Notes: Thank god it’s October. September has mostly sucked, between the flooding and the plagiarism and being sick. October (despite my man being furloughed—thanks, Congress! No, why would we need a paycheck?) has to be better—hell, it already is better! Cambion: Dark Around The Edges is a finalist in the m/m paranormal romance category for the 2013 Rainbow Awards! That’s awesome news. Changing Worlds won second place in the sci fi category last year, and being a finalist again this year is really heartening. Also, I feel like we’re actually winding down with Love Letters. I could write as much as I already have from Ryan’s POV if I really wanted to prolong it, but I just don’t. I will add some additional scenes from his POV at the end, though, because it’s only fair to get a look at what’s going on in his head during all this craziness. This story…it’s almost 90k words. It has consumed me. I have Cody almost ready to go, but this one cries out for justice, so Love Letters, you take precedence.
PS--on the plagiarism thing…seeing as how the story copied was free in the first place, you might not think this hurts me all that much, but if I ever want to remake it into my own ebook and try to sell it, I now have to add a disclaimer to keep people from feeling like they’ve been cheated, or calling me the plagiarist, which happily only one person has. My goal for this year has been to turn The Captain into an ebook, professionally edited, and sell it myself. Now I’m leery. Anyway. I thought you guys deserved an update. Let’s move on. J
Title: Love Letters
Part Thirty-Three: It’s Called A Break; Of Course It Hurts
There was nothing fun about moving on. There was nothing redeeming even in the words of it; the very phrase offended with its pithy impression of completeness, like moving on was like moving between houses, or moving to a new city. “Moving on” as a pop psychology fad implied not just getting past something but getting over it, and Ben had been around long enough to know that there were some things you just didn’t get over. Nevertheless, he was going to have to try.
It had all been his choice in the end, the leaving, refusing to take Ryan’s calls, not responding to his texts. Which wasn’t to say that Ben didn’t read them; he did. The first ten or so, at least. After that he couldn’t take any more apologies, so he started deleting them unopened. If it was something important, Jasmine would let him know.
She’d been a kind of unexpected ally. Ben had known she’d go down to Concord to support Ryan, that was the sort of friend Jasmine was: the best kind. He just hadn’t expected her to keep talking to him. The first righteous snarl of indignation had ended with her hanging up, Ben fighting a headache and wondering if he’d have to stay in North Carolina just to take care of the details. The call back had been surprising, and the understanding had been downright stunning. It had been a relief to know that he could count on her, to know that she would make sure Ryan and his family were all right while Ben handled some of the more material issues. Ben didn’t want them to be hurt. Fuck, he still felt bad that he’d caused them to be hurt, even though he staunchly believed that he was right.
Ben knew the Kuzniars needed a new lawyer. That was the first step. She or he could guide them down the right paths after that, but it had to be someone reliable. Someone who wasn’t going to screw them over, who didn’t have a connection to Uncle Bill, or at least who had a stronger connection elsewhere. That was where the DeWitt side of the family came in.
Ben was almost sure—almost—that his father had a cousin who was a lawyer in North Carolina. He seemed to remember that pretty clearly, but then nothing could be absolutely counted on where his father was concerned. The only thing to do was to call the man up and make sure Ben wasn’t delusional. He hadn’t talked to his father in…god, years. Since he was in college. Ben hoped the number he had was still good.
The phone rang three times before being picked up. “Millander-DeWitt residence, this is Carly,” a little voice said very carefully into the speaker. “Hello? H’lo?”
“Sorry,” Ben said after a moment. He hadn’t been expecting one of his half-siblings to answer the phone. “Sorry, Carly, my name’s Ben and I’m calling to talk to Charles.”
“Really? That’s my daddy!”
“I thought so,” Ben agreed, a little charmed despite his nervousness. “Do you think you could get him for me?”
“Okay. Daddy!” she yelled. “Phone! It’s Ben! Ben what?” she asked suddenly, and he scrambled for an answer. Happily the phone was taken away from her before the silence became too strange.
“Hi.” Ben cleared his throat and tried again. “Hi, Dad.”
