Rhett Tucker, co-owner and boss of Wyoming’s Double T ranch, stared at his reflection in the shaving mirror.
He bobbed down to his right, so his face showed in the corner with the splintered crack. He blinked, then studied his altered image, seeing his strong jaw elongated to exaggerated proportions and, when he ducked lower still, how his hazel eyes fractured and his short dark hair looked long and bushy, like a pelt.
No. That wasn’t right. Wasn’t fair.
He closed his eyes, but it didn’t stop him seeing beasts, the coyote and wolf shifters who’d fought a turf war on Double T land, or the biggest beast of all of them, the one his foreman Ernesto had turned into. A terrifying, giant wolf-demon hybrid out of a nightmare who’d slayed and slaughtered—
Nope, not going there. Tucker bent from the mirror to the sink so he could scoop water onto his face, splashing at any leftover shaving foam then patting with a towel to remove the last traces. He even wiped behind his ears and wriggled the corner of the towel into them, first one, then the other.
Go with cologne? He did have a bottle, and it was a scent he liked, but it’d been a present from his ex-girlfriend, Olivia, and it felt plain wrong to wear it on a date with someone else.
Rhett straightened his shirt—he should have ironed it. “Bathroom steam never works,” he reminded himself, needing to fill the silence. The sound of his voice didn’t work to plug the gap, and he circled back to what had been consuming him since he’d found out…that shifters existed.
He prided himself on being a plain-thinking rancher like his father, one who believed in what he could see and touch, like his land, or his cattle. And now, that included people who turned into animals. Who were animals. Some were murderous, terrifying monsters, and some were, if not angels, then more on the side of good as they went about their lives. Oh, and his brother had fallen hard and fast for one.
And if I can’t handle that, I’ll lose my little brother.
The thought of losing Jack made Rhett’s hands tremble as he tossed the wet towels into the hamper. His chest seized, making him sit on the edge of the tub to catch his breath. He’d accept anything he had to if it meant keeping Jack in his life. They’d only just started growing closer as brothers recently, when Jack had come home after years of them barely staying in touch because he’d lived and worked in New York City. Rhett wasn’t going to mess up again and let Jack get hurt—not by him, and not by anyone else.
I won’t fail him this time, like I did before because I didn’t want to tell him the truth about myself. Because I didn’t want to accept it, either.
Before he could continue his silent castigation, laughter rang out in the hallway, and the bright, joyful sound went a long way to drowning Rhett’s fears.
Hearing Jack so happy was worth anything. Even the scariest monsters in the world couldn’t have kept Rhett from leaving the bathroom so he could see his brother smiling, eyes crinkled at the corners, his mouth in a wide grin, arms around his boyfriend, Ben. Ben the coywolf shifter.
It didn’t matter if Ben was a shifter, not when he was looking at Jack the same way Jack looked at him. Only thing I can do is plow through my fears—or bury ’em as deep as possible. Jack deserved that, and maybe, although Rhett didn’t know him well, Ben did, too. That was what he wanted to believe, anyhow.
“Hey, Rhett.” Ben gave him a nod before pulling a face at Jack. “Oh, what’s your brother gonna think, huh? Him all neat and tidy like that and look at you, with your JBF’d hair.” He knuckled into Jack’s messy head.
Jack snorted and wiggled his butt. “I’ve got a JBF’d something all right, and it isn’t my hair.”
“Jacky-boy, behave!” Ben pretended to fan himself. “You’ll have your big brother blushing.”
“Maybe you should be the one blushing,” Rhett replied, standing his ground as he always did, even in this new situation. “If it’s done right, ya can’t walk for days, and here’s Jack looking ready to go line dancing at Bard’s Saloon, so…” He looked Ben up and down, pursing his lips in concern as fake as Ben’s shock of a moment ago. “I’d hate to think you weren’t treating Jack right.”
“Hey!” Ben’s indignation sounded more genuine now, and he pouted when Jack started chuckling, glared when Rhett sniggered too, then joined in.
Rhett didn’t know which of them laughed the loudest, but by the time he’d gotten his amusement under control, his sides ached, and he was shaking his head. “Aw, man. Y’all are something else.” He went to walk off.
Jack calling his name stopped him. “You doing okay there?” Jack asked. They might not have been close in recent years, but they’d grown up together and each was hard to fool.
“I…” Rhett chewed on his bottom lip a second. “Got some stuff spinning my gears up here.” He tapped his head.
Ben gave him a cool look from where he stood so close to Jack that Rhett couldn’t have swiped a credit card between them. “Stuff like wanting reality to go back to the way it used to be?”
As life should be for a solid, no-frills Wyoming son of the soil who didn’t believe in mumbo-jumbo. Well, that was the question he’d already answered for himself before he’d left the bathroom. Rhett hitched his thumbs through his belt loops and tipped his head back to look down at Ben, slow and easy. “I wouldn’t change anything about this world that makes my brother light up like he does around you.”
“Aww.” Jack’s eyes teared up and he hugged Rhett and, after a second, another pair of arms snaked around them—Ben joining in, too. It took a few seconds, but Rhett relaxed into the group huddle. Well now. How ’bout that.
Ben was the first to pull away. “I have to go. We got a pack run scheduled.”
“Can’t keep your alpha waiting,” Jack replied.
“Yeah, just like your big brother’s word is law too.” Ben wrapped a hand around Jack’s neck to bring him in for a smacking kiss. He slapped Jack’s ass then strolled down the short corridor to the front door, touching the first two fingers of his right hand to his forehead in salute as he went.
The lame joke barely registered with Rhett. His mind was busy thinking about Ben’s oldest brother and alpha of the Akers coywolf pack. Casey. That perma-smirking, cocky, swaggering— Taking in a deep breath, Rhett wrenched himself back to the here and now.
