Just Because, Book 3
Searing pain roared through Rodney’s arm as black spots danced before his eyes. More gunfire pounded into the wall of the building behind him, pelting him with shards of shattered brick. He’d known something was wrong the second he walked out of the bank. Hell, he’d had a premonition all morning that something would happen, that everything was about to change. He knew better than to ignore his gut feelings.
Fuck. Bridget was out in the open. He forced himself to remain conscious despite the agonizing fire currently raging through his body. He watched Mark throw himself on top of her, shielding her from the gunfire.
“Get her to the fucking car!” Rodney yelled. Jesus. If Bridget was killed, it would be his fault. His. It was his job to protect her.
Bridget crawled closer.
He reached out with his uninjured arm. “Bridget, take this. Get to New York.” He pressed the flash drive they’d spent the last month of their lives searching for into her hand. It was the key to putting the judge whose henchman was currently trying to kill them away forever.
“I’m not leaving you,” Bridget insisted.
Rodney took a deep breath, praying for the strength to get her out of harm’s way. Mercifully, Mark grabbed her, dragging her to the truck.
Please let her make it. He sighed with relief, the sound coming out as a harsh shudder when he watched the truck with Bridget ensconced inside pull away.
“Bridget,” he whispered.
Strong hands gripped him, shocking him. What the fuck? He started to kick out, but the last of his strength slowly drained away.
“It’s me, Rod.”
Christ. Jake. No.
“Get down,” Rodney said, the words sounding more like a bark than his normal voice. “Get inside!”
Jacob didn’t reply. Instead he lifted Rodney’s upper body with firm hands beneath his armpits and dragged him to the entrance of the bank. The movement was excruciating and bile rose to Rodney’s throat. Waves of nausea caused by the red-hot poker lodged in his arm enveloped him.
He’d been shot. It was a possibility he’d faced every day as he patrolled the streets of New York City as a cop. Who would have thought this sleepy town of Saratoga, Wyoming would be the place to bring him down?
The gunshots had ceased with Bridget’s escape.
Jacob laid him gently on the floor of the bank’s lobby. He saw a security guard standing next to his friend, talking on the phone. He would have grinned if he hadn’t been in so much pain. If he was going to die, he couldn’t think of a better last sight than Jacob’s gorgeous face. Sirens sounded in the distance.
“Bridget,” Rodney whispered.
Jacob knelt next to him. “Matt and Mark got her away. She’ll be fine, Rod. And so will you. Just hang on, man.”
She was safe. Jake was safe.
Rodney let those comforting thoughts permeate the haze of pain, though he still couldn’t let go of the premonition.
Everything is changing.
His eyes drifted closed, his body shutting down.
They were safe.
But was he?
Rodney Jackson leaned against the makeshift bar, taking everything in. What a night. The backyard of the James Ranch was packed with people—gay men, lesbians, doctors from the hospital where Caleb worked, Stephen and Todd from the B&B next door, Matt’s band. The list went on and on.
A year ago, he’d been a rookie cop in New York City, surrounded by crowds, tall buildings and the never-ending noise. He’d grown up in a fairly rough part of the city. Gangs, graffiti and taxicabs painted his world.
This ranch surrounded by mountains and carpeted in thick green grass was like an oasis, something he’d seen in the movies but never expected to experience in real life. It’s funny how something so foreign had come to feel more like home than the place where he’d lived his entire life.
He hadn’t thought of New York in months. No. The truth was he wouldn’t let himself think of it. The bullet he’d taken back in March had nearly robbed him of his career, his livelihood. As a result, he’d spent months in rehab, enduring hours of physical therapy to regain use of his hand.
Today, the physical therapist had released him to return to work, given him a clean bill of health. She’d basically written him a ticket back to New York and the life he’d left behind. For so long, he’d thought that was all he wanted.
Jacob James passed close by, laughing at something someone had said.
Turned out he was wrong.
He studied Jacob’s face, so relaxed and happy as he chatted with an old friend. He had joked once about his and Jake’s polar opposite appearances. Where Rodney was tall, lanky and biracial, Jacob was an all-American poster boy with fair skin, blue eyes and dirty blond hair. The attraction Rodney felt for Jacob had been instant and lasting.
