Eli Barron lay on his back, staring at the dusty beamed ceiling of the barn. What extended family he had left had gone back to Wichita after spending three days mourning the death of Eli’s dad, Jonathan. He turned his head to stare at the only person on earth who truly knew him.
The fading bruise under Jesse Clooney’s eye said everything about his fucked up home life. Jesse had spent a lot of time at the Barron ranch over the years in an attempt to distance himself from his abusive father, and, because of that, Jesse felt Jonathan’s death as deeply as any member of the Barron family.
Jesse squeezed Eli’s hand. “You’re not coming with me, are you?”
Eli shook his head. Since the age of fourteen, he and Jesse had made big plans to join the rodeo circuit the minute they graduated. Eli was okay at roping. He’d even managed to place first in the Johnson County Fair’s barrel racing competition the previous August, but he wasn’t near good enough to compete with the professionals. Jesse was good enough, or at least he could be with a few years of practice, but Eli had always planned to tag along with Jesse just to be close to the boy he’d fallen in love with at thirteen.
“I can’t,” Eli finally said. “With Zeb in his first year of veterinary school, it wouldn’t be right for me to ask him to stay home and deal with shit here while I follow you around the country.”
The realization that he’d be left behind hurt nearly as much as his dad’s death, but he couldn’t be selfish. Not only did he have two younger sisters, but his mom didn’t deserve to shoulder the burden of the Barron family ranch on her own.
Jesse rolled to his side and rested his head on Eli’s bare chest. “I can’t stay here.”
Eli wrapped his arms around Jesse. “I know.”
Eli had always known Jesse was better than the life he’d been handed. He still wasn’t sure why Jesse’s mom continued to stay with her abusive husband, but she’d made it clear during Jesse’s last beating that she wouldn’t go against her husband, even if it was to save her own son.
“Maybe once you get everything settled, you can join me,” Jesse said.
“Maybe.” Eli knew it wouldn’t happen. His dad had been sick, real sick, for nearly six months and in that time, it had taken every spare minute Eli had to keep up with the work involved in running a cattle ranch. It didn’t help that his dad’s treatments had necessitated cleaning out the savings he and Mom had built up over the years. With Zeb getting accepted to vet school, his folks had borrowed a shitload of money using the ranch as collateral to pay tuition, books and board. Eli didn’t begrudge his brother. Zeb had worked hard to get the grades he’d needed to get into the K-State program, and their parents, Jon and Val, had done everything they could to make it happen for their oldest son.
Jesse pressed his lips against Eli’s. “Promise you’ll meet me at The American Royal in October?”
“Okay.” Eli stared into Jesse’s big hazel eyes. He wanted to ask what the separation meant for the two of them, but he didn’t have the guts. Jesse would be driving around the country in his old green pickup with the used, red camper shell the two of them had saved to buy. Eli’s throat grew thick with emotion that he fought to tamp down. The thought of Jesse sleeping in the back of the truck with someone other than him killed him.
“Eli!” Rebecca, Eli’s youngest sister, called from below. “Mom wants to know if Jesse’s staying for lunch.”
“You wanna stay?” Eli asked.
Jesse nodded. “My stuff’s already in the truck, but I can spare enough time to eat.”
Eli took a deep breath. He’d have Jesse for at least another thirty minutes. “Yeah, we’ll be there,” he called back to his sister.
* * * *
After driving around the lot next to Kemper Arena for fifteen minutes, Eli finally found an available spot and parked. He was nervous—so much so, in fact, that he hadn’t been able to eat lunch or dinner. It had been over four months since Jesse had climbed into his pickup and driven away from the ranch house. He’d received a few calls, but they were always from pay phones along the circuit, so Jesse couldn’t talk long.
Eli gave his ticket to one of the volunteers at the front gate before making his way inside. He glanced at his dad’s old pocket watch for the time before moving to stand against the wall. He was supposed to meet up with Jesse at seven, which meant he still had fifteen minutes to wait. The drive from his hometown of Gardner, Kansas, had taken less time than he’d planned, despite the parking issue.
Laughter off to his left caught his attention, and Eli straightened because he’d know that sound anywhere. He wiped his palms on his jeans, hoping to hide his nerves.
“Hey, Eli.” Jesse stood among three other men, all of whom appeared to be bronc riders if their body builds were any indication.
Eli stepped forward and reached out to wrap his arms around Jesse, but was thwarted in his attempt when Jesse took a step back and held out his hand.
