Jimmy Rafferty and Eddie Molina go way back at the J-Bar ranch. They’ve worked together, bunked together, camped out, and drank together. So how has Jimmy failed to notice that Eddie is gay? Eddie has not failed to notice that his friend has a serious drinking problem, and he’s determined to help Jimmy kick the booze cold turkey. Taking him up to a snowbound cabin to detox, Eddie is confronted with Jimmy’s fierce denial. But the pains of withdrawal are nothing for Jimmy compared with the heartache of denying his true feelings and his deep longing…for the one man who cares for him more than anyone else on earth.
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
“[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 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 thud of Eddie’s body hitting the fender of the truck woke me up.
Where I sat, in the passenger seat of the cab, it was dark and cold. Outside, some kind of light gleamed down over Eddie and a man I’d never seen before, talking. Laughing. Big lacy flakes of snow fell around them, fluttering into and out of the glow like moths.
Whoever this guy was, he took Eddie in his arms and pushed their foreheads together, kissing him softly, and then bringing more passion to the party like he couldn’t help himself. Like he was starving and Eddie was a tree of perfectly ripe peaches and he just had to have some or die.
Eventually, he pinned Eddie against the truck and held his face between big knobby hands. He pressed steamy openmouthed kisses on Eddie’s lips.
Eddie. I’d spent a lot of years trying not to imagine what he looked like horny, but there he was, lit up like a neon sign because of another man. He looked damned good. Handsome and happy. Kind of fierce.
I wished he looked at me like that, or someone would, anyway. Someone not Eddie. Someone else, fierce and fine like Eddie, but not.
I’d lived with him, bunked with him, eaten and camped out, and gone drinking and chasing tail with him—or so I thought—and he never let on he was gay until just recently.
Now, Eddie’s naked hunger made whole my body tighten. He looked alive in a way I’d never seen him before, and damn. The sight of him like that made me think things I had no business thinking and want things I could never have.
But right then, whether I had any business thinking about Eddie didn’t stop me imagining I was on the receiving end of his kisses.
I must be drunker than I thought.
While I watched, Eddie and the stranger changed positions, and Eddie sank to his knees in the snow. He must have been digging into the stranger’s jeans in the shadows where I couldn’t see because seconds later, Eddie tilted his head, diving and pulling back, bobbing up and down, and leaving trails of saliva and steam on the man’s cock.
The stranger’s head tipped back on his shoulders and his hat fell off.
Seemed like a nice face. A lived-in face, the way it was frosted by light and pitted by shadow.
He hung there, mouth slack, blowing billows of fog toward the sky. He looked like a weathered graveyard angel getting serviced by my friend Eddie—a man I’d never known at all.
When the stranger’s climax came, I saw but didn’t hear his shout of joy. He clutched Eddie’s head to his groin, while Eddie worked himself, quaking with whole-body shudders in the shadows. It didn’t take long before he went still. Afterward he stood up, sagging into the stranger’s arms. They rocked against the truck where I sat, mesmerized by them.
They exchanged foggy kisses and whispers that filled the air around their faces and shielded them from prying eyes like mine.
I was ashamed, but for wanting, not for spying.
I’d woken partly from the jolt of Eddie’s body, and partly because it was real strange for me to be there in the first place.
I should have been home in bed. Home anyway, at the J-Bar where I worked. I don’t know why I didn’t wake up in the barn where I’d fallen asleep, wrapped around a bottle of mescal.
I mined my memory for clues, but that was like lowering myself into a cave with a dozen black empty tunnels that led nowhere.
All that should have been more frightening than it was, but I had to take a piss, and I couldn’t think beyond my immediate problem. I opened the door and lurched out.
The cold made my ears burn. I tried to think invisible thoughts as I half strode, half stumbled over the slippery pavement to the back of the truck.
God, it was cold. I had to dance around a little to keep warm while I shook off. My balls scrambled to get back inside my body and my dick about turned inside out.
Eddie and his friend stared at me as I made my way back inside the truck. I acted like everything was copacetic, ’cause it was, wasn’t it? Even though I didn’t know where I was, or why I was there, things would become clear as crystal when Eddie finished whatever the hell he was doing and we got back on the damn road.
I climbed up into the cab and slammed the door shut. The air inside was warmer than the air outside, but cooling fast. I wished Eddie’d left the keys with me. At least I could have turned on the radio or something.
They kissed some more. Laughed some more. I wondered if they were talking about me—if Eddie even thought about me at all while he was out there having fun with his friend. I rubbed my sleeves to bring some warmth to my upper body.
Did they expect me to sit there while they canoodled all night?
When Eddie finally got back in the truck, he keyed the ignition without saying a word, so I pretended to be asleep. I didn’t want to talk anyway. The last thing I needed was some kind of confrontation over what just happened between Eddie and his friend.
Eddie’s lover. What a thought.
The truck rumbled along the deserted stretch of highway while we balanced the frozen silence between us. After a while I got stiff from holding so still. I tried to move natural-like. A yawn, a stretch. A shift from one hip to the other.
“I know you’re awake. You’ve been awake this whole time.” Eddie shot me a sideways glance then turned back to the road. “And I know you were spying on me too.”
“Spying? Like you weren’t getting it on in the spotlight back there in front of God and everyone. I’ve seen peep shows with worse lighting than that.”
Eddie’s shoulders tensed. “You didn’t have to look.”
I eyed him. “I don’t have to look at a highway accident either, but sometimes my curiosity gets the better of me and I just can’t look away.”
“See anything you like?” he asked, all tart.
“You know my policy on dick sucking.” I relaxed back into my seat to prove how unaffected I’d been by the whole thing. “What is there not to like?”
“Don’t be crude.”
“I’m crude?” I wished things were like they used to be between us when we were just hands on the same ranch, because back then I liked needling him a lot. He used to smile at me and laugh at my jokes, but now, all I got was that sour look—like he’d sucked on a lime with no tequila to mellow him out first. “I’m not the guy who got his face fucked in the moonlight back there.”
“What do you know about it anyway?”
I chose to say nothing, for a change. Maybe age was finally working some kind of magic maturity spell. Maybe it was because I still had no idea where I was or how I got there and I didn’t want him to know.
