CREAM walls were mixed with warm earth-tone shades of brown, yellow, and green that highlighted the bedding, furniture, and accessories. The room was designed to be soothing, cozy, and Jess Jenkins hated every detail of it. The small two-hundred-square-foot room had been his home for over four months, and nearly every waking moment of those 137 days, all he wanted to do was leave. Every thought and action he’d experienced was centered on one or both of two things: walking again and leaving the Tulsa Rehabilitation Center. Today he’d finally reached at least one of his goals—he was going home. Although he had worked his ass off to get to this point, and it was what he wanted, he was also scared shitless to leave. So much had happened since he’d gotten behind the wheel of his truck six months ago. What should have been a thirty-minute errand turned out to be a journey into hell.
Preparing to restart his life, Jess took in his suitcase sitting by the door and couldn’t help but reflect on how he had ended up here, a forever-changed man. From his earliest memories, he’d always been the kind of person who put the needs of others before his own desires. His mom had been the same way, always putting Jess and his dad before her own dreams. Victoria Jenkins had lived a good life, had found her pleasure in caring for and loving those in her life, and Jess always dreamed of finding the same love and happiness out of simplicity. He hadn’t strived for something he thought was unrealistic or impossible. To own a small piece of land, to share his life and love with that one special person had been what he’d desired most in life; instead, he’d lived his life for others.
College hadn’t been his idea; it had been his father’s dream. Since first tossing a ball with his dad on the front lawn, he’d loved football. Given his height, large frame, and powerful body, he was a natural defensive tackle and damn good in that position. Jess had been proud of the fact that he’d been scouted and his hard work on the football field had been recognized in the form of a full-ride scholarship to Auburn University. Yet, if he’d had his way, he would have declined the offer. Instead, he’d packed his bags, left the job he loved as a ranch hand, and headed to Auburn, Alabama, the fall after his senior year of high school. He left Pegasus, not out of any need of his own, but rather to fulfill his dad’s dream of seeing his son become the first one in their family to attend college. He never admitted it to his dad, but one of the happiest moments in his life had been when he blew his knee out during his sophomore year. One part of him had mourned the end of his football career; the other side—his true side—celebrated. The injury meant he could return to Pegasus and to his true dream: ranching.
Even Jess’s one long-term relationship hadn’t been about what he truly wanted but what he thought his lover needed. Jess rolled his wheelchair to the large window that overlooked the back gardens of the rehab center, a place he’d spent hours in, dreaming about the moment when he could return home. His gaze settled on the large oaks. Beneath their branches is where he’d sat and acknowledged his heartbreak and guilt over Lorcan James.
The first moment he’d spotted the tall, slender man with warm brown eyes and the most gorgeous fall of chestnut hair he’d ever seen, Jess had been smitten. Jess smiled when he remembered just how smitten he’d been. It had been obvious by the first words that had popped out of his mouth—“I think I’m in love.” He’d never seen a more beautiful man in print, on screen, or in life, than Lorcan; to this day, it was still true. After long hours spent reflecting on his relationship, Jess realized it was the sadness in Lorcan’s gaze that had called to Jess. The pain in those tormented brown eyes prompted him to act. Even before they spoke a single word to each other, Jess had known Lorcan was in love with Quinn Taylor. It was written all over the younger man’s face each time he looked at the ranch owner. Still, Jess had pursued him. He hated seeing the hurt in Lorcan’s eyes, knew what it felt like to love the wrong person, and through that shared experience, they became not only lovers but also best friends. What they never found together was true love. It was the reason he’d cut him out of his life the way he had in a “Dear John”—or rather a “Dear Lorcan”—letter.
The special bond between them kept Lorcan at Jess’s side after his accident. Did Lorcan love him? Absolutely, as much as he could, and Jess in turn loved him, but not the way a man should love his partner. Lorcan would have never walked away; the man was just too caring to do something like turn his back on a friend. Their bond also would have resulted in Lorcan throwing away his chance at true love. Jess couldn’t allow that to happen, couldn’t allow his friend to settle and put the needs of others before his own as Jess had done. The words he’d written in his letter still rang true.
