Booker stood on the top rung of a paddock on Cliff’s run-down property, waiting and watching breathlessly as Jed—so handsome in jeans, boots, Stetson, and a shearling-lined denim jacket—led a spritely young horse from the barn toward the corral. This horse had prestigious bloodlines, and Cliff had purchased the animal—Destiny—with the hopes of luring buyers to take another look at his operation. According to Jed, the five-year-old bucker had a winner’s spirit in his eyes and the passion to earn a spot on the tour.
Eight and a half months had passed since Booker had signed on as Jed’s assistant. For Booker, each day that came and went—where he got to live, eat, and breathe a life with Jed and these beautiful horses—he experienced the meaning of bliss. Sure, he had one hell of a crush on Jed and woke up in the sticky aftermath of more wet dreams about the man than he wanted to admit, but he wouldn’t give up his time spent in this world for a million dollars or his choice of the most attractive, eligible gay men on earth. None of them would be Jed.
Bitter, cold wind swept the nearly barren Wyoming landscape, rushing through Booker’s undershirt, flannel button-down, and fleece zip-up hoodie. He shivered, but as icy as the temperature was for this early April day, the afternoon sun shone high and clear above, blistering in its brightness, and put an undercurrent of warmth in the chilly air. The day could not have been more beautiful if a Hollywood studio had created it; storm clouds remained in the distance, almost out of sight.
Rather than lead Destiny into the corral, Jed guided the animal to a chute. Booker instantly stood up straighter; his heart started pumping out endorphins at a furious rate. He swung his head left and right, searching for Cliff or one of his two other part-time ranch employees. Nobody else was in sight. Booker’s breathing shifted lower, becoming a tangible thing, and for once it didn’t have anything to do with Jed’s proximity. Will he? Booker stood at attention, much like an eager animal himself, but didn’t dare hope Jed would call him over. Is it finally going to happen?
Once the horse entered the chute, Jed closed the gate behind him. He climbed the metal rungs on the back of the enclosure. From across the paddock, he locked in on Booker. “Come on.” The wonderful, gravelly texture of Jed’s voice cut across the crisp air and sliced its way into Booker’s flesh. Jed didn’t grin, and nothing about his tone sounded welcoming, but God, he crooked his finger, and Booker jumped off the railing and started running as if tied to Jed’s digit by an invisible string.
As Booker drew to Jed’s side, Jed muttered, “Climb on up,” and shifted a bit to the right. “If you’re gonna work these animals with me, you have to be willing to take a spill off their backs every once in a while too.”
Booker leaped up on the chute so fast he was surprised he stayed in his boots. “Really?” Looking back and forth from the horse to Jed, both so damned alive with barely contained strength and energy, Booker clasped his hands around the top rung to stop himself from grabbing both. But hell, he couldn’t stop smiling. “You’ll seriously let me test him?”
With a swift nod, Jed handed Booker a set of riding gloves. “You’re ready. The others all accept you on their backs for exercise.” He raised a brow in Booker’s direction, and his mouth lifted at the edge just a hair, making him look downright roguish. “I’ve stopped having nightmares that you’re gonna break your neck. More important, you’ve learned a lot, and you pay attention to what I tell you to do, so you’ve earned a chance to help me train.”
With hearing that Jed dreamed about him—in any fashion—heat raced down the back of Booker’s neck. He looked down and busied himself with changing out his gloves before a burn covered his face. “I won’t let you down.”
“Right now I just want to see how Destiny does with someone on his back,” Jed shared. “He was sold as a bareback bucker, but Cliff isn’t sure which division is right for him.” Cinching a regulation padded leather strap atop the animal’s withers, Jed prepped Destiny for a ride. “How good do you feel about your legs and core?” Jed straightened his upper half, and he looked Booker over from top to bottom. “You think you can hold on bareback for this first tryout?”
Blush forgotten, Booker bristled and gritted his teeth. “I’m stronger than I look. I can handle this horse. Tim let me get on the backs of Crescendo and Time Bomb last week after the competition ended. I know what to do.”
