Jack Osbourne can be a feisty trick. He never likes to be fucked without pretending to put up a good fight first. I figure it makes him feel better about himself afterwards – knowing that he resisted the temptation for as long as he could and only succumbed to it once he was left with no other option. Despite the dramatic objections, once his ass is stretched open, Jack inevitably turns into a sobbing baby, begging for more. His actions are predictable. So are his demands; I always have to fuck him twice before he’ll relinquish his money.
“None of this happened, right?” Jack announces, once I finish off my second set and he pushes me aside to get out of the bed. It’s a phrase the older cowboy says after every coupling, like clockwork. I nod my head and perch on the edge of the mattress to pull off the condom. He lightly smacks me over the ear with a beefy hand before dropping a rubber-banded stack of bills onto my crotch.
Jack boasts a beer gut that extends across the room, nearly matching the size of his inflated ego, and I can’t help but sneer at him as he tucks his fancy Rockmount shirt into the low waistband of his finely-starched Wrangler jeans. The large, ornate rodeo buckle he touts from a much younger life is barely visible beneath the extension of his protruding belly. Anymore, I have to position myself just right in order to even mount him. It’s not that I don’t enjoy topping a bear, but Jack’s becoming more and more of a disgruntled prick with the passage of time, and I’m becoming less and less amenable to visiting.
But the decision isn’t entirely mine. At least not for now… Jack and Mason still have me on a short leash. Curtis has me on an even shorter leash. Eventually, I’ll cut the ties that bind me to this – once the ranch is up to par, once extra help’s hired on, once all of the property repairs have been completed and the buildings are restored, and Katy’s off to college or wherever it is she ends up, and Mom gets the proper potter’s studio and lifestyle she deserves – and I can finally pay off Curtis for what’s constantly dangled in front of me like a goddamn golden carrot. Eventually, I’ll liberate myself from all of these restraints.
“Hope your stallion’s successfully fucked Sunshine by now,” Jack grunts. “I’ll go out and check with Diego. Gotta be sure she’s seeded, then you’ll get the rest of your money tomorrow.”
“I know,” I mutter, as if his statement is anything new. Standing from the disheveled bed, I stoop to retrieve the condoms from the carpet and dispose of them as I enter the master bathroom. With a flip of the faucet, I turn on the shower and step into the tiled enclosure to scrub the scent of cologne, cigar and sweat from my skin. I don’t like smelling like stogies, and I can’t stand that Drakkar shit Jack douses himself in.
“T-bones on the grill tonight?” Jack asks from the open doorway of the bathroom.
Through the steam, I can see his profile leaning against the door frame. I turn the faucet to scalding. Lift my face into the hot water and let it scorch my pores. “I can’t stay tonight, Oz,” I announce. “I’ve got some business to take care of in town.” Which isn’t true, but I tell the lie anyway.
“Well, come back when you’re done, then,” he insists. “We’ll have a late supper together.”
I shut the water off and sigh. Step out of the enclosure and grab a towel to wrap around my waist. “I’ll try,” I mumble, but I’ve already made up my mind. There’s no way in hell I’m going to sleep in his bed tonight. There was a time when I’d enjoyed curling up next to the burly man, but that time’s long since passed. Now, I’d rather sleep in the backseat of my cold truck.
Jack pushes off from the door frame and comes forward, grabbing me by the wrist. “You should definitely come back,” he states, almost like a command. I look at him without blinking, despite droplets of water falling from my bangs. He’s about an inch shorter than me, so I have a slight advantage in our staring contest, and he knows it. After a moment, his expression droops, and he backs down. “I’d really like you to spend the night, Travis,” he whispers. His hand travels up to my face, rests on my jaw. I can see sadness and desperation in his brown-gold eyes. Despite his ranch’s success and his 30-year marriage, Jack Osbourne is a lonely old bastard. I feel sorry for him, but at the same time, I don’t. He made life choices that he can’t reconcile, and it’s neither my fault nor my responsibility to make him feel better about it.
