Authors: Vivian Arend
Tags: #Romance, #Contemporary, #Western
This is for my friends and family who have taught me that: love is love, no matter what that looks like, that promises are to be kept, and that people are more valuable than things.
July, Red Deer, Alberta
Pain wrapped around his temples, the rush of blood through his veins echoing in his ears. Travis Coleman whipped his head up to track his attacker and stars danced before his eyes as chastisement for moving too fast after the recent blow to his head.
He raised his hands into a defensive position and waited with anticipation for the next bit of punishment to land. The dim lighting in the back alley wasn’t enough to show all the debris underfoot, and he stumbled before finding his footing.
The order rang from Travis’s left, and both he and his opponent turned to see a powerfully built blond race toward them.
By the time Travis recognized his friend, there was no time to shout a warning. Cassidy’s forward momentum brought him between Travis and the other fighter, an agonized grunt exploding from the man’s lips as Cassidy’s fist sank deep into his gut. Cassidy slammed his free hand against the stranger’s shoulder, toppling him to the ground.
Cassidy whirled to grab Travis, his green eyes bright as he examined the damage. “You okay?”
Travis tossed off the assisting arm, lurching around Cassidy’s bulk to offer a hand to the man he’d been fighting. His sparring partner had already scrambled crablike into the shadows and escaped.
“Dammit, what’d you go and do that for?” Travis spun toward his friend. The motion was too rapid after the hits he’d taken, and he staggered.
Cassidy caught him, pushing him against the nearest wall for support. “He was beating the shit out of you. I thought interrupting was a good idea.” He leaned in closer and grinned momentarily. “I arrived too soon. You’ve still got a pretty face.”
Travis shoved his friend’s hands away. “Next time ask before you butt in.”
“Too big a man to ask for help? Even to save yourself from being pummeled?” Cassidy pulled out a handkerchief and offered it. “Your nose is bleeding like you’re some kind of virgin sacrifice, and we both know how wrong that is.”
Travis took the faded blue fabric and held it tight to his nose to stop the flow. His grip covered his entire lower face and stopped him from having to respond. Silence was a fine thing because there wasn’t much he could say right now. Not without telling Cassidy more than he wanted to.
“Where the hell you been, anyway?” Cassidy folded his arms over his chest, biceps bulging the denim of his jean jacket. “We were supposed to meet at Traders. When you didn’t show up, I figured you’d found someone to fool around with, or you plain forgot.”
“I left a message,” Travis insisted. Not a very detailed one, true, but he had called.
Cassidy pulled out his phone and cursed, shoving it back into his pocket with a rueful sigh. “Dead.”
“Ha, see? I’m surprised you still have that thing. Isn’t it time you lost this one?” He needed to change tack—distract Cassidy from asking any more questions that had no answers.
Only his friend ignored the bait and narrowed his gaze, a glitter of brilliant green flashing out. “You called to tell me what? That instead of meeting to shoot some pool, you’d decided to drive an hour to the cheesiest dive we know so you could find some asshole to fight?”
Travis backed away as Cassidy crowded him, suddenly gone fierce with not a trace of humour left on his face.
“Shut up,” Travis snapped. “It’s not like that.”
“Looked a lot like that to me,” Cassidy snarled. “You got a death wish, T?”
The lingering rush of adrenaline, the sweet tease of forbidden pleasure that accompanied the pain…
Travis shook his head to rid himself of the sensations. He attempted to muscle past the solid body blocking him. “None of your damn business.”
Cassidy caught him by the shirtfront and shoved him into the wall again. He pinned Travis in place with a rock-solid forearm across the chest, leaning in with his full weight to create a trap.
It was all kinds of fucked up that Travis had to clench his teeth together to stop from moaning as lust roared through him.
Cassidy got right in Travis’s face. “I’m your friend, and that makes it my bloody business.”
Travis wanted to look away. Wanted to hide, but it was impossible. He was caught, mesmerized by the full force of Cassidy’s stare.
Eerie silence filled the air, nothing but their accelerated breathing and the distant sound of early-morning traffic.
“Son of a bitch.” Cassidy barely mouthed the words, easing the pressure on his left arm as he slid in closer. He planted his right hand on the wall to the side of Travis’s head as their chests brushed.
Travis didn’t dare breathe. Any movement might increase the contact between them.
The temptation was far, far too enticing.
Cassidy held him captive. Silent. Motionless except for that all-too-intuitive gaze, until Travis was ready to scream.
He dug deep to find the strength he needed to push away the longings he’d kept hidden for so many years. Shove them aside for yet another day. It was either that, or he was going to flip them around, slam
into the wall and start grinding their hips together. Put his teeth to the strong column of tanned flesh rising from the plain white T-shirt.
Maybe close the gap between their gasping mouths and cut off their rapid breathing as he kissed the goddamn daylights out of his best friend.
His dick hardened further at the thought until interrupted by the reality of what he was considering.
His best fucking friend.
Oh hell, what was he going to do?
A new voice, loud and getting louder.
Travis nearly folded to the ground as Cassidy spun and stepped away. He deliberately put himself between Travis and the newcomers, one of them uttering curses that rose like twisted prayers into the pale dawn sky.
The man who Travis had been tussling with earlier stepped forward, a sneer cracking his broken smile.