Jed cocked his eyebrow again, arching it higher this time. “Oh yeah?” He crossed his arms against his chest, looking like some rough-and-tumble God, standing high on his cowboy perch. “You kept that from me, huh? How’d you do?”
Booker mimicked Jed’s exact stance and even jutted his chin. “Stayed on both for the full eight seconds.”
In response, Jed jumped off the back of the chute and strode around it to get inside the corral. As he did, he chuckled and replied, “Well, how about that? I guess tomorrow I’ll hear that Cliff is putting you in charge.”
Airy bubbles of giddiness popped and fizzed in Booker’s belly. “Could be.” He watched Jed from his now superior position on the rungs and drank in the man’s rare, lighthearted teasing. “Watch your back, Hastings. I’m coming for your job.”
“I’ll be sure to sleep with one eye open from now on.” Jed didn’t grin, but damn it if an extra light didn’t twinkle in his eyes. From through the gate, he stroked Destiny’s flank, soothing the animal while glancing up at Booker. “Go ahead and put on that vest before you climb over the chute.”
Nodding that he’d heard, Booker slipped on the Kevlar vest and snugly secured the Velcro fastenings. After double-checking the ties on his gloves too, Booker took a deep, calming breath. He then climbed over the railing and settled his weight high and forward on Destiny’s back.
The horse shimmied, snorted, and threw back his head, but without pause Booker squeezed his thighs and adjusted his boots against the animal’s shoulders. He knew the weight of an animal between his thighs now, and he understood temperament enough to sense eagerness in Destiny rather than fear or anxiety.
Once Booker had himself situated comfortably, with the leather strap wrapped around his hand, he looked up and met Jed’s uncompromising gaze. “He feels good.” Booker spoke in a hushed tone, in awe of the magnificent animal beneath him. “He’s tall and wide enough for the bigger riders.” Shifting forward a bit more, he gently squeezed his inner thighs high on the animal’s flank and finished, “But he still feels compact enough to have good bucking power and the speed needed for bareback work.”
A gleam of light flashed in Jed’s eyes. “Nice. I agree.” Finally he gave Booker a fast but real smile. “We’re gonna turn you into a full-fledged cowboy and stock pro yet.”
Booker ate up Jed’s attention and positive words like a starving beast. Unable to look away, he softly shared, “I want to be as good as you, Jed.”
Instant hardness flattened Jed’s lips. “Dream bigger, Colt.” Just as fast, Jed blinked, and it was as if that flash of darkness hadn’t existed. “Okay.” Lifting the lock on the gate, Jed sobered in a different way, and every pore of his being exuded quiet authority. He looked up at Booker, his focus steady as a boulder. “Are you ready?”
Checking his hold one last time, Booker nodded and focused everything in him on the horse. “Open the gate.”
In response, Jed swung the gate wide. In a shot Destiny bucked out of the chute, jerked Booker on his back, and thrashed straight to the center of the paddock. Destiny whipped into a circle, bucking at the same time, and Booker cried out as his seat slipped out from under him.
Working fast, Booker managed to keep his grip on the leather strap, but in a quick-change move, the horse kicked his back legs high into the air, too good for Booker to combat, and threw Booker forward with punishing power. Booker’s fingers slipped from the leather; he clenched his thigh muscles with everything in him and tried to hold on in another way. Destiny yanked in another direction, though, before Booker could realign the center of his weight with the back of the horse, and the animal continued to careen in a tight, dizzying circle.
Punishing in his strength, Destiny kicked front and back in rapid-fire bucks, jerking Booker like a rag doll, and just like that, he flung Booker off his back. Thrown high into the air while in a spin, Booker flailed his head left and right, desperate to focus on the ground, but the world whirred past him in a blur.
As fast as Destiny had sent Booker flying, gravity flung him back down, and he crashed in the packed dirt square on his back. The brutal landing thundered through Booker’s body, punishing his organs, muscles, and bones, and knocked the wind out of his lungs. Fuck.
