As a young man, Dominic Jacobsen already suspects he’s gay, and he gets all the confirmation he needs when a rich boy from out of town climbs into the back seat of Dominic’s GTO. One night with Lamar Franklin is all it takes to convince Dominic he’s found the man of his dreams. Unfortunately, that one night is all he’ll get before Lamar returns to Tucson.
Fifteen years later, Lamar returns to Coda, Colorado after ending the latest in a string of bad relationships. He’s alone, depressed, and plagued by late-night phone calls from an unidentified caller. Lamar’s ready to give up when he comes face-to-face with his past.
Since he was seventeen, Dominic has dreamed of a reunion with Lamar, but that doesn’t mean he’s ready for it now. Facing small-town rumors and big-family drama is bad enough, but Dominic won’t risk losing custody of his teenaged daughter, Naomi. The only solution is to make sure he and Lamar remain friends and nothing more. Clothes stay on, no matter what.
It seems simple enough. But for better or worse, Lamar has other ideas.
- 2 To Be Read lists
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WAKING UP never got any easier. Each day was a whole new introduction to the quiet emptiness that had become my life. It wasn’t the radio alarm that made me cringe, or the knowledge that another day of teaching loomed, just past the next turn of the hour. It wasn’t the bare white walls of my new bedroom, like a throwback to my first apartment in college when I’d worried about putting pinholes in the drywall. It wasn’t the rain pelting the window, or the windblown branches scratching against the roof, or the gray skies, both real and mental, that seemed to dog me endlessly these days. The worst part of waking up was remembering each and every morning that I was here, in Coda, Colorado, and Jonas was back in Dallas, undoubtedly waking up next to his wife.
One of the hardest things about depression, I’d come to realize, was the way the world kept turning no matter how much I wished it wouldn’t. One goddamn day after another.READ MORE
I hit the alarm to silence it. The urge to pull the covers over my head and sleep all day was strong, but it wasn’t an option. Not on a school day.
I threw off the comforter and swung my bare feet to the cold boards of the hardwood floor. Need a rug there, I thought, just as I did every morning. Something to intercept my toes before they touched the chilled boards. But the thought never lasted more than a minute. Buying a rug would mean I planned to stay. And despite having moved here, I wasn’t ready for that kind of commitment.
I stumbled into the kitchen and put the kettle on. In the past, this would have been something of a ritual for me. Kettle on. Loose tea—maybe an oolong or a rooibos or a white tea—into an infuser. Let it steep for the exact right amount of time. Milk, or maybe not. Perhaps a dab of honey. But these days, a bag of cheap Earl Grey was about as much as I could muster.
Outside, the rain fell endlessly. Coda residents all laughed about how unusual it was to get so much. They thought it was an amusing fluke, but I didn’t find it funny.
You’ll hate it, Lamar, Jonas had said to me when I’d told him I intended to move. You know how the seasons affect you.
Then ask me to stay, I’d countered. Tell Olivia about us. Move in with me, like you’ve always promised.
But after two years of believing his promises, I’d finally come to realize they were nothing but lies. Jonas was never going to leave his wife. He’d never be mine, no matter how many times he told me he would.
So here I was in Colorado. Autumn was bad enough, and winter loomed just around the corner. Maybe I could have gone someplace else. Someplace warm year-round. But I had family here, even if I rarely saw them. And I had memories. And whether I wanted to admit it out loud or not, those had been a factor in my decision to come here. Finding out the middle school had a position available had felt like providence. This was the place I’d found myself, back when I was only seventeen. It was where I’d first explored my sexuality. It was a place that, in my mind, was associated with love and sexual freedom and the thrill of discovery.
It was a place of rebirth.
I chuckled to myself. How many times had I taught my middle-school English class that water often symbolized a new, clean beginning? I looked out the window at the dreary drizzle.
“Well,” I said to myself, as I watched the sky weep, “there you go.”
Still, I didn’t feel renewed when I finally stepped out into the rain and ran for my car. I didn’t feel liberated as I parked in the teacher’s lot. I didn’t feel strong or proud as I took my place in front of a classroom full of thirteen-year-olds who didn’t give a rat’s ass about The Scarlet Letter.
The only thing I felt, as always, was a profound emptiness, not because I’d chosen to leave the man I loved, but because he’d let me go.
