Ethan swallowed down the lump that had stuck in his throat at Joey’s words. He’d always known Joey wouldn’t be there forever, but he’d hoped he had more time.
“If you believe you need to go…” Ethan said.
“If I don’t, you’re going to end up on the front page of the newspaper, spread across social media, plus wherever else people decide to put your picture up. They won’t leave you alone. Just as they don’t leave me alone.”
“They don’t know you’re here,” Ethan countered.
“And how long do you think those women will keep quiet? They’ll tell people where they saw me, then David will corroborate it, and then they’ll find out about you, and it won’t take long for them to realise where you live. If I know the media as well as I think I do, they’ll be camping outside within two hours.”
Joey gritted his teeth and shook his head, but Ethan focused on his words.
“What was that about David?”
Joey scoffed. “He knows who I am. He called me by my real name as I left today, as if he’d known all along.” The crease between Joey’s eyebrows deepened. “He implied he would speak with the media and twist the truth of what happened here.”
“Fucking asshole,” Ethan murmured. He’d never liked the man, and this proved his reticence was well-founded. “I’d like you to stay,” he said finally.
Joey lifted his head, staring right into Ethan’s eyes. “I want to, but I can’t put you through that. It’s not fair after everything you’ve done for me.”
“Isn’t that my decision?”
Joey lowered his head to rest on his crossed arms, and Ethan sat quietly, letting him work through his thoughts. He pulled his phone from his pocket and searched for “Joey Reynolds.” He wasn’t looking for more information than what Joey had given him, but he wanted to see if anything mentioned where Joey was. As he scrolled through the results, only checking for glaringly obvious headlines, Joey’s phone rang.
Joey banged his head against his arms three times, then grabbed his phone and stared at it. “And so the circus begins.” He lay it face down on the table and wrapped his hands around his mug, which must’ve gone cold by now.
Ethan put his phone down, too. “I can’t see any news about you being here yet.”
“It won’t take long.”
Ethan raised his eyebrows and met Joey’s gaze. “What do you want to do, Joey?”
“It doesn’t matter what I want. I signed up for this when I started taking on celebrity clients, then allowed it to continue when I employed more artists. My opinion no longer matters.”
“It matters to me.”
Joey’s eyes widened, and Ethan’s mouth curled at having shocked him. “I like you a lot, Ethan. If I had a choice, I’d stay. At least for a little while longer.”
Ethan rose and knelt beside Joey. “Then stay a little while longer because I like you a lot, too,” he murmured, staring up at him.
Joey cupped Ethan’s cheek, and Ethan closed his eyes as he nuzzled against Joey’s palm. He didn’t want Joey to leave, that much he knew, but could he deal with the repercussions of Joey staying? Mainly the media attention. Ethan had spent his life under the radar, quietly plodding through his days, hoping, though never expecting, to find what he believed he had with Joey. Life with Joey would come with additional interest, and could he cope with life in the spotlight? Having never had the experience of such a thing, Ethan couldn’t answer, though he wanted to think he could manage.
“Ethan…” Joey sighed.
Ethan dropped his head and stood, grabbing their cups with a small smile. “It’s okay. I understand.” He refilled the kettle and started a new drink. “Do you want another cup?”
“No, thanks. Ethan—”
“Look, I get it. Okay. I know you can’t stay here. I’m not going to throw a tantrum because you’re making the best decision for you. If you need to leave, as much as I don’t want you to, you need to leave. End of.”
Ethan finished making his drink and cradled the mug in both hands, despite it scalding his palms. He needed something to focus on as his heart broke. He leaned back against the counter and stared out of the small window in his kitchen, blinking rapidly as his thoughts highlighted how deep he’d already fallen. Holy fuck!
The mug was lifted out of his hands, and his attention snapped to Joey as he stepped in front of him. Joey slid his hands across Ethan’s jaw, and Ethan’s eyelids fluttered.
