“I THOUGHT you were picking me up from the airport,” Matt yelled from the front door, dragging a suitcase and duffel bag behind him. His plane had landed almost two hours ago, and he hadn’t heard a damn word from Brandon. Matt’s boyfriend wasn’t usually the type to disappoint.
He dropped his suitcase by the door and shrugged out of his leather jacket, then hung it on the metal coat rack in the foyer. The house was quiet, too quiet, but Brandon had to be home, because their car was in the driveway, parked right next to Matt’s motorcycle. Where it was supposed to be. Matt frowned as he peered through the arched opening, scouring the living room for some sign of life.
The room was dark, the air cool. Everything appeared as clean and neat as usual. Brandon liked to play homemaker to Matt’s handyman. He liked to keep an orderly house, the kind of home Matt had grown up in and always loved. Matt liked the warm, earthy tones Brandon had chosen when they bought the house. He loved the way Brandon’s minimalist style still made the place cozy. It was perfect.
Dinner normally waited on the kitchen table when Matt got home from work, and it was never some frozen, prefabbed meal. Brandon took the time to make everything delicious and never skimped when it came to cuisine. He always took care of everything for Matt and kept the laundry done and everything spotless. Hell, no one would’ve even known they had a dog, because the scent of animal didn’t exist. All he could smell was the sandalwood air freshener Brandon seemed to love so much.
After being gone for three weeks, he expected Brandon to be there, eagerly waiting for his return with open arms. That damn sure didn’t appear to be the case.
“Brandon?” he called out. “Zeus?”
Matt raked his fingers through his messy brown hair, frowning harder as he headed toward the kitchen.
Again, the room was dark—dark granite countertops bare and clean. It didn’t look like Brandon had even considered cooking a welcome-home meal. Brandon would’ve normally gone all out and made some elaborate dinner to celebrate Matt’s return. Then they would’ve spent the night making up for the weeks they’d been apart. From the looks of it, Brandon had forgotten Matt was even coming home.
From the bay window overlooking their immaculate backyard, just beyond the breakfast nook that had originally sold them on the house, he spotted Zeus—the honey-brown pit bull puppy he’d rescued from the animal shelter by accident—lying on the patio beneath the canopy of a giant old Japanese maple tree. The pup looked content, food and water bowls still full. The way Zeus devoured whatever was put down in front of his face meant someone had recently tended to him.
So where the hell was Brandon?
With new urgency in his step and the new speed of his pulse, Matt quickly headed toward the back of the house, where they both had offices and a bedroom to share. He checked Brandon’s office first, hoping he would find Brandon pounding away at a new novel. He wasn’t there. Then Matt checked his man cave, even though Brandon rarely darkened its doors. He just had to be sure. Nothing. The bedroom was just as dark and empty too. Brandon wasn’t there.
The moment Matt reached into his jeans pocket for his cell phone to give Brandon a call, he spotted a yellow piece of paper with black writing on the edge of the dresser. Brandon would’ve never left anything like that just lying around. It would’ve driven him crazy. And the closer Matt got to the dresser, the more he could make out what had been written on the page—a letter, with Brandon’s signature.
His heart sank in his chest and collided with his stomach. Sure, it could’ve been a simple “ran to the grocery, be back later,” but Matt knew better. Brandon wouldn’t have abandoned him at the damn airport for a trip to the grocery store, or anything else, for that matter. No, this wasn’t going to be one of those notes.
Taking a deep breath, Matt reached for the yellow page. He closed his eyes and exhaled slowly as he silently encouraged himself to man up and read the damn letter. In his heart, he already knew what it said. Right before he’d left for work three weeks ago, they’d gotten into a huge fight about all of his traveling. Matt tried like hell to convince Brandon that he wouldn’t go if he could make as much money staying home. Unfortunately, he couldn’t. Unfortunately, he wanted to give Brandon everything he wanted or needed, and Brandon didn’t have cheap tastes.
He flipped the page over, opened his eyes, and stared down at the writing. At first, he couldn’t focus on the words, like his brain refused to comprehend Brandon’s messy scribble. He blinked a few times, then brought the page closer to his face.
I love you, but this isn’t working anymore. I want someone who is going to be there when I need them. I know you have to work, and maybe I’m being selfish, but this is what I need. I love you. I’ll always love you, but I need more.
The page fell from Matt’s hand and flittered to the floor. It landed at the tips of his black steel-toed boots. He couldn’t sit down and couldn’t move from that spot despite his suddenly quivering legs. His chest ached, and his eyes burned, but he didn’t cry. Matt wouldn’t cry, and that was yet another item on the list of imperfections Brandon had so eloquently pointed out during their last screaming match.
How dare Brandon break up with him on a piece of legal paper?
Who the hell did that?
Who did Brandon think he was?
Did Matt not deserve better?
Suddenly, the backs of his knees hit the edge of the bed the two of them had been sharing for the last five years. Matt wasn’t even aware of stumbling back toward it. He just found himself sitting without making a conscious choice to do so.