Remember when I told you our hearts don’t always pick the right person for us? In your case, your heart picked exactly the right person for you. A year ago, Quinn didn’t deserve someone like you, but he does now, pretty boy. He has stood beside you the entire time you were standing by me. Quinn didn’t take my accident as an excuse to move in and try to steal you away. He was patient, loving, and a friend to you when you needed one the most. Even though he wanted more, he put you and your needs first. He’s a good man and finally became the man your heart always knew he was. Do you honestly think I would trust Quinn with your heart again if I didn’t think he was worthy? Never! I love you, and you will always be my best friend. You belong with Quinn. I always knew that. The accident was my wake-up call. Life is too short to settle, and next time, I won’t settle for anything less than someone loving me the way you love Quinn.
Knowing how things had turned out between Lorcan and Quinn and how Jess was able to concentrate on healing instead of worrying, reinforced his belief that committing those words to paper had been the right thing to do. Jess’s chest tightened with a twinge of loss as he continued to stare out over the garden, but he didn’t regret setting Lorcan free. This place, especially the majestic oaks, would always have a special meaning for him. It was where he not only dealt with his heartbreak at what he’d lost, but also where he’d set aside those feelings and his guilt. Please let me be selfish for the first time in my life. Jess nodded as the words he used to end his letter to Lorcan flittered through his mind. He was being selfish. He was putting his needs first.
Jess turned away from the window at the sound of the door opening and smiled up at Jack as he entered the room. Pushing the morose feeling aside, Jess concentrated on his excitement. “Please tell me you’ve got the truck running.”
“A little impatient, are we?” Jack laughed, then flopped down in the leather chair next to the bed.
“What the hell are you doing?”
“What?” Jack asked, confused.
Maneuvering his chair until he was directly in front of Jack, he glared at him. “Sitting! I’m ready to go, dammit.”
Jack shrugged. “We have to wait for Dr. Savona to write the ’scripts for your meds.”
He needed to leave before the fear and uncertainty, which had been simmering just below the surface, reared their ugly heads. Don’t go there. We’re going home. When Jack grabbed the remote off the bedside table and clicked on the TV, Jess wanted to thrash the man. If he thought it would do any good, he would. Jack didn’t let the little shit bother him, never raised his voice or took Jess’s verbal attacks personally. Irritating bastard!
“Can’t he just call them in?” Jess bit out through gritted teeth. “I’m ready to go.”
The urge to beat the man increased when Jack gave him an exasperated look and replied, “And we all know the world revolves around you,” before turning his attention back to the TV.
Jack ignored him.
Jesus, the man drove him nuts. He’d been like this since Jack first introduced himself as Jess’s physical therapist back at Monroe General after Jess had woken from his coma. The man never cut him a bit of slack or felt sorry for Jess, and maybe that was why he’d been compelled to spill his guts to Jack about Lorcan shortly after they met. After working with Jack for little more than a week, Jack had asked, “I take it Lorcan gets the privilege of both your Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde?” Jack had been teasing, but it had hit home for Jess, and the next thing he knew, he was sharing his fears with this virtual stranger.
Jack was no longer a stranger—coming to Tulsa with him as Jess’s private physical therapist and planning to continue that role once Jess returned home—but they no longer talked about Lorcan. In fact, they rarely talked about anything personal. Still, even though Jack drove him nuts, Jess had also come to depend on him. A sly grin curled Jess’s lip; he knew how to aggravate Jack as much as the man did him.
Grabbing his exercise ball from the dresser, Jess threw it at the wall above Jack’s head, snatching it out of the air before throwing it again. Thump catch. Thump catch. After the tenth time Jess threw the ball and Jack still hadn’t responded—although his body had lost the relaxed look—Jess added a chant.
Thump catch. “Oh yeah!”
Thump catch. “God, I’m good.”
Thump catch. “Come to daddy.”
The volume went up on the TV, and Jack began to tap his fingers against the armrest, but he continued to ignore Jess.
Thump catch. Thump catch. You stubborn shit, ignore this. Jess sang to the tune of Max Davis’s song “It’s Hard to be Humble” at the top of his lungs, adding his own spin on the song.
“Oh Lord, it’s hard to be me, when you have to put up with Jack every day.”
“I can’t wait to get out of this place, ’cause I need a break from his face.”
“To know Jack is to suffer. I must have bad karma coming my way.”
