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Without Words by Delancey Stewart (1)

Chapter One

Rob

The club was packed. Saturday night, guess I shouldn’t be surprised. I liked it that way. Though crowds weren’t really my thing, if there were enough people focused on their own crap, not too many of them even noticed me. I was part of the scenery, just a voice and a guitar in the corner. Normally, no one bothered me. I could drink and play for a couple of hours, head back home, and feel better in the morning. Some nights, women would lurk around, trying to get me to notice them, but something about my attitude usually put them off before they managed to speak.

I didn’t generally even bother to look up. I didn’t need the crowd, didn’t want the money—though Trent always paid me the standard night rate and the crowd usually dropped tips onto the stage. But the anonymity and the hum of voices helped me lose myself, lose the chaotic spin inside my head. And that was something I did need.

But tonight, something was different.

It started like always. Trent called to let me know the place was busy and the stage was open. He had bands come in, or singer-songwriter types. But if nothing was planned, or someone bailed, Trent would let me know.

Trent stayed behind the bar on the nights he was there, smiling, chatting, flirting. I watched him sometimes, remembering what it was like to fit in, to interact with other people without a second thought.

Didn’t matter, though. That wasn’t me. Not anymore.

Tonight, I set up and started playing, my Jack and Coke on the small table by my side. I tried a few chords, tuned my axe, and started to play. As soon as my fingers connected with the strings, the crowd would fade away. I sang, too, which is funny if you think about it, since I don’t talk much anymore. But when the words are connected to my fingers, to the music, well, that’s different. And that’s why I come.

To hear the sound of my own voice without hating myself for it.

To feel the words come naturally, without each one being a fucking struggle.

To feel human again.

I rarely even look up when I play. The crowd, the people, they don’t really matter. I need them there, but they’re just a backdrop. I don’t see them as anything more than color and movement around me, like a warm, close shell. But tonight, something shifted for just a second. A little temblor, maybe just a jolt? We get those sometimes. San Diego sits on the Rose Canyon Fault, and earthquakes aren’t uncommon. I looked up to see if anyone else had felt it.

But when I glanced up, nothing was different. Except that the table to the right of the stage near the bar now held two girls. And one of them might as well have had a neon sign over her head. My attention was that drawn to her. My fingers froze for a second on the strings and I stumbled over the lyrics as I got myself back together.

What the fuck was that?

Since the accident, people really didn’t have much of an effect on me. I avoided them, they avoided me. It worked out pretty well that way.

But the girl with the wavy gold hair and curvy little body had my attention, whether I liked it or not.

They stayed a while, the two girls. And I managed to watch them without being too obvious and without screwing up again or calling attention to myself. I stuck with the covers I knew well, letting my brain and fingers connect and flow, giving my voice a chance to stretch.

The girls seemed close, sisters maybe. They laughed and smiled a lot, and the smaller one practically glowed. Her hair was wild, and she talked with her hands, waving them around, touching the other girl on the arm. She bounced on her stool and looked completely at ease in the mass of people around her.

She shone with clarity. She was happiness and light.

A little voice inside me told me she looked like hope.

I told it to go fuck itself and leave me alone.

I tried to figure out if I’d seen her before. If the jolt I’d felt when she walked in was my fucked-up brain trying to remind me of something I’d forgotten. But the more I watched her, the more I was certain I’d never have forgotten her. I didn’t think I’d be able to forget her now, though a big part of me wished her gone. I already knew what would happen.

I’d pack up. I’d go home. And after I took Sampson out for a run on the beach, I’d end up lying in bed staring at the ceiling, my dick in my hand. And now I knew exactly what I’d be thinking about.

Because I sure as hell couldn’t talk to her.

At one point near the end of my last set, I glanced up and our eyes met.

Fuck.

I wanted to play off that she’d caught me staring at her, to look away. But I didn’t. For a few seconds, our gazes locked.

I don’t know how I kept playing, because the world tilted wildly, like something had broken loose. My heart picked up some crazy staccato rhythm and my cock jumped to attention, throbbing painfully against the seam of my jeans. From zero to hard in one second flat. That was celibacy for you.

Her eyes were blue. She had a dusting of freckles across her nose and over her bare shoulders. She was wild-looking and gorgeous, like some kind of imaginary woodland nymph.

And whatever she is, she’s the last thing I need right now.

I didn’t look at her again. But I could feel her eyes on me as I finished playing. I needed another drink. And then I needed to get the fuck out of here.

I caught Trent’s attention at the bar, putting my back to the girl and focusing on getting my heart to slow down, letting my blood cool.

And just when I’d gotten control of myself again, she was right fucking next to me, and my mind went blank. Or most parts of my mind, at least. The parts in charge of caveman stuff—the parts that screamed at me to pick her up, throw her over my shoulder, and find a wall to fuck her against—those parts were working fine.

