Mack looked up to see Carter basically jump off the roof of the church, and he hurried over to the side to see the giant brunette dragging Father Kozlow away from Denny and Donnie Nash. Mack had no idea what had prompted Carter to jump and accost the old priest, but he knew he needed to get to the ground and take control of the situation before it escalated to the point of no return which might send Carter back to prison to serve the rest of his sentence.

Mack had just professed his love for Carter Lee Riggs, and when the man didn’t say it back, it left Mack with an uneasy feeling that maybe he was behaving immaturely. What did he know? He’d never really been in love. He did know, however, that he couldn’t let anything happen that would separate them, what with everything currently up in the air.

He hurried down the ladder and walked over to where Donnie Nash was crying—hard. Mack glanced down to see the boy had wet his pants, and he saw Denny was trying to console him. “We’ll run away. I won’t let her beat your ass again, I promise,” he heard Denny tell his little brother.

“I won’t let her beat you either. Take your little brother… Go sit under that tree and wait for me. I’m going to take care of a few things, and then I’ll be right back. We’ll get you cleaned up, and then we’ll figure out the next steps, okay?” Mack offered to the boys.

The priest knew he needed to get to Carter before the big man killed Father Kozlow, so he hurried to the other side of the church to see Carter had the elder priest standing near a flower bed the boys had cleared out earlier in the week.

“Do you see that flower bed? Unless you want that to be your final resting place, I’d suggest you lighten the fuck up on the Nash boys. I’m not afraid of you, and you can’t intimidate me at all with your hellfire and brimstone bullshit. You are part of the reason I abandoned my religion a long time ago, you mean old bastard.

“You want to intimidate those little boys by threatening to tell their grandparents, who are sadistic fuckers in the first place, that they took an extra piss because I insisted they drink water so they didn’t pass out from working in the hot sun? You go right ahead, but how about you stop your bullshit with the Nash boys and let’s see how you do with me? Let’s see how far intimidating me gets ya, you hard-hearted son of a bitch,” Carter threatened Father Kozlow.

Mack watched as Kozlow stuck up his chin in defiance. “I’m not afraid of you, either. I know what you are, and you can’t harm me. I have my Heavenly Father on my side, and I’m in the right. Those boys need to be disciplined, and you have no right not to enforce the rules their grandparents have in place for them,” Kozlow snapped.

When Mack heard Carter’s dark laugh, he knew he needed to intercede. “Let’s see how your God does against my hands on your neck, huh?”

Carter! No! Stop it. He’s a bitter old man, but he’s not worth your going back to prison, babe. We’ll figure this out, but this isn’t the answer,” Mack announced as he walked up to the two of them and tried to wedge himself between them.

He gently removed Carter’s massive hand from the priest’s arm, praying there wasn’t a mark. That horrid old man would be more than happy to call in the authorities to arrest Carter, and Mack couldn’t allow it to happen. There was too much at stake, and Seamus wasn’t willing to risk it even if Carter appeared to be ready to take the punishment after he had Father Kozlow writhing in pain.

The old priest offered a sinister laugh. “So, it’s true then? You’re a homosexual?” he asked as he looked at Mack. He didn’t know how, but they’d found him out, or they were merely pointing fingers and waiting for him to react to the allegation.

If they’d known about him, and he didn’t want to consider how they could have found out in the first place, why had they sent him into that God-forsaken position at Sacred Heart? Were they just playing him a fool? It made no sense.

The sound of a car on the gravel of the parking lot next door stopped them all from speaking, so Mack took Carter’s hand, placing his keys into it. “Take the boys to your brother’s house right now. Call those sadistic grandparents to pick the boys up, but first, call CPS to meet them there. Those boys? They don’t deserve to live that way. I’m pretty sure I’ll be there in a few minutes.

“Call your parole officer because Kozlow’s going to cause you problems, I’m sure. I don’t want you back in prison, Carter. I’m falling in love with you and how will that work if I can only see you on the first Saturday of the month?” Mack demanded.

He saw a bright grin on Carter’s face, which took away his breath. “Okay, Mack. I’ll see you back at the apartment.”

Carter then turned to the old priest and smiled an eerie smile. “I’ll be watching out for you in hell, Kozlow. What you have allowed to happen to those boys? I don’t think your God will protect you from that one. Isn’t there a verse in your Bible about Jesus admonishing a crowd who tried to keep children from coming to him? Maybe you should look it up when you pick out your funeral verses? Watch your back because retribution seems to be my stock and trade,” Carter threatened before he headed out with the Nash boys.

