Hometown Hearts by M.L. Rhodes
Copyright 2018 by M.L. Rhodes, All Rights Reserved
We talked for a while longer, the conversation gradually slipping into casual, everyday things. We smiled. We laughed. But underneath it, I couldn’t shake the sadness that had settled over me.
With all the talk of my life being in New York, the thought of returning there left me cold. And not just because of Shane and his cheating bullshit, or my fear of Jay moving on without me. The “life” I’d worked hard to build, as Jay had put it, suddenly didn’t seem nearly as appealing as it always had in the past. I realized how much I’d missed being with the people I truly cared about.
I had to do better in the future. I had to find a balance.
But first, I had to extricate myself from Shane. And I knew he wasn’t going to make that easy.
It grew late and I really needed to head home, even though I didn’t want to.
“Before you leave,” Jay said, “do you have any interest in going out to the woodshop and looking at the last project Grandpa was working on?”
We’d been talking about Grandpa Fred’s furniture he’d made and how over the past several years he’d been selling pieces of it in the old barn at the entrance to the tree farm.
“I thought you might. You’ve always admired his woodworking and enjoyed puttering around in his woodshop with him more than I ever did.”
I smiled, and it was the genuine deal. “I do have fond memories of being out there with him.”
I put my boots on, since I really did need to leave shortly anyway, and Jay slid his feet into a well-worn pair of hiking shoes. We went through the kitchen door into the heated garage where Jay’s truck sat, and then into the connected woodshop. It, too, was heated since Grandpa Fred had built it that way, knowing he’d be working out here in the winter.
As Jay flipped on the light and the overhead fluorescents flickered to life, I paused to draw in a breath of the wonderful scent of fresh lumber. I’d always loved the smell, both from being here, and from working for my dad doing construction during the summers when I was in high school and college. The scent felt like…well…home.
“You have that look on your face,” Jay said.
I opened my eyes—I hadn’t even realized I’d closed them—and smiled at him. “What look?”
He laughed. “That look you’ve always gotten out here, like you just found some kind of nirvana.”
“I love the smell.”
“I know. So you’ve told me a few hundred times in the past.”
“What can I say? Some people like fuzzy blankets or hot chocolate or burning candles. I love the smell of fresh-cut wood. That’s my comfort thing.”
“Which is why I brought you out here. Ever since we talked earlier you’ve been pretty down. You’ve been pretending you’re fine, but I know you’re not. So I thought this might cheer you up.”
“How do you do that? How do you always know?”
“I told you, I’m not sure. I can just read you. Except, apparently, the part where you were crushing on me for years and I didn’t notice that, which kind of obliterates my human lie detector track record.”
His teasing smile, and his directness, not ignoring the elephant in the room, but instead acknowledging it and the fact I really had been down, ignited a spark of warmth in my chest. Jay truly had always been able to read me.
“Well, I think you can be forgiven for missing that one minor detail.”
He snorted. “A potentially life-altering detail, and you call it minor? All right, wise ass, get over here and look at this before I forget all my best intentions and show you up close and personally what I really think of that minor detail.”
Holy crap. The look on his face, part teasing, part sexy as hell, stirred more than a little heat in me, and it was all I could do to drag in a steady breath. “You keep looking at me like that, and I might take you up on it.”
“Promises, promises.” He gave me another sexy grin, before turning away.
The flirting should have made me feel worse, since we’d agreed not to pursue anything beyond friendship, but, oddly, it didn’t. Instead, it somehow made my heart lighter. Damned if I understood why. But at the moment, I just didn’t give a shit. It felt good. And, damn it, didn’t we both deserve to have some happiness in whatever form it took?
Jay pulled back a sheet draped over some wood pieces leaning against the wall, and I stepped in close to him to see them better.
“This is what I really wanted you to see. It’s the headboard of a bed he was working on.” Jay leaned a couple of smaller pieces out of the way to reveal a massive, fully carved headboard.
“Holy shit.” I reverently ran my fingertips over the wood that depicted a forest of pine trees. They were so realistic I almost felt like I could walk among them. “This is gorgeous.”
“That’s what I thought, too. He was showing me some stuff out here before he collapsed that day, and when I saw this I was mind blown. I asked him if it was a commission for someone and he said, no, he was doing it for his own enjoyment.”
“Damn. I’ve always loved his furniture, his attention to detail, and the aesthetic of his designs. But I didn’t even know he did carving. Clearly, artistic talent runs in your family.”
“I didn’t know he carved either. I think it’s something he might have just started venturing into over the last few years because I’ve come across a few smaller pieces—a couple here at the house that were obviously practice pieces, and a couple of nice wall-hangings at the sale barn. But nothing else of this size and magnitude.”
