Hometown Hearts – Chapter 26

Hometown Hearts by M.L. Rhodes

Copyright 2018-2019 by M.L. Rhodes, All Rights Reserved

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CHAPTER 26

Hometown Hearts by M.L. Rhodes
Hometown Hearts

In spite of what was happening to Shane, all I could think about during the four-hour flight was Jay—the look on his face and the sound of his voice when I’d left. 

Why? God, why had I spouted off those words that echoed what that shithead Garrett had said to him? If I’d been thinking even half clearly I never would have said something so similar. I knew I’d hurt Jay, making him feel like he wasn’t as important as my ex, just like Garrett had done. And then, in his mind, I’m sure he thought I’d left him to go back to my ex. Just like Garrett had.

My worst fears of causing Jay pain because of my relationship with Shane had come to pass, and I had no one but myself to blame for it.

As promised, I’d texted him when I got to the airport. I’d thought maybe he’d be sleeping, but he’d responded right away with a simple: Glad you’re safe. When I’d texted him again a little while later, though, after I’d checked in for my flight, and told him I missed him already and I loved him, I’d heard nothing back. Maybe he had gone to sleep at that point. But the silence still pierced my already aching heart.

The moment the plane touched down and I was able to get my phone out of airplane mode, I did, hoping to see his name on my notification screen. But he still hadn’t responded. It was nine in the morning in Colorado, and Jay was typically an early riser. Maybe he was still asleep after the late night, but a part of me feared that wasn’t the case. 

I sent him another text, letting him know I was on the ground in New York and telling him once again I loved him. I probably sounded desperate, but I didn’t care. I needed him to know how I felt and that I was thinking about him.

What I did have were two voice mails from the hospital. I had let them know I’d be traveling and wouldn’t be able to get calls, but asked them to please leave me messages and, if they needed a response, I’d do it as soon as I landed. The first message, left a couple of hours into my flight, said Shane had made it through surgery and was in recovery. From there he’d be moved into a room in the ICU. I let out a shaky breath of relief. But the second voice mail, left only a half-hour before the plane landed, said there’d been a complication and they were taking him back to surgery.

 Fucking hell.

 Once I was in the terminal, I called for an Uber, and when the driver picked me up, she said it should only take thirty minutes or so to get to the hospital, as long as traffic cooperated.

I hadn’t been in the car more than a couple of minutes when I got a text. 

My heart in my throat, I opened my phone and looked, hoping it’d either be Jay, which would make my day a jillion times better, or the hospital, telling me Shane was out of surgery again and everything was okay.

Instead, it was Emma. 

I’d called her the day after Christmas and given her the scoop on everything that had happened between Jay and me. I’d also filled her in about the dog rescue and that we were adopting Ripley and Newt.  Her text this morning asked if I was still in “blissful La La Land with Jay” and asked me to send her some pictures of the dogs.

Feeling more than a little sick at the reminder of how I’d left things with Jay, I told her the truth…that I wasn’t in Colorado, I’d just landed at JFK, and why.

Which hospital? she asked.

When I told her, she responded with, That’s not far from me. I’ll meet you there.

You don’t have to do that, Em. Aren’t you at work?

You don’t need to be sitting there waiting alone. I’ll see you shortly.

She was already there waiting for me in the hospital lobby when I entered, and she pulled me into a hug. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t grateful to see her.

We asked at the information desk and found out Shane was still in surgery, but we could go to the surgery waiting room and check there for updates.

We did, and I let the volunteer know who I was. He promised if there was any news I’d be notified.

Once Emma and I found a couple of chairs, she reached for my hand. “What in hell happened?”

I sighed and scrubbed my free hand over my face. I was so damned tired I could barely think straight. I’d hoped I might doze on the flight, but I’d been too worried. “I don’t know. They brought him in here late last night. I got a call around one-thirty in the morning New York time, and it obviously hadn’t happened too much before that because he was still in emergency and hadn’t yet gone in for the first surgery. I don’t have any information at all about the accident itself, about who was driving, if he was in his car or with someone else…” I shrugged.

