A sense of duty brings a soldier home…but a passionate cowboy makes him want to stay.
After his brother’s tragic death, Tripp has to leave the army and return to New Mexico to take care of his mother while his father is in prison for arson. Seeking work at the J-Bar Ranch, Tripp is immediately drawn to injured cowboy Lucho Reyes, whose foot was accidentally crushed by a rescue horse. But will the sins of the father interfere with the desires of the son? Tripp’s father may be responsible for the death of Lucho’s grandfather. Now Tripp must balance caring for his mother, repairing his father’s damages, and trying to win the heart of a man who has every reason to hate him and his family…
Praise for Z. A. Maxfield:
“Z. A. Maxfield has a lyrical way of writing that makes it easy to escape into the world that she creates for her characters.”—Night Owl Reviews
“… The thing that you managed to pull off that made […] me happy was that ePistols at Dawn was also a damn good story and a hot, exciting romance.”—Dear Author
“Maxfield has written another gem and a winner. Run, don’t walk, to get a copy of Stirring Up Trouble today.”—ReviewsbyJessewave.com
“Secret Light is not necessarily a feel good story but it’s wonderfully written and highlights a more realistic look at gay men.”—Long and Short Reviews
“The characters are strongly written and will pull you into their story right from the beginning.”—Three Crow Press about Gasp!
Z. A. Maxfield started writing in 2007 on a dare from her children and never looked back. Pathologically disorganized, and perennially optimistic, she writes as much as she can, reads as much as she dares, and enjoys her time with family and friends. If anyone asks her how a wife and mother of four manages to find time for a writing career, she’ll answer, “It’s amazing what you can accomplish if you give up housework.” Her published books include My Cowboy Heart, My Heartache Cowboy, Crossing Borders, Epic Award finalist St. Nacho’s, Drawn Together, ePistols at Dawn, Notturno, Stirring Up Trouble, and Vigil.
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
The road home was less auspicious than I thought it would be. Traffic slowed to a bare crawl outside Las Cruces, and the overheated bus had started to smell.
Just like on every bus, everywhere in the world, people were packed in tight. They stared ahead expressionlessly, as if that cramped, anonymous ride was the best they could expect because it probably was.
All four westbound lanes had been forced into one until at last we reached what seemed like a flare-lit city of fire trucks, police cars, and ambulances. Uniforms covered the highway like ants at a picnic.
When I saw the wreck, my heart gave a lurch. An old yellow school bus with “Iglesias Angelica Bautista” written on the side had been hit head-on by a double tractor-trailer truck. The impact had scattered debris all over both sides of the highway.
A single battered high-top sneaker lay in the middle of the street, blood-spattered and abandoned. I couldn’t take my eyes off it as we drove past.
The front of the wrecked school bus was crushed like an accordion. No way the driver survived the crash. There were others lying still and lifeless beneath sad yellow tarps. EMTs raced between people lying side by side in a makeshift triage area.
I tried to make myself do the deep breathing the army shrinks taught me. I thought about trying the other bullshit stopgap measures I was supposed to deploy before going to the little pills they gave me for anxiety, which I’d thrown away anyway. I tried repeating nonsense rhymes and visualizing my happy place, but the fact is, if you’ve been in a sniper’s crosshairs long enough, it’s hard to convince yourself there’s nobody trying to kill you anymore.
I was home, goddamnit. I wasn’t in danger. Except . . . we’re all in danger all the time. We just don’t know it.
As we inched past the wreck, even I—with the knowledge of how random and tragic fate could be—shook with shock. I couldn’t take my eyes off that shoe lying by itself in the street because my brother used to wear those same Converse high-tops when he was about five. Chucks. I got annoyed every time I heard his little feet padding after me as I tried to run away and play with my “big kid” friends.
Wish I had that now.
Wish I had time to play with him and a chance to know him, now that we were both out from under our father’s thumb, but while I’d been deployed to the valley CNN once called the most dangerous place on earth, my brother got killed on the I-10, exactly like the poor bastard who was driving that bus.
The stifling heat made the Greyhound nearly unbearable. A woman on the seat behind me cried out to Jesus, starting a prayer that three or four of the other passengers echoed. Instinct, still honed to razor-sharp readiness, lifted me to my feet, even though the bus was moving.
“Sit down,” said the old man next to me, whose skin was gray with age and probably cigarettes. Tattoos littered his forearms, including one I recognized, the Devil Dog. Marines. “What do you think you’re going to do out there they aren’t already doing?”
I shrugged and sat.
He studied me. “Just get back?”
That got a laugh. “I thought so. You look it.”
He just stared at me then, and something passed between us. Anxiety and fatigue and that indefinable pinch of pain, as if our lives were too small now, and it hurt to walk around in them.
“Yeah.” I glanced away.
I sat still, even though every cell in my body was telling me I should do something. It was both my nature and, up until recently, my job to keep order. Yet now my TOS was up, and I was going home.
In spite of everything, I stayed still.
It seemed like it took forever to pass the accident.
“Lordy, Lordy.” The woman behind me cried softly. “Sweet Jesus, help your children in their hour of need.”
I let my old, cold friend discipline flow through my heart and I looked away.
Maybe I’d built up this illusion that home was a place made of safety and order, but that goddamn shoe told me different.
Anyhow, that’s why I was late getting into Deming.
I scanned every face on the street, looking for my mother, when I got off the bus. I don’t know why I thought she might come. She was afraid to drive the single mile to church. Venturing as far as Deming was probably more than she could take.
After Dad landed himself in prison, I hoped she’d start going out again, just to the grocery store if she needed to. I guessed she didn’t, because she wasn’t waiting for me.
The dirty, gray bus station emptied out quickly. It was little more than a stop off the I-10 in a hot, dry collection of buildings generosity made me call a city. Deming had little going for it besides its proximity to the highway.
I’d hiked my duffel over my shoulder and was working out how I’d find my own way home, when somebody called my name.
I followed the sound and found a cowboy standing behind me. He looked vaguely familiar, but I couldn’t say why. “Who’s asking?”
“Jimmy Rafferty.” He held out his hand, but I let it hang there while I tried to process his face. His eyes narrowed. “From the J-Bar? Your mama called the ranch. I’m here to give you a ride.”
I hesitated before I gave him my hand to shake. “Pleased to meet you, sir.”
“This way, son. I need to pick up one of the hands from the ER in Silver City. He’s going to think I left him to find his way back by breadcrumbs or some such.”
I fell into step beside him, consciously matching my stride to his leggy, rolling gait. He was all cowboy, lean and rangy. He looked about forty or so. He wore some hard road on his face, but he was good-looking in his way.
“You know my mother?”
He stopped to look at me. Screwed up his face. “I can’t say I do.”
He was proving to be a bit of a character. “Then why are you here?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, how did you know to pick me up?”
