Troy Griffiths drained his beer moodily. He wasn't yet ready for the solitary drive home and the never-ending drudge of feeding up and mucking out that awaited his return. Most days, he loved his work, loved the horses and their individual quirks, and even the long hours of physical labor their care entailed was nothing but a joy. But tonight, he'd have given a lot for the freedom to drown his filthy mood in another beer.
Cody Blackwell was an enigma. The first time they'd met, even shaken by the fall as Cody was, Troy had been sure he'd seemed interested. It had taken all Troy's self-control not to ask him out right then. And today, both in the practice ring and in the bar, Troy had felt the same vibe.
But at the same time, there was something else. Cody was frightened, Troy could tell, and as much as Troy wanted to help, he was almost afraid to pry. There were rumors on the circuit, rumors about the training practices in the Blackwell barn, and if Cody was involved in the maltreatment of horses, Troy knew in his heart he couldn't let it slide. No matter how attractive he found the tall, young blond with the scared blue eyes.
He paid his tab, joking mechanically with the guy about the next show, the next bar, and the day's competition, barely listening. He shook the barman's hand, manufacturing a smile, and shouldered his way out of the tent, letting the frown he'd been fighting descend on his rugged features.
He'd watched Cody until he left the tent, shepherded by his overbearing father, and the longer he looked, the more he wanted the shy, lanky blond. "Fuck it all," Troy cursed under his breath, crossing the arena back toward his horses. The last thing he needed was another relationship, especially one with a beautiful, closeted man with suspect training methods.
Troy reminded himself of that as he turned in at the gate of the farm he leased on Copperfield Road, a pretty country highway with good access to the interstate and bordered with gentle hilly terrain. It was perfect horse country, and Troy's horses had never done so well on pasture before in his life. But that wasn't what had brought him here.
He'd come to get away, to try and forget the machinations of Michael Atkins, another beautiful, closeted man. A guy he'd thought loved him until he figured out he was only one in a long line of men across that threshold. Men who were bribed and bought with sweet promises and caressing words, just as Troy had been.
Troy counted himself lucky that he'd wised up to Michael before he'd fallen any further.
Pushing the hurt away, Troy unloaded his horses and got started on the evening chores. There were horses to bring in from the pastures and others that had spent the day in yards or stables that needed putting out to spend the night at grass. There were rugs to change and feeds to mix, water buckets to scrub and fill.
All in all, there was plenty to keep Troy occupied, plenty to keep his mind off the pain he was trying to put behind him. But it wasn't Michael intruding on Troy's thoughts. Instead, he found he couldn't stop thinking of Cody's bright blue eyes, the way his smile lit up his face.
The next move was Cody's. Troy told himself that as he finished in the barn, closing the huge sliding door on the contented whuffles and munching of his charges and walking the short distance to the tumble-down cottage beside the immaculate horse barn.