THREE HOURS later, I dragged myself to the teacher’s lounge. My midday break continued to throw me off balance. It was too early for lunch and left too many hours until dinner. It was bad timing, but that’s what happened when you were the low man on the pole. Only those with seniority got to eat at a normal hour.
I eyed the offerings in the vending machine, as if I hadn’t stared at them every day since the semester started.
“I wouldn’t,” Leila Pruitt said from behind me. “It stole my dollar. Again.”
Leila was about my age, black and athletic, with wild hair standing like a crown around her head. She taught math and was one of the few people who shared my third period lunch.
“Typical,” I said, taking the seat across from her at the small table. “I’m out of quarters anyway.”
She slid a Tupperware container my way. “Have mine. Please.”
I cracked one corner of the lid and peered inside. It looked like oatmeal, only almost black and without the sweet smell. “Dare I ask?”
“I didn’t.” Leila’s partner, Joan, had recently begun experimenting with some kind of fad diet that seemed to involve lots of gruel-like meals. I was pretty sure the ones she sent in Leila’s lunch went down the disposal more often than not while Leila made do with a granola bar and a Diet Coke. “I know I should be glad she’s packing lunch for me, but it’d be nice if it was real food, just once,” she said. “Bob give you any crap this week?”
Bob was the gym teacher and a longtime friend of Troy Fowler, the man I’d replaced in the English department. “Not this week. But it’s only Tuesday.”
“Hard to believe our students are more mature than some of the teachers.”
It was a conversation we’d already had a dozen times. We were both new hires who had replaced long-term employees. We were both gay. Plus, Leila was black. All of which caused some of our more narrow-minded colleagues to dub us the Affirmative Action Club. Leila bore it with more grace than I did. Then again, she didn’t have to live in Coda. She commuted every day from Estes Park.
“Everybody says Troy was off his nut,” she assured me, even though I didn’t care much one way or the other. “It’s not your fault he got fired.”
“I know. Just don’t let Bob hear you say it.”
“Any more prank calls in the middle of the night?”
“A few, but as long as I remember to turn off the ringer before bed, it doesn’t matter.” The calls had started four weeks earlier, shortly after I’d moved to Coda. Caller ID showed only an unidentified number. The caller never said anything. Leila thought it was Tom. I figured it was students, hazing the new teacher. No harm, no foul. It was only a problem on the nights I forgot to silence my phone.
“You have any plans this weekend?” she asked.
“Do I ever?”
“Joan’s band is playing at a bar down in Longmont on Saturday. You should come.”
I debated. On one hand, Leila was the closest thing I had to a friend. I knew it would do me good to get out of the house, and nobody else was going to invite me anywhere. But I didn’t want to go. The very thought of trying to be social and happy and upbeat made me want to cry.
That was another thing I’d discovered about depression: knowing what would make me feel better and actually having the strength to do it were two different things.
For better or worse, I was saved from answering by my cell phone. A glance at the screen caused my heart to leap into my throat.
I’d only spoken to Jonas a few times in the weeks I’d been in Coda. Once, the day after I’d left Dallas, when he called me in tears. I can’t believe you’re gone, he’d said. I didn’t think you’d go through with it. It had been easy to stand firm in my convictions at the time, sure that moving away was the right choice. Either it would force his hand, and he’d leave his wife, or I’d find a way to live without him. Either would have made me happy.
The second time, he’d been drunk. He’d told me he loved me. He’d repeated all his old promises—he’d leave Olivia, and we could be a real couple, if I’d only come back. I’d almost fallen for it too. By then, the depression had set in. I felt so lost without him, alone in this tiny mountain town. I’d broken down and told him about my job, my too-early lunch, my inability to make myself care if I lived or died.
Come home, he’d said. We’ll be happy together, just like we were before.
But I hadn’t been happy. Not for a long, long time. Maybe in the beginning, when we’d first met. When we’d first fallen in love, before I knew about his marriage. But it was hard to remember how that felt. Afterward, when he told me the truth, I’d felt cheated, but he swore they were on shaky ground. For a while there’d been the thrill of keeping a secret together. Sneaking around. Subterfuge. Whispered calls in the night, full of longing and promises, waiting for the day he’d leave her for good. But the thrill had quickly become tedious. On the few occasions when we had a whole weekend together out of town while his wife thought he was away on business, he’d been careful we wouldn’t be seen. He took her calls while I sat quietly in the background. Yes, at one time I’d thought I was happy. But all I’d really been was hopeful. It had turned into confusion, then distrust, then dismay. In my two years with Jonas, I’d been many things.
