Hometown Hearts by M.L. Rhodes
Copyright 2018 by M.L. Rhodes, All Rights Reserved
The next morning during breakfast I asked my parents about Jay’s grandfather.
“You guys, how come no one ever told me about Grandpa Fred dying? Or that Jay had come back to Lodgepole to live?”
“Honey, I did,” my mom said. “Fred passed right after Christmas last year, while you were still on vacation. I didn’t try to call you because you’d warned me you probably wouldn’t have a decent cell signal on that little island where you were going to be. So instead, I clipped Fred’s obituary out of the paper and snail mailed it to you, telling you what had happened, in case you wanted to get in touch with Jay. And I didn’t know until later that Jay was going to stay here, but I figured at that point you’d probably already talked to him and knew.”
Her words troubled me because I knew she wouldn’t ever lie to me and that she must have done what she said.
“Why didn’t you email me the link instead of using snail mail?” I kept my voice light because I didn’t want her to think I was mad at her. I was honestly curious because she’d sent me links to things many times, both in email and text, so it was weird she’d used regular mail.
“I would have, but the obituary wasn’t online anywhere. Jay only ran it in the local paper and they don’t have an e-version. I take it from your question you didn’t get my letter?”
“Unfortunately, no. I had no idea about his grandpa until I ran into Jay yesterday and we had lunch.”
Mom patted my arm. “Oh, honey, I’m so sorry. I promise I sent it.”
“It’s okay, it’s not your fault. It probably got lost in the mail.”
But as I said the words, I had an even more troubling thought. After my conversation with Maddy last night, and Emma’s suspicion that Shane didn’t like my family, I suddenly wondered if maybe the envelope had arrived, but Shane had never given it to me. He was often the one who picked up the mail from our box in the lobby of our apartment building. He could have seen it, noticed it was from Colorado, and tossed it.
On the other hand, Shane was an asshole, but I couldn’t fathom why he would do something like that. It was more likely that if it did arrive, it had been accidentally thrown away.
At least I knew now that my mom had tried to let me know about Grandpa Fred, and that made me feel a little better.
After my folks had gone to work, I sucked it up and called Kevin.
To say he was less than thrilled to talk to me would probably be an understatement, but it was time to start mending fences with him. As Maddy had said, it might take time because he could be a stubborn butt, but I was determined. And there was no better time than the present. And, hey, he actually answered the phone instead of ignoring me completely, so that was a plus.
“What do you want, Hunter?”
“Are you free for lunch?” Because we needed to do this face to face, not over the phone.
“No, I’ll be on shift.”
“Okay. Well, Maddy told me last night that your four-days-on ends today and you’ll have the next three off. So let’s do it tomorrow. One o’clock at Sadie’s Cafe. The lunch rush should be mostly over by then.” I used my bossy big brother tone and didn’t phrase it as a question.
I could almost hear him stewing, could imagine the way he was probably clenching his jaw as he tended to do when he was up against a wall and pissed about it. But then he released a loud, slow breath. “Fine.”
“Good. Have a great day today, bro. And I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Yeah. Okay,” he said grudgingly.
I wasn’t exactly jumping for joy about what would no doubt be another confrontation with him, but I also knew my brother well, and it sometimes took a good long session of letting him talk out his anger and frustration. Usually, though, once he got it out in the open and had sufficient time to work through it, he’d ease up and be ready to listen. That’s what I was counting on. Because I definitely had some apologizing to do.
When I’d gotten off the phone with him, I called Ariel. We discussed a few cases we were working on, then I spent the next couple of hours drafting a letter of intent for one client and a non-compete agreement and the paperwork for the transfer of intellectual property licenses for another.
I’d just finished and was heading downstairs to make a sandwich when Emma called to see how I was doing.
All things considered, I was certainly better than I’d been last time she’d seen me, and I told her as much. Being in Colorado was definitely helping ease the completely gutted ache I’d had a few days ago in New York.
