“Mason called while you were out.”
Curtis’ voice was sharp, and he pushed a torn slip of paper at Travis the moment he exited from Red Cloud’s stall. Reluctantly, Travis took the note and glanced down at it, and from where Ben stood a few feet away, he noticed distress fall over the guy’s face. The agitated expression lasted only a second, though, before Travis recovered and shoved the piece of paper into his jeans pocket. His mask of stoicism resurfaced, and he mumbled to his brother, “I’ll give him a call.”
“He wants you down there Thursday,” Curtis pointed out.
“Yeah, I see that,” Travis said. He hoisted Red Cloud’s saddle up into his arms and began carrying it towards the tack room. “But I’ll be driving back from Denver that day, so I can’t do it.”
Ben grabbed a pitchfork and ducked into Hugo’s stall, pretending to spread hay around. His intent was to eavesdrop on the conversation without openly standing there gawking at the brothers, but now he had to strain his ears in order to hear the discourse. There had been apprehension in Travis’ expression as he’d read the note, and Ben wanted to understand why.
“This isn’t negotiable,” Curtis stated, not allowing Travis the chance to walk away from the conversation just yet. “Mason said it’s prime time for his mare. He wants Max down there as soon as possible.”
“That’s nice,” Travis said irritably. “But I can’t do it.”
“You’re really gonna forfeit that much money to drive your celebrity to Denver? Let him rent a car. He can afford it. Hell, he can afford a limo.”
Ben could hear shuffling, as though Travis had entered the tack room and was putting things away. As a result, his voice was even more distant when he replied, “I’m driving Ben to Denver, there’s no debate. I’ll be back Thursday afternoon. You and Arty can take care of the herd in the morning. I should be back in time for Abbey’s riding lesson.”
“I’ll lead the girl’s lesson,” Curtis interjected. “You can go to Hartsel in the afternoon. I’m sure Mason would be fine with that. He said he’s got the whole day free.”
Travis suddenly appeared at Hugo’s stall, startling Ben. He said nothing, just hoisted Hugo’s saddle from its perch and exchanged a brief look of consternation with Ben before exiting. As he passed by Curtis, he muttered, almost too quietly for Ben to hear, “Look, I’ll talk to Mason. We’ll arrange something else, for another time.”
“I don’t think –” Curtis began to argue, but Travis cut him off by announcing in a booming voice that almost shook the rafters, “If you want it done so fucking badly, why don’t you just do it yourself? You’re as capable as I am, brother. Mason’s not picky. Anyone can do it.”
“Don’t get fucking smart with me, Travis.”
“Then fucking drop it, Curtis. I’m not gonna talk about this now.”
Travis appeared once more at Hugo’s stall and looked at Ben. “Hey,” he said. “I need to go make a phone call. I’ll meet you at the bunkhouse in a few, and we’ll get washed up and head into town. Sound good?” His mood was lighter than it should have been. A false nonchalance.
Despite skepticism, Ben nodded and set the pitchfork back in its place. “Sure,” he replied. “Take your time.” Waiting until Travis had entered the office and shut the door, Ben pulled off his work gloves, dropped them on a nearby bench, and approached Curtis, who was scooping oats and barley into a trio of buckets.
“Hey,” Ben said.
Barely glancing up from his task, Curtis said, “Yeah?”
“You might think it’s not my place to say this,” he began, scrambling for the best path to take that wouldn’t immediately spike Curtis’ anger. “But maybe you should consider cutting Travis some slack.”
Curtis paused long enough to give a him look. A clear fuck-you look. “Yeah, it’s probably not your place to say,” he stated.
“I figured as much. But I’m gonna say it anyway. He’s under a lot of stress, and the pressure you put on him makes it worse.” Ben stopped to gauge Curtis’ irritation level, then decided to continue on. “I have a proposition for you,” he said, lowering his voice. He glanced at the office door to ensure it was still closed.
“Oh, yeah?” Curtis’ tone was mocking. He paused his horse feed measurements long enough to feign interest in Ben’s proposal.
