Room to Love (Collection)
by Lena Austin
eBook ISBN: 06476-02082
When a drunk driver leaves the beautiful and talented Claudia Peters, hairdresser to the stars, deprived of both her lucrative profession and her sense of self-worth, her husband Andre fears the worst. Claudia’s sinking into a vortex of depression.
Then Dante appears. The handsome physical therapist needs a place to live — and Andre and Claudia need his combination of tough love and Machiavellian cajolery to revive their spirits. But Dante wants more than just a job — he’s falling in love — with both of them!
Is there room in Andre’s heart for more than just Claudia? Dante will have to convince them both. Challenge accepted.
Andre sighed softly and turned away from the painful vision in the living room. It hurt him in more ways than one to see his beautiful wife sitting in her wheelchair in the shadows, staring out the window with her face as blank as a painted wall.
He dug the business card out of his pocket and tried not to sigh again. This was probably the hardest phone call he’d ever have to make. Unless he could think of a solution in the next week, he’d be forced to put Claudia in the equivalent of a prison, in her eyes. He stared at the name and phone number of the nursing home. “Long-term care for disabled adults.”
“No, I can’t do it. I can’t.” Andre spoke quietly to himself and stuffed the card back in his pocket. He glanced at the forlorn image silhouetted against the window, and stalked in the kitchen for his third cup of coffee. “Not yet.”
“Listen, Andre,” the doctor had said when he signed Claudia’s release papers. “There’s nothing wrong with Claudia that can’t be fixed with simple, long-term therapy. Massage, regular swimming, you get the idea. I’ve done all I can to repair her back from the accident.” Doc Harper had glanced with exasperation at Claudia’s figure, where the nurse sat trying to get any sort of smile from Claudia.
“Yes, her career is over. She’ll never be able to return to hairdressing again. Her back won’t take the strain of standing that long. But the settlement you got from that drunk’s insurance company is more than enough for Claudia to go back to school and find a new career. She’s only 28, Andre. She can start over.”
“Doc, hairdressing was her life. It’s all she’s known, and you know how successful she was. How do I shake her out of that depression? She’s firmly convinced she’ll be a cripple.” Andre held up his hand to forestall the protest he saw the doc about to make. “I know and you know she can walk again, but how do we convince her?”
“Until she gets the spark back in her, I don’t know,” Harper said. “There’s nothing chemical I can give her.” He tapped his forehead. “It’s all got to be a willingness to change up here. She’s going to have to learn to give up champagne and jetting off for Paris, and that’s that.”
Andre poured himself his coffee and put his head against the counter. What could he do? Claudia was sinking deeper into depression every time she had to be carried into the bathroom, bathed, and dressed.
She’d at least batted his hands away and insisted on putting on her own shirt and skirt. Skirts were easier, now, even though Claudia had hated them before the accident. He’d cling to that tiny bit of improvement.
It was the first sign of her infamous pride returning. Claudia Peters, the famous red-haired hairdresser to the stars, had been imperious, demanding, and energetic. Her perfectionism was legendary. Andre had loved her since they’d met while she was still in school and he a lowly sailor on leave. Now, he was home forever, discharged for humanitarian reasons. In two short weeks he would begin his new career as the manager of a small airport’s maintenance hanger.
They were rich, thanks to the settlement, at least temporarily. The insurance company of the drunk who’d managed to kill himself when he hit Claudia’s car had not quibbled when they realized what a high-profile victim she’d been. They’d paid the hospital bills directly, set up a trust for her long-term care and rehabilitation, and given plenty for “pain and suffering.”
“Pain and suffering. Yeah, that’s an understatement,” Andre muttered and headed back to the living room.
A knock sounded at the front door. Andre glanced at his watch. Eight AM. “Who could that be?” Andre yanked open the door, ready to give some door-to-door salesman the rough edge of his tongue.
A burly blond man stood at the door, and it took Andre a moment to recognize a fellow member of the historical society Claudia had loved. Dante, yeah, that was the name.
“Hi, Andre. Nice to see you again,” Dante Adams began, shifting his feet awkwardly. “I’m sorry to disturb you so early.” His glance moved to the coffee cup in Andre’s hand.
“No, that’s okay,” Andre assured him. “Come on in. Want a cup of Joe?”
