Lead Me Not

Lead Me Not, by L.A. Witt writing as Ann Gallagher
Author: 
eBook ISBN: 
978-1-62649-277-6
eBook release: 
Aug 24, 2015
eBook Formats: 
pdf, mobi, html, epub
Print ISBN: 
978-1-62649-278-3
Print release: 
Aug 24, 2015
Word count: 
111,000
Page count: 
416
Type: 
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Print $18.99   $15.19 (20% off!)
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Isaac Morris has devoted his life to preaching against the sin of homosexuality. But when his sister proposes a documentary to demonstrate once and for all that it’s a choice—with Isaac choosing to be gay as proof—he balks. Until he learns his nephew is headed down that perverted path. Isaac will do anything to convince the teenager he can choose to be straight . . . including his sister’s film.

When Isaac’s first foray into the gay lifestyle ends with a homophobic beating, he’s saved and cared for by Colton Roberts, a gentle, compassionate bartender with a cross around his neck. Colton challenges every one of Isaac’s deeply held beliefs about gay men. He was kicked out by homophobic parents, saved from the streets by a kind pastor, and is now a devout Christian. Colton’s sexuality has cost him dearly, but it also brought him to God.

As the two grow closer, everything Isaac knows about homosexuality, his faith, and himself is called into question. And if he’s been wrong all along, what does that mean for his ministry, his soul, his struggling nephew—and the man he never meant to love? 

  Finalist: 2015 Foreword Reviews IndieFab Awards

Runner-Up: Best Gay Contemporary General Fiction in the 2015 Rainbow Awards!
Finalist: 2015 Foreword Reviews IndieFab Awards!

This title comes with no special warnings.

Spoilery warnings (click to read)

Mentions of past drug use, dubious consent, nonconsent, violence, self-harm, and sexual assault. While these issues are discussed in the book, none of them occur on the page.

Chapter 1

Six Months Ago

The Sodomites had bullhorns this year. It was already a challenge for Isaac’s voice to be heard — an even greater one for his words to be heard — without half a dozen rainbow-festooned bullhorns amplifying people’s shouts and chants.

Isaac had only been out here in the blazing sun for an hour, but his throat was raw from trying to speak over the crowd at Summer Bluff’s Gay Pride Festival. He wiped a hand across his forehead. Sweat soaked his hair and his crisp white shirt, trickling down the sides of his face and the back of his neck.

William, Isaac’s second eldest brother, gave him a cold bottle of water. He downed most of it in two gulps and handed the remainder back.

“Thanks.” He cleared his throat, adjusted the hands-free microphone beside his mouth, and clicked his headset back on. To the crowd, he bellowed, “Be not proud of your sins!” His voice was getting hoarse already — he doubted he’d be able to speak by day’s end. “The Lord forgives those who are humble and ask for grace, but — ”

“Divorce is a sin too, jackass!” A woman covered in rainbows waved an enlarged, laminated copy of a news story with a headline Isaac knew by heart: INFAMOUS CHURCH DYNASTY ROCKED BY DIVORCE SCANDAL — Outspoken Traditionalist Up-and-Comer, Son of Famed Homophobe Reverend Morris, Said to Be “Stunned, Devastated, by Wife’s Departure.”

He set his jaw and tried not to look at the photo beneath the text. Even after almost a year, it still hurt to see that image of himself and Candace, which someone had manipulated to look like it was being ripped in half. And someone always brought that article or one like it. As if the fact that he’d fallen and his marriage had come apart — something for which he’d begged God’s and his father’s forgiveness a million times — somehow negated the graveness of the sins being flaunted here today.

“Every one of us is a sinner!” he shouted over the chanting. “We have all sinned! We are all sinners in the eyes of the Lord!” He held up his Bible. “But we can be forgiven! God’s grace is for all of us, unless you have made the choice to turn away from the Lord! You can choose to come back! Cast away your — ”

“Do you think we chose this?” someone screamed back. “To be discriminated — ”

“Cast away your sinful lifestyle!” Isaac waved the ragged Bible over his head, gripping the worn leather cover with sweaty fingers. “The word of God is clear, and it is final, and — ”

“I’ve got a question for you, Reverend.” The single voice was calm and low, and somehow cut through the noise of the throng.

Isaac turned and found a middle-aged gentleman with a gray beard and faded tattoos, wearing a rainbow tank top with BORN THIS WAY printed across the front. His arms were at his sides, his expression taut but not hostile.

Isaac lowered his Bible and turned off his headset. “Yes?” Behind him, William took over shouting to the crowd, but Isaac could feel people watching him and this quiet man who’d grabbed his attention.

The man took a step forward. Isaac’s eldest brother, John, tensed, ready to lunge at the man if he came too close, but Isaac waved him back. All around them people stilled, and Isaac sensed more heads turning their way.

“I’ve heard you preach, Reverend,” the man said. “You say we’ve chosen this life.”

“Yes.” Isaac held up the Bible. “You’ve chosen to stray from — ”

“I’ve heard it.” The comment was terse, as was his dismissive wave, but his tone remained calm and even. “I’m not here to argue about that.”

Isaac was guarded but curious. Constructive dialogues were difficult to come by at these events, and if there was even the smallest opportunity to turn someone to Christ, he wasn’t going to pass it up. “All right?”

“I guess I have less of a question and more of a challenge.” The man folded his powerful, inked arms across his chest and the BORN THIS WAY slogan. “Prove — and I don’t mean using your book” — he jerked his chin toward Isaac’s Bible — “that it’s a choice.”

“Of course it’s a choice. Any defiance of the Lord is — ”

Make the choice, Reverend.” The man raised his chin, narrowing his eyes slightly. “You’ve told us all that the people we love and the lives we live come down to choice. So . . . prove it. Choose to be gay. Show us all that it’s a choice.”

Isaac blinked. “Are you suggesting I should become a gay man? And how exactly does one go about that?”

“You tell us, Pastor.” A slightly younger man wrapped his arm around the bearded one’s waist. “If this is a choice, prove it by choosing to do whatever it is you think we choose to do.”

Isaac snorted in disgust. “Never.”

The first man laughed smugly. “That’s what I thought.” He kissed his partner’s cheek. “We’re done here.”

And with that, they slipped back into the crowd, blending into the sea of rainbows and vanishing like a mirage.

For a moment, Isaac stared at the space they’d occupied, trying to wrap his head around their absurd challenge. Then he realized everyone else was still staring at him.

He clicked his headset back on and raised his Bible again. “Turn away from this abomination! Repent your sins to the Lord!”

***

The church’s permit to protest expired at three in the afternoon, an hour before the event officially ended. Isaac’s father had loudly objected to that over the years, stating it muzzled Summer Bluff Christian’s free speech while allowing the Sodomites to continue with theirs. Isaac understood both the city’s stance and his father’s, and had helped mediate the debate over the years — but today he was thankful that the city council had, thus far, won.

Isaac’s throat was raw; though after a couple of eucalyptus cough drops, it wasn’t so bad. Mostly, the heat had taken its toll. Everyone in the group was sunburned. Half the protesters had bowed out around noon. By one thirty, only the Morris family remained — Isaac, his two brothers, and his twin sister, Ruth. Even John and William had been flagging by two o’clock, and they could usually preach until the sun went down.

So at just before three, they gathered their signs, sound equipment, cameras — his sister was always filming for some documentary or another — and the cooler. They’d had to park several blocks away, so William and Isaac guarded the pile of equipment while Ruth and John went to get the vehicles.

Mercifully, the place they’d found to wait was in the shade beside an office building. The sweltering heat was still intense, but after several hours in direct sunlight, Isaac wasn’t going to complain. And thank the Lord his sister’s truck had air conditioning that could ice over the Sahara.

While he and William waited, some of the Pride attendees walked by. One carried the signs displaying the news article about Isaac’s divorce. He set his jaw, refusing to flinch or turn away, but he also refused to look directly at the torn photo of him and his wife. Ex-wife.

The one with the torn-photo sign sneered at him. The others just kept walking, chatting about an upcoming bar crawl as if they didn’t even see William or Isaac.

As the group walked on, William turned to him. “They’re not going to forget about that, you know.” His brother had a way of making thinly veiled accusations out of observations. Not that it was all that thinly veiled this time — William had never hidden his contempt for the failure of Isaac’s marriage.

“I suspect they’ll forget it before I do.”

His brother sighed heavily. “Have the two of you even — ”

“Not now.” Isaac immediately regretted his sharp tone. “I’m sorry. But . . . please. Not now. I’m too hot and too exhausted to even think about that.”

William’s lips tightened, but God bless him, he didn’t push the issue this time.

Isaac wiped sweat from his brow. “Must they always have these events on the hottest days of the year?”

William laughed dryly. “Guess they want to get used to being hot and miserable.”

Isaac didn’t laugh. He didn’t find nearly as much amusement in these people’s damnation. William saw them as perverts who’d gladly dance with Satan himself. Isaac wanted to believe they were simply misguided, that they’d see the light if enough people showed it to them. He was always demoralized and sad after these events. He couldn’t just let the Sodomites celebrate their sin without someone being here to voice God’s disapproval and offer of salvation . . . but what good did it do if no one heard him?

Across the street a couple of vans drove away, revealing a park bench beneath a huge oak. Two men — boys, really — sat on the bench, and they were oblivious to him. Oblivious to anything, Isaac thought. Even the heat — they were cuddled close in the shade, one lying across the bench with his head on the other’s lap, both playing on their cell phones. The one sitting upright had his arm draped across the other’s chest, and their fingers were loosely laced together. The second rested his phone against the first’s arm.

“Disgusting faggots,” William said.

One of the two must’ve heard, because he lifted his head and looked right at Isaac and William. Rolling his eyes, he kissed his partner’s wrist and returned to playing on his phone as if nothing was the matter. Too tired for a fight, Isaac hoped.

