Kevin Stohler survived a violent and abusive relationship but escaped with a damaged psyche. Connor McCann walks into his life like a living dream. Kevin can't believe Connor is interested, but he agrees to a date. Connor proves to be patient, kind and truly interested. Before they can enjoy life together, something has to be done about Kevin's ex, Josh Harding. Josh has stalked Kevin for three years, and the stalking escalates as Kevin's feelings for Connor grow. Kevin fears that loving Connor might kill him. It's a risk he's willing to take to reclaim a chance at love.
Kevin waited until the door closed before he curled up on the couch with a blanket and his cell phone. The soft quilt settled around his shoulders like a warm hug, and he opened the phone to push speed dial button 2. He glanced at the other phone, the one sitting on the table behind the couch, but it remained blessedly silent.
He closed his eyes and counted the rings from the number he’d just dialed, hating that he had to do this ritual each and every time his roommate went out for a date. He said nothing to Dave, letting him think he was fine alone, even though Dave would come home after a night out to find him on the couch, curled up in his blanket, asleep but in the middle of a nightmare.
“Lancaster.” The rich voice was both soothing and a little frightening. Kevin closed his eyes and bit his lip, debating what he should say. “Kevin, honey, you can talk to me.” Devon’s voice softened a little, so he could hear the concern coloring it.
“I’m alone.” The words made him shiver, and when the other phone rang, he actually gasped. “And the phone just started ringing.”
Devon let out a heavy sigh. “Do you want to come here, sweetheart? You’re always welcome. You know that.”
“No.” That much was true. He didn’t want to be inside Devon’s huge house—not with all the memories attached to it. Good memories, certainly, but there were dark ones. Memories of those days after he’d been rescued. The phone stopped ringing, and he let out a heavy breath. “I’m scared.”
“I know you are. I wish you would go to the police.”
“They won’t do anything, Devon. I tried. They laughed at me, told me I deserved what I got.” He shivered under the warm blanket. “I didn’t deserve it, did I?”
“No, you didn’t deserve that. No one deserves that.” Devon sighed, but he didn’t say anything else. “Do you want Keith to come stay with you until Dave gets back?”
“It’s Friday. You probably have plans like normal people.”
Devon laughed softly. “We do. We’re eating pizza and watching a really bad horror movie. Big plans, and we can change them. Do you want Keith to come stay with you?”
Kevin nodded, but he took a deep breath before answering. “No, I just have to—” The phone rang again. “It’s ringing again.”
“Sweetheart, here’s what I want you to do.”
“You’re on the couch?”
“Reach over and pull the plug out of that phone. Then it won’t ring anymore. If someone needs you, they’ll call your cell.”
Kevin went stiff.
“Sweetheart, you don’t have to talk to him. You don’t have to accept his letters. You don’t have to listen to his messages. He’s not going to hurt you, and if he tries, what are you going to do?”
Kevin took a deep breath. Devon had rehearsed these things with him so many times he should have been able to do them without prompting. “Speed dial 1 for the police.”
“That’s right. Unplug the phone, honey.”
He switched his cell to the other ear before he reached up and unplugged the phone. He felt guilty, not relieved. No doubt Dave wondered why the phone was unplugged every time he left Kevin alone, but only one person knew that secret. He hadn’t even told Nicki, and he usually told her everything. “It’s unplugged.”
“Good. Now, what do you have to do this evening?”
Kevin glanced at the scarred coffee table where he’d put his evening entertainment. “I’ve got a movie with Hugh in it, and a book, although it’s not a very good book. The sex is particularly bad.”
Devon laughed a little.
“I suppose I could write a little.”
“Those are good things. What aren’t you going to do?”
“I’m not going to sit here wrapped in my blanket and worry all night.”
“Are your blinds closed?”
“The door’s locked?”
“Always.” He relaxed a little. Talking to Devon always relaxed him, even if the sight of the man made him anxious and nervous.
“And you’re sure you don’t want Keith to come stay with you?”
“I’m sure.” He took a deep breath. “Devon, am I ever going to be able to do this? Stay alone without calling you?”
“It’s been three years, and I haven’t gotten better.”
“Yes, you have. Much better. Remember where you started from.”
“I remember,” he whispered. He bit his lip. He remembered. He remembered every bruise and cut.
“Did you eat something this evening?”
Devon sighed. “Did you at least eat lunch today?”
“When you hang up the phone, go fix yourself something to eat.”
“Yes, sir.” The reply was automatic, and he trembled just a little.
“No, not yes, sir. I want you to eat. Go fix a bag of popcorn now, while I’m on the phone.”
He did what he was told, and only when Devon heard the popcorn in the background did he speak again. “Sweetheart, you have to eat, or we’ll be back to the old song and dance.”
“Are you all right now?”
Kevin nodded then realized Devon couldn’t see him. “Yes.”
“Call anytime, and you’re welcome here. You know that, don’t you?”
“I know. Bye, Devon.”
“Good night, honey.”
