St. Louis area readers! Saturday, June 24, I will be at Rose’s Bookhouse in O’Fallon, Missouri signing books and giving away swag. The event is from 12 pm – 2 pm Central time, and here are the details. Come chat about books, get a signed copy of a paperback, and maybe take a selfie with me!
Click through the read more tag for excerpts of the books I’ll have available for signing.
I didn’t know how many beers I’d had before I felt a warm hand on my shoulder. Maybe three or four which wasn’t enough to explain the tailspin I went into at the sound of a certain velvety voice in my ear.
“Mind if I join you?” I looked into Ben Haverson’s face and felt my breath stutter, so I simply nodded, gesturing to the barstool beside me. “I take it since you’re here and not at home, things didn’t go well with your wife.”
I shook my head. “She was too busy fucking my partner to talk.”
I guessed Ben didn’t often register shock at the things he heard, but his mouth fell open and his eyes widened. “Seriously?”
I gave a derisive snort. “Who knows how long it’s been going on. So I stopped in for a beer or three, and I’m trying to decide if I want a hotel near here or closer to work.”
He placed a hand on my forearm, his palm warm and dry against my skin. “Wanna get a cup of coffee? Talk about it?”
“Nah, beer’s good. Probably better for calming me down than a bunch of caffeine. I feel like I’m bouncing around in my skin as it is.”
Ben raised his hand and signaled Jared, ordering me another beer and a glass of merlot for himself.
“You know,” I peered at him sideways, a good buzz ricocheting through my veins, “you’re a really classy guy. None of that bullshit bravado that so many men have. You eat barbecue without turning your shirt into a Rorschach inkblot, and you come to a BDSM club and order wine. But you don’t have an ounce of snobbery to you.”
He laughed, his deep brown eyes crinkling at the corners, the tiny gap in his top two front teeth catching my eye. “Thanks, I think.”
“I mean it. Maybe I’m not getting my point across well, but I don’t know… There’s something about you. You’re so comfortable with who you are and your surroundings. I wish I felt that way.” I knew I was getting philosophical, though I doubted there was any stopping it. It did make me decide that my current beer would be my last.
“Why are you not comfortable, Gavin?” he asked, swirling his wine around the bowl of the glass, watching the legs meander before sipping.
“Because my wife is fucking someone else, and instead of being devastated, I’m elated. The most appropriate feelings I have are anger that it was Trent, and embarrassment that I was stupid enough not to know. But I shouldn’t be sitting here thinking how glad I am not to have to follow her rules anymore, or how I don’t have to feel guilty for working overtime, and my off time will be my own again. This should hurt, right?” I looked up from my hands to find him studying me. “It doesn’t hurt, and I wonder if that makes me defective.”
Ben narrowed his eyes, calculating his next words. He seemed to come to a decision, leaning forward into my personal space. I didn’t back away, and I probably wasn’t all that subtle in sniffing his cologne.
“Mind if I guess at why you’re not reacting the way you think is socially acceptable?”
Dangerous territory, but I felt reckless. “Knock yourself out,” I said, resting my chin coyly on my shoulder. Our eyes locked as he spoke, and I felt that strange twinge in my gut again, like someone had taken a live wire to my internal organs and given me a jolt. His voice wove around me even over the jarring music, blotting everything else out.
“You’ve been painted into a corner for a long time and you now have a get-out-of-marriage-blame-free card. No one will judge you for leaving her. No one will think there’s another, deeper reason for things not working out. It’s cut and dried, and her bad judgment takes away the burden of a very difficult decision, which is whether to stay with her and be miserable, or leave and be the man you want to be, regardless of others’ opinions. You are not defective. You’re unchained from the consequences of marrying the wrong person. It’s no wonder you’re crawling out of your skin. You’re free to be who you want to be, now.”
I nodded sagely, the alcohol letting me think it was a good idea to keep staring, to study him with bright interest. “And who do I want to be, Ben?”
