By: L.E. Harner, Laura Harner
Published By: Hot Corner Press
ISBN # 9781937252045
Word Count: 30000
Available in: Epub, Microsoft Reader, Mobipocket (.mobi), Adobe Acrobat
Buy now for $0.99
About the bookTyler has used Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell as a shield against the truth since he was seventeen. Cut loose from his Navy career and mourning his mentor’s death, Ty must come to terms with his desire for another man, even while he fights to keep his PTSD from pulling him under. Rancher Cass Cartwright’s relationships never last more than a few hours, and that’s just the way he likes it. Now he's done the one thing he swore never to do: fallen in love. Can Cass convince Ty to let go of his past or will sabotage at the ranch kill their love before it has a chance to grow?
An excerpt from the bookChapter One
Tyler Hardin climbed from his truck in front of a sprawling adobe ranch house and wondered what in the hell had happened. Six or seven cowboys on horseback cut sharp turns around a small knot of horses, pushing them with waves of arms and hats, steering the small herd toward the open gate at the rear of the paddock. Other men stood around the yard or leaned on the split rail fence that surrounded a small kitchen garden. No matter what they were doing, everyone’s attention was on the Lifeline helicopter and whatever emergency had brought the air-borne ambulance out to the remote Willow Springs Ranch.
The door to the chopper slid closed and as the blade speed increased, the steady whop, whop, whop reverberated through him and threatened to take him places his mind didn’t want to go. Shouldn’t go. Pushing the memories away, Ty squinted against the bright Arizona sunshine and tried to make out the figure of his friend, Frank “Gibby” Gibson among the cowboys. Gibby would be the short, overweight one, if he could find him.
“Not sure what you’re selling, but this isn’t a good time.” The voice came from behind him and was right out of a wet dream. It was an intoxicating mixture of whisky and smoke, a deep baritone that settled somewhere low in his belly.
“What happened?” Ty asked, shielding his eyes and trying to get a good look at the man standing in the shade of the courtyard arch.
The cowboy nailed him with a steely dark gaze that seemed to blaze from his handsome face. His voice vibrated with barely controlled anger. “I can’t see any reason it should concern you. Now state your business or get the fuck off my ranch.”
The long, rangy cowboy was at least four inches taller than Ty’s own six-foot frame. He wore a tight pair of jeans and a white tee shirt that stretched across his lean, muscled chest. A white straw cowboy hat and dusty, worn boots completed the perfect picture. While the cowboy waited for an answer, Ty stepped forward and peered beyond the shadow cast by the brim of the big man’s hat. Ty could make out a strong, chiseled face, deep cleft chin, and dark eyebrows raised high in apparent disbelief that his question hadn’t been immediately answered.
"The Willow Springs is your ranch? That makes you Cass Cartwright. Sorry. Should have introduced myself right away. My name’s Ty. Tyler Hardin. I’m here to visit Frank Gibson. Gibby? Look, I didn’t mean to impose, I can stay back in Kingman…” he trailed off as a spasm tightened Cartwright’s face into a grimace.
“Fuck. You’re his friend from the Navy.”
Ty did a slow blink at the brusque tone and bought himself a moment of time before he answered. “I used to be his friend from the Navy. Medical retirement,” he said pointing to the fresh scar that creased from his eyebrow to jaw line. It had taken the field surgeons sixteen hours, plus two more surgeries stateside to put him back together. A regular Humpty Dumpty. After six months in rehab, the doctors declared him well enough to discharge and cut him loose from the only life he’d ever wanted.
Gibby was the closest thing to family Ty had. The old man had invited him to stay at the ranch while Ty figured out what to do with his life. He wasn’t about to explain their relationship to Cartwright, not until he knew what was happening.
“This way,” Cartwright said with a stiff jerk of his head. Then he turned on his heel and led the way into the cool interior of the adobe ranch house.