“Oh Lord, it’s hard to be me, when I have to deal with him each day of the week.”
Jack snatched the ball out of the air, and in one fluid movement threw it into the open door of the bathroom, then went to his feet. “Good God, man. Are you a child?”
“No, I want to go home.” Jess paused, then grinned up at Jack. “Okay, so that sounded like a petulant three-year-old.”
Shaking his head, Jack moved to the door. “Fine, I’ll see what I can do about getting them to call in your ’scripts.” He opened the door but before he stepped out, he gave Jess an evil grin. “Collin’s not here yet. Maybe you should call him and sing to him.”
Jess laughed as Jack shut the door. If he could get Jack to do what he wanted, Collin would be a piece of cake. He pulled his cell phone from the front pocket of his jeans and dialed Collin’s cell number. He answered on the first ring.
“Hi, Jess. I’m sorry I’m late. There was an accident and—” A loud thud came through the phone followed by “Shit!” from a distance.
There was a sound that reminded Jess of the flapping of wings, followed by another ripe curse, and finally Collin returned to the phone. “Sorry, I dropped my phone.” Cluck “No! Come back here. Dammit.”
“Was that a chicken?”
“Yeah.” Collin groaned. “A truckload of them overturned and there are scared chickens running around everywhere. I was trying to help catch them.” Collin huffed out a breath. “I’m not doing so well.”
The image of Collin blowing his bangs out of his flushed face had Jess biting down on the inside of his cheek to keep from laughing at the frustration in Collin’s voice. The kid had been born with two left feet. Collin had always followed his older brother Josh and Jess around when they were in high school. The youngster—in middle school at the time—wanted to play football, but Collin, although he tried hard, had zero coordination. Another image of clumsy Collin running around chasing chickens popped in his head, and Jess couldn’t hold back his burst of laughter.
“I probably should just get back in the truck and go around, huh?”
“That’s probably for the best.”
“On my way.”
Jess ended the call and burst out in another fit of laughter. Poor Collin. Jess was still laughing when Jack returned, but it died in his throat when Jack handed him his discharge papers and announced, “You’re all set to leave.”
Sweat popped out on Jess’s brow, and his hand shook a bit as he accepted the form. His fear slightly overshadowed the excitement for a moment. Deep breath. Jess met Jack’s eyes, saw the compassion and understanding in his dark orbs. Knowing both Jack and Collin would be staying at the ranch with him until he settled in was the only thing keeping his fear from consuming him. Taking another deep breath, he folded the paper, tucked it in the pocket of his shirt, and nodded. He was ready to go home.
HUNDREDS, that’s how many times he’d been in this very room: weddings, graduations, coming-home and going-away parties, dances, and bazaars. The event changed, but the whitewashed concrete block walls, the black and white tile on the floor, the large overhead industrial lights—those things never changed. The Pegasus Community Center was full of memories, a place where he experienced many firsts that helped shape who he was. At Tracey Matthews’s going away party, he’d snuck his first beer from the old scarred wooden bar in the corner. The first time he kissed a girl had been in the coat closet when he was seven. The night he watched his best friend Josh shake his ass on this dance floor with Lynn Adams at a spring dance when he was ten, he’d realized he liked the way Josh moved more than the way Lynn did. Even now, fifteen years later, every face staring at him was familiar; some had known him longer than he knew himself, yet for the first time in his life, Jess Jenkins felt like a complete stranger.
Months he’d been working to get back up on his feet, back to this town and these people. The urinary catheter had been taken out, so at least he was no longer pissing in a bag. Stitches removed, skin and muscle knitting back together, bones mended. He was getting stronger, nerve endings firing, and although he wasn’t on his feet, he had hope. Yet his spirit and his heart were still broken just as badly as his body had been lying on the side of a country road. Maybe it wasn’t as extreme as it felt, but nearly dying changes a man. Waking up in a hospital and learning a future in a wheelchair is a very real possibility changes any human. Jess hadn’t seen any bright lights, felt any otherworldly presence, or seen those who had passed over, but he had come out on the other side changed. The immortality of youth was gone.
Jack’s familiar presence surrounded him, the man’s strength solid at his back just before he heard him whisper against his ear, “You okay?”
