As soon as the playground came into sight, Beth tugged at his hand. “Come on, Daddy,” she urged. “I wanna see if Jeremy’s here!”
John laughed a little as Beth tugged him along. Once they were inside the park boundaries, John pulled them to a stop and squatted down to Beth’s level.
“Remember, stay in the playground unless you’re coming to where I am,” he said, holding her gaze, knowing he was looking into eyes exactly like his own. “No going anywhere with anyone else, not even another kid, okay?”
John wondered if Meghan had taught Beth to roll her eyes too. “I know, Daddy,” she said. “See ya!”
She ran for the swing sets, and John watched her for a minute or two, hands on his hips. He shook his head, smiling again, and crossed to one of the benches near the playground, where he sat and stretched his legs out in front of him, left arm across the back of the bench, face tilted up into the sun.
He didn’t know how long he’d been there, but it couldn’t have been long, because he’d only checked on Beth twice when a low laugh drew his attention. He looked up into a handsome face creased by a wide smile, white teeth shining in the sun.
“This seat taken?” the other man said, and John blinked in surprise for a moment before nodding toward the empty expanse of bench.
“Help yourself John looked over toward the playground and sought out Beth, who by then had moved to scrambling up the climbing set, a grinning boy about her age with her. Her honey-brown hair, pulled up into two ponytails, shone in the bright sunlight. “That’s her on the climbing set,” he said.
“Oh, with Jeremy?” The man grinned. “That must be Beth, then. Jeremy was crazy excited that he might get to see her again.”
John chuckled. “Ah, young love.” He turned in his seat enough to hold out a hand. “John McConnell,” he said.
The other man glanced at him for a second before reaching out to shake. “Bryan Simmons.”
Bryan quirked an eyebrow over deep brown eyes, and John smiled as they sat back. He returned his attention to the kids. “Looks like my daughter and your son really hit it off.”
Bryan laughed, drawing John’s attention back to him. “Oh, not my son. Nephew.” He grinned. “My sister and her husband own the Sea Breeze.” He named a bed-and-breakfast that was housed in an older house much like the one John lived in. “I’m helping them renovate the place, and I keep an eye on the munchkin for them sometimes.”
John nodded. “I’m glad someone’s doing that,” he said. “I mean, I know the place wasn’t exactly ramshackle before, but it was starting to look a little rough around the edges.”
“Yeah,” Bryan agreed. “Our cousins owned it. Our mom’s cousins, actually. But they were ready to retire, and Davis—that’s my brother-in-law—got a pretty hefty inheritance from his grandmother. So he and Karen bought the place, and they’re fixing it up.”
John nodded again, watching as Beth and Jeremy laughed and chased each other around the climbing set. Jeremy’s short, curly hair was a riotous mess, reminding John of what his own hair did when he let it grow out. “Been on the island long?”
“Six months.” Something in Bryan’s voice made John look over at him, but he couldn’t quite read the look in Bryan’s eyes. “I was in Atlanta before that, but I had to…. I left. Needed to get away for a while.”
Something in John’s chest twisted. He recognized the tone of Bryan’s voice now. He’d heard it from himself often in the past five years. “Bad memories?”
Bryan hesitated, but John had the feeling he needed to get something out. Finally Bryan gave a short nod. “Bad breakup,” he said. “I mean, not like yelling and throwing things bad. More like having to break up for reasons neither of you can control. Having to choose between him and me.”
It took a second for John to register the “him.” He blinked. “You’re gay?”
He winced immediately, knowing how the question sounded. Harsh. Accusatory. But he was only surprised, not put off. He opened his mouth to apologize, but Bryan’s face had already twisted into a scowl.
“Yeah, I’m gay,” Bryan challenged, glaring at John. “You got a problem with that?” He shook his head, starting to turn away. “Jesus, can’t even go to the fucking park without running into some homophobe—”
“Hey!” John interrupted him with an upheld hand, and Bryan’s face turned back toward him. “Not how I meant it, Mr. Jump-to-Conclusions. Not a homophobe, just surprised. I mean, not that many people are so casual about it in this neck of the woods. Trust me, I’m not bothered at all.” He hesitated before taking the plunge. “Hell, the last person I dated before I met my wife was a guy. Okay?”
Bryan studied him for a moment before blushing and dropping his head. “Sorry,” he mumbled. “I do tend to jump to conclusions sometimes. And a lot of guys seem to think I’m going to, I don’t know, try to convert them or something.”
John nodded. “Apology accepted.” He shrugged as he relaxed against the bench. “I can understand it, really. A lot of people don’t react well, especially in the South. But I’m not one of them.” He shot Bryan a look out of the corner of his eye. “And even if I hadn’t dated guys, I know that just because you’re gay doesn’t mean you’re going to try to hit on every guy you meet.”
Before he could say anything else, Beth and Jeremy came running up toward them. “Daddy!” Beth exclaimed. She never seemed to do anything at a normal volume. “Jeremy said his mom is baking cookies and wants me to come have some!”
John frowned. “Bethy, honey, you know you’re not supposed to invite yourself over to somebody’s house.”
“I didn’t, Daddy!” Beth was insistent. “Jeremy invited me!”
John threw Bryan a sheepish look just as Jeremy intervened. “Can she come, Uncle Bryan? Pleasepleaseplease?” He bounced up and down, and John had to laugh. He’d thought it impossible for another child to have more energy than his own, but Jeremy might just prove him wrong.
“We’ll see, okay?” Bryan’s voice was soft but firm. “We can’t go back right now. I told your mom we’d give her an hour. But we’ll see after that, okay?”
Jeremy nodded so hard John thought his head would bobble right off. “Okay!” He turned back to Beth. “Race you!”