The death of his wife four years earlier left Travis Bennett a shell of the man he used to be. With his dog by his side, Travis raises his three children, manages his business, and works as a ranch hand. But every day, every minute, is an aching emptiness.
Wesley Ryan has fond memories of the small Ozark town of El Dorado. Seeing it as a safe place to put his failed relationships behind him, Wesley moves into his grandparents’ old home and takes over the local veterinary clinic. An early morning visit from Travis and his dog stirs feelings that Wesley seeks to push away—the last thing he needs is to fall for a man with baggage and three kids as part of the package.
Life, it seems, has other plans.
“HE’S JUST a dog, Bennett! Get a hold of yourself.”
At the deep sound of his master’s voice, the dog lifted his head from where it rested against the door handle and craned his neck to look across the cab of the truck.
“Just a goddamned dog,” Travis Bennett muttered to himself, attempting to ignore the burn of his constricting throat. He wiped his callused hand roughly across both cheeks, the scratch of his stubble loud in his ears. He spared a glance from the road as he pulled his hand away. Dry. No tears. Their absence wasn’t a surprise, but it almost disappointed him nonetheless. “Just a dog.”
With a spray of gravel and a harsh lurch, the truck hit a pothole in the middle of the road. Instinctively Travis’s right hand shot out and steadied the dog, keeping him from tumbling to the floor of the cab. The dog let out a long groan but remained firmly in the divotted spot he’d occupied for years.
The sight of the dog made Travis flinch. With a cursory glance at the rearview mirror, he pulled the truck over to the side of the road, keeping his foot on the brake. “Ah, Dunk. Buddy, I’m so sorry.” He reached out and stroked the swollen left side of his dog’s face. Even in the half hour since Travis had woken up, the dog’s face had nearly doubled in size. His left eye was completely swollen shut. He was unrecognizable. If it weren’t for the reddish auburn fur and white muzzle, Travis wouldn’t believe it was his dog. Even so, the dog pushed his face against Travis’s hand, burrowing closer.
“Sorry, Dunk. I didn’t mean it. You’re not just a dog. You’re gonna be fine. Just fine.” Without looking over his shoulder, Travis let off the brake and pulled back out onto the dirt road. His eyes burned. He swiped at them again.
He didn’t look back at the dog again for the remainder of the ten-minute drive, only muttered words of comfort to his old friend.
“We’re almost there, buddy. Soon. You’ll be good as new by tomorrow.”
Words uttered out of fear.
“It won’t be anything serious. You’re in good health. Shit, you were chasin’ buffalo yesterday; can’t be serious.”
Some that weren’t spoken.
I can’t do this. I won’t. The kids can’t go through this again. It isn’t fair. I can’t do it again.
TRAVIS HAD barely pulled into the parking lot before slamming the truck into park, hopping out, and rushing to the passenger side. He refused to look at his dog’s face as he swept the forty-five-pound ball of fuzz into his arms. “We’re here. The vet’s gonna make you all better.”
He only made it a few feet from the truck before the dog began to thrash. “Goddammit, Dunk, you’re gonna make me drop you.” Still the dog squirmed, looking like a seal caught in a net. Travis knelt on one knee and placed the dog on the ground. He shook, as if attempting to dust away the indignity of being carried, causing his mass of fur to puff out to an even greater degree.
Despite the pain the swelling had to be causing, the dog trotted beside Travis, tiny legs hidden under his hair. If it weren’t for his waddle, he could have almost pulled off the illusion he was floating. Even his floppy ears shuffled back and forth as they closed the last few feet to the vet.
The scent of cleaner and medicine stung Travis’s nose as he opened the door for his dog to walk through. He hated it. Though different, it was too similar to the sanitized stench of a hospital.
“Cheryl!” Travis tried to ignore the tinge of panic his yell betrayed as he crossed the small veterinary office. Leaning over the glass counter, he tried to see down the narrow hallway. “Thanks for coming in so early on a Sunday morning. I sure appreciate it.”
A door closed somewhere in the back, and the clip of shoes sounded on tile. Travis glanced down at his feet, trying to force his heart to slow. The dog gazed up at him, his tailless butt wagging in his typical adoration of Travis. When Travis looked back up, he flinched at the man standing across the counter. “You’re not Cheryl.”
