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An unknown male voice on the phone just informed Carter Reeves that his father is gravely ill. Carter doesn't know it, but the man behind that voice is about to change his life.Carter has been estranged from his father for years, but now he can't stay away. He finds himself back in his home town and face to face with a young guy who will shake up his whole world and have him questioning if he is really straight.The guy's name is Jude and he works for Carter's father. Jude is a good-hearted guy determined to reconcile father and son before it's too late. The odds are against him, but he won't give up.To Carter, there is something irresistible about a beautiful young guy as caring and vulnerable as Jude. Even before he can name what he feels for him, Jude has more power over him than any pretty boy should.He isn't the only one who can't put Jude behind him. A man from Jude's past is after him, looking for payback. Despite himself, Carter can't face losing him. He is driven to save and protect Jude at any cost.
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The Last Goodbye (MM Romance)
By T.J. Lorenzo
Copyright © 2017 T.J. Lorenzo
All Rights Reserved.
No part of this publication may be used, reproduced or transmitted in any form without written permission from the author or publisher, except in the case of brief quotations used in reviews.
This book is a work of fiction. All characters and events depicted are fictitious. Any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
All characters engaging in sexual acts are eighteen years or older.
This novel is intended for mature readers.
Any person depicted is a model.
At first he was just a gruff, masculine voice on the phone, saying, "Hello."
"Is this Carter Reeves? I'm calling about a family matter." I was quick to add that last part. I didn't want him to think I was a telemarketer.
A curt "no" came back from the other end of the line, then a pause. Most people hung up at that point. This guy didn't. "What family matter?" he said.
"I'm calling on behalf of his father, Scott Blakely," I said, starting to get hopeful. "Was your name Carter Blakely at one time?"
"No one here by that name," he said, but for some reason I didn't believe him.
Before he could hang up, I gave him the bad news. "Your father is dying."
I heard him take a ragged breath. "I don't have a father," he said in a tight voice, the last word choked off.
He hung up right after that, and I was afraid that was the end of it. I failed and my heart sank as I cursed under my breath. I might have found him, but Scott's son wouldn't come to visit his dad after all.
Later on, I tried the same number again, but I didn't even get an answer. That was it then. At least I hadn't told Scott what I was trying to do. This way I could spare him the disappointment of knowing his son didn't want to see him.
Two days later, my sense of defeat was proven wrong.
Scott was resting, and I was straightening up around the house. My mom worked for Scott as a maid, but both of us were busy taking care of him now that he was so sick. I didn't have many domestic skills, but I wanted to take as much work off her hands as I could.
It was midday when I happened to look out the front windows. A blue, eighties Dodge Charger was parked on the street in front of the house. Going close to the window for a better look, I saw a gorgeous young guy sitting in the driver's seat. He might have been anybody, but my heart jumped in my chest as soon as I set eyes on him.
I was probably wrong but I had to know. I rushed out. The slam of the door and the squeak of the gate announced my approach as I practically ran to him, too eager, dying to know if that was really him and so afraid that I was wrong. The young guy sitting behind the wheel was obstinately looking straight ahead even as I went out to him so noisily.
As I approached him, I was thinking that he might just be some random guy who happened to park in front of this old, rundown house. Scott's house was a former mansion in need of some TLC. It was as likely place to park as any.
Though I stared at him eagerly as I went closer, when it came to trying to recognize Scott's son, I had nothing to go by. No pictures, no video, not even one word from Scott to tell me what his son might look like.
The looks of the guy sitting in the car didn't give me any clues. His didn't have Scott's dark brown hair or his dark eyes. This guy was beautiful, not a word I would have used for Scott even when he was in good health much less now that he was wasting away, in the last stages of lung cancer.
The guy in the car had broad shoulders and wavy, light brown hair, cut short. When I got closer, I stared at his piercing blue-gray eyes, a sharp jaw and a mouth that would be kissable if it wasn't drawn into a stern, angry line. His eyes weren't too friendly either.
I looked away from the forbidding sight of his handsome face and ended up taking in the state of his car. The car was blue but the color was faded, the paint worn in places, showing through to a dull gray. There was dust on the hood and dirt on the wheels. It was an old car that showed every sign of a long, nonstop drive.
