Lucas Reed is a Cleveland advertising executive who returns to his southern hometown to deal with the sudden death of his estranged homophobic father. There, he unexpectedly encounters Rogan James, the former high school bully and now local deputy chief of police who had once made Lucas's life miserable.
Reacquainted 12 years later, the two finally acknowledge a long held powerful physical attraction that quickly evolves into an even stronger emotional connection
But all this becomes secondary when a local reporter's secret obsession for Rogan threatens not only the end of their newly found love, but their very lives.
The line of people waiting to extend their condolences stretched all the way out of the receiving room. It had been that way since calling hours had begun two hours before. Lucas Reed stood by his father's open coffin, trying to avoid looking down at the heavily wrinkled and weathered face that now looked more like a wax museum figure than something that had once been a breathing man.
He wished he could have avoided this Southern custom of the immediate family - in this case, only himself - being expected to stand constant vigil beside the dearly departed while a parade of well-wishers grabbed him, hugged him, squeezed his hands to the point of pain, and wet him with their tears. He wished he could avoid funeral homes and funerals and looking at dead people period. He disliked binding embraces from tearful female relatives who had infused their entire bodies in wretchedly loud perfumes they had likely purchased from their Avon ladies. And he especially disliked having to maintain the same stoic smile that communicated something between bravely shouldered grief and sincere appreciation for each visitor's kind words and support in-this-time-of-your-great-sorrow.
He did not want any of this but it was something his locally respected and well-known father deserved despite the fact that Lucas had been banished from his boyhood home by this same man for the past five years. This happened after he had finally told his father he was gay.
Judging by how often Lucas was asked, "So did your wife come with you?" he deduced that his father had told no one that his very successful and seemingly ideal son sometimes slept with other men. So he maintained a small polite smile and simply answered "No."
After another hour the line was finally thinning. There were only a few more well-wishers to receive before he could get out of there. He wanted to find the nearest bar where he could buy himself a much-needed drink. But then he remembered that Moorestown had no bars since liquor by the drink was still illegal in this small Tennessee city. How ridiculous was that? So he'd find a liquor store, which, even more ridiculously, was legal, and buy himself a whole bottle of scotch. It would no doubt serve as a source of welcome consolation over the next several days until he could once again escape his hometown, hopefully never to see it again.
Finally, only one person remained in line. Lucas looked up after thanking the next to last mourner and he first blinked with recognition and then glared with contempt.
"What the hell are you doing here, Rogan?"
The man winced as if Lucas had just slapped him."I saw your dad's obituary in the Gazette, and I wanted to pay my respects," he said gently, not at all the same loud asshole's voice Lucas remembered.
"You didn't even know my father."
"Actually, I knew him pretty well. He served on the City Council for a lot of years and I'm the Deputy Chief of Police here so we spoke fairly often. He was a good man, Lucasâ€”one of the few on the Council who actually had a brain and used it. I'm truly sorry for your loss."
Lucas softened his stance but still kept up his guard, wary of this man who as a high school bully had made Lucas's life miserable for the four painful years he'd thought he'd put behind him.
"Thank you, Rogan. I appreciate you coming and telling me that," Lucas replied in the same pre-recorded voice he had used the entire night. He looked past his former nemesis to see if anyone else was waiting and thankfully there was no one. "Well, if you'll excuse me I think the calling hours are over."
"Lucas, there's - uh - something else I wanted to tell you."
"What?" Lucas stiffened, almost expecting the old Rogan to emerge and hurl one of his trademark insults or taunts.
"I also came to say I'm sorry. I'm so very sorry for the way I treated you back in high school. I - uh - the way I acted was worse than awful and I just want you to know how many times I've wished I could go back in time and make things right. And - well, there's more I'd like to say to you if you could maybe spare the time. Would you possibly let me buy you a cup of coffee or maybe a drink somewhere?"
Lucas couldn't believe that the biggest asshole he had ever known in his thirty years of living had just now, almost shyly, offered to buy him a drink. He hesitated a few seconds before answering, finally letting his curiosity about what else Rogan wanted to tell him trump his guard.
"Okay, Rogan, I could do that. To be honest, after standing here for the past three hours I could really use a scotch on the rocks about now. But Moorestown still doesn't allow liquor by the drink does it? So I guess we'll have to settle for that coffee."
