Mabeline Crassen had tipped all the way to the right on the crazy scale. That much was obvious.
“What?” Eric drawled.
“I said,” Mabe began in a non-nonsense tone, “you, Eric Crassen, are going to clean up your act, stop drinkin’ and smokin’ and carousin’, and get Trix Stubben to marry up with you. And you, Jeremy, are going to seduce that Chris Ramsey.”
Hell must have breezes, because they were wafting over Jeremy right now. His neck prickled with heat even under the protection of his long hair.
“What?” Eric repeated.
Jeremy, however, finally came up with the missing clue that made sense of his mother’s announcement. “This is about the Big Basin Ranch! Fuck, Ma, there’s no way—”
“Don’t use that word in this house!” Ma scolded.
“Fine,” Jeremy gritted out. “Shoot, Ma, there’s no way this will work.”
“Why do I have to stop partyin’?” Eric complained. As usual, he was a mile back in the conversation and in no hurry to catch up.
“And what… what’s all this about Chris Ramsey?” Jeremy huffed as if it was ridiculous, as if his insides hadn’t just turned into jalapeno jelly. Could his mother really mean what she’d said? That he should seduce a man? If so, he needed to find a big sticker that said Irony on it and stick it on his forehead for the day.
Mabe didn’t answer right away, but her expression was downright smug. Whatever this plot of hers was, it wasn’t a flash in the pan. And that made Jeremy very nervous.
“I suppose I might as well spell it out for ya. You know that John Stubben was tragically killed last summer….” Mabe did look sorry about that. The whole community had taken it hard. John was so young and about as promising and upstanding as they come.
That was to say, he’d been nothing at all like the Crassens.
“Well, that leaves his widow, Trixie, and their little girl, Janie, all alone. Now, I have it from a good source that Billy Stubben is plannin’ to leave the Big Basin to Trix and Janie. He thinks that’s what John would have wanted.”
“Makes sense.” Jeremy shrugged. “But that’s Stubben business, not ours.”
“Nonsense! Trixie Stubben will remarry. She’s surely young and pretty enough. So why shouldn’t she marry Eric? No reason on God’s green earth, that’s why!”
Jeremy looked at his older brother, Eric. He could think of a dozen reasons why it would never work. Trix had been three years ahead of Jeremy in school, but from what he knew of her, she was smart and down-to-earth, a hard worker, and responsible. She was a good girl, and from a respected ranching family too. Hell, she’d been homecoming queen. Jeremy loved his brother, but he also knew any woman with a lick of sense would stay far, far away from Eric Crassen.
“Ma, Trix Stubben is way out of Eric’s league,” Jeremy explained patiently. “No offense, Eric.”
Eric sat up from his typical slouch. “Jer’s right, Ma. There’s no way a woman like that’s gonna go for a guy like me. All I’ve got’s my looks, and Trix ain’t like that. Besides, I have a girlfriend already.”
Ma waved her hand dismissively. “All women are like that. Now you listen up, Eric Crassen. You have the looks to charm a snake out of its skin, and it’s about time you used what God gave ya to get somewheres in life. You won’t be so handsome forever! You make out like you’re a changed man. No more booze. No more different girl on your lap ever’ week. And don’t give me none of that bunk about a girlfriend. That Darla, or whatever her name is, won’t last longer than a sneeze, no more’n any of your women have.”
“But, Ma—” Eric tried.
“Shush! You get a job. Hang around town all clean and sober. You do that, ’n’ act sweet to Trix Stubben, and she’ll fall like a rotten tree kicked by a mule.”
Eric pursed his lips doubtfully.
“Luv, I’m not askin’ ya to keep it up forever,” Ma softened her tone and patted Eric’s hand. “Just pretend for a few months. Once you’re married up with Trix, you can go back to normal.”
“Oh, that’s nice.” Jeremy snorted. He could just imagine wholesome Trix Stubben saddled with his rowdy, drunken big brother. His imagination spun a picture: Trix dressed like a prairie woman in a bonnet, standing on the porch of Big Basin with her arm raised dramatically as she looked for her errant husband against the rolling clouds of an incoming storm…. He chuckled.
Eric hit Jeremy on the back of the head and shot him a look.
“We’ll have none of your hoity-toity ways in this matter, Jeremy Monroe Crassen!” Ma said.
Jeremy held up his hands in surrender. “Don’t worry. I’ll stay out of it.” Staying out of it was what he did best. Besides, he didn’t think for a minute that Eric would manage to ensnare Trix Stubben.
“Oh no, you will not stay out of it.” Ma got a wicked gleam in her eye. “We need you to make this work! I’m not the only person with eyes in this town. Old Berk Ramsey already has his son, Chris, sniffin’ around Trix. Well, Trix won’t marry no Ramsey. Not while I have two good-looking sons!”
