Hometown Hearts by M.L. Rhodes
Copyright M.L. Rhodes 2018, All Rights Reserved
Waking up with a sword against your throat is exactly as terrifying as you might think…
At least it was, until I realized the hand clutching it was small and chubby, and when the sleep fog cleared from my head, I saw a dimple-cheeked cherub grinning down at me.
“’Hoy, matey. Gonna slice open yer gullet!”
As far as morning wake-up calls, this was a new one for me. My first instinct was to close my eyes and pretend I’d gone back to sleep, in hopes the runny-nosed little pirate would go away.
But the dark curls and mischievous hazel eyes tugged at some tiny frozen part of my heart, and I found myself, to my surprise, growling, “Arr, me hearty! You be messin’ with the wrong buccaneer this mornin’!”
“I get you, scurvly dog!”
“No, I’ll get you, you scallywag!” I pulled the plastic sword out of his hands and sat up, brandishing it.”
The little pirate squealed like a stuck pig, his grin wider than ever. He yanked a toy knife out of the flowered silk scarf he wore tied around his waist. “No, I get you! Make you go to Davy Jones’ hocker!”
I couldn’t help myself—a laugh escaped me. “Locker. Davy Jones’ Locker.”
“Davy Jones’ lonker!” my little pirate said, jumping up and down, squealing again. “Send you to lonker!”
“You’re going to send him to Yonkers? Why would he need to go to Yonkers?” My friend Emma emerged from the kitchen, wiping her hands on a dish towel.
“Lonker!” the little guy shouted. “Mama, I send Hunter to Davy Jones’ lonker!”
“Oh, well, in that case, I guess he must’ve done something really naughty.”
“He’s a scurvly dog!”
Emma scooped up her kiddo, toy knife flailing and, in spite of his squealing and attempts to squirm out of her arms, she kissed him on the cheek, not seeming at all to mind the snotty nose.
I had to admit, seeing them together was sweet. I’d always known Emma as a smart-as-hell, fiercely compassionate law student and then attorney, but having spent the past two days in close quarters with her, watching her in her role as mother, had given me an all new appreciation for her. And, frankly, she and her husband Nathan had made an adorable kiddo. Jackson’s skin was a lighter brown than Emma’s, his dark hair wasn’t quite as curly as hers, and he had his dad’s eyes. But that smile was all his mom’s.
When she set him back on his feet, she gave him a gentle swat on the butt and said, “Off to the kitchen with you, Cap’n Jack, your breakfast’s ready.”
“There’s orange grog in a cup next to your oatmeal. Go.”
The little dude scampered away, still waving his knife.
“Sorry,” Emma said. “As you’ve probably noticed, he’s obsessed with pirates right now. All he wants for Christmas are a peg leg and a parrot.” She shook her head. “He was supposed to stay in the kitchen with me. I didn’t mean for him to escape in here and wake you.”
“It’s all right.” I pushed back the blankets, set the toy sword I’d still been holding onto the coffee table, and turned to put my feet on the faded oriental rug on the floor. “I needed to get up.” And it’s not like I had been sleeping well anyway. The past two nights had pretty much sucked.
“I’m so sorry you’re stuck on the couch,” Emma said, worrying her lower lip with her teeth. “We’ve been using the third bedroom as storage, but maybe you’re the incentive we need to get it cleaned out. God knows it needs it.”
“Don’t be sorry. I’m grateful for your couch.” I winced as something jabbed me in the rear and I fished out a bright blue wooden block from between the couch cushions and held it up. How in hell I’d slept on it all night I had no idea. “Well, mostly grateful.”
Emma snerked. “Yeah, not quite as posh as your apartment on the upper east side, is it?”
“Not my apartment anymore,” I sighed, rubbing a hand over my face, feeling several days’ worth of scruff beneath my palm.
“Oh, Hunter, I’m so sorry.” Emma sank onto the couch next to me, curling her feet under her. She tossed the dish towel onto the coffee table, then brushed a hand over my hair. Her often-smiling face was scrunched into a frown. “Now that you’ve had a couple of days to think, what are you going to do? You can’t let Shane get away with this bullshit. He’s the one who couldn’t keep his peter in his pants.”
I dropped my head back against the sofa and stared up at the chipped crown molding on the ceiling. Then I sighed again. “I don’t know, Em. A part of me wants to fight him for everything. But another part of me wants to just walk the fuck away and be done with it all.”
I winced as soon as I realized I’d dropped the F-bomb with a kiddo in the next room. But Emma didn’t seem to mind.
“It’s your place, too. And your law firm,” she said. “He can’t just run you out. You own half of everything, and I guarantee you, the vast majority of your clients chose Harris & Breckman because of you, not him.”
