Wedding Favors (A Bluewater Bay Novel)
Lucas Wilder’s best friend is a traitor. First, Audrey moved back to their hick-infested hometown, Bluewater Bay, and now she’s marrying a local. His own brother, in fact. And as her man of honor, Lucas gets coerced into returning for an extended stay. Although, between his unfaithful ex-boyfriend and his artist’s block, going home isn’t the worst thing that could happen. Even if the best man is Gabriel Savage, Lucas’s first crush, first hookup, and first heartbreak.
The only reason Gabe hasn’t been waiting for Lucas to return to Bluewater Bay is because he never thought it’d happen. Not that it matters now that Lucas is back—Gabe’s still a logger who’s never been anywhere (Canada doesn’t count), and Lucas is now a famous sculptor who’s been everywhere twice. Plus, there’s that shared past.
When Audrey asks Lucas to make her wedding favors, the only place to set up a kiln is at Gabe’s tree farm. Soon, they pick up where they left off twelve years before, then blow past it, discovering why neither of them forgot the other. Now they have to choose how much of their history they’ll repeat, and what future they’ll make together.
- Finalist: Best Gay Romantic Comedy in the 2015 Rainbow Awards
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Reader discretion advised. This title contains the following sensitive themes:drug use
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So. Much. Stuff.
Lucas shook his head, surveying his friend Corbin’s garage, close to horrified by the amount he’d packed into it. He’d always thought of himself as a guy who left a small footprint on life, but apparently he’d been a bigger consumer than he’d realized. It hadn’t seemed like so much when it was still at his old studio, but now, after cramming it all in what had seemed like ample space? The buckets of glaze and the mess of tools and the furniture . . . the number of just things was overwhelming.
Even in the back of Corbin’s truck it hadn’t looked like this much stuff—though they’d had to bring it over here in two loads, so that might have tipped Lucas off if he’d been thinking. But he’d been in a fog of urgency this morning, needing to get the goods and get out without running into his ex. Besides, Corbin had said he could only get away from the office for a couple of hours.
Lucas shouldn’t have insisted they get it today, probably. It wasn’t as if he’d been dying to get his hands on his stuff to actually use it. He’d felt compelled to move it, though, because he couldn’t handle one more phone call from Drew insisting he could come by anytime. “It’s as much yours as mine.” Dick. As if he didn’t know that? Drew couldn’t have annoyed Lucas more if he’d pissed on all of it.
So. Now it was here, after languishing for more than three months at the house Lucas used to share with his partner. Well, technically, it had been languishing in his former studio.
Lucas stepped toward his kick wheel, still under a tarp held on with bungee cords. He hadn’t touched the thing since before he’d left Los Angeles for an artist’s residency in Missoula last August, long before he’d ended things with Drew in November. He hadn’t produced any work at all since returning from Montana in mid-October, and pretty damn soon he had to—in December he was supposed to show at the gallery store of the Museum of Contemporary Craft. That gave him only nine months to come up with a large body of work.
The thought of the looming deadline made his heart seize for a moment. Fortunately, his phone—tucked into the shirt pocket over said heart—rang, shocking the organ back to its normal rhythm and preventing him from dwelling more. Yanking the cell out of his pocket, he glanced at the name. Audrey.
About fucking time. “I haven’t heard from you in forever,” he said in greeting, and if that wasn’t revealing of his mental state . . . It had only been a week since they’d spoken. In college they sometimes went a month between conversations, and two weeks wasn’t unusual even now. What could he say? If he couldn’t expose his vulnerability to his best friend, then what the hell did he keep her around for?
“I know,” she sighed. “I’ve just been . . .” She sucked in a breath with such force it whistled in his ear. “I’m getting married.”
