Nine Months Later
“I don’t get why I have to know all this shit,” Carter complained as he walked into the family room at Opie and Tasha’s house where Mack was helping Danita and Denny with schoolwork. Paul was coloring away at the coffee table as if he was doing his own homework, and there was a pizza in the freezer they planned to heat up when they got hungry.
“One, we have little ears, Mr. Riggs, so clean up the language, and two, because that’s what they require for you to get your certification. If you don’t want to work at that place, then chuck the study guide and help Danita with figuring out her grammar lesson,” Mack ordered.
Just then, the doorbell rang, so Carter wound his way through the maze of boxes to the front door. Seamus heard him greet someone and close the door. “Pardon the mess, but we’re all moving next Wednesday. We sent Opie and Tash out on a date night before the final chaos begins. The kids are doing homework. Please, come on in,” Carter invited.
When Mack looked up, he saw Stefani Jennings with her infectious smile. Danita hopped up from the couch and walked over to the woman, hugging her. Denny stood and gave Stefani a half-hearted hug before he folded his taller body into the floor again and went back to his algebra. It had been a long road, but it had been more rewarding to Mack than anything he’d ever anticipated in his life.
The whole family was moving back to St. Louis to be closer to the McCord side of the clan. Mack was taking over as the pastor of the Unitarian Church of Webster Groves and was going to work on his master’s degree in Theology so he could teach at a nearby private college.
It wasn’t a Catholic university, but it offered Theology as a major, and it was one thing Mack’s Jesuit training had taught him. Questioning religious dogma was healthy. It was also something he’d learned in his sessions with Creigh Alonzo where he’d been working for the past nine months as an assistant pastor. He felt more blessed than Mack ever imagined being when he’d left the priesthood, and there wasn’t a moment… one solitary moment… when he’d felt regret for his decisions.
Carter’s meltdown the previous September had still been on Mack’s mind from time to time, but the two men had never discussed what had set Carter off that morning. As far as Mack knew, Opie hadn’t shared the details with Tasha either, but it had seemed to clear the air between the Riggs brothers regarding some residual guilt and hurt they’d had between them. Something had clicked that morning, and things fell into place, healing whatever animosity they’d held for each other.
Opie had insisted he’d take Carter to the hospital to get his hand x-rayed after he’d been cleaned up and bandaged. It had been a miracle Carter had only one fractured bone along with a torn tendon in his right hand. It healed, and he’d gone to physical therapy, which Opie had insisted on paying for, and the two brothers had become even closer.
The front door opened again, and Opie and Tash came inside with a large box and a paper bag which they all recognized. “Hey, we brought food home instead of eating there. We’d rather be here with you guys and girls than eating at that old place. Carter, the laundromat is for sale,” Opie announced as he hugged each of his children, kissing Danita on her forehead.
“Any ideas for your party yet?” he whispered to her. It had been remarkable to watch the man tangle with his fear and apprehension about the road ahead raising a transgendered daughter, but Mack would give Opie credit for seeking family counseling for everyone, save little Paul. Fighting their fears and concerns together made them a stronger unit, as anyone could tell.
The adoption would be in July, and they were all excited about it. Opie and Tash wanted the kids to plan the party for after their official court date, and Danita, being a take-charge kind of girl, insisted she was going to plan it… with help from Erin and Shannon McCord. They’d all bonded faster than Mack had thought they would, but it was a blessing.
“Not yet, but I thought… come here, please,” she whispered to Opie, who she took by the hand and led down the hallway to speak in private.
Mack noticed Tasha’s smile. “Come into the kitchen, and let’s have pizza and cheesy breadsticks with sauce from Goodies. Dad insisted on getting two of the extra-large pies, so everyone gets their fill. Stef, I know you like their pizza. Glass of wine?” she invited as the two women went to the kitchen, leaving Denny, Paul, Mack, and Carter in the family room.
“I talked to Ronnie Shields from the gym today. He said all I have to do is let him know when I want to take the test, and he’ll set it up at the community college. What if I suck and mess it up,” Carter asked as he flopped onto the large couch next to Mack and wrapped his arm around his lover’s hips, pinching his ass in the process.
Mack jumped and laughed, seeing Denny roll his eyes. “I’m going for pizza. Come on, little brother. You shouldn’t be present for this either,” Denny complained as he picked up Paul and carried him into the kitchen.
