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Texas Gift

Texas #8

Copyright © 2017 RJ Scott

Smashwords Edition

Cover design by Meredith Russell

Edited by Sue Laybourn

Published by Love Lane Books Limited

ISBN 978-1-78564-095-7


A gift for every single reader who said they needed to know what happened next for Jack and Riley…


When Hayley arrived on the steps of the D, Riley and Jack knew life would never be the same.


Told through Riley and Jack’s eyes, this is ten years in the life of their family and watching Hayley grow up, fall in love, and start her own life. Hurricanes, illness, babies, happiness, sadness, work, play, the barn, the office, horses, friends, enemies, and above all, love.


All Rights Reserved

This literary work may not be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, including electronic or photographic reproduction, in whole or in part, without express written permission. This book cannot be copied in any format, sold, or otherwise transferred from your computer to another through upload to a file-sharing peer-to-peer program, for free or for a fee. Such action is illegal and in violation of Copyright Law.


All characters and events in this book are fictitious. Any resemblance to actual persons living or dead is strictly coincidental.


All trademarks are the property of their respective owners.


Dedication

For every reader who said they wanted to see more of Jack and Riley, who wanted to know what happened to Hayley, and the twins, and Max. This is for you.

For Chance Ward and his family, the true heroes of the horse rescue during the Houston floods.

And always for my family.




A personal note from the author.


In the past few weeks the community has lost two people that impacted my own deeply.

First off Stacia Hess, who was not only one of my proofers, but one of my staunchest supporters. I missed you when I sent out the request for proofers on this book, hun.


And also Sandrine Gasq Dion, who left us suddenly. Someone I have known a very long time. RIP hun, I’ll miss your smiling face.


RJ Scott, November 2017

Contents

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-one

Chapter Twenty-two

Chapter Twenty-three

Chapter Twenty-four

Epilogue


Chapter One

Riley needed to apologize. Right now.

He’d fucked up big time, and he should have seen it coming, because everything he did went in cycles. He and Jack hadn’t argued in so long. Maybe the tension that had been building inside Riley had needed an outlet; he’d provoked the argument. He’d pushed and prodded and sulked and shoved at Jack until Jack had snapped.

Not in loud shouting temper, or anything like what Riley deserved. No, Jack had gone deathly quiet.

Absolutely. Utterly. Quiet.

Riley shouted at him, got everything out of his system, felt the weight of it all lessen by throwing it at Jack, and what had happened? He’d stood there at first, confused, and then steadily calmer. Weirdly calm.

They argued; no normal marriage went without arguments over things as important as the kids or as trivial as picking up wet towels. But they resolved things, Jack/Riley was a unit that worked. They sometimes bickered and teased, they rarely shouted, and on the odd occasion there would be sulking. Mostly from Riley. He considered it as thinking time but Jack just called him on his sulking like a child.

Their arguments always ended in love; talking, kissing, complete forgiveness that could only come when two people understood and loved each other.

This morning though, Riley had made Connor cry, Lexie scowl, and caused Max to hide under the table with Toby. Jack hadn't even stayed for that—the crying, scowling and hiding had happened after he’d left.

“Why are you shouting at Pappa!” Connor shouted back at Riley. “Stop shouting.” Then he’d started to cry.

Riley’s heart had broken into a million pieces. He’d sat between a crying Connor and a sullen, angry Lexie and tried to explain that he had a bad headache and he didn’t mean to shout. For headache, read migraine, tight painful migraine that blurred his vision and made him feel sick. He’d taken meds and the sharp edges of the glass in his head were easing, but he couldn’t think straight. Connor stopped crying.

“You were so mean,” Lexie summarized, but she did give Riley a hug and kissed him on the forehead to make it all better.

Max on the other hand, while not angry with Riley and the shouting, was still under the kitchen table with Toby. The black lab, Riley’s black lab, lay between Max and Riley in a protective furry wall.

“It’s okay Tobes, I got this,” Riley tried to fold all six-four of himself under the wood tabletop. He got caught on a bench, his neck burned, his stomach was in knots, but nothing was going to stop him from getting to Max. Toby did eventually move to one side but not too far. Toby may have well been Riley’s dog initially, but he and Max were inseparable now.

“Max, buddy?” he began, and Max at least looked up at him for a split second. “You okay?”

“M’okay,” Max said. “You’re noisy.”

At least he wasn’t rocking, or stimming. He was just sitting with his dog in his favorite place under the kitchen table.

“Is everything okay?” Carol said from behind him. He scrambled back and brushed himself off. “Riley?”

“I shouted,” Riley explained simply.

“At the kids?” Carol asked, aghast, as if that was the ultimate sin in her eyes. Which, to be fair, it was in Riley’s as well. He and Jack didn’t shout, they cajoled, and bargained, and ran a happy house. Most of the time, anyway. Just not this morning.

“No, at Jack.”

“Is Max okay?” She peered under the table and smiled at Max. He adored her, the kids all loved their nanny, probably quite a bit more than they loved their dad today.

