Hold It Close     MacAteer Brothers Book 3 

Garrett woke up when the bed jolted from the weight that flopped down next to him. Even in his groggy state, he recognized Joy had finally come home. He picked up his phone and glanced at the time. 6:00 a.m. She’d been out all night. Again.

“Shuddup and leave me alone. Don’ say nuttin’ to me.” Her muffled words indicated she spent the night somewhere getting drunk. Again.

Garrett clicked on the light and looked at his fiancée. She had managed to strip off her clothes before landing on the bed. The stained tank top she wore did nothing to hide the love bites on her neck and breasts. Her dark hair sat on the pillow in a tangled mess and the remnants of her makeup was smeared across her face. She winced and rolled over, giving him a view of the bumps on her spine. She’d been with another man. Again.

“Turn tha’ fuckin’ lamp off.”

“Where’ve you been?”

“None of yer bizzness. Ah need to crash.”

“Joy, we’re supposed to be at my uncle’s place at ten.”

“Ah ain’ goin’ nowhere. Shud the fuck up.”

“It’s Christmas morning.”

He was met with rattling snores.

This hour of the morning was usual for him to be up and ready to start a workday; however, the previous night, he’d spent wondering and worrying about Joy’s whereabouts. Yesterday, on Christmas Eve, he ended up working a plumbing job across town. Joy got pissed he was leaving her for a few hours. He could have refused the job, but they needed the money too badly, and he could charge extra for both emergency and holiday pay. He got back to their house well before dinnertime and found it empty. Again.

Garrett sighed and got out of the bed. Joy had set the heat at a toasty eighty-five degrees, and he turned it back down to seventy, risking her wrath later that day. She liked the house to be hot so she could walk around in her underwear and not be cold. He didn’t have a problem with her exhibitionism. The issue was the sky-high electric bill it took to keep the house at her favorite temperature. They’d argued more than once about it. He’d asked her to put on a sweatshirt and pants instead of jacking up the thermostat. She ignored him and did what she wanted.

He walked into the kitchen, his phone still in his hand, and flipped on the coffee maker. Joy had bought top-of-the-line everything for their kitchen. He admitted he liked having the nice items, but he’d rather have them used than hanging around and taking up space. A layer of dust sat on a full set of Calphalon pots and pans that hung from the iron rack above the island. A Cuisinart stand mixer and rotisserie oven sat atop the polished granite counter. Garrett had never seen either get turned on. Other kitchen gadgets sat around the large cooking area that seldom saw any action. Joy used them as decoration, whereas he saw them as wasted money.

He sighed as the machine gurgled its goodness into a steel carafe. He’d nearly choked when he saw the bill for that one. Over a thousand dollars! This one at least got used on a daily basis, but he wasn’t convinced this machine made a better cup of coffee than a thirty dollar one from Walmart.

As he sipped the dark, bitter brew, his phone dinged an alert. He swiped it open to see a text from his bank to tell him his checking account was overdrawn. Again. Pain bloomed in his right temple, and his gut churned with dread.

He leaned on his elbows and opened the chain of texts from last night.

Garrett: On the way home. The leak wasn’t serious. Just a minor break in the icemaker hose to the refrigerator. All fixed in a half hour. Want me to pick up some food?

Garrett: Joy?

Joy: Sorry, baby. I’m still mad at you. I’m out with some friends. Be home later.

Garrett: I’m sorry you’re mad at me, but I had to take this job. Three hundred bucks for thirty minutes’ work is something I can’t turn down right now.

Joy: I guess so, but I’m still mad about it.

Garrett: Where are you?

Garrett: Joy?

Joy: Im out.

Garrett: Where? I’ll come join you.

Garrett: Joy, where are you?

Joy: Your so cute!!!

Joy: O love you so much, babey!!!

She sent a series of heart emojis and GIFs, one right after another. Her deteriorating grammar told him she was drinking heavily. She worked as a high school English teacher and did proofreading on the side. When she was drunk, all the rules flew out the window, and her words and sentences got creative.

Joy: Id like to eat you right up. You meen so much too me!

Garrett: I love you too, sweetheart. Where are you? I’ll come get you.

