Hunter had a crush, a big one.
In the cafeteria late one night on his break at the hospital, he sipped at a coffee and focused on Shawn, the night desk clerk for the ER, sitting a few tables over. With long black hair tied back neatly and eyes of faded denim blue, Shawn had a lean body, his face long and bony. Tonight, he wore a brown turtleneck under a white-and-green-striped button-down. The rolled sleeves revealed muscled forearms dusted with golden hair, as mismatched to the dyed black hair as his pale eyebrows and lashes. A silver skull ring and silver studs in his ears appeared at odds with the lanyard and dangling ID card.
Hunter drank more coffee, barely tasting it. He’d tried to talk himself out of it, but he couldn’t squirm away from the attraction. When he’d walked past the registration desk to the water cooler—again—or hung out there a moment too long with an empty clipboard in his hands, he caught those tiny flicks of interest in Shawn’s eyes. Hunter must have given away his interest because the nurses smirked at his pretended obliviousness.
He bent to the not-very-engrossing crossword in the newspaper, imagining what tattoo might lie beneath Shawn’s cool demeanor. Maybe gargoyle wings across a broad and muscled back, or a snake wrapped around his thigh. Something more esoteric—a phrase in Latin, like Hunter’s own primum non nocere, or a bit of wisdom in Chinese characters. Or an old-school Aerosmith tat? Hunter glanced up from filling in the little squares with black ink blocks. He could have sworn Shawn hurriedly dropped his attention down to the paperback in his hands. He turned the page and shot a second glance at Hunter. Gazes locked and jumped away.
Heat rushed through Hunter all at once and climbed up to his face. Too aware of the black-haired man with biceps to die for and long legs to—well, never mind. Taking a boner back to the ER was not a good idea.
He had touched those biceps once when he gave Shawn a flu shot back in the fall. Shawn had taken the needle without a flinch.
Shawn stood with his tray in hand and walked toward the trash container behind Hunter. The back of his neck prickled as if Shawn breathed on the little hairs there. Hunter picked up his coffee cup once more but tasted only the dregs.
Good thing he’d decided to become a physician’s assistant and not an actor. He didn’t talk to Shawn unless he had to, the worst giveaway of all. No shy bones in his body, yet he feared conversation led to more conversation, to flirting, and the next thing he knew, they’d be going on a date, Hunter falling head over heels, and then the asshole—
Stop. You know how the story ends.
Behind him, Shawn cleared his throat. Hunter didn’t turn around. Shawn returned to his seat, picked up the paperback, and slumped down into the chair with a scowl.
Marisa slipped into the seat across the table from Hunter, and he smiled.
“I’m onto you,” she whispered.
“Uh-huh.” Hunter moved his body slightly so he could still see Shawn around her.
“You’ve been taking late lunch for three weeks now. I know why—or who.” She smiled, a small Hispanic woman with curly chestnut hair framing her heart-shaped face and hazel eyes. If Hunter weren’t himself, and she weren’t married, he thought he’d be with her. Her lips always gleamed with gloss, and her eyes snapped with fire when she got pissy. He loved it, most days, even when she aimed for him.
She leaned toward him. “Shawn, right?” Her eyes took on a warning snap now and dared him to contradict her.
“I don’t even know if he’s gay.” Which wasn’t true, but he knew better than to deny it to her face.
She sipped at her coffee with her gaze on him. Her mouth left lipstick smiles on the rim of the cup. “There’s something different about this one. And he’s lovely to look at.”
“Lovely.” Hunter snorted. Dead sexy Shawn. Hunter spied him out at the clubs twice now but avoided him there too. Shawn undulated like liquid fire across the dance floor.
“Talk to him, honey.”
“Please. Don’t.” He must have spoken louder than he meant to. Shawn glanced at them and away again.
“You’re letting Jerry’s death run your life.”
Hunter slapped the magazine down. “I’m too sober for this conversation.”
“It’s like he’s locked your heart away.”
Mindful of the potential audience, he lowered his voice. “You’re jumping way ahead here.”
She shook her head. “I know you. You have so much love to give, and I hate to see you suffer.”