The grimy driver's side window stood half open, and I leaned down to speak to the guy sitting behind the wheel. "Are you him? I mean, are you Carter Reeves?" I asked tentatively, ready to hear a no.
Now that I stood so close and spoke to him, he finally turned to face at me, but he still wouldn't answer. He looked me up and down coldly. Then his eyes rested on my face questioningly, like he was trying to figure out who I was and why I was there.
"My name is Jude Langstrom. I work for your dad. Your father is inside if you want to see him," I said and stared at him hopefully.
"So he isn't dead yet?" the guy said pretty much confirming that he was Scott's son. His eyes had narrowed and his voice sounded too calm and even considering what he just said.
"No," I said a little unsettled by the way he asked that. "You can come in and..." I started to offer but he cut me off.
"That's too bad," he said and I heard the same tightness in his voice I had heard over the phone. The overriding emotion was anger but there was more. I was sure of it.
Too bad I didn't get the chance to dig deeper. Carter Reeves shifted in his seat. His hand reached out for the ignition and he started up the car.
I said, "Wait," over the rumble of the engine as I watched him put the car in gear. He ignored me and turned the wheel. My hand was still raised stupidly as the car pulled away from the curb and disappeared down the road.
I stood there staring down the tree-lined street, trying to figure out what just happened. At least I was pretty damn sure that was him, Scott's son. And he came after all. Of course he just drove away without seeing his dad, but he wouldn't be driving out of town after coming all this way. Would he?
Without delay, I got on the phone with my best friend, Tara. "He came. Scott's son. He came."
"So how is it going?" she asked.
"It's not. He left as soon as he came," I told her and sighed.
"That's a bummer."
"Maybe things could still work out. The number I called was in California. He wouldn't come all this way then leave town. I could be wrong, but I want to go and look for him. Can you give me a ride after work?" I asked her. Tara worked in a bookstore, and I had to stick around here for a while too. My mom was out shopping, and I didn't want to leave Scott alone.
"I'll drop by. You know where to look for him?" she asked.
"I wish. The last time Scott's son lived here was ten years ago, when he was nine. I doubt there are any old friends he might stay with. He doesn't have any other family in town. I think he'll stay at a motel maybe?" I guessed.
Tara made an unhappy noise. "Sounds super. I was dying to spend my evening driving you around on a wild goose chase."
"It's a date then," I said as I hung up. Tara might be grouchy, but I knew she would come through.
She was right though. We might end up wasting our time if Carter Reeves left town. Still, I couldn't give up now that he was practically on his father's doorstep.
After weeks of scouring the internet and finding nothing, I had finally tracked down some information on Carter's maternal grandmother in California. When I couldn't get in touch with her, I thought the trail had gone cold. But then Carter's name popped up as one of the recipients of some prestigious scholarship. I called and emailed everyone connected to his school. I couldn't believe my luck when one of his former high school teachers took pity on me and gave me his phone number.
All of that couldn't have been for nothing. There was no way Scott's son drove all the way here, practically to the other side of the country and then turned right around and left again. I held on to that thought as I went back into the house.
I stopped right in the doorway and looked around. Idly, I wondered what Scott's son thought of the place. It was in pretty bad shape. Right off the bat, the front porch made a bad impression. The wood had grayed from the elements. I didn't know much about it, so I wasn't sure if the wood needed to be replaced or if it could be restored.
The house had been in need of painting for years. The yard was a mess. Inside, leaks stained the ceiling and warped the floor in places. Faucets dripped and windows were stuck. Scott could have hired someone to get things fixed up, or he could have done some of the work himself before he got sick. So why didn't he? Why did a guy who seemed so capable and who had the money let his house fall into this state of ruin? That was one part of the puzzle. Scott's son was another.
Other houses around here weren't like this one. Lined up along Dodd Street, the houses were impressive, the yards meticulous with trimmed lawns and hedges and professionally maintained gardens. If it wasn't for the size of the place, you wouldn't think a man with money lived here at number 379.
After we started living here, Mom and I did what we could to spruce up the place. That's why the front view showed the rundown mansion with the garden tamed a little by my mom with a little help from me. We still had plenty of work to do in the back where the garden had been allowed to go wild. I was ready to take a machete to the jungle in the back, but Mom wanted to rescue the plants, not cut them down. She was softhearted like that.
