“Hi. My name is Robert, but everyone calls me Bobby. I’m a single father to two great kids—er, young people. My son says he’s not a kid. Chris is fifteen and my daughter, Darcy, is twelve. I’ve got a teen and an almost teen.” Christ, he felt old.
“My daughter swims and my son’s a runner.” Bobby stuffed his hands into his pockets. Talking in public didn’t bother him, but talking about himself did. He had to press on, though. If he didn’t talk, he’d never get this out. “I didn’t plan on being a single parent, but I also couldn’t deny who I am. I tried the traditional route and got married to a woman. Helene and I had some good times. Darcy was our best creation, and when we adopted Chris as an older child, I thought things were great. They were happy and I thought I was, but I was miserable. I knew I was gay, but there was no amount of therapy that my folks could find to fix me before I got married. It took me a long time to understand I wasn’t the one who needed fixing. Anyway, I came out to my wife, and she left me. It turned out all of the happy feelings were a joke. A sham. She had a guy on the side and didn’t want the kids. She’d had Darcy to please me and went through with the adoption because she thought I wanted it. She never wanted either. She turned over parental rights, so for the last five years it’s just been the three of us. I’ve had boyfriends, but nothing worth much. The kids come first.”
He sat down and exhaled. Holy shit. He’d babbled his head off. It felt oddly good to talk, though. He had so much bottled up since the divorce. He hadn’t even mentioned that he was the son of the police chief or that he’d grown up in Cedarwood and left because his parents couldn’t handle him being gay.
Another man stood and told his story, then a woman talked about being newly single. The group had been called the Single Father Society, but they’d changed it to the generic ‘LGBTQ Support Group’. Two lesbians and a straight woman whose best gay friend had just died and she needed someone to talk to were now members. He appreciated the mix of people and not being the only person with problems.
He barely paid attention to the other speakers. His mind kept returning to his schedule for the next day. With the kids out of school, he’d spend the morning at the metro park. Darcy had to get to swim practice by eight, and Chris had conditioning for cross-country starting at half-past eight. He toyed with the fitness band on his wrist. He’d probably end up running the ten-mile course while he waited. He needed to get stuff done at work. Shit. He’d have to call his mother to see if she’d keep an eye on the kids.
Fuck. Someone had called his name. He snapped his attention back to the group. “Sorry.” He wasn’t—not really. He’d never been able to focus.
“We’re done.” Colin Baker grinned. “You were a million miles away.” He flipped his hair off his brow and shook his head. “A hundred million miles.”
Bobby had been back in town for a month and had only spent time with his kids, the parents at the various practices and his clients. Besides work situations, tonight’s meeting was his first venture out without his children.
“Yeah. Sorry. I’ve got too much on my mind.” And on his plate. He appraised his friend from high school. “You’ve changed,” Bobby said. But so had he. “You’re taller? New glasses? Dyed your hair?”
“Nope, nope and nope.” Colin twiddled with his phone. “I’m busy at the bookstore and I lost some weight, but that’s it. I’m in charge of the group here, but I’m not single so I guess I should step down. Remember Jordan?” He turned his phone around. A photo of Colin, a kid and a guy in a police uniform graced the home page. “That’s him and my son, Gage. We’re getting married. Me and Jordan—not Gage. That would be silly. He’s a kid.”
“I knew what you meant.” The longer he looked at the photo, the more memories from high school came back to him. He did remember Jordan Hargrove. He hadn’t been in Jordan’s social circle, but he’d been good friends with Colin. He wouldn’t have put Colin and Jordan together. “He used to be a real dick.”
“Funny. My brother says that exact same thing.” Colin tucked the phone into his back pocket.
Farin, Colin’s younger brother, strolled over to where they stood. “What am I guilty of that I might or might not have done?”
“You call Jordan ‘Officer Dick,’” Colin replied.
“I used to.” Farin smiled. “He’s grown on me.” He slid his gaze over Bobby. “I’m glad you’re back, Bobby. This town is becoming a strange version of a high school reunion. If you’re not from school, then we’ve got kids in common.” He held up his cell phone and pointed to a photo on the screen. “My partner is one of the swim instructors over at the metro park. I’ve probably seen you there, and if I haven’t, I’m sure we’ll cross paths there.”
“Partner?” He was coupled up too? Christ. Everyone in the damn support group already had someone. No, he was wrong. Two of them did, but still.
