“Fucking animal rights activists.” I kept my voice low, patting Angel’s neck while I nodded in the direction of the noisy protesting outside. “Do they seriously have nothing better to do?”
Jackson snorted. He adjusted Petty Cash’s halter and glared in the same direction. “For a bunch of morons obsessed with animal cruelty, you’d think they’d be smart enough to make all that racket a little farther from the goddamn barns and trailers.”
I nodded and kept stroking Angel’s neck. She was mellow at the moment, munching happily on a treat despite the noise, but getting into the trailer was one of her least favorite things in the world. The mare was a spectacular roping horse, didn’t shy at all at the chaos in and around the arena during the rodeo, but God help us when it came time to load her. A group of assholes waving signs and shouting wasn’t going to help.
“What do you think?” Jackson asked. “Wait ’em out, or just go?”
“Let’s just go.” I glanced at Angel, then at him. “Tell you what, I’ll pull the trailer around by the other side of the barns, and we’ll load them there.”
Jackson nodded. “Sounds good.”
I left Angel in her stall and headed toward the chanting and stomping.
Jesus. They were out in force tonight. Two weeks ago, there’d been maybe a dozen of them. Apparently they’d gotten the word out to their buddies this time, because the crowd was huge.
Some of the other competitors had engaged them off and on throughout the weekend, and the entire event had been peppered with shouting matches, cowboys and hippies getting right up in each other’s faces. I didn’t know how any of them heard a single damned word, because all I heard was noise.
And the best part? They were blocking the road I needed to use to move the truck and trailer. Shit.
I was pretty sure a pair of high beams and a diesel engine would persuade them to move, though, so I started shouldering my way through the mass of people.
“Hey.” One stopped me with a small but strong hand on my arm. “What the fuck is the matter with you people?”
I turned and found two of them facing me. One hung back a step, his arms crossed. But the nearer one—the one who’d grabbed my arm—caught me off guard. He looked more like a skateboarder than a hippie, and obnoxious as he was, he was cute. Holy shit. Really cute. Any comeback I might’ve had died in my throat because I was too busy noticing the way his dark hair fell over his blue eyes, and the way his “you want some of this?” posture drew attention to the low-slung jeans on his hips.
He moved in closer. “I asked you a question, cowboy.”
He had, hadn’t he? And hell if I could remember what it was.
I cleared my throat. “I beg your pardon?”
He stepped even closer, and thoughts of whether or not he was attractive disappeared. My adrenaline surged. His stance and his expression issued a blatant challenge, bringing to the surface every fight instinct, but no flight at all. His buddy was still watching, clearly ready to back him up, if need be. “You people make me sick. Tying up innocent calves like that? Forcing your horses to—”
“Forcing my horses to what?” I snarled. “Put up with protesters who scare her and make her even more claustrophobic?”
“Oh, your horse is claustrophobic? But you still put her in a box, don’t you?” He pointed sharply at the trailers.
“You have no idea what—”
“Hey.” Jackson’s booming voice silenced us and half the people around us. “Let him through, you fucking hippie faggot.”
Great. Just when I thought things couldn’t get any worse. A little backup might have been nice, but Jack was the last person I wanted involved. He took every bad cowboy stereotype and turned it up to eleven. And the irony of him using “faggot” as an insult wasn’t lost on me. I knew a thing or two about Jackson Fredericks.
“I could kick your asses for you,” he yelled, “then feed them to the cows, you little shits. How’d that be?”
Yeah. Jack had a real gift for diplomacy.
But at least it gave me a chance to squeeze through the crowd toward my truck as the hippies turned to look at him. All but the cute one. He dropped his Rodeo Is Torture sign to follow me.
“Wait.” Once we’d cleared the push of the crowd, he moved in front of me to block my path. He was alone this time and standing so close, I could feel the heat coming off him. Best not to think about that. “You didn’t answer me. If your horse is claustrophobic, why do you put it in a box? Has it ever occurred to you how cruel that is?”