Booker’s head hit the dirt too; he gasped, struggling to get oxygen into his burning lungs. Black dots and bright pinpoints of light filled his vision. Suddenly dark clouds clapped hard above him, shaking the earth, and a jagged line of white cut across the graying sky.
Booker blinked and blinked and blinked, but the sky continued to roil as if angry and alive. Booker’s body throbbed, and his head pounded. In a haze, he asked, “Am I dead?” A funnel cloud above him looked as if it were a giant arm and hand reaching straight down to the earth, right at Booker. Booker’s heart started pounding faster, and he squeaked, “I think heaven is opening up and God is coming for me.”
Just then, Jed’s face appeared as if through a fish-eye lens. Jed squatted down; with a half grin, he put his hand on the Kevlar vest, over Booker’s belly. “The experts call that a fast-moving storm. You might otherwise know it as the weather. Don’t worry, Colt. The fall didn’t kill you. God isn’t trying to grab you. You’re still plenty alive.”
Exhaling a little easier, Booker muttered, “Good. I don’t want to die before I have sex.”
“Yeah.” Getting back to his feet, Jed chuckled. “That would be a shame.”
“What?” And then the fog clouding Booker’s brain cleared. Oh my God. I just told him I’m a virgin. Booker closed his eyes and prayed for the ground to open up, drag him under, and save him. When only a fat drop of frigid water fell center on his forehead, he opened his eyes and found Jed still standing above him, the horse’s lead in his hand. The animal’s job successfully done, Destiny was calm as hell, a step behind Jed. Damn it.
“Forget what I said.” A second and third raindrop splashed on Booker’s face. “My head was out of whack from the fall.”
Jed bit his lip, and Booker swore the man squelched a bark of laughter. Still, Jed said, “It’s forgotten. Come on. Get up.” After a glance toward the roiling smoke-colored sky, he extended his free hand. “Do it fast. We’re about to get pummeled with one hell of a downpour.”
With his body groaning and protesting, Booker lifted up and grabbed Jed’s hand. Jed yanked hard and fast, and Booker flew to his feet without having to do a bit of work.
Barely getting his bearings, before he could see clearly again, Booker jumped as a deafening clap of thunder cracked above the ranch. A deluge of rain suddenly poured down in curtains of water all around Booker and Jed. A zap of lightning sizzled straight down a hundred feet in front of them and temporarily lit up the darkening sky.
Booker leaped in response, and Jed grabbed his neck and pulled him in close. Jed put his mouth right on Booker’s ear and shouted, “Take Destiny! Get him to the barn!” He put the lead in Booker’s hand and closed his fingers around the leather for him.
Jed stood so close, yet Booker could barely hear the man’s orders over the intensity and insanity of the spontaneous storm.
Yelling into Booker’s ear, Jed added, “I’ll gather up the gear and be right behind you!” As if Booker were one of the horses, Jed slapped Booker’s backside and pointed at the barn. “Go!”
The shock of Jed spanking his ass, and another earthshaking hit of thunder rattling the sky, kicked Booker fully into motion. Rather than try to control Destiny with the slim bond of a lead, Booker swung up onto the animal’s back, clung with his thighs, and wrapped his arms around Destiny’s neck. Putting his mouth near the horse’s ear, Booker cooed in a loud voice, “Come on, boy.” Using the minimal harness around Destiny’s neck and forelegs, and gentle pressure from his boots, Booker guided the animal to face the barn. “You know where to go to get dry.” Working his boots and the rigging, Booker shouted, “Hee-ya!”
Without a moment’s hesitation, the animal bolted across the paddock, jumped the fencing, and raced straight for the stable. Booker locked every muscle he could control tightly against Destiny’s body and held on for the ride. Wicked rain battered Booker and pummeled everything in sight, but this horse had clear intelligence, remained calm, and ran with the speed of the racing champion he should have been, if not for his love of bucking.
