Hunter Tennison had come home at last. Sitting
in the kitchen of the house in Quinten, Montana, where he’d
grown up, he now listened to his sister, Sarah, and best friend,
Jace, catch him up not only on the many changes in town during
his time overseas, but also on their new relationship -- that
happened to include another man.
All the while, Hunter gave the appearance of slouching back
in a relaxed state, grinning in all the right places and contributing
here and there when appropriate. Only, on the inside, Hunter
silently battled the brewing of a clawing, violent storm,
churning with its determination to erupt. The revelation of
Sarah having two men in her life didn’t create the chaos within
-- although Hunter intended to do his damnedest never to picture
the three of them behind closed doors. No brother ever wanted
to think about his baby sister with one boyfriend, let alone
two, even if Hunter happened to know Jace was one of the finest
men on the planet and would protect Sarah with his life. In
addition to that, Sarah had written enough about the other
guy, a young cowboy named Jasper, for Hunter to believe him
a good man too. Didn’t change the erratic pounding in Hunter’s
heart or his desire to tear through something -- object or
person -- to stifle the storm. Just the opposite. The happier
and more animated Sarah got, the harder it became for Hunter
to maintain his calm facade.
He could feel the screams pushing their way up his esophagus
to do battle against the tingling in his hands to punch holes
in walls or tear doors off cabinets. Once started, neither
I have to get out of here now.
Breathing, breathing, Hunter pushed upright and then stood.
“I apologize for cutting you off, Sis.” His voice only scratched
a little bit. Thank God some emotion was called for during
a reunion, and neither Sarah nor Jace would think it amiss.
“But I’ve had a long twenty-four hours of driving to get here,
and I’m more tired than I thought I was.” He put a hand over
his mouth and feigned a yawn and stretch. “I think I’m gonna
go to the motel and take a nap.”
Sarah bolted out of her chair and rounded the table to him.
“Are you sure you want to stay at a motel?” She took hold
of his hands, bandaged one with fingers missing and all. Her
misty stare pushed more tinder onto the ball of fire burning
in Hunter’s gut. “Your old room is ready for you. We keep
Every ounce of concern radiating off Sarah, not to mention
Jace in the background, spurred Hunter to run even faster.
Gotta get away.
Beads of sweat pearled under Hunter’s long-sleeved flannel
shirt. “I’ve been bunking with other people for too long,”
he reminded his sister. “Now I prefer solitude and my own
space to breathe.” At least that was the truth.
“Right,” Sarah replied. Hunter watched her deflate and then,
so like the Sarah he remembered, regain her smile and push
her shoulders back. “I guess I understand that. I said we
wouldn’t push.” She squeezed his hands, using the connection
to pull him into an embrace. As she slid her arms around his
shoulders, hugging him so sweetly it cut Hunter up inside,
she rose up and whispered in his ear, “I meant that, Hunter.
We’re just happy to have you safe and home.” He could hear
the tears in her voice, and it made the swell of emotion inside
him so much worse. “I missed you so much.”
His voice catching, Hunter muttered back, “I missed you more
than you can know too. I love you, Sis.” Barely getting that
admission out without cracking, Hunter pecked a fast kiss
high on Sarah’s cheek. “Talk to you soon.” He gave himself
a second to clasp Jace’s hand in a firm shake and say a good-bye
before hightailing it out of the house and onto the porch.
Hunter stumbled down the steps into blinding rays of sunlight.
The damn smell of fresh-cut grass, damp earth, and hints of
early blooming flowers assaulted his nose, reminding him of
all the wonderful things about settling down in one place
and reclaiming a piece of land to call home. This attack on
Hunter’s senses combined itself with seeing his sister and
best friend again -- along with the home that had a thousand
happy memories and one soul-ripping, horrible one -- and had
Hunter chanting keep it cool, keep it cool, keep it cool
in his head as he ran down the walk toward the gate and
his car beyond. He pushed out of the gate and onto the sidewalk,
his focus on the object weighing in his right pocket, nearing
freedom and a place to use it. Suddenly he barreled into a
solid something right in his path, umphing as two bodies collided.
