Hometown Hearts by M.L. Rhodes
Copyright 2018 by M.L. Rhodes, All Rights Reserved
As it turned out, it was even sooner than I’d expected.
“Come on, it’s not going to kill you and it’s for a good cause,” my mom said with a smile, hooking her arm through mine as we walked in the gently falling snow from the parking lot to the new elementary school, while my dad followed along behind us.
“I know,” I mumbled, but to say I was less-than-thrilled would be an understatement.
“You used to like doing this whenever you’d be home from college or law school during the holidays,” she chided.
I had? Yeah, I’d often gone along with my folks to wrap donated gifts for the kids before the annual holiday festival, but I didn’t remember liking it exactly. What I did remember, though, was doing this several years ago when Shane was here with me. And right now, anything that reminded me of Shane was not something I particularly wanted to be part of.
The school was decorated for the holidays with art the kids had made hanging from virtually every wall, including in the cafeteria where the wrapping was taking place. Christmas music played through the school’s speaker system. And spread across numerous lunch tables were toys and games of all shapes and sizes, along with rolls of brightly colored gift wrap and bows. The presents wrapped tonight would be the ones Santa would hand out at the festival a few nights from now.
My dad took off toward the snack table with the tin of cookies my mom had brought to share, and I watched him set it down amidst the other treats. I noticed he stayed there, sampling the goods, and wondered if it was his strategic way of getting out of doing any actual wrapping, especially when he picked up a conversation with what looked like another husband-along-for-the ride. Meanwhile, my mom was busy hugging and saying hello to some of her many friends. I knew I was seconds away from being pulled over to say hi to them, too, and I so didn’t want to have to paste a smile on my face for that. I was just debating about making an escape to the snacks myself when I caught sight of Maddy at a nearby table, waving at me and motioning for me to join her.
Oh, thank goodness. Someone I was actually happy to see.
I took off my coat and tossed it onto the empty table behind us, then let her grab hold of my arm and tug me down beside her where she pulled me into a half hug.
“I’m happy you’re here! I wasn’t sure if you’d come with your folks or not.”
“Wasn’t really given much of a choice,” I said under my breath, knowing I was safe grumbling to her.
“But you get to see me twice in one day, so that makes it all worth it, right?” Her teasing smile eased some of my edginess.
“Yeah, okay, I suppose there’s that.”
“And just think, without uptight Shane here this time, you might actually have fun.”
Damn, and here I was trying so hard not to think about Shane. “Uptight?”
“Oh, heck yeah. He hated this.”
My surprised look must have been obvious because her brows quickly rose. “Please tell me you know how much he hated this and most of the other holiday stuff you brought him to that time he came home with you?”
“I…” I shook my head. “What makes you think he hated everything?”
“Because he kept making little passive aggressive comments. Or joked about whatever we were doing, but it wasn’t really joking at all because he pretty much meant it. Or he talked down about our holiday traditions in a patronizing way.”
My ever-present and madly vicious stomach knot churned to life with a vengeance “I didn’t realize he’d done that. Why didn’t somebody say something to me about it?”
“Because…I thought you’d noticed it yourself. You never brought him back here again, so I figured it’s because you knew he just flat-out couldn’t stand small-town mountain life.”
I remembered Emma’s words from a few days ago. She’d said much the same thing, about Shane not liking my family. Suddenly, I thought I might be sick. That had happened four years ago. Four years that I’d had no idea Shane had been rude and patronizing to my family. And what had I done? I’d allowed him to talk me out of coming here again and again. He’d always been the one with the big ideas for how we’d spend our holidays and vacations and I’d gone along with it, effectively shutting out my family and the people I cared about.
“Hey.” Maddy rubbed my back. “I’m sorry,” she said in a low voice. “I didn’t mean to bring all this up. I shouldn’t have. That was my bad. So, so bad.”
I sighed. “It’s okay. I just keep learning things about Shane that prove to me his douchebaggery isn’t something new.”
“Well, if it makes you feel any better, you’re here now and he’s not. I call that a win. I say we eat gobs of cookies, wrap a ton of presents for the kiddos, and revel in the fact you have plenty of fun, real people in your life to hang out with, while he’s doing whatever it is shitty twatwaffles do when they’re dumped on their asses. Plus, we have Christmas carols. And hot chocolate.” She grinned at me.
Maddy, as usual, was a ray of sunshine chasing away Shane’s dark shadow. I really, really didn’t want to dwell on him tonight. Maddy was right. He wasn’t here. And I was. With my family, whom I loved. Then I frowned as a thought hit me. “Did Kevin come?”
“No. He pulled some extra hours tonight because they’re shorthanded. One of the other deputies is on vacation and another had a family emergency. On snowy nights like this, they tend to have a higher number of calls and accidents. I probably won’t see him before midnight.”
“Which is no doubt making him a nervous wreck,” I said, keeping my voice low so we wouldn’t be overheard.
