Authors: Jo Davis
After donning latex gloves, Shea parted the hair above Tommy’s temple and began to clean the area with antiseptic. He moaned and stirred some, starting to come around, which made her dizzy with relief. The noise also brought the captain immediately to his side.
“Skyler? Can you hear me?” Sean leaned over, rugged features lined with concern.
Tommy turned his head toward the man’s voice and groaned something unintelligible.
“Don’t move,” Shea said, carefully turning his head toward her again. He sucked in a sharp breath in response to her ministrations, but held still.
“He’s already coming awake. That’s good.”
“Yes, it is.” She set the bloodied cloth on a tray and grabbed a fresh one. “Okay, it’s clean. Since the bleeding has stopped, I’m not going to try to tape a bandage over it—with the hair in the way it wouldn’t stick without shaving his scalp.”
“Like my hair where it is, thanks,” Tommy mumbled.
Shea’s heart leaped and she looked into his face. Slowly, his lashes fluttered open and she found herself staring into unfocused crystal blue eyes. She’d never seen anything more beautiful.
“You’re lucky your brains are still inside your skull, kid,” Sean said, relief stamped on his face.
“Brains. Yeah, brains are good.”
The captain’s lips curved into a smile. “Time for a little test. What’s your full name, son?”
He hesitated for a couple of seconds. “Thomas Wayne Skyler.”
Shea began to clean the scratches on his right arm, hiding her surprise. Why hadn’t she known that before? Hearing his full name made him more . . . real, somehow.
Sean continued. “How old are you?”
“Who am I?”
Those pale eyes, a tad clearer now, danced with humor. “My asshole of a captain. Sir.”
Sean laughed, the sound rusty, unused. “Since it appears you’re going to survive, I’ll let you get away with that. Just this once.”
He really hasn’t noticed me yet. How will he react when he sees me? Will he be glad? Angry? Distant? God, anything but the last.
Shea quelled her trepidation and took the plunge. “What about me? Do you know my name?”
He turned his head and blinked up at her for a few seconds. Then his face broke into a wide, happy smile. A smile that stole the oxygen from the room. Made her light-headed. “Shea. How’d you get here?”
“I work here, hotshot. Remember?” Finished cleaning his arm, she tossed the cloth and peeled off her gloves, then discarded those as well.
His happiness dimmed some. “Oh. Right.”
Had he thought she’d come especially to see him?
She crossed her arms over her chest, confused as to why his disappointment would hurt. “Quite a heroic feat you performed saving that worker. Do you recall what happened?”
He snorted. “Told him not to move, but he panicked. Jumped on me. Almost turned me into a human wrecking ball.”
“You did good, kid,” Sean praised.
His cheeks colored, but he gave a slight nod. “Thanks.”
The captain rose, clasped Tommy’s good shoulder. “They’re going to do a CAT scan as a precaution, but I believe you’ll be out of here in a few hours. When they spring you, go home. Get some rest, and we’ll see you in forty-eight.”
“I appreciate it, Cap.”
“Need a ride to your apartment? Or you want me to call your folks?”
“Ugh. Mom’s gonna freak.” Tommy swiped a hand down his face, then let out a resigned sigh. “Go ahead and call them, I guess. They’ll hear about it sooner or later anyway.”
“I’ll make sure to emphasize that you’re okay.”
Tommy frowned. “Tell the others I’m sorry about pulling out for today. Hope you don’t get any more big calls.”
“Oh, I’m sure they’ll cut you some slack, considering.” Sean headed for the door and lifted a hand. “Take it easy. Good to see you again, Shea. Maybe next time it’ll be under better circumstances.”
“Let’s hope so. Bye, Sean.” Watching him go, she was impressed he remembered her, considering how drunk he’d been when they met. And unless she was miles off base in her observations as a nurse, his bloodshot green eyes, sour stomach, and trembling hands could very well be a product of withdrawal.
“How have you been, Shea?”
Shifting her attention back to Tommy, she found him watching her, gaze intense. Hot. Not a trace of his ordeal in evidence, save for the obvious scrapes on his face and the ugly bruise forming on his right arm and shoulder.
In fact, with his blond hair tousled and framing his angular face, bronzed male nipples tightening from the chilly temperature in the room . . . he looked good enough to eat with chocolate syrup and a cherry.
Down that path awaited disaster.
“Just fine,” she said, hating how her voice squeaked. “You?”
His reply was a soft caress. “Lonely.”
One word. One glorious word conveying a wealth of meaning, and her blood sang.
“You mean . . .”
“There’s been no one else.”
“Oh.” He hasn’t been with anyone else since we met! What does that mean? He’s waiting for me? Breathe.
Lacing his fingers together over his chest, he tilted his head, lips quirking. “Yeah. Oh. You really don’t know how much power you hold, do you?”
