Phillip Wynne stared down at the letter in his hands and tried his best to feel something. Rage, anguish, anything at all.
There was supposed to be grief when someone died, tears and heartfelt eulogies, the cutting pain of loss. Instead, he felt… nothing. Just numbness, an absolute void of emotion.
That detachment had been with him since he’d gotten the phone call about his Aunt Helen’s death from a stroke in the middle of the night. There should have been some kind of mourning, shouldn’t there, for the woman who’d raised him?
She never was very warm. Kisses and hugs were unheard of in the Wynne household. But she’d come to live in his parents’ house when they died so he wouldn’t have to move, and she had fed and clothed him until he left for college. That counted for something, didn’t it? Even if he knew by her own admission that her motivation had been the home and money his parents left behind, not any genuine desire to raise a child.
Phillip thought back on his aunt. Such a prim and proper lady. Never one for emotional displays, except for that one day when he was seven and she’d completely lost her temper for the first and last time. But that instance had been more than enough to leave him grateful for her typical restraint.
Eleven years he’d shared that house with her. Not a home. The place his parents had filled with love and joy no longer existed when she came to live there. It might as well have been a barren, arctic wasteland for all its lack of warmth. How could he miss her now, mourn her now, when she’d never been anything but distant and cold?
And then there was the letter Helen’s lawyer had presented Phillip at the reading of her will, saying Helen had given it to him the year before when her health started failing. Phillip read it ten times and still it barely made sense. Aunt Helen apologizing, telling him to be who he was, saying that after a lifetime of ignorance, she finally understood?
But it was what she claimed to understand that twisted his stomach into knots. He thought he’d hidden those feelings so well, buried them deep in the darkest fathoms of his heart. And he’d locked them up tight, behind deadbolts and chains and solid metal doors. How could she have known, from an innocent little kiss, what Phillip himself hadn’t figured out for years afterward? What he’d spent more than a decade trying to deny.
The creak of the front gate opening drew Phillip from his thoughts. He shoved the letter into his pocket and straightened up on the porch swing as footsteps moved toward him along the path that led to the house.
A moment later he saw the face of the person he didn’t want to admit he was desperate to see… and the smile that seeped into his soul and filled its every ache and hollow.
Ryan. His best friend since childhood. Vibrant, joyous, beautiful Ryan, who’d been the one happy constant in Phillip’s life for years. And also the one person who caused him the most confusion.
“Hey,” Ryan said as he came up the steps onto the porch. “How are you? I thought maybe you could use some company.”
Phillip forced himself to smile. After days of pervasive numbness, the expression felt foreign, tentative, like taking a first step and hoping not to fall. He scooted over on the swing to make room for his friend. “Hey.”
Ryan settled beside him directly in the space Phillip had vacated and in the ray of sunshine that had been keeping him warm. The light settled over Ryan’s dark brown hair, gilding it with gold. His whiskey-colored eyes made Phillip temporarily forget about his aunt and the letter and the house he now owned but wasn’t sure what to do with. Those things were as insignificant as dust motes compared to the heat that bloomed in Phillip’s belly as Ryan’s gaze caught his and held it.
“Are you okay?” Ryan asked.
Phillip shrugged and finally tore his gaze away. Instead of Ryan’s face, he focused on his own hands, which were gripped tightly together between his knees, the knuckles paper white. “I don’t know. It’s weird. I’m not sure how I should feel.”
Ryan didn’t ask him what he meant. He knew Helen and Phillip hadn’t spoken in years. He also knew the way things were for Phillip growing up. They hadn’t hung out at Phillip’s place very often, not when Ryan’s family was everything Phillip missed about his own. Only the sanctuary of the Kellerman house had gotten him through his high school years without him ending up on the street or in juvie. He’d wished a thousand times he could have called them Mom and Dad and lived with them instead of Helen. Phillip had never quite understood why she accepted the responsibility of raising him when she seemed to resent his very presence. Money really was the best motivator of all, he supposed.
A hand appeared in Phillip’s line of sight as Ryan reached over to touch his forearm. “Do you want to talk?”
Phillip couldn’t speak for a moment, his eyes fixated on Ryan’s long, slender fingers. Ryan’s hands were elegant and soft, so different from his own, which were rough and tanned from working in construction to earn extra money every summer between school years.
For a second, Phillip desperately wanted to cover Ryan’s hand with his own, see the contrast of Ryan’s pale to his dark as their fingers intertwined. Instead, he closed his eyes and tried to pretend that light touch didn’t affect him the way it did. That the contact meant nothing more to him than it would to any other man being comforted by a friend.
Phillip started at the nickname. Ryan hadn’t called him that in years. “I’m okay,” he answered. “There’s nothing to say.” Not about his aunt…and certainly not about the feelings he’d ignored for so long, the attraction he’d felt for no other man but Ryan. No, there was nothing at all to be said about that.
Ryan held back a sigh as he watched his best friend’s expression shut down. He wished he could offer more comfort than a dispassionate touch on the arm. Phillip needed affection so desperately. Ryan could almost hear his friend’s body begging for closeness, for hugs and pats on the back and the careless hair ruffles so many people unthinkingly doled out over the course of a day. Ryan himself never thought twice about showing physical affection to his loved ones. But he was more than aware Phillip had received very little of that from the woman who raised him.
It hurt Ryan that Phillip never reached out, never once tried to initiate the contact he so obviously craved. Not since they were children. Not since the memory Ryan held dearest of all, the kiss they’d shared so many years ago after Phillip defended him from the neighborhood bully.
He still remembered everything about that moment, clinging to Phillip’s backpack as the older boy tilted up his chin. There had been nothing sexual about it, just pureness, sweetness, the simple act of one friend providing solace to another. Yet, no kiss Ryan experienced in the years since could compare to it.
