Thu
Aug 24 2017 11:58am

Scarlett Cole Excerpt: Elliott Redeemed

Scarlett Cole

Elliott Redeemed by Scarlett Cole

Elliott “Pyro” Dawson burns up the lead guitar like a legend. But the nickname Pyro isn’t just a clever play on words. It’s much darker. A past he's fought like hell to overcome.

Grocery store cashier Kendalee Walker is at her wits end and homeless. She's watched her fourteen-year-old son, Daniel, go so far off the rails, he can no longer see the tracks.

When the two are brought together, attraction flares, but can Elliott find the family he never had with the sexy woman and her son, or will he fall back on dangerous habits?

Get a sneak peek at Scarlett Cole's Elliott Redeemed (available August 29, 2017) with an exclusive excerpt of a selected scene.

CHAPTER ONE

“Mommy, please,” he begged. The electrifying pain of his own skin burning made him puke all over his only pair of jeans that didn’t have holes.

He curled into a ball on the threadbare carpet, knowing the pain would be worse if the man’s cigarette touched his stomach like last time. He looked through his tears to the tatty green chair sitting in the corner next to the television. Through blurry eyes he could see his mother holding her hand to her head, nursing her own wounds. There was no way she would stop the monster. She would never be his saving grace.

The pain eased for a moment. In the moments between sobs, he could hear a crackle and hiss as the man who had taken over their lives took another drag. Daring to take a look, he could see the tip of the cigarette glowing the brightest orange.

The glow taunted him. And warned him too—while it was at its brightest, in his line of sight, it couldn’t hurt him.

“Ready, son,” the man slurred.

He hated it when the man called him “son.” He didn’t know who his father was, but it couldn’t be a guy who wore a wife beater and smelled like cooking fat.

The cigarette pressed against his skin. His entire body spasmed as the heat seared through his hip.

“Happy fucking birthday, you little shit,” the man said as he poured half his can of beer onto Elliott’s face.

He spluttered and coughed, but didn’t say a word. The man couldn’t control him, and neither could the burn.

Elliott Dawson sat up quickly, his right arm swinging around to fight off his invisible opponent. He scanned the room as he tried to slow his breathing, taking in a collection of guitars and two framed photographs—one of him with his best childhood friend, Adam, and one of Elliott’s band, Preload, at their very first gig at a pub on the Danforth.

Thank fuck he was home. In his own bed. Another night of waking up in a strange room, of eating strange food, and of not being understood half the time would have tipped him right over the edge. He flopped back on his bed and rubbed his face, pushing away the long brown hair that clung to his damp skin. A two-month tour of Europe was something he and his bandmates had only been able to dream about when they’d been teenagers practicing in their Toronto group home, but the reality of this dream come true was hard fucking work.

Elliott looked around the room again and took a deep breath. Pancakes. He smelled pancakes. His stomach rumbled. He reached for his phone to check the time. Noon. He’d fallen straight into bed when they’d gotten in at one that morning. He wasn’t sure what time zone his body was in or when he’d last eaten.

He climbed out of bed, and grabbed a pair of shorts, his bones and muscles aching from the thirty-five–concert tour. The air-conditioning was cold enough to freeze his balls off, but outside the hot muggy August air of downtown Toronto would be more than likely to melt them. He jogged down the stairs and wandered toward the kitchen. He could swear his footsteps echoed, but he knew it was just his imagination—his mind having to get used to a once-full house becoming empty.

“There’s a shit-ton more in there,” Nikan said from one of the stools at the breakfast bar, tipping his chin in the direction of the oven as he stabbed a huge forkful of pancakes covered with syrup. “Pixie brought them over about twenty minutes ago. Said she made way too many and that we might’ve missed real Canadian food.”

Elliott laughed. “Sounds just like her. I wonder if Dred got to sleep in this morning or if Petal had him awake first thing.” Knowing their lead singer’s feeling about his daughter, Elliott doubted Dred would have minded the intrusion. He grabbed a plate and helped himself to a stack way higher than he needed and poured an equally obscene amount of maple syrup on them.

Nikan shook his head. “Dude, you’re heading for a serious sugar crash later. Oh, and Pixie had Petal with her when she swung by, so he’s probably still out too. You know how he usually sleeps for days once a tour’s over.”

Dred had been the first of his bandmates to move out of the house that Elliott, Dred, Jordan, Nikan, and Lennon had shared for so many years. The seven months since had flown by. By the end of this most recent leg of their tour, Dred had been video-calling five times a day with his fiancée, Pixie, who had stayed behind with Dred’s young daughter, Petal, in the home he now shared with his little family.

Elliott took a huge forkful of pancake, and groaned. “God bless Pixie,” he mumbled through a mouthful of pancake, butter, and syrup. “I might have to work out for three hours this afternoon to work this off, but goddamn it’s worth it.”

Nik nodded. “It’s kind of strange just the two of us living here now, but one of the perks is the gym is always empty.”

Strange as it felt now to not hear Jordan clomping around the house, Elliott knew that his having moved out—moved on—was the right thing. Lexi, a tiny ballerina, had danced her way into Jordan’s heart so forcefully that she’d shoved his demons out. They had settled down together in their own Baby Point home in February.

“I wonder how Lennon did in his new place last night,” Nikan said.

It seemed odd, Lennon having all his things moved into the condo he’d owned and previously rented out for several years while they were away on tour, but then again, nothing about his bandmates’ recent moves felt normal—at least not yet. They’d bought the place together shortly after they’d made it big—not just for convenience, as most people had assumed, but because Jordan had become suicidal at the prospect of being separated from the only family—his group-home “brothers”—he’d ever had.

“Given Lennon’s insomniac tendencies,” Elliott said after yet another mouthful of pancakes, “he probably got most of his things out of boxes before getting into bed, and was up again at seven finishing it off.”

“You thinking of moving out anytime soon?” Nikan pushed his empty plate away and rolled his eyes as Elliott poured more maple syrup onto his pancakes.

