Tag Archives: Zahra Owens

Zahra Owens! On *The Hand-Me-Down* and “Mr. Sex-on-Legs”

(As always on Sylvre.com, click the cover image for the buy link.)

The Hand-Me-Down

When a volcano erupts in Iceland and leaves globetrotting headhunter Jez Robinson stranded in Barcelona, he isn’t sure what to do. He has a hard time sitting still, so deciding to make the best of his situation, he pays a visit to his old friend Nick Stone, a retired porn star he shares a history with. Only the visit doesn’t go anything like Jez expected.

First Nick introduces Jamie, his much younger lover, a man so painfully shy he can’t even bring himself to talk to strangers. The love he and Nick share is plain to Jez, but also puzzling, because Nick was never the monogamous type. Then Nick tells Jez he’s dying and wants Jez to look after Jamie.

In his whole life, Jez has never committed to so much as a house plant, so at first he refuses. But Nick and Jamie are insistent, and soon Jamie worms his way into Jez’s graces and his bed, determined to do the convincing Jez’s heart needs.

Zahra Owens is a multi-lingual globetrotter who loves big cities, but also has a weak spot for the wide-open spaces that are so rare where she lives.

She likes her men either tough on the outside but with a huge soft center, or strong, silent and damaged. She makes it her personal goal to find them their happy-ever-after, the road there often leading via hospital beds, villas with gorgeous vistas or ranges full of horses.

Zahra is a proud member of the Rainbow Romance Writers, the Romance Writers of America, and is also a member of RWA’s Professional Author’s Network.

If Zahra had her wish, a day would have at least 36 hours, because how else would she find the time to finish all the novels still inside her head?
You can find Zahra at Zahraowens.com.

The Interview

Q: How important are character names, to you, and how do you go about naming them? What about titles?
A: The character names almost always come right after the basic premise of the book. If the names are wrong, the characters won’t talk to me. While I was writing my cowboy novels, one minor character wanted to be called Cooper. I’d already written a Cooper, as a main character in a novella called Balance, but I figured, what the heck, it’s a minor character. BUT…it turned out he had his own sob story, and wanted me to tell it. So I’m writing another Cooper… Totally different character from my other Cooper so I hope people won’t expect him to be the same!

Q: In what locale is your most recent book set? How compelling was it to set a story there? Do you choose location the same way every time? How?
A: Locations are part of the plot. They almost always become a character. My latest book, The Hand-me-down, is set in Barcelona and New York. I love New York to bits, yet New York became a very dark, menacing city for some reason. Barcelona is the bright sunshine place in the novel and although not so nice things happen in Barcelona too, it’s still the brightness to NYC’s gloom.

Q: How much power do you give your characters in steering the story line?
A: Every story I start, I tell myself I’m going to tell it the way I want it and every time I fail. These characters live. I admit it’s in my head, but they have their own will and if I fight them, the story won’t get written.

Q: What is the most satisfying element for you in writing gay relationships, and why?
A: I just love seeing my guys get together, especially if the road to happiness is full of potholes and detours. I love that there are a lot of clichés in gay romance, but you don’t need to follow any of them, especially not where characterization is concerned.

Q: Are readers involved in making your fiction—do they suggest stories or say what they’d like to read?
A: When I was still writing fanfiction, they did, but not anymore. Everyone is allowed to make suggestions, but they don’t do it, not even when explicitly given the chance.

Q: Describe the ideal relationship between author and readers.
A: Very selfishly I’d like a reader to love or trust me enough to buy anything I bring out, even if, at first glance, it isn’t their cup of tea. As a reader, I have a few authors like that (not naming names, because these people know me!). Also, I’d like to get some feedback from them. Just honest, tactful, right off the cuff feedback.

Q: What do you find useful about reviews?
A: A well written review makes you think about what you’ve written and helps you to see how other people view your work. “OMG I love your story!!!” is as useless to me as “Your story stinks” if the reviewer doesn’t tell me why he loved or hated the story, but I’ll gladly accept the first one for what it is!

Q: I’m well known for demanding to know an author’s opinion about which of their characters is the sexiest, and I’m making no exception. Who, how, and why?
A: Right now, Mr. Sex-on-legs for me is Nick from The Hand-me-down. I’m sorry I had to kill him. He’s pushing fifty, elegant, tall and slender, impeccable dresser, full white beard and white floppy hair. I like my men mature (if you didn’t know that, you’ve never read anything I write) and a little ambiguous. In this case, it seems he doted on Jamie, his longtime lover, and gave up his entire life to take care of him, but was it in Jamie’s best interest? Read it and find out.

Q: What are the fifty hottest words (approximate the word count) you’ve ever written, in your opinion. (Be sure to include citation).
A: “Touch yourself,” I said in a voice that was definitely a few notches below my usual commanding one. He complied teasingly, smiling slightly as he used as few fingers as possible to move the skin over his erection, like he was trying not to obscure my view. He was so hard I could barely tell he was uncut. “Does it feel good?”
(This is hard! To choose, I mean…) From The Hand-me-Down.

Q: What are you doing now, what do you plan to write next?
A:I’m half way through my fourth cowboy novel, which will be called Moon and Stars. It’s not flowing as it should. I had a deadline and watched it fly by… Not good! But it will be written. “Cooper” demands it!

An Excerpt!
From: The Hand-Me-Down

WHEN the plane touched down in Barcelona, it was the middle of the night, but I was still on New York time, so I was actually less tired than I would be after a hard day’s work. Traveling first class had its perks, not least the almost personal service the airline provided in the form of a charming and rather buff male flight attendant who made sure my every need was met. Okay, maybe not my every need. His service didn’t provide that. He did, however, make sure I slept soundly for a good three hours in a seat that was more comfortable than the one in my own living room, and that when I woke, the meal I’d skipped was still hot. He also made sure the cabin lights were low, and the only sound was the humming of the engines. His perfect service even made sure I barely registered there were other businessmen sharing the cabin with me. For once, during my waking hours I actually got some work done. I kept thinking the flight attendant could make some rich guy a very attentive but inconspicuous butler. And he was a treat to look at as well.

Walking down the concourse on route to the baggage claim, I felt more invigorated than a transatlantic passenger had the right to be, and as I passed the droves of cattle car passengers and their tired kids, I tried not to smile too much. At least they didn’t do this once a week. I was so used to the time change it no longer bothered me. If all went well, I’d be back in the Big Apple before the weekend with time off to go clubbing. That was all in my future. For now, it was business all the way.

At immigration, a few words of Spanish, a stern, businesslike look, and my almost-full passport made the immigration officer put aside his prejudice against my shaven head and muscular bad-boy physique as he returned my passport to me, and let me enter the country. Luckily my numerous tattoos were covered by my travel attire, or he might have had a different reaction. I picked up my garment bag and the small suitcase I could hook my laptop bag to, and briskly walked toward the terminal’s outer lobby, where a portly driver stood with my name printed on a placard. Jeremy Robinson. But friends call me Jez.

“Good flight, sir?” the driver asked in heavily accented English after I had settled in the back of his car.

“Perfect, thank you,” I answered. I recognized the logo on his lapel as the one from the company I was going to visit. “Will you be picking me up in the morning?”

“Yes, sir. When would you like me to be there?”

“Eight is fine.” That would give me time to review some of my notes while driving, and would take into account that traffic in downtown Barcelona was notoriously difficult to predict. Also, I preferred to arrive early and see how ready they were for my arrival. I admit that seeing them scurry around nervously while I keep my notorious cool strokes my ego.

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Special “It Gets Better Project” Guest Blog from Author Zahra Owens

Welcome Zahra Owens, returning with this very worthwhile post. Readers, as always on the blog the cover images are links straight to the publisher’s online store. Some of you may remember that when Zahra visited last time, she gave us a very interesting interview. Here’s a link: Shapely Asses in the Saddle…

Did you cry too when you saw sex columnist Dan Savage and his partner Terry Miller talk about their childhood in the very first It Gets Better video? Did it move you to hear them talk frankly about the bullies and taunts and hard times of growing up ‘different’? You were not alone. Many videos followed, and a lot of people opened their hearts and recorded their own story. It became the It Gets Better Project.