He leaned toward me. “You learned everything you know about sex in a whorehouse.”
“Not true.” I’d paid women for sex. Sure. But everything I know? That was an overstatement. “I learned everything I know about sex on the rodeo circuit.”
“Since when were you ever on the rodeo circuit?”
“In your dreams,” he sneered.
I hated the way he talked to me lately. “I grew up around rodeo.”
“More like your mama was a buckle bunny and once a year you left your trailer park to go to the show.”
I gotta say, that was low, even if he was just joking. “You take that back.”
“I will not. You’re a liar if I ever heard one. How come you never said nothing about rodeo in all those years we been living at the J-Bar?”
“How come you never said you was a queer?”
“I will say this just once more, and you better listen. I am an out and proud gay man who never had no reason to mention who I sleep with because it isn’t any of your business.”
“Seems like that was everybody’s business the way you were sucking off that cowboy back there.”
Oh no he didn’t. I turned away. “Hell no.”
“You sure about that?”
I felt the heat creep up the back of my neck, but I was sure as shit never going to let Mr. Eddie dick lips Molina know it. “I am as sure as I can be that if I had to get my knob polished or die, and yours was the very last mouth on earth, I would call the undertaker and pick out my casket.”
“Is that so?”
“It is. I ain’t no queer.”
“You know what?” Eddie shouted at me. “You are the queerest man I ever did meet. You are so queer you don’t even know how queer you are.”
“The hell I don’t.” Wait . . .
I turned away when Eddie busted up laughing. I was that sick of trailer park jokes and him talking trash. Like he was such a man of the world.
I grunted. “You’re just trying to confuse me.”
“It isn’t so hard, if you want to know the truth.”
Big man. Like he knew anything about me. I turned to look back out the window of the truck. There was little to see beyond the wedge lit up by our headlights. They showed snow and sleet hitting the icy tarmac. Mist crept toward the road from the vegetation on the roadside. Miles passed under the wheels before he spoke again.
“Maybe you could tell me about the rodeo.”
Ed always mended fences first. Maybe he was the better man, but he didn’t have to rub my nose in it. “I don’t know why you’d want to know, seeing as how we’re not even close enough friends to tell me you were gay.”
He grimaced. “I’m sure you know why.”
I guess I did know why he never told me. To his mind I was dumb and we weren’t the friends I always believed we were. That hurt, but it wasn’t surprising. “We’ve even hit on girls together.”
“You might have noticed I left early an awful lot.”
“What’s your point?”
“My point is”—he didn’t take his eyes off the road to glare at me, but I knew him well enough to know it galled him he couldn’t—“you probably got a lot luckier after I left.”
“Are you saying I got your leftovers? Like, I was last call lucky?” That got my dander up, but it’s not like I cared how it happened, only that I got laid, right? “So what if I did? I still got lucky and you went home alone.”
He laughed softly. “You know that for a fact do you?”
What the hell? “Are you telling me—”
“There are bent cowboys everywhere, Jimmy. You think it’s so far-fetched?”
“I do.” He was laughing at me. I hated that more than anything. Smug bastard. “I think that’s like science-fiction, spiders-from-Mars, zombie-face-eating far-fetched. “
“Why would you think that?”
“’Cause you’re an ugly cuss!” I folded my arms over my chest and shot him a glare. “Ugly and smug. You are smugly.”
His hands tightened on the wheels. “What are you, twelve?”
God, it was pitch-black everywhere and there wasn’t a town in sight. Not a signpost. Whether I’d have recognized where we were or not wasn’t the question. I couldn’t see a thing beyond the headlights. “I’m thirsty is what I am. And hungry. Just how far is it?”
“How far is what?” Ed seemed less interested in telling me where we were than in making me feel stupid for not knowing. “Where do you think we are?”
I bit back a smart remark. “How far is it to the J-Bar?”
“We’re not going to the J-Bar.” He flicked a glance my way, nervous-like. “We’re going to my friend’s place.”
“What friend?” When he didn’t answer, I felt my gut tighten. “Your man friend? That guy you serviced back there?”
Eddie gritted his teeth. “His name is Don and he’s not just some guy I serviced. He’s a good friend of mine. A very good friend.”
“I don’t recall you asking me if we could go visit your boyfr—”
“I didn’t ask you. I’m telling you. We’re going to my friend’s mountain place for a while.”
“Wait.” I turned to face him. “What do you mean by for a while?”
“I mean, we’re going to spend some time at my friend’s place. Boss’s orders.”
That shut me up for a minute. Boss Malloy is ordering us . . . ? What about our chores? What about the animals who depend on us?
“Are we fired?” I asked. All along that’s what I feared, that Emma might be selling the ranch and the new owners would throw us out on our asses. “Don’t we have jobs at the ranch no more?”
“We’re not fired.” He slanted a dark look my way. “Not yet, anyways.”
“Well, what then?” Panic caused my voice to rise. “Are we so unsightly they don’t want us around while they try to unload the place? Crandall Jenkins isn’t even cold in his grave, and Malloy has sent us God knows where to—”
Eddie still wouldn’t look at me. “We’re doing this for you.”
I got really panicked then. “C’mon man. What’s happening? Just tell me. Don’t play like you got all the answers and I don’t deserve any. What the hell is going on here?”
“Let’s get where we were going before we talk about this, Jimmy.” Eddie finally glanced my way. He looked nervous—there were even beads of sweat popping out on his temples. “Please.”
I licked my lips to wet them and swallowed hard because my throat was parched. I sure wished I had a drink. Sweat made my skin prickle. “Am I in some kind of trouble, Eddie?”
“Little bit, Jim,” he admitted
I’d already made a discreet search for something to drink in the front of Eddie’s crew cab, and now I glanced over into the backseat. I admit what I was looking for was a bottle of whiskey or something like that. Even a can of beer would have slaked my thirst at that point. What I saw was a couple of overstuffed duffel bags and my cowboy hat. Not the battered gimme cap I wore most times, but the straw hat I wore into town. And my good boots.
“You packed my things?”
“Yeah.” Eddie nodded. “I brought whatever I thought we might need. Don stocked the cabin with groceries.”