Elliott had thought about it a lot on the trip. “Unless you want this place, in which case we can play a round of Rock, Paper, Scissors, I was thinking of offering to buy you guys out of it. No pressure to leave or anything. I mean, I’m totally happy with the setup we have.” He didn’t want Nikan to feel like he had to move out any time soon. “What about you?”

“Figured I’d think about it once this tour is over. Doesn’t make much sense to me to buy a place and have to worry about it while I’m away. I get the European leg is done, but I figured maybe after we’ve finished the U.S. and Canadian legs I’ll start looking.”

“Well, don’t feel like you have to rush that for me. Plus, I’m thinking of heading up to the cottage for some R&R and to burn off a little energy.”

Nikan studied him, knowing full well what he meant. “Are you cool?” he asked.

He wasn’t. He was anxious. Negative thoughts were on a constant loop, running through his head night and day, putting the chaos and turmoil he felt into words, challenging him to do things he shouldn’t. “Yeah, I’m good.”

Elliott’s cell phone rang. “Yo.”

“Elliott, glad I caught you,” Ryan, Preload’s manager, said, sounding way too fucking chipper.

“Given I’ve been home less than twelve hours since the last thing you signed me up for, can I assume this is a social call?”

Nikan laughed.

“You’d make a shit stand-up comedian,” Ryan said. “Look, I’m sorry to hit you up on your first day back, but we got a request a couple weeks ago. I was gonna deal with it once you’d had some time to settle back home, but it’s gotten more urgent. There’s a sixteen-year-old kid in SickKids Children’s Hospital who is a massive fan and has cancer.”

Elliott’s stomach turned. He knew what Ryan was going to ask. He hated going. He hated doctors and—he was ashamed to admit to himself—he hated patients more. It was impossible to deal with their pain. He wished he was better equipped to help them. But having suffered so much pain of his own, he couldn’t. He couldn’t put on a happy face and make like everything was going to get better when it fucking wasn’t. “What do you need? Signed merch?” It wasn’t going to be enough, though. It never was.

“The parents were kind of hoping you might be able to swing by the hospital and see him. Look, I know the timing is shitty and I know you don’t like to do these things usually, but I figured you guys would rather do it than drag Jordan and Dred away from their families. Could you and Nikan could head over there today?”

“Gimme a minute to talk to Nik.” He put the phone on mute. “Did you catch most of that?”

Nikan nodded. “Yeah, whatever the kid needs.”

Of course Nik would be willing. They didn’t call him Saint-fucking-Nik for nothing. And it was pointless calling Lennon, because he hated making contact with anybody. “Yeah, we’ll be there. Hit us up with the details.”

Nikan stood up and began clearing the plates. “You going to be okay with this?” he asked Elliott.

“Yeah, I got this,” he said, even though the blood in his veins felt like thick, dirty oil. Rivers of it would clog his arteries until he could set it alight and let it all burn out. Then his head would clear. Then he would be able to breathe.

But until then, he’d do what he’d always done.

Survive.

* * *

Kendalee Walker watched her husband kiss another woman.

And felt . . . almost nothing.

Instead, she sipped on the coffee she’d made from a travel mug she’d borrowed from one of her friends at the No Frills grocery store where she worked as a cashier.

What had happened to her old companions, outrage and indignation? After having spent the last fourteen days going back and forth between the hospital where her son lay in pain and the grocery store where she worked because Adrian had left her broke, she was pretty sure exhaustion had killed them.

Adrian stepped out of the woman’s snazzy little sports car, waved good-bye, and jogged over toward her. While he’d gotten a ride over, she’d walked from work to save a few bucks. And tonight, she’d sleep at the hospital, again, even though fourteen-year-old Daniel hated it. Right now, he hated everything—his pain, his injuries, and his father most of all.

“Hey, Kendalee,” Adrian said. His tone was curt, and she wanted to tell him to go fuck himself or that awful woman who wore so much red lipstick, her husband’s lips took on a pinkish tinge.

“Adrian,” she said, curtly, and began walking toward the entrance to SickKids. He placed his hand on her lower back but removed it quickly when she sidestepped to the left.

“Sorry,” he apologized, and for a moment she almost believed he meant it. “Habit. We should get inside. It’s gross this summer, isn’t it?” Adrian said, bringing her into the present.

Nope. She was so not discussing the weather with him. “Remember, you aren’t allowed on Daniel’s ward.”

Adrian swore under his breath as he reached for the door. “How could I forget? It’s fucking bullshit and you know it.”

She stepped inside SickKids, a place you might drive by a hundred times without thinking about what it was—what it meant. A place you’d never see the interior of unless there was something wrong—really wrong—with your child, or a child you knew.

Adrian huffed. Again. How had she never noticed that habit? “This isn’t my fault, Kendalee, and it would help if you’d reinforce that.”

The doors to the elevator opened, and they stepped inside the empty space. Adrian smacked the button. Anger strangled her, its hands around her throat.

“Your brother abused our son, Adrian. Your twin brother. Can you imagine how confusing that is for him? And you refused to believe Daniel until we had fucking proof,” she hissed. The way the violence scorched its way through her scared her. She might spend ninety-nine percent of her life feeling numb, but there was one topic guaranteed to push her to consider physical harm. She looked at the numbers on the elevator display. Four . . . five . . . six.

“I didn’t. I just . . . we needed to be sure that this wasn’t another one of his . . . you know . . . things. We’d been dealing with school complaints about his behavior for months. It didn’t seem unreasonable to want to talk to Simon first.”

“No, Adrian. Your job was to believe your child.”

The elevator pinged, and the door slid open. Kendalee took a deep breath and stepped out.

“Kendalee.” The bright voice filled with excitement sounded down the hallway. Shannon, Daniel’s occupational therapist, hurried toward her, eyes bright. Both she and Adrian stopped until she caught up with them. “We had a good day, today,” she said a little out of breath. “There are some celebrities, musicians apparently, visiting the hospital today. The ones Daniel has pinned to his wall.”

