A hand on the small of his back, a whiskered cheek against his skin, a pair of lips pressed to his temple, a voice crooning, “Wake up, handsome…” These were the comforting sensations that Ben awoke to as Travis stood over him, rousing him from his listless slumber with a gentle nudge.
For once, the man hadn’t dressed and exited the bunkhouse, leaving his counterpart to awaken at his own leisure. Rather, he’d dressed and lingered inside, prompting Ben to join him as though they were partners. Despite being tired, Ben found it gratifying to roll over and discover Travis’ face smiling down at him. There glowed a light in the man’s eyes, as though the grin upturning his lips emanated from a deeper source. The expression resembled contentment, happiness even, which was unexpected, considering the previous night’s hardships. Ben was pleased to see it, and it brought a smile to his own face.
Then scattered dream images returned, clouding his mind, and his smile faded. Although most of the events of the bus terminal nightmare had already dissolved from memory, shards of the aberrant bathroom scene continued to knock around inside his head, and he inwardly cringed at the harshness of it. He would have preferred to forget the entire thing, but his overactive brain cells weren’t going to let him. It’s just a dream. It’s just a dream.
Travis noticed the change in mood and touched Ben’s cheek in concern. “Everything all right?” he asked.
Deciding there would be no positive benefit to revealing the nightmare, Ben replied, “Everything’s fine. It just feels way too early to get up. The sun’s barely out yet. You keep doing this to me.”
Travis chuckled and turned to the kitchenette. He poured coffee into a ceramic mug, added cream and sugar, and gave it a stir. “Well, there’s lots to do. We’ve gotta move the herd and tag that newborn this morning.” He handed the mug over to Ben, who was now seated on the edge of the mattress, rubbing the sleep from his eyes. “We’ll check for any other calves that were dropped overnight.”
“Sure thing,” Ben said with a nod. He took a sip of the hot liquid and was once more amazed at Travis’ ability to sweeten his coffee just the way he liked it.
“Mom’ll have breakfast ready,” Travis stated. “As soon as you’re dressed, let’s meet up at the house. I’m gonna go saddle the horses.”
“I can help with the horses,” Ben insisted, setting the mug on the nightstand, getting to his feet. He wanted to pull his own weight, be an active participant in the ranch duties, even if he was naked and drowsy at the moment. But Travis pushed him back down onto the bed and leaned in to give him a kiss on the mouth. “Get dressed,” he instructed. “Drink your coffee. Then you can meet me outside.”
“Okay…” Ben agreed.
Once Travis had exited, Ben returned to his coffee, but it was too hot to drink quickly, so he set it aside again and hoisted his suitcase up onto the bed. One thing was certain as he rummaged through his clothing: he needed to do laundry. He’d only packed enough shirts and pants for one week, and now that he’d tacked on three additional days to the trip, he’d require clean underwear, at the very least. Plus, he still needed to purchase a proper outfit for the Chicago appearance. He hoped there would be a chance to squeeze in a quick shopping spree.
But what was the likelihood that he’d find a snazzy outfit here in this Rocky Mountain hick town? He’d be better off borrowing some of Travis’ clothes. Dress as a cowboy, Resistol hat and all, and introduce a new fashion trend to the celebrity circles of Hollywood. Why the hell not? He chuckled at the thought and eventually picked out the cleanest clothes from the suitcase he could find: his Calvin Kleins and a burgundy long-sleeve Polo Club shirt that passed the sniff-the-armpits test.
Once dressed, he stepped into the bathroom to relieve his bladder, brush his teeth, and run some gel through his hair. It was a fast attempt to look decent, but considering the day would be burdened with work, it didn’t seem to matter too much what he looked like. If anything, he just wanted to look good for Travis. He was pleased to see that the wound on his cheek was healing quickly; he hated being reminded of their tussle in the woods every time he caught sight of his own reflection. He wanted to remember the good stuff, not the negative shit – even though the negative shit seemed to be overcrowding the rest.