Whatever William muttered next, Isaac didn’t hear. His brother had been known to shout at “couples” like this, but he was probably as parched and raw as Isaac was right then.

Moments later, John and Ruth pulled up and parked on the curb. While John and William piled the signs and such into the car, Isaac helped Ruth load her audiovisual equipment into the back of the truck.

She hoisted the camera onto the tailgate and slid it into place between some of the other crates and boxes. “You look exhausted. Maybe get some water out of the cooler?” She slammed the tailgate. “I think there was still a bottle or two left.”

“Oh good.” Isaac fished around in the red plastic Coleman and pulled out a bottle of cold water.

“You two need any help?” William asked.

Ruth spun her key ring on her finger. “Nope, we’re ready. How about you?”

“We’re done.” John shut the trunk. “See you back at church.”

“See you there.” Ruth swung herself into the driver’s seat.

Isaac climbed up into the cab, legs and back aching, and settled into the passenger seat. He downed the water in one go.

She shot him a pointed look. “Sweetie, what have I told you about staying hydrated?”

“I did, I promise.” He set the empty bottle in the cup holder. “I think the heat index is almost a hundred and fifteen today. Water’s only going to do so much.”

“Ugh. No kidding.” She wrinkled her nose as she put the truck in gear. “My equipment was actually getting so hot, I almost burned myself.”

“I know the feeling.” He’d taken off his headset when they’d left the event, and nearly scorched his fingertips on the metal part. “Hopefully next weekend’s march will be cooler.”

They drove in silence for a little while, but Isaac had a feeling something was on his sister’s mind. She was tapping her thumbs on the wheel, but not keeping time with the song playing softly on the radio.

“Penny for your thoughts?”

She chewed her lip. “Well, I was thinking . . .”

“I saw that.”

She glared playfully at him, but then turned serious. “So I was thinking about that bearded guy. The one who came up and talked to you.”

“Which one?” he croaked, his throat still parched.

“The one who challenged you to prove being gay is a choice.”

“Oh. Him.” Isaac rolled his eyes. “What about him?”

“What if you took him up on his challenge?”

Isaac’s head snapped toward her. “If I what?”

“Hear me out.”

“Okay . . .”

She squared her shoulders and fixed her gaze on the road. “You and I leave town — too many people know our faces here — and rent a place together. I’ll film you over the course of several months. When it’s all over, we’ll have a documentary about what it’s like to make the choice to be gay, and how you were able to choose to live that life and then to abandon it.”

“Film me doing . . . what exactly?” Isaac squirmed in his seat.

“Mostly talking to the camera about your thoughts and feelings.” She glanced at him. “The rest of it, we’ll film later with actors. You know, dramatizations and reenactments. Like they do on TV all the time.”

Well, that was more palatable than the alternative, but still, his stomach lurched at the thought of what he might have to do that would be dramatized and reenacted later. Isaac shook his head. “No. No way.”

Ruth reached across the seat and took his hand. “Isaac, think about it. Yes, you’ll be living a life of terrible sin for that time, but you’re doing it to prove a point and bring people to the Lord. I absolutely believe He will forgive you, especially if you’re going into it with pure intentions.”

“How could I have pure intentions about engaging in . . . that?”

“Because you’re doing it for the sake of the thousands and thousands of people your story could inspire to come to Christ.” She squeezed his hand. “Imagine how many people would have listened to you today if you’d told them you made a conscious choice to join them, and then a conscious choice to walk away.”

Goose bumps rose on his arms. He tapped his fingers on the armrest. The idea of getting into that lifestyle made his stomach turn, but what if Ruth was right? What if he could prove to people that it was a choice?

Still, the idea she’d proposed was insane. They’d be better off . . .

Their ministry would be more effective if . . .

They . . .

He blew out a breath. He didn’t have any better ideas.

So, what? Give in to the temptations he’d resisted all his life? It wouldn’t be difficult, he supposed. Not pleasant or palatable, but all he had to do was act on those urges long enough to make a point, and then walk away and try to scrub his memory clean. The thought nearly made him ill, but he still didn’t have any better ideas. Staring out the passenger side window, Isaac asked, “If, hypothetically, we did this, how far would I take it? Being gay, I mean?”

“As far as you need to, sweetheart.”

He turned to her. She glanced at him.

Isaac swallowed hard. “Dad won’t be happy about this.”

Ruth whistled. “I don’t think many people will be. Not until we’re done.”

“But you’d be there?”

“Absolutely.” She squeezed his hand again. “I’d be there every step of the way.”

Isaac looked out the window again and just stared at the scenery for a few miles as he mulled over her idea. The thought of living that lifestyle appalled him. The thought of letting countless people burn in hell when he could have, with some sacrifice on his part, helped them see the truth?

He rubbed his eyes with his thumb and forefinger, then turned to his sister again. “I’m . . . I don’t know.”

“Will you at least come with me to talk to Dad about it?”

Isaac shuddered. Their father would be furious, but he’d be easier to deal with as a united front than letting Ruth face him on her own. Then again, he might shoot down the idea and forbid anyone from speaking about it again, which would mean Isaac was off the hook. The project would go away.

But . . . souls. Misguided people. Opportunity to witness.

They needed to do this. And they needed their father’s support, which meant if he shot it down, they’d have to fight for it. Isaac would have to fight for it.

“All right.” Isaac moistened his lips. “We’ll talk to him.”

***

In the back office of their family’s church, Ruth and Isaac stood like repentant children as their father’s eyes darted back and forth between them. “You’re serious.”

“Yes.” Ruth cleared her throat. “We’d — ”

“This is madness. Utter madness!”

“Dad, listen,” Ruth pleaded. “The Sodomites refuse to hear our message because they don’t believe we understand them.”

“They won’t hear it because — ”

“She has a point, Dad,” Isaac broke in quietly.

Their father glared at him, but let him speak.

“I’m still not convinced, but . . . she does have a point.” Isaac took a breath. “The man who challenged me today, he seemed interested in a conversation, and we had the attention of everyone within earshot. Everyone.”

His dad leaned against the desk. “And yet you couldn’t witness to them?”

“Once they realized I wasn’t interested in their challenge, they walked away. And those who stayed, well, it was the same as always. Shouting back at us and chanting over the top of us.” He glanced at his twin, who offered a reassuring nod. “I don’t like Ruth’s idea at all, but I’m struggling to figure out what else we could do that might have the same effect. We need to connect with these people and lead them to Christ. Ruth might . . .” Isaac gulped, forcing back the acid rising in his throat. “She might be on to something.”

Part of him wanted his father to send them fleeing from his office like he would’ve when they were kids, shouting after them that they were to go to their rooms and pray until he let them out, which would usually be many hours later. And truthfully, Isaac wanted to go and pray. He wanted to ask the Lord for guidance, because even though he desperately wanted to connect with and witness to these people who stubbornly refused to listen, the means Ruth had in mind were . . . not the least bit appealing.

But their father hadn’t blown up at them. He wasn’t happy by any means. The crevices between his eyebrows were deep and severe, his jaw set and lips tight the way they always had been when his children had pushed him too far.

And yet, his temper was still in check when he asked through clenched teeth, “What would this entail? How exactly does one go about pretending to be one of . . . one of them?”

Isaac swallowed. “I’d need to engage completely in the homosexual lifestyle.” Please tell me there’s another way.

“But why you?”

Ruth folded her arms. “If not him, then who?”

Their father glared at her. “You’d ask your brother to sacrifice that much of himself for the degenerates?”

“Isaac’s faith is stronger than anyone else’s I know.” She set her jaw and tightened her arms across her chest. “If anyone can go into that life and come back out unscathed, it’s him.”

Their father grimaced. “I’ve already lost two children to this godless world. I’m not about to condone my son fornicating with Sodomites.”

“Dad.” Ruth’s voice was soft and even. “Isaac isn’t leaving the church or the family like they did. What he’s going to do won’t be pretty, but it’ll be a way of ministering that — ”

“This isn’t ministering,” he spat. “This is insanity!”

“And what about the end result?” Ruth asked. “What will happen if he can show that he, a devoted Christian and heterosexual man, can turn toward that lifestyle and then turn away from it? He’d prove that people can and do make that choice. Their argument that it’s not a choice would be dead in the water.”

Their father was about to respond when the office door opened. William stepped in, but froze so suddenly John nearly collided with him. “Oh. We didn’t realize you were in here.” They started to back out into the hall.

“No, stay.” Their father looked right at Isaac. “I think this is a discussion for the entire family.”

Isaac’s blood turned cold. Convincing his father — not to mention himself — that this was a good idea would be nearly impossible. Convincing William, who was even more passionate about the sinfulness of the Sodomites, would be akin to putting the proverbial camel through the needle’s eye. John too, though he was the calmer, more reasonable one, preaching love, grace, and logic over fire and brimstone. Especially since both were fiercely protective of their youngest siblings after watching their middle brother and sister abandon Christ and the family.

Thank the Lord their mother wasn’t here. By now, she’d be crying softly in the corner at the prospect of losing her youngest son, regardless of why, and that would’ve destroyed any resolve Isaac possessed.

William and John exchanged glances, and cautiously came into the room. John toed the door shut with a quiet click and stood against it.

William eyed Ruth and Isaac. “What’s going on?”

Their father gestured at them.

Ruth started to speak, but an icy look passed between her and William, and she turned to Isaac. You tell them, her eyes seemed to say. They’ll never listen to me.

He forced his nerves beneath the surface and explained everything, from the man at the rally to the conversation he’d had with Ruth in the truck.

William’s eyes were huge, even more redness creeping into his sunburned cheeks. “You can’t be serious.”

“We are.” Isaac moistened his lips. “I am.”

“So you’re planning to dive headlong into that lifestyle. That disgusting lifestyle.”

“Possibly, yes. And I don’t like it either,” Isaac said. “But Jesus came out of the desert after — ”

“And you’re not Jesus,” William snapped. “What makes you think you can behave like one of those abominations, and come out of it unscathed?”