When Mack heard his hybrid leave the parking lot, he turned to the old priest whose face wore a look of confusion and then fear. Mack gently slapped the old man on his flushed cheeks. “Father! Father! Are you okay?” he shouted, trying on acting chops he’d never had before that moment as he was feigning concern and trying to diffuse a million landmines coming their way.

What? I’m fine, McCord? Take your hands off me,” the older man snapped at Mack and tried to back away until he backed into the dumpster.

“Are you sure? You tripped, Father, and you may have hit your head. You might have a concussion,” Mack announced as the group of people he’d been expecting arrived.

On Wednesday evening when they’d had the meeting regarding the work to be done around the church and the rectory, Opie Riggs had promised he’d be there with a crew that Friday to help out. The man had lived up to his word, providing the witnesses necessary if things were going to work as Mack hoped they would.

When the group saw Father McCord holding Father Kozlow by the shoulders, they all became concerned and rushed over. Once the chattering quieted, Mack lied. It wasn’t for the first time in his life, but he hoped it was for one of the last. He didn’t like to lie, but there were too many things at stake for him and the man he was falling in love with to leave things to chance that Father Kozlow’s accusations would get traction and the authorities would be summoned to investigate the old priest’s claims.

If things went Mack’s way, the old priest would retire to one of the Dominican monasteries and be well cared for until his days were at an end. If they didn’t, Carter would go back to prison at the mere suggestion of impropriety, which was something Mack couldn’t allow to happen.

“Father tripped over the brick edging around the flower bed and fell against the dumpster. I think we need to take him to the hospital to be checked out. He may have hit his head,” Mack offered as an explanation.

“I didn’t fall. I was disciplining the Nash boys because they weren’t following their grandparents’ rules. They were drinking water,” he complained loudly. Everyone exchanged concerned glances, and Seamus could see they thought there was definitely something wrong with the old priest. It sounded far-fetched he would complain about the boys drinking water, but unfortunately, it was the god-awful truth.

He glanced at Opie Riggs and whispered loudly. “Carter took the boys to your house a bit ago because they weren’t feeling well. I suspect it was because it’s so hot today.

“I was on the roof and saw Father yelling into thin air beside the dumpster, so I came down. I’m quite concerned he may have suffered a heat stroke or something. It’s over ninety today, and you know how hot it is in the church office. He’s been out here walking around for several hours watching those little boys and yelling at them so he could report to their grandparents if they did something he didn’t like before they left,” Mack explained with a gentle smile.

Lying about what was actually going on was the worst thing, but if it kept those boys from being harmed any more than they’d already suffered, Father McCord would damn his own soul to hell and lie as if it was second nature.

He’d already heard Carter say he was prepared to spend eternity in hell, and he’d see Father Kozlow there. As Mack saw it, they’d at least be together. Things could be worse.

Unfortunately, worse got there when his mother and father walked up to witness the scene. “What’s going on, Mack?” his mother asked.

Thankfully, Opie Riggs saved him from another soul-scarring lie. “Father Kozlow’s fallen ill, and we’re taking him to the hospital. I’m Opie Riggs. Father McCord lives in my garage apartment. I’ll meet all of you at my house later. We’re planning a cookout so we can all get to know each other better.

“Earlier today, Monsignor O’Keefe notified Mr. Maness, the head of the Parish Council who couldn’t come with us today, that the Diocese is going to sell the property. They’ve decided to combine Sacred Heart Parish with St. Rita’s Parish in Brimlee, keeping the church there for service because those buildings are newer and in much better shape, as is their school.

“It seems Father Mack was assigned here to ease the transition and aid the relocation of the parishioners to the sister church in the next town, though it was without any of our knowledge because they just got the deal worked out yesterday. Father McCord will also be supervising the transfer of the religious art, along with the sacred vessels and artifacts into the possession of the Diocese in Springfield. We’re going to go through the church and create a preliminary inventory for the Diocese to use when the actual pieces arrive in Springfield. Well, they’re going to. I’ll take Father Kozlow to the hospital,” Opie explained to the McCord’s as he gestured to those people behind him.

He then continued with his explanation. “We weren’t alerted sooner because the purchase negotiations had stalled, but I was notified earlier today by Mrs. Maness when her husband finished the call with Monsignor O’Keefe. After everything of value is removed, the buildings are going to be razed, and the land is being purchased by a hospitality group looking to build hotels in the area,” Opie continued. All of the people in the group behind him nodded in confirmation of the facts.

After Opie glanced around the group in attendance and offered an understanding smile before looking at Mack. “It will definitely be a tumultuous time for the parish, but the church was in such disrepair, and many of the members of the parish were already attending St. Rita’s. Based on that information, there’s no use for any of us to climb on the roof today.”

