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
Everyone knows that bonds formed under extreme circumstances never last.
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.
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.