I pulled the freshly washed sheets up to my chin and closed my eyes, trying to clear the thoughts swirling inside my head. I knew all too well that morning would come too soon, and I needed my rest. Tomorrow I was on call at the teen shelter; I’d volunteered to be put into their regular rotation of staffers. It was a big commitment but it kept me busy, which I preferred.
Even as I lay warm and cozy in my big empty bed, my thoughts flitted back to the gorgeous stranger who had given off such a mysterious and commanding vibe. I thought about how wounded he was. How high he’d built up his walls. I plotted various ways to reach him, to get through to him and help. Of course, I knew from years of schooling that successful treatment hinged on the patient actually wanting to get better. And something told me Knox didn’t. He seemed comfortable with himself and his sexuality.
I’d be lying to myself if I said I didn’t notice him physically. My undersexed body was highly aware of him. His masculine scent—crisp cotton and spicy aftershave with hints of sandalwood and leather. The five o’clock shadow that I was sure would rasp against my skin if he kissed me, and the deep timbre of his rough voice. It was a lethal combination that did something to me. The man was trouble, a sexy-as-hell troublemaker, but still. It bothered me that I couldn’t turn off my thoughts.
Most of the night I tossed and turned, unable to forget the way Knox’s messy disheveled hair made him look both sexy and dangerous at the same time. The way his dark eyes pierced mine, forcing the air from my lungs.
It was my job to help him, not lust after him. I’d need to follow the advice from my own lessons when he was near—counting backward from ten, taking deep, calming breaths. That is, if he ever showed up again. He seemed adamant that he didn’t belong there, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he dropped out altogether.
What seemed like only minutes later, my alarm went off, startling me awake.
While the water heated for my shower, I dragged myself to the sink to brush my teeth. I was nothing if not efficient. After stepping into the steaming water, I cranked it as hot as I could stand. The heat enveloped me and soothed my aching shoulders. I was exhausted and struggled to remember why, what I did yesterday to wear me out.
A vision of Knox’s chiseled features invaded my mind. Oh yeah. I suppressed a shiver racing down my spine and through my belly and pressed a hand against the wet tile wall, supporting the sudden jolt at the memory of him. I’d never had that weak-in-the-knees, butterflies-in-the-stomach feeling before. I’d thought it was all a myth. But it seemed Knox was the one man who had broken through my defenses.
Too bad he was off-limits and I could do nothing about it.
How your life could change so drastically over the course of a few years was crazy. I could have never imagined that at age eighteen I’d be financially and legally responsible for my three younger brothers.
But when my dad left four years ago, there was no way in f**k I was letting us get split up and sent into the foster care system. We’d been through enough. After losing Mom, and then Dad turning out to be a selfish prick, we had to stick together. Tucker had only been four, and Luke and Jaxon just thirteen and fourteen at the time. I’d graduated early from high school and began working full-time to meet our rent, utilities, and grocery bills. That first year was a blur. We had peanut butter sandwiches for dinner when money was tight, and endured the heat and electricity getting turned off more than once that first year. Things had gotten a little better since then, but it was still hard.
I knew I used girls to forget pain, to mask my emotions, and of course to feel pleasure. That had begun when I was still in high school. I also knew I had no plans to change it. Just because I was in some ridiculous sex addicts group didn’t mean I need to go all holier-than-thou and reform myself. Fuck that. My lifestyle was the only thing keeping me sane at the moment. The only thing keeping me out of jail, most likely. I might tone it down for my brothers’ sake, but I wasn’t about to change who I was.
All week long I’d worked, hit the gym, hung out at home with my brothers, and looked forward to seeing McKenna again. I knew it was stupid. She was my sexual addiction counselor, for f**k’s sake. I was delusional thinking there could be something between us, yet I knew she felt the raw magnetism just like I had. I’d seen it in her eyes. Her curiosity had been unmistakable. The soft inhalation of breath, her fluttering pulse, calling me “Mr. Bauer.” Shit, I had liked that way too much.
After a late-afternoon jog where I’d let the smoggy heat of Chicago drench me in sweat, I showered, dressed, then made the boys a snack just as they were arriving home from school. It was one of the rules I enforced—straight home after school, homework and family dinner, and then friends or other social activities. The front door burst open and a pile of backpacks, shoes, and lunch boxes hit the foyer floor. Jaxon disappeared up the stairs as Luke and Tucker tore into the kitchen, stealing crackers and slices of cheese from the counter where I’d placed them.
“What’s wrong with Jaxon?” I asked.
“He has to poop.” Tucker giggled.
I smiled. Sometimes I felt pretty damn lucky to live with only guys. We said what was on our minds, took care of business, and didn’t overanalyze things. It was a pretty sweet deal.
Minutes later Jaxon appeared, looking sullen. Even though he was the oldest, I worried about him more than the other two. He was in his final year of high school with no clue what he wanted to do afterward.
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