“You’re not one to throw a tantrum, I know. But you’re also not one to let your feelings stop other people from doing what they want to do.” Joey’s eyes transfixed Ethan as his voice lowered to a rumble. “I don’t want to leave because I’ll be leaving behind the one person who understands me. I’ve let no one else as close as you’ve burrowed inside me. And that is why I’m leaving. You don’t deserve your life being turned upside down by me. You deserve a life of freedom, the chance to make mistakes that won’t be publicised for the world to see, the opportunity to love without giving up the anonymity. If you’re with me, you’ll get none of that.” Joey’s mouth came closer, and his voice lowered further, breathing across Ethan’s skin. “I care about you too much to allow you to forfeit everything for me when I don’t deserve it,” he whispered.
Joey brushed his lips across Ethan’s, and Ethan automatically opened for him. The spell Joey had cast over him had him lightheaded with need. Ethan grasped at Joey’s back, gripping handfuls of his T-shirt as Joey slowly explored Ethan’s warm cavern, their mouths never sealing completely. Ethan’s chest lifted and dropped in sharp movements as he sucked air in and breathed it out in between the licks and nips Joey gave him.
Finally, Joey sealed their mouths, and Ethan’s knees gave out. Joey tightened his hold, sliding one hand behind Ethan’s back to support him while his other hand slid into Ethan’s hair. A hint of coffee remained on Joey’s tongue as they tangled, taking everything the other gave.
Joey’s hands skimmed over Ethan’s clothed body to squeeze his ass, and Ethan groaned, bucking forward. Joey responded by grabbing Ethan’s thighs and lifting him to sit on the counter. It made Ethan taller than Joey, and he lowered his head to join their mouths again. He couldn’t get enough, needed more.
“Joey,” he breathed, his head dropping back against the wall cupboards while Joey fumbled with the button and zip of Ethan’s trousers.
One second, the cool air bathed his cock, the next, Joey’s mouth surrounded him with wet heat. Ethan’s hand rested against the back of Joey’s head as his tongue did amazing things to his dick.
“Fuck!” He gasped, the fire-like sensations bombarding him. He couldn’t buck his hips, precariously positioned as he was, but he could encourage with his words. “Yes, Joey! Fuck, yes. That’s so good.”
His free hand gripped Joey’s shoulder while Joey swallowed around Ethan’s tip. Ethan licked his lips and opened his eyes, peering down at Joey a second before something caught his eye. He glanced at the window and cursed, pushing at Joey.
“What the fuck!” Ethan shouted, covering his groin when Joey stood.
Joey glanced over his shoulder, swore and raced to the back door, flinging it open and disappearing, though Ethan heard his words. “Get your ass back here, or you’ll find yourself in jail!” he shouted at the person who had been either taking photos or filming them through Ethan’s back window.
Ethan jumped off the counter and shoved his dick back in his trousers. When he was decent, he stepped into his back garden. Joey was in a standoff with a young-ish man with dark hair and eyes, though his mouth was curled in what Ethan thought looked like satisfaction.
“If any of those photos or videos, whatever you were taking, find their way online, you will be arrested for trespassing,” Joey said.
“It’s a free alley,” the man said, waving his hand towards the alley that ran the length of the back of the houses.
“Yes, that alley might be,” Ethan said, “but my back garden is not a public right of way.”
“I want to watch you delete them,” Joey said. “Now!” he added when the man shook his head.
The man huffed. “It’s just a fucking job, man.” He brought his camera up, and Joey stepped closer, watching as the man did something—hopefully deleting those photos. Then he stepped back to Ethan’s side.
“What’s your name?”
“Devlin Cooper, Whitby Gazette. Nice to meet you.” The man had the audacity to hold out his hand with a smile.
Ethan and Joey ignored the outstretched hand, and Devlin huffed again. “Who told you where I was?” Joey asked.
Devlin shrugged. “An anonymous tip to the paper. The moment it came through, my editor told me to check it out.”
“So you thought gaining unlawful entry into someone’s back garden was the way to do it?” Ethan said.
“Hey, man. I need this job. I need something to keep it, especially with how things are now.”
“Not at the expense of our privacy,” Joey said.