“You stop sending Travis to deliver Max for stud dates, and I’ll give you what he owes you for the ranch. Then you can go off and get your alpaca farm, or whatever it is you’ve been wanting, and Travis can get on with things here.”
“Are you fucking kidding me?” The contempt in Curtis’ stare was palpable.
Ben steeled his nerves. Replied with a steady voice, “I’m serious. I can have a cashier’s check delivered to you the day after tomorrow. Free and clear. My only demand is that you never tell him I gave you a dime. You leave quietly, of your own accord, and you stop running this ranch and running his life, and maybe, just maybe, somewhere down the line, he’ll forgive you for the all the shit you’ve been putting him through.”
“Just what kind of shit have I been putting him through?” Curtis raised his bearded chin in defiance, daring Ben to continue.
“I know about the stud dates,” Ben replied. “I know about them, Curtis. And I know that you did something to him” – he thumped his forefinger against his own temple – “or that you were involved somehow with that scar on his face.”
With one swift movement, Curtis swung him up against the nearest wall. The back of Ben’s skull slammed against the plaster, jarring his consciousness for a split second, and he shook his head and blinked his eyes. Curtis had both of his arms pinned tight, trapping him against the wall while he exhaled fire and sour breath into his face. “I don’t give a shit who you are, you little prick,” the burly man seethed. A spray of saliva bounced onto Ben’s chin. “You don’t know jack shit. You’re just another one of Travis’ little faggots passing through, planting seeds of rebellion in his head. Once you’re gone, he’ll fall back into routine. So just forget about swooping in here, trying to be his savior. He doesn’t need that. He doesn’t need you. And we sure as hell don’t need your goddamn money.”
Ben was released as swiftly as he’d been taken. He had only a second to regain composure before the office door opened and Travis stepped out. A look of surprise and curiosity came over Travis’ face as he noticed Ben peeling himself away from the wall. “You’re still here,” he commented, forming more of a question than a statement.
Ben nodded and discreetly rubbed his forearms to relieve the burn. “Yeah,” he said. “I was just talking with Curtis for a minute. Ready to go?”
Travis glanced over at his brother, who had resumed scooping oats and barley into buckets as though the altercation had never occurred. If Travis considered saying something about it, he refrained. Turning his attention back to Ben, he managed a small grin and said, “Sure. Let’s get going.”
Before stepping through the massive stable door, Ben looked over his shoulder one last time to discover the asshole peering right back at him, animosity in his green-gold eyes.
* * * *
The steady flow of water from the shower had a therapeutic effect on Ben as it rolled down his back, loosening the muscles across his shoulders and farther down his spine, releasing the tension. He knew he was acting selfish, hogging the majority of the water and not allowing Travis better access to rinse the soap off of his body, but the steady stream felt too good to move away from, and he needed time to purge the aggravation. Just one more minute to wipe Curtis from my mind…
Travis didn’t seem to mind the selfishness, though. Seemed content to receive the spray which bounced off of Ben’s shoulders and buttocks. With a sheen of soap still clinging to his skin, he pulled Ben close and wrapped his arms around his torso, nuzzling his face into the crook of his neck, pressing his chest against Ben’s back. Rivulets of water cascaded over their heads and pooled down between their intertwined arms.
“Man, I wish we could shower like this all the time,” Travis whispered, sinking his teeth into Ben’s collarbone and lightly sucking on the wet skin there.
“You should come to my house,” Ben said, flinching slightly from the teeth marks but enjoying the burn of it. “I’ve got dual shower heads and a granite bench to sit on. Plus unlimited hot water.”
“Mm…” Travis breathed. “Is that an invitation…?” He nudged Ben’s upper body forward, causing imbalance, and Ben had to grab a hold of the metal piping of the shower head in order to steady himself in the slippery tub. From behind, Travis pressed against him. There was no mistaking his interest in the close body contact.
“You’re welcome to come any time you want, Cooper,” Ben replied. The innuendo was fully intended. He pushed his hips back and gyrated against Travis’ groin, and Travis reciprocated with a thrust that almost sent them both off their feet. Fingers slipped in the moisture as he gripped Ben’s waist and tried to hang on.
