~Taking a Chance~
Take risks: if you win, you will be happy;
if you lose, you will be wise.
THE first time Gavin Chandler laid eyes on his court-appointed therapist, Dr. Roger Coleman, he wasn’t impressed.
At first glance, the man reminded him of Santa’s younger and slightly less rotund brother, white hair, wire-rimmed glasses, and beard included; hell, the man even had a boisterous laugh that bordered on jolly. How anyone so freakin’ happy could understand anything about his life and the ugly circumstances that had ultimately landed him in Titusville State Penitentiary, Gavin couldn’t fathom. Period. So what if the man’s office was littered with various degrees? That only proved Santa 2.0 could learn mumbo jumbo from some book likely written by some equally clueless jackass, and Gavin didn’t feel inclined to waste his time, thank you very much.
“Don’t go judging a book by its cover, Gavin.”
Coleman seemed to sense exactly what he was thinking—he even flashed that too-damn-jolly grin—and after a brief hesitation, Gavin settled down on the comfortable leather sofa because, really, he didn’t have much choice in the matter. He had to see the good doctor twice a week; he had “issues” that required “professional” assistance, and Gavin had agreed to seek that assistance in order to facilitate his release from Titusville after three agonizing years trapped in hell. Had the courts demanded it, he would have donned a salmon-pink tutu and stood on the street corner singing show tunes. Getting out of Titusville was well worth any price he was required to pay, and that included listening to Coleman’s gibberish in addition to weekly visits to his parole officer, Connor Tyson, and attending AA meetings no less than five times a month.
In the beginning, adjusting to the parole officer, the meetings, and the therapy had been difficult, but now, eighteen months after those first difficult days, Gavin was damn pleased with the progress he had made. He was succeeding. Hell, he was actually thriving. He had slowly learned to trust and believe in what Dr. Coleman could teach him; he had a wonderful job working as a barista at Jasmine’s, a local bakery/coffee shop, and Jasmine Keaton, his boss (and best friend) allowed him to live rent-free in a loft apartment directly above the bakery, which enabled Gavin to use his salary to cover the cost of computer college courses. Business and Hospitality Management. It was a stepping stone. Eventually he wanted to earn a degree in accounting, but he knew he needed to gain additional experience if he wanted potential employers (aside from Jasmine) to see something more appealing than some “high-risk ex-con” when they looked at him, because the “ex-con” title was one most people instantly found disgraceful and off-putting. That much he had learned firsthand. It had taken him nearly two months to find employment after being released from Titusville, and really, that only came about by chance after Jasmine heard him speaking at one of his mandatory AA meetings.
“Everyone deserves a genuine chance to prove themselves, kiddo, and I know firsthand what it’s like to pick your life up and start from scratch.” Jasmine had confided in him about her own struggle with alcoholism and three failed marriages, all of which she endured before finally coming to terms with her sexuality. She was in a good place after fifteen years sober, and she and her partner, Roseanna, had recently celebrated their tenth anniversary together. Jasmine was proof life could get better. Hard work could come with rewards—Jasmine had seen him through some dark days, and aside from the good doctor, she was the one person Gavin knew he could trust when he needed to talk about something in some way related to his complicated childhood.
Granted, a great deal of what Coleman knew, he had gleaned from Gavin’s case file: his mother died from a heroin/cocaine overdose when Gavin was ten, and his father forced him to drop out of school when he was eleven to work as a street-level drug runner. By the time he was thirteen, Daddy Dearest realized certain “friends” would pay a hefty sum or handle favors if he allowed them to spend some “quality” time alone with Gavin, and in a vain effort to escape reality, Gavin began drinking daily long before he turned fourteen.
“One of the people I delivered to, for my father, owned a liquor store, and she would give me whatever I wanted as a thanks for bringing her cocaine, which was her drug of choice.” Whisky. Scotch. Vodka. He would take whatever liquor was available, anything that dulled the pain, made reality hazy—he ended up in the hospital twice with alcohol poisoning, and afterward he ended up in bed for a week, slowly recovering from the beating his father viciously dished out as punishment for Gavin wasting time and money. “If anyone figured out what was going on, they ignored the signs, and I didn’t dare say a word because I didn’t think anyone would actually believe me.”
