Hometown Hearts by M.L. Rhodes
Copyright 2018 by M.L. Rhodes, All Rights Reserved
When I got back to my parents’ house, they were already in bed. I could tell because the Christmas tree lights and the light over the kitchen sink were the only ones on in the house. I tried to be as quiet as I could, but Raleigh, bless his old heart, still gave one gruff “Woof!” from his bed in front of the fireplace, and Loki came skidding into the front hall with a couple of whiny yips. I scratched Loki as I bent to take off my boots, then went to the living room to give Raleigh some loves. Which, of course, Loki was jealous over, so he wallowed all over the top of Raleigh, begging for extra, then wiggled with joy when he got what he wanted. The new little one, Iggy, slept in my parents’ bedroom at night, otherwise I was sure she’d be here, too.
“You guys are exactly what I needed right now,” I said, smiling. I sprawled on my back on the rug with them, giving them as much attention as they wanted, letting the simple joy of snuggling with them seep into me.
I’d missed having a dog so much. Our apartment building in the city didn’t allow them, but even if it had, it wouldn’t have been fair to have any pets because of the long hours Shane and I worked. Still, a part of me had always kind of hated coming back to the apartment at the end of a long day. Having a pet would have helped make it feel more like home. Because it never really had felt that way. Not like real home.
Interesting that I’d been struck by the same thought while I stayed with Emma. Mine and Shane’s apartment certainly hadn’t ever been cozy and comfortable the way this house was, or Jay’s, or Emma and Nate’s. There’d never been any homemade quilts thrown across the backs of couches, or a pile of shoes inside the front door, or magnets on the refrigerator. Silly little things that added a lived-in feeling to a house. No, our place had always been tidy and put together. We weren’t there that much, we ate out a lot, usually with clients, and we had a service that came in once a week to clean up what little disruption we’d created.
Sterile, was maybe the best word to describe it.
No…not that exactly. Probably more like designer chic with no heart. Like the photos you’d find of display houses and lofts inside an architectural magazine. Elegant and beautiful to look at, but with no real-world warmth to them. Shane had always liked it that way—it makes for a great image, he’d said—and I’d gone along with it. Now I had to wonder why I had. Why hadn’t I said, “No, damn it, I want to leave my shoes under the coffee table. Hell, I want to actually set my coffee on the coffee table, and leave the book I’m reading next to it, and, by the way, I’m putting a photo of my brother and me, and another of my sweet dog that died, on top of the bookshelf because it reminds me of home.” But I hadn’t. There’d been no stray shoes. No casual coffee mugs or paperback novels sitting around, and all my photos had either been in albums or tucked away in drawers.
And as far as holidays went, Shane and I had never even bothered putting up a Christmas tree the whole time we were together. I’d been spouting the, “Christmas is too commercial, blah, blah” hype for the last few years, but lying here on the floor, looking up through the branches of my parents’ tree, with the colored lights shining on the ornaments they’d collected through their thirty-six-year marriage…there was something fundamentally peaceful and fulfilling about it. Jay’s tree had given me the same feeling, reminding me of so many good holidays, with delicious food, great conversations and laughter, and being together with the people I cared about. I knew the holidays didn’t elicit the same warm fuzzy feeling in everyone, and some people had legitimate reasons to dread them. But I’d been lucky enough to have a close family and good friends, so my memories were mostly happy ones.
Why then had I gone all bah humbug the last few years? Why had I forgotten, or at least neglected, all the good memories?
The knot churned in my gut as I admitted to myself the source of my discontent.
How, and more importantly, why had I let him so influence me? Yes, Shane had probably done his part to steer me in other directions—hearing it from both Emma and Maddy had convinced me of that. But I hadn’t exactly put up any arguments. I’d let myself drift away from my family as I got caught up in the life of a hot-shit corporate attorney, and surrounded myself twenty-four-seven with people who only dined at the finest restaurants, belonged to the best clubs, flashed money around like it was water, and who had no interest in how anyone outside their financial niche lived or the struggles they had to go through. The “little people,” which was a term one of our clients used frequently, weren’t on our radar. Everything we did was about closing the next deal, and the next, and the next, as long as each one was bigger, more prestigious, or brought in more cash.
I had to credit Emma for helping keep me grounded the first few years I’d practiced law. She’d actually worked at a firm right around the corner from mine, so we’d stayed close after law school, had often done lunch or dinner or coffee together, talked over all our work gripes, comforted each other through the ups and downs of our romantic lives. Shane had started working at Stanley Crawford & Mills about a year after I did, and that’s where we’d first hatched our plan to start our own firm. But until we did, Emma had been my go-to friend and confidante. When she and Nate moved to the Bronx, I’d missed seeing her almost every day. But shortly thereafter, Shane and I took the leap to start our own partnership, and everything in my life had changed.