I forced out a breath and ticked the points off on my fingers. “First, my horse is a she, not an it. Second, horses are prey animals, so being in a hostile crowd is going to trip her fight or flight instinct. And third, being in a box isn’t the issue. She rather enjoys what she does in the arena, even if she doesn’t care for the process of getting into the fucking trailer, especially with all this racket”—I pointed to his screaming, sign-waving associates—“making things worse. Do you realize how much all your noise echoes inside the trailer?”
He stopped short, blinking as if in surprise. I supposed none of that had ever occurred to him, especially the part where a group of self-righteous protesters could actually be aggravating the situation rather than helping.
Score one for the cowboys.
“Now can you move out of the way so I can get my trailer and take her home? She’d love nothing more than to get back to her own barn and her own stall so she can eat and get some rest.”
“Oh.” He took a step back, giving me a bit of space. I was relieved the fight seemed to be leaving him, but also disappointed to have him move away. It reminded me of my purpose, though—fetching the trailer.
Assuming he was going to let me pass.
I waited, and we watched each other warily, our script suddenly lost. When he didn’t say anything else, I brushed past him. He let me take one step toward my truck before he spoke again. “And what about the calves? I suppose you’ll tell me they like being roped by their necks and hog-tied?”
I sighed in frustration. “No,” I conceded, turning to face him again. “They probably don’t. But cows aren’t exactly the smartest creatures on this green earth—”
“They’re stupid, so it’s okay?”
“I only meant we’re not hurting them. Not the way you damn animal rights activists like to think. Now, are we done? Because if you really want to discuss what is and isn’t cruel around here, I’d be happy to sit down and talk like civilized adults. But this?” I gestured toward his group of protesters, who had amped up their noise after Jackson’s antagonism. “This isn’t dialogue. It’s just noise, and it isn’t helping anybody.”
“And how about your homophobic buddy calling me a faggot? Does that count as dialogue?” he growled, the hostility in his voice and posture shifting to something decidedly more personal than his anticruelty protests.
What the hell? Had Jackson stepped on a nerve? God knew he’d stepped on that nerve with me a few more times than I cared to admit. We made a spectacular pair in the arena, but definitely didn’t see eye to eye on certain topics, so I knew how much those comments stung even when they were only thrown around to get a rise out of people. Jackson had no way of knowing if this kid was gay or not. He just knew calling someone a faggot was enough to lift some hackles. “That’s his way of blowing off steam. He doesn’t mean anything by it.”
Except maybe he did.
The kid’s eyes narrowed and his lips pulled tighter. Then he exhaled and shook his head. “Go fuck yourself.”
Before I could respond, he turned on his heel. His friend greeted him with an arm over his shoulder, and the crowd swallowed them both. I stared at the space he’d occupied, wishing I’d handled it better. I could make excuses for Jackson all night, but that had been some genuine hurt in the kid’s eyes.
So he’s cute and he’s gay?
I shook my head and headed toward the truck. No point in even entertaining that thought. Cute and gay or not, the kid thought I was a monster. He probably thought my lack of protest against Jackson’s comments meant I agreed with him.
I dug my keys out of the pocket of my jeans and climbed up into the cab. The engine roared to life, and quite a few heads turned. Some people nudged their friends and gestured back at me. I turned on the headlights—high beams and all—and revved the engine hard so the people in front of me knew I meant business. I inched forward, and the front edge of the mob started moving aside to give me space.
That wasn’t to say they stopped shouting and protesting. They smacked their signs against the truck—one scratch on my baby’s paint, and I swear to God—and they shouted, but at least they let me through. I wasn’t looking for the kid. I was too busy making sure I didn’t run any of the other damn fools over. They were letting me pass, but it wasn’t as if I’d parted the Red Sea.
Just as I cleared the last of them, though, I looked over, and I’ll be damned if I didn’t lock eyes with him. He wasn’t shouting. He wasn’t waving a sign. He looked right at me, holding my gaze for a second, then slipped back into the group and disappeared.
Gripping the wheel tighter, I made myself face forward and not search for him again. I focused straight ahead until I was out of the mob, grinding my teeth as the protesters banged on the truck and trailer a few more times before I was fully out of their reach.
Movement in the side mirror caught my eye—Jackson trotting away from the crowd. I slowed down enough for him to vault into the truck bed, and then left the protesters in the dust and pulled around behind the barns. As I stepped down out of the cab, Jackson jumped to the ground.
