Joey inhaled. “Apparently, they hooked up at the party, but the guy lost track of Elliott afterwards. I want to hear it all, and preferably without the police present. He’ll be more likely to answer truthfully around me.”
“Is that a good idea? Not getting the police involved, I mean,” Ethan said, setting Joelle back on the floor.
Joey pushed his plate aside. “I will tell them, but I want to talk to him first.” He stood, unable to stay still and strode the length of the apartment and back several times, checking his phone at the end of every stretch.
Ethan didn’t say anything else, and Joey was grateful. It wasn’t the best idea to talk to this guy before the police, but he needed to know whatever he knew, and if they went to the police first, he might never find out the truth. This guy might not even know, but at least he spent some time with Elliott. He might have some information into Elliott’s state of mind because Joey sure as fuck didn’t.
He slid his fingers into his hair and closed his elbows around his head. How did he not see what Elliott was going through? Even now, when he thought back over their interactions in the last few months, Joey couldn’t see anything amiss. Had Elliott been suffering in silence? Joey hated the idea that he had been. He’d thought they were close enough to tell each other everything, and in some ways, it burnt that Elliott couldn’t talk to him about whatever had been bothering him.
Joey checked his phone again. “Why isn’t he calling?”
Ethan came over to him. “Maybe he got caught up in something. Didn’t you want to introduce me to your staff?”
Joey gritted his teeth and exhaled through his nose, his shoulders slumping. “Yeah, I did.”
“Come on, then. You’ve got your phone with you, so you can answer when he calls.”
Joey stared at Ethan and dropped his head down for a brief press of their lips. “Thank you.”
Ethan raised his eyebrows. “For what?”
“Talking me down. If you haven’t noticed yet, I can be a dog after a bone. Or a tattoo artist after a client.”
Ethan threw his head back and laughed, his mouth curving into his trademark lopsided grin. “I like that. I’ll have to remember to use that analogy in the future.”
Joey slid his arm around Ethan’s shoulders and led him towards the door. “We’ll go around the front. I don’t want to scare anyone by appearing out of the blue when they’re not expecting us.”
Ethan’s hesitation was clear. “Um, there were reporters outside when I went to get my bag.”
Joey nodded. “That doesn’t surprise me. Are you okay with that?”
Ethan nodded. “Yes, I just wasn’t sure if you were.”
“We can come back up the inside stairs. I just know from experience that scaring the fuck out of a tattoo artist causes issues.”
Ethan chuckled. “I can imagine. That ever happened to you?”
Joey nodded as he opened the front door, letting Ethan out first and following him, locking the door behind him. “Yes. My client ended up with a scratch up their thigh, far too close to where we have to be careful.”
Ethan winced as they descended the metal staircase. “Ouch.”
“Luckily, it was only a scratch. It could’ve been worse.” He checked his phone, shaking his head when there were no messages or calls. When was the guy going to call him?
Joey shoved the phone into his pocket after double-checking it was not on silent, and threaded his fingers through Ethan’s hand, squeezing. “Ready?”
Ethan inhaled and smiled. “Always.”
Every time he gifted Joey with a smile like that, Joey felt like he’d won the lottery. And in some ways, he had. He wished they had met under better circumstances because Elliott would’ve loved him.
The hustle and bustle of traffic was audible even before they rounded the edge of the building and headed through the alley to the street. Reporters stood waiting, grabbing their cameras or camera person when Joey and Ethan came into view.
“Joey! Ethan! Are you a couple now? Why have you been hiding? Are you guilty of Elliott’s death?”
The questions kept on coming, but he studiously ignored them all, even when one of them got colourful with their words. Ethan tensed, but Joey squeezed his hand again and led him around the front of the building and into the shop entrance, closing the door on the questions. The blinds had already been closed, stopping them from being able to see inside, but it also kept out the sunlight, making the shop darker than usual for the daytime.
“Hey, I wasn’t expecting to see you today,” Ani said from behind the counter, wearing her trademark black clothes with tattoos visible.
“I said I’d introduce Ethan to everyone while I wait for that guy to call.” He patted his pocket, checking his phone was still there, even though he knew it was. “Who’s in today?”
Ani winked at Ethan. “Everyone.”
Ethan’s barely audible exhale made Joey smile, and he slid his arm around his waist, pulling him closer. “You’ll be fine,” he murmured, pressing a kiss to his temple. “Are they busy?”
“Only Dallas has a client. You couldn’t have picked a better time to visit.”
“Of course, we couldn’t,” Ethan mumbled.
“Can you buzz them for me, please, Ani?”
Joey turned Ethan towards the wall of designs. “Each area and room has a little buzzer which we use if we need an artist to come to the reception area. It’s easier than shouting.”
There was a muted buzz throughout the building, and then Beck shouted, “Coming!”
Joey chuckled. “Well, it’s easier than Ani shouting. Some don’t seem to care.”
He faced the corner of the room his friends would enter from and tugged Ethan into his body as if he could shelter him. But Ethan stood straighter when two men entered. They could be described as imposing, but they were some of the nicest guys he’d ever known.