Jed had left the barn doors thrown wide open, thank God. Destiny galloped straight into the building and reared to a stop. With two fast moves, Booker jumped off the horse and jammed the heel of his hand into a finicky stall door lock, frantic to get Destiny secure in his stall so he could go help Jed with the gear and tack they’d been working with around the paddock all day. The lock finally slid from its home. Booker pulled the door open just enough to guide the horse inside and then closed and locked the door once more.
Then—where are you, where are you, where are you?—Booker raced back outside into the icy, torrential downpour, where he now couldn’t see a foot in front of his face. He started to run blindly anyway, in the direction of the corral.
Half a dozen strides out, desperately blinking water from his eyes, Booker oomphed as he slammed dead-on into a solid wall of muscle, so damn hard his teeth rattled.
Recovering quickly, uncaring of another physical pain to add to his list, Booker shoved himself nose to nose with Jed, desperate to see and feel him, to know he was okay. “Jed!”
Just as fast, Jed snarled and pushed the whole front of his body against Booker’s, like a battering ram programmed to bulldoze everything in its path. “Get your ass back in the barn before we both get hit by lightning!”
Before agreeing, Booker bared his teeth right back at Jed. He ripped the saddle from Jed’s hands, freeing the man to get a better hold on the myriad of things he had over his shoulders and under his arms.
Knowing Jed was close by and okay, Booker turned and bolted back to the barn, into safety and cover. He stumbled to the tack room on a wave of adrenaline, returned the saddle to its proper place, and then raced back to Destiny, knowing he’d left the animal with gear strapped to his body.
Still breathing heavily, Booker forced himself to stop. His blood buzzed, and he did not want his frenetic energy to transfer to the animal and cause him to kick or rear in a confined space. Once the thrumming sensation in Booker slowed, when he could no longer feel the hum radiating through his skin, he entered the stall. Destiny, calmer than either he or Jed had been, barely acknowledged Booker’s presence.
Booker removed the tack easily, stroked the animal’s neck while whispering his praise and appreciation, and finally left him to rest. On Booker’s way back to the tack room, he passed Jed, where the man was already checking on the other animals.
Without looking up, Jed told him, “There’s a towel in the bathroom and an extra shirt of mine in the first drawer of the file cabinet.” As Jed moved to check the next horse, Booker noticed Jed wore a clean, dry T-shirt himself now. “It’s not much,” Jed added, “but you’re welcome to it. It’ll help some until we can get back to the trailer to change.”
A funny tickle awakened in Booker’s belly and in rapid order wrapped itself around his cock. He had to curl his fingers against his side to keep from stroking his hand down the long line of Jed’s strong back. He mumbled, “Thanks,” and stumbled into the tack room before he got an erection in front of Jed and completed the humiliation of this day.
After putting away the gear, Booker quickly stripped out of his upper three layers, dried his chest, arms, and back before the chill could attack his flesh, and slipped into Jed’s old flannel shirt. The clean, inviting scent of fabric softener filled Booker’s nose. He smiled, as he often did when he spotted a box of dryer sheets in Jed’s dirty-clothes basket. Thinking about a hard cowboy like Jed taking the step to make sure his clothes were soft against his skin caused too much fluttering in Booker’s belly.
As Booker buttoned the shirt, he tried not to read anything into the fact that Jed had given him the long-sleeved shirt while taking the T-shirt for himself. Booker really tried, but he couldn’t stop his mind from going there. Booker was crushing hard on this man, thus he always noted the little acts of kindness in Jed. A voice in his head whispered that Jed had left him the heavier shirt because Booker didn’t yet have as much muscle mass on him as Jed did, and so Jed had gifted Booker the thicker material to help him keep warm.
Fucking idiotic thinking. In an effort to drag his thoughts back to reality, Booker pinched himself hard enough to make himself wince. Stop reading romantic motives in where Jed probably didn’t think beyond putting on the first shirt he grabbed.
