• KD Robichaux

Read the first THREE Chapters of Doc

Doc is finally here. After three and a half years of readers begging for his story, he finally told me his tale, and now I get to tell it to you.

At first, I thought, I'll just post the prologue. But that would just be cruel. Then I was like, maybe the first chapter too? But no. That's all in the past. I wanted you to get a little peek at my most beloved hero and how he treats his goddess. So please enjoy the first three chapters of Doc, and if you want more after that (*fingers crossed*) the links are below <3

Love,

KD





Doc by KD Robichaux

Copyright 2020


Prologue

Doc

18 years old

“Neil Walker?”

I hear my name, but I can’t seem to make myself acknowledge the voice.

“Neil Walker?”

There it is again, but once more, I can’t lift my arm to show the doctor my presence, and everything around the waiting room suddenly seems to morph.

“Neil Walker? Neil Walker? Neil… Walker? Neil… Wal… ker?” The voice starts out like a bad rendition of that scene in Ferris Bueller, when the teacher, in his infamous monotone voice, checks for attendance. But as my name is called several more times—or maybe just once, only the sound continues to reverberate in my head, spinning out of control until it’s unrecognizable as belonging to me anymore—my world suddenly starts to narrow, the sides, top, and bottom of my line of sight closing in as I get tunnel vision before the world just goes completely black.

“Neil Walker?”

Jesus Christ, after this day, I’m changing my name. I never want to hear it repeated ever again.

I open one eye, and immediately I see all white, then am blinded by a pen light. I try to shove it away, but a soothing hand comes to rest on my arm.

“Honey, let the doctor check you out.” My mom. At the sound of her voice, I relax a fraction and do as she asks. I’d do anything for the woman, including face the most horrible day of my life.

“Can you tell me what day it is, son?” the doctor prompts, and I try to speak, but nothing comes out.

I clear my throat. “Th-Thursday,” I get out.

“Very good. Do you know why you’re here?” he asks.

Of course I fucking know why I’m here.

My girlfriend. The love of my life. The woman I planned on marrying, who I fell in love with the moment I saw her in the second grade when the teacher sat her next to me after getting into trouble for talking to her friends too much. Little did the teacher know it wasn’t just her friends she liked to chat with when she wasn’t supposed to. She’d hold a conversation with anyone who would listen. She never met a stranger. And so she just talked to me instead. About anything. And eventually, with all her questions and stories, she got the shy, quiet boy who had no friends to open up. After that, we were inseparable.

Inseparable for almost ten years.

Until ten months ago, when I was sick with a stupid fucking sinus infection and stayed home from the party one of her friends was throwing while their parents were out of town. I thought I was being a good boyfriend, telling her to go have fun without me. I trusted her, knew I had nothing to worry about. We’d already named our future kids. Already had the acceptance letters to the same college, where we were going to have an apartment of our own near campus. I only had two thousand dollars more to go before I paid off the entire four grand it would take to get her engagement ring out of layaway.

Inseparable until the one night she’d needed me the most.

To protect her from the drunk motherfucker who thought he could do anything he fucking wanted, just because he was the captain of the football team. Elias Randolph had a god complex, and the girls who threw themselves at him only spiked his narcissism.

He didn’t understand what the word no meant.

Didn’t get the fact that my sweet Shelly wasn’t just playing coy or hard to get.

I don’t know anything about S&M shit, but I’m pretty sure that even people who like it rough don’t actually fight with all their might. They most likely don’t leave claw marks across their lover’s face even in the throes of passion. Certainly, they don’t bite down on the hand over their mouth so hard they take out a chunk of flesh.

Not like my girl did.

She fought as hard as she could, with all her strength, against a guy twice her size. A guy two inches shorter than me. I could’ve taken him had I been there. I know I could’ve.

Who was I kidding? I might be taller than that fuckstick, but I’m a beanpole compared to his footballer’s muscles. But adrenaline would’ve been on my side. And sobriety. I’m a stickler for the rules. I’m not twenty-one yet, so I don’t drink. Simple as that.