He stroked a hand almost lovingly along the top of the headboard. “I had this idea, last spring, that maybe I’d finish it. The carving looks complete, but the rest of the bed still needs to be built. I actually came out here and looked at it several days in a row, but I just couldn’t bring myself to take any action. I’m not that familiar with the lathe, to turn the legs and posts, and wouldn’t have a clue what to do for the footboard. My mediums are digital and paint, not three-dimensional objects. I realized I didn’t even know where to start and I was afraid of messing it up. It makes me sad to have it sitting here unfinished, though.”
His gaze turned to me. “Would you have any interest in finishing it?”
I sucked in a surprised breath. “Are you serious?”
“Totally. You know what you’re doing out here. And”—he shrugged a shoulder and smiled—“honestly, there’s no one I would trust more. Plus, I think he would have liked for you to.”
“God, I would love to, Jay. I’d be honored to. Thank you.”
“Thank you. And there’s no rush on it. I don’t know how long you’re planning to stay in Colorado on this trip, so if you want to start it now and finish it next time you visit, or…whatever…it’s fine.”
“I’ll be here at least through New Year’s Day,” I said. I hadn’t actually had a timetable when I came home, purposely leaving it open so I could escape sooner rather than later if I wanted. But now, I had no desire to rush back. There was nothing I urgently needed to deal with before the first of the year.
“Well, you know where the spare key is, so if I’m down the road and not here, you can let yourself in any time.”
“Did you have anything in particular in mind for the frame and footboard? Any particular style?”
“No. I trust your judgment completely. You’ve always had a good eye for furniture. Grandpa used to haul you out here all the time to ask your opinion about whatever he was working on because you gave him good, honest feedback. He used to joke about how one day he’d convince you to go into the furniture business with him.”
I chuckled. “I remember. ‘If you ever get bored with law school,’ he’d tell me, ‘you can come built pretty things with me.’ And I’d always tell him, ‘Yeah, well, you’ll have to duke it out with my dad ’cause he’d love for me to come build pretty houses with him.’”
Jay smiled. “What you don’t know is that Grandpa was proud as hell of you becoming an attorney. He used to brag about his ‘boys.’ That’s what he called you and me. His ‘boys,’ the artist and the attorney.”
“Did he know?” I asked.
“About me being bi? Yeah. The boyfriend who dumped me to go back to his old lover…that happened only a month before I came home last Christmas. I was pretty down, and Grandpa noticed. So I sucked it up and told him. He took it in stride and didn’t seem the least bit shocked. On his deathbed I found out why he hadn’t been surprised.” Jay took a hard swallow as he stared at the headboard.
“Why?” I gently probed.
Jay’s gaze rose to meet mine. “He said from the time we were teenagers, he’d always figured you and I would end up together.”
My chest tightened with emotion. Was it possible that Grandpa Fred had seen what Jay and I hadn’t all those long years ago? Had he known each of us was secretly longing for the other? It sounded like he had.
“He was a singularly insightful man,” I murmured.
“Yeah. He really was.”
Once again I found myself wanting to touch Jay. Not just to hold his hand, but to pull him close. To press my lips against the thrumming pulse in his neck, and let my fingers slide through his hair. To breathe in the faint woodsy-spicy scent of him that I’d smelled when we hugged earlier. I wanted it so bad it hurt.
But I didn’t.
As difficult as it was, I dragged in a slow breath, then forced myself to step away, to turn my back to Jay, to cross over to the table saw, then run a hand over the lathe, as if I were checking out the tools available to use rather than trying to put some distance between us before I lost my head. I didn’t know if I was selling the act to him—probably not—but at least I was making the attempt. For both our sakes.
“You know this shop better than I do,” he said from behind me, his voice slightly hoarse.
Yeah, I definitely hadn’t sold my act to him. He felt it, too.
“I’m sure not much has changed over the years,” he continued. “Help yourself to anything. He kept some lumber here, over against that wall. But if you can’t find what you want, feel free to hit the lumber store and charge it to the farm account.”
“Okay.” I finally turned back to face him. “What are you going to do with the bed when I finish it?” I half dreaded the answer because I didn’t want him to say he would sell it.
“I thought I’d keep it and use it. I cleared most of Grandpa’s personal items out of his room last winter and spring, but I haven’t been able to bring myself to move in there yet. I’ve been staying in my old room. But I thought maybe this would be the motivation I need to finally do that. This headboard is for a king-size bed and I wouldn’t be able to fit it anywhere except the master bedroom.”
“Good,” I said.
“I couldn’t bear it if you sold it. This carving is too beautiful for someone else to have. It needs to stay with you. It’s part of your grandpa’s legacy.”
“Well, if you want to finish it, I promise I’ll keep it. And, obviously, I’ll reimburse you for your time.”
“Oh, hell no. Don’t even mention that again. And I mean it,” I said, when he started to protest. “I want to do this. For you. And for Grandpa Fred.”
He gave me another one of those sweet smiles and, guh, my heart squeezed so hard it almost made me dizzy.
Friends. Only friends, I reminded myself.
But my heart knew its own truth—Jay would never be only a friend.