"If it's a scotch on the rocks you want, The Rogan James Bar and Grill is well stocked and open for business." Rogan offered Lucas a warm smile that Lucas had never before seen directed towards him.
"You wouldn't mind? I don't want to impose on your family."
"It's just me and myself there and I'd really enjoy the company. Too many Baptists in this town and not enough scotch drinkers." He seemed genuinely pleased that Lucas had accepted his offer.
Lucas had forgotten just how breathtakingly good-looking this man was, especially when he smiled. That seductive cross between an innocent and a devil had charmed many a teacher into changing a C into a B and it had no doubt hypnotized countless awe-struck girls out of their panties. He felt a tug against his shorts as his dick began to rise. Shit, not now, not here of all places, he told himself. His homophobic father lay dead four feet away and he was getting a flipping erection over the drop-dead handsome asshole who used to torment him daily and was now directing a killer smile at him. Get a grip, Lucas. It's not like he just asked you out on a date.
Even the split-second hope that he had asked him out was ridiculous and Lucas knew it. Rogan James was as macho straight as it got. He had probably slept with the entire cheerleading squad and half the band's majorettes at Moorestown High before he even turned eighteen. Forget about it, he told himself.
After he thanked the funeral director and confirmed the time for the following day's service, Lucas headed out to the lobby where Rogan was waiting.
"Just follow me. It's not far. As you know, nothing's far in this town," he said in a sexy deep drawl that prompted another reaction inside Lucas's trousers. Rogan got into a black Ford Explorer with "MPD" painted in gold letters on the side door and Lucas clicked his key to unlock his Lexus. Not knowing how long he would need to be in Moorestown, he'd decided to make the five hundred mile drive from Cleveland instead of flying. The drive down had also given him time to begin dealing with the emotional burden of his father's unexpected passing.
They drove past the old downtown which still had its quirky overhead sidewalks that had been built in the seventies in hopes that new shops and businesses would locate above all the street level shops. None ever did, so the "Second-Floor-To-Nowhere" had become a local laughing stock. They were one of the reasons his dad had first decided to run for city council, saying, in his many living room campaign speeches, that the idiot incumbents who voted to spend taxpayer dollars on those walks needed to be sent packing.
Lucas's thoughts drifted back to his high school years when he wanted more than anything to get out of Moorestown and away from the taunts and heckling of Rogan and his football and wrestling buddies. It had never been physical abuse, just verbal. Now, grown up and well over the damage that had been done, he understood but certainly could not justify why Rogan did what he had.
All through high school, Lucas was a straight-A student who spoke up in class a lot, which teachers loved and guys like Rogan hated. He was president of the Thespian Club, which made him an easy target for Rogan's fag jokes. Lucas went steady with the class valedictorian, a very serious girl who didn't bother hiding her contempt for jocks like Rogan and his redneck bubba buddies. And finally, Lucas played on the tennis team, which the football and wrestling jocks dismissed as a sissy sport dominated by skinny guys and fags.
All of that combined to make Lucas the object of their derision and their juvenile cruelty, usually instigated by Rogan. Add to that the inherent insecurities and angst already churning through his hormone-charged teenage body, plus the deeply buried awareness of his true sexual orientation, and it was no wonder that so many of Lucas's high school memories were painful.
* * *
Rogan's pulse raced as he kept glancing in the rear view mirror at the headlights following him home. Had he really just done that? Invited a man home? Not just a man, but this man. A man whom he had loved since - what? - the age of fourteen or fifteen? As soon as he made eye contact with Lucas back at the funeral home everything he had once felt returned in a single rush of desire that had lain dormant now for the decade or so since they had gone their separate ways.
So much had happened in the meantime. College, graduate school, a long series of girlfriends that really were not much more than one night stands, the knee injury that had ended a promising career as the starting fullback on one of America's elite college teams, the Tennessee Vols. A career that all of the analysts had said was destined to lead to the NFL.
And then the news from Patricia - Pat - who had been his latest attempt to prove to himself that he was straight and not in love with Lucas Reed.
"I'm pregnant," she announced. He thought she was a little too cheerful. They had just had sexâ€”that's what he thought of it as: "having sex," never "making love."
"But you told me you were on the pill," he said, caught off guard, in a state of disbelief at how one little sentence could suddenly turn his world upside down.
"Yes, but you know that no birth control method is one hundred percent effective."
