I MADE the call on Monday afternoon, and on Tuesday morning I followed the receptionist’s directions across town to a shopping center a couple of blocks from the freeway. Nothing screamed credibility for a medical professional like setting up shop in a strip mall. On the other hand, I knew all too well how difficult it was to find a place with a reasonably affordable lease and some actual visibility. That was why my nightclub lived in an old converted warehouse on the not-so-nice side of the Light District. Glass houses, throwing stones, etc.

Sitting in my car, I took a deep breath and stared at the clinic.

The sign over the windowed storefront read Tucker Springs Acupuncture between a black-and-white yin-yang and another symbol I didn’t recognize. Seth had been after me for two years to do this, and middle-of-the-night desperation had finally made me give in, but now I wasn’t so sure.

I was here, though. I’d made the appointment and had the cash in my wallet; cash I could ill afford to spend. Aside from money, though, what did I have to lose? It wasn’t like that shit was dangerous or anything. I couldn’t imagine there were too many side effects to tiny, superficial needles, and I didn’t see myself getting addicted.

I stared at the letters and the yin-yang and the tinted windows below them, silently demanding they justify themselves. Offer proof. Offer some reason for me to walk through that shining glass door. When it came to alternative medicine, I was as skeptical as Seth was about life in general. I regarded every treatment as not only snake oil, but the snake itself. At best, quackery. At worst, dangerous. And no matter what, fucking expensive.

But after the last couple of nights, I was desperate.

On the way inside, I stopped to read the sign in the window. It echoed the name and yin-yang overhead and, in a smaller font, listed the various ailments that the acupuncturist claimed to treat.

Infertility.

Drug addiction.

Vision problems.

Asthma.

On and on and on. God, this smacked of a snake oil salesman. One tincture to treat every ailment under the sun! A miracle cure! Hallelujah! That’ll be $79.99, please—cash, check, charge, or firstborn.

My shoulder throbbed relentlessly, and my head was light from lack of sleep and the second dose of painkillers I’d taken at six fifteen.

Maybe I was just desperate, maybe I was as gullible as the next person, but two words on that lengthy list drew me through the door:

Chronic pain.

The clinic smelled oddly… herbal. Something pungent, vaguely familiar, and slightly burned. Strong enough I couldn’t ignore it, but not powerful enough to be nauseating. I could have been mistaken, but I swore I smelled one particular herb that hadn’t been legal until fairly recently, at least not without a government-issued license and a compelling reason.

The waiting area wasn’t all that different from a doctor’s office, though it lacked the sparse, sterile appearance. Framed prints of tranquil landscapes lined the dark green wall between two mahogany bookcases. A plastic milk crate tucked beneath the table held brightly colored plastic toys, and a few well-worn magazines leaned on each other inside a metal magazine rack. Between a Buddha statue and several books on Chinese medicine was a trickling fountain in a clay bowl. Water ran over pebbles and fake jade, and on top stood a tree that resembled a bonsai tree.

“You must be Mr. Davis.”

I immediately recognized the singsong voice of the receptionist and turned my head. He was a cute kid, probably a college student. Square-rimmed hipster glasses, stylishly messed-up hair with highlighted tips, and just a little flamboyant. I wondered if he was part of the reason Seth came here on a regular basis. This kid was 100 percent his type, right down to the tan that did not happen naturally in Colorado this time of year.

“Yes,” I said. “I’m Jason Davis.”

He smiled. “Right on time. Dr. Whitman needs you to fill this out as best you can.” He gave me a pen and clipboard. “And be totally honest, because….” He waved a hand and sighed dramatically. “He’ll get the answer out of you one way or another, so don’t try to hide anything.”

I laughed. “Is that right?”

“Trust me.” The kid had a mischievous sparkle in his eye. “He’s one of those people; you might as well tell him what he wants to know. He’s kind of like the CIA, minus the car batteries and waterboarding.”

“Good to know.”

I took the paperwork to the waiting area and sat beside the table with the books and fountain.