But rarely happy.
The third time he’d called, I hadn’t answered.
“I have to take this,” I said to Leila.
She cocked an eyebrow at me in obvious disbelief. “It’s him, isn’t it?” I didn’t need to answer. She rolled her eyes. “Tell him to go to hell.”
I hit the answer button. “Hello?”
“We need to talk, Lamar. Please.”
“Give me a minute. I’m in the break room.” It was still midperiod, so the halls were mostly empty. I hurried toward the back door near the teacher’s lot. Outside, the temperature was comfortably cool. The rain had slowed to a drizzle. I stood in the alcove of the door, where I’d stay dry. I leaned against the brick building, hoping it would give me strength.
“Are you there?” he asked.
My hands shook, and I tried to keep my voice steady as I said, “Yes. Okay. I can talk now.”
“I’m glad you answered. It’s so good to hear your voice.”
“Yeah,” I said weakly. “Yours too.” Because goddammit, it was true. No matter how angry I was at him, hearing his voice was like a balm on my wounds. A treacherous lump began to form in my throat.
“How have you been?” he asked. “I’ve been worried. All the rain you’re getting—”
“How do you know about the rain?”
“I check the forecast every day. I keep hoping for your sake, I’ll see a bit of sun.”
“I’m fine,” I lied, although the waver in my voice betrayed me. “What do you need, Jonas?”
“I need to see you. God, sweetheart, I miss you so much. I need you here. I need you home. I don’t think I can live another day without you.”
I sighed. Jonas was nothing if not dramatic. I’d often told him if he decided to give up commercial real estate, he’d have a future in theater. “Have you talked to Olivia?”
“Dammit, Lamar, I don’t know. That’s what I’m trying to say.”
“You haven’t done it yet, though.”
“Why would I, when you’re eight hundred miles away and won’t even take my calls?”
“I was there for two years, waiting for you. What was your excuse then?”
“It’s not as easy as you seem to think. Olivia and I have a life together. We have a son—”
“So nothing’s changed,” I said.
“Everything’s changed. If you’d only give me a chance.”
I hung my head. I bit my lip, trying to swallow the tears burning in my throat.
“Lamar,” he said, quieter now. “I miss you more than I can say. Don’t you miss me at all? Even a little bit?”
“Yes.” More than a little bit. I missed him so much it hurt. So much it was all I could do not to get in my car each afternoon after work and start the long drive back to Texas. Because as much as I’d hated being the secret lover, at least I’d had something to look forward to. I’d had those stolen moments to brace myself against. Now what did I have? Bare walls and cold floors and rain that refused to quit. I had evenings where I forced myself to drink tea instead of bourbon, because at least passing out would have offered some reprieve, but the hangover in the morning wasn’t worth it.
I hated that I missed him. But I did. God help me, I really did. “Yes,” I said again. “I miss you.”
“Then come home, for God’s sake.”
I couldn’t stop the tears now. I angrily wiped them away. “Maybe,” I said. Just saying the words—admitting it was possible—caused the knot in my gut to loosen. A sob threatened at the back of my throat. I wanted to curl into a ball and cry until I was worn out. I longed to let the rain wash me away. But barring that possibility, there was only one thing I could think of that would make me feel better.
I wanted Jonas.
I wanted to feel his arms around me. I wanted to feel his lips brush my ear as he reassured me. Things hadn’t been perfect, no. But wasn’t having part of him better than what I had now? At least back then, the gaping emptiness inside me had felt manageable. It hadn’t threatened to consume me. “I’ll think about it.”
“That’s all I ask. We can make this work. I know we can.”
Inside the school, the bell rang, signaling the end of third period. I had five minutes before my next class started. “I have to go.”
“But you really will consider it? You’ll think about us?”
“Good. I love you.”
“I love you too.”
My chest felt tight and heavy as I ended the call, full of something that might have been despair but might have been hope.
Did I dare go back?