He raised his brows. “Do you need a code word or something? I’m not here to kidnap you and sell you into white slavery or nothing. Nobody told me—”
“I mean”—heat suffused my face—“why are you here if you don’t know my mother?”
“Oh.” He grinned. “Boss asked me ’cause your mama and Emma Jenkins are friends. I guess she didn’t know about Emma not living at the J-Bar no more.”
“Ah.” The Jenkinses. Neighbors for as long as I could remember. Emma used to invite my family to the J-Bar on the Fourth of July. They always made a party of it, throwing a big barbecue and chili cook-off. I think a summer picnic at the J-Bar was where I first realized cowboys flipped my switch as opposed to . . . er . . . cowgirls.
I loved the J-Bar. I’d wanted to work there.
“How is everyone?”
“Crandall passed.” Jimmy informed me solemnly.
“I’m sorry to hear that.” Crandall Jenkins was the kind of man whose loss would be felt keenly by everyone he ever came into contact with. “Emma didn’t sell up, did she?”
“Nah. She wanted to spend time with her girls and the grandkids. Speed Malloy and his partner Crispin are running the place now.”
I missed a step. Speed Malloy made my pants tight back in the day. I could barely be around him without sporting wood. “His partner?”
“His life partner.” Jimmy stopped and faced me, hands on his worn leather belt. “You got a problem with that? Get it out of your system.”
“No sir, not me.” I didn’t out myself there on the street, but I wasn’t going to let him think I was a homophobe. They probably got that shit a lot.
“Malloy told me to pick you up, on account of he talked to your mama. I’m just doing what I’m told.” He stopped beside a battered old crew-cab pickup truck. “Drop your bag in the back and we’ll be on our way.”
“Thank you.” I did as he asked and climbed into the cab beside him. After the hot, close quarters on the bus, it felt as nice as a limousine. Not that I knew what limousines were really like.
“You back for good?” he asked.
I nodded. “My mother needs me more than Uncle Sam does at this point.”
He peered at me like he was trying to see inside. “I guess things ain’t been too easy for her lately.”
“You know about my dad?” I asked.
Jimmy’s mouth tightened right up. “Some.”
My heart sank. “I’m nothing like him.”
He glanced away first. “Ain’t going to be easy to gain people’s trust after what him and his pals did.”
“I don’t need people’s trust.”
He keyed the ignition and the truck started up. “You will if you want to build a life here.”
Christ, what an awful thought. Building a life there. “I don’t know what I want, yet.”
He shot me a cryptic smile. “You’ll figure it out. You’re still young enough, Calvin.”
“‘Tripp,’” I corrected automatically. “People call me ‘Tripp.’”
“Okay, Tripp. Call me ‘Jimmy.’” He nodded before pulling out into the street.
The ride from Deming to Silver City takes a little under an hour. Because of the change in elevation, the desert, with its infrequent clusters of agave and cactus, gives way to a forest of junipers and piñon trees. No matter how many times I’d driven up that road I was always surprised by the change in landscape. It was stark and beautiful one minute, and lush green the next.
The area hadn’t changed much since the day I’d turned eighteen and left for good.
The afternoon shadows lengthened until I no longer needed my Oakleys. I pushed them onto the top of my head as we pulled up in front of the Regional Medical Center. A lone man rested on crutches out front—another cowboy, taller, broader, and darker than Jimmy, wearing a straw hat that shaded his face. He bent his leg at the knee, keeping his foot—which was encased in a sturdy black soft cast—from bearing his weight.
“Aw, shit. I was afraid that foot was busted.” Jimmy said, stopping the truck at the curb. “That’s Lucho. Go help him into the truck, will you?”
“Sure.” I jumped down from the passenger seat, leaving the door open so I could help the man in. “Front seat okay? Or would you be more comfortable in the back?”
“Back, please.” Polite.
Good-looking too. A sharp sizzle of awareness passed between us and I smiled as I opened the back door.
His eyebrow lifted.
Okay. So I checked him out. I was guilty as charged. He eyed me appreciatively in return. He had dark hair, tan skin. Coca-Cola eyes that watched my every move from beneath lashes thick as a doll’s. That dark gaze lingered on my package before traveling slowly upwards. His brief quirk of a smile sent the unmistakable message that he liked what he saw.
Message received and noted.
I held my hand out, so he handed over his crutches without taking his eyes off mine. I put my arm around his waist to steady him and pretty much lifted him into the truck so he didn’t have to put his weight on his foot.
Was it my imagination? Or did he lean into me a little more than necessary? I caught him closing his eyes.
“No.” He shook his head. “You smell good.”
Breathless, I let him go, but it was like I was in some kind of trance. My reluctance to end contact came from pure biological imperative. He felt so good. He smelled like sage and horse and the sick sweat of pain, but his muscles were solid and his body lean and strong. His was the first man’s body I’d held close in so long.
I did not want to let go and he didn’t want me to. We stayed there, looking into each other’s eyes until I heard Jimmy clear his throat.
Startled, I stepped back. Lucho gave me a playful push and another long, slow perusal that felt exactly like a juicy lick up my dick. I shook myself out of my stupor and gave up a huff of embarrassed laughter before I stepped away.
I’d never come on to anyone that hard in my life.
It must have been the timing. Everything was out of whack with me coming back home like that. With the accident and the apprehension of what I’d find when I saw my ma again.
With strangers picking me up when it should have been family.
I put my hand out to shake. “Folks call me ‘Tripp.’”
Instantly, he lost all warmth. “You’re Calvin Tripplehorn’s son?” His voice was dangerously soft.
“Not so’s you’d know it.” I’d meant the words as a joke. He didn’t take it that way. The fire in his eyes simply died and he let my hand hang there, untouched until I drew it back.
He nodded and removed his hat. Without it I could see his lean, fierce face was etched with shadows and pain. I stood there too long, staring. Cataloguing tan skin, high cheekbones, a chin with more than a day’s growth of beard.
He had a long, straight nose that made him masculine and beautiful at the same time. Stark and lovely, like New Mexico itself.
His expression had gone from interest to disdain in the space of a second, and I guessed I knew why. The Tripplehorn name probably came with a warning label around these parts. “Okay to close the door?”
“It’s fine.” His eyes had narrowed with suspicion, but he had lips like a kid’s, soft as Cinnamon Bears, and I was heartsick that I’d probably never get to taste them. That was the kind of immediate effect Lucho had on me. Desire and despair, all at once.
As he ran the fingers of one hand over the soul patch on his chin I asked, “Need anything else?”
He shook his head sharply and then looked away. “Not from you, Tripplehorn.”
My dad’s name, his goddamn shadow, loomed over me, though I hadn’t even gotten home yet.
