Pulling Leather - Inventory Clearance Paperback!
The toughest ride of his life is all in his head.
Bull rider Scott Gillard has a reputation for quick fists and harsh words. What no one knows is where that anger comes from. After a shocking incident sends him into a tailspin, he knows he needs help: he’s been fighting a battle he could never win. Now he’s trying to navigate a new life and embrace his true self, but some days are easier than others.
Pickup man Cory Ackerson has suffered his share of harassment, but his light still burns bright. He doesn’t let anything or anyone keep him down, so when he meets the rugged cowboy with a battered chip on his shoulder and regret in his dark eyes, all he wants to do is help.
As their unlikely friendship grows into something deeper, Scott must overcome his past to be the man Cory deserves, or lose his best chance at his own happily ever after.
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Two years earlier . . .
Scott squeezed the steering wheel until the bones in his hands were about to bust through the skin. His jaw ached from clenching it so hard, but he couldn’t leave his truck yet. He didn’t want to be seen. His eyes had begun to sting from staring so intensely at the empty Ford F-150 parked near the exit of the rodeo grounds as he waited for its owner.
Most people had already cleared out, and there were only a few vehicles and equine rigs remaining. Those who wanted to revel a little longer with friends they wouldn’t see again until next season. Finally, a lone form appeared from behind one of the rigs, heading his way. Through narrowed eyes, he tracked the reason he was trying—trying so hard—not to blow up and destroy everything in his path.
Tripp Colby, a man he’d been good friends with for the last three years, a fellow bull rider he’d come to think of as a brother, a man he thought he could trust, turned out to be one of them. A fucking homo. And he’d had to find out about it secondhand.
How could that be true? How could he have not known? Tripp didn’t look gay, and he sure as hell didn’t act gay. Nothing about the cowboy was anything short of “macho manly man.” He couldn’t reconcile that with being gay in his mind. Which meant it had to be a lie. A sick joke. That was the only explanation that made sense.
Except that he’d read the breaking news on the Professional Bull Riders website, when he’d bolted to the nearest internet café to confirm the hushed rumblings he’d heard all day. He’d read it in Tripp’s own words, right there in flickering black and fucking white. Gay. No wonder Tripp had avoided him all day. Scott had never been one to hold back his opinions as to what made a man, and it sure as hell wasn’t two of them doing each other.
But the ultimate betrayal came when he’d read on and learned Tripp’s father had owned that fucking useless center in North Carolina. Did Tripp know Scott had been there? That they hadn’t been able to fix him?
Cure the gay away, my fucking ass.
Cold sweat spread over his skin, and his pulse quickened. What if Tripp knew and had told someone?
Scott twisted his hands over the steering wheel. No, Tripp wouldn’t do something like that. Not if the cowboy had been hiding.
But now, because he and Tripp had hung together for so many years, people would think he’d known about Tripp all along. That he was the same way and just trying to cover his tracks with antigay rhetoric.
Because that’s what you’ve been doing, isn’t it?
What if people thought the two of them were . . . involved? He shuddered, and his stomach roiled. Jesus, how many times had he thrown an arm over Tripp’s shoulder like buddies did? Now people would read that differently. They’ll know . . .
Tripp glanced up then, and the flash of fear that crossed his face told Scott he’d been spotted where he was sitting, parked across the road. Fucking son of a bitch.
The driver’s door of Tripp’s truck faced the road—and Scott. A box camper blocked them from view. When Tripp came around the side of his truck, looking like he was just going to get in and leave, Scott jumped from his own vehicle and stormed across the short distance between them.
“Is it true? You a cocksucking faggot?”
Tripp flinched. His shoulders dropped slightly, along with his gaze, but then he stared Scott in the eye, stuck his chin out, and rolled his shoulders back. Proud and defiant. “I’m gay, yes. We going to have a problem here?” The determination in his voice was clear. Tripp wasn’t about to back down, and Scott fought a tiny flicker of unwanted admiration. No way was he going to give any props to someone like Tripp.
“Yeah, we’re going to have fucking problem,” Scott ground out. “You were like a brother to me, but if I’d known—”
“I haven’t changed, Scott.”
“The hell you haven’t. What you are is disgusting. Just like my da—” Scott swallowed the word, refusing to show his shock at having almost blurted out his deepest secrets.
