The first step out of his rented Range Rover should’ve given Alex a clue how this trip was going to go. As his brand-new, tooled-leather cowboy boot hit the ground, it kept sinking. A stench rose to crinkle his nose and make his eyes water. He looked down at what the locals might colorfully call a cowpie smashed under one pointed toe.
He slammed the door behind him and hopped on one foot over to the sagebrush to scrape off the offensive dung, succeeding only in getting his shiny boot dusty. After shouting several more descriptive, less literal curses, Alex considered plucking a long cactus needle to pick the cow pie off his sole. A glimpse of something from the corner of his eye made him realize he was not alone.
A man sat astride a tall black horse several yards away, both horse and rider so still, they might have been carved from stone. His features were hidden under the shade of a gray Stetson. “I wouldn’t,” he drawled in a flat tone.
Alex remained frozen, balancing on one foot, about a second away from toppling into a bed of cactus. “Wouldn’t what?”
“You were headed toward that saguaro like you were planning to snap off a needle to clean your boot. They don’t break that easy, and there are chollas all around it.”
“There’s what now?” Alex studied the ground and saw nothing but some cute, fuzzy baby cacti . They looked so much like little teddy bears, he wanted to cuddle one.
The rider urged his horse nearer with a touch of his heel. As he pointed out the patch, he towered over Alex. “They’ll cling to you, and the spines will work their way into your clothes and skin. You don’t want to mess with chollas.”
“Oh!” Alex backpedaled and felt a familiar squish. He’d stepped in the same cowpie with the heel of his other boot.
As he pulled up his foot, he fell against the side of the SUV. Since his face was already beet red from the blazing Arizona sun, the cowboy wouldn’t see how hard he was blushing as he floundered around. Fuck the Wild West! From the little Alex had experienced so far, every bit of nature here was made to torture humans.
The stranger dismounted, let his horse’s reins dangle, and sauntered toward Alex. The animal picked delicately at the vegetation, apparently knowing what was safe to eat in the godforsaken landscape.
From the top of his hat to the heels of his battered boots, the tall, lanky man was the quintessential image of a cowboy hero. A faded blue chambray shirt was tucked into worn jeans, the large buckle on a wide belt the only ornamentation. A date and the words “roping champion” were stamped into the metal. As the man drew closer, Alex at last glimpsed his face below the hat brim. Skin as tan as his boots and chiseled features completed the stereotypical Western image. Had Rancho Verde hired a handsome actor to portray the part for its guests, or was this Matthew Parsons, the man Alex had come here to meet?
“Need a little help?” The cowboy drew a knife from a sheath on his belt, knelt, and lifted Alex’s boot to scrape the bottom clean. Alex stared at the top of his Stetson while the man cleaned one boot, then the other. When his hero glanced up from under the brim of the hat, Alex’s pulse raced. Good God, this guy was hot, his features harshly angular and as rugged as the landscape.
“Gotta watch where you step out here. Could be a rattlesnake next time.”
Alex nodded like a bobblehead—a figurine that would be labeled “City Slicker.” “Uh-huh. I will. Thanks.”
The man rose to his full height, which was very tall. He gazed down into Alex’s face for several heartbeats—except Alex’s heart stopped beating for those seconds—frowned, and turned to walk toward his horse.
Desperate to make him stay, partly because this was the man he needed to talk to, but mostly because he wanted another look into those pale-steel eyes, Alex began to babble. “Swarro? That’s how you pronounce saguaro? I always wondered. Roadrunner cartoons are about the closest I’ve ever come to seeing these giants.” He gestured at the many-armed cactus looming behind him. “Are you by any chance Matthew Parsons, owner of Rancho Verde?”
The man paused with one hand resting on his horse’s neck and looked back. “Yeah. You a guest?”
“I shore am.” For some reason he adopted a faux Western twang. “My name is Alex Wheeler. I’m spending a week, and I shore am tickled at the chance to ride the open range and help with the herding.”
“Hm.” The cowboy grunted. “How’d you get separated from your group?”
“I’m not part of a group. I just drove out from Phoenix Sky Harbor.”
