Peter met Melissa outside Hale & Hearty (otherwise simply known as Hale’s) where they were going to have lunch before Peter did the restaurant’s quarterly sales tax report. Peter had been busy right up until midnight on April 18 with income tax filing, and then it had been into sales tax returns for the first quarter due April 30 without a break. It felt like forever since he and Melissa had been able to get together.
Peter opened his arms wide and hugged her tight when Melissa stepped into them. He finally released Melissa so they could go inside, but the sound of a motorcycle stopped them before Peter could reach for the door. Beacon Hills was a small town and nothing exciting ever happened there (barring the time Kate Argent had tried to burn down the Hale house), so Peter and Melissa could be excused for staring as the rider drove down the street. Other than finding an addition mistake in one of his clients’ bookkeeping, this was the most interesting thing to happen to Peter all week.
The rider pulled into a spot just down the street from Hale’s in front of the florist shop where Talia got daily deliveries for the tables in the restaurant. They watched the man climb off the bike, his back to them. Both Peter and Melissa made a sound of appreciation at the way the man’s jeans fit.
“Dibs,” Melissa said, which made Peter snort a laugh.
The man removed his helmet and ran a hand through short hair going gray. It stuck up more afterwards. He turned his head just enough for Peter to see the scruff on his face. Peter sucked in a breath at the familiar cheekbone, but thought, it couldn’t be. Peter was distracted from the thought when the man slipped out of his black leather jacket to reveal a full sleeve tattoo on his left arm that disappeared under the sleeve of his t-shirt and reappeared to crawl partway up his neck.
The man left the jacket and helmet on the motorcycle and stepped up onto the sidewalk, giving Peter a good look at his face. “Oh my god,” Peter said, his voice hollow, his stomach flipping wildly.
“Oh my god!” Melissa said, then called out, “Chris?”
Chris Argent raised his head and saw them. He smiled at Melissa and his eyes locked with Peter’s. Melissa ran over to Chris and jumped into his arms. Peter sagged when Chris’ gaze released his as he caught Melissa.
Faced with the prospect of standing there and having to make pleasant small talk with Chris Fucking Argent, Peter opened the door, held it for two women, and followed them inside. Peter veered to the left and went directly to the bar. He ordered a shot of whiskey and barely waited for Ben (the only one of Talia’s offspring to show any interest in the family restaurant so far) to stop pouring before he picked up the glass and downed the whiskey.
Peter took a moment to appreciate the burn in his throat and the warmth that spread out through his body before turning to Talia, who leaned against the bar beside him.
“I hope you’re not planning to get drunk before you do our taxes,” Talia said lightly.
“It’s because I’m doing your taxes,” Peter said, then, “I’m not going to get drunk. I just needed the fortification.”
Talia frowned. “For what?”
The door opened behind him and Peter stiffened. Without looking in the mirror behind the bar Peter knew it was Melissa and Chris. Talia, too perceptive by far, glanced over at the newcomers. Peter knew Talia recognized Chris when her lips thinned. Talia straightened her shoulders and pushed away from the bar.
Peter hissed, “Talia!” and tried to grab for her, but she slipped through his fingers.
“Melissa,” Talia said with genuine welcome in her voice. “It’s lovely to see you again.”
Peter glanced in the mirror to see Talia and Melissa hugging.
“We don’t get to see you enough when Peter’s busy with tax season,” Talia continued. “We’ve got your usual table set up.” Talia turned her formidable attention onto Chris. “Chris Argent.”
“Hello, Talia,” Chris said.
“I didn’t know you were back in town.”
“I just got back,” Chris said.
“Will Chris be joining you?” Talia said to Melissa. “I’ll just have another place set,” she said when Melissa looked helplessly between Peter and Chris, just realizing that this would be uncomfortable for at least one of them, if not all three.
“Talia,” Chris said before she could turn away. “I wanted to apologize. For Kate.”
“Did you have anything to do with that?”
“No, of course not.”
“Then you don’t need to apologize. For that. We can only answer for our own actions.” Talia smiled. “Enjoy your meal.”