After several more simulated thrusts, Travis lifted Ben’s right leg up and planted his foot on the rim of the clawfoot tub. Because the tub was lined with a plastic shower curtain, Ben’s foot started to slip, but before he could fully recover, Travis was down on his knees, gripping his buttocks, burying his face between his flesh. Ben held fast to the pipe of the shower once more, pressing his forehead against the warm metal, trying to remain upright while Travis worked on him from below.
The combination of water, tongue, and subsequent finger exploration was intoxicating. Arousal was swift. With his free hand, Ben began to stroke himself. At one point, Travis pushed in two fingers and scissored his digits in slow penetration, intermittently poking at Ben’s prostate, and Ben’s knees weakened with each point of contact. “Oh, God…” he breathed, pressing his forehead even harder against the pipe until he felt an indentation forming in his flesh.
Carefully, Travis pulled out and maneuvered back up to his feet. Resumed his previous position against Ben’s backside. After wrapping his arms around his waist and pulling him close, he flicked Ben’s hand out of the way and proceeded to take over the task of stroking him. The long, swift hand movements, coupled with the sensation of teeth once more clamped down onto the back of his neck, sent Ben careening toward the edge. Fuck, it just doesn’t take much for this guy to get me there, he marveled.
Tired of playing the simulation game, Ben reached behind to guide Travis inside, wanting to be filled, but Travis resisted the temptation and pulled back, whispering something about not doing it that way, which Ben interpreted to mean not without a condom. Travis’ restraint may have been commendable, but to Ben it meant an interruption to their heated moment. He would have preferred to carry on.
Travis shut off the now-lukewarm water. As they stood there dripping, listening to the gurgle of the drain, he turned Ben around to face him and drowned him in a kiss. Their tongues and hands explored one another, and the sensation of mutual erections colliding together like dueling swords as they stood there was a new pleasure for Ben. He shoved a hand down between their compressed hips and attempted to stroke both members in one palm, but his fingers weren’t long enough to encase them both.
“Come here,” Travis said as he separated from the kiss and stepped out of the tub. Pulling the two bath towels down from the wall rack, he tossed one to Ben and used the other to quickly rub over his skin and hair, not caring for perfection in drying off but wanting to avoid dripping moisture across the hardwood floor as he exited the bathroom.
Ben followed suit, running the cotton towel down his legs, down his arms, over his hair before wrapping it around his waist. When he stepped out of the bathroom, Travis was at the bed with the nightstand drawer open, retrieving a bottle of lube and a condom from inside. Catching a brief view of the contents of the drawer before it shut, Ben noticed an array of accessories tucked inside, like Christmas morning at a sex shop. There was little time to contemplate the items, however, because Travis was yanking the towel from around his waist, commanding him to get on the bed.
Ben climbed on the mattress, propped himself up on his hands and knees, and waited to be mounted. But Travis surprised him by lightly smacking his right butt cheek and saying, “No, turn over. I wanna look at you.”
Pleased by the notion, Ben rolled over to lay on his back. Travis tugged on his ankles to bring him to the edge of the mattress and bent over to kiss his lips, his neck, his chest, his navel, all the way down until he swallowed Ben whole. Between tongue-licks and mouth-suction, it wasn’t long before Ben was careening towards the edge again – just as he had been in the shower, just as he had been many times over since meeting Travis.
In a miraculous move, Travis rolled a condom on himself while keeping Ben deep in his mouth. When he stood up and pushed Ben’s legs back, he was wrapped and ready to go. The bottle of lube appeared and then disappeared from his hands in a blur, and soon after, he snaked a moist finger inside Ben, prepping him for invasion. Although this groundwork which had already begun in the shower was appreciated, it still wasn’t enough to properly prepare Ben for the stretch; when Travis entered him, he grimaced and grabbed at the fitted sheet with his fists.
Travis paused and looked down at him, wet bangs shadowing his eyes. “You want poppers, babe?” he asked.
