“You’re not giving me a sponge bath,” Taber snapped and glowered at Deacon as he wheeled himself into the locker bay. The sweat ran down his temples, his shirt soaked through with it. He took in his motionless legs and grimaced before shooting Deacon another irritated look.
Deacon sat with his feet on one of the peeling dark blue benches, his back reclined against a bank of gray lockers along the far wall in the physical therapy building. A book was balanced on his knees, and black-rimmed glasses perched on his nose. His shaggy auburn hair fell to curl around his ears in disarray.
Deacon peered at him with pale green eyes. “There go my dreams of rubbing you down and tweeting the pics.” He gave him a wry grin, closed his book, and shoved it into a bag on the floor before Taber could get a good look at what the title was.
you here?” Taber retrieved some clothes from his locker. He breathed in the stale scent of perspiration and musk. It’d become a familiar smell to him since his physical therapy had begun four months prior. The dingy concrete floors and grunts of exertion from the workout room were an ordinary part of life.
“Stephen called me,” Deacon replied and stood. He was tall, a bit on the lanky side, a quality emphasized by the overly baggy khaki pants paired with a hideous T-shirt of some random band Taber had never heard of.
“Why?” Taber tugged his shirt off, grabbed the clean one, and jerked it over his head.
The shower would have to wait until he got home. He had no desire to shower with Deacon nearby. The guy lived to pull pranks, and the laughter that resulted kept him from any negative ramifications from the outrageous stunts. Taber had been certain Mica, a fellow fireman, would kill Deacon when he had switched Mica’s bodywash with bronzer, turning the man into an orange giant for the week. Yet the guys just laughed it off. And when Deacon had shaved the Superman symbol on Dale’s chest after a drunken night at a bar, Dale had just adopted a new hero nickname. All the mischief had occurred during the time Taber had been in the hospital, and Deacon had made a point of relaying every detail. Taber was not going to give the mischief maker a chance to put him in the hot seat.
“It seems you have scared away your caregiver,” Deacon responded with one raised mocking brow.
Taber exhaled loudly. “Of course I did. She kept trying to see if my equipment worked.” The experience wasn’t something he wanted to relive. He cringed. The likelihood of his bits and pieces standing and taking notice of a woman were slim to none.
“Does it?” Deacon asked, his gaze zeroing in on Taber’s lap.
Taber snagged his gym bag, blocking Deacon’s view. “If you’re asking about how much sensation I have below the waist, that’s none of your damn business.”
“What you’re saying is it works, then?” Deacon hauled on his backpack.
“Are you done avoiding my original question?” Taber persisted.
“I’m here because you’ve gone through all the caregivers in the area willing to deal with your shit, so being the amazing friend I am, I’ll be moving in,” Deacon announced with a flourish.
“Hell no, you won’t,” Taber exclaimed, shock and horror rushing through him.
“It’s me or Handsy Sally.” Deacon wiggled his fingers. “Your call. Just know this: my job obligations will not involve checking if the pump down south still functions, so don’t try anything.”
“It won’t be an issue, because you will not be coming home with me,” Taber said between clenched teeth.
“Come on now. The other caregivers said you were not cooperative, and”—Deacon’s voice lowered—“one even said you were rude.”
“I think they used stronger language. Frankly I was shocked by their assessment,” Deacon said, matter-of-fact.
Taber knew he shouldn’t ask, but he couldn’t help himself. “Why is that?”
“The way they described you made you sound a hell of a lot nicer than I would have.”
Taber sighed. The other caregivers had been intrusive. “Then it’s a good thing you won’t be taking their place.” The very idea of Deacon being around hours on end, invading his space, made dealing with the other caregivers seem like a breeze.
“Yes, he will.”
Stephen, Taber’s physical therapist, strode into the room. At least four inches above Taber’s six feet two, with a frame that carried two hundred and seventy pounds of what was almost all muscle, intimidating
did not begin to describe Stephen. Not to mention his shaved head and nearly black eyes. When he said jump
, it was hard not to immediately say, How high?
