Hometown Hearts by M.L. Rhodes
Copyright 2018 by M.L. Rhodes, All Rights Reserved
When Jay had gone, I stretched out on my back on the couch and turned on the TV. Mostly because I’d taken Jay’s comment as a dare, I channel surfed until I found a station showing old kids’ Christmas programs.
I was still smiling as I picked up my phone from the coffee table—which, thankfully, had not a single notification on it—and opened the dog camera app. The live video feed came right up and I shook my head and silently laughed. Even though I knew my parents had been home recently—because my mom had left Christmas music playing for the dogs; I heard Bing Crosby crooning “White Christmas” in the background— you’d never know it by the dogs themselves. They were in the same positions they’d been in when I left earlier in the day. Raleigh loudly snoring on his bed, with Loki and Iggy on the pile of fuzzy blankets on the couch, curled against each other. Loki was having a running dream, and his back legs were kicking Iggy, who startled awake, looked at him, then tucked her head back between her paws and went back to sleep. Damn they were cute.
“Here ya go,” Jay said a few minutes later. I sat up as he handed me a plate with two grilled cheese sandwiches and a pile of BBQ chips on it. “I told you, my cooking repertoire isn’t exactly enormous, but you won’t starve.”
“It smells amazing.” It really did. My stomach rumbled in appreciation, indicating I’d ignored it long enough, thank you.
“Here, take one of these, too.” He handed me one of the two cans of Dr Pepper he’d been balancing, along with his own plate.
“Welcome,” he said, sitting next to me
After I’d opened my soda and taken a swallow, I set it on a coaster on the coffee table and bit into one of the sandwiches.
“Holy crap,” I said with a moan as I swallowed the rich, cheesy goodness. “I don’t want to hear another word about your limited kitchen repertoire. This is not an ordinary, run-of-the-mill grilled cheese. What did you put in this?”
He gave me a cheeky grin. “I said I don’t know how to make that many things, but I never said what I made wasn’t good.”
“No shit. I’m serious. What’s in this?”
“Three kinds of cheese, and grilled parmesan on the outside of the bread.”
“I could eat this, like, every day. My God, I’m in cheese heaven. I love cheese.”
His laugh made me warm all over. “I know. I remember. You’re so easy to please.”
“I guess you could say I’m a cheap date. Feed me, let me sleep on your couch, and I’m good. Although, that kinda makes me sound more like a couch-surfing bum, doesn’t it?”
“Yes, because that’s so you,” Jay said. “You always were such a cheap-ass freeloader, Hunter. Like, when’re you gonna get a job, dude, and get off my couch?”
“I’m trying, man. I’m trying. But, clearly I can’t go right now,” I said. “You have to at least let me finish my food. Plus, I wouldn’t want to miss the rest of this uplifting holiday gem about the reindeer who’s bullied by his dad and everyone else until they realize he might be useful…because, you know, that’s an awesome message for kids everywhere.”
Jay shook his head as some particularly cringeworthy dialogue played out on the TV screen. “This show has not aged well.”
“It really hasn’t. Bullying everywhere, Santa, who’s supposed to be kind to everyone, is pretty much a dick, and I think all the women in my life would have a thing or two to say if some man tried to send them back to Christmastown like they were helpless.”
“Maddy’d probably kick ’em in the balls,” Jay said.
We both snickered at the truth of that statement.
“I like The Grinch better,” Jay said. “He’s an ass, but he learns how to love.”
“I like Santa Claus is Coming To Town.”
“Oh my God. It’s so sappy. That’s always been your favorite, though.”
“Yeah, because that Santa’s always nice. He even makes the Burgermeister Meisterburger smile, at least for a while.”
“With a yo-yo, nonetheless,” Jay said with a grin. “But I happen to know you also love the Winter Warlock.”
I smiled, couldn’t help it. “I do. He’s just a big marshmallowy goob at heart. Kinda like somebody else I know.”
“Nyeah…I don’t know whether that’s a compliment or if I should be offended that you just compared me to an old, grouchy hermit dude.”
It was silly banter, but also comfortable and good. And once again I appreciated Jay so much for always making everything easy. By the time we’d finished eating the sandwiches and had put away several of my mom’s Christmas cookies, I was pretty damned content.