Chris tried to catch Peter’s eyes in the mirror, but Peter lowered them to his empty shot glass. When he glanced back up Chris was looking at Melissa. “Maybe this was a bad idea.”
Peter turned his attention to Talia so he didn’t hear Melissa’s response.
“Want me to fabricate an emergency to get you out of lunch?” Talia said sotto voce as she made a few hand gestures that Peter didn’t understand, but which got Ben and Kayla moving.
“No,” Peter said. “But thank you. It’s probably best we do this here. Lessen the chances we come to blows. Or someone cries.”
“I’ll make sure there’s a box of tissues in the office for you, just in case.”
“Thanks,” Peter said dryly.
“Welcome.” Talia gave Peter a hug. “Good luck.”
“Thanks,” Peter said again, his gaze moving to the table where Melissa and Chris sat waiting for him. Melissa caught his eyes and raised an eyebrow. Peter nodded and accepted the drink tray Ben handed to him. Peter took a deep breath and carried the tray over to the table. Kayla had beat him there with another set of flatware rolled in a cloth napkin and a glass of ice water. Peter set down Melissa’s margarita and two bottles of beer for him and Chris.
Kayla appeared next to him and took the empty tray. “Can I tell you our lunch specials?”
“Yes, please,” Melissa said, even though she’d been reading the board outside when Peter showed up, and even though they usually got the same thing every time.
Wednesday was prime rib night, which meant the most delicious beef vegetable soup for lunch on Thursday courtesy of James. (Talia always joked that James married her to get his hands on the Hale’s state-of-the-art kitchen.)
Kayla went through the specials and then gave them a few minutes to decide. As soon as she stepped away from the table Chris said, “Hello, Peter.”
Peter moved his gaze away from the menu at which he’d been staring unseeing to look at Chris. He tilted his head. “Hello, Christopher.”
“You look good.”
Peter flushed with anger (and a little bit of pleasure, which only served to make him angrier). Peter looked over Chris and did his best to ignore the muscles and the tattoo he still hadn’t gotten a good enough look at and how much he wanted to stroke his hand over the stubble on Chris’ chin. “You got grey.”
“Peter,” Melissa admonished softly.
Peter ignored it, because Melissa had been there when Chris had left, she knew what it had done to him.
Chris ran a hand through his hair and gave Peter a sheepish look. “I know.”
“Are you ready to order?” Kayla said with extra perk to cover the concern in her eyes.
“Yes,” Melissa said with relief.
Melissa ordered her usual soup and salad combo (the beef soup with a lunch-sized portion of the apple-cranberry-walnut salad) and Peter got the soup and half a turkey BLT. When it was Chris’ turn he hesitated.
“You have to try the soup,” Melissa said. She and Kayla extolled the virtues of James’ beef soup and Chris laughed and agreed to get it. He also ordered a bacon cheeseburger and fries.
“I got up early to get on the road for the last leg of the trip,” Chris explained. “I’m starving.”
“How long are you here for?” Melissa said.
“A while,” Chris said. “It depends.”
Chris didn’t look at him, but Peter felt the weight of Chris’ words. “Are you suggesting that I’m one of those things it depends on?” Peter said, his voice low and hard.
Before Chris could respond Kayla dropped a basket of homemade bread on the table and transferred the soup bows from the tray James held for her.
“Can I get you anything else? Enjoy your soup!” Kayla said when they all responded in the negative. She made a quick exit with the tray, leaving James behind.
James gave Peter’s shoulder a supportive squeeze and greeted Melissa. “Melissa, dear, it’s good to see you. You know you don’t have to wait for this one to be available to grace us with your presence.”
Melissa exchanged some words with James, but Peter didn’t hear them over the ringing in his ears. He jerked out of the fugue he’d fallen into when Melissa kicked him in the ankle. Peter registered the silence and looked around. James stood staring at Chris, who stared back, not backing down from the challenge.
Peter rolled his eyes. “James, you remember Chris, don’t you?”
“I do,” James said, not offering Chris a handshake or a smile. James finally broke their staring contest and said, “Enjoy your soup, everyone.”
“We will!” Melissa said.
Chris gave his bowl a suspicious look.
James did smile then.
Chris waited for James to leave and said, “Should I expect any more of your family to come over here and threaten me?”