What was going on? Had his old friend been wrong about his boss? Gibby said when he’d talked to Cartwright that the rancher welcomed another pair of hands and he could stay as long as he wanted. Now it looked like he was about to get the unwelcome mat, instead. Shit. He should have called Gibby from Flagstaff, given him a little notice that he was almost here.
He watched silently as Cartwright moved to what looked like an entertainment center. When Cass opened the doors, however, Ty realized the cabinet was a minibar, complete with small refrigerator.
“Beer or whisky?” Cass asked, taking a glass from the shelf. His gravelly voice slid over Ty, as comfortable as an old pair of faded jeans.
Drawing on an icy control that had served him well in the Navy, Ty pushed the flutter of attraction back into his mental lockbox. God knows a working ranch wasn’t the place for that part of him any more than the Navy had been.
“Neither. I don’t drink. Too many meds. What’s going on? Where’s Gibby?” Tension tightened his stomach and he shot out the words, no longer interested in manners.
Cartwright’s jaw clenched and his knuckles tightened around the glass he was holding. “Fuck, fuck, fuck,” he growled. Turning quickly he threw his glass, shattering it against the fireplace. Without looking at Ty, Cass said in a low voice that vibrated with emotion, “Gibby was in that helicopter. I’m sorry, Hardin. He had a heart attack and died an hour ago.”
The cowboy’s words slammed into to Ty and sent his thoughts and the blood in his brain into the all-too-familiar swirl. The light began to dim, then a roaring in his head that wiped out all other noise in the room. Ty stumbled backward and had only a moment to position himself closer to the couch before everything shut down and the world went black.
Cassidy Cartwright looked down at the hunk of man flesh on the couch. Nothing like his usual long, lean type. Tyler had to be at least six feet tall, well over two hundred pounds of sculpted muscle, with broad shoulders that tapered to a flat stomach and tight ass. His well-muscled thighs were showcased in dark blue denim.
Down boy, he told his cock, with no small amount of disgust. Here he was lusting after the man Gibby thought of as the son he never had. Gibs’ body wouldn’t even be cold yet. God forgive me, but I can be a right bastard, sometimes.
Despite the self-recrimination, his fingers itched to stroke the scar that marked Tyler’s face, to brush the hair back from the pale forehead. His hair was short, but not military short. Soft black curls framed the most angelic face he’d ever seen on a man. His long, dark lashes fanned below his closed eyes, but Cass wouldn’t forget the vivid shade of blue that had looked at him and demanded answers. The shadow of a beard and square jaw prevented him from being too pretty, but still, Tyler Hardin was a beautiful man. Shit.
Cass had heard a lot about Tyler from Gibby over the last few years. The old cook certainly enjoyed telling stories over a drink or two. Hardin was one of his favorite topics. He’d learned they’d known each other since the younger man had joined the Navy and had stayed in touch even after his retirement. They’d been stationed together three times, once on a ship and two tours in Afghanistan. Cass wasn’t exactly clear on how that worked, but he knew they’d been in some dangerous spots together.
Last year, Gibs had been beside himself when Tyler called to tell his friend he was returning to Afghanistan for a third tour. Listed as next of kin, it had been Gibby the Navy notified when Tyler was injured. The old man had traveled back to Walter Reed twice over the last six months and when he’d returned from the second trip he’d made a request of Cass.
“D’ya mind if I bring the boy back here for a while? He needs a place where someone can keep an eye on him. He gets bad headaches. Plus…” he added, but looked away, “I think it’s about time the boy faced a thing or two about himself.”
It hadn’t taken a mental genius to figure out that remark. Tyler Hardin was still in the closet. He’d supposed Gibby thought it would open Tyler up if he lived for a while on the ranch where half the cowboys were gay or bisexual and the other half couldn’t care less.
He shook himself from his thoughts when he realized a pair of bright blue eyes were blinking rapidly, as Tyler struggled toward consciousness. Then the man was fighting to gain his balance, as he pushed himself off the couch.
