Authors: Anna Martin
“And you didn’t even ask her?”
“Nope,” Ryan said and kicked at a stone on the path
“I just sort of got swept up with it all. She was the first one out of all her girlfriends to get engaged, and they were all jealous as hell, you could just tell, and she liked the attention. We got married just over a year later.”
“And we were divorced about six months after her twenty-first,” Ryan said with a bitter laugh. “It was a disaster from start to finish.”
“No, thank God. She wanted them, though. I didn’t. I hardly stood up for myself at all during the whole mess of a marriage, but I did put my foot down as far as children were concerned. I told her I wanted to wait until we had more money saved up, and a bigger place, and we were more settled and a bit older.”
It was one part of the story that had filled Henry with a little bit of hope. He wasn’t completely opposed to the idea of having children in the future, but he wasn’t sure how he felt about dating a guy who already had them.
“Is the story of the divorce one for another day?”
“Not really,” Ryan said. “Basically, Sarah told me I was gay.”
“Really?” Henry said, laughing as he turned around.
“Well, she didn’t put it quite like that. We were fighting and throwing all these accusations at each other, and she just screamed at me ‘You’re
, Ryan, and you don’t even know it!’ I can remember sitting down and thinking ‘Oh fuck, I am as well’—not that I told her that, of course.”
“What did you tell her?”
“Not a lot. It took another year or so for me to come to terms with it myself. I’m still not sure I’m completely there, to be honest.”
Henry closed his eyes and sighed heavily. “I don’t normally date bisexuals,” he murmured.
“The same reason I don’t date people who aren’t out.”
When Ryan clenched his jaw, Henry tried to not admire how it changed the beautiful shape of his face. And failed.
“It’s not a crime to be in the closet,” Ryan said tightly.
“No,” Henry said gently. “But I’ve been someone’s dirty little secret before, and I’m never going there again.”
“You’re not my dirty little secret.”
“No? Then why don’t we go out together and let people see?”
Ryan stopped walking and leaned back against a fence post, shaking his head. “You don’t understand.”
“Who knows you’re gay?” Henry asked, forcing calm into both his tone and his posture.
“No one. No one, Henry, is that what you wanted me to say? Just you. Fuck!”
Biting back the acerbic remark on the tip of his tongue took some effort, but Henry managed it. Just about.
“I won’t say anything,” he said.
“Good,” Ryan bit back. “It’s not your secret to tell.”
“Which is why I won’t,” he snapped. Then sighed. “Okay, well, I’m going to go do some work.”
He didn’t wait for a response, stomping back up toward the house and putting as much distance between himself and Ryan fucking Burgess as he possibly could, wondering if every conversation about Ryan’s sexuality would end with him storming away. He sincerely hoped not.
great trepidation, Henry stood in front of the door to the vicarage. It wasn’t a particularly difficult house to find. Located just behind the church, with a path that led from the gardens of the churchyard across from it, anyone looking for the village pastor wouldn’t have far to go.
Paul had said that his door was always open, and Henry believed him, but he held a longstanding prejudice against the church as fierce and unsubstantiated as the one he feared the church held against him.
He was not here to look for a man of faith. He was here for a man who could help him. For some reason, something was telling him Paul was the key to unlocking the secrets Ryan was keeping hidden away.
Henry raised his hand and knocked.
A few moments later, Paul answered the door, and Henry tried not to stare.
Paul was actually incredibly attractive, and as twisted as it was, Henry was forced to push memories of porn about a nun and a vicar out of his mind. This was definitely not the time.
The thing was, Paul was definitely the sort of man Henry took a closer look at on a regular basis. He obviously worked out, was clean shaven and broad and dark. In his everyday clothes—a loose polo shirt and jeans—he looked like any other guy. It upset Henry, for some reason, to think of the vicar as any other guy.
“Hi,” Paul said with a welcoming smile. Then he frowned. “You all right?”
“Yeah,” Henry said. “I’m good. Could I come in?”
He was led through the small cottage and into the kitchen. Why was it that people lived in their kitchens here? In his apartment in Manhattan, he never used the kitchen. The fridge held ketchup and mixers and not a lot else.
Despite the house being painfully old, there were modern touches throughout. It appeared that the good vicar didn’t like the “charm” of the old—bordering on fetishization, as far as Henry was concerned. There was no chintz or shabby chic here. The wood floors were stripped back and naked of rugs or carpets, the walls were a uniform off-white and the ceiling beams blond wood, rather than the black beams that decorated the pub.
In the kitchen, the tiles were a rich blue glass, and that was the only splash of color in a room that was again clean and modern.
“How can I help?” Paul asked. “Tea?”
“Yeah, thanks,” Henry said. “Sorry to bother you.”
“No problem,” Paul said with a shrug. “I’m not on duty.”
He turned away to start making the tea, leaving Henry to find a seat at the tiny table set up in a corner of the kitchen.
“It’s Ryan,” he started, then immediately felt uncomfortable.
“Is he okay?” Paul asked but didn’t sound too concerned.
“Yeah, he’s fine. Working.”
When a mug of tea was placed in front of him, Henry immediately wrapped his hands around it to leech its warmth. It was something he’d seen Ryan do, and he wondered when he’d picked up the habit.
“Is he really gay?” Henry blurted, then regretted his rashness.
Paul snorted with laughter. “Out to himself or out to the world?”
“Both,” Henry muttered.
“Neither,” Paul said. He paused, then got up to grab a packet of digestive biscuits from a cupboard. When offered one, Henry considered it carefully, decided that it was just a regular, plain cookie, and took a bite. Paul pulled one from the packet and dunked it in his tea. “Ryan has been alone for so long because he can’t reconcile with himself what he wants against what he thinks he should want.”
