Hands braced at ten and two on the steering wheel, Ray Ford locked his elbows and pressed his shoulders firmly into the solid backrest. Forty minutes in the cab of his pickup hadn't helped the kink in his spine. A kink that had less to do with last night's lumpy motel bed than his and Landon's horizontal acrobatics.
With a satisfying pop he relaxed into the heated leather seat and dropped his right hand from the wheel onto the center console. His fingers tapped along with Toby Keith, who was singing on the radio about bullets and guns and Mexican hotels. A slow smile stretched his lips. Today was a good day to be alive.
Landon had been as wild as a Pryor Mountain mustang--nearly a year and a half later and still endlessly creative. It often surprised Ray when he thought about how that one-time Internet hookup had turned into the mutually beneficial relationship they had now. The hour-plus drive for a night in Billings with his secret lover had always been exactly what he'd needed to take the edge off.
But Ray wasn't sure how much longer he could keep up with the much younger man, even if it was only every other month. After forty years on this earth, he was beginning to feel every hard-lived day. There was more to it than age. Landon was tiring of the secrecy and had begun to drop subtle hints about wanting a relationship he didn't have to hide. If Ray were honest with himself, he was tiring too. And that scared the shit out of him. Landon was a good man and deserved much more than Ray could, or would, give him.
For now though, he was content as things stood, and those few stolen hours that allowed him to be himself. But if Landon pushed--
A moving flash of gold light ahead, like a distress signal, pulled him from his thoughts. Focusing on the source of the signal, Ray made out the shape of a lone cowboy camouflaged in faded jeans and a tan jacket, walking along the cracked edge of rough road, a beat-up dust-colored duffel bag heaped over his shoulder. If the sun hadn't reflected off a buckle, Ray probably wouldn't have noticed the man until he was on him.
Closing in on the wanderer, Ray realized the smooth, effortless gait couldn't really be called a walk, more like a swagger.
The cowboy turned around and hooked his thumb to the sky. Long legs planted shoulder-width apart staked his ground. The collar of the well-worn ranch jacket was flipped up, shielding against the chill spring breeze that danced across the plains from the East.
Even though dark sunglasses and a cowboy hat that sat low on the brow worked together to hide most of his face, it was his presence alone that seemed to command attention.
Ray wasn't one for picking up hitchhikers--not that there were many, if any, on this deserted stretch of US-310, especially in the early hours of a Sunday morning--but something about the man on the side of the road compelled him.
Before he'd thought it through, his foot had moved from the gas pedal to the brake. As if on its own accord, the truck pulled off the two-lane highway, steel-belted tires growling over rumble strips, and came to a stop fifty yards beyond where the cowboy stood. Dust billowed into a small tornado in the wake of the vehicle's draft, obscuring the man from view. Ray watched in his rearview mirror as the cowboy stepped out of the swirling cloud like a rising phoenix--or the hero in an action movie emerging in slow motion unscathed from a fireball.
"Well, would you look at that," Ray mumbled. "There's a long, tall drink of sexy if I ever did see one."
Lean legs ate up the pavement with an unhurried stride only a truly confident man could master. Now that the cowboy was facing the bright morning sun, the concealing Stetson and sunglasses couldn't hide the slightly crooked nose, strong square jaw, cleft chin, and lips worthy of exploration.
An odd niggle of anticipation teased the edges of Ray's consciousness.
He turned off the radio and pressed a button on his armrest to lower the passenger-side window as the cowboy reached the truck. The hitcher removed his sunglasses and leaned in. Intelligent, deep green eyes flecked with bronze, a hint of mischief sparked in their shadows, gazed back at Ray.
"Where you headed, cowboy?"
"Bridger." Just one word and the deep, resonant voice sent an unexpected spike of heat through Ray's nervous system.
The words escaped before his brain caught up. "You're in luck. Hop in."
The cowboy flashed a magazine-cover smile that revealed impossibly white teeth and inclined his head. "Thanks."
He opened the door, tossed his duffel on the backseat, and climbed gracefully into the cab. A rush of cold air followed him in and swirled around Ray's legs.
The quad cab of the fire-engine red Dodge Ram 3500 shrank to the size of a Mini Cooper as the man settled into the leather bucket seat beside him. Ray watched as his passenger hit the button to close the window and buckled himself in. He was tall, solid, and exuded a kinetic energy that could knock a bottle off the fence at a hundred paces.
