Prologue (Smith’s Corner)
Dread curled deep in my stomach as I knocked on the door to my father’s office and pushed it open. I’d expected the summons after seeing my picture on social media the day before. A picture of me with my current boyfriend, Gray, kissing. I’d been unaware anyone had been taking pictures at the high school graduation party two days before. The hope that my family wouldn’t see it had been shattered when I’d gotten the call from Rita, my father’s personal assistant. She’d given me the heads-up about how angry he was, which was why my dread right now was at epic proportions.
If I didn’t flaunt my gayness, then my parents pretended I was normal, whatever the fuck they thought that meant. The last four years, since I’d turned fourteen, had shown me that their reputations came before anything, including loving their child. My father had always been reserved and cold toward me. He’d been that way even before he’d discovered I was gay, but never once did I doubt that he loved me.
That was my first mistake. Love in this family came with strings attached and those strings could choke the life right out of me if I let them. The strength of character my father had instilled in me as a child had worked in my favor, and against him. I’d not bowed to his demands, and I had the feeling today was a day of reckoning between us. My mother had given me a look of pity when I’d come into the house. The same look she’d given me many times before when she’d done fuck-all to defend me after my father decided I’d done something to sully the Taylor name.
I inhaled and held the breath, hoping it would settle the nerves waiting to attack my self-control. I’d learned the hard way that showing any weakness in front of my father made things a hundred times worse. He attacked it and used it to his advantage.
He didn’t acknowledge me as I walked to the large mahogany desk he sat behind. His suit jacket hung on the back of his leather chair, and his cream button-down was wrinkle free. The perfectly tied silk tie he wore around his neck was a muted gray, to match the suit. Even in his home office, he refused to relax his rigid need for perfection. His dark hair was styled without a hair out of place. The years had been kind to him, and he didn’t look his fifty-four years. His skin was smooth and lightly tanned, making him look fifteen years younger.
The only obvious lines were those around his mouth, which was currently pinched in distaste. I swallowed a sigh when he didn’t so much as show a flicker of interest in me. What had I expected? A show of temper? No, that would never do. That would be seen as weakness.
Stopping in front of his desk, I eyed the seat in front of him. Since this was going to be a battle of wills, I pulled the chair out and sat. The leather creaked and was cool against the backs of my legs where my shorts ended. I’d not bothered to change into something more appropriate. What was the point when he was planning on handing me my ass?
The only thing that broke the silence was the tap of his fingers on the keys of the iMac computer in front of him. There were several neatly stacked files next to his right arm and, to his left, two pens sat next to each other in perfect alignment. There was nothing out of place. That was how my father liked his life—nothing out of place. Everything had to be perfect. Only I didn’t fit into that category no matter how hard he tried to squeeze me into it. Oh, I’d tried, but I failed by being who I was.
Time passed as I lounged in the seat like I didn’t have a care in the world. This was all part of how he broke people, using the silence to unsettle them to the point they had to speak. My hands curled into fists in my lap, out of his view, while I bit my tongue to hold back any words.
My gaze swept around the room looking for something, anything, to distract me. All I found were generations of Taylor’s all staring at me; their condescending glares didn’t help my nerves at all. Those staring down at me added to the ambience of the place. It was a room meant to intimidate.
The office smelled of leather, cigars, old money, and prejudice. The walls were dark wood and covered with the aforementioned portraits of generations of daunting Taylors. They were all Southern gentlemen with balls of steel that they’d used to knock any poor, unsuspecting fool out of their way. They’d all made their marks by helping forge a company that made billions. How was anyone supposed to live up to that kind of legacy?
There wasn’t an answer to the question I’d been asking myself since I’d learned and understood what responsibility was, and what it meant to my family. The pressure of expectation had been piled on me from the minute I was born. The large colonial house that was my family’s home had been part of the Taylor legacy for generations and was where my father preferred to do business. The place had never been a home. It had taken me until fourth grade to figure that out, when I’d invited a friend over. I hadn’t made that mistake again. Even now, all these years later, there was a distinct lack of sound coming through the office door that I’d purposefully left open. The silence demonstrated how everyone in the house had been trained to move through the space. There wasn’t so much a whisper of noise; no voices, no laughter, nothing except silence. Had there ever been laughter in this house? Or were we all trained so nothing interfered with Michael Taylor’s world?
This time, the sigh escaped before I could curb it. If the man in front of me heard it, he didn’t show any sign he’d done so. His hands continued to fly over the keys, his gaze fixed on the screen in front of him.
Had the family legacy done this to him? The oldest son in each generation was lucky—or unfortunate—to inherit the humongous responsibility of running the company and maintaining the family’s good name.
I swallowed the inappropriate chuckle that climbed my throat at the idea of my father leaving everything to me. Thankfully, hell would freeze over before he would besmirch the Taylor name and reputation in such a fashion. But unfortunately for him, he’d only managed to sire one child, and a gay one at that. I was his dirty little secret, one he did his best to pretend didn’t exist. On the whole, I hadn’t hidden the fact I was gay, but I’d been discreet to avoid any fallout. Fallout that got me here, waiting to be reprimanded, to be subjugated for being myself.
The longer I sat, the more the temperature in the room dropped, to the point I wanted to shiver. It had nothing to do with the weather outside, which was bright, warm, and sunny. Seconds passed, then the arctic chill hit full blast when my father lifted his ice-cold stare from the computer to me. I resisted the urge to rub at my bare arms. I wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of seeing the effect he was having on me.
His upper lip curled up in disgust. He reached for a file, opened it, and placed a photo between us. “What is this, Hunter?”
