Read Ever the same Online

Authors: BA Tortuga

Ever the same

Bright blessings to Carole Eagleheart. Thank you for your help, your care, and your ministry. BA

Chapter 1

 

“Hello?” Audiefigured there was some kind of law that said as soon as he was up to his elbows in an early calf who’d come down with the runs, his phone would ring. He held the stupidly small electronic thing to his ear, not daring to do more than swipe to answer.

Blegh.

“Mr. Barrack?” The lady on the other end of the line sounded a little tight-lipped.

“Yes, ma’am?”

“This is Jennifer Laws, the secretary at the school.”

Fuck.

Fuck, fuck, fuck.

“Is Grainger sick?”

“No, sir. He’s in the principal’s office. Do you have time to come down to the school?”

“Uh… in about half an hour? I have to clean up. What happened?”

“Grainger and another student have been in a series of fights, sir. Principal Shields would like to see you, please.”

“Okay.” Well, fuck a duck. His Grainger? His yes-ma’am-no-sir boy? “I’ll be there as soon as I wash up. Been working with a sick calf.”

Audie hung up, his brain racing.

Just what he needed. His boy suddenly losing his damn mind. He got the calf dosed and settled in a pile of straw in the barn, hoping the poor thing didn’t expire before he got back. Then he loped up to the house and changed.

He gave Momma a call as he pulled his shirt on. “Momma, I got to run up to the school. Can you get Sister to keep an eye on the calf?”

“Is he sick? Grainger, I mean, not the calf.”

“Nope. It’s no big deal. I’ll be back in a jiff.” He hoped.

“Okay, Son. Your daddy’s due in off the road next weekend. He wants to take that boy of yours to a picture show. Tell him if he ain’t good, PopPop won’t take him.”

He was going to make Grainger miss time with his granddad. Dad loved his boy, even if they only saw each other a couple days in a month. Losing that time would break Grainger’s heart. Oh hell. An hour without his DS would make that boy ready to promise to be good forever. Maybe a day without helping Daddy feed the horses too. His kid had a real thing for the horses. Audie whistled up Duke, their border collie. No way could he leave that evil smart dog home with a sick calf. He’d worry the poor thing to death.

Bright eyes gleaming, Duke jumped up into the truck. He was ready to go. Go, go, go.

Silly pup.

Audie headed into town, wondering what kind of kid could make Grainger fight. Not once, but in a series of fights. His son was quiet, laid-back, the sort of kid that people liked. Not a scrapper. Not like Audie had been, and God knew he’d earned his share of trouble.

He pulled up in front of the school twenty minutes later and sat, taking a deep breath.

“Okay. Whatever it is, I’ll deal. I’ll make Grainger apologize and then threaten to whip his butt.” Like he’d spank Grainger for anything not dangerous. The threat was enough, and he’d wait to issue that in the truck.

Feeling like he was back in kindergarten, Audie went to the principal’s office.

“Mr. Barrack? Go on in. They’re waiting.” Miz Laws winked at him as he walked by, which relaxed him, because, Christ, this sucked. He went into the office, which was a mixture of colors and pictures of kids and that weird sternness that meant business. Dr. Shields stood and offered him a hand. Lord, he remembered when she was the drum major back when his Aunt Shirley was in the band.

There was a tiny little girl—and he meant teeny—sitting next to a dude who had hair like a girl, a dour-faced older lady, and his Grainger, who jumped up, one eye bruised. “Daddy! Daddy, I swear, I didn’t start it!”

“Hush, now. Let me talk to Dr. Shields.” He wanted to snatch Grainger up, but he knew better.

“Let’s all sit,” Dr. Shields said, and Audie fought the urge to point out he was the only grown-up standing.

Feeling chastised, he perched on the other side of Grainger.

They all sat there, staring, before Dr. Shields spoke up. “Now, we all seem to have a problem. Randi and Grainger have been in a half-dozen incidents in the last few weeks.”

“Really? Why didn’t I hear about this, buddy?”Half a dozen? Shit.

“You said not to be a tattletale, Daddy.”

Oh God.He damned near swallowed his tongue. They’d have to talk about information versus snitching.

“I didn’t start it. Not onced. I don’t hit girls, but Daddy! She hit me in the face! Hard!” There were tears there, threatening, and Grainger had that hell of a shiner.

“Now, Grainger, are you saying you didn’t push Randi?” the principal asked.

“She called me a doo-doo stupid-head!”

Did the wee girl not talk? She sat there, her chin set, her bright green eyes flashing fire. Her thin arms were crossed over her chest, and her feet swung in an angry rhythm.

“Name-calling can’t hurt you, buddy.” Was he the only adult with a brain here?

“No, but name-calling is completely inappropriate, Miranda.” That was the dad, just looking straight ahead. “You know better.”

“He’s mean! He told the girls I was smelly and not to play with me!”

Audie looked at the principal. “Am I the only one not up to speed?”

The older lady glanced over at him. “Beverly White. Pleased. My granddaughter has had some… transition issues. We’re sorry.”

“Mrs. White.” He nodded, then snuck another peek at the man sitting next to her.

The guy stared straight ahead, not looking at him at all. Crazy.

“Grainger is usually a good kid,” Audie offered. “I’m sorry about those uh, transition things.”Way to sound like a hick.

“Children, can you please wait on the green chairs while we talk?”

Grainger nodded, squeezing Audie’s fingers one more time. Audie nodded and smiled at his son, pretty convinced his boy hadn’t done anything really heinous.

The little gal stomped out, pure fire in her eyes. Oh, she was a hellion, he could tell.

“Are you going to tell me you’re going to move her again?” That was the dad, and the dude seemed about as pissed as his daughter. “She’s not the Antichrist. She’s a tiny little girl. She still sits in a car seat, for chrissake.”

“No, I think we can safely leave her where she is. I really felt that we all needed to chat, though. It’s clear that Audie here had no idea what was going on.”

“Yeah, no shit.” Audie glanced at the gran. “Pardon my French.”

“No worries.” She winked at him. “She’s not a bad girl. She’s had some terrible things in the last year.”

“And for some reason, she’s targeting Grainger. Has he spoken about Randi at all?” Dr. Shields was trying, he could tell.

“No, ma’am. He’s not said a word.” He snuck another look at the dad. This guy was a piece of work. “It’s not like him to pick on someone who’s having a hard time.”

“Of course it’s not. Randi’s the one that’s the vicious little bitch, right?”

Damn, Mr. Snooty could snap.

“Dixon!”

“What? She’s had a shit life for the last year. She lost one of her dads, she had to leave Austin and her friends and her school, and suddenly she’s the fucking bad guy?”

“Hey, I never said my boy was perfect,” Audie said, snarling a little himself. “He’s managed to get to six without trying to kill anyone, though, so this is new. Back off.”

“Enough. No one is saying either of these children are bad. Randi has a huge number of hurdles to overcome, and Grainger is a shy little boy with a tendency to follow the crowd. Neither of these children have mothers at home, and I was hoping we could brainstorm some ways to help Randi feel included with the others.”

This was ridiculous. It wasn’t his fucking job to make sure this asshole’s little brat felt like she didn’t need to punch his son anymore.

“That’s her teacher’s job, Shannon.” Audie was through with this shit. “I’ll tell my boy to stay away from her. Can we go now?”

“Yes. Yes, of course. Mr. White….”

“I’ll talk to her. If it happens again, I’ll… shit, I don’t know what I’ll do. I’ll make it up as I go along.” The guy stood, and his mom handed him a cane. A white cane.

Oh Jesus fucking Christ. Seriously?Seriously, Grainger picked the kid with a blind dad and a dead….

Wait.

Her other dad was dead. Jesus. This guy was blind, had lost his man, and his kid was a shit? That sucked hugely. “I can try to get Grainger to help. I promise.” He had no idea why that popped out, except this guy’s life had to suck, and because it had been a long time since Audie had met anyone who would openly admit to being queer like he was.

“Take us home, Mom. Please.” Now that he could see the White guy, he kind of wanted to wince. Lean, tattooed—this guy wasn’t made to be here, and obviously he wasn’t a local. Hell, his parents weren’t that local; Audie didn’t know them.

“Of course, Son.” She stood and offered Audie a frosty smile. “Thank you for being so, er, understanding.” She put a hand on her son’s arm, and he turned her way, the cane tapping as they left the room.

Audie glared at Shannon Shields as soon as they were out of earshot. “You couldn’t’ve had Miz Laws warn me?”

“I assumed you knew, Audie. Everybody knows.”

“Well, now, you know I don’t have much to do with townies.” He sighed, rubbing his hand over his bristly chin. “I’ll talk to Grainger, okay? See if he can’t find some way to understand. I mean, he ain’t used to being picked on.”

“I’d appreciate it. This poor little girl—she was in a private school in Austin, and suddenly she’s here, the daughter of two gay men, one dead, one who’s lost his sight. The grandparents are good people, but… they weren’t intending on raising another child, you know? She’s getting the help she needs, but she’s still a tiny ball of rage, and I’d hate to have to tell them she can’t come back to school.”

“Like expel her?” No. No, come on. She was thirty-five pounds of hurting. That wouldn’t be right. He sighed. “They live in town, or do they have a place like mine?”

“They’re out on the way to Commerce off of 34. Gentleman’s ranch. I think the granddad’s raising llamas and chickens.”

“Llamas.” He chuckled. “Well, they sure don’t kick as hard as cows.”

“Nope. Sorry there’s trouble. The teacher will keep them separated in the classroom, and I’ll have everyone keep an eye on the playground.”

“Thanks.” He figured he was dismissed, so he put his hat back on and went to get his son.

Grainger was sucking his thumb, which he hadn’t done in damn near a year, legs swinging furiously.

“Hey, buddy.” Audie squatted down, gently removing thumb from mouth. “You doing okay? Duke is in the truck.”

“Uh-huh. Are you mad at me, Daddy?” That little bruise on his boy’s face made him purse his lips and shake his head.

“No. No, I’m sad because that little girl felt like she had to pick a fight, but I’m not mad.” He picked up his son and hugged him. “We got to talk about the difference between tattling and telling Daddy what’s going on in your life, though.”

“Okay, Daddy.” Grainger wrapped around him and held on, and Audie didn’t discourage it. How much longer would he have this? This easy love from his boy? He loved Grainger enough to want to be in on everything, from little league to pimples, but Audie knew he had to keep these moments close.


Page 2

“Come on. I got that calf in the barn, and you can feed him tonight.” They would even stop at the truck stop and grab a cookie or some fried mac and cheese.

“Yeah? Is he better? I think his name should be Snoopy.”

“Snoopy?” Huh. A calf named Snoopy. Duke went nuts as soon as they came into view.

“Duke!” Grainger wiggled to climb down, then ran over to the truck. “Duke, it’s been a yuck-o day.”

Duke hopped down to meet his boy, licking Grainger’s face. Poor kid. Audie’s mom was gonna have a fit when she saw her grandson with a black eye.

Of course, kids healed quick. Maybe they’d just beg off dinner over there tomorrow night, go have pizza in town….

He grinned at the little voice in his head that sounded like his momma.Coward.

Yeah, yeah. Still. If he worked it right, he wouldn’t see her until she came to pick Grainger up for Sunday school….

“Daddy! Can we have ice cream?”

Well, that settled it. He knew what they were getting on the way home. “Sure, buddy. Just a small one, huh?”

“Yes, sir. I’m sorry about pushing Randi, but she’s real mean, and she hit me.”

“She’s got a tough row to hoe, kiddo. Her daddy is blind, did you see?” That was a good start to a conversation, and he hoped Grainger might find a little understanding.

“Blind, Daddy?”

“He can’t see. That’s why he has that special white cane.”

“Like he can’t see nothing? For real?”

“For real.” He had no idea how much vision Mr. White had, but the cane told a grim story.

“How does he work?”

“I don’t know what he does, buddy. I can’t say.” He had no idea what a guy like that would do. Maybe that was why he came to live with his folks.

“Can I tell you a secret, Daddy?”

“Sure, kiddo.” He would never say no to that.

“Randi had a whole ’nother dad, and she said he was smashed to death in a car.”

“Oh man.” He lifted Grainger up, then waved Duke back into the truck. “That’s terrible, huh? No wonder she’s so mad.” Christ. A wreck. He wondered if that was what took the live one’s sight.

“Nobody else has another dad.”

“Not one?” He knew that, but this was also a prime opportunity to get some stuff talked out.

“Uh-uh. Well, not and no mom.”

“That’s not bad, though. Just different.”

“Yeah? It’s okay? Shelly and Hannah say it’s not.”

“Well, Shelly and Hannah are likely just saying what their folks told them. What do you think?” He had always been super careful not to push anything with Grainger around, but people who lived in glass houses didn’t teach their kids to throw stones, either.

“I think they don’t like her ’cause she’s got ugly hair.”

He snorted, trying to hold back laughter. “She has wild hair, bud. It’s not ugly.”

“Uh-huh. It’s like the old man book, the one with the beard that has birds in it. Gram reads it to me.”

“Lord. You might like her, you gave her half a chance. She sounds a lot like Auntie Grace.”

Grainger turned to look at him. “Auntie Grace has short hair, Daddy.”

“I know that.” He decided on Braum’s rather than the truck stop, heading into town instead of toward the house. “I mean her temper and all. Auntie Grace used to wale on me.”

Grainger nodded, bouncing as they drove. “She was bigger than you forever, huh?”

“She was. She can still whap me real hard, it just doesn’t hurt as much.” Grace was a horse trainer. She had some strength.

“But you don’t never whap her ’cause she’s just a girl.”

“I’ve wanted to a time or two.”

Grainger crowed when they pulled into Braum’s, and even Duke got to barking. Audie knew he’d have to work on Grainger over the weekend to try to keep this from happening again, but he was pretty pleased with his son’s resilience.

He was a good kid, no matter what the principal thought.

Chapter 2

 

The soundof the Buick was low, and most days it would be soothing, but not today. Today it grated on him like nails on a chalkboard.

God. What else was going to fucking happen?

“Miranda, what were you thinking?”

Nothing.

“I’m talking to you.”

Silence, and then he heard Mom inhale, and he growled. “Don’t.”

“But—”

“No. No, she’s old enough to tell me herself.”

“He’s mean. They’re all mean!”

“Every single child in three kindergarten classes are mean? Jesus, you must have your dad’s luck.”

“Dixon!” Mom snapped.

“I hate you! I hate this school! I want to go home!”

The shrill sound of Randi’s voice drilled into the back of his head, damn near killing him. He got it. He did. It sucked here. Austin was liberal, for Texas. It was big; it was hip. This was… backwater hell.

What other choice did he have? Houston with Ron’s people, where eventually he’d get forced out of his daughter’s life, maybe get to go to her cotillion when she was a teenager?

No. He’d had to come to his parents’ place.

He squeezed the bridge of his nose, trying to block out the screaming, the noise. He didn’t know how to talk to her. How could he, when he couldn’t even look into her eyes? He wasn’t sure he even remembered what color they were.

“Miranda Jeanette White,” his mother snapped. “You have until the count of three, or I will stop this car, and you and I will have a prayer meeting.” There was a beat, and then Mom said, “Two.”

Randi gulped, the sound swallowing the rest of the noises.

Wow, Dixon wished he could learn how to do that. He guessed having a teenager still at home kept the mommy voice honed. He hated to admit it, but Randi was a daddy’s girl. Daddy Ron. The dead one.

He’d always been the dad who did mornings, got her to school. He’d been working as a sound guy in the clubs at night, hadn’t been home in the evenings. Heck, he’d been the fun dad, taking her and the dogs to the park on the weekend, taking her out on the boat on the lake.

Now he was the worthless dad, the disabled one. The one who was left behind.

Stop feeling sorry for yourself.Ron’s voice played over and over in his head.

Shut up.The idea of Ron lecturing him made him grin.

“Do you think this is funny, Son?”

“What?”

“Pay attention to your expressions.”

Shit.

“Sorry.” It was harder than he’d imagined, to look like everyone else. It hadn’t been long since he’d seen his face in the mirror, but apparently time wasn’t kind once you lost your sight.

He felt the road change under them, and they were in the driveway, Randi still sniffling in the backseat.

“I have to go into town, buy groceries. I’ll drop y’all off here by the porch.”

“Can I come, Gran?”

“No, ma’am, you may not.” That tone held no softness. “You fought at school. You hit that little boy like a hellion. You can go inside and think about how bad little girls don’t get to have fun.”

“I hate you!” The door opened, slammed shut, and then he heard the storm door do the same.

“She doesn’t hate you, Mom.”

That earned him a snort. “Don’t be a dipshit, Son. I know that. She’s pissed off at the world, and she knows she can’t hurt my feelings. You need to speak to her, though. The hitting has to stop, or they’re going to expel her.”

“I know, Mom. I will.”

“We’ll figure it out. I promise. You want fried chicken or chicken fried steak for supper?”

“Fried chicken, please.” Cutting and finding pieces was still hard. Hell, he was supposed to go spend some time “training” to be blind down in Austin, but he couldn’t leave Randi right now. “I’ll give her a minute with the pups, and then I’ll go sit and chat.”

“You can do it. Dalton should be home soon. He doesn’t work today.”

“Uh-huh.” Because all seventeen-year-old boys came home right after school. Not that Dixon had any idea how that was supposed to help. “Can you buy Pop-Tarts?”

“Sure, Son. What flavor?”

“Randi likes cherry.” He loved the brown sugar, but she wouldn’t eat those.

“Okay.” His mom was trying so hard, but sometimes he could actually hear her looking at him, trying to get him to see her.

“Okay. Heading in. Love you.” He got out of the car and got his cane. Tap. Dirt. Tap. Dirt. Tap. Sidewalk. Woo. He didn’t trip, which made him ridiculously proud. The dogs met him at the door, his two dachshunds, his mom’s Westie.

Okay. Okay. Stairs.

“Five stairs, Daddy.” Randi’s voice was rough from crying, but she was still there.

“Five?” He nodded. “Help me count?”

“One. Two.” Her little voice became his guide, and she took his hand when he got inside.

“Thanks, baby girl.” He held on and let her lead him in. “You want to sit on the sofa together?”

“Uh-huh.”

They settled on the couch, the pups hopping up with them. He waited a few moments, just to see if she would start.

“I’m sorry, Daddy. I am.”

“I know, baby.” He reached out to stroke her hair, finding it with no fumbling. That he didn’t need to see to do. “What is it about this boy that makes you nuts?”

“I don’t know. He looks at me like I’m dirty. Everybody does.”

“Oh, honey, I know it’s hard to be the new kid.”

“No. I mean, yes, but they say it’s wrong to have two dads!”

“That’s because they’re raised by closed-minded assholes that wouldn’t have an original thought if you paid them.” Oh, wait. Had he said that out loud?

She snorted, the sound eerily like her other dad. “Daddy, you said asshole.”

“I did! I’m fired.”

“Out of a cannon. Bang.” He didn’t think she even knew what that meant, but Ron had always said it.

“I miss your dad, kiddo.” Like breathing.

He felt her nod. “Me too.” She moved closer, holding his arm. “I’ll try not to hit anyone anymore.”

“I would appreciate it. I would take you back to Austin if I could, but I can’t. I’m still learning how to do everything.”

“I’ll help. I promise.”

“You help every day.” She was such a good kid. That was why it hurt so much when she acted out.

They sat there together, quiet and still, then Randi asked, “Do you want a cookie?”

He couldn’t have fought his smile if he’d tried. “I don’t know, do I?”

“Grandma made new ones. Chocolate chips.” She squeezed his arm. “I’ll show you.”

“Okay.” He stood and held out one hand. Thank God the house was simple, straightforward. Front room, kitchen, powder room, Mom’s sewing room. Then the long, long hallway of bedrooms. The worst obstacle was the dogs, as they moved underfoot, but they seemed to understand when he had the cane, and they stayed out of the way. The bathroom trips at night were another matter altogether.

Thank God, Damon and Daniel were both out of the house so he wasn’t sharing a bedroom with Randi. Or with Dalton, for that matter. Dalton was a pig.

“Table, Daddy.” Randi steered him around and toward the cabinets.

“How many cookies are there?” he asked.

“Lots.”

“Enough for Poppy and Gran and Dalton to have one too?”

“Yes. Them too. Dalton called and said he would be home at four thirty. Do we have to wait?”

He chuckled. “I don’t see why we should.”

“Oh good.” She bounced a little at his side, her mood changing with the wind.

“So, what did you do today, besides wale on some boy?”

“Daddy! He said I had ugly hair and I was stinky.” She tugged him forward until his cane banged the kitchen island. “I painted.”

“You have amazing hair, and, well, I’d have to smell you to see if you were stinky.” He grabbed her, dropped the cane and lifted her up, nuzzling into her hair. “Nope. Shampoo and sugar and spice.”

She squealed, flailing just enough to make him cackle like a big bird.

“Maybe a hint of strawberries….” He hugged her tight, praying that he could do this, figure life out now. “I love you, Bumblebee. I swear to God.”

She patted his cheeks like she had when she was two. “I love you too, Daddy.”

“Cool. Cookies.”

“Can we have Coke?”

“Milk.”

Her sigh was dramatic and long-suffering. “Yes, sir.”

Dixon put her down. “I’ll get glasses, okay?”

“Uh-huh. I’ll get the milk.”

“Good girl.” His mom had started getting smaller milk containers and putting them low in the fridge door for Randi. And hiding the Coke on the top shelf.

“Can we dunk our cookies like on the TV?”

“You can if you want.”

“You don’t like to dunk?” He heard her grunt, heard the scrape of the milk carton against the counter.

“I don’t know, to be honest. I haven’t since I was little. I used to dunk Oreos.”

“Oh, we should get lots of different cookies and try.”

“Should we?” His scientific little girl. He had a feeling science fairs would be a hoot later in her life. “I think we should maybe get one cookie a week, huh? Not so much sugar that way.”

“You need two to ’pare.”

“To ’pare?” He carefully poured the milk.

“Uh-huh. Pappy says you put one against the other. Joy the llama is nicer than Ben the llama. You ’pare.”

“Oh. Com-pare, baby.”


Page 3

“Oh. Compare.” He could hear the serious look on her baby face. God, he missed seeing her smile, watching her lips purse when she did something new.

For the thousandth time this week, Dixon gave thanks that Randi had been at the babysitter’s, that it had been them alone in the car. Ron had been killed instantly, and he was grateful for that.

“Daddy, stop pouring.”

He pulled back. “Did I make it?”

“You did good.” She mopped up his spill so quietly, but he still heard it.

“Okay. Cookies. Milk. Let’s sit and dunk.”

“Yay!” She tugged out the stools and they sat, carefully dunking cookies in milk.

She didn’t chatter much, and he sort of lost track of time, sitting there, daydreaming. He lost a cookie once and had to drink chunky milk by the end.Yuck. Now he remembered why he didn’t dunk cookies.