“What was he doing out on Long Island?”

“Shit if I know. After he tried obsessively to get in touch with me last Friday, and Jay blocked his number on my phone, all was quiet. I thought maybe he’d gone ahead to Maui like we’d planned. Apparently not.”

“How’s Jay taking this?” she asked gently. “You coming here?”

“Not well. I think in his head he understands why I needed to come, the practical reasons for it, but in his heart…” I shook my head, my chest aching. “He had a bad experience not that long ago where he was just about to move in with someone and the guy broke it off to get back together with his ex. I’m pretty sure Jay’s afraid that’s what’s happening here.”

“Is it?”

“No! God, how could you even ask me that?” I looked at her askance. “You know everything Shane did.” I’d told her the full story when we talked after Christmas. “He’s a worse douchebag than you and I had originally thought. So, no, that part of my relationship with Shane is a hundred-percent over. The only man I want to be with is Jay. I love him. I always have.”

She smiled. “I believe you.”

“Yeah, well, I’m not sure Jay does right now. So things are… I don’t know. He hasn’t answered my last two texts, which worries me.”

“If he loves you half as much as you clearly love him, you guys’ll work it out.”

“God, I hope so. Did I do the right thing, coming here, Em?”

Her eyes filled with sympathy. “What a crappy position this has put you in—torn between doing what’s in your heart and what your head’s telling you. For what it’s worth, though, yeah, I think you did the right thing. It was the only choice you really could make and stay true to yourself. You’re not a spiteful, grudge-holding person, and you take your responsibilities seriously. That said, if you had made the decision not to come, no one would have thought less of you.”

“I would have.”

“I know. And that’s why you made the trip back, in spite of how it troubles your heart.”

“Even though I’m hurting the man I love by being here.”

“Listen, real talk, okay? If Shane doesn’t make it or if he ends up with long-term health issues after this, you’re going to have a lot to deal with, and that no-nonsense, get-things-done, be the responsible one personality trait that makes you such a good lawyer is going to come in handy.”

“That’s one of the reasons I knew I needed to be here—in case things don’t go well.”

“For now, until we hear otherwise, let’s hope they do.”

I nodded. “Believe me, that’s what I’m hoping for.” Then I frowned. “I’ve got to get in touch with Shane’s parents, but I don’t have any numbers for them. They’re out of the country—they always travel this time of year—but I have no idea where. Any suggestions?”

“Would Shane have their numbers somewhere at the office? I know it’s old school to do it, and I’m probably the only person on the face of the planet still using one, but does he keep a Rolodex? Or maybe a phone contact book of some sort?”

“That is old school. And, no, everything’s online. I already looked when I was logged into the firm’s cloud earlier, to see if he might have them listed with his business contacts, but he doesn’t. Which isn’t a surprise, I guess. He probably has them memorized, like I do my folks’. He may have them written somewhere at the apartment, but that’s no help right now.”

“What about his phone? He would almost certainly have their numbers stored on it, if from nothing else than when he’s called them or vice versa. If he had his phone on him when he was brought in and it wasn’t destroyed in the crash, they should have it here at the hospital somewhere.”

“Where would I go to ask what happened to it?”

“You sit tight in case they come out to give you news and I’ll go see what I can find.”

“Thanks, Em.”

She gave my hand a final squeeze, then stood and went off on her mission. Once again I was grateful as hell to have her here.

I checked my phone, in case I might have missed a voice mail or text from Jay, but still nothing. 

I’d just decided to call him and hope like hell he’d pick up, when I glanced up and saw a surgically gowned doc or nurse come out of the double doors and speak to the volunteer at the desk. I got up and went over there, hoping it might be information for me. 

It wasn’t. Before I could even get there, the gowned woman moved toward a young couple waiting on the other side of the large room.

