Ethan’s heart broke as he heard Joey’s conversation with the detective. When would this all be over for Joey? Hadn’t he suffered enough already? He tightened his hold on him as he ended the call, and Joey sank into him. Ethan rubbed his hand up and down his back, soothing him as best he could.
They’d been holding each other for a few long minutes when his own phone rang. He cursed. Grabbing it, he saw an unknown number, and his stomach churned. Was it David again?
“Mr Wright, it’s Detective Hines.”
Ethan’s heart calmed, and he put the phone on speaker so Joey could hear. “Good afternoon, Detective. What can I do for you?”
“We’ve finally finished with David Thurl’s interview. I’ve spoken to Detective Harmon, who seems to be in charge of the case where you are. He’s agreed that I can tell you what we’ve found out.”
“And what might that be?” Joey asked.
Hines paused, and Ethan filled the gap. “Detective, this is Joey Reynolds.”
“I’m sorry I’m not calling with better news, but David has acknowledged who put him up to the photographs and the brick. At least, according to him. We’re still trying to confirm everything he said.”
“And who was it?”
The moment the words hit Ethan’s ears, Joey’s legs gave way. Ethan dropped the phone to catch him, and he helped him to the floor, settling him into the cradle of his arms. He reached for his phone again.
“Sorry, Detective. I’m back.”
“Not really. Is there anything else you need to tell me?” It would be a little easier now they were already on the floor.
“David said Grey contacted him through the hotel a little while back, offering substantial money for him to make your and Joey’s lives difficult. The reporter was paid by David, and the other reporters were notified later. It seems he was just there to irritate you mainly.”
“Well, he succeeded,” Ethan bit out. “But why? What would irritating us do?”
“Exactly what it did. Sent Joey back to London. What they didn’t account for was you going with him.”
Ethan’s heart skipped a beat, and he smiled. “I’m always willing to throw a spanner in the works.”
“Harmon said this news would help you. I hope it did.”
Ethan sighed. “It’s certainly not what we wanted, but we were expecting something. Thank you, Detective. Oh, did David say anything about leaking the photos?”
“Yes. It was all a ruse. He didn’t have the photos in the first place. Only a screenshot of one, and not a good one, either.”
It had seemed good enough on the email he’d been sent. “Okay, thanks.” Ethan ended the call and dropped his phone to the floor, hugging Joey. “Are you okay?”
“I just tattooed Elliott’s name on his back,” Joey mumbled.
Ethan closed his eyes and pressed his lips to Joey’s head. “It doesn’t matter.”
“It matters if he was involved. I knew I should’ve set up that private investigator. It slipped my mind.”
“You’ve had a lot going on, sweetheart. You can’t do everything yourself. Plus, the police are looking into him. That is probably the better way to go about it.”
“I don’t understand,” Joey said, sitting upright and resting back against the cupboard.
Ethan crossed his legs and faced him. “I don’t either, but I do have a feeling that Grey is messing with us. Why else would he keep turning up and calling?” He wasn’t going to mention the tattoo again.
“I think he had something to do with Elliott’s death and is rubbing it in our faces.”
Joey stood, and Ethan followed. “Maybe, but let the police do their job.”
Joey’s phone rang, and he cursed. “I don’t want any more calls!”
Ethan glanced at the display. “It’s Denny.” He held it out.
Sighing, Joey took it and answered. “Hey, Denny. What’s up?”
“Apart from being blackmailed into keeping my mouth shut about Robert, nothing.”
Joey dropped his head back. “What?”
“I’ve had an errand boy turn up at my house, threatening my livelihood if I spill any information about Robert to anyone.”
“Who was it?”
Ethan agreed. “He’s getting around.”
“When did this happen?” Joey asked.
“A couple of hours ago. I’ve been on the phone with my lawyers and manager to ensure I’m backed up if I need to be; otherwise, I would’ve told you sooner.”
