IT WAS three forty-five in the morning by the time I made it out to the Red Diamond, towing a horse trailer that was in better shape than my truck. I’d driven over to the Blue Rock Stables where the owner, Addison Finch, let me keep my horse. There was no way in the world I would ask Rand for room in his stable. What was great was that Addison was the one who took care of the horses for the resort, so the walk over there at night from my restaurant so I could ride Juju was short. I had a routine down. Jog over, work out my horse, and then run the long way home to my bungalow. What wasn’t so great was I’d made my horse as nocturnal as I was, so when I got there in the early morning and loaded her into the trailer, she only had one eye open, just like me.
The house was lit up when I pulled in, so I knew people were awake. That made sense. Rand normally started his day at four, and we had at least a five-hour drive to get to the cattle.
Sitting there, I debated just calling and telling him that I’d come down with pneumonia, or the plague, or just anything to get out of the drive. It wasn’t even his fault, really; it was mostly that Rand was larger than life and everything he did turned to gold, making it damned difficult to ever measure up to him.
Rand owned the largest legacy property between Dallas and Lubbock and had made said ranch self-sufficient out of necessity. Basically, he’d been booted from not only his seat on the community board of directors of Winston—where the Red Diamond was technically located—but from the town itself when the county had been rezoned. So even though his home sat in Winston, the house was, by boundary, part of Hillman, as was the resort where my restaurant had been built. I had never understood how they figured the boundaries, because Rand’s three hundred thousand acres stretched over close to four hundred and seventy miles, well beyond one county and into the next and the next, but apparently it was where the main house sat that determined “home”—and Rand Holloway was no longer welcome in his.
The reason for the ousting had been Rand coming out and bringing the man he loved—Stefan Joss—to live with him on the Red. The town of Winston could not handle one of the pillars of the community being gay and so had taken steps to ensure they were separated from Rand and the land he called home. It had been a colossal mistake: the ranch was more profitable than anyone could have imagined, giving Rand the power and the funds to make changes in Hillman as well as to turn his property into a small self-sufficient town in and of itself. The ranch boasted hundreds of Quarter Horses, thousands of cattle, and I had no idea how many acres of land now devoted to farming. There was still only one main compound, but the ranch also now hosted more than fifty private homes and an unknown number of cowboy camps that I had neither the time nor the inclination to ask about.
He was a force to be reckoned with and everyone else, including me, paled in comparison. Since it was exhausting to try to measure up, to keep my sanity, I steered clear of him, his husband, their son, and the idyllic life they lived on the Red Diamond.
But now I was stuck because my marker had been called in, and even though I was sure they could get along without me, paying my debt so it wouldn’t be hanging over my head anymore was too much of a temptation to pass up. After this, Stef and I would be square and I’d never have to return to the Red and feel crappy about myself. We’d be even and I wouldn’t have to see Rand ever again, I’d never have to find myself desiring things I couldn’t have, coveting the idea of his life, his lover, and the peace he seemingly felt down to his bones.
I could be more pathetic, I knew that, but at the moment, sitting in my truck in the dark, not moving, staring at the house, I couldn’t imagine how. It was time to make a choice. Taking a deep breath, I made it and got out, heading for the porch.
I got no answer when I knocked on the screen door, so I opened it and stepped into the living room. Instantly an enormous Rhodesian ridgeback tromped around the corner toward me, the welcoming bark, just one, making me smile before the whimpering began. I knelt, which, with an eighty-pound dog, wouldn’t have seemed smart, but she knew me, as was evident from the whine of happiness, tail wagging, and the cold wet nose that got shoved into my face. The tongue on my chin sealed the deal.
“Hey, Bella,” I greeted, rubbing under her chin and scratching behind her ears. “Where are all your people?”
“Glenn? Is that you?”
Thankfully it wasn’t Rand calling out to me, but his partner, Stefan. And he was late determining if there was a stranger in his home, but because he’d heard no screaming, which meant his dog was not tearing me limb from limb in the living room, he had to be confident it was either me or my Uncle Tyler. No one else walked into the huge Folk Victorian home without permission. As much of a family as everyone was on the Red Diamond, this was still the boss man’s house, and since the baby was born, since Wyatt James Holloway arrived two years ago, no one walked in unannounced to Rand Holloway’s home. No one.
