“Joey! JOEY! Why are you here? Who is Ethan to you? Why were you working at The Cliff End Hotel? Joey! Why haven’t you been home? Do you feel guilty about what happened to Elliott? Was it your fault?”
Joey swallowed down his responses to the half a dozen reporters shouting questions his way, even though he wanted to smack them about with how evil their questions could be. Yes, Joey did feel guilty about what happened to Elliott, but he wasn’t going to admit that to them. Vultures.
He pressed the car key, unlocking the doors, and climbed inside. He slammed them closed, muffling the questions being thrown at him, and locked them for good measure. Starting the engine, he carefully pulled out of the space and drove down Ethan’s street. The photographers ran alongside him for a short distance, then stopped. They wouldn’t be able to keep up with him without a car.
He hoped they would leave Ethan alone, but he knew better than that. They would stay around his house until he made an appearance. If being by Ethan’s side wouldn’t have made things worse, he would’ve stayed.
As he worked his way through the windy streets of Whitby, then the hills and valleys of the Yorkshire Moors, his focus remained on the man he’d left behind. Just before he reached the junction to join the motorway, he pulled into a lay-by. After putting the handbrake on, he gripped the steering wheel, glaring at the road ahead of him. He smacked the palm of his hand on the wheel, squeezed it tight, then smacked it again. There wasn’t much more he could do to release the fury inside him.
Those reporters had a lot to answer for. If those women—or David—hadn’t recognised him, he would still be holidaying in Ethan’s arms.
He exhaled and rested his head back. But wasn’t that the problem? His holidaying thought showed exactly what he hadn’t wanted to see. This wasn’t Joey’s normal life. He’d taken a break from reality and ended up living the dream with Ethan. A dream that could never become real life because Ethan didn’t deserve to be thrown into his celebrity lifestyle. Ethan deserved to be worshipped from afar with nothing bad ever touching him.
Joey closed his eyes, picturing Ethan’s face. Other than one photo on his phone of them both, his memories were all he had.
He inhaled and exhaled, then checked around him before pulling out. He had a long journey ahead of him, but the least he could do was let Ani know he was on his way.
“Call Ani,” he told the car, and his phone rang through the speakers.
“Hey, Ani,” he breathed.
“Are you okay? I wasn’t expecting to hear from you.”
“Have you seen the news?”
Ani was quiet for a moment, and Joey assumed she was checking the sites. “Ah, they found you.” A woman of few words, though they were always on point.
“Now they have the car registration, it won’t take them long to find me anywhere.” He sighed. “I’m on my way home.”
“You are?” She sounded hopeful.
Joey wasn’t so sure he was, but he didn’t comment. “It’s going to take me a good few hours to get there. Can you keep it quiet for now?”
“I’m sure the vultures will hover around again soon. If they’re not already.”
“Have you spoken to anyone else?”
“No, and I don’t plan to. Not yet.”
Ani sighed. “I’m glad you’ll be back for the funeral.”
Joey didn’t reply, not wanting to think about it. “I’ll call you when I’m close.”
He hung up after saying goodbye and focused on the road. He didn’t put any music on to distract him. Instead, he let the images of the past week flow through him. He couldn’t believe it had been such a short time. There was no way he could ever repay Ethan enough for what he’d given him in those few days together. But he would still try. Once he’d got himself sorted, he would make it up to Ethan. He didn’t know how, but he’d try his hardest.
Seven hours later, he drove through the familiar streets of London towards home—a place he’d not seen for three weeks. He’d stopped for an hour at a service station, buying a drink to tide him over for the rest of the journey and hiding in his car in case anyone recognised him again. And if he’d spent most of that time staring at Ethan’s number on his phone screen, no one needed to know.
He wasn’t sure whether the reporters would be there, as it was closing in on eleven o’clock at night, but he wouldn’t put it past them. After all, the city that never sleeps has nothing on celebrity life.
Holding his breath, he rounded the corner to Life in Ink and exhaled when no one waited outside. The shop itself was on the ground and first floor of a four-storey building. The upper two floors belonged to him. Well, the entire building did, but the top two floors were his haven. No one was allowed inside without his express permission.
Parking next to his designated spot, in which his own car sat, he let the engine idle while he settled his nerves. The slightly rough noise of the engine would most likely annoy his neighbours, so after a few minutes, he switched it off. The silence within the car would break the moment he opened the car door, and the sounds from the businesses around him infiltrated his bubble.