“I kinda wish you had,” Joey mumbled, heading for the door. Ethan followed him.
“Because we’ve realised that guy is not the person we thought he was.”
“Who? Grey? He’s nothing but a snake.”
“Yes, I’m getting that,” Joey said. “Thanks, Denny. I hope you get everything sorted out. Let us know if anything else happens, yeah?”
Joey ended the call, and Ethan caught his arm before he could throw the phone. “You need that,” he said gently.
They descended the stairs and entered the front of the shop, where Ani and the rest of the guys were talking. Ani glanced at them with raised eyebrows. “Problems?”
“You could say that.” Joey filled them in on what they’d found out about Grey.
“If he ever shows his face around here again, I’m going to rearrange it,” Dallas said.
Ethan barely heard them talking. He lost himself in his thoughts, going over the information they had. Something didn’t add up. Grey had been hiding his true identity from Elliott, but for what reason? What did they want with Elliott? To bring him into the business? Was Robert that obsessed with keeping it in the family? If Elliott was going to spill the dirt on Robert, it would give them a motive for his death. But the police had confirmed it was a suicide. What had happened to Elliott to make him think that ending his life was the only option? He had an idea of what might have happened, but he hoped it wasn’t true. Ethan was sure an answer to the last question would destroy Joey.
“I think I need to make a statement to the media,” Joey said, and for some reason, those words pierced Ethan’s bubble.
“What? Why?” he said.
Joey shrugged. “I haven’t spoken to them at all since I found Elliott. It might get them off our backs a bit.”
“I don’t know if that’s a good idea,” Beck said. “Keeping quiet about all of this would be the best choice right now.”
“I wasn’t planning on pointing the finger at anyone, although I have every right to. I just think I need to say something. I feel like I’m doing Elliott a disservice by not acknowledging him.”
Ethan could see where he was coming from. “Maybe write it down first. We can’t take the chance that any word is taken the wrong way.”
Joey stared at him and nodded. “I can do that.”
“I’ll help.” Ethan smiled at him.
“I’m still not sure if this is the best idea,” Beck said. “Do you really want all this kicked up before the Bonser event?”
“It might make us more popular and get us more visits,” Dallas replied.
“What is this Bonser event?” Ethan asked. “I’ve heard you mention it a few times.”
Dallas grinned. “It’s our annual, two-day tattoo convention. We have a stall and some chairs, and people can get tattoos done on the day as well as find out about and talk to us. Sometimes, meeting an artist in person and talking to them is the best way to help them relax about getting one. Last year, we tattooed…” He glanced at Finn. “How many was it?”
“Fifty-two,” Finn said with a grin.
“Fifty-two people. We tattooed fifty-two people in twenty-four hours. That’s over two an hour.”
Ethan gaped. “How did you manage to do so many?” He glanced at Joey, who chuckled.
“We made sure they were smaller tattoos that didn’t need as much work.”
“Why do you do events like that, though? It’s not like you need the clients.”
Beck shrugged. “It’s not about the client list. It’s about exposure. If we keep ourselves in the light, people are more likely to keep track of us and follow us, and then our clients also benefit. It’s a two-way street.”
“When is it?”
“In two months. It takes a lot of organising, though,” Ani said.
“I can imagine.” Ethan shook his head. “I don’t know how you do it.”
Joey slid his arm around him. “You’ll find out in two months.” He winked and dropped a kiss on his lips. “Want to help me write my speech?” he whispered.
“I’m pretty sure we know he’s not going to be helping you write it,” Dallas said. “He’ll be on his knees while you pray.”
Ani slapped the back of his head. “That’s none of your business, Dallas. We don’t guess what you do when you’ve not got any appointments, do we?”
Dallas didn’t look at all repentant. “I’m happy to tell you, but I don’t have time.”
Ani shook her head. “Yes, get the hell out and on your way.”
Joey glanced at him. “Where are you going?”
“Perth to see Donovan.”
