Chapter One

 

Sheeeee-it! Danny’s assbones slammed down on the back of the bull as the huge animal whipped in a circle, bell clanging, his hooves pounding furrows into the sandy dirt of the arena. This might be a pissant rodeo, but the bull didn’t get the memo. Danny gripped the bull rope with his left hand as the right saluted the heavens, and his knees bounced even as he tried to maintain some level of control for the longest eight seconds in human experience. And I do this for fun!

Oh crap! The bull twisted and kicked sideways in a belly roll. Danny’s ass slipped; he tightened his grip on the rope and struggled for balance.

Beeeeeep. Music to his fucking ears. The horn signaled the end of the ride, and Danny loosened his hold. For a breath he waited for the bull to turn his spin the opposite direction, and then Danny kicked away, managed to land on his feet, and backed toward the gate as the rodeo clowns, aka bullfighters, ran forward to distract the bull and risk their own lives for the hell of it.

The sight of the clowns gave him a little shiver. No worries. This rodeo is too small potatoes for him.

The crowd jumped up and yelled, applauding wildly as the announcer blasted, “Great ride for Danny Boone, folks. Give him a huge round of applause. He’d make his namesake proud.”

Danny shuddered. Okay, yeah, he’d been drunk the night he made up his name—and he’d been living with the aftereffects ever since. Danny Boone. Seriously?

A couple of cowboys slapped his butt as he walked by. He grabbed a piece of straw, stuck it between his lips, leaned on the fence, and watched the last two riders in the round. He wouldn’t mind having an extra thousand to stash in his bank account, but he had to get back to the ranch soon. He’d been gone three days, and his boss, Rand, needed him. Maybe not as much as he had before he married Kai, but Kai had gone back to school to finish his degree, and the other full-time ranch hand, Manolo, had family, so that put Danny at the head of the pack.

Danny focused on the action in the arena. The rider who followed Danny, Worthman, had picked a bull not quite as feisty as Danny’s but still a handful. The bull decided he was a bronc, leaped in the air, and did a break in two. Worthman lost it, and that was the end of his ride.

Okay, one down. Next up—Maury Garcia, by far the top bull rider in the competition. One of the best in the world. He pounded out of the chute on a bull more flash than substance, but he managed to look damned good hanging on for an easy eight. He even threw in a couple more seconds before he slid off. Sauntering toward the fence, Maury waved his hat at the crowd and walked straight toward Danny, grinning, as the bullfighters did their work behind him. Apparently Señor Flashy Bull got pissed at Maury’s attitude, because he broke away from the clowns and headed straight for Maury’s ass with horns at the ready.

“Maury! Watch!” Danny waved his hat toward the bull to distract him.

Maury glanced over his shoulder, his eyes widened, and he jumped toward the fence but didn’t make it and fell flat on his face.

Without thought, Danny leaped over the fence and waved at Flashy Bull with his hat, whistling. The big black turned, saw Danny, snorted, and headed toward him as two clowns dragged Maury from the arena.

Danny held his hat to the side and executed a pase natural, as the Spanish bullfighters called it, leading the bull around his body. The crowd went nuts. Well, all righty, then. He stepped back and pulled his Resistol in front of him like a damned small cape. Flashy shook his head and charged. Danny twirled out of the way in a classic veronica move. Shouts, cheers, stamping, and yelling.

Two bullfighters hopped in front of Mr. Flashy. Danny nodded and stepped back. The audience kept cheering, so he took a small bow and then disappeared behind the fence. Two of the other riders grabbed him. Earl Westerman said, “Fuckin’ A, man. Maury’s sure glad you showed up.”

Larry Flores pounded his back. “That was the coolest thing I ever saw.”

Danny grinned. “Thanks.”

He started walking toward his camper, parked in the fairgrounds lot. Larry stopped him. “Hey, Danny, you won, man. Get out there.”

“What?”

“You won!”

Well, no shit? A couple of other guys started waving at him, so he slipped out through the fence, took a big bow to the screaming crowd, and tossed his piece of straw onto the arena dirt. Then he walked up to collect his prize money.

When he got to the announcer, the guy said, “Congratulations, Danny, not only on a great ride, but for risking your neck for another rider. That’s what the cowboy spirit is all about.”

