Heroes: Book One
Schoolteacher Charlie Matthews returns to his hometown, looking to regain a sense of community, reconnect with friends, and settle down. It looks like his dreams have come true when paramedic Josh Campbell attends an accident at the school. It’s love at first sight, and a romance begins.
But Josh’s reluctance to come out to the brother who raised him, puts pressure on their fledgling relationship. While Charlie understands Josh’s concerns, he can’t help growing impatient. After all, Charlie came out years ago.
It’s not until Charlie confronts his own parents and realizes he hasn’t come to terms with their rejection that he fully understands what Josh has to lose. But Josh is Charlie’s hero, and Josh will do anything to prove to Charlie that to be part of a family, he doesn’t need his parents.
HE WAS in love. Totally, wonderfully, head over heels in love. Love with a capital L, hell, love in full uppercase. All it took was one look, one simple glance, and he was a goner. Of course the object of his admiration was classically handsome—tall and athletic, glowing with good health. Bright eyes, wide smile, waves of shining hair tucked behind perfect ears. He was like all Charlie’s dreams come true, with golden skin hugging strong muscles that strained on long limbs. But even if Charlie hadn’t been attracted to the man’s spectacular good looks, there was no way to overlook his actions.
When Charlie first saw him, he was kneeling on the schoolyard ground, tending to a little girl who was lying prone on the soft-fall rubber surface under the play equipment. She was one of Charlie’s second graders. Her right leg, bent at a strange, unnatural angle, gave a big clue as to her injury. Charlie hoped the leg was the worst she was hurt.
An efficient auburn-haired paramedic was treating her injured leg while the gorgeous guy knelt by her head, hands on either side of her blonde curls, keeping her still. He whispered into her ear, the words obviously having a calming effect—the little girl stared intently up at him, the hitch in her breathing the only evidence of any distress. There was a gentleness to his touch, despite the large hands, and caring in his tone as he concentrated on his patient. How could Charlie not fall in love with this glorious combination of caring, masculine beauty?
“Mr. Matthews. Mr. Matthews.” The urgent high-pitched voice and persistent tugging on his hand drew his attention reluctantly away from the scene unfolding in the playground. Shit, he thought, what the hell am I doing just standing here staring when I should be taking care of the other children, who are no doubt worried and scared? Dropping to one knee and looking Jennifer in the eye, Charlie gave her his full attention. “What is it, Jenny?” he asked, knowing she was going to voice her worry about her small friend on the ground.
“Is Alison going to be all right, Mr. Matthews?” she asked in a low and quavering voice. He replied in a way he hoped would calm her fears, by keeping his voice even and low.
“She’ll be fine, Jenny. Her mummy and daddy will meet her at the hospital, and Miss Bryant is going to go stay with her until they get there. Alison is in very good hands. See those paramedics?” He pointed toward the action under the monkey bars, and she looked across at the small group on the ground and nodded gravely. “Well, they’re very good at their jobs. They’re going to take Alison to the hospital so the doctors can put a cast on her leg. I’m sure she’ll be back at school in no time.”
“But she won’t be able to play,” she whispered, obviously still worried for her friend.
“No, she won’t,” he admitted. “At least she won’t be able to run around for a while, but she will be able to draw and play board games. I know you love to draw, so maybe you can play with Alison to make her feel better. I bet you’ll be able to write your name on the cast too.”
At that, Jenny met his gaze and finally smiled. “Really!” she said with excitement. “That’d be totally cool!”
They looked up as the paramedics wheeled past with the gurney. Little Alison was tightly strapped aboard. She was lying still, no doubt in shock, and holding tightly to the hand of Charlie’s hero. He only glanced their way for a second, obviously reluctant to take his attention away from the little girl who needed him, but that was enough. Their gazes connected, his warm brown eyes seeming to look straight into Charlie’s soul. The surge of emotion that flooded through him took him by surprise. The paramedic blinked and the spell was broken. They moved swiftly past Jenny and Charlie, then loaded the gurney into the back of the ambulance.