No, he wasn’t okay. He could feel each beat of his heart as a painful throb in his temples, and the jittery feeling he’d been experiencing since he’d decided to come here flew into a full assault of get-me-the-fuck-out-of-here nausea. No, he was very not okay.
“I’m fine,” he assured Jack.
After pushing through the door and knocking down a large stack of speakers that caused the room to go silent and noisily announced their arrival, Collin rejoined him and Jack. “Oh shit! I am so sorry, Jess,” Collin sputtered in hushed tones, coming to Jess’s right side, his face red from embarrassment. “Way to make a quiet entrance, huh?”
Jess placed his hand over the one Collin had laid on his forearm and gave him a small smile. “It’s okay. I highly doubt the three of us could have snuck in unseen.” He turned his attention up to Jack. “My fans await me. Shall we?”
Collin squeezed his arm before standing back, and Jack winked. Jack gave Jess’s wheelchair a shove and pushed him farther into the hall. The silence was deafening, and the eyes from the townsfolk felt heavy on his skin, making it prickle. Fuck, he wished someone would say something, the music would start playing, anything to take the glaring attention off the cripple.
Mrs. Church, bless her heart, was the first to break the silence. “Jess! Welcome home. Oh, hon, it’s so good to see you.”
The stunned silence was broken, and the vacuum that had sucked all the noise out of the room let it loose in a rush of music and voices.
He smiled warmly at her and accepted a hug. “Thank you, good to be home.”
“Now you just let me know if you need anything. I got a new delivery boy, and he ain’t working nowhere near hard enough to keep him out of trouble. Young’uns today.” She shook her head, but her smile as she moved away told Jess that Mrs. Church was indeed very fond of her new delivery boy. More than likely it was her grandson Austin; he had to be about the right age now.
After Mrs. Church stepped back, a line formed. Jess accepted hugs from Joyce and the rest of the women of the quilters’ guild, plus Carol and Sue from the beauty salon. Jess accepted handshakes from Doc Parker, Sheriff Ed, his deputies, and soon some of the unease began to wane. That was, until Deputy Cramer stepped aside and Jess realized he was directly in front of the main table and face to face with Lorcan.
Ah, shit! Months of heartbreak and loss, a shitload of shame and guilt—the weight of which made it difficult to lift his head on some days. He thought he’d left those emotions beneath the oaks, but they flooded back in his system in a rush, leaving him a little shaken. Jess knew this moment was going to be difficult, but, Christ, it sucked even worse than he had imagined. Lorcan’s warm brown eyes had always been easy to read, a window to what the man was feeling. Seeing the same doubt, uncertainty, guilt, love, and warmth that Jess was feeling all waging war with each other in those brown pools, made Jess’s chest constrict painfully and a lump form in his throat.
As he and Lorcan continued to stare at each other, a multitude of unspoken words passed between them, such as hello, I missed you, and I’m sorry. Jess could feel both Jack and Collin inch closer to him, like sentries on guard, ready to protect him against any hurt or pain. Both men had become very protective of him, something that at times soothed him and at others smothered him. But loss wasn’t something that could be guarded against.
“Good Lord, Jess. It’s about time you got your ass home. Give us a hug,” Conner demanded, jumping to his feet and throwing himself at Jess.
The spell between Jess and Lorcan broke in that instant. They would need to find time to talk, but not here, not today. Today was about John and Conner, and he forced his gaze from Lorcan and turned his attention to Conner.
Jess laughed and hugged Conner back. “Good to see ya, ol’ man.”
“Are you home for good now?” Conner asked, pulling back from the hug and patting Jess’s arm.
“Yeah, I think I wore out my welcome at the rehab.”
Jess stole a glance at Lorcan. He looked shocked, but at least he didn’t seem to be disappointed about Jess’s return to Pegasus.
As Conner said his hellos to Jack and Collin, Jess turned his attention to Lorcan’s parents. Caroline’s eyes were red-rimmed and tears rolled down her cheeks, but she had a beautiful smile on her face that tugged at Jess’s heart. She and Matthew had taken him in when he’d first arrived in Indiana, had made him part of their family, and he had shoved them out of his life as thoroughly as he had Lorcan.
He and Caroline stared at each other, Jess scrambling for something to say but coming up blank. What did a man say to a woman who he’d turned his back on after she had shown him nothing but love and care? Maybe words weren’t needed right now. Both Caroline and Matthew rose from their chairs, Matthew offering his hand. “Welcome home, Jess.”
