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by Ally Blue
Category: Romance/Gay Fiction
Description: To get to "Love Me Tender", they'll have to shake things up. Kevin Fraser has a good life--a good job, good friends and a nursing degree within his grasp. There's not a lot of excitement to be found in Asheville, but so what? He doesn't need excitement. Or love, for that matter. Until a big man with an Elvis fixation and the voice to match shows up in his ER and changes his point of view. A diabetes diagnosis isn't the end of the world, just one more problem Owen Hicks doesn't need. It hasn't been easy finding his place in the Cherokee tribe, his family and the world at large since he came out. On top of that, learning to manage the disease that killed his mother is a daunting challenge. He counts himself lucky that the nursing student he befriended in the hospital is willing and able to help. As their fast friendship deepens into something both of them want--yet fear--pressures from without and within stretch their bond to the breaking point. The only way to find the strength to love each other is to find the courage to let go?and hope love is strong enough to bring them together again. Warning: This book contains medical drama, relationship drama, sex, silliness and a Cherokee Elvis. Sorry, no fried banana sandwiches. Thank ya very much.
eBook Publisher: Samhain Publishing, Ltd., 2012 2012
eBookwise Release Date: July 2012
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [299 KB]
Reading time: 188-263 min.
When Kevin Fraser caught the first strains of "Love Me Tender", his rum and Coke lost its way halfway to his mouth and ended up right back on the table without having touched his lips.
Ignoring the laughter, groans and pointed remarks from his friends about absent-minded nursing students, he twisted in his chair to get a look at the owner of the full-bodied Elvis sound-alike voice with just a bare hint of a sexy rasp.
He stared when he saw the man. Tall, paunchy, with shaggy black hair and unremarkable features, he was hardly the gorgeous specimen Kevin had expected, but something about him drew Kevin's attention anyway. Maybe the way his large hands caressed invisible shapes in the air. Or the way his eyes screwed shut and his head tipped back with an emotion Kevin felt all the way in the back of the dark, crowded little bar.
In Kevin's experience, karaoke usually inspired nothing stronger than drunken sentimentality. Whoever this guy was, though, he didn't seem drunk. What he did seem was deeply in love with the damn song.
Which was kind of cool.
Sahara dug a skinny elbow into Kevin's ribs. He turned to look at her, and she grinned. "Didn't know you were an Elvis fan."
"I'm not, usually. But, well." He gestured toward the tiny stage at the other end of the low-ceilinged, grungy wooden room, where the nameless man's amazing voice rose toward the song's climax. "Just listen. I mean, damn."
On Kevin's other side, LaRon laughed. "You got that right. Tell you what, if I had cash to lay down, I'd bet on that one winning the prize tonight."
Everyone around the table agreed. Asheville seethed with wannabe crooners, but Birdie's monthly Karaoke Night singing contests usually didn't draw this caliber of contestant. Sahara and her roommate, Pam, had always blamed it on the bar's location in the wilderness of gas stations, strip malls and budget hotels west of the city proper. After all, Asheville's arts scene--including music of every type you could imagine and some you'd probably rather not--thrived in the downtown area, not the suburbs. LaRon, cynic that he was, generally rebutted with the argument that most people didn't sing nearly as well as they thought they did, especially after they'd knocked back a few.
This guy, though? He was good. Really, really good. Two-hundred-and-fifty-dollar-first-prize-winning good. Kevin was willing to bet his drinking money the guy would still be good even with a few of Birdie's signature Death By Vodka martinis in him.
Though it might take more than a few to make a man that size feel it. Damn, he was big. At least six-seven. Maybe six-eight. Broad shouldered and powerful looking, even with the gut. A couple strides of those long legs took him from one side of Birdie's tiny, sagging stage to the other, and his shaggy head nearly brushed the damn ceiling.
"I bet that dude's hung like a fucking stallion." LaRon pointed toward the stage with his beer bottle. "I don't care if he's fat and ugly, if the goods live up to the advertising, I'd spread for it, you bet."
Ouch. Kevin wrinkled his nose. He'd never been a size queen, like LaRon. In fact he usually preferred to top. Still...
He tilted his head sideways, trying to get a better look past the low-slung studded belt and swirling white cape. Nope, he couldn't tell what Mystery Elvis hid in those white bell-bottoms. He had to admit to a certain amount of curiosity, though, even if giants weren't his usual thing.
"He's not fat, just big." Pam raised her voice to be heard over the thunderous applause that broke out when the singer finished. She leaned over the table, her rings clinking on her highball glass as she tapped her hand against it. "That face isn't anything to write home about, though."