The form was about what I’d expect from any medical professional. The usual crap about injuries and ailments. And of course, Are you currently taking any medications, including over-the-counter?

I chewed the inside of my cheek, tapping the pen on the form. I’d heard holistic practitioners frowned on modern medicine. Poisonous chemicals and evil pharmaceutical companies or some crap like that. Whatever. The last thing I needed was a lecture on why I shouldn’t be taking the pills that often meant the difference between one hour of sleep and three.

But if he was going to get the answer out of me anyway….

I sighed and wrote OTC anti-inflammatories + doctor-prescribed Percocet for pain. The man would probably have heart failure when he found out I was sucking down pain pills instead of meditating or drinking purified water blessed by a unicorn. Oh well.

After I’d filled everything out, I handed the form to the receptionist, then returned to my seat. While I waited to be called back, I fixed my gaze on the trickling fountain. There was a heavy sense of hopelessness in the realization that it had come down to this. That I was desperate enough to try anything that had the slightest promise—mythical or otherwise—of relieving my pain.

What if it didn’t help? What if nothing did? I was at my wit’s end after five years. What would happen in ten, twenty, fifty years if I couldn’t find some sort of long-term—even short-term—relief?

“Jason?” The receptionist’s voice brought me out of my thoughts. He raised his chin so he could see over the high desk. “Dr. Whitman’s still with another patient, but he should be out in a few minutes.”

I forced a smile. “No problem.”

My stomach fluttered with nerves. As if I didn’t have enough to think about, it occurred to me that I hadn’t asked Seth about this guy. They’d been good friends for a long time, which said a lot, since Seth didn’t trust most people any farther than he could throw them. I could only imagine the banter between these two. Seth the hard-core prove-it-or-it-didn’t-happen atheist versus “Dr.” Whitman the acupuncturist.

What kind of person went into acupuncture, anyway? What was I dealing with here? A guy who could sell used cars and bullshit? Or a New Age hippie type who bought into this as much as his clients did?

Give him a chance, Jason.

I closed my eyes and released a breath. I would give him a chance. But the proof had damn well better be in the pudding, or I wasn’t buying.

Down the hall, a door opened. As footsteps and a male voice approached, I turned my head. An elderly woman appeared first, and when the source of the male voice came into view, I almost choked on my breath.

Apparently that was the kind of guy who went into acupuncture. Holy fuck.

I couldn’t say if I’d been expecting dreadlocks and hemp or glasses and a lab coat, but what I hadn’t been expecting was six-foot-plus of oh my God with a heaping dose of please tell me you’re single. He looked like he’d stepped out of a laid-back business meeting: pressed slacks, a plain white shirt with the first button casually left open and the sleeves rolled to his elbows. His hair was almost black, short enough to be neat, and long enough it just started to curl. Long enough for a man to get a grip on if—

Jesus, Jason. You get a grip.

A thin string of twisted brown leather hung around his neck and disappeared down the V of his shirt, and he had a beaded hemp bracelet on his left wrist, so he wasn’t entirely without the signs of a hippie lifestyle. While the acupuncturist and his patient exchanged a few words, I stared. Goddamn, he was hot. He’d taken that old cliché “tall, dark, and handsome” and made it his bitch. Dark-haired, dark-eyed, tall enough I’d have to look up at him, and his perma-smirk hinted at something devious hiding inside that mind of his. And handsome? Good God, yes. The perfect amount of ruggedness roughened his edges, tempering his borderline-pretty-boy look like an invisible leather jacket and sunglasses. If the receptionist was Seth’s type, this guy was undeniably mine.

And then he looked right at me. “Mr. Davis?”

I cleared my throat and stood. “Jason.”

He extended his hand. “I’m Dr. Whitman, but most people call me Michael.”

“All right. I guess I’ll call you Michael.”

He smiled, which crinkled the corners of his eyes just right to draw my attention, and suddenly nothing was on my brain except And I thought I was a sucker for blue eyes. Apparently brown eyes did it for me too.

“Follow me.”

Don’t mind if I do….