“I can’t tonight, Oz,” I say, taking a step back. “I’ve got things to do.”
Reluctantly, he drops his hand down to his side. Gives me a sour look before turning on his heels. “I’ll be out in the stables,” he growls. “Use the back door when you leave.”
Of course I will, Jack. I always do…
Once I’m alone, I finish drying off and gather my clothes from around the bedroom. Slide everything on and stuff the wad of hundred-dollar bills into my right boot, deep down so that it won’t inadvertently slip back out. The pressure’s uncomfortable against my ankle, but it’s way too much cash to fit into my wallet, and I can’t risk losing any of it from my pockets.
Jack Osbourne prides himself on two things: being the wealthiest horse rancher this side of the Western Slope and having enough restraint to only step out of the closet a couple times year. At least, that’s what he tries to convince himself of. My visits to The Flying O Ranch are scheduled when Jack’s wife, daughter and grandchildren are out of town visiting relatives in Nebraska or Montana – when there’s no chance of a surprise return and Jack being caught with his pants down, whimpering at the edge of the king-sized bed with me at the helm.
Maximilian, my prized sorrel American Quarter Horse stud, accompanies me on these trips. It’s how the trek to Glenwood Springs becomes twofold and lucrative: I fuck Oz, the stallion fucks a heated mare, and at the end of the day, everyone gets what they want. I walk away with $2,500 for the stud’s time plus $2,500 for my own time, and that equals a fuckload of cash in my boot. It’s more income than a good month of horse boarding and feed lot auctions at the ranch can bring in. And all I have do is pretend to force myself on the old cowboy and fuck him twice. Should be easy, right? Too bad it leaves such an acrid taste in my mouth anymore.
Before leaving the house, I pass through the family room and swipe a bottle of Glenmorangie from Jack’s overstocked wet bar. As soon as my feet hit the back deck, I light up a joint. The hash thumps the back of my throat, sears down my windpipe, travels into my lungs to relieve some of the disgust still broiling within me. Standing at the railing, I scan the horizon, gazing off across the wide valley. The sun, surrounded by patches of thin clouds, has started to set, dipping down behind the pointed crags of Storm King Mountain. I open the Scotch whisky and take a long pull before working on the weed some more. Jack hates it when I smoke pot around him, but I know that he’s currently down at the stables checking on Max and Sunshine, so I take full advantage of the moment. Pulling up a cushioned deck chair, I swiftly land on it and prop the heels of my Justins up on the railing.
The valley sits quiet. Rays of low sunlight spread across the meadowlands in streaks, highlighting sparse trees and a few bay horses in the distance. Thoughts of Ben tumble full-force into my head again, just like they’ve done all afternoon, even when I was balls-deep inside Jack. He’s going to be a tough one to get over, that’s for sure. But I doubt I’ll even be able to. There’s something special about him, something different from the others. We weren’t afforded a proper goodbye earlier – too much commotion, too many people and cars and taxi cabs in front of the resort and nowhere for me to park the truck and trailer except in a loading-only zone half a block away from the front drive. Audra and Bryan were goddamn impatient waiting for Ben to gather his stuff together and say goodbye. Even then, his words were brief. Mine were, too, because what choice did we have?
A trio of photographers stood across the street, vying for the chance to snap that one perfect photo that would gain front page attention and prove everyone’s rising suspicions about Ben Mansfield: the gay roughneck who might actually be gay… Of course, I wasn’t going to give them the satisfaction of outing him, which meant that I had to refrain from touching his bruised cheek, pulling him close, apologizing once more for blind-siding him the way I had and for ending our time together so abruptly, when all I really wanted to do was take him back home for a few more days, just like he’d suggested. Impulses pushed aside, I leaned against the Dodge with my arms crossed and my heart compressed and voiced a simple goodbye, trying to make it sound like I didn’t care but failing at it. The emotions were too fucking strong.
