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Earth and Sky [MultiFormat]
eBook by Zahra Owens

eBook Category: Erotica/Gay-Lesbian Erotica/Romance
eBook Description: Hunter Krause knows better than anyone that running a ranch is hard work. Wranglers are hard to find, and even with Hunter's foreman and entire extended family on hand, the busy ranch is constantly short-handed. So when horses go missing, Hunter's brother-in-law hires a man Hunter would never have considered: Grant Jarreau, a man Hunter can't forgive for leaving Hunter's best friend Gable after an incapacitating accident. Grant quickly fits in, befriending Hunter's sister and making himself invaluable. Despite Hunter's misgivings, he can't quite control his body's reactions to Grant, and he isn't sure what to do about it. Then Grant saves Hunter's young nephew from drowning and one thankful kiss opens doors Hunter never knew existed. While Hunter and Grant tentatively move toward a relationship, the family's in an uproar, the ranch is struggling, they can't figure out what happened to the horses, and to top it all off, Grant is hiding something. Can Hunter learn to trust Grant, or will the turmoil already tearing up his family claim another victim?

eBook Publisher: Dreamspinner Press/Dreamspinner Press, Published: 2011, 2011
Fictionwise Release Date: July 2011

16 Reader Ratings:
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Chapter One

"I'm telling you, we're missing horses," Hugh told his boss. "Not a lot, but last week I had Tim count again because we were one short, and this week we lost another one."

Hugh and Hunter were riding fences. On a large ranch like Hunter's, this was a job that took most of the day, especially when they needed to dismount from time to time to check something out or to make small repairs. Usually this job was done by two of the workmen, but because of Hugh's concerns, the foreman had invited his boss to ride with him on this crisp spring morning.

Both men were tall and muscled and had practically been born in the saddle. Hugh was the oldest son of a ranch foreman who had worked for Hunter's father and, later, for Hunter. Now that his dad had retired, Hugh was Hunter's foreman. He had a younger brother Tim working with him, and a middle brother Jack, who specialized in horse dentistry. They lived and breathed horses.

Hunter had been born into the ranch as well. His father had been a rancher who had bought up most of the surrounding ranches during a recession--including the one Hugh's father had owned--and who had done rather well for himself until his untimely death. Hunter had only been fourteen at the time, and if it hadn't been for Hugh's father, he wouldn't have kept the ranch afloat. Now Hugh was married to Hunter's older sister, Lisa, so he was practically family. Hunter was an even better businessman than his father, with more horses than ever being born inside the large perimeter of the Blue River Ranch and sold at auction or to other ranches all over the US. He worked hard and enjoyed getting his hands dirty in between all the paperwork and negotiating his job required.

Despite Hunter's concern over the missing horses, a day like today, when he could spend it on horseback, was a treat. Sometimes he wished he could just work the ranch and not have to deal with everything else that came with running a successful business. Today felt like a holiday, something that was rare in Hunter's world. He couldn't remember the last time he'd been away from the ranch for anything other than a rancher's convention or an out-of-town auction. Then again, he really didn't mind. Even on those occasions when he needed to travel, he always felt homesick from the moment he crossed the county line. This was his land, and if he had anything to say about it, he would be buried on it, just like his father. He hoped it would be after a long and full life--not like his dad, who'd been cut down in his prime--but nevertheless, he did not see himself ever moving away from it.

"So are you saying someone is stealing our horses, or are you thinking we have a predator on our hands?" Hunter asked his foreman after a long silence. He had his own idea about the matter, but Hugh didn't spend all his time with his nose in paperwork, so Hunter valued his opinion.

"I'm thinking cougar or mountain lion, possibly with cubs and definitely hungry," Hugh answered calmly. "Only thing we haven't found so far is a carcass. Which would point to a horse thief, but then, if I were him, I'd steal horses that were already trained, not one-year-old colts."

Hunter sighed. They didn't need this. They'd only moved the horses to the higher meadows two weeks ago so they'd get the fresh grass that had been growing all winter. Among them were pregnant mares that would foal later in the year. For now, they were still quick enough to get away from any predator, but if Hugh was right, they wouldn't get the good grass they needed to nourish their offspring in the later stages of pregnancy because they'd have to be moved closer to the house, where predators were less likely to strike. Hunter didn't like this one bit. Then again, he hated losing horses, and not just because it meant less income.