No one could compare to Phillip. Because Ryan was hopelessly, irrevocably in love with his best friend. Always had been. Always would be. That was the reason he rarely dated. Why he’d never shared his apartment with anyone, never let anyone get close enough for feelings to develop when there was no way he could reciprocate them. It wouldn’t have been fair. His heart was owned so thoroughly there could never be room for anyone else. And he would have given everything he had for his body to be possessed the same way.
But Phillip was out of his reach. Straight as the day was long and so tightly wound after the upbringing he’d had. Momentous as that kiss had been for Ryan, he doubted Phillip even remembered it.
Ryan could have happily spent a lifetime reminding him, but those thoughts weren’t appropriate for the moment they were having now. Problem was, Ryan didn’t know how to give Phillip the comfort he clearly needed. Not without crossing the invisible line that had been drawn between them so many years ago.
“It might help if you talked.” He squeezed Phillip’s arm lightly before withdrawing his hand. “I know there wasn’t really any love lost between you two, but she wasyour aunt. If you need to get anything off your chest, you know I’m here.”
Phillip nodded jerkily but said nothing. Ryan shoved his hands under his knees to stop himself from reaching out, grabbing Phillip’s nape, and yanking him close. He wanted to press his lips to Phillip’s temple, nuzzle a kiss into his closely shorn hair, and just hold him tight. Hold him until the storm clouds cleared from Phillip’s blue eyes and he could see them as they might have been— if Phillip’s parents hadn’t died, if there had been someone else to raise him aside from Helen.
How different would Phillip have been? Would he have been playful? Someone who smiled and laughed as easily as breathing? Someone who’d have the courage to kiss Ryan again, now that they were grown, and see where it might lead?
But if wishes were dollars, Ryan would be a rich man. And if he had possessed the power to return Phillip’s parents to him, he’d have done so even knowing he and Phillip could never be anything more than friends. That was how love worked. Ryan would gladly place Phillip’s needs above his own anytime if it meant seeing his best friend happy.
He stared at Phillip’s profile, watching his jaw work, seeing the tension that made Phillip grind his teeth together.
“I love you,” Ryan said, only realizing he’d spoken aloud when Phillip’s shocked blue gaze snapped to his face.
Long moments passed as they stared at one another, Phillip’s mouth hanging open, Ryan wishing he could press rewind and shove the words back down his throat. They’d been friends for over twenty years, but they’d never once exchanged that phrase. Ryan knew he should have played it cool, maybe tossed in a casual “you’re my best bud, man, of course I love you” but he couldn’t bring himself to deny the words for what they were.
Abruptly, Phillip looked away. “I think you should go.” His voice was soft, if not exactly even. Still, the sentence hit Ryan with the weight of an anvil being dropped on his head.
He flinched back, the chains of the swing rattling at the movement. Pain burst to life in his chest, cutting and sharp, stealing his breath. Of all the ways he’d envisioned Phillip reacting if he ever dug up enough courage to say those words, he’d never imagined being told to leave. Maybe his dreams of Phillip sweeping him up and carrying him off to bed in a swirl of reckless passion had been a little daytime soap. At the very least he’d expected a gently put, “I love you too, man, but only as a friend.” At most, he’d wanted…well, everything. A repeat of that kiss, a hand under his chin, a moment so pure and loving it made him weep.
Instead what he got was silence and Phillip studiously avoiding his eyes. “P.J.?”
“Please. Just go.”
Ryan stood and turned away before he let himself say anything else, before he could break off another piece of his own heart and stomp it to the ground.
He’d known— he’d known— thoughts of love and romance had no real place in the moment they were sharing. His desire to soothe, to comfort Phillip in any way he knew how, had overridden his caution and good judgment. Now he would pay for the lapse.
Ryan’s eyes burned as he quickly descended the porch steps. He sped down the pathway that led to the front gate, through the lush garden Helen had toiled in for hundreds of hours, the only thing she’d ever shown any true affection. He didn’t see the beauty of it then. All he saw was a blur of colors, the world obscured by the moisture in his eyes, as he fled from the man who he’d loved since he was six. The man who he knew would never love him back.
For a long time after Ryan left, Phillip stayed there on that swing, absolutely still and staring at nothing, while inside his emotions raged. He’d made a mistake by sending Ryan away. He knew that. Remembering the flash of hurt in Ryan’s eyes sucked the air right from his lungs, leaving him breathless, his chest tight. Ryan had come to his house in a show of solidarity, offering support when Phillip would have otherwise been alone. And Phillip had rewarded Ryan’s kindness with little more than silence, and at the end, maybe even cruelty.
But how could he guess those words were coming or the rush of sweet, hot pleasure they would leave in their wake? Phillip knew the instant Ryan said “I love you,” he hadn’t meant it in a friendly way. Ryan spoke those words as a lover would, and frankly, that scared the ever living hell out of Phillip.
Temptation was a lot easier to resist when he could pretend his interest in Ryan was one-sided— even if he recognized the denial for what it was. Phillip had known about Ryan’s feelings since high school. That knowledge had sent him running off to a college downstate after his graduation, leaving Ryan behind to finish his senior year before he came and joined Phillip on campus. Phillip had hoped that during the months of separation, the feelings, attraction, whatever between them would fade on both sides. Hadn’t happened. Might never happen. But Phillip had made excuses, hundreds of them, attributing the feelings to confusion brought about by the closeness of their friendship. There couldn’t be any other explanation. Not one that made sense. Phillip had never felt even the tiniest flicker of attraction to another man over the years. Just Ryan. Only Ryan.
But that meant he wasn’t gay, didn’t it? Wouldn’t he have been physically drawn to other men if that were the case? Sexual attraction couldn’t be restricted to one particular person… could it?
Phillip groaned and buried his face in his palms, no closer to answers, his heart aching. He should go inside. A chill evening wind had already chased away the last of the day’s warmth, stirring the branches on the trees and making his skin prickle into gooseflesh.
