As soon as Brandon walked into the arena, inhaled the dust-filled air and saw the numerous horses and bulls running around, he knew he was far away from home. He was used to the harsh smell of ice and the sharp sounds of blades slicing and caressing the smooth surface.
There was one thing that both places had in common—men. While in hockey, the men tended to be bundled up a bit more with safety gear, it didn’t take away from their looks. Out here at the rodeo, all they wore were leather, denim and tight shirts…oh, and hats. He couldn’t forget about those. They were the best part of all.
Brandon leaned against a nearby fence and watched as one guy in particular mounted a horse. The well-practiced grace with which he did it showed that he’d done this activity a thousand times in his life—no doubt since the moment he could walk. That was something that Brandon could relate to. From the moment he was able to stand on his own, his father had slapped a pair of hockey skates on his feet, geared him up and shoved him onto the ice.
It hadn’t mattered that all Brandon could do was stand out there, deer-in-headlights. He was on his way to being a player—that’s all that had counted in his father’s book. When Brandon had first made his way onto a team and had been put on offense, he’d been a dismal failure. He hadn’t been able to keep up with the other players and never could find the puck. Not one to give up, dear old Dad had switched him to defense.
That had been an even worse nightmare. Not only had they plowed him over, but they had laughed at him, too. Even their parents had made fun of him. His own teammates had hated him and had begged the coach to not play him, despite the rule that all players got equal playing time.
Then, one magical miracle of a day, their goalie had come down with mono. Now, there was no way that anybody with any common sense would strap on all that extra equipment and let the other players hurl very hard pucks at them. But, then again, no one ever said Brandon had any sense at all, common or not, so he’d raised his hand, volunteering himself. That had brought a huge commotion in the locker room until it was decided he couldn’t do any worse damage there. It wasn’t as though their last goalie had been the next Patrick Roy or anything.
Suddenly, he’d been face down on the dirty carpet of the locker room as every able bodied hand strapped him into goalie gear. When he’d stepped onto the ice, it had been a bit awkward at first, what with the different blades on the skates and all the extra gear, but Brandon had gotten used to it quickly enough.
Before he’d known it, he was facing his first breakaway. It had just been him and the other team’s best scorer, Peter Dennisay. As Brandon had watched Peter come closer and closer, grim determination in his beady, green eyes, Brandon had known things were not going to end well.
Brandon’s skates had started to move as if on their own. As Brandon skated backward, Peter had continued toward the net. Somehow, that hadn’t intimidated Brandon in the least. If anything, it had sent a thrill through him.
Peter had pulled back his stick to let rip one of his bone-breaker shots that almost no goalie could stop. Brandon had seen it flying through the air and at the very last moment, he’d lifted his gloved hand and neatly caught it.
The crowd had been silent for a moment, before the ref had blown his whistle and made the ‘no goal’ gesture. Peter’s face had reddened in shock—or perhaps anger. Then the crowd had jumped to its feet and let out a deafening roar. Brandon, still in a state of disbelief, had looked down at his glove, stunned to see the puck in there.
That was the day that Brandon the goalie had been born. He’d loved every moment of it and had never looked back again. It’d gotten him through college and it would, eventually, get him a spot in the NHL, as well. He just had to be patient. No matter how much it sucked.
“Brandon!” a girl squealed. “I thought that was your big, old lunk head that I saw.”
Brandon turned around and took the small, skinny girl into his arms, before leaning back so he could gaze at her. She had her hair in two brown braids, a smidgen of a nose that had a sprinkle of freckles over it and the cutest smile in Kansas. Too bad that didn’t do a damn thing for Brandon.
“So, are you roping some barrels today?” he asked her.
She hit him with a glove. “Don’t be stupid. I’m barrel riding, and you damn well know it.”
“You know I just love to give you a hard time, Nichole. You’ll always be my favorite nurse.”
She frowned at him. “I’ll be your permanent one if you let those idiots keep hitting you so hard.”
“What can I say? It’s part of the game?”
“True, but not all of them just stand there and let all the others shoot pucks at them.”
Brandon smiled at her. “It’s in my blood. Just like it’s in yours and all your brothers’ to get on angry horses and bulls.”
“Most of them,” she whispered under her breath so softly that Brandon almost missed the words.
Just then, one of her brothers—or at least Brandon believed him to be one—walked by. Nichole smiled at the cowboy, and he returned the gesture, all the while giving Brandon the stink eye. Damn, Brandon had heard that her siblings were all overprotective of her, but he wasn’t even touching her. He’d hate to be the man who eventually asked for her hand in marriage.
“Who was that guy that gave me the death stare?” Brandon asked.
Nichole rolled her eyes. “That’s Dan. You can just ignore him. He’s all bark, no bite.”
“Then who’s the guy on the horse?”
“That’s our youngest brother, Ethan. Or at least that’s the way I put it. I won’t ever say it the way my grandfather does.”
“Why?” Brandon asked, still eyeing up the man in question. Damn, if Ethan wasn’t the sexiest thing since stripper go-go shorts and Ryan Reynolds combined.
“Because it’s disgusting, homophobic and just plain wrong.” She crossed her arms over her chest.
Brandon bumped her with his elbow. “Come on. You know I’ve heard the worst that can be said.”
She paused a moment before she blurted, “Grandpa always says that Ethan is all glitters and rainbows and no bite. Ever since he found out that Ethan is gay, he’s done nothing but throw hate in that poor boy’s direction. To make matters even worse, Ethan has had five seizures in the past month.”
Even though he wasn’t a doctor, Brandon knew that wasn’t good. “Have the doctors figured out why?”