“I’m not so sure about that. I think most of our clients are more than happy with Shane. He’s always gotten them whatever they want. And, apparently, now he’s branching out and making sure non-clients get their happy on as well.” I shook my head. “Jesus, Emma. Why Kilgannon of all people? He’s a complete sleaze and everybody knows it.”
Brock Kilgannon, CEO of GallantHealth. Infamous for upping the price of several life-saving drugs just so he could get richer, and gobbling up smaller pharmaceutical companies until his expensive brands were, in some cases, the only ones available. The bastard didn’t give a shit about helping sick people. He was in it for the money. He was also the man with whom I’d caught my long-term boyfriend and business partner in flagrante three nights ago.
Emma’s eyes flashed with disgust. “Kilgannon’s a heartless, money-grubbing snake from the word go. He and Shane deserve each other.” Then her expression softened and she tilted her head. “As for you, you deserve so much better. And, if you want me to be brutally honest…?”
“You might as well be.” Shane had left me flayed open and gutted. Nothing Emma had to say could possibly make it any worse at this point.
“You always deserved better than Shane. He’s never been one of my favorite people. He’s a manipulative, self-serving dick at the best of times.”
“And you’re just telling me this now? You couldn’t have said something five years ago, before he and I started the firm together? Or four years ago when we moved in together?” I asked dryly.
I was trying to play it cool, but it stung to hear her say what had apparently been obvious to her, but not to me, for so long. Yeah, I knew Shane could often be calculating in business, and I hadn’t always been comfortable with some of the decisions he’d made, but he’d never done anything illegal or outright immoral—well, until now—so I’d let it slide as just part of his determined personality. After all, no one was perfect.
“Would you have listened if I’d said anything before now?”
God love, Emma. Always keeping it real.
“I might have.”
She snorted. “Yeah, like you listened to me back in law school the time you said you wanted to invite Sarahann Holtzman to join our study group and I warned you she was an uptight bigot and homophobe, but you were like, ‘Pooh-pooh, it’ll be fine.’ And then two days later, you came ranting to me after she went off on a tirade about how LGBT anti-discrimination laws were not only unnecessary, they promoted immorality and ‘unnatural lifestyle choices.’ Then, immediately thereafter, she also made a private comment to you about not preferring to have ‘that black woman’ in the group…meaning me. Like that time?”
“Yeah, okay, point taken. She was an unmitigated bitch and you were right. For what it’s worth, there’s always some part of my brain that knows I should listen to you, I just…” I shrugged.
“You just have to dive in headlong anyway because you’re a glutton for punishment?”
“Maybe. Clearly I need to start doing a better job of paying attention.”
“All right, then listen up, bub.” She grabbed my chin and turned my head until I was looking directly at her. “You go after that asshole for everything. If you want the apartment, you fight him for it. And if you want to continue in your current law practice, kick his ass out, don’t let him do it to you. You show that rat bastard who he’s dealing with, and don’t take no for an answer.”
“I hear you.”
“Do you?” She had a fierce look on her face. One that if I wasn’t friends with her might have caused me to tremble just a little. Good thing I didn’t ever have to face her across a courtroom.
“I do, I promise. But I’m not sure I want to continue our law partnership or even have my name associated with his anymore. I’ve got to look over the contracts we had drawn up when we started the firm, but no matter what, he’ll fight me if I try to push him out. On the other hand, I can’t work across the hall from him and run a business with him anymore because I don’t trust him. Not to mention every time I look at him in the future, all I’ll be able to see is Kilgannon balls-deep into Shane in the middle of our bed.”
Emma shuddered. “That’s all I’m going to be able to see now, too. Thank you so much for that. Blegh.” Her mercurial features shifted again and she pulled me into a hug. “Shane’s a lousy human being with the moral compass of a two-bit whore. Whatever you need, Hunter, I’ve got your back.”
“I know. Thanks, Em.”
I hadn’t cried over Shane’s betrayal, and I kept wondering if that was normal and if it was going to hit me later. Or, if maybe the whole thing hadn’t shocked me as much as it should have. But right now, wrapped in Emma’s embrace, with her soft gingery scent mixed with little boy sweat wafting around me, I could barely swallow around the hot lump in my throat. Yet even then, no tears fell.
“The first thing I need to do,” I said, pulling away from her, “is find a place to stay, so I can get out of yours and Nathan’s hair and off your couch.”
“You’re not in our hair. We’re happy to have you here. Frankly, I’ve missed seeing you regularly over the past few years. It’s nice having you in the house.”
