“Alex Stone sounds like the name of some guy from a romance novel,” Matt McGee said, punching Alex in the shoulder and handing him a beer. “Did you ever realize that?”
When Alex had moved to Pennsylvania, he soon realized watching the Steelers every Sunday was a requirement, whether he liked it or not. He and Jason and their friend Matt had laid out a spread of subs, chips, and sodas, kicked off their shoes and flopped onto couches and chairs, ready for a Saturday football binge.
“How would you know about the names of characters in romance novels?” Jason asked with a smirk.
“Hey, I had sisters growing up,” Matt answered. “They all liked those romance garbage novels. You know, the romances with the cookie-cutter plots.”
“Yeah, just like the movies that are based on them,” Alex offered, cracking open the beer. He took a sip. “Girl with big career comes back to her small hometown for a visit, down on her luck.”
“Girl runs into an old boyfriend,” Jason said.
“Old boyfriend brings back hard memories, but then old boyfriend tries to apologize for all he’s done,” Alex finished with a mock crying face.
“Girl falls for old boyfriend again,” Alex said.
Alex grabbed a handful of peanuts from the bowl and shoved them in his mouth. “Old boyfriend screws up again and girl goes back to big city,” he said around a mouthful of peanuts.
Jason rolled his eyes. “But old boyfriend realizes he’s a screwup and that he really loves her and follows her to the city.”
“He tells her he’s always loved her,” Alex continued. “a d she tells him she’s always loved him. And everyone lives happily ever after.”
He choked out a gagging noise. The three men looked at each other, wiping pretend tears from their cheeks.
“Exactly,” Matt said. “Cookie-cutter plots full of clichés. And you, Alex, are one of those clichés. Alex Stone. The handsome cowboy, ex-boyfriend with the six-pack who comes to steal the girl away from the boring, uptight rich guy in the city.”
Alex lifted his shirt and looked at his flat, but slightly paunchy stomach. He pushed at the soft flesh and sighed. “I’d love to have a six-pack, but I think I would need to work out a little more.”
“Or just work a little more period,” Jason said opening a bag of chips and reaching for the remote.
“Oh, geez, thanks, bud,” Alex said, elbowing Jason in the ribs.
Jason and Alex had been roommates in college and were roommates again, now living in an old farmhouse two miles from the Tanner farm. Jason invited Alex home several times during their four-year stint at Penn State University and when they had graduated Alex followed Jason home and had worked on the Tanner farm since.
Matt, Jason’s friend since elementary school, had fit in nicely with the pair since all three were interested in football, farming, beer, and women, not necessarily in that order.
“What do you think we’d be doing if we’d actually used our degrees?” Alex asked, leaning back on the couch.
“Hey, I am using mine, remember?” Jason said. “Agriculture science and economics. It’s what I do every day. You’re the one who didn’t use your degree in – what was it again? Computer games or something?”
Alex tossed a pillow at Jason’s head. Jason blocked it and laughed.
“Computer programming and graphic art.,” Alex said.
Matt shrugged. “You two should have been like me and gone straight into the Army after school and then right into a career. Then you wouldn’t have all those college bills to pay off.”
“Alex is lucky,” Jason said with a wink. “His parents paid for his college, so he can live high on the hog.”
Alex shook his head. Jason liked to affectionately rib him about his rich upbringing, but Jason had no idea how poor Alex’s family had really been over the years. Poor in relationships, in love, caring – in all the things that really mattered in life. Alex didn’t like to talk about it and had rarely mentioned his pain-filled past. Jason knew a little about how hard it had been, even if he didn’t know the full story.
They were both in their sophomore year when Alex had taken Jason home to upstate New York with him on spring break, knowing his parents would be traveling to Italy or London or Paris like they did every spring. Only this year his parents weren’t traveling.
Alex tossed his bag on the floor inside the door, starring with a furrowed brow at his mom standing by the fireplace in the front room. “Mom. Hey. What are you doing here?”
His mom, dressed in dress pants and a white blouse, turned, mascara smeared under her eyes, her face wet with tears. She was pale, her face gaunt, her slim fingers trembling as she clutched her hands together.
“I thought you’d be in Italy or something,” Alex said.
“There won’t be any more trips to Europe for your father and me.” His mother’s voice was cold. “Not together anyhow. He’s left me Alex. He’s left us. He ran off with his secretary – finally – after cheating on me with her for the last three years. He finally did it.”