It was obvious the emotions were strong for him, too, the way he halfheartedly waved, thanked me for everything, and scuffled away with his head drawn down like the wind was kicked out of him. Witnessing his departure kicked the wind right out of me, too. But there was nothing that could be done about it. Rather than continue to stand there, watching him make his way to the hotel entrance, causing more bait for the photographers to take advantage of, I returned inside the truck and put it into drive. Pulled out onto the road, passing The Little Nell without another glance, headed in the direction of Glenwood to bring Max, and myself, to Jack’s doorstep. It’s not at all how I would have preferred to end the day, but the obligation at The Flying O hung over me, like a noose, no way to jump free of it. Not this time around.
And so now here I sit, regretting the whole goddamn afternoon, wishing there had been a different outcome.
Ever since the brutal burn of Eric, my hookups have been transitory and functional, meant only to satiate my needs and fill the void for a little while. But Ben’s arrival three days ago had represented something different: a chance for actual enjoyment. Initially, I wasn’t intending to lure him away from Little Annie’s, because I figured it was bound to stir up some trouble. But I’ve always prided myself on the art of the seduction, especially with floundering types who simply need a nudge in the right direction, and so I considered Ben a challenge to crack. A hell of a desirable one. The energy he shot at me across the table that night was palpable, no way I could resist it. And his interest in me was mutual, even if he claims that he was clueless about it at the time.
Of course I recognized who he was straight away, even though I pretended otherwise. You can’t pass by a magazine rack without his smug smile and piercing blue eyes catching your attention from the front cover of every publication. It’s true that I haven’t seen ‘Roustabout’ – I rarely get to the movies – but certain people I know, queer and straight alike, sit around on bar stools and squabble over Toby and Levi at great lengths as though the two roughnecks are close, personal friends of ours. So, in some ways, I feel like I have seen the film. Even Doug quotes a particular line to me every time he catches me spiraling back down into my depression: “I know you don’t believe it, buddy, but love really can change a person’s perspective. Stop fighting it so fuckin’ hard all the time and let it happen.”
Doug’s been a hell of a great friend through much of the good and the bad in my life, but he still has no idea how deep the wounds of Boston really go or how challenging it is for me trust anyone anymore. The pain, the humiliation, the heartache are all permanently seared into the fibers of my flesh like a hot branding iron that never leaves. Memories continue to haunt me no matter what kind of substance abuse or reckless behavior I engage in. Lord knows I’ve fucking tried to erase it all. But 18 months later, I still wake up some nights in a cold sweat with stark images of degradation and torture pounding through my head. Being forced into submission when you’re not a sub by a man who professes to love you and takes you on a trip to Boston but then subsequently kicks you down into the basement of a brownstone where two of his friends are waiting to top you without a single fucking safeword is an experience I don’t wish upon anyone, not even my worst enemy. Hell, I’d say that I don’t even wish that on Eric, but the truth is, I wish all of that on him. All of that and more. Twenty-fucking-fold more.
Katy, naive little girl that she is, has no clue how fortunate she is to have steered clear of his affection. To this day, she assumes that my return to Colorado without Eric is a result of my own cruelty, that I pushed him away because I’m a heartless bastard. I have no intention of correcting her. Some things are better left unsaid.
And then there’s Jack Osbourne and Mason Gill marching around in the middle of my complicated life; closeted ranchers flashing their big money and coordinating stud dates through Curtis, who still pretends he doesn’t know what’s really going on, even though he gladly accepts the cash from me when I’m done. Not even dearest Doug knows about that part of my life. For me, it’s just business, a means to acquire fast cash, and that’s how I have to define it if I’m going to keep my sanity. But the truth is, I’ve grown tired of the game, and I’ve grown tired of these old ranchers leading double lives, begging me to mount them and then telling me to use the back door when I leave. I long for some fucking honesty, but everywhere I turn, it’s non-existent, even within my own head.