“Have you heard from the douchebag at all?” she asked.
“Not a peep.”
“That surprises me.”
“Why? I told you I didn’t think I would.”
“Oh, I still think you will eventually. I suspect after a few days have passed and he realizes you’re not going to come crawling home, he’s going to start pestering you.”
“I’m sure he’s too busy banging his CEO to give a shit.”
“I don’t. Because if nothing else, having you gone is an inconvenience for him. Both professionally and personally. He’s not going to put up with that for long.”
“Well, he can bite me. I hope I’m inconveniencing the hell out of him right now. It’s a small price to pay for being a cheating dickhead.”
“That’s the spirit!” I could imagine Emma’s grinning face right now and the flash of approval in her eyes. “So, what are you doing to stay out of trouble in Colorado?”
“Hanging with my folks. Got a massage from my sister-in-law yesterday. Also, I found out Jay’s living here again.”
I’d forgotten Emma had called him that, and it made me smile because, oh yeah, he really did have a sexy voice. “The one and only. I ran into him yesterday by pure accident and we ended up having lunch. I had no idea he was here. His grandpa died a year ago and left him everything.”
“Aw, I’m sorry to hear about his grandfather. I remember they were close, weren’t they?”
“Very. Jay said he couldn’t bear to part with his grandpa’s house or the tree farm, so he left Seattle, where he’d still been living, and moved back here last January.”
“So he’s running the tree farm now? Wasn’t he a graphic artist?”
“Yes and yes. I’m not sure if he gave up the graphic design to run the farm or if he’s juggling both. It didn’t really come up in our conversation yesterday.”
“Are you going to see him again?”
“Yep, I’m going over to his place for dinner tonight, where, by the way, I’m going to remind him that you call him ‘sexy-voice Jay.’”
Her lilting laugh was the balm I needed after thinking about Shane earlier. “Well, it fits,” she said, “He is sexy, and a complete sweetheart. I’m glad you have a date with him tonight.”
“It’s not a date. We’re just hanging out. Why would you even think that? That it was a date?”
“I…guess because when I was there that time I could have sworn there was something more between the two of you, or at least that there had been at some point.”
“What? No. He’s my oldest friend, not to mention he’s straight.”
“Really?” She sounded genuinely surprised, which surprised me.
“Yeah, really. Again I say, why in the world would you think otherwise?”
“It was just the way you guys vibed me. I know you’ve been friends forever, but there was something about the way the two of you looked at each other.”
The way we looked at each other?
I had always struggled to not look at Jay in that way, and I thought I’d been pretty successful at never letting anyone see it. But up until Maddy’s revelation last night, I’d had no idea Jay had ever been looking back. I’d wanted to disbelieve Maddy, but now with Emma saying something similar…
“Well, we’re just friends,” I said, needing desperately to put an end to this particular conversation before my brain decided to latch onto it too hard. I had far too much on my plate at the moment, both emotionally and professionally, to start obsessing over this.
“Hmm. Okay. Well…then I hope you have a good platonic dinner.” Why did I feel like there was a hint of humor in her tone?
“We will. Thanks.”
“All right, I’ve got to get back to work. I was supposed to be in a meeting five minutes ago. But I’m here if you need me, okay?”
“I know. Thanks, Em. Say hi to Nate and give Jackson a hug for me.”
She chuckled. “See, I knew you liked kids!”
At my soft snort of denial, she only laughed harder. “You’re such a softie, Hunter. One day I suspect you’re going to have a passel of kids of your own and you’re going to be an amazing dad.”
“Given my current circumstances, I hardly think that’s likely.”
“You never know. First, though, you have to find the right man. But I have a feeling he’s closer than you realize.”
Again her words held a hint of humor in them, and immediately an image of Jay’s smile popped into my head.
I got to Jay’s a couple of minutes before six, carrying a six-pack of beer and a bottle of wine in a brown paper bag from Rusty’s Liquor Shack, which was, literally, a shack on the side of the road that had been there for twenty years. Rusty was pushing seventy at this point, but was still as chatty as ever, and it had been hard to get away from him and be on time.
