Hometown Hearts by M.L. Rhodes
Copyright 2018 by M.L. Rhodes, All Rights Reserved
“Were you spying?” I gave her a faux-shocked look.
“Okay, I wasn’t actually spying. I just went in the living room to put a few more presents under the tree and I couldn’t exactly not notice what was going on in plain sight out the front window.”
“What was going on? Holy crap, you’re so bad. I can’t believe my own mom spies on her grown-ass son.”
“Well, when her grown-ass son is standing in the driveway kissing his best friend of forever, your own mom has a right to sp— to notice.”
“So, sit down, drink your coffee, eat this delicious sandwich I made for you, and spill.”
“You’re resorting to bribery with food?”
“That’s right, and I feel no guilt about it whatsoever.”
I smiled and pulled her into a hug. “I’ve missed you. And this.”
She laughed. “I’ve missed you and this, too. Kevin used to always get annoyed when I’d try to talk to him about…well, pretty much anything. But you were always ready and willing to tell me whatever was on your mind.”
It was true. She’d always been my first and best sounding board when I’d needed to talk.
I sank onto a bar stool in front of the ham and Swiss sandwich she’d cut in half diagonally and put on a bright red paper plate. “Where’s Dad?”
“You just missed him. He went into the garage to his truck as you were coming in the front door. He’s gone to drop off a gift for Ed and Louisa”—Ed was my dad’s second-in-command in the construction company—“and then he’s going to pick up some egg nog and beer. So, don’t worry, he won’t hear anything you’d like to share.”
“I don’t mind if Dad hears. I never have.”
“Okay, I know. But he’s not here right now and I don’t want to wait until he’s back. So…” She sat across from me, her chin resting on her hand.
I laughed again. “Oh my God, could you at least try not to look so eager?”
“Good grief,” I said, shaking my head. “Fine. But instead of me babbling, why don’t you just ask me what you want to know. What you don’t already know, apparently.”
I took a bite of the sandwich and waited.
“All right. Well, the obvious question first. So, Jay’s gay? And how long have you known?”
“That’s two questions.”
“All right, I’ll cut you some slack. Jay is not gay. He’s actually bi.”
Her eyebrows rose and her face took on a soft Ohhhhh! look, like a lightbulb of understanding had just gone on for her.
“And, as for how long I’ve known…since the night I ate dinner at his house last week.”
Now she looked surprised. “You didn’t know until this visit?”
“No. To be fair, he wasn’t sure until fairly recently, just in the last few years. Figuring it out was tough for him, really tough. No thanks to that piece of shit Russell.”
I couldn’t help muttering the last. I wasn’t certain Jay would want me telling anyone about what he’d shared with me, but this was my mom, who’d always kept my trust and secrets. So I was pretty sure he wouldn’t mind her knowing. Hell, she’d always been more of a mom to him than his own.
“Oh, honey.” She reached across the table and set a hand atop mine. “Did Russell…?” She looked pained at even thinking about it.
“He was an abusive bastard,” I said, my chest tightening. “He hurt Jay. Not sexually, but definitely physically and emotionally. Jay never said a word about it when we were growing up, but I saw bruises sometimes and wondered. He always explained them away, though. Turns out there were a lot more I didn’t know about.”
“Oh my God.” Mom shook her head. “I’m sick to my stomach. Your dad and I had several conversations over the years, wondering if something like that might be happening. Russell was always such a mean son-of-a-bitch and he acted like he could barely tolerate having Jay around. But we never saw anything that could prove he was hurting him, and Jay never said anything. We always hoped that if something were going on, Fred would know and step in. But I’m mad at myself for not just outright asking Jay.”
“He wouldn’t have admitted it even if you’d asked, Mom. He was too afraid of Russell. He never even breathed a hint of it to me, and outright lied to me to cover for the bruises I noticed. If he was scared to talk to me, he’d never have talked to you guys.”
“I still feel guilty.”
I squeezed her hand. “Don’t. Jay wouldn’t want you to feel that way. Besides, he had Grandpa Fred, and he spent a lot of time with him instead of at home. I think that was his saving grace. I’m not sure if Grandpa Fred knew or not. Maybe, like you guys, he suspected and couldn’t prove it. But I think his way of dealing with it was to keep Jay with him as much as he could.”
