An actor in the closet, a sheriff in love, and memories that won’t stay hidden.
Jordan Darby is known as the King of Christmas. The star of eight
made-for-TV Christmas movies, the leading man who always gets his girl.
Filming at Crooked Tree Ranch in Montana, in the ice and snow, Jordan is
fighting to make a go of his new company and dealing with fears of
exposure over one huge secret. After all, who the hell would buy into
him being a romantic straight lead if rumors about him being gay were
proven to be true?
Sheriff Ryan Carter is advising on the new movie being made at Crooked
Tree. He hoped this would be one day of work and nothing more. Until,
that is, he meets the hero. But while Jordan is sexy, he’s also very
much stuck in the closet—everything that Ryan doesn’t need in his life.
And then lust becomes part of the equation, and Ryan’s quiet life is
thrown into turmoil.
Their story unfolds against the chaos that overtakes the ranch, with
Adam regaining memories that terrify him and make him look at Justin
differently, and Justin leaving the ranch to make things right. Only
through trusting in love and friendship can Justin and Adam learn to
look to the future instead of letting the past destroy everything. But
will they ever see clearly enough to do that?
“Morning, Sunshine,” Saul said and slid a coffee across the table.
Ryan took it and grunted his thanks. His brother knew there was no way
he would be capable of much rational speech this early in the morning,
and they’d dropped into this system whereby perpetually cheerful Saul,
the oldest of five boys, made everything better. How Saul could be this
awake at 5:00 a.m., Ryan didn’t know.
Saul ran a bar. Carter’s Bar was his baby, and even though he had staff, he couldn’t have closed much before 2:00 a.m.
“What time do you need to be at Crooked Tree?”
Ryan glanced at his watch, but it was a blurry mess without his glasses or contacts. “Six.”
Something bumped his hand and he glanced sideways at the plate of toast.
“Eat,” Saul ordered.
“Yes, Dad,” Ryan snarked, then took a few bites. It was coffee he really
wanted, and Sam might well have food he could scrounge when he got to
the ranch. Or maybe Ashley had baked. Still, the toast helped, and the
coffee began to work to sharpen his senses.
“Eddie is bringing the kids up on the weekend,” Saul said.
Ryan didn’t have to look to know that Saul had his ever-present diary
notebook out on the table. Somehow the eldest Carter hadn’t let go of
that need to look after all his brothers. There were columns for all of
them in age order, and in there, Ryan knew, there would be notes of his
shifts and anything else Ryan had mentioned. Saul was eighteen years and
three days older than Ryan, and the other three Carter boys ranged in
Saul had been just old enough to take responsibility for his brothers at eighteen, including the baby Ryan. “How is he?”
“You’d know if you called him,” Saul admonished in that soft tone that made Ryan feel guilty in an instant.
“Last time I called he hung up on me,” he explained.
Saul muttered something and then sighed. “Saying you were going to do a
background check on his new girlfriend will do that to a guy.”
“After what Sarah did to him—”
“It’s not our business, and Jenny is lovely, and she’s good with the kids.”
“Says the brother who knows exactly where we are and what we’re doing every minute of every freaking day.”
Saul changed the subject. “Thought we’d do a barbecue. Be here at noon?”
Ryan wanted to point out he wasn’t going to be anywhere else. He was on
duty until eleven. He lived over the bar, sharing the apartment with
Saul, so of course he’d be here.
“I’ll be there.”
Saul scratched something in the diary—probably some kind of tick in the attendance column.
“Bring a friend,” Saul said, his tone that infuriating mix of hope and
interference. “How about Mark? I liked him. He was nice.”
Ryan was really not going there at 5:00 a.m. in the freaking morning.
Mark had lasted exactly a week, right to the point when Mark explained
how he wanted him and Ryan to have an open relationship.
“Back off,” he snarled, snapped, and laced it with a little brother’s
patented whine. Then he pushed his chair back and stomped out of the
“Ryan and Mark, sitting in a tree,” Saul shouted after him.
