Floods and Drought
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by Zahra Owens
Category: Romance/Gay Fiction
Description: Tim Conroy knows all about patience. He's waited three years for Rory McCown to get out of jail after doing time for stealing horses from the Blue River Ranch. Now that Rory is eligible for parole, Tim makes it his goal to persuade his boss, Hunter Krause, to give Rory a second chance. He almost regrets it when Hunter agrees. Rory is a morose loner one moment, then arrogant and overconfident the next. The attraction between them is still there, but as soon as they start to get close, an old enemy throws a wrench in the works? and their fledgling relationship may not be strong enough to weather the coming storm.
eBook Publisher: Dreamspinner Press/Dreamspinner Press, 2012 2012
eBookwise Release Date: April 2012
4 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [396 KB]
Reading time: 266-373 min.
Grant Jarreau came bounding up the porch stairs of the largest house on the Blue River Ranch with Matthew on his arm. The child was laughing ecstatically at being tossed around rather roughly by the big cowboy and only complained when Grant put him on the kitchen floor.
"More!" Matthew called out, but Grant ignored his pleas and simply tousled the boy's hair before moving to the breakfast table and kissing his lover.
"You know, if you keep tossing him around like that, he's going to expect all of us to do it as well," Hunter Krause remarked. "You spoil him."
Grant squeezed Hunter's shoulder. "That's because I know how much you enjoy being spoiled; why should your son be any different?" He winked, and Hunter started laughing.
At that moment, the kitchen door opened again and a flood of children came bounding in, closely followed by Christy Marshall, the mother of most of them.
"Calm down already!" She raised her voice. "Be quiet and sit down to eat your breakfast."
Hunter had put out bread, cheese, and lunchmeat and was making sandwiches for all the kids to take to school. Three years ago he and Grant had built their own house on the property, but they ate breakfast at the larger ranch house most of the time because they wanted to see Grant's three kids before they went to school. Everyone had their fixed routine in the morning, which took some of the heat off Christy, who also cooked for the workers who lived at the ranch.
Grant thought the kitchen resembled a daycare center more than a ranch house most mornings, between his kids with Christy and the two little girls playing with Matty, who belonged to Hunter's sister Izzie and Hugh Conroy, the ranch foreman. Danny, Hugh's son with his first wife, Lisa--also a sister of Hunter's--completed the picture. He was old enough to sit with the adults and was pitching in to help Hunter make them sandwiches along with the ones for the school kids when the phone rang.
Grant got up from the table to pick up the receiver. "Blue River Ranch." The kids were making a racket, so he tried to cover his other ear, but he still couldn't make out what the soft voice on the other end of the receiver was saying. By the time he'd rounded the door to the hallway, the caller had disconnected the call.
"Who was that?" Hunter asked as Grant sat down next to him.
"No idea," Grant answered. "Whoever it was didn't wait for me to get to a quieter part of the house so I could hear."
Hunter shrugged. "They'll call back. They probably thought they got a wrong number and had inadvertently called the zoo, or something."
"Well, it certainly sounds like a zoo in here. I feel sorry for the schoolteachers who get this bunch in morning classes," Grant replied with a smile.
"Saddle up, kids. Get your lunch and your books out to the car. Time to leave for school," Hugh announced while Izzie helped the kids find everything and everyone chipped in to get the four oldest children out the door.
As Hugh and Izzie walked down the porch, Tim--one of the wranglers and Hugh's baby brother--came running up to the house.
"Can I talk to you, Hugh?" Tim asked. He leaned in a little closer. "It's not for everyone's ears."
Hugh knew his brother well enough to tell this couldn't wait and exchanged a silent look with his wife, who held out her hand for the car keys.
"Sure, let's go into the office."
Tim followed Hugh to the ranch office, which was located downstairs next to the mud room. This was usually where Hunter did the books and recorded the orders that needed to leave the ranch, but since Hunter was still in the kitchen, Hugh knew they'd have some privacy there.
"Shoot," Hugh said after closing the door behind Tim.
Tim hesitated, playing with the rim of his hat. "Remember Rory?"
Hugh narrowed his eyes and shook his head. "Rory?"
