Saddle Up

Chapter One

“Mack needs your answer by the end of the week, dude, or he’ll have to start interviewing other people.” Wes Bentley bounced from foot to foot next to the service station, his unexpected presence making it difficult for Miles Arlington to properly do his job.

Miles reached past Wes to grab microgreens for the appetizers he was plating. “I can’t believe you came to my job to solicit me for another one,” Miles snapped. Not really annoyed with Wes about the solicitation, but because Wes was impeding his normal plating routine by being there in the first place.

Wes no longer performed for the Gala Dinner Theater, but he was still good friends with the owners and had kitchen access. And while it was a Tuesday night in February and not super busy, Miles still didn’t appreciate the interruption. Miles had worked here as a line cook for nearly three years now, and he prided himself on his professionalism.

“It’s time sensitive, and you weren’t answering my texts,” Wes replied. He snared a piece of cooked shrimp off the line, too fast for Miles to swat his hand away. “Besides, this needs the personal touch, because I really want you to do it. Think of the freedom of running your own kitchen.”

Miles grabbed a squeeze bottle so he could sauce and finish his apps. To be honest, he was intrigued by the idea. A few weeks ago, Wes had called and proposed Miles move out to the tiny town of Garrett, California, and be the head chef for the ghost town attraction opening in April. The saloon’s menu would be small and as authentic to the mid-1800s time period as possible, and Miles could be in charge, instead of a line cook who occasionally got shouted at by his boss.

But Miles hadn’t taken it seriously until tonight, when Wes crashed his evening.

“I like this job.” Miles wiped a stray smear of sauce off one plate, then put them in the window for the servers. “Table six, order up!”

The next ticket was waiting, and he got the right plates for it.

“Yeah, maybe you like this job, but do you love this job?” Wes asked. “And I know you’re stressing about finding another roommate when I move out.”

A fresh wave of anxiety unsettled Miles’s stomach. He was absolutely not looking forward to living with a stranger, male or female. He’d shared an apartment with Wes for two years, and they’d become best friends. But Wes had found a boyfriend last summer, and they were building a house together out on the vast property owned by Mack Garrett’s grandfather. It was set to be finished in mid-March, and while Wes promised to pay his share of the rent until the lease was up in June, the rest of the year was staring right back at Miles and mocking him.

“I’ll figure something out,” Miles said. “Will you move? I can’t reach my food.”

“Sorry.” Wes shifted six inches to the left. “Come on, the salary Mack is offering pays more than this job, plus you get December and January off. How is that not awesome?”

“I don’t know.” He finished the next four plates and stuck them in the window. All appetizers had to be out before the theater production began, so this was the most hectic part of Miles’s night. It irritated him that Wes was here now, but he also couldn’t dismiss all of Wes’s good points.

More importantly, moving would get him out of the city and far away from Dallas, whose harassing texts had started up again last night.

Maybe leaving San Francisco behind wasn’t an altogether bad idea.

“You can’t tell me you didn’t love it out there,” Wes added. “You took, like, a bazillion photos of the ranch.”

“I do love it there.” Last May, Miles, Wes, and several of their friends had taken a vacation at Clean Slate Ranch, and it had been the most relaxing week of his life. Miles had ridden a horse again for the first time since he was a teenager, and he’d loved the wide-open spaces and natural beauty.

Wes was efficiently laying out every good reason for Miles to leave, and Miles couldn’t think of one reason to stay that wasn’t rooted in his need for routine and dislike of change. But maybe change was exactly what he needed to stop existing day-to-day and to really start living. Wes leaned his hip against the counter and pitched his voice as low as he could with the din of the busy kitchen all around them. “You’re my best friend, and I’d really like you to do this with me. You’re a fantastic cook. Help me make this ghost town awesome.”

Miles put six new appetizers into the window, then glanced at his last ticket. He made Wes wait while he plated spring rolls, added the garnish, and set the final app order in the window. “Table twelve, order up!”

“Give me one good reason for you to say no,” Wes said.