I asked the volunteer if there was any news yet about Shane. He said he’d check for me, then disappeared. 

As I stood waiting, a woman, maybe late thirties, dressed in skinny jeans, black, high-heeled boots, and a fur jacket said, “Sorry to bother you, but did I hear you asking about Shane Harris?”

“I was, yes. Do I…?”

“No, we’ve never met.” She held out her hand, and we shook briefly. “I’m Genevieve Cromarty. Alexander Draper is my brother.”

“Xan,” I murmured. He’d been a friend of Shane’s for a long time. I’d hung out with him and his boyfriend a few times with Shane, but, in truth, Xan had never been one of my favorite people.

“I’m Hunter Breckman. Shane is my—”

“Boyfriend,” she finished. “Xan’s told me.”

I’d been about to tell her he was my business partner. I didn’t correct her, though, because it wasn’t worth the effort. But then a thought occurred to me. “Were he and Shane together last night?”

 “Yes,” Genevieve said, her expression bleak. “I’m so sorry to tell you this, but Xan was the one driving. They were in his car.”

I wish I could say I was surprised, but I wasn’t. And I should have suspected sooner that Shane was out here on Long Island because of Xan, since Xan and his boyfriend lived in Hempstead.

“Is Xan…?”

“He’s okay. Well, not okay. But he’s awake and talking. I just came from seeing him. I happened to be walking up when I heard you mention Shane’s name and I wanted to apologize on my brother’s behalf.”

“What happened last night. Do you know?”

She sighed. “Xan’s…got a drug problem.”

That news was no surprise to me.

“He’s struggled for several years. We finally got him into rehab about eighteen months ago, and he was supposedly going to NA meetings, so we thought he was doing better. But apparently he wasn’t. It got so bad and out of control his boyfriend left him a couple of months ago. Since then…” She shook her head. “He said Shane had come out to spend a couple of days with him since you were out of town, and I guess they ended up at some club. On the way home, according to the police report, Xan was doing eighty-five in a forty-five zone. He lost control, hit the guard rail, the car flipped and rolled down an embankment.”

“Christ.”

“He’s been asking about Shane. I thought maybe I could get some information for him, which is why I came here to the surgery floor, and then I overheard you. How is Shane?”

“I don’t know yet. He had surgery earlier for internal bleeding, but there were complications and they had to take him back in to operate again.”

“I am so sorry. My brother is…well, let’s just say he’s not going to be going home from here. Our family’s going to get him into an in-patient rehab facility. I know that’s small comfort for you and Shane, but…I just wanted you to know that we’re going to do everything we can so nothing like this ever happens again.”

I nodded.

“I’ll leave you be. If we, Xan’s family, I mean, can do anything, please let us know.”

“Thanks,” I murmured. “And I hope for the best for your brother.”

“Thank you.” She gave me a sad smile and turned away.

The volunteer returned as I watched Genevieve teeter down the hallway. 

“Mr. Breckman? Mr. Harris is still in surgery. But Dr. Salazar is always very good about coming out to speak to family members as soon as he finishes, so I’ll point him in your direction as soon as I see him. There are some vending machines in the alcove over there, along with restrooms. And the cafeteria is just below us, if you want to go get something while you wait.”

“Okay, thank you.”

I hadn’t eaten anything except a package of pretzels on the flight, and a muffin and some coffee I’d grabbed on my way out to meet my Uber at JFK, but food sounded awful right now.

So I returned to a chair to wait.

Emma came back a few minutes later. “If Shane had his phone on him when he was brought in, they said it should be with him in his room in the ICU when he’s moved there.”

I thanked her for tracking down the info for me, then told her about seeing Xan’s sister and what she’d said about the accident.

“Good lord. It’s a wonder either of them made it out alive.”

“No shit.”

“Do you think Shane was using drugs as well?”

“I’m sure he was drinking. But as for anything else, nothing would surprise me at this point. I don’t think I’ve known the real Shane for a while now, and Xan’s never exactly been a great influence on him. They went to college together and from some of the stories I’ve heard them tell…let’s just say they weren’t big on restraint back in the day.”