He considered me, tilting his head to the side, his dark, artfully mussed hair glinting in the neon light from behind the bar. “Honestly?”
I kept staring. I liked looking at him. “Honestly,” I confirmed.
“You want to be Detective Gavin DeGrassi, ridding St. Louis County of the criminal element. Outside of work, you want to lay that responsibility down and let someone else take over the heavy lifting. Trust someone else to handle the details, and you can simply make that someone feel good and happy and loved. You didn’t have a name for it until yesterday, and you still need me to say it for you, but you want to be Gavin DeGrassi, submissive.” He paused and lowered his voice, either for dramatic effect or propriety. I couldn’t decide which. “And you want that someone to whom you give your burdens to be male.”
I blinked, breaking his spell over me, but I was too stunned to speak for long moments. When I did find my voice, it came out in a half-croak. “How did you know that?”
“Today at lunch. When I asked for your impressions of your trip here, you told me about a guy edging his male sub and how fascinated you were. You spoke of Matt Kinney’s stage show with Lance. Not a single flinch at the mention of Matt and Lance living together and no hesitation whatsoever to go to their home, regardless of what you might interrupt. I know what Collared looks like on a Saturday night, Gavin,” Ben said softly, hypnotizing me with the cadence of his voice. He still leaned close, still held my gaze, and the hand not holding his wine glass slipped along the backrest of my barstool, closing out the rest of the club by completing a circuit between our bodies without even touching me. “There are girls dancing half naked, equal amounts of women being spanked by men, but it was the men you noticed. Then you tell me how your wife is trying to steer your career, and if she’s concerned about her image, which you said she was, she’d try to steer your personal life, too. The final clue was you talking about her dumping her good friend for a slightly adventurous sexual appetite.
“You’re so far in the closet you may never come out. And why should you? The people you’re closest to are cops, inherently judgmental and bound by a code of honor that’s archaic about homosexuality at best and bigoted at worst. Your wife would’ve had an aneurysm if you’d even hinted at being attracted to men. All of that is fairly potent pressure to stay in the closet. And when you finally do break free of the mold you’ve adhered to for so long, you come to a sexually liberated, mostly judgment-free kink club for ‘a beer or three.'”
Jesus, put that way, I couldn’t believe how obvious I was. My face flooded with heat and embarrassment, and I dropped my eyes to my empty glass.
“Like another beer?” Ben asked, letting me out from under his gaze. I shook my head, both in answer and to clear my mind.
“Probably had enough to drink tonight if I don’t want to be hung over for George Kaiser’s autopsy in the morning.”
“Wise,” he said, turning his profile to me once again and sipping his wine.
Companionable silence descended and the beat of the music, mostly beneath my radar since Ben had sat down, insinuated itself again. I twiddled a napkin, debating whether or not I needed to stand up and leave, or if I was here for a reason and chickening out wasn’t getting me anywhere and never had. Fuck it. It’s now or never.
“So do you have any suggestions on how I handle this restlessness?” I kept my tone low, going for seductive and feeling like a fool. “I can’t sit still. And I know I don’t want to bounce around an empty hotel room yet.” The flirting was foreign, and I had no idea if I pulled it off. I was completely out of my depth, not even knowing how to articulate what I really wanted or having a clue how to bring it up. Hell, even contemplating acting on the desire was new territory, including whether or not I was right about Ben being receptive to a man’s advances. I didn’t just have a rusty gaydar, I had no gaydar. But I had to know.
“You don’t need any more to drink, and you shouldn’t be alone.” Ben looked up from his wine thoughtfully, again tilting his head to the side. It was endearing, that look. No other word for it. He called Jared over and paid both our tabs, then leveled his gaze at me. “Let’s get out of here.”
Warmth spread through my gut and my nerves fired all at once as I nodded and stood. “Lead the way, Doctor.”