As I stood on the front porch of the two-story log and stone house Grandpa Fred had built before Jay and I were born, I felt that damn flutter in my belly again. It had been there all afternoon, thanks to my conversation with Emma.
When I rang the doorbell, Jay opened the door almost immediately, a smile on his face. Which only made the flutter worse. Once again I felt like a teenager, except with the maturity and knowledge of a thirty-three-year old man who’d been around the block a time or two and knew this wasn’t about lust like it would have been as a teenager. No, this was something else…something that ran deeper and had grown over twenty-plus years. It was both strangely comforting and terrifying, and I felt its pull like a powerful magnet. A magnet I was trying damn hard to ignore but found it increasingly difficult to do so.
“Hey there, come on in,” Jay said.
“Thanks. Here, I brought these. I wasn’t sure which would be appropriate, so I figured I’d get both and we’d sort it out later.”
“Or maybe we’ll just drink it all,” Jay said, still smiling as he took the bag and looked down into it.
“Always an option.”
“After you eat my cooking, you might be glad you have that option. Drunken oblivion could be a good thing, to help you forget.”
I laughed as I hung my coat on the pine coatrack inside the front door, then untied and toed off my snowy boots. I followed Jay across the hardwood floor into the big eat-in kitchen, where I was immediately bombarded by the nostalgic smells of fried chicken and apple pie. Nostalgic, because the house had often smelled of good things to eat back in Grandpa Fred’s day.
I stood for a moment, savoring the scents, and taking in the familiar black-granite countertops and oak cabinets Grandpa Fred had built himself. This room had always been warm and inviting, and I’d shared many happy dinners here, eating at the round oak table with Jay and his grandfather. From the looks of it, in spite of Jay’s dire warnings about his culinary skills, he’d made one of Grandpa Fred’s favorites tonight, and from the delicious smell, he’d done a damn fine job of it.
“And you said you couldn’t cook.”
He shrugged, looking sheepish. “Enjoy it because this is pretty much the beginning and end of my repertoire. After this, grilled cheese sandwiches, pasta with jar spaghetti sauce, along with an occasional hamburger on the grill are my staples. Not exactly worthy of Manhattan cuisine, I’m afraid.”
He sounded genuinely apologetic, which bothered me.
“You know what?” I said in a serious voice. “I’d a thousand times rather be here, eating anything with you, even a bowl of cereal, than back in the city in some fancy restaurant.”
The words hung between us for several moments as we stared at one another and I could almost swear I heard his heart beating as fast as mine was.
And then he smiled sweetly and said, “For what it’s worth, I’m glad you’re here.”
“So am I.”
The spell had broken, but an easy closeness remained in its place.
“It’ll be a little while until dinner’s ready. You want to open the wine you brought? Or would you rather start with the beer?”
“Wine’s good. Cork screw?”
He pulled one out of a drawer and handed it to me, and while I opened the bottle, he took two glasses down from the cupboard.
A few minutes later, wineglass in hand, I wandered into the living room, while Jay checked on something in the oven.
Like the kitchen, the living/family room had always been cozy and inviting. Tonight, a cheery fire burned in the stone fireplace, snapping and crackling, and Jay had put up a freshly cut Christmas tree in front of the big window that looked out over the yard. Grandpa Fred’s eclectic collection of ornaments covered it—some he’d made in his woodshop, some he’d bought from other artisans, some he’d treasured from his early married years when Jay’s grandma was still alive.
Under the tree, a large black and white tuxedo cat lay curled up and snoozing. It opened its eyes to briefly scope me out, then stretched and went back to sleep.
I chuckled. “Nice to meet you, too, kitty. Sorry I’m not more interesting and worthier of interrupting your nap.”
