Going in Deep
A man didn’t make mistakes. He made choices. Bad ones stayed with him for a long time but, with a little luck and a lot of hard work, hopefully not forever. With planning and diligence, he could make amends. And that had been Julian Dane’s blueprint for how to live his life for the last two hundred and seventy days.
He’d been clean and off drugs for way longer, but the time since he’d acted like a lowlife dirtbag and hurt an innocent woman haunted him more than his past addiction. So he counted his sobriety from that day on. The day he’d decided to act like a decent human being, make amends, and truly change.
He walked out of his Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, his close friend and sponsor by his side. He’d tried Narcotics Anonymous, but at the suggestion of his old therapist, he’d related more to the people in the A.A. meetings, their twelve-step program suiting his needs—beginning with admitting he was powerless over his addiction, including making apologies and amends, and ending with practicing everything he’d learned in all his affairs. And everything in between.
“You up for dinner?” Nick Cantone, his sponsor, asked.
They often caught a bite after a meeting.
“I told Lauren I wouldn’t be home until later, so she’s grabbing something to eat with friends,” he said, referring to his wife.
Julian’s empty stomach grumbled in agreement. “Sure,” he said with a grin.
They headed for a small diner on the corner, a typical New York City haunt, and chose an empty booth, sitting across from each other on the plastic seats. Julian didn’t need to look at the laminated menus. A burger and fries would suit him fine. The waiter poured them water and took their orders.
They sat in silence for a few minutes. Neither man spoke about what went on inside a meeting unless Julian brought it up first. And though he was feeling pensive, he wasn’t in the mood to talk about his past. He wasn’t currently struggling with sobriety, didn’t miss the pull of drugs. There had been a time he’d self-medicated as an escape, and he had lost himself for a while. He had his shit together now but didn’t kid himself. A slip was always possible, so he worked the program.
“So I was thinking,” Nick said as Julian picked up a glass of water and took a drink, “it’s time you got back into the dating game. I want to introduce you to a woman I work with. I think you two would hit it off. I happen to know she’s looking for a decent guy. And if you’re not interested in a relationship, I know another chick who’s more into a no-strings hookup.”
Julian raised an eyebrow in surprise. “You playing matchmaker now?”
A grin split Nick’s face. “No. I just happened to overhear water cooler conversation at the office.” Nick owned a real estate company, and Julian had no doubt he heard his fair share of gossip.
“I’m too busy to worry about dating.” Julian’s freelance cyber security business was picking up. He’d hired outside contractors and things were finally going well. He wanted to keep his focus where it belonged.
“Next thing I know you’ll tell me your hand is working just fine,” Nick muttered.
Julian rolled his eyes. Everyone thought they were a comedian.
Although he’d be the first to admit he did give his hand a workout considering he wasn’t currently dating and hadn’t had a hookup, as Nick called it, in a while. He could date the last time he’d buried himself between a woman’s sweet thighs, but that would lead him to think about her. And that train of thought always led nowhere.
“Jesus,” he said to Nick, annoyed with where the conversation had taken him. “I’m… not ready to date… or fuck. I have loose ends I have to tie up, and until I do that, I’m not getting involved with anyone else.”
Julian had apologies left to make, one in particular, which brought him back to thoughts of her—and he couldn’t get near Kendall Parker to have his say. He’d tried, but her brother-in-law, and Julian’s one-time best friend, Kaden Barnes, wouldn’t let him close.
Not that Julian blamed him. Julian and Kade had a nasty history, made worse by Julian’s addiction and piss-poor choices. You didn’t sue an old friend, drag up his hidden, ugly past, use his sister-in-law, and walk away unscathed. Julian had done all those things. And more. But Kade didn’t know the man Julian was now, how hard he’d fought to put the past behind him and move forward.
Nick studied him thoughtfully, so Julian did the same in return. His friend was in his late forties, to Julian’s thirty, his hair starting to gray, and he’d been clean and sober for over ten years. They’d met at Julian’s first meeting and bonded over burgers and stories afterwards.
Nick had taken Julian into his family, invited Julian and his sister over for holidays, and he generally boosted Julian up. He believed in him. Much like Kade had once done, except now Julian was smarter and more receptive to help and friendship.
Sometimes it seemed like Julian’s thoughts always came back to Kaden Barnes and Kendall Parker.
“It’s time for you to talk to her,” Nick said, all but reading his mind. “You can’t move on with your life until you settle the past.”
“I know.” Julian wrapped his hand around the cold glass of ice water. “I just don’t want to upset the delicate balance of her life.” And concern about another human being instead of his own was a novel emotion for Julian.
The only person he’d ever put first was his younger sister. Alyssa was the driving force behind every move Julian had made. Good and bad. Not that he’d ever use her as an excuse for his addiction or behavior. He had family history and genetics at work, and his own shitty choices to thank for that. But Alyssa’s accident had altered the course of Julian’s life. That was something he couldn’t deny.
“You don’t know you’ll upset Kendall’s life. Just because Kade told you to stay away doesn’t mean he knows what’s best for her. Maybe she needs closure as much as you do,” Nick said.
That Kendall might need to see him, too, wasn’t something Julian had considered before. He ran a hand over his face, rubbing his tired eyes.
“Maybe you have a point,” Julian conceded, and thought about Kendall Parker.
She was a beautiful, vibrant woman, who, for a brief time, had been a light in his self-created dark life. Only he’d been too stupid to appreciate her. He’d also been so wrapped up in his quest for revenge and getting what he’d believed was rightfully his share of Kade and his partners’ company, Blink, Julian had been blind to the woman right in front of him. Kendall had been in as much trouble as he’d been.
She lived with bipolar disorder and Julian hadn’t known. She had her own life challenges, something, looking back, he could have at least noticed during their time together. Instead he’d been mindless to anything but his own needs. He’d used her for personal gain, pitted her against her twin and Kade, and generally fucked up her life.
His stomach twisted painfully at the reminder. “What if she’s gotten her shit together?” he asked Nick. “What if seeing me sends her spiraling?” He couldn’t live with himself.
Nick pointed a fork his way. “Doesn’t she need to be responsible for her behavior just like you need to own yours?” his friend countered, spouting what sounded like group tenets.
He wasn’t wrong.
With a groan, Julian leaned his arms on the linoleum tabletop. “I don’t know where she lives or works.” He knew where she’d resided last year, but she might have moved.
Julian could always count on Nick to call him out.
“All you probably need to do is check Facebook. Or put those tech skills of yours to good use. I’m sure you can catch up with her when her watchdog brother-in-law isn’t around.”
At the thought of seeing Kendall again, a mixture of heady anticipation combined with sheer nerves kicked in.
“I’ll consider it,” Julian promised.
And it was all he thought about for the next few days. Days he spent wrestling with his conscience. He hadn’t had much of one before Kendall, but his sense of morals was more developed now, as it should have been all along.
Apparently it had taken one brown-haired, blue-eyed vixen to get under his skin, make him look in the mirror and come to terms with the man he’d become.
He owed her an apology. Whether her family liked it or not.