I LAY on my side, arm snaked under the pillows beneath my cheek, focused beyond the sliding glass door to the night beyond. It was eerie, how bright it was given the white powder coating everything. I watched it pile up, listening to Ben breathe steadily beside me. Without thinking, I plucked his hand off my hip and pulled his arm across my chest, snuggling into him as the little spoon.
A killer was out there. Why had he done it? What purpose had it served? Did he feel better about his actions, or worse? Was he riddled with guilt or feeling smug to have pulled it off? Or was he scared? Was he looking over his shoulder, even now, wondering if someone was coming for him?
I’m coming for you. I will find you.
For what felt like the hundredth time that night, I willed my eyelids to droop, for sleep to take me, but it remained elusive. The snow swirling against the glass patio doors seemed to cheerfully mock me with their jaunty swirls, a party in the air just beyond the warmth of my cocoon.
“Shut the fuck up, snow,” I murmured. A chuckle sounded behind me followed by the tightening of the arm across my chest. My breath hitched and Ben immediately released me. I grabbed his arm, stalling its retreat. After a moment, he resumed his hold.
“Go to sleep, Gav.”
“I’d love to,” I grumbled.
I stared for a moment longer at the white outdoors, then turned to face him, pulling the thick down comforter over my shoulder, blocking out the ambient light.
“I just can’t shut my brain up.”
His profile was a shadow peeking over the edge of the comforter. “Anything I can do?” He trailed his hand along my hip in short, soothing strokes.
“You can make me go to sleep.”
That got his attention, and I saw one of his eyebrows rise in the dimness. He stared at me as though he was wondering what it was I was asking for. He knew, though. He was no fool.
“Come here,” he ordered. His voice may have been quiet, but it wasn’t soft. It meant business, velvet wrapped around steel. “Scoot closer.”
I complied, responding instinctively. He flattened to his back and maneuvered me into the crook of his arm, my head on his left pec. His hand linked in mine and pulled it across his waist, and he hooked my top leg over his with his foot. His other hand carded through the hair at my temple.
“Focus on your breathing,” he commanded. “Feel the air rush in and rush out. Feel your lungs expand and contract. Oxygen trading for carbon dioxide. Feel the warmth of my skin seep into you. Listen to the beat of my heart.”
My restless mind slowed, surrendering with the merest whimper, unable to ignore his instructions.
“You are mine, Gavin. I’m here for you, and you belong to me.” A shiver pranced up my torso, shaking my limbs. He tightened the fingers holding my hand. He rhythmically tugged my hair in counterpoint to the beating of his heart. Tha-thump, tug, tha-thump, tug. I gave up the tension in my shoulders, my muscles becoming compliant to both his touch and his command.
“I don’t want you tired tomorrow. You have a tough day ahead, and no sleep will make it worse. So right now, last chance to relax. Flex your feet.” I pointed my toes, then relaxed them. “Now your calves.” I did, then let go. “Thighs and butt.” He tugged on my hair a little harder when I snickered. I still did what he said. He progressed up my body until I’d flexed and relaxed from the tips of my fingers and toes to my neck, which cracked with the movement. The trick worked, though, and my awareness of my body, of his body, our breathing, the tug-tug-tug of his fingers in my hair all served to shut down my overactive mind. In, out, up, down, tha-thump, tug, tha-thump, tug.
“You do my bidding, and I will watch out for you,” he murmured, as my consciousness began to slip. “Your Dom orders it, you obey. Sleep.”
My last reaction to his words was a flash of lust wrapped in security before I submitted to him.
The ghosts of cases past whispered haunted greetings as I pushed through the glass doors of Second Precinct half an hour later, Ben right on my six. It was an odd role reversal, since I was usually the one at his heel. He was my Dom, but in this moment, he was my partner, my rock, and my safety net. We’d hastily thrown on clothes, grabbed jackets, and rushed into the inky silence of a chilly October night, intent on one goal: get to my brother and find out what he meant that Myah, his wife and my former partner, was missing.