"Drifter who asked for a job a few years ago. Stayed for about three weeks and then disappeared after picking up his Friday night paycheck," Tim explained.
"You expect me to remember every ranch hand who passes through here, Timmy?"
Tim shook his head. "You should remember this one. He's the one who helped Delco steal all those foals that year."
"Right. That Rory. What about him?"
Tim took a deep breath and looked at his brother. "I need a favor, Hugh."
"Will you cut to the chase?" Hugh asked impatiently. "I have a ranch to run, and at this pace it'll be dinnertime before I get around to it."
"I need you to give him his old job back," Tim said determinedly.
Hugh laughed. "You must be joking."
"I'm not," Tim replied calmly. "He needs a job and a place to stay or they won't let him out on parole."
Hugh leaned over the desk. "Let me get this straight. He worked here for three weeks to get inside information on the workings of this ranch, then disappeared like a thief in the night, only to come back with Delco to steal seven foals from us. And you want me to give him a job?" He pushed himself off the desk with some force to straighten his back and then folded his arms in an attempt to look taller, which was easy since he was well over six feet and Tim was at least two inches shorter. "Even you have to realize I'm not that gullible, Timmy."
"He's no criminal mastermind, Hugh," Tim answered. "He's just a guy who's been dealt a rough hand. The horse thieving wasn't his idea, it was Delco's. Rory simply had no money for more than a pro-bono lawyer, and that's why he got four years and Delco was out after eleven months."
"Don't you think the fact he had a rap sheet an arm long could have had something to do with the judge's decision?" Hugh shook his head. "The guy's a career criminal. He got off lightly as far as I'm concerned. Other states have a three-strikes law, and he would have been behind bars for life just about anywhere other than Idaho." Hugh leaned closer to his brother again. "Timmy, I know you're the one who always brings home strays, but Hunter will skin me alive if I hire this guy."
"I thought maybe you could talk to Hunter," Tim pleaded. "Rory's been an exemplary prisoner. He's getting out early for good behavior, and he's determined to walk the line from now on. Hugh, please?"
"How do you know all this?" Hugh asked, mellowing somewhat. "Have you been visiting this guy in prison?"
Tim shook his head. "One of the wardens is an old classmate of mine. He's been keeping me up to date."
Hugh nodded. "Fine. I'll talk to Hunter at a moment when he won't bite my head off. Don't expect him to say yes, but if he does, I'm going to suggest that you be responsible for this guy's behavior on the ranch. If anything is stolen or, heaven forbid, we start losing horses again, there's only going to be one guy to blame, and that's Rory. You do understand that, don't you? You're going to be his babysitter, and we're going to shoot first and ask questions later." Hugh sighed dramatically. "We've always run a safe ranch. Nobody locks their doors around here, and I don't want that to change. This guy would have a much easier go of it in a place where they don't know him, Tim. Our old-timers are all nice guys, but I can't vouch for them when it comes to working with a convicted felon. They might not even want to work with him at all, and then what?"
"I'll work with Rory," Tim said with clear conviction.
"You're a wrangler, and as I recall, he doesn't even know how to ride a horse. How are you going to work together? We can't spare you on the range, Tim. Especially not when the foals are born and the mares need to be serviced again."
A smile formed around Tim's mouth. "I always thought we had stallions for that, Hugh."
Hugh rolled his eyes and slapped Tim's head. "You're my brother, Tim. We've lived and worked on this ranch all our lives, and I don't want anything to compromise that."
"It won't," Tim assured his brother. "I just want to give this guy a break."
Hugh sighed. "I know." He put his arm around Tim's shoulders and eased him out of the office and into the light of the bright autumn sky. "Let's get some work done, okay?"
* * * *
Hugh pondered his brother's request all day. Tim had a big heart; everyone knew that. In fact both dogs that guarded the stables were mutts Tim had found by the side of the road abandoned as puppies. He'd always taken care of them, and although they were both kind-hearted dogs, they only really listened to Tim, who could summon them with a whistle and a click of his tongue.
