Chapter 1

 

JT CAMPBELL had loved Brett Taylor every single day of his twenty-eight years of life, or that was certainly how it felt whenever he talked to, touched, or even looked at him. If given the chance, JT would have burrowed beneath Brett’s skin like some all-consuming virus just to make sure they were never parted.

And if that wasn’t the most disgusting but factual description of true love—or, in the least, the musings of a man completely under the spell of a former country singer with more issues than People magazine—he didn’t know what was.

In reality, six and a half months was no more than a drop in the proverbial bucket of relationships. But it was far longer than any other romantic liaison JT had been involved in, and if he had his way, Brett would be the last lover he ever had… period. There simply weren’t enough words to describe how much he loved his cowboy—hook, line, and dirt-covered sinker.

Brett was moody, sensitive, stubborn, caring, annoying, sweet as pie, and so damn beautiful it hurt JT’s heart. But despite the good, the bad, and the shameless sexiness that was Brett Taylor, he always came out on top—well, in a nonliteral sense—even when it came to planning the worst Valentine’s Day dinner ever.

“G’morning, Darlin’,” Brett said, one eye partially cracked open. He smacked a loud kiss to JT’s grateful, grinning lips. “I told Ray and Mama we’d have dinner with them at Bubba’s tonight. I’ve got an old friend struck on dragging his guitar out of storage for a one-night-only performance. I said we’d be there for moral support. That sound okay to you?”

JT breathed a short, confused “What…,” which was quickly interrupted by an excited furball jumping on the bed. Whiz waggled and wiggled, his tail whacking JT in the face while Brett chuckled and encouraged him. “Down, Whizzy,” JT said with as much sternness as he ever managed with the overexcitable pup.

Brett kissed his cheek this time. “I’ll let him out before his bladder bursts.” Then he was gone and JT was alone and feeling empty and disappointed.

It wasn’t so much that he was any kind of hopeless romantic, nor had he necessarily expected a mushy card or a vase filled with fabulous red roses—though that would have been over-the-top sweet and bordering on beautifully sappy—but dinner at Bubba’s was probably the last thing on his hopeful agenda. What he had expected, or, yeah, wanted, was some adult alone time with Brett on the so-called most romantic day of the year. Something private and intimate that didn’t include Brett’s foreman and friend Ray Durant barging in at any given moment just because, or something that involved being horizontal and sweating, at least in the beginning.

 

 

HE WANTED to hold hands across a table, have Brett’s icy blues gaze adoringly into his eyes as wine sparkled in fancy glasses, flowers scented the room, and goddamn cupids played tiny harps…. So, yeah, that hopeless romantic thing was a possibility after all.

His Valentine’s gift for Brett wasn’t the most romantic thing in the world either—a book about foals or fillies or some kind of baby horses Brett had been talking about, plus a card JT had painstakingly picked out. The flaming red paper practically oozed blood-soaked love and was by far the mushiest thing he’d ever considered buying.

In fact, the old JT would probably have been nauseated with the gush of sentiments. Love did strange things to people, and JT’s descent into unfathomed attraction, affection, and attachment had made all that was sugary-sweet and gapingly sappy the new normal for him.

Sickly sweet didn’t necessarily mean romantic or sexy, but at least it was something. And it mopped the floor with a romantic Valentine’s Day dinner at Bubba’s Pubba—damn, that had to be the most obnoxious, unpunny name—with Brett, Ray, and Millie.

In reality, JT couldn’t think of many things he wanted to do less on February fourteenth, unless it was mucking out the stables while some honky-tonk music blared loud and teeth-grittingly painful from Ray’s portable radio. Yes, that had happened, and, yes, JT had hated it. And, of course, Ray thought his discomfort was a hoot and a holler. Though if JT thought about it a little more, anything involving his own mother would be higher on the list of do not want than Ray’s hootenanny bullshit or Bubba’s Pubba.

