Hometown Hearts by M.L. Rhodes
Copyright 2018 by M.L. Rhodes, All Rights Reserved
Needless to say, I slept like crap.
More accurately, I mostly didn’t sleep. I tossed and turned, and every time I was about to doze off, I’d remember, and then the knot in my gut would grip so hard I’d have to curl into a ball on my side to relieve the ache.
I saw the first light of dawn creep between the window blinds. Heard my parents get up and let the dogs out, heard them talking and laughing quietly as they dressed and ate breakfast. But I couldn’t make myself crawl out of bed and join them. I wasn’t sure I was capable this morning of putting on a smile, or even of speaking at all. Instead, I rolled onto my stomach and buried my head under the pillow, hoping to shut out everything.
It didn’t work. I heard Mom and Dad get into their vehicles and drive off. Heard the ticking of the grandfather clock at the end of the hallway. Heard the snowplow go by on the road, its blade scraping the packed snow and asphalt underneath. Heard the dogs bark at the mail carrier.
I must have finally drifted off out of sheer exhaustion because the next time I opened my eyes, the grandfather clock was chiming ten. For a moment I lay there, wondering why I was still in bed at ten. And then I remembered all over again.
When I finally accepted I wasn’t going to be able to go back to sleep and escape into the oblivion of darkness, I dragged myself up and into the shower.
It wasn’t until I was out, dried off, and dressed that I remembered my phone was still off. I’d brought it in from the Jeep last night, but hadn’t turned it back on. I hadn’t wanted to know if Shane tried to call me again. But in the light of day, I couldn’t keep avoiding it. Continue to ignore Shane, yes. But I couldn’t afford to ignore the rest of the world. If Ariel needed to reach me, or my parents, or—
Oh crap! I was supposed to have lunch with Kevin today. For a panicked moment, in my sleep-fogged and emotionally depleted state, I thought I’d missed it. But a glance at the digital clock on the desk assured me it was only a little after eleven now and I wasn’t meeting him until one.
After the Dumpster fire of a conversation with Shane and the sleepless night, no part of me was prepared to deal with Kevin’s hurt and anger today. But I wasn’t going to cancel. I owed my brother some time and attention, and if that meant shoveling myself out of the house like the steaming pile of shit I felt like, that’s what I’d do.
I turned on my phone and waited as it booted up and asked me for my passcode.
As I’d feared, the notifications were practically spilling off the screen. Shane, Shane, Shane and more Shane. He’d called three times last night after I’d hung up on him, and twice early this morning. Plus I had a couple of texts from him. Another came in as I was holding the phone.
Just the sight and notification sound made my stomach clench. So, unceremoniously, I deleted the texts unread, then did the same to the unheard voicemails.
Once I’d cleaned up the garbage, I felt infinitesimally better. Okay, not really, but there had been a certain satisfaction in hitting the delete key.
Amidst all the Shane crap, I also had a text from my brother.
And a missed call and voicemail from…Jay.
For a second I savored the sight of his name on my screen, and the ever-diabolical knot in my stomach eased just a bit.
I read my brother’s text first, in case it involved our lunch plans. It did, and was blunt and to the point: Got called in to work. Can’t do lunch.
No suggestion for rescheduling.
“Damn it, Kevin, you can’t avoid me forever,” I murmured. I remembered Maddy saying the sheriff’s office was short staffed right now, so I didn’t disbelieve him. I did wonder, though, whether he’d been relieved he wouldn’t have to meet me.
Understood, I typed. Let’s do it tomorrow instead. Same time and place.
I could have been nice and asked instead of telling, or added something pretty like, if it’s convenient for you. But I didn’t, because I had a feeling if I gave him any leeway at all, he’d blow me off the rest of the time I was here and we’d never have the conversation we clearly needed to have.
Now that I wasn’t having lunch with Kevin, though, I wondered what I could do to keep busy. Because having an empty day stretching ahead of me, with far too much time to think, wasn’t going to be good for me.
