Please welcome a brand new author to the Courtesan Press folds, Alex Crossman.
About Alex: Alex Crossman works as a boring cubicle slave by day and writes romantic erotica by moonlight. She likes feeling like a superhero with a secret identity. She lives in the great southwest with dogs, cats and assorted cacti. She loves writing romantic m/m erotica. Check out her take on an old favorite: Beauty and the Beast (like you’ve NEVER seen Belle and the Beast!)
Author: Alex Crossman
When handsome veterinarian Ben Bellerose is called out to the luxury ranch of retired lion tamer Karl Richter to look at a number of sick ligers, he isn’t prepared for what he finds: a powerful animal attraction, a jaded man whose face is hideously scarred, and a ten-year-old murder mystery. Soon Ben must decide if what he feels for Karl is love or lust, and if beauty alone is enough to tame the savage beast.
For as long as I could remember, I’d love animals. As a kid I had collected hundreds of books about them, I had a ton of stuffed animals, and going to the zoo with my dad had been the highlight of my week. I loved the gorillas and the elephants like all the other kids, but the big cats were always my favorite. I used to watch them paw back and forth in their too-small cages, feeling sorry for them, wondering what they were thinking. So it really wasn’t that big of a surprise to my parents when I told them I wanted to be a veterinarian when I grew up—not just a pet vet, but an exotic animal vet.
That was back in my dreamier days. The reality of it was, in a place like Pine Barrens, Texas, (as big as the sky and as empty as all get-out) there wasn’t much of a call for an exotic animal vet, though everyone and his uncle did have a horse. After I graduated college, I got practical, went into equine veterinary medicine and opened up a country practice just outside town with my colleague, college-buddy and lover, Dr. Beau Wilkins.
Our arrangement didn’t last long. We were two young men sharing a business and a bedroom. In a small town like Pine Barrens, that made every tongue wag more than all the dogs at the Westminster Dog Show combined, and Texas wasn’t the best place in the world to be gay in. Eventually Beau found himself a practice down in Houston and a lady friend to act as his beard so his friends and family would feel happier and more secure with his life choices.
For the first time in my life, I felt lonely, isolated, and vaguely ashamed of myself. As a result, I started filling the emptiness in my life with work. I put myself on call 24/7, and even filled in for the other vets in the area when they were indisposed and couldn’t handle an emergency. So I wasn’t terribly surprised when Dr. Fields, the vet one town over, called me early one morning to ask me if I would go out to the Richter place for him and see to the owner’s exotic cats. Fields said he’d wrecked his back while delivering a breached foal the day before and was going to be laid up for a few more days.
“No problem, Dr. Fields,” I said into my cell phone while I stood in a corral beside a colicky mare and slowly pumped the air out of her stomach with a garden hose.
“You just need to pick up a sample for the lab, take a look at the cats, and call me back with your assessment. You don’t need to get any closer than that, Ben.”
“Sounds good,” I said, getting excited about my work for the first time in seemingly forever. I finished up with the mare and turned her back over to her owner. My heart was knocking in my chest something fierce.
The Richter place was up in a very secluded section of Pine Barrens. The owner, Karl Richter, was some retired hotshot Vegas entertainer who’d bought a hundred-acre luxury ranch to house his big cats. The cats, as far as I was aware, were just as retired as their owner, though he had brought a pair of ligers down to the state fair about four years ago. I’d seen the giant, shaggy lion/tiger hybrids from a distance as I walked the fairgrounds to the petting zoo where I was giving away a 4H prize, but when I went back to see them up close, they were gone and the guy in charge of the exhibit had said that the owner had pitched a fit about some reporter from the local newspaper scaring his cats by taking too many pictures.
I drove out to the Richter ranch with butterflies in my stomach. I was finally going to be able to see the cats close up.
When I reached the big wrought iron fence with the call box out front, I stopped, rolled down the window of my pickup, and pushed the CALL button. “This is Dr. Ben Bellerose. I’m here to see Richter’s cats.”
It took almost five minutes for anyone to answer. I looked at my watch. It was well past five o’clock and some angry-looking storm clouds were moving across the prairie. One of the southwest’s infamous summer washouts was hot on my heels and I hoped Richter, or whoever was in charge of the grounds, hurried the hell up.
Then a course, unfriendly voice said, “Where’s Dr. Fields?”
“He threw his back out yesterday and I’m his replacement. Look, we’re getting some serious rains tonight. Can I just collect the samples and go?”
There was a tense pause, then the icy voice said, “Drive down and around to the enclosures. I’ll be waiting at Building A.”
The gate slid open and I followed a long, paved road through some hilly prairieland until a house that looked a little like a scaled-down version of the Taj Mahal suddenly appeared. It looked eerily like a mausoleum, cupolas and all, and was completely out of place on the Texas prairie, but who am I to judge what rich eccentrics did with their money? We had a number of A-list actors who owned similarly diverse homes not far from Pine Barrens. Hell, Brangelina had a ranch about ten miles east of here.
I followed the road around the house to what looked like a compound made up of several smaller buildings. The entire compound was surrounded by yet another sturdy wrought iron fence and a gate that automatically slid back as I drove up in my old, battered pickup. After I was in, I parked at the nearest building, the one I assumed was Building A (though it bore no indication that it was) and got out.
Wind, smelling bitterly of heavy rains, assaulted my senses and blew my sports coat over my head. Sweat from the lack of air conditioning in my Ford made my tough work jeans stick to my legs and ass. Heat, pressure and rain—I had a feeling it was going to be a bad storm tonight. I picked up my heavy med bag and went over to the door, but before I could knock, someone opened it. “Come in,” said that cold, steely voice I’d heard at the gate.
“Wind’s kicking up,” I said as I slipped inside a dark, professionally-outfitted clinic obviously used to house and care for the big cats. I noted the gigantic stainless steel examination table, the humongous canine scale, and racks and racks of medication and all manner of apparatuses, everything you’d need if you were maintaining the health of a collection of exotic animals.
The lights were dim, but I could tell the man who’d let me in was big, with a fit, geometric body. He wore a dark, plush jacket that I couldn’t help but wonder was a smoking jacket, like in a Sherlock Holmes novel, and his blond hair looked gelled back in a queue. I turned to shake his hand in greeting—because my mama always told me to be cordial, even to rude strangers and city folk—but the man immediately pulled away and glared at me in the dark. He had a severe face and sharp cheekbones, though he kept one side turned away from me as if I were somehow beneath his contempt. I thought he would have been handsome, striking even, were he not scowling so hard or acting like such a dick.
“Forgive me. I don’t shake hands,” he said, and I noticed he spoke with a vague, decade’s-old German accent.
A part of me wanted to be a smart-ass and answer, “Yes, mein Fuhrer!” but good sense prevailed and instead I said, “I promise I don’t have any commutable diseases.”
“I’m sure,” he answered in an exasperated tone. “But you work with animals and I don’t want to accidently expose the cats to something they have little defense against. They have enough to deal with at present.” He turned and led me to a door at the opposite side of the room, navigating the darkness of the room expertly.
Repressing a grumble, I followed. I was clumsier, and when I barked my skin on an unidentifiable crate, I swore and finally reached for the light switch on the wall. When the lights came on in the clinic, Mr. Karl Richter turned, his hand on the doorknob, and glared at me as if I’d assaulted him.
I saw the scars on his face, and it was nothing like you see on TV or in movies. It was far, far worse…