That very first video moved me to write You Can’t Choose Your Family.I wanted to show a couple who’d been together for twenty years and still felt their love grow every day. I wanted to believe this kind of love was possible and Fran Galloway and Jay Molenski obliged by telling me their story.

Once the story was published, Fran and Jay kept bothering me to write how they got together. I don’t need an excuse to go back to the beginning of the nineties, so one evening, after reading about another slew of teenage suicides, I penned the beginning of You Can Choose Your Friends. Somehow, the rest of the story wrote itself.

During the editing process, I realized it was a true It Gets Better story. We already know that life works out for these guys but Fran especially went through hell in this prequel. Slowly the idea started to form that I wanted to make sure it did some good (besides give a few people a little bit of reading joy). I decided I wanted to give my royalties to the It Gets Better Project. With the help of Elizabeth North of Dreamspinner Press, I arranged for $1.20 to be donated for every single copy sold.

At the same time, I felt I had to record my story too.

I’m not a lesbian, although all my life people have seen me as such, and I was bullied accordingly. I’ve always been the weird one, the eccentric one, and on top of that I was a smart, but fat girl. Could they possibly find more reasons to ostracize me? Despite of the fact I was singled out already, I helped them along by standing up for the minorities in school. I hung out with the ‘freaks’, so slowly but surely, I started feeling quite at home being the Q in the LGBTQ.

The one thing I wanted to talk about in my video was that, for me, it didn’t get better overnight. It took a lot of time for me to grow into myself and, at 42, I’m still a work in progress. That doesn’t mean it’s a sad story. Because it does get better! You just have to give yourself time.

So take a look at my message, and please support a good cause by buying my story. Remember, I’m not making any money from this. It all goes to It Gets Better.

Note from Lou Sylvre: Zahra also has two new stories coming:

On Feb 22nd a short story, “Isali Dreams”.

*******************************************************************************************

On March 9th, a novel in the same universe as Clouds and Rain

…and Earth and Sky.

It’s called Floods and Drought, and it should be on the Coming Soon page of Dreamspinner Press soon!

********************************************************************************************

Meanwhile, here is a peek at the cover.

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Zahra Owens’ *Earth and Sky* M/M romance from Dreamspinner Press

Scroll down for interview with Zahra Owens and tantalizing excerpts.

Hunter Krause knows better than anyone that running a ranch is hard work. Wranglers are hard to find, and even with Hunter’s foreman and entire extended family on hand, the busy ranch is constantly short-handed. So when horses go missing, Hunter’s brother-in-law hires a man Hunter would never have considered: Grant Jarreau, a man Hunter can’t forgive for leaving Hunter’s best friend Gable after an incapacitating accident.

Grant quickly fits in, befriending Hunter’s sister and making himself invaluable. Despite Hunter’s misgivings, he can’t quite control his body’s reactions to Grant, and he isn’t sure what to do about it. Then Grant saves Hunter’s young nephew from drowning and one thankful kiss opens doors Hunter never knew existed.

While Hunter and Grant tentatively move toward a relationship, the family’s in an uproar, the ranch is struggling, they can’t figure out what happened to the horses, and to top it all off, Grant is hiding something. Can Hunter learn to trust Grant, or will the turmoil already tearing up his family claim another victim?

Zahra Owens was born in Europe just before Woodstock and the moon landing and was given a much less pronounceable name by her non-English-speaking parents. Being an Aquarian meant she would never quite conform, and people learned to expect the unexpected.

She started writing fairy tales in first grade; the same year she came into contact with her first group of English-speaking friends, a group which would eventually grow to include people from all over the world. On the outside she was a typical only child, accustomed to being with adults most of the time. On the inside, she sought ways to channel her wild imagination.

During the daytime she earns a living as a computer specialist, but it’s her former career as an intensive care nurse that tends to seep into her fiction. Maybe this has to do with her weak spot for flawed characters and imperfect bodies, or maybe it’s just her sadistic streak coming through. You be the judge.

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“Shapely asses in the saddle” (an interview with Zahra Owens)

Welcome to the blog Zahra! I’m looking forward to seeing what kind of things a fellow Aquarian might have up her sleeve, and also to having the chance just to chat about you and your work. Let’s start, if you don’t mind, with a few questions about who you are and what makes you write.

Thank you for having me!

Q: Your bio mentions that you were born in Europe, to non-English speaking parents. Of course that little bit of info raises a number of new questions. I’ll stick to just the basics. Where were you born? What was your parent’s native tongue? What part of the world is now your home? How do these factors of location and language affect how you write or what you write?
A: I was born and raised in the North of Belgium where we speak Flemish (a ‘softer’ form of Dutch). The best way to compare Flemish and Dutch is to compare British and American English. There are some different words or the same words with slightly different meanings and our pronunciation is quite different, but we understand each other without too much difficulty, despite the differences in culture.

I still live around the corner from where I was raised and I still use Flemish in my every day work life and in my family life or with most of my friends. I was raised bilingually though, through my mother who worked in the International School circuit, and I have parents who are anglophiles. My real life first names are English, which raised a few eyebrows when I was born.

It’s hard for me to imagine exactly how this effects my writing, since I don’t know what it’s like to actually be raised in say, the U.S., but I do know my vocabulary is a mix of all sorts of English and my beta’s most used remark is probably “We don’t say it like that” when I use a word or sentence I borrowed from England, or Australia even. Also, I’ve travelled extensively all over the world and this does give me a larger perspective on all sorts of things, from politics to culture in general.

Q: Your works are prolific. Do you write full time? If not how do you juggle?
A: Oh no, I work fulltime and write when I can. I wish I could write full time, but I can’t afford that and it will take a long time before I can start dreaming about it too, since I work in a country where taxes are sky-high. But I’m single and I have no children, so I just have myself to look after. That certainly helps.

Q: How did you come to write in the romance genre, and M/M specifically? You said you were non-conformist, did that play a part, or were you inspired by people you knew, or …? Have you written in other genres, and if not, do you think you will?
A: Like a lot of writers in our genre, I started in fanfiction. It’s a great place to start. You get instant feedback, you learn to write on your feet and you easily find out what people like and what they don’t. It’s also great practice to write within the constraints of a world you didn’t build yourself, but that you love, and to work with characters that are well known to your readers. After a while, though, you want to break free of the constraints and make your own characters and worlds.

I like my boys/men so M/M romance is my weapon of choice. When the story calls for it, I will write a het scene or a menage scene involving a woman, but I don’t see myself writing a het novel. There are a few M/M/F bunnies tugging at my fingers, but even then the main couple will always be M/M.

Venturing outside the contemporary romance genre is something I’m doing right now. I’ve found myself a writing partner who works in the sci-fi/paranormal realm and he’s dragging me along. If the novella we’ve submitted is accepted, you’re sure to hear more about this!

Why M/M is probably the question I get asked most, especially by people not familiar with the genre. I guess my best answer is that I write what I like to read. A lot of friends I made through fanfiction have made it into publishing and I’ve always read their writing and still support them now their writing is no longer free. I’ve also encountered a lot of other great writers through my publishing press and my love of the genre has only grown.

In my personal life I’ve always had gay friends and I admit I’m drawn to them. I do try to keep them out of my books, though!

Q: Going through your list of titles at Dreamspinner Press (which readers can find at Zahra Owens’ author page), your M/M titles come in a number of subgenres. These latest two are in the Western tradition. Do you see your future titles continuing in this vein? The Western seems to be particularly popular among M/M romance readers (and writers). Can you speculate as to why that might be, and whether that will continue?
A: The contemporary western is certainly popular and I think this is because of the mixture of rugged, manly men and the traditionally homophobic environment they live in. Also, it’s such an American tradition. Cowboys made America, at least for a while.