I spotted Cole with his head down sitting in one of the chairs next to a sympathetic-looking detective I didn’t recognize. Not surprising. I hadn’t been on the force, or at this station, for a year and a half.
“DeGrassi,” my former boss, Sergeant Kittridge, called from his perch on the desk beside the dejected statue that was my youngest sibling. I strode over, yanking Cole’s arm until he stood, and threw my arms around him, letting him take my warmth and strength.
Cole pulled away and cleared his throat, his voice rough and raw. “The babysitter called me at half past six tonight asking if Myah was getting Bobbi or if someone else was coming for her.” Bobbi, short for Roberta, was Cole and Myah’s four-month-old daughter. “I said Myah was supposed to have been there half an hour before but probably got held up at the grocery store or something. When I called her cell, I kept getting voicemail, so I had Ma pick the baby up and left work. I thought maybe Myah had had a flat or a fender bender and didn’t think it was a big enough deal to call me. She said she had to get diapers and stuff for dinner, so I followed her usual route and found her car in the parking lot at the store.” His eyes filled with tears, and he looked away, fighting for composure. “The driver’s door was open and her purse was on the seat, a couple bags in the backseat. But she was nowhere. I went inside and had the store manager page her, but she didn’t come.”
“Did you try calling her again?”
Cole glared at me for asking something stupid. “Of course I did,” he snapped. “Her phone was in her purse in the car. With the door wide open. So I called it in and requested Eric to the scene to process it.” I wondered if he realized he was sinking into cop-speak. Eric Poulson was his most trusted CSI tech, usually lead on the cases Cole was not assigned.
“Did they find anything?”
He squeezed his eyes shut, and a lone tear tracked down his cheek into the stubble I rarely saw on him. “One of her shoes was under the car. No prints, no other signs of a struggle, nothing stolen.” I sucked in a shaky breath, and Ben slid his hand into mine to entwine our fingers, his grip forceful. It was both a comfort and jarring, him trying to steady himself on me as much as hold me in place.
“We have a unit over there still processing,” Kittridge said, his calm efficiency in great contrast to Cole’s barely controlled panic. “The store’s management was quick to turn over the closed-circuit video of the parking lot, and Sugar is going over it now.” Sugar Kingsbury was the best computer tech in all the St. Louis metro area, often being called to consult with other municipalities when there was particularly tricky data recovery required.
“If there’s anything on those videos, Sugar will find it,” I reassured Cole, pulling him with one arm into another hug. He clung to me, clenching his hands in the fabric of my jacket.
“We don’t have time for that!” he yelled, but his voice was muffled against my shoulder. “She’s been gone for hours. Whoever took her could be anywhere by now.”
Kittridge pulled Cole from my embrace, putting both hands on his shoulders and looking him square in the eye. “Son, we will find her. There’s no way they’ve gotten very far with her in this amount of time. As soon as we knew she didn’t leave the store by choice, we put a notice out at the airport and issued a BOLO”—a be-on-the-lookout—“for all patrols. Every cop in this city is searching for her right now, and no one got her on a plane during that small window. She’d have made a scene if they’d tried.” Cole glared at him. “Cole, you know better than anyone what our team’s capable of. What your people do on a daily basis. Trust us. We’ll get her back.”
My brother’s shoulders slumped, and he whispered, the words so shaky they were almost indecipherable, “Eleven months, Sarge. We’ve been married eleven months. I’m supposed to grow old with her.”
Ben flanked Cole, putting a supportive arm around his waist. “You will. We’ll all see to it. But right now your people need to do their jobs. We all want her back and won’t stop until she is.”
Ben was right, but I wanted to rail and rant and shout as much as my brother. My best friend, one of the few people who had never let me down, who meant the world to me, was out there in the dark. What if she was hurt? What if she was terrified? What if she was….
