“Don’t start. I still have four months left in Australia before I come home.” James nodded to a passerby as he strolled through the Mandarra Horticultural Show. His father continued to rattle in his ear about his lack of responsibility. James spotted a crowd gathered around a combine. “Look, me joining your firm was your idea, not mine. I just want a little time to myself. There’s still a lot of Australia that I haven’t experienced and I’ll be home as soon as I do. Bye, Dad.”
James ended the call and stuck the phone into his pocket. He followed the crowd and, like the rest of the people, worshiped at the foot of the shiny green combine. He realized that his jaw was hanging open and snapped it shut. The older man next to him elbowed him in the ribs.
“Beaut, ain’t she?”
“She certainly is,” James said, glancing at the short, balding farmer. “You from around here?”
The man nodded, never taking his eyes off the piece of farm equipment. “I’m a Doud. My people helped settle this area. I can tell by your accent, though, you’re a Yank.”
“Yes, sir. I’m from Kansas. Been down here wandering your beautiful country for the last two months. I was hoping to find a bit of work. Do you know of anyone around here hiring cheap farm labor?”
Mr. Doud shook his head before finally tearing his gaze away from the piece of equipment to eye James. “You don’t look much like a farmer.”
James didn’t know what to say to that. “Yeah, I know, but I grew up spending summers on a farm and I’ve always loved the work.” He had an extended stay visitor visa, which allowed him to stay in the country for up to twelve months, but it didn’t allow him to work. Jamie prayed he could find some sort of manual labor that could be paid in cash.
“Only one around here that would be able to do any hiring would be Lochie McBride. He always needs help, but he’s too stubborn to hire any. You could give it a go, though.”
* * * *
With his head tipped back toward the blazing sun, Lachlan took off his Akubra hat and wiped his brow with the ever-present rag from his pocket. He resettled his hat as he regarded the blue heeler at his feet. “Going to be another scorcher today.”
The heeler jumped into the back of the ute as Lachlan climbed in. He headed toward the far paddock in hopes that he could start harvesting in the next couple of days. Without help, he’d be working sunup to sundown as it was. Lachlan cursed as he thought of one more harvest alone. He should’ve been used to it by now. He’d been on his own for going on ten years. Thinking about his dad had him cursing again. “Dammit.” Stop feeling bloody sorry for yourself. As he drove along the graveled road, he looked from side to side. As far as his eyes could see, the once colorful flowers were turning brown. It never ceased to amaze him how sad the flowers appeared when they were ready to be harvested. It was almost as if they hung their heads in shame at their vanishing beauty. Despite the lack of rain throughout most of the season, it seemed he’d grown a damn good crop. The thought of trying to harvest alone ate at him. He’d tried hiring help a time or two over the years, but he simply couldn’t stand laziness. His dad had been hard on him growing up, but he’d made Lochie into one hell of a farmer.
He’d heard from everyone around him that he’d become a selfish bastard and he was starting to believe it. How had he let himself get to this point? He was lonely. So what. A lot of people in the world were lonely. Didn’t mean he had to take his mood out on everyone around him.
As he drove, the suffocating air inside the ute prompted him to shrug out of his shirt, leaving him in only a navy blue singlet. He wiped his face and chest with the shirt before tossing it into the back. He reached over his shoulder to rub Blue’s ear. “You like me, don’t you?”
Blue licked his ear in reply.
Lochie rounded the bend and spotted a man standing in the middle of the road. “What the…?” He slowed and stopped several yards from the bloke. The large pack at the traveler’s feet told him the guy was a tourist. “Looking for work, no doubt,” he said under his breath as he turned off the engine. The stranger started toward him and smiled. Lochie’s breath hitched. “Bloody hell.”
He’d never seen a more gorgeous specimen than the one who stood in front of his battered ute. The guy was young but not too young, with black hair just long enough to curl in shiny ringlets around his face. He had the face of a god, with piercing blue eyes surrounded by long, black lashes. When Lochie took in the rest of the stranger, he had to bite back an appreciative moan. He’d always preferred a lean sinewy body to the more buffed, like his own. Lochie was brought out of his lustful haze when the guy waved and spoke.
