Now That You’re Here: Life Moves On
The festivities were in full swing, everyone was having a great time, and Matt couldn’t get his mind off his meeting with Zander that morning. He had decided he needed a break from everything and went outside to the gazebo that they had loved so much so he could think. He had spent the last week replaying everything that happened the day of the shootings and felt like he should have been able to do something to change the outcome. That was what had been the hardest to take. Maybe he should have focused more on the suspect rather than spend his time looking around trying to assess the situation. If he had just walked through the door and apprehended the man, he would have been in handcuffs and unable to reach for his gun.
But then, Zan had said some things that made him think that maybe he wouldn’t have been able to stop the man from pulling the trigger. Maybe the man wouldn’t have allowed himself to be put in handcuffs. Maybe he would have pulled his weapon and Matt would have been faced with the same tragic ending that the man’s wife and children had faced. He shuttered at that thought. He imagined how horrible it would have been for David if that had happened. His boyfriend had already lived through losing someone he loved. He didn’t want to be the cause of it happening a second time.
“Hey, is everything alright?” David asked as he approached the gazebo. He had seen Matt leave the house ten minutes earlier and gave him some space, but he couldn’t help but worry. He knew that Matt had met with Zander that morning and wanted to talk to him about it, but by the time they saw each other, his parents and Dylan and the gang had joined the group already there and they didn’t have a minute alone.
“Yeah,” Matt said softly. “I just needed a few minutes alone to think.”
“Uh oh…thinking isn’t necessarily a good thing,” David chuckled. “We haven’t had a moment to ourselves all day. How did your meeting with Zander go?”
“It went good,” Matt admitted. “I think he’s helping me see that it’s not my fault that Johnson killed himself.”
“You thought it was your fault?” David asked incredulously.
“Maybe…I don’t know. I mean, obviously he was crazy. Just the fact that he killed his wife and kids is proof of that. But I couldn’t help but think that I should have been able to stop him before he pulled the trigger on himself, you know? Maybe if I had done something differently when he opened the door, I could have prevented what happened.”
“Or…maybe if you had done something different you might have lost your life, too…and I’ve got to tell you, I’m glad things worked out like they did. Don’t get me wrong, my heart breaks for that entire family. What happened was a tragedy, but I can’t even fathom what could have happened to you if things had gone differently,” David said as he closed the distance between them. “Babe, every day I wake up and hope that it’s not going to be the day I get a phone call or a knock on the door that tells me that the love of my life is gone. I am so sorry that you had to go through what you did, but when I think of how close you were to a crazed lunatic with a gun…”
Matt pulled David into a hug. “I’m sorry.”
David accepted the hug but then pulled back when he heard Matt’s apology. “What are you sorry for?”
“For causing you to wake up every day and hope it’s not going to be the day you get a phone call. I remember how worried my mother always was when my dad went to work each morning and it never occurred to me that one day someone would feel that same fear for me.”
“Babe, you don’t have to apologize. You made it clear to me from the very beginning that you were going to be a cop. I knew what I was getting into. Now, if you suddenly decided to change professions and become someone that doesn’t run the risk of getting killed every day, I wouldn’t complain,” David chuckled. “But I am so proud of you and the life you have chosen to live. You never have to apologize to me. I’m just so thankful that I get to share it with you.”
Matt pulled back and looked David in the eyes. “I don’t know what I ever did to get lucky enough to be loved by you, but I’m so happy that I am.”
“I think I’m the lucky one,” David said softly before taking Matt’s mouth in a heated kiss.
“Alright you two, knock it off,” Daniel called out as he walked through the backyard and approached his brother and his boyfriend. “Newly single guy here…I really don’t want to watch you two suck face.”
David ended the kiss and laughed. “Then be thankful you weren’t ten seconds later. I was about to bend Matt over the railing and fuck him right here.”
“David!” Matt exclaimed, his face turning bright red.
“What?” David replied with a smirk.
“Nice, bro…” Daniel laughed. “Don’t worry, Matt. I’m immune to this punk by now.”
“Well, that makes one of us,” Matt said as he fanned his face. “I’m going to go inside and stick my head in the freezer, see if I can get rid of my embarrassment.”
David watched Matt go with a smile on his face. He was so thankful that things were finally going back to normal. Once they were alone, he focused on Daniel. “So, what happened with you and Leann? I was shocked that you came out alone. I thought things were going good with you guys.”
Daniel shrugged. “I thought so, too. Apparently, I work too much and she’s tired of being alone all the time.”
“Do you work too much?”
“Define too much. I work five to six nights a week…occasionally I have to go in on a night off. Running a kitchen in a Michelin Star restaurant isn’t a simple 9-5 job. I need to stay on top of things. If I let my guard down, those stars can go away.”
“Danny…” David sighed.
“Why are you set on letting life pass you by?” David asked. “Bro, I love you and I want to see you fall in love, settle down and have a family. You’re never going to be able to do those things if you don’t take it easy.”
It was Daniel’s turn to sigh. “I know, but there’s nothing I can do about it now. I’m the reason we have those stars. I can’t just cut back and lose them now. My boss would be pissed and a loss like that could follow me for the rest of my life. As long as I work at Sorrento’s, I need to keep those stars.”