“You feeling better?” Jay asked.
“I am. All the way around. Thank you.” I smiled. “For taking care of me.”
I picked up my phone and looked at the time. Then I sighed. “I hate to say it, but I’d better get going. My parents are at a party tonight and I promised Mom I’d be home earlier rather than later so I can let the dogs out and feed them.”
We looked at each other for several seconds and I could tell he was as disappointed as I was. To be honest, I wanted to stay right here, watching stupid Christmas shows, warm and full and close to him.
But then I realized our night didn’t have to end immediately.
“You could come with me,” I said. “If you want?”
That brought a smile to his face, which created a warm rush of pleasure in me. “Yeah. I’d like that.”
“Good. Me, too.”
“You okay to drive?” Jay asked me a few minutes later, as we were getting ready to leave his house. I knew he was concerned because of my lack of sleep. But at the moment I was feeling pretty okay. He, of course, had everything to do with that.
“I am. It’s not far. I’ll be all right.”
“You’d better be.” Then he pulled me into a kiss that made my heart thud. “I’ll follow you.”
I was still tingling all over as I got behind the wheel of the Jeep.
* * *
When my parents got home after midnight, they found us downstairs in the family/game room, in the midst of a hot and heavy battle. Well, our characters in the video game we were playing anyway.
“Damn it, why won’t this asshole just die already?!”
“Get him! Get him now!”
“Oh shit! Shit!”
“Move! Right side! Go, go!”
“Oh, come on! I feel so abused! What the fuck?”
And then we both groaned and threw our controllers down as the round came to an end.
My mom stood at the foot of the steps laughing. “Well this is a sight I haven’t seen in long time. I’ve kinda missed this.”
“So have we,” Jay said, as he and I looked at each other and smiled.
“Did you win?”
“Oh God, no, we got our asses handed to us,” I said.
“You’re out of practice.”
“No doubt. How was your party, Mom?”
“Not too bad. Your dad actually made it through the whole thing without mentioning leaving early. You know how much he just loves parties. So the fact he never brought it up must have meant it was better than average.”
“Was there good food? Because that tends to appease him.”
“Come to think of it, yes. In fact, he spent most of his time at the buffet table with John Sheldon, the two of them stuffing their faces with shrimp rolls.”
“Well, there you go.”
She grinned. “They always say the secret to a man’s heart is through his stomach.”
“Do they now?” Jay said, looking at me with a raised eyebrow.
That made me laugh. I knew he was probably thinking about my reaction to his grilled cheese sandwiches earlier, which, yeah, okay, he had a point.
“All right,” my mom said, “don’t let me stop the war or whatever it is you’re playing. I just came to tell you we were home and now we’re going to bed. Your dad’s taking out the dogs, Hunter, so they should be fine until morning.”
“Okay. Night, Mom. Love you.”
She came over and leaned across the back of the couch to hug me. “Love you, too, honey.” Then she pulled Jay into the hug with her other arm. “I love both of you, and sure do like seeing the two of you together again. Night, guys.”
“Night,” Jay murmured, a hint or red creeping up his cheeks.
I smiled at how sweetly sexy he looked when he blushed.
When Mom had disappeared up the stairs I gestured to the TV and said, “You want to go again?”
“I probably should head home. It’s getting late, and I have to work at least a few hours tomorrow. Not to mention, you really need a decent night’s sleep.”
“Ugh. I guess you’re not wrong there. I’m supposed to have lunch with Kevin tomorrow, and that’s probably going to go waaaay better if I’ve had some sleep.”
“You guys’ll work it out. You always do.”
I dragged a hand through my hair and sighed. “This feels different. He’s pretty hurt, and, frankly, he has a right to be. So I’m not expecting instant miracles. I just want him to know I’m genuinely sorry I haven’t been around more for him and that I’ll do better. Whether he believes me or not, though…” I shrugged.
“You’re his brother. He loves you. He’ll believe you.”
“You didn’t see him the first night I was home, or hear him rip me a new one. But, yeah…we’ll sort it. Eventually. I hope.”
“You wanna walk me to the door?”