Sahara shrugged. "I don't know. I like the way he looks. He's interesting and kind of mysterious."
"You only think so because you have a thing for singers." Kevin smiled at Sahara and bumped her knee with his under the table to show he was only teasing, but part of his attention remained on the big man with the breathtaking voice and the spark of passion that made people look at him.
* * * *
The tall man did indeed win first place in the contest. Kevin learned his name then--Owen Hicks. Owen took his prize, graciously acknowledged the renewed applause of the crowd with a wave and a Mona Lisa smile, then headed straight out the door into the parking lot.
Kevin watched him go. Something in the sharp lines of his profile and the slow, deliberate way he walked captured Kevin's attention and made him want to know more about the man.
He realized, too late, that he was staring rather blatantly. Giving himself a mental shake, he turned back to his drink. Pam and LaRon would pick on him for ogling Elvis, but not for long. Sahara better not say a damn word.
Pam patted his cheek. "Wait 'til Andy hears about this. He's gonna kick himself for going out with Sergio tonight instead of coming with us."
Dammit. Kevin's roommate, Andy, was a good guy and a close friend, but he never knew when to quit. He'd give Kevin sheer hell about it for a month, minimum.
Sighing, Kevin gulped the rest of his drink and pushed back his chair. "I'll buy the next two rounds if you don't tell Andy."
Pam smiled, sweet as a shark. "Deal."
* * * *
Owen heard the ringing in spite of the water all around him. Once he realized the sound was real and not just lack of oxygen making him hallucinate, he struggled to surface against the unseen hand holding him under.
The grip on his neck held firm. Panic rolled over him like a wave. He opened his mouth to scream, the water rushed in to fill his lungs, and--
"Owen! Wake up, goddammit."
The nightmare evaporated with the familiar sound of Jeffrey's voice. Owen turned onto his back, blinking against the morning light. He squinted at the clock. Not quite nine. He peered at his brother through half-closed eyelids. Jeff stood beside the bed in his underwear, spiky black hair sticking up in a hundred directions, looking about as put out as a person could.
Owen yawned. "What?"
Jeff looked at him like he'd asked something stupid. "Phone, moron." He tossed the phone on top of Owen's tangled, sweaty sheets, turned and shuffled out of the room. "Maybe you could answer the fucking thing next time, since it's always for you."
Owen glared at his brother's retreating back. "Wouldn't always be for me if you ever worked, dipshit."
He got a one-fingered salute in return before Jeffrey dragged back into his own room and slammed the door. Shaking his head, Owen picked up the phone. "'Lo?"
"You and your brother shouldn't fight so much. Your mom and dad wouldn't like it."
Owen smiled in spite of the gentle rebuke. After all, his uncle was right, even if he and Jeff didn't actually fight all that much. "Hi, Uncle Mitch. What's up?"
The pause on the other end lasted just long enough to make Owen nervous. "I know this is last minute, Owen, but could you possibly work today?"
Crap. "What happened to Karen? I thought she was still working this last weekend before she and Patrick moved."
"Her baby's sick. I'm sorry, I know you were supposed to be off this weekend, but your Aunt Winnie's already gone on a buying trip for the shop, and I don't have anyone else." Uncle Mitch sighed, the sound full of a guilt Owen figured he had no real reason to feel. "I'm sorry, son. You know I wouldn't ask if I didn't have to. Especially after you practically ran the place for me after my surgery."
Owen knew how much his uncle hated to ask for help. He'd been all set to go back to work the day after his gallbladder surgery. Would have, too, if Owen and Aunt Winnie hadn't ganged up on him and forced him to stay home while Owen ran the shop. Owen had done it gladly. To be honest, though, he wasn't any too anxious to go in to work today after being out half the night. Hell, his back still ached from pounding Harlan's ass--or was it Harry? Whatever, it didn't matter--when they'd hooked up at that gay dive he'd hit after Birdie's. But his Uncle Mitchell and Aunt Winifred had been like a second set of parents to Owen, Jeffrey and their younger sister Sharon, especially after their mother died eight months ago. Owen would do anything for them. Anything. Besides, he liked his aunt and uncle's antique shop. He loved the tall shelves, the narrow aisles, the sense of history there. He even liked the way it smelled, like old books and dust, family and peace and happy times.
"Don't apologize. Of course I'll come to work." Shoving the sheet aside, Owen scratched his crotch. "When do you need me?"
"As soon as you can get here."
Owen stifled a sigh. No time for breakfast, then. Right on cue, his stomach rumbled. "Just let me get cleaned up. I'll be there in about an hour."
"Thank you, Owen. You're a godsend, you really are. See you soon."