“Steve.” Farin pointed to another photo. “He’s my boy toy and I’m the elder statesman.” He smiled, then wandered over to another group of men who were deep in conversation about what sounded like comic books—Bobby wasn’t sure.
Colin rolled his eyes and folded his arms. “They’re getting married too.”
“So this is a dating pool?” Bobby snorted. The last thing he needed was a date. Actually, he could use a good fuck, but he wasn’t high on bringing random guys home.
“Kind of.” Colin collected the papers from one of the tables. “Jordan and I met because I got a speeding ticket.”
“He nabbed you with his radar, eh?” Bobby asked and gathered up some of the other papers.
“I earned the violation, sadly. I sped through a school zone. Not my best hour, but I learned.” Colin shrugged. “Farin met Steve at the metro park. They’ve bonded over comics and art.” He paused. “I don’t see Colt or Ashley, but they’re together. Colt owns the diner. Best fries around. Ash teaches at the elementary school. His son, Wyatt, is a trip. We had a new pair of members join. Dr. Adrien Ellet and his boyfriend-slash-manny, Nathan, are part of the group. Adrien’s son, Kyle, goes to school with Wyatt and Gage. Oh, and our friend Niall is now with Michael, who happens to be in a band and goes by the name of Bandit. Got all that?” He grinned. “Niall and Michael don’t have kids, but they’re part of our group, so other than them, yeah, this has become a dating pool.”
“I’m not interested in getting a date.” He’d told himself that lie so many times he almost believed it. Almost.
“None of us were either. Jordan and I sort of happened, and I might have had a hand in getting Farin to notice Steve.”
“You set me up,” Farin called but didn’t leave the other group.
“Something like that. Ash and Colt were their own organic thing. They met on their own, and Michael and Niall met at the school.” Colin paused again. “How old did you say Darcy was? Twelve? She’ll be too old for their classes. They’re both at the elementary school.”
Bobby rocked on his feet. He’d forgotten how much Colin could talk. “Middle school and high school for us. I got them registered two weeks ago, and Chris has already joined the cross-country team. He ran for his old school in Chagrin and had a couple of records.”
“That’s awesome.” Colin beamed, then sobered. He put one hand up. “I have to say this. If you’re contacted by the Coalition for Order in Cedarwood, tread lightly.”
“The anti-gay group?” Bobby asked. He’d had run-ins with them a couple of times and hated it. “I had one approach me at the diving finals at the beginning of the month. The school superintendent talked to me.”
“Yes. Just… They’re trying to rid the town of anyone they don’t like. Doesn’t matter if you’re gay, lesbian, have purple hair, or a pet giraffe. They want to clean up the town.” He hooked his fingers in the air like quotes. “It’s garbage, but we’re working to change it.”
“There are lots of sports parents who don’t care. They know about me and haven’t treated me any differently. It’s been refreshing, actually.” Bobby widened his stance. “They’ve been very inclusive.”
“That’s great, but it only takes one or two die-hards to cause serious trouble.” Colin handed Bobby a flyer. “The big festival is this weekend. Anyone is welcome. There’ll be rides, games, fireworks and a concert. Please come. Bring the kids.”
“Sounds good, but my folks are taking Darce and Chris to the lake this weekend,” Bobby replied. “However, that doesn’t mean I can’t support the cause.” God knew he could use a night out. “I’ve still got tons of shit in boxes at the house, and I won’t get done unpacking this weekend, so yeah, count me in.”
“You’ll have fun.” Colin clapped Bobby on the shoulder. “I’m glad you’re back. I missed you.”
“Thanks. I missed home. Yeah, I had that falling out with Dad, but it’s getting better.” He winked. “See you this weekend or at the next meeting.”
“It’s a deal. You can meet Jordan and the rest of the guys.” Colin waved and headed across the room to his brother.
“Re-meet him,” Bobby mumbled. He waved then made his way out to the parking lot. The sun had already set, but the heat hadn’t dissipated. Before he reached his car, he shrugged into his T-shirt. He hated sleeping in humid evening air—unless he had a hot guy to share his bed. He sighed and climbed behind the wheel of his car. Who am I kidding? I’m not going to find anyone in Cedarwood.
He turned the key and the engine roared to life. He rolled the windows down, then headed out of the lot. He’d thought coming back to Cedarwood would be a smart idea. The notion had ended up being a mixed-bag result. Things were good because the schools were top-notch with great academic and athletic programs for the kids. The move was also beneficial because he was closer to his parents, which gave his children a better chance to get to know them. But, man, there are some big negatives. He hadn’t expected to run into so many former classmates or to have to deal with so much of his past. He hated running from things, but his high school years hadn’t been the greatest. He liked change and being free.
