Hometown Hearts by M.L. Rhodes
Copyright 2018-2019 by M.L. Rhodes, All Rights Reserved
Later, we lay sprawled across the bed facing each other, exhausted but blissfully sated. I certainly was anyway, and the look on Jay’s face gave me a pretty good idea he was, too.
Occasional smiles flitted across our faces, but there didn’t seem to any need for words. Jay’s fingers played in my hair. Mine traced circles on his back. And everything in the world seemed damned near perfect.
“You cold?” he finally said, pulling me closer.
“Are you kidding? You’re like an oven. In the best way possible.” With my legs wound through his and the rest him only inches away, I was plenty warm. We’d never made it under the covers and I was pretty sure the down comforter lay in a pile on the floor, where it had slipped off the bed. But, for the moment, clearly neither of us cared enough to retrieve it.
I stretched in contentment, until my foot bumped against the footboard.
“What we probably do need, though,” I said, “is for me to finish that king-size bed. I’ve always loved this sleigh bed, but…”
Jay chuckled. “Yeah, it’s not real accommodating for two, is it? By myself if I lay with my head all the way at the top, it’s barely long enough. I usually sleep diagonally across it.
“Well,” I said, rolling onto my stomach, and resting my head on my crossed arms so I could see him. “I don’t have any plans for the rest of this week, so, if you want, and you don’t mind, I can probably get the frame and footboard on the king pretty close to done.”
He draped an arm around my waist and leaned in to nuzzle a kiss against my temple. “Why would I mind? This is your house, too. And it’ll be our bed.”
A warm lump filled my throat, keeping my from speaking.
Which Jay must have mistaken for hesitation because his brows suddenly drew together. “Unless you’ve changed your mind about living here?” he asked softly.
“Oh, God, of course not.” I turned back onto my side to face him, and brushed a hand over his hair, offering reassurance. “Why would I have changed my mind? I just told you a few minutes ago how much I wanted that.”
“I know.” He shook his head, looking sheepish. “But that was in the heat of the moment, and I realize this house is older. I thought maybe you might rather, I don’t know, find something newer and more modern. Kevin mentioned something in passing last night about your penthouse apartment in Manhattan, so I…I know this is a step down from where you’ve been living.”
“Jay…no. I love this house. I always have. It’s beautiful. And your grandpa built it. It’s filled with his love. Can’t you feel it?
Jay swallowed hard and then slowly nodded. “I do. Every day. But—”
I pressed a finger gently against his lips. “No buts. Mine and Shane’s apartment in the city is…it’s like a mirage. All shiny and nice to see from a distance, but there’s no substance to it. Shane picked it out, along with most of the furniture and decor because making an impression on clients and colleagues is always at the forefront of everything he does. And I went along with it for years out of…ease I guess? It just seemed easier to let him do what he wanted than to argue with him. I think I justified it by telling myself it was in our best professional interest. But that place, it’s never been what I really want.”
“What do you want?” His voice was still quiet, with a tinge of insecurity in it that made my chest squeeze.
“You. This. Right here.” I smiled. “I want to be surrounded by the house and furniture Grandpa Fred built, by your photos and paintings, by all the love that’s lived in these walls for years and I hope will continue to live in them until long after we’re old and gray.” I traced my fingertips down his face. “This is real. I’m not interested in any more mirages.”
The look of relief on his face, and kiss he gave me, were as sweet as his smile, and once again, all was right in the world.
Eventually, though, practicality set back in when my stomach growled. About five seconds later, so did Jay’s, making us laugh. We hadn’t really eaten anything since brunch at noon. It was pushing midnight now, so no wonder we were hungry.
“I suppose we’d better do something about this, shouldn’t we?” Jay said.
“It’s tempting to ignore it so I don’t have to move. I’m pretty damn happy right here.”
On cue, my stomach growled again.
“I think your body’s telling you otherwise.” Jay laughed and slid out of bed. Then he gave me a gentle swat on the the rear. “Come on, Mr. Breckman. Move your ass. If I have to get up, so do you.”
“You’re so mean. I thought you liked taking care of me,” I fake grumbled.
Now his smile turned sexy as hell. “I’m pretty sure I just spent the better part of the past couple of hours doing exactly that. And you didn’t seem to think I was mean at all. In fact, I remember hearing quite extensively how good I was making you feel.”
Heat crept up my face as I smiled. I had gotten embarrassingly vocal there near the end, but, holy hell. My body tingled at the memory.
“Is it so wrong of me to want you to ‘take care of me’ some more?”
He pulled me to my feet and into a kiss. “Food first, then I’m open to exploring any and all possibilities.”