“Well then maybe it’s time to leave Sorrento’s behind. Danny, I know that when you first graduated, you felt the need to prove your worth, but you’ve done that. You’ve taken the hospitality world by storm and took an ordinary restaurant and gave it three stars. Now maybe it’s time to put that aside and work on your personal life. It’s not like you need the money,” David pointed out.
“Maybe not, but what would I do? Working in a kitchen is all that I know.”
“I don’t know. Maybe you could open up one of those little out of the way dive places and just keep it low key. Something to keep you busy but allow you the ability to get a life,” David suggested. “In fact, I think Arizona might be looking for a place just like that.”
“You want me to leave New York and move here?” Daniel asked.
“Would that be so bad? The plan was always for me to move to New York so we could live close to each other, but my life with Matt wouldn’t allow for that kind of move. Is there anything keeping you from moving out here?”
Daniel thought about it for a moment. After years of spending all his time in the kitchen, he really didn’t have many friends to leave behind. His closest friend through the last several years had been Mark and he moved back to Arizona after his graduation, so moving would actually bring them closer. And he really missed David…would love to live in the same zip code again. “Actually, there’s absolutely nothing keeping me from moving to Arizona.”
“Well little brother, I hope you’re willing to let me crash here for a while. When I head back to the city after the holiday, I’m going to give my boss 4 weeks’ notice and start packing. I’m moving to Arizona.”
David reached out and hugged his brother. He never really thought his plea would work, but he was so excited at the thought of living close to his favorite sibling again.
Brian and Justin pulled into the driveway and found a place to park. As soon as Brian killed the engine, he jumped out of the jeep, but noticed that Justin wasn’t as enthusiastic. He walked over to the passenger side and opened the door. “Is everything okay?”
Justin nodded. “Yeah, it just feels weird going in there like this. No one knows we’re back together and I don’t want to be judged.”
“Why do you think you’ll be judged?”
“I don’t know. I guess I’m worried that everyone is going to think I just gave in to you,” Justin admitted.
“Jus, no one even knows why we broke up, other than Zan and Chris and they don’t even know the whole story.” Justin’s silence told him a different story. “Okay, who else knows?”
“Um…Jason and Matt. And Zan kind of knows that we’ve been sleeping together.”
“You told Zan what’s been going on?”
“It wasn’t my fault,” Justin insisted. “He overheard us talking outside Zac’s house the night Gary died and confronted me. I tried not to tell him, but he wouldn’t drop it. If it makes you feel better, I begged him not to tell your brother.”
“Justin…” Brian groaned.
Justin suddenly went from feeling bad to being angry. “Hey, you have no right to get mad at me. You’re the one that broke things off because you didn’t want to keep your pants on. If you’re embarrassed because of what happened, that’s all on you.”
Brian saw the hurt in Justin’s eyes and sighed. “You’re right. I’m sorry. Look, let’s just walk in there with our heads held high and be thankful that we’re back together. If Matt, Jason or Zan ask you any questions, tell them to come see me. I’ll explain to them how I temporarily lost my mind and had to beg for forgiveness before you would even consider giving me a second chance.”
Justin laughed as he climbed out of the jeep and pulled Brian into his arms. “I don’t think I made you work quite that hard, but it’s fine. The only thing that matters is that we’re back together. All the whys and hows are irrelevant. I love you, Brian.”
“I love you too, Sunshine,” Brian replied before giving Justin a gentle kiss. “Having you back is the best Christmas gift I’ve ever received.”
“Such a charmer,” Justin chuckled. “Come on, let’s get inside. It looks like everyone else is already here.”
As soon as Brian and Justin walked inside, they were bombarded with questions. Walking in holding hands announced to everyone that they were back together, and it appeared that most of their friends were happy for them. There were only three faces glaring at Brian as far as he could see: Matt, Jason and Zander, but the men were nice enough to stay away as everyone else in the gang wished them well. Once the excitement died down, Brian went right over to Zander, the only one he was really concerned about, and confronted him.
“Go ahead, yell at me. Tell me what an asshole I am. There’s nothing you can say to me that I haven’t already said to myself a million times,” Brian admitted.
“I just don’t get it,” Zan began. “I have never once doubted your feelings for him. Not even when you were seventeen. Why did you do it?”
Brian shrugged. “I don’t know. I guess I just thought that he would be open to trying something new. And come on, Zan. Chris told me that you two had an open relationship for a while. You have to admit, there’s a certain excitement to being free to take home any guy you want.”
“Truthfully? Your brother and I had done the threesome thing a few times back in the day and I guess it had its excitements…but between you and me, I haven’t been with another man on my own since the day we met.”
“But…” Brian was speechless.
“Your brother has no idea. It’s fine. I wasn’t mad that he was still sleeping around. We were new and not ready to take the next step and settle down. It’s just that when I love someone, I have no desire to be with anyone else, and I knew he was it for me the day we met. I mean, I love sex. There are some periods, when life isn’t too crazy, that your brother and I go at it once or twice a day, every day.”