Carter pulled Mack onto his lap and kissed him gently. He took the man’s hand and began playing with his fingers. “You are good at sucking, my love, but you’ll do fine on your test. You know all of it, Carter. Trust yourself,” Mack chastised again.
The man was one of the cockiest people the former priest had ever met, but when it came to certain things, he allowed his feelings of inadequacy over his past to take over and cause him to doubt himself. It had been a considerable hurdle for Carter, one they were still fighting, to get over.
Carter’s self-confidence wasn’t the only thing about which they disagreed. Mack wanted to move on to that, but Carter was holding out on him. They’d done a lot of other things, so why Carter refused to have intercourse was a mystery.
He’d say, “I want you to be sure, Seamus. Making love doesn’t have to include penetration, and we make love nearly every night. Isn’t that enough?” It was true. Since Denny and Danita had moved into Opie and Tasha’s house just before Christmas, Carter and Mack had gone at each other every night, enjoying the pleasure they each gave and received. Carter, however, had drawn the line at intercourse… either way. When Mack would bring it up, Carter would change the subject.
Mack wondered if something had happened in prison that Carter refused to discuss to have him closed off to taking the final step. Those four-and-a-half-years of Carter’s life were off limits, and if Mack brought it up to try to get him to talk about it, he could see Carter’s beautiful blue-green eyes shutter closed right before him.
Mack had discussed it with Manny once and had been told maybe Carter needed more time to process what had happened while he was incarcerated and what had happened since he’d regained his freedom.
It wasn’t easy not to push Carter to discuss things with him, but Mack took the advice to heart. What they had was too great to lose over privacy… or sex. Besides, it wasn’t like Mack wasn’t satisfied. He was delighted with their sex life.
“Yeah, I guess you’re right. Anyway, I got a call from Carol Norville today. She asked me if I’d write her a letter of recommendation. She’s moving to Jeff City, and she’s applied for a job as a parole counselor at Algoa. I had one before I got out of Farmington, and really, if you get a good one it can mean all the difference in reacclimating to the real world.
“They make sure you understand the rules of your parole, so you don’t fuck it up. They also make sure you have a plan for your life on the outside. You have to see them for a few months before you get out, and they make recommendations to your parole officer regarding jobs and placements. I told her I’d be happy to help her. Hell, she’s the one who got me back in the gym in the first place after I finished my community service. She’s good at her job, and I’m sure those guys up there will benefit from having her there to help them out,” Carter explained.
Carol Norville had been a tremendous mentor to Carter after he finished his two-hundred-hours of community service at the church. The place looked amazing, and the dedication of the building had actually been another turning point for Carter, as Mack remembered it.
“Welcome to all of you. I want to thank everyone for all of the sweat equity you’ve put into making this house of worship a place we can be proud to attend. I’d specifically like to thank Carter Riggs for the beautiful gardens he planted with the help from Dennis and Danita Nash. They did a tremendous job, and I don’t think any of us can walk through those gardens and not see God’s love blooming around us. Let’s give Carter a hand of appreciation,” Creighton had announced. It was the first time Mack had seen Carter blush, and it had been beautiful.
After that ceremony, which Carol had attended, she’d sat down with Carter and Mack and had asked Carter what he wanted to do for a career. He’d told her he didn’t want to be a landscaper, as he’d touched his back and chuckled.
“I miss training people. I mean, being a personal trainer. I loved it when someone came into the gym and had wanted to make a change in their lives. Some wanted to lose weight, and I got that, but there was this older man who came in once, and when I asked him what his fitness goals were, he told me he wanted to be able to keep up with his new grandson when the boy got older. I’d thought it was a great reason, and I’d helped him build his stamina and reclaim some muscle tone. He was one of my clients before I went to prison. Mr. Dailey. He was a great guy,” Carter had explained as he’d held tightly to Mack’s hand.
Carter’s eyes had lit up at the memory, and Carol Norville had noticed. She’d helped Carter find a job working part-time at a fitness center in nearby Kennett. It eventually went full-time, and when they decided to move back to St. Louis so the kids could go to a new school and get a fresh start, Carol had been the one to help him find a place in St. Louis County that would hire him, in spite of his felony conviction. It hadn’t been easy, but she’d been an enormous influence and cheerleader in their lives, and Mack would be grateful to her for the rest of his days.