He couldn’t move. He thought of Ryan’s face, that crumbling expression, of his aunt’s stupid letter and the offering of postmortem acceptance, the urging to “be himself.” What good did that do him now after years of deafening silences and frigid disapproval, of vicious comments about Ryan, who’d come out of the closet loud and proud shortly before his sixteenth birthday? Always “that Kellerman boy” and never Ryan’s first name. Censorious looks and whispers of, “Don’t let that boy touch you; he might get the wrong idea.”
Were these words of apology supposed to wipe out years of criticism? Take away the memory of that day she’d grabbed his arms and dug her nails into his skin, shaking him so hard he’d bitten through a part of his tongue? Erase the fear he’d felt when she locked him in a dark closet afterward and left him there for hours?
All because of one tiny kiss, innocent and sweet.
But those sorts of things didn’t belong in the world of Helen Wynne, not between two boys, no matter how harmless. And, though that was the only time he’d ever seen her lose her temper, the aftereffects had colored everything in his life to this day. Had left him so stunted he couldn’t hold on to his fiancée , who’d called off their engagement two years prior, claiming she couldn’t cope with his “emotional unavailability.”
Becky had been the only person in his life to even come close to what he felt for Ryan, who he’d thought he might have a real chance of being happy with. And in the time since they’d split up, she’d married someone else.
“Fuck!” The word burst from Phillip’s mouth, fueled by a rage that propelled him to his feet.
He ripped Helen’s letter from his pocket and tore it to shreds.
Ryan indulged in a pity-fest for exactly twenty-four hours. He turned off his phone, carb-binged, and generally allowed himself to feel like crap because he needed the catharsis. Needed to take the pain, the anger, the embarrassment and just release them all into the atmosphere, let them dissipate and drift away like candle smoke.
Then, abruptly, he came to a decision.
He couldn’t let Phillip go that easily. Not without knowing, beyond a shadow of a doubt, his feelings weren’t returned. He’d loved Phillip for too long. Ryan couldn’t remember a time when he hadn’t been in love with his best friend. From solemn little boy to surly, rebellious teen to the quiet, steady man Phillip had become, Ryan loved him. And he thought, despite Phillip’s actions the day before and the distance he’d put between them since high school, there might be something there. Potential. The possibility for something more.
Ryan didn’t know if he was projecting. Fooling himself. But if there was even the slightest chance, the tiniest and most microscopic of maybes, didn’t he owe it to them both to see what that potential might become? To see if a blind leap of faith could bring them both what they so desperately needed? Affection, love, and warmth for Phillip. And for Ryan… the deliverance of every wish he’d ever made since he knew what wishing was.
Decided, Ryan dressed and went about his workday as if he hadn’t just made a momentous, life-altering decision. Because one way or another— whether he gained Phillip as a lover or lost him as a friend— things would change. Ryan couldn’t delude himself into thinking any other way. He knew his plans might blow up in his face. But would those plans be worth the risk? Hell yes. Any path that potentially ended with Phillip in his arms would be.
But Ryan forced those thoughts from his mind for the time being. He had accounts to manage and he couldn’t afford to be distracted while crunching numbers. As often as people dismissed him for his flamboyance and playful nature, Ryan took his job seriously. He’d majored in accounting for love of math and formulas, and he was good at what he did. Over the years, he’d built up a client list large enough to leave the firm he worked for and branch off on his own. He opened an office in one of the restored Victorian buildings downtown, rented the two-bedroom apartment directly above it, and there he’d been ever since.
He considered himself lucky to be so close to his parents, yet grateful to have his own space. He was twenty-six, after all, and while he liked being nearby, living with them again wasn’t an option. Their house was only five minutes away though, and Phillip’s a bit farther up that same block. Not that he’d resided there since he left for college. Phillip lived and taught in a town about half an hour north, close enough to commute if he chose to keep the house.
Ryan hoped Phillip would give up his apartment and choose to stay in town, but he hadn’t broached the subject. Everything was too new, Helen gone not even a week. If Phillip had decided already, Ryan would be surprised. There were bad memories in that house. Ryan knew that much. But it was also the house Phillip’s parents purchased shortly after getting married, their dream home according to the journal Phillip’s mother had left behind. Ryan couldn’t imagine it would be easy for Phillip to let something like that go.
Again, he shook away thoughts of his best friend and forced his attention back on his work. The good thing about being his own boss was being able to close up early, and he chose to do so that day. He locked the doors at three instead of five and headed up to his apartment for a quick shower and change.
Afterward, he drove straight to Phillip’s house without calling first, a habit left over from childhood and his teenage years. He’d fallen out of the practice once he finished college, but this time Ryan didn’t want to give Phillip the chance to panic and run off before they could talk. And they had to talk. It was vital. Ryan’s entire plan hinged on the one thing that could be so very difficult for men, and in fact, people in general: communication.
Phillip might be the strong, silent type, might prefer to keep his feelings bottled up and never speak of the things that hurt, but Ryan had enough to say for them both.
When Phillip answered Ryan’s knock, he didn’t look surprised to see Ryan standing on his front porch. Silently, he pushed the screen door open, inviting Ryan inside.
Ryan stepped past Phillip into the foyer without saying a word, doing his best to ignore the surge of heat that went through him as his arm brushed Phillip’s broad chest. As always, his scent, his proximity, left Ryan a little lightheaded. He thought he would be immune after all these years, but no. He still loved Phillip’s smell. Not cologne or aftershave. Just him—simple bar soap, laundry detergent, and in the summers, fresh sweat from a hard day’s work.
It was a scent Ryan wished he could bottle up and take home with him, something to ease the ache in his chest whenever they went too long without seeing each other. But who was he kidding, really? Even one day was too long in Ryan’s book. If he could take Phillip’s scent with him, he’d probably drain the bottle dry in a week.
The thought was silly enough to make Ryan grin briefly, but he smothered the expression as Phillip turned back to him after locking the door. Ryan followed as Phillip led the way to the dining room, where several boxes and a stack of newspapers lined the long oak table. Against the far wall, the china cabinet stood half empty. So, Phillip was packing its contents then. But why? To get the house ready for sale or to strip it of anything that reminded him of Helen?
