Hot damn, what more could a country boy want? Bass Pro Shop is finally opening in Tennessee. Nick plans to check out all twelve indoor acres chock-full of hunting, fishing, and boating in the Memphis Pyramid on the Mississippi River.
City boy Sandy wonders yet again how he let himself get talked into attending a grand opening for a hick hunting store. His geeky heart prefers the energy of the city. Little does he know all that is going to change due to a freakishly tall glass elevator—and Nick, the high-school crush who’s suddenly taking a second look at him.
A moment of panic while trapped in the elevator leads to a spark neither expected. Getting out is the least of the challenges they’ll face if they want to try to put their differences aside and find out if love is possible between a city boy and a country boy.
States of Love: Stories of romance that span every corner of the United States.
AHHHHH WHHAAAAAHH whahhh whhhhaaaa!
“Oh my God, is that a woman screaming?”
Nick barely resisted rolling his eyes. Could the wedding guests not tell the sound came from the giant bird currently displaying his magnificent feathers as he strutted? The peacock did a little dance, squawked again, and then stopped.
Oh. Oh damn, that’s not good. It turned its head, almost as if searching for him. He swore he saw an evil gleam in its eyes. Okay, now what? He tried to sidle farther back out of the way, but the tiny woman who stood at five feet nothing even in those lethally spiked heels clamped onto his elbow.
He winced. Jesus, she’s got a grip on her. He wasn’t sure which of the two—her or the ornate wall mount—concerned him most. Yeah, right. Nick eyed the ornery bird. Mister Peacock and he had been in an ongoing battle for supremacy for the last several years.
Damn. What was the menace on two legs doing now? Oh fuck, it spotted me. It made a funny sound, then shook its body. If he didn’t know better, he would’ve sworn it smiled when it spotted him. It certainly tossed its head as it… oh, shit.
The wedding coordinator grabbed the back of Nick’s shirt and yanked, hard. What the hell did she eat for breakfast? He stumbled backward, and only sheer luck kept him from going down on his ass. The peacock squawked again—only this time it sounded like laughter.
“Your peacock just shit all over the runner! The runner that leads to the trellis! That’s where the pastor is going to marry them!” she whispered furiously.
While he thought that lovely shade of fire-engine red was an interesting color for her, he was a little concerned. He didn’t have time for yet another apocalyptic temper tantrum.
As tempted as he was to cover his ears, he was afraid that would get them boxed by Mrs. Big City Wedding Planner. Why didn’t the lady comprehend wild animals were wild and tended to shit whenever the urge hit? Although he did wonder if it did that just to spite him.
“Both Rob and I tried to explain to you that could happen, Mrs. Smith,” Nick whispered fiercely back to her. “Several times over, as a matter of fact, and in several different ways.”
Fat lot of good it did. The woman refused to budge. The bride’s colors were the same beautiful iridescent blues and greens that were in the peacock feathers, and she just had to have a peacock walking down the runner before her.
Rob, or Robert Gatlin, was actually the owner’s son. Dr. Ernie Gatlin had recently retired from his medical practice, and he and the missus planned to do some traveling, so he’d turned operations of the farm completely over to Robert.
Nick scratched his head as he stared at the steaming pile of shit on the stark white runner, as did several horrified wedding guests who’d already been seated. “What do you want me to do?”
“Go get it!” Mrs. Smith exclaimed as quietly as she could.
“Um, okay. The shi… I mean the poop, right? Ah….” Nick took a step back from the wedding planner, whose eyes were bulging. “Do you have anything I can use to—”
The sound that came out of the tiny woman next to him made his hair stand up. Which was quite a feat, considering his hair was short. Man, even the peacock hadn’t sounded that deranged.
“O-oh, okay, then. Wow.” He assumed she meant for him to get the poop, but now he wasn’t so sure. “Ah, guess not. I’m open to suggestions, just in case, you know, you got any.”
Mrs. Smith fanned her face, her eyes promising death, as she hysterically tapped the headphones she wore. “Art? Art? Are you there? Come in. Come in. Oh my God, sweetie, please answer.”
Seeing an opportunity to escape, he edged away from the wedding planner.
Mrs. Smith grabbed Nick by his shirt again and jerked him down to her level. “You listen to me, young man. Go get that runner out of there right now. That bride’s wedding gown cost ten thousand dollars, and I am not having her walk across bird shit just to get to the altar. Ten thousand dollars. Do you understand that?”
Nick gulped. Ten thousand? Who the hell spent that kind of money on a dress? Was the bride insane along with her wedding planner? No, he didn’t understand that. Not for clothing. Now, for a four-wheeler? Oh yeah, he’d drop that kind of cash on a four-wheeler in a heartbeat.
