Away in a Manger

an excerpt

Chapter One

The alarm blared, and Nathan rolled to his side, hitting the sleep button with the mindless ease of familiarity.

He sat up, rubbing his eyes, trying to gain at least a semblance of awareness.

It got harder to wake every morning, what with his lack of sleep, and...

The warmth at his hip was both familiar and precious.

Malcolm was sleeping facedown in his usual pose, sprawled utterly like an octopus across the king-size bed, leaving Nathan precious little room.

Just the way he liked it.

With newfound caution, he reached out to stroke through thick, golden curls, never tiring of the soft texture and the way the strands wrapped around his fingers, seeming to hold him close, even when Mal was sleeping.

He had woken just this way for all the fifteen years they had been together, and never did the sense of wonder lessen that he had been gifted with such a soul to love, to hold, to have in his formerly barren life.

He swallowed hard, tears rising to blur his vision for a long moment before he blinked them away and slid from the bed with care, turning back to pull the covers up over Malcolm with loving hands. He gave a last stroke over the unruly hair, grimacing as his lover pulled away, even in sleep, to bury his head under a pillow before falling still once more.

He withdrew his hand, fingers curling in against his palm, a hard lump lodging somewhere deep in his chest, a lump that grew larger each day, with each new, small rejection, with each sign that their path, once something they walked together, bound by love, was changing into something he hardly recognized, something that drained his energy and made him drag through the day.

Nathan drew in a shuddering breath, then quietly searched for his clothing, creeping from the room to dress in the adjoining guest bedroom.

In socked feet, he made his way down the stairs, adroitly avoiding the two steps from the bottom that creaked hideously and could wake the dead.

In the kitchen, newly renovated and still strange to him, he opened the gleaming refrigerator door and contemplated the contents for some time before reaching for the milk. A box of cereal from the pantry, something Malcolm abhorred.

In the old days...

In the good times, Mal had insisted on getting up with him, a sacrifice of great proportion when his lover was never anything of a morning person. He had cooked Nathan a large, filling morning meal, an appropriate start to the day, especially in the cold of winter, when it was hard to face stepping out the door and facing the chores in the darkness of the short days.

He stood now at the large kitchen window, eating his cereal with blank indifference, staring out at the beauty that was their home.

Despite his pain, he could never see the view with anything but love.

He had been born on this ranch, raised here, took over when his father had finally died and his mother had moved into town.

He saw it as a slice of heaven on earth.

Malcolm was increasingly seeing it as a prison.

Nathan had spent a small fortune trying to upgrade the ranch house, make it into something that Malcolm could invite his friends to and be proud of.

It didn't seem to be enough.

Nathan didn't seem to be enough anymore.

He choked down the last mouthful of tasteless boxed cereal and carefully washed out the bowl, drying it and putting it away. Malcolm loved his kitchen immaculate, and Nathan always tried to keep it that way. He always felt a surge of embarrassment when he remembered how the house had looked fifteen years ago, when he first brought Malcolm to visit.

He worked hard each day, came in tired, and sometimes with nothing left, so housework had always seemed to stay on the bottom of the list of things that were essential. The fact that Mal had looked around at the disaster and simply rolled up his sleeves and set to work, had always amazed Nathan.

His lover, the ultimate organizer and neat freak, had simply accepted him as is, and not run screaming back to civilization.

That acceptance, that love, seemed to be fading at last, much as Nathan had fully expected from the beginning.

Malcolm was a bright, shining, flamboyant star that faded without new vistas and new experiences. His artistic soul craved stimulation, sucked in knowledge and sights like a sponge. Nathan had made sure that he got to travel with his friends, got to maintain the life he had left behind. But there were times when he saw the sadness in Mal's eyes that Nathan did not accompany him, that they did not face the whole world as lovers and partners.

The ranch allowed no holidays, no time away.

He had considered hiring more men, more than the ten that currently lived and worked here so that he could leave more often, but his own nature prevented it. He had to be here. It was as if his soul was connected to the land, and when he left, it shriveled, faded so that he was a shadow of himself.

It was only when he stepped onto the soil upon his return that he could breathe again.

Malcolm said it was a form of anxiety, a need for the safety of familiar surroundings and a rejection of the world that was hostile to his kind.

He wasn't brave, strong, like Mal. He couldn't flaunt what he was and dare others to accept it, to take the resulting negativity with a sneer.

He bore the scars of homophobia all too clearly so that he saw the results every day when he shaved, upon his body when he showered, felt them beneath his skin, long healed, but never, ever forgotten.

