From LONE STAR, part of the Men Under the Mistletoe holiday anthology.
Growing up in rural
Mitchell Evans's ambition to be a dancer made him a target. Though he found
success in Texas ,
Mitch is at a crossroads, and heads home for the first time in twelve years to
figure things out. When what appears to be a reindeer jumps out in front of his
car, he drives off the road and into the path of the one man he hoped to avoid.
New York City
The last person Texas Ranger Web Eisley expects to see four days before Christmas is his first love. He hasn't seen Mitch since they quarreled over coming out to their friends and family years ago. Though he's not in the closet now, Web has worked hard for the respect of his fellow officers, but he still regrets the loss of Mitch in his life. And his bed.
The attraction between them is as strong as ever, and it doesn't take long for the men to pick up where they left off. But is love enough to keep Mitch in town in the New Year?
A lone star blazed in the midnight blue sky.
It looked like the Christmas star, which was appropriate seeing that it was four days till the holiday, but with Mitch’s luck it was more likely a crashing jet plane headed straight for him.
Yeah, that would be about right. On the bright side it would spare him driving any more miles down this long, dull stretch of memory lane.
looked only minimally better at night
than it did in the day. Nothing but rugged, ragged landscape. Igneous hills of
limestone and red rock as far as the eye could see—which wasn’t far, given the
darkness beyond the sweep of the rental car headlights. Texas
Mitch rubbed his bleary eyes. This was more driving than he’d done in years. He didn’t even own a car anymore.
had decent public transportation and
when Mitch wasn’t working he was—well, he was always working, so problem
solved. New York
Prickly pear, yucca, and juniper bushes cast tortured shadows across the faded ribbon of highway. A mighty lonesome stretch of country, as they’d say out here. Cemeteries were more plentiful than towns. He wasn’t entirely alone though. Outside of
a pair of headlights had fallen in
behind him and they continued to meander lazily along a few miles back. Some
cowboy moseying on home, though not in any hurry to get there. Fredericksburg
That made two of them.
It was six months since Mitch had got the word his old man had keeled over and he’d have happily waited another six months—or six years—before dealing with what his father’s lawyer euphemistically called “the estate.” But after the blowup with Innis, Mitch had desperately needed time and space. And one thing
had in plenty was space. Texas
Speaking of space, the star twinkling and beaming up ahead could have fallen right out of the state flag. It was the biggest star in a night field of stars. A beacon burning in the night. Mitch blinked tiredly at it. He hadn’t slept on the plane, hadn’t slept in nearly forty-eight hours. Not since he’d walked into his dressing room to catch Innis with his pants down. Not a euphemism, unfortunately. Innis’s excuse —
Up ahead Mitch caught movement in the middle of the road. Headlights picked out the gleam of eyes. A deer. A very large deer with a huge rack of antlers. An eighteen point—no, not a deer. Mitch’s eyes widened. A caribou. In
What the hell?
…wearing a red leather harness with
He was asleep. He had fallen asleep driving.
Mitch wrenched the wheel. The tires skidded off the road onto the rocky shoulder. He tried to correct but over-steered. Instinctively, he slammed on the brakes, the car spun out. It did a wild fouetté across the highway, tipped over the side, and rolled once. The airbag exploded from the dashboard. The car landed upside down in the sand and gravel beneath the embankment.
Dust and powder from the airbag filled the interior. The engine died as the car rocked finally to a stop. The passenger door had flown open. Mitch could smell oil and antifreeze and cornstarch and singed juniper. The airbag hissed as it deflated. Or maybe that was the radiator leaking. Or the sound of four tires simultaneously going flat.
“What was that?” He wiped the airbag talc residue from his face. His eyes and skin stung.
It had happened so fast. So fast there hadn’t even been time to be afraid. And at the same time it had seemed to occur in slow motion. Like watching a film or seeing it happen to someone else. Really weird. Maybe that out-of-body sensation was shock.
In movies, of course, flipped cars promptly burst into flames. That didn’t seem to be happening here, which was good news. He took quick stock.
Neck and shoulders felt wrenched. No surprise. The web of seatbelts was cutting into his chest and hips. Other than that, he seemed to be unhurt. Shaken, bruised, but nothing serious. He could safely move without risking further injury; and probably the sooner, the better.
Reaching around, Mitch fumbled with the clip, and unlatched his seatbelt. He wriggled free of the shoulder strap, landing awkwardly on the ceiling interior. He crawled under the gear box and beneath the passenger side, scrambling out the door.
The dry, cold desert air was a jolt. Mitch drew in a deep lungful and it tasted as sweet, as fresh as his first ever breath. He was alive. Maybe his luck wasn’t as bad as he’d been thinking.