Zan laughed. “The point is, as much as I love sex, it’s not going to be anywhere near as great as it is with the man I love, so why bother? If I’m sexually frustrated and Chris isn’t available, I have two hands and a vivid imagination.”
“I think I’m traumatized,” Brian mumbled.
“You’ll be fine,” Zan assured him. “Now be honest, Bri, did any of the sex you were having in the last six months come close to what you have with Justin.”
“No, it didn’t.” Brian didn’t hesitate. He didn’t have to.
“So then why the need to have it at the risk of losing the man you love?”
“You know,” Brian began. “When I was young, I walked in on my dad with some bimbo while my mother was out of town. Instead of being ashamed, he sat me down and told me that real men couldn’t be satisfied with just one woman. Obviously, I eventually replaced women with men, but I guess that always stuck in my head.”
“Oh Bri, please tell me that you’re not going to take advice on being a man from Jack Kinney! I know he was your dad, but he’s also the last person who should ever impart wisdom on a child.”
“I know. I don’t know what I was thinking. At night I would lay in bed and think about the pain in Justin’s eyes when I told him I wanted to be able to sleep with other people. I haven’t gotten a good night’s sleep in months,” Brian admitted.
“They why did you let it go on this long?” Zander asked. “Why didn’t you fix things months ago?”
“I don’t know, pride maybe? I didn’t want to admit that I was wrong. I’m an idiot. When I think of all the time I missed because of my stupidity it makes me sick.”
“Well, at least you were able to fix things before it was too late and you lost him for good,” Zan pointed out. “Now you can spend the rest of your life making it up to him.”
“Believe me, I will,” Brian promised. “I’m sorry, Zan. I know how much he means to you, and I never meant to hurt him.”
“I know you didn’t. We’re good. But just know if you pull something like this again, we’re not going to be.”
“Got it,” Brian smiled, knowing that Zan was completely serious.
Jason was the next person on the list, but his apology with Justin’s childhood friend went better than he expected. Jason just seemed happy that things worked out and that Justin was happy again. Brian promised to keep it that way.
Once that was done, he went in search of Matt. He really wasn’t too worried. Despite the closeness Justin and Matt shared, he and Brian went back a long time. He figured a quick apology would be all that was needed. He found Matt coming out of the bathroom and learned quickly that it wasn’t going to be that easy.
“Hi Matt,” Brian said as he approached his friend. “Thanks for having everyone over. I think Zan is in heaven having the night off.”
“Whatever,” Matt mumbled as he tried to walk past Brian and rejoin the party.
“Hey, is everything alright?” Brian asked.
Matt glared at Brian. “No, actually it’s not. Justin might be able to forgive and forget, but I don’t know that I can.”
“What? Matt, come on. It’s over now. Justin and I are good…”
“No Brian, it’s not over. Not from my position. I was so pissed at you when you and Justin broke up. I knew immediately that you were behind it. I could see the pain in Justin’s eyes and knew it wasn’t his decision, but I gave you the benefit of the doubt and minded my own business. But the other night…listening to my best friend tell me that you not only broke up with him so you could fuck around, but that you were still jumping into his bed as well? Fuck you for hurting him like that. For making him think that he wasn’t enough.”
“Hey, what goes on in my relationship is none of your business,” Brian pointed out.
“Let me give you a little warning. I think Justin is a fool for taking you back. He deserves so much better than you, but it’s his decision. I’m going to tell you right now though, if you ever hurt him like that again, I will kick your ass.”
Brian watched in horror as Matt walked away, leaving him standing alone in the hallway feeling lower than he ever felt before.
Zac had been there for over an hour, but despite being surrounded by his friends, he still felt so lost. He knew he should have stayed home, but he had promised Jason he would at least make an appearance. In his mind he had stayed long enough, and he went in search of the bathroom to splash some water on his face before he began saying his goodbyes. Once he was sure he would be able to fake a smile, he walked out of the bathroom and ran right into Jason.
“Oh…sorry,” Zac chuckled.
“No, I’m sorry. I wasn’t paying attention to where I was going. This house is so big and…beautiful,” Jason replied as he looked around in awe.
Zac laughed. “Yeah, it is. I can’t believe Matt lives here. I remember when we were kids talking about when we grew up and how we wanted to be rich and live in huge mansions. I guess he managed to make his dreams come true.”
Jason felt a lump developing in his throat as he thought about his childhood dreams. He never imagined he’d be where he was. “Yeah, lucky him.”
“Listen, I think I’m going to take off. I’m just not feeling very festive. You asked me to come, and I did, but I really just want to go home,” Zac told him.
“Do you want me to come with you? We can hang out and watch a Hemsworth movie,” Jason teased.
“J, what are you doing?”
“What do you mean?”
“You need to stop. I appreciate your concern, but I’m a big boy and I can take care of myself. It’s Christmas Eve, go home and spend the night with your girlfriend. I’ll be fine,” Zac assured him.
“But what? I know you’re just trying to help, but you’re not helping. God J, all the time we’re spending together…it’s getting to be too hard. I can’t allow myself to get used to having you by my side again because eventually you’re going to go back to your life and where does that leave me? I still love you so much and seeing you is killing me! Why do you think I moved to California? It’s too hard to be with you when I’m not with you.”