Opie then took Father Kozlow’s arm to lead him away. “Come on, Father. Let me take you over to the hospital, and we’ll get you checked out. You look extremely overheated,” Opie told the older man as he left.

The group of people with him headed toward the church office to begin their accounting of the church’s physical assets, leaving Mack with his family, all of whom were staring at him as he stood there in shorts, a t-shirt, and a bandana around his head to keep his hair out of his face. He hadn’t shaved that day either, so he was sure he was quite a sight.

“Did you guys already get hotel rooms? Since there seems to be no reason to do anything here based on what I’ve just learned, maybe you can stay in town tonight and then leave to go home in the morning. I’m sorry this ruins your holiday weekend, but had I known before, I’d have called you,” he remarked, glad he could be honest about something.

His cell chimed in his pocket, but he didn’t pull it out immediately. It was either Monsignor O’Keefe or Carter—because they had finally exchanged phone numbers. Mack didn’t want to speak with either person while surrounded by his family.

“We found a motel nearby, but we didn’t tell them how long we needed the rooms because I was hoping we could get it done tomorrow and be home on Sunday so I can play golf with a few of the guys. This works out fine, son. Mr. Riggs seems very nice. That priest who left with him is your new boss?” Sean asked as he looked around the grounds of Sacred Heart.

“Yeah, he is. He uh, well, I hope he’s okay. Anyway, let me make sure everything is going smoothly inside and then I’ll ride with you to the Riggs’ place. They’re a charming family,” Mack managed to offer, still feeling a bit stunned at the turn of events.

His family nodded at him, so he rushed off to collect himself for a moment and say a quick prayer for forgiveness for what he’d just done. Mack was so nervous he felt his stomach rolling and wished he hadn’t called his dad to ask for help in the first place. He wasn’t ready to tell them he was gay because he needed to concentrate on what Opie Riggs had told him about the deconstruction of the parish. It would definitely be the optimal time to notify the Monsignor of his desire to leave the priesthood, though.

Father Kozlow had said, “So, it’s true then. You’re a homosexual,” as if he already knew Mack was gay. It was shocking, to say the least, and it had him quite worried.

He couldn’t imagine how the old priest felt so sure of his statement to say it out loud as an accusation because Mack hadn’t told anyone of his orientation. Only Father Giancarlo Fausto and Carter Lee Riggs knew Mack was gay, or so he believed. He needed to see if he could track down Giancarlo to speak with him. He couldn’t imagine his friend would have told anyone because he’d have implicated himself as well, but somehow, someone seemed to know the truth, and they’d told Father Kozlow. It shouldn’t matter that the news had come out because it was true… but it had mattered.

“How’re Callie and the girls?” Mack asked his brother, Mark, as the two of them sat under the big umbrella at a table on the pool deck at the Riggs’ large home. When his family met Carter, Tasha, and Paul, everything was amicable. Some were in the pool playing a game, which was a relief because Mack didn’t have enough small talk in him to keep everyone engaged.

Erin and Molly, his sister and mother, and Tasha Riggs were in the house preparing food, and his father was watching a ballgame in the living room. It felt natural to have everyone getting to know everyone else, and it gave Mack hope for the future. He just had to tell his family he was gay. That wouldn’t be too hard… Yeah, sure.

“They’re in San Alonzo visiting their other grandparents. Callie thought it was best if she told her in-laws we were engaged in person,” Mark told him.

Mack had received the call from his brother informing him the couple wanted him to perform the marriage ceremony. He was happy for them, but he’d had to explain to his brother that he wouldn’t be able to marry them in the church because he was leaving the priesthood. He wasn’t looking forward to the face-to-face discussion, and he hoped his brother would understand and be supportive.

“Ah, that’s probably wise so the girls can continue to have a relationship with their paternal grandparents. I applaud both of you for that decision, Mark. So, you’ve been busy with work?” Mack asked. He hadn’t touched base with his parents since he’d arrived in Beckett Creek because he’d been busy… and preoccupied. He was sure his parents had questions he was dreading, but it was inevitable he’d have to answer them.

“Mack, when are you going to tell Mom and Dad about leaving the priesthood? Mom keeps making plans for the wedding and badgering Callie to start pre-Cana classes so you can marry us at Immaculate Conception. She already talked to Father Akron about you concelebrating the Mass. You need to tell them the truth,” Mark hissed at him.

Mack glanced around to see Paddy and Shan were too busy in the pool to pay attention to what they were discussing, so he turned to his brother and nodded. “I know you’re right, but it’s not as easy to explain everything to them as you might believe. I have so much going on right now, Mark. I have no idea how things are going to work combining Sacred Heart and St. Rita’s, which is what I need to concentrate on at the moment.