“He seems fine.” Riley peered out of the window at where Jack had gone. The damage had been done, but Connie and Lexie were chatting to each other, Max was with Carol and he needed to go and make things right with Jack.

“I think we’re okay in here,” Carol said, “Go find Jack.”

Riley shot her a grateful glance, and as he left the kitchen he heard Lexie telling Carol that her Daddy had a headache and that she’d kissed it better. When he closed the door it was just him and the ranch and finding Jack. It didn’t take him long; he was outside their barn, looking up at the siding, with his feet apart and his arms crossed over his chest.

Riley inhaled the fresh morning air and pulled back his shoulders. He could do this; he could ignore the pain in his head now it had lessened a little, he could push back nausea, and he could go and apologize to Jack for being a fucking idiot.

“I’m sorry,” he murmured, coming to a stop next to Jack, only a few inches separating their arms. Jack didn’t move.

“It’s okay.” Although it didn’t sound okay at all. Okay was one of those words that meant nothing in the context of an argument, it was a word that plastered over cracks in a relationship. Okay was quiet and tight-lipped silences and Riley recalled okay from when he was a kid.

He hated okay.

“It’s not okay, I have a headache and I didn’t mean any of what I said.”

“You didn’t mean to say that life would be easier if you didn’t have to listen to me?” Jack’s voice was low and serious, and Riley winced.

“You were saying too much, and I couldn’t think.”

Their discussion had started in the bedroom.

“I asked if you’d made an appointment to see someone about the headaches.”

“I know—”

“And why you were limping again—”

“Jack—”

“And why you weren’t sleeping, and why you spent so much time at the office, and why the fuck have we not used the barn in over a month?”

The barn wasn’t just the barn, it was a euphemism for sex. They hadn't been together in a month, over a month now. How did Riley explain that he’d been at the office, sometimes with the blinds shut, closing out the light, sleeping? How did he explain he didn’t want to see a doctor because the headaches scared him? And how the hell did he tell Jack he was limping because every single one of his muscles hurt, because he was tired, because it was all too much?

“Jack, I’m sorry.”

“You’re not, Riley, because you won’t listen to me.” Jack pointed at the barn. “I’m thinking we turn this into a game room for the kids.”

Riley gripped Jack’s arm. “No, what the hell?” His tension fled and in its place was panic. This was their space. Sometimes they came out here to talk, to hide away from the world, but it was also the one place they had the hottest sex he’d ever experienced. He wanted that again, but he was so tired, every time he turned over in bed his neck hurt, and his head pounded, and his leg ached, and he was fucking tired of it all. “Jack, I’m sorry, don’t…”

Jack turned to face him, his expression not angry. “Either you go to the doctor, right here, right now, or I start clearing the place for a pool table.” He looked dead serious, and Riley couldn’t tell if this was an empty threat. Then Jack softened, cradled his face and pressed a kiss to his forehead. “Riley, please.”

Just those two words pierced the fear in Riley, he couldn’t stop the pain, or the threat of being sick, or not sleeping, but whatever was wrong, Jack would be there for him.

“I’m scared,” Riley murmured.

Jack gathered him close. “You think I’m not?”

“Please don’t,” Riley said against Jack’s neck. His words sounded slurred and fear made him sway. What the hell? “Please don’t let me chase you away.”

“I won’t.”

And that was the last thing he heard as his world went black.



Chapter Two

Jack held Riley’s hand. It wasn’t much but it was all he could do. The rest of it, getting him to the hospital, the doctors poking at him, Riley pretty much out of it, that was all out of Jack’s hands.

And now he had to listen to the whys, after the MRI scan and with Riley in and out of sleep. He had to sit here and listen to a doctor explain to him what had happened. The words were muddled, but Josh was here with him, and Eden, and they flanked him in the room as he held Riley’s hand.

Riley wore a neck brace and was asleep, finally free from the headaches that had been plaguing him. His doctor, a thin wiry man who was attempting to explain the issues at hand, was wording things to keep Jack calm.

“Cervical spinal stenosis is diagnosed when degenerative changes in the cervical spine cause spinal cord compression,” he began. “The spinal cord is a nerve bundle that runs from the base of the brain to the lower back.” He turned an iPad with a 3D image of a spine rotating and then pressed an arrow. This time the images were cross-sectional. “In a normal spine, there is more than enough room for the spinal cord in the spinal canal, but what we see here in this case is that with his cervical spinal stenosis, space becomes too narrow. The spinal cord is a critical component for sending signals all over the body, which would explain the pain in his previously injured leg.”

“And you know for sure this is what my brother has?” Eden asked, composed, even though Jack had seen the worry in her eyes. Riley and Eden were so close, brought up in an environment of entitlement and hostility.

“We carried out a detailed exam, and the MRI simply confirmed our initial diagnosis.”

All Jack could think was that he was grateful Riley had been sedated for the MRI; Jack couldn’t imagine being in such a tightly confined space.

“Okay, so what else?” Jack asked when Doctor Edwards checked back at his notes.

