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A Shared Range [MultiFormat]
eBook by Andrew Grey

eBook Category: Erotica/Gay-Lesbian Erotica/Romance
eBook Description: After a year in medical school, Dakota Holden returned home to take care of the family business full time and help his father cope with multiple sclerosis. Devoted to his family, Dakota allows himself just one week of vacation a year, which he spends in some exotic location having all the fun he can stand. On his last vacation, a cruise, Dakota struck up a friendship with Phillip Reardon, and it fills an important role in Dakota's life. So when Phillip decides to take Dakota up on his invitation to visit the ranch, Dakota is happy to see him and meet his veterinarian friend, Wally Schumacher. Despite Wally's inclination to help the wolves Dakota's men shoot to protect the cattle, he and Dakota find they have a lot in common, including a fierce attraction. But they'll have to decide if the Wyoming range is big enough for Dakota's cattle, Wally's wolves, and their love.

eBook Publisher: Dreamspinner Press/Dreamspinner Press, Published: 2010, 2010
Fictionwise Release Date: November 2010


47 Reader Ratings:
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Prologue

* * * *

The horse swayed gently beneath him, and Dakota could feel the tension and pressure slipping away with every step of the powerful bay.

"So, how was your first year of medical school? And don't give me the crap you put in your letters so I wouldn't worry."

Dakota couldn't help smiling over at his father, sitting tall in the saddle of the gray mare. He'd tried for years to get his father to use a different mount, but Sadie was his father's favorite, and the two of them knew each other so well it was almost uncanny.

Dakota exhaled deeply, letting more of the pressure go. "It was the most challenging pressure cooker I could have ever imagined. The classes, the clinicals, oral and written exams...." The thought of the long hours and demanding professors actually brought a smile to his face.

"You loved it, didn't you, son?"

There was definitely pride in his old man's voice. But that wasn't unusual. Jefferson Holden had always made it very plain that he was proud of everything Dakota did. The man wasn't just his father--he was his best friend. They didn't keep secrets and they shared everything. Well, almost everything.

"I did, Dad. It's what I really want to do." The horses continued moving across the wide open field, and Dakota took in the rolling hills that led to the steep mountains in the distance. "But there's something about coming back here...." He didn't know how to express what he was feeling in words, but his father looked over at him and nodded, the look on his face telling him he understood and that words weren't necessary. The land was in Jefferson Holden's blood. He lived and breathed every bit of it. And Dakota hadn't realized how much it was in his blood, too, or how much he'd miss being away from it. "I thought we'd ride to the river." Dakota saw the gleam in his father's eye before looking ahead again.

"I knew you would. When you were a kid, I thought I'd have to tie you to the front porch to keep you away from the water." His father's rich, familiar laugh carried on the wind. "Come on. Let's see what you've got." Jefferson spurred his horse to a gallop and took off, with Dakota right behind him.

"Come on, Roman, let's not let these old geezers get the best of us." Dakota kicked his horse lightly and he took off, shooting across the grassland, hooves pounding the ground, breath fogging in the crisp morning air. Dakota could feel the animal's power pulsing under him, and his spirit soared along with Roman's. He'd spent months cooped up in classrooms and clinics. The scent of the range, earth, and a hint of water reached into his soul to reawaken what the city had deadened. "I'm right behind you, old man," he called as he approached his father, overtaking him just before pulling the horse to a stop as the foliage near the water came into view.

His father pulled up right behind him, and together they walked to the riverbank before dismounting and letting the horses drink in the shallows at the bend. Dakota looked to the other side of the river. The rope still hung from the old tree branch, and he could still hear the screams and squeals of his friends as they swung up before plunging into the frigid water. "One thing was for sure,"--his father's voice pulled him out of his memory--"I could always find you." Dakota felt a hand on his shoulder. "You'd swim in the dead of winter if I'd have let you."

"Not anymore." Dakota couldn't help smiling. As a kid, the water was never too cold, but now he figured it would always be that way.