“Z…I’m so sorry…”
“You’re sorry? What are you sorry for?” Zac asked as he took a few steps closer to Jason, thankful that the other man didn’t back away. “Are you sorry that you ran away? Are you sorry that you couldn’t love me enough to fight for us? To stay despite being so afraid, so we could find a way to make it work? Are you sorry that you broke my heart? I don’t know exactly what you’re apologizing for.”
“Yes…for all of it. I’m so sorry that I couldn’t be who you needed me to be.”
“But you were who I needed you to be,” Zac whispered. “You were beautiful and strong and courageous. You were sweet and kind and generous. You were everything that I’ve ever wanted and…”
Jason didn’t think about what he was doing as he closed the short distance between them and covered Zac’s mouth with his. It had been so long since he tasted Zac and his senses went on overload as he felt Zac part his lips and deepen the kiss. Someone groaned, but Jason wasn’t sure which one of them it was as he pushed them up to the nearest wall and brought their bodies together. A small voice in his head told him he needed to stop what was happening, but he couldn’t seem to get his brain to listen. He felt Zac’s hands slide down his back and grab his ass, bring their hard cocks painfully closer. The friction sent shockwaves through Jason’s spine and without thinking about where they were, he reached down and began unbuttoning Zac’s jeans.
Zac felt Jason’s hands fumbling with the opening of his jeans and knew he needed to stop what was happening, but he didn’t want to. He had been dreaming of a moment like that for over four years and didn’t want it to end, yet he couldn’t allow things to continue. Not when they were in a house full of people with Jason’s girlfriend in the other room. He took a few more moments to enjoy the feel of Jason’s mouth on his and then pulled back.
“J…we need to stop.” Zac looked into Jason’s eyes and was surprised at the desire and raw need he saw there. “We can’t do this. Not here, not now…not with things like they are right now.”
The enormity of what just happened suddenly washed over Jason and he hung his head in shame. “I’m sorry…I didn’t mean…”
“Shhh…don’t do that,” Zac said as he put his hand under Jason’s chin and forced eye contact. “You don’t ever have to apologize for kissing me. We just can’t do this. I would give anything in the world to have you back in my life like this…but if I ever get lucky enough to have that happen, it has to be something that you want, and it has to be for forever. It can’t be a one-time thing…I want it all.” He leaned down and placed a gentle kiss on Jason’s check. “I’ll talk to you soon. Merry Christmas.” And with that, he walked away leaving Jason standing alone in the hallway.
Eric was standing in the doorway of the den, watching as the kids all played video games together. It still amazed him how well everyone got along. From Abby and Julia, who were seven all the way up to Kaleb who had just turned sixteen, they all got along and were as close as could be. And it was all thanks to Chris and Zander…two men who spent the last ten years creating a nontraditional family starting with taking in Chris’s little brother at the age of 14 and then adding Zander’s cousin and sister, as well as all the friends they met along the way. These kids were being raised to love on another despite any lack of blood relation and it was a wonderful sight to see.
“Hey, what are you doing?” Steve asked as he came up behind Eric.
Eric smiled and turned towards his brother. “I was just thinking about how amazing my life is.”
“Oh?” Steve looked confused.
“Do you realize how lucky we are that you met Brian and became his best friend?”
“I’m sorry, Eric…but you’re losing me,” Steve replied.
“Look in this room. You have Abby, Julia, Gracie, Sophia and Kaleb all playing together as if they were siblings. It’s all because Chris took Brian in when he needed a place to go. He and Zander not only gave him stability, but they gave him a huge nontraditional family as they welcomed more and more people into their world. Hell, thanks to them I have Dane in my life. I just…oh, I don’t know. I only had two drinks. I swear.” Eric laughed.
“Are you sure?” Steve teased. He laughed when his brother gave him a gentle shove. “I know what you mean, though. I don’t think Chris and Zander realize how much they have done for everyone in their lives. Look at all they’ve given me. Thanks to them I have a wonderful family, I own my own business and I’m a few months away from receiving my bachelor’s degree. Who knows where I would have ended up if I didn’t have somewhere to go when I left Princeton?”
“That’s what I’m saying. I don’t know. Maybe those drinks hit me more than I thought. Or maybe I’m just over emotional because it’s Christmas.”
“Are you okay?” Steve asked as he looked closely at his brother. “You seem a little off and I don’t think it’s the alcohol.”
“I’m fine. I just have a lot on my mind. Hey, what are you guys doing tomorrow? After Santa comes, do you want to come over for brunch? We’re going to try and keep Julia busy so she doesn’t miss Sandy too much.”
“That’s sounds good but let me check with Charlie. She gets tired so easily these days, her ankles keep swelling and she’s constantly peeing. She keeps telling me its normal, but I still worry about her.”
“Then forget it. I don’t want her to be uncomfortable. She’s cooking my nephew, that takes a lot of work.”
“Why don’t you guys come over to our house? I’ll do the cooking and cleaning and Charlie can just sit back and keep her feet up?” Steve suggested.
“Um…sorry baby brother but you can’t invite two chefs over for brunch and serve scrambled eggs,” Eric teased. “We’ll come over and bring what we need to invade your kitchen. I’ll let you do the cleaning though.”
