THE PAIN was really just too much.
What had he been thinking?
Had he really thought coming here would help? Taking his vacation here, where he and Gene had been happy for so long? Was it in any way a good idea?
Foolishness. It was complete and utter foolishness.
The world was gray without Gene. Today, it was literally so. The sky was gray, the heavy clouds dark and swollen. The ocean looked like tarnished silver and the beach stretching away to his left and right was the color of ash. There was no one around. It was off-season on Pena Key. The cottages were empty. All save his and Gene’s.
His and Gene’s.
Now it was just his. Not even his. It was a lease.
For years he’d wanted to buy the lovely little cottage for the two of them, wanted them to move into it and live there year-round. He thought the owner would sell. But Gene wouldn’t have it, of course. Because of her and the kids.
Above, a single bird rode the air currents, a white thing with a long forked tail. Gene would have known what it was.
It’s just you and me, he thought, watching the bird. All alone at the edge of the world. As he sat in the sand, just above the tide line, and stared into the softly rolling waves, he knew what he should do. Leave. Go inside. Pack. Go home.
Except he would be just as alone there as he was here.
He sighed and stared down at the sand between his feet.
And the thought came to him once again.
He had the pills. He had gotten them from his doctor when he’d strained his back pushing his car. He’d been at a red light when the stupid thing had just died on him. Died.
It would be so easy.
He’d only taken one pill that day the doctor had given him the prescription, and it had knocked him out for nearly twelve hours. When he called the doctor’s office the next day, they’d told him he must be really sensitive to them and not to take more than half a pill at a time in the future.
“Whatever you do, don’t take more than one at a time, and do not drink alcohol with them,” the nurse had warned. She didn’t say why, but the implication had been there in her voice.
He’d bought the bottle of Southern Comfort at the liquor store in town on the way to the cottage.
Some pills, some booze, and finally, there was the ocean. All he had to do was go swimming. Swim until he could swim no more and then… go to sleep.
“Will you be waiting for me on the other side, Gene?” he said aloud. “Or will you be waiting for her?”
The wind and the sound of the waves were his only answer.
A sob hitched up Wade’s throat, and before he knew it, he was crying again.
After a while he went inside. It was the cold that drove him in. It got cold even in Florida, after all.
It was too cold to sit on the sand like this.
Time for a drink.
Then it wouldn’t make any difference.
WHEN WADE Porter stepped out onto the deck that overlooked the deserted beach an hour later, he was already on his fourth cocktail and three sheets to the chilly wind. That’s why—he told himself later—he’d reacted the way he did when he saw the lights glowing through the windows of the house next door.
“Gene?” he cried and, without thinking, bolted down the steps and across the small stretch of sand that separated his cottage from the next. “Gene?” His voice trembled as he climbed the neighboring steps and then rapped on the sliding glass doors.
He had done more than run next door. In his mind he’d run back through more than twenty years. He wasn’t even seeing that the cottage was painted blue now instead of yellow, the curtains midnight instead of sunshine. Through the alcohol-induced fog, there was only the brief, crystal-clear flash of yesteryear. A moment that ended when the dark curtains parted to show a man who didn’t look even vaguely like Gene.
The disappointment so rocked Wade that he staggered back, stumbled over his own drunken feet, and came down hard on his ass. His teeth clicked together, and a bolt of pain seared his tongue. His mouth filled with the taste of copper. His head filled with stars.
Not fair! Not fair.
Behind the glass, the man’s eyes went wide. He slid the door open, and a second later, he was kneeling over Wade. “Are you okay?”
Not okay. So not okay. Wade’s heart and tongue hurt so badly he couldn’t breathe. He tried to look away, embarrassed. Tried to say something, but his tongue was singing in pain and only lay there, curled on the floor of his mouth like some dead thing. He nodded in answer and saw more stars.
The man sat down next to him. “You sure? You looked like you landed pretty bad there.”
Wade nodded again, and this time the sparks were not as bad.
But the pain in his chest was deep and cold, cold, cold. What had he been thinking? Was he going crazy?
“Seriously, man. You okay?”
He had to say something. “Bwit my ton,” he managed.
“You what? Oh! Fuck, that hurts. Let me see.”
Wade shook his head. He was self-conscious enough as it was. He wasn’t going to show this handsome stranger (and he was handsome—shockingly, uncomfortably so) his tongue.
“Come on now. Open up. Let me see.”
Wade sighed. This guy wasn’t going to let up, and Wade was too drunk and hurting too badly to argue. Well, not hurting that much. The pain was sliding away, thank goodness. He opened his mouth.
“Stick out your tongue.”
“Ith okay,” Wade said.
He slumped, defeated. How absurd to be sitting on his ass on this man’s deck, being asked to stick out his tongue. But he did as ordered.
“Hmmmm… I don’t see anything. It doesn’t look that bad. I think you’re going to live.”
“Thath good,” Wade said.
But was it? Hadn’t he just been planning something else?
The man stood up. All he was wearing was a tank top and a pair of boxers, the fly gaping slightly as he stood. Wade tried not to look. Then he chuckled.
“What’s so funny?” the man asked, smiling.
That I’m scoping you out. That’s what. He didn’t say it, of course. How insane that he’d almost looked to see if he could spy anything. When had he last looked at a man?