“You’re—” Lucas wasn’t used to having to untangle Audrey’s words like this. They normally communicated so well. All the important stuff, at least. Well, he’d thought they were communicating important stuff, mostly about his breakup and Drew’s infidelity and his state of mind, but apparently he was the only one who’d been sharing. He yanked the phone away and stared at it, while birds chirped happily in the sunshine outside this cramped, dark space, oblivious to his confusion. He brought it back to his ear, knuckles digging into his cheek. “Wait, you’re what?”
“Getting married.” The timidity in her voice was a bit reassuring. A sign she cared enough to be worried about his reaction to her blindsiding him.
“Married,” he repeated. He leaned forward, as if it would help express his bafflement. “Married?” That was just— “I didn’t even know you were dating anyone. Why wouldn’t I know that? Oh my God.” The full implication hit him—worse than her keeping a significant life event secret from him—and he straightened up again. “You’ve been seeing a local. You’re engaged to one.” No wonder she hadn’t told him. Since she’d moved back to their mutual cesspit of adolescent angst—i.e., the redneck town in Washington where they’d grown up—this exact fear had been lurking in the back of his mind, and occasionally it leaked into the front and then out of his mouth when they talked.
“He belongs to one of the pioneering families of the area,” she said, a totally justified twinge of shame in her tone.
Worse than he could’ve imagined. “I told you no good could come of returning to Bluewater Bay. We were gonna get out of that town and never go back!” If she tied herself to some hick into that incestuous backwater, she’d never leave.
“I know,” she verbally cringed. “It’s just . . . It’s your brother.”
“My—” Seriously, he couldn’t breathe. She’d knocked the literal wind out of him from a thousand miles away. Or maybe it was figurative wind. “Zach?” Obviously. He only had the one.
“Yes,” she said in the most pathetic voice he’d heard from her, ever. “I’ve been seeing him about six months now.”
“You only moved back there seven months ago!” His fingernails dug into his palm as he screwed his eyes shut, trying to make this all disappear.
“I didn’t mean to?”
Not disappearing. “I cannot believe you didn’t even tell me you were seeing him, now you’re marrying him?” Lucas swung around, staring out into Corbin’s backyard, thinking about going out there to pace. It might help his agitation, because he couldn’t take it all out on Audrey. It wasn’t as bad as it could have been. Zach wasn’t violent, stupid, inbred, or on meth, which were all viable options in that part of the world. The guy definitely had flaws, though. “He’s a thirty-two-year-old man who lives with his parents.”
“Because your mother asked him to move back in and help when your dad was injured, which you totally know.”
“Yeah, but Dad’s fine now.” According to Mom, at least. She claimed early retirement was the best thing that had happened to his father since the microbrewery opened in town.
“Well, he’s staying there until the wedding to save up for the house we’re going to buy in the next couple of years.”
“Oh, is that the wedding you didn’t tell me—yourbest friend—about?”
“You haven’t always had a great history with your brother.” The tentativeness in her voice was drying up—she’d given him all the time to register complaints that she would. “I didn’t need you being all bitchy and pessimistic.”
“Don’t say that.”
She huffed. “You can totally be bitchy.”
As he was demonstrating. “Yeah, but ‘pessimistic’? If you were worried about that, it means you had hopes for the relationship from the beginning.”
“Well . . . duh.”
“So, if you had hopes, why didn’t you tell me about them?” Even knowing he would have been resentful listening to her wax on about her glowing love life while his domestic situation was in the shitter didn’t mean he was okay with her excluding him. “I would’ve listened.” To at least half of it. Probably that much. Enough to give her his perspective. “Normally, you’d want my opinion, even a bitchy one, but since you didn’t, that means you were serious from the get-go. Like, you’ve wanted him to get down on bended knee since your first—”
“He did, actually, you know. Kneel. In the middle of the Resort at Juan de Fuca’s dining room. He even had the waiter bring the ring on a tray and present it to me with a flourish.” There her voice went, going all gushy and soft.
