Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Finding Forgiveness & Heart of Stone by Ari McKay

Finding Forgiveness
Boston in 1888 is quite urbane, but unfortunately for Gil Porter, that isn’t the same thing as being understanding. When his sexuality is exposed by the scandalous suicide of his lover, Gil is exiled to the small town of Mercy, Texas, by his domineering father, George, who believes life on Vernon Porter's ranch will cure Gil of his “unnatural” desires. Grieving and ashamed, Gil is determined to keep his distance from everyone until he can return home. To his surprise, he finds acceptance at Bent Oak Ranch, especially from Matt Grayson, the handsome son of the ranch foreman. Knowing he must fight his attraction to Matt, Gil courts a local girl, but an unexpected encounter with Matt leads to his discovery of Matt’s feelings for him. Torn between Matt and his desire to be “normal," between returning to his old life and building a new one in Texas, Gil is faced with a choice—appeasing his father or becoming the man Matt knows he can be.

I love discovering a new author, or at least new to me.  Ari McKay's knack with historical romance is obvious with their detail to accuracy.  Gil is definitely a fish out of water when he's been banished to his Uncle's Texas ranch, couldn't be further from Boston if they had sent him to Timbuktu.  Watching him discover his true path in life as well as finding a new family is entertaining, at times heartbreaking but also very heartwarming.  Gil has a lot to learn but with unexplained acceptance from his uncle and immediate friendship from Matt, he learns the way of the ranch quickly, unfortunately he doesn't learn the way of his heart quite so easily. A great addition to my historical western romance collection and a definite plus for cowboy lovers.


Heart of Stone
Stone Harrison never knew he had an aunt; he certainly never expected her to bequeath him one of the largest spreads in central Nevada. But something about Copper Lake Ranch and its foreman, Luke Reynolds, speaks to him, offering a chance for the home he’s never really had.

Luke wants Stone to succeed as a rancher and put the legacy of his shiftless father behind him, but he’d also like Stone to share his bed. Unfortunately, Stone is convinced that the world is a harsh place that will never accept two men sharing their lives. Much to Luke’s dismay, he refuses to risk Luke’s life despite the intense attraction they share.

The tension between them escalates when a series of calamities strikes Copper Lake. An unexpected and unwelcome visit from Stone’s dandified cousin, James, only makes things worse. Stone’s ability to run the ranch comes into question, but the threat of losing it means less to Stone than the threat to Luke’s life. Stone will do anything it takes to protect the man he loves—even if it makes him a murderer.

In learning he had an aunt he knew nothing about, Stone also discovers he owns a working ranch, finds his place in the world, and finds love.  Unfortunately, his fears keep him from fully exploring his heart.  As often in fiction but also in reality, it takes a series of unfortunate  so-called accidents for Stone to realize his heart and love is nothing to fear.  Of course, watching Luke live with Stone's fears is heartbreaking but the journey is worth all the ache.  Another great addition to my library's history section.


Finding Forgiveness
Chapter One
Texas, 1888
THE STEADY clack clack of the train wheels provided a soothing rhythm, but it did nothing to quell the turmoil of Gilbert Porter’s mind. He stared out the window of his family’s elegant private car, watching the drab landscape roll by. The lush trees that were just beginning to bud with spring’s arrival back home had thinned out the farther west Gil traveled and turned into sparse clumps of sagebrush. The land flattened out into empty brown plains that went on forever, with fewer towns spaced much farther apart.

Although, calling them towns was overstating the case. They consisted of a few ramshackle buildings not over two stories high, and the streets were nothing but rutted dirt paths. He found it difficult to believe anyone would willingly live like this in 1888, but he was quickly becoming aware that the world he’d left behind was nothing like the world he was going to.

The territory was desolate, and it did nothing to lift Gil’s already low spirits. Being exiled to his uncle’s ranch was a wretched fate, but he couldn’t possibly have stayed in Boston, not with the miasma of a scandal clinging to him. The best thing he could do for his family—as Father had so kindly reminded him every day until his departure—was stay away until the gossip died down and his former social circles had forgiven and forgotten his transgressions enough to admit him once more. Without his presence as a reminder, that might happen more quickly, and it would help the rest of his family avoid being stigmatized by association.

“Vernon will make a proper man out of you.” Father’s eyes had been cold as he uttered those words, condemning Gil to exile in Texas for the foreseeable future.

