Title: Force of Nature
Series: Coming About, #4
Author: J.K. Hogan
Publisher: Euphoria Press (self)
Release Date: 7/4/17
Heat Level: 4 - Lots of Sex
Length: 80,000 words
Genre: Romance, contemporary, adventure
Harbor Patrol officer Neal Hesse has had his life turned upside down by a sudden break-up with his partner of ten years. After sleeping his way through Seattle failed to take his mind off his broken heart, he decides to take a leave of absence from work to find himself again. He hires a professional wilderness guide to take him up into the mountains, so he can get away from everything and live off the grid for a few days.
Travis “Rock” McCreary, ex-Army Ranger turned survivalist, hates doing guided excursions, but it’s his primary source of income while he’s working towards getting his own survival show. Working in such a testosterone-fueled profession has forced him so deep into the closet, he feels like he might never see the light of day again, which makes it even harder to put on a friendly face for his happy, normal clients.
When Rock is hired by clumsy city-boy Neal to take him up into the North Cascades for a survival adventure, his patience and his resolve are tested at every turn. He has to teach Neal to survive in the wilderness while fighting an attraction he can’t allow himself to act on. When their trip doesn’t go as planned, Neal’s getaway turns into a true survival situation, and he and Rock are forced to rely on each other to stay alive. If they make it out of the wilderness, can their newfound connection survive in the real world?
Neal didn’t see how this was supposed to help take his mind off his ex because, as they trudged up the trail mostly in silence, he had nothing but time to think. Time to think about how he’d fallen for and spent years with a wolf in sheep’s clothing. He thought he’d been settled, that Tony was The One, that they had been on their way to growing old together. How wrong he’d been.
When the party reached an overlook at the highest point on the trail, they stopped for a panoramic view of the waterfall. Even Neal had to admit, with the sun streaming into the gorge and casting rainbows from the mist, it was a beautiful sight. It was still hard to drag himself out of his head, though. He knew his friends meant well, and they were right, of course. He needed to get up, get out, get back on the proverbial horse of life. But he didn’t wanna. He wanted to be at home on the couch moping, damn it.
He wished for that even harder when he saw the so-called trail that descended from the overlook to the foot of the falls where hikers could walk around or swim on warm-enough days. This trail was also steps, but natural ones of smooth, flat rock. It was narrow. Very narrow, and the lower part had a thin coat of slime from the water spray and mud. So it was fucking slippery.
When he’d almost made it to the flat riverbed, Neal lost his footing on a slick rock. He barely avoided taking a tumble—probably would’ve cracked his skull open—but he gained his balance again at the last moment. He breathed a sigh of relief when he stepped off that part of the trail. The falls dumped into a wide open part of the gorge, forming a broad pool that was bordered by a large, semicircular bank of river rock. There, day-hikers and tourists spread out on the rocks, picnicking, sunning themselves, or generally just taking in the scenery. Neal’s friends spread out to do their own thing.
Addison stalked off to the tree line with her cell phone, probably trying to get a signal so she could call her girlfriend. Bennett led Rory around the edge of the pond so they could get close to the actual waterfall. He was wearing a chest harness that held his Go-Pro, the action camera he usually kept on his boat. Rich and Paddy sat down on some large rocks and got out their trail snacks. And Nic Valentine, the crazy fucker, was wading in the frigid pool while Justice looked on, shaking his damn head.
Neal shivered just thinking about it. It was the tail-end of summer, so it was still quite warm, but these high lakes and rivers were always brisk, even on the hottest days. He’d been trained to withstand cold water temperatures for marine rescues, but that didn’t mean he had to like it, and he certainly didn’t do it for fun. Turning away from the splashing idiot, Neal looked around at all of the tourists and vacationers. Everyone had phones out, taking pictures, and he was sure they were tweeting and Instagramming like mad whenever they could find a bar or two.
He shook his head, then smirked and took his own phone out. “When in Rome,” he muttered. First, he snapped a picture with the reverse camera of himself with the waterfall in the background. Then he flipped the view so he could get a shot of the gorge. His frame wasn’t wide enough, so he took a few steps back, mindful of the rocks that became more slippery the closer he got to the falls.