One word. One word was all he uttered.
The insult broke both the silence and the stillness. As if released from restraint, the man in the middle lunged and swung at Cassidy. He dodged right only to get hit by a wide-handed blow from the third man.
That’s all Travis had time to see before he had to duck from his own attacker.
The light didn’t help. Shadows moved out of synch with punches. A fight in the near dark, without even numbers, without respite given.
This time he hated the intoxicating rush that drove through him. This setting? This situation? It wasn’t about sick, twisted pleasure anymore, not for Travis. Not when some of the punishment fell uninvited upon his friend.
Cassidy grunted in pain, swore, and a body tumbled to the ground at his feet. Dust puffed up like miniature tornados.
A curse rang from Travis’s left, followed by the sound of fists meeting flesh. A pained gasp, low and masculine, rushed out as feet scuffled in the gravel of the back alley.
Deep shadows played with blood-red-tinged light as the morning sun reached tentative fingers into the darkness. A heavy body bumped him on one side. He caught at them, using them as a support to stay standing.
Angry voices filled his ears, but the words were unclear. The only thing sharp enough to focus on was the throbbing line of hedonistic pleasure tapping his unwilling nerve endings.
Travis squinted in an attempt to clear his vision, lurching to the side as bare knuckles grazed his already bruised cheekbone…
…and jerked himself awake.
He glanced around to get his bearings while his ears rang with unexpected stillness. The familiar log walls of his cousin’s rustic cabin came into focus. He was leaning on a small log table, a firm chair under his ass.
The rest of his morning’s escapade returned in a rush.
The other men racing away as the lights of an RCMP cruiser flickered red and blue on the alley walls. Travis struggling with Cassidy deeper into the darkness, manhandling him into his truck and driving like a madman toward the only place he knew he’d find silence and sanctuary. A safe haven with no questions asked.
Thank God for Gabe Coleman. Cousin or not, the man knew how to keep his mouth shut. Travis stared out the window and waited for inspiration to strike.
Whoever the hell said it got easier as you got older had shit for brains.
He stepped across the kitchen floor and downed a glass of water before making his way to the tiny side bedroom. He leaned on the doorframe, his heartbeat so rapid he was on the verge of falling over from the head rush. A couple deep breaths later he straightened. He had to find the strength to get out the other side of this fucked-up morning even though it was barely eight a.m.
Cassidy lay motionless on the sturdy log-frame bed, his blond hair in sharp contrast against the dark blue pillow, his skin pale. Bruises were rising fast, and before the day was out he would have a shiner to rival the one Travis wore. Maybe two.
The chair Travis had moved beside the bed earlier called his name. He lowered himself gingerly, enough aches and pains making themselves known he felt like an old fart and not a twenty-five-year-old. It was only temporary pain haunting him, though. He’d be better by tomorrow.
Cassidy rolled partway, and the sheets pulled free. Damn it all, why had he shown up uninvited? Guilt at having led his friend into trouble hurt more than the rest of Travis’s physical distress.
Guilt for a whole lot of other reasons as well. Naked skin was now visible, and Travis couldn’t look away. Not from the muscular chest, the firm curve of biceps as Cassidy shifted to lay one flexed arm over his forehead.
Or farther down the bed where the thin fabric still covered his hips but didn’t disguise the size of the man resting flat out on the mattress. Couldn’t hide the muscle and bone that was more than his friend. Even now looking him over, Travis wanted to sweep his fingers down the entire length of him and touch. Feel.
He squeezed his eyes shut and tried to will away his erection, but it was like hoping for a snowstorm in the middle of the summer. Hell had no intention of giving up its torment anytime soon.
“Travis?” His name croaked from Cassidy’s dry lips.
Travis slipped off the chair to his knees beside the bed. “What do you need?”
Cassidy coughed lightly. “Water.”
Travis hurried to the kitchen and returned, dropping to the edge of the mattress and reaching around Cassidy’s shoulders to help him sit up.
His friend leaned against him as he took the glass, his heated chest pressed to Travis as his fingers shook slightly. “Fuck, I’m like a little girl here.”
“You got beat on, asshole, what do you expect?”
Cassidy grimaced as he swallowed. He pushed the half-empty glass at Travis then looked him over closer. “Did you even get hit after I interrupted you?”
He’d gotten his share, but… “You were a bigger target. All that blond hair made you an easier target in the dark. You should have worn a toque.”
Cassidy closed his eyes and breathed out slowly. “The room is spinning.”
“Lie down, you shit. My cousin Tamara is on her way to check you out—she’s a nurse.” He tried to push Cassidy to the mattress, but his friend resisted, glancing around the room and out into the main cabin.
“Where’s your other cousin?” Cassidy frowned. “I did see him, right?”
Travis ignored the heat radiating from Cassidy. “He and his fiancée went for a ride.”
“Damn nice he took me in, I suppose.”
“He’s the best.” Travis hesitated, then figured this much at least needed to be said. “He’s a good guy. Knows how to keep a secret.”
Cassidy snorted. “Oh, because we all need people in our lives to help keep secrets, don’t we? Or is that just you?”
Shit. “I don’t know what—”
“I’m not an idiot, T. I see what’s going on around me. I know more about you than you’re willing to tell, but since I’m a friend I keep my mouth shut.”