Jeremy studied his mother’s face, trying to figure out where this was coming from. She was proud and had never taken a lick of charity for them in her life. Now she was after one of the nicest ranches around? It didn’t make sense. There was something she wasn’t saying. Maybe she was just trying to straighten out Eric by giving him some much-needed motivation.
“Now that boy Chris ain’t bad-lookin’, though he can’t hold a candle to Eric,” Ma went on. “But he does have the advantage of a college degree, and the Ramseys own the Merc. So we need to get Chris out of the runnin’. Fortunately—” She paused for dramatic effect. “—I do believe Chris is queerer than a three dollar bill. And you, Jeremy, are gonna prove it. You’re gonna seduce that man and show everyone in town what butters his bread.”
“What?” Jeremy bolted up from his chair, nearly knocking their kitchen table sideways. “That’s… that’s insane!”
“Oh no, it ain’t,” Ma said with great poise. She picked up her coffee mug and sipped at it delicately.
“Boy, I thought I had it bad!” Eric snorted with laughter. “I’m glad I’m not you!”
Jeremy gave him a brotherly kick to the side of his chair. “First off, Ma, what makes you think Chris Ramsey is gay? You just said he’s dating Trix.”
Ma made an “oh pooh” face. “Everyone knows gays can and do marry up. Remember how Gibbon Adams dressed like a cowboy Liberace? They say he even had sequins on his nightshirt. His missus still managed to have six young’uns. It’s like they say: It’s all the same in the dark.”
“Oh my God,” Jeremy moaned, rubbing the heels of his hands into his eyes. He couldn’t believe his mother actually had a philosophy about gay men. One that involved sex and… darkness… and sequins. He felt dirty.
“Anyhow, that Chris has always been tidier than any girl I ever saw,” Ma continued with enthusiasm. “His teeth are so white, they’d like to blind you. That ain’t natural.”
“Ma, being fussy about his looks doesn’t make Chris gay,” Jeremy said with exasperation. “But even if he was, there’s no way in hell I could seduce Chris Ramsey.”
She sat forward eagerly. “Sure you can! You ain’t as good-lookin’ as Eric, but when you get that damned hair outta your eyes, you’re pretty enough.” There was a hint of amusement in her eyes as she looked at Jeremy. What that was about, Jeremy had no clue. She was definitely up to something. And it wasn’t about Big Basin Ranch either.
“Ma,” Eric said quietly. “Jeremy’s too shy, ’n’ you know it.”
She made a pfft noise. “Jer, you’ve got all the brains between ya.” She gestured between Jeremy and Eric. “I know you can do if it you set your mind to it. Just pretend you’re a—whaddya call it?—character in one of them stories you’re always scribblin’. Put on an act. Keep your hair back and let him see your sweet smile, and you won’t have no trouble a’tall.”
Jeremy tucked his long bangs behind his ears self-consciously, though what he really wanted to do was hide even further behind them. He exchanged a look with Eric. God almighty, bro, how do we get out of this one?
She gave them a determined look over the table. “Now listen up. We’re gonna to do this together, as a family, and we’re gonna succeed. Eric, you’ll never amount to much, so you gotta settle down with a hard-workin’ woman who can take care of ya. And I can’t keep cleanin’ houses and washin’ clothes forever. You know our nest don’t have a single egg in it. As for you, Jeremy, ya wanna go off to college, doncha? You help your brother marry up with Trix Stubben, and you won’t ever have to worry about supportin’ us again.”
She smiled at him then, as if knowing she’d won. And goddamn it, but she had his number, all ten ever-loving digits of it. Jeremy felt something inside himself bend, at least a little.
He didn’t say he’d do it, not even to himself. But maybe, just maybe, he could at least take a closer look at Chris Ramsey.
Jeremy had to get out of the house after hearing his ma’s crazy plan, so he went to Nora’s early. He sat in his favorite booth, the half one in the back where employees hung out when they had the time.
Nora brought him coffee and a piece of blueberry pie. “You’re here early, hot stuff,” she commented, raising one questioning eyebrow at him.
“Ma,” Jeremy said, which was enough explanation for Nora.
“You wanna talk about it?”
Nora smiled. “All right, sugar plum. I’m here if ya change your mind.”
She went back to waiting tables, which she did pretty much by herself until Francie came in at three o’clock, when school let out.
Nora was Jeremy’s favorite thing about working at the diner. He was damned lucky she’d given him a chance. Being the third Crassen male to come along in this town, Jeremy had been written off before he’d even gotten started.
The meat-packing plant, for instance. It was the biggest employer in the area that didn’t require a college degree. But after his father, and then Eric, had bailed on them previously, they took one look at Jeremy’s name and told him “thanks but no thanks.”
