“PLEASE THINK about what you’re doing.” Robert reached out and snatched Phillip’s tux jacket out of his hand. “You don’t have to do this.”
“Yes, I do.” Phillip took his jacket back and forced a smile for his identical twin brother. “You know how Mom and Dad are. They’re never going to give up until they have both of us married off.”
“How can you pretend to be something you’re not? You’re gay, Phillip. Just tell them. Put an end to this farce of a wedding.”
Phillip stopped in the act of putting on his jacket and smiled sadly at his brother. He wasn’t surprised Robert was trying to talk him out of getting married. This wasn’t the first time since he’d announced his engagement that they’d had this conversation.
“You don’t understand.” Phillip finished getting dressed and stepped forward until he stood toe-to-toe with his brother. “Mom and Dad will never accept me being gay, you know that. This is my only chance.”
“Your chance for what? Can you honestly look me in the eye and tell me that you’re ready to live a lie for the rest of your life?”
“You’re acting like I don’t love her.” That was one thing Phillip could honestly say—he did love Janice. Maybe not in the typical way a man was supposed to love his wife, but he was sure he could make her happy.
“I’ve tried. God help me, I’ve tried to understand, but this is wrong in so many ways. Stand up to them. Tell them what you want, not what you think they want to hear. There’s other ways for you to have kids. You don’t have to get married to do that.”
“I can’t,” Phillip admitted. “You’ve always been the stronger of the two of us. You’ve never given a rat’s ass what Mom and Dad thought of you. I’ve always envied that. This is what I have to do, and as much as I’d like to have your support, I’m doing this either way.”
“You’ll always have my support. I just hope you don’t end up regretting this.” Robert touched his shoulder and smiled sadly.
“I know what I’m doing.” He did. Phillip wasn’t going into this marriage half-cocked. He’d thought about it a lot, and marrying Janice was what he wanted. He headed to the altar to do just that, his brother trailing behind him.
Four and a Half Years Later
“JUST TELL me the goddamn truth.” Janice stomped her foot and glared at him as their two kids sat wide-eyed on the couch, watching the scene unfold.
“Please, Janice, don’t do this in front of the kids.” He’d known when they divorced it could come down to this, but he’d hoped to put it off as long as possible. If it hadn’t been for Janice’s busybody mother, they wouldn’t even be having this discussion.
“Were you or were you not walking down the street, holding hands with another guy?”
Phillip flinched at the fury in her voice and walked over to crouch down in front of his three-year-old son.
“Jacob, why don’t you go outside with Sam and play with your trucks.”
“Okay, Daddy.” Jacob’s gaze, glistening with unshed tears, shifted to his mother before sliding back to Phillip’s.
Phillip’s heart was nearly bursting with love as he watched Jacob take Samantha’s hand and lead her outside. Only once they were gone did Phillip turn his attention back to Janice.
“Answer me, damn it.”
“You want an answer? Fine. Yes, your mother saw me walking hand in hand with another man. You happy now?” Phillip had gone over the conversation dozens of times in his mind, but Janice had him so rattled, it was impossible to try to follow any type of a script.
“How dare you.” Janice slapped him across the face. “We were married, Phillip. You promised to love me until death do us part, and all the time you were lying to me?”
“I thought it would be okay. That I would be able to keep that part of me buried deep inside.” Phillip sighed, unable to meet her eyes. “I didn’t lie to you. I lied to myself. I tried to be something I’m not, and it blew up in my face. Robert warned me when we first got married that something like this could happen, but I didn’t listen to him.”
“Robert knew? All this time and Robert knew you would rather be with some guy?”
“Yes. He knew. I’m not proud of what I did, but I wouldn’t change it. If we hadn’t gotten married, we never would have had Jacob or Samantha.”
“Get a good look at your kids, Phillip, because this is the last time you’ll ever see them.” Janice didn’t wait for a reply. She strode toward the back door. Phillip watched as she stormed out, only to come back a few seconds later with Samantha’s wriggling body clutched in one arm and dragging Jacob with the other.
“Wanna stay at Daddy’s,” Jacob screamed as he pulled against his mother’s harsh grip.
“You’re not staying in this house one minute longer.” Janice dragged Phillip’s son out the front door.