She meant it, I knew. And I’d missed her, too. Ever since Shane and I had started our own law firm, and Emma had moved out of Manhattan and take a job with legal aid in the Bronx, we hadn’t spent much time together. Occasional lunches, which had grown rarer over the years, and I’d been to a couple of little Jackson’s birthday parties, though Shane had never come with me because he liked kids even less than I did. Plus, now I suspected there had been other reasons as well—Emma’s dislike of Shane was probably mutual, since Shane thought any attorney who chose to work for legal aid and/or do pro bono work had “sold out.”
“I love you for that,” I said, wrapping a hand around Emma’s. “But it’s a week until Christmas, and you guys have a family life that doesn’t involve your Grinchy old friend camping out on your couch. I appreciate more than you can know that you’ve let me stay here the past couple of nights, but I probably should have gotten a hotel—”
“No, you needed to be with people who love you, not alone in some cold, impersonal hotel room where that douchebag could find you. At least here, even if he guesses you’re staying with us, he would never consider slumming it to a cramped, old row house in the Bronx to find you.”
“He’s not going to come looking for me. I made it abundantly clear I was done with him.”
“Don’t be so sure. If for no other reason than he knows you could make his life a living hell, both personally and professionally, he might very well want to find you and try to sweet talk you into smoothing things over.”
“He won’t bother. Believe me. His pride would never let him do it. Besides, for some reason he thinks he holds all the cards. No”—I shook my head—“he’s not going to lower himself to approach me.”
“I hope he doesn’t.”
She had the tone again. The one that indicated she knew better and I really ought to listen to her. But this time, I was certain I was right.
“Well, in either case,” I said, “I need to find a place to stay until I can decide how to handle the business end of things.”
She started to speak, but I pressed a finger against her mouth. “Someplace that doesn’t impose on your family life,” I said firmly.
She grumbled under her breath. But then her eyes lit up. “Actually, I have another suggestion for you.”
“I’m all ears.”
“Why don’t you go home for Christmas?”
“What? You just called him a douchebag, but now you think I should go home to him?” Just the idea of waltzing through the door and having to face Shane’s and my apartment in general, much less the trendy, modern bed Shane had picked out a couple of years ago, made me faintly nauseous.
“No, dumbass!” She rolled her eyes. “Oh my God, I’d rather you not ever have any contact with that douchebag again, even though I know you’ll have to eventually. No! I meant go home home. You know, to Colorado. To your family. How long has it been since you’ve seen them?”
“Um…” She’d caught me off guard and I had to think. “My parents were in New York summer before last. We put them up at the Lowell for the two nights they were here.”
Emma’s eyebrows shot up. “You made your parents stay in a hotel?”
“It was the Lowell,” I said, suddenly defensive. “And we took them to afternoon tea at the Pembroke Room.”
“Oh lord.” I got an eye roll that only made my hackles rise further. “Let me guess…it was Shane’s idea to keep them in a hotel?”
“Well…yeah,” I said, cautiously. “The Lowell’s a beautiful place. And it’s not like we had room at our apartment for them to stay there comfortably.”
“Hunter, your parents are two of the nicest people I’ve ever met. And while I’m sure they appreciated the tea…they’re your parents for God’s sake. Your parents. Down to earth. Practical. And so far from anything that would remotely make Shane comfortable, that of course he wouldn’t have wanted them to stay with you guys.”
“I don’t know that that’s true. He always said he liked my parents.”
“Didn’t you take him home for Christmas the first year you guys were together?”
“Did you ever go again?”
“For any time? Did Shane ever go with you to see them again?”
“No, but we were busy. We had a law firm to run. And we often traveled at Christmastime. Sorrento, Switzerland to ski, and last year we went a little private island in the Bahamas. Neither of us is into the whole traditional Christmas thing, so we liked to get away and avoid the holiday chaos.” Okay, I could feel myself getting defensive again. “What are you getting at?”
“If I have to spell it out for you, you’re more hopeless than I thought.”
I felt my brows furrow as I finally began to see where she was going. “You think Shane purposely tried to avoid my family?”
“I don’t think so.” Now that she’d planted the bug in my head, though, I wasn’t so sure.
“When we were in law school, and the first few years we worked in Manhattan near one another, your family always invited you home for Christmas. And you always went. Did they invite you this year?”
“Of course. They always do.”
“Then why don’t you go? Get out of the city and far away from Shane for a couple of weeks. Clear your head. Let your family help you start to heal.”
“I…don’t think so,” I said, shaking my head. “I’m not up for my family’s brand of holiday. I don’t get into all the Christmas hype. It’s so commercial and over-blown.”
“That’s Shane talking.”
“No, that’s me talking. And besides, even if I did like the whole forced holiday cheer, I’m hardly a ray of sunshine this year. I’d rather just find some temporary place to stay, hunker down, and gut-out the holiday season.”