Ryan had just opened his mouth to ask when Phillip’s voice cut him off.
“I’m sorry.” Without looking at Ryan, Phillip picked up one of the delicate teacup saucers on the table and started wrapping it carefully in a sheet of newspaper. “About the other day, I mean. I reacted badly. I… I shouldn’t have…”
“It’s okay,” Ryan said as his best friend trailed off into silence. “It was bad timing on my part. I dropped a bomb on you. Believe me when I say it wasn’t what I intended when I came over here that night.” Phillip nodded, still without meeting Ryan’s gaze, and started on another saucer. “But it is what I intend tonight.”
Phillip’s wide blue eyes jerked to his. The sound of the half-wrapped saucer slipping from his fingers and hitting the table with a crack ricocheted throughout the room. He swallowed once, hard, his Adam’s apple bobbing. “Wh-what do you mean?” he asked, voice thick.
“I told you I loved you, and you know how I meant it.” Ryan stepped closer, for the moment ignoring the sharp pieces of porcelain that littered the table, taking heart in the fact that Phillip didn’t step back as he approached. “I know the timing is absolute shit, and I’m sorry, I really am, but I can’t— won’t— take it back. I’m going to bare my soul for you, P.J. When I’m done, if you want me to go, you say the word. I just… I can’t go another day without knowing.”
Phillip swallowed again. His eyes searched Ryan’s face. After a few tense seconds, he spoke, the words seemingly dragged from somewhere deep inside him. “Knowing what?”
Ryan didn’t blink. “If you love me too. If you want me too.”
Phillip’s vision tunneled, his breathing going rough. Ryan’s words echoed wildly in his ears. Mouth dust-dry, he swallowed for a third time. Ryan’s eyes were focused on his, determination in their golden-brown depths. Phillip knew Ryan well enough to recognize that look. Fire flashed through him, followed quickly by a wave of icy cold.
He’d hoped to avoid this conversation for a long time. Possibly forever. Ryan was gay, and Phillip wasn’t, despite the maddening draw he felt toward Ryan, despite the numerous fantasies he’d had. What more could be said on the matter? Except… God, the idea of Ryan loving him had haunted him every second since he’d sent Ryan away. Part of him wanted to accept that love, tuck it close to his heart so its purity, its sweetness, could sustain him for the rest of his life. Part of him wanted to bury his fingers in Ryan’s disarrayed dark hair and trace the line of Ryan’s full lower lip with his tongue, taste his pale, creamy skin, strip him down and fuck him hard, then make love to him with more tenderness than he’d ever shown anyone.
Those thoughts terrified him. He shouldn’t want to do those things to his male best friend. He could hear Helen’s voice shrieking in his ear about how it was unnatural for boys to kiss, feel the burn of her nails digging into his skin, the pain in his bloody, swollen tongue, the horrific press of darkness in that tiny, cobweb-filled closet.
He’d never told Ryan about that night, but he’d been careful in all the years since never to allow anything more than a brief hug here and there. Minimal contact to lessen the temptation. The want. Because yes, it was there, had been for ages before he finally became aware of it, before he admitted it to himself, a secret so deeply buried it had taken a full-out emotional excavation to bring it to light.
Phillip wanted everything about Ryan. His smile, his vibrancy, and, yes, God help him, as much as it petrified him, Ryan’s love as well. He closed his eyes against the thought, but it was there in his head, screaming for his attention, unavoidable, irrefutable, as impossible to ignore as a fire alarm at midnight.
“P.J.?” Ryan said as Phillip stood there, his mind spinning, eyelids tightly shut against the truths he didn’t want to face. He sensed Ryan moving closer, felt the tentative brush of fingertips along the line of his jaw. “Tell me to stay, and I will. Or tell me not to touch you. Tell me you don’t love me, don’t want me, and I’ll go.”
Silence stretched as Phillip panted, Ryan’s touch like a sizzling brand against his skin. Desire shot through him from that innocent point of contact. He tried to fight it, knowing it was a losing battle, but he couldn’t bring himself to speak.
Several moments passed as he stayed mute. After what must have been a minute of them standing in that frozen tableau, he heard Ryan’s breath hitch, felt him start to pull away. Finally, Phillip found a word, just one out of the thousands swirling in his head. But it was enough. “Don’t.”
Ryan paused, his fingers still on Phillip’s jaw. “Don’t?”
Phillip forced his eyes open, met a gaze filled with both fear and hope. He reached up to cover Ryan’s hand with his own. “Don’t go.”
The tremor that shook Ryan’s body rocked into his. Ryan sighed, a low, shuddery sound, and stepped even closer. Phillip was broader, but they were close enough in height that their bodies lined up perfectly— mouth to mouth, chest to chest, hips to hips.
“Please,” Ryan whispered, his lips brushing Phillip’s. “Tell me…”
Phillip shivered at the contact. Ryan’s arms looped around his waist, pressing their bodies tighter together. Hesitantly, Phillip returned the embrace, holding Ryan against him, their mouths a fraction apart as they breathed together, sharing the same air. As close as they were, Ryan’s eyes were more a golden-brown blur than anything. Phillip watched as they slid shut; then he leaned in just a bit, the distance between their mouths reduced to nothing as he took the kiss he’d been thinking about for what felt like centuries.
Ryan’s lips parted against his. At the first touch of Ryan’s tongue, Phillip made a sound he didn’t recognize. Ryan tasted of peppermint; his mouth was warm and sweet and slick, and— oh, God, if only Phillip had known it would be like this. Heat, lust, joy, need. A relief so intense it was like waking up from the most terrifying nightmare to discover you were home, safe and sound in your bed.
“I love you,” Ryan whispered into the kiss. “So long. Please tell me, P.J. Tell me, please.”