“Oh my God, I don’t want to know.” His brother. Being sentimental and adoring and probably gazing at her like a Disney prince who’d found his cartoon princess, except straighter. Blech. He covered his eyes, trying to stop the mental image from forming. Too late.
“I’m sorry.” And she was, he could hear it. “It’s true, I did have hopes and I didn’t tell you . . . exactly. I mean, remember our sophomore year when we didn’t go home for Thanksgiving and got drunk in San Francisco instead, and I told you—”
“You said you’d kinda had a crush on Zach. Past tense. When you were in high school. Not that you wanted him as your husband, now.” Why hadn’t she told him how much she actually liked Zach? Running his fingers through his hair, he explained that away as the answer occurred to him. “You didn’t tell me how much you liked him then because it made you feel too vulnerable.” If it had meant that much, even ten years ago . . . this really was happening.
“You’re really that into him?” How could he begrudge her getting her secret wish? Well, other than because she’d been keeping it secret from him.
“Yes.” Audrey sighed. Not a sad sigh, more a settling one. Like she’d successfully cleared a hurdle. Telling her closest friend something she knew might upset him.
“I can’t believe you’re getting married.” Nice. A hint of wistful nostalgia had wormed its way in where it wasn’t invited.
“Me either. It’s so . . . amazing.”
“It is,” he admitted, giving in completely to the part of him that wanted what was best for her. He wandered over to a stack of dried clay in bags and leaned against them. “Sorry. I really am glad that you’re happy.” He hadn’t been very supportive so far, and he’d been trying to be better about that. Ever since Drew told him he wasn’t responsive enough. “You are happy, right?”
“I really am.” A wash of certainty flowed through the phone with her words. “This is so right, Zach and me.”
Okay, fine. He believed. Possibly even approved. “I guess if someone arranged a redneck lineup and made me pick one out for you, he’d probably be my first choice.”
“Thanks.” Her voice would dehumidify Puget Sound. “We’ll work on your enthusiasm.”
And probably not get very far. “So, I suppose this means I have to be the best man?” Wasn’t it tradition for the groom’s brother to do that?
“Noooo,” she said. “Not the best man . . .”
Zach didn’t want him? That hurt a little, to his surprise. Enough to make his free hand fly up to touch his chest. “What are you going to have me do?” Whatever she wasn’t saying couldn’t be worse than being rejected by his brother. Sort of rejected. “Just tell me.”
They’d probably made up some bullshit position for him, afraid he’d get pissed otherwise. Wise move.
“I want you to be my man of honor.”
“What’s that?” Although he had an inkling, and he was pretty sure it wasn’t bullshit.
“Like the maid of honor, except, you know, you aren’t a maid.”
“Well, that’s true.” In spite of his mood, he cracked a smile. “I could be your man of honor.”
“Thank you.” She may have tried to hide her sigh of relief, but he caught it. Was he really so difficult to deal with?
“I’m flattered.” White-lie time, but she was his best friend. “Am I going to get to wear a tux?” Would he look good in one? Didn’t everyone?
“You don’t have to. There aren’t any rules about what a man of honor should wear—whatever you want, within reason.”
“Of course I’ll wear a tux, what else would I wear, a dress?”
“Weeeell . . .” she teased.
He snorted, holding his palm up to the empty air in front of him. “No. It’s fine if that’s what you’re into, but I’m not.”
She giggled, and it was good. Gave him a bit of a warm feeling inside. Then she told him all about the deep-red silk charmeuse she’d chosen to make her dress out of. “It’s a perfect match for the ring Zach bought me—it’s the most beautiful ruby in an antique setting, you won’t believe—”
“My brother bought you a ruby?” That seemed incredibly insightful of Zach. Lucas would have pegged him for a big-box diamond store guy. “Did you tell him to?”
“Nooo. I had no idea he was going to ask me to marry him so soon. He picked it out all on his own.” Her voice fairly preened.
Maybe Audrey and Zach were meant to be, if his brother knew her well enough to get exactly what she’d probably choose herself.