Ten months ago.

She immediately called me after he left her there, bleeding from her nose, eye swollen, because he’d hit her when she scratched and bit him. I’d stumbled out of bed, dosed up on NyQuil. At the time, I thanked God I had put my phone on the loudest setting on my pillow right next to my head in case she got a little tipsy and needed a ride home. She never got drunk, but always sipped on a Smirnoff. And she was such a tiny thing, such a lightweight, that just one was enough to make her all giggly.

My mom heard me falling down the stairs as I tried to get my shoes on at the same time I was making my way to the front door, still on my phone. One look at the panic in my eyes and she took my keys out of my hand and we hurried to my pickup. I slurred the address to her, and we got there in record time, all while I stayed on the phone with my sweet Shelly, who cried quietly on the other end of the line.

When we reached the house, the effects of the medicine had mostly worn off, and I ran up the front porch steps, my mom behind me, as we burst through the open door. The house was packed, loud music playing, everyone dancing and laughing, cups and bottles in their hands. I looked around, yelling into the phone so Shelly could hear me over the insanity, asking her where she was.

Mom and I found her in one of the bedrooms, hiding in the closet. When my eyes landed on her, the blood, the bruises, the flesh under her fingernails, her ripped and disheveled clothes, I saw red. I would kill the motherfucker. I swore on my life I wouldn’t stop until he wasn’t just six feet under, but obliterated to the point he wouldn’t even need an urn.

We took her straight to the hospital.

And for ten months, she’d been in therapy.

Apparently, it wasn’t enough.

Because as I lie here in a hospital bed, trying to come up with a “simple” answer to give the doctor in reply to his question of why I’m here…

All I can see are Shelly’s slit wrists and her lifeless eyes.

Chapter 1

Astrid

I was always in love with the idea of being in love. From a very young age—kindergarten, I think—I had crushes. My first boyfriend was Nick, when we were five years old. I can remember us sitting next to each other on the carpet at our teacher’s feet while she read a book to us before naptime, when the boys would then have to go to their side of the room and the girls to the other before lying awake on the blue and red foldable mats. I was restless, longing for the hour to be over so we could then run outside to recess and I could play with the sweet dark-haired boy who was always nice to me.

He moved… or maybe he just had a different class the next year. Our parents weren’t friends, and again, we were five, so it’s not like we knew how to keep in touch. One day, he was my whole reason to go to school, and the next, he was gone.

But that was okay, because in second grade, I met Kevin. And he was just plain dreamy. We were big, bad seven-year-olds, grown as could be, and we—gasp!—exchanged phone numbers. I sat in the kitchen talking on the phone with its long cord stretched across the space so I could sit beneath the table and pretend I had privacy to discuss important matters, like whether Kim Possible or Powerpuff Girls was better. I even saw him once outside of school. His house was on the same road where the town’s little Fourth of July parade was held, and we sat on the sidewalk together and watched all the homemade floats drive by before getting my first hug from a boy and saying goodbye.

I loved him.

I was going to marry him for sure.

But alas, it wasn’t meant to be. He really did move. His dad got a job in some other state, and he was gone.

My next crush came in the fifth grade. That was a weird one for me. He picked on me, and for some reason, it made me like him. I guess because people would tell me “If he’s picking on you, that means he likes you!” And just the idea of a boy liking me made me like him too. Me? You like little ole me? The idea now makes me shake my head… and makes me want to shake eleven-year-old me. But my fifth-grade crush really didn’t like me back. I know this, because I wrote him a note asking him to check the box yes or no if he wanted to be my boyfriend. But after that, at least he stopped picking on me. God only knows why.

Sixth grade came. A whole new school. New people I didn’t just spend the last six years with. New boys to crush on.