The world held nothing that he wanted or ever would.

But that world held nothing but fascination for his mercurial Malcolm. Being here, Nathan was slowly realizing, was destroying his lover, as the outside would destroy Nathan.

Increasingly, he was realizing that their paths were separating, in a fateful, unstoppable kind of way, and the helplessness he felt at that realization was an ever-growing burden, crushing him so that he had no idea how to act, what to say, how to voice his fears.

Words had never been his forte, and now, he felt the lack as never before. He tried, over and over, to speak, to attempt to talk this through, find a way that they could mend this breach, heal the cracks that threatened the entire relationship.

He entered the porch, closing the door softly behind him, pulling on his boots, and putting on the layers of clothing necessary to endure the harsh cold of the day.

Pulling a hood over his head and ears, he jammed his winter Stetson over the top, a larger size than he normally wore to accommodate the necessary hood. Armed against the chill, he stepped out onto the deck, letting the spring door close behind him.

The cold hit him, the wind brisk and fresh from the mountain that loomed over them and the others at its flanks. He breathed out, watching the warm air steam in the cold before he drew in the freshness, the utter cold.

His body was mostly immune, braving this daily, and well dressed for the elements.

Snow had fallen during the night, soft and fluffy upon the walkway to the house. Later, Brent would bring up the shiny new tractor/snowblower and clear the way to the garage and the driveway in front, since they were expecting a group of Mal's friends out for tomorrow's celebration.

Christmas Day.

Nathan grimaced. Whether it was his own insecurities or simply the truth, he had a hard time with those friends. Always imagining that there was scorn behind their cool smiles, a trace of condemnation in their words, as though they resented his relationship with Malcolm, resented that their friend was spirited away and held in the wilds. There was nothing there that Nathan could relate to. Their jobs, their lives were so very different than his own.

As always, Christmas was a time of false joviality, of pretense.

It always had been, even when he was a child.

This year, though, the last of his family was coming, and he was unsure how he even felt about the matter. He had not seen his older sister for almost twenty years; he had been only fifteen when she left.

The year of horror and pain, the year he had been taken away from his family, taken in government care after his father had beaten him almost to death, and he had landed in hospital.

The fact she had left, without notice, without staying to support their mother or help at the ranch once his father was arrested...

He had never felt forgiving over that matter.

She had had little to say in their brief conversation on the phone, only that she needed to see him, that she was sorry and had to tell him that in person.

Sorry?

The old anger surged, and he fought it down. That rage had only brought grief to him, and he refused to allow it to rise, refused to let it rule him as it had in the past. He was not his father. He would never be his father.

Malcolm had seemed pleased at the prospect of Diane arriving for Christmas Day.

Nathan had let him fuss over the matter and stayed silent on his own feelings. Family was nothing to celebrate in his experience. To Malcolm, whose parents had died young, leaving him and his two sisters to be raised by an aunt, it was a desire and a longing that never eased.

Nathan had thought that Mal had finally found what he needed. The people around here adored him, his warm, bubbling personality making no end of friends, and the men who lived and worked here on the ranch counted him as one of them, their acceptance total and complete.

But it was not enough.

Never enough.

Ahead, he could see Taylor, his second in charge, stride into the shop, and a moment later, the sound of the tractor starting up.

In the various stockyards, horses and cattle jerked their heads up at the familiar sound, the sign that feed was on its way.

A cacophony of equine and bovine sounds split the air, amplified in the cold air. He smiled a little. This was what kept him alive, and sane.

The animals.

His love for any creature was the foundation on which he stood. They alone were to be trusted. They did not seem him as damaged or different. They accepted his love and gave it back tenfold.

Once, he and Malcolm had had that simplicity.

Now, nothing was certain.

His smile faded into a weary grimace.

The shop door rose, folding back section by section, letting the exhaust of the tractor out. He entered the shop through the small side door, welcoming the semi-warmth within.

Immediately he was surrounded by the dogs, four of them in total, crowding around his legs, too well trained to jump up but displaying their joy with lolling tongues and yips of welcome.

He went to one knee, stroking heads, thumping shoulders, and gently pulling soft ears as they pressed close.

Three of them, Flora, Tamsin, and Mac, border collies, were the partners he counted on for moving cattle and horses both, but the other was completely useless as a work dog...

Harlow, the cold-mannered, dangerous, and standoffish Doberman.