“Daddy,” Jacob screamed. He jerked his hand as hard as his little body could. He managed to tear himself away from his mother, and Phillip crouched down just as his son flung himself into his arms.
“It’s okay, Jacob.” Phillip tried to soothe him as he rubbed his back. He could see Janice storming back toward him and whispered reassurances to his son. “Go with Mommy, and I’ll see you really soon. Okay?”
“Wanna stay,” Jacob cried. Huge tears rolled down his son’s face.
“I know you do,” Phillip whispered, “but I need you to be a good boy and go with your mommy. I love you, Jacob.” Phillip was struggling to hold back his own tears as Janice reached out and pulled Jacob from his arms. He stood helplessly as she dragged a struggling Jacob to the car and buckled him in. His son was still screaming for him.
He just needed to give Janice time to cool off, and then he could talk to her. Once she calmed down, he was sure they could work through this and figure out a way for them both to be there for their kids.
Six Years Later
PHILLIP SMILED gently and watched his niece and nephew running around his vast backyard. The feelings of joy the children evoked were bittersweet, as they brought his own son and daughter to the forefront of his mind. Corey was the same age as Samantha, nine, and Bree had been only a couple of months old when Janice disappeared with Jacob and Samantha. Thoughts of the kids he hadn’t seen in almost six years tormented him, touching off the despair that had become an integral part of his life. He wondered what they looked like.
When Jacob was a toddler, he had looked exactly like Phillip. Did he still? What about Sam? Did she look more like her mother? He hated not knowing anything about his kids or what they were doing. He was their father and should have been there as they were growing up.
Both kids had been so young when Janice tore them away, he would be surprised if they even remembered him. Leaving the kids to play, Phillip pushed himself out of the lounger and headed toward the house, accompanied by nothing but his maudlin thoughts.
His house was much larger than a single man needed, but it helped keep the hope alive that one day his ex-wife would be found and his kids would be returned to his care. Then she would rot in prison.
His feet felt like weights had been attached to them. He walked through the kitchen and up the stairs to the sanctuary of his room. His gaze fell on the wrapped package sitting on his bed, and tears threatened. He closed the door softly, walked over to sit on the bed, and pulled the package into his lap. He’d almost given up hope that the kids and their mother would ever be found, but each year he bought Jacob and Samantha gifts, just in case. Your kids will never know you, his mind told him.
“I haven’t forgotten you,” Phillip said quietly to the photo by his bed as his hands gripped the birthday present. Another year, another package that would most likely never be claimed. An indescribable pain blossomed in his chest. He was missing yet another milestone in his kids’ lives. Jacob would be turning ten in two days, and once again he wouldn’t have anything from his father for his birthday.
“I never should have confirmed what her mother saw.” Phillip set the package down next to him and picked up the picture that never left its place on the nightstand. He ran his fingers lovingly over the faces of his two precious children and wished he could physically reach through the glass and touch them. He didn’t realize he was silently crying until he saw the first teardrop fall on the glass. “I love you. I should have known what she’d do.”
Phillip used the pad of his thumb to wipe the tear away. He set the picture back in its spot and walked to the window to look down at the scene in his backyard. His niece and nephew couldn’t replace his own kids, nor did he want them to, but at least they helped to fill a little bit of the hole in his heart.
Phillip wiped his tears, took a minute to compose himself, left his room, and shut his door firmly behind him. Peals of delighted laughter greeted him as he made his way down the stairs and toward the backyard. He steeled himself against his emotions as he opened the back door and stepped onto the porch. He was unprepared for the spray of ice-cold water that slammed into his chest. His mood of moments before was temporarily forgotten.
“Bree. Corey,” Phillip hollered. Both children stopped and stared guiltily at the huge water spot on their uncle’s chest.
“We’re sorry, Uncle Pip,” Corey said softly, his eyes downcast.
“We’re sorry,” Bree echoed her older brother, but unlike Corey, who refused to look at him, Bree scampered across the lawn and wrapped her arms around her uncle’s legs. Her bright blue eyes shone up at Phillip, and her smile lit her entire face.
Phillip disentangled himself from his niece’s grasp and hunkered down until he was level with her. “Bree, what have I told you and Corey about playing with the water?”
“We’re not supposed to turn the water on.” Bree grinned.
“Then why did you?”
“We didn’t, Uncle Pip,” Bree answered. A light giggle escaped her lips.