"No, I suspect not." They stood together, comfortably quiet, both watching the dark specks that dotted the range on the other side. Their cattle, the lifeblood of the ranch, moved slowly as the hulks foraged for food.

"It's funny, Dad. When I left for school, I couldn't wait to get away from here. I wanted to see some more of the world."

"And now you look forward to coming back," his father said, finishing his thought for him. Dakota nodded and his father laughed. "You think you're the only one? When I was your age, I couldn't get away fast enough, either, but there's something in this land that called me back, and now it's doing the same to you too." Dakota turned to him and saw his dad's blue eyes filling with love. "You'll leave again, but you'll be back. The land won't let you stay away for very long. It's part of you, just like it's part of me."

Dakota knew that was true, but he also knew that there was a part of him--a part that was becoming undeniable--that would make it very difficult for him to stay here, no matter how much he wanted to. Dakota opened his mouth, and for a second he almost told his dad, but he stopped himself. Now wasn't the time. He'd come home to recharge and get ready for another grueling year, and a revelation that he preferred men to women was a distraction he just didn't need, and neither did his dad. He wanted things to be as they were, at least for the summer.

"We should head back, Dad." Dakota didn't really want to leave this spot. The water gurgling around the rocks and the flowers along the riverbank were everything he remembered.

"You'll be back here again, I expect." Jefferson mounted his horse and began the journey back toward the house. Dakota knew he was giving him a few minutes. With a smile, he swung back up onto Roman and spurred him onward, flying past his father and calling to him as they sailed by. He knew his dad wouldn't be outdone and could hear the beat of the hooves behind him.

Dakota reached the paddock first and bounded off Roman's back, walking him to his stall. "Hey, Dad, you need help getting down?" he teased as he closed the stall door. Dakota thought about removing the saddle, but he hadn't heard his father approach. Thinking it strange, he left the barn and walked around the side, looking back over the field. Dakota's heart nearly stopped as he saw Sadie wandering, riderless. Taking off at a run, adrenaline pumping, the ground flew beneath his feet as a dark mound that he knew was his father appeared as he approached. "Dad!" His cry was answered by a low, painful moan that pulled at his heart. "Dad, what happened?" Dakota skidded to a stop and knelt next to the older man.

"Fell off," was all Dakota could understand between pants and groans of pain.

"Where does it hurt?" Instinctively Dakota checked him over, looking for bleeding and broken bones.

"My back." His face contorted in agony. Dakota slipped off his jacket, draping it over his father's shoulders as he tried to move, but Dakota settled him on the ground.

"Just lie where you are, I'm getting help." Reaching into his pocket, Dakota pulled out his phone and called for an ambulance. As he talked, he saw some of the ranch hands hurrying across the field toward them. By the time he'd given the 911 operator all the information he knew and hung up the phone, half the ranch was crowded around. "Mario, run back to the house and get a blanket."

"Should I get a pillow too?"

"No, we can't move him, but he needs to be warmer." Dakota loosened the collar of his dad's shirt and took his pulse at the neck. It was steady and strong, but the waves of pain that he could see traveling through his father's body told him there was something drastically wrong. Mario returned at a run, skidding to a stop and handing him the blanket as the sound of sirens began playing in the distance.

"I'll direct them," Mario said, and then he was gone again, running back toward the barnyard.

"It's going to be fine, Dad. Help is here and they'll get you all fixed up." Dakota breathed a sigh of relief as he saw the EMTs racing across the field, carrying a stretcher and containers of medical equipment.

"What happened?" The first to arrive knelt on the ground and opened his case.

"Near as we can tell, he fell off his horse." Shit. Dakota looked around and saw Eric leading the gray back toward the barn. He'd completely forgotten about the mare. "He's complaining of back pain. Pulse is steady, but a little rapid, which is to be expected," Dakota supplied, and then he got up and backed away, letting the men do their job.

"My son's going to be a doctor," his father rasped between breaths, and Dakota felt a grapefruit lodge in his throat as he heard that ever-present fatherly pride ring through the pain.