“Be nice, Lucho.” Jimmy’s bark was a warning, like we were kids in the backseat and he was going to say, Don’t make me stop this car.
“Give me a break, Rafferty,” Lucho growled. “I don’t gotta be nice to Calvin Tripplehorn’s kid.”
Closing the door between us, I hesitated before getting back into the truck. How had I forgotten the gut-churning taste of shame?
Old memories came back to me with a violent shove. I was “crazy Cal’s” kid.
Pretty soon I’d forget what it was like to be decorated army sergeant Tripplehorn—to earn respect by following orders and keeping a professional attitude and working my ass off. Nobody around these parts was going to give me that chance.
“C’mon kid,” Jimmy coaxed.
A ride was a ride. As soon as I’d climbed up into the passenger seat, Jimmy cranked up the radio and took off again.
Nobody talked until my family’s place came into view, and even then, I simply stared. It was hard to sort out what I was seeing. The manufactured house was still there, but the screen door hung askew. Out front, weeds choked what was once a pretty garden. The chicken coop had fallen down. There was no sign of life anywhere.
“Man.” Jimmy frowned at a dust devil blowing across the packed dirt of what used to be an exercise ring for horses. “Your brother really let the place go.”
“Ya think?” I said sourly.
Concern for me shadowed his eyes as he framed his next, careful question. “You planning on fixing the place up?”
I felt exhausted already. “If my mother doesn’t want to leave, I guess I’ll have to.”
I’d thought Lucho was asleep, but he snorted derisively from the back seat. “Maybe you ought to just burn it down. You Tripplehorn motherfuckers got a lot of experience with arson, after all.”
“Thanks for the ride.” I didn’t wait for a response, if they had one. I opened the door and jumped down, lifting my chin politely to Jimmy when I went to retrieve my duffel. Fuck Lucho. I’d be goddamned if I’d let any man see me blow my cool over a few words. A few true words.
Lucho stared stonily ahead, but Jimmy said something I couldn’t hear that made him get out and hobble up into the passenger seat. This time, I didn’t bother trying to help him. I guessed he wouldn’t have welcomed my assistance again, anyway.
Gravel flew and dust boiled up into a cloud behind Jimmy’s truck as he drove off. That left me alone to stare at my mother’s house. I couldn’t call it home, not anymore. Maybe I never could.
Something made me hesitate at the foot of the driveway. I felt like a deaf vampire—I needed an invitation to cross the threshold but wouldn’t hear it, even if it came.
I eyed the gravel path, half expecting to see balls or toys strewn around—a Frisbee or a kid’s bike. Heath and I used to play there sometimes, mostly out of boredom. We never exactly got along. When I left home, it was a kind of relief for both of us. He got to stop living in my shadow, and I got to stop watching him turn into my dad.
If only my father’s affection hadn’t been some sick contest between us. We’d spent our childhood like feral dogs, fighting for the smallest crumbs of kindness, and our dad had liked it that way.
When the time came to leave, I’d never looked back.
That’s not to say I didn’t wish things had been different. When Ma brought Heath home from the hospital he was so tiny and perfect. Even though I was sure I didn’t want a brother, something had made me love him anyway. Something had made me want to protect him, and I did, until he got big enough to stop me—until what I tried to protect him from was Dad, and Heath could never see any danger there.
I picked up my duffel and stepped up onto the porch. A faded wooden sign next to the door featured an American flag and beneath that, it said Welcome.
Despite that, I hesitated.
I didn’t know if I was welcome.
I knocked three times and waited. I could hear footsteps and then a pause, as if whoever was inside peered out the peephole at me. The door flew open and the next thing I knew Ma enveloped me in such a bone-crushing hug I dropped my bag. I could barely croak out hello and kiss her cheek before she was pushing me away so she could get a good look at me.
“Look at those muscles!” Tears glittered in her eyes as she reached up to run soft hands over my regulation hair cut. “You’re so handsome.”
“You haven’t changed.” Like all kids, I’d believed my mom was pretty. Now I could see how true that was. She was fine-boned but delicate. Pale as a white rose.
“Of course I have. I’m ancient.”
No, she wasn’t. Her dark hair was threaded with light silver, but it was cool and beautiful, like some fairy frost had settled on her. She wore it scraped back into a ponytail with a yellow fabric headband across the top like a little crown. I stood there, drinking in the sight of her.
My mouth was dry with fear I didn’t even realize I carried. Would Ma be disappointed in me? Would she blame me for my brother’s death?
What did it mean if I came home again?
“Come in. Come in. I made coffee and rolls.” She took my arm and pulled me toward the kitchen. On the way there, I smelled baking bread and lemons and beeswax. As run-down as the outside of the place looked, inside it was immaculate, like a diorama or a dollhouse. Everything was spotless. Every knickknack was in its place, every surface shone, every corner sparkled, dust-free and pristine.
“How are you?” I asked.
“Oh, you know.” She picked at the fancy polka-dot apron she wore over a white blouse and jeans. “I have my ups and downs.”
“I’m sorry about . . . everything.”
She shook her head. “I think I was born under a bad star or something. First Calvin and now Heath . . .”
Any bad star belonged to them alone, and maybe me for my failure to prevent things, but my mother swallowed hard and then put on the false smile she’d perfected over the years.
She took a breath and sighed it out. “It doesn’t bear hanging on to the bad when things are looking up. You’re home. You’re safe. That’s blessing enough for today.”
“That’s right. I’m here now.” My voice cracked.
“And I’m so grateful.” She cleared her throat and motioned for me to sit down at the kitchen table. “Want some coffee and rolls?”
The napkin-wrapped basket of rolls sat next to a mountain of butter and jar of homemade jam. Whole wheat and honey. My favorite. I took one and bit into it, almost moaning out loud when the rich, yeasty flavor burst in my mouth. I didn’t bother pacing myself after that, carelessly slathering butter on my second and third.
“These are even better than I remember.”
“You could always put away a lot of them.” A little shiver passed through her small frame. “I’ll make you all the rolls you can eat, now that you’re home.”
“I’d better keep on working out so I don’t get fat.” I sighed with contentment and heaped a fourth roll with jam. Only the long-held belief that a real man had manners kept me from shoveling it into my mouth before talking. “Thanks for getting me a ride from town.”
“I called over to the ranch house and you know what? Emma doesn’t live there anymore. Speed Malloy runs the place for her now. He was the Crandall’s foster son. He came—I don’t know—about twenty years ago?”
“I remember Malloy.” Did I ever.
“I was just sick when Crandall passed. He was still so full of life. I sent a casserole with Mrs.—”
“Tell me about things here.” Ma used to be nervous most of the time, afraid of public places and strangers and germs. She didn’t like driving and only went out if someone took her. I’d been worried how she’d even been getting groceries. “Have you been able to drive the truck?”
