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by Jan Irving
Category: Erotica/Gay-Lesbian Erotica/Romance
Description: "You and your son have the saddest eyes." Young cowboy Happy Nathaniel is struck by a need to reach out when he first meets Aaron King and his son, Samuel, so he helps Aaron find a haven at the Rocking M, far away from their strict Mennonite community. Once Sam is settled in the country school, both men seek something to spur him to speak again. But most of all, Nate also sees Aaron's loneliness, and a single kiss is the spark Nate has secretly craved. But he'll put his attraction on hold as long as needed, knowing there is a time for all things and that, one day, Aaron will want to dance again. A spin-off of Luke and Sylvan
eBook Publisher: Dreamspinner Press/Dreamspinner Press, 2010 2010
eBookwise Release Date: March 2011
14 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [102 KB]
Reading time: 62-87 min.
Jeremy shoved Samuel into the gulley between the unpaved country road and a stand of birch trees.
Samuel didn't know what else to do, so he got back on his feet, feeling something raw on one knee. He blinked at the other eight-year-old boys from Sylvan's country school who had followed him.
"Nothing to say, freak?" Jeremy asked him, raising dark brows. He'd asked the same thing when Samuel had brought Mrs. Henderson the basket of eggs to school this morning.
Samuel's eyes went from one hostile gaze to another. He swallowed and then shook his head.
"Can't talk, can't talk," Andy, Jeremy's friend chanted. "Freak can't talk!"
Jeremy pushed him again, but this time Samuel didn't fall. He stood his ground.
"Fucktard!" Jeremy and Andy and the rest pushed him into the trench, pounding and kicking him until he was on his knees, covering his head. "Eat this!" He smelled it before they smeared it on him, rotted droppings from the side of the road.
"Hey, what the fuck!" The voice of a warrior. Samuel blinked up through the crud attached to his face to see the tall cowboy called Happy get down from his saddle. Samuel's belly clenched and his face heated. He pulled into himself like a small sparrow.
The other boys scattered, running down the road, looking back over their shoulders, high, excited voices, leaving Samuel alone with Happy, who took off his cowboy hat and swiped a hand over his sweat-damp brow. Above, the sky was a blue bowl over tall bleached grass, making Samuel feel even smaller.
"Aw, they picked on you, huh?" Happy said, his eyes reminding Samuel of gray smoke, fixed on his face. Samuel dropped his head, not wanting to meet those eyes.
Happy frightened him.
He was loud. He laughed and smiled. He liked music. He danced sometimes, all on his own.
Despite the stink of the stuff clinging to him, Happy didn't hesitate in offering his hand to Samuel. Samuel stared at it, the stiff work glove loose along rangy bones, the dark hairs on the back of Happy's forearms.
When he didn't take it, it didn't fall aside--Happy's hand still outstretched, waiting--
Samuel let Happy help him from the ground, avoiding his eyes as the big man knelt beside him, cocking his head. "Sam," he murmured, and his voice wasn't too loud this time, but sad and soft, like a quilt he wanted to wrap around Samuel. Hearing it, Samuel's throat tightened. "Poor little soldier."
Samuel could smell himself. Smell the horseshit on his face, his clothes.
"Let's get you back to the ranch," Happy said. "Your Papa will worry if you're late getting home."
Samuel shook his head, not wanting....
Happy raised dark brows. "You don't want him to see you like this?" Happy chewed his bottom lip. "Okay, kid. There's a sun shower we can use on the way home at the doc's place to get you cleaned up. Have you met Morgan yet? He has a girl just a little younger than you are called Jessica."
Happy took off his glove and gripped Samuel's dirty hand. He didn't seem to care about the stink. "Sam," he whispered. "Sam, kid, it'll get better, you'll see."
* * * *
Samuel almost forgot about the shit stuck to his skin as he sat at the front of Happy's saddle. Happy let the big Appaloosa walk, clip-clopping down a winding pebbled road to the homestead Samuel could make out ahead. There were patches of snow on the ground and the puddles were iced over, cracked where traffic had impacted them. Despite that, the day felt warm, dusty, with the Indian summer hanging on into early December.
Samuel's lips curved, and he let himself lean back against Happy. He liked being up on the horse. He liked the sun on his face and the way Happy wasn't hurrying to get him home.
When they reached a brand-new-looking barn, a blond man came out. He was as tall as Happy with slender hips and bright blue eyes. He smiled, looking at Samuel, who hunched down, making himself small again.
"Luke," Happy said, swinging down easily from the saddle. He reached out for Samuel, lifting him free and back to the hard-packed dirt. "This is Sam."
Luke tipped his cowboy hat back on his head, his straw-colored hair matted by sweat to his face. "Sam." He offered his hand. Didn't he smell Samuel?
Samuel rubbed his hand over his dark trousers and then took Luke's big callused palm, shaking it. Luke looked straight into his eyes, not smiling. "Nice to meet a friend of Happy's," Luke said. When Samuel didn't say anything his gaze lifted to Happy's.
"Kid doesn't talk, Luke," Happy said. "Not since he and his Papa showed up on the ranch, leastways."
"Okay," Luke said, as if it didn't matter. "Let me guess, you're here to hog my sun shower? I swear, Happy, you never leave any water for me and Morgan."
Happy coughed and Luke colored. "Uh. Well, it's around back. Help yourself. If Sam needs anything, like bandaging or some clothes, bring him to the kitchen. Hell, do it anyway. Jessica made cupcakes." Now Luke smiled, his eyes like pieces of the sky above.
