“We start dating. Official like.”
“Dating? Like you pick me up at my place, hold the door for me and take me out for dinner?”
“Something like that.” Colt paused. “How long has it been since you dated?”
Would Colt be pleased or pissed if she told him the last relationship she’d been in was purely sexual? When India thought about it…had she ever really just “dated” a man?
No. She’d had sex with plenty of guys, hooked up with more than her fair share, but flowers, dinner, and moonlit walks? Not so much a priority in her younger years when she was drunk or high.
Since she’d cleaned up, fixing herself was more a priority than getting fixed up with some man. And in the three years since she’d starting hanging out with Colt, she’d been content to be with just him. She hadn’t needed or wanted any other man.
So what did that say about their friendship?
It’s always been more than just a simple friendship and you were too stubborn to admit it.
“Sorry. I don’t think I’ve done the dating thing since I was a teen.”
“Funny, I was about to say the same thing.”
“Really? We’re a pair, huh?”
Colt eased back. “Which makes it all the more important that we do this right. Goin’ on dates. Takin’ it one step at a time. I’ve screwed up everything that matters in my life in some way or another, India. Our…relationship is too important to throw away on a quick tumble.”
“To me too.”
“So you agree to go slow?”
“Go slow, as in…”
“Just dating. No sex.”
“I’ve never been more serious in my life.”
India stared at him with such confusion he almost laughed. “To answer the question I see in your eyes, yes, I wanna get nekkid with you. I can’t wait to get nekkid with you. We are so gonna set the mattress on fire when we do get nekkid.”
“But for the past three years you’ve thought of me as Colt, your buddy. Or your Saturday night movie pal. Or the alcoholic you’ve counseled. Or the tattoo guinea pig. Or the guy you call when you need help with your sister’s kids. Or Colt, the cowboy.” He touched her face. “I am all of those, but I want you to see me as a man first.”
“Never any doubt in my mind you’re all man, Colt McKay.”
He cupped her face with one hand and kissed her.
India’s lips parted, but he didn’t delve into temptation. Instead, he feathered his lips across her trembling mouth, as if gauging the best way their lips fit together for a soft exploratory kiss. Or for an openmouthed, tongue clashing, passionate kiss. Or for a playful, biting kiss.
Her breath stuttered when he finally slid his tongue into her mouth. He stroked and licked and tasted without hurry. Without mercy. As if kissing her were the end-all, not just the means to the end.
Colt kissed the corners of her smile, outlining the shape of her upper lip and lower swell with an insistent swipe of his tongue. He nipped and nuzzled and seduced, and yet his hands never moved from her jawbone.
“Wantin’ more ain’t a bad thing,” he whispered. “That’s why we oughta take it slow.”
“It’s never been like this for me.”
“Like what?” He moved back slightly, keeping his cheek pressed into the cushion.
India chewed her lip. Indecision warred in her eyes.
“Sugar, you know you can tell me anything and I ain’t gonna judge you.”
“I know. I just…” She inhaled. Exhaled. “We’ve talked about some of this stuff in meetings. How so many activities and events in our former lives as users were tied to booze.” A long pause ensued as India struggled to keep going.
Colt reached for her hand. “No hurry. We don’t have to talk about this now.”
“But we do. And I’m relieved to finally be talking about it, to be honest because I’ve never been able to tell a man the truth about my past. Some of the things I’ve done.”
“Just like you, I’ve had no real relationships in my sobriety, Colt. I’ve held back…because I’m ashamed.”
“Who you were then, ain’t who you are now, Indy.”
“I can tell myself that, and you can tell me that, because we’ve walked in those shoes. But we both know that’s not always the case with other people in our day-to-day lives. Even people who supposedly care about us.”
His thoughts flashed to his family and their continued skepticism of him.
“And if you share that humiliation, there’s the chance the person will use it against you at the first opportunity. Or they’ll cut you out of their life entirely. So how do you ever trust someone?
Without giving them the power to destroy you?”
Colt knew exactly what she meant. Part of him realized it was a trust issue everyone had on some level. But a larger part of him understood addicts harbored dark secrets that would shock and sicken some people who’d never had to deal with an inner demon hell bent on self-destruction.