“Fred was a good man.”
“He was. And Jay’s so much like him.”
“I can see that. He was always a good kid, too. Did Jay suspect he was bi when he was younger and was afraid to say anything?”
“He didn’t know how to label it, but he realized he liked girls and guys, yeah. When he was a young teenager, though, his mom saw something that made her know he liked guys, and she told him he could never show it, talk about it, or think about it because if Russell found out, he’d kill him. According to Jay, she was terrified when she said it and implied to him that Russell and his friends had…I don’t know exactly, but apparently they’d hurt gay men in the past.”
My mom blanched the color of the white Christmas sweatshirt she wore. “Dear God,” she whispered.
“Yeah. Needless to say, it scared Jay so badly he never said a word to anyone. And…I hate this…but when I came out to you guys and Jay, that only made him more afraid. He was scared Russell would find out I was gay and might try to hurt me.”
“Oh lord. Poor Jay. Thinking he had to take on the weight of that as well as what he was already dealing with.”
I sighed. “I know. All those years he lived in fear not just for himself, but for me. It makes me glad I didn’t come out publicly until much later. The thought of Russell hurting gay men is terrifying. But mainly I’m glad because I think it would have made Jay even more worried and added even more to his emotional burden.”
“That boy had far too much to deal with already,” Mom agreed. “I can’t even imagine. So, his fear of Russell is why he only ever dated girls?”
“Mm-hmm. By the time he went to college, he said he’d repressed his feelings about guys for so long, he’d convinced himself he was straight. But, eventually, he realized the attraction was still there. So then he wondered if maybe he was gay and had only been pretending to like women because of his fear. Until he’d meet a woman he was attracted to, and then he’d go through the confusion all over again.”
I shook my head as I remembered Jay telling me the whole story. “He got caught in a vicious cycle, not sure about anything, and taking crap from most of the people he dated, men and women, because he’d been with both. I think maybe he’d always battled depression to some degree, even though he never expressed it, and spending his twenties struggling and torn apart over his sexuality made everything worse. God, I hate that he had to deal with all of that alone. I feel like I abandoned him and our friendship, Mom, just when he needed me the most.”
“Oh, honey, you didn’t know. And you didn’t abandon him. Sometimes old friendships are tough to maintain in adulthood. That’s not uncommon.”
“Not ours. I mean, ours shouldn’t have been. If I hadn’t gotten so caught up in my life in New York… Damn it. I should have known what he was going through. Should have been there to support him.” I sighed. “Anyway, he finally saw a therapist a few years ago who really helped him, made him realize he didn’t have to pick a side, that he was bi and it was okay for him to like both women and men. He said things have been better since then.”
“Better enough he finally felt comfortable confiding in you. That’s good.”
“Yeah. It is good.” I smiled then. “Although, he didn’t really have much choice but to tell me. Let’s just say from the moment we saw each other again out in front of Maddy’s office last week, neither of could ignore the writing on the wall.”
“You had sparks?” she asked, smiling now herself.
“Oh yeah. Definite sparkage. The thing is…I always liked Jay that way. Even back in high school.”
My brows shot up. “What?”
“I’m your mother. No one else might have noticed, but I did. Well…I suspected anyway. I know your heart, hon.”
“Was I that obvious?”
“No. Nooo, not at all. You always did an admirable job of covering it up. I doubt even Jay suspected.”
“He didn’t. He seemed genuinely surprised when I told him. But the thing is, in spite of the fact he outwardly shut down about liking guys in high school, he apparently still always felt that way about me, too.”
“That doesn’t really surprise me. You two were inseparable and always very close. A part of me wondered, as you guys became older teenagers, if there might be something more there. But Jay always seemed to have some girl or other he was dating, even in college when he’d come home.”
“I know. Hence my surprise when he was making flirty comments and giving me distinctly non-platonic looks the first day I was home. Which brought back all my old feelings for him, not that they’d ever gone away. So we had a really honest conversation and learned a lot about each other.”
“The result of which was a decision to see where the relationship leads you?”
“Actually, at first we decided the timing was terrible and we should keep things strictly on a friend level.”
“Ah. Because of what just happened between you and Shane, I assume.”