“It’s me,” I called back to Stef as he came out of the kitchen, dish towel over his shoulder, carrying a platter of cooked bacon.
“Hey, take this out to the table, will you?”
I moved fast to do as he asked and grab the dish, closing the distance from the living room to him, marveling as I always did at the man Rand loved. Before I met Stef, I had no idea men could be that pretty. I never dreamed that I’d meet a man with such beautiful, delicate, angelic features, golden skin, and thick blond hair that fell to his shoulders. It had been, it turned out, the final brick in the wall. Me seeing Stef, noticing everything about him, his face, his skin, the way he moved and the sound of his voice, all of it, even my long-dead desire for him, had finally made something crystal clear in my head. I was tired of wrestling with the whole question of whether I was gay. Meeting Stefan Joss, the partner of the man I’d thought was my cousin, sealed the deal.
Again, Rand was a sore point with me, beyond his having the ranch and the monogamous partner and basically everything I’d thought I wanted. Two years ago I found out my father, Rayland Holloway, sired not only my brother, Zach, and me, but also Rand Holloway, the eldest child of my Uncle James and his wife, May. It was bullshit someone should have told the whole family years ago. It took Stef looking at Rayland and looking at Rand to figure it out—which was just ten kinds of stupid, because who looked at someone and thought, “Hey, those eyes of yours ain’t right.” It had mostly been Stef thinking he knew something and his assumption being correct. Which pissed me off to no end, because like he was frickin’ Sherlock Holmes or some shit. It was really giving him way too much credit, the whole uncovering of the big hush-hush family secret. But without him talking to May and Rand, neither would have ever come clean, and the rest of the family would have remained in the dark. So while I appreciated what Stef had made everyone admit to, I was still really annoyed that Rand and I now shared a closer biological bond—and that my bond with Zach was no longer unique. It was like I got Rand, whom I’d never taken a shine to, and lost my one claim to Zach, who I’d always thought was my sole blood brother. But now I had two siblings, neither liked me, and both got on together just fine, leaving me firmly out in the cold.
Worst of all, Rayland was trying so hard to mend fences with Rand that he’d forgotten I was alive, and Zach was now working on Rand’s ranch.
It had hurt me in more ways than one. My father, who promised to help me with a down payment for my restaurant, backed out to expand the family ranch, the White Ash. He was exploring the land for mineral reserves and oil and that took cash. It was, he said, an opportunity he couldn’t pass up, and the money he promised me was quickly committed elsewhere. Zach, at least, had an excuse I understood. He couldn’t help me because he was working for Rand, and the Red took up all of his time. In the end I sold everything I owned but my horse—I could not be parted from her—and had just enough to get the restaurant off the ground.
So my life basically boiled down to coming out, telling my father I wanted to open a restaurant instead of work on the White Ash, and my family—such as it was—abandoning me. I always missed my mother; there was a hole in my heart where she had been, but I had not felt her loss as sharply as I had when I was first trying to get my dream to take shape and she wasn’t there to stand beside me. My father and Zach abandoning me would not have been so crushing if she’d been alive to take their place. As it was, I grieved all over again and felt the pain of her passing like it was brand new.
Had the restaurant not taken off like it did, everything would have been shit. The fact that it had, though, the realization that I was part of a whole new family and didn’t have to bother with my old one no more—that was my salvation.
“What are you doing?”
I realized I had not moved from the time Stef put the platter in my hands.
He was squinting at me.
“Sorry,” I grumbled, stepping around him to head toward the kitchen and out the back door to the picnic tables.
He moved fast, getting around in front of me. “What’s wrong?”
“You’re letting Rand use me for a cattle drive, Stef.”
“A baby drive, not a real one.” He waggled his eyebrows at me. “And this way you can bond with Rand and reconnect with Zach.”
I scowled. “I ain’t fixin’ to do shit but drive them cattle.”
“You could try and put forth a little effort.”
His eye roll made me smile. “Just take the bacon out, and don’t give any to the dog, no matter what.”
That made no sense. “No matter what?”
“She’ll try and tell you she’s starving to death and that only bacon will save her. These are silly torturous lies.”
He was weird and that was certain. “She’s only a dog, Stef.”
“That’s what she’d like you to believe.”