“The neurological deficits that the patient has been experiencing—”

“Riley,” Jack interrupted, “his name is Riley.”

Doctor Edwards nodded. “The effects that Riley has been experiencing, resulting from the spinal cord compression, is a condition called myelopathy.”

“And this was all because of that accident in Nuevo Laredo?” Josh asked the question Jack wanted to ask but didn’t know how. He needed to understand why this had happened, and the suggestion that the whole thing was caused by a trauma gave Jack something to blame.

“Or the incident with the horse and the fire,” Eden interjected. She and Josh exchanged glances.

“Either incident could be to blame,” Doctor Edwards said. “Cervical stenosis with myelopathy tends to get slowly worse over time, the initial injury could have affected his spine and been missed, or maybe it wasn’t so bad initially and has worsened. There is always variation. Symptoms can remain stable for long periods or rapidly worsen, it depends on the patient involved.”

“So what now?”

“In most cases the first course of action is therapy, aided by epidural injections to allow realignment of the affected area, but I think that in Riley’s case, the first option would be to operate.”

Jack’s didn’t want to hear that, he didn’t want to know that this was anything worse than some shit like food poisoning. He tightened his hold on Riley’s hand for a moment and Riley moved his head, but didn’t open his eyes. He was still sleeping the sleep of the dead.

Jesus, Jack, why the hell are you using words like that?

“But we could try nonsurgical treatments first? Right?” Jack said, and he knew he sounded panicked, feeling only reinforced when Eden leaned into him and Josh put a steadying hand on his shoulder.

Doctor Edwards placed the iPad on the bed, right next to the notes.

“In rare cases, the symptoms of myelopathy can be mild enough we could go the nonsurgical route. However, because of the risk of severe nerve damage, you can ask any surgeon and they’ll recommend an operation to relieve the pressure on the spinal cord.”

Jack attempted to unknot the tension inside. He had to be the strong one here, the one who could handle everything that happened to Riley. The one able to make the decisions for him.

“What would the next steps be?” he asked, even though he didn’t really want to hear it at all.

“We’ll be taking more scans, but from my assessment and that of my surgical colleague we are looking at anterior cervical decompression and fusion. Simply put, this procedure involves approaching the cervical spine from the front and removing any discs, bone spurs, or other structures that might be impinging the spinal cord.”

That doesn’t sound simple at all.

The doctor paused for a moment and picked up the model of the spine he’d brought with him. He flexed the model and began to talk, but to Jack it was all a blur. “It typically includes fusing one or more levels of the cervical spine to maintain stability. He will wear a neck brace post-op, and there will be a good four weeks of recovery time, some of which will be here in this hospital.”

“Our bedroom is downstairs,” Jack blurted out, horribly aware that everyone was looking at him as if he’d lost his mind. “So, that makes it easy for him to come home.”

I want him to come home.

Doctor Edwards nodded, whether that was in agreement or just acknowledgment of what Jack had said, it was not certain.

He asked if there were any more questions, and Jack was sure he would think of so many once the doctor had walked out of the room. Right now, though, he just wanted to know.

“Will he be okay?”

“The usual statistics about operations in and around the spine apply, but your husband is young and strong and there is every hope that this will be successful and with Physical Therapy he will be absolutely fine.”

Was it weird that out of all that Jack focused on the word hope? The doctor hoped that Riley would be okay.

He could hold onto that hope in a negative way, where Riley died or was paralyzed, or he could take the word hope and turn it on its head. He refused to let the hope he had become tarnished with terror, so he took it and held it close.

Right next to his heart.


When Riley woke next, Jack was the only one in the room. Hayley was flying in today and he’d told Eden and Josh they should go and pick her up, get out of the hospital, get some air. They argued, but Jack wasn’t leaving Riley. Not for anything.

Wha’appened?” Riley’s voice was gravelly, and Jack focused on hazel, bloodshot eyes, and the slurred words. He leaned over and helped Riley with a drink of water, then scooted his chair a little closer so he could hold Riley’s hand again.

“You have a problem with your neck,” he explained, deciding the word spine was one step too far. “It gave you the headaches, and explained the problems with your leg.”

Riley looked at him from the corner of his eye, then from him to the ceiling, blinking up at the tiles. He didn’t say anything.

“Bad?” he asked.

“Not so much,” Jack lied. “Small op and you’ll be back home.”

And the worst of this? Riley closed his eyes again, and let out a small sigh. What Jack said had reassured him, even though he’d been lying.

When Riley woke the next time he appeared more coherent, the time after that he asked to sit up, but still Jack didn’t tell him the whole truth.

Hayley arrived a little after four in the afternoon. She’d been in New York with her school, and had demanded to come home as soon as she’d heard what had happened. How could Jack say no, Riley would want her here, and so did he.

Jack stood and hugged her. Was it possible she’d gotten taller in the three weeks she’d been away? Or maybe something made her look more grown up, or maybe it was just because she was calm.

“Oh, Pappa,” she said. “What happened?”