I nodded and felt a twinge of the old, crappy knot in my gut flare to life again. “It didn’t seem fair to Jay, me leaping into a new relationship with him so quickly when I still have so much to sort out with Shane. We agreed I needed some time and space to deal with things. But then… I don’t know. For our whole lives we thought we couldn’t have what we both secretly wanted. And then, here we were, and it turned out we could actually have it. It was harder than we expected to keep it casual and friendly when we were both feeling anything but.”
“And so now you’re following your hearts,” she said with a smile.
“Pretty much. I guess you could say we’re kind of taking a leap of faith that everything’ll work out okay.”
“If you and Jay are planning to adopt the dogs, does that mean you’ll be sharing care of them? As in, living in one house?”
“I know you’re fishing for specifics, but I don’t know any yet. Not in the short-term anyway. I just know we want to be together, but I don’t know exactly how we’re going to make that work in practical terms. We haven’t talked about any details yet. I think I’m a little scared to,” I admitted.
“Everything’s just so damned complicated. Jay’s and my lives are almost two-thousand miles apart right now. If I were only working as an associate for some firm, I could quit and go anywhere I wanted to, no problem. But I don’t have that option since Shane and I own the firm and all the employees work for us. I can’t, in good faith, just walk away from Harris & Breckman, as much as I’d love to never have to interact with Shane again. I’ve got cases I’ve got to see through, and there’s a lot of work to be done just to figure out how to split up our business partnership, not to mention doing the best I can to be sure our aforementioned employees don’t end up out on their asses.”
I shook my head. “Sadly, I don’t think Shane’s going to make any of it easy either—he’s pretty much said as much. The whole damn thing’s a mess, Mom. And meanwhile, Jay’ll be here without me, and…God, I just don’t want him to be hurt in any way.”
“Why would you think he’d be hurt? Jay’s worked in the corporate world from what I understand. I’m sure he knows you’ll have loose ends to tie up with Shane.”
“He does know. And he says it’ll be fine, and I believe he really means that. But…based on everything he’s told me, relationships haven’t always been easy for him. I think he’s tried to open his heart fully, but he hasn’t always gotten that in return and he’s been hurt, I suspect several times over. So even though I think he truly means it when he says everything’ll be fine, I worry he’s more emotionally fragile than he lets on.”
“And he might be. But, honey, you can’t spend your time worrying about something that might never happen. You’ve both been hurt. It sounds like you’ve both been in toxic relationships. It’s only natural to have some uncertainty about how things will go, and to want to tread carefully when starting a new relationship. But you and Jay have the advantage of having known each other for a long time, so this isn’t really new. Not completely.”
“We’ve thought of that. It’s not like starting from scratch to build trust.”
“No, it’s not. You two know each other so well.”
“That doesn’t mean problems can’t arise.”
“Well of course they can. In spite of the fact you do have a long history together, you’re still, inevitably, going to go through some rough spots. You’re not always going to agree on everything. And you’re going to accidentally hurt one another sometimes because that’s just part of being human and being in a relationship. But worrying about it or trying to predict what’s going to happen is wasted energy. You know what I’ve always told you and your brother about monitoring the thoughts you put out to the universe…if you fixate on the negative or on your fears, then fearful negativity might very well manifest. Whereas if you focus on positive thoughts, then positive energy is what you’ll receive in return.”
“I just reminded Kevin of that yesterday, actually.”
“Good. He’s been needing a reminder.”
“Yeah, well, apparently so do I. Seems I can dish out the advice but not apply it to myself.”
“Listen, you and Jay are both smart, caring, good men. If you want this to work, you’ll find a way. It’s just that simple.”
She smiled. “I do. But I think you already know that. As long as you remember how much you care about one another, you can get through anything.”
* * *
Jay came back around 4:30, shortly after Maddy and Kevin had arrived.
“You said you’d be back soon,” I told him as I opened the front door to let him in.
“It’s before five,” he said, stomping off his boots on the rug in the entryway as he shut the door behind him. He held a covered dish in one gloved hand.
“Are you pouting?” he asked with a grin.
“You totally are.”
“I’m far too mature to pout.”
“Maybe, but it’s kinda sexy.” He wrapped his free arm around my waist and tugged me into a steamy kiss that, holy shit, left me a little breathless.
“You missed me,” he whispered against my mouth.
