Pickup Men - Inventory Clearance Paperback!
It takes a pissed-off Brahma bull named Shockwave to show rodeo pickup man Marty Fairgrave the cold hard truth about champion bull rider Tripp Colby: Tripp will never leave the safety of his closet or acknowledge Marty in public. Sometimes loving someone just isn’t enough, and after a year of hiding what they are, Marty finally sees the light—and it’s no longer shining on Tripp.
Tripp Colby would do anything for Marty. Well . . . almost. He’s never loved anyone before, and isn’t quite sure how to handle it now. But he knows Marty is his everything, and in order to win him back, Tripp will have to overcome his darkest fears and step into the light.
But no matter Tripp’s intentions, the cost might be too high and the effort too late for these two cowboys to ride off into the sunset.
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Two thousand pounds of pissed-off beef, aptly named Shockwave, tossed around the man on its back like a ragdoll. But Tripp wouldn’t be dislodged. He clung to the spinning beast with an ease and confidence that belied the skill and athleticism—not to mention pure guts—required to compete at the professional level.
Sitting astride his best pickup horse, Fairgrave Flyer, near the chutes of the Santa Maria Elks Rodeo arena, Marty Fairgrave couldn’t suppress the smile that fought for freedom across his face.
It was a beautiful sight watching a champion at work.
It was a beautiful sight watching Tripp Colby at the top of his game.
Marty’s smile gained purchase as he recalled Tripp’s firm, bare butt bouncing before him while Tripp had hopped around the small bedroom of Marty’s travel trailer, pulling up his jeans and boots in a hurry to beat the rising sun earlier that morning.
The eight-second whistle blew, calling a clean end to Tripp’s money ride and Marty’s X-rated replay. Tripp dismounted Shockwave with enviable grace, landing upright but hard in the dirt. He stumbled forward a couple of steps before he got his center of gravity under him. It was textbook.
But as right as it was, it wasn’t.
Marty’s pickup partner, Bridge, pulled up beside him astride a stocky, bay gelding. “Where’re the fucking stooges?”
Marty scanned the arena, registering every player in crisp detail. The hair on the back of his neck rose to attention. His smile snapped into a frown. An ice-cold finger trailed down his spine.
The two bullfighters were still dicking around, showboating for the audience at the opposite end of the ring. They should have been paying attention to their job. They should have jumped in to distract the bull from the vulnerable rider. Instead, they looked every bit the clueless rodeo clowns they were colorfully dressed as. This wasn’t a fucking circus. And left alone, there was no way Tripp could reach the rails to get clear of the furious Shockwave, who had zeroed in on him like a missile.
There was no time to consider the consequences. No time to weigh the pros and cons, or proper protocols. Marty laid his boot heels to Fly’s sides and raced out after Tripp. Ignoring Bridge’s shout, he barreled into the path of what amounted to a runaway freight train.
Somewhere in the back of his mind, Marty knew what he was doing. Knew it was suicidal. It wasn’t his job as a pickup man to pull a cowboy from a bull ride, let alone a bullfight. Bulls were too dangerous and unpredictable for them to sidle up to and sandwich between like the broncos. Marty’s and Bridge’s job was simply to haze the animal out of the arena as quickly as possible, before it could cause any damage. But right then, all he saw was Tripp lined up for a brutal ride on the ends of Shockwave’s horns.
Not on my watch.
His pulse sped as time slowed in equal measure. His vision tunneled until all he saw was Tripp. All he heard was his own heartbeat and the pounding of Fly’s hooves. He leaned in his saddle as he closed in, and held an arm out. Tripp grabbed on, his hand seizing Marty’s forearm hard enough to bruise to the bone. Marty hauled Tripp off the ground and onto Fly’s back, galloping clear of Shockwave. The heat of Tripp’s body behind him, living and unharmed, was a heady comfort. A flash of black out of the corner of his eye told Marty how narrowly they’d escaped a horned broadside.
