Every morning for Sebastian Miller started exactly the same way. He would awaken at the shrill beep of his alarm clock, hours before the sun peeked through his window. He was an early riser, had to be ever since the accident. Three years of getting up at the crack of dawn could really do a number on a person, especially when that man had always been a night owl…before. He closed his eyes against the memory of his old life.
This morning, the Saturday that he’d been waiting for all week, would be no different. He reached for the TV remote on his night stand and flicked on the 5:00am news. He never actually watched, but he liked the noise in the background while he went about his routine. It helped remind him of how he had always taken seemingly inane things for granted.
He did well to hide his limitations, or at least to help people temporarily forget that he was no longer the strong and athletic man that he used to be. Sure, he was still successful, still well-off, but now he just felt useless and so alone. Bravado seemed the best way to take people’s minds off of his wheelchair, and although he knew he came off as arrogant or too bold sometimes, he couldn’t bear to appear weak. Anything to make the other person comfortable…
Ugh, I’m so pathetic, he thought, as he levered himself up in bed. Gotta get out of this funk.
On the bright side, he had something else to keep his thoughts occupied lately. Last week, after he’d agreed to visit the symphony mostly to get out of his sterile new apartment and to feel even a tiny sliver of normality, something surprising had happened. He’d met someone that had made him feel suddenly alive again.
He couldn’t stop thinking about her. In fact, Brenna Hamilton was all he’d had on his mind since that night. He saw her in everything he did. If he was brushing his teeth, he found himself wondering how it would feel to meet her eyes in the bathroom mirror as she stood beside him. If he was rolling down the street, he imagined her walking next to him. When he prepared his dinner, he thought how nice it would be to make those meals with her. As he transferred into bed every night, he fantasized about Brenna laying in the same king-sized bed, her naked body ready for his touch.
Watching her playing the piano that night up there on the stage had been an epiphany for him. Brad had told him that his little sister’s best friend was pretty, but Sebastian hadn’t been prepared for the piercing feeling that hit his chest when he saw her for the first time. She was absolutely stunning in a black dress that hugged all the curves of her body. He had grimaced a bit as she stumbled on the short walk to the piano, but that little movement only endeared her to him more, and once her fingers lilted over the keys, she looked like a dream so delicate and elegant that he was afraid she’d disappear if he touched her.
Afterwards, when they’d been introduced, he couldn’t control himself, taking her hand, flirting shamelessly, and asking her out. It’s not a date though, he convinced himself now, moving smoothly into the wheelchair beside his bed. It will be purely professional, just to learn about the downtown historical buildings.
Pushing the thought away, he gathered himself together and busied himself with the laborious chore of getting ready for the day. Transfer from bed to chair. Transfer from chair to shower. Transfer back to chair from shower. Transfer from chair to car, and then back again. His day seemed like nothing more than transfers from one cold place to another.
He chose a charcoal gray t-shirt, one that would show off the muscles in his arms and chest. If nothing else, at least he had an upper body that hadn’t failed him. His legs, on the other hand, were so skinny and weak that he covered them in jeans in the hopes that no one would notice. He wondered if Brenna would take one look at him, in the daylight, out of the suit and tie, and turn on her heels to run in the opposite direction.
It was much too early to make his way to their meeting place (The Sugar Factory, she had said), but since he had nothing else planned for the next few hours, he did what always calmed his nerves. He grabbed his sketch pad, pulled up to his kitchen table, and began drawing.
As afternoon grew nearer, he sat back and flipped through the pages of his book. Brenna’s smiling face stared back at him, her features drawn carefully in pencil. Well, I’m officially pathetic. Sketching a woman I’ve only met once, as I sit all alone in a huge apartment, he thought to himself. No time to dwell on that now, he realized, as he programmed The Sugar Factory’s address into his GPS before heading out.
The Sugar Factory seemed like quite the sweet spot. The name was painted on the store front in bright glittery letters, and the window display showed several pastel-colored tiers adorned with scrumptious-looking cupcakes. STOP IN TODAY TO TRY OUR FEATURED ICE CREAM FLAVOR: BLUEBERRY MINT CRUNCH was written playfully on a small chalkboard outside. Sebastian pulled up into a handicap parking spot and transferred out into his chair.
He chuckled to himself, as he rolled up the ramp and through the automatic sliding doors. He spotted Brenna immediately, waiting by the ice cream case. She was wearing a lavender sun dress that fell just above her knees, and her dark hair was pulled up into a casual ponytail that left a few beautiful tendrils curled around her face.
He rolled closer, and as Brenna turned to him, she seemed genuinely happy to see him. “Lots of good flavors today,” she said, pointing to the chilly buckets of ice cream.
“Any recommendations?” he asked, mostly just wanting to hear her lovely voice.
She scrunched up her nose in thought. “Well, I love the Chocolate Peanut Butter Swirl, but for you…,” she looked him up and down pointedly, “I suggest the Rocky Road.”