Tripp lifted an eyebrow. “Yesterday I was your brother, and today I’m disgusting? I’ll tell you what’s disgusting—” Tripp took a step closer, his fists clenching and nostrils flaring “—intolerant homophobic assholes like you who toss people out like trash because of their own fucking insecurities. People whose own lives are so fucked up they can’t just let others live in peace. People who hate because of ignorance and fear and blind religion.”
“You’d better step off, Tripp,” Scott bit out, the words knife-edge sharp. Heat flushed through his body, and his muscles trembled with the need to hit, to hurt . . . to dominate.
“Or what?” Tripp took another step closer, close enough for Scott to see fire snapping in those ice-blue eyes, close enough to feel the turbulent charge of energy sparking between them and send a rush of blood southward. “You going to show me how much of a man you are by kicking my ass? Come on, then. Show me what you’ve got.”
Yeah, he’d show Tripp what he had, all right. Show him that what Tripp was, that being gay, wasn’t right. He grabbed Tripp by the front of his shirt with one hand and fisted the other, hauling back to deal a hard blow. But somewhere in the split second between thought and execution, wires disconnected, his groin tightened. Instead of his fist connecting with Tripp’s jaw, his hand relaxed, opened, and snaked around the back of Tripp’s head, yanking him forward. Their mouths and chests crashed together hard enough to force a surprised grunt from Tripp. Or from himself, he couldn’t quite tell. Either way, the sound triggered the release of something primal from depths he didn’t know he possessed. His only thought was to own Tripp. Force him to submit. He moved his lips over Tripp’s in a taking that was too brutal to be called a kiss, but the need was too powerful, too consuming to fight.
What in the holy fuck! Scott Gillard did not kiss men.
And definitely did not get a hard-on for them.
Everything in his body seized—sharp and painful—at the horrifying realization. He shoved Tripp away so hard they both stumbled backward, but Tripp’s boot heel caught on a rock, and he went down on his back with an oof. His chest heaved, eyes wide, mouth hanging open.
“The fuck?” The words were breathy, the shock obvious, but the sound still caused another spike of traitorous desire to pulse into Scott’s groin.
Scott took another step backward, dragging the sleeve of his shirt over his mouth with enough force to abrade the skin, and then spat. He scanned the area quickly to make sure no one had seen whatever the fuck that was just happened. He could barely hear over the deafening pulse pounding like a stampede in his eardrums. The ground under his feet felt unstable, as though it was titling sideways and he’d fall off any second. “Swear to God, one word and I will make your life fucking hell. You’ll wish you were never born. You get me?”
Tripp nodded, shock now replaced with confusion and something else Scott couldn’t—wouldn’t—identify. “Got you.”
Scott stared down at Tripp, hands fisted, heart racing, and something long since dead inside him poked its head out. Fuck. “No,” he whispered. He would never let that part of himself exist.
He turned back for his truck, his mind a confusing chaos of images and words and feelings flying by at such hyper speed he couldn’t grasp a single one. In a stupor, he climbed into the cab and floored it, aware of the gravel and dust kicking up from the side of the road, but not even realizing that he’d caused it.
And then he was staring at himself in the mirror on the wall of a dingy bar bathroom he couldn’t remember walking into. Hell, he couldn’t even remember driving here or how much time had lapsed since he’d left Tripp on his ass in the dirt.
He studied his reflection, looking for the difference to show in some way. It didn’t, but he knew it was there, lurking in the shadows like a predator, waiting for a crack in his shields so it could slip through and deal its fatal blow. He knew it was there as surely as he refused to acknowledge it.
He took his hat off, ran a hand through his hair, and met his eyes in the mirror, searching them for that thing inside that had somehow found a pinhole to slip through when he’d confronted Tripp. His gaze dropped to his mouth. Tripp flashed in his mind. That fucking kiss. He’d wanted to beat the shit out of Tripp, but instead he’d kissed him, and he didn’t know why.
Yes, you do.
His vision clouded around the edges, closing in. Rage boiled up in his veins and exploded with his fist punching his reflection in the mouth. Glass shattered into an intricate spiderweb, shards fell into the sink below, and red streaks stained the fragments.