Looking back, it was depressing, and it pissed him off. He had been a kid, and no one had bothered to notice he didn’t attend school, that there were always bruises marking most of his body, and his father—the infamous Marcus Chandler—took full advantage of people’s ignorance or willingness to ignore what was right there staring them in the face. He wasn’t special to anyone, just a skinny, lanky kid, certainly pretty enough, with blond hair and big blue eyes, but no one really noticed him, aside from his father and his father’s so-called friends, and they didn’t actually see him as a person, they just viewed him as someone—something—they could use and casually cast away.
It had taken some time, some hard work, but he was finally, finally at a place where he honestly believed he was ready to put the past firmly behind him. He had spent three years in prison, he now had a year and a half of freedom under his belt, and Daddy Dearest was still locked away and completely out of Gavin’s life. He was happy. Sure, the memories were there; hell, he knew they would always remain with him. Thanks to Dr. Coleman, he had come to understand which mistakes from the past belonged to him and which ones rested completely with his father, and he knew he could build himself a future that wasn’t impacted by his fucked-up childhood. Even the good doctor was impressed with how far Gavin had come in what Dr. Coleman actually considered a short time. He still had self-doubts, concerns, things the doctor considered normal, and sitting in Coleman’s cluttered office for his standard Thursday morning appointment, Gavin finally convinced himself it was time to broach a subject that had never really been an issue before.
Perched on the sofa, with his jeans-clad legs stretched out in front of him and crossed at the ankles, Gavin stared out the window at the overcast autumn morning, thankful the doctor seemed to understand when he needed a few moments to gather his thoughts. For all of his initial misgivings, Gavin had to admit Santa 2.0 was actually pretty damn good at his job. Coleman knew when to push versus when he needed to back off, to allow Gavin to open up at his own pace.
“So about three weeks ago, this guy started coming into Jasmine’s.” He kept his eyes glued on the window, finding it was sometimes easier to open up when he didn’t look directly at the doctor. “His name is Braxton Irving. He’s a security consultant. Works for himself, and from what he’s told Jasmine, he’s thirty, originally from some small town outside Atlanta, but he’s been living here in Boston for about fifteen years. He’s nice. I mean, he seems nice, and smart, and he’s really… well, I guess you’d say he’s handsome….” Tall and dark, as well, with coal-black hair and hazel eyes that were more green than brown, flaked with dazzling hints of gold and traces of dark blue. “Anyway, me and Braxton, we’ve been flirting. Just casual. But I have to say that I like him, and the flirting has been getting more serious, and I… well, honestly, we seem to be building up to something.”
Wincing, he finally turned toward the doctor, feeling like a bashful teenager talking about his first crush, which was silly, because he sure as hell wasn’t bashful and he had no business feeling nervous and giddy, considering his colorful history. He certainly wasn’t a blushing virgin, and honestly, that happened to be part of the problem—this was the first time he had considered dating someone, and God, wasn’t that laughable. The very idea of dating seemed so normal, and what was normal for most was abnormal in Gavin’s world. Was he really ready and willing to actually allow someone else into that abnormal world? He suspected that was what Santa 2.0 would refer to as a key question, and he hoped the doc would provide an answer rather than coach Gavin to find the answer himself.
Silence settled between them again as Coleman tugged off his glasses, then twirled them while he watched Gavin closely. “Do you see yourself asking Braxton out, or do you have an indication Braxton might be leading toward asking you out?”
“I get the feeling he’s leading up to asking me out, and I kinda entertained the idea of just asking him, but I decided against it.”
“I don’t think I’m comfortable making that first move, and putting myself out there, ’cause he might reject me.”
“Or he could say yes.”
“That too.” Gavin smiled slightly, and Coleman raised a bushy white eyebrow.
“And if Braxton asks you on a date, do you see yourself saying yes?”
“I don’t know. Maybe. I mean, he seems like a great guy, but I don’t exactly have any experience with dating and shit like that, and… well, let’s face it, Doc, when it comes to me, you get more than you see.”
Coleman nodded, making a humming noise that suggested Gavin had said something the doctor found interesting. “And that’s your issue, isn’t it? Obviously you’ve come to admit you’re attracted to Braxton, you’re not adverse to spending time with him, getting to know him better, but you’re worried about Braxton’s possible reactions regarding your past and the baggage from that past.”
“Ah, yeah, you’re damn right I’m worried. It’s not pretty, Doc. And yeah, logically, I’ve come to terms with a lot of what happened, and logically, I know what my father did to me, what he allowed those other men to do to me, wasn’t my fault, but at the end of the day, those things can’t be ignored.” He shifted, wondering if it had been a mistake mentioning Braxton in the first place. “Let’s just say Braxton does ask me out and I go and maybe I end up liking him, and that leads to me telling him about my past. What happens then? What happens if he hears everything and decides I’m too damaged? I’m gonna look and feel like a fool! Maybe the best thing is to just turn him down flat if he does ask.”