Her probing questions about Hunter’s past, family, present situation were all familiar ground. Friendship he could manage; he recognized it when it was offered to him. He’d been out since he was nine. Always been out was what he told people. She was one of the few friends to whom he could confide nearly everything. Jerry’s addictions had killed him, but his family and friends blamed Hunter, and on a deeper emotional level, he blamed himself too. Marisa knew this, and it worried her. She wanted him to find love and move on, be part of a couple. She knew, but she didn’t understand.
He wasn’t abstinent now, not at twenty-five, and never got involved with anyone beyond one- and two-night stands. Hunter didn’t want to take responsibility for another heart.
When the tide of emotion and memory washed through him and left him able to speak again, he said, “I’m not suffering here.” He kept much of the darkness at bay with whiskey and anonymous sex. Who needed Prozac with a warm, muscled body in the bed?
“Stagnating,” Marisa said.
“Maintaining.” It had been a far prettier day in May, eight months ago now, when he walked out of the ER at Boston General to Jerry waiting for him in the parking lot with a gun.
“Ask him out on a date. An old-fashioned date where, at the end of the night, you kiss him good night.”
“Don’t get angry.” She patted his hand.
He whipped it away. “Too late.”
Marisa sighed. “I’ll make it up to you. Toni, Anna, and I are going to Twisters tonight. I’ll buy you a drink.”
Hunter gathered up his tray. He liked the ER crowd. They always had fun when they got together in off-work hours, and he agreed to meet her at Twisters before hitting the clubs.
When his shift was over early in the morning, he drove back to his apartment and crawled into bed as the day glowed behind the blackout curtains. The end of the week had left him exhausted, and his sleep was blessedly dreamless.
* * * * *
In Twisters, dark-wood-and-burgundy-leather seats and bumpers, cushioned stools, and low light filtering through stained glass made the place comfortable. Three bartenders were already hustling, their tip jars filling. By the time Hunter greeted the women, one of the bartenders had poured his Maker’s Mark over ice and set it in place. A second drink joined the first soon after. His friends had already had a few rounds themselves. He made a note to keep an eye on Marisa, a lightweight when it came to alcohol consumption.
A nice bar to start the weekend, and he reveled in the fact he had two more weekends off before he had to take the next weekend rotation at the hospital. He sipped and scanned the crowd.
Pretty, brittle, blonde Toni broke into Hunter’s reverie. “Why aren’t you straight, damn it?”
He ignored her, his mind on the clubs, and his hunger for male company tonight. He’d dressed to kill with an open-weave forest-green shirt he liked with his dark red hair and gray eyes. Tight black jeans emphasized the man bits, though his sartorial choices were lost on the mostly hetero male crowd in Twisters tonight.
“First lady to make a pass at Hunter pays for drinks, Toni,” Marisa reminded her, then licked a fleck of salt from her bright red lips.
Behind them, the door opened with a rush of cold wind.
“I am so over you anyway,” Toni said. “I want him.”
Hunter glanced over his shoulder to where she pointed a French-tipped nail.
“Damn.” He finished the whiskey and signaled for another. He turned to Marisa. “You didn’t set this up, did you? Tell me you didn’t.”
She glanced toward the doorway and laughed. “No, it’s kismet, baby.”
Hunter sneaked another peek over his shoulder as Shawn took off his jacket and hung it on the back of a chair at a tall bistro table. He wore a tight black T-shirt with a heavy metal band on the front and an open, black button-down with rolled-up sleeves. He picked up the drink menu, met Hunter’s eyes, and smiled, then frowned back down at the laminated card in his hand until the cocktail waitress approached him.
“Poor, poor Toni,” Hunter said with exaggerated pity. His gaze lingered on muscled forearms, long black hair, and the breadth of chest and shoulders.
She shot a glance over at Shawn again. “Him too? Poor me.”
Hunter scanned the bar. A couple of white-collar guys wearing suits and ties clustered around the opposite end of the bar.
“Breeders at three o’clock,” Hunter informed Toni.
She peered around him and raised her brows. “You have good taste.”
While Toni made preliminary eye contact with the suited men, Hunter turned to Marisa. “I don’t believe you.”
She shrugged. “I didn’t say nothing.” The tequila had eroded her English.
“What’s he drinking?” He wanted to turn around again but didn’t dare.
