Hometown Hearts by M.L. Rhodes
Copyright 2018 by M.L. Rhodes, All Rights Reserved
My lunch with Kevin the next day was pretty much what I’d expected. We ate. He was sullen. I apologized, and he grumbled about everything. But that didn’t stop me from trying to make things right.
“Maddy told me everything,” I said. “I know about what’s happened over the past eighteen months, and I can’t even tell you how sorry I am, both for what the two of you have gone through, but also that I wasn’t here for you when you needed me. I’m not going to let that happen again.”
He snorted. “Sounds nice coming out of your mouth, but as soon as the holidays are over, you’re going to leave and then we’ll be right back to where we were before. It’ll probably be another four or five years before you come home.”
“No. That’s not going to happen.”
“It’s not just about me and Maddy, Hunter. It’s Mom and Dad, too. They’re not getting any younger and you just deserted ’em. You’re not here anymore to check in on them or help them if they need it. That’s all on me. I mean, what if something happened to one of them? Are you even aware that Dad hurt his back on a job site a few weeks ago? He’s only just now starting to get around okay again and be able to do regular stuff.”
I hadn’t know. And if Kevin was trying to make me feel bad, it had worked.
“If you can’t be bothered to take a few vacation days to see them every now and then, what if one of them gets sick or more seriously injured? That’s going to all be on me, too, because I sure as hell can’t depend on you to show up.” He shook his head and gave me a disgusted look, but behind it I saw his hurt. “You just took off and left us all and didn’t give a shit what was going on with us.”
“I’m sorry, Kev. You’re right. I made some stupid decisions. More than you even know. But I love all of you. You and Maddy, Mom and Dad. And I have no intention of dropping the ball again. You were right the other night, I did get caught up in my life in New York and took all of you for granted. I should never have let that happen, and I’m making a promise to you that it won’t happen again.”
“Promises are just words.”
“I know. Actions are what count. And if it takes time to prove myself to you, I’m okay with that. I’m in it for the long haul. If you need me for anything, for Maddy, for Mom and Dad…anything, and I’m not in town, I’m just a phone call away. You call and I’ll be here.”
“Yeah, well, I’m not holding my breath.”
“Fair enough. But I’ll be here nonetheless. I’m here now.”
“Only because your asshole boyfriend broke up with you.”
Ouch. “For the record, I broke up with him because he is an asshole. I’m sorry it took me so long to realize what you apparently have known for a long while. Which is all the more reason for me to stay better connected with you. If I’d been around more, maybe you would have pointed out what I was too blind to see. I need you, too, Kevin.”
He looked at me, a hint of surprise in his expression.
“You’re my brother,” I said. “I respect your opinion.”
“So, if I’d told you Shane was a jackass way back when you brought him here a few years ago, you would have listened?”
“Yes. I probably would have been pissed at first, but ultimately, yes, You would have made me think, and that’s a good thing. We don’t always have to agree, but that doesn’t lessen the value of your opinion for me.”
He was quiet for several moments and I knew he was processing what I’d said. Hard to tell how he felt about it, though.
His brows drew together and, changing the subject, he said, gruffly, “Maddy said she’d told you everything. Like, everything everything.”
“She did. So, yeah, I know about your good news, too.” I smiled. “I’m really happy for you guys.
“You can’t say anything to anyone else.”
I held up my hands. “I haven’t said a word. She swore me to secrecy. But, seriously, bro, congratulations.”
Thanks,” he mumbled. But his expression grew troubled.
“She also told me you’re worried.”
“I am,” he snapped. “What would you know about it anyway?”
“Personally, I don’t, obviously. I do know how much you love her, though, and after what’s happened in the past, of course you’re concerned. I would be, too, in your position.”
He’d finished eating his burger and now he sat across from me, avoiding looking at me, as he picked at his cuticles. It was a nervous habit he’d had since he was a kid—used to drive Mom nuts. That he was doing it now was a testament to just how anxious he really was.
“You have no idea what it was like last time,” he said. “I wasn’t home when it happened. And she was…” His voice caught.
My heart ached at how crushed he looked. Kevin presented as the hard-ass sheriff’s deputy on the outside—he was a couple inches shorter than I was, but stockier and solid muscle, which made him look pretty fierce. Inside, though, he had a huge heart. He’d always been like that. The toughest guy on the football team, but took it the hardest when he saw someone hurting or in pain. That’s part of what made him such a good law enforcement officer—he genuinely cared about people.
“That had to have been terrifying,” I said.
“It was the worst. When I got the call from Mom, I…” He shook his head. “I don’t ever want to feel that way again. That drive from Denver to Granby was the longest of my life. And then, once we got home a couple of days later and I saw…” He finally looked at me, his eyes clouded with pain and his face as white as the laminate tabletop. “When I saw what Maddy had dealt with, all the blood… Fuck, Hunt, I don’t know how she made it. I mean, I’m a cop. I’ve seen a lot of blood in roadside accidents and such. But this…”
“This was hers,” I said softly. “And that’s different.”
He nodded. “And I wasn’t there for her. I should have been, but I wasn’t.”
It suddenly hit me that maybe part of the reason Kevin was so mad at me for not being there for him was because he saw a parallel with himself. He felt he hadn’t be there when Mad needed him, so he was taking his frustration at himself out on me for not being here. Not that I didn’t deserve it, because I did. But there was a certain complicated sense to his anger.
