“Who are you?” Ryan asked with an edge.
“I’m Toby,” the olive-skinned man said, holding out his hand.
Ryan shoved his hands in his pockets. “And how did you say you knew Mitch?”
“He was…” Toby clasped his hands behind his back. “We were friends.”
“He never mentioned you.” Ryan, drawing in a deep breath, tried to tamp down the frustration rumbling in his contralto voice.
“No, he wouldn’t,” Toby said quickly. “That would have complicated things.”
Ryan bristled. “It would have complicated what?”
“Well…” Toby gave a nervous laugh. “The truth is … Mitch and I were more than friends.”
It was the last thing he expected to do, but it felt like he had no control as his fist flew through the air and struck the side of Toby’s Romanesque nose. Ryan could feel all eyes on him as a hush fell over the room. He flexed his right hand, which was starting to throb, as he watched Toby pick himself up off the floor.
“Man, you’ve got a good right hook,” Toby said cheekily. It was somewhat muffled as his hand covered his mouth as he pinched his nose to stop the bleeding.
A tall brunette appeared with a handful of tissues, handing them to Toby while his acorn-brown eyes were locked on Ryan. “What’s going on?”
“Get him out of here, Sam,” Ryan said through gritted teeth.
“He only stayed with you because he was sick,” Toby spat. “Had he lived —”
Ryan raised his balled fist, but when Sam put himself between the two men, he let his arm drop to his side.
Sam turned to the guy. “I don’t know who you are or why you’re here, but I’d go if I were you.”
Toby, still applying pressure to his nose, stared a moment longer at Ryan before slinking away.
Slowly, a low chatter began to rise in the room as people resumed their earlier conversations.
Sam took a step forward and grabbed Ryan by the arm. “What was that all about?”
Ryan, blinking magnificently, didn’t say a word. He jerked his arm free and then made a beeline for the exit. Outside, he made his way around to the side of the funeral home and sat down on a stone bench. It didn’t make sense. None of it. He and Mitch had been together since they met, during the first semester of their graduate studies. They told each other everything — who had hurt them, what they feared the most, how they hoped to change the world. They were best friends, confidants … the only thing that broke down the chaos of their worlds and made them feel alive. They’d been happy together. At least that was what he now needed to believe. The hand pressing down on his shoulder made him lift his head.
“Here,” Sam said, holding out a bag of ice. “That hand looks like it’s swelling.” He sat down beside Ryan. “Where did you learn to throw a punch like that?”
Sam wrapped his arm around Ryan’s shoulders. “Do you want to talk about it?”
“Talk about what,” Ryan said dryly. “The fact that Mitch might have been cheating on me, and I just met his lover at his funeral?”
“Whoa!” Sam removed his arm, then straddled the bench so he could study his friend. “That guy said he was Mitch’s lover?”
“And you know what the worst part is?” Ryan turned to look at Sam. “I believe him.”
“I like to tell myself that Mitch and I had the perfect relationship.” Ryan gave a nervous laugh. “A year before his diagnosis, something happened. I don’t really know what, but we were always at each other’s throats. We didn’t really talk, didn’t have sex … didn’t do much together. And I think we were both afraid to admit that we’d fallen out of love. We were together yet absent to each other. And maybe he was prepared to call it quits until he found out he had cancer. That scared him. It scared me. Maybe that made staying easier.”
“I’m sorry,” Sam said, cupping his hand to Ryan’s shoulder. “I didn’t know.”
“You weren’t supposed to know. We wanted everyone to believe that everything was perfect. I didn’t want to admit that our relationship of fifteen years had fallen apart.” Tears banked in his eyes. “And you know, despite everything, Mitch is the only man I ever really loved.”
Sam stood. “Come on. I think we should get that hand of yours looked at.”
Ryan, slow to stand, levelled his gaze at Sam. “Why do you keep doing this?”
Sam raised an eyebrow. “Keep doing what?”
“Saving the day,” Ryan said. “I mean, fifteen years ago I picked Mitch over you. I’ve never felt like I’ve deserved your friendship, yet you’ve been a rock all these years.”
Sam chuckled. “And yet you still haven’t figured it out.”
They walked in silence towards the silver Passat parked in front of the funeral home entrance. Ryan pulled his keys out of his pocket and tossed them at Sam. “I think it’s broken.”
“Are you talking about your hand or you?” Sam didn’t wait for an answer and climbed into the car.
The ride to the hospital was quiet, Ryan staring absently out the window the entire time. He’s right, he thought when Sam shifted the car into park. I’m broken. Maybe I’ve always been broken. He’d barely unbuckled his seatbelt when the passenger side door swung open. Sam helped him out of the car and they stood there, their gazes locked, looking at each other in a way they’d never done before. For the first time in years, Ryan felt something stir inside of him. No, he’s not still…
Ryan stepped out of the way to let Sam close the door, eying the man who’d always seemed to be there for him when it mattered. They headed for the emergency entrance, but just before going inside Ryan cut in front of Sam and blocked his path. “You mean … all these years —”
“Today’s not the day to talk about this,” Sam said.
“But I —”
“You’ve only ever seen what you’ve wanted to see. And that’s okay.” Sam smiled and tapped Ryan on the arm. “Let’s get your hand looked at.”
Ryan followed Sam through the sliding glass doors. Maybe it was the pain, becoming more intense, that had him questioning everything he thought he knew. He wanted to believe that he had truly loved Mitch and what they’d lived was real. Now he wasn’t sure about anything.
All he knew was that when the time was right, and if he got a second chance at love, he wouldn’t be the same fool twice.