We each pulled on a pair of Jay’s sweats without bothering with underwear, grinning as we did, and then he handed me one of his tee-shirts. I had a perfectly fine shirt somewhere in the pile of clothes on the floor, but the romantic sap in me wasn’t going to turn down a chance to wear his. One of the beautiful things about being of similar heights and builds was that we could share clothes. We’d done it even back in high school from time to time—and if we hadn’t realized back then how very un-straight that was of us, we really were hopeless. I’d secretly loved it then, and nothing had changed, since I loved it still. As I tugged the grey Seattle Mariners shirt down over my head it smelled like Jay, and a little ripple of pleasure scudded through me.
When we got downstairs, while Jay started a fire, because now that we were out of the warm cocoon of the bed the house was chilly, I raided the refrigerator and pantry.
We ended up snuggled together on the couch under a blanket, with Hazel meowing lazily at us from the back of the armchair, and a late-night feast of turkey sandwiches, chips and salsa, and beer sat on the coffee table in front of us.
“It feels bizarre to be eating this late at night,” Jay said.
“I know. But, damn, real food was a long time ago. Besides, I don’t know about you, but after the past couple of weird nights, my sleep schedule’s screwed to hell right now. On the drive home I couldn’t keep my eyes open. Now, I’m wide awake.”
“The, um…activity in the bedroom couldn’t possibly have had anything to do with that, now could it?” Jay teased, his eyes sparkling.
“Well, you’d think I’d be even more tired, wouldn’t you?”
“Hmmm. I guess next time I’ll have to work harder to wear you out.” He brushed his thumb over my lips, and, damn, right on cue a sizzle of heat curled in my belly.
“Is that a promise?”
“Do you want it to be?”
Holy crap. This sensual side of Jay was intriguing as hell, and now that the flood gates had been opened, I kept finding myself swept away in breathless anticipation from it, wondering what he’d say or do next to spike my desire.
“You know what I think?” I asked, a smile tugging at my lips.
“I think we’re going to need at least a solid month of being locked in this house, with no interruptions, to explore each and every possibility.”
His smile turned me inside out and, yep, once again left me breathless.
“Shall we make a pact about it?” he asked, holding up his beer bottle.
“Oh yeah,” I breathed, clanking my bottle against his.
When we’d finished eating, I turned toward Jay on the couch.
“If you don’t want to, I’ll understand, but…will you tell me about Garrett?” I asked.
The question had obviously caught him off guard because he winced. I hadn’t meant to spring it on him like this…but I’d been thinking about it and wanted to know more about the man who’d hurt Jay so much only a year ago. Jay had called him his version of Shane. Different but just as emotionally manipulative.
“It obviously still bothers you, whatever happened with him,” I said softly, rubbing his arm. “Maybe talking about it will help.”
“Ugh.” He shook his head. “I know you’re probably right, but…”
“I’m sorry. You don’t have to.”
“It’s been on your mind?” he asked, looking apologetic.
“It has,” I admitted. “You know pretty much every ugly secret about Shane and me, more than you probably ever wanted to know. But I don’t know anything about this guy except that he played emotional games with you like Shane did me, and that it ended badly. I just hate seeing you still hurt from it, and I can tell that you do.” I suspected some of his earlier insecurity, thinking I had changed my mind about living here, might even stem from his past with this guy.
He sighed. “You’re right, and I’m sorry. I don’t think I’ve been intentionally avoiding it, or, hell, I don’t know. Maybe I have. I don’t mind telling you, though. I guess mostly I just feel kind of stupid. Because, like you with Shane, I didn’t see it happening.”
“And just like you told me, that wasn’t your fault.”
“I know. I do know that. I’m trying hard to practice what I preach. I really am.”
I continued to stroke his arm and gave him an encouraging smile.
“Okay, so…about, God, I guess it would have been a couple of years ago now, Garrett and I started dating. But we’d known each other sort of peripherally for a year or so before that. He was a barista at the coffee shop where I stopped on my way to work a couple mornings a week and, I admit, it was very superficial at first. He was younger than me, and I noticed him because he was cute. Plus, he was always smiling, always pleasant with me and other customers. That first year there was nothing more—just saying hi, have a good day, that kind of thing. But one weekend—I didn’t usually go on weekends, but I did this particular day—I went in for coffee during the afternoon. I had my laptop with me and I was working on a project for a client. Garrett was there, but the shop was quiet, much quieter than it was in the mornings, and he wandered by cleaning off tables, saw what I was doing, and struck up a conversation. After that there were more conversations over the course of a few weeks, and what seemed like genuine interest on both our parts developed. Eventually, we started going out.”
He took a swallow from his beer, then his forehead furrowed as he continued.