Jack wanted simple words to explain to their daughter the terror he felt, and the pain Riley had been in, and the fact that he needed an operation. He was the one who faced things head-on, who didn’t panic, but right now he was not doing well at all.

“He collapsed.”

She moved to the other side of the bed and pressed a kiss to Riley’s head, then took his other hand, careful of the cannula there.

“I know that, but why? What did the doctors say?”

Jack didn’t want to do this, but Hayley was eighteen and she had a right to be treated like an adult. “His spinal cord is being compressed, he needs an operation to free the space so it isn’t so tight.” That was how he’d understood the situation and he hoped he was right in what he was saying.

“An operation on his spine?” Hayley slid into the chair, still holding Riley’s hand.

That he couldn’t lie about at all. “Yes.”

“Is it dangerous…,” she began, and then shook her head, “of course it’s dangerous. What did dad say about it?”

“I’m not sure he understands yet, I’ll talk to him when he next wakes up. He’ll be happy you’re here.”

“Of course,” Hayley said, and then she began to cry. Not sobbing, just quiet tears that broke Jack’s heart.

“He’ll be okay, sweetheart.”

Jack couldn’t let himself think otherwise.


Hayley slept, the hospital was quiet, and a parade of family had visited Riley today. He’d seemed brighter, able to talk and laugh, albeit with a wince every so often.

“The drugs are good,” he’d joked every time he’d been asked how the pain was.

Jack was as exhausted as Hayley looked. This was day three and tomorrow, all being well, the operation would be underway. A quick in and out, the surgeon called it, dismissing concerns with a bright cheeriness that contradicted the somber mood in the room. Riley had taken everything in; every tiny detail. He’d heard the odds, listened to the explanation, even smiled when he was told that this would probably fix all his issues. Only when the surgeon had gone, after a firm handshake and a cheery see you in the morning did Riley go quiet. Hayley curled up in the spare chair and fell asleep, so for all intents and purposes it was just Jack and Riley in this room.

“She’s beautiful isn’t she?” Riley said, and Jack looked up from the hand in his lap. Last he’d noticed, Riley had been as fast asleep as Hayley was. “Hayley, I mean.”

Jack studied their daughter as objectively as he could, but he was so biased about all four of their children. They were all gorgeous and funny and bright and blessed. Hayley had her dad’s hair and eyes and she was already five-ten, she might well get taller, who knew. She was so like Riley; in fact he was a mini-Riley, with his spark and drive, and Jack loved her so much.

“She is.” Jack moved to get Riley some more water. When he’d done that he went to sit again in the hard chair, but Riley patted the bed.

“Come here,” he said. Jack didn’t argue, anything that got him closer to Riley was a good thing. He sat, taking care not to lean too far so it rolled Riley. “I love you.” He found Jack’s hand, lacing their fingers.

“And I love you,” Jack replied, pressing a kiss to Riley’s forehead.

“If anything happens to me tomorrow—”

“Nothing will happen.” Jack believed wholeheartedly in the power of positive thinking and he wouldn’t let Riley’s normal default stress setting railroad this whole thing.

But, there was no stress, or panic, or pessimism in Riley’s expression.

If something happens,” he began again in that tone that defied Jack’s any attempt to talk over him when he had something important to say. “Tom knows what is happening at CH. I think he’d be a good person to keep there to run the place.”

“Riley—”

“And, my will, everything goes to you, you know that.”

Emotion choked Jack, stopping his breath. “I know,” he said, because Riley didn’t look as if he was in the mood for arguments.

“I don’t want you to work at CH, okay, I don’t want that as my legacy, I want you to go on doing what you’re doing. CH will be okay. The kids? I couldn’t be prouder of them, you tell them that if…okay, you tell them.”

A tear slipped out of Riley’s eye and trickled down his cheek, sliding to the pillow.

“Please, Riley.”

“You promise me you’ll find someone else, okay Jack—?”

Jack reached his limit, leaning right down and kissing Riley. “Shut. The. Hell. Up.” Riley didn’t really have any choice in the matter. “I’m not listening to this.”

“That’s stupid—”

“No Ri, that is unshakeable faith and love.”


Chapter Three

Riley wondered, in his drugged-up state, if it was actually possible to fit more people in the room.

The post-operative recovery area teemed with people, or at least it seemed that way, and not ones he wanted in the room like Jack or the kids or family. No, these were interns and nurses measuring heart rate, blood pressure, and respiration, and making not-so-helpful comments about pain reflex. There were all kinds of them asking him stupid questions when all he wanted was to see a friendly face.

Jack.

He wanted Jack, right here next to him in this room. He must have said so, because a whole bunch of faces were right there telling him he was going back to his bed, and wasn’t it good that everything was a success, and for him not to worry.

Well, he was worried damn it. And thirsty, and tired, and floating, and Jack should have been allowed into the recovery area.

Someone needed to be listening to him.

At last, they moved him, and he closed his eyes under the dizzying lights, waiting for the motion to stop.

“Hey.” Was the first thing he heard—Jack’s voice, and blame it on the meds or on his state of mind, or a desperate need to have Jack near him, but he cried.

