Hometown Hearts by M.L. Rhodes
Copyright 2018 by M.L. Rhodes, All Rights Reserved
Turned out, I wasn’t as alone as I’d thought.
I hadn’t seen or heard him come in, but suddenly Jay was kneeling in front of me on the floor and his arms went around me, pulling me close.
I hated that I’d been caught in such a weak moment, especially here in his house. But at the same time, his embrace, his clean wintery scent, the soft scratch of his beard against my neck, and the open, accepting comfort he offered were the best things I’d felt in forever.
I curled my arms around his back, letting my fingers dig into the rough canvas of his jacket, where I clung as if he were my lifeline. And right now, he was. He was real and solid and dependable. Unlike Shane, Jay had had my back for most of my life, had never stopped being my friend through the years, had never hurt me or used me. God, how had I fucked up so badly to give someone like Shane the past five years of my life while I’d drifted away from this man who’d never stopped caring even when we’d been apart?
“It’s okay,” Jay said softly. “Whatever’s happened, it’s going to be okay. I’ve got you. Always.”
That just choked me up even more, much to my embarrassment.
But if Jay noticed, he was too nice to say so. Instead, he just held me closer and continued to murmur sweet things to me.
Eventually, I pulled back, wiping my wet face with the sleeve of my hoodie. I’m sure I looked like hell. I know I felt like it. “I’m sorry. It’s been a shitty day on the heels of a really shitty, sleepless night, and it all just sort of came to a head.”
“What happened?” His concerned expression, and those worried deep blue eyes almost made me tear up all over again. God, I didn’t deserve to have a friend like him.
“So much bullshit.”
As if having him so close and warm wasn’t already playing hard on my senses, he reached out and cradled my cheek in his palm. “Talk to me, Hunt.”
I swallowed hard. I didn’t want to infect him with Shane’s poison, but with a shuddering sigh, I suddenly found myself telling him everything. About my conversation with Shane the night before and how much his perverse plan had sickened and hurt me, about my fears and doubts over the firm, how disgusted I was with myself for shutting out not only Jay but my family, and how Kevin was barely speaking to me because I’d been such a shitty brother. I pretty much poured it all out. At this point there didn’t seem to be any reason to hold anything back.
If I’d been expecting judgment from Jay, though, I should have known better. He’d taken off his jacket and started a fire, then drawn me with him to sit on the couch, speaking little except for an occasional muttered “What the fuck?” in reference to Shane but otherwise listening like a saint.
By the time I’d talked myself out, I was exhausted. Yet strangely more at peace than I’d been in a while.
“I have to ask you again…you know none of this is about you, right?” he said gently. We were facing each other on the couch, and once again he reached out to lightly stroke my cheek. I leaned into the touch without thinking and closed my eyes.
“I don’t know. I mean…yes. I realize I’m not responsible for Shane’s actions. But I’m unbelievably disappointed in myself for not seeing what was going on, both with him and, frankly, with me. Apparently I let myself get so caught up in my fantasy life that I was too blind to realize it was just that…a fantasy. That everything on the surface might have looked pretty and shiny, but beneath it all, the reality was something far uglier. How…” The words caught in my throat. “How could he have expected me to do that, Jay? He bargained me away like I was a… God.” I rubbed a hand over my face, fighting back tears again.
“He’s a fucking son-of-a-bitch,” Jay said fiercely, even as he gently pulled my hand away from my face so I was looking at him. “Listen to me. The simple fact that he ever even thought you were the kind of man who’d go along with something like that says plenty about him. He put his greed and his obsession with power and prestige above you, and that’s unforgivable. But what’s even more unforgivable is the way he’s still emotionally manipulating you. He doesn’t deserve another second of your time and attention.”
“Easier said than done.”
As if on cue, my phone buzzed, making me groan.
“What?” Jay asked.
“I’m sure it’s him. He’s been trying to reach me all day. I can’t escape from him and he’s driving me batshit. For a full damn week I heard nothing, but since last night, he’s texted me dozens of times and called several others. I’ve been deleting everything without reading the texts or listening to his voice mails. I don’t know why he can’t just fucking leave me alone.”
“Give me your phone and I’ll respond to him.”
I thought he was joking, but the look on his face and his outstretched hand said otherwise. I fished my phone out of my pocket and let the home screen open with my facial recognition. All the notifications made me sick. On a desperate whim, I put my phone in Jay’s hand.