He rubbed his arm absent-mindedly. Bridget caught his eye and walked toward him. He’d nearly lost use of his arm protecting her. He’d been assigned to guard her when she was put into protective custody. What should have been an easy—if boring—assignment went bad quickly as they were pursued by a hit man. The case had ended when the hit man died in a car chase and the bastard judge who’d been after them was sentenced to life in prison without hope of parole. Good riddance.
Despite the injury that had nearly robbed him of his career, he knew without a doubt he’d do it all again. Simply because of Bridget. She’d become more than a best friend to him. She was the sister he never had.
“Is your arm hurting?”
Rodney realized what he was doing and stopped. He’d developed the practice of rubbing the wounded area when he was trying to ease the pain. The ache had subsided weeks ago, but now he couldn’t break the habit. “No. Not at all. In fact—” he leaned closer, not wanting to be overheard, “—the PT released me today. She gave me the go-ahead to return to work.”
She was the first person he’d told. He’d come home from physical therapy and searched for Jacob, anxious to share the exciting news. He found Jake helping Matt assemble the makeshift stage for Gay Fest, the annual summer party Jacob held, and the words had died on his lips. Instead of telling him about his clean bill of health, he’d lied and said the therapist had given him more exercises to do.
The lie had tasted bitter, but today belonged to Jacob. His friend looked forward to Gay Fest more than most five-year-olds did Christmas. Jacob organized the event for other homosexuals like him to come out of the closet for a night and let their hair down. Wyoming—alpha capital of the world—didn’t provide a lot in the way of gay bars, so Jacob decided to amend that fact by holding his own party. Rodney didn’t want to ruin the event with talk of his imminent departure.
For months, Rodney had resisted his attraction to Jacob. He’d had nothing to offer the young aspiring journalist—no job, no future plans, a crippled arm. At the beginning, he had been too blinded by self-pity to give in to Jacob’s obvious interest. When he began to see improvement in his hand, Rodney’s reasons for rebuffing Jacob were less about an uncertain future and more about one that couldn’t be denied. He’d known the day was coming when he’d return to New York. Where would that leave him and Jacob? The answer was obvious.
On opposite ends of the country.
Bridget smiled and hugged him tightly. “I suppose I would sound selfish if I followed up my congrats by loudly yelling Shit!”
Rodney chuckled. “Yep. Completely selfish. But don’t worry. I had the same response.”
“God, Rodney. I’ve sort of started taking it for granted that you’d always been around. Not sure what I’ll do when you’re not here to listen to me bitch about my two cowboys.”
“Complaining about too many orgasms doesn’t really count as bitching, kitten. But I know what you mean. It’s hard to spend months in someone’s face and not get kind of fond of them, isn’t it?” He reached up and ruffled her hair playfully.
“Hey.” She batted his hand away, then grasped it to hold. “I’m more than fond of you, smartass. I love you. I’m going to miss you so much when you go back to New York.”
“Yeah.” He swallowed heavily. This was why he’d avoided the subject all day, hesitated to say the words. If it was this hard to tell Bridget, how much more difficult would it be to break the news to Jacob?
“What did Jake say?”
Damn. He’d tried to hide his desires for the youngest James brother, but Bridget was too savvy, knew him too well.
“I haven’t told him yet.”
“Why not?” she asked.
Rodney gestured around at the party in full swing. “Gay Fest is why not. This is Jake’s night. I didn’t want to spoil it.”
Bridget nodded, giving him a sympathetic look. She’d recently faced her own life-altering decision, so he knew she understood his dilemma. However, Bridget had given up her life in New York to move to Wyoming with Matt and Mark. Rodney wasn’t sure that choice would work for him. He was born to be a big-city cop, not a small-town rancher.
“I understand. He’ll be super bummed when he hears you’re leaving.”
They fell silent for a moment, taking in the craziness of the party. Bridget laughed and pointed when she spotted Matt arm-wrestling with a guy in drag. “It’s an amazing party. I mean, when Jessie described it to me, I thought she was exaggerating. Looks to me like she was holding back on some of the more insane details.”
Rodney chuckled. “I’m having a blast.”
“Me too. And this year, the party’s even more special. It’s nice to be celebrating Caleb and Jessie’s upcoming wedding.” Bridget’s eyes widened. “Oh my God. You’re not going to leave before the wedding next weekend, are you? You can’t.”
Jacob’s oldest—and straight—brother, Caleb, had met his fiancée, Jessie, at last year’s Gay Fest. They’d gotten engaged over Valentine’s Day and were tying the knot in a small family ceremony.
