Ben hoisted his belongings into his arms and walked with Audra to the bank of elevators, rolling his large suitcase along behind him. While waiting for an available car to arrive, he repeated, “I really appreciate your willingness to do this for me.”
“I told you, it’s fine,” Audra also repeated. “Even if I still don’t understand what’s going on with you…” In the reflection of the heavy stainless steel doors, she adjusted the position of the silk scarf around her neck. It was but one small detail of her head-to-toe designer outfit: Christian Lacroix tiered skirt and blazer jacket, Prada hobo handbag. The woman didn’t dress to sit in an airport waiting for a flight; she dressed to impress every photographer and fan she encountered along the way. When the limelight wasn’t surrounding her, she made sure to pull it back in her direction with the right look, the right smile, the right attitude. She handled her fame with much more vigor and finesse than Ben ever could. He imagined that soon she’d be dressing in haute couture maternity wear and shopping for haute couture baby clothes. Her keen sense of style was admirable.
Glancing at his tall reflection beside her, Ben noted how his wrinkled cargo pants, cashmere sweater, and muddy Salomon hiking boots looked pedestrian in comparison to her flash. For the most part, he didn’t give two shits about fashion in his personal life, but on camera, it mattered, and he knew that. He’d have to give some thought on dressing properly for Chicago – especially if he was to pull attention away from his bruised face.
“You know I love your furry ones,” Audra continued, still on the topic of Sasha and Beau. “They’re part of the family. I won’t let them starve.” Still using the elevator doors as mirrors, she lightly ran a fingertip across her puckered mouth to ensure that her lipstick was evenly distributed.
“Thanks, I hope Bryan feels so generous about it,” Ben said. He recalled how hastily the guy had retreated to the lobby earlier to follow the bellman and rendezvous with the limo waiting to transport them to the airport. His desire to steer clear of Ben had been obvious the moment he’d answered the door; he’d barely given Ben a greeting, just a somber nod before stepping aside to allow Ben entrance into the room. At that point, he’d high-tailed it out of there, practically tripping over the bellman’s luggage cart in order to make his escape.
“Bryan’s not the bad guy here,” Audra stated. “You’re the one who’s chosen to shut us both out.”
Ben did a double-take at her words, his mouth slightly agape as he stared at her. “You’re kidding, right?” he scoffed. “He called me a goddamn freak in the hallway last night!”
Audra rolled her eyes. “Oh for Christ’s sake, he was joking,” she said. “You two always banter like that. It’s what you do. Personally, it drives me crazy, but for whatever reason, that’s how your friendship goes.”
Aware of the presence of guests in surrounding rooms, Ben lowered his voice a notch and said, “It wasn’t like that. His statement had purpose. He meant it. And you said some pretty insensitive shit to me yesterday, yourself.”
Audra’s blue eyes widened in disbelief. “Like what?”
Ben sighed. Looked down at the burgundy and gold carpet and the fleur de lis pattern he’d become so familiar with during his stay at The Little Nell. “The fact that you don’t even know what I’m talking about makes it that much worse,” he muttered under his breath.
An elevator car arrived, the bell sounding as the doors slid open, and Ben allowed Audra to enter in before he followed her with the rolling suitcase. As soon as the doors shut, Audra turned to him and said, “This hook-up with Travis has been shocking, to say the least. It came out of left field, completely unexpected. How did you think Bryan and I would react? With balloons and goddamn confetti? Is this even the first time you’ve done this?”
“What the hell does that matter?” he demanded.
“It matters,” she insisted. “Being in the closet means you’re keeping secrets, and that’s the same thing as shutting us out.”
“I’m not in the closet!” he retorted. “I fucking hate that term…” Even if he knew it was true.