"Sure thing. Bye."
Owen clicked off the phone, swung his legs over the side of the mattress and pushed to his feet. The world spun around him.
He plopped back onto the edge of the bed, fighting a sudden surge of nausea. What the hell? Surely he hadn't had that much to drink last night. He hadn't even gotten a buzz, for fuck's sake.
After a few seconds, the sickness and dizziness cleared. He rose, both arms out to the side to counter the wobbliness in his knees. He still didn't feel quite normal, but maybe that would clear up after he ate. Lucky for him, Uncle Mitch usually had some sort of food at the shop. He and Jeff sure as shit didn't have anything worth eating around here, even if he'd had time for food. Which he didn't.
Once he felt steady enough, Owen headed for the shower. Looked like a long day ahead.
* * * *
At the shop, Owen ate three of the jelly doughnuts Uncle Mitch had left in the break room for him and washed them down with two large mugs of strong coffee heavy on the sugar and cream. It didn't make him feel any better, though. In fact, an hour later he felt worse than ever. His hands shook, his head whirled and cold sweat plastered his shirt to his back. He tasted bile in his throat.
"Thank you, young lady. Come back to see us next time you're in town." Uncle Mitch waited until the young woman at the counter left with the 1901 copy of Andersen's Fairy Tales she'd just bought, then turned to frown at Owen. "You don't look so good, son. You okay?"
"Yeah, I'll be fine. Just picked up a little bug someplace, I guess." A wave of vertigo made Owen stumble between the jewelry display case and the checkout counter where his uncle stood. He planted a palm on the counter's corner, trying to make the move look casual instead of necessary to keep himself from falling over. He forced a smile in answer to the worried crease digging deeper between Uncle Mitch's eyes. "Look, I'm just feeling a little sick, is all. I'll get a bottle of Pepsi out of the fridge, sit down in the back for a few minutes, and I'll feel better. Okay?"
The look on the older man's lined face said it wasn't okay at all, but he nodded anyway and waved Owen into the back of the shop. Owen went as nonchalantly as he could, using chairs, counters and walls for balance. All the way, he felt Uncle Mitchell's sharp gaze boring in between his shoulder blades.
The squeak of the shop door opening was a relief, since it took his uncle's attention off him long enough for him to stagger into the break room, swipe a cold soda from the fridge and plop onto the creaky old sofa Aunt Winnie had insisted on putting there because she said it made the tiny space more homey. As if one saggy blue-and-pink floral couch could do a damn thing to relieve the room's seventies-horror-movie theme of dark wood paneling, yellow Linoleum flooring and the ugliest stained white Formica table Owen had ever seen in his life.
Owen unscrewed the cap on his Pepsi and took a deep gulp. He slouched until he could lean his head against the back of the couch and stare up at the ceiling. The water spots moved like the things they used to stare at through the microscopes in high school biology. He snickered. That probably shouldn't be happening, but shit, it was funny.
Somewhere in the back of his mind, he knew something was wrong. Not just wrong, but wrong. With a capital W. But his brain felt vague and fuzzy, his thoughts cotton-wrapped.
A memory of his mother in her last days floated to the surface of his mind--her face grayish, beaded with sweat, her eyes half-shut. She didn't recognize Jeffrey or Sharon at all, didn't recognize Sharon's husband or kids, didn't recognize Uncle Mitch or Aunt Winnie. She cried when she saw a picture of Dad--dead seven years at that point--and touched Owen's face as if she knew him. But she didn't say a word before she died. Not one word. Her illness stole all her memories from her and forced her to die alone, even though she was at home with her whole family gathered around her bedside.
Owen knew what had killed her. She'd fought it for years. But he couldn't remember now. Why couldn't he remember?
He lifted his hand to take another swallow of Pepsi, as if it could help him think. The bottle dropped from his fingers. He felt it slide from his hand but couldn't find the strength to grasp it.
Cold liquid gurgled from the plastic bottle onto his right thigh, soaking into his jeans. The sensation seemed far away, as if someone else were experiencing it, and the sense of wrongness grew stronger.
He stared at the half-open door. Uncle Mitch's warm laughter floated from the shop, down the hallway to the break room where Owen sat in a puddle of soda, heart racing, stomach churning, cold sweat running into his eyes. Too weak to stand, Owen licked his lips and tried calling out. "Unc... Uncle Mitch?"
His voice sounded shaky and feeble. He barely heard it himself. No way would Uncle Mitch hear.
Oh well. Surely his uncle would come check on him after he'd taken care of the customer. Letting himself slump into the cushions, Owen shut his eyes and listened to the roaring in his ears drown out everything else.