The cowboy turned to face him, and time stretched out in weighted silence. A glint in the man's eye held Ray captive, as though he were on the verge of sharing a great secret--a secret Ray suddenly wanted to know. Needed to know.
A crooked grin spread across the ruggedly handsome face. "Name's Travis."
The skin at the back of Ray's neck warmed. He nodded. "Ray."
Time continued to saunter on without them as they sat facing each other, immobile, truck idling smoothly. Travis broke the time glitch by tapping his forefinger to the brim of his hat, his intense gaze not leaving Ray's. In that deep, whiskey voice, he drawled, "S'a pleasure, Ray."
The air in the cab buzzed. Perspiration broke out between Ray's shoulder blades. He pushed his hat back on his forehead a little. He briefly contemplated switching the truck's heater off in favor of the air-conditioning.
Ray had experienced the occasional instant attraction in the past, but nothing at this level. Not this...biting. Not to the point where if he squinted his eyes, he'd see electricity arcing between them.
His groin tightened. What the hell? Had he not just left Landon's bed less than two hours ago? At the moment, however, it felt as though he hadn't seen to the need in years. The sudden urge to lean over and run his hands over Travis's solid legs, peel off his jacket and shirt, and feel smooth skin under his hands was overwhelming. And more than a little disconcerting.
Ray cleared his throat. "Okay then."
He forced himself to face forward, shifted the big truck into gear, and pulled back onto the deserted highway. Both hands tight on the wheel, he was acutely aware of the man sitting on the other side of the cab. He stole a sideways glance at the strong, rugged profile. Dirty-blond hair long enough to fist spilled over the jacket collar. A lean-fingered hand splayed loosely on a muscular thigh. What would that hand feel like on his own thigh, strong and sure, inching slowly upward...?
Ray looked away, cleared his throat again, and shifted in his seat. He had Landon when he needed him. Landon was safe. Landon took care of him. What he didn't need was some crazy attraction to a drifter that could only come to trouble. The kind of trouble Ray had managed to avoid his whole life.
The quicker he got rid of his passenger, the better. "What's in Bridger?"
"Ranch job," Travis said. "Hopefully."
"Heard there might be work."
Ray chanced another look at his passenger, staring longer than someone behind the wheel of a three-ton machine should. "There are only two working ranches near Bridger." And please, God, say you're headed to the Double T.
Travis shrugged a shoulder in response, gaze focused on the passing Montana landscape. The man seemed completely at ease, unconcerned with the possibility of having to turn right back around to wherever he came from.
Ray forced his attention back to the long, straight road ahead of him--a feeble attempt at ignoring the increasing discomfort of his jeans. Wide-open empty highway, sparsely treed plains, and endless blue sky left entirely too few distractions from his entirely too sexy passenger. "Any ranch in particular?"
Ray nearly choked. His heart kicked up a triple beat. He looked over at his passenger again. "Ford Creek Ranch?" He winced at hearing his voice crack on the last word.
"Yep." Travis angled himself to face Ray, one eyebrow cocked, that mischievous glint in his eyes. "Know the place?"
"You could say," he replied quietly and turned away from the heavy gaze that burned his skin. Rein it in, Ford. "What are you hoping to do there?"
"The best quarter horses in the country deserve the best trainer."
Silence filled the cab again as Ray struggled for an air of indifference. "You're a horse trainer?"
"Not lacking for confidence, are you?"
Ray caught another nonchalant shoulder shrug from Travis in his peripheral. "What's your last name, Travis?"
Ray released a breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding. This far too attractive hitchhiker was Travis Morgan. Headed to Ford Creek Ranch. What were the odds?
"The Travis Morgan?" He risked a glance at Travis and was once again trapped in that impossibly magnetic gaze. Travis nodded, a checked smile playing on his lips. Lush, kissable lips... "Well, shit." Ray turned back to the road ahead of him, hands tightening on the wheel.
Travis Morgan's reputation traveled far ahead of the man himself. A world-class trainer, Morgan was one of those people with a rare ability to draw the best out of even the most dangerous, untamable animal. Any ranch fortunate enough to have him cross their gates was left with champions in his wake. And having that trademark signature on your stock was akin to winning the lottery. Morgan chose the ranches he wanted to work on seemingly whimlike. He couldn't be contacted or contracted. The man was elusive, an enigma, an apparition emerging from a swirling cloud of dust.
