Jack couldn’t say exactly how he ended up sitting at Dave Huntley’s mother’s kitchen table, drinking coffee from delicate, gold-embossed teacups. When she brought out a bag of shortbread cookies and turned the whole thing into a teddy bear picnic, he pinched himself discreetly.
Because he didn’t want to think about Nick, his thoughts settled on Dave.
This is where Dave comes from.
This explains so much.
Karen’s voice interrupted his thoughts. “What Jack is saying, I think, is that while you might be able to clean the room yourself, it might be better—emotionally speaking—to have a third party come in.”
Ryan slid a glance Jack’s way. “Is that what Jack is saying? That I might be emotionally scarred by cleaning my cousin’s blood from the tub, and he won’t?”
She bit her full lower lip. “Jack, I believe what Ryan is saying is he’s worried—”
“I heard him.” Jack sighed. I’ll have to ask Dave if his mom is a marriage counselor.
“We both knew the deceased.”
The phone rang, and Karen left them alone while she answered it.
For a couple of minutes, silence consumed them. Jack heard the number on the stove clock flip over from 10:56 to 10:57. Then 10:58.
“Why are you here?” Ryan finally asked.
“To bid the job like everyone else.”
“Right.” Ryan’s tone of voice indicated he didn’t buy it. He’d wrapped his arms around himself.
Jack put his cup into the saucer none too gently, then pushed it away. “Christ. I should not be using something as fragile as that.”
Ryan’s lips curved into a faint smile. “They’re pretty, though.”
God. Pale skin, pale brows. Freckles dusted the bridge of his nose and were scattered by the thousands over his forearms where he’d pushed up his sleeves.
Eyes the lightest shade of blue, like shadows in the snow.
Ryan was so like Nick. Yet…they were as individual as snowflakes.
Where Nick Foasberg had been built brutal in the way of Irishmen with the blood of Vikings in them, Ryan had softer edges. He was all lean muscle mass and just as tall as Nick, but he wasn’t keen like Nick had been. He wasn’t sharp or hard.
Ryan’s body language said he had nothing to prove.
He was intelligent. That much was clear. Was he a Foasberg? Or a cousin with a different name?
Jack said, “Look, you don’t know me, but—”
“I know of
you.” Ryan’s gaze locked with his. “I know what Nick did to you. I was there.”
Jack’s heart dropped like an elevator with a broken cable. “You—”
“I know he humiliated you. How he and his friends beat you.” His gaze was searching. “What did you think would happen when you asked him to senior prom publicly, when you made a circus out of it so everyone knew you had a thing for him?”
Jack’s heart contracted. “I don’t know.”
I didn’t expect my best friend—who was also my fucking lover, goddamn it—and six other assholes to beat the hell out of me. I didn’t expect I’d barely escape being sodomized with a broom handle because someone called the cops.
No, sir. I did not expect that.
Ryan’s hostile expression turned to one of pity. “I would never
condone what he did. Violence is wrong. But you should have gone to him in private. Told him you were gay. Talked to him about it. He was your friend. He would have understood. But he felt cornered when you did your whole rose-between-the-teeth thing. He was desperate.”
“You’re seriously going with that?” Despite years of practice controlling his reaction to Nick’s betrayal, Jack’s voice rose. Ryan clearly remembered things differently than he did. “Gay-panic defense?”
“No. Never.” Ryan’s fists tightened in his lap. “But I’m certain he never meant the situation to get so out of control.”
More minutes of silence—measured by the mechanical sound of numbers flipping—ticked by.
Jack felt bone tired already, and it was still early. “What the hell happened to him?”
“He killed himself.”
“I know that. I guess I meant…do you know why?”
“Things haven’t gone well for him for a while.”
Jack sat back. “I didn’t know.”
“You heard the Foasbergs lost the dealership, right?”
“Yes.” Foasberg Chevrolet had been their family business for about eighty years. Jack heard they lost the dealership when GM restructured after the bailout.
Jack took a cookie to give his hands something to do. “That was a nice place.”
“He tried to keep the service bays open for a while, after. Tried to get a different franchise. It finally closed, and they sold the land. The market was shit, and they pretty much lost everything.”
“I didn’t know.”
“After that, things just”—Ryan lowered his lashes—“went downhill.”
“I’m sorry.” Karen reentered. The heels of her shoes tapped briskly on the tiled floor. “I have to go pick up a friend whose car quit on her.”
Jack rose to leave. Karen picked up her purse from the kitchen counter.
She must have realized leaving meant Ryan would have to face going back to his house alone, because suddenly she turned to him. “Ryan, you could stay here and finish your coffee. I won’t be very long. You can make yourself at home until—”
“I couldn’t.” Ryan stood up. “I’ve abused your hospitality enough today.”
“But you shouldn’t have to go back there, not when—”
“It’s fine. It’s not like I can unsee the scene.”
Ryan started toward the door. Jack and Karen followed.
Jack wasn’t ready to give up on the job just yet. “Mind if I come with you? I could give you a quote.”
“I told you—”
“I understand, Ryan. I really do. If you know how to clean and disinfect and dispose of waste materials, then you’ll be able to save money if you do it yourself. But you might find it’s more emotional than you imagined and change your mind. Even if you don’t use Brothers Grime, my bid will give you a ballpark idea of what any reputable firm would charge you for the job.”
Karen smiled. “All right. That sounds reasonable, doesn’t it, Ryan?”
“Yes.” Ryan didn’t look Jack’s way.
“Excellent.” Karen pulled Jack into a hug before he had a chance to make that impossible. She did the same for Ryan, and he welcomed her. “I’m so sorry I have to leave. Expect me to stop by later with food.”
“You don’t need to go to any trouble.”
“It’s no trouble.” Karen practically shook him. “I’ll worry about you.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Ryan smiled.
“Jack, it was a pleasure meeting you,” she said.
“You too, ma’am.”
She closed the door behind them, presumably because she had to go through the house to get to the garage. A minute later, the heavy steel door rolled up, and Karen’s import sedan backed down the driveway. Still awkward around Ryan, Jack waved from the porch as she sped away.
Then they headed toward Ryan’s place, the final stop on Nick Foasberg’s short and troubled journey through life.