He turned onto the main drag. The streetlights threw odd shadows on the pavement as he passed the buildings. He remembered zipping up and down the road a hundred times during his senior year. He smiled and scrubbed his forehead with the back of his hand. He’d driven to clear his mind and to forget the way he’d felt about Damon Barnes. The soccer jock hadn’t noticed him, and he’d been too embarrassed to admit he was gay back then.
He sighed and headed north of town to his development. He’d had so many missed opportunities in life—missed connections with guys he’d liked, jobs he’d wanted and situations he’d have liked to experience. After Helene had left, he’d sworn he wasn’t going to have any more regrets.
Right now he regretted not having a hot fuck in his bed. He needed someone to share his life with, even for just a couple of days, but his self-imposed rule kept most potential partners away. He refused to bring random guys home for sex. He scrubbed his face again, then pulled into his driveway. He’d seen a man around town but hadn’t made a move. What if the guy said no? Or what if he was turned off by a man with kids? What if he wasn’t even gay? He groaned. Time to stop thinking about sex and hot men. He was a dad and had to think about his children—not his dick.
He eased the car into the garage and shut off the engine. He hit the button to close the door, then left the vehicle. He thought about the guy he’d seen running at the metro park. If he was meant to find a lover in Cedarwood, then it would happen, but he doubted it. Fate had a certain way of kicking him in the teeth when it came to relationships.
He stopped in the middle of the dark garage. His thoughts turned to Helene. He’d believed they were all happy when he was with her. Well, no. They’d been fine. Not happy, just fine. He shook his head. He wasn’t fine, and they hadn’t been back then either. Sure, he was glad he had Darcy and Christopher, but he wished he’d been honest with himself from the start. As much as he’d come to dislike Helene, he knew down in his heart that she’d deserved better. She’d left him in a tough spot, but she hadn’t been the one for him and he hadn’t been himself with her.
He made his way over to the main door leading into the house. It was time to stop thinking about the past. He needed to be Dad now. He strode into the house and stepped around the boxes in the dining room. One day he’d have everything put where it belonged, but not tonight.
Chris sat on the couch and Darcy was stretched out beside him, but under a blanket. A bowl of half-eaten popcorn remained on the coffee table and sitcoms that were almost as old as Bobby played on the television.
“Watching educational television?” Bobby asked, sarcasm dripping from his words. “I remember this show.” He didn’t, not really, but sometimes getting Chris to talk was harder than complex taxes.
“I like their style,” Chris replied. “She’s asleep if you want to carry her upstairs.”
Crap. He’d planned on getting home before she conked out. “Sorry I was late.” He tossed his keys onto the table, then rounded the couch. He scooped Darcy into his arms. Although she was twelve and strong from hundreds of thousands of laps in the pool, the girl was tiny. He carried her up to her bedroom and left her under the covers.
“Thanks, Dad,” she murmured, then rolled over.
Bobby kissed her head. “Night, Peanut.” He left her door open a crack, then went back downstairs.
“She wanted to swim. I know you said no, but it helped her blow off steam.” Chris turned off the television. “She’s angry about the move.”
“I know.” He’d expected this. He’d waited until after school let out before he’d had them transferred. Both kids would be starting in new buildings—Chris as a sophomore and Darcy in the seventh grade. He felt for Chris, but the kid could make friends anywhere and had a knack for getting his sister to open up about almost everything. Bobby sat opposite his son on the couch. “What upset her?”
Chris grabbed a handful of popcorn from the bowl. “There’s a kid on the swim team who said she didn’t belong. She made fun of Darcy’s suit, then her cap because it wasn’t the same as the other kids’.” He rolled his eyes. “She wants her old friends and her old room back.”
For being fifteen, the kid could be incredibly mature. Bobby picked up the bowl of popcorn. “We can’t go back to the old house. It sold within hours of putting it on the market. I’ve told her however she wants to decorate her room, we’ll do it.” As for the young man on the team, he’d have to pay attention at practice in the morning. He wouldn’t involve the parents, but he’d listen in and see if he could give his daughter better advice in dealing with the little shit.
“She’s worried you’ll replace Mom.” Chris shrugged. “I’m not.” The muscle in his jaw twitched and, if Bobby wasn’t mistaken, the kid had a thin growth of hair on his cheeks.