"Cupcakes!" Happy tied his horse to the side of the corral and then put a hand on Samuel's shoulder, guiding him toward the back of the barn. "We'll be there, though I gotta get the boy home soon. Don't want his Papa to worry."
"See you then." Luke strode away with a wave, smacking his work gloves against his thigh.
* * * *
Happy handed him soap that smelled strong, like the herbs his Papa tended, and then stood back, pulling on a leather cord. Water fell, warm water, and Samuel lifted his head.
He was smiling when Happy handed him a towel.
* * * *
"Cupcakes," Happy said as he lifted Samuel into the saddle again. "You sure you never had them before?"
Samuel shook his head. He had one gripped in his hand, a perfect one with sprinkles. The little girl with blond hair and blue eyes had given it to him before she'd hidden behind one of her tall fathers.
"You're going to love them," Happy said. He spoke to the horse, and they set off at a trot. After a moment, Happy asked, "Want to go faster?"
Samuel nodded vehemently and Happy gave a little laugh, kicking the horse to greater speed. Somehow Samuel held carefully to his treat as they thundered down the road toward the Rocking M Ranch where Happy and his Papa worked. The wind feathered through his hair.
* * * *
His Papa was standing outside the kitchen where he cooked for the hands. He walked over to Happy, still on horseback, and took Samuel from him, lifting him from the saddle.
"Aaron, Sam had a little trouble. I hope you don't mind, but there were cupcakes after I got him cleaned up."
"Trouble, Nathaniel?" Papa asked. He was the only one to call Happy by that name.
Happy climbed down from the horse, standing with the reins in his hands, shifting his feet as he held Papa's eyes. "Yessir, some kids from the school."
Papa lifted Samuel's face gently. "You're going to be colorful," he said.
"The kid is real brave," Happy said. "I guess your people... I guess you grew up with the whole pacifism thing."
Papa stared at him a moment, like he did some mornings when Happy came by to eat. Happy was too restless to do it inside so Papa filled a plate for him and the cowboy stood under a tree, eating quietly.
"Thank you for bringing him back to me, Nathaniel."
Happy pulled a face. "Nate. If you don't want to call me the other name, that's fine, hell, I don't care, but I'm Nate, Aaron." He held Papa's dark eyes before taking a step back, bumping into his horse. "Ah, I better go."
Papa nodded, pulling Samuel to him. Samuel felt himself calming, like a leaf settling into place when he felt his father's broad strong hands on his shoulders.
* * * *
Aaron King pulled the quilt higher around his son as Samuel settled into the single bunk that had come with the cabin. He stroked a hand down Samuel's swelling cheek before getting to his feet, stepping from the room, turning out the light, and leaving only Mickey Mouse to beam from near the floor, the night light that Aaron had bought for his son.
"Good night, Samuel," he whispered. He knew his son wouldn't answer. He bowed his head, feeling something seethe like dragon's breath under his breast bone. He was supposed to have faith that Samuel would recover. Faith!
Alone in the great room, Aaron felt familiar restlessness rise. He was used to evenings spent with the company of his father, his brothers. Now there was only this empty cabin, where many people had lived. A yellowed plastic clock ticked from the stone mantle, counting the hours until Aaron would serve food to the cowboys again, until he'd see Nathaniel and maybe exchange a handful of words. So far, the young cowboy was the only one to talk to Aaron.
Needing to breathe fresh air and stand under the stars, Aaron left the cottage, leaving the door open behind him. It was crisp outside, the water that had melted during the heat of the day freezing into icicles that clung to the edge of the roof like silvered teeth. Aaron reached up and broke one off, holding it in his palm.
"When I was a kid, I used to like to break those off and chew on them," said a familiar voice.
Nathaniel. He stood in the dark of the bending trees, holding a tin cup in one hand.
Aaron's heart picked up. "Me too," he said.
Nathaniel stepped into the light from the porch, slim hips swaying, boots clomping. He took his hat off and placed it on the bench, his dark hair mussed around his face, stubble on his jaw. His smoky quartz eyes latched onto Aaron's.
"Some nights seem longer than others."
Aaron grunted an agreement. He nodded to Nathaniel's cup. "Coffee so late will make it hard for you to sleep."
Nathaniel shrugged. "I had a date. I'm just winding down." He sat on the bench and let the air out of his lungs in a long sigh, as if it was the first time he'd sat down all day. Aaron could believe that since Nathaniel Jefferson seemed always to be in motion, smiling, joking, even dancing, swinging those hips from side to side. He was like an unbroken colt, free-spirited. He attracted the eye so that sometimes Aaron would catch himself watching him, fascinated.
"Is she someone who lives nearby?" Aaron asked. This was something he could navigate in the strange outside world he'd been forced to embrace, talk of courting. He would never marry again, never, but Nathaniel was so remarkable that it made Aaron wonder what kind of woman would appeal to him. Would she be quiet and content to let him sparkle the way he did, or was she like him?
"He's a guy I met at a rodeo a while back named Sean. He's a really good rider," Nathaniel said.
Aaron's breath caught in his chest. He didn't look at Nathaniel, heat rising in his face.
Nathaniel finally made a soft sound, as if disgusted with himself. "Night, Aaron," he said, retrieving his hat and getting up to leave.
Heart thudding, Aaron listened to Nathaniel's boots crunch on the gravel. He parted his lips, trying to think of something to say.
Nate, he ached to call him that. The name sounded simple, clean, like the man.
Instead he walked out from the cabin onto the middle of the darkened path as Nate returned to the bunkhouse, never once looking back to where Aaron watched him.