Ben shook his head. “That shit’s too intense.” No, what he wanted was the rawness of the fuck to devour him until the pain transformed into pleasure. He wanted to connect with Travis on a base level, on a primal level, without the haze of chemicals stimulating his senses. He’d gone without poppers in the Dodge; he could do so again.
Travis leaned forward to plant a kiss on his lips and simultaneously pushed on the backs of his thighs, pressing his knees as far to the mattress as they could go in order to gain better access and further lodge himself inside. In the end, Travis was deep, down to the hilt, not a single inch wasted. Ben groaned and absorbed the discomfort. Soon, every nerve within his body began to twitch and tingle as pleasure overtook pain.
Although tender at first, Travis’ slow, purposeful penetration eventually escalated into deep, smacking thrusts. He pushed himself up from Ben’s chest and stood at the edge of the bed to gain better traction, bracing his legs against the mattress, gripping Ben’s thighs in his hands, pulling him further off the edge. Through every move, his gaze never faltered from Ben’s; his focus remained severe and unwavering, even when his breath became labored and his orgasm grew imminent.
Ben grabbed a hold of his ankles and pulled back on them, contorting himself, inviting the man to plunge even deeper. Fill me. Puncture me. Send me to the fucking moon, cowboy. Although the words weren’t spoken, Travis innately understood. He wrapped a hand around Ben and brought him to an explosive release with just a few swift rubs, barely slowing down his pelvic thrusting as he did so. Ben cried out and writhed through his orgasm while Travis continued to pound him into the mattress. It was similar in intensity to the motel room fuck – except, this time, Travis wasn’t pressing his hand against Ben’s face to keep him silent and still. He was watching him, very intently, monitoring his reaction.
Only when he was convinced that Ben was completely satiated did Travis concentrate on his own release. He pulled out, removed the condom, and aimed for Ben’s belly and chest. Afterwards, he watched through lidded eyes as their shared orgasms mingled together, pooling in the ridges of Ben’s ab muscles. Then, he collapsed in a panting mess atop him, almost sending them both to floor. Sweat and semen smeared between their torsos, and Travis kissed a few wet spots he found. “God, you’re the best, baby,” he grunted.
Ben combed fingers through his wet curls and held him close, feeling his heart expand a fraction. Not even the continuous buzzing of his Blackberry vibrating across the kitchen countertop disturbed him from this momentary stage of bliss. “You’re the one who’s the best, Cooper,” he whispered, hugging him tighter. “I want this, always.”
Then, as an afterthought, he added, “Next time, you should unload inside me. Go raw. Forget the condoms. I wanna feel everything you’ve got.”
Travis paused. Propped himself up on his hands and gazed down at Ben with a serious expression. “Neither of us can afford to be careless, babe,” he said. “As much as I prefer it, I don’t do bareback. It’s too risky. I had a terrible scare after Boston that I don’t ever want to go through again.”
Ben pushed moist bangs away from Travis’ eyes. “Even if we’re monogamous?”
The question lingered in the air but went unanswered. Travis kissed his mouth and rolled away. Grabbed one of the towels from the floor and proceeded to wipe his chest and groin with it. After he was done, he turned to the pine wood dresser and pulled drawers open, choosing clothes. He tossed a pair of red cotton briefs at Ben and said, “You can have those. Take a another shower if you want, but make it quick, okay? I’m starving.”
Ben stared at the underwear he’d been given, then tossed it aside. Stood up and grabbed a towel to wipe himself with, foregoing the second shower, not giving a damn if he successfully got all of the sweat and semen off his body. He was aggravated that Travis had avoided the question.
Travis was keen enough to know he’d pissed Ben off. After slipping into his blue jeans, he stepped over to take a hold of Ben’s arms, forcing their eyes to connect. “I would love it to strictly be you and me,” he said. “I really would. But… I don’t know how to make that work. How can we make that work?”
Ben felt blindsided, like he’d been hit by an invisible force. “What do you mean?” he demanded. “We make it work by making it work.”