By the end of that day it seemed as if the world and his wife had visited, but what he most anticipated was the kids coming in; the twins had a gift for him, apparently, and Max wanted to tell him a story about a tomato.

“How’s the pain, Mr. Campbell-Hayes?” the latest nurse to check on him asked.

“I don’t feel anything,” Riley answered. He was so drugged-up it was doubtful he’d feel a baseball on his head.

The nurse made notes on his pad, and stood to one side when a doctor came in.

“How are we doing, Mr. Campbell-Hayes?”

“Fine,” Riley said, because they expected him to say that. He caught Jack’s quirk of a smile and tried not to smile himself. Jack had already warned him not to fake feeling okay to get home earlier than he should.

The damn man knew him too well.

“Nurse will fit you with a brace, and you should be out of here in one to two days.”

“One,” Riley insisted.

“One to two,” the doctor corrected him. “And we’ll furnish you with the appropriate discharge instructions. You may need help with daily activities like dressing and showering for the first few weeks. Fatigue is common. Let pain be your guide.”

Riley was pretty fixated on the idea of needing help in the shower and smiled at Jack, but Jack was serious now, as if he was listening to the list of things they could and couldn’t do.

“You can shower by the weekend, that’s four days from the surgery, okay?”

Him, Jack, in a shower. Hell yes. He might not be able to go to his knees but Jack could.

“—recovery takes between four to six weeks.”

“Riley?” Jack interjected, “are you listening?”

The doctor continued when Riley glanced back at him. “There will be targeted exercises with a Physical Therapist that’ll last two to three months but I am sure that was covered in your pre-op assessment. Walk, a short distance at first, aiming eventually for up to two miles, and that will work on your body mechanics.”

The doctor carried on, something about staples, or stitches, and Riley hoped Jack was taking notes because he was feeling some pain. Spikes of it in his shoulders and neck. He closed his eyes.

“You in pain Riley?” Jack asked.

“Uh huh,” Riley murmured.

There was medication, and blessed relief, and the doctor left, meaning it was him and Jack in the room.

“When do the kids get here?” he asked when the fuzz of pain cleared a little.

“You sure you’re up for that?”

“God yes.”

“They’re downstairs in the restaurant, I’ll get them.”

“You look really silly,” Connor told Riley as soon as he walked into the room.

Lexie elbowed her brother. “Don’t say that,” she said in a loud whisper.

“Well he does look silly,” Connor whispered back.

Jack corralled them closer to the bed, and Riley caught the nod he gave Lexie, who was making a really bad job of hiding something behind her back. He’d already seen the bright paper when she’d pushed Connor, but he didn’t say a single word.

“We brought you this.” Lexie thrust the gift out in front of her. “Pappa helped us ‘cause of the glass.”

“Don’t tell him it’s got glass, he’ll know what it is.” Now it was Connor’s turn to elbow Lexie, but she ignored him. She mostly disregarded everyone and did her own thing.

Riley couldn’t quite reach the gift, and patted the bed, waiting until Lexie and Connor had both climbed up, with some help from Jack. He made a great show, as much as he could with his clumsy hands and inability to look down, of opening the present and picked the frame up so he could see it closer.

The picture was one of him and Jack, with the kids on their shoulders; he had Connor, Jack with Lexie, and it had been taken on a day trip to the river. A beautiful day, Max had spent all of it finding the shiniest stones, and Hayley had only used her phone for taking photos. The whole day had been one of those shining, perfect moments in their lives and Riley looked straight at Jack to see his soft smile.

“I love this,” he said to the twins, but also to Jack.

Lexie took it carefully from him and placed it on the bedside table, right next to the jug of water and the family cards.

“You can look at it later,” she said, “when you can move your neck. Max has a present too, but he wanted to wait in the restaurant with Carol and Hayley and a huge pile of scrambled eggs.” Lexie waved her hands expansively to indicate the quantity of egg. “I’ve never seen so much egg and then he put all this ketchup on it, loads and loads and loads, and it went all over the plate and some on the table. Hayley said it was okay though because he was quiet and happy, though Carol scooped some of it off and didn’t know what to do with it, and Hayley had to get another plate.”

Connor nodded along with his sister, but didn’t have anything to add. Although getting a word in edgeways when Lexie was on a streak was really hard.

The twins left with Carol and Max after Max explained that the ketchup at the hospital was yucky, and he wanted to go home. He didn’t express anything like sympathy or affection, well not outwardly, but Riley hadn't been expecting it. Max stored away information and would talk about what had happened at some point. Carol explained Daddy was not well, that was all Max needed to know at this moment.

Hayley brought in snacks and drinks and sat cross-legged on the end of the bed, Jack pulled up a visitor’s chair, turned it around and straddled it. Riley worried immediately, it didn’t matter he was on meds and stuck in a bed, Hayley looked very serious and clearly had something on her mind.

“So, I wanted to talk to you guys, and it’s important and scary,” she began, halfway through an energy bar.

“We’re listening,” Jack offered, when Riley didn’t say anything.