Danny accepted the trophy and the envelope that would add another little cushion to his ranch-and-school fund. “Thank you, sir. Most honored to receive it and grateful to the judges. I had some stiff competition.” He pulled his hat brim in that gesture he associated with Rand. Women loved that cowboy shit. Men too. He grinned. That part he wouldn’t mention.

He waved again at the crowd, then walked off the back of the podium. Earl Westerman grabbed his arm. “Hey, man, come have a drink. Maury wants to thank you personally.”

Danny nodded. “No thanks needed.”

“Come on, man. Maury’s really grateful.”

Hey, a chance to meet a hero. “Okay, I appreciate it. I don’t have long, but I can stay for one beer.” He snagged a straw from a hay bale as they passed and stuck it in the corner of his mouth.

Earl slung a heavy arm around his shoulders for a second, but Danny was so much taller it made walking awkward, so he dropped it. “That was some show you put on. Where’d you learn that shit?”

Danny shrugged. “Watched the bullfighters, mostly. They’re the real professionals.”

Earl grinned. “If you say so.”

 

 

The most popular bar in the area stood right across the street from the rodeo grounds. Danny trotted next to Earl as they crossed the busy road and then stepped into the semidarkness of the cowboy hangout.

Somebody yelled, “Hey, Earl, over here.”

Earl led Danny toward the back of the bar. As Danny’s eyes adjusted, he saw a group of eight or ten cowboys, some of them bull riders and some from other specialties, clustered around a couple of tables that had been pushed together. Pitchers of beer already looked well used. Maury Garcia sat at the center of them. One of the most popular and talented bull riders, Maury usually competed in the big-purse Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association and Professional Bull Riders Association events, but since he was from California, he’d show up in some of the smaller, regional rodeos to give the crowds a thrill. He waved a hand. “Danny. Come sit here.” He pushed a chair out across from him with his foot. Danny slid into the seat and knocked back his Resistol.

Maury leaned forward and offered his hand. Danny took it. Maury was probably a good seven or eight years older than Danny’s twenty-four, but in bull riding, if you didn’t die, experience made you better. “You saved my ass, cowboy. I’m in yer debt.”

“No big. You’d have done it for me.”

“Get this thirsty man a drink.”

Someone pushed a clean glass in front of Danny, and another guy filled it from the remains in two pitchers.

Danny raised the glass. “Obliged.” He shifted the straw to his shirt pocket and took a long drink. Cold and wet. Tasted good.

“You’re a damned good bull rider.” Maury slowly turned the glass in front of him in a circle. “Haven’t I seen you ride before?”

“Might of.”

“You PRCA?”

“Yeah.”

“But you don’t ride the circuit?”

Danny shook his head. “Not regular.” Time to go, sports fans.

A young guy who Danny’d seen ride earlier said, “Where’d you learn that bullfighting shit? That was rad.”

Danny shrugged. “From the clowns, mostly.”

Maury narrowed his eyes. “You know a lot of clowns?”

“Some.” Danny drained his glass. “I better get going. I have some driving to do tonight.”

“Where you from?”

“Small spread near Chico.”

“Your place?”

“No such luck. I work for a guy.”

“You riding in the PRCA event next weekend down in Chico?”

“Nope.” Way too close to home.

“Native?”

“What?”

“Californian?”

Danny pulled down the brim of the straw hat. “No. From Wyoming originally.” He stuck out his hand again. “Good to meet you. I’m a big fan.”

Maury took it—and held. “I ever see you ride under a different name?”

Oh shit. “Not likely.” He eyed the eight or so tough men clustered around. This could be damned painful if the conversation continued.

Maury didn’t let go. He speared Danny with his dark-eyed gaze. “You’re a damned good rider—and, it appears, a damned good man. If there’s anything I can do for you, let me know.” He released Danny’s hand, grabbed a napkin, and snapped his fingers at Earl, who produced a pen from his pocket. Maury wrote a number on the napkin, then pushed it to Danny. “You got a raw deal.”

Son of a total bitch. He knows. Danny swallowed hard. “Thanks.”

“You want to start riding for big money again, call me.”

Danny nodded.

“And change your mind about the Chico event. There are some good riders. I’ll be there. You’d like it.”

“Too late to enter.”

Maury grinned. “Nope. Besides, I got connections.”

