Hometown Hearts by M.L. Rhodes
Copyright 2018 by M.L. Rhodes, All Rights Reserved
My first thought on waking, before I even opened my eyes, was wondering why the bed was so damned hard. And what the hell was jabbing my hip?
I reached down, blindly feeling around, and my hand closed onto something solid and plastic. What the—? I pulled it up so I could see it and cracked open my gritty eyelids.
My brain was fuzzy, but somewhere in the murky depths a description formed: Playstation controller.
And that’s when I suddenly remembered why the bed was hard. Because I wasn’t in bed. I was on the damn floor.
I looked around and vaguely remembered that after the movie, Jay, Kevin and I had been gaming. It had gotten late and I’d been watching Kevin play Battlefield. I’d been too tired to get up and nudge Jay over on the couch and lie with him, or even move to sit in one of the recliners or on the love seat. Instead, I’d just sort of slumped over where I was, thinking I’d only close my eyes for a second.
Ha. That second had clearly become far longer since I was pretty sure what woke me was my dad upstairs letting the dogs out. Which meant…morning.
I sat up, stiff and aching, looking around. The lights had stayed on all night, and I saw that Kevin hadn’t fared much better than I had. It looked like he’d grabbed a throw pillow from somewhere and he was sound asleep on his stomach on the floor, his head on the pillow.
Jay had fallen asleep long before I had, stretched out on the couch, covered with a quilt. And he was still out. I couldn’t help but smile as I looked at him. He had one arm up over his head, and the other resting on his chest. His breathing was slow and even.
I was glad one of us had gotten a decent night’s sleep.
“Oh my God, I cannot believe you guys did this.”
I looked over and saw her standing at the foot of the stairs, her hands on her hips.
“For what it’s worth, neither can I,” I said, yawning and dragging a hand over my face.
She wended her way around the furniture to Kevin and nudged him with her slippered foot. “Kevin!”
“Kevin Breckman, wake up!”
He startled. “What?” he mumbled.
“I can’t believe you didn’t come to bed. You’re going to be dead tired on your shift tonight. You promised you’d get some sleep.”
“I was sleeping,” he said grumpily. “Until you woke me.”
Maddy gave me an exasperated glare, but, honestly, he wasn’t wrong. I had to fight not to say as much, or not to laugh, afraid if I did, she’d turn her wrath on me, too.
“Oh for God’s sake, get up.” She nudged Kevin again. “We’re going to open presents. All of you guys, get upstairs. I don’t feel sorry for any of you. You chose to stay up all night gaming, and now you have to pay the price.”
Ouch. Her “mom” tone made me feel sorry for her kiddo.
“Nag, nag,” Kevin said, still clearly not in a hurry to move. “And we didn’t stay up all night. Hence the sleeping…which you woke me, and probably all of us, from.”
“Yeah, well, I hope you enjoyed your fun and games last night because next year you’re gonna have to be a responsible adult and play Santa Claus, which means you won’t be able to do this,” she said in a sassy tone. Then she stuck her tongue out at him (not that he could see it, since he’d never actually opened his eyes), turned on her heel, and flounced toward the stairs. Which was kind of hard to take seriously when she was wearing bright pink polka-dotted flannel pajamas and bunny slippers.
I was pretty sure Kevin had gone right back to sleep before Maddy’s foot ever hit the bottom step.
Behind me, Jay asked in a rumbly voice, “Is it safe? Is she gone?”
I turned to look at him and grinned. He’d opened one eye and was grimacing.
“You were pretending to be asleep? You’re so bad.”
At that, an easy, sleepy smile curved his lips and he opened both eyes. “I decided that might be safest since she was clearly on a rant.”
“Yeah, okay. That was probably a good call.”
“Is Kevin asleep again?”
“Oh hell yeah. The instant she walked away. Can’t you hear him snoring?”
We both snorted with silent laughter.
After we’d managed to rein it in, Jay’s brows drew together. “What are you doing down there?” He reached out to caress my jaw. “Did you sleep on the floor?”
“Why didn’t you scoot me over and come up here with me?”
“Well, I just sort of closed my eyes for a minute, and next thing I knew, it was morning.”
“I missed you.”
“You did not. You were sound asleep.”
“Yes I did. We should have called it a night earlier and then we could have slept in a real bed. Together.”
I winced as I rearranged myself on the floor. “You have no idea how much I regret we didn’t do that.”
“Because now you’ve got aches and pains?”
“No, because I was thinking more in terms of what I didn’t get by not going to bed earlier with you.”
“Ah, I see.” His low chuckle and the decidedly naughty sparkle in his eyes made me regret the decision not to get to a proper bed even more.