Hunter was still deep in thought when he saw Hugh direct his horse toward a natural incline, where he jumped off.

"I think we've got an inquisitive mountain lion on our hands," Hugh said gruffly. "Let's hope she's just here to feed her babies until her usual prey recuperate from the harsh winter, because if she's been forced out of her habitat for some reason, we're in trouble."

"Are you sure?" Hunter asked from atop his horse.

Hugh was crouching down near a muddy patch on the small hill. "Oh yes, a puma's been standing here, surveying her surroundings. Unless we find the carcass of a horse nearby, we can't be sure she killed as well, but she's definitely been here since the rain, which means within the last two days."

Hunter unconsciously felt for the rifle in his saddlebag. The last thing he wanted was for mama puma to come out of hiding and make a tasty treat out of his foreman. Although mountain lions were notoriously wary of people, this one seemed to be more brazen than most, and it was hard to tell what a desperate puma would do for food.

"Did Tim say which horses we lost?" Hunter asked.

Hugh got up from his crouching position and nodded. "We're not sure about this week's, but last week was a late foal from October."

"Damn!" Hunter cursed. He'd have to make a decision soon. He couldn't afford to lose new foals. They were the ranch's source of income, and every one they lost would show up in the books. He had no choice. They'd have to move the herd away from the outer fields again.

"Do we have enough wranglers to move the herd back down?" Hunter wondered aloud.

Hugh climbed back in the saddle. "In a word, no. We got one drifter walking in after we put out the feelers, and I put him to work in the stables. He's not a bad worker, but I doubt he's much of a wrangler. Haven't seen him ride a horse yet, although according to Tim, he's okay handling them. I suppose if we really needed him, we could give him a try, but that still leaves us two hands short. If you ask me, I'd move the herd in smaller groups, like we did to bring them up here. That way we should be able to handle them. Don't suppose Gable's made a miraculous recovery? We could use his help."

Hunter sighed. "With the state of his leg after that injury he sustained last year, if anything, Gable will need our help from now on. Although, I think he found himself a ranch hand." Hunter wanted to ask Hugh how his neighbor, running his ranch single-handedly and in dire straits, had found capable help when they could afford to hire staff but couldn't find any. He didn't, though. Gable had a hard enough time staying afloat, so Hunter didn't begrudge him finding someone to lend a hand.

They trotted along, talking about the goings-on at the ranch while keeping their eyes peeled for anything unusual along the way. It had started to drizzle, and Hunter pulled the collar on his oilskin duster tighter, closing the zipper some more in an attempt to stay dry. He knew it would be futile, but he did it anyway. After a while, both men needed to dismount when they noticed a breach in a stretch of barbed wire. It was easily mended with an extra length and a pair of wire cutters, but Hugh pointed at the flattened high grass beyond the fence. They tied up their horses, and Hunter took out his rifle again before crossing the fence. They took their time, looking at the tracks in the mud and the broken-off bushes here and there, but found no evidence of the missing horses.

The rain started to pick up, so the men packed up to return to the homestead. From where they'd left their horses, they could see the mares with last year's young, grazing. With a hungry predator around, Hunter knew they couldn't leave them there for much longer.

* * * *

"You mean there's a puma eating our horses?" Danny asked eagerly as he scarfed down the mashed potatoes, peas, and roast beef they were having for dinner.

"Do we have to talk about this over dinner?" Lisa, his mother, admonished.

"He's going to find out anyway, Lise," Hunter told his sister. "It's nature's way. The sooner he finds out about it, the better." He turned to the nine-year-old. "You can help move the herd on Saturday, bring them to safety."

"And that's the last I want to hear about it over the dinner table," Lisa cautioned. "We don't eat horse meat, and we don't talk about anything else eating it at this table."

Danny chuckled but stopped as soon as he saw his grandmother, who was clearly of the same opinion as his mother, giving him a stern look.

Even Hunter's face turned serious. Although he loved his mother dearly, she was a woman you didn't trifle with.

"So you're moving the herd back down?" Beth Krause asked her son.

"Yes, ma'am," Hunter answered. "We can't afford to lose more colts to that puma or anything else that feels we've got plenty, and although it's really great grass on those high pastures, we can't keep round-the-clock surveillance to prevent them from becoming a moveable feast for predators. We barely have enough manpower to bring them down again."