“Man, those fuckers really need to find hobbies,” he grumbled. “Or better yet, real jobs.”
“Yeah,” I said drily.
“What’s the matter?” he asked as we walked toward the barn. “They rattle you or something?”
“I . . .” I swallowed. Then I stopped, and when he did too, we faced each other. “Look, I know these guys piss you off—they piss everybody off—but would it kill you to keep the faggot comments to yourself?”
He stared at me for a moment, as if trying to decide how seriously to take me, then laughed and clapped my arm hard enough to almost knock me off my feet. “Give it a rest, man. I was just messing with them.”
“Yeah, well.” I squared my shoulders. “Maybe you could let that part go?”
His humor faded, and his stare bordered on a glare. “You got a soft spot for those assholes?”
Maybe one of them.
“No, but you know damn well I don’t like the gay comments.”
We locked eyes again. He was definitely glaring at me now, and in the back of my mind I could hear how this discussion had gone in the past.
“You’re not one of them, so what do you care?”
“Right. And I suppose you’re not one of them either.”
“Hey. Hey! That was one time. One fucking time. I’m not a goddamn queer, Graham.”
That conversation had ended with fists flying and a bloody nose. I wasn’t in the mood for any of that shit tonight, so I broke eye contact and motioned toward the barn. “Let’s get this done and get the fuck out of here.”
We loaded the horses without any more trouble, but also without any of our usual friendly banter. Even though I’d backed down, we were on thin ice. The cab of my truck felt too small for us both, and the ride home seemed to take forever.
Guess Angel isn’t the only one who gets claustrophobic.
Back at my barn, we got the horses to their stalls and settled for the night. Jackson boarded his horse here since he didn’t have his own barn yet, and it was easier this way anyway—our horses were in the same place, so we could regularly ride together.
“Well, um.” I cleared my throat. “I guess I’ll see you tomorrow.”
He tilted his head. “Not even gonna invite me in for a beer?”
That was something we hadn’t done in a while, but we’d done it on a regular basis in the past. Before . . .
Before that night.
Years of friendship and camaraderie couldn’t overcome that one awkward encounter. Ever since then, our conversations had grown stilted and uncomfortable. The one thing left intact between us was the rodeo, and although we’d ridden together for ten years, the truth was, I was losing my love of the arena. I was getting too old for the bruises, and growing tired of the cowboy mentality. But I couldn’t discuss that with Jackson, either. He always took it as a personal affront.
“Not tonight,” I told him as I stepped into Angel’s stall with a brush. “I’d rather hit the hay.”
“Suit yourself.” He turned away as he muttered, “See you tomorrow.”
It was a relief when he was finally gone. Angel snorted as he left the barn, and I could have sworn she was showing the same disgust I’d felt earlier.
“Don’t worry about him. He’s a damn fool.”
She huffed and nosed the hay at her feet.
“Exactly.” I patted her neck. “Not worth another thought. And neither is that damn kid.”
She lifted her head to eye me.
Damn horse always did know when I was lying.
I sighed and started brushing her down. I’d done it once, back at the rodeo, but it didn’t hurt to do it twice. It was a familiar routine that usually relaxed us both. It always worked on her, but tonight, I found no comfort in the smell of hay, the sounds of horses, or the chirp of crickets outside. There didn’t seem to be any hiding from my own traitorous thoughts.
Jackson and I had known each other since we were boys. We’d been friends and partners in every way but one, and somewhere along the line, I’d begun wanting that last connection. I’d fallen in love with him. I’d spent years pining after him, inching closer to him, feeling his eyes on me, wondering if he felt the same.
In one night, he’d proven to me that he did. But I’d panicked and ruined everything. And in the year since, he’d taken it all away. We still rode together, still relied on each other in the arena, but nothing else was the same anymore.
I grumbled to myself as I put the brushes back in the tack room. I didn’t want to think about Jackson, and yet even that seemed safer than the other topic my brain was chattering on about.
That scene at the rodeo.
The protesters drove me insane. I’d laughed like all the other guys when Jack and some of the others threatened to spray gravel on them. Not that I ever would have done it, but their holier-than-thou attitude got old fast.