Which, in Taber’s case, held a certain level of inappropriate humor.
“I need someone to keep an eye on you as much as possible. You’re overdoing things at home. You barely made it through the session today.”
“Is there another option?” Taber’s gaze bounced between Stephen and Deacon. Deacon smirked.
“Sure. I return home with you and bring Joy and Lynn with me,” Stephen said, running a hand over his head. “I’m sure the girls would love a go at playing with your wheelchair and building forts with all your furniture.”
“Deacon it is,” Taber replied with a resigned sigh. The idea of living with Stephen was bearable, but living with Stephen’s nieces… No way. They were little demons. Blonde-haired children of the corn, twins with the faces of angels. Deacon was a cakewalk by comparison.
Stephen laughed. “I knew you’d see it my way.” He looked him over. “You’re not going to shower?”
“No.” Taber shoved all his stuff inside his bag. With a frustrated growl, he rubbed his hands over his face before pinning Stephen with a narrow gaze. “I’ll do it at home.”
He hoped Stephen left it at that. All he wanted to do was get back to the house and figure out how Deacon was going to fit into his new position as caregiver. Stephen had shoved Taber into a corner, and now he’d have to find a way to live in it or escape.
“Are we going?” Deacon asked, tapping his foot, an impatient expression on his face.
“I’ll take Taber home, and you can follow behind. That way you can drive your Jeep, and I don’t have to find a way to get that death trap you call a vehicle to the house,” Stephen declared before Taber could get a word in edgewise. It was easy to tell the man used to be in the military.
Stephen strode over to stand behind him and rested his hands on the handles to maneuver the wheelchair.
“Stop. I’ve got it,” Taber grumbled and placed his hands on the wheel grips.
“Stubborn ass,” Deacon muttered.
Taber’s jaw clenched, and he bit back the words that rose. It got tiring to constantly have people trying to help him. He hated depending on others, and he intended to do what he could to eventually be self-sufficient. He pushed the wheels and made his way out to the parking lot. The guys at Firehouse Six had put together a collection to buy him the black specialty SUV.
A twinge of pain stabbed through his heart at the thought of never working with them again. He’d let go of the idea of returning to firefighting, but he continued to feel a deep pang of loss. Every person who went into the dangerous profession knew there existed a chance they’d be injured, but the reality of it… Well, that happened to be a whole other world of hurt. Not just physically either. He’d been lucky not to have any serious burns. His career ender had been a damaged spine from a snapped beam. In one second, every element of his life had changed.
Deacon jogged off ahead of them to an old lime-green Jeep with more dents than smooth surfaces. The way the thing looked, it amazed him the doors opened. The windows showed boxes piled high in the backseat, illustrating Deacon’s future roommate status.
“It’s nice of him,” Stephen murmured, “to step up and be there for you. Not many people have friends like that.”
“Intrusive ones?” Taber positioned his chair on the platform and transferred into the SUV.
Stephen rolled his eyes before shutting the door and climbing into the driver’s seat. He glanced at him. “Better to have ones who care too much than ones who don’t care at all.”
“Why did you call Deacon and not one of the other guys?”
“The men at the firehouse have pretty strange schedules, and I know Deacon is working swings. That means he can be with you in the morning and for most of the night.” Stephen started the SUV and veered out onto the road. “Before you ask, the reason I know is I talked to Michael, who asked around.”
Taber’s head fell back, and he closed his eyes. There were times when he wanted to say fuck it
and accept the idea of never walking again. Then he had Stephen and the doctors telling him it was a possibility, but he’d never be 100 percent; however, with additional surgeries and working the muscle he had with stretches, he could regain some mobility. As it was, he’d at least been able to escape a colostomy bag.
“You’re not listening to me, are you?” Stephen’s voice cut into his jumbled thoughts.