Miles cleaned his prep station, because entrée orders would come in any minute, and their head chef hated dirty stations. The idea of running his own kitchen intrigued Miles. He hadn’t set out to be a chef, and he’d sort of fallen into this job. He enjoyed it, but all he did was plate the food he was taught, in the exact same way, over and over. Even when Chef added a new dish, Miles had to cook and plate as he was told. The only time he got to really experiment was at home, and only when he had extra cash to try new things. Playing with a unique, old-time menu could be a lot of fun. Living at the ranch would be a dream. He’d stay close to his friends, especially Wes, when Wes wasn’t off following his actor’s heart and filming a new role on a TV show or movie.

“So are you going to put me out of my misery or keep me in suspense here?” Wes asked.

“Arlington!” Chef yelled from farther down the line. “Quit yakking and focus on your food. Bentley, get out of my kitchen!”

Once Chef looked away, Wes blew a raspberry in his direction.

“Very mature,” Miles said.

“That guy never liked me, anyway. I wish I could be there when he finds out you’re quitting.”

“I haven’t said I’m quitting, and he has a point. I need to work, so buzz off.”

“Okay, okay.” Wes flashed him another big grin. “Seriously, think it over, and we’ll talk again when you get home, but you know you want to do this. I’m super excited about it. I mean, you were there when my horse spooked and accidentally dragged me to the ghost town site.”

True story. During an overnight camping trip on the ranch lands, Wes’s horse had gotten away from him and they ended up discovering the bones of an abandoned California ghost town. His not-yet-boyfriend, Mack, had fallen in love with the place, and he decided to invest settlement money into turning those old bones into a living attraction.

“Sophie and Conrad were there, too, when you found it, but you aren’t bugging them to work there.”

“Yeah, well, they have other careers and Sophie wants to start trying for kids.”

Sophie was Wes’s little sister, and she’d married Conrad Massey at the ghost town site last fall. It had been a beautiful ceremony against an in-progress backdrop, but Wes regularly updated Miles with photos of the town. Most of it had been built from scratch, based on careful research by their historian, Avery Hendrix, but a handful of original buildings had been reinforced so they would withstand the test of time. And a lot of tourists.

“Good for them,” Miles said. “Are you going to be the crazy uncle who spoils their kids rotten?”

“You know it. But they’re coming out for opening day, so they’re still involved.”

“Awesome. Now get out of here. I’m busy.”

“Later, and thanks again!” Wes skipped out of the kitchen, making no move to hide his excitement or his flame. Wes didn’t wear subtle in his clothes, or his personality, and it totally worked for him. Miles, on the other hand, did his very best not to be noticeable.

Entrée tickets started coming in, their expeditor shouting off orders to be fired, and Miles lost himself in his work for a while. Busy, steady work that didn’t demand more than careful hands and attention to detail. Plating the same food, night after night, and for the first time, Miles felt...bored.

Maybe a change of job and scenery would do him some good, get him out of the funk he’d been in since his birthday last April.

His gut squirmed, and Miles banished those thoughts to the back of his mind.

The final entrées went out around nine, so Miles set about cleaning his area and putting food into the cooler. Their pastry chef would handle desserts at the other end of the line. Miles had just finished and tossed his towel into the wash bin when Stacey, one of the servers, popped her head into the kitchen.

“Hey, Miles,” she said. “There’s a guy out here asking about you. I told him I wasn’t sure if you’d gone home or not.”

“Who is he?” Miles asked.

“He wouldn’t tell me his name, but he’s kind of cute, dark hair. Seems a little intense, though.”

Unfortunately, that description could fit any number of people, including both Dallas and Reyes. “Is he Latino?”

“Nope, average frat-boy-style white guy.”

Miles swallowed back rising bile. “Can you tell him I’ve already clocked out and left?”

“Definitely.” Stacey disappeared.

He was ready to clock out and go, but he fussed around the kitchen, helping other cooks complete their nightly clean-up. He clocked out, then hung around for another thirty minutes to be safe, before exiting the rear employee door.

No one else was in the parking lot except for two dishwashers having a smoke, so Miles found his car and got inside. Normally, he’d take the bus instead of bothering to drive, but last night’s texts had unsettled him, and his own car felt safer than public transportation.

Then he noticed the piece of paper stuck under his windshield wiper. Miles looked around several times but didn’t see anyone nearby. He opened his door to snatch up the paper, then hit the locks right away. His fingers shook a bit as he unfolded it.