"Well, you're not taking Danny if there's a big cat on the loose up there," Lisa added.

"Mom!" Danny protested.

"Come on, sis," Hunter pleaded. "He's big enough to ride more than a pony now, so if anything happens, he can get away. He's been riding Belle down here on the grounds, and you know how beautifully she handles. She's one we got from Gable, so she can be trusted, even carrying a shrimp like Danny." He ruffled Danny's dark, curly hair and winked at him to make his words sound less harsh. "You know we're shorthanded, and he can work the fences. There'll always be someone around to help out, and Hugh and I will take good care of him. Right, Hugh?"

Hunter looked at Hugh across the table. The foreman had been quiet until now, like he always was around his wife and mother-in-law. There wasn't much point in protesting if you couldn't win, so he simply shrugged.

"We'll see," Lisa compromised, silently asking for Hunter's plate to give him seconds.

* * * *

Saturday morning started off early with saddling the horses at dawn. The drizzle that had kept everything pretty much wet for the last few days had ceased, and the sun looked bright as it crept over the horizon.

"Great day to move some horses," Hunter said aloud as he entered the row of stables toward the one that held Davenport, a temperamental gelding that had lost none of his spunk after being neutered. Hunter loved to ride him. It was a battle of wills, and Hugh always shook his head and laughed when he saw what Hunter put up with when it came to that horse.

"He's almost ready," an unfamiliar voice said from behind the brown steed.

Hunter patted Davenport's neck as he rounded him. "And who are... Grant? What are you doing here?"

The tall and strikingly handsome cowboy turned toward Hunter. "Hugh hired me last night. I heard you were a few hands short, and I was in the neighborhood, so I figured I could help out."

"Hugh hired you?"

Hunter didn't wait for an answer. Instead, he paced determinedly in the direction of where he thought Hugh would be: saddling his own horse.

"What the fuck made you hire Grant Jarreau?" Hunter shouted, not bothering to check whether there was anyone else present in the stable.

Hugh, always calm and collected, put his horse's foot down and straightened his back. "We've been looking for help for over a year, and all we found was a halfway decent stable boy. Grant arrived here last night looking for a job, so I hired him."

"And how long is he staying for?" Hunter asked, trying to keep his anger from boiling over.

Hugh shrugged. "Like any other horse wrangler. Until he's found someplace better to work, which around here isn't likely to happen. So I guess until he's ready to move on."

"He'll leave in the dead of night, like after Gable's accident. For all we know, he caused it and left Gable for dead. I don't trust him to cover my back, Hugh."

Hugh calmly looked at Hunter. "All I know is that he's a damn fine wrangler and not too proud to get his hands dirty. He's like us, Hunter. He's welded to his horse, knows their language, and can get them to do just about anything. And on top of that, he doesn't mind mucking out stables or saddling horses for other riders. If he leaves, he leaves. In the meantime, we have had a good worker to carry part of the load. If he doesn't come around on Friday evening for his paycheck, I'll have a drink on him." A shy smile played around Hugh's mouth. "Besides, even Davenport doesn't dare to give him attitude. That was his test. I let him groom your horse last night, and the big shit didn't even flinch. I figured if Grant was good enough for the prince, he would be good enough for you."

Hunter eyed Hugh suspiciously and then conceded. "Fine! But I don't need to like him. He's trouble and he'll prove me right one day. I can't forget what he did to Gable and therefore to us. We had fifty extra horses to take care of because of him."

"Yeah, yeah," Hugh replied with a smile. "You never mind helping Gable out, so it wasn't such a big burden, right?"

Hunter narrowed his eyes at Hugh and then paced out of the stable without saying another word. He slowed his pace as soon as he came near his own horse. Grant was standing with his back toward him, bent over and apparently checking something on Davenport's hoof. Hunter's eyes traveled from the long, narrow back to where a red plaid shirt was tucked into a pair of fitted, slightly worn jeans that showed off a nicely curved ass, and Hunter felt all his blood rush south. He closed his eyes and swerved into the stable to prevent himself from bumping into Grant.

