***J. T. Tyler – Twenty-Nine Palms, CA, A month ago***
As hot as it was, the desert did not feel as stifling as Houston’s humidity. His family was another matter. J. T. lifted his bottle of beer and drained it. His third, maybe his fourth. For a man who had worked for a decade to strengthen and enforce Texas’s driving while intoxicated legislation, it was an anathema. But this day was not going as he had thought. Or maybe it was? Perhaps that was part of the problem.
The esteemed Marianne Buford Walker Tyler hated his brother’s new wife every bit as much as he had expected the woman to. That was no surprise. Once again, Jon had not toed his mother’s thin line and had married a woman of his own choosing. Though, he liked Alicia Flores a lot more than he had ‘she who was not to be named.’ And her little girl was an absolute delight.
He needed another beer. Heck, there probably weren’t enough in that cooler for this day. J. T.’s eyes scanned the backyard of the ranch-style house just outside of town where the wedding reception was being held. The place was nice, but it was the home owner who had J. T. knocking back beers the way he usually did water after an hour-long workout.
Almost twenty-five years and close to three-thousand miles to discover him. Here. Would he have even come if he had known the man was here? That he and his ‘family’ were close friends with his little brother. Would even his mother’s tight control of his life been enough to get him here?
J. T.’s eyes fell to the chaise lounge set off to the side of the pool. His mother and wife conversed together. He almost smiled, for once, the illustrious Marianne Buford Walker Tyler was not the queen bee. In fact, she and Priscilla were the outsiders. While Alicia and the other women had welcomed his wife and mother at first, they would not tolerate the women’s passive-aggressive negativity and judgmental attitudes. That had to be a first for his mother.
His gaze drifted to the other group of women. His brother’s new wife was laughing with the tall, dark-haired beauty. Sarah was absolutely stunning. The woman would turn any man’s head when she walked into a room. J. T. focused carefully, looking for any sign of the man that she had been born. If there was any, he couldn’t see it.
The very pregnant woman next to her appeared her complete opposite. If the blond wore any makeup, it was hard to tell. Perhaps he could discount the flowing gauzy dress to her pregnancy, but J. T. could not picture Mandy in designer suits like his mother, wife, and Sarah wore.
He had spoken briefly with the other women in their party. Kacey Miller worked in the district attorney’s office and prepared the legal documents for his brother. Jon had damned well better survive this surgery, or their mother would kill him herself. Hell, Marianne Buford Walker Tyler would have his ass for witnessing the damned things. But after a lifetime of animosity, fueled mainly by that woman, it was the least he owed his younger brother.
Then there was the young blond woman. Kaitlin Danvers-Logan was a counselor and advocate for the LGBTQI community. Oh, and poly, too. Her two husbands stood with a group of other men by the bar, laughing.
J. T. did not like to think of himself as prejudiced, like his mother and wife. But two husbands? Two wives, one of whom had been born a man? He was honest enough with himself to admit that it stretched the envelope of acceptable for him.
He scanned the group of men. But the one he sought was not among them. Perhaps Steve Saunders had slipped inside for more food or beer. Now was his chance. He’d grab another drink while the man was away and slink back to the shadows at the edge of the desert.
“Here. You look like you could use this.”
That voice was deeper than it had been all those years ago. But it still did funny things to his tummy and lower. He had hoped to avoid this. “Hello, Steve. How have you been?”
J. T. supposed that those words were common enough. How many former lovers had said the exact same thing? Felt as he did now, turning and examining with new eyes the face of his first love.
Damn, did the man have to look so fucking good? J. T. rarely cussed. It was another of his mother’s rules of polite society. The great Marianne Buford Walker Tyler asserted that only unintelligent people found it necessary to resort to such things. It was something that she would not tolerate in her family. It had only taken J. T. one taste of that Ivory soap bar to learn his lesson. So much so that he seldom even thought such words.
Jon, on the other hand, must have learned to like the taste. Or maybe his baby brother just enjoyed the taste of freedom more? J. T. shook his head; he knew this was a bad idea. But once again, he had succumbed to his mother’s strong will. And look where that had gotten him.
He reached for the bottle, and their fingers brushed. Fingers that had once touched his body. Fingers that had brought him the first taste of pleasure. And damn those lips. They were quirked in a smile now. As if the man knew exactly what he was thinking, remembering. Those dark eyes, there were laugh lines around them that had not been there when they were teens. Those gray hairs were a bit more prominent in his dark waves than J. T.’s dirty blond. But Steve was still as handsome as he had been all those years ago.
“I’m good,” J. T. lied.
“I’m glad. Honestly, I am.” They stood in silence for a moment, then Steve tilted his head and laughed. “Has that woman changed at all? She looks exactly as she did all those years ago.”