Pain didn’t register. Release did not come. Answers remained staunchly elusive. Anger still bubbled in his blood, but a growing sense of defeat held it below the surface. This fight had been going on too long for him to not once gain the upper hand. He’d only managed to ignore it, hold the inevitable at bay, but he’d never been able to eradicate it. And now . . . now he was just exhausted from a lifetime of fighting a losing battle.
He looked down at his hand, flexed and curled his fingers, but felt nothing. Mindlessly, he turned on the water, watching the blood on his knuckles dilute from red to pink to clear. The water may have been cold or may have been hot, but he couldn’t tell which. If he weren’t seeing it sluice over his skin, he wouldn’t have known it was running at all. He turned off the tap, pulled enough paper towels from the dispenser to wrap his hand in a makeshift bandage, and then went back out to the bar without looking up at the mirror again.
“Black and tan,” he told the bartender when he sat back down at his stool. The bartender eyed him for a second, then nodded and silently went about filling Scott’s order. Now would be a good time for a cigarette, if I smoked. Scott’s phone buzzed in the back pocket of his jeans. There wasn’t a single person on the planet he wanted to talk to right now. Retrieving the phone, he turned it off without looking at the caller ID, and then tossed it facedown on the bar.
“Looks like you could use a little something extra,” the bartender said, placing a tequila shooter, a lemon slice, and saltshaker on the bar beside the beer.
“Yeah. Thanks.” Scott pulled a couple of bills from his wallet and placed them on the bar top, but the bartender handed them back.
“This round’s on the house, man.”
“Thank you,” Scott said but pushed the money back toward the man and added a few more bills. “For the bathroom mirror.”
The bartender nodded. “Fair enough.” He scooped up the cash and then left Scott to his drink and his thoughts.
He tried to pick up the glass with his bandaged hand, but a sharp stab of pain had him pulling back. Why the fuck didn’t he beat the shit out of Tripp instead of a goddamned mirror? That’s what the lying cocksucking asshole deserved. Just like what his father had deserved for leaving Scott and his mom to wallow in poverty—for another man. But he hadn’t dealt that blow, either.
Because you’re the same.
No! I am not like them!
He shot back the tequila with his good hand—the bartender had given him the top-shelf stuff—and held the glass up for a refill.
The barkeep was about the same height as Tripp, and his hair was longer but just as jet black. His eyes were brown rather than blue, but the resemblance was enough to spark a visual recall of his earlier confrontation with Tripp. Except this time, he was wrapping his arms around Tripp, pulling him closer, kissing him . . . his hands in Tripp’s hair . . . hips rocking together . . .
And why was he still thinking about that fucking kiss? Thinking about what would have happened if Tripp had reciprocated?
You know why.
“Fuck.” Could that stupid voice in the back of his head not shut the fuck up?
Scott squeezed his eyes shut, dropped his head into his uninjured hand, and a near sob escaped his mouth. I don’t want this.
“There you are, you son of a bitch,” Billy hollered. He crossed the bar to where Scott sat and pulled up the stool beside him, while Kevin stumbled into the stool on Scott’s other side. Fellow bull riders and cohorts, they’d shared more experiences than he could remember, from rodeo to women to getting drunk and bar brawling. Friends or not, they were the last people he wanted to deal with right now.
“We’ve been trying to get a hold of you, asshole,” Kevin said. “Why aren’t you answering your phone?”
Scott frowned and picked up the phone. He couldn’t remember turning it off, but the screen was black. He turned it back on and a quick scroll through recent calls showed he’d missed seven calls from the two of them.
“Didn’t notice,” he said, his voice flat and completely devoid of emotion. He also hadn’t noticed almost three hours had passed since his confrontation with Tripp.
“You missed out,” Kevin said and grinned.
“Round of Jack here.” Billy smacked his hand on the bar surface, earning a quick scowl from the bartender. Then Billy elbowed Scott in the ribs and leaned in slightly. “We got him, man.”
A tickle of unease lifted the hairs on the back his neck. “Got who?”
“That faggot, Colby,” Kevin jumped in. The bile rose up the back of Scott’s throat.
“Yeah,” Billy said. “We saw him drivin’ and followed him till he stopped for gas—”
“Then we took him out back and taught him what a real man is,” Kevin finished, a note of pride in his voice. “We tried calling you ’cause we knew you wouldn’t want to miss out.”
