Through his years of practice and experience, Rafe had learned to help and comfort, to step in when his expertise was needed, and step away when there was no hope left at all. What Alex didn’t know was that Rafe always held out hope for life, and though he might give the appearance of a man ruled by quiet and calm, in truth he was tenacious as a bulldog and refused to accept defeat.
So Rafe allowed Alex to sit in his moody silence until their beers came and they both took long, bracing swallows.“Can I speak now?”
Alex shrugged. “Suit yourself.” That offhand comment led Rafe to believe Alex didn’t expect much from people or life in general. Perhaps he too had been disappointed by the people who should have always been there for him and weren’t.
“All my life I’ve been told I was different and that kids wouldn’t like me because of my stutter. When I realized I was gay, I knew my struggle only increased ten-fold. It made me retreat even more.”
Alex traced the lip of his beer bottle with his finger. “Yeah. I can understand that to an extent.”
“That’s my point. You can understand it to an extent, but not really. I’m not saying this in a spiteful way.” It was so important to Rafe to make Alex understand where he was coming from. “You’re a big, good-looking man with a great personality. Everywhere you go, you make friends so easily; people gravitate to you naturally. It’s a gift, if you think about it.”
“I have many gifts,” said Alex with a wink and smiled for the first time since they sat down. Rafe wasn’t fooled.
“You’re deflecting,” he stated, and like Rafe knew he would, Alex stopped smiling, his mouth thinning to a tight line. “Don’t get angry with me.”
“I’m not. I’m only wondering when you decided to appoint yourself as my therapist.”
Rafe pinned Alex with a stare and a raised brow. “When someone sticks their tongue down my throat, it’s a signal to me that maybe we’ve gone beyond a handshake and a ‘Hi, how are you.’”
Alex stared at him for a moment, then his eyes creased with amusement and he started to laugh. He didn’t stop, even when the waiter arrived with their food.
Rafe folded his arms and glared. “I’m not finished. You make friends easily but it’s all on the surface, isn’t it? I bet people don’t ever really get to know the real you, do they?”
Once again, Alex stopped laughing, only this time it seemed he’d had enough. “I don’t have to listen to this shit.” He looked around for the waiter. “I’ll get my food to go.”
“That’s what you always do, don’t you. Instead of talking about things, you make a joke or run away. It’s easier to run away.”
As Rafe spoke, Alex’s face grew dark with anger. Now that he’d started talking, Rafe couldn’t stop; the words spilled like water rushing from a dam.
“I know what it’s like. My reason is obvious. I spent almost my whole life hiding behind a wall of silence. But what reason do you have to play the class clown all the time? People would like you no matter what.”
For a moment Alex stared at him, then smiled a real smile, the first all night. It kindled a glow in his deep blue eyes.
“Do you realize something?” He leaned forward and Rafe swore he could feel the warmth radiating from Alex’s body across the table.
Caught up in the moment, Rafe couldn’t look away. The sounds of the pub faded in the background, including the music, which unfortunately had gone from ’80s retro to modern day rap. “Wha-what?” His mouth tasted dry even with the beer he’d drunk.
“You barely stuttered, not at all until now.”
Alex’s large warm palm slid over his own hand and gave it a squeeze. “That’s great isn’t it? You must be getting more comfortable with me.” A wide grin broke across his face. “Guess that tongue down the throat action worked for something.”