Cain heard a guttural moan and then
a sob, and his relief gave way to panic once again.
Without thinking, he was at Luke's door in a dozen long-legged
strides and standing beside his bed in two quick steps.
A nightlight beside the bed illuminated Luke as he thrashed,
his face buried in his pillow, moaning, clearly in the
throes of a nightmare. Perspiration glistened on his
bared back -- highlighting a number of scars -- but
Cain's anger at seeing them quickly gave way to gut-wrenching
need as Luke cried out for help again.
Unable to stand there and do nothing, Cain sat down
on the edge of the bed and reached out to touch Luke's
"Luke? Luke?" He spoke softly, much as he
would with one of his skittish horses. He didn't want
to spook the man into lashing out at him. "Luke?"
He nudged the finely sculpted shoulder once again. "It's
Hawk, Luke. You're having a dream. You need to wake
One second the man moaned terrible noises into his
pillow, the next he had his face buried against Cain's
stomach with his quaking arms wrapped firmly around
Cain's waist. Luke was clearly still in the aftermath
of his dream, and Cain had never felt the need to protect
so strongly in his one hundred and seventy-five years
"Shhh, shhh, it's okay now," Cain crooned
softly. He smoothed his palm over Luke's sweat-drenched
hair again and again, petting him with a gentle touch.
"You're not in that bad place anymore. You're right
here with me." He rubbed up and down Luke's back,
ignoring the need to ask for an explanation of what
he felt under his fingers. Instead, he just tried to
settle the heaving he felt radiating through the tension-filled
body he held. "You're perfectly safe here, Luke.
I'm not going to hurt you, not for anything."
The arms squeezing Cain's middle with a powerful hold
loosened just a little bit. The breathing slowed from
choppy to merely labored, and finally, Luke pulled away
and leaned back against the wall. His eyes were still
a little bit wild, and he wouldn't meet Cain's gaze.
"Were you dreaming about the beating?" Cain
kept his voice to a whisper. He felt the vulnerability
radiating off Luke, and all he wanted to do was haul
the younger man back into his arms and hold him close
until all the fear went away. Cain clasped his hands
together instead. "Is that what the nightmare was
Luke swiped his hand across his cheek, clearly trying
to push away proof that the power of the dream had brought
him to tears.
"Yeah," he finally spoke, and the huskiness
of it sounded like it came out of a grinder. "Pussy
of me, huh?" Luke laughed, but the noise grated
on Cain's ears. "Crying like a girl because I got
beat up in a bar."
"Not pussy at all," Cain disagreed. He hadn't
forgotten what his fingers had touched just a few minutes
ago. Christ, he didn't think he'd ever forget. "But
maybe it's the stress of lying about what really happened
"What?" Luke's head whipped around, and Cain
got the full eye contact he'd been hoping for. It sucker
punched him in the gut.
"You have incredibly expressive eyes, Luke,"
Cain revealed with a small smile. "And even if
you didn't, and I couldn't see the panic of discovery
in them right this second, I saw the scars on your back
myself not five minutes ago."
"So," Cain persisted, knowing in every fiber
of his being that he was doing the right thing here,
even if he couldn't logically rationalize it. "I
know what scars from a whip look and feel like. I know
what cigar burns feel like too. You don't get whipped
and burned like that in a bar fight. You can tell me
what really happened to you, and I swear on my horses'
lives that if you don't want me to tell another soul
I never will."
Luke's elbows went to his raised knees, and his fingers
tunneled through his disheveled hair. The tears stopped,
but his eyes were still bright with moisture. "Why
do you want to know? What does it matter to you one
way or another?"
"Because you're my employee, and you're good with
my horses. I don't want to lose you to the weight of
this burden, whatever it is."
When Luke didn't look any less like a hunted animal
without a safe place to hide, Cain let go of a little
bit of his rigid control over his desires.
"And because I like you, Luke," he added,
although he kept it light. "You seem like a good
guy to me, and I'm not usually wrong about stuff like
that. That is why I want to know who in the hell did
this to my friend."