He couldn't do this, couldn't have these feelings. Not right now, and certainly not about Grant. He took a few cleansing breaths and willed himself to calm down. The thoughts would go away. They always did. He'd go out on the town tonight and get laid. He was popular enough and always got plenty of attention, so even if all else failed, he could count on Miranda forgetting he had turned her down so many times before, and she'd sleep with him. Take the edge off. She was good at that.

One more deep breath and Hunter was ready to step outside. He didn't look at Grant this time, although he was aware that Grant had stepped away from the horse. Instead, he took Davenport's reins and mounted him, turning the nervous horse around once. "Grant, you can ride Raven. You should remember him, since I bought him from Gable. I'll meet you, Danny, and Hugh at the first gate." And with that, he sped off.

Now that Hunter was concentrating on keeping his eager gelding in check, he slowly calmed down. This he could do. He could work hard all day, spend time in the open air, move some horses, stay alert to any trouble that was brewing in the herd, and do all this with men who were practically family to him. It would all run smoothly, even with Grant there. Hunter knew Hugh was right. Grant was a good worker and he knew what he was doing. Hunter would set his objections aside and work with him like he worked with all the other wranglers. It didn't matter that he suspected Grant was gay. The other guys didn't know, and Grant had always been discreet, so it wouldn't make a difference.

Hunter shook his head and focused on watching where he was going. Davenport wasn't always to be trusted when he was this eager to run, and Hunter had been thrown off more than once when his horse had decided to jump a fence or a hedge. He pulled the reins and made the gelding stop just before the first gate. He turned the horse around and saw the others trot leisurely over toward him: Hugh and his brother Tim, with little Danny in between them and Grant beside them on the dark horse Hunter had told him to ride. Even from this distance he could see how well Grant sat in the saddle. He almost had a regal seat, aided not only by his clear confidence but also by his tall physique, long, lean back, and broad shoulders. Hunter turned his horse around to force himself to stop looking at the new wrangler. Instead, he opened the gate and entered the lower range.

The mustering went smoothly, with the four experienced riders rounding up the horses and little Danny opening and closing gates. Danny was also putting in some extra effort, running behind the occasional spooked foal and unruly young horse, just so he could prove he was worth his keep. The mare he was riding did a good job protecting her young jockey, which wasn't something that surprised Hunter, since that was the reason he'd bought her off Gable two years earlier. Hunter's father had bought Hunter his first full-grown horse for his seventh birthday, so when Danny, Hunter's godson, turned that age, Hunter had to buy him one too. Although at the time the horse had been a bit big for the seven-year-old, now that Danny was older, Belle proved an excellent choice for the young rider.

After the work was done and Hunter was assured that the herd was safe in the lower fields, the men dismounted and started rubbing down their horses. Although the ranch employed stable boys who were quite capable of grooming the horses and unsaddling them, the general rule was that if they had the time, every wrangler took care of his own mount.

With Hugh and Tim helping out Danny, Hunter was left on the other side of the stable block with Grant. Hunter brushed by Grant as he took Davenport's saddle off.

"So does this mean I can stay?" Grant asked, smiling.

Hunter looked at him briefly, then walked on. When he returned, Grant was still waiting for an answer.

"You're a good wrangler," Hunter answered flatly. "And we're shorthanded, so I'm not about to throw you out, but just realize that I don't trust you. I won't forget what you did to Gable." With that, Hunter turned around and started brushing down Davenport.

Grant moved into his field of vision. "You don't know the full story."

Hunter sighed and avoided looking Grant in the eye. "All I know is that the day he got hurt, you disappeared. If there had been anything missing from Gable's house, the sheriff would have put you on the wanted list, but there wasn't. The rumors were there, though." Hunter didn't elaborate and Grant didn't offer an explanation.

After what seemed like a long time, during which both men silently worked on their horses, Grant spoke again. "I wouldn't trust rumors. Have you ever bothered asking Gable?"

Hunter didn't give an answer, and Grant didn't wait around for one. The tone had been set.

* * * *

Chapter Two

Sunday morning Hunter woke up, hungover, at the crack of dawn.

The night before, after the roundup, they'd gone into town for a few beers, and Hunter was glad Grant hadn't joined them. He had wanted to relax, and frankly, that was easier with just the usual suspects around. Their regular haunt, a bar called The Barrel Run, had been pretty crowded, and the beer had flowed freely. Jack, Hugh's middle brother, was playing with his band that night, which usually meant that Hunter's always even-tempered foreman would let his proverbial hair down and join his brother on stage for a few songs.

