DAN GILCHRIST slid lower in the leprechaun-sized folding chair. The battered metal screeched in protest, freezing his six-foot frame midslouch. Well, fuck. Why didn’t he just holler, “Look at me, everyone!”
The therapist looked at him. “You wanna talk now, Dan?”
Everyone chuckled. Ya, he was hilarious.
Carl shifted in the chair beside him, earning an even louder metallic objection. The former linebacker always placed himself next to the mope who most desperately wanted to remain unnoticed, and evidently Dan was the lucky winner of today’s therapeutic torture.
“I’ll speak.” The guy on the other side of Carl’s girth was hidden from view, but his soft, masculine voice ruffled down Dan’s spine. “I want to get my first time over with fast.”
Another group chuckle.
Dan didn’t want to call attention to himself by leaning forward to look at the new guy. Instead he crossed a foot over the opposite knee and sat back to enjoy the velvety voice.
“My name’s Jeremy, and I’m here because I had one slip after years of sobriety.” With zero self-pity, the guy went on to describe an abusive mother and a high school descent into addiction. His tale, too much like Dan’s, was less riveting than his tenor voice, enriched with deeper undertones.
Notes of melodic accompaniment began to sift through Dan’s mind, and his fingers twitched over invisible guitar chords. If only he had some blank staff paper and a row of sharpened pencils—
A silent klaxon ripped a warning through his skull, and he crossed his arms over his ribs as if to hold down a surge of grief. That part of his life was finished. Kaput. No more straining for notes and lyrics that taunted from just beyond his reach, no more near-miss songs that never quite satisfied. Then, hopefully, no more headfirst dives into a bottle.
The man sitting across from him started his daily spiel. “I’m John, and—”
Dan knew damn well that musical frustration was a weak excuse for his real failures. He was bogged down, just like his home state of Minnesota, except the ten thousand lakes surrounding him were filled with alcohol. So easy to let himself fall back and sink into oblivion….
But he didn’t deserve the escape. At forty-three, it was long past time to pretend he was an adult and stop fighting the feelings that were his due for the choices he’d made.
“Lunchtime,” someone announced.
He slumped and heaved a breath. Made it through another meeting. Only four and a half million more to go.
Everyone relaxed into general conversation and moved to leave the torture chamber. He pushed up the sleeves of his sweatshirt and joined the last of the exiting group. San Jose temps in January might be brisk, but the rehab unit was always overheated and muggy. The air was a little fresher in the big rooms.
At the door, a small man turned, his ratty sweats and T-shirt not concealing an athletic build. Dan stopped, electrified by neon-blue eyes sparking from a face mapped with the lines of a fresh detox, topped by a glorious mess of caramel-blond hair. Dan would put him at somewhere over thirty-five.
“Hi. I’m Jeremy.” He shot a glance at the empty doorway. “I know we’re supposed to avoid last names here, but it’s Evans.”
The Voice! Dan’s breath caught, then came out in a wheezy, “Uh, hi.” Jeremy’s body matched the complex sound of his voice, delicate bones strengthened by smooth muscles. Dan jerked out a hand in a gawky, teenage move. “Daniel Gilchrist.”
Jeremy offered a half smile and took his hand in a firm grip before releasing it quickly. “So you don’t like talking in group, huh? You been here long?”
“A week,” Dan said absently, examining the guy’s face. Something about him seemed familiar.
“This program seems to be one of the better ones. True?”
“Oh, ya. Definitely worth the cost.” Dan peered into Jeremy’s sharp gaze, ignoring the responding tingle in his groin. Where had they met?
“Good. I’ve decided this will be my last rehab ever.” Conviction had deepened Jeremy’s tone.
“I hear you,” Dan said, instinctively supporting the man’s choice, thereby reinforcing his own.
Jeremy tilted his head. “Sounds like you made the same decision.”
“Ya. Before this last slip, which was just once like you described, I’d made enough changes to be successful. I had a great life going for myself.” Dan nodded, vaguely aware he was revealing more now than he had in the previous week of intensive therapy. “I want to get back to it.” He could still teach music, even if he couldn’t write it.
“Then we’ll both be fine.” The tired flesh around Jeremy’s blue lasers crinkled, and his smile echoed the gentle acceptance of someone long gone.
The hair lifted on the back of Dan’s neck. “Old Jack,” he whispered.
A line formed between Jeremy’s light brown eyebrows. “You okay?”
Dan shook himself, disoriented by an odd sense of settling into a place that had been waiting patiently for him to find his way home.
“No.” He reached for one of the flimsy metal chairs and dropped into it. “Dizzy.” He rested his head in his hands. “Shit.”
Jeremy crouched beside him. His touch on Dan’s knee pushed a jolt through his system. “You gonna be sick?”
“No.” Dan gulped, fervently hoping he spoke the truth.
“I guess something about me triggered a bad memory. Sorry.”
“Ya, your fault,” he joked weakly, blinking at his grungy flannel slippers.
But the memory Jeremy triggered was bad only because it made the rest of his life feel like manure in comparison. Nerves scraped raw, Dan sat back and scowled at the smallish, masculine hand on his knee. “You mind?”
Jeremy snatched away his hand and straightened, his full, pink mouth tightening.
The therapist lumbered back into the room. His dark gaze narrowed on the two men, no doubt picking up on the attraction zinging between them. Any romantic involvement in the unit was strictly verboten. “Okeydokey,” Carl said heartily. “Jeremy, you go on to the cafeteria.”
“Sure.” Jeremy flicked a bright, wary glance at Dan and then made for the door.
The therapist moved to block Dan’s view of Jeremy’s retreating ass. “You need a minute?”
Dan lifted his hands to cover his eyes. The acceptance in Jeremy’s neon blues had detonated a completely unwanted epiphany. “Fuck. How could I not know?” It was so obvious. How much energy had he put into remaining this blind? Clearly he’d wanted to stay drunk more than he’d wanted the insight.
“Excuse me?” The normally unflappable therapist sounded incredulous.
Dan’s hands fell. He frowned at Carl’s confusion but didn’t bother to concoct a lie. “Jeremy reminds me of the man who pretty much saved my sanity when I was a kid. No one since has made me feel so… okay.” The old janitor’s kindness seemed to rush out from the past, and he shuddered. “I just figured out what I’ve been hunting for at the bottom of a bottle all these years.” With spectacular, massively destructive stupidity.
Carl recaptured his therapeutic cool, his face clearing. “Ah. You’ve been here a week, and this is the first time I’ve seen your emotions break open. You sure about the cause?”
He grimaced. “Ya. Despite my best efforts, a couple rehabs over the past decade forced some insight down my throat.”
“Not enough, or you wouldn’t be here again.” The therapist gestured to the door. “We’ll talk later. Lunch now.”
Dan obediently creaked to his feet, feeling like a toddler in an old geezer’s body. “Hey, Carl. How come you looked so shocked just now?”
“Er, when you said you hadn’t known… it was like you’d just figured out….” His voice trailed off, a flush darkening his latte skin. “Forget it. My brain took a power nap, but it’s back on the job now.”
“No, you made me curious. What’d you think I’d just figured out?”
Carl wiped a massive hand over his shaved scalp. “Uh, well, the way you looked at Jeremy….”
Dan’s mouth stretched into a grin that strained his atrophied facial muscles. When was the last time he’d really smiled? “No, Carl, it did not take me forty-three years to discover I like dick.”