Bucking up and silently ordering himself to rein in his feelings, lest Jed picked up on them, Booker straightened, lifted his head high, and exited to the body of the barn—where he promptly zeroed in on Jed and ate up the strong, glorious lines of the man’s body with his stare. Shit.
Jed looked up, and Booker murmured, “Thanks for the shirt.” He rubbed his hands down the front of the garment as if he’d only been focused on the dry piece of clothing and not the too-sexy slope of Jed’s back that led to his ass.
Grimacing, Jed rubbed the wet fabric clinging to his thighs. “Next time I’ll remember to throw jeans in there too.”
Booker felt like he had a clammy second skin attached to his lower half, but he still said, “It’s all right.”
With his socks squishing in his boots, Booker moved along the shadowed stalls, finding calm and quiet animals along the line. When he reached the stall closest to the entrance, he reached in and stroked Assassin’s Bullet’s muzzle. “Everyone looks good.” He glanced at Jed, where the man stood in front of the partially open barn door, his gaze intent on the sheets of rain and flashes of lightning relentlessly attacking the land. “Yeah?”
“They’re all fine.” Although Jed answered, he didn’t take his focus off the storm raging outside. “Last spring, I repaired the few leaks we had in the roof, so everyone is nice and dry. Everyone with four legs anyway.”
Booker grinned. He couldn’t hold the bubble of pleasure in. Jed’s grousing amused him.
Right then a clap of thunder exploded, and Jed jumped about a mile away from the door. The deafening noise filled the air and rattled the ground beneath their feet. Lightning lit up the murky sky in quick bursts, like a strobe light, before thunder clashed again, sending the world outside the barn into a nearly black hush.
Booker’s heart raced; although he was safe in the barn, the storm vibrated through him. Six feet away from him, Jed wiped his hand across the hard lines of his mouth. He then stepped closer to the door, and a brief flash of light exposed a face absent of color. Even the man’s exhale appeared unsteady.
“Damn, it’s a bad one out there today.” Jed sounded like he spoke through sandpaper. The man appeared close to vomiting. “It looks like midnight already.” Then—holy fuck—he stepped outside into the pummeling rain.
What the hell? His stomach lurching into his throat, Booker leaped at Jed and yanked him back into the barn. “What do you think you’re doing?” Jed appeared half in a trance. Using the cuff of his shirt, Booker wiped rain from Jed’s face, concern controlling his actions. “What’s the matter?” Putting the back of his hand to Jed’s forehead, Booker frowned. His knuckles didn’t get too hot or overly cold. “You feel okay, but you don’t look right.”
Jed jerked away from Booker and gave him a hard glare. “It’s nothing. I’m missing an afternoon of work. I don’t like it. That’s all.”
Bull crap. Eight months of sharing a trailer had done more than increase Booker’s vocabulary of curse words. Dozens of other memories moved with warp speed through Booker’s mind. Three particular nights—wherein Booker had quietly listened to Jed prowl like a caged animal—dinged high above the rest of the time line.
Booker moved in front of Jed, blocking his sight line to outside, and looked dead-on into the man’s eyes. “You don’t sleep well when it storms. Don’t even try to deny it. I’ve heard you when the rain and thunder wake you up.” Jed swung his head away, but Booker moved with him and added, “I’ve noticed you don’t go back to sleep until everything is calm again.”
His hands curling into fists, Jed bared his teeth. “If my pacing has the power to keep you awake, then I’m not working you hard enough.”
Booker shot back, “It’s a small trailer.”
Jed moved into Booker’s face, nearly nose to nose. “I told you that when you signed on.” The mercury in his gaze flashed pure ferocity. “If you don’t like it, you can leave.”
Not feeling a bit of the cold whipping at his back, Booker matched his height and size against Jed’s and leaned in even more. “I’m not complaining. I’m making an observation.” He poked Jed in the chest with each word he uttered. “You. Don’t. Like. Storms.”