Charlie stood frozen to the spot, still holding Jenny’s small hand in his, and watched the ambulance leave. Finally he took a deep breath, turned back to the schoolyard, and started to round up any children still in the playground.
“Come on, everyone,” he called. “It’s time to get back to class.”
As the last stragglers made their way into the single-story building that housed the small group of classrooms, he knew he would be spending the afternoon reassuring the children. He decided that making get-well cards for Alison would be the best way of distracting the group of second graders.
Later that night, Charlie met his friend Greg at their favorite local bar. They met there every Thursday night and had done so since he’d returned to town. Sometimes Tim, their other good friend, joined them, but mostly it was Greg and Charlie, the Two Musketeers. Week in, week out, Greg’s friendship kept him sane in the midsized town he’d returned to after college. It was Greg who had been there through all the major events in Charlie’s life since they were twelve years old. It was Greg who had stood by Charlie when lots of others hadn’t. Had stood by him when he’d lost some supposedly good friends and also the closeness of his family.
Charlie stayed seated at their usual spot, a circular table tucked in the back, while Greg headed to the bar for another round. The long wooden bar ran the length of the room, stools jostling for space alongside eager drinkers who lined up for the happy hour drinks. The back wall was the typical mirror with glass shelves, the dozens of bottles providing a colorful display, but most of the bottles sat untouched as the bar staff handed out full jugs of lager to the waiting masses. At this bar, beer won over cocktails on most days, even when the drinks were half price.
Charlie watched as Greg elbowed his way through the growing crowd. He laughed and joked while waiting to place his order. Greg was the sort of guy people loved. He had a happy-go-lucky nature that allowed him to make friends with everyone, and everyone wanted to be his friend. Charlie felt blessed that Greg had chosen him to be his closest friend. His friendship was the one constant and sure thing in his life.
A year ago, Charlie had made a decision to return to Halls Ridge. It wasn’t something he decided lightly, but after living for a year in a bigger town where no one knew his name, he decided he would rather be surrounded by his few remaining good friends. True friendship, history, and roots made it worthwhile. Worth putting up with knowing his family was close by but refused to contact him. If they could pretend he didn’t exist, then he would try to do the same with them. It was also fortuitous that the small school had a position open for teacher. Mr. Petersen, the principal, had known Charlie forever, known about the reasons for his parents’ rejection, but determined that was none of his business. Mr. Petersen didn’t see a single reason not to offer Charlie the job. People like Mr. Petersen reinforced Charlie’s decision to return and give Halls Ridge a chance.
Greg eventually made it back to the table with a pitcher of beer in hand. He placed the jug on the table with a thud and splashed white foam onto the table. “Oops,” he laughed as he slid into his chair.
Charlie reached over and filled their glasses. He picked up his drink and took a long swallow of the cold lager.
“Ah, that hit the spot,” he said as he placed the glass on the table. He leaned back in his seat and looked at his friend. “Okay, Greg. You’ve had long enough. Time to spill. Let’s have it.” He chuckled at Greg’s discomfort.
Greg stared into his beer, seemingly reluctant to share the details of his latest girlfriend with Charlie. However, Charlie had known him long enough to know that Greg had started to get serious with Natalie. The fact that he’d missed watching the game on Sunday—something they did religiously—to go to lunch at Natalie’s parents’ place was a dead giveaway. He also knew Greg’s reluctance would have something to do with his misguided belief that it was painful for Charlie to hear about other people’s happiness. That was the sort of friend he was.
“C’mon,” Charlie prodded as he kicked Greg’s ankle under the table to reinforce his demand.
Greg drew his leg back out of the firing line and relented. “Hey, cut it out. You win, okay? I’ll bore you with all the gory details of my love life.” He proceeded to tell Charlie about Natalie and her excitement at introducing him to her family, and once he started speaking the words just flowed. After a few minutes, he stopped, aware of what he had done, and grinned—big, goofy, embarrassed—at Charlie.