I’m stuck in the western for the time being. My next novel, Floods and Drought, is also part of the Clouds and Rain series and I think I have one more story up my sleeve after that. I’ve already told a few people I’ll try to make that my NaNoWriMo effort for this year, so I better hold myself to that.

After that, who knows? Probably no more cowboys, although I do love those shapely asses in a saddle 😉 Maybe I should tackle that other M/M staple and write a Navy Seal novel? Or maybe I’ll return to the traditional contemporary romance. We’ll see where the (numerous) bunnies take me.

Q: About Earth and Sky—your latest release—a couple of general questions. It seems from your excerpt that this novel has a large and complex cast of characters—after the manner of a saga. Do you feel that’s true? If so, perhaps you can tell us a bit about how such a large cohort came into being and how you manage them.
A: My two characters in Earth and Sky do come with families attached and I honestly don’t know how that happened. I tend to write very self-contained couples and have been called on that by reviewers. Clouds and Rain has very little going on outside of the two men the story is about, and I did want to expand a bit on that with this new couple. Hunter lives on a family-run ranch, so it was necessary to show that. Without giving away too much plot, Grant’s family is also a major part of the whole story, so it became quite a busy group to write about. I also like the idea of a big, rowdy family, made up from a few sets of parents and their children, all sharing the same roof. I think the western genre lends itself to that quite easily. Maybe I idealize this a bit too, since I come from a very small family with no siblings or uncles and aunts.

Q: From reading the excerpts, at the heart of Earth and Sky story are two mysteries—what’s happening to the horses, and (more of a tease, to my mind as a reader) what happened the night Gable was injured? In Clouds and Rain it seems the same question is being asked—what happened to Gable? But CAR came first; does EAS actually reach beyond CAS for backstory? If so, is that the way it was planned?

The stories are romance, but within that, do you see them as mysteries? In your mind, how much of a role do those mysteries play in the novels?
A: Yes, it was definitely planned that the mystery of what happened when Gable was injured was set in CAR and only resolved in EAS. There was no way to resolve it in CAR because the whole story of what happened to Gable is seen through Gable’s eyes and he only knows part of the story. He doesn’t know why Grant left that day and doesn’t find out until much later. As I was writing CAR, I realized I’d need the whole of EAS to explain it.

I’d also set myself to write a baddy (in Gable’s eyes) and then show the readers what I believe to be true: that no-one is all bad (or all good), it’s just a matter of perspective. A lot of readers ‘got’ that. Some didn’t and were stuck in the opinion they’d formed of Grant from CAR, which isn’t really fair, because Grant never got a say in CAR.

I don’t see the stories as mysteries. The mysteries are plot devices. To me these stories are still about the romance between two men and how the way to love is riddled with a lot of potholes.

Q: I just have to ask… One character is named Gable, as in the actor Clark, and another character is named Grant, as in the actor of similar era, Cary. Coincidence? Several of your characters have similar names. Confusing? How do you go about naming your characters?
A: You know, you’re the first person who’s dared to ask. LOL! You’re right. There’s also (Errol) Flynn and (Tab) Hunter, who was a popular actor from the fifties who came out as gay in later life. Even Bill Haines (the vet and one of my straight characters) is named after William Haines, an actor from the twenties who was gay.

With my main characters, I’ve only slipped once so far: Tim, who gets his own story told in my third CAR novel is just Tim, but he was named before I realized he had more to say and I couldn’t go back and change it. His better half is Rory McCown, though, and that name is the real name of one of cinema’s best known cowboys, Rory Calhoun (who’s real first name was Francis Timothy – are you still following me?). In the fourth novel, I’m back on track with two names from classic cinema, but you’ll have to wait for those (tease that I am).

I don’t see the names as being confusing, but that’s just inside my head. My editors are sure to call me on that (they have on other occasions).

Q: You introduce your second excerpt to Earth and Sky with an explanation ending: “This kind of runs out of hand.” This brings up in my mind a problem that seems to plague many writers. How often do you feel your characters sort of hijack your intended story line? If that does happen for you, do you fight it? Go with it? How do you strike a balance?
A: My characters hijack their stories all the time and the harder I fight them, the harder the writing becomes. I try to reason with them sometimes, but if they want things a certain way (and most of my characters do want things to go their own way), there’s no fighting them. They’re usually right, too, but it does mean that I need to chuck bits of plot sometimes. I write a lot more than ends up in the finished novel.

Q: Lou’s favorite question time: In the mind of Zahra Owens, who is sexier, Hunter or Grant? Gable or Flynn? Smudging the lines a bit is fair, but cheating isn’t—you can’t just say “both.” Explanations required—no one-word answers, please!
A: To me Gable is sexier than Flynn. Gable is a bit older, more rugged and more damaged and I do love my men with a chip in their armor. The disability is also a selling point (my non-conformist side, I suppose, or my background as a nurse, who knows?). He’s also moody and bad-tempered a lot, while Flynn is a lot more soothing and easy-going. One can’t live without the other, but I’ll take Gable any time.

In contrast, I think Hunter is more sexy than Grant and the reason sort of contradicts the reason I gave for choosing Gable over Flynn. Hunter is innocent in some ways and I find that very endearing. He’s never been with a man before Grant and is genuinely awestruck when he finds out he likes Grant more than any woman he’s ever had in his bed.

Q: About those covers! My, but they are beautiful. Anne Cain does some fabulous work, and these are no exception. How involved were you in terms of giving input on elements to be included, overall style, and perhaps the look of the men? When you first saw the cover for Clouds and Rain, what was your reaction? What about Earth and Sky?
A: The covers just blow me away. I love Anne Cain’s work and I’m already looking forward to cover three (although the novel isn’t even finished yet). I write quite extensive cover specs and Clouds and Rain came back exactly as I’d described, right down to the horses, the sunset, the rain and the way the characters looked.

Earth and Sky was a bit different. Most of the story takes place in the snow (the stories are set in Idaho, so winter means mounds of snow) and I’d asked for muted greys, blues and whites, and then it came back all orange and red… Also, both my characters are in their late thirties, early forties, so the character photos felt too young for me. The front character would do (you have to admit he’s gorgeous and since that was Hunter, I felt he could pass for young-looking mid-thirties), but I asked to change the back character to a more rugged man, which Anne did. They wouldn’t compromise on the color, though, since they wanted it to stand out. It certainly does that! (and wouldn’t have it it had been more muted)

Q: I mentioned briefly above that you have quite a number of publications with Dreamspinner Press. Do you have any other published work? Other than CAR and EAS, can you pick out one or two published pieces that are among your personal favorites, perhaps tell us a little about the pieces and how they came into being?
A: I’m exclusively published by Dreamspinner Press, but earlier this year I became a part of a British Anthology when I joined a UK meet of authors. British Flash is a free anthology of flash fiction (about a thousand words per story) available at Smashwords (http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/65264). Tea And Crumpets (http://ukmeet.weebly.com/tea–crumpet.html) was published by JMS Books and proceeds of that will go to future UK meets. I contributed to both anthologies.
At Dreamspinner Press I have some other favorites as well.

My first novel Diplomacy will always be my baby. It is set mostly in my country and is a romance between a U.S. Ambassador to Belgium and a liaison from the British Embassy. When the story sets out both are involved with women, but for one of them it is definitely a relationship out of convenience.

Among my shorter work I have a soft spot for “You Can’t Choose Your Family” to such an extent that I wrote a prequel for it. The already published story is about an established couple of twenty years and the acceptance they feel from one side of the family in contrast to the absolute denial they get from the other side. The prequel “You Can Choose Your Friends” tells the story of how they got together in the first place. Both stories where inspired by Dan Savage and Terry Miller’s It Gets Better video and I decided to donate the proceeds of the sale of the prequel to their organisation. The prequel will be out in January 2012 at Dreampinner Press.

Note to the reader: Zahra is slated to come back for a visit to sylvre.com in January to celebrate that release, maybe talk a bit about the It Gets Better Project, and who knows? I hope you’ll watch for it and stop in.