First there was Edward… and then Frankie… and then Greg… all so very different, but all of them gave me butterflies and made me try out my signature with each of their last names. And I finally had my first kiss. It was a fast, terrifying peck on the lips in the stairwell after school.

Suddenly, I was addicted. That adrenalin rush… or whatever it was from kissing a cute boy. Man. I wanted more. I wanted like… three kisses back to back. Phew! That would be super exciting.

Seventh grade brought my first real boyfriend. Meaning he asked me to be his girlfriend and we even went to the school dance together. Jed was missing part of his right middle finger up to the first knuckle. An accident from when he was little. It was barely noticeable, but when some bully finally did catch sight of it, he made some weird joke about Jed losing it inside me. I must have teeth down there and bit it off. I didn’t get it at the time, not understanding he didn’t mean my mouth, so I didn’t realize why people thought his dumb joke was so funny. Like, har-har, I bit my boyfriend’s finger off… you’re so funny. I didn’t understand everyone else knew he meant I had teeth in my pussy that bit his finger off while he was fingering me. I didn’t know what fingering was back then, so it went right over my head. It was also very confusing when Jed dumped me because of the bully’s teasing. I loved him. Shouldn’t we have stuck together? Shouldn’t he have taken up for me and told them he’d never done that to me before?

But again, twelve-year-olds. Face… meet palm.

At the end of seventh grade came Henry. I don’t really remember why I liked him. He was the weird quiet kid who always wore a black trench coat all day. He was an amazing drawer. His art was dark, and he liked drawing guns and stuff. Nowadays, that would be a super bright red flag. And who knows, maybe the same thing was going on for him, and because I was sweet to him and basically demanded he be my boyfriend, and sit with me at lunch, and walk me to my classes, and made him be my partner during assignments and projects, that changed the course of action he might’ve taken without someone like me.

I loved him.

We stayed together until the very last day of school, but lost touch over the summer. And when we came back the next school year, we didn’t have any of the same classes. We were still friendly in the hallways, and waved at each other at lunch, but neither made a move to rekindle our “romance.” Years later, I found out he made a name for himself doing custom artistic stocks on rifles. Beautiful work.

Eighth grade brought Zach. Whoooooo-wee. He was super smart, and super cute. He was in my science class, and the teacher sat us together. I didn’t know a damn thing about him, but goodness, he smiled, and it lit up the room. Especially after he got his braces off. He asked me to the dance, and I said yes. Little did I know, his parents were stupid rich. He picked me up in a limo… for the eighth-grade dance.

I loved him. But… I don’t think Zach liked me very much. In fact, I don’t think Zach liked any girl very much. I think Zach liked boys a lot though.

Ninth grade. High school. That brought a whole new batch of boys.

There was Jared. And he’s probably who I would say was my first real boyfriend in the more grown-up sense. We did things after school together all the time. We went to each other’s house, went to movies, even spent New Year’s Eve together at his parents’ friend’s party. This was when I learned a lot more about hormones and physical experimentation. Up until then, I still had only had a couple of pecks on the lips. And I was Jared’s first kiss. But at this New Year’s party, we went to the park next door, where I sat on his lap. And that’s when I discovered what happens to a fourteen-year-old boy when a girl sits on his lap. I also discovered it felt really good when I faced him while sitting on said lap and that hard part of him nestled up against the seam of my jeans and rubbed a part of me I didn’t know existed. Add in my first french kiss, and I was going to marry him for the feelings he sparked inside me.

You guessed it—I loved him. Until he dumped me a couple of months later when his mom found out he was french kissing his girlfriend.

Throughout all of this, I was a dancer. Had been since my mom put me in ballet in kindergarten. If I wasn’t thinking about boys, I was thinking about dancing. I was good. Damn good. Contemporary was my dance of choice. I loved the way my body would take over when I absorbed the music and let myself go. I was even able to take it as my PE in high school, which was a blast, because I was finally known in school for something other than being so-and-so’s girlfriend. I was that dancer girl. People showed up at the talent show and our seasonal recitals to watch me. My head was finally clearing of the boy craziness toward the end of my sophomore year… until I met Brandon.