Phillip pressed their foreheads together, breathing roughly. His erection strained against his fly as if desperate to reach the answering hardness he could feel in Ryan’s jeans. The sensation thrilled him as much as it scared him. “I do,” he said softly, his words no louder than Ryan’s had been, but he knew they were heard by the way Ryan’s arms tightened around him. “I do, Ry. But I can’t— I don’t know—”
Ryan’s mouth cut off his words. “Shh. Don’t think. Just feel. Touch me. Feel with me.”
Phillip groaned but didn’t try to break the kiss, didn’t pull away from the strong hands that slid up and down his back. Ryan was right. Lately, thinking had gained him nothing more than misery. He walked the halls of the house he’d grown up in with a ghost on his heels. All he wanted was the bliss of forgetting. But he couldn’t do this here, not with the memory of her so pervasive, every picture and figurine a reminder, dozens of judgmental eyes watching.
He allowed himself another second, one more moment to relish the sweet heat of Ryan’s kiss, and then he tore himself away. “Not here,” he panted. “Let’s just… not here.”
Ryan searched his eyes for long seconds. “My place,” he suggested, hesitant. “I can drive. Unless you’d rather bring your car.”
“No, it’s fine. I just can’t be here anymore.” Phillip waved a hand at their surroundings. “Not right now. Not with… all this.”
Ryan nodded. “Let’s go then.”
The whole ride back to his apartment, Ryan wondered if he might be dreaming, if the Phillip in his passenger seat was just a specter, some figment of his imagination brought to life after years of praying and yearning. But no, Phillip was very much there, his right leg bouncing nervously, his hands alternately fidgeting with the bottom of his hoodie and running over his closely buzzed blond hair. He looked scared. Ryan suspected he himself probably looked the same way, as worried as he was that any moment Phillip might claim temporary insanity and demand to be taken back home.
Didn’t happen. Ryan parked his car in one of the reserved spots behind his building. They both got out, and minutes later they were upstairs in his apartment, the silence thick between them once again. Unsaid words bounced around in his head, thousands of things he would say to Phillip if he weren’t so afraid of cracking the tremulous foundation they’d started to build. Talk was cheap, people said. Actions told the truth.
Ryan stepped up close behind Phillip where his best friend stood staring out the window at the street below. Traffic had slowed as rush hour approached. Ryan didn’t care that it was broad daylight out. He pressed his body flush to Phillip’s back, wrapped his arms around his waist, and nuzzled a kiss into the warm skin of his nape. “Don’t go away. Stay with me.”
Phillip leaned against him, the only indication that he’d heard. Ryan kissed him again, dragging his lips from Phillip’s nape to the side of his neck. He paused there and dared to suck lightly, not hard enough to leave a mark, just enough to make the skin tingle.
Ryan worried for a second that it might be too much, more than Phillip could handle with everything so fresh, but all he did was tilt his head, silently giving Ryan better access. Fighting back a groan, Ryan sucked a bit harder.
Phillip shifted in his arms, his breathing picking up speed. Confident the response was pleasure, not panic, Ryan risked a more intimate touch, sliding a hand down to cup the fly of Phillip’s jeans and squeezing the hard, thick length he could feel beneath.
When Phillip ground into his palm, Ryan went one step further, slowly undoing Phillip’s button, lowering the zipper, and slipping his fingers into the denim. For a moment, he allowed Phillip the barrier of his thin cotton boxer-briefs, just stroking gently through the fabric, but the wet warmth of precum near the head of Phillip’s cock proved too much for him to resist. Ryan slid his hand past the elastic waistband, his palm meeting hot, hard flesh, damp and sticky at the tip. He swirled his thumb around the crown, collecting the moisture and using it to slick his way as he started up a slow rhythm.
Phillip made a soft, choking sound, his head falling back to rest on Ryan’s shoulder. Ryan kissed his neck again, his jaw, the spot just below his ear. Phillip’s hips moved in a subtle thrusting, rocking his shaft in and out of the circle of Ryan’s fist. Ryan kept their bodies in line, chest to back, his crotch to Phillip’s ass, his quads to Phillip’s hamstrings. He wanted Phillip to feel sheltered, protected, free to hand over the reins and take his pleasure, trust that someone would be there to pick up the pieces if he fell apart.
Ryan would be Phillip’s rock, his anchor, his port in any storm. He would uplift and he would uphold, from now until they met their end, as long as Phillip allowed it.
Phillip gasped when Ryan tightened his grip, and he knew his friend was close. With his unoccupied hand, Ryan reached up to grasp Phillip’s jaw, gently urging him to turn his head so their mouths could meet. Ryan licked at Phillip’s lips, and then it was heat and tongues and taste. The speed of Phillip’s thrusts increased. Ryan squeezed and dragged his thumb across the slit, digging his nail in just a little. That was it. Phillip cried out, a soft, anguished sound. His back arched, his hips jolted, and he spilled slippery warmth over Ryan’s fingers.
For a long time they stayed that way, Phillip resting against Ryan’s chest, Ryan making soothing noises in his throat as Phillip came down. If he’d been with one of his occasional lovers, he might have done something naughty, like smile and lick the proof of Phillip’s orgasm from his fingers while Phillip watched, but Ryan knew they were nowhere near ready for that kind of thing. So, instead, he carefully pulled away, grabbed Phillip’s hand with his clean one, and led him to the hall bathroom so they could both get cleaned up.
Phillip’s dazed eyes met his in the mirror as Ryan finished washing his hands. Relief flooded through him when he didn’t see any panic in Phillip’s expression, just the lingering aftermath of his pleasure and maybe a bit of wonder. No doubt that had been the first time Phillip experienced an orgasm by another man’s hand, and the fact that it was Ryan probably added to the surrealism of the moment.
“You okay?” Ryan asked.
Phillip nodded, his eyes trailing down Ryan’s body to the place where his erection still bulged under his fly. “Do you want me to…?”
“Later.” Ryan smiled gently. He could ignore his own needs for the time being. Phillip was more important. “Let’s talk. Tell me how long. When did you know?”
Phillip sucked in a shaky breath. “Right.” He licked his lips. “Should we go sit down?”