Yet honestly, he realized he didn’t want to do that. This being attracted to someone was wonderfully new and certainly frightening, but it was a feeling he liked. He enjoyed the nervous horde of butterflies that fluttered in his stomach each time Braxton walked in the door, and he felt an undeniable delight when he said something that made the other man smile or laugh. And he wanted more. He wanted to know what Braxton was really like, what he enjoyed doing during his free time—what books did he read, what sort of movies and music did he like? There were thousands of questions Gavin wanted answered, but in learning those things about Braxton, he understood fully he would be opening himself up to the same and even more intrusive questions, many of which—most, really—had answers that weren’t charming or pleasant.
“The fact is, Dr. Coleman, I’ve never been with anyone because I actually wanted them. I didn’t have boyfriends when I was a teen. My dad, he had those men and he let them do whatever they wanted, as long as they paid, but that wasn’t something I wanted. I hated it. Every second of it. And honestly, I kinda figured I wouldn’t ever really be attracted to someone, but now, an attraction is undeniably there, and part of me would really like to know what it feels like to, you know, make love with someone, because that has to be different from that stuff that happened when I was a kid.” It had to be. Had to be. If it was the same, people wouldn’t be so damn eager to explore attractions, and they certainly wouldn’t be eager to have sex if it was anything at all like what he had experienced.
“I understand your fears, Gavin, but at some point, you have to learn to take a risk and trust someone.”
“I trust people. I talk to you, don’t I? And Jasmine and Roseanna. But this is different, and I don’t want to set myself up for some sort of fall.”
“Any time a person takes a chance and allows someone close, there’s the possibility that it won’t work out.” Coleman studied him with that intense stare. “There’s no certainty that a first date will result in a second, and people who are dating often discover the original spark isn’t enough to build a relationship. That’s life. And admittedly, your past is complex, and someone you become involved with will certainly need to be understanding, so you have two possible options. You can begin dating Braxton and see what happens, and if things progress, you will eventually need to explain everything.”
“And the other option, Doc?”
“You can tell him from the start about yourself and your past, and if he can’t handle it, you don’t become more emotionally invested.”
“That’s a hell of a lot to drop in someone’s lap on a first date,” Gavin muttered.
“True. But it’s something to consider.” The doctor glanced at his watch, a telltale sign their time was coming to an end. “Speaking of things that should be considered, have you given any thought to seeing your father? I heard he’s been moved from the prison hospital to the secured ward at Pinehurst Hospice.”
“Yeah, his lawyer called and told me, and I told him what I said the first time he called and told me that bastard wanted to see me.”
“Look, Doc, I get you think I need to have some sort of confrontation with the bastard, but the fact is, there’s nothing I can say that will change what happened, and knowing Marcus Chandler, he just wants to say something hateful to me.”
“No maybe about it. He doesn’t know how to not be hateful. And I don’t want to see him or hear the nasty things the bastard wants to say.” Gavin stood, as did Coleman. “As far as I’m concerned, he’s already dead.”
“Your feelings are understandable, Gavin.”
“But you think I should see him?”
“I think facing Marcus Chandler would be another way for you to prove to yourself how far you’ve come.”
Gavin shrugged, deciding there wasn’t anything more he wanted to say on that subject, though he knew Santa 2.0 would bring it up in the future. The doctor was relentless.
Leaving the office, Gavin felt emotionally exhausted, which was typically how he felt following one of his sessions with Coleman. In the beginning he had resented it, resented Coleman’s ability to put him on the spot and break down walls Gavin didn’t want anyone breaking, but Coleman had, and Gavin understood it was necessary for his healing. And he wanted to heal, he wanted to be a whole person. Didn’t he deserve that? Coleman insisted he did, and Jasmine agreed, as did her partner, Roseanna. Gavin figured if he was willing to work hard—and work hard he did—he could indeed have a decent, happy life that wasn’t controlled or influenced by the past. But did that life, free from the past, have room in it for a lover? Did he even want a lover? He feared the answer might be yes, but Gavin decided answers could and would have to wait—after his session with the doctor, he didn’t want to waste more energy pondering topics that were too emotionally draining and perplexing.
After catching the public bus a block from Coleman’s office, Gavin spent the ride across town reading the newspaper to keep himself distracted.