As I looked around, I noticed several changes to the decor since my last visit, which, admittedly, had been a long time ago. The comfortable-looking, distressed-leather sofa and matching arm chair and ottoman were new, as was the huge flat-screen TV mounted on the wall. I suspected both were additions Jay had made after he’d moved here, since the previous TV had been a heavy, clunky 1990s model. And Grandpa Fred’s couches had been even older. He’d believed in getting as much value as possible out of his purchases. I remembered him saying that often. As Jay had mentioned yesterday, he’d always taken good care of his things, but, sometimes, he’d hung onto items that were well past their prime and begged to be upgraded. Like his old truck. Hard to believe he’d still been driving it up until a year ago.
Old TVs, furniture, and trucks aside, I’d spent a lot of time in this house over the years and had always loved it. Jay had never known his father, who’d taken off before he was born, which was why Jay had the same last name as his grandfather, Marshall, since it had still been his mom’s name as well. When Jay and his mom first moved to Lodgepole, when we were in fourth grade, they’d lived with Grandpa Fred for almost two years. So whenever I’d visited him during that time, it had been here.
And then Jay’s mom had met Russell Halliwell. She and Jay had moved in with Russell within a matter of weeks, and she’d married him a couple months later.
Russell had been, and probably still was, a mean, bigoted, hard-drinking, controlling motherfucker. There just wasn’t any other nice way to phrase it. For some reason that had always eluded me, Renee, Jay’s mother, had fallen for him and his bullshit, and from the moment she and Jay moved in with him, she’d put Russell and his needs ahead of anyone and anything else, including Jay. Whatever Russell said had been the law, and whatever Russell wanted, he got. Even if it meant Jay had to share half my lunch at school because his mom didn’t have any grocery money because Russell had just bought a big new hunting trailer, or yet another gun, or a new four-wheeler, or fill in the blank with whatever else a selfish, backwoods, low-life asshole might require.
More disturbing, though… Jay had come to school a few times over the years with odd bruises that he’d always explained away by some “accident” he’d had—a fall or a run-in with a door or something. But I’d always wondered if Russell had been the real cause, even though Jay had never admitted it.
Needless to say, Jay’s home life had pretty much sucked after Russell entered the picture. But the one good thing was that his mom and Russell liked to have time to themselves, including every weekend. So Jay sometimes stayed with Grandpa Fred on random weeknights, but always stayed here from Friday after school until Monday morning. Because Grandpa Fred was awesome, I’d often be invited to stay over for the weekend with Jay, or Jay would get to come to my house. That went on until we’d graduated from high school and I went off to college on the east coast and Jay left for art school on the west coast. His mom and Russell never condoned him going to college, and certainly would never have paid for it. But I remember Grandpa Fred had put down his foot and picked up the tab for Jay’s school against Renee and Russell’s wishes. There’d been a huge to-do about it, but in the end, Jay had gone.
Damn, but I’d missed him so much that first year of college. We’d still talked quite a bit, mostly through email and occasional phone calls, which had eased the separation. But I’d been so happy when the fall semester ended and I could come home and see him while we were both on break. Going back to school again in January that year had been particularly hard.
And then…as time passed and we got busier with our classes and college life, as the first year of college faded into the second and the third, we’d talked less and less. Junior year we saw each other over holiday break, but the next summer neither of us came home since we each had jobs on our respective coasts. After that, we only saw each other sporadically, like the summer I’d visited with Emma while Jay happened to be here at the same time.
Jay’s mom and Russell had moved away by then. I’d never heard the exact story of what happened, but I knew they’d had some kind of huge falling out with Grandpa Fred. A few days later, they’d packed up everything they owned into a U-Haul and left town. I wasn’t even sure if Jay knew where they were, or if he even cared. Frankly, I was glad for him they were gone.
My gaze slid across to the glass French doors that led into the windowed sunroom. A floor lamp lit the space, and something caught my eye.
The doors stood open, so I passed through them and crossed over to what had been illuminated by the lamp.
“A penny for your thoughts,” Jay said from behind me.