So I texted my mom. Told her I was sorry I’d missed her and Dad this morning and was there anything around the house that I could do for her today?
She got back to me almost immediately, thanking me, but no. Go do something fun, she said. She also reminded me she and Dad had a Christmas party in Winter Park tonight and wouldn’t be home until late, which meant I’d be on my own for dinner.
The thought of food right now left me nauseated, so no worries there.
Finally, I tapped on my voice mail. I’d saved the best for last.
I played the message from Jay, and his voice—that soft, sexy rumble—immediately soothed my battered heart in a way I couldn’t explain.
“Hey, it’s me. If you have any interest in coming by the house today and working in the shop, I wanted to let you know I cranked up the heat in there a few degrees this morning so it’d be more comfortable for you. The spare house key’s still inside Mr. Bear, and I hope you know to make yourself at home. I’ll be down the road at the tree farm all day, but if you need me, you can call or text me. Okay…” I could almost hear him smiling, which made me smile. “I’d better get to work. Maybe I’ll see you later?”
Was it bad that I replayed the message three times? Hearing Jay’s words, so warm and genuine, made me feel better. And right now, I refused to be ashamed for clinging to anything that gave me comfort.
Also, now I knew what I was going to do with my day.
I took the dogs out into the back yard. Raleigh and Iggy stuck to the shoveled area next to the house, and in spite of her warm sweater and booties, Iggy wanted to be picked up immediately when she was done.
“I know, it’s so cold out here, isn’t it, sweetie?” I murmured to her, snuggling her close.
Loki, meanwhile, bounded through the snow like a crazy guy—he’d always loved it.
Once we were back inside, I gave them all treats and made sure they had fresh water. Then I sent my mom a quick text, telling her I was going to spend the afternoon at Jay’s, and that the dogs were fine and I’d be back to check on them and feed them this evening.
Dad and I will be home around 4:00 to change before we go to our party, so we’ll let them out then. But if you can let them out again and feed them when you get home this evening that would be wonderful. Have a good time, hon. And TAKE COOKIES! Love you!
My mom always made enough Christmas cookies for an army, and I’d noticed she’d baked even more last night. Probably so she’d have plenty to take to their party.
I dutifully piled a stack of them onto a paper plate and covered them with the red holiday plastic wrap sitting on the counter.
The dogs were a little whiny, but after I told them I’d be back in a while and gave them all some extra lovies, Raleigh sank onto his bed with a satisfied huff, and Loki and Iggy jumped onto the couch, where they snuggled into a pile of fuzzy blankets for an afternoon nap.
My parents had a dog camera in the living room that gave a good view of both the living room and kitchen, so they could check in on the dogs whenever they weren’t home with them. I downloaded the app to my phone and logged into their account so I could see the dogs, too.
Then I pulled on my coat and boots again, picked up the cookies in the kitchen, and went out to the Jeep.
When I got to Jay’s, all was quiet. Which I’d expected since he was at work. The tree farm was part of the same land on which the house sat, but to enter the farm, you had to drive another three-fourths of a mile down the road and go through the gate. You could also get there by hiking through the woods, but that wasn’t practical in the winter.
The spare house key had always been hidden in a secret hollowed-out space inside the four-foot tall chainsaw-carved wooden bear next to the garage. Mr. Bear, Grandpa Fred had always called him. I pulled off a glove and reached behind him, to feel for the tiny indentation on his back. When I found it, I slid my fingernails into it and gently tugged. The “invisible” door, that was probably three inches by three inches, opened, and when I reached inside it with my fingertips, I found the cold metal key. Once I had the front door unlocked, I put the key back inside Mr. Bear and pressed his secret door shut again.
The warmth of the house was a welcome change from the bitter cold outside. We’d had no new snow since last night, but the temperature had been steadily dropping. According to the radio, it was only twelve degrees, with an expected low tonight below zero.
In the meantime, though, Jay’s house was cozy.