I had to admit, though, that kid who’d gotten in my face had also gotten under my skin. I didn’t know if I was hung up on him because he’d struck a few nerves that hadn’t been struck in a while—since when was he my type, anyway?—or because I felt bad for the hurt in his eyes when he’d mentioned Jackson’s slurs. Whatever it was, I couldn’t stop thinking about him.
And for the first time since they’d started showing up, I hoped the protesters were at the next rodeo.
They were there, all right. And it didn’t help my concentration one bit. It was the last day of the rodeo, and I’d been off my game from the start, making one mistake after another. More than once, I caught Jackson watching me.
“How’s that rope burn?” he asked at the end of the day, as he hoisted his saddle onto the stall door.
I glanced at the abrasion on my left arm and shrugged. “It’ll heal. My own damn fault for getting in the rope’s way.”
He chuckled, but then looked at me more seriously. “You all right tonight? You’ve been all over the place.” He tapped his temple with a gloved finger. “Up here, I mean.”
I exhaled and hooked my bridle over the saddle horn. “Just an off night, I guess.”
He shot me a look. Our years together had given him an uncanny ability to determine when I was lying. I could see him debating whether to push the subject. But tonight, he let it go. Maybe he sensed that pushing me would lead us back into the dangerous territory we’d been carefully avoiding since the incident at last year’s regionals.
He gave a half shrug of dismissal before he picked up a brush and shifted his attention to his horse.
“Angel is still pretty hot.” I clipped her lead to her halter. “I’m going to go walk her for a few minutes.”
I led Angel down the aisle. She wasn’t breathing hard anymore, and she really didn’t need to cool down, but I figured a walk would do us both good. Probably more me than her, if I was being honest with myself.
I needed to get away from Jackson. He was right about my focus. I’d been everywhere but in the game, which was how I’d managed to burn my arm. Lucky thing that was all I’d done. A moment’s distraction could lead to a hoof in the face, or worse. At least the calf hadn’t fought too hard, or I’d have been nursing more than a mild rope burn.
Yeah, he didn’t fight, but I’ll bet he didn’t enjoy it either.
I winced at my own thought. That protester’s comments hadn’t really sunk in, had they?
No, but my vehement defense of the rodeo didn’t feel as airtight as it once had. Hell, I’d had one foot out the door for the last few months anyway, edging toward giving up this whole rodeo thing, not because of any ridiculous charges of animal cruelty, but because it felt like a suit of clothes that no longer fit. The protesters’ accusations were just another excuse to leave behind a lifestyle that had once been liberating, but now left me feeling stifled. Being on strange ground with my longtime teammate didn’t help.
I was so lost in my thoughts, I nearly forgot where I was—or, more importantly, where I was going—until Angel balked at the end of the aisle.
Like a suicidal moth to a flame, I’d taken us right to the door, giving us a clear view of the lot where the protesters had gathered. It wasn’t like I hadn’t known they were there. I’d been able to hear their chanting even in the arena, over the cheering crowd and the booming announcer. But, somehow, I’d come their way, despite the chaos.
I stroked Angel’s neck and spoke softly to her. “Easy, girl.”
She watched the crowd with wide eyes, ears pricked up and body tense as if she was on the verge of bolting. She wouldn’t—though she wasn’t quite bombproof, she wasn’t a runner—but she was definitely nervous.
“They’re only people,” I said. “They won’t—”
Something solid smacked against something else, and Angel jumped, her eyewhites showing and nostrils flaring.
“Shh, easy.” I looked at the crowd and realized someone had slapped a couple of signs together. “Fucking morons. And they think we’re the cruel—”
There he was.
And he was looking right back at me.
His eyes narrowed a little, and his lips pulled into a taut line.
I swallowed hard, forcing back my nerves, yet suddenly wanting more than anything to be face-to-face with him again. I couldn’t take Angel any closer—we were too close already—but I didn’t want to let this opportunity pass by either. I beckoned him closer.
Eyebrows up, he tapped his chest, an unspoken Me?
I nodded and beckoned again.