My cheeks were still wet from my tears, but the rest of me was dry. I reached past the shelter of my alcove, feeling the coolness of the rain as it landed in my palm. It made me shiver, but it was real. It made me feel. I stepped out into it, wanting more. I tipped my head back, letting the drops bathe my face, begging it to pour through me. To ease my emptiness and my heartache. To wash away the depression that threatened me anew each and every day.
It did none of those things. When fourth period started, I was shivering and wet. But I was not reborn.
MY CONVERSATION with Jonas haunted me all afternoon. For the first hour or two, the thought of moving home felt like salvation. It felt like it was meant to be. Forget the rain and cold floors and the Affirmative Action Club. Forget my desire to be independent or my need to prove I didn’t need him. To hell with my vow that I’d no longer be kept on the side, second to his wife, waiting for the few minutes he could spare. I’d left him out of some petty desire to hurt him. Maybe I’d succeeded, but I’d hurt me too. I’d ruined the only thing in my life worth having.
Yes, I’d go back to Dallas. Finish this week at Coda Middle School while I packed my bags. Then I’d drive all night. I’d get there Saturday.
I’d run back to Jonas.
The thought of being in his arms again, of allowing myself to give up, let it all go, and let him be my rock made me feel better. I needed that. I needed him to tell me it was going to be all right. We’d apologize to each other and cry together. We’d make love with a passion we hadn’t had together for the better part of a year.
And when it was all said and done, he’d get up. He’d get dressed. He’d kiss me good-bye and go home to his wife. Right back to the five-bedroom house I’d driven past but never been in. To the master bedroom I’d only imagined. The bed they’d shared for nearly twenty years.
He’d have won.
And I’d still be alone.
I barely noticed the rain as I slogged to my car at the end of the day. My briefcase full of papers to grade seemed to weigh a hundred pounds. Each step took more energy than I had, and yet somehow I made it. Somehow I found myself in my car. I stuck the keys in the ignition but didn’t turn them. I stared at the dashboard, listening to the ricochet of water off the roof, feeling that deep, aching hole in my chest widen until I was sure it would swallow everything in existence. I tried to imagine sunshine. The beach. Kids laughing.
Just the thought of it hurt.
Turn the key, I told myself. Drive home. Make a cup of tea. You’ll feel better.
I couldn’t. That simple act required a strength I was unable to muster. Simply sitting here was easier.
Knock, knock, knock.
It took me a second to identify the sound. Leila was standing in the downpour with a newspaper held over her head, looking at me through the window, her brow furrowed with concern.
I hit the button to roll the window down. Nothing happened.
Oh yeah. Need to start the engine first.
I finally turned the key. Once the car was running, I rolled down the window.
“Are you okay?” she asked.
“I’m fine.” She didn’t look convinced. I couldn’t blame her. I’d been sitting in my car, staring mutely at the dashboard for… I had no idea how long. But I wasn’t up for a conversation about it. “See you tomorrow.”
The drive home was a blur. Once inside, I dropped my briefcase by the door. I walked to the stove and grabbed the teapot, which seemed to weigh as much as my briefcase. I hauled it to the sink. Then I stood there, staring at the spigot, unable to turn it on, wondering if I even cared about tea. Wondering if there was any point to taking another breath.
I didn’t think there was. I couldn’t think of a single reason to move forward. It wasn’t as if I was suicidal. Not truly. Death was permanent and scary and far too much to ponder. The amount of effort it would have required was mind-boggling. The idea of working so deliberately toward that point of no return appalled me. But to simply be not living? To be gone? To suddenly and inexplicably wink out of existence?
That, I would have loved.
I filled the teakettle, even though the futility of it made me weak. I put it on the stove and turned the burner on. Took a cup from the cabinet. Dropped a teabag inside.
Was going home truly an option?
I contemplated it for an hour and a half, nursing lukewarm tea and grading papers, one eye on the clock. At 5:45 on the nose, I put my work aside. I took out my cell phone and dialed Jonas’s number.
This is the test, I told myself. This will decide whether I go or stay. Because in Dallas, it was 6:45. Jonas would be eating dinner with his family. This was dead in the center of what I thought of as blackout hours, the time when Jonas was out of my reach. The time when I was not welcome, when I became an intrusion on his real life rather than the man he professed to love.