Danny glanced quickly around the group, grabbed the napkin, and tried to not look like he was running toward the door.

A few steps away, he turned a corner out of sight of Maury’s entourage, but he heard Earl say, “That’s Eldon Jones’s boy, ain’t it? What’s the name? Sawyer?”

Danny slowed his steps.

Maury replied, “Yep.”

“One of the best bull riders I ever seen.”

Somebody else said, “Wait. Sawyer Jones. You mean the fag?”

Maury’s voice snapped like a bullwhip. “Shut your piehole, Sam. That fag saved my life.”

Danny’s heart beat like a tom-tom—a little fear, a little anger, a lot of gratitude. Shit, Maury Garcia just stood up for me. Even if he did call me a fag.

Danny stepped out of the bar into the still blazing heat of the late afternoon. He felt the napkin in his jeans pocket. What a seriously weirdass day. He’d beaten Mauricio Garcia at bull riding, then heard the man say Danny’d gotten a raw deal. Man. Somebody snap your fingers and wake me up. He shrugged and ran back across the street toward his beat-up camper. Yeah well, that phone number and twenty bucks would buy him a bottle of bourbon.

He started up the rig, pressed the accelerator, and headed toward home.

About halfway back to Chico, his cell phone rang. He glanced at the screen. Frank. “Hey.”

“Hey, babe. How’d it go?”

“I won.”

“Son of a bitch. Congrats, man.”

“Yeah. It was interesting. I even rode against Maury Garcia.”

“Tough competition. I thought it was just a small-town rodeo.”

“It is, but you know how Maury shows up locally sometimes? There he was.”

“Beating him’s no small deal. You should be proud.” Frank was the best kind of friend with benefits. Long on the friend.

“I drew a better bull.”

“Meaning one more likely to kill you?” Frank laughed.

“Kind of. Not so much in this case. It’s a long story.”

“You gonna tell me over a couple beers and a roll in the hay, or you too tired?”

Am I? His cock stretched. Okay, but not so much for what Frank offered. “I’m kind of whipped, and I need to get back to work tomorrow. We’ve got a ton of students, plus some new guests checking in. It’s gonna be a bitch. Maybe later in the week?”

“Sure. Hell. My good right hand can use the exercise.”

“Sorry.”

“It’s okay, babe. I know how rodeoing takes it out of you. Hell, I think it brings up your daddy issues.”

“Maybe.” Danny clenched his teeth.

“So sleep good. Don’t let the bedbugs bite. And I’ll look forward to hammering your ass sometime after Wednesday.”

“Yeah. Talk soon. Thanks, Frank.” He hung up. His interested party below the belt now stood at full attention. Okay, shit. I just gave up a chance to bottom in favor of—well, you know what it’s in favor of. Frank didn’t exactly know that Danny’s agreement to bottom went way beyond the luck of the draw. He also didn’t know who Danny really yearned for. Not that Danny couldn’t have told him. They were just friends and very nonexclusive. But Danny didn’t tell that secret to much of anybody. Unfortunately, that meant he spent a lot of time not getting what he wanted.

On the outskirts of Chico, he turned sharply off the highway and wound his way to the backstreet bar he’d spotted last time he drove through. I’ll give it ten minutes. If I don’t find anybody, I’ll do without.

He parked a few blocks from the club, left his hat on the passenger seat, and walked slowly toward the cheesy, pink blinking sign. He’d never been here before—but he’d heard a few rumors. Two men rushed past him, and damn if they didn’t look a lot like Danny—jeans, boots, Stetsons. Both were husky and one sported a full beard. Not promising. Studly guys he could find anywhere. Frank was as alpha as they came. So much so he had trouble convincing guys he was gay. That was one of the things that threw them together.

Maybe I should turn back and go home?

His cock bounced in protest.

Okay, one look inside.

He sidled up to the entrance and opened the door. Wham. Lights, music, perfume, feathers, and—queens, baby. More than a dozen of them. From adorable twinks to full-on drag divas, the feast spread out before him, outlined in glitter. Danny smiled and strolled to the bar, then grabbed a stool as a big bear of a guy left.

A slick, dark-haired Hispanic bartender leaned toward him. “What’ll you have, handsome?”

Danny nodded. “Thanks, and I’ll have a beer. Whatever you’ve got on tap.” He didn’t plan to drink for long.