“Guys, this is my best friend from school, Eli. Eli, this is Jimmy, Brett and Dane.” Jesse pointed to each man as he introduced them to Eli.
“Hi.” Eli winced at the croak in his voice. He cleared it before continuing, “Great to meet you.”
Jesse laughed as he slapped Eli hard on the back. “It’s good to see you.”
Eli was five inches taller than Jesse, so why had the action made him feel so much smaller?
“We doing this or what?” Dane asked.
“Hell, yeah,” Jesse replied. He put his hand on Eli’s right shoulder blade and gave Eli a gentle push toward the arena. “Let’s go watch the pros.”
Eli glanced back at Jesse, and Jesse grimaced as he flicked his gaze to the three men who were walking in front of them.
“Sorry,” Jesse mouthed.
Still hurt, but determined to make the most of the short time he had with Jesse, Eli nodded. Jesse didn’t need to know that he’d thought of nothing but their reunion for months. Eli had spent what little free time and money he had to fix up a decent bunk room in one of the old outbuildings. He’d already talked to his mom about asking Jesse to spend the off-season at the ranch. Lord knew he could use the extra pair of hands. Rebecca and Mary had helped with hay season, but it had taken twice as long to get everything in because of their inferior strength and experience.
They found their seats, and Eli was thankful his was on the aisle next to Jesse. The others in their group seemed nice enough, but he’d come to see the man beside him. After several minutes, he leaned over and whispered in Jesse’s ear, “I need a drink and some nachos. Will you make a run to the concession stand with me?” Eli prayed Jesse saw past the excuse and would follow.
“Sure.” Jesse leaned over to the men on his opposite side. “Making a food run. Be back.”
Eli stood and had started down the steps before he felt Jesse’s presence behind him. He had so many things he wanted to say and a quick trip to the lobby wasn’t going to cut it. Once he reached the bottom, he turned to face Jesse. “Can we go out to my truck for a few minutes?”
Jesse glanced up at his friends. “I don’t think there’s time for that, but maybe we can find a quiet corner or something.”
Although he hadn’t said it, Jesse’s meaning was clear. They would talk, but anything physical between them wouldn’t happen. Eli wasn’t a sex addict or anything, but he’d gone without the feel of Jesse’s arms during one of the hardest periods of his life, and he needed to know his heart still mattered to Jesse.
After making their way through the milling crowd, Jesse leaned against the wall in a spot that would offer only a modicum of privacy. “Sorry about the guys. Brett got us all jobs at his uncle’s ranch in Texas. We’ll have to work and the pay is shit, but it comes with room and board. The best part is we’ll be able to train on our days off.”
Eli took a step back as Jesse’s words sank in. “I fixed up a room for you in the barn.” He shoved his hands into his front jeans pockets. “I thought maybe you’d come home with me and help out around the place until the season started back up.”
Jesse gave a slight shake of his head. “I can’t go back to Gardner. At least not yet.”
“Why?” Eli’s breath felt heavy in his chest. Damn. Everything he’d ever wanted was slipping through his fingers, and he didn’t know how to stop it.
“You know why,” Jesse said. “That town’s too small for my folks not to hear I’m back, and you and your family don’t deserve to deal with that shit anymore.”
“No.” Eli pulled his right hand out of his pocket to squeeze Jesse’s shoulder. “You know how Mom and the girls feel about you, so don’t say crap like that. If you don’t want to spend time with me, just fucking say it.”
“It’s not you,” Jesse denied. “It’s that place. I can’t stand the way people look at me there.”
Eli sighed. It wasn’t a secret in town that Jesse had issues with his dad or that his mom never lifted a finger to intervene in Mr. Clooney’s harsh punishments, but Eli couldn’t leave. If Jesse refused to come back, how would they ever be together again?
Swallowing every ounce of his pride, Eli squeezed Jesse’s shoulder again. “I need you.”
“I’m sorry.” Jesse took off his battered, straw cowboy hat and ran his fingers through his flattened dark hair. “Maybe I can get away around Christmas and come up for a few days.”
Eli stared down at Jesse, remembering the taste of him, and how it felt to be inside him. Fuck! He wanted that back. “Will you really try to get up here?”
“Yeah,” Jesse replied. “Not sure my truck’ll make it much longer, but maybe I can ride the bus or something.”
“Just holler if you need help with the fare,” Eli offered. “Since you’ll be in one place, do you think you’ll be able to call more often?”
“Don’t know the set-up down there yet, so we’ll have to wait and see.” Jesse glanced to his left as a small crowd of people walked by them.