“Oh, Hunter, don’t do that. Being alone to think and re-think all of the shit that’s going on with Shane is not good for you. You should not be alone right now.”
“On the contrary, I think alone is exactly what I need.”
“No, it’s really not. Please, listen to me, okay? If you’re insistent about not going to see your family, then at least stay here and spend the holidays with us. We love you. And Jackson adores you.”
“Thanks, Em. But you guys don’t need me being the stick in your Christmas mud. I’m not very good company right now, and it’s better for everyone if I’m out of the picture so you guys can enjoy your holiday.”
Emma sighed, then leaned in and kissed me on the cheek. “Fine. I know I can’t make you stay. And I can’t make you go see your family. But promise me, promise me that you won’t spend Christmas alone? That you’ll at least come over for a while on Christmas Eve?”
The last thing I wanted to do was make any kind of promises right now, but I knew short of going on the run or deep into hiding, Emma wasn’t going to let this go. If she had to come bang down the door of whatever temporary lodging I’d found, she would. So, with a forced smile I said, “Okay. But just for a while.”
She clapped her hands. “Oh good! Jackson will be so happy. He’s crazy about you, and you’re so good with him. You always say kids aren’t your thing, but I think you like him more than you’ll admit. I heard you playing pirate with him before I came in.”
“It was purely self defense.”
“Yeah, of course it was,” Emma said with a smile.
She stood and held out a hand. “Come drink some coffee with me while I check on my little scallywag and make sure his daddy’s got on two matching shoes this morning.” She rolled her eyes and chuckled fondly. “One day last week Nate left for school wearing one brown loafer and one black one. Sometimes I seriously worry about that man.”
Emma’s husband, Nathan, was a middle school science teacher. All his students apparently loved him, even if he could sometimes be more than a little scatterbrained and odd. He was a super nice, chill guy, with scruffy blond hair, freckles, perpetually smudged glasses, and a comfortable smile that tended to put everyone around him at ease. Most of all, he made Emma happy, which was really all I cared about.
As I watched them—their little family—going through their morning routine, laughing together, sharing casual touches and sweet kisses, it caused a pang of…something…in my gut. I just wasn’t sure what.
And right now, I couldn’t worry about it. I needed to get out of here and start shoring up my heart so I could deal with Shane. It would have been bad enough if he’d only been my romantic partner. But, no, we shared more than an apartment and a failed personal relationship. We also shared a growing, lucrative law firm. Which was going to be far less easy to sort out.
Damn you, Shane, you two-faced asshole.
I’d told my legal assistant, Ariel, that I was taking a temporary leave of absence through the holidays and had her reschedule my appointments for January. She hadn’t asked why when I’d talked to her day before yesterday, and I hadn’t told her. But I needed to touch base with her today and let her know if anything important came up, she could still call me. I was out of the office, but I didn’t want to just disappear…because as pissed as Shane had been when I told him I was done with him, I didn’t want him to stir any trouble while I was absent. In fact, after hearing Emma’s take on Shane—that he was a “manipulative, self-serving dick”—I was starting to have seconds thoughts about being away at all.
Surely Shane wouldn’t jeopardize the firm by causing problems with clients or our associates and staff. Harris & Breckman had a solid reputation that we’d worked hard to gain, and Shane would want to protect it. Wouldn’t he?
I tried to tell myself that since he was the one who’d fucked up, maybe he’d keep his mouth shut so no one else would discover he’d not only cheated on me, but I’d caught him in the act with a high-profile scumbag . If news got out who’d he been with, our firm might very well take a hit from it, given Brock Kilgannon’s less-than-stellar character and business practices. Although, some of the clients Shane had brought in over the past year or two weren’t necessarily saints, so they probably wouldn’t think twice about it.
A few of our older clients from the private and service sectors, on the other hand, took pride in running classy businesses and expected their attorneys to mirror that. They might very well take umbrage at a scandal. And there would be a scandal because what Shane seemed to have forgotten was that Kilgannon was married. To a woman. A woman who had power of her own, being the heiress of a Silicon Valley tech magnate.
Of course, if Shane’s cheating did become public knowledge, Shane and Kilgannon would probably deny it all and it’d be my word against theirs.
The situation was fucked up six ways to Sunday. And I felt sick to my stomach that I’d been oblivious to what was going on. How long had Shane and that sleazy asshole been screwing? Worse…had there been others?
As soon as Emma and Nate left for work, with their little pirate in tow to be dropped off at his day care, I climbed into the shower and scrubbed down, then stood there for I didn’t even know how long, hoping like hell the hot water beating over my body would somehow cleanse me of Shane’s touch and, by association, anyone else he’d been with.
By the time I dragged myself out of the bathroom, my skin was as red and wrinkled as an old apple, yet somehow I didn’t feel any better inside.