Every time Ethan fell asleep, his dreams woke him. Joey shouted for him, reaching for him, but Ethan couldn’t grab hold, and Joey moved further and further away. With every scream of his name, it woke something inside him, and Ethan jerked himself awake, sweat coating his skin, and the covers tangled around him. By the time his alarm went off for him to go to work, he was as exhausted as if he hadn’t had any sleep at all.
He wished he understood what the dreams meant, but he couldn’t interpret them. Was it his subconscious telling him something, or was it just hopeful thinking?
Ethan stood behind the reception desk and took a breath before the next wave of checkouts bombarded them. It always happened between nine-thirty and ten o’clock in the morning. The hotel had a policy requiring guests to check out by ten o’clock, and most guests waited until the last minute. He was glad it was busy because it kept him distracted from his thoughts. From Joey.
He had never been someone who clung to the other person in the relationship; he was strong enough to stand on his own two feet. But something about Joey had knocked Ethan for six, to use the old cliché.
Smiling at the older couple heading towards him, he pushed other thoughts aside.
“Mr and Mrs Geller. I hope you’ve had a wonderful time this week.”
The Gellers stayed at the hotel every six months for a week to have time away from their rather large brood. They had a large bed-and-breakfast-style house, which they’d turned into a foster home. They had been looking after children for more years than Ethan had been alive, and he loved them dearly. They often said that the only reason they were still able to look after so many children was because of those breaks they took; otherwise, they would be drained and of no use to anyone.
“It’s been great, as always, dear,” Mrs Geller said with a smile. “Just what the doctor ordered.”
Ethan chuckled. “Back to the chaos again for you.”
Mr Geller groaned. “Roger has his birthday next week, so we’ll be baking all week, I’m sure.”
Ethan checked them out while they chatted about their kids and what their plans were for the next few weeks. The Gellers were taking all seven children abroad on holiday that summer and Ethan didn’t envy them. He wasn’t sure if he wanted kids or not, but he wasn’t completely opposed.
“Well, have a fantastic time, and make sure you bring lots of photos when you next visit us. I want to see that sunshine,” Ethan said.
Ethan focused on the computer to ensure he had completed all he needed to and closed the form.
“I hear Joey has gone back to where he came from.”
Ethan tensed and clenched his jaw, still annoyed at David for being part of the reason Joey had left. “He had work to do.” He continued to focus on the screen, pretending to look at things as if he was busy.
“Didn’t stop him from coming here. He didn’t do too bad of a job while he was wasting his time with us,” David said, leaning a hip beside where Ethan stood.
Ethan refused to be baited.
“Ah well, he’s already onto his next lay according to the news. You’re well shot of him.”
David disappeared as quickly as he appeared, but those parting words hurt more than Ethan wanted to admit. He wasn’t naïve. He knew Joey had another life in London, and that his time in Whitby was just a stopgap, but Ethan had hoped it meant more. He shook his head when his phone buzzed, and he pulled it from his pocket, glancing around to make sure David wasn’t peering over his shoulder.
CHRISTI: Let’s go to Neon tonight. You need to get out.
Ethan stared at the message. He wasn’t sure going to the place he’d met Joey at was the best idea, but was staying at home any better? David’s words came back to him, and his fingers hovered over his phone screen.
ETHAN: I’m there. What time?
He might regret it, but dancing with someone might help him to get over the feelings that had been growing inside him since he’d met and got to know Joey.
CHRISTI: Fab! Seven o’clock. See you there as I’m working until six.
Ethan replied to say he’d be there; he hoped he wasn’t making a mistake. Already he could feel the churning in his stomach, but he couldn’t live his life in stasis. He’d never fallen so hard and fast for anyone before, but he needed to let Joey go. Joey had another life in London, one that Ethan had no part in, and he needed to remember that.
Eight hours later, after a brief cat nap which ended the same way his previous night had, he entered the Neon Lounge, holding his breath as he passed the bar and letting it out slowly while he searched for Christi. She waved from across the room, and he made his way through the already-heaving crowd. He still stood by his assessment that Thursday was becoming the new Friday of the working week people.
“Hey! I got you a vodka and orange. I wasn’t sure how hard you were going to hit it tonight,” Christi said, pushing the glass towards him.
Ethan picked it up and downed half of it in one go, wincing when the strength of the drink hit him.
“Okay. Duly noted. Sloshed is the aim tonight.” Christi snorted and sipped whatever her cocktail was. “How was work?”
Ethan rolled his eyes and settled onto the stool beside her. “Busy, which was good. How’re things with Di?”
Christi huffed and put her drink on the table slightly harder than needed. “She purposefully double-booked me yesterday!”