I waited, refusing to count the rings, until I was dumped into voice mail. “Hello, you’ve reached Jonas Martin. I’m unable to—”
I hung up and dialed again. Same result. I dialed a third time.
This time, I did count. He picked up on the fifth ring.
“Are you out of your mind?” he snapped in a low, angry whisper. “Do you know what time it is?”
“We were cut short earlier,” I said calmly. “We need to talk.”
“You said you wanted me to come home.”
“I do. You know I do. More than anything. But—”
“I want to discuss what that would mean.”
“I can’t talk now. You know that!”
“Then when, Jonas? Because you say you want me to come home, but I’m not coming back to Dallas until I know things will be different.”
He sighed in annoyance. “I can call you tomorrow—”
“Tonight. After she’s asleep. Maybe about eleven your time?”
“Another secret phone call? I can’t wait.”
“What do you want from me, Lamar?”
“You really have to ask? I want you.”
“Honey, I want you too. I miss you like crazy. I think about you every night. But—”
“You’re not listening. I want you all to myself. I don’t want to have to lie and hide and sneak. I don’t want to have to wait until you have an excuse to get away. I want you living in my home. Sleeping in my bed. Taking me to your company functions instead of her. I want—”
“Lamar, I can’t talk about this now. It’s not a good time.”
I kept the phone at my ear and used my other hand to cover my eyes. This was exactly what I’d expected. “There’s never a good time, is there? There’s never a good time to talk about how you’ll never leave your wife.”
“It wasn’t supposed to be like this. We both know that. We were just having fun—”
“Except you didn’t tell me you were married. Not until after….”
“Until after we’d fallen in love. I know. And I’m sorry.”
“Are you? Because when you told me, you still lied. You said you were separated. You said the divorce was all but final.”
“I know it’s been hard. It’s been hard for me too. If you can give me a bit more time—”
“How much? A month? A year? Until Terrence goes off to college?”
“Lamar, I don’t have all the answers.”
“It sounds to me like you do. And they’re the same as they’ve always been: no.”
“I love you. You know I do.”
“Do I?” Because as much as I wanted to believe it, there were times when I felt like little more than a whore.
“Do you really doubt it?”
“What about her? Do you love her too?”
I laughed bitterly. When had “it’s complicated” become code for “I can do whatever I want, and I don’t have to justify it”? “That’s what you’ve been telling me for two years now. Maybe it’s time to uncomplicate things.”
He sighed again. “I could make an arrangement. My office is starting this bowling league. If I told her I joined, I’d have an excuse for Thursdays.”
I asked for him to commit to me, body and soul, and this was what he had to offer? “Thursdays,” I said, deadpan.
“Yes. We’d have two or three hours.”
“Wow. Just enough time for us to eat dinner before you fuck me and go home.”
“Lamar, don’t be like that. It’s only for a little while. Only until—”
But the spell was broken. “Stop,” I said, cutting him off. Whatever ridiculous notion I’d had that going home was a good move had disappeared, banished by the logical part of my brain. There was a reason I’d left. “Forget it. I’m staying in Coda.”
“Don’t say that. We’ll talk later.”
“There’s nothing left to say. Go back to your dinner.”
I hung up. I couldn’t believe what a fool I’d been. I couldn’t believe I’d nearly run back to him.
I tossed out my cold tea and poured a cup of bourbon.
I ROSE the next morning feeling as blah and lonely as ever, unable to shake the melancholy Jonas had thrust upon me. My cell phone showed three missed calls in the night. If even one of them had been from him, I might have felt better, but they weren’t. They were all from the same unknown number. I didn’t even bother to wonder which of my students took the time to prank call me every night. I didn’t have the energy
I stumbled into the living room and glanced out the french doors leading into my backyard. The sky was low and gray, but it wasn’t raining yet. I tried to take it as a good sign. Maybe the clouds would burn off later in the morning, and we’d get a bit of sun.
The thought did little to lighten my mood.
