Published by DreamCraft
Genre: Western Romance.
Length: 37,500 words.
Heat rating: 3.5
Years ago, revenge brought Emeric von Gondrecourt to New Mexico. Now, the force keeping him there is loyalty to the Metairie family — and his love for the young Calder Metairie, who has grown up while Emeric watched.
The two men are separated by geography, history, language, culture — one, born an Austrian prince just before upheaval in Europe would rob him of his birthright, the other born to head a cattle ranch as vast as small European countries. Both were born to different kinds of power, positions of command, and lives bound by duty. And both share a secret.
Being gay at this volatile time in America's history is damned dangerous. Being two men in love is a hazard Calder and Emeric fully recognize —
But the simmering frustration with which Calder grapples, every moment of every day, is Emeric's stubborn refusal to allow himself to love, and to express his feelings in any physical sense. For Emeric, the situation is a labyrinth of duty and loyalty, desire and the determination to honor promises he made to the Metairie family in the wake of his one terrible mistake. The Metairies forgave Emeric once, and he enjoys a certain comradeship within the great Alteza cattle empire. He has worked long and hard to earn their trust and respect ... but would they forgive him a second time if his crime, this time, were to lay a lover's hands on Calder? For an Austrian warrior prince, the dilemma is bleak.
The situation between the two men is already like a powderkeg on a short fuse only waiting for a spark, when horse thieves steal Emeric's priceless Andalusian stallion, Lagrimas. The horse's name is prophetic ... it's the Spanish for tears, and this magnificent animal is at the epicenter of troubles, danger, which will bring Emeric and Calder face to face with their personal devils, once and for all.
A DARING, DEVOTED HEART is a Western with a difference. Not merely an m/m romance, it's also "quest fiction," taking a pair of mismatched heroes through country which brings to mind the works and words of Zane Grey, and culminating in a double-barreled climax — it's a hail of hot lead and a struggle to survive, before Calder Metairie and Emeric von Gondrecourt take those devils by the horns.
Beside the shaded riverbank, the buffalo grass was abundant, protected from the parching late summer sun of northern New Mexico by a leafy veil. Scattered sunlight filtered through the heavy foliage, dappling the leaves and painting whimsical shadows across the curly mesquite which blanketed the ground. Great branches stretched out across the river, coloring the canopied pools a cool viridian. Two riders halted from their journey there, as the hardwood gallery of bur oak, green ash and cottonwoods hailed a welcoming retreat.
Dismounting the big buckskin, Calder Metairie turned to his dark companion and laughed, as if once again wishing to rouse the prince from his serious thoughts. "Enough, I say," chided the spirited cowboy, hands on hips. "You voice concern when there is none. I am a man well grown."
"Too well grown," retorted Emeric von Gondrecourt, black eyes narrowing as he studied him. Carefully groomed to manage the Metairie Cattle Company's huge operation, Calder Metairie was impressive in stature and a skilled leader of men. Confident and charismatic at twenty-three, he was a young giant. With his handsome features, commanding presence and engaging ways, the young rancher attracted attention wherever he went. Too much attention, mused the prince, and usually of the wrong sort!
Amused, Calder tilted his Stetson to reflect his audacious personality. The bright blue shirt he wore contrasted sharply with his partner's darker garb. Worn and stained shotgun chaps covered his long, lean legs. A gun belt was prominent on his hip. Fancy silver spurs crowned the heels of his custom-made Coffeyville boots. And an elegant silver buckle graced his hand-tooled belt, the distinctive stylized M, a bold and recognizable symbol of strength throughout the rugged territory.
"I said enough, Emeric." Calder unsaddled Riago and pulled his bridle, freeing the buckskin gelding to graze among the high grass. Irritated still, he tossed his hat aside, brushing back his long dark hair, tying it at his nape with a rawhide cord. "Who are you to advise me on men? I don't try to pick your lovers."
"A man of more experience," he declared. "And there have been no lovers for you to pick." Prince by birth, warrior by circumstance — now at thirty-four, Emeric's features were quite striking, angular and gaunt. Lean, broad-shouldered, and physically powerful, Emeric von Gondrecourt was a haughty beast. A life hard fought had sharpened his mind, strengthened his body; its emotional scars lent his movements a wary leonine grace, and to those who threatened, he emanated a silent danger.
He was known as Jaeger along the Mediterranean and across the battlefields of Europe. The family he protected called him the Hunter.
Beneath long, thick lashes the cowboy's eyes changed with his moods, and Emeric noticed, now they were a deeper blue. "Calder, what may be accepted between two men in a warriors' camp, or behind closed doors at a princely court, can surely get you killed in the American territories in 1878."
