The roads may have been dusty and dry, causing clouds to swirl around each booted step he took, but at least the skies were clear. Thank heaven there was a slight chill in the air, as Lorcan didn’t think he would have been able to take another step had it been as hot as it had the day before. The worst part was that it was his own damn fault that he was in this predicament to begin with. His mama had warned him that it was “rough out there” and had ended her speech with “I’ll see you in a week.” His foolish pride had his twenty-one-year-old butt walking all over this godforsaken country looking for adventure. All he had gotten for his troubles was nine cents in his pocket, no prospects for work, or a place to stay, and some nasty-ass blisters on his feet. The last thing he wanted to do was put his tail between his legs and crawl back home to a round of Mama’s “I told you so.” He had one last prospect for work and a place to stay. One last chance to avoid seeing that smug grin on his mama’s face. Or the look of exasperation on Daddy’s face.
The gas attendant a few miles back had told him that the Whispering Pine Ranch was looking for hands, and although he was headed out in the direction the attendant had pointed, he wasn’t feeling all too confident. The way the man had sneered and laughed when he’d asked about work hadn’t surprised him. The way he’d suggested Lorcan was exactly what “those folks” were looking for had even had him fighting back his usual tendency to lash out. Had he not been so I-need-to-find-work-or-starve-to-death-on-the-side-of-the-road desperate, he would have let his fist teach the country bumpkin some manners.
Lorcan was used to people looking at him and assuming they knew his sexual orientation. Because of it, he had learned young how to use his fists to prove he was male enough. Puberty hadn’t improved the delicate, almost feminine features he’d inherited from his mother. Nor had his tall, lean body taken on the bulk and mass of muscles like his father and brothers. Yet he had proven himself over and over to be by far the toughest of them all. Lorcan had eventually found a perverse pleasure in taking down his tormentors. He took to growing out his thick chestnut hair, provoking others further, flaunting his waist-length braid. Only thing he could hope for now, as he walked the back dirt roads of another nameless town, was that “those folks” out at Whispering Pines could use a man with a good work ethic and a strong back even if his braided hair did curl down around his ass.
As the Whispering Pines Ranch house came into view, Lorcan nearly turned around and hightailed it back the other direction. The big two-story house looked like it would be more at home on the cover of a magazine featuring haunted houses than Ranchers Weekly. Shutters hung from the paint-peeled siding, the porch tilted dangerously to the right, and it didn’t look as if the lawn had been mown or weeded in forever.
He made his way through the calf-high lawn and gingerly placed his boot on the front step, testing its strength before adding his full weight. Remarkably, the half-rotten porch seemed sturdy enough. Lorcan made his way to the front entrance, swung open the scarred screen, and then knocked firmly on the more solid door beneath. Lorcan removed his hat from his head and wiped his brow of sweat as he waited for a response. He strained to listen for any signs that there might be someone approaching the door. When he neither received response nor heard anyone moving around on the other side of the door, he knocked with a little more force. When again there was no sound coming from within, he made his way around to the back of the house and was surprised that the barn and fencing seemed to be in excellent shape. Obviously, the owner cared more about the animals and their living arrangements than his own.
An old water pump called to him like a siren, and he headed for it, not realizing until that moment how thirsty he was. He pumped the handle several times before the water began to flow, and he gorged himself on the clean, cold water. Once his thirst was quenched, he took his bandanna from his back pocket, wiping his waterlogged face as he leaned against the fence. He was beginning to regret not cutting his hair before leaving home. He needed to make a good impression, one that would ensure him a job. Lorcan didn’t want to have to make the trek back to his mama’s home, and he damn well didn’t want to have to do it today. With nothing in his belly in over twenty-four hours, an untold number of miles under his boots, and no sleep, he didn’t think it below him to beg the owner for some food and a hay bale to curl up on if they couldn’t offer him a job.