An ice-cold wind blasted through the open doorway as a man entered the bar. Benedict's heart seemed to stop beating for a split second and then sped up as a burst of adrenaline shot through him when he recognized the tall, lean figure standing near the doorway. He almost blacked out and as an afterthought remembered to breathe. He drew in oxygen and then slowly released it in an attempt to steady his nerves. And then another. Benedict's vision cleared. He looked again at the stranger who had entered the bar. He wasn't mistaken.
Destrie was back.
Benedict surmised it wasn't exactly the best sort of homecoming a man fighting for his country should expect. Not that Destrie had ever really thought of Coyote Forks as home. He'd returned for his foster dad's funeral, not for any sort of holiday celebration. And as prepared as Benedict thought he was to see his ex-lover after all these years, this wasn't what he'd imagined. He wasn't prepared. Not by a long shot.
Nobody in this town was gonna say, Welcome home, Destrie
. Not a one of them would offer a handshake or buy him a drink. By the ice-cold expression on Destrie's face, he sure as hell didn't expect a warm homecoming from this crowd. His expression said, Fuck you all. Just try to run me out this time.
The decibel of noise in the bar of Friday-night cowboy rowdiness diminished significantly, coming more in line with a dead man's wake than a soldier's homecoming, when Destrie Two Rivers walked through the door. The echo of laughter was strangled by the deafening, shocked silence of a morgue. He was a ghost from the past, and not one this crowd wanted rising from the dead.
Benedict swallowed a long gulp of cold draft from his glass and then leaned back against the roughened beam in a corner on the other side of the room. His gaze raked over Destrie. From beneath the broad brim of the hat shading his expression, Benedict studied the man, the room, the ugly mob forming adjacent to him on the other side of the crowded, smoke-filled room.
The surly group hovered close together, like a bunch of cows huddled under a tree braced for a storm, with Benedict's brother, Jake, being the tree at its nucleus. They represented the worst, the rowdiest, of Coyote Forks. And tonight they were Friday-night drunk. Destrie's arrival would only stoke the already-simmering blaze that, at full blast, was likely to erupt into an all-out bloody barroom brawl.
Benedict was no longer the eighteen-year-old cub he'd been when Destrie left town. He'd learned a lot in eight years. The wolf inside him unfurled, readying to attack at the least spark of full-out trouble. He was no longer naive to the brutality that lurked beneath the surface of his hometown. And this time, he might go down, but he'd be taking a few of Jake's cronies with him. He turned his attention from Jake's mongrel pack to look at Destrie. There was controlled challenge in those coal black eyes.
But then, there had been no fear there when Jake and his buddies descended on them like a pack of ravenous coyotes eight years ago. Benedict narrowed his gaze. From this distance he couldn't spot the scar on Destrie's face. Had it faded?
He heard the whispered mumblings crest over the room like the distant rumble of thunder presaging a storm.
But the desire building inside Benedict was even stronger. He still felt that familiar surge of lust when Destrie walked into a room. It was something he hadn't experienced in a long time. And he was still just as tongue-tied as the first time they'd fucked. The high cheekbones were just as strongly pronounced as Benedict remembered. Destrie had filled out some, and the striped black-and-white shirt he wore stretched across shoulders broader than Benedict recalled. Benedict's gaze drifted downward, to the polished silver and turquoise belt buckle that winked back at him. He remembered the buckle. Destrie had won it at the first rodeo they'd ever ridden in. That bronc was one neither of them would ever forget. He closed his eyes, afraid to face the memory that struggled for freedom inside his head.
It was riding that high, feeling that energy, that had them down by the river with a six-pack of Bud after the rodeo. Shucking clothes at midnight in the sweltering Wyoming late-summer heat.
It was the water that had made it so easy. Destrie's cock had slid inside Benedict's hole so smooth. Made it feel so damn good. His big hand with those long fingers wrapped around Benedict's dick as Destrie fucked him. The only sounds that night had been the ripple of waves against the sandy bank, the bullfrogs croaking, the chirp of crickets, the lone cry of a coyote in the distance. And the groans of pleasure that had erupted from his throat as Destrie had ridden him.
With a few deep breaths to calm himself, he opened his eyes and looked at Destrie across the crowded bar. Destrie's thick black hair no longer flowed wildly past his shoulders, trailing down his back, a defiant badge of his lost Native American heritage. It was now buzzed to U. S. Army-regulation length, and his stance was controlled at ease, hands clasped behind his back as he studied the room. The brown leather jacket only added to the breadth of the half-breed. There was a lethal alertness to the mature man, one Benedict didn't think even Jake and his friends would want to take on. Not here in front of so many witnesses, at any rate.
No, Jake and his friends liked to do their damage under cover of darkness, when no one was around to witness the havoc they wreaked. But everyone in Coyote Forks knew what had happened eight years ago; it was just no one talked about it. No one dared.
Benedict slapped his glass down on the table, swung around, and headed toward the back door. He shoved at the cold metal bar and stepped out into the frigid, subzero December night. He didn't feel the freezing air slice across his face. It helped to cool the hungry, blazing fire that whipped at his body as memory surged through him like a bloated river in flood season. The icy slap across his cheeks yanked him back to the present. When Destrie had left, it had ripped a piece of his heart right out.