Twelve-step meetings were a safe haven, a place to talk to folks who’d also hit rock bottom. But in some ways, those meetings provided attendees a false sense of security. If you’re in a roomful of drunks and addicts, and they’re accepting of your sordid history, well, then maybe there’s a chance others will accept you as you are now, and not judge you on what you’d done in the past.
Wrong. It didn’t work that way.
Colt saw India’s chest rising and falling as if she’d run a race.
He let his thumb drift over the back of her knuckles. “Breathe. Slow and steady.”
After a few minutes, she’d calmed down.
“That’s what I’m here for.”
A soft laugh. “So the question of the day is…will you still be here after I make my confession?”
“Yep. I told you, Indy, I ain’t goin’ anywhere.”
She locked her gaze to his. “If we’re going through with this crazy dating idea of yours, then this is something you should hear.
You should also know I’ve never told this to anyone I care about.”
Rather than let loose a whoop because she admitted she cared about him, he said, “Skylar doesn’t know?”
“No. Just a couple of detox counselors in California and…the other people involved, but I doubt they remember and they were just as stoned out of their gourds as I was.”
Then Colt knew her impending confession would be ugly. He didn’t say a word. He just held her hand, and her gaze and hoped it’d be enough.
“During my using years, I traded sex for drugs. And a couple of times when we couldn’t make rent, I charged for sex.”
“Oh, sugar. That had to’ve been rough.”
The wariness didn’t leave her eyes. “It’s kind of a blur. I’ve never been sure if it’s because I blocked it out, or if it was because of the drugs and booze.”
“Probably some of both. How’d it happen?”
“The guy I was with at the time, Larry, a loser I’d hooked up with in art school, was a small time dealer. We’d get high on whatever product wasn’t selling. His boss would come around to collect the money, and usually we’d snorted or smoked or shot up more than Larry’s cut. So, the boss would take the difference out on trade. Since Larry didn’t have shit, I was the commodity.”
“How long did this go on?”
“A couple of months. Then I OD’d. I don’t really know how I made it to the hospital, but when I woke up, Skylar was there and Larry was long gone. She sent me to detox. By some miracle I hadn’t contracted AIDS or hepatitis or an STD during my blackout sexual hi-jinks. She took me in for a while. I stayed clean, but I got a job at a bar and started drinking. Heavily. And you pretty much know the rest of the story.”
In and out of jail. In and out of treatment programs. Another OD. When they’d met three years ago, she’d been clean and sober for five years.
It amazed him, how India turned her life around. She’d taken her passion for art and turned it into a career. After her mother died, she’d moved away and started over thousands of miles away.
Colt didn’t have the balls to do that. His life had taken a downward spiral for a year or two, but he’d never contemplated shucking it all and starting over out of Wyoming.
“You’re awful quiet, McKay.”
“Just thinkin’ about how brave you are.”
“For telling you my dirty little secret?”
“Maybe. But mostly because you haven’t let your past experiences paralyze you.” He studied her, wondering if he’d overstep his bounds if he voiced the issue on his mind.
“Just ask me the question I see in your eyes, sugar.”
Colt gave her half a head butt. “Smartass woman, makin’ fun of a poor, dumb cowboy like me.”
“Last thing you are, Colt, is dumb. So ask.”
“You are okay with sex now? No guilt, no—”
“—feelings of shame that make it impossible for me to enjoy sex? I love everything about sex. I’m just a lot choosier about who I have sex with. Why?”
“In the years I’ve known you, I don’t recall you ever talkin’ about a specific man, or a relationship, or sex and I wondered if this thing with your past might’ve affected it.”
“Only in that no one knows. After I first moved here, I kept a long distance, fuck buddy type thing with a guy from Denver for a while. But it didn’t last.”
Jealousy tightened his gut. “How come I never knew?”
She shrugged. “It’s easier all around if I keep my personal life out of the meetings. When we were together at A.A., especially in the beginning, I was focused on keeping you sober. It was important you saw me as a survivor, not as a woman.”