Caroline leaned down and hugged him before he could respond. “You look so wonderful. I’ve missed you.”
He held her tight, wishing he could say more, but all he could get past the lump in his throat was “Thank you.”
“We’ll talk soon, yes?”
He nodded and did his best to give her and Matthew a smile. “Soon,” he promised.
Jess’s right calf cramped painfully, nerves and tension beginning to take their toll. He knew what was coming but was determined not to let it stop him. Please not here. Rolling his shoulders and unclenching his fists, he did his best to relax. He could do this.
Jess turned his attentions to John. He looked as if he’d lost a lot of weight, his skin an odd gray tone, but his welcoming smile was still stretched wide.
“Hey, John. A welcome home to you too is in order.”
“Thanks, good to be home. I’m sure you’ve had your share of hospitals. I only did it for a few weeks, can’t imagine a few months. I’d have gone batshit crazy.”
Jess leaned up and accepted John’s offered hand and shook it. “Yeah well, who says I didn’t?” He chuckled. He’d surely had his moments of crazy, that’s for sure.
Now, the hardest part.
Jess turned his attention once again to Lorcan. They stared at each other; those around them went quiet. It seemed as if everyone was waiting for something—an outburst, tears—and they silently waited for what would erupt. This is stupid. Shaking his head, Jess spread his arms. “You got a hug for an old friend?”
Jess figured he probably had no right to be asking his former lover and friend. Hell, the way he’d treated Lorcan without even giving him a say in the matter, he surely deserved a punch to the jaw rather than a hug. He hated it, had his fair share of guilt he was coming to terms with, but had no regrets. Still, he couldn’t help but hope that somehow the two of them could salvage some of their friendship. Jess didn’t want to lose another friend.
Jess breathed a sigh of relief when Lorcan suddenly jumped up and threw himself into Jess’s arms. They clung to each other, a sound suspiciously like a sob escaping Lorcan, which left Jess struggling to hold back his own tears.
Eventually Lorcan pulled back from the embrace, his eyes glistening with tears, and slapped Jess’s arm. “Would you hurry up and get out of this chair so I can kick your ass?”
Jess met Lorcan’s eyes. “I’m working on it, pretty boy. I’m working on it,” he said sincerely.
The first step was taken. What would happen with their friendship beyond today was anybody’s guess. Mending their relationship no longer seemed impossible. With one small hug, there was now a glimmer of hope.
The biggest hurdle behind him, the rest of the evening was spent slowly easing back into his community and catching up with friends. Over the course of the next few hours, Jess relaxed, finding comfort in those around him. Jess wasn’t comfortable talking about his accident but knew people were curious. So when he wasn’t talking about John’s condition or homecoming, he was reliving his accident over and over and over. He was always aware of Lorcan, Quinn too, for that matter. There was no hostility or anger in the shared glances between himself and Quinn, but there was plenty of hesitancy. A couple of times during the night, Quinn seemed on the verge of saying something but never voiced his thoughts aloud. He and Quinn chatted about everyday events, prices of hay and cattle, but there was something unsaid beneath the common words. Jess agreed with Quinn’s hesitancy; John’s welcome home party was not the time or place to bring up what had happened between them. Now that he was home, Jess would have plenty of time to make amends for past wrongs. Thankfully, it wouldn’t be tonight.
Jack was at the bar getting another bottle of water, Collin in the restroom. During a rare moment between entertaining curious townsfolk, Jess sipped his soda and sighed.
“You’re nearly as popular as the guest of honor.”
Jess turned his head and met the gaze of a stranger sitting at the table next to him. He wracked his brain trying to figure out where he’d seen the stocky, handsome man before but came up empty. He rolled his chair until he was facing the man. “It would appear so. I’m sorry,” Jess confessed, offering a hand. “Do I know you?”
The stranger leaned over, accepted his hand, and shook it. “Nah, we haven’t met, but I’m sure you’ve heard about me.” The man looked a little uncomfortable when he said, “I’m Ty Callahan.”
Ah! So this was the man who had helped Quinn let go of his anger after Lorcan left and returned to Indiana. And, from what Collin had relayed to Jess, the man who caused quite the shitstorm once Quinn and Lorcan got back together.
