CHAPTER ONE

I had to pull over to check the GPS again when the brush around the narrow dirt road thickened. There didn’t seem to be a proper road here. When Mitchell had said this place was secluded, he wasn’t kidding.

I idled the car, so glad I’d had the air conditioning fixed last summer, even though it had put me even more in debt. I looked up the name of the man who’d interviewed me over the phone last week, a Mr. Adam Marsland, and hit CALL.

After a few moments it connected.

“BCR, Connor speaking,” a chipper male voice announced.

It wasn’t Mr Marsland. “Uh,” I hesitated. “Hi. I’m trying to reach Adam Marsland?”

“Who’s calling please?”

I cleared my throat, feeling like an idiot. Nothing like starting a new job and not being able to find the place. “This is Jensen Moriarty. I’m supposed to be there at noon, but I –”

Oh, hi, Jensen. I’m Mr. Marsland’s Personal Assistant. Would you like me to get him for you?”

“I actually just need directions. My GPS isn’t making sense.”

Connor laughed. “He should have told you not to rely on that. You should be using the map from the email.”

Email? What was he talking about? “What email?”

There was a pause. Then, “You didn’t get the welcome email? The one outlining our policies and practices? I’m sure I sent it to you a few days ago…”

I wracked my brain but didn’t remember seeing an email. Unless it had gone into my JUNK folder. “No, I didn’t get it. A map would be…helpful.”

“Sure, yeah, let me text the map to you. Hold on a second.”

“You might as well text me the other info as well.”

Connor cleared his throat. “Yes, well, I’ll let Mr. Marsland explain everything when you get here.”

I heard a notification and saw that the map had come through. I opened it quickly and had a look.

“It looks like I’m not too far.”

“Okay, just come to the main building when you get here. It’s got the big BCR sign on it.”

“BCR?” I asked, wiping a crushed mosquito off the dash.

“The Braided Crop Ranch. That is where you’re trying to get to, right?”

“Yes. I just—Yes, that’s where I’m headed.” God, could I make a worse first impression?

“I’ll make sure Adam is here to greet you.”

“Thanks,” I said. “Connor?”

“Yes?”

“I’m excited to work with you both.”

“We’re excited to welcome you, Jensen.” There was a hesitation in Connor’s voice, and I wondered if I really was needed.

When I opened the map file and examined it, I realized I wasn’t that far away. If I followed this dirt road and turned onto another called Rattler’s Revenge in about three miles, I’d be there.

Would they put me to work right away, cleaning stalls and looking after the horses? Mr. Marsland hadn’t described my exact duties but Mitchell had said they were looking for a stable hand.

Marsland had seemed like a nice guy. We’d talked at length and I’d found myself opening up to the man, even though I didn’t know him. He’d seemed to be more interested in the kind of person I was, rather than in any experience I’d had. I’d explained I needed a job that would give me some direction along with a decent salary so I could pay off my student loans.

The accounting degree had been a waste of money, no matter what my parents said. Turned out I hated accounting. It made me feel dead inside. Yeah, I was good with numbers, but working with them all day and night was too much to ask.

I needed to be outside. I needed to be interacting with other beings, human or animal. I needed hard work and adventure.

Now I had no idea what I wanted to do. Except for horses. I wanted to work with horses. It was what I knew and what I was good at. Also, living on a ranch with a bunch of other cowboys wouldn’t be so bad either. Even if they didn’t share my orientation, the eye candy would be heavenly.

I’d been surprised when Adam told me the salary I’d be earning. It was high for a stable hand. He’d also mentioned something about the special stock at the BCR so maybe they only housed Arabians or something. That would be a treat. I’d never seen a full blood Arabian horse up close.

After following the serpentine curve of Rattler’s Revenge for a few minutes, I noticed the brush thinning as I emerged into a large clearing and the impressive outline of the ranch spread before me. The path took me to a set of steel black gates with BCR in big iron letters affixed to the bars.

A black intercom box perched on the stone wall to the left of the gates. I pulled in close, lowered my window and pressed the button.

There was a crackle and then Connor’s voice. “Name please.”

“Jensen Moriarty. We just spoke on the phone.”

“Awesome. I’ll buzz you in.”

An electrical humming noise sounded as the gates unlocked and slowly swung open.

“Welcome to the BCR, Jensen,” Connor said.

I drove forward and rolled up the window to keep the heat out.

An array of bright red and brown buildings crowded the far distance. In front of me stood an imposing clapboarded farmhouse with these words, painted in black, spanning the wall:

THE BRAIDED CROP RANCH STABLES.

~ Pony shows every month ~

Pony shows every month, huh? Looked like I’d have my work cut out for me.