“I don’t go anywhere, really. Mrs. Cliff calls to see if I need anything when she heads in to Silver City. She’s been very kind.” As she talked of our nearest neighbor, she traced an old wound on the table. “The younger Mrs. Cliff. Kyle’s wife.”
I nodded again. Kyle was my age; we’d gone to school together. It was hard to imagine him with a wife when the last time I saw him he’d just learned to light his farts on fire. “Have you thought about what you want to do?”
My mother’s blank gaze met mine. “Do?”
“About the house,” I said as gently as I could. “About where you want to live now Heath is gone.”
“I live here, silly.” She got up like she’d been shot from her chair and went to the sink to give it an unnecessary wipe-down.
“You want to stay here?”
She gave me a look that clearly said, Duh. “This is my home. Where else would I go?”
“Closer to town, maybe? To a smaller place that needs less work?”
“Now, why would I want to do that?”
“You’re isolated out here. Do you really want to be all alone?”
“I’m not alone, honey. You’re here now. Run along and put your things in your old room.”
And just like that, she’d both condemned and dismissed me. “Ma—”
“Heath gave the room a more adult makeover after you went away.”
“Ma. I can’t sleep in Heath’s room.”
“As much as I miss him,” she said quietly, “we can’t change the fact he’s gone. It’s your room now. You can feel free to put your stamp on it as you go.”
No. “What about the office?”
She stopped scrubbing and looked back at me. “That’s your daddy’s.”
“He’s not here.”
“You can’t mess with your daddy’s office, honey. He wouldn’t like that.”
“What’s the worst he can do? Call me from prison and tell me to stop it?”
“Hush.” Her pretty white teeth savaged her lower lip. “You can’t change Daddy’s office. He wouldn’t like that. Don’t ask me again.”
I knew enough about strategy to regroup and plan a better offensive. “I’ll stay in Heath’s room, but just for now. We’re going to have to talk about staying here. Part of it will depend on whether I can get a job. You know that’s not going to be easy . . .”
“I—” She bit her lip. “I have a confession to make. Don’t be mad at me, but I did some meddling.”
“What kind of meddling?” Did Kyle Cliff have sisters? Please, God, please. Don’t let her be matchmaking.
“When I called Speed Malloy to see if someone could pick you up, I also asked if they might need another hand.”
“You did?” I sat back in my chair. The J-Bar? Why did my first thought center on a pair of furious brown eyes? “That might not be so easy, Ma.”
“Why not? You loved riding when you were a kid. I thought maybe it would be a way for you to ease back into civilian life.”
“But—” I let myself imagine it. “There’s a helluva lot more to ranch work than riding.”
Ranching had been my secret dream at one time. Working outdoors in all seasons. Taking care of some land and a few animals. I’d wanted to be a cowboy since I was a little kid. I’d only chosen the army because it came with a guarantee I’d work on the other side of the world.
Ma pressed on. “I know you were going to look for work in Silver City, but I go way back with Emma Jenkins, and I figured if anyone would hire you around here, it would be the J-Bar, because it’s spring, and—”
“What did they say?” Excitement built inside me. I tried to tamp it down because I didn’t want to get my hopes up.
“Speed Malloy says if you come by sometime tomorrow morning, he’ll talk to you. He’s got a hand that broke his foot.” Her eyes widened comically. “Did I really say that? That sounds so strange. One of their hands broke his foot!”
I didn’t laugh with her; I was way too preoccupied with how I’d come across as a job applicant, seeing as there were plenty of good reasons to pass on hiring a Tripplehorn in general, and me specifically. It’s not like I knew anything about ranch work.
I was way too preoccupied with how I would work side by side with someone who hated me. Someone who lit me up like a Christmas Tree, who hated me.
“Did they say when I should go over there?”
“Before eight.” Ma stacked my empty plate and coffee cup and brushed the crumbs off the table, into her hand. “Will you go? He said there are no guarantees, but he’ll talk to you.”
“That’s—” Anxiety and excitement fought for space in my head. “I will. That’s great, Ma. Thanks.”
“It’s settled then.” She brightened immediately. “I put a laundry hamper in your room for the things in your suitcase that need washing.”
“You can’t tell me you’re anxious to do your own laundry. I know young men better than to be fooled by that.” She took my coffee cup to the sink with hers. “Skedaddle now. If you feel like it, maybe we can watch some television later?”
“Heath . . .” For a split second, she was unable to hide her grief. She drew in a shuddering breath. “Heath liked that show about the storage lockers. He went to an auction and bid on one once. He said it was like looking for buried treasure.”
Typical. Heath had always believed in the lucky break. Too bad he never got one.
Watching her wash the dishes, I saw my future yawn out ahead of me—the whole of my life from that moment: small talk at the table with my mother. Fixing up my dad’s place. Doing the shopping and the yard work and escorting her to church.
My throat clogged with anxiety. “I’ll be just down the hall, then.”
“Mind you,” she called after me. “Don’t be worried about me seeing your dirty underwear. I don’t even think when I’m throwing it into the machine.”
Up until then, I hadn’t given my privacy much thought. I tensed up at the loss. “I’ll do my own laundry.”
On my way down the hall, I passed the larger of the two small bedrooms—the room my dad had always used as his study—and the “guest” bathroom, which was now mine. My mom and dad used to share the master bedroom on the other side of the hall.
The last doorway led into the tiny room I used to share with my brother. He’d redecorated, if you could call it that. Gray-and-beige-striped wallpaper framed cheap black lacquer furniture and mirrored night tables. The posters featured half-naked women and whiskey bottles and cars and . . . Christ. I wanted to put my head in my hands and cry because it dawned on me that I was back, right there at the beginning, and it was sad, sad, sad.
I blew out a deep breath and began making a list of changes I would make. Remove the posters, strip the tacky black sheets off the bed, take all the furniture outside and burn it . . .
Goddamn. Maybe Lucho was right and the Tripplehorn go-to response to problems of any kind was arson, but I’d been around the world, and it was just as big a damn place as everyone always said, and now I was at home again, and nothing had changed at all.
Much later that night, while my mother slept, I crept into the kitchen where I knew I’d find a big box of trash bags under the sink. I didn’t want her to watch me bag up Heath’s things. Despite her stoic words, no mother should have to go through that.
I didn’t believe in ghosts or—well . . . maybe I did. I had ghosts, like every soldier who has ever exchanged fire with the enemy has ghosts.
I didn’t believe in wistful spirits who hang around because they’re lonely or sad, or because they couldn’t catch a break while they were alive, but all the same my neck prickled while I went through Heath’s clothes. His scent still hung in the room—both familiar and heart-wrenching—a not altogether pleasant combination of man and feet and hopelessness. It reminded me of how the room used to smell when we were kids and I couldn’t keep him from throwing his dirty clothes all over the floor. It made the fried-chicken dinner Mama served ball up in my stomach like hot lead.
