Papa's Boy is the third book in the Morning Report series. Slighter darker in tone than the others, but with resolution for the the men of the Lost Cow Ranch and their friends.
When Ray Sloane tires of the men in his usual club, he finds himself in the Pink Palm, an inauspiciously named spit-and-sawdust dive, not the sort of place an elementary school teacher and pastor’s assistant should be seen in. On the other hand, Ray needs a fresh face. But what he gets is a closeted, desperately unhappy divorcé named Zeke.
Losing his teaching job and his kids has left Zeke bitter and in denial about his sexuality, but Ray is determined to get under his skin. Just as Zeke starts to relax, life interferes with Ray’s plans: Lee, the teenage organist from St. Mark's, tells his parents that he was abused as a teenager by a prominent congregation member from his old church, and Ray becomes the target of bullies at school and has to worry about his own job. With the specter of what happened to Zeke hanging over him, Ray must protect Lee and his own reputation, all while trying to convince Zeke that he doesn’t need to run away when their relationship grows more intense.
Morning Report Series
Excerpt:LORD, we have a lot of work to do, so if you’d be so kind as to make this easy, we’d be really grateful. Amen.”
Ray Sloane arched an eyebrow, watching as the pastor gave his short prayer. “Is that it?” Ray asked.
Noah Taylor looked offended. “What do you mean—is that it?”
“Not much of a prayer, is it? Lord, we’ve got a shitload of work to do, so make it easy. Where are the comments about guiding us with the Holy Spirit and this barn being a mustard seed from which we can grow a strong church?”
“You think you could do better?” Noah huffed, folding his arms across his flannel shirt.
“Better than that? Damn—sorry, Lord—right I could.”
“Everyone’s a critic, Pastor.” Luke Murray, the owner of the Lost Cow Ranch and the ramshackle barn they were currently standing in, grinned at them both. “You can’t get good help these days.”
The pastor frowned at Ray, who, up until a few weeks ago, had been his assistant at St. Mark’s. “My prayer was short and to the point. Now stop criticizing and do something useful.”
Ray raised his eyebrow again. “Like what? What are you expecting me to do? I’m not a cowboy.”
“You can help clear the barn, can’t you? It’ll keep you from getting fat. You’ve been eating too many of Momma’s dinners lately.”
Now it was Ray’s turn to look offended. “I’m not getting fat.” He patted his flat stomach. “Look at that. Solid muscle from all the furniture I’ve been moving over the summer.”
“Muscle?” Noah scoffed. “That’s not muscle. That’s grown in a gym. This is muscle.” He lifted up the shirt of the red-haired man next to him, who had stayed out of the argument so far. The man flushed and tried to push down his shirt, but not before Ray had seen the rippling muscles of his abs. Maybe Noah had a point. He couldn’t compete with Tommy Bradley for muscle development.
“Noah, please,” Tom hissed.
Noah smirked at his lover. “Sorry, Tom, didn’t mean to embarrass you. I just wanted to show Tiny here what a real man looks like.”
Ray flipped him off. “You can do that, Noah, when you tell me what a real pastor looks like.”
“Are they always like this, Tommy?” Luke leaned heavily on his cane as he spoke to his ranch hand.
Tommy Bradley pulled a face. “You need to ask that? Come on, it’s Noah! Usually they’re worse.” He ignored the outraged look his lover sent him, and Ray’s sardonic chuckle. “Do you need to get off that leg, boss?”
It was Luke’s turn to grimace. “Yeah, it’s giving me hell today.” Luke had been caught in a flash flood a couple of months previously and damaged his knee joint. “I’d better go back to the house before Shelley calls Simon.”
“She’s a snitch, is she?” Ray asked.
Shelley had been employed to give Luke a hand in the office. It helped Luke and meant she and her new beau, Chuck, another hand, could live together and travel into work at the same time. Luke grumbled about her all the time, but that was only because she never let him get away with working too hard. She never let him get away with shit. Shelley was tight with Simon, Luke’s partner.
“The woman doesn’t know when to keep her mouth shut.” Luke winced as he shifted his weight. “I’ve gotta sit down.” The pain visible on his face, Luke limped away.
Tommy gave Noah a quick kiss and moved to Luke’s side, ignoring his boss’s growl.