“You’re really doing this.” It slipped out alongside a wistful breath. “And I’m going to be your man of honor.”
“Believe it, Lu. You will be.” Then, like the good friend she was, she took their conversation from too close to the bone back to a level he could handle. “You have to be my—let’s just call it ‘MOH,’ okay—you have to be my MOH, because you promised you would.”
“When?” How? He hadn’t even known she was getting married.
“Do you not remember that conversation in high school? I offered you groomsmen in return.”
Oh, wait, maybe he had promised something like that . . . “Uhhhh.” Squinting, he could almost see Audrey sitting in the booth across from him at their hangout, going on about nebulous future weddings. In his defense, it had been over twelve years ago.
“You don’t remember it at all, do you?”
He did, mostly, but he played along. “Well, vaguely . . .”
“Rest assured, you said you would.”
“I so rest. Let’s go back to you offering me groomsmen.” That he could recall clearly, her telling him the maid of honor always slept with one of the dudes in the wedding party, so she’d hook him up too. “Are any of them into guys?” And how hot were they? Hot enough to interest his quasi-inert libido?
“Gabe Savage is the best man.”
Oh no. “No, he’s not.”
“He is.” He could imagine her nonexpression, the one she’d have if she’d told him that in person. Tightened mouth but everything else slack and blank.
Yeah, he wasn’t going to let that slide like she was hoping. “That’s supposed to be an incentive? I have a history with him, which you know all about because I told you when it happened.” The morning after Gabe had taken Lucas home, acted like he was into him, and given him his first handjob, then left, dropping the I have feelings for you act. It wasn’t so much that Gabe had used him, it was that Gabe was the kind of guy who thought he’d had to manipulate his way into Lucas’s pants. Seriously, he wouldn’t have been that hard to get, even back when he was clueless about sex. “He played me.”
“He was just a stupid kid twelve years ago, he’s a pretty nice guy now.”
“He’s great at making people think that,” Lucas snarked.
“I like him.”
“He’s not trying to seduce you.”
“C’mon. Imagine him in a tux.”
While compelling, it didn’t cancel out his past with the guy. He hated being lied to like that. “I’ll be your MOH, but I’m not sleeping with the best man.” Snippy, but under the circumstances she’d have to accept it.
“No one’s gonna make you,” she said with a bit of a grumble. “Okay, how soon can you get up here?”
“What?” She almost sounded like she expected him tomorrow. “When’s the wedding?”
“A month and a half. May twenty-third.”
“See, it’s things like this that make it so obvious you’re gay.” She totally avoided the question. “People in actual danger of getting pregnant? They know that no one really gets married anymore simply because they’re knocked up.”
Does not compute. His confused thinking process did the robot. “So you are pregnant?”
She snorted. “Not likely.”
Now he believed. “Okay, but a month?”
“Month and a half.”
He let his silence do the speaking.
“I know,” she sighed. “It’s soon, but it’s either May or not until next winter. Zach’s too low on the totem pole to get fire season off.”
“There aren’t any wildfires on the Olympic Peninsula.” He could count on one hand how many he remembered hearing about, and he didn’t need fingers to do it.
“But he works for the Washington Department of Natural Resources, not the Olympic Peninsula. He could get sent anywhere, and Eastern Washington has fire season into November.”
“So have a Christmas wedding.”
“No,” she barked, then softened drastically—what he’d call whining if her voice hadn’t gone so airy. “I want to be married to him now, Lu. I want to know he really is mine.”
To puke or to melt? That was the question. He settled for muttering grudgingly and kicking the concrete floor with the toe of his shoe. “Fine. I understand.”
“That’s why I need you up here as soon as possible, sweetie.” Ah, the wheedling had begun. “I need your help planning it.”
“What do you mean, you want me to plan your wedding? What makes you think I’d be any good at it?” If she says it’s because I’m gay, I swear to God, I’m going to—
“I said help plan, and I’m asking you as a professional artist. Helloooo.”