The band had just announced a break when Miranda joined Hunter at his table. Her mass of strawberry blonde hair had hung loosely over her shoulders, and she had been wearing a carefully fitted embroidered blouse over low-cut skinny jeans. "You should come here more often, Hunter," she'd purred, resting her hand possessively on Hunter's thigh.

Hunter didn't mind the attention. Miranda worked in the local elementary school and had been Danny's teacher for the last two years. She was probably the closest thing he'd ever had to a girlfriend, although they didn't really seek out each other's company that often. In fact, they only seemed to bump into one another at the bar, which was pretty much the only time Hunter came into town. Although the clothes she wore at the bar were a lot sexier than the chaste blouses and skirts she wore to school, Miranda never showed too much skin. It was as if she was always holding back, always aware that the people in town trusted her to educate their young children.

There was nothing hesitant about the way she flirted with Hunter, though. Luckily, she never pushed him when he said no, which he had done on more than one occasion. Otherwise Hunter would have wondered if she was after his money, but she never seemed to want more than his attention.

After the band had played their second set and they'd shared a few drinks, Hunter--as usual--had been invited to her house for a nightcap. They always ended up in bed together when he accepted. This was where Miranda showed her true nature. Hunter was happy that she lived in a freestanding house, because she was quite the vixen in bed and was what you would call a screamer. It stoked his ego, but he never stayed for breakfast, preferring to sleep in his own bed.

Hunter woke up, glad to be alone, a few hours later. Although Miranda's ministrations had released quite a bit of tension--and despite his flaming headache--he was rock-hard again. The dreams that had brought him to this state, as usual, had very little to do with the red-haired schoolteacher. Hunter pushed his hand between his legs and enveloped his straining erection, experimentally tugging it a few times. The friction felt good, and he buried his face into his pillow. Closing his eyes brought the images from his dreams back in full force, and he resisted giving in to them. He didn't want to be reminded what had aroused him so, didn't want to see the image of a naked Grant playing in his head. Although he'd only seen Grant fully clothed the day before, he knew what the strong, handsome man looked like. He'd seen him in his full glory a few years earlier, on Gable's ranch, showering at the back of Gable's house. At the time, Grant had caught him looking, but not before he'd given Hunter quite a show. It wasn't until Grant had made it abundantly clear that he knew Hunter was there, hiding in the bushes, that Hunter had run off. They had never spoken about it, and if Hunter had any say in it, they never would, but Hunter was one of the few people who knew that Grant had been more than Gable's hired help. This, too, wasn't something that was openly talked about, so he didn't dare to bring it up, even in jest, but it did mean that his own fantasies were that much harder to keep at bay now that Grant had walked back into his life.

Hunter had never acted on these urges and had vowed he never would. Here in the solitude of his own bachelor bed, he let the images in his mind wash over him. As he squeezed the base of his cock, he pushed his fingers down over the sensitive flesh behind his balls. Thrusting his straining erection into his other hand, effectively fucking it, and biting his pillow to stifle his cry, he came much harder than he had a few hours earlier at the hands of Miranda. After the spasms slowly died down, Hunter rolled onto his back to catch his breath. He was panting hard.

Why? Why did he feel this way? Although they needed Grant's helping hand around the ranch, Hunter was going to have to talk to Hugh about putting as much distance between Grant and him as they could manage. The only question was how he was going to explain it to his brother-in-law.

* * * *

While the rest of the household was at church, Hunter needed his own kind of distraction, so he determinedly paced to the stable block and started clearing Davenport's box. The horse, sensing his rider's foul mood, protested all the way against everything Hunter did. Eventually Hunter put him in the treadmill, just so Davenport would stop harassing him while he worked.

Hunter set a good pace, knowing that if he worked hard he could get his brain to shut up. He wasn't doing badly, until he heard a familiar voice behind him.

"So what did your horse do to warrant being put in the mill on a Sunday morning?"

Hunter didn't need to look up to know it was Grant. In fact, he didn't want to look up.

"His stable needed a good mucking out," Hunter answered. "He's just a bit of a hyper horse and hates to be tied up outside, so I let him burn off some energy that way."

"So I guess you deserve each other."

Hunter leaned on his pitchfork as he turned around. "Meaning?"