“Bree, you and Corey know better than to lie. You were the only ones out here, so which one of you turned the water on?” Phillip struggled to keep patience in his voice.
“We didn’t turn it on.” Corey crossed his arms across his chest and met his uncle’s gaze head-on.
Phillip didn’t have another chance to reprimand the two kids as Bree was pulled away from him, and he was doused from head to toe in ice-cold water. He wiped his face and turned, only to be met by his brother’s laughing face.
“Hey there, little brother.” Robert smirked and pointed the hose at him.
“You’re so going to pay for that.” Phillip advanced. He was already drenched. It wasn’t like Robert could get him any wetter. “And you’re how much older? That’s right, ten minutes.”
“I’m still older.” Robert grinned evilly. He covered the tip of the hose with his thumb, and the ensuing spray engulfed Phillip. “Do you really think you can best me?”
“I think so,” Phillip answered with a mischievous grin as his gaze settled on movement behind Robert. Bree and Corey had gotten their hands on the other hose and were sneaking up on their dad. “You are going to get so wet,” Phillip warned. Seconds later the kids turned the hose on Robert, causing him to drop his own hose as he yelled in surprise. Phillip dove for it and proceeded to help them drench their dad. “You give yet?”
“Never.” Robert roared playfully. He launched himself at his brother, sending them both sprawling in the mud and struggling to gain control of the hose. Childish laughter reached their ears and water showered down on them, courtesy of Bree and Corey.
“On the count of three, you get Bree,” Robert whispered to his brother as they wrestled in the mud.
“Sounds good.” Phillip kept his own voice low enough that he couldn’t be overheard. They maneuvered until they were in a position where they could get to their feet quickly.
“One… two… three,” Robert yelled, and Phillip lunged to his feet next to Robert.
He briefly forgot about the mud and slipped but managed to stay on his feet as he stalked his prey.
Bree realized too late that Phillip was coming after her. She squealed as he lunged and ran as fast as her legs would carry her, but Phillip easily outdistanced her and swung her up onto his soaked and muddy shoulder. He hauled her wriggling body back to the middle of the lawn and scooped up the hose. He was already wet. A little more water wouldn’t hurt him, but it would wash the mud off. He delighted in Bree’s squeals as he sprayed them both down. Corey’s shouts made him look at his nephew being hosed down as well. He grinned.
“Okay, enough.” Phillip trudged over and shut off both hoses. “Everyone into the house.”
“Spoilsport.” Despite his grumbling, Robert followed him to the house. When they reached the porch, Phillip kicked his shoes off and pulled his shirt over his head. He lifted his feet one at a time to rid himself of his socks.
“Shoes and socks off. You two”—he pointed to Corey and Robert—“shirts off. Stay in the kitchen while I go grab some towels.” No point in dripping water all through the house. Phillip left his wet things on the porch and headed inside. He hurried to the downstairs bathroom, grabbed a stack of towels, and rushed back to the kids shivering in the kitchen. He handed both of them a towel, then twisted Robert’s, and snapped it against his bare side.
“Damn it, that hurt.” Robert rubbed his hand over the red mark blooming on his skin. “What’d you do that for?”
“I had the opportunity.” Phillip handed Robert his towel and padded barefoot out of the kitchen into the laundry room. He hadn’t put the laundry away, so he grabbed a pair of sweatpants and a couple of shirts out of the dryer. He carried the clothes back to the kitchen and handed the shirts to the kids. “Take turns in the bathroom and change. I’ll throw the wet things into the dryer so you can wear them home.”
“You don’t have to do that, Phillip.”
“Don’t I? You know as well as I do that Marissa would have my head if I sent the three of you home soaking wet.” Phillip shuddered at the thought of his petite sister-in-law. There might not be much to the barely-over-five-foot woman, but Phillip knew she was a force to be reckoned with when it came to her family.
“Come to think of it”—Robert turned to his kids—“go get changed and bring your clothes back out here.”
Phillip smirked as the kids trudged out of the room.
“What? I don’t want to deal with Marissa’s wrath any more than you do.”
Phillip shook his head and hurried upstairs to change into his dry clothes. He came back a few minutes later, wet shorts in hand, to find Robert clad in the sweatpants and holding a pile of wet clothes. He started for the porch only to be stopped by Robert’s hand on his arm.
