I hated hospitals, and having spent the last two weeks in one, I was dying to go home. Not that there was anyone to go home to, but still. The smells, the sounds—I was ready to get the hell out of purgatory. And the wound, under the bandage, was itchy now instead of painful.
“Hey.”
Looking up, I was stunned.
“What?” he groused at me, irritated that fast.
I was speechless. The man who had just walked into my room was my ex, but what made it amazing was that he wasn’t my last one. He was not Ari Klein, who had decided that living with a man who ran a homeless shelter was too much work, and he was not Sean Harris, who I had spent three years with before that. The man I was looking at was Dixon Bain, the very first man I had ever loved, back a million years ago when I was young and stupid and twenty-two. It had begun at eighteen, when we were both freshman in college at the University of Chicago, and ended four years later, when he returned to New York.
“Holy shit,” I managed to get out.
He walked over to the bed, took off the black cashmere and wool overcoat, and draped it over the end. He was wearing a navy blue suit underneath, the epitome of polished and professional. I was thinking he should have been on the cover of GQ.
“Can I sit and talk to you?”
“Course,” I told him, too out of it to do anything but stare at him. I watched him grab the chair that my boss sat in an hour before and move it next to the bed. He sat down facing me. “What the hell are you doing here?”
Dark olive green eyes focused on me.
“Jesus, Dix, what’s it been?”
“Ten years.”
I knew for certain it was at least eight, but I would take his word for it. “And you’re doing what? Just…visiting?”
He cleared his throat. “You know Gwen Dawkins of Peterson Dunbar, don’t you?”
It took me a minute, because really, it had been forever since I’d laid eyes on the man, and I was having just the most surreal moment ever.
“Ev.”
And he was shortening my name like it was normal and expected and still us.
“Um, yeah, she––she’s the community outreach coordinator at PD.”
He nodded, leaning forward. “Well, I don’t know if you know or not, but Peterson Dunbar is an affiliate of Bain Limited.”
I shook my head. “No, I had no idea.”
His eyes were hard to describe, because when you said olive green, people immediately had a vision in their heads of what that looked like. But Dixon’s eyes… his eyes were this clear green mixed with brown, the color of dark khaki but with a sort of simmering intensity in them everyone always noticed. They were unique, just like he was. When I had been spellbound by the man those many years ago, just looking up and finding myself caught in his gaze had made my cock hard. I was very glad that I was swaddled under layers of blankets so he couldn’t see the reaction I was having to him. Some things never changed.
“So.” He cleared his throat. “When Gwen sent an e-mail to her boss saying that she felt a donation in your name to the shelter you ran would be a good idea, sort of a gift for the holidays, I had to sign off on it as my director of charitable contributions is out on maternity leave.”
I nodded.
“I e-mailed her back, asking why we were making a donation in your name, and she explained that she felt it would be a nice gesture, as the shelter would be missing their director for at least a month while you recuperated from getting shot.”
I had the weirdest feeling that I was dreaming. “So you came all the way from New York just to check up on me?”
“Yes.”
I saw how tense he looked. “Why?”
“Why wouldn’t I?”
“But why would you?”
“Because you got shot, idiot.”
I squinted at him. “What’s wrong with you?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” he said sarcastically. “What could it be?”
“I have no idea.”
“I needed to see you.”
“You could have just called.”
“Yes, I could have.”
Taller than me, broader, more muscular, he was a swimmer just like I was. We had swum on the same team in college; it was how we had met.
He was not the kind of man you noticed right away; he grew on you instead. It took hours of listening to his low husky voice, days of noticing the way his lip turned up in the corner when he smiled, and months of having the heavy-lidded gaze leveled on you for the slow heat to build to recognition. When I was eighteen, it had taken me an entire semester to realize that it wasn’t air I needed—it was Dixon Bain.
He was sexy and hot, but not necessarily handsome. Ten years looked good on him. He had laugh lines now, his copper-colored hair was cropped short, and the eyebrows, dark and expressive, were no longer hidden under heavy bangs. I used to push his hair out of his face to trace down the long nose, the full lips, so I could see him, kiss him. There had been more-beautiful-than-him men in my bed over the years, but never one as sensual or one I loved quite so hard.
“Evan.”
“Sorry, tell me why you didn’t just call?”
“Because I wasn’t sure if you’d talk to me or not.”
“Why wouldn’t I?”
He shrugged broad shoulders.
“You don’t need a reason to call me. You can just call.”
“I thought I did.”
I smiled at him. “’Cause you’re an idiot.”
“This is not news,” he said, reaching for my hand, and I let him take it.
“You look good.”
“I wish I could return the compliment,” he said, taking a deep breath in as he leaned on the bed. “You look like shit.”
I cracked a grin, and my lip hurt because it was split. “Nice.”
He squeezed my hand gently. “So I don’t see anyone around.”
“Meaning?”
“Is there a guy in the picture?”
“Not right now.”
“Why not?”
“You know me.” I grinned lazily. “I’m difficult.”
“You just want to save the world, is all.”
“Yeah, well, that’s really annoying to most people.”
“When did the last guy bail?”
“He didn’t bail; the relationship was called on account of time. He wanted more of mine, and I couldn’t give that to him.”
“You always did suck at time management.”
There was no arguing that point. “So you just pop back into town after ten years to catch up?”
“You’re hurt. I wanted to see you.”
“Why?”
He let my hand go and raked his fingers through his thick hair. “Because all the things I thought were right were wrong.”
“I have no idea what that means.”