No. Don’t even think it. She’ll kick your ass if you even suspect she’s that easy to take down. I blanked my mind, helping Cole resume his seat and going to seek out horrible police station coffee. As I returned with a small Styrofoam cup, the dispatcher, Lawanda, set out chairs we used to bookend my brother, and Ben and I sat, hunkering down beside him to wait for word.
It didn’t come for many hours, and each second was painful, the worry like paper cuts slicing away at our composure. We didn’t even try to talk, just shifted in the hard plastic chairs. Cole growled once about having quit smoking for the baby’s sake and wished for a pack of Marlboros. The detective whose desk we were camped out next to tossed a slightly crumpled pack to him.
“I keep it for emergencies. You can have the rest.”
Cole snatched the pack, but tapped the edge of it against the meaty part of his thumb for a few seconds, debating. Then, very deliberately, he removed one and returned the pack to the desktop, as far away from himself as he could get it. Wordlessly, he scraped the chair back and stalked out the front door of the station.
“Uh.” The generous detective looked between me and the door. “He might need this.” He held up a lighter, face grave.
Normally, I’d have laughed and watched my brother storm back in to get a light, asking him if he needed to borrow a lung to smoke the cigarette, too. Instead, I plucked it from the man’s fingers, thanked him quietly, and followed Cole to the parking lot, where he was digging in his car.
“Got your fire,” I said, coming up behind him. He squawked and banged his head on the doorframe. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to sneak up on you.”
He glared at me and swiped the lighter out of my hand, the sound of the tobacco catching the flame scratchy in the pre-dawn light. It reminded me of our childhood, when our dad used to smoke a pipe on occasion. The memory held none of its usual comfort.
“What the fuck do you think?” he snapped.
“I think you’re going to fly apart soon if you don’t talk to someone,” I answered matter-of-factly.
“Yeah?” His entire being was pure challenge: jutted jaw, fierce gaze, tensed muscles ready to spring. “You some kind of expert on missing wives? Or do you think because your boyfriend is a shrink, you know everything?”
I ignored the barb. “I think that because I’m about three seconds from punching someone, and I love her in a completely different way than you. If it were Ben, they’d have to fucking sedate me, so truthfully, you’re doing way better than I would be.”
He exhaled a gust of smoke and looked away, jamming a hand in his jeans pocket. “I need to do something, Gavin. This sitting shit is going to break me far more than seeing something upsetting about what’s happened to her. I know they won’t let me get involved, but goddammit, I have to do something.”
That they were allowing us to stay at the precinct while they analyzed the evidence the crime scene techs had gathered was a courtesy not afforded to families in typical cases. Cole was lucky enough as it was, but I knew he wouldn’t see it that way.
“Maybe they’ll let me talk to Sugar, see if he can give me something. He’s gotta have been through that video footage enough by now.”
What scared me about the way Cole looked right then was the utter bleakness. His normally vibrant blue eyes were washed out gray, red-rimmed and swollen. His face was nearly slack, except when he clenched his jaw against a shiver. He wasn’t functioning, and he had no business going anywhere near evidence in that state. It would only lead to him jumping to erroneous conclusions. Or worse, fucking up some crucial link to Myah’s whereabouts.
“Think he’ll spill?”
I shrugged, trying not to let him know I’d seen through him. He was distraught, and who could blame him? “Only one way to find out.” And filter anything he does tell me. “But you have to promise me something.”
Wariness shrouded his face, but he didn’t balk like I expected. “What?”
“If there’s no news yet, we all go home, get a few hours of sleep, and come back when there’s something being reported.”
He was already shaking his head.
“Cole, they’ll wake us up if something happens, but you’re not going to do anyone any good if you’re incoherent and delirious.”
“So, what, she’s probably out there somewhere, uncomfortable as fuck, going through who knows what, and I get to lie down on a comfy bed with a nice pillow and drift off to dreamland? Fuck. That. Noise.”