“I must look pretty crazy,” he said and realized he wasn’t lisping anymore. “Banging on your door and then falling on my assth.” Or not much, at least.
The man laughed. “And biting your tongue.” He held out a hand. “Here, let me help you.”
Wade looked up into the man’s face, where intense blue eyes seemed almost to shine down on him. Beautiful. He took the man’s hand and let himself be pulled to his feet. He staggered, the Southern Comfort returning in a wave. “Whoa….”
“Hey, man, come on in. Let’s make sure you’re really okay.” He pulled at Wade with the hand he had yet to release.
“I… I don’t….”
“Come on. Besides, I’m freezing my balls off out here.”
Once again, Wade let the man take control. He followed him through the doors and into a small living room, not terribly different from his own, although darker and more masculine. Lots of wood. Walls lined with shelves filled with knickknacks, shells, and books. It had changed a lot in the twenty-some years since he’d seen it last. “Sit down,” the man said as he turned to close the door. Then, “I’ll be right back.”
He disappeared down a hall and came back a few minutes later in a robe. “I wasn’t expecting company,” he said. “If I had known you were a-comin’, I’d have baked a cake. Sit down, okay? Relax.”
Wade swallowed hard, with only a slight taste of copper, and sat at one end of a small but comfortable sofa. Baked a cake? It was almost funny.
“Can I get you a drink?” the man asked.
“I think maybe I’ve already had enough,” Wade said and then really looked at the man, at least as well as he could in the light of the single lamp. Midthirties, probably. Tan, wide-shouldered, what looked like light brown hair cut short, and the stubble of a five-o’clock shadow an almost-goatee on his strong jaw. In the room’s light, those eyes of his nearly glowed. A very handsome man indeed.
“How about some water, then?” the man said. “Help with that nasty taste, huh? I hate blood.”
“Sure,” Wade replied.
The man went through a different door this time; Wade heard what sounded like a refrigerator door opening and then the clinking of ice. A moment later the man was back with a tall glass of ice water.
Wade took a sip and felt only a second of pain, followed by relief. “Thanks, ah…?”
“Kent.” The man laughed cheerfully. “I’m Kent.”
“Wade.” He held out his hand, and Kent took it once more and gave it a strong squeeze and shake.
“Nice to meet you, Wade. Even under these circumstances.”
“Likewise,” Wade said, more out of habit than anything else.
Kent sat down next to him, picked up a beer bottle that had been sitting on the coffee table, and took a drink. “What brought you to my door this evening, Wade?”
Wade blushed. “Ah….” How to explain? That in his drunken stupor, he’d been projected back in time to that day when he’d first met Gene, the love of his life? How he’d stupidly thought Gene was here when he couldn’t be? How could he?
“I thought there was someone here I knew.”
“Friend, I hope.” Kent took another drink.
“Yeah. A friend.” He sighed.
“A good friend?” Kent asked.
Wade felt a sudden sting of tears. “Yes. Very good.”
“Well, I’m sorry I’m not him, then.”
Wade froze, stared at the man.
“He is a ‘he’?”
“Was,” Wade said. How had this man known? But before he could think about it more, his throat seized up. It came so fast he couldn’t stop it, and to his horror, he was suddenly crying again. Crying! In front of a stranger. Jesus, Gene would’ve hated that.
“Oh God. Shit. Wade.”
To Wade’s surprise, he felt a warm hand on his back. It began to rub, slowly, in a circle.
It felt good.
He rubbed his eyes, appalled. What must this man think?
Then he felt something soft being pressed into his hands. Looked at it through blurry eyes. A Kleenex. He swiped at his face and tried to force the tears to stop. “I am so sorry,” he somehow got out through the humiliation.
“Hey, don’t stop on my account. You cry all you want.” Kent began to rub Wade’s back again in big round motions. “This guy must have been really important.”
Wade nodded. He was afraid to say anything else. He might start again.
Wade gasped at the word and turned to look at a still slightly out-of-focus Kent. Lover. He’d said it so casually, like it was the most normal word in the world. Wade wiped the rest of the tears from his eyes and, when he could focus, was shocked at the look on Kent’s face.
It was pure grief. And something else. Sympathy?
“I lost my lover last year,” Kent said. “Pancreatic cancer.”
“My God,” Wade whispered. And then he saw tears in Kent’s eyes.
“We were together ten years.”
Wade didn’t know what to say. All he could offer was the ridiculous “I’m sorry.”
“Thanks, Wade. How long were you together?”
How did he answer that? Over twenty years? Not at all? That they’d never really been able to be a couple?
“I have to go, Kent.”
Kent gave him a look of surprise. “Oh. Okay, sure.”
Wade turned and made his way to the door as quickly as he trusted himself to. “Thanks for the water,” he said over his shoulder as he slid the door open.
“Wade” came Kent’s voice, and then that hand once more, this time on his shoulder. “You don’t have to go.”
“I do,” he said and felt his throat close up again.
The hand went away.
“Then I hope I see you tomorrow.”
“Yes, sure.” It was all Wade could trust himself to say.
“Nice meeting you,” Kent said.
Wade didn’t answer. He just plowed out into the evening, a lost ship at night.