He rolled onto his side and held up the quilt in invitation with that same sexy grin. “You could come up here for a few minutes. Kevin’s always slept like the dead. He’d never hear a thing.”
“You are bad this morning.” But I knew I had a big-ass smile on my face and, against my better judgment, I couldn’t stop myself from taking him up on his offer. I rose and eased myself onto the couch next to him.
Unfortunately, this couch wasn’t as wide as his, where we’d easily been able lie side by side the other day.
“This is not gonna work,” I said.
“It’s fine. Just come here.” He pulled me closer to him until I think virtually every part of the front of me was pressed tightly against the front of him. “There. See,” he whispered, kissing my jaw as one of his warm, callused hands slid down into the back of my sweats to gently grope my ass.
“Holy crap,” I breathed.
“See, it’s worth a little bit of squishing together. Now kiss me, quick, before Maddy comes down here raging hellfire again.”
I half laughed, but it quickly turned into a soft moan as our mouths met. And it was glorious. All of it. The kiss, the way our bodies notched together, the feel of his undeniable erection against mine despite the layers of fleece and denim between them. Honestly, I could have happily stayed right here for hours, doing nothing more than this.
“Kevin! Hunter! Jay! Get your asses up here right now or I’m opening all your presents and keeping everything for myself!”
We eased our mouths apart and shared another quiet laugh.
“She’ll do it, too,” I said.
“Oh, I have no doubt.”
I traced a finger over Jay’s lips, much like he always did to mine, and smiled. “Merry Christmas.”
He kissed my fingertip and smiled back. “Merry Christmas.”
We finally made it upstairs a few minutes later after it’d taken both of us to roust Kevin. My brother had always slept so soundly and woken up so slowly he’d made Mom’s life hell when he was younger. Trying to get him out of bed for school had been a nightmare. And it had been made worse by the fact he’d always been a cranky asshole in the mornings. Clearly, some things never changed.
The only saving grace had been my mom meeting Jay and me with Christmas mugs full of coffee as a reward when we got to the kitchen.
“Oh, thank you,” Jay breathed, his face showing his blissful appreciation as he took a sip.
“You’re a lifesaver,” I told her, giving her a grateful kiss.
She smiled. “I know.”
Turning to my brother, she said, “Kevin, what can I get you, hon?”
“Nothing, Mom. I’ll find something later.”
Kevin didn’t drink coffee. Come to think of it, maybe that’s why he was always such a miserable shithead in the mornings. He probably needed coffee in his life.
We spent the next couple of hours opening presents and eating homemade cinnamon rolls, not necessarily in that order.
Jay had, at some point, slipped out to his truck and brought in a couple of presents—one for my parents and one for Maddy and Kevin. When my mom opened hers and Dad’s she got a little choked up, and I couldn’t blame her because it was an absolutely gorgeous enlarged photo of the Maroon Bells at sunrise. The Maroon Bells were two of the many fourteeners—mountains over fourteen thousand feet in altitude—in Colorado. Like the Kebler Pass photograph Jay was painting from, this photo had also been made in autumn. But the peaks in this one were already snow-capped, and between them and the autumn color and the rosy clouds in the blue sky, the photo was breathtaking. It looked like it absolutely should be hanging on a gallery wall.
Maddy and Kevin’s was smaller, probably 11 x 14 inches or so, but also a framed photo.
“Do you recognize it?” Jay asked them, in his quiet, rumbly way. The photo was also a mountain vista, but this one had been taken in the summer because a bloom of brightly colored wildflowers filled the foreground, with a green meadow in the center and mountain peaks above timberline in the background.
Maddy’s mouth suddenly formed into an O. “Oh my God. Jay…” Then she looked at Kevin. “It’s where we—”
“—had our first date,” he finished for her, staring at the photo with something akin to awe. “It’s the Herman Gulch Trail,” he said to Jay.
Jay nodded and smiled.
“But how did you know?” Maddy asked. “How’d you know or…or even remember that’s where we went on our first date? That was forever ago.”
Jay shrugged. “I have a good memory.”
“Probably because I talked to Jay and Hunter for days beforehand,” Kevin said, still looking at the picture, then up at Maddy. “I asked where the prettiest place was to take you hiking. They hiked all the time, everywhere, so I knew they’d be able to help me think of somewhere good.”
“He really wanted to impress you,” I told Maddy, smiling.
“So we told him about how beautiful the wildflowers were on the Herman Gulch hike that time of year,” Jay finished.