Q: What’s coming up for your readers, Zahra? Will there be more of these ranches and, more importantly, ranchers? Something else in the mix?
A: As I said before: yes, more ranchers/ranch hands for the next novel for sure and if NaNoWriMo goes as planned there will be one more cowboy novel after that. I’m a slow writer, though. The novel tentatively slated for the spring of 2012 was my 2010 NaNoWriMo project!

January sees the prequel to “You Can’t Choose Your Family” called “You Can Choose Your Friends” and hopefully my collaboration with my writing partner will be accepted, so with a little luck, I’ll have something a little out of the ordinary to offer as well.

If I meet my deadline (and the story is accepted) the third CAR novel will be out somewhere in the spring.
After that I’m not sure yet. My writing partner and I have another story plotted, but we’ll need to find time to write it. We don’t live close to each other, but more or less in the same time zone, so hooray for the internet!

Zahra, I’m very glad you allowed me to feature you on sylvre.com. I’ve enjoyed getting to ask the questions and I love the answers! I’m looking forward to your next visit. Thank you!

Thank you for having me. It was a real pleasure!

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Excerpt fromEarth and Sky by Zahra Owens

“I’m telling you, we’re missing horses,” Hugh told his boss. “Not a lot, but last week I had Tim count again because we were one short, and this week we lost another one.”

Hugh and Hunter were riding fences. On a large ranch like Hunter’s, this was a job that took most of the day, especially when they needed to dismount from time to time to check something out or to make small repairs. Usually this job was done by two of the workmen, but because of Hugh’s concerns, the foreman had invited his boss to ride with him on this crisp spring morning.

Both men were tall and muscled and had practically been born in the saddle. Hugh was the oldest son of a ranch foreman who had worked for Hunter’s father and, later, for Hunter. Now that his dad had retired, Hugh was Hunter’s foreman. He had a younger brother Tim working with him, and a middle brother Jack, who specialized in horse dentistry. They lived and breathed horses.

Hunter had been born into the ranch as well. His father had been a rancher who had bought up most of the surrounding ranches during a recession—including the one Hugh’s father had owned—and who had done rather well for himself until his untimely death. Hunter had only been fourteen at the time, and if it hadn’t been for Hugh’s father, he wouldn’t have kept the ranch afloat. Now Hugh was married to Hunter’s older sister, Lisa, so he was practically family. Hunter was an even better businessman than his father, with more horses than ever being born inside the large perimeter of the Blue River Ranch and sold at auction or to other ranches all over the US. He worked hard and enjoyed getting his hands dirty in between all the paperwork and negotiating his job required.

Despite Hunter’s concern over the missing horses, a day like today, when he could spend it on horseback, was a treat. Sometimes he wished he could just work the ranch and not have to deal with everything else that came with running a successful business. Today felt like a holiday, something that was rare in Hunter’s world. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d been away from the ranch for anything other than a rancher’s convention or an out-of-town auction. Then again, he really didn’t mind. Even on those occasions when he needed to travel, he always felt homesick from the moment he crossed the county line. This was his land, and if he had anything to say about it, he would be buried on it, just like his father. He hoped it would be after a long and full life—not like his dad, who’d been cut down in his prime—but nevertheless, he did not see himself ever moving away from it.

“So are you saying someone is stealing our horses, or are you thinking we have a predator on our hands?” Hunter asked his foreman after a long silence. He had his own idea about the matter, but Hugh didn’t spend all his time with his nose in paperwork, so Hunter valued his opinion.

“I’m thinking cougar or mountain lion, possibly with cubs and definitely hungry,” Hugh answered calmly. “Only thing we haven’t found so far is a carcass. Which would point to a horse thief, but then, if I were him, I’d steal horses that were already trained, not one-year-old colts.”

Hunter sighed. They didn’t need this. They’d only moved the horses to the higher meadows two weeks ago so they’d get the fresh grass that had been growing all winter. Among them were pregnant mares that would foal later in the year. For now, they were still quick enough to get away from any predator, but if Hugh was right, they wouldn’t get the good grass they needed to nourish their offspring in the later stages of pregnancy because they’d have to be moved closer to the house, where predators were less likely to strike. Hunter didn’t like this one bit. Then again, he hated losing horses, and not just because it meant less income.

Hunter was still deep in thought when he saw Hugh direct his horse toward a natural incline, where he jumped off.

“I think we’ve got an inquisitive mountain lion on our hands,” Hugh said gruffly. “Let’s hope she’s just here to feed her babies until her usual prey recuperate from the harsh winter, because if she’s been forced out of her habitat for some reason, we’re in trouble.”

“Are you sure?” Hunter asked from atop his horse.

Hugh was crouching down near a muddy patch on the small hill. “Oh yes, a puma’s been standing here, surveying her surroundings. Unless we find the carcass of a horse nearby, we can’t be sure she killed as well, but she’s definitely been here since the rain, which means within the last two days.”

Hunter unconsciously felt for the rifle in his saddlebag. The last thing he wanted was for mama puma to come out of hiding and make a tasty treat out of his foreman. Although mountain lions were notoriously wary of people, this one seemed to be more brazen than most, and it was hard to tell what a desperate puma would do for food.

“Did Tim say which horses we lost?” Hunter asked.

Hugh got up from his crouching position and nodded. “We’re not sure about this week’s, but last week was a late foal from October.”

“Damn!” Hunter cursed. He’d have to make a decision soon. He couldn’t afford to lose new foals. They were the ranch’s source of income, and every one they lost would show up in the books. He had no choice. They’d have to move the herd away from the outer fields again.

“Do we have enough wranglers to move the herd back down?” Hunter wondered aloud.

Hugh climbed back in the saddle. “In a word, no. We got one drifter walking in after we put out the feelers, and I put him to work in the stables. He’s not a bad worker, but I doubt he’s much of a wrangler. Haven’t seen him ride a horse yet, although according to Tim, he’s okay handling them. I suppose if we really needed him, we could give him a try, but that still leaves us two hands short. If you ask me, I’d move the herd in smaller groups, like we did to bring them up here. That way we should be able to handle them. Don’t suppose Gable’s made a miraculous recovery? We could use his help.”

Hunter sighed. “With the state of his leg after that injury he sustained last year, if anything, Gable will need our help from now on. Although, I think he found himself a ranch hand.” Hunter wanted to ask Hugh how his neighbor, running his ranch single-handedly and in dire straits, had found capable help when they could afford to hire staff but couldn’t find any. He didn’t, though. Gable had a hard enough time staying afloat, so Hunter didn’t begrudge him finding someone to lend a hand.

They trotted along, talking about the goings-on at the ranch while keeping their eyes peeled for anything unusual along the way. It had started to drizzle, and Hunter pulled the collar on his oilskin duster tighter, closing the zipper some more in an attempt to stay dry. He knew it would be futile, but he did it anyway. After a while, both men needed to dismount when they noticed a breach in a stretch of barbed wire. It was easily mended with an extra length and a pair of wire cutters, but Hugh pointed at the flattened high grass beyond the fence. They tied up their horses, and Hunter took out his rifle again before crossing the fence. They took their time, looking at the tracks in the mud and the broken-off bushes here and there, but found no evidence of the missing horses.

The rain started to pick up, so the men packed up to return to the homestead. From where they’d left their horses, they could see the mares with last year’s young, grazing. With a hungry predator around, Hunter knew they couldn’t leave them there for much longer.

***

“You mean there’s a puma eating our horses?” Danny asked eagerly as he scarfed down the mashed potatoes, peas, and roast beef they were having for dinner.

“Do we have to talk about this over dinner?” Lisa, his mother, admonished.

“He’s going to find out anyway, Lise,” Hunter told his sister. “It’s nature’s way. The sooner he finds out about it, the better.” He turned to the nine-year-old. “You can help move the herd on Saturday, bring them to safety.”

“And that’s the last I want to hear about it over the dinner table,” Lisa cautioned. “We don’t eat horse meat, and we don’t talk about anything else eating it at this table.”

Danny chuckled but stopped as soon as he saw his grandmother, who was clearly of the same opinion as his mother, giving him a stern look.