“My faith,” Isaac said without hesitation. “God knows my heart. If I go through with this, He’ll know what I’m doing and why, and I have total faith He’d see me through to the end of it.”

“You’re insane!” William shook his head. “Isaac, you’d be corrupting your own soul, not to mention your body. You’d be doing irreparable harm to yourself!”

“William,” their father said, his tone flat. “There is no harm the Lord can’t undo. Not even the sins of a Sodomite are unforgivable.”

“I know. I know.” William exhaled hard. “But Isaac, you’d knowingly and willfully turn your back on God. What if something happened to you while you were . . .” He shuddered. “What if you got sick? Or someone hurt you? Or . . .” He threw up his hands. “What if by the time this is over, you were too corrupted to find your way back to Christ?”

Isaac gritted his teeth and looked his brother in the eye. Though he still wasn’t convinced of this plan, there were some things he was sure about. “If I can’t walk into that community, take part in it, and then walk back out with a soul cleansed by the blood of Christ, then why do we bother ministering to these people? They need to see that it’s a choice, and they need to see that it’s a choice they can turn their backs on and receive the Grace of God.”

William rolled his eyes. “You can save a man from drowning without jumping in and half drowning yourself.”

“And if he’s too far gone to swim himself to safety, wouldn’t you jump in and save him?”

“Of course I would. And . . .” His brother sighed heavily. “Look, I want to bring these people out of sin and into Christ’s family as much as you do, but I don’t want their lifestyle corrupting you and taking you from Christ.”

“Nothing is going to take me from Christ,” Isaac said through his teeth. “God knows me, and He knows my heart. If I do this, He’ll understand why.”

Lord, please, show us a better way . . .

William scowled. “Regardless of why, you’d still be doing what is specifically described as an abomination. You’d be turning your back on God and His Word.” Eyes narrow, he added, “Don’t expect to find Him where you’re going.”

In the background, John squirmed but still didn’t say anything. Which was bizarre — though he was mellower than William, he was as passionate about the ministry and the family’s collective calling to put homosexuals back on the righteous path.

Their father fidgeted too. “How long would this whole operation take?”

“It’s hard to say.” Ruth paused. “Maybe a few months?”

Isaac’s skin crawled. One night within that lifestyle was enough to make his stomach turn. Months? Lord help me . . .

“If you and Ruth pray on it, and this is truly what God is calling you to do, then I’ll allow it,” their father said flatly. “But there’s one condition.”

Isaac waited.

His father glanced at his sons, his daughter, and then looked straight at Isaac. “Do whatever you must to be involved with these people. I don’t want to know the details, or what you have to . . .” He paused, and then waved his hand as if he could manually chase away that thought. “But you and your sister will be there alone. The church will help financially if need be because I believe this project is important, but I won’t have this perversion within the walls of my church.” A mixture of anger, stubbornness, and sadness tightened his features. “Not even if it’s my own son.”

Isaac swallowed. Though they both knew what this was and why he was considering doing it, the preemptive dismissal from his family and church cut deep. The reality was sinking in fast — what he would be doing, what could happen to his body and his soul if he failed.

Isaac moistened his lips. “Understood.”

His father hugged him tight. “I’ll still pray for God to watch over you.”

“Thank you.”

This is a mistake. There’s too much at risk. We can’t. I can’t.

William scoffed. “Dad, are you endorsing this? Are you going to let — ”

“I endorse nothing of that perverse lifestyle,” their father growled. “But if this has the potential to bring people to Christ, and Isaac truly feels it’s his calling to go about it this way, then — ”

“God would never call people through — ”

“You don’t know the mind of the Lord!” Their father glared at William. “Watch yourself.”

William shut his mouth, but his eyes were narrow and his shoulders were tight. Isaac’s chest ached. Just the idea of this was already pushing the family apart. There had to be another way.

“If you go forward with this,” their father said to him, “when will it start?”

Isaac looked at Ruth.

“It’ll take some time to work out logistics.” She shrugged. “Between finding a place for us to live, financial planning, and getting our hands on some equipment, I’d say we’d be ready to relocate and start filming shortly after Christmas.”

He shuddered. That was months from now. He was sure he’d need years to convince himself he was ready for this, assuming he ever would be. “That gives us time to think about it, then. Make sure it’s, you know, something we really should do.” No. No. Definitely not.

John lifted his gaze and looked Isaac right in the eye. Still, he didn’t speak.

“Give it plenty of thought and prayer,” their father said. “I don’t want either of you going into something like this lightly.”

“We won’t.” Isaac could barely convince himself to even consider going into this at all. Doing so lightly wasn’t an issue.

Their father dismissed them, and William immediately stormed out. Ruth followed, and Isaac could hear them sniping at each other all the way down the hall. He waited until they were gone before he headed out himself.

His mind was reeling and his stomach was turning. There had to be an alternative. Something else they could do that would get through to the Sodomites without putting him at risk like that. Without making him indulge in exactly what he preached —

“Isaac, wait.”

He turned around to see John hurrying after him. “Yeah?”

John stopped and glanced back toward their father’s office. “You need to make this film.”

“What?”

“Please.” John chewed his lip. “I need you to do it.” He met Isaac’s eyes, and there was an extra shine in his as he whispered, “For my son.”

“For — ” Isaac’s heart stopped. “Griffin?”

“He’s . . .” John winced. “Jessica and I are afraid he’s going down . . . that path.”

“You think he might be a homosexual?”

The pain in his brother’s eyes answered the question clearly enough, and John’s voice was shaky. “We’ve been trying to steer him right ever since we caught on. But I’m worried we’re not doing enough.”

“Since you caught on?” Isaac stared at him. “He’s fifteen!”

“I know. And we’ve suspected it since he was in kindergarten.”

Acid churned in his stomach.

John put a hand on his shoulder. “He admires you. He looks up to you. If he sees you choose to go there, and choose to come back, then maybe . . .” He swallowed. “Nothing has helped. I don’t know what else to do, but — ” His voice faltered a bit, and he cleared his throat. “Please, Isaac, I can’t lose my son to this.”

Isaac gulped, imagining his nephew among the Sodomites, hell bound and separated from God by lust and sin. “Keep praying for him. Ruth says we’ll need time to get this thing going.”

“I know. And if there’s any way I can help, just ask. I want this film made. Even if you don’t get through to anyone else in the world, I know you’ll get through to Griffin.”

That shook Isaac straight to the core. The weight of a thousand strangers’ salvation was one he felt keenly, but his beloved nephew’s? There wasn’t a fire he wouldn’t walk through for that boy.

“I’ll talk to Ruth.” He squared his shoulders. “Maybe she can get the logistics moving faster so we can get started.”

John smiled, and his eyes welled up a little more. “Thank you.”

They hugged tightly.

“I’ll be praying for both of you,” Isaac said.

“We’ll all be praying for you and Ruth.”

“I know.”

John let him go, and Isaac continued toward the parking lot, his heart in his throat and his stomach in knots. He still wasn’t completely certain how he’d do this. What exactly would he need to do? How would it affect his body, heart, and spirit? Was he insane?

But . . . his nephew.

Whatever it took to keep Griffin on the right path, God would show Isaac the way. Facing the gay lifestyle was no more palatable than it had been when Ruth had broached the subject, and he had no illusions that it would ever be an easy thing to face. With Griffin’s life and soul on the line, though, a temporary foray into the gay lifestyle seemed as inevitable as one day facing the Lord’s Judgment.

Walking out of the church was . . . weird. Apprehension coiled at the base of Isaac’s spine, and it only wrapped itself tighter as he descended the marble steps toward the sun-scorched parking lot.

On the bottom step, he turned around and looked back. The towering glass doors and the steeple were, and always would be, breathtaking, but they were more than that. This place had always been home. The church sat up high in the eastern foothills of the Cascade Mountains, and that steeple was visible for miles across the farmland below. It had always been a beacon to draw Isaac back to the place where he felt God’s presence more acutely than anywhere else.

But you and your sister will be there alone.

His heart sped up, and a sick feeling grew beneath his ribs.

I won’t have this perversion within the walls of my church.

He would be as close to alone as he’d ever been.

Not even if it’s my own son.

He’d have the Lord and he’d have his sister, but the tight-knit community within these windows and walls had been there as long as he could remember. All his friends from childhood. Everyone who’d been part of the homeschooling co-op from preschool all the way through graduation. Relatives. Neighbors. Elders. Mentors. The people whose weddings and funerals he attended, and who’d attended his wedding and would one day attend his funeral — they were all part of this church, and the thought of leaving them behind, even if it was for the sake of bringing more people to Jesus, was terrifying.

Queasy and uncertain, Isaac turned away from the church and continued into the parking lot. When he reached his car, he climbed into the driver’s seat and started the engine, letting the air-conditioning blast to cool off the oven the interior had become.

Even as the air cooled, he didn’t leave.

The engine idled, and he rested his elbows on the hot steering wheel and pressed his folded hands against his forehead. “Forgive me, Lord, for what I’m about to embark on. Please know my heart, and know my intentions are to bring people away from sin and into Your house. And please, please, Lord, once my sister and I have finished this documentary, please guide me back to You.” Fear and shame vied for dominance in his chest. “In Your Son’s name, amen.”

He lowered his hands and opened his eyes, squinting against the late-afternoon sun.

Isaac, I can’t lose my son to this.

John’s words echoed in his ears, and he shivered. Yes, he was doing the right thing. Wasn’t he?

“I have become all things to all men,” said Paul in the Book of Corinthians, “so that by all possible means I might save some.”

Perhaps this wasn’t what the apostle had had in mind, but it seemed oddly fitting now. Because Isaac could think of nothing else to bridge the gap between those tempted by the sin of homosexuality, and God’s forgiveness.

To help save those people — to help save his nephew — he had to become the thing he condemned the most.