We continued to talk for another hour before the doctor finally came out.

When he spoke to us, it hit home even more how damned lucky Shane had been. Along with the broken ribs and punctured lung I already knew about, he’d also come in with multiple clavicle fractures they’d had to put back together with metal plates and screws, and a ruptured spleen. All of which they’d worked on during the first surgery. But they’d had to go back in because new bleeding had begun in his abdomen that they’d needed to repair.  They were certain they had gotten everything resolved this time, but the doctor said things had been touch and go for a while.

“He’ll be in recovery for a bit, and then he’ll be moved to ICU.  It’ll probably be an hour or so. Then you can see him, though he may not wake up for several hours yet.”

“What’s his prognosis?” Emma asked.

“We’ll see how he does over the next twelve to twenty-four hours. But barring any further complications, he should fully recover. It’ll be a slow process, though. It’s going to be a painful next few weeks for him, unfortunately.”

Emma stayed with me until Shane was moved to ICU, then she pressed a kiss to my cheek and a key into my hand. “I’m going to head back to work for a couple of hours, but you’re going to have to sleep at some point, and don’t you dare even think about getting a hotel when our house is only fifteen minutes away.”

“Emma, I can’t put you guys out again.”

“Just stop right there. You never put us out. We love you and you’re always welcome. So whenever you get ready to leave here for a while, come to us, okay? Even if it’s late and you think we’ve already gone to bed. That’s why I’m giving you a key. I’ll make up the couch for you and you can let yourself in if it’s late.”

I sighed but wrapped an arm around her and kissed her temple. “Thank you. For that and for being here at the hospital, as well.”

“Of course. I told you, there was no way I was going to let you sit here all day by yourself. Call me if you need me.”

“I will.”

“You going to be okay? Do you want me to get you anything before I go?”

“No, I’ll be fine. Get back to work.” I offered her a smile, but as tired as I was, and as much as the knot in my gut was still paining me, it probably came across more pathetic than anything.

Her brows drew together, before she patted my cheek. “I like the beard, by the way. It’s a good look on you.”

“Thanks.”

I didn’t tell her that her words only made me think of Jay, which in turn reminded me I still hadn’t heard from him. I’d called him while we were waiting, but he hadn’t picked up. I tried to tell myself maybe he was outside shoveling or walking the dogs and didn’t have his phone with him. 

At this point, though, I was having trouble convincing myself.

When I got to the ICU, even though I thought I’d prepared myself for it, my first look at Shane unsettled the hell out of me. He’d always been quite vain about his appearance, only wearing top-brand clothes and shoes, clean-shaven, his light brown hair perfectly styled, short on the sides and spiked up just so in the front. But none of that was apparent now. Any exposed part of him that wasn’t swollen or bruised looked grey, like the color of aged barn wood. He was hooked up to multiple monitors, oxygen, and an IV.

As I walked over to the bed, the compassionate side of me couldn’t help but feel sorry for him, as I would anyone who’d been through such horrific trauma. And yet, beneath that, I couldn’t quite push away the burning sensation of anger I also felt. 

Did that make me a bad person, I wondered, to be angry at him after everything he’d been through?

What I didn’t experience, when I looked at him, was any kind of emotional connection aside from the anger. I wondered if I ever really had felt something more.

“He’s likely going to be out for a while still,” a red-haired nurse said, coming into the room, adjusting a few things. The orangey color of her hair clashed wildly with her magenta scrubs, the royal-blue tee-shirt she wore beneath them, and the neon green runners on her feet. The whole ensemble looked like a brightly colored abstract painting that you weren’t quite sure which part to stare at first. Her smile, on the other hand, was warm and genuine. “There’s a comfortable chair in here, at least. You’re welcome to sit with him as long as you’d like.”

“Do you have any idea what happened to his personal effects? Would they be here?”