Even Hunter’s face turned serious. Although he loved his mother dearly, she was a woman you didn’t trifle with.

“So you’re moving the herd back down?” Beth Krause asked her son.

“Yes, ma’am,” Hunter answered. “We can’t afford to lose more colts to that puma or anything else that feels we’ve got plenty, and although it’s really great grass on those high pastures, we can’t keep round-the-clock surveillance to prevent them from becoming a moveable feast for predators. We barely have enough manpower to bring them down again.”

“Well, you’re not taking Danny if there’s a big cat on the loose up there,” Lisa added.

“Mom!” Danny protested.

“Come on, sis,” Hunter pleaded. “He’s big enough to ride more than a pony now, so if anything happens, he can get away. He’s been riding Belle down here on the grounds, and you know how beautifully she handles. She’s one we got from Gable, so she can be trusted, even carrying a shrimp like Danny.” He ruffled Danny’s dark, curly hair and winked at him to make his words sound less harsh. “You know we’re shorthanded, and he can work the fences. There’ll always be someone around to help out, and Hugh and I will take good care of him. Right, Hugh?”

Hunter looked at Hugh across the table. The foreman had been quiet until now, like he always was around his wife and mother-in-law. There wasn’t much point in protesting if you couldn’t win, so he simply shrugged.

“We’ll see,” Lisa compromised, silently asking for Hunter’s plate to give him seconds.

***

Saturday morning started off early with saddling the horses at dawn. The drizzle that had kept everything pretty much wet for the last few days had ceased, and the sun looked bright as it crept over the horizon.

“Great day to move some horses,” Hunter said aloud as he entered the row of stables toward the one that held Davenport, a temperamental gelding that had lost none of his spunk after being neutered. Hunter loved to ride him. It was a battle of wills, and Hugh always shook his head and laughed when he saw what Hunter put up with when it came to that horse.

“He’s almost ready,” an unfamiliar voice said from behind the brown steed.

Hunter patted Davenport’s neck as he rounded him. “And who are… Grant? What are you doing here?”

The tall and strikingly handsome cowboy turned toward Hunter. “Hugh hired me last night. I heard you were a few hands short, and I was in the neighborhood, so I figured I could help out.”

“Hugh hired you?”

Hunter didn’t wait for an answer. Instead, he paced determinedly in the direction of where he thought Hugh would be: saddling his own horse.

“What the fuck made you hire Grant Jarreau?” Hunter shouted, not bothering to check whether there was anyone else present in the stable.

Hugh, always calm and collected, put his horse’s foot down and straightened his back. “We’ve been looking for help for over a year, and all we found was a halfway decent stable boy. Grant arrived here last night looking for a job, so I hired him.”

“And how long is he staying for?” Hunter asked, trying to keep his anger from boiling over.

Hugh shrugged. “Like any other horse wrangler. Until he’s found someplace better to work, which around here isn’t likely to happen. So I guess until he’s ready to move on.”

“He’ll leave in the dead of night, like after Gable’s accident. For all we know, he caused it and left Gable for dead. I don’t trust him to cover my back, Hugh.”

Hugh calmly looked at Hunter. “All I know is that he’s a damn fine wrangler and not too proud to get his hands dirty. He’s like us, Hunter. He’s welded to his horse, knows their language, and can get them to do just about anything. And on top of that, he doesn’t mind mucking out stables or saddling horses for other riders. If he leaves, he leaves. In the meantime, we have had a good worker to carry part of the load. If he doesn’t come around on Friday evening for his paycheck, I’ll have a drink on him.” A shy smile played around Hugh’s mouth. “Besides, even Davenport doesn’t dare to give him attitude. That was his test. I let him groom your horse last night, and the big shit didn’t even flinch. I figured if Grant was good enough for the prince, he would be good enough for you.”

Hunter eyed Hugh suspiciously and then conceded. “Fine! But I don’t need to like him. He’s trouble and he’ll prove me right one day. I can’t forget what he did to Gable and therefore to us. We had fifty extra horses to take care of because of him.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Hugh replied with a smile. “You never mind helping Gable out, so it wasn’t such a big burden, right?”

Hunter narrowed his eyes at Hugh and then paced out of the stable without saying another word. He slowed his pace as soon as he came near his own horse. Grant was standing with his back toward him, bent over and apparently checking something on Davenport’s hoof. Hunter’s eyes traveled from the long, narrow back to where a red plaid shirt was tucked into a pair of fitted, slightly worn jeans that showed off a nicely curved ass, and Hunter felt all his blood rush south. He closed his eyes and swerved into the stable to prevent himself from bumping into Grant.

He couldn’t do this, couldn’t have these feelings. Not right now, and certainly not about Grant. He took a few cleansing breaths and willed himself to calm down. The thoughts would go away. They always did. He’d go out on the town tonight and get laid. He was popular enough and always got plenty of attention, so even if all else failed, he could count on Miranda forgetting he had turned her down so many times before, and she’d sleep with him. Take the edge off. She was good at that.

One more deep breath and Hunter was ready to step outside. He didn’t look at Grant this time, although he was aware that Grant had stepped away from the horse. Instead, he took Davenport’s reins and mounted him, turning the nervous horse around once. “Grant, you can ride Raven. You should remember him, since I bought him from Gable. I’ll meet you, Danny, and Hugh at the first gate.” And with that, he sped off.

Now that Hunter was concentrating on keeping his eager gelding in check, he slowly calmed down. This he could do. He could work hard all day, spend time in the open air, move some horses, stay alert to any trouble that was brewing in the herd, and do all this with men who were practically family to him. It would all run smoothly, even with Grant there. Hunter knew Hugh was right. Grant was a good worker and he knew what he was doing. Hunter would set his objections aside and work with him like he worked with all the other wranglers. It didn’t matter that he suspected Grant was gay. The other guys didn’t know, and Grant had always been discreet, so it wouldn’t make a difference.

Hunter shook his head and focused on watching where he was going. Davenport wasn’t always to be trusted when he was this eager to run, and Hunter had been thrown off more than once when his horse had decided to jump a fence or a hedge. He pulled the reins and made the gelding stop just before the first gate. He turned the horse around and saw the others trot leisurely over toward him: Hugh and his brother Tim, with little Danny in between them and Grant beside them on the dark horse Hunter had told him to ride. Even from this distance he could see how well Grant sat in the saddle. He almost had a regal seat, aided not only by his clear confidence but also by his tall physique, long, lean back, and broad shoulders. Hunter turned his horse around to force himself to stop looking at the new wrangler. Instead, he opened the gate and entered the lower range.

The mustering went smoothly, with the four experienced riders rounding up the horses and little Danny opening and closing gates. Danny was also putting in some extra effort, running behind the occasional spooked foal and unruly young horse, just so he could prove he was worth his keep. The mare he was riding did a good job protecting her young jockey, which wasn’t something that surprised Hunter, since that was the reason he’d bought her off Gable two years earlier. Hunter’s father had bought Hunter his first full-grown horse for his seventh birthday, so when Danny, Hunter’s godson, turned that age, Hunter had to buy him one too. Although at the time the horse had been a bit big for the seven-year-old, now that Danny was older, Belle proved an excellent choice for the young rider.

After the work was done and Hunter was assured that the herd was safe in the lower fields, the men dismounted and started rubbing down their horses. Although the ranch employed stable boys who were quite capable of grooming the horses and unsaddling them, the general rule was that if they had the time, every wrangler took care of his own mount.

With Hugh and Tim helping out Danny, Hunter was left on the other side of the stable block with Grant. Hunter brushed by Grant as he took Davenport’s saddle off.

“So does this mean I can stay?” Grant asked, smiling.

Hunter looked at him briefly, then walked on. When he returned, Grant was still waiting for an answer.
“You’re a good wrangler,” Hunter answered flatly. “And we’re shorthanded, so I’m not about to throw you out, but just realize that I don’t trust you. I won’t forget what you did to Gable.” With that, Hunter turned around and started brushing down Davenport.