Dante sighed and stepped in. “I’d love a cup. And could I borrow your bathroom for a moment?” He displayed greasy hands. “My car broke down a couple of blocks from here.”
Andre made a gesture toward the powder room and groaned sympathetically. “I’ll meet you in the kitchen.”
Dante joined Andre in the kitchen minutes later. “Thanks, Andre. It’s been a very bad week for me. How’s Claudia?” His glance toward the living room told Andre he’d seen the forlorn figure by the window.
“Not good. We can’t convince her she’ll walk again if she tries.”
Dante nodded his head with understanding. “My Mom was the same way. Took us months to figure it out. Thank goodness, she’s still with us, gardening in Jersey as if nothing happened.”
Andre looked at Dante in a new light. The tall blond man had always walked around the historical society meetings with a vacant grin. But Andre knew the guy turned in brilliant papers and was a demonic fighter in the medieval demonstrations they gave to school children, collecting championships several times a year.
“What did you do?” Andre begged.
“I’ll tell you, if I can borrow your expertise in fixing my car, or at least getting it here. I lost my job yesterday, and I can’t afford a mechanic.”
“Aw, that sucks. What did you do?”
“If you mean what was my job, I’m a live-in medical companion. The lady I worked for finally passed on yesterday. Cancer. God, I’m going to miss her. Sweet old lady. I was trying to find a cheap apartment until the agency places me again.” Dante shrugged. “It can sometimes take awhile, but I have a little bit coming to me from Mrs. Jackson’s will. Unfortunately, it has to go through probate, and you know how long that can take.” His blue eyes snapped with irritation for a moment. “Cars always break down at the worst possible time.”
Andre calculated swiftly. Here was the answer to his unspoken prayers. “Look, I might have a deal for you.” He jerked his head toward Claudia. “I need help with her. If we can offer you our spare bedroom downstairs, maybe you’d take the job here. At least we can offer you room and board for a few weeks in return for helping me get Claudia up and down the stairs, giving her massages, and getting her some sort of exercise.” Andre eyed Dante’s burly arms. “I think you can handle that.”
Dante rubbed his short beard for a moment. “Let’s say this for now. I’ll take you up on the room and board for at least the next few days. We’ll try my techniques on Claudia and see if we can chivvy her out of her mood. If it works, I stay, and I start drawing some pay. We can discuss dollars then. If not, maybe my agency will have found me something by then.” He stuck out his hand. “Deal?”
“Deal.” Andre shook on it. “Let’s see about getting your car here, at a minimum.”
“Great! On the way, you can give me a rundown on her medical condition and what her doctor has already tried.”
“Sure thing,” said Andre.
* * *
Dante tried not to groan aloud when Andre bent over and stuck his head deep inside the engine of his old Chevy. God, the man was blessed with the most impressive butt he’d ever had the pleasure of seeing. Dante looked up at the sky and prayed quietly for strength. For the most part, he’d stayed away from the Peters couple at meetings to hide his lust. And that’s all it was, he told himself sternly. Lust.
The Society for History’s most gorgeous couple had just hired him. Andre was a stunner of a man, with black hair shot with a few strands of silver. The sleek, panther-like man had no idea Dante was bi, and Dante intended to keep that little secret well buried. Still, he wanted to moan every time Andre shoved his silver glasses on his nose with that serious look. Dante had a weakness for glasses.
Andre was muttering and occasionally reaching for a socket, only to curse and change it.
“But this is a job.” Dante muttered to himself. “I’ll help restore bewitching Lady Claudia to health, then move on as usual.”
“I’m sorry, did you say something?” Andre looked up from under the hood; his arms still buried somewhere deep in the complexities of the car engine Dante did not even pretend to understand.
“Uh, I’m sorry to be an idiot about such things. Cars and I don’t get along.”
Andre grinned. “Don’t sweat it. I do. Looks like just simple neglected maintenance. Your fuel filter needs changing. We should be able to nurse it back to the house in a few minutes. Then I’ll go get a new one while you work on Claudia’s first massage and treatment.” He ducked back under the hood, cursing mildly. “This old bitch just needs a little loving care, is all. We’ll include that in the room and board. Won’t take me but a few days to have her running like a top. Hope you can do the same for my wife. Your ideas just might work.”