The man let out an easy laugh. “No. Not Cheryl.” He stuck out his hand. “Dr. Ryan. You must be Mr. Bennett. Nice to meet you.”
Travis paused before extending his own hand to return the greeting. He didn’t have time to waste meeting people. “Cheryl’s not here yet?”
“No. She’s not coming in. She called and let me know you were on your way. I was already here trying to get stuff ready for an appointment tomorrow. She’s not used to having me around yet. She said she’d try to call you back and let you know I’d be the one to meet you.”
Travis patted the front pocket of his jeans. “I guess I left my cell at home. I was kinda in a hurry.” For the first time he really looked at the man in front of him. Tall—taller than him, at any rate. Lean, with dirty-blond hair, and probably in his thirties. “You’re an… assistant or something?”
“No. I’m a real veterinarian.” He motioned back down the hallway, pointing at something Travis couldn’t see. “Got the degree on the wall for proof if you need to see it.”
Travis just narrowed his eyes in response. New doctors were never good; they messed up. Didn’t care about patients other doctors had taken care of.
“Mr. Bennett, if you want to go get your dog, I can take a look at him. Cheryl said there was some facial swelling….”
Travis looked at the vet as if he was an imbecile and motioned toward his feet. “He’s right here.”
The vet peered over the counter, meeting the dog’s eyes as he turned to look up at him. “A corgi. A fluffy corgi at that! I haven’t seen one of those in a long time.” He glanced back up at Travis, then back toward the dog.
Travis knew the expression. People always gave him that questioning look when they first realized the short compact dog belonged with the tank of a man.
“Sorry, Mr. Bennett. I didn’t have a chance to look him up in the system before you got here. I’ll do that real quick before we take him back, just get a glimpse at his history. But before that, let me take a look at the little guy.”
Travis bristled at the comment. He hated when people made comments about his dog’s size or how he looked like a redheaded mop as his long fur dragged on the ground. Though short, the dog was nearly fifty pounds and spent several hours a week herding buffalo just for the fun of it. He wasn’t a damned Chihuahua or toy poodle or anything.
The vet was already around the counter and kneeling beside the dog, allowing Dunk to sniff the back of his hand before gently scratching the top of his head. “Ouch, that looks painful, little guy.”
“Dunkyn. His name’s Dunkyn.”
The vet didn’t even look up, directing all his attention toward the dog. “Good Scottish name, or Irish maybe. Corgis always have the best names.”
Dunkyn’s butt began to wiggle twice as fast at the attention.
“So can we take him back and do some tests or whatever to find out what’s going on with him?” There was that damned strain in his voice.
The vet must have noticed it too. He stood and quickly returned behind the counter to the computer. After a few short keystrokes, he looked up at Travis with a cocked brow. “Two T’s in Bennett?”
“Ah, there. There’s a couple of you Bennetts in town. You don’t look like a Wendy. You must be Travis or Caleb.”
“Travis. Caleb is my son. He’s got his own dog, Dolan. He’s a corgi as well.”
“See? Corgi’s have the best names.” A few more keystrokes, then another cocked eyebrow. “Dunkyn, spelled with a Y. That’s unusual.”
Travis felt his face flush. “Yeah. My wife’s idea.”
The vet glanced back at the screen. “Wendy, I take it.”
“Nope. That’s my sister.”
The vet waited for more explanation, but when none came, he returned his attention once more to the computer, making a few clicking noises with his tongue, brown eyes flitting back and forth as he read across the screen. “Looks like Dunkyn’s all up to date on everything. He’s about ten years old. Ten is up there, but not too concerning for a corgi.” He motioned for Travis and Dunkyn to follow. “Let’s head on back to the examination room.”
In all, it was less than fifty feet around the counter and back down the hallway, but Travis’s feet were made of lead, each step more laden than the next. Each step closer to bad news, to death. Heart monitors beeped in his ears. The tang of anesthetics wrinkled his nose. Empty platitudes echoed in his mind.
He could see the indent of a head on the pillow, strands of long red hair caught in the folds of the fabric.
