KADE THORN sat in his office near downtown in Asheville, as he did most evenings since he and Gary had broken up months ago. He worked on getting a few last things done so he could head home at a reasonable hour. His laptop was open on his desk, the recorder activated as he dictated his notes from his last patient. Once that was completed, he saved the file and then turned to look out the large window behind him. The day was lovely, bright azure sky with only the occasional fluffy white clouds dotted about. He missed the carefree days of summer, though he hadn’t had any of those in years. Not since shortly after graduation and gaining his license in dental medicine.
A light knock sounded behind him, pulling him out of his daydreams. Exhaling hard, Kade called, “Enter.”
The door opened as Kade spun his chair around and Katie, his best friend and one of his hygienists, poked her head inside and smiled. “Come on, Kade. It’s the end of the day and the week. Office is closed, and you need to come out with us tonight.”
The sigh that slipped out couldn’t be missed, and by the sudden frown on Katie’s pretty little face, she’d heard it. “I’m going to just go on home. I’ll see you Monday.”
“Uh-uh. Nope. You are not going to stay cooped up in your house all weekend. Again. You need to get out and meet people.” Kade opened his mouth to argue, but she cut him off, as usual. “Not clients, Kade. People. Men, specifically. You can’t live the rest of your life like a monk, sweetie.”
Katie had been bugging him for months… well, off and on for years really, but it had gotten worse when she started seeing her “forever boyfriend,” Dane. “Just because you’re blissfully joined with your guy doesn’t mean I need to go out with you two tonight.”
She had never liked Gary, claimed he never looked her in the eye when he spoke to her.
“No, it’s pointless, Katie. It’s not like I’m going to find the kind of guy I’d want anywhere you could take me, and you know it. I appreciate you wanting to help, but….” He trailed off, gesturing to his wheelchair.
“You know, not all guys are going to be like Gary. There are plenty of people in wheelchairs like you that have partners,” she countered.
He knew others had partners while chair-bound, but she didn’t understand. It was more than just trying to find a guy he could care for and build a life with while stuck with wheels; it was also finding someone he could trust, someone who could handle his needs and issues in the bedroom too. No Dom wanted a sub who couldn’t kneel, couldn’t serve, couldn’t move his lower half without help. Since he’d lost use of his legs, the Doms he had played off and on with before the attack didn’t even seem to see him. One was a patient, but the man had not shown so much as a flicker of recognition that Kade had once been one of the boys he’d played with at Club Fierce.
“Not tonight, Katie. I’m really not up for it. Okay?” Please, listen for once!
Katie sighed and rolled her eyes before narrowing her gaze on him again, a slow smile crossing her lips. “Fine, sweetie. I’ll see you at six tomorrow, then.”
Six? “Um, why?” What’s at six?
“Dinner at my place, of course. You promised you’d come to my next get-together, and that just so happens to be tomorrow night.” She smiled sweetly, but he knew there was more mischief than goodness in that grin.
Tilting his head back to glare at the ceiling, he groaned. He had promised, dammit. “You don’t really have a party planned for tomorrow night, do you?”
He counted to ten in his head before grinding out, “And you’re just now telling me?”
“Figured you’d try to find a way out if I gave you too much warning,” she explained.
She knew him too well. He wouldn’t renege on a promise, a fact he hated himself for right then. “Fine.”
Kade collected his wallet, keys, and the backpack he used to carry things on the back of his chair, before wheeling himself toward the door. Katie moved when he reached her, the grin still firmly in place, then walked beside him, flipping off lights and locking up as they exited the dental practice. Harold, his dental partner, left early most Fridays, and the other hygienists and office personnel were already gone.
“Don’t be late,” Katie called as she waved and walked to her car.
Kade quickly maneuvered to his own car, and after getting himself into the front, he popped the wheels off of his shiny black ultralight Quickie GT chair and slid it into the space behind him, like always. When Katie stopped her car beside his, he looked over and gave her a weak smile. He pushed the button to roll down his window. “I will be there. I even promise to smile and talk. That’s the best I can promise, though.”
“Humph! One day you’re going to learn to see yourself for who you really are, not just for what you use to move around. Any guy that can’t see past your wheels isn’t worth your time.”
He was so tired of her attempts at encouragement, he could gladly scream, but he couldn’t get upset. She was one of the few friends who had stood by him when he’d been thrown out of his family and then lost his mobility a few years later.
“It’ll be good for you to get out. Anyways, I’ll catch you tomorrow night. Love ya!”
He watched her pull away, frowning as he thought about the last time she’d conned him into one of these things. He’d spent most of the night uncomfortable, being forced to talk to people he couldn’t connect with on any level.
“Maybe this time will be different,” he mumbled as he started his little hybrid and then pulled out into traffic, heading for the safety and comfort of his house across town.