By the time he reached Jasmine’s Bakery, the morning rush was over, and Jasmine was behind the counter, clipboard in hand, clearly taking inventory. Her cascade of auburn curls was pulled back in a haphazard ponytail, and when she spotted Gavin, her smile was genuine, warm, and welcoming, but there was concern reflected clearly in her eyes. Jasmine always worried about him following his sessions with Coleman, and Gavin loved her for it. She was one of very few people in his life who had given a damn about him, and it was refreshing, if occasionally a bit unnerving, but Jasmine never pressured him to talk, simply letting him know she was there if and when he needed to open up.
He moved behind the counter and kissed her cheek before grabbing an apron and slipping it over his jeans and T-shirt.
“Tell me you didn’t work the morning rush by yourself?” He frowned as he asked, and Jasmine shook her head.
“Missy was here, but she had a class. She’ll be back after lunch. And the electrician will be here this afternoon to replace several outlets, and Braxton was here about half an hour ago.” She dropped the information casually, but Gavin knew Jasmine—she was watching carefully for his reaction.
Gavin smirked. “That’s nice.”
“It is?” She quirked an eyebrow, and Gavin busied himself wiping the counter, which someone had already cleaned, but he wanted something to keep himself distracted.
“He’s becoming a regular customer. Those are always good,” he said.
“He asked about you.”
“Just being polite, I’m sure.” Still, his heart raced a little, and he glanced at Jasmine.
“Oh, for crying out loud, Gavin, he wasn’t being polite, and you know it.”
“He likes you. A lot. And he wanted me to give you this.” She reached into her apron pocket and produced a business card, which she passed to Gavin. “He said you can reach him on his cell anytime, and he wanted me to ask you to call.”
Gavin glanced at the card:
BRAXTON IRVING, INDEPENDENT SECURITY CONSULTANT
His numbers were listed below, and Gavin slipped the card into his pocket, aware that Jasmine was watching.
“Are you going to call him?” She was obviously exasperated, and Gavin laughed.
“I don’t know. Maybe. I’m still not sure it’s a good idea.” His mirth faded, and he leaned against the counter.
“He seems like a great guy, Gavin, and I think maybe you should give the attraction between you a chance.”
“It’s not that simple and you know it. I come with baggage. And not the typical shit. I’ve got Movie of the Week baggage, Jazz, and I don’t know if I want to subject Braxton to all the ugly details about my past.”
“You think he won’t be able to handle everything?”
“I think it’s a lot to ask anyone to accept,” he confessed softly. “I mean, what do I say to him, Jazz? Hey, Braxton, you should know my father is Marcus Chandler. Yeah. The drug dealer, murderer, general son of a bitch, and I happened to testify against him as part of a plea deal that also had me serving three years in prison. Yep. I’m am ex-con. And just in case that’s not enough to send you running, Daddy Dearest made some extra money pimping me out to his friends, so, yeah, on top of everything else, I’m a former whore.”
“Don’t you dare,” Jasmine snapped. “Don’t you call yourself that. Ever.”
“No, sir. I won’t have it. Period. I won’t let you call yourself a whore. My God, you were a kid, Gavin, and that worthless piece of shit Marcus Chandler failed you in every way imaginable, and you can’t blame yourself for that.”
“I don’t blame myself. I just know my past is seriously fucked up. And I don’t know if I want to take a chance dating someone only to have them bolt when they learn what happened and what my past was like.”
“Oh, Gavin.” Jasmine laid a hand on his shoulder. “Don’t overthink this. Okay? Just go with what you feel and see what happens. Call Braxton, sweetheart. I can see you like him, and I know he likes you, which makes perfect sense considering you’re remarkable, and you deserve to have some happiness in your life.” She squeezed his shoulder before disappearing into her office, and Gavin sighed, hand slipping into his pocket to finger the card. Should he? Santa 2.0 and Jasmine both felt it was time for him to take a chance, and Gavin had to admit to himself that yes, he wanted the chance to spend time with Braxton. Suck it up, Gavin. Go for it. You’re never going to know if you can handle dating and the issues that go along with it unless you try, and here’s your golden opportunity.
Not allowing himself the chance to change his mind, he grabbed the phone beside the register and, glancing at the card, he dialed Braxton’s cell phone number.
After the fourth ring, the voice mail picked up, and Gavin couldn’t decide if he was relieved or disappointed.