Not that Jeremy was dying to work at the meat-packing plant. The idea disgusted him, actually, and he was sure he’d hate it just as much as his father and brother had. But it was the best-paying job in town, and he needed to earn as much money as possible if he was gonna help Ma with bills and save up for college too.
Instead, Nora had taken him on. He’d worked as a bus boy and dishwasher during high school and even a waiter on occasion. When she’d found out about the meat-packing plant rejection, she’d asked him if he wanted to train as a short order cook. Eduardo was getting up in years and didn’t like working long shifts anymore. So Jeremy had let Eduardo train him, and now Eduardo did the morning shift and Jeremy ran the kitchen from one to closing at eight.
It wasn’t like Jeremy had a dream of being a chef, or any particular talent for it. But the diner’s meals were nothing fancy and the place was busy enough to keep him on his toes most days. And when it wasn’t too crazy, he could think up plots and scenes and characters while flipping burgers. He liked that.
But as he savored Nora’s amazing blueberry pie, he wasn’t thinking about his stories. He was thinking about his mother and Chris Ramsey.
He was thinking about the fact that he, Jeremy, was gay, even though not a single person in Clyde’s Corner knew it. It had to be purely coincidence that his mother had come up with this idea. Right? She didn’t suspect. No one suspected.
But then, no one gave Jeremy Crassen much thought at all.
Could he do it? Could he seduce Chris Ramsey?
It was a stupid idea. Jeremy was a virgin, for God’s sake. He didn’t know any other gay guys in town—well, who weren’t already hooked up, like Joshua and Ben. And he hadn’t dared enough or been desperate enough to go through with an online hook-up. Also, he was the keep-to-himself type. Also, he was a low-paid short order cook and a Crassen—why would anyone be interested? And also again, Chris Ramsey might not even be gay. As if his mother would know.
Chris had been in Trixie and John’s class. They’d been seniors when Jeremy was a freshman at Clyde’s Corner High School. Jeremy remembered Chris being very cute, with dark hair and a slender build, always classy and well-dressed, and popular too. He might as well have been a god compared to Jeremy, who was a loner at that age. Hell, at any age. He hadn’t even had his big brother around for company then, since Eric had graduated the year before Jeremy started high school.
As Jeremy recalled, Chris had been friends with John Stubben. John and Trix were a golden couple, part of the “cow crowd”—the rancher’s kids. Chris’s dad, though, wasn’t a rancher. No, Berk Ramsey owned the biggest store in town, the Merc. Which meant the Ramseys were wealthy.
Jeremy had never gotten any gay vibes off Chris, but then, it wasn’t like they’d ever talked to each other. Or that Chris knew Jeremy existed.
Pretend you’re a character in one of them stories you’re always scribbling.
Could he? If Jeremy could be anyone, he’d be Gary Prince, a gorgeous, gregarious blond from his first novel, a novel which was now feeding termites in the bottom drawer of his desk. Gary had been based on Ben Rivers. He was a cowboy, all man, confident, and dashing. Gary Prince was hot.
He pictured Gary Prince, in boots and a Stetson, strolling into the Mercantile with a thousand-watt smile and grabbing Chris around the neck. They’d sort of shuffle-walk a few steps, like in Brokeback Mountain. Then Gary would kiss Chris so hard, he was bent back right over the register line.
Jeremy touched his own lips. What would it feel like to kiss a man? His only experience had been making out with Mary Lou Hengler at a senior year party. He’d closed his eyes and pretended it was a boy, but her lipstick tasted nasty and her breasts refused to respect his personal boundaries.
Nora came up to refill his cup, and Jeremy gave her a Gary Prince smile.
“Thank you, darlin’. You’re lookin’ mighty pretty today!”
Nora looked at him like he’d gone crazy. “What are you smokin’? Never mind. Whatever it is, I like it.”
“Just high on your nat-tur-rull beauty.”
Nora’s eyes widened comically. “That so? Well, this new purple smock is fetchin’, if I do say so myself. You still got an hour before your shift. You wanna have lunch? Then you can complement me some more.”
“No. I was thinkin’ about takin’ a walk down to the Merc.”
“Oh, yeah? You need to pick somethin’ up?”
“Not yet. Just testin’ the waters,” Jeremy said seriously. He smoothed his long bangs with his fingers and tucked them behind his ears. He rubbed his face for errant pie crust crumbs and looked up at Nora questioningly. “Good?”
Nora took his chin lightly in her fingers, and her eyes grew fond. “Sugar plum, you’re pretty as a picture. Don’t I always say so? Who’s the lucky girl—at long last?”
Gary Prince winked at Nora and slid out of the booth without answering. Behind the facade, Jeremy Crassen was shaking in his boots.