“Thanks a lot,” Steve laughed. He had to admit that his cooking skills left a lot to be desired. He could make the basics, but he definitely wasn’t anywhere near Dane and Eric’s level. “Okay, I was actually coming to say goodbye and grab Abby. I need to get Charlie home.”
“But daddy!” Abby exclaimed when she heard her father. “I don’t want to go home yet. I’m having fun.”
“But buttercup, we need to get mommy and the baby home,” Steve said.
“But…” Abby’s tears started, and her bottom lip began to quiver.
“Please don’t cry, sweetheart,” Steve said as he walked in and picked up his daughter. “We need to get home and get you to bed before Santa comes.”
“Can’t we just stay a little bit longer? Please?”
Eric looked at his brother and smiled. He knew Steve hated tears. “Hey princess, go play with Julia and give me a minute alone with your dad, okay?”
Steve put Abby down and sighed as she ran back to the girls. “I hate to see her cry.”
“I know you do. I hate when Julia and Gracie turn on the tears. And they know it, too. Do you think they are just born knowing that they can wrap any man around their finger if they just squeeze out a few tears?”
“Probably,” Steve chuckled.
“Look, why don’t you take Charlie home and get her in bed. Dane and I aren’t going to be here much longer. We can bring Abby home. She’ll leave easier if Julia and Gracie are leaving, too.”
“Are you sure?”
“Of course,” Eric assured him.
“Thanks. I’m definitely not in the mood for a meltdown. I still have a lot to do before morning. I don’t even have all the presents wrapped yet!”
“Bro, nothing like waiting until the last minute.”
“I know, but the store has been crazy lately and I spent the last few months working six to seven days a week. With Charlie being pregnant, it’s just been tough.”
“Why didn’t you tell me? I could have helped out. Look, get out of here. Go home and do what you’ve got to do. I’ll give you some time. We’ll probably be here for another hour or so. Take the time to get done what you need. I’ll text you when we’re leaving so you know when to expect us.”
“Thanks Bro,” Steve said as he hugged his brother. “Hey Abby, I’m going to bring mommy home now. Uncle Eric and Uncle Dane are going to bring you home in a little bit, alright?”
“Yay,” Abby cheered as she got up and ran to Eric. “Thank you Uncle Eric! You’re the best uncle ever!”
“Thank you, Abby girl…make sure you tell Uncle Dane that. He’ll love to hear it.”
“Stop causing trouble,” Steve laughed. “Give me a kiss sweetheart, and I’ll see you in a little while.”
Abby leaned over and kissed Steve before motioning to be let down. Once she was on the floor, she ran right back to Julia and all thoughts of going home were forgotten.
“Alright, get out of here. I’ll see you in a bit.”
“Thanks again Eric. I really appreciate this.”
When Eric made his way back to the living room, he found Dane talking to Brian and Justin. He went over and joined them.
“Hey, where were you?” Dane asked as he put his arm around Eric and pulled him close.
“I was checking on the kids. I told Steve to go ahead and get Charlie home. Abby was having too much fun so we’re going to take her with us and drop her off on our way home.”
“No problem. I was talking to Charlie a little while ago. She hasn’t been feeling very good lately. She said she’s tired all the time.”
“Yeah, that’s what Steve said. I invited them over for brunch tomorrow, but he was worried about Charlie, so we’re going to go over there. This way Charlie doesn’t have to go anywhere.”
“Please tell me we’re cooking,” Dane said.
“Of course we are. I already told Steve we weren’t having scrambled eggs for brunch.”
“Hey, when are you guys coming over and cooking us brunch?” Brian asked.
“Brian, I’ve seen your kitchen. There’s not enough room for the two of us to cook for you. There’s probably not enough room for one of us,” Dane laughed.
“That’s not true any longer. I’ve already started moving my stuff over to Blondie’s place. Wait until you see his kitchen,” Brian said.
“Really?” Dane asked as he looked at Justin.
“Yeah, the previous owner was a chef. The rest of the house is falling down, but my kitchen is state of the art.”
“That’s all you have to say. I’ll be there. Just say the word,” Eric replied. “Brunch, dinner…whatever you want. That’s the only downfall to our kitchen. We need to do a full remodel on it and with raising two kids, there never seems to be a good time to do it.”
“Yeah, call me and we’ll set something up,” Dane told him.
Brian smiled. “You’ve got yourself a deal. Just send over a list of ingredients that you’ll need because I somehow doubt Justin has a fully stocked pantry. He spends all his time in his studio.”
“Guilty,” Justin agreed. “My only spices are salt and pepper packets from fast food places.”
“Okay, I can’t hear anymore,” Dane groaned. “I’m off next Saturday. Bri, I will swing by and pick you up at noon. We are going to go shopping for kitchen staples. I cannot be associated with someone who doesn’t even have a decent spice rack.”
“That’s funny,” Eric said as he nudged Dane. “I remember a young man who used to eat peanut butter and jelly five nights a week and didn’t know the difference between fresh garlic cloves and garlic powder.”