“Well, it’s Talia, so . . .”
They ate their soup in silence, except for the sounds of enjoyment and comments on how good it tasted. Kayla bussed their soup bowls and said, “The rest of your meal will be right out.”
Peter was enjoying his sandwich when Melissa gave a resigned, “Oh my god.”
Peter looked over to see what she was talking about and swore. “Did your mother call you?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about, Uncle Peter,” Laura said, not even trying to sound believable.
Chris choked on the sip of beer he’d just taken when he saw Laura in her deputy uniform, hand resting on the gun at her hip.
“I came for the soup, like everyone else. Hey, Aunt Melissa.”
“Hey, sweetie.” Melissa stood up to get a hug.
Laura stared at Chris.
“Laura,” Peter said. “This is Chris Argent. Chris, my niece Laura.”
“Hello . . . ,” Chris began.
“Kate’s brother,” Laura interrupted.
“Yes,” Chris said guardedly.
“Welcome to Beacon Hills,” Laura said in a tone that was anything but welcoming. She looked over towards the bar. “Looks like my soup’s ready.” Laura bent and gave Peter a kiss on the cheek. “See you later, Uncle Peter.”
All three of them watched Laura walk away. Chris whistled. “Now that was intimidating.”
Peter fought down the urge to apologize – it was kind of nice having his family want to protect him from the inevitable fallout caused by Chris’ return.
Peter finished his half sandwich before the others finished their meals. He wiped his mouth, then set the napkin on his plate and pushed his chair back. “I need to get to work. The meal’s covered, so have whatever you want for dessert.”
“Peter,” Melissa said.
Peter leaned over and kissed Melissa on the cheek. “We’ll get together again soon,” he promised. Peter stood, but before he could get far Chris grabbed his wrist.
Peter stared at the fingers encircling his wrist. He raised his eyes to Chris’ face and managed to not jerk his arm away.
“I was hoping we’d have a chance to talk,” Chris said.
“I’m not sure what there is to say.”
“You know I had to leave,” Chris said. “I couldn’t stay in Beacon Hills; I had to get away from Gerard. I wasn’t leaving you.”
Peter had heard it all before, and hearing it again now, twenty years later, didn’t make him feel any better. “Funny,” Peter said, twisting his wrist out of Chris’ hold. “Feels like you left me.”
Peter made his way back to the office without looking right or left. If he made use of the tissues Talia had set on the desk no one had to know.
The following Tuesday Peter was working late when his office door opened. “Claire,” Peter said without looking up from the column of figures he was adding, “I told you to go home.”
The distinctly male tenor of someone clearing their throat caused Peter to raise his head because that was definitely not Claire. He could only hope that the depth of the surprise he felt didn’t show on his face. “Chris.”
Peter set down the pen and leaned back in his chair. He dropped his arms to the arm rests so Chris couldn’t see his hands shake. “What can I do for you?”
“I need your help,” Chris said, then clarified, “Professionally.”
“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Peter said.
“I’ve asked around,” Chris said. “The consensus is that you’re the best.”
“In Beacon Hills, maybe,” Peter said, not bothering to resort to false modesty, “but Beacon is a large county; there are other accountants.”
“Don’t you even want to know why?”
“No,” Peter said too quickly.
“Gerard has cancer,” Chris said. “He’s dying.”
“You don’t expect me to feel bad about that, do you?”
“No,” Chris said.
“Well, unless you want my help planning the party, I think we’re done here.”
“I could really use your help figuring out Gerard’s accounts,” Chris said before he left.
Peter sat at his desk staring at the doorway Chris had filled moments ago. He forced his attention back to the top of his desk, but he could no longer wrap his brain around the figures he’d been working on. Peter closed the file and powered down his computer. He locked up the office and walked down the street to the bar where everyone, for good or ill, knew his name.
Laura had a rare night off work and she’d dragged Derek out of his dorm room at UC Beacon. Peter joined them at the permanently reserved family table in the back corner by the kitchen. Despite the number of people in the bar area (for Tuesday Night Trivia), Ben had seen him come in and there was a shot with a beer chaser waiting for Peter at the table.
