Happily settled in Cattle Valley with the men he loved, Rio Adega wasn't expecting the one call that could bring his world crashing down around him. "Rio, it's Chet. You'd better brace yourself, old friend. Ghost has been recovered, alive. He's asking for you."
In less than a minute, Rio's loyalties are tested. Ghost. The one man Rio owed his entire life to was alive. Not only had he unknowingly left the African jungle thinking his mentor and lover was dead, but he'd managed to move on.
How can Rio make amends to the man who gave him everything, while still holding onto the relationships he's worked so hard to build?
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"Merry Christmas," Rio said, finishing a glass of spiked eggnog. "I think I'll have another. Anyone else want one?" he asked.
Looking around the empty living room, he sighed. Christmas wrapping paper decorated the floor while three distinct piles of gifts sat around the tree. "What a mess."
Rio stood and carried his glass to the kitchen. How was it possible that a man with two partners could find himself alone at Christmas? "This sucks," he mumbled, opening the bottle of bourbon. Tipping some of the contents into his empty glass, Rio was tempted to just fill the sucker up and drink his way through Christmas, but he'd promised Moby he'd be at Sean's surprise party. He'd have to settle for two fingers of bourbon and a few more hours of his own private pity party.
Before heading back to the living room, Rio grabbed a garbage bag. Standing over the mess left after his partners had unwrapped their gifts and taken off, he sneered. "Of course, by all means, go on, I'll clean it up."
He set the empty glass down and started to pick up the wadded balls of paper, stuffing each one into the sack with more force than necessary. He'd replayed the morning over in his head more than once and still couldn't make sense of it.
Rio groaned and took another lick of the big candy cane he'd used to fuck Nate with just a few minutes before.
"Mmm," give me a taste of that," Ryan said, crawling naked towards Rio.
Rio smacked Ryan's hands. "Get your own."
Ryan rolled to his back and eyed the tree.
"Don't even think about it," Nate warned. "As it is I'm gonna have to take a shower before I leave."
Rio sat bolt upright. "Leave? Where the hell are you going? We still have six hours before Sean's party. And I plan to get a hell of a lot more fuckin' in before then."
Nate slowly rose to his feet, stretching out the kinks from their earlier round of Christmas morning sex. "I've got exactly one week to finish next year's budget plan and get it okayed by the city council." Nate shrugged and popped his neck. "Since we're not doing much until this evening and Ryan's working anyway, I thought I'd take advantage of the opportunity to get some more work done."
Rio held up his hands. "Wait. Wait. You're both working today?" He looked from Nate to Ryan. "Why didn't I know this? I bought stuff to make a big brunch."
Ryan reached for Rio, but Rio wanted none of it. "Answer me, dammit!"
"I'm sorry. I thought you knew. Remember how I got drunk at the department Christmas party?"
"How could I forget? You puked all over the outside of my truck."
"At least I made sure to toss my cookies out the window," Ryan tried to argue. "Besides, it's your fault for making me drink those chocolate and peppermint concoctions you were passing out like candy."
"You're damn near forty. Take some responsibility for yourself. And what does that have to do with you working on Christmas Day?"
"Well, the deputies cornered me about the schedule for the holidays. They all wanted to argue the reasons why they should be allowed Christmas morning off. With my mind buzzing from the alcohol, I told them to spend it with their families, that I'd take the morning shift."
Rio groaned. "You didn't."
"Yeah, I kinda did."
"But what about your family? Don't we count?" Rio asked.
"Sure you do." Ryan pounced on top of Rio. "Which is why I woke us up early enough to get our special fuck in."
Rio tried to tamp down the hurt he felt. It wasn't that Ryan called their love making fucks, because that was the way Ryan talked. It was ... "I thought you woke us up early because you couldn't wait to start the day with us."
Ryan ground his awakening cock against Rio. "Let me make it up to you?"
Although they were roughly the same height, Rio was much stronger than Ryan. He used his strength to push Ryan off him. Rio rolled away and stood. "You know, sex doesn't fix everything."