J. T. stared at his mother and wife. Both women were frowning and staying something to his oldest son, Jeb. He wondered what it was now. What had his son done to piss them off now? He would have to go and speak with them once this was over. Over? Would it ever be? Just seeing this man brought it all back.
“She hasn’t aged a day,” Steve shook his head and took another long swig from his bottle.
“And she won’t if her plastic surgeons have anything to say about it. She’s on her third now, I think.” At thirty-five, Priscilla was already badgering him for money to begin the tucking and clipping that his mother used to keep her looking somewhere in her mid-life.
J. T.’s eyes traveled back to the other women laughing and joking together. “I’m glad that you found what you were looking for.”
Steve’s smile broadened as he, too, observed the other group. “Yeah, it’s been a journey. And this wasn’t at all what I had planned for my life. But I wouldn’t have it any other way. Every single day with Sarah and Mandy makes me realize how fucking lucky I am.”
J. T. wondered if forty-two-year-old men had heart attacks. Of course, they did. Perhaps that was what was happening to him now? Or maybe it was just a broken heart? The one that had never healed. But to hear this man speak that way about someone else? Once upon a time, he would have sworn this man would be his first, last, and only. And maybe in some fucked up way he was.
Sex, if you called it that, with Priscilla had always been… A disaster? Now was not the time for those thoughts, though. He’d have all night lying alone on the sofa in their suite for those regrets. It took him a moment to realize that Steve was speaking to him again.
“So, I guess your mother was right then? It was just normal teen exploration for you?”
Was that longing or regret he heard in the other man’s voice? Or was it all in his mind and heart? It was the same lie that he had been telling himself for twenty-five years. But coming from those lips, he could not find the words to confirm it or even the energy to nod his head in assent. Because for the first time since that horrible day, J. T. recognized the lie for what it was.
And he was choking on it. He loosened his tie. Not even Jon had bothered with one. But his mother had insisted that he and his sons wear them. J. T. raised the bottle; perhaps another swig of beer would wet his throat enough for him to breathe at least. Or was it simply to deaden the pain of seeing this man that he had once loved so deeply happy with others?
Because he knew now, he never would be. He didn’t deserve to be. Not after the way he had betrayed their love. Maybe he deserved this hell? Perhaps his mother’s preachers were wrong. Maybe hell, fire, and brimstone weren’t necessary? Perhaps this was the worst hell of all? It certainly felt that way.
“I’m sorry. I should have connected the dots. But I only met your family once. I’m not even sure that I knew Jon’s name. And Tyler, well, that is too common a name for me to make that connection. Not that I would have rescinded Sarah’s offer to host the reception. But maybe I could have had Jon give you a heads up. So you weren’t blindsided by all this.”
“Don’t worry about it,” J. T. lied again. If being gay did not make the top ten, that one did. But he had been lying for so long now that the truth was intensely uncomfortable. No, it fucking hurt. And the truth that was staring him in the eyes now was…
He was gay.
He always had been. His mother, the distinguished Marianne Buford Walker Tyler, had been wrong. It was not just one of ‘those things’ or a ‘phase’ he would outgrow. Her beloved oldest son and golden boy to whom she had pinned all her hopes as his father tumbled deeper and deeper in alcoholism and adultery was homosexual.
And from that fateful moment that she had walked into his room and found them together until this, his whole fucking life had been one lie after another. But did he even know how to tell the truth now?
The irony was not lost on him. James Travis Tyler, the renowned, noble, and lofty champion of justice, was a liar. A fake. A fraud. A charlatan.
J. T.’s self-recriminations were put on hold by shouting. “That’s a mean thing to say. Take it back,” the little girl with his niece screamed at his son George. When the boy laughed and said something else that he could not hear from here, she pushed him. George fell into the shallow end of the pool. Hope was crying, her usually bright smile absent. Her face was a mask of hurt, betrayal, and anger.
He shook his head. He could well imagine any number of things that his middle son would have parroted. But was that really the boy’s fault? He was only seven. And J. T. had been so busy following his mother’s dreams and plans for his life to the governor’s mansion and ultimately the White House that he had abdicated his parental responsibility to their mother. A woman as narrowed-minded and bigoted as his own.
He watched in slow motion as his mother and wife rushed to the boy. That bad feeling in his gut tightened even more. This was not going to be pretty. Anytime his mother involved herself in the lives of her children or grandchildren never was.
It might be too late for him. Hell, he probably didn’t deserve second chances. But maybe there was still time for his children? “I should go handle that. I’m sorry, Steve.” But was he politely apologizing for leaving so abruptly? For the pain that he had inflicted on that fifteen-year-old boy who had been the best friend he ever had as well as his only real lover? Or was he making some excuse to himself for the mess he had made of his life? And perhaps his children’s?