Luke lifted his downturned head and settled his gaze
"Justin MacLesten did this to me, and if word
gets out around town, he'll grab up my sister and my
mother and do the same thing to them."
Cain could barely stuff down the rage he suddenly experienced
on Luke's behalf. He wanted to go beat the living shit
out of MacLesten himself. "What…why…how…I don't
understand." Cain held up a hand before Luke took
offense. "I'm not saying that I don't believe you,
trust me on that. MacLesten is a bastard, and I believe
him capable of just about any cruelty. But what kind
of reason could he possibly have for justifying it,
and how in the hell did he manage to do this to you
without anyone stopping him?"
"I…I did something he didn't approve of."
Luke's gaze shut Cain out completely, and it struck
Cain that it was that same hooded look he'd seen that
morning just a few days ago on his porch. "Anyway,
a couple of days later, I was out riding fence when
I got a call to meet MacLesten at one of the outer line
cabins. I thought it was strange, but he's the boss.
It's not like I could have refused."
"Just so you know," Cain cut in, needing
with everything in him to separate what he was from
Luke's old boss. "Should I ever ask you to do something
you don't approve of, or anything that doesn't seem
right, you tell me. Clear?"
"Yeah." Luke nodded. "Thank you."
Silence reigned between them for awhile. Cain nudged
again, saying gently, "Go on, Luke. Go ahead and
get it all said."
"Okay." Luke paled, but Cain felt pride stab
his chest when Luke took a visible, deep breath and
went on. "So I get to the cabin, and MacLesten
is waiting for me outside. He tells me to just let my
horse roam and to join him inside. He goes in first,
and when I step over the threshold to join him, a two-by-four
swings out of nowhere and clips me across my gut. When
I double over, it slams down on the back of my head,
and then down my back, sending me into this blurry state
of semi-consciousness. I'm kind of aware of what's happening,
but I can't seem to make myself move. It's like I would
imagine it feels to be drugged."
Luke stopped then, and to Cain it looked like the rest
of the story would be even more painful to hear. Rage
filled Cain to overflowing, and it warred with an almost
desperate need to defend this man against anyone who
would do him harm. The fact that Cain's hands were tied
to enact revenge angered the hell out of him. He couldn't
imagine how Luke functioned knowing that the scum who
did this to him had enough power to walk around town
free. Cain understood the need to protect his family
-- and in truth, he would do the same -- but it would
be damned hard to live with, just the same.
"Anyway" -- Luke finally found his voice
again -- "a blow to my temple knocked me out. When
I came to, I was naked, stretched up, and hanging by
my wrists. There was just enough give in the ropes that
I could reach my toes to the floor and hold myself up."
"Son of a bitch," Cain swore viciously. It
was impossible for him to show no emotion whatsoever.
Not when this man was involved. "Someone needs
to take MacLesten up into the mountains and shoot him."
"Yeah." Luke actually chuckled at that, and
the small sound of lightness tore right through Cain's
heart. "Except that he's not worth doing prison
"I suppose you're right," Cain conceded,
although he hated like hell doing it. "I'm sorry
I interrupted. Go on."
"Right." The tightness returned to Luke's
lips, and it revealed the secret of how much this beating
still tormented him. "When I came to, I was disoriented,
and I panicked. The minute it became clear to MacLesten
that I was conscious, he started punching me. I swayed
off my toes with the force of the punches, swinging
like one of those boxing bags you see in a gym. He seemed
to find that amusing, that I was basically doing all
the work for him. He didn't even have to move in order
to hit me, and I twirled around so much with the power
behind his blows that he was able to get me all over
"After a while, his hands got tired, or maybe
he got bored. I don't know." The words grew thicker,
one by one, as they came out of Luke. It appeared that
each sentence was a challenge to get out. Cain waited,
silently this time, praying that Luke would trust him
enough to speak the rest. "Anyway, that was when
he switched to the whip." Luke turned away then,
and in profile Cain could see his eyes blinking rapidly
as he tried to get control over his emotions. After
a good five minutes that felt like forever, Luke finally
settled his turbulent gray gaze back on Cain and went
on. "The fiery pain that ripped through my body
with that first lash is something that I'll never forget.
