Chapter One

 

“OH SHIT!”

Tires squealed and gravel ricocheted off the undercarriage. The back end of his pretty red BMW 4 series convertible kicked up a cloud of dirt and rocks, fishtailing toward the drop-off. His hands locked on the steering wheel, and his foot tried to slam the brake pedal through the floor as he spun out and his heart lodged itself firmly in his throat.

His life could be ending—right there, right then—and the best he could come up with was “oh shit”?

When the car finally rocked to a stop, the pounding of his heart was almost deafening in the sudden quiet. The whole terrifying ordeal had taken only a few seconds at most, but it felt like years had been shaved from his life.

Cracking open one tightly clamped eyelid, he half expected to find himself teetering over the edge, seconds away from toppling down the side of one of the foothills he’d been speeding through. But no, all four tires were safely supported by an extra-wide gravel shoulder, apparently designed to save assholes like him who weren’t paying attention and took that last turn way too fast.

Drama queen.

The voice in his head was his father’s, though Jordan was pretty sure William Alexander Thorndike II had never actually spoken that particular phrase aloud in his life.

With a grimace, he pried his cramped fingers off the leather-wrapped steering wheel and flexed them a few times before shutting off the engine with one shaking hand. Closing his eyes again, he tossed the keys on the passenger seat, let his head flop back against the headrest, and just breathed. He needed to calm down. He needed to get his head together before he got back on the road, or he really would end up killing himself.

He could see the headline now: Millionaire Banker’s Son Killed in Tragic Crash!

His father would probably be overjoyed. Tragic death in the family would beat out disinheriting gay son scandal any day of the week. Both his parents would get all kinds of sympathy from their country club friends without being tainted by the ugly truth. Win-win.

Except Jordan wouldn’t give them the satisfaction.

“Fuck them.” And because he liked the way that sounded, he lifted his head and shouted it to the hills and trees and birds. “Fuck them!”

Fuck them all. They could keep their perfect firstborn and their darling baby girl. The middle kid always got the shaft anyway, didn’t they? He’d been doomed from the start.

Once his heart slowed to something approaching normal, he climbed out of the car on stiff, shaking legs, rested his palms on the uncomfortably warm glossy red hood, and hung his head. He was being unfair to his siblings. Will Jr. couldn’t help that he was so goddamned perfect, and Gemma would probably be stuck as the baby her entire life. They all had issues, though none of them had ever fucked things up quite as much as Jordan had this time.

He was good at that, if nothing else.

“Don’t say another word. I don’t want to hear it.”

His father had stood ramrod straight in his study, his back to Jordan with his hands clasped behind him, staring out the window behind his desk. Jordan’s mom sniffled from the chair she’d collapsed into behind him, but Jordan couldn’t take his eyes off his father.

“Father, I

“No. Not one more word. You’re going to go take a walk, Jordan. When you come back, you’re going to apologize to your mother for upsetting her with this sick joke. You’re going to tell us you’re more than happy to escort Madson’s daughter, Sheila, to the dressage festival dinner, and anything else she wants you to go to this summer before you return to school in the fall and finish your degree. I won’t hear anything else.”

Wincing at the memory, Jordan sank to the ground and slumped against the side of his car. After twenty-four years of trying, and mostly failing, to live up to their expectations, he’d done it. He’d finally plucked up the courage to tell them the truth. He would never—could never—be who they wanted him to be.

He should feel relieved. The soul-crushing weight of all those expectations was gone. He wouldn’t have to pretend to date girls he had no interest in anymore. He wouldn’t have to smile and flirt and flatter the parade of pampered princesses his parents foisted on him in hopes he’d find a good Christian girl who’d settle his wild ways. He wouldn’t have to act as if getting his degree and passing the bar was all he’d ever wanted out of life. He was free.

Instead, he hurt. The center of his chest ached as if he’d been punched, only the pain hadn’t faded even a tiny bit in the hours since he’d taken his parents aside and done the deed. It just kept burning on and on.