“Ben.” His father sounded floored. As well he might, Ben supposed. “What…ah, are you all right?”
“Yes, I’m fine. I’m just calling to get the name of the lawyer you know in North Carolina. You have a cousin out there, don’t you?”
“Yeah. Melissa Carter at Carter and Associates in Winston-Salem, she took over the firm last year after her father retired…why do you need a lawyer?”
“It’s for a friend,” Ben told him, not wanting to get into details. Hell no, not with his dad. “Mind if I drop your name when I call her up?”
“Of course not.” He heard his father shift, a faint catch of breath between one aborted statement and the next. “So you’re really doing all right then?”
“Yes.” Ben felt a little bad for being so terse, but honestly, he had no idea what to say to this man. Charles DeWitt had ceased to have any interest in parenting Ben after the divorce, and if Ben remembered correctly Carly was the youngest of five in his new family.
“I heard about your book on the radio. Sounds interesting,” Charles said after a moment.
“I think so,” Ben replied.
“That’s good, that’s good. Are you working on anything new?”
“I’m always working on something,” Ben said, squeezing his eyes shut. He’d just gotten back to Denver an hour ago, and he felt way more tired than he should. “Look, I’ve got to go. Thanks for the help.”
“Oh sure, sure. No problem. Feel free to call again, any time.” Because I’m not going to call you, Ben heard in the hesitation.
Ben only had the energy to deal with one dysfunctional family today, and it wasn’t his own. “Thanks. Bye.” He hung up and exhaled slowly, then headed into his bathroom. Shower, bed, and then before he knew it the morning would be here and he’d have to start dealing with this all over again.
Thankfully, Melissa Carter was both understanding and very employable; she was still rebuilding her clientele after her father’s departure. Ben had more than enough money to keep her going on freeing the Kuzniars from their state of dependency, and he let her know that. She responded by knocking an extra twenty percent off her fees. “Because you’re family,” she told him. Ben just thanked her.
Of course, Michael and Heather both reached out. Explaining things to them was tricky, since Ben didn’t have the greatest grasp on what was going on himself. Michael was easier to put off; a bit of flippancy about all things ending, a few remarks about how much work he needed to get done (and no lies, Ben had a lot of writing to do if he was going to keep making deadlines) and Michael was sad for him but not suspicious. Heather, who was less content to do things over the phone, wasn’t so easy to put off.
“Beer,” she said when he opened the door three days later, thrusting a six-pack at him. “Pizza.” She hefted the box in her other hand. “Time for some face-to-face happy drunk time and commiseration, my man.”
“Six beers aren’t enough to get drunk on,” Ben protested as Heather pushed past him into the house.
“You’ve also got a bottle of completely toxic vodka in your fridge that I left here last time—remember? That’s more than enough to get us drunk on, and I’ve gotta say, I’m a little offended you thought I’d buy any of that last voicemail.”
“What was wrong with my voicemail?” Ben asked as he watched Heather bustle around his kitchen, pulling out plates they’d barely use and tearing off paper towels for napkins.
“Oh, please. ‘I’m going to be really busy for a while so don’t worry if you don’t hear from me,’ blah blah blah, yack yack—all of which tells me that you’re setting yourself up for a die-hard angsting session and you want to be alone for it, which means it’s gonna be painful and you probably shouldn’t be alone for it, but you’re not going to take that first step because you’ve got weird ideas about friends. So here I am.” She handed him a plate and a bottle. “Because I know how much it sucks to break up with someone you really like.”
“We haven’t broken up.” Not technically; Ben still wasn’t reading any of Ryan’s messages.
Heather just arched her eyebrows. “Dude…just eat. Drink.”
After the first beers and a couple slices of pizza they moved to the living room, where Heather played Howl’s Moving Castle on her iPad. About the time he started in on his third beer, Ben started talking. He told Heather about Maydays, about the Kuzniar clan and their awful, impossible patriarch, about the fight and about what he was doing to mend things the only way he knew how.