Hazel came to say hello as I was taking off my coat, winding around my legs and purring until I bent to pet her. Once she’d had her fill, she disappeared into the living room. After I set the cookies on the kitchen counter and headed toward the door into the garage that led to the woodshop, my phone vibrated in my pocket and my text chime sounded.
Hearing my phone set off the ugly clenching sensation in my gut again.
Please let it be Jay. Let it be Mom, Ariel, anybody but Shane.
Of course I wasn’t that lucky.
Once again I hit delete without reading Shane’s text. The brief invasion of his bullshit tainted my pleasure at being here, and that pissed me off. Damn the selfish bastard.
I went on out to the woodshop, hoping getting busy out there would help mute the nagging voice in my head and the crushing anxiety in my gut that wanted to know why Shane was trying so desperately hard to reach me today. God, what if he’d mouthed off to our staff after I’d explicitly told him not to? Or what if he was badmouthing me to clients, or trying to sway them so they’d stay with him and not with me when I left? Although, legally, he couldn’t actually do that. But at this point, I had zero trust for his rational decision-making skills.
Shut it out. Shut him out and breathe, I ordered myself.
So I did. The breathing part anyway. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath of the sawdust and lumber-scented air. As it had last night, it created a comforting nostalgia in me. And then I remembered Jay commenting on my love for it, and remembered seeing his smile as he said it, and that comforted me even more.
The woodshop was nearly as warm as the inside of the house, thanks to Jay’s forethought this morning, and I was comfortable in only my thermal shirt and hoodie as I pulled back the sheet covering the carved headboard.
Once again I couldn’t help but admire it. I could almost feel Grandpa Fred’s spirit in it, which sparked all kinds of ideas in my head for the perfect frame and footboard that would set off the carving’s beauty.
Over the next couple of hours I shifted wood around in the lumber pile to see what I could use, and started a handwritten list of what I still needed.
During that time, Shane texted me twice more, as if he were determined to destroy any sense of peace I might be able to scrape up today. Damn him. Why? After days of quiet from him, why couldn’t he just leave me alone now? I’d said all I had to say last night and the thought of engaging with him again, in any way, made me both sick and furious.
Stop! Stop thinking about him and letting him ruin your day.
Sadly, that was easier said than done. Even as I worked, even when he wasn’t texting me, I couldn’t seem to stop playing our conversation last night over and over in my head. I wanted to. Desperately. But I kept hearing him so casually say that Brock Killgannon “likes what he sees” and “why shouldn’t he—you’re a helluva hot guy,” like I was piece of meat being inspected and sold at market.
I dragged a hand through my hair and took a shaking breath, then slowly released it.
Finally, knowing I couldn’t really do anything else here until I picked up the rest of the supplies I needed, I glanced up at the vintage gas station clock that had hung above the big workbench for as long as I could remember. It was only a couple minutes after two o’clock. I had time to run to the lumber store. And that was probably a good thing since it would force me to interact with people and get me out of my head for a while.
Not to be confused with Dale’s Hardware in town, where I’d gone for ice-melt salt, and where you could find anything from tools to plants to candles to pots and pans, Lodgepole Lumber was a much bigger place and sat on the edge of town. It had been there all my life and my dad had always used them as his building supplier. He’d been worried for years, though, that one day they’d get pushed out of business by Home Depot or Lowe’s, as had happened to many other independently owned lumber stores in Colorado. But so far the big stores had ignored our little town, and the LL (what my dad and most people in town called it) was still hanging on.
When I parked and went inside, I was pleased to see how busy they were. It gave me hope there was still a place for local businesses in a world of corporate chains. Which was kind of ironic since I made my living helping places like those corporate chains acquire struggling smaller companies. Here, in my hometown, though, I wasn’t enthusiastic to see something like that happen.
After I picked out the small items I needed, I took them and the rest of my list to the counter.
“Hunter Breckman! Haven’t seen you around in a good long time,” the handsome black man behind the counter said. “Not since you used to come in every morning to pick up supplies with your dad, back when you were working with him in the summers.”
