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Theo Stone was… perplexed. "A dude ranch, Shawn? Seriously?"
He looked out from the porch of his little guest cabin, at the idyllic but surreal place his ex owned. While a few small houses dotted the landscape, it was mostly green grass as far as the eye could see. Rolling hills, green freaking grass, and cows. Holee shit the cows. A little lake shimmered in the distance. Quiet. Pretty. Nothing like the view from his Georgetown condo.
He eyed Shawn, whose appearance was also a little hard to reconcile. When last Theo had seen him, he'd been the very model of your stereotypical physical trainer with his muscles and his spandex. Theo’d liked the spandex. They’d had a brief thing, but Shawn was way too sweet and way too young. They’d had little in common outside the gym and the bedroom.
Now, as he frowned and leaned against a wood post on the porch, Shawn was almost a different person. Jeans and a flannel shirt hugged his solid body, and the cowboy hat and tan made the guy look like something out of a movie. His boots were worn and muddy, like he actually worked in them and didn't just prance around with them on because they were stylish.
"I know, and Mama would be rolling in her grave if she only knew, but frankly I need the extra money." The Texas drawl in Shawn's voice wasn't heavy, but clear enough that Theo had to wonder how he'd never noticed it during their time together in DC. "Which is why I called you, Theo. We’re in trouble if word gets out about these deaths."
Theo grimaced and shook his head. "You know I can't investigate in any kind of official capacity."
"Yeah, yeah, you keep saying that." Well, that nasty eye-roll of his hadn't changed. "Look, I already told you the police are investigating. Just hang out and enjoy your stay here like the rest of the folks, and if you happen to notice anything, you know..."
Yeah, Theo got the picture.
"Yeah, well, I'm here." Theo looked down at himself. The jeans and checked shirt weren't too far out in left field, but the boots and massive belt buckle made him cringe. "And I look like a doofus. Anything else is just gravy."
A gentle kiss and soft stubble bruhed across his cheek as Shawn stepped off the porch. “You needed a vacation anyway. You don’t slow down, one of these days, you’re gonna have a heart-attack.” To complete the look of shame, he dropped a straw cowboy hat onto Theo’s head and patted it gently. “Now be sure to wear the hat. You burn easy, and you’re not used to the Texas sun.”
Crimeny. “First vacation in five years I’m in the middle of fixing someone else’s problems,” he muttered to himself. What was he even doing here? As Shawn walked away, strong shoulders and lean hips rolling easily, blond hair shining in the sun, Theo supposed he knew.
At the end of his first full day at the Judge’s Bend ranch, Theo couldn’t figure for the life of him why folks did this for fun. His ass hurt from trail riding, and his knees and calves were bruised from one too many failed attempts at roping a wily young goat named Peanut. Apparently goats were what children and dumbass city slickers learned on before moving up to learning how to rope a steer. Lucky for Theo, a couple of Korean ladies – and who the hell flew all the way from another continent to do this shit, anyway? – had managed to thoroughly document his public humiliation on film.
Even the part where Peanut’s flailing hooves had connected squarely with Theo’s balls. Two tours in Afghanistan, couldn’t compete with one lousy goat.
Theo had also taken a tour through the bunkhouse and the main house-turned B&B, but no major clues had jumped out at him regarding the two ranch hands who had turned up dead. The police, apparently, weren’t looking too hard beyond ruling the incidents as a tragic accident. Shawn was convinced that old man Tallart from the next piece of property over was behind it all. Apparently Tallart was looking to expand his commercial operations, and felt that the space occupied by Shawn’s cattle would be perfect.
“So I hooked up with this buckle bunny last night after the rodeo…”
“Ugh.” Theo rushed past the back porch of the main guest house toward his little cabin by the lake. He had met Bruce “A port in every storm” Carson this morning over huevos and cornbread and had nearly lost his will to live, let alone scarf down Shawn’s delicious fried plantains. And why had Shawn never cooked for him like that when they’d dated? Maybe you never asked. Maybe you never offered to cook for him.