So while he showered—stubbornly alone and in a partially self-sabotaging version of punishing Brett—JT sulked. He realized the fact it was Valentine’s Day hadn’t entered their short conversation that morning, so maybe Brett deserved the benefit of the doubt. He did, after all, have romantic tendencies during private moments and certainly on the written page. Reading Brett’s letters to his late partner, Walt, hadn’t been any kind of shining moment for JT, but he’d still felt the love and heartache on the pages. And broken or not, the man who penned such words has the soul of a sentimentalist first and foremost.

Brett always claimed Walt had been the romantic one, but the way he waxed poetic in lyrics and sweet notes proved otherwise. It was really a ridiculous thing to be upset about—a bratty thing. Valentine’s Day was just another day after all. But somewhere along the way, JT had created high expectations for his first time, and it was his first time, at least as far as Valentine relationships went.

Over the years, he’d had an abundance of meaningless sex on the dreaded day of hearts and love, usually in hopes of forgetting he didn’t have an actual date or long-term lover to spend it with. His family had never been one for celebrating February fourteenth either. He’d received no cutesy cards with animals and hearts or anything else Valentine-related from his mother and father. He did have vivid memories of other kids showing him little boxes of chocolates from parents, but that hadn’t been JT’s experience.

His excitement at the first time he’d brought home a Valentine card from a girl in his kindergarten class was still etched in his brain. His mother had scoffed and told him the day stood for nothing but juvenile amusement, and even as a child, JT hadn’t been encouraged to be juvenile. She’d also been unwilling to buy him cards of his own to hand out, so he became the only child in his class not to give Valentines. He remembered the devastation and embarrassment, the ravaged feelings of a kid merely wanting to fit in, like it was only yesterday.

JT didn’t often dwell on his past, but there were days he was more apt to ruminate on his upbringing. He was usually a master at not letting the unhappiness and unfairness of his childhood poison his brain. Hell, even his young adulthood held far more bad memories than good. But this one single day among ten thousand might be the only time his mother had been right. And that was the last thing in the world JT had ever wanted to admit.

Dorothy Campbell had designated Valentine’s Day as simply a commercialized scheme to put money in the pockets of greeting card companies and chocolate distributors. It was all about corny cards and chocolates and flowers, a cornucopia of materialism and feelings JT didn’t need and were totally beneath him. That heart-hurt, disillusioned kid inside JT knew stupid cards, tacky gifts, and non-holiday holidays didn’t prove Brett loved him, and they never would. Nevertheless, disappointment still settled heavy inside adult JT.

“You with me, sweetheart? Not lost somewhere in that pretty head of yours, are you? Need me to send out a search party?”

Just as it always did, JT’s heart warmed at the sound of Brett’s voice, somersaulting like an Olympic gymnast owning the mat, but he forced a disgruntled glare at Brett’s spew of questions. Brett’s confusion was a little clearer when reality set in and JT discovered he was standing in the middle of their bedroom naked and dripping wet. He didn’t remember getting from the bathroom to their room without drying off.

Getting lost inside his head was the only excuse he could come up with because giving his mother any credit for scattering his thoughts was a fate worse than death. He refused to succumb to her bullying twenty years after the fact. Valentine’s Day was the one at fault for shoving him back into that world. And Brett…. JT could definitely blame Brett.

Said blame tilted his head, lips parted, but no words came out for a very long moment as JT stood motionlessly chilled and self-conscious. Brett held up a finger then backed away and disappeared from JT’s sight. He didn’t have time to follow before his cowboy was back.

“Here, sweetheart. You might wanna use this.”

He tucked an arm around JT’s shoulders from behind and suddenly they were nose-to-nose. Brett’s patented lopsided grin shone like the sun as he smoothed a fluffy white towel over JT’s arms. A familiar blush crept into JT’s cheeks as he accepted the offering. Even after months with the man, he still had that effect.

When JT’s fingers brushed Brett’s, a spark of electricity zapped from his hand to his groin—the same current he’d felt the first time Brett touched him. The honeymoon period of their love continued to be passionate and endearing. And even though JT was peeved at his cowboy’s Valentine’s Day etiquette, his body traitorously reacted with an ache he couldn’t control, an itching to touch or kiss.

“JT? Darlin’, you all right?”