“Fuck, you should’a seen it.” Billy beamed, and Scott’s stomach flipped. Yes, he was pissed—furious, even—and he’d wanted to kick the shit out of Tripp too, had found him to do just that, but when it came to it, he hadn’t been able to. Tripp had been a good friend to him over the years. He liked Tripp. Not like like, but . . . Maybe he always knew Tripp was hiding something. Maybe he felt a connection with Tripp he couldn’t quite define—or didn’t want to—but instinctively knew was there. He still couldn’t line up all the pieces in a way that made sense to him, but at the end of the day, if he’d wanted Tripp hurt, he’d have done it himself.
Scott stared hard at the drink in front of him and forced his voice to remain unaffected. “How’d you leave him?”
“Who cares?” Kevin said.
“Yeah, one less freak in the world,” Billy added.
Red clouded Scott’s vision, and he clenched his jaw tight, fighting back the urge to drill both these assholes into the ground. No matter how angry he was, no matter how much he hated his dad for destroying their family, and now Tripp for being one of them too, he didn’t wish them dead. His stomach churned, and his throat tightened at the sickening realization: it was his fault. If he’d answered his phone, he may have been able to prevent Billy and Kevin from doing anything.
And why the fuck did he care so much?
Because you’re the same.
The bartender lined up three shot glasses on the table in front of them, and the look he gave Scott drove the nail of unexpected guilt a little deeper into his gut. He pushed back and stood abruptly.
“Gotta go.” He pocketed his wallet and phone, diligently avoiding eye contact with anyone.
“What? Dude, what about shots?” Billy said.
“Yeah, man.” Kevin chimed in. “We gotta celebrate.”
Scott shook his head, still not making eye contact. “I, uh . . . got a date.”
He bolted from the bar before they could say anything more. His heart pounded hard in his chest and loud in his ears, and a sense of urgency had him running for his truck while grabbing his phone and pressing Tripp’s number at the same time.
“C’mon, c’mon,” he chanted as he hopped into the truck and cranked the ignition, but the call went to voice mail. He pulled out onto the road, guessing at which direction Tripp would have gone. It wasn’t like he could go back into the bar and ask the guys for details without arousing suspicions.
He drove for what felt like hours, but was probably only half of one, when he finally spotted Tripp’s truck at a travel station. Pulling around to the back of the building where the guys had said they’d hauled Tripp, he didn’t see anything at first. But there, against the wall and half behind the dumpster, was a lifeless body lying in an awkward huddle.
“Jesus Christ.” Scott slammed the truck into park and ran to Tripp, dropping down at his side. His face was swollen, bruised, and bloody, his left leg at an unnatural angle, and who knew what other damage he’d suffered internally. Scott felt for a pulse, and cold sweat broke out across his skin when he couldn’t find one. But then a faint bump against his fingertips sent a rush of relief through him. Tripp was alive, but barely. And he’d stay that way if Scott could get him to help fast enough.
He ran to his truck, backing it up as close to Tripp as he could get, and then gathered all the blankets and jackets he had from the back of the cab. He dropped the tailgate and threw everything onto the floor of the box.
Very carefully, he gathered Tripp in his arms and carried him to his truck, placing him on the makeshift bed. He bunched up the sides to help keep Tripp from moving too much while he drove.
“Hang on, Tripp.”
Half an hour later, Scott was pulling out of the emergency parking lot. He hadn’t gone inside, hadn’t given anyone any info, just shouted from the doorway that a man needed help. Nurses and attendees had responded quickly, and while they were busy attending to Tripp, Scott had taken off.
Not even three blocks from the hospital, he had to pull over at the side of the road. He dropped his head to the steering wheel and closed his eyes. He couldn’t take much more of this day. Hopefully Tripp would be okay. That he himself would be okay was doubtful. Not after that kiss and the realization that this constant, exhausting fight against his true self was futile. “Fuck. Fuck-fuck-fuck.”
“You can do this, hon.” Brandi leaned across the cab of his truck and squeezed his thigh. The gesture was supportive, encouraging, and he needed it more than he’d ever admit. She smiled before sitting back in the passenger seat. “Take as long as you need. I’ll be right here.”