Sometimes I wondered why we worked so hard on improving things even as Scott lay dying. Whatever we did, he wouldn't be around for long to enjoy it. Scott pointed out the same thing to us and told us to let it be and relax. He didn't actually stop us though, and in the end he always relented.
"Do as you like," he would say in a voice that was both amused and resigned. But sometimes when he saw the results of our work, he smiled. Maybe that's why we did it, for those rare smiles from a dying man.
Going back inside the house, walking on those creaking, old wooden floors, I tried to get a grip on myself. I couldn't let Scott see the mix of fresh excitement and disappointment on my face. I didn't want to tell him what happened, not that I really understood it myself.
I had contacted Scott's son without his knowledge or his Ok. Now the last thing I wanted to admit was that after I found Scott's only son and he came here, he didn't even make it to the front door. To me it was frustrating, to Scott it might be devastating.
My mom was out doing some grocery shopping. That was a stroke of luck. She didn't know what I had been up to either. My mom started working for Scott around two years ago, and then he asked us to move in a little after that. That was a good thing now that he was sick.
I helped my mom take care of him, but for me, it wasn't a job. I felt an obligation to Scott Blakely. He saved me from trouble that I mostly brought on myself. He went above and beyond, and I owed him for that.
I would never be able to repay him for what he did for me and for the kindness he showed me and my mom. He was terminal so there wasn't much I could do for him. That's why I was so fixated on bringing his son to see him. It was the only thing I could think to do for him. So far my plan wasn't working out, but I still held out hope.
I was still buzzing from that near miss and also kicking myself for not getting Scott's son to stay and visit him. Doing a bad impression of a guy with nothing much on my mind, I went into Scott's room. He was propped up against the headboard of his big bed, sitting up against some pillows.
He greeted me with a small smile as I went in. Newspapers rustled on the bedcovers and I scooped up the one he was finished with. Scott wasn't much for watching TV so it was always pretty quiet in there. In the near silence of the room, I could hear him struggling to breathe. An oxygen tank stood at the ready by his bed, but he seemed to be doing Ok without it right now.
In many ways it was hard to believe this was a dying man. Scott was so steady and calm, showing no fear. Illness couldn't diminish him. There was nothing weak about him, not even now.
Only his body didn't seem to know this. He had been a man in his prime when I met him. To think that a few short years later, he would be so close to dying. It seemed impossible.
"You seem distracted," Scott said to me as I stood there with newspapers bundled in my hands.
"I was just thinking we should go and sit outside for a change of scenery," I said.
Scott gave me a look that said he didn't believe that was what was on my mind, but he wouldn't press me.
I helped him get up and he stepped into his slippers. Leaning on me, he walked out of the room and down the hall toward the back of the house. Scott didn't like to sit in front, where he was "on display" to the gawking neighbors. We went into the back garden where things were still wild and the shade was deep and cool. Birds were also in abundance out there, chirping away while cicadas sang along.
I helped Scott settle on one of the benches. He breathed heavily then his breathing slowly evened out. Sitting next to him, I surveyed the wilderness. Creepers had taken over on the east side, climbed up tree trunks, smothered flowering shrubs that my mom was dying to rescue. The vines had even grabbed hold of the gutter and the eaves. Maybe they planned to bring the whole house down.
With everything so overgrown, the house was swathed in an oasis of green, sheltered under thick canopies, its own sad little world. We were deep into summer, so it was nice to have so much shade even if it was the result of neglect.
Instead of sitting around, I got up and decided to pull some weeds. I kept turning to Scott for advice. "This look like a weed to you? If I start pulling up flowers, Mom won't be happy."
"They all look the same to me," Scott told me.
As my pile of probably weeds grew, I told him that Tara was coming by later to pick me up. I left out any mention of our mission though.
Scott was always glad to hear I was going out. "Good. Live a little. A young guy like you shouldn't be cooped up in the house with a sick old man. While you're at it, get your mom to take in a movie or something. I don't need twenty-four hour care."
"Mom is Mom. If she wasn't here, she would spend every second worrying about you."
"You have fun at least then," Scott told me and managed a smile. Seeing him like that, I couldn't believe his own son drove away from here without even coming in to see him.