He pulled Fly up alongside the rails, and Tripp scrambled safely over the fence. Marty released a deep sigh of relief. Adrenaline still coursing through his veins, his muscles twitched as the panic released its hold. Turning his attention to Bridge, and the still-at-large bull, his lungs seized mid-exhale. Time froze in an intense, candid photograph—one of those “holy shit” moments that grace the centerfold of National Geographic. In this photograph, Shockwave bore down on him, too close. Bridge was right behind the bull, lasso suspended in the air mid-throw. The rodeo clowns—because they sure as hell weren’t bullfighters—were blurred in the background, desperately running to catch up.
Time for reaction was over. The only thing left for him to do was pray.
Yeah, holy shit.
Marty heard a distant gasp ripple through the audience like a gale force. He braced himself, but it still took a long, profound second for him to realize it wasn’t the wind bulldozing him and Fly into the unforgiving metal railing. It wasn’t the wind that caused the surreal sensation of disembodiment as the ground rushed up to kiss him.
And it wasn’t the wind that eclipsed the sun on a scream.
Thundering vibrations rumbled through the uneven earth beneath his back. Shadows flickered behind the red shades of his eyelids. Dust coated his throat and tickled his nose, and a light breeze carried mingling scents of leather, hot sweat, and livestock with it. Indistinguishable sounds teased his eardrums, rising and falling in pitch and volume and rhythm until they became definable. Concerned voices. Rapid hoofbeats. Braying cattle. Whinnying horses.
The last thing Marty remembered shot to the forefront of his mind and launched a scorching path of panic through his chest. His body tensed for flight, and his eyelids snapped open.
Pain came swift, sharp, and nauseating.
Blinding shards of unfiltered sunlight pierced his pupils and lanced straight through to the back of his skull. What felt like a thousand serrated knives stabbed mercilessly into his rib cage. He squeezed his eyes shut against the onslaught.
It hurt to breathe. It hurt to move. Hurt not to move.
Something large and solid hit the ground at his side with an ooph, quickly followed by a second, heavy thud. Rapid breaths puffed above him. Callused fingertips pressed against his neck, and a large hand gently brushed dirt from his face.
“Marty?” a deep, familiar voice pleaded. “C’mon, man.”
Marty tempted the heavens again and cautiously lifted his eyelids. The lancing pain he feared didn’t come. Bridge Sullivan and Kent Murphy—his best friends, practically brothers since grade school—were kneeling shoulder to shoulder at his side, their bodies forming a broad shield against the blinding sunlight. Equal parts worry and relief flashed in both pairs of eyes.
“You dumb son of a bitch.” The soft tone of Bridge’s deep voice belied the harsh words.
“What the fuck did you think you were doing?” Kent’s voice was tight, like he was struggling to hold back either crying or yelling. “Jesus Christ, Marty. You know better.”
Marty croaked out a rough, “I’m fine.”
“The hell you are.” Bridge pointed at Marty’s head. “You’re bleeding.”
“You going to pass out?” Marty teased.
Marty relaxed his eyes and feigned a smile. He couldn’t be too bad off if Bridge wasn’t heaving up his breakfast.
“You’re fucking lucky, Smarts.” Kent lifted his cowboy hat and wiped at the sweat on his forehead with his shirtsleeve. “Bridge roped Shockwave just before he hit you so you didn’t get the full impact. Fly still got gored in the flank pretty good. It’s not too deep, thanks to the angle you got nailed at, but he needs a ton of stitches.”
“You won’t be riding him anytime soon,” Bridge added. “Won’t be riding any horse for a while, by the looks of things.”
“I’m fine.” Marty pursed his lips. It was his job to keep the competitors from getting hurt, not to get hurt himself. “Just need a minute to get my bearings.”
Kent shook his head. “Yeah, right.”
Marty ignored Kent and turned his attention to the crowd that had gathered, scanning for one face in particular. The face that mattered most, the one that still made his heart skip a beat more than a year since the first time he’d laid eyes on it. Familiar, concerned faces stared back at him, but not the one he needed. In a low rasp he asked, “Where is he?”