It's something that I'll feel for the rest of my life."
Luke's hand shook as he wiped beads of sweat off his
upper lip. "For whatever reason, MacLesten stuck
to my backside with the whip. Not that it felt like
a blessing though, because he made sure to leave some
kind of mark from shoulder to ankle, with no space spared
in between. When he finished, I was barely conscious,
and I couldn't hold myself up anymore. I was just hanging
from my arms, which were completely numb by that point
anyway, so what did it matter. I thought for sure that
nothing could be worse than getting whipped, and that
he was surely done with his sadistic punishment of me."
"But he wasn't." Cain remembered the round
scars of flesh he'd felt on Luke's back. The cigar burns.
"No." Luke shook his head, and his eyes filled
with more moisture.
It killed Cain to see it, and without thinking, he
reached out and wiped the wetness away with the pads
of his thumbs. Luke jerked under his fingers, but Cain
understood that was just what an abused animal did.
Luke had to relearn that human contact didn't automatically
lead to pain.
Cain brushed Luke's hair away from his face and clasped
his hand around his shoulder, holding it tight. "If
you can't talk about this with somebody, then you will
never be able to get past it." Cain let Luke go
and resumed a respectable distance between them. "That
person doesn't have to be me, but I think you'll find
this a whole lot easier to live with if you can find
someone to confide in and trust."
"I was assigned a counselor when I was in the
"Okay, that's good." It was exactly what
Cain would have suggested if the subject hadn't come
up. "Did you like him or her? Did you trust this
"Her," Luke clarified. "And yes, I did.
Cassie drove me into Billings twice a week to meet with
her after I got out of the hospital."
"Okay. When's your next appointment?"
"It was yesterday."
Cain's jaw started ticking. "You didn't leave
the property yesterday, Luke."
"That's because I cancelled the session."
"Why in the hell would you do that?"
"Because I just started working for you, Cain.
I'm not going to start a job and less than one week
into it start giving you times and days when I can't
work. That's not right, and it's not fair to you."
"Good Christ, Luke," Cain said in a hissing
voice. "This is your well-being that we're talking
"And this is your business!" Luke
yelled. "I'm not going to be some half-assed employee
that you can't count on!"
Cain got excited by the fire in Luke's eyes. It turned
him on, which was bad, but it also allowed him to lay
into the guy, which was exactly what he needed.
"You're not some half-assed employee, Luke! I
already trust you with my horses, and let me tell you
something, I don't trust very easily." Cain rose
to his feet and towered his six-feet-two frame over
the narrow bed at Luke. "But if you're going to
be an idiot and ignore a vital part of your recovery,
then I'm not sure you're the guy I want making decisions
for my animals!"
Luke shot off the bed too, almost going chest to chest
with Cain. His eyes swirled with all the colors of a
rainstorm. "Are you saying I don't have the good
sense God gave me to provide the best care for your
horses?" He poked at Cain's chest, but then winced
and reached for his back. "Ow."
"No, I'm not saying that at all! Wait. What 'ow'?
Luke, what's wrong?"
"Nothing." Luke dropped back down to the
bed. "It's just some of the deeper scars on my
back still pull at the skin around them when I stretch
or move quickly. That's all."
"And let me guess." Cain crossed his arms
and raised a brow. "You're not taking care of them
properly either. Right?"
Luke shot Cain one of the most stubborn, bullheaded
sneers he'd ever witnessed.
"I was taking very good care of them, but Cassie
was helping me. They're not exactly in a place that's
easy to reach, you know."
"Well then, let's solve one problem tonight,"
Cain said recklessly, so into the moment that he couldn't
back off. "Where is the cream you're supposed to
Luke's gaze went from fiery to wary in one blink of
his eyes. He leaned back against the wall, but he never
"Why, Cain?" he asked. "Why do you want
Cain took a reckless step that might very well get
"Because I'm taking over the job of looking out
for you, Luke. And right now, that starts with me taking
care of your back." …