The EMT looked over at Dakota and then back to his father. "We're going to get you fixed up and to the hospital." The other man joined him and the two of them began working.

A firm hand gripped Dakota's shoulder, a grip as familiar as his father's. "He'll be fine, laddie." Bucky had called him that since he was five years old. "He's as strong as an ox. There ain't nothing that'll keep him down for long."

Dakota turned and looked into the weather-hardened eyes of the ranch foreman and nodded. "I hope so, Bucky. I surely hope so." Dakota turned his worry back to his father. He saw the EMTs work a backboard under his dad and secure him to it before they and two of the hands carefully lifted him up, carrying him to the ambulance. Dakota followed behind, chewing on a fingernail with worry.

"Do you want to ride with him?" the EMT asked before shutting the door.

Dakota shook his head. As much as he wanted to, he figured he'd better have a vehicle. "I'll follow right behind you."

The man nodded and climbed into the back, and Dakota heard him explain to his dad what was happening as he closed the door with a deep thunk.

"All right, boys, you've got work to do. Jeff wouldn't want you standing around like a bunch of worried widows on his account," Bucky said toward the group standing together near the paddock. Dakota turned and saw the concern on each and every one of their faces. That alone spoke volumes about how much these men thought of his father. One by one they turned, some disappearing into the barn while others got in ranch vehicles and headed out. "Do you want me to go with you, laddie?"

"I'll be fine." Dakota mustered a smile for the man who'd taught him to ride and so much more. But there was a look in those eyes that changed his mind. Bucky was worried, something he'd never seen before, ever. "Yeah, I'll drive." He stepped to his dad's truck and pulled open the door, fishing the keys from beneath the seat. The passenger door slammed closed and Dakota started the engine. As soon as the ambulance pulled out, Dakota was right behind it, speeding in the wake of the siren down the road.

They arrived at the hospital a ways behind the ambulance, and by the time they got inside, they were met by one of the EMTs heading out. "Thank you." Dakota shook his hand and then hustled inside to the emergency desk, where the girl told him to have a seat and that someone would be out shortly. He and Bucky took seats, and Dakota found himself settling in for a wait. They didn't talk much; they didn't need to. Concern and worry were written on both of their faces.

"Dakota?" Hearing his name, he turned to see Dr. Hansen striding toward him. "Hi, Bucky," the doctor said. The foreman nodded, his expression expectant.

"Hey, Doc." Dakota stood and shook the man's hand. He'd been their doctor for as long as Dakota could remember. This was the man who had set his broken bones and gotten him through the chicken pox.

"It's been a while. I hear you're in medical school."

"I wonder who you heard that from." Dakota suppressed his smile.

"Your dad tells everybody who'll listen." There was a smile on the middle-aged man's face that faded as he got back to the issue at hand. "Your dad injured his back. He's damned lucky it wasn't worse, but it's still problematic in his condition. What the hell was he doing on a horse anyway?"

"Whoa, slow down, Doc. His condition?" Dakota asked, suddenly more worried.

"I think we'd better sit down and talk."

"Yeah, I think we'd better."

"I'll just wait for you here," Bucky said, and he wouldn't meet his gaze. Dakota instantly knew that whatever bad news he was about to get, Bucky already knew.

Doc Hansen led him toward a small consultation room and closed the door. "You'd better have a seat." Dakota lowered himself into a chair and waited. "On their own, his injuries aren't too serious, and he'd probably recover from them in a few weeks."

"On their own." Dakota crossed his arms in front of his chest. "What is it that nobody's telling me?"

"Kota,"--the switch to his childhood nickname was very telling--"I diagnosed your father with multiple sclerosis a year ago. He should never have been riding a horse, and unfortunately this injury is only going to make his condition worse. There's some slight swelling around the spine that will probably dissipate, but it's only going to aggravate the MS."

"What are you saying? Will he be able to walk again?" The thought nearly made him sick.

"I'm saying the disease had been progressing steadily and untreated for a while before he came to me, because his hands were shaking, and there's only so much we can do now. He's already lost a lot of muscular control. In fact, I'm surprised you didn't notice anything."

