LIAM MARSHALL and Alex Griffin had been the best of friends since junior high. Like in all the best buddy tales, Alex had been there for his friend. Even when Liam was caught blowing the football captain and suffered through an entire year of persecution by the football team and their hangers-on, Alex stood by Liam, who had been grateful for the support. It was more than the jock had received. He’d switched schools midway through the semester, and the football team never recovered. Liam got the blame for that, as well.
Alex was straight, loved the ladies, and was never short of a date. Liam was gay, loved the boys, but honestly, it was more trouble than it was worth to find a date during school. He had high hopes that his luck would change in college. It did to a certain extent. There wasn’t a different boy every night, but Liam got laid enough to stop Alex trying to hook him up with random guys. Alex’s taste in men sucked.
The day Alex got the diagnosis of colon cancer, and the fact that it was too late to do anything about it, Liam moved into Alex’s apartment. Alex could have gone back to his parents and let them take care of him, but they were both elderly. It was hard enough for them to come to terms with the fact their only son was dying at the age of thirty-five, let alone cope with caring for a man who was being eaten from the inside out. In Liam’s mind, there was no question. Alex had been there for him from the beginning. Now it was his turn.
He cared for Alex for six months. To the outside world, Alex was remarkably stoic about the death sentence he was facing. To the one man he could trust not to betray him, Alex raged at the unfairness. Liam let him shout and scream, dealt with the accidents, and looked after his friend, body and soul, as the cancer ate him whole.
As a technical writer, Liam worked from home. Some days, drugged to escape from the pain, Alex would fall asleep in Liam’s lap, unconsciously seeking comfort from his friend. Occasionally Liam had Alex on one side and Alex’s daughter on the other. Liam didn’t mind. He could work late at night when Alex was in bed.
Alex had been married previously. A marriage that lasted five years, until they both got bored with each other. The only good thing from the marriage was a gorgeous little girl who was now eight years old. As Alex got sicker, little Kathy was allowed to spend more time with Daddy and used to curl up next to him on the bed reading stories to him. Even when Alex slipped into a coma, Kathy refused to stop reading to him because one of the nurses from the hospice service had told her that her daddy could still hear her.
Liam was by himself when Alex died, lying on the bed and stroking Alex’s dark-blond hair so that he wasn’t alone. He knew Alex wasn’t really there anymore. His spirit or soul had already gone, leaving behind a shriveled husk of a man. His throat raw, Liam tried hard not to show his grief in front of his best friend. What was left of Alex wasn’t going to slip away to the sound of Liam’s tears. As Alex’s breathing changed, became more drawn out and noisy, Liam started whispering about a night from their teenage years. Alex had turned up on Liam’s doorstep, angry and upset at being dumped by his girlfriend. Liam had taken him up to his bedroom, mopped up his tears, and made space for him on his bed as they watched the first series of Star Wars films. The night ended with the two of them kissing, Alex leaning over Liam as he explored his mouth. Liam knew it was a one-time deal, and they never talked about it again, but Liam had never forgotten it. Alex was quiet, slipping away as Liam finished his story, but Liam could swear there was a smile on his face.
Tears were allowed to fall freely now. Liam laid his head on the pillow next to Alex and sobbed as he said good-bye to his friend.
ALEX had left one last request for Liam, and made sure there was enough money to carry it out. It was typical of Alex to send Liam halfway around the world with some of his ashes just to ride on a train. Not even a comfortable train, at that. On an old rickety train, surrounded by families, harassed parents, and kids loudly enjoying the last few days of their school vacation, Alex took a ticket to Ryde.
THE conversation had gone something like this:
Alex: “You need a vacation after being stuck inside with me for so long.”
Liam: “Somewhere hot. Sandy beaches, blue sea, hot men.”
Alex: “I can promise you the beaches are sandy.”
Liam: “What do you mean? Alex, what are you planning? I know that look in your eyes. I thought we were talking about a vacation.”
Alex: “I’m offering you a vacation, moron.”
Alex: “The Isle of Wight.”
Liam: “Where the fuck is that?”
Alex: “The UK.”
Liam: “It rains there and the men aren’t hot.”
Alex: “Ewan McGregor, man, Ewan McGregor.”
Liam: “That’s a low blow, even for you.”