“Red wine. And he’s reading a book.” She winked. “He’s not your type.”
“Ha.” Hunter gulped the whiskey.
“Take it easy, there.” She frowned at him. “Hunter. I’m sorry. I’m pushy. I’ll shut up.”
“I don’t have the right, even if I think I do, to tell you how to feel. I’m your friend, but I’m a mother too.” Her black eyes got all swimmy with emotion. “It hurts me to see you in so much pain.”
“It hurts me to see you in so much tequila,” he told her gently. “I’m calling your husband.”
Hunter called Chuck, got Marisa into her cab, and returned to the bar to say good night to Toni and Anna, happily chatting with the guys in suits. They waved when he caught their attention. Hunter stopped at Shawn’s table. He lifted his blue eyes to Hunter in surprise. It was a solid punch to the solar plexus.
“Hey, Hunter.” His voice was rich and deep and resonated in Hunter’s chest over the celebratory noise in the bar. “Marisa okay?”
“Yeah.” Hunter lingered, unable to drag his gaze from Shawn’s eyes. They were a luminous blue in the low lighting, and the flame in the lamp on the table flickered in them.
Dare ya. Jerry’s voice, a memory, intruded on the present. You’re such a backwoods chickenshit.
Hunter must have made a sound of distress because Shawn put his hand on his arm. “Are you okay?”
Ignorant peckerhead woodbooger…
Pull your shit together!
“Would you like to go out?” Hunter’s voice, steady and strong, surprised him. He thought it would squeak like a teenager’s.
“I’m with someone.” Shawn removed his hand. “In fact, I’m waiting for him right now.” He gave a rueful laugh. “I’m shocked. I thought you were a snob.”
Ouch. Double ouch.
Hunter tried for casual as he shrugged it off. “Fine.” He yanked his hat onto his head. “See ya.” And strode out the door.
Once on the snowy sidewalk, he heaved a sigh of relief—free once again. A small ache settled around his heart, but he ignored it and hailed a cab.
* * * * *
On Monday, a little after seven in the morning, Hunter stood in the open ambulance bay as the cold wind between the buildings whipped bits of trash and new snow around. A hard blast slapped at his head and pushed a flap of hair into his eyes.
“Should shave my hair off,” Hunter said to Marisa.
His friend smoked a cigarette despite constant harping from Hunter to stop. Only one or two a day, she said, escaping her husband and kids to step out into their backyard to light up or, like now, at the end of her shift.
“Don’t you dare.” Marisa exhaled a final plume of smoke mixed with the pale steam of her breath. She dropped the butt and ground it out beneath her thick-soled shoe, then picked it up and flicked it unerringly into the bin at the hospital entrance with a smile. They weren’t supposed to smoke on hospital grounds, but it was too dangerous to go off-campus and into the neighborhood.
A man pushed through the doors of the ER.
“Here’s our Shawn,” Marisa said in a low voice.
“He’s not ours,” Hunter said. “He’s someone else’s.”
“I did after you left. He turned me down and told me he was with someone.”
Shawn had dressed for the February weather in a gray hoodie under a black denim jacket and a Red Sox cap. With a long, loping stride, he stood about an inch taller than Hunter. He tipped his face up from under the bill of the cap, caught Hunter’s eye, and smiled.
“The hell he is,” Marisa muttered.
“Hey.” Hunter smiled back because he couldn’t help it. He’d avoided Shawn most of the night shift and planned on going back to an earlier dinner break for the rest of his life. Yet he missed seeing Shawn. The hookup he’d taken to his bed last Friday night and who spent the weekend hadn’t made him feel like this. They’d had some laughs, yet Hunter had been relieved when the guy left. Hunter’s heart skipped a beat when Shawn stopped and said hello to Marisa, then turned to him. Something fizzy and sweet bubbled in his veins, tingling under his skin. His heart stopped its aching as if a morphine drip were in Shawn’s smile.
“You’re angry at me?” Shawn’s pale brows shot up into his forehead.
“Not at all.”
His blue eyes kindled with relief. “You didn’t have a dinner break at your usual time.”
“No, I didn’t. I—” Hunter turned to Marisa, but she only smiled, I told you so in her eyes. He made himself face Shawn. “I’ll be there tomorrow.”
