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Welcome to the blog of Catherine Gayle, USA Today bestselling author of Contemporary and Regency Romance.

Another Sneak Peek: Rites of Passage!

November 05, 2016

Chapter One

Drew

This place always smelled like it had been doused in some sort of lemon-scented cleanser. The housekeeping staff must buy the stuff in vats and drown the rooms in it every night, because when I came in first thing in the morning for these weekly Tuesday meetings, the intensity was enough to make me want to puke.

Once I sat in here for a while, the smell would start to dissipate, no longer quite as overwhelming as it started out. But until that happened, I struggled to stay put.

I had to be here, though, no matter how much I might want to be anywhere else. And, like it or not, these support group meetings had been helping me come to terms with everything going on in my life.

I knew that as well as I knew all of my pertinent details: Andrew Nash, better known as Drew to my teammates and our fans, divorced and miserable, right wing for the National Hockey League’s expansion Tulsa Thunderbirds, and future captain of the team if I ever got back on the ice. Oh, and I was also HIV-positive—a fact that, while I’d made sure the team doctors and trainers had been fully aware of the situation, I’d done everything in my power to hide from my teammates and opponents.

Until I’d been slashed in the neck by a random skate blade in the final game of last season and Zee, the team’s current captain, had unknowingly put his own life at risk in an effort to save mine. At that point, I’d had to come clean.

Not that my HIV status was something I was ashamed of, exactly. But people sure as hell tended to look at you differently when they knew. Especially other guys in the league. I would’ve been the same if I were in their shoes, so I couldn’t blame them. HIV was still one of those things that most people didn’t understand, so everyone was scared of it. To say there was a lot of stigma attached to the disease would be putting it mildly.

At twenty-eight, I was too young to remember the AIDS hysteria of the eighties or the day that Magic Johnson had retired from the NBA after announcing he was HIV-positive, but I’d done enough research of my own and my parents had filled me in, so I wasn’t completely in the dark about it.

But I was trying to figure out what the hell to do now that the whole world knew my health status and the rest of the guys in the league were scared to let me back on the ice. To be fair, I was scared to get back on the ice, too. Yeah, I knew that the statistical likelihood of someone else contracting HIV from me through a situation like what had happened at the end of last season was so minimal it was almost nonexistent, but that tiny fraction of a percentage chance remained. And how the hell would I live with myself if I passed HIV on to someone else through my own selfishness in wanting to continue playing a game, of all things, instead of just going out into the world and getting a real job, like everyone else?

I didn’t know how Chelsea—my ex—could live with herself after cheating on me and then passing it my way. That was actually how I found out she’d been cheating. Hell of a thing to have the doctor tell you at a routine physical.

That was why I was here, at an HIV support group at the community center—to come to terms with what might have happened out there and to figure out if it was worth taking the risk again.

I’d been coming every week over the insanely dry summer, in the hope that it would help me clear the cobwebs out of my brain so I could make a logical decision. Instead, all it’d done at first was send me in a tailspin. Only in the last week or so was I starting to get a bit of clarity.

The summer had come and mostly gone, although you couldn’t tell it from the heatwave covering Tulsa right now. We were still hitting the upper nineties or even triple digits every day, even though it was late August and most of my teammates were starting to return in preparation for the upcoming season. And we still hadn’t seen more than a couple drops of rain since December. Everyone’s grass was dead and brown, and the city was rationing water.

I fixed a cup of coffee and grabbed a pastry and a banana from the table along the wall of windows, hoping the combination would help ease the effects of the lemony scent. When I turned around to go find my seat, it was to find London had wheeled in alongside a woman I’d never seen before. From the looks of her, I kind of doubted I’d ever see her again—she was young, pale, and absolutely gorgeous. Not something I’d normally say about a woman with lavender dreadlocks, two full sleeves of colorful tattoos that made me believe she had countless others hidden in places currently covered by her clothing, and a haunted look in her eyes, but it was the truth. She had the sort of look that said she intended to dart away to safety like a scared rabbit as soon as she saw her opening.

I tended to be attracted to women who were her complete opposite—traditionally beautiful. Confident. Sure of themselves.

Now that I thought about it, that could have been part of my problem.

London caught my eye and waved me over, her very round belly somehow even bigger than it had been when I’d seen her less than a week ago.

I supposed that meant I was the welcoming committee for the newbie. I wasn’t so sure I was up to the task, but London gave me her determined brow scrunch. If I didn’t cooperate, Dima would be sure to give me hell about it. Apparently, due-to-deliver-at-any-moment London was in a constant bite-Dima’s-head-off sort of mood. The heat wasn’t helping anything on that score, either.