He’d prepared himself for yelling. He’d prepared himself for his mom’s tears and his father’s disapproval and disappointment. The latter was something he was intimately familiar with. But he hadn’t been prepared to be so completely, coldly, and utterly shut out. His mom had barely uttered a half-hearted “Maybe it’s just a phase” before his father had cut her off with the ultimatum: go back to pretending to be the son they wanted him to be or he was no longer their son at all—no discussion, no room for debate. He’d packed up his things in a daze, hoping the whole time someone would come and offer him a thread of hope, some hint that the door wasn’t shut for good, but no one came.

A trickle of sweat slid down his back, breaking in on the useless playback that had been stuck on repeat since he’d sped away from Thorndike Farms. He needed to think, not dwell. Pushing the memories aside, he got to his feet, dusted off his linen shorts, and scanned his surroundings. He was on a lonely stretch of winding road, headed up into the mountains, and he had no idea where he was going. Dark green summer leaves rustled in the weak breeze, cicadas chirped in the trees, and a haze shimmered off the nearby pavement. The air was as heavy and wet as Virginia in July could get, and he didn’t relish the thought of melting into a puddle on the side of the road, with his father’s voice still ringing in his ears.

Now that the adrenaline had worn off, he was drained, which did nothing to help his mood or his ability to function. Slipping back into the driver’s seat, he started the car again and cranked the air conditioning. The top was still down, but the cool air blasting on his face helped wake him up a bit. He turned the radio on loud enough to drown out the voices in his head and pulled back onto the road, hoping inspiration would strike as he went. He wasn’t exactly in any shape to make decisions right now, but sitting still somewhere, alone with his thoughts, was not really an option either. He had to do something.

As the signs for I-81 became more frequent, he went with his gut and followed the arrows. Over the mountains and out of Virginia seemed like a fantastic idea. He’d put horse-country snobbery and Lynchburg’s rigid narrow-mindedness in the rearview for a while, at least until he figured out what the hell he was going to do with himself.

The problem was, he’d never really been able to plan much beyond the coming-out part. Maybe if he’d had some idea of who he wanted to be, instead of who he didn’t, the talk with his father might have gone better. He’d have been able to stand up to the old man, instead of slinking away like a kicked dog… not that the end result would have been much different probably. But he might not have felt so lost in the aftermath. He would have had somewhere to go at least.

Near the on-ramp for 81-S, he pulled into a gas station to fill up and grab some coffee. His onboard computer couldn’t find a Starbucks close enough, so he’d have to make do with whatever the gas station had. At the pump, he slid his card into the machine and it beeped at him. Frowning, he tipped his polarized sunglasses down and tried again, but it did the same thing. See Cashier flashed across the screen.

Inside, he handed his card to the cashier as the ache in his chest grew stronger. “Hi. There’s something wrong with the pump. It won’t take my card.”

“How much do you want to put in?”

“Thirty.”

The bored-looking woman behind the counter swiped the card in her machine. “Sorry, sir. It says declined.”

A slightly sharper pain lanced through him as he took the card back and schooled his expression to bland confusion. Sweat prickled under his collar, and he felt like everyone was looking at him, judging. “Oh, sorry, must be something wrong with the account. Here, try this one.”

He wasn’t willing to risk any more humiliation, so he gave her the debit card to his personal bank account, the one only he had access to. He’d check the other accounts on his phone as soon as he was somewhere private, but a sinking dread filled his stomach.

“It went through.”

Struggling to breathe, he nodded and smiled for the woman before taking his card and heading back to his car, skipping the coffee. As he filled the tank, he pulled up his credit card accounts and the bank account his father put his allowance into, one by one, only to be denied access or find zero balances.

“Well, that was quick,” he murmured numbly.

The numbers on the screen made his situation somehow more real, and the vise on his chest tightened another crank.