Later on, as I took him back inside and left his room, I was even more determined to find his son. Seeing that my mom was back, I was ready to go out in search of Carter Reeves. I went outside to wait for Tara.
As I stepped outside and through the gate, the afternoon was still pretty hot. The sidewalk had been baked by the sun all day, and I missed the deep, cool shade in the back of the house. A text from Tara let me know she was close. In no time, her beat up old Mazda appeared in front of the house and we were off.
We decided to just drive around and keep our eyes peeled for Carter's old Dodge Charger. There weren't going to be too many of those around, but so far we didn't spot any. Every time I considered that he might already be gone, I resolutely pushed that thought away. I couldn't give up. Scott's son had been only inches from me, close enough to touch. Damn. I should have stood in front of his car and dared him to run me over.
Ok, I was being crazy, but I felt like he was so close and I let him slip through my fingers. I was caught off guard, not just by his sudden appearance, but also by what he looked like. I confessed as much to Tara.
"So we are actually looking for this guy because he's a hot piece of ass," she decided. "There are worse reasons."
"It's for Scott's sake. You know he has been good to me and my mom," I reminded her.
"I guess," she said noncommittally, but she knew how bad we had it before. "So why didn't you call up all the motels where he might be staying?"
"It's not like I would get anywhere over the phone. I'll be more persuasive in person. And that way I can look for his car too and ask anyone who might be around, not just at the front desk."
"That will take some serious legwork," Tara complained.
"It won't be so bad, I have a beautiful redhead driving me around," I said and winked at her.
Tara shook her head so that her bright red hair swayed. Her dark brown eyes stayed on the road though. "Ugh, flattery. I can't believe I'm helping a blond, pretty boy chase after some jerk," she said to return the compliment, sort of. "If he has a crappy old car, he'll be staying somewhere cheap."
"I didn't say his car was crappy, but yeah, I think we can narrow it down to the cheaper ones."
"Not enough. Gross, grubby motels are not in short supply in Lindsberg. Going to places like that, someone might mistake me for a hooker."
I looked over at her and saw her expression. "Why do you say that with a smile?"
She shrugged. "What? Don't you want me to have any fun?"
Driving by a convenience store, Tara spotted a guy we knew and pulled up in front. I leaned out the window to talk to him. "Have you seen a good-looking guy driving an old Dodge Charger?"
"I'm not into cars," Ben said. "Now it's my turn. Have you seen Dave? He owes me a few bucks, and I can't find the squirrelly bastard.
Tara leaned over to tell him, "If he owes you money, you're not likely to catch him that easy."
"I didn't expect to, but no one has seen him," Ben said.
I didn't like the sound of that. Dave was only sixteen and had a talent for getting in trouble. "He dropped out of sight?"
"He hasn't been home for days. I know that for sure," Ben said.
"He isn't home much anyway," I pointed out. Dave told me that his stepfather was trying to push him out. He fought with his brother, and his mother yelled at him all the time. After a day or two of bumming around town, he usually went back home.
"Yeah, but Dave hasn't been anywhere else either. It's spooky," Ben said. He was determined to make me worry about that boy.
"Maybe he finally left town," Tara said.
"He's been threatening to do that forever, but he never does," I said. Dave wasn't one to keep a low profile or to skip town without bragging about where he was going.
"He'll turn up," Tara said, but I could tell she was growing uneasy too. Her knuckles were white as she gripped the steering wheel and her lips were a perfect straight line. She was so easy to read.
After we told Ben to keep us updated, Tara drove away and let out some of her real feelings about Dave. "He pisses me off so much. He's more trouble than he's worth. I guess you're going to look for him too."
"Might as well. Two birds with one stone," I said. If Dave ditched this place, I wouldn't be surprised. He was impulsive like that. "I think he has to be hanging around somewhere. Dave would tell me if he was leaving town. He wouldn't leave without saying 'Bye, losers.'"
"You mean he wouldn't leave without bumming some money off you and everyone else," Tara added. She was right about that. There was no way he was setting out on a trip out of town without hitting up everyone he knew for traveling cash.
As we drove from one motel to another, we passed my old neighborhood. This was a part of town where convenience stores doubled as grocery stores. The apartment buildings were dreary and overcrowded. There was nothing good there and I had always longed to escape.
