Hometown Hearts by M.L. Rhodes
Copyright 2018-2019 by M.L. Rhodes, All Rights Reserved
My night’s sleep wasn’t the best I’d ever had, but it was enough to fortify me for the coming day, and that’s all that mattered.
I checked my phone, as soon as my eyes were open, but didn’t have any kind of message or response from Jay. Once again I hadn’t really expected to. Words were good, but actions were what really mattered in the end. And that was fine because I planned to spend the rest of my life not just saying all the words to him, but showing him that I meant every one of them.
As soon as I was up, I called the hospital and was told Shane had, indeed, been moved to a regular patient floor. And when the information desk put me through to the nurses’ station on that floor, his nurse said he was stable and fully awake this morning.
I ate breakfast with Emma, Nate, and Jackson, who offered to share his “grog” and let me wear his eyepatch, making me smile for real for what felt the first time in a couple of days.
Since it was Saturday, and a long holiday weekend, Emma and Nate didn’t have to leave the house. Which meant this time I was the one showered, dressed, and heading out the door after breakfast.
Jackson came to lean against me, one arm wrapped around my leg. He looked up me with a toothy grin. “Hunter, you gonna twerk?”
“Um…?” I looked at Emma for translational support.
She chuckled. “He has no clue what that word actually means. He thinks when we say we’re going to work, we’re saying ‘twerk.’”
I stifled a laugh.
“I know, right?” Then to Jackson she said, “It’s Saturday, honey. Hunter’s not going to work. He’s headed somewhere else.”
“Yes! Twerk! He gots his twerk bag.”
I’d just slung my computer bag over my shoulder. I smiled at him and ruffled his hair. “You know what? I am gonna twerk, buddy. In fact, I think it might very well end up being one of the best going twerk days I’ve had in a long while. I’m kind of looking forward to it.”
“Wow,” Emma said with raised eyebrows. “I don’t know what bug bit you while you were sleeping last night, but I like the attitude.”
“Bugs?!” Jackson shrieked with delight. “I loves bugs!” He tore off into the living room, where we could see him pawing through the couch cushions where I’d slept, presumably looking for the magical bugs.
Nate appeared from the back of the house to join him, and we heard them both giggling.
“So, you’re sticking with your plan?” she asked me.
“Good. Keep me posted if anything changes.”
“I will.” I hugged her.
“Nate, see you later,” I called.
He pulled his head out from behind the couch, his glasses slightly lopsided, but grinned and held up a hand. “See ya, Hunter. You know where we are today if you need us.”
“I do. Thanks.”
Emma handed me my coat and smiled. “Go get ’em, tiger.”
When I arrived at the hospital I went straight up to Shane’s floor and wended my way past the nurses’ station to the room number I’d been given over the phone. The door was closed but for a crack, so I knocked.
Shane was the one who responded, with a quiet—for him—and slightly hoarse, “Come in.”
I entered and, when I saw he was alone, closed the door behind me for privacy.
Then I turned to look at him, really look at him, eye to eye, for the first time since I’d caught him and Kilgannon screwing.
He stared at me from his half-reclined position in the bed, like he wasn’t sure what to say. And I let him. I stood there for several seconds, watching him grow ever more uncomfortable as I met his gaze head-on, silently daring him to spout some kind of bullshit.
Eventually, he blinked, glanced out the window for a second, then let out a breath before he looked back.
“Shane,” I said, setting my coat and bag in the chair and approaching the bed.
“They told me you were here yesterday. That you sat with me all afternoon and evening in ICU,” he murmured.
A faint but cocky smile curved his lips. “I knew you’d come back to me eventually.”
There it was…the smug assumption I knew so well.
“Don’t mistake my being here for something it’s not,” I said cooly.
The smile quickly faded. I saw him take a hard swallow that looked painful. Probably was, considering the dark bruise across his throat and neck. It wasn’t that I didn’t feel sorry for him and his pain—I wasn’t a monster. He looked like he was in a world of hurt, and that sucked for anyone to have to deal with. But my sympathy for his injuries didn’t excuse his behavior.
“How’re you feeling today?” He was still on oxygen, an IV drip, and monitors, but beneath the bruising, he didn’t look as grey. And though I imagined he was probably on some pretty good pain meds, his eyes were clear and he seemed alert and completely coherent.
“How do you think?” he retorted. “Not exactly one of my better days.”
“Seems like you’ve had a lot of not-so-great days lately.”
“You don’t have to rub it in.”
“Just making an observation.”
“Why are you here, if it’s not to get back together?”