“Damn right I did.” My fingers played with the dark curls on the nape of his neck beneath his cowboy hat.
I felt him grin again for a split second before he planted another kiss on me.
We came up for air when I heard Maddy say, in a laughing voice, “Holy criminy. You guys just set the bar impossibly high for the best hello kiss ever.”
We stepped apart, both of us smiling now, gazes locked on one another. But I saw a red flush spreading up Jay’s cheeks, which was completely adorable.
“It’s Christmas,” Jay said with a shrug. “And there’s mistletoe.”
“There is?” I asked.
His eyes sparkled with humor. Without saying a word, he merely pointed up.
When I looked, I couldn’t help but laugh. I’ll be damned if there wasn’t a fake sprig of mistletoe hanging from the foyer light above us. “Has that always been there?”
“Does it matter? It’s there now.”
“So it is.” Ignoring Maddy, I leaned in to kiss Jay again because, damn it, I could. Because all my life I’d wanted to kiss him exactly like this, in the open, in front of other people, with nothing to hide.
This time it was Kevin’s unexpected voice I heard as Jay and I were pulling apart.
“Thank God. It’s about damned time you two finally figured your shit out,” Kevin said.
I looked at him, still half in a Jay-induced kiss haze, wondering what in hell he was talking about.
His eyebrows rose and he gave me the “Jesus Christ, are you completely stupid?” look he’d used since we were kids. Then he shook his head and pointed between me and Jay. “You two. It’s about damn time you figured your shit out with each other. It took long enough.”
When Jay, Maddy, and I all stared at him in surprise, it was his turn to blush, but he even did that in a stubborn way, with his brows drawn together now and a shaking head. “What?” he said defensively. “You think I never noticed? I spent more time with the two of you than anyone else, and if no one but me picked up on the constant undercurrent between you two, then you’re all hopeless.”
He shook his head again, but with a faint smile on his face this time, before he turned and disappeared back into the kitchen.
Jay and I and Maddy all looked at each other and burst into laughter.
Of all people, who knew my bullheaded brother had been so observant all these years?
“Here, give me this before you drop it,” Maddy said, reaching to take the dish from Jay. “And excuse me while I go fan myself. It’s damned hot in here.” She grinned and left us.
“It is awfully hot in here,” Jay said, rubbing his thumb over my lower lip.
“Funny how it got that way the moment you walked in the door.”
“And to think, only a minute ago you were mad I was late. Does this mean I’m forgiven?”
“I’m keeping my options open for further penance from you.”
“Uh huh. Well, you just let me know because I’ve got plenty more where that came from.”
“I’m counting on it.”
“Me, too,” he said with a far-too-sexy grin.
After Jay had taken off his coat and boots and we entered the kitchen, Mom was taking the foil off the top of the dish Jay had brought.
“Oh!” she said with a pleased smile. “Is this pineapple dream, Jay?”
“It’s one of Grandpa’s recipes. I think he called it pineapple delight? Does that sound right?”
She rattled off a list of ingredients and Jay nodded and they came to the conclusion it was the same thing in spite of different names.
“You know,” I said, looking at him. “I think there’s something you’re hiding from me. You claim you have only a small cooking repertoire, but I’m beginning to doubt the veracity of this tale you’re telling me.”
He held up his hands, his eyes wide and glinting with humor. “I swear! I’ve never made this before. I just didn’t want to show up empty handed, and I happened to have all the ingredients, so I threw it together.”
“Uh huh. And I’m supposed to believe that? You just ‘threw it’ together?”
“Yes. It might taste terrible for all I know.”
“It’s doesn’t,” Maddy said, licking a spoon with the evidence she’d just tried it. “It’s amazing and you can make this for me anytime you want, Jay.” She dug into it again, this time putting a full helping of it on a paper plate. “Nobody minds if I eat dessert first, right?”
“Go for it,” my mom told her. “It’s Christmas.”
After that, we all filled plates with the assorted munchies and finger foods and desserts laid out on the breakfast bar. Christmas Eve had always been casual at our house.
We took our plates to the table, where my dad was already shuffling the Uno cards between bites of food.
“Why does Dad always get to pick first?” Kevin asked. “Because it’s always Uno. Every year.”
“That’s right,” my dad said. “Because I’m number one, numero uno.”
We all groaned.