I sat at the kitchen table, staring down at my toast, trying to rouse myself for the day. I tried to come up with a single, solitary reason to keep on breathing. The soft but persistent ache in my chest felt bigger than ever. It was like a gaping hollow inside me, swallowing up anything good. Sometimes I’d put my hand on my solar plexus and be surprised to find solid flesh instead of empty air. And yet that vacuum inside me had mass, like some kind of astrophysical phenomenon my college boyfriend would have known about—a blank circle of enormous nothing in my chest making my arms heavy and my legs feel like lead. It filled my head. Sometimes the effort of holding it all inside felt like pressure in my temples. A quiet ache would build in my throat and in the tender spots beneath my ears. I’d realize I was holding my jaw so tight, I could barely breathe. And yet through it all, I forced a smile when faced with my students. I met Leila’s eyes and told her I was fine.
But I wasn’t. I knew somewhere deep in the logical part of my brain, I couldn’t continue in this vein, and yet when I tried to look forward, I saw nothing ahead of me but an endless cycle of days exactly like this one.
I left most of my toast on the plate and headed for the car, briefcase in hand. The wind blew hard, harsh and bitter against my face. I kept my head down, which meant I was all the way to the car before I noticed it.
I stopped dead in my tracks, staring at the old Honda Civic, trying to comprehend what I was seeing. “What happened?” I asked, as if the car could answer me. If she could have, she would have been crying. Her windshield and both side windows in the front had been smashed. The shatterproof glass was still in place, but thousands of cracks spiderwebbed across the surface, turning the windshield opaque. The headlights were shattered, the side mirrors lying in pieces on the ground. As if that wasn’t enough, all four tires had been slashed.
I dropped my briefcase on the ground, mind reeling. Who could have done such a thing, and why? And more importantly, what the hell was I going to do?
I pulled out my cell phone and called the principal, Lily Wisnowski, to tell her I’d be late for school.
“Not feeling well?” she asked.
I hadn’t been feeling well for ages, but that had nothing to do with it. And yet somehow, the enormity of the destruction to my car was too big to try to explain in this one phone call. “I have a flat tire,” I said.
“That shouldn’t take you long.”
“You do know how to change a tire?” she asked, teasing.
“I only have one spare.”
“And how many do you need?”
She was quiet for a moment, and then she said, “You’re telling me you have four flat tires?”
“And a broken windshield.”
“Are you shitting me?”
I’d never heard Lily swear before. I was a bit taken aback. “I can send pictures if you don’t believe me.”
“It’s not that I don’t believe you. But how? Did a tree fall on it or something?”
“I think….” I swallowed and looked up at the ominous gray sky, hoping stupidly it would fall. I wouldn’t run around like Chicken Little freaking out about it. I’d happily lie down and let it crush me. “I think somebody did it.”
“You’re saying your car was vandalized?”
Vandalized. Yes. Such a simple, vulgar word. Such a perfect assessment of what had been done. Why hadn’t I thought of that to begin with? “It seems that way.”
“Shit,” she said again. Twice in one phone call. I was impressed. “Have you given anybody a bad grade lately? Have any students you might have pissed off?”
“You think a student did it?”
I considered the possibility. Not every student liked me, of course, and I suspected one of them had been prank calling me, but I didn’t think any of them disliked me enough to do this. Then again, who else did I even know?
“You’ve called the police, right?” Lily asked, interrupting my thoughts.
“Not yet.” In truth, it hadn’t even occurred to me. “I guess I need to call a tow truck too.”
“There’s only one in town. Naomi Jacobsen’s family. They’re good people. I’ll send you the number.”
“And I’ll get a sub. Just take the day, Lamar. Sounds like you could use it.”
Maybe I could have, but I knew I’d spend it slumped on my couch, trying to resist the urge to drink or go back to bed. Or both. “I’ll get there eventually, but it might not be until after lunch.”
“Take your time. And Lamar?”
“Call the police.”
I did, simply because I wasn’t sure what else to do.
“Nine-one-one dispatch. What’s the nature of your emergency?”
“Oh,” I stumbled. “Um… I’m sorry. It isn’t an emergency. I probably shouldn’t have called this number. I need to talk to the police.”
“Are you calling to report a crime in progress?”
“Not in progress. I need to file a report. My car’s been vandalized.”
“No problem, sir. Let me get a few details, and I’ll send somebody your way.”COLLAPSE
Barb on Hearts of Fire Reviews wrote:
Sexton did a great job of writing these younger characters. She could definitely write some New Adult M/M romances if she wants to – she certainly has the voice for it.
I loved this story, and I was highly engaged in it right from the beginning. Marie Sexton knows how to weave a tale that captures my attention.