Ryan followed as Phillip led the way back to the living room. He took a seat on the far end of the L-shaped sectional to give Phillip some space and tried not to think about the fact that he’d just jerked his best friend off a few minutes before. Ryan would have preferred to be right next to him, but so much had happened in such a brief amount of time. Crowding Phillip might only add to his stress.
Eons seemed to pass before Phillip spoke. He sat with his head bowed, his hands clasped tightly between his knees. Then he looked up and met Ryan’s gaze, blue eyes dark with emotion. “You asked how long,” he said, his voice raw. “Ages. Since high school at least. I always felt… I felt drawn. I fought it. You don’t know how hard I—” He broke off and bit his bottom lip, hard enough to make the pink go white. “I didn’t want to feel that way about you. I didn’t want to be confused. I…”
Phillip shook his head and swallowed convulsively. Ryan tried not to be hurt— he’d asked for this, after all— but the words clawed at his heart nonetheless, sharper than blades and cutting twice as deep. The implications of Phillip’s words pained him the most. For years, Phillip had intentionally hidden his feelings, even knowing Ryan was gay, knowing Ryan was the one safe person he could come to, the one who would understand more than anyone else. Or at least he should have known those last two things. But on the flipside, Ryan knew the fear, the worry that if he said a word, he could destroy the most meaningful friendship of his life. Phillip hadn’t been the only one keeping secrets.
So, Ryan stayed silent, waiting for Phillip to continue, despite how much he wanted to speak and the aching throb in his chest. He wanted Phillip’s honesty, even if every word was like grinding rock salt into a fresh wound. Nothing could move forward until they’d both laid themselves bare.
Finally, Phillip moved closer and reached for one of Ryan’s hands. He stared down at their entwined fingers instead of looking into Ryan’s face. “I don’t understand this,” he whispered. The torment in his voice made Ryan’s eyes burn. “No other guy. Ever. Just you.” Phillip met Ryan’s gaze, his expression pleading for answers. “I don’t know what it means. I’m not gay. I don’t—”
Unthinking, Ryan leaned forward and kissed him, a soft, simple brush of lips, offering comfort. “P.J., you can’t just lump sexuality into two boxes. There is no black and white when it comes to attraction or emotion. People fall all over the spectrum. Why does it scare you so badly? Why fight it this hard? Are you really that worried about what people will think?”
A few beats of silence. Phillip nodded slowly. “Not just people, I… Do you remember that time when you were six and I rescued you from Tim Wallace and then you were still upset so I kissed you?”
Ryan couldn’t stop his smile. Of course he remembered. He’d assumed Phillip had been the one to forget. “Yeah. It was my first, you know.”
Sad as he looked, Phillip’s lips quirked. “Mine too.” Quickly as the smile had come, it faded. “But Helen saw, and afterward…”
Ryan squeezed his hand, searching Phillip’s eyes and hating the shadows he saw there. “What?”
“She went crazy. She started screaming and she said… well, she said a lot of awful things— did some awful things.”
“What sorts of things?” Ryan asked. Phillip shrugged as if it didn’t matter, but Ryan didn’t fail to notice the sudden tension in his shoulders. “P.J.?”
“The worst was locking me in a closet,” Phillip finally answered. “I’d always been afraid of the dark and confined spaces, even then. She left me in there almost all night, and when she came back to get me, it was like nothing had happened. She was just… eerily calm. She never went off that way again, but it was little things for years after. Things she said about you, things she implied.” Phillip sighed and rubbed the palm of his free hand over his head. “I don’t know why I let it affect me so much, why I gave credence to anything she ever said. But living with her, it changed me, made me this—” Phillip gestured wildly to himself, his hand trembling. “I don’t think it would be so hard for me to say— I don’t think I’d be so scared if—”
Ryan released Phillip’s hand and yanked his friend close, his lips stopping the stammering words. Phillip shook against him and Ryan kissed him desperately, trying to pour his every ounce of love and devotion into the act. Phillip squeezed him hard and took the lead, his tongue thrusting into Ryan’s mouth, heat and aggression and, God, so much need.
Ryan moaned when Phillip turned them both and pushed him back onto the couch cushions. He opened his arms, parted his thighs, and welcomed Phillip’s heavy weight, arching helplessly when Phillip reclaimed his mouth and ground their pelvises together.
He wasn’t sure when the clothes started coming off. Suddenly, they were both naked from the waist up and he had full access to Phillip’s smooth, strong chest. Frantic with want, Ryan stroked and petted wherever he could, reveling in the fact that his touch was not only allowed but welcomed, encouraged. His fingers skimmed over tight abs and well-built pecs, traced lines of muscle and played in the trail of hair that began below Phillip’s navel and disappeared beneath the waistband of his jeans.
Ryan undid them again and shoved at the denim, pushing the material down to Phillip’s knees. With Phillip’s help, he got them all the way off, and then he lay there, stunned, as Phillip returned the favor and stripped him of his own jeans. Phillip tossed them impatiently to the floor and for a moment they just stared at each other, Ryan still in briefs, Phillip kneeling upright in his underwear, both of them panting and obviously hard.
Reaching out, Ryan dragged his fingertips down Phillip’s chest, over his stomach, to the edge of the elastic that held Phillip’s boxer-briefs in place. He stopped there and stared up at Phillip, taking in the emotions that washed across his best friend’s face— fear, excitement, lust, and underneath it all, something that to Ryan looked a lot like anguish.
Ryan’s throat tightened. The fear he understood; he was terrified himself. The pain, that made him hurt deep down, right to the part of his heart where no one but Phillip would ever rule. “We don’t have to do this,” he said softly. “It can stop right here, P.J. We can go on with our lives. I won’t mention it again.”
Phillip shook his head. “I don’t want to stop. I want to know what it’s like with you.”