He opened his eyes. “Sorry, just tired.” The excuse wasn’t exactly a lie.
“I was serious before. You need to limit your at-home physical therapy.” Stephen parked in Taber’s driveway and turned to him. “I need you to hear me on this. Doing more isn’t going to get you there faster. What you’re really striving for can only be had with surgery. No amount of physical therapy is going to give you more sensation or the ability to walk again. It’ll help you work with what you have, but if you keep running yourself ragged, you’ll set yourself back. We need you healthy.”
Taber nodded. Stephen handled him with kid gloves where the physical therapy was concerned. Working a bit more on the side wasn’t going to destroy him. He’d done his research. It was easier to agree with Stephen than argue with him when he had no intention of heeding Stephen’s orders.
Stephen glowered, looking as if he was gearing up for a more extended lecture, so Taber cut him off by exiting the SUV just as Deacon pulled up onto the concrete drive beside them.
The neighborhood consisted of cookie-cutter homes. It had been a new development when Taber had bought his place. Now cul-de-sacs and minivans ruled the streets. It made for a peaceful living area when compared to his previous apartment downtown.
Deacon immediately stepped out of his Jeep and put his cell phone to his ear. Taber couldn’t hear what was said, but with the way Deacon paced and gestured wildly, it wasn’t a happy conversation.
Stephen slammed the door and stood with him, watching Deacon, whose voice had risen, so some things could be made out.
“Maybe you should have thought about that, you egomaniacal asshole,” Deacon shouted. “Could you be any more cliché? No. Just don’t. I’m so tired of dealing with this shit. I’m done.”
Deacon’s arm clenched, and Taber thought he might throw the phone, but instead Deacon stared at the ground and took a deep breath. Obviously the conversation had ended, but the stress remained in the tight set of Deacon’s shoulders.
Deacon shifted and held up a finger to them, motioning for one more minute as he made another call.
“Do you have any clue what that was about?” Stephen asked. “Because Deacon looks like someone kicked his puppy.”
Taber shook his head and rolled over to Deacon just in time to hear him thank the person he’d called.
“Sorry about that,” Deacon muttered and attempted a smile that didn’t reach his eyes.
Taber vacillated between inquiring what the problem was and keeping his mouth shut. He didn’t know a whole lot about Deacon, beyond the surface facts, and now that they’d be living together, setting boundaries would probably be smart. Still, hurt and anger emanated from Deacon. Taber wanted to wipe those feelings away and bring the Deacon he knew back, even if it meant dealing with the happy, dorky prankster.
“Is everything okay?” he found himself asking. “Will I be deprived of the joy of your company?”
“Hardy har har,” Deacon scoffed, shoving his cell into his pocket and assessing Taber. “You’re not that lucky.” While his words were teasing, his expression remained troubled.
Taber felt the heavy weight of Stephen’s hand on his shoulder. “Taber, if you wanted to get lucky, you could have kept Sally around.”
“That’s just wrong. She kept calling my dick a hose.”
“Wow.” Deacon opened the Jeep’s door and retrieved a backpack. “Sounds like I missed out. I doubt I would be her type, though.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Taber demanded, scowling.
“I’d imagine she’s more attracted to the broad-shouldered rugged men than my less-than-stellar scrawny physique.” Deacon sauntered to Taber’s house as if he’d lived there his whole life. “Let’s go. I want to get the lay of the land.”
“If you guys don’t need me, I’m heading out. The girls will be home soon,” Stephen said.
“Wait, you’re walking?” Taber asked, a little reticent to be left alone with Deacon just yet.
“My house isn’t far from yours.” Stephen crossed his arms, the gym logo stretching over the broad muscles of his chest.
“I could give you a lift,” Deacon offered from the doorway of Taber’s house.
Taber surveyed his postage-sized yard, which remained green because of the timed sprinkler system. His one-level house, a light blue color with a small wraparound deck providing enough space to sport a porch swing. One he hadn’t used since before the fire that had crippled him.