“Did you remember to bring beer? ’Cause I could sure use one right about now.”
“Think we could stop?” I asked. I was getting a pretty bad feeling about all this. My hands had started to shake a little. “We could grab some at one of those quick marts? My treat.”
“How come?” I began to sense exactly what the trip was about. I don’t know if I understood the extent of Eddie’s determination, but by then I had the feeling we weren’t on some vacation road trip to Vegas. “C’mon. I’m thirsty. Don’t be an asshole.”
“There’s bottled water in the back. You can grab one out. We won’t be stopping.”
“Are you kidding me?” At some point, I guess I expected him to say, Surprise! Just joking. There’s a case of Bud in the truck bed. We’re camping . . . or . . . I didn’t know what. “Are you really serious about this?”
“As a heart attack.”
A long silence stretched out between us, during which my ticker beat so hard I thought it would rocket right out of my chest.
“Say it plain so even I can understand,” I said, finally. “Say it like I’m stupid. What the hell is going on here?”
Eddie glanced at me once more before turning back to the road, eyes grim, hands tight on the wheel in the ten and two o’clock position.
“Boss says you gotta sober up. He says we might all have to get new jobs somewhere and there isn’t a ranch foreman he knows who would hire you, the way you drink. I’m here to see to it you do what he says. I’m sorry, Jim.”
Sick panic roiled inside me. So many different thoughts went through my mind at that point. Shame for being the object of their pity. Anger they’d planned all this without telling me. Sheer goddamn frustration they weren’t man enough to come to me and tell me to my face but . . . What would I have said?
I wanted to rail at both of them, but only Eddie was there.
“Damn you,” I roared, grabbing for the wheel. “You turn this piece of shit around. You take me back!”
We tussled furiously, and oh my God, the road was a mess—icy and deserted. We couldn’t see thirty feet in front of us, and there I was, grabbing at the wheel, trying to force him to flip a U-turn to take me back home despite the fact I could run us right off the road and we could die there in the cold like that.
Naked panic, that’s what that was. The devil got hold of my heart and I was willing to wreck the truck—willing to get us killed—to stop what they were trying to do to me.
“Knock it off, Jim.” Eddie shoved me back. “Calm the hell down.”
I didn’t. I reached out again, clawing at his arms, his face. I wanted hold of that wheel because there was no way, no way, they were doing this to me.
“Give me that,” I growled out, jaw clenched so tight I thought my teeth would break. I used all my strength, but compared to Eddie, I’m nothing. Still, in the confines of the truck, I knew I could cause him some serious trouble, and right then I felt like I had nothing to lose.
He got tired of fighting me awful damn quick, ’cause out of nowhere, he threw a punch. His fist clocked me on the jaw and snapped my head into the passenger window. I don’t know why, but that split second of awful violence—the way he looked at me—about froze my insides. In all our years as friends, I’d never seen that dark side of him.
That kind of cold violence scared the hell out of me. I’d been its plaything as a kid, the object of my pa’s inexplicable fury, and it fair made my blood chill with fear.
While my head spun, I closed my eyes. He didn’t say anything and neither did I.
I pretended to be asleep, and eventually my heart stopped pounding and the motion of the car did its best to pull me under again.
Not long after that I sank into the black emptiness of sleep.
When I woke, I was alone and the truck wasn’t moving.
Who the hell did Eddie think he was, leaving me asleep by myself in a truck outside in the freezing cold? My pa and my older brother, Jonas, used to do that. We’d be on the road, and when I fell asleep, they’d leave me in the parking lot of some dive bar or motel—just leave me asleep outside in the dark. I’d wake up with no clue where I was, no idea if they were coming back or if I should go in and try to find them.
My first useful thought was to look for the keys, because I hadn’t forgotten what Eddie said. I hadn’t forgotten the plans him and boss Malloy made for me behind my back. It would serve them right if I up and hightailed it back to the J-Bar with Eddie’s truck and no Eddie.
Not like that was going to stop me. Where the hell did Eddie get the idea I’d go quietly? I slid over and tore the wiring out from under the dash. Found what I needed without hardly even looking.
I hated waking up alone like that. Unwanted. Abandoned.
One twist. Two. Touch the wires together and the engine should . . .
What the hell? I checked I got the proper color-coated strands and tried again. I was frowning down at the mess of tangled wire when someone tapped on the window behind me.
I glanced up and saw Eddie frowning down, no doubt pissed at what I’d done to his truck. Serves you right for leaving me like that, you prick.
“You need a working engine for that,” he told me as he opened the door. “One that has a battery.”
“Fuck you.” I spilled out of the car ready for a fistfight.
“What?” Eddie jumped back.
“Why did you have to leave me like that? What did I ever do to you?”
Eddie shook his head at me. “I don’t have a clue what you’re talking about. You were sound asleep and I thought maybe you needed it.”
I took a swing at him. “I hate waking up alone in a car like that.”
Ed plucked my fist from the air and peered at me like he was trying to see through my skin. “I didn’t know.”
“I hate that. Left behind in the car like a damn dog. Like a fucking duffel bag. You can’t be bothered to even wake me up and take me in out of the fucking snow.”
Now Eddie frowned like he was thinking about it. Now, after the fact. “I’m sorry, Jimmy. I didn’t think how you’d feel waking up alone like that. I won’t do it again.”
“Would have served you right if I took your truck and left you up here to walk back to civilization, wherever the hell that is. Would have served you right if I’d died out here.”
“All right, all right. Simmer down now.”
I glared at him. “Fuck you.”
“It’s pretty civilized inside. How about you come in with me.”
“How about you suck my fucking—”
“That’s enough.” He turned and headed toward the cabin’s welcoming front door. “I almost didn’t bother to disable the damn thing, but I thought on the off chance you knew what you were doing and could—”
“Which I did,” I pointed out.
“Come inside.” He jerked his chin toward the cabin like I was a dog and I was supposed to just follow along and yip around at his heels.
I debated making a run at him, but frankly, Eddie was a tough buzzard. He wasn’t too much older than me, just forty-two compared to my thirty-eight. But I was a lover, not a fighter, or at least that’s how I thought of myself. Back there on the road, Eddie had proved he wasn’t above using violence to get his way in this, so I went along.
