Fleeing Hollywood from damaging and false tabloid reports, Brac Riesling hides out with his friends Kit and Hawk in Cattle Valley. Although he believes he's simply evading intrusive paparazzi, danger lurks just around the corner.
After years spent as a secret soldier for the United States government, new Cattle Valley deputy, Al Jessup believes shielding the television heartthrob from nosy reporters will be an easy assignment. Becoming infatuated with Brac isn't part of the plan, and Jessup struggles to remain professional despite the temptation Brac provides.
When Jessup gives in to his desire and Brac nearly pays for the moment of passion with his life, Jessup vows not to make the same mistake twice. He calls in a favour from the only man he trusts with Brac's life, James "Priest" Evans. Priest agrees to guard Brac at a secret location while Jessup searches for the unknown gunman. Jessup's resolve to put a halt to the budding relationship with Brac is tested when he witnesses the easy-going relationship Brac and Priest have formed after only a few days.
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With Ezra James' birthday barbecue in full swing, Brac Riesling tried to stick to the shadows. Everyone he'd met since arriving in Cattle Valley had been incredibly nice, but Brac was starting to tire of always being on his best behaviour. Not that he wanted to fart or burp, but if the occasion arose, it would be nice to know it could pass without ending up in the gossip rags.
He took another sip of his beer and stared out at the grazing cattle in the pasture. The tableau in front of him reminded him of home. Although he rarely got home to Iowa, he thought of it daily.
At first his parents had been thrilled that Brac had managed to make a name for himself in Hollywood. Landing a coveted role on the top rated soap opera of all time had pushed him into the public eye, but it wasn't until he'd been named one of the sexiest actors in Hollywood that the reporters began digging into his personal life. When news of his homosexuality broke, Brac had tried to lay low. Unfortunately the reports refused to let the story die without wanting every detail. They'd shown up at his family farm, and taped his parents without them even knowing it, all in an effort to get an exclusive story. Brac had paid a lot of money to have a tall fence constructed around the majority of the property, but it had done little to ease his parents' peace of mind. He would have loved to go home more often, but reporters tended to follow him. In an effort to save what was left of his relationship with his folks, Bob and Carol Hostetler, he'd been relegated to a once-a-year visit in January.
Brac walked closer to the heavy decorative wooden fence that separated the ranch and yard from the pasture. After setting his empty plastic cup on the ground, he climbed up and sat on the top of a thin, two-by-four-inch board. It took a few moments to get comfortable, but with his feet resting on the next board down, Brac finally managed it.
After inhaling, Brac grinned. "Smells like home," he whispered to the clear evening sky.
"Better watch yourself. There's a bull in that pasture that would love nothing more than to knock you off that fence and stomp you to the ground."
Brac glanced over his shoulder. "What's his name?" he asked the stranger.
"Midnight," the handsome man said. He stuck out his hand. "I'm Jax Brolin, foreman of the EZ Does It."
Brac climbed down from the fence and shook Jax's hand. "Brac." He stared back out towards the field. "Midnight's a pretty name."
"Sure is, but his full name is Midnight Massacre." Jax chuckled. "Just kidding. He's not like the bulls at the Back Breaker. Midnight's more of a lover if you know what I mean?"
"So if he were to actually knock me off the fence and stomp me to the ground, he'd at least lick me afterwards?" Brac smiled. "It might be worth it. I've had a bit of a dry spell lately." As soon as he'd said it, Brac winced. Talking too much was how he always managed to get himself into trouble. "You know I was just kidding, right?"
Jax slapped Brac's shoulder. "Relax. You don't have to be on guard here. We're a laid-back bunch. No one's going to run to the press. Hell, most of us hate those fuckers."
"Because of what happened two years ago?" Brac hated to get nosey, but he doubted there were many gay men in the country who hadn't been glued to the unfolding story of the grandstand collapse. Out in the real world the town of Cattle Valley was whispered about in gay circles, almost like an imaginary place.