The not-so-small favor Tim had asked of him definitely fell into the Tim-has-a-big-heart category as far as Hugh was concerned. He tried to recall everything about the horse theft case and remembered that Delco's prison record had been squeaky clean, yet this Rory fellow had had a few things to his name. Nothing major, Hugh remembered--some petty theft and a "borrowed" car came to mind--but he'd been to prison twice before, and so the judge had given him the harshest sentence he could give under the circumstances. This guy sounded like a lost cause, a career criminal who'd have a hard time finding an honest job anywhere he went, and so of course Tim was drawn to him like a moth to a flame. Part of Hugh wanted to protect his baby brother, but Tim wasn't a teenager anymore. Tim carried a lot of responsibility around the ranch, especially around foaling time, when he was the one in charge of keeping vigil over the mares in labor. He had saved numerous foals with his calm demeanor and swift action. Hugh trusted Tim blindly with everything but his big heart. Even after all these years, he still wanted to protect Tim from the evils of the world. And Hugh felt like a coward when he realized he was turning to Hunter to play the boogieman by letting him have the final word.
For that reason, it took Hugh almost a full week to approach Hunter about Rory. He knew Tim was getting antsy and wanted an answer to his request.
"Hunter, can we talk in private tonight? After dinner maybe?" Hugh asked his brother-in-law as they were helping set the table for Sunday dinner.
"Sure. Business or pleasure?" Hunter asked in a laid-back sort of way.
"Business, I'm afraid."
"Can't it wait until tomorrow then?" Hunter asked.
Hugh sighed. "I should have asked you earlier in the week."
Hunter's face grew serious, and he moved a little closer to Hugh. "You're not leaving us again, are you? Who did you snare this time? Bernie?"
Hugh laughed. He could take the joke because he knew Hunter wasn't serious. Hunter loved to tease him because Hugh had left Hunter's oldest sister, Lisa, for Izzie, his middle one. Bernie was Hunter's baby sister and a force to be reckoned with on the three-day-eventing circuit. In fact, she was probably going to go to the Olympics with a horse that Hunter had bought her.
"Izzie's the girl for me, Hunter, always was and always will be," Hugh answered good-naturedly. "Bernie'll find herself a good show-jumping champion one day."
"So what's troubling you then?" Hunter asked.
"Dinner's in about twenty minutes, I heard Mom say, so if you want to go down to the office now, we can discuss it."
After telling Christy and his mother where they were going to be, Hunter and Hugh went downstairs.
Hugh had a pretty good idea how Tim must have felt on Monday when he had to come down to the office to argue his case. "I'll cut right to the chase," Hugh told Hunter. "Tim asked me whether we'd consider hiring Rory McCown as a ranch hand."
Hunter's mouth fell open. "Rory McCown? Who stole our horses?"
"The one and only. Well, actually one of the two."
"And why would Tim want us to hire him?"
"Because he was a good worker when he was here, and because he's eligible for parole as long as he has a place to live and gainful employment." Hugh could see Hunter shaking his head in disbelief, so he continued before Hunter could say anything. "Besides, Rory wasn't the brains behind the whole operation. You and I both know that Delco was the one with the contacts to sell the horses and the cunning to devise a way to trick us into thinking we were looking for a cougar instead of a horse thief."
"Yeah, but Delco wasn't the one with the rap sheet all the way to Canada," Hunter intervened.
"That's just because he never got caught. How many people do you know who are interested in buying stolen foals? I for one don't know anyone like that. And I bet you don't either. Delco made the shady contacts. Rory was just stupid enough to get caught."
"So you're telling me we should hire a ranch hand because he's stupid?"
"Don't twist my words, Hunter," Hugh replied.
"So is this guy going to stay longer than three weeks this time?"
"Suppose it's a stipulation of his parole. He probably can't travel outside state lines and needs to stay employed. Not like he's going to find work easily with the jail time he's done."
"Don't suppose he will." Hunter pondered. "So how do I know he's not going to steal more of my horses?"
"You don't. But I told Tim that if you say yes, he's going to be the one keeping an eye on Rory."
"Do it," Hunter said.
Hugh couldn't believe what he'd just heard. "But you don't have any guarantees."
Hunter shrugged. "We employ just about anyone who asks for a job around here. I know that makes us seem desperate, but in a sense we are. We don't pay badly, yet it's nearly impossible to find people to work, especially for the low level jobs. Nobody over the age of sixteen wants to muck out stables anymore, so who am I to say no? Besides, we won't need to explain too many things to him. I'm sure he remembers. And we can trust Tim to keep an eye on him, right?"