Gil remembered his Uncle Vernon from the one time they’d met. It had been at his grandmother’s funeral, and Uncle Vernon had traveled from Texas back to Boston for the occasion. At twelve, Gil had been a short and slight boy, and his tall broad-shouldered uncle with the booming voice and strange, uncouth accent had intimidated him. At twenty-two Gil was still short and slender, and he didn’t doubt his burly uncle would find him as unmanly as Father did.

He wasn’t looking forward to being judged and found wanting, but in some ways, it was better than remaining at home where the memories of Jeremy were strongest. More than exile, more than scandal, that was the burden that lay heaviest on Gil’s heart.

When the train arrived in Mercy, Texas, at last, Gil stood and collected his umbrella and valise, then made his way to the exit. He was surprised there was a depot in town, but he’d done a little research before the trip and learned that while Mercy wasn’t a bustling city, it wasn’t the tiny one-horse town he’d expected either.

He looked around when he stepped off the train, wondering if Uncle Vernon had come for him or if they expected him to find his own way to Bent Oak Ranch. Before he’d taken more than two steps toward the station door, however, a tall dark-haired man who appeared to be in his late twenties straightened from where he’d been leaning against the wall and walked over to Gil. The man smiled, teeth flashing white in his deeply tanned face.

“Hey there. You must be Gilbert Porter. Vernon sent me to pick you up and take you back to the ranch.” He held out his hand. “Matt Grayson, by the way. Pleased to meet you.”

Gil shook the man’s hand, feeling a little tingle, which he ignored. He couldn’t possibly let himself be distracted like that again, and he intended to keep everyone at a safe distance—especially handsome, rugged cowboys.

“Yes, I’m Mr. Porter,” he replied, drawing himself up to his full height, for all the good it did. He still had to look up to meet Matt Grayson’s gaze. “You must be the help.”

Matt Grayson blinked in surprise at the formal reply, but then a gleam of amusement sparkled in his hazel eyes. “Certainly, yer lordship,” he drawled. “If you’ll step this way, I’ll take you to the ranch. Maybe we’ll make it back in time for you to wash up before tea.”

Gil bristled slightly at the impertinence. No servant had ever spoken to him that way before, and he was surprised that Uncle Vernon hadn’t fired the man already. But he was too tired from the journey to bother with discipline right now, and so he merely fixed Matt with a disapproving look.

“Did you bring more than that little case with you?” Matt asked, pointing to the leather travel case in Gil’s hand.

Gil lifted his chin imperiously. “Of course. I have a steamer trunk.” He looked around and gestured toward the baggage car. “It appears to be unloading even now.”

“The big brown one?” Matt walked over to where the attendants had placed it on the platform. He bent his knees, grasped the handles, and lifted it up without so much as a grunt of effort. He turned his head to look at Gil. “Follow me, if you’re comin’.”

Gil tried to ignore the little thrill he felt at the show of strength and the flex of Matt’s muscles beneath his shirt, and resolutely followed along.

Matt led the way toward a set of beautiful, matched golden palomino horses, but Gil noticed that instead of a carriage, they were hitched to a wagon with a large bed completely filled with crates and bags. The only place to sit was an uncomfortable-looking board seat across the front.

“Climb on up. I’ll just put this in the back,” Matt said, moving toward the rear of the wagon.

Gil stared at the wagon with dismay. “You expect me to ride on that?”

Matt heaved the trunk into the back of the wagon and closed the tailgate. “I’m afraid the coach and four was taken out by the duchess this mornin’,” he drawled teasingly as he returned to Gil. “It’s this or walk. It’s only about five miles. You could probably make it.”

Gil fixed him with an annoyed glare, determined to speak to Uncle Vernon about his servant’s impudence. “I’ll ride,” he said with as much frosty hauteur as he could muster.

His attitude didn’t seem to bother Matt in the slightest. The big man put one foot on a small step and swung up onto the wagon seat, and then he picked up the reins and waited patiently for Gil to climb up.

Gil climbed up awkwardly, the heat of humiliation stinging his cheeks. He wasn’t nearly as easy or graceful about it as Matt, and he sat down heavily, keep his stony gaze fixed straight ahead once he’d made it up there.