“I made a decision about college,” she announced.

“I thought you were still looking at options.”

“I was, but this is an easy decision, I know what I want, and I know where I want to be. I got accepted everywhere I’d applied but I’ve made a choice.” She paused and Riley waited, expecting the lights to dim like on a talent show. Hayley had applied for a range of courses, from business to geology, but he’d never said a single word to influence her. This was her decision and she might love business school. Just because Riley didn’t like it, didn’t mean that Hayley would hate it as well.

“And?” Jack prompted. For someone who was usually so laid back the one thing he couldn’t handle was suspense.

“I want to join the Geological Sciences program in Colorado.”

Memories flooded Riley. He’d followed the family tradition and gone to a private college in upstate New York, studied business as his dad wanted; or rather he chose the only course his dad would fund. Given he didn’t have access to his trust fund at that age and convinced he shouldn’t have to work for money at that point in his life, he’d gone along with it. Coming out of the place with a shiny degree in business administration and a daughter he didn’t know he’d created.

He’d have given anything to be studying geosciences, that was still his passion.

“What do you think, Dad?” Hayley asked when Riley hadn't said a word.

“Maybe your dad needs to sleep,” Jack explained.

“No.” Riley held up a hand. “I’m so proud of you, and so pleased that is what you want to do, but do you truly want to study Geology?”

Hayley nodded. “Remember that time you helped me with homework and you found those stones on the ranch? We went out on the horses, I was twelve, I think.”

“Yeah, I remember that.”

“We found topaz. And you explained it was a silicate mineral of aluminum and fluorine. And then you told me about the orthorhombic system, remember?”

“You remember all that?”

“Yep,” she said proudly. “I wrote it all down and researched it.”

“Even the bit about the crystals being mostly prismatic, terminated by pyramidal and other faces?”

Hayley grinned at him. “Yep, all of it. It’s fascinating. That’s where it started, and I want to work at CH if I’m good enough and help you research.”

Riley’s eyes stung with unshed tears, he couldn’t have been prouder, or more blown away.

She clambered up the bed a little, fitting in next to Riley, “so you need to get better, Dad, so we can work together.”

Riley planned on it. “I will.”

Jack huffed a laugh. “Like father like daughter.” He shook his head as he smiled, and Riley knew he was just as proud. “Don’t go talking rocks around me,” he added and faked a yawn. That earned him a greetings card in the face, and when it came time for Hayley to leave Riley realized he’d forgotten all the dark things, and that Hayley was a special kind of light in this family.


Chapter Four

By the time they’d passed April and were firmly into May, Riley had ditched the collar and was working with a Physical Therapist, who spent a lot of time trying to make Riley cry. Or at least that’s what Riley told Jack after every session.

“And then, Jesus, I had to bend to the right, and fuck, I could have cheerfully strangled the guy.” Riley stomped around the kitchen, and yeah, stomping was the word Jack wanted to use. He was opening cupboards and shutting them again, and the poor cookie jar was perilously close to the edge of the counter. Jack rescued it and moved so he was between the cupboards and Riley, holding him still with a gentle touch on his arms.

“But you feel better?”

Riley stiffened to pull away and Jack rubbed patterns into his skin. Riley had been so brave in the hospital, had endured all kinds of pain and anxiety without a single word of complaint. But Jack couldn’t fail to see that now Riley was feeling better he was impatiently in the wish-it-was-all-over stage. Riley leaned into him, pressing his face against Jack’s and sighing.

“I just want this done.”

Jack shifted so he could take Riley’s weight and height at just the right angle and then slid a hand between them, unbuttoning Riley’s jeans. At first Riley didn’t get with the plan, still needing the hug. Then he seemed to realize what was happening and lifted his head from Jack’s shoulder.

“Come on,” Jack encouraged, “we can fool around a little, that’s what the doc said.”

At that Riley blushed, same as he had done when the doctor explained that relations, as long as they weren’t too intense, could begin again. That had been two weeks ago, and they had made it to bed a couple of times, but it was always Riley getting Jack off, never Riley getting anywhere near orgasm.

“I can’t,” Riley murmured. “Not yet, still in too much pain.”

Jack pulled back and looked Riley in the eyes. “Okay then,” he said, determined, “get in the bedroom and you can suck me off.”

Riley’s eyes widened, but he didn’t argue. He’d been very good about making sure that Jack was happy, that Jack got off, and fuck, it was starting to piss Jack right the hell off. This morning, no kids, no nanny, Robbie covering for him at the school, Vaughn out with the horses, this was his time to show Riley that he was getting better.

Of course, he wasn’t doing this without research and one humiliating call to the same doc who said they could start to get it on.

As soon as they reached the bedroom he closed and locked the door. It didn’t matter that no one was supposed to be home, it would be just their luck that someone would come looking for them. He could see the side of their barn from here, but that was for another day, when Riley was fully healed. Today was all about taking him out of himself and leaving him pliant and loose on the bed, all fucked out.