Brandon was on the football team. Not the captain or anything. He was big, like muscular, but also built like a house. One of the guys that protects the quarterback. Not sure what he was called, because I always spaced out when he talked about the game. He was hot, a bad boy for sure. He said he thought I was way more beautiful and talented than any of the cheerleaders, and—once more, for the people in the back!—I was instantly smitten.

We were the “it” couple. When the pretty dancer girl and the football player hooked up, the popularity came with it. I was hanging out with the popular kids, the football team and with them the cheerleaders. But the not-so-popular kids still liked me thanks to my little sister, Twyla. Sweet Twyla. If you looked up nerd in a dictionary, there would be her portrait. But God, I loved my little sis. It was us against the world. Yes, I teased her constantly for always concentrating on her studies instead of any type of social life, but I was still good-natured about it. I was never mean. If anyone were to be mean to my little sis, they would regret it. And I had the entire football team to back me up.

Anyway, back to Brandon. Brandon took over as far as all the rest of my firsts. The first time I was ever actually fingered—thank you very much, seventh-grade bully. The first time I ever had sex.

A few years later, the first time I moved in with a guy.

The first time my hair was pulled.

The first time a guy ever made me cry with his angry words.

The first time I was separated from all my friends and family with threats and guilt.

But I stayed. And even more years later, I thought if I could improve our sex life, he’d be nicer to me, so I suggested some things I’d read in my naughty books. Books I read to escape my reality, since by then, I had nothing else to do.

So then came the first time I was choked unconscious.

The first time I was truly forced into having sex when I didn’t want to.

And finally, the first time I was beaten black and blue.

So with my boy-crazy personality, I got what I guessed I deserved—a crazy boy.

And after that, I swore never to fall in love again.

Chapter 2

Doc

I pull into my driveway, using the huge cement width to back my car in between my SUV and my old truck, where I can sit for a moment and watch the beauty flit around the kitchen through the window. It’s the only window I don’t digitally fog over until I’m home, knowing no one else can see inside from this angle, since I have the entire property locked down like a fucking fortress. I sit here every evening for a few moments just to watch Astrid dance around as she makes dinner, my heart nearly bursting at the seams when she orders Scout to sit, shake, switch paws, and then bark before rewarding him with a taste of whatever she’s cooking. The Australian shepherd looks like he has a smile on his face as she scrubs his head with both hands before placing a kiss between his mismatched eyes and then dances away to whatever music she’s playing over my system today.

I pull up my app, seeing it’s Timbaland and Katy Perry singing “If We Ever Meet Again,” and I glance up to match her lips to the lyrics. I could sit here and watch her forever. It’s the only time I see her truly relaxed, not a care in the world unless she does something she deems “wrong” in the kitchen.

Like the time she browned the grilled cheeses darker on one side than the other.

And could barely look me in the eye the entire time we ate.

She flinched when I went to run a soothing hand up and down her arm, telling her it was okay, that she didn’t need to cook dinner for me every night anyway—like I have for the past year.

A year of pure torture in which I wouldn’t let her leave—not that she fought me much.

A year ago, Astrid’s abusive ex found her, several months after she and her sister landed here in our small town outside Ft. Vanter. I’d hidden her away while my security team took care of him, and after everything was said and done, I couldn’t let her leave. At first, it was because everything was up in the air with Brandon, her ex. We didn’t know what his sentencing would be, so she stayed while we awaited his trial. At the same time, her sister, Twyla, moved in with Seth, the technological genius behind Imperium Security—the cover for our mercenary operations—and co-owner of Club Alias, our BDSM club.

There was no way in hell I was going to let her live alone for the first time in her entire life when she was so very clearly suffering from PTSD thanks to her decade-long relationship with the worst kind of human being.