Devlin laughed loudly. “Privacy? You’re a celebrity in your own right, Mr Reynolds. You forfeited your privacy years ago, I’m afraid to say.”
Joey glanced at Ethan as if to say, “I told you so,” but Ethan was having none of it. “But I didn’t. You have no right.”
“No one plays by the rules anymore, man. Get a life.” Devlin turned and exited the garden, stopping in the alley and facing them again. Ethan heard the click of the camera, and Devlin held up his hands. “Can’t say I can’t keep that one.”
“Get lost, Mr Cooper,” Joey said, closing and locking the back gate.
Joey held up a finger to his mouth and gestured for them to go back inside. Once the back door was locked behind them, he said, “Sorry, you can talk now. You never know whether they’re within hearing distance.”
“Fucking asshole, was all I was going to say,” Ethan said, lowering the blind in his kitchen to hide them from anyone else who might have the same idea.
Joey sighed. “I’m sorry about that, but this is what I meant, Ethan. This is just the start. I could almost guarantee at least one person is waiting out in front of the house for one of us.”
Ethan settled into a chair and leaned his elbows on his knees, linking his fingers. “It was a shock, I’ll admit. But I stand by my words, Joey. If you want to stay, you’re more than welcome to.”
Joey crouched in front of him. “I want to, but I can’t.”
Ethan wanted to fall into his arms, but he refrained, tensing his muscles lest they ignore his brain and follow his heart. He nodded slowly. “Do you need any help with anything before you go?” Joey shook his head. “Where are you going?”
Joey stood and scrubbed his hands over his head. “I guess it’s time to face the music.”
“You’re going home.” It wasn’t a question.
Ethan swallowed hard and stood. “I’ll let Meredith know you won’t be back.”
“Thank you. Please tell her I’m sorry for leaving so suddenly.”
“She’ll understand.” Ethan would, too, eventually. Right now, though, everything hurt, and it was nothing to do with blue balls. He inhaled and smiled. “Take care driving home. It’s a long journey. Make sure you rest along the way.”
Joey faced him, and Ethan’s heart tried to claw its way out of his chest. How could he have fallen so hard and so fast? He didn’t want to imagine his days without Joey in them, even though it had only been a short time ago that his life had been empty. Was that what happened when people met the one they wanted to spend their life with but they weren’t allowed? A vast emptiness spread out in front of them. Ethan wasn’t sure he wanted it. Unfortunately, he didn’t have a say in it.
Joey reached for him, but Ethan stepped back, a band crushing his chest. Joey gritted his teeth and nodded. “Thank you, Ethan. For everything. I will never forget you or your generosity.”
Ethan made himself smile. “Just pay it forward. That’s what I always say.”
Joey stared at him for a second longer, then headed for the front door. Ethan went with him. Before he opened it, Joey said, “Stay behind the door in case there are photographers. They won’t get you in the photos, then.”
Ethan did, and Joey gave him one last look, yanked the door open and stepped through to calls of his name. Joey dragged the door closed again, and he was gone.
Ethan wasn’t sure how long he stood staring at the door, but it was long enough that his knees started complaining. He sank onto the sofa, transferring his gaze to the floor instead. His mind was surprisingly blank, and he breathed. Well, he did until his inhales became choppy, and hot tears splashed down his cheeks. His eyes burned, his throat swelled up, and his nose ran. He grabbed a cushion to his chest and lay down on the sofa, curling himself up.
The cavern in his chest yawned wide and empty as he contemplated his future. He would never again find what he had with Joey.
“Why are there photographers outside?”
The voice didn’t even shock him, though he hadn’t heard Christi come in, but he couldn’t answer. His throat ached with the need to scream, but he couldn’t.
“Ethan? What’s wrong?” Christi crouched in front of him, making him blink, more tears trickling over his lashes. “What happened?” She placed a hand on his shoulder, and it must’ve been the spark to the kindling because a sob tore through his scratchy throat.
He tightened his grip on the cushion and burrowed his face into the sofa to muffle his cries. The more he cried, the more he hurt, and the more he hurt, the more he cried. He could hear Christi mumbling but not exactly what she said. His ears were focused on his pain.
