The slam of a screen door sounded like a gunshot, waking Benji from slumber. He winced as the bright sunlight streamed through his open window. Judging from the angle of the sun, it had to be at least ten or eleven o’clock in the morning. He squinted at the clock on the bedside table.
The glowing numbers taunted him as the faint sound of men talking reached his ears. Alejandro.
Memories from the night before flooded his poor brain. He’d hurt Alejandro with his brash words. He hadn’t meant to, but in his own fumbling way, he’d screwed up. He tossed his arm over his eyes, debating if getting up was really worth it. At least until his bladder changed his mind.
Rolling out of the rack, he staggered to the bathroom. The thumping inside his skull reminded him exactly why he didn’t drink anymore. His body just couldn’t handle the aftermath. It was a bitch getting old. “Shit. How much did I drink last night?”
He shut the door and answered the call of nature. In the darkened confines, he desperately wished he hadn’t gone back out to his bike to retrieve the whiskey he’d picked up in town. Always aware of the dangers of drinking and driving, he’d had one beer at the bar, then bought the pint. He’d intended to take it to his room and have a few― but with the way his head pounded, he’d had more than that.
Once finished, he washed his hands and opened the medicine cabinet in search of aspirin. He spotted the familiar white bottle, shook out four, and popped them into his mouth. Leaning down, he drank straight from the faucet, savoring the tepid water. With his thirst quenched, he started the shower and slipped inside the steamy confines.
With the water beating down on his shoulders, he hung his head between his outstretched arms. As the fog cleared from his brain, he knew he owed his boss an apology. He shouldn’t have jumped all over the younger man the way he had. “Damn when I fuck shit up, I do it good.”
By the time he’d finished his shower and slipped into his last clean pair of jeans, he thought he might be able to stomach some food. Wandering into the kitchen, he was just filling a cup of coffee when the raised voices coming from the front porch had him pausing.
“Look, I don’t care what you think you know about my father, I’m not buying it.” Alejandro sounded pissed.
“You don’t understand, Mr. Delgado. It wasn’t that your father didn’t want to be around you. It was your bitch of a mother―” The unknown man was obviously trying to reason with his boss.
“Stop right there!” Alejandro’s voice rose. “Mama may not have been perfect, but I’m not going to listen to some rich, pansy-assed banker talk shit about her.”
“Damnit, you’re just as stubborn as your father. I told him, time and time again, that he needed to tell you the truth.”
Deciding he’d heard enough, Benji pushed open the door, uncaring that all he wore was a pair of jeans. An older gentleman in a suit stood on the first step leading up to the porch, holding a thick padded envelope in his hand. Alejandro didn’t even bother to glance at Benji. Instead he kept his gaze on the other man. Even from his spot five feet away, Benji could feel the tension radiating off Alejandro. “Is there a problem here?”
“No. Mr. Downing was just leaving, Benji. He has nothing I want.” Alejandro brushed by him, the scent of his soap and cologne teasing Benji’s nose.
He nodded. “I’ll see he gets off the ranch, boss.” He resisted the urge to tip the younger man’s face up. His sudden need to read Alejandro’s expression was strong, but he controlled it as his boss slipped by him to enter the house. The slap of the screen door seemed loud. He rolled his shoulders as Mr. Downing continued to stare at him. He couldn’t care less if the businessman liked him or not.
“Okay, time to leave. Boss has spoken.”
Mr. Downing gave a brief nod, then bent to place the padded envelope on the top step. “I understand Alejandro is upset. I would be too, if I were in his shoes. But the fact of the matter is that I promised his dad to deliver that to him once he moved onto the homestead. I keep my promises― even when I don’t want to.” He straightened and fussed with his tie. “Tell Alejandro, that while I don’t agree with how Kemen handled the situation, I can understand why he did. Men of my generation didn’t flaunt their lovers. Appearances meant everything.” He nodded toward the parcel. “Please make sure he gets those. When the time is right, he’ll want to read them. A boy, even fully grown, still needs his questions answered.”
“I can’t promise they won’t end up in the fireplace, but I’ll take them to him.”
The man’s shoulders slumped. “Thank you.” He reached inside his jacket for a slender silver case. He opened it and pulled out a crème-colored business card. “My name and contact information.” Taking a pen, he scrawled another number on the back of it. “Please tell him to contact me if he has any questions. Doesn’t matter what time it is either. I’ll always make time for my Kemen’s son.” He placed the card on top of the envelope. “Tell him that.”
As the man walked back to the gleaming Lincoln Towncar, Benji let what the man said sink in. Whether Alejandro realized it or not, he’d just kicked out the one man who knew Kemen better than anyone else― his lover.
Alejandro was sitting at the table with a cup of coffee when Benji came back in― the thick envelope tucked under one arm. He stiffened. “I don’t want his damned letters.”
