Chapter One

 

 

“COME ON, sleepyhead.” Tom was calling to him. Why was he so sluggish this morning? “Time to wake up now. Come on, you’ve been asleep for a long time.”

Try as he might, Daniel just couldn’t wake up. It was like wading through shoulder-deep Jell-O. He wanted to get out, but he couldn’t figure out how.

But for now he was going to lie here and enjoy. Tom was stroking his face in that way only he had, whispering sweet nothings into his ear, kissing his eyelids, his cheeks. It was soothing, and comfortable, and Daniel decided he didn’t want to wake up all that much right now, after all.

Daniel didn’t know how much later it was when he finally did wake up… confused. He expected to hear Tom’s voice nagging him again to get up, or at least snoring in the bed beside him, or maybe still whispering in his ear. But he didn’t hear anything of the sort. When he turned to see if his lover was still there or had given up on waiting for Daniel and had already gotten up, he found he couldn’t open his eyes. Well, he could open them, but there was something over them.

He finally started to clue in to which sounds he actually could hear. He finally decided he must be in the hospital. He could hear the steady beeps of machines and could smell antiseptic.

Before he could even take stock of his injuries, a cheerful male voice said, “Hey, there. Are you awake for good this time? You’ve been in and out for most of the day.” Not Tom’s voice. Why wasn’t it Tom’s voice? Hadn’t he just heard him calling a little while ago… heard him whispering?

Daniel tried to open his eyes, but, of course, what he now assumed to be bandages wouldn’t allow that, so he settled for trying to answer. What came out definitely didn’t sound like “Yeah, I’m awake. What happened?”

Apparently it was close enough, because the voice continued. “You’ve been in an accident. How much do you remember?”

At first he couldn’t call anything to mind, and he was still trying to figure out where Tom was. Then memories started to come back. Memories of right before the accident. He had been driving home from the University of Connecticut, where he was a professor of Middle Eastern and Slavic languages, and had driven through a completely green light—not even yellow, and certainly not red—and had been hit by a truck whose driver apparently didn’t think his light was quite red enough to stop for. As the scene had gone black, Daniel had thought that he wouldn’t wake back up, and he wasn’t quite sure how he felt about that. He probably wasn’t quite as bummed about it as he should have been.

Now he remembered why Tom wasn’t there. His best friend—his lover—had been killed five years ago. He had been a soldier in Afghanistan, and Daniel had been a civilian interpreter for the same unit. That was where they had met, actually—eight years ago—and they were together almost from the same day—not that they could let on in public, since at the time “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was still very much in force. They had been happy for three years. They had had plans. They had hoped that, at some point, DADT would be repealed, that they could live openly, come back to the States, be together. Daniel was going to get his doctorate in linguistics—having already obtained his masters—and get a job at the local university, and Tom was going to use the GI Bill to get a bachelor’s in engineering and go from there.

Then an explosion changed it all. Tom died instantly, and Daniel spent two weeks in a coma. When he came to, he was missing the lower part of his left leg—and more importantly, missing the love of his life.

 

 

STRUGGLING WITH the loss of a leg and the loss of a lover had been almost more than Daniel could bear. He had lost his parents several years before that, his mother to cancer and his father to a heart attack, so he was pretty much alone throughout the recovery, with the exception of his uncle, who was sometimes more of a hindrance than a help. Uncle Lawrence was good in a monetary crisis. He could throw money at a problem with the best of them, but he had always been emotionally distant. To make matters worse, he had a very strict idea of morally “right” and morally “wrong,” and Daniel’s choice of life partner certainly hadn’t fit into the first category. Daniel had made the mistake of coming out to his dad a couple years before he even met Tom, and of course, Daniel’s dad had told Uncle Lawrence. Neither of them approved and both seemed to make it their lives’ missions to “reform” him. So Daniel hadn’t had a support system at all through that trying time after Tom died.

He damned near didn’t make it emotionally. Even now, he kept to himself. He found it too difficult to deal with people since the explosion; they either pitied him or avoided him because of the amputation. He didn’t need or want their pity, and he wasn’t even sure he wanted their friendship. He was okay on his own, and if he didn’t love, he wouldn’t hurt when he lost it. He loved his students and they seemed to love him, and he got along well with the other staff; he didn’t go out of his way to try to make any of them friends.

So, yeah, when he’d felt the lights go out this last time, part of him had almost been relieved that it would all be over. That part was obviously very small, though, and had been bullied into submission by the overly strong part that wanted to live, because here he was, waking up in a hospital—still very much alive, if the pain was anything to go by.

He found he was glad he was still alive, now that he thought about it. He had made it through the last major crisis, after a while. He had to admit, it wasn’t really a bad existence after all. Between his salary from the college—which wasn’t that bad for a teacher—and the substantial inheritance he had gotten from his parents, he had a comfortable life. Financially he was set well enough that he didn’t have to work full time if he didn’t want to, but he couldn’t imagine sitting at home with nothing to do. He tended to be a bit solitary, but not that much. So he tried to focus on the positive, and was grateful for the second—or was it third now—chance at life, even though he hadn’t felt like he was truly living for years.

 

 

DANIEL SHOOK himself into the present and answered the voice’s question honestly. “I don’t remember much. I saw the truck, remember thinking it was all over and, oddly enough, thinking that my students would be happy to get out of their test tomorrow.” Daniel paused while the voice chuckled. “Then nothing till now.”

“Actually, the test your students would have been happy to miss would have been yesterday. You’ve been asleep for a little while. I’m surprised you remember anything about the accident at all. With your concussion, it wouldn’t have been at all unusual if you never remembered the time right before you blacked out.”

“Out for two days?”