"Well, you clearly needed to burn off some energy as well."

Hunter thought Grant looked too smug for his own good. Part of him wanted to turn back to working, effectively ignoring Grant's taunts, but he was never one to back down from a challenge. "So what if I did?"

"I heard you didn't get much sleep last night."

"And since when is that your business?" Hunter replied gruffly.

Grant raised his hands. "Just wondering if you needed some help." He shrugged. "And trying to make small talk to get to know my new boss a bit better."

This time Hunter did turn his back on Grant. "Hugh's your boss, as far as I'm concerned." He continued to rake up the straw, using long, swift strokes, and hoped Grant would just leave him alone. The last thing he wanted to do was exchange small talk with Grant. He didn't like the man or his morals, so the less he saw of him the better.

Hunter worked himself into such a sweat he needed a shower before he could go to Sunday lunch. His hair still wet and wearing his Sunday shirt and a new pair of jeans, he bumped into his youngest sister on the stairs.

"You weren't at church," she teased. "Rough night?"

Hunter grumbled, although he could never get mad at Bernie. "A bit short, but other than that...."

They walked into the kitchen, and Bernie handed Hunter a cup of coffee before grabbing one for herself. "I see Hugh's taste in men is improving."

Hunter sputtered as the hot coffee went down the wrong way.

"Isn't he the guy that used to work at Gable's?" She pointed her cup out the back window.

Hunter followed her gesture and saw Grant crossing the driveway toward the house.

"Yeah, he's the one that left Gable in the cold after his accident," Hunter answered, fervently hoping Grant was just walking to the house to ask something and wouldn't come inside.

Bernie shrugged. "Cute, though."

"He's too old for you, Bernice," Hunter sighed, using her full name to taunt her. She didn't react, and Hunter looked outside again, unable to keep himself from following Grant with his eyes.

Bernie poked him. "Stop staring at him, then. Besides, he's not that old, and guys my age only want one thing, so you can keep them."

Hunter hoped guys Bernie's age would keep their hands off her, since they were barely legal, but he didn't comment on it. "I'm sure this one is no different. He's got a reputation, Bernie. Don't get involved."

Bernie raised an eyebrow but didn't say anything. Instead she walked out of the kitchen to answer the knock on the front door.

Hunter was tempted to follow her but didn't want Grant to see him. Instead, he opened the fridge and picked at some of the plates of cold cuts they were going to have for lunch.

"You know better than that, Hunter," his mother admonished him. As usual, she'd snuck into the kitchen without Hunter noticing her. "Take them out and put them on the table. It's only polite to eat with everyone, not pick at them like some vagrant off the street."

Hunter felt caught the way only his mother could manage it. He took the Saran-wrapped plates out of the fridge and put them on the counter, trying not to chew too noticeably. When he turned around and faced her, the look his mother gave him made him not only feel eight years old again, but about four feet tall as well, although he was head and shoulders taller than the tiny woman.

"You weren't at church."

Hunter sighed, exasperated. "What it is today? First Bernie and now you. I don't go to church every Sunday. This is nothing new, Mom."

"Well, if that's the mood you're in after a night on the town, I suggest you stay in next week."

And with that, she left him, seething, in the kitchen.

Hunter paced to the window and back. Yes, he was in a foul mood, and he knew that wouldn't do for Sunday lunch, which was generally a happy and relaxed meal around their house. He and Hugh would usually talk shop with Izzie, since she was the sister who most actively worked the ranch with them. If her boyfriend came along, he'd join them too, but he wasn't coming today, since he worked the rodeo circuit. They'd all have lunch and then retreat to the porch while the other girls cleared the table and did the dishes. All in all, a very relaxed affair.

So why was Hunter tense? Was it because he didn't know whether Grant was coming as well? He had to stop fretting over the man so much. Hugh had hired him, and Hunter rarely questioned Hugh's judgment.

"You coming?" Bernie asked as she popped her head into the kitchen. "We're all waiting for you. And the meat, of course," she added happily, pointing at the dishes on the table.

"What did Grant want?"

"Asked for the day off. I called Hugh to give him an answer."

"He only started working here yesterday," Hunter answered, picking up the plates of lunchmeat and pacing after Bernie. "He's got some nerve."