"Emeric," Calder challenged with a wounded expression only his trusted companion understood, "I know of your life before, and the passion you once shared. But that was years ago. Why do you bridle your love now?"
"Calder," Emeric said softly to the man he knew who loved him — a feeling he deeply shared, but was honor-bound never to acknowledge, "because the only man I love is the one I cannot have."
"Me?" They stood close enough to touch, their words a whisper and a lamentation.
"Yes, you know that well enough."
"Your uncle extended to me his trust; my word, his only demand. Now, by my honor, he has me bound foot and hand."
"We are alone. Who would know?"
"I would. I gave my word to protect his family. I doubt that includes taking you to my bed."
"But it's not right. Who is he to set such boundaries?"
"Calder, what we share knows no boundaries. I feel your desire — know your love by every word you speak and every thoughtful action you perform."
"It is not enough. I need your touch. I need you part of me."
Emeric sighed. "I yearn for your touch as well. More than you will ever know. But it is the choice we were given. I can be here with you now. Choose devotion over desire. Or I must leave. For me, there is no other way."
The gaze they shared seemed endless and was the invocation of their longing. Both men knew words were not enough. Desire ached, and then it burned.
Deviled by discontent, young Metairie turned away. Quickly, he unpacked the harness and with a gentle stroke freed Mythos, the gelding who carried their supplies. The striking blood bay and golden buckskin presented a pleasing scene as they grazed at river's edge. Nodding to his companion, the cowboy set off to gather firewood, leaving Emeric to attend to his stallion and prepare their camp. Stripping his fine mount of leather and pack, Emeric loosed the silvery gray to quench his thirst and join the horses along the riverbank.
The viridian pool mirrored the prince's reflection, and he stared into its depths. He was plainly dressed in the European fashion. His shirt was of the finest linen; his waistcoat and breeches were black and severely cut. He possessed the long, muscular legs of a horseman; his tall gray boots, which were of the richest and most supple leather, seemed a part of him. A revolver on his hip and a black, low-crowned, broad-brimmed hat were the sole concessions to his presence on this continent.
Running a calloused hand through his dark, rumpled hair, Emeric turned his thoughts to ordering the camp. Eyes narrowing, he glanced through the tangle of trees, pondering their words, impatient for the return of his young companion.
The magnificent Andalusian stallion raised his sculpted head, dark eyes peering brightly through lustrous strands of silvery forelock. Neck arched, heavy mane tousled, he shook his head in spirited fashion. He was a big horse, strongly built, compact yet elegant, with a long, exquisite mane and tail.
One of the oldest pure breeds in the world, the Andalusian was known for its intelligence, sensitivity and docility. The horses originated on the Iberian Peninsula in Spain, where ancient cave paintings portrayed their noble breed. The chosen mount of captains and kings, the Andalusian was praised for its prowess as a war horse and prized by the nobility. The breed was used as a tool of diplomacy by the Spanish government, and was known as the Royal Horse of Europe. Alas, warfare and disease during the early nineteenth century had reduced the herds dramatically, and exportation from Spain had been restricted since that time.
"Come," he called, as Lagrimas nickered impatiently. Quickly, the gray approached, halting only when Emeric felt the rare stud's silky jaw brush gently against his own gaunt cheek. The soldier's whisper was a caress. Emeric had raised the stallion from a foal, and in 1873 brought him to America from the Mediterranean on his own great ship.
A Habsburg of both Spanish and Austrian descent, Emeric had often visited his austere grandfather in Spain — a nobleman of high rank and domineering ways. The Andalusian was bequeathed to him upon the old man's death. Honoring the stern old warrior, missing him still, Emeric named the spirited colt Lagrimas, which in the Spanish language meant tears. Now, along with Emeric's beloved books, the magnificent stallion was the only physical reminder of his life before.
The Hunter left his mount with a gentle word and a long caress. Inquisitive, the gray followed, gracefully bending his long neck to nuzzle about the saddles and packs spread haphazardly upon the ground. Amused, Emeric found pleasure in the antics of his silver stallion.
Of a splendid intellect, and a daring, devoted heart, Emeric's powers were all combined upon a single purpose: atonement.
Protecting Mariah Metairie, her daughter and her sons was his fervent vow.
But adversity molded the man, not condition of birth, as each experience, success and sorrow, shaped the mind and impacted the heart. Now, Emeric remembered once again the dramatic events which brought a dispossessed Austrian prince to the wildest territories in the American West — an old lover, misplaced passion, and an unforgivable lie.