THE NEXT evening, Kade pulled up outside Katie’s small home, noticing the additional cars parked in front. There was one place left open next to her car on the driveway, as there always was when she expected him over. He parked and shifted around to set up his chair, pausing long enough to grab the bouquet of flowers he’d picked up on the way. Once settled in his wheelchair, he placed his backpack on the back and the flowers in his lap before rolling up the short ramp—installed by her for his convenience—to her front door. It was little details like that that melted his heart and made her frustrating matchmaking and going out nonsense worth putting up with.
He knocked on the door and waited, hoping she didn’t take too long. He could hear music and voices, some he didn’t recognize.
“Can you get that for me?” he heard Katie call inside.
A moment later, the door opened to reveal a man he had never seen before, one that a few years ago, he would have worked hard to attract. He was tall, probably a little over six feet tall, with short blond hair, dark hazel eyes that held an edge of steel, firm but slightly plump lips, and a smile that made Kade want to squirm.
“Hello,” the beautiful man said, his voice washing over Kade like a caress.
“Hi. Um, I’m Kade, Kaden Thorn. Katie’s expecting me.”
“Hello, Kade, I’m Deacon James,” the man replied as he stepped back and to the side, allowing Kade to roll inside before he closed the door. “Katie just went into the kitchen and Dane’s out back fighting with the grill, I believe.”
“That sounds about right,” Kade said with a stiff nod. He took his light coat off, careful not to dump the flowers off his lap, and wheeled over to her coatrack. He worked hard to regulate his breathing and reminded himself Deacon wasn’t an option for him as he hung up his coat.
Spinning around, he opened his mouth to thank the man but was cut off when Katie hurried into the front room where he waited. “Oh, good! You made it.”
“I said I would, Katie girl,” he teased, more comfortable now that he wasn’t alone with the hottie in a suit. He held out the bouquet, though he knew his smile was brittle.
She smiled wide and took the flowers, a sly grin on her face. “Thank you, Kade.” Her eyes flicked back and forth between him and Deacon. “You two meet already?”
“Yep. You need any help?” He had a bad feeling this was a setup, even though she’d promised not to do this to him again.
“No,” Katie replied, “I’m just finishing up a couple of things. I’ll be out to sit and visit in a minute. You want some wine?”
Kade squinted at her but nodded, knowing when he’d been beaten. Playing nice was the only right response, after all. “Sure.”
“Great. What about you, Deacon?”
At his thanks, she hurried back toward the kitchen, his gift cradled in her arms. “Jenn? Could you bring out two glasses of the wine I have open already?”
He wasn’t sure who Jenn was, but felt a brief stab of disappointment when he realized she was probably with the delicious Mr. James. A moment or two later, a leggy redheaded woman Kade assumed was Jenn sauntered through the kitchen doorway, a glass of red wine in each hand.
“Here you go,” she said, handing Kade a glass before smiling at Deacon and handing him one as well. “Play nice, okay?” she added, not taking her eyes off Deacon. “I’m going to go bug the Neanderthal outside and see if I can get him to hurry up some.”
A moment later, Kade and Deacon were again alone in Katie’s small but comfortable living room.
“Want to join me, since no one wants our assistance?” Deacon gestured to the couch before taking the few steps needed to reach it and sit. Kade knew this was a setup but decided to be nice, and wheeled over and parked his chair next to the coffee table before looking up, not quite meeting Deacon’s dark hazel eyes.
“Dane tells me you’re a dentist,” Deacon said as he draped one long hand over his knee and rested the other casually on the arm of the couch.
“I am. I specialize in dental surgery and cosmetic corrections. Harold, my partner, does more of the general dentistry than I do.” Kade beamed. Work was a safe subject and one that kept his mind off the sexy man before him. Well, at least helped to distract him some, until Deacon smiled, revealing even, white teeth, again scrambling his brain. “What, um, what do you do?”
“I’m an architect with Dixon, James, and Sullivan. Dane is one of my drafters.”
“Oh! Is this a work party? I’m sorry,” Kade murmured as he set his wine glass down, then unlocking the wheel before starting to move away. Why hadn’t Katie told him this was a work thing? He shouldn’t be crashing like this.
“No, no, Kade. It’s nothing like that.” The deep chuckle behind him sent a shiver up Kade’s spine and back down, settling low in his gut. Even something as simple as a laugh had him wanting to beg the gorgeous man to give him a chance. He knew it was stupid, but that knowledge didn’t change what he wanted or felt. “Come back.”
Kade returned to where he’d been moments before without a second thought. He simply obeyed.
“Good. I’d really like to get to know you a little better, but that requires you to stay here.”
“Sorry. I’m really no good at these kinds of things.” He racked his brain hard, trying to think of something to say, but drew a blank. Between Deacon’s body, face, and take-charge manner, Kade was fried.