Still, Randi seemed happy, and she was more than willing to sit and watch cartoons while he sat on the sofa and tried not to freak out about everything.

When he heard Dalton come home, he was truly grateful for the distraction.

“Hey, Bro. Hey, monkey girl!”

Randi squealed as she disappeared off the sofa. “Uncle D! Uncle D!”

Letting them act like it had been days since they’d seen each other, he leaned back on the couch and closed his eyes.

I miss you, Ron. What am I gonna do now?

How was he going to raise a little girl when he couldn’t shave himself? He’d never been one for self-pity, but he was just damned scared.

“Quit fretting big brother. I’m home to….”

“To what?” He swore, if Dalton said take care of him—

“Help out.” Dalton clapped him on the shoulder, making him jump. “Dad texted. He’s stuck in Royse City picking up llamas. He’ll be home closer to five.”

Dixon rolled his eyes. “Dad can text?”

“Maybe the llamas did!” Randi said. “Uncle D and I can make supper.”

More hot dogs. Yay.“I thought Gran was making fried chicken.”

“Oh gag.” Dalton wasn’t helping.

“Right. Gag.”

Randi made retching noises, and Dixon swatted at his brother, connecting with one leg, fingers catching in the holey denim strings. “You’re not helping,Uncle D.”

“I want pizza, man. Let’s go grab a couple at the Pizza Hut and bring them back.”

Dixon chuckled at his baby brother. “You spend all your money on pizza.”

“Nah, I spent allmycash on girls. I spend allyourmoney on pizza.”

“No shit. You call Mom and tell her to eighty-six the chicken, and I’ll go with you.”

“Daddy, you said a bad word.”

“Uh-huh. I know lots.” He could outcurse Dalton, had, in fact, the second night he’d spent in his folks’ house. It had been fucking amazing.

“Come on, guys. I’ll call the parental units and tell them to have dinner out like grownups.”

Dixon tilted his head. “No date tonight?”

“Nah. Not tonight. Me and Joanna, we went after it, so I’m just letting it go for a couple days.”

“Ouch.” The vagaries of seventeen. “Just promise you’ll drive us slow and safe.” Dixon got a little white-knuckled in the car.

“Dude. Don’t be a pussy.”

“Daddy, what’s a pussy?”

“A cat.” Their mom came in, and he heard her whap Dalton on the head. “I can drive if you need me to. Where are we going?”

“Why would Daddy be a cat?”

“Mom! I can drive!”

“Gran!”

“You can not. Not with your brother!”

Randi started to cry. “Uncle D promised pizza!”

Dixon dropped his face in his hands.Dear Ron. You left me here. You totally suck. Love you so much. Me.

Chapter 3

 

“Hey, buddy.”Audie approached Grainger like a rodeo bullfighter coming at the back end of a bull. With extreme caution. “Have you made your list for your birthday party?”

“Uh-huh. Me and Bobby and Mike and Clayton. I want to go to the Chuck E. Cheese.”

Oh God, he hated Chuck E. Cheese. “No girls?”

“Nope. No girls. Just the boys.”

“Well, we got a problem, then, buddy.” He hated to do this too. Making his kid invite someone to his birthday party sucked, but it had to be done.

“What?” That little forehead crunched up.

“You know how we went to school and talked to the counselor lady?”

Grainger’s eyes rolled like dice. “Uh-huh.”

“Well, you know how she said you needed some more people to get to know.” He felt like such an asshole, but they were calling him in, saying Grainger needed social skills, that the older boys found him an easy target. Better to fix it now.

“Uh-huh.” He hated that look of distrust.

“Don’t be mad, bud. We’re inviting your cousin Sara and a couple of new kids from school. That boy who just moved in last week, and Randi White.” He rushed the last, feeling like he was the one turning six.

His son looked at him like he’d just killed the boy’s puppy. “Daddy, no. No, this ain’t your party. It’s mine.”

“I know that.” He spread his hands. “I used to have to have all three of my sisters at my parties.”

“I don’t have sisters.”

Audie fought his teeth, which tried to grind. “I know that, kiddo. That’s one reason you need to hang out with some girls.”

Grainger took his list and tore it up, then threw it in the trash, the action purely familiar. Grainger was his daddy’s son, bone deep, not an ounce of Marina in him. “You tell whoever. I ain’t having a party. I’ll just go on the road with PopPop.”

“Hey, come on, now. It’ll be Chuck E. Cheese. You’ll be so busy you won’t even know they’re there.”

Grainger gave him this look, like he was the biggest disappointment on earth. “Can I go outside?”

“Sure.” That had gone better than he expected, though.

Grainger headed out like a storm cloud, the screen door slamming hard. Then he heard the sound of Grainger’s little bicycle on the gravel, the training wheels rattling.

“Well, that went good.”

Audie glared at his mom when she walked into the room. “Yeah. Now I’m a demon.”

“He needs to make friends, Son.”

“He has friends he wanted to invite.” God, this sucked. Grainger wasn’t a serial killer in training, for fuck’s sake.

“So let him invite them. He needs to branch out, Audie, and Sara will need another girl there to play with.”

“I will. This whole thing is bullshit. It’s his goddamn birthday party.”

“Don’t you swear at Momma.” His sister Grace walked into the kitchen, and Audie rolled his eyes. Now they were ganging up on him again.

“Fuck you, Sister.” Oh, that felt good.

She grinned at him, her blue eyes twinkling with mischief. “You don’t like boobies so much, Potty-mouth.”

“What can I say. You girls scared me off early.”

“That’s enough.” Momma didn’t sound pleased. “You two are nasty.”

“No, you mean I am, because I’m queer. God knows we need to make sure Grainger starts hanging out with girls now so he don’t turn out that way too.” Audie grabbed his hat from the hook by the back door. “Y’all let me know how much the party will cost. I’ll leave the rest to you.”

“Audie Murphy Barrack!”

He ignored her and stormed out onto the front porch, where Grainger was doggedly practicing his bicycle. He had to have fallen at least a couple of times, because there was a skinned up knee and palm and tears, but his boy never looked at him.

His little cowboy.

Fuck, Audie was proud of him.

“You want to help me feed, buddy?” He knew Grainger might just ignore him, but horses were often a bridge for them.

Grainger looked at him, still unhappy. “Can I pet Ginger’s new foal?”

“You know it. She needs to be handled.”

“’Kay.” Grainger came to him, took his hand.

He breathed a sigh of relief. This wasn’t over, he knew, but the promise of baby horse was too much for Grainger to resist. The thing about having a kid just like him was that he knew how to get Grainger out of the dumps pretty quick.

They headed into the barn together, the horses starting to stamp and whinny in greeting.

“They always know, huh?”

“Uh-huh. You like horses better than cows, Daddy?”

“I do. Cows are easier, but horses are smart and you can ride ’em. What do you like?”

“I like horses. Cows just moo and poop.”

“They taste good, though.” Cows kept them in pennies too. Well, that and horse training, which paid better, really.

“Uh-huh. Did you know there are folks don’t eat no meat?”

“I did. What do you think about that?” His favorite question for Grainger, Audie must ask it ten times a day.

“I think you gotta have hamburgers.”

“Good deal.” He ruffled Grainger’s hair.

“I ain’t crazy, you know, even though I don’t got a momma.”

“I never said you were.” Grainger had a mom, she just didn’t give a shit. Marina wasn’t a bad woman, but she couldn’t cope with having a gay boyfriendanda kid.

“That’s what that lady at school is for, though. Crazy people.”

“No, she’s not. Who told you that?” Guidance counselors weren’t Audie’s favorite people, but they weren’t therapists, either.

“Everybody knows it. That girl, Randi, she has to go to herandanother one after school, that’s how crazy she is.”

“She’s not crazy, bud. She’s mad and sad because someone she loved died.” The big advantage of having a ranch was that Grainger had seen a lot of death already, and Audie didn’t have to mince words.

“Yeah. That’s sad. She has his picture in her backpack.”

Ouch. Poor kid.He couldn’t imagine leaving Grainger behind. He had to tease. “You mean you don’t have one of me?”

“Ew. No. I got a picture of George Strait.”

“I like old George.” They could both sing all of the man’s songs.

“Is he old as you, Daddy?”

“He’s older than PopPop, kiddo.”

“Uh-uh. Nobody’s older than PopPop.”

“Oh yes. Mr. Dillmon down to the feed store? He’s old enough to be PopPop’s daddy.”

Grainger’s eyes went wide. “For real?”

“Seriously.” He handed Grainger the hose. “Water everyone, and be careful, huh?”

“Yes, sir.” The little face screwed up, so serious, so determined to do things right.

He did love that boy. Grainger was the single best thing that had ever happened to him.Please God, don’t let me screw this up. Not now. Not ever. He’s my reason.

Audie set to work, half an eye on Grainger, the rest of his attention on not getting bit or kicked.

Grainger was careful, steady, so worried about messing up. Audie had been that way. Hell, he still was, wasn’t he? He was celibate as a monk just so no one would bother Grainger about him.

He hadn’t been, once upon a time. Hell, him and Marina and Tim had been going hot and heavy, the three of them. Stupid, but Lord it had been fun. She’d had the paternity test on her own; he hadn’t had to ask. Now they were both gone, left town like it was on fire.

“Daddy, I’ve filled all the water.”

“Good deal. I need to put out a little more feed. You want to peek in on that foal?”

“Uh-huh.”

“Leave the stall door closed, okay?”

“Okay. Can I go in with you when you come?”

“When I get to that stall, bud.”

He heard Grainger talking to the foal, jabbering away. He grimaced when Grainger told the little foal about his birthday party.

That was going to be a giant pain in the ass. Huge. He’d already started to dread the whole damned day. He glanced at Sunny, the mare who liked to take a bite out of everyone. “This is gonna suck.”

Her head bobbed, up and down, like she understood him. More like she was about to take a chunk out of his ass.

“Don’t. No fucking biting, you evil nag.”

“Daddy, if you say the ‘F’ word, you have to give Granny money.”

“Only if you tell on me.”

“Will you let me not invite those people to my party?”

“Nope.” Audie wouldn’t be blackmailed by an almost six-year-old.

“Then I still don’t want a party, ’cause it’s not fair.”

Audie opened his mouth and his mother popped out. “Life’s not fair, buddy. You can still have a good time.”

“I won’t go, then. Parties suck.”

“Hey. I thought you wanted Chuck E. Cheese.” He was going to lose his shit.

“I did.” Grainger headed out of the barn, face gone all thunderclouds.

Damn it.He should have left well enough alone. His mom would make Grainger go, and it would be a disaster.

He knew that much. Once his stubborn boy set his mind to something, it was going to happen.

Chapter 4


Page 4

 

Dixon sat.He was really good at it. He sat at the house. He sat on the porch. He sat in the car. Today he was sitting on the edge of his bed pondering absolutely nothing at all.

Christ, he was bored.

He couldn’t even go sit at Starbucks unless someone drove him, and then he had to worry about what he’d do if he had to take a piss. Of course, he’d get to sit down.

Humiliations galore.

His phone rang and he answered, fumbling a little with the slide. “’lo?”

“Hey, man. How’s it hanging?”

Daniel. There were two sets of brothers—thirty-four and thirty-two and then twenty and seventeen. The two at the top looked like Daddy, strawberry blond and freckled, while the bottom two were shiny blackbirds. Christ. Dan was stationed overseas, and Lord knew Dixon missed him like a lost tooth.

“I’m trying.”

“Trying to what?” Dan laughed, the sound like a braying jackass.

“Fucker. Shit, I’m trying to do anything. Anything at all.”

“Well, what’s your deal, Bro? It’s not like you can’t still play the guitar.” Dan was so black and white, so linear.

“Right. Because there are so many fucking opportunities here. I’m rolling in it.”

“Shut up.” Dan stopped laughing. “Serious, how’s it going?”

“I don’t know what to do, man. I’m fucking useless, and, shit, this is hell on earth.”

“That bad, huh? I’m sorry. I wish I could be there to help.” Dan had gotten compassionate leave just after the accident, but was back at work days later.

“I don’t want you seeing me like this either.” He just had to hold on for Randi.

“Why? Because you can’t see me making faces?” Dan paused, clearing his throat. “I would do anything for you, Bro. You know that.”

“I know. Tell me things—I don’t care what. Real things about life.”

“Shit, you know I can only say so much about over here.” Dan chuckled. “You want real life, call Damon.”

“Uh-huh. Damon. Mr. Kegger and Ride-My-Mustache-Baby. That kid’s a fucking beast.” Still, he laughed, didn’t he?

“He’s got more of a life than you or me.” Dan chuckled. “How’s Randi?”

“Pissed off. Fighting at school. Sort of terribly like me, which whoa, but then she’s amazing. She’s smart and wickedly funny, and she learned how to roller skate already.”

“Yeah? She had a chance to go riding or anything? Don’t girls like horses?”

“Yeah, well, shit. I’ll just take her out today. You do know Mom hates horses, right?”

“Oh. Right.”

“Yeah. I don’t think you can ride llamas.” He set his teeth together, shook his head. “What am I going to do, Bubba?”

“Learn how to be blind.” Dan sighed. “You’d never let us give up.”

“I want to. I won’t, but I want to.”

“I get it. I mean, I see a lot of guys get torn up here.”

“I fucking miss you, man.” Dan was his closest friend.

“I miss you too. I’m ready 0074o be Stateside.”

“I bet. You doing okay?”

“Tired, mainly. We don’t sleep a lot.”

“Yeah, goddamn you, being a hero. Is there anything I can do? Send?”

“Nah. I mean, if you want to send mail, go for it. Send something I can share with the guys.”

“So, no porn?” He had to tease, but two of four were queer as three-dollar bills, and it wasn’t the younger two.

“Fuck off, man.”

“I can’t even do that, okay?”

“Bite me. You can jack off in private.” Dan grumbled the words, teasing.

“Yeah, except, whoa. Five-year-old in bed with me nine times out of ten with nightmares.”

“Thank God she wasn’t in that car. I got to go, man. I love you.”

“Love you. Call anytime. Be safe.”

“I’ll try.”

They hung up, and he sighed, head down.Please, Bubba. Be safe.Their family couldn’t take any more tragedy.

“Everything okay, Son?” Daddy stopped by the door.

“Fine. Just… Dan says hi.”

“Good. Good, you want to come outside?”

“Yeah. I could use some sun.” He hated just waiting for something to happen.

“Okay. Come on.”

He stood and Daddy put his hand on one arm.

“Can you play for me? While I’m working, I mean. I miss it, listening to you.”

It wasn’t true, he knew it wasn’t, but it was the best kind of lie, because it was based in the truth. Daddy was a fair picker himself, but he only played red dirt stuff. Dixon loved the blues, R & B. Hell, he turned his nose up at the twangier side of music, but he wouldn’t say. “You should pick with me.”

“After I feed and water, I will.”

“Good deal.” He could do a little now, though, and it made him smile, Daddy giving him a job.

“Grab your guitar, then.”

“Yes, sir.” Three steps to the left, two forward. Flat on the top of the dresser. He made it there and back to the door without clobbering himself or the guitar, and Daddy took his arm from there.

“It’s going to get better.”

He tightened his lips against the words that wanted out. It wasn’t. It wasn’t ever going to be better. The best he had was what he had.

Daddy was being kind, though, so he kept his mouth shut.

They headed out, and he could feel the sunshine on his face, the heat. Hell, the world lightened from black to deep gray. He hated the strain, the way his eyes worked wildly to find an outline, a shape.

God, he was tired.

“Watch the ditch here.”

“Thanks.” They got out to the shed, and Daddy put him on a stool. Like a trained hurdy-gurdy monkey.

“Stop it.”

“What?” He didn’t follow.

“You’re blind. It sucks. You can do this.”

“I know I can. I will, for Randi. Doesn’t mean I can’t be down.” He wasn’t chipper. Sue him.

“No, it doesn’t. Hell, be pissed, I don’t mind. Just know that you don’t get to give up.”

“Will everyone quit saying that!” He needed to mourn, both for him and for Ron.

“Nope.” Daddy gave him a little shake. “You chose to have that little girl. You don’t get all the options now. Suck it up.”

“Jesus fucking Christ! I’m trying! What the fuck do you want from me?” Fuck him. He was so fucking tired, so scared, so goddamned lost and hurting, and no one gave a shit. “I lost him, goddamn it! He was my one and only, and the last thing I remember seeing was his dead body. Don’t you understand that? I fucking need him back!”

“Oh, Son, I wish I could do that for you.” Daddy pulled him close and held on. “I can’t, though.”

Dixon lost his shit, just lost it, screaming and sobbing, and it didn’t help. It didn’t matter because the pain inside was just too big. It was too big to hold on to, though, too big to bite off in more than the tiniest bitter pills, and it passed and left him headachy and raw.

When he could breathe again, Daddy held him, murmuring nonsense, the scent of manure and patchouli right there.

“Sorry.”

“Don’t be. If you can’t trust your old man, who can you trust?”

“Nobody, I guess.” Dixon unclenched his hands and smoothed his dad’s shirt. “I dropped the guitar.”

“It was in the case. It’s fine.”

“Oh. Good.” He sniffed, trying not to feel like a snotty five-year-old.

“Have my kerchief.”

“Is it clean?” He had to tease. Had to.

“Oh, you little shit.” Daddy chuckled for him. “Have a sit. I want to hear ‘Blowing in the Wind’ first.”

“Yes, sir.” He mopped up and tucked the kerchief away to put in the wash. He popped the case open, the smooth curves of his guitar one of the good things left in life. It didn’t take much to get her in tune and start playing.

Daddy hummed along, the sound solid and pleased and just family.

He could close his eyes and he wasn’t blind; he was just Dixon White, picking and happy.

That had to be enough for everyone right now. Including him.

It had to be.

Chapter 5

 

“So.” Audiestepped up next to his mom, who was staring at Grainger, sitting in splendid solitude at the table inside Chuck E Cheese, his birthday hat on, his face stony. “Is this what you wanted?”

“He’s being a spoiled brat. Honestly, he’s so stubborn. Every other kid in here is having a ball.”

“Momma. He’s not spoiled, and you know it. Stubborn, yes.” Grainger had been polite to the guests. Had opened his gifts and thanked everyone. He simply refused to budge out of his seat or speak unless spoken to.

He wouldn’t eat his pizza. He didn’t smile. He didn’t touch his cake. He wore the stupid birthday boy hat and sat.

“He needs his butt popped.” Momma was embarrassed more than angry, he knew, but she’d gotten what she wanted. His niece Sara had a new fast friend in Randi, the little girl Grainger had fought so hard with. The little boy who was the new kid in town was playing video games with Grainger’s friend William.

The only unhappy one was Grainger.

“No spankings.” Audie gave her a stern look. “I’ll talk to him.”

“Fine. Just what I need, another stubborn one like your father.”

“Hey, you kept telling me I’d have a kid just like me.”

“Yes, well….” Her face eased, though, and he got a wink.

He kissed her cheek, then left her to her fretting so he could go squat down next to Grainger. “Hey, bud. Wanna take off that hat?”

“Yes, sir.” Grainger took the hat off, immediately, crushing it.

“That’s better, huh?” He couldn’t let Grainger know how guilty he felt. “Cake is good.”

Grainger looked at him, then looked down without a word.

Christ.

Audie glanced around, noting the little girl’s dad sitting there, a few chairs down, hands clenched in his lap. He looked about as tickled as Grainger.

Okay. Okay, he had to go say something to the guy. Had to. He wasn’t an asshole.

“Mr. White, did you get a piece of cake?” Great. Trite.

“No, but that’s okay. The kids need it.”

“Oh, you have no idea how much cake there is.” He looked pointedly at Grainger. Who harrumphed, kicking the chair.

“Yeah. I, uh, guess he’s unhappy?”

“Yes. He’s being a butthead.”

“I hope that it was okay that Randi came. She’s been… well, she’s not with me, and she’s not crying.”

“She and little Sara are having a ball. Sara is pretty new to town too, and her dad is deployed overseas.” Grace’s husband was so ready to get his ass discharged.

“Ah. That’s cool. She used to love making friends.” The man’s eyes moved constantly, like he was searching for something. It was fucking unnerving.

“I’m sure she still does. It will just take some time.” Again, he was being trite. “I heard about your partner. I’m sorry.”

He got a surprised, almost shocked look. “Thank you. I appreciate it. I don’t think we ever actually got introduced. I’m Dixon.”

“I’m Audie.” He didn’t know if he should hold out his hand or what, so he just went on instinct and grabbed the man’s hand up off the table to shake it.

Dixon’s eyes went wide, and then a sharp laugh escaped him. “Pleased.”

Now, look at that. The man’s whole face lit up when he was smiling. The stress lines faded when Dixon smiled, and the man was damned attractive. Audie stared and reckoned he was glad Dixon couldn’t tell. “Is there anything I can get you, man?”

“Could you… can you tell me where my Coke is?”

“Sure.” Audie paused. “Is it easier to give you direction or just put your hand on it?” He didn’t want to fuck up.

“Can you hand it to me? I’m dying of thirst.”

“You got it.” He grabbed the glass and pressed it into Dixon’s hand. “There’s a straw, so don’t poke yourself.”

Dixon found the straw and drank deep, damn near draining the drink.

“Let me get you a piece of cake, man. I’ll grab you another Coke too.” He wanted to help, somehow.

“Thanks.” He guessed Randi was purely Dixon’s, with the same curly red hair, the quick grin. How did that work here? Could they both have been Randi’s legal dads?

He had a ton of questions on the tip of his tongue, but they would all be rude, so he got a slice of cake and another Coke and kept his trap shut.

Grainger just sat, still as anything, and little Sara and Randi came up to him, his baby cousin all eyes and dark braids. “Grainger, you ain’t used your tokens.”

“You can have them. Here.” He pushed them over to the girls.

Randi bit her lip. “You sure? I don’t… I don’t want to get in trouble, and they’re ’sposed to be yours.”

“I ain’t gonna use them.” Grainger shrugged, the motion abrupt, angry.

Audie hoped to hell he didn’t have to break up a fight today of all days.

She just backed off, though, eyes on her daddy. It didn’t surprise him a bit when she went to him, grabbed him.

“Having fun, Bumblebee?”

“Uh-huh. I winned a rubber chicken and a horse toy.”

“You won.”

“Uh-huh. I did.”

“Good deal. Do I get to meet your new friend?” Dixon asked.

“Sara? Sara, you want to say hi to my daddy?”

Sara stared with huge eyes and shook her head.

“Hi, Sara. Nice to meet you.” It would have been more convincing if Dixon hadn’t been staring right at some woman with gigantic breasts.

“Daddy, Sara’s little. Down here.”

“Sorry.” Dixon moved his face, but the eyes didn’t focus. Which made Sara even worse.


Page 5

“And this is Grainger, Daddy. It’s his birthday.”

“Hey, Grainger. Happy birthday. Thanks for inviting Randi. That was very cool.”