Dr. Cahill’s voice sounded in a whispered shout, I’m sorry, Mr. Bennett, there’s nothing else—
“Huh?” The veterinary office snapped back into focus. The vet stood in the doorway of the exam room, a hand outstretched, suspended between them, nearly close enough to touch him. “Sorry, Dr…. Um….”
“Dr. Ryan. You can just call me Wesley if you want. Everyone does.”
Travis nodded absentmindedly and looked past the vet to where Dunkyn was sniffing around a metal chair in the room, continuing his never-ending hunt for forgotten food, as if nothing were wrong.
“Are you okay, Mr. Bennett?”
This time Travis met the man’s eyes, straightening his spine to his full five foot ten. Still a couple of inches shorter than the vet. “Yeah. Can you take a look at Dunkyn now?”
Dr. Ryan opened his mouth as if to inquire some more, then, to his credit, reconsidered. He turned, walked over to Dunkyn, and knelt on the floor, closer to the dog’s level. He ran his hands over the dog’s long body, nimble fingers moving with graceful confidence.
“Dunkyn is in great shape, Mr. Bennett. A little chunky maybe, but he’s got excellent muscle tone and is as strong as a dog four times his height. You must walk him a lot.”
Travis gave a vindicated grunt. Not such a little guy after all. “He goes everywhere with me. Dunk’s favorite thing, besides eating, is heading out to the ranch and chasing the buffalo.”
The vet glanced up, his brow seemingly caught in a quizzical position. “Buffalo?”
Travis couldn’t suppress a pride-filled grin. “Yeah. He loves it. Caleb’s dog, Dolan, is too crazy to do any good, but they all know Dunkyn’s the boss as soon as he shows up.”
“I’ve heard of corgis herding sheep and cows, but that’s a first. Buffalo.” He turned back to the dog, then looked up at Travis again. “Are those the buffalo out by Carman Road? I can’t imagine there are more buffalo than that in a town the size of El Dorado.”
Dr. Ryan nodded appreciatively. “They’re beautiful animals. Your house is fairly impressive as well.”
“Oh, no. They’re not my buffalo. I’m just a hired hand for Mr. Walker. I don’t live there. I live out on….” He let his voice trail off, suddenly unsure why he was giving any details to this stranger. He motioned toward the aluminum examination table on the other side of the room. “Want me to lift Dunk up there for ya?”
The vet shook his head. “No, I don’t like doing that unless we absolutely have to. Most dogs don’t like being on something so far off the ground. If you just want to join us down here, that would be great. Maybe hold him while I try to look in his mouth and see if we can figure out what’s causing the swelling. You told Cheryl, um, Dr. Fisher, that you first noticed it this morning, correct?”
“Yep.” Travis sat down on the floor, his back against the wall. Dunkyn waddled over to him, plopped down between his legs, and rested his head on Travis’s lap with a satisfied grunt. Travis scratched the red fur on top of Dunkyn’s head, then put both hands on either side of the corgi’s body and turned him around to face the vet. With his long hair splayed out around him as he was spun over the floor, he really did look like a mop.
Dr. Ryan knelt on both knees in front of Dunk and Travis. The room stayed silent as he inspected Dunkyn’s ears, eyes, heartbeat, and temperature. Dunkyn groaned uncomfortably at the insertion of the thermometer into his rectum, offering the doctor a condemning glare, but otherwise putting up no resistance.
The dog whimpered when Dr. Ryan inspected his teeth. He tried to flinch away, but Travis had his head cradled between his hands. The vet remained focused on Dunkyn as he continued his inspection. “Any chance Dunkyn had some sort of impact to his face? Herding buffalo could be a pretty dangerous game. Of course, I would assume if there were any injury from one of them, there’d be a lot more trauma than a swollen face.”
It took a moment for Travis to answer. Longer than it should have. When he did speak, he had to stop, clear his throat, and start over. “No. He’s always with me. Nothing’s happened, not so much as a yelp of pain. It’s not an injury.” The vet’s gaze flicked up, the concern in his brown eyes sending a shot of irritation through Travis. “Can we just do some tests and find out what’s going on with my dog?”