He was no fool. He knew exactly what had happened. Yet, he did the right thing and a month later Rogan watched her walk down the aisle wearing her virgin white couture dress. Only she and he and an excessively thrilled future mother-in-law knew what she carried in her womb.
He had no regrets. There was nothing more important to him than his children. Well, actually, as he thought about it, there was one rather huge regret and it was now driving behind him in a brand new Lexus. It was one of those "coulda, woulda, shoulda" regrets where if you could go back in time and do it differently, would you?
The high school graduation ceremony had ended and families were mingling in small groups on the grass carpet located inside the same stadium where Rogan had played football for four years. His parents were laughing in some unheard conversation with the parents of his best buddy, Larry Grigsby.
Rogan's eyes scanned the field looking for one particular face. There. Standing near his parents but looking very alone. Lucas's dad, the city councilman, was in some serious-looking conversation with the mayor while his mom chatted with the mayor's wife. If ever he was going to do something about how he felt, now was the time.
Rogan braced himself. He forced his feet to take the fifty or so steps just to stare maybe one last time into those addictive blue eyes. But maybe also for the first time, in another sense, if only he could muster the courage.
He was twenty feet away when Lucas noticed his approach and his body visibly stiffened for an imminent attack. Shit! But he had to do this. This might be the last chance he would ever have. It didn't matter now what his jock buddies would think. High school was over. He had to tell Lucas how he felt. It was now or never.
"What do you want?" Lucas said with a hostile glare.
"I - uh - just wanted to tell you something."
"What? Hasta la vista, queer?"
"No. I - uh - just wanted to say that - uh..."
"Best of success in my faggot endeavors?"
"No, Lucas, that's not at all - I just wanted to talk with you and - uh..."
"I gotta go, Rogan. Don't let life's door hit you in the ass on the way out."
* * *
After they passed the small Methodist church where his parents and he had belonged and where the funeral would be held the next day, Lucas let out a soft whistle at Rogan's apparent neighborhood. They were driving up Booker's Mountain, which Lucas recalled as an exclusive part of town where only very affluent people lived. Homes there boasted panoramic views of the small city of fifty thousand and even more impressive views of the nearby Smoky Mountains.
Rogan pulled into the drive of a large cedar shake house built to look like a mountain chalet. It had an A-frame roof and expansive floor-to-ceiling windows designed to maximize the scenic views. Landscaping spotlights illuminated the exterior and made it look more like a ski resort in Vail or Aspen than a policeman's house in Moorestown. He thought with a wry smile that either the city paid its deputy chief of police a huge salary or Rogan was a cop on the take.
"Come on in," Rogan yelled. "Just let me turn on some lights inside."
"Be right there," Lucas shouted but instead stopped to admire the sweeping night view of his hometown. It was an oppressively warm and humid July night and despite how much he was sweating in his coat and tie, he stood there for a few minutes taking in the lights that made the town look a lot larger than it really was. He detected a once-familiar sound.
Yes, that's what he thought he'd heard. A mockingbird was perched somewhere close in one of Rogan's trees, performing his evening concert. Lucas smiled, not having heard a mockingbird since he'd left the South so many years before. It sang a long medley of birdcall greatest hits and despite Lucas's jumbled and conflicted emotions about returning home again, it was a comforting sound, reminding him that not all his memories were bad.
"Nice out here this time of night, isn't it?" a deep voice said next to him, startling Lucas out of his pleasant trance. "I sit up on the veranda sometimes until late just so I can look out at the lights and hear that little bird sing his heart out. Course one or two of these improves the view considerably." He handed Lucas a generously poured highball glass of scotch. "You said you like it on the rocks if I recall?"
"Couldn't be more perfect." Lucas smiled, gratitude in his voice. "To your hospitality," he toasted. They clinked their glasses and he took his first sip. "Boy, I sure needed this," he sighed. "I appreciated everyone who came out tonight for my dad but it sure did wear me down."
"Then there's plenty more where that one came from. Let's take these up on the veranda and park ourselves in a rocking chair," Rogan suggested. "Rocking always relaxes me no matter how stressful the day. Of course the scotch might have something to do with that too," he chuckled. "Why don't you dump your jacket and tie over the porch rail here," he pointed, as Lucas sat his drink down and slipped off his jacket. He noticed that Rogan had already stripped down to his t-shirt, revealing strong, muscular biceps that bulged out of white sleeves, starkly contrasting with his deep tan. Lucas couldn't help staring at his powerful arms.