“So, how was your first day?” Shawn sidled up quietly on the guest cabin porch. The familiar hand on Theo’s hip and hot breath on his neck was too perfect.
Theo shook his head. “No offense, Shawn, but if I wanted to feel this abused at the end of the day, I coulda done it without the six-hour flight. I think the only thing saving my sanity is I stopped smelling all the fresh air hours ago.”
Shawn bumped Theo’s hip with his own, giving Theo a buzz of arousal. “You poor baby. Maybe tomorrow you can hang out in the barn and help milking the cows.”
“Just keep me the hell away from Peanut. That asshole goat has my number.”
“Peanut’s a girl, Theo.”
“Whatever, we didn’t exactly exchange pleasantries while the little shit was trying to make me sing soprano.”
Shawn’s laugh was soft and husky. Almost enough to lull Theo to sleep right there on his feet, had they not been throbbing like they had their own pulse.
He gestured toward the main guest house. “What’s the deal with that guy, Bruce?”
Shawn rolled his eyes. “I hired him to help me out with getting our computer systems up to date. Mama’s records are a mess and I think that’s how she wound up on the verge of bankruptcy. Just plain wasn’t keeping track of what was spent. I know, he’s a little sleazy, but I think he means well.”
Theo decided to reserve judgment on that one, as he headed in to lay his aching ass down to sleep.
Despite his exhaustion, the deafening peace and quiet made it impossible for Theo to sleep. Ordinarily, the solution would have involved a tumbler of whisky and some Internet porn. He opted for a walk, instead.
As he passed through the grove of trees that lead up to the main house, Theo's ears perked up. Through the rustle of wind and crackle of leaves came the kinds of animal sounds that he usually needed his laptop to find.
"Oh, yeah, hotness, I'm gonna do you so good you're gonna see God..." Holy disgusting crap.
On the damp, shadowy ground, there was Bruce flashing his own full moon while one of the two Korean tourist ladies writhed beneath the man, murmuring what Theo could only assume were her own versions of “Oh yeah, right there, oh baby.”
Theo was so stunned that he nearly missed Tourist Number Two sneaking up behind old Bruce, wielding a rock the size of a shot put.
"No!" Theo tackled Tourist Number Two to the ground, knocking the rock from her hands as he did.
"What the fuck??" Bruce and Tourist Number One were scrabbling to pull clothing back into place while Theo held onto the smaller one. Theo had her pinned, but he was wailing like a banhee and seemed intent on finishing what Peanut had stared. Hell.
"What the hell is going on here? What's all this noise?" Shawn. Glory, hallelujah.
"Call the cops, Shawn." Theo grunted. "I think these ladies were trying to take down old Bruce, here. And I think we might find, that they know about what happened to those ranch hands, too."
When the red and blue lights finally faded and a shaky Bruce was bundled off to his quarters, Shawn and Theo were left alone and shaky under the dark cover of Shawn’s covered porch. “I can’t thank you enough,” Shawn said.
“I didn’t do anything,” Theo yawned. “Just luck. And insomnia.” He chuckled. “Which ain’t gonna get any better after what I saw tonight.”
Shawn laced his fingers through Theo’s. “Maybe there’s something I could do tonight. To help you sleep.”
The memory of Shawn’s body next to his… Theo couldn’t say no. Even though he should. They were a long way from the nation’s capital, and Theo wasn’t looking for a fling.
“I hear your gears turning,” Shawn said, tugging on Theo’s arm. “We can worry about the fallout tomorrow.”
Theo hesitated. “I’ve been thinking. Maybe DC is awfully busy. Time to slow down. You interested in renting out that guest cabin?”
“No. But I’ve got a really nice king-sized bed,” Shawn murmured. “Come inside and I’ll show you.”
Theo tightened his fingers around Shawn’s and followed him through the door.