Matt clicked his tongue at the horses, and they started forward, apparently knowing their way without needing much guidance. Gil could feel Matt’s eyes on him.

“You ever been to a ranch before?”

“No,” Gil replied in the most cutting tone he could muster. He didn’t intend to engage in idle chitchat with the help all the way back to Bent Oak.

“Didn’t think so,” Matt said cheerfully. “Just a word of advice, meant friendly-like. Folks here ain’t like those back East. Who your parents are don’t matter so much. A man is judged on his own merits. If you’re nice and fair to folks, they’ll be nice and fair to you. But if you get up on your high horse, so to speak, you might find it hard to make friends.”

“I’m not here to make friends,” Gil snapped, fixing Matt with a quelling glare. He wasn’t at all accustomed to someone like Matt ignoring his rebuffs and refusing to be cowed, and he didn’t like it. He was already far out of his depth, and this wasn’t helping at all.

“No, really?” Matt asked, a trace of sarcasm in his voice. “Then let me give you another word of advice about judgin’ folk by appearances. Like maybe thinkin’ someone is beneath you because they offered to give you a lift since they were goin’ to town today anyway.”

“I don’t care who you are or why you’re here,” Gil retorted, bristling anew at Matt’s implied criticism. “I’m here because I have to be, and I don’t need any advice about how to deal with the ‘folks’ around here because I intend to have as little to do with any of you as possible.”

“Suit yourself,” Matt said easily. “When that big ol’ chip falls off your shoulder and you want someone to talk to, you know where to find me.” Then he fell silent as the horses plodded their slow and steady way away from Mercy and out into the spacious grasslands.

Gil watched the bland scenery go by, feeling overwhelmed by the endless openness. It was too empty and vast here, and he doubted he could ever learn to like it. Matt hummed the whole way, just loud enough that Gil could hear him. Gil was tempted to demand that Matt stop the annoying noise, but he suspected it wouldn’t do much good, given the contrariness Matt had exhibited so far.

It seemed like hours before they passed under a wrought iron arch with “Bent Oak Ranch” spelled out in iron letters across the top. The fencing stretched out as far as Gil could see, and while there was a well-worn dirt road ahead, the ranch house itself was a mere speck in the distance. Father had mentioned Uncle Vernon’s ranch being quite large, but Gil was getting a sense of its scope now that he was here.

When they reached the house at last, Gil regarded it with a critical eye. Built in a simple style, the house was only two stories and appeared to have been expanded since its original construction, as the overall design wasn’t terribly cohesive. Painted white, it had simple shutters and no trim, and it had no landscaping to speak of. Other than two wooden rocking chairs and a spittoon on the front porch, there wasn’t much evidence that anyone bothered with decor.

Gil turned to Matt out of necessity, determined to keep the conversation brief. “Where may I find my uncle?”

“I suspect he’s in the stables behind the house. One of his favorite mares is due to foal, so he’s stickin’ close to make sure nothin’ goes wrong,” Matt said.

Matt jumped down from the wagon seat just as the front door of the house opened and a beautiful girl with light brown hair came down the steps toward them. She was dressed in a pale pink-sprigged muslin dress with a pristine white apron over it, and she smiled widely at Gil.

“Hello, there. Welcome to Bent Oak Ranch,” she said, her voice soft and pleasant. “You must be Vernon’s nephew.”

“I am, yes.” Gil climbed down from the wagon slowly and carefully, not wanting to fall flat on his face in front of Matt. He regarded the young woman, unsure how to greet her. He wasn’t aware that Uncle Vernon had a wife or daughter, which meant she must be the housekeeper, but he didn’t want to assume incorrectly.

“Pleased to meet you. I’m Jeanie Grayson,” she said with a smile, offering him her hand. “Vernon told me to put you in one of the bigger rooms at the front of the house, and it’s all ready for you.”

Either she was Matt’s wife or his sister, but either way she was still part of the staff, which meant Gil wasn’t going to shake hands with her. “I’m Mr. Porter. I’d like to see my room, and one of you may tell my uncle I’m here.”

The smile faded on Jeanie’s lips, and she drew herself up proudly, not seeming to like Gil’s attitude one bit. Her hazel eyes were full of cool censure as she gazed down at him. “You can tell him yourself,” she replied primly. “He’s in the stables around back. Your room is the third door on the left at the top of the stairs, and supper is at six. If you’re late, we won’t wait for you.”