Dante laughed. “Same sort of thing, really. Just a little tough love required on both of them.”
Banging sounded from under the hood, followed by a stronger curse. “Ouch! Goddammit! And both just as stubborn. Hand me that WD-40 can, willya? I got a tough nut here.”
Dante handed over the can of spray lubricant. “Both are tough nuts, I’ll say that. I’m glad you told me what has already been tried on Claudia. Now I know what level to start at.”
The hiss of spray, one loud bang, and the sound of a socket wrench turning heralded a satisfied grunt from Andre. “This tough love idea impresses me. You’re right. We’ve been too gentle.” Andre’s head popped out from under the hood. There was now an impressive smear of filthy grease marring his face. “Start her up. Let’s see if we managed a little field surgery, doc.”
Dante snapped his head up. He hadn’t been called that in years. Navy corpsmen were always called “Doc” by their units. He hadn’t told anyone he’d been a corpsman.
Andre grinned. “Did you think I wouldn’t notice or recognize the caduceus tattoo on your arm?”
Dante looked down at the tattoo on his bicep, barely visible under his tee shirt. He’d forgotten. His whole corpsman class had celebrated their graduation by getting a caduceus on their right arm. It was practically a tradition to have one.
“I’d forgotten you were a Navy man yourself,” Dante replied. He dug for his keys and got behind the wheel.
“Not anymore. I’ll be working at Jefferson County airport starting in two weeks. Aircraft maintenance. Thank God I went ahead and got the Air Frame and Power Plants certification while I was still in. Saved my ass.”
Dante cranked the car before muttering under his breath, “And a damn fine ass it is too.” His Chevy roared to life.
Andre hopped into the passenger seat. “Whew! That’s a miracle. Let’s nurse this old gal back to my garage.”
The drive back was not long, but the old Chevy fought it every inch. She coughed and sputtered her way into the driveway before giving a massive groan and dying again. They ended up pushing her into the garage.
Andre dove back under the hood, whistling happily. Waving Dante off, he told him to go unpack and make himself at home in the bedroom in the basement. Dante escaped gratefully, lugging the suitcase that contained his clothes before coming back for the two boxes that were all his possessions.
After a short shower, Dante changed into what he would call his “working outfit” for the next few days. He checked the fit of his swim trunks in the mirror over the bureau. “Decent” he complimented himself, before sliding on a pair of jeans over the swimsuit. “No sense giving the plan away too soon. After lunch, Lady Claudia, you have a surprise coming.” He snatched up his massage kit and ran upstairs to prepare lunch.
If Claudia showed any surprise at the introduction of Dante as her new medical companion over lunch, Dante didn’t see it. She nodded mechanically, and then ate listlessly the half-sandwich Dante slid in front of her.
Andre, on the other hand, wolfed down the shrimp salad sandwich like a starving man. “This is great! Man, you can cook!”
“It was learn or starve,” Dante answered mildly. “Eating healthy was something I made sure my clients did on a regular basis.” If the salad brought that sort of reaction, he couldn’t wait to show Andre what he had planned with the three steaks he’d found in the freezer.
After lunch, Dante kept Claudia in the tiny eating nook while he cleaned up and set up the steaks in the marinade.
Claudia hardly spoke, but Dante caught her eyes flash a time or two with a small spark of interest as he chattered to her and sang along with the radio. He even caught her mouthing the words to a particularly catchy tune’s chorus. Finally, Dante was rewarded for his efforts.
“What music is this?” Claudia rasped out, her voice harsh from long disuse and the damage the tracheotomy had done.
Dante decided humor was in order. “Why Ma’am, this here’s country music. Living, loving, and leaving songs by those who understand it all too well.” His patently fake drawl caused her lips to twitch.
“I like classical.”
Dante dried his hands and stood behind the wheelchair. “You can have that during your massage. But first, a little therapy.” Before she could protest, he had her out the patio doors and parked beside the pool. The summer heat slapped them both in the face. Locking the brakes, Dante picked her up.
“You are a little bit of nothing, aren’t you? You’ve lost too much weight. You need some exercise.”
Claudia stuck her chin out in that much-photographed stubborn look she’d shown the media for years. “What sort?”
“Shock therapy.” Without further warning, he dumped her in the pool, clothes and all.