Peter drank the shot before he even sat down, then dropped heavily into the chair and sighed. “What?” Peter said when he realized that both Derek and Laura were staring at him.
“That was melodramatic even for you,” Laura said.
“Need me to shoot him?”
Laura raised an eyebrow and looked scarily like her mother.
Peter gave up on pretending he was fine. “No, dearest niece, I don’t need you to shoot anyone. Your mother would kill me. Besides, the time to have shot him would’ve been twenty-two years ago. A little leg wound that would’ve kept him from leaving right away without being crippling.”
“That’s . . . awfully specific,” Laura said. “Also, you do realize I was only two years old twenty-two years ago.”
“I do.” Peter reached out and played with a strand of Laura’s hair that had fallen out of the ponytail. “So. Are you two having fun?”
“Yes,” Laura said at the same time Derek dourly said, “No.”
“Liar,” Laura said.
“I should be studying,” Derek said.
“You weren’t studying,” Laura pointed out. “You were writing.”
Derek was double-majoring in English and History, with a minor in Mythology. One of his professors had made the mistake of telling Derek he should concentrate on one area because there would never be a call for someone who wasted their time learning a little bit of all three. Derek had taken it as a challenge and immediately began writing a story that combined historical and mythological elements.
“Besides, all work and no play makes for a very dull Derek.”
“I want to finish it before graduation,” Derek said.
“I’m sure you will,” Peter said. He glanced at the paper where Derek had written his answer to the latest trivia question. “How many have you gotten right?”
Derek gave Peter a look. “All of them.”
“With my help,” Laura said.
Derek gave Laura look that said, naturally.
There was a reason the Hale offspring had been banned from participating in trivia night.
“Who’s winning?” Peter said.
Derek shrugged and Laura gave Peter a look. “Stiles’ team.”
Stiles’ team consisted of his best friend Scott, as well as Lydia and Danny. Peter found them in the crowd just as Stiles called out an answer. Cora, who’d taken over reading the questions from Talia, said, “Correct, Stilinski.”
“His brain is both amazing and terrifying,” Derek said.
Laura said, “Do you want to dissect him so you can study it?”
Derek grimaced. “That’s gross.”
“And also a euphemism.”
Peter studied Derek, then caught Laura’s eye. “Is this new?”
“No,” Laura said. “I think it’s just more. But Derek’s too busy giving his professor a big fuck you to actually get laid himself.”
“I can hear you,” Derek said. Peter noticed that the tips of his ears had gone pink.
“I don’t think John would be thrilled to hear you pimping out his son to Derek,” Peter said.
“Oh, please,” Laura said. “Like Stiles doesn’t practically jizz himself every time he and Derek stare longingly into each other’s eyes.”
“Laura!” Derek hissed.
Just then Stiles glanced over and it looked as if Derek stopped breathing when their eyes met. Pink crept up Stiles’ neck and he only turned away when Scott nudged him so he could high-five Lydia for giving the correct answer.
“I didn’t need to see that,” Peter said. “Just remember he’s the Sheriff’s son.”
Derek glared at Peter, then turned it onto Laura when she said, “Stiles is legal now. He turned seventeen in April.”
“Yes, I’m sure that will make all the difference to his father, your boss.”
Talia caught Peter before he left. “Feeling better?”
“What makes you think I . . . Alright, yes.” Being around his family was like a balm.
“Want to talk about it?”
“No.” Peter sighed. “I saw Chris again. He wanted my help with Gerard’s accounts.”
“What did you say?”
Peter gave Talia a look. “I said no, of course.”
“Of course,” Talia said. “I bet the Beacon County Sheriff Department would give anything to get a look at what was in those books,” she casually added. “Maybe have their forensic accountant take a look at them.”
“Funny,” Peter said.
“Chris asked me to help him figure out Gerard’s accounts,” Peter told Melissa at lunch on Thursday.
Melissa set down her margarita without taking a sip. “And?”
“I said no,” Peter said. “But I’m rethinking that.”
“Out of the goodness of your heart?” Melissa said dryly. She sipped the drink and sighed. “I needed that.”