How could she stand living there? Why didn’t she get in the truck, no matter how scared she was to drive, and just head somewhere else? Somewhere different.
It took such a short time to pack up Heath’s things. There wasn’t much to show for his life. Some nice clothes. A fat wad of cash and a small stash of drugs. A gun.
Christ. Did he never learn the proper care of a weapon?
I found a stack of newspapers and laid them out on the bed. Mechanically, I went through the motions of breaking Heath’s Glock down and cleaning it. When I was through, I wrapped the reassembled piece in papers and went looking for something to tape the package shut.
The house was silent just then, except the floorboards, which gave up a hollow rebound creak with each step I took.
I stopped outside my dad’s office door, as hesitant to enter as I’d ever been when I knew he’d be sitting at his desk, waiting to tear me a new one from some imagined infraction.
I fought the urge, drilled into me from day one, to knock.
The knob felt cool in my hand. I pushed through and nothing happened. No alarms went off. There were no trip wires. The room was still the disorganized, jumbled mess of crap it had always been, but white spaces showed my father’s wall of crazy—where he’d posted information he used to support his paranoid conspiracy theories—had been taken down. Probably by the Feds. It looked to me like Heath had taken up where my dad left off, though. There were articles lying around. Clippings from the local papers, with names highlighted.
Disgusted, I rifled through Dad’s drawers looking for tape of some kind.
While I was there, I also looked for deeds, legal papers, wills, and bills, because I was pretty sure my mother never looked at such things, and my brother had been dead for months. What I found confirmed my worst fears.
Ma had been collecting the mail and shoving it unopened into the desk drawer where my dad kept his checkbook. From the size of the stack and the increasingly redder ink near the top, it appeared I needed to get cracking on unraveling their financial mess before someone came and locked us out of the fucking house.
I told myself finding the bills was a good start, but as I spread the many demands for money out on my father’s desk, I wasn’t so sure I could go a lot further than that. Mortgage, insurance, credit cards, utilities, lawyers: the list was endless.
Groaning—a little sore from the long bus ride—I leaned back in the office chair. It complained noisily, almost as if it resented having me sitting there in my father’s place. Probably it did. I knew Dad would resent it.
I let my gaze drift around that sad fucking desktop. Scarred with water rings and a burn or two from when my dad smoked cigarettes, the wood was chipped in some places and splitting in others. Littered with flyers and newspaper clippings.
I hadn’t looked too closely at those before, but as soon I did, I noticed a familiar face: a dark boy wearing jeans, a western shirt, a tooled leather belt with one of those big, fancy silver buckles, and a look of such fierce pride he nearly leaped from the page.
Luminous brown eyes. Brown skin.
This much younger Lucho, whose name and age appeared beneath the picture—Luis Reyes, 15—was standing in front of the burned-out shell of El Rey Taqueria in Silver City. It lay amid a dozen or so unrelated articles. A prizewinning horse. A liquor store robbery. A storm that dropped golf-ball-sized hail on the cars at some dealership in Texas.
An article on the army’s role in Afghanistan caught and held my attention, and I blinked back tears.
Maybe Heath had given me a thought or two sometimes, like I’d spent time thinking about him. Maybe he wished he’d had the chance to make things right between us.
I’d never know, now.
My heart staggered and then picked up speed. There were so many bills. How was Ma even buying food anymore?
I did some quick calculations in my head. I could afford to pay the most pressing demands right away. For the rest, I’d have to have a sit-down with Ma and find out what her resources were. If they were as bad as I feared, I’d have to do some fancy shuffling. My savings weren’t going to last long at all.
The ache that had started behind my right eye when I found my brother’s drug stash blossomed into a full-blown migraine once I’d realized how deeply messed up my mother’s finances were. There were, even still, demands from the funeral home and the cemetery where she’d laid Heath to rest, and they were threatening to sue.
I heard my mother shuffling down the hall and didn’t bother to hide what I was doing. There was too much at stake to keep her in the dark about this.
She poked her head past the door and frowned at me. “I told you not to come in here.”
“Have you just been shoving all the mail into Dad’s desk?”
“Yes.” She licked her lips nervously. “That’s where Heath told me to put it.”
I took a deep breath, buying time and gathering patience. “Heath’s not here anymore, so we’ll need a new system. We’ll go through these bills together soon so we can decide which ones need to be paid first. We’re going to have to talk about where the money will come from, ’cause I don’t have enough in savings to pay for all of these.”
“I—” She closed her mouth. “Your father won’t like this.”
If pretending Dad was going to come home to fix things helped her get through things, I didn’t want to be the guy who burst her bubble. But I had to do something.
I fought the urge to raise my voice. “Do you think he’d rather accept my help or lose this land?”
Her eyes went blank.
Folks always say you shouldn’t wake up a sleepwalker, but my ma was deliberately ignoring reality. She wouldn’t thank me for pointing that out, but at some point, she had to adjust to reality.
“Someone should pay the bills, don’t you think?” I tried to speak gently.
“Yes.” She agreed. Her vacant gaze scared the hell out of me. “I guess you should pay them, now that Heath isn’t here.”
I closed my eyes. On the one hand, I hadn’t come home to take Heath’s place. It wasn’t fair of her to ask that of me. On the other, she would never understand.
“I’m the man of the house now, Ma. I’ll take care of it.” I hated saying those words, but if they eased things between us, I’d use them. Her fear—and the long, virginal nightgown she wore—made her seem like a little girl. She needed me.
She nodded her agreement. “All right.”
“Are you okay, Ma?” How easily had I slipped into a role I’d spent years running from? I’m the man of the house, now. Are you okay, Ma? Don’t worry, I’ll take care of things.
“I’m all right.” A slightly more relaxed smile curved her lips upward. “Get some sleep, honey. You don’t have to fix everything tonight.”
“I’m used to sleeping less,” I reassured her. “I’ll sack out when I’m done here.”
I watched her leave, then turned back to Lucho’s older-than-his-years image. Even at fifteen he’d seemed poised on the brink of manhood, radiating the same inner confidence he carried today. I was drawn to him like a heat seeking missile.
When I’d brushed my fingers over his hip to help him up into the truck, he’d lifted that knowing eyebrow, his direct gaze daring me to . . . what? Take him up on the sensual challenge in his eyes? Let my hands roam over his body the way his gaze was making its way over mine?
That was pure goddamn chemistry.
I’d had some visceral responses to men and some of them led up to porn-worthy, indecent encounters, but no one had ever provoked feelings that sudden or irrational . . .
I want this man.
He’d responded to my touch as if he was on the same page—like a bolt of pure lust shot through us right there on the damn street. He’d breathed me in. Devoured me with his eyes.
I had the most disturbing feeling he’d taken a little bit of me with him when he’d left.