"Hope you don't mind the undershirt. I was sweating like a horse in that damn funeral suit. Oh sorry - I didn't mean any disrespect."
Lucas laughed. "I'm sweating like a horse in my damned funeral suit too! I think I'll go in my t-shirt also. It's really hot tonight. I forgot how humid it gets here."
"Welcome to summer in East Tennessee. Does it get this hot up in Cleveland?"
"How'd you know I live in Cleveland?"
"Well your specialty license plates that say Cleveland Indians are sort of a giveaway. But actually your dad told me. He was always talking about you. I also know you're some kind of high-powered advertising executive too. Sam was real proud of you."
"You're shitting me."
"Why wouldn't he be?" Rogan asked.
"Long story, Rogan. I'm just surprised, that's all. My Dad and I weren't exactly on good terms when he died."
"I'm real sorry to hear that."
"It's okay. I'm dealing with it. But how 'bout we change the subject, okay? So tell me about yourself. You told me you're the deputy chief of police but that's all I know about you. Are you married?"
"No, divorced about three years ago. I've got two great kids - twins - Amy and Rogan Jr. They're eight years old now. My wife and I parted on reasonably good terms and we still talk, but she got remarried last year and her husband was transferred all the way out to Seattle shortly afterwards."
"That must be tough on you. Not seeing your kids every day and all."
"Yeah, it's real tough, especially at their ages. You don't know how much I miss them. But the guy she married is good to them. I talk to them almost every night and they still call me Daddy and him Bob. So it's working about as good as can be expected. They visit during school holidays and I get them for a few weeks every summer. But when they're not here I get kind of lonely being here all by myself."
"Yeah, I know what you mean. I live alone too. In an old Victorian I restored that's way too big for just me."
"You ever marry?"
"No, that's one of the things you used to call me that ended up being true."
"Really? You are?"
He said that like he was surprised, Lucas thought. This coming from a guy who must have called me a fag hundreds of times. What's that all about?
"Yep. One hundred percent ho-mo-sex-ual." He lengthened the pronunciation to emphasize each syllable. "So tell me, Rogan. You still hate fags?"
Rogan choked on the sip of scotch he had just taken. "Christ, Lucas! Of course not. Come on. I've been beating myself up for calling you that for what now - ten, twelve years?"
"Twelve since we graduated. Sixteen since you started it," Lucas said flatly, betraying no sign of the conflicted emotions that used to plague him when he was around Rogan. "So I hope you're not now disgusted or embarrassed to have brought a gay guy home with you tonight." Lucas enjoyed teasing him, for once able to turn the tables on Rogan.
"Damn it, Lucas, we're not seventeen anymore." The serious tone of Rogan's voice surprised Lucas. "Your sexual preference is nobody's business but your own and I frankly don't give a flying shit whether anybody knows I brought a gay guy home with me. I meant what I said before about enjoying the company. I'm really happy you're here, and I'd even like it if maybe we could become friends after all these years."
Lucas could tell he had hit a nerve. The question was whether Rogan's lengthy and emphatic reaction was the result of guilt, over compensation, or something else Lucas couldn't identify yet.
"Relax, Rogan. I was just having a little fun with you. Truth is, I'm glad you invited me and, yeah, it'd be good to have a friend here. I don't know anybody in town anymore - other than a bunch of relatives I don't really want to see." He paused and then chuckled softly, shaking his head. "Man, I never thought I'd ever, and I do mean ever, be drinking scotch with Rogan James. But I'm really enjoying being here with you like this."
"You mean that?"
"Sure I do. I'm sitting here, rocking on a porch - excuse me - veranda, like I used to at my grandma's. I'm looking at this gorgeous view of the town lights and listening to a mockingbird's free concert. I'm drinking good scotch. And I'm getting to know someone all over again who seems to have turned out to be a really nice guy."
"Hearing you say that makes me feel a whole lot better now. And also - well, also thanks for accepting my apology. It was way too late in coming, man. I should have sought you out years ago. I actually tried to tell you right after our high school graduation, but I chickened out. And then again at the ten year high school reunion but you obviously didn't go to that."
"I had to be out of the country at the time, but I don't think I would have come anyway. Just more baggage in those memories than I wanted to open again."