He took this opportunity to take stock of his injuries. Obviously something was wrong with his eyes, because they were, indeed, bandaged and they hurt like hell. In fact, his whole face stung a good bit. Also, his right arm ached and was bound in some fashion—either in a cast or just an Ace bandage, he couldn’t tell. His ribs hurt constantly, and even worse when he breathed. The absolute worst discovery, though, was his right leg. His only leg. It throbbed like a son of a bitch and seemed to be bent, elevated, and bound in what was probably a cast or splint or something. That got his attention. If he had broken his right leg, there’d be no way he could get around in any kind of normal fashion at all, especially if the cast kept his knee bent. He had gotten quite good with the prosthesis on his left leg and could ambulate without crutches. He needed a cane on bad days but usually didn’t need any assistance at all, so a broken right arm he could deal with. But he had to put most of his weight on his right leg even on good days. There’d be no way he could put all his weight on his prosthesis in order to favor a broken right leg, even if he had both arms to work with, which apparently he didn’t. Hopefully this would be temporary and then he’d be back to the handicap he had gotten used to, but in the meantime, he was definitely screwed.

He decided to confirm his suspicions. “I take it I broke the leg?” He could almost hear the other man wince in sympathy. “That’ll put a damper on mobility for a while.”

“Yeah,” the voice agreed. “That and the broken arm. The cracked ribs won’t help much either. But don’t worry. Your uncle rented a power chair for as long as you need it. So, as soon as you feel like sitting up for very long—and you get the bandages off your eyes, of course—you’ll have a way to get around by yourself.”

“My uncle?”

“Yeah, he was in early on and took care of everything,” the voice clarified. “Said to call when you woke up and he’d try to stop by.”

Daniel had put his uncle down as his next of kin since he had no one else, but he and Lawrence Thompson weren’t close at all, and the thought of him “taking care of everything” was a little unbelievable, and a bit frightening, truth be told. There always seemed to be a catch with good old Uncle Larry—Daniel knew Lawrence hated to be referred to as “Larry,” which played a big part in why Daniel tended to think of him that way.

“You said he took care of everything?” Daniel decided he’d have to worry about any possible “catch” later.

“Filled out your forms, called the college, took care of all the insurance stuff, hired me.”

“Hired you? I thought I was in a hospital. Aren’t you a nurse or a doctor or something?”

The voice chuckled a little. “You are in the hospital and I am a nurse, but I work with a home care agency that provides private services. Mr. Thompson knew you’d be out of commission for a while and would need some help.”

Daniel digested this information, still wondering what his uncle’s motivation might be, but decided there was a more pressing question that he needed answered.

“Please tell me I didn’t ruin the eyes too.”

“No. They’re fine,” he answered reassuringly quickly. “They got some glass in them when your windshield broke. They’ve been cleaned out and stitched up and will heal just fine. The doctor only wanted to keep some salve on them as long as possible, and since you were still asleep anyway….”

Daniel smiled a little at that. At least there’s a little good news.

“You said earlier that I had a concussion. That would probably explain why I thought a friend of mine would be here when I woke up. For a minute, I couldn’t remember why I couldn’t hear him.”

He hadn’t quite asked a question, but the nurse answered it anyway. “Yeah, there was a little swelling, some bleeding. Nothing to be worried about now you’re awake. The swelling was going down by itself, and the bleeding stopped pretty early. There shouldn’t be any lasting effects. A little confusion at first is nothing to worry about. You seem to be lucid.”

Daniel smiled. “As lucid as ever, I guess.”

The doctor chose that moment to walk in. “Well, good morning, Mr. Larson.” Before Daniel could ask about the newcomer, the doctor touched Daniel’s hand and said, “I’m Dr. Stephens. It’s nice to finally see you awake. I imagine you’ve been filled in on your situation?”

“For the most part, I guess,” Daniel answered.

He could hear a chair being dragged closer to the bed before the doctor continued, “I trust that Jonah told you most of what you needed to know. And I’ll go over everything in detail, but how about we get this gauze off your eyes first. You can always ask questions as we go along.”

“Jonah’s the nurse?” Daniel asked, somewhat unnecessarily.

He felt another touch on his hand and knew it was the nurse this time, since it was his voice that said, “Yeah. I’m sorry. I should have introduced myself. Jonah Thacker.”

“Now that introductions are out of the way, let’s take these bandages off your eyes.” There was a pause, and when the doctor spoke again, Daniel could tell he was talking to Jonah. “Could you dim the lights a little?”

Daniel could feel the bandages move and tug as the doctor went about removing them. He was so focused on the sensation that he almost missed it when the doctor spoke again.

“Now, there’s still salve in your eyes. We’ll flush that out as best we can, but your vision may still be blurry. It should clear up on its own. I don’t expect any permanent damage to your vision.”

By then the outer bandages were gone and Daniel was left with thick gauze pads on his eyes. The doctor warned him that even the dim light might be too bright at first and had him close his eyes.

Finally the gauze pads were removed and the doctor asked Daniel to open his eyes slowly.

He could see the doctor reasonably well, so he looked around the room, past the doctor to where Jonah stood.

He couldn’t help but notice—even with blurry vision—that Jonah was well built and drop-dead gorgeous. He looked to be about six foot two or so, probably around 200 pounds—every ounce manifested in perfectly formed muscle. His close-cropped blond hair was just long enough to try to curl. Daniel thought that if Jonah grew his hair a little longer, he’d have a headful of unruly curls.

He wasn’t wearing a nurse’s uniform—probably because he worked through a private agency and not for the hospital. He wore a black long-sleeved cotton shirt—neither overly dressy nor overly casual—with the top two buttons open. The waxed chest that peeked through had Daniel wishing it was a little hotter in the room so that maybe his newfound personal assistant would open another button. He found that he couldn’t wait until his eyes cleared up completely. By the looks of things, he was going to have quite the treat during his convalescence.