Melissa had left Beacon Hills Memorial when they’d refused to hire enough nursing staff to take care of the patients, instead insisting that all the nurses work overtime until they were exhausted and prone to making mistakes. She’d taken half the staff with her and started a company that provided home health aid, and now spent most of her time doing administrative work rather than patient care.
“I never do anything out of the goodness of my heart,” Peter said. “Did you hear what happened with Laura yesterday?”
“Yes,” Melissa said. “How is she?”
“She’s fine,” Peter said. “Shaken up because of what could’ve happened, but otherwise fine.”
Peter hadn’t been there, but he’d heard all about it from Laura who’d still been troubled and angry with herself for misjudging the situation. Laura had taken the call when a man with a knife had barricaded himself inside an ampm convenience store. The employee who’d made the call and Laura both thought the guy was on drugs. It turned out that a backfire and the sound of a helicopter flying overhead had combined to send him into a PTSD-related flashback.
Luckily Chris had shown up and recognized what was going on. He’d talked the guy down and sat with him for a while. Chris had pointed out the Army Rangers tattoo in the middle of his sleeve and shared some of his own experiences overseas and back home. When the man settled down Chris helped him buy the milk he’d been there to pick up and called a friend to drive him home.
Laura had been glad for the help even as she’d felt superfluous. Peter was just glad she was alive.
“I owe Chris for that,” Peter said. “But I also can’t turn down the opportunity to get a look at Gerard’s books,” he admitted.
“You’re going to tell Chris that up front, right?” Melissa said. “That you have an ulterior motive. Not that he won’t guess. That’s probably why he’s giving you access in the first place.”
“Of course I’ll tell him,” Peter said, but Melissa’s comment gave him something to think about past lunch.
Peter eventually worked up the nerve to call the number Melissa had given him later that afternoon. He almost hung up when Chris answered. The sound of his voice after all this time was still a shock.
“Hello, Chris, it’s Peter.”
“Peter,” Chris said, sounding surprised. “What can I do for you?”
“If you’re still interested in using my services I’ll help you with Gerard’s accounts.”
Chris hesitated. “What made you change your mind?”
“What you did yesterday,” Peter said. “You helped Laura out.”
“I helped out a fellow vet in distress,” Chris said.
“Yes, and by doing so also helped Laura. She thought she was dealing with a man on drugs, and if she’d followed procedure she might have ended up shooting him. She would’ve had to deal with the fact that she’d shot an innocent man for the rest of her life.”
“I’m just glad I was there,” Chris said.
“Me, too,” Peter said, and tried not to let himself think about all the other times he’d wished Chris had been there.
“Any other reason?”
“You knew I wouldn’t be able to resist getting my hands on Gerard’s books,” Peter said.
“Then it’s fortunate I need an accountant,” Chris said dryly.
“Yes, I suppose it is.”
“Can you come out to the house tomorrow?”
“Is that wise?”
“Gerard will be in the hospital all day. His last round of chemo. You’ll probably be better able to tell what’s important than I would.”
“Fine,” Peter said, even though it wasn’t fine at all. He pulled up his schedule for Friday and determined that he’d have to do less moving around of appointments if he went over after his eleven o’clock appointment. They set the time and Peter ended the call.
When Peter showed up at the Argent house the next day Chris looked surprised to see him. “Am I early?” Peter said.
“No,” Chris said, stepping back to allow Peter to enter. “You’re wearing jeans. I’ve only seen you in a suit since I’ve been back, so it threw me.”
“I didn’t know what going through Gerard’s books would entail,” Peter said. “I figured there might be some dust involved.”
“I dug out what I could find,” Chris said, “but you’ll need to go through the boxes.”
Chris took Peter to the office and pointed out the ledgers on top of the desk. “Those I found in the desk, in a locked drawer, so they must be the more recent books.” He pointed to half a dozen boxes lined up against the wall. “These boxes were in a secure room in the basement.”
Peter felt an excitement in his belly that most people got when they looked at a chest of gold. To Peter, this was a treasure trove. He moved over to the desk and set his hand on one of the ledgers. It would be easier to start with the most recent books. Peter sat in the desk chair and opened the first book. He glanced through it, then opened the others one at a time to get an idea what kind of information they each held.