“You know that joke got old like ten years ago, right?” Kevin said.
“And yet you all still laugh,” Dad said with a snerk.
“I think he’s somehow convinced himself our groans are laughter,” I said. “I’m not sure if that mean’s he’s gotten hard of hearing or…”
“Or if he’s just getting a little senile?” my mom chimed in, grinning.
“Hey!” Dad said. “We’re the same age, you and I, so careful what you’re saying there, darlin’.”
“Yeah, but women don’t age as fast as men do,” she said.
Maddy laughed and she and my mom, who sat next to each other, high-fived.
We played a couple of games of Uno, then Kevin pulled out Cards Against Humanity, which he and Maddy had brought with them. My dad grumbled about it because he’d never played it before, but he ended up laughing the hardest of anyone and, when he won, decided it was his favorite game ever.
Then we moved to the family room downstairs with drinks and popcorn for the annual Christmas movie marathon.
Before we started, though, Maddy spontaneously shared the news that she and Kevin were pregnant. I knew it was spontaneous and not planned because Kevin’s eyes practically bulged out of his head at her announcement, and he looked shell-shocked as everyone hugged and congratulated them.
As I hugged her, Maddy whispered to me, “He would never have been ready to tell everyone, so I decided to break the news when he least expected it. Now that the cat’s out of the bag, I think he’ll start feeling a little better.”
I hoped so. Because, damn it, they deserved to be happy.
We watched White Christmas first because that was my mom’s favorite and Dad always went along with her choice. I hadn’t seen it in years, since the last time I’d been home, and I’d forgotten how damned good it was. As the final scene closed, I sighed with contentment. Because how could I not, snuggled next to Jay on the loveseat under a quilt, his arm around my shoulders, his fingers playing with my hair, and Loki draped across both our laps.
“I just never get tired of watching that,” my mom said with a dreamy smile.
“Quick,” Kevin said, “someone else pick the next movie before Hunter suggests Santa Claus is Coming to Town.”
As with my dad’s choice of Uno, everyone groaned. Even Jay.
“But it’s good,” I said, looking at him. “We already had this conversation and you know how I feel.”
“Oh my God,” Maddy said, “it’s such a sap-fest.”
Jay grinned at me as he answered her. “That’s what I said.”
“And that part with the sixties, psychedelic song Jessica/Mrs. Claus sings…holy reindeer balls, just no,” Kevin added.
“You guys have no taste and I’m mad at all of you. But, fine, whatever. You go ahead and pick something else.”
“We will,” Maddy said, laughing.
“You’re doing that sexy pout again,” Jay whispered, leaning close to my ear.
His warm breath sent a tingle through me and I grinned. I could feel him smiling, too, and suddenly all I really wanted to do was drag him upstairs to my room. Damn him. I was pretty sure that’s the reaction he’d been trying to get.
“You’re a troublemaker,” I said under my breath.
“Yep. And you like it.” I heard the teasing humor in his voice even as another ripple of tingly heat slid through me.
“I think we should watch The Grinch,” Maddy was saying.
“I love that one,” Jay said.
Until Maddy made it clear she wanted the Jim Carrey movie and Jay wanted the old cartoon.
After some back and forth, Kevin interrupted and said, “Since you two can’t agree, then let’s watch Die Hard.”
“That is not a Christmas movie,” my mom said. “You bring it up every year, but you know my stance on it.”
“It is, though. It’s set on Christmas Eve.”
Mom and Maddy rolled their eyes.
Surprisingly, Kevin looked to me for support. He’d actually been more like his old self all night, which had been a relief.
I held up my hands and shook my head with a laugh. “I’m staying out of this one.”
“Gee, thanks for your support, bro. I was hoping you’d back me up since no one else has the past few years.”
At the not-so-subtle reminder I hadn’t been home in a while, I caved. “Okay, fine. I vote for Die Hard. Jay?”
“If it makes you guys happy, whatever.”
“No,” Maddy said in a stubborn tone I recognized well. “I am not watching Die Hard. And neither is your mom, right?” she said, looking to Mom.
“Okay,” I said, stepping easily back into my long-time role as family mediator. “Why doesn’t everyone pick another movie to watch now, together, and then, after that, Jay and I’ll stay up and watch Die Hard with you, Kevin. Fair?”