“Why don’t you take a sip or two of your drink and relax. Being so tense can’t be good for you.” Kade had the weirdest feeling Deacon actually meant what he said, that he might want to get to know him. There seemed to be a touch of concern but none of the usual pity or humor at his expense he was accustomed to from other men. Kade gave Deacon a small smile and finally tasted his wine.
“Hey, this is actually pretty good. The last time I was over, the wine wasn’t nearly this nice.”
“Agreed, it is quite lovely.”
Kade watched Deacon take another sip before managing to tear his gaze away. Being caught staring wasn’t something he wanted to deal with. He’d had enough trouble meeting Deacon’s beautiful hazel eyes since that first command.
Katie returned just then, as did Dane. “Hey, glad you could make it, Kade,” Dane said.
“Thanks for the invite.”
“Yeah, right. What did Katie have to do to get you here?” Dane asked, the smirk both irritating and frustrating.
“Be nice, D.” Katie swatted Dane’s arm playfully. “I told him when and he came. Now, where’s your sister gone? Dinner’s ready.”
Dane set a platter of steaks and foil-wrapped oblong objects Kade assumed were potatoes on the table in the dining room, then went back outside muttering something about cancer sticks under his breath.
“Why don’t you two go to the table while I bring out the rest of the food?” Katie didn’t wait for a response before she continued bringing food out.
Kade nodded and grinned back at her, though it was lost on her as she’d already stepped away. When he turned his chair around and started toward the dining room, he was startled to feel a large, warm hand settle on his left shoulder. Kade tensed, expecting Deacon to try to take over his chair’s movements but that never happened. Deacon simply walked beside him, never taking his hand off Kade’s shoulder. The warmth seeped through his dress shirt, thrilling him while making him ache for something he’d given up finding years ago. Shaking off the depressing thought, Kade slid his chair into the open spot at the table.
Only when he’d settled at his place did he realize Deacon hadn’t taken his hand off him yet. Deacon bent down slightly, his wine-tinted breath ghosting over Kade’s cheek. “Do you mind if I sit with you?” he asked and gestured to the empty chair beside Kade.
“N-no. Please.” Kade was so jittery, he feared he’d spill his wine on the man beside him. Hoping to forgo that event, he folded his hands in his lap.
Before Kade could become too uncomfortable, Katie, Dane, and Jenn returned, and food was passed as everyone talked at once. Kade waited patiently as the different dishes were shared, thrilled when Deacon’s fingers lightly brushed his when he accepted the breadbasket. He had just taken a bite of his steak—medium well, his favorite—when Jenn asked, “So, Kade, what’s it like being Katie’s boss?”
Kade chewed quickly, taking a sip of wine to clear his throat. “It’s a lot of fun actually. She’s a hard worker. Even makes the screaming kids smile, so I feel very lucky to have her working for me. The other hygienists are good too, but I love working with my best friend,” he added, grinning at Katie. He knew he was blessed to have her both at the office and as his friend. They had known each other since middle school, and he couldn’t imagine his life without her.
Katie beamed back at him. “I wouldn’t want to work anywhere else.”
“But don’t you get tired of having to compensate for him?” Jenn asked, staring at Katie.
“Compensate? I don’t understand,” Kade interjected, though he had a feeling he knew exactly what she meant.
“Well, it’s not like you can do all the things a normal man in your job can.” Jenn flicked her gaze at Kade but then returned to Katie. “Right?”
The silence at the table was deafening, and Kade was torn between wanting to yell at Dane’s idiot sister or hiding. He had had more than enough of that attitude in the years since the attack that left his legs broken and useless, but he hadn’t expected it here. Kade swallowed hard and placed his fork on the edge of his plate. “I can’t walk like most men, you’re right about that.” He didn’t raise his voice, but he did glare at the woman sitting across from him. “But what can’t I do in my job? My legs aren’t needed to hold a scalpel or suture a palate. They aren’t needed to pull a tooth or graph bone before a new implant. I lost the use of my legs, not my brain or hands. So, tell me exactly what is it I can’t do in my job that you would ask Katie such a question?”
Jenn had the decency to blush and look away before speaking. “I didn’t mean… I mean, I just don’t see how you can get around a dental office all stuck in a chair. You can’t—”
“Jenn,” Katie snapped, the ice in her voice chilling Kade’s ire a bit, “Kade is one of the best dental surgeons in the state—probably farther actually—and he learned to work around his mobility issues to become someone whose schedule is booked months in advance. Now,” she continued, turning to face the others, “eat up and enjoy. I have apple cobbler and vanilla bean ice cream for dessert.”
Kade looked around quickly and noticed Dane and Deacon scowling at Jenn. After a moment the sounds of forks on plates and soft conversation starting again, surrounded him. He wasn’t in the mood for chatting, though, so Kade focused on his meal and attempted to forget Jenn’s words. Not the easiest thing considering how many times he’d heard sentiments like that before, especially from potential partners, but ruining Katie’s evening by sulking wasn’t an option as far as he was concerned.