Grant moved into his field of vision. “You don’t know the full story.”

Hunter sighed and avoided looking Grant in the eye. “All I know is that the day he got hurt, you disappeared. If there had been anything missing from Gable’s house, the sheriff would have put you on the wanted list, but there wasn’t. The rumors were there, though.” Hunter didn’t elaborate and Grant didn’t offer an explanation.

After what seemed like a long time, during which both men silently worked on their horses, Grant spoke again. “I wouldn’t trust rumors. Have you ever bothered asking Gable?”

Hunter didn’t give an answer, and Grant didn’t wait around for one. The tone had been set.

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Earth and Sky excerpt #2 (with sexy bits, intended for age 18+ only)

It was still raining when Hunter walked into the shower block more than an hour later. Automatically he shook the wet off his oilskin duster and took off his hat, making a stream of water run off that as well. He was so nervous he could barely breathe, yet he had to do this. He remembered feeling like this when he’d come home from school with bad grades one term and his mother made him wait in the mudroom for his dad to come in from the ranch. Only this time, he wasn’t going to be scolded. He simply wanted to convey his thanks to Grant and that was that. Yes, knowing that the wrangler was washing the rain off his skin, standing under the shower butt naked, was making Hunter sweat. Part of him hoped that Grant hadn’t shut the stall door all the way so he could catch a glimpse of him and could let his eyes wander over those broad shoulders and narrow hips, but another part of him knew that if that happened, he’d never be able to get the image out of his mind.

So he paced the small corridor that led to the shower cubicles, hat in hand and incessantly dripping, until he heard the shower being turned off. He knew Grant had to pass through the corridor on the way to the main house so it was simply a matter of being patient and Grant would come to him. Hunter couldn’t stand still, though, so he paced. He had just turned around when he heard Grant’s voice behind him.

“Hunter. What an unexpected pleasure.”

Straightening his back, Hunter turned to face him. “Grant,” he nodded. Hunter couldn’t look him straight in the eye, afraid he wouldn’t be able to hide his appreciation of the long limbs, the slightly rough skin, still wet with moisture, the fact Grant wasn’t wearing anything but a towel slung low on his hips. Suddenly Hunter was grateful Grant was carrying his wet clothes, otherwise he would have seen the dusting of chest hair or the washboard stomach he knew Grant possessed. Damn, there was a reason Hunter never went into the men’s shower block and it was because it would awaken feelings he tried every day to hide.
Grant was still staring at him, clearly expecting him to say something.

“I wanted… I wanted to say thank you.”

“My pleasure.” Grant nodded. “I didn’t think twice, to be honest. I saw Danny leave and I thought he might get into trouble so I followed him out. He’s too young to be out in this sort of weather on his own and on a horse he’s barely old enough to manage, so it was obviously without permission. I knew you’d never let him go out like that.”

“With his dad gone, he’s a bit messed up,” Hunter said, by way of apologizing for Danny’s behavior. “He seemed to be okay about it, but I guess he misses him.”

“Yeah, we all do,” Grant mused. “So he’s okay now?”

“Yeah,” Hunter said, still not looking directly at Grant. “He was shivering like mad and he’ll get an earful from Lisa as soon as she’s sure he’ll live, but other than a cold and a big scolding he won’t take anything away from it.”

“That’s good to hear,” Grant replied. “He’s a good kid.”

“Yeah, he is,” Hunter agreed, fiddling with his hat. “So what happened to that gate?” He knew he should let Grant get on with it, but he somehow had a hard time leaving.

“The storm dislodged it. Looked pretty bad and we couldn’t fix it, so we tied it up. We’ll have to repair it for good tomorrow.”

Hunter nodded, stealing looks from time to time, but not daring to feast his eyes. “Listen, I better let you run upstairs so you can get dressed, otherwise I’ll be responsible for you getting a cold as well.”
Grant smiled, so Hunter turned around to leave.

“I had the feeling you didn’t mind seeing me naked,” Grant added just before Hunter rounded the door.

Hunter stopped. He had to prevent himself from turning around and shouting something about Grant being an insolent prick, but instead he started walking again. With every step he took away from the crew house, he walked faster. Every step away made him realize that it was good that he hadn’t shouted at Grant, because he knew that the words would have only served to push Grant away, hoping that if his resolve not to kiss the man faltered, that Grant would move away from him, preventing the inevitable from happening. There it was. He’d admitted to himself that he wanted to kiss the man, push his body against Grant’s, and feel those hard muscles under his hands.

It was still raining when Hunter reached the mudroom at the side of the main house, but he didn’t walk in. Instead he smashed his fist against the worn wood. There was no reason to think that Grant would push him away if he returned to the crew quarters. He’d seen the way Grant had looked at him; he’d seen the unashamed lust in the man’s eyes; he’d felt the stolen touches, the way Grant always sought him out, despite the fact he hadn’t been very welcoming toward him. He’d only now allowed himself to understand them. The adrenalin of rescuing Danny was just ebbing away, but his heart was still beating fast. He was tired and wet to the bone, but all he could think of was that he needed to release the tension and his own hand wasn’t going to do. Not anymore.

Hunter turned around and paced back to the crew house. He had to get it out of his system, had to taste the forbidden fruit, just this once, and then maybe he would never again wonder ‘what if’? Hunter entered the house through the same door he’d left it earlier and almost ran up the stairs. Then he realized he had no idea which was Grant’s room. He had no other course of action than to call out his name. He hoped the other guys would either not recognize his voice or simply think that the boss was here to give Grant a hard time.

At the end of the corridor, a door opened and Grant stuck his head out. As soon as he saw Hunter he gestured for him to come inside his room.

“You’re back quick,” Grant said as soon as he closed the door behind Hunter. His voice was subdued as if he knew noises carried too far through the house.

Hunter didn’t answer. What could he say?

“Guess I don’t have to ask you if it’s still raining.”

Hunter looked up and gazed straight into Grant’s dark eyes. Grant’s smile was teasing and seductive and coupled with the fact that the towel that had only barely clung to Grant’s hips had been replaced by a pair of boxers and nothing else, made Hunter avert his eyes again.

“Why don’t you take your coat off?” Grant suggested. “You’re dripping all over my floor.”

Hunter hesitated, but Grant moved away, opening a closet and taking out a bottle of whiskey.

“Drink?” Grant offered

Hunter nodded and placed his duster over the chair standing next to the near wall while Grant took out two glasses and added about an inch of amber liquid to both of them.

“Here,” he said, offering one of the tumblers to Hunter. “It’ll help warm you up, because you must be cold by now and we can’t have the boss catching a cold, being as understaffed as we are right now.”

Hunter accepted the glass and downed the entire contents in one swallow. The liquid burned but Hunter welcomed the feeling. He gave Grant just enough time to take one sip and then took a step toward him.

Grant clearly noticed the overture and put his glass down on the table. He was still smiling as he reached for Hunter’s glass and just managed to bring that to safety before Hunter launched himself forward. Grant was roughly pushed against the window and as he spread his legs slightly, Hunter pushed even closer. Hunter’s kiss was rough and aggressive, but Grant could easily hold his own, even when his ass was pushed onto the window sill. He scooted back as far as he could and pulled Hunter to him. Hunter didn’t resist. In fact he pushed his groin against Grant’s and Grant felt Hunter’s arousal, which made him smile into the kiss.

“What’s so funny?” Hunter murmured.

“You are,” Grant answered as he put his hand on the back of Hunter’s neck to pull him back in for a kiss. This time Grant took the lead, pushing his tongue into Hunter’s mouth. Grant let go of Hunter’s hip to attempt to find his way into Hunter’s jeans. As they kissed, they fought for dominance until Grant found his prize and unzipped Hunter, inserting his hand into Hunter’s boxers and enveloping his swollen cock.