Kendalee pictured the heavy metal rockers and, worse, recalled some of their dreadful music Daniel had been insistent on blaring in his room at home. She’d debated banning her fourteen-year-old from listening to the R-rated lyrics, but there had been other battles to fight. Personally, she couldn’t care less about the band members one way or another, but if they had the power to help her son dig his way out of his depression, she’d go beg them on her knees to swing by his room. Nothing else had worked, and she’d even stopped praying to St. Dominic Savio. Patron saint of teenagers in trouble he might be, but he clearly wasn’t taking her calls.

“Is there any way to get them to visit Daniel?” Kendalee asked.

Shannon shook her head. “It always causes a lot of buzz and excitement, partly because we can’t guarantee which wards they’ll attend or who they’ll spend time with. Officially, they are here to visit the oncology ward on this floor. But Daniel seemed . . . interested, which I think is great. I know you have a lot going on, but I wondered if you’d gotten around to replacing his guitar.”

Kendalee turned her eyes to Adrian, feeling Shannon’s frustration. It was a question she’d asked every day since his team had suggested getting a new one for him.

Adrian shrugged helplessly. “Things have been busy at work, I haven’t had chance to get to the music store. And let’s face it, his guitar—and my fucking house—is in ashes because of him.”

It was a line she’d heard often during the last week as the team had suggested things that would help Daniel’s mindset and mood.

“Erm . . . I’ll catch you guys later,” Shannon said, extricating herself from the awkward moment.

Kendalee had always hated scenes and did everything she could to avoid them. But if Adrian had his way, Daniel would just sit and stare at the blank wall of the hospital for penance, and it would be a cold day in hell before she’d let that happen. “Give me the money, and I’ll figure out how to get it done tomorrow,” she said.

“This is fucking ridiculous,” Adrian said, pulling out his wallet as they walked toward the consultant’s office.

“No, your attitude is,” Kendalee snapped, then took a deep breath. Getting angry wasn’t going to help. “Look, you say you want to see your son, but the team can see how split you are between supporting Daniel and his recovery and being angry at him for what he did. Daniel feels that.”

Kendalee fingered the cross at her neck and sat down on a row of chairs outside Dr. Drennan’s office. She wondered why she still wore it. Habit, she supposed. A reassurance. Adrian had left her and the family home six months before their son had burned it down. God had quickly followed suit, her faith tested to its limits.

She doubted anything would provide any kind of comfort as long as her only child lay just down the hall, propped up on pillows, and surrounded by cables, wires, drips, and beeping machines. The sight always left her breathless, like a band was tightening around her lungs until every drop of air was squeezed from them. Every time she saw him, she cursed the accelerant he’d bought, cursed the way he’d spilled it on his pants, cursed the way he’d stayed to make sure it ignited, cursed the way the flames had spread faster than he’d been able to outrun, and cursed the way her only child now had life-changing injuries to his legs and feet.

He refused to talk about that afternoon. To tell her, the police, or the psych team why he’d burned their house down. Not that she’d needed a degree to figure out it was because he couldn’t bear to be reminded of the abuse he’d suffered from his uncle in their own home.

The day she’d received the call that had turned their lives upside down, she’d walked into the emergency room knowing that she’d never recover if Daniel died. She’d called Adrian and a priest, and prayed over and over to Saint Jude. When Daniel had transferred to SickKids’s burn unit, she’d repeated the whole process again. Now, for small moments of time, she could catch her breath. She’d also stopped praying, because it hadn’t helped, practically or spiritually.

“There,” Adrian said, bringing her back to the present sharply as he shoved a handful of bills at her. She had no idea if it was enough or not, but she’d make it work.

“Adrian, Kendalee,” Dr. Drennan said as Kendalee put the money in her purse, “come in.”

He gestured into his office, which was decorated with photographs of, and cards from, patients who’d been treated at the burn unit. They were one of the few things that gave Kendalee hope for Daniel’s future, seeing pictures of grown men graduating college, waterskiing, and standing on the top of a mountain she always imagined to be Everest. Living life to the fullest.

“How are you guys doing?” Dr. Drennan asked as the door closed.

Thirty minutes later, they emerged with news she hadn’t wanted to hear.

“One more skin graft, and then the worst of it is over for now,” Adrian said.

Kendalee wished she could agree, but the time she’d spent with the nurses over the last two weeks had taught her that the hard work was only just beginning. “I wish it could be over for him. Between the surgery and the dressing takedowns, it’s . . .” She couldn’t think how to articulate the fear in Daniel’s eyes as he geared up to have all those bandages removed, his wounds cleaned and treated, then rewrapped. She pressed her fingers to her temples, a low-grade headache beginning to form at the thought. “He can barely breathe through the panic he feels waiting to go in there, no matter what the hospital do to keep him calm.” The pain relief could only take him so far. “His depression is getting worse, Adrian. And he’s bitter and angry.”

She let Adrian take her elbow and lead her to a quiet spot in the hallway. “I’m sorry, Kendalee.”

“For what?” she snapped. For cheating? For being an asshole? For . . . damn . . . she didn’t have the energy for this. And the look in Adrian’s eye told her he was being sincere. “Sorry, that was uncalled for.”

“No. You’re right. I’ve done a terrible job at being a good husband and father.”

Master of the fucking understatement. “You have,” she agreed. She remembered the mortification she’d felt as she’d attempted to pay Daniel’s summer camp fees only to have the card to their joint checking account bounce because he’d drained it the day after he’d left. And she could still see the look of horror on Daniel’s face when he’d attempted to tell Adrian about his abuse. “You called your son a liar when he told you about your brother’s behavior. And I have nowhere to live because the insurance policy was in your name. As was the mortgage. I’m homeless while you sleep at your new girlfriend’s every night.”

Adrian at least had the good sense to look contrite, although she wanted to slap the hound dog look off his face. “Things are tight at the company right now, and the insurance is fighting the claim because it was arson. By our own son.” He shook his head, looking as broken as she felt. “If only he hadn’t told the ambulance workers that he did it.”