“Sure.” Grainger couldn’t say anything else without being rude, and Audie knew his boy wouldn’t do that.

Randi rolled her eyes, though, and stuck her tongue out. Audie had to stifle his laugh with a cough.

“Miranda Elizabeth, are you being rude?”Oh damn. Caught!

“Sorry.” She grinned, completely unrepentant. “They have a shooting game, Grainger. Sure you don’t want to come?”

“Yeah.”

“Okay. Sara, you coming?”

“Uh-huh.” Sara gave Dixon one more searching look before following. Clearly, blindness wigged her out.

Audie brought Dixon his Coke, put the cake on the table before him. “The cake’s right in front of you. It’s chocolate with white icing.”

“Thanks, man.”

“No problem.” He sat across from Dixon, keeping an eye on Grainger. “Christ, this place is loud.”

“Yes. Painfully. The kids seem to enjoy it, though.”

“They do.” He sighed. “It’s all the kid has talked about for six months.”

“So what happened?”

“Mom insisted he let Sara come. He was okay with that, even though she’s a girl, and he only wanted to invite boys. But then we had to invite Jason, the new kid, and your girl.” He chuckled. “I don’t think it’s the people he objects to as much as the principle of the thing.”

“Let me guess. None of the boys he wanted to come showed.”

“Oh, two of them did.” Audie lowered his voice. “At this point it’s really a battle of wills with his Gran.”

“Oh man. I take it he’s winning?”

“Yep.” Now he raised his voice again. “Spankings have been threatened. I defended him.”

Grainger just got smaller and angrier, the hint of tears showing up now.

“Well, I’m sorry he’s having a bad party, but I really appreciate the invite. It meant a ton to Randi.”

“She looks like she’s having a ball. Thanks for coming. Have you got a ride home?”

“My brother, Dalton. He’s here with a bunch of his friends.”

“Your brother?”

“He’s seventeen. Old enough for this to be fun.”

“Oh, good deal. Well, you holler if you need anything. I hate to abandon you, but I’m fixin’ to go rescue my kid.”

“Cool. Good luck.”

“Thanks.” Audie stood, gently touching Dixon’s shoulder on the way by. He liked the man’s spirit. Then he headed back over to Grainger. “Come on, kiddo.”

“Is it time to go?”

He held out his arms. “We’re gonna pretend to go to the bathroom.”

“Okay.” Grainger came to him, the tears right there, fighting to be held back.

He picked up his son and headed outside. Grainger had said his thank-yous and all, and Audie’s mom could make sure the kids all got home.

“Waffle House or El Chico? Waffles or queso dip, kiddo.”

“El Chico’s?”

His boy was a taco hound. “Good deal. I’ll text your Auntie Grace once we’re gone. Thank you for trying, bud.”

“I don’t never want no more parties, Daddy, okay? Please? They aren’t good.”

“I’m sorry this one made you unhappy, bud, but it will get better.” He deposited Grainger in the truck and let him buckle into his little seat.

Of course, at six, nothing was as bad as right now. This had to be the worst day of Grainger’s young life. He headed for the El Chico’s, humming along with Jason Aldean on the radio. Music could always cheer Grainger up.

“Can we have the green squishy stuff, Daddy?”

“Guacamole? You know it. I love that stuff.” He didn’t love the pizza at Chuck’s, so he could definitely eat.

“Me too. Granny doesn’t like it.”

“I know.” She would gag, and it felt like they were being really bad.

“I love you, Daddy.”

“I love you too, kiddo. I really do.” He smiled at Grainger in the rearview mirror, feeling like he’d made a shit situation better already.

Grainger nodded to him and offered a quirky grin. Maybe it wasn’t perfect, but it wasn’t Audie in trouble, it was his mom, and he’d take it.

The rest would work itself out, and even better, he had a feeling the fights at school might stop now.

Chapter 6

 

“Sara. Sara,Sara, Sara. Sara, Sara. Sara.”

It was the only thing Randi talked about.

Sara was in pre-K in the same school as Randi. Sara’s daddy was in the Army. Sara’s hair was black, not red like hers.

Dixon was going to kill someone if he heard the name Sara one more time.

“Daddy! Sara’s momma called and asked if I could come over. They have horses!” It was a long weekend, and Randi was making everyone nuts. So much so that Dalton had left with his girlfriend for the day.

“There’s no one to drive you, baby.”

“Daddy! Please!”

“Honey, Gran and PopPop are gone for the weekend. The festival. They’re gone ’til Tuesday.”

“Please?”

“Let me talk to her.” He’d explain.

“Okay.” She ran to the other room, then came back to press the phone into his hand.

“Hi, uh.” She couldn’t be Mrs. Barrack. Sara’s mom was Audie Barrack’s sister.

“Grace.”

“Hi, Grace. This is Dixon White. I’m sorry, but I don’t have anyone here to drive, to see where she is, nothing.”

“Oh, well, I didn’t think on that. I could send my brother to get her, and you’re welcome to come if you like. We’re having a picnic lunch, and Audie is giving riding lessons.”

“I… I have to be honest, I’ve never been in this position, and I don’t know what to do.”

She chuckled. “I’m an Army wife. I have. Are you busy? If you’re not and you want her to come, Audie will come get y’all. If not, I totally understand.” She sounded utterly calm, just really nice.

“I think if I say no, she may smother me in my sleep. If you don’t mind, I would love for her to come over.”

“I don’t mind a bit. Your folks have the old frame place on the road to Commerce? With the llamas?”

“The llamas, yes. Thank you. Can I bring anything?”

“Maybe some chips or something? Oh, and make sure she brings closed-toe shoes.”

“Sure. Right. Okay. See you.”

So, sneakers and, God, did they have chips? His mom could be pretty harsh about junk food. “Randi? Get your sneakers, baby. Do we have any Ruffles?”

“Uh-huh. PopPop buyed some.”

“Bought some.”

“What?”

“Go get a new couple bags if we have them. We’re going to Sara’s house.”

“Daddy!” Her squeal rocked him, and she tackled him, squeezing hard.

“Grainger’s daddy is coming to pick us up. You’d better motor.”

“Yes, sir. Thank you. Thank you. Chips and sneakers!”

“God.” He chuckled, tickled she was so happy. He could sit at someone else’s house and do nothing as easily as he could his own. “Sweetie, can you get my guitar too? Maybe I can pick a little while you ride.”

“I will. I’ll be careful with it. I promise!”

“I know you will.” He trusted her with it. “Just don’t run.”

“I won’t.”

They ended up on the porch, waiting for their ride. He texted Dalton, let him know where they were headed. Then he sat, his guitar in its case, slung across his knees.

“Daddy, why do you talk into your phone?”

“Because I can’t see to type.”

“Are you the most scared of the dark?”

“No, ma’am.” He reached out and grabbed her in for a hug. “I’m most scared of something happening to you.”

“I’ll be okay, Daddy. Sara says her uncle is a real cowboy. Not like Pappy and Dalton.”

“Oh, is he? What is Pappy, then?” He had to hear this.

“A double sipper!”

“A double sipper….” Okay. Okay, think. What the fuck could she…. Oh. Oh! “Double dipper. Yes, he is.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means that Granny and Pappy had jobs, and they retired, and now they’re raising llamas.”

“Oh.” She sounded like she lost interest, and then he heard her bounce up and down. “Here comes a truck.”

“You stay right here, young lady.”

“I will. No running until he stops.” She came to stand next to him, patting his leg. “I know cars are scary, Daddy.”

“Yes, well, I want you to remember.”

God, he was getting in a car with a stranger, going somewhere he couldn’t see.

Yay.

Gravel and grass crunched when the truck pulled up next to the house. The door opened and closed, and he heard Audie’s voice. “Hey, y’all. You all set to go?”

“Yeah. Is there room for my guitar? I thought I’d bring it for something to do….”

“You got it. I can put it in the toolbox, if that’s okay. It’s empty and clean, as I helped Sara and Gracie move. I’ll have a care.”

“Thank you. Thanks for the ride too. I just… you know. It’s awkward.”

“I hear you.” Audie laughed, gently tugging away the guitar. “When Grainger was three, I broke my leg in a fissure out in the pasture. I was laid up for weeks, and it was a weird thing, depending on folks. Hi, Randi. Sara would have come, but Grainger wanted to go for a ride.”

“Hi. Hi, Grainger. I brought your rock.”

His rock?

“Thanks. Your shell is at my house.”

What? Were they blackmailing each other?

“Y’all trading?” Audie chuckled, so maybe it wasn’t as serious as all that.

“Yes, sir. Not for keeps, just ’cause Grainger wanted to draw my shell in his book.”

“Ah. Well, good deal.” Audie came back for him, hand on his. “You ready?”

“Yeah. Y’all have an extra car seat?”

“Sara needs one too, so yeah.”

“Cool.” God, there was so much to this, so much shit.

“Mister, is that a guitar?” Grainger asked.

“Yes, it is.”

“Oh.” Grainger was quiet, but Dixon could hear him thinking. “I always wanted to learn to play.”

“I bet you could learn. You’re old enough.”

“Could you teach me?” Listen to that hopeful voice.

“Well, I used to give lessons, but… honey, I can’t see.”

“Why do you have to see?” Grainger snorted. “You’re showing me.”

“Grainger, be polite.”

“Daddy, you can do it. You can.” Randi reached up to the front seat and touched his shoulder. “You’re so good at it.”

“Y’all back off and let the man think on it,” Audie said. “Not everyone wants to hang out with hooligans like you.”

Grainger and Randi both giggled, said “Yes, sir.”

Okay, this man was his official hero.

He was probably grinning like an idiot, but that was okay. Dixon shrugged. “I can try, Grainger, but I won’t promise anything. I need to be able to see your fingers sometimes.”

“I’ll just watch today, then.” Grainger sounded so sure of him.

“Sure. Sure, kiddo.”

They settled into listening to the radio for the rest of the short drive. Grainger had a good voice, singing along with the classic country station Audie put on, and Audie drove carefully enough to put him at ease.

“Thanks again for the ride. She’s very excited.” That was the understatement of the fucking decade.

“No problem. Sara likes her so much, and I think she’s a good kid.” Audie had this easy, slow drawl that made Dixon think of sun-warmed honey. He wondered what the man looked like.

He didn’t sound old, really, maybe even younger than him. And he smelled good, like Old Spice and horses and clean male musk. Okay, no macking on the obviously sleeping-with-girls neighbor.

None.

They turned off the main road, and they stopped. “I just have to get the gate. Man, I’m so ready for Grainger to be out of that car seat so he can.”

“I could do it now. I could.”

“I know, bud, but you’d take a long time to get in and out of your seat.” Audie hopped out, and he heard the gate rolling.

“Do y’all raise cattle?” he asked Grainger.

“Uh-huh. Beefmasters and then horses. Daddy likes horses.”

“He does, huh? My mom is scared of them.”

“Granny says that’s why I can’t have one,” Randi piped up.

“Oh, horses are the best. The really best. I have a foal that I’m raising.” Grainger warmed to the subject, his feet swinging audibly.

“Show me?”

“Sure.”

Listen to those two, getting along and all.

“What color is he?”

The kids jabbered, and Audie swung up in the truck, jostling along forward. “Nice to hear, huh?”

He didn’t pretend he didn’t understand what Audie meant. “Yeah. Totally.”

“Better not say it too loud, huh? Oh hey, you’re not scared of dogs, right? I heard a few barking in your house when I drove up, but we have a border collie, and one of my cowboys has a cattle dog.”

“Not at all. I love dogs.” They were one of the constants in his life. “We have a pair of dachshunds from Austin.”

“Honey and Beaker. They’re old. They live in the house.” He thought he could hear Randi rolling her eyes. “Honey always steals the ball.”

“Oh wow. Duke will chase a ball for hours. He’s the border collie.” Grainger liked dogs. Dixon heard it in his voice.

“Yeah? That’s so cool.” Randi was jealous and admiring all at once.

“It’s true.”

They pulled in someplace and stopped, finally, and Audie came around to help him out. “Come on and have a sit, and I’ll bring your guitar.”

“Thank you.” He felt the heat of the sun get brighter and then ease back at the same time he heard his footsteps change from grass to concrete.


Page 6

“There are three steps, a little steeper than inside house steps.”

“Okay.” He fumbled the first one, but the other two he got.

“There you go. You want to sit out on the porch or inside in the cool? Gracie wants to sit out here and watch us, so you’d have company.”

“Oh, outside is fine. I just appreciate the invite.”

“No problem.”

“Randi!” The patter of booted feet rang loud on the boards of the porch. “We get to ride! Unca Audie said so.”

“I know! I know!” Both girls squealed, jumping up and down.

Oh Lord. He hoped Audie had help. Or something.

“Grainger, why don’t you tell Auntie Grace to bring some lemonade and some of that bread? Did you want a Coke or coffee instead, Dixon?”

“Whatever’s good. I’m easy.” He didn’t want to be trouble.

“Get a Coke too, buddy.”

“Yessir.” Grainger left them, and Audie guided him to a surprisingly comfy chair.

“There you go, man. If you need anything, you ask, okay? Don’t stand on ceremony.”

“Will I bother anyone if I play later?”

“Not a bit.” Audie left him a moment, then came back with his guitar case. “Right here on the right. Look out, incoming border collie.”

The warning came at the same time as the cold nose pushing into his hand.

“Hey there. How are you?” Oh—soft, silky.

“Duke is a flirt, huh, Sara?”

“He licks a lot.”

“Some puppies do.” Dixon smiled, hoping he got close to right.

“Hi, there.” A new voice reached him, female, adult. He heard the clink of glassware. “I’m Grace.”

“Hey. Nice to meet you.”

“You too.”

He guessed. These days he hated meeting people, not being able to put a face to a name.

“I’m Audie’s older sister. I really appreciate you letting Randi come over. All I’ve heard for weeks is, ‘my good friend Randi.’”

“I know.” Dixon chuckled. “I’ve heard ‘Sara, Sara, Sara.’”

“I have to tell you, Dixon, I am so tickled. Her daddy’s overseas, and this move has been brutal. I didn’t think she was ever going to smile again.”

Something deep inside him settled a bit. Randi was laughing, running in circles, he thought. “It’s been tough on my girl too.”

“Yeah. I can only imagine. Life can totally suck.”

The words surprised him, made him bark out laughter. “It totally can. Your brother….”

“Audie? You can talk trash. He’s down in the yard.”

“Is he good with horses? Randi has never been around them.”

“He’s the best. I trust him with my Sara.” There wasn’t any doubt. Not even an ounce.

“Okay. Good. I’m sorry, I just—I can’t see to keep her safe, you know?”

“Yeah. I mean, no. I don’t know, but I can imagine and I get it.” She laughed, the sound merry. “In other words, I’m a dork and she’s in good hands.”

“That’s fine. Fine. Is that lemonade?”

“I brought Coke and Dr Pepper too.”

“Dr Pepper, please, if Randi can’t see. She’s on a no-Coke rule from her therapist.”

“Sugar and caffeine, huh?” He heard a pop-top open, and Grace came to press it into his hand. “You pick good?”

“Yeah. Yeah, I do. That’s what I did for a living before.” It was one of the few things that was still right.

“Oh, I love to listen, if you want to play.”

“Me too.” The smaller voice surprised him, Grainger right there, quiet as a mouse. “I like to sing too.”

“You have a nice voice already, Son. Really.” He finished his Coke and put it down. “You have a favorite song?”

“I like ‘On the Road Again’ by Mr. Willie Nelson.”

“‘On the Road Again’ it is.” Thank God he knew that one. It would totally blow his reputation if he didn’t. He played Willie, then a little Hank, some Peter, Paul and Mary.

“Do you know ‘Seven Bridges Road’?” This kid was a pro at the ripe old age of six. Lord help him.

“I do. You ready?” He started picking, and they sang it together, and the kid knew almost all the words. There were a few missteps, some hilarious, but damn, it almost made him believe he could teach this kid to play.

Almost.

“Daddy? Daddy, I rode a horse! I rode a real live horse!”

“Oh wow. Did you? I’m so proud.” Dixon set the guitar back down in the case and caught Randi when she flew into his arms.

“Mama, can me and Randi go play Barbies now? Please?” God, Sara had to be teeny.

“Sure, baby. Keep an ear out, though. If Mr. White needs to go, Randi will have to be ready.”

“He can’t go! We’re pick-in-nick-ing!”

“Don’t worry, ladies, I intend to stay for lunch.” He tried sending a smile their way.

“Yay! Come play!”

They sounded like a thundering herd, those two tiny girl babies. His smile widened, and Dixon shook his head. They were acting like kids, which made him happy. Made him miss Ron so bad.

“Hey.” Audie clomped up on the porch. “Pour me a Coke, Sister?”

“Yes, sir. Did you see how your boy was paying attention?”

“I did. Your girl is a natural, Dixon. She had a good seat, keeps her heels down.”

“Excellent.” Hopefully that was the right answer, because honestly, she kept her heels down where? He was a kid from the outskirts of Austin, child of a hippie musician wannabe and a social worker who worked for the state. He only saw horses on the road and at the Star of Texas rodeo.

“Did you want to come meet the horse she’s gonna be practicing on?” Audie was a dad. He seemed to get that Dixon was a little wigged out.

Okay, which was the best way to play this? Say no, don’t step in horse poop, and avoid a possible unnecessary chomping from Black Beauty, but prove without a shadow of a doubt that he was the least macho person here, including the Barbies? Or suck it up, be thankful he had sneakers on, and pray that he only stepped in manure and didn’t fall in it?

“Sure.”

“Cool. Come on.” Audie sounded so pleased that he knew he’d made the right decision.

He stood and Audie took his hand. “I… It’s easier if I take your arm.”

“Oh, okay. Do you want your cane too?” Audie shifted, letting him slide his hand through the crook of Audie’s elbow.

“No. I’ll just get it muddy.” It was best for different surfaces anyway. Mud and dirt were already so fucked.

“Got it. The ground gets a little uneven once we get off the little patch of grass.” Audie moved slow, steady, but not a bit tentative.

“I appreciate you letting Randi ride. She’s horse crazy, and her granny won’t let her have one.”

“No worries. Horses can be pricey to keep, and God knows Sarge was just getting fat and lazy. He’s too old to really work anymore, but he loves the kids.”

The air changed, the sun dimming again, so they must have stepped into an outbuilding.

“He’s cooling off in here. I walked him out, but he’ll go to the tank and drink himself into bloat if I don’t put him in a stall for a bit.”

“Sarge, huh? That’s a good name. Puts me in mind of Ernest Borgnine.”

“He’s a big dapple gray and used to boss the others around. Thankfully he’s mellow now. Sarge. Come on, boy.”

They stopped, and he heard stamping, the swish of a long tail.

Dixon wasn’t sure what to do, really. He stood there, smelling molasses and straw and dust. The earthy scent of horse mixed in, and the impression of a large body close by almost made him back up a step.

“Here. Here’s a carrot. Hold out your hand, palm up.” When he did, Audie dropped a cold piece of vegetable on his skin. “Keep your fingers flat.”

The touch of that velvet nose on him was wild, totally new and different. “Oh wow.”

“Yeah. He’s gentle. Not like a couple of biters I have.”

Large, blunt teeth pressed but not with any intention to harm, only to nip up the carrot. The lips made him chuckle, as did the crunch of the chewing. Suddenly he could smell the carrot, that scent unmistakable and bringing up visions of stew, weirdly enough.

“Attaboy.” He heard Audie pat the horse, then the scratching of nails on wiry hair.

“He’s—” What the hell was he supposed to say? He’s stinky? Pretty? He didn’t know that. Sarge could be the ugliest fucking horse known to man, and Dixon wouldn’t have a clue. “—soft.”

“He is until you get up next to his mane.” Audie guided his hand up under the thick fall of mane hair, where a hard ridge rose up, bristly as hell.

“Oh man. That’s where the horsehair brush thought comes from, huh?”

“Yeah. They’re tougher than you think, these beasts.”

“Do they like being ridden?”

“I think they like having a job. They’re too smart to be left to their own devices.” Audie paused. “Does your dad like llamas?”

“He loves them. He totally adores the fuzzy beasts.”

“They kick a lot less than cows. I know some yarn ladies who might want to talk to him.”

“Dad would get off on that. Seriously. He’s retired and he loves working with them.”

“Cool. You know, if you want to ride, I’d be happy to lead. I had a friend who did horseback guiding, and he could give me all sorts of training.” Audie seemed genuine about the offer too, no hint of telltale pity in his voice.

“Maybe. Maybe I could.” Oh, who was he kidding? He was a fucking coward, and what was he going to do on a horse? Look around?

“It’s great for balance, and it’s good interactive exercise.” Audie let it drop. “Come and meet Grainger’s baby.”

“How big is he? Old, I mean.”

“About a year. Grainger has been feeding and watering and grooming.”

“A real cowboy, your little boy.”

“He is.” Audie chuckled. “He really wants to be a singer, though.”

“He’s good. I… if you want, I can try to teach him. I mean, I don’t know if it’ll work, but I’ll try.”

“I’d appreciate it. The one lady who gives lessons is never gonna teach my kid, and I’m sure there are other people by now, but I don’t know them.”

Wouldn’t teach Grainger? Why? Old girlfriend, maybe? Oh, maybe Grainger was a demon in disguise….

“You’re frowning.” Audie touched the line between Dixon’s eyes. “Mrs. Backer won’t teach Grainger because I pissed in her flowerbed after she said my sister Patsy was a tone-deaf idiot with fingers like hot dogs. She teaches piano too.”

The touch shocked him, relaxed his face. “Oh man. I love it.”

“Yeah, well, she didn’t.” Audie stayed close, that Old Spice smell mixed now with leather and sweat.

“No. No, even in Austin, that would get your ass reamed.”

“I guess so. Anyway, if you’re willing to try, I’d trade riding lessons for Randi. Not that I wouldn’t teach her anyway.”

“I’ll trade. That’s fair. I mean, if it doesn’t work, I’ll pay whatever your normal rates are.” He had money. Enough for this, no worries.

“Hey, we’ll cross that bridge if we have to. I might trade for llama training if Grainger loses interest before Randi does.” Audie clapped him gently on the shoulder, as if the man realized it might startle him.

“Cool.” Llama training. He wasn’t positive, but he was fairly sure they weren’t trainable.

“Yeah. I mean, cows are getting pretty damned expensive to raise.”

Oh. His cheeks heated. Well, he hadn’t said it out loud, at least. Audie meant training on how to raise llamas. Duh.

“You look all flushed, man.”

“Do I?” No shit.

“Yeah. You want to go sit inside? The air is on.” Audie took his hand again, tucking it in the crook of one strong arm.

“Wherever. The porch is totally fine. I hear rumors that there’s a picnic.”

“Grace should be ready to serve pretty soon. Grainger has to be helping or he’d be out here.” Audie chuckled softly. “He’s being supergood. I wonder what he could possibly want?”

Dixon smiled, feeling pretty good about being that important to a six-year-old.