“The thing about Garrett was, he was soft-spoken, friendly, and had this gentle manner about him. He was one of those people who made other people instantly like him and want to do things for him. And I was no exception. I was so hungry for a meaningful relationship, that I opened up and told him about my struggle to come to terms with being bi. I was used to people putting on the brakes pretty quickly, and I figured if that was going to happen with him, I wanted to get it out there right away, so that if he walked, it’d be before I got too attached. He assured me he was a hundred percent okay with me being bi, that it didn’t deter him at all. And I believed him because he threw himself into the relationship like he wanted it as much as I did.
“He was in college part time, working on a degree in sociology because he wanted to be a social worker, and I thought he’d be fantastic at that because he was so easy gong and likable. He would ask me to help him study for tests or to proofread his papers for him, and I was glad to. I was happy he was even asking. Before I finally started therapy, I’d had far too many so-called relationships that had, sadly, been mostly physical, if they even got that far. There hadn’t been much substance to them, mostly because they seldom lasted long. So to have someone who wanted to spend time with me doing normal stuff, who was happy to go the laundromat with me or watch me work or grocery shop with me, it was like…”
“It felt good,” I said.
Jay nodded. “It did. He seemed to know exactly what to do to feed that craving for normalcy in me. And I let him because, yeah, it felt good. Of course, after the fact, looking back on it, it’s obvious that as I was eating up the attention he was giving me, he was taking advantage of me. It was little things at first. His wallet was stolen and he couldn’t get to the bank for a new debit card until later in the week, so I gave him some money to hold him over until he could get it sorted. He had an old car he drove, and when it died, he said he didn’t have enough money to get the repairs done and still pay his rent that month. He was going to just walk to work for a while until he could afford the repairs. It was winter and he didn’t live anywhere near the coffee shop, so I paid to have his car fixed. He thanked me profusely and I didn’t think anything else about it because, again, I was happy to help. For the fall semester of school, he’d come up a couple thousand dollars short on tuition because of some snafu with his student loans and grants, which meant he was going to have to take the semester off. He was always talking about how important finishing school was to him, so I offered to give him the money. Again, profusely thanked me and told me how wonderful and supportive I was. Mind you, he never asked me for any of this money. I offered it every time.”
“But he was probably manipulating the situation so that you would offer,” I said, realizing where Jay was going with his.
He nodded. “Exactly. I didn’t see it, though, not at the time. Never even occurred to me. I just wanted to help him because I cared about him. And then, his apartment lease was almost up. This was a year ago last fall. He told me his landlord was raising the rent and he wasn’t going to be able to afford it, so he was going to have to find someplace else.”
“And you offered to let him to move in with you?”
“Not exactly. My place was too small. I’d owned a house for several years, but when I walked away from the corporate art department cesspool and went out on my own a couple of years earlier, I initially took a pretty big pay cut. When I did that, I sold my house and moved into a one-bedroom apartment. It really wasn’t big enough for two people to coexist comfortably. But I’d built up my freelance business at that point and had been wanting to look for something bigger anyway. So I suggested we find a new place together.
“He was full of ideas about where and what we should have, and since he was so happy about it all, I let him take charge of it. I was working a lot of hours that month, juggling deadlines for several big clients, and it was easier to just let him run with it. When he said he’d found the perfect place, a townhouse in a nice neighborhood, I went to look at it with him and, even though it wasn’t exactly what I would have chosen, and it was pricier than we’d discussed, he loved it. It wouldn’t be available for a month, but they let us—which meant me—put a deposit on it to hold it. Meanwhile, I was going to have to break my own lease to move, which wasn’t exactly cheap. But I gave my notice and set it up so that I’d move out the day we signed the lease on the new place, and he’d do the same since that was right about the time his lease was up.
“Everything was…good. Great even. Or so I thought. The night before we were supposed to sign the lease, I finished packing up my stuff and had it all loaded into a truck, and he was staying at his place to do the same. We were supposed to meet at the property management office at nine the next morning. But when morning came, I showed up and he didn’t. I texted and tried to call him, but couldn’t reach him. The property manager and I waited an hour and I finally went ahead and signed the lease on the new place without him because new tenants were moving into my old place the next day. But I was worried about him. Really worried. I kept trying to reach him, but couldn’t. I drove over to his apartment and his car wasn’t there. I went up and banged on the door anyway. Nothing.
“By afternoon I was scared shitless something had happened to him. I convinced his landlord to open his apartment for me and…everything was in place. He’d packed nothing. So then I started thinking something horrible had happened to him the night before. I was pretty frantic, sick to my stomach. I kept trying to call him. His phone was on because my voice mails were going through, but for all I knew he was lying in a ditch somewhere. By nighttime I called the police. They couldn’t do anything until he’d been gone twenty-four hours. Since I hadn’t noticed he was missing until that morning, I’d have to wait until the next morning. His parents were out of the picture—they’d split up and were living in two different states. I didn’t even know their names. No siblings. I went to the coffee shop to see if anyone there had heard from him, but they hadn’t. He’d taken a few days off so we could move, which meant no one there had been expecting him.”