Once Mrs. Smith released him, Nick raced out there and shooed the bird out of the way. He quickly removed the runner, hissing only slightly when Mister Peacock pecked him on the ass. Damn pain-in-the-ass bird. He was going to pluck the bastard clean one day. He stood, and the peacock pranced out of his way.
Art, the guy Mrs. Smith had been harping at on her headset, magically appeared right behind Nick, laying down a new runner. This runner wasn’t as spiffy as the first one, but it was missing a very important element in its design—peacock poop.
Nick pulled Mister Peacock’s favorite treat out of his pocket and held it out. Luck was on Nick’s side. The birdbrain followed Nick back to its pen. He threw the treat inside, and Mister Peacock followed after it, no problem. Of course. It preened, looking entirely too pleased with itself. Stupid bird was going to be the death of him, if he didn’t kill it first. Okay, he was joking. Sort of. Maybe.
“Blasted pain-in-the-ass bird,” he muttered as the first sounds of the wedding march drifted to him.
“Ahhhhh whhaaaaahh whahhh whhhhaaaa!”
“Right back at you, you overgrown dust buster.” Nick sincerely hoped no more birds shit on this damn event.
Springtime was their busy time for weddings. The dogwoods were in bloom all over the farm, the weather hadn’t turned melt-your-face-off hot yet, and the air carried the fragrant scent of flowers. Even though it was just the end of April, he was still sweating buckets.
The standing joke was that if you didn’t like Memphis weather, just wait thirty minutes and it would change. They’d already had a few days with the temperature pushing ninety degrees. The humidity wasn’t bad yet, but it was coming. By August the humidity would be as thick as his aunt Sally’s soup and just as deadly.
HOURS LATER the wedding party left. All that remained was to clean up the barn that had been converted into a reception area for weddings. He’d been at the farm since seven o’clock that morning, just like every morning.
Now it was seven o’clock in the evening, and he was past ready to leave. It was Saturday too, so he didn’t have to work tomorrow. After dumping the last of the trash, he clocked out and hurried to his truck. So help him God, if someone called his name he was totally pretending he couldn’t hear them.
He took the back roads home, lost in thought. That guy Art really shook him up and brought back a lot of memories he hadn’t expected. Art was a little below average in height, on the slender side, ridiculously geeky, and had set Nick’s gaydar off. It was pinging all over the place. He didn’t have a problem with Art being gay. Quite the opposite, in fact.
Unfortunately it had taken him all through high school to figure out that he not only liked boys but to accept it. Being captain of the football team hadn’t exactly been conducive to his sexuality either. When he came out, there’d been a backlash. The only good thing was his parents didn’t freak out or act like he was going to hell.
Nick dragged his mind out of the past as he pulled into his driveway. His black Lab, Rosco, leaped happily around his truck, barking madly. What more could a guy ask for? He had a good job he loved, was renting-to-own his home, and had an overly energetic puppy greeting him before he could get out of the vehicle. Life was good.
So why did he often catch himself wishing there was an overly energetic boyfriend standing in the door waiting to greet him? Not just any guy, but a guy named Sandy. Unfortunately that boat sailed long ago, and he had nobody to blame but himself.
He spent an hour playing in the backyard with Rosco until the puppy’s tongue was dragging on the ground. Satisfied he’d worn the little ball of energy out, they went inside. Rosco made a beeline toward his water dish. After drinking all he could and splashing the rest all over the kitchen floor, he flopped down in the den and passed out.
Nick tossed his keys onto the kitchen table, cleaned up the water, and refilled the water dish. After drinking all that water, Rosco would need to go back outside and potty before he left. Not that putting the little scamp in the backyard meant he’d stay there.
No matter what Nick did, somehow Rosco managed to get out whenever he pleased. Pausing as he walked through the den, he turned on a lamp. Rosco whimpered happily as he twitched and batted one of those huge paws in the air, making Nick chuckle.
He wondered what Rosco was dreaming. Sighing, he glanced at the couch. What he wouldn’t give to plop down and mindlessly surf through the channels. God, he was tired. Maybe a hot shower would make him feel better—or knock him out completely. After dragging his tired ass to the bathroom, he stripped, tossed his dirty clothes in the hamper, and trudged into the shower.
He’d just stepped onto the bathmat when the smoky voice of his favorite country singer wailed from the bedroom. “Dammit.”
Wrapping the towel around his waist, he hurried out of the bathroom. That was his best friend’s ringtone. Snatching the cell off his desk, he answered. “Hey, man, what’s up?”
“Hey! You just get off work?” Houston asked.
“Actually about an hour ago. There was a wedding out at the farm, and things ran a little later than we thought.”