“Oh yeah.” She, too, used a quiet tone. “He didn’t want me to go out tonight, but your folks are here, and now you are, too, so it’s not like I was going to be alone. Plus, I’m fine. Better than fine, actually. It’s hard for him, I know, but he’s going to have to learn to deal with it because he can’t be with me twenty-four/seven for the next several months, and I’m sure as heck not going to sit at home and twiddle my thumbs.”
I wondered if it made me a bad person that I was a little relieved I wouldn’t have to face Kevin tonight. I wasn’t sure I was ready for more of his cold shoulder just yet, and trying to have a real conversation with him here, surrounded by a couple dozen townsfolk, wouldn’t have been great either. Better to do that when he and I were alone. I also suspected he wasn’t going to be too pleased to discover Maddy had told me everything today.
Maddy, who had clearly been reading my mind, patted my back again and, in a normal but teasing tone, said, “All of this is to say, you don’t have to worry. You’re safe from Grouchy Pants for the evening.”
“I sure hope I’m not the grouchy pants you’re trying to avoid,” said a rumbly, sexy voice behind us. A voice that I’d had the pleasure of listening to all afternoon and that caused the damned little flutter to stir again in my belly.
I looked up into Jay’s smiling face and instantly smiled back.
“Given that’s the first smile I’ve seen on him tonight, I think it’s safe to say you are not the grouchy pants in question,” Maddy said, laughing. “Hey, Jay, it’s good to see you.” She pulled him down into a hug much as she had me.
“Maddy. Beautiful as always.”
“Pffft. And you’re a silver-tongued devil as always.”
“There are worse things, apparently. I could be a grouchy pants,” he said as he dropped onto the bench next to me, still smiling, his gaze now fully focused on me.
“Trust me, I know he’s glad you’re not,” Maddy said.
“Okay, okay, you can let it go already,” I said, shaking my head, but I was still grinning. Maddy just laughed at me.
“Do I want to know?” Jay asked.
“No. No you do not,” I said.
“When I saw you earlier in the day, you didn’t tell me you were going to be here tonight,” Jay said.
“I didn’t know.”
“He was brought under duress,” Maddy chimed in as she began wrapping a Barbie.
“It wasn’t under duress. Well, not exactly anyway. But the night’s definitely looking up.”
Oh yeah, the sparkle in Jay’s eyes was making this little adventure much more worthwhile.
We spent the next hour wrapping and talking, and it was nice. Better than nice, actually, to spend time with two of the people I’d always genuinely had fun with. Maddy had been three years behind Jay and me in school and a year behind Kevin, so she knew most of the same people we did from the past and had done a better job than either of us of keeping in touch with many of them, as well as some of our old teachers. Apparently, Mrs. Kowalksi, who’d been our high school algebra teacher, and Mr. Rodriguez, our baseball coach, were both clients of hers. It was weird to hear her calling them Jenny and Bob after years of conditioning that teachers must always be treated with respect, which meant, in my mind, they’d always be addressed with a title. They weren’t allowed to have first names like everyone else. When I said as much, Maddy and Jay both laughed at me.
“You’re being ridiculously old fashioned, Hunter,” Maddy said.
“I am not.”
“Old fashioned isn’t such a bad thing, though,” Jay said, half-ass defending me.
Maddy rolled her eyes. “Yeah, as long as you don’t mind coming across as an old fuddy-duddy before your time.”
“Using the teachers’ last names is respectful,” I argued.
“Sure, when you’re in school. But in the real world, Jenny and Bob aren’t all that much older than we are. They were both only in their twenties when we were in high school.”
“Yeah, okay, maybe for the younger teachers like that. But, I’m sorry, can you imagine ever calling Mrs. Camp by her first name, even now?”
They both paused at that and got slightly horrified looks on their face.
“Uh huh,” I continued. “Just the thought of it has you terrified.”
Mrs. Camp had been our high school librarian. She’d been a widow in her sixties when we were in school, and ran the library with an iron hand and a permanent expression of disproval on her face, as if she knew the students would never live up to her standards and was perpetually proven correct. If anyone had even thought of speaking to her in anything but a quiet, reverential voice, or broken any one of her dozens upon dozens of rules, they’d ended up in the principal’s office before the sweat on their forehead had dried.
“Do you know,” Jay said, “all through school, every teacher, every one, called me Jay like I preferred, but she never did. She insisted on using my given name. I can still hear her saying, ‘Dakota Marshall, sit down this instant before you vex me. And you know what happens when I’m vexed.’’’
“Same,” Maddy said. “I was always Madeleine with her. And when she was vexed with me, which I’m sad to say was often since I had a problem with being too talkative, she’d say my name with a certain tone that still makes me cringe when I think about it.”
“So, I ask again,” I said, “could you ever call her Helen? I believe that was her first name. Let’s say you run into her at the Tastee Freez. Would you walk up to her and say, “Why, hi there, Helen, it’s lovely to see you?”