Henry nodded and took a biscuit when offered one. “What does he want?”
“I’m not sure anyone knows that, least of all Ryan.”
“You’re not being much help.”
Paul laughed again and leaned back in his chair. “Don’t be arsey with me, mate. I honestly don’t know. I know Sarah told him he was gay when she left him, and I think he took that to heart. Maybe he is. Maybe she was just being a spiteful bitch who couldn’t stand the fact that he wasn’t in love with her anymore. Who knows?”
“Wow,” Henry muttered. “You don’t sound much like a vicar right now.”
“I didn’t realize you were here to see a vicar,” Paul said lightly. “If you want, I can go and put my dog collar on.”
“Better if you didn’t,” Henry said, his mind going straight back to the porn.
“I’m just a normal guy, Henry,” Paul said gently. “I know you feel uncomfortable around me, but I wish you wouldn’t. I have a job, just like you do. My job affects my personal life a lot, for sure, but it doesn’t define me.”
“Yes. Really. I’m much more than just the local vicar. Just the same as you’re a lot more than the gay guy from New York.”
gay guy from New York,” Henry corrected, but with his tongue in cheek.
Paul laughed. “Okay, okay. Jesus was born Jewish, though, you know. I don’t have anything against that.”
Dramatically, Henry dropped his head to the table and thumped it several times.
“Look,” Paul said, selecting another biscuit from the packet, “if you’re interested in Ryan, and I’m guessing that’s what this is all about, then you need to give him the time he needs to come to terms with each stage of any relationship you might get into. He’s not going to fling himself headfirst into anything.”
“There has been no
“I’m not surprised.”
“There hasn’t been much of anything.”
Paul nodded. “I can’t promise you anything about Ryan, Henry, least of all his sexuality. If you want my observation, then I think Ryan got very good at hiding his attraction to men, and when Sarah came along, it was almost a relief. He loved her, and she was a woman, so he didn’t need to think about his sexuality anymore. From being his friend for nearly twenty years, though, I can tell you he’s a person who loves unconditionally. And I think he’s probably just looking for someone to love.”
Despite himself, Henry squirmed. “I don’t think I’m very good at the whole ‘being in love’ thing.”
“Why do you say that?”
Henry shrugged. “I don’t know. I was with Drew for six years, from when we were twenty-two to a couple of months before I moved here. We just… were, you know? We weren’t ever great together, we were just together.”
“So you didn’t love him?”
“I convinced myself that I loved him, for a long time,” Henry said. “Now I’m not so sure. It just seems hollow now, when I think back.”
Paul drained the rest of his tea and looked at him thoughtfully. “It can be easier, sometimes, to be with someone than to be alone.”
Henry nodded. “Yeah.”
“But sometimes being alone gives you a different perspective. You need to know who you are before you can share yourself with someone else.”
Henry considered whether his next question was going too far, then decided to ask it anyway. Paul seemed like the type of man to tell him if he’d overstepped the mark.
“Why aren’t you married?”
“Same reason you aren’t, I expect. I haven’t found anyone I want to marry. Or wants to marry me.”
“Oh.” He paused. “Sorry.”
“Nothing to be sorry for,” Paul said on a laugh. “It’s just the way of things.”
Henry watched as a tabby cat meandered into the kitchen, looked mournfully at its empty bowl, then curled up in a patch of sunlight on the floor, yawning widely. There had never been cats around when Henry was growing up. His mother preferred her poodle, but he didn’t have the same affinity for dogs as other people had. He liked cats—their laziness, the way they demanded food and sleep and attention (in that order) and cared less about their humans than dogs did.
He wondered what that said about him as a man.
“No one can tell you if he’s worth it, Henry,” Paul said, picking up the mugs and taking them over to the sink. “Only you know that.”
“I’ve always sworn I’d never be with a guy like him,” Henry said. Paul raised his eyebrows, so he kept talking. “You know, straight-acting, probably bisexual, closeted. It’s always been too much hassle before. Too messy.”
“And now?” Paul prompted.
“Now I don’t even know what I think.”
Paul snorted with laughter. “Unfortunately, my relationship-counseling certificate didn’t cover coaxing people to admit that they’re gay. You might be surprised to hear that the Church of England doesn’t cover that in their syllabus.”
“You don’t say.”
“So,” he said, clapping his hands together, “you’ll have to figure that part out on your own. So unless you’ve got any other moral or religious crises you’d like to discuss, I’ve got work to do.”
“Oh,” Henry said, standing. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to take up so much of your time.”
“It’s not a problem,” Paul said as he led Henry back to the front door. “My door is always open, as they say.”
“Thanks. I appreciate it.”
“Any time. Oh, and Henry?”
Paul winked. “See you on Sunday.”
all of Henry’s meetings with Nell had been while Shenal had accompanied him, he felt like he’d reached a point where he needed to branch out on his own, especially for the more personal conversation he wanted to have with her. She was a warm security blanket and a convenient safety net, but Shenal wasn’t going to be around to hold his hand every time he went to visit.
He was met at the door by Sandra-the-manager and once again shown through to the conservatory where Nell was sitting. There was a much larger and cozier sitting room at the front of the house, where other residents seemed to congregate, but Nell apparently preferred the quiet and the light and the plants back here.
She was pleased to see him, but he wasn’t convinced that her good mood would last.
“Mrs. Robinson… Nell,” Henry corrected, wringing his fingers together. “I need to talk to you about something.”
She nodded at him.
“The thing is, I know how important the house is to you. Partly because of its history, and because it’s part of our family. And I know you want it to be handed down to the next generation. But… Nell….” he took a deep breath. “I’m gay. Homosexual.”