Available from Dreamspinner Press on 1 May 2013
After a kayaking accident took Josh Donald’s sight, he’s faced with learning to negotiate the world as a blind man. In short order, his boyfriend leaves him behind, making it clear he’s not inclined to deal with special needs. Reeling from the blow, Josh flounders. In an attempt to help, Josh’s friends take him to a camp for the blind, where he falls for the camp organizer, Charlie Cooper.
Charlie seems to feel the attraction too, but when a horse named Dottie pushes them into a hot first kiss, Charlie resists. He believes he’s damaged goods, not boyfriend material. Since the accident, Josh has faced tough obstacles, but the most challenging hurdle of all may be getting Charlie to open up and take a chance on love.
“IT’S going to be fun, Josh, trust me,” Greg said, his tone filled with conviction as he curled his fingers around Josh’s to help him.
“Yeah, a week with the lovebirds. I can’t wait,” Josh replied teasingly, easing himself to the edge of the seat and then standing up when he felt the ground beneath him. “Don’t forget, just ’cause I can’t see, don’t mean I can’t hear the two of you sucking each other’s faces off. So try to keep the smooching down to a minimum.”
“Very funny,” Mario scoffed as he hauled their cases out of the truck bed. “’Cause it was so much fun spending most of college listening to you pant and groan your way through half of the football team.”
Chuckling and stretching his arms over his head to loosen his muscles after the long drive, Josh groaned as his knees popped. Being almost six and a half feet in his socks did not make for comfortable long journeys in the back seat. Considering neither Greg nor Mario were over six feet, it was a mystery to Josh as to why he didn’t get to ride shotgun—other than Mario’s need to constantly check his hair in the mirror. He shook his head at Mario’s tease and countered with one of his own. “Yeah, but at least you got to watch too. I can’t even sneak a peek now.”
“There is so much wrong with that statement that I ain’t going anywhere near it,” Greg said with disdain. Josh grinned widely as Greg cupped his elbow and gently guided him along the dirt path. The gift of sight was not exactly necessary to “see” the expression on Greg’s face; it was there in his tone. He only hoped his smile was convincing as Greg added, “This is going to be great. A week camping in the woods of Virginia with my two favorite guys. And it’ll be good for you, Josh. You’re out of that damned apartment. That’s all that matters.”
The three of them fell silent as they walked across the uneven ground, and Josh knew his friends were thinking about the accident. Not that he remembered much about the early days, what with him being in a coma. But he remembered waking up in the darkness and calling Alec’s name. Josh’s accident eight months ago had changed their lives irrevocably. His recovery had been long and arduous, with Greg and Mario beside him every step of the way.
Always an avid sportsman, Josh had been talked into trying some white water rafting by his boyfriend, Alec. Eager to accept any challenge that was tossed at him, Josh had thrown himself into it just like he did everything, with gusto and complete commitment. His first two runs down the rapids were a success. Josh had never felt more alive in his entire life, the adrenaline coursing through his body giving him a rush like nothing he had experienced before.
Alec, however, after a few beers, had managed to talk Josh into having another try, in the dark no less. The two men had taken the kayaks out, and Josh had hit a rock before they even got to the rapids, tipping his kayak over and him out into the swirling water. He’d hit his head, and Alec had made his way back to the rafting station screaming for help with an unconscious Josh draped over the front of Alec’s kayak. When Josh had woken up forty-eight hours later, it became apparent that the damage was permanent. He was blind and Alec was gone.
Alec’s loss was the worst part: waking up in total darkness to find the one person who was supposed to love you unconditionally… didn’t, and that he wasn’t prepared to spend his life with damaged goods. He’d been grateful for Mario’s arms, holding him tight on those dark nights when he’d cried himself to sleep, but it wasn’t the same. He’d wanted Alec. He’d even fooled himself into believing if he worked really hard and showed Alec how well he’d adapted to the dark, then Alec would be able to adapt as well. He could show him he wasn’t an invalid, that he didn’t need to be cared for 24/7, that things could go back to the way they were… before. But not even he could defend the unreturned phone calls or the key to his apartment pushed through the mailbox.