Hunter pulled back slightly, but didn’t move away. He stopped fighting Grant, his movements seeming automatic, slipping from Hunter’s control. The way Hunter was moaning against his mouth turned Grant on so much, he was rock hard inside his boxers as well. He resisted touching himself, not wanting to scare Hunter off. Instead he rubbed the hard shaft in his hands as Hunter was thrusting against the friction until without warning Hunter came with a loud moan. To Grant’s surprise Hunter did pull away this time, hurriedly zipping up his wet jeans and not looking at Grant before grabbing his coat and hat and running out before he’d had time to put them on.

Grant was left sitting on the window sill, rock hard and unsatisfied. He eventually got up to close his door and wash his sticky hand at the small sink in his room. His groin was aching and he took his cock in hand to finish himself off, simply to kill the dull ache, but it did little more than that. He let himself drop to his bed and rubbed his fingers through his short curly hair, trying to get over his frustration. Why did Hunter do that? Why hadn’t Hunter reciprocated? Grant couldn’t find an explanation that satisfied him. He hadn’t made a direct move toward Hunter before because he knew that Hunter was one of the few men who knew about his sexual preference. He imagined he wouldn’t need to advertise. If Hunter wanted him, he’d come to him; but now that he had, Grant was even more confused. The other reason had been that he needed the job. He’d been sent packing for far less than coming on to the boss. For some foremen, the knowledge that Grant was gay was enough. And news travelled. So all his life, Grant had played it like the others, by either staying vague about his sexual encounters or, in groups where it was commonplace to brag, he’d boast about his Saturday night conquests. It was surprisingly easy to lie about taking home some big-bosomed barfly. After all, Grant had had his fair share of women, just not lately. These past few years, he’d only slept with men, most of them nameless and faceless one night stands, with one exception: Gable.

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Steamy excerpt from Zahra Owens’ Clouds and Rain (18+)

He needed the job, it was as simple as that.

He’d worked in supermarkets and even waited tables, which he wasn’t very good at, but this job sounded like it was made for him.

WANTED: ranch hand, able to handle young, untrained horses, not afraid of mucking out stables and mending fences
He’d grown up around horses, lived on a stud farm all his life, so he could do this with his eyes closed. Room and board wasn’t much, of course, but it did say that there would be a nice bonus after the horses were sold, and that was six weeks from now at the local auction, according to the lone clerk and carrier of the post office. He didn’t have anywhere to go, so six weeks of work and staying in one place sounded like something he could handle. He wasn’t a big fan of cold Idaho winters, but he figured in six weeks time, he could make his way to the coast and better weather before the snow arrived.

The postman dropped him off at the main gate to the Blackwater Ranch at the start of his post run, and Flynn hauled his duffel bag over his shoulder before walking up the dusty road toward the main house. It looked deserted, although there was a dirty, dark-green pickup truck parked under an apple tree; still, when he knocked on the door of the ranch house, nobody answered. Determined to find the owner and because he didn’t want to walk all the way back to town, Flynn sauntered toward the barn, passing a few unhaltered horses in a small corral. He saw a few more in a higher paddock as well, but other than that, it was eerily quiet.

The double doors to the barn were open, so he walked inside and was greeted by a large brown head sticking out of its enclosure. Flynn held out his hand and let the horse sniff it, then stroked the white patch between the animal’s eyes.
“Got a boss around here, beautiful?” he asked the horse, then smiled when the animal obviously didn’t answer. Nobody else did either, so Flynn walked on toward the end of the barn, peeking into the stalls he passed but not finding anyone there either.

“Guess he’s working somewhere else,” he told himself until a sudden voice from behind made him startle.

“Can I help you?”

Flynn turned around and saw a sandy-haired man in jeans and a plaid shirt standing near one of the stable doors he’d passed earlier. There was a black sheepdog with a white muzzle sitting next to him.

“Yes, ehm, I’m here about the job?”

“You must be pretty desperate if you’re willing to take something that pays less than minimum wage. What’s the deal? Did you do time or something?” the man asked Flynn rather gruffly.

Flynn shook his head. “I grew up on a horse ranch, so this is better than stacking boxes at the supermarket.”

“What ranch?” the man continued in the same unaffected voice he’d used earlier.

“Back east,” Flynn answered, purposely staying vague. “Canada,” he eventually admitted. “We moved there from England just after I was born, since we could make more money breeding horses there than in England.”

“So why aren’t you working on your family’s ranch then?”

Flynn was afraid of this question, but he had his standard answer. “I’m the youngest of five boys. Nothing there for me really.”

***

Gable didn’t answer immediately; instead, he watched the young man. He was sure there was more to the story and he knew he’d find out if he hired him. Not that he had a lot of choice, really. The local boys found better-paying jobs at the bigger spreads, and not a lot of strangers passed through town. If he didn’t say yes to this guy, he’d have to work the ranch alone this season, and he wasn’t doing a great job of that so far.

“So what can you do?” he asked, although he’d already made up his mind. Even if the kid could barely hold his own around the young horses, he’d have an extra pair of hands to do the hard labor.

“Pretty much everything a horse needs,” the brown-eyed looker answered. “Groom, water, muck out their stalls, exercise them, teach them to accept a bridle and a saddle, break them in, you name it, I’ve done it.”

Although it sounded like Gable had died and gone to horse heaven, he knew there had to be a snag. If this kid was as good as he claimed, why wasn’t he working for the big boys, making much better money than Gable could afford to give him? He wasn’t about to dig deeper, though. If he didn’t get a move on, he’d have no ranch left and he needed the extra pair of hands.

“Good enough,” he said. “Can’t pay you anything right now. As soon as the horses sell, I’ll make it worth your while. For now, I can give you room and board.”

“That’s what the piece of paper at the post office said,” the young man replied with resignation.

“I’m Gable Sutton and I own the place,” Gable answered, thinking “for now,” but not voicing it.

“Flynn Tomlinson,” the young man answered, taking a few steps forward to shake the offered hand, “and I work here.”

The smile that accompanied that final statement hit Gable square in the groin. All ideas of working close to Flynn to keep an eye on him vanished, because he knew he wouldn’t get much done himself if he had to look at that young man all day long. He’d eyed his cute little butt as he was walking down the barn, admired the long legs and the lean back. Of course he could only imagine that last bit, since it was hidden underneath a suede jacket and a denim shirt, but when he’d turned around earlier, Gable had practically heard his body wolf whistle. He shook his head, trying to dispel the thoughts. They had work to do.

“Let’s grab some lunch, I can show you the house and then we can get right to work.”

***

Flynn watched his new employer take two steps out of the stable and followed him toward the barn doors. It was hard to miss how much effort the man had to put into simply walking. If the pronounced limp didn’t give it away, the labored breathing certainly showed it wasn’t just a physical thing. This man was in pain with every step he took.

“You should probably get a doctor to look at that leg,” he said, trying to sound casual about it. “If you were a horse, I’d bring you in from the paddock and call the vet.”

“Doctor’s seen it,” Gable answered gruffly. “Says I’ll need to live with it.”

Gable’s tone suggested to Flynn he’d better shut up about it, but it did give Flynn some indication why the stables were badly maintained and the rest of the ranch looked like a mess. If Gable was taking care of everything by himself, and with the sort of injury that limp implied, it was no surprise. Although Flynn could only guess at what was wrong with his new boss’s leg, it looked like it was a bit worse than a sprained ankle. At least Flynn wouldn’t have to ask him what he could do around the place. It was obvious he’d have plenty of work.

As they approached the house, a white truck stopped next to the green one and a tall, slender woman with a blonde ponytail stepped out. The sheepdog darted past them to greet her as she opened the back and took out a large cardboard box. Flynn, having been taught to always help a lady, rushed to her side to take the heavy load from her.

“Why, thank you!” she smiled at him and then looked over at Gable. “I see you’ve found a helping hand?”

“Hi, Calley,” Gable acknowledged her with a nod. “Calley, meet Flynn. He’s going to help me out around here until I sell the horses. Flynn, this is Calley. She owns the only decent grocery shop in town and her better half is Bill Haines, who’s the only decent vet in the county. She’s brought us some food so we don’t starve. I see you’ve already learned to be nice to the hand that feeds you.”