"Yep." Jax glanced up at Brac from underneath his black Stetson. "We're a pretty private group of people. The accident hit us hard, but it was the reporters traipsing around town, trying to dig up dirt, that brought us together."
Brac had a feeling he'd just been warned not to pry. "I understand."
Jax stared at him for several moments before nodding. "Good." He gestured towards the partiers behind him. "We lost one of our own in the accident. If you need a place to hide from reporters, you're welcome here. Last time some nosey sonofabitch came around trying to dig up a story on Jim Becker, Ezra ran him off before he could make it up the drive." Jax laughed. "Believe me, when someone as big as Ezra runs you off, you don't come back."
"Thanks." Brac was surprised by the offer, but appreciative. "It's Kit I worry about. I've spent the last nine years being photographed and lied about, but it's all new to her." He wanted to make sure Jax knew the truth of the situation. If the man had offered him refuge, it was the least he could do. "There's nothing going on between us. Kit's my best friend, and I'll do anything to make sure it stays that way."
Jax shook his head. "No need to explain. Just thought I'd put the offer on the table."
"I appreciate that."
Jax gave a tip of his cowboy hat before walking off. Brac watched the retreating man until he disappeared in the crowd. He turned back to the pasture and leaned his forearms against the top rail, thinking over Jax's offer.
"You should go back to the party," a deep voice said from behind him.
Brac glanced over his shoulder to find Al Jessup, the deputy assigned to protect him from the paparazzi while he was in town. He returned his attention to the pasture. "I'm sure everyone's real nice, but I've been to enough parties to last a lifetime. Besides, I bet the reporters are still scurrying around Malibu trying to find me."
When Jessup didn't reply, Brac assumed he'd given up and gone back to the party. The sun had dropped below the horizon, thrusting the pasture into deep shadow. Eventually, Brac decided to go back to the party and show his appreciation for the invitation. He said one last goodbye to the yet unseen Midnight and turned around. He'd taken half a dozen steps before he noticed Jessup, crouched down in the darkness.
"Are you watching me?" Brac asked, coming to a stop.
Jessup stood and crossed his arms over his massive chest. "It's the only reason I came."
Brac stepped closer to the deputy. Normally he'd be all over the handsome man, but there was definitely an invisible 'not interested' sign pinned to Jessup's chest. It was obvious by Jessup's lack of conversation and grumpy expression that he didn't like Brac. "It was Ryan's idea to assign me to you. If you don't want the job, tell him."
"Didn't say that."
"Of course you didn't. You've barely spoken to me since we were introduced. Are you like this naturally, or is there something about me you don't like?"
Although Jessup's facial expression didn't change, Brac noticed a softening around Jessup's big brown eyes. "I'm not comfortable around people."
That was it. No further explanation. Brac wondered if he'd ever get more than one sentence answers from the man. "I'm likely to annoy the hell out of you then because it seems I'm constantly surrounded by people. Not that I enjoy it, but it comes with the job."
Jessup continued to stare at Brac. Eventually, he tipped his head in acknowledgement.
Brac sighed. He'd always had a thing for the strong silent type, but Jessup took it to a whole new level. It sent chills through Brac's body. He reached out and rested a hand on Jessup's forearm. "Are you uncomfortable around me?"
"So it's not just crowds you don't like," Brac surmised. He dropped his hand back to his side. "Too bad."
Brac started to walk off when Jessup spoke. "People don't usually touch me."
Brac slowed his step but didn't turn around. "Because you don't welcome it or because they're afraid to?"
"A little of both, I think," Jessup said, following Brac.
To say Jessup was socially awkward would have been an understatement, but Brac could tell there was a great deal of pain inside the big man. "I don't know your past, but I think you'd find life a lot easier if you opened yourself up more. Not everyone's out to hurt you. Some of us just want a simple conversation." He glanced over his shoulder. "Maybe more."
