Authors: L. A. Witt
Tags: #abusive ex;friends to lovers
Can you ever have a second first time?
Josh Carver thinks it’s just another lunch with his best friend, Michael—until Michael confesses he just turned down a date with his hot veterinarian crush. It seems Michael’s abusive ex left him more scarred than Josh realized.
Josh and his husband, Ian, have done their best to help Michael leave his horrific past behind, but even Josh is stunned when Ian suggests that Josh help Michael with his fear of physical intimacy. After all, it isn’t like it would be the first time—Josh and Michael were once each other’s firsts.
A hesitant first kiss, and Josh and Michael’s natural attraction eases the way. But with Michael still balking at the prospect of sex with someone new, Ian steps into the breach.
Everything is fine and dandy until emotions become so entangled, their friendship—and a marriage—could be at risk.
Warning: Contains three guys who will do anything for each other, a hot tub that’s always the right temperature, and a cat with an attitude problem.
What He Left Behind
To anyone who’s ever been a Michael, an Ian, or a Josh.
“Dr. Klein asked me out.”
Michael isn’t looking at me when he says it. He’s across the dimly lit booth, staring down at the piece of bread he’s been absently shredding for the last few minutes. Brow taut, shoulders hunched, he hasn’t said much since he showed up for lunch, and I knew something had to be wrong. I just wasn’t expecting…that.
“Oh.” Now I’m mutilating a piece of bread too. “You said no, didn’t you?”
The long, resigned release of breath confirms it. Michael sets the bread down, brushes a few crumbs off his fingers and sits back against the fake leather cushion. “I said no.”
My heart sinks. He’s had the most adorable crush on that doctor for months, and ever since he found out the guy was gay, he’s been trying to work up the courage to ask him out. From the sound of it, the doctor—a vet who spends one or two days a week in the clinic where Michael works—has reciprocated pretty hard, and they started flirting cautiously a few weeks ago. I can’t blame either of them. The doc is one of those smoking-hot rugged guys with a little gray around the edges, and Michael… Well, Michael is gorgeous. Even my husband ogles him, though he admittedly does have a thing for redheads, and we both get a little breathless at the sight of a man in scrubs.
But Dr. Klein asked, and Michael said no, and I don’t know what to say. I didn’t know what to say the last couple of times this scenario played out. It happened with another vet tech who worked in the same office last year—they flirted, they danced around the obvious, and when the guy had finally suggested a drink after work, Michael balked. He never has given me a straight answer about that one. Or about the FedEx driver he’d played the same game with for the better part of a year before the vet tech came along.
Except I have my suspicions, and I hope like hell that this time and those other two times were just cold feet, not a throwback to Michael’s awful past.
But what the hell do I say?
Come on, Josh. Say
, for fuck’s sake.
Treading carefully, I ask, “What changed your mind about him?”
Michael leans forward again, pressing his elbow onto the table and kneading the bridge of his nose with two fingers. “God, I’m so stupid.”
With anyone else, I’d have thought—and quite possibly said—that yes, dude, you are stupid. Dr. Klein is one of those guys who can turn every head in a room that’s already packed full of hot men. Plus he’s a vet who’s notorious for being extra gentle and kind with animals, and if there’s a better way to Michael’s heart, I don’t know what it is.
I fold my arms on the edge of the table and try to narrow some of the distance between us. It’s a struggle not to reach past the abandoned bread basket and put a reassuring hand on his arm. Even after all these years, it’s hard to remember that Michael doesn’t like being touched. That’s one of the biggest tragedies of his past—he’d always been touchy-feely in an endearing kind of way, and it still hurts to see him recoil from even the slightest brush of human contact.
“You’re not stupid. What happened?”
“Nothing. Nothing happened.” He drops his hand again, and he meets my eyes. “I just couldn’t do it.”
I swallow. “Have you talked to Dr. Hamilton about it?”
Michael flinches and drops his gaze. The bread is back in his line of sight again, and when he starts ripping crumbs off it once more, his hands are unsteady. Were they earlier? I can’t remember now and wish I’d paid attention.
“I left her a message,” he whispers. “I doubt she’ll be surprised.”
“Why?” I chew my lip. “I mean, is this about…”
…the whole reason you have a therapist in the first place?
My hackles go up at the sound of that asshole’s name. “Yeah.”