Eli had danced around the one question he still needed to ask, and from the way Jesse was starting to fidget, Eli knew he needed to get it over with. “Are you with any of those guys?”
Jesse settled his hat back onto his head. “They don’t know, and they can’t find out. Money’s tight, so if weather’s bad or we start to smell, we all chip in for a motel room.”
Eli felt slightly better. “Has there been anyone else?”
Jesse shook his head. “No.” He stared up at Eli. “I don’t want anyone else. I know shit’s fucked up right now, but once I start winning, and you get the ranch settled, we’ll find each other. Right now, I just need to be selfish. Thinking about you gets my head all messed up, and I need to concentrate.”
“Yeah,” Eli agreed. The last thing he wanted was for Jesse to get hurt, because saddle bronc riding was a dangerous sport. “Okay, but promise me that you’ll do your best to keep in touch.”
Jesse’s gaze landed on Eli’s lips. “I know you think I’m being an asshole, but this is my one chance to make something of myself. All my life I’ve been told I’m a loser and, for once, I want to be a winner.”
Eli fisted his hands, willing himself not to pull them out of his pocket, because if he did, he wouldn’t be able to stop himself from pulling Jesse into his arms. “You’ve never been a loser. You’ve been the best friend, best confidant and best partner anyone could ask for.”
Tears started to fill Jesse’s eyes, but he quickly blinked them away. “If I were all those things, I wouldn’t have left you.” He shook his head. “I just hope you don’t end up hating me, because right now, I need to be all about me.”
Eli’s own plate was full with taking care of his family and trying to pull the ranch out of the financial hole, so he understood Jesse’s plea, but it didn’t make the long months ahead easier to bear.
“Christmas?” Eli knew he could hold on a few more months without holding Jesse, but he needed more than a maybe.
Jesse nodded. “I’ll call you as soon as I find out the schedule.”
It wasn’t enough, but it was as good as Eli would get. “Okay.”
* * * *
Eli lowered the large, round bale of hay into the steel feeder as the cattle crowded the front of the tractor. “Hold on. Plenty to go around.”
Free of the bale, he turned his torso to look behind him before slowly backing the tractor out of the feeding frenzy. The day was the coldest they’d had yet, dipping down into the single digits, which meant he’d also have to keep a watch on the water supply. He’d splurged on several heaters for a few of the troughs, but the majority of livestock would still try to drink from the big pond. In order to keep them safe, he had no choice but to keep the ice chopped. It was the worst job he had in the winter and one he wasn’t looking forward to.
Eli pulled the tractor into the large equipment shed before glancing at his cheap flip-phone in case Jesse had left a message. He’d tried to tell his mom it wasn’t necessary to get him a phone, but she’d insisted that he needed a way to communicate if he needed help. Eli needed help, but it wasn’t the kind a damn phone could provide. Disappointed that Jesse still hadn’t called him about Christmas plans, he shut the tractor down.
It was only seven in the morning, and he’d already put in close to two hours of work. He climbed out of the cab before heading toward the house for breakfast.
Reaching the enclosed back porch, he toed out of his old cowboy boots. “The girls ready?” They only had one pickup because they’d made the decision to sell his mom’s car to make enough payments on the ranch-loan to get them through the winter.
Eli shrugged out of his winter coat and hung it beside the door. As usual, his mom already had breakfast well underway. The smell of frying bacon and strong black coffee wrapped around him like a warm blanket as he sat at the big table.
“They should be down any minute,” his mother said. “Fried or scrambled?”
“Whatever’s easiest,” he replied as he pulled his phone out of his pocket again.
“Still nothing from Jesse?”
Eli shook his head. Although his family had known about his relationship with Jesse for a while, he was always embarrassed when they caught him checking his messages—which he did a lot.
Mary, his sixteen-year-old sister, bounced into the room. Her hair was much lighter brown than Eli’s and it was caught up in her typical ponytail. “Morning!”
Eli grinned. “In a good mood?”
“Duh. We’ve got a half-day then we’re off until January sixth,” Mary replied.
Eli remembered the excitement of winter break. “Not sure what you have planned, but I need you and Rebecca to restock the woodpile next to the house. You can use the small tractor and trailer if you’re careful.”
Mary opened her mouth—to argue, no doubt—but snapped it shut before she said anything.