He turned and leaned his back against the bar. The femmes weren’t in the majority, but they stood out from the cowboys like flowers in a plastic vase.

A big biker type with tats and two days’ growth of beard slid in next to him at the bar. “Hey, can I buy you a drink?”

“Kind of you, but I’m waiting for someone.” Danny leaned behind him and grabbed the beer the bartender had served him.

“Sorry to hear that. If he doesn’t show, I’ll be right over there.” He pointed toward a corner table where a couple of other men, who likely kept Harley in business, sucked on longneck bottles.

Danny nodded and the guy ambled back to his table, flashing a lot of ass muscle as he went. Danny’s timeline just got compressed. If he didn’t find somebody quick, that dude would be back.

He glanced around. A pretty redheaded drag queen held forth in the corner, surrounded by her sisters. Too hard to extract her from the bevy. Motorcycle Guy would notice she wasn’t “waiting” for Danny. Who else made his cock dance the two-step?

He sipped his way through the rest of his beer and could feel Motorcycle Guy’s eyes on him. Shit. Better go. He glanced at his watch, then slid some money on the bar.

The bartender smiled at him. “You have to go, handsome? I get off at two.”

Danny smiled back. “That’s damned tempting, but I’ve got to work early.”

“Cowboying?”

He nodded.

The bartender leaned closer. “Is there a chance I’m just not your type?”

“You’re great-looking, man. No issues.”

“But you still didn’t answer my question.”

“Why’d you ask it?”

“I just seen you looking at the pretty ones. That what you want?” He cocked his head. “Because if you wait about three more minutes, you’ll meet my cousin, Pedro, and I’m guessing he might light up those green eyes of yours.”

Danny raised his eyebrow. “You’re all heart.”

“Yeah, a regular saint. But Pedro has to eat too.”

“So he’s—?” He waved his hand.

“Let’s just say he likes presents.”

“That’s nice and all, but I doubt I have enough, uh, presents to interest Pedro, and I’ve got to get going.” He added another couple of dollars to his tip and slipped off the stool.

As he stood, Motorcycle Guy pushed back his chair at the same time the bartender waved. “Hey, Pedro. Over here.”

 

 


Chapter Two

 

DANNY GLANCED at the guy walking toward them—small, trim body, black hair to his shoulders, a touch of lipstick and wide, dark, fast-moving eyes that surveyed the crowd for prey. When Pedro got to the bar, he leaned across and kissed his cousin, then stood back and surveyed Danny from boots to sandy hair like a collector appraising a painting. “Hello. I’m Pedro. But you can call me Pedrita.”

“Hi.” Danny glanced at Motorcycle Guy, who’d halted his rise from the chair but stared with a frown toward the new arrival.

Pedrita grinned. “Dayum, guapo, you are one gorgeous cowboy.”

“Thanks, you’re pretty gorgeous yourself.” At least his cock thought so.

“Want to buy me a drink?”

“With pleasure.” Danny stood and let Pedrita sit on the stool. The bartender delivered a glass of champagne and another beer, plus a hefty check for the probably watered-down bubbly.

“So Jose tells me I’m your type.” Pedrita smiled as he sipped some champagne.

“Jose is your cousin, the bartender?”

He nodded.

“When did he tell you that?”

“When he called me and told me to get my pretty ass over here and see the handsomest cowboy in town.”

Danny shrugged. “Sorry, but he’s made too much out of this. I’m just a poor saddle tramp without the kind of assets a lovely lady like yourself deserves. I’m having a beer and driving back to the ranch where I work tonight. There was no reason to rush over.” He glanced at him through his lashes. “Although, I’m very glad you did.”

A slight crease marred Pedrita’s smooth forehead for a second and disappeared. “I’m really not that hard to afford.”

He grinned. “Well, you should be.” He shook his head. “I’ve gotta tell you, though, I am in a kind of a fix.”

“Oh?”

“Over in the corner are three big motorcycle studs—don’t look—and one of them seems to have taken a liking to me. I told him I was waiting for someone. He now thinks that someone is you. I really don’t want to have to defend my honor against three guys tonight if I don’t have to. Any chance you’d walk out with me to prove I’m not available?”

Pedrita turned slightly and glanced discreetly toward the corner table. “Oh my, they did spend a lot of time in the prison gym, didn’t they?”