He looked exactly the same as he had when I was in high school and college. Same friendly smile, same booming voice, and I swear he didn’t even have any more grey hair than he’d had back then—just a dusting at his temples. He was as timeless as his store.
“Hey, Mr. Woodward, how are you?” I held out my hand and he shook it.
“Good. I’m real good, thanks.”
“And your family? How’s Chris?” His son Chris had been in Kevin’s grade and we’d played baseball with him in high school.
“Christopher’s actually out in California now. Working in the tech industry. So it’s just Clarice and me. Empty nesters like your folks.”
“Well, tell Chris I said hi next time you talk to him.”
“I will. He’ll enjoy hearing you were in town. Your dad tells me you’re a famous New York City lawyer these days.”
I smiled, but it was for show. Right now, the last thing I wanted to talk about was my career. “New York, yes, but I would definitely not use the word famous. That’s not really my goal.” It never had been. Nor, contrary to what Shane seemed to think, had it been to get rich. I’d gotten into law initially because I wanted to help people. I think, in the early days, I’d envisioned myself doing something more like Emma was. Then, somewhere along the way, I’d slid into corporate law, where, I suppose I did help people, in a way. But I was beginning to wonder if they were the ones I really wanted to champion.
“You’ve always had a good head on your shoulders,” Mr. Woodward said. “Don’t let big business and the big city corrupt you, son. That’s what I tell Christopher, too. You remember your roots and stay true to yourself.”
I stared at him, speechless for a moment. His words shook me because they’d hit far too close to home for comfort. But before I could come up with a response, he changed the subject.
“You visiting your folks for the holidays?”
“I am,” I managed to get out.
“I’m sure they’re enjoying that.” He looked over my list I’d slid across the counter to him when I first walked up, and added, “You picking up some supplies for your dad for old-time sake?”
“Um, no, actually. I’m working on a project for Jay Marshall, something his grandfather had started and didn’t finish before he died.”
“A sad day, that was,” Mr. Woodward said, shaking his head, his expression one of genuine grief. “Fred Marshall was a good man. Good to the core.”
“Yes, he was.”
“So’s his grandson. Been nice seeing him around town again. And damn fine of him to take over his grandpa’s business and keep the tree farm running. Been getting our Christmas trees in December and our trees for planting in the spring from the Marshalls for going on thirty-five years, as has most of the town. Would’ve been real sorry to see the farm shut down or end up in the hands of strangers.”
“That’s how Jay felt, too,” I said.
“And the town’s lucky for it. But listen to me, talking your ear off. I’m sure you’ve got places to be and things to do, so I won’t keep you. It’s just real nice to see you, Hunter. Let me ring you up, then I’ll pass your list back to my boys in the yard. You know the drill—you can drive on back there to pick it all up. You in a truck?”
“SUV, but I should be able to put the backseat down and then we can slide things in as far as they’ll go and red-flag what’s sticking out the back window.”
As I was pulling on the pair of leather work gloves I’d just bought so I could help load my lumber, my phone buzzed again. I didn’t want to look at it, so I didn’t. But I could feel it, like a lead weight in my front pocket, as I worked.
Once I was back behind the wheel, it buzzed again. I held out no hope at this point I was hearing from anyone but Shane. A quick glance at the notification screen showed I was right.
“God damn you,” I muttered.
I tossed my phone onto the passenger seat, cranked up the radio, which was still playing country music, in the hope of drowning out my own thoughts, and drove back to Jay’s.
Despite the bitter cold, by the time I’d backed up to the garage and unloaded my supplies into the woodshop, I’d actually worked up a sweat beneath my layers of clothing. But the moment I stopped moving as actively, I began shivering from the dampness.
I went into the house, but when I was still ridiculously cold a few minutes later, I wondered if it was less about working outside and more about my lack of sleep and the endless anxiety that had kept me in knots all day. In either case, I needed to warm up before I shivered right out of my skin.
I opened the cupboard above the stove on the off chance Jay kept tea bags up there like Grandpa Fred always had. When I saw that he did, several varieties to choose from even, I could have kissed him. If he were here. And if we hadn’t agreed to stay only friends.
