Steve had been at the ranch for three days leading up to Christmas, soaking up the atmosphere and reveling in the joy of being with his closet friends. He and Jared rode the fences and herded the cattle during the day. He spent the evenings hanging out with Gray and his partner Mitch. He envied their committed relationship, seeing it as everything he’d always dreamed of having with someone, but he didn’t begrudge Gray the chance to live a blissful life. Living on the circuit, he didn’t often see a long term gay relationship that worked with the synchronicity of Gray’s and Mitch’s and he admired them for the effort they put into their “couple-ness.”
Christmas Eve day dawned bright and clear with the kind of cool temperatures the central coast of California was known for. Even with the sun out, the thermometer held at about 62 degrees so Steve had on a lightweight hoodie over his flannel shirt. He and Jared had moved a herd that morning then had lunch with Riley and Gray, their conversation on ranch business and duties. After they ate, Riley excused himself to prepare for an appointment, his eyes bright with an enigmatic enthusiasm that made no sense to Steve. He’d never understand the thrill of selling a bull. It just seemed like business to him. Nothing to get all hopped up over. Yet Riley had an air of suppressed excitement about him that puzzled Steve.
Jared dragged him off to the breeding barn after lunch and they spent the afternoon preparing for some mares that Gray had coming in after Christmas to be bred to his prize Quarter Horse stallion. Steve loved helping out around the ranch when he visited. He had fun working with Jared, Gray and Riley and all the regular ranch hands knew him and accepted him. Being able to relax and just be himself was the best Christmas present ever. The easy atmosphere made it simple for him to come to the decision he’d been putting off about his future. He now knew that this would be his last season riding bulls. He was done with the rodeo.
Late in the afternoon, he took some paperwork over to the stallion barn for Jared, pinning it onto the bulletin board next to the office door. He strode along the path between the horse barns, his mind on the Christmas festivities Riley’s wife Elle had planned for that night, when a flash of movement caught his eye and he stopped. Coming down the path from the distant bull barn was a tall, lean man who moved like liquid silver. Loose limbed grace wrapped in denim and flannel, wheat colored hair ruffled by the cool breeze, cowboy hat in hand, Dalton Emory still embodied every one of Steve’s dreams…and nightmares.
Something must have clued him in that he was no longer alone because Dalton stopped, rocking back on his heels, his gaze flicking upward until it met Steve’s. Color drained from his face and his entire body went rigid. For a moment, Steve wondered at his former lover’s extreme reaction, then Dalton’s gaze fell, and he clamped the cowboy hat on, the brim shadowing his square jawed face as he ducked his head.
“Hello, Dalton.” Steve tried to keep his voice even and cool, tried to keep his emotions under control despite his wildly racing heart.
“Steve.” Dalton’s voice rasped as if he had a frog in his throat…or was holding back tremendous emotion.
“What’re you doin’ here?” he asked bluntly. He thrust his hands into the pockets of the hoodie he wore. He didn’t want Dalton to see his fingers trembling.
Dalton shrugged helplessly. “Buyin’ stock from Riley.” He swallowed hard and glanced up briefly before lowering his gaze to his scuffed boots.
It struck Steve that Dalton wasn’t at all comfortable. Not that he was, but he had a much better grasp on composure than his ex-lover did. Dalton seemed ready to bolt out of his skin. He fidgeted, he shuffled his feet, and after that one brief moment, he didn’t seem able to meet Steve’s gaze.
“I better go,” Dalton spoke softly into the silence that stretched between them. He took a step toward Steve, angling to one side as if to give Steve a wide berth. He had just stepped past the long shadow Steve cast on the ground when he stopped and his head jerked up briefly as he blurted, “Are you really okay now, Steve?”
The words might have meant anything, but Steve knew exactly what Dalton was asking him. Unable to speak the truth, unwilling to let Dalton see how empty he often felt, Steve plastered a smile on his face and replied, “Never better.”
Dalton’s Adam’s apple bobbed as he swallowed and nodded. “That’s good. That…matters to me.”
“I wouldn’t think anything about me mattered to you,” Steve snapped, unable to stop himself.
A wince flashed across Dalton’s face. “I deserve that and a lot more.” He shifted foot to foot in his battered boots, his gaze somewhere to the left of Steve’s right shoulder.
Some demon inside Steve made him take a step forward. Instantly, his senses were assaulted with the scent of Dalton, Old Bay Rum aftershave, Irish Spring and a hint of saddle soap. “What about you, Dalton? Are you okay?” Steve tossed his words back at him.