A soothing hand stroked over the smooth side of Dunkyn’s face as Dr. Ryan inspected Travis. “Is there something specific you’re worried might be wrong, Mr. Bennett?”
“His face swelled overnight. There’s gotta be a growth or tumor or something.” Travis preferred the anger he heard in his words now. Much better than the quavering weakness. The answering smile that appeared made him want to smash a fist into the vet’s face.
“Actually I’m not concerned about that at all. Growths don’t normally appear that quickly. If you’re certain you haven’t noticed a gradual swelling, I’d say the chance of it being cancer is one of the last things I’m worried about.”
The anger swept out of Travis, leaving in its place the kernel of hope. He would rather have the anger. Again his throat constricted. “Yeah?”
Another fucking smile. “Yeah. There’s some sort of infection, which should be easy enough to take care of. When I was inspecting Dunkyn’s gums, I could smell it. You’d be able to as well, if you got your nose down here. My guess is there’s a dental issue. Maybe a cracked root or abscess. I’ll have to do X-rays to be sure, but that’s almost always what these signs indicate. I’m not concerned about cancer at all.”
Travis’s eyes burned. He knew there were no tears, but it felt like there were. He pulled Dunkyn closer to him. The dog grunted, and Travis released his grip some.
“It’s just a simple operation, and the little guy will be as good as new in no time.” The vet smiled.
Travis pulled the dog tighter, this time ignoring Dunkyn’s protest. “No. No surgery. What else can we do?”
Confusion crossed the vet’s expression. Clearly he’d thought this had been good news. He looked at the dog held tightly in Travis’s arms. “Well, we can try antibiotics to kill the infection. If that’s all it is, then that will take care of it. However, if a root is cracked or something is wrong with Dunkyn’s teeth, the infection will keep coming back and be more detrimental if nothing is done. If it comes back, he really needs the surgery. Again, I’d need to do X-rays, but I’ve seen this enough that I’m nearly 100 percent certain what’s going on, and I think he requires surgery.”
Travis shook his head emphatically. “No. Absolutely not. No surgery.”
“Mr. Bennett. There’s no real concern with an operation such as this. It’s very routine, and Dr. Fisher will be there with me. Dunkyn will be in the very best of hands. He’ll feel much better after.”
“While choriocarcinoma is fairly rare, with chemotherapy, the cure rate is nearly 95 percent. And you’ve opted to do the hysterectomy, which may be overkill, but I don’t blame you for wanting to be certain. There’s nothing to be concerned about. I assure you, I know what I’m doing. She’ll be back to normal within a year. As young and healthy as she is, maybe less than that.”
Her grip tightened as their fingers intertwined. Their gazes met and held. Though scared, hope shone through.
He raised a questioning brow at her.
She knew him so well she rarely required him to use words. “Of course we do the chemo. I’ll do whatever it takes. The kids need their mother, and Lord knows what you’d get up to without a wife to keep you in line.” The forced humor left her voice and a tear slipped down one of her cheeks. “Will you still love me if I lose my hair?”
“No surgery. Dunkyn’s not having surgery. We’ll do the antibiotics.” Travis stood before the vet could say anything else. Not that the man would dare, if he knew what was good for him.
DESPITE DUNKYN’S protests, Travis carried him from the vet’s office and deposited him gently into the truck from the passenger side. He tossed the white paper bag containing the antibiotics and pain pills onto the floorboard.
Making his way around the front of the truck toward his door, he paused when he noticed the lemon yellow Mazda Miata. It was the only other car in the parking lot. How had he missed it on the way in? The thing stood out like a pink flamingo in a flock of mallards. A car like that shouldn’t have the nerve to drive through El Dorado Springs, let alone hang out in the veterinary parking lot. And what was that sticker by the rear license plate? He took a few steps closer, narrowing his eyes.
A rainbow decal, shaped like a dog. A fucking rainbow sticker. Here!
It was proof of the morning’s stress that it took the few seconds required for him to walk back to his truck and open the door before two plus two added up to its correct sum.
He looked from the vet’s office to the Miata, then back again. What had Cheryl Fisher brought into town?