Either way, he decided to go with what he had intended to do. “Hi, Braxton, it’s Gavin, and I… well, I just called because I wondered if maybe you’d be interested in doing something together sometime.” He winced at how stupid he knew he sounded. “Anyway, I… you can call me here, or whatever, should you decide you want to maybe have dinner or see a movie. I’ll see you later, I guess.”
Before he could humiliate himself further, he hung up and turned to find Jasmine standing in the doorway that led to her office, and the grin she flashed in his direction told him she had heard his feeble message.
“Not a word,” he warned, knowing he sounded anything but threatening, and naturally, Jasmine laughed and returned to her office. He sighed, deciding he needed to focus on work and not on what could become his love life if his bumbling attempt to ask Braxton out hadn’t effectively destroyed any interest Braxton might have had. I’m too old for this shit. Okay, so I’m only twenty-three. But most people are well versed in simple dating at this point in their lives, and I feel like a fool playing catch-up when I’m likely just making a total jackass of myself.
Shaking aside the negative thoughts—and the fears—he was grateful when the shop doors swung open and a giggling gang of teenage girls meandered in and bounced happily to the counter.
Gavin smiled. “Welcome to Jasmine’s, ladies.” Several of the girls blushed and giggled at his greeting, and he knew Jasmine would have teased him had she been out front to witness the reaction, which wasn’t uncommon.
He spent the next few minutes getting the young ladies their orders, and afterward, a few more customers wandered in.
The call he had placed to Braxton was almost forgotten when the phone beside him rang an hour later. He answered it automatically. “Jasmine’s Bakery.”
“Gavin?” The voice was rich and warm, unmistakable. There was a hint of an accent, just a slight drawl that always reminded him Braxton had spent his first fifteen years living in Atlanta, and sometimes he still sounded like a country boy. It was damn sexy. “I just got your message, and I called to say I’d love to get together.”
“Ah… really? I mean… I wasn’t sure if you would….” He stumbled over the words, cursing himself for being so damn flustered.
“Are you kidding? Gavin, I wanted you to call. Hell, if you hadn’t mentioned going out, believe me, I would have, and actually, I’m hoping you’re free tomorrow night.”
“Honestly, I’d ask you out tonight, but I have a late meeting with a client.”
“Ah, no. No, I mean, tomorrow would be wonderful. I’d like that.” Christ, could I be more of a freakin’ dork? Why is he interested in dating someone who can’t even handle a phone conversation? “I work until seven. Maybe I could meet you somewhere around eight?” An hour would give him ample time to shower, change, and possibly have a nervous breakdown—how else did one deal with first-date jitters?
“Tell ya what. I’ll pick you up at eight. How’s that?”
“You don’t have to go through any trouble….”
“Gavin, it’s a date. Okay? I want to do the whole nine yards.”
“And the whole nine yards includes… what?” He couldn’t help but smile, because damn, he was honestly excited.
“Let’s see….” Braxton sighed dramatically, and something about the sound made Gavin feel warm inside. He rolled his eyes at himself. “I pick you up. We go out. We have dinner at a nice restaurant. Maybe we follow that with a movie. Or maybe dancing, if you’re interested. I wouldn’t object to a lovely walk, and maybe, if I’m really lucky, when I walk you to your door at the end of the night, I get a kiss.”
“A small one. Maybe. If you’re interested in kissing me.”
“It’s something I will certainly consider.” Hell, it was something he had already considered on more than one occasion.
“In that case, darlin’, I will see you tomorrow night at eight o’clock, and I am really looking forward to it.”
“Me too,” Gavin whispered. “Tomorrow night. Eight o’clock.” It’s a date. He found himself smiling as he told Braxton where to pick him up, and long after the call ended, he continued smiling, humming to himself, feeling genuinely excited.
He was taking the risk, going for what he wanted, and hell yes, he was terrified, but he wouldn’t allow something as mundane as terror of the unknown stop him from exploring what Braxton made him feel. Baby steps. Right? Start with a date. Just go out and have a good time and then decide what happens next and what Braxton needs to know. If the date was indeed successful, he would decide how best to share his past with Braxton, and then… well, if it did come to that, the next move would certainly be Braxton’s to make, but Gavin figured that was a bridge he would either cross—or burn—when and if he reached that elusive point. For now, just relax and take a leap. You’ve earned the right to find some happiness, Gavin. Don’t allow Daddy Dearest and his cohorts to stand between you and what you want, because no matter what does or doesn’t happen with Braxton, your life is finally your own, and you have every right to live it and live it on your own terms.
With that firmly in mind, he went back to work, happy and excited and eager to take yet another step in learning to live.