She turned on her heel, and with all the dignity of any Boston socialite, marched back up the stairs and into the house.

Anger and embarrassment warred within Gil, and he whirled away, determined to speak to his uncle as soon as possible. He couldn’t remain here with people like this. Surely even Father wouldn’t expect him to live under these conditions.

He skirted around the side of the house in search of the stables, which he hoped was the large building. Like the house, it was made of wood rather than brick, but it looked to be in excellent condition. The smell of hay and manure assaulted him as soon as he reached the open door, and he stepped inside, confident he’d found the right place. He paused to let his eyes adjust to the cool darkness inside.

“Uncle Vernon? Are you in here?”

“In the back stall!” a booming voice Gil remembered well called out. “’Bout time you got here. Those damned trains never do run on time.”

Gil blanched a little at the strong language as he headed to the back of the barn, glancing around curiously. Most of the stalls were empty, but they were clean and filled with fresh hay, which suggested the occupants would be returning. When he reached the last stall, he found his uncle and another man watching over a sweating mare.

“It’s a pleasure to see you again, Uncle,” Gil said politely, keeping a safe distance from the stall when the mare began to paw the ground and whicker nervously.

“Shh, it’s all right,” Vernon crooned to the mare and stroked her neck to settle her. He turned his head and looked at Gil, and Gil saw that other than being a bit grayer at the temples and even more deeply tanned, Vernon Porter didn’t seem much different from Gil’s memories of him. He looked Gil up and down with frank appraisal. “You got a little taller than when I last seen you, but you ain’t changed much, Nephew. Get settled in up at the house yet?”

“Not yet.” Gil drew himself up proudly, stinging from his uncle’s observation. “I don’t suppose I have grown much in ten years. On that, perhaps you and my father agree, which is why he sent me here so you can shape me into the strong, powerful man he wants me to be. However, I fail to understand how being here can possibly change what nature herself has wrought.”

Vernon gave a snort of amusement and exchanged a look with the other man in the stall—another tall broad-shouldered fellow, wearing jeans and a blue chambray shirt with the sleeves rolled up past his elbows. Then he turned back to Gil and shook his head.

“George and I ain’t agreed on a damned thing since we were children, other than it was a good thing I left Boston,” he said dryly. “Ain’t my place to change what nature gave you. You’re right enough about that, in more ways than one. I was just teasin’ you a little, not trying to get your back up. Relax, son. You ain’t in Boston anymore, and I ain’t your pa.”

Gil stared at him, not knowing how to respond. He wanted to find a place in the world where he could relax without feeling the weight of being judged and found wanting. But bitter experience had taught him there was no such place, and he couldn’t possibly trust his uncle so easily. After all, Father had a reason for sending him here.

“I apologize,” he said stiffly. “As I said, I haven’t been in the house yet. Your staff have all been quite rude so far.”

“Staff?” Vernon looked genuinely puzzled.

“I think he must mean Jeanie,” the other man chimed in.

“Oh!” Vernon chuckled and shook his head again. “I ain’t got no staff, son, and if Jeanie was rude to you, no doubt she took exception to bein’ taken for a servant. She keeps house for me, sure enough, but don’t make the mistake of thinkin’ anyone here is one bit better than anyone else. My home has only had one mistress, and that’s Jeanie. She’s thought it was her job to take care of me since she was five years old.”

The concept of such equality was so foreign to Gil’s experiences that he could scarcely wrap his mind around it. His parents had always drawn a sharp, clear line between those who were their social equals and those who were not, and Gil had grown up in a deeply stratified world.

“But if she is the housekeeper, how is she not a servant?” he asked with a puzzled frown, trying to make sense of the situation.

“You’re gonna need to adjust your Boston thinkin’, son,” Vernon said pleasantly. He moved to the side of the other man and clapped him on the shoulder. “For instance, this here is my foreman, Jeb Grayson, but he’s also my best friend in this world or any other. He gets a wage for workin’ on the ranch, sure enough, but he’s no man’s servant. His son, Matt, works the ranch, too, and will likely take the place over for his pa someday, Lord willin’. I’ve known Matt and Jeanie since they were wee tiny children, and Jeanie would take offense at gettin’ a wage for lookin’ after me. When a man comes out West and ain’t got no kin nearby, he tends to make his own sort of family, and Matt and Jeanie are as close as I’ll ever come to havin’ kids of my own.”