Hugh nodded his agreement. Hunter was right, of course. At least with Rory they knew what to expect, which was more than they knew about the other drifters walking onto the ranch. Although he certainly had his apprehensions, Hugh almost couldn't wait to tell Tim, just so he'd see his baby brother's face light up.
* * * *
Tim never thought Hunter would say yes. He'd even rehearsed what he was going to say to Hunter because he didn't think Hugh would have the nerve to ask Hunter about Rory. But two miracles had come together, and now he was going to call the public defender to tell him that Rory would have a place to work and a roof over his head so he could be let out on parole. He just hoped Rory appreciated the strings he'd had to pull.
While he waited for the lawyers and courts to do their job, Tim started worrying. Had he taken on too much responsibility? What if Rory jumped parole? What if Hugh was right and Rory didn't appreciate the second chance he was being given?
Tim was tempted to visit Rory in jail, but he kept putting it off, afraid that Rory would give him a lukewarm reception. Then suddenly he got a call from Rory's lawyer asking for someone to pick up his client to take him to his new place of employment.
Rory was going to be released within the next twenty-four hours.
"Hugh!" Tim called out, bounding up the porch steps of the main ranch house. "Hugh!" he repeated when his brother didn't answer immediately. The front door was unlocked, as always, and Tim walked into the hallway.
"Where's the fire?" Hugh answered calmly as he came down the stairs carrying his youngest daughter.
"Rory's coming tomorrow. He's being released."
Hugh raised an eyebrow and nodded. "I guess you better get his room ready, then. Read him his rights on the way over here when you pick him up, okay? Ranch hands are to be seen, not heard. I expect him to do his job and not argue with anyone. First sign of trouble, he's out on his ass, and I won't be doing the explaining to his parole officer. That will be you." Hugh poked Tim in the chest and then threw him a teasing smile. "Make sure he knows that."
"I can't threaten him with that on the day they let him out!" Tim argued.
"He should be grateful we're willing to give him a chance. I don't see anyone else doing that," Hugh answered gruffly. "And settle down," he said, taking Tim's arm. "I know you carry a torch for this guy, but life and work goes on. Give him some space so you can both do the jobs you're supposed to do."
Tim nodded as Hugh left him in the hallway to take his daughter into the kitchen. He ran his hand through his longish brown hair and scratched the scruff on his face, hoping it would calm him down. Hugh was right. He had work to do today and would need to crank it up a bit to cover for the next day when he'd be away from the ranch all afternoon to pick up Rory.
Then Hugh's words rang through his head. "I know you carry a torch for this guy." What was Hugh suggesting? What was he reading into Tim's behavior? Tim didn't even know why he was so nervous about seeing Rory again. Was it because he feared he'd misjudged the guy he'd hit it off with so easily the few weeks he'd worked on the ranch?
Tim had followed Rory from afar since his arrest. Although at the time the whole ranch had been talking about Delco, since he was Izzie's ex-boyfriend, and how he had been the one behind the horse theft, Tim had been more surprised by Rory's involvement.
* * * *
Three years ago, after Hugh had hired Rory, he'd introduced him to Tim, who organized the ever-changing ranch hands. Tim noticed that Rory was taller than most of the drifters who worked the worst-paying jobs on the ranch. He was also lean, bordering on skinny. His eyes were mostly hidden under long, straight brown hair and the rest of his face by an only barely maintained full beard. It took Tim more than a week to see that Rory's eyes were brown too.
Rory didn't talk much, but he knew how to follow orders, and he was kind and gentle with the horses, although Tim had spotted right away that Rory wasn't a country boy. He was a fast learner and a hard worker and always cleaned up after himself. That was more than Tim was used to.
One night during Rory's third week at the ranch, most of the men had taken their dinner in front of the TV because there was football on. Tim noticed Rory eating alone at the large crew table.
"Mind if I join you?"
Rory gestured across the table, which Tim interpreted as "go ahead". He settled across from Rory and watched him eat the beef stew and potatoes with gusto.