He didn't want to remember. He'd put that part of his life behind him. He'd had to in order to survive. The Webster Ranch was the biggest around, his heritage--well, his and Jake's. It was all Benedict knew.
He gripped the railing of the back porch and sucked in the frigid night air, letting it freeze his lungs. But his raging erection refused to abate.
He was a damned fool. He had to have known this would happen. Especially once he knew that Laine Carson had contacted her foster son. Maybe he'd expected Destrie would ignore it or that the letter wouldn't find its way into the hands of Benedict's ex-lover in time for him to return home.
Too many memories surged inside his head, going round and round like a Cat 4 cyclone still picking up speed. He fought to rein in his emotions. But the passionate memories were like that ornery black rogue stallion he and Destrie had tried to break--unyielding, obstinate...and proud to the end. They had both been too young to know better back then. Some wild things were born to run free.
He heard the creak of the door opening behind him. He braced himself for the confrontation he knew he couldn't avoid.
Destrie had known Benedict was in the room when he entered the bar. He hadn't needed to see him to be aware of his presence.
He recognized other faces as well. Benedict's brother, Jake, was there, along with the other delinquents the rough redneck hung around with.
Years of military sniper training had honed a fine edge to Destrie's primal survival instincts. He could smell danger; he was one of the best at reconnaissance, tracking prey. And he could sight his target with the precision of a hawk's eye.
It was the rules of the engagement that sometimes turned murky, especially in the last year or so. Identify the enemy, determine hostile intent, and take them out.
Days ago he'd been in the hot, sweltering climate of Iraq, on edge, alert, and an M14 glued to his side.
He flexed his fingers.
Stand down, soldier
. This wasn't Iraq, but he still felt the hostility, focused mainly from the small group on the other side of the bar. Clearly identifiable.
They were all there in that smoky, crowded room that stank of stale beer, cigar smoke, and cowboy sweat. He remembered every last one of them. And he knew the exact location of the man at the back of the bar, standing in the shadows, watching Destrie.
His gut said Jake and his ilk wouldn't challenge him. No, this group was made up of cowards who only went after those weaker than themselves. No coup in that.
Oh, the intent was there, but something held them back. It was a long ten minutes before the tension eased and the noise level slowly surged once again. Only then did Destrie walk to the bar and order a draft.
Destrie had put off returning to Coyote Forks, knowing he'd be facing things from his past he wasn't ready to deal with. His foster father's death had changed everything. It had left him with no choice but to return.
Destrie nursed the beer. He spoke with no one. He felt the hostility. Eyes on the mirror behind the bar, he was aware of all movement around him. Sideways glances that turned toward him and then slid away. If he'd been wearing his knife, he knew the sharp edge could have cut through the fabric of the hate and intolerance surrounding him in this room. Their antagonism was twofold--he was Indian, and he was gay. And he was to blame for corrupting one of their own. And that would never change.
And it showed how little they understood one of their own. And by the very fact that Benedict stayed here, how little Benedict understood himself.
Destrie finished off the beer and set the glass back down on the polished, scarred wood of the bar. He knew exactly when Benedict had walked out the back door. He had marked it, and now he felt it was time. The music was loud, a Toby Keith song. He remembered seeing the performer when he was on tour overseas. Some damn good music. The smoke thickened; the noise crescendoed. His attention was elsewhere as he slowly wended his way through the crowd to the back door and walked out into the cold December night.
His honed sense of self-preservation had him instinctively scoping out the area for vulnerabilities the moment he stepped outside. A thin veneer of pristine white covered the porch landing. Exits from both sides. The wood was old, easily broken. The porch floor firm enough but still decaying in spots. The weathered, spaced boards creaked as he walked to the railing, maintaining a distance between himself and the cowboy already standing there.
Then Benedict turned his head to look at Destrie. His expression was veiled beneath the brim of his hat.
“Still like 'em big and broad I see,” Destrie remarked.
He saw the tension ripple across the man's shoulder and when Benedict's jaw tightened.
Destrie nodded toward Benedict's hat. “I was talking about your hat, cowboy, not your--” His gaze shifted downward to the obvious bulge in the man's jeans.
Benedict swung away, his big hands wrapped around the snow-covered handrail. Destrie saw the knuckles whiten with the stranglehold grip.
“Why'd you come out here, Destrie? There'll be talk. It'll all start up again.” His voice had deepened since Destrie last saw him. Right now it seemed tinged with tension, tight and raspy.
“Been a long time, Benedict. Glad to see you too.”
He saw Benedict's shoulders fold inward as he leaned heavily against the rail.
“That's not what I mean, and you know it. This town has a long memory. It never forgets. Do you want them coming after you again? Especially now?”
“I can take care of myself. They're nothing compared to what I've seen.” What I've done
, he almost added but didn't. There were things a man didn't talk about. Sure as hell not to civilians.
The silence stretched between them. Long and thick and tense.