The elevator had stopped on the second level, and as the doors opened, two young women entered in. They were dressed in tight clothing and shiny jewelry and meticulous hair styles. Each smiled at Ben and Audra, recognition of the siblings instant. Each voiced excited good mornings, unaware of the disruption they’d caused. In unison, Ben and Audra plastered on their smiles and offered greetings in return, forcing charm through irritation like water through rocks. Leaning in closer to Ben, Audra whispered, “We’re not your enemies here. Cut us some slack, okay?”
“I will if you will,” he whispered in return.
The bell of the sliding doors resounded once more, announcing their arrival to the first floor, and as Ben followed Audra out, he immediately noticed Travis in the lobby. He was seated on the edge of one of the plush lounge chairs, his elbows on his knees, his hands clasped together, no coat on, just his plaid, pearl-snap shirt and faded blue jeans and the scuffed cowboy boots that looked as though they’d stepped through a mile of muck. Like a cowpoke who’d taken a wrong turn somewhere and ended up in Aspen instead of Amarillo…
Ben frowned. He was supposed to be waiting in the truck two blocks away, as planned – not sitting in the fucking hotel lobby like a displaced tourist, attracting attention.
“Speak of the devil,” Audra muttered. Veering off her current path to the front entrance, she headed straight towards the man with great determination in her step. As soon as Travis noticed her coming towards him, he got to his feet with a look of uncertainty clouding his face. Ben had no opportunity to intervene; the two young women from the elevator stopped him mid-stride, hooked their arms together with his, and crooned in unison, “Can we take a picture with you?”
“Now’s not a good time, ladies…” he answered, attempting to disentangle himself from their embrace.
His response was unheeded. A small Canon was procured from a purse, and the two young women took quick turns posing with him, leaning up to kiss him on the cheek, leaving lipstick marks while he succumbed to draping an arm around their waists, flashing his teeth-glistening smile as he simultaneously kept close watch on the interaction across the lobby. Audra had her hand on Travis’ forearm and was stepping up on her toes to speak close to his ear. From Travis’ stoic expression, it was impossible to determine the mood of the conversation, whether positive or negative, but his eyes remained glued to Ben’s throughout the duration.
What the fuck is she saying to him?
“We’re staying in room 225, if you’d like to come by for a bit…” One of the gals whispered this into his ear while her lips grazed his lobe. He shooed her away as though she was a gnat hovering too close. When his eyes flipped back across the lobby, he discovered that Travis and Audra had parted ways – Travis heading down the long hallway that led past the spa and fitness center and Audra toward the front entrance. With a flick of her hand, she motioned for Ben to follow her.
Hoisting his belongings back up into his arms and pulling his suitcase across the carpet behind him, he raced across the lobby, pushing through the large revolving door, careful not to smack his snowboard against the glass. Outside, the air was warm, the sun bright, the front drive bustling with activity. Bryan stood near the rear passenger door of the shiny black Lincoln, waiting, while the driver stood near the front.
“What did you say to Travis?” Ben insisted, catching up with Audra.
Without pausing, she replied, “That’s between me and him.”
Ben swiftly grabbed her by the elbow and forced her to stop. Noticing this, Bryan pushed off from the car and started towards them in automatic defense mode. “Audra,” Ben hissed. “What did you say?”
She pulled her arm free. Glanced around to see who might be listening. “If you must know,” she whispered, “I told him to be careful with you, with all of this, whatever it is, because people are watching.” She pushed strands of hair from her face. “I also told him to treat you like gold, because that’s what you are, and I’ll personally come back to Colorado and kick his ass straight to Utah if he doesn’t.”
Now at her side, Bryan slid an arm around her waist and pulled her close. His glare on Ben was heated and direct. “Everything okay here?” he asked.
Audra nodded. “Yes,” she replied. “We’re good. Aren’t we Ben?”
Reeling a bit from her unexpected remarks, Ben paused a moment before finally nodding his head. “Yes…” he agreed. “We’re fine…”
“Good.” She stepped forward to peck him on the cheek, adding another mark of lipstick to his face. “Now get in the car and let us drive you to his truck. Eyes are everywhere here.”