Dane chuckled. “Oh, give me a break. I was eighteen years old and didn’t know any better. Lucky for me, I fell in love with Sierra Vista’s top rated chef and those days are long gone.”
“No, I think I’m the lucky one,” Eric replied.
Brian watched the love between Eric and Dane with affection. He could still remember the time when Dane swallowed a bottle of pills thinking his life was over. Now he was happily living with the man he loved, raising two daughters and had a great career as a chef. He was so glad that his friend was happy.
“Okay, I’m going to run to the little boys’ room and then go hit up the food table again. You coming with me, Sunshine?”
“What do you think?” Justin replied.
“He’s still a bottomless pit,” Brian said as he grabbed Justin’s hand and pulled him away.
Dane turned to Eric once they were alone. “I’m really glad they’re back together.”
“Justin definitely seems much happier now. I was getting worried about him.”
“I know, me too,” Dane agreed.
“You know, I wouldn’t mind hitting the food table again myself. What do you say?”
Matt waved to the last few guests then shut the door and leaned against it, totally exhausted. The last couple of days had been a whirlwind of activity. Between the Jackson family flying in, to having everyone they know come over for Christmas Eve, it was a lot to take and all he wanted to do was head up to bed and curl up with the love of his life.
He pushed off the door, made sure to lock everything up and then headed to the living room. Everyone seemed to have headed off to bed except for David and Daniel who were in deep discussion when Matt walked in. “Everyone is finally gone.”
“Thank God,” David chuckled. “I love our friends, but between them and the Jacksons…I’ve had enough entertaining.”
“Hey!” Daniel exclaimed, pretending to be offended.
“Oh shut up, you don’t count,” David laughed.
Daniel smiled. “I’d better not. Especially if I’m going to be moving in.”
Matt dropped down on the couch next to David and laid his head on his boyfriend’s shoulder, but then his brain registered what Daniel said. “I’m sorry, what?”
“Oh babe, I didn’t get a chance to tell you but Danny’s going to move to Arizona. I told him he could stay with us until he got settled. You don’t mind, do you?” David asked.
“No, of course not,” Matt replied honestly. “I think it’s great. I know meeting me screwed up your plans of living close to each other in New York. I’ve always felt bad about that.”
“Matt, you don’t have to feel bad about anything,” Daniel said. “Yeah, it kind of sucked when David told me he wouldn’t be moving to the city, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen him as happy as he’s been the last six years. That’s all that really matters.”
“Thanks. I know I’ve never been happier.” Matt smiled as he looked over at David and was happy when he received a kiss. It ended quickly and he turned his attention back to Daniel. “So, what are you planning on doing once you move here? Take another restaurant to new heights?”
“No, I’m over working 70-80 hours a week. I’m going to take it a little easy from now on. Try and get myself a life. Actually, after David and I talked I ended up in a conversation with…Eric? I think that’s his name. Anyway, he and I were talking, and he told me that he’s in the process of buying his own restaurant. The closing is set for six weeks from now. I’m going to help him get it set up.”
“You’re going to work for Eric?” David asked.
Daniel shrugged. “I’m not really going to work for him. We were talking about what needs to be done and I think he’s a little overwhelmed. I guess his stepdaughter just moved in with them recently and he also has a daughter of his own and his boyfriend is a rising chef himself, so things are pretty crazy for them. Eric’s a little worried about being able to pull it all together. I think it’s just nerves. Going from running a kitchen to owning a restaurant is a huge step. So I kind of told him that I would be bored and have plenty of time to help him out…free of charge. I mean, it’s not like I need the money, right?”
Matt smiled. “You know, you Jackson boys are the nicest people I know.”
“What?” Daniel asked in confusion.
“Oh come on, you’ve met Eric once? Maybe twice and you volunteered to help him open a restaurant?”
“It’s really no big deal. I’ll be trying to get settled in a new state. Helping him will keep me busy.”
“And you don’t know how to take a compliment, either. Well thank you for offering to help him. Eric is a good guy, and their family does have a lot of their plate right now. I’m sure he’ll appreciate any help you give him,” Matt said.
“You know,” David began. “If you really want something to keep you busy, you can always join me at the Jackson Foundation.”
“Bro, I don’t know the first thing about public relations. I’m a behind the scenes man, remember?”
“That’s not true, you’ve been a spokesman for the family ever since you turned 18 and you love it,” David pointed out. “Besides, there’s so much more than just doing public relations. Do you even know what I do?”
Daniel smiled sheepishly. “Not really.”
“Jesus, Danny. Two years ago, I opened up a foundation to help those in need. We throw fundraisers and drum up donations to help not only the LGBT community, but also homeless people, veterans, anyone in the area who needs help. In fact, we just received an acknowledgement from the President of the United States because of the work we did with the Wounded Warrior Project. How do you not know any of this?”
“Yeah, how do you not know this?” Matt asked in astonishment. “This has been his passion for over five years now. He actually started working on the plans while we were still in El Paso. He just didn’t open a location until we were able to settle here. He’s the reason the Christian Young Center has more than doubled in size. They have a food bank, a thrift store, and a teen homeless shelter along with the community center, which offers group and individual therapy, AA and NA meetings and all kinds of classes to teach our youth how to grow up and be productive members of society. They have volunteers that teach wood shop, auto mechanics, sewing and crafting, and nutrition…”
“Oh yeah, you should talk to Aiden about teaching some cooking classes,” David added. “Eric and Dane do random one-night classes, but with their schedules, it’s hard to commit to more than that. You could do a full session. You know, teach the basics.”
