Joshua Braintree stared at the laptop screen with a mix of shock, arousal, and stone-cold pissed. It was an emotional brew that might have been at home on, say, a badger that’d been lured by female badger scent only to find himself locked in a trap.
Joshua shut the lid of his laptop. Opened it. Shut it. Opened it. He punched the drawer of his desk, which did nothing for his hand, and not a hell of a lot for the drawer neither.
There, on the screen, was a video trailer featuring Ben For-God’s-Sake Rivers, his best friend’s little brother, naked, and doing things with a blond god who was hung to put some of Joshua’s bulls to shame. Damn if Joshua’s eyeballs didn’t wanna just plop right out onto the keyboard and maybe crawl around screaming for a bit, though what exactly they’d be screaming he couldn’t rightly say. It was a toss-up between Gimme more! and I need to kill somethin’! and Joshua Ellen Braintree, you goddamn blasted idiot of a fool!
He closed it.
His walkie-talkie buzzed, causing Joshua to jump off the seat of his chair a good inch, scramble to close the already closed laptop, and check in a panic for audio sound coming from the video, even though he’d turned the audio off ten minutes ago and the video wasn’t running anyhow.
Smoothing down his hair in an effort to calm himself, Joshua picked up the walkie-talkie.
“Yup,” he answered, sounding two octaves lower than usual.
“Boss, ’s that you?” It was Charlie.
“Oh, okay. Listen, the kids have started showin’ up, so… ya comin’?”
“Ain’t Nora here?” Joshua grumbled, shirking his job for probably the first time in ten years.
“Well, yessir, she’s here, all right. Ya want I should tell her ya ain’t comin’? ’Cause that Samuels girl is pitchin’ a fit again, ’n’ the Reston boys are tryin’ to climb the fence ’n’—”
The fever that had taken over Joshua’s brain thanks to that damn video now faded to a dull, warmish ache. Charlie’s words pulled him back down to the real and the now and life as it was known on Muddy River Ranch. Joshua pushed a shaky hand through his long, straight-as-sin mess of hair. He grunted into the walkie-talkie, in an assenting sort of way, went to the door of his office to leave, came back, unplugged the damn laptop, and headed out to the stables.
It was mid-October, and the aspens around the stables were covered in leaves that twinkled and shone like gold coins in the sun. The sky was the deep blue that was just about Joshua’s favorite color in the whole wide world. But even the perfect fall day didn’t make him feel any better, ’specially not when the Reston twins were seeing who could bust a leg first by jumping off the corral fence. Nora was busy comforting Lily Samuels, who stood by the corral gently wailing. And Charlie was leading a couple of saddled horses out of the stables, probably in a bid to give Billy and Bobby something to do other than risk their dang fool necks.
Joshua stopped for a second, taking it in—the day, the ranch, the Montana mountains rising in the distance, and the downright miserable start to his Saturday riding class. The thought that hit him hard was Ben should be here. He’d have the Reston boys gigglin’ and followin’ him around like puppies in two seconds flat.
Which was a strange thought to have, because Ben had worked the riding class with Joshua for only a few months before he got “too busy,” and that was over two years ago. But Joshua felt Ben’s absence real hard all the same.
And then he realized that Ben never would be here like that, not ever again.
So he wasn’t in the best frame of mind as he strode up to Billy and Bobby, leaped over the corral fence, and grabbed each one of them with an arm around the waist. Joshua marched toward Charlie and the horses, his arms full of wriggling ten-year-old boys.
“Hey, Joshua!” Billy said cheerfully, going as pliant as an old hound under a belly rub.
“I’m gonna tell!” Bobby screamed, though what he’d tell wasn’t real clear. He struggled against Joshua’s iron-hard arm.
Joshua grunted and, reaching the horses, shoved Billy at Charlie and swung Bobby up onto the saddle himself. Bobby looked down, his mouth opened to complain some. Then he blinked at the expression on Joshua’s face.
“Okay,” Bobby said, suddenly meek as a lamb. “But can I please ride by myself? I ain’t no baby.”