“You guys!” Maddy was teary now. “Jay, this is the sweetest thing ever!” She half climbed across me to get to Jay and hug him. “Thank you so much!”
“It is very cool, man,” Kevin said. “Thank you.” And he even smiled.
There was a particularly large package under the tree that hadn’t been there yesterday and I was surprised to find it labeled to Jay and me from my parents. Another silly milestone maybe, but it was our first joint gift, and I damn well loved seeing our names together on that tag. Jay seemed surprised and pleased as well.
When we tore into it, we discovered it was a doggie care package—everything we’d need for our dogs when we were able to bring them home. There were beds, bowls, collars, leashes, blankets, toys, treats, and even a couple of bags of food. Jay and I looked at each other and grinned. It was spectacularly awesome, and we told my parents as much.
Eventually, we got around to making brunch, which we all helped with, even Kevin, who seemed to be in a surprisingly decent mood now, considering his lack of sleep and Maddy’s scolding first thing this morning. It made me think Maddy had probably been right. Now that their pregnancy was out in the open and no longer a secret, maybe it had been what Kevin needed to relax a little, knowing he and Mad weren’t alone in the knowledge and they had support. I hoped so. But whatever the impetus, he seemed genuinely happy—laughing and teasing Maddy, cracking jokes with Jay and me, and generally being his best self. The brother I remembered.
After we’d finished stuffing ourselves with omelettes and sausage and bacon and pancakes, we lounged around talking—much to my dad’s disappointment since he wanted to play Cards Against Humanity again.
“I think we created a monster,” Kevin commented to Jay, Maddy, and me, and we all snickered as Dad looked longingly at the game, where it sat on the corner of the coffee table, and sighed each time he passed by it. We finally promised him that if no one had other plans on New Year’s Eve, we’d all meet here for another game night and we’d play it then. Honestly, his face lit up like he’d just won the lottery.
Kevin had to be at work at 3:00 p.m, which meant he and Maddy were going to need to leave around 1:30 so he’d have time to go home and get into his uniform before he made the drive to Hot Sulphur Springs, which was where the Grand County Sheriff’s Office was located. But after Jay and I had gotten the dog stuff in our package, Maddy wanted us to tell her all about our dogs. And when we’d said we were hoping to go visit them later in the afternoon, she asked if she could go with us and meet them.
Kevin told us that he’d heard from one of his fellow deputies, who’d been involved with the raid, that the reason there were so many dogs there was that one of the workers at the grow had been secretly letting his friends trade all kinds of stuff, including dogs, in exchange for pot when the plants were harvested. He’d been sneaking the marijuana, and possibly other drugs—since the feds had found more than just pot on the premises—out, unbeknownst to the growers. Or so they claimed.
“What the hell?” Jay said, a sick look on his face.
My mom, who happened to be sitting next to Jay, patted his arm. “It’s awful isn’t it? Sadly, that kind of thing happens far too often.”
Kevin nodded in agreement. “People just don’t care. They want their drugs however they can get ’em.”
When Kevin left for work, we promised him we’d drop Maddy off at their house after we’d visited the dogs.
Around three-thirty, Dr. Novotany texted my mom that he was at the the shelter if we still wanted to go over, so Jay, Maddy, and I did. Mom said she’d be going bright and early in the morning so she didn’t join us.
When we arrived, around four o’clock, we rang the buzzer, as the doc had told us to do. He was the one who let us in, smiling and chatty as he led us back to our dogs. The black dog and the Yorkie were in side-by-side cages.
“Since you found them together and the Staffy was so protective of the little guy, we thought it best to keep them close.”
“Hi, babies,” I said, kneeling down and reaching though the wire bars to pet each of them in turn, and Jay, his body warm and solid next to me, did the same.
“Here, let me open their crates for you.”
“They look better. And no IV anymore?” Jay noticed.
“Nope, your Staffy’s rehydrated and drinking on her own today, which is a great sign. Let me get her out for you first.”
We backed away so he could opened the door of her crate. He eased a nylon slip lead around her neck, then handed it to Jay.
“She’s a little unsteady on her feet—that back leg’s still tender, along with the old injury—but she’s been up and about today some, so she may come out for you.”
That was understatement since she seemed so happy to see Jay, she practically dove into his arms.
“Look at that smile!” Jay said.
“Pitties have the best smiles,” I told him.
“They really do,” Doctor Novotany agreed.
Jay sat on the floor, and the black dog promptly crawled into his lap while simultaneously trying to lick his face. He laughed at her antics, and that made me smile, too.
“She’s a sweetheart,” Maddy said, crouching next to Jay and petting her.