Back in the main room, he fished his Blackberry from the pocket of yesterday’s jeans and turned it on. It had barely enough juice left in the battery to fire up, but within seconds, messages started appearing, both texts and voice mails. He’d missed a dozen calls since dinner last night. Digging out the phone charger from his carry-on bag, he found a vacant electrical outlet in the kitchen to plug the device into.
Half of the text messages were from Melanie. The other half were from Audra. Each of them contained similar verbiage: Call me. Urgent. Shit hitting the fan. Where are you? Call me. Are you at Cooper Ranch right now? Call me. Your secret is no longer a secret. Call me! Already, Ben’s heart rate had increased, along with the sweat on his palms. With unsteady hands, he pressed the buttons for his voice mail and played the messages aloud on speaker.
7:24pm: “Ben, it’s Mel. Where are you? It’s urgent that you call me as soon as possible. I know about the ranch, and so will the rest of the world in about six hours. Need to discuss this with you. Sorry to tell you this way, sweetie. Call me.”
8:05pm: “Ben, it’s me again. Please call me back. We need to talk about a response plan. I’ve got the whole team ready to move, but I need your input. This is extremely time-sensitive, so don’t wait to call me… Call me. Seriously.”
8:43pm: “Every minute that ticks by is another minute closer to hell breaking open. I’ve been in contact with Marty. He’s working up a legal document to stall the printing, but you know as well as I do that these injunctions never work. If you could call me, soon, that’d be helpful. I need to hear from you. ASAP.”
10:02pm: “Hi, it’s Audra. You’re not answering your phone, and Melanie’s about to lose her shit, so I told her I’d try. Apparently, a story about you and the cowboy is heading to print, and there’s no stopping it. You might want to give her a call. And start rehearsing your responses, because everyone’s going to be talking about this tomorrow. Shit’s hitting the fan, little brother, but you shouldn’t be surprised by that. I’ll help if I can. Call me. Call Melanie. Call someone.”
11:17pm: “Hello again, it’s your agent, Mel. You know, the person who works tirelessly on your behalf to ensure you have a stunning career? Just wondering why the hell you’re not answering any of your calls. So, anyway, here’s the deal. Global Star’s angle was originally set to spotlight a romantic involvement between you and this guy, but, thanks to Marty’s legal interception, we were able to persuade the editors to go with a vague story line related to the photos. Of course, assumptions will still be made, readers will still come to their own conclusions, but the story itself will not include the original intended accusations. No one wants to face a slander suit with Marty.
“That being said… we still need to put together a response plan. You’re about to be outed, Ben, and you’re at a ranch somewhere in Colorado milking a goddamn cow or something, and I can’t reach you. You should have told me what you’re up to there. I could have braced us all better for this. I’m not judging you. Just call me. I don’t care what time of the night it is, I’ll have my phone close by.”
There were other similar messages, both from Melanie and from Audra, but Ben only listened to a few seconds of each before forwarding to the next. The last message turned out to be the most difficult one to hear – the most dreaded one to endure – but he played the message through in its entirety, turning the volume up a notch so that he didn’t miss a single word that was spoken.
6:01am: “Hi Ben, it’s Mom. Audra just phoned. She told me that you’re staying at that ranch for a few more days. She also told me that you’re… well, that you’re interested in this fellow who owns the ranch… Travis? Is that his name? Apparently, your little… vacation time with him is headed straight for Global Star, and she didn’t want me or your father to find out about it at the newsstand or by someone calling the house. I guess she tried reaching you all night, but you’re not answering your phone, so she took the initiative to call me herself. I’m very glad she did. It was shocking to hear, of course, but certainly not as shocking as it would have been seeing it in the headlines.
“Honey, I hope you’re all right. I would really love to hear from you. Will you please call me when you can? I’m sure you’re going to have a load of other things to deal with right now, but call me soon, okay? I’ll try to figure out the best way to bring this up to your father… You should have talked to us, Ben. I’m really disappointed that we’re finding out this way… Call me when you can.”