He let Christi go on about her arch nemesis—though, as Ethan had always said, if she just stopped baiting her, it would all end—letting her distract him enough to cope until a guy approached him. He was roughly Ethan’s height but had wider shoulders. His hair was to his shoulders and had been dyed blond. Basically, he reminded Ethan of a surfer. Christi fell silent beside him.
“Hey, I’m Addy. Would you like to dance?”
Ethan opened his mouth to decline, then thought better of it. “Sure.” He downed the rest of his drink and glanced at Christi. “You okay for a few minutes?”
Christi nodded. “Kole will be here soon.”
Ethan stood and gestured to the dance floor. “After you.”
He followed Addy to the couples that were already moving to the beat and slid his arm around Addy’s waist when they faced each other. Addy fitted his body to Ethan’s, and they caught the beat immediately. Ethan lost himself in the music, sometimes wrapped around Addy, sometimes dancing in front of him. They stopped briefly to get another drink, which Ethan threw back, then returned to the floor.
He wasn’t sure how long they danced, but he was soaked with sweat when he began to tire. Addy stared at him, faces close, and Ethan knew what he was going to do. It was in his eyes, and Ethan didn’t know what his response would be. His mind was whirling, even as he stared into Addy’s eyes. As his head lowered. As his breath flowed across his mouth.
Ethan swallowed hard and turned his face, and Addy’s kiss met his cheek. Ethan closed his eyes and tightened his hold on the man. “I’m sorry,” he whispered in his ear.
Addy pulled back with a small smile. “It’s okay. I can tell when someone is trying to forget. I thought I might be able to help.”
“You have.” Ethan sighed. “But I need to go.”
He kissed Addy’s cheek and stepped back. He hesitated for a second longer, then turned to their table. Christi and Kole were in a conversation with a man and a woman who had joined them. Ethan grabbed his jacket and touched Christi’s shoulder.
“I’m going. Have a good night. You, too, Kole.”
“But what about…” Christi waved her hand towards the dance floor, and Ethan smiled.
He escaped from the building as quickly as he could and stopped, hands on hips, head dropped back, and stared at the stars as he breathed in the cool night air. What was he doing? He couldn’t put his life on hold because of one man, who was unlikely to be returning.
How was Joey coping with being back? From what Joey had told him, the funeral was the following day. Would he make it through?
Ethan sighed, cursing himself because he wanted to be there for him. He wanted to hold his hand, slide his arm around his waist to hold him up on one of the toughest days of his life. Burying his best friend—or any person—was not something Ethan would wish on anyone. But Joey didn’t deserve this. Especially as he was the one to find Elliott.
He wandered down the street towards home, not wanting to get a taxi yet, and pulled out his phone. He stared at Joey’s number. Would it make things worse to hear his voice? Would he make things worse for Joey?
Ethan sighed and shoved the phone into his pocket again. Joey had left and had a lot of things going on. He didn’t need Ethan butting in and making it worse.
He’d only walked ten more steps when he pulled the phone out again and hit call before he could reconsider. As the ringing sounded in his ear, he closed his eyes and shook his head. What was he doing?
The moment he heard Joey’s voice, Ethan’s entire body released its tension, and he had to lean against a nearby wall to stop from sinking to the ground.
“Ethan?” Joey asked again. “Are you okay?”
“Yes,” he whispered and then cleared his throat. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to interrupt. I don’t know…” He couldn’t finish the sentence because he didn’t want Joey to think he couldn’t cope without him. He didn’t want to think he couldn’t cope without Joey, especially as Ethan was fiercely independent and decisive in his own right.
“You’re not interrupting. I’m just feeding Joelle.”
Ethan frowned and straightened. “You have company. Sorry. I’ll go.”
“No! There’s no one here.”
Ethan squeezed his eyes closed, confused. “Joelle?” he reminded him.
Joey’s deep chuckle filtered through the line. “Joelle is my cat.”
“You have a cat?” He didn’t mean for his voice to sound so surprised.
“I do.” Joey sighed. “Elliott and I picked her out. She was both of ours.”
“What does she look like?” Ethan headed home once more, a lightness in his steps now he had Joey’s voice in his ear.
“She’s a British Longhair. A deep grey fluff ball is what she is,” Joey crooned. “Aren’t you? Yes, you are.”
Ethan’s smile widened. “She sounds beautiful. You’ll have to send me a picture.”
There was a bit of noise and then silence, and Ethan glanced at his phone; they were still connected. He put it back to his ear.
“Okay. I’ve sent you a photo,” Joey said suddenly.
Ethan pulled the phone away from his ear again. He clicked on the photo Joey had sent, and his heart pounded when a gorgeous grey cat appeared. Ethan had to keep his eyes on the cat, but it was difficult because Joey had the cat cuddled up to his face, and the man’s eye colour stood out—it was the same colour as the cat.