“You can’t avoid me forever, Miles. You’re mine.”

Miles balled up the note and tossed it into the back seat. “Fuck that.” He started his car, then began backing out. One wheel thumped weirdly, though, and his car wasn’t quite even. Alarmed, Miles got out and circled the vehicle, only to find the front passenger tire flat.

“Fuck my life.”

He’d changed his own tire before, so that wasn’t the issue. His issue was the quiet, isolated private lot, and the fact that it was late at night, and his ex was quietly stalking him again. He could risk putting on the spare, or he could leave the car until morning and take the bus. It wasn’t like the owners would have him towed.

He compromised by asking one of the dishwashers for help, lying about not having changed a tire before. Juan rolled his eyes and agreed to assist after insisting Miles pay attention so he could do it himself the next time. Miles kept one eye on Juan and the other on the parking lot, mindful of their surroundings. But he felt safer next to a big, burly guy and a tire iron. When Juan was finished, Miles offered him ten bucks for the assist, but Juan waved him off.

“First lesson is free, amigo,” Juan said with a friendly grin. “Just don’t do it again.”

“Thanks, man.”

Miles made a mental note to hit up a mechanic he trusted to look at his tire. Hopefully whatever was wrong could be patched, because he couldn’t afford a new tire right now.

You could if you weren’t so stubborn and reached out to your damned parents.

Yeah, that was happening the day after never.

He drove home with a weird feeling in the pit of his stomach, half convinced Dallas was following him. He’d never given Dallas his current address, never invited him over, but this could be new-level stalking shit.

Moving to Garrett is the best thing to do. Probably changing my number again, too.

In that moment, Miles made the decision to take the job. Once he moved, he’d change his number and cut off all ties to San Francisco. Start over with a new job and a new life.

Wes was in the living room working on his laptop when Miles got home. He still spent the bulk of his weeknights at the apartment, because Wes and Mack didn’t have a lot of privacy on the ranch—not while Mack was still rooming with Reyes. But that would all change in a few weeks, when their house was finished.

Sometimes Miles found it hard to believe that his flighty, flirtatious roommate was settling down and building a freaking house with his partner.

At least one of us is happy.

“Hey,” Wes said. “I had Avery copy me on his food research. Do you know people ate something called Vinegar pie? That sounds awful.”

“I doubt it’s all vinegar,” Miles replied, “but yeah, that sounds kind of gross.” He was also slightly intrigued by what else was in that pie. “And I’m glad you got that stuff from Avery, but before I officially say yes to the job, I have questions.”

Wes shut his laptop and leaned forward, eyes gleaming with excitement. “Ask away.”

“First of all, where would I live? The motel?”

“I’ve already leveraged Mack on that one. With him moving in with me, it leaves Reyes with an extra bunk in their cabin. We’ll just swap roommates, so you don’t have to shuttle to and from the motel, or rent a room from a stranger in town.”

“But aren’t those cabins one room?” Without a locked door to put between himself and his roommate? No way.

“Yeah, they’re one living space, but you know Reyes, so you won’t be bunking with a stranger. And you’re my BFF, so if he ever did anything to scare you, Mack would beat the crap out of him.”

Wes’s promise made him smile, because it was an empty threat. Reyes wouldn’t hurt or scare him, but living with the guy? His secret crush? The super-hot, super-quiet Latino cowboy he’d befriended this past year, who seemed to have as many demons as Miles?

Good God, that was a bad idea.

“Is Arthur okay with it?” Miles asked. “Mack’s his grandson, but Arthur is still the ranch owner.”

“Yes, Arthur’s cool with it, and you can either ride up to the ghost town on a horse, or you can borrow an ATV from the shed. Believe me, I’ve thought of everything.”

“You said the ghost town opens in April, but the apartment lease isn’t up until June.”

“So sublet it until the lease runs out,” Wes replied. His smug grin told Miles he knew he’d won. “Or just pay the rent, like I am. It’s not like you’ll have to pay on the cabin, so think of all the money you’ll save on rent and utilities.”