* * * *
The first words out of Ben’s mouth as he hopped up into the cab and shut the door were: “Why the hell were you in the lobby back there? That wasn’t the plan.”
Travis’ response was delayed. He put the truck into drive and eased out into traffic, which was much more dense now with morning commuters. “I had to piss,” he eventually replied. “And you were taking forever, so I decided to use the bathroom in the hotel.”
“And then you decided to just sit in the lounge and wait?”
“Considering I was already there, yeah,” he answered. “I thought I’d hang out until you were done. Sorry it was such a big deal. Audra pretty much told me the same thing, which is why I split. I’m not looking to cause friction for you, you know. And anyway… you were all wrapped up with your two ski bunnies, so I figured I’d leave you alone.”
Ben rolled his eyes. “Don’t even go there with those girls. They were just a couple of groupies wanting to take a pic with me.”
“Sure about that?” Travis reached out a hand and wiped at Ben’s jawline with his thumb. Flashing the resulting lipstick smudge in Ben’s line of vision, he said, “Evidence shows otherwise.”
Ben sat forward, pulled the window visor down, and flipped the mirror open to examine his appearance. Sure enough, red and fuchsia kiss marks crossed both sides of his face. “Shit,” he grumbled. Pulled his sweater up to rub the makeup off, forced to use his spit in order to make any headway with the insistent colors. He was careful not to irritate his bruised cheek in the process.
“Aw, come on, they look charming on you,” Travis teased. “Like warrior marks. You should just leave them alone.”
It was the best he could do. Shutting the mirror, Ben sat back with a frown and sighed. “Sometimes, fans get a little carried away.”
“Yeah, I know,” Travis said. “I’ve witnessed it firsthand. Remember? My cousins and sister included. All the ladies love you, Ben…” His voice trailed off. Then, in a quieter tone, he added, “I’m sure you’ve loved plenty of them in return… Right?” He pretended to watch the road, but Ben noticed that he was peering at him out of the corners of his eyes, waiting for his response.
Honesty was the best tactic here, and Ben decided to pursue it, which was extremely out-of-character for him. “Yes, I have,” he replied. He’d been promiscuous. He’d slept with dozens of women who’d ultimately dissatisfied him. This wasn’t news to Ben, but maybe it was news to Travis. “I’ll spare you the numbers,” he continued. “I’m not real proud of some of my decisions.”
Travis gripped the steering wheel a little deeper but otherwise seemed unruffled by the answer, as though he’d already anticipated the response. “I figured as much,” he said. “I mean, with you being who you are, handsome and sexy and famous and shit. I’ve no doubt you’ve had plenty of ladies tossing panties your way. Probably guys tossing jockstraps, too, but you’ve been too much in denial to appreciate it. Now, though, maybe you will. Now that you’ve been to the other side, and you know what you like.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Ben said. He wasn’t about to get into discussion about indiscriminately fucking men, so he swiftly veered the conversation in another direction. “Just curious… Have you ever slept with a chick?”
Travis shook his head. “Nope. Never even kissed one,” was his reply. “Not counting my mom, of course.”
“Interesting… So you’ve always known you were gay, huh?”
“Since the first time I laid eyes on half-naked ranch hands hanging around the bunkhouses at night,” he said. “I used to sneak out of my bedroom and spy on them from the bushes. Even lost my virginity to one of them when I was sixteen. He had a dick the size of a rolling pin. Uncut and perfect. Can’t imagine doing anything like that with a woman.”
“Wow,” Ben said. “Never a hesitation for you. Impressive. I wish I could say the same for myself.”
“Everyone has their own timeline of experiences,” Travis stated. “Your timeline happens to be different from mine, that’s all. The point is, you’ve turned a corner and here you are.”
Ben nodded. Mumbled, “You’re about the size of a fucking rolling pin yourself, you know,” remembering how he’d been deeply impaled by the nine inches of thickness not so long ago on the creaky motel bed. The memory aroused an immediate biological reaction, and he shifted the growing erection in his jeans.