I couldn't stop reading, not until I had read every word on every page...
Read the full review at
I purchased this book after GRL 2014, with a fabulous coupon from the publisher, and then left it lingering on my Nook. Until 12/29, when I opened the file and started reading.
And then found I couldn't stop reading, not until I had read every word on every page, because I had to know how it would all work out. I even tweeted the author - he owes me for lack of sleep.
Kidding aside, if you haven't read this book, get to it. Do it. Do it now.
The characters Brandon Witt created in this novel are some of the most realistic, most pulled-from-real-life I've ever had the pleasure to read. Travis Bennett, widowed four years ago, raising his three kids with help from his sister Wendy, lives in a small Ozark town called El Dorado Springs. He's still grieving the loss of his wife and convinced he'll never love anyone again. The melancholy, the sadness Travis feels was evident from the start.
Wesley Ryan is the new vet in town. He's openly gay (or "swishy", as Travis calls it), drives a bright-yellow Miata and is the fodder for much gossip around town. He recently moved into his grandparents' old house, having inherited it upon their death, and is still somewhat reeling from a break-up with this long-time boyfriend who left him. He's come to El Do, as the locals call it, to find himself again.
Homophobia is rampant throughout the book. Wait, hear me out. There were moments when I wanted to shake Travis for calling Wesley a faggot, especially early on, and there were moments when I wanted to reach into the book and punch Jason (Travis' life-long buddy/friend/bro) for being a homophobic asshole, and there were moments when I had to remind myself that this wasn't actually a biography, that these were only words on a page. It was all so real.
This is the kind of story that could happen in real life. Brandon Witt's characters are real. They could be your neighbors, the people you see at your local grocery store, and he accurately describes what it's like to live in a small town, where everyone knows everyone, and everyone knows your business.
The book also showcases the apathy of most people, specifically when it comes to good old boys and their special club. It shows that despite everyone knowing what a rotten person John Wallace is, nobody does a damn thing about it, always careful to maintain the status quo while whispering the truth to each other.
But there's also change within. Change that comes over time, change that comes at a moment's notice, for example when Jason is forced to decide whether he values his friendship with Travis more than his homophobia. Change that is nearly invisible, quiet, but then becomes a force of its own once Travis opens his eyes and really sees.
I cried a few times. There were some tears. Okay, fine, a lot of tears. Okay, fine, a river of tears, with rapids throughout. Brandon Witt made me cry. So there's that.
But he also made me smile and sigh with happiness.
Travis and Wesley's first kiss - I may have swooned a little. Or a lot. That was one of the best first kisses I've ever read about in a book. The emotional connection between the two men just dripped off the pages.
Brandon showed me with his words that love will conquer all, no matter how long it takes Travis to get his head out of his ass, no matter how Wesley tries to guard himself from falling in love, no matter how many people's bigoted opinions try to deny these two men what they have found in each other.
This book is written in the third person with an omniscient narrator. Quick trigger warning - there's a scene early on that might squick some people out.
While I'm not usually one who likes being in different people's heads, it really worked here for me, because not only do we get glimpses into the reasons behind actions, but we also get some insight into Travis' past. Yes, there's a villain, and while this guy might be slightly one-dimensional, I actually have known people like that. He's real. He exists.
Dialogue was organic, believable. Travis and Wesley's relationship, from its tentative beginnings to the lows and highs, to their happy ending, it was all so very believable. Like it really happened.
What I especially enjoyed, after getting to know this author at GRL and via FB, was the inclusion of the author's two Corgis, Dunkyn and Dolan. Brandon, if you're reading this, I'm so sorry about Dunkyn. I know you miss him terribly. I know what it's like to lose a beloved pet. He's waiting for you at the rainbow bridge.
While there are many themes in this book (homophobia, shame, grief, gossip, hate-crimes, loss, family, bigotry, to name just a few), the overriding theme is love. Love between families, love between spouses, loving someone for who they are, loving someone despite them having hurt you, loving someone beyond their death. Loving yourself. That's the most important lesson within. Love yourself the way you are. All else will follow.
This is an exceptional author, and I cannot believe it took me this long to read one of his books. What was I thinking?