Before Ryan could try to argue otherwise, Rio left the room. Maybe the horses would be happy to see him.
"Fuck!" Rio spat, picking up the last of the paper. His eye caught the candy cane which had been tossed aside. He pulled it out of the carpet fibres and winced at the pink stain left behind. "Kinda like me today, huh?"
Ryan stood in the doorway of Nate's office. "You're going to give Rio a coronary if you don't get your ass in gear."
Nate glanced up from the computer. "Yeah well, if I don't get this budget done, no one in the city will get a pay rise next year."
Although Ryan was proud of Nate's growth as mayor, he sometimes worried his partner was taking on too much. "It can wait until tomorrow. Sean's party's in an hour, and we still need to get home and change."
Nate started to run his hands through his hair but stopped himself. Ryan couldn't help but grin. Vain bastard.
"There isn't enough money for everything. Employees need rises to keep them happy, but how happy will they be if I have to increase their insurance premiums in order to give them that raise?" Nate let out a dramatic sigh. "It's like robbing Peter to pay Paul."
"I hear ya." Ryan gestured behind him. "Come on. You can worry about it tomorrow."
Nate eventually tapped a few keys and powered down his computer. "Budgets suck." He grabbed his coat and shrugged into it.
"That they do," Ryan agreed, leading the way out of the office. He waited while Nate armed the security system and locked the doors before heading down the steps to his waiting SUV.
"You kept it running this whole time?" Nate asked, getting in.
Ryan waited until he was behind the wheel and buckled up. "I figured you'd bitch if you had to get in a cold vehicle."
"Yeah, well, normally I would, but with every gallon of gas costing the city money, I'd rather you turned it off when you're not in it."
It was on the tip of Ryan's tongue to argue, but he understood Nate's position. "I'll talk to the deputies."
Nate reached across the seats and put his hand on Ryan's thigh. "Thanks. I know I'm being a pain in the ass, but it doesn't matter what I'm doing lately, I seem to always be looking for ways to save money. Like the streetlights. Do we really need them on from three to six in the morning? Bars close at two. An hour should be plenty of time to get people home safely."
Ryan couldn't help but chuckle. Nate had always been a free spender. He spent more on socks than Ryan did on jeans. Although it was annoying at times, it was also nice to see Nate waking up to what things really cost.
Ryan glanced towards Nate. "You know there's a way to make a chunk of cash, right?"
Nate shook his head and crossed his arms. "I'm not going to relive every event of that day again just so people all over the world can pick apart my actions."
Unlike many news stories, interest in the grandstand collapse hadn't faded from people's minds. Ryan wasn't positive, but he believed it had a lot to do with the townspeople's refusal to talk to the media about it. All the world knew was that a tragedy had occurred in a private community full of gays and lesbians.
For over a year Nate had been shooting down offers. Some of the biggest film studios in the country wanted the rights to not only the details of the day's events but permission to film in Cattle Valley.
"No," Nate said from out of the blue. "I refuse to put this town through that again just to make money. I'll figure something else out."
Ryan slowed the SUV and reached out to pull Nate in for a kiss. He swept his tongue in deep and did that little wiggle thing at the back of Nate's throat that Ryan knew turned his partner on. Pulling back, he grinned. "I love you."
Nate's hand wandered to Ryan's cock and squeezed. "Love you, too. Promise me you won't bring that shit up again. Every time I think about it my stomach starts to hurt." Nate gave a whole-body shiver. "Fucking vultures."
"We're gonna be late," Rio grumbled from behind the wheel. "What's the point of a surprise party if we're not there to do the surprising?"
"Would you just relax? We've still got twenty minutes before Sean's supposed to be there." Nate continued to knead Rio's thigh. "Did I tell you how hot you look in those new clothes I bought you?"
Rio grunted. He was pissed off, and Nate's compliments weren't going to get either of his men out of the doghouse just yet. He pulled the truck up behind The Canoe and turned off the engine. "The pants are too tight," he finally grumbled, dropping the keys into his coat pocket.