Had the tables turned from the other night? Was she teasing him now? He couldn’t tell. He could sense that she was shy, had heard from Brad that she was a bit of a wallflower, but there was something so alive about her, even in her quiet way of speaking.
“Rocky Road it is, then.”
After they ordered, he wondered if he should offer to pay for her ice cream too. It’s not a date, he reminded himself, but before he could make a move, Brenna had already given the cashier some money and headed to a table.
Without hesitation, she pulled out one of the chairs and moved it over to the side so he could roll his chair right up to the table. Another first, he thought bemusedly. No other woman since the accident had ever taken such a small step that actually meant so much, unless he asked. He paid for his ice cream and came over to sit next to her in the spot she had so graciously made for him.
He started in on his ice cream right away, hoping that she would be brave enough to start the conversation. For all his outward swagger, he still didn't like attention focused on him.
She spread the black and white photos out on the table. “There is so much history here. I love looking at these pictures and imagining what it might have been like to be here when these buildings were in their heyday.”
Sebastian watched her eyes light up and her lips curve into a smile as she spoke. As he listened to her babble excitedly about the stories behind the buildings - the architects that drew the designs, the builders that placed every brick, the people that lived and died there - he knew that he was going to fall hard for her. He had no choice.
Lost in her words, Brenna barely noticed Sebastian’s gaze watching her intently, and she fell silent. Her cheeks flushed. “What?”
“You do realize that you haven’t even taken a single bite of your ice cream yet, right? It’ll melt.”
She laughed nervously. “Oh geez, I can really get carried away sometimes. Sorry about that.”
Before he could think better of it, he lifted a hand to her cheek to smooth a stray strand of hair from her face. “It’s OK. I like to listen to you. You definitely have a passion for this.” She let out a trembling breath as he cupped her cheek. “I imagine it’s the same way you feel about your music too.”
She nodded, and her hazel eyes twinkled. She inched just a bit closer to him across the table, her lips parted deliciously, begging to be kissed by him.
This is ridiculous, he thought. What were they starting here? If they went any further, Brenna would eventually come to his apartment, maybe spend the night, and start to see how difficult it was to live life with a man in a wheelchair.
Brenna took a deep breath before pulling away to dip her spoon in her ice cream, and Sebastian knew he was right. He was giving himself too much credit. This beautiful woman would never have any interest in him beyond the relationship of a professional colleague.
He squared up his shoulders and went back to his own bowl. “I’m surprised that you haven’t asked,” he replied, somewhat matter-of-factly. The magic of the moment before was broken.
She looked genuinely surprised. “Ask what?”
“Why I have to use a wheelchair.” It was the one question that everyone always wanted to know, and once the words were out of this mouth, he had to keep going. “It was a wakeboarding accident.”
She frowned. “You don’t have to tell me anything, Sebastian. We don’t even really know each other. I understand if you don’t want to share.”
“No, I’d rather get it out in the open, especially since we’ll be working together at the firm.”
Brenna remained quiet, and Sebastian took that as encouragement to tell his story. “I was on vacation in Florida…” he paused, thinking. “Wow, it was three years ago next Thursday that it happened. Time flies, I guess.” He moved his spoon around his bowl. “Anyway, some buddies and I were spending a week at a beachside resort for a college reunion of sorts. We hadn’t all been together in awhile, so we went crazy, not really caring what we did or what kind of trouble we could get into. We decided to go wakeboarding, one of the things that we all liked to do. Admittedly, I drank a bit before we went out, and looking back now, I hate myself every day for that decision.”
He sighed and sat back in his chair, his eyes going blurry as he recalled that day. “I thought it would be cool to try a backflip, which I’d never attempted before…but you have to understand, I was a daredevil at that time. I liked to show off, and well…” he trailed off.
Brenna placed a gentle hand on his shoulder. “Can you feel anything in your legs at all?”
Sebastian shook his head. “I have a T-7 spinal cord injury, so my lower body is pretty much dead.” It actually hurt to admit that out loud, even after all these years. Leaning back in his chair, he looked at her, trying to gauge what she might be thinking. Amazingly, she didn’t seem fazed by his words. “Whoa, heavy stuff for a first date, huh?” he asked, trying desperately to bring levity to the situation.
She raised an eyebrow. “Date?”
He admonished himself inwardly for a moment. Stupid! You just had to use the “D” word. Outwardly, he shrugged. “Why not? We both learned something about each other today. And I’d like to learn more about you.”
“Me too...about you,” she whispered, moving closer to him again. Why did she have to be so difficult to read?
Before he could think better of it, he let his lips press ever so lightly against hers. She didn’t fight it. Instead, she leaned into him, opening her mouth to moan softly. That tiny sound broke through his hazy judgment, and he pulled away. He didn’t think he could handle being destroyed if he really was reading too deeply into this. “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. We do still have to work together.”
Brenna sighed and nodded in agreement. “You’re right.” She stood and grabbed their empty bowls, turning to toss them in the trash can…but not before shooting Sebastian a mischievous glance and replying with a smile, “But a little kiss now and then never hurts.”