Liam’s vision of a tropical vacation with cocktails and cabana boys faded away with the tide and instead there was this, a special hell, surrounded by screaming kids and overweight moms. Alex really knew how to give his best friend a good time.
Liam leaned against the glass and sighed. Somewhere up there, Alex was laughing at him. The bastard could have given him a train ticket to anywhere; the Orient Express, for instance. The lyrics said a “Ticket to Ride,” not fucking Ryde. But no, Alex loved the Isle of Wight after a summer vacation during college and he would not be moved. So a ticket to the ass end of nowhere it was. Maybe Alex had secretly hated him all these years.
The Isle of Wight was obviously a popular destination for families, because from the second Liam had gotten on the ferry to the island he hadn’t been able to get away from whining brats. Liam wasn’t one of those men whose life was going to be completed by progeny. He liked Kathy well enough, even though he’d deny it if pushed, but she was Alex’s kid, so of course Liam liked her. Children en masse were hell on earth. Particularly the little fucker behind him.
The train eventually reached Ryde. Could any train ride be so slow? The island was the size of a handkerchief. The majority of the crowd got off, to Liam’s relief. He was particularly pleased to be rid of the evil kid who had spent most of the journey kicking the back of his seat. After days of riding this train from hell, he had no patience for some bored brat. He’d glared at the monster when the kicking had started, and then tried glaring at the mother. The woman had stared back with sublime indifference. Liam thought about moving to the seat behind the kid and kicking his seat to see how he liked it. He could just imagine how that would go down. Pervert On Train Attacks Small Child! Liam’s imagination ran wild as he visualized the headlines. It might even get on YouTube. Somebody would record it on their cell phone and upload it. Liam shuddered as he imagined the small clip going viral. His mother would never speak to him again. The nightmare had kept him occupied until the train disgorged the horrid child and his equally horrid mother at Ryde Esplanade.
For the couple of minutes it took to get to Ryde Pier Head station, Liam leaned against the back of the seat and closed his eyes. Forget the last few days riding this God-awful train. Today was the day to fulfill Alex’s request. Then he could go home and get on with his life.
His empty life.
Mingling with the few passengers waiting for the catamaran that left from the pier, Liam got himself a latte from the coffee shop in the terminal building, taking it to sit outside on one of the benches. He sipped it carefully, having learned from previous experience that the baristas made their coffee extra hot. Liam’s bottom lip was still recovering from the last time.
It was blustery outside of the protective shell of the terminal building, but Liam appreciated the feel of the wind and sun on his face. Alex was right. He had spent too long inside, not wanting to leave the sick man alone for any length of time. Digging inside his backpack, Liam drew out a small rosewood container and placed it on his lap. He stroked the box gently. The wood felt warm to the touch, as if it contained the spirit of the man within. Alex had wanted a small amount of his ashes to be sprinkled in the sea at Ryde after Liam had ridden the train. It was a simple request and one Liam intended to honor.
He finished his coffee, taking his time to appreciate the rich flavor. Overhead, seagulls wheeled in circles, looking for scraps of food. Contrary to Liam’s expectations, it wasn’t raining. In fact, it hadn’t rained the whole time he’d been in England, a fact that seemed to dominate the news headlines. Seriously, two weeks without rain and there was a drought?
It was the right time now. The sun was glinting off the water and there was a light gust of wind that should scatter Alex’s spirit far over the waves. Taking a deep breath, Liam went to the rail, intending to open the box and send the remains of his friend into the four winds.
It was simple. He could open the box and then he could go back to his home in Michigan. His fingers fumbled at the clasp, unable to complete the simple task. Liam’s eyes filled with tears: frustration and anger at himself for being so useless, grief for the loss of his friend.
The loss of Alex in his life was profound. For more than twenty years, Alex had been the mainstay of his world; not his lover but his friend, brother, partner in crime. Disposing of his ashes would leave Liam with nothing left of Alex. He would lose him all over again.
The tears spilled over onto Liam’s cheeks, and he dashed them away impatiently. He fumbled at the catch of the box only to be thwarted by a large hand over the clasp.
“I wouldn’t do that here if I were you.”
Annoyed at being stopped when he had finally worked up the courage to open the box, Liam looked up to glare at the man, only to be caught by the sight of beautiful brown eyes, framed by long, dark lashes.