She blinked at him. Power? She’d never imagined herself as a powerful person, particularly when it came to the opposite sex. Able to deal? Sure. Mostly. But she couldn’t tell Tommy any of that without getting into gory details.
She laughed, making a joke instead. “Right. I have an apartment, a cat, and a half-dead houseplant. I’m ready to rule the frickin’ world.”
“I meant power over me, and you know it.”
“Do I? We’ve only been out a couple of times, haven’t seen each other in weeks, so I don’t see—”
“That can be remedied.” Suddenly, he sat up on the bed, swaying a little. “Whoa.”
She grabbed his arm to steady him. “What are you doing? Lie back down before you fall over.”
“No. I can’t ask you this while flat on my back.” He removed her hand from his arm and curled his fingers around hers.
Oh, no. “Ask me what?”
“Will you go with me to Zack and Cori’s wedding this Saturday? Be my date?”
Her throat shrank to the size of a pinhole. Why was it so hard to tell him? “I can’t.”
His smile blasted her full force. “Sure, you can. Just say yes, sugar. We’ll dance, make merry. It’ll be fun, and afterward I’ll take you into Nashville for dinner. Someplace nice, anywhere you—”
“I can’t. I already have a date.”
His smile wilted like a balloon leaking air. “Oh.” And the genuine hurt in his blue eyes was something she hoped never to see again.
Slowly, he let go of her hand and she felt the loss of his warmth like a physical blow. “I see.”
“I’m sorry, Tommy. Really. But . . . save me a dance, okay?”
What a stupid thing to say. She had to get away from the pain etched on his face.
“I—I’m going to get another nurse to stay with you.”
Shea turned and fled the exam room without looking back.
Fleeing the pain in her heart wasn’t quite so simple.
William Hensley hid in plain sight, staring at the wreckage from across the street, right along with the other gawkers. Folks like himself, suddenly and cruelly reminded that your next breath often depended on luck.
Or on the stranger standing next to you.
When the first of the meat wagons arrived to collect the bodies, his stomach threatened to evict his lunch.
He’d done this, no way around it. Had made a terrible error, and men had died. It wasn’t supposed to turn out this way, such a straightforward task, though his horror changed nothing.
Christ, I didn’t have a choice!
Not if he wanted to keep his balls intact. A gay country boy in Homophobe, Tennessee—especially an HIV-positive one—had about a five-minute life expectancy. He needed every advantage he could get.
Great strides had been made in defeating HIV, and he needed those drugs. But to keep up with his medication, he had to have the cash, thanks to his worthless fucking HMO plan. Was as desperate for it as he was to keep his secret.
The first wagon left the construction yard at a sedate crawl, and William lowered his head to hide his tears. Turned and walked away.
He’d crossed the line. Whether intentionally or not, he’d killed two people. A couple of decent lives for his own sorry one. Hardly worth the trade-off.
Too bad he’d realized that much too late.
Sprawled in the backseat of his parents’ car, Tommy grimaced as his dad hit every bump in Cheatham County, and tried like hell to hold in the stream of curses threatening to erupt. Wasn’t their fault his head was pounding, he was pissed as shit, and ready to shoot somebody.
Namely the fucker who’d snatched the opportunity to enjoy Shea’s company on Saturday clean away from him.
How well did she know this dude? How long had they been going out? Had they . . .
His mom’s worried voice cut into his bleak thoughts. “You okay back there, sweetheart?”
Had he groaned aloud? “Fine, Mom.” For the life of him, he couldn’t manage to sound cheerful. Thankfully, his folks wouldn’t expect him to be Mr. Sunshine after what happened at the construction site. They’d be wrong about the reason for his sullen mood, though.
Bethany Skyler half turned in the front passenger seat to frown at him, and tucked a strand of blond hair behind her ear. “I still wish they’d kept you overnight. Damned insurance jackals, shoving people out the door before they can even see straight.”
Any other day, his mom’s feisty protective streak would’ve made him smile and crack a joke. But he knew how shaken she was and couldn’t bring himself to make light of that. “Insurance had nothing to do with it,” he said, attempting to soothe her lingering fear. “The CAT scan was fine. I’m just banged up some, so there was no reason for me to take up a bed someone else needs.”
“Still.” With a disgusted humph, she faced front again.
“Are you sure you won’t let us take you home? Just overnight?” This from his dad, Donald Sr., who glanced at him in the rearview mirror.
Home to his parents’ would always be the house where they’d raised him and Donny. Not the cramped little apartment Tommy had insisted on moving into last year. In a way, he still felt guilty, as though he’d abandoned them when they desperately needed to cling to their remaining son. But his brother had been gone for two years by then, and Tommy knew it was time to cut the apron strings—for the second time.
No matter how much he loved them, he needed to be his own man, not a ghost of a little boy haunting his parents’ home.