* * *
From the shadows beside the barn, Jessup watched Brac talk easily with a table of people. In the golden glow of the overhead fairy lights, Brac's features mesmerised him. Each time Brac laughed gooseflesh broke out on Jessup's body. He'd mentally replayed their earlier conversation at least twenty times, looking for a clue as to why the man made him feel so much.
Since his release from the Syrian prison that had unjustly contained him for more than three years, Jessup had made it a point not to get involved with people. The overcrowded conditions at the prison had forced him to fight for his safety on a daily basis. Even sleeping was dangerous when housed in a cell with five other men, but it was nothing compared to the treatment he'd received at the hands of prison guards.
Nightmares of his incarceration were still an on-going issue, one he didn't care to have anyone witness. Jessup ran his hand over the spot on his arm that still tingled from Brac's earlier touch. When he'd first been brought back to the United States, more than nine months earlier, Jessup wouldn't even allow the military doctors to get close enough to examine him. He'd eventually been found unfit for continued duty and was released from his government contract.
For months he'd wandered the country trying to find peace from the images that continued to haunt him. He'd eventually landed in Cattle Valley, hoping for a fresh start. Despite the welcoming he'd received in the community, Jessup hadn't been able to let down his guard long enough to really get to know anyone, so why now? What was it about the man across the yard that made him want to try again?
It had been years since he'd owned a television, so Brac's star status meant nothing to him. Perhaps it was the physical contact. Jessup was tempted to lift his arm to his nose to see if Brac's touch had left a smell.
With a disgusted shake of his head, Jessup stuffed his hands in the front pockets of his jeans. He'd been given a job by a man he respected. The last thing he needed was to get sidetracked by his awakening libido.
* * *
Brac woke to raised voices. Unlike the previous days, Hawk's deep timbre wasn't moaning in ecstasy — instead he appeared to be arguing with someone.
Brac threw off the covers and reached for his jeans. The idea of Hawk raising his voice to such a degree disturbed him. The thought of Kit being at the receiving end of Hawk's anger gutted him.
Racing from the room, Brac headed for Kit and Hawk's bedroom. When he saw the open door and empty room, he changed direction and rushed to the living room. He found Kit on the couch, her arms wrapped around her waist, but no sign of Hawk.
"Where'd he go?" he asked Kit.
"He's on the porch, yelling at a group of photographers," Kit whispered.
"Fuck!" Brac ran his fingers through his hair in frustration. "How'd they find us so fast?"
Kit shrugged. "Does it matter?"
"It does if someone from this town sold us out," Brac countered.
"They didn't." She looked up at Brac, who was pacing back and forth across the room. "I'm sorry."
With a sigh, Brac sat beside Kit on the couch. He brushed the blonde hair out of her face and kissed her cheek. "I'm the one who's sorry. I should've known better." Brac had enjoyed his few days in Cattle Valley. Sure, he occasionally felt eyes on him as he moved about town, but not once had he been asked for an autograph. "I should go," he said, rising from the sofa.
"Don't," Kit begged, reaching for Brac's hand. "Maybe Ryan can keep the reporters out of town."
"Oh, sweetie, Ryan can't set up road blocks just because I can't take the heat." Although he hadn't been fired from Pirates' Cove, he'd been informed his character would be involved in an explosion. Brac knew exactly what that meant. The show's writers would no doubt bandage his character up from head to toe and wait for the outcome of the internal investigation into the alleged harassment charges against Brac. If the allegations were found to be true, Brac would be fired and another actor brought in to take his place. He'd seen it happen countless times.
"But where will you go?" Kit asked just as Hawk stormed back into the house.
Brac's first thought was going home to Iowa, but he quickly ruled that out for obvious reasons. "The foreman at the EZ Does It told me I could hide out there if I needed to."
"That might not be such a bad idea," Hawk said. "The important thing is separating you and Kit otherwise I fear the rumours will never die down. Best friends or not, I don't think Kit could handle winding up in the tabloids as your lover again."