"You don't watch football?" Tim asked in an attempt to get Rory to enter into a conversation.
Rory shrugged. "Don't care much for it. Prefer soccer."
"I don't know much about soccer," Tim admitted.
"They don't show it on the local stations," Rory replied resignedly. "Nobody else here watches it anyway, so it doesn't matter."
Tim thought about asking Hugh if he could look for it at the main house where they had cable. He didn't want to promise Rory anything he couldn't deliver, though, so he continued eating.
"Stew's good," Tim remarked, hoping to coax more words out of the other man.
Rory smiled as he wiped his plate clean with a slice of bread. "Best food I've had in a long time. You have a great cook in this place. Most ranches the crew cooks for themselves and the food is edible at best. Not here."
"Yeah, we're lucky," Tim replied. He couldn't stop looking at Rory's mouth and his almost-perfect teeth. He saw one crooked tooth on the left side of Rory's mouth when he ate some bread. Tim had no idea why that fascinated him so. Although he knew he was attracted to men rather than women, he'd never taken notice of a man's mouth in that way before.
"So what happens around here over the weekend?" Rory asked. "Everyone left last Saturday, but I don't know where they went."
Tim realized this was the most words they'd exchanged since Rory had arrived at the ranch. He tore his eyes away from Rory's mouth and looked him in the eye.
"They usually go to The Barrel Run. That's a bar in town where local music groups play on Saturday evening. I don't go unless Jack's band is playing. He's my brother."
"Your brother plays in a band?"
There was that smile again. He really had to stop looking at Rory's mouth.
"Yeah. The Teton Wranglers. Country rock. They're pretty good. Write their own music and all."
"Could you, like, tell me when they're playing next?" Rory asked a little hesitantly.
"Sure. Actually they're playing this weekend. I'll come and find you and you can drive with me."
Rory nodded his thanks and stayed at the table until Tim finished his meal. Without being asked, Rory took Tim's plate along with his own and turned to the sink to wash them. Silently Tim joined him to dry the dishes and put them away. Neither of them spoke, and Tim felt that he didn't really need to.
* * * *
The next Saturday, Tim drove to The Barrel Run with Rory in the passenger seat. Since it was foaling season, they'd worked hard all week and hadn't had much rest today so they were both ready for some relaxation.
At the bar, Tim knew what to expect. Whenever Jack's band was playing, the bar was packed, and since he was a native, everyone there knew him. And since he was Jack Conroy's brother and Jack was the local celebrity, Tim's stock went up as well. On top of that, Tim, like his brothers, was tall, dark, and handsome, and he lived in a community where many of the young men had moved away to the city to get better-paying jobs. He practically had to swat the women away, but since he had no real interest in them, he was a deft hand at letting them down gently. Because Rory had come in with him, he too got some attention. Tim was a little surprised to see his rather shy ranch hand smile at the women, then brush them off after exchanging just a few words.
Most of the guys Tim brought to The Barrel Run went home with one of the women, but Rory didn't seem interested. Like Tim, Rory remained near the bar, watching the stage and the crowd with amusement. They each bought their own drinks, and although Tim had a few beers, Rory ordered one beer-with-a-chaser after another, making swift work of each. By the third beer, Tim already felt his head grow light, but Rory, who'd had at least double what Tim had consumed, seemed a little more relaxed, but certainly not drunk yet.
When the band finished their set, Jack came over to Tim and greeted him like brothers do. Tim introduced Rory and stood by as Rory struck up an entire conversation about what guitars Jack played and how they chose their songs. Knowing that talking to Rory was like pulling teeth, Tim was surprised at Rory's easy conversation with a virtual stranger. Jack soon left to talk to some other people, and Tim saw Rory follow Jack with his eyes.
"I better go," Tim eventually said, knowing he'd have to get up early the next morning. "If you want a ride back to the ranch, you can come with me. Otherwise you're on your own."
Rory peeled his eyes off Jack and looked at Tim. "Yeah, sure. I'll come with you. "
Once inside Tim's truck, Rory was still smiling, but the ease with which he'd talked to Jack was lost again.
"Looks like you had fun tonight," Tim remarked.