Faster than the blazes of lightning outside, Jed wrapped his hand around Booker’s with punishing force and pried it away from his chest. Holding Booker’s fingers trapped in midair, Jed spoke through lips that barely moved. “Touch me with your finger like that again, and I’ll snap it off.” After crushing Booker’s digits one more time, Jed shoved Booker away and strode to the open door, giving Booker his back.
What? Booker held his throbbing hand against his stomach, but the bruises to his pride and ego weakened him much more than his abused fingers. Hurt rocked through Booker’s core, even though he knew he had no right to be upset. What the fuck was I thinking, pushing into Jed like I did?
Jed stood a few feet away, rigid, and the sight cut Booker to the core.
Booker whispered, “I’m sorry. I stepped over a line. Maybe you don’t think you know me well enough yet to share your secrets and fears with me. Maybe you don’t get that I would take to the grave anything personal a friend tells me. Whatever the case, I didn’t mean to corner you and make you uncomfortable.” Every ounce of Booker’s being pushed at him, shoving him toward Jed, but this time Booker fought his heart, practiced some common sense, and took a decided step deeper into the barn. “I’ll go to the back and give you some space.”
With that Booker spun and strode toward the tack room as fast as he could, away from the thousand questions he wouldn’t be able to suppress if he stayed close to Jed.
“Wait!” Without pause, Jed bounded and grabbed Booker before he got more than a few steps away.
Jesus fucking Christ. Jed cursed his savage treatment of Booker, a young man whose sole crime was a never-ending curiosity for everything around him, including Jed. But hell, as much as Jed tried for patience and gentleness, every time he turned around, he found himself behaving too roughly with Booker or stepping on his feelings.
Booker didn’t have nearly the life experience Jed did, and his natural enthusiasm to learn everything he could, all the time, every day, often scraped against Jed’s private and quiet nature. Sometimes Booker’s interest led to questions that made Jed’s hackles rise, but Jed had to remember the guy never meant any harm.
“Come back.” Jed tugged Booker back to the door. Even as Jed kept one eye on the nasty weather outside, he glanced down at Booker’s hand and winced. Abruptly, he let go of Booker’s arm and retreated closer to the barn’s entrance. “I didn’t mean to threaten you. I apologize for handling you the way I did.”
Tentatively, Booker drew close enough to look out the door too. “No, it’s okay.” Crossing his arms, he leaned his shoulder against the sliding door and watched the storm play out outside. “We haven’t even known each other a year”—his voice was as soft as Jed had ever heard it—“and here I am asking you all kinds of personal questions. It’s not my place.”
“Hell’s bells, Colt.” Jed strived for breezy, even as his mouth went terribly dry. “It’s not a big deal. I just don’t like storms. That’s it.”
“Why? No—” Straightening, Booker held his hands up in surrender. “Forget that. I don’t have any place asking you about stuff like this.” He shifted back, settling his shoulder against the wood, to stare at the rain. “We can wait this out quietly.”
Acceptance visibly blanketed Booker, yet his very silence hit Jed like nothing so much as a punch in the gut. Jed felt as if he’d kicked Booker and ordered him to go stay in his corner and keep his mouth shut.
Cold trickled down Jed’s back. Iciness crept into his flesh, something that had nothing do to with his damp clothes and everything to do with the fact that even though Booker remained standing in the same spot, he seemed to be in a dark tunnel, pulling farther and farther away from Jed.
“Shit.” Terrible fire coated the ice licking at the back of Jed’s neck. He’s gonna disappear into the black in another second if I don’t grab him. Before Jed could think his idiocy through, he blurted, “If I’m keeping you up some nights, then I guess you have a right to information. Ask away.”
Booker whipped his head around, and the glassy surface of bright green lighting his eyes sliced with precision into Jed’s core. “Okay.” Instead of flinging questions at Jed in rapid succession, though, he lowered himself to the floor and looked up at Jed. “Whatever you want to tell me, I want to listen.” …