“No. He’s been to all the specialists that we could find, but so far, they haven’t been able to figure out what’s going on. Until then, he’s been unable to compete in any rodeos.”
“Is it safe for him to even be on that horse now?” Brandon pressed.
“He still feels like he has something to prove to the family. He’s been facing a lot of hate lately.”
“How about your brothers?” Brandon didn’t even have to ask about Nichole. She and Brandon had been friends for years and she’d always known he was gay. It’d never meant a thing to her.
“They could all care a whit that Ethan is gay. They like to tease him all the time that it just leaves more girls for them. But us siblings have always stood up for each other. That’s the way our parents raised us. They don’t care that Ethan is gay, either. Hell, they even have a rainbow bumper sticker on their truck now and they named their latest steer RuPaul.”
Brandon stifled a laugh. “You have a pretty interesting family.”
She beamed at him. “I’m glad you think so, because I cancelled your hotel reservation.”
Alarm ran through Brandon. Nichole had a tendency to be unpredictable and he had a hinky feeling that this was about to be one of those times. “Why would you do that?”
“Because if you’re going to visit with us there is no way that you can do that from some stupid hotel room. We have plenty of room at our place, so I made up a room for you there.” She patted him on the hand as if it were all settled.
“Is your grandfather living there?”
“Yeah, but he only comes down for dinner, and when he has his teeth in, you really can’t understand him that well. So, you can just ignore him like the rest of us. Mom will take care of him. You can pretend that he’s not even there. In fact, we all make a game of it.”
Appalled that they would actually abuse the man in such a manner, even if he were as mean as a snake, Brandon asked, “You really don’t do that?”
“She’s just pulling your tail. If you’re the friend that Nichole keeps talking about then you should know better than that by now,” came a deep masculine voice. “Hi, I’m the youngest brother, Ethan.”
Turning to his right, Brandon found himself face-to-face with the scrumpdillyicious man who’d only been on a horse a few moments ago, with wheat blond hair and eyes so blue that they looked like the sky. Brandon went from normal to ga-ga in moments. That was even before Ethan smiled, showing off his best feature of all—the perfect set of dimples. Seriously, if his family hadn’t already insured the things, they’d better consider it. Add on his God, I want to conquer it body and Ethan was everything that Brandon had ever looked for in a man and then some.
Brandon slowly realized that Ethan was gazing back at him with the same intensity. Hell, if there had been a closet nearby, Brandon wasn’t so sure that they wouldn’t already be in it and going at each other like two starved men.
“Excuse me! I’m still here!” Nichole jumped up and down, waving her arms in the air.
Brandon gave a sharp shake of his head to clear away the deep fog of lust. It was a good thing he had contacts in or his glasses would have been fogged over—which would have been interesting in the cartoon world, but not in real life.
Placing herself between the two men like she was the Queen of all Bees, Nichole interlaced her arms with her boys and began to lead them away from the rodeo.
“Let’s get out of here. Do either of you gentlemen have plans for the evening?”
“No,” Brandon said, feeling a bit like a loser.
“Not me. I was going to brush my horse—” Ethan started.
“You did that last night, and the night before, and before and before. At his rate, he’s going to go bald,” Nichole said. “When was the last time you went out and had some real fun?”
Ethan narrowed his eyes. “What do you mean by real fun? Last time you used those words, I woke up in a dumpster, with Ramen noodles tangled in my hair. It was the worst thing ever. I showered two times a day for a week before all those clingy white things were all out. They are the boogers of the food world.”
Brandon laughed loudly—he’d never heard it put quite that way before. “Do you always say the first thing that comes to your mind?”
Ethan gave Brandon a wicked grin that did all kinds of things to Brandon’s body. “You have no idea how twisted this brain of mine can get.”
Shit! Brandon suddenly realized that this had been the wrong day to wear skinny jeans. His cock grew so hard that there was no way in hell that the whole damn world didn’t see it pressing against his pants. To add insult to misery, it had shifted to the left, so it made him walk with a slight limp, too.
“Shhhhh…calm down, sugar,” Nichole whispered into Brandon’s ear. “I’ve got you covered. I should have figured that you and Ethan would have taken a liking to each other, but I didn’t think that the sparks would almost blow up the place. Dayum.”
“Well, you never told me that he was so hot that he could melt ice in December,” Brandon countered.
When she gave him a funny look, he pointed out, “I grew up in Ohio, remember?”
“Ah, so it’s pretty cold then, huh?”
“My granny swears to this day that one winter it grew so cold that they lost all the livestock, because their breath froze over and suffocated them to death.”
Nichole frowned. “That’s sad.”
“Hey,” Ethan called. “Just to let you know, I heard every single word you two said. Right from the livestock, to the part where Nichole thought that we’d get along, but not to the point to where we’d nearly cause a new kind of Towering Inferno.”
Brandon halted in his tracks, closed his eyes and silently cursed himself. Why did this always have to happen to him? He’d find the perfect guy, they’d seem to click and then boom—something would happen to ruin everything. It was the story of his life.
Nichole reached over and hit Ethan in the chest with her glove. “You jerk. Nobody just goes around listening in on conversations like that. It’s rude.”
Ethan held up his free hand. “How could I not? You guys were standing right there and you’re not exactly the master of using a quiet tone. I swear the wildlife in Africa probably heard you.”
He slid his glance over at Ethan again. How was it that she’d managed to keep this little treasure a secret for so long? Sure, she’d told him that she’d had a gay brother and that he was hot, but that was it. Before that day she’d never mentioned them getting together.
Whatever the case may be, now that Brandon had Ethan in his sights, he was going to do everything he could to get the man. Maybe he’d even keep this one, too.