Left with just the pastor, Ray couldn’t quite repress a sigh as he looked at the work ahead of him. Luke’s offer to move St. Mark’s church to a barn on the Lost Cow Ranch had seemed like the solution to all their problems, even slightly romantic, after Noah had been removed as pastor of St. Mark’s, but the barn was going to need a lot of work, and a lot of money, to make it fit to be a replacement church.
“It looks impossible, doesn’t it?” Noah asked. “St. Mark’s was an old building, but at least it was habitable.”
Ray hadn’t seen Noah move to his side. “I thought it was gonna be an easy job to fix up the old barn. Now we’re here, it looks like a mountain of work.”
“I felt like that the day of the denominational meeting. I couldn’t see how we were going to up and move an entire church an hour’s drive from St. Mark’s. You were one of the people to convince me it would work.”
“And now?” Ray asked. He was enfolded into a one-arm hug by Noah.
“Now all I can think is this is how our savior came into the world.” Noah hugged Ray even closer. “It’s kinda appropriate that we start again in a barn.”
Ray shook his head.
“What?” Noah gave him a quizzical look.
“You’re such an optimist. That’s part of the reason I’ve stayed with you for so long.”
“If life gives you lemons….” Noah chuckled.
“Oh, please. You don’t make lemonade. You make a sixty-nine sling.”
“What the heck is a sixty-nine sling? It sounds like some sort of sex toy.”
Ray grinned at him. “It’s a lemonade cocktail. You’d be handing out cocktails to all the pessimists, telling them to drink up.”
“Yeah, particularly with a name like that. That reminds me, are you going to the Pacific Saturday night?”
The Pacific was the closest gay club. Ray usually organized a group of the men from St. Mark’s to go at least once a month.
“Not this week. I’m going to try another place. See if it’s worth us all going.”
“Are you going with anybody else?” Noah asked curiously.
Ray shook his head. “Just me.”
Noah shot him a shrewd glance. “Is everything all right, Ray?”
“Everything’s fine. I just want a change of scene, that’s all.”
And a change of men. A couple of years of going to the same bar month after month had left a stale taste in Ray’s mouth. It didn’t take long to work your way through the limited selection of guys, and Ray had moved beyond the need to get his rocks off. So the dry patch he’d been going through was very dry, and being surrounded by couples in love was doing nothing to improve his mood.
Ray was thirty, he was average-looking, and he was lonely. Even as a gay teenager, he’d thought that by the time he was old—thirty was old back then—he would be settled in a relationship. He wasn’t looking for the picket fence, but maybe a dog would be nice.
“Where are you going?”
“The Pink Palm,” he said reluctantly, not surprised to see Noah’s eyes widen.
“Seriously? You’re thinking that some of the others might want to go the Pink Palm?” Noah sounded incredulous.
Even in their part of Texas, the Pink Palm was notorious for all the wrong reasons.
“Ray, I’m not sure it’s a good idea. What about taking the weekend off and going to Austin?”
Ray looked away from the worried expression in Noah’s eyes. “Not this weekend. I haven’t been to the Palm, and I wanna see for myself what all the fuss is about.”
“You still have to drive.”
“I know. There’s a motel close by.”
“Ray….” Noah sounded really concerned but he was interrupted by a voice at the barn door.
“Hey, guys, have you seen Luke?” Simon grinned at them.
“He’s gone to take a load off his leg,” Noah said.
Simon’s grin immediately morphed into a frown. “Was it giving him trouble? I’ll go and find him.”
Ray waited until Simon had left before he said, “Luke is gonna kill you.”
“I know,” Noah agreed, sounding smug.
Ray shook his head. “Why do you enjoy winding Luke up so much? He’s our landlord now. And you’re a pastor.”
“What’s that got to do with it? And quit trying to change the subject. I’m still not happy about you going to the Pink Palm.”
“I know.” Ray was warmed by Noah’s concern, although he wouldn’t have expected anything less. “I need something more than the Pacific. It’s great and all but I haven’t met anyone new in over a year. I need someone… something… edgier.”
“By edgier, you mean more dangerous?” Noah knew Ray only too well. Ray had a need to walk on the wild side, a trait he normally managed to temper. Every so often that need surfaced. Like now—when Ray was lonely and bored.