I parked in the small lot to the left of the front door and turned the car off. For just a moment I wondered if driving all the way out here had been the right thing to do. At any rate, it was a new beginning and somewhere to spend the summer. If I enjoyed the work and found the people to be friendly and helpful, maybe I’d stay for a while.

There wasn’t much for me back home in Ottawa anyway. It wasn’t the big city, but it was more city than I seemed cut out to put up with. Growing up in small town Alberta, I’d gotten used to being in nature, not surrounded by tall buildings and concrete. Except for the mountains, heading up north into Muskoka country reminded me of home. If I couldn’t have mountains, I’d take forests and lakes any day.

I opened the door and stepped out, boots scuffing on gravel. As I stretched my aching legs and yawned, I wondered if it would be this hot all season. The muck and mud of spring had gone but the dry heat and dust of high summer could be just as troublesome, especially if I was expected to keep the horses and stables clean and tidy.

Grabbing my worn grey cowboy hat from the passenger seat I placed it carefully on my head, dusted off my jeans and the blue button-down I’d ironed that morning, and walked purposefully to the large wrap-around porch. My boots thumped on the old wood as I climbed the three steps and grabbed the handle of the main door, opening it quickly, ignoring the butterflies in my belly. It was always hard starting over. But I wasn’t scared. I was excited.

The image that greeted me when I stepped inside stopped me in my tracks. I’d never seen a farm building this clean and it unsettled me.

The wood floors were polished to a sheen; there was no dust that I could see, or dirt stains from hands that had been to the stables and back; and the hallway in which I stood was airy and bright with modern fixtures. It threw me, because usually places where people dealt with animals were less polished than offices you’d see in the city. But this place — well, I could have been back in downtown Ottawa instead of the middle of nowhere.

A sign with the words ADMINISTRATION was visible, with an arrow pointing down the hall to a large desk fronting what appeared to be a line of offices.

A young guy about my age, whom I assumed to be Connor, looked up and blinked, eyes scanning me from head to foot while his face lost some of its color. I looked down at my shirt, in case I’d dripped some sauce on it while I’d eaten my fast food lunch on the go. But it looked as clean as it had when I’d put it on that morning.

C’mon Jensen. Fake it ‘till you make it.

“Hi. I’m Jensen Moriarty,” I said, removing my hat and striding forward as I extended my right hand.

Connor stood up, covering his uncertainty with a smile, and glanced over his shoulder as an older man came out of the office directly behind Connor’s desk, and gazed at me with a similar confusion.

I stood there awkwardly, my hand extended.

The older man glanced at Connor then seemed to recover. He flashed me a warm smile as he shook my hand.

“Welcome to the BCR, Jensen. It’s nice to meet you in person. Connor said there was a mix-up with the email?”

“Yeah, I guess so. I never got the email. You said you’d try me out. A probationary period to see if I’m suited to the position.” I swallowed, feeling unprepared. “I can show you references…”

“No, no. That’s all right. Your credentials are excellent. But I never explained what the job actually entailed, I just realized. That would have been in the email you didn’t get.”

I grinned, putting my hat back on. “Well, I’m assuming it’ll entail a lot of shoveling dirty hay and manure and grooming your horses, sir.”

Mr. Marsland looked away and cleared his throat. “I had assumed that, since Mitchell recommended you for the position, he would have gone into what we do here in some detail?”

I frowned. “No, not really. He just told me you were looking for a stable hand.”

Mr. Marsland exchanged a brief glance with Connor who looked as though he wanted to be somewhere – anywhere – else. Then he smiled at me and gestured toward the room he’d just exited.

“Why don’t we sit down in my office for a moment.”

He gestured for me to precede him. “Connor, please hold my calls. I don’t want to be interrupted while I brief Mr. Moriarty on his duties.”

“Yes, Mr. Marsland. I’m sorry about the mix up.”

“It wasn’t your fault, Connor. Hopefully, we can straighten everything out.”

There didn’t seem to be much conviction to his words, which made me nervous. What was going on here?

“I’m sure whatever your requirements are, I can meet them, Mr. Marsland. I’m young, strong and highly motivated. And not afraid to get dirty.”

Mr. Marsland made a sound halfway between a laugh and a choke as he sat down in the large leather chair behind the desk. “Sit down, Mr. Moriarty. I’m afraid there may have been a slight miscommunication.”

My stomach did a flip. I knew it. I fucking knew it was too good to be true. I’d driven all the way out here, assuming they had a job for me. I wasn’t about to give up easy.

“I can do the job, Mr. Marsland. I won’t let you down,” I said, trying not to show how desperate I felt. If not for the air-conditioned office, though, I would have become a puddle of sweat on the floor.

I watched Mr. Marsland shuffle through some papers on his desk until he drew one out. “Mr. Moriarty — Jensen — can I call you that?”

“Yes, of course.”