“Because you made me your medical power of attorney. Because I was listed on the card in your wallet as your emergency contact. Because in case your drunken and drugged-up joy ride with Xan ended up killing you, we have a law firm that still needs to be run, and a dozen employees depending on us for their paychecks.”
“I can feel you judging me.”
“I wouldn’t have been with Xan in the first place if you hadn’t dumped m—”
“Let me just stop you right there,” I said. “You know exactly why I left. That’s on you. So is the position you’re in now. You made the choice to stick your dick where it didn’t belong, and I’m under no illusion Kilgannon was the first one it happened with. You let your drive for greed and success lead you so far astray you became a liar and a cheater. And you made the choice to get into the car with Xan when you know damn good and well he’s been so doped up for years he could barely tie his own shoelaces, much less handle a vehicle. And now, you have to live with the repercussions of those decisions. Instead of making excuses, you ought to be damned grateful you’re even alive right now.”
He drew in a deep breath, wincing as he did because it probably hurt like hell, then released it. His gaze slid to the window, which looked out on another cold, cloudy, damp day.
“I remember the crash,” he whispered, his voice raspy. “I remember the split second we hit the guard rail. I remember the car rolling. I remember lying there, trapped under I don’t even know what, struggling to breathe and smelling blood. And I remember thinking, before I passed out, This is it. This is where I’m going to die.”
He turned to look back at me, and for the first time since I’d known him, I saw raw, open cracks in his foundation. His expression was desolate, and his eyes haunted.
“You were right. About everything,” he whispered. “I just wanted so badly to be successful. To prove to my parents, to the teachers I’d had in school…to everyone that I wasn’t a fuck-up. That I could be well known, well respected, powerful, even.”
He shook his head. “You always made it look so easy. You were smart as hell, you worked your ass off, got things done, and people always liked you, trusted you. Those first few years we were in business, I was so jealous as I watched you flourish, as more and more clients came to us, asking for you specifically, while I seemed…stuck. I felt like no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t do what you did so effortlessly.”
“You don’t get to bl—”
“I know,” he said, looking at me surprisingly earnestly and shaking his head. “I’m not trying to blame you for my issues. I know all of this is on me, too. I’m just trying to explain. Because I don’t…I don’t know exactly how I ended up where I am right now. It wasn’t like I made a conscious decision to become a lying cheater, as you said. I just…” He shook his head again, looking wretched.
“I think I was so desperate to measure up that I starting making wrong turns. Little ones at first, but when I’d see some kind of benefit or return for it, then it made it that much easier to take a few more, and then a few more. Clients started asking for me, too. I was bringing in money for the firm, and it felt good. So good I started to lose any reservations I might have had early on. It was like an addiction. I just kept wanting more and more and it started to not matter how I was getting it. As long as the success and money were flowing, what did it matter if the means weren’t always ethical? I was so caught up in it, it didn’t even occur to me anymore that not everyone did business like that.”
“Clearly you knew I didn’t, since you kept all this hidden from me. And you told me on the phone that you hadn’t said anything ahead of time about Kilgannon’s threesome fantasy because you knew I’d be ‘judgmental.’”
He nodded, slowly. “I knew you wouldn’t be okay with it. I tried to justify it to myself, but, yeah, I knew. I was already in so deep at that point, though, had made him promises, that I…” He let out another painful-looking breath. “I didn’t know how to get out of it. I…I guess I hoped for the best, that you’d go along, maybe think it was…I don’t know…hot or something.”
“Which tells me that you never really bothered to get to know me, the real me, the whole time we were together. Because there’s no scenario where I’d be okay sharing my romantic partner. None.”
“There’s something else you were right about,” he said quietly.
“You told me Brock didn’t give a damn about me, that he was just spinning me with the promise of his business to get laid. I didn’t believe you. I truly thought there was more to it. But I called him from the room phone this morning. I wanted…wanted to tell him what had happened, that I was in the hospital. You know what he said?”
“‘Shane who? I’ve never heard of you before.’ And then he hung up.
A part of me wanted to say, “I told you so.” But I didn’t, because he already knew it.
“You’re still leaving the firm, aren’t you?”
He nodded. “I guess you’ll take your clients with you. I don’t blame you. You should. You worked hard for them.”
“I’m not taking them. I’m moving to Colorado.”
His gaze shot to mine, his eyes wide. “But…” Then his brow creased. “Does this… Does it have anything to do with the text I got last week, from the friend who’s known you so long?”
“Is he the one I’ve heard you talk about? Jim or John or…”
“Jay. And, yes.”
“It didn’t take you long to replace me,” he murmured.
“I was in love with Jay long before I ever met you, Shane.”
“What is that supposed to mean? You were, you are, in love with him?”