Bridge and Kent both scowled at him and sat back on their heels. They could have been twins.
“Guys . . .”
With a reluctant sigh, Bridge tilted his head to the side. “Prick’s standing back there.”
Marty followed the direction of his friend’s nod but still didn’t see who he was looking for. His chest felt heavy, his head began to throb, and his bones ached. Flyer was one of his best pickup horses, and he’d put Fly’s life—and his—in jeopardy. All because he’d fallen in love with a man who wouldn’t—couldn’t—acknowledge that he existed in public beyond the cursory post-rodeo thank-you.
Was he ever going to learn?
His breath caught sharply. There, at the outskirts of the small crowd, he found what he’d been searching for and locked onto a pair of piercing, light blue eyes.
Tripp stood with his hands buried in his pockets. His eyes were wide with fear and turmoil, lips pursed to a thin white line, body tense.
With a determined expression on his handsome face, Tripp took a step forward. Paused. Then took another.
A cavalry of hope, bright and all-powerful, charged forward and forced the pain back into the shadows.
Tripp was actually coming to him. In public.
But just as Marty’s heart began to swell, Tripp faltered to a stop, and his gaze broke away. His face instantly transformed into the practiced blank mask Marty had come to loathe. The cold shock of that broken moment punched a hole into his chest big enough to drive a semi through. Marty’s internal army lost its hard-won ground, and every part of his body screamed in agony at its loss.
He closed his eyes and let the comforting earth suck him down.
“Move back, guys.” The unfamiliar, authoritative voice with a sharp accent interrupted Marty’s descent into oblivion. “Give the man some space here.”
Two paramedics dropped down beside him, replacing his friends. One of the men began pulling the tools of their trade from a brightly colored medical bag, while the other gently straightened his neck and cradled his head so he couldn’t move it. They efficiently went about assessing injuries and asking questions Marty wasn’t really hearing.
He opened his mouth to tell them he was fine. He knew where he was, what had happened, his name, the day—even if his head was a bit fuzzy. He’d get up—in a minute—and get back to work, but the words stalled in the back of his throat when fingers pressed lightly against his right side, and sharp pain flared across his torso. He winced and hissed a shallow breath, and his vision grayed out briefly.
“Sorry.” It was the paramedic with the accent. “No doubt you’ve got some broken ribs in there. We’re going to have to . . .”
The man’s voice faded as though it had been sucked up by some unseen vortex. He didn’t care. He needed to see if Tripp was still there, and turned his head sideways in its loose hold.
Scott Gillard, the biggest homophobic prick on the circuit, was standing at Tripp’s side. Scott laughed. Tripp smiled. Scott clapped Tripp on the shoulder, cast an impassive look at Marty, and walked away.
Tripp turned back to Marty. His shoulders slumped infinitesimally along with his mask. Feet rooted to the ground.
“Easy there.” The paramedic who’d been holding his head strapped a c-collar around his neck to prevent him from moving again. “Let’s make sure everything works before you go ripping up the dance floor, okay, cowboy?”
Marty would have laughed at the attempted levity any other time, but right now all he felt was an agonizing rawness clawing out his insides. He understood now, but that didn’t make it hurt any less. Didn’t make what had to happen any easier.
His heart seized mid-beat and splintered in his chest. Or maybe that was broken bone digging into flesh. Either way, the result was the same.
He barely registered Bridge telling him that he and Kent would meet him at the hospital, or the oxygen mask that had been secured over his mouth, or the hands that slid under his body and carefully rolled him onto his side to work a hard backboard under him. Straps tightened over his chest and legs, foam blocks immobilized his head, and cold bit into his back.
But it didn’t matter.
He stared up at the spotless blue sky, drifting on the sensation of weightlessness for a brief moment when the paramedics lifted and settled him onto a gurney and then rolled him into the waiting ambulance.