Before he did that, he checked his phone. He’d received no messages or calls from Ethan when he stopped at the services, and he shouldn’t expect any, but he couldn’t stop the hope from flaring inside him. But no messages lit his screen.
He sighed, shoved the phone back into his pocket, and opened the door, the streetlamp above casting shadows. As expected, laughter and merriment from the surrounding bars filled the air. Despite the chill of the evening, some patrons of those businesses appeared to be making use of the outdoor areas. Most of the time, it didn’t bother him because he was busy working or not even present. That night, it grated on him, though it shouldn’t. They were entitled to be happy. It wasn’t their fault that Joey had suffered a loss that tore at the fabric of his life.
No, that was Joey’s fault. For not seeing that Elliott was in pain. For not checking on him sooner that day. For not making sure he was okay after the previous evening.
“Joey?” a soft voice said.
He glanced up. Ani stood a few feet away. Her green hair was ear-length on one side and shaved on the other, and tattoos peeked out from beneath her vest top, along her arms and up her chest and neck. Any other day, Joey would tease her about her pint size, but he didn’t feel particularly humorous that night.
“Hey,” he said.
Ani wasn’t a touchy-feely person, due to problems she had in her past, so she surprised him when she wrapped her arms around his waist.
“I’m glad you’re back.” She stepped away, slipping her fingers into the back pockets of her jeans, which were undoubtedly black, though he couldn’t see for definite in the streetlight. “I’ve locked everything up for the night. I didn’t think you’d want an audience for your arrival.”
He hadn’t. “Thanks.” He opened the back passenger car door and pulled his bag free—the one he hadn’t left at Ethan’s house when he departed without taking anything he had brought with him. It hadn’t been much, but he didn’t need any of it. “I’m going up. Thank you for taking care of Joelle.” He hadn’t realised how much just saying the name would hurt his chest.
“She’s been fine. Wouldn’t come down to the shop, though.”
“Thanks, Ani. Sorry for leaving all this for you.”
Ani shook her head. “You don’t need to be sorry, Joey. You needed space. I get it. We all get it.”
He tried for a smile and stepped around her to the metal staircase leading up his part of the building. He could reach it by going through the tattoo shop as well, but this was closer. As he reached the top, Ani called his name again.
“Call me if you need anything.”
Joey waved a hand and unlocked the door to his apartment. He held his breath again as he stepped over the threshold, waiting for the pain of the memories to tear through him. It took him several seconds to close the door behind him, setting the triple lock into place, so people couldn’t get in from the outside. Then he leaned back against the door and stared at the open-plan layout of the home he’d lived in for close to ten years—the first two of which Elliott had lived there with him.
It still held the markings of his best friend. The scratch along the laminate flooring where he’d decided to move the sofa by himself instead of asking for help, not realising until too late that there was a small but mighty stone caught underneath one of the wooden feet. The dent in the corner of the counter in the kitchen where he’d dropped a heavy-based pan as he’d tried to lift it onto the shelf. The faded rectangle by the window where he’d put up a picture he had taken to his new home two years later. Joey had left his own marks, too, but Elliott’s were too close to the surface.
A soft miaow sounded, and Joey dropped his gaze to the floor, smiling as Joelle pushed her head against his calf.
“Hey, sweetheart,” he murmured, sliding to sit on the floor. He picked her up, brushing his cheek against her fur. “I’m sorry I was gone so long.”
Joelle bumped her head against the underside of his chin. She’d always done the same greeting, even when she was a kitten.
More memories invaded. Him and Elliott going to a friend’s house because they’d had a litter of kittens, and Elliott wanted to play with them. Neither had expected to go home with one, but Ryan could be persuasive when he wanted to be. Elliott’s apartment didn’t allow pets, but Joey didn’t mind having her at his. When the kittens were old enough to leave, Joey and Elliott had gone to pick her up, arguing for the entire journey about a name for her. In the end, Elliott had crossed his arms over his chest and grumbled, “Might as well call her Joelle. Then she’ll belong to both of us.”
At first, Joey hadn’t understood what he’d meant until he’d explained that by mixing Joey and Ell—which is what Joey called him sometimes—they would get Joelle. The name had stuck. And now it was one more reminder of what Elliott had left behind.
