“Relax, McKenna,” he whispered and smiled before sitting down across from me in an old leather armchair.
I released a silent exhale and handed him the notebook. “You left this.”
He took it from my hands, his thumb brushing mine and sending a small thrill up my arm. “Thanks.” He waited, silently watching me, like he knew if he just waited me out, I would explain what I was really doing here.
I took my time, looking around the room, from the gray sheets that were tangled on his bed to a little desk that sat in the corner, complete with a stack of unpaid bills. My unease about Knox, about his life obviously so very different from my own, ratcheted a little higher.
“Did you look inside?” he asked, looking down at the journal in his hands.
“No,” I blurted too quickly, my face flushing with heat. We both knew it was a hasty lie.
He untied the leather string fastened around the notebook and opened the pages to me, turning the book so I could see. He glanced up to watch my reaction, and I brought my hand to the open page, lightly tracing the shadows he’d captured so realistically under her wide eyes. She looked tired and so lifelike.
“You’re very talented,” I murmured. “She must be someone important to you.”
“My mother,” he confirmed.
I met his eyes and smiled. He clearly loved his mother to devote so many hours to sketching her likeness. He flipped through a few of the pages for me to see, and then set the book on the table between us. Again, he waited for me to fill the silence.
My curiosity was too much. “So, Bailee’s your…” I left him to fill in the blank.
“Neighbor’s daughter. We babysit her sometimes for Nikki while she works. Plus it’s probably good for her to have some male role models since her dad’s not in the picture.”
Knox cracked a lopsided grin. “You thought she was mine?”
“I wasn’t sure. You seemed pretty comfortable with her.”
He shrugged. “I guess I am. I mean, I’m comfortable around kids. I have three younger brothers I helped raise. And Bailee’s here enough. She’s a pretty easy baby.”
“Except for that code green stuff?”
He shrugged. “It’s good for the guys to learn to change diapers and warm up bottles. It teaches them responsibility.”
“So you all live here…with your parents?” My voice rose on the question.
“Mom passed away seven years ago, and my dad took off with a waitress a few years after that. I have custody of the boys.”
“Oh.” Everything I thought I knew about Knox, the sex-addicted playboy, was lost in that instant. He was a man who worked hard and loved his family enough to step up and provide for them, putting his own dreams and goals aside. He was a real person, not just one of the bodies who filled a chair at my little group Saturday mornings. And now that I’d gotten a glimpse, I wanted to know more.
“So…” I looked around his room, my uncertainty about being here obvious. “This is your life.”
“This is it,” he confirmed. “Not what you expected?”
His raising his brothers and babysitting for a neighbor? No. Not at all. I glanced to his bedside table again, my eyes seeking the bottle of amber-colored liquor that sat there. I wondered what demons lurked just under the surface of his controlled demeanor. Why he needed the vices he did.
Perhaps we had more similarities than I realized. We were both on our own without our parents. Knox’s load of responsibility was heavier than mine, but my guilt over how I lost my parents might have made up for that deficit. We were each wise beyond our years, burdened with things at a young age. Maybe we recognized that in each other. Something to draw us together. Because I certainly felt drawn to him. More than anyone.
Annoyed, I gave myself a mental kick in the pants, forcing myself to remember I was here to help him, not to pry into every facet of his life.
“Why won’t you open up in group, Knox?” When he shrugged and made a non-committal noise in his throat, I pushed a little harder. “What are you afraid of?”
His gaze leapt to mine. “I’m not afraid. I’m just private. I don’t particularly want to air my dirty laundry in front of a bunch of strangers. Can you blame me?”
“That’s a very normal feeling. But most people find that once they cross that hurdle and open up, there’s a certain comfort in knowing there are others out there with the same struggles. You’re not alone, Knox. The first step is just admitting you have a problem.”
My little speech was met with silence while Knox looked deep in thought. “How about this…I’ll tell you some things that you want to know, if you’ll do the same.”
“You want to know about me?” I asked, surprise evident in my voice.
He shrugged. “Fair’s fair.”
If that would get him talking, I didn’t see any harm. “I’m game. Who starts?”
“I do.” Knox’s dark eyes searched mine, and I fought a little shiver that prickled the skin at the back of my neck. “How did you become a sex addict counselor? Do you have experience with addiction yourself?” Interest flickered in his gaze.
I chewed on my lip again. The story was nothing as dark or interesting as that. The truth was the grief counselor I began seeing in high school led me down this path.
“I went to school for counseling and after I graduated with my bachelor’s degree, I took a part-time position at a center for troubled teens here in the city. I had extra time, so I looked into what other opportunities I could get involved in, and I got linked up with this lady Belinda. She leads SAA and became my mentor. Then after a while of sitting in with her groups, I got my own group.”
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