“Way to go above and beyond,” was all Heather said when Ben was finished. He snorted, but she persisted. “No, seriously, that’s really nice of you. Who knew you were so kind?” She batted her eyelashes as she said it, like it was a cartoon and baby animals would be crowding around them any minute, delighting in Ben’s kindness. “But you haven’t pulled the trigger yet?”
“Huh.” She drained the rest of her beer. “I’d say don’t draw it out, because relationship uncertainty sucks, but are you sure ending things is what you want to do?”
Ben thought about it for a moment. He didn’t want to end things with Ryan, no, but there was no way they could make any sort of relationship work right now. It wasn’t fair to ask Ryan to split his focus, and frankly, it wasn’t fair for Ben to compromise himself to keep Ryan happy. “I think I have to,” Ben said at last.
“Then do it fast. And, y’know, if you’re having trouble getting over him you can always come to Africa with me.”
“I still can’t believe you’re going through with that.” Heather had decided to use the money she’d saved for the trip after all, but more for the sake of the adventure than anything else. “Are you sure you’ll be okay?”
She shrugged. “I’m going to English-speaking countries, for the most part. I should be fine.”
“You’re brave,” Ben told her, never more honest than he was right now. “To go even though you know you’re going alone. How long will you be gone?”
“I think I can stay for three months. Maybe more if I budget like a mad fiend.”
“I’ll miss you.”
“Aww,” she teased, nudging Ben with her elbow. “Really? Will you stare out your window and sigh? Will you cry into your widdle pillow?”
Ben hit her with a cushion instead. It pretty much meant the same thing.
Heather was right about getting it over with fast, Ben knew that, but he still couldn’t quite bring himself to take that next step with Ryan until he’d heard from both Jasmine and Melissa that the quagmire of his life was slowly coming under control. One week after Maydays, when Ryan called early that afternoon, like he did every day, Ben accepted the call.
There was a moment of complete silence. “Ben?” Ryan asked at last, and his voice was so small that Ben instantly felt guilt pour over his head and down his spine like a wave.
“Yeah. Sorry it took me so long to pick up.” Agh, don’t start with an apology, you’re not sorry, he yelled at his mind, but Ryan took it in stride.
“Are you kidding me? Don’t be sorry, none of this was your fault. Thanks for talking to me.”
“I thought we should.”
These awkward silences were going to be the death of Ben. Fast, like a Band-Aid. “Ryan, I think we need to…” End things, call it quits, cut this off, “Take a break.” Oh. It wasn’t what he’d been meaning to say, but it felt all right.
Ryan inhaled sharply. “Ben, wait, I’m sorry. I really am, I made a—I should never have asked you to come here, I know this place drove you crazy, I know I drove you crazy, but—”
“It isn’t just what happened over Maydays,” Ben said, and that was sort of true. It was only mostly what had happened. “You need to be an uncle and a son and a brother right now, and I need to focus on my book. There isn’t a lot of room in there for anything else at the moment, especially not with you in Concord and me in Denver.”
“I can multitask,” Ryan said immediately. “I can do it, I swear, I’m not going to fuck us up again.”
“I love you.” Ryan’s voice was so soft Ben could barely hear him. “I really do, I love you. I don’t want it to end like this.”
“It’s a break, we’re not burning the fields and salting the earth,” Ben explained gently. “Later, once things have settled, we can talk again. If we both still want to. But for right now, I need some space, and I think you do too.”
“I don’t think so.” Ben was about to reply when Ryan continued, “But I get it. If this is what you need, then this is what we’ll do. I’ll stop calling and texting. You can…you can get in touch with me whenever you feel like the break is over.”
“I’ll do that,” Ben said. His chest felt tight and strange, his voice a little hoarse.
“Okay, good, that’s…good. Um…” Ryan sniffed, and Ben squeezed his eyes shut reflexively, as though by not seeing he could unhear things as well. “Okay. I love you, Ben.”
“I love you too,” he managed before ending the call. His face was hot and his eyes burned and his chest was so constricted it felt like he was tied into a corset. He set down the phone and buried the yell that was just aching to get out.
Where the fuck was that vodka, again?