Kendalee looked toward the corridor that led her to her son’s room. She’d spent enough time away from him today already. “You should go,” she said, quietly.

“I miss him, Kendalee, despite everything that’s happened. He’s my son too.” Adrian’s voice caught at the end of the sentence. “My child.” A child they’d so desperately wanted, one who’d taken three rounds of IVF and countless prayers from her church congregation.

As hurtful and irritating as Adrian’s behavior was, she could hear the hurt and longing beneath. “I know you do. I’ll try speaking to him again.”

Adrian nodded and walked toward the elevator.

As Kendalee approached Daniel’s room, Shannon and one of Daniel’s regular nurses, Chris, stood as if peering inside. Shannon put a finger to her lips in a shushing motion and waved her over. “You have to see this,” she whispered.

At first, all she could see was the making of . . . well, not quite a smile on Daniel’s face. The strawberry blond hair that matched her own flopped in his eyes, but she could still see the deep frown lines were gone, and she was grateful to whatever had taken them away. She peered around a little further, and there, sitting on a chair, was hair. At least that’s what it looked like. Broad shoulders told her it was a man. A very well-built man at that, with tattoos running down each arm. And lots of hair. Longer than hers.

“He’s the guitarist in that band Daniel loves,” Chris added, keeping his voice low.

She was about to take another step back out of sight—scared of interrupting the first thing she’d seen brighten Daniel’s mood since the accident—when the man ran his hand through his hair, pulled it back off his face, and leaned back in the chair.

Dear Lord. He was dangerously good-looking.

There was a very striking resemblance between the shirtless man on Daniel’s posters, whose obscenely healthy body was covered with sweat and who held a guitar in a way that suggested he was about to make out with it, and the man sitting on the chair. Goddamn. Her body and mind had been through enough of a rollercoaster ride the last few weeks without adding into the mix letching at a guy who was likely a decade younger than her.

Especially one who was actually connecting with her son.

* * *

Elliott leaned back in the chair and looked around, noticing the Preload posters that decorated the room and the medical equipment that stood guard on either side of the bed. Then he forced himself to properly take in the kid. Daniel. Mid-blue eyes the color of his favorite denim tracked his every movement. Both legs were wrapped in heavy bandages up past his knees. Burns. Fire. Shit, it was amazing how quickly his head went from on straight to messed up. And after two hours spent with a dying child on the cancer ward—a kid who’d sung their songs with a voice so hoarse he could barely get the words past his vocal cords—he was already emotionally exhausted. It had required every ounce of control to keep from falling apart in front of the kid’s parents, who were doing a way better job of keeping their shit together than he was.

As the adult, he knew he should at least try to lead the conversation until Daniel felt comfortable enough to join in. Especially because he felt the need . . . no, the compulsion to help this kid staring at him through mistrustful eyes.

“Hi . . .” Elliott said as he moved a little closer, aware that the therapist was watching from the doorway. “How are you doing, Daniel?”

“I’m burned on thirty-five percent of my body and my parents are getting a divorce, so I’m fucking perfect.” He lifted himself up the bed, pressing his fists into the mattress, using his arms to sit up against the pillow.

While Elliott wanted to help him up, he also remembered that the only thing that had mattered to him when he was a teenager was his independence. Oh, and not getting caught for torching the empty store over at the intersection of Jane and Annette in Bloor West Village. He recognized the anger he could feel radiating from the kid—Daniel reminded him of himself when he was young. He wondered if he could help the kid find a path through it.

What the fuck could he possibly say to make anything better, though? He didn’t even want to be there, but he’d felt like a prick when Shannon had explained the kid was his biggest fan and had life-changing injuries.

“That’s shit, Daniel,” he finally said, stating the obvious. “Sorry.” Unsure what else to do, he pulled a silver Sharpie out of his pocket. He tapped it in his palm as he tilted his head in the direction of the poster on the wall. When Daniel nodded, he stood and signed that one and the rest, which gave him something to do with his hands.

“How was the rest of the European leg of the tour?” Daniel asked quietly as Elliott signed the fourth and final poster.

“Amazing and exhausting,” Elliott said, putting the lid on his pen and returning it to his pocket. He grabbed the chair and pulled it closer to the bed. “When we tour Canada this winter, you’ll have to come see us. It’s a crazy show.” He sat down and crossed one knee over the other.

“Doubt my mom will be able to afford tickets, and I’m not sure where I’ll be at,” Daniel said, nodding his chin in the direction of his legs.

Elliott followed his gaze. Poor kid. He could only imagine what lay underneath all the bandages and gauze. “I’ll get your details and send you some passes so you and a few of your friends can swing by backstage.”

Daniel’s eyes went wide. “Really?” he asked. “You’d do that?”

Elliott shrugged because it wasn’t a big deal. Ryan, their manager, took care of all that. All Elliott had to do was show up and be a little chattier than he seemed capable of being right now. “Sure. You just need to get yourself well enough to be able to come. Do you mind me asking what happened?”

Tears welled up in Daniel’s eyes. He sniffed loudly. “I set fire to my parents’ house.”

Brushing an invisible piece of lint off the knee of his trousers, Elliott attempted to kick-start his breathing, his lungs seeming to have stopped functioning. “Why did you do that?” he asked. It was a dangerous question, the answer to which could be one of Elliott’s million triggers. Compulsion was hard to control, and the need to burn something was always right on his limit. If he didn’t get up to his cottage soon, he was going to do something ridiculously stupid. Something that could put the band in jeopardy. Again.

Silence filled the room, pressing down on his chest. Elliott breathed through it as best he could. He was so far out of his fucking depth that he couldn’t begin to figure out which of the tools he’d been given during all the years of his treatment to call on first.

“I . . . it was . . . I . . . fuck.” Daniel thumped his fist into the thin hospital sheets.

“You don’t need to tell me. It’s okay, kid. I’ve been there.”

Daniel eyed him suspiciously. “You know what it’s like to be . . . you know . . . by your uncle?” he asked. The pain in his voice and his inability to use the words cut Elliott in two.