JT. Brett never called him that unless he was worried, so JT let the towel slip to his hips then tucked it around his waist. With his obvious and badly timed interest hidden, he leaned down to kiss the soft lips that always brought him to his knees. It wasn’t an invitation for more, just a soft reminder of his love and appreciation, but Brett tugged him in for a hug anyway.

“I’m getting you all wet.”

JT tried to pull away, but Brett held tight, drawing him even closer as he buried his nose in JT’s shower-damp neck.

“You know I’m all right with that.” Brett’s voice was soft, sweet, a tender vibration of words against chilled skin as he dragged his lips over JT’s jaw, trailing wet kisses along the prickly ridge. He left a path of tingles in his wake. “How come you didn’t wait for me in the shower?”

An unwanted lusty groan slithered up JT’s throat, while a more powerful one blazed through his core. He slid his arms around Brett’s waist, locking his hands together and squeezing. “Just wanted to get an early start.” He was tempted to add, in his best sarcastic, Ray-tone, “You have no idea how excited I am for our first Valentine’s Day date with your mama and Ray tonight,” but being chest-to-chest, heart-to-heart, with Brett put all JT’s sass on the backburner and rendered him stupid.

 

 

AND WHO could blame him for being speechless when Brett was all firm muscles, soft skin, heated desire, and tender words—and he was JT’s body and soul. His hair tickled JT’s cheek, and his familiar woodsy scent teased his nostrils in the very best way. With quiet resignation, JT angled his head so he could capture Brett’s mouth again, re-experiencing the surge of desire with every stroke of Brett’s tongue over his. Brett made him feel so needy but cared for at the same time.

“Jesus, kid. We’re gonna have to rectify that whole shower situation before we head out to dinner tonight, yeah? You’ve got my morning wood jumping like a jackrabbit.”

JT stifled a snicker, loosening his grip to press a purposefully chaste kiss to Brett’s hair before prying himself completely away. Mood ruined. Time to move on. “Yeah. That sounds… great.” His lust waned, and he hoped he sounded more honest than he was feeling. “You should probably shower now. Don’t want Ray getting all pissy, right?”

“You sure nothing’s bothering you?”

Brett tugged his boxers down and off as he spoke, leaving him in all his naked, aroused glory, much to JT’s detriment. Brett eyed him with concern clouding his pretty blues, including the one-eyed glare of the sensuous snake half-curled up his belly.

Get a grip, JTBut keep your hands to yourself. Man-up, boy.

With a fake sigh covering a guttural groan of Jesus effing Christ take me now, JT avoided Brett’s eyes—all three of them. “Restless night. Stomach was bothering me.”

“Too much of Mama’s pie?” The twinkle returned to Brett’s eyes, his teasing smirk proof that JT was a better actor than he thought.

“You had more than I did.” He traced Brett’s happy trail with his index finger. “Now would you put that goddamn thing away before we start something we don’t have time to finish?”

“I’ve always got time to finish you off, Darlin’.”

Have mercy. “Not when Ray’s waiting on an early order you don’t.”

“Dammit! I forgot about that.” Brett jerked a little when he swore, and a moan accompanied JT’s quick getaway from that enticing third eye bobbing up at him. “What would I do without you?”

“Be hopelessly lost? Um… I’ll go start breakfast. Yeah. I can do that.”

“All right. Another kiss for the road?”

“Big softie.”

“Not right now, I ain’t.”

“Shower, cowboy!” JT wiggled away again, giving Brett a playful slap on the ass. Brett’s throaty chuckle followed him through the door. “Devious bastard.”

 

 

BREAKFAST WAS almost normal, if not a little earlier than usual, though JT had barely got the coffee started when Brett came clomping down the stairs. Of course, Brett didn’t usually shoo JT out of the kitchen so he could make the most warped, heart-shaped pancake in the world either. Maybe it wasn’t so normal after all.

What it was was obvious his cowboy knew the significance of the day, but the ugliest blob of batter in history had to count for something, and it did—mostly.

After cleaning their plates, the oddly solemn atmosphere continued while they clutched their coffee mugs like they contained liquid gold or some equivalent worth even more. JT forced a smile once in a while when Brett would peer worriedly at him through long dark lashes, but JT was positive his performance was Grade-A bad. Maybe that Academy Award wasn’t in his future after all.

