Contemporary Adult Romance
Orginally published March 2013
60,541 words, 184 pages
0-Flame Sensuality Rating
Through all the years that passed,
the memory of their love never faded.
Motivational speaker and drug rehab counselor Ward Gemmell can hold an audience in the palm of his hand—because he knows what it's like to have everything he loved slip through his fingers. When a particularly heartfelt speech reunites him with the daughter he never knew he had, suddenly the love of his life is back within his grasp. What could a guy like him do to earn a second chance?
Good girl Ansley Marlow was heartbroken the day Ward revealed his hidden life—the kind of secret that would tear anyone apart. But so many years have passed and so much has changed that it isn't as hard now for her to believe in fate and redemption, even when those around her are unforgiving. All she needs is the strength to reach out and reclaim the beautiful life she should have had so long ago.
As a motivational speaker, Ward Gemmell decided he totally rocked.
Every behind in J. Edgar Hoover High School sat planted on the edge of the bleacher seats in their gymnasium as each student leaned forward, captivated by him. Him of all people. It flattered, thrilled, yet downright terrified him. And all he'd had to do to create such a buzz was standing before them, open a vein, and let the biggest mistakes of his life bleed out of his mouth.
He could own up. Mostly.
Still, even as he managed to keep his voice smooth and even, his freezing hands trembled uncontrollably inside his pockets where he kept them securely stuffed.
"I know what it's like," he insisted into the microphone, unnerved when his own voice boomed throughout the enormous arena. "I was your age. I walked the halls of a high school exactly like this one. And I became addicted to drugs."
He'd been speaking to them for about twenty-five minutes now, the slight rasp in his voice testimony to his lengthy monologue. But regardless of the ticking clock, all ears remained tuned in with fixated absorption.
"I know how easy it is to fall victim to the lure, how fun the wild nights seem … for a while. And I know how much it hurts when you realize you've destroyed yourself. But most importantly, I know how hard it is to break free. Yet I'm standing here today, to tell you, you can. And once you get control of your own life again, it will be the best thing you ever did."
He paused to wipe a cold, damp film of sweat covering his palms against the interior of his pockets as he glanced at the young, avid faces surrounding him. "And I'm also here to tell you you'll need help on this journey. I tried a dozen times to make a go of it on my own only to end up getting even more dependent. It wasn't until I sought a center exactly like Danny's Haven that I was able to take the initial step in the right direction. Yes, you'll still bust your—"
He broke off abruptly to cringe as the silence of his near expletive echoed through the speaker system. Half the audience laughed before he leaned forward to apologize.
"Sorry about that. I meant … you'll do the work—plenty of work—but people will be with you the whole way, every step, striving to help you just as hard as you strive to help yourself. That's the key to detoxing. No one can help you unless you're serious about quitting. And at Danny's Haven, we're committed to you. If you're in it for the long haul, then so are we. No one has to break their addiction alone. You can receive help. And with us, you will. Thank you."
With a gracious nod, he stepped back and ducked his head slightly when the clapping started. It rattled him every time he received an applause after he detailed exactly how messed up he'd been. Oh, you did drugs? Here's a hearty slap on the back. Congratulations.
Wasn't like he'd discovered the cure for cancer or saved a hundred lives in one heroic act. He'd just broken free from a nasty lifestyle. Yet they continued to clap.
It boggled his mind.
He released one hand from his pockets to run shaky fingers through his mahogany hair and offered the students a tense, grateful smile along with an appreciated half-wave before backing up five paces and sinking gratefully into the cold metal chair beside the podium. Next to him, Care stood and concluded the presentation, telling the student body how they could contact Danny's Haven and get information.
Desi had no doubt already set up the booth in the lobby, full of pamphlets and flyers to pass out. He wished he could switch places with her, at least once. He'd happily set up the booth. But Desi, like many of the other counselors at Danny's Haven, had never done drugs. She couldn't give a personalized account the way he could. Ward folded his hands in his lap and concentrated on keeping his back straight because he was a habitual sloucher. He hoped he looked professional and polished, because inside, he felt raw and battle scarred, exactly how his speeches always left him. Torn open, exposed, and worthless.
It had never stopped him from standing in front of hundreds of teens at a time, however. If his words induced one kid to clean up his act, then he considered all the anguish worth it.
But seriously, the constant reminder of what he used to be definitely knew how to keep a guy humble.
This had to be the twentieth—or possibly the hundredth— presentation Danny's Haven had given in the seven years since he'd been hired on to the team, and it continued to leave him rattled afterward. He suspected Care understood the shredded nerves he had because just as she did after every testimony he gave, she set her hand on his shoulder as she passed him and patted twice in her maternal way.
Shuddering out a steadying breath, he glanced up. She nodded and flickered him an approving smile—which was all he needed— before striding down the steps and off the makeshift stage. He stood and trailed her past the mass of seated students. When they pushed into the lobby, he breathed easier until he spotted Desi waiting nearby, wringing her hands and looking ready to burst into tears.
She rushed to Care, blurting, "I left the box of free pencils at the center."