Hands grasped Hunter’s arms, steadying him with a strong
grip. “Whoa.” A deep, rich voice, smooth as the strongest
bourbon, thickened the crisp spring air. “You’re going about
a hundred miles a minute in a strolling-only zone. Are you
The firm hold on Hunter only added to the chaos building
inside him; he jerked away. Automatically rubbing his arms,
he instinctually feared this person could feel the damage
beneath his clothing. Hunter looked up, intending to apologize.
A deep green gaze waited for him, along with a lopsided smile
that punched Hunter in the gut. Short, neat blond hair, chiseled
cheekbones and jaw that would make any man envious, the man
who stood a foot away from Hunter stirred at the volatile
pot within Hunter already bubbling too hot. The guy had a
tall, tight runner’s body that spoke to everything inside
Hunter that responded to other men, when right now Hunter
had no place in his life for even the hint of sexual attraction
Open concern turned the blond’s eyes to the richest forest
colors found hidden deep in the Montana mountains. “Are you
all right, man?” The guy cupped Hunter’s arm again, and it
flooded Hunter with memories of the last time Will had grabbed
hold of him nearly eighteen months ago.
No. Don’t think about him. Too much. Too much. Too much.
Licking fingers of chaos edged closer to the surface inside
Hunter. He pulled away from this stranger’s touch before it
shoved him over the edge, right in front of his childhood
“Yeah, sorry,” Hunter mumbled, dragging his stare away from
the curiosity in this man. “I wasn’t looking. I didn’t see
you. Sorry.” He tucked his head down, backing away until he
bumped into the tail end of his car. “I have to go.”
Hunter scrambled around to the driver’s side and climbed
in. The deeply tinted windows, which usually calmed him a
little bit once he was inside his car, didn’t afford the same
luxury today. His sister and Jace could walk outside any second.
And for some reason, Hunter could fucking feel the eyes of
that stranger still watching him. That piercing green gaze
assessed him, judged him, and somehow saw all the wrong things
living inside Hunter’s mind and mapped all over his body beneath
the cover of his clothes.
Everything within Hunter shouted at him to gun the engine
and peel away as fast as his junker of a car could carry him.
Instead, against every ounce of adrenaline pushing him, Hunter
forced himself to pull away at a sedate pace, fighting the
drenching sweat coating his back.
Alex watched the beat-up old car get smaller as it got farther
away, disturbed that his hands still tingled with awareness
after touching the tall, dark-eyed man with overlong dark
hair and facial scruff that pushed well past a five o’clock
shadow. The guy’s arms had been rock solid under his shirt,
even if the material had hung a little loose on his frame.
His shoulders had the width of someone who’d been thicker
all over once upon a time but perhaps an illness had thinned
him out some recently. Didn’t matter. One look at the man
and Alex had known the stranger had a body that would singe
hotter than heated coals as it stroked against another hard
male frame. Alex could feel his fingers slipping into the
back of the man’s jeans and almost moaned as he imagined what
that tight ass would feel like against his palms. Against
his dick as he slid his rigid length between those firm cheeks.
Whoa. Alex jerked himself back to reality. Back
that train up to the station right now.
Alexander Quick did not fantasize about jumping into bed
with every man he found attractive. First, it was simply flat-out
stupid to assume another man was gay just because it felt
like a spark had arced between them when they’d touched. Second,
he not only chose his partners carefully, but he also had
his private investigator do a thorough background check to
make sure no surprises ever occurred during the time they
spent together. Alex never thought so little of himself that
he assumed every man who expressed an interest in him was
only out for his money, nor was he naive or innocent. Sometimes
a man only wanted him for however much he could get while
he had Alex’s attention and interest, which was even fine
on some occasions, as long as Alex knew what he was getting
into before he took the man to bed.