“Whatever.” He grimaced as he took the steps up to his room two at a time. At least now he was awake.
A shower, his contacts, and dressed in uniform, and he was back in the kitchen. One last coffee and he was out to his car.
When he arrived at Crooked Tree, he walked into chaos. Or at least it
looked like chaos to him, but to everyone walking in and out of trailers
in the parking lot it was probably highly organized chaos.
He turned to face the owner of the voice, spotted Sam and Justin just
inside a large tent, and decided that direction was as good as any. He
wanted to check in with Justin, see how the man was doing. A couple of
people nodded at him, muttered “Officer” or “Sheriff,” but no one
stopped to talk. Everyone had something to do, and Ryan wound his way
past wires and boxes to what he assumed was the catering tent.
Justin had gone before he got there, leaving Sam and a table groaning
with food. Two young guys there, both in chef’s whites, were clearly
assisting with the burden of catering for however many people were
“Twenty-seven,” Sam explained, “but I catered for more, so help yourself.”
Ryan didn’t hesitate; he grabbed a plate of eggs, crispy bacon, and
fluffy pancakes, and stood back in the corner, checking his watch every
so often. Ten minutes to go and he’d cleared his plate while watching
Sam doing his thing, ordering around his two assistants.
Still no sign of Justin coming back.
In fact, Justin did a very good job of avoiding Ryan, and with ten
minutes to kill, Ryan decided to zip up his coat and go looking.
Something about the way Justin wouldn’t quite look him in the eye had
him feeling off. Justin had secrets—he’d been working for some shadowy
kill squad after vanishing years ago with Adam. There was no information
that Ryan could dig up, a blank of years that frustrated his analytical
law enforcer’s brain.
He finally found his quarry standing with Marcus, hands in his pockets
and a stony expression on his face. Marcus had been overwhelmed getting
his son back, and Justin had tried hard to fit back into Crooked Tree
life, but it was plain to see there was tension between father and son.
When Ryan observed the two of them together, he often thought the
pressure was going to snap into something more, but there was always a
rigidity about Justin. The guy only truly relaxed when he was with Sam.
Justin saw him coming, lifted his chin, and stared. “Sheriff,” he said, with a nod.
“Ryan,” he emphasized, and not for the first time. “Call me Ryan.”
They were surely friends more than professional acquaintances. Being
five years older than Justin meant they’d never been at school together,
but still… more than just acquaintances, surely.
Another nod and Justin pressed his lips into a thin line. Ryan just knew that Justin wouldn’t be calling him by his first name.
Then they ran out of things to say. Or rather, Ryan wanted to ask
questions and Justin didn’t want to answer them. They’d fallen into this
weird, stony face-off, and Marcus had long since left.
“Can I talk to you?” Justin asked.
Ryan frowned and looked left and right. Justin was actually addressing him, right? “Of course.”
“Not here, not now. I’ll text you.”
And then he slipped away, sidestepping Ryan in one of his freaky ninja
moves, and by the time Ryan made it to the front of the tent, Justin had
Well, that wasn’t at all covert and weird. He shook his head and stepped out into the icy early morning half-light.
“Hey,” someone said from his side, “Good morning, Sheriff.”
Jordan was there, in so many layers of coats and scarves that it was
difficult to see any more than a thin strip of his face, but Ryan would
recognize those eyes anywhere. Then he remembered Jordan had a twin; was
this Micah? They hadn’t looked the mirror image of each other, and Ryan
couldn’t recall the color of Micah’s eyes.
Which reminded him he needed to google the man and find out about the
father, then look for photos of Jordan and his twin, Micah.
For information purposes only, obviously.
“Hey,” Ryan said, abruptly very unsure.
Something in his tone must have shown hesitation because Jordan—or possibly Micah—pushed down the scarves from his face.
“Jordan. Remember me? I fell asleep in your car.”
Ryan held out a hand and they shook, which wasn’t easy when both were wearing heavy gloves.
