Chapter One

 

 

“OW. OW. Ow.” Evin slammed the oven door shut with his knee while simultaneously dropping the cookie sheet of charred teething biscuits into the sink. He turned on the cold water, fanning the air desperately with the hand that wasn’t already developing a throbbing blister, trying to get rid of the thick fog of black smoke. It didn’t help nearly enough, so he opened the window even though it was pouring down rain outside. He wanted to stick his hand out in the frigid drops to ease the fiery burning, but he didn’t have time.

He ran into the living room and grabbed Micah from the mess of blocks scattered in the playpen. “I know, little man.” He gritted his teeth and smacked the shrieking fire alarm in the hallway with the side of his hand until it shut off. Evin cradled his son against his hip with his good hand and held the other one straight out, trying to protect it as he hurried into Micah’s room.

Thankfully they hadn’t been up very long, and Micah was still clean and dry. Evin awkwardly dropped to his knees and struggled to buckle Micah in his car seat one-handed. Micah shrieked and twisted, crocodile tears running down his cheeks. Sweat dripped into Evin’s eyes, and he squeezed them shut. He finally clicked the last damn buckle into the latch and threw a blanket overtop, pissing Micah off even more.

“Just give me a minute, little man, and the dark will go away.” He swept up the diaper bag by the door and was nearly gone before he remembered the open window… and he left the oven on! “Shit,” he said under his breath. “I mean, shoot.”

He set Micah’s car seat down on the table and then took care of the kitchen so they wouldn’t come home to a burned-down, flooded, or ransacked home. Luckily, Micah’s car seat was still the kind that clicked in, so it wasn’t too hard getting him in the car. Trying to put the car in gear with his left hand was hard—thank goodness he didn’t drive a stick.

On the way to the hospital, Evin held his hand over the passenger seat, barely able to stand the air moving from the defroster. If he turned it off, the windows fogged up. The pain was so bad Evin felt like he was going to throw up.

Throwing up would mean pulling over, which would set Micah off again. The vibration of the car moving had just settled him down. Evin really didn’t want to listen to his son cry when he couldn’t do anything about it. He clenched his teeth and kept driving, glad the hospital was only a few more miles away. A parking spot near the entrance was miraculously open, and he pulled in. Walking in to the emergency room with his son screaming his head off, smelling of burned biscuits, and his eyes tearing up was more embarrassing than he wanted to admit.

Evin had been taking care of Micah all by himself for his son’s short life. He didn’t need help—usually. But the kind nurse who checked him in had offered to get Micah out of his seat and even fished in the diaper bag when Evin couldn’t find his wallet, pulling out a small container of the last few teething biscuits he had left.

“Can I give him one of these?” she asked. Micah was sitting on Evin’s knee, one of his fists in his mouth as he gnawed and drooled.

“Yes, please.” Evin dug out his insurance card and handed that over along with his ID. Signing the paperwork with his burn was impossible. He scribbled something vaguely similar to his signature left-handed and then was taken back immediately.

“It’s pretty slow in here, and I can see you need some help. Is your wife coming?” the nurse asked. Micah, busy with his biscuit, didn’t object when she carried him. She set the diaper bag down on the end of a gurney and gestured for Evin to sit down. She plopped Micah down on his lap and adjusted the back of the gurney so Evin could sit up.

“Thanks. It’s just us.” He guessed she saw a lot of different situations in the ER, because she didn’t even raise an eyebrow.

“Well, okay, then. I’ll be just right over there, so if you need anything, holler. Or this little guy will, I’m sure.” She tickled Micah’s cheek and gave him that soft smile most women seemed to have for pudgy babies—especially when they were hiding their demon side by looking cute in public.

Even though they were taken back to the examination area not long after the nurse checked Evin in, the doctor took his sweet time getting to him. The pain in Evin’s hand felt like he still had it in the oven, and huge yellow, puffy blisters had formed on the palm and back of his hand.

The curtain slid on the overhead rails, and Evin held in his urge to snap about how long it took to get to him when the nurse said the ER was slow, but he froze with his mouth open.

“Hello, I’m Dr. Perez. I see you burn—” The doctor snapped his jaw shut and stopped before he reached the head of the bed. Micah was oblivious, sitting between his legs and playing with his fake keys, chewing away on the rubber tips and drooling. He clutched the soggy remains of a biscuit in his other hand.

Evin had to swallow hard himself. Of all the hospitals, in all the cities, his old boyfriend had to be in this one.

He looked… good. Older, some wrinkles at the corners of his eyes. It had been… how long since he’d seen him? Not since Ben was graduating medical school the same year Evin was graduating with a business degree. Evin certainly never expected to see him here, and by the shocked look on Ben’s face, he hadn’t known Evin lived in Portland either. Evin waited for Ben to say something else, but he just kept staring. Evin took a deep breath. He could be an adult. He was a dad now.

“Burned my hand,” he finished the sentence Ben never did. “I did it about an hour ago, and it really hurts.” Maybe he could move this along. Plus, Micah was on his third biscuit and getting fussy again. He probably needed to be changed, have some lunch, and then would fall asleep for the afternoon, just so he could keep Evin up all night again.

Ben dropped his gaze to Micah and then looked up to stare at Evin again. “What happened to you?”

Did he mean how Evin probably looked like he’d aged at least ten years since Ben bailed right before graduation, the last night they’d spoken? Well, spoken wasn’t a very good description for the fight they’d had after weeks of Ben ducking Evin’s questions about what he was planning. Maybe their relationship had run its course; maybe it was better for them not to be together.

But he’d never expected Ben to just up and leave. It’d been hard, but Evin had a job offer in Portland and he’d taken it. Fortunately, his best friend, Gianna, came with him, and they got an apartment together in a not-so-great area of Happy Valley. It’d been nice to have a friend he knew would stick by him, but then she met Carl, and they fell in love. Not long after that he met someone, but that had gone wrong too.

Gone was the bright, glittery guy who lit up the room in a flash, and this version of himself was all Evin knew how to be anymore. It was probably a disappointment. His hair was cut short instead of hanging down to his shoulders, and he was in a blue T-shirt and a pair of gray sweats instead of skintight everything. Nothing at all like how Ben would remember him.

Was he wondering how in the hell Evin had a kid, since he’d never even kissed a girl—at least before when Ben knew him? Probably.

Or had he brushed off their history, leaving Evin as the only one thinking about how the years had changed them—Ben definitely for the better. Most likely, he meant how Evin got the burn. He was a professional after all, and Evin was probably just another patient to him.

In the end, it didn’t really matter. His appearance, how he got hurt, it all came down to just one thing.

“Teething.”