Alex’s cheeks flushed warm with embarrassment at his family’s skeletons being yanked from their closets in front of Jason, the kid with the fairytale home life. He’d already told Jason about his own shady past, how he’d become involved in drugs and petty crimes in high school, trying anything he could to gain attention from his parents – even negative attention. The drug use had been brief and mild compared to what it could have been but their use, coupled with the pranks and shoplifting had almost kept him from graduating high school. Luckily Alex’s grandfather had stepped in and set Alex straight before he ruined his entire life.
Alex glanced at Jason, saw him nervously scratch the back of his head, trying not to make eye contact with Alex or his mom.
“So, um, maybe this is a bad weekend for me to hang out,” Jason whispered to him.
“No. It’s fine,” Alex’s mom said quickly, overhearing him. “You boys can have the house for the weekend. The pool company came this morning to clean that out, there is plenty of food in the fridge and the hot tub is ready to go too.”
She wiped the tears from her face and tried to smile.
“Invite some more friends over, hon’,” she told Alex. “My credit card is in the top desk drawer in your dad’s office. You might as well use it while we can – before he runs it up on the tramp. Buy some more food, rent a DJ, whatever you want to do. I’m going to go to Leslie’s for the weekend. I need some shopping therapy. You’ll have the run of the house.”
She kissed his cheek, smiled weakly at Jason and walked past them toward the winding staircase in the middle of the house.
Alex didn’t throw the party, instead choosing a quite weekend with Jason, watching movies and shooting hoops in the driveway.
Alex’s parents’ divorce was final a few months later. His mother was given the house in the settlement and Alex saw his dad only at Christmas for the next two years.
Alex thought often how he’d trade all the money his parents had thrown at him and his brother Sam over the years for a stable family life, loving parents, and a father he could actually look up to. He’d found more parental support in Jason’s parents than he ever had in his own.
His mom fell apart for two years after the divorce, shopping and drinking in excess to drown her sorrows, living off the alimony until she met David Stanton, the heir to an oil family’s fortune. David wooed her with exotic trips and sparkling jewelry, eventually marrying her in a quiet ceremony on the beach with Alex and Sam standing next to his mom, doing their best to support her.
“Hey, you okay?” Jason asked, pulling Alex out of his memories.
“Yeah. All good.”
Jason looked concerned. “You sure? You need to talk about anything?”
Alex grinned. “You mean do I want to share my feelings over a cup of tea and some crumpets?” he asked. He punched Jason in the arm. “Holy crud, dude. I think that church stuff is rubbing off on you and making you all girly. No. I do not need to talk about anything.”
Jason laughed and shook his head. “Hey, that ‘church stuff’ as you call it, makes me care about people. There’s nothing wrong with that, is there?”
Alex sipped his beer and looked at the TV.
“Nope,” he said. “Nothing wrong with it – unless you start asking me to paint your toenails while you tell me how much you loved Steel Magnolias.”
Jason punched him the arm. “Shut up, dude and turn on the game. Plus, I liked Beaches better.”
Alex clicked on the game and laughed.
Since moving in with Jason, Alex had started to feel like he was part of a family, something he’d never really felt before. Jason’s father was more of a father to him than his own had ever been. Jason’s mother, Annie, treated him like one of her own children, even scolding him when she didn’t think he’d drank enough water on a hot day or bringing him chicken soup if he came down with a cold.
Over the years Alex’s feelings about Jason’s sister, Molly, had evolved to the point he knew he was attracted to her but was determined to deny it. For the most part, Alex saw Molly as another member of the family, but after she dropped out of classes at the small community college an hour away to take care of her grandfather, he’d begun to see her more often and in a new light.
He tried to remember Molly was Jason’s younger sister, but as each day passed and they worked closely during milking and cleaning stalls, he found his feelings toward her becoming more confusing. He enjoyed their early morning talks and their late evening joke sessions.
While he’d once overlooked her as simply being a child, a year ago he had caught himself watching her in the field, noticing the curves of her full figure, the way her reddish-brown curls fell down her back and how she flipped those curls over her shoulder when she laughed. She’d developed from a timid young girl into a beautiful woman in front of him in what felt like overnight and he was having a hard time not being overwhelmed by a new awareness of the changes in her.
More than once Alex had mentally scolded himself for being distracted by Molly’s smile, the smell of her shampoo or the feel of her hand grazing his when she passed him the milking hose.
Not only was Alex afraid of what Jason might think of him for having feelings for his sister but he was worried that the man who had become a father figure to him would also disapprove. Even more than how her family would react, Alex wondered how Molly would respond to his budding feelings if he ever gathered enough courage to tell her.
For now, he planned to keep his feelings to himself and hoped he would recognize the right time to tell her how he felt – if that time ever came.