He rubbed his sweaty palms over his tattered, faded jeans and hung his head. As much as he’d been looking forward to being in his own bed again, there was no way in hell he could sleep without Brandon beside him. Brandon’s light snoring in his ear had become a lullaby over the years, and Brandon’s warmth against his chest as Matt spooned his lover’s back was better than any blanket.
Now it was gone.
Scrubbing his meaty, work-calloused hands against his face, he sighed and fell back on the bed. His bags were still at the front door, and Zeus was still locked up in the backyard, but Matt didn’t have the wherewithal to deal with any of it right now. Frankly, he wished he could rewind time and go back to the moment he began losing Brandon, the moment they stopped being best friends and started feeling more like acquaintances.
“Shit, I knew this was coming,” Matt muttered in realization.
Yes, he had been aware of their problems, their disconnection. He’d seen something extraordinarily different in Brandon’s otherwise-light, shimmering hazel eyes during that last explosive fight. There was a foreboding darkness, and before Matt had left for his three-week stint in New Orleans, he’d felt Brandon’s distance.
The phone in his pocket started to ring, and Matt debated ignoring it. There wasn’t really anyone he needed or wanted to talk to right now—Brandon included. But the longer he lay there and let it ring, the more pissed off he became, so angry in fact, he thought he might grind his teeth down to nothing. The whole time, he hadn’t realized he was clenching his jaw so tightly.
He dipped his hand into his denim pocket and wrapped his fingers around the phone, lifted it to his face, and stared blankly at the screen. It was his mother, more than likely calling to make sure he’d made it home safely.
Now wasn’t a good time to talk to her. He could try to hide behind carefully chosen words and a flat tone of voice, but his mother was too intuitive for her own good. She could read him better than anyone. But if he didn’t answer, she would worry, maybe even come looking for him.
Time to face the music.
“Hello?” he answered with a sigh.
“You sound exhausted,” she said, voice dainty and demure. She always sounded so soft and elegant… until someone pissed her off. “Was your flight that bad, honey?”
“No, ma’am,” he softly responded. “I sat in the airport for two hours waiting for Brandon before finally calling a cab. When I got home, no one was here and Zeus was locked up in the backyard.”
“That doesn’t sound like Brandon. Is everything okay?”
Matt sat up on the bed and looked down at the curling yellow paper lying on the floor, at the angry scribbles and the way Brandon had claimed he still loved him. He pressed his elbow to his knee and rested his forehead on his palm. Closing his eyes, he exhaled slowly.
“Matty?” his mom said. The inquisitive tone of her voice, the I-know-something’s-up lilt, triggered that sensation all sons got when their mothers knew they were hiding something. “What happened, Matty?”
“He’s gone, Mom,” he said, voice low.
“I don’t know. Gone.”
“He left me a letter that said he needed to go.” Matt shrugged, even though his mom couldn’t see him. “Said things weren’t working and he needed more, but he still loves me.”
“Baloney!” And there was her angry voice. “How is he going to break up with you on a damn letter and tell you he loves you?”
“I don’t know, Mom.”
“That’s just not right.”
“Well, what are you going to do?”
“I don’t know.”
“What do you mean you don’t know?”
“I found the letter ten minutes before you called. I haven’t brought Zeus in. I haven’t unpacked my bags. Honestly, I haven’t thought about anything except for the fact that I’m alone now.” Matt took another deep breath. He could feel his temper flaring, and God help him, if he got snippy with his momma over this mess, she wouldn’t let him forget it.
“Sorry,” he finally said. “I’m just tired, and I can’t deal with this crap right now.”
“Why don’t you rest, then call me when you’re feeling up to it? We’ll figure all this mess out.”
“Thanks. I love you, Mom.”
“I love you too, son. Now, get some sleep.”
Standing from the bed, he ended the call and tossed the phone onto his dresser, then headed out of his room, back down the hall, and into the kitchen. Zeus already sat on his haunches at the back door, staring up at the window as if he felt his master’s presence before Matt had even entered the room. He opened the door, and the fifty-pound pit bull puppy all but leapt into his arms. At least someone was happy to see him. At least someone greeted him with kisses. Zeus wagged his tail with excitement as he licked at Matt’s face. Matt hugged the puppy tight against him, and in that moment, he finally broke down.
Tears fell hard and fast, rolling down his cheeks and dripping onto the pup’s soft brown coat. Zeus whimpered and nudged his snout at his master’s cheek. The dog knew something was amiss.
“What am I going to do?” Matt cried, brushing his hand up and down Zeus’s fur. “I can’t stay here without him.”
The house just didn’t feel right without Brandon in it. Hell, the world didn’t feel right without him. Now, Matt just wanted to escape it all. Everything in the house reminded him of what he’d lost, and for what? Because he wanted to do the best he could for the person who meant the most to him?