“You didn’t need to rent a vehicle. The ranch has a shuttle to fetch you. It’s one of our services.”
“I wanted the freedom to take side trips to see more of the land. It’s so … amazing.” He wasn’t telling the truth with that adjective. It was amazing that people survived here at all. “Beautiful” would’ve been a stretch to describe miles of land inhabited by cacti, sagebrush, scrubby little trees, scorpions, and foraging cattle whose poop was ridiculously huge. “What do your cows eat? There hardly seems to be any grass.”
“There’s some, and they can graze on prickly pear,” Parsons replied briefly.
“Oh.” Faced with his host’s taciturn manner, Alex struggled to find something else to say. “I thought I saw a prairie dog popping up. That’s why I stopped.” He gestured toward a patch of scrub that looked exactly like all the land around it.
Probably did.” Parsons took hold of the horse’s bridle. “Ready to drive on to the ranch? I can guide you.”
Alex had the destination entered in the vehicle’s GPS, but his goal was to get closer to Matthew Parsons, so he played dumb. “Sure. Steer me in the right direction. Should I follow you and the horse or…”
The look Parsons shot him made him feel dumber than ever. Of course the man wasn’t going to ride down the road in front of him, leading the way. “Take this road another eight miles, then turn left. When you reach Cathedral Butte, look for a dirt track on the left. That’s the driveway.”
“There’s no sign?” What a helluva way to run a business. Seclusion was great for vacationers who wanted a private getaway, but a resort needed to advertise its presence a little.
Parsons put a foot in one stirrup and mounted in a graceful move that made Alex swoon. The man sat erect in the saddle with the sun silhouetting him in a golden aura.
“Mrs. Ketchum will welcome you. S’pose I’ll see you at supper.” With that terse announcement, Matthew Parsons galloped away.
Alex watched small clouds of dust rise from the horse’s hooves as the rider and his mount headed off. The lyrics of a song he couldn’t quite remember played in his head. I wanna be a cowboy. Ride you into the sunset. But he wasn’t sure if he wanted to be a cowboy or get swept off his feet by one.
After Matthew removed Hermes’s saddle, curried, fed, and watered him, and cleaned every last bit of tack, he had no excuse to linger in the barn. The horses were all in their stalls for the night, clean straw underfoot and fresh hay in their boxes. Everything was in order. Time to lock up and head inside to play host to the guests.
Lucy had already rung the triangle that hung on the back porch. Supper would be on the table so he wouldn’t be forced to sit and make small talk prior to the meal. Matthew was happy to perpetuate the stereotype of a taciturn cowboy everyone seemed to expect. Silence was his natural mode. And what was the point of getting chummy with strangers who were going to leave after a few days?
“Stop being a baby. You signed up for this,” Lucy warned him whenever he complained. “Suck it up and make this place somewhere guests will actually want to recommend to their friends and return to. A little gruffness is fine but downright surly ain’t. I taught you better manners than that.”
“Okay, Lucy,” Matthew muttered and arranged his features into something more welcoming than a scowl before entering the house.
There was one guest he was pretty darn interested in seeing tonight, the man with shit on his boots and a smile that threw enough sparks to start a grass fire. Matthew never paid much attention to the guests. They came, they rode, they left, and best of all, they paid. He hoped everyone had a good time, but he didn’t ask personal questions or talk more than was necessary to be polite. Still, this Wheeler fellow intrigued him enough that he wanted to learn more. He should not be interested in this sort of way. Guests were here to vacation, not for a random hookup like in one of those reality shows set on a tropical island.
Matthew paused in the hallway before entering the dining room to study the guests sitting at his table. His gaze went straight to Alex Wheeler. The man was talking to a blonde woman on his left, his features animated even when he was listening. He seemed genuinely interested in a recipe for shepherd’s pie her family loved. Matthew couldn’t remember the name of the woman or her husband or the boys kicking each other under the table. Lucy had labeled them Thing One and Thing Two. Now Matthew couldn’t recall their actual names.
Lucy approached from the kitchen, carrying a tureen of gravy. “There you are. Hurry and wash up, then get to the table. Try to use the guest’s names when you’re talking to them. It shows you know who they are.”