There was a record of payments written in some kind of code, and separate books that Peter figured were for each of the illegal pies Gerard had his dirty little fingers in. It was going to take a while to figure it all out, and Peter couldn’t wait to get started. Peter went through all of the boxes; it took him longer because he kept stopping to read some of the entries. He drank from the bottle of water Chris gave him, but otherwise didn’t know Chris was even there.
When Peter put the final book back into the box, Chris said, “I ordered pizza.”
“Have you been sitting there the entire time?”
Chris shrugged. “I like watching you work.”
The comment brought back memories from when they were in high school and Peter had to bite his tongue to keep from speaking the first caustic thought that came to mind. “I’ll just load these boxes in the car,” he said instead.
Chris helped load the boxes, which defeated the purpose of the excuse to get some space. The only break Peter got was when the pizza arrived and Chris went to pay. Peter stayed in the office – word would get around if anyone saw him there loading boxes into his Lexus LX 570. With the satin cashmere metallic exterior and cabernet leather interior, the SUV was pretty recognizable.
“What about Gerard’s partners or accountant?” Peter said when the delivery guy left. “Won’t they wonder where his books have gone?”
“Do you really think Gerard would’ve trusted anyone besides himself with his books?”
“Probably not,” Peter said.
“Come on,” Chris said, hefting the two pizza boxes, “have some pizza.”
Peter had intended to make an excuse and leave, but the scent of the pizza reminded him that he’d skipped lunch to come out here. He cleaned up and ate a few slices, turning down Chris’ offer of a beer. Peter left soon after, wanting to be gone when Gerard’s private nurse brought him home from the hospital.
Peter was itching to start on the books, but he knew that if he did he’d be at it all night. He forced himself to go home after unloading the boxes into the fireproof vault he’d had installed when he started doing work for the BCSD. Peter showered, then fixed himself a drink and relaxed with a documentary on iguanas.
Peter spent the weekend going over Gerard’s books – taking breaks only to get something to eat when his stomach forcibly reminded him to and to sleep when he looked at the clock and realized it was two am – and every spare minute during the first half of the week.
“You look like crap,” Melissa said on Thursday.
Melissa ignored Peter. “Have you been sleeping?”
“I’ve been putting in some overtime at the office.”
“On . . .” Melissa tilted her head.
Peter acknowledged her comment with a head tilt of his own and then they dropped it.
“I haven’t seen you in a while,” Talia said when she cornered Peter in the office.
“I’ve got a new client,” Peter said. “A lot to catch up on.”
“Hmm,” Talia said.
“The Sheriff had Chris Argent come in and talk to us about veterans and PTSD,” Laura said when she dropped in one morning with a caramel iced latte and a cranberry-orange scone from the bakery.
“You’re my favorite,” Peter said, immediately opening the straw and popping it through the hole in the cover so he could take a sip. “How’d that go?”
“It was . . . informative,” Laura said. “He couldn’t give us any mission details, obviously, but just hearing about some of the things they had to deal with on a daily basis for months on end was . . . horrifying. He also said . . .”
Peter stopped pretending to study the scone. “He said what?”
“He said he has PTSD, too. That almost everyone who comes back does to some extent.”
After Laura left Peter found himself imagining Chris having a similar reaction to hearing a car backfire and a helicopter overhead, and wondered if anyone had been there to help him through it. He shook it away and got back to work – he had paying clients, too.
Peter set aside Gerard’s ledgers the Saturday of Derek’s college graduation. Laura had gotten the day off, as well, so the entire family was there. John and Melissa joined the family at the outdoor ceremony, and then back at Hale’s, which was closed for the private party that lasted well into the evening.
“Yours are next,” Peter said to John and Melissa when he saw Stiles and Scott at the bar sampling Ben’s non-alcoholic concoctions.
John groaned. “Don’t remind me.”
“I don’t think you need to worry about him going to far,” Peter said.
John turned around just as Stiles almost fell off the stool trying to pretend he hadn’t been staring at Derek. “I’m so not ready for that.”
“Thankfully Scott hasn’t discovered girls yet,” Melissa said. “At least, girls that’ll give him the time of day.”