“Not my uncle, no,” Elliott replied, stepping deeper into a conversation he simply couldn’t have. Not with a kid. Not with someone who was so like him when he was younger. Angry, passionate, and desperate. But a nagging voice told him to soldier on. To deal with whatever Daniel said next.

“But someone else?” Daniel sounded almost . . . hopeful, and Elliott remembered what it felt like to try to find someone who was like him, someone who would show his mom that he wasn’t the freak she thought he was.

He uncrossed his legs, leaned toward Daniel, and reached for the kid’s hand. “Yes. It was—”

“Are you okay, Daniel?” a woman asked as she entered the room, lines of concern creasing her forehead. Even worried, she looked fucking glorious, like one of those silent movie stars with high cheekbones and full lips, only instead of black and white, she was all technicolor with masses of strawberry blonde hair that matched the boy’s. She tenderly placed her hand on the boy’s cheek, and for a moment the boy leaned in to her before pulling away angrily, the progress Elliott had made now lost.

His breath stuck in his throat as he watched the interaction between the woman and the boy. He could feel the love between them, even if it was currently blanketed with crap from their current situation. Shocked by the strength of feelings it invoked, he rubbed his hand along his jaw and coughed to clear his throat.

“Mom, please. You’re embarrassing the shit out of me,” Daniel groaned.

At Daniel’s words, the woman smiled and ruffled his hair. Elliott didn’t understand why his complaining could make her so . . . happy.

“I’m sorry, sweetheart,” she said, and turned to face Elliott, piercing him with gorgeous green eyes, ringed with hazel. “You’re really in the band?” She glanced over to the metal posters on the wall. “Preload?” Her tone said metal wasn’t her thing, and he tried not to grin. It wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but for a moment, he’d kind of hoped it’d be hers.

“Guilty as charged,” he said and leaned his head toward one of the posters.

Her eyes widened as they went from the picture of him at his hot, sweaty, shirtless best to the real him standing right there. “Oh, right. Yes,” she blurted.

Yeah, he looked good naked and knew it, but something about Kendalee seeing it, and blushing, said every hour he spent in the gym was worth it.

“This is totally embarrassing,” Daniel mumbled, and cradled his head in his hands.

Damn. She was staring at him, and he liked it. Liked the way those eyes of hers held his as she bit her lip. And maybe he was hearing things, but he could have sworn the air crackled between them.

She shook her head, a move that sent her strawberry blonde ponytail swaying, and took a deep breath. “Well, thank you for swinging by to see Daniel. He loves your music. I’m Kendalee,” she said, taking a step closer to him and offering him her hand.

He gripped it tightly. Her hand was warm and soft under his calloused fingers and he couldn’t resist rubbing his thumb along the crease between her thumb and index finger. Her fingers were slender and long and . . . shit . . . a wedding band. Then he remembered. Daniel had said they were getting a divorce.

It was wrong to be relieved by that. Right?

Kendalee. It was unusual. Unique, like she was. Like the way the two dainty stones of the cartilage piercing in her ear sparkled in contrast to the conservative hair style and boring uniform that did little to hide her sweet curves. She was likely a little older than he was, but that didn’t bother him at all. Hot was hot, not age dependent. “I’m Elliott. And I totally understand. I was just telling Daniel that if he works on his rehab, I’ll send him some tickets and backstage passes to the Toronto shows at the ACC in the winter.”

They both looked over to Daniel, who had dropped his hands.

“That’s the closest I’ve seen you get to a smile in weeks, Daniel Joseph Walker,” Kendalee said teasingly. “It looks good on you, kid.”

Daniel looked at her briefly, then at her hand gripping Elliott’s. She dropped it quicker than if it had scalded her, and he missed her warmth immediately. “Sorry,” she said, visibly embarrassed. Elliott grinned. “Please. Take a seat. Continue. Whatever.”

It was probably wrong to flirt with a sick kid’s mom in her son’s room, but he’d never been much for rules or appearances. And the Hippocratic Oath didn’t apply him. Or at least he didn’t think it did.

“Can I get a picture with you before you leave?” Daniel asked. “My friends will never believe this fucking shit.”

“Daniel, please,” Kendalee said. “We’ve talked about this. Swearing isn’t appropriate.” She rolled her eyes in his direction as Daniel looked down at the bed covers and picked at a loose thread. Elliott smiled quickly before Daniel lifted his head.

“In the big scheme of things, Mom, not sure my dropping the odd f-bomb here and there is really the worst thing.”

“You’re right, it’s not,” she conceded. “But sometime soon, you aren’t going to be in here, and the worst will be past, and I don’t want this to have become a habit. And it’s disrespectful to curse around me.”

“Fuck, Mom, seriously. What are you going to do if—”

“She’s right, Daniel,” Elliott said, wanting to help him understand. “If you know the band, you probably know I grew up in a group home, right?” he continued, unsurprised by the flicker of shock that momentarily passed over Kendalee’s face. “Ellen ran the home, still does. If I swore at her, I’d never hear the end of it.”

It was a little white lie. Now he was older, he did swear at her on occasion, and Ellen would swear back if required.

It had been a frying pan that had put him on the road toward Ellen. After his stepfather had grabbed the hot pan off the stove, complete with bacon and fat, and beat him with it, he’d needed a hospital stay for his burns. The nurse there had noticed all the other scars, which had led to a series of seven sets of foster parents, one burned-down fence, and one torched shed on an allotment that nobody had given a shit about until he had reduced it to ashes. And then, finally, to Ellen.

“But it’s less about what your mom is going to do to you if you don’t stop,” Elliott continued. “It’s more about learning to be respectful. And you can bet your ass that if I had a mom who cared for me as much as yours does, I sure as sh—I mean, I certainly wouldn’t swear at her.” Elliott turned to look at her. “Sorry,” he said. “Not used to talking to kids.” For once he was embarrassed, something that didn’t happen often.