“Jensen, this isn’t about you not being willing to work for me. I can see that you are very motivated and you look strong and fit.”

I nodded, feeling some relief. “I thought I had a good chance of getting the permanent position, from the way we spoke on the phone,” I admitted, turning my hat over in my hands and rubbing my calloused finger along the edge of the brim.

Mr. Marsland help up his hand. “Jensen, you still have a good chance. But…I might have left out some very important details about the kind of ranch I’m running here. You might not want the position once you learn more about us.”

Marsland’s deep brown eyes conveyed a genuine warmth which I found comforting, since his words didn’t give me much confidence. An inch taller than me and at least a decade older, Mr. Marsland seemed the kind of distinguished looking man I could imagine as the lead in a romantic film. But I banished those thoughts and focused on my objective.

“I’ve never worked with Arabians before. But I know I can handle it.”

He stared at me, lips twitching as though he were trying not to smile, or laugh. He ran a hand through his short, slightly greying, hair. “I’m sure you could,” he said, leaning back in his chair, assessing me. “But we don’t have any Arabians at the moment.”

“Oh. Lipizzaner horses, then? Obviously, you must have some rare horses here.” I was scrambling. I had no idea what was going on.

Mr. Marsland used the tip of his finger to push the paper containing my information slightly forward as he gazed down at it and said, “Jensen, we don’t have horses here, at all.”

I blinked. No horses? But, I’d applied for a job as a stable hand. “Uh, I’m not sure what you mean. This is a ranch, isn’t it?”

Mr. Marsland inclined his chin, trying to maintain a straight face. “Yes, but – “

“I don’t see what’s funny about this,” I forced myself to say. Part of me wanted to stand up and walk out. But I needed this job.

Mr. Marsland nodded, clearing his throat and forcing a serious look onto his handsome face. “I’m sorry. You’re right. It’s just…I never foresaw this situation and now that it’s actually occurred, I’m not sure how to deal with it.”

“Why don’t you show me some of the livestock you do have on hand? And I’ll let you know if I think I can be an effective stable hand here.” I wouldn’t leave without a fight.

Mr. Marsland stared at me for a long moment, then nodded. He stood and opened the glass door of the cabinet behind him, pulling out a large leather-bound book.

Okay, now we’re getting somewhere, I thought.

Marsland dumped the heavy-looking album on the table in front of me, making me jump, and opened it to the first page.

I think I stopped breathing, even though I didn’t know what I was looking at for several moments. When the meaning of the image began to come clear to my startled brain, I wasn’t sure I’d ever breath again.

“That’s a — That’s a —,“ I stuttered, eyes flying up to Mr. Marsland’s sympathetic features, then back to the photo. My body was in full blown Defcon One mode. “I need to sit down.”

“You are sitting down.”

Horses. There were supposed to be horses. What the fuck was this?

I pushed the chair out and stood up. I took off my cowboy hat and waved it at the desk, eyes wide and skin suddenly clammy.  “What? I mean! That’s a …GUY!”

Marsden nodded.

I took a step back and stared wildly into Mr. Marsland’s calm eyes, then glanced down at the photo again. I took a step forward and looked more closely. I glanced up at Marsland.

“I mean. Jesus Christ.”

“Breath, Jensen.”

Itook a breath, then another. I couldn’t stop staring at the photo.

“You okay?” Mr. Marsland asked.

Was I? I shook my head. “Sure.” I might never be okay again.

“You don’t look okay.”

I froze, realizing the impression I was making. Get yourself together. I swallowed and took a deep breath, then put my hat back on and sat down in the chair.

After a few moments during which I stared at the photo in front of me, I nodded. “I’m fine.”

“I told you we don’t deal with horses here at the Braided Crop Ranch. What you’re looking at is a pony. A human pony. A man.”

Oh my fucking God. “I mean, shit. I mean, is this what you do here?”

Mr. Marsland smiled an understanding smile. “And much more.”

“Holy fuck.” I was going to murder Mitchell! Why hadn’t Mitchell told me? But I knew the answer to that question. Because if Mitchell had told me the truth about this job, I would never have come.

There in the photo was a man. A beautiful, black haired, blue-eyed man, about my age, naked except for scuffed black Docs, a leather BDSM harness, and bridle, with a silver bit spreading his red lips and white teeth. His muscled torso shone with sweat and dirt, his black hair sticking to his broad forehead. His arms were bound behind him, forcing his chest out. The man’s erection, contained in some kind of a cage that caused it to bulge between the steel bars, jutted out.

I mean, Jutted out.

I started to hyperventilate.

“Let me get you some water,” Mr. Marsland said, moving to the door. “Connor, please bring Mr. Moriarty a glass of water.”

“Of course.”