“Hi. I’m sorry I was standing in the middle of the road. Didn’t figure a whole lot of traffic came through here.” The stranger walked to the driver’s door. He put his hand through the open window toward Lochie. “Name’s James Pattrick. Someone told me I might be able to find a bit of work at the farm down the road.”
This close, the guy was even more breathtaking. Lochie inhaled and reached for James’ hand. “Lachlan McBride. If you’ve come searching for work, I’d be the one to talk to.” He motioned toward the field of sunflowers. “You ever harvested before?” He hesitantly released James’ hand.
James rested his arms on the open window sill and gazed over his shoulder at the crop. “Not sunflowers. I’ve spent a lot of time on my granddad’s farm in western Kansas, though. I’ve helped with other crops. The last time Granddad planted sunflowers I was in college and couldn’t get away for the summer. He planted them more for soil conditioning, though.”
James smiled and Lochie noticed the twin dimples in his cheeks. Heaven help me. The man’s a wet dream. Lochie wasn’t sure if he should scare the kid off for his own good or take hold and keep him forever. “How long do you plan on staying in Oz? My crop still needs another week or so, but I have plenty of work to keep us both busy until then, if you have the time.”
Those dimples flashed again. “I promised my dad I’d be home in four months. He says it’s time I grew up and got a respectable job.” James shrugged and Lochie couldn’t help but notice the clearly defined muscles under his tight T-shirt. “Dad has his heart set on me joining his law practice.”
Lochie narrowed his eyes. “You a lawyer? Don’t really have a use for them out here.” Too bad.
Chuckling, James shook his head. “Don’t really have much use for them myself either, which is why I’m not back in Kansas City right now.” James looked over his shoulder at the field of sunflowers. “The happiest times of my life were spent on my granddad’s farm. Just believing at the end of the day I’d actually accomplished something.” James stared at his hands. “Just working with my hands and knowing that I didn’t hurt anyone in the process. That’s the kind of life I’d like to live.”
Staring at the tan, long-fingered hands in front of him, Lochie almost moaned again. The smooth skin would soon be blistered if Lochie hired him. But he knew just what the kid was saying. He’d been an engineer before he’d quit his job in Sydney to take over the family property after his father’s death. “You know how to drive a combine?” He looked from James’ hands to his face. He was pleased to see another smile.
“Pay’s not much. Room and board. A little left over to go into town on Saturday night. Off Sundays.”
James started bouncing. “Sounds good, sir.”
“Name’s Lachlan but you can call me boss or Lochie.” Lochie reached over and opened the passenger door. “Get your pack and we’ll give it a burl.”
James looked at him kind of funny and bounced over to get his backpack. Once he tossed the pack into the back of the ute, he climbed onto the passenger seat. James bit his lip and glanced at Lochie. “What’s a ‘burl’?”
Lochie laughed for the first time in what felt like ages. He reached over and ruffled James’ soft black curls. “It means we’ll try it, kid.”
Smiling, James nodded. “Not a kid, though. Be twenty-seven on my next birthday.” He cleared his throat. “You?”
“Forty-one, so you’re still a kid to me.” He softened the remark with a grin.
* * * *
James followed Lochie up the porch steps while trying his best not to stare at the muscular ass in front of him. “I’ve been staying in hostels, when I can find them, but I’ve spent quite a few nights sleeping on park benches, so an actual bed will feel like heaven.”
Lochie opened the screen door. “You low on money?”
“Depends on what you consider low. I have enough to live like a king for a week or two, but I know the further I can stretch my cash, the longer I’ll get to stay.” James eased past Lochie and entered the house first. He stopped in the living room and wasn’t at all surprised by the comfortable yet well-worn interior. The place appeared clean even though a fine layer of dust seemed to coat every surface, but what else could be expected with the dry conditions in the area?
Lochie let the screen door slap shut. “Follow me.”
James trailed Lochie down a short, narrow hallway.
“You can bed down in here.” Lochie pushed open a door before taking a step back, allowing James to precede him. “I’ll get you a set of clean sheets.” He gestured to an old armoire. “That should be empty except for a jacket or two, so feel free to use it.”