When it ended, Ben chose to replay the message before saving it. Hearing his mother’s voice produced apprehension and sadness in him, yet it also propped him up, more than he expected. Miraculously, she seemed more disappointed than angry with him for harboring the secret, and he was grateful for that. His father, on the other hand, would be a much larger issue.
For a few minutes he stood with elbows pressed against the Formica countertop, staring at the now-silent phone in his hands, while a multitude of thoughts whirled through his head like hurricane-force winds, producing moisture in his eyes.
Things were plummeting like an avalanche too quickly. In a flash, he’d been robbed of the chance to enjoy these last couple of days with Travis. It was as if their relationship – if that’s what it could even be labeled – was rooted in complications. Greater forces were determined to slice through their happiness, severing their connection with relentless, harsh blows at every turn. Why, goddammit?
The phone vibrated in Ben’s hands, jolting his attention. It was Melanie, trying once more to reach him. Inhaling a deep breath, he pushed the button to answer the call and said, “I’m here, Mel. Sorry for the delay. Tell me what’s up…”
* * * *
Outside, the morning was cold, the sky thick with low-level clouds that shrouded the mountains. Only slices of sunlight bled through the veil, glittering off the layer of hoarfrost which covered the branches of trees, the blades of grass, the rails of fences. The entire valley held an ethereal glow of gray and white and crystalline patches of light, as though the world had been painted monochrome and sprinkled with glitter during the night. It was unlike anything Ben had ever seen, yet his mind was far too agitated to appreciate the natural phenomenon.
The second he stepped from the bunkhouse, he knew that a hooded sweatshirt wasn’t going to cut it, so he turned back inside to pull on his ski parka and wool beanie. While there, he took two more long gulps of his coffee and poured the rest down the sink. Back outside, he headed across the yard. The ground crunched under the soles of his boots, as though tiny shards of ice were shattering beneath each footfall. Derry appeared by his side, pawing at his legs, anxious to say good morning, and he stooped to give her a few vigorous nose rubs. Soon she ran off toward the main house, and Ben followed her path with his eyes, surprised to find Travis standing near the driveway.
A man who looked to be in his mid-twenties hopped out of a black Ford F150 pickup truck and wrapped Travis in a hug that lasted longer than a friendly greeting should have. There was an intimacy between them which traveled across the cold air and sank down into Ben’s flesh, clutching at his bones like a vice. That’s all I fucking need this morning, he fumed, instantly angry – not just at Travis but also at himself for being instantly jealous over the body contact.
But if Jack Osbourne is any indication, hugs like that mean a hell of a lot more than a friendly ‘hello’ to Travis…
Unaware that Ben was watching, Travis politely nudged the newcomer away, took a step back, and stuffed his hands into his coat pockets as if to say, That’s enough. Relieved by the separation, Ben exhaled his breath, which formed into a cloud in the humid morning. The agitation that had been wedged up against his rib cage subsided, and he continued his trek across the yard, heading up the same path Derry had taken a few seconds before to welcome the stranger.
Now, the border collie sat at the guy’s feet, begging for his attention, and he dropped down to his haunches and scratched her behind her ears while she licked his face in exuberance. Clearly, she also knew the visitor, in which case, he wasn’t a stranger… Yet, he also wasn’t Eric. If he was, Ben would surely have witnessed the asshole being smacked to the ground with a pile driver punch, no mercy shown.
No, this was someone who was welcomed at the ranch – maybe often, maybe all the time, from the looks of it.
Maybe he was even another paying customer…
The thought caused his stomach to lurch. As he drew closer to the twosome, he considered heading straight into the house through the back door and foregoing the awkwardness of introduction, especially in his current state-of-mind. His intention was to confront Katy and demand an apology for the way she’d dug his fucking grave with the press. But the stranger caught sight of him and stood up with a smile that spread across his face like pure gold.
“Hi!” he called out, and Travis turned to Ben and smiled as well, beckoning him over with a swoop of his hand.
There would be no retreating.