“You still seem a little off. You pissed at me?”

JT shrugged casually, hopeful his feigned indifference was working. He struggled to not roll his eyes, but there was a sarcastic remark nibbling at the edge of his tongue so bitingly it hurt. Instead, he flipped the page of the newspaper he hadn’t really been looking at with perhaps a little too much gusto. He wasn’t reading, but whether he was angry with Brett or not was actually a mystery to even JT, so he kept his focus low. He didn’t want to be mad, and truth was, his heart held the majority of his upset, and it was goddamn hurt. Yeah, his heart hurt just a little.

“Sure about that?” Brett inched closer, and JT concentrated harder on the blurry words in front of him. Brett slid a hand over the page.

“Shoot, I didn’t know you were a hockey fan,” Brett said, reading over JT’s shoulder.

HockeyWhat’s that got to do with anything? Oh, crap.

“Well, um… I guess you never asked, did you? I might have gone to a game or two back home.” He had no idea if there were any games back home to actually go to.

“You should have said something.” Brett poked at one of the articles on the Sports page in front of them. “I had a buddy who always had season tickets to the Stars. Mind you I haven’t talked to him in a while, but I’d bet the ranch he’d let me borrow them for a game or two.”

What the heck were the Stars? Certainly they had nothing to do with hockey, so JT took a very uneducated guess. “Stars—like in one of those ice shows? Doesn’t seem like something you’d be interested in.”

Brett snorted, then chuckled low in his throat—gravelly and deep. It was his sexy-fucker laugh, and dammit, JT didn’t need to be subjected to it just then. As it was, Brett’s raspy voice and easy laughter was often all it took to make JT’s dick hard, but this wasn’t the time or place. And it didn’t help that JT had been aroused since Brett had flaunted his serpent in front of him. The man was a freaking menace.

“No, kid. The Dallas Stars. You know, one of those hockey teams you claim to like to watch. Are you even listening to me?”

JT’s brain whirled as he sought the perfect sassy comeback. “I never said I liked the Stars in particular, did I?” Obviously, his sass had failed him again.

Then Brett was behind him, strong arms wrapped snugly around JT’s chest, forcing his back against the hard wooden chair.

“Dammit, Brett. Stop squishing me.”

He made himself struggle against Brett’s strong arms, but even being the smaller man of the two, Brett didn’t budge in his sturdy stance. JT growled pathetically, immediately embarrassed since Brett was the champion growler in the family. Coming from JT, it didn’t sound any scarier than when Whiz tried his hand—paw—at it. He knew Brett would let him go if he sensed it was what JT really wanted, so he gave up—gave in—and relaxed back into his seat. Brett pressed his lips to the top of his head, breathing hot against his hair and tapping JT with the tip of his nose.

“You know I’d never upset you on purpose, right? Rather cut off a leg than do that.”

It was the truth, and JT was tempted to let Brett off the hook—especially since his shower-fresh scent swirled round his head, tempting, taunting. And everything from Brett’s mouth was heartfelt with his perfectly placed kisses and caresses, the dampness of soft curls brushing JT’s neck as Brett trailed his lips lower.

But when Brett started lapping at that sensitive spot behind JT’s ear, JT knew he had to put the brakes on.

“Oh, stop kissing my ass—”

“Don’t think that’s what I’m kissing.”

JT shoved him away, just enough to avoid the touch of his sweet mouth. “Come on, cowboy. Just admit you screwed up, and I’ll admit I’m a bit angry about it. Then we can move on and enjoy our happy little lives.” The words were way harsher than JT had intended, but Brett didn’t even flinch against him. The bastard.

“Damn. Where’d that sarcastic streak come from? I think you’ve been hanging ’round Ray too much.”

Had JT lived in an older era, he would have swooned at the steady warmth of Brett’s breath against his skin, the way it swept through his body from the top of his head to the tips of his toes. It was silly as hell, but there was no feeling like it anywhere else in the world. But instead of letting Brett get to him, JT was supposed to be punishing him… just a little.