“Isn’t everything about him these days?” Michael’s voice is bitter, and as if for emphasis, he tears off a chunk of crust and tosses it into the basket. Then he shakes his head and sits back again, dusting more crumbs off his fingers. “Every time I think I’m past all that…”
“Dr. Klein is nothing like Steve, though.”
“Neither was Steve when we first started dating,” he mutters.
The booth is silent for a moment. I still don’t know what to say, and Michael’s lost in his own thoughts.
Right then, the ponytailed blonde waitress appears with our food and asks with a huge grin, “Okay, who had the veggie stir fry?”
Michael musters something in the neighborhood of a smile. “Me.”
She sets the plate down in front of him and turns to me. “So this pesto chicken must be for you.”
I nod, but as she lays it on the table, my stomach twists. I could’ve sworn I was starving when I got here. “Thanks.”
“Can I get either of you anything else?”
Michael and I exchange glances, and I shake my head. To the waitress, he says, “No, we’re fine. Thank you.” Another smile, this time a bit more pronounced, not to mention forced.
With that, she’s gone, and we’re alone with two plates of food. Michael eyes his. I poke at mine with a fork. Well. So much for that idea. There are days when I can joke with Michael that we should start a new weight loss program. All someone has to do is say Steve’s name at the table, and everyone will lose their appetites.
“I said ‘Steve’ at every other meal, and lost twenty pounds in two weeks!”
Some days, Michael thinks that’s funny in a twisted sort of way. Today, I’m pretty sure his sense of humor has gone in the same direction as his appetite, and I don’t blame him one bit. Not if that asshole is still interfering with his life after all this time. It’s been five goddamned years since the night I picked him up at the emergency room for the last time, when he said he was really leaving this time and he’d actually stuck to it, and I swear there are days when Steve has a tighter hold on him now than he did back then.
The silence wears on. Michael manages to take a few bites of his pasta, so I make myself eat a bit too. We both have to go back to work after all, and if I know Michael, he’s been sucking down coffee and nothing else since his alarm went off. Just like me.
Michael lays his fork down and sits a bit straighter. My mouth goes dry. I quickly take a drink to wash down the pesto chicken before he speaks. At least I know him well enough that I can tell from a mile away if he’s about to say something important, and he knows me well enough to wait until I won’t aspirate my iced tea.
Once I’m safe from drowning, he finally asks, “You want to know what keeps stopping me from going out with anyone?”
I’m scared to death this will be as hard to hear as the myriad confessions he’s made in the years since Steve, especially if it’s taken this long for him and his therapist to pry it out of his psyche, and my stomach churns as I nod.
Michael drops his gaze and stares at his food for a moment. He takes a deep breath, and I hold mine.
“Dr. Hamilton’s helped me through a lot of the bullshit,” he says. “I can separate everything Steve did from what a real relationship should be. I’ve sorted most of it out, and I’ve let enough of it go that I think I can actually be part of a functional, healthy relationship again.”
He pauses, and I gnaw my lip. The unspoken “But…” hangs in the air. It’s making my hands twitchy, so I slide my wedding ring back and forth over my knuckle to keep them occupied.
“I think I’m okay for almost everything about a normal relationship.” He meets my eyes, and the faintest shine in his sends my heart into my feet. His voice barely carries across the booth as he says, “Except I am completely fucking terrified to have sex.”
My jaw drops. Immediately, there’s a lump in my throat. Dozens of memories flash through my mind—our first time the summer after high school, the night we blew off our own community college graduation, that winter when he fucked me back to life after an overly dramatic breakup—and I can’t breathe. That son-of-a-bitch ex-boyfriend of his had dimmed the light in Michael’s eyes for a good long time, and he’d put him through more hell than anyone—least of all someone as sweet and gentle as Michael—deserves to go through, but knowing he also took away that passionate, playful, sensual side is… I can’t fit it in my head. Even when Michael was young and inexperienced, he’d been so confident and full of life. He didn’t care if he performed well, or if he was porn-star perfect. That first time, I’d been all nerves and fear, and he’d seemed so…
And now he’s gazing at me from across this booth, the faintest hint of tears in his eyes, with his confession still ringing in my ears.
“Michael…” His name comes out as a pathetic whisper. I shake myself and meet his gaze again. “You never told me…” As soon as the words are out, I want to take them back, but he winces before I can, and now it’s harder than ever not to reach for his arm. “I’m sorry. I just wasn’t expecting that.”
“I know.” Michael starts picking at his food again, probably just looking for something to do. “I never told anyone except Dr. Hamilton.”