Daniel laughed loudly. A look of pure joy passed over Kendalee at the sound. Her face brightened, the faint lines showing him that the smile reached her eyes. When she looked in Elliott’s direction, he realized two things. She was beautiful, and he liked making her happy. A lot.

“Thank you. I appreciate the sentiment, even if you almost fell afoul of your own rules.”

Elliott attempted to look appropriately contrite, even if he did flash a glance over to Daniel to wink at him.

She took a seat on the edge of Daniel’s bed. “Shannon told me you had a great session today.”

Daniel’s face turned dour. “It wasn’t that great, and I don’t want to talk about it.”

Ah. This must be the normal Daniel. No wonder why Kendalee had looked happy earlier.

“Well, I am very proud of you for working hard,” she said.

“Wait, no. I want to hear about it,” Elliott said, leaning forward to rest his elbows on his knees. “Shannon said she was an occupational therapist. I don’t even know what that means. Would you tell me?”

Daniel turned his body away from his mom to face Elliott. It was hard to miss the hurt that crossed Kendalee’s face at the snub. The fire, the hospital, and the cause of Daniel’s pain were all red flags to his own issues. To the things that made him want to fall back on old habits to cope, things he had worked hard to manage. Yet despite all that, he felt a real need to help them both.

“It’s to ensure I don’t lose strength while my legs are like crispy fried chicken.”

In answers filled with attitude that Elliott could see straight through, Daniel continued to respond to his questions. Each answer brought Elliott closer and closer to his own triggers, ones he’d kept a handle on for nearly a decade, ones that became a constant dialogue in his head until they ignited into uncontrollable action. He tried to suppress the wave of anxiety that began to creep over him like an insidious ground weed. All gnarly roots and thorns. He tried to focus, to pay attention, while dealing with the urge to get the fuck out of there as quickly as he could.

Instead, he looked at Kendalee who was in turn studying her son. Focused on the way her hair was spun with reds and golds, he managed to keep his urges at bay. She soothed him.

For all his teasing to keep the mood light, Elliott could feel Daniel’s pain, both emotional and physical, as if it were his own. He knew firsthand how those scars would continue to hurt for years to come, even as the scar tissue became old and lost its rawness. It would become tight and inflexible, no matter how much therapy Daniel had, a constant reminder about this period in his life. It was a period Elliott had physically escaped but was still mentally stuck in.

These people weren’t his problem. It wasn’t his job to save them. He knew better than to stick around things that could set him back.

Yet one look at the hope on Kendalee’s face and the sadness in Daniel’s eyes kept him trapped in his seat.

The urge to help, to do something . . . anything that would help became imperative.

Which made a burn unit with the two of them the most dangerous place on earth to him.

* * *

“What happens next?” Elliott asked Daniel. “Do you need more surgeries?”

Daniel sighed. “That’s a given,” he said. “Right, Mom?”

Kendalee swallowed hard. Watching Elliott slowly and carefully work around Daniel’s dark frame of mind with so much care, had a lump stuck in her throat. And Daniel’s question had her chest tightening at the thought of another operation. “It is, sweetheart. Another skin graft in a week, and then possibly more surgeries in the future as he starts to heal. But we’ll face it like we did all the others.”

Daniel was already fading away before her eyes, mentally and physically, despite everybody’s best efforts. The doctor encouraged them to bolster Daniel’s morale, and the staff was fighting tirelessly to find ways to engage and motivate him, but he was no longer a ten-year-old who could be distracted by a pack of Topps cards and a trip to Medieval Times. At fourteen, he was on the cusp of maturing into an adult, with baggage that could hold him back forever.

“Well, I’m sure you’ll nail the surgeries like the champ you are,” Elliott said.

Daniel eyed him cautiously. “Yeah, because having skin from your back stitched onto your leg is a fucking party.”

“Daniel,” Kendalee said, her voice tight.

“What, Mom? It’s bullshit.”

Elliott reached across the bed and placed a hand on Kendalee’s arm. She jumped at the contact, yet it soothed her. His calloused fingers were warm against her chilled skin. For the briefest moment, she allowed herself to daydream that it was more than just a friendly gesture. “Hey,” he said. “Your mom asked you not to swear, dude. I get that you’re angry and all, but you can’t do that in front of her, okay?”

Daniel’s mouth was a thin line, his lips almost invisible. Kendalee knew that inside he was likely fuming, but he nodded his head tightly.

“I’ve been burned too. And I’d have given my right arm to have a mom like yours there to look out for me. Respect her for it. She could be anywhere else but at this hospital with you, but she isn’t.”

Kendalee held her breath as Daniel let out a short huff and dropped his shoulders. “Okay,” he said quietly. “I’m sorry, Mom.”

She sighed and placed her hand gently on the bandages covering Daniel’s thigh. “Thank you, Daniel. We’ll get through this together, I promise.”

With Elliott’s help, she steered the conversation to his band, and before she realized it, dinner was fast approaching. She didn’t want Elliott to leave. It was nice to have adult company, someone to share the burden of brightening Daniel’s day with. And she would be lying to herself if she didn’t admit that it was nice to have an attractive man glance her way every now and then. Heck, unless she was completely out of touch with reading the signs, he’d done more than glance . . . a thought that made her thighs squeeze together. But it was time for Elliott to leave, and for her life to resume its usual mundane normal.

“Sorry to break this up, but I think we should start to get ready for food arriving any minute,” Kendalee said.

Elliott eased himself out of the chair. “And I should probably get out of your hair. Thanks for letting me hang out with you today, Daniel.” He squeezed Daniel’s hand. “I’ll give your mom my details so we can keep in touch. Maybe I’ll even be able to swing by again.”

“That’d be cool,” Daniel said. “Is it okay, Mom?”

Kendalee looked toward him. “I’d love that.” I’d love that. What the hell? “I mean, yes, that would be wonderful.”

“Will you walk out with me, Kendalee?” Elliott asked. “Just for a moment.”

She looked toward Daniel. “Get your book out and start to read, Daniel, until dinner comes. Then you can watch TV, okay?”

