Chapter One

GROWING UP on a small cattle ranch, James Calhoun Brink III—Jimmy to his friends and family—had always dreamed of the bright lights and excitement of the big city. At the ripe old age of eight, he’d sworn animal shit of any kind would not be in his future. It was part of the reason he’d turned down the academic scholarship from the University of Tennessee—much to his parents’ dismay—instead heading for the University of Chicago to begin his studies in premed.

Now as his tires tore up the pavement leading to the old homestead, his heart was beating fast in anticipation of returning to the place he’d yearned to escape for much of his life. He’d had the same physical response the day he headed for Chicago, strange that. But this time he wasn’t just returning home for a visit. Jimmy couldn’t help but wonder if the years had lessened his dislike of the farm. Hell, maybe it was the fact that his mom and dad had sold most of the cattle last year in anticipation of retiring to Florida and the only shit Jimmy would have to clean up was from a couple of old coon hounds.

He glanced over at Oliver, who was staring out the window with wide blue eyes as he took in the scenery, his longish blond hair blowing wildly and accentuating the expression of excitement on Oliver’s delicate features. Jimmy reached over and entwined their fingers, smiling at his boyfriend’s animated glee. The two of them had had their problems—the last year had been a struggle, to say the least—so it was great to not only feel his own happiness, but witness it in Oliver too.

He’d met Oliver Francesc during his second year of med school and it had been lust at first sight. Jesus, had it been nearly two years already? Oliver was at UC studying history, a subject that seemed out of character for the flamboyant, full-of-life man. Jimmy would have thought Oliver would be more suited for studying song and dance or theater, but ancient history…. Nope, he wouldn’t have ever guessed that one from looking at Oliver. Jimmy also never would have guessed he’d have such a powerful physical reaction to Oliver. He’d always liked more bearish men, a preference he’d had since a young teen, but there was something about Oliver that had drawn Jimmy, and even with their ups and downs and glaring differences, they were still together. Jimmy still scratched his head over it, rarely finding the answers why. While Oliver might not have been studying dance and theater, he was still passionate about it, and the most infuriating aspect for Jimmy was the show tunes Oliver constantly listened to and sang aloud.

Recently Oliver had been hinting of marriage, but Jimmy wasn’t sure how he felt about it. It was one thing to spend the weekends together and the occasional weeknight, but marriage? Living together for the first time would be a test. If they could handle each other on a daily basis and fears and trust issues could be resolved, then maybe he’d consider marriage. But first there was the little matter of getting settled back home.

“Oh my God, that is the cutest little country store ever,” Oliver squealed.

Jimmy slowed the car and looked to where Oliver was pointing. “That’s Old Man Burker’s store.”

“Can we stop?”

“Sure, but it’s really nothing special, just your typical convenience store.”

Oliver cocked his head and grinned. “It’s not like any convenience store I’ve ever seen. It’s adorable.”

“You’ve lived a sheltered life. You need to get out of Chicago more often if you think this is special.”

“I get out plenty, just rarely out in the country.”

Jimmy pulled to the side of the road in front of Burker’s and cut the engine. “Well, you don’t get much more country than this Podunk town.”

Oliver brought their joined hands to his mouth and placed a kiss to the back of Jimmy’s knuckles. “Good thing I’ve always had a thing for country boys, huh, sweets?”

Jimmy gritted his teeth. He hated it when Oliver called him sweets, such a stupid endearment. But he wasn’t going to point it out again, not today. He sighed silently, knowing it wouldn’t do any good anyway. Rather than respond with words, Jimmy nodded and smiled before opening the door and stepping out. He ran around the front of the car and opened the passenger side door and held out his hand.

Oliver took Jimmy’s hand and allowed him to help him out of the car. “Do I look okay?” Oliver asked as he smoothed his hands down his tan shirt and slacks. “Road trips are hell on linen.”

“You look great,” Jimmy assured him.

“Thanks, baby.” Oliver pecked Jimmy on the cheek and then slicked back his hair, tucking it behind his ears before sashaying into Burker’s.

Lord, the folks in the little town of Hale weren’t going to know how to take Oliver Francesc. “Should be entertaining,” Jimmy muttered and pressed his lips together to keep from laughing.

While he was content to have Oliver with him, he’d be lying to himself if he said he wasn’t nervous about the reaction people in town would have to Oliver’s over-the-top ways. Hell, he was freaking out over wondering how said folks would react to him. When he’d left home for college, he hadn’t actually been out. His family and close friends knew he was gay—he’d never hidden the fact—but he’d never thrown it in their faces either. Until now. Having Oliver with him was definitely throwing it out there.