And I say it’s been a year of pure torture, because for the first time in over two decades, I want a woman. I want this woman more than I want my next breath. And not just in the physical sense. From the moment I first saw her, the image of her had been branded on my mind, to the point I see her beautiful face every time I close my eyes, every time I blink. She’s a constant in my subconscious, never allowing me to fully concentrate a hundred percent on anything or anyone else, because there’s always this shadow of her perched in the corner of my mind. Which isn’t good, since I’m a well-respected psychologist.

I realize I’ve been sitting here a little longer than I should, as I see Astrid glancing at her watch and biting her lip, probably wondering what’s taking me so long to get out of my car. She knows I’m here. All sorts of bells and whistles go off inside the house when I open and close the gate, and she can see my car outside the window. But she believes I always have an appointment with a patient over the phone that I finish before I come inside, or that I’m wrapping up things with security cases with one of the guys. She doesn’t know I just sit and watch her for a little while, enjoying her relaxed expression, seeing the real Astrid, before I come in and she’s back to her usual tense and overly careful state.

I put in the code at the door and it unlocks, allowing me inside, and I barely have it closed before the locks reset and Scout is barreling into me. He may be a trained military police dog, but being retired, he now knows he’s free to just be a well-loved and spoiled pet. I stoop down and bury my hands and face in his thick gray, white, and black swirled fur, giving him a minute of my attention, all while I feel Astrid’s eyes on me from the kitchen. The open concept of my house allows me to peek up over Scout’s head just enough to catch the small smile on her pillowy lips before she spins away, opening a drawer quickly to act like she wasn’t just watching me.

I stand, strolling up to the huge island separating the kitchen from the living area, and sink onto one of the stools that surrounds it. “How was your day, goddess?” I ask her, the same thing I always ask her when I get home from work. And she replies the exact way she always does as well.

“It was good.” And there’s her little one-shoulder shrug, never meeting my eyes as she plates our dinner, then slides it across the island to me. She tugs the stool at the end of the counter around to sit on, keeping the five feet of white marble between us.

I groan in pleasure at the smell. “God, I love your spaghetti. Thank you for this.”

Words of affirmation. Right now, it’s the only Love Language she’s receptive to. I can see her physical response to the praise, a relaxing of her shoulders, the corners of her eyes no longer pinched.

I take a bite, moaning at the perfection. “How you get the absolute perfect amount of salt every time is beyond me, woman. So, so good. Mm.”

There we go. Her eyes finally lift, and I can hear her barely audible sigh of relief.

And it makes me want to murder that motherfucker for making her this way. Making her terrified that she’ll be punished if the food she didn’t have to cook in the first place isn’t exactly right.

But I can’t. It’s against our code. Life for a life. He might’ve ruined a decade of her life, but he didn’t end it. So therefore, I’m not allowed to choke the very spark from his body.

“What did you do today?” I ask, glancing around the first floor and seeing its usual immaculate state. Not even one of Scout’s dog toys are outside its beige basket with the black pawprint.

She wipes her mouth delicately with a napkin before replacing it on her lap. “I put together several makeup orders. There’s a sale going on, so there’s quite a few more than usual, if you wouldn’t mind taking them to the post office for me tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow is Saturday,” I remind her, watching her closely.

A tiny furrow of her brows. “Oh. Oh yeah. So… I can do it. No biggy.” She shakes her head.

“I’ll take you. You don’t have to go alone,” I tell her, and she nods, a look of relief in her eyes. The post office is right by my office, so I normally take her orders for her after she packages them all up. But since I don’t work on Saturdays, I use it as an opportunity to make her leave the house. Otherwise, she’d stay right here, a self-imposed prison. Hence why it wasn’t that hard to keep her from moving out and leaving me once Brandon was behind bars.

“Did you do a live video today?” I ask, my head tilting to the side as I take in her look. “I like these colors on you. They really bring out the blue in your beautiful eyes.”

Her cheeks pinken and she looks down into her plate of spaghetti before she nods.