Jessie had insisted she wanted Gay Fest to double as her bachelorette party. When Caleb reminded her he planned to be there, she told him it was going to be his bachelor party too. The mild-mannered doctor easily agreed, so in addition to the nearly fifty gay friends from all over the country whom Jacob had invited, Jessie’s girlfriends from Denver and Caleb’s colleagues from the hospital were also in attendance, making for an interesting night.
Rodney gave Bridget’s hand a reassuring squeeze. “I wouldn’t miss the wedding for the world. I only got the medical release today. It’s going to take some time for me to get my ducks in a row. I mean, I’m not flying out tomorrow or anything.”
Bridget blew out a relieved breath. “Good. Something tells me I’m going to need time to get used to the idea of you leaving. Shit. It’s going to suck when you go.”
He gave her a quick peck on the cheek. “Your folks live in Hoboken. When you come home for visits, I’m demanding equal time.”
“Done,” she promised.
Jacob walked up and slapped Rodney on the back. “You got a minute? I need some muscle.”
“Somebody fighting?” Rodney turned, ready to roll.
Jacob laughed. “Down boy. We’re not on the mean streets of NYC. A couple of the trashcans are already overflowing. I was hoping you could help me empty them.”
“Sure thing.” Rodney waved at Bridget and walked to the side of the house with Jacob.
When they reached the large garbage can, Jacob held onto the rim while Rodney worked to remove the overflowing bag. “Damn. Didn’t take long to fill this up.”
Jacob grinned, placing a new bag in the can. “Most people walk to and from the party this way. Past experience has taught me to put a couple trashcans out here or the empties end up all over the yard.”
“This is quite a party.”
“Why do you say that like you’re surprised? I told you it was the event of the summer.”
“Yeah, but this is one of those things you have to see to believe.”
“Nope. Gay Fest isn’t something to be seen.” Jacob threw his arms in the air, piling on the drama. “It’s meant to be experienced, enjoyed, lived.”
Rodney rolled his eyes at Jacob’s enthusiasm. He’d never met anyone with such a positive outlook on life. Jacob was the eternal optimist who treated every single day of his life like an adventure, a party. Rodney tried not to admit how much he envied that aspect of his friend’s personality.
“Well, I think it’s safe to say I’m enjoying it.”
Jacob paused, giving him a friendly smile. “I’m glad. You deserve a fun night. You’ve been working so hard these past few months. It’s about time you cut loose. In fact, I’ve set a goal for you tonight.”
“Oh yeah. What’s that?”
The idea had merit. In fact, it sounded pretty damn good. “Wild, huh? I think I can handle that.” Rodney put his arm around Jacob’s shoulders, perfectly aware he was flirting. “How about I buy you a drink?”
Jacob laughed and followed him back to the bar they’d set up at the edge of the yard.
Caleb stepped over to them from behind the bar. “What can I get you guys? Name your poison.”
“Hey,” Jacob protested. “What are you doing back there? I hired a bartender so you could actually enjoy the party tonight.”
Caleb placed a couple of beers on the bar. “Bartender needed a quick break, so I said I’d cover for him. What can I say? Old habits die hard.”
Jacob turned to Rodney to explain. “In years past, Caleb always stood in as the official Gay Fest bartender. However—” he gave his older brother a pointed look, “—since tonight is also his bachelor party, I thought he should mingle rather than hide behind the counter.”
Rodney gave Caleb a wink. “Can’t exactly blame your straight brother for putting a bar between him and all these gay guys. This place is more crowded than most of the gay bars in the city. I’ve been hit on half a dozen times already and handed three phone numbers.”
Jacob narrowed his eyes slightly. Rodney tried not to acknowledge how warm and fuzzy the jealous look made him feel.
“Anyone with potential?” Jacob asked.
He had to leave it to Jacob. He was a talented actor in the play it casual role. Rodney shook his head. “No. Not at all.”
“Good,” Jacob said so quietly Rodney wasn’t sure he heard it at all.
Caleb wiped up the counter in front of them. “By the way, Rodney, I ran into your PT, Joyce, this morning. Congratulations on the clean bill of health. Looks like all your hard work paid off. New York’s going to be getting back one hell of a cop.”
“What?” Jacob’s shocked tone went through Rodney like nails.
“I thought you said she just gave you more exercises to do.”
Caleb’s softly muttered “shit” proved he knew he’d just fucked up. Rodney couldn’t be angry. It was his lie that landed him in this mess, not Caleb.