“Well, I’ll be. If it isn’t Jimmy Brink,” Charlotte Burker said in greeting as soon as Jimmy stepped through the door, causing the little bell to jingle.

Charlotte was sitting with a book in hand on one stool, feet propped up on another. He and Charlotte had grown up together, graduated from high school the same year, but had never been what he’d call friends. Not that there was any kind of animosity between them, but Charlotte was a true introvert, would rather read than interact with people. Being an only child, however, she was expected to work in the family store.

“Hi, Charlotte.” Jimmy stepped up to the counter and fingered the binding of the book. “Reading anything good?”

Charlotte pushed her glasses up on her freckled nose and brushed her mousy brown bangs out of her eyes. “Umm… nothing special.” Her cheeks turned pink as she shoved the book under the counter. Her gaze settled on Oliver, who was wandering among the homemade pastries.

“That good, huh?” Jimmy teased.

“Who’s that?” Charlotte nodded in Oliver’s direction.

“A friend from school. He thought the store was and I quote”—he made air quotes—“adorable.”

“This old place?” Charlotte sniffed without taking her eyes from Oliver. “He doesn’t get out of the city much, does he?”

“Oh. My. God! Jimmy, we have to get some of these,” Oliver declared, holding up a mini jar of jelly. “They are so cute.”

“That obvious, huh?”

Charlotte giggled. She seemed fascinated by Oliver as he scooped up jar after jar, her expression one of amusement rather than distaste.

Walking out of Burker’s with a bag full of mini jellies, local pastries, and an organic energy drink, Jimmy had to admit, Oliver’s first introduction to the folks—or in this case, folk—of Hale had gone well. Mind you, it was only Charlotte, who had never been one to join in on rumors or talk negatively about anyone. That’s not to say he had any false hope that the rest of the town would be as accommodating; most didn’t like strangers. Plus, being smack dab in the middle of the Bible Belt, for many, Oliver wouldn’t only be a stranger, but a sinner.

Still, Jimmy let out a small sigh of relief and smiled as he held the passenger door open for Oliver. Jimmy handed him his bag, ran around to the other side of the car, and slid in behind the wheel.

Next test—stop—home.

 

 

WALKING THROUGH the front door, Jimmy was amazed by how unchanged his childhood home was. Yet it struck him as odd. It was now going to be his home to run and maintain. He didn’t feel like the home owner, though, not when the familiar sights catapulted him back to his youth. The scarred wood floor in the foyer where he’d worn his skates in the house. The crack in the coat closet that no one else could detect without a closer look except his best friend Eric who had helped Jimmy fix it with wood putty after he’d pushed the guy into it as they raced in after a hard day of chores. Dad still sitting in the old brown threadbare recliner, the TV turned to CNN, which he’d say he was watching even though his eyes were closed. The delicious scents of pot roast and potatoes wafted from the kitchen the same as they had on more occasions than he could count. It was a welcoming he’d never tire of.

Jimmy toed off his shoes near the door and laid a finger over his lips. “Shh, Dad’s sleeping.”

“No, I’m not. I’m just resting my eyes,” Dad responded with his familiar argument.

“Hi, Dad,” Jimmy greeted, entering the living room. “Good to know your hearing is as good as ever.” He leaned in close to Oliver’s ear. “The man has the hearing of a bat.”

“Foiled more than one of your plans.” Dad pushed the foot of the recliner down and sat up. “Good to see you, son,” he added as he stood and held out his hand.

Jimmy shook the offered hand, and in that instant, Dad’s age came rushing back to him in a snap. Mom was his dad’s second wife. Fifteen years her senior, he met and married her nearly two years to the day after his first wife had died in a car accident. Jimmy was born nine months later. But Dad hadn’t been robbing the cradle by any stretch of the imagination. Mom was just shy of her thirty-first birthday when she gave birth to Jimmy. At fifty-seven she was still a stunning beauty who could work circles around women half her age. The years hadn’t been so kind to Dad, at seventy-two; he was a shell of the man he once had been thanks to the colon cancer he’d suffered a few years back. He was now in remission, but still the disease had ravaged his body and taken its toll. Jimmy was glad the stubborn shit was finally giving up the farm and going to spend his time having fun and enjoying the sun in the land of oranges and retirees.

“Dad, this is Oliver; Oliver, James.”

“Nice to finally meet you, sir,” Oliver said politely and held out his hand.

Dad shook it. “Well, aren’t you a flashy little thing.” He looked over at Jimmy with a scowl. “Jimmy, you’re going to have to take him over to the feed store and get him a pair a boots. Can’t trust a man who don’t wear cowboy boots. Barbara, Jimmy’s home and he’s brought his flashy fellow with him.”