 

Chapter 2

Present Day

Colton Roberts slouched in the stiff-backed leather chair in the church office. “I don’t even know why I’m here.”

“What do you mean?” Pastor Mike folded his hands on his desk and leaned forward. “Do you mean here in my office? Here in church? Here on earth?”

Colton pressed his elbow onto the armrest as he gnawed his thumbnail and rapidly tapped his heel on the floor. “I don’t know. All of it?”

Pastor Mike studied him for a long moment. “You went to see your parents again, didn’t you?”

“Yeah.” Colton rubbed his eyes with his thumb and forefinger.

“Even though that always makes you feel this way? Like there’s something wrong with you and not them?”

He nodded. “I really don’t know why I do this to myself.”

“Because you’re looking for something. And I don’t think anyone can begrudge you for trying to find it there. It’s the most logical place to look.”

Colton dropped his hand and eyed his mentor across the desk. “There’s nothing logical about trying to . . . about any of this.”

“You need something from your parents. You keep going to see them, hoping you’ll find it.” The pastor shrugged apologetically. “Seems perfectly reasonable to me.”

Colton wasn’t sure how to feel about that response. He knew Pastor Mike would never smack him upside the head and tell him to just let it go, move on, stop trying to get blood from a stone. How many times had his friend and mentor reminded him that no matter how much Colton honored his mother and honored his father, there was no eleventh commandment requiring parents to honor their children. This would forever be a one-way street. Sometimes he wished Pastor Mike would suggest he snap out of it and move on. More often than not, he was grateful for the endlessly patient sympathy.

After a while, he sighed. “Do you ever pray and just, I mean . . .” He ran his fingers along the edges of his goatee as he often did when he was nervous. “Do you ever feel like no one’s listening?”

“Sometimes.”

“You . . . Really?”

“Sure. We’re asked to have faith. If it were easy, there wouldn’t be nonbelievers.”

“But what keeps you believing when that happens?”

Pastor Mike watched him for a moment. Then he stood. “Come on. You look like you could use some air.”

Though his whole body felt like lead, Colton pushed himself up. Somehow, Pastor Mike could always tell when he was, in spite of his depressed state, restless. After this many years of scraping him up after drug binges and worse, it didn’t really surprise him that the man could read him like a book.

He followed Pastor Mike out of the office and across the sanctuary to the rear door. The crisp January wind bit at his cheeks. The sky was bruised with the threat of rain, but at least it wasn’t cold enough to snow. Seattle didn’t see much snow, but when it did, the entire city shut down — thank the Lord this winter had remained mild so far.

He buried his face in the collar of his jacket as they took the steps down into the garden. Pastor Mike and his wife always kept the yard carefully manicured. This time of year, most of the plants looked dead aside from the hardy evergreens lining the fence. The rhododendrons and rose bushes had been trimmed back to gaunt stalks, and a recent frost had finished off the last of the flowers that had managed to hold out through the fall.

Even in this sparse, barren state, the church’s yard remained a peaceful place for Colton. The flower beds would be exploding with color come spring, and something about that — knowing this desolate appearance was only temporary — always soothed his soul. He’d spent countless hours following the winding stone path that he and Pastor Mike had put down a few summers back.

As they passed the frog pond they’d built two years ago — which was currently empty and covered in plywood until the weather warmed up — Pastor Mike broke the silence.

“When you go visit your parents, do you stop and ask yourself what it is you want from them?”

Colton slid his hands into his jacket pockets and hunched his shoulders to ward off the cold. “All the time.”

“And the answer?”

Colton didn’t speak for a moment, then shook his head. “The same thing anyone wants from his parents. I want them to love me and accept me.”

His voice soft, Pastor Mike said, “And each time you go, do you ask yourself why this visit might be different from the last?”

“Yeah.” Colton sighed. “Every single time. And I still can’t come up with an answer.”

Pastor Mike fell quiet as he often did during serious conversations, as if he needed to perfectly select every word without fail. “Maybe the question should be, what would you lose if you stopped going?”

Colton halted. “You . . . think I should stop?”

Pastor Mike faced him. “I think you should ask yourself what you would lose if you did.”

“I . . . but I can’t just . . .”

“Why not?” The man’s voice was gentle, but prodded him nonetheless. “As I’ve told you before, the Bible tells us to honor our parents. Nowhere does it say we can’t also respectfully walk away.”

How many times had Pastor Mike told him that? And yet he kept going back. Week in and week out, year after year. It wasn’t the worst thing he’d ever done to himself — the years he’d lost to prostitution, substances, and the odd suicide attempt ranked a little bit higher. But he strongly doubted the visits helped with the depression he still struggled to keep under control.

“I guess I just keep going back because I think I might find something.” He chewed his lip. “You know how when you can’t find your keys, you go back to places you know you’ve looked a hundred times before, even though you know you won’t find them there?”

“Yes?”

“I think that’s what I’m doing,” Colton said. “I know it’s not there, but I don’t know where else to look. So I just keep checking under the couch cushions even though I know for a fact my keys aren’t there.”

“What keys are you looking for? Your parents’ love and affection? Or something else?”

They started walking again. Colton considered the question for a while, long enough for the path to take them back across the garden. As they began their second lap, he said, “Direction.”

“Direction?”

“Yeah. It’s . . . lately, I’ve been . . .” He blew out a breath, forming a thin cloud. “I just can’t help wondering why I’m here at all. Even if I don’t go see them again, I still . . . I mean, what am I supposed to be doing with my life? I go to work. I go to church. I go to therapy. I go home.” He shrugged. “Is that all there is? After everything you and Gail did to help me get my feet back under me and put me on the right road, I have a second chance. More like a twelfth chance, I guess. Is . . . is this all I’m going to do with it?”

“Maybe you just haven’t found your calling yet. You’re still young. And Noah wasn’t called to build the ark until he was centuries old.”

“I just feel like I’m spinning my tires, looking for a direction and never finding one. Some days I think I can finally believe in myself. Some days, I don’t even know if I still believe in God.” He flinched — though he’d learned long ago that Pastor Mike was infinitely patient with crises of faith, he was still sure the man would scream “Heresy!” at him one of these days. He didn’t, though. He never did.

Pastor Mike squeezed his shoulder gently. “You’re twenty-six. And you lost a lot of years to things most people wouldn’t have come out of at all, never mind as successfully as you have. If God hasn’t told you what direction you’re supposed to take, it might be because you’re not ready to take it yet.”

“Then why do I feel like I’m going in the wrong direction?”

“It’s not unusual, son. You’re still finding your way, so any way is going to feel like the wrong one.” He patted Colton’s shoulder, then lowered his hand. “And look at what you’re doing these days. You see yourself as a man dealing with therapy and a dead-end job. I see one who’s bringing hope and a future to dozens of kids who can’t find that anywhere else.”

“Those kids are about the only thing I’m getting right these days.”

“That’s not a small thing, Colton. It’s like saying the only thing Moses got right was leading the Israelites out of Egypt.”

He resisted the urge to roll his eyes. “I don’t think I’ve done anything quite on that scale.”

“Tell that to the kids you’ve led out of Egypt.” Pastor Mike glanced at him. “Those kids look up to you. And how many have you and I brought in off the street over the years?”

A shiver went up his spine. Every time they saved another teenager — or younger — from that hellish, homeless existence, it was all he could do not to go running out into the night to find more of them. He knew all too well that for every one they brought in, there were ten who were still out there — cold, scared, hungry, alone, sick . . .

“Maybe you haven’t found your direction in life yet,” Pastor Mike said. “But don’t think for a second that you aren’t helping these kids find theirs.”

“I know I am.” Colton avoided Pastor Mike’s eyes. “I just . . . I don’t know. I still feel like I’m . . . flailing.”

“I understand. And I wish I could tell you what God has in store, but . . .”

“I mean, I’ll keep praying and trying to figure it out, but . . .” He lifted his gaze. “I guess I just needed someone to talk to.”

Pastor Mike smiled. “You always know where to find me. And remember, you’re always welcome here. In God’s house, and in my office.”

“I know. Thank you.” Colton rolled his tense shoulders. “I should get going. I have to be to work soon.”

“You’ll be here on Wednesday night, right?”

He finally managed to smile. “Always.”

“Good.” Pastor Mike gently clapped his arm. “Take care, Colton. And Gail and I will be praying for you.”

“Thank you. I’ll see you on Wednesday.” He hugged Pastor Mike. “And . . . thanks again.”

“You’re welcome, Colton.”

***

After Colton left the South Street Community Church, he headed down Broadway toward the one other place in the world where he felt like he belonged — Capitol OUT, one of the most popular gay nightclubs on Seattle’s Capitol Hill.

It was ironic that a place like this had become a safe haven for him. This was a nightclub where men came to drink themselves stupid and hook up, two things Colton didn’t do. When he was behind the bar, the flirtation he received was only a guy’s means of getting a slightly stronger drink, or maybe a discount. Sometimes guys tried to get his number or charm him into meeting after work, but most of the time they backed off when he wasn’t interested. If they didn’t, there were bouncers on hand who took care of that problem.

As for the booze, it didn’t make a lot of sense for someone with a history like his to be anywhere near a bar, but it worked. It worked better than he’d imagined. Even Colton’s therapist agreed he was safer in a crowded room with hundreds of bottles of everything imaginable than alone in his apartment with a fifth of Jack.

Twenty minutes before his shift started, Colton walked in through the front door. Two of the other bartenders, Aaron and Mitch, glanced up from prepping their stations.

Aaron smiled. “Hey, Choirboy. How’s it going?”

“It’s going.” Colton forced a smile in return as he stepped behind the bar. He didn’t mind the nickname — the guys here used it in good humor — he just wasn’t in the mood. To be here, to banter, to work.