Ray distractedly lifted the top panel of the center console and reached in for a pouch of cinnamon sticks. He'd quit smoking years ago, but in chewing on cinnamon sticks to help break that habit, he'd gained another. At least the new one was healthier.
The Morgan name would catapult the price of Ford Creek's already top-dollar working and performance horses substantially, further cementing his family's legendary reputation.
Having the man on his ranch, working beside him day-in day-out, however, would be dangerous. He'd overheard the whispered rumors about Morgan having a penchant for the company of men. With the crazed reaction Ray was having to him already, "danger" wouldn't even begin to describe the situation it could put them both in. The damage it would cause if he lost control of this sudden desire, the risk to his family's reputation and livelihood--his own life--would be too great.
He'd never forget what had happened to Dwayne Harrelson all those years ago, and there was no way in hell he was going to suffer the same fate.
And despite all that he was going to anyway. It just wasn't good business sense to pass on having the Travis Morgan name tagged onto Ford Creek's horses.
He'd just have to make a few extra trips into Billings.
"Was that a good 'shit,' or a bad 'shit'?" Travis asked, studying Ray as his thoughts played across a strong, angular face. He hadn't missed the telltale flare in those dark, amber-flecked eyes, nor the hard-set jaw. A master of body language--in both horse and man--Travis could read every subtle nuance, shift, and sound, giving him the unique ability to anticipate and counter actions.
The man at the wheel would probably be shocked to know just how eloquent his unspoken language was.
Ray cleared his throat and shot Travis a quick, almost nervous glance. "No rancher in his right mind would turn down the opportunity."
He'd noted the wary shift in other man's expressive eyes. It was clear Ray had heard of more than Travis's reputation with horses. The man had appeared interested but was obviously not about to act on it now. Not after hearing Travis's full name. Even though Travis felt a thread of annoyance at that, he wasn't surprised. No one was willing to play a role in the rumors that rode alongside him. No one dared take the risk.
Good for the ranch, bad for the rancher.
Just as well. With that last debacle in North Dakota, he wasn't willing to risk letting the truth behind the rumors see the light of day. It had been three weeks, and the bruises had faded, but his ribs were still sore.
But damn if Ray didn't make him think things, want things, he couldn't have.
With a drawn-out sigh, he turned his attention from the driver with the soulful brown eyes and sexy five o'clock shadow to the untamed Montana landscape.
Wild arnica and Indian paintbrush colored waving pale green brome and sage grass with bright splashes of yellow and red. Sparse clusters of ponderosa pine followed snaking, unseen tributaries. The Pryor Mountains reached for the heavens on the eastern horizon, and the carpet of desert grasslands raced up its base.
The state's famous big sky stretched far and wide above them, stirring a brief, unwanted memory of the massive Texas spread he'd grown up on. That sky had been as big as everything else Texan, but somehow the skies currently overhead seemed more immense, intimidating.
A reminder of how insignificant he was in the grand scheme.
Twenty minutes of silence passed before Ray slowed the big truck and turned onto a graded dirt road. From this vantage point, all Travis could see was wide-open land.
They bounced over a cattle guard and passed under a log archway with FORD CREEK RANCH burned into its smooth bark.
"I hadn't expected a doorstop lift," Travis said. "Much appreciated."
Ray shrugged without looking at Travis. "Like I said, you're in luck."
Travis hadn't expected to come across a man he wanted to run into again either.
An odd twist akin to disappointment pinched in Travis's gut when a large homestead came into view over a small rise. It went against his better judgment, but he'd hoped the drive to the ranch would have been longer. Something about the driver had him wanting more, even though he couldn't risk taking the chance. No matter the signs he'd read. His reputation wouldn't survive much longer, and with his reputation, so went his only source of income.
He'd thank Ray for the ride, wish him well, and never see him again. Judging by Ray's reaction, it would be best for the both of them.
Ray pulled up in front of the rambling log home with a burnt red roof and wraparound veranda like he owned the place. Not as splashy as some, but it didn't need to be. The house felt comfortable; even looking through the bug-splattered windshield, he knew it was the kind of place he'd be happy to call home. Travis frowned. Home hadn't entered his mind in eighteen years.