Kendalee led the way out of Daniel’s room. This was the time of night when she usually remembered she still hadn’t eaten and had to dash to the lobby or outside to the twenty-four-hour Denny’s over on Dundas Street to get something. But now the only thing on her mind was the ridiculously good-looking man following her away from the ward. Damn. She couldn’t imagine they had much else to say.

Strong hands gripped her shoulders and pulled her to one side, saving her from the bedding cart being wheeled in her direction from a corridor to her left. “Steady,” he said, his lips too near her ear. His breath fluttered the strands of hair that had escaped from her ponytail, making her shiver.

She placed her hands over her heart, which raced furiously. Some serious self-talking was in order. He was moral support for Daniel. That’s all. Her days of picking up hot young men had been over long before they started—she’d married Adrian at nineteen—and they sure as heck weren’t going to begin again now.

“Where can we get a quick coffee?” Elliott said, stepping to her side as the cart passed.

“I need to get back to Daniel. I can’t—”

“Yeah, you can. He’s fine. Have a coffee with me, Kendalee. Hell, have some food even. I want to know what happened. I want to help.”

God, when she looked up into Elliott’s eyes, she wanted to. The idea of sitting down, having food, and pretending none of the last year had happened was so tempting, but—

“He’s fine, Kendalee. Ten minutes. That’s all I need.”

His hand pressed against her back as she let him guide her around the visitors beginning to leave the hospital for the night. It was large, and warm, and . . . safe. Secure even. Something she hadn’t felt in a long time. She tried not to think about the way she could feel the heat from his torso as it brushed alongside hers. As they walked toward Starbucks, she glanced down at the wedding ring she hadn’t had the courage to remove. “Masculine” wasn’t a word she’d often used to describe her husband. He had been nice, once. Courteous. Hard working. But he’d never filled the space around her like Elliott did with a single touch. The air practically vibrated around him.

She didn’t want to share everything that had happened in their ridiculous lives with a stranger, especially one as attractive as Elliott, but she didn’t have a whole heap of people to count on. Her parents had moved north a decade ago, and her mom was battling severe arthritis that left her housebound and dependent on Kendalee’s dad. As a couple, they’d spent most of their time with his friends, not hers, and she was only just beginning to realize how isolated that had left her.

Elliott led her into the line, and they ordered their coffees. A straight-up black for him, a decaf latte for her because hospital lights-out came sooner than her body was used to. Sometimes she felt like Tom Hanks in that movie where he got stuck in the airport, perpetually on somebody else’s schedule and whim. They found a seat in the colorful atrium in an area private enough that no one could overhear them.

“How are you doing, Kendalee?” Elliott popped the lid of his cup and added way more sugar than was necessary.

“I’ve had better months,” she answered with as much humor as she could muster—which was clearly not very much.

Elliott pinned her with those gray eyes of his. His long hair framed his face, and that angular jaw of his likely had its own Tumblr account, or whatever it was the cool kids were using these days. “I meant that question. Really, how are you doing? What happened?”

Kendalee took a sip of her latte. It burned her lips, but the pain was good. It kept her in the present moment. “You don’t want to hear all the details.” She laughed bitterly as she looked around the coffee shop. “Believe me, it’s depressing.”

“Try me,” he said as he placed his elbows on the table and rested his chin on his hands.

There was a long silence as she debated pouring her heart out to a man she’d known for only a few hours. The mom in her felt it was disloyal to Daniel for her to share his story, but the woman in her craved someone to lean on. As Elliott waited patiently, those soft understanding eyes had said he wanted to help. To be there.

She looked back at him, and he raised an eyebrow, a gesture she interpreted as “Whenever you are ready.”

Kendalee shook her head and sighed. “I guess the headline is that my brother-in-law was sexually abusing Daniel.” Might as well scare him off with the big news first.

“Daniel told me that,” Elliott said.

“He did?” Treatment in the hospital hadn’t been going well. Daniel’s therapist constantly mentioned how his . . . what did she call it? Oh, yes. His “lack of nonaggressive communication” was holding him back. Which is why it had been such a wonder to hear him talk with Elliott . . . really talk. Full sentences that bled into paragraphs as Elliott had asked questions and then sat back to listen—though clearly the rocker hadn’t been totally comfortable. He’d fidgeted in his seat too much and had tried too hard to avoid looking at her poor boy’s legs.

But Daniel hadn’t seemed to notice, and when he’d talked to Elliott he’d sounded like himself . . . well, like he’d been before. There was no pain in his tone, and, momentarily, no anger. Elliott had been a godsend, just what Daniel had needed. Out of reflex, she said a quick prayer of thanks before remembering that she and God were taking a break.

“He did.” Elliott didn’t elaborate. Just picked up his coffee and took a sip.

Kendalee ran her thumb along the edge of the lid on her cup. They’d written her name wrong. They always did. This time she sounded like a stripper. Candy-Lee. Sometimes, just to keep things simple, she told baristas her name was Lisa. “It had been going on for a couple of years. The police are impatient for Daniel’s statement, but he isn’t ready to tell us all the details yet, and his psychologist said pushing wouldn’t help.” Tears of frustration pricked at her eyes. Again. How could she have failed her child so badly? How could she have not seen what was happening? She would never be able to forgive herself for such a huge failing as a parent.

“It rarely does,” Elliott muttered, and for a moment, she wondered if he’d realized he’d said that out loud.

“We’d seen changes in his behavior. He’d become sullen. Less communicative, especially with Adrian. Then he started a couple of fires. One was on his grandparents’—my in-laws’—property out in Georgetown, and the other was a Dumpster behind the school gym. We were losing our mind with worry.”

“When did you figure out what was going on?”