It would pass — otherwise he’d have called in sick. He knew better than to be alone on a bad night, though. Even on the really bad depressive days like he’d been having recently, a few hours of music and flirty men tended to make him feel better. As long as he stayed here until every nearby place that sold liquor had closed, he’d be fine.

And being here tonight did help. By the time the club opened, his mood was starting to lighten up. As the crowd thickened and the music got louder, he went with the flow, tapping his foot to the beat as he mixed drinks and poured beer. As much as he told himself this was a dead-end job, he had to admit there was something to be said for spending a few hours shaking off his worries, laughing, and getting paid for it. His depression and lack of direction wouldn’t go away easily, but between work, yesterday’s therapy session, and this afternoon’s conversation with Pastor Mike, he felt much, much better than he had after visiting his parents.

Right up until Trace, one of the bouncers, grabbed his arm and shouted, “Back alley!”

Oh no. Not again.

Colton didn’t ask questions. He dropped the half-made drink, shouted at Aaron to get their boss, then bolted after Trace and three other bouncers as they shoved their way through the hallway toward the back alley. His heart was in his throat — he knew all too well what was going on. It didn’t happen frequently, but three or four times in the past year was often enough. There was never any telling how out of control things would be, so the bouncers had learned to recruit every extra pair of hands they could on their way out to break it up. Colton just hoped that this time someone had sounded the alarm before anybody got hurt.

At the end of the hall, Trace shoved the door open. Colton followed him out, and he stepped into the alley just in time to see one of the brutes land a solid kick between the shoulders of a kid curled on the pavement in the fetal position.

“Hey! Enough!” Trace grabbed the man who’d kicked the kid and threw him up against the wall. The other attackers tried to intervene, but the rest of Capitol OUT’s bouncers descended on them, trying to subdue all three while Colton slipped in between and shielded the kid with his body.

“Take him inside,” Trace barked over the shouting and fighting.

“Come on,” Colton said, and helped the kid to his feet. Thank God he could move, and he could walk. Colton herded him into the club, grateful to be away from the scene in the alley.

The kid kept his head down, clutching the side of his face with one hand, so Colton guided him down the mostly dark hallway. Guys gasped and stood aside to let them through. When he reached the end of the bar, Colton paused. “Hey, Aaron.” Colton gestured at the kid. “You mind bringing me some — ”

“On it.”

“Thanks.” Colton led the kid into the break room and offered him a chair. He’d barely sat before Aaron stepped in and set a bottle of water, a couple of clean towels, a first aid kit, and a small bucket of ice on the table. Colton’s heart sank. They all knew this routine way too well.

“Does he need an ambulance?” Aaron asked.

“N-no,” the kid croaked without looking up. “I’m . . . I’m fine.”

Aaron met Colton’s gaze, eyebrows up. Colton nodded, and the other bartender left.

Colton touched the kid’s shoulder, but he recoiled. “Take it easy. You’re safe back here.”

“Thank God.” The kid lowered his shaking hand.

Colton froze. This guy wasn’t a kid at all. Midtwenties, at least. Maybe even a little older. His dark eyes were so intense they were jarring, and Colton suspected they’d have had that effect if he’d just met this guy on the street. Those eyes, coupled with high cheekbones and slim lips — his was the kind of face that would make Colton’s heart skip even under these circumstances.

Colton shook himself. “Are, uh . . . you okay? All things considered?”

“All things considered, yeah.” The guy looked at his blood-smeared hand. “Am I . . .” He reached up and touched his forehead, and flinched. It was hard to tell if some of the blood was from his hand, or if it was just the head wound.

“Let me take a look at that cut.” Colton picked up the clean towel. “I’m Colton, by the way.”

“Isaac.” The guy swallowed. “I’d say it’s good to meet you, but . . .”

“There are better ways to meet people.” He carefully dabbed the cut with the towel. The blood quickly welled up again. It was impossible to say if it was a severe wound, or if it just bled like a head wound: everywhere. “I think you’re gonna need to go to the hospital for that one. It might need stitches.”

Isaac grimaced.

“Are you dizzy, anything like that?”

“I’m fine. Just, uh . . .” Isaac wiped his shaking hand on another towel, still keeping his other arm against his side. “Not very steady.”

“No, I don’t imagine you are.” Colton lowered the towel. “Look at me.”

Isaac met his eyes. Colton leaned in close enough to see his pupils. They appeared even, which was a good sign.

“Okay, I want to take you to the hospital, but I don’t think it’ll make much difference if we wait a few minutes.” Colton handed him a bottle of water. “Take a drink, catch your breath, and then we’ll go.”

While Colton found some tape and gauze in the first aid kit, Isaac went to twist off the bottle cap, but winced and nearly dropped the bottle. He cradled his left hand against his chest. “I think I messed up my wrist out there.”

“I’m not surprised. Here.” Colton took the water bottle, opened the top, and handed it back.

“Thanks.” Isaac swallowed a few gulps. In the time it took for Colton to tape a temporary bandage over the cut, Isaac finished most of it. “That helps a lot. Thank you.”

“Good. Let’s go —  I’ll drive you.”

“Are you sure? You don’t have to . . . I could get a cab or . . .”

“It’s fine.” He stood and offered Isaac his arm. “I want to make sure you’re all right, so I’m more than happy to go with you. And my boss will insist on it either way.”

Isaac regarded his outstretched arm uncertainly, but then clasped his uninjured hand around it and stood gingerly. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.”

***

On the way to the emergency room, Colton tried not to let it show that he was shaking almost as badly as Isaac. Every time this happened, he got chills. Not just on behalf of the unfortunate bastard who got beaten up in the alley, but at the knowledge of how easily that could have been him a few short years ago. As if he hadn’t found himself on the wrong end of a beating — or worse — plenty of times as it was.

This city — especially this neighborhood — was as safe and accepting of gays as anyone could get, but even it wasn’t perfect. There were haters and predators here, lurking in the shadows and waiting for someone to let his guard down at an opportune moment.

Thank the Lord the bouncers had intervened so quickly tonight. Everyone at Capitol OUT was still rattled about the night last fall when the alarm was sounded too late. Colton could still see the unconscious victim being wheeled past the bar by frantic paramedics. The guy had survived, but he was still a few years of rehab and several surgeries away from a full recovery.

Colton slowed to a stop at a red light two blocks down from the hospital. “We should be there in a few minutes.” He turned to Isaac. “How are you holding up?”

“I don’t know.” Isaac’s voice sounded hollow and distant. “I have no . . .”

“Just breathe.” Colton resisted the urge to put a reassuring hand on his leg. “Anyone would be shaken up after something like that.”

“Yeah. Guess they would.” Isaac paused. “I should call my sister.” He reached into his pocket. “She’ll come and — really?” He held out his phone.

Colton glanced at it, and winced. The screen was shattered.

Isaac laughed bitterly. “Guess this is not my night.”

“Guess not.” Colton tapped his thumbs on the wheel, then glanced at him again. “If you can’t reach her, I can stay with you. Make sure you get home.”

Isaac hesitated. “You . . . you don’t mind?”

“Of course not.”

“Thank you,” Isaac said.

Colton pulled into the hospital parking lot. A huge red sign indicated the emergency room entrance, and a smaller one going the other direction pointed at the parking lot. He slowed to a stop. “Can you walk okay? I can drop you at the door and then go park, or I can park — ”

“I can walk. I’d . . . To be honest, I don’t really want to be alone.”

I don’t blame you at all.

“Okay.” He parked as close as he could to the door.

Isaac kept his left arm tucked against his side and his head down, but at least he could walk, if a little unsteadily. Not every guy they’d saved from attacks like this had been so fortunate.

Colton had a habit of walking too fast for anyone trying to keep up with him, but he carefully fell into step with Isaac. They made their way across the parking lot, neither speaking, and the whole time Isaac kept his eyes focused either straight ahead or on the pavement. Colton could imagine what he was thinking — reliving the attack, wondering how he could have handled it differently or prevented it altogether. If he was anything like Colton, he was probably imagining all the ways it could have been much, much worse.

Inside the hospital, the triage nurse took Isaac’s vitals and insurance information. Fortunately, the ER was deserted tonight. In fact, three of the nurses were taking down Christmas lights and decorations, so it was no surprise that Isaac and Colton were immediately taken back to a room.

The nurse slotted his chart beside the door. “The doctor will be with you as soon as she can. Just wait here.”

She was right. The doctor — a petite blonde who looked way too wide awake for this time of night — came in shortly after, and sent Isaac for a CT scan and X-rays on his wrist and ribs. When he came back from radiology, a nurse helped him onto the gurney, and then left him alone with Colton.

“Doing all right?” Colton asked.

“Apparently.” Isaac lay back on the gurney and closed his eyes. “Thank you again, by the way. For bringing me here and staying with me.”

“Don’t worry about it. I’d like to say you’re the first person who’s been messed with, but . . .”

Isaac’s eyes opened. “What?”

“They . . .” Colton shook his head. “My best guess? They get bored or riled up, and go looking for a fight.”

“But . . . why? Why go to gay clubs, I mean?”

Colton leaned forward and rested his elbows on his knees. “Why does anyone do the things they do? Why do they harass us? Why do they hate us?” He shrugged, his shoulders suddenly heavy. “If I could explain any of that, maybe I’d have half a clue why they beat the crap out of us for sport.”

Isaac swallowed hard, and his gaze drifted up to the ceiling. “I was stupid to go outside with him.”

“You’re human. And you were in a place where guys go to hook up.” Colton half shrugged. “You’re not guilty of anything every man in that club hasn’t already done.”

Isaac pursed his lips but said nothing.

A few minutes later, a nurse came in and asked Isaac to explain in detail everything that had happened. Another twenty minutes after that, the doctor came in to take another look at him, making sure he wasn’t showing signs of a serious head injury. While she put some glue on the cut on his forehead, she had him rehash what had happened. In case he’d forgotten details? In case telling the story again would reveal signs of that head injury she was so worried about? Whatever the case, by the time Isaac was through explaining it for the second time, sweat beaded along his hairline.