It had been a huge gamble to break out on our own so early in our careers, but we’d both chafed at the “rules” and the good ol’ boys’ clubs that were at the heart of most lucrative and established firms. Neither of us had wanted to jump through the hoops of grunt work, slowly making our way up the food chain, and maybe, if we were really, really lucky, becoming full partners in a firm ten, fifteen, twenty years later. We had big dreams and we’d wanted to go after them our way. We’d worked our asses off, too, putting all our energy into building our client base, and after the first year, things had really begun to pick up.
But as we grew busier and closer, I saw Emma less and less, and…
Damn. I’d done the same thing to her I had my family. I’d prioritized work and Shane—because they’d gone hand-in-hand—over everything and everybody else.
I could, and did, blame Shane for a lot of shit. But I couldn’t blame him for this. This had been my doing. The slow, casual, slipping away from the people who had always been my true foundation, as the lure of Manhattan life and monied career grew. It’s not something I’d ever wanted. Not something I’d consciously set out to do because, God knew, I was not in any way ashamed of my family. I was proud as hell of them, all of them. But as I let other shiny distractions entice me, those distractions had inevitably lured me farther from my beating heart.
In a way, I’d let Jay slip away in a similar fashion. Maybe, at the time, it had seemed easier to avoid him in order to protect my heart, as he’d put it tonight. Looking back on it, though, by taking the “easy” route, I’d lost years of a friendship that had meant the world to me. Just as my family had meant the world to me. But rather than make time for them all, it was easier to let things slide, to assume the people in my life would understand and always still be there when I got around to them.
Jay’s grandfather’s sudden death proved you couldn’t always count on that, though. Or Maddy and Kevin’s miscarriages. One minute everything was happy and life was awesome, and then, boom, it was gone. My parents were hale and hearty in their late fifties, but they wouldn’t be around forever. Besides, it just took one accident or one deadly disease, and age didn’t matter. Any of us could be gone tomorrow or next month or next year. And I sure as hell didn’t want regret not having been there for the people I loved.
I had a lot to think about over the next week or so. My time away from Shane was allowing the initial gut-hurt and shock to subside enough I could start thinking in more practical terms of what I wanted to do. One thing was certain, from here on out, my life would involve a lot more time spent with my family.
And with Jay, my heart whispered.
It both hurt and made me a little giddy to think about Jay, to picture his smile, and the heat of his gaze. I knew we’d made the right decision tonight. It was the only practical decision we could make. But damn…to be so close to having an old, beautiful, elusive dream fulfilled and then having the harsh reality of life intrude, again, was torture.
At least I had an excuse to go over there as often as I wanted, so I could work on the bed. In spite of the pang in my heart, I smiled, thinking about Jay saying Hazel the cat would want me to be there all the time.
Yeah, right. The cat.
“Hazel, my new furry friend…I’d give just about anything to be there right now,” I whispered.
Raleigh and Loki each nuzzled my neck in response, and I laughed. “Don’t worry, I wouldn’t forget you guys. You’d still get your snuggles, too. Trust me, I’d love to be here to give you snuggles every day, and I would, if I didn’t have to go back to New York and deal with Douchebag. You met him once, remember, and he was not a very nice person, was he? No,” I said, smooching the dogs. “Not a very nice person at all. And we don’t like people who don’t like doggies, do we? No we don’t. You guys should have come and whispered in my ear when I brought him here and told me what a shithead he is. I would have listened and then we wouldn’t be in this position, would we?”
When the dogs were finally snuggled out and had stretched out on their beds, I was just about to get up and head to bed myself when my phone, in the front pocket of my jeans, vibrated.
Who in the world would be calling me this late? I hadn’t left Jay’s until almost midnight, so it had to be close to one now.
As I fished out my phone, a sudden warm flutter of pleasure came to life in my belly. Maybe Jay was missing me as much as I’d been missing him.
But when I looked at my phone’s notification screen, the flutter turned to a cold knot of dread.
Not Jay. Shane.
I sat up but didn’t answer. I held the phone, my gut churning, and stared at it until the vibration stopped.
But a few seconds later it started again.
No. No, no, no. Just stop.
It did. Until it started again for the third time.
That time, when I still didn’t pick up, Shane left a message.
I didn’t want to listen to it, but I did. Because him calling so late at night didn’t bode well for my peace and sanity.
All he said in the message, in a terse voice, was, “Hunter, you need to call me. It’s urgent.”
My first thought was, Fuck you, Shane. The last thing I wanted to do was call him, no matter how urgent he said it was. It had been almost a week since I’d walked out on him, and he hadn’t tried to get in touch that whole time. So whatever bee he had up his butt, it would have to wait until morning.
But even as I made that decision, I quickly realized if I waited until morning, I’d lie awake all night from anger and anxiety, wondering what he wanted. And then I’d be even less prepared to deal with him. Lack of sleep had never done me any favors and only made it harder to cope with bullshit.