You’re going to have to sleep sometime.
Eddie led me into a rustic-looking cabin that seemed awful nice for the middle of nowhere. There was a place for us to hang our hats just inside the door, over a table with a passel of pictures on it. There were old time black-and-whites of families and framed pictures of a good-looking man, a pretty woman, and some kids. There were some of the kids alone, and holy cow, there were probably a dozen pictures of Ed. He looked so young in a couple of them, they must have been from before we met.
One of Ed and the unknown man caught my eye. Something about the difference in height, the casual way they leaned together, the way they looked at each other, made me think this was Ed’s friend from the road, Don. Even though they’d both aged some since it was taken, I was almost sure of it.
No knobby hands, no weathered angel, this Don was good looking, without a doubt. He was lanky and chiseled. He had an intelligent face and a smile that drew the eye. He seemed sure of himself and charming. Whatever I’d seen in the darkness outside the car had to be a trick of the light.
Ed looked so young and earnest next to him it took my breath away. Brawny and tan, he wore a yoked Western shirt with the sleeves rolled up past well-muscled forearms and he eyed Don like he would follow him anywhere.
And that Don, he looked like he could appreciate a guy like Ed, as well.
Hadn’t I seen firsthand how much he did appreciate him?
I followed Ed’s example and hung my hat up before I looked around further.
From all appearances, the cabin was rustic with a cowboy theme, but it seemed certain whoever did the place up was more interested in creature comforts than cost or authenticity.
The room I could see was full of Hollywood cowboy furniture—rough-hewn wooden pieces with soft leather cushions surrounded a wagon wheel table. The air was comfortable—warm even—since I still had my coat on.
Navajo blankets covered the back of the couch. Vintage tack and oil paintings of Western scenes and weathered cowboy faces were artfully arranged on the walls. I walked past the entry to look around because it was easier than facing Eddie just then.
That’s when I noticed an honest-to-God bronze statue of a bull rider on a special table with a light in it. It was a great little statue—a real work of art. Whoever made it had captured the bull’s bunching muscles, making it seem like he was going to spring up into the air. They’d sculpted the perfection of the moment on the rider’s face, in his body language. He had his arm in the air, his legs gripping for all he was worth. He had one hand clenched in a death grip on the bull rope. His face was a marvel of concentration and fear and I don’t know what else. Every emotion a man faces when he looks death in the eye. That had to cost a pretty penny, something like that.
I didn’t have a lot of good memories of those old rodeo days, but when my pa was riding bulls, he’d looked just like that, like some half-man, half-bull beast. Like he could do anything. My older brother, Jonas, when he was riding, had been even better. Jonas was a bull-riding god among mortals.
I glanced around some more. It was going to be a damn comfortable prison.
Rehab. Lockdown. Whatever.
“I can hear the wheels turning in your head,” Eddie said as he took my jacket and hung it up in a closet by the door.
“This isn’t going to be complicated. Boss says you have to stop drinking. That’s why I brought you here.”
I swallowed around the fact all my so-called friends were deciding my fate behind my back. “Where’s here?”
Eddie flushed. “My friend’s place.”
“Where, exactly is that?”
“You don’t need to know right now.” He folded his arms all stubborn-like and I knew I wasn’t going anywhere. “All you have to know is it’s no use you trying the truck because it won’t run. There’s no use trying to set out on foot because it’s freezing out there and you’ll die, and it’s no use you trying to talk me out of this because what we’re doing is in your best interest.”
Well. We’d have to see about that. I knew better than to try right then, while he was dissecting me with his most irritated glare. “I don’t know why you’re looking at me like that. I’m the one being kidnapped.”
“For your own good,” he replied stubbornly.
“Oh for heaven’s sake, how’s the air up there, Mr. High and Mighty?”
Eddie ignored that. “Are you hungry?”
“I guess.” I toed the weathered wood floor. “I could eat.”
“I could make some eggs.”
Eddie and eggs. You could count on that like roadkill on a Texas highway, and they tasted just about as good. “No thanks. Got any cold cereal?”
“I don’t know.” Eddie scrubbed his eyes with the heels of his hands. “Let’s take a look what we got.”
“Okay.” There’s a saying—you don’t shoot the messenger. Maybe I was being a little hard on him. I followed him to a real nice kitchen. It actually made the one in the ranch house where Crandall and Emma Jenkins lived look shabby. This one seemed rustic, but some of those nice wood cabinets hid appliances. Even the refrigerator was out of view behind big doors and drawers. It was stocked full of so much stuff . . . I didn’t even know what. Eggs and meat and milk. “Holy shit.”
For the hell of it I started opening drawers and doors. All the upper cabinets held plates, wineglasses, and decorative shit. Below, some held pots and pans, some trash bins, and there was a drawer just for keeping fruits and vegetables cold. I’d never seen the like.
Who the hell was Eddie’s cowboy anyway? This was like movie star stuff to me. I’d seen pictures of places like this in magazines at the dentist’s office, but I’d never been in one.
“This drawer is a dishwasher,” I marveled. “How’s there a place like this in the middle of nowhere?”
“It isn’t exactly nowhere.” Eddie admitted. “I just haven’t said where it is.”
I finally opened a cabinet with dry goods in it, crackers and cereal and canned soup. “Here’s some cereal.”
The boxes I’d found held those healthy dry cereals, all-grain crunchy nuggets that ain’t sweet or nothing, and some kind of Irish oatmeal. “I might as well go back out and scoop some gravel off the drive.”
Eddie rolled his eyes at me. “Let me see what I can scare up.”
“No offense, but I, honest to God, can’t take a plate of eggs right now. My stomach feels like I already got snakes crawling around in it.”
“How about some toast then?” Eddie tilted his head, like looking at me from that angle might help explain something. “And soup?”
“Toast is fine.” I checked the clock. It was almost five a.m. We’d been driving all night, and now what? “You don’t think this is weird or nothing? Taking a person from his home while he’s sleeping, and driving him to God knows where in the middle of the night?”
Eddie fished a bag of coffee out of the freezer. He didn’t look at me.
“’Cause there’s people who’d say that was like . . . terrorist shit or something.”