“Let’s take a look. He was in ICU for a short while earlier this morning before they took him to surgery again.” She opened a couple of cabinets. “I don’t see anything, but let me check at the desk. He’s in a different room now, so his items were probably taken there for security while he was gone.”

“Thanks.”

“Of course. I’ll be right back.”

Within a couple of minutes she returned with a plastic bag, which she handed to me. “Here’s what he had with him when he entered the emergency department. His clothes, unfortunately, were probably either destroyed or cut off him, but anything else should be in here.”

“Thank you so much.”

“You’re welcome. If you need anything, you can use the button here on his bed, or just come to the desk. Also, if you need to take or receive a phone call, we ask that you step out into the waiting room through the double doors.”

“Okay, I will. Thank you again.”

I sank into the chair and looked into the bag. The faint coppery scent of blood wafted from the plastic, making me wince, but I was relieved to see both Shane’s wallet—which I knew they’d found, since that’s how they’d reached me—and his phone.

I pulled out the phone. The case was broken, so I took it off and threw it in the trashcan next to the bed. The phone itself seemed intact, except for the multitude of cracks running across the screen. When I pressed the side button, the screen came to life and I breathed a sigh of relief.  I knew Shane’s passcode, so I entered it, and once again was relieved when I found his parents’ cell numbers. I pulled out my own phone and quickly added them to my contacts.

I was tempted, for a split second, to go through his phone to see who he’d been calling or texting with this past week, but then I shook my head and turned off the screen. His personal life was his business now and I wanted no part of it. 

I went out the glass door of Shane’s room and saw his nurse again. “I’ll be in the waiting room. I need to make some calls.”

She nodded and smiled at me.

I was able to reach Shane’s mom. His parents, it turned out, were in Nice. I told them the whole story, and they assured me they’d be on a plane back to the States as soon as they could and they’d let me know when they had details.

Then I called Ariel and told her about Shane’s accident and that I was back in New York and here at the hospital with him. I also called Margaret, Shane’s paralegal, and told her the same. Since much of our staff was on vacation this week between Christmas and the new year, it wasn’t urgent to take any action on anything just yet. But I told both of them I’d stay in touch with them and after New Year’s we’d discuss how caseloads could be divvied up until Shane was back on his feet. I didn’t mention to either of them that I was planning to leave the firm. One thing at a time. There was no reason to given them something extra to worry about just yet.

After I’d dealt with all that, I tried Jay again, holding my breath, my gut clenching.

“Please answer,”I whispered.

On the third ring, he did.

“Hey,” he said softly, in that low, rumbly voice I loved so much.

“Hi. God it’s good to hear your voice.” 

I wanted to tell him how much I loved him, how much I missed him, ask him why he hadn’t responded to my texts, and apologize again for hurting him. 

But before I could form any of that into actual spoken words, he said, “How’s Shane?”

“They had to take him back for a second emergency surgery, but he’s out again and in the ICU. The surgeon said things were questionable for a while, but as long as there aren’t any further complications, they think he’ll recover.”

“That’s good.”

He sounded so damned quiet. That same quiet voice as last night, and it was ripping my heart out.

“I miss you,” I said.

“I miss you. So, what happens now? With Shane?”

Every time I wanted to delve into our relationship and get a feel for where we stood, he brought Shane up again.

“Um…I’m not sure. He just came out of surgery a little over an hour ago. He’s not even awake yet. I’m in the waiting room. They don’t want anyone doing phone calls in ICU.”

“You should go be with him, then, so he won’t be alone when he wakes up.”

“He’ll be fine. He’s got a great nurse. I’d rather talk to you.”

“Okay.”

“How are the dogs?”

“They’re good. I let them sleep with me last night. After you left.”

I smiled, imagining them curled up with Jay in bed, but the smile was short-lived, because I hadn’t missed his last words. After you left. There’d been something in his tone that wrenched my heart again.  

“You’re going to spoil them,” I said softly.