“Well, that sucks. Is this the wedding with that wedding planner who insisted on having that crazy-ass peacock—”
“Oh my God, yes, and let me tell you what that crazy-ass peacock did. It shit on the runner. Do you hear me, man? He took a big dump right there. I swear, he did it just to get me in trouble with that equally insane wedding planner.”
“I’ll never understand why you think that bird is out to get you.”
Nick huffed. “That’s all part of its evil plan, don’t you see? Why does nobody else see this? One day that bird’s going to take over the world and you guys are going to wish you listened.”
“Anyway, I have to admit watching Miss Big City Wedding Planner turn red was funny.”
“I don’t get you. I saw that chick, and she was hot.”
“If you say so.” Nick wasn’t going to argue the point. “Most of the times I saw her, her eyes were bulging and she was red in the face. I’m all for a bulge, but I prefer it a little lower.”
“Oh, that was bad.” Houston chuckled. “Really bad. Your jokes aren’t usually that lame.”
Houston was one friend who’d stuck with him through all the bad times after Nick outed himself. He’d said more than once he didn’t understand Nick’s attraction to dick, but he was cool with it since that left more girls for him.
“I can tell. Actually, that’s why I called. I was checking to see if we’re still on for tonight,” Houston said.
“Yeah. I should be at the Rack by nine.”
“Sounds good. I’ll see you there.”
Nick disconnected the call and tossed his cell back onto the desk. Since he was dripping all over the floor, he hurried back to the bathroom and toweled off. Then he dried the little pools of water he’d left on his nicely refurbished hardwood floors.
He grabbed a pair of underwear from the dresser, slipped them on, then started searching through his closet for his favorite pair of Levi’s. Both knees were frayed and busted, and other places were so worn they were white. Plus they fit his ass like a glove, not that it mattered.
He wouldn’t be getting lucky tonight—not where they were going—but the jeans were comfortable. The Rack was actually called Mack’s Racks and was a bar with several pool tables and big-screen TVs. They served appetizers too.
Houston’s name was Edward Houston, but he went by his last name. They’d been best friends since middle school. In some ways Houston reminded him of his dog, Rosco: all arms and legs, black hair, and big brown puppy dog eyes. He also had more energy than he knew what to do with. Sometimes Nick envied Houston.
After spending all day working at the farm and then dealing with weddings since it was spring, the last thing he felt like doing was going out. But it was hard to say no to Houston once he got something in his head.
Houston would get this ridiculously sad look in his eyes, pout, and then do this drooping shoulder thing and… yeah. Rosco did that too, and he fell for it every time, just like he did with Houston. Maybe he should just put Houston in the backyard too. Now there was a thought.
Instead he pulled on a tight black knit polo and his fancy black cowboy boots. Since his hair was cut short, it had dried already. After brushing his teeth, he ran his fingers over his jaw. He needed to shave, but he liked the scruffy look, so he decided to leave it. He stopped by the kitchen and chugged an energy drink. Hopefully that would help him keep his eyes open for the next several hours. Once he got to the Rack, he’d eat.
He put Rosco outside. “You know, if I actually found you in the backyard when I get home tonight that would make me really happy. I’m pretty sure that could result in a treat, even. So how about you be a good boy and stay where I put you for once?”
Rosco barked, wagged his tail furiously, and dashed off across the backyard.
“I’m going to take that as agreement!” Nick yelled after the puppy.
All he got in return was another bark.
He grinned as he went back inside and picked his keys up from the kitchen table. Even though the sun had set and it had cooled off, he didn’t need a jacket. A quick check of the time as he walked to his truck showed it was only eight thirty. Perfect. He should get to the Rack with plenty of time to spare.
He started his truck and just sat for a moment listening to the deep purr of his pipes. That always gave him a little thrill. He’d bought it used last year and was proud of it. It was a jacked-up black 2008 Chevy Silverado with KCs mounted on a roll cage bar in the back of the truck. The interior was tan leather, but he’d put camo seat covers on so the leather would last.
He needed to wash it, but that was kind of pointless. The road to the farm was gravel. Some parts of the farm had nothing more than dirt roads, so keeping the truck clean was impossible.
He turned the radio on as he left the house, and a commercial touting all the benefits of having a wedding at Lake View Farms played. That got him to thinking about the wedding he’d just left, which of course made him think of the wedding planner’s helper, Art, again. He knew why the guy kept coming to mind. He reminded him of Sandy.
Lord, Sandy had had a huge crush on Nick all through high school. Oh, he was very subtle about it, but Nick had known. It was hard to miss those big, adorable brown eyes that followed him relentlessly.
Then, in the tenth grade, Sandy had been assigned by the English teacher to help tutor Nick. Sandy was one of the cutest, sweetest geeks Nick had ever seen. Sandy flipped every switch he had, but he buried those feelings. At the time he’d been terrified to examine what he felt, so he ignored it.