“Hate to see you go, but I love to watch you leave,” Jack called after Ben, tilting his head to take in Ben’s rear view, then laughing when Ben slapped his own ass and made a sizzling noise.
Ben didn’t close the door properly after him—Rhett had been meaning to plane it a little smoother, to stop it sticking—so Rhett walked over, intending to close it. Instead, he pushed the door open wider to get some air, never mind that he’d been outdoors all day. Jack joined him, leaning against the other side of the jamb like they were bookends.
“You really okay?” he asked, side-eyeing Rhett. “’S’okay not to be, after all…that.”
“That,” Rhett echoed, looking out over Double T land. “’S’funny—when I run into something new to handle on the ranch, I ask myself, ‘What would Pa do?’ and I usually find the answer, the way forward, you know? Only for ‘that’, well, I got no idea what he would do.”
“I didn’t know him as well as you did,” Jack replied, his words coming slowly. “And I guess I’ve learned more about him since coming back, if not from you, then from people’s stories and memories, here or in town. But I don’t think he’d have known what to do if he discovered shifters existed and that his younger son is destined mate to one of ’em.”
“Y’all might jus’ have the right of it there, son,” said Rhett, his impersonation of Chauncey Tucker’s measured, guarded speech so accurate that it set them both laughing again.
Jack twisted around and took one of the framed photos off the hall table. “I swear, you hold this up in front of your face when you do that, we’d fool anyone he’s still around!”
“Ah reckon we abou’ might,” Rhett couldn’t resist saying, Chauncey-style, as he took the picture to return it to the table. He studied it. He looked like Chauncey—no-time-to-fuss short dark hair and a big and burly frame, although his eyes were a hazel blend of his pa’s brown and his mom’s green—and was like him, too, in his focus on the ranch and the land.
“I’m more like Mom.” Jack followed Rhett’s line of sight to where the portrait of Lorraine Channing Tucker gazed down at them from the wall.
True, he had her large, dark-lashed green eyes and more delicate bone structure. Lorraine had been a beauty, with her high cheekbones and wide, full mouth, and Jack shared those, too.
Jack had always liked the formal-looking painting of Mom, in a silk evening dress she rarely had occasion to wear. Remembering how as a kid, Jack had used to exclaim “Portrait pose!” whenever Mom happened to be half-turned away and looking back at him, the same position she’d been put into for her painting, made Rhett laugh.
Seeing the expression Jack wore now, as he gazed at one of the last photos of Chauncey and Lorraine together on their wedding anniversary, Rhett knew he was wishing he’d been able to tell them he was gay. Jack had spoken of it before.
“Hey.” He got his younger brother’s attention. “I reckon they’d be glad you found someone. I know I am. And I’ll say it one more time for the folks at the back—there’s always a place for you here at the Double T. Heck, you own half the Double T!”
“Even if I know more about ranch dressing than ranch work?”
“Thought you worked in an office in New York City, not a restaurant. Like, publishing, not fast food?” Rhett joked. “And you know, that’s something we could think about. I was wondering about getting the admin side of things more up to date here— Oh, sure, go ahead. Laugh it up, kid.”
“’S’hard not to, when I think what passes for a ‘system’ in that home office back there!” Jack wiped his eyes. “If it’s Monday, you move the pile of papers to the back of the desk. Tuesday, to the table beside the desk. Wednesday, the chair halfway between the table and the filing cabinet. And by Friday—”
“By Friday I’m kicking your ass.” Rhett grinned, too.
“Tryin’ to.” Jack folded his arms. “But yeah, the office processes need streamlining. And not just the office. I got interested in data management—well, data science, or even data technology, really—and I’ve been havin’ some ideas for using it for the cattle, too.”
“That so? Like what? Putting a jumbotron in the far pasture to show the herd movies? Or giving each cow a cell phone, get ’em to take selfies, maybe set ’em up with an Instagram account? You wanna solve our ‘social media problem’ that way?” Rhett bent to see in the mirror, to give a final brush to his hair, and raised an eyebrow at his brother’s reflection behind him.
“Hey, neat idea—pretty pictures of cows in costumes and us dressed as cowboys in chaps… Hmm…” Jack couldn’t keep up the joke. “No. Tagging each cow with an electronic ID that stores all their info, to make herd management more efficient. It’s just something I was reading about.” Jack looked from the carriage clock on the hall table to his watch. “Hey. You wouldn’t be stalling there, would you, big bro? Seeing as how tonight’s your first date…with a guy?”
“No.” Rhett tweaked his sheepskin jacket from the coat stand and put it on. “I’m ready, see?” Well, he was the ‘dressed clean and tidy’ part of ready, and hoping to meet a nice guy, even if he didn’t think he’d ever be ‘ready’ for it.
“It’s a big step.” Jack nodded. “You want some pointers, bro?”
“Jack, I never wanna see your pointer. Ev-er,” Rhett emphasized, quitting the house. He was glad Jack walked him to his truck, although he could have done without the “Make me proud!” and “Make it happen!” that his one-hundred-percent certified brat of a little brother hollered after him as he drove away.
Rhett fiddled with the radio, getting it to his favorite classic rock station in time to catch a group suggesting he “take it easy”. Good advice. That was followed by “one for the oldies,” a classic country song telling him to “be a man”. He was—if facing up to being gay and wanting to be with a man counted.
Well, even if it didn’t and it wasn’t what the singer or songwriter had in mind, Rhett was off to Bard’s Saloon for his first-ever date with a guy, and one who was more experienced than him, better-looking than him and more take-charge than him.
A smug, bossy alpha, all long legs, wide shoulders and overlong wavy hair, strutted into his mind’s eye, and Rhett turned up the music to wipe him out. Well, ready or not, here I come.