“I CAN’T believe he’s gone. Even though I knew how sick he was, a part of me thought he’d get better.”
A warm hand on Alfred Anderson’s shoulder accompanied his friend’s words, and he leaned into the gesture in subconscious desperation for the touch of another, now that his lover was gone.
“I thought so too, Douglas. Right up to the end, I never gave up hope.” He still didn’t believe the empty shell lying before them was the one who’d shared his life. He kept expecting to turn and find his partner, healthy and whole again, standing at his side.
The expected sympathy came as if by rote. “Well, if there’s anything I can do….” Anticipated under the circumstances, the words were all the more welcome because of their sincerity. Douglas Sinclair would do anything in his power to make the burden lighter, and Alfred knew it.
The two gentlemen, one elderly, the other not so much so, stood together, dressed in plain black suits befitting the solemn occasion. The weak light of a midwinter’s afternoon bathed them in its soft glow during their brief respite from the arduous tasks ahead. Neither spoke for several moments, as they stood vigil for someone incredibly dear to them both, and who they’d greatly miss.
In a shining mahogany casket before them lay the remains of a man, still handsome despite the ravages of time and cancer. Douglas reached out to stroke a shrunken cheek. “I can’t believe this is actually my baby brother. Half brother. No, brother. How…?” He stopped and swallowed hard. “Who am I going to fight with now?” he cried in despair, sparing an apologetic glance toward Alfred, as if Alfred ever considered the constant scrapping between the two to be real.
“I know, Douglas, I know,” Alfred said, reaching up and giving his friend’s hand an understanding squeeze, knowing full well what Douglas meant. “I’ll certainly miss the show.” Though Alfred’s own way of saying “I love you” was more conventional, the undertones of affection in the good-natured bickering had never eluded him.
After a few moments, Alfred asked, “Would you mind giving us some time alone, please?”
The hand withdrew, and a softly murmured “Of course” preceded Douglas’s departure through the heavy wooden doors separating the secluded parlor from the world outside. Alfred glanced over his shoulder and offered a weary smile, one his friend and de facto brother-in-law returned as he secured the doors behind himself, warning others of the desire for privacy.
Heavy footsteps retreated down the hallway, growing ever fainter. When they faded into nonexistence, Alfred exhaled heavily, running his fingers through his full head of silvery hair, something his lover had enjoyed doing, particularly after Byron’s own once-flame-red locks had thinned and fallen out.
How Byron had mourned the loss of his hair—a casualty of the chemotherapy that failed to save his life. Then his body had begun to wither, and despite Alfred’s best efforts to remain positive, Byron’s inevitable death could no longer be denied.
“I know you wouldn’t agree with me, but I think bald is a good look for you—very macho and sexy,” Alfred whispered, fingers lovingly caressing the smooth pate of the man who’d shared his life for nearly thirty years.
“I didn’t mind the weight loss, either, even if I did miss our afternoons spent by the pool.” Self-conscious about his appearance, toward the end Byron only allowed Alfred and his doctor to see him undressed. And side effects of the unsuccessful chemotherapy had kept him out of the sun, something he’d once loved—slathered with sunscreen, of course, due to milk-white skin that never tanned, only burned.
“You’re still as handsome as you ever were. But as attractive as you were on the outside, your outer beauty paled in comparison to how you were inside. You had the biggest heart of anyone I’ve ever known, and I’m deeply honored you gave it to me.
“It should have been me, you know,” Alfred continued, his fingers now lightly brushing his lover’s pale and cold brow. “I’m twenty-two years older than you. By all rights, you should have been around long after my time. It isn’t fair.” With those words, the tears he’d held back began to fall. Alone with Byron for perhaps the first time in days, Alfred mourned a life cut short by a foe that all the money in the world couldn’t defeat. “I’m sorry, love: I couldn’t let go, so you wouldn’t let go. I’m terribly, terribly sorry.” The last few months had been a kind of hell he’d never imagined. Through the entire ordeal, Byron hung on, readily agreeing to anything the doctor recommended, solely because Alfred wasn’t ready to live without him. “I should have wished you Godspeed and saved you the pain,” Alfred whispered.
Moving a chair to the edge of the casket and snagging several tissues from a conveniently provided box, Alfred felt very much a lonely old man as he wearily dropped onto the padded seat. “I’ll always love you, you know.” He folded his arms against the edge of the polished wood, resting his head on them while gazing down at the person he considered the best thing to ever happen to him. Fifty-four was far too young to die. Fortunately, they’d shared a great life, and while he’d be lonely and miss his lover terribly, the memories they’d made together brought some measure of comfort.