I blew out a breath.
Then he’d heard my name, and it all dissipated like so much smoke.
Guess he knew all about the Tripplehorn crazy, and he was perfectly willing to hold it against me.
Still . . . for whatever reason, I just couldn’t look away from that picture.
When I saw him again, I was going to work like hell to earn his trust, and if he ever lit that fire of welcome in his eyes again—I wouldn’t waste a second chance to find out what could happen between us.
I stacked up all the outstanding bills, the most pressing of which was the mortgage. First thing in the morning, I had to call the bank and explain the situation.
As an afterthought, I added that picture of Lucho to the pile. He didn’t belong in my dad’s office.
Taking the papers with me, I turned the lights off in the study before I left, hoping I wouldn’t have to enter the room again.
Back in my room the bed was still made. I didn’t want to lie in it. It suddenly seemed so goddamn symbolic: lying in my brother’s bed, which my mother made, in my father’s house.
It seemed like once I succumbed to the idea of it, once I lay down, I’d stare up at that same old ceiling and become part of the place forever.
I’d never get away.
By habit, I took out my own gun, a Sig Sauer M11, and broke it down to clean it.
A quiet tap on the door interrupted me. “Yeah?”
My mother stopped just inside the door, clasping her hands together. “A gun?”
“I—” I glanced down at my weapon. “Yes.”
“Must you keep that weapon in the house?”
“I was in the army, Ma. I’m used to having a sidearm. I don’t know how comfortable I’d feel without one.”
“But you’re home now. You’re safe.”
“No one is safe. I don’t sleep without a weapon close at hand anymore.”
She sighed. “Do you promise to keep it taken apart or, unloaded or locked up?”
“No.” I met her unhappy gaze.
“It’s the truth. I don’t promise any of those things. I can’t sleep if I don’t have my weapon. I know what I’m doing, I won’t let anything happen.”
“That’s what everyone says, and then their kids pick it up, or someone robs them and shoots them with it, and—”
“There are no children in this home and I promise you—I promise—no one is going to take my weapon and shoot either of us with it. That’s the best I can do.”
She glared at me.
“Did you need something?” Why had she come in the first place?
“I’m sorry for what I did.”
“What do you mean?” I checked the Sig’s load and made sure the safety was on before tucking my weapon out of sight between the mattress and box spring of Heath’s bed.
“Your daddy didn’t worry me about the bills. He said a man’s job was caring for his family.”
“I remember.” I sat back down on the bed, relaxing now that my weapon was ready where I could reach it easily.
“Heath was just like him. He told me he’d worry about money. He said I should just do my part and care for the house like I always did and he’d take care of the rest.”
“I understand, but—”
“I know I shouldn’t have put those bills into Daddy’s desk but there were so many and I didn’t know where I’d find the money to pay them.” She stared at her bare feet. “Did I ruin everything? Are we going to lose the house?”
“No, Ma. I told you. I’ll make some calls in the morning and straighten everything out. What account are you using for groceries?”
“Yancy Slade takes care of that.”
“Dad’s lawyer?” I knew Slade. I remembered him very clearly from the worst night of my life. “Please tell me that old bastard doesn’t still have his hooks into us.”
“Honey.” She frowned at me. “Yancy Slade has been a godsend. He takes care of me. He helped me with everything when Heath . . . when—”
“So he’s been paying for your groceries?”
She lowered her lashes over a spreading blush. “When I told him driving is very stressful for me, he contacted Mrs. Cliff directly on my behalf and gave her some sort of card to use for my purchases.”
“He does this out of kindness?” I didn’t believe it for a second. “Because he’s such a warmhearted man?”
“He has never asked for a single thing in return.” She eyed me like I’d impugned her pastor. “He’s a good man. You’ll see when you meet him again. He picks me up every week and drives me to Tucson, to the”—she lowered her voice—“facility to see your father.”
“Right.” I couldn’t picture Yancy Slade doing anything out of the goodness of his heart. “I hope he’s keeping a record of the money he’s fronted you so we can pay him back.”
“I’m sure he is.” She fiddled with the lapels of her robe. “He filed another appeal on your Daddy’s behalf. Daddy might get to come home if the court decides his appeal has merit.”
My stomach roiled unhappily. “Ma, you know what Dad did, don’t you? You were at the trial?”
“I most certainly was. But Mr. Slade and your Daddy explained how the whole thing was a ghastly mistake. Yancy says the trial was a farce. He says the District Attorney brought in tainted evidence and the judge hamstrung the jury by narrowing the definition of—”
“Wait. You can’t just take Dad’s defense attorney’s word about what happened, Ma. Did you read about the trial in the papers?”
I had. It was pretty clear they had him dead to rights.
“Everyone knows the”—she made quotation marks with her fingers—“‘lamestream media’ twists everything to support its liberal agenda.” Her shoulders had tensed and now they hunched near her ears. “I’d prefer to stay away from politics and the news and alarming things of that nature for the most part. You can’t keep a prayerful, orderly home if you’re agitated by the modern world all the time.”
“You can’t ignore the facts, either. You can’t pretend the world is soft and nice and nothing bad happens—”
“Well, aren’t you Mr. Glass-half-empty.” She reached over and gave my shoulder a firm, playful shove. It sent me into Heath’s headboard and from there, into the wall. It reminded me my mother was stronger than she let on. “You always carried a little gloom and doom with you, didn’t you?”
“I did?” Do I?
“Being with the army probably made that pessimism worse. We are all presented with horrible images daily. But the Lord exhorts us to keep them outside our home.” She tilted her head to one side, seeming to consider me from that new angle. Her eyes widened. “Wait. I know just what you need.”
“Ma—” I tried to stop her, but she ignored me and scampered from the room.
I contemplated what she’d said about Dad filing an appeal. How could she close her eyes to all the facts around his case? How could she go on blithely believing some fairy tale where he was in the wrong place at the wrong time? I’d even told her what I’d seen with my own eyes, and she acted like she’d forgotten everything.
She came back into the room a few minutes later with a glass of milk and a plate of cookies she’d warmed for a few seconds in the microwave.
Ma’s cure for what ails you.
“Let’s see if these don’t uplift Mr. Grumpy Gus.”
“Ma.” Christ. Next she was going to tell me to “open up for the choo-choo.” “Thank you. Really. But this isn’t going to help the fact that we owe a ton of money and I’ve only got a lead on one job, and I might need three or four . . .”
“Aw, honey.” She started to do that ruffling thing with my hair again but drew her hand back when I flinched. “Things are never as bad as you think.”
The next morning, I spent too much time on the phone. Thank God half our creditors did business on Eastern standard time. By six thirty, I’d done my best to reassure my mother’s most urgent creditors.