“Still mad at Mom?” He didn’t blame Chris. Helene’s leaving had been difficult all the way around. “Part of that was my fault.”
“Dad, you’re gay. So what? Mom didn’t have to abandon us because she hated you.” Chris shook his head and stuffed the popcorn into his mouth.
Bobby admired his son’s ability to be frank but still act his age. He grabbed a handful of popcorn but didn’t say anything. If Chris wanted to talk, then he’d listen.
“She acts like she hates us. She won’t come to the swim meets or my meets. I don’t understand.” Chris flipped his hair out of his eyes. Normally, he had his tresses back in a ponytail. When he wore his hair loose, most of the strands ended up in front of his face. “We’re not bad kids.”
“No, you’re not.”
“It fucking sucks.” Chris’ voice cracked and he averted his gaze when he swore. “Sorry, Dad, but it does. She’s our mom and doesn’t want us, but she’s pregnant with Glenn’s baby.”
Bobby bristled. He knew Helene had moved on, but he’d thought she was with a guy named Trent, not Glenn. He’d also never expected her to get pregnant—not after the way she’d pitched a fit post-pregnancy with Darcy.
“Yeah, she’s gonna marry Glenn and have a perfect life.” Chris hopped up from the couch. “She sent me an email.” He retrieved his phone from the table, then handed the device over to Bobby. “Congratulations. We’re expanding.”
Bobby sighed as he read the words. Sure enough, his ex had announced via email she was going to change her last name again and have a baby. “Good for her.” He only half meant it. “If this makes her happy, then we should be happy.” Kind of. “You’ve got me and we’re a team. If Mom doesn’t want to be around, then don’t force it.”
“You’re taking it well,” Chris said. He plopped onto the couch. “When are you going to get a boyfriend? No one cares if you do. Darce would love it.”
He paused and measured his words carefully. “I’m waiting for the right one to come along. Nothing drastic or quick. I’ve got you two to worry about, and that’s what’s important.”
“Couldn’t find a hookup at the support group?” Chris crooked his eyebrows. “Maybe next week?”
“You want me married off, huh?” He hugged his son and laughed. The last thing he needed to worry about was a relationship, yet his kids wanted him to be happy and thought that was what he wanted. Fuck. He had no idea what he needed.
“Dad, you’re depressed. Darcy might not understand, but I see it.” Chris shrugged. “You and Terry were pretty happy.”
“I guess.” He clapped Chris on the shoulder. “You’d better get to bed and stop worrying about my love life. Worry about your own and that cute girl at practice. She seemed nice. Nicole? Or was her name Nichelle?”
From his hairline to the neckline of his shirt, Chris blushed. “Her name is Carrie.”
“She’s cute.” He grabbed the popcorn bowl and carried it to the kitchen. “Get some rest so you’re fresh for practice.”
“Got it.” Chris dipped his head and scrambled up the stairs.
Bobby returned to the kitchen and scrubbed both hands over his face. Well, fuck. His kids were worried about his relationship status. It wasn’t their problem, and besides, he’d thought he’d been doing a decent job raising them alone. He groaned. He should call his parents, if for no other reason than to find out what they knew. He loved his mother and father, but with the problems they’d had in the past, he wasn’t sure he wanted them to know his kids were upset about him being alone. He grabbed another handful of popcorn. Being a single parent wasn’t his idea of fun.
He’d never dated a man who could understand him. He’d thought he found the right man in Terry, but Terry never could accept the kids—not totally. Neil had never been a good choice and couldn’t care emotionally for anyone but himself.
He finished the popcorn, then ruffled through the stack of mail. He recognized the names on the envelopes. Two were bills, one was a check, and the fourth… He wished he had his glasses. He held the envelope closer and reread the return address.
The Coalition for Order in Cedarwood
Good God. He checked the name on the front once more. “Dear occupant,” he mumbled. They hadn’t necessarily zeroed in on him. No, they were blanketing the community. He shook his head and opened the envelope.
He scanned the letter and bit back a gag. The Coalition made it sound like they welcomed everyone to town and looked forward to the festival. They wanted unity within the community. Sure, they do. He tossed the letter into the garbage. He didn’t want his kids seeing that crap.
He locked the back and front doors and turned the lights off along the way upstairs. A dull ache started behind his eyes. He glanced over at the clock. Shit. Almost eleven already? He stripped out of his clothes and put on sleep shorts, then collapsed onto his bed. Maybe things would work out in the morning.