“Daddy! Daddy, I didn’t touch Mr. Dixon’s guitar.”

“Good. You’ll get your own when you start lessons. His is off-limits.” Audie helped him back up the stairs. He smelled brisket, beans. Corn.

“No, sir. I mean, yes, sir, I mean. Daddy? For real?”

“Mr. Dixon says he’s willing to try. You have to be patient and listen, okay?”

“I swear to God. I promise. Oh, Mr. Dixon….” Thin arms wrapped around him, squeezed him tight.

Dixon froze for a moment, but then he hugged the kid back. He remembered that, the desperate, hungry need for the music, the agonizing wait to figure out how to make it happen. “We’ll set something up. First we need to get you a guitar.”

“Daddy!”

Audie made a noise, half-laughter, half-groan. “You gotta be patient, bud. Mr. Dixon will tell us what we need to get, and I’ll get it, okay?”

“For now, we’re gonna eat.” Grace came out, the clatter of a bowl on a table sounding. “Girls! Picnic time.”

The thundering herd came through, feet slamming into the ground. The squeals and sounds of jostling stopped as soon as the girls reached the porch.

“Daddy, Sara has a Barbie house. A whole house.”

“Wow. A whole house.”

“Yeah. It’s pink, and it has closets for her clothes, and a horse!”

“Very cool.”

“I’m gonna get a guitar!” Grainger busted out. “My own guitar.”

“Ooh.” The girls both oohed and aahed. Of course, Dixon knew he’d end up getting Barbie something new at their house this week. He’d make Dalton take them to the store.

Maybe they could just order off Amazon….

Though Dalton picking out Barbie stuff would have a hilarity factor he might not want to miss.

“You have a naughty look on your face, Daddy.”

“Me? No. Not me.” He was going to have to work on that….

“I like it,” Audie said, almost too low to hear.

His cheeks went red, but he had to grin. Even if that wasn’t meant “that way,” it felt good to hear.

“How do you want me to load up your plate, Dixon?” Audie asked. “We got brisket and beans, cornbread, coleslaw, and potato salad.”

“The brisket is slices?”

“It is. Like from a barbecue place. Grace worked at Ernie’s in high school.”

“It all sounds great, thanks.”

“Mr. Audie? Daddy needs a table. He cain’t eat good without it.”

“Oh, you got it.” Audie put a hand on his shoulder. “Will a TV tray work, man, or do you need something bigger?”

“A TV tray is fine. I’m sorry. I don’t mean to be trouble.” God, Randi. Really?


Page 7

“You’re not. We’d rather know than have you sit and be uncomfortable, right Gracie?”

“God, yes.”

He heard the scrape of a tray close by, and when he put his hand out, he felt the smooth wood top. Oh good. Sturdy.

“There’s no standing on formality with us. We’re hicks.”

“You’re very kind.” He said it and he meant it. They were the least awkward people about his sight. Maybe because they’d never known him when he had it.

“That’s us. Kind hicks.” Audie’s voice was full of laughter.

“If you say that fast, Brother, it sounds like rednecks.”

Audie whooped. “Red-red-red-neeeeeck.”

Dixon snorted, then gave in and cracked up.

“Here, Daddy, I made you a plate. I got you brisket and cornbread and some potato salad.”

“Thank you, baby. A little help?”

“Brisket on top, potato salad on the side.”

Audie sat next to him, the man’s heat palpable. “Salad on the right side, the cornbread on the left.”

“Thanks. Right and left are still hard for her.”

“Yeah. Grainger is not so good with that either.”

“We’re right here,” Grainger said, voice plaintive.

Randi sighed. “Left makes an L and right makes a… a….”

“Backwards L.” Grainger helped.

“Right. A backwards L.”

Dixon rolled his eyes. “When you figure out which L is backwards you tell me, okay?”

“Daddy!”

“Sorry.” He had to grin. “Love you, baby girl.”

“Uh-huh.”

Dixon grinned. It had turned out to be a better day than he’d expected, that was sure. He caught the dog, Duke, trying to sneak around to get to his plate, and shoved away the fuzzy head gently.

“Good catch, man.” That was Audie, and he could hear the smile.

“Y’all cheated, not warning me he was a mooch.”

“Aren’t they all?” Grace asked.

“Well, we have dachshunds. They’re too short to get up like that.”

“And old. They’re so old.” Randi sounded disgusted.

“Randi. Your Daddy Ron loved those dogs.”

Everything went quiet and he bit his lip. Shut. Up.

“I’m sorry.” Randi touched his arm. “I just mean they don’t play much anymore.”

When no one else said a word, he just patted her hand. “Yeah. Yeah, I know. Eat, huh? It’s so good.”

“It is.” She fell to her food, and mostly the conversation went to “pass the sauce.”

Just when he thought the coast was clear, little Sara piped up. “Mommy, how can you have two daddies?”

Oh great. Just what he needed, for Randi to lose another friend.

“Well, I reckon there’s lots of ways.” Audie was the one who answered. “Sometimes parents don’t stay together and marry other people, so you have two mommas and two daddies. And sometimes moms or dads like someone like them, instead of the other way. Either way, it’s more people to love, right?” That voice stayed calm, even, never a bit awkward.

This guy was too damned good to be true.

“I’m glad I have a mommy.”

He felt Randi stiffen. “I don’t need one.”

“Hey, every family is different, Bumblebee.”

“I don’t have a mom either, Randi.” Grainger didn’t sound too upset about it. “It’s okay.”

“No?” It was sad, how she sounded so relieved. He hated that her life was in complete upheaval.

“Yep. Sounds like both of your dads love you. My mom dumped me when I was born and hit the road.”

“Grainger. That’s enough, huh?” Audie was starting to sound like Dixon felt.

“What? It’s true. She don’t love me.”

“Hey, buddy, can we talk about this later? If you still want to, I promise, we’ll sit and really go over it, okay?”

Dixon guessed every family had its issues. Audie must be pretty used to this, if he could be so calm, only the tiniest impatience creeping into his voice.

“Yeah, okay. Did you know your dad was going to teach me guitar, Randi?”

“I heard. He’s super good at it.”

The kids switched subjects like a flock of birds changing direction.

He guessed it was good. Meant they were healthy, basically normal. He was the one sitting in front of a plate of barbecue thinking too hard.

Barbecue.

Right.

Brisket. Potato salad. Bread. He could do this. In fact, after his first bite, his body told him he was starving. It was good.

Normal.

Just right.

Chapter 7

 

THREEWEEKS.

Dixon White had been coming to his house every Saturday for three weeks. Audie usually drove. Then he left Dixon and Grainger to guitar lessons while Audie gave Sara and Randi riding lessons.

He liked the guy. Dixon had dry humor, talent, and good looks. And he made Audie feel like a huge perv. The guy had lost his partner and his sight how long ago?

Not long enough.

No way.

Dixon was mourning. Mourning and unavailable. Mourning, unavailable, and hotter than the hinges of hell.

Audie sighed, rolling his head on his neck. He could hear Duke howling along with whatever Dixon and Grainger were doing. The girls were in the ring, both Sarge and Sara’s little mare Dinah attached to the little hot walker he’d improvised.

Grainger had gone to bed in tears the first night from his fingers being sore, but the kid wouldn’t stop practicing. Hell, Audie had to force him to play outside, even to go see the horses.

The guitar thing was an obsession, but Audie got it. He was pretty obsessed himself.

“Heels down, Sara. See how Dinah stuttered just there? Your feet got sloppy, and she couldn’t feel your knees.”

Hell, these girls were so damned tiny neither horse could feel them at all, but he needed them to learn good form.

“Yes, sir.”

Randi was doggedly determined to learn, to get this right and get off the walker. She was damn near as stubborn as Grainger. He grinned. Those two had bonded over not having a mom, hadn’t they? The other day he’d gotten a call from the school saying the two of them together had been fighting someone else. Lord.

Grainger had been all up in arms. “Daddy, they called her a b-word! I had to.”

While he’d praised his son for protecting a lady’s honor, he’d been pretty stern about ganging up and bloody noses.

Little shits.

He grinned, eyes flashing up to the front porch, Grainger stubbornly learning, Dixon laughing.

Audie allowed himself to sneak glances between watching the girls, watching the set of Dixon’s shoulders, always so tight when he arrived, so much more relaxed after half an hour with Grainger. It felt a little perverse, to be stealing glances, to keep looking.

If he admitted it, only to himself, if felt good too. Even if Dixon somehow found out he was staring, no one would get their asses kicked. The worst Dixon would do was tell him no thanks.

“Unca Audie? Are we done? I have to potty.”

“Sure, baby.” Sara could only hold it so long. Her poor bladder was the size of a pea. “Randi, do you think you can hang on while I take Sara in to her mom? I know you want to help me brush these guys out.”

“I promise. I can do it.”

“Okay.” He trusted her. She never kicked, never tensed up, a natural. “You know what to do if he gets a wild hair, right?” He’d trained her. Don’t curl over his neck, don’t flail. Dig into the stirrups, sit up, and hold the saddle horn.

“Yes, sir. Hold on and sit up.”

“Good girl.”

He plucked Sara off the horse and hustled.

She made it. Barely. “Gracie! Your daughter needs you in the bathroom. I need to get back to Randi.”

“You got it!”

Dixon looked up at him, or at least seemed to. “She okay?”

“She’s great. I just don’t want to leave her longer than I have to. Sarge would never go against the hot walker, but Dinah is riderless now and might get bored.” He tousled Grainger’s hair on the way by.

Randi was talking to Sarge, just jabbering away, but she had her shit together. Her little body was perfectly aligned and rocking with Sarge’s movements.

Audie chuckled. “Hey, you want to go a little outside of the ring?” He would lead Sarge around for her, but she might like that now that Sara was gone.

“Oh. Can I? I’ll be good.”

“I know you will. Okay, hang on while I get Dinah unhooked, and we’ll go.” He stopped both horses, got Dinah turned out into the pasture. He’d take Sarge the other way.

Sarge nickered a little, but he was a good guy, solid and trustworthy, even if he was a bit of a head-tosser. Audie figured Sarge would teach Randi what to do about that, and then he’d move her up to Skamp, whose big problem was pulling down on the bit to have some grass during a ride.

Randi looked at him, beaming, that mass of red hair pulled back through the hole in her gimme cap. “Oh, Mr. Audie. I love Sarge so bad.”

“He likes you too.” Sarge would follow Randi around like a dog, given the opportunity. The big old gray thought that girl was magical. “He’s just your guy until he’s too old to ride, okay?”

“Okay. I’ll love him, though, even after. I’ll love him forever.”

“I think you will.” Such passion. Sarge was just old enough to last her until she was ready to move on as far as her age and all.

“Did you hear, Sarge? I’ll love you forever, and I’ll always bring you carrots and apples and brush you and….” The happy little song went on and on.

Sarge just swished his tail and tried to lip Audie’s fingers where he held the halter. Someone had said carrots.

He walked Randi out. Was there a little girl alive who didn’t love horses? He hoped not. Cowboys needed cowgirls. Or their daddies. He stole another look at Dixon.

The man was in a T-shirt today, the colorful tattoos right out in the open, long hair in a messy tail. He wore John Lennon dark glasses, and those were new.

“Daddy looks happy.” Randi sounded pleased, but Audie was embarrassed she’d noticed him looking.

“He does. He likes playing his guitar.”

“Yes, sir. Daddy says it’s the best part about him.”

“Yeah? Not his smile?” He thought Dixon’s smile must have rivaled the sun back when his eyes echoed it.

“Nope. Daddy doesn’t smile so much now. He misses my daddy Ron.”

“I bet he does. I’m so sorry, honey. I know that has to be so tough.”

“I…. Can I tell you a secret?”

“Of course you can.” He would never tell a kid no.

“I don’t ’member Daddy Ron so much. I want to, but I don’t.”

“Oh, honey.” He patted Sarge’s neck. “My Granny died when I was little. Maybe your age. You know what helped? My Pops talking about her a lot. I bet your dad would be okay if you asked him to remind you.”

“Yeah? I don’t want him to be sad.”

“You’re a good kid, Randi. You know what, though? I bet since he can’t see to look at pictures of Daddy Ron, it’s hard for him to remember too, and it would help.” Fuck, he hoped he wasn’t steering her wrong.

“Yeah. Daddy banged his head and busted his eyes.”

“That sucks, huh?” That he didn’t know how to answer, so he fell back on sympathy.

“Yep.”

And that was that, wasn’t it? It sucked. “So, when is your birthday, Randi?” Audie headed back for the barn.

“July thirteenth. I’m the oldest one.”

“Yeah, I guess you’re like a year older than almost everyone, huh?” She had a hard row.

“I am and my birthday’s in the summer. Daddy’s birthday is tomorrow. Did you know?”

“Tomorrow. No, I didn’t.” Damn. Damn, he needed to do something for the man. Maybe take him out to supper over in Rockwall or something. Away from the prying eyes.

“Uh-huh. I made him a picture.”

He didn’t point out that a picture might not be the most logical choice ever. She was trying so hard. Maybe he’d see if he could get a card at the Walmart with sound, something she could record a message into.

“That’s great, kiddo.”

“Uh-huh. I cut it into a heart so he could tell.”

“Oh.” She was so smart. “That’s really good. He’ll love that. You ready to work some muscles, brushing out Sarge?”

“I am!” She sounded so happy. A real little cowgirl.

“Good deal.” He helped her down and handed over Sarge’s lead. “I’ll get that saddle off, and you can walk him out a bit.” She needed confidence, to know that she was in charge.

“Yes, sir. Thank you.”

“No problem, kiddo.” Once they got Sarge crosstied for safety, he reminded her not to get too close to those rear hooves and went to round up Dinah so he could give her a little water and get her unsaddled and groomed. Such a good girl, Dinah.

A half hour later, they were joining Dixon and Grace and the kids for iced tea and cookies.

“Now, Mister Dixon?” Grainger was looking at Dixon with huge eyes.

“Yeah. I think you’re ready.”

“Daddy, I learned a song.”

“Did you, kiddo? Lay it on me.” He settled into a chair, smiling at his kid. God, Grainger looked so nervous but pleased.

Grainger started playing a John Denver song, tiny voice clear.

He tapped his foot, nodding along with the music, even when it slowed and stumbled. Grainger didn’t start over, just plowed through. Look at his boy. He was so damn proud it hurt.

The end came with a little flourish, and Audie clapped, cheering. “Good job, kiddo.”


Page 8

“I did it!” Grainger grinned, the wiggly tooth in the front almost out, dark eyes lit up with happiness.

“You did.”

“I like that song,” Randi said, mouth full of gingersnap.

Grainger beamed, looking like he was going to bust open.

Lord, those two were thick as thieves. “Miss Randi did real well today. So did Sara.”

“Did you have fun, Bumblebee?”

“Uh-huh. Mr. Audie said Sarge could be just mine to ride.”

“Really?” Dixon’s brows drew down. “That means you have to take care of him too. Right, Audie?”

“Well, I’ll see to his day-to-day for now, but yeah. I’ll expect you to groom and bathe and all, kiddo. Clean his tack.”

“I will. I promise.”

“Oh, Bumblebee. I don’t know if we can promise that right now.”

“Daddy! Daddy, no. Don’t say that!”

“Why don’t you guys all go help Grace in the kitchen, huh?” He wanted to make sure Dixon knew he wasn’t asking for anything, money or commitment or whatever.

They all scrambled, gathering dishes with a clatter.

He chuckled when they fled. “They think we’re fixing to argue.”

“Are we? That sounds like a lot of work.”

“I think so too.” Audie leaned his elbows on his knees. “Sarge is an old boy, man. He’s great for her to ride another couple of years, and she can care for him whenever she can come. Make her feel important. I don’t need anything else from her, really.”

“You sure? Because there’s a limit to my mobility, you know? Mom and Dad do their best, but…. Well, you know.”

“No, I get it.” He reached out to touch Dixon’s leg. “Hey, do you want to go to lunch tomorrow. Or supper? I don’t want to be weird, but it’s your birthday.”

“Oh.” Dixon grinned. “I’m having lunch with the folks, then they’re heading off for square dancing. I can have Dalton order a pizza.”

“That would be cool. Hell, he could drop Randi off over here. Grace would love to have Sara occupied for a couple of hours.” How tickled was he that Dixon said yes? Silly, to get so het up over a friendly birthday supper.

“If you don’t think she’d mind, sure. Sure, I’d love it.”

“Daddy!” Randi came bouncing out. “Can me and Sara spent the night tomorrow? Please?”

Dixon chuckled. “If Sara’s momma says so. Audie and I are going to have supper.”

“With me? I like supper.” Grainger looked so hopeful.

“No, kiddo. But maybe Gracie will get y’all pizza.”

“I like pizza, but we could all go out, just us boys….”

“Sorry, bud.” Audie glanced at Dixon, hoping the man wouldn’t object. “Next time, okay?”

“Next time the girls have a night, I swear, we’ll have a guys’ night.” Dixon smiled, reaching out to touch Grainger’s shoulder and doing pretty good.

“Oh cool! Can we have shrimps? I love shrimps.”

“We’ll go to Red Lobster, huh?” Grainger thought that was the fanciest place ever.

“Oooh!”

Dixon was barely holding his shit together, cheeks bright red.

“Hey, why did you start wearing the dark glasses?” Thank God Grace asked so he didn’t have to.

“The sun makes them strain and that gives me vicious headaches.”

“Well, good on you, then.” Grace winked at Audie. “We’ll definitely do pizza, Grainger. Breadsticks too.”

“Okay. Can we watch cartoons now?”

“Sure, bud.” Audie grinned when the kids ran inside.

“God, they’re exhausting.” Grace plopped down in a chair. “Don’t worry, Dixon. Duke is watching them. That dog will herd them right back to the TV.”

“I really appreciate y’all. You’ve made a huge difference for my girl.”

“Grainger is so much better too. And Sara thinks Randi hung the moon.” Grace put her feet up.

“It’s a good deal.” Audie liked the whole arrangement. “You okay with watching them all tomorrow night?”

“Yeah. Yeah, it’s cool. When my guy comes home, I’ll make you pay me back.”

“You know it. I’ll make sure you get a date night.” Wait. Did he just say that? He hoped it didn’t freak Dixon out.

“I’ll hold you to that. Dixon, you want some more tea?”

“Thank you, please.”

“Me too.” He gave Gracie a wide-eyed look. If he was saying stupid shit now, how would he make it through tomorrow night?

Gracie didn’t help at all. She just waggled her eyebrows at him.

“Stop making faces at each other.”

Him and Gracie both stared at Dixon. “How did you know?” he asked.

“I can hear you holding your breath, and you’re siblings.”

“We are that.” Grace chuckled. “We’re pretty close.”

“I am to my brother, Dan. He’s in the Air Force, deployed.”

“Yeah? I know Dalton is a hoot. What’s Dan like?” Audie wanted to know everything.

Dixon’s head tilted. “He’s completely different from me. Stronger, less emotional, but I think he’s probably kinder. I get frustrated.”

“There’s one more, right?”

“Damon. He’s at UT fucking every woman he sees and living the Frat boy life.” Dixon’s eyes went wide, eyebrows lifting up above the little round glasses. “Oh shit. I’m sorry, that was crass.”

Grace hooted. “It’s honest. Hell, we’ve got a sister he should meet.”

“How old is he?” Audie grinned, hoping that was delicate enough to figure out how old Dixon was.

“Damon is twenty, Dalton is seventeen. I’m thirty-three, Dan is thirty-one.”

“Dude, you’re old,” Audie teased. “I’m the baby. Twenty-five.”

“You have no idea.” For a second Dixon looked almost unbearably lost, in pain, but then the expression faded. “You’re just a baby.”

“Hey, it’s not the age, it’s the mileage,” Gracie said. “Audie has more than his share of that.”

“Hey!” Audie popped her. “I haven’t been that bad!”

“I didn’t say that, Bro. I said you’ve had some moments.”

Audie glanced at Dixon, who smiled, looking a little bemused. Yeah, not as many moments as Dixon, he’d bet.

“I have nothing to say to that, man. I got all my living done.” Dixon sounded so sure about that, bittersweet.

Mouth dropping open, Audie shook his head. “Don’t say that, man. You have a lot to do left.”

Dixon chuckled softly. “I’m the current king of relying on the kindness of strangers.”

“You’ll get there.” Audie knew there were all kinds of ways for blind folks to learn to cope. He’d googled it. Problem was, Dixon would have to go to Dallas, at the closest, to get to those resources. Hell, he wanted to know why Dixon didn’t have a goddamn dog. Weren’t blind folks supposed to have dogs?

“So, where are y’all going to supper tomorrow?” Gracie asked.

“It’s Dixon’s birthday.”

“Finger foods are easiest. No pizza. I’m so sick of pizza.”

“How about that Zanata place? They have pizza, but they do all sorts of Mediterranean finger food. Or Gloria’s is Salvadorian.” Audie wracked his brain, trying to remember places in Rockwall that weren’t El Chico’s or Culpepper’s. The Oar House, maybe?

“Salvadorian? Let’s try Zanata’s. I love a good feta cheese. Salty, squeaks in your teeth.” It was easy to forget that Dixon was worldly, had experienced a ton. Audie had never been out of Northeast Texas, really, though he’d ventured farther than a lot of folks in this town.

“Did you grow up in Austin?” Grace asked.

“Outside of it. Wimberley. I went to UT, met Ron, we lived all over the place for his job, then we came back to Austin.”

“Tell me all the places you went.” Gracie had gotten the short end of the military wife stick. She hadn’t gotten to see any of the neat places in the States, let alone overseas.

“We were in London for a couple of years, Tokyo for six months. Then we stayed in Boston and Toronto. That’s where we were married. Toronto.”

“Wow.” Audie thought London would be cool to see. “I’ve been to Dallas, you know? Gracie here went to DC once.”

“Ron loved to travel, but I could work in Austin, and we decided it was time to start our family. He was ten years older than me, so….”

“So, ancient,” Gracie said, deadpan as anything, but Audie knew better. He cracked up.

“I know, right? My own personal sugar daddy.” Oh, Dixon could tease right along.

Gracie hooted. “We should all be so lucky.”

Audie snorted. “Not likely around here, man.”

“I’m too old for that now, anyway. Ten years ago? Twelve? I was a catch.”

Audie bit his lip against telling Dixon he still was. That would just be pushing stupid on stupid.

Dalton’s Pontiac pulled up, and the kid popped out. “Official limo service here.”

“Be nice, asshat. I pay your gas.”

“Totally. Where’s the rugrat?” It was something, those guys looked nothing alike. Nothing.

“She’s watching cartoons. Right up your alley, Dal.”

“Dude,Ben 10? I can hear it. Rock on.”

“You’re bizarre and inappropriate.” Dixon was grinning, though.

“I’ll get Randi,” Gracie said, rising and heading inside.