And yet . . .
“Sure,” he heard himself say. “That would be great.”
His dad blew out a breath and cracked a small smile. “Super. We’ll get you all settled in, and you can rest.”
He didn’t know what had made him relent. Maybe it was to see the deep lines of stress disappear from his dad’s brow. To watch the tension drain from his mother’s slim shoulders.
Or maybe he just needed to be fed chicken soup and fussed over by the two people who would always love him. Unconditionally. Or they were supposed to, anyway.
His folks exchanged a quick glance—the one all parents master that’s filled with indecipherable meaning—and fell silent. It made him feel very much like the kid most of his buddies referred to him as, and for once, he didn’t mind.
He just felt safe.
Especially when his dad pulled into the drive and the warmth of their nice, older neighborhood embraced him like an old friend. He pictured Donny stepping onto the front porch to greet him, pull him into a brotherly hug. Peer at his face, tease him about getting into a fight with a Weed Eater or some other wise-assed comment—
“You getting out of the car, son?”
“Yes, sir.” He hadn’t even noticed they’d parked. His dad stood on the drive with Tommy’s door open, dark brows furrowed, waiting to see if he required a hand.
Unfolding himself from the sedan proved to be more difficult than he’d anticipated. His body groaned in protest, already stiff and sore. But he made it without help and trailed his parents into the house. Once he was up and moving, it wasn’t so bad.
Not compared to the ache deep in his chest. One that had nothing to do with cuts and bruises.
“Want to go lie down for a while?” his mom suggested.
How did moms do that? Make a question sound like a mandate?
“No, thanks. I think I’ll park on the couch and watch the news or something.”
“Well, if you’re sure.” She frowned, obviously searching for some way to make him more comfortable. “Hungry?”
Starving. “I can wait until you and Dad are ready for dinner.” With that, his stomach protested loudly, making a big liar out of him.
His mom smiled. “How about I start early, then?”
He laughed, then lowered himself carefully onto the couch. “Sounds good, Mom.”
Apparently happy to have someone extra to spoil, his mother disappeared into the kitchen. His dad flopped into his favorite recliner, grabbed the remote, and turned on the television. The drone of a CNN newscaster filled the living room, punctuated now and then by the banging of a pot or pan from the kitchen.
Tommy toed off his shoes and stretched out, comfortable in loose shorts and a T-shirt. “Thanks for coming to fetch me, and for the change of clothes.”
His only answer was a grunt as his dad gave his attention to the Dow Jones. Tommy closed his eyes and had just started to drift off, thanks in part to the painkiller he’d been given before they left, when the older man’s voice broke into the pleasant fog.
“What’s going on with you and that cute little curly-headed gal who works in the ER?”
Tommy cracked an eye open to peer at his dad. “Not a thing.”
“Sounds like a problem, the way you say it.”
“You think? She doesn’t know I’m alive.”
He chuckled, eyes twinkling. “Oh, I wouldn’t say that.”
Tommy sat up some, wincing. “Why not?”
“Because she made about a dozen trips past your cubicle.”
“She was busy, Dad.”
“I know when someone is hovering,” he said. “Besides, she even showed up when you were getting your noggin scanned. Checked on you, told me and your mother she was sure you’d be fine, and left.”
His heart sped up. But her actions still didn’t necessarily mean anything. “She’s a professional, just doing her job. She helped treat me, and she probably wanted to reassure you both.”
“If you say so.”
“She’s going out with someone else,” he said, unable to mask his jealousy. “On Saturday. She’s bringing some loser to Zack’s wedding.”
“Really? So what. Fight fire with fire, no pun intended.”
“Show up with your own date. Give her something to think about.”
He blinked at his dad. “I—I can’t do that.”
“Why the hell not?”
“Because I don’t want anyone else! I might blow any chance I’ve got with her.”
“So you’re just going to let this girl walk all over you?” He snorted. “What happened to the boy who used to think it was his God-given duty in life to test-drive every woman under the age of forty?”
“Dad,” he hissed, shooting a glance toward the kitchen doorway. A flush warmed his cheeks. “That’s not exactly the image I want to cultivate with Shea.”
“Doesn’t mean you have to roll over, either. Given the way she was acting earlier, my guess is she cares for you a lot. I think you’d make your point. Give it some thought, anyway.”
As his dad turned back to the news, Tommy tried to doze again. But the seed the older man had planted took root. And grew to the size of a football.
His dad’s advice made a lot of sense. Why should he play the doormat? She’d known Tommy would be at the wedding; he was one of the groomsmen, for God’s sake! Obviously, she hadn’t spared a thought for his feelings. Or maybe she’d believed he’d given up the chase and she simply didn’t want to attend the wedding alone. Jesus, who knows what she thought!
His pride would not, however, allow him to believe for one second that she preferred this other dude over himself.