He let out a grumble, but I knew him well enough to tell it was mostly for show. “I suppose, as long as you swear you won’t bail on me.”
Finally, after another round of good-natured arguing, we all agreed on Elf.
By the time it was over, it was nearly eleven and Maddy and my dad were yawning.
“That’s it for me. I’m going to bed,” my dad said, standing and rubbing his back.
Mom stood with him and slid an arm around his waist. “Me, too.”
“Me, three,” Maddy said, yawning again. She’d gone upstairs and changed into her pajamas before we’d started Elf. She and Kevin had always spent the night here on Christmas Eve for as long as they’d been together. I wondered if they would still do it next year, once they had a kiddo of their own.
“We’ll take the dogs out,” Mom said, before hugging Kevin, Jay, and me. “Night, guys. Love you all. Stay out of trouble.”
“Yippee-ki-yay,” Kevin said.
Mom rolled her eyes again. “Oh lord. And on that note, I’m outta here.” She turned and headed toward the stairs, but I could hear her chuckling.
My dad gave the three of us a conspiratorial grin and a thumbs up behind her back, which made us all laugh.
“What?” my mom asked, halfway up the stairs, turning to look at us over the open railing.
“Nothing. Right behind you, honey,” Dad told her, starting up the steps.
She gave him a raised eyebrow, then us, then shook her head. “Honestly. The things I put up with. You all better be careful. Santa’s watching. I have three words for you: Lumps. Of. Coal.”
After they’d gone, Kevin decided to go upstairs and get something to drink, and Jay went with him. Maddy had lingered, and I realized why once everyone else had left the room. She grinned and practically squealed, though she somehow managed to do it quietly. “I told you so!”
“Told me so what?”
“That Jay was looking. And you lied to me ’cause you were obviously looking, too.”
I couldn’t help but smile and, yeah, that warm tingly feeling spread through me again just thinking about Jay. “Okay, I’m busted. I paid attention, like you said, and…you were right. About all of it.”
She laughed and hugged me. “I knew it! And, Hunter, you guys make the cutest couple.”
I was pretty sure I was blushing now. “Thanks.”
When she’d stepped back, she asked, in a hopeful tone, “Does this mean you’re going to move back here?”
“I’m not sure yet what’s going to happen. We’re kind of playing it by ear right now.”
“But you’re together-together? Please tell me you are and this isn’t just a holiday fling thing.”
“It’s not. And, yeah, we’re together-together.” It felt good to say it.
“I’m so, so happy I can barely stand it!”
“And you’re happy, too,” she added. “I can tell.”
But once again, even as I said the words, the specter of Shane popped up in my mind, reminding me I still had to wade through crap before Jay and I could have our happily ever after. Damn it. I didn’t want Shane intruding right now. But ever since mine and Jay’s conversation earlier today, and then the one with my mom, I hadn’t fully been able to eject Shane from my thoughts. I’d tried, but every now and then he’d slither back into them. Maybe because Jay’s suggestion that Shane had been emotionally manipulating me all along bugged the hell out of me.
But, damn it, it was Christmas and I refused to give that douchebag any more of my time and attention.
Its was easy to let it go when, at that moment, Kevin and Jay returned, and one look at Jay’s smile and hearing his sexy, rumbly voice as he said something to Kevin, sent thoughts of Shane blowing away like so much dust.
“All right, I’m going to bed for real,” Maddy was saying.
She and Kevin kissed and hugged and when he reached down and rested a hand on the slight bump of her belly that was barely noticeable unless you knew to look for it, it was pretty damned sweet.
“Don’t stay up all night,” she told Kevin. “You have to work tomorrow afternoon and I don’t want you to be sleep deprived on your shift.”
“Nag, nag.” But he smiled and kissed her again.
Jay and I told her goodnight, and she blew us kisses.
“Enjoy your murder and mayhem movie, boys,” she called with a grin as she climbed the stairs.
“All right, let’s do this,” I said, taking the bottle of beer Jay handed me. “Let’s give Kevin his Christmas cop fix so he can go to bed with visions of carnage and justice dancing in his head.”
“Hehe! Finally, like minds who who will appreciate it with me,” Kevin said, wielding the remote to pull up the movie.
Jay and I looked at each other, heads shaking, and grinned.