We didn't get on Pekoe Street, where I used to live, but we were close enough for me to hear jarring echoes of the past—small feet running down badly lit hallways, the dull thump of my body hitting the door, cries of pain. I tried to steer my mind away from bad memories, but things around this part of town never seemed to change.
The only improvement in the old neighborhood was the Condemned, Danger, Keep Out, No Trespassing signs on our old apartment building. I couldn't wait for that place to come down, but it had been sitting there condemned for most of the year. The place wasn't much different when we lived there, terrorized by my father, an angry man who expected to live a better life and who took out his frustration and his disappointment on my mother and me.
In the days when my dad was still alive, I didn't want to go home just to wait for the next beating. I wandered the town with no destination, just wasting time. One day when it started raining, I ducked into the bookstore where Tara worked.
I recognized her from school and we started talking. The conversation was Tara badgered me about flipping through books and not buying. The next day I still came back for more. That redheaded, opinionated loudmouth made me forget myself and all my troubles. I couldn't resist her.
One day she saw me walk by with my head down, but I didn't come inside. She came out to yell at me. "You rushing off somewhere without so much as a hello?" she shouted after me. "You weren't at school either. What gives?"
With my head raised, I turned, and she saw the reason I was avoiding her. It was the same reason I hadn't gone to school that day. My face looked like ground hamburger.
"Wow, you look pretty," she said as I came over. There was no point avoiding her now that she had seen my messed up face.
"I know. I should be a model or something," I said but I didn't dare add a smile. I was afraid it would hurt too much.
"Just don't tell me you fell like I'm some kind of fucking idiot, or I'll give you a beating myself," she warned me.
"I won't bullshit you if you don't ask," I told her.
Tara huffed and glared at me, but she didn't question me. She told me to come into the bookstore with her. She gave me a refuge.
In those days, Tara kept me from feeling alone in my pain as one thing after another kept pummeling me—first dad, then dad dying and mom and I barely scraping by, then Rooster. Now she was helping me on my crazy mission.
We were pulling into the parking lot of the Blue Hills Motel when I spied the same Dodge Charger I had seen that morning. I held my breath. He was here.
I pointed out his car to Tara. "That's him."
"You sure?" she said as she slowed the car to a stop in front of the building.
"Yeah. Look at that car. California license plates and plenty of road dirt. Ok. Mission accomplished. You can drop me off. I'll text you later."
Leaning over to look out the car window, Tara squinted at the motel building. "You sure about that? It looks unsavory."
The motel was painted a sickly yellow and the doors were brown. It was seriously unappealing, but there were no signs it was dangerous. I got out of the car then bent down to talk to her.
"I'll be fine. Thanks for driving me around."
"No big. I'll let you know if I hear anything about that dumb Dave," she said then she drove away with a wave.
I tried the front office and pretended Carter was my cousin. No luck. I didn't have enough money to attempt a bribe, so I went out to loiter in the parking lot. Only a few people came and went, and none of them told me anything about Carter when I gave his description and asked if they saw him.
Lurking in front, I was keeping an eye out for any newcomers I could question or for Carter to walk out of one of the motel rooms. He might not even be inside though. For all I knew he might have walked somewhere.
Out of the corner of my eye, I watched the path he would take if he was coming back to his motel room. I glanced at the row of numbered doors on the first floor. Shading my eyes, I craned my neck and looked up in case a door opened on the second floor walkway. I didn't know how long I could stand there waiting, hoping to see Carter and persuade him to see his father.
I considered it a good sign that he was still in town, but once I saw him, I couldn't lose my head. After that rude meet and greet in front of the house, I was fidgety and nervous about meeting him again. My immediate attraction to him wouldn't make this easier. That guy was almost certainly straight, and he had a bad attitude. He wouldn't like it if he noticed me ogling him. I just had to stay focused and ignore anything that guy might make me feel below the belt.
In Lindsberg again. Fuck. I couldn't believe it. It was bad enough I came here, but now that I was here, I couldn't seem to make myself leave. I parked at the Blue Hills Motel, checked in then I was at loose ends. My head was full of questions I couldn't answer. Leaving my car back at the motel, I let my legs take me wherever they wanted.