“Oh Gabe, you’re such a charmer.” Calley smiled none too coyly, although Flynn missed the mockery in her face after she turned away from him. “Guess I’ll have to bring extra food later on in the week.” Flynn noticed it wasn’t a question, adding to the feeling that Calley and Gable knew each other quite well.

They walked toward the house and Calley told Flynn where to drop the box of groceries, while Gable plunked himself down on the worn-out couch that was sitting in the corner of the kitchen. He put his leg on a footstool standing in front of it and exhaled deeply. Flynn didn’t miss the look of concern Calley threw him, however fleeting it was, before she started unpacking the box and putting things away as if she lived there. Although if she did, Flynn was sure the house would actually look like it saw a woman’s touch from time to time. As it stood now, the dishes were piled high in the sink and the refrigerator was only filled with the things Calley had just put inside it. Although she was discreet about it, Flynn saw her throw out some stuff that almost walked out of there by itself. When Gable started protesting, she was clear though. “I don’t care if you poison yourself, Gable, but this young man deserves to be fed well. He’s here to help you, so you’d better take care of him!”

Gable grunted something under his breath and Flynn watched the exchange with some amusement. He didn’t really know what to make of it. Was Calley Gable’s ex? Was that why she knew her way around the house and why she felt free to admonish him in front of a virtual stranger? He wasn’t about to question any of it, fearing that Gable was not in the mood for any sort of small talk. Maybe one day his curiosity would be satisfied, but if not, well, to be honest, it really wasn’t any of his business.

“Well, Flynn, I hope you can cook?” Calley gave him a concerned look and Flynn smiled it away.

“Sure I can,” he acknowledged. “Grew up in a house full of boys. It was that or eat stale bread!”
“Then I’m sure you’ll feel right at home here,” Calley replied with a wink before picking up the now-empty box and heading out again.

After she left, the silence grew uncomfortable.

“I can make us an omelet?” Flynn suggested.

“Had eggs for breakfast, so I’ll skip it,” Gable answered, his eyes closed and head relaxed against the back of the couch. “Thanks,” he added, almost as an afterthought.

Flynn doubted Gable had eaten anything, judging from the state of his kitchen, so he wasn’t going to leave it at that. He’d seen Calley unpack all sorts of things and was sure he could whip up some sort of tasty lunch, so he opened the fridge and took out a head of lettuce, a tomato, and a cucumber. Together with the ham and cheese she’d also brought, he made sandwiches.

He had to open a few cupboards, but in the end decided to wash some of the plates and knives so he had somewhere other than the cutting board to put them. The dog stayed diligently next to his owner. He was licking his lips, but had clearly been taught not to beg.

“Here, boy,” Flynn called the dog.

“She’s a girl and her name is Bridget,” Gable corrected him. “And she doesn’t get scraps from the table. She has a bowl in the mudroom.”

Flynn held the piece of ham in midair as he saw the dog torn between accepting it and loyalty to her owner, so Flynn dropped it back to the chopping board and the dog relaxed. He divided the sandwiches between two plates and handed one to Gable, who opened his eyes when he smelled the food.

With some distrust, Gable took the plate from Flynn and looked at its contents. “Thanks,” he muttered as he inspected what was between the two slices of rye bread, a rather forced smile appearing on his face.

Flynn had a hard time not laughing. He rarely felt uneasy around strangers, especially now he’d been on the road for more than three years, but this man was something different. He hoped the uncomfortable silences would go away after a while, or at least that the man would let him work by himself, so they wouldn’t bother him too much. In any case, he couldn’t put his finger on what exactly made it so hard to be in the same room with Gable. The food was good, though, much better than what he could afford to get himself in the diners he passed along the way. Gable seemed to agree, although Flynn tried not to smile when he saw Gable trying to sneak the cucumber from between the layers of the sandwich without him noticing it. Flynn, in turn, fed Bridget the scrap of ham he’d put aside while he was doing the dishes. All of the dishes, not just the ones they’d used.

By the time they went outside again to tend to the stables, the kitchen looked much better than it had when they’d walked in an hour earlier.

***

Flynn really enjoyed this job.

He was pretty much his own boss. Gable didn’t interfere with what he was doing, and, despite his gruff exterior, he was a quiet, calm man. They’d divided the chores up pretty much without talking. Gable did all the things he could do sitting down or on horseback. He’d take care of the saddles and bridles, fix a hinge on a door, ride around the paddocks checking for fences that were down. He’d muster the horses when they needed to be moved and Flynn would hold the gates open and make sure they were closed after all the horses had passed through. All in all, they made a pretty good team.

Flynn knew that if they wanted to sell some of their horses at auction, they’d need to train them—some of them weren’t even used to a bridle and a saddle yet—and he hadn’t seen much of that in the week he’d been there. He’d often seen Gable ride among the herd in the higher paddock, and had sometimes seen him touch the animals, stroke their backs, or even talk to them, but they’d never worked with the horses individually, and this worried Flynn. He just didn’t know how to strike up a conversation with Gable to introduce the subject.

Gable’s limp wasn’t getting any better; in fact, Flynn feared it was actually getting worse. He’d suggested visiting a doctor once again and had been snapped at, then given the silent treatment for the rest of the day. As a peace offering, he finished his chores early so he could rush home and make dinner. He had yet to meet a man who could resist his vegetarian lasagna, even those who felt a meal wasn’t complete without meat.

“Go and take a shower first. Dinner will take another twenty minutes or so,” Flynn told Gable when the older man finally came into the house. Gable didn’t answer, simply nodded, displaying his most nondescript face as he moved to the back of the house.
Flynn knew Gable preferred the outside shower, not in the least because it saved him a trip upstairs. In the evening, the water from it was at the perfect temperature, having been heated by the sun all day, but even on an overcast day, Gable would always use that one. It was just a shower head leaning against the back of the house, with shrubs planted around it so nobody could look in, at least not from outside the house. From inside, it was easy to watch him from the shadows of the back door.

Flynn had spotted Gable’s naked backside on his second day there, as the older man was stripping to get washed. He’d bent down to wrap some plastic around his injured leg, but that was not what had drawn Flynn’s attention. He’d been enthralled by the sinewy body, the strong, lean back, and when the man turned around under the spray, eyes closed and clearly enjoying the water, Flynn had felt his jeans grow tight. He watched Gable’s hand rubbing through his chest hair and down his stomach to his groin.

This was just the sort of body that turned Flynn on no end, and he’d felt far too few of those under his hands lately. That day was the first time Flynn had rushed into the tiny downstairs toilet to release the tension. Now he didn’t do that anymore. Now he knew Gable’s washing ritual and knew how long it took for the man to dry off and get dressed again. Nobody ever came to the ranch, and from where he was standing Gable couldn’t see him either, so he felt confident enough to insert his hand into his jeans and rub himself. When he saw Gable wipe the suds between his legs and repeat the action a few times, seeming to hesitate for a moment when he realized he was growing hard and then taking himself in hand, a soft moan escaped Flynn’s mouth.

Oh, what he would do to be allowed to touch that body, to be that hand, touching Gable’s cock. Flynn barely dared to touch himself, afraid he would come instantly. He watched as Gable leaned against the side of the house, arm outstretched to hold himself upright, balancing on his good leg, while he pleasured himself. Flynn could easily imagine what Gable would look like if he could help him do that and then it suddenly hit him. He wondered how long it had been since another hand had touched Gable? He didn’t look like he got around much. Maybe Gable would let him be good to him one day. Maybe.

Flynn saw Gable buck into his hand and come, thick strands of white cream shooting out of his cock. There was no ecstasy on his face, though; Gable just continued his washing. Flynn closed his eyes, imagining what the older man must look like when he was actually being treated well, being pampered and taken care of. It took only a few movements of his hand for Flynn to feel the rush of his orgasm shooting through his groin as he imagined Gable saying his name. When, moments later, he opened his eyes, he saw Gable looking at him as he was drying himself. Flynn’s heart stopped. He’d never planned on getting caught.

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