Kevin hung up the phone, poured his popcorn into a bowl, and returned to the couch for his book. It wasn’t a very good book, but it was mindless and at times funny, just enough to distract him from his fears. He finished the book and succumbed to temptation. He plugged the phone back in and dialed in for his messages. He never told Devon that he listened to the messages, never told him that a tiny part of him liked hearing the voice. Devon had saved his life twice, but he didn’t really understand the aching Kevin felt, the pangs of loneliness, or the fear that no one would ever want him again. At least Josh wanted him, in a twisted, possessive sort of way.
“I know you’re alone, Kevin.” The voice on the phone made him shiver, and he pulled the blanket tight. “You don’t have to be alone. Come back, baby. I love you. Things are different now, I promise.”
The voice was almost soothing, but he’d heard it tight with anger and hard with lust. Kevin remembered those times, all those times he’d been lulled by Josh’s sweetness, only to be caught off guard later.
The message continued. “You can’t stay alone forever, Kevin. You need someone. Think about that, and come back to me. I love you.” The message ended, and he deleted it.
He clutched the blanket Nicki had made for him last Christmas. She thought he needed something to keep him warm and give him a hug when she couldn’t be there. He needed that now. He hated the way the man on the phone always seemed to know where he had been and what he was doing.
“That’s not love,” he reminded himself for the thousandth time. “Love doesn’t hurt.” Tears blurred his eyes. He repeated those words over and over, making it a mantra. Devon had told him love didn’t have to hurt, and he trusted him, even though he could barely stand to be in the same room with him.
He unplugged the phone again and plunked his movie in the DVD player. Valentine’s Day was two weeks away. He hated Valentine’s Day. He hated the sappy cards, the cute little boxes of candy, and most of all, he hated being alone. He should go to a club, or at least a coffee shop, anywhere there might be people. Instead, he watched the people move on the screen, barely paying attention to the actual dialogue until he fell asleep.
“Hey, chico.” The voice startled him awake, and Kevin blinked, trying to shake the nightmare from his eyes. His roommate was staring at him. “You okay? You were whimpering and moaning in your sleep. Nightmare?” Concern filled Dave’s expression.
“Yeah.” He sat up and rubbed his eyes, yawning a little. The clock on the VCR read 2 a.m. “Have fun?”
“Oh, yeah.” Dave flopped down beside him. “You should have come with us. It was just dancing, and you love to dance. You could have shown us how a real dancer moves.”
“I’m not much of a dancer anymore.” He patted his belly and managed an anemic smile. “I didn’t want to intrude on your fun, and you know I hate to be the third wheel out of sympathy.”
“Don’t even tell me you think you’re fat. That can’t even be called a belly, and you’re actually at a healthy weight, even though you won’t admit it. Two months of training and you’d lose all of that.” Dave sounded stern, but he wasn’t lecturing, only trying to make Kevin feel better. Kevin yawned and rubbed his eyes, but Dave didn’t seem to notice his exhaustion.
“You know it’s not sympathy, Kevin. We like having you with us. Lilly adores you. She says you were the best dance partner she ever had. We worry about you, chico.”
“You don’t need to,” he said softly. “I’m fine.” Another yawn interrupted him. “I’m going to bed.” He squeezed Dave’s shoulder when he walked past and was grateful his roommate didn’t press the conversation. Dave knew about Josh, knew what he’d done in the name of love.
Kevin shoved memories aside and crawled into a bed that seemed strangely empty tonight. He lay awake for another hour, staring out the window of his room at the soft light of the city, remembering.
He woke groggy and tense. His clock said 5:30, but he had no desire to get out of the bed. He’d had nightmares all night, and he felt like staying in bed all day, but he got up and started his morning routine with a shower and some quick exercises, then gathered up his dry cleaning and left it by the door so he’d remember it when he left. After a cup of yogurt, half a pot of coffee, and an apple, he felt almost human.
He stared at his face while he combed his wavy hair. It wasn’t a bad face. A nice, square jaw, high cheekbones, just a hint of stubble on the cheeks, a pair of pale, blue-gray eyes that changed color with his moods, all topped off by his crown of chestnut hair. He lifted his shirt and looked down at his stomach, where he could still see part of his six-pack.
He trailed a finger down the scar on his left side. So, he had a little pudge in the middle. His body was still well toned, but he wasn’t buff or ripped. He wasn’t that unattractive, no matter what Josh had said. He told himself that over and over, but it never sank in, and he still heard Josh’s voice telling him that he was stupid, fat, and ugly. He turned away from the mirror, silencing the voice, gathered up his dry cleaning, and left.
It was one of those odd, Missouri days that seemed like a breath of spring in the middle of winter. The sun was bright, and the temperature was supposed to be close to sixty. Right now, it was still chilly enough for a jacket, but Kevin hoped that would change. He loved days like today. His mood brightened and chased the specters of his nightmares away at last. He dropped off the dry cleaning and ran a few more errands before he stopped at Left Bank Books.