Not one thing looked familiar to me. It had been ten years, and back then I had only seen the place from the perspective of a kid whose dad had plenty of money. I didn't know anything about the seedy parts of town. There was a thrift store, a tire place, an office supply store with signs that cheerfully boasted about a going out of business sale.
Further on I saw some brick buildings I recognized and also the hospital complex. I was now walking through Fuller Plaza, a place I had seen plenty of times through the back window of my father's car. The main post office was here, looking pretty much the same, but some new office buildings had gone up on either side of it. Familiar sights were jarring mixed in with new buildings or at least new facades. It was like someone had pulled them from my memories and placed them where they didn't belong.
I didn't want to relive any memories anyway. I didn't want anything familiar. I picked that motel at random, just because I happen across it when I drove into town and it was cheap. Before going back there to catch up on the sleep I missed while driving here, I decided to grab something to eat.
As I walked, I went past every place where I might have eaten and kept going. Constantly aware that I shouldn't be there at all, I was too wound up. If I was smart, I would get in my car and drive out of town. It wasn't happening. Since I had come all this way, it would be crazy to just turn right around and leave.
My feet carried me up the street. On an aimless walk, with an empty stomach, I kept seeing flashes of that Jude guy. I don't know why. There wasn't much to him. There wasn't any reason why I should give him any thought.
But I could still see him coming out of my father's house, wearing a simple white t-shirt and jeans loose on his thin frame. He had blond hair and pretty, earnest, blue eyes. It was a strange sight to see a guy about my own age stepping out the front door then through the gate like he was retracing my steps, replaying the distant past, mocking me.
I was back home but I wasn't. On my way here after getting the news about my father, I didn't let myself think about what I was doing and why. I felt pushed this way and I couldn't resist. I just kept driving with that guy's voice in my head, saying my name like he was calling me home. But this wasn't home. This was only a detour. My real life was miles away.
Going back the way I came, I walked past a strip mall where only a tiny pizza place was still open. I should have gone in, but I went right past it without a second look. Then it was my home away from home—Blue Hills Motel.
About to turn a corner toward the motel, I spotted him. It couldn't be a coincidence that he stood under the blue glow of the motel sign. Jude had to be waiting for me, and the sight of him made me want to run.
I retreated into the shadows of some spindly trees and tried to make myself disappear. Catching sight of him too late, I wasn't quick enough not to be noticed. Jude had seen me and now he stared at me questioningly like he was wondering if I was really going to run from him like some coward.
Of course I wasn't, and I felt ridiculous for even considering it. He was the least intimidating guy I ever met—blond hair cut short but growing out, blue eyes, a pretty mouth, slim and way too good looking for a guy. What the hell did I have to be afraid of?
His blue eyes didn't leave mine for a long moment like he meant to pin me to the spot with his gaze. This was a new kind of uncomfortable. It hit me below the waist, and at the same time, it set my skull on fire and made my skin feel too tight.
I caught myself staring back at him too long. Maybe it was the light, the setting sun giving him a weird glow, but he looked fresh and way too blond. Uneasy, I was ready to run from him again. I kicked myself for my weakness and immediately turned aggressive.
"Why the hell are you here?" I said as I stalked over to him.
"To talk to you. You left kind of suddenly," he said looking put out but also nervous.
"How did you find me?" I asked just to say something, not because I cared.
"The usual way. I hit a few motels until I came to this one."
"Whatever. You hit the jackpot. Now go away," I said to bring this to an end, but he didn't move. To get away from him, I was about to head up to my room. As he moved like he was going to follow me, I stopped. If Jude followed me there...
With those blue eyes boring into me, I felt safer with other people around. What the hell was I scared of? What could a scrawny guy like him do to me?
That didn't matter. I didn't need to overthink this. Since I was still hungry, I might as well get some food at the diner across the way. As I crossed the street, Jude stayed right by my side.
Good thing I wasn't going up to my motel room. I pictured what that would look like. Going to a motel room with a pretty boy—just what I needed.
I pushed through the diner door and walked into the glare. A checkered black and white floor, and bright red booths and white tables completed the assault on my tired eyes.