“Let’s cut the crap and the fake indignation, shall we? What you and I had, outside of the office…it was never much more than convenience, and we both know it. If you had really loved me, you would never have considered sleeping with other people. And me not being aware enough that you were sleeping around is pretty indicative that I wasn’t as invested in the relationship as I should have been. So, going forward, let’s stick to wrapping up our professional lives so we can both move on as quickly as possible.”
“You’re wrong, you know?” he said, looking down at his hands. “Even though I fully acknowledge I’ve been a bastard to you, I do love you.”
“I think you love the idea of me. The idea of having a partner because there’s a certain status in it. But what we’ve had the past several years…it’s not love. Not real love.”
I knew because I’d discovered what real love was with Jay. Hurting when he hurt, feeling my heart rush with pleasure every time he looked at me and smiled, taking comfort in his steady, even breathing as I lay against him while he slept at night, knowing I’d do anything in the world for him.
“If you’re leaving town, I… I don’t have anybody,” Shane whispered. “No one who matters.” For once I could tell he wasn’t trying to manipulate or lay a guilt trip. He looked slightly terrified.
“You have your family. Your parents are on their way. They’ll be here, tonight.” They’d emailed me their itinerary last night.
“Oh shit.” Now he looked like he might be sick. “What did you tell them?”
“Everything. That you and I aren’t together anymore because you cheated on me. That the hospital called me after the accident, so I came here to fulfill my obligation to you as your medical proxy. That as soon as you’re able to take over the full responsibility of the law firm, I’m moving out of state.”
“Fuck me,” he whispered. “You didn’t mince any words, did you?”
“I had no reason to lie to them. They’re good people. They care about you. Why didn’t you tell me you hadn’t spoken to them at all in almost three years?”
He let out another rattling breath. “We…had a disagreement. It felt like they were judging me, and I was tired of feeling like that.”
“So you shut them out? Is that part of the reason you tried to manipulate me into staying away from my family as well? Some twisted need to use me as your stand-in family, but in order to do that I had to give up my own, focus all my attention on you so that you could feel better?”
He winced, but I noticed he didn’t deny it either.
“Whatever. It doesn’t matter anymore,” I said. “My family’s solid and we all love each other deeply. It would take more than you to keep us apart. But I would suggest that when your parents get here, you take a good hard look at your relationship with them and remember they won’t be around forever. And instead of being a selfish dick to them for perceived slights you feel because they didn’t continue to coddle you when you got into trouble as a teenager, maybe you should appreciate what a gift they and their love for you really are.”
“What happened to you when you went to Colorado?” he murmured, looking up at me. “You’re…you’re different. And I don’t just mean the way you’ve gone all native…”
He gestured to me, his gaze sliding over me from head to toe, and I figured he meant my appearance. Shane had probably never seen me with more than a day’s worth of stubble, so my beard, which was actually starting to look like a real beard now, enough I’d taken the time to shape it a couple of days ago, was definitely a look he wasn’t used to. And the jeans, boots, and one of Jay’s plaid flannel shirts I’d swiped were a far cry from the suits and dress shirts I’d worn most of the time Shane had known me. I probably did look, to him, like I’d gone full-out Colorado mountain man, and I was okay with that.
He shook his head. “You’ve also got a…I don’t know…like a no-bullshit attitude I’ve never seen you have before. What the hell happened to you?”
“I woke up and remembered what was really important in life,” I said. “It’s about the people, Shane. Not the money or the clothes or the corporations or the notches on your fucking headboard. People are what matter. You might want to open your own eyes to that fact before it’s too late.”
“I’m not sure I like this new blunt you very much.”
“Tough shit. I’m not here to make you happy. I’m here to get some business taken care of.”
His eyes widened again. “Um…have you seen where I’m at and what I look like.”
“You don’t even have to get out of your bed. I’ve already done all the work.”
I reached into my bag and pulled out a stack of papers I’d printed at Emma’s this morning. I handed the first sheet to him.
“This is a new MPOA. I took the liberty of putting your parents’ names in for you since I figured they’d be the ones, at least for now, you’d want to make decisions for you should anything like this happen again. You’ll all need to sign it, of course, but I wanted to make it as easy as possible for you so you’d be covered.”
He seemed genuinely surprised. “Thank you.”
“Next up”—I handed him another page—“This is a letter stating you can keep the apartment and all the furnishings in it. I have no interest in any of it, beyond my own personal items—clothes, books, pictures. I’ll try to get my stuff cleared out this coming week before you go home from here, so you don’t have to worry about me bothering you.”
Next I passed him a sheaf of papers.