“Lay on a bed of nails for all I care, as long as you get some rest. You’ll be more helpful to Myah if your eyes are fresh.” Trump card played.
As the last notes drew to a close, the crowd loosed a cheer. Duff stood and swiped his mic, hurrying to the front of the stage before Moonshine found a way to get him to stay. He grabbed Jennica’s hand and raised it high, guiding her into a deep bow to raucous applause.
“Ladies and gentlemen, thank you so much for that very warm welcome. I’ll be working for pay”—he swiveled to send a pointed look Moonshine’s way—“tomorrow night, and it would be fabulous if each and every one of you were here to cheer me on.” Quickly turning off the mic and setting it carefully on Moonshine’s piano, he bent and kissed her cheek.
“That was perfect, Duffy boy. Stay for a while. We’ll talk later,” she murmured in his ear before he could pull back. He nodded, then he and Jennica dismounted the stage and jogged theatrically back to their table with arms raised like they’d conquered a mountain.
The evening pleasantly meandered along, and once the dance floor began to fill, Duff and his friends abandoned their table and joined the happily writhing bodies. Garrett spent as much time fending Jackson off as Duff did repeatedly dragging Eli from his chair. Drinks flowed, and Duff was feeling no pain when Moonshine announced the next pair of pianists to take them into the wee hours of the morning. The hand on his elbow shortly thereafter didn’t surprise him as his boss motioned with one finger to follow her. She steered him to the hallway leading to the restrooms and office, where it was a little quieter.
“Who’s your friend?”
“Which one?” He knew, but liquid relaxation had him in a teasing mood.
Her deadpan look made him laugh, and he leaned against the wall and crossed his arms, smiling at her smugly.
“Your partner in crime on stage, doofus.” She cuffed the back of his head.
“Her name’s Jennica. Just met her tonight. She works with my friend, Garrett. Why?” Even after only a few conversations with her, he was well aware the opportunity to goad her was a rarity. He wasn’t about to pass it up.
Moonshine’s eyes narrowed, assessing him. Seeing he wasn’t pulling her leg completely, her shoulders slumped and she shook her head, biting her lip. “Never mind. Dumb idea anyway. It’s okay. Go back to your friends. It was good to see you in here tonight. Smart, scoping the place out before you start tomorrow. I’m sure Brad’ll like the initiative.”
“He’s here?” Duff asked sharply, head swiveling as if he expected the man to appear at the sound of his name. Lot of good it did, seeing as they were in an empty hallway.
“He’s always here,” Moonshine replied, tilting her head. She pursed her lips, then opened her mouth to speak again, but hesitated. “Can I… ask you something?”
“Yeah, but I might not answer.”
“Does Brad do it for you?”
Duff’s mouth opened and closed while he searched for an answer that wouldn’t get him razzed or fired. Not answering was just as bad as saying he’d have dropped to his knees for the man during his audition if Brad had asked. So he answered the question with a question.
“Well, I was thinking.” She paused for a moment. “Oh, fuck it, come on.” She grabbed his wrist and pulled him to a door at the end of the hallway, shoving it open and flicking on the lights. It was a storage room with supplies of all kinds, except for what was cold and kept in the kitchen. Shelves upon shelves of bottles lined the entire back wall. His eyes widened in awe.
“Planning an apocalypse where all the vodka distilleries are blown up?”
“We order in bulk.” She waved her hand impatiently. “Don’t deflect. What I’m about to tell you does not leave this room. Can I trust you?”
Surprised by her ferocity, Duff agreed, more than a little curious. “Yeah, okay.”
“We each have something the other one wants.” Duff started to protest that he didn’t have anything she wanted, but she plowed on, cutting him off. “Your friend, Jennica, is totally not my type, and if you just met her, you know nothing about her. But I have never, ever had my heart start pounding at the sight of someone in my life. Until she climbed on stage. So I’m proposing a trade. I’ll supply you with information about Brad if you find out about her for me. Is she even gay? What’s she like? Is she single? From here or an actress wannabe? You know, the usual.”