He must’ve fallen asleep at some point because the ache in his throat woke him, and a soft light was on, and the curtains had been closed. Ethan pushed himself upright and sighed at the aches in his body. The sofa was not comfortable for sleeping, even at the best of times. And this definitely wasn’t the best of times. He rubbed his hands over his face, wiping away the dried tears and crusty sleep, and breathed deeply.
It was done. Joey was gone, and Ethan would continue as he had been. The pain would lessen, but he needed to give it time. It was a grieving process, after all.
“Ethan?” Christi whispered, and he glanced over to the door of the dining room.
“Sorry about that,” he croaked. He cleared his throat and winced.
“Why don’t we have a drink? See if we can get that throat of yours working again,” she said with a small smile.
Ethan stood, holding onto the arm of the sofa when his legs threatened not to hold him. Following Christi into the dining room, he settled into a chair, and she placed a mug in front of him. She sat across from him, cradling her mug, and smiled at him, careful though it was.
“Do you want to talk about it?” she asked.
Ethan stared at the small bubbles on top of his drink, watching as they popped and disappeared as if they’d never been. Just like Joey. Ethan swallowed hard. “Joey’s gone home.”
Christi raised her brown eyebrows—her having not dyed them when she’d dyed her hair blonde—and licked her lips. “Wasn’t that the plan?” she asked hesitantly.
Ethan nodded slowly, refocusing on his drink. “Someone recognised him, and it brought the journalists out.”
“So I see.” She glanced to where she would’ve been able to see them had the walls of the house not been there. “He couldn’t have been that famous. I didn’t recognise him.”
Ethan huffed a laugh. “Not hugely, but in his circle, he is. His name is Joey Reynolds. He’s a tattoo artist for celebrities.”
“Hoo-boy. No wonder there are so many photographers out there.”
“What?” Ethan glanced at her. “They’re still here?” She nodded. “But he’s gone?”
“I don’t think it’s him they want to talk to at the moment.”
Ethan dropped his head into his hands. “They were supposed to leave when he did,” he mumbled.
“It looks like you might be a celebrity for the next few days,” Christi said. “Maybe you should talk to them and get it over with.”
“No.” Ethan shook his head to confirm his denial. “Joey’s been through enough. He doesn’t need me talking about our time together on top of that.”
Christi sipped her drink. “What are you going to do?”
“Ignore them. They might follow me and photograph me, but they won’t get any words from me, other than ‘fuck off.’ And that’ll be me being polite.” Ethan gulped his coffee, the heat soothing the ache in his throat. After his bout of crying, his sinuses complained bitterly, the pressure around his eyes and nose immense, but it would ease eventually. What he needed was more sleep. To fall into a dreamless state where nothing could touch him for a few hours.
“What time did he leave?” Christi asked, the question prodding the pain in his chest and setting it afire once more.
“Around three o’clock, give or take.” Ethan glanced at his watch. “Jeez. It’s nine o’clock. I’ve lost far too many hours.” He gulped the last of his drink. “Thank you, Christi. You didn’t have to stay.”
“Of course I did. You’re my best friend.”
Ethan yawned. “I need to sleep more. Are you okay with those vultures out there, or do you want to stay over?”
“I’ll be fine. They’ll get nothing from me.”
He said goodbye and got ready for bed. Sinking into the mattress made him groan as his body conformed to it, easing some aches he’d achieved with his sofa snooze. He lay on his back, staring at the ceiling, then reached for the pillow Joey had used while he’d been there. Ethan inhaled, closing his eyes as Joey’s scent filled his lungs. Ethan’s eyes burned, but he held back the tears. He placed the pillow back in place and rolled to his side, burrowing his nose into the edge of Joey’s pillow. He didn’t want the scent to disappear too quickly, and if Ethan hugged it, his own scent would replace it sooner than he wanted.
He fell asleep to the scent of Joey in his nose, hoping that when he woke, it would all have been a bad dream.
Instead, he was abruptly pulled from a dream by someone screaming his name.