Danny snorted. They just looked way too much like other guys he knew.

Pedrita tossed back the last of the champagne. “Of course I will, guapo. I’ll even throw in a show.” He leaned over and kissed Danny on the cheek.

Danny laughed. “If you insist.”

Danny helped Pedrita from the stool, tossed extra money on the bar for Jose, and started toward the door, with Pedrita hanging on his arm. From the corner of his eye, he saw the three big men push back their chairs and stand. Shit! He kept walking, but he leaned down and whispered, “This may be a crappy idea. They’re following, and I don’t want to put you in danger.”

Pedrita gripped his arm. “I don’t scare easy, guapo, and I’ve got a razor in my hip pocket. Let’s see what they do.”

“You sure?”

“Yeah. Nobody gay-bashes Pedrita.”

Danny laughed. “Some serious balls behind that lipstick.”

“You got that right.”

Danny pushed open the door of the bar and held it for Pedrita. Cool air shivered up his spine. They walked to the corner of the sidewalk as the door of the bar opened behind them. He didn’t want to look, but it had to be the three motorcycle guys. “I’ve gotta confess I didn’t think past this point. I figured we’d walk out and that would be that.”

“Where’s your car?”

“I’ve got a camper. I was away for the weekend.”

“Let’s see it.”

They crossed the street, and Danny tried to saunter. Don’t look worried. For whatever reason, they made it all the way to the camper with no attack, but footsteps still crunched behind them. He pulled open the door. “Get in.”

Pedrita leaped up the stairs with Danny behind him. He slammed the door shut and locked it. Pedrita was already staring out the window. “What the hell do those dudes want?”

“Maybe they like to watch.” Danny laughed.

“Which one came on to you?”

Danny pointed at the one with all the tats.

“He’s pretty yummy. Why didn’t you take him up on his offer?”

“He’s not my type.”

Pedrita turned. “But I am.”

“Yep.” He grinned. “Maybe without the razor in your pocket.”

They stared out into the night at the three guys, who stood smoking and drinking beer for a couple more minutes, then turned the corner and walked away like they’d never intended to hurt anybody.

Pedrita snorted. “I think they were hanging around because Horny wanted to get in your pants. When you left, they left. Probably never meant to bother you.” He glanced at the retreating backs. “If you don’t count a little gang bang.”

“Guess we’ll never know.”

Pedrita plopped down on the narrow banquette that served as a seating area, crossed his arms, and stared around. “This is one piece-of-shit camper, my man.”

“Told ya. I’m poor.”

“Shame.” Those dark, calculating eyes glittered. “I’d sure love to have a sexy boyfriend for once.”

“So I’ll drive you to the door of the bar and make sure you get in safe. Just in case they’re still around.” He reached in his pocket, carefully feeling around his prize money check. “I’ve got a little money I can give you to thank you for saving my ass.”

“We don’t really know if I did save it. Maybe they just happened to be walking our way.”

“Still.”

“How much you got?”

He pulled some bills from his pocket. “About thirty-three dollars.”

Pedrita gave him an appraising look. “I normally charge fifty, but we’ll combine your money and your off-the-charts good looks as payment for the blowjob of your life. Deal?”

“Shit, yeah.”

Pedrita leaned back and slid his arms along the top of the faded brown sofa cushion. “Okay, cowboy, let’s see what you got.”

Danny laughed, slowly unzipped his fly, and pulled his cock through the opening.

Pedrita’s big eyes widened. “Shit, guapo, why do you keep that masterpiece in your pants? Why isn’t it bronzed on some trophy shelf?”

“Thank you kindly for your appreciation, ma’am.” He flashed the dimples, but sadly, plenty of people would’ve removed his cock for him—though not likely because they considered it a work of art.

Pedrita reached out and grasped Danny’s hips, pulling his very erect cock closer to those pink lips. “I’d suck this baby for free.”

 

 

DANNY TURNED the camper into the parking area behind the bunkhouse. Dark and quiet. He’d stayed longer with Pedrita than he’d planned. The blowjob was so damned good, he’d ended up returning it, which caused his cock to spring back into action, and Pedrita had offered up his pretty ass for a fuck. While Danny might not love topping, Pedrita expected it—they always did—and he’d enjoyed it. No money changed hands, even though he’d tried to get Pedrita to take it, and he’d promised to look him up the next time he came to downtown Chico. Not likely. Pedrita was well worth a second visit, but showing up at gay bars more than once could be bad for a cowboy’s longevity. Especially when that cowboy was him.