Going to the bookstore was his guilty pleasure, especially on mornings like this. He belonged to the gay reading group that met weekly, and he loved the atmosphere of the place. He loved the smell of the books, and the odd corners of the building. The store even had a resident cat and sold both new and used books. He knew most of the people who worked there and some, like the store manager, Mark, had become good friends. Sometimes, he’d just sit in a corner and read, grateful that he had the freedom to do so, but today he had another purpose.
He waved to Mark and went straight to the section of the bookstore reserved for gay and lesbian books. He saw it as soon as he found the right shelf. His book. It had been released earlier that week, but this was the first time he’d seen it in a bookstore. He plucked the book from the shelf and stared at his name on the front cover.
Kevin Stohler. The letters looked so strange in print, and he felt oddly self-conscious. He’d told very few people that he was a writer, let alone that he was a published writer. Cupid’s Arrow was the title; a murder mystery with a gay detective Kevin had desperately wanted to come to life to save him from his lonely existence.
He took the book to his favorite corner by the window and settled on the padded bench there, basking in the sun streaming inside, while he thumbed through the book, looking for his favorite scenes.
“Good book?” The slightly accented voice startled Kevin so much he dropped the book and looked up to find the most beautiful man he’d ever seen. He had to be at least six-foot-four, with broad, muscular shoulders. And under his dark green sweatshirt, Kevin was certain there were hard, six-pack abs. His spiky, blond hair had been neatly trimmed, and each hair was perfectly in line. He wore a pair of wire-rimmed glasses that accentuated all the lovely planes of his face. His jaw was nice and strong, and those lips...that mouth was the most kissable one he’d seen in a long time.
Kevin licked his lips and laid the book on the bench, facedown. The guy was gorgeous, but not the sort that would be interested him, and if he was, there was something seriously off about him.
“No. Not really. I was just—” Kevin said, embarrassed that he’d been caught reading his own book, and even more embarrassed that this stranger’s untimely arrival had coincided with one of the steamier scenes. He was half aroused right now, and judging from the amusing glance the stranger cast toward his waist, he was aware of that fact.
The man shrugged, a motion that sent a shiver down Kevin’s spine and made him ache in his nether regions. He swallowed hard and tried to think of something besides the gorgeous creature in front of him. He hadn’t felt attraction like this since before he met Josh. Devon had told him he wasn’t ruined, and the sudden heat rushing through him reminded him that all parts of him, including his libido, seemed to be working.
“A pity. You looked really into it, and I was looking for something interesting and—” Again his eyes, green, Kevin noticed, flitted to his waist. “Arousing. That one seemed to be doing the trick for you.” He held out his hand. “Connor McCann.”
Kevin stared at that hand for a moment, unable to decide what to do. Was the guy coming on to him? Surely not. No one would want him, but the man’s interest was quite clear. Dazed, Kevin placed his hand in the other man’s, and the firm grip engulfed his hand. Kevin swallowed hard and told his privates to be still. Just because the guy was drop dead beautiful didn’t mean he was a good thing. Josh had been gorgeous, and the good looks had hidden cruelty that still gave him nightmares. “Kevin Stohler.”
“I’m new to the city,” Connor said and smiled. “Know any good pubs around here? I’m starting to get a bit tired of canned soup, deli sandwiches, and take out.”
Kevin knew lots of good places, and not just pubs. He loved the city, but caution intervened before he could make a suggestion. “Not really my scene. Ask Mark at the counter. He’d know.” Did Connor seem a bit disappointed, or was Kevin only imagining that? “I’ve got to go. I only meant to stop in for a minute, and I’ve been here longer than I’d planned.” He moved cautiously around the corner, away from the man.
Connor sighed, and Kevin was certain he was disappointed now. “Perhaps you know a place to get a bite then? Have you got a favorite spot? We could get something, talk a bit?”
Kevin couldn’t speak for a moment. The guy was definitely coming on to him, and that both terrified and excited him. “I’m sorry,” he said, glad that he managed to sound somewhat normal. “I have to go. It’s been nice meeting you.” He backed away from Connor and rushed out of the store.
Outside, though, he leaned against the brick wall, cursing the fear that crippled him. He trudged off, half running back to his building. He could have taken the guy to one of the restaurants nearby, or to the coffee shop a block away. Those were perfectly safe places. Why did he have to be such a pansy? He stopped and stared at the bookstore and debated going back to offer the handsome Connor lunch. No harm would be done. But he couldn’t quite overcome the fear choking him as he walked home.
Dave would be gone. The phone calls would start. The day no longer felt quite so warm, and Kevin wrapped his coat tight around him. If nothing else, he liked knowing someone had found him attractive, and that someone had looked like a golden god come down from his place in the sky. And that voice. The faint, lilting accent made him shiver a little with something other than cold. He licked his lips and took a deep breath. Once he was home, he could soothe his shock with some writing, and Connor McCann could star in his story. He’d be perfectly safe then. No strings attached, even though Kevin would still be alone.