Of course, Mario and Greg were worried about him. He wasn’t stupid. It was true that, in his effort to show Alec he could cope, Josh had adapted to his disability a lot quicker than anyone had anticipated—including Josh. But when he’d realized Alec wasn’t coming back, Josh had shut himself off emotionally, erected walls, and apart from the people he already knew, wouldn’t let anyone else in. Josh knew what this weekend was about. Mario and Greg were hoping he would finally meet some new people and unwind a little.
Greg had found the camp on the Internet. It was a weekend retreat in Virginia where the partially sighted or blind could come and commune with nature. There were specially constructed trails through the woods, with ropes and fences, to allow the clients to feel that they could do just as much as everyone else. There were even horse trails, which had made Josh’s ears prick up. He hadn’t been on a horse for years and was quite excited by the prospect. Mario and Greg had come with him because he had to have a sighted partner, and they thought they could make a mini vacation of it. Josh knew Mario was just glad he would be out of the apartment and have the opportunity to meet people dealing with the same issues as him. If he made some new friends along the way, even better.
“Good morning, gentlemen,” a woman’s voice said brightly when the door swung shut behind them. “I’m Maggie, welcome to Camp Crystal Lake.”
Josh tilted his head toward the sound of the other voice. He felt something warm unfurl in his belly as he let the tone and timbre wash over him. Josh had always thought it was an old wives’ tale, you know, the old saying that when you lose one of your senses, the others become heightened to compensate—but it was true. Scents, the way something felt beneath his fingertips, and how things tasted had all changed for him—and sounds? They had seemed to develop a vivid energy all their own. And the voice he had just heard? That voice sounded like the slow burn of whiskey rolling across his tongue and sliding down his throat before the warmth of it settled in his stomach and expanded in his chest.
“Sorry, guys, she thinks she’s funny,” the voice said, the soft rumble of a chuckle evident to even those without heightened senses. “Welcome to Camp Aisling. You must be Greg, Mario, and Josh. I’m Charlie Cooper, owner and founder of the camp.”
“Nice to meet you, Charlie.” Josh listened as Mario introduced them. In his mind’s eye, he could see Mario shaking the man’s hand. “I’m Mario Tavella, this is my partner, Greg Watts, and this great big waste of space is Josh Donald.”
“You’ll have to forgive Mario, Charlie,” Greg said, and Josh could hear the chuckle in his voice. “We don’t usually get him out on more than a day pass.”
Charlie’s laughter was rich and deep, sending a wave of warmth flooding through Josh’s belly. “He should get on real well with Maggie, then. So… Josh? Welcome. I hope you enjoy your stay.”
“I’m sure it’ll be a blast,” Josh drawled, running a hand through his hair. “I don’t know what I’m looking forward to more, listening to these two smooch all week, or seeing how long it takes me to fall down a ravine and break my neck.”
“Josh!” Mario reprimanded.
“That’s okay,” Charlie replied, obviously unfazed by the sarcasm in Josh’s voice. “I can assure you, Josh, in the five years since we opened, we’ve never lost a camper. In fact, the worst we’ve had to deal with is a few cases of poison ivy and some bee stings. So if you do take a swan dive into a ravine, it’ll be because you were too stupid to follow the guide’s instructions, or… you were pushed.”
“Oh, I like you,” Mario said, nudging Josh’s shoulder with his own.
Josh felt the flush of warmth in his cheeks, but it wasn’t embarrassment. He was impressed. Not everyone knew how to take his sense of humor, and far too many people pussyfooted around the “poor blind boy.” Finding someone who quite clearly gave as good as he got was refreshing.
“If you gentlemen wouldn’t mind filling in the registration form,” Maggie said, her voice breaking into the slightly pregnant pause. “Then we can get you set up in your cabin before the welcome meeting at the main house.”
“I can do that,” Mario replied, and Josh listened to his footsteps on the wooden boards as he walked away.
“Greg?” Josh lifted his hand, and Greg gripped his fingers. “What do you see?”
Greg placed Josh’s hand on his elbow and led him across the room. “Well, it’s what you’d imagine a camp reception area to look like. It’s a wooden cabin. I don’t know what wood it’s made out of, but it’s like this burnt orange color, and you can see the knots in the wood, here….” Greg placed Josh’s hand against the wall so he could feel the shape and texture of the grain.