"Yeah," Rory admitted. "Your brother's really talented. Good looking guy, too. I'm surprised he hasn't been picked up by a label somewhere. They could sure sell him to all those country birds in Nashville."
Tim noticed a Southern twang creeping into Rory's speech. "Are you from around there?"
Rory shook his head. "Georgia, actually, but I lived in Tennessee for a while."
"You don't sound like you're from the South."
Rory shrugged. "I've been traveling for a long time. It pays to sound like you belong everywhere and nowhere in particular."
Tim nodded. The truck was sitting in the parking lot, surrounded by haphazardly parked vehicles, and Tim was wondering how he was ever going to get out of there.
"The women seemed to like you," Tim said, just to try to keep the conversation going.
"Not just me, it seems. They asked about you more than me." He mimicked their behavior. "Did Tim bring you? My friend would like to go home with Tim. Maybe if you come with me, he'll follow her. What do you think?"
Tim smiled. "They should know by now they can't persuade me."
"Me neither," Rory said.
Tim felt Rory's eyes on him and turned toward him, just in time to see Rory move closer. Before he could react, Rory's deliciously curved mouth was all over his and Tim felt the softness of Rory's beard. Almost automatically he grabbed the back of Rory's head and held him there so he could return the kiss in earnest. Rory pushed his sinewy body against Tim's, and Tim felt his jeans grow tight, so he lowered one hand to Rory's ass. At the same time, he felt Rory's hands on him, and he moaned into the kiss when he felt a thigh rub against his groin.
Suddenly Tim heard a bottle crash outside the truck. "Faggots!" Reflexively, he pushed Rory away and looked around. There was just one guy standing in the parking lot. He looked very drunk, and Tim recognized him as a groom from the Hope Ranch in the next county. He hoped the guy wouldn't recognize him. Then the passenger door opened and Rory got out. For a moment, Tim was afraid that Rory was going to challenge the guy, but Rory went the other way.
Tim waited in the parking lot for about another hour, hoping Rory was just a little spooked and would return when the coast was clear, but as more cars drove away, Rory was nowhere to be found, so eventually, Tim drove home.
* * * *
Three years later, Tim still remembered what it felt like to be kissed by Rory and how his supple body had felt under his hands.
* * * *
Rory exchanged his prison issue jumpsuit for the clothes he'd taken off just short of three years ago. He had to tighten his belt a notch, and his jeans were a little too baggy for his taste, but it wasn't like he'd been let out to go clothes shopping. He had another pair of jeans in his duffel bag, but they were even wider, and the shirt he'd chosen was one that had fewer holes in it than the one he stuffed back in the bag. Luckily, his red plaid coat was fairly warm, and he had a cap with the logo of a garage he once worked at to keep his head warm.
The day before, the barber had trimmed his beard some, but he'd forgone getting his hair cut. He liked it a little long. He liked the scruff, liked the anonymity it gave him.
In less than an hour, he was going to walk out of the place that had been his home for three years. He'd said goodbye to the other guys and signed a few papers, and now he was about to be carted away to another kind of prison.
His lawyer--provided to him by the state, of course, since he had no money to speak of--had joked that Rory should see it as a form of community service. Rory had objected, but his lawyer had made it clear that this was his only chance and he should be grateful for it.
Why anybody in their right mind would hire a horse thief to work on a stud ranch was beyond him, but it beat staying in prison for another year, and Rory was good at keeping his head low. He could tough it out for a year.
Thirty more minutes, and then someone was going to pick him up and drive him to where he would get a place to stay. Then tomorrow he had to check in with his parole officer. He knew the drill. It wasn't like it was the first time he'd had to go through the humiliation of being read his rights as a parolee.
Rory veered up, picking up his duffel bag and the brown envelope containing a few personal items.
"Let's get moving," the warden said. "I never get why you guys aren't breaking down the doors to get out of here on release day," he muttered under his breath.
Rory didn't say anything. He didn't feel like it was expected. Instead he listened to latches opening, doors rolling away and closing again after he walked through. With every door he came a little closer to freedom. Or at least closer to fresh air.
Just before the last door, the head warden turned to him.
"Keep your nose clean. Turn up for work. And don't miss any appointments with your parole officer, starting tomorrow at nine. You know how crowded it is here. You've been an exemplary prisoner, and I don't want to see you back any time soon, you hear, son?"