I switched off the PlayStation and the TV, while Jay picked up our wayward controllers and put them back on the coffee table. Then we went up the steps and into the foyer where Jay slid his arms into his jacket, then bent to step into his boots and lace them up.
Iggy had gone to bed with Mom and Dad, and I could hear Raleigh’s snoring from here. But Loki wandered in, looking for attention. Jay whispered to him softly while he was bent over, ruffling Loki’s ears and scratching under his chin. I smiled, watching it. The dogs had barely even barked when Jay had come in the door with me tonight. It had always been that way with every dog we’d ever had. My mom had always said it was because of Jay’s mellow personality—animals sensed it and found him easy to be around.
I kinda knew how they felt, since he affected me much the same way.
“So, besides working for a while, what else are you doing tomorrow?” I asked, when Loki had gone back to the living room. “Like, maybe later in the day or tomorrow night?”
“Why, are you fishing for a date?” Jay asked with a teasing smile.
“Well, you seem to have forgotten that tomorrow is Saturday. And you know what happens on the last Saturday before Christmas.”
“Oh hell.” I groaned. “The Lodgepole winter festival.”
“Wow. Such enthusiasm.”
I winced. “Sorry. Sooo many people. I’m not feeling very peopley this year.”
“Even if one of those people is me?”
“Okay, stop looking at me like that.”
“Like you think you’re too irresistible for me to refuse.”
“Is it working?”
I groaned again. “Yes. Damn it.”
“Good. Because I was actually going to ask you if you’d help me.”
He sighed. “Originally, the festival committee wanted me to follow in Grandpa’s footsteps and play Santa this year.”
“Oh, Jay.” I rested a hand against his chest. “I’m sorry. I didn’t even think about how hard this must be for you, given Grandpa Fred’s heavy involvement in the festival every year. Of course I’ll go and be there for you.”
He smiled and squeezed my hand. “It’s okay. I actually told them no about the Santa gig. I couldn’t face doing it. It was Grandpa’s deal and I…” He shook his head, looking troubled.
“It’s too soon?”
“Yeah. I know it’s been almost a year, but…yeah.”
“I can see how taking on his role would have been tough emotionally. Like making you grieve all over again.”
“It kind of already did even when they asked me. I know the festival committee meant well, and I’m sure they were thinking in terms of honoring Grandpa’s memory by having me take his place. But…
“You have to take care of yourself first.”
“I know. I felt bad, though. So what I did tell them I’d do is the photography for the kids with Santa. I noticed last year they didn’t have anyone taking pictures and a lot of parents were disappointed. I guess whoever had done it in the past bailed on them. And since I have the equipment…”
“And the mad photography skills,” I added with a smile.
He shrugged, but I could see the beginnings of a pleased smile teasing around his lips. “So, that’s what I’ll be doing tomorrow night, if you might be interested in giving me a hand?”
“Of course,” I said. “As long as I don’t have to wrangle kids? That would probably not be my favorite job.”
“Since when? You and Kevin used to coach tee-ball for the little people every summer and you always loved those kids.”
That gave me pause because I hadn’t thought about coaching tee-ball in ages. And, yeah, I didn’t remember disliking kids back then. Which made me wonder if my anti-kid platform, like my anti-holiday platform, was something else I’d picked up from Shane. Damn it.
“Okay, fine, I’ll be a kid wrangler. In case you haven’t figured it out yet, I’ll do whatever you need or want me to do because…it’s you.”
Jay’s smile was unbearably sexy and breathtaking. “Have I told you lately how much I’ve missed you?”
He brushed a thumb over my lips, and I don’t know what it was about that action, but every time he did it, it created a sizzling knot in my belly.
“And don’t worry, you won’t have to deal with the kids,” he continued while I was still dazed from the double whammy of his smile and the thumb on my lips thing. “Santa’s elves will handle them. I was just hoping maybe you’d be willing to help me take money and print out photos? Not exactly glamorous, and I’m sure I could get one of the committee members or another volunteer to help me, but”—he shrugged and smiled—“I’d rather have you.”
“Of course I’ll do it. Especially since it means I get to spend my evening with the photographer.”
He reached for my hand, then reeled me close. We were virtually the same height, both of us not-quite six feet, but with his boots on and me in my sock feet, he stood a little taller at the moment. Just enough I had to look up at him.