“What else?” Josh prodded as he felt the cool wood, its texture roughened by years of wear.
“There are pictures all around the walls. Beautiful photographs of the woods and the lakes around here. There are also some photographs of the reception cabin, with Maggie and Charlie and someone else standing outside, huge smiles on their faces. Plus there are dozens of what must be campers, doing all the nature trails and the pony-trekking and swimming on the lake—ranging from kids to adults, to even the elderly, Josh. This place is really cool. You’re gonna love it, man.” Greg pulled Josh’s head toward him and kissed his cheek softly. “It’s perfect… exactly what you need.”
Josh’s lips curved into a smile, and he patted Greg gently on the cheek. “You are such a sap, dude, it’s embarrassing.”
“Okay, guys, that’s it,” Maggie said, and Josh heard the rustling of papers. “You’re in cabin seven. It’s about five hundred yards into the woods, but it’s all signposted for both the seeing and the nonseeing.” She opened and closed a drawer. “Here’s the welcome pack. It’s your lifeline for this week. There are instructions in Braille too, of course, and there are also three pagers inside, which we ask you to wear at all times. They are for your protection if you do happen to get lost from your group at any time. All you have to do is hit 911, stay where you are, and someone will find you. Anything else you wanted to add, boss?”
“I think you’ve pretty much covered everything,” Charlie countered, his voice sending another shiver down Josh’s spine. “The first introduction meeting is at three. There are ten campers this week, along with their partners, and we’re going to get together and go through the rules and the events for the week. Then there’s a barbecue and a good old-fashioned sit around the campfire so everyone can get to know each other. You’ll also meet the other guides. Here are your keys, so if you want to go get settled in, we’ll see you at the main house at three.”
“Thanks, Charlie, Maggie,” Greg said, curling his fingers around Josh’s elbow. “We’ll see you later.”
MAGGIE watched the three men leave, closed the door behind them, and then cleared her throat loudly. She grinned widely as Charlie rolled his eyes and mumbled beneath his breath. Not that she expected anything less. “Hello tall, dark, and muscles,” she murmured, her gaze narrowing as she carefully studied Charlie’s face for any changes in his expression. Of course, there were none. Charlie was far too adept at schooling his features, despite what might be going on behind those beautiful green eyes.
Charlie shrugged. “Didn’t notice. The light’s not too good in here today.” He completely ignored Maggie’s heartfelt raspberry and pushed his sunglasses farther onto the bridge of his nose. “Don’t.” His voice held a note of warning.
“Don’t what?” she asked innocently.
“You know what,” Charlie replied. “Just don’t, okay? The guy’s come here for a week to relax and meet new people, not for you to measure him up for his wedding suit. You did the same to me when we first met.”
Maggie scoffed and lifted her hand to pat Charlie on the cheek. “True, but only for the first five minutes until I realized I had far too much breastage for you. Besides, my boobs would be a problem for him too. Your equipment would be much more to his liking.”
“Jesus. I am not discussing my equipment with you, and I repeat… don’t, you matchmaking midget. I’m happy on my own,” Charlie said firmly, and Maggie sighed heavily. “It’s better that way.”
“Charlie,” she soothed, hugging herself into his side. “Not every man is like Brian.” She immediately regretted the words when she felt her friend stiffen against her. “Charlie, you have to trust someone sometime.” Maggie’s stomach knotted with the undeniable urge to beat the crap out of the man who’d left Charlie broken and alone.
“Well, as uplifting as your pep talks on my pathetic existence are, I have some work to do at the house before the meeting,” Charlie said, effectively terminating the conversation, and Maggie knew when she should leave well enough alone… for now. He dropped a light kiss on the top of her head, his way of letting her know he wasn’t mad… not really… at least not at her.
Maggie studied him from beneath lowered lashes as he slid his arms into his jacket. “It’s a good thing I love you so damn much, otherwise I’d be tempted to beat some sense into that stubborn head of yours. That gorgeous guy who was in here was just about perfect for you, but you won’t even allow yourself to see it.”
Charlie snatched up his keys from off the counter, then unfolded the white stick he had pulled from his jacket pocket, and said, his tone flat as he walked to the door, “Well, I tend to see less and less these days.”