The visitor was introduced as Doug, an old friend of Travis’ from high school who lived nearby. The two buddies had traveled the rodeo circuit together for a time and were inseparable, at least according to Doug. “It’s really great to meet you!” Doug exclaimed, gripping Ben’s hand firmly with his own, still retaining a sparkling smile. Funny how, if they were such good friends, Travis had never mentioned him to Ben.
Doug was tall and lean, with muscles clearly defined beneath a tight-fitting gray t-shirt noticeable through the opened zipper of his leather flight jacket. His Wrangler blue jeans were also tight-fitting and did little to hide the sizeable bulge stuffed within them. The flashy rodeo belt buckle at his groin worked to draw attention downward, like a Las Vegas sign pointing to the prize. Clearly, this was on purpose.
Ben realized he was staring and quickly snapped himself out of it, lifting his gaze up to the man’s face. Doug was handsome, but in a much less rugged way than Travis. His features were smooth, his brown hair short and spiky and dyed blonde at the tips. Along each ear were three stainless steel hoops, and Ben caught sight of colorful tattoos peeking up from the collar of his shirt. Doug seemed to be rural cowboy and urban trendsetter all rolled into one person. An intriguing combination.
“I wouldn’t have believed it, if I hadn’t seen it,” Doug announced, still holding tight to Ben’s hand. “Ben-fucking-Mansfield at Cooper Ranch.”
Ben noticed a black-and-white tattoo of a Texas star imprinted on the underside of Doug’s right wrist. It was identical in both shape and size to the tattoo Travis had on the topside of his wrist. Gently, Ben pulled his hand free from Doug’s grip and pretended to straighten the beanie on his head.
“Yeah, well, it’s supposed to be on the down-low,” Travis stated. “He’s only here for a couple more days. I trust you to keep quiet about it, okay?”
Doug blinked at him. Then he blinked at Ben. “Yeah. Sure,” he said. “But it’s not me you gotta worry about.” From his back pocket, he pulled out a rolled-up tabloid magazine and displayed the front cover for each of them to view. “It’s the rest of the world you gotta deal with.”
Travis yanked the magazine from his friend’s hands to examine it, and Ben peered over his shoulder. On the cover was a full-color photo of Ben and Travis on horseback the day they’d returned from Thompson Creek, post-fight. Travis’ boot was nudging against Hugo’s stirrup, and Ben was leaning in close, saying something to him. The angle of Ben’s face hid his fresh bruise from view of the lens. In large font, the headline read: Ben Mansfield Vacations in Colorado With Mysterious Cowboy.
“Holy shit,” Travis hissed, crumpling the edge of the magazine with his hand. “That asshole did get a picture.” He looked at Ben with pain in his eyes and said, “I’m really sorry about this…”
“I found out about it myself just now,” Ben responded with a frown. “Melanie and Audra tried to forewarn me last night, calling me a hundred times, but of course I had my phone turned off. There’s nothing I could have done to prevent it, anyway. The tabloids do whatever the fuck they want.”
He took the magazine from Travis’ hands and flipped through the pages until he found the feature article, which wasn’t an article so much as a photo collage: Ben and Travis on horseback, Ben and Travis saying farewell on the sidewalk of The Little Nell, Ben and Travis leaving the hotel together at predawn, Ben hoisting himself up inside Travis’ truck. There was even a grainy shot of Ben passing a cigarette to Travis while they stood on the outskirts of a roadside gas station. The hound dogs had recorded a hell of a lot.
But they hadn’t captured it all. Not the important parts. Not the intimate parts.
Ben sighed and handed the magazine back to Doug. “Thanks for showing it to me.”
“I’m sorry to spring it on you like that,” Doug spoke quietly. “It’s just… I couldn’t believe it when I saw it this morning. I was at Moe’s getting my usual coffee and pastry before heading to work, and there this was, front and center, on the magazine rack, staring out at me. I just couldn’t believe it. So I bought the damn thing and drove straight here to show it to Cooper and get the scoop. I didn’t expect you’d still be here, but, wow, here you are. Ben Mansfield…”
“Yep, he’s here,” Travis said. “So please keep quiet about it, Doug. Don’t go flapping your mouth in town.”