“I know, I know. You’re just doing what the boss told you to do.”
He filled the coffee carafe from the sink and then lined and filled the basket, hunched over the machine to make sure he’d done everything right. After he pressed the button, he turned back to me.
“Let me ask you something.” His hazel eyes seemed to look past my skin, right into my soul. “Don’t you think you might have a problem?”
“Is that a trick question?” ’Cause I had a lot of goddamn problems, starting with why the hell my friends thought they could kidnap me to keep me from taking a drink.
He pursed his lips to show me he wasn’t fooled by my act. “With alcohol.”
“Define problem.” I could be just as inscrutable as him if I wanted.
He sighed. “All right. You’ve been drinking too damn much and it needs to stop. It’s making you lazy and mean.”
He handed me a sack of cold bread and I got out a couple slices. Wouldn’t you know? There was no toaster. I had to figure out some fancy mini-oven thing with a big knob that said Bake and Broil and Roast and Toast and Reheat and other things I didn’t even care about. I assumed Toast would get the job done.
I took a quick peek at his face. “So my problem is, you think I’ve been drinking too much.”
He drew in long slow breath. “The boss and I started to worry when we realized things may be changing at the J-Bar. Best case, we have to prove our worth to new owners. Worst case, we have to get new jobs. Like it or not, you aren’t up to looking for employment when you’re like this. Malloy said he wouldn’t hire you the way you’ve been acting lately and he doesn’t know a ranch foreman who would. You’ve gotta face facts.”
“Couldn’t you just come to me with this?” I gripped the counter in front of the toaster thing. “Why’d you have to make it into some secret plan between the two of you?”
“We didn’t think you’d come willingly.”
They were right. I wouldn’t have. I didn’t want to be there now. “We’ll never know, now will we?”
I burned my fingers pulling my toast out of the oven. I stood there, blowing on them while Eddie looked on as if that was another sign I shouldn’t be allowed to make my own decisions.
“Sometimes people need help to see things.”
I never wanted to see his face again. “You got a place for me sack out?”
“Yeah.” He pulled a bottle of water from the fridge and gave it to me. “I’ll show you.”
I picked up the water and toast. I didn’t bother spreading it with anything, and wasn’t that cliché? Bread and water. Prison.
He led me up the stairs to a bedroom so plain and impersonal I glanced around for any sign that anyone had ever lived there.
A dark blue rag rug covered most of the wooden floor. There was a tall dresser, an iron bed, and a couple of low night tables. The walls were a cream color that matched the bedding and a comfortable-looking upholstered chair. The closet was empty.
“This is the guest room. You can make yourself at home in here.” Ed led me across the room to point out that it had its own bath. “The water heater’s tankless, so you need to let it warm up some. You’re stuff’s in the living room. I’ll go get it.”
After he left, I tried the bed out by lying down on it and rolling around. It was nice, like everything else. At that point I’d decided to clam up and stop giving Eddie the satisfaction of my company. I wanted to explore the place, but I didn’t want him to see me do it. Most of all, I wanted to see that statue of the bull rider again.
I also wanted to wait until Eddie was asleep and shave his head. There were a hundred reasons why this was wrong, and he didn’t see any of them.
I’d trusted Eddie. I’d known him for so long I could hardly remember when I didn’t know him. I’d put my life in his hands more than once. We’d pulled calves together, we’d branded and castrated and herded ’em. We’d lost stock to winter and flash floods and disease and shared our grief. We’d lost the owner of the J-Bar, Crandall Jenkins, the best man I’d ever known, and leaned on each other in the bitter aftermath of his death.
We rode together, and at night, we often shared a drink or two to wind down. I didn’t know he was queer, all that time, but I guess I could live with that.
What I couldn’t live with was him and Malloy plotting to hide me away like this because they believed I wasn’t right. That I wasn’t worth anything the way I was.
Eddie and Malloy were people I believed in, people I thought gave a damn about me, and in the end, they saw me as broken. As someone who needed to get right or get left behind.
I left the toast where I’d put it on the nightstand and cracked open the bottle of water. My heart about drowned in the sea of misery that roiled in my belly. Eddie came back in then, carrying my sad-ass duffel.
“You brought my good hat and boots. Are we going to have a party?”
“Right. ’Cause you can’t trust me not to make a fool out of myself.”
“Just so you know.” I ignored the hurt in his worn-out expression. “I ain’t forgiving this. Ever. You ain’t got no compassion, Ed.”
“Aw, now—” His tone was sad. “Maybe you just gotta have some compassion for yourself before you can recognize it from others.”
I glanced away. “Maybe.”
“Night, Jimmy.” He closed the door behind him.
I couldn’t sleep. I lay in bed long after dawn, or rather, I watched as it grew slightly lighter outside. Since the storm was still right over us, dark clouds hid the sun and a heavy snow now sifted down.
Usually, I love the snow. I can’t get enough of its silence and the way it absorbs color. I love the way it blankets everything that’s familiar and blends all that’s sharp and angular into rolling, soft powdery mounds.
At the J-Bar, I loved taking the horses out into brand-new snow. They’d roll and frolic like they’d lost their horsey minds. They acted silly and coltish in the snow, no matter how dignified their normal behavior.
I paced across the small bedroom a few times before I dug my few clothes out of my duffel and threw them into drawers. I checked out the bathroom and opened up the cupboards. They were empty of everything but toilet paper and supplies like soap and extra toothbrushes and those little tubes of toothpaste. There was a rack of extra towels and that rose-petal stuff that’s supposed to make bathrooms smell good.
After a while, I decided to open the door a crack, just to see what was going on in the rest of the place.
The hallway was dark. There was a night-light by the stairs that gave off enough of a glow so a man wouldn’t break his neck. I glanced out but nothing stirred. I felt like a burglar, tiptoeing down those steps and out into the living room, where Eddie slept on the couch. I tried not to make noise, really I did, but he jumped when I opened the refrigerator door.
“What?” He sat up and slid his wrist over his mouth. Sleep-tossed like that, with his hair sticking out at odd angles, he looked as young as when we’d met, despite the gray stubble on his cheeks. He was still a good-looking man. I always thought he had a nice face. I hadn’t minded looking at it year after year. Fine hazel eyes blinked up at me. “What’s up?”