His foot slipped and plopped down into water still cold enough to make him gasp, and right at the same time, he backed into something hard. Solid. Something alive. Neal winced when he heard an outraged cry and a splash behind him. Oh, fuck. Had he just…knocked someone into the water? He knew he needed to make sure they weren’t hurt or anything, but damn, he was afraid to turn around…because that had not felt like a small person.
Cautiously, he turned around and looked down, where he saw a man flailing around in the shallows of the pool. Once he got control of his feet, the man sprang up in the perfect kip-up. Neal cringed when he saw that his clothes and trail pack were completely soaking wet. And when he looked at the man’s face, he froze. His brain registered three things almost simultaneously: he looked vaguely familiar, he was very attractive, and he was really fucking mad.
“What the fuck is wrong with you?” the stranger shouted.
He stepped forward so aggressively that Neal backed up, and his right hand went instinctively to his hip, where he would’ve put his hand on the stock of his service weapon—only there was nothing there because he was off duty.
Not wanting to seem like an equal aggressor, he covered the move by sticking his hand in his pocket, hoping to appear non-threatening. This guy was about his age and shorter by a few inches, but he was ripped. He looked rugged and whipcord strong and looked ready to kick some ass in a heartbeat. Neal might’ve been able to take him—he had him on height and weight, but the guy looked like he might be stronger…and a lot meaner. Neal really didn’t want to fight. That was a helluva lot of paperwork.
He held his arms out in front of him, both as a gesture of peace and to stave off an attack if that were to happen. “Man, I am so sorry. I didn’t realize anyone was behind me.”
“Clearly,” he growled, shrugging out of his pack. He unzipped it and started digging through it.
“Again, really sorry. If anything in your pack got damaged, I’ll reimburse you.”
He scowled at me. “This is a waterfall hike. I’m not an idiot. Anything of value is inside a dry bag.”
Neal bristled because the guy was basically calling him and everyone with him an idiot because they hadn’t brought dry bags. They’d just figured they could avoid, you know, falling in the water. Probably should’ve planned better, because if Neal hadn’t knocked into this guy, it would’ve been him in the water. But Neal had been the one to cause the fall, so he tried not to let his attitude get to him. “If you need a towel, I think one of my friends might’ve brought one.”
He sat down on a large, flat rock and pulled off his hiking shoes, probably to let them dry a little in the sun. His socks looked dry, so Neal assumed his footwear was waterproof. That also would’ve been a good idea, since Neal’s right sneaker was soggy as hell from stepping in the water.
The guy shook his head and didn’t make eye contact. “I’ve got more hiking to do. I’ll air-dry. Just try not to drown anyone, will ya?”
Neal’s eyes narrowed, and he fought a valiant battle not to tell the guy to fuck off. Instead, he fell back on his usual façade of charm and reached out a hand. “I’m Neal. Wish it had been under better circumstances, but it’s nice to meet you.”
His mega-watt smile, the one that had gotten him laid all the time when he was with Tony and before, bounced off this angry stranger like he had some kind of nice-guy force field. He glared at the proffered hand until Neal got the hint and put it back in his pocket. Just when he was about to say ‘fuck it’ and walk away, the guy mumbled, “Travis.”
“Pardon?” Neal asked, raising his eyebrows.
“Well…Travis. It’s been a pleasure. I’ll get out of your hair.” About maxed out on politeness, Neal turned on his heel and started walking, stumbling slightly on the wet stones.
He turned and looked at Travis. “Yeah?”
“You should stick to walking in the park or going to the gym. You don’t belong out here.”
Rage burned in Neal’s gut. He’d apologized profusely, and this guy just wouldn’t let it go. Where the hell did he get off? “The fuck did you say to me? I’ll have you know, I’m a police officer.”
Bennett had obviously picked up on the tone because Neal sensed his partner and Paddy creeping up on his flanks.
Travis’s eyes flicked back and forth between the three men, then he shook his head with a scoffing sound. “I’m just trying to give you some advice. It’s guys like you who come out here and fall down into the ravine because you don’t have the instincts to pay the fuck attention to where you put your feet.”