Daniel looked at his brother, beaming with pride. “I’m really glad Dad let you out of your obligation to Jackson Tech. It sounds like you are right where you need to be. Bro, I’m so proud of you. I would be honored to work with you at the foundation.”
“Thanks Dan…I’m just doing what I love to do, but I will definitely take the help. At least until you figure out what you really want to do. And obviously we can work around whatever Eric needs you for. This is going to be awesome! I had the caterers leave enough food for an army, so we have breakfast. After we’re done exchanging gifts, we’ll get everyone to sit down to eat and you can let the family know about your future plans. Now that I know you’re going to be moving here, I can’t wait to get everything going.”
Daniel smiled at his brother. “That sounds good, but I think the first thing you need to do is take your boyfriend to bed. He’s falling asleep.”
“No, I’m alright,” Matt whispered sleepily.
“Come on babe, let’s go,” David said as he nudged Matt and stood up, offering his hand. “Good night, Danny, I’ll see you in the morning.”
“Night bro, Matt. And thanks for welcoming me into your home. I’m actually starting to look forward to the future.”
“You’ll always be welcome here,” Matt mumbled as he allowed David to lead him away.
Dane dropped down on the couch in sheer exhaustion. They had been trying to keep Julia occupied so she didn’t think about missing her mother, and that on top of both girls’ excitement over Christmas, and then going over to David and Matt’s house made for a very long and eventful day. Then, once they got home, he and Eric had to wait for the girls to fall asleep so they could set up for Santa. Fortunately, despite the problems Sandy had, Julia was still a believer and they hoped to keep it that way for as long as possible. It was now almost two in the morning and Dane couldn’t wait to crawl into bed. He’d already be upstairs if Eric hadn’t asked him to wait while he double checked the garage to make sure they had everything. So, Dane sat patiently on the couch with his head back, trying not to pass out while he waited. It wasn’t going to be easy.
Eric went into the garage and right to his secret hiding place. He moved the boxes labeled restaurant supplies and pulled out the small black box that he had stored there weeks before. His heart was racing as he flipped open the top of the box and took a final look at the rings that were inside. He had gone back and forth over whether he should purchase rings or just propose and wait for the ceremony, but after doing some research online, he found that about half the gay men who got engaged did wear engagement rings signaling their upcoming nuptials. That’s what he wanted with Dane. He decided to go with simple platinum bands with a brushed finish and beveled edges. Each ring had an inscription inside. His said ‘I love you”, Dane’s said ‘I love you more’. It was what they had been saying to each other ever since the word love was first said between them. It seemed fitting. With shaky hands, he closed the lid and put the box in his pocket before heading back inside.
He walked into the living room and stopped in the doorway, taking a moment to study Dane’s face. The face he wanted to wake up with for the rest of his life.
“Hey, did we get everything?” Dane asked, pulling Eric from his thoughts. “I really hope so because there’s no more room under the tree.”
Eric smiled. “Yeah, that’s it. Come here for a minute, I want to show you something.” He took Dane’s hand and pulled him from the couch, leading him over by where the fireplace flickered, and their stockings were hung.
Dane stopped by the fireplace and waited for his boyfriend to point out whatever it was that he was supposed to be looking at. He was confused when Eric got down on one knee, but before he could question what was happening, a small box appeared in Eric’s hands.
“Babe, having you in my life is the best thing that has ever happened to me. You are my best friend, my shoulder to lean on, and the one person I know I can count on; You’re the love of my life and I want to spend the rest of my life growing old with you. Will you marry me?”
Tears instantly sprang to his eyes as Dane looked down at the man he loved. He felt like it all had to be a dream, but if it was, he didn’t want to be woken up. “Yes…oh my God, yes!” Dane exclaimed as he knelt down and threw his arms around Eric. “I love you so much!”
Eric pulled back and smiled at his ‘fiancé’. “I love you more.”
Justin climbed into bed and right into Brian’s arms. He was so happy to finally have Brian back where he belonged. “Well, tonight was kind of cool. It was nice seeing Daniel again and getting to know the rest of David’s family. And everyone seemed to take us being back together well. I know Zan and Jason appreciated you speaking with them privately. They were the ones I was really worried. I figured Matt would just go with the flow.”
“Yeah, me too…which was why I was shocked when he basically told me off and threatened me,” Brian replied dryly.
Justin started to laugh until he saw the look on Brian’s face. “Wait…what?”
Brian chuckled humorlessly. “Oh yeah, he told me he thought you were a fool for taking me back, that you deserve so much better than me, and that if I hurt you again, he’s going to kick my ass.”
“Holy shit!” Justin exclaimed. “I’m sorry. I didn’t expect that…but he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”
“Doesn’t he?” Brian asked. “You probably are a fool for taking me back and I know you deserve much better than me.”