God bless her for calling me an artist. A lump of gratitude formed in his throat, which he had to clear out before he could talk. “Well, I’m trying to be.”
Few seconds of silence. “You thought I was going to say it’s because you’re gay, didn’t you?”
“Please. I’ve known way too many gay guys to believe you all get some kind of decorating gene. And what do you mean, ‘trying to be’?”
He swallowed. “Well, I mean, I haven’t really been producing any—”
“Lucaaaaas . . .” Drawing out his name like that meant only one thing: she was putting on her teacher hat and going to school him.
“Audrey, c’mon, don’t—”
“You’re a famous artist who actually manages to support himself on his work—”
“I’m not really famous.” Only craft people knew who he was.
“—How is that not ‘producing anything’?”
“I’m talking about how it feels, now. Since . . . you know.” Since dumping Drew and losing the income from Drew’s gallery. Since returning to Los Angeles and discovering his life wasn’t as ideal as he’d thought.
“I get that, but think of all the people who’d love to be in your shoes.”
“I like being well-known for what I do. I do. It’s just . . .” His partner had spent years telling him he wasn’t good enough to make it in a real fine arts discipline.
“It’s that fucking dick you were hooked up with.” She’d never liked Drew, not even in the beginning, back when Lucas had liked him enough for both of them.
“It was a little more than hooking up. We own the house together, and all my sales went through his gallery, so untangling all that stuff is like getting divorced. We even have a lawyer. Let me take the opportunity to encourage you to sign a pre-nup.”
“Oh, Lu, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to make light of it.”
He shrugged, even though she couldn’t see it. “’S’okay.” It was, too; all of it was ground they’d been over. He’d whined about it numerous times while she, apparently, had been falling for his brother. No wonder she hadn’t told him, he was probably a total buzzkill.
“That’s all the more reason for you to come up here, to get away from Drew and that whole scene.” She meant the fine arts scene, or Rarified Elitists on Parade, as they referred to the uber-hip gallery hoppers in their less sober and more giggly moments. “You don’t have a reason to stay there anymore.”
“I have friends.” He scowled at the form of a male torso that had partially exploded in the kiln. It was missing all of its left thigh and most of the groin. Emasculated sculptures were generally a failure. Sensing a theme. He, too, felt like something essential was missing, he recognized that—it was the reason he’d lived in the one-room loft over Corbin’s garage for months with no amenities but a hot pot. “So what if my relationship ended? Rub it in, why don’t you?”
“I’m not rubbing it in; I’m just pointing out that there’s no reason you have to be in LA. You can work up here just as easily. Seattle if not Bluewater Bay.”
“I can’t afford Seattle. And my studio is here.” Surrounding him. Didn’t matter that it wasn’t actually functional at the moment; he didn’t feel inspired anyway.
“Last time we talked you told me you were moving your stuff out of it. Are you still staying in Corbin’s ‘guest apartment’?”
She was going in the most obvious direction, and there was nothing he could do to stop it. So he propped the phone to his ear with his shoulder, crossed his arms over his chest, and slouched, but kept the sullenness out of his voice. “Yes.” Most of the sullenness.
“You’re storing everything there, now? In his garage?”
“Yeah,” he muttered. “So?”
“I’ve seen Corbin’s guest loft, he had it built when I still lived in LA—”
He snorted because of course he knew that, he didn’t need to be told all the obvious things in the world.
“And I know how much you had packed into your studio. There’s no way you have room to work. You don’t even have a kiln, do you?”
“Where would I set up a kiln here? Where would I even set one up there?” He couldn’t work up the spirit to argue for staying in Los Angeles, but he wasn’t ready to give in and agree to leave, either.
“Well, you can keep some of your stuff over my store, and probably rent studio space in an industrial building or something. Bluewater Bay has to be about ten times cheaper than LA.”