“Jesus,” I murmured, hating the look of hurt frustration on Jay’s face. “Where was he?”
“Well, after I’d been up all night long, scared as hell…about maybe eight the next morning I get a text from him. All it said was, We need to talk. Can you meet me at our park in thirty minutes?”
“It was a little neighborhood park we’d been to a few times to throw a frisbee or just take a walk. I told him, yeah, of course, and asked if he was okay. But I didn’t get a response. So at that point I was wondering what the hell was going on. My anxiety was off the scale, and I was starting to feel sick inside for a very different reason.”
I continued to stroke Jay’s arm, offering support. “What happened at the park?”
“He got there about five minutes after I did and I knew immediately it was over. I didn’t know why yet, but I’d seen that look before on other lover’s faces.”
“Where the hell had he been for twenty-four hours?”
“Apparently, he’d been with his ex. An ex I didn’t even know existed, some guy named Micah. He said they’d been ‘talking’ all that time and had decided they were going to get back together and try to make things work. Garrett was going to move in with him. Turns out he’d been spending time with this ex the whole year he and I had been together because the ex was ‘dealing with a lot of shit and needed moral support.’ I also found out that the car Garrett had been driving that I thought was his…nope, it was the ex’s and he’d just been using it. And the money I’d given him for school hadn’t gone to the college at all. Garrett hadn’t been in school that whole semester. He’d used the money to pay some of Micah’s bills because ‘Poor Micah’s utilities were about to be shut off.’”
“What the fuck?” I whispered, staring at him.
“Oh, it gets better. The new townhouse Garrett had picked out because he ‘loved the location so much’? You know why he loved the location? Because it was literally around the block from the ex’s apartment.”
“That’s pretty much what I said, except not that nicely. He told me he was sorry, that he really did care about me, but he had to follow his heart. ‘Micah needs me. He’s been going through some really hard times. He’s struggling and he has no one else. I can’t just abandon him right now.”
“Oh my God.”
“And then, to top it all off, he played the biphobic card and said, ‘But I think you’d be happier anyway, Jay, with maybe a woman or some other bi guy. Because, you know, I was always a little afraid if I fell for you too hard I’d get burned eventually when your eye turned elsewhere.”
I sucked in a burning, livid breath. “He did not fucking say that?”
I reached for Jay and pulled him into my arms. “After everything you did for him. What a fucking little bastard.”
Jay’s arms slid around me and he sighed.
I couldn’t believe it. Jay, who was the most loyal person I’d ever known, who’d given this guy everything—his heart, his money, his trust—and then the little asswipe had treated him like that? I could barely speak I was so angry.
“Thank you,” Jay murmured.
“For what?” I leaned back to look at him.
“For being furious on my behalf.”
“Of course I am. I can’t believe he said that you.”
Jay shrugged. “To be honest, I’m not sure how much of the assholey bi shade he actually meant. I think he might have been using it as a convenient excuse so he didn’t have to take full ownership of the fact he’d been emotionally, and hell, for all I know, physically cheating on me all that time.”
“It doesn’t matter. The fact he said it for any reason is not fucking okay. None of what he did was okay.”
“No. It’s not.”
“So what did you do?”
“Well, there I was, stuck with a townhouse I didn’t even like, surrounded by boxes I didn’t have the heart to unpack, around the corner from Garrett and his old-slash-new lover. It was a pretty shitty time. So, basically, a year ago, I did what you did this year. All this happened the second week in December, and after a week of sheer hellish misery, I decided the best thing I could do for myself was come here, spend some time with Grandpa, and figure out how to get my head back on straight. Because, I have to admit, Garrett had really spun me. I’d believed in him, thought he was the real deal, so the whole thing completely blindsided me.”
“And then you got here and found out the horrible truth about your grandpa’s health, and then you lost him.”
He nodded slowly, his eyes filled with pain. “Yep. But all the crap that went down before I came home just made it that much easier to walk away from Seattle and stay here. I had to break the lease on the townhouse, which set me back another significant chunk, but I didn’t care. It was worth it to get the hell out of there and start fresh.”
“We’re a mess, aren’t we?” I said softly, my heart aching.
“No. No, Hunt, I don’t think we are. I think for the first time in a very long time, we’re right where we’re supposed to be.”
“I just wish none of this shit had ever happened. To either of us.”
“So do I. But there are good things that have come out of it. Not the least of which is us finding each other again. And if undoing all the bad meant that wouldn’t happen, then I’d go through it all again to have this.”
“So would I,” I admitted. “But…can it just all be done now? I don’t want any more bullshit. No more mirages. No more ugly surprises.”
“I have to believe that’s all behind us now.”
“I hope so.” Damn, I really, really hoped so.