Joy: why did you leav me a lone? I in that house all buy myself.

Three sad faces appeared on the next line. Then three angry ones.

Joy: Your so mean to me. HOw could you leave m alon on chrismas EVE.?

Joy: You a pice of shit!

Joy: I hate you!

Garrett: Are you at Tommy’s bar? I’m on my way.

Joy: Fuck you!!!

Garrett hadn’t found her at her favorite watering hole. Tommy had handed him her car keys and told him she had been there.

“That girl has some serious volume after a few drinks.” The rotund man had pulled him a beer and wiped the already clean bar top. “I took her keys when she wasn’t looking and planned to call you when I got a chance, but I didn’t see her leave.” His eyes had dropped and his round face with them. “I didn’t see who she left with either.”

Garrett had taken a few sips from the frothy gift, but he had no desire for the stuff. “Thanks, Tommy. I appreciate you looking out for her.”

He’d palmed the set of keys with the flashing butterfly and pocketed them on his way out, pausing long enough on the sidewalk to send one more text.

Garrett: Joy, please tell me where you are. I’m worried.

Nothing until she came home this morning, reeking of alcohol, sweat, and another man.

Again.

Garrett’s face dropped to his palms, and he asked himself for the 433rd time: Why did he stay with this woman? Her constant seesawing between love and derision made his head spin. She promised not to drink anymore or at least not to get drunk, and that promise flew out the window when she set foot in her favorite bar. He wasn’t the type of man who expected his wife, or future wife as it were, to cook every night and keep the house clean every day, however, he’d yet to see her start the vacuum, mop the floor, or light a burner. He did his best around the house, but he had to take every stinking job that paid anything to keep up with expenses. That meant doing odd handyman jobs for people after his regular and overtime hours at the building site. When she did laundry, she only washed her own clothes and got mad when he asked her to put a few things of his in with hers. He put her name on his bank accounts, and she freely spent his money, but he had no idea what she did with her own.

He knew he’d been bleeding a lot of green but had not taken the time to stop the flow. The numbers on the screen stared at him until they blurred. An alert icon flashed overdrawn by nearly two thousand.

Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, where did my money go?

Yeah, he did know. The recent parade of Amazon boxes on his front step told him that Joy had spent a wad of money online. He looked at the top-of-the-line kitchen gadgets. And she did it right under his nose.

He opened another account to check his credit card spending. He had a business credit card to use for expenses only so he could keep track of expenditures for the accountant. He scrolled down to see the latest purchases this past week. In between buying lumber, saw blades, plumbing supplies, and the like, he saw other purchases that had nothing to do with his handyman trade. Three pairs of shoes at twelve hundred dollars each. A series of purchases at a bunch of different mall clothing stores. Names like Dior, Gucci, Chanel, Dolce and Gabbana leapt out along with prices that made his eyes grow wide. Christ, what made a handbag worth nearly four thousand? And did Joy really need a three-thousand-dollar dress to teach high school sophomores about the Oxford comma?

“Champagne taste on a beer budget” would be the phrase his sister-in-law used. Beverly had to be the most practical and steadfast woman he’d ever met. His older brother, Connor, met her when he moved to the mountains to set up a custom furniture business. They started as neighbors and became lovers. Connor spent most of his life caring for and keeping the MacAteer family construction business together until he burned out from it. Now he had four stepchildren, each with a unique personality, and a devoted wife and partner. Owen, Garrett’s fraternal twin, had moved to that city to help with Connor’s enormous workload and ended up with Melanie, the woman he’d been dreaming about ever since he met her. Garrett was happy for both of them and wished like hell he had that with Joy.

It was clear he did not.

One more item toward the bottom of the list of purchases caught his eye. A man’s pinky ring for fourteen thousand dollars. He closed his eyes, counted to ten, and opened them again. The number of zeroes didn’t change. A knife stab really didn’t describe the pain in his heart. More like two hands grasped the fragile organ and ripped it in half. The real shocker? He wasn’t surprised. Again.

Garrett had spent Thanksgiving with his brothers in Asheville just a few weeks ago. Joy refused to go, telling him firmly, “There’s no way I’m going to some bumfuck mountain town.” She went to the shore, and he traveled to his brother’s place. It felt good to be back in his family’s company, and the warm welcome made him long to be near them again.