People around about knew his love of animals and were not above dropping them in his lap if they thought they could get away with it.

How could he possibly refuse them? Turn the animals away to the fate of all unwanted creatures?

He had been unwanted himself; he could hardly turn his back on them, given his understanding.

He certainly did not need a dog without a purpose, but his rescues over the years had always been loving in a way that only a rescue could ever be, even Harlow, who would approach no one else but Nathan, and even then with a reluctance that held him back from the melee of the others.

Nathan stood and met those golden eyes, gently holding out a hand.

The Doberman considered him for a moment, then rose from his sitting position and came to stand beneath his touch, not pushing, not asking, but letting him stroke the noble head and murmur to him.

Of them all, he understood Harlow the best, felt a comradeship he had never experienced with another dog.

Harlow had been abused, that much was certain, but in what way and for how long remained a mystery. He had been discovered by the side of the road by a neighbor, with a broken leg and starving.

Even then, he had not accepted touch, and the neighbor had had a struggle on his hands when he threw a blanket over the weakened dog and carried the growling bundle to his truck, going directly to Poplar Ridge Ranch and Nathan.

The vet had been called, the injuries treated, food provided, but it had taken a year for the Doberman to make himself visible to anyone. All they had seen was a dark shadow sliding out of sight each time they passed by.

The fact that he would now come to Nathan's hand was a gift beyond gifts as far as Nathan was concerned. He always treasured that moment when an animal trusted enough to approach, to be touched.

Harlow had taken leadership of the small pack and stood guard over the farm and all the occupants.

Harlow, a short-haired dog that could not survive outside the warmth of the shop during the winter. He would follow Nathan from shop to barn and back again, racing for the warmth each time.

A cough made him look up, Harlow growling softly at the interruption.

Brent, the oldest of his hired hands, nodded at him, twinkling blue eyes in a wrinkled face under heavy brows. He was the last of the old hands, the ones who had known his father, had seen Nathan grow up and knew his story.

It had been Brent and two other men who had dragged Nathan's father off him. Brent who had rushed him to the hospital.

It had been Brent who had traveled all the way to the city, where Nathan was in foster care, when he was attacked by a group of men who had labeled him gay.

This man knew every aspect of him and still remained here, loyal, not wishing to leave, even in his waning years.

Nathan could not imagine the ranch without him. Brent would have a home here as long as he wanted, and that had been made very clear to the older man.

In his heart, Nathan loved Brent fiercely, without reservation. This man had proven himself long ago, and Nathan counted him as family, even if no blood tie existed. This was the man he wished had been his father.

"Storm supposed to hit late this afternoon. You going up to the creek pasture?" There was concern in the tone, in the way of a man who knew the land and the way the weather could turn. He had lost more than one friend to a blizzard down through the years.

Even in this age of technology, people died in the violent storms that swept the area, whiteouts of snow and wind combined.

Nathan nodded. "Got to check on Sage. She was limping last week. Gave her a shot, but would like to make sure she improved. Need to shake down some more feed most likely. Jaybird looks like a butterball. Eats like a hog."

Brent shook his head fondly before glancing up at the house. "Mal getting ready for tomorrow?" He turned his gaze back to Nathan, taking in his sudden tension with a raised brow. "Maybe you and I can sit out on the porch and have a whiskey or two. Celebrate our own way and leave the city folk to gossip." There was no criticism in the gentle words, just an offer of companionship that was much appreciated. All the other men would be leaving this evening to travel to family, some near, some further, but all linked in some fashion to relatives.

"Diane is coming, remember? I'll get stuck talking to her." Nathan shook his head. "Can't imagine what she wants. The past is the past. Let it go."

"Sometimes the past leaves hooks in a person, and only facing it frees you." Brent eyed him. "You've moved on, for the most part. She's never been back to see that everything is different, that the people who created the pain are gone."

Nathan shivered. It had taken years for him to stop imagining his father in every part of the ranch, to truly realize he was dead and gone and could hurt no one ever again. Perhaps Brent was right. Diane needed to see that the demon of their childhood no longer existed.

"You be kind to her. See what she wants, and listen if she needs to tell you things, ask you things. She's hurt, that girl. She may not bear the physical scars that you do, but the mental ones drove her away. Once she's said her piece, then you can decide where you want to go with this, but give her that chance. It will be good for you, good for her. "

Nathan nodded. Brent's advice was always wise, but this time, he wanted to avoid this meeting with all his heart. Nothing good could possibly come from their reunion.