Beyond the practicality of Alex’s approach to bed partners,
one word had come to his mind when looking into the eyes of
that sexy stranger: lost. And Alex did not do rescues. He
did not need a puppy. He was past that age of saving another
person, but even if he weren’t, he had far too much on his
plate right now and didn’t need the distraction of a man.
Alex had property he was oh so very close to acquiring, and
when he did, he had houses to build.
Which was why he was here. He had his Quinten tour guide
to thank. All her hard work would soon pay off for him, and
Alex never forgot or left behind the people who helped him
grow his business.
Alex turned to stride up Sarah’s walk when the very woman
herself burst out through her front door. Big, overpowering
Jace followed at a steadier pace.
“Alex. Hi.” Sarah traipsed down the steps to his side, her
flight looking as if she moved on air. “Did you meet my brother?
Shoot.” Her glance strayed down the road. “I saw you from
the window and was hoping to get out here before he left.”
What the fuck? Alex stared down the empty street,
his stomach clenching for all new reasons. “That was Hunter?”
Shit. Sarah was actually very quiet and reserved
regarding the information she shared about her brother, but
Hunter was one of three men whose names were spoken around
town with a combination of worry and pride. He was one of
the people who made the many men and women fighting in the
Middle East real to this community. It seemed every family
in Quinten had taken the men into their hearts and families.
I’ve only known one other man people called a hero.
Alex’s chest swelled with ridiculous love as he thought about
“Yep, that was Hunter,” Sarah replied. “Can you believe it?
He’s home. And he says he’s staying for good.” As fresh and
open as anything Alex had ever seen, Sarah couldn’t seem to
remain still. Her bare feet were damp with flecks of moist
earth, and her long, dark hair lifted in the gentle breeze.
Now that Alex looked more closely, he could see the resemblance
between Sarah and the man who’d just run into him. The deep
brown eyes were the same color, and they tilted slightly upward
at the edges in the same manner too; both also had a similar
shape to their mouths, a shared symmetry between the upper
and lower lips that was unique. Only these eyes before Alex
now danced with light and laughter, while the others had burned
with darkness. This mouth was turned upward, while the other
had been set in a line that had matched the tightness Alex
had felt in their brief moments of contact.
What was that all about? That man Alex had collided
with had not been jubilant and had not possessed an ounce
of the excitement Sarah clearly could not contain. Why?
No. Don’t ask. Don’t kill her joy. You have no right.
Leaning in, Alex gave his new friend a quick hug. “I’m happy
for you, Sarah.” A series of small cuts on her cheek reminded
him her last few days had been extremely difficult and frightening.
Caught in a maniac’s attempt to flee Quinten, Sarah had been
briefly turned into a human shield. “And I’m glad you’re okay
too.” He fingered the little nicks on her face.
In an instant, Jace moved in behind Sarah. His pale jade
gaze turned downright icy. He slipped his arm around Sarah’s
waist and tugged her to his chest. “Quick.” He bit that greeting
out through clenched teeth.
Alex swallowed down his laugh. “Come on, Deputy.” God, he’d
told the man he was gay. What more did the guy need to hear?
“I thought we’d gotten to the point where you were going to
start calling me Alex.”
“Maybe when you stop touching my woman so freely, I will,”
Jace said with a growl.
Sarah rolled her eyes but also smiled. “Forgive him.” She
rubbed Jace’s forearm, and Alex swore he could see Jace’s
hackles settle. “He’s had a fright.”
Simultaneously Jace uttered, “A fright, woman?” as if Sarah
had grievously insulted him, as Alex said, “I know.”
It hadn’t taken two minutes of their first meeting for Alex
to see Jace was completely in love with Sarah. At the time,
he’d also seen the clear commitment Sarah and Jasper had between
them. What Alex hadn’t deciphered was Jace and Jasper’s attraction
to each other, in addition to Sarah’s love for both men, binding
them all together. That had thrown the whole town for a loop.
