The man, Grey, nodded. “Elliott figured it out when we took DNA tests. From what we could find, Melinda was with Robert before she married John, and Elliott was the result. She had an affair with him a few years later, resulting in me, but she insisted she was too old for another baby and gave me up.”
“How did John not know?” Joey asked.
“I’m not sure he didn’t know,” Grey said. “From what Elliott observed, John and Melinda were close but not as close as she and Robert whenever he came to visit.”
“If Melinda was in love with Robert, why didn’t she leave John and marry him?” Joey asked.
Ethan had an idea about that, but it wasn’t his place to say because he didn’t know anyone.
“Robert is not one to be trifled with. He’s involved in some shady shit…um, stuff.” Grey’s cheeks flushed.
Ethan rested a hand on Joey’s back. “Was Elliott the kind of person to push Robert somehow?” he asked gently.
Joey shook his head, paused and frowned. He sighed. “Yes. I don’t want to say it about him, but yes. If he felt something or someone was wronged, he would fight to help rectify it. It was something we butted heads about several times.”
Ethan glanced at Grey. “Do you know if he was trying to right a wrong, Grey?”
Grey rocked on his heels and bit his lip. “He was.”
Joey sank into a chair, rubbing his hands over his face. “I feel like I didn’t know him,” he whispered.
Ethan settled beside him, arm around his shoulders. “You knew him better than anyone, Joey. It’s not your fault he kept secrets.” He peered at Grey again. “What do you know?”
Tears shimmered in Elliott’s brother’s eyes. “He was trying to get me free of Robert.”
“Why? If Melinda gave you up for adoption, Robert would have nothing to do with you.”
“Except Robert instigated the adoption process. Melinda didn’t know that the woman who adopted me was under Robert’s thumb. The moment they finalised the adoption, Robert was basically my father figure.”
“Jesus.” Joey sighed and sat back, dislodging Ethan’s arm. “Do you think this had something to do with him…”
Everyone knew what Joey couldn’t say, and Grey shrugged. “I really don’t know. I honestly just came here to get a tattoo done. I didn’t think I’d see you.” He held up his hands. “Not that I didn’t want to, but I didn’t want to spill Elliott’s secrets. Though, fat lot of good that did me because the minute you asked, I told you everything.” He sniffed and wiped at his face. “I’m sorry. I don’t mean to bring this down on you. I’ll find somewhere else to do the tattoo.”
“No!” Joey stood. “No. You’re one of us. If Elliott was helping you, we’ll help you.”
Ethan’s heart poured out to the man. He deserved the best of everything, but he had the feeling Joey was going to end up on the wrong side of a dangerous man.
“Did this have something to do with the bruises Elliott sported a few months back? He said he’d had a drunken brawl with someone, but I was never convinced,” Ani asked.
Grey crossed his arms over his chest and looked at the floor. “Yes. Robert’s men gave him a warning. He knew a lot about Robert’s businesses, and Robert had become aware of it. It was to persuade him to look the other way.”
“But he wasn’t going to, was he?” Joey said.
Grey shook his head.
“Bloody hell!” Joey said, slamming his palms on the counter, rattling the contents before leaning his forehead on it. “You should’ve stepped back, Ell.”
“I told him that time and time again, but he wouldn’t listen. He insisted on freeing me from Robert’s control.” Grey stepped back towards the door. “I should go. I don’t want to put you in the firing line, too.”
Ethan moved closer. “Let me give you my number. If you need anything at all, call. Okay?”
Grey shook his head. “He checks my phone. He’ll ask about the number.”
“Say that I flirted with you at the supermarket or the coffee shop, somewhere you go a lot. He won’t know.”
“He’ll tell me to delete it.”
Ethan raised his eyebrows. “How good is your memory?”
Grey licked his lips. “Pretty good.”
“Memorise it then.”
Joey stopped beside them. “Mine, too.”
Ethan held up a hand. “No. We don’t want anyone to find out Grey has been in contact with you. Just because he came here doesn’t mean he saw you. He just saw Ani. That’s all. My number can be pushed aside as a random guy with nothing to do with Elliott.”
Joey stared into Ethan’s eyes, and Ethan tried to make him understand that he was doing this to protect Joey as much as Elliott and Grey. Joey swallowed and nodded, leaning back against the counter. Ani squeezed his shoulder.
Ethan recited his number several times until Grey had it memorised and then Grey left, promising to message updates as he could. Ethan wanted to make him promise to contact them every day so they could make sure he was okay, but that might endanger him even more.
“Who the hell is this Robert guy?” Ethan asked.
Joey shrugged. “I just know him as Elliott’s uncle. I barely saw him. When he did attend any family events, he was only there for a short time.”
Ethan sighed. “Do you think Elliott was going to tell anyone what he’d found out?”
“I don’t know. It wouldn’t surprise me. And if Elliott’s death had been anything but…what it was, I might’ve reconsidered the…suicide aspect.” Joey’s voice broke on the word, and Ethan stepped forward, sliding his arms around Joey’s back and resting his head on his chest. “I still haven’t heard from that guy.”
