Hometown Hearts by M.L. Rhodes
Copyright 2018 by M.L. Rhodes, All Rights Reserved
The “incident” had happened on a Friday night. I’d stayed late at work to finish reviewing some documents for an acquisition for one of my clients, stopped for a working dinner with one of mine and Shane’s associate attorneys who was helping me with the due diligence for the case, and arrived home around eleven-thirty. After I’d walked in and gotten a revolting eyeful, I’d confronted Shane. Kilgannon had said a few private words to Shane, then slunk away like the skunk he was.
As I threw a few things in a suitcase, Shane had followed me around, telling me to “let him explain.” But there was nothing he could possibly say that would make me forget or forgive him, so I’d tuned him out. Which hadn’t been hard, considering I was numb as hell. I’d walked out while he was still blabbing on in the doorway of the apartment about how I was overreacting and acting childish.
I’d called for an Uber, but had no idea where I even wanted to go. I started back to the office, but as we pulled up in front of the building, I realized I couldn’t stomach the idea of being in any space I’d recently shared with Shane.
I’d ended up at an all-night diner, where I’d made the mistake of drinking a whole pot of coffee as I pretended to work on my laptop, when all I was really doing was staring blindly and aimlessly scrolling. By the time the first streaks of daylight lit the sky, my hands were shaking and my heart pounded like a jackhammer. It’d been so bad, I’d wondered, briefly, if I was having a heart attack.
I should have gone straight to a hotel, but instead my fingers had instinctively dialed Emma. Though we hadn’t seen nearly enough of each other over the past few years, I trusted her implicitly. She and Nate had told me to come to them immediately, and I’d been such a mess at that point, I had. They’d welcomed me with open arms, heard the story, offered the words of support I’d desperately needed, and let me sleep on their couch Saturday night. Yesterday, Sunday, they’d done their best to feed me well and keep me busy to take my mind off things.
But now it was Monday. Time for me to let them get on with their happy lives, while I pulled up my big boy pants and acted like an adult.
By noon I’d booked a room at a hotel. I’d thought about looking into a furnished corporate apartment—I could have signed a lease for as short as thirty days—but since I wasn’t sure right now where I wanted to end up, or how much trouble Shane was going to give me over our jointly owned apartment, I decided to stick with a hotel for now. I’d worry about finding something more permanent in the new year.
I had a car—I kept it in one of the garages not too far from the apartment—but decided to leave it be for now. I seldom needed it on a day-to-day basis, since I could get an Uber anywhere I needed to go, and I didn’t think Shane would bother it, even though I’d left the spare key in the porcelain bowl in the entry hall at home.
Yeah, I needed to stop thinking of it that way.
If I was being honest with myself, I wasn’t sure if the apartment had ever really felt like home. As a result of our lifestyle, it was mostly the place where we slept and kept our things. Success was a double-edged sword. We reaped the financial rewards and growing respect, but the trade-off was that sixty or even eighty-hour work weeks were de rigeur at our income level and within our circle of colleagues and clients. If we did take vacation days, we nearly always traveled. So we didn’t spend much time at the apartment in actuality.
I thought of Emma and Nathan’s crowded little house, at how comfortably lived in it felt. The clutter, the battered, vintage furniture, the walls covered in eclectic art, posters, and kid drawings had horrified the part of me that had grown used to sleek, modern minimalism. Yet there was an undeniable coziness to it that, after only two days spent there, made me feel more at ease and “at home” than my own place did.
Or maybe it was simply that right now the apartment only made me see Shane and Kilgannon all over again, so everything having to do with it felt tainted.
At this point, I didn’t know which it might be. And that was why I needed time away.
My next mission was to go shopping.
I’d left with only the one suitcase that, in my fury and hurt, I’d packed on shitty, emotion-driven autopilot, which was never a good thing. I’d come away with the suit, shoes, and wool overcoat I’d been wearing when I got home Friday night, a pair of sweats, two T-shirts, one spare pair of boxers, some ragged running shoes (but no socks of any kind), and a sweater I hadn’t worn in years. I’d also brought with me an old photo album with pictures of family and friends from when I’d grown up, the watch my parents had given me when I graduated from law school, and a scuffed-up trophy that my brother and I had won in the local holiday scavenger hunt when I was twelve and he was ten.