“Nice,” Joey said. “Enjoy the scenery.” He turned to Finn. “Aren’t you going out, too?”
Beck nodded, too. “I get Paris.”
Joey chuckled. “Annabelle?”
“You got it.”
The speed and familiarity they spoke of was something Ethan knew he would get used to, but the distance they were willing to travel was immense. “You do make a profit here, don’t you?” he blurted.
Ani laughed. “My sweet boy. You still have a lot to learn. Yes, we make a profit, and when you learn more of the ropes, you’ll see why and how much.” She glanced at Joey. “Unless the boss man doesn’t want you to know.”
Joey rolled his eyes. “I have no secrets from him.”
Dallas clapped and rubbed his hands together, grinning. “I’d love to test that theory.”
“You have to leave,” Ani said. “Now.”
Dallas stuck his tongue out at her, waved and pounded up the stairs.
“I told you, babysitting, not managing,” Ani said, winking at him.
Ethan chuckled. “I’m getting the idea.”
Despite Joey’s words to the contrary, he didn’t want help with his speech. He sat at the table, head lowered, scribbling away on the paper while Ethan scrolled on his phone, alternately reading something and watching Joey work. He wasn’t sure how long they both sat there with their respective tasks, but finally, Joey sighed and leaned back.
“I think I’ve finished. Could you read it for me? I’m not always very eloquent.”
Ethan rose and slid a hand along Joey’s shoulders. “Of course.”
Joey handed him the sheet, which was around three-quarters full. Ethan settled beside him, but Joey stood. “I can’t sit here and wait. I’ll make something to eat.” He pressed his lips to Ethan’s head and disappeared into the kitchen.
Ethan focused on the words.
Elliott Kennedy was my best friend. Some of you may wonder why I haven’t spoken out before now, and my answer is this. My grief is for me and Elliott alone. I do not have to share it with anyone if I don’t want to. That being said, I would now like to offer you these words.
Elliott was an amazing person and friend, that anyone would have been grateful to know. He was passionate about so many things in this world. So many charities he wished he could help. So many causes he tried to assist. But he was mainly passionate about his family and friends. They meant the world to him.
That bright light was taken from us far too soon. It’s not something I will “get over” soon. It will stay with me—Elliott will stay with me until my last breath. Please give us this time to grieve properly because burying someone does not end the grieving period. If anything, it restarts it back at ground zero.
Depression and suicidal thoughts are not something to trivialise. They matter a lot. We need more light shed on such subjects. More help for those who need it. More support for those suffering. It’s a dark world, and people need to realise it’s not as easy as just “thinking happy thoughts.”
Elliott Kennedy was a great person, and our loss is profound. Now I just need to figure out how to continue without my best friend beside me.
Thank you for your time.
Ethan sniffed as he finished reading, wiping the tears from his eyes. He didn’t try to find Joey, understanding just how much this must’ve taken from him to write it. It was perfect as far as Ethan was concerned. Joey made no apologies for taking the time he needed, and that was the right thing to do.
Joey finally came back in, carrying two plates of steaming food. He placed them at the table, laying cutlery beside them and sat back in his chair.
“What do you think?”
Ethan rested his hand over Joey’s. “It’s perfect.”
Joey nodded and sighed. “It’s not everything I wanted to say, but I’d be soaking for an hour if I did that. And even then, that might not be enough time.”
“I didn’t know Elliott, but from what I’ve heard from everyone, he would’ve loved it.”
Joey chuckled. “He would’ve hated being so far in the limelight. Which makes me wonder about his relationship with Denny. How much was Denny wanting to keep it quiet, and how much was Ell wanting to stay far away from the spotlight?”
“It’s nice to know that he’d found love, though,” Ethan said. “Even if it would’ve been a tricky road ahead.”
Joey smiled. “If he’d told me about his relationship, I don’t think I would’ve believed him.”