A face edged into his blurring line of vision, words were spoken in a calming tone, but none of it registered. He closed his eyes and burned the last image of Tripp into his memory: the lean, defined frame of Tripp’s body, the strong curve of a jaw shadowed with day-old stubble, the slight bend and bump in the bridge of a nose that had been broken more than once. The full, pink lips that had kissed him so passionately, bright eyes that had stared at him with heated desire, and jet-black hair that felt like silk sliding through his fingers. The mental keepsake would be all he’d have after today.
The ambulance doors closed resoundingly on Tripp, on their relationship, and on Marty’s heart. Warm liquid slithered down his temple, and he vowed that would be the only tear he’d shed. Darkness wrapped around him, pushing out sound and thought, and blessedly, the pain of broken bones and shattered dreams.
The shuffling sound of thin plastic was familiar, but it didn’t fit with the last thing Marty remembered—laying on his back, body broken and heart breaking. Nor did it fit with the chemical bouquet of disinfectant, medication, and food that tainted the stale, dry air. He knew that smell all too well. In his line of business, the hospital was a regular destination—though generally not for himself. He felt responsible for every single cowboy who’d suffered injury on his watch and made a point of visiting each one in the hospital before heading off to the next stop on the circuit.
Marty lifted drug-heavy eyelids and stared at pocked ceiling tiles overhead while his vision defogged. He tried to swallow but couldn’t form enough saliva to dislodge the lump from his throat or the tongue glued to the roof of his mouth. As his periphery cleared and sharpened, he surveyed the surroundings. Soft light from a small lamp on a bedside table cast tall shadows on bare, pale green walls. The door was slightly ajar; subdued activity and the murmur of voices drifted in from the hallway. The black of a moonless night hung like a drawn blind behind the matte glass of a wall-to-wall window.
He turned his head toward the source of the sound, and a dull ache throbbed in his temple, shoulder . . . whole body.
Bridge and Kent were sitting across from each other at a small table pushed up against the wall opposite the window. Expressions distracted, but attention rapt on the deck of playing cards Kent was deftly shuffling. Kent’s blond hair was cropped short, but somehow managed to look messier than Bridge’s, slightly too long and hanging in wind-blown disarray over his eyes.
They were both beautiful men. Good men. And they stood by him no matter how fierce the storm. They’d been the first people he’d told that he thought he was gay when he was thirteen. They’d shrugged their shoulders, said whatever, everyone already knew, and then asked if he was ready to go fishing. Apparently Marty had been the last to know, and that had earned him the nickname Smarts—for his lack thereof.
“So . . . I’m going to . . . live then?” His voice was a rough grate across dry vocal chords.
Two blond heads jerked up. Though starkly different faces—Bridge rugged with a Superman jawline and Kent with classically aristocratic angles—their relieved expressions were identical. Tension that had etched sharp lines around their mouths and eyes relaxed. Kent dropped the cards to the table, the game forgotten, as he and Bridge stood and walked over to Marty’s bedside.
“Yeah, dumbass.” Bridge crossed his arms and smiled. “And I hope that bull knocked some sense into your thick skull.”
“You’re definitely going to have some sense up there after I get done kicking your sorry ass,” Kent said.
Kent reached for a covered plastic cup with a bendy straw sticking out and held it to Marty’s lips. Marty sucked back three greedy gulps. He closed his eyes and followed the refreshing path it cut as it raced from his dust-encrusted mouth and down his parched throat to pool in the bottom of his empty stomach.
He opened his eyes and released the straw. “Yes, thank you.”
Kent nodded and returned the cup to the bedside table.
“What time is it?” Not the first question Marty wanted to ask, but the other didn’t matter anymore.
Kent watched him closely. “Visiting hours are almost over.”
It doesn’t matter. Marty tried to school his thoughts before they charged to the surface, but his friends knew him too well. Even if he weren’t foggy from painkillers, he wouldn’t have been able to fool them.
Bridge shoved his hands into his back pockets. “He didn’t come.”