With shaking hands, I filled the teakettle that sat on the back eye of the stove, and when it was boiling, poured the hot water into a stoneware mug, then dropped a bag of English Breakfast into it. A few minutes later, after adding some honey and milk to the tea, I wrapped my hands around the mug and sipped.
I was a bit lightheaded—like when you’re coming down with a fever—yet I was fairly certain I wasn’t getting sick. Not with a virus anyway. I had a feeling it was more that I was heart sick. Or maybe soul sick would be the better phrase. And I was afraid there wasn’t really a cure for it. Not an instant one anyway.
My heart apparently had other ideas, though, bringing Jay to the forefront of my thoughts, as if to say, Maybe this will help.
It did, actually. I had the sudden urge to text Jay, or better yet, call him, to let him know I was here. Just the thought of hearing his voice made me smile.
Except when I started to reach for my phone, which I’d slid back into the pocket of my jeans when I got out of the Jeep, that smile quickly faded because I knew I’d be facing more notifications I didn’t want to see. Shane had tried to reach me yet again as I was driving up to the house, and I knew from the type of notification sounds that he’d called and left a voice mail that time. Plus, I hadn’t bothered to delete the last few texts he’d sent either. Jay didn’t have a land line phone—he’d told me last night that he’d gotten rid of it, as many people did nowadays. So if I wanted to call him, I was going to have to wade through the crap on my cell first. But every time I saw Shane’s name on my phone screen, it churned up my anxiety all over again and I was barely coping with it as it was.
For the sake of my sanity, I decided to wait. I comforted myself with the knowledge it was three-thirty now. The tree farm closed at five, so that meant Jay would be home in a couple of hours or less. And he’d implied in his voice mail this morning that he wanted to see me. So all I had to do was stay busy out in the shop to pass the time, and then I’d have him in person instead of on the phone. Which would be a hundred times better anyway.
Still sipping my tea, hoping to warm up a little more before I went back to work, I wandered the house. And once again found myself drawn to the sunroom, to stand in front of Jay’s autumn painting, admiring how perfectly he’d captured the sun reflecting off the water in the foreground and the startling blue of the sky, with the blaze of autumn foliage on the trees.
Damn he was talented. He always had been, but I probably hadn’t fully understood it when we were younger because I didn’t really have much perspective or anything to compare his work to back in those days. But since then, I’d traveled a lot, been to many of the great museums across the world, seen work by masters that spanned cultures and centuries, all of which had given me a much better appreciation for fine art. For color and style and technique. And for what went into it from a human perspective. How special of a person it took to not just look at objects or people or scenery, but to really see them, in all their dazzling beauty, their light and shadow, the life pulsing within them, and then somehow capture it and recreate it.
Maybe… Hmm. Maybe that was part of the reason Jay had always been able to read me so well, to just know when I wasn’t telling him the truth or when I was upset and pretending I wasn’t. Because he saw the little details others didn’t readily notice.
It was an interesting thought, and one I’d have to ponder.
But there was something else about his painting that touched me deeply—the fact he’d managed to nurture and grow his gift in spite of his shitty upbringing with his mom and Russell.
As I wandered back into the living room, I realized Grandpa Fred had obviously played a huge part in keeping Jay on an even keel over the years, giving him the safe space of this house and his unconditional love every weekend, and also helping Jay escape and go to art school where he could flourish in freedom.
Still, the fact Jay had been forced to keep so many secrets—not just about his sexual orientation, but also about Russell’s abuse—and had struggled so much with his personal life over the years, yet had somehow managed to stay as kind and funny as ever without letting anger and bitterness take him over, was a testament to his strength.
I knew I shouldn’t, but I couldn’t help myself…when I compared Jay and his strength in the face of adversity to Shane, I felt sick all over again.
Which led me, once again, to think about mine and Shane’s phone call last night.