But I don’t know who they are. “Yes, ma’am,” he replied.
Matthew went to the kitchen to wash his hands and face. As he toweled dry, he noticed a leaf broken off the aloe above the sink, a descendant of the plant his mom had potted many years ago. Lucy must have burned herself. She was aging and still hurrying around as if she were a kid. Maybe managing the cooking and looking after the guests’ needs was getting to be too much. He’d hire an assistant for her if he could afford it, but it was all he could do to pay the Ketchums plus seasonal help. Even with the income from tourism, he could barely keep up with the demands of the ranch or make payments to the bank. He didn’t even want to think about this year’s taxes. Damned if he would lose his family legacy to foreclosure, but the future looked bleak.
Worry must have returned his scowl, because when he entered the dining room, everyone stopped talking and eyed him nervously. Matthew forced a smile. “Evenin’, everybody. How was your day? Did you two cowpokes have some fun?”
His cheery address to the little boys didn’t thaw their frozen stares. Maybe they could see through his smile to read his deep-seated desire to remove them all from his house.
Matthew sat and unfolded his napkin. “I see you made it here okay.” He addressed Wheeler. “Any trouble finding the place?”
“Nope. The turn-off was near the butte just like you said. Might help to have a sign marking the ranch, though.”
Lucy had taken a seat next to her husband at the opposite end of the table from Matthew. She crowed over this remark. “See! I’ve been telling you.”
Matthew could afford a fancy sign about as much as he could afford to lose heifers to the coyotes. But he supposed he could build one out of plywood and paint Rancho Verde on it. Probably he was sabotaging this tourism venture like Lucy always said. His nonaction was dooming the business to failure.
Honestly, the guests were rarely any trouble. This blond family, for example, was nice enough despite the boys’ mischievous tendencies. And Jen and Mike Truffant, the honeymoon couple, weren’t around enough to notice. They spent most of their time off on long rides together. Even now the pair gazed longingly at each other, so in love, it was kind of sickening. And sweet. And jealousy inducing.
Matthew glanced at Wheeler, who was watching him watch the Truffants. Matthew quickly dragged his gaze away from the handsome man with the stylish haircut and neatly sculpted beard and focused on serving himself a bowl full of stew.
Wheeler, the newest guest, was a mystery. Most people didn’t vacation completely alone without family, spouse, friend, or significant other–like a boyfriend. Matthew’s instincts told him Wheeler was inclined that way, but maybe because he wanted it to be true.
Still, he generally didn’t feel this sort of interest in a straight man. The way Wheeler had studied him with those alert brown eyes when they first met had set Matthew’s every nerve tingling. He’d been equally intrigued by the stranger’s compact, wiry body, his slick brown hair, his tongue darting out to wet his lips, and the way he spoke and moved. But most of all, it was the eager, hungry way he’d stared at Matthew when Matthew knelt to clean his boot that triggered a burst of arousal such as he hadn’t felt in years.
Matthew had sat with his fork poked into his mashed potatoes for too long. He mechanically ate a few bites while trying to think of something to add to the conversations swirling around. He cleared his throat. Everyone stopped talking as nine pairs of eyes focused on him.
His throat closed until he thought he might be choking on a potato. He had to force himself not to go mute. “Whereabouts are you from, Mr. Wheeler?”
“Please, call me Alex. I’m from Chicago. But I’m rarely there. My job requires a lot of travel.”
What the hell brings you to an Arizona ranch for a vacation? “Traveling. That’s interesting. What do you do?”
“Overseeing properties owned by the company I work for. I make sure facilities are run according to guidelines and scout possible new acquisitions.”
“Real estate development, then. Do you get tired of being on the road?” the blonde woman asked. Cindy Oates. Matthew recalled her name. “Bryan is gone for days at a time. He misses so much family life, the boys’ soccer, and a lot of simple daily life.”
Her husband shot her an annoyed look that said this was a source of contention. “I’ve been trying to get a position in the home office.” He addressed Wheeler. “I sure feel for you. Being on the road is tiring. I forget what airport I’m in sometimes.”