“Astrid.” My tone makes her eyes meet mine once again, and she knows I want a verbal response. It makes me uneasy to be commanding with her, since Brandon forced her into a life of subordination, but sometimes the Dom in me rears up in subtle ways.

“Yeah, I thought I’d try out the new pallet that just came in. It has these new shades of browns and greens that haven’t been in the previous pallets. Just wanted to play around with it a little,” she explains. “But you don’t want to hear about my silly makeup stuff, do you? I mean, you’re out there doing really important work. My job is—”

“Something you love, goddess.” I finish for her instead of allowing her any more self-deprecation. “It makes you happy, and you’re tremendously talented at it. As I’ve told you time and time again, never put down something that brings you pleasure.” There’s a tense moment of quietness. When I see her relax enough to take a bite of her food, I wait until she swallows to ask her another question. “How long did it take you to achieve this look? It seems more intricate than the last one you did. I see what—” I narrow my eyes and lean closer to count the colors. “—five… six different shadows?” From all my time of getting her to hold an actual conversation, I’ve learned more about makeup than I ever thought a forty-something-year-old straight man should. But I’d learn anything if it were Astrid teaching me, if it got her to talk.

“It’s actually only four, but with the blending and stuff, it gives an ombre appearance,” she replies, closing her eyes and lifting her perfectly manicured brows, pointing to different colors with her fingertip. “The black is called naughty minx, the brown is called melted chocolate syrup, the green is called morning wood, and the beige is called cream pie—” She cuts herself off with a gasp, opening her eyes wide and looking at my face in horror. My nostrils are flared, trying hard not to laugh, when her face flames.

I pull my lips in between my teeth, the hair beneath my bottom lip touching my mustache I bite down so hard, but I’m sure she sees the hilarity in my eyes.

“Who the hell names eyeshadow colors after such dirty shit! No wonder there were so many laughing emojis on my live video! I thought I had like… a booger or something,” she exclaims.

And theeere’s my girl. Every day, it’s the same thing. Tension until she finally relaxes enough for the real Astrid to break through and take over like the Incredible Hulk bursting out of the quiet and timid Bruce Banner.

I finally let go, laughing my ass off as she shakes her head and allows herself to giggle, pressing her fingertips to her lips as her eyes twinkle.

“I’m surprised it took you that long to catch on to the names. You usually never miss an opportunity to throw out a ‘that’s what she said,’” I tell her with a grin.

“I don’t know.” She shakes her head. “Must’ve been too excited to play with all the new colors. Plus, I always get awkward on live videos anyway. It’s weird to talk to yourself out loud, even seeing I have like two or three hundred people watching what I’m doing.”

My eyes widen at that. “Your numbers are up.”

She shakes her head once more. “Just since yesterday. They’re promoting this new pallet like crazy, and then add in the sale and I got like four hundred new followers in my private makeup group on Facebook overnight. That’s why I did the live video. Thought it’d be smart to take advantage.”

“Very smart.” I nod. “You really have a good mind for all this. And so extremely talented. You’re breathtaking without all of it. I tell you that every day. But I look at it as… a form of art. Your makeup is your paint and your face is your canvas. You are an artist.”

She blushes. “I mean, they are called makeup artists. But I was never formally trained. Just watched hours and hours of makeup tutorials on YouTube when I wasn’t allowed to….”

Before she can go to that dark place, where she’ll spend hours unable to come out of the hole inside her mind, in which she’s still trapped inside her California home she lived in with her ex, I speak up, pulling her out of it. “I mean, yours looks just as good if not better than the ones formally trained. But if you really wanted to go to school for it…”

Her eyes lift to mine with a mix of surprise and longing.

“…we could make that happen, goddess,” I finish, my voice soft, trying not to scare her out of the idea. So many times I’ve offered such things. But every time, she tells me—

“Soon. Maybe. Whenever I have enough money saved.”