James set his backpack on the full-size bed. “Thanks. This is great.” In the months that he’d been traveling, not once had he fully unpacked.
“There’s a washer on the back porch. Line behind the house to dry.” Lochie rubbed the back of his neck as he stared at the worn area rug. “I’ll give you time to get settled. Come find me in the barn when you’re ready to get your hands dirty.”
James glanced down at himself. He had his best set of clothes on, but after a few months of wearing the same three outfits day after day, best was a relative term. “No more than I have, it shouldn’t take me long.”
Lochie nodded. “Sounds good. There’s an extra thermos under the kitchen sink you can use. You’ll need to make sure you stay hydrated in this heat.”
“Okay. Thanks.” James waited for Lochie to say something else, but after an awkward silence, he opened his pack.
“Right. I’ll get back to work,” Lochie finally said.
“Be there in a few minutes.” James pulled out his oldest pair of jeans, leaving his favorite shorts buried in the bottom. He doubted he’d ever have the nerve to wear them around Lochie. He wasn’t even sure why the hell he’d brought them on the trip because, thus far, they’d stayed folded in the very bottom of his backpack.
When Lochie left the room without another word, James sighed in relief. His attraction to Lochie had been immediate, and if James didn’t watch himself, he’d end up getting his ass kicked. That said, he couldn’t think of a better way to spend the time he had left in Australia than working with his hands alongside one of the most gorgeous men he’d ever set eyes on.
As promised, it only took James ten minutes to change, put his few belongings away and fill the small thermos with cool water before he was walking toward the weathered barn. Blue met him halfway with an enthusiastic greeting. “Hey there.”
James reached down and scratched the dog several times. “Time to get to work, boy.” He continued across the expanse of packed earth that separated the house from the other outbuildings.
After a quick check, James found the barn empty. “Lochie?”
“Around back,” Lochie called.
James made his way around the outside of the barn, coming to an abrupt halt when he got his first look at Lochie’s combine. He whistled as he stared up at the Allis-Chalmers Gleaner C towering over him. “Nineteen-sixty-five?”
Lochie climbed down from the cab. “Close. Sixty-seven.” He pulled a rag out of his back pocket. “How’d you know?”
“My granddad collected miniature replicas of farm equipment. He had a room that was full of display cases that he built. Kinda sucked that he wouldn’t let me play with them, but he did let me open the cases to get a better look at ’em.” James grinned at the memory of spending hours over Christmas break studying the toys.
“You think you can drive it?” Lochie asked.
“Sure. Might take me a few minutes to get reacquainted, but I’ll be fine.” James thought about the masterpiece of machinery he’d fallen in love with at the farm show. Not only was the cab filled with air conditioning vents and a kickass stereo, but the ergonomic leather seat had lumbar support and ventilation. Although Lochie’s combine appeared to be in good condition, James knew it offered very few creature comforts. No matter. He’d have plenty of time to sit his ass in a comfortable leather chair once he was stuck behind a desk for twelve hours a day.
Lochie rubbed his palm across the faded red paint. “I know she doesn’t look like much, but she runs well enough to get the job done.”
James knew that a new combine could cost as much as a house, so he understood the need to hold onto the equipment that was already owned for as long as possible.
“I did put a new fan in the cab, though,” Lochie added.
“Sounds good.” James rubbed his hands together. “What do you need me to do?”
Lochie’s gaze seemed to zero in on James’ well-worn sneakers. “I don’t suppose you have a pair of boots?”
James bit his bottom lip as he shook his head. Although he hated the thought of buying a pair of boots he’d only wear for a short time, he’d be saving money by staying with Lochie and making a little by working. “Is there a place close by where I can pick up a pair?”
“Yeah, but we might check the storage closet first. There’s probably an old pair in there that’ll fit. Fact is, I can’t let you work without the protection.” Lochie shoved his rag into his back pocket. “Follow me.”
Following close behind Lochie, James marveled at the man’s body. Perfection. He wondered what his legs would look like wrapped around the glorious specimen in front of him. Holy fuck. How am I going to do this?