I couldn’t fathom how London could stand the smell if it bothered me this much. All the pregnant women I’d ever been around got sick after smelling the strangest things. It was like pregnancy sent all their senses into overdrive.

I shuffled over to do whatever she decided I needed to do this time, only dragging my feet a little bit. “Aren’t you supposed to be starting your maternity leave soon? Like, a month ago?”

She let out an exasperated huff of breath and rubbed a hand over her belly in a move I recognized as one of her go-to responses to everything. I probably shouldn’t have teased her right now. One more reason for Dima to bite my head off next time he saw me.

“We’re going to induce in a few weeks if this little guy hasn’t made his appearance before then. There’s no reason I can’t keep working right up until the big day, though.”

The purple-haired chick shifted nervously, glancing surreptitiously at London’s belly before shifting her eyes to the door. Ready to dart. Yeah, she wouldn’t be back. I wasn’t sure she’d last through the entire meeting today. She was an even bigger mess than I’d been the first time I came, and that was saying something.

“Drew, this is Ravyn Penn,” London said, going back to business mode with a no-nonsense shake of her head. “She’s new to the group. I thought maybe you could help make sure she’s comfortable.”

Fat chance of that happening, given the look in Ravyn’s eyes, but I wasn’t about to say anything like that in front of London in her current state of get-this-baby-out-of-me misery. I transferred all of my breakfast goodies into one hand and reached out to shake with the other. “Drew Nash,” I said.

Ravyn didn’t take my hand.

“Right,” London said, backing out with her chair. “Well, I’ll leave you to it, then.”

I didn’t miss the fact that Ravyn’s eyes followed London out the door, and it looked like her feet were itching to go, as well.

“First time here?” I asked, trying to keep things light. “It’s not that bad. Kind of uncomfortable at first, if you’re not used to talking about things with a group—”

“I don’t talk about things,” she said.

Right. Well, then.  This was getting to be more fun by the moment. “No one’s going to make you talk if you don’t want to. You can just sit there and listen. You can still get a lot out of it that way, just by being around other people who are dealing with similar things in life.”

She gave me a go-to-hell look. This wasn’t going well at all. Time to change tactics.

“You want some coffee? Or they have fruit and pastries…” Without waiting for her to answer, I led her over to the table I’d just left a few moments before. Food and drink always helped ease discomfort, at least if you asked my mother. No matter what was going on, she plied everyone with food and beverages to keep them happy and out of her hair. Seemed reasonable enough in the current situation, so I ran with the theory.

For just a moment, Ravyn’s eyes met mine—still full of a world of hurt, but startling in the clarity of their blue. These were eyes I could drown in if I let myself. And if she let me. Something told me that was as likely to happen as her breaking out into a Broadway-style song-and-dance routine.

As soon as I’d gotten my first good look in those eyes, she flicked her gaze away and focused on fixing herself a cup of coffee. Lots of sugar and cream. Once she had it fixed the way she wanted it, she took a sip and made a face, then went back to add more of both.

Over in the main part of the meeting space, Jack Carson cleared his throat and indicated that he was ready to begin. He was one of the counselors here who presided over the support groups.

“I’m heading over,” I said to Ravyn, who was still trying to make her coffee sweet enough. “Save you a seat?”

She gave a quick jerk of her head that I decided to take as confirmation, so I headed for the circle of folding chairs and found two together. Then I dug into my pastry and said hello to a couple of the other regulars, keeping one eye peeled for Ravyn to join me.

She didn’t, though. Once everyone had settled in, for the most part, Jack got us started by asking if anyone had something pressing they needed to discuss, but Ravyn was still leaning back against the snack table, nursing her coffee with her ankles crossed in front of her.

I caught her eye and angled my head, indicating the empty seat next to me. She inched toward the rest of us, but she found an open chair well at the back.

Directly in my line of sight, though.

I couldn’t help it. Instead of paying attention to what Isobel was saying about the possible discrimination she was facing in her job due to her boss discovering her HIV status, I was focused squarely on Ravyn Penn.

She wasn’t paying any more attention to the proceedings than I was, both her hands wrapped around the Styrofoam coffee cup like it was her final remaining lifeline, her eyes apparently studying the vacuum lines in the carpet. Since she wasn’t looking up, I didn’t bother trying to pretend I wasn’t checking her out, either. I stared. Hard.

She had on a bright red tank top and a pair of black shorts that were so short they might be illegal in some parts of the world. In this heat, it more than made sense to be dressed like that. If I looked half as good as she did, I’d probably do the same. The bold colors in her clothes and her ink only accentuated how fair her skin was—like porcelain.

Now that I thought of it, porcelain seemed like a very good description for her. Delicate, like she might shatter at the slightest provocation.