Shoving my fingers down into my right boot, I touch the rubber-banded roll of hundred dollar bills. It’s a hell of a lot of dough to forego once I make the decision to stop tricking. Even though I don’t like it, for now it’s important that I keep going and stay focused on the prize: the entire ranch mine, and Curtis finally out of my fucking hair. Half a dozen stud dates over the next year or so should do it – at which point, Mace and Oz will have no choice but to let me go. And if they so much as utter a single word of protest, I’ll out their asses, no hesitation.
“Didn’t I tell you not to smoke that shit around here?” Jack bellows. I flinch. I hadn’t realized that he’d come up the deck stairs. With a sigh, I snuff out the burning end of the joint and slip the roach back into my cigarette pack. “I thought you were down at the stables,” I mumble.
“I thought you were heading out,” he retorts.
“I am.” I get to my feet and push the chair back to the table. Jack yanks the bottle of Glenmorangie from the crook of my arm and says, “Not with this, you don’t.”
My impulse is to pop him in the face, but I refrain. Stepping past him with a frown, I hop down the stairs to the lawn and take off towards my truck. When I’m halfway across the yard, he yells out, “When you come back in the morning, we’ll have breakfast together! In bed!”
Way to keep our rendezvous on the down-low, Oz. Why not use a megaphone next time? Diego may not have heard you in the stables…
I give no reply to him, just head straight to my truck, unhitch the trailer, and start the engine, anxious to distance myself from this ranch and the events of the day.
* * * *
The doorbell hasn’t been functional in well over a year, and it takes several knocks on the old raised-panel fiberglass door for someone to finally acknowledge that I’m standing on the porch. The red and silver Bronco is parked in the driveway, so I know someone’s home, but I’m disappointed when it’s Uncle Ed’s grisly face that greets me. “What?” he barks with a glare, as though I’ve caught him in the middle of doing something important – like watching porn or getting high, both of which are plausible scenarios.
“Whaddo you want, Travis?” he repeats. He grips the partially-opened door with a thick hand, clearly indicating that I’m not invited inside. Dickhead hasn’t welcomed me into his home since Dad died and he found out that I’m gay, so this reaction is not at all surprising to me. I don’t give a damn whether he likes me or not; he’s an ignorant, homophobic asshole who still can’t fathom the fact that his wife ran out on him five years ago. But what I do care about is retaining a relationship with my cousins, the only two I have. I won’t let him push me away from them.
“I thought I’d see if Carla and Stella want to go grab some dinner,” I respond. “It’s ribeye night at Sully’s.”
Ed just stands there, looking at me as though he’s trying to figure me out. Rough stubble covers his jaw. His green eyes are puffy and bloodshot from too much hash. “They’re not home,” he states. “Off at some kind of school event.” Narrowing his gaze a fraction, he adds, “Weren’t you just here a couple of days ago?”
I nod. “Yep. I’m back in town now. Dropped my horse off in Glenwood, and I’ve got the night free, so I thought I’d come by and see if they want to hang out.”
“Well, they’re not here,” he snaps. “So you’ll have to find somewhere else to hang out.”
I anticipate him slamming the door in the my face, but he pauses and looks at me again, studying me intently with his puffy, squinting eyes of disdain. “Stop coming around here so much,” he insists. “I don’t like you influencing the girls and all. It’s not good for them.”
I shove my hands down into the front pockets of my jeans to keep them from slamming him backwards onto the puke-green shag carpet of the living room. You’re the goddamn bad influence, asshole… “Why not let them decide if they want me around?” I retort. “We’re family, Ed, whether you like it or not.”
Apparently, the mention of our shared kinship doesn’t bode well with him. He snarls and says, “I’ll tell them you stopped by,” before shutting and locking the door.
I’m left standing there, fuming and alone on the rickety front porch. It’s such a familiar feeling, I don’t know why the hell it still fucking bothers me.