The photo album, watch, and trophy had all been tucked away in one of my dresser drawers. I’d grabbed them, I think, because with Shane’s betrayal so sharp in my senses, and feeling like I was suddenly an alien in my own home, I’d reached for something comforting from my past. Things that weren’t a part of my life with Shane.
In retrospect, I was glad I’d had the presence of mind to take them. I didn’t think Shane would toss out or harm any of my things, but, honestly, I’d also never thought he’d cheat on me, so clearly my perception of what Shane was and wasn’t capable of was sadly lacking.
After I’d finished shopping for a few days’ worth of casual clothes, and some boots, since the ice and slush had been hell while I was out, I dropped everything off at the hotel, then grabbed a late lunch out while I went over some case notes concerning a legal brief I needed to write and pass along to my assistant.
When I returned to my room, I called Ariel. She answered on the first ring, efficient as always.
“Harris & Breckman. This is Ariel Hernandez speaking, Mr. Breckman’s assistant.”
“Hi, Ariel. It’s me. Just checking in.”
“Hunter…thank God you called.” She lowered her voice. “What’s going on?”
A jolt of anxiety hit me right in the pit of my stomach. “Why? Has something happened?”
“I don’t know. You tell me. You called me out of the blue Saturday morning and told me you were taking a temporary leave of absence. Then Mr. Harris came in this morning in a foul mood, slamming doors, and growling at everyone. He told off two of the associates for what seemed like small things, and had a yelling match over the phone with the in-house counsel at Robbins-Waterhouse, before he stormed out at noon. He hasn’t been back.”
“Did he say anything to anyone about…anything?”
“No.” She still spoke in a low tone, probably to ensure no one else heard their conversation. “Not even to Margaret. She’s as mystified as the rest of us.”
Margaret was Shane’s assistant, and Margaret and Ariel were friendly, so they no doubt would have discussed anything Shane might have said.
“It’s nothing you and Margaret should be concerned about,” I told her. “It’s business as usual, except I’m out of the office for a bit. But even though I’m not planning to come in, I’m only a phone call away if anything urgent arises, okay?”
“Ok-ay.” She sounded only partly appeased, but it was the best I could offer at the moment.
“I’ll have the Sullivan Corp brief written and to you by tomorrow. Is there anything else that needs immediate attention?” I asked her.
She instantly turned to work mode—again, I loved how efficient she always was. We discussed a few more items of business before I ended the call with another reminder that she could reach out to me by phone, email, or text anytime.
I hated not being fully honest with Ariel. We had a good working relationship, and she was the best legal assistant I’d ever had. I fully trusted her to handle any client questions or paperwork that came in. Our relationship was also comfortable enough we were on a first name basis. Unlike Shane, who insisted the staff and associates call him Mr. Harris. “It’s important to keep a clear line of professionalism,” he was fond of saying to me, usually in a tone that implied he couldn’t believe I didn’t understand that.
“Yeah, where was that clear line of professionalism when you and Kilgannon were fucking like rabbits in our bed?” I muttered under my breath.
If Shane and I decided to break up the law firm and go our separate ways professionally, I wasn’t sure what would happen to our staff. I would definitely ask Ariel to continue working with me, even if I had to give her a hefty raise to keep her.
But that was all up in the air. I had to cool down. And, frankly, so did Shane, if his outbursts and crappy attitude in the office today had been an example of his emotional state.
Though, a part of me—admittedly a shallow, bitter part—was happy to hear Shane was upset. He damn well ought to be.
I spent the remainder of the afternoon and most of the evening writing the brief I’d promised Ariel, as well as tidying up a few more loose ends for work.
Then I ordered room service and ate with the TV on. Mostly, I channel surfed because it seemed like half the stations were playing sappy Christmas movies and TV shows that left me with that same sensation in my gut I’d had at Emma’s this morning while she, Nate, and Jackson were getting ready for their day. I still couldn’t quite put my finger on what the sensation was. I only knew it left me feeling empty inside.
Finally, hoping the bottle of wine I’d drunk with my dinner would help me sleep, I turned off the lights and lay down in the cold, unfamiliar bed.
An hour later, I still hadn’t closed my eyes. Every time I tried to, Shane’s betrayal played out in my mind’s eye like a bad porno movie. And instead of making me sleepy, the wine—no doubt helped along by the generous dose of porno-vision—had left my gut in a writhing knot of queasy anxiety.