“Do you want me to pick you up, or will Dalton bring you and Randi over tomorrow?”

“Dude. Friday night. You totally know the rules.” Ah, to be a teenager again.

Dixon rolled his eyes. “Do you mind picking me up?”

“Not at all. I can drop Randi off here, and we can go, huh?” He couldn’t bitch at Dalton. Friday night rules were probably the reason they were doing lunch with the family instead of supper, and Dixon was free.

“Cool.”

“Thanks, man. I got a date with Joanne, and she…. I am totally into her.”

“Of course you are.” Dixon grinned. “She’s a nice girl, Dalton.”

“Dude. Don’t. ‘Nice girl’ from the queer big brother? Totally kiss of death.”

Audie snorted. “Hey, I thought Gracie’s husband was a good guy, and even told her. Of course, I was the younger brother.”

“Yeah, but what does a queer guy know about girls?” Dalton could roll those eyes.

“Good point.”

“Uncle Dalton!” Randi came running, her little boots pounding. She was so proud of those cute pink beauties. “I have a horse now of my own!”

“No shit?”

“Dal!”

“I mean, really?”

“Yep. Mr. Audie says so. Daddy, Mr. Audie, can I show Dalton Sarge?”

Dixon looked panicked, but Dalton looked pretty at ease.

“Sure honey. You need me to come whistle him up?”

“Please!” Randi danced. “Daddy, come too!”

Dixon stood, and Audie put the man’s hand on his arm. They were getting good at navigating the steps, and he’d taken Dixon all over the property.

“Wow, look at your daddy go. He’s motivating.” Dalton sounded surprised.

Randi cackled like a miniature bird. “Audie is good for him.”

Audie’s cheeks burned. Oh. Oh damn, man. Dalton could no doubt see his hot face, unlike his brother.

Thank God, Dalton didn’t say a word, which he appreciated. They headed out to the pasture, Randi climbing up on the fence. “Sarge! Sargie-Pargie!”

Audie waited to see if Sarge would come for her, having just been let loose half an hour ago. Damned if the big old gelding didn’t come trotting right up to the fence, letting Randi breathe into his nose.

“Oh, Uncle Dal. See? See, this is my goodest boy.”

“Dude, he’s huge.”

“He knows who’s boss, though. He adores her.” Audie felt like Dixon needed to know that.

“Daddy, give me your hand.”

Dixon reached for her.

“Now, you have to pet careful. He likes it when you stroke his nose.” She moved Dixon’s hand so gently, and Sarge took it like a champ, half-dozing.

“He’s the prettiest and best boy ever, and he’s so sweet.”

“He has a great nose,” Dixon agreed.

“Granny is going to shit a pink twinkie at the size of him, Randi.” Dalton wasn’t helping.

“She doesn’t have to see him.” Randi got mutiny face. “He’s gonna live here still.”

“Don’t tease, Dal. It’s not nice.” Oh, Dixon had Big Brother voice.

“Yeah, yeah.” Dalton moved carefully, sliding up to Sarge to hold out his finger. “Hey, big guy. You are so not a llama.”

“Nope. He’s a horse, silly.”

“Well, he’s neat. You guys ready to go, Dix?”

“Yeah. Yeah, I’m sure Mom wants us for dinner.”

“You know it. Thanks for showing me the horse, Randi. Thanks to Audie too.”

He had to say, Dalton was polite.

“I get to spend the night here tomorrow too. Did you know?”

“I might have heard.” Dalton took Dixon’s hand and tucked it into the crook of his arm. “Come on, Bro.”

“Holler about tomorrow,” Dixon called.

It was surprisingly weird, not being the one to lead Dixon. Audie had the urge to tell Dalton to watch the holes right where the yard started, but Dixon must have said something, because they managed it well, Randi skipping along on her daddy’s other side.

Sarge nipped his pocket, and he grinned. “Sorry, boy. I forgot to give you your treat.”

He fed Sarge his carrot bit, scratched an ear.

“You’re getting pretty hot for him, huh?” Gracie wandered down, waving a hand when he frowned. “Sara and Grainger are sound asleep in front of the TV.”

“I am. It’s completely stupid, isn’t it?”

“Nope. I mean, maybe a little fast, considering. But not stupid. I like him.”

“I do too. He’s… I don’t know. There’s something about him.”

She nodded, then hugged him quickly. “It’s good to see you take an interest in someone, Audie.”

“Yeah? You rock, Sister. I just… man. He’s something else.”

She chuckled. “Just step carefully, huh? He’s a little broken.”

“You think? A blind gay widower who lives with his folks?”

“Smartass.” She whapped his arm.

“Better than being a dumbass.”

They laughed together, looping arms and heading for the house.

Audie was already looking forward to supper tomorrow. Way too much to be safe.

Chapter 8


Page 9

 

“Bumblebee? Randi?Can you tell me what color this shirt is?”

“Green.”

“Is it pretty?”

He was being ridiculous, wasn’t he? Why should he care if the shirt he picked out made him look good or not? This wasn’t a date. This was two dudes going out for some food.

“I like the blue one with the white on it. Here. I packed my bag. It’s going to be fun, huh?”

“I hope so.” He had no idea what spending alone time with Audie would be like.

“Daddy! I never got to spend the night before!”

“What? It will be great.” Wow. She never had, now that he thought about it. “And I’ll be there after supper, just to say hi.”

He bet she was scared. He’d been scared, his first night away from home.

“I know.” She took his hand. “The blue-and-white shirt, Daddy. Do you like Audie a lot?”

“Of course I do. He’s a nice man.”

“Oh. He is. Super nice. Did you like your picture?”

“I loved it. It was the best present ever.” He reached for her and hugged her tight. “Thank you, Bumblebee.” She had cut it heart-shaped and made letters with glitter so he could feel them with his fingers.

“You’re welcome, Daddy. I love you.”

“I love you, my gorgeous girl.”

She helped him get a shirt on and then made him stand up so she could inspect him. “You look nice.”

“Do I? How’s my hair?” He would cut it, but the last time he’d suggested that, Randi had been inconsolable.

“Not even a little crooked.”

“Oh good. We should go wait, huh? What time is it?”

“Four five six.” She slipped her hand into his.

“Four minutes until five, then.”

“I have my bag. Your cane is by your hand.”

“Okay.”

“You scared, Daddy?”

“A little. I haven’t gone out to dinner before.” He chewed his bottom lip. “I mean, since the accident.”

“I know. I lit a candle for you.” That was something Ron did. He had candles for everything.

“Is it blown out now, baby?” God, tell him Mom had helped.

“Uh-huh. I promise. No fires. Can we take Honey and Beaker?”

“No. I’ll be home tonight to take care of them.”

“Okay.” She tugged him out on the porch. “Gran said I needed to take Sara a… a Hostess cupcake. Do you think she’ll like a bracelet? I made it on my loom.”

“A hostess gift, and she’ll love it. Handmade gifts are the best.”

“Yay! Where are you taking Mr. Audie?”

“I’ll buy him a beer while we’re out.”

“Ew. Beer is nasty.”

“Yep, but cowboys like beer,” he reminded her.

“Oh, there they are.” She jumped up, and he heard her doing her Audie-and-Grainger dance. It sounded exactly like her Uncle-Dalton’s-home dance and just a touch less frantic than her Sara-is-in-the-truck dance.

“Yay.” He found a grin and then focused on locking the front door. What freaked him out more than anything about tonight was how alone he would be once Audie dropped him off.

He hadn’t spent a night without someone home in more than a decade. Never since the accident, for sure. What if he lost the dogs, or fell or broke something?

“Stop it,” he told himself. He could do this.

“What?”

“Nothing, Bumblebee.” He ruffled her hair, happy when he managed it.

“Hey, man, Randi. Y’all ready?”

“I am!” Randi bounced against him. “I’m so excited.”

“Good deal. Hey, Dixon.”

He wished he could see Audie’s face. He could hear the smile.

“Hey, man.”

“Happy birthday.”

“Thanks.”

“You, uh, want me to help with the steps?” Audie was hesitating, shifting from foot to foot.

He checked the front door, then came to the steps, finding the edge with his cane. “Please.”

“I didn’t want to mess you up if you were gonna come down with Randi.” Audi murmured it while Randi chattered at Grainger.

“I appreciate it, man. For real.”

“No worries. Here we go.” Audie took him down the stairs to the truck.

Randi was talking a million miles a minute, so excited and nervous she couldn’t slow down. Thankfully, Grainger took after his cowboy daddy, and didn’t seem to need to push into the conversation much.

“She’s revved up,” he whispered.

“Nervous, huh? Sara is on a sugar-like high. Grace is gonna kill her.”

“Aww. Hopefully together they’ll, uh….” He trailed off. In no universe ever had two little hyped-up girls interacted in a way where they got calmer.

“They’re still pretty young. They’ll crash eventually.” He could hear Audie shrug.

“That’s the hope, huh?”

“No kidding. I hear Barbie movies are on the horizon.” Audie’s stage whisper cracked him up. “Don’t tell Grainger.”

“Poor kid. We owe him one.” Hell, they were leaving him with two little girls. Dixon thought he might owe Grainger three or four.

“We do. You’ll be amazed at how many shrimp he can eat.”

By now he knew the sound Audie’s truck made right before they turned into the lane at the ranch, the click of the turn signal, the downshift.

Then they stopped at the gate, and Audie hopped out. “Be right back.”

“Did he say Barbie movies?” Grainger asked.

“Maybe. Although I think y’all should watchFrozen.”

“That would be okay. I likePlanes.”

“Yeah? Have you ever been on an airplane, Grainger?”

“No, Mr. Dixon, sir. I want to go to Cheyenne someday, for the rodeo.”

“I’ve been on a plane.” Randi pushed right in. “I flied to Houston and to Disneyland and to go skiing.”

“You flew,” Dixon corrected Randi.

“Right. I flied.”

“Flew.”

“That’s what I said, Daddy.”

Dixon rolled his eyes. Some days she could only process so much. He let it go, then felt the truck dip as Audie hopped back in.

“Daddy, did you know Randi went to Disneyland?”

“No kidding? That’s pretty cool.” Audie pulled through the gate and went to close it before taking up where he left off, the truck bouncing down along the gravel road to the house. “We should go to Six Flags, huh?”

“Oh yeah. Yeah. I’m old enough now, for lots of it.”

“You totally are.” Audie chuckled, the sound warm and low, sliding down Dixon’s spine.

He tried not to worry about that sort of thing—about not being able to go and take Randi places, ever again.

“You okay?” Audie asked while the kids squealed about rides and all.

“Great. Thanks.” He found a smile that didn’t feel totally out of control.

“Cool. We drop them off and run.” They pulled up by the house, the sound of Duke’s bark happy, almost frantic.

Dixon slid out of the truck, Duke coming right up for a scritch. The dog seemed to know that Dixon couldn’t see him, pushing against his hand but never getting underfoot.

“Sara! Sara, I’m here!” Dixon heard her little boots stomp off, then come back. “Love you, Daddy!”

“Love you, Bumblebee.”

She hugged him tight, and he blinked hard, so proud of her for being a happy, regular kid.

“Remember, Daddy. You and me and Mr. Dixon, Red Lobster.”

“I got your back, kiddo. Two weeks or so, okay?” Audie sounded so tickled.

“Yes, sir. I’ll ’member. Two weeks. Shrimps and a guys’ night!”

Okay, that was cute as fuck.

“All right, buddy. You go be good to the ladies. Pizza and breadsticks, Auntie Grace said. She might even get wings.”

“Wings!” He heard Grainger patter off, and they were alone, him and Audie.

“You ready for this, Dixon?”

“I am. I… I don’t get out much. It’s exciting.”

“A little scary?” They headed out, the truck moving smoothly. He never worried about Audie’s driving, not like he did Dalton’s or his mom’s.

“Little bit, sure. I hate the idea of pouring something down my front.”

“I bet. I like your shirt.” Audie sounded as if he was flirting. For real.

“Randi picked it out.”

“She’s a good kid. She’ll call if she needs you, right? Grace and I both want to make sure she knows that’s okay.”

“She has her little phone in her backpack. It only calls me.”

“Good deal.” Audie hummed with the radio for a moment, and not for the first time Dixon cursed not being able to see the man.

“What do you look like?”

“Huh?” Audie turned the radio down. “Well, I’m six feet tall, I weigh about one-sixty, and I have brown hair and blue eyes.”

“You’re skinny, huh?” He grinned. “Do you have tattoos?”

“I have one.” Audie chuckled. “It’s on the inside of my upper arm. It’s a quarter.”

“As in ‘here’s a quarter, call someone who cares’?”

“No. It’s really silly, but when I got into training quarter horses, I got it done. They were the one thing I was really passionate about, but I couldn’t find a horse tattoo that wasn’t cheesy.”

“Ah. That’s clever. I get that.” He grinned. He had full sleeves—one arm was all daytime, the other was night.

“Nothing like your stuff. I mean, damn, you have some good work.”

“I have a lot. Back piece, chest, arms. Weird, because I can’t see them now.”

“I get it. I mean, I can’t really, but I can see how that would be freaky.”

“Yeah. Yeah, it is.” The words made it easier, and he found himself relaxing back.

“Anytime you want to show them off….”

“Are you trying to get me naked, man?” Oh. Oh wait. Bad.

“Don’t be so surprised.” Audie paused for a moment, and Dixon swore he could hear the gears grinding in Audie’s brain. “You’ll tell me if I get too forward, right? I know it hasn’t been long enough since your man passed, but you’re something special.”

“I will. I didn’t realize you were family.”

“No?” Audie chuckled. “My family thinks I got a rainbow letter G emblazoned on my chest.”

“Do you? I have a friend in Austin that does….”

“No shit? That’s cool. You’re the only one who knows, besides my family and my ex.”

“Your secret’s safe with me. I swear.” He wasn’t into outing people.

“Thanks. I don’t worry about me, but Grainger has it rough anyway.” Audie sighed. “His mom, well, she didn’t want anything to do with a baby. I was just lucky she kinda had no idea she was pregnant until she was so far along it was easier to keep Grainger. I would do anything for him.”

“Ah. I’m lucky that Randi was planned. We used turkey basters. We didn’t know until she popped out whose she was.”

“Well, she sure is yours. That hair.”

“God, yes. Honey, Ron’s family was from Ethiopia. There was no question.”

“Oh.” Audie cackled like a big bird. “Lord, I can see why you lived in Austin.” There was no malice there, just wry amusement.

“Yeah. Two queer interracial guys with money and a baby. It’s a thing.”

“I guess so.” Audie’s chuckled trailed off. “Like I said, I’m sorry about your Ron. Randi says he was a good guy.”

“He was. He was a neat man, and I loved him.”

“He was lucky too. I mean, to have you. Not to—you know.”

Dixon cackled. God, poor guy. It sucked to have to try and come on to him and acknowledge the utter suckitude of the past. “He was lucky. He died instantly. No pain. And Randi wasn’t in the car.”

“That’s a blessing, for sure.” The worst part about being blind on a first date was not being able to read Audie’s expressions. “So what kind of music do you like to play the most?”

“Play like listen to or play like on the guitar, because those are two different answers.”

“Both. I meant what do you play for a living, I guess, but I want to know both.”

“I mostly play rhythm and blues. Blues guitar is my first love, but I’ll work with anyone. I like to listen to Muddy Waters, The Black Keys, Santana. Hell, I was named after Willie Dixon. My folks love music.”

“Mine too. Mom is all western swing and hat act country. Dad loves C.W. McCall. Jerry Reed. Trucker music. The Eagles.”

“Oh, the Eagles rock. Have you ever been to Kerrville?”

“The folk festival? No. My dad has, I think.”

“My parents go every year, no matter what.”

“Neat.” Audie turned onto the highway, like the interstate, and Dixon tensed. “You okay?”

“Fine.” Just a little freaked out, no sweat.

“I’ll take it easy, huh? I imagine it’s harder not to see what’s going on.”

“Just ignore me. I’m just a pussy, huh?” The problem was that his optic nerves still worked, he still supposedly saw things.

“No. No, if you need to stop, you say so. I want you to feel safe with me.” Audie touched him, hand on his arm, just a brief thing.

“Thank you.” God, how long had it been, those gentle touches?

“No problem. Seriously.”

The radio and the sound of the wheels were the only sounds for a bit, both of them a little lost in thought, maybe.

“So, tell me about you? I mean, you’re a horse guy, obviously.”

“I do a lot of training. That’s mainly why I run cattle, so I can train cutting and herding horses. I board some too.”

“That’s cool. Randi thinks you’re a magical creature.” There was the understatement of the century. Between Sara and Audie, Randi was a huge Barrack family fan.

“She’s horse crazy. She’s a good rider, though. Pays attention. Grainger thinks you’re the one who hung the moon.”

“I’m just another musician. He’s got talent, though, I can tell.”

“Thanks. I’m so proud of him, and really grateful to you for teaching him.”

“Mutual admiration society.”

Audie hooted. “Yeah. Okay, I’m fixing to turn off, huh? Wanted to let you know.”

“Thanks. I only saw pictures of the place before the accident; I’d never explored the area.” They’d intended to come up and see what excitement they could find in Dallas while the grandparents did their babysitting thing, sure, but life kept happening.

“Yeah? That sucks, man. Not to even know where you are, really? I mean, I knew you didn’t grow up here.”

“Nope. Mom and Dad retired up here, got a great deal on the land.”

“Yeah.” They pulled off on a less busy road, his ears noticing slower wind, fewer cars.

“Are we in Rockwall now? Rowlett?”

“Rockwall. Traffic is not bad. Makes me wonder if they all know something I don’t.”

“Everyone is heading to Dallas?” How the hell would he know?


Page 10

“Shit, who knows? We probably just hit a lull. Shouldn’t be far now.”

“It’s still early, huh?” He grabbed his phone. “What time is it?”

“Five fifty-three,” his phone said in its tinny voice.

“Nice.” Audie turned at the next light. “I need to figure out how to do that, huh?”

“It’s handy, otherwise I’d never know.”

“So, how come you don’t have a dog?”

He liked that about Audie, how he simply asked what he wanted to know.

“I have to go in for training, lots of it, and I don’t have the time with Randi right now. Also, there’s Mom and Dad—if I go to Dallas, they have to drive me. If I go to Austin, I have to stay at the School for the Blind.”

“Are you going to go when Randi is out of school, then?” The motor downshifted again when they turned off on a smaller road yet.

“It depends on whether Ron’s folks want her for the summer, I guess.” He didn’t know. Just the concept of attempting to figure out how to know was enough to send him into a tailspin.

“She can’t stay with your folks? I mean, we’d be happy to help.”

“Yeah, I mean, I don’t know.” Everything had happened so fast. He lost Ron twenty months ago. Twenty months.

“Sorry, I don’t mean to push. I ask stupid shit. Here we are.”

Dixon reached for Audie, shooting for a wrist, getting an arm. “Hey, it’s cool. I just don’t know. I don’t know what to do anymore. It’s like being in stasis, forever.”

“I don’t think you’re the kind to stay still forever, Dixon.” Audie took his hand, fingers warm and callused. “You just need time to get your head together.”

“I hope so. I guess we’ll see.” He worried. Christ, there wasn’t even an “about” anything in there. He just worried.

“I’ll help any way I can.” Audie still held his hand, sitting there in the truck. “So. Supper, huh?”

“Yeah. Food is good.” He let go of Audie’s hand and grabbed his cane. Okay, first post-Ron, postdaughter, postblind first date.

Blind first date.

His lips twitched at the pun.

Audie came around to the other side of the cab and put his free hand on one arm. Audie was a good guide: steady, strong, not pushy.

It was still warm, the heat of the summer threatening like it could in early May, the sun beating down and strong. He lifted his face to it, amazed at how good it felt.

They got up to the restaurant, the smells of garlic and olives rich, redolent. His nose worked overtime, and he heard Audie murmur to the hostess.

The clatter and voices seemed unusually loud, almost echoing, disorienting him, and he held tight to Audie. He knew he probably looked like an idiot, trying to see something, anything. Fuck, he stiffened, unnerved, embarrassed.

“Hey. It’s really loud tonight. Do y’all have anything in the way of quieter?” Oh good. Audie wasn’t talking to him.

“I’m sorry, sir. Not really. We don’t have a patio.”

“I’m not sure I’m up for it,” Audie said. “What do you think, Dixon? Come back for lunch at some point?”

Oh thank God.“That sounds perfect to me. Perfect.”

“Thanks, hon,” Audie told the hostess. “We’ll come by next week for lunch.” Audie took his hand and put it on his arm, leading him back outside.

“I’m sorry and thank you so much.” Both things seemed important to say.

“Hey, it was crazy loud in there. The music and the talking. I would have ended up with a headache.” Audie opened his truck door. “Uh, we could find a little place. Has to be a cafe here somewhere.”

“You know, as long as the food’s decent, I’m happy. Simple is good.”

“Good deal.” Audie went around and hopped into the truck, and they headed back toward Greenville; he could tell, the sun wasn’t on his face anymore.

“There’s a place called Burgers & Fries in Royse City. Just good stuff. They have chicken fried steak too.”

“Perfect. I don’t suppose there are milkshakes?” Milkshakes made him happy. Ron used to take him to a place in Vegas with adult shakes.

“They do. Good ones. It’s like an old diner from the fifties only newer and cleaner.” It didn’t seem to take them long to get there, and while the place seemed bustling when they walked in, he could easily hear everything, separate the sounds.

Audie got him settled, then sat across from him. “So, how does this work? Do I read you the menu?”

“Are there chicken fingers and gravy?”

“There are. With Texas toast. You like chocolate or vanilla shakes? Oh, they have pineapple.”

“Pineapple. Oh hell yeah. That’s what I want. Fries, chicken fingers, gravy, toast. Shake.”

“You got it.” Audie got a huge breakfast and a glass of milk, with coffee and pie as a follow-up.

“You’re a brave man, going out with the blind guy.”

“Nah. You’re the brave one. I would just sit and be very still, I think.”

“Yeah. Yeah, that’s the temptation!” God, Audie got it. “Either that or I forget about my face.”

“You mean you pull crazy expressions?” Audie tapped the back of his hand gently. “I hear Randi say things once in a while. I’ll tell you if you do, okay?”

“Thank you. It’s hard, when you don’t look at other people, to remember to have normal face.”

“I never thought of that. I bet you hear all sorts of things, huh?”

“Starting to, yeah. At first, I didn’t think there was any truth to that shit, but now….” Now the music vibrated inside him, and he heard Randi all the way across the house.

“It kicks in, huh?” Their drinks came, and Audie helped him find his water glass.

“I think so, yeah. Either that or I’m crazy.”

“Well, maybe, but I bet not for that.”

Dixon could hear Audie tapping his foot to the music.

He relaxed back, head bobbing along too. “So, did you grow up here?”

“I did. I mean, in Greenville. Grainger goes to the same school I did.”

“That’s kind of cool. Do any of the teachers remember you?”

