Chapter Three (part two)

Dinner was served at the main house shortly after sunset. The spread was unexpected: grilled tenderloin, roasted potatoes, spinach salad, jalapeno cornbread, Malbec wine. “My mom enjoys cooking when there’s company,” Travis whispered to Ben as they took their places at the dining table with the antique chandelier shining brightly above them. That morning, Mrs. Cooper hadn’t even been aware that she’d soon have three guests at her front door. Ben sensed something special, or maybe supernatural, about the woman. He was impressed by her hospitality.

The dinner party consisted of everyone minus Curtis, who had left for Salida a short time before. Young Katy had changed outfits for the occasion and was now dressed even more provocatively than earlier in a bra-less yellow plunge tank top that clung to her torso so tightly that her erect nipples protruded through the thin fabric, screaming for attention. She sat in the chair directly across from Ben, eyes flirtatious, mouth playful, her tongue lingering on the fork a little too long every time she took a bite of something. There was absolutely no denying that she was a beautiful girl, but at the ripe age of fifteen – younger than he’d originally guessed – her immense sensuality was alarming. Ben wondered how the hell no one else seemed to notice, or care, that she was flirting with him.

At one end of the red oak table sat Mrs. Cooper. On the other end, Arturo – a face full of wrinkles, greasy salt-and-pepper hair, a wide, partially-toothless smile. Apparently, he’d been working on the ranch for over 25 years and was, at that point, considered one of the family – even more so since Dale Cooper’s passing. According to Travis, Arturo was a far better uncle-figure to him than his Uncle Edward ever managed to be. More empathetic, less homophobic. And he knew a hell of a lot about raising cattle.

Audra and Bryan sat together next to Katy, both bright-eyed and rested from a long nap and happy to discuss at great length the trials and tribulations of Hollywood life with Mrs. Cooper, who seemed genuinely interested to hear it all. Every now and then, Katy piped in with a comment or two, but aside from occasional words, she spoke very little, content to simply sit and seduce Ben with her coquettish green eyes.

Throughout the meal, Travis and Ben tried to downplay inebriation that had escalated during their tour of the ranch and Travis’ woodworking shop, where Ben had become instantly and irrevocably jealous of him. Over several beers and a bottle of Jim Beam, they’d discussed lathes, table saws, chisels and the different textures and malleability of various wood species. Personally, Ben had little time for the luxury of working with his hands and building something meaningful from scratch anymore, despite the fact that his grandfather had patiently taught him woodworking skills when he was younger and had gifted his collection of tools to him before his passing. The last thing Ben had created with the tools had been a lopsided curly maple serving bowl which he’d gifted to his mother when he was still in his teens. Now, the vintage handsaws and block planes and clamps were collecting dust in storage. Family heirlooms, disappointingly ignored.

During the discussion, while casually straddling a bench covered in sawdust, Travis had surprised Ben yet again with the declaration that he’d attended Colorado State for two years. Majoring in agricultural business with a focus in animal science, he’d intended to partner with his father and grow the ranch, but of course Mr. Cooper’s unexpected death had forced him to walk away from his college pursuits. Now, three years later, taking care of his family and helping to keep the ranch afloat with a small stock of thoroughbred horses, a field of acorn squash, and a dwindling herd of Herefords were his focus. This sense of sacrifice and responsibility increased Ben’s admiration for him and further fueled his intrigue and attraction. Seated at the dinner table now, he expressed this through intermittent body contact beneath the tablecloth – brushing his hand against Travis’ knee, hitting his boot against Travis’ ankle, pressing his hip against Travis’ hip. With each point of contact, Ben and Travis stifled laughter like a couple of schoolboys getting into mischief. Alcohol-induced nonsense that was challenging to suppress.

Throughout the meal, Katy continued to seduce Ben with her sea-green eyes. Although she’d spoken very few words up until then,  when finally she did speak, directly to him, her topic was peculiar. “You and Seth were so totally hot together in the back of that Bronco,” she stated. Her shoe-less foot sought out his shin and began rubbing it up and down, like a paintbrush. This sensation, coupled with Travis’ hand gripping his thigh, confused the hell out of Ben’s senses. Shifting in his chair, he attempted to turn his legs away, but Katy continued to find him. He cleared his throat uncomfortably. Felt color rise in his already-warm cheeks. Bryan looked at him from across the table with a raised eyebrow, questioning his embarrassment.

It was at the moment when Travis slid a hand between his thighs and cupped his crotch that Ben lost the last remnants of poise. Bumping the table with his knees, he clumsily pushed back his chair and excused himself to retreat to the guest bathroom down the hall. Once inside the safety of the room, he splashed cold water over his burning face and sank down onto the lid of the toilet, cupping his wet face in his hands, wondering if Travis had any idea what his sister was doing to him. Wondering if he had any idea what he was doing to him. He considered seizing the moment to quickly rub one off, because his body craved the release, but he only got as far as pulling at his belt when a light knocking sounded at the door.

“Ben?” It was Audra. “Are you all right?”

Ben groaned in irritation, shoved his belt back into its loop and reluctantly leaned forward to crack the door open. Audra poked her head in, concern etched on her face. “Hey, little brother. Can I come in?”