Noticing this, Travis grinned. “There’s more where that came from, you know.”
“I’m kind of counting on that.”
While keeping his eyes on the highway, Travis leaned over and rubbed a hand across Ben’s thigh. Gave his crotch a squeeze, which produced a small moan from Ben’s lips. “I wanted to take your ass so badly last night,” he said with deepened voice, his tone denoting his own arousal. “But I wasn’t sure if you were up to it.”
“A word of advice going forward,” Ben interjected, tightly squeezing the hand currently cupping his denim-covered cock and balls. “Never hesitate to fuck me, Cooper.”
Peeling his eyes from the view of the road to look at Ben with lust, Travis grunted, “We need to get my horse and get the hell back home.”
“Yep,” Ben concurred. “If we can wait that long.”
In contrast to the glitz of Aspen/Snowmass, Glenwood Springs appeared more subdued, a sister town dressed in bucolic clothing with messy hair and tattered shoes, still embracing mountain charm but in a more grass roots sort of way. Streets were lined with old brick buildings, vintage motels, family-style restaurants and cheap souvenir shops – establishments much more affordable, and approachable, for tourists who had less disposable income but who still wanted to vacation in the majestic Rocky Mountains.
Within an hour and a half of departing Aspen, Travis and Ben were weaving through the small business district of Glenwood, passing by clothing shops and bookstores and corner cafés and an expansive hot springs lodge, purportedly in business since the late 1800s. Deeper through town, they crossed a bridge over the Roaring Fork River and headed northwest, leaving the business district behind to follow a two-lane road which curved through a narrow valley surrounded by high rocky terrain covered in Douglas-fir and blue spruce. About five miles further on, they turned off onto a winding, unpaved road that led into open meadow land. A small tributary of the Roaring Fork River meandered to the left of the road, and Travis followed along beside it until they reached a driveway flanked by a substantial, decorative wrought-iron archway welcoming them to The Flying O Ranch.
The house which sat on the property was monolithic and featured an eclectic combination of mountain rustic and Greek architecture with tall columns and a river rock façade across the front and dark green rib steel panels across the multi-gabled roof. An elaborate 3-tiered stone garden fountain, like something straight from the gardens of Versailles, stood in the middle of a circular driveway, surrounded by empty flowerbeds waiting to be planted in warmer weather.
“Fancy place,” Ben commented. “Not my style, but to each his own.”
“Definitely not my style, either,” Travis agreed.
Passing by the front entrance, Travis pulled around to the back of the house and headed for his unhitched equestrian trailer which sat near an outlying paddock. Once he’d successfully reversed the truck to line up with the trailer, he turned off the engine and grabbed his industrial-strength pigskin gloves. “Sit tight,” he instructed. “I’ll be right back.” He hopped out to hook the trailer onto the truck’s box hitch, leaving Ben to sit quietly and ponder the craggy mountaintops in the distance.
His stomach rumbled. Grabbing the wax paper bag full of doughnuts from the middle console, he peeked at the contents. Decided on a Bavarian jelly-filled option and took a large bite out of it, which resulted in sticky strawberry jam dripping down his chin. Cursing at the lack of napkins, he wiped it away and licked it from his hand and noticed a middle-aged, heavyset man dressed in starched blue jeans, fancy western shirt, and black cowboy hat coming across the yard. Ben plucked the Ray-Bans from the front of his sweater and slid them over his eyes.
Travis, also having noticed the man, jogged over to meet him halfway as if to thwart his arrival. The guy grinned at Travis and enveloped him in a giant bear hug, which Travis wasted no time in disentangling himself from. The man’s response to this abrupt dismissal was dour; his expression changed from pleased to pissed in all of about two seconds, and in that moment, he took notice of Ben in the truck. The ensuing glare he dished out was lethal. Ben pretended to look away. As discreetly as he could manage, he lowered his window a notch, hoping to catch any bits of conversation that managed to drift across the breeze.