“Sorry I woke you.” My palms were so slick with sweat I had to rub them on my jeans. “I was just exploring.”
“You hungry?” He pushed the blanket off his legs and rose.
“I don’t know.” My head really ached. I closed the refrigerator door, then opened the drawer where I’d seen the fruit. “Maybe.”
“This doesn’t have to be awkward, you know.” He picked up his coffee mug and came into the kitchen to fill it again. “You can tell me if you need something.”
I didn’t say anything. Of course it was awkward. What did he expect? I was pissed and I’d started to feel like I was coming down with something. I looked over the apples and chose a green one that looked juicy. After I took the first bite, my stomach roiled.
“Maybe we could start by talking things over,” he offered.
I put the apple down. “Maybe we should have talked things over before you dragged my ass up here without asking.”
“Well, okay. That’s fair.” Ed nodded. “Maybe Malloy and I should have asked you.”
“Damn right you should have.”
“And if we had?” he pursued. “What would you have said if we’d come to you and told you to quit drinking?”
That was tricky. I’d have said, Fuck off and die. I didn’t want to admit that right when we were both trying to be so reasonable. “I might have asked why you think I have a problem.”
“And we’d have said—”
I stopped him right there. “Talk for yourself, Ed Molina. The boss ain’t here and I don’t expect you ought to talk for him.”
“All right. I would have said your behavior was out of line.”
“I did my job. Every goddamn day I did my job.”
“Well, yeah, but half the time you were drunk when you did it. Sneaking around ’cause we weren’t supposed to know.”
I gasped at that. It was a bald-faced lie. “When did I ever?”
“You’ve been leaving chores half-finished, disappearing and coming back smelling of whiskey and God knows what all. I’ve been covering for you. We all have.”
“You take that back. Name me one time—”
“And nowadays you got a mean mouth on you when you’re drinking on top of everything else. You say shit I know for a fact you don’t mean.”
“I have never—”
“You have.” He watched me from behind his coffee mug. “Never mind what you believe or don’t believe. I’ve lived with you. I know what I’m talking about. You can lie to yourself but I’m not letting you lie to me anymore.”
I ignored him while I stalked around the kitchen, just studying things until it became apparent he was waiting for me to say something more.
“What’s there to do around this place?”
He relaxed his stance a little. “There’s satellite TV, but we’re getting interference from the storm. Some DVDs. Games. Cards. There’s a bookshelf in the study. Mostly hobby books. Cooking and horses.”
Ed sure knew the place pretty damn well. “How many times you been up here?”
He lifted his shoulder. “I’ve been up here some.”
“When?” This was news to me. “When did you come here?”
“Holiday weekends when it’s my turn to take off, mostly. Couple times when I had time off.”
“All those times you said you were heading into Tucson to visit your aunt? You lying sack of—”
“Hey, now. My aunt does live in Tucson, but . . . Yeah. I’ve been here too.”
“Well, well, well.” I leaned back against the counter and looked him over. Poor bastard glowed like the cherry on the end of a cigarette. “That cowboy’s your beau, huh?”
“No.” He flushed even darker, if that was possible. “It’s nothing like that. We just get together some.”
“Lots, seems like. How come you don’t make things official. Does he work a spread around here?”
Ed wouldn’t meet my eyes. “I wouldn’t say that.”
Good golly. “He ain’t a cowboy at all is he?” I asked, ’cause that so-called cabin Ed’s man lent us was a rich man’s place.
“Ranching’s more like a hobby for him.”
“Gotcha. A hobby.” I could not believe this was happening. I musta woke up in an alternate universe. “Anything else about you I don’t know? Do you have superhero powers? Are you a sleeper agent for an enemy government?”
“No.” He thunked his cup down on the counter. “Goddamnit, I’m the same man I always was.”
“No you ain’t.” I didn’t know what to do with my hands on account of they seemed to have a mind of their own and they wanted to fly up in the air and make gestures. I pulled my fists into my chest because otherwise I feared what they might get up to, wagging fingers in his face, maybe. “I thought I knew you. I thought you were my friend.”
“I am your friend.” He stepped toward me. His voice was soft and earnest. His eyes tired and sweet. I saw pity there, and I hated it. “I’ve always been your friend. You need help.”
“You can’t be thinking I ain’t never going to drink again. That ain’t even realistic.”
“I’m hoping you give it up, for your sake as well as mine.”
“What has my drinking got to do with you?” I asked. “It’s none of your business.”
“If you fell in the river, I’d try to save you.” He put his hand on my shoulder and it kinda burned there. I could feel the strength of his calloused fingers through my shirt and thermal, feel his grip down to my bones. “I’d jump in after you without a second thought. I’d die trying, because you’re someone I care about. Right now, this is me, trying to save you, only I have to save you from yourself.”
“That’s bullshit.” I said, stung. “I don’t know why you’re doing this, but—” Suddenly my stomach rebelled. I had to push Ed out of the way to lean over the sink and vomit.
“Christ. You okay?” He stood beside me and watched, while I brought up mostly spit and air. His gentle hand brushed my back. I turned away to wipe my mouth, mortified. He ran water to clean the sink.
“Sorry.” I grabbed a couple paper towels and wiped my face. “I guess I’m feeling a little shaky from the car ride.”
“No, I’m the one that’s sorry.” Regret lined Ed’s face. “This isn’t going to be easy for you. I did some research on what happens when you stop drinking cold turkey. You need plenty of water and light, healthy foods. I brought some supplements for you.”
“You think not drinking made me—” I stopped because his look said that’s exactly what he thought. That I was having withdrawals or something. “I probably just picked up a bug back at the ranch. Ate something bad.”
I didn’t like the way he looked at me. “I’m going to go lie down.” My stomach rebelled again so I hightailed it out of the kitchen, back up the stairs to my room.
He called after me, “Be sure and drink some water.”
I barely made it to my bathroom before I got sick again. I stayed on the floor by the toilet until I was racked with dry heaves. With a groan, I settled my body back against the tub. That’s where Ed found me when he came in. He ignored me for a minute. I wondered if he even saw me down there, but I realized he’d wet a hand towel and was wringing it out.