They fell into silence, and the cool air bit into Ethan’s skin, but he didn’t care. As much as he could deny being wound up in someone enough that he struggled to function, it was startlingly obvious to him now that it was the case. In the few short days they’d had together, Ethan had fallen hard. But where did that leave him now? He had always been stubborn and insisted on standing on his own, but somewhere along the line, those days had changed things. Changed him.
“Are you okay, Ethan?” Joey asked.
“I should be asking you that.” He crossed the road.
“I’m fine. I’m not looking forward to tomorrow, but it’ll be what it’ll be. I can’t change things.”
Ethan’s heart broke for him. “I wish I could be there to help you through it.” The moment he said it, he wished he could call it back. Joey didn’t need that from him. He needed him to give him—
“I wish you were here, too.” The words were so softly spoken that Ethan hadn’t been sure they were truly said until Joey continued. “I’m sorry I left how I did. Have they left you alone?”
Ethan allowed the change of subject. “They have for the most part. I still have people visiting the hotel and asking me questions, but I think they’re mainly fans rather than reporters.”
“You don’t need to be. I wish they’d leave you alone,” he admitted, crossing another road and finally reaching his street.
“It’s how they earn their money. I can’t begrudge them it, but yeah, I wish they would, too.”
“How bad will it be tomorrow?” He reached his door and slipped into his house, grateful for the warmth emanating from it.
Joey was quiet for a moment. “Bad enough that I’ll want to hide away from the world for a week or two. Unfortunately, I won’t be able to.”
“I have clients to tattoo. I’ve already rearranged them once. I can’t do it again without it affecting my business. And it’s not just me I have to think about anymore. The artists rely on me as much as I rely on them.”
Ethan nodded, though Joey couldn’t see him, and slipped off his coat. “I’m sure they’ll find some other news soon.”
“It’ll die down once the funeral is done, and there’s no more light shining on the situation.”
“I don’t know if I would ever get used to that level of scrutiny,” Ethan said, settling on the sofa. Joey was silent, and Ethan replayed his words and grimaced. “I mean, I would if needed, but it’s really hard on you, isn’t it?” He hadn’t wanted Joey to think he wasn’t capable of the pressure of being in the spotlight. Though why, he wasn’t sure. It wasn’t like they were going to be a couple, was it?
“It takes some compartmentalising, that’s for sure.”
“Do you get a break from it at all? I mean, I know you don’t always have celebrity clients, so does that mean the reporters leave you alone sometimes?”
Joey sighed. “Sometimes, yes. We each travel a lot, but there’s always one artist that remains in London when everyone else is away. When we’re travelling, there’s less commotion during the actual journey, but it’s worse when we get to wherever we’re going. We try to keep our calendar secret, but somehow, it always gets out. Some celebrities tell everyone for the exposure. Some reporters probably pay for someone to tell them. Regardless, we’re always caught in the media trap.” He snorted. “I probably shouldn’t complain since this is my livelihood.”
“It’s okay to be bitter about it, even if you do have to rely on them sometimes.”
They lapsed into silence again, and Ethan knew he had to let him go, but he didn’t want to. For that reason alone, he did.
“I’ll let you go. No doubt you have things to do. Call me if you need anything, okay?” Ethan said. “Anything at all.”
“Thanks.” Joey paused. “Take care, Ethan.”
Pulling the phone away from his ear and ending the call was difficult but he managed it. He stared at the dark TV screen while his brain revisited all the things he’d experienced with Joey. It needed to stop, but Joey had been the first person to make him feel every inch the submissive he wanted to be, and those memories reminded him of how it felt. He hated losing it, but he hated losing Joey even more.
Ethan closed his eyes and shook his head, sighing. He reached for the remote and flicked through the offerings until something caught his eye enough for him to set it playing. There would be no sleep for him tonight because he couldn’t go through Joey’s shouts and screams again. Not when there was nothing he could do about seeing him in the near future.
Ethan frowned. Could he visit Joey? What would be the point when the end would be the same result? He’d still be leaving Joey in London while he returned to Whitby. It wasn’t an insurmountable distance, but it would put a strain on any relationship they tried. And then there was the media to think about. If he was seen with Joey too much, they would start hounding Ethan, too. Would it be worth it to spend time with Joey?
Ethan didn’t have to think about that answer because it was a resounding yes. But if they started something, one of them would have to give something up eventually, and Ethan understood it would probably be him.
Could he give up his life in Whitby for Joey? It was all Ethan had ever known; he’d never lived anywhere else. He’d never wanted to live anywhere else. But could he?
It wasn’t a decision he could take lightly, and certainly not one he could decide upon while still slightly inebriated, although he hadn’t drunk so much that he didn’t know what he was doing. It stood to reason, though, that he shouldn’t be making split-second decisions when his emotions were bubbling at the surface. He’d set them aside for another day.
Ethan grabbed his phone when it beeped and stared at the words.
JOEY: I’ll always need you, Ethan. x