“Give it time,” John said. “Speaking of time, how are things going with Chris?”
“Things are not going anywhere with Chris,” Peter said.
Melissa and John both made sounds of disbelief.
“Laura told me you had him come in to talk about PTSD,” Peter said, changing the subject from his love life, or lack thereof. “That was a good idea.”
Peter didn’t mention that after learning that Chris had PTSD, he’d done some research on it.
“I have them, sometimes,” John said.
Ironically, Gerard Argent died the day Peter found the key to connect him to murder. Peter had found other crimes (such as the scandal that forced the ‘law and order’ District Attorney out of office) that he could tie to Gerard, but this one was big. It had been niggling at the back of Peter’s mind because of the date (the day Chris’ mother disappeared), but it wasn’t until he connected the payment to a known (currently incarcerated) hitman that Peter realized what he was looking at.
Peter immediately called Chris. When he didn’t answer his cell phone, Peter drove out to the house. He found Chris sitting on the front porch with his head in his hands.
“What happened?” Peter said.
“Oh,” Peter said. He wasn’t sorry about that, good riddance to bad rubbish, but he didn’t want to pile more bad news on Chris.
Chris leaned back and studied Peter. “What did you drive out here for?”
“I found something,” Peter said. “But I don’t know if now’s a good time . . .”
“Just tell me,” Chris said.
“I think Gerard is responsible for your mother’s disappearance,” Peter said. “I think he had her killed.”
Chris’ expression didn’t change. He looked out over the front lawn. “I always wondered,” Chris said.
“One day she told us we were leaving, and the next she’d supposedly taken off on her own. It didn’t take a rocket scientist.”
“But how did he find out?” Peter said.
“Does it matter?” Chris said. He gave Peter a wry smile. “And you wondered why I had to get away from him.”
“I never wondered why you had to get away from Gerard,” Peter said, “I wondered why you had to get way from me!”
Chris stood, as if to emphasize his point. “I didn’t want to get away from you!”
“Then why didn’t you ask me to go with you?” Peter said, his voice getting louder.
“Because I knew you’d say yes!” Chris yelled.
Peter took a step back as if the words had been a physical blow. His chest ached and he couldn’t catch his breath. “Wha–?”
“I loved you, Peter,” Chris said, “and I couldn’t do that to you.”
“Do what to me? What could’ve been worse than leaving me?”
“It would’ve been alright at first,” Chris said, “but then you’d start hating it, being away from Beacon Hills, away from your family, and you’d start resenting me for making you leave.”
“That’s ridiculous,” Peter said. “But it’s a nice story to tell yourself.”
“You’re like pack animals,” Chris said. “None of you leave Beacon Hills, and those that do don’t stay away for very long.”
“You don’t know that,” Peter said. “You didn’t even give me a chance . . .”
“I gave you your family,” Chris said. His voice broke and he brought up a hand to cover his face.
“Chris?” Peter automatically reached out to him.
“My father’s dead, and all I feel is relief.”
Peter ran his hands over Chris’ upper arms to his shoulders and drew him into a hug. Chris wrapped his arms around Peter’s waist and clung to him.
“Do you think you’ll ever be able to forgive me?”
“I’ve been mad at you for a long time,” Peter said. “I want to. I don’t want to be mad anymore.”
Chris pressed a desperate kiss to Peter’s throat, his jaw, the corner of his mouth. Peter couldn’t stop himself – didn’t know if he really wanted to – from turning his head and letting Chris’ next kiss capture his lips.
There weren’t many people at Gerard Argent’s graveside service. Peter and Melissa stood on either side of Chris, with John on Melissa’s other side. A few yards away stood Kate, still shackled. She’d sneered at their group, then turned so she faced the casket and didn’t have to see them. Peter squeezed Chris’ hand and didn’t look over at Kate again.
There hadn’t been a viewing, and there wouldn’t be a formal gathering after the service. Kate would be returned to prison and Chris probably would’ve gone home to an empty house if Talia hadn’t suggested that they come to the restaurant for a meal after, very low key.