There’s a million questions on the tip of my tongue, and I bite down on the one that desperately wants to slip out:
What did that son of a bitch do to you?
Because I know Michael—if he’s willing to tell me, he’ll do it without prompting. Trying to drag an answer out of him is the quickest way to get him to clam up and shut down. Dr. Hamilton has almost certainly had her work cut out for her.
And I don’t ask, because I’m afraid of the answer. The bruises have long since healed, and he doesn’t have panic attacks like he used to. The jagged scar beside his eyebrow is the only visual reminder left aside from how hard it still is for him to make eye contact these days. I’m sure he still has a few scars beneath his clothes. I knew about the physical and emotional abuse, and I’ve wondered plenty of times if that extended to the bedroom, but he’s insisted all these years that it didn’t.
What have you been carrying alone all this time?
Michael takes a long swallow of Coke and sets the glass down, the tinkling ice giving away the slight tremor in his hand. “I’m sorry. I should have told—”
“Don’t you dare apologize,” I whisper, struggling
not to reach for him. “I’m always here, and I always have been, but you don’t have to tell me anything.”
“I know.” He sweeps his tongue across his lips. “It actually took me a long time to even tell Dr. Hamilton. And she’s helped me through so much, but this…” Michael shakes his head. “The thing is, I really do like Dr. Klein. A lot, but how do I put this far enough behind me to not be a goddamned basket case with him? Or with anyone else?”
“What does Dr. Hamilton suggest?”
He shrugs. “She thinks this might be outside of her expertise. She’s tried, but so far, we’re just not getting anywhere. She’s said a sex therapist might be the way to go.” In the dim light, Michael’s cheeks color. “But I’m… I mean, it took me this long to even tell you. I don’t know if I can talk about this with a complete stranger, you know?” Through gritted teeth, he adds, “Maybe if I were comfortable with that, I could stomach the idea of sleeping with someone I’ve never touched before. But I can’t. So why would I…” He waves a hand and shakes his head.
“Shit,” I breathe. “I am so sorry, Michael.” It sounds so fucking useless. Especially directed at someone like Michael, who’s got every right to be jaded when it comes to apologies.
“I’m just afraid…” He chews his lip. “I’ve gone out with a few guys over the years, and the second things got physical, I freaked out. It’s not as bad as it used to be.” He shudders. “The first time, fuck, I probably scarred that guy for life.”
“I panicked.” He meets my eyes, and his eyebrows pull together slightly, as if to silently add,
Don’t make me go into detail
“Was it better the other times?”
“Better, but not…” He rubs the bridge of his nose again. “There’s just this wall up. And I don’t know how to get over that wall with someone without killing the mood completely, you know?”
I force back that lump in my throat. I remember all too well stumbling over mental obstacles and being scared to death I’d disappoint a guy because I was too nervous and too inexperienced and too freaked out. And I got over those obstacles because of Michael. He was patient, and reassuring, and coaxed me over each and every one of those barriers until we were having the kind of sex I thought existed only in pornos.
“It pisses me off,” Michael goes on. “I mean, every time I think I’ve left that asshole in the past, something else comes up and reminds me of him. I love sex. Well, loved it. And now, I can’t even…” He swallows and looks in my eyes again. “I used to get turned on if a guy put his hand on my leg under the table. The last time I went out with someone? He just brushed my leg with his knee, and my skin started crawling. I spent the rest of the evening thinking he was going to touch me for real. When I bailed on him because I was”—he makes air quotes—“feeling kind of sick, it wasn’t entirely a lie.”
Michael holds my gaze, but then he shakes his head and picks up his fork again. Stabbing at his food, he sighs. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to dump all this on you. And you’ve probably got to get back to work pretty soon.”
I glance at the clock on the wall behind him. Yeah, I’m cutting it close, and technically I should bail in the next ten minutes, but I think my boss will understand if I get back late this one time. “I’m not in a hurry.”
Michael spears a piece of penne with his fork. “Thanks.”
His eyes flick up for a second. We’ve had this conversation before—Michael knows damn well I mean it when I say I’m always here for him. Day or night, no questions asked. I’d move mountains for him, and right now, I wish like hell I could move this one.
“Have you thought about just going out with the guy?” I ask. “Maybe tell him up front that you prefer to take things slow?”
Michael nods. He nibbles his lunch, and his eyes are unfocused as if he’s lost in thought. Then he takes a drink and says, “Honestly? That just makes it worse.”