And as always, I reply, “You don’t have to wait. Just like my offer to pay for lessons so you can get back into your dance classes, you can go now, Astrid. There’s nothing stopping you.”

There’s a spark in her eyes. The one she gets when she finally allows herself to argue with me. “And as I told you, Neil, I don’t want to owe you anything. I know I live here in your home rent-free, since you won’t accept any of the payments I’ve tried to give you. But I do what I can to feel like I earn my keep. This house stays pristine, I cook breakfast and dinner and meal prep your lunches, and Scout boy is living his best life with nonstop attention—”

The sudden loud skid of my stool being pushed back as I stand cuts off her words and her eyes widen as she braces herself. I come around the island, my movements fluid, careful not to approach her too fast as not to scare her. But approach her, I do, and I get as close as I can without making her shrink away in fear.

I don’t stand over her. At six and a half feet and well over two hundred and fifty pounds of pure muscle, I know I’m an intimidating motherfucker, even if I am a therapist with a quiet and more studious demeaner. Instead, I kneel so she can look down into my eyes from where she’s perched on the barstool.

“You earn your keep here just by breathing, goddess,” I implore, reaching up to push her blonde hair back behind her ear. “You don’t and will never owe me anything.”

She closes her eyes at the touch, and my heart thuds in my chest at her slight lean toward my hand. The tiny show of her desire for physical affection makes me ache with need.

She opens her eyes, seeming to have come to a decision. “M—Maybe just one class. Just to see how it goes.”

My brows shoot up, completely taken by surprise. She’s never, not once, ever given an answer this close to a yes before. But I don’t want to seem too excited and freak her out. So I play it cool. “Just one sounds like a great idea. What were you thinking?”

At first, I thought she was talking about cosmetology classes, but as I recall from previously getting her to talk about it, that license doesn’t really work that way. From what I understand, you have to go to school for basically a whole workday while they teach you all sorts of things. Not like a normal college course, where you can sign up for one class and it’s an hour or two, two or three times a week.

She won’t meet my eyes, and I know that means she’s going to ask something of me, and it always, always makes her squeamish. So I soften my face and look as receptive as I possibly can. She could ask me anything, and I’d do it with no questions asked. I’d give this woman the world.

“So like… I haven’t danced in ages. Years. And like, it’s not something you should just jump back into as if you never stopped. You could… I could really hurt myself. So um… I found… I found this gym,” she gets out through stutters and pauses, but I wait patiently, not interrupting to even urge her on. She can take all the time she needs, and I’ll be right here. She nods to herself, her face getting a little stronger the more she speaks, gaining momentum, even as she trips over some words. “Yeah, so there’s this gym. And I’d… I’d never heard of these classes before, because I… I guess the fad caught on while I was in hiding with Twyla last year. Or umm… maybe it was before that, when B— Um… when he wouldn’t let me leave the house.” She blows out a breath and shakes her head. “But there are these classes called Barre. And it’s actually… actually a fitness class. Like a group exercise class, you know? Not like um… Jazzercise or whatever. Or maybe it is, I don’t know.”

I smile up at her from my kneeling position, understanding what she’s wanting, but this is something I’ve been working on with her. Voicing things she needs and wants. But I give her a little something to keep her going. “Like legwarmers and neon leotards?”

She scoffs with a little smile. “God, I hope not. They’ve been trying to bring the ‘80s back in fashion and makeup, but I’ll be damned if I ever use electric blue eyeshadow. Could you imagine my complexion with electric blue eyeshadow?” she asks seriously, finally meeting my eyes.

I take the hint and use context clues in order to answer. “Certainly not. You’re definitely a winter, and electric blue is a summer color.”

She pulls her lips between her teeth then covers her mouth with the fingertips of one hand, her eyes twinkling down at me. “You’re so adorable when you speak makeup terminology to me, Neil,” she says with a little giggle, and then she sobers. “Uhhh… yeah.”