“Yes.” Audie chuckled. “I pity him when he gets to high school.”

“Yeah. My brother was a freshman when I was a junior.”

“Ouch. That’s even worse.”

“Nah. He’s like a fucking superhero, man. I mean, it’s unreal—he’s smart, athletic, and a damned soldier. I hate him.” Dixon had to grin, the lie patently obvious.

“You’re close like me and Gracie.” Audie sipped his drink, the slurpy straw sound giving it away. “We have two older sisters, but they were just so much older than us.”

“So you get it.” He explored the table—rolled silverware, placemat with scalloped edges.

“I think so, yeah. You’re old.” Audie waited, silent, to see what he would do.

“Fucking ancient, man. Ancient.”

They laughed together, and his milkshake showed up. God, he could smell the pineapple.

He found the edge of the glass and followed it up, the cold a little shocking, the frost tugging at his fingertips. The straw felt extra long and wide, like the ones in Vegas. Perfect for pineapple.

He took a long drink.Oh. Oh yum.

Yum.

“That’s a good face.” Audie clapped once, the sound sharp but happy. “Now I know how to make you smile.”

“Man, this is the best. Thank you.” He licked his lips clean, the cream catching on the stubble off his almost-stache.

“Uh-huh.” Audie sounded a little distracted.

“How’s yours?”

“It’s milk. I haven’t been paying attention, really. Been watching you.”

Oh.

Oh!

His cock went hard in his jeans, the husky tone of Audie’s voice turning him on like he was a hot-wired ignition.

“Is that okay?” Audie touched his wrist, a light, easy thing. “I like how you look.”

“That’s the nicest thing anyone has said to me in months.”

“Oh good.” Audie backed off when the waitress approached, and they moved their arms so she could put down the food. Audie laughed softly. “For all you know, I’m butt ugly.”

“I don’t think that’s possible.” There was no way that voice and soul belonged to ugliness.

“I’m grateful you seem to like me no matter what I look like.”

“I would be a shitty human being if I didn’t, and that’s not about being blind. That’s just about being a good man. Trying to be a good man.”

He wanted Randi to be proud of him. Hell, he wanted his brothers to be proud of him.

“You are. A good man, I mean. I’ve seen how you are with Grainger.”

“He’s a good kid.” He tilted his head. “Can I ask you a question?”

“Sure.” Audie munched something crispy.

“Are you bi? I mean, obviously at twenty you didn’t use a surrogate.”

“Oh.” Audie paused and then cleared his throat. “No, I knew when I was fifteen how I was. She was—well, she needed someone willing to fight off the other boys, and we needed a beard.”

“Was she a local girl?” He found his plate, touching carefully. Chicken.

“Yeah. She’s long gone, you know? She was from the bad side of town, and her folks are mostly in and out of jail.”

“I’m sorry.” How awkward did that have to be?

“I’m sad for Marina, but I wouldn’t trade my boy for anything. He’s my life.”

“Well, sure. He’s amazing.”

“Thanks. I was so stupid, so young, but I’m grateful for him.”

He found a french fry and ate it. “We weren’t young, but we were terrified. Totally terrified. I’m a shiftless musician, Ron worked a hundred hours a week at his company, but we wanted a baby.”

“She’s a superneat kid.” Audie stole one of his fries, the tiny breeze alerting him.

“She’s been through a lot. They’re good, aren’t they?”

“They are.” Audie hummed. “My pancakes are pretty yummy.”

“Pancakes are Randi’s favorite food.” He stopped suddenly, then cracked up. “Oh my God, I’ve become one of those men that only know how to talk about their children on a date.”

“No shit.” Audie laughed with him, the sound genuine, happy. “At least I do too. Less awkward than asking you weird sexual questions.”

“Oh, honey, those are easy.” He let himself flame playfully, being quiet and over the top, all at once.

“Are they?” Audie paused, and he heard that straw sound again. “I’m not very good at those kinds of games. Though my friends would sure be surprised, I guess.”

“Well, I haven’t played any games in a long time, so that’s okay.”Way to make Audie uncomfortable, Dixon.

“Good deal. We’re at a good starting point.”

“Yeah? You think so?”

“I do. I like you. You like me. You make me hot….”

Dixon’s cheeks heated, he felt it, and it seemed like an electric shock shot from his chest to his balls.

“Oh. Look at you. That’s an even better face than the milkshake happy.”

“Is it? I’m feeling pretty damned happy, to be honest.”

“I like happy.” Audie touched his hand again, another tiny contact, and they were adding up, making his skin tingle.

God, how weird was this, to be turned on, to be wanting and not have Ron there. He hadn’t sprung wood for months after he lost Ron, between the drugs to try to preserve some of his sight and the antidepressants. Now, it felt like he could really want someone, really think about naked touching.

He wanted so badly to see Audie, though, to know what his shape looked like before he touched.

“You okay, honey?”

“Fine.”

“You look a little pained.”

“I want to see you,” he confessed.

“That’s good, right?” Audie’s breath had caught, and now it came faster.

“Yeah, except I can’t.”

“Can’t what?” Audie leaned elbows on the table.

“See you. I want to know what you look like.” He knew who Audie was, how he smelled, even the sound of his breath, but he wanted to see the man.

“Oh.” Audie seemed to ponder that a long time. “I can tell you. Let you touch.”

His entire body went “sproing!” and he missed the french fries, the plate clattering. “Yes.”

“Okay. Uh, whenever you want.” Audie helped him get his food back into alignment.

“Thank you. I…. Do you live with your mom and your sister?”

“Mom lives just up the road. Gracie and Sara stay with them. Mostly it’s just me and Grainger.”

It was so fucking weird, to not know this stuff, to not know how to go get Randi. What if she had an emergency, or just a panic attack?

“Hey, it’s okay, dude. Breathe.”

“It’s obvious?”

“Oh, honey, your face shows everything.” Audie sounded sympathetic but not pitying. He heard pity all the time.

“Sorry. I just… sometimes it’s so fucking big, you know? So immense, and I don’t know how to process it.”

“One day at a time. Should I, uh, get my pie to go? We could go park somewhere at the ranch and make out like idiots before you go say good night to Randi.”

“I think that sounds like a great birthday present.” He loved how Audie was just straightforward and sure.

“Oh good. Good deal.” Audie got their waitress to come on over, and ordered the pie to go, along with cookies for the kids.

Dixon finished his shake, left the rest of his supper, his belly a mass of nerves.

“Are you worried?” Audie took his arm, handing him his cane.

“Worried?” He stood up, and they headed out. He wasn’t sure if he was or not. He’d never kissed a man without seeing. He hadn’t kissed anyone but Ron in years, and what if he lost it when he did?

“Yeah. We don’t have to. I want to make out, I mean, but we can go watch Barbie movies. Listen. Whatever.”

“Dude, no matter how long it’s been, the possibility of making out is vastly superior to Barbie.”

“I agree.” The truck rumbled to life once he was settled, and Audie steered them back toward home. He thought it said something for Audie’s care that he drove pretty sedately.

Dixon steadfastly didn’t think about the last time he’d made out, about the last time he’d had sex. This wasn’t going to be like that. It wasn’t. It couldn’t be.

Still, anticipation curled in his belly, the need to touch Audie strong, to feel how the man was made, the texture of his skin.

He reached out, not curling his hand over Audie’s thigh or anything, just touching the outside of his leg.

Audie’s leg jumped a little, but the truck never stuttered, so that was a good move, Dixon guessed. Safe but interested, right?


Page 11

Audie was warm, and the jeans were starched, and he knew in cowboy culture that meant the man was trying to impress him. The fact that Audie would do that for a blind guy spoke volumes about him.

They didn’t say a word, even when Audie hopped out. If this was a gate, it wasn’t the normal one. That was on a gravel road and this felt like… dirt?

Audie came back to pull through, then stopped to close the gate. When he hopped back in the cab, Dixon turned toward him, straining to see.

“This is the back forty. Nothing out here but a cow or two.”

“Cool. It didn’t feel like the same road.”

“Nope. I figure we deserve a little privacy, and it’s a pretty enough night.”

“It’s starting to get dark?”

“A little. Took us longer to eat, what with moving to the diner and all.” Audie pulled off the dirt track and killed the engine, and the world got very quiet.

“Do you want to… sit here?”

“I’m so easy, man. We can blow up the air mattress in the back, which is easier than moving the car seats….” Audie cleared his throat. “We can go for a walk too, if you want. I don’t want to feel pushy.”

“I think the air mattress is a damned good idea.” And he was less likely to fall down.

“Give me two shakes of a dead lamb’s tail.” Audie hopped out, and Dixon heard the toolbox open, the sound familiar from transporting his guitar.

He slid out of the truck, following the metal back toward the bed. Thankfully, the ground remained solid under his feet, and he didn’t fall, even when the snap of the bed inflating made him jump.

“I’m right here, honey. Just come on back.”

He followed the sound, found the dropped tailgate, then the air mattress.

“Hey. Need some help up?” Audie waited for him to answer, which was nice.

“Yeah. Yeah, I have the feeling if I miss, I’d be in a world of hurt.”

“Could be, for sure.” Audie came to him, chest brushing his, and lifted him clean up into the bed of the truck.

“Oh.” Okay, that casual strength was possibly the hottest thing he’d felt in eons. His body revved right up, ready for any touch Audie might give him.

When Audie slid up next to him, hip pressing against his, he held his breath. Audie grasped his hand, holding on, palm warm and firm against his.

He explored Audie’s hand, wrist, then brought it up to lick.

The flavor of salt came through, along with a hint of coffee, Audie’s skin rough with calluses and weather. His lips found scars, tracing them.

“Dixon.” Audie sounded breathless, and a little like he’d been gargling rocks, his voice rough.

“Uh-huh?” He brushed his lips over Audie’s palm.

“That feels amazing.” Audie turned toward him a little, facing him, the rustle of those starched jeans loud.

It did. It felt damned amazing, and he nuzzled the palm again before testing the pulse at Audie’s wrist.

Audie touched his cheek with the other hand, tracing a line from his eye down to the corner of his mouth.

He opened up, turned his head, and wrapped his lips around Audie’s finger.

“Oh.” The moan came, long and drawn out, Audie making a little music for him.

Someone liked that. Excellent. He gathered his confidence and pulled, sucking in a steady rhythm.

Audie stroked his face, his hair, slow and easy. The heavy scars from the head wounds were traced, touched, not avoided. Audie seemed as curious about him as he was about Audie. Okay, maybe not that much. He needed to touch Audie’s face, to use his hands to see what his eyes couldn’t. He’d always thought that was bullshit in movies, but now he wanted to do it.

“Can I… can I touch you?”

“Of course you can.” Audie pulled away with the hand Dixon had been sucking and grabbed Dixon’s fingers in his.

“No, I want to touch your face. Please.”

“You got it.” Audie brought both his hands up to lie against his own cheeks, letting Dixon go so he could touch at will.

He was fascinated. Audie’s face was clean-shaven, nose long, straight. He traced the man’s eyebrows, surprised to find little eyeglasses. Oh God, that had to be adorable. A cowboy in spectacles.

“Oh man. I…. You look like you’re happy to see me. I’ve never had a man look at me like that.”

“No?” That was a shame. Audie deserved good moments. “Well, I think you’re hot as hell.”

“You can tell. Can I kiss you?”

“I think that would rock.”

Audie made a happy noise and touched his face again, fingers sliding behind his ear and into his hair to pull him close.

It was brand-new, to have to wait, to let someone else initiate, because he wasn’t sure where the kiss was coming from.

Audie’s breath on his lips told him which way to tilt his head, and he took this kiss full on the mouth, the brush of lips together, making him shiver. He moaned, the sound vibrating in his throat.

“Mmm.” Audie made this long, low noise, pure pleasure. The kiss went deeper, not fierce, just a slow, thorough tasting, and he traced Audie’s teeth, finding one that was the barest bit crooked.

Audie chuckled, and Dixon pulled back a few inches. “What happened?”

“Got kicked by a calf.”

“Ouch. Is there a scar?” He licked again.

“A little one. I was really young, so it healed good.” Audie touched his shoulder, palm cupping the ball of his joint, fingers rubbing gently.

Oh damn. That felt so good. So good. The simple act of touch made him want to sit there forever. He’d missed it so much, the closeness of someone else’s body.

He reached out, finding Audie’s belly. Oh. Oh, hard. The man had a flat stomach, the cotton shirt covering it had snaps, and he felt a heavy, metal belt buckle. Cowboy to the bone, this one. He traced the buckle, the heavy edges shaped like a rope. The center had some words and maybe a horse.

“Now, if you start playing with a cowboy’s buckle, you’re making inherent promises.”

“Am I?” He grinned. He was good—at playing and promises.

“You are. You don’t handle one unless you’re gonna make good.” Audie kissed his smile, tone light, touch easy. No one was pushing.

He grinned and let his palm press against the heavy ridge of Audie’s cock. This was the first time, the first touch, the first exploration.

“Uhn.” Audie’s tiny sound exploded at the base of Dixon’s skull, and he felt the throb of Audie’s pulse under the zipper.

His thumb traced the line of Audie’s prick, the tip.

“Fuck. Oh, honey, that feels good.” Audie began touching him in other places too, hands sliding down his arms, then up his belly to his chest.

He wanted to pull Audie’s cock out, jack it, touch it, suck it, but he wanted to chill the fuck out too. He wanted it to last. What if this was his only chance? Hell, what if it wasn’t? It would still be the first time.

Audie stroked his nipples through his shirt, then worked on the buttons, opening it to get skin touching skin, those calluses like tiny pieces of sandpaper.

Audie’s finger stuttered, Dixon’s pecs going tight. Fuck.

“You have such hot skin. Like a little furnace, man.”

“You have great hands. Make me wish my nipples were still pierced.” Let Audie put that in his pipe and smoke it.

“Pierced?” Audie paused, a sharp inhale sounding. “Oh wow.”

“Yeah. I had them done in school, kept them until a certain infant found them fascinating.”

“Oh, I bet.” Audie chuckled, pressing his nipples again, thumbs rubbing them. “I would play with them all the damned time.”

All Dixon could do was moan, arch up into the touch and demand another kiss. He got it too, hard and edged with need now. They were moving faster than he’d expected, but it felt good to need, to feel the pressure of his dick against his zipper.

The wind felt good, cooling his body where it brushed against his skin, making the contrast where he was touching Audie that much stronger. He shivered, tugging at Audie’s belt buckle, trying to figure out how the damned thing worked.

He got it figured out, and the fly of the jeans was that much more simple, the pressure of Audie’s cock helping the zipper down. The boxer briefs were just like his, only backward, and Dixon made a sound of triumph when he got Audie’s dick out in the open.

He wrapped his fingers around the shaft, needing to know. Thick. More thick than long, really, but Audie was well-made, and cut, no foreskin to push back. He stroked from base to tip, just getting a feel for it, for what Audie liked.

Audie moaned for him, pressing into his palm, rubbing against his fingers. “Damn. Feels good.”

“It does.” His free hand braced against Audie’s chest, and he fought to see, to catch a glimpse.

“You’re working hard, honey. Relax. You can love on me all night.”

“I’m sorry. I can’t figure out how to not try and see.”

“I bet.” Audie reached up and slid off his dark glasses. He heard Audie set them up on the tool box before Audie began to massage his temples, kissing his forehead, his nose.

The sudden release of tension made him sob. Oh God. He didn’t know it could stop hurting.

“Shh. Oh, honey, you’re so tight.” Those long fingers worked the spots behind his ears.

“Sorry. Sorry, I just… It’s amazing.”

“No reason to apologize.” Audie grabbed him around the chest and ribs with one arm, pulled him farther up into the bed, up toward where the cab would be, then eased him down on the air mattress. The massage took up where it left off, Audie working his scalp with slow strokes.

He gasped, and he let his eyes close, let himself feel, just for a second. Little tingles ran down his spine, his arms moving like he was taking on electric shocks.

“Feels so good. I didn’t know….”

“Hey, why would you? God, this has to be miserable, honey.”

“I just….” He pushed into Audie’s arms, just wanting connection for a minute.

“Shh.” Audie kissed his neck, the press of lips causing more goose bumps to rise. “I got you.”

God, he missed being held, being touched. Audie had a knack for it too, knowing when to hold back, when to press in and get his muscles to relax.

And when it was time, those heady kisses started again, Audie’s lips rubbing over his, tongue pushing into his mouth a tiny bit. He hooked one leg over Audie’s, rocked them together, and it was like dancing, but without the smoke and the pounding music.

These days that was a huge plus.

Humming, Audie pushed one hand down against his ass, pulling them closer together.

Oh. Oh, that was nice. That was… yum. The soft brush of skin on skin, the tiny bit of stubble on Audie’s face scratching him. He loved it all.

He sucked Audie’s bottom lip in, grinning as he rubbed his tongue over the softness of the inside.

Audie pushed one hand into his hair, freeing the ponytail, combing his fingers through.

Oh, that was nice. He pressed a hand to Audie’s chest, feeling the heartbeat there thumping away. Audie rocked against him, reminding him Audie was bare below the belt.

He reached down, wrapped his hand around Audie’s prick.

“Yeah. Oh, Dixon. That’s good.” Audie pushed into his touch, good and revved up now.

He kept moving his hand, fingers tight, working the tip with his thumb. The little drop that welled up at the tip made him moan, and he moved it around the skin there to ease the way.

“Damn….” Audie sucked in a breath, filled his lungs. Dixon felt the way Audie’s body moved, the way their skin touched because of it.

He knew how to touch a man, how to make him feel good. Audie seemed a little less practiced, but he had damned good instincts. Audie nipped at his jaw, licking to ease the sting.

“Bitey.” Dixon chuckled, tickled beyond what was reasonable.

“I am sometimes. Is that okay?”

Audie pulled back, and he got the feeling Audie was staring at him.

“I’ll tell you if I don’t like something. I don’t play games. I like having sex. At least I hope I still do.” What if he didn’t? What if he just hated it?

“Good. Okay. I don’t know many games when it comes to this.” Audie sounded so fucking worried.

“No. You’re lucky. They aren’t cool.”

“Kiss me again?” Audie stroked his lower lip with a thumb.

“Yes, please.” He leaned up and kissed Audie, making sure it was thorough, deep. Hungry.

Audie held him, hands on his shoulders, keeping him there. The kiss made him dizzy, going on and on. They licked at each other, lapped at each other’s lips and tongues. They were making out, as promised, learning each other, and he wanted to hum with joy.

Hell, he sort of did, moaning a melody that meant pleasure in a major key.

Audie crowded against him a little, cock rubbing into his hand, hard and hot, that silky skin fascinating his fingers. He got both hands involved, jacking steadily, surely.

“Dixon.” Audie humped, hips rocking hard before settling back, Audie obviously working to control his movements.

“It’s okay. You can take what you need. I want to know what you smell like.”

“Oh God.” Audie began to move again, hips and thighs sliding against Dixon’s. He loved the rasp of hair against him, the way they smelled together.

The noises Audie made pinged his senses, made him pant.

“Audie. You’re so fine.” He meant it. He knew it.

“I’m close, honey. I haven’t, except to jack off. In a long time. You feel so good. I need you.” Audie babbled, but he didn’t mind.

“Come on. Give it up. Then we’ll enjoy each other some more.”

“Oh. Oh God.” As if all he needed was permission, Audie shot for Dixon, cock jerking in his hands, slick, hot come jetting over his fists.

His lips dropped open, and he forced his grip to gentle. Oh fuck. That had been erotic as all get out, and now he definitely knew what Audie sounded like, smelled like when he came. Stunning.

Dixon lifted his hand to his lips, tasting salt and bitter and Audie.

“Fuck. That’s the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen.” Audie was right there, lips brushing his hand.

“Like how you taste.” He’d know it now.

“Good deal. It would suck if you didn’t. I want to know how you taste, honey.”

He had to grin. “You said suck.”

“I did.” Audie gave him a kiss before wiggling into a whole new position.


Page 12

His hands flailed a little, searching for Audie, for connection. They finally landed on Audie’s shoulders, Audie’s head level with his hips.

“Oh.” His buckle was a hell of a lot simpler and his jeans were looser, so things should be easier.

Audie got the button undone, the zipper down without catching on anything, and pulled his cock right out. “Oh yeah. Look at you.”

“It’s still there.” He should know, he’d tugged off in the shower this morning.

“It is. It’s pretty like the rest of you.” Audie closed one hand around him, low, near his balls.

He lifted up off the mattress, his toes curling. His belly pulled in, his chest heaving.

“Hot. Your skin. I mean, you too. But your skin is on fire.”

“Doesn’t surprise me at all. I’m burning up.”

“We can work with that.” Audie chuckled, then surprised him by licking his cock, tongue working the head.

His legs spread wide, knees drawing up. Fuck, yes. He groaned when Audie started working up and down, licking and sucking. Oral. How wonderfully oral.

Dixon jerked, his hips rising and falling. He was trying not to fuck Audie’s face, really, but he was totally out of control. There wasn’t anything to hold on to, no way to keep himself from pushing toward that amazing mouth.

He rocked, the mattress a little weird and squeaky. Audie sucked him good and strong, touching his thighs, his balls. The man wasn’t scared to suck, moaning and pulling on his cock. In fact, he would say Audie excelled at this whole thing, lips soft, swollen, tongue hot and wet.

“Goddamn, man. You… you suck like a dream.”

Audie made this noise, pleasure and pride, and it vibrated around him, sliding down his shaft.

Oh, now that pushed him close to the edge, made him sob. “Gonna….”

“Mmm-hmm.” Audie wasn’t backing off a bit, was actually adding touch back into the equation, fingers closing around the base of his prick.

His breath caught and he panted, eyes wide as he imagined he saw lightning, fireworks. Those he could remember, and Audie definitely inspired them. Reds and greens and silver and…. He grunted, shooting so hard his bones rattled.

Audie moaned and licked him clean, not pulling back until he tugged on Audie’s hair.

“God. God, man. That was… thank you.”

“Uh-huh.” Audie nipped at his hip. “It sure was.”

He rolled up, curling around Audie’s head. Audie kissed his belly, licking and stroking his skin. Each touch felt amazing, tingling and building on the orgasm. He shook a little, and Audie shimmied up next to him again, one arm around him.

He leaned in, searching for Audie’s lips before stealing a kiss.

Audie made this amazing noise, so pleased, so deep, and Audie kissed him back, holding on. Oh damn. Damn. Audie tasted like him, like sex and… maple syrup.

He chuckled.

“What?” Audie grinned against his mouth.

“You taste good. I’m happy. This was a great birthday present.”

“Good. Are you—do you mind a snuggle? I’d love to hang out.”

“I am a huge fan of snuggling.”

“Oh, that’s great.” Audie pulled him closer, arm around his back, and they struggled with cloth a little, getting clothes out of the way.

“I don’t know that I’ve ever been outside like this. It’s amazing.”