“C’mon, Jimmy.” He pulled my arm around his shoulders and braced me while we stood up together. The position was familiar, he’d hoisted me up off a lot of floors just like that. “Up you come.”
“Fucker,” I spat. I hate being sick more than anything.
“Yeah, yeah. You’re mad now.” He sighed. “I’m not doing this to torture you, Jim, it’s the alcohol. When it’s out of your system, you’re going to feel a whole hell of a lot better.”
“Won’t.” I leaned on his strong body. “This ain’t ’cause of the booze.”
He half carried, half dragged me to the bed. “Lie down here and let me put this cloth on your forehead.”
Damp, cool heaven plopped over my brows. Thank God he covered my eyes. At least I couldn’t see him looking down at me while I burned with frustrated tears and shame.
I got out the word, “Thanks.”
“Take a sip of water.” A gentle hand cupped the back of my neck and lifted me while a plastic bottle touched my lips.
I drank. That was soothing too, except I felt it hit my roiling stomach and threaten to come back up. I pushed his arm away. “Stop.”
“Give me a minute.” I tried to sit up, but got the spins and flopped back down again.
“I’ll bring a bucket.” He got up before I had a chance to answer. Seconds later, he came back with an empty trash can and put it down on the floor next to the bed. I lay there, flat and miserable as road kill.
I recovered my eyes with the washcloth and let my mind wander. Maybe the whole day was a nightmare. Maybe I’d wake up back in my bed at the J-Bar and everything would be normal.
Ed brushed tiny circles over the back of my hand with his fingers. His touch was so light I barely felt it, but I sailed along whatever current of thought caught me for a while, just drifting, feeling that anchor of touch when the nausea got so bad I didn’t think I could take it. I had to bend over that bucket more than once but he stayed right there with me. Eventually he must have drawn his hand away.
My skin tingled where his fingers had been, long after the touch was gone.
In the middle of the afternoon, chills came over me like thunder. My skin was clammy, but I was so cold my whole body shook. Whatever misery I’d been feeling up until then was nothing compared to that. I balled up, but still lost control. The headboard rattled against the wall behind it, announcing my predicament to the world. Movement in the shadows caught my eye as Eddie rose from the chair against the wall.
“Oh, Jimmy.” Ed’s kept his voice pitched low, like he was crooning to a baby. I was incapable of being comforted by that. In fact, it shamed me when he took the cloth from my forehead and shook it out to swab my face down. At the same time, some awful kind of gratitude seized me, and I wanted to cry with relief. I’d never been so helpless, so out of control, as when my body betrayed me like that.
Right then, Eddie wasn’t judging me, but he would, I knew. I made out like I believed I was sick with the flu, but I knew deep down what was wrong with me. The way my nerves jangled and my bones were shaking apart laid me so low, I’d have probably killed Eddie for a bottle to make it stop.
“C-c-cold.” My teeth chattered so bad talking wasn’t much of an option.
Eddie held some water to my lips and I sipped it, letting it bathe my dry tongue and throat. He put it up on the nightstand and made to stand. “I’m going to go make some soup for you. That might warm you up.”
I caught his hand. “D-d-don’t g-go.”
“I’ll be right back.” He peered down at me, his eyes were fine, just as unusual a color as I remembered. Not green and not brown, but something in between the two that reminded me of camouflage. “I won’t be gone long.”
I’d pretty much shot my wad as far as getting out words, so I clenched my teeth against the chills to keep from biting my tongue. I nodded.
He padded out the bedroom door in his stocking feet. I could hear him heading down the stairs. After that, I lay alone, my thoughts agitated and my mind suspicious.
What if he left me there?
What if he never came back?
I drifted between the two extremes of trusting Eddie with my life and the conviction that he’d abandoned me. That’s the way it was for me right then. All those scenarios—good and bad, realistic and just bugnuts crazy—one seemed as likely as the next.
Nothing in my life was predictable anymore, and no one could be trusted—not even Eddie. Anxiety gouged out whatever hope I had left inside me until I was just empty.
When Eddie returned with a bowl of canned chicken soup, my eyes burned with relief. He sat on the side of the bed and spooned small sips of salty broth into my mouth. I hated every second of it. I hated how bad I needed it, and how gently he did it. I hated how willing he was to serve me—to care for me—when I only had myself to blame for being sick in the first place.
I hated that he didn’t spell his disgust for me right out—that he just kept spooning hot soup into my mouth—and I’ll never see a can of noodle soup the same way again.
I lost that soup a half-hour later and he didn’t even get mad he had to clean the bucket.
When he came back, he pulled the chair closer and helped me clean myself up. Made me drink more water. I was no longer cold, but my head still felt like it was going to blow.
“Don’t you fret, Jim. This is all going to be a memory in a couple of days.”
“How would you know,” I snapped at him. “It ain’t happening to you, now is it?”
“I read up.” He took the washcloth and headed to the bathroom to rewet it. When he came back and laid it back down on my forehead, it felt wonderful. So cool and fresh. The throbbing behind my eyes seemed to lessen right then and there. “This here’s a phase and you’ll come out of it in a few more hours. Hang on, Jimmy. It’s not going to last forever.”
I nodded. He made to step away again and I caught his hand to stop him. “Don’t.”
“I’ll be right there.” He pointed to the chair he’d been sitting in earlier. “I’m not leaving.”
I kept his hand. “Don’t.”
“All right.” The bed shifted with his weight as he sat down on its edge. “You want to talk or something?”
I didn’t. Not really. I hoped maybe he could do the talking. “Tell me about this place.”
“There’s not much to tell. Don bought this place back in the nineties. He rents it out sometimes. Loans it out to friends.” He glanced down at our linked hands and smiled. “We’ve spent some good times here, him and me.”
“Where is here, exactly?” My voice cracked.
“Tucson. Up on Mount Lemmon, actually.”
I nodded. I could feel the altitude. That might be part of why I was so sick. “Tell me about it.”
“Don got the place to get away from work pressures. There’s not much up here. There’s a ski place and a telescope and a little town, Summerhaven, but they had a bad fire a while back. Lot of businesses were destroyed, but Don says it’s starting to come back.”