“Prices haven’t been driven up by that movie they’ve been filming there?” Apparently there was some kind of Twilight-esque hype going on with some books centered around the town. He tried to remember the details, but all he could come up with was that it had been going on a couple of years, and the place had “really changed for the better” according to his mother, brother, father, and every dog in town.
“It’s a television series,” she corrected. “Wolf’s Landing—I can’t believe you don’t watch it—but no, they haven’t gone up that much. Just enough to save the town from financial ruin and make my opening a dress shop here viable.”
Cheaper would be good, and Audrey had really been successful with her store, Tiffany’s Breakfast. This could be the shock to the system I need. Or not . . . “I don’t know. Maybe I shouldn’t leave until the ‘divorce’ is final.”
“Would it ruin your claim on the property if you left?”
No. He’d made sure before he’d moved his stuff out of the house, then again before moving the studio. “Not really.”
“Come up here, then. I need my best friend by my side for support. That’s what the man of honor does.”
She presented a compelling argument. God, was he really considering this? Los Angeles might be sunny much of the time, but he’d felt like a gray cloud had settled over him months ago, before he and Drew ended things. Things had been bad since he’d returned from his residency in Montana.
Audrey knew him well, jumping on his hesitation to object again. “Oh, just come up here and help me with my fucking wedding.”
“Well, when you put it like that . . .” He huffed theatrically. “I guess I will.” Immediately, his gloom began to lift, for the first time since he’d come back to California. He just couldn’t believe it was because he’d decided to return to a place he’d been so desperate to escape twelve years before.
“Yay!” she cackled. “So you can be here by next Friday, right? The engagement party your parents are hosting is that night.”
Gabe was looking forward to spending the evening in bed right up until around the time Seth was in the shower. That’s when Zach texted him. Shucking his jeans—he was planning to join Seth in that shower, after all—he glanced down at his phone on the nightstand and read the message.
Audrey talked Lucas into coming home for the wedding.
That stopped him cold, fingers frozen on his waistband for a second while his gut and heart clenched up expectantly. Then he brushed away that spark of longing like flicking dandruff off his shoulder, the same way he had for the last decade plus—it was only some conditioned reaction that’d started in high school—and snatched up the phone. Gripping his tongue between his teeth, he typed out a response, trying to hit the right damn tiny letters the first time. I’d fucking hope so since his brother is marrying his best friendand he’s the man of honor. Hadn’t that been what Audrey had called him?
It only took seconds for Zach to respond.He promised her he’d be here in time for the engagement party.
The spark in his chest that he’d been ignoring flared up, consuming a little too much of the available oxygen. He’d known Lucas would come up for the wedding sooner or later, but the reality of being face-to-face with the guy in less than two days made some things he’d probably been avoiding thinking about crystal clear.
He and Lucas Wilder had unfinished business, and this might finally be his chance to settle things between them.
Zach texted more, grabbing his attention again. She says he’s living over some friend’s garage and he’s “rootless.” Told him to come up here until the ceremony, and he is. Guess things are pretty bad.
If he’s moving home? Gotta be. Lucas had always believed he didn’t fit in around here. Far as Gabe was concerned, Lucas had fit just fine, but it wasn’t about what he’d thought, was it? Lucas’d figured he stuck out like a sore thumb, and staying in Bluewater Bay would have chafed and rubbed him raw in places Gabe couldn’t imagine.
God knew the place had chafed him some over the years before and after Lucas left. Still, though, it was his home.
Back when Gabe had found out for sure Lucas was going off to school, he just hadn’t been able to let the guy leave without a taste of him. So he had it—one taste, a quick jerk, and Gabe walked away. Then, for the next few months while Lucas was still around, Gabe had stayed as far away as he could. Nothing had happened between them other than that one night. Yet Gabe never forgot him. It wasn’t so much that he’d been pining after the guy for twelve years, only that he measured every other guy against him—although he was pretty sure it wasn’t really Lucas he was measuring everyone against, because he’d barely known the kid, not as a lover, at least. It was the idea of him that Gabe had kept using as a yardstick. His ideal vision of what they could have had together.