Then I turned my attention to the J-Bar. Dad’s truck started, which was a lucky break. Apparently my brother had taken the trouble to fire it up every now and again. It would do for transportation, but just the idea of driving that old piece of shit made my hands sweaty on the wheel.
I’d said it before, a ride’s a ride, but Dad’s truck had that extra serving of God Help Me because it was papered over with hyper-conservative, anti-immigrant, and downright racist bumper stickers and upside-down American flags. My least favorite referred to Uncle Sam, my former boss: “A patriot must always be ready to defend his country from his government.”
I’d signed on to die for the U.S. of A and I knew free speech was important, but even purest desperation couldn’t make me drive that truck.
After a long search, I found a rusty scraper blade in the garden shed and tried not to worry what Ma would do to me once she caught me using it on Dad’s truck. Before I was done, she came out to the porch, clutching her robe together.
“Junior! My God, stop.” Her shrill voice shattered the air around us as she clattered down a couple steps in high-heeled sandals. “You can’t do that. That’s your daddy’s truck. When he gets back and sees what you’ve done—”
“I’ll worry about that when the time comes,” I said, standing to face her. “I can’t roll up to the J-Bar with all these bullshit stickers. And call me ‘Tripp,’ please. I don’t answer to ‘Junior.’”
“I can’t, Ma.”
“Look.” She wrapped her arms around herself, even though it was plenty warm out already. “Your dad did some things I don’t agree with, and God knows you have bad memories from that trip to Las Cruces with him and his friends—”
“Don’t.” My whole body tightened up at the mention of that. I could hear a “but” coming. There wasn’t a “but” in the world persuasive enough to change my mind about Dad. “It’s more than bad memories, Ma.”
“He’s your father. You share his blood.”
“I share your blood too.” I tried to soften my reply. “I prefer to focus on that.”
“You can’t be angry at your daddy forever.”
She came down another step. “Nothing changes the fact that he’s your father.”
“Maybe I prefer to ignore the facts,” I snapped. “Maybe I’m more like my mother in that respect.”
She fled back to the house, letting the screen door slam behind her.
Damn, damn, and damn.
My dad was the one who took his frustration out on my mother, not me. I could not let things go at that.
I finished what I was doing to calm myself down. Then I went back inside. I found her sitting at the table, holding a cup of coffee between her hands. Her dark hair had come loose from its ponytail in her sleep, and hanks of it framed her face. She looked tired.
“I’m sorry, Ma.” I went to the sink to wash off my hands. “I didn’t mean that.”
“I’m sorry too,” she whispered.
I leaned against counter. “Look. It’s not easy being back in civilian life.”
“A lot of things are going to require my attention, but getting a job is the most important. You need to cut me some slack if I forget and do things my way for a while without talking things through. I’m kind of in unknown territory here.”
Brows lowered over those warm blue eyes. “What do you mean?”
I sat down across from her. “I guess I’m a little lost right now. I can’t reconnoiter the road ahead. I didn’t get a map of ‘civilian life’ before I got here. Give me some time to get my bearings, and things will be better. Promise.”
“That sounds fair.” Her smile trembled.
“Thank you.” I stood up, ready to face the job interview. “And thanks for getting me this chance at the J-Bar. It could be really . . . good.”
She smiled happily. “See? I can do things right sometimes.”
“Aw, don’t sell yourself short, Ma.” I headed for the door. “You can reach me on my phone if you need anything.”
“Thank you, son.”
“’Bye.” I waved as I left.
I shoved the sack of scraped-off bumper stickers into the trash, feeling much better about the day in general. The sky was wide and blue. Wisps of cirrus clouds streaked the sky overhead while thicker, cottony cumulus tufts built to the north. The day was going to be warm and beautiful, and I had a shot at working at the J-Bar.
I loved outdoor work. I loved animals. It was perfect.
So what if my ma set it up? I’d shave a bull moose’s balls by hand during mating season to ride a horse under the blue New Mexico sky again.
If I had any misgivings, they were all about Lucho Reyes. The thought of seeing the J-Bar’s handsome, surly hand again ignited a slow burn of pure physical attraction, deep in my belly.
That was me thinking with my little head right there.
My big head said, Whoa, boy. You need this job too much to fuck it up.
Lucho made his feelings about my family and me perfectly clear. Plus, he wasn’t going to give me points for taking over his job while he was laid up.
At any rate, I prided myself on knowing when to keep my dick in my pants.
By the time my tires crunched up the gravel drive at the J-Bar Ranch, I was ready to show Speed Malloy that hiring me on—even temporarily—was going to be the best decision he would ever make.
I parked in front of the ranch house, which brought back a wealth of good memories. As I got out, the front door opened and two men came out. I was pretty sure one was Speed Malloy. He’d filled out some since I’d seen him, but he still had a nice smile. In general, he was a fine-looking cowboy.
I didn’t recognize the man who came out with him. He was younger and leaner than Malloy. Lithe. He had sun-warmed skin and black hair that gleamed when the light hit it just right.
“Hey there,” Malloy’s partner waved the hand that wasn’t holding a terra-cotta pot with what looked like strawberry plants flowering in it.
“Hi,” I waved back. He looked enough like a young god that I almost sputtered my introduction. “My name’s Calvin Tripplehorn. People call me ‘Tripp.’”
“I’m Speed,” Malloy came down the steps and held his hand out for a shake. “This is my partner, Crispin Carrasco.”
“Nice to meet you both.” I glanced between them. “My ma said I should come ask you for a job. She said she talked to you yesterday?”
“Yeah.” Speed watched Crispin set the pot on a sunny corner of the porch. “You’re just out of the army?”
“Yes, sir,” I nodded. “My TOS was up. Honorable discharge.”
“Do you have any experience working on a ranch?”
“No, sir.” I admitted. “We had horses when I was growing up, but I can’t say I ever had much to do with cattle.”
Malloy frowned. “It’s calving season. That’s not a good time to try to get a new hire up to speed.”
“I’m a quick study, sir.” I put my hands behind my back, trying not to look like I was standing at parade rest when I actually was.
“Most people call me ‘boss’ or ‘Malloy.’”