Stepping forward, he held out his hand to Beck, the man dragging him into a hug when they shook.
“Hey, man. How’re things?” Beck cupped Joey’s nape, keeping him from retreating, and stared at him. “Well, you look like you’re all in one piece, so I suppose can’t complain.”
Joey snorted. “I’m okay. How are you?”
“Busy as ever.”
Joey raised his eyebrows. “So I’ve been told.”
Beck shoved him backwards. “Fuck off. I had a client cancel at the last minute.”
“What’s your excuse?” he asked Finn.
Finn threw up his middle finger, and Joey caught it and twisted, ending up in a tussle with the smaller man.
“Enough! You’ll break something again!” Ani called, and they broke apart, laughing. “I refuse to order more furniture because you went off on one. I swear I’m a babysitter, not a bloody manager.”
Joey glanced at her and caught her throwing a smile towards Ethan, who grinned back at her. He retreated to Ethan’s side, sliding his arm possessively around his waist again. “Guys, this is Ethan. Ethan, this is Beck, and this is Finn.” He pointed at each man in order and tried to see them as Ethan might as his boyfriend greeted his friends.
Beck had short, dark brown hair, which was always immaculately styled, a neatly trimmed beard and moustache, bright blue eyes, and his trademark dark wash jeans and tank top, showing off his tattoos. Finn had slightly longer brown hair, always hidden behind a backwards flat cap, a barely-there moustache, dark-rimmed glasses and leather bracelets, complementing the khaki trousers and T-shirt he wore. All in all, they were good-looking men, who could have anyone they wanted. That they were all gay was some sort of mystical coincidence shit.
A thundering of footsteps sounded, and Joey smiled. “And here is Dallas.”
A giant of a man entered the room, someone who wouldn’t have been out of place on a beach, surfing. Dallas’s slick-backed hair accentuated his good looks, even though his face was covered by a huge beard and moustache.
“Joey!” Dallas said, punching his biceps as he stopped beside him.
“Dallas,” Joey replied with a shake of his head. “I’d like you to meet Ethan.”
“Nice to meet you,” Dallas said, holding out his beefy hand.
Ethan shook it. “You, too. Joey has told me a little about you all.”
“It’s all lies,” Beck said, leaning back on the counter and crossing his arms over his chest.
Ethan laughed. “I bet.”
“How come only one of you has a client?” Joey asked, resting his ass on the table when Ethan turned his attention back to the designs on the wall.
“Mine cancelled. I told you,” Beck said. Joey flipped him off.
“I’m heading out to Cardiff in an hour or so,” Finn said. “Porter’s been waiting long enough.”
Joey nodded. “He has. It’s nice to know we have some clients who can be patient.”
“So, Ethan…” Dallas said. “What are you doing with this asshole?”
Ethan faced them again, his lopsided smile curving his lips as he shoved his hands into his pockets. “Saving him from sleeping in his car?”
Joey groaned and palmed his face. He hadn’t told them where he’d been sleeping, and they’d just assumed he was in a hotel each time he stopped.
“His car?” Ani said.
Joey peeked between his fingers and grimaced at her narrowed eyes. She was worse than his mother, and that was saying something.
Ethan glanced between them and winced. “Sorry. I thought they knew.”
Joey waved him off with a shake of his head. “It’s fine. They would’ve found out eventually.” He sighed. “I would’ve preferred eventually,” he murmured.
“What the hell were you sleeping in your car for?” Beck said. “It’s not like you can’t afford a hotel.”
Joey crossed his arms. “It would’ve been easier for reporters to find me. It’s not like I can pay cash everywhere I go.”
“But the car? Really?” Dallas said. “And not even your car.”
“There was no point in taking my car, dumbass. It’s the same as using my credit cards. Reporters would’ve found me in no time.”
Ani shushed them before Dallas could retort, which was a good thing because they were known to argue for hours. “It doesn’t matter now, does it? You’re back. What’s your plan now?”
Joey glanced at Ethan. “We’re still figuring that out.”
Dallas clapped him on the shoulder. “Well, figure it out fast. I’m out. See you later.” He disappeared, and his thundering footsteps headed back up to the first floor where his studio was.
Beck and Finn stayed for a bit longer before work called for them both, and Joey breathed a sigh when it was just him, Ethan and Ani.
“Ani, we need your advice.”
Ani chuckled. “Use condoms and lube. Stretch every single time. Best in a bed to avoid carpet burns. Anything else?”
Joey closed his eyes, barely withholding his laugh. She was a force to be reckoned with for sure. “No, smartass. Logistics.”
Ani raised her eyebrows. “I told you. Use a bed—”
“Logistics about where to live,” he interrupted, and she gaped at him.
She cleared her throat, shuffled some paper into a pile that was already in a pile and peered at him again. “Where to live?” she croaked.
Joey nodded, pushing off the table and stopping in front of her, the counter separating them. He braced his hands on it. “Ethan is willing to move here, but he loves Whitby. I don’t necessarily need to live in London, even though this is our home base, because of the amount of travelling we do. I think we’re too close to the situation to see a solution and wanted to know your opinion.”