“No, I know.” He sighed deeply. “But one thing is for sure.”
“What?”
He leaned back in the chair, his hands locked behind his neck as he studied me. “You would not be in the hospital right now if you were with me.”
“Oh no?”
He shook his head. “No. This is the result of no one keeping track of you.”
“Uh-huh.”
He cocked an eyebrow. “You disagree?”
“Please, Dix, the guy that did this is a fuckin’ psychopath. There was no way anyone could’ve protected me from this.”
He nodded. “Forgive me if I disagree and say bullshit.”
I let out a quick breath.
“I would have kept a better watch over you after he threatened you the first time with the fuckin’ gun,” he said pointedly.
“How’d you know about the gun?” I asked, because the man who had shot me, Andrew—Drew—Sims, had in fact made more than one trip to the shelter to threaten me. He did not like the fact that I spent a lot of time talking to the kids, boys and girls ages fourteen to seventeen, who he’d strung out on drugs. First he befriended them, then he got them hooked on drugs, and then, when he was sure he had them good and addicted, he had them turn tricks for him. He was the biggest piece of lowlife scum I knew, and I never missed an opportunity to screw with him. And because I was seen as doing the community a service, the police in downtown Chicago checked on me, and when I said I was worried, they would go mess with him for no other reason than my word. The fact that he was a pimp wasn’t the problem; the fact that he preyed on children was. Apparently he had finally had enough. It sucked for him that I lived through his attempt on my life, because now, with everything else he had done, it was life behind bars for Mr. Sims.
“Ev?”
I looked up at Dixon.
“You had a restraining order against Andrew Sims. He wasn’t allowed within a hundred feet of you or the shelter at any time. That’s a matter of public record.”
I shook my head. “I’m too tired to argue with you.”
“I bet,” he said, leaning forward, both hands taking my one. “Hard to debate the truth.”
“Knock it off,” I sighed, closing my eyes.
He was quiet, and I felt his fingers sliding between mine.
“Let go.”
“Make me.”
“Why don’t you go home?”
“Sure. Why don’t you come with me?”
My eyes drifted open. “What the hell are you talking about?”
“Evan, you are in desperate need of me.”
“Oh? How you figure that?”
“Look around.”
I didn’t say anything.
He put a hand on the side of my neck, and his thumb slid over my jaw, under my chin and down, stroking my skin. His hand on my neck was warm, and I was getting sleepy.
“You were always a sucker for me petting you.”
I grunted because my energy was gone. My eyes would not stay open.
“I have something to say, all right?”
“G’head,” I said, and my voice was deep and raspy.
“Okay,” he said, his thumb sliding up and down my throat. “Now, I don’t want you to get up on your high horse and be offended. I just want you to listen.”
“Sure.”
“All right. So we both know that any guy who isn’t me isn’t going to last.”
“Oh?” I smiled, opening my eyes to look up at him. “How come?”
“Because no one but me is strong enough to take your bullshit on a day-to-day basis.”
“Is that right?”
“Yeah, it is,” he said firmly, standing up, walking several feet from the bed, and turning back around to look at me. “You are so much work.”
And it clicked then how he had no idea who I was anymore. “I used to be work; I’ll give you that. The way we fought and made up and the stuff that got broken when we went at it… whole lotta drama back then,” I agreed. “But I’m not that guy anymore, Dix. I’ve learned stuff from everybody I’ve been with. When I was with you I had no clue who I was. I’m different now.”
“I’m sure you’re different in some ways, but not in the way that matters.”
“Like?”
“Like you need someone to remind you to eat and take your vitamins and go to bed. You used to forget to sleep for days at a time until I came home and held you down and fucked you so hard and so long that your body gave up and you passed out.”
Jesus.
I remembered when he used to walk in the door after working back-to-back shifts at the restaurant for a few days and I was still awake. If he wasn’t home to lie down with, I forgot to go to bed, and then I was so wired I could barely even breathe. I would listen for him, for his return, with my whole body. I was tense, overwrought and vengeful, picking a fight with him the minute he walked in the door. He would shake his head like I was ridiculous before he’d throw me down, manhandle me like I wanted—needed—and bend me over the bed and take me hard. I would crack and crumble and collapse under him. His arms tight around me, holding me close… I had never slept better, so safe, so loved.
Crap.
“You put everyone else before yourself; you always have. It’s a great quality, and it’s scary as hell at the same time.”
I smiled and let out a sigh. “I’m a big boy now, Dix. Nobody has to take care of me anymore.”
“Oh yeah? Who’s at home to take care of you now?”
I had no answer for him.
“Are your folks coming in from Dallas?”
“They’re actually on a cruise for the holidays.”
He nodded. “Did you call them?”
“No. They’ve been waiting to take that vacation forever. I didn’t want to ruin it.”
“And your brother Craig and his wife?”
“They have a new baby, so they’re not traveling this year. They wanted me to come to Atlanta, but… I have a lot to do at the shelter.”
“You mean you had a lot to do at the shelter. Who’s taking over for you?”
“I… the assistant director. He’s got everything under control; he came by today and gave me an update. My boss came by too. I think he was concerned that I’d be worried, so he dropped by to make me feel better.”
“So let me understand: they will get along just fine without you.”
“For a short amount of time, yes.”
“I see.” His voice dropped low as he looked at me. “So technically, you could be off from now until what––after New Year’s?”
“Well, yeah, but––”
“Okay.”
“Okay what?”
“Okay, then you should come and stay with me for a little while. Just a few weeks or so and see how it goes.”