God, that was too good of an argument to pass up. Miles could actually have a small savings, instead of living paycheck to paycheck and subsisting on boxed mac-and-cheese. “Fine. I accept. I’ll move to Garrett.”

Wes let out a soft whoop and bounced on his toes. “Yes! Thank you! This is going to be awesome.”

“When do you need me?”

“Well, Avery has already done a ton of research on the food of the time period. You can plan and test recipes while you give your notice here, but I’d plan to move by the end of March. That way you can settle in and get used to your new kitchen, Chef Miles.”

Miles grinned. “I kind of like the sound of that.” Another thought struck him. “Is Reyes okay with us living together? I don’t want to upset him if he was looking forward to a single cabin.”

“Reyes is the coolest cat in the universe, and yes, Mack asked before I said anything to you about it. Reyes likes you.” Wes wiggled his eyebrows. “He did come to your rescue with Dallas, after all.”

The mention of that night, and Dallas in general, made Miles’s stomach sour. Running into Dallas again last November had been nearly as traumatizing as the reason why Miles was avoiding him in the first place. Dallas had sneaked up behind him at Club Base, where Miles was hanging out with his and Wes’s mutual friends, and he’d practically dragged Miles away to yell at him for not answering his calls or texts. Miles had been terrified of his former best friend and occasional lover. He’d always been possessive of Miles, but this was next-level crazy.

Miles had been super grateful when Mack’s best friend, Reyes Caldero, stepped in and put an end to it all. And whatever Reyes said to Dallas, the texts and calls had ended.

“Stop,” Miles said, not in the mood for this sort of teasing. “Reyes was being a friend, and it worked, because Dallas hasn’t bothered me in months.”

Until last night.

“Good,” Wes said. “If he does, let me know, so I can sic Mack and Reyes on him.”

Miles conjured up a believable smile. “I will.” A yawn caught hold, and Miles tried to hide it behind his hands. God, he was exhausted.

“Hey, why are you home so late, anyhow?”

Miles shrugged like it didn’t matter, but his pulse still jumped with anxiety. “Had a flat, so I needed to put the spare on.”

“Really?” Wes gave him his full attention, and Miles realized what he’d said. “Why did you drive? You never do that.”

“Felt like it.” Miles strode into the kitchen and pulled an open bottle of wine out of the fridge. Tonight was a glass of wine night. Maybe two.

“You felt like driving eight blocks to your job instead of taking the bus?” Wes had followed him into the kitchen, damn it. “No other reason?”

“What other reason is there?” Miles tried to keep his hand steady as he poured wine into a glass. Success there, but he hadn’t modulated his voice enough, and now Wes was openly suspicious.

“Miles, I know you, and I can tell when you’re keeping something from me. Did Dallas call you again?”

He put the wine bottle down too hard, his good mood over the new job gone. “Fucking yes, okay?”

Wes crowded into his personal space, anger in his blue eyes. “What did he say?”

No way was Miles admitting to the note on his car or his mysterious visitor at work. “He texted me once, okay? He asked if I was ready to talk to him again.”

“What did you say?”

“I ignored him like I always do. I’m fine, and I don’t need you meddling.”

“Hey, I’m trying to look out for my friend. The first moment I met Dallas I knew he was bad news, and I don’t know what went down on your birthday but you’ve been different ever since. I flat-out don’t trust the guy, and I’m worried about you.” Genuine fear had crept in over Wes’s initial anger.

Miles hated it when his friends worried about him. “Look, I know you don’t like Dallas, and yeah, he can be a little overbearing, but he’s not a violent guy. I’ve never seen him get into a fight or hit anyone in his life.”

Violence isn’t just hitting, and you know it.

Wes crossed his arms. “He grabbed you at the club.”

“Grabbing my arm is a far cry from hitting me. I promise, if this escalates, I’ll tell you.”


“You’d better,” Wes said. “Ugh. For the record, now I’m extra-super-glad you’re moving to Garrett. You can leave that creep behind once and for all.”

“Yes, I can.”

More and more, quitting his job at the dinner theater and hauling his life out to the ranch was sounding like his best plan ever.

Only six or so weeks, and I’ll be free of Dallas forever.

Except for in his nightmares. Those he always carried with him.