“Jay. This is incredible.” And then a smile curved my lips as I turned to face him. “You’re painting again.”
He smiled. “Yeah.”
“Last time I saw you, you said you’d given it up because you didn’t have time. You were too busy doing digital work.”
“I was. Then. Funny thing, though, when you move back to small town mountain life. Suddenly, you find yourself with much more time on your hands. Especially in the off-season when you run what’s predominantly a Christmas tree farm.”
He stepped up beside me and both of us studied the painting on the easel.
The oil landscape in progress was already gorgeous—aspen trees in the fall, in blazing shades of gold and orange that were breathtaking.
“Where is this?” It looked familiar.
“Down near Crested Butte,” I said, remembering. “I knew it looked familiar. We went there the summer after we graduated from high school and camped for a few days. It ended up being our favorite spot on that trip.”
“Mm-hmm. It’s still beautiful. I took a road trip with my camera this past September and came away with some pretty decent photos.” He pointed to a picture taped to the top of the easel. “I’ve enlarged a few and framed them, but this one begged to be painted.”
“I’m completely blown away. You’ve always been good, but this is just… I don’t even have words.” I looked at him. “Please tell me you’re showing your work somewhere?”
He nodded, a faint blush creeping up his bearded cheeks. “A couple of galleries here in Lodgepole have some paintings and photographs. I sell one every now and then. I’ve been thinking about putting up a website and listing some there as well.”
“Do it. More people in the world deserve to see your work.” My gaze stole back to the painting for a moment and I shook my head. “This is beyond beautiful.”
“Thanks. But I kinda think you might be biased.”
When I looked at him again, he was still flushed, and the sight was almost as breathtaking as the painting.
“Of course I’m biased. But that doesn’t change the fact you’ve got mad talent.”
That blush was going to kill me. So was the grateful expression in his blue eyes. God, I wanted to reach out and touch him right now. It took all my willpower not to. “You’re amazing,” I said softly.
“And you’re good for my ego,” he said, his voice equally quiet.
For a moment I had the oddest feeling he wanted to reach out to me, too. We stood there, frozen in time, much as we had been in the kitchen earlier. But then he cleared his throat and took a step back. “Um…dinner’s finished if you’re ready to eat.”
We smiled at each other, then he turned, and I followed him into the kitchen, where we set the table together and I poured more wine.
As we worked side by side, I was struck again by how damned good it felt to be with him. And I wondered if maybe there really was something to Maddy’s and Emma’s observations. Was is possible?
But then a flicker of pain crept through my gut, reminding me of the mess I’d left behind in New York, and the fact I had no business even thinking about Jay in any way except as my friend. Even if, on the slight chance, there might be something here, my life was a complete clusterfuck at the moment. I needed to be focusing on how to fix that, not wishing for the fulfillment of an elusive, decades-old pipe dream.
Between eating the food, which was just as excellent as it had always been when Grandpa Fred cooked it, and the good conversation that ranged over everything from music, to books, to movies and TV shows, to a weird segue into water rights along the Colorado River, we managed to finish off the rest of the bottle of wine. I think a part of me was hoping the alcohol would dull at least a little bit of the longing that had filled me each time I’d looked at Jay since I’d walked in the door tonight.
After we’d eaten pie and cleaned up the kitchen, we moved to the sofa in the living room.
The cat promptly jumped off the back of the couch, where it had migrated sometime during dinner, and curled up purring in my lap as I stroked it.
Jay shook his head and smiled. “You’ve always been an animal magnet. That’s Hazel, by the way. She started coming around last winter after I moved here and I couldn’t bear to leave her out in the cold. So now she lives here, too.”
“Hi, Hazel,” I murmured.
She opened her eyes and looked at me before she rolled over onto her back and let me scritch her belly.
“She’s letting you rub her belly already?” Jay groaned. “Why do I have a feeling I’m never going to be enough for her after this? She’s going to want you and only you. I guess that means you’re going to have to spend a lot more time here while you’re in town.”
