“Why won’t you admit that it’s too risky to go to this wedding?” The old woman stared at Ryan, her rheumy eyes barely visible in the half-light of the shelter’s soup kitchen. Why had he even told her, a complete stranger, his story? She’d been extremely curious and just hadn’t stopped digging for details, that’s why. “They’re bound to see you—and then what?”
“But she’s my sister, and I don’t want to miss her special day. I’ve already missed so much of her life.” Ryan wanted to scream with the pain of being separated from his younger—if only by seven minutes—twin sister. It hurt just as much now as it had four years ago when he’d come out to his parents. They had reacted so much more negatively than he’d ever thought possible.
“It must be hard for you.” She tucked a stray curl of white hair back behind a wrinkled ear. “But you’ve got to think about your own safety. If your parents follow through with the threats they made when they kicked you out—”
“Don’t you think I know that?” Ryan put down his spoon, suddenly no longer hungry. “I’ve barely managed to make a living since they disowned me. I even moved to Canada just to be sure they wouldn’t find me. And I’m pretty sure that Nicole hates me as much as they do. God knows what they told her in the meantime. But I still love her, and ever since I found out that she’s getting married to my friend Peter I’ve felt this need to see them happy and together. Even if it’s only that one time.”
“And you’re willing to put yourself on the line to do that, aren’t you?” She shook her head.
“I guess I am.” Ryan’s stomach was churning, and his heart hurt just thinking about facing his family’s rejection again. He was just going to have to be very careful so they didn’t see him.
“Is it really that important to you?” Her bushy white eyebrows rose in question.
“Yes.” Ryan was sure. “Maybe seeing Nicole happy and starting a life away from our parents will get me some kind of closure.”
He wasn’t going to mention that he missed Peter almost as much as Nicole. They’d been best friends in high school and had planned to go to college together. His parents had taken that away from him, but at least Peter had his business degree and a good management job now with his dad’s office furniture company. Ryan had diligently followed his friend’s progress over the years, using every online resource available.
“Humph.” The old woman got up and returned their bowls and cutlery to the kitchen without another word. She was apparently unwilling to talk anymore.
Ryan sighed. He took his ratty blanket with him into the tiny room he’d been assigned for the night, grateful he hadn’t ended up in a dormitory. After paying for the bus tickets to Grand Rapids he had no money to spare for even a hostel. He was forced to live like a homeless person just like during those first few months after being kicked out of his parent’s house.
Tomorrow he would gamble with what little stability he had finally found in his life to go see his sister get married. It was sure to be a major event; the announcement had been prominent in the local newspapers. It looked like his parents were not sparing any expense to give their daughter a wedding day to remember and their numerous social contacts the appropriate impression.
Fear and anticipation made it impossible for Ryan to fall asleep. After what felt like hours he finally gave up. There was only one place he wanted to be, and that was as close to his twin sister as possible. So he got up, left the shelter via the emergency exit, and walked across town to the little park opposite the church where Nicole would get married tomorrow afternoon.
When he arrived a couple of hours later his feet hurt, and he was bone-tired. A streetlight illuminated part of the wooden bench he’d scoped out yesterday. He sat down on the darker half of the bench that was almost hidden behind a big, leafy bush. It still allowed him a clear view of the church entrance.
He sighed and leaned back, closing his eyes for a moment. It was almost midnight, and it would be nice to catch at least a little sleep. But that was not to be. Footsteps from his right interrupted his attempt at resting. Someone was walking toward him along the sidewalk. That was never a good sign, late at night when you were sitting on a park bench, alone and with nowhere else to go.
Ryan opened his eyes and looked toward the sound. For a brief moment he forgot who and where he was and admired the tall, broad-shouldered silhouette of the man coming toward him. Shoulder-length dark hair framed a face he couldn’t quite make out in the half-shadows beyond the streetlight’s reach. The man wore a long coat that looked like it was nice and warm. Dark pants and leather loafers completed the picture as his feet entered the circle of light.
Not a cop then. Not sure whether that was good or bad, Ryan got ready to get up and leave.
The man stopped once he had passed the streetlight, his face now backlit and still not clearly visible.
“Ryan?” The man’s baritone voice touched something deep inside him. It sounded almost familiar. “Ryan, is that really you?”
Ryan squinted up at the stranger, a little scared now. Who was this guy, and how did he know his name?
“Who are you?” Ryan’s voice shook with nerves, and he moved to the very edge of the bench, putting as much space between himself and the man as possible.
“My God, Ryan, it is you.” The tall stranger took the last few steps and sat down on the bench. “I would know your voice anywhere.”
The stranger’s face was now illuminated by the streetlight, and Ryan gasped in surprise. No, it couldn’t be! His hair was longer, but the high cheekbones, straight nose and the bluest eyes he had ever seen combined into the face of the man he had loved from afar for longer than he cared to remember.
“Daniel?” His voice was a mere whisper. What was Peter’s brother doing here?
“You remember me?” Daniel’s beautiful blue eyes were huge, framed by long, dark eyelashes. A small smile pulled at his sensuous deep red lips.
“Oh, yes. I remember you.” Ryan smiled back.
How could he ever forget the man he’d had his first crush on? Daniel was his best friend’s older brother, and the three of them had been inseparable despite Daniel being five years older. Every time Daniel came home from college they had spent all their free time together; whether it was running or going to ballgames or just hanging out. Ryan had been too young for anything physical to happen between them, but that hadn’t stopped him from developing deeper feelings for Daniel.
The summer he turned eighteen, Daniel had told Ryan how highly he valued their friendship and how much he liked him. That had ultimately driven Ryan to come out to his parents, hoping that being honest would make it possible for him to pursue a relationship with Daniel. God, he had been so naïve. Their negative reaction and threats against his friends had forced him to leave that same night with only a backpack containing clothes, his favorite sketchbook, and some key documents. Even though he believed that Daniel would move on, Ryan had never been able to let go. His feelings had been too deep, and if anything, had only grown over time.
“Where did you go? What happened to you?” Daniel lifted a hand, moving toward Ryan’s face, but let it fall back into his lap before he could touch skin.
And just like that, the magic was gone as reality intruded. Damn. He couldn’t tell Daniel the ugly truth. He’d never made it to college, and he had no permanent job and no prospects for that to ever change. If he told Daniel the reason his parents had kicked him out would he reject him as well? He couldn’t face that. Not from the man he still loved with all his heart.
“I’m sorry.” Tears welled up in Ryan’s eyes, and he jumped up, turning to run.
“Oh, no you don’t.” A big warm hand wrapped around his wrist and pulled him down, forcing him to sit back onto the bench.
“Let me go. Please, just let me go.” Ryan couldn’t even look at Daniel, he was so ashamed. He was dirty, smelled bad because he hadn’t had a shower in days, and his clothes were old and worn. Cheeks burning with humiliation, he desperately tried to pull his wrist free.
“No, Ryan. I can’t let you go.” Daniel pulled him even closer, wrapping a strong, warm arm around his shaking shoulders. “I’ve only just found you again. Please don’t run away from me. Please.”