“I already grabbed the clothes from out there.”
“Thanks.” Phillip took the bundle from Robert and headed to the laundry room. He dropped them on top of the washer and pulled open the dryer. It only took a second to scoop the clothes from the dryer and drop them into a laundry basket. He added the wet clothes to the dryer and started it. Phillip braced his hands on top of the dryer and took a deep breath. Then he went out to face his brother.
“I sent the kids to watch cartoons. You okay?”
“Yeah, I’m fine.” Phillip brushed past his brother and poured himself a cup of coffee. He held the carafe up and poured a second cup when Robert nodded. “It’s just been one of those days.”
“Kids tire you out?”
“Nope.” They hadn’t, but even if they had, Phillip wouldn’t have said anything. He enjoyed having the kids, and while he doubted Robert would keep them from coming over, he wasn’t about to take that chance.
“If it’s not that….” Robert watched him closely. “Isn’t it nearly Jacob’s birthday?”
Phillip tried not to flinch at the reminder.
“Two more days.”
“And let me guess. You tormented yourself by going out and buying him a birthday present, just like you always do.”
“You guessed it.” Phillip shrugged. “Guess it will go into the garage with the rest of them.”
“Why do you continue to punish yourself like this? I know you want to be prepared in case they’re found, but until that happens…. All you’re doing is torturing yourself.” Robert took a sip of his coffee.
“I know, but what am I supposed to do?” Phillip turned his cup in his hands. “I don’t know what reason Janice has given them for me not being around. I can’t give up hope that they’ll be found. And how much you wanna bet she told them I didn’t want them? If I ever get them back, I’ll have the gifts for every year they’ve been gone to show that I was thinking about them. Every. Single. Year.”
“Honestly,” Robert sighed. “I think the best you can hope for is that Jacob comes looking for you when he turns eighteen, maybe even sooner. That’s also assuming that Janice hasn’t told them you’re dead.”
“I know. I’ve thought about that.” Phillip sipped from his cup. “I’ve debated hiring another private investigator, but I don’t know what they’d find that the others haven’t. I still think her parents know where they are.” He’d hired a few investigators over the years, but whenever one would get close, Janice would disappear again. He didn’t know who she had helping her, but whoever they were, they were good. The police had pulled her parents’ financials and phone records. They’d hoped to find something to prove they were helping her, but it was useless. Either they hadn’t been in contact with her—which Phillip didn’t believe for a second—or they were using disposable phones so they couldn’t be traced. Six years, multiple private investigators, and they still had no leads. It was disheartening.
“Maybe. It’s something to think about. It's been so long that she may have relaxed her guard enough for someone to get close to her.” Robert sighed. “I know finding the kids is your main priority, but I promised Marissa I’d talk to you.”
“About?” Phillip suspected he didn’t want to know where the conversation was headed.
“Phillip, it’s been six years. I know you want to find Jacob and Sam, but there’s no guarantee that’s ever going to happen. You need to start living again. It’s past time for you to start dating. Find someone to spend your life with.”
“I know,” Phillip answered. “I kept hoping, if I stayed alone, Janice would be forced to relent and bring the kids back. Wishful thinking on my part. She’d be stupid to come back, considering she’d be arrested. Now I don’t know where to start looking or even if I really want to.”
“What about the gym? You used to spend a lot of time there.”
“I quit going a long time ago.” Phillip still kept in shape. He just didn’t do it at the gym.
“Well, Marissa was telling me the other day about a new gym that opened up.”
“Even if I did go back to working out, I’d probably just go to the one that I used to use.”
“I think this one would be more up your alley.” Robert smirked. “Rumor has it the guy who runs it is gay, and so are most of his clientele. Where else would be better than a gay gym to meet someone?”
“I don’t know, Robert.” Phillip drained his cup and set it in the sink. “I’ve been out of the game for a while now.”
“You’ll never know until you try. Just promise me you’ll think about it.” Robert handed him a piece of paper. “Marissa wrote the name and address down for you. I was told I’d better give it to you and not take no for an answer.”
“I’m sure she tacked on an ‘or else’ as well, not that I want to know what the ‘or else’ would be.” Phillip took the small scrap of paper from his brother. “I’ll think about it.” At Robert’s raised eyebrow, he sighed. “Promise.”