One of the best books I've read this year, hands down.
I bought this book for the cover. Seriously. It's a thing of beauty.
The story, ugh was just so much more than I expected. A lot of times when I'm loving a book and notice the end is fast approaching, I feel a sense of regret. Strangely enough, with this story I am feeling warm contentment. I loved watching this characters heal and become a family. Highly recommended.
My first book by this author and I had a great time. I will be reading The Shattered Door next :)
I adored Wesley. While I wanted to smack Travis upside the head occasionally, I fell in love with him, too. What a lovely trip down the road to true love (and a second chance at true love for Travis)....
The secondary characters are so well done, I hope this isn't our last trip to El Do :)
Very enjoyable read. Good getting different perspectives throughout the book. The blurb caught my attention, but the writing held me captive from the beginning to the end.
I’m an emotional reader and this book was exactly what I needed.
The story is quite simple: bisexual widower with three kids meets gay new vet in small town. You already know what this story entails: grief, guilt, the small town mentality, good people vs bad people, prejudice, solidarity, love in all its forms (for kids, siblings, pets, people) and its declination (pure, sensual, earthy and sacred). What you are not quite prepared for it’s the absolute beauty of the writing.
It’s as if all the feelings of the protagonists found the perfect representation, the writing makes them real and tangible. It reaches a lyrical quality that makes your spirit soar with them.
Wesley, the veterinarian, moves to the small town of El Do in order to find himself. He loved the place as a kid and he goes to live in the house he inherited from his grandparents. Wesley is out and proud, he drives a car that is like a beacon for his orientation, he dresses fancy and runs in pink-laced running-shoes. We live his relationship with the whole town, the well-meaning words, the silent reprimands. He doesn’t hide how scared he is, but he’s also determined and he respects himself. Like the unexpected surge of anger that allows him to stand up to a bully, every steps he takes in his relationship with Travis (the widower) shows his courage despite his doubts. It’s like there is a Superman hidden under ordinary clothes.
Travis is still grieving his wife and raising his three kids. He is bisexual and when he meets Wesley, he is attracted to him and he decides to surrender to the feelings he has always had towards men. It’s not only lust, though, it’s empathy, it’s the need of a companion. Travis is a bear of a man that needs to love and feel loved by a kindred soul. Wesley is the guy he sets his eyes on, and he never shies away from his feelings when he’s made up his mind about the relationship he wants with the younger man. He’s blunt and honest, and he shows himself for what he is. And that’s how he has raised his kids. We know he’s stumbled and picked himself up, and we love him more for the cracks in his armor.
And then there are the secondary characters, Travis’ close family, his best friend Jason and the people in El Do. I am not a fan of multiple point of views. I like one or two POVs, the rest is overkill in my opinion (or they show a lack of skills of the author sometimes). In this book we have short chapters with the POVs of every person whose life is impacted by Travis and Wesley’s love. They are like precious stones on an already fine cloth. What can I say? Mason’s chapter made me sob, I didn’t have a tissue ready, so I had to scramble out of bed to get one, making fun of myself because I had been caught again in a story. Gosh, I love when it happens. Every character became alive and dear to me, I care for this people, how can I explain? It was magic.
The setting was plausible, this small town where everyone knows about everyone else. It was like being there and the description of the places was sketched vividly, without being overly detailed. It was like standing next to Travis while he thought about life by that beautiful field where the buffaloes run with Dunkyn, kneeling with him by his wife’s grave, sitting by the pond on a cold night on a bench.
There’s a lot of romance, but there isn’t graphic sex. There is lust, you can feel it, you can peek into some intimate moments, but it’s like you’re hearing through a wall, not actually seeing what’s happening. Which is fine by me. I wouldn’t recommend reading it in one sitting (I didn’t) because it deserved to be sipped slowly, to let the story accompany you during your day, to make you want to meet the characters when you’re relaxing in your free time. It was difficult to put it down when I was reading it, but I am happy I didn’t gorge on it.
I am a bit afraid of recommending it because I don’t want to hear if you don’t like it. It’s so precious to me, it was a privilege to read it, it’s “such stuff as readers’ dreams are made of” (stealing from Bill S.).
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