I saw him open the texts, frown, then saw him hit the delete button over and over. Then, without hesitation, he began to type.
A minute later he handed the phone back to me. “Read it first before I send it. I don’t want to say anything you don’t approve of.”
My heart thudding hard, I read his words:
Listen up, asshole. You don’t know me, but, unfortunately, I know all about you. Hunter’s been my best friend since we were ten, so I’ve known him far longer than you have, and, clearly, far better. He has no interest in speaking to you any further, about anything. This will be the last response you’re going to get from him because as soon as this text is sent, he’s blocking your number. And then he’s going to spend the rest of the holidays happy and at peace, surrounded by the people who actually love him.
I looked up at Jay, my throat tight with emotion.
“Is it too juvenile?” he asked.
“No. It’s perfect.” Because even if Shane might see it as juvenile, Jay’s words warmed me to my previously frozen core. I handed the phone back to him. “Send it.”
His little half smile sent another ripple of pleasure through me.
He tapped, swiped, tapped again, swiped again, then gave me my phone back. “Sent. And his number’s blocked now. So even if he keeps trying, at least you won’t get notifications about it. If he needs to reach you for work reasons, he can always tell your assistant and she can let you know.”
“Thank you,” I breathed, still a little giddy from his words to Shane.
“You’re welcome.” Then his brow furrowed. “You look exhausted.”
I gave a tired half laugh. “That would be because I barely slept last night. I think I dozed, badly, for an hour or two this morning and that was about it.”
“No wonder you look so wiped.” He shook his head, then pulled me against him and slid down until we were stretched out on the couch, lying on our sides facing one another. He tugged a quilt off the back of the couch and covered us with it. “Try to close your eyes for a while and relax.”
I wanted to argue, felt a little silly even, but at the same time I was so damned drained, the couch was comfortable, the room was warm, and just being with Jay made everything a thousand times better. “You’ll stay with me?”
He smiled, that slow, sweet smile. “I’m not going anywhere.”
His fingertips traced an easy pattern on my arm, and even though it was such a small thing, his touch radiated warmth and pleasure that seeped into me. There was nothing overtly sexual about it, though I couldn’t fully ignore the tightness in my belly. Mostly it was soothing.
Soothing enough I must have fallen asleep almost instantly because I didn’t remember anything else until I opened my eyes at some point later.
Darkness had taken over the room except for the faint orange glow of coals in the fireplace and the light wafting in from the kitchen, just bright enough for me to see Jay. He smiled when he saw I was awake.
“I didn’t think I’d actually go to sleep,” I said, blinking.
“You were out in like ten seconds. I knew you would be.”
“How long was I out?”
“Maybe an hour and a half. I wish it had been longer.”
I stretched, and realized at some point I’d twined my legs through his. He didn’t seem to mind, and his hand, I noticed, was still stroking my arm.
“Please tell me you haven’t been lying there watching me the whole time. I probably drooled.”
His chuckle was the best thing I’d heard all day. “No, no drooling. Or if you did, I didn’t notice since I napped, too. Hell, I might have been drooling.” He swiped a couple of fingers over his mouth in a move that was surprisingly sensual.
Stop. Stop thinking things like that, I warned myself. But it was hard not to once I’d started. In such close contact, the heat from Jay’s body searing into mine, his smile…good God.
“What time is it?” I asked, trying to redirect my thoughts.
“A little after six.”
“I didn’t think about it before, but did you come home early?”
“I did. I have a couple of high school kids who’ve been working for me through the holiday season. Things were slow, so I let them close up tonight. I was hoping you might be here.”
“Then you got more than you bargained for with all my drama. I’m sorry about that, and thank you.”
“For listening. For not judging.”
“Why in hell would I judge? It’s been a crappy week for you. And that fucker’s treated you like shit. You’re allowed to be pissed and hurt and have doubts. I’d be worried if you didn’t feel all those things.”
“Well, you’re a better friend than I deserve.”
“Don’t say that.”
“How can I not? I left our friendship adrift when you needed me. And then I come back to town and dump my shit in your lap. That’s not exactly fair.”