His teeth barely parted as he spoke, and his frosty tone chilled me right to the bone. I didn’t bother to look at the picture. I met his hard stare and shrugged causally.
“A picture?” I said without emotion.
The flush of red that started to move up his neck and into his face held my attention. Nothing upset my father’s world. He controlled everything with an iron fist. That included his family, and he ensured we all knew it. Right now, I was upsetting the normal balance, and I braced for what was coming.
He sat forward in a measured way I was used to. He reached over and picked up the picture, his eyes glittering with rage. He held the picture so it was eye level with my face. The passionate moment captured between me and Gray revealed the affection I had for him. There was no hiding it. The photo of the kiss was everything I remembered it being, and I felt a moment of regret that it was now going to be used against me.
When his hand moved, my father couldn’t hide the hate in his eyes. The cruel expression left me nauseous, though I met the rage with as much indifference as I could muster. It was all I had left after being treated like nothing because of who I loved.
“This behavior is unacceptable. You were warned about displaying your unnatural tendencies,” he spat at me.
I held up my hand and sneered. “Unnatural tendencies. I’m fuckin’ gay. There isn’t a damn thing wrong with that. Get a grip, old man, because I’m not changing, no matter how much you will it.” I knew my derogatory tone would come back to bite me, but I really didn’t care about that right now. I was angry and hurt, and I wasn’t ready to listen to reason. It didn’t matter what I did or said because it wasn’t going to change how he felt.
His face darkened to the point that he was almost the color of an eggplant. He shot out of his chair, towering over his desk, and shocking me into stillness.
The picture of me and my boyfriend slammed down on the wood as he shook with unrestrained anger. “This family is well respected, and you will not tarnish our reputation by acting out…” His hand waved in the air as if trying to pluck out the words he was looking for.
He was tall and intimidating, but I was no longer the small boy who cowered when he shouted. I masked the pain he was causing me—that was for later. Matching him for height, I lazily got up out of my chair to meet his stare head-on.
“Acting out? We were kissing. You know, that intimate act between couples? He’s my boyfriend, I have feelings for him. I’m not acting out. I’m not doing this to hurt you or your precious reputation. I’m just like every other person, and I’ve the right to have a relationship with someone that might turn into something special and long-term. Me being gay doesn’t make what I want any different from you. Being gay isn’t a disease or something that requires treatment or changing. I like who I am, regardless of your attempts to make me feel otherwise.” It was the first time I’d spoken my truth, been honest about how I felt, and it was met with shock.
His mouth opened but no words came out. For the first time ever, I witnessed his agitation. He tugged on the collar of his button-down as if his tie was choking him.
His lack of voice helped me to continue, allowing me to let out all the hurt he’d inflicted with his behavior. “For years, you’ve acted like there is something wrong with me. It stops now. There is nothing wrong with me. I don’t need fixing or changing. This controlling everything to suit you, it stops now. I’m done. I’m going to college at the end of the week, so you’ll be rid of me and my gayness. Folks in town will find something else to gossip about and forget I kissed a boy.”
“No one forgets this kind of deviant behavior,” he shouted, loud enough to rattle the windows behind him.
I shook my head and eyed the man with regret. Regret that he was never going to accept me, or even understand who I was. I’d known deep down that we’d been headed for this moment for years, after I’d come to terms with who I was in my early teens. The hope of acceptance I’d worked hard to maintain while trying to be everything he wanted in a son had waned. The reality was, the one thing he wanted to change, couldn’t be changed. I was gay. It was a fundamental part of who I was, and I wasn’t going to pretend to be different. Not even to earn the love of my father. Because that wasn’t love.
Exhaling a shaky breath, I faced off with him. “Whether they do or don’t, I’m what should be important to you, not your reputation.”
“Reputation is everything,” he blustered furiously.
“I’ll be gone for a few years,” I continued, ignoring the stab of familiar hurt. “I’m not sure if I’ll return to Everdale, but you can rest assured I’ll make sure to disassociate myself from you so your reputation isn’t tarnished. It’s clearly more precious to you than your own son.”
I swung around and walked to the door on unsteady legs. The power of the decision pressed against me, and my shoulders slumped before I reached the door.
“I expect to keep your word and refrain from tarnishing the family’s reputation,” he called out.
The air left my lungs, and I jerked from the pain. Somehow, I managed to nod before exiting the room. At the end of the hallway, I took the stairs two at a time, biting the inside of my cheek to hold in my tears and the hurt.
In my bedroom, I leaned against the wall, unsure my legs would hold me any longer. I slid down the wall and stared unseeingly around me. The space, which had been my haven, now felt like a pretty cage that trapped my spirit. A spirit that wanted a life full of love, laughter, and fun. Something I’d been denied in this house.
I shut my watering eyes. The first tear rolled down my cheek, and I swiped at it. It was pointless to try to stem the flow when more tears followed, against my will. Sobs tore at my throat, one after another, until I was hollowed out.
When I regained some composure, I got up slowly, rubbing at my damp cheeks while walking to the closet. I pulled out my suitcases with one thought on my mind: escape. I threw my clothes haphazardly into the cases while calculating what money I had in my bank account. I had enough to get me through for several months. After that, I’d figure something out.
Bags packed, I eyed the room once more, checking that I had everything I valued. There were no family mementos, no treasured items, nothing. I released a shuddery breath as another tear slid down my cheek. I’d find my people. I’d make a family with someone who wanted and accepted me for who I was.
And damn anyone who couldn’t see I was worthy of love.