“I can’t even imagine how awful that must have been,” I told him.
“That’s why I have to be sure I am there for her now.”
“I completely understand that. The truth is, though, sometimes things happen and you can’t always be there. You have a job. So does Maddy for that matter. You go places and do things on your own. You have your own interests. It’s not practical to be together twenty-four/seven, for any couple, because that’s not how life works. Neither of you had any reason to think something bad was going to happen that night. There’s no way you could have predicted it. And beating yourself up over it isn’t doing anything but making you hurt and making Maddy worry.”
“What do you mean? Did she tell you something? Is she worried?”
“Not about the pregnancy, no. But about you, yeah. She’s worried because you’re so stressed all the time. She thinks you feel guilty every time you leave the house and aren’t with her.”
“I don’t want her to worry. She shouldn’t be worrying. Stress isn’t good for her.”
“I think she just wants you to be as happy about this pregnancy as she is.”
“I am happy about it. I…” He frowned. “I’m… I only want what’s best. For her. And for the baby.”
“Well, what do you think is ‘best?’”
“Don’t be a jerk.”
“I’m not trying to be. I’m serious. In a perfect world, what would you want for her to be sure she and the baby are okay?”
He huffed out a sigh. “I don’t know. Put her in a bubble-wrapped room?” He looked at me and the tiniest, shocking hint of a smile almost curved his lip. Then he sobered and shook his head. “I know. It’s stupid. And Maddy’d kill me if she heard me say that, so don’t you dare tell her.”
I smiled. “My lips are sealed.”
“I don’t know what I want,” he admitted. “Except to keep them safe. I know I can’t be with her every second. And she almost kicked me out when I suggested she stop working. She thinks I’m overreacting. But I don’t know what to do. I can’t stop seeing all that blood when I close my eyes. I can’t stop seeing her in that hospital bed, hooked up to IVs and looking like a ghost. And…and I don’t know how we’re going to deal with it if we…if we lose another.”
“Mad says everything’s going well this time, though. That’s a good sign.”
“Yeah. But we thought everything was going well last time, too.”
“She’s farther along already.”
“I know, but that doesn’t mean something can’t still happen.”
“Do you remember what Mom’s always told us, about our thoughts and how they have power?”
“Yeah, yeah, I know. What we think, what we speak and put out into the universe is what comes back to us. But I don’t know if I believe it’s as simple as, ‘Oh, let’s think happy thoughts and then everything in our life will be oh-so happy.’ This is a little more complicated than that.”
“Agreed. This is more complicated. On the other hand, it’s not healthy to focus on the negative all the time, to always see the worst side of things, or think of the worst possibilities. Doing that over and over reinforces those negatives, which is only more upsetting, and it becomes a vicious cycle. Right now you’re so worried something bad is going to happen that it’s keeping you stressed all the time, and that in turn stresses Maddy, which…”
“Might stress the baby.”
“Maybe. I’m not a doctor, but it kind of makes sense. Whereas if you try to focus on positives, have some optimistic faith, and think of the good possibilities, the act of thinking positively will probably ease some of your stress, and that flows down the chain.”
“Thinking happy thoughts isn’t going to stop bad things from ever happening, though.”
“Of course not. Sometimes bad things just happen and we don’t have control over them. But what we do have control over is how we react to the hard things. You have every reason to be concerned, to be scared. But you have a choice in how you deal with that. You can choose to let those fears control you, to let them eat at you, which is going to rub off on the people around you, especially the person who loves you most. Or you can choose hope. And what you know for sure about that is that even if it doesn’t fix the problem, it’s certainly not going to make it worse, and it might very well make you feel a little better.”
He was quiet for several seconds, once again picking his cuticles and not looking at me. But, finally, he mumbled, “I’m still not saying I agree, but…I guess I can see what you’re getting at.”
In the old days I might have teased him about admitting I was right, but I’d honestly never seen my brother so tangled in emotional knots. And it hurt my heart. He was a stubborn butt sometimes, and we’d had our share of fights, but I’d never seen him like this.
“It’s going to be okay,” I told him.
“Look,” he said, glancing at me. “Can we just talk about something else now?”
“Sure. What do you want talk about?”
“God, why do you have to be such an asshole?”
I cocked an eyebrow at him. “I’m an asshole now because…?” I asked calmly.
He sighed like I was hopeless. It was a defensive thing. I’d heard him do it dozens of times during our lives.
“Never mind,” he said, rolling his eyes.
I bit back a smile. I loved my brother, but he could be so damned predictable.
“So, Maddy says you and Jay have been hanging out,” he said, by way of changing the subject.
“We have. I did a shitty job of staying in touch with him, too, so it’s been nice to reconnect.”
“Has he forgiven you?”
“For being a crappy friend?”
“Yeah,” he said in his best grouchy tone.
“He has, actually.”
“Did you promise him you’d be better in the future?”
“Does he believe you?”
“He does. You don’t have to believe me if you don’t want to, Kev, but I have no intention of bailing again on the people I care about.”
“We’ll see,” he mumbled under his breath.
By the time we parted ways, things weren’t easy between us, but at least he was speaking to me again. Sort of. Which I saw as a win. And the rest of it…well, I’d just have to prove to him I’d meant what I said.