* * * *
Kevin had barely clocked in at the emergency department on Saturday before he got caught up in the usual weekend chaos. Broken bones and sprained joints, chest pains, coughs and fevers, minor injuries and major ones from alcohol-fueled fights, car wrecks, falls, etcetera. Friday night always spilled over into Saturday.
He'd just finished holding a sobbing toddler while the doctor stitched up the gash in her leg--her dad lay in the trauma bay next door, getting three units of blood and a shitload of drugs to sedate him before the surgeon took him to the OR to fix both his broken femurs--when Sahara stuck her head through the gap between the curtain and the wall. "Hey, Kevin. Jackie needs you in room 42 as soon as you get done here."
Frustrated, Kevin widened his eyes at Dr. Hill. The doc shrugged. "Mom's getting a cast on her arm. She ought to be done in a few minutes, but honestly, she's not going to be in any shape to look after little Luella here." Smiling, he leaned down to peer into the child's big, watery brown eyes. "Okay there, sweetie?"
She looked at him, her bottom lip quivering, and said nothing. Kevin's heart went out to her. He laid a hand on her dark little head. "Can't Jackie get someone else to help? We have an aunt on the way, but she won't be here for another fifteen minutes or so, and I can't leave my girl here alone."
"I'll stay with her. Jackie's got a transfer in from Cherokee Hospital with ketoacidosis. He's combative, and they need more help holding him." Sahara walked over and crouched down to look Luella in the eye. "Hi, honey. My name's Sahara. Can you come sit with me for a while so Kevin can go help someone who's very, very sick?"
Luella stuck a finger in her mouth. She twisted around to gaze solemnly up at Kevin for a moment, then held out both chubby arms toward Sahara. Kevin let Sahara lift the child and cradle her on one thin hip. "What about the desk? We don't have another secretary until three."
"We didn't, no. But Sue called around and got Mike to come in early. He's here, he can cover the desk himself for a while until Luella's aunt gets here." Sahara settled herself into the recliner, rubbing one hand in soothing circles on the little girl's back. "Go on, Kev. I got this."
Dr. Hill deposited the suture needle in the sharps container, peeled off his gloves and threw them in the trash. "Do they need me in there?"
Sahara shook her head. "I don't think so. Dr. Lorenz is already in there."
"Okay. I'm gonna go try to grab some lunch, then. I'll be in the lounge if anyone needs me." Dr. Hill slung the curtain aside and strode out with the speed particular to doctors on duty.
Kevin hesitated. "You sure you're okay here?"
"Yeah, fine. Look, she's three quarters asleep already. Worn out." Sahara jerked her chin toward the bustling room outside the curtain. "Hurry up. Jackie sounded pretty frantic."
"All right, I'm going." Kevin took a second to assure himself that Luella had indeed drifted into a doze against Sahara's shoulder, then jogged out of the cubicle and across the ER toward room 42.
He heard it way before he got there, even through the usual noise of the emergency room early on a Saturday afternoon--a male voice shouting, nearly drowning out the sounds of at least three different people telling him as calmly as possible to just relax, lie back, everything was all right, no one would hurt him. The occasional rattle of side rails punctuated the overlapping voices.
In his year and a half of working as a nursing assistant here, Kevin had learned to tell a certain amount about a person simply from listening to them. One thing he figured out pretty quick was that the man in that bed was big.
Dammit. He hated wrestling with confused, scared people who outweighed him.
An older gentleman, tall and wiry with gray-streaked black hair wound into a braid down his back, stood outside the cubicle twisting his fingers together. His wide, bronze face was lined with worry. His dark eyes lifted and his gaze locked with Kevin's. Kevin gave him a nod and a reassuring smile before rushing inside.
A pair of long, sturdy legs flailed on the stretcher. One foot was bare. A dingy white sock with a hole in the heel clung to the other foot. Leather restraints held both thick wrists, but the gurney railings shook nevertheless as the man fought against the bindings. One of the RNs, David, leaned hard on the man's hand in an attempt to hold his arm still so Jackie could start an IV. An old IV lay on the overbed table a few feet away. Blood spotted the sheet and the patient's blue-and-white gown where he'd evidently pulled it out.
David glanced up. "Kevin, hold his chest down. He keeps trying to sit up."
"Got it." Kevin hurried around to the other side of the bed. Jackie didn't even acknowledge him, all her attention focused on finding a vein in the man's straining arm.
Kevin planted both hands on the big man's chest before looking into his face. When he did, he nearly let go of him in shock.
Their patient was Owen Hicks. The winning Elvis from last night.