The doctor left, and Isaac had barely had a chance to let his pulse come back down — Colton could see it on the monitor beside the gurney — before someone tapped on the door. Another nurse leaned in. “There’s a police officer here who’d like to speak to you. Should I bring him in?”

“Yeah, sure.” Isaac closed his eyes. He paled a little, probably at the prospect of repeating everything that had happened again. And if he was anything like the other men who’d been assaulted by those cretins, he wasn’t thrilled about discussing it with a cop.

“He probably just wants a statement,” Colton said. “You didn’t do anything wrong.”

Isaac laughed bitterly, but again, didn’t speak.

The door opened a moment later, and as soon as Colton saw the cop, he released his breath. Sometimes they had to deal with officers who weren’t so sympathetic toward victims of gay-bashing and hatred, but this guy was a regular at Capitol OUT. Colton suspected he’d heard the call over the radio and requested to handle it personally.

The cop extended his hand to Isaac. “I’m Sergeant Woolman. I’d just like to ask you a few questions about what happened this evening.”

Thank the Lord for cops like this. His voice was gentle, and he didn’t try to lighten the mood with “So it sounds like you’ve had some excitement tonight” or something like that. Colton didn’t know if people did that as a genuine attempt at levity, or an icebreaker for their own comfort, but it had never sat well with him. Particularly whenever he’d been in Isaac’s place.

Woolman pulled a notepad out of his pocket. “I wish I could tell you we have the guys in custody.” Expression softening, he held Isaac’s gaze. “Unfortunately . . .”

Colton bit back a curse.

The cop went on. “I do want to make a report, though, which is why I’m here.”

Isaac sat up a little, still keeping his left arm against his side like a broken wing. “What do you want to know?” His tone had a defensive edge Colton had heard — and used — a million times before. How are you going to make this my fault?

“I just need you to tell me what happened. Everything you can remember.”

Isaac glanced at Colton, then back at Woolman, and his shoulders relaxed slightly. “Okay.”

Woolman put his foot up on the gurney’s wheel and balanced his notepad on his knee.

Colton got up and offered his chair. “Do you want to sit?”

“Sure, thanks.” Sergeant Woolman took the seat and got himself situated. “Why don’t you start at the beginning, Isaac, and take it as slow as you need to.”

Isaac shuddered and went into the story again, from when he’d come into Capitol OUT until the moment Colton had taken him into the back room. After he’d finished explaining things for the third time, Isaac slumped back against the pillows.

“Well.” Woolman shook his head as he closed his notepad. “I’m sorry to hear you went through all of that. Fortunately, I think the bouncers scared the hell out of them, so hopefully they won’t be coming back.”

“Let’s hope,” Isaac muttered.

“And I sure hope you heal up fast.”

“Me too. Thank you.”

“Thank you. I know this wasn’t easy.” Woolman shook hands with both of them, and then left.

When the door clicked shut, Isaac closed his eyes and carefully wiped some sweat off his brow with his uninjured hand. “I wouldn’t say that was painless, but it wasn’t as bad as I expected.”

Ditto.

Colton took his seat again. “How are you holding up?”

“I’ve had better nights.”

“I believe that.”

They locked eyes. Colton’s heart sped up. He had an all too clear understanding of what it meant to be beaten within an inch of his life. Seeing Isaac like this — shaken, traumatized, battered, certain he’d done something to deserve every scratch and bruise — made Colton’s chest ache. The fierce protectiveness he felt for the kids in the church’s LGBT outreach group flared up, bringing a mix of anger, sadness, and relief to the surface. He was furious that someone had done this to Isaac. Heartbroken that someone would hurt anyone like this. Relieved that Isaac had been saved before worse damage had been done.

He reached up and took Isaac’s uninjured hand. “If you need anything at all, let me know. Okay?”

Isaac nodded, squeezing his hand. “Thank you.” Their eyes met. Isaac’s pleaded with him for . . . something. Maybe reassurance that he’d really be all right and this was just an isolated thing. Wrong place, wrong time, lightning that wouldn’t strike twice — but Colton couldn’t give it. He couldn’t promise those homophobes wouldn’t mess with him again, or that there weren’t others out there who would do worse. Isaac was a stranger, but Colton couldn’t lie to him.

His fingers twitched slightly, and he looked down and realized his hand was still clasped in Isaac’s. He was about to speak — to try to find something to fill the silence — but mercifully, someone else chose that moment to knock at the door.

Isaac and Colton quickly released each other’s hands, and Isaac muttered, “Now what?”

The door opened, and the doctor came in. “Well, I have some pretty good news.”

Isaac managed a small smile. “I could use some of that tonight.”

“I figured you could.” She smiled back. “Just about everything looks fine. I don’t see any signs of head trauma beyond the superficial wounds. You’re not showing signs of anything more than a very mild concussion. Your ribs look good too. No breaks, just some bruising.” Her smile faltered a bit. “I would like to get another X-ray of that hand, though. I’m almost certain there aren’t any fractures. It’s probably just a moderate to severe sprain, but there was one spot on the X-ray that could be a hairline fracture. So, just to be sure” — she gestured at the door — “I’ll have a nurse bring a wheelchair over, and we’ll run you back down to radiology.”

“Okay.” Isaac looked at Colton, another unspoken question in his eyes.

“I’ll be here when you get back.”

Isaac relaxed a little. “Thank you.”

Minutes later, a nurse came in with a wheelchair, and after Isaac had gotten reasonably comfortable, she wheeled him away.

Alone in the tiny room, Colton leaned forward and clasped his hands in front of his lips. He whispered a prayer for God to keep watch over Isaac, to heal both his body and his mind. Then he just stayed that way, hands folded and eyes closed, and listened.

And for the first time in a long time, he heard that still, small voice in the back of his mind.

This is why you’re here, Colton.

 

Chapter 3

It was almost midnight when Isaac left the hospital. With a glued and bandaged cut on his forehead, and an ACE bandage wrapped tightly around his throbbing wrist, he followed Colton out into the night. The winter was milder here than in Eastern Washington, but the cold wind hit him hard.

On the way to the parking lot, it occurred to him he didn’t even know what Colton’s car looked like. Or what route they’d taken to get here. Everything from the back room at Capitol OUT to the triage desk was a blur.

He glanced at Colton. This was a complete stranger, and on the heels of a violent attack by other strangers, Isaac had blindly trusted him. Colton could have driven him anywhere. Dumped him off somewhere. Finished what the others had started.

But that was ridiculous. Of course, after tonight, he was second-guessing the heck out of his ability to gauge a person’s character, but nothing about Colton seemed remotely threatening. He’d been gentle and kind right from the start. Isaac thought he even remembered Colton physically shielding him at one point.

Colton stopped beside a silver Honda Civic that had seen better days, and opened the passenger side door. “Need a hand?”

“No, I think I’m okay.” Isaac gingerly eased himself into the seat. Putting on the belt was a challenge, but pride kept him from accepting Colton’s offer of help.

As Colton warmed up the engine, he turned to Isaac. “Where do you want me to drop you off? I know some people don’t like strangers knowing where they live.”

Another tidbit of street wisdom for a small-town guy fumbling his way around a city that was apparently more dangerous than he’d realized. But there again, Colton was as nonthreatening as they came.

“My house is fine.” Isaac fidgeted, trying to get comfortable in spite of the bruises on his back. “I’m not completely sure where we are, though. Do you have GPS?”

“I do.” Colton pulled out his phone, tapped the GPS app, and handed it over.

After he’d entered his address, he gave the phone back, and Colton set it on the dash. The GPS’s female voice directed them onto the main road, and she was the only one who spoke for a while.

As Colton drove, Isaac surreptitiously watched him in the flicker of streetlamps and headlights. He’d stolen a few glances in the ER, but had mostly been occupied with wondering if the thugs at the club had done any actual damage. With a clean bill of health and no one asking him questions, he could actually look.

Colton was clean-cut and clean-shaven except for a meticulously groomed goatee framing his slim lips. Under his black leather jacket, he wore a crisp white dress shirt and black waistcoat, just like the other bartenders at Capitol OUT. Isaac didn’t recognize him from previous visits, but he must’ve been working behind the bar when Isaac was . . . when tonight’s incident happened. That, and Colton had taken him into the back room, which was surely employees only.

He wouldn’t have stood out the way some of the men in the club obviously tried to stand out, but Isaac was surprised he hadn’t noticed him before. He just seemed so different. Even with the distinctive attire, it was hard to place Colton behind the Capitol OUT bar, slinging booze for drunk, half-naked men. He was soft-spoken, and he had a kind eye and a gentle hand. Or maybe that was just his nature when he was dealing with someone who’d been shaken up and knocked around, though Isaac struggled to imagine him ever being loud or abrasive.

The most intriguing thing about him, though, was around his neck. Suspended on a thin black cord, sitting just behind the open top button of his shirt, was a simple silver cross.

Isaac cleared his throat. “That’s an interesting pendant.”

Colton absently touched it, and glanced at Isaac before returning his gaze to the road and his hand to the wheel. “A friend gave it to me.”

More silence. He wasn’t sure what to say. Was Colton just wearing the cross because he liked it and it was a gift? Or did it mean something?

Colton gave him another glance. His thumbs drummed rapidly on the wheel. “It doesn’t, uh, bother you, does it? That I’m wearing this?”

“Bother me? Why would it?”

“Some people aren’t all that keen on people displaying, you know . . .” He tapped the cross again. “Religious symbols.”

Isaac laughed quietly. “I’m the last person who’s going to be upset over seeing a Christian symbol.”

Especially tonight. Thank you, Lord . . .

“Really?”

“Yeah. I’m a believer too.”

“Oh. That, uh, explains a lot.”

He bristled. “What do you mean?”