“I’ll leave you guys alone.” Caleb walked to the opposite end of the bar and began serving up more drinks.
“Why did you lie?” Jacob asked quietly.
“Tonight was your night, Jake. I didn’t want to take that away from you.”
“Do you honestly think I’d begrudge you your miracle, your happiness? This is what you’ve worked for, Rod. I don’t see how you being cleared to return to New York would take away from the party.”
“Don’t you?” It was a pointed question and as close as Rodney had ever come to calling Jacob on the carpet about his feelings. Rodney wasn’t blind and he wasn’t stupid.
Jacob cleared his throat, then looked away. He faced the makeshift dance floor, careful to avoid looking at him. “I have no hold on you.”
Rodney chuckled mirthlessly. “God. I wish that was true.”
Jacob’s gaze flew back to his. “What’s that mean?”
Rodney didn’t reply. Instead, he leaned forward and placed his lips on Jacob’s. They’d been together, in each other’s faces for six months, and never once had Rodney given in to his desire to kiss Jacob.
The moment they touched, every suspicion he’d harbored about his feelings for Jacob crashed in on him and he knew he’d been right to fight the attraction. He also knew this kiss was fucking up all that restraint. It was too late now.
He lifted his hand to Jacob’s cheek, letting it drift through Jake’s soft hair. He followed suit with the other hand, cupping Jacob’s face, holding the man’s lips against his. Not that the grip was necessary. Jacob wasn’t pulling away.
Jacob returned the kiss, his lips parting. Their tongues tangled roughly, hungrily. Months’ worth of pent-up desires released themselves in their melding of mouths. There was no coming back from this.
Hours seemed to pass, yet neither of them came up for air. As for Rodney, he didn’t want to break the spell. This was too fucking good.
“Get a room,” one of the inebriated partygoers yelled.
Jacob backed away first, his face the perfect blend of bliss and nerves. Rodney could understand the feeling.
“Jake, I’m sorry I lied about—”
Jacob shook his head. “No. I get it now. I really do. Rodney, I’d never stand between you and what you want, you know that, right?”
Rodney nodded. Jacob had become one of the best friends he’d ever had in his life. He’d never met such a selfless, giving guy.
“You’ve just spent months working your ass off so you can go back to New York, back to being a cop. I want you to have that life because it’s what makes you happy. It’s just—”
Rodney didn’t let him finish. “Your home is here.”
Matt and Mark had gone to New York to be with Bridget during her trial. She’d told Rodney how caged and shell-shocked her poor cowboys looked in the big city. He feared the same would hold true for Jacob. Though his friend had no love of the ranching lifestyle, he was a country boy through and through. Jacob loved hiking, fishing, horseback riding. Hell, he’d shown Rodney the beauty of those activities as well. They’d spent every weekend of this summer camping near Little Snake River. Rodney was worried about his own culture shock when he returned home.
Jacob laughed. “I don’t know about that. The biggest city I’ve ever been to is Denver, but I can tell you right now, I love going there, love the hustle and bustle, the nightlife.”
“Visiting somewhere is different from living there.”
Jacob fell silent for a few moments. Rodney suspected there was something heavy on his friend’s mind.
Finally, Jacob spoke. “Is that what we’re talking about? Me living there?”
Rodney swallowed heavily. Shit. They’d just shared their first kiss. Is that what he wanted? His heart screamed Yes.
First kiss be damned. Jacob was made for him. This wasn’t a first date. He knew Jacob, knew what it was like to share a place with him, spend all-day-every-day with him. It was no damn hardship that was for sure. In fact, it was right. It worked.
Instead, he swallowed down the reply and took the easy way out, tried to buy more time to gather his thoughts. “This is why I didn’t tell you about the medical release. All of this can wait until tomorrow.”
Jacob looked disappointed. “Sure. Tomorrow.”
“Hey, Jake! When’s the karaoke?” Jessie joined them. “You promised me a song.”
Jacob’s troubled look morphed into a smile that fooled his future sister-in-law. Rodney, however, could see the strain on Jacob’s face. He felt guilty for dimming his friend’s joy in the party.
“Song?” Rodney asked.
Jessie took a swig from her beer. “Jacob told me this afternoon he’d planned a special wedding song for Caleb and I. Bridget and I have a bet on which ABBA number he’ll be performing.”