His lower regions felt loose and damned good. That’s what getting what you really want can do for a man. He left his bull-riding gear in the camper but took the jeans and shirts he needed to wash and shoved them in his backpack. Throwing it over his shoulder, he stepped down and inhaled the peace of the McIntyre ranch. Brilliant stars, the sweet smell of horses, the rustle of critters in the bushes. It might be California and close to a good-sized city, but it felt like wilderness this late at night.

He opened the bunkhouse door, cringing at the familiar squeak, and closed it softly behind him. Not that there were too many sleepers to bother, since Manolo often went home to his wife and kid rather than staying in his room. Still, one of the seasonal hands might be there, since the guesthouse had been fully booked all summer, and he and Manolo took on a lot of the “dude ranch” responsibilities while Rand and Kai handled riding lessons and horse breeding. That left a hole in the general chores area, and Rand often brought in Pauly, a cute kid who worked hard and wanted badly to be a full-time hand.

Danny passed two shut doors, then turned in at the next one on his left, closing it after him before turning on the light. Home sweet home—a single bed, chair, chest of drawers, bookshelf, small clothes closet, a handmade Native rug, and a quilt that belonged to him—the only thing he had from his mom. Funny. When he used to ride for big purses, he’d have called this room a dump. Now it was the only place he felt really safe.

The soft tap on his door turned him around. “Yeah.”

Smiling, Manolo peeked around the door. He was one of the rocks in Danny’s fast-moving stream of a life. A good cowboy and a good friend. His teeth flashed white in his tan, full face. “How’d you do, cowboy?”

Danny smiled back. “I won.”

“Son of a bitch.”

“Come on in and set. How come you’re up so late?”

Manolo took the one wooden chair in the corner, and it creaked under his solid bulk. “I went home to put the kid to bed and see my wife.” He raised a brow meaningfully. Clearly Manolo had been doing the same thing Danny had. “I fell asleep when I got back, but I heard your stealthy clomping.”

“Sorry I woke you.”

“No problem. So tell me about it.” He held up a hand. “Just for a second. We’ve got an assload of work tomorrow, and you need your beauty sleep to impress our new visitors with your awesome cowboyness.”

Danny perched on the edge of the bed. “I made it to the Go round with two other guys and, believe it or not, one was Maury Garcia.”

“Shee-it, I don’t know much about rodeo, but even I’ve heard of him. So you beat him?”

“I drew a better bull.”

“Didn’t you tell me that the big guys like Garcia get to choose their own bulls?”

“Yeah, and I assume he chose the one he wanted. The bull was black and really flashy, but anyone who knew could tell he wasn’t as big a challenge as the gray I rode.” Danny crossed his leg and leaned on it. “A strange thing happened, though. Maury rode him easy, but when he got off, he got cocky and turned his back on the bull.”

“That’s not unusual, right?”

“True. But I think he didn’t have a ton of respect for his bull. The thing decided to take him out, and I, uh, ended up kind of helping Maury get away from the bull.”

“What do you mean?”

“Nothing big. Just distracted the bull while the bullfighters helped Maury.”

“Think that’s why you won?”

Danny shrugged. “Not sure.” He grinned. “But I got invited to have a beer with Maury. Nice guy.”

“No shit. Rubbing elbows with the big guys.”

Nobody knew much about Danny’s past. They knew he’d rodeoed, but not at what level. Just as well. “So who all is coming in tomorrow?”

“We’ve got four new guests on top of the two that came this weekend. The ones already here are a father and son—the Landsdownes. The son is horse crazy and the father brought him for his birthday. Tomorrow we get Elena Chavez and her best friend, Nora Benson. Both women are in their seventies, I hear. Then there’s a gay couple. A rich dude named Chilcott and his boyfriend who’s some kind of decorator or something.”

“Jesus, we’re taking diversity to new heights.”

“Yep. So get ready for the onslaught.” He slapped Danny’s shoulder. “See you bright and early.”

“Night.”