Taking Jude's presence for granted, I took a seat at a nearby booth. He sat across from me defiantly, like he was just waiting for me to tell him to fuck off. I could tell he planned to be stubborn so I didn't waste my breath.
We put in our orders—Cokes, burgers and fries. Once that was done, Jude was back to staring at me again.
"I'm relieved you're still here," Jude said. "Your dad..."
I cut him off and came out with a question I already knew the answer to. "Did he ask for me?"
A long, awkward silence stretched out as Jude said nothing. He was just confirming what I already knew. Looking away from the pained expression in Jude's pretty eyes, I watched absently as an order was delivered to another table. The sight of two overstuffed hamburgers didn't tempt me.
If I wasn't really interested in eating, why was I sitting here across from a guy I didn't know, who had an unnerving effect on me from the moment I heard his voice asking if my name was Carter Reeves? I looked back at him as if the answer to my silent question might be written in his blue eyes.
For too long I couldn't say anything when Carter wanted to know if his father asked for him. I wanted to give a different answer, not a simple no, but nothing came out. The answer was clear to him anyway. I think he knew it even before my silence gave it away.
I was intimidated by Carter, questioning if I had any right to be here bothering a total stranger. But I had to do it for Scott's sake. He saved me and I owed him for that. If I didn't repay him now, I would never get the chance.
Sitting face to face with Carter like this, it wasn't easy to stay focused on my goal in coming here. At close range, I could really appreciate his blue-gray eyes, his broad shoulders and his obvious strength. Even with his gruff tone and the hostile look in his eyes, he was still tall and too attractive for me to keep my cool around him.
Seen like this, Carter was even better looking but also more real—unshaven, with circles under his eyes. I wondered how long he had stayed awake to get here so fast.
Our orders arrived and Carter leaned over his burger and fries, ignoring me. It was kind of a relief not to have his scary intense gaze on me. Though he didn't ask me about his father's condition, I decided to tell Carter how his father was doing.
"Your father is in the last stages of lung cancer. He kept smoking even after he was diagnosed. He only stopped when I told him that he might make my mom sick and he had no right to do that to her. Then he quit, but I think maybe he didn't have the energy for it by then. He has been growing weaker all the time." I thought back to the Scott Blakely I first met, so strong but also sad. Now I mostly saw the sadness.
Carter showed no sign that he was listening, but I continued telling him about his father anyway.
"A nurse comes by every day to check up on him. Most days he can move around, but he always tries to do too much by himself. He doesn't like asking for help, but he's not too steady on his feet and he gets out of breaths so easily. He doesn't sleep much. I read to him as much as he'll let me, but he doesn't let me stay up too late to keep him company."
Carter was silent as he listened, and I couldn't tell how he felt hearing about his father in what might be the last days of his life. Expressionless, Carter drank his soda, but he had stopped eating after a few bites.
"You should go see him while you still can," I said. "I don't know what pulled you apart, but..."
"That man disowned me and he ruined my mother's life," Carter told me curtly, cutting through my sales pitch. The cold expression was gone. His jaw was clenched, his fists balled up on the table. He looked so angry.
"What happened?" I asked in a quiet voice.
I fully expected him to tell me it was none of my damn business, but he was too angry to hold it in. He took a shaky breath then spoke in a hoarse whisper. "When it all went down, I was still a kid. I kept hearing them arguing. It happened more and more. Their words were muffled by closed doors. The meaning was lost on me, but I heard the anger loud and clear. After a while the anger spilled out where I could hear. My father was jealous and possessive, accusing my mother of cheating on him and being a gold digger. He made her life hell. She might have stayed with him despite that, but one day, when I was nine, he told me that I wasn't his son. That was the last straw. My mom packed us up and left him. When she did that, I'm sure my father considered it an admission of guilt. As for me, I didn't know what to think. I was scared. Mom was beyond upset, but she told me that what my dad said wasn't true. I was his son without a doubt. Back then I was relieved to hear that, but now..." He trailed off then wrapped up his story in a clipped tone. "Our trip to the West Coast was a blur. That's where I've been living. The end."
As I stared at Carter, he reached for his glass of Coke and took a sip. My brain was still playing catch up with what I just heard. "Wait. Your father said you weren't his son?" I knew there had to be something major keeping them apart, but this...