“I’m all right with that. They deserve a little spoiling.”

“Jay, I’m so sorry for what I said last night and how I left things between us.”

“It’s okay.”

“It’s not. And we both know it. You didn’t answer my texts earlier, and even now, it feels like there’s a huge chasm between us. I hate that feeling.”

I heard him sigh, and it was such a lonely, despairing sound my eyes stung. 

“I hate it, too.”

“Then let’s not do it.”

“I don’t want to. But…”

“But what? Tell me what’s on your mind, love.”

He sighed again. “I don’t know, Hunt. I just keep wondering if maybe…maybe we rushed into this too fast after all. Maybe we should have stuck to our original plan to just be friends.”

His comment shook me. “Why would you say that?”

“The whole reason we decided in the first place to stay only friends was because I’m just now starting to get settled here in Colorado and you have so much to sort through with Shane. And now, your life with Shane just got even more complicated. You were right last night, you do need to be there, for all the reasons you said. You have a law firm to run. And even if Shane does fully recover he’s not going to be able to help much for a while.”

“I’ll deal with it. You told me yourself a few days ago that I’m a problem solver. I dive in and get things done.”

“You do. I think, though, that with so much extra on your plate right now, maybe it’s better if you just concentrate on that without having the added distraction of me.”

“You’re not a distraction! My God. Not ever. I love you.”

“I love you, too. I’ll always love you. I can’t make that stop. But what we talked about that night you came for dinner…I think we were right. It’s not good timing for us. And, honestly, I’m not sure it ever will be.”

My heart stalled out. “What are you saying?”

“I’m saying I think we’ve been kidding ourselves this past week and a half. Living a fantasy that we both had when we were younger but that’s not practical as adults. Your life is there, and mine’s here.”

“No,” I said hoarsely. “My life is there, too. With you.”

“You’ve still got great things to do in your career. I’ve read the reviews online for your firm, and I couldn’t even count the ones that mention you specifically, by name, raving about your integrity and your skills. You consistently win cases, your clients think the world of you, and this is just the beginning for you. You’ve got an incredible life ahead of you with all kinds of opportunities. Opportunities you could never have in a tiny mountain town in Colorado.”

“You’re wrong. Because there are far more important things in life than professional opportunities. All the people I love are in Lodgepole, and that’s far more important to me.”

“Your family’ll understand.”

“It’s not my family I’m talking about right now, and you damn well know it. What you and I have isn’t just some childhood fantasy. It’s real.”

“Even if it is, we can’t sustain it like this. The distance is too much. And our lives are too different.”

“Jay—”

“Please, Hunt, don’t make this harder than it has to be. I’m trying to tell you that I can’t do this. I can’t do the distance. I can’t do the long separations. I can’t…” His voice choked. “I can’t do any of it.”

“Don’t say that.” I wiped away the wet streak that had slid down my cheek. 

I heard him drag in a long, unsteady breath, then release it. “It’s for the best. For both of us. And I think eventually you’re going to realize that.”

“No. I don’t agree.”

“When…when you’re back here to see your family, you can still come visit the dogs. If you want.”

“Stop. God, please, just stop this.”

“Take care of yourself, Hunter.”

Before I could say anything else, he hung up.

“What the fuck?” I whispered, my chest so tight I struggled to breathe. 

I immediately hit the call back button. It rang and rang, but he didn’t pick up. 

I tried a second time.

Still nothing.

I started to try again, but stopped myself because I had a sudden vision of Shane obsessively trying to reach me after I’d hung up on him. I didn’t want to be like that, that obnoxious, incessantly calling asshole. I needed to have more respect for Jay than Shane had had for me. Which meant I had to give Jay some time and space. 

But putting my phone back in my pocket was damned hard. After being with Jay twenty-four-seven for over a week, right now I felt completely cut-off from him, and it wasn’t a place I liked. At all.