Neal lunged forward, but Bennett stopped him with a hand on his shoulder. “Nuh-uh. Walk away, Hesse.”
“Nope.” Paddy started pulling him backward.
Travis spoke again, and the sound of his voice grated over Neal’s nerves like sandpaper. “I’m not just trying to be an asshole, although I’d be justified, considering.” He gestured down at his wet clothes. “But seriously, if you want to be all outdoorsy and shit? Get yourself some survival training, because you seem pretty fucking hopeless.”
Neal growled and lunged again, but was stopped by his two strong friends.
“Aaaand we’re done here,” Bennett said, as he and Patrick hauled Neal to the other side of the river where the rest of their group was waiting.
“Come on, just one swing!” Neal shouted over his shoulder. It was just for show because his pride was more bruised than he wanted to let on, but the boys kept a firm grip on him just in case.
Why the fuck did it matter that some asshole stranger thought he was incompetent? But Neal knew the answer to that—because his own boyfriend had as well. Tony had basically unmanned him by suggesting Neal’s career and choices didn’t matter, and now some random guy was telling him he couldn’t even wipe his own ass without help.
Neal seethed quietly all the way back down the trail. He’d never see that crazy fucknut again, but he’d be damned if he’d let the guy be right. So as soon as he got back, he booked himself on a survival excursion with a professional wilderness guide. That’d show that asshole. The one he would never see again.
It was a rocky, uphill haul for most of the day, and Neal was huffing and puffing by the time they broke for a late lunch at another small high-alpine lake. He didn’t want to lose any of the ground he’d gained with Rock by complaining, so he gratefully flopped down on a rock to rest. He started digging through his pack to look for trail rations when Rock stopped him.
“No. We only have enough for one ration a day. We had it for breakfast.”
Neal wasn’t proud of the whine in his voice. “Come on, man, I’m starving.”
Rock raised a brow, and Neal knew he wouldn’t like what was coming. “Starving, huh? Well, I am supposed to teach you how to survive.” He slapped Neal’s knee. “Let’s go forage for protein.”
“I’m not gonna like that, am I?” Neal asked as he stood up and followed Rock into a thatch of larches.
Rock led him through the thatch and into a larger copse of trees until he found a dead tree that was still standing. He pulled off a big section of bark so he could peer inside. All Neal could see was a bunch of…bugs. He shouldn’t have been surprised. He knew these survival experts liked to show off by eating all kinds of disgusting stuff in the name of protein. But he also hadn’t thought he’d actually have to eat any of it. It was the Cascades, not the Namibian Desert or some shit like that.
Neal must’ve had some kind of grossed-out look on his face because Rock laughed when he turned to look at him. Reaching into the moldering tree trunk, he scooped out a handful of the nasty fuckers and dumped them into his tin cup. “These should keep us going until we can make camp and do some hunting.”
Great. Feeling completely out of his element once again, Neal followed along back to their resting spot. Rock held out the cup to Neal as if he was expecting him to pick one like it was a bag of Skittles. “We’re going to cook them, right?”
Rock shrugged and popped one of the fat, segmented bugs into his mouth, chewing thoughtfully. He seemed oblivious to the fact that Neal was damn close to puking just from watching it. “Honestly with these grubs, cooking just makes them taste worse…and leaches out half the protein to boot.” He shoved the cup at Neal again. “Take your pick.”
Swallowing down the threatening bile, Neal poked at the bugs and shuddered. “Hmm… Do I want squishy or…leggy?” He chose a little critter that looked kind of like an ant but a little bigger. “Why do I suddenly feel like I’m in the Lion King?”
“‘Hakuna matata,’” Rock deadpanned, tossing another bug into his mouth and crunching it.
Finally, Neal closed his eyes, held his nose, and gulped the squirming bug down. It really didn’t taste like much of anything, and he was grateful nothing…squirted. But the sensation of movement and all the legs just about had him tossing his cookies. “Mmm…,” he lied. “You know what, I’m actually full. That little guy was chock full of…whatever.”