Plus, it was so damned quiet. Too quiet. I hadn’t realized at the time how comforting the silly little sounds at Emma’s house had been—the hum of the fish tank, the faint clank of the radiator, the soft scratching of the wind-blown tree branches against the window, and all the other little creaks and sighs that occurred in old houses.
Here…nothing. The upscale hotel had obviously invested in decent soundproofing for the rooms, which probably most guests appreciated. But it made me feel like I was stuck in a vacuum. I should have at least been able to hear some of the louder bits of street traffic twenty floors below—a siren, a garbage truck. But no.
And the silence only added to my anxiety.
Finally, the knot in my stomach tightening more instead of getting better, and my lungs suddenly seizing, making it hard to breathe, I sat up, a hand against my chest, and switched on the light. I managed to stumble into the bathroom to relieve myself, then grab a bottle of water out of the mini bar. I sank onto the bed, propping the pillows behind me, and switched the TV back on. I didn’t even care what it was playing at this point…as long as there was some noise.
I sipped my water, trying to keep from being sick, and stared at some old TV show cartoon re-run, which eventually faded into another, and then, suddenly, I realized what had come on next. Another old re-run, but this one actually brought the first hint of a smile to my face. Mighty Morphin Power Rangers.
As I watched it, I laughed a little, remembering how much I’d secretly loved the show when I was a kid. I’d been nine when it first came on TV. Half the kids in my third-grade class watched it. But by the next year, it had become patently un-cool to like it. So even though I still watched every episode, I no longer talked about it. And then a new kid started school partway into the year and he had a Power Rangers lunchbox, of which I was supremely jealous. When he took shit about it that first day, I’d screwed up my courage to stand side-by-side with him to face-down the bullies. There might have been a bit of a “dust up” as my dad had called it, and the new kid and I had found ourselves in the principal’s office that afternoon for starting a fight—even though one of the bullies had thrown the first punch, the little shit.
I could still remember as clearly as if it were yesterday, sitting in the office on the hard metal folding chairs, waiting for our parents to come, and looking over at the new kid and both of us suddenly breaking into huge smiles that said, “Yeah, it was worth it.”
That had been the beginning of a great friendship. The new kid, Dakota James Marshall, had become my best friend, and stayed that way all the way through the rest of elementary, middle school, high school, and even, for a while, into college. As a kid, I thought his name was the coolest ever, like he should be the star of one of those old Western TV show—Gunsmoke or How the West Was Won, starring Dakota Marshall—but he was underwhelmed by that idea and preferred to go by the simple nickname of “Jay” based on his middle name.
Jay and I had pretty much been inseparable. But as time and distance and adult life in general kept us apart, we’d talked less and less until, eventually, we’d lost contact. Last time we’d crossed paths, he’d been living in Seattle. As far as I knew, his grandfather still owned a tree farm not too far from my parents’ place, but I had no idea if Jay ever visited him anymore.
The trip down memory lane reminded me about the photo album I’d brought with me in my suitcase.
I climbed out of bed to retrieve it and another bottle of water.
After I’d resettled myself against the pillows, I opened the album, its bindings and pages yellowing. Most of the pictures had been made before digital cameras had become the thing, so the prints, probably mostly processed through the film service at the old drugstore in my hometown, were beginning to yellow as well.
The first pictures were me as a baby, which I flipped quickly past because, honestly, if you’d seen one baby, you’d seen them all, until I came to a time after my brother Kevin had been born and life had gotten more interesting. Goofy shots of us dressed as cowboys one Halloween, and Peter Pan and Captain Hook a different year. And of us wearing matching red plaid shirts in a series of Christmas photos where one or the other of us was making obnoxious faces. I had a vague memory of that day, actually. I’d been…probably seven, which would have made Kevin five. Mom had splurged and taken us to the local photography studio inside the Sears so we could have “good” Christmas pictures that year. But Kevin and I were obviously in a mood, and I remember the photographer got crankier and crankier because we refused to smile and pose like he wanted, until, finally, Mom had given up on us and we’d left. Why I remembered it, I’m sure, is because instead of being mad at us, as she had every right to be, she’d instead laughed at our “shenanigans” and taken us for ice cream. I guess it stuck in my mind because we didn’t get in trouble, but instead got rewarded for being little assholes.