Ani stared down at the papers in her hands, but he could see them shaking slightly. “I think you know your answer but don’t want to face it.” She glanced up at him, a small quirk to her mouth.
Asking her had been the right thing to do. He peered over his shoulder at Ethan, who stood with his hands in his pockets, biting his lip. He held out his hand, and Ethan stepped closer.
“I do know the answer, but I don’t think Ethan believed me.” He chuckled.
Ani smiled. “In that case…” She turned to Ethan. “He doesn’t need to live in London to do this job. Ninety per cent of his clients he has to travel to meet. Those that live around here, we could batch into a few days or a week at the same time so that he can only be here for a short time.”
Ethan rested his head against Joey’s shoulder. “I just feel like it’s a lot more travelling than he had been doing.”
Ani shook her head. “Not at all. It’s not like some of them can’t send their jet for him.”
Ethan lifted his head. “Jet?”
“Of course. We’re tattoo artists for the rich and famous. He doesn’t just travel around this country. He travels the world.”
“Holy crap,” Ethan whispered.
Joey laughed. “I told you this.”
“I know but having it all laid out for me makes it more real.”
“So, the question really should be…” Ani glanced between them. “Are you willing to put up with him not being at home some days? Or are you willing to go with him when he travels?” She smirked. “We can always do with having an assistant around here. Or there. Or wherever you are. He’s useless at paperwork.”
Joey shook his head minutely, and Ani shut up. He didn’t want Ethan to feel pressured to work for him. He wanted Ethan to continue doing whatever he wanted to. But he wouldn’t deny that the idea of having Ethan by his side whenever he travelled was a wonderful one.
“See? It would be fine to stay in Whitby,” Joey said.
Ethan’s frown showed he wasn’t convinced, but Joey was glad they had asked Ani because it showed Ethan that Joey wasn’t making it up.
“Talking of Whitby, though. When do you have to go back?” Joey asked him.
Ethan shrugged. “I’ve not told them when I’d be back, but I suppose I should figure that out, too.”
The bell over the door rang, and Joey stepped in front of Ethan to shield him from whoever entered. It better not be a reporter.
“Hey, sorry. I wondered if you had any appointments?” the guy said.
Joey tilted his head, taking him in, but he didn’t appear to be reporter material, though that didn’t mean he wasn’t.
Ani took over, but Joey kept his gaze on him. “Welcome to Life in Ink. When were you looking at for an appointment?”
The guy glanced at Joey again and moved closer to the counter. “As soon as you have one, really.”
Ani clicked around on the computer a few times before answering. “Okay. It depends on what you want and how much time it’ll take to get it done, to be honest. We’re booked pretty solidly for the next few months, but we have smaller bites of time. What are you wanting doing?”
The guy pulled out a piece of paper from his pocket and unfolded it. Joey couldn’t see what was on it, but Ani’s eyebrows rose as she nodded. She glanced at Joey and held out the paper. “How long do you think?”
Joey took the paper and saw an intricate tribal design with a repeating pattern and words intertwined between them. “Where are you wanting it?”
Joey glanced at him, taking his measure to figure out just how big a job it would be. “Maybe six hours in total depending on how much of his arm he wants covered.” He handed it back to the guy and held out his hand. “Joey Reynolds.”
The guy cleared his throat. “Sorry. I came here because you were recommended. I didn’t expect to meet you, though. I expected to see someone else.”
“And you are?” Joey wanted his name.
“Grey. Grey Kennedy.”
Joey tightened his hold on the man’s hand. “Who recommended you?” he murmured.
Grey swallowed. “Elliott,” he whispered, his nostrils flaring. “He was my half-brother.”
Joey dropped his hand as he staggered back, Ethan’s hands on his spine the only thing stopping him from crashing into the wall. “Elliott’s brother?”
Grey nodded slowly. “Elliott found me a couple of years ago. He didn’t tell you?”
Joey shook his head. There were far too many secrets around this place for his liking. “Mother or father?”
Grey seemed to understand. “Elliott’s mother. Elliott found out she’d had an affair when he overheard them arguing one evening. She gave me up for adoption as soon as I was born. He told me he started searching for me the moment he knew. Once he found me, he helped out.” Grey shrugged a shoulder. “My mum didn’t have a lot of money, but we managed. Elliott insisted on helping.”
“Why didn’t he tell me,” Joey said more to himself.
Grey licked his lips. “He told me he didn’t want his status to mess with my life.” He looked at the floor, but not before Joey saw the shimmer of tears. “I wasn’t planning on coming here, but he said if anything happened to him to come here. He said…” Grey paused and met Joey’s gaze. “He said to tell you he was sorry he hadn’t told you. It’s not that he didn’t trust you. He didn’t trust his father.”
Joey raised his eyebrows. “Why?”
“He’s not the kind of man you tangle with.”
Joey shook his head. “You must have the wrong person. John is a good man.”
“I’m not talking about John. I’m talking about Robert.”
Joey couldn’t breathe. What the hell was going on? “Elliott’s uncle?”