“Why not? Is there a law against it?” Liam snapped.
The man smiled gently. “Probably not, but if you chuck the ashes here, you’ll end up with them in your face. The wind’s blowing in the wrong direction. You need to move over to that side today.”
“Oh.” Liam’s hostility faded in the face of such a reasonable explanation. Feeling like a complete idiot, he looked around for another place, where he wouldn’t get a mouthful of ashes. Alex would have loved that.
“Do you want to go over there? I’ll look after your bags for you,” the man said helpfully, pointing to the other side of the pier.
He had a kind face, Liam noticed. He was probably in his late twenties, although Liam was dreadful at guessing ages, with blond, wavy hair caught back in a ponytail. Not a stunner, but kind and gentle, with those amazing golden-brown eyes that were very expressive. At the moment, they were completely focused on Liam.
“I promise not to nick anything,” the man assured him.
Liam started to walk over to the place where he could throw the ashes and then stopped, his feet rooted to the spot. He couldn’t do it, couldn’t throw Alex away. It was too soon. Liam needed more time. He needed forever.
An arm went around Liam’s shoulders, and he was led back to the bench.
“Sit down here. Do you want another drink?”
Liam nodded as he collapsed onto the seat. He didn’t, but it would give him a chance to get himself together while the man was gone. Taking some deep breaths, he forced back the tears, sniffling and trying to swallow the lump in his throat.
A few minutes later the man was back, handing over a latte and sitting down next to Liam. “Here we are.”
“Thank you,” Liam managed. He paused to let it cool down before taking a sip but forgot to offer the advice to his companion.
“Jesus!” The man almost spat his drink out.
Liam managed a weak smile. “Sorry,” he offered. “I should have told you they like taking out the inside of your mouth. It’s good coffee, but you need to wait a moment.”
The man wiped his chin. “Thanks for not warning me.”
“Sorry,” Liam apologized. “Thank you for the coffee… and looking after me.”
“You’re welcome. I’m Sam Owens, by the way.” Sam held out his hand.
Liam juggled his coffee and offered his hand. “Liam. Liam Marshall.” Sam’s handshake was warm and solid.
“Good to meet you, Liam.”
“And thanks for the coffee.”
“No worries. You can return the favor another time.”
Liam gave him a steady look. “Another time?”
Sam gave him an impish look that took ten years off his age. “I can always hope. Er, you are gay, aren’t you?”
“You worried about hitting on the straight man?”
“Well, you haven’t smacked me in the face yet, so that’s a good sign.”
“I might just be extremely tolerant,” Liam pointed out.
“Dude, you’re gay. We wouldn’t even be having this conversation if you were straight.”
“Dude? Could you be more stereotypical? I may be from America, but I ain’t a cowboy.” Liam grinned at the man.
Sam sipped his coffee, more carefully this time. “You’d look hot with a Stetson on your head.”
“I don’t look hot now?”
Liam wasn’t sure what had gotten into him. He’d gone from tears to flirting in the space of a sip of coffee.
“Good enough,” Sam said. “Better with a smile on your face.”
The good humor ebbed away from Liam. “I don’t feel much like smiling at the moment.”
“I can see that,” Sam said softly. He reached out and touched the box with one finger.
Liam resisted the urge to snatch it away.
“Who is this?” Sam asked.
“A friend,” Liam snapped.
“Just a friend?” The question in his voice was plain to hear.
Liam sighed. There was nothing really to hide. “My best friend, Alex. He died last month.”
Sam looked confused. “Was he a Brit?”
“No. Just a Beatles fan.”
“Ah.” Sam’s confused expression cleared up. “And he sent you here in the summer holidays? Man, he must really have hated you.”
“That’s what I said,” Liam grumbled. “He promised me a vacation with sandy beaches and….” Liam stopped before he blurted it out.
Sam arched one eyebrow. “Sandy beaches and…?”
“The beach isn’t even sandy here.”
“Good deflection. Doesn’t work. I can show you some sand. Now, what else did he promise you?”
Liam ducked his head. “Hot men. Alex promised me hot men. Instead there are kids, hundreds and hundreds of kids.” He couldn’t control the shudder.
“Ah yes, the monster on the train.” Sam sounded amused.