Jacob looked like singing was the last thing he wanted to do right now, but he put on a good face. “Who said anything about it being ABBA?”
Jessie laughed. “Nice try, but I know you. It’ll be ABBA. Get up there. I want my song.”
Jacob looked around at the crowd. “I’m not sure everyone’s tipsy enough for karaoke. You know you have to time these things just right.”
It was a dodge. The partygoers were well into the making jackasses of themselves stage of the night. Jacob’s reluctance was his fault. Rodney was anxious to put the party back on track. “I don’t know what number you planned to sing, but could we make it a duet?”
Jacob’s heavy look slowly faded. “You’d get up on stage and sing with me?”
The idea actually made him slightly nauseous, but he owed it to Jacob. “Of course I would. How else am I supposed to go wild?”
Just like that, Jacob’s smile returned. “Awesome. Come on.”
He took Rodney’s hand and led him to the stage. “Jessie was completely right about it being ABBA. I was going to start the night off with this song. Do you know it?”
He pointed to the list of song choices in a binder, showing Rodney his choice. Rodney closed his eyes, suppressing a groan. “Jesus. Really?”
“It’s perfect and you know it.”
Rodney wanted to deny it, but it was pointless. It was the perfect song for the occasion. Jacob led him to the stage and handed him a microphone. A large group began to gather around, cheering when Jacob announced the beginning of karaoke, a tradition at Gay Fest.
He pointed to Matt, who was manning the technology, to cue up the song. Matt gave his brother the thumbs up, indicating he was ready.
“This first song is dedicated to my big brother, Caleb, and to the woman who is too smart to settle for him, but is still willing to hitch her cart to his horse, Jessie.”
The crowd laughed.
“And also to my best friend, Rodney, who has his own personal reason to celebrate tonight. He’s going to help me sing it.”
Rodney was touched by the compliment. Though they’d only known each other a short while, Jacob had become his best friend as well.
Matt pushed play on the canned music and the first strains of ABBA’s “I Do I Do I Do I Do I Do” filled the backyard. Rodney’s gaze never left the monitor feeding the lines to him through the first verse though he knew the song by heart. His mother had dragged him to see Mamma Mia the first year it released on Broadway. After that, she’d worn out her CD of the soundtrack, subjecting him to more ABBA than he’d ever hoped to hear in his lifetime.
The crowd’s enthusiastic reply and Jacob’s crazy dancing made him bolder and Rodney soon loosened up, throwing out a couple of Elvis’s signature gyrations. Bridget stood in front of him, laughing and cheering him on. He grinned, having far too much fun until he turned to look at Jacob.
Suddenly the screaming crowd faded away as he fell into Jacob’s bright blue eyes. Neither of them needed to look at the monitor, so their attention remained only on each other.
The lyrics took on a new meaning for him as they sang. The song was an outright declaration of love, but he and Jacob didn’t bother to hide from that or look away. When Rodney sang the words ’Cause it’s true, he realized his feelings weren’t going to go away no matter how hard he tried to ignore them. The truth was he’d fallen hopelessly and madly in love with Jacob James.
The song ended and the partiers went wild. Jessie hopped on stage and gave Jacob a kiss on the cheek, then hugged Rodney, thanking them both.
Jacob announced the next singers, handed over the microphones, then took Rodney’s hand. It probably looked like an innocent gesture to the bystanders watching, but Rodney felt raw need coursing through him. He was moving in slow motion as Jacob led him farther away from the party. The noise began to fade. They were nearly to the side door that would take them into the ranch’s kitchen before Rodney stopped.
Jacob turned to face him. “I don’t want to wait until tomorrow to have this talk, Rodney. I just don’t.”
Rodney shook his head. “You don’t understand. If we go inside that house, we’re not talking. We’re going to your bedroom.”
Jacob didn’t respond, but there was no denying the longing on his face.
“Fuck it. Come on. You’ll get your talk, Jacob. I can promise you that. But you’re going to get a lot more than that too.” Rodney tilted his head toward the backyard. “Can they do without you for a few hours?”
Jacob nodded. “My brothers will keep things rolling. Caleb just waved to me as we left the stage. He knows I’m gone. He’ll take care of everything.”
“Good.” Rodney was finished with the discussion, the denials, the waiting. For the first time in months, his life was moving forward. He wouldn’t resist. It was time he let the tide take him where it would. Better to drown in Jacob’s arms than die alone on dry ground.
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