“Yeah? Lord, I never made out with anyone inside as a teenager.”

“Oh, my folks were very much about being understanding and liberal. We made out in my room.”

“No shit? Mine were about kicking my ass for doing anything out of line.”

“Well, my dad’s sisters are gay, Dan’s gay. It’s a thing. My folks are incredibly chill.” Did people say that?

“Wow.” Audie laughed, the sound a little rough. “I’m like a complete weirdo in my family.”

“Well, honey, I’m the only blind guy I know….”

“No shit.” Audie kissed his chin, lips lingering. “I like you.”

“Thank you. I haven’t felt like I’ve been… I don’t know.” Alive. Real. Likable.

“I bet you feel like you’re on hold.”

“Yeah. Yeah. It’s like… and I know it’s shitty to be naked with one guy and talk about another, but Ron died, and everything is totally different.”

Audie began to stroke his back, slow and steady, and he felt Audie nod. “I get it, kinda. I mean, when Grainger showed up, my whole life changed. All it takes is one minute.”

“Yeah. I can’t imagine. I mean, you had to be scared.” They’d planned Randi, begged for her, prayed.

“Terrified. Especially when Marina bugged out and then Tim left town too, before I ever even got the paternity test in. It was nuts.”

God, he bet that would be complicated as fuck. “Did she just leave him with you?”

“With her mom, then left me a message. Poor kid, his Nan didn’t really want him, so she was happy to hand him over.” Audie sighed. “I worry about him sometimes, with no mom, about how he’ll feel when he really understands what happened.”

“He’ll be okay. He has you.” How was he going to manage with a girl? How was he going to help with homework, get her to football games, deal with periods?

“Yeah.” Audie hugged him, the embrace charged with emotion. “Thanks.”

He pushed into the touch, let himself drink up the comfort, the warmth. Maybe he could stop thinking about shit, relax, and let Audie hold him. He thought Audie wanted that too.

Chapter 9

 

Audie didn’twant to go home.

Well, he was home, really, but he didn’t want to go back to the house. Lying there under the stars with Dixon had this amazing unreality to it, his body sated but thrumming with energy.

He thought Dixon was napping, hand resting on his chest. Then Dixon dragged one finger over his nipple, tracing around it, letting it draw up tight.

“Mmm.” He’d made that noise more in the last hour than he had in five years. “Gonna get me going again.”

“One more time couldn’t hurt, could it?”

“Hell, no. I am all for it.” He stroked Dixon’s hair, feeling so good down in his bones he couldn’t stop smiling.

Crazy, but he liked Dixon, liked hanging out. Loved making out. He dared a kiss, knowing he ought to warn Dixon he was coming in, but needing the touch of mouths.

Dixon smiled right before their lips met. Smart man. Audie kissed that grin, licking along Dixon’s lower lip.

He was fascinated by the way everything showed on Dixon’s face, every expression clear as a bell. The man didn’t hide because he didn’t know how. Audie had never been with anyone who didn’t have a lie buried in them somewhere. He had to admit, it was fucking fascinating to not have to look away.

His tongue dipped in, tasting Dixon gently. Dixon shifted closer, hand on the back of his neck, hips pushing against his. Audie loved how that felt, how they had time to explore and not have to fumble around.

He hadn’t done much since Tim—a couple of furtive hand jobs at a club. Nothing like this, where he got to taste and feel and see everything he wanted. Well, it was too dark now to see too much, but still. They weren’t in a hurry, and God knew Dixon wasn’t ashamed of being queer.

That stunned him too, how Dixon didn’t need a beard, didn’t have to have a girl there to excuse what he was doing. Audie loved the freedom of it.

He licked a long line down Dixon’s throat, getting a moan when he hit a hot spot. Audie explored, licking that hollow at the base of Dixon’s neck over and over. Dixon’s nipples went hard, tight, and those words, “still pierced,” made him moan.

Nuzzling his way down, Audie licked one little nub before worrying it with his teeth.

“Oh….” Dixon arched for him, and pressed into his caress.

“Sensitive.” He licked again, then used his fingers to pull at the other nipple, tugging and twisting.

“Yeah. Yeah, they ache so good.”

“Do they? I love how they feel, man.” He did. Dixon’s chest fascinated him.

“Uh-huh. I like…. Hell, I like sex.”

“That sounds like a fine attribute.” Audie wanted to do everything.

“Yeah, it comes in handy.” Dixon’s fingers brushed his ass, tickling his skin.

His cheeks clenched, but that was just autopilot. Audie took a deep breath and relaxed, inviting more.

“I’m not interested in making you do anything you don’t want to. I was just exploring.”

“Oh, I want to. It’s just been so long, and, uh, well.” He cleared his throat, a little embarrassed. “The few times I tried anything like that in high school it went poorly.”

“No worries and, FYI, I like a real bed for that. Time. Lube. Maybe a nice rimming session and a lot of finger-fucking.”

Audie’s cock jerked, his thighs and belly quivering. “I would so go for that.”

“Yeah. I pitch and catch, with the right guy, you know?”

“I think so.” He laughed. “I mean, sure I know what it means. I really never had the opportunity to do both. Tim—well, he didn’t want to admit he was queer.”

“No? It’s not the easiest choice on earth, I guess. Me? I’ve never been with a girl. Not once.”

“I haven’t since then. Been a few guys.” He needed to shut up and touch more. Talking about Tim and Marina might kill the mood.

“Kiss me, Audie?” Looked like Dixon was with him, eager and hungry.

“Yes.” He kissed that mouth, increasingly addicted to the way Dixon opened for him, to the flavor of those swollen lips.

It was the easiest thing on earth to cover Dixon’s lips, breathe with him, sink against him. They kissed slowly, rubbing their mouths side to side, the friction making his mouth tingle. Dixon’s cock was making a comeback, and Audie stroked it, base to tip. The head felt so different from the shaft, and he stroked the ridge under the head, amazed at how different this felt from rubbing his own cock.

“Fuck, honey, that’s good. Just there.” He’d never known someone who was so frank, so sure.

Audie went with it, rubbing, tugging, his thumb finding purchase and pressing in hard.

“Oh.” Dixon curled in a little, panting hard. “Please, honey. You don’t want me to come, you have to back off.”

“Sorry.” Was that bad? “I—what else can we do?”

“Don’t be sorry. I’m not.” Dixon rolled close and caught both their cocks in one hand.

Audie grunted, surprise and pleasure spearing through him. “Fuck, yeah.”

“Mmm. Someone likes that.” Dixon’s face wrinkled in a smile.

“I do. Can I touch with you?” He didn’t want to make things too complicated down there.

“Hell, yes. Touch is magical.”

“Oh thank God.” He put his hand over Dixon’s squeezing hard, feeling the pressure of his hand and the touch of Dixon at the same time. His cock loved that, his pulse racing, his skin tingling.

“Mmm. That’s good.”

Good? Fuck. Those guitar string calluses were magical. He wanted to feel Dixon all over, wanted that bed so bad he could taste what they would do there.

Dixon found his throat, exploring it, teasing him. He nibbled along Dixon’s shoulder, their hands finding a rhythm, and it was wild, this steady sure motion that got faster and faster. He rocked his hips, and Dixon laughed, the sound pure joy.

It stopped his heart for a second. Damn. Listen to that. He wanted to make Dixon laugh like that all the time. Man, he was already in pretty deep, and now was not the time to think on that.

Dixon reached up with his free hand, touching Audie’s face.

Audie moaned, turning to kiss Dixon’s hand.

“I’ve got you, I do,” Dixon said.

“I know. It’s huge.” The feeling was gigantic.

“We’re good.”

“Oh, honey, you’re more than good.” Audie laughed too, because Dixon made him feel amazing.

“Fabulous?” That smile lit the night.

“Sure, though I ain’t sure I’ve ever said the word.”

“No?” Another one of those laughs rang out. “Is it going to make you think less of me if I tell you I used to work in a drag club?”

“No shit?” Audie actually stopped moving for a moment. “Doing what?”

“Soundwork. That’s what I did for a living, for the most part.”

“That’s neat.” About as foreign as anything could be, but neat.

“It was a hoot, man. You can’t imagine how hard those guys work.”

“Maybe now isn’t the time to imagine it.” He grinned, licking Dixon’s lip.

“A man with focus. I like it.”

“I try, for sure.” Audie wanted more of Dixon’s touch.

“Here.” Dixon rolled atop him, brought their dicks together and started rubbing their cocks, jacking them.

“Yeah.” Oh, that was the fucking ticket. He humped up, his muscles like frozen rope.

The moonlight let him watch; the way Dixon arched above him reminded him of a marble statue, except this statue felt warm to the touch, moved easily, cock like steel against him.

Both of Dixon’s hands worked them, sliding over the tips, sending shocks along his prick.

Gasping, he gave up trying to help, just grabbing Dixon’s hard, lean ass cheeks. He pulled, moving them, trying for more friction. Dixon nodded, rocked with him, humming as he rode.

“You said you didn’t know how to ride, man. I think you lied.”

Dixon grinned, face relaxed, body stiff. “This I understand.”

“Yeah. Yeah, you get this for sure.” Audie was gonna lose it, and he was damned proud he could still talk.


Page 13

“Uh-huh.” Dixon squeezed harder, proving that he knew what to do with a man’s body.

Audie’s balls drew up, the imminent orgasm clawing up his spine. He gritted his teeth, holding on as best he could.

Baseball. Baseball. Something. Fuck. He arched up under Dixon, his hips leaving the mattress when he came, his body on fire.

He thought Dixon came too. There was a lot of spunk for just one spent penis, right? He had to admit, it was hard to tell. He lost it there for a few moments, his brain shorting out. Did that make him a sucky lover?

Dixon arched back, spine popping. “Mmm. That worked fine.”

“Uh-huh.” Okay, ability to speak coherently lost. He didn’t want to think too much about how stupid he would be if they ever had sex in a bed.

In a shower.

Oh… slick, wet, soapy Dixon.

Uhn. That made his poor cock try valiantly to twitch, but he was worn out.

Dixon dismounted, landing beside him on the air mattress. Audie rolled to his side, putting his hand on Dixon’s hip, unwilling to lose the connection.

“Best birthday in recent history, man.”

“Oh, I’m glad.” Above everything else he wanted to give Dixon a good night, something just for him, away from the house he’d been stuck in.

“Me too.” He got another kiss, and Dixon pretty much managed to hit his lips. They both laughed, and Audie moved into the touch, nothing urgent about it.

Audie’s phone started ringing, and he grabbed it. “’lo?”

“Hey, Audie? Randi’s a little stressed out.”

He frowned. “No shit? She want to talk to her dad?”

“Randi? She okay?” Dixon sat up, face worried.

“Wigged, I think. You know, the overnight jitters.” Audie waited for Gracie to let him know the plan.

“Can y’all stop by here? Just so she can hug her dad?”

“Sure thing. We’ll be there in about twenty, huh?”

He hung up and sat up, stretching. “She’s okay, but Gracie wants us to stop by, I think, so she can see you. Is that okay?”

“Of course. Of course.” Dixon got a soft look on his face when he talked about his baby girl. It was going to be a danger zone for him when she got to be, oh, twelve. She’d know she had an advantage then. “Can I have one more kiss?”

“God, yes.” Audie wished they had time for more than that, but he’d make this kiss slow and deep and good, to tide them over until next time.

He knew how Dixon smelled now, how he tasted. He wasn’t going to forget. Audie held Dixon close, so reluctant to let go, but Randi needed her daddy.

“I should get dressed, huh?”

“Reckon we both should.” He helped get Dixon all buttoned up.

“Thank you for tonight.”

“Happy birthday.” He touched Dixon’s cheek, touched more than he could say by the whole night.

“Tell me we can celebrate something else soon?”

“I think there’s a full moon coming up.” Audie grinned, feeling better that Dixon wanted this to happen, and in the near future.

“Perfect.” Dixon laughed for him again, and damn, that was fine.

He didn’t have time to explore that, though. Audie needed to get them back to the house. That was what it meant to be a dad.

That was what they were.

Chapter 10

 

Dixon waitedfor Audie to say hello, then he said, “Did you know it was National Chocolate Chip day?”

Audie chuckled, the sound warm and happy. “No, sir. Do you celebrate this holiday?”

“What? You don’t? Are you suggesting the Chocolate Chip Chihuahua doesn’t leave you cookies on the mantle and in your underwear drawer? Have you been bad?” Teasing Audie was becoming his number one joy.

“I’m a naughty boy.” Audie chuckled, not able to maintain the sexy tone. “I like cookies.”

“I have cookies and milk, and Mom and Dad are off square dancing for the weekend.” Mom and Dad were easier leaving him alone now. Dalton couldn’t leave town, of course, but they trusted he wouldn’t burn the house down with Randi in it.

“Oh, I could go for that. Is Randi sleepy?”

“She’s pretending to watch a movie in her bed through her eyelids. Grainger down for the night?”

“He is. Gracie is eating ice cream on the couch, so she’d keep an eye on him.”

“I’ll get everything out.”

“I’ll be over in two shakes.”

Audie hung up, and Dixon grabbed his cane. He and Audie had been out on some dates, had managed couch-necking a few times, but this might be his chance to get the man in a bed.

He found the cookies, got the plates and some glasses, set them on the table. He gave the dogs each a little chew bone to keep them quiet. Then he sat and folded his hands in his lap, waiting.

Dixon spent a lot of time waiting, but at least these days he was waiting for Audie.

The sound of the truck in the drive made the dogs perk up, but they knew Audie now, so there was no hysteria, thankfully. Audie let himself in the back door, and those boots rang on the floor when Audie came to him to touch his shoulder.

“Hi, cowboy.” He lifted his chin for a kiss.

“Hey.” Audie slid one hand behind his head, cupping his skull, and kissed his mouth slow and easy.

His world tilted, spun, and it meant something that he didn’t tense, that he trusted Audie. He leaned into the touches, the kisses, and let Audie take him right into pleasure. Finally he stood, pressed against Audie so he could feel more.

“Mmm.” Audie held him close, hands sliding down to his ass.

“Uh-huh.” He rocked in, sliding against his lover, loving the feel of that heavy cock through starched denim.

“You gonna be mad if I say we ought to go to bed now and have cookies later? I’m scared to get interrupted.”

“We’ll bring the cookies with us.” That totally worked for him.

“Oh man. You live dangerously.” Audie put an arm around his waist, then pressed a glass into his hand. “You bring the cow. I got the cookies.”

“Are the doors locked?”

“Yeah, I locked up behind me. Want me to check the front?” Audie was great about stuff like that, always calm, taking things in stride.

“Please. I looked already, but….” You never knew.

“Head for your bedroom, huh?” Audie gave him plenty of opportunity to be independent too.

“Yeah.” He headed for the bedroom, stopping to listen to Randi’s steady breaths. She was definitely out, but he would leave her door cracked as well as his.

“She’s a sweet baby.”

He snorted. “She’s amazing, but sweet?”

“She is fierce.” Audie took the milk glass from him. “I’ll leave these on the dresser, huh?”

“Yeah. Kiss me again, cowboy. I want you.”

Audie moaned for him, stepping up and pushing him to sit on the bed, thighs between his.

He reached up, loving the gimme cap, the little round glasses, the proof that Audie had bothered to shave before coming out—which was borne out by the smooth skin and the smell good the man had splashed on.

Audie kissed him, lips gentle on his, rubbing back and forth. They always had to settle in, get the angle right.

He let his tongue slip out, stroke Audie’s bottom lip. He chuckled when he tasted the acrid mint of toothpaste. Someone was ready.

Dixon pushed into the kiss, letting it go deep, hard, letting Audie know he wanted.

Grunting, Audie rubbed both hands up and down his back, digging in a little in an impromptu massage. His hands landed on Audie’s belly, the muscles there taut and hard. The shirt had a little too much starch in, felt scratchy, so he tugged at it, knowing he’d have to fight the belt buckle.

It had smooth snaps, not buttons, and they popped open when he tugged. He chuckled, delighted. “Easy access.”

“Makes up for the jeans. They’re too tight now that I’ve been kissing on you.”

“Are they? Let me see.” He went for the butt first, then slid his hands around to Audie’s hips.

“See? The front is where the swelling is, though.”

“Mmm. I need to explore that.”

“I wish you would.” Audie helped, pushing his hands over the fly of those tight Wranglers. Wranglers never got as soft as his jeans, so it was easy to tell the difference.

He hooked his fingers in the waistband, used his thumbs to slide on either side of the heavy cock.

“Better. Almost there.”

“Amazing amount of swelling. I could totally kiss it and make it better.”

“Oh, let me help get it out in the open.” Audie moved fast, getting those jeans open, the fat, hard cock pressing his cheek. The scent was suddenly heady, and he rubbed against the shaft, turning to touch his lips to the skin, which felt soft as silk.

There was a mass of heavy, silky curls at the base, the scent stronger here.

He pulled the deep, musky odor in, breathing deep. Yum. Then Dixon backed off and licked the tip. Audie’s little harsh intake of breath was perfect. He loved that he could make Audie happy, could make that body hum for him like his guitar. He was learning all the things that Audie needed, all the right places to touch, the little hot spot on Audie’s hip, the way his lover moaned when he dragged over the slit.

“Dixon.” Audie stroked his hair, took his little dark glasses off. “More, babe.”

“Yeah.” He wrapped his lips around Audie, luxuriating in the long slide of shaft on his tongue.

Audie sighed, this amazing, happy sound, and touched him, fingers sliding through his hair, then down to the corner of his mouth, where his lips stretched. “So pretty.”

He wasn’t sure whether that was true—it sure wasn’t something Ron had called him—but he’d take it. Audie was a totally different guy, right? He sucked harder, hollowing his cheeks so Audie could feel how he was working it.

Audie’s muscles went tight under him, jerking and stretching long. He was going to assume that was good. Those rough callused hands kept moving on him, his shoulders, his upper arms, stroking him through his shirt.

“Much as I love what you’re doing, I want your skin, babe.”

Oh.

Oh cool.

He kissed the tip of Audie’s cock. “Want to explore my ink?”

“I do. I want to trace every line, see where it all ends up.” Audie stepped back, stirring the air around his face.

Dixon pulled his T-shirt off and rested back on his hands, letting Audie see. It seemed weird, to know that he’d never see them again. Audie didn’t let him dwell on it, sliding down on the bed with him, touching his shoulder, the palm of Audie’s hand resting on his skin, the fingers tracing patterns. It caught him, and he could see the lines drawn into him. Flowers. Musical notes. Birds. He could remember the story behind each one, and he wanted to tell Audie every tale someday. Maybe not now.

His lips opened and closed, and when Audie touched the tip of his tongue to Dixon’s skin, he jumped.

“Shh. I got you.” Audie worked over his shoulder and upper arm. The heat of those touches dissipated, turned cold. Fuck, that was amazing, making his skin draw up in goose bumps.

“Mmm. You taste so good.”

He loved the little touches, and he wanted more of them, wanted to sink into them. The way Audie stroked the vine that worked its way down his chest made his nipples tighten up, made his belly suck in.

“Mmm. Sensitive there.”

“Fuck, yes.”

Audie rubbed his cheek against Dixon’s chest. That cheek was way less stubbly tonight. He rubbed his palm over Audie’s short rough hair.

“Tickles,” Audie murmured, smiling against his skin.

“Does it? I love how it feels on my palm.” It felt a little like petting a shorthaired dog, but that wasn’t a bit sexy, so he wouldn’t say it.

“Yeah. Gives me shivers.” Audie nibbled at his neck.

That let the hair brush his jaw, tickle him. He laughed, because he guessed it went both ways. God, this was fun. So not boring, which most of his time was these days.

This made him feel alive.

He stroked Audie’s shoulders, feeling muscles move under his fingers, the skin soft here, smooth. He traced Audie’s collarbones, and one had been broken, the tiniest bump evident.

“Got thrown when I was eight,” Audie said when he lingered on it.

“Did you have a sling?”

“I did. Constantly filthy.”

“I bet. I broke my wrist playing baseball. By the end my cast was foul.”

“Did all your friends sign it?” Audie stroked his arm down to his wrist. The wrong wrist, but the instinctive action made him smile.

“Yes and Dan wrote ‘Dixon is a turd’ on it the first day. Mom damn near died.”

They had a little chuckle before the kisses distracted them again. Audie liked to kiss, and Dixon liked that a lot, liked how Audie could spend long moments tasting him, dipping in to lap at his lips. They left his mouth feeling deliciously swollen, tingling, and tender.

Audie touched him too, like he wasn’t afraid Dixon would break. Everyone acted like he’d fall apart if they hugged him hard. Audie thought he was still real, Dixon could tell. Still worth honesty and need.

He groaned, hands dragging down Audie’s arms. “Want.”

“Anything you want, honey. If I’m too slow or too fast, just say.”

“I will. I promise.” He wasn’t shy. He stroked Audie’s belly to prove it, his guitar fingers catching on the fine hairs between navel and the base of Audie’s cock.


Page 14

“Fuck!” Audie grabbed his hand. “Do it again.”

Dixon did, rubbing his fingertips back and forth, feeling how Audie jumped at the rasp and pull. He could play this particular song for hours, given the chance. Audie probably wouldn’t last that long, but Dixon knew he could touch for hours, could listen to the sounds Audie made.

“God, Dix. You look like…. No one’s ever looked at me like that.”

He chuckled, knowing what Audie meant, but still finding a bit of irony in the idea that he was looking at anything. “You’re hotter than the hinges of hell, man. Who wouldn’t look at you that way?”

“A lot of people. Pretty much everyone.” Now it was Audie’s turn for a breathless laugh.

Dixon let his fingers spread over Audie’s thighs, splaying out, the crisp hair underneath his palms fascinating. Much rougher here than on Audie’s belly or even his chest, and when he rubbed back and forth, he could tell this didn’t tickle. This caused Audie to gasp, to rock.

“Love the way you smell. Makes me a little high.” Dixon thought it was important to note that.

“Yeah? I smell like Old Spice.” Audie was so completely unaware of his appeal, and it never felt false. “I like you. Kinda earthy, like uh, sandalwood, right?”

“Yeah. It’s my favorite soap.” He leaned in, nuzzled again, letting his tongue drag over Audie’s skin.

“Oh. Oh, do that again.” Audie threaded a hand into his hair, tugging him closer still.

He licked, exploring every inch that he could reach, letting Audie guide him. Audie moved against him, undulating in an incredibly sexy dance. Husky moans filled the air as he tasted and he lingered over the hot spots.

Audie explored him too, his back and chest, tracing his ink over and over. When Audie dipped below his waist, he grunted, his cock jerking like mad.

“Oh, you’re needing, babe. So hard for me.” Audie sounded damn near shocked.

“You’re here, touching me, letting me touch you. I want you.” He didn’t mind repeating it.

Audie’s fingers cupped his balls, rolling them in their sac and his head lifted, his throat working. Fuck, yes. He spread his thighs, rising up against the pressure of Audie’s touch, his belly tight down low where it met his pelvis.