Joshua’s gaze flickered down to the horse, Trisket. She was old and gentle and the look in her eyes told Joshua she wasn’t feeling anything but supremely lazy today. It was Bobby’s second lesson, and they’d already done the leading-him-around-the-arena thing.
Joshua took Bobby’s hand and placed it on the pommel, gripping it hard. “Hang on,” Joshua instructed. “And keep them reins slack. Just let ’er walk.”
“Yessir,” Bobby said politely.
Joshua let them go. Trisket placidly walked the perimeter of the arena, and Bobby didn’t pull on the reins. Joshua’s gaze fell back to Charlie, who was holding on to Dusty. Billy was seated in Dusty’s saddle.
“What’s the matter, Boss? Ya sick?” Charlie asked.
“’Cause ya look a bit peaked. Yer mouth is all set in a line so ya cain’t hardly see yer lips a’tall. And yer sort of flushed like, on yer throat, and ya have these lines—”
“Charlie, I ain’t no heifer, and you ain’t doin’ no health check.” Joshua growled. “Take Billy round once, then let ’im go alone if he wants.”
Charlie grumbled in his cantankerous way. “Sure thing, Boss. Take care ya don’t get stung, what with that bee in yer bonnet.” He started leading Billy around the ring.
Joshua took a deep breath and turned to Nora and Lily. Nora had her hands on Lily’s shoulders now, Lily had stopped crying, and they were both looking at Joshua a bit warily, like they didn’t think he’d bite, but they weren’t entirely sure.
Joshua forced a smile and went over to them. He vaulted back over the corral fence.
“Mornin’, Sunshine,” Nora said sarcastically, looking at him with one eyebrow lifted in a question.
Joshua grunted a nonreply and squatted down on his haunches next to Lily.
“Ready?” Joshua asked the little girl.
She shook her blonde head, her big brown eyes dead serious. She reached out and snagged a fistful of Joshua’s shoulder-length brown hair. Joshua sighed inwardly. She was seven but looked a year younger. She was a fragile thing, and her folks had hoped the riding would be a confidence builder. But last week, at her first session, they hadn’t managed to actually get her on a horse.
“Let’s go find a friend,” Joshua said, carefully tugging Lily’s hand free from his hair—ouch—and then holding those harsh little digits to lead her inside the stables.
Nora followed. “Can we find a friend for you too?” she quipped enthusiastically. “’Cause you sure look like you could use one.” Joshua ignored her.
Joshua had known Nora since they were kids. She’d been a few years ahead of him and Chet in school, and then she’d gone off for four years to college. She came back and bought the town diner with some windfall or another. It kept her busy, but she still came to help with the kids every Saturday morning. When the days were long, she’d sometimes stop by for a trail ride after the diner closed. She said horses were one of the reasons she’d moved back to Clyde’s Corner, and she wasn’t gonna let her business keep her from enjoying them. She was large, blunt, and gregarious, and Joshua loved her to pieces. But sometimes she was a mite too smart and a load too honest.
“How ’bout this horse, honey?” Nora said, going over to the first stall. “This is Jasmine. She’s a real sweetie, just like you.”
Jasmine was an old Shetland. Her owner had wanted to get rid of her, and Joshua took her for just this reason, as the gentlest possible creature for timid new riders, but also because he had a hard time turning down any horse that was about to be put down.
Letting go of Joshua’s hand, Lily passed Nora and Jasmine without a second glance. She went directly to the third stall where a large white horse poked out his nose.
Nora gave Joshua a rueful look. “Women. They always like ’em big.”
Joshua snorted a laugh despite himself.
He went over to Lily. Valmont was one of his rehabilitation horses. Not only was he big, but he could be violent, and Joshua hadn’t worked it out of him yet.
“This is Valmont,” he told Lily. “He’s too big for you. Horses and riders need to sorta fit one other, like clothes. Jasmine’d fit you just right.”
Lily dug into Joshua’s leg with both hands. Her little fingers were surprisingly painful, like cat’s claws. She looked up at Valmont with big eyes.
“He don’ like me,” she said shakily, clearly meaning the horse.