Charlie smiled back and picked up his glass, raising a toast. “I’m happy for you, man. It’s totally cool you found someone like Natalie.”
“Yeah.” Greg smiled, then sighed. “I just wish you’d find someone who’d make you happy. Hell, I just wish you’d find someone period. I don’t think you’ve had a date since you moved back.” He looked at Charlie with his eyebrow raised.
Charlie didn’t even have to think. He knew exactly when his last date had been—fourteen months ago.
Two months before the big move, he’d met a guy—someone he thought showed real relationship potential. They’d only had two dates when confirmation of Charlie’s new position at the school had come through, meaning he had to get the relocation happening. The relationship had been too new to even consider the idea of a long-distance romance. What hadn’t properly started fizzled out immediately—much like his other relationships. Charlie wasn’t a player. He was looking for Mr. Right, but sometimes felt that Mr. Right wasn’t looking for him.
“Can I blame it on settling back into town?” Charlie asked. Since his return to Halls Ridge, his love life had taken a backseat as he focused on settling into his new home and starting his new job. “What with house hunting and getting familiar with the school routine plus getting to know the kids, it’s been pretty full-on.”
“I know it took a while to find a place to live, and you threw yourself into that job of yours, but, jeez, it’s been a year. So yeah, maybe you could blame it on that, but not anymore.” Greg looked pointedly at Charlie. “It’s time you got back out there.”
“I know. But between lesson plans and helping with after-school activities—”
“C’mon, that’s an excuse and you know it. You can easily fit all that in and still find time to date. Hell, you’ll still be able to find time to work, date, and hang out with me.”
Charlie smiled as he looked at his friend. He’d made the most of the opportunity to reconnect with Greg. Spending time with him was one of the best things to have happened this year. Sure, they’d kept in contact while Charlie was away, via social media and infrequent visits, but nothing could replace a face-to-face friendship. He took a sip of his beer as he decided that friendship deserved the truth.
“Yeah, it’s an excuse,” Charlie admitted. He placed the beer back down and took a handful of nuts from the bowl in the center of the table. He fiddled with the peanuts for a moment before he looked back at his friend. “I guess I’m a bit wary of doing anything that might be cause for gossip. I know the school is aware of my situation, but it’s important to consider my reputation and not do anything that might create trouble, no matter how unwarranted. There are too many people just like my folks, you know?”
“So, you’re going to put your love life on hold indefinitely?” Greg folded his arms and glared at him.
“I didn’t say that.” He took a sip of lager before continuing. “You know I came back because I want to build a life here. I just need to make sure I choose carefully. When I meet the right guy, there won’t be any doubt. There’ll be nothing stopping me from going for a relationship because he’ll be worth it. But there’s not exactly an abundance of gay men around for me to date, anyway, and I don’t want to do casual.”
“So how will you know when you find the right guy if you don’t check out the various options?” Greg waggled his eyebrows like a lecherous old man.
Charlie nearly choked on the peanut he’d placed in his mouth. “Jeez, stop thinking about me checking out the options!” He coughed. “But seriously, don’t you worry about me. I’m sure my time will come.” An image of the gorgeous paramedic flashed into his mind. “You just make sure that I get to be best man at your wedding.”
“Deal. And you make sure that I am best man at yours.” Greg laughed and clinked his glass against Charlie’s.
LATER THAT night as Charlie lay in bed staring at the shadows on the ceiling, he thought of the future. He wanted a simple life—home, secure job, jeez, he wanted the kids and the whole white picket fence. He didn’t need anything too fancy, except maybe his car—and he didn’t want to party. He just wanted a family and someone to love.
As he closed his eyes, an image came unbidden—a tall, broad paramedic holding a little girl’s fragile hand, whispering soothing words. Yeah, he could love someone like that.
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