For Alex it was refreshing to know he could still be surprised
in this world. Until seeing the three of them together, he
hadn’t realized just how jaded and detached he’d become. Especially
Maybe that’s why you haven’t had one in over a year.
“Do you have good news?” Sarah asked, her excitement drawing
Alex back into the moment. “Did you get agreements from everyone
Alex had come to Quinten to buy three small ranches that
butted up against one another just outside of town. “Indeed
I did. That’s why I’m here.” He couldn’t help standing up
a little straighter or from keeping the smile off his face.
“Compton, Michaels, and Sandavow have all agreed to my offers.
We’ll sign the contracts next week.”
“Congratulations!” Breaking from Jace, Sarah lifted her arms
in victory, and then gave Alex a fast hug. “I can’t wait to
see the beautiful homes you create.”
Jace actually stepped forward and held out his hand. “Congratulations,
“Thank you.” The pleasure in Sarah and then the firm handshake
from Jace filled Alex with a swift flood of warmth and affection,
something he never let invade his work. What the hell?
He could and often was affable -- being easy around people
was part of what made him so successful at his job -- but
business was still just that -- business. You’re adding
to your empire, not looking for a best friend. Get your focus
Shaking himself mentally, Alex put his attention on Sarah.
“Now I just need you to tell me what you want for your commission.
Name it and it’s yours.”
Sarah lifted her hands out in front of her and even took
a step backward. “No. I don’t want a gift.” Her brows pulled,
creating furrow lines above her nose. “I didn’t do anything.”
“You damn well did,” Alex argued. “I wouldn’t have acquired
this land so fast without you.” Inside his pocket right then,
vibrations hummed against his thigh, indicating a phone call.
“Start thinking about it,” he added as he stepped away. “I’ll
be right back.”
With his mind still on Sarah, and even Jace, Alex didn’t
bother to check the screen for a name before answering the
phone. “Hello. Alexander Quick speaking,” he automatically
said, putting a finger to his ear as a pickup truck gunned
to life across the street.
“Hey, Alex darlin’.” A distinct, feminine, southern twang
instantly transported Alex back to his childhood -- and sent
a chill down his spine. “It’s Helen Shreveport. You remember
Everything around Alex sucked away, and he felt as if he
stood in a void. “What is it?” he asked, his throat already
making his voice gruff.
“You told me to call if something ever happened, and I never
forgot. I never lost your phone number.” Helen wheezed a bit
as she spoke. “Mack ain’t gonna call you hisself, but he’s
in a bad way right now. The VA clinic transferred him to a
hospital in Atlanta. He’s gonna bust out and come home as
soon as he can, but I got a cousin who works up there, and
she told me his heart ain’t so good anymore. He’s got some
problems with his gut too. I’m thinking he’s been staying
alive on pure stubbornness. Not sure how much longer God’s
gonna let him keep that up.”
Panic waged a war against the usual calm inside Alex. Thank
God his years of education and training automatically kicked
in and allowed his mind to home in on one productive goal.
“I’ll be on a plane tonight.” In his head, he already began
making a list of people he would need to call while packing
and finding a flight. “Thank you for calling me.”
“You were always a good boy,” Helen replied. “And I know
how much you love that ornery goat.”
“I’ll be there soon,” Alex said and hung up.
Son of a bitch. You bastard. How could you hide this
from me? Alex’s hands itched to strangle the man. “Listen”
-- Alex turned back up the walk to Sarah and Jace -- “something
I can’t ignore has come up, so we’re going to have to put
this celebration on hold. But be thinking about what you want
as a thank-you, because we will revisit the subject.”
“Is everything okay?” Sarah rubbed his arm, and God, that
fucking warm sense of connection attacked Alex again. “Are
“You look a little agitated, Alex,” Jace added. His not referring
to Alex as Quick pricked another sweet pain in Alex’s chest.
“Do you need help with something?”