The gas nozzle thunked loudly next to him, startling him out of his daze. On autopilot, he returned it to the pump, twisted the cap on his tank, and climbed behind the wheel, gripping it with sweaty palms.

Now he had no family, no job, and no money beyond a couple grand in the only account his father didn’t have access to—the account he’d created so he could go to gay clubs and hook up in hotels without leaving a paper trail his father could find.

At least he still had his car. He could sell that if things really got desperate. The thought pained him, but it was only a drop in the bucket at this point.

From everything to nothing with just a few little words.

Who knew “I’m gay and I don’t want to be a lawyer” could have such power?

Weird.

But he’d known, at least to some extent. Otherwise he would have said them a decade ago, instead of chickening out year after year.

“But isn’t love supposed to conquer all?” His words were snatched away by the wind as he put his foot down and sped past eighteen-wheelers and cars and SUVs packed with camping gear and loaded down with bike racks.

The funny thing was, the whole reason he’d finally gotten the balls to do it was that he’d been thinking it was time to settle down… or at least think about settling down and having a future—no more wild child, no more frat parties or crazy stunts. He’d been thinking it was time to try a real relationship with someone for once, actual dating and not just fucking around, and to find a career path that he could stomach without wanting to off himself every day when he got out of bed. That was everything his father always said he wanted from his son, wasn’t it? Just not quite how he wanted it.

How stupid was that?

 

 

 

Chapter Two

 

AROUND KNOXVILLE, TN, he decided to stop. He was drained, physically and emotionally. He didn’t have anything even approaching a plan. He wasn’t really paying attention to where he was going, and he would probably get someone killed, driving seventy down the interstate, if he pushed himself to go any farther.

With a few commands, the onboard computer found him a Motel 6 off I-40, and he went for it. Despite his upbringing, he’d seen the inside of more than a few cheap motels on the hunt for some D, although he’d never actually stayed a full night in one. He’d have to get used to it from now on, it seemed.

The bedspreads were slippery polyester and the carpet was gross, but the sheets were stiff enough to have been well bleached, and all he needed was a flat surface to collapse onto as soon as he got drunk enough to pass out. That was the sum total of the plan he’d been able to come up with so far… well, that and getting a pizza delivered so he wouldn’t starve. He’d have to pay for that bit of cheating at the gym later, but he didn’t have the energy to find someplace with a decent salad, and what better way to drown his sorrows than to glut?

Luckily, he’d had enough sense to grab his laptop and tablet when he’d packed up his things, and his Netflix and Prime memberships were already paid for, so he didn’t have to rely on the dubious television choices available through the hotel. The Wi-Fi was weak at best, but he was able to find something distracting until the Jameson he’d picked up at the liquor store across from the hotel kicked in.

“To my glorious future,” he said to his reflection in the mirror across from the bed, before downing another big swallow from the bottle.

He didn’t remember much after that.

 

 

SUNLIGHT RHYTHMICALLY stabbed through his eyelids from the gaps in the swaying vertical blinds over the air conditioner. With a groan, he rolled to an upright position and braced himself for the pain. Racing to the bathroom, he emptied his stomach until all he could do was dry heave, but he was grateful for the hangover. Vomiting up the pizza meant he wouldn’t have to worry as much about that trip to the gym—when he found a gym he could afford. And the hammering in his skull meant he couldn’t think about much of anything beyond coffee, Tylenol, and a long shower.

Win-win.

The shower had to come first because he wasn’t so bad off that he was willing to settle for the tiny coffeepot and sachet of Maxwell House in the room. He might be poor now, but he still had standards. He had to go out for the Tylenol anyway.

This time he found a Starbuck’s and splurged on a Venti Caramel Macchiato, although with half the syrup. He hadn’t completely lost his mind.