So, even though I loathed the idea of talking to him, I decided it was better to get it over with.
“Asshole,” I said under my breath as I rose from the floor. I pulled my boots and coat back on and slipped out the front door. I didn’t want to disturb my folks by what might turn into a heated phone conversation.
The frigid air hit my exposed cheeks, stinging them, and making me regret my decision to come outside. By the time I trekked across the deck and down the steps to the driveway, I was already shivering.
And then I remembered I still had the Jeep keys in my pocket. I fished them out, unlocked the doors, and slid into the driver’s seat. Then I started the engine so I could get the heat going. I didn’t want the running engine to wake Mom and Dad, but their room was on the back of the house, and with the house windows all closed, I hoped for the best.
With the sick knot churning in my gut, I hit the call button for Shane’s cell.
Please don’t answer, I found myself silently saying over and over.
But he did. On the third ring.
“Hunter, where the hell are you?” he snarled.
Way to go, Shane. Nothing like instantly putting up my hackles.
“Where are you?” I countered. “And why the hell are you calling me at three in the morning?”
It was three A.M. New York time. Only one A.M. here, but I didn’t want him to know where I really was. I’d been careful not to say anything to Ariel when we spoke. Not because I didn’t trust Ariel, but because I didn’t want to put her in a crappy position if Shane demanded she tell him.
“God damn it. Why are you being such a bitchy asshole to me?” he demanded.
“Really? You’re going to call me names? I’m not the one who had Brock Kilgannon’s dick up my ass, so, fuck you, Shane. If this is the reason you called, just fuck you.”
I started to press the disconnect button and hang up on him.
“Wait! Okay, I’m sorry. That wasn’t my best opening. That’s not why I called.”
Grudgingly, I held the phone back to my ear. “All right, why did you call then?”
He dragged in and released a loud breath. “I figured you’d be home by now.”
“I am home.” Damn. The moment the words were out of my mouth I realize what I’d done. So much for stealth.
“You… You’re in Colorado?”
He sounded genuinely surprised, which pissed me off for some reason. Or maybe it was because anything that came out of his mouth right now pissed me off.
“Tell me what you want or I’m hanging up.”
“Okay, fine. God, touchy much?”
“I think I have a right to be, don’t you?”
“Look, I realize I didn’t handle the situation last Friday the best, but if you’ll hear me out, you’ll understand.”
“I understand just fine. I don’t know what world you’re from, but in my world, partners in a committed relationship don’t fuck around with other people. They don’t pretend like everything’s great, then sneak home to have sex with another man in the same bed where they slept only hours before with the aforementioned partner. That’s called betrayal. That’s what you did and there’s no weaseling out of it.”
“That is not the way it happened. Just let me explain!”
“Explain what? Why Brock Kilgannon is your dream man and you just couldn’t resist the sexual allure he presented? Please. He may be marginally good looking, but the man’s got a completely bankrupt moral code.”
“You don’t know him the way I do. The media’s given him a bad rap.”
“Oh my God, you can’t possibly believe that. Kilgannon’s been investigated by the SEC and had the case taken to federal court. Those are public facts. So, please, if you want to explain something, explain what you find remotely appealing about him. Because all I see when I look at his smirking face on the news is a greedy conman. He’s only in the healthcare industry to prey on vulnerable people. How could you ever have let him lay a hand on you?”
“I knew you’d be judgmental. That’s why I didn’t tell you about it ahead of time.”
“Ahead of time? What? Were you going to ask permission to cheat?” Then a lightbulb went off in my mind. “Or…shit. Did you think sleeping with that sleazebag was going to buy us a new wealthy client? That if you whored yourself out to him, he was going to promise you a big retainer so we could be at his beck and call in his sleazebag deals?”
“Damn it, Hunter. If you’d stopped being all offended and yelling at me last Friday night, and given me a chance to explain, you would know it was about us. You and me. I was looking out for us. We’ve brought in some high profile clients over the last few years that have definitely helped our reputation and made us some good money. But this would be a whole new level of prestige for us. The name recognition alone would move us to the top of all kinds of go-to lists for big companies. We’d never have to try to lure in business again; business would come to us. Hell, it would fall into our laps, gift wrapped.”
“Do you even hear yourself, Shane? Yeah, we’d be on the top of all kinds of go-to lists—the lists of attorneys who’re willing to cheat, steal, lie, and be as slimy as the people they represent. That’s not the kind business we need or should ever want. What in hell were you thinking?”
“I don’t know why you’re being such a prude about this. What’s it matter if it earns us name recognition and lots of money?”
“Because it’s fucking wrong. Because it’s disgusting. Because you were cheating on me for greed.”