Eli knew things weren’t easy for the girls, but life wasn’t easy for any of them at the moment. His mom had taken a job in town that paid shit, but at least it provided her and the girls with health insurance. Mary and Rebecca had been forced to curtail some of their afterschool activities in order to help around the house, as well as doing their daily chores of cleaning the stable and taking care of the five horses they still had.
“Morning,” Rebecca greeted as she sat across from Eli.
“We have to bring up more firewood today,” Mary informed her sister.
“I thought we were going to the mall with Haley to go Christmas shopping?” Rebecca leaned back as her mom set a plate of bacon, eggs and toast in front of her.
Mary bit her bottom lip and shook her head.
Eli sighed. He hated being the bad guy. “It’ll get dark around five. Do you think you can do both?”
Mary’s expression brightened. “Yeah. What we can’t finish tonight, we’ll do in the morning.”
Eli nodded. The house was primarily heated with wood, so having a good supply on hand was essential, but he could cut his sisters some slack this time. “Just make sure there’s enough to get through the night. It’s likely to snow either tonight or tomorrow, so keep that in mind.”
“We will.” Rebecca reached for the jar of homemade lemon butter before slathering her toast with it.
Eli waited for his mom to sit before he dug in. The more he thought about his own schedule that day, the more he decided he’d probably have time to take care of the wood situation on his own. He didn’t have the money to get his sisters presents, but he could do something nice for them, and allowing them the time to enjoy their friends for an afternoon was a small price to pay.
“You have money for shopping?” his mother asked his sisters.
“Enough. We’re not planning to buy much at the mall anyway. The stuff Eli needs we can pick up at Tractor Supply, but Zeb wants more of that cologne that we got him last year,” Mary said.
“It goes without saying that I don’t need anything,” his mom replied. “As long as I have all my babies with me, I’m good.”
Eli was so lost in thought about the upcoming holiday that when his phone finally rang, it surprised the hell out of him. He quickly fumbled to get the cell out of his pocket before pressing it to his ear.
“Hey,” Eli answered as he slid out of his chair.
“It’s not too early, is it?” Jesse asked.
“Not at all.” Eli wandered into the living room. “Did you find out about Christmas?”
“Yeah. It’s not looking good. The boss said we can have most of the day off Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, but we’ll have to make sure the animals are fed and watered first. That’s great since we’ve been putting in damn near twelve-hour days, but it sucks as far as leaving. Is there any way you can come here? You can’t stay at the ranch or anything, but there’s a little motel two towns over that looks cheap enough.”
Eli glanced in the direction of the kitchen. His heart and soul really needed to spend time with Jesse, but how could he leave his mom and sisters? Tears filled his eyes as he came to the realization that, once again, he needed to put his own desires aside for the good of the family he loved. “I don’t think I can. It’s our first Christmas without Dad, and money’s so tight that I can’t even justify the gas to get down there for two days. No way do I have the cash for a motel and food.”
“I kinda figured that’s what you’d say,” Jesse replied.
“I’m sorry. You have no idea how much I need to see you, but I just can’t right now.” Eli wiped at his eyes and sniffed. Financially, things would get better in the spring, but that’s when the real work began.
“I understand, really, I do. It’ll be the first Christmas since we were kids that we haven’t seen each other, but I know in the end, it’s my fault. I’m the one who left.”
Eli had thought the same thing several times over the last seven months, but, knowing what he did about Jesse’s home life, he couldn’t blame him. “You’re following your dream, and if things had happened differently, I’d be right there beside you, so don’t apologize for that.”
“Do you still love me?” Jesse asked, and there was something in his tone Eli couldn’t quite read.
“Every day,” Eli said. “I keep telling myself it’s no different than if you’d enlisted in the Marines like you were thinking about. At least this way, I still get to talk to you from time to time, and I don’t have to worry about you getting shot or blown up.”
Jesse chuckled. “You’re right. There is that.”
“Call me on Christmas?” Eli asked.
“Definitely. Do me a favor and tell the family I said hi, and I’m thinking about ’em.”
Eli took a deep breath. “I will. Love you. Take care of yourself for me, would ya?”
“I can do that. You do the same.”
“Will do. Talk to you later.” By the time Eli hung up, he felt lower than he had since his dad’s death. He shoved the phone into his pocket and returned to the kitchen only long enough to shrug into his ball cap and coat.
“Aren’t you going to finish breakfast?” his mom asked.
“Got stuff to do.” Eli glanced at Mary. “Don’t worry about the wood. I’ll take care of it.”
“Was that Jesse?” Rebecca asked.
“Yeah. He can’t get up here for Christmas.” Without another word, Eli left the house.