Ward winced. The free pencils were their most popular promotional item. Everyone took a free pencil. But never one to flinch under pressure, Care merely lifted an unconcerned hand. "Doesn't matter. After Ward's speech in there, no one in that gymnasium will need a complimentary pencil to remember Danny's Haven."
Shoulders sagging with relief, Desi glanced toward him and winked. "Knock it out of the ballpark again, did ya, slugger?"
His smile held all the confidence he didn't feel. "As always."
"Way to go, bud." She held up her balled hand for him to fist bump. He obliged her and even bounced his shoulder against hers as she liked to do. Nevertheless, throughout their celebrating, his nerves remained strung taut. He already knew he wouldn't be able to relax until he was far and gone away from J. Edgar Hoover High and the space of hours separated them.
Inside the gym, he heard the principal take the microphone and wrap up their presentation, letting the students know they could stop by Desi's booth to pick up more information about Danny's Haven if they were interested. Then he dismissed classes for the day.
Seconds later, the flood began.
The double doors flew open, letting the crowd exit. Hundreds glanced their way, shifting their attention from Ward, to Care, and then to their table full of goodies. Only about a dozen teens moved toward them to glance over the brochures and flyers. Half of that number actually reached out and snagged a pamphlet.
Care, with her usual grace and charm, started a conversation with one boy loitering nearby, and Ward tried not to look uncomfortable. He wasn't sure which part of a school visit he hated more: getting up and spilling his guts to the mass of probing young eyes or starting a one-on-one exchange with them afterward. He sucked at opening a rapport with strangers.
"Nice job, Gemmell," a male voice caught his attention, causing Ward to swing right and nod at the approaching adult. Probably a teacher. "I had a nephew who got caught up in drugs." The man shook his head. "I forgot how many times he was busted. Ended up dying in jail."
"I'm sorry to hear that." Ward's chest tightened as he swallowed a lump in this throat. He heard similar tragic tales at every school assembly and wondered why he never improved at offering sympathy. "Jail isn't a pretty place to die."
And he would know. He'd spent a couple visits there himself.
The adult, who Ward soon learned was a math teacher, continued to chat his ear off. From the corner of his eyes, he saw a couple of teens lingering close by but not approaching. He silently sighed when a girl a dozen feet away who'd been fiddling with a scarf she wore as she shifted uneasily about turned and wandered off.
It always seemed to happen that way. Ward knew he couldn't help every troubled teen, but knowing a possible lost soul was escaping bothered him.
Twenty minutes later, the teacher had gone and their booth stood deserted. With quiet, economic efficiency, Ward, Care, and Desi worked together, packing up the leftover pamphlets, stowing them in boxes, and lugging them to the van.
"I'll go back for the folding table," he offered, dusting his hands onto his thighs. A November breeze ruffled his hair, making him shudder and tug the collar of his jacket up higher.
Care nodded. "Thanks. I think I'll head back to the center. See you there."
"I'll ride with you," Desi called after Care, hurrying to catch up.
As the two women climbed into Care's car, Ward waved them goodbye and returned to the gym for their table. He stalled a moment, warming his chilled hands by rubbing them together and blowing on them before he tipped the table onto its side and folded the legs. He heaved the heavy thing outside and made it halfway across the lawn, nearly to the Danny's Haven van, before a call stalled him.
"Excuse me? Mr. Gemmell?"
He glanced up. The girl he'd seen earlier dawdling near their booth waved at him. He could tell it was she from the multi- colored scarf draped over her shoulders. As he paused, allowing her to intercept him, she broke into a jog, her dark hair and scarf flowing out behind her. Setting the heavy table down and letting the side rest against his leg, he grinned at the wholesome-looking child.
"It's just Ward," he said. "The word mister makes me uncomfortable around the collar, like I should be wearing a tie or something."
When he gave a dreaded shiver for effect, she laughed. He froze when she brushed a piece of her long, dark hair behind her ear. A stunning girl, she looked pristine perfect up close like this. Too perfect to be seeking out a jaded Ward Gemmell.
Ward squinted, curious about what she needed. From the clean cut look of her—clear skin, white teeth, lucid blue eyes, and nothing else to denote a drug habit—he doubted she'd even know what a narcotic was if someone handed it to her and told her how to smoke it. It was possible she was associated with someone else getting involved and wanted Ward to intercede. In which case, he gladly would. But even that scenario didn't ring true. She didn't seem like the type to befriend an addict either.
Maybe she was a journalism student and wanted to interview him for an article in her school paper. He ground his teeth, hoping he could come up with some excuse to talk his way out of that. Only important people were interviewed.
Important he was not.
Geez, maybe he should stop guessing and ask her outright. "What can I do for you?"
She sucked in a deep breath, drawing so much air into her lungs her chest heaved and her shoulders lifted briefly. Whatever she wanted to request, he could tell it was a monumental deal for her. Not sure what he could offer that could be so vital, he focused on her a little more sharply, leaning in just a tad closer.
"I want to volunteer," she finally exploded out her wish on a breathless exhale before quickly adding, "At Danny's Haven."