“Why would I want to know about Brad?” Duff asked, ducking another head smack.
“Okay, so maybe you’re doing both sides of the favor for me. God, he would kill me if he knew I was discussing this with you.” She looked at the ceiling, and then squared her shoulders, her fierce gaze full of challenge. “Brad’s my best friend. He’s like my brother, but not. Honestly, he’s more like a lover without the sex. I know everything there is to know about him. That blank stare he gave you during your entire audition? Means you got under his skin big time.”
“Uh-huh. That’s why he barely spoke to me. Besides, Moonshine, he’s my boss. I never shit where I eat.”
“Ew, but yeah, I get that. Here’s the thing. No one gets under Brad’s skin, but you did. And his convincing mannequin impression meant he was hiding a hell of a lot. A room full of music execs, and he’s as cool as liquid nitrogen. It’s not that he doesn’t care, but he’s going through the motions. Until you walked in the door today, the spark he had when I met him has been a dark, sad little memory. I want him to wake the fuck up again.”
“I’m sorry, but really, what’s that got to do with me?”
Moonshine pushed him down onto a crate and dragged an empty one over in front of him, sitting and leaning forward, eye to eye. “Three years ago, Brad was on the brink of the kind of success people in this town crave. The club was doing great; he and his partner were happy and making contacts in the music world left and right. They’d just gotten one of our players a contract with a major record label, and the club’s reputation began to change from a fun place to somewhere musician hopefuls could come for their big break. That kind of recognition can set you up for life. Hell, there are places in fucking Memphis that are on the map of the music industry for talent discovered there decades ago. In this city, where people forget you faster than a blink, being remembered? That means you’ve made it, whether it’s your name and face on the album cover or not.”
“Okay, so what changed and why does it have anything to do with me?”
Even in a crowded room, I’d know that walk anywhere. Craig had always turned heads with the casual roll of his hips, the unhurried confidence he poured into each step. To my Craig-starved eyes, he looked incredible; the kindness in his brown eyes was still there two years later, no thanks to me. He wore my favorite pair of his tattered jeans and a long-sleeved gray t-shirt beneath a bright blue fleece vest, very Boy Next Door. He’d let his chestnut hair grow but held it off his forehead with a beanie, strands peeking out to curl at his nape and ears. He was on his cell phone, laughing, his voice carrying down the hall to my hiding place, soothing nerves inside me that had been screeching and restless all day. He’d always had a calming effect on me, even now when it was him I was nervous about. I slunk back into the shadows of the recessed stairwell doorway, keeping the barest eye on him. Distracted, he made it all the way to his loft before he saw my note taped to the door.
He sucked in a breath.
Even from ten feet away, his friend on the phone was loud enough for me to hear.
“Craig, are you okay? What happened?”
It took a moment, but he answered. “Yeah, I’m fine. I just have… some mail to go through. Something unexpected. Lemme call you back.” Without waiting for a reply, he disconnected and slipped the phone into his butt pocket, not taking his eyes off his name written by my hand.
I’m sure it was a shock to see after two years without a word from me. Our final parting hadn’t exactly been amicable, either. I’d thought of him every day. It was his face I pictured when things got bad, his voice whispering that I could handle it. I could make it through anything because he’d told me so. His faith in me was the rock to which I’d clung while my personal hurricane slammed into the shores of Dane.
That’s me. Dane Perry. Undeserving of one iota of Craig Dahl’s attention, but I crouched in a corner, hoping for it anyway. I watched him. What would he do?
Please open it. Please read it. Please call the number at the bottom.
He did none of those things.
A door down the hall opened and Craig jumped, apparently having gotten lost in his thoughts rather than actually deciding what to do. One of his neighbors—someone I didn’t recognize—walked past with a friendly greeting and a clap to his shoulder. Clearly Craig could still charm the pants off anyone. Even hardened New Yorkers ate out of his hand. At least the guy hadn’t known him well enough to recognize his distress and break the moment more. Instead he disappeared around the corner to the elevators, leaving us alone again.