And he’d prove it.
Pushing himself off the couch with a pained moan, he shuffled into his dad’s small study and closed the door. After walking over to the desk, he sat down and reached for the phone.
Fight fire with fire? He could manage a surprise for sweet Shea, all right.
And he knew just the girl to start the blaze.
Who knew weddings were so fucking much fun? Not.
Especially wearing a heavy suit when it was hotter than the center of the sun—inside as well as out, thanks to a blown air-conditioning unit in the little church in Cheap Hill.
Tommy’s gut did a barrel roll, taunting him with the reminder that the last three rounds of ole Jackie D. at Zack’s bachelor party last night hadn’t been a fantastic idea. At two in the morning, he hadn’t counted on being slow roasted like a chicken on a spit come this afternoon.
Or on spotting Shea with her date the moment he arrived.
Neither of which performed miracles on his headache. Or his sudden urge to commit homicide.
“Can’t someone open a goddamned window?”
“Jesus, was that a snarl? I think the kid has rabies,” Six-Pack announced with a grin. The only guy in the dressing room who didn’t snicker was Zack, who was too freaked out about getting hitched to do much but offer a sickly smile.
Tommy shot the big man a withering glare. “Stuff it, Howie.”
The snickers became snorts of laughter from everyone except Cori’s brothers, Joaquin and Manny, who looked on in puzzled amusement. Six-Pack hated that nickname. Tommy pretended to adjust his tie in the mirror while the other bozos waited to see how the man would react.
“Nah, I’ve had better offers from prettier people,” Six-Pack drawled. The others lost it, loud whoops and ribald comments echoing in the small room. And in his brain.
“Shitheads,” he muttered, scowling at himself. “And they call me a kid.”
“Damn, amigo.” Julian appeared behind him and clapped him on the shoulder. “Someone needs to shove a rainbow up your ass.”
Get a grip, man. He didn’t want to ruin Zack’s big day.
Giving up on the tie, Tommy faced him and quirked a smile. “Think you’re man enough to do the job?”
Julian waggled his brows. “If I swung that way, sure.”
More laughter. “God, you guys are sick fuckers.”
Six-Pack crossed his arms over his chest. “This little snit of yours wouldn’t have anything to do with the slick-looking fellow on Shea’s arm, would it?”
“Got any idea who he is?” There. He could be civil about this.
The lieutenant shrugged. “Seems vaguely familiar, but I didn’t get a real close look. I can try and find out, though.”
“I’d appreciate it.” Then I can rip his lungs out with a spoon.
“In any case, you’re not going to score any brownie points with Shea by killing her date,” Zack said, ambling over to join them.
“Aw, come on. Just a little slow torture, then? Can’t I make him scream like a girl, just once?”
“I can make the worm disappear for you,” Joaquin offered with a dangerous smile. “Permanently.”
Zack rolled his eyes. “Ignore Al Capone. Murdering the competition is never a good plan.”
“Neither is flaunting another woman in her face,” Julian said, shaking his head at Tommy’s stupidity. “Who’s the hot number you brought along?”
“An old friend from high school.” Tommy sighed. “That was my dad’s idea, to make Shea realize I’m not a pushover.”
“Could backfire, big-time.” The others made noises of agreement. Even Sean, who’d been sort of holding himself apart from the group.
Tommy gave his friends a grin he didn’t feel, and elbowed Zack in the ribs. “Easy for you to dole out advice, lucky bastards. You’ve already got the girl.”
“And most of us had to wait a lot longer than you,” Six-Pack pointed out. “What’s your hurry anyways? Don’t get me wrong, Shea’s a sweet girl, but what’s so special about her that’s got you in knots?”
He tried not to bristle. “I’m plenty old enough to know the woman for me when I meet her. She’s fun, sexy, smart, and sometimes, when she looks at me . . . it’s like the world ceases to exist around us. Like she can see into my soul and—”
“Holy love sonnet, Batman. My ears are bleeding.” Julian’s wisecrack was met with the sounds of gagging and someone humming like a violin.
“Real mature,” Tommy muttered. “I give up on you boneheads.” Well, except for Zack, who was busy glancing at his watch and shifting his feet, nerves once again getting the better of him.
A man Tommy didn’t recognize stuck his head in the door and announced it was time to take their places. The guys gave the white-faced groom last-minute backslaps, congrats, and advice to take it easy and not lock his knees during the ceremony. There was a tense moment when Joaquin offered his hand and Zack stared at him for a few heartbeats before accepting it. Then Cori’s older brother left to take his place giving away the bride.
After waiting his turn, Tommy stuck out his hand. “I’m really happy for you, man. Relax, you’ll be fine.”
“Thanks.” Zack clasped his palm and blew out a breath. “Well, here’s to massive credit card debt and honey-do lists.”