“What are we going to do without him, Joelle?”
Joelle miaowed and rested against him as if trying to comfort him. He didn’t move for a long time. It was only when his ass went numb that he realised how cold he was. Ani had turned the heating down to the bare minimum. Enough to keep Joelle from freezing, but not enough to keep a human from becoming a block of ice.
Joey moved to stand, and Joelle jumped off his lap. He stumbled a bit before reaching for the wall to steady himself. Wandering to the wall where the thermostat lived, he twisted it higher, hearing it click on. It would take a while, but he could manage for now.
Heading back for his bag, he kept his gaze lowered, not wanting more images to surface, but he glimpsed a photograph on the side table. It was of him and Elliott decked out in rainbows from when they’d joined a Pride parade several years ago. It was Joey’s favourite photo of them because they both looked so happy.
He pulled his gaze away, grabbed his bag and aimed for the stairs. There were two bedrooms, both with en-suite bathrooms on the floor above his living area. When he entered his, there was a slight musty smell from the windows not being opened for several weeks, so, even though it was chilly, he cracked them wide. He dropped his bag onto the floor and sat on the bed.
It was strange to be home. Although he’d only been gone for a short period, in the grand scheme of things, anyway, the place felt like it was waiting for something. Joey shook his head and dropped onto his back, staring at the ceiling, lit only by the shine from the streetlights through his open curtains. Usually, he’d shut them, but he couldn’t bring himself to.
He slid his phone out of his pocket, pausing before unlocking it. He rolled to his stomach when he saw a message, though he hesitated to check who it was. It might be his parents, a friend or a colleague, but he wished it was Ethan, and he wasn’t sure he could take the blow if it wasn’t.
Clicking on it was the hardest thing he’d had to do in a while.
ETHAN: Please let me know when you get home. I want to know you’re safe. x
Joey exhaled, his entire body releasing the tension he hadn’t realised he’d been holding. His shoulders and legs ached, his head pounded, and even his ass hurt. But with that one message, Ethan had helped more than he could know.
JOEY: I’m home. I’m safe. Thank you for everything, and I’m sorry for leaving you to deal with the reporters by yourself. x
That was the message he decided on after writing and deleting several versions of the same “are you okay?” type question. Ethan would be okay. He had to be. Because Joey couldn’t live with himself if Ethan wasn’t. He hadn’t meant to blast into Ethan’s life and mess it all up. He’d intended to stay alone, moping for as long as he could get away with it. But then Ethan leaned an elbow beside him in that pub that day, and everything changed.
Now, it was all going back to the way it was before. Joey would hook up with random individuals, sleep alone, work too much and play too little. Especially now Elliott wasn’t there to drag him out with him.
ETHAN: I’m glad. Don’t be sorry. I wouldn’t change a minute. x
Neither would Joey. He wished he came without celebrity acquaintances. That he lived quietly and out of the spotlight. No one deserved to be thrown into that lifestyle, especially if they hadn’t been prepared for it beforehand. That was why he’d left Ethan. The reporters might bother him for a few days, but then they’d leave for fresh news.
JOEY: Me neither. x
Another message came through, but this time, it was from his mother. He ignored it, needing to escape real life for one more night. He closed the windows and curtains, curled up beneath his covers, fully dressed, and held the phone by his face as if he could see or touch Ethan just by holding the device.
Joelle jumped onto his bed and settled onto the pillow beside him, as she always did, and Joey closed his eyes. He brought forward images of his time with Ethan, wanting to remember every minute, every scent, every taste. Hoping that the memories would help him sleep enough to get through the following day, and the day after, and the day after that, too, because the days were going to get harder before they got easier.
As he remembered the feeling of Ethan in his arms, he relaxed further, drifting towards sleep, though not fully asleep. It was the best he could hope for without Ethan beside him. The man had helped him to sleep all night for several nights in a row. A feat that hadn’t happened since Elliott… No, he wouldn’t go there. He refocused back on Ethan.
Was he ever going to see him again? They were from two different worlds. It seemed impossible that they could find anything more than what they had, but maybe. One day, when Joey was a better person, he might find his way back to Ethan. And maybe Ethan will have found someone new to live his life with, but that would be okay because Ethan would be happy. That’s all Joey wanted for him.