Rory nodded. He stepped back and let the warden open the final door to freedom.
Rory blinked at the invasion of bright sunlight. He waited for a moment until his eyes adjusted to the low afternoon sun in the wintery sky. There was a truck parked across the road, and a man with a Stetson was leaning against it. Rory shook his head when he recognized the handsome cowboy with the unruly brown hair and the broad shoulders. He didn't even need to come closer to remember the wide-set eyes, the curious eyebrows, the perpetual smile, and those big, strong hands.
It answered a few of Rory's questions, of course. Suddenly it wasn't such a surprise that an employer had crawled out of the woodwork just when he needed one. Then again, it must have taken some pretty persuasion for Tim to convince his boss to take on a man who was not only a convicted felon, but the convicted felon who'd stolen horses off the very ranch he was now going to work on.
Rory felt his confidence wane. Everyone at the Blue River Ranch knew him. Almost all the guys working there were old-timers, and Rory figured most of them would still be working there now. The rest were family of Hunter, the owner, or Hugh, the foreman. Tim fell into the last category, since he just happened to be Hugh's baby brother. The men at the ranch weren't likely to have forgotten him, and Rory didn't think it mattered much that he hadn't been the mastermind behind the horse thieving. He'd helped enough to get a stiff prison sentence and another notch on his record. And since most of the men had followed the trial, it was no longer a secret that Rory had a far from clean criminal record.
Luckily, he'd grown a thick skin over the years.
Rory swung the duffel over his shoulder, turned away slightly when a long-haul truck kicked up a bunch of dirt, and then walked across the road to the waiting truck.
"Tim," Rory greeted his chauffeur. He kept his voice sounding as neutral as possible.
"Rory," Tim replied, tipping his hat.
Rory wondered if it was his imagination, but he could have sworn he heard longing in Tim's soft, velvet voice. Then again, he'd always found Tim's voice particularly sexy for such a butch-looking cowboy.
"Let's go," Tim said. "It's a long drive back."
Rory threw his duffel in the back of the pick-up truck and got in on the passenger side. Tim didn't say anything as he pulled into the road and drove off. Rory didn't know what to say either, so he just looked at the scenery and chewed on his thumbnail.
It took them a full two hours to strike up some sort of conversation.
"You hungry?" Tim asked out of the blue.
"Sure," Rory replied.
"Bet they didn't have any decent burgers in prison, right?" Tim asked, turning toward Rory with his ever-present smile all over his face as he pulled into the parking lot of a diner.
"Not like Barnaby's," Rory said, reading the sign over the old-fashioned roadside place.
It was fairly crowded inside since it was happy hour, and they each ordered the Early Bird Burger Special and a beer. Rory kept his head low, but nobody seemed to recognize him, not even the occasional guy who nodded in Tim's direction or the waitress who brought their oversized dinners. He didn't even feel that badly dressed, sitting among the ordinary folk and some farmers and ranchers who'd come in early to get a cheap dinner. The only difference between their table and the surrounding ones was that they didn't talk to each other. Rory could feel Tim looking at him from time to time, but he didn't look back. He just wouldn't know what to say if their eyes met.
When their waitress brought the check, Rory snatched it from Tim's hand and got up to pay for it at the register.
"Rory," Tim called after him, but Rory didn't look back. He paid the manager with the money he'd earned in jail and walked outside to the truck.
Tim caught up with him and let him inside.
"You didn't need to pay for my dinner," Tim said, not starting the truck but turning to Rory from his driver's seat.
"You drove two hours to pick me up and two hours back. You probably had to forfeit half a day's pay for it too. Was the least I could do," Rory replied, looking out the window. "Besides, we had the special, and it wasn't that expensive."
"It's not my truck, so the ranch paid the gas, and I worked extra to cover for today. Hunter trusts me, so he doesn't count my hours. As long as I get my work done, Hugh doesn't fret either."
Tim's voice sounded calm and in control, while Rory had the uncontrollable urge to get out of the car and run. He didn't know why that was, but he knew he had to will himself to stay put. That became even harder when Tim put his hand on Rory's arm, and Rory pulled back as if he'd been stung.