Unfortunately.

“Hi,” she said.

Shit. Shit, shit, shit.

I stared at her. I was blank. I reached for a word to give her and my mind was empty. Even the one word she’d said would have been fine. I could have parroted it back to her. But it had fluttered up into the noise and light inside the bar and evaporated. Even that one simple word was out of my reach.

I watched her expression change. She’d said “hi” like she was extending a bridge, a thin filament I might just be able to risk stepping onto. But as she waited for me to return her greeting, to say fucking anything at all, the bridge dissolved. And her face closed up. The sparkle in her bright eyes faded, and her energy pulled back inside her, leaving me cold again.

A mixture of fear and surprise replaced the glow on her face, and I felt both guilty and monstrous as I watched what it did to her. She let other words fall between us. Nonsense, really. I’d made her uncomfortable, unhappy. And I already knew she was a girl I never wanted to see unhappy.

Finally, she turned around and went back to her table, pulled the other girl toward the door, and disappeared into the night beyond.

And the strange light that had filled the club was extinguished.

“Doing okay, man?” Trent was in front of me, his dark eyes concerned.

I nodded. “Done now,” I managed, hating the sound of my voice as I struggled to be heard.

His easy grin appeared, and he nodded. “Sure, dude. I’ll see you back at home. You slayed it. You always do, man.”

Trent and I had been friends for years. We’d played soccer together at school, been recruits together when we’d both joined the fire department, and we’d been in the same company at the station. He was the reason I was a firefighter, and the one who’d been there when I’d had the accident. I owed him my life. And he seemed determined to keep saving me, day after day. I’d never be able to pay him back, and my debt to him just kept getting bigger. But in a lot of ways, Trent was my lifeline. And I was just hanging on.

The condo in Ocean Beach was Trent’s. I’d lived there before the accident, too, so it felt like home. The difference now was that I didn’t pay rent. You needed a job to make rent. Or most people did, anyway. Trent would have been fine—trust funds work that way, I guess.

But I wasn’t a trust-fund baby. I used to be a firefighter. Now, I was just another unemployed jerk freeloading in San Diego. And something needed to change.

I unlocked the front door and Sampson bounded down the stairs, flying at me as I stepped inside. One-hundred-and-thirty pounds of fur, paws, and tongue greeted me at the bottom of the stairs, nearly knocking me over.

“Okay,” I whispered, squatting to wrap my arms around the big dog and bury my face in the soft ruff around his neck. “Okay, boy.” His paws were still on my shoulders and he whined softly into my ear.

He dropped back down to all fours and danced around as I stood, his tongue lolling out one side of his mouth. He nosed the leash just inside the door, and I pulled it down and clipped it to his collar.

“Let’s go,” I said, opening the door again.

Once he was on the leash, Sampson was usually fine, but he was excited tonight and amped up. He pulled at the leash, and I followed him out, barely able to lock the door behind me before he was galloping toward the beach. I hadn’t changed into running shoes, figuring we’d forget the run and just take a leisurely moonlight stroll. But that wasn’t what my dog had in mind.

We hit the beach at a run, and Sampson moved straight for the water’s edge, finally slowing as his big paws sank into the wet sand. The moon lit the water, making the beach glow where the ocean soaked it. The Pacific looked dark in comparison, almost black as it heaved out toward the horizon.

No one was around except a few homeless people huddled around a fire down the beach, so I took Sampson off his leash and let him wander and sniff. He circled my legs a few times, then put his nose to the ground and followed the tide out until it disappeared beneath a crashing wave that sent him running back in to jump at my feet again. I couldn’t help but laugh, despite the heaviness that rolled around inside me. He was pure energy and emotion—most of it joy. My dog was so much of what I couldn’t be anymore. I envied him, though I knew I’d be hot as hell living in that fur coat.

I’d found Sampson as a puppy cowering in the basement of a building where we’d had a call. The place had been gutted by the blaze, and the dog was lucky to survive. No one had stepped forward to claim him, so I’d kept him. He looked like a purebred German Shepherd, but he clearly had Sasquatch genes, because by the time he was two, he was twice the size of most Shepherds I’d seen.

Once he’d relieved himself and finished stalking the roiling tide, we wandered slowly back to the house.

Inside, Sampson nosed at my palm until I sat beside him and gave him a good rub. He grunted and chuffed under my hands, his big liquid eyes finding mine often. When I refilled his water and turned to go upstairs, he followed me up. He didn’t always sleep in my room, but it was like he could tell when something was different. And he never let me get too far from him if he thought I needed him.

Tonight, he dropped in a mountain of fur right beside my bed. I let my hand dangle down as I stared at the ceiling, and he licked it a few times before his quiet snores filled the room.

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