“You’re over the age of twenty-one and don’t know your way around a nightclub.” Colton turned to him briefly, a good-natured smirk on his lips. “I swear, nine times out of ten, the really late bloomers are also believers.”

“Oh.” He fidgeted, not sure how to take that. “Interesting. Late bloomers?”

“Yeah. The guys who either take a while to figure out they’re gay, or don’t discover the club scene until later.” Colton glanced at him again, his expression serious this time. “I, uh, don’t mean to assume. Just guessing based on . . .” Facing the road, he cleared his throat. “Sorry. I wasn’t trying to be presumptuous.”

“No, no, you’re right.” Isaac laughed uncomfortably. “Some of us don’t figure it out until later, I guess.”

“Hooray for an oppressive upbringing,” Colton said through his teeth.

Isaac arched an eyebrow, but decided to let it go. He was lucky he’d found a believer at all in this cesspool — beggars couldn’t exactly be choosers. Keeping his tone in check so he didn’t sound defensive or insulted, he said, “Does that mean you came from the same kind of upbringing?”

“Me? Oh, no.” Colton shook his head, and his tone dripped with bitterness. “My upbringing — well, anyway. My folks weren’t religious. Christmas-and-Easter Protestants. Ironically, I didn’t get saved until after I was out as gay and completely on my own.”

Interesting. Colton and his background and how he’d come to be both gay and a believer were intriguing, but right then, he turned onto Isaac’s street.

“Your destination is on the left,” said the disinterested GPS.

Isaac pointed at the second house down. “That one.”

Colton parked in the driveway in front of the little two-story place Isaac and Ruth had been renting for the last few weeks. He stopped and turned to Isaac. “Are you sure you’re all right? Do you need anything else?”

Isaac smiled. “I’ll be fine.” He gestured at the house. “My sister’s here. She’ll . . . I won’t be alone.”

“Okay. Good.” Colton extended his hand across the console. “Take care, all right?”

“I will.” Isaac shook his hand. “Thanks again.”

“Don’t mention it.”

He got out of the car and headed up the walk. Behind him, the engine idled, the steady vibration humming along his nerve endings. Even as he climbed the porch steps, the car didn’t move.

Getting his keys out of his pocket was a challenge with his hand wrapped up, but he managed to free them and unlock the door. As he pushed it open, he glanced back and waved at Colton. Colton waved too, and then pulled out of the driveway and disappeared into the night.

Isaac stood for a moment, gaze fixed on the dark street where Colton’s taillights had been. Finally, he shook his head and went inside. He toed off his shoes and dropped his keys on the table in the hall, grateful to be home. As “home” as this place was, anyway — the cramped three-bedroom house was sparsely furnished with donations from the congregation, plus a few pieces from their own apartments in Summer Bluff. They’d been living here for the last three weeks, and they’d mostly unpacked what little they’d each brought with them, but it still felt like a step up from a motel or a rented cabin. Vaguely familiar. Not quite home.

Soft footsteps came down the hall. “I didn’t think you’d be home this early.”

“Neither did I.” He turned around, and Ruth stopped dead in her tracks.

Her eyes got huge. “Isaac! What happened?”

“It’s a long story.” He shuffled into the living room and gingerly sank onto the sofa, still keeping his arm close to his side.

She sat beside him and touched his shoulder. “Tell me. And . . . why didn’t you call me?”

“My phone.” He tossed it on the coffee table. “Doesn’t work.”

Ruth stared at the phone’s shattered screen, then at him. “Isaac . . .”

“I’m all right.”

“You don’t seem all right. Do — ” She looked him up and down. “You should go to the hospital.”

“Already been there.”

“Oh. Do you, um, need some ice? Anything?”

He probably could have used some ice and a few tablets of Aleve, but he didn’t want to freak her out, so he stayed stoic. “I’m okay.”

“And the doctor agrees?”

“Yeah. She thought I might’ve cracked some ribs, but they’re just bruised. And this” — he held up his tightly wrapped left hand — “is sprained. Nothing’s broken.”

“You’re lucky. What in the world happened?”

Isaac’s eyes lost focus. From the time the first punch landed until he was sitting in the room with Colton, everything was fuzzy. “I’m not even sure. Some guys . . . one minute they had me on the ground — ”

Ruth gasped, her hand going to her lips.

“ — the next, some bouncers from the club stepped in. One of the bartenders took me inside and drove me to the hospital. And he drove me home.”

She touched his arm. “Thank the Lord you’re okay.”

“I have. Many times.”

“I’m sure you have.” She lowered her hand. “What now?”

“I don’t know. Maybe we’re going about this all wrong. The film, I mean.” He sat back, wincing as the cushion pressed into the bruises on his back. “I’m not cut out for this . . . clubbing. I mean, I’ve spent an entire week just trying to work up the nerve to not be a wallflower, and the first time I make a connection with someone and think something’s going to happen . . . this.” He gestured at himself with his injured hand. “But then everything I read before we came here said there might be . . . that things happen in this world. I don’t know why I’m so surprised.”

Her eyebrows climbed. “Isaac, what did these men do to you?”

He gestured at his face and his hand.

“Is that . . . is that all? I mean, they didn’t — ”

“No! No. Nothing like that.” He laughed bitterly. “Well, not this time. Guess I should count my blessings, shouldn’t I?”

Ruth pursed her lips. “This is dangerous. We should just call it off and go home.” She put a hand on his arm again. “I want to prove a point to the people we’re trying to save, but not if it means you getting beaten up.”

“But with everything that went into this. All the” — he gestured at the house and furniture around them — “donations. We can’t quit now.”

“Except it’s dangerous.”

“I know, but . . .” Isaac’s mind kept drifting back to Colton. He’d been the most nonthreatening face Isaac had seen since taking his first steps into this lifestyle. “Maybe . . .” He met Ruth’s eyes. “One of the bartenders took care of me tonight. Cleaned me up, took me to the ER, drove me home.” He absently played at a cut on his lip with his tongue. “Maybe he could, you know, guide me into this.”

“Into . . .?”

“This lifestyle. Being gay. He seems to know his way around, and he works in a bar that caters to gay men.”

Ruth squirmed, as if the idea made her as uncomfortable as it did him. “Do you think he’d be willing to?”

“I can ask.”

“And if he isn’t?” She chewed her lip. “I . . . Still, maybe this isn’t a good idea.”

“No, we can do this.”

“I know we can.” Her eyebrows knitted together. “But should we? After — ” She gestured at his bandaged forehead.

“I think we should. I mean, you said yourself this wouldn’t be easy and it might even be dangerous. But if we can pull this off, think of how many people we can bring to Christ.”

Her lips tightened. “I want to do this, and I think we need to do this. I just don’t want my brother getting hurt.”

“I can’t lose my son to this.” John’s desperate words reverberated through his mind, raising the hairs on the back of his neck and reminding him of the single reason he’d persevered in spite of all the reasons he didn’t want to do this. He had to. For Griffin’s sake.

“No one ever said this would be an easy journey.” He took Ruth’s hand. “But I want to see it through.”

She studied him for a moment. “Okay. If you’re sure you want to do this, we’ll continue. But . . . be careful out there, would you?”

“Always.” He winced as he sat up. “For now, I’m going to take a shower and get some sleep. After I talk to the camera.”

She raised her eyebrows. “You don’t have to do a confessional tonight.”

He shrugged, though it made his muscles ache furiously. “You wanted it as candid and in the moment as possible.”

“But I care about my brother’s well-being more than I do this film.”

“I’ll keep it short. I promise.”

She held his gaze, but then sighed. “Okay. Get some rest, though, okay?”

“I will.”

“Good.” She paused, eyeing him uncertainly. “I’d hug you, but I don’t know where it hurts.”

He grimaced. “Everywhere.”

“Rain check?”

“Yeah. Good night, Ruth.”

“Good night, sweetie.”

They got up, and after he’d convinced her he really was steady on his feet, she headed down the hall to her bedroom, and he went upstairs. He wondered if she’d sleep any better than he would tonight.

His bedroom was on the right, but he went to the door on the left.

“This will be the confession room,” Ruth had explained when they’d arrived here just after Christmas. “I’m going to set up a camera on a tripod, and whenever you want to just talk about something, turn on the camera, sit in the chair, and . . . talk.”

“About what?”

“Anything. Your feelings. Your experiences. If you need to pray. When we’re done filming the whole thing, you’ll get first crack at editing this part. Anything you don’t want in the final documentary, anything you don’t want even me to see, you can cut out. No one will ever see it. So, you know, be as candid as possible in the moment, because you can always delete it later.”

Isaac glanced back toward the stairs as if Ruth might have come up for some inexplicable reason. Then he pushed open the door and stepped into the confessional.

He made sure the camera battery was full and there was enough room on the memory card. Then he clicked it on, started recording, and eased himself into the seat against the wall.

For a long moment, he just stared at the lens. He’d made confessionals before — usually expressing his distaste for the club scene, and the things he’d accidentally witnessed in restrooms and parking lots — but none like this. He wasn’t even sure where to start.

Finally, though, he took in a deep breath.

“So as you can probably see, tonight wasn’t a good night. I, uh . . .” He shifted his gaze toward the window on his right. It was covered with a blackout curtain, but gave him something to stare at besides the camera lens that unflinchingly demanded truth from him. “I started talking to another man tonight. At a bar. He was interested in me, and he was . . .” He shifted uncomfortably, which aggravated all his tender bumps and bruises. “I let myself be interested in him. I — ” he looked straight at the camera “ — I chose to be, and I was. So when he suggested we leave for the evening, I went with him.”

He swallowed hard. Reliving those moments when he walked from the edge of the crowded dance floor to the back hallway, and from there to the big steel door, made the back of his neck prickle. He couldn’t have known what was about to happen, but now that he did know . . .