Ethan frowned and then remembered the man who was supposed to call Joey. He lifted his head. “Do you think it was Grey?”
“It wasn’t,” Ani said. “His voice was completely different. He sounded much older.”
“So, we’ve got a half-brother, a mystery man and an uncle-slash-father, all of whom we didn’t know about,” Joey said. “Who or what else is going to turn up?”
Ethan’s phone rang, and he pulled himself away from Joey to see who it was. “Sorry, it’s Christi.” Joey dropped a kiss on his lips, and Ethan answered. “Hey, you.”
“Hey, yourself. How are things in the world of London?” she asked.
He wasn’t getting into the drama that was slowly unfolding. “Good. Great, even.”
“Glad to hear it. Do you know when you’re tootling yourself home?”
He glanced at Joey, who was talking to Ani and pointing to something on the papers on the counter. “No idea. Meredith has given me two weeks, as you know, but she said I could take longer if I need it.”
“And will you need it?”
Ethan sighed. “I don’t know, yet. We’re still trying to figure things out.”
They were both quiet for a moment before Christi said, “You’re not coming back, are you?”
“I don’t know,” he murmured.
Christi sighed. “Well, if that’s the case, I better tell you the latest news about Di. Can you believe this? The woman—and I use that term loosely, now—mixed my customer’s tint wrong. I got the blame for it!”
Christi went into a tirade about everything that happened, and Ethan listened, replying occasionally and smiling always. One day, his friend might figure out that she liked Di, and they’d become friends. One day.
After a good ten minutes, he said goodbye and went to find Joey, who had disappeared into the back room with Ani a few minutes earlier. There was far too much new information for Joey, and Ethan was worried he would take it hard. He appeared to be managing with it so far, but he could tell it was a lot. Especially the secrets. Ethan wished that guy called soon. Getting as much information as they could would only help their cause.
“Look, why don’t you forget about this for a while and show Ethan your room?” Ani said, and Ethan wholeheartedly agreed.
Joey sighed and nodded. “Good idea.”
Ethan followed him up the stairs to a studio that was sparse in its furniture but not in its wall decoration. Designs upon designs filled the spaces, and Ethan was entranced from the first glance. They were all different, flowers, skulls, tribal swirls, everything he could imagine.
“Did you do all these?”
“Are these ones you’ve given to people or just ideas?” he asked, pointing to the designs on plain white paper.
Joey stepped beside him. “The ones that aren’t people’s actual tattoos are just ideas. If someone chooses a design from here, I replace the sketch with the person’s picture.”
Ethan glanced around. “How many tattoos do you think you’ve done?”
Joey laughed. “Thousands. Maybe tens of thousands by now. I’ve been doing this a long time.”
“What do your parents think of your celebrity status?”
Joey settled onto a black stool, spinning slightly. “They stay out of the spotlight as much as possible. They’re not interested in fame and fortune. They’re happy with their cottage in the countryside, away from the hustle and bustle of city life.”
“What do they do?”
“They both retired early. I bought them the cottage and told them to get out of London. They want for nothing, which is the best thing about this so-called fame. I was able to get them to stop working and relax.”
“I bet they loved you for that.”
Joey chuckled. “They did. They’re more than happy now. Mum knits blankets and clothes for the babies at the hospitals that need them, and Dad, well, let’s just say, he’s enjoying his garden.”
“Sounds like heaven.”
Joey tilted his head and stopped spinning. “Is that what you want? A quiet life?”
Ethan studied the designs as he thought about his answer, and he was grateful Joey didn’t rush him. What did he want? “I want to be happy. I don’t think it matters where I am or what I’m doing. I’ll know it when I see it.” He already knew it. He wanted to be wherever Joey was. No matter what they decide to do, he’d settle anywhere Joey wanted to.
Joey stood, the stool sliding away behind him, and came to a stop in front of him. “Every time I don’t think I could fall harder for you, you say or do something to make me drop off that cliff again.” He cupped Ethan’s jaw, staring into his eyes, and Ethan’s stomach swirled. “I know it’s a hard decision to make, but I promise you, I’m happy with wherever we are.”
Ethan swallowed, his gaze blurring Joey’s face. “I do love Whitby, but I’ve found that I don’t mind the idea of not living there. Maybe we could visit often, but I’d be happy anywhere. As long as I’m with you.”
“And I’ve found I don’t mind living in Whitby as long as I’m with you,” Joey replied.
Ethan snorted, and his tears overflowed. He hated crying when he was overwhelmed. It felt like he was being a crybaby. “We’re a right pair.” He slid his arms around Joey’s waist and nuzzled his cheek into his hands. “So, we’ve determined it doesn’t matter where we live. Where does that leave us?”
“Still trying to decide where to live,” Joey said, chuckling.
Ethan sniffed. “Okay, I say we need to write a list of the pros and cons of both places or other places if there’s somewhere else we might want to live.”