He looked at his drained and over-extended accounts, the dusty kitchen, the furniture he still owed on, the house that held it all, and made a decision.

His thumb scrolled to the page where he could request a new card and cancel the old one. He typed in Connor’s address for the card to be sent and changed all of his passwords for banking, email, Facebook, and any other platform he could think of that Joy had access to.

She lay facedown on the bed, passed out cold. Garrett gathered all of his clothes and stuffed them into a laundry bag. She didn’t move when he cleared his toiletries from the bathroom, packed the few books he had on the shelf, and put his laptop in the shoulder satchel. The family picture was the last item he picked up to take with him. It sat next to a picture of him and Joy in happier times. Both of them were smiling at the camera in a candid shot. She stood behind him with her arms around his neck. At the time of the picture, he thought she loved him. He realized now she had him in a chokehold, not an embrace.

Most of his tools already sat in the back of his truck. He disassembled and fit in as many of the larger industrial ones as he could. The table saw, the band saw, an air compressor, a chest of hand tools, the wood lathe, all of them piled into the truck bed like a jigsaw puzzle. When he was done, the only bits left were two work benches, a broken hammer drill, and a few duplicate hand tools hanging from some cracked pegboard he’d been meaning to replace.

One last walk through the house to see if there was anything else important to him. Nothing. Not the luxury furniture, not the expensive unused appliances, not the decorations, not the Christmas tree nor the presents under it. He thought about jamming a couple of the kitchen gadgets in whatever space he had left in his truck, but he had no desire to keep anything. He looked at the pile of colorful wrapped gifts. There was no ring box with his name on it.

He opened his phone and fired off a text to Connor.

Garrett: Is it okay if I drive to Asheville and hang for a few days?

The three dots started bouncing.

Connor: Hey, Garrett! You’ve got Beverly. Connor is outside building an igloo with Jacob and Mattie. At least that’s what they said they’re doing.

She sent a picture of his brother and two boys rolling in some powdery snow, trying to shove handfuls down each other’s backs.

Connor/Bev: Surprise trip! Love to see you. When are you arriving? I’ll get the guest room ready.

Garrett: Leaving Jersey now. Drive will be about ten hours if I don’t stop.

Beverly: LOL, I’m sure you’ll have to stop at least once to pee and get food. Restaurants are going to be hard to find. Might have to settle for service station burritos. Yuck! We have plenty of turkey and other Christmas food. I promise not to let Mattie hoover up the whole pumpkin pie. He’s in another growth spurt and already ate all the Chex Mix I made yesterday. I’ll tell Connor to call you when he thaws. Unless this is an emergency. Do you need him now?

Garrett: No emergency. I’ll explain later.

Beverly: Okay, G-man. Owen and Melanie will be by later. We’ll all call you on speaker phone while you’re driving. Pass the time a bit. Please be safe and keep checking in on the way. Can you do that GPS share thing where you show us your location while you drive?

Garrett: I’ll figure it out.

Beverly: Cool. The boys will have fun watching your trip progress.

Garrett: Thanks, Bev.

Beverly: Anytime, Garrett. You never have to ask about visiting or staying here. This door is always open for family. Love you muchly and see you soon!

Garrett’s throat closed, and he had to swallow hard. Connor lucked out big-time when he found Beverly. No questions, judgements, or excuses. She welcomed him anytime into her house and heart. Whether by design or not, she didn’t ask about Joy.

Beverly: Merry Christmas! Look what Sarah showed me how to do!

A sparkling pine tree GIF appeared.

Beverly: See? I’m all technologically brilliant now.

Garrett smiled at his goofy sister-in-law as he closed the door to his house and got in his truck. He plugged his phone into the charger and sent the link to his Google maps trip. As he pulled out of the driveway, the first tears rolled down his cheeks. He let them fall unheeded in the cab of his truck where no one could see or hear him. Not many cars were in the neighborhood and even fewer on the highway as he pointed his vehicle south and west. Each mile that ticked off on the odometer lightened his heart.

ML Nystrom

Author  of MC and Contemporary Romance.

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