“Take off your clothes,” Jack ordered. Riley hesitated, his hand on his belt. The three times he’d sucked Jack off since the doc’s meeting he had been determined to keep his clothes on. “I mean it Riley.”

Jack used his best I’m-in-charge voice, which sometimes made Riley hot, and sometimes made him laugh. Today he just looked confused, but at least he did as he’d been told. He stripped, fumbling over his belt and Jack watched until Riley was entirely naked, and then he copied him and dropped his clothes to the floor.

Riley had lost some weight in the hospital and during post-surgery, his muscles a little less defined, but god, he was gorgeous, from head to toe.

“On the bed,” Jack commanded and Riley climbed onto the bed and scooted back so his ass was against the pillow. “No, lay down.”

Riley slid down, awkwardly and slowly, and then lay back. Since the operation it wasn’t that Riley had an issue with getting hard, his mental block was coming, tensing, and stretching his neck. When he’d first come home he’d slept in a recliner chair that Jack and Robbie had dragged in, and wore his cervical collar, and at least he was now sleeping in the same bed as Jack.

Jack climbed onto the bed and straddled Riley who frowned up at him.

“I’d be more comfortable on my knees.” Riley gestured at the floor.

“That won’t work,” Jack said.

Riley looked puzzled, “I don’t want to—”

“Shhh.”

He rocked against Riley, their cocks aligned just right, and then he circled both and gave them an experimental stroke together.

“No, Jack.”

“The doc said this was fine. Relax.”

“He didn’t specifically—”

Riley stopped talking as Jack leaned over and sucked on his nipples, still lazily slipping his hand up and down their joined cocks. He loved tasting Riley, knew that his nipples were hardwired to his cock, in fact he knew a lot about Riley and his fears and what turned him on and what made him smile.

“I love you,” he murmured against Riley’s breastbone before he moved onto Riley’s other nipple. Riley was rigid beneath him, until Jack tugged with his teeth and, almost unbidden, Riley’s hands moved up to bury into Jack’s hair.

There.

From that point on, Riley was lost. Jack could play this man like a fiddle, knew exactly where to kiss, and suck and bite, and he was still moving his hand. He sat back; Riley’s eyes were shut but Jack needed them open, needed to see the lines on his body relax a little more. He released his hold on their cocks and then scooted up

“Feel,” he ordered, taking Riley’s hand and pressing it to his ass. It was all kinds of awkward in this position for him, but he made sure Riley didn’t have to reach too far.

He knew when Riley felt that Jack had prepped himself, he let out a soft and low moan, and a single drawn-out Jaaaackkk.

“Push your fingers inside me.” Jack had deliberately left lube within reach, and he had it in his hands. With Riley lost in exploration, Jack squirted out enough to make sure Riley’s cock was good and covered. Then, in a smooth move, before Riley could even realize or protest, Jack moved back, knocking Riley’s fingers out of the way, gripping his cock, and angling so he could slide himself on. The initial barrier, the discomfort lasted a moment as Jack relaxed and then Riley was inside, his expression one of bliss, his eyes shut again.

Jack rocked, his hands on Riley’s chest, pressing down to stop Riley moving. “Open your eyes,” Jack ordered. “Please,” he added, when Riley didn’t immediately do what he was told.

Riley’s eyes opened, the hazel dark, and he was half smiling. “Hold me down,” he murmured. “Don’t let me arch up.”

Jack was so with that plan, and he shifted his weight forward a little, Riley’s cock angled and rubbing Jack’s prostate. He was so close at just having Riley inside him, after so long, let alone the fact that the angle…

“Jeez,” he muttered, the only coherent sound he could muster.

“Jack, god…” Riley moved and Jack pressed down, and Riley whined at that, “more.”

Jack rotated his hips, pressed hard, pulled until there was so little of Riley inside, and then pushed back. Riley was so close, Jack could tell. He rocked some more, kept hold of Riley, and when Riley came he did it soundlessly, his mouth falling open, his eyes closing. Jack finished himself off in two quick tugs, already on edge, and eased off as best he could, finding a washcloth, expecting Riley to be angry with him.

But no. Cleaned up, Riley held out a hand and pulled Jack down next to him.

“You always get it,” Riley said. “Doesn’t matter how much I push, you never give up.”

Jack smiled at him, then kissed him.

Then he thought teasing might be in order. “Not when sex is on the table anyway!”

They didn’t move for a while, just content to be in each other’s arms. Jack loved their family, but sometimes it was nice for him and Riley to just be them.

Of course the peace didn’t last, the first knock was Liam talking about a fencing issue which Jack answered. The second knock was Vaughn apologizing for Liam interrupting them. Jack didn’t like to comment on the irony of that.

Then Riley’s office called and while it wasn’t urgent, it had both men up and out of bed.

“It was nice while it lasted,” Riley said as he belted his jeans. Jack kissed away the pout, and the kiss lasted a hell of a long time.

The entire world could knock for them, or ring them, but nothing would make them stop kissing.