“Or even what state. This is the one with the all the cacti and a roadrunner for the state bird, right?” Wheeler’s bright smile ignited another hot lick of attraction in all the parts Matthew wanted to keep under control.
A ripple of laughter went around the table at his comment, even the love-struck Truffants breaking eye contact long enough to join in. Matthew felt warmth that had nothing to do with his interest in Wheeler. It was sort of nice sharing supper with a group of people, even if they were strangers. He wondered if he would ever face a table full of his own family members; a kid or two telling about their school day, a man he loved smiling at him over their heads. Not worth dwelling on, because it would never happen. There weren’t any dating options nearby, and it wasn’t as if Mr. Right was going to stumble into his life purely by accident.
“What’s on the agenda for tomorrow?” Wheeler asked. “Do we get right to work herding cattle?” His gaze was on Matthew, but Bart answered the question.
Years of being outdoors in all weather had tanned Bart’s skin to leather, and the seams in his face made him appear older than his sixty-odd years. But he was lean, fit, and healthy, and he seemed to truly enjoy playing the part of trail boss for the greenhorns. “First I’m going to want to see how well you handle a horse. For the young folks and inexperienced riders, I’ve planned a short trip to Cathedral Butte. There are a few sights to see around the base, or a trail we can hike as far as you all are willing and able to climb.”
“Jen and I want to go out on our own again, if that’s all right, Mr. Ketchum.” Mike Truffant rested his hand on his bride’s forearm. They were always touching each other as if they couldn’t bear to be physically apart for an instant. “We’ll take the walkie-talkies and check in periodically like we did today.”
“Walkie-talkies? No cell reception?” Alex asked.
“It’s spotty,” Lucy replied. “You get between the rocks and it’ll cut out on you. We insist on keeping in touch with guests on unguided trips. Most ranches won’t allow guests, even experienced riders, to head off on their own.”
“I imagine not. Sounds like an insurance nightmare,” Bryan Oates, a risk assessor, chimed in.
After a discussion of tomorrow’s ride, the conversation rambled from one topic to another. Matthew wondered if he should join in, tell a bit of local history or something, but Bart seemed to enjoy holding court and answering all the guests’ questions. It was easier for Matthew to silently eat and fade into the background, where he could study Alex Wheeler.
The guy had an unrestrained, hearty laugh, that immediately set whoever he was talking to at ease. He interacted naturally with every person at the table. When he teased the two boys, Thing Two nearly choke on his food from giggling too hard. Wheeler was an intent listener who asked questions that let the talker feel he was truly hearing them. His great conversation skills made Matthew feel more like a wordless lump than usual. When Wheeler turned that charm on him to ask a question about the ranch, it was all Matthew could do to respond.
“My great-granddad bought the land in the twenties, managed to hold onto it through the Depression, and made a success out of it in the early forties. When Granddad inherited, there were almost forty head of cattle.”
He didn’t add that things were already in decline by the time Matthew’s father inherited. It wasn’t due to mismanagement, simply a sign of the changing times. Large companies dominated the cattle industry, and small ranchers were shut out.
“I didn’t notice any fencing. If your cattle are allowed to graze freely, how do you keep them from wandering off?” Wheeler asked.
“Some areas are fenced, but local statutes don’t forbid open range. Herds tend to mingle around here. A rancher is liable if one of his cows causes an accident on the road or damages property.”
“And you can tell who the animal belongs to because of the brand?”
“So your herd wanders at will?”
“To an extent. It depends.”
Everyone was staring at him. Matthew felt a flush warm his face at the attention. Public speaking of any sort, even this little bit, was his worst nightmare. He changed the subject. “How was your flight?”
“Uneventful. The drive from Phoenix was long, but the views on the way were, um, amazing.”
The slight pause hinted that Wheeler had found the landscape of sagebrush, cacti, rocks, and sky boring. It took outsiders a while to see the subtle beauty of the desert. Some never did. Matthew suddenly wanted to convince Wheeler of the splendor he was overlooking. He didn’t generally join in on trail rides, but he tomorrow, he might just join the group on the tour of Cathedral Butte.