“And here’s this little guy,” Dr. Novotany said, opening the little furry bit’s door and scooping him up with one hand.
Like Jay’s dog, the little one almost leapt free and into my arms.
“Hi baby. I missed you,” I murmured to him, snuggling him close and kissing him. He wiggled and wiggled, his little tag wagging the whole time.
“I think they’re just a tiny bit happy to see you guys,” the doc teased.
“As happy as we are to see them,” I told him, still kissing on the little one.
“I’ll be here for a couple more hours. You’re welcome to stay as long as I am,” the doc said. “Obviously no running around for them, and try to keep them quietish. I’m going to continue my rounds, but if you need anything urgent, you can come find me or just press this button here—he pointed to a black button on the wall—and either I or Casey, who’s the vet tech on duty, will come runnin’.”
“Thank you so much.”
I sank onto the floor to sit next to Jay so I could snuggle the little guy and pet Jay’s girl as well.
“Oh my God, this little cutie!” Maddy said, as she sat next to me and petted the Yorkie’s head. “You guys…you’re already the best doggie dads ever.”
Jay and I shared a smile. I found myself wanting to lean in and kiss him. I might have done it, too, if Maddy hadn’t interrupted my train of thought when she said, “What are you going to name them?”
“I’ve been thinking I’d like to call this little guy Newt,” I said. “What do you think?” I asked Jay.
“Like Newt Scamander, the wizard?”
At my raised eyebrows he smiled and said, “What? I read books and watch movies. I like the Harry Potter world.”
“So do I, but I hadn’t hadn’t even though of Newt the wizard. That is pretty cute. I was actually thinking more in terms of Newt the little girl in Aliens. She’s all alone, but spunky, and then Ripley finds her and protects her. That kinda reminds me of this little guy.”
“I love it,” Maddy chimed in. “Not that I get a say-so. But if I did, I love it.”
“So do I,” Jay said. “And it’s kind of making me do some rethinking. I was going to see what you thought about calling this sweet girl Raven. But now it feels like maybe she should be Ripley. In fact…yeah…she has to be Ripley. I mean, she’s brave and strong and protected the little guy. And they come as a set, right, the two of them?”
Damn it, now I wanted to kiss him even more. So I did, leaning over and giving him a quick, tender peck.
It obviously caught him by surprise, but his smile made it so worth it.
“I think Ripley’s the perfect name.”
“What do you think, girl?” Jay asked, petting the black dog, who was still practically squirming with joy. “Is Ripley okay with you?”
“What’s she saying?” Maddy teased.
“She says yes. Yes, please. Ripley’s the best name ever.”
We played with and snuggled the dogs for a long time. Eventually, Maddy said she was going to go find the doc and see if he’d show her the other dogs we’d rescued.
When she’d gone, Jay said, “I hope we can take them home soon.”
“Me, too. Let’s ask the doc about it when he comes back.”
“That gift box from your parents this morning was pretty awesome.”
“It was, wasn’t it? I was completely surprised. One of them must have gone to get all that stuff at some point yesterday, after you’d asked at breakfast about us adopting them.”
“It kind of made it more real,” Jay said.
“That they were going to be ours?”
“Mm-hmm. But also…” He shook his head and laughed softly. “You’re going to totally think I’m being sappy, but I kinda liked getting a present that was addressed to both of us.”
“Well, if you’re sappy, then I am, too. Because I thought the same thing when I saw our names on the tag. It made me feel like we come as a set, also. And I like that.”
“So do I.”
A few seconds passed. Then Jay said, in a quiet voice, “I know we haven’t really talked about it, but when you’re here, when you can be here in Colorado I mean, because I know your professional life is in New York so you’ll probably be there most of the time. But when you are here, I hope you know that Grandpa’s house—my house—is yours, too. If you want it to be. I figure I’ll probably have the dogs, and—”
I cradled Jay’s face in my hand and kissed him, trying to pour every ounce of love and reassurance into it I could. Because…damn, this man was turning my heart inside out.
“What was that for?” he asked when I leaned back to look into his eyes.
“I’m not staying in New York, Jay.”
“I’ve been thinking about it nonstop since yesterday, and although I am going to have to go back after the first of the year for as long as it takes to wrap up my cases and get things in order for dissolving my partnership with Shane, I’m not going to stay there forever. And I’m not going to start a new law practice there. It might take a while, but eventually, I’m leaving New York for good.”
“Your clients. Your reputation. All your hard work is there.”
“I can have new clients here.”
“But, Hunt…I can’t imagine there’s much corporate law to handle in Lodgepole. So, what does that mean? That you’d work in Denver?”