"Bullshit," Ryan piped up. "You look damn sexy and you know it. So stop fishing."
Well I wonder what kind of mood you'd be in, Mr. Sheriff, if you'd had to spend the majority of the day cleaning the house. You selfish asshole. Rio continued to berate his men under his breath as he jumped out of the truck and went inside without waiting for them.
The second Ryan and Nate walked through the door, Ryan grabbed Rio's arm and pulled him to the side. "I'm sorry Nate and I had to work today, but get the fuck over it, will ya? You're going to ruin not only Sean's party but what's left of Christmas. Hell, if you have to, be pissed tomorrow, but let's enjoy the rest of the day, okay?"
Rio had no problem being pissed tomorrow. He had a good idea he'd be pissed for at least a week. He felt Nate's hands on his back and glanced over his shoulder. Damn those big brown eyes. "Fine," he eventually agreed. "But the two of you have a lot of making up to do. And we seriously need to sit down and talk about what's happening with us lately."
Nate looked surprised. "What's happening? You're not throwing up again, are you?"
"No." Rio bit the inside of his cheek. It wasn't a total lie. There had been a few times over the past year and a half that he'd let the stress of holding his family together get to him, but seeing Dr. Pritchard had helped a lot.
Nate wrapped his arms around Rio from behind as Ryan pressed himself against Rio's chest. Ryan gave Rio a quick grope before stepping back. "I can think of a few ways we can make it up to you."
Rio rolled his eyes. "Why does everything have to go back to sex with you? Ya know, you used to actually talk to me before fucking me. Now you barely have time to say 'hi' and 'bye' between fucks."
Ryan's jaw clenched. "I haven't heard you complaining much."
Ryan was right, Rio hadn't complained. Maybe it had something to do with being starved for attention. When he finally did get it, he was so grateful that he didn't want to rock the boat. He glanced towards the private room at the back of the restaurant. "Now's not the time or place to talk. Later."
* * *
Ryan doubted he'd ever seen so much joy in one man's face as at the moment Sean stepped through the door and everyone shouted, "Happy Birthday." It had served as a good reminder of just how much the little things one partner did for another really meant.
He glanced across the room to where Rio was talking with Sean and Moby. Rio's posture clued Ryan in on how comfortable Rio was with the two men. How long had it been since he'd seen Rio so at ease? Like Rio had reminded him earlier, it wasn't always about sex. It had been a big slap- upside-the-head moment for Ryan.
Working his way through the crowd of friends, Ryan found Nate. "Can I steal him for a moment?" he asked Jay.
"Sure. I need to go to the kitchen for more food anyway." Jay disappeared, leaving Ryan alone to talk to Nate.
"What're we gonna do about Rio?"
"What do you mean?" Nate asked, comfortably slipping a hand into Ryan's back pocket.
"Don't play dumb. We both know he was right earlier. We both get so damn busy with our jobs we don't spend as much time at home anymore."
Nate bit his bottom lip and looked towards Rio. "You think he's really pissed this time?"
"Does it matter? The fact is he's right. We're just so used to him blowing off steam and then forgiving us the next day that we never take the time to actually listen to what he's saying." Ryan tapped Nate's nose. "Don't deny it. We do that and you know it."
"So, what? Am I supposed to ignore the people that depend on me to run this town just because my partner's feeling unappreciated?"
Staring down at Nate, Ryan gave an inward groan. Why hadn't he seen it? The answer jumped up and smacked him in the face. They were both guilty of putting everything and everyone else ahead of each other. It had slowly become the routine after the collapse. At first it had been the process of rebuilding, and then the healing had finally begun.
His thoughts were still rambling when he noticed Rio reaching for his phone. Dark eyebrows drew together as Rio said something to Moby and Sean before walking out of the room, the phone held to his ear.
