Joey stood beneath the spray of the shower, head lowered, concentrating on the feel of the water hitting his neck and back rather than on the hours that were to come. He’d not slept at all, so the shower was for more reasons than freshening up. He needed to stay awake.
He pressed his palms into the cool tiles, ignoring the churning of his stomach, and focused on Ethan. He’d found it was the only way to get through the days. It had only been two days since he’d seen the man, but it was two days too many as far as Joey was concerned. He’d told Ethan it was for the best—and it was—but Joey needed him. More than he had ever needed anyone before, including Elliott.
And there his thoughts went again.
Joey switched off the shower, dried off and dressed in his black suit, not even checking his reflection in the mirror because he knew what it would show. Joelle wound through his legs, mewling as if she knew what that day would entail, and if Joey could’ve brought her with him for the comfort she unknowingly gave, he would have.
He drank a glass of water, needing a drink but not taking the chance of having coffee—as much as he needed the caffeine hit. He placed the glass in the dishwasher as the doorbell rang. Straightening, he exhaled and smoothed a hand down the front of his jacket as he opened the door to Ani.
“Are you ready?” she asked. She was dressed in similar black attire, though she’d opted for a white shirt instead of the black shirt Joey had chosen.
Joey nodded, tucked his phone into his pocket and locked the door behind them. They descended the stairs and headed for Ani’s car. She had insisted on driving him, and Joey hadn’t argued. He doubted he would’ve got to the church in one piece.
The radio was on low for the journey, and Joey kept his eyes on the passing scenery. Everyone was going about their day as if Joey’s life wasn’t unravelling. That day, everything was ending, and he could feel it. This would make everything real. He couldn’t pretend Elliott was away on holiday when they were burying him instead.
A pressure weighed on his chest, and Joey breathed through it silently, willing it away. He wouldn’t ever be able to find out why Elliott had done it. There was no one alive who could know, and that twisted Joey up even more. The why. If he could understand that, maybe he could find the peace that he hoped Elliott had found. If that had been his only way out, Joey had to believe he was now at peace. He had to be.
Ani parked the car in the church car park and climbed out, leaving Joey to follow. He stared at his fingers for a moment, bracing himself for the barrage of people he was about to see, and then climbed out of the car.
Cameras flashed as they strode for the doors of the church, where people milled around, waiting for the… Joey exhaled. He waited off to one side with Ani, while other people chatted. Some of them Joey knew, others he didn’t, but he didn’t interact with anyone. Not even Elliott’s parents when they arrived, looking distraught. He couldn’t unless he wanted to lose it.
Too soon the hearse arrived, and Joey stared at the coffin inside, surrounded by flowers. Elliott would’ve hated that because he had never been a flower person. Joey couldn’t keep his eyes from the coffin as the pallbearers pulled it from the hearse and lifted it to their shoulders. As they fell into step, heading for the church, everyone followed. Ani led him to a pew, but Joey couldn’t keep his eyes from the coffin now he’d seen it. Imagining Elliott laying inside.
He didn’t listen to the service. He stood for the hymns but didn’t sing. His entire body was numb, which was better than feeling the pain he had before. Elliott’s parents had asked him to say a few words, but he’d declined, knowing he wouldn’t get through it. He had so much he could say about his best friend, but his throat would close up and nothing would come out. Of that, he was certain.
As the coffin was carried out again, the attendees followed, spilling out onto the path. The sun shone through the clouds as if Elliott was telling them he was there, but no one seemed to pay mind to the weather. Joey was attuned to it because it had been something of a hobby for Elliott.
Ani led him to the car, ignoring the reporters, and they followed the procession to the cemetery before climbing out and walking towards Elliott’s last resting place. Joey slowed to a stop, staring at the gathering. A knot formed in his stomach, and he was grateful they’d hired security to stop the media from coming onto the grounds.
“I’m going to go to wait by the trees,” he murmured, squinting into the distance.
“Are you sure?” Ani asked. He was grateful she didn’t press.
Joey nodded and wandered towards the bench beneath the weeping willow. He leaned back against the bark and watched the burial in the distance. He could only see the backs of the people, which he was grateful for. He didn’t want his final memory of Elliott to be him being lowered into the ground. He wanted to keep the memory of him looking peaceful in the coffin as if he was asleep. It beat the other image burnt into his mind.
His gaze wandered across the surprisingly pleasant view. He’d visited cemeteries before, but he couldn’t remember them being so peaceful. Creepy, yes, but not peaceful. The calls of the birds, the distant rush of water and the whisper of the wind blowing through the trees drew some tension from him. The hum of the priest’s unidentifiable words mixed gently with the sounds, soothing him.
His gaze passed over the stone arch entrance and carried on. It flicked back again, and Joey blinked several times before his heart began racing. He stared as the unexpected angel in disguise strode towards him.
“Ethan,” Joey whispered, gasping for air.
Ethan slid his arms around Joey, and Joey collapsed into him, tears streaming down his face.