It had to be the comforting scents of leather and cinnamon that permeated the interior of the big cab.
Ray put the truck in Park, turned off the engine, and exited the cab without so much as a glance back. Travis reached into the backseat and grabbed his bag. Unfolding from the truck, he walked around to meet Ray in front of the near shoulder-high hood.
"Thanks for the lift, Ray," Travis said as he hefted the duffel over his shoulder. "Don't suppose you know the owner?"
Ray cast a long gaze over him, unmistakable desire flashing in those telling eyes. Then he shuttered his expression with a near audible thud and opened his mouth to speak.
"There you are, Raymond." A strong female voice cut the man off. Travis turned to find an older woman with silver hair pulled back in a loose ponytail and piercing pale blue eyes. She wore faded jeans, a tan western shirt, and an unlaced pair of beat-up barn boots. She stood on the veranda, hands on her hips, scowling at Ray as though he were a disobedient child. "I hope you've sown your oats. We have a ranch to run here, young man."
Ray sighed. "It's Sunday, Dot."
Travis slanted a glance at Ray, intrigued by the somewhat chastised tone of the man's response.
"Stock doesn't take a day off eating just because you take a day off working."
Dot stepped down the three steps off the porch and shifted her sharp gaze to Travis. She was a good half foot shorter than he yet seemed to tower over him. He shifted his feet apart, attempting to balance himself under the weight of her stare. He felt exposed somehow and certain very little escaped the woman's notice. Travis knew right then, without a doubt, she was one woman he'd be wise never to cross.
Ray's response to her wasn't quite so intriguing anymore.
"And who might you be, son?"
He removed his hat, held it against his chest, and stepped forward as he extended his hand. "Travis, ma'am. Travis Morgan."
She eyed him as if deciding whether or not to believe he was who he said he was, and took his hand. Her grip was strong and sure as they shook. Then her eyes softened, and a smile lit them from behind, putting him immediately at ease. This one would no doubt keep him on his toes. He liked her already.
"What brings you to Ford Creek, Travis Morgan? Besides Raymond here?"
"Looking for work, ma'am. I train cattle horses."
"Dot. Call me Dot, please."
He smiled warmly. "Dot. It's a pleasure to meet you."
She regarded him for a moment. "Travis Morgan, you say?"
"Yes, I've heard of you. Well, you're certainly welcome here."
"Thank you, ma--Dot. Don't suppose you could introduce me to the owner?"
Dot looked from Travis to Ray, laughter dancing in her sharp eyes, and chuckled. She shook her head and turned back for the house.
"You're standing next to him, son," Dot said over her shoulder as she opened the door and disappeared inside.
Travis turned to face Ray, the man's expression locked down and unreadable. Well, shit was right. If he had any sense at all, he'd turn around and hightail it out of there right now.
Ray struck out his hand. "Ray Ford. Owner of Ford Creek Ranch."
Travis reached for Ray's hand, ignoring the need to run. The rancher's grip was firm, confident, and the warmth of his skin tingled in Travis's palm. They stood facing each other, gazes locked, hands clasped but no longer shaking. Ray let go after an extended beat. Travis felt the instant absence of the simple touch.
Ray cleared his throat, but his voice sounded rough when he spoke. "Just so happens I have a herd of green horses fresh off winter pasture in need of training."
"Just so happens I train horses." And shit if his voice didn't sound the same.
"So it would seem."
"You'll be needing what I'm offering then."
Ray paused, and the muscles in his clenched jaw twitched. "As I said. You're--"
"I know," Travis cut in with a half smile, "I'm in luck."
Ray didn't move, his eyes and body language once again giving his thoughts away. For a second--a drawn-out, charged second--Travis thought Ray would take a step forward, reach out, touch. Travis almost made the move to do so himself, but Ray took a step back. Shutters dropped firmly into place.
Ray cleared his throat and gave Travis a cool smile, but he wasn't fooled. The man was just as affected as he was.
"I'll introduce you to my foreman. He'll get you sorted out."
Travis tipped his head, tapping the brim of his hat with a forefinger. "Boss."
Ray regarded him a moment longer, then nodded and turned toward the barns. Travis grinned as he hiked his duffel bag higher on his shoulder and followed Ray, enjoying the view of that tight ass wrapped in snug jeans.