Not for the first time, he wondered why he couldn’t have fallen for Brandi Saunders. She was perfect, the one person who truly knew him—and all of his secrets—and still stood by him. People had thought she was a regular girl he visited on the tour, a favorite buckle bunny, but she was never a regular girl. It had served him well to let people think they were more, and they had crossed that line once early in their friendship but realized pretty quickly that wasn’t a road they were meant to follow. The reality was, and always had been, that they were more like brother and sister.
“Thank you, Bran.” He forced a smile he wasn’t feeling. “I don’t know what I’d have done if you hadn’t been there for me.” Following the incident two years ago, he’d slid into a tailspin. After the big-ass cherry on his wake-up call—being arrested on suspicion for Tripp’s assault—he’d reached out to her for help. He’d refused to see a therapist, but as a clinical social worker for a nonprofit mental health center, she had the skills to guide him through his haze of confusion and self-hate and bring him back to life—his true life.
“Good thing you have me then, isn’t it?” She gestured toward the ranch house they’d parked in front of. “Now go.”
Easier said than done. He turned back to the house that Tripp Colby shared with Marty Fairgrave. He knew it was an important part of his recovery process, but fuck. Now that he was here, how was he supposed to look Tripp in the eye, knowing he could have changed the course of that night? Or face Marty, with all the shitty things he’d said to the man over the years?
“Stop.” Brandi reached across the console and cupped his chin, turning him to face her. “I see what’s going on in your head. You need to do this and you can do this. Okay?”
He nodded, then covered her hand with his and pulled it to his lips to kiss her palm. He hated feeling so off-kilter, but she gave him a kind of strength he’d never known he needed.
Which promptly about-faced when he looked back at the house to see Marty standing on the edge of the front steps, foreboding and unwelcoming. Scott sucked in a deep breath and held it for a three-beat before slowly releasing. This had to be done. Whatever Marty and Tripp had to dish out, he was more than willing to accept. Wasn’t like he deserved a second chance, or would be forgiven, but he had to make the effort. If for nothing else than his own peace of mind.
He turned to Brandi. “I couldn’t do this without you.”
“Yes, you could. Eventually.” She gave his hand a gentle squeeze, then let go and pulled an e-reader from her bag on the floor. “Now go. I have a love story to finish reading while you’re doing your thing. They’re just about to have sex.”
He groaned and rolled his eyes. He really did love her.
He carefully placed his cowboy hat on his head, and then with another deep breath, opened the door and stepped out into a warm California afternoon. He fought the urge to fidget, stick his hands in his pockets, pull his hat down to cover his eyes . . . or turn tail and run back home as fast as possible.
Marty’s expression didn’t change, but a hint of curiosity churned in the depths of unusually hard, flinty eyes.
Scott stopped a few feet from the bottom of the steps, and the front door swung open. His breath caught in the back of his throat when Tripp stepped out . . . using a cane.
After his meltdown following that night, Scott had disappeared from the rodeo world completely, but he’d looked up all he could find on Tripp once he’d finally come to accept who he was. He knew the injuries Tripp had suffered had cost him his career as a professional bull rider, but to actually see it . . . If Scott had been paying attention, if he’d truly been a real man then, he could have prevented the severity of it—or maybe all of it. And no, the irony in that was not lost on him.
Tripp stopped beside Marty, and Marty slipped his arm around Tripp’s waist, defiance and warning on both their faces.
“What are you doing here?” Tripp said, his voice hard and tight.
Scott lowered his gaze to the base of the bottom step and then looked up at the couple on the porch: at Tripp who had been like a brother, at Marty, one of the best pickup men on the circuit who’d once saved Scott’s life at a rodeo, even though he was an asshole. They were good men, strong men, and neither had deserved any of the shit he’d dished out over the years.
He shouldn’t be here.
He glanced over his shoulder to find Brandi not reading as she’d said she would but watching him. She nodded her head, giving silent support. Scott took another deep breath, turned back to the cowboys whose feet he bowed at, and removed his hat.
“I . . . uh . . .” He cleared his throat, swallowed hard, and looked Tripp in the eyes. “I came to apologize to you. For that night. For what happened and what it cost you. I just wanted you to know I’m real sorry about that. If I could, I’d go back and change things so it never would have happened. And . . .” He slid his gaze to Marty. “I also wanted to apologize for being a first-class homophobic asshole to you for so long.”