“I'm sorry about Ray,” Benedict said, his words soft, barely above a whisper. If Destrie hadn't been tuned intently to the man standing next to him, he might have missed them.
“Thanks. Laine's taken it hard. They just moved into town last year. They were only getting settled when the heart attack took him.”
“Yeah. He went to the doctor last week. New guy, just came to town.”
“I know. I heard Doc Logan passed last year. Laine wrote me; she thought I'd want to know.”
Destrie was afraid the old wooden rail would snap beneath Benedict's grip. It was Doc Logan who had patched up Benedict and Destrie after the incident eight years ago. It was Benedict who had hauled Destrie on foot, slung over his shoulder, limping heavily after the beating, the long two miles to Doc's house.
Destrie rubbed at the raw memento on the side of his face. He'd never forget the tight, demonic smile on Jake's face as he cut into Destrie's flesh as three of Jake's friends
held him down. Now a jagged, shiny pink line of scar tissue that arced from the corner of his eye down to his chin kept the occasion fresh. He remembered when it had flowed freely with his blood, covering both him and Benedict. He remembered the smell--the pain.
It had turned into his lucky charm over the years, reminding him to keep his edge, never let his guard down. It kept his rage fresh and new. In his profession, that reminder had paid off more than a time or two.
He also remembered the late-night visit from Benedict's father while he was healing at Doc's place. It was that visit that had sent him out of Coyote Forks eight years earlier. He'd escaped all of them by joining the Army. He appeased the raging spirit inside him by joining his battalion's sniper unit. For a lot of years it had worked--until recently. Until now. Because he knew this time he had no excuse for not returning to Coyote Forks. And he knew it would mean trouble.
All the angry memories, all the pent-up yearning, came flooding back. He turned to look at Benedict, and suddenly, unable to help himself, he surged forward. Control be damned. He peeled Benedict's fingers from the rail, spun him around, and fastened his mouth to his ex-lover's hard lips.
All the heat was still there, every bit as fierce and deep as it had once been. Destrie fastened his hands around Benedict's thickly muscled forearms and shoved the cowboy backward. Benedict stumbled down the two steps, almost falling, and his hat fell onto the ground, landing upside down in the snow. The two men practically danced a two-step backward through the snow-covered alley.
Destrie shoved him beneath an eave flat up against the hewn-log walls of the bar. The alley was winter silent. Hot, fast breaths clouded the air, frosty and vivid. He released Benedict's arms and shoved one hand down the front of Benedict's denim jeans, past the plain belt buckle, and inside the stiff fabric of his jeans, curling around the rigid erection imprisoned inside. He tasted Benedict's groan.
Destrie remembered it all, every moment of those combustible months when they were eighteen. When they were invincible and passionate and so, so needy for the touch of each other in every way there was to be taken. That same summer heat branded his palm as he gripped Benedict's dick.
He brushed a broad thumb over the flared head, sliding through the wetness of precum leaking from the slit.
“Benedict,” he whispered against the man's lips just before he covered them with his own mouth once again.
Benedict shot forward, grabbed onto Destrie's arms, and whirled him around. He forced Destrie back against the building and looked into his eyes.
An impression of pain creased Benedict's brow as he reached for Destrie's hand and carefully removed it from inside his pants.
“We can't do this. Not again. It doesn't matter how much we want it. It doesn't fucking matter. Jake and his crew will kill you if they find out.”
“But you still want me. You haven't changed.”
Benedict shut his eyes and leaned his forehead against Destrie's.
“You have no idea, man. No idea what it's been like. But I've learned to live with it. I can't do it again. I can't go back. You left, remember? I've learned to live with that. And I don't plan to let Jake finish the job he started. I can't have your death on my conscience. I won't let this happen.”
Destrie knew the cowboy was right. Benedict's home was here in Coyote Forks. Destrie would never make this bigoted hellhole his home. He was here for one reason and one reason only.
He dropped his hands and straightened. This was why he'd never dared return to Wyoming. Destrie had known the minute he set eyes on Benedict exactly what would happen. The situation was too damned combustible.
“You're right. I'll only be in town for a few days, until right after Christmas. Then I'm out of here.”
Benedict's expression tight, he nodded.
“Then we understand each other. No point in starting something neither of us intends to finish.” His hands dropped away from Destrie, and Destrie felt Benedict's withdrawal keenly. Suddenly the cold night air sliced through him. So different from the dry desert heat of the Middle East, where he had been just days ago.
He watched as Benedict turned, walked several paces, and then slowly bent forward to pick up his hat. He brushed it off and replaced it on his head.
“You've been visiting my mother. Why, Benedict?”
He saw the man stiffen, but Benedict didn't turn to acknowledge Destrie's question. He straightened his shoulders and with long strides veered around the porch and disappeared down the darkened alley.
Suddenly the scar on Destrie's face began to throb, mirroring the intensity of his hard, pulsing prick. He reached up and rubbed at it. This time back in Coyote Forks was going to ride him a lot harder than he'd expected. Than he'd hoped. He turned away and walked down the alley in the opposite direction.
The sooner he was out of this damned town, the better. For both of them.