“Is it still snowing?”
“Yeah,” Eddie nodded. He used his free hand to stroke our linked fingers. “We’re lucky we made it up here when we did. The roads will probably be closed for a couple days now.”
“We’re snowed in?”
“For now. I can call Pima County road conditions and find out what’s what. I’ve been stuck here once or twice in the past.”
I took that in. “He lives in Tucson?”
“Yeah. I stay at his place there too, sometimes.”
Must be quite the thing, then, their “friendship.” “He brought up all that food for us, huh?”
Eddie cracked a smile. “Looks like you got that in common. You been bringing some of it up yourself.”
“Christ, yeah.” I hated getting sick. “Can’t say I’m doing it justice.”
“We gotta get you through this phase, Jimmy. Then you’ll feel better.”
“I don’t know if I can do this. I don’t know if—”
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I wasn't a big fan of Don's in the beginning. I didn't want anyone to come between Jimmy and Ed. However the author kept my interest and I ended up actually liking him. This book was wonderful as all Maxwell's books are! I've read nearly all of them and gave five stars to each. You won't be disappointed.
I really enjoyed reading this love story.
: I’m going to admit I read the first chapter after finishing the first book My Cowboy Heart. I was hooked from the get go. I was also in shock when I saw who the book was about. Very pleasantly shocked since I had thought I caught hints from Eddie and I will say when Eddie took Jimmy to detox him, I thought to myself how much I’d like to see what went on there. As if the author read my mind, here it was. Jimmy and Eddie’s story. I was ecstatic. You do not have to read the first book to enjoy this one. I do suggest you do since it was awesome too and once you read the excerpt in the back I’m sure you will rush to get it. A quick rundown: Jimmy has been having some issues and Eddie has taken it upon himself to dry Jimmy out. Jimmy had always been a heavy drinker but lately as things changed around the Jbar he had gotten worse and the timing was terrible. The story started out with a bang. Literally. The first line had me. And dam was it hot… and made me have a few questions about Jimmy. I love the first person view and that it’s from Jimmy as he goes through his forced detox. The story is very well-written with lots of heart, emotion and a touch of humour. When Eddie’s friend is introduced, I have to say my heart plummeted. I was like oh no, not another one of those ménages. Well it wasn’t. This was like no rollercoaster ride. Not a lot of ups and downs, just curve after curve. I promise you it’s not predictable. At least for me it wasn’t. Sure there were a few things I saw coming but I wanted them to come and at times it was snapped out of my grasp. Did I get the ending I wanted? I’m not gonna tell you. You will have to get the book and see for yourself! I highly recommend this book if you like cowboys, older characters, men with problems, alcoholics, threesomes, hot mansex and a very good heartfelt story with lots of action, emotion and humour. Did I mention the hot mansex and cowboys?
Z.A. is a go to author and I was anxiously waiting for this book. I read it 3 days ago and it is still wandering around in my brain. Do not plan to read this unless you have time to finish the entire story. You laugh, cry and sigh as your emotions are tangled with theirs reaching for their HEA. You can never go wrong with one of her books, but this is one of her best.
My Heartache Cowboy. Z. A. Maxfield Review from Jeannie Zelos Book reviews. One of the things I love about gay romance is that the stories tend to be stronger than so many hetero romances and I need a good solid backing story. I've been lucky in getting two terrific ones in the space of days. This one was perfect, its not just the Ed loves Jimmy but...scenario, but that Jimmy has problems, he's become an alcoholic and risking his job. He's worked with Ed for years now, they are out together daily, bunk together, camp out together but Jimmy hasn't noticed that Ed is gay, never mind that Ed loves him...Then one evening when he's drunk Ed kidnaps him, knowing if he leaves him Jimmy will lose his job and home, and destroy himself. Ed's a terrific character, strong and silent, loving yet solid in his feelings. No flippancy and stereotypical behaviour for him. Jimmy – well he's on the track to destruction when Ed takes things into his own hands and kidnaps him for a cold turkey cure. Ed has a long time friend with benefits lover who a doctor, Don's lent them the cabin, and is on call for advice but isn't convinced it will work. Anyway things go wrong, they end up at Ed's home and Jimmy learns more about Ed in a few weeks than he's known for years. He learns a lot about himself too – such as that he's gay. He's always repressed that side of himself, had experiences in his past with men when he was a teenager, and as we learn more about his upbringing we can see his motives and behaviours that developed from that. Ed too has things in his past affecting him. Having learned a lot and dried out though Its not a HEA yet for Jimmy and Ed – they have some fun threesomes with Don at the house. Jimmy seems to have recovered, but then...something happens and there's a huge setback. Poor Ed. I really felt for him all the way through – he was such a solid, good man, waiting all those years for Jimmy, content to just be with him however he could, but always wishing for more. Don was a hero – I really didn't like him at first, took my cue from Jimmy I guess :) and Jimmy didn't realise why he disliked Don (the Dick Doctor), but I think that’s because he was jealous of what Ed and Don had, and wanted that himself, even though he couldn’t acknowledge it. When things go wrong though that's when Jimmy really comes into his own. I love the fall down and pick up part of romances, and I like the down to last – and here it did, it was strung out til every last drop of emotion could be wrung out – fabulous :) that made the upside so much more sweeter. There's sex in here, lots and lots of it, m/m of course and m/m/m too , and I’ve just written a review of another book saying how the story needs to be strong to carry scenes like this. Well, unlike that book, in this one it is, the love scenes fit the plot and become part of the story. I loved the psychology of the characters too, seeing how their pasts affected their present, and how they had to overcome or learn to deal with certain events. A fabulous book for all romance lovers, heart-warming and tear jerking, and all wrapped in a satisfying story. Stars: five. ARC supplied via Netgalley Edit: I've re reads this since review and forgotten to comment on the fabulous dry humour laced throughout. From Jimmy's hot tub musings, where he pondered would they turn into soup if they added a few vegetables and sat there long enough,(sounds like the kind of thing my mind would come up with!) to a bit at the end “ I love you ----, I’m an alcoholic”.. “stop while you're ahead Jim” :) adds a real extra to the novel.