"Hey!" Bernie called out. "I'm only the baby around here. Talk to Hugh!"

Hunter dropped the cold cuts on the table in the dining room, and after seeing Grant standing there talking to Hugh, he paced outside.

Hunter walked straight to the paddock where Davenport was grazing and whistled for the horse, who came closer reluctantly. Hunter walked him back to saddle him and rode out to the other side of the ranch. He'd been riding for a good half hour when he saw Izzie approaching on her trusted golden-brown gelding. Hunter smiled as he realized that no matter where he rode, she could always find him.

He slowed Davenport down so Izzie could ride next to him. She didn't say anything right away, as if she knew that Hunter wasn't in the mood. As they neared a wooded area, she reached into her saddlebag and unearthed a paper-wrapped parcel of sandwiches.

"Figured you'd be hungry after skipping lunch," she said casually. "Don't suppose you had breakfast either. Why don't we sit down here?" She gestured at a shaded area near an upturned trough.

They let the horses graze and sat down next to each other on the slightly rusted water basin.

Izzie was probably Hunter's favorite sister, not just because she more than pulled her weight around the ranch, but also because she knew when to shut up. At least most of the time she did.

"So, what's eating you?" she asked casually as she handed him an overstuffed sandwich.

Hunter shrugged.

"Is it Grant? I heard he was a good worker."

"You remember Grant from when he worked at Gable's, right?"

Izzie nodded as she bit into her bread. "And I also know he hit the road when Gable busted his leg. Is that what's bothering you?"

"I guess," Hunter answered, raising his eyebrows.

"Or is it the fact he was more to Gable than just the hired help?"

Hunter didn't reply immediately. As much as he loved Izzie, he hated the way she always knew what he was thinking. "I don't hate guys like that. You know that, Izzie. I never held Gable's choices against him."

"It's not really a choice, is it?" Izzie responded. As usual, she didn't look at Hunter or urge him to reply. Instead, she continued munching down her lunch.

Although Hunter always felt comfortable around Izzie, he often feared she could read his most carefully hidden thoughts as well as the more obvious ones. This was no different. Did Izzie know the real reason he avoided Grant?

"I just don't trust men who bolt when it gets a bit hot under their feet," Hunter added after a long silence. "I mean, how hard would it have been to stick around and do his job until Gable was healed up? He could have left then."

"You think Grant had something to do with how Gable got injured?" Izzie raised her eyebrows.

"Not necessarily," Hunter answered truthfully. "I just don't trust a man who would do such a thing to a... friend."

"Lover," Izzie corrected.

"L...." Hunter couldn't bring himself to say the word. "Yeah."

"We don't know what happened, Hunter. Maybe they had a row just before the accident. For all we know, they'd split up already when it happened. Gable didn't exactly say much afterward."

Hunter had to admit he was jumping to conclusions. Maybe Izzie was right. Maybe they didn't know the whole story. "Maybe Grant didn't even know what happened that day and he had already left the ranch?"

"Yeah, maybe," Izzie replied, nudging her big brother with her shoulder. "He didn't stay for lunch, you know. He just came to persuade Hugh he needed a day off tomorrow. Some emergency. Hugh let him have it--unpaid, of course." Izzie waited a bit as if to gauge Hunter's reaction before continuing. "At least he asked for it and didn't just 'forget' to show up."

"True," Hunter had to admit. He mentally gave Grant a merit point. "But what if Gable finds out that I employ Grant now?"

Izzie rolled her eyes. "I know Gable's your friend, but this is business. He knows how hard it is to find decent help, and he of all people should know how big a help Grant is. If Grant wants to work here, then who are you to say no?"

"That would be what a friend would do, maybe," Hunter argued.

"Besides, Gable's found new help. Younger guy. Cute too," Izzie quipped. "Of course, I don't stand a chance. Not if he's 'working' for Gable."

"You have the dirtiest mind I've ever seen in a girl," Hunter said, shaking his head.

"Then you clearly haven't had a decent conversation with Miranda," Izzie returned the jest. "Oh, I forgot. You only bone her."

"Izzie!" Hunter shouted, mock strangling his little sister. He didn't deny it, though. He liked this sort of innuendo a lot more than when Izzie underhandedly suggested that maybe he had a soft spot for Gable. She laughed out loud, and Hunter felt some of the tension leave his body.

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