* * * *
Mysteriously, once I leave Basalt and return to the highway headed for Glenwood, my truck veers off in the opposite direction, navigating its way back toward Aspen entirely of its own accord. I don’t argue with the vehicle’s intuition but rather allow it to transport me back to the place it knows I’ve been longing to return to ever since I left it earlier. The sun’s fully set now, streets and businesses alight and people scurrying about doing their evening Aspen thing. I circle around the town for a bit, weighing my options, contemplating my objective. At one point, I pass by Little Annie’s and slow way down to take a peek inside the front windows, not expecting to see him, of course, but fondly remembering the night and our first meeting. From behind, impatient cars honk at my tortoise-slow pace, so I find a place to pull over and park. After shoving a bunch of quarters into the meter, I walk a few blocks back to an accessories shop I remember passing.
Inside the small but posh establishment with its overabundance of dazzling, expensive objects, a young girl behind the counter greets me with an over-anxious smile and a chirpy “Hello!” She’s wearing far too much makeup and cleavage for her age, just like Katy does. Just like my cousins do. Why are teenage girls so fucking anxious to become women…? I offer a smile to her in return and approach a glass display case housing a bunch of designer sunglasses. She follows me and says, “Looking for some new shades?”
I lean down on my haunches to get a better look at the selection. To assist, she turns on an interior mechanism that spins the mirrored shelves around. I watch dozens of glasses pass by before I sigh with indecision and stand back up. I need advice. “Think celebrity,” I prompt her.
“Okay. A classic or contemporary look?”
“I’m not sure… How about classic but with some style?”
Her fake eyelashes flutter at me as she smiles again with perfect teeth and flirtatious dimples. “All of our sunglasses are stylish, sweetie,” she purrs. From the display case, she retrieves a pair of Ray-Ban Olympians with green-tinted lenses and gold trim. “These are definitely classic. Very suave, very vintage, but also very sexy. Perfect Hollywood style.” Opening the arms of the frames, she proffers the sunglasses to me and adds, “Try them on.”
I do. In the round mirror perched on the glass countertop I study my reflection, shifting my profile up and down and around to gain a solid opinion about how the glasses appear from each angle. She’s right; they’re both classy and stylish. On me, they appear distorted and out of place, especially against my ragged scar, but on him, I know they’ll look dashing.
Out of the corner of my vision, I catch the clerk admiring me. “They look fantastic on you,” she croons.
“Thanks.” Removing the frames, I hand them back to her and announce, “I’ll take them.”
“Great!” It’s probably the easiest sale she’s made all day. Excitedly, she pulls out a Ray-Ban case to slide the sunglasses into and makes a fuss about wrapping the case in gold tissue paper and placing it in a fancy little gift bag that features the boutique’s name all over it. I don’t have the heart to tell her that it’s not necessary, that I’ll only be tearing it all open once I’m gone.
She hand-writes the sale up on a receipt pad, and in the meantime, I dig inside my boot for the money. Her expression of intrigue and surprise is priceless as she witnesses me slide off the rubber band and pull two fresh one-hundred dollar bills from the sizeable wad to hand to her. “Don’t worry,” I assure her with a smile. “They’re legit.” She nods and accepts the money from my hand. Opens a small cash register and counts me back my change, which equals only a few coins, but I don’t care about the cost. I need to do this.
Once outside, I remove all of the delicate packaging that surrounds the sunglasses and clip off the plastic price tag with my Leatherman, tossing the refuse in a nearby trash bin. Returning to my truck, I retrieve my coat, my baseball cap, and the flask from underneath the seat before locking up the vehicle and dropping a few more quarters into the meter. After pausing to take a long swig of Jim Beam to help steel my nerves, I place one foot in front of the other and begin the five-block trek to The Little Nell.
“I know you don’t believe it, buddy, but love really can change a person’s perspective. Stop fighting it so fuckin’ hard all the time and let it happen…”