“I see.” Gil nodded his acceptance of the situation. He would have to treat the Grayson family like social equals whether he liked it—or them—or not, but years of experience at masking emotion in favor of social pleasantries would see him through. He only wished he knew how long Father intended him to remain in exile here. He almost considered facing the memories and the fallout of his scandal worth accepting just to be somewhere familiar again. Uncle Vernon’s words had made him acutely aware of how much of an outsider he was here in every way, and he felt the isolation already. “Well, I will impose on you and your family as little as possible. Just tell me what exactly I am expected to do here.”

Again Vernon exchanged a look with Jeb Grayson, and then he crossed over to Gil and rested his large hands on Gil’s shoulders. “I know you feel like your pa shipped you out here as punishment, son, but the truth of the matter is, it was my suggestion. I know how those Boston biddies can rip a man apart for steppin’ over the lines they draw in the sand, and I thought you might like it better here. A man can breathe here, and he ain’t defined by who his family is. It ain’t gonna be easy on you, I’ll give you that, but if you’re willin’ to try, you’ll be surprised. If a man works hard and is fair in his dealin’s, he can be anything he sets his mind to. In Boston, you’ll always be George Porter’s son, one of the Boston Porters. Out here, you can be Gil Porter—whoever he really is. Sure, we have scoundrels, horse thieves, and even snobs aplenty, but you’ll find most everyone willin’ to accept you at face value—so make it a face you’re proud to have people see.”

Part of Gil wanted to cling to his uncle’s words and hope they were true, but he knew better than to think anything could be different for him here. Even if he really could escape his father’s shadow, he wasn’t at all sure who Gil Porter was—and what he did know wasn’t good. He had unnatural desires, and he harbored a secret that would make him as much a pariah here as he was in Boston. He could never be truly accepted or truly free no matter where he went.

Mustering a polite smile, he strove for a neutral response. “Of course.”

Vernon clapped Gil on the shoulders. “You don’t understand, not yet, but hopefully you will. I know your pa told you some nonsense about how I was gonna make a man out of you, but he’s wrong. You’ll make a man out of yourself—or not. It’s up to you. If you really hate it here, I’ll send you back to Boston. All I ask is for you to give it a chance and see if you can find somethin’ about ranchin’ you like.”

Gil didn’t see that he had much of a choice. If he returned to Boston before Father considered his punishment to be over, there would be hell to pay. He had no choices and no control. The only thing he could do was stay here and do as he was told while keeping up a polite face to everyone else.

“Of course,” he said again, for lack of any better response.

With a sigh, Vernon removed his hands. “I need to stay here with Zephyr, but you go on up to the house. Jeanie is a sweet girl, really. You must have gotten her back up. If you say you’re sorry, I’m sure it’ll all be forgiven and forgotten. She’s softhearted and loves to take care of folk, so if you’re nice to her, she’ll be spoilin’ you like she spoils the rest of us in no time.”

Privately, Gil would rather tear out his own tongue than apologize, but outwardly, he pasted on another polite smile and nodded. “As you wish, Uncle.”

With that, he turned and fled the barn, wanting to escape that uncomfortable conversation. His steps slowed when he reached the house, but he stiffened his spine when he went inside, keeping his polite mask in place. As he moved through the house, he heard the low murmur of conversation coming from the back, and he headed in that direction, finding himself in the kitchen—along with both Grayson siblings.

Matt was stretching to get a large kettle from a high shelf, but both he and his sister turned when Gil entered the room. Standing close together, it was easy to see the family resemblance between them, although Matt was smiling and Jeanie frowning as they looked at him.

“Can I help you?” Jeanie asked stiffly.

“Forgive my intrusion,” Gil said as he moved closer to the pair, offering a conciliatory smile. “I wanted to apologize for my earlier rudeness and assure you it will not happen again.”

The siblings exchanged glances, and then Jeanie turned back to him with a slight smile. “Thank you,” she said. “Anyone can make a mistake. Would you like a glass of tea, Mr. Porter?”

“No, thank you, Miss Grayson,” he replied politely. “If you’ll excuse me, I would like to take my luggage up to my room and unpack.”