The way both men stood so still, staring at him like they could skin him in three seconds flat, made him want to squirm, to run. He shifted the hat in his hands and dropped his gaze. “I don’t expect forgiveness or nothing, and I’m not asking for it. I just wanted to come here in person and tell you how sorry I am for everything, and if I can help it, I won’t let something like that happen to anyone else.”
A horse whinnied in the distance, a bee buzzed past his face, and the silence stretched. He flicked his eyes up quickly. The couple didn’t look like they were going to tear him apart anymore, but now their expressions were blank.
“Okay. Well. I’ll be on my way then.”
“What happened?” Tripp stepped forward as Scott was about to turn away. “You disappeared for two years and now here you are, apologizing on my doorstep.”
“You guys remember Brandi?” He waved his hat in the direction of the truck. “She helped me come to terms with a few things about myself. See the error of my ways, so to speak. Now I’m trying to be a better person, live a truer life, and make amends for all the grief I’ve caused others.”
“You were a hard-core asshole, Scott,” Marty said. His voice was stony, but his expression had softened. “How can we believe you’re for real here?”
Scott stared him dead in the eyes. “Would the old Scott be on your doorstep of his own accord, offering apologies?”
A small smile tipped up one side of Marty’s mouth. “Point taken.”
Silence fell between them again, thick and weighty.
“Well. That was all I really had to say. So . . .” Scott glanced out at the land Tripp and Marty shared—Marty’s family ranch in Bridgeport was an impressive spread—but he didn’t really see it. “I’ll just be on my way then.”
Tripp and Marty nodded, and Scott turned to leave. A bead of sweat trickled down the side of his face. Why did the truck feel like he’d parked it twenty miles away rather than twenty feet? The longer he walked, the farther away it seemed. Emotions he couldn’t pin bounced around inside his chest: relief that he’d said his piece, disappointment that he hadn’t been forgiven, jealousy at the easy way they stood together, loneliness at the nothing he had in his life to look forward to.
“Scott,” Tripp called just as he’d reached the truck. He stopped, fighting down a rise of hope. He knew he deserved nothing less than hatred, apathy at the very least, but deep down, he couldn’t deny he’d hoped for at least a hint of forgiveness. “Why don’t you come and work with me on the gay rodeo circuit?”
Scott blinked. Gay rodeo? Him? That was . . . He didn’t know. His brain stalled out, and an odd panic nudged at his senses.
Marty snapped his gaze to Tripp, eyebrows raised. “What?”
Tripp placed a hand on Marty’s hip. “Trust me, okay? I think it will be good for him.”
Marty’s pose, the expression on his face, his eyes, everything softened when he looked down at Tripp, and then he smiled, and a little spike of jealousy poked its head out. Shit, what was wrong with him? Self-acceptance was still a struggle sometimes, and he was a long way from wanting anything like what Tripp and Marty had—just seeing two guys together still made him uncomfortable. So why the touch of green now?
Tripp turned back to Scott, his voice kind and smile welcoming. “They don’t have as many events as the pro tour, and a lot are out of state, so I work with them, and the PBR on off weeks. What do you say?”
Scott swallowed. “But . . . I haven’t even been on a bull in two years.”
“Not to ride. To work with me. I teach bull riding at the rodeo schools on both tours, and I also work with the PBR to promote awareness and acceptance for all cowboys, regardless of orientation. I think it would be good for you to spend some time in the boots of those you’ve been spitting on for so many years. Maybe also help make others think before they spit.”
Scott had to admit the idea of getting back to the rodeo appealed, but to work with a bunch of gay men? Him? They’d probably string him up and quarter him the first day. Just for kicks. “Thank you, Tripp, but I’m not sure that would be a good idea. I have a feeling the old Scott is all people are going to see.”
“Which is more reason to show them this new one, isn’t it? That if a hard-ass prick like you can turn it around . . .?”
“He makes a great point.” Scott started at Brandi’s voice right beside him. He hadn’t realized she’d left the truck and joined them. He glanced over at her, and she smiled back. The glint in her soft blues eyes told him he’d better accept the offer if he knew what was good for him. And he did. A mad Brandi was the last thing he wanted to deal with, but this might be a bigger step than he was ready for.
Scott looked back at Tripp. “Thank you, but I’ll need to think on it.”
“Please do,” Tripp said.