Travis buttoned up his fly and pulled his leather belt through denim loops. “We live a thousand miles apart from each other, Ben. How monogamous can we be? I’m sure there are hundreds of guys in L.A. willing to give their left nut to sleep with you. Now that you know what you like, you should explore that. As much as I hate the thought of it, I can’t be selfish with you. I can’t be your first and your last fuck. That wouldn’t be fair.”
Ben frowned and tossed the towel to the bed. “I’m not interested in anyone else…” he mumbled.
“Well, I’m not, either,” Travis assured him. He buttoned up a solid black whip-stitched shirt and tucked the tails of it into his jeans.
“Not even Doug?”
Travis’ expression changed. “What made you ask that?”
“The way you two hugged this morning,” Ben replied defiantly. “The way he openly flirted with me. You’re the one who said you wouldn’t share me. Now, you’re saying you would. What the fuck? What’s up with the star tattoo, anyway?” Ben grabbed Travis’ right wrist. Brought it up to view. “You and Doug both have it. What does it mean?”
Travis pulled free and dropped his hand to his side, as though to conceal it. “Nothing,” he said. “Doug and I are old friends. We’ve done a lot of stupid things, including the tattoo. Look, if we’re really gonna do this, babe,” he continued, changing the subject, “if we’re really gonna try to be in some kind of long-distance relationship thing, then we need to be realistic about it. How often do you think we’re actually going to be able to see each other? Every few months, if we’re lucky. Are you really gonna hold out for me to fuck you a couple times a year?”
“Yes, actually, I would…” Ben reached for the red briefs he’d tossed aside and slid them on, not at all surprised that they were the right size. He could have probably fit into Travis’ pants, too. Interchangeable wardrobes.
Travis stepped forward and took a hold of Ben’s cheeks. Kissed his mouth sweetly. “Are you sure this is what you want?” he asked. “I’m not a great catch. I come with baggage. I come with scars…”
“Yeah, I know all that,” Ben replied, cutting in. “But you’re the one I want. So deal with it.”
Travis paused to take in this information. Sliding a hand up to touch Ben’s jaw, he leaned in to give him another kiss. “Okay,” he whispered, pressing his forehead against Ben’s forehead, green eyes peering into blue. “We’ll give this an honest try. But,” he paused for effect, “I’ll understand if you can’t stick with it.”
Meaning, Ben needed to understand if Travis couldn’t stick with it. Maybe it was an impossible expectation, hoping that Travis could be monogamous, when Mason and Jack flashed money at him and Doug and whomever else waited in the shadows. Everyone wanted a piece of Travis Cooper, and Ben was unsure that Travis could, or would, keep his dick in his pants – even if he tried, even if he honestly wanted to. In the end, best intentions weren’t always enough. Ben would have to decide if he could live with that reality, being separated from the man he loved by a thousand fucking miles.
“Come on, babe,” Travis urged, placing the Resistol hat on his head. “Get some pants on. The afternoon’s flying by.”
Ben got dressed and unplugged his phone from the charger. He took a brief survey of the myriad messages before stuffing it in his back pocket. One text from his supposed-friend, Austin, simply stated, “What’s with the faggot stuff in the paper?” Ben knew there would be countless more messages, just like that one. He wasn’t looking forward to seeing, hearing, or responding to any of them.
After lacing up his hiking boots, he stood in the middle of the room with his hands on his hips, his lower lip pinched between his teeth. One fucking complication after another. One fucking complication after another. That’s how it felt, like a broken record going around and around in his head. He didn’t know what the hell to do about it. Maybe there was nothing he could do about it. Just go with the flow. Hope for the best.
Travis wrapped an arm around his shoulders. Pulled him close, bumping the brim of his straw hat against his temple. “You finally ready?” he asked with a crooked grin.
Ben nodded. Slid Ray-Bans over his eyes and looked at the man from behind the dark lenses. Even if heartache was imminent, he’d continue on. He had to. Travis may have assumed that he wasn’t worth the trouble, but Ben believed otherwise.