“There’s no keeping score. Besides, you have no idea how your friendship over the years kept me sane. I’m not sure I would have made it through high school without you, and that’s the God’s honest truth. Dealing with Russell and…well, everything…” He shook his head. “Knowing I always had you there kept me going. You may not have known everything that was eating away at me, but trust me, if I hadn’t had you, I might not still be here today.”
The words made my heart tighten. “What do you mean? Did you… God, Jay, are you saying what I think you’re saying?”
He swallowed hard. “I can’t deny the thought crossed my mind a few times when Russell was… Well, when things were particularly bad. Sometimes it all just seemed more than I could bear. But you know what always brought me back from those thoughts pretty damned quickly? You.”
He nodded. “The idea of never seeing you again, never talking to you, or laughing about stupid shit, or just being in the same room with you and seeing you smile. I couldn’t imagine that. My grandpa was a rock for me in a practical, I knew I’d always have a place to live with him if I needed it kind of way. But you…you were what kept me fighting, kept me wanting to actually live.”
I stroked his face with my fingertips. “I had no idea you ever…” The words caught in my throat. “I’m just damned glad you’re still here.”
“I can’t ever imagine a world without you in it.”
“I feel the same way about you.”
Something stirred between us, a wave of emotion I couldn’t explain, couldn’t even try to explain. I only knew it tightened my chest even as it filled me with warmth.
This man… God, he was…he was everything. How had I not realized it before? Or maybe a part of me had, long ago, and then over and over during the years. But each time I’d always swept it back under the rug because I’d thought there was no hope, that it was a childish dream. Now, suddenly, possibilities I’d never allowed myself to consider sparked to life and…
I became acutely aware my breathing had quickened, even as time seemed to have slowed to a crawl.
“What are you thinking right now?” Jay asked quietly.
“I’m thinking how damned much I want to kiss you.”
Jay drew in and released a shaky breath. Then he brushed his knuckles along my cheek and said, in all seriousness, “If you want to, I’m not going to stop you.”
I tried to fight back the ache of longing that filled every part of me. There were so many reasons I should rein it in. But as I looked into his eyes, I saw a flicker of longing there that matched my own, and suddenly none of those reasons seemed all that important anymore. We both wanted this. It felt like our whole friendship had been building toward this for so long, and now here we were. We could think of all kinds of reasons we shouldn’t—we’d done that last night. But maybe we were here because it was meant to be. Because it was right. Because it had always been right.
“Do you…?” I whispered, not even sure what I was trying to ask.
“Yes,” he said, as if he could read my thoughts even though I couldn’t speak them.
I’m not sure who leaned into whom first. I just knew that a second later, with what felt like a mutual sigh of relief, our lips met, and I was instantly lost in the heat and tender persuasion of his mouth against mine. Our tongues tentatively flicked, then grew more bold, as we sought a deeper, more intimate connection.
Moments later, both of us breathing hard, we eased apart. Not far, though. Just enough we could look at each other.
“Whoa,” I whispered, more than a little stunned at the instant intensity that single kiss had created. My heart still raced, and my body pulsed with a crazy thrum of desire that was both sexual and emotional.
“Whoa,” he agreed.
“I…” I tried to say something else, but once again I couldn’t seem to make the words come out.
A second later, I didn’t have to because Jay captured my mouth again, and this time there was nothing tentative. It was pure sensuality and hunger, and I was pretty sure I might drown in it, except in the best possible way.
His hands slid into my hair, his fingertips massaging my scalp, as mine kneaded the warm, muscular curves of his back through his shirt. And, God, it was good. So damned good, in a way I didn’t remember any kiss had ever been before. I wanted to laugh and cry all at once. I wanted to burrow closer to him, feel his heat seeping into me, surrounding me. I wanted to see his smile, and his smiling eyes, to feel his mouth against mine, and everything else as well, now and always.
When it ended this time, I didn’t want it to. I had a feeling he didn’t either. But some part of both of us probably knew we should slow things down a little. Or maybe it wasn’t a matter of we should so much as we just wanted to. Because I had to admit, I wanted to savor this closeness and make it last.
He stroked my hair and I traced circles on his back as we lay there looking at one another.
“Worth the twenty-year wait?” I finally said, a smile tugging at my lips.
“Jesus,” he said in that soft, rumbly voice of his that sent a new ripple of heat through me. “You have to ask?”
I could listen to his voice every day for the rest of my life and never get tired of it. He brushed a thumb over my lips, which only knotted the desire in my belly even tighter.