He cleared his throat. “We went out behind the club. He told me his car was parked a block away, and the alley was a shortcut he took all the time. I . . .” His cheeks burned, and he winced as he saw himself agreeing to follow this stranger outside. “I went with him. It seemed like that was what men did there, so I . . . I went. And as soon as we were outside” — the memory of the steel door banging shut made him jump as if it had happened right then — “there were two other men. Bigger men. And . . .” He gestured at his face. “Well, I guess it’s pretty clear what happened next.”

He’d been in his share of schoolyard fights as a kid, but against boys who barely knew how to throw punches. Those were fights that stopped when a grown-up intervened or someone started bleeding.

Isaac had never had to fend off — or take — blows that were meant to hurt him. He’d never had his back literally against a wall as three men came at him with vicious hate in their eyes and broken bottles in their hands.

In those schoolyards of his youth, Isaac had spat a fair amount of blood in the dust, and he’d walked away with a black eye or a cut lip a few times. He’d never once thought he was going to die.

He pushed out a ragged breath. “The bouncers broke up the fight. I don’t know what happened next. To them, I mean. One of the bouncers put me on my feet and sent me inside with a bartender who . . .”

Colton’s face flashed in his mind, and his heart sped up. That must’ve been what it felt like to look straight into the eyes of a guardian angel. In an instant, he had memorized every detail — the cross on the black cord, the dark-blond goatee, the short hair, those blue, blue eyes — and even now, he could mentally conjure Colton in crystal-clear definition.

“If you need anything at all, let me know. Okay?”

“I’m going back to the club tomorrow,” he declared to the camera. “If I’m going to move within this community, I think I may need someone who knows his way around and can keep me . . . well.” He laughed, and then winced. “I don’t think there’s such a thing as ‘safe’ among these people, but maybe safer than being beaten beside a dumpster in an alley behind a bar.” A memory flickered through his mind — his body slamming against the brick wall just before he’d dropped to the broken pavement — and he shuddered. He cleared his throat. “I think I’ve found someone who I can trust to guide me, so I’ll go back tomorrow. Hopefully I’ll have good news.”

He got up, turned off the camera, and left the confession room. Though it was late and he was exhausted, he wasn’t going to sleep until he’d had a shower, so he stripped off his dirty clothes and the bandage on his arm, turned the water on as hot as he could bear it, and stepped into the bathtub.

The water stung as it grazed his various scrapes, but it felt good on his tense muscles. The tension melted away slowly, but his mind . . . well, he didn’t see that calming down anytime soon.

He’d prepared himself for a lot of things before he and Ruth had moved here. He’d subjected himself to countless volumes of information about homosexuality, educating himself — and to a point, desensitizing himself — about the sexual practices of gay men so that he could assimilate fully into this world and still keep himself reasonably safe. All the books and websites had happily gone into explicit detail, sometimes speaking in medical terms and with surgical precision about condoms, lubricant, preparation, and worse. They’d also cautioned about assault and beatings, about “hate crimes” as they were called, but Isaac had dismissed them. Every group of Sodomites he’d ever encountered had had the advantage of numbers, not even slightly intimidated by the Word of God. Even the wimpiest among them, the “femmes” as they called themselves, hadn’t been vulnerable when they were surrounded by brutes and bikers.

Isaac had been terrified of the sexual deviance he’d encounter. The things he’d have to participate in if he wanted to convincingly walk down this path. But here he was, bruised and shaken, not by the deviants, but by people who were supposed to be on the side of righteousness. Perhaps the homosexuals he’d ministered to had been wrong in the eyes of the Lord, but they’d been right about the threats of homophobic violence. Lesson learned.

And thank the Lord this had put him in the path of someone who might be able to guide him somewhat safely into this uncharted world. Colton was able, but was he willing? Only one way to find out. Isaac would give himself a little time — maybe a couple of days — to recover, and then he’d go back to the club. Seek the bartender with the cross at his throat.

“If you need anything at all, let me know. Okay?”

I need your guidance. I need your help.

Lead the way, Colton . . .

 

Chapter 4

Colton spent most nights in a sea of flashing lights and barely visible faces that all blended together. Once in a while a set of features would swim out of the chaos, and he’d make eye contact and connect just long enough to exchange money and liquor, and then they’d be gone again. Even the men who flirted and bantered with him seemed to melt back into the crowd like all the rest.

So when a face appeared tonight while he was mixing a Long Island, he didn’t think anything of it at first. But then he did a double take, and froze. The triple sec and rum bottles nearly slipped out of his hands.

He’d have recognized that face anywhere, and it wasn’t just the bandage and bruises that gave it away. Isaac dressed plainly, just as he’d done the other night — jeans, a casual black button-up over a white T-shirt — but he was on Colton’s radar the second their eyes met.

Isaac seemed nervous, too. His hands were in his pockets, but his shoulders were drawn in tight, and he didn’t hold eye contact for very long. His gaze darted left and right, cautiously tracking the people around him as he made his way toward the bar.

Colton finished making the drink, but when he looked up again, Isaac was gone. He scanned the room. He hadn’t been hallucinating, had he? It wouldn’t be the first time he’d thought he’d seen Isaac in his peripheral vision, but this hadn’t been a fleeting glimpse. Maybe he’d just lost sight of him in the thick crowd? Because he was definitely there somewhere. Colton swore he’d been staring right at him, straight into the face he hadn’t been able to stop think —

And right then, Isaac materialized at the bar, plain as day.

Colton gulped. This was definitely not a hallucination. He cleared his throat. “Isaac?”

A small smile played at Isaac’s lips. “You remember me.”

Colton laughed. “You’re kind of hard to forget. How are you doing? After, um . . .”

Isaac smiled halfheartedly. “I’ll be all right. Everything’s healing.” He held up his left hand, which was encased in a black wrist brace. “Some things slower than others.”

“Glad to hear you’re okay, though. And I’m glad you came. I meant to get your number the other night and — ”

They both stiffened, eyes widening.

“Uh . . .” Colton cleared his throat. “That didn’t come out right. I meant so I could make sure you were all right. Check up on you. Um . . .” He shifted his weight. “So, what brings you back?” Truthfully, he was surprised to see Isaac here at the club. Especially so soon after the attack — most of the guys who’d been assaulted here, or even had a run-in with someone pushy or obnoxious, didn’t show their faces for months after the fact. If they ever came back at all.

“Well, I’m . . .” Isaac stared down while he played with the edge of the brace on his wrist. “Like I said the other night, I haven’t been, um, out for very long. I’m new to . . .” His gaze drifted around the room, as if he were taking in the club’s dim, disco-lit atmosphere for the first time. “I’m new to all of this. Really new.” He met Colton’s eyes, some unspoken question pulling his eyebrows together.

“So, what?” Colton grinned playfully. “You need someone to guide you into the world of being an out and proud gay man?”

To his surprise, Isaac didn’t laugh. He didn’t even blush. He actually seemed a bit green at the prospect, and swallowed like it took way more effort than it should have. Shifting his weight, he spoke just loud enough to be heard over the music. “Actually, yeah.”

“You’re . . . you’re serious.”

“Yeah.” Isaac set his shoulders back and looked Colton straight in the eye. “I’m from a conservative town. I don’t even know anyone who’s gay, and obviously” — he gestured at his wrist brace — “I’m not so great at figuring this all out on my own.”

Colton glanced at the brace. “That wasn’t your fault, though.”

“Still.” Isaac shrugged. “I don’t know how to protect myself in this crowd. What to be on the lookout for. That, and I don’t know how to approach men, or what to do when they approach me. This is all . . .” He surveyed the room again, and the fear was palpable as he added, “This is all absolutely terrifying.”

“Oh.” Colton watched him for a moment. He was a bit of a loner by nature — had been since well before he’d learned, in the name of survival, to be guarded to the point of standoffishness with most people. Taking a grown man under his wing, as opposed to the kids he worked with at his ministry, was certainly not on his agenda. On the other hand, given his own past, he also wasn’t going to leave someone to fend for himself when he knew far too well what dangers lurked out there.

“Sure. Yeah. I can help you learn your way around this community.”

Isaac’s shoulders relaxed a bit, as if he’d been holding his breath while he waited for Colton’s decision. “Thank you.”

“Don’t mention it.” Colton pointed toward the hallway that led out to the back alley. “The more I can keep anyone from going through what you did, the better.”

Isaac shuddered. “I really appreciate it.”

Colton tugged back his sleeve to check his watch. “Listen, I still have a couple of hours left on my shift. If you don’t mind pulling a late night, and you want to talk for a while, there’s a coffee shop down the road that’s open twenty-four hours.”

“Sure. Yeah.” Isaac smiled. “Thanks.”

Colton returned the smile. Then he jotted the name of the coffee shop on a napkin and handed it to Isaac. “I’ll be there as soon as I can. Sometimes I get stuck here for a bit after closing, cleaning up and all that, but I’ll be there.”

“Great.” Isaac clutched the napkin like it was some kind of treasure map. “Thanks again.”

They exchanged smiles again, and then Isaac headed out of the club.

Colton watched him go. How weird. He’d had an odd feeling that Isaac was the calling he’d been searching for all this time, and he’d been kicking himself for not getting his phone number.

And now this?

from Jeannie Zelos Book Reviews

[A] beautiful and tender romance, surrounded by a very thought provoking story. 

from MM Good Book Reviews (by Aerin)

[A] truly beautiful book, unlike any I’ve read so far in this genre.

from Guilty Pleasures Book Reviews

The message in this book is one of love and understanding. . . . [R]ead this book, let the story envelope you, let the message seep into your soul. . . . Well done Ann Gallagher, you have once again floored me and left me tongue tied.

from Bookaholics Not-So-Anonymous

I've added a lot of books this year to my list of favorites, but Lead Me Not is one of the all-time best reads I've come across. Five-plus stars. ♥

from Scattered Thoughts and Rogue Words

[W]hen I finished the book, I was stunned by the powerful message and the depth of feeling conveyed to readers. Don’t hesitate to read this one.

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