“Seriously Justin. Maybe you need to think about this a little more before deciding to take me back,” Brian replied. When they got back together, he had been so happy that he never thought of what would be best for Justin. His confrontation with Matt made him see that Justin could do better than him, that he deserved better than him. “Maybe it would be best if we took some time to think things through.”
Justin felt panic start to set in as he jumped out of bed and glared at Brian. “What are you doing? Are you trying to back out of this? Are you sorry you promised monogamy? It’s only been one day, and you’re already having cold feet?”
“No!” Brian insisted as he jumped up and went around to the other side of the bed, taking Justin by his arms and looking him in the eyes. “I’m not backing out of anything. I will promise you whatever I need to promise you to have you back. I just…Matt has a point. I’m really screwed up and maybe you would be better off without me.”
“Brian Kinney, I don’t ever want to hear you say anything like that again! There’s not a single person on this planet that isn’t a little screwed up in some way, including me. As for being better off without you, we just spent six months apart and it was nowhere near better for me. I was miserable! I don’t want to go through that again…ever, so unless you can stand here and tell me you don’t love me and don’t want to be with me, I don’t want to hear another word about taking time. We’ve already lost enough time together.”
Brian didn’t even have to think about it. “I love you,” he whispered right before taking Justin’s mouth in a gentle kiss. No more words needed to be spoken and Brian and Justin spent the next hour showing each other how much they cared.
Jason spent most of the drive home lost in thought. He couldn’t believe he had kissed Zac right in the hallway where anyone could have seen them. Luckily Zac had enough common sense to end things before they had gotten out of hand. By the time Jason made his way back to the party, Zac was saying his goodbyes to everyone. Once he was gone, Jason spent the rest of the evening by Macy’s side, trying to put what happened between them out of his mind.
But now that they were away from all of the craziness, he couldn’t seem to focus on anything but what happened in the hallway. Luckily as soon as Macy got in the car, she had turned up the radio and began belting our Christmas songs, oblivious to Jason’s inner turmoil. When they got home and went inside, Macy headed to the bedroom to get changed while Jason grabbed a beer and dropped down on the couch. He didn’t know what he was supposed to do with the feelings that he had been having about Zac. If he was honest with himself, he never stopped loving the man, but that didn’t change the fact that he was a man. A big strong man that Jason couldn’t stop being afraid of. His relationship with Macy was so much easier. With Macy, he was always in control, and he did care about her. She was beautiful and funny with a heart of gold. Any straight man would be lucky to have her, and that’s what Jason needed to tell himself. He was lucky.
He didn’t know how long he had been sitting in the semi-dark living room before Macy walked in, pulling her suitcase behind her.
“Hey, you’re already packed? I thought you weren’t leaving until tomorrow night,” Jason asked.
“Jas, we need to talk,” she said softly as she took the seat next to him. “You know I love you, right?”
“I do,” Jason replied with a feeling of dread. “I love you, too.”
“You know, I used to believe that. No…wait…that’s not right. I used to be able to fool myself into believing that, but I can’t keep fooling myself any longer.”
“Mac, what are you talking about? Of course I love you. You just moved in with me. We’re planning to build a life together.”
“Jas,” Macy whispered. “I saw you with Zac tonight.”
Jason’s heart starting racing. “It’s not what you think. I…we…”
“Jas, I’m not mad at you. I think I’ve always felt that there was something you were keeping from me, I just couldn’t figure out what it was.”
“But it’s not…there’s nothing going on with Zac and me. It was just…he’s been trying to deal with losing his father and I…”
“Jas, please don’t lie to me. I saw you…I saw the way you were looking at each other. You’ve never looked at me like that,” Macy sighed.
“I…I’m…” Jason didn’t know what to say, but apparently denying his feelings wasn’t working. “Okay look…I’m bisexual. And I’m so sorry I didn’t tell you before now, but I haven’t really had a lot of success when it comes to being honest with the women in my life. And it’s not like it has any bearing on our relationship. I don’t sleep around so it really doesn’t matter if I’m attracted to men because as long as we’re together, there’s no one else anyway. And what you saw tonight…Zac and I used to date but we broke up over four years ago. There’s nothing between us now. I swear. We’re just friends.”
“You’re in love with him.” It wasn’t a question.
“No…I mean…I don’t know…but it doesn’t matter. What we had is over.”
“I don’t think it’s over for you…and it didn’t sound like it was over for him either,” Macy pointed out.
“Macy, please…I can’t…”
“Look, I’m going to go lay down in the spare room tonight and sleep for a few hours and then I’m going to get on the road and head to my mother’s. Let’s take a few days and then we’ll talk again, okay? But while we’re taking time, I really need you to think about what it is you want. I will be sad if it’s not me, but I’ll understand. My father died when I was eleven years old, and I learned firsthand how short life can be. If you love Zac like I think you do, and he loves you too…don’t throw that away. Maybe whatever it was that came between you guys four years ago can be fixed, and if it can, you owe it to yourself to try.” Macy kissed his cheek and then disappeared into the spare room, closing the door behind her.
Jason watched her go with mixed emotions. “Now what am I going to do?” he whispered to the empty room.
End of part 5
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