Snorting out a laugh, I brushed by him and left the house through the kitchen door, Bella trailing after me. I stopped quickly, gave her a slice, and then continued on, walking around the side of the house to the picnic tables set out under the huge English oak. Normally the tree gave off an amazing amount of shade and the temperature could be counted on to be several degrees cooler beneath the canopy, but at the moment, so early in the morning, it was simply cool everywhere. Rand’s men yelled greetings as I put the platter down, and people reached for it, adding bacon to the eggs, biscuits and gravy, grits, hash browns, fried green tomatoes, and country ham. There were lots of pitchers of orange juice and pots of coffee. It looked like a special occasion, but it wasn’t. The hands ate there daily, and every Sunday Rand and Stef had breakfast for everyone who lived on the ranch. It was a family on the Red, and while I appreciated that, I had my own. Finally.
I turned to go back to my truck but was yelled at to stop. Pivoting around, I found Rand Holloway himself standing there, arms crossed, scowling at me, looking big and somewhat scary, with the extra four inches of height he had on me.
“And where are you scuttlin’ off to?”
“To my truck,” I said shortly, leaving him there.
As I walked, I looked up at the hills and saw the silhouettes of the wind turbines I knew were there. Between those and the solar panels on all the houses on the ranch, The Red Diamond was completely self-sufficient, no longer dependent on the county grid for electricity. I didn’t know the difference between a windmill, a wind pump, or a wind turbine, but Rand did. And of course since I had to know, I had asked him what if it rained every day for a month and the solar power went kaput, and what if his pinwheels couldn’t spin? What were they going to do then?
Apparently energy could be stored, and more importantly, he was working on using the waste from the stockyards for methane gas that would aid the wind power he already had at his disposal. That was next on Rand’s agenda, and fruition was apparently imminent. Rand was always thinking, and he had Stef to do the cost analysis and basically help him make whatever dream he had into a reality. They made a great team, and while I had been very thankful for Stef’s help myself, it was disappointing that I was going to have to pay for it with three days of sheer torture.
“I thought you didn’t drive stock anymore.”
My day was getting worse and it hadn’t even really started yet. First Rand, and now, somewhere behind me, talking, giving me shit so goddamn early, was Mac Gentry.
And honestly, his smoke- and gravel-filled voice, sultry and sexy at the same time, would have gone right to my dick if he wasn’t the biggest asshole I knew aside from Rand.
I ignored him, continued on to my truck, got out my duffel, pulled on my shearling-lined denim jacket, put my phone in the glove compartment, and closed the door. I knew I didn’t have to worry about the truck while I was gone. On the Red everything was safe.
When I turned, Maclain “Mac” Gentry was standing in front of me. He was tall like Rand, six five, and 240 pounds of hard, heavy muscle. I knew that because I overheard him tell one of the other men once. It was funny; it never bothered me to have to look up to Rand, but it bugged the hell out of me that Mac was bigger, more thickly muscled, with broader shoulders and a wider chest. I felt small in comparison to the foreman of the Red Diamond, and I didn’t like it one bit.
“Move,” I groused, meaning to brush by, only to have him take firm hold of my bicep. I snapped my head up and my eyes met his smoky gray gaze.
“I don’t want you on this drive if you’re going to whine the whole time.”
Even though he was giving me the same grief he always did, I found myself focusing on the way the faint light from the porch caught in his dirty blond hair, sparking over the stubble on his cheeks and upper lip, caressing his brows and the tips of his long lashes. With the dark hair and eyes I shared with all the Holloway men, I was lost in the shadows. But not him, not in all his golden glory.
“Don’t worry,” I snarled, mad at myself for even noticing how roughly handsome the man was, yanking my arm free with much more force than needed. “I swear that none of y’all will hear a word outta me.”
He scowled and I walked away. I didn’t have time for his regular macho bullshit. We had established from our initial meeting, when Mac looked at me like I was the most useless person on the face of the planet, that we would never get along. Zach he liked because he worked on the ranch with Rand. My father he liked because he owned a ranch just like Rand. But me, the guy who quit ranching to own a restaurant, me he didn’t understand, and so didn’t like. Not that I cared. Maclain Gentry was a dick and I had no use for him either.
Returning to the tables, I put my gear down by everyone else’s and took a spot at the end so I could eat. It was going to be a long drive and I at least needed sustenance.