Manolo left, and Danny showered and brushed his teeth in the communal bathroom down the hall, then slid, nude, between cool, clean sheets. He really liked keeping his stuff clean. It hadn’t been his daddy’s strong suit. No, his daddy’s strong suit had been Danny’s worst nightmare.

 

 

DRAGGIN’. EVEN in full summer, Danny got up before the sun. This morning, though, his balls felt happy and hangin’ low while the rest of his body conjured up the infamous mile of hard road. He stood in front of the open window, breathed the fresh morning air, and stretched back as far as he could get his aching muscles to allow.

“Doin’ your morning yoga?” Rand waved from outside the bunkhouse window.

Shit. “Hi, Rand. Sorry, didn’t mean to entertain the neighbors. Be out in a second.”

Rand chuckled, and Danny pulled the curtains over the window, dragged on his jeans and shirt, hurried down the hall to pee and wash, and ran for the door. Fortunately his light hair meant a day’s growth of beard didn’t show too bad. He’d do some chores and then run back and shave. Not that he was late, but damn, he hated when Rand beat him to the stables.

He heard footsteps behind him and glanced back to see Manolo still tucking in his shirt as he hurried from the bunkhouse. In the stable, Rand was already hefting feed. Danny stepped up beside him. “Let me do that, boss.”

Rand shook his head. “Get to work on grooming the mounts for the lessons.”

“We going to mount the guests today?”

Rand grinned. “Never mount the guests, Danny. Haven’t I taught you better?”

Manolo snorted behind him, and Danny chuckled.

“But yes, we will get all our guests up and riding by the end of the day. After you get them settled in, take them on a tour and give them a snack to tide them over ’til lunch.”

“What’s Felicia making today?”

“Don’t know, but it sure smells good.”

“What time do the new people arrive?”

Manolo checked the tablet he carried everywhere—modern ranch life. “Pauly picks up the ladies in downtown Chico at nine o’clock. Chilcott and his guest arrive sometime this morning under their own steam. I’ll give Landsdowne and his boy another hour or so before I ring the chuck-wagon bell.” He laughed at the archaic reference.

Danny peered at the schedule over Manolo’s shoulder. “I better do one orientation after the ladies arrive and then another when the two men come.” He grabbed a piece of straw and stuck it in his mouth. Day was officially begun.

Rand nodded. “Sounds right.”

“How challenged will the older women be, do you think?”

Manolo shrugged. “Neither of them checked any of the boxes for special requirements or limitations, so I’m not sure.”

“Guess we’ll find out.” He started toward the back stall, then turned back. “Is Kai in school today?”

Rand nodded with that soft grin he got whenever Kai’s name was mentioned. “Yeah. He’s really loving the courses he has this summer. He’ll have that degree pretty fast.”

“That’s great.”

“Danny, you’re back! You’re back! Did you win? Did you?” A flying nine-year-old missile of enthusiasm connected with Danny’s midsection, and Aliki stared up at him, showing off the gap between his teeth.

Danny hugged him. “As a matter of fact, I did.”

“I knew it! Didn’t I say, Dad? Didn’t I?”

Danny glanced at Rand, whose smile about split his face. When Rand had married Kai, he’d embraced the whole package, including a lovely twelve-year-old sister, Lani, and the wild and crazy little brother, Aliki. After the adoption, Lani still called Rand Uncle, but Aliki had moved on to Dad and Daddy, which was complicated since Kai was actually Aliki’s much older half brother. When they were around people they didn’t know, both Kai and Rand referred to Lani and Aliki as “their kids,” despite the fact that Kai would have had to have Lani when he was eight. A happier family Danny had never seen—not that he had a ton of experience.

Rand said, “Thanks, Aliki. Sorry I didn’t ask him myself. So you won?”

“Yep.”

“Congratulations. We’d all love to come see you ride sometime.”

“Oh yeah! I wanna go!” Aliki about burst out of his T-shirt, he clapped so hard.

“Maybe so.” Danny smiled. But not if he could help it. “So let’s get these horses ready for our guests, okay? Aliki, come help me. Where’s Lani?”

“She’s helping Felicia. She said to tell you she’ll be here in a few minutes.”

He nodded. Horse-crazy Lani would never miss a chance to groom Star Sight, the big palomino. He opened the paddock door. So far, just a regular crazy day. Wonder what the guests are like?