Everyone left, including Melissa and John, who went on ahead to Hale’s, until it was just Peter and Chris. Chris stared at the casket in silence as he’d done during the service. Finally he stepped forward and laid the rose he held onto the top of the casket.
“I hope you burn in hell, old man.”
Peter thought even that would be too good for Gerard. You chased him away, Peter thought, but he’s back now. I’ve got him back. And as a bonus he’s going to dismantle all of your illegal businesses. Suck on that.
At Hale’s Talia and Laura both hugged Chris, who looked uncomfortable. Probably more from the belief that he was accepting condolences under false pretenses than at the actual hugs. They joined John and Melissa at a table in the back corner where they’d have some privacy. The four of them shared a meal like they used to and reminisced.
Peter stopped drinking when he realized that Chris wasn’t going to. At the end of the evening Peter drove Chris home and helped him into the house and up to bed. Chris groped at Peter, his breath hot against Peter’s neck. Peter knew it was probably a bad idea, but he allowed Chris to pull him down onto the mattress.
Peter suggested the name of an attorney to help Chris settle the estate, and recommended a realtor when Chris mentioned selling the house.
“Are you leaving?” Peter said, refusing to let the question eat at him until he was crazy with it.
“I’m staying,” Chris said, “but I can’t live in that house.”
Peter tried to hide his relief, but was largely unsuccessful if the way Chris smiled and kissed him was any indication.
Peter gave Chris a card with a handwritten number on it. “I know a place that’s available right now,” he said. “It’s half of a duplex.” Peter indicated the card. “Denise is the property manager; call her to set up an appointment and she’ll show it to you.”
“Thanks,” Chris said. “How do you know about this place?”
“I know the owner,” Peter said. “He lives in the other side and he’s very fussy about who lives next to him.”
When Chris left, Peter made a phone call.
The apartment came furnished, so Chris put the few pieces of furniture he wanted to keep into storage and donated the rest to charity. Once the big items were taken care of, there wasn’t much for him to pack; just the clothes he’d brought with him on the back of his motorcycle and some photos he found of his mother.
The first night Chris stayed in the apartment Peter had to work late; a meeting with a client who couldn’t get there during his regular office hours. There were no lights on in the house when Peter got home and he didn’t bother to turn any on. Peter dropped his briefcase in the entryway and removed his suit jacket. He rolled up the cuffs of his dress shirt as he walked through the apartment to the back porch.
Despite the darkened house, his neighbor was still awake. A flare of red as he dragged on the cigarette held between his thumb and index finger alerted Peter to his presence on the shared back porch.
“You know the owner, huh?” Chris said.
Peter shrugged. “Bad day?” The scent of marijuana was heavy in the air.
“First night in a new place,” Chris said.
“Want some company?”
Chris’ answer was to carefully put out the joint and reach for Peter.
Since it was the weekend and he didn’t have any urgent reason to be in the office, Peter stayed in bed long after the sun rose. The fact that it was Chris’ bed had absolutely nothing to do with it. Peter brushed his fingers over Chris’ arm. Until he’d seen Chris without his shirt on Peter hadn’t realized the extent of the tattoo, which spread onto his chest, over his shoulder onto his back, and down his side.
The framework for the tattoo was a tree. A hummingbird, Chris’ mother’s favorite bird, was hidden in the leaves over Chris’ heart. Peter trailed his finger down Chris’ arm where the roots of the tree ran over his wrist and the back of his hand until the tattoo ended with one root twined around his ring finger. Peter knew that if you looked closely (because he had done so) you’d see their initials tattooed on the root ‘ring’.
On the trunk of the tree was the tattoo of a heart carved into the bark, with their initials inside it. If Peter hadn’t believed that Chris had missed him as much as he had missed Chris before seeing the tattoo, he couldn’t ignore the proof of it indelibly marked on Chris’ body. The first time Peter had seen the heart it had taken his breath away.
There were so many more tattoos hidden in the leaves and bark and roots of the tree. “Are they all personal?” Peter said, knowing that Chris had woken and was just lying there, letting Peter examine the tattoo.
“Yes,” Chris said.
“Will you tell me about them?”
“Yes. But not right now.”
Peter dropped the subject when Chris rolled on top of him and brought their mouths together. They had time.