"My crime was looking like my mother too much and not like him," Carter said and turned to stare out the diner window.
I followed the direction of his gaze, but all I saw was his reflection. I took a long, hard look at him. "But you look like your dad. You have his thick eyebrows and his strong jaw line, his wavy hair, his broad shoulders. Couldn't he see that?"
"The man saw what he wanted to see," he stated simply.
"Ok, but I'm pretty sure DNA tests had been invented even way back then," I said.
"Good, old fashioned proof?" he scoffed. "Sounds nice, but this was about pride, not proof. Once the accusation was made, it was all over. The man drove us away as sure as if he had kicked us out the door. Think about it. The husband she loved and was faithful to is calling her a cheater and a slut, accusing her of having another man's kid and passing it off as his," Carter said in a tight, challenging voice, leaning forward as he spoke like he was daring me to defend his father. There was so much anger and bitterness in his expression, but his eyes were the saddest thing I had ever seen.
While I said nothing, the clinking of utensils and the chatter of other customers filled the heavy silence between us. Seeing his anguished expression and hearing what happened left me with no more words. I didn't know what to say to make this better. My own messed up family didn't prepare me for another kind of messed up.
For one thing, I had trouble seeing Scott as the same guy Carter was telling me about. To me he always seemed so sensible and calm—with that one exception. I guess he had a different side to him.
After hearing what Carter had to say, I lost that last tidbit of hope for a happy reunion with Scott and his son embracing each other after all these years. That might not be happening, but something might be salvaged. In a way, the father Carter remembered from his childhood and the Scott I knew weren't the same person. People change.
I took another crack at this. "Maybe your father feels differently now," I ventured.
"Is that why he got in touch with me and asked me to come and see him?" Carter asked in a sarcastic voice then he paused like he was waiting for an answer. "He didn't do that, did he? That was all you. Why are you doing this anyway?"
At least that was a question I could answer. "My mom and I work for your dad. It's a live-in thing. We do whatever we can for him." I left out that one incident that made me even more indebted to Scott. I could hardly talk about that with Carter.
"So you're here as part of your job?" Carter asked with a raised eyebrow.
"No. It's because your dad has been good to us. My mom had it pretty rough at home. My dad liked to beat on her and me too. Whenever he'd start beating on one of us, the other would get in the way and then we would both get it. It stopped when my dad died, but then we didn't have his paycheck to keep us going. We could barely scrape together enough money each month to keep our crappy apartment. I was sure we would end up homeless. Then your father hired my mom even though she had no experience and no references. He moved us in when we had some trouble where we used to live and gave me some work too. Before that I was sure I would have to drop out of school. Because of your dad, I got to finish high school. When we needed help the most, he really came through for us."
As I stopped talking, I watched Carter. Wrapping his hands around the glass of coke like he wanted to strangle it, Carter seemed lost in dark thoughts. I wasn't sure he even heard anything I said.
It turned out that he did. He fixed me with a sharp look and a bitter smile. "So my dad wasn't a total asshole to you. He came through for you when you needed him. Isn't that nice," he said then that dark, melancholy look came back to his eyes. I expected him to stop there, but he surprised me and kept talking. "That reminds me of something. A few weeks after we left for California, I got sick and started running a really high fever. My mom was scared, and my grandmother was talking about taking me to the hospital if my fever didn't go down. I wasn't worried. Not me. I was stupid and hopeful. See, I got it into my feverish head that if I got really sick, my dad would come. He wouldn't be able to stay away. I kept sitting up, feverish, asking, 'Is Dad here? Is he coming?' Finally I woke up. My fever had broken, and I opened my eyes to see my mother crying. 'Am I dying?' I asked her as she hugged me. I was so dumb. But the way her shoulders shook and the way she had her head down, it had looked to me like she was grieving. For me? For my father? For our family?" Carter laughed bitterly. "Of course my dad didn't come. He didn't even come for my mother's funeral."
Once again I was struck by the divide between the Scott I knew and the man who had been Carter's dad. I just couldn't reconcile the two versions of him. But on top of being denied by his own father, Carter had also lost his mother. I didn't know if I could have lived through that. "Sorry about your mom. When I was searching for you, I saw her obituary. How did your mom die?" I asked.
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