“That’s great. Isn’t Carol’s son and his family up that way? He’s a doctor, right?” Mack asked as he touched the still pink scars on Carter’s knuckles from his fight with the elm in the woods. After they got back from the hospital, Mack had snuck out to the woods to look at the tree, seeing it had taken a pretty good beating as well.
That year for Christmas, Tasha had given Carter a bonsai tree and had told him it was probably one he could take in a fight, unlike the elm tree. They’d all laughed about it, but Mack had known no one in the family would ever forget that morning the previous September. The camping trip that same weekend had been an eye-opener as well.
The sound of a large truck pulling up the gravel driveway of the cabin they’d rented had caught Mack’s attention. He’d stepped onto the porch to see his father and brothers bail out of the vehicle, so he’d walked to the truck to help them get their gear and the groceries they’d stopped to pick up on the way after the e-mail exchange about the McCord’s running late because of Paddy’s hangover.
They’d discussed what everyone might want to eat, and since the cabins were kitted out with dishes, cookware, linens, and a small fishing boat, all they had to bring was their food and drinks.
Everyone had been looking forward to the trip, but Mack’s time was up regarding his orientation secret. He’d been worried the most about his mother’s reaction, but she’d been incredibly supportive after Mack had told his family he wanted to leave the priesthood. His mother, the wise woman he’d always underestimated, had discerned he and Carter were a couple, and she’d said she’d remain open-minded. To that day, she’d live up to her word.
However, the odds had seemed to signal he’d have trouble with his father instead, or maybe his brothers when he finally told them he was gay. He’d been determined he was going to follow through with it because he hadn’t wanted to continue living a lie. It had needed to be done, and that weekend had been the perfect time to do it.
Mack had walked down off the porch and had headed toward the Suburban where his father and brothers had been exiting. “Let me look at ya,” his father had greeted cheerily.
Mack had hugged him and then had gone on to embrace his brothers. There had been a commotion on the front porch, so he’d turned to see it had been Opie and Denny hurrying to help with his family’s things.
Carter had ambled out behind them in flip flops, his feet bandaged, as well as his left hand. His right hand was in a brace, and when Sean, Mark, and Paddy had seen it, they’d glanced at Mack for an explanation.
“He worked out with a particularly abrasive sparring partner. He’ll be fine. Anyway, let’s get your stuff inside,” he’d explained as he’d started handing Denny some duffel bags. Mack had glanced over to see his father and brothers had been looking between him and Denny.
“I’m sorry. How rude. Denny Nash, this is my father, Sean McCord, and my brothers, Mark and Patrick, but we call him Paddy. Guys, this is uh…” Mack had stopped short, unsure of how to introduce Denny to his family.
“That’s my foster son, Denny. Say hi to Mr. McCord and Mack’s brothers, Denny,” Opie had stepped in with a bright smile as he’d put a possessive hand on Denny’s shoulder and had offered a nod in greeting. It had made Mack’s heart feel ten times lighter.
After everyone had been settled into their rooms, they’d all decided to have some sandwiches and then head out on the boat to fish as the sun was going down that evening. Mack had chosen to broach the subject of his orientation with his father first, so they’d volunteered to go get some beer and bait from the stand at the end of the road.
Once they’d settled into Sean’s Suburban, his father had turned to him and grinned. “So, Denny seems like a nice boy. What’s he, sixteen?”
“Uh, he will be soon. He has a sister, Danita. She’s with Tasha and Mom this weekend. I hope it goes well.” Mack had mumbled the last part under his breath. One shocking revelation a weekend seemed like more than enough.
“So, you’ve finished your obligation, I assume, I mean to Sacred Heart. Your mother told me you finished up yesterday with taking apart the church. When are they going to start tearing down the building? You should salvage some of those bricks and store them somewhere. They’d make a nice walkway to a house you might want to buy someday. If I’d have thought, I could have had Mark drive his truck down separately, and we could have taken them back to St. Louis and stored them in the garage behind the house. So, have you thought about what you’re going to do when Carter finishes his parole and wants to move?” his father had asked.
It had been the perfect opening, so Seamus had taken a calming breath, but before he’d been able to say anything, his father had turned to him and chuckled. “You’re awfully nervous, son. I’d have thought being away from that cranky priest would have made you lighten up a little,” Sean had teased.
He’d pulled the truck into the parking lot of the grocery and bait store, not a place Seamus would have chosen to buy groceries. Fortunately, there had been a massive beer cooler along the back wall, and when Mack had reached inside to grab two cases, he’d noticed they’d been nice and cold.