“I’ve given the matter some thought, baby, and I’m going to try to give you what you asked for. I still don’t totally agree with the plan, although I know, as always, that you have everyone’s best interests at heart.” He stood once more, bending from the waist to kiss his lover softly on the cold, painted lips. “I hope you were right when you said they’d be perfect together if only they’d give each other a chance. I know I should have done this when you first asked, but you know how stubborn I can be.” His lips quirked up into a ghost of a smile as he recalled the many times he’d been compared to a four-legged, braying mammal by this same man now lying still and quiet before him. How he’d love to hear the teasing again, just once more.
“They’re both coming here. I’ll make the introductions. The rest will be up to them, and you, if you’re still around.” It warmed his heart to imagine Byron still with him, maybe standing beside him, free from pain and worry, happy and at peace once more.
Despair suddenly crept into his heart, reality sinking in, truly sinking in, that his lover wasn’t there anymore. No, Byron was well and truly gone, leaving Alfred alone probably for the rest of his life, short as that time might be. “Goodbye, my friend, my lover, my life,” he whispered through trembling lips, knuckles whitening from the force with which he clutched the coffin. “You asked something of me, and I’ll do my best to give it to you. However, I want something too. I don’t believe I’ll be long. Would you wait for me?”
Sorrowfully, he recalled the misery the poor man had bravely faced in the name of a few more months, days, and hours. “I’m sorry I wanted you to stay here when you were ready to go; all the pain you endured. But facing life without you….” Words trailing off in a sob, he finally did what he’d needed to do since his partner slipped away: breaking down completely and grieving, for himself, for his lost love, for the memories they’d no longer make.
In his sorrow, he didn’t notice the shadowy figure emerging from behind him—a shadow that shouldn’t exist in the sunlight washing over the room. Sinking back down in his chair, Alfred gripped the casket, oblivious to the shapeless mass taking form behind him, wrapping what appeared to be human arms around his trembling body. Although he took no notice of these things, deep within his heart familiarity blossomed, and he no longer felt so alone.
AFTER the rush of friends, family, and the merely curious passed, Douglas escorted him home, where Alfred sat alone in his office, the odd sense of peace settling over him again. The day took a toll on already frayed nerves, to the point where Alfred had been sorely tempted to cast decorum aside and verbally upbraid a thoughtless “mourner” who’d dared suggest he replace his dead lover immediately, and with the man’s own widowed daughter, no less. Apparently the ill-mannered social climber hadn’t noticed Alfred’s recently deceased partner was a man, choosing instead to recall that he’d once been married to a woman, albeit disastrously.
Only the intervention of his dear friend and butler, Bernard, kept Alfred’s name out of tomorrow’s headlines. That is, if he wasn’t already destined for front-page notoriety for the passing of his “long-time companion,” as polite company deemed his relationship. In total defiance of his privileged upbringing, he snorted at the notion of Byron being anything other than what he was—Alfred’s husband—in the eyes of anyone who mattered.
Oh, he’d tried to please his elitist parents, marrying a rich, shallow heiress with even less desire for him than he’d had for her. Theirs was a delicately balanced arrangement, one suitable to them both. While they remained childless, as a couple who refused to touch each other would be, they made their families happy, or as happy as upper-crust sensibilities allowed. Their agreement kept his and Susan’s sizeable trust funds intact while providing them each with a built-in escort for social functions.
Susan grew careless, and when the scandal broke, she bore the brunt of public scorn and he received pitying gazes from some and knowing smirks from others. Throughout the accusations and innuendo, he’d done his best to stand by and support the woman who shared his name and little else. In the end she’d quietly filed for divorce before retiring from public life, taking her now notorious inamorata with her—a club singer of dubious background. Now, decades later, Alfred finally realized something genuine must have existed in Susan’s relationship with the entertainer, for the two women had remained together until Susan’s death three years earlier.
The post-scandal clamor died down after a while, only to resurface when Alfred himself slipped up, trusting someone who sold him out to a sleazy tabloid for less money than he’d have paid to keep the man silent. One horrible experience taught him to carefully guard his affections… until he met his lovely redhead, the one who’d captured his heart the moment they met. Suddenly the scandals, the reporters, and even his parents’ threats no longer mattered. With Byron, Alfred found the courage to live life on his own terms, and damned the consequences.