“I already carried up your case and trunk,” Matt said, handing his sister the kettle. “If it’s in your way after you unpack, I can take the trunk up to the attic.”

Gil nodded an acknowledgment. “Thank you, Mr. Grayson. I appreciate your assistance. If you’ll excuse me?” He didn’t wait for a response before escaping the kitchen and hurrying upstairs.

The bedroom he was assigned was smaller than his room in Boston, with nothing more than the bare basics—a bed, a nightstand with a small lamp, a wardrobe, and a washstand with a plain white bowl and pitcher. There was only one window with the same dark green curtains he’d noticed throughout the rest of the house, and the walls were bare. But at least it was his room alone, and he would have somewhere to go when he needed a respite.

He dropped heavily onto the side of the narrow iron bed, feeling the weight of his grief, loss, and isolation bearing down on his narrow shoulders. At least in here, he didn’t have to pretend to be strong and polite, but he couldn’t let himself indulge in emotion right now. He needed to unpack, and all too soon he would probably be summoned to the evening meal, where he would have to don his armor and his mask once again.

It would be difficult living this way for the foreseeable future, but it wasn’t that different from the armor and mask he’d had to wear in Boston. No matter where he was, he was hiding something. No matter where he was, he was never truly home.

Heart of Stone
Chapter One
“STONE! Hey, Stone! You came back!”

Stone stopped in the middle of uncinching Raider’s saddle and glanced up to find Little Sam coming toward him, pushing his way through the press of cowboys and horses crowding the stable. The young man’s face was split with a wide grin, and Stone answered it with a slight, tired smile of his own. Little Sam had been laid up with a broken leg when Stone and the other hands had left Yellow Knife, Texas, for Abilene two and a half months before, and no doubt he wanted to hear all about the cattle drive he’d missed, but Stone was too tired to talk much. Unfortunately, that didn’t deter the younger man, who followed him into the stall.

“’Course I came back. Why wouldn’t I?” Stone asked as he draped his saddle over the stall door and turned back to remove Raider’s blanket.

“Well, you were talkin’ about stayin’ in Kansas before you left.” Sam picked up a brush and began to work on Raider’s pale golden coat. “I thought maybe you meant it.”

Stone shrugged. He had thought about it, but Abilene hadn’t seemed all that different from Yellow Knife?or San Antonio, Santa Fe, or Tucson, for that matter. He’d been slowly working his way east for the last ten years, but no matter where he went, it still didn’t feel like home. He was beginning to think no place ever would.

Sam was watching him, pale blue eyes alight with curiosity, and Stone knew he would have to answer. He didn’t make friends easily, but Little Sam had attached himself to Stone from the moment Stone had arrived on the Circle J a bit over a year before, seeming to view Stone as an older brother. Sam was barely twenty and full of energy, with sandy hair, innocent eyes, and a puppy-like enthusiasm for everything that made him a favorite with all the hands. Cutting him off was more than Stone, who had a reputation for being as cold and silent as his name, could manage.

“Changed my mind,” he said. “Kansas ain’t no better’n here. We made it in good time, didn’t lose too many head, and Stevenson got a good price at market, so we all got a bonus. I reckon I could stay on another year.”

Sam nodded. Driving cattle from southern Texas to the railhead market in Kansas could be profitable or disastrous, depending as it did on factors like weather, the health of the cattle, the quality of the grazing, and whether or not they ran into rustlers. Jim Stevenson, the owner of the Circle J, drove five thousand head of Texas Longhorns along the Chisholm Trail every year, and mostly he made money at it, but some years were much better than others. Fortunately for Stone and the other hands, this year had been a good one.

“Glad to hear it.” Sam grinned at him again. “You got to tell me all about the drive. But first, there’s news here, too. For you.”

“What?” Stone blinked in surprise, and then he frowned. He didn’t like the sound of that; he was of no importance to anyone, and that was the way he preferred it.

“It ain’t bad.” Sam bit his lip. “Or at least, I don’t reckon it’s bad. You got a letter, that’s all. Got here a couple of weeks after you left. Ms. Stevenson said she figured she’d keep it in case you came back with the others, and if not, she’d send it on to Abilene after you. Looks like it already got sent on a few times anyway.” He looked envious. “A real letter! I ain’t never got a letter in my life. Who could be writin’ you?”