Ryan frowned, his stomach twisting. “I can’t be some experiment, P.J. You know how I feel about you. It would kill me to—”
“I didn’t mean it like that.” Phillip planted a hand on either side of Ryan’s head and leaned in close, his eyes intense. “I’ve spent so long wondering, wanting to touch you, kiss you, wanting, just wanting, and I—” He stopped and groaned in frustration. “I’m horrible at this. How can you love me? It’s like I’m so closed off, I can barely—”
“You’re amazing.” Ryan linked his arms around Phillip’s neck and tugged him down for a kiss. “I love you for so many reasons. You’re kind. Generous. You’ve protected me, defended me, had my back since we were kids. Just let me protect you for once. Let me show you how worthy you are.”
Phillip stared at him for a long moment, their lips still brushing. “I love you, Ry. You’ve been the brightest thing in my life since the day we met.”
Ryan kissed him again, running his hands over the softness of Phillip’s buzzed hair, relishing the texture against his palms now that he was free to touch as he wanted. “Come on. Let’s go to bed.”
When they settled onto Ryan’s mattress, they were both naked, the last scraps of their clothing shed just inside his bedroom door. Ryan pulled Phillip on top of him and kissed him, gentle and slow. For a long time, it went on that way, deep, unhurried kisses, hands exploring as they learned each other.
Ryan didn’t reach for the condoms and lube until Phillip stopped trembling. Together they slid the latex on Phillip’s cock and slicked it. Ryan’s preparation was one of his own slippery fingers, circling his entrance and pressing briefly inside. He stared up at Phillip, ensnared by the surrealism of the moment, shivering at the intensity on Phillip’s face as he watched.
So long. Ryan had waited so long for this, never honestly believing it would happen. He knew what he wanted, the way he wanted things, but he respected the newness of the situation for Phillip. Ryan would offer him the choice and leave the final decision to him. “Want me on my stomach?” he asked. “It might be easier for you if…”
Phillip shook his head. “Like this. I want to see your face, Ry. Know it’s you. I won’t be pretending you’re anyone else.”
Shivering, his heart squeezing poignantly in his chest, Ryan reached for him. Phillip settled into his arms for another kiss, his welcome weight making Ryan moan. Ryan slipped a hand between their bodies and grasped Phillip’s cock, positioning it so that all Phillip had to do was press forward.
When he finally did, Ryan shuddered hard, tilting up his hips and dragging his inner thighs along Phillip’s outer ones as he drew his legs up to wrap them around Phillip’s waist. The reverence and love on Phillip’s face filled Ryan with an emotion beyond anything he’d ever experienced. Overwhelmed, he clutched at Phillip’s shoulders and squeezed his eyes shut. Tears burned behind his lids as joy washed through him, a happiness so profound his body couldn’t process it any other way. In that moment, so visceral, powerful, he was incapable of hiding the depth of his reaction.
Ryan kissed Phillip hard and opened his eyes to watch his friend’s face again. Phillip moved inside of him, deep, careful thrusts, his expression one of total concentration, as if he was focused entirely on Ryan’s pleasure. Ryan couldn’t help but smile at that look. It personified how Phillip approached every situation in life— with his full and undivided attention. Ryan had often wondered if that intensity would transfer itself into sex. Now he knew. But what he really wanted was to watch his best friend lose control for once. In all the years they’d known each other, Ryan couldn’t remember a time when it had happened, not really. He wanted to be the reason for Phillip coming undone, for the complete and utter loss of that perfect self-discipline.
He reached up and cupped Phillip’s face, yanking him down into another kiss. “Let it go.” Ryan whispered the words against Phillip’s mouth. “Just let go. You won’t hurt me.”
Phillip groaned and kissed Ryan again, teeth nipping, tongue demanding, and then he loosed his hips and gave Ryan exactly what he wanted. Slow and precise became fast and rough, sweat building, bodies straining with delicious friction.
Ryan clung to his best friend and met Phillip’s movements with equal fervor, feeling his own precum as it left warm, slick streaks across his stomach. “Yeah,” he gasped out, back arching when a particularly hard thrust rattled the headboard. Ryan snuck a hand between them and gripped his cock, starting up a stroke that matched the speed of Phillip’s pounding rhythm. He was so close, swollen and aching, the grip of his own fist almost too much to bear. “Just like that. God. Oh God, like that.” Ryan kissed Phillip, quick, hot, and dirty, his desperation peaking, heart thumping wildly. “Love me. P.J., please. Love me. Stay with me. Stay—”
The words broke off in a sharp cry as Ryan’s orgasm began, a violent rush wrenched forth by ecstasy. He spilled over his own fingers, writhing in anguished bliss, his blood an ocean-roar in his ears. As his body soared and clenched and shivered, Phillip’s name fell from his lips in a mantra, some primeval chant, guttural and low.
Phillip pulled back, his eyes fixed on Ryan’s face as he rode Ryan through the last of his climax, slamming home a few more times before going absolutely still. Phillip stayed that way, frozen, for the span of several heartbeats. Then his head dropped forward, chin to chest, a long, ragged moan rasping from his throat, his hips rocking in a series of small, jerky thrusts.
After a few seconds, he went limp, his full weight pressing Ryan down into the mattress. The position constricted his chest and made it difficult to breathe; Ryan didn’t care. He merely held on tight as Phillip started trembling again, his sweaty face buried in the crook where Ryan’s neck met his shoulder.
“You okay?” Ryan asked a couple of minutes later. Phillip had shifted to lie beside him on the bed, but aside from that, he hadn’t moved. Ryan stroked a hand over Phillip’s buzzed hair and gently massaged his nape. “P.J.?”
Phillip nodded without lifting his head. “I’m okay.”
He sounded sincere. Ryan rolled onto his side so he could see his friend’s expression. Phillip looked exhausted but pleasantly so. The shadows in his eyes had lightened, replaced by a contented sort of peace Ryan had never seen in him before. “No regrets?”
Phillip lifted a hand to cup Ryan’s cheek and smiled slightly. “None.”
Ryan searched his face. “You really love me?”
“Course I do.”