He sighed and raised his glass of brandy—the one vice he refused to give up for the sake of his health—in toast to his late wife, hoping she’d been as happy in her relationship as he’d been in his, and then he toasted once again, in honor of his love.
A soft “ahem” from Bernard brought him out of his reverie.
“Sir, perhaps it would be best if you retired now. You haven’t been sleeping well, and tomorrow may prove stressful, to say the least.”
Alfred slowly rose to his feet, only to discover one was asleep. Resting his hand on the back of his chair, he shook the offending limb to restore circulation. The return of sensation through opening blood vessels shot a sharp spike of pain through his leg. If only all the veins and arteries in his body could be so easily repaired, it would be well worth the momentary discomfort. Satisfied he might now walk without tripping, he followed Bernard from the room, taking little heed of the length of shadow following in his wake.
Once in his bedroom and seated in a far more comfortable chair by a gas-log fire—a fixture more for show and psychological comfort than to ward off cold—Alfred allowed his butler to remove his shoes and gently massage his tired feet. “Would you like another brandy, sir?” Bernard inquired.
Alfred stared at his glass in surprise; he hadn’t noticed he’d emptied it. “I believe I will. Thank you.”
Warm and comfortable, he watched Bernard take the elegant snifter from his withered hand and quietly leave the room, only to return a moment later, the crystal balloon now sloshing with two fingers of amber liquid that sparkled in the firelight.
“Is there anything else you’d like before bed?”
After careful consideration, Alfred decided to confide in his friend and gain an ally for his plans. “What do you know of my nephew Alex?” he asked.
Bernard’s heavily lined face gave no indication of his personal opinion, and, as usual, he selected his words carefully. “A most brilliant man, I believe, and very popular with the… ah… ladies. Why do you ask?”
Alfred stifled a laugh at how the incredibly straight, straight-laced butler phrased his answer. Yes, Alex was brilliant when he applied himself; however, applying himself didn’t happen often. Bernard’s perception of Alex’s popularity with the ladies also held true, though it was no big secret he was more popular with men.
“No particular reason. You’ve arranged a room for him?” Even without asking, he trusted his dependable servant to have everything in order.
“Yes, sir, as requested. I placed him in the blue room. This meets with your approval?”
“Yes. Paul will have his normal room across from mine?”
“Yes, sir, as always.”
Alfred considered the arrangement and then changed his mind. “If memory serves, Paul is also fond of the green room. He loves the view of the gardens. Why don’t you put him there instead?”
Bernard peered at him quizzically from overtop a pair of round-rimmed glasses. Given their long association, and Bernard being equal parts servant and friend, questioning his employer’s decisions had never been discouraged, provided he intended no disrespect. “Are you sure that’s wise? Putting them across the hall from one another, so far from your own room? You know how your nephew values his privacy.”
Alfred smiled indulgently. “Bernard, get a brandy for yourself and join me here by the fire. I’d like a chat.”
Bernard shuffled from the room and returned a few minutes later, carefully avoiding Byron’s favorite chair in favor of an overstuffed ottoman. He took a sip of his brandy, sighing in contentment and savoring every drop as was his habit whenever he indulged in spirits—a rare occurrence. “What would you like to discuss, sir?”
“First, tonight we’re friends; drop the ‘sir’. You can resume it again tomorrow if you need to, but no formalities tonight, please.”
“Yes, si—Alfred. Now, what do you need me to do?” The suspicion in Bernard’s voice bordered on comical.
“You don’t have to commit murder, old man, relax.” Reaching over to the table between his chair and Byron’s, Alfred removed two of the many pictures crowding the polished marble surface, gazing fondly at the enormously different men in each. The first depicted a tall, big-boned, and ridiculously handsome man with sun-bronzed skin, penetrating blue eyes, and wavy hair resembling Alfred’s own.
He handed the photograph to Bernard. “What do you see?” he asked.
“Your nephew Alex. Might I say he looks surprisingly like you when you were younger,” the butler suggested, diplomatically latching onto a neutral topic. “It certainly appears he’s taking advantage of those gym memberships too.”
For the amount Alfred’s accountant sent off each month for fitness clubs and personal trainers, the young man should be winning marathons, though Alfred doubted how much money actually made it to those gyms. Another on an ever-growing list of reasons to put his long-delayed plans into action. “Actually, Bernard, he’s the spitting image of his late mother. It’s a pity you never met her. My poor, accidental sister. How the country club ladies must have snickered behind Mother’s back at this change-of-life child. I adored her, however. She was better than any pony or puppy in her simple wish to be loved. I’ll forever kick myself for not being a proper brother and protecting her from that damned fortune hunter. What were my parents thinking to allow that marriage? They probably hoped for an heir, knowing by then I’d never give them one.