“Who the hell is that?” the man demanded, nodding his head toward the Dodge.
“A friend,” Travis replied.
Words and phrases drifted in and out of earshot. Ben concentrated on the movement of lips to assist with his eavesdropping, but even so, he couldn’t decipher it all. Could only guess at the missing words and try to infer meanings from them.
“Is that why you had to…?” the man said. “To hook up with this…?”
“Really none of your bus…” was Travis’ broken response.
The man folded beefy arms across his chest and bellowed, loud enough for the whole valley to hear, “I thought you were coming back for breakfast this morning. Early. Like we planned.”
“We didn’t plan that,” Travis responded with equal volume and irritation. “You planned that. I told you I had business to take care of in town.”
“Business, huh?” the man scoffed. With a hand, he motioned to the truck, indicating Ben. “I suppose… your current trick…?”
Travis glared at the rancher. Ben could see fists folding and unfolding at his sides. “No, assh… unlike you… doesn’t have to pay… to fuck him…”
The man jabbed a thick forefinger into Travis’ chest, sending him slightly off-balance, and barked, “You’d better watch your goddamn attitude with me, boy!”
Travis deflected his hand away with a swift jerk of his wrist. He glanced nervously at the Dodge and then returned his attention to the rancher. “Look…” he seethed with lowered voice, barely audible. “Just be cool with… Okay? I’ll pick… Max… my money… then… my way…”
The man glared once more at Ben’s shadowy profile within the cab. Seemed to take notice of the cracked-open window, which prompted him to yell over his shoulder as he turned to make his way back across the yard, “You can go ahead and take your stud home, Cooper. But you ain’t getting any more fucking money from me.”
Ben watched as Travis darted after him. In two strides, he had the man by the arm and was swinging him back around. There was rage in the air and rage etched onto both of their fevered faces. Although Ben could no longer hear their words, the tone of their voices was unmistakable: venomous. Ben dropped the jelly doughnut he’d been holding onto back into the bag, pushed his door open, and hopped out. Removed his sunglasses and hooked them back onto the front of his V-neck sweater. As he approached the stand-off, both Travis and the rancher paused to blink at him, stunned by his presence.
“Thought you were going to wait in the truck,” Travis hissed under his breath.
Ignoring the statement, Ben moved forward and stuck out his hand to the rancher. Smiled his charming smile and said, “Hi, I’m Ben.”
A long pause passed as the man tried to shake the disbelief from his clouded mind. He raked his eyes across Ben’s body, traveling from the tips of his hiking boots to the top of his head and back down again, as though trying to determine if he was a mirage. Finally, he accepted the handshake. “Jack,” he said with hesitation.
“Nice to meet you, Jack,” Ben stated, giving his hand a firm, no-bullshit shake. “You the owner of this fine ranch?”
“Ben, what are you do- ” Travis attempted to cut in, but Ben waved a hand to quiet him and continued with his line of questioning. “Cattle? Horses? What’s your specialty here, Jack?” he asked.
“Horses,” Jack replied.
“Cool. Horses. Well, I’d sure love to take a tour of your ranch and visit your stables and all that, but we’re kind of on a tight schedule here. I’m sure you can appreciate staying on a schedule, right? Being the sound businessman you are. I’ve gotta be at the airport soon, and Travis is giving me a lift. So, why don’t you just give him the money you owe him, and we’ll get his horse loaded up and be out of your hair, and you can get on with whatever it is you do around here. Sound good?”
Silence followed. Skepticism.
Jack returned his gaze to Travis. “Am I fucking dreaming?” he said. “What the fuck is going on here, Cooper?”
Travis shoved his hands into his pockets and shrugged. Tried to be as smooth as he could muster, given the unexpected turn of events. “It’s… you know… like he said. I gotta get him to the airport soon.”
Jack frowned. Darted his gaze between the two young men before settling his vision back onto Travis. “Go get your fucking horse,” he eventually grumbled. “Then meet me in the office.”
* * * *