Jordan kept talking, his voice less gruff than it had been two days ago, and he was staring right at Ryan.
For a second, Ryan imagined he had egg on his face and dismissed the
idea. Just because a guy stared at him didn’t mean he had food on his
face. He hadn’t the last time, and he didn’t now.
Still, he brushed at his mouth with his gloved hand, just in case, because Jordan made him feel like he wanted to look perfect.
What the hell? Where did that come from?
“I’m sorry about that, by the way,” Jordan carried on. “I usually don’t
go sleeping in sheriffs’ cars.” He smiled, and Ryan’s brain
short-circuited because, fuck, dimples.
“You spend a lot of time in sheriffs’ cars?” Ryan asked before his brain caught up with his mouth. I’m losing it.
Jordan shook his head. “No, I guess not. I was dosed up and ill.”
“I know.” And then he recalled the usual thing that normal people might
say at this point. Normal, sane, rational, people. “Are you feeling
Jordan wrapped his hands around himself and stamped a bit. “Much. Just freaking cold.”
Ryan searched his brain for an answer to that one while trying not to
lose himself staring into those gray eyes. “It’s Montana,” he said
Jordan chuckled, coughed a little. “So it is. You want me to show you around?”
Ryan didn’t want to take Jordan away from whatever he was supposed to be doing, so he said, “I can do my own thing.”
“No, it’s okay. Follow me.”
Jordan pivoted and led Ryan through the maze of tents and wires,
stopping and explaining that this was Production, this was their version
of a green room, and this was Editing.
Ryan spoke to everyone, got a feel for the way things were running, and
filed away as much information as he could. There wasn’t much he could
say, although he had a list of things he needed to check when they were
somewhere warmer. Not for his sake—he was plenty warm enough, a Montana
native with enough layers to make him look like a snowman—but Jordan
still hadn’t got the idea and he was shivering under the coat. Which had
Ryan considering one question they hadn’t covered…
“How will you film outside scenes without coats?”
Jordan looked a little panicked for a moment, but it soon cleared and
cheerful optimism seemed to carry him through. “We’ll be fine.”
Ryan didn’t want to point out that this was early in the day, and if
there were night shoots, Jordan was in danger of becoming a Popsicle.
Jason arrived a little after nine, in uniform and clearly just off shift judging by the tiredness bracketing his eyes.
“Hey, little brother,” he said on a yawn.
That was the way he always addressed Ryan, but somehow, in front of
Jordan, Ryan didn’t want to be identified as little. Then, Jason held
out a hand, and he and Jordan did that whole awkward glove-slap thing.
“Jason Carter, MFD liaison,” Jason said and yawned again. “Sorry, long night.”
“Thank you for coming.”
Jason did that thing when he smiled and winked and showed way too much
happy despite being exhausted. Ryan often wished he could channel
Jason’s eternal happiness.
“You’re welcome,” Jason said with another smile. “Show me the way.”
And like that, Ryan’s part in this was over. He watched Jason and Jordan
leave to check out whatever pyrotechnics plan they had cooked up, and
realized he was standing there like a prize idiot and Jordan was looking
back at him and sketching a small wave.
So, Ryan waved back, a thank-you wave—not at all a sexy wave, really—and
then he felt even more of an idiot, so he left to find Jay, with his
list of concerns in his head.
Jay was in his office, which wasn’t exactly his office anymore; Adam was
sitting on one seat, Micah on the other. From the papers spread out on
the desk, they were talking horses, and Ryan didn’t really have much to
say on that, but he indicated he just needed paper and a pen and wrote
out in careful block letters the things he thought needed checking out.
Jay mouthed a thank you and placed the paper to one side with a thumbs
Ryan moved to leave but stopped when Adam grasped his hand.
“A word?” Adam asked softly and stepped out into the chaos without a jacket.
Ryan immediately went into protective mode, which was his default
setting with Adam. After all, Adam had years of missing memories and
still suffered from killer headaches. Should he be standing out in the
cold? “Everything okay?”