“Yeah, enough mouths have been flapping around here,” Ben mumbled. He glanced up to the house, half-expecting to find Katy spying on them from the window. The little bitch had managed to successfully damage things with a simple phone call.
Doug held up a hand in a gesture of innocence and said, “I wasn’t going to say anything to anyone. But the proof’s right here, Coop.” He slapped the magazine back into Travis’ hand and pointed at the cover. “Everyone in town will know soon enough.”
After that statement, the three stood in silence, listening to the ice crackle in the trees as the sun began to warm the branches. Then a vehicle barreled down the driveway and pulled up to park beside Travis’ truck. Curtis got out of his Jeep Wrangler and approached the trio. Shook hands with Doug and said hello while Derry clambered for his attention. He commanded her to sit, and she obeyed, laying her belly down on the cold ground, setting her chin against her front paws.
Curtis returned his attention to Doug. “Did you ever get over to Stanley’s to take a look at that Bowtech Allegiance I was telling you about?” His voice held the same no-bullshit gruffness that it always did. Ben assumed it was simply the guy’s standard way of speaking, no matter what the subject or situation. During his entire time on the ranch so far, Ben had yet to see the man laugh. Or even smile. Not one single time.
“Aw, fuck, I forgot about it,” Doug replied. “I’ve been so friggin’ busy these last couple of weeks. I wonder if he still has it…”
“Not sure,” Curtis said. “But you should definitely check. It has that new equalizer binary cam system, no limb distortion, and the shot is speedy as hell. He’s selling it for a steal. I’d pick it up myself, if I could.”
“Thanks for the reminder,” Doug said. “I’ll call him later today.”
“So, are you out here to lend us a hand today?” Curtis asked. “Plenty of work to go around.”
Doug smiled. “No doubt,” he replied. “But I’ve got a contract gig up in Alma. Bathroom remodel. I’ll be back to work the roundup, though. Schedule me for that.”
“Good. Mom’ll insist you have breakfast before you go,” Curtis said, heading for the front steps.
“Thanks,” Doug called out. “But I really need to get on the road.” He ran a hand down Travis’ arm and said to him, “I’ll catch ya later, Coop. Beers at the Nest soon?”
Travis nodded and rolled up the magazine to smack him lightly on the chest. Then he leaned in close and whispered something in his ear. Doug’s eyes widened at the words, and he pulled back to stare at Travis. “You’re fucking kidding me!” he said. “Eric’s actually daring to show his face back around here?”
Travis nodded with a frown.
“I’ll kick his ass when I see him,” Doug insisted.
“No, leave the ass-kicking to me,” Travis growled, bristling with tension. Instinctively, Ben placed his hand inside Travis’ coat collar and rubbed the nape of his neck to calm him. The touch was soothing; Travis hung his head, expelled his breath, and the tension dispersed.
Doug noticed this interaction between them and smiled. “I can see why Travis likes having you around,” he said to Ben. Unexpectedly, he reached out and touched Ben’s bruised cheek with the back of his hand. “Looks like that was a bad hit,” he whispered while lightly running his knuckles down his cheek, pausing at his jawline. His hazel eyes locked onto Ben’s blue and lingered there, causing a tugging sensation in Ben’s chest, like an object being pulled up through his windpipe.
Clearly, a message was being relayed in Doug’s stare, just as it was being relayed through his prolonged touch, but it took Ben a few seconds to interpret the meaning due to his surprise.
Meanwhile, Travis interpreted the message right away. Brusquely, he pushed Doug’s hand aside and slid an arm around Ben’s shoulders to pull him close.
“Not this time, my friend,” he murmured to the rodeo buddy, the mysterious newcomer who seemed far too familiar with everything and everyone, including the dog. Brushing his lips against the stubble on Ben’s cheek, Travis added, “I’m not sharing this one. He’s far too special, far too important to me, and I’m not about to let go of him.”