“For what it’s worth, my Saturday evening just got infinitely better as well,” he said. “Looks like you got your date after all, Mr. Breckman. Even though we’ll be surrounded by way too many people.”
“As long as I’m with you, something tells me I won’t even notice them,” I said softly.
His answering smile melted me. And, oh fucking hell, he did the thumb thing again. It’s like he knew how I reacted to it.
“I really want to kiss you again.” His voice had gone low and rumbly. “But before I do, now’s the time to tell me if what happened earlier tonight between us was a one-time deal.”
The words caught me off guard, and I went from blissfully intoxicated on his voice and touch, to having the beginnings of that old, edgy knot in my gut again. Worse, I had trouble speaking past the sudden, hot lump in my throat. “Why would you even say that?”
“I’m not trying to upset you. At all. I just know you’re going through a lot right now. The last thing I want to do is pressure you or rush you into anything. I know your problems in New York aren’t going to magically go away, nor is the pain you’ve been feeling. So if this…us…if it’s happening too fast and it’s going to add to your distress, I care about you too damned much to push.”
I stared at him, my heart pounding.
“Let me ask you a question,” I said. “Before tonight, we had come up with several valid arguments as to why the timing wasn’t right for us to be together. Do you still feel that way?” My chest ached, afraid of his answer, but I had to ask the question, just like he’d needed to ask his.
He sighed. “I know those arguments were valid, at least they seemed to be when we made them. But I have to admit, the more time I spend with you, the more I find myself not giving a damn about any of those reasons we shouldn’t be together. It feels like…like so much time has already passed us by, but we’re here now, and…Jesus…it’s so good between us. But it’s not only my decision to make. How do you feel?”
“Everything you said is exactly how I’ve been feeling all night, too,” I told him, my throat still tight. “I’m not sure if the timing is perfect. I don’t even know if there’s such a thing as perfect timing. And I have no idea what the hell’s going to happen when I go back to New York. What I do know, though, is that when I’m with you, everything feels…right. In a way it hasn’t for a very long time.”
“I know the feeling well,” he said softly.
“I told you yesterday that you deserved someone who could give you their full attention, who wouldn’t be two thousand miles away juggling a crap-ton of baggage. And, maybe, if I were more honorable, that would still be for the best. But, the truth is…” I was still fighting the damned lump in my throat and my voice cracked with emotion. “I don’t want you to find someone else. I want to be the one you kiss goodnight, the one you hold hands with and smile at across a dinner table, the one who’s still sitting next to you when we’re old. I know it’s selfish of me, but—”
The heat of Jay’s mouth stole whatever I’d been about to say. His hand curled around the nape of my neck, and mine moved up to cup his face between my palms. It wasn’t a long kiss, but the emotional intensity of it left me shaking. Jay, too.
“It’s not selfish if it’s what we both want,” he breathed against my lips
“You’re sure you want this? Me and all my crap?”
“Hunter, you’re the only one I want to kiss goodnight and hold hands with. Now and when we’re old and gray. And for what it’s worth, even when you told me yesterday I should find someone else, I had no intention of looking elsewhere. I would have waited as long as it took. I will wait as long as it takes, if you need more time and space. There’s no rush. We can take this as slow and easy as you want. I’m not going anywhere.”
“And if I don’t want to take it all that slow and easy?” I whispered, my heart thudding.
“Then I’m right here.”
I teased my fingers through the soft strands of his dark hair. God he was beautiful, this man who’d already begun picking up the shattered pieces of my heart and putting them back together to make it whole again. Beautiful to look at, but even more beautiful inside.
“I just want to be sure you’re going to be okay if it gets messy,” I said. “Me dealing with my aforementioned baggage, I mean.”
“We both have baggage. That’s life.
“I know. But you’ve never met Shane. I don’t want anything about him, or my previous life with him, to hurt you. I don’t ever, ever want you to be hurt.”
“If we managed to face down a shitty fourth-grade bully when we were scrawny kids who’d never been in a fight before, we can sure as hell face down your ex as intelligent grown-ass men. As long as we’re together, we can deal with anything.” His tender smile turned my heart to mush.
“You really mean that, don’t you?”
“I’ve never meant anything more.”