Joey picked up his fork. “It’s the kind of thing he would’ve joked about. He once said to me that if he ever said he was becoming an actor, I would know it was code for something’s wrong.” Joey swallowed hard, tears shimmering. “Why didn’t he say anything?”
Ethan’s heart ached. “I don’t know. He possibly kept quiet about Grey and Robert to protect you, but something…” He didn’t want to finish his sentence.
“Something…?” Joey prompted.
Ethan sighed. “Something pushed him to the edge that night. An edge he couldn’t step back from. If I’m honest with you, Joey, I don’t think we want to know what it was.”
“Why?” Joey frowned. “I want to know why he chose to take his own life instead of talking to me about it.”
“It can’t be a pleasant reason. Would Elliott really want you to know why?”
“It doesn’t matter. I want to know.”
Ethan nodded, though he believed that when Joey found out, he would want to take his words back. Although Ethan didn’t know what had happened, he had a host of ideas about what it could be, and none of them were nice.
They descended into silence while they ate, Ethan swallowing the delicious food as if it were Lego bricks. He wouldn’t take back what he’d said, and Joey would insist on finding out. Neither of them would be happy with the answer because it wouldn’t change the fact that Elliott was no longer with them.
“When are you thinking of giving your statement?” he asked.
Joey exhaled. “I want Ani to read it through as well, and then if she agrees it’s okay, I’ll set something up for tomorrow afternoon or the next day.”
Joey reached for his hand. “I’m sorry.”
“For what? Knowing what you want?” Ethan smiled. “That’s a good thing. I’m just worried, that’s all. Once you know, there’s no un-knowing, if you get my drift.”
Joey didn’t say anything for a minute, his dinner left to cool. “I feel left out, Ethan. I thought Ell and I told each other everything. I didn’t think we had any secrets from each other. Since he died, I feel like he’s left me out of the important parts of his life. As if he didn’t want me there sharing the happiness or the burden with him. I know it’s stupid, but I can’t help but feel like he didn’t trust me.”
Ethan leaned forward, making eye contact with him. “Elliott loved you, Joey. He wouldn’t have wanted you to miss out on anything. He would’ve told you about Denny if he thought there was anything more to the relationship. Denny loved him, but maybe Elliott wasn’t there yet. If he loved Denny, he would’ve told you. I know that much.”
Joey’s eyes cleared a little, but he could tell he was entirely convinced. It would take time for him to forgive himself and to forgive Elliott. Because, no matter what anyone said, there was guilt on both sides of the coin. Unnecessary guilt, but guilt all the same.
An idea crossed his mind. “I want you to tattoo me.”
Joey’s head jerked up, and he stared at him. “Really?”
Ethan nodded, more determined with every minute. “Yes.”
“What do you want and where?” Joey leaned forward.
“That’s the thing. I want it on my back, but I want you to choose the design for me.”
“You trust me with that? Usually, designs are meaningful in some way to the person getting it.”
Ethan took his hand. “But it will be. Because you chose something for me. Something you believed was right for me. That makes it meaningful.”
Joey’s eyes glistened again. “I’d love to. When?”
Joey stared at him, shaking his head. “You’re amazing. I don’t know how I ever got so lucky for you to choose me in that bar.”
Ethan smiled. “I had no choice. I was just about to leave when I saw you. Pure chance. And approaching you was the best decision of my life.”
“Even with all this hassle?”
“Even with.” Ethan stood and leaned over, cupping Joey’s cheek. “I love you. I can’t think of a single thing in this life or the next that could change that.”
“I don’t deserve you.”
“Yes, you do. And I deserve you. We deserve each other because we’re perfect for each other. Nothing can stop us from happening. Nothing.” Ethan kissed him, pouring every ounce of love into that kiss, hoping to heal some of the cracks in his armour and replenish his battered soul. He refused to give up Joey without a fight. And anyone who was coming for them? Well, they better watch out. He had a snarky tongue, and he knew how to use it.