“It’s Justin,” Adam said, worry in his expression.
“What about him?”
“Something’s wrong. He won’t talk to me or Ethan, and he’s quiet.”
“He’s always quiet,” Ryan said, not because he wanted to play devil’s
advocate, but because it was the truth. Not only was Justin trained to
be stealthy, he also played his cards close to his chest.
Too many secrets.
“No, this is more than normal, and I think it’s my fault.” Adam tapped
his shoulder. “My tattoo. I woke up from a dream that I think could have
been memories of the man who did the tattoo, and then I dreamed about
being on that ranch and seeing the two men with me die. I mean, I’m not
entirely sure, but when I told Justin, he just looked really pained and
Ryan filed away the information. Maybe this was what Justin needed to talk to him about. “I’ll talk to him,” he reassured Adam.
“There was something else…,” Adam murmured, as if he didn’t really want Ryan to hear and ask him what it was.
“In the dream….” He hesitated again, then couldn’t look Ryan in the eyes. “Justin was there in the dreams, front and center.”
Too many questions. “I’ll talk to him,” he repeated. Adam turned to leave, but Ryan stopped him with “Are you okay?”
Adam glanced back, a lost expression on his face, one Ryan had seen many
times. “Today isn’t a good day, so I gave in and called Ethan. He was
coming home anyway, so he’s just leaving earlier. I don’t like doing it,
but I just…”
“Need him,” Ryan finished.
“Is there anything I can do?”
Sometimes Adam was too lost, needed his fiancé by his side, and Ethan
was working his notice at the job in Missoula. They hadn’t worked out
what he would do at Crooked Tree, but Ethan wanted to be with Adam
full-time and not just between shifts.
Ryan wished they had the budget at the sheriff’s office, but that wasn’t
happening anytime soon. They had a rookie and that was pretty much all
they could afford.
“No, thank you. I’ll be okay,” Adam said.
And that answered everything. “Good.” Ryan ushered Adam back into the warm office, then left.
Justin was waiting for Ryan next to his car, his hands thrust deep into his jacket, a beanie pulled low on his head. “Hey.”
Justin always looked so wary, as if, at the drop of a hat, Ryan was going to pull his gun and arrest him or shoot him.
“Hey,” Ryan said, and waited for more.
“Is Adam okay? I saw you talking to him.”
Ryan considered lying, but Justin wasn’t stupid. “He thinks that he remembered something and wanted to talk to me about it.”
Justin gave a sharp nod. He was in constant movement from one foot to
the other, his expression fixed on Ryan, but Ryan imagined he was aware
of every single inch of his surroundings. Whoever trained him way back
had done a good job.
“What exactly did he think he remembered?” Justin asked.
“You know I can’t divulge information like that.”
For the longest time, Justin stared at him, his expression blank. Then he sighed. “Tell me he’s okay.”
Ryan wished he could say that, wanted to be able to say that he was, but
he would be lying. “You should talk to him,” he advised, because that
was the best he could do.
Justin looked down and kicked at a stone next to his boot. “He won’t
talk to me. He’s avoiding me, or I’m avoiding him, fuck knows.” When he
returned his gaze to Ryan, there was real grief in his eyes. “He’s
remembered something and he looks so beaten down. How can I help him?”
That was the most Justin had exposed of himself to Ryan, ever, and part
of Ryan, the compassion that wished he could help, wanted desperately to
explain that Adam was dealing with memories that made no sense.
“Find him. Talk to him if you can,” Ryan said, and then he added with feeling, “I’m sorry, Justin.”
“Not your fault.” Justin drew himself tall. “I’ve got him. I’ll do what’s best for him.” He added, “Always.”
If only it was that easy.
They shook hands, and Justin walked back up to Branches.
Justin held too many secrets, and that scared Ryan. Because after today,
with what Adam had told him, secrets could destroy Justin and Adam and
any friendship they may have.
And likely rip families apart in the process.