He hesitated. Then he handed his sign to the guy next to him—the same guy who’d had his back the first night—and broke away from the crowd. As he headed toward me, I led Angel back into the barn. Not all the way back to where Jackson waited—and I didn’t bother looking to see if he was watching me—but far enough to put some space between my horse and the noise.
When we stopped again, the kid was a few feet away, eyeing me warily. He wore an oversize flannel over a faded PETA T-shirt. His tousled dark hair hung in his eyes, which were even bluer under the barn’s fluorescent lights than they’d appeared that night when he first challenged me.
I cleared my throat. “Listen, uh . . . about last time . . .”
He set his jaw. I wondered if he was about to roll his eyes. Something about his punk skater-boy look made me think that was as natural a thing for him as breathing.
I went on. “I wanted to apologize. For my, uh, friend’s comments. And maybe see if you’d take me up on the offer to discuss things more civilly.”
His eyes widened a little, and he stood straighter. “Come again?”
“You guys want to make your point?” I stabbed a finger past him. “You’ll get a lot further talking about it over a couple of beers than you will waving signs and shouting.” And I want to, okay? For some reason, I really want to.
“Uh.” He glanced back at the crowd and his friend who was watching us both, then faced me again. He shrugged, the loose flannel almost slipping off his shoulder. “Are you serious?”
I felt a slow blushing creeping up my cheeks, but I stood my ground. “Yeah, I’m serious. You in?”
“You’re not planning to lure me somewhere so you and your cowboy buddies can kick my ass, are you?”
“What? No! I thought we could talk. Have a beer.” Get to know each other, while I stare at you and think about how goddamn cute you are. And after that, maybe . . .
No. Best not to go there.
He seemed to debate the idea for a second, then smiled. “Sure. Why not?”
“All right. I need to take her home.” I patted Angel’s neck, as if there were anyone else I could’ve been referring to. “Meet me at Ted’s Place out on County Road 10 in an hour?”
“I’ve never heard of it.”
“It’s about a quarter mile past the turnoff for the highway. Look for the red neon. You can’t miss it.”
He pulled back his oversize sleeve and looked at his watch. “Okay. Sure. I’ll be there.”
I took Angel back to her stall, doing my best to ignore Jackson’s icy stare. “What the fuck was that about? You switching teams?”
I didn’t want to ask which “teams” he was referring to—rodeo riders versus protesters, or gays versus straights. “Just making small talk.”
I didn’t blame him for his sarcasm. Still, I wasn’t about to try to explain why I’d offered to take the skate-punk protester out for a drink. I wasn’t sure I understood it myself. Did I really think I could change his mind about the rodeo? Or about cowboys in general?
No. But maybe I could change his mind about me, and that was suddenly important.
It all seemed like a good plan. Right up until the point where I parked my truck outside of Ted’s Place and had to walk inside. It was a long, low building, the windows full of the usual neon beer signs. It was a bit of a dive, but there were always pool tables open, and unlike most of the newer places I’d been, the country music still came from a jukebox and was quiet enough to actually allow for conversation.
I checked my hair in my rearview mirror and straightened my black felt hat. I wished for a minute I’d taken two minutes to brush my teeth.
For what? some voice in my head asked. You planning on getting that close?
Graham and his roping partner, Jackson, have been friends since they were boys. They've ruled the rodeo scene for ten years running, but lately, Graham’s heart isn’t in the game. He’s tired of the bruises, the cowboy mentality, and the animal rights activists who picket every event. He's also tired of being in love with Jackson, and nothing’s been the same between them since their disastrous drunken encounter the year before.
Then Graham has a run-in with one of the rodeo protesters, and everything changes. Kaz is young, idealistic, and sexy as hell. But he's also a know-it-all, animal-loving vegan, bent on saving the world one cow at a time. They have next to nothing in common, but Graham can't stop thinking about what might happen if they can stop butting heads long enough to give it a try. Unfortunately, no matter how attracted Graham is to other men, he always panics and runs when the clothes start to come off. But Kaz has an idea for getting Graham past his nerves and into bed.
All they need is a bit of rope.
* * * * * * *
PUBLISHER'S NOTE: This is a re-edited second edition of a previously published title.