After they’d returned to the SUV with four cases of beer, two Styrofoam coolers, four bags of ice, and a bucket filled with worms. Sean had started the vehicle and had turned it to leave the parking lot before he’d turned to his son. “Mack, I drove all this way and had to listen to your brother’s fighting about Mark’s bachelor party the whole time. I had to stop twice for Paddy to puke because the idiot went out last night and got drunk. You’re performing the wedding ceremony for your brother, right?”
Mack had forgotten all about the wedding. “Dad, I can’t. I can’t participate in the Sacramental Rites any longer,” he’d reminded.
“Oh, didn’t Mark tell you? Callie doesn’t want to be married in the Catholic church. She wants to get married in her parents’ backyard with just friends and family. Her first husband wasn’t Catholic, and they weren’t married in the church. The girls haven’t been baptized in the church, and it seems they attend one of those new-fangled hippy churches. Unity something.
“Anyway, Paddy wanted to have the bachelor party in Vegas, but Callie put down her foot. She suggested they go out to that big casino in Wentzville. I’m all for that because there’s no way in hell your mother would allow me to be running off to Las…”
“Dad, I’m gay,” Seamus had announced louder than his father’s rant.
Sean had slowed the SUV and had pulled into the parking lot of an abandoned strip mall, shifting into park and turning off the engine. He’d stared out the front window long enough Seamus had worried his father had been trying to find the words to disown him. Finally, Sean had sniffed and had cleared his throat before he’d begun to talk.
“I had a friend back in high school. His name was Barry Fitz, and we played soccer together. He was the striker, and I was the goalie, but I wasn’t very good at it. Barry used to invite me over to practice in his backyard and his older brother, Michael, would coach us and offer tips. He was in high school, and I thought he was a soccer god.
“One day I came home from school, and my mother told me I wasn’t allowed to go Barry’s house anymore because Michael Fitz had been arrested for lewd and lascivious conduct. You see, he’d been picked up at the rest area out off I-55 for soliciting an undercover policeman. It was a considerable scandal at Holy Infant where we went to church,” Sean had explained.
Mack hadn’t been exactly sure where his father was going with the story, but he’d been determined to listen because it wasn’t anything his father had ever told him before. “The Fitz family moved away as soon as school was out, but Barry told me his brother was gay and the guy he was dating started the rumor because they got caught kissing in the dugout of the baseball field. I cried because I couldn’t imagine anyone being so mean to Michael Fitz. He was one of the greatest guys I’d ever met, and when I called to tell him thanks for all his help, his mother wouldn’t let me speak with him. I hated that people treated him so horribly because, to me, he was just my best friend’s brother.
“Some people are hard on those they see as a threat, Seamus. Are you sure, son? I don’t want you going through the heartache you’ll have when people treat you poorly only to decide maybe you’ve made a mistake. I thought you could be a priest and be gay as long as you remained celibate,” Sean had told him.
Seamus had been able to see the compassion held in his father’s eyes for his friend’s brother, but the former priest had learned firsthand that lying about his sexuality had been far worse than suffering the judgment of bigots. He’d known all along there would be people who would be unkind, but as long as he had Carter Lee Riggs, Mack would learn how to pity them for their judgment, not fear them. Besides, he knew for a fact that Carter could beat the trash out of anyone who tried to start trouble.
Seamus had taken his father’s hand from the steering wheel and had held it between both of his, looking into his father’s eyes. “You’re right, Dad. I probably could have stayed in the priesthood and remained celibate, but I’d already made up my mind I was going to leave before I met Carter. Now that I’ve fallen in love with him, I can’t begin to imagine being celibate. Sorry if that’s weird,” Seamus had tried to explain.
Sean had squeezed his hand in return, offering a kind smile. “That’s what your mother meant when she said I’d be fine when you were ready. I think it’s a hard road, Mack, but I work with some guys who are gay, so I know it’s not a choice. I’ll support you in anything, son. I’ll admit, I think Carter’s a great-looking guy, and he seems very protective of you now that I think about it. What the hell happened to him that he’s all roughed up?”
Mack had laughed. “He and Opie got into an argument this morning. Carter got pissed and went into the woods to take out his aggression on an elm tree. He tore the damn thing up, I’ll tell you.”