“I can see from the look on your face, you’ve heard of me.”
“That obvious, huh?” Jess chuckled. “Pegasus is a small town and prides itself on its rumor mill.”
“Yeah, well.” Ty’s cheeks turned a slight shade of pink, and he coughed into his hand. “I’m not real proud of my time in the spotlight.”
Jess took another sip of his soda. He’d been the focus of the rumor mill himself—the first time when he came out. In fact, the talk had been downright hurtful at times, but he never let it change who he was. Sure, it hurt at the time, but he never allowed shame to overtake him. He was who he was and wouldn’t change it even if he could. Eventually people moved on to the next bit of news. The music changed to a softer melody, and he lowered his voice. “None of us are,” Jess admitted.
“I feel as if I owe you an apology,” Ty said after a lull in the conversation.
“Why is that?” he asked.
“I used your accident, your suffering to try and hurt Lorcan.” Ty swallowed hard and then chewed on the side of his lip before saying, “I’m real sorry about that.”
“Hey, from what I hear, it all worked out, right?”
“No apologies needed,” he told Ty and meant it.
Both Jess and Ty looked up at the man who had joined them without their realization. Ty smiled up at the man, then turned his attention back to Jess. “This is my partner, Blake Henderson.”
Jess accepted the offered hand and shook it. “Nice to finally meet you, I’m Jess—”
“—Jenkins,” Blake finished for him. He shook Jess’s hand and gave him a warm smile. “I’ve heard a lot about you. Glad to finally meet you as well.”
Blake took the seat next to Ty and wrapped an arm around him. The shared look between the two men was full of love. Jess had heard the stories of how Ty had felt betrayed by Quinn, his subsequent attempt to run Lorcan off, and how he finally found peace with old man Henderson’s son, Blake. It did his heart good to see the two men look so happy after hearing about the hardships they had been through.
“I’m glad to see everything worked out.”
“Thanks,” both men responded, then smiled at each other.
Jack returned with his water, and after introductions were made, the four of them spent time talking about New York City and laughing at how Blake had inherited his daddy’s ranch although he was not only clueless about ranching, but hated cattle. Blake’s complaint that he had to replace his wardrobe due to the permanent stench of cow shit, which had infused the fabric, had tears rolling down Jess’s face, he laughed so hard. The conversation was light and fun. None of them talked about the past and, to Jess’s great relief, neither Blake nor Ty asked about his accident. Jess groaned to himself when Jake, one of the hands he’d worked with before moving to Indiana, motioned him over, knowing his short reprieve was done. Before Jess was once again whisked off by the next person eager to hear his tale of life at Tulsa Rehabilitation Center, he exchanged phone numbers with the men and hoped he’d get the chance to spend time with them again in the future.
By eleven, Jess was sick of talking about himself, and the muscle cramps in his legs, which plagued him on a daily basis, started to scream painfully enough they could no longer be ignored. Jess excused himself from Jake’s teenage son Blay and wheeled his chair toward the bar where Jack and Collin sat watching him.
As he approached, Jack gave Jess a once-over, his brow furrowing into a frown. “How bad?”
“Seven,” Jess responded, rubbing his hands along his thighs. The pain was probably closer to a nine on a scale of one to ten, but he always rated it lower, and Jack always accused him of being a stubborn, macho hick.
“Idiot! Let’s go,” Jack chastised and got to his feet.
“Don’t call him that!” Collin challenged, also coming to his feet. “He was visiting his friends and family.”
“Visiting or not, he’s an idiot to let the pain get that bad before saying anything.” Jack glared at Jess, but continued to speak to Collin. “You’d think the dumbass would know by now, the longer he waits, the longer it takes to get the pain back under control.”
“How do you know the pain didn’t just hit him?”
Jack grabbed the handgrips on Jess’s chair and wheeled him around. “It doesn’t work that way, numb nuts.”
“There you go with the name calling again. It’s no wonder Jess didn’t tell you if you’re just going to yell at him.”
“Guys,” Jess called out, trying to get their attention.
Jack pushed Jess toward the exit, not even asking Jess if he wanted to say goodnight to anyone, Collin right on their heels. “Right. I should baby him l