“No. Thank you, though. I’m getting called out of town unexpectedly,
and it’s something I can’t ignore. Don’t worry.” Alex had
to back away before these unprovoked acts of friendship mingled
with his fear and worry about Mack and pushed him over the
edge. “Those contracts will get signed, and Quick Holdings
will start prepping some of the land for building new homes.
I’ll let you know when I’m back in town.” He waved from over
the hood of his car. “Bye.”
Without another word or looking back, Alex climbed into his
car and drove away, using years of driving experience and
instinct to get him back to the motel. What the hell,
Mack? Helen had been right. Ornery was the perfect word
to describe the guy Alex called old man. Once upon
a time, when Mack had been much too young for the moniker,
Alex had done it to tease, as a way to test their budding,
yet still tentative, friendship that had slowly grown during
Alex’s teen years. Now he did it out of complete devotion
to a good man.
Mack was also the first, and possibly the only man, Alex
had ever loved.
* * * * *
Steady, Tenny. Steady. Hunter gripped the steering
wheel with such power he thought he might fuse his hands to
the leather. Just a little bit longer.
Suppressed emotion squeezed Hunter’s heart so tightly though,
he thought it might kill him. Tears slammed against the backs
of his eyes, wanting to get out, making it difficult to see.
I can’t wait. I need it now.
The moment Hunter reached a secluded stretch of road -- he
had driven away from town after leaving his sister rather
than toward it -- he pulled the car onto the shoulder and
then beyond, into the cover of trees. He tore at his shirt,
ripping it open and off one arm, and then dug into his pocket
with his other hand. The barest, first inklings of relief
hit him when his fingers closed around a cold metal object.
Withdrawing it, Hunter tensed his arm muscles, anticipating
Click. The sound ricocheted through the car. Shadows
prevented any light from reflecting against the knife’s pristine
blade once it came out of its protective base, but that didn’t
matter. Just the sound of the blade emerging allowed Hunter
to believe relief would soon be at hand. As the overwhelming
emotions from seeing Sarah and Jace again after so many years
bubbled up in him again, he put the knife against his upper
arm, blade kissing his skin. His hand shook, and he chastised
himself for the weakness, but a drive inside pushed him forward
relentlessly. Hunter pressed the sharp metal into his flesh
and sliced a short, clean line into his upper arm.
Ahh! Damn it. Damn it. Heat and acute, concentrated
pain rushed to the opened skin, and Hunter exhaled as blood
started to seep out and form a row of tiny beads. The burn
in Hunter’s arm grew, but it wasn’t nearly fast enough; he
could still feel the swell of unchecked emotion fighting to
escape. He quickly drew the blade across his arm again, and
then a third time, cutting himself open repeatedly, until
finally the fire consuming his arm from the flayed skin demanded
Hunter’s total focus in order to keep from crying out in pain.
Hunter clenched his fist again and again, watching and gritting
his teeth as lines of red streaked down his arm, reminding
him life still flowed through him even if he couldn’t bear
to feel it anymore.
Hunter had held it together at his old house for a remarkably
long time today, considering the years that had passed since
seeing his sister in person. Since being able to hug her or
touch her cheek or hair. Once upon a time, Hunter had been
able to do that with ease, but he wasn’t that young man --
that kid -- anymore. Multiple tours of duty in the Middle
East, attaching to too many people just to watch them die,
had fundamentally changed his identity.
As Hunter rose above the screeching pain lighting up and
down his arm, he finally started to breathe easier. The injury
he’d inflicted on himself hadn’t worn him down. He hadn’t
broken under the pressure. And he’d survived reuniting with
his sister and best friend without losing his shit. As Hunter
reached into the glove compartment to get the antiseptic and
gauze to clean and bandage his cuts, he accepted without panicking
he would successfully live for another day.
Still, nobody could ever know that most of the scars riddling
Hunter’s body had nothing to do with engaging the enemy during
his time in Afghanistan and Iraq. …