Enjoy a sample of I Hear You.
I wheeled myself from beneath the Cadillac, sat up, and stretched my back. Every muscle in my body was knotted and aching. I glanced down to find my normally spotless shirt was more dingy black than cloudless blue. Nothing had been easy with today’s patient, and my uniform had taken the brunt of its defiance.
“You look like shit, pretty boy,” a familiar voice said. Sam Prescott never missed the chance to give me grief.
“Don’t take this the wrong way, boss, but you’re no rose yourself.”
“Ha. I’m smokin’ hot, and you know it. It’s a wonder you’ve kept your hands off me this long.”
“Yeah, a total wonder,” I deadpanned as I struggled to my feet. Sam had been my best friend from the first day I started working for him. He was rough around the edges, but a great guy. “God, my back is stiff. This car’s a beast. Can we just shoot it?”
“I’m not sure bullet holes are what we’re paid for.” Sam’s grin widened. “Is she done? I promised the owner a call today before we closed, and it’s seven thirty.”
“Yeah, just need to have one of the guys clean her up.”
“Right, first thing in the morning. Let’s get out of here.” He turned, then called back over his shoulder. “Any Friday night plans?”
“Nah. I’m beat. May just watch a little TV and hit the sack early.”
“Wow. Nashville’s most prominent party boy passing up a Friday night? Is that even allowed? Please tell me you haven’t screwed your way through the entire phone book already.”
I flicked him the bird, and he laughed.
“Hey, even us pros need a break. It takes a lot of energy to please this town’s A list. Besides, tomorrow’s supposed to be a big night at Shadow Box. There’s been rumors about some high-end DJ and a guest performer on the agenda. It’s got all the boys worked up, and I want to be in my best form. You know I can’t leave with anything less than best in show, right?”
“Sweet Jesus, no. That would be a serious party foul, probably get splattered all over the front cover of the Nashville Scene. I can see the headline now: Gay World Rocked as Nashville’s Most Eligible Bachelor Leaves Bar with a Nine. How would you live with yourself?”
“I do have a rep to maintain.” I winked, then braced myself against the Caddie and rose. “What about you guys? Ever gonna leave your cave and let us boys admire your domestic bliss?”
Sam rolled his eyes. “Yeah, we’re pretty domestic. Miguel will probably have dinner on the table when I walk in.”
“Aww, such a good little gay. You already have him trained. Does he wear an apron too?”
Sam grabbed a rag and tossed it at me. “You should see when he cooks with nothin’ but the apron—”
“Alright. Enough. I don’t need to hear about your disgustingly happy life.”
Sam beamed. Mr. Rough-and-tumble was truly whipped. “You should try it. There’s something to be said for knowing what you’re walking into each night.”
“I know exactly what’s waiting for me at home. Dom’s always happy to see me.”
Domino was my one-year-old border collie. A neighbor back home in Pensacola was a breeder and gave him to me as a birthday present. He was barely bigger than both my hands together when I held him that first time. I hadn’t really wanted a dog, or the responsibility that came with having a child, but now I couldn’t imagine life without him. Unfortunately, as smart as he was proving to be, he had yet to learn to cook dinner. Sam had me beat on that score.
He shook his head, then vanished into his office.
I held my hands under a stream of scalding water for a long moment before lathering up in a sad attempt to wash off the Cadillac’s residue.
It was eight o’clock by the time I climbed into my old Ford pickup and pulled out of the lot. The road blurred in my vision, and the full weight of the day settled firmly about my shoulders. Tired didn’t begin to describe how I felt, but I knew Dom would be excited and need to burn off energy the moment I crossed my apartment’s threshold. I turned into the parking lot of Buddy Brew, a local coffee shop a couple blocks from my house. I’d never keep up with the little beast, but I had to at least stay awake while walking him.
The coffee shop’s parking lot was packed, but when I entered, the only sounds that greeted me were the chatter of baristas and the whirring of grinders. The comforting smell of burnt beans and cinnamon tickled my nose.
I glanced around the shop to find a group of guys in the far corner sitting in a wide circle of pulled-together chairs. They listened intently as one spoke in low tones I couldn’t make out. A table near the window was occupied by a man with a laptop. Several long-dead paper cups and a plate containing the mutilated remains of a muffin lay scattered about his computer. The poor guy was probably a writer or student and had sat there for hours staring at a blinking cursor. I couldn’t imagine a slower way to die.