“It’s okay. I’m here. I’m not going anywhere,” Ethan crooned, stroking Joey’s hair while he cradled him.
Joey hadn’t realised how much he’d needed Ethan until he was there. He grasped hold of Ethan’s arm, burying his face against his chest, and let himself go. He wasn’t sure how long had passed, but he eventually became aware of Ethan’s heartbeat against his ear, and he wiped at his face, sitting upright.
“Sorry about that,” he murmured.
“You don’t need to be sorry. It’s what I’m here for.”
Joey stared into Ethan’s eyes, seeing the sorrow and uncertainty in them. He threaded their fingers together. “What are you doing here?” Ethan had already said why, but Joey needed more.
Ethan sighed and looked away into the distance. Joey was sure he wasn’t going to answer, but Ethan turned back and smiled. “You needed me. It doesn’t matter what happens from here on out, but you needed me, and I’m here.”
Joey’s heart skipped a hopeful beat. “For how long?”
Ethan shrugged. “Until we decide what we want or two weeks, whichever is sooner.” The corner of his mouth curved up and his eyebrows rose. “I still have to go back to work, but Meredith has given me two weeks off.”
Joey closed his eyes and exhaled. “Thank you.”
“You don’t need to thank me for this.” Ethan glanced behind Joey and straightened, though he didn’t let go of Joey’s hand.
Joey glanced over his shoulder to where Ani approached. She studied Ethan and then focused on their joined hands before peering at Joey.
“Everything okay?” she asked.
Joey sniffed and cleared his throat. “Ani, I’d like you to meet Ethan. Ethan, this is my shop manager, Ani. I don’t know where I’d be without her.”
“You’d be swallowed whole by the weight of admin,” she joked, holding her left hand out to Ethan so he didn’t have to let go of Joey’s hand.
Ethan chuckled and shook hands. “I know that weight. It’s not pleasant. You must be a heavyweight champion to take all of what I’m sure he throws at you.”
Ani grinned. “He tries his hardest to break me, but I pull through every time.”
Joey’s tension eased as they joked back and forth, despite it being at his expense.
“They’re going to the hotel now. Are you joining them?” Ani asked him.
Joey glanced over to the gravesite, watching the people disperse in groups. He shook his head. “I don’t see that I’m needed, so no. I’m going home.” He peered at Ethan. “Are you coming?”
Ethan nodded. “If that’s okay?”
“I’ll head over to the hotel then, just to keep up appearances. Are you okay getting home?” Ani asked.
Joey opened his mouth, but Ethan beat him to an answer. “I have my car. We’re good.”
Ani nodded and squeezed Joey’s shoulder before waving and striding down the path towards the stone arch.
“Did the reporters catch you on your way in?” Joey asked.
Ethan nodded. “It doesn’t matter. I don’t mind.”
“We need to talk, don’t we?”
“We do, but let’s get you through today first.”
Joey slid his hand across Ethan’s cheek and to his nape, pulling him forward for a kiss. The moment their lips connected, tingles started everywhere, and it was all he could do to stop them from going too far in such an inappropriate place. It had been far too long since he’d touched Ethan. He rested his forehead against Ethan’s and licked his lips, getting every taste of him he could.
“Let’s go back to yours,” Ethan said. “I bet you haven’t eaten today.”
Joey shook his head. “I’ve not had much of anything, if I’m honest.”
“Then let me look after you.”
“I want to do this, Joey. I need to. You’re hurting, and I need to help.”
Joey pulled Ethan into a hug and then stood, tugging Ethan to stand. “Lead the way.”
“No. Side by side.”
Joey’s nostrils flared as he tried to contain his emotions, not wanting to be a mess when the reporters photograph him when they leave.
“This is a beautiful place,” Ethan said.
“It is.” Joey glanced around as they wandered towards the entrance. “Elliott would’ve loved it. I didn’t even know this place existed.” The closer they got to the entrance, the tenser Joey became. “Are you sure you’re ready for this? We can go our separate ways and meet up at the house instead.”
Ethan pulled them to a stop just before they exited. “I will do whichever you want to. I don’t want to hide, but if it would make your life more difficult, then yes, we can. Is there a wake?”
“There is, but I’m not going.”
Joey wrapped his arms around Ethan and closed his eyes, soaking in his amazing strength. Joey was the Dom of this relationship, but it seemed Ethan had taken over the role for the moment. He pulled back, threading their fingers once more.
“Let’s go. As one.”
Ethan smiled and nodded. “As one.”
Joey and Ethan exited the cemetery to a gentle hum of conversation until the reporters saw them, and then they were bombarded by flashes and questions and swarmed. Luckily, the security company had left a couple of guards for them, and they helped clear a path to Ethan’s car.
“Is Ethan your boyfriend?”
“Are you moving in together?”
“Are you leaving London?”
“What would Elliott think of your relationship?”
Joey sighed, knowing he would eventually have to make a statement about what happened, but refusing to do so that day. They could wait a little longer. He climbed into Ethan’s car and slammed the door on the questions. He nodded and smiled at the guard, and then Ethan drove away.