Ryan guessed it had to be one of Rio's friends calling to wish him a merry Christmas. Nate gave Ryan a hug and gestured towards the kitchen. "I'll go see if Jay needs any help."
"Erico's in there. You sure it's safe?" Ryan said around a chuckle.
Nate's eyes lit up. "Ooh, I hope not." The words were barely out of his mouth before he took off.
Ryan shook his head. "Pervert," he mumbled, while at the same time wondering if he could also be of some help in the kitchen. Normally he'd ask Rio to join him in surprising their voyeuristic partner, but with their current predicament, Ryan figured it would be better to find Nate on his own.
As luck would have it, he found Nate actually helping in the kitchen. "Wait. I need a picture of this."
"Fuck off," Nate said, transferring hot hors d'oeuvres to a serving platter.
Ryan laughed and winked at Jay. "You'll have to share your secret with me. I haven't seen Nate in a kitchen actually working for quite a while."
The door swung open and Sean dashed in. "I think the two of you need to check on Rio."
The worry in Sean's expression scared the shit out of Ryan. "What's happened?"
Sean shook his head. "Not sure. He got a phone call and disappeared. I just saw him sitting at the bar in some kind of locked stare or something. I tried to talk to him but he didn't even acknowledge me."
"Fuck!" Ryan spat, taking a shortcut through another door to the bar, with Nate right on his heels.
Rio's naturally bronzed skin had gone as white as a sheet.
"What's happened?" Ryan asked, sliding onto the barstool next to Rio.
Rio's mouth opened and closed several times before he spoke. "Chet called."
Chet? How did Chet get Rio's number? He works for the CIA, dipshit. "What did he want?"
When Rio didn't answer right away, Ryan's stomach began to cramp. He knew no good could've come from the conversation between Chet and Rio. Chet had been with them in Africa almost ten years earlier, and to his knowledge hadn't contacted either him or Rio since their failed mission.
Ryan put a hand on Rio's back, trying to comfort his partner. "What did Chet want?" he asked again.
"To tell me Ghost is alive and wants to see me."
Ryan felt like the air had been knocked from his body. Every nightmare Rio had ever had about those months in the jungles of Africa revolved around Lionel 'Ghost' Zimmerman. "That's not possible and we both know it. Fuck! I'm gonna track Chet down and kill that motherfucker for doing this to you."
Rio shook his head slowly before turning to stare directly into Ryan's eyes. "He wasn't lying. Ghost gave him a message to give to me."
"Yeah, what was that?" Ryan still didn't want to believe Ghost was alive, not after everything Rio had gone through. Hell, not after he'd been the one to tell Rio his lover had been killed.
"That Ghost wants me to meet him under the apple tree."
"What the hell does that mean? And who is this Ghost person?" Nate asked, evidently tired of letting Ryan handle the situation.
Ryan gave Nate a look that hopefully would stop further questions. "We'll talk later."
"Fuck that. We'll talk now," Nate pounded a fist on the bar. "Who's Ghost?"
"The man I was supposed to spend forever with," Rio said without any emotion whatsoever.
Nate's eyes went wide, and for the first time in their relationship Ryan truly wanted to strangle Nate for his nosiness.
"What does that message mean?" Ryan asked.
Rio finally met Ryan's gaze. "One of the places we used to hide out after a mission had an apple tree in the backyard."
"The one in Kansas?" Ryan asked. He'd never been to any of Ghost's hidey-holes but he'd heard Rio talk about his short time living in Kansas.
"No. It was a little farmhouse in Spain, just outside Pademe. Ghost used to call it our special place. He carved our initials in the tree so we'd always be there."
"Who else could have known about the apple tree?" Ryan asked. There had to be another explanation. Please, God, there had to be.
"No one. You knew Ghost, everything was always kept on a need-to- know basis, even our personal life."
"So why now? If he really is alive, why wait for almost ten years to contact you?"(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Ghost From The Past"
Copyright © 2011 Carol Lynne.
Excerpted by permission of Totally Entwined Group Limited.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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