They both looked like they’d been convicted of mutiny and were about to walk the plank.
“I rest my case,” I said, quietly chuckling.
Maddy recovered first and rolled her eyes. “God help us, he’s breaking out his lawyer-speak.”
“I don’t know. I think his lawyer-speak’s kinda hot,” Jay said.
I’m pretty sure my mouth fell open. I know my heart raced. When my gaze shot to him, he gave me a look I couldn’t quite place, but if I had to name it I’d call it…flirty? Holy shit. What was that all about?
Maddy took it in stride, laughing, as if the comment were nothing out of the ordinary.
But minutes later I hadn’t been able to stop thinking about either the words or Jay’s expression. Especially with the warm press of his jean-clad leg against mine on the bench.
Maybe I was reading too much into it. Almost certainly I was. In truth, it had been so long since I’d hung out with anyone who wasn’t either another attorney or a business client, maybe I’d just lost touch with what constituted casual, teasing banter. Hell, maybe I had become the old fuddy-duddy Maddy had teased me about being.
“Hot chocolate?” Jay said, pulling me from my thoughts.
“Drinks? Hot chocolate? Maddy, want some?”
“Oooh, yeah. Extra marshmallows, please,” she said as Jay rose from the bench. “And some of Nancy’s cookies.”
“You got it. Hunter?”
Jay’s smile set loose another little flurry of butterflies in my stomach.
When he turned and walked away, Maddy leaned close and, for my ears only said, “Damn, that is one beautiful man going there. He’s only gotten better looking with age, hasn’t he?”
I glanced at her askance. “I wouldn’t know,” I said, probably a little too vigorously. “He’s my best friend. I don’t check him out like that.”
She gave me a “you’re so full of crap” look.
“I don’t. I never have.” God, I was such a liar.
She knew it, too. “Oh, please.”
Keeping my voice low I said, “I don’t ogle my straight best friend. I’ve never wanted to make him uncomfortable.”
“Wellll, I hate to tell you this, Mr. Honorable, but he sure as heck ogles you.”
“I turned my head sharply to look at her. “What do you mean?” I whispered.
A smile danced on her lips. “Oh yeah. Like he could eat you up and lick the plate. You’re all he’s had eyes for from the moment you walked in tonight.”
“We just reconnected this afternoon. I ran into him after I saw you today. Maybe he’s just happy, like I am, to see each other again.”
“Which part of eat you up and lick the plate did you not hear? Even long-lost best friends don’t look at each other that way.”
“You’re crazy,” I said, even as the flutter was back in my belly.
“Not. He used to look at you the same way when you guys’d be home on breaks in college, in quiet moments, when he thought no one was paying attention.”
“What in hell are you talking about? He’s always dated women. He’s not into men. I should know.”
“If you don’t believe me, then ask him.”
“Fine, suit yourself. But has it occurred to you that he might have had reasons why he wasn’t ready to come out earlier, so he played it straight when you guys were younger?”
“No,” I said again. “I would know. He’s never so much as hinted he’s anything but straight.”
Except for holding my hand today across the table at La Cocina. That had been odd and surprising. As had been the flirty look and comment tonight…
“Okay, fine, whatever,” she said, grinning. Then she leaned closer, and once again using a low voice said, “But all you have to do is open your eyes and pay attention when he’s around you. I’m just sayin’…”
Maddy’s “just sayin’” led me to spend the rest of the evening paying attention without trying to look like I was paying attention. Which, of course, I failed at miserably, since at one point Jay gave me a funny look and said, “Everything okay? You keep watching me like you think I’m going to pilfer your wrapping paper or something.”
I heard Maddy quietly snickering at my side, damn her.
Later, as Jay and I walked out of the school together, I was still more than a little aware of his warmth next to me, not to mention lost in thought about Maddy’s revelation, when he said, “We still on for tomorrow night?”
“Yeah, absolutely. Just tell me how you want m— When you want me.”
He raised a teasing eyebrow, and holy shit, that look…
But then he smiled and said, “Six okay?”
“Sure,” I managed to get out without sounding like a flustered teenager, even though that’s how I felt inside.
Damn. I still wasn’t sure if I was reading more into his words and looks than I should be. In spite of what Maddy had said, Jay and I had always had an easy, teasing relationship. Wasn’t that what this was?
Yeah, it had to be. I’d come out to Jay the same time I had my parents, when I was fifteen. I hadn’t even told Kevin at that point, and didn’t tell anyone else for another couple of years because small-town life had made me nervous. Besides, there hadn’t been any local guys I was interested in except one, and he’d been unavailable. During all that time, Jay had kept my secret, stood by me, and never flinched at finding out his best friend was gay. So he surely would have known I’d stand by him if the tables were turned. There was no way he wouldn’t have told me if he was into guys.
No way, I assured myself.