I realized I was smiling again as I turned the page. There was the picture of Kevin and me when we won the stupid trophy at the holiday scavenger hunt. We’d cheated. And afterward we’d felt so guilty about it, we’d sworn until the day we died we’d never tell another soul what we’d done, and we’d vowed never do it again.
As I worked my way through the album, I revisited pictures of my parents and of sporting events; I’d only liked and played baseball, but Kevin had played every sport available in our little mountain town. There were lots of pictures of fishing, camping, and ski trips. Lots of photos of our family dogs, of which we’d always had many since dog rescue was my mom’s passion. There were also photos of Jay and me, and Kevin and his best friend, and, later on, Kevin and his girlfriend who was now his wife.
I lingered over one of me and Jay, taken the summer between our junior and senior years of high school. It had been a hot day and we’d been hiking, along with Kevin, up in the mountains. We’d come across a small lake and had stripped off our shirts and gone swimming to cool off. Kevin had taken the picture with his disposable camera he always carried in his pack. Jay and I were standing on a rock overlooking the lake, wearing big-ass grins.
I was struck not only by how young we looked, but also by how much our looks contrasted. Me with my wavy, bleached-blond hair from being out in the sun all summer, and my smooth face and chest. And him with shorter dark hair not only on his head, but scruffy on his face, and already beginning to grow across his chest and in a line down toward his navel. I’d always been jealous as hell of his body hair.
As I finished looking through the rest of the photos, I realized the twisting knot in my gut wasn’t quite as bad as it had been. And the empty feeling was…less empty.
Maybe it was because the effects of the wine were working their way out of my system. Or maybe, I admitted, seeing the pictures and reliving memories of simpler times with my family and old friends filled up a little bit of the hole inside me that had been there since Friday night.
I chewed my lower lip in thought. Maybe Emma hadn’t been totally wrong about me not being alone.
So, what was I thinking then? That I should go to Colorado for Christmas?
The idea suddenly sounded far more appealing than it had this morning when Em had brought it up. Still, I wasn’t sure I was up for it. All the silly family traditions and the big deal over decorations and Christmas cookies, not to mention the town’s holiday events that seemed never ending.
I hadn’t been back to Colorado for Christmas in…well…four years. Since I’d taken Shane.
I experienced a twinge of uncertainty as I remembered Emma’s suggestion that Shane hadn’t liked my family and that’s why he’d always planned elaborate vacations out of the country during the holidays. This year we’d made reservations for Maui. Shane had loved the beach trip to the Bahamas last year so much, he’d wanted to go somewhere warm and beachy again this year.
Now, of course, the thought of being anywhere with him filled me with revulsion. Maybe he’d take Brock Kilgannon to Hawaii. If Kilgannon got permission from his wife, of course.
I shuddered as yet again the graphic porno-vision ran through my mind.
God. How had I not known what was going on? I think that’s what made me sickest of all, was that he’d been sleeping with me in that very bed that morning, and then left work earlier than I had Friday night, telling me he had a dinner engagement with a client, but instead he’d gone home and let that sleazy jackass screw him on the same sheets where I’d lain hours earlier. Not only that, but in our sex life, Shane had always insisted on topping. He didn’t bottom for anyone, he’d always said. But he sure hadn’t had a problem letting Kilgannon ream him, and had sure as hell seemed to be enjoying it.
I was mind blown by his hypocrisy and lies.
How could he have smiled at me and talked to me all day like normal, kissed me goodbye before he left work, and then gone to our house and fucked around with someone else? How many times had it happened? How long had it been going on? And once again, I couldn’t stop myself from wondering if it had happened before with others?
What was so wrong with me that the man I’d trusted not only with my heart, but enough to share a business with, to share every aspect of my life with, had to cheat? Was I not good enough? Was I just some dumb patsy he used to shore up his career and look impressive with his money and prestigious law firm and fancy apartment?
Apparently, I was. Too dumb to know he’d been betraying me for God knew how long.
My stomach cramped brutally. I dove out of bed and made it to the bathroom just in time before I lost everything I’d eaten and drunk all night. I heaved and heaved until my gut ached, my throat was sore, and I was shaking.
Weak-legged and hurting all over, I cleaned up, crawled back into bed, and, finally, exhaustion claimed me. I fell into a restless sleep with the lights and TV still on.