When they’d returned to the cabins, Sean had seen fit to announce Mack’s sexuality to Mark and Paddy. Both men had laughed before beginning to offer all the red flags their father should have seen regarding Mack’s sexuality when they had all been growing up. “It all started with posters of the cast of ‘90210’, ‘Saved by the Bell’, and Jonathan Taylor Thomas from ‘Home Improvement’. God, he locked the door a lot after that television show came back in reruns and he found it,” Mark had razzed.
Carter had looked at Mack’s brother and had laughed. “Oh, I love hearing that one.” He’d kissed Mack’s cheek, which had caught the man by surprise, but his brothers had only laughed.
Of course, they’d teased the hell out of the oldest McCord son for the rest of the weekend, but none of it had been ugly. It had been no big deal.
Even when they’d met Danita, they’d welcomed her into the family with open arms, and Mack had said a prayer of thanks for the abundance of love and compassion that ran thought the life’s blood of his family. It had made life so much sweeter.
“I just want us to get settled before the wedding. I talked to Mark yesterday. The bachelor party is next weekend. Callie warned him it wasn’t going to be the week of the wedding, so Paddy reserved a party bus for Saturday,” Mack reminded.
Carter nodded. “And we can’t forget the next week we have the rehearsal dinner and the wedding. I’m looking forward to it,” Carter told him as he kissed him again before they went to the kitchen for pizza.
Mack watched his man eat and tease with the rest of the family as they enjoyed the evening. If the rest of his life with Carter Riggs was like that night? Mack couldn’t ask for more.
Mack was standing at the blackjack table behind his brother, Mark, watching the man on a streak. He’d started to leave to go look for Carter who was playing Keno somewhere, but Paddy made him stay right where he was. “Dude, you don’t fuck with the streak. This is honeymoon money right here.”
Mark turned around and fist-bumped Paddy, so Mack stayed where he was, watching his brother. He felt a gentle tap on his shoulder, so he looked to see a pretty cocktail waitress with a glass of brown liquor. “Mack McCord?” she asked.
“Uh, yeah. Can I…” he began.
She handed him a folded note and the drink, winking at him. He reached for money to tip her, but Paddy dropped a five on her tray, and she was gone. Mack smelled the glass and was surprised it was the good stuff… a Macallan’s eighteen-year-old, single-malt scotch, if memory served him right. It was too pricey for him, but he’d had it a few times, and it was smooth.
He opened the note and saw Carter’s scrawling writing. “Meet me over by the Titanic slots. I know what a big fan you were of Leo’s. ‘I’ll never let go…’” Paddy looked over his shoulder and started laughing behind him, jerking the note away to show it to Mark who immediately cashed out and turned to Mack.
“Let’s go see what your man has on his mind. Are you going to drink that? It smells like the good stuff,” Mark teased.
Mack laughed and blocked his brother’s reaching hand. “I am, and it’s troubling you can recognize a good Scotch from that distance. Come on, goofballs,” he joked as they took off in the direction of the slot machines.
When they walked up to the giant machine with the picture of Rose and Jack, Mack was surprised to see his father standing next to Carter who was wearing a white shirt with a vest made of the McCord tartans. The blue, red, teal, green, and white fabric was a huge part of Mack’s family’s history.
The McCords wore the tartans at the holidays, and Mack had various pieces of a wardrobe in many sizes over the years. In fact, he was to wear a tie with the colors when he performed the wedding ceremony for his brother and Callie the next weekend.
“Crap, they’ve already outfitted you. I’m sorry about it. The family will expect to see it when…” Mack attempted to explain.
Carter stood from the chair in front of the gambling console and knelt down in front of Seamus. He swallowed. “Am pòs thu mi?”
Sean McCord stepped forward, formally. “The young man asked in the Gaelic if you’d marry him. The correct answer would be, ‘Tha.’ That’s ‘yes.’ We didn’t teach it to you kids, but Carter wanted to do it properly, even asking for your hand. So?”
Mack looked around to see Paddy was recording it and they’d drawn quite a crowd. Carter opened a box to present two beautiful gold bands with Celtic knots circling them. Seamus felt his eyes tear up, so he dropped to his knees and took Carter’s hand. “Tha, my love. I’d be honored.” They kissed each other right there in the casino, and the applause around them was surprising. It was proof to Seamus “Mack” McCord that a sinner could redeem themselves and feel the blessings of love. He never wanted to be without it.
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