“I’m assuming the transition will happen pretty quickly, and I need to speak with the Diocese before I can begin to imagine anything about my future. I don’t think I can tell Mom and Dad right now about my decision to leave the priesthood. I’ll try, but if I can’t? When things here start to wind down, I’ll come back to St. Louis to talk to them about it, I promise.”

His brother smirked at him, which was a bit disconcerting. “Are you going to bring your little honey home with you then as well?”

Mack felt his heart in his throat. He glanced into the pool to see Carter with Paul on his shoulders as they played ‘keep away’ with Paddy and Shan. He quickly glanced at his brother to see if it was a lucky guess, but the smug smile on Mark’s face told Mack there was something more to his brother’s comment.

“Mark, why would you say that? I don’t have a…” he began his protests.

Mark chuckled. “Come on, Seamus. Don’t get sore. I’m not telling anyone, okay? It’s your business, and I actually think Mom’s gonna be happy about you having an undercover girlfriend. I’ve heard her and Dad talking about how much they hate that you’re away from home. I think if you tell her you’re moving back to St. Louis and getting out of the priesthood after things are settled down here, she’ll be excited about it. You can get married and have a family with their blessing.

“They’re both proud of you for being a priest, but I bet they’d rather have you home. I heard Mom talking to Father Akron last time he came over for Sunday dinner about whether a former priest can get married and remain in good standing with the Church. She wasn’t too happy about the fact you can’t. I told her I didn’t think it was a big deal,” Mark explained with a comforting smile. Unfortunately, it wasn’t as reassuring as he knew Mark hoped it would be.

Mack felt a wet hand on his shoulder and turned to see Carter standing next to him with a towel around his waist. He looked good enough to devour with his muscular chest and the golden tint of his skin along with the sprinkling of light brown hair on his chest narrowing into a treasure trail that made Mack’s mouth water.

Carter’s deep laugh brought the priest out of his musings about the things he wanted to do to Carter’s dick. He’d seen it in the shower and wanted Carter so much, but he was doing his best to respect the vows he’d already taken and trying like hell not to break them anymore.

It was really a small concession to stay away from Carter, considering how many of the Commandments he’d already disregarded. Lusting in his heart was as bad as doing the deed, but he was trying to live up to the spirit of his vows if not the letter.

“Yeah, uh, Carter. What’s up?” Seamus asked, trying to maintain his calm. He wasn’t very successful, however.

“The Nash kids? We need to talk about what happened to them if you have a minute. Sorry, Mark. It’ll only take a minute,” Carter explained.

When they’d arrived at the property, Mack had seen a sedan pulling out of the driveway after an old pickup drove passed the McCord family’s large Suburban. Mack had been so worried about his family meeting the Riggs family, he’d forgotten all about the Nash boys, which upset him as he looked at into Carter’s eyes. “Sure, Carter.”

He then turned to Mark. “I’ll be back in a minute. Maybe take Dad’s SUV and go pick up some beer and wine? There’s a store where we turned off of the main road onto this one, remember?” Mack asked as he reached into the pocket of his work shorts and handed his brother some cash.

Mark chuckled. “I make a hell of a lot more than you, Mack. I got it.”

Mack followed Carter out of the pool area and up the stairs to their apartment. When they were inside, he pushed Carter against the wall next to the door and kissed him hungrily. Carter’s behavior that afternoon had been a shot straight to Mack’s libido even if it might cause a lot of trouble. As much as he was trying to control himself, it was apparent he was losing the battle.

Carter wrapped his arms around Seamus’ waist and grinned. “You okay? A few times you looked like you were about to swallow your tongue. The conversation with your brother looked intense. Did he say something?” Carter asked as he began nibbling on Mack’s neck before he moved up to his jaw. Mack felt goosebumps when Carter’s tongue darted out and licked at his stubble.

“Salty,” Carter whispered as he moved to Mack’s ear and nipped his lobe.

Mack pulled away, kissing Carter gently on his soft lips before he stepped out of Carter’s arms. “I smell awful. Come sit with me while I take a shower. Tell me what happened with the boys. Were they okay?” Seamus asked as he headed toward the bathroom.

Carter walked into the room and took a seat on the floor while Mack stripped off and stepped into the small shower. He’d seen the lust in Carter’s eyes, and it made Mack wonder just how durable his willpower might be and how long he could hold out before he jumped Carter Riggs and put both of them out of their misery. Mack was pretty sure the time for prayers for strength had already passed.

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