Sitting in the parking lot, watching people come and go, he tried not to think about anything until he’d drained the last drop from the paper cup. But all too soon, it was empty, and he couldn’t put it off any longer. He had to come up with some sort of plan, and the idea of “The Rest of His Life!” was almost overwhelming.

The problem was, he’d been pretending to be someone else for so long, he didn’t even know who he was anymore—if he ever had. He was free now, but free to do what? It wasn’t as if he’d ever been really good at anything, not good enough anyway. Having a rich father had opened a lot of doors for him that he never would’ve been able to open on his own. Could he survive on his own merits?

A little flutter of panic started in his belly as people with places to go and things to do continued to pass by him.

Oh God.

He might’ve just thrown his whole life away for nothing. He’d stood in his dad’s office and demanded they accept him for who he was when he didn’t even know himself. What was he thinking?

Drama queen.

The words caught him up short before he headed toward a total freak-out in a public place where everyone could see. Clenching his jaw, he lifted his chin and forced the panic down with a few carefully controlled breaths.

He’d made the right choice. His planning and execution could have used some work, but the decision was right. He had to believe that. His old life, all those expectations, had been crushing him. He never would have been able to keep it up without losing his shit entirely.

“So what do I do now?”

He didn’t expect an answer from his reflection in the rearview, but some sort of sign would’ve been helpful.

About to give up and just hit the road again without a plan—hoping inspiration would strike somewhere along the way—he jumped when his phone vibrated in his pocket. Frowning, he fished it out. He could’ve sworn he’d turned off notifications for pretty much everything last night. The usual barrage from Instagram and Snapchat, plus texts from friends who’d never really been friends, had been compounded by numerous texts from his siblings, until he just couldn’t take it anymore and shut everything off—especially since none of the texts from his family were from his mother or father or included any words like come home or we love you.

“What the hell did you do now?” pretty much summed up all the messages from his older brother, Will Jr., and “What’s going on? Why doesn’t anybody tell me anything?” was about all his little sister, Gemma, had to contribute.

This time the notification on the screen was a calendar reminder he’d put in months ago.

July 16: Call mom re: B STAR trip

Today he was supposed to give his mom an answer about whether he’d be joining her for a week at the rescue ranch that was one of his family’s pet charities for as long as he could remember. She’d planned the trip during one of her empty-nest moments, now that Gemma had started college, as a bonding experience for the two of them. He’d kind of blown her off at the time and then totally forgotten about it.

Staring at the screen, he choked up a little, despite being pissed at his mom for not even trying to stand up for him. He wouldn’t be making that call. They wouldn’t be bonding over anything anytime soon… maybe not ever.

“Fuck!”

He threw his phone on the passenger seat and thumped his head on the steering wheel. He would not cry in public. He would not cry in public.

He took deep breaths until the need faded. Then he grabbed the phone again and worried his lower lip.

Some of his happiest memories from childhood were from the B STAR. It was one of the few actual “family” vacations they took together. He couldn’t remember why his parents had stopped going, especially given the size of the check they still wrote the place every year and the fundraising his mother did on their behalf. Maybe the “kids” had just gotten too old for it.

The name stood for Better the Second Time Around Rescue, and as he stared at the letters on the screen, his lips began to curve up for the first time in days.

He’d asked for a sign. What better place to go to figure things out than a home for the unloved and unwanted… his very own island of misfit toys?

It wasn’t a permanent solution, but it was a place to start. He’d been around horses his whole life. He knew his way around a stable, at least enough to be useful. Texas was a long drive, but he could feel the weight on his chest lifting the more he thought about it. He had a plan, somewhere to go, somewhere with nothing but fond memories and plenty of work to keep him out of his head for a while. It was like fate had thrown him a lifeline.

“Perfect.”

Scanning through his phone until he found the address, he started the engine again. After putting it into the navigation system, his phone connected to Bluetooth, and he cranked up his road-trip playlist. With a deep breath and a silent prayer, he joined the stream of bustling humanity and headed for the highway.