“My husband left me six months ago.” Fucking Erin. Their business had grown quickly since they’d flipped their first property not long after they’d married, back when he was a twenty-three-year-old college grad with property development dreams. He’d seemed so . . . complete to her then. Their life had been an adventure, buying and flipping a three-story triplex in the Annex purchased before the area became gentrified, while living in the borderline uninhabitable basement. They’d sold one house to fund the next until they had enough for a permanent home of their own in the Upper Beaches. The properties became bigger as Adrian excelled at predicting which neighborhoods of Toronto were up and coming until they had multiple properties on the go. Eventually she was busy staying home with Daniel. The business had an office, and she was no longer required. As much as she’d missed doing the accounts and helping paint walls, Adrian had said that no wife of his was going to work if she didn’t need to. And the truth was, she hadn’t needed to.

“Ouch.” Elliott reached across the table and gripped her forearm for a moment. It was sweet, in a slightly awkward way.

“Yeah, well, I found out after he left that all the business documents are in his name and his alone. For years, I’d thought it was our company.” She remembered the way the bottom had fallen out of both her stomach and world as she realized she had nothing to fall back on, how she’d cried, then hurried to wash her face before Daniel had come home from school.

“Asshole,” Elliott muttered, and something in her chest loosened.

“Successful fortysomething man leaves wife and son for twentysomething assistant-slash-mistress with a large chest who drives a little red sports coupe. The cliché is alive and well.” Oh, shit. She hadn’t meant to blurt that out. Her eyes met his, and she saw nothing but . . . what? Sympathy? Empathy? “Anyway,” she said as she shook her head to clear it, “he moved out into the new place that was supposed to be our dream home, and I got the old house—and Daniel, which was non-negotiable.”

“The old house is the one he burned down?” Elliott asked.

“Yeah. Adrian’s twin brother, Simon, had come over every Sunday for as long as I’d known him. I never questioned why he went to Daniel’s room to hang out with him. He’d been doing it for as long as Daniel had been old enough to play Legos with him. He was like a big kid, and I just assumed he was being a good uncle. I wish I’d paid attention to a lot of things now.” Mindlessly, she sipped her coffee. It tasted bitter.

“How did you find out?” Elliott flipped his hair over his shoulder and drank his coffee, the move innocuous, except that it revealed a heavily tattooed bicep that temporarily distracted her.

Kendalee fiddled with the lid on her cup to compose herself. “After Adrian moved out, Simon continued to come around. I thought he was just being supportive. Offering Daniel some stability, showing him that even though Adrian and I were divorcing, his uncle would still be there for him. Then one day I decided to pop out on an errand while Simon was over, and half way to the store, I realized I’d forgotten my wallet, left it in a different purse. I popped home to get it. And I . . .” Tears formed, and a lump secured itself firmly in her throat. She pursed her lips and took a deep breath, urging the feelings she kept locked up to return to the box in which she mentally stored them. But they wouldn’t. Her stomach clenched tightly, partly from hunger and partly from the anxiety of sharing her story with a stranger.

Elliott reached across the table and gripped her hand. “It’s okay, Kendalee. Take your time,” he said gruffly. He looked her in the eye. “You don’t know shit about me, but I promise you, I know what you’re going through. Different circumstances, for sure. But I understand you.”

Kendalee nodded, afraid of saying something that might cause him to let go of her hand. It was crazy the way the feel of his fingers linked with hers kept her anchored. Leaving her hand in his, she took another deep breath. “I just knew something was off. I can’t even tell you now why I decided to go upstairs. As I reached the landing, Simon was walking out of the bedroom, running a hand through his hair. Daniel was sitting on the floor, his face ashen. I demanded to know what had happened. Simon blew it off, telling me that Daniel was in a bad mood and he’d had to ‘set him straight.’” She ran a hand over her lips, unsure of how much to say. “Anyway, that wasn’t unusual. It wasn’t a secret that Daniel had become withdrawn. But there was something very wrong with my son, I knew it. I knew it when Simon said a breezy good-bye. I knew it when I heard the front door slam. Call it mother’s instinct or what you will, but I knew someone had hurt my child. I sat on that damn floor with him for an hour until he finally cracked and told me.”

Elliott’s grip on her hand tightened, and when he reached for her other one, she gave it to him willingly. The strength she felt in them kept her grounded while she shared the rest of her story. “I called the police, and then I called Adrian. Adrian arrived first, and he was furious. Furious at me for not calling him first to let him handle it. He told Daniel that he’d gone too far this time.”

“Holy fuck. He didn’t believe him?” Elliott’s unwavering support for her son gave her the confidence to go on, despite the tears that were starting to run down her cheeks.

She shook her head. “He did not. Not until the hospital report came back. By then, it was too late. Daniel didn’t want anything to do with his father. His anxiety levels went through the roof whenever his father tried to visit. I think because Simon and Adrian are identical twins, it was compounded. When Daniel sees Adrian he also sees Simon. Adrian is allowed to attend the doctor’s appointments, and I wouldn’t stop him from doing that, but the team here has decided that Adrian’s presence isn’t conducive to Daniel’s recovery, so he isn’t allowed to see him on the ward for now. Of course, Adrian is torn in two by the fact that he didn’t believe Daniel in the first place. And he misses Daniel. He’s saying he’ll challenge the hospital legally if they don’t let him see his son soon.”

“He fucking well should feel cut in two. How do you not believe your own kid? I’ve never understood it.”

At Elliott’s outburst, the tears began to fall freely. He was right. How could a stranger readily believe her son when his own father couldn’t?

“Hey. I’m sorry,” he muttered. She heard his chair scrape along the floor and assumed he was leaving her to her meltdown. But suddenly she was being lifted from the chair and held. And as he tightened those arms around her, the ones she’d admired, she felt safe enough to let go in front of him in a way she hadn’t been able to around anyone else.

***
Copyright © 2017 by Scarlett Cole.
***
Learn more about or order a copy of Elliott Redeemed by Scarlett Cole, available August 29, 2017:

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Born in England, Scarlett Cole traveled the world, living in Japan and the United States before settling in Canada where she met her own personal hero – all six and a half feet of him. She now lives with her husband and children in Manchester, England where she's at work on her next book. She is the author of The Strongest Steel.

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