A young woman in a Belmont University T-shirt sat with her legs curled beneath her in a puffy chair. She eyed me a couple times, and I flashed her my best I see you checking me out smile. She shook her head, then pointed at my chest. I glanced down to find a large swath of grease I’d missed when cleaning up. How it got past the powder-blue bowling shirt every tech at the shop wore was a wonder. AC/DC would never forgive me for smearing car guts all over a vintage shirt bearing their logo.
“Damn it,” I muttered as I wiped the oily smear with a napkin, only succeeding in spreading it further across and into the fabric. The girl grinned at my distress then returned her attention to her book.
I sighed and leaned against the counter, resigned to a day that had beaten me senseless.
“Poor thing. You look so sad.” Woody, the surfer-dude-turned-barista, nearly startled me out of my shirt. “Want your usual, big guy?”
“Hey, Woody, sure. Can you add an extra shot though? I’m dead on my feet tonight.”
“Sure thing, dude. One large mocha latte, no whip, room for skinny cream, add choco shavings, a shot of hazelnut, and an extra shot—in an extra-large cup—coming right up.”
“When you say it like that, I sound pretty high maintenance.”
“If the slipper fits, Dorothy.” He cocked a brow, then turned to make my decidedly not high-maintenance drink, chuckling all the way.
I drifted to the end of the counter where my caffeine boost would be delivered and aimlessly perused the new mugs they had on offer. One was molded like a grinning bear’s face, complete with teeth whose tips dripped coffee. Another bore the image of the shop’s founder, Buddy Adams, now an octogenarian who rarely set foot in the place. His broad smile and thinning white hair made the chocolate-colored mug pleasant enough, but it still felt a little weird.
A sudden burst of laughter pulled my head up. The guys in the circle were all teeth and gums. Some clapped, while others laughed and waved jazz hands in the air. Their amusement was infectious, but there was something different in the tones of their laughter. Curiosity drew me into their world.
They were an odd mix of ages, especially for Buddy Brew, who usually catered to the twenty-something and college crowd. Half the men looked to be in their thirties or older. The speaker and a few who sat around him were close to my own age of twenty-nine. One lone youngster giggled on the far side of the circle, appearing no more than sixteen or seventeen. The little puddin’ wore a T-shirt small enough for a preteen girl, which had more sequins than a Hollywood actress at the Oscars. Thick, flamingo-pink eyeliner completed his look.
Most in the group wore some kind of hearing aid—and not the tiny kind designed to disappear. These were large, flesh-colored hunks of plastic, and some were attached to thumb-sized microphones that hung about their neck. When the kid’s fingers started flying, it all clicked into place.
“One chocolate death, good sir.” I turned to find Woody extending a cup across the counter. He followed my gaze and nodded. “They’re here most Fridays. Fun guys.”
I grabbed my drink and turned back toward the group as they settled and focused on the speaker again.
“They’re all deaf?” I asked.
“Yeah. It’s the local gay deaf group. I forget what they call themselves. It’s a play on the flag and an ear. Rainbow Lobes? Canals? No . . . drums. That’s it. Rainbow Drums. Or is it Drumettes? I can’t ever remember.”
I chuckled. “That’s a really terrible group name. They know that, right?”
“I don’t know. Seems to fit, I guess. Pretty cool they can make fun of themselves like that.”
I hadn’t meant to stare, but I couldn’t pull my eyes away. One of the guys seated beside the speaker caught me looking and returned my gaze. I wasn’t sure if he was annoyed I’d intruded into their personal space or, I don’t know, found my greasy shirt attractive?
Yeah, he looked annoyed.
He ran a hand through a mess of wavy brown hair and glanced away, then back up at me.
“Holy cow, those eyes,” I muttered.
The guy flashed a grin, then returned his attention to the group.
The warmth of the coffee in my hand somehow traveled up my arm and into my chest.
Shit, he was cute.
Woody chuckled. “Uh-huh. That’s Gabe. He’s freakin’ adorable. Careful though. That pack is protective.”
“Thanks for the java.” I gave Woody a coffee cup salute and made my way toward the exit.
As I turned and pressed my back into the glass door, another burst of laughter broke the shop’s silence. I looked up to find Gabe staring at me again. His eyes sparkled, and his smile was warm as he laughed at some private jest. I couldn’t help grinning back and raising my cup toward him. I guess he hadn’t expected that, because his eyes widened and one hand raised in a tentative wave as I pushed my way out into the night.