Shawn’s smile widened. “Okay, good.” He gazed up at the sky and the gathering clouds. “Feels like spring will never get here. February must be the longest month of the year.”
“Aren’t you cold? You don’t have a winter jacket?” Marisa scolded.
“Nah, I’m fine.”
Shawn walked down K Street. He put his hand on top of his cap to keep the wind from taking it and pushed the other hand into his pocket. As he turned at the corner and out of sight, he left Hunter with the impression he was lonely and cold.
“Chuck’s late. He’s usually waiting for you,” Hunter commented.
Hunter didn’t like to leave until Marisa’s husband arrived with their two small girls to pick her up. She opened her mouth to answer, but three gunshots blasted out into the low hum of traffic.
“Shit,” Hunter said. The shots came from the same direction Shawn had gone.
Screaming and shouting erupted, muted by the buildings standing between the shots and them. The notorious neighborhood drug corner, open for business day and night, lay in this direction. It sounded like they got who they came for.
Two more shots and the screech of tires followed as a big black SUV came around the corner and passed them. It barely missed Chuck as he pulled into the parking lot with the girls. Chuck leaned hard on the horn.
Marisa dialed 911 as Hunter began the run down K Street, but halfway there, Shawn turned the corner with a young black man dressed in baggy jeans and an over-sized sweater. He leaned heavily on Shawn, who had an arm slung around him. Hunter recognized the guy as one of the street-corner drug thugs, as Marisa called them. He bled from a wound to his leg, his eyes wild with pain and panic as he limped along.
“Anyone else hurt?” Hunter flung the guy’s other arm around him. Damn if he didn’t hear the screech of the SUV’s tires behind them as it came around again.
“No, just him. Faster,” Shawn urged the wounded man. “They’re coming back.”
“Hurts like a motherfucker. I’m gonna kill those motherfuckers. Motherfucker!”
Marisa ran for the ER, shooing her husband and kids inside, as the big black car turned the corner again. The boom of the bass increased as they lowered the window to take another shot at their prey. Marisa returned with a determined expression and a first-aid bag under her arm.
“Marisa! Stay back!” Hunter yelled.
“Mommy!” her daughter shrieked from the doorway of the ER, stopping her cold
“We’ve got him. Get to cover!” Hunter shouted at her. She turned back. When she got to the ER doors, Chuck ran out and yanked her inside.
“Fuck it if it hurts. Run for it!” Shawn pulled at the wounded man.
They ran, and gunfire followed, shattering one of the glass doors before it shut behind them. Sirens wailed in the distance, and Hunter hoped it was coming for them. A couple of doctors ran up and pushed the bleeding man, still cursing and griping, onto a gurney, then wheeled him down the hall to one of the exam rooms.
Shawn stood beside Hunter, watching them go. Hunter grabbed Shawn’s shoulder, shoved aside his open jacket, and found a few small spots of blood.
“Shawn, are you hurt?”
Shawn turned empty eyes on Hunter. He shook his head as if to clear it before turning away again.
“Sure, you’re all right?” Hunter persisted.
“Just reaction.” Shawn held up a trembling hand.
Hunter winced. “You did good, kept your head. Saved the guy’s life. Let’s get you something clean to wear.” Hunter patted him, reassuring himself.
Behind the nurses’ station, Hunter opened a drawer full of scrubs and found a shirt for Shawn, who slipped into the men’s room to change. When he came out again, Hunter dropped the hoodie and T-shirt into the biohazard bin.
Shawn flashed an incredibly sexy grin as he shrugged into his jacket, aimed his direct blue gaze into Hunter’s, and held him there for a heartbeat before turning to leave. “Thanks.”
As Shawn walked away, he raised a hand to Marisa and Chuck arguing in fierce whispers by the nurses’ station. One of their kids waved back, and he nodded. Just before the entrance to the ER, he stopped, and Hunter thought he meant to button his jacket.
The big black SUV had been driven up onto the sidewalk in front of the ER. The first police car screeched into the parking lot as two men got out of the SUV—white, older than the wounded drug dealer, heavier and harder appearing, with guns, already drawn. With the SUV in front of the doors, no one was getting in. And no one was getting out.