“You’ll have to direct me, I’m afraid. I don’t know London at all,” Ethan said with a soft chuckle.
“It can be confusing, but I will tell you where to go.” He explained the next couple of turns and then said, “When did you get here?”
Ethan’s nose crinkled. “About an hour before I found you. I got stuck in traffic; otherwise, I would’ve been here a couple of hours before.”
“That’s the joy of motorways, isn’t it?” Joey chuckled. “Thank you.”
Ethan smiled across at him but didn’t say anything, and Joey transferred his attention to directing him. When they made it to Life in Ink and parked behind the shop, Joey was exhausted. Now everything was done, he could barely get his body to move. Ethan helped him from the car and up the stairs, and Joey unlocked the door and locked it behind them again. Within seconds, Joelle twined through his legs, and he braced himself, as always, so he didn’t fall over.
“And this must be Joelle,” Ethan murmured, crouching low and holding out his hand for Joelle to bump her head against. She could be stubborn sometimes, but she easily transferred her attention to Ethan once she was satisfied he meant no harm to her.
Joey slipped into the kitchen to replenish her water and food and felt the moment Ethan joined him, even though his back was to the entrance. When he turned, Ethan leaned against the counter with his arms crossed and a small smile playing across his face.
“What?” Joey asked.
“I missed you.”
Joey placed the bowls on the floor and stepped closer to Ethan. “I missed you, too.”
Ethan slipped his arms around Joey’s waist and stared at him, his hazel eyes taking on an indecipherable sheen. Joey skimmed his fingertips across Ethan’s cheekbones and down his jaw, following them with his gaze, reacquainting himself with the man who had come to mean so much to him in such a short time.
“How did we get here?” he murmured.
Ethan didn’t pretend he didn’t know what Joey was asking. “Fate. Destiny. Serendipity. There are so many names to call it. And as much as I hate what you’ve been through, it brought you to me. I wouldn’t wish what happened to anyone, and I wish with everything inside me Elliott was still here, but I don’t know if we would’ve met had this not happened.”
Joey understood what his meaning was and didn’t get upset. “As my mother always says, I wouldn’t be where I am today without going through what I’ve been through.”
“Smart woman.” Ethan pecked a kiss on his lips. “Come on. Time for food and a nap.”
Ethan pulled away and went to the fridge, dragging some items from it. Joey didn’t interrupt, allowing Ethan to look after him like Joey knew he wanted. Ethan made a ham salad sandwich, cut it into two and placed it on a plate. He poured two small glasses of apple juice and handed one to Joey before carrying the plate and the second glass to the sofa. Joey followed and settled into a cushion. Ethan passed him the plate and took his drink from him.
“Eat. Then we can nap.” Ethan stifled a yawn and laughed. “Even thinking about a nap is making me tired.”
“I’m not surprised. You’ve been driving for hours.” Joey took a bite and groaned. Having not eaten anything that day, it was the best-tasting food he’d ever eaten.
Ethan waved him off. “It’s only six hours normally. But yes, I didn’t sleep at all last night, so I’m flagging now.”
Joey finished his sandwich quickly, wanting to get Ethan into bed—the non-sexual way—before they both collapsed from exhaustion. Joey took the plate and glasses to the kitchen and led the way to his bedroom.
“Do you want to freshen up?”
Ethan groaned. “Yes, please.”
Joey chuckled and pointed to the en suite. “Have at it.”
While Ethan scrubbed the grime from his journey from his skin, Joey stripped down to his boxers and grabbed some pyjama bottoms in case Ethan didn’t have anything with him. When Ethan came into the room with a towel around his waist, his hair dripping onto his chest, Joey’s mouth dried.
“Oh, great, thanks,” he said when Joey held out the pyjamas. “I forgot to get my bag from the car.” Ethan dropped the towel and pulled on the pyjamas, then picked up the towel again. “Where do you want this?”
“Just in there will do.” Joey pointed to the washing basket.
Ethan threw it in and climbed into the bed beside Joey. Joey slid down onto his back, and Ethan snuggled into his side. The rest of the tension Joey had been holding released, and he closed his eyes at how perfect Ethan felt in his arms.
“Sleep, Joey. We’ll talk and figure stuff out later.”
Joey pressed his lips to Ethan’s forehead. “Okay. I—” He cleared his throat. “Sleep well.”
That hadn’t been what he was about to say. Could he have fallen in love with Ethan already? How was that possible? Joey kept his eyes closed, and although he was tired, he waited until Ethan had relaxed into sleep before allowing himself to follow. When they woke, they would have plenty to discuss and decide upon, but for the moment, he would content himself by holding Ethan in his arms again.
He wasn’t sure where they would go from there, but Ethan had driven all this way to support him, so he refused to give him less than his undivided attention while they figured themselves out. He wasn’t sure he could find what he had with Ethan anywhere else; therefore, he had to try.