"I only got back last night, and we went riding together this morning. What I want to know is why he didn't tell me?" And only he can answer that question. Dakota slumped in the chair, the air flowing from his lungs; he could almost feel himself deflating.

"Kota, I'm sure your dad was only trying to protect you." Doc Hansen got up from his chair. "What I want to know is why that fool thought he could get back on a horse. I told him months ago to stay off them."

The words were lost on Dakota as he lifted himself out of the chair and walked blankly back into the waiting room. Bucky stood up, his cowboy hat in his hands, looking extremely contrite. "He made me swear not to tell you."

"I figured that!" Dakota glared at the foreman, but he wasn't really angry with him. He was mad at his father... but he couldn't yell at him, and it wasn't fair to take it out on Bucky. "Sorry."

"He is so proud of you," Bucky explained. "And he knew you'd come home if you knew, and that was the last thing he wanted." Dakota watched the older man fidget and motioned him to a chair. Bucky sat down next to him, hat on his lap. "More than anything, he knew how much being a doctor meant to you, and he didn't want anything to stand in your way, least of all him."

"I know." And his dad was right. If he'd have known, Dakota would have been on the first plane home. That he knew without a doubt.

A nurse approached them. "I can take you back to see your father."

Dakota nodded and stood up, looking over at Bucky.

"I'll wait here, laddie. You go see him."

He hated that look in Bucky's eyes--like he'd just killed Dakota's dog by accident and didn't know what to say to make it up to him. "You didn't do anything wrong," Dakota told him and Bucky nodded slowly.

Dakota followed the nurse through the double doors, down a hallway, and into the small curtained-off area where his dad lay flat on his back, eyes closed.

"They've given him something for the pain, so he may be a little out of it for a while," the nurse explained before checking the machines and then leaving the room.

Dakota stood at the end of the bed, looking down at the man he'd looked up to all his life. Jefferson Holden had always seemed larger than life to Dakota and had made him feel as though he could do anything. Now, looking at him with tubes in his arm, rails on the bed, eyes closed, his face only beginning to relax from the medication, he suddenly looked so small and vulnerable.

"Kota?"

"I'm here, Dad." He walked to the side of the bed and held his father's hand, seeing the shaking as he did.

"Promise me you'll go back to school?" His dad's eyes opened for a few seconds and then closed again. Dakota said nothing, relieved that he hadn't had to answer that question. His dad had been right--if he'd known, he'd have come right home, and nothing had changed now except the urgency. If his dad was able to come back to the ranch, someone would need to take care of him, and for Dakota that was a no-brainer. He'd always wanted to help people, and he could think of no one he'd rather help than his own father.

"We're going to move him to a room in a few minutes. He'll probably be out for the rest of the day." The nurse was back, and she moved around the bed and began to unlock the wheels. "You're welcome to go up with him."

"Thanks. Do you know what room he'll be in?"

She consulted the chart. "Room 229."

"I'll meet you up there."

Dakota gave his father's hand a slight squeeze and then let it go, placing it under the blanket before walking out and back into the waiting room. Bucky stood as soon as Dakota approached. "They're taking him to a room. Why don't you head back to the ranch, and I'll stay with him."

Bucky nodded. "I'll have one of the guys drop one of the trucks by for you, laddie."

"Thanks, Bucky." He didn't know what to say or do and was about to turn away when Bucky pulled him into a hug and then let him go. Dakota thought he saw watery eyes as he watched the foreman turn and hurry outside; then he followed the directions to his father's room.

When he arrived, his dad was already there. The lights were low and it looked as though he'd never opened his eyes. Beneath the window was a small built-in sofa, and Dakota settled on it and tried to think. There weren't a lot of decisions that would need to be made right now; he had time. But in his mind, he already knew what he had to do.