“I still like the beard,” he said.
“Yeah?” I hadn’t gotten around to shaving yet.
“It says rugged, sexy mountain man.”
“I thought you said it was hipster.”
I snorted softly, stroking his bearded cheek. “You’re one to talk in either case.”
“Mmm.” He turned his head and kissed my fingertips, then said, “Actually, right now I’m thinking less talking. More kissing.”
“Oh hell yes,” I breathed. Because I was pretty damned sure I would never be able to get enough of kissing him. So many years of waiting and wanting…it was definitely going to take a very long time to get caught up.
That’s all we did, too…kissing. Yet I’d never been more aroused. Not in the I need to rip your clothes off and have hot and heavy sex right now kind of way. Instead it was the slow, delicious, make this feeling last way. The steady, warm build of anticipation as opposed to instant gratification. The kind of desire filled with promise for something much better and more satisfying when it did eventually happen. And, God, I was more than a little drunk on that feeling. And on him.
“Damn,” he finally said. “How’d we ever go so long without doing this?”
“I don’t know.”
Somehow, after skating along the delicate edge of our relationship for years, always careful to never overstep my bounds or even hint in any way that my feelings for him had always run deeper, this moment seemed surreal, lying here with him like this. It was downright dreamlike, in fact, in the wispy fingers of afterglow, my skin tingling, my heart pounding, his breath warm and heavy and his gaze the color of the deepest ocean fixed on me. And yet, the touch of his hand on my arm, the press of our jean-clad legs, the weight of his body against mine were all exquisitely real.
“You okay?” he asked, his tone gentle and concerned.
I nodded. “Yeah. I am. I’m…surprisingly more okay than I have been in a long time.”
“Surprising in that a few hours ago it felt like my world was falling apart. I was angry and hurt and…and filled with doubt. Now, I’m still angry. And hurt. But those emotions aren’t controlling me anymore. Instead, I feel…hope.”
“Hope is a good thing.”
“Yeah. Yeah it is.” I pressed a kiss against his lips, then smiled.
His smile in return set off a whole new flutter of that twisty-twiny emotional desire in me. And I realized that, for the first time in a week, the constantly gnawing knot in my gut wasn’t there. At all. By all rights it should be. But it wasn’t. Not right now, here in Jay’s arms. And that was a feeling I wanted to hang onto as long as possible.
We lay there for a few minutes longer, not saying anything, not needing to, just staying close and connected. Being with Jay had always been comfortable, and tonight it seemed even more so.
“You up for some food?” he eventually asked. Then his forehead furrowed, which I recognized as a sign of his concern. “Actually, have you eaten anything at all today?”
“Why, is my stomach growling and I didn’t hear it?”
“No, but given your sleepless night and rough day, I know you well enough to remember that you don’t eat when you’re stressed.”
“Damn. Sometimes you’re a little scary.”
“Not trying to be scary, just practical.”
“I know.” I gently squeezed his back in apology. “And to answer your question, um…” I frowned, trying to remember. “I had a piece of toast after I got up late this morning. I guess not really anything since then. My stomach wasn’t up for much else.”
“That’s what I thought. Okay”—he eased away from me and slid off the couch—“I’m going to go make us something to eat.”
I grabbed his hand to stop him. “You don’t have to do that.” I didn’t want him to go.
He leaned down and kissed me, briefly but so damned tenderly. “I know I don’t have to. Maybe I want to. Maybe I like taking care of you.”
My breath caught at his words and sincerity. I couldn’t imagine Shane ever, ever, not even early on in our relationship, saying something like that. But then I shoved thoughts of Shane away because he wasn’t here, and I didn’t want him to be. Everything I wanted was standing above me with a sweet smile on his face.
“Okay,” I said softly. “Since you put it that way. But at least let me come help.”
I started to sit up, but Jay pressed me back down. “Nope. You stay put.” He picked up the TV remote. “Here, take this if you need entertainment while I’m gone. But for God’s sake, no news,” he added, putting the remote in my hand. “I’m trying to de-stress you, and the news isn’t that these days.”
“So, you want me to, what?” I asked with a soft chuckle. “Watch cartoons?”
“If it keeps that smile on your face, then yeah, I’m all for it.” He stroked a hand over my hair, then with another smile of his own, turned toward the kitchen.