“No idea,” Stone replied. He’d never gotten a letter before, either. Why would he? There wasn’t anyone to write to him; his mother was dead, and he didn’t have anyone else, no friends or family but his horse. He was curious, but it was tinged with dread; surely it could only be bad news, if it had followed him who knew how far. When he moved on, he always told the foreman where he was headed and left on good terms, but that only made sense, because a man never knew what might happen. Stone might not have friends, but he tried not to make enemies, either. “It’s waited this long, I suppose it can wait until I get Raider settled.”

“Sure.” Sam looked disappointed, but then he grinned. “Look, I’ll get water and feed for him so you can finish curryin’, okay?”

No doubt Sam was hoping Stone would let him see the letter—not read it, but just see what it looked like—in return for the help, and Stone nodded as Sam scurried off. At least the boy hadn’t suggested Stone leave off dealing with his horse until after picking up the letter. Anyone with any sense knew a cowboy’s horse came before anything else.

“Who in tarnation would write to me?” he muttered, and Raider twitched his ears.

With Sam’s help, Stone finished taking care of Raider, but instead of heading to the bunkhouse with the other hands, he made his way to the large, neat timber house where Mr. and Mrs. Stevenson, the ranch’s owners and his employers, lived. He removed his hat and knocked on the back door.

Mrs. Stevenson, a kind, sturdy woman in her fifties with iron-gray hair and a plump figure, opened the door. “Why hello, Stone! Glad to see you came back. I reckon Sam told you about the letter, eh? You’d have thought it was for him, the way he’s been carryin’ on about it. Come in, and I’ll fetch it for you.”

Stone stepped into the kitchen, which was clean and tidy and smelled wonderfully of baking bread. “I’ll just stay by the door, ma’am.” He looked down at his dirty boots. “I don’t want to track all over your floor.”

“All right,” she replied and then bustled out of the room. A few moments later, she was back, holding an envelope of brown paper that had writing all over the front. She handed it to him, shaking her head. “Looks like someone really wanted to get ahold of you. It’s been forwarded twice from the first address.”

“Huh.” Stone took it, looking at the front. It had originally been sent to the Lone Pine Ranch in Oklahoma, where he’d been working two years before, and they’d sent it on to the Cut Notch, his last place before he’d come to work for the Stevensons. He supposed it was a good thing he’d told them where he’d been headed or the letter would never have reached him at all. “Thank you, ma’am. I’m much obliged to you for holdin’ it for me.”

“Pshaw, it wasn’t a problem, Stone.” Mrs. Stevenson smiled and patted his arm in a motherly fashion. “You’re a good worker and a good man. I’m glad you didn’t stay in Abilene.”

“Thank you, ma’am.” Stone felt his neck heating at the compliment. For some reason, praise always embarrassed him, and he shifted his weight from foot to foot. “Er, if you’ll excuse me, ma’am, I should be goin’.”

“Of course,” she replied, shooing him toward the door. Then she paused. “And Stone, if that letter has somethin’ that you need help with, let me know. You’ve got friends here.”

“Much obliged.” Stone turned and left the cozy kitchen. Now that he had the letter in his hand, he was burning with curiosity. And there was only one way to satisfy it.

Chapter Two
MAY 14, 1887
Barrow and Morgan, Attorneys-at-Law
47 Main Street
Reno, Nevada
Dear Mr. Harrison,
We represent the estate of your late aunt, Mrs. Priscilla Ann Harrison Rivers, who passed away on April 30th. As Mrs. Rivers had no children of her own, her will stipulated that all her worldly possessions were to pass to you as her only living relative. This makes you the sole owner of the Copper Lake Ranch in Washoe County, Nevada.

As Mrs. Rivers was uncertain of your whereabouts, she made plans before her death for the ranch to be held for you for a period of one year, the taxes and salaries of her employees paid, and an overseer left in charge to allow the ranch to continue to function while we attempted to find you. If you would please send a telegram to our office as soon as you are in receipt of this letter, we will begin to make arrangements to transfer the ranch to your ownership.
Stephen Barrow, Esq.