* * * *
* * * *

Chapter One

* * * *

Dakota drove his truck along the road that led to the ranch, passing the mailbox and pulling into the drive before stopping the vehicle. Opening his door, he got out and leaned against it. The ranch house, barns, stables, and paddocks were all laid out before him against a backdrop of pastures, rangeland, and, in the background, the imposing peaks of the Tetons. Taking a deep breath, he let the scent and feel of home work its way into his blood. He needed to do this, needed to remind himself that this was home and that he loved it.

"Hey, boss, you looking for something?"

He turned in the direction of the voice and saw Mario walking up the drive. "No, just lookin'." He did this every time he was away for more than a few hours. Getting back in the truck, Dakota restarted the engine and pulled up to the house. Grabbing his bags out of the back, he walked up the steps and through the front door.

"Hey, look what the cat dragged in." Bucky got up from a chair and walked over to him, giving Dakota's back a pat hello. "I was starting to wonder if you'd make it in today."

"I had to."

Bucky nodded his understanding, and Dakota dropped his bags by the sofa and walked down the hall, opening the door to the last room.

The nurse sitting by the hospital bed looked up from her book and smiled. "He's doing just fine." Grace marked her page and put the paperback into her purse before getting up and walking toward the door. Dakota followed, and they talked in hushed tones in the hall. "It's been a good day. He had dinner about an hour ago and kept looking at me like he was wondering when I was leaving because he knew you'd be back."

"Did he say anything?"

She shook her head. "But like you said, he understands and has ways of making himself known." Dakota had already paid her for the week, but he reached into his pocket and gave her an envelope. "No, Kota." She tried to push it back, but he pressed harder.

"Then you spend it on those grandkids of yours." He closed her hand around the paper. "The only reason I can enjoy myself is because I know you're taking such good care of him." She was a godsend, and both he and his dad trusted her, which was saying a lot.

She gave up and put the envelope in her pocket. "I bathed him this morning and changed the bedding. He's been turned, and Doc Hansen stopped in and said he's doing fine." Well, as fine as could be expected, but Grace would never say that. The woman was an eternal optimist. "I'll be going, but if you need anything, just call me." She picked up her things and turned to leave. "If you need help a day or two a week, give me a call. I like it here, and he's just a dear." She gave him another smile and walked away.

Smiling to himself as he watched her go, he pushed the door to his father's room open and walked inside. The only sound was his soft breathing as he slept, which he did more and more--not that there was all that much difference between his waking and sleeping hours any more. Oh, there were times when his dad was very alert, but those times were becoming fewer and fewer, and his ability to control his muscles less and less every day. "I love you, Dad." He said that every day, no matter what, just like he had for the last four years. Turning quietly, he cracked the door so he could hear any noise and then headed back to the living room.

Bucky was asleep in the reclining chair he'd claimed after Jefferson could no longer use it. Officially, Bucky was retired, but he'd been with the ranch for almost forty years and Dakota had told him he'd always have a home here. The man was as much family as his dad, and the sister he heard from about once a month, usually toward the end when she was running low on cash.

"So tell me about this cruise you went on." Bucky's eyes slid open as he spoke. "Was the thing as big as it looked in the pictures?"

"Bigger." Dakota went into the kitchen and got a couple of beers before popping them open and handing one to Bucky, taking a seat on the couch. "The ship had three swimming pools, six hot tubs, a gym, ice skating rink, basketball court, and anything else you could think of."

"So, you think it'll last you 'til next year?" The old man took a long pull.

"It'll have to." Dakota allowed himself one week away from the ranch a year--one week where he could let himself go and sow all the wild oats he possibly could, and this year he'd gone on a cruise.

"Did you meet anyone?" The man's eyes swam, and when a smile appeared on Dakota's face, Bucky slapped his knees. "Well, tell me about her, son."

This was the part he always hated, and every year he debated coming clean. Before he left on the trip, he'd told himself he wasn't going to lie to himself or anyone else anymore. "Well, that's the thing." He took a long drink from the bottle, downing the rest of the beer before putting it on the table. "I don't know how to say this, but I didn't meet a woman. I met a man." There, he'd said it.

