Exiled to an abandoned presidio in southwestern Texas, Father Alonzo Vargas is accustomed to being utterly alone except for his white donkey, Angelica. He is also fully acquainted with the corrupt and rotten sheriff, John Cullen, the man responsible for his semi-permanent exile. When he finds a victim of the sheriff hanging upside down from a tree, he immediately cuts the man down and vows to nurse him back to health.
Ben McKinnon has never done anything to cross Sheriff Cullen -- except defend the land he inherited from his father. The land Cullen covets. He's surprised when the exiled priest makes it clear that he will not only be a nurse, but will also become Ben's ally in the fight against Cullen. He's even more shocked when he realizes he doesn't just want Father Alonzo as a friend. Ben cherishes the other man's mind, his body, and his heart.
But Alonzo is not a free man. And if Sheriff Cullen has his way, they will both be dead men.
"If you believe that I'll judge you, or that I'll think less of you, then there's nothing more I can do about that." Alonzo turned from the window and crossed to the fire.
Ben didn't follow. He chose instead to start wandering around the room again, much as he had done that morning while Alonzo prepared breakfast. It gave Alonzo the opportunity to watch him again, the play of the shadows against the sculpted muscles. Ben belonged outside, on his land, not cooped up in a tiny presidio. He would not last much longer behind these walls.
"I'm not like most of the men I know," Ben said. "I don't usually care too much about that. But you ... somehow, you are different."
His shrug could have been slight because of his reluctance to answer, or the injuries on his back. Alonzo wasn't sure which.
"You cut me down from that tree without even asking what I'd done to deserve it in the first place. That says a lot about a man."
"So why don't you trust me?"
He posed the question as Ben passed nearby. He didn't expect Ben to stop and come back, to crouch down in front of him and fold his hand over Alonzo's on the poker. Gently, he guided the tool back to its place on the hearth, pulling Alonzo's hand off before letting him go.
"Tell me if you still wish the truth when I do this." Ben cupped Alonzo's face and drew him nearer, tilting his head to press their mouths together in a soft kiss.
Alonzo froze, stunned by the pressure and texture of Ben's mouth against his. His heart didn't beat. His lungs didn't expand. He didn't close his eyes. He didn't pull away, either. He allowed the contact to last for far too long -- even a second was far too long. A part of mind registered how warm Ben's skin was. And then he thought about how sleek his body looked in the golden light, stretched on Alonzo's bed, naked, vulnerable.
Alonzo reared back, almost falling in his eagerness to break the contact. "Why did you do that?"
Ben's mouth glistened in the firelight, but his smile had faded with Alonzo's retreat. Slowly, he licked his lower lip and swallowed, a bob of his throat that drew Alonzo's gaze for a moment too long.
"To prove my point." Ben straightened slowly, and before he turned away to go back to the window, Alonzo caught a glimpse of the bulge in his trousers. "So answer my question, Father. Do you still wish me to tell you why I can't love a wife?"
"You must know it is grossly inappropriate to ... to touch a priest like that."
"I know priests lead lives of abstinence, yes. My father had a lot of stories about the church of his youth."
Alonzo wiped the back of his hand across his mouth, though he could still taste Ben's lips. He knew Ben expected him to condemn him as a sodomite, to threaten and cajole him into repentance, but Alonzo didn't want to take the expected road. He wanted to figure out why his fingers were trembling and why his tongue felt dry and thick.
"Maybe it's best if you don't let that fact slip your mind again."
"It never actually did in the first place. I just decided to ignore it for a second."
The conversation needed to be stopped in its tracks. Diverted to another type of inquiry. But Alonzo couldn't quite bring himself to do that. "Why?"
"Because you make me wish you weren't in the church at all." He took a long, audible breath that made his broad shoulders expand and fill Alonzo's awareness. "Because I wish I had nerve enough to take more."