Some of the counselors here could push and prod and pry until a person was at the point of breaking. A lot of times, it was necessary. I doubted Ravyn would withstand that kind of questioning, though. She seemed to require more sensitivity.

I finished off my coffee in time to hear Jack say, “And I see we have someone new with us today. Care to introduce yourself, miss? This is a safe space.”

And just like that, all eyes were on Ravyn, which was the last thing she wanted. She passed wild eyes over in my direction. Desperate for help. Silently begging me without words to rescue her.

There were undoubtedly a thousand things going wrong in her life that I would never be able to help her with, but this? This was something I could do. “This is Ravyn,” I said, drawing the attention back to me. “London introduced us just before the session got started. It’s Ravyn’s first time visiting. I told her it was all right if she wants to just sit and listen today.” I put enough emphasis on the last part that no one should be able to mistake my meaning.

Jack didn’t take the hint, though. “So, Ravyn. Are you HIV-positive, or is it a loved one you’re here to learn how to support?”

She swallowed another big sip of her coffee, her eyes boring through me. I shrugged apologetically, nodding to encourage her to answer. If she answered, maybe that would be enough for them to leave her alone for the rest of the session so she could sit and listen like I’d promised.

“It’s me,” she croaked. Her clear blue eyes blinked rapidly. She was fighting back tears, still staring at me as if her life depended on it.

“Is it a new diagnosis?” Isobel asked gently. At least she had some tact, but that didn’t change the fact that she’d asked yet another pressing question.

Ravyn swallowed hard and, after one more silent plea for help in my direction, looked down at her cup. I supposed it was empty, because she got up and darted back to the snack table to refill.

I took that as my opportunity to go over and see if I could help.

“You said I didn’t have to talk,” she hissed when I reached her side.

I reached for the coffeepot before she could and filled both her cup and my own. “I’m trying to make sure you don’t have to.”

“It’s not working.”

“Just don’t let them see that they’re getting to you, and it’ll all be over in no time. Promise. Tell them the bare-bones minimum, and I’ll make sure they leave you alone after that.”

“You haven’t managed it so far,” she pointed out. The disappointment in her voice, along with a hint of censure and a hefty dose of fear, was like a vise around my gut. I’d never been much of a knight-in-shining-armor type, but there was something about her that made me want to change my mind on that front. Probably because of the way she was looking at me again—like she hoped I’d do exactly that. Like I could swoop in and rescue her from whatever hell she’d found herself in.

Life didn’t work that way, though. She was going to have to rescue herself. And I was almost positive she realized that, even if she wished things were different. I was still digging myself out of my own hole, but she could pick up her shovel and dig next to me if she wanted. Company on a journey like this never hurt anyone.

“You didn’t come sit next to me like I’d asked you to, either,” I pointed out. Might as well start nudging her in the direction she needed to travel if she was going to find a light at the end of her tunnel.

“I only came because my doctors insisted on it. I have to get a form signed.”

Her doctors, hmm? That was an interesting tidbit. I tucked it away in my mental files for later use. “Jack can sign your form, but he won’t do it until the session’s over.” In all honesty, I had no clue if he would or not—but it seemed like a good idea to tell her that, even if it was a white lie. One more reason for her to stay.

“You can’t sign it for me? Or maybe that London lady?”

“I don’t work here,” I said. “And London’s more of a stickler for these things than Jack is. She might not sign it unless she knew you’d talked.”

She doused her coffee in tons of cream and sugar, all the while glowering at me. But she hadn’t run out the front door yet. That had to be a good sign. Now I not only wanted to be sure she stayed for the rest of this session, but that she came back again.

“Come on,” I said, glancing over my shoulder to see that the rest of the group had moved on without us. “Come back and sit with me, and I bet they’ll leave you be for a while. We’re not here to make you uncomfortable. We just want to help each other out.”

“Don’t see how talking is supposed to help anything,” she muttered, but this time she came along and took the open seat next to mine.

Progress. Maybe it wasn’t a huge step in some people’s eyes, but I knew better. I’d been down this path recently enough. I knew how hard it was to take any step at all if it wasn’t a step leading further into the darkness.

As I expected, now that the group had moved on, they kept talking about the topic at hand and left Ravyn alone to stew in her own juices. If things continued in this vein, I was almost positive I’d be able to get her to stick it out for the whole session.

Convincing her to come to the next one, however, would be another matter entirely…and I had no earthly idea how I’d manage it. I only knew that it was an absolute must.

Her hands were wrapped tightly around her coffee cup again, like it was the only thing tethering her to sanity. With any luck, she had a few more connections to sanity than a stupid piece of Styrofoam. I was starting to get the sense that I might become one of those connections, and I wasn’t sure how to feel about that.

 

 

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