“I’m not an idiot,” Ray said, a touch impatiently. “I’ll get out at any sign of trouble.”
“I’m going to call you, and you’d better return my calls, or I’m coming to get you.”
“Yes, Mom. What happens if I hook up and forget?”
“Then you’d better be prepared to be interrupted.”
Ray knew Noah would do exactly what he said. “You’re evil, you know that, don’t you?”
Noah patted him on the back. “That’s why you love me.”
“No, I don’t think so,” Ray said. “I leave that to your boy. No one else would put up with you. Hi, Tommy.”
He looked over to see Noah’s boyfriend in the doorway, a storm gathering on his freckled face.
“Is everything okay?” Tommy asked, his eyes fixed on the way Noah was touching Ray.
“This idiot is going to the Pink Palm on Saturday.”
Immediately Tommy’s expression changed. “What on earth for? It’s a dive. You shouldn’t go there.”
Ray sighed. “Thanks for the concern, guys, but seriously, you need to let me make my own decisions.”
“Not if they’re shit ones,” Tommy said bluntly.
“I think I preferred you when you were sweet and innocent,” Ray said.
Noah enclosed Tommy in a hug, tipping Tommy’s hat over his face. “Lay off my cowboy. He’s only trying to prevent you from being a dumbass.”
Ray gave up. “I’ve gotta go. Got an early start tomorrow.” The ranch had rented him a small cottage on the outskirts of the spread, but it meant a longer drive for him to work. Since he’d started back at school, Ray ended up going to bed early as his day started at dark-thirty.
“Don’t think you can run away that easy,” Noah said. “You’re eating at the bunkhouse, remember?” He must have seen the beginning of a refusal on Ray’s face, because he said, “I promise not to mention the Palm to Luke or Simon.”
“You’d better not,” Ray growled.
Because if Luke or Simon heard that Ray was going to the Pink Palm, he’d never hear the end of it. Ray glared at Tommy, who took a step backward.
“I’m saying nothing,” Tommy said, “but if they hear about it, they aren’t gonna be happy.”
“Then they’d better not hear about it.” Ray growled at the two men and stalked out of the barn. He could almost hear the way Noah and Tommy were rolling their eyes in disgust. He headed for his car, totally out of sorts and not wanting an evening of being sociable with Luke and his family. As Ray laid his hand on the door handle of his car, he was hailed from the main house.
“Where’re you going, Ray? Thought you were eating with us this evening.”
Cursing under his breath, he looked up to see Luke sitting on the stoop, his cane resting against his thigh.
“I’ve got a headache. I thought I’d go home and sleep it off,” Ray lied.
“That’s a real shame. Momma was looking forward to talking to you about plans for the Mustard Seed.”
Ray was about to respond when Simon and Pamela, Luke’s mother, came out of the house. He noticed the immediate scowl on Luke’s face.
“Good, you haven’t moved,” Simon said, his tone curt. “We’ll be back in time for dinner, Momma.”
“I don’t need to see the doctor. My knee is fine,” Luke snapped.
Simon scowled down his partner. “It’s the size of a watermelon, Luke. You’re going to get it checked if I have to carry you into the clinic myself.”
“Good luck with that one,” Luke said.
It looked like a standoff; then Pamela spotted Ray. “Oh, glad you’re here, Ray. You can come and help me with the dinner while Simon takes Luke to Doc Alvarez.”
Ray opened his mouth to say he wasn’t staying but then Simon lifted Luke over his shoulder and started carrying him toward his truck, ignoring Luke’s angry, “What the fuck?” Ray almost choked at how strong Simon was. He was carrying Luke, who was six foot plus and no lightweight, like he was a kid. It was kind of a turn-on.
“Ignore them. This is like foreplay.”
Ray coughed in embarrassment. “Mrs. Murray!” he exclaimed, scandalized at her comment.
She looked at him in amusement. “You haven’t spent much time around my sons on the ranch, have you? You’ll learn.” Pamela turned to go in the house. She looked over her shoulder. “Come on, Ray. I’ve got tea waiting for us. Then I need your help with dinner. My arm isn’t up to chopping up all the vegetables since the accident.”
Before he could reiterate that he was going home, she disappeared into the house. Ray sighed. His lungs were getting a workout today. He took a last look at his car and then gave up and followed Pamela into the house. In all honesty, he didn’t have anything else to do, and he would only be eating pasta with sauce from a jar dumped over it.