“Also, I’ve drawn up the paperwork to start dissolving our law partnership. I think you’ll find the terms fair.”
“You’ve been busy,” he said quietly, looking taken aback.
I hadn’t wasted my time yesterday while I’d sat at his bedside. I’d had hours to work on everything.
“You can retain all of our clients,” I said, “since I won’t be staying in the city, or, for that matter, even in the same type of law. Any cases I’m currently working on that aren’t critical, I’ll pass off to the associates I feel will be the best fit for those clients. The ones that are sensitive or that I’m already fully immersed in…” I handed him another paper with those listed. “…I will stay with them until they’re completed.
“Also, I realize you’ll be out of the office for a while while you heal, so I’d be happy to divvy out your cases to appropriate associates as well until you’re able to step back in and take over, but that’s up to you.
“Ariel and Margaret are aware you’re here in the hospital, but they don’t yet know that I’m leaving. I would never say anything until we’ve signed the paperwork, and I expect you to respect that confidentiality as well. When the time comes, I suggest you and I have a private meeting, either in person or via teleconference, with Margaret, Ariel, and the associates, to let them know the changes that will be coming.”
“You’ve thought of everything,” he said quietly, staring at the papers but not reading them.
“Also, you should know that during the transition, I won’t be staying in the city full time. I’ll be commuting back and forth as needed to be here for court dates or critical meetings. I can handle everything else electronically.”
“This is really happening, isn’t it?” He looked up at me, his gaze troubled.
“We both knew it was coming.”
“Yes you did. You might have hoped I’d change my mind, but that was never going to happen, and I think you knew that.”
He slowly nodded.
“I wanted to give you the paperwork now so you could read through it as you feel up to it and let me know if you’d like any specific changes. You don’t have to sign it right away, but I would appreciate it if we could have everything squared away by the end of this coming week so we can get the ball rolling and start easing the associates into their new responsibilities.”
He nodded again, looking pretty ragged, but I realized it wasn’t just because of the conversation anymore. He was in pain. His face had become more and more drawn as we spoke, and he’d been wincing more often when he took deep breaths.
“Are you hooked up to a pump with a button you can push for pain relief?” I asked.
“Then push it. You look miserable.”
“I don’t want to just yet.”
“Why? There’s no reason to suffer when you don’t have to.”
“I don’t want to because it makes me a little fuzzy-headed.”
“That’s okay. The pain relief’ll be worth it.”
“No. I want a clear head while I do this, so there’s no question about it later. Do you have a pen?”
I looked at him for a second, wondering what he was thinking, then reached into my bag for one. I handed it to him.
“Can you push the table in front of me?”
I did, moving the rolling table so he could easily get to it.
He set the stack of paperwork on it, flipped to the back page of the partnership dissolution papers, and put the tip of the pen on the line.
“Wait. What are you doing?” I said. “You need to read through all of it first.”
He signed the bold scrawl of his name with a slightly shaking hand.
He flipped the pages back into place and handed them and the pen back to me. “I have no doubt whatever you’ve drawn up is more than fair.”
“You should have read them,” I said softly.
“Look, Hunter, I know I haven’t been a good partner, personally or professionally. And I’m not a good guy like you are. I’ve done a lot of questionable things, and I can’t promise I won’t fall into those traps again. But right now I’m just…” He swallowed hard and I saw dampness well in his eyes. “Well, at the moment I don’t have much to offer anyone. So the least I can do is make it easy for you to get out before I fuck up something else.”
I knew him well enough to realize the last was said hoping I’d tell him, “No, Shane, you didn’t fuck things up. I know you’re a good guy, too. It’ll all be okay.”
But I had no interest in playing that game with him. He had fucked up, making one bad decision after another. And, as I’d told him earlier, now he had to deal with the repercussions of that. Shoring up his ego was no longer my problem.
“I’ll do everything I can to make the transition as easy as possible for you,” I said. “And that includes picking up the slack while you’re healing. I’ll touch base with Margaret and Ariel and set up the meeting for sometime next week.”
“I am sorry this accident happened to you, Shane. And I hope that you heal well and quickly from it. The firm needs you. It’s needs the best you.”
He drew in what was clearly another agonizingly painful breath and released it. “I hear you,” he whispered. Then he finally pushed the button for pain relief.
Fifteen minutes later, after I’d given Shane his phone back and forwarded him his parents’ travel information, I left the hospital with a lighter step and an odd sense of freedom.
The dull ache in my heart, however, reminded me the most important part of my life still waited, unresolved. But that was something I could begin to make right, starting now.
When my Uber arrived, I slid into the seat and told the driver my destination.
“I’m headed to JFK. Departures.”