"Rory, please. You're wound tighter than a spring. I didn't mean to scare you and--"
"You didn't scare me," Rory was quick to reply.
"Then just look at me?"
"What do you want from me?" Rory said through gritted teeth.
Tim left his hand on the bench between them, and Rory eyed it suspiciously.
"I don't want anything," Tim answered. "No, that's not true."
That made Rory look up at Tim. For the first time in three years, Rory saw the curiously light-brown eyes that always sparkled. Tim couldn't hold Rory's gaze for long, though. So Tim wanted more? Rory clearly remembered a truck very much like this one, and he also remembered kissing Tim inside it.
"I want to give you a chance, Rory," Tim continued. "I don't know what made you end up on the wrong side of the track so many times during your life, but there has got to be a better way."
"Who are you to lecture me?" Rory said with subdued anger evident in his voice. "You were born on that ranch. You probably never even got as much as a speeding ticket. You've never had to worry where your next meal came from."
"I know," Tim replied, still sounding as calm as ever. "And that's why I feel I should share my luck. Always have. We have two dogs guarding the stables, and they were both dogs I found tied up by the side of the road, abandoned by people who no longer had any use for them. I brought them home and fed them and took care of them, and now they happily play guard dog. I've rescued horses like that too."
"I'm no animal to save," Rory said, still protesting but feeling calmer already. Tim's easy-going nature and soothing voice had an effect on him, although he would never admit to that.
"I know that too," Tim said with a chuckle. "I'm just saying that life isn't too bad at the ranch if you give it a shot. It's hard work at times, but the guys are great, and the horses make it worthwhile too."
"Only trouble is that the guys know I'm a horse thief. I stole their horses, some of them too young to be taken from their mothers. That's cruelty."
"Then why did you do it?"
Rory shrugged. "Why does anyone turn to crime?"
"Money," Tim said. He wasn't even asking.
"Money," Rory acknowledged.
"And where's that money now?"
Rory bit his lip. "Nothing left. I hope they made that Delco bleed too, because he took the bulk of it. I was just the sidekick. I got handouts."
"I know," Tim said.
"It was a stupid thing to do," Rory said as quietly as he could.
"Yeah, I know that too, but we can't change what happened. We all have to live with the stupid decisions we make."
Rory looked at Tim again. "When have you ever made any stupid decisions?"
"Maybe one day I'll tell you," Tim said teasingly.
"Maybe this one will turn out to be legendary?" Rory said with less humor in his voice.
"Asking your boss to give me a job."
"What if another horse disappears? What if something else gets stolen? Fingers will inevitably point at me, and it wouldn't be good to take my side then. These things never pan out right, man."
"That's a self-fulfilling prophecy."
"A self-f.... Whatever. What are you talking about?"
"At least we're talking," Tim said with a smile and a sideways glance. "I thought you'd given up on talking while we were driving all the way over here. The silence was killing me."
"I was never much of a talker."
"I know," Tim said. "I talk enough for both of us."
"I remember that."
"But I'm serious, you know," Tim continued. "If you keep telling yourself things can't go right for you, they never will. You have to believe that you can turn it around."
Rory shrugged Tim's words away.
"I believe you can turn things around," Tim said with clear conviction.
Silence fell between them again, but Rory didn't mind so much now. Night was falling, and the parking lot was still crowded, but with different cars than when they arrived. He looked at a couple waltzing between the cars to go inside and followed them with his eyes.
"Second wife," Tim stated.
Rory felt caught as he realized Tim had noticed him staring. "Do you know those people?"
"No," Tim answered, "but she's at least twenty years younger than him, and she's showing off her knockers."
"Then maybe they're not married yet? Maybe she's his mistress." Rory offered with a wry smile.
"Or his daughter's friend."
"That's disgusting," Rory said, looking like he smelled something foul.
"At least I got you to smile," Tim said with a shrug.
Rory immediately stopped. "I smile about as much as I talk."
"Okay, I'll take that as a challenge. Right next to showing you that walking the line pays off in the long run, I'm going to prove to you that you can get a lot farther in life by smiling than by frowning."
"Good luck with that," Rory said, unable to hide a grin.