Mr. Marsland resumed his seat and leaned forward, placing a calming hand on my shoulder. “Are you okay?”

No. I will never be okay again.

I nodded. I wouldn’t screw this up, no matter what might be going on here. I was open-minded. I could handle this. But, Jesus Christ.

“Take a deep breath. Count to ten,” Mr. Marsland said, closing the album.

When Connor brought the water, I downed it quickly and leaned back in the chair, taking my hat off again and fanning myself with the brim. “I’m sorry, I just…I mean, I was expecting horses. Real horses, you know?”

“Is he okay?” Connor asked. “He looks like he might pass out.”

I sat up straight. “I’m okay. I’m fine. I just didn’t know this wasn’t a regular ranch. I thought it was a regular ranch.” My voice sounded strangled.

“I’m sorry the email didn’t go through. I didn’t get a notification,” Connor said, closing the door and taking the seat beside me.

“It’s okay,” I said, staring at Connor and finding it hard to believe that both he and Mr. Marsland were running a stable of …human pony-boys. For what reason exactly? God, I had so many questions.

“I’m still confused. Do you need a –” I swallowed. “ — a stable hand –” I tried, unsuccessfully, to meet Marsden’s eyes. “Or not?”

Mr. Marsland smiled. “We need a stable hand, Jensen. And your qualifications are excellent. But you have to be aware that you won’t be grooming horses. You’ll be grooming men.”

Grooming men.

I made a sound that was half laugh, half gasp. A bloom of heat that had begun in my cheeks expanded over my entire face and neck.

Connor smiled. “I think he’s still in shock.”

Mr. Marsland said, “Our stable hands are responsible for the same things they’d be doing if we did house real horses. Keeping the barns and equipment tidy and clean, maintaining the grounds, and making sure the stock is clean and fed.”

I blinked. “The stock?”

Mr. Marsland leaned forward. “Do you have any issues with nudity, Jensen?”

I thought for a moment. Was getting aroused at the sight of a naked man in pony gear a problem? I cleared my throat. “No, sir.”

“You don’t have a problem being around naked men or women?”

I coughed. “Uh. Nope. Not a problem, exactly.” I fiddled with the edge of my hat, looking down at the bulge in my pants. Maybe it was a problem.

“You like looking at naked men and women?”

My eyes flew up to meet the frank look in Mr. Marsden’s. “I, uh.” I cleared my throat again, and nodded curtly. “Men.”

“I’m not allowed to ask you about your orientation, Jensen. But if you are gay or bi, it might make your job easier and more enjoyable.”

I shifted in my seat, trying to make my dick behave. “Are you fucking serious?”

“About what?”

“About the fact that my job would be looking after…gorgeous, athletic men and cleaning them and, like, grooming them and, um, keeping them pretty?” My voice went up three octaves at the end of that sentence.

“I think we’ve got ourselves a new stable hand, Connor.”

“Yeah, I’d say so. Much as I thought I’d completely screwed it up when I took a look at Mr. Moriarty here.”

I blinked at Connor, then at Mr. Moriarty.

“You look like a cowboy, Jensen,” Connor said with a grin.

I looked down at myself and at the hat in my hand. My voice sounded faint and faraway when I spoke. “Yeah. I guess I kind of am one. Always been with horses. My whole life.”

Mr. Marsden shook his head, smiling at Jensen. “I’m sorry. I just assumed, since you were referred by Mitchell Garr, that he’d explained everything.”

I shrugged. “He just said it was a great place to work.”

“Well, we certainly think so,” said Mr. Marsden. “And I’m pretty sure at least a couple of our ponyboys will get a kick out of being tended to by a real cowboy.”

Home, home on the range. Where the kinksters and the ponyboys play.

I smiled weakly. “Well, if you’re not prejudiced against real cowboys, I guess I’m not bothered by not looking after real horses. At least, I can try it out.”

Was I nuts? Was I really going to do this?

I looked at the photo again, feeling my cock swell more and my brain explode.

Yes. Yes, I was.

Mr. Marsland looked like a huge weight had been lifted from him. He sank back in his chair and let out a relieved laugh. “Okay, I need a goddamn drink.”

“Me too,” Connor said, standing up and heading for a cupboard in the corner of the office.

“Same,” I said weakly.

“Scotch?” Connor said as he peered into the cupboard.

“The good stuff, Connor.”

When we each had a glass of Mr. Marsland’s MaCallan in hand, Mr. Marsland raised his and clinked it with mine, then Connor’s.

“To our new employee, Jensen Moriarty. May he find looking after our ponyboys to be as rewarding as tending to the beautiful Arabians of his imagination. And much more stimulating.”

I almost choked on the potent liquor as my mind swirled with images of handsome, rugged men in nothing but cock cages and scuffed Doc Martens.