Liam looked up. “You saw me on the train?” To his surprise, he could see color rising in Sam’s cheeks.
“I saw you on the train,” Sam agreed.
A thought occurred to Liam. “What are you doing here?” he asked.
“Visiting my gran. She’s not too well at the moment.”
Liam was confused. “She lives on the pier?” To his amusement, Sam was crimson.
“She lives a few stops back.”
“So why did you…? Oh! Did you stalk me?”
“‘Stalk’ is such a horrid word,” Sam protested.
“What would you call it?” Liam asked, aware he was getting turned on by the fact Sam had followed him.
Sam huffed. “Can’t a guy check out another guy without it being stalking?”
“He can,” Liam agreed, laying a hand on Sam’s, “particularly if he buys his prey a coffee and then looks after him.”
Sam looked at Liam’s hand on his. “So you’re not freaked out?”
“What on earth for? A good-looking guy buys me coffee, looks after me when I have a breakdown in public, and then admits he was stalking me? It happens every day.”
“I’m so glad. I wouldn’t like to think I was the only mad person in this world.”
They both laughed, dissipating the last remaining vestiges of tension between them.
Liam shifted on the bench. Drinking two coffees in quick succession made him aware of another need. “I need to use the bathroom. Would you look after Alex for me?”
Perhaps that was too creepy because Sam’s expression changed, but then he gave Liam a kind smile. “Of course I will.” He held his hand out for the small box.
Liam found it very hard to hand the box over. Since Alex’s parents had given him the ashes, it had not been out of Liam’s possession.
“He’ll be fine with me,” Sam assured him gently.
Swallowing hard, Liam handed it over. Sam laid the box on his knee, his fingers curving around it.
“Go and take a leak. Leave your bag. I’ll be here when you get back.”
Perhaps he was being stupid, trusting a complete stranger. Liam wasn’t sure. He did trust Sam to look after Alex, though.
With one last look over his shoulder, Liam disappeared into the terminal building, returning as quickly as he could. Sam was where he had left him, the box still on his knee.
He looked up as Liam approached. “Better?”
“Yes, thanks. Would you like another coffee?” Liam offered.
“Not bothered. You?”
Liam shook his head. “I’ve had two. That’s enough. I suppose I’d better do what I came here to do.”
He held out his hand to take the ashes from Sam, but the man didn’t hand over the box immediately.
“When you’ve done this, are you going home?” Sam asked.
Liam hesitated before answering. “I’ve got no real reason to stay,” he said slowly.
“Alex wanted you to have a vacation.”
Sam seemed to be trying to say something, but Liam wasn’t too sure what it was. “He did. I’ve been here several days already.”
“Oh?” Sam frowned. “Have you explored the island?”
Now it was Liam’s turn to blush. “I’ve been riding up and down the damn train for the last week.” At Sam’s questioning expression, he said, “I just can’t bring myself to sprinkle the ashes. Once he goes, that’s it. I’ve lost my friend for good.” His throat closed up and he blinked rapidly, determined not to let the tears spill over again. One public humiliation a day was enough.
Nodding in understanding, Sam tugged on Liam’s sleeve to sit down next to him. For a few minutes, he leaned against Liam as they sat on the bench, his warmth comforting to Liam. Sam didn’t seem to be the type of person who needed to talk all the time to fill the silence. Liam appreciated that.
“Do you have to go back home immediately?” Sam asked eventually.
Liam sighed. “No. I can work from here if anything is urgent. I’m a technical writer. I work for myself.”
“So do I,” Sam said, “as an accountant. It’s my busiest time of year, normally, but as Gran has been ill, I’ve made sure I’m ahead of myself.”
“What’s the matter with her?”
“Just the flu. Mum worries as we all live so far away.”
“So you don’t live on the island, then?”
Sam burst out laughing. “Hell no, it’d drive me bloody mad living here. Too small. I live near London. Mum asked me to come down and see how she was doing.”
“That’s kind of you,” Liam said, noticing how Sam’s face lit up when he laughed.
“I love my gran. She’s a funny old bird, but she’s always had time for me and my brothers.”
“How many brothers have you got?” Liam asked curiously. He was an only child and had always been vaguely envious of people coming from large families.