When Audie touched the strip of skin behind his balls, one leg drew up, exposing him more. He craved that contact, loved how it made goose bumps rise on his skin. Audie stroked that spot again, then let his short nails drag over it.

Dixon curled up a little, the motion instinctive. Oh fuck, that felt amazing, like his body was trying to shake apart from the inside out.

“I want to touch, Dix.”

“Touch. I won’t break. There’s a little slick in the drawer in the headboard.”

“Oh cool.” Audie pulled away for a moment, and a flash of disappointment rolled through him. Those fingers were back in no time, though, slick and cool, sliding back past his balls.

He stayed spread and open, knowing that Audie hadn’t had the luxury of exploration, of time. One finger pushed into him a tiny bit, Audie testing him, letting him adjust, but the sensation felt more like a tease.

He let his hips roll down, riding Audie’s touch, nice and easy.

“This is okay?” Audie moved with him in counterpoint, pushing in, pulling back.

“God, yes. Yes, I want it.”

“Oh good. You’re so damned hot inside.” Audie sounded awed.

The touches stayed steady, arousing and not near enough to satisfy him. He pushed back, opening up.

“Harder, Audie. More. I can take more.”

Audie added another finger and he didn’t hold back, moaning and letting Audie know he liked it. Making these happy noises, Audie opened him up, exploring him deep inside.

When those fingers curled, barely brushing his gland, he threw his head back. “Yes.”

“Good. That rocks. Yeah? You look like a movie, I swear.”

“Good… it’s better than good. Perfect.”

“I love how tight your muscles are. You’re amazing.” Audie gave him three fingers with more lube then, his instincts right on the money.

“Oh, you’re a natural. A natural, Audie. Please. Don’t stop.”

“No. No, not gonna stop. I swear.” And he didn’t. Audie finger-fucked him until he wanted to scream, wanted to beg for more.

“Audie. Audie, you want in? Please? I got rubbers.”

“I do. Oh God, let me. I need to breathe a minute or I’ll come.”

Dixon nodded, laughing, and that made his ass clench around Audie, who moaned.

“Okay, I need my hand to put on a condom.”

“I’ll help.” He reached up, finding a line of rubbers in the same drawer the lube had come from.

“Thanks.” Audie tugged free, then helped him open the condom and smooth it on Audie’s cock with no more than a few fumbles. “Oh God. Dix. You make me a little stupid.”

“That’s what good sex is meant to do, honey. Now, come on.” He tugged the sheathed cock, pulling Audie back between his legs.

He rubbed the tip of Audie’s cock against his hole, then took him in, slow and easy.

“Oh God.” Audie sounded strained, as if he was barely holding on.

Dixon strained to see Audie, to see anything. He felt the way Audie’s heart beat when he put a hand on Audie’s chest, and the heat of Audie’s skin told him how ready the man was to get moving. Audie’s fingers brushed against his eyelids, closing his eyes.

“Sorry.” He knew it had to be freaky.

“No, you’re pushing, though. Trying too hard to see. You’ll get a headache.”

“Oh.” Oh God. So good to him.

“Shh.” Audie kissed his eyelids, his forehead.

He nodded and focused on that sweet cock, on the way Audie filled him. He bore down, his breath catching when Audie bucked against him.

They found themselves a rhythm, something in three-quarter time. Audie had good instincts, and a great sense of meter. He moaned, the sound captured in their kiss. Audie chuckled, a soft, happy puff of sound.

He wrapped one hand around Audie’s hip, tugged him deeper. They moved faster, got their skin slapping together. His body started to burn, his ass aching deliciously. He panted, his cock sliding on Audie’s belly when Audie leaned in to kiss him. Oh damn. Damn. He was close to losing it, unable to keep it together, and his sloppy kiss proved that.

Audie moaned against his mouth. “Can’t hold it much longer, man.”

“Uh-huh.” Please. Please, come on. He grabbed his cock and tugged, hard.

“Oh God, I feel that.” Audie jerked against him, their bodies rubbing from chest to pelvis, that cock inside him dancing when Audie shot.

His orgasm followed, right on the heels of Audie’s, his balls aching as he shot. Hell, he felt like his teeth rattled, he came so hard, drawing another set of moans from Audie.

“Wow.” He licked his lips, his head gone all goosenecked on the pillow.

“Uh.” Audie slumped down on him, holding him close, chest thumping with his heartbeat.

It was a treasure, to have this, to be so close. He stroked Audie’s back, tracing patterns, feeling the dampness of sweat. It fascinated him, the way the muscles felt, worked together.

“Thanks.” Audie snorted. “That sounds weird, huh?”

“No. No, it’s good.” It was all good.

“Yeah. You’re special. Dix. I don’t think you know how much.”

“I’m just a guy.” Just a blind guy.

“Well, right now, you’re my guy.” Audie kissed him, and Dixon thought he liked the sound of that.

“Your guy, and we have cookies.”

“And milk too.” Audie gave him one more kiss before easing off him, rolling to one side. “You want a cookie now?”

“Yeah. Yeah.” He sat up, loving the twinge his body gave him.

“I’ll get them.” Audie rose, and the glasses clinked with a plate, Audie making a sharp sound that said he almost dropped something.

“You okay?” He looked over, fighting to see.

“Uh-huh. Just tried to carry too much. You made me shaky.” The bed dipped when Audie sat. “Here’s your milk, man.”

“Thank you.” The cold had gone off on it. Blah.

“You want me to go get new? I can check on Randi.”

“Do you mind? I hate warm milk.”

It wasn’t until Audie left the room that he realized he hadn’t asked Audie to do it. Audie was getting scary good at reading his face. He was at a disadvantage there.

He heard Audie’s footsteps pause at Randi’s door, and then Audie chuckled.

As soon as he heard Audie enter the room, he asked, “What’s funny?”

“She’s sleeping like an inchworm, butt in the air.”

“Oh God. Momma has a picture somewhere of me doing that.”

“No kidding? I might have to ask to see it someday.” Audie pressed a cold glass of milk into his hand.

“Thank you.” God, he drank deep, trying not to think about all the things he couldn’t see again. His mind refused to cooperate, because it skittered on and showed him all the things he never would see: Randi at prom, graduation, her wedding. Then again, he would get to be there and Ron wouldn’t. One hand covered his, squeezed, bringing him back.

“You okay?” Audie asked, settling hip to hip with him. “Have a cookie, huh?”

“I am. Just… have a lot of time in my own head.”

“I bet you get so bored, huh?”

“God, you have no idea. I sit and listen to the TV for hours. That’s it.”

“Well, we need to figure out other shit. Audio books? Voice-activated software?”

“I wasn’t that computer literate before, but I’ve got to learn.”

“You do. I know a lady at the library. Marie Danes. She can help with that.”

“I feel like an idiot, you know? I used to be….” Something.

“It’s just about learning. You’re real smart, babe.”

He hadn’t been, though. He’d been the artsy one, the wild one, the pretty one. Ron had been the one who knew all the things. Ron had been clever and wealthy and experienced.

He grinned. Well, Audie sure wasn’t any of those things.

Audie made him smile.

“That’s better.” Audie rubbed arms with him, careful not to jostle.

“Yeah?” He ate his cookie, then finished his milk. “I’ve just got too much time on my hands.”

“We’ll work on it, huh?” Audie leaned some. “The kids are out of school now, so maybe you and Randi can come over to the ranch a couple days a week.”

“I’d like that.” There would be no way. He’d just be in the way.

“I’ll take you out riding. It’s great exercise, good for balance.”

“Me? Is that possible?”

“Yeah. I mean, I’ll be there, and to begin with, I’ll short-lead you, but I’ve been reading up.”

Oh. Now that was dear as could be. He reached out to set his glass on the night table so he could reach around to hug Audie.

“Well, hey honey.” Audie sounded surprised as hell.

“Hey. Thank you for thinking of me.” Dixon needed to say it.

He could feel Audie’s skin heating against him, the man’s flush making its way all the way down his chest. “You’re welcome.”

God, this was a good, good man. Like a dangerously decent human being. It was a little scary. He could fall hard, and look where that had gotten him with Ron. Not that he would trade their time for anything. Even his sight.

“You need to get out of here a little bit, get out of your head.”

That was easier said than done. “I know.”

“Well, let me help, then. Hey, you know what we ought to do?” Audie sounded so tickled all of a sudden.

“What?” He was curious in spite of himself.

“We should go to the lake. Go camping or something. Or hell, we could run down to the beach.”

“We had a pool at our place in Austin. I loved it.” He’d had Randi in the water before she was crawling.

“Good deal. Grainger loves to swim too.”

“Can you watch them both? I mean, that doesn’t seem fair to you.”

“Oh, hey, it’s not all that different than watching one.” Audie stroked his back, chin on his shoulder. “And Randi is hyperaware of you.”

“Is she?” He didn’t feel that way, but he spent his time focused on her.

“She can be, yeah. She watches you a lot.” Audie patted his skin just above his butt. “I don’t mean in a bad way, like she’s worried. She knows how hard it is for you, though.”

“Yeah. Yeah, it’s been a learning curve.” And how much did he suck, making her help him out?

“No shit. I can’t imagine.” Audie never made him feel guilty, though, acting like his responses were normal as every day.

“Weirdly enough, neither can I.”

Audie nodded; he felt it against his skin. “I’m sorry, babe. I hate it for you.”

He just had to make it twelve years. Twelve years. Then Randi would be grown. That was all he had to wait for, and then he could…. Well, he’d figure something out.

“Think about it,” Audie murmured. “The beach, I mean. The lake. Whatever.”

“I will. I bet Randi would love to go somewhere new.”

“Yeah. She has no idea what all there is to do, huh?”

“No. No, she’s an Austin girl, still.”

“Tell me about Austin.” They lay back together, the bed pillows cool compared to Audie’s heat.

“I loved it. It had the hills, the capitol. There was a life to it, you know? All the kids at UT come in, and you know it’s football season. It’s the most beautiful place in the spring—bluebonnets and Indian paintbrush….”

And he was never going to see it again.

Never.

Audie held him, held on tight when he couldn’t finish or pick up the trail of his thoughts again. If a few tears escaped, well, Audie never said anything about that, either.

“I’m sorry. I swear to you, I’m not a fucking basket case.”

“I never thought you were.” Audie took his hands, brought them up between them to rest them on his chest. “I got you.”

“I keep waiting for something to happen, you know?” He was living in his mom’s house and waiting to die.

“Well, we need to start making things.”

“Are you real?” He grinned. Audie was threatening to give him hope.

“I try to be, for sure. I’m sure I’ll piss you off at some point. I have a knack.”

“Yeah? Ron used to say….” He trailed off. “Is that awful? To talk about him?”

“No. He was part of your life. Would I have liked him?”

“I think so. He was smart—I mean, wickedly smart—and I was a little overwhelmed at first. I loved how he smiled. You know, he was the last thing I saw? His body.”


Page 15

“That sucks, honey. I mean for real. Not just because it’s last thing you saw but your last memory of him.”

“Yeah. It was….” Bloody. Weird. Nauseating. “I’m glad I wasn’t driving.”

Audie squeezed him, silent, and he knew his cowboy had no idea what to say.

“We were heading to a date night on MoPac. A panel truck on the other side of the road lost control and flipped after hitting the median. No one was drunk, speeding, anything. It was just an accident.”

Those rough, scarred hands kept moving, kept petting him, soothing. “I’m so sorry.”

“Me too, for Randi, most of all.”

“I get that. Hell, Grainger’s momma is still very much alive, and he never gets to see her.”

“Yeah. She… she doesn’t want to see him? At all?”

“No.” Audie sighed. “Cramps her style, you know? If she admits she had a baby with two gay guys, well, that just makes it worse.”

“Yeah. Yeah, okay. I can get that.” Except he couldn’t. He couldn’t imagine not needing his Randi, not worrying about her.

“I can’t. It’s easier without her, I think, but I wish she could see what I do when I look at my kid.”

“I know, right? They’re just… magic.”

“They are. They grow so damned fast too.”

He laughed. “No shit. It was yesterday she was in diapers.” Now she was learning her letters.

“Yeah.” Audie laughed. “Listen to us old folks, huh?”

“Me, maybe. You’re still a baby.”

“Hey, it’s not the age.”

Now that made him cackle like a hen. “Yeah? I’m afraid I might lose that battle too….”

“Maybe.” Audie kissed his nose. “You’re made of win as far as I’m concerned.”

“Thank you, honey. Really.” It felt so good to hear that.

“Can I stay for a bit? I won’t make anything weird with Randi, I promise.”

“I’d love that. Honestly.”

“Good deal. So would I.”

He thought Audie was as lonely as he was, needed touch and togetherness.

They sat together, rested together. He liked how Audie could be quiet, could just be with him.

He didn’t sleep. They just sat. Held each other. He could get used to that.

That was a damned dangerous thing.

Chapter 11

 

“Are youcrazy, Son?” Audie’s mom was smiling when she said it, but he could see a shadow of concern in her eyes. “He’s blind. How is he gonna ride?”

Audie just shrugged. Dixon had good balance, a good head on his shoulders. Audie had been reading up on it, and horse therapy worked, even for blind folks. “Ain’t like I’m gonna walk off and leave him.”

“No, I don’t suppose you will. Still, what good will it do, spending so much time with him? I mean, I hate to be cruel, but what’s the man supposed to do with his life now? He’d have been better off taken with his… friend.”

“Momma!” He thought Dixon felt that way too, and he couldn’t abide it. “He’s a talented musician and a good daddy.”

“How good can he be, as he is? It’s easy now, but she’ll grow.”

“You’re sure down on him.” It set his teeth on edge.

“No. No, I’m just… I guess I’m more unnerved by it. I can’t imagine how awful it has to be for the whole family. I start thinking about the complications and…. Jesus.”

“Yeah.” He sighed. He got it. He did. Momma worked her ass off and, in her world, if someone couldn’t pull their weight, they needed to get out of the way and not cause trouble. “It’s tough, but think about it, Momma. How bored he has to be. I can give him a little distraction.”

One of her eyebrows arched, but she didn’t say a word.

“Stop it.” His cheeks heated, but Audie brazened it out. “I’m gonna go get the horses saddled.”

“I assume Dixon’s little brother is bringing him out?”

“Yeah. I’ll take him home.”

“Where’s his little girl?”

“Spending a couple weeks with her other set of grandparents in Houston.”

“Oh good. Good for her.” Momma nodded. “She needs normal folks.”

“Momma!”

“What? She’s got a teenaged uncle, two hippie grandparents, and a blind dad.”

He stared at her, a muscle in his jaw twitching. He loved her to death, but God, she could be narrow.

“Go on, now. I’ve upset you.”

“Well, yeah.” He headed out, not really wanting to dwell on it anymore. Horses were so much easier than people.

Everybody fucking acted like Dixon was worthless. He wasn’t, not one bit. He could play and sing. He understood how hard it was to be a dad, especially a single, gay one. Dix had a wicked sense of humor and a touch like velvet, and Audie was so made for him, so damned pissed at the world on Dixon’s behalf. The man could make him laugh like no one else, and the sex….

Good Lord, save him.

Dixon just laughed and told him he was easy because he had so little experience. Maybe that was true, but he knew a good thing when he touched it. He knew what felt good, and he knew he was making Dix’s world spin.

He pushed his momma’s knowing eyes out of his mind and went to saddle Daisy and Skamp.

“Y’all are going to be good for me, aren’t you? You’re going to behave.”

Daisy nudged him, her placid expression boding well for the day.

He scratched her ears, smiling as he heard Dalton’s car pull up. He walked out into the yard and waited, tickled that Dixon was there.

“I brought the evil butthead to you.” Dixon had a shiner, and Dalton had a bruise on his jaw that was stunning.

“Oh. Hey.” Well, that didn’t bode well. “Thanks, Dalton.”

Dalton grinned, though. “Anytime. Son of a bitch can still fight.”

“I’m right here,” Dixon grumped, climbing out of the truck. “Go away, Dalton.”

“Daniel wouldn’t have been so easy on you, you know?”

“I know you’re a pussy, man, you don’t have to tell me.”

Dalton hooted, winked at him. “Call if you need a ride, you big dork.”

“I will.” Dixon waved a hand vaguely in Dalton’s direction before turning toward him, reaching out.

Audie took his hand. “Hey, honey.”

“Hey. How’s it going?”

“Well, I had a snarl with my momma, but no fisticuffs. What happened with you?”

“Really? I miss Randi. Dalton and I just got into it, you know. One thing led to another, and suddenly we’re throwing punches.”

Audie pulled Dixon close, holding his hand so they could walk back to the barn. “Well, as long as nothing is broke, I guess you’re okay.”

“Nothing’s even really sore. Did I bruise?”

“You got a shiner.” He tugged Dixon into the barn to kiss him.

“Least he didn’t hurt something useful.” Dixon cupped his jaw, brought their lips together.

Audie hummed into the kiss. Hell, this was what he thought about all day.

“God, you’re addictive.” Dixon smiled—and it made Audie float.

“Thank you.” He stroked Dixon’s cheek. “Been waiting all day for that.”

Dix nodded, nuzzled into his touch. He kissed the sweet mouth again. Dixon opened up, tongue flicking against his lips. They kissed deep, long and slow and happy. Thank God for this moment, for this man.

He was hooked through the fucking balls.

When they broke for air, he leaned into Dixon’s body a little. “You ready to ride?”

“Why do I have the feeling that you don’t mean what I think you mean?”

Audie laughed. “Man, you got that innuendo thing down. We can do that too, but the horses are saddled.”

“What can I say? I’m clever. Hell, maybe if I fall down and hit my head, my sight will come back.”

“Hey, stop it.” He pinched Dixon’s ass.

Dixon jumped, grinned. “What? It could happen.”

“If I thought it would do more good than not, I’d see to it.”

“Yeah. I asked the doctors. Things are… pretty well horked.”

“I’m sorry, honey.” He squeezed that hand he held.

“Yeah. Enough wallowing. Teach me.”

“You got it.” He brought Dixon over to Daisy, let him touch her neck. “This is Daisy.”

“Like Duck?”

“More like the flower, I think. Gracie named her.”

“What does she look like?”

“She’s a bay mare, which means she’s brown with a darker mane and tail, and she has a white blaze and two white socks.”

“Is she nice? I’ve never ridden….”

“She’s a doll baby. She’s not a fighter or a nervous Nellie.” She would make Dixon think he was an expert.

“Okay. Okay, what do I do?” Dixon was purely scared, but there was a determined set to his mouth that proved the man was here to cowboy up.

“First you take a deep breath.” He held on, letting Dixon feel his hand, letting his surety come through.

Dixon sucked in air, then did it again. Good. Good man.

“That’s great. Now you come say hi, just like you did with Sarge.” He drew Dixon slowly toward Daisy.

“Hey, Daisy.”

Daisy’s head bobbed, nodded.

“She’s saying hi.” He let Dixon stroke her, let them scent each other.

Dixon kept petting, exploring carefully. Daisy stood and nibbled on Dixon’s shirt. It was adorable.

“Is she wanting something?”

“She wants a carrot. She’ll get one when she’s done her work, though. Are you ready to get a little closer?” He wanted Daisy to feel Dixon’s weight.

“Sure. Sure, just tell me what to do.”

“I want you to put your hand on the saddle horn, here, and lean your body weight against her side.”

Dixon’s hand wrapped around the horn, tracing it, always exploring. The other hand came up to rest on Daisy’s neck, and she blew softly. “Is that okay? That sound?”

“It is. She’s being curious. Sharing breath.”

“Sharing breath… that sounds neat.”

“It is.” He rubbed Daisy’s nose, praising her.

Daisy nickered softly, staying relaxed for him.

“Good girl. Okay, Dix, we’re going to move outside. I don’t like mounting up in the barn.”

“Okay. What do you need me to do? I’ll do it.”

“Just turn toward your left and keep your hand on the horn. Let the horse guide you outside.”

“You’re coming too, though, right?”

“I am. I have her lead, and I’m right here. Otherwise she’ll stand here and nibble pockets all day.”

“Okay.” Those poor knuckles were tight, and Dixon was strangling the horn.

“Did I remind you to breathe?” Audie stroked those white knuckles.

“Breathe. Turn left. Keep your hand on the horn.” Dixon chanted the words.

Audie tugged at Daisy’s halter, moving out in front of her a few steps, but keeping an eye on Dix.

Dixon stumbled over the first step, then smoothed out. Daisy never even flinched, though her ears swiveled with her curiosity.

They managed to get outside without Dixon falling or having a stroke. That had to be a positive. Poor guy was looking a bit gray around the gills. Still, he didn’t call the game, so Audie was going to let it keep playing.

“Okay, good.” He tied Daisy’s lead to the fence so he could help Dixon mount. “You always mount from the left. So you’re going to reach up and grab… no, honey. To the left some.”

Dix fumbled a bit, then he got one hand wrapped around the horn. Good man.

“Okay, perfect. I’m gonna help you put your left foot in the stirrup and you’ll swing your right leg over.”

“Sure. I can do that.”

“I know you can. I can help. Hold on with your left hand now.”

He helped Dixon get his foot up and into the stirrup, making sure the man had good balance. “Now, put your weight a little forward, bounce on your grounded leg, and swing. Keep your upper body close to the saddle.”

Dixon had to try twice, but he got it, damn near launching himself over and off the other side.

“Whoa, now.” He got Dixon settled into place. “Good deal. So, get your ass to a comfy place, and we’ll adjust your stirrups.”

“Am I far up? It feels tall.”

“She’s not like Sarge, our Miss Daisy, but she’s fourteen hands. Average quarter horse.” Audie chuckled. “Bigger than a llama.”

“Shut up. I never tried to ride a llama. That was Damon.”

“Oh holy shit. That had to hurt. Those babies are too small for that.” Llamas might not kick as hard as a horse, but they could sure leave a mark.

“He was home for spring break and punishing Mom and Dad for not subsidizing a trip to Corpus.”

“Man, you guys are some trouble.” He grinned, thinking what it must be like to have brothers instead of sisters.

“I could tell some stories.” Dixon was beginning to relax now, finally.

“I bet. Okay, you just concentrate on getting loose, letting your hips shift when Daisy does.” He measured out Dixon’s stirrups, got them just right.

“Are you going to be on a horse too?” Dixon’s face was scrunched up.

“Sunglasses, babe. It’s bright out here.”

“Oh. Okay. I have some in my breast pocket. Can I let go to get them?”

Audie nodded, then remembered he had to talk. “I got her.”

“Okay.” Dixon got them on, then fumbled for the horn again. “Okay, unexpectedly weird.”

“The glasses? Or trying to do something on a horse?”

“Not holding on. Sitting on something alive.”

“Oh now, you do that a good bit.”

It only took about a second before Dixon got it and cracked up. Daisy stamped, but didn’t move too much, and Dixon moved with her now that he had relaxed.

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