When I glanced up at him with a retort on my tongue, his teasing but-oh-so-serious gaze pulled me up short. Again.
“Is that code for, ‘Hunter, I want you to spend time here but I’m going to pretend it’s for the cat?” I finally managed to get out in a husky voice.
“Maybe,” he admitted with a smile that was far too sexy and…oh hell yeah, there was no mistaking it this time…it was definitely flirty. I felt my heart begin to race again.
But as he’d done earlier, he was the one who pulled back. In this case, by picking up the remote and turning his focus to the TV on the wall.
“What shall we watch?” he asked.
It took me several beats to rein in both my physical response to him and my emotions. I had no idea what had changed or when, but Maddy was right. This was not how “just” friends looked at and reacted to one another.
Of course, if I were being completely honest, I couldn’t pretend Jay had ever been “just” a friend to me. I’d tried. God knows I’d tried. For years I’d held my secret close because, as I’d told Maddy last night, I truly hadn’t ever wanted to make Jay uncomfortable. But I’d also always had an underlying fear that if he found out his best friend had a huge, secret crush on him, it might damage or, worse, end our friendship. And so I’d pushed all those feelings to the back of my mind and heart as best I could. And, for a while, while we’d been apart, those old feelings had faded into a faintly remembered haze. But from the moment I’d laid eyes on him yesterday, heard his voice, I’d been lost all over again. Except now…I knew I hadn’t imagined him looking back at me the same way.
What it all meant, though, I had no idea. And I decided I wasn’t quite ready to delve into that conversation with him. So, instead, I concentrated on simply enjoying his company.
After some discussion and a fair amount of teasing back and forth, we ended up streaming the live action Power Rangers movie that had come out a couple of years earlier. “We owe it to our ten-year-old selves to see it,” Jay said.
It was totally teenybopper camp, and, when it was over, I wasn’t the least bit embarrassed to admit that I’d kinda loved it. Jay laughed at me, but then confessed he’d enjoyed it, too.
“Still, I can’t believe we just did that,” he said, muting the volume on the TV.
“It was your idea.”
“I was joking! Sort of.”
“Well, now it’s done. We’ve been there and conquered it. There’s no going back.”
“Yeah, but we have to make a pact that we will never tell anyone we watched it, much less that we actually liked it.”
“Why? Are you afraid some little asshole bully is going to try to beat us up again over it? If so, I hate to break it to you, but I think we could hold our own in a fight these days.”
“Hell, we held our own when we were ten,” he said. “He might have thrown the first punch, but Kenny Daniels did not come out on top in that fight.”
“No,” I said with a grin. “No, he did not. Wonder what ever happened to him? He moved away after middle school. After he got kicked out for vandalizing the principal’s office and stealing the day’s take of lunch money.”
“You should ask Maddy. She seems to know everything about anyone who ever went to school here.”
Jay rose as he spoke and went to the kitchen. I could see and hear him through the archway as he opened and shut the refrigerator. He returned with two bottles of beer. He handed one to me as he sank back down onto the broad leather sofa next to me.
“Thanks.” I twisted off the top and took a swallow, while he did the same. Hazel still lay on my lap. She took a long, purring stretch, then curled into a ball in pretty much the same spot she’d been for the last couple of hours.
Jay just shook his head and rolled his eyes.
We were sitting with our sock feet atop the wood and slate coffee table—another treasure built by Grandpa Fred long ago. I was glad Jay had hung onto it. I’d always admired the craftsmanship, long before I even knew what craftsmanship actually was.
“Now what are you thinking?” Jay asked.
“I was thinking I’m glad you kept the coffee table when you refurnished. I’ve always liked it. I’m assuming the redecorating was your doing, and the sofa, chair, and TV are new?”
“Oh yeah. They were pretty much a necessity. You know how ancient those plaid couches Grandpa had were even when we were young. And I have no clue how he’d still been watching that old, grainy TV. Man, a few days of that and I thought I was going to go blind.”