The recliner lowered slowly, Bucky's feet resting on the floor. "Are you telling me you're queer?"

"Gay, Bucky, I'm gay."

"Oh, sorry... gay." Bucky took another drink of his beer. "What I want to know is why you took so long to say something."

"You're not upset?" Dakota had built up this moment in his mind into such a dramatic production that the reality was kind of a letdown.

"Hell, no. What happens between two people in the privacy of their bedroom ain't nobody's business." Bucky's eyes narrowed. "So, are we gonna have a boyfriend showing up? 'Cause, laddie, you shouldn't be alone all the time."

Dakota could barely believe what he was hearing. He never expected this type of reaction. "I don't understand."

"What?" Bucky sat back in the chair. "You thought I'd turn my back on you?" He shook his head. "You should know better than that. You're as close to a son as I ever got, and I'll be damned if something as ridiculous as that is gonna change anything." Bucky reclined in the chair. "So, does anyone else know?" Dakota shook his head. "Not even him?" Bucky inclined his head toward the hall.

"No. I was going to tell him the summer he got injured and never got the chance. After he got hurt, it didn't seem as important." Dakota got up and got another beer from the fridge, then returned to the sofa. "Since then, I've kept it to myself." And he had, except for the one week a year he went on vacation and let himself cut loose. "I mean, this is Wyoming, Matthew Shepard country."

"So what's the difference this time?"

The simple question made him think. On his previous trips, he'd always gone to larger cities and fucked his way through a bevy of men until his balls ached and he couldn't move. "I'm not sure." He was lying to Bucky and to himself. This trip, he'd spent the entire time with one man, a dark-haired beauty with the body of an angel and the imagination of a devil. More than that, he'd found that he'd engaged his heart.

Dakota wasn't naive enough to think he'd fallen in love with Phillip. But Phillip had awakened something in him that he'd kept closed off--and that Pandora's box, once opened, couldn't be closed. And Dakota found himself taking the first tentative steps toward opening up.

"Something happened on that cruise, didn't it, laddie?"

"Yeah, I just wished I understood it."

Bucky shook his head. "You have to be yourself, laddie." Bucky finished the beer and set the bottle on the table by the chair. "And you need to be happy. Not everyone's like me and content with their own company their entire life."

Dakota thought the older man was done, but Bucky surprised him and continued.

"You gave up medical school when your dad got sick, and have taken care of him almost every day for the last four years. So you don't owe me or anyone any explanations for how you live your life. Besides, there ain't a man on this ranch that you haven't helped in one way or another. That's what matters. "

Bucky picked up the remote and turned on the television. Ten minutes later he was asleep, just like he was every night, and Dakota sat on the couch and watched him in complete, surprised awe. Not that he was going to go out and start carrying flags in the pride parade they had in Cheyenne every year, but he felt better knowing that maybe it wasn't that big a deal to some folks.

Getting up, Dakota finished his beer and put the bottles in the trash before heading outside. At the paddock, he stood and watched the horses for a few minutes until Sadie walked up, bumping him on the chest. "Hey, girl." He hadn't brought any treats with him, but she didn't seem to care. "I missed you too." He stroked her neck until a high cry echoed over the range, deepening to a low, rumbling howl. Sadie spooked slightly and backed away, looking around and tossing her head.

The door to the bunkhouse banged open and the guys poured out. "Did you hear which direction that came from?" Mario asked, on the run.

"From the northwest." The men were still pulling on coats as they headed for the trucks and down the drive.

What's going on, laddie?" Bucky called from the porch.

"Wolves. I'm heading out with the men. Will you stay with Dad?" Bucky nodded, and Dakota knew part of Bucky wanted to go along and part of him was relieved to be staying. Knowing his dad was taken care of, Dakota hurried to his truck, making sure his rifle was under the seat before hurrying in the direction of the wolf call. They weren't supposed to shoot them, even if they caught a wolf among the cattle, because technically, the wolves were the property of the federal government. But they could scare them away, and if one got shot in the process....


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