Marty knew Tripp wouldn’t have, but still, that small kernel of hope that refused to be dislodged clung to the back of his mind and struggled to grow.
Kent shook his head. “Shit, Marty. I can’t believe you did that. Damn near got yourself killed for that yellow son of a bitch.”
“Pretty sure all my parts are still attached.”
“That’s not the point, Sergeant Sarcasm. You wouldn’t have done that for someone like Scott Gillard.”
“Oh, but I did. Remember?” Marty attempted to sit up, but a spike of pain curbed that idea before he’d even lifted his head and stole the heat from his voice. “You know that’s why he doesn’t hassle me.”
“Yeah, but he wasn’t riding a bull, and you weren’t in love with him.”
Way to suck the wind from my sails, Kent. Marty closed his eyes. A heavy wave of fatigue washed over him and pressed his body deeper into the thin mattress. He was tired of the same old argument. If only there was never any reason for it.
“He just fucking stood there, Marty. Like a damn deer caught in the headlights,” Bridge said. No pity in his voice, no judgment, just fact. “None of us knew how bad off you were then. What if you were dying? What if that was the last—”
“Christ, guys! Give it a rest. Okay?” Marty immediately regretted the force of his words. Nausea chased the sharp knife blade that sliced over his rib cage. He squeezed his eyes shut and willed back the bile creeping up his throat. When the pain ebbed and his body settled back into its chemically induced numbness, he no longer had the energy in him to fight. They didn’t know Tripp like he did. No one knew the real Tripp Colby. “He’s got his reasons, and they’re valid. Just leave it.”
“Valid enough to leave you dying in the dirt? What kind of asshole does that?” Bridge’s voice rose slightly. “And you still stand up for him?”
Marty huffed. “Dramatic, much?”
“Well, let it go. You guys win. I’m done being Tripp Colby’s dirty little secret.”
They exchanged a look Marty didn’t have to see to know was a mix of surprise and approval. Kent turned to him and smirked. “It’s about fucking time.”
Marty had no idea what the look he shot his friends said, but he felt the red haze of anger it lashed out on. The smirk slid off Kent’s face, and both of them looked down, finding something interesting on the floor to stare at. The squeaky wheel of a wheelchair or cart echoed down the hallway beyond Marty’s room. Hushed voices rose and fell. Someone laughed.
Bridge shifted on his feet and looked up, his expression contrite. “It’s not about winning, Marty. We just want what’s best for you. Want you happy. You know that.”
“I was happy with Tripp.” Mostly.
“In secret,” Kent said. “That’s not right.”
“Yeah, well. That’s not an issue anymore.” Marty’s voice sounded as weak to his ears as it felt crawling over his tongue. “It’s over.”
Bridge and Kent were right. Always had been. He deserved someone who was out and proud to be seen with him, who wanted to be seen with him. But getting over Tripp wasn’t going to be quick or easy. It wasn’t like love came with an on/off switch.
Fatigue wrapped around him like a thick wool blanket, making his brain sluggish and muddy. He just wanted to sleep. Forget everything.
Kent cleared his throat. “We’ll break you out tomorrow and drive you and your horses home.”
The subject of Tripp Colby closed.
“Hesparia is next weekend. And I don’t need to be driven anywhere,” Marty grumbled.
“Right.” Kent smiled, his smooth voice lighter. “No one wants to see you back in the saddle until the Folsom rodeo, and you can’t drive with a fresh concussion.”
“So be a good boy and stay home for a couple weeks.” Bridge gathered up the deck of cards and their cowboy hats. “Enjoy your mama’s cooking. Okay?”
“Good.” Bridge walked back and handed one hat and the deck of cards to Kent. “All right then, we’ll see you in the mornin’.”
Kent settled his hat on his head and dropped the cards onto Marty’s bedside table. “Later, Smarts.”
Marty was pretty sure he nodded, but his eyelids began to slide down against his will, and bright blue eyes followed him into darkness.