“But you know what I mean. I don’t doubt you love me as a friend or maybe even like a brother.”
“Not like a brother,” Phillip said, adamant. He indicated the space between them. “This… it’s so new. I’m a little overwhelmed. But I do know what it is to be in love, and that’s how I feel about you.”
Ryan moved closer, craving the solace of his best friend’s touch. He curled an arm around Phillip’s waist and rubbed his lips across the light stubble on Phillip’s chin. “When did you realize it?”
Phillip tipped his head and sighed softly as Ryan continued downward, trailing kisses and gentle nips along the line of his throat. “Felt this way for years. Like I said, I fought it hard. It scared me too much.” The rawness of the words made Ryan tighten his grip around Phillip’s body. He kissed the dip at the base of Phillip’s neck and lingered there, unsure of what to say. “While I was with Becky, I tried not to think about it,” Phillip continued. “I loved her very much, and I thought we could have a good life together, but I guess it wasn’t enough. Some parts of me are broken. I don’t know how to fix them.”
“You’re not broken,” Ryan said fiercely, pulling back so he could look Phillip in the face. He refused to allow his P.J. to think of himself that way. “You were raised by a woman who never showed you any affection at all. It makes sense it would be difficult for you to show it to others now. We’re all products of our upbringings in one way or another. There are certain things you can’t help. That doesn’t mean you’re broken. It just means you might have to try a little harder than other people do.”
Phillip smiled, crooked and boyish, his blue eyes gleaming. Ryan had secretly been in love with that smile for years. Now, naked in bed with the man who owned his heart, it took his breath away. “You always were protective of me.” Phillip leaned forward and kissed him on the nose. “I’ll try. For you. I’ll try to be what you need me to be.”
Ryan shook his head. “I don’t need you to be anything but who you are. In case it wasn’t clear, I love who you are. I don’t want you to change. I only want you to love me back.”
“You know I already do.”
Ryan pressed close and buried his face against Phillip’s chest. “Then I’ll be set for life. I don’t need anything else.”
Phillip squeezed him briefly, and Ryan felt the lightest brush of lips across his temple. “I don’t know if it’ll be easy. I can’t promise I won’t ever screw up. There are days I just withdraw from everything. Becky would say I had a cold heart. But I’m yours as long as you want me.”
“I don’t need things to be easy, P.J. I’ll take the good along with the bad.” Ryan rested his lips on Phillip’s chest, right above the place he could feel Phillip’s heart beating. “And I’d never say you were cold. You have a huge heart. Maybe Becky couldn’t see it, maybe no one else can, but I do. And I won’t let you go. Ever. You’re so stuck with me.”
Phillip exhaled shakily. His arms tightened again, clutching Ryan almost to the point of pain. After a moment, he spoke, a whisper Ryan might have missed had they been any farther apart. “Thank you.”
“Are you sure you want to do this?”
Phillip turned at the sound of Ryan’s voice, fingers still working at knotting his tie. Ryan stood in the doorway of their bedroom, dressed in form-fitting black slacks, a silky lavender button-up, and a slender black tie. He looked completely at ease in the clothes, his dark hair styled in elegant disarray. Phillip, on the other hand, felt oafish in his suit. He wasn’t used to dressing up, even for work. He spent his days teaching in jeans and polos. In the summers when he worked in construction, it was cargo pants and T-shirts. The clothing he wore now had been bought especially for today. “I’m sure,” he answered, finally giving up on the tie and beckoning Ryan forward.
Ryan crossed the room to stand in front of him. His slim fingers made quick work of the tie, and he stepped back, looking Phillip over and nodding his approval. “Gorgeous.”
Phillip smiled wryly. “You’re just saying that to make me feel better.”
“Nope.” Ryan grinned. “You, Mr. Wynne, clean up very well.”
“As do you, Mr. Wynne.” Ryan’s grin widened, and Phillip leaned forward to kiss him briefly. “It still feels weird saying that,” he whispered against Ryan’s mouth.
Ryan nipped at his lip. “You’ll get used to it.”
Phillip knew he would. They’d only been married a week, after all, but Ryan had already put in the required forms to have his last name legally changed from Kellerman to Wynne. Phillip hadn’t expected it, and he would have never demanded it, but he couldn’t deny the sharp little thrill that had gone through him when Ryan first asked if it was okay. As if Phillip would ever refuse. The possessive part of him loved the idea of Ryan taking his name, of the world knowing just who Ryan belonged to. Not that he wasn’t equally owned. The past year of being together had solidified that.
He’d proposed to Ryan on his birthday three months ago, and neither of them had cared for a long engagement. They gave themselves just enough time to plan a ceremony they would both be happy with. Now, with the changes they’d made to his— their— house, Phillip thought it was time to finally let go of the past so they could move forward without any regrets to shadow their future. This was the final step. A formal good-bye to the woman who’d cast such a pall over so much of his past. But in a roundabout way, she was also partly responsible for him and Ryan being together, and for that, he owed her his gratitude.
Phillip pressed a kiss to Ryan’s forehead. “Let’s go.”
He sensed Ryan’s hesitation. “Are you really sure? You haven’t visited her grave once since the funeral. Why now?”
“This is the anniversary of her death,” Phillip said simply. “She apologized in that letter and gave me her blessing. I didn’t think I needed it. I didn’t think her words would change anything. But they did. I thought it would be best to thank her and tell her I forgive her in person.”
“Yeah?” Phillip met Ryan’s eyes, searching. “You understand?”
Ryan nodded. “I do.”
“You’re with me?”
Ryan reached out and took his hand, threading their fingers together. “Always.”
Phillip squeezed Ryan’s hand, the hard press of Ryan’s wedding ring a reminder of that promise. “Thank you.”
“Let’s go say good-bye,” Ryan said, tugging Phillip toward the door.
Phillip followed willingly. One final good-bye and another chapter closed. Together, he and Ryan would start a new one, continue the story that began with their first kiss, all those years ago. The first of many more.