But the presence of another soul had done enough damage, and Craig did what I most hoped he wouldn’t do. He snatched my note and wadded it, keys jangling as he tackled the multiple locks on the door, jaw ticking like I remembered it doing when he got mad. He was almost always calm, but he’d constantly taken his anger out on his teeth, clenching them until he had control of his voice and words. He was careful never to say things he didn’t mean, nor did he give in to shouting.
Except one time, but I’d deserved it.
His door slammed and I jumped. Lowering my head for a moment, I squeezed my eyes shut. I’d known it wasn’t going to be easy. I had done horrible things, things that seemed so selfish and hateful it would be a wonder if Craig listened to an apology, let alone my clumsy attempt to regain his trust. However, I’d sworn to myself I’d repair the damage, and at least get closure. In coming back here, I’d promised my friend Holly—one of a few I had left—if he spit in my face, I would take that as my closure. I’d promised her I was strong enough for this. And not the false strength to which I’d once clung, but this new tendril I’d learned to cultivate instead of scoffing at facing my demons head-on. No more running. No more hiding and passing it off as being “fine.”
I’d almost entered the hall to leave when Craig’s door opened again and he stepped into sight. He bore a large trash bag and a scowl, and I sucked in a breath and scurried through the industrial stairwell door as he passed, peeking ever so carefully through the little rectangular window. Just before he passed from my view, he stopped, yanked open the garbage chute, and stuffed the bag into it with more force than necessary. Then he stomped back, the clang of the chute door ringing through the hall.
I reentered my hiding spot in time to see him storm into his loft and slam the door.
He’s so beautiful.
With a great sigh that felt good in my lungs despite the disappointing results of my first effort to contact him, I pulled my hoodie over my head and shoved my hands in my pockets, emerging into the hall and passing his door on the trek to the elevator. Bust or not, it felt good to be doing instead of planning. Acting on my feelings instead of burying them. My father had been wrong. Feelings didn’t make me a sissy. Running from them had.
I’d try again tomorrow. Maybe tomorrow he’d read the note. Maybe tomorrow I’d have a chance to say I was sorry. And tell him how much I still loved him.
Day two. I taped my note on the door again and retreated to the stairwell doorway to wait. While I did, I mulled over this second attempt, the words of which I’d memorized.
I’m pretty sure you never expected to hear from me again. Maybe you hoped you wouldn’t. And maybe I shouldn’t be contacting you. I should let you go on with your life without wounding you any more than I have. No one would fault you, least of all me.
The second you told me to get out and left me alone to pack my shit, it was clear I’d made an enormous mistake, but I was also in no position to try and fix it. There was too much about me that was broken and needed more immediate attention. Which you knew, from those three days with Holly. I was pretty sure you knew things weren’t quite right before then, at home or at the hospital, but I was terrified if you had the details, you would leave me anyway.
These sound like excuses, even to my ear. I would like the chance to explain. I promise I will tell you everything, if only so you can understand what happened, why I did what I did, and maybe we can talk about it. You don’t have to see me if you don’t want to, but maybe we could speak on the phone.
Here’s my number. Call me any time of the day and if I can’t talk, I’ll let you know when I can unless I’m with a patient. But if you choose not to call, if you decide you don’t owe me anything (you don’t), and that I should fuck off, you should know that I’m not going to give up that easily. So, while I have no room to ask anything of you, I’m still asking. I’ll go away, but you have to tell me to. Otherwise, I’ll keep trying until we talk.
I still love you.
I’d agonized over that last line, but I figured I had absolutely nothing to lose. My shoulders were a bit more hunched than yesterday as I scuttled to the elevator, the slam of Craig’s apartment door still echoing. This was going to take some patience.