The car jerked forward a couple more times, shuddered violently, and finally stopped as Toby guided it onto the shoulder of the road. A hissing sound emanated from underneath the car's hood, mingling with the loud chirping of the birds outside. What had begun as a much-needed Sunday drive through the country had turned into a frustrating mess.
Great, Toby thought sourly. More stress.
Of course he'd chosen the secluded back roads to get lost on, never anticipating car troubles or a hike. Toby glared down at his freshly pressed trousers and – groan – tasseled loafers. As soon as he shut off the ignition, the air-conditioning ceased its flow of cool air, and Toby regretted the rest of his clothing choices even more – long-sleeved button-down shirts were the staple, if not the standard, of his wardrobe. Even though today was supposed to be one of relaxation, he still looked like he was dressed for work.
And he'd never had an aptitude for car repairs; he couldn't even change a spark plug, let alone deal with what he suspected was an overheated radiator. Toby checked his cell phone. Naturally there was no service: he was on a secluded road, hidden in a deep valley between mountains, he hadn't seen another car for at least twenty minutes, and he couldn't even remember the name of the last town he'd sped through.
Even better, Toby groused. He put his phone and keys in his pocket and resigned himself to the necessary walk. When he opened the car door and stepped out, he realized the true nature of such a beautiful, sunny summer day. It was hot. Even standing in the shade provided by the taller trees that lined the road – it was really hot.
Okay: he'd been a Boy Scout once, he could do this. Toby stripped off his button-down shirt and fashioned it into a turban-hat of sorts. The pale skin of his arms would probably turn pink before too long, but his undershirt gave him some protection and he'd keep to the shady side of the road. He would rather have pink arms than a lobster-red face, and peeling? Toby shuddered. No thank you.
At least my feet don't hurt yet, Toby thought as he walked along the dirt road, picking his way around the larger stones. He'd found a pair of running shoes in the trunk where they'd fallen out of his gym bag. He was in good shape, but he did the majority of his running on grass, not roads that promised a sprained ankle if he stepped wrong. He just needed to get to the crest of one of these hills, and hopefully his cell phone would work again.
Toby hesitated as he came to a fork in the road; he couldn't remember which way he'd come, exactly, and he wasn't sure how to make a temporary mark that would remind him in case he circled around unknowingly. In my defense, he thought self-pityingly, I've had a lot on my mind. His marriage proposal to Genevieve had been met with large, startled eyes and an embarrassing silence. They'd been dating for a few months and he was fairly sure that she'd be a good mother, so – he bought a ring and took her to the restaurant where they'd met. He'd done the whole on-one-knee thing, and was certain she'd say yes.
Except that she hadn't: she'd continued staring at him for interminable seconds and then frowned slightly, motioning for him to sit in his chair again. She went on to talk for a few minutes in a low tone, explaining how she never thought they were that serious and she wasn't looking to marry right away. She didn't even feel that he knew her well enough and besides – wasn't he using her for his own reasons, a little? He was shocked into silence until she made to leave, then he struggled up and insisted on taking her home. Blindly, he threw bills on the table and escorted her to the limousine, waiting until the doors were closed and the privacy partition raised before turning to her.
"Toby..." She sighed. "I don't mean that you don't... I mean, I think you're fond of me and all, but... we've only gone out a dozen times, and honestly, I never thought I was the only one that you were seeing... just the only one you were seeing publicly."
Okay, granted, he worked a lot, so she was right, in her own way – they didn't see much of one another, but he hadn't wanted to pressure her, and, wait, what?
He gasped sharply, eyes narrowing as he choked out his next words: "Who else do you think I've been... seeing?"
She blushed then, and stammered out, "Toby, I'm so sorry. I didn't mean to upset you. Obviously I've read this whole thing wrong. I – Just the way we met and all…" she trailed off uncertainly.
He had a meeting with a client; she was the hostess at the restaurant where they'd met. Toby had known Ferguson all his life; they were fraternity brothers at Harvard. They'd never held back their mutual affection that included mammoth bear hugs, cheek-kissing and unabashed teasing. Suddenly, Genevieve's... accusation... completed the shaky picture his mind had been busily forming. "Oh my god, you think I'm gay," he blurted out before he could filter his thoughts.
"Toby! We've kissed maybe three times. You've never asked to come in, and when we make plans it's always somewhere public, and never just the two of us."
"Maybe I'm an old-fashioned gentleman," he said with a sardonic smile.
She sighed again, clearly wanting to be done with this awkward conversation. "Toby... I'm not going to marry you."
The rest of the ride back to her apartment was filled only with a stony silence. When the limo finally slowed to a stop, Genevieve reached out and brushed her fingertips over Toby's cheek, then exited gracefully. It was only after the door had closed again that Toby realized he was still holding onto the engagement ring, and his shoulders started to shake.
So when the driver inquired about their next stop, Toby impulsively decided against going home to mope. Instead, he directed the driver to a bar in an upscale hotel near the courthouse where he pounded dirty martinis and tried not to think about the ring in his pocket.
And when a man sat down on the barstool next to him, their knees touching, he hadn't moved away.