“I’m not sure. I haven’t figured any of that out yet,” I admitted. “I only know that everything I want for my life, in my life, is right here.”
Jay’s breath caught, which meant I’d surprised him again. Then a sweet half smile curved his lips.
But before we could talk about it further, Maddy returned, almost bouncing into the room. “You guys, have you seen the Rottweiler?”
“Yesterday morning, yeah,” I said, looking at her. “Why?”
“Is he okay?” Jay asked.
“Dr. Novotany thinks he’s going to be fine eventually. He’s such a darling. He lay there and let me pet him for the longest time, even wagged his tail while I was doing it. He’s got the kindest eyes. I want to adopt him.”
She nodded. “We haven’t had a dog since Seamus died a couple of years ago.” Seamus had been Maddy and Kevin’s yellow lab. They’d gotten him when they were dating. “Everything else that came after that…we just weren’t emotionally in a place to bring a new dog home. But I’ve missed having one, and it might actually make Kevin feel better, too, when he’s working and I’m home alone, if I have a dog to keep me company.”
“Well, I think that Rottie’s a lucky boy,” I told her.
She smiled. “I think so, too. And so am I. Well, not a lucky boy, but just lucky.”
“What are you going to call him?” Jay asked.
“I don’t know. I’m going to have to think about it.”
“Maybe Kevin’ll have some ideas,” I said.
“Oh no. No, no, no.”
“Wow.” I laughed. “That’s definitive. Is he going to get a say in what you name your human baby?”
“I’m not sure I want that either. Do you know that he once told me, way back before we got married, that if we ever had a son he wanted to call him Thunderbolt Maximus Breckman?”
I winced. “Oh God.”
And Jay laughingly said, “Holy crap, that’s a mouthful.”
“I know, right? Thunderbolt because Kevin said it sounded like a superhero name. Maximus after Russell Crowe’s character in Gladiator. So you see why I’m not enthusiastic about eliciting his opinion.”
“What would you use as a nickname if you had a kid named Thunderbolt?” Jay mused. “Thun? Bolt?”
“Thundy?” I offered.
“Thunderbolt Maximus sounds a little like Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome.”
“Well, Mad Max was kind of a superhero,” I said. “You know, in his own way.”
“So, Mad Max aka ‘Thundy’ Breckman. It sort of has a ring to it.”
Maddy giggled. “Stop it, you two! I already said…not gonna happen. Ever! Maybe I’ll pretend to compromise with Kevin and name the dog Max. That way he won’t be able to complain when I pick the name for our child.”
A few minutes later, Doctor Novotany gave us the head’s up he’d be leaving soon, so we said our goodbyes to our babies.
“Man, I hate leaving again,” Jay said, giving Ripley a final scritch behind her ears. She licked his palm and he continued to murmur softly to her.
“We’ll be back tomorrow,” I told the little furball, giving him a smooch on the head. He licked my nose and then clung to me, not wanting to go back into his crate. “It’s okay, Newt. I don’t want to leave you and Ripley either, but you can come home with us soon.”
The doc had said we might be able to take them as early as a couple of days from now.
“I’ll see you tomorrow, baby. I promise.”
Maddy had gone to say goodbye to Max—which she was already calling him. Then she was going to go to the bathroom and said she’d meet us in the lobby.
While Jay and I waited for her, Jay said, “I’m thinking we should get crates for the dogs to stay in at night and when we’re not at the house with them.”
“Probably a good idea, for their safety. Especially until they’re familiar with the house. And also, until we have a better idea how house trained they are.”
“And that’ll give Hazel a chance to get used to them, and them to her, too. Although she’s so mellow, I don’t expect any problems.”
“She’s such a lover. She might be jealous to have to share her dude, though.”
“Yeah, well, even if we weren’t getting the dogs, she’d already have to share her dude,” he said with a smile. “Although I’m pretty sure she’s already decided she loves you as much or maybe better than she loves me.”
“Oooh, now who’s jealous?” I teased. “You did tell me your cat would want me to be there as much as possible.”
“Yeah, well, she has exceedingly good taste.”
We stood close, and had turned to face one another. I curled my fingers through Jay’s. “Yes she does. She chose you to live with in the first place.”
“And now she’s chosen you.”
“What you said earlier, Jay…about your house…”
Before I could finish the thought, Maddy came out of the bathroom. “Hunter.” Her voice shook.
Jay and I turned toward her at the same time and with one look at her pale face and wide eyes, I knew instantly something was wrong.
“Mad? What is it?” I started toward her, fear gripping my gut.
“You guys…I think I better go to the emergency room.”