“I’m good. I could use the exercise,” Stephen replied.
Taber assessed him. Stephen didn’t have an ounce of fat on him.
“You’re right. Better run that distance. Your ass is getting huge,” Deacon conceded. “Plus, who knows what those girls could do if left to their own devices.”
Taber suppressed a laugh. Deacon stood with one hand on his hip and waved in an overexaggerated fashion.
“One of these days, someone is going to get you back for all your mouthy comments, my friend,” Stephen promised before turning to sprint down the street.
“Eh, I doubt it,” Deacon yelled after him.
Taber wheeled his way up the ramp the guys had built for him and onto the porch. Deacon moved to the side so Taber could unlock the door and open it.
“Come on in.” He allowed Deacon to step in before him. With a silent plea for the patience he’d need to deal with Deacon, he followed and tugged the door shut.
Deacon strode into Taber’s living room, his shoes loud on the hardwood floors. A large area rug covered part of the dark mahogany, the royal-blue couch and pine table completing the space. A flat-screen TV took up space on one wall, but a stone fireplace remained the focal point of the room.
Deacon tossed his bag next to the couch and pivoted to face him. “Do you have a spare room, or will I be crashing on your couch?”
“There’s a futon in the room down the hall to the left, but I haven’t set up a dresser or anything. There’s a desk. My room is the first door on the right. The bathroom is across from it. Across from the guest room is a small laundry room. The kitchen is through there.” Taber gestured to an archway where gray-tiled countertops could be made out.
“Got it.” Deacon sat on the ottoman. “So, what were the responsibilities of your previous caregivers?”
Taber flinched at the term. Caregiver.
As though he needed a babysitter. “They helped with some meals, with cleaning the house, some of my at-home physical therapy, and kept an eye out to make sure I…” His jaw clenched. “To make sure I didn’t hurt myself. They used to see to my more basic needs like dressing, but I can do that now.”
He had fought damn hard for every inch of freedom after the accident. It’d taken some personal mental introspection to come to the conclusion he could live life without fighting fires; he just wasn’t sure what he would be doing instead. He held no ill will against anyone for the damage done to his spine. His job was dangerous, and when the beam of the burning building came down on him, he’d honestly thought he would die. Michael, his lieutenant, had run in and dragged him out. He was grateful to be alive, but he wasn’t the man he’d been before. Knowing all of that didn’t stop the occasional nightmares that plagued his sleep.
“Good,” Deacon said with no sarcasm.
Taber looked at him, a bit shocked. He didn’t think anything but
sarcasm and humor could come out of Deacon’s mouth.
“Don’t give me that look,” Deacon admonished. “That’s why I’m here, Taber. I’m going to hopefully help get you to a level of independence so you don’t need me around bugging you.”
Taber found himself smiling, a rare event in recent months. “That’s definitely plenty of motivation.”
“Mockery aside, I need to go bring in some of my stuff.”
“Can I hel—” he started and then pressed his lips together. “I need to go get cleaned up.” His face heated as he wheeled away before saying anything else. Can I help? What the fuck could I do?
He maneuvered into the bathroom and took in the various adaptations that were in place to assist him. The shower was modified to include bars and a chair for him to transfer over to, with the addition of lower shelves. The toilet had bars on either side, so he could easily shift over from his chair. Everything was set up for him. What would Deacon think when he came in here? Professional caregivers expected this sort of customized arrangement, but how would Deacon see this room?
The outer door opened and shut a couple of times. Deacon’s footsteps trod up and down the hallway to the guest room.
“Hey, Taber? I have to go run some errands. I’ll be a few hours. Do you need anything before I go?”
“No,” he answered, needing some time alone without Deacon’s prying eyes. If he wanted to stay on Stephen’s good side, then he had to adjust to having Deacon around. That didn’t mean he intended to depend on the man any more than necessary.
“Groovy. Don’t get into any trouble while I’m gone.”
Draven St. James