Joe’s cousin’s place was a two-story wooden house with a screened-in front porch. At this hour, most neighborhoods were quiet, but Dusty guessed that was usually true for this tree-lined lane.
Joe parked on the street. He turned to Dusty. “How you feeling?”
“Like I’m coming down and I’ll be sorry when I land.” Dusty opened the car door. He grimaced against the pain in his knee as he stood. “And stupid. I should have come with you in the first place.”
Joe opened the hatchback and picked up Dusty’s bags and the medical kit. “I’ve known a siren call or two in my life. You need help walking?”
Dusty took a step forward. His knee throbbed but held. “Your cousin’s not going to meet us with a shotgun at this hour, is he?”
Joe gave a low chuckle. “She might, if I hadn’t left a note. She’ll want to smoke you before she shoots.”
“Smoke me?” Dusty imagined some elaborate ritual with a peace pipe. But would it be a peace pipe if she then shot him?
“Sorry. Army term.” Joe started up the walk. “Sue tends to be protective of me.”
Just what Dusty needed. More angry relatives. A bird started to sing as Dusty limped after Joe. Each step echoed with a dull pain in his head. He could feel his heartbeat in the ache of his knee and the throbbing of his hand. He didn’t even want to think about all he’d lost in one night. A few fucking hours.
Joe slid a key into the door and pushed it open. He held his finger to his lips. Dusty nodded and followed him inside. The house smelled of cinnamon and old wood. Through the window, a streetlight lit the living room with silvery, ghostly light. Dusty could make out comfortable furniture. A plant hung in the window. Hardwood floors creaked under his feet.
Joe dropped Dusty’s gear in a corner and led him down the hall to a bathroom. Joe stepped in, gestured for Dusty to follow, and closed the door behind them. He flipped a switch, and Dusty blinked against the light. The room was small, white, and clean—a powder room with just a toilet and a sink.
Joe whispered, “Sit down. I want to look at that hand.”
Even at a whisper, he had a gorgeous voice. He leaned against the wall so Dusty could maneuver past. Dusty brushed against Joe, who smelled of cedar and sleep. Joe held Dusty’s good elbow and steadied him as he lowered slowly onto the toilet seat. He leaned back against the cold tank and held out his hand for Joe.
Joe gently unwrapped the bandages and turned Dusty’s hand to the light. Blood welled in the wound. Joe pushed on one side and then the other, and the pool of blood grew. He turned on the faucet. Dusty closed his eyes as Joe pushed his hand under the faucet. His hand throbbed under the cool water, and he felt the flutter of his ripped skin. The thought of his flapping skin made Dusty’s stomach lurch. He tried to concentrate instead on the warmth of Joe’s hands beneath his. When Joe shut off the water, Dusty opened his eyes.
Joe held out a pale blue washcloth. “Hold this against your palm with your other hand.”
Dusty pressed it against his palm. Bloodstains grew at the edges, where his fingers pressed into the cloth. He watched Joe bring things out of his big yellow box and line them up along the edge of the sink—hydrogen peroxide, a white bandage roll, a surgical clamp, and a rectangular foil packet.
Dusty nodded toward the foil packet. “That looks like a condom.”
Joe’s eyebrows rose. He held up the skinny rectangular package. “Who have you been dating?”
Dusty snorted. Nobody. Not in a very long time.
“It’s a suture kit.” Joe pulled on a fresh pair of latex gloves.
Dusty looked at the gloves. Right, the blood thing. “I’ve been tested. I’m negative.”
Joe knit his eyebrows. He followed Dusty’s gaze to his hands. “You already told me that. If I was seriously worried about catching a blood-borne disease, I would have double gloved. These are to keep me from inadvertently infecting you with any of the garden-variety pathogens that live on hands. The things we worried about even before HIV.”
Joe produced a small glass bottle and a syringe. Dusty watched, fascinated, as he filled the syringe, tapped it, and pushed the plunger until a tiny spurt of liquid shot out the top.
“That’s quite the magic box you’ve got. Do you carry that stuff with you all the time, or is this a road-trip special?”
Joe was holding Dusty’s hand and peering at his palm. He looked up, and Dusty’s breath caught at the big, toothy smile that transformed Joe’s face. “I assembled this as part of my last job. Comes in handy.” Joe focused again on Dusty’s hand. “This will numb you up, but first it might sting.”