Climbing to his feet, he stumbled up the embankment to the highway. He was relieved to see the vehicle that had been tagging along behind him for the last thirty miles pulling to the shoulder, tires crunching gravel. Mitch waited in the glare of the headlights.
The door of the large white SUV swung open and Mitch glimpsed official insignia. Public Works? Parks and Wildlife? Highway Patrol?
But no, the man coming toward him wore a cowboy hat and a leather coat with a sheepskin collar. The headlights illumined his tall, rangy silhouette; it was too dark to see his features. He moved well, though. He moved like a cowboy—a real cowboy, not the movie kind—a long, easy stride with the little swing to it.
“Howdy, friend.” The cowboy had a deep, unhurried voice shaded by that familiar homegrown accent. “You need an ambulance?”
“I’m okay. I think my car’s a goner, though. Did you see what happened?” Mitch hugged his arms to try and stop his shaking. The temperature couldn’t be much above the low thirties and his jacket was somewhere in the wreck below.
“I saw you swerve and then lose control.” The cowboy was already sidestepping down the embankment to get to the crashed sports car. “Was there anyone else in the vehicle with you, sir?”
Not Water and Power, by the look of it. But not regular police. Even in
the regular police didn’t swagger
around in jeans and boots and cowboy hats. Mitch might have forgotten one or
two things about the Texas , but not that much. Unless he was very
much mistaken, it looked like he’d snagged the attention of a real life Texas
Ranger. Lone Star State
“No. No one. I’m by myself.”
The cowboy wasn’t taking his word for it. He reached the flipped car and knelt, checking the interior. He rose and went around to the other side. Mitch lost sight of him for a moment or two. When the cowboy returned to view he had the rental car keys.
He scaled the ascent in a couple of long strides and returned to his own vehicle. The dome light flashed on and Mitch could see him speaking over the radio. He hugged himself tighter, waiting. He should have known what a mistake this trip would be.
When the cowboy had finished his report he ducked out of the cab and started back toward Mitch. “You have your license with you, sir?”
“Yes.” Mitch added – because he felt he had to say something and the cowboy didn’t seem to be the chatty type, “Did you see the deer?”
“The deer? Is that the story? You were avoidin’ a deer?”
The story? Mitch glanced at the empty road. “ That’s what happened. I saw the deer and swerved. I…It must be someone’s pet. It was a wearing a—a—”
Mitch wasn’t quite sure how to answer that. He hedged, “A collar, I think.”
“A collar?” The cowboy repeated politely as he reached Mitch. Mitch was six feet, tall for the average dancer, but the cowboy was taller by a few inches. It was a very long time since Mitch had needed to look up at someone to speak to them.
“You thought you saw a deer in a collar? What kind of collar would that be, sir? A rhinestone collar? A fur collar?”
Great. Maybe you couldn’t always find a cop when you needed one, but there was never a shortage of assholes. “There’s a deer farm around here, right? There used to be. It could have escaped from there. It was wearing one of those—”
“No. Actually, it was a harness. For pulling a…” Self-preservation kicked in. “Something.”
“A somethin’?” Mitch could see the gleam of the cowboy’s eyes. He had a suspicion he was going to be providing belly laughs around the old bunkhouse that night. The cowboy’s tone was still perfectly polite. “I see. Did y’all maybe have a drink or two this evenin’, sir?”
“Of course not. I don’t drink.” Although maybe he’d make an exception tonight.
“Uh huh. You were takin’ this stretch of highway at a mighty fast clip.”
“I…I guess so. I was in a hurry to get where I was going.”
“And whereabouts is that, sir?”
“The old Evans place off Highway
In the silence that followed his words, Mitch could hear the ever-present wind whispering over the sand like some ghostly oracle. The cowboy went so still he seemed to stop breathing.
“Mitch?” he said at last in a flat voice. “Mitch Evans?”
Mitch stared back into that faceless shadow.
It couldn’t be.
The muscles in his neck and shoulders locked so tight he wasn’t sure he could move his mouth, let alone his head. Any time he had envisioned this encounter, it hadn’t gone like this. As a matter of fact, it had gone with him managing to avoid the encounter.
How had he failed to instantly recognize—? But in twelve years a boy’s voice deepened considerably and a boy’s light frame filled out and even the way he held himself changed. Mitch found his own voice. “That’s right. Web Eisley, is it?”
“I’m flattered you recollect.” Web didn’t sound flattered. Mitch couldn’t blame him for that. The last words they’d spoken to each other had not been kind ones. But that was twelve years ago and grown men didn’t hold grudges. Or if they did, they tried not to show it.
“I remember.” His voice sounded as toneless as Web’s. He made an effort to sound more personable seeing that he was standing at the scene of an accident with a Texas Ranger who he’d once called a “fucking gutless coward.” Among other things. “Well. It’s been a while.”
* * * *
Christmas coda here.
* * * *
Christmas coda here.