“Bathroom,” he muttered urgently.
Cass grabbed him by the arm and half carried him into the bathroom. He held Tyler’s head as the younger man emptied his stomach until he was wracked by spasms. When there was nothing left to come up, Cass helped Tyler rinse his mouth and wash his face with a cool splash of water. Without any ulterior motive, Cass wrapped a strong arm around Tyler’s waist and guided him to the back of the house, to his own bedroom. He lowered the other man to the bed, helped him remove the soiled clothes, and eased back to the pillows. Tyler covered his eyes with his forearm while Cass hurried to turn off the lights and draw the blinds. Then he sat on the bed with a damp cloth and gently wiped the light sheen of sweat from Tyler’s face.
“How can I help, Tyler?” he asked softly.
“Sorry. Migraine, need pill...and rest. Then I’ll get out of your hair,” Tyler said softly, as if each word might cost him his momentary control over the pain in his head.
A shocking wave of possessiveness washed over Cass, so strong it threatened to overwhelm him. He simply knew that he wanted Tyler Hardin with every fiber of his being. He wanted to take care of him, to make his pain go away, to wrap Tyler in his arms and never let go. Stunned at the suddenness and strength of his feelings, Cass leaned forward to whisper quietly near Tyler’s ear.
“Don’t worry about it, baby. I’ll grab your stuff and get your pill. You’re not going anywhere.” Shit. This was bad.
Tyler surfaced by degrees, unsure of where he was or how long he’d been sleeping. He knew it was the drugs, they always left him feeling this way. Like the worst hangover anyone ever had. Fuzzy, unsteady, and a little unsure of how the words in his head might tumble out of his mouth. He had the vague impression he’d been dreaming for a long time. Shit, he didn’t even know what day it was.
The nightmares were bad this time; didn’t want to let him go. He’d been trapped underneath the mess tent, just like in real life. He struggled against the pull of the dream for a minute, but it was stronger than he was, and soon, he was sucked under the dark spell once again.
People were screaming and he couldn’t get to them, couldn’t help, because he couldn’t fucking move! He could smell the smoke, feel the heat as the fire crept closer. This time, Gibby was underneath the heavy canvass with him, unconscious, unaware of the certain death that was in the flames, licking their way toward them both.
“Noooo,” Ty screamed, and struggled to move the steel support bars that pinned him to the ground. He had to reach Gibby before the fire took him. The steel bars tightened around him, and then they were pulling him out, pulling him away from the fire, and then away from the tent.
“Shhhh, Tyler, I’ve got you, baby. You’re safe now. You’re safe with me,” said an unknown voice, breath brushing against his ear.
Someone was stretched out alongside of him, pressed against his side. Then those same steel bars turned him over, so that for a moment he was chest to chest with a stranger, before the man rolled over onto his back, bringing Tyler with him. He wanted to protest, but he realized this was all just a part of the dream.
He took comfort from the imaginary arms, buried his face against the illusory warmth of muscled chest and spicy man smell. Don’t ask, don’t tell, he thought just before he sank into a deep and blessedly dreamless sleep.
God, that was awful, Cass thought as he held Tyler to his chest. What must it be like to suffer from nightmares and debilitating headaches? The price for serving his country.
It had scared the shit out of him when he’d gotten out of the shower and heard Tyler crying out. With a towel wrapped around his waist, Cass had hurried to the bed. Tyler was twisted in the sheets, breath coming fast, clearly in distress. He’d quickly untangled the sheets, and climbed on the bed next to Tyler, murmuring nonsense words. It wasn’t unlike trying to calm a skittish colt.
Tyler finally calmed once he’d pulled him onto his chest, and stroked his back. When Tyler’s breathing slowed and he relaxed into deep peaceful slumber, Cass pulled the sheet over the two of them and closed his eyes. Pressing his face against the silky curls, Cass wondered what in the hell he was getting himself into.