Clayton Jennings, a cowboy accidentally outed as gay in front of his fiancée, is alone, drunk and beaten up on a daily basis. To his rescue comes the most unlikely person: Jesse Brown, the Sheriff of Snow Lake, the gorgeous jock Clayton had dreamt of in high school. Healing a man lost within and without is no easy feat even for a man as determined as Jesse.
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Getting his life back together is not an easy task for Clayton Jennings, a rodeo cowboy who was accidentally outed as gay in front of his fiancée. He finds himself alone, drunk, and beaten up on a daily basis.
Enter the knight in shining armor.
Jesse Brown, the sheriff of Snow Lake, rescues Clayton. Healing the man from the pain of physical wounds is one thing. Healing him from the hurt of self-loathing and sense of worthlessness is another. Jesse has his work cut out for himself if he means to save Clayton from his enemies—and himself.
The only way to do that is teach the cowboy who has lost everything to accept that maybe he’s not a charity case after all, but the object of a man’s desire, adoration, and love.
“Miserable piece of shit! You deserve to fucking die!”
The words spat at Clayton didn’t hurt even half as much as the right hook that connected with his jaw. A swift, shallow punch aimed at his gut had him doubling over, falling to his knees and struggling for breath. Winded as he was, his vision blurred, and the fierce slap on his head that sent his white cowboy hat flying didn’t exactly improve his dazed condition.
Kyle Weston grabbed the lapels of Clayton’s denim jacket and yanked him up on his trembling feet, growling mere inches away from his face, Kyle’s teeth flashing in the dark of night under the high-up glow of the street lamp. “Fucking faggot! I ought to kill you for what you did!”
Fighting the urge to defend himself, Clayton knew he couldn’t. He’d hurt Shelly too much already. Getting into a fistfight with her brother was likely to only make matters worse.
The sound of a nearing car engine reached Clayton’s ears faintly through the roar of his blood. It was apparently enough for Kyle, who pushed him on the ground hard with a disgusted look on his face and spat at his feet. His expression was that of a man who was about to shout more obscenities or kick his ass, but instead, he glanced toward the road where the headlights of the car emerged past the bend and quickly made his way to his truck parked not far away.
Just barely missing Clayton on the ground, Kyle sped away in his truck, leaving Clayton on the ground, hugging his aching body. With every labored breath he took, pain shot through him crisp and clear, and he couldn’t find the strength to stand up. His jaw hurt, as did the rest of his face, and the taste of blood in his mouth washed away the slightly yeasty, familiar flavor of beer he’d had earlier at Billy’s bar.
Shaking all over from the violent confrontation, his vision still fuzzy, Clayton didn’t immediately register the car that had pulled over, the headlights shining directly at him.
It was only when a gentle hand landed on his shoulder that he realized he wasn’t alone.
Peering up through the haziness, tears, sweat, and blood, he saw a big figure looming over him. Flinching, he muttered bitterly, a little afraid since he wouldn’t survive another beating so soon, “If you want to take a wailing at me, too, take a fucking number. As is, I won’t be able to give you my A-game at the moment.”
“Jesus Christ, they really did a number on you this time, Clay.”
The gruff voice was less steady than it usually was, but Clayton recognized the familiar cadence he’d heard more than he’d have liked in his rowdy lifetime. Trying to stand up and failing when the pain made him fall back down on his ass on the gravelly side street, he tried to simultaneously shove the man aside because Jesse Brown was the last man on earth Clayton wanted to see. Not like this, he groaned inwardly. But escaping that grip was like trying to stubbornly decide not to breathe until neither industry fumes nor cigarette smoke existed in a perfect, sweet-scented world. Basically, no hope at all of succeeding.
“Don’t be an ass, Clay,” the man admonished sternly. “Don’t you think you’ve pissed off enough people for one night?”
Even through the pain, Clayton smirked. “Always room for one more.”
The man sneered. “You’re coming with me—”
“The hell I am!” Clayton protested vehemently, again attempting to get away from the man in front of him, swatting the arm away as hard as he could—which in his present state wasn’t tough enough to block a five-year-old.
The chuckle that followed was low and dangerous. “It’s either me, Clay, or I’ll call the ambulance to take you the hospital. And then I’ll make this embarrassing skirmish into a huge deal for everyone concerned. Your choice.”
“Fuck you.” Clayton prayed to God he’d have enough strength left within to help him stand long enough to walk away.
“All right then, man. The bus it is.” Shrugging, the man turned around on his heels and started walking back toward the squad car.
Clayton couldn’t let him get away. “Wait, goddamn it.” The man stopped and waited, and Clayton knew he was out of options. Sighing, defeated, he said quietly, “I’ll go with you.”
“That’s better,” the man said, and there was satisfaction and amusement in his voice. Clayton hated hearing it, but he was out of luck. If Sheriff Jesse Brown wanted to get Clayton Jennings, the small town of Snow Lake’s present favorite scapegoat and indiscriminate spittoon, into trouble, he could do so without much effort. Winding his unsurprisingly strong arm around Clayton’s waist and holding up most of his weight, Jesse lifted him off the ground. “Easy now,” he said encouragingly and worriedly when Clayton hissed in pain.
“Yeah, thanks for that amazingly crap-tastic piece of advice,” Clayton huffed angrily. He didn’t want to go anywhere with Jesse Brown. Wasn’t it enough that the last month had been a nonstop shit fest aimed at him, but now he had to contend with the good sheriff’s pity, too?
Jesse chuckled. “Well, since you’re capable of such sparkling wit, at least your jaw wasn’t blown out of alignment.” Oh, that amused, mocking tone nearly had Clayton gagging.
Growling and mumbling something incoherent, Clayton allowed himself to be led to the car and gently placed on the front passenger seat. Every part of his body was at odds with him as his muscles, tendons, and bones protested being moved around. He just wanted to lie down on a soft bed, or crawl into a hole, fester, and die. When he was finally seated, he let out a long sigh—but then the sharp slashing pain in his ribs cut through the relaxation, and again he felt like crap.
Mostly unaware of the car ride, Clayton slipped in and out of consciousness, his body seeking the comfort of passing out, but the jerky motions of the car when driving over a bump or a pothole shot pain through him every time. He wondered in passing if Jesse heard how badly he was groaning in pain, but if he did, he never said a word. Good old Jesse. Always so cool and composed.
When the car stopped and Jesse cut the engine, Clayton dared a peep through his squinted eyes. Right away, even without his normally functioning eye sight, he knew he wasn’t home.
He was at Jesse’s home.