Clearly not buying it, Rock shoved the cup at him again. “Ugh. Fine.” Neal choked down two more bugs before he declared his surrender. “I’ll be fine until dinner,” he said.
That time, Rock seemed to believe him. They fell into an awkward silence while they rested. Neal didn’t do that well with silence—he was a social creature. After enduring what felt like hours, but was probably only minutes, he had to say something. “So are we really not going to talk about last night?”
“We’re really not,” Rock growled.
“We should talk about it.”
“What are we, a couple of ladies at the beauty shop? You wanna gossip about it?”
“So you really are an equal opportunity asshole, huh? It’s not just gay men you’re rude to.”
“Cry me a fuckin’ river.”
“Jesus Christ, calm down! I’m just trying to make sure you’re okay. I basically forced—”
Rock turned blazing eyes Neal’s way. “You would’ve had to try a lot harder to force me to do anything, and it would’ve been a lot bloodier. Relax, city boy. You’re off the hook.”
Regret faded and anger surged to the forefront again. This guy just didn’t know when to hold his sharp tongue. Neal clenched his teeth to keep from letting loose the tirade that wanted to come out, but in the end, he lost the battle. “You’re real fucking mouthy, you know that? It’s like you’re just asking to get the attitude fucked outta you again.”
Something flashed in Rock’s eyes. Something that made Neal’s dick spring to immediate attention. Was Rock getting pissy with him to provoke Neal into fucking him again? Because he was too repressed to just ask? He wanted Neal to get forceful so he wouldn’t have to say the words. Neal shouldn’t get involved. He shouldn’t give this guy what he wanted if he wasn’t even willing to admit he was gay. But god, the feeling he got from dominating such a virile, willful man was indescribable.
“That what you want, Travis? You need me to give you something else to do with that smart-ass mouth of yours?”
Rock glared, but his chest was heaving, and Neal could see his cock starting to tent his pants.
“It is, isn’t it? Stand up,” he commanded.
Rock didn’t move a muscle, but his eyes widened and his gaze zeroed in on Neal’s mouth.
“I said… Stand. Up.”
This time Rock complied, standing and spreading his legs shoulder-width apart and resting his forearms at the small of his back, something Neal recognized as a soldier’s at-ease position. That did all kinds of things to Neal’s blood pressure, but he didn’t want the excitement to show on his face.
Rising to his full height, Neal looked down at Rock before gripping his shoulder and forcing him to turn around. Rock struggled just a bit in his grasp, so Neal squeezed harder, making his breath hitch. Neal pushed between Rock’s shoulder blades, urging him forward. He stumbled slightly as Neal pressed him up against a tree. Rock caught himself with his hands and pushed back so he wouldn’t be smashed against the bark. He glared over his shoulder.
Neal reached around in front of Rock and undid his pants, the whole time holding his angry gaze. He had the absurd urge to kiss him, to see what he would taste like. Neal wanted to know if he would fight or if he would give in to the kiss. But kissing was about emotions, and fucking was about feeling good—Neal knew which one they both needed.
He shoved Rock’s pants and long johns down to his knees in one quick motion. Then he unzipped his own, but just lowered them enough so that he could pull his dick out. He kicked at Rock’s boots, then growled against his neck. “Spread ’em.”
Meet the Author
J.K. Hogan has been telling stories for as long as she can remember, beginning with writing cast lists and storylines for her toys growing up. When she finally decided to put pen to paper, magic happened. She is greatly inspired by all kinds of music and often creates a “soundtrack” for her stories as she writes them. J.K. is hoping to one day have a little something for everyone, so she’s branched out from m/f paranormal romance and added m/m contemporary romance. Who knows what’s next?
J.K. resides in North Carolina, where she was born and raised. A true southern girl at heart, she lives in the country with her husband and two sons, a cat, and two champion agility dogs. If she isn’t on the agility field, J.K. can often be found chasing waterfalls in the mountains with her husband, or down in front at a blues concert. In addition to writing, she enjoys training and competing in dog sports, spending time with her large southern family, camping, boating and, of course, reading! For more information, please visit www.jkhogan.com.
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