Working out the why hadn’t worked out the problem, though. But hooking up a few times now just might clean up that old baggage. This’d be the first time Lucas would be around for an extended amount of time since escaping Bluewater Bay.
The phone in Gabe’s hand dinged at him, reminding him he was having a chat with his best friend.
You and Seth work on those last few acres today?
Zach’s question startled him. Because, shit . . . Seth. He’d had the guy up to help out as a second sawyer. And now the dude was taking a shower, expecting they’d hook up, just like usual.
Gabe’s feelings for Seth were best described as I wouldn’t kick him out of bed for eating crackers. As far as he could tell, Seth’s sentiments toward him ran along the same vein. It worked out—they were friends, they hooked up when one of them was horny and not getting it anyplace else (usually Seth—dude had a real big appetite for sex), and they sometimes picked up a third for some extra fun. About the perfect setup.
Am I interrupting something? Zach added a sly winky face after that.
Nope. Gabe texted right quick, because he really didn’t need Zach thinking what he was thinking, or saying anything to Audrey about it. God knew who she’d tell. Nothing to interrupt. Except for Seth’s shower, which, come to think of it, he didn’t hear running anymore.
You telling me he isn’t still there?
He’s here. Cleaning up. Gabe winced as soon as he hit Send.
Then he’s going home.
The bathroom door opened behind Gabe, and Seth’s voice floated out on a cloud of humidity. “Thought you were gonna join me.”
Gotta go. TTYL. He muted the phone before tossing it onto the mattress and turning to face Seth. Then he found himself saying, “You’re a pretty damn good time, but I think we need to cool it for a bit.”
Seth screwed up his brows and shook his head. “What the hell?”
Yeah, what the hell? Flopping onto the bed next to his phone, Gabe settled against the headboard like he was as relaxed as could be. “Just, you know, we been seeing a lot of each other, maybe it’s time to take a break.”
“Huh.” Now Seth was nodding, walking over to the chair where he’d thrown his pack. Silently, he started digging through it, and the whole time he had a twisted smile on his face. Or maybe it was a sneer. “So, you don’t think we should hook up anymore?” he finally asked after taking out some clothes.
“Pretty much that’s what I’m saying.” He thought it had been clear, if a little out of left field.
“It’s not like we were dating or anything. This is just, you know, a convenient arrangement.” With a flick of his wrist, Seth lost the towel. “Not much to end.” As he stepped into a pair of briefs, his eyes flashed under his lashes—checking to see if Gabe was watching him.
Which he was, but that suddenly seemed kind of rude since he was no longer going to partake. He sat up, getting out of bed and finally stripping off his dirty jeans, angling away from Seth. “Guess I’m ready to rearrange things.” He pulled on the semiclean pair of sweats he’d found by stepping on them, tucking his junk away before turning back to the guy. “Thought it would be polite to let you know.”
“Thanks.” Seth’s voice bit at Gabe’s guilt. “It’s ’cause Lucas is coming back, isn’t it? You want him.” The guy yanked up his jeans and buttoned them, then crossed his arms over his chest and planted his legs wide.
Shit, he already knew about that? Small-town gossips. Apparently they were a real thing. “Lucas who?” That probably wasn’t going to fly.
Seth didn’t even need words to express his scorn, he just flared his nostrils and quirked his brows.
Bending over to search for a shirt allowed Gabe to hide on the other side of the mattress for a few seconds. The whole time he was looking for it, Seth was silent. Probably waiting until Gabe came out from under cover, then he’d blast him with some kind of crap about waiting twelve years for Lucas Wilder to remember his existence. That kind of misinterpretation was enough to make a man want to crawl under the bed and refuse to budge. But then he found a damn shirt, which meant he had to straighten up or admit cowardice.
