After a huge dinner of southern fried chicken, corn, and collard greens, with a sweet potato casserole for dessert, we all adjourned back to the living room. Not having been in Seattle long, Amelia’s furniture was sparse, so we ended up piling more people onto her little couch than it was probably ever supposed to hold.
I found myself squished between Jessie and Rory. It was hard enough to jam my considerable bulk onto a tiny square foot of couch, so I certainly didn’t know what to do with my overly long limbs. I ended up stretching my arms along the back of the couch, careful not to touch anyone who might not want to be touched.
Nic and Justice had begun regaling us with tales of their honeymoon trip sailing on Nic’s other ride, a ninety foot motor yacht. I couldn’t be sure what it was that alerted me exactly, but I could feel Rory’s mood taking a dive. His shoulders curled inward and his eyes seemed to dart around the room, looking anywhere but at the newlyweds, or the budding couple—Patrick and Rich—who couldn’t seem to keep their hands, or their mouths, off of each other.
The air snapped and crackled with the tension that surrounded Rory’s body. It ramped up my own anxiety until I could no longer ignore it. I gripped the back of his neck, mainly just to get his attention, though I did the same to Jessie so Rory wouldn’t feel uncomfortable, and I leaned in closer. I made my voice so low that it was just a rumble in my chest, for his ears only.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
When those warm brown eyes landed on my face, I didn’t see discomfort as I’d expected. No, I saw pure unadulterated shock. It was as if Rory was completely surprised that anyone saw past his happy-go-lucky, big-man-on-campus-and-other-clichés façade to notice that something was bothering him.
Then I was the one surprised when he didn’t shake my arm off like I thought he would. Instead, he sort of settled in, leaning back slightly, not encouraging my touch but not dissuading me either. He heaved a brittle sigh and his forced smile couldn’t hide the sadness. I could see it like a blinking neon sign above his head. The man was troubled, and for some reason, no one else seemed to notice.
“No,” he said quietly.
“Wanna talk about it?”
He shook his head, but smiled a little brighter for me. “No…not tonight, not here. This is a happy place.” As if that explained everything. Maybe it did.
“Understood. But just…know that you can. Talk about it, I mean. Sometimes it can be easier with someone who doesn’t know you quite as well, who’s not expecting you to be anything.” I’ve no idea why I did it, surely I was possessed by the mother of all gay demons, but I stretched out my thumb and rubbed it lightly up and down his neck.
That big body shuddered just from the slight touch. There didn’t seem to be anything sexual about it. It was more like he was starving and I was offering him a bite of my meal. Perhaps he’d have reacted the same way with anyone. I wasn’t going to read too much into it. I. Was. Not.
“Thanks,” he whispered, and I wondered if he meant it for my words or my touch. “I may take you up on that someday. I—”
My phone rang, effectively silencing whatever words might’ve spilled out of Rory’s mouth. I checked the display, saw that it was Addison, and hit the send button to answer. She was calling for a pickup. Sarah was having a bad night and needed to turn in early. Looked like I wasn’t meant to know what else Rory had to say.
I smiled apologetically at him before turning to Jess. We’d both have to leave since we drove together. “That was Addy. Sarah’s not feeling well tonight so she needs an early pickup.”
“Well, so much for adult night out,” Jessie said good-naturedly. She loved our daughter more than life; she’d never complain about having to spend time with her.
We stood and said our good-byes to the hostess and the other guests. Again, I don’t know what came over me, but I palmed my business card and passed it to Rory when we shook hands. I gave him a direct look, hoping he’d understand that he could use it if he ever needed to because, hell, I was kind of worried about the guy.
“See you later.”
He had to clear his throat before he could answer. “Yeah. Have a good night,” he said with a little wave.
I hated to see how his face fell as I walked away, like I was some kind of lifeline being cut, and the rest of the party was the stormy sea swallowing him up. It wouldn’t be the first time I was needed to pull someone out of the void, but probably the first time I was scared of being pulled under myself.