“How she endured their badgering is beyond me. In the end, she showed them. After her worthless husband left, she refused to hand Alex over to nannies, insisting on being a hands-on mother. My parents were horrified!” Alfred smiled fondly at the memory. Little Victoria hadn’t stood up for herself often; however, no one prevailed against her when it came to her son’s well-being. What a fight to remember, and the only one of his recollection she’d ever won.
“Alex adored his mother,” Alfred continued. “Unfortunately, she didn’t enjoy the same good health the rest of the Andersons did. She died at thirty-eight.” He sighed, recalling unpleasant memories. “You know, I always considered the boy distant and cold after her passing. Don’t get me wrong; I love him as my own, regardless of his faults. Sitting at Byron’s bedside, holding his hand and watching him slip further away from me, I truly began to understand why my nephew is the way he is.”
“What do you mean?” Bernard asked.
Alfred took a sip of his brandy and stared thoughtfully into the fire. “As painful as her illness was for me to endure as an adult, Alex was only nine years old when his mother lay dying. Oh, my parents tried to send him off to school, but he refused to leave, wanting to stay with her.”
His eyes filled with tears, the memory still painful of finding Alex in his sister’s bed the night she died, clinging to her cold hand. No doubt the poor child had been with her when she breathed her last. Alex had grown sullen and withdrawn afterward, never regaining his former youthful cheer.
“I wanted to adopt him, you know. You can imagine how the suggestion went over at the time. In the end my parents raised him, giving him everything money could buy, provided they didn’t have to actually spend time with him. I never understood how his own flesh and blood considered him merely an heir to carry on the family line. Of course, they thought the same of me, once.”
Alfred had barely survived such a frigid environment. How much worse had it been for someone as loving and caring as his nephew used to be? Taught to believe his only value lay in his name and in the blood running through his veins, which the elder Andersons insisted made them better than everyone else.
“When Byron fell ill, I couldn’t comprehend why Alex never once came to visit him, even though he called several times each week. At first his lack of concern hurt me, and I believed him callous. I’d even planned a trip to Houston to give the boy a piece of my mind. Byron explained that, after watching his mother die horribly of the same disease, Alex simply couldn’t bear to witness another loved one suffering, something I’d not taken into account. Alex adored his mother, and Byron, too, so I’m inclined to agree.
“There’s also an advantage to footing my nephew’s bills,” Alfred said with a sly sidelong glance.
“And that is….”
“On several occasions he bought airline tickets from Houston to Los Angeles and later canceled, which I believe proved Byron’s theory. Despite his avoidance, Alex truly loved Byron, of that I’m certain.”
He took the picture from the butler and returned it to the table, bringing the other one close enough to see with his failing eyesight. This man had dark, straight hair, laughing eyes, and a slight build, as unlike the man in the first photo as day from night, in more ways than appearance.
“Take a look at this one,” Alfred said, handing the frame to Bernard.
The butler smiled at the photo’s subject. “Paul’s such a likeable fellow,” he said. “It’s a pity he didn’t have red hair like his father and uncles. He’s very much like his mother, I believe.”
“Yes, Paul is a nice young man, if a bit too trusting sometimes. I wish I had his energy! Hiking, running, bicycling—he always seems to be in motion.” Alfred remembered a time when he and Byron had enjoyed such activities. The weekend house in Bishop, California stood empty through the long months of his lover’s illness, their outdoor toys gathering dust, never to be used again—at least not by him.
Pushing those thoughts aside, he leaned in, as if confiding a huge secret. “You know, I find it ironic that the only nephews of two gay men are gay as well.”
Though hardly news to any of the household staff, his longtime butler gave him a questioning gaze. “What’re you getting at, Alfred?”
Smiling like the fellow conspirator he hoped to be, he explained, “I promised Byron I’d do everything in my power to get those two together.”
“Heaven help us!” Bernard exclaimed. “Alex and Paul? I’m sorry to say this, Alfred, I know you mean well, but do you honestly think you should? Alex Martin eats men like Paul Sinclair for breakfast and goes out hunting another for lunch! Those two are as different as can be. How do you propose to unite someone so worldly and, excuse my saying so, spoiled, with someone completely humble and guileless?”
“Well, I’m going to need your help. Here’s the basic plan….”