For several minutes, all Stone could do was stare at the letter, unable to fully understand its meaning. An aunt? He’d barely known his father, remembering him only as an angry man who drank and hit both him and his mother; he certainly hadn’t known his father had any family, much less someone who owned a ranch and who would actually leave it to Stone, a man she’d never met. It made him wonder why his mother never said anything, although given her fear of the man she’d married, and her relief when he’d gotten himself killed in a fall from a horse, it was possible she hadn’t wanted anything more to do with his family.

The letter was dated five months before, and given the distance from Nevada to Texas, Stone was amazed it had found him before the one year deadline. Which meant he had a decision to make: did he want to claim this unexpected inheritance, or just pretend the letter hadn’t reached him and let the ranch go to whoever next stood to inherit?

He folded the letter and slipped it into the pocket of his jacket, then stared out across the dusty expanse of one of Circle J’s pastures, empty except for a few of the breeding cows that would provide the stock for next year’s market. The ranch was huge, and Stone knew that he, as a hand, saw only a small part of what it took to keep the place running. Mr. Stevenson and his foreman, Ben, worked hard every day and were responsible for every person and animal on the ranch. If there was a bad year, a cowboy could always move along to greener pastures, especially ones like Stone who didn’t have a family. But Mr. Stevenson had invested his whole life in this one place. If things went bad, he couldn’t just move on to the next place, the next job. He had to stay and do his best, no matter how bad it got.

Of course, his father hadn’t taught him that. Paul Harrison hadn’t taken responsibility for anything in his life. Everything had always been someone else’s fault, especially his half-Indian wife’s. Stone couldn’t remember a time in his life when he’d ever looked at his father with anything but fear and hatred, even though his mother had tried to make apologies for his father’s behavior. Perhaps she had even begun to feel as though she deserved the scathing words and the blows, after so many years of hearing how Paul Harrison could have been someone if only he hadn’t had a half-breed wife and son to tie him down.

That hadn’t kept Paul from hauling the two of them from town to town, always looking for a way to make easy money. People had called his father no-account and shiftless, claiming he’d never done an honest day’s work in his life, and Stone could believe it was true. He’d been less than ten years old when his father died, and he couldn’t remember feeling anything but relief when it happened. From that moment on, he’d done everything in his power to prove he was nothing like his father. He’d taken care of his mother, gone to school, and worked hard at any job he could get to help them survive. He never wanted people to look at him the way they looked at his father. He did an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay, and even though he’d not stayed on any one ranch for more than a couple of years, he always moved on in a way that left good feelings behind him.

Over the years he’d encountered plenty of people who didn’t like him, mostly because of the color of his skin, but he’d dealt with it, and for the most part, he felt good about himself. He was a good cowboy, but could he handle running a ranch of his own? Did he even want to try? How would he feel if he failed?

If there was one thing he’d learned about himself over the years, it was that he’d pretty much always tried to do things exactly opposite the way his father would have done them. Which meant accepting the responsibilities he was given and doing his very best to fulfill them. Now someone was entrusting him with a ranch. He didn’t know if it was a prosperous place or a rundown spread on the verge of collapse, but in his heart, he knew it didn’t matter. An aunt he’d never known had seen fit to entrust her place to him, despite the fact she must have known he could have turned out just like his father. She’d given him a responsibility, and Stone knew what he had to do: make every attempt to be successful at it.

Exactly the way his father wouldn’t have done.

Author Bio:
Ari McKay is the professional pseudonym for Arionrhod and McKay, who collaborate on original m/m fiction. They began writing together in 2004 and finished their first original full length novel in 2011. Recently, they’ve begun collaborating on designing and creating costumes to wear and compete in at Sci Fi conventions, and they share a love of yarn and cake.

Arionrhod is an avid costumer, knitter, and all-around craft fiend, as well as a professional systems engineer. Mother of two human children and two dachshunds who think they are human, she is a voracious reader with wildly eclectic tastes, devouring romance novels, military science fiction, horror stories and Shakespeare with equal glee. She is currently preparing for the zombie apocalypse.

McKay is an English teacher who has been writing for one reason or another most of her life. She also enjoys knitting, reading, cooking, and playing video games. She has been known to knit in public. Given she has the survival skills of a gnat, she’s relying on Arionrhod to help her survive the zombie apocalypse.


Finding Forgiveness

Heart of Stone

1 comment:

  1. Hi there! Thanks so much for the wonderful reviews of our Westerns! We love writing historicals, and there is going to be a sequel to Finding Forgiveness in the near future!