Fuck, I love it when she says my name. After years upon years of being called Doc, the use of my real name from her lips is both jolting and heartwarming, as if it’s a term of endearment that only she uses.

“So… legwarmers?” I prompt, seeing she’s floundering after having called me adorable to my face.

She shakes her head. “Mm-mm. No on the legwarmers.” I stay exactly where I am, kneeled at the feet of my queen, but I pull my hand away, resting my elbow on my thigh. “But um, yeah. This class uses a ballet barre and techniques as a combination cardio and weight training class, and I thought maybeee…” She pulls back her lower lip to bare her teeth in a little endearing cringe. God, she’s fucking cute. But I’m not going to give in. She has to ask me what she wants.

“You thought maybeee…?” I prompt.

She gives me a little frown and then huffs, sitting up straighter on her stool and squaring her shoulders. “I was wondering if you might accompany me to the free trial class they offer at this gym nearby,” she finally gets out, looking over my head instead of in the eye. But then she automatically starts to backpedal. “I mean, I know you already go to a gym, clearly, because my God, look at you. No man looks like… you, all muscly and ripped and like you could bounce quarters off your—” She clears her throat, and my dick gets hard. “I mean… obviously you don’t need to go to some girly barre fitness class. You already know what the hell you’re doing. Clearly. You could be a stunt double for freaking Thor. But I—”

I put her out of her misery, even though I could listen to her ramble all day about the appreciation she has for the work I put into my body. “Set it up and we’re there.” This would be good for her. It would force her to take the steps to make something she wants happen.

“Really?” She perks up.

“Of course, goddess.” I smile gently.

She pushes her hair back behind her ear. “Um… I’ll have to look at the schedule, but I think they have them several times a day, even on the weekend. So then it wouldn’t have to interrupt like… your work or anything and—”

“Astrid, I’ll go any time you want. Just tell me when, and I’ll make sure I don’t have an appointment, even if I have to move my schedule around. I’ll be there,” I tell her, and her eyes get a dreamy look for a moment before she seems to snap herself out of it. I see her do this often, as if what I say affects her, and she allows it to sink into her for a moment before she activates a shield, kicking it out and rejecting it. And it makes me want to slit that motherfucker’s throat for making her this way.

“So, are you free all weekend? I… I think it’d be a good idea to schedule it ASAP so I don’t have time to talk myself out of it,” she confesses, and it makes me proud to see her wanting to fight her hang-ups.

“I’m free any time you need me, goddess,” I reiterate, and she blushes and nods.

I finally stand, allowing myself, while she’s in this rather relaxed and receptive state, to lean over her and place a gentle kiss to her forehead before backing away. She swallows thickly, shuddering at the contact, and she turns back to face her plate of food. I’d already wolfed mine down it was so delicious. I reach across the island and grab my plate to the tune of her telling me she’ll clean it up, ignoring her as I take it to the sink and rinse it off before placing it in the dishwasher along with my fork. I brush my palm along the small of her back as I pass by her on the way to the stairs, enjoying her little shiver of response, and pause long enough at the foot of the steps to say, “Going to shower. You want to watch a movie or something after?”

She nods shyly, surprising me. Usually she wants to hide in her room once we’re done eating. “S-Sure,” she murmurs, and I try to stay calm on the inside, even though I’m bursting with excitement at this small step in her coming out of her shell. When really, this is a huge, huge night for her. Asking to do something not only outside the house but something resembling an activity from her past she used to love? So major.

“Great. You pick. I’ll be down in a minute,” I order, wanting her to make another decision herself, and I hold my breath at the slight panic in her eyes.

“Ummm… any preferences?” she asks, fidgeting with her hair.

I give her just a little, so she doesn’t feel too overwhelmed. “If I own it, I like it.” I gesture toward the entertainment center that has an obscenely large array of VHSs, DVDs, Blu-Rays, and beyond. “And you know my code for my digital collection,” I remind her.

She nods once more and begins twirling her fork in her spaghetti, and I make my way upstairs.


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