I looked up, my vision blurred. As I’d talked to Jay, I’d walked away from the waiting room and any potential prying ears. Now, I had no idea where I was, except that I stood next to a window in an empty hallway. 

But in spite of the window and the cloud-covered daylight filtering through the glass, I suddenly felt like I was in the dark with a giant weight pressing against my chest.

I had to get out of here.

I swiped a hand across my eyes, picked a direction, and took off, following signs for the stairs. When I found the stairwell, I ran down the steps and went out the closest exit door.

The damp December air hit me, stealing my breath, and making me shiver since I’d left my coat up in Shane’s room. But I didn’t care. I just needed to…to find someplace away.

Finally, in an alley next to one of the hospital buildings I stopped. The sobs I’d been trying to hold back broke free, and, as I leaned against a cold brick wall, they had their way with me.

* * *

Eventually, after a stop in the restroom and then the cafeteria for some caffeine, I made my way back up to Shane’s room. The knot in my gut was still a miserable bitch, my throat was raw, and my eyes felt like coarse-grit sandpaper. But I was back in control.

A while later, as I sat in the chair in Shane’s room with my laptop open, working on drawing up a set of legal documents, I got a text. 

My heart lodged in my throat, but I swallowed it back down because I was certain it wasn’t Jay. 

And I was right. It was my mom.

How’s Shane, hon?

I’d messaged her right before I boarded the plane in Denver, telling her briefly what had happened and that I was heading back to New York. Even though it had been 4:30 in the morning, she’d responded immediately, telling me to be safe and to let her and Dad know how things were going once I’d gotten here. 

With everything else, I’d completely forgotten to do that. 

I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to be texting in ICU, but the nurse had only mentioned calls, nothing about messaging, so I decided I was going to use the “I didn’t know” defense if someone caught me at it. 

He seems to be holding his own in spite of two surgeries today. Still not awake, though. From what I understand, the wreck was pretty horrendous, but they think he’ll recover.

Good. That’s good news, she said. And how are you holding up?

I debated what, if anything, to tell her about where things stood with Jay and me. But in the end, this was my mom. 

I’ve been better. Jay’s really hurt over me coming here. So hurt he broke up with me on the phone this afternoon.

Oh, honey.

Yeah. I suspect he’s afraid of getting hurt because of some old relationship stuff that’s happened in his past, I typed

Bless his heart. And it no doubt all started when that worthless mother of his married that abusive monster and let him hurt Jay. She chose that piece of trash over her own son. That kind of thing leaves long-lasting emotional scars on kids that they take with them into adulthood.

I don’t know why I hadn’t fully put the pieces together before, but my mom’s words suddenly made a lot of things click for me. She was right. This wasn’t just about Jay being afraid another boyfriend was leaving him to go back to an ex. This was about a pattern of people rejecting and abandoning him his whole life. It had started with his mom, then been reinforced as he’d struggled from relationship to relationship, being judged and tossed aside for his sexual orientation, and then his grandpa, the one person who’d always been there for him with unconditional love, had been unexpectedly torn away from him.  

God, why hadn’t I seen this bigger picture before? 

Jay had been running scared and waiting for the other shoe to drop all his life. After he’d been through therapy, he’d tried to open his heart and trust with Garrett. All he’d gotten for that was another kick in the gut. Right now, he was doing the only thing he knew to do to protect himself because he expected me to eventually reject him, too. Oh, Jay. 

Thanks, Mom.

For what, honey?

For giving me some perspective.

* * *

Shane finally began to stir in the evening, but he didn’t seem to be aware of who was around him. At one point he opened his eyes, turned his head and looked at me, but his gaze was uncertain, like he didn’t recognize me. When I spoke to him, he looked even more confused, and then he dozed off again. He was much the same with the nurses and aids who came in.

I sat with him until almost eleven o’clock, but at that point I was dead. I’d dozed for a few minutes here and there during the afternoon while I sat in the chair. But beyond that, I hadn’t had real sleep in…damn…probably more than thirty-six hours.