"Meaning you didn't want to see me again," Rogan said softly. "That reminds me of the rest of what I wanted to explain. I wanted to tell you why I used to hassle you so badly."
"I figured you just hated me."
"No, it was just the opposite. The truth is, I liked you. I even envied you."
"No way. Rogan James envied me?"
"Yeah, I secretly admired you. But I was so immature and insecure that instead I had to show off for my buddies and give you abuse for being so damned perfect. I know now that I must have really hurt you, Lucas. Way too many times."
"But why would - let me see if I remember right from â€˜Who's Who' - â€˜Best Athlete,' â€˜Most Popular Boy,' and â€˜Most Handsome' possibly ever be envious of Lucas Reed, the number one geek in the school?"
"And as I recall, you were voted â€˜Most Likely to Succeed.' We had geeks and you most definitely weren't one of them. It was because from my perspective, you really were perfect. You were probably the smartest guy in school whereas I was just a dumb jock. Or at least that's what I let myself believe at the time. You had real friends who defended you when I'd fling some insult at you. My friends were mostly a bunch of cling-ons who hung with me because I could score touchdowns and also score them dates. I'd see you acting in a play, or I'd read something you'd written in the school paper and knew that you had more talent in your little finger than I had in my entire body."
Lucas could hardly believe he was hearing this.
Rogan continued. "You also showed courage when I'd confront you. And dignity. You never backed down when I'd go after you. And no matter what kind of shit I threw at you, you never broke. I never saw you shed a single tear even though I sure tried hard to make you cry sometimes. I even wished that I were as good looking as you."
"Now you've got to be shitting me. You were by far the best looking guy in school. Hell, you're even more handsome now. And since I'm gay, I can get away with saying stuff like that."
Rogan laughed, a bit uncomfortable with the compliment, before continuing. "Like I said, my self esteem wasn't the greatest in those days. I thought I looked like a gorilla. My skin was always tanned too dark, my big hands hung down to my knees, and my body was too hairy for a teenage boy. And I was also way too bulked up from the weight room. I looked like some Incredible Hulk wannabe. I'd look at you and you were, like, all fresh-faced and wholesome. Like some good-looking kid in a milk commercial. You were a lot skinnier back then but seeing you now with those big arms and shoulders, it looks like you're hitting the weights pretty hard yourself these days."
"Thanks. I try."
"You more than try. But anyway, like I was saying, you were tall and thin but not gangly or awkward. You carried yourself with confidence without being cocky. And don't take this the wrong way. Remember, I'm supposed to be the straight guy here. But you had, and still have, the most striking blue eyes I've ever seen on a man or a woman. I'll bet you've used those eyes to mesmerize half the gay men in Cleveland."
Lucas laughed. "Trust me, I haven't mesmerized anybody."
"I wouldn't be so sure of that, Lucas. You don't know the effect you have on people."
What an odd compliment, Lucas thought. What "people" was he referring to since they knew nobody in common anymore? Could Rogan be referring to himself? And what was that line "I'm supposed to be the straight guy here" all about? Supposed to be?
"Anyhow, I just wanted you to know that I acted that way because I secretly did like and envy you. I wanted what you had."
"Rogan, it's sort of mind boggling to hear you saying that after all these years. But here's the funny thing. Did you know that I secretly wanted what you had? Isn't that so ironic? I always wished I were as good an athlete or even half as good-looking as you. And could make people laugh so much, the way you could with your jokes. I always felt awkward and shy at parties and then I'd see you walk into the room and suddenly own it. You could charm anybody who got caught in your smile. If you hadn't been so damned mean to me I probably would have secretly been in love with you." Lucas noticed Rogan's eyebrows arch slightly as though surprised to hear him admit that. He wondered what the odd reaction meant but continued with his point. "Damn, maybe if we'd had this conversation back when we were sixteen or seventeen, we could have become really good friends."
Rogan paused and looked away before answering, his mind seemingly drifting somewhere else for a few seconds. "Yeah, knowing that now, I could easily see that happening. To tell you the truth, I sort of think that if we had become good friends back then, maybe my life might have turned out a whole lot differently."
"What do you mean by that?" Lucas asked.
"Oh, nothing really." Rogan stood up rather abruptly. "Looks like your glass is about empty, mine is too. Up for another?"
"Only if I won't get arrested by your buddies in blue when I'm driving home."
"You let me worry about the MPD, my friend. I know people."