“Yes, sir,” I said, stupidly.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This is a story about Calvin Tripplehorn and Lucho. Tripp has just left the Army on a medical discharge and is heading home to look after his mother. Finding out that his father is in prison and his younger brother is dead. Lucho, Luis, works at a ranch close to Tripp’s mother’s small family spread and has just been injured by a rescue horse. When Tripp arrives home he quickly realize his mother, who has always been kind of vacant when it comes to the real world has just been throwing the bills in his father’s desk draw. Not paying anything, or letting Tripp’s father lawyer, Slade, take care of everything. This is a situation that Tripp wants to quickly rectify. Tripp and his father have hated each other since Tripp was fourteen so Tripp doesn’t want to be beholden to anyone linked to his father. So when his mother tells him she has found him a job at a local ranch, he jumps on it. Lucho, a ranch hand something of a horse expert has just been injured and will be out of commission for about 6 wks. So Tripp is given the job, under guidelines. One being him and Lucho must get along. Can they put Tripp’s heritage behind them? Can Tripp fix the mess he just walked into or just keep running? This was my first Z.A. Maxfield book, and I went in wanting to love it! These have been on my TBR list for forever. And I did really enjoy it, but I wasn’t head over heels. I enjoyed that Lucho made Tripp work for him, but during his medicated times, let his guard down. And you saw the true feelings before, Lucho wanted you to. I liked the nickname bit, cute! I not only the chemistry between the two MC’s but all the ranch hands. The most annoying thing was the inner dialog Tripp did, normally that is done italicized so you know it’s happening, but it wasn’t so I found myself as lost as the other character when it happened. The end, without letting any spoilers that’s the last thing I expected the mother to do?! Just can’t picture it. Couldn’t get an exact age of either MC – 23-26, but at times talked, acted younger. I was given this book in exchange for an honest review by Crystals Many reviews
Not one sexy cowboy but two! How can you go wrong. There's just something sweet and real about this series. For Tripp returning home is the last thing he wants but his mother needs him, now that his loser dad is behind bars and his brother is dead. Not knowing what to do is not something he's comfortable with but maybe he can finally follow his long lost dreams and be a cowboy. The moment Tripp comes home he meets Lucho who he instantly falls in lust with but as soon as Lucho finds out who his dad is all bets are off. Tripp wants nothing to do with his father but his mom may now be a few fries short of a happy meal, so he has to tuck his tail between his legs and beg for a job at the neighboring ranch where Lucho works. The ranch doesn't necessary want to hire him with his dad being a racist jerk and Lucho not liking him, but Tripp's work ethic and ease with animals seals the deal for his new job. Finally finding some footing even though there is some hostility with Lucho, he starts to get into a groove. This new groove is not an easy journey though with his dad still causing trouble, the family lawyer being way too involved, his mom going a bit loco and a feisty cowboy not up for forgiveness. The more Tripp works at the ranch the more the animals like him which in turn softens Lucho's heart. Once the bridge is build between these two sweet cowboys, it causes all kinds of emotions to surface for the good and bad. Lucho and Tripp learn a lot from one another and together have to fight for what is right and for themselves. I adore this series and these cowboys. Great story about second chances and finding love when you least expect it.
Reviewed by Annie and posted at Under The Covers Book Blog Tripp returns from service after his brother’s death to New Mexico where he is to care for his mother while his father is doing time in prison. The bills are piling up and there doesn’t seem like much to be excited about when he returns, except for the fact that there is a J-Bar Ranch that has an injured cowboy by the name of Lucho Reyes. Lucho is a man who holds grudges so when Tripp begins to work at the ranch, he tries to keep his distance. Events from the past stand in their way, but Tripp is determined to make things work between them. MY COWBOY HOMECOMING is written from Tripp’s POV. Readers get an in depth look into his life and we don’t see a lot of good things to be honest. However, the one bright spot is Lucho. This story is quite simple. Maxfield doesn’t create too much conflict that creates such a heavy weight on its characters. It’s a pure story of overcoming one’s preconceptions of others and learning to love them regardless. I love this style a lot so it’s no wonder why I enjoyed this book. Maxfield’s writing is always very clear and free-flowing, making the pages go by quickly. MY COWBOY HOMECOMING might actually be one of my favorites in the series. *ARC provided by publisher
Another book that settled down deep in my soul from this touching series about the cowboys of the J-Bar ranch. A war-ravaged soldier comes home after the tragic death of his younger brother to take care of his fragile mother and avoid the demon in prison who sired him. Unfortunately, the sins of the father are being rained down on the son and he has to reach down deep to prove to everyone including the angry, attractive cowboy that hates him for the pain his dad caused the man's family. Coming home isn't easy, but nothing worthwhile ever is. This is the third book in the series and the second one I have read. I'm getting the idea that though there is a connectedness to the series that each story can function as a standalone if it must. Now, not to say that it wouldn't work better reading them in order since the previous couples are present and continuing through the series. The story opens when Calvin 'Tripp' Tripplehorn, Jr. returns home after eight years in the military when he learns of his younger brother's death. Tripp never thought to come back after he broke away, but his mama needs him and the jerk who sired him is safely put away behind bars where he belongs. Or are they safe from him... While Tripp picks up the neglected pieces of things around home, he learns that his mom has let it all go and his brother was into drugs and other shady stuff. A job at the nearby J-Bar ranch is a possibility if he can prove that despite his family name that he's a worthy man and a hard worker. Things don't look promising when the injured cowboy he is replacing hates him and wants nothing to do with him as soon as he learns Tripp's name. Lucho's family were victims of Calvin Tripplehorn, Sr and his bigoted group of cronies. Tripp is determined to fix everything including what he can of the damage his dad did, but he has it rough as his mom lives in her own little dream world of denial, the family lawyer is right at home in their house, and his dad is still making threats and demands from prison. Lucho's injury is serious, but he wants nothing to do with Tripp trying to be kind which doesn't deter him one iota from his attraction to Lucho. Tripp has to learn Lucho's job fast because its calving season and the ranch needs everyone to step up and he also has to gentle a wild horse on the side because he wants to make friends with that horse because he likes the animal, but because in the process maybe he can gentle the guy who cares for the horses too. The story is all told from Tripp's point of view. Tripp is a man of parts. He's damaged from the abuse he took living under his dad's roof and damaged from fighting a hard war, but he's also a guy who loves people and animals and will do most anything to help and be liked. Not that he's a doormat or bland, but just that he has some sun shining in there with all that darkness. His life has been one long string of unfairness and he struggles hard to not succumb to all that. He was a lovely flawed man who I eagerly watched as he discovered more inner strength that he didn't realize he had and the capacity of love and hope that kept him going. At home, things are tough as he battles his weak mom's issues, the shady lawyer, his dad's hate-filled and selfish schemes while at work he revels with all he gets to do on the ranch. The guy is even happy to shovel dung just to be working on the ranch which was always his dream. His determination to have Lucho was enjoyable too. Lucho doesn't make it easy on him, but Tripp is patient and just keeps trying and then when he needs him, Lucho is there for him. It was fun to check in with Malloy and Crispin as well as Jimmy and Eddie. There is such a camaraderie about these cowboys and I loved the scenes where they were all working, laughing and loving like a family. To wrap it up, this was another powerful hit and strong installment of a great series. Those who enjoy m/m contemporary western romance with a lot of heart should give this a try. My thanks to Penguin Group and Net Galley for the opportunity to read this one in exchange for an honest review.
This series just gets better and better!