“It’s not cheating. I told you, I was thinking about us and our future. That’s just smart. Even in law school, everyone knew if you wanted to get the good clerk positions or be top of your class, you played the game. We all did it, so why is it so horrifically offensive to you now?”
Holy shit. Who was this man? Shane had always been driven, but this? When had his ambition become downright mercenary? Or, based on his comments about law school, maybe he’d always been this bad. If that were the case, though, how had I not seen it?
“First of all, that might have been what it was like where you went to school,” I said through gritted teeth, “but I never played any games in law school. Emma and I both graduated in the top two percent of our class, and, funnily enough, neither of us had to sleep with anyone to do it. We got there because we worked our butts off. Just like I’ve worked my butt off for the past five years at Harris & Breckman. And I was damn proud of the fact we ran a classy, honest firm. Now I’m beginning to wonder if it really is. How many other clients have you slept with along the way to bring in business?”
“You’re missing the point,” he said, deflecting and not answering my question. “This is different. This is a whole new league. And all you had to do on Friday was come home, get a little aroused watching us, maybe join in for a few minutes, and then we could have scored big. Do you have any idea how much money Brock Kilgannon’s company earns annually? We’re talking billions of dollars. GallantHealth is a Fortune 500 company. We’d be set for life. But instead you acted like a petulant child.”
My heart had begun to pound again in the same way it had last Friday night, in the distressing, oh-shit-I’m-having-a-heart-attack way. “Say that again?” I whispered.
“Which part. That you acted like a child or we’d be set for life? Hunter, we’d have more money than we knew what to do with.”
“No. The part about me coming home last Friday.”
“You. Me. Brock Kilgannon. Look, I met Brock at the Knicks game last month, when Vellacorp invited us to their suite at the Garden. You were busy and couldn’t go, and Brock was there. We hit it off, and by the end of the night I was pretty sure he could be persuaded to let us join his legal team. He’s into me. Way into me. But he’s seen you around, too, and he likes what he sees. Why shouldn’t he—you’re a helluva hot guy. He wants you, too, Hunter. That’s the deal. He’s married to a woman, but he likes some guy action on the side, and who can blame him? So all it’ll take is the three of us together, one time, and he hires Harris & Breckman to handle his future mergers and acquisitions, of which there will no doubt be many. It’s not too late. He’s willing to try again.”
“You…” Bile rose in my throat, making it hard to get out words. “Let me get this straight,” I rasped. “You told him I’d have sex with him?”
“With both of us. I knew you probably wouldn’t be comfortable with it if I outright asked you, but I figured if—”
“If you tricked me?”
“No! You like watching. Remember that night we went to the club with Xan Draper and his boyfriend? We didn’t know it was a sex club until we were there, but you totally got off on watching. I remember how hot it made you.”
“First of all, that was one time, and it happened like three years ago! I was hot because I was there with you, my partner, and we were watching what basically amounted to porn together. We weren’t having sex with other people, or watching each other have sex with others. We were together.”
“Well, we would have been together on Friday, too. I figured you’d get turned on watching Brock and me and then…you know, you could kiss him and fondle him a little and he’d be satisfied.”
“You fucking pimped me out to him.” I was shaking now, and my words were hoarse, scraping past my tight throat like shards of glass.
“It wasn’t like that.”
“It was exactly that. You were willing to sell me, your own boyfriend who fucking trusted you, to a sleazy piece of shit, for money. That’s the definition of pimp, you dickhead. God, I always knew money and power were important to you. But I never realized just how low you were willing to go to have it.”
“For chrissake, Hunter, stop being so dramatic and think about it!”
“You’re a pig, Shane. And I’m done. This is over. All of it.”
“No. No more listening. Don’t call me again. I’ll be in touch when I have the paperwork drawn up to divide our assets. And until then, if you truly value our firm’s reputation, you will not say a word to our associates and staff. We’ll tell them together once I’m back in New York after the first of the year.”
“You can’t do that. Just decide to end our partnership.”
“I can and I will. And if you so much as a breathe a word about it to any of our staff, or anyone else—clients or other firms—anyone, I’ll know and there’ll be hell to pay. Despite your lack of discretion, we will dissolve this partnership professionally.”
“I won’t let you do th—”
“You don’t get a choice in the matter. You gave up all your rights the moment you let Kilgannon put his hands on you. And trust me, regardless of what you might think, he doesn’t give two shits about you or whether or not you’re a good attorney. He scammed you to get a piece of ass. You are not going to come out of this looking like anything but what you are—a pathetic, greedy little boy who doesn’t know how to stop gobbling all the candy from the candy jar until he vomits. I hope it was worth it.”
I disconnected the call, turned my phone off, and threw it on the passenger seat floor.
Then, my hands shaking, my chest heaving, and my gut churning, I rested my forehead on the steering wheel, and wished with all my heart I could finally cry.