They didn’t hang out, since he was a jock and Sandy was a geek, but Nick made it a point to speak to Sandy in the hallways and other places. His actions made it clear Sandy was off limits. Word spread quickly that if anyone messed with Sandy, they answered to Nick.
It was because of Sandy that Nick finally ended up coming out. They were seniors, football season was over, and they were celebrating their last day of school. One of his jock buddies had slammed Sandy into a row of metal rockers, and Nick saw the whole thing.
Nick snapped when he heard Sandy cry out in pain. He confronted Keith, words turned into slurs, and things blew up when Keith demanded to know why Nick was defending the fag. Somehow Nick went from defending the fag to admitting he was gay too.
He and Keith ended up in a brawl in the school parking lot by the field house with half the senior class watching. Fortunately Coach broke it up. Sandy tried to thank Nick right after the fight ended, but Nick was still furious, hurting from a couple of hard right hooks, and quite frankly horrified by what he had just done.
He’d snapped at Sandy, and the hurt on Sandy’s face only added to the brew of unpleasantness that was boiling in Nick. Sandy stiffly turned away and never spoke to Nick again—and it was all his fault. But to be fair, he had just turned his life upside down and wasn’t dealing well with the fact. The principal had threatened not to let them walk at graduation, but nothing came of it.
That had been five years ago. Since then he’d worked like a dog until he was the second most important person at Lake View Farms. Robert depended on him to pretty much run the place. Nick enjoyed the responsibility and had absolutely no trouble telling people older than him what to do.
Over the years he’d learned so many things, like how to build a deck, how to care for horses, how to deal with distributors for whatever they needed at the farm, how to oversee and operate special events. He was kept busy, so much so he didn’t have much of a social life. Living in a small rural town didn’t help.
If he wanted to hook up, he had to go to Memphis, which he hated. There was too much traffic, nothing but concrete everywhere, and a crime rate that made him glad he lived in a small town. Give him acres of woodlands to the concrete jungle any day. He got in, and he got out—kind of like his hookups.
Occasionally he saw Sandy around town when Sandy came home to visit his parents, but it was always at a distance. From what he heard, Sandy had moved to Memphis and was a manager at one of the major electronic chain stores. He shuddered. That was the very definition of hell to him. He couldn’t imagine having to dress up and work inside all day.
Rumor was Sandy worked on computers on the side and was actually quite good at repairing them. That didn’t surprise Nick. Even in high school, Sandy had earned the reputation of being magic with computers.
Nick took the turnoff to the Rack and parked. It was almost nine and the place was packed. He sighed as he got out and locked his truck. Even from the parking lot, he heard the country music blaring from the speakers. He’d play a couple games of pool, shoot the breeze for a little while, and then take his tired ass back home. He was only twenty-three. When had he gotten old?
He walked inside. It didn’t take long to spot Houston, even in the crowd. Houston was sitting at a little round table off to the side watching one of the big-screen TVs and drinking a beer. Nick made his way over and sat down.
“Packed tonight, isn’t it?”
“Yeah, it is. I didn’t see you come in,” Houston said.
A waitress appeared and took Nick’s order. He asked for a beer and an extra-large order of barbecue nachos.
“Played any yet?” Nick nodded at the pool table.
“A game or two. Nobody here really as good as you.”
They talked for a little while until the waitress brought his appetizer and beer.
“By the way, got any plans tomorrow?”
“Outside of sleeping in? Nope,” Nick said. “Why?”
“The new Bass Pro is opening in the Memphis Pyramid tomorrow.”
“I vaguely remember hearing something about that.” Nick bit into a chip covered in cheese and barbecued chicken. “This week’s been a nightmare, and I forgot about it. So it opens tomorrow, huh?”
“Yep. You want to go? They got this really cool glass elevator, a couple of restaurants, a bowling alley, and even a place to spend the night. It’s some sort of fancy hotel in the upper part of the Pyramid. I think it’s called Big Cypress Lodge.”
“You know restaurants usually suck the first couple of days after they open, right? They haven’t had the time to get the bugs worked out yet.”
“You got anything else going on?” Houston helped himself to a chip. “If you don’t want to go Sunday, we can go Monday.”
“I’m sure one day’s going to be enough time to work all the bugs out.” Nick sipped his beer. His off days were usually Sunday and Monday.
“Come on, man.”
“You’re going to nag me until I give in, aren’t you?”
“Fine. Fine, we’ll go,” Nick said. “We’re taking my truck too. Yours always looks like a homeless man’s been living in it.
“Funny. Pick me up around noon. I can…. Hold that thought. Shit, that’s Cherie. When did she get back in town? I… my God, she’s even hotter than I remember. I’ll be right back.”
Nick sighed as he ate. So much for sleeping late tomorrow.