After six long months in rehab, Navy Veteran Tyler Hardin received his medical discharge and heads west to visit with his mentor and surrogate father, only to arrive minutes after his old friend passes. Ranch owner Cass Cartwright takes one look at the handsome stranger and knows he's in danger of doing the one thing he swore never to do: fall in love. Cass works to convince Tyler to overcome his past and give a relationship with another man a chance, even while someone is working to sabotage his ranch, and his one chance at true love.
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 burrowed 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 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. Stepping forward, peering beyond the shadow cast by the brim of the cowboy hat, Ty could make out a strong face and dark eyebrows.
The man 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 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.”
“I used to be from the Navy. Medical retirement,” he said pointing to the vicious 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. He led the way into the cool interior of the adobe ranch house.
What was going on? Had Gibby been wrong about his boss? He said he’d talked to Cartwright and 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.
“Beer or whisky?” the gravelly voice slid over him, 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 knew 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?”
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 Tyler, 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 about an hour ago.”
Ty 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 bed. Nothing like his usual long, lean type.
Tyler was six feet tall, well over two hundred pounds of sculpted muscle, with broad shoulders that tapered to a trim waist and a tight ass. His thighs were as big around as tree trunks and 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. Gib’s 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, he was a beautiful man. Shit.
Cass had heard a lot about Tyler over the last few years, since his old cook enjoyed telling stories over a drink or two. Hardin was one of his favorite topics. 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 that remark out. 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 bed. “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 supported him back to the bed. Tyler covered his eyes with his forearm and 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 pushed against his momentary control.
An unexpected wave of desire 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 dreamily. Then he sank into a deep and blessedly dreamless sleep.
God, that was awful, he thought. What must it be like to suffer from nightmares and debilitating headaches? The price for serving his country.
Cass had just gotten out of the shower when he’d heard Tyler call out. He’d wrapped a towel around his waist and 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 deepened 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.