Chapter Five

July was a bitch. With it came the kind of heat that sucked you dry and left you crabby. A hurricane was heading for the south coast of Texas and causing the weather do some crazy shit; humidity alternating with storms. The main storm wouldn’t reach them this far inland,; but even this distance from the center of the hurricane there was unpredictability about what each hour would bring. Riley had been tracking it on his PC, concerned about friends in Laredo, but so far everything was okay for them.

“You nearly done here?” Jack asked as Josh shoveled the last of the manure into the wheelbarrow and wiped the sweat off his face with his gloved hand.

“About done.” He leaned the rake against the wall and stepped back to admire his work. “It’s like riding a bike,” he said, with a wide grin.

For some reason Josh had turned up this morning in old jeans, and a ragged T with his old Stetson and demanded to help Jack in the stables. They’d worked mostly in silence clearing out the barns, and Jack had given Josh his space. Still, he’d taken him at his word that this was what he was there for, but he knew his brother well, and something was eating at Josh.

Jack tossed him a water bottle and waited, as he had done for the two hours since Josh had gotten there.

“So, there was something I wanted to talk to you about,” Josh began, sitting on a crate by the open door in the shade.

Here it comes. I won’t worry until I’ve heard everything.

“Yeah?” Jack asked. “Everything okay? With Anna? The kids?”

“Anna’s good, Lea and Sarah as well…look… It’s Logan I wanted to talk to you about.”

Jack took a seat on the other crate and waited for Josh to explain. Logan had gone through some bad years, teenage stuff, some more serious than the rest, but he was in year three of pre-law up north and it seemed to Jack whenever he saw him that the kid was doing good.

“What about him?”

“He’s been working at a law firm in the city, intern work experience type thing, but he’s coming home, you know, for Hayley’s birthday.”

“I expected he would.” The whole family would be there but it wasn’t only Hayley’s birthday. She was leaving for college soon, so it was a goodbye. Something Riley wasn’t handling too well, particularly as he’d finished his therapy and felt as if he’d lost all of the last months to being ill. Didn’t matter that Hayley had spent a long time with her Dad, reading and talking geology. She’d been the best medicine for Riley and had taken to doing the daily walks with him over to the school and back.

Josh stared at the bottle in his hands. “Logan’s not happy, Jack.”

“In what way?”

“His courses are going well, he’s near the top of every class, he has friends, but every chat we have he doesn’t seem to be quite right.”

“You want me to talk to him?”

Josh looked up at him then, and then shook his head. “It’s Hayley.”

“Hayley? Our Hayley?”

“I think he wants to give everything up to come home because of her.”

Jack waited a moment before answering. Josh wasn't confrontational, but it sure seemed as though he was apportioning blame somewhere.

“What makes you think that?”

Logan keeps asking about Hayley, wanting to find just the right present for her birthday, and then as an afterthought he’s all I hate the city, I want to come home. You tell me there isn’t a correlation there, Jack.”

Jack took a long, slow drink of water. “Okay,” he began calmly, feeling that otherwise he might do a Riley and get protective of his daughter in a loud and physical way. This was his brother sitting opposite him and he was going to stay centered and not get defensive. “Have you thought that maybe Logan is not a city type?”

“He’s in New York, you can’t get a better place to be a lawyer. He has this chance and he’s stupid not to use it.”

“He’s always said he wanted to work with you.”

“In a backwater place like Selkirk and Unwin? Come on Jack, we want better for our kids.”

Josh’s expression spoke volumes; he was frustrated, and sad, and hopeful, all rolled into one, as in the Christmas he’d wanted a new bike and the one he got was secondhand. He’d been disappointed, and sad, but then he saw the possibilities and that was it, the bike was his.

Maybe he was different to Josh here, maybe having Max as a son, with all his needs and his quirky outlook on life had altered the way he looked at things. He wanted the best for his and Riley’s kids, but he also wanted them to be happy.

That was it.

Happy.

Maybe this was the direction he should take with this conversation.

Jack cleared his throat. “I’m happy with my life, with the hard work, and the ranch, and my family. Are you happy?”

Josh blinked at him as if he couldn’t wrap his head around the question his brother had asked. “Of course, I’m happy. Anna and the kids, my work, my place in the world, of course I’m happy.”

“Would you be happier in New York at some fancy law firm?”

Josh looked shocked. “Not me, no, but Logan is different, you see that, right?”

“Not at all. I actually think Logan is just like his dad. He wants what he wants, and he’ll get it whatever stands in his way.”

Josh stood immediately and bristled. “Jesus, Jack, if this is some shit about how I left the ranch after dad died, and left you and Beth then I’m done talking to you.”

Jack stood as well. “No, it isn’t, if I look back at that time, I didn’t resent you, and neither did Beth. We envied you, going off to college, learning what you needed, but I never resented it. I wanted to be here with the horses, this was my thing, hard work and pain, no money, and stress. I’ve always wanted it, because it means something to me.”

“Then what is it you’re saying?” Josh was toe-to-toe with him now, but he wasn’t angry, he had a wild desperation in his eyes, as if he needed something to make everything right.


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