How could I have not seen what Shane was becoming? But like so many things over the past few years, I’d been oblivious. Or, maybe, I suddenly realized, it hadn’t just been about me not paying attention. Was it possible Shane had intentionally been on his best behavior early in our relationship to earn my trust, and only when he had, then he began to let his true self show? Either way, given what I knew about Shane’s upbringing, I should have realized the potential was always there.
For a good part of his life, Shane had been handed everything. He’d come from a family of privilege, as, I couldn’t deny, had I for the most part. My family wasn’t rich like Shane’s, but we’d always had a nice house to live in, occasional vacations, and my parents had been able to pay for mine and Kevin’s college. So, compared to many, that was absolutely privilege. But I’d also been taught from a young age to respect everyone, to work hard and earn your place honestly, not only because it was the right thing to do, but because working hard and seeing the results of that work gave a sense of satisfaction that couldn’t be gained any other way.
Not so for Shane. He’d been a late-in-life child to his parents, born when they were in their mid-forties. The way I’d always heard the story was that they thought they couldn’t have kids, even though they’d wanted them, and then completely out of the blue, they’d gotten pregnant with Shane.
Shane’s dad was a congenial, retired, old-school attorney in Rhode Island, where Shane had grown up, and, honestly, I’d always found him to be pleasant, as was his wife. But because Shane was their only child, their “miracle,” they’d fawned over him to excess in his younger life, sparing no expense to make him happy. Whatever Shane had asked for, he’d gotten. But after he’d been expelled from his private all-boys school his senior year for bad behavior—Shane had never confessed to me what he’d actually done—his parents had perhaps realized they’d given him too much leeway and they’d cracked down on him. He was bitter as hell about it to this day, angry they’d forced him to get a job if he wanted spending money in college, and even angrier they’d made him work for a scholarship to law school instead of paying for it for him. Unfortunately, their abrupt about-face had apparently only taught Shane that if you wanted something badly enough and you no longer had somebody to buy it for you, then cheating and whoring were an acceptable way to get it.
As long as I’d known him, he’d been hungry and driven, wanting to be both more successful and wealthier than his father—I’m sure to prove to his parents he didn’t need them, since he was still angry at them. Being driven wasn’t in and of itself a bad thing, though—I’d appreciated his ambition in the early days of our partnership because it had helped grow our firm. But now I had to wonder what rot might be festering under our firm’s success. Last night, my blinders had been ripped off as to just how far Shane was willing to go for greed. He’d lost himself and sold his soul. And then he’d tried to bargain me away as well.
My heart pounding, my chest tight and growing tighter by the second, I sank onto the leather ottoman and set my empty mug on the coffee table.
God, how had I let this mess happen?
A little over a week ago I’d arrogantly thought everything in my life was exceptional—I’d been flying high on my career achievements, on a long-term romantic relationship, thinking I was hot shit. Now, I found myself questioning everything. Had Shane ever cared about me? Or had I always been a pawn, used to help him get what he wanted? What foundation was our law firm based on? Had he been bribing or offering sex to clients from the beginning? He hadn’t denied it when I’d asked him last night. And if that were the case, did our clients assume I was on board with anything Shane had done? Or worse, did they think I was doing those same things? And, God, almost worse still, my own brother had accused me the first night I was home of whoring myself out to my job for the sake of success. He had no idea how close he’d come to the truth.
A wave of nausea rolled over me.
I bent forward, elbows on my knees, my face buried in my hands, taking deep breaths to stave it off. But everything that had happened over the past week crushed, crushed, crushed down on me until I couldn’t breathe.
I closed my eyes and, for the first time since I’d walked in on Shane and Kilgannon, the hot sting of moisture burned behind my eyelids. Ironically, right now, I wanted to stop it. I didn’t want to give Shane any more power over me, damn it. I sure as hell didn’t want to let him to make me cry.
But after my sleepless night, I had no energy left to fight it. Shuddering breaths meant to hold it back gave way to sobs, and finally I quit trying to stop it and let it come.
I was here alone. No one was ever going to have to know just how deeply Shane’s betrayal had gutted me, how it had made me doubt everything, including the person I’d become while I was with him.