Joshua blinked and frowned. “Uh—”
“I can’t ride him ’cause he don’ want me to.”
Valmont leaned his head down and sniffed at the strange little blonde thing curiously.
“Let’s go pet Jasmine,” Joshua tried, feeling a bit desperate. But Lily just clung to him and to that spot, like she was rooted deep in the ground somewhere, like maybe she was part oak tree.
“No! I wanna ride Valfront, but he don’ like me.”
Joshua looked at Nora helplessly. Outside, there was the slam of car doors as more parents dropped off their kids.
Good Lord, he just couldn’t handle this today, not today, when he barely had a grip on himself as it was.
It was kind of like that badger—the further he got from that video he’d just seen, the less the aroused part of his brain was fired up, and the more room he could devote to being just plain mad as hell. Despite the distractions of the horses and the kids, he felt it creeping up inside him like rising floodwater.
He was mad at the company that made those videos, for luring in gorgeous young boys. He was a mad at Ben for putting all his bits out there without, apparently, giving it a whole lotta thought. He was sure as hell mad at Henry Atkins, who’d leaked the news about the porn all over town like the low-belly snake in the grass that he was. But mostly, Joshua Braintree was spitting mad at himself.
He was mad at himself for waiting too damn long, for getting caught up in the ranch and not tending to a certain business that he should have been attending to. He was mad at himself for letting time slip by like a wolf in the night and steal a prize right out from under his nose while he was no way, no how paying attention. Instead, he’d been off doing numbers and working like a dog to get his horse business running after he took over his daddy’s ranch. He’d thought he had time. He’d thought Ben was still a boy.
Well, the video had cleared up that notion good and proper.
And Joshua was mad, too, for letting down Chet, his best friend, who was in Afghanistan doing a man’s work, and who should have been able to count on Joshua to keep his father and his little brother taken care of in the ways that mattered. And Joshua had fallen down big-time on that one.
Nora must have seen some of that in his face, because she gently pried Lily off his leg and gave him a worried smile.
“I swear, whatever’s eatin’ you sure has one hell of an appetite. I’ll take the little Missy Miss here. You go on and get the Carter kids goin’. They should be easy.”
Joshua grunted. He took a deep breath and turned to lead out two more horses that Charlie, bless him, had already saddled.
By some miracle, Joshua survived the morning class without either killing anyone or sticking a label marked “bona fide asshole” on his forehead. He spent the afternoon with the horses. He had three horses he was rehabilitating at the moment. They needed daily interaction to get used to him and used to the way things were gonna be. And they needed him to be calm and confident. Knowing that helped Joshua push down his own frustrations, for a few hours at least. And it always eased his mind to work with animals. They were so much simpler than people. They sure as heck didn’t do things like run off to Vegas to make porn.
But by the time the day was done and the sun was fading over the horizon, it dragged Joshua’s hard-won calm down with it like it was a daytime critter that hibernated in the dark.
So when Joshua was finally all alone in his house, and it was dark, he closed up the curtains in his office real tight, locked his office door, even though he lived alone, and dug up some earplugs he hadn’t used in two years. He went back to that Web site, Boys 2 Boys, and this time, instead of watching a preview, he gave them his credit card number, selecting a “one month only” plan. Then he watched every single video that Ben Rivers, aka “Caleb,” had ever made, starting with the first one two years ago.
Every one of them broke his heart a little more as he saw the changes in Ben, witnessed Ben’s first time with a guy caught on camera, his first kiss, first blowjob, first top, even his first bottom. He watched Ben’s expression as he took a man inside him for the first time (being Ben, he looked determined and sort of fascinated by a new challenge). He watched Ben grow in confidence, get fitter and tanner, become a star. And all of it was caught forever in Technicolor.
Those moments, those intimate moments, those firsts, were supposed to be Joshua’s, and they’d been stolen as surely as if cattle thieves had raided his pastures. That made him so angry and upset his teeth ached.
The videos also made him hard enough to drive fence posts.
He cried a little that night, a few old painful, rusty tears. And he came. Three times.