“Well, Ray is my boss.”

Brett jerked back like he’d been burned. “Your boss? Whoa, sweetheart. That hurts. Feel like I just got fired, ’cause it’s not like I own the damn place or nothing.”

JT moaned and tipped his head back so he was seeing Brett upside down. Snarkiness wasn’t generally in his nature, and he hadn’t intended on being outright mean. “I’m sorry,” he said softly. “That’s not what—”

“It’s all good,” Brett muttered. But his actions were louder than his words when he shifted away from JT. He started for the door with hat in hand, his face a mask of indifference. JT didn’t buy it. Brett was too easy to read, too emotionally open for the front he was presenting. But before he could challenge his cowboy, a flurry of paws echoed through the kitchen.

Whiz scrambled across the floor, sideswiping a chair as he sprinted full speed ahead. He lost his balance, sliding across the hardwood with a look of wide-eyed terror on his face before he plowed headfirst into Brett’s legs. JT held back a laugh because the pup had the balance and coordination of a newborn colt. Brett assured him it was something the pup would grow out of, but Whiz’s awkwardness reminded JT of hitting puberty when his own six feet of limbs were suddenly too long and gangly for his body and pubescent brain. Of course, Whiz was cute in that particular situation—JT, not so much.

“Maybe we should talk about—” JT finally lifted off the chair, reaching for Whiz, who completely ignored him for the possibility of joining Brett outside again.

It was another broken Cupid’s arrow lodged in JT’s chest. Emo much, Johan?

“I’m gonna head to the stable. Tray was acting up last night. Gonna go have a looksee, make sure he’s all right before Ray starts bossing me around.” He winked as JT shuffled closer.

With a heavy sigh, he glided his hand over Brett’s jacket. “I just wanted to talk about tonight. Thought we’d spend some time—”

Brett spoke over him. “Alrighty then. Guess I’m gonna take a Whiz.”

The old, and bad, joke made JT snicker because, really, what else could he do when Brett was avoiding the entire subject of Valentine’s Day and their romantic dinner with the folks. He knew Brett would think on it and come up with something to say later—because he’d spoken nothing but the truth when he said he’d never hurt JT on purpose.

“You know that’s not any funnier than the last hundred times you said it. Now go before he whizzes on the floor.”

Brett turned to face him for no more than a handful of heartbeats, his eyes brighter than they should have been at fuck-o’clock in the morning, not to mention he’d practically landed himself in the doghouse before 7:00 a.m.

“Don’t fret, Darlin’. I know you’ll tell me what dumbass thing I’ve done eventually. I’ll see you later.”

JT nodded sullenly as Brett and Whiz stepped through the screen door and out onto the porch. JT would wait until Ray came for his coffee, then start his day too. Maybe being alone with his feelings was exactly what he needed… or maybe that was the worst thing for him. He had no freaking idea. Going back to bed to start the day again was also a possibility; unfortunately that wasn’t one of the multiple choices listed in the reality checklist.

He was contemplating a caffeine refill for motivation when the door squeaked open again. Brett peeked inside, a silly grin on his face as he stroked over his tidy goatee.

“Forget something?”

“Just to tell you I love you.”

JT bit the inside of his cheek to hold back the dopey twist of his mouth that he imagined matched Brett’s to a T. His voice cracked like he was going through puberty again—not in a million years would he wish that on anyone—but he at least managed sincere. “Love you too.”

He groaned in heartfelt exasperation when the screen door slammed shut again. He was acting like a child, and a spoiled one at that. Lately, their relationship had been so simple and easy, even more so after Brett had declared his love at Thanksgiving. And a quiet Christmas with practical gifts and a small turkey dinner with Millie and Ray had provided peace and sense of belonging to JT’s parched soul.

He supposed it was time to put up or shut up. Brett was Brett, and he was everything JT wanted, had ever wanted, everything he did want. All he needed to do was pull up his big boy pants and stop acting like a needy sap.

Brett was his, and a single Valentine’s Day spent in a dumpy bar with Ray and Millie wouldn’t change that.