbroken, and he turned around and walked back toward his old truck. Wilson watched as he opened the door and climbed inside but made no move to start the engine. Instead, Wilson saw him lean his head against the steering wheel like he didn’t quite know what to do. Wilson pulled the car to what looked like a decent place to park and got out, wandering over to the kid’s truck. The young man hadn’t moved, and if Wilson hadn’t known better, he’d almost think the kid was asleep, except when he looked through the window, Wilson saw him shaking.

Wilson tapped lightly on the window, and the kid lifted his head. The fear Wilson saw in those deep brown eyes shocked him. “What’s going on?”

“Nothing. I just needed this job real bad, and now it’s gone. I ain’t got the money to fill up the tank to get somewhere else, let alone eat. But that ain’t yer problem.” The kid wiped his face and started the engine.

Wilson stepped back as the kid put the truck in gear and started down the driveway. Wilson listened to the truck as it turned onto the road and sped up before sputtering a few times. Wilson saw the kid maneuver the truck off the road before it died. He sighed and walked back to his car. After starting the engine, he drove down the driveway and stopped behind where the kid’s truck had run out of gas. Wilson got out and walked up to the driver’s door. He saw the kid once again slumped over the steering wheel, and this time, Wilson pulled the door open. The screech of metal was almost deafening, and he realized the truck was barely holding itself together. “Come on. I’m heading back to town, and I can take you with me.” There was no way Wilson could leave him out here. When he didn’t move, Wilson held out his hand. “It’s okay.”

“No, it’s not,” the kid said as he got out of the truck. He looked sort of glassy-eyed, and Wilson was beginning to wonder when he’d last eaten, or slept, for that matter.

“Go get in the car,” Wilson said as he wrenched the truck door closed. He watched as the kid walked alongside the truck reaching into the back for what looked like some sort of old duffel bag. He lifted it out and nearly fell over as he did. Wilson popped open the trunk, and the kid set his duffel inside.

“I’m real sorry about this, mister,” he said, looking toward the ground.

“Don’t think twice about it,” Wilson said. He understood where the kid was coming from. No, he hadn’t been out stranded in the middle of nowhere alone. Instead, he’d been stranded in LA, which was probably worse in a lot of ways. “The name’s Wilson, by the way,” he said with a smile he hoped looked reassuring.

“Steve,” the kid said, and after lightly closing the trunk, he slid into the passenger seat and closed the door, keeping as far away from Wilson as he could.

“I won’t hurt you, I promise.” The haunted look in the kid’s eyes told him that wasn’t going to soothe him any. Something pretty bad had happened to this kid, and he was mighty scared and nervous. Wilson put the car in gear and pulled onto the road, heading back toward town. When he pulled into the hotel parking lot, Steve got really nervous, and at first Wilson thought he was going to jump out of the car. “This is where I’m staying. I need to make sure my friend is up, and then we can get something to eat.” Wilson got out of the car, taking the keys with him, just because it was prudent, and knocked on Howard’s door.

“I was wondering where you went. I’m starving,” Howard said as he closed his door and walked toward the car. He stopped when he saw the front seat was already occupied. “What’s this?” he asked, glaring quizzically at Wilson. “You picked up some kid?” Howard hissed.

“That’s enough,” Wilson snapped, his teeth clenched. “Remember our conversation yesterday. You work for me, not the other way around. I do not need to justify myself to you.” Wilson stared at Howard to make sure he got the message.

What he saw in return was hurt and concern. “You picked up some kid?” Howard asked again. “What were you thinking? He could have robbed you or worse.”

Wilson chuckled slightly as he looked to where Steve sat in the car. “He probably hasn’t eaten in a while, and I don’t think he’s feeling well. Mrs. Henfield offered him a job sometime back, and he showed up today only to find the place empty.” Howard looked skeptical. “His old truck ran out of gas at the end of the drive, and he doesn’t have money to go anywhere else. I couldn’t leave him there.” Wilson looked at the car once again, surprised at how his eyes were drawn to the man sitting in the passenger seat. The kid really wasn’t much to look at, well, maybe not compared to the golden boys he’d seen in California, but Steve was real. Wilson shook his head slightly, pushing those thought from his brain. Steve was someone who needed help, nothing more. He would make sure Steve was okay and send him on his way. “Let’s go get something to eat. Steve can come with us, and then we’ll figure out how to get his truck brought into town. Then you can head back to LA to get things moving. I’ll be along in a few days to make final arrangements.”

Howard looked skeptical, and Wilson would have said more, but Steve opened the car door and climbed out. Closing it, he stood by the car, looking like he would fall over at any moment. Wilson glanced at Howard and saw the minute the fight went out of him. “We’re going to get somethi