“Six.” At Liam’s wide-eyed stare, Sam chuckled. “Mum wanted a daughter so they kept trying. Dad could only produce the Y chromosomes, though. After Paul, the youngest, they gave up. He was such a shit they couldn’t face the thought of any more babies.”
“Are you close to your family?” Sam asked.
“Yeah, we’re all close. They didn’t even care that I was gay. Coming out was the biggest anticlimax ever when I came in from school to find condoms, lube, and a book on gay sex on my bed.”
“Oh wow.” Liam couldn’t imagine that. His admission to his parents that he was gay had been painful, and had only happened because of the incident with the football captain. It was hard to ignore when he came home covered in bruises every day. If it hadn’t been for Alex spectacularly losing his temper with Liam’s dad, both Liam’s parents would have politely ignored what their son was enduring at school. Alex had dragged him home after yet another beating from the football team and forced them to look at the bruises on his back and sides. Liam’s mom had burst into tears when she saw the dark purple and green marks littering her son’s back, but her first words weren’t sympathy for her son.
“Why did you have to be so fucking stupid?” she had screamed at him.
Alex had stared at them in disgust and taken Liam back to his house. Liam hadn’t gone back home for three weeks, and then only to pick up more clothes. His parents had refused to speak to him. Liam hadn’t seen them in twenty years. He wasn’t even sure if they were still alive.
Sam chuckled. “Yeah, biggest disappointment of my life not to have a chance to rebel.”
“It’s not all it’s cracked up to be,” Liam said dryly. Although strictly speaking, he hadn’t rebelled. He hadn’t even been thrown out of his home. Alex had taken him to his home and told his parents that Liam was coming to live with them. Mrs. Griffin had just nodded and that was that. It was easier to do what Alex wanted. They all knew that.
“Do your parents know about you?” Sam asked.
“Sounds as if…,” Sam began.
“I haven’t seen them in a long time. I lived with Alex after I came out.”
Sam frowned. “I thought you and he were just friends?”
“We were. Just best friends. Alex was straight. He was married for a while. He even has a daughter.”
“So you never…?”
Liam snorted. “No. Well, we made out once, but it wasn’t his thing. He was the best friend I could have had, though.”
“What happened to him?”
“Colon cancer. By the time he found out, it was too late to do anything about it. I stayed with him until the end.”
Liam was surprised when Sam wrapped an arm around his shoulder and then he realized that he was crying again. “I’m sorry.” He hunted in his pockets for a tissue only to have a paper napkin thrust into his hand. “Thanks,” he muttered before wiping his eyes and blowing his nose.
Sam didn’t let go of him immediately, and worried about any hostility, Liam looked around to see who was watching. They were alone apart from an elderly man sitting on a bench nearby, engrossed in his newspaper.
“It’s okay,” Sam said quietly. “No one paid any attention to us.”
Liam looked at him uncertainly.
“Well, they did, but only to ogle the two hot blokes.”
Liam snorted, which turned into a sniffle, which somehow morphed into a full coughing fit. That made the old man look up in concern.
“He’s fine,” Sam called out, and the man went back to his newspaper.
“Christ!” Liam gasped out, unable to stop spluttering and choking.
“All right now?” Sam asked, rubbing soothing patterns over Liam’s back.
“Ask me later.”
“Do you need a drink?”
“Water would be good.”
Sam went off to find some water, and for the second time that day, Liam tried to get himself back under control.
“Sip it slowly,” Sam ordered as he handed over the water.
Liam did as he was told, sipping the cold water slowly. For a minute, his body threatened to go into another coughing fit, but he took a deep breath.
“I’m sorry,” he said when he was calm again. “Bet you never thought the guy on the train would be such a basket case.”
Sam nudged him with his shoulder. “No, but then I never thought the hot guy would talk to me. Come on. I’ll take you for lunch. Fish and chips on the beach.”
“What beach?” Liam muttered sourly. “And what about your gran?”
“I’ll call her and say I’ll be there for dinner.”
Liam looked at the box still in his hand. “I ought to….”
“You will,” promised Sam, “but it doesn’t have to be today, does it? When you do, I’ll be there as well.” He held out his hand.
Liam smiled shakily and placed his hand in Sam’s. It didn’t have to be today. Alex wouldn’t mind waiting one more day. Liam could ride the train again tomorrow, and this time he wouldn’t be alone.