The night nurse came in to check on Shane, a soft-spoken woman who looked like she was barely old enough to have finished nursing school, yet did her job like a seasoned professional, which meant I was probably terrible at guessing people’s ages.

“Since he’s stable, the tube in his chest is doing its job, and there’s been no further abdominal bleeding, it’s likely they’ll move him to one of the regular floors in the morning,” she said. “He should also be more alert then. It takes a while to get all the crud out of a person’s system after surgery, and it’s not unusual for them to be in and out like he is. I suspect by morning he’ll be more himself. In the meantime, he’s doing fine. If you’d like to get out of here and go home and get some sleep, you should.”

I let out a tired sigh. “I think I will, actually. You have my number if anything comes up during the night.”

“We will definitely call you if anything concerning happens, and you’re welcome to call us and ask how it’s going. But his vitals are good, so I expect he’ll sleep through the night. And when you come in tomorrow, check at the desk downstairs and they’ll be able to tell you if he’s moved, and if so, to which floor.”

“Okay. Thanks.” 

I packed up my computer bag, then grabbed it and my coat and made my escape.

Even though the east coast humidity made the cold feel even colder, after being in the hospital for hours, it was almost a relief to breathe the stinging, fresh night air.

I was going to call for an Uber, but a couple of cabs sat right at the entrance, so I slid into one of them. I had the cabbie make a stop at a fast food drive-up window. Not because I was actually hungry, but I realized I’d better eat something in the interest of self-care.

A few minutes later, the driver let me out in front of Emma and Nate’s house on their quiet residential street.

All the windows were dark, but the porch light was on. I let myself in with the key Emma had given me, and a few minutes later I found myself right back where I’d started two weeks ago…on Nate and Emma’s couch, nursing a broken heart.

But this time, there was no wallowing or wondering what in hell I was going to do. Because this time, I knew exactly what I wanted.

Sitting in the dark, I picked up my phone and called Jay.

It was 9:30 in Colorado, so he probably wasn’t in bed yet, but I didn’t expect him to answer. I wanted him to. God, I wanted him to so badly. But I didn’t expect it.

And he didn’t.

Instead of trying again immediately, though, as I had this afternoon, tonight I left a message…

“Hey, it’s me. I hope you actually listen to this message, Jay, and don’t delete it…because I have some things to say that I really want you to hear. You see, I finally understand where you were coming from this afternoon. I know you’re afraid of getting hurt and you’re trying to protect yourself. For good reason. God knows you’ve been through more shit in your life than anyone should ever have to go through. But I want you to know, to remember, that I’m not like the other people in your life, the ones who’ve bruised and battered your heart and left you to pick up the pieces on your own. That’s not who I am. It’s not who I’ve ever been.

“I’m the guy who stood side-by-side with you and took down a fourth grade bully on your first day of school in Lodgepole. I’m the guy who held your head while you were sick the first time we ever got drunk when we swiped the bottle of Fireball from Aaron Wiseman’s truck the night of sophomore homecoming. I’m the guy who climbed every fourteener in Colorado with you the summer after we graduated, and camped for blissful weeks with you under the stars. I’m the guy who’d rather eat cereal for dinner with you, any night, than ever go in a fancy restaurant again. And I’m the guy who’d rather cut off his own arm than ever make you go through something like your grandpa’s death by yourself again.    

“I’m not giving up on us. I am coming back to Colorado. Not just to visit, but to make a life there. And if it takes weeks, months, years for you to believe in me again, I’ll wait for you. Because I love you, Jay Marshall. I’ve loved you forever, and I will still be the one standing by your side when we’re old and grey and the rest of the world is falling apart around us. You’re the only person who ever has or ever will hold my heart.”

Click here to read Chapter 27!

Author: mlrhodes

Author M.L. Rhodes writes bestselling m/m romance and fantasy novels. She's also a geek, an introvert, a night owl, a potter, and a damn fine margarita maker.

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