Dad shuffled off toward the kitchen.

“I warned you,” Jimmy said to Oliver. “Don’t pay him no mind, he doesn’t mean anything by it.”

“No offense taken. I am flashy,” Oliver responded with a wink.

“That you are, Mr. Francesc. Let’s go meet Mom.” He put his arm around Oliver’s waist and led him to the kitchen.

“Jimmy,” Mom squealed and rushed to him. “I’m so glad you’re home.”

Jimmy grabbed her in a bear hug and gave her a tight squeeze. “It’s good to be home.”

Mom pulled away and settled her gaze on Oliver. “Oliver, this is Barbara. I gotta warn ya, she’s a hugger.” Jimmy had barely gotten the words out when Mom threw her arms around Oliver.

“It’s so good to finally meet you. You’re just the cutest thing ever.”

“Oh Lord, Mom. His head’s already big enough. Stop it.”

“You just don’t pay him any mind, Mrs. Brink. Is that pot roast I smell?”

“Call me Barbara, and yes, it is. You and Jimmy have just enough time to wash your hands while I get it dished up.”

“You sure you don’t need any help?” Oliver offered. “I’m pretty handy in the kitchen myself.”

“Nope. Now you boys go on and get washed up.” She slapped at Dad’s hand as he started to reach for a slice of fresh-baked bread from the table. “Don’t you dare. You too. Ain’t nobody getting so much as a morsel with them grubby hands.”

Jimmy left the kitchen laughing. Mom ran a tight ship. No grub until the chores were done and the hands washed. That went for the old man as well.

“You ever worked a farm?” Dad asked Oliver once they were all sitting at the kitchen table with plates heaped high with meat, potatoes, carrots, and a large slab of Mom’s homemade sourdough bread to sop up the juice.

Oliver wiped the corners of his mouth daintily before returning his napkin to his lap. “No, sir. I have a bit of an aversion to getting my hands dirty.”

Dad froze with his fork halfway to his mouth. “What was that? You got a problem with dirt?” He dropped his fork to his plate with a clank. “No boots, don’t like dirt, boy, what are you good for?”

Oliver started to open his mouth, but knowing the man as well as he did, Jimmy was sure something about Oliver’s prowess in bed would pop out. Oliver had a faulty filter at best. Jimmy kicked him under the table and shook his head.

Oliver snapped his mouth shut and bit his bottom lip. From the smirk on his face, Jimmy knew Oliver was struggling to hold back the witty response that wanted to escape.

“He’s a bit eccentric—most history professors are—but he’s great in the kitchen,” Jimmy piped up, hoping to defuse the situation and give Oliver something else to talk about that wouldn’t cause Jimmy to turn ten shades of red and crawl under the dining room table.

“History, huh?” Dad asked.

“Yes, sir. I’m smart and I cook.”

“Oh, that’s wonderful. What kind of things do you like to cook?” Mom asked.

Mom and Oliver began discussing recipes while Dad continued to scowl at Oliver. Jimmy knew his dad didn’t have an issue with Oliver’s sexuality—his own son was gay and he’d never given it a second thought. It was the lack of hard work that was no doubt causing the disgusted expression on Dad’s face. The man was old-school. If you were a hard worker, he liked you; if you weren’t, he didn’t. There was no gray. Everything was black and white to James Brink.

Jimmy sopped up the last of his gravy with a piece of bread and popped it in his mouth, talking around it. “Hey, Dad, I was thinking I’d check out the barn after dinner. You want to come with me?”

That was enough to pull his dad out of his thoughts and focus him back on Jimmy. “I suppose since you’re going to be running the place, it’s best I give you a rundown of what needs to be done after I’m gone.”

“Jeez, don’t sound so happy about it. You’re not dying, only retiring.”

“Same damn thing if you ask me.”

Jimmy didn’t comment further. Dad had worked his entire life on a farm, and with his belief that a man’s worth was the amount of work he put in during the day, he’d been struggling with his own limitations.

Mom and Oliver continued to chat as they cleared the dinner plates and dished out warm apple pie and poured coffee. Jimmy should have known the two of them would hit it off. The only question was going to be how much they’d actually learn from each other. Lord, neither of them took a breath between words.

Jimmy and Dad finished their desserts in silence. With the way Mom and Oliver were going on and on, they couldn’t have gotten a word in edgewise. When they excused themselves and walked out onto the back porch, his dad let out a heavy sigh.

“Well, you went and done it now, son.”

Jimmy tilted his head and studied his dad. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“You done found someone who talks as much as your mama. You ain’t never going to win another argument the rest of yer life.”

Jimmy laughed and followed his dad out to the barn.