Dusty squeezed his eyes shut against the burn in his palm. When it eased, he opened his eyes to see Joe using the surgical clamps to push a fishhook-shaped needle through the skin of his palm.
“You’ve done this before, right?”
“Army trained.” Joe didn’t look up as he hooked the other side of Dusty’s wound, pushed through, and efficiently looped, spun, and tied off the stitch.
Right. Army. He’d said something about that before. That explained the great posture. Dusty looked away, staring at the dark blue towel hanging neatly on the wall in front of him. The clamps clicked open and closed. Dusty swore he could hear the pull of catgut or whatever it was through his skin. He needed to start a conversation, if only to hear something other than the click, swish, click of his hand being stitched up. The buzz was gone, leaving behind a dull ache in his head and a thick layer of stupid in his brain.
And the knowledge that he owed Joe a big apology. Not just for waking him in the middle of the night, but for siding with Ryder in the first place. He cleared his throat. “I’m sorry about tonight.” There was so much more he should have said, but he couldn’t come up with the words. “If it makes you feel better, I lost half my cash.”
The clicking stopped. “Why would that make me feel better?”
Dusty shook his head. “Because you were right.”
“That doesn’t make me happy.” The clicking started again. “We can stop by an ATM in the morning.”
Dusty stared at Joe. Of course, a normal person would have an ATM card with a functional bank account behind it. Lose a little money, no problem, just replace it from the rainy-day fund. But then, most people hadn’t been living in a downpour for months.
He mumbled, “That won’t be necessary.”
Joe stopped sewing and looked at him. Dusty stared at the floor. After a moment, Joe grunted and went back to work. “That’s rough.”
Dusty couldn’t think of anything to say to that. Joe was clearly way too perceptive. Dusty decided to keep his mouth shut. He stared at the towel. It felt like forever before Joe let go of his hand. Dusty turned his head and looked at a precise line of black knots across his palm. “Looks like ants.”
“I’ve always thought stitches looked more like flies.” Joe used a pair of scissors to open the bandage roll. Dusty watched him wrap the gauze around and around Dusty’s hand. Despite the fact that Joe’s hands were wide, his fingers were long and thin, his movements precise. Nice hands.
When Joe finished with the hand, he put his fingers under Dusty’s chin and tipped his face toward the light. His touch was gentle, like a lover right before a first kiss. Dusty’s lips opened as he stared up into Joe’s dark brown eyes. Joe’s gaze flicked to Dusty’s mouth, then away. He wet some gauze and began dabbing at Dusty’s cheek. Dusty had forgotten about the scrape on his face. Now it stung. So much for the moment before a kiss. He bit the inside of his lip to keep from pulling away.
“Don’t worry.” Joe’s voice was soft, amused. “This won’t scar your handsome face.”
Dusty rolled his eyes. Handsome was about the last thing he’d call himself tonight. Still, he found himself smiling at the thought.
When he was through with Dusty’s face, Joe sat back on his heels. “Where else does it hurt? Your knee? If you want me to take a look at that, I can.”
Dusty glanced down at his pants—skinny jeans, now filthy, but not torn. He’d need to take off his pants if he wanted Joe to look at his knee. “It’ll be fine. Thanks.”
“Suit yourself.” Joe stood and started cleaning up.
Dusty held the sink with his good hand and stood. His hand didn’t hurt, but his face stung, his head throbbed, and he knew his knee would scream the minute he put any weight on it. He felt beaten down, and the worst part was that this time it was his own fault.
He touched Joe’s shoulder. “I guess I’m a ride board nightmare.”
Joe raised his eyebrows. “Keep your cowboy fetish in check for the rest of the trip.”
Dusty nodded. He followed Joe out of the bathroom and into the living room. His knee hurt like crazy, and he hoped they weren’t going far. The sky outside was light with the blue-gray dawn.
Joe pointed toward the couch, where a red wool blanket lay in a tangle. The pillow at the end still held a dent. “I’m up for the day. You get some rest. I’ve got some errands to run. We’ll leave when I get back.”
Dusty knew he should protest, that he shouldn’t take Joe’s bed after all he’d done for him. But every muscle in his body begged him to lie down. He stumbled to the couch and crawled under the rumpled bedding. The pillow smelled like Joe. It was oddly comforting. Dusty inhaled deeply and fell asleep.
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