“We’re pretty much spoiled now with HD,” I agreed, leaning forward to set my beer on the coffee table. “I remember when Grandpa Fred got that TV, though. It was big excitement because he also got his first VCR at the same time.”
Jay laughed, the fingers of one hand stroking the neck of his beer bottle, while he reached over to scratch Hazel behind the ears with the others. “He thought he was really stepping into the new world, in spite of the fact VHS had been popular for more than a decade already.”
“Hey, it was new to him, and he loved it. He used to watch movies with us all the time, remember? Most kids have to beg adults to watch with them, but he was the opposite, begging us.”
“He could’ve bought stock in that little video rental store that used to be on High Street,” Jay said. “We used to stop there every Friday after he picked me up from school and get a weekend’s worth of rentals.”
“His favorite was Crocodile Dundee,” I remembered. “We must have seen it ten times with him.”
“Oh yeah, at least. Enough he had it memorized and used that Mick Dundee voice all the time.”
We were both chuckling now at the memory, until Jay suddenly stopped and dragged in a breath.
“God, I miss him so much sometimes, Hunter. I swear some nights I can almost hear him talking. I can hear his footsteps across the wood floors. One day this past summer I could have sworn I heard his table saw out in the shop. Of course I didn’t really. I think I just wanted to hear it, wanted to know he was out there, working on his latest project, and none of the bad stuff had happened.”
I angled toward him on the couch, my throat tight with emotion in reaction to his grief. “I’m so sorry you had to go through that alone. I asked my parents why they hadn’t told me when Grandpa Fred died. My mom said she tried. I was out of the country when it happened, so instead of calling or texting me, she snail mailed me the obituary out of the paper. But I never got it, so I didn’t know. And I hate that. I should have been here for you.”
“You’re here now. And that means a lot.”
Without thinking, I reached out and brushed my knuckles over his cheek. As soon as I made contact, though, I realized what I was doing. I curled my fingers into my palm and pulled back. “Sorry. I’m sorry,” I said quickly. “I shouldn’t have—”
Unexpectedly, Jay captured my hand and wound his fingers around it. “Don’t apologize. You don’t need to apologize for anything.”
His thumb traced circles on my palm, igniting a slow-burning fire in my veins. God help me. If he kept doing that…
A troubled look suddenly passed over his face. “Honestly, I’m the one who should be apologizing.” He let go of my hand far too suddenly, and, as I had yesterday, I felt the loss with a sharp pang deep inside me.
“Why would you think you need to apologize for anything?”
“Because, your whole world just got upended last week. Because ever since I ran into you yesterday, I’ve been selfish as hell with your time and attention—”
I started to interrupt, but he continued, cutting me off before I could even start.
“—Because I can’t seem to hold back a crap-ton of old emotion that I’m not sure I have any right to feel.” He sighed, even as my whole body seemed to vibrate at his words. “But, mostly, because I keep almost acting on that emotion, even though it’s completely inappropriate timing.” He shook his head. “Some friend I am.”
I stared at him, trying to make sense of what he’d just said, but all I could fixate on was the part about him “almost acting on those emotions.” Damn, was it really possible?
“You are now and always have been the best of best friends,” I managed to say. “But I am…” I bit my lip, wondering if I should go there. In the end, I had to know. “Well, I confess, I’m kind of confused. I hear the words you’re saying, but I’m not sure I know what you mean by them.”
He nodded, and his expression grew even more apologetic. “Probably because I’m going about this completely backwards.” He scuffed a hand over his face. “I’m sorry about that, too.”
“Don’t be sorry. Explain it to me. Please. I’ve been kind of thrown off balance by some of the looks you’ve given me and comments you’ve made the past two days. Is there…? It’s just that I…I thought I knew certain things about you, but now…”
His warm, blue-eyed gaze locked with mine. “Now you’re wondering if your straight best friend is actually straight?”