Benji shrugged, and placed the packet on top of the fridge. “Want? I don’t want to have an asshole of a father who kicked me out when he realized he couldn’t change the fact I was gay, or that I wouldn’t follow in his footsteps.” He tucked something under a magnet, before turning to face him. “But that doesn’t change the fact that, right now, I need him to be there for my ma.” He moved to the coffee pot. “Just like one day you may realize despite how his distance hurt, you’ll need the connection those letters offer.”
Leaning back in the chair, Alejandro watched as his cowhand put sugar in his own coffee. Benji sat down across from him, cupping the steaming mug. Then he sipped it, his eyes half shut. Letting the legs of his chair land on the floor, Alejandro glared at his hand. “How the hell am I supposed to stay angry with you, when you say things like that?”
Setting down the cup, Benji grinned. “You’re not.” The smile fell from his face. “I’m sorry about last night. I was an asshole. Forgive me?”
Alejandro stilled, unable to believe Benji thought a mere apology would make up for the man’s accusations. “You think it will be that easy?”
Stirring the spoon in his cup, Benji shook his head. “Nope. But a man can hope.” He met Alejandro’s gaze. “Look, I didn’t handle the situation well. Chalk it up to frustration at being attracted to a much younger man who happens to be my boss.”
Of all the things that Alejandro expected Benji to use as an excuse, that wasn’t one of them. Alcohol? Yeah. Cranky from a long hot day in the Oklahoma sun? Sure, it could happen. But because he found Alejandro attractive? Never in a million years. “So you’re saying that you would―”
“Like to get to know you better?” Benji propped his chin on one bent arm. “Yep, but I screwed the pooch on that. It’s probably for the best anyway. Once my ma is… gone, I’ll be heading back to Texas and…”
Alejandro’s heart sank at the reminder. Benji’s presence was temporary at best.
“…so I guess I settle for lusting after you from a far, while teaching you what you need to know.”
Taking a sip of his coffee, he finally nodded. “While I can’t say I don’t understand your reasoning, I can wish things were different. You intrigue me, Benji Coleman, but I’ll settle for picking your brain.” He looked up at his hand. “At least tell me you’re going to be sticking around until after roundup.”
Benji took a long drink. “Mom’s got stage four lung cancer. They’re giving her less than three weeks to live. So I’ll need some time off when she finally goes, but I’ll be here for the roundup.” He gazed at Alejandro, his expression unreadable. “That’s what I promised the Widow Ranson when I agreed to help you out. I’m a man of my word.”
“Of course you are.” Alejandro forced a smile, uncomfortable considering his own mother’s recent demise. Maybe a change of subject would be wise. “Why don’t I make you something to eat? I’m sure you’re hungry.” He got up and moved toward the fridge. “How does leftover stew and rolls sound?”
Benji relaxed back against his chair. “For breakfast?”
“No, for lunch. Breakfast was hours ago.” Rummaging inside the fridge, he pulled out the leftover stew and grabbed a tube of Grands biscuits. Then he carried them over to the counter. It only took a few minutes until he had the biscuits baking in the toaster oven and the stew reheating in the microwave. He turned back to face Benji. “It’ll be ready in about ten minutes.”
“Good, my stomach thinks my throat’s been cut. The hot wings I had at the bar didn’t stay with me very long.” As if on cue, Benji’s stomach rumbled so loud Alejandro couldn’t help but laugh.
“Obviously.” But the outlying cause had him frowning. “But let’s get one thing straight. I can’t dictate what you do on your off time, Benji. However, if there’s a repeat of last night, there will be no job. I need a sober hand who is willing to work, not one so hung-over he has to lay in the rack ’til noon.”
Instead of becoming belligerent or even protesting, Benji merely nodded. “Understood boss. No more drinking.” He looked sheepish. “When I fuck up, I fuck up good.”
“That you do.” The microwave dinged and Alejandro pulled out the stew to give it a stir as a comfortable silence filled the kitchen.
“More coffee?” He offered as he waited on the biscuits.
“Yeah, I need the caffeine.” As Alejandro poured him another cup, Benji touched his arm. “Thanks, boss.”
Alejandro sighed. “You won’t be thanking me later, when I have you out chasing chickens.”
The cup froze halfway between Benji’s mouth and the table. Then he carefully lowered it. “Why on earth would I be doing that?”
“Because that damned ornery goat of Dad’s chewed through the twine holding the chicken pen shut. Good news is it was the inner door, so they didn’t go far. Bad news? They are now in the calving pen. We can’t move the yearlings, like we planned, until all the chickens are gone.”
“You’re shitting me.” Benji’s head thumped down on the table. “You’re going to have a grown man chasing chickens.”
“Yep.” The buzzer on the toaster oven went off, demanding Alejandro’s attention.
“You’re just evil, boss,” Benji complained, as he lifted his head.
“You have no idea.” Alejandro smiled as he set down the food in front of Benji. “But at least I’ll feed you first.”