Joey studied him. “Are you sure you’re ready to uproot your life and shack up with me?”
“I’ve never been more sure of anything,” Ethan said. And it was the truth.
Despite the sadness hanging over them from the reason he’d met Joey in the first place, he had never been happier. Yes, he’d miss his family and friends, but it wasn’t like they were on the other side of the world. He’d be able to visit them. And maybe he’d see more of the country if he travelled with Joey. He already knew how to keep track of things as a busy hotel receptionist. Surely, a tattoo artist’s assistant wouldn’t be harder.
As those thoughts flew through his head, he realised he’d already made up his mind. Now, to show Joey what they could be.
“I think we should keep our base here, visit Whitby as often as we can, and as Ani suggested, I could be your assistant or the business’s assistant as I travel with you.”
Joey’s eyes widened, and Ethan had the impression he wasn’t breathing. After several long moments, Joey said, “You’d do that for me?”
Ethan lifted to his toes to close the slight distance between them and kissed him. Already getting used to Joey’s scent and taste, he closed his eyes and sank into the embrace. When they pulled back, panting, he said, “I would do that for us.”
Joey took his mouth again, and Ethan gripped Joey’s back, holding himself upright as Joey devoured him. This was the right decision for them, and although he would change their plans if Joey gave a good argument, he honestly thought they would make it work. He’d have to speak to Ani about what being an assistant would involve. But his thoughts disappeared when Joey’s tongue tangled with his, and he held on for his life.
The man’s voice broke through the haze in Ethan’s mind, but Joey didn’t stop the kiss. Instead, he gentled it, bit by bit, until they rested their foreheads together.
“What do you want, Beck?”
“I wanted to talk about the schedule for the Bonser event. Can you drag yourself away for a bit?”
Joey sighed, and Ethan felt the tension in his entire body. “Go talk. I’ll speak to Ani,” he said, dropping a last kiss on Joey’s lips before disentangling himself.
“This shouldn’t take long.”
Ethan smiled at Beck as he passed, and he descended the stairs to where Ani was talking to a customer. He wandered around the reception area—was it called something different in a tattoo shop? There were designs on the walls here, too. Recognising some as Joey’s work, he tried to see if the other designs had some sort of “calling card” in them to identify who drew them. He wasn’t sure, but he had a feeling he saw a few that had the same style.
“Their styles are very reminiscent of their personalities,” Ani said, stopping beside him. “Have you figured out whose is whose?”
Ethan pointed at the ones he thought were by the same person. “There are lots of lines, an almost chaotic but beautiful experience in these.”
Ani nodded and smirked. “They’re all by the same person. But who?”
Ethan thought about it. “Dallas.”
He studied the designs again, finally pointing out three. “Very to the point and tidy. Finn.”
“Well done. You’ve got a good eye. Can you find Beck’s?”
He grinned. “These.” He pointed to four designs, which were highly extravagant and extensive.
“Congratulations. You’ve got all three tattoo artists pegged correctly. Joey will be proud.” Ani laughed.
“That’s a good thing, I think.” He raised his eyebrows. “What were you saying earlier about an assistant?”
Ani cocked her head. “You’re serious?”
Ethan shrugged. “Nothing has been set in stone, but I think the best choice for us is for me to travel with him. I could find virtual assistant work, which I could do from anywhere, but if you need help anyway, and it fits in with what I can and want to do, then I don’t see why we can’t both benefit from it.”
“What did Joey say?”
“He didn’t say no.”
Ani threw her head back and laughed. “He wouldn’t. He would feel like he was pushing you to choose what he wanted, even if you were the one to offer the option first.”
“That’s why I told him I was going to talk to you. You seem to help him see sense. But I wanted to talk about the potential job first.”
Ani waved him behind the desk. “We definitely need someone to help. I’m becoming overwhelmed by the workload, but these guys don’t like bringing strangers in, and finding someone who we know that wants to do it isn’t easy. We can go through what the job would involve, but it can be tweaked and changed to fit you and me and the business. That’s what I like most about working for Joey. He cares about staff retention and making a family out of the business. He’s happy for us to work with our strengths and then we share the weaknesses between us, or we work together to do them.”
“Sounds like a great way to run a business.”
“I agree.” She huffed. “It’s probably why I’m still here. Oh, I will mention that you will have babysitting duties, too.”
Ethan frowned. “Babysitting who?”
Ani pointed above them and rolled her eyes. “These guys. I told you before. It’s more like being a babysitter than a manager.”
Ethan laughed, covering his mouth with his hand and holding his side. “Ah, I understand now.”
“You don’t, but you will.”
They went through what Ani had to do during a normal day and then the things involved in the events they did and the events they organised. The travel schedule worked well, but Ethan could see a couple of things that he could tweak to make it even better.
He was making some notes when Ani said, “You do realise if you ever get married, you’ll have to have a huge wedding, don’t you?”
Ethan stared at her, mouth gaping. “What?”