"Let me make a few calls." Brac squeezed Kit's hand before letting go. He noticed big tears rolling down Kit's cheeks and melted. "Don't cry. No one could keep me from you for long. In another week, there'll be some other scandal and the reporters will move on. But until then, keeping you out of their nasty games is imperative."
Brac retreated to his bedroom and quickly found the piece of paper with Jessup's phone number. He picked up his cell and called the man who'd featured in his nightly jack-off sessions.
"Jessup, its Brac. Reporters showed up on Kit's doorstep this morning."
"Shit," Jessup grumbled.
"If you're not on duty, I was hoping you'd help me get to the EZ Does It without leaving a trail of breadcrumbs for the paparazzi."
"I'll be there in ten minutes." Jessup hung up without another word.
Brac shoved his phone into his pocket and began packing. He wasn't sure how Jessup was going to manage to spirit him away to the ranch, but he didn't doubt the man could do it.
"So, when are you leaving?" Kit asked from the doorway.
"Jessup said he'd be here within ten minutes." Brac pulled his small suitcase out of the closet. He glanced at Kit. "Is Hawk mad at me?"
"What? Why would he be mad? He's as sorry as I am that they followed you here." Kit walked into the room and wrapped her arms around Brac's waist. "I hate that you have to leave."
"I'm not going far," Brac reminded her.
"I know," she mumbled and hugged him again. "I just wanted you to like Cattle Valley."
"I do." He kissed the top of Kit's head and released her. "That's one of the reasons I'm only letting the paparazzi drive me to the outskirts of town." He smiled down at her. "Once the reporters give up, I'll be back."
Kit helped Brac pack his clothes. They were just finishing up when they heard a police siren outside the window. "Holy crap," Kit said, darting from the room.
Brac picked up his suitcase and followed. When he peeked out the front window, he was surprised to see three police cars in front of Hawk and Kit's house. He watched as Ryan and two deputies began waving their arms at the photographers in an obvious attempt to get them to leave.
"Look who I found at the back door," Hawk said from behind Brac.
Brac released the blinds and turned to find Jessup standing in the living room. He gestured towards the front of the house. "Is that part of the plan?"
"Distraction," Jessup said. "Got your stuff?"
Brac held up his suitcase.
After a quick goodbye to his friends, Brac followed Jessup through the kitchen to the back door. "What's the plan?"
"Open the door and run like hell to my truck. Hopefully the reporters will be so busy bitching about freedom of speech they won't realise we're gone until it's too late."
Brac appreciated the fact that the bigger man didn't try to take his suitcase from him. Instead, Jessup opened the door and motioned for Brac to go ahead of him. Brac took off and didn't stop until he'd made it through the back gate. He tossed his suitcase in the bed of the dark blue Ford F250 pickup. He scrambled into the passenger seat and ducked down as Jessup jumped in behind the wheel.
"So far so good," Jessup said, pulling down the narrow alley.
It wasn't until they were on their way Brac realised something. "Shit! I forgot to call the EZ Does It to let them know I'm coming."
"Taken care of," Jessup replied.
As soon as they cleared town, Brac sat up in the seat. "Thanks for doing this."
"Is it worth it?"
"Yeah. Anything that saves Kit from public scrutiny is worth it." Brac fastened his seatbelt for the remainder of the short drive.
"No, I meant all of it. Is being an actor worth living your life under a microscope?"
Brac bit the inside of his cheek. He'd wondered the same thing lately. "Sometimes." He looked over at Jessup. "In the beginning it was definitely worth it. What kid doesn't dream of growing up and running off to Hollywood to make it big? Unfortunately, it isn't until you actually become famous that reporters and photographers follow your every move. By then you have contracts that've been signed and people counting on you to support them. What kind of person would I be if I just walked away from my obligations because I don't like what journalists are saying about me?"(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Shooting Star"
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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