In the kitchen, Pamela’s husband, Greg, was working on a laptop. He looked up as Ray walked in.
“Hi, Ray. What did you think of the barn? Is Noah still in there?”
“He must be. I haven’t seen him or Tommy walk past.”
“Ah, he’s probably taking advantage of a little alone time with Tommy,” Momma Murray said.
Ray choked on the tea he’d just picked up. Good God, was the woman obsessed with the love lives of the people around her? Although he knew her from church, and knew what a force of nature she could be, he hadn’t really gotten to know her personally.
“I expect so,” Greg agreed. He gave Ray a concerned glance. “Are you all right, son?”
Finally managing to stop coughing, Ray nodded, and then sipped at his tea to calm himself down. “I… I’m fine.”
“Good. We don’t want you to choke on us. You’ll have to forgive Momma. She likes to be involved in everyone’s life. You’ve only survived because you didn’t live nearby. Now you’re on the ranch, watch out. She’ll know more about your life than you do.”
Ray shrugged. “There is nothing to know. I’m thirty, single and an elementary-school teacher. Boring, really.”
“We all know that,” Pamela said, her voice muffled as she retrieved a large stock pot from the back of one of the cupboards. “Good grief, what is all this mess? Don’t the boys ever clean out these cupboards?”
“Why would they need to do that when they have you cooking for them?” Greg pointed out. “Ray, these figures don’t add up. Could you take a look at them?”
Ray looked uncertainly at Pamela. “Momma asked me to chop some vegetables.”
“Greg can chop the vegetables while you look at the numbers,” she said cheerfully. “He’ll be like a bear with a sore head if we don’t get the accounts to tally.”
“I thought Luke and Shelley did the books for the ranch?” Ray asked, pulling the laptop toward him.
“They do. This is some separate business on the side that I’m working on.”
“I thought you’d retired.”
Greg had gone through major heart surgery the previous year, his condition exacerbated by the stress of several attacks on the ranch and Luke and Simon.
Pamela huffed loudly.
Greg rolled his eyes at Ray. “This is just a small, private arrangement with Lil.”
“A woman who owns the biggest ranch in the area. You’ll meet her if you spend more time here.”
“You’re supposed to be spending your retirement with me. Not thinking of more dang-fool ways to get stressed.”
Ray was impressed by the lack of concern Greg showed to the very large knife his wife was holding.
“As you are always here, my dear, I had to find some way to occupy my time.”
She grinned at her husband. “Touché. But seriously, Ray, these accounts have been driving him mad. Can you take a look at them? Greg can chop instead.”
As the laptop was already in front of him, Ray didn’t see he had much opportunity to refuse. He was beginning to understand that was how things worked on the ranch. For a quiet life, you followed along with the Murrays. If it wasn’t the Murrays, then Noah was giving him orders. Noah was technically his boss at the church so that made sense, but the Murrays were his landlords. Ray rubbed at his temples. That headache he’d been trying to fake was becoming a reality.
“I know. I can’t work it out either. Oh, well.” Greg sounded resigned.
“Huh?” Confused, Ray looked up. Then he realized Greg was talking about the accounts and not the confusion going on in Ray’s head. “Let me look properly.”
“You’re a good boy,” Pamela said.
Ray gritted his teeth. He wasn’t a boy. Having to suppress his irritability was a good indication of how much he needed a night away from everyone and everything. Normally he was laid back and happy to go with the flow, but he’d been taking care of Noah, the church, and the congregation for many months. Now it was time to take care of Ray for a night and that meant going somewhere to get laid. Somewhere that didn’t know him as Noah’s deputy and didn’t care who he was as long as he had a dick and was willing.
“Are you all right, Ray? You look tired.”
Now Pamela was looking concerned about him. She had enough on her plate with her husband and her son being out of action.
“I’m fine, Momma. Just need to concentrate, is all. Could I have some coffee? I need the caffeine.”
“Sure,” she said, heading for the coffeemaker.
Ray took a deep breath and concentrated on the figures, trying to see where the problem lay in the columns of figures before him. This he could do—he hoped. He started from the top, to the accompaniment of carrots being chopped.