Ben crossed his legs and smiled. “Sure.”

She glanced back down the hall before sliding inside, shutting the door softly behind her. The room was so tiny that Ben was forced to turn his legs aside to allow her space to lean against the edge of the pedestal sink. “So what’s the story here?” she asked.

Audra had never been one to beat around the bush. Her intuitiveness was remarkable – her intuitiveness with Ben even more so. He looked at her for a moment and recalled other conversations they’d had: discussions about lost loves, lost virginities, dreams, desires, disappointments. No subject was off-limits between them. But even so, he found it hard to explain something that was still so inexplicable to him.

Patiently, she waited for him to speak. Ben knew that she probably would have waited all night, if he’d allowed her to. “I’m just a little drunk,” he finally said, smiling as best he could. “Must be the altitude, I can’t seem to hold it together very well.”

From her expression, he could tell that she didn’t believe him, but for some reason she decided to let it go, at least for the moment. Tousling his hair, she said, “You’re a great actor, Ben. Maybe too good for your own good.” She pulled the door open to exit but then hesitated, turning back to him. “Just be careful with this,” she spoke softly. “Travis seems like an interesting guy and all… but don’t make a mistake you can’t take back. If this is what I think it is, then you’re going to wake up with serious regrets tomorrow. Better prepare yourself for that.”

She was neither blind nor dumb, and Ben had been a fool to think otherwise. Getting to his feet, he took her by the arms and stared down hard at her. A wordless communication passed between them like mental telepathy, sending chills up his spine. She knew. Maybe she’d always known. “I’ll see you back at the table,” she said, slithering out from his grip.

As she walked down the hallway, Travis appeared from the other end. Audra said hello but gave him a wide berth to pass, as if avoiding any possibility of touch. Travis appeared unaffected by her rudeness and smiled at Ben before shutting himself inside the bathroom. Rather than return to the table, Ben stood rooted where he was. Audra’s words lingered in his thoughts: “Don’t make a mistake you can’t take back…” The toilet flushed. The faucet turned on, then off. When Travis pulled the door open and smiled at Ben again, Ben pushed him back inside the tiny room and kicked the door shut.

If he was going to make a mistake, he’d proclaim it with exclamation points. With one hand, he flicked the light switch off. With the other hand, he grabbed Travis by the shirt collar and forced him back against the sink. In the pitch blackness of such an intimate space, Ben lost his composure. His lips were all over Travis, kissing his mouth, his jaw, the length of his neck. His hands were also all over him, squeezing his arms, rubbing his chest, clutching his hips. The metal soap dish clattered into the sink as he pushed harder against him.

Although at first surprised by his forwardness, Travis soon reciprocated Ben’s advances by sliding his hands from Ben’s shoulders down to his jeans, squeezing and pulling on his buttocks until he was practically off of his feet. Without clear direction, Ben began to fumble with Travis’ belt buckle, desperate to undo his jeans despite the fact that he didn’t have an exact plan of what he was going to do once he got there. He just needed to feel his member in the palm of his hand. But Travis abruptly stopped him. Grabbed him by the wrists and pushed him slightly backwards. “Not here,” he whispered.

“Fuck that,” Ben argued, advancing toward him again. But Travis held tight to his wrists, pushing him back farther until he hit the door. Although his arousal was blinding, a small voice in Ben’s head demanded his attention. Get it together, there’s a room full of people just down the hall. Despite the fire still burning within him, he finally capitulated. “Okay, okay,” he mumbled, pulling his wrists free from Travis’ firm hold. They stood apart, inhaling and exhaling, trying to regain their composure.

A minute passed, and Travis flipped the light back on. Ben attempted to adjust himself in his jeans. “Forget dinner,” he told Travis. “Let’s get out of here.”

“I think we’ll be missed,” Travis stated.

“Are you always this fucking practical?”

He nodded. “One of us should be, don’t you think? I mean, I’d hate for your sister or Bryan to come looking for you. Or Katy, for that matter.”

“What is up with your sister, anyway?” Ben demanded. “She’s like…”

“A nympho on caffeine?”

The accurate description made him chuckle uncomfortably. “Yeah. Something like that.”

Travis leaned against the door, arms crossed. “I don’t know… She’s only fifteen but sexualizes everything. I don’t even think she really knows what she’s doing. She’s just sort of… testing her boundaries or something. Seeing how far she can go. And you’re a big celebrity, so that puts you way up on her totem pole.”

Ben finished straightening himself out. Raked fingers through his hair. Somehow, Travis had fared far better than he during their tussle. “Well, I’m definitely not interested in her,” he said. “I hope she knows that.”

“Doesn’t matter if she knows it,” Travis replied. “She’s persistent. But I’ll keep her in check.” He coaxed Ben out of the room and turned off the light. “Let’s finish dinner, say goodnight, and make an early exit.”

Ben was reluctant to return to the meal but did so anyway, touching Travis’ elbow one last time before they stepped back into the brightly-lit room.

“So which one of you fell into the toilet?” Bryan teased upon their return. Everyone looked in their direction and laughed.

Everyone, that is, except for Katy, who sat glaring at Travis as though she would have shot him dead, had a rifle been handy.

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