Seth let him have it. “You always were weird about sleeping with more than one guy at a time.” Now he was all derision and shit. He flicked a negligent hand toward Gabe and started dressing again.
“I never cared if you fucked around with other guys.” He sometimes even thought it was hot.
“Yeah, but you’d care if Lucas did, wouldn’t you?”
That wouldn’t be hot. Gabe paid close attention to his shirt, careful to do it up right. ’Cause he left the house and wandered around misbuttoned all the time. Not.
“What I meant was, you’re weird about guys you’re romantically involved with messing around.”
“Who said shit about romantic involvement?”
That twisted smile-sneer reappeared as Seth threw his shaving kit into his bag. “No one needs to, man. All they have to do is say his name and watch you try not to react.”
“You’re delusional.” Gabe made a scoffing noise to back up his lie.
“Whatever.” Seth rolled his eyes and slung his pack over his shoulder.
For some reason, he couldn’t just let him leave after that. “See you at the engagement party?” he called after Seth.
Glancing back, Seth tipped his chin. “Yeah.” As he walked out of the room he added, “Been nice doing ya.”
A moment later, he banged out the front door and down the staircase.
Well, that could’ve gone worse . . . “Sorry,” Gabe muttered to the air once he’d heard Seth’s motor turn over down in the parking strip, and his wheels crunch on gravel.
Shaking his head at himself, Gabe found shoes and left his apartment. He had to feed May, June, and July their dinner of grain and hay. He’d have his own up at the main house—featuring things other than hay—with Momma and Gramma.
As he crossed the winter pasture between the stable and the house, the mist was starting to rise. It had been a sunny day, and the ground was soaked from a winter’s worth of rain. They’d have fog tonight. Tomorrow looked to be clear again, which would burn it off, but not before Gabe’s favorite kind of dawn, where he could watch the mist clinging to the valleys that cut through the Olympic foothills.
To the east, a wall of cloud already blocked his limited view of Bluewater Bay. Normally he’d see a few of the taller buildings downtown. The ones over three stories. So, like, a half dozen of them.
It was contrary that from the here, the town looked the same as it had his whole life, but the closer he got to it, the more he saw the changes those Hollywood people had made. Maybe, if those changes had been made twelve years before, Lucas Wilder would never have left.
Not likely. He’d never felt a connection to this land like Gabe had, or even like Zach. The Wilder family had been here just as long as the Savages, but it’d been obvious Lucas didn’t care. He never seemed to miss it. In the few times the guy had been home (and Gabe had found an excuse to swing by his parents’ house for ten or fifteen minutes), Lucas’s discomfort and jumpiness had been right up front for everyone to see.
For him, it was the opposite. He loved this farm. Even now, when it was about to enter a long dry spell, so to speak. If he stood in the field between Momma and Gramma’s house and his place too long, invisible roots would grow out the bottom of his feet and hold him there. He could sense himself sinking into that soil his ancestors had first claimed over a hundred years before.
Meanwhile, rootlessness seemed to be working out for Lucas. They were total opposites, and he had no idea in creation why he couldn’t get over the guy. After twelve years, he damn well should’ve. It was time he tried his plan B and finally worked Lucas out of his system.
Might’ve made a better plan A.
Gabe’s mood had gone to hell by the day of the engagement party, along with the weather.
He shouldn’t have kicked Seth out. Getting off a few times would have eased his muscle tension. ’Course, doing that with his own hand had done some good, but it didn’t stop the stress from creeping back as he walked through the misting rain out to the work site, leading the team. July kept balking at little things like leaves on the ground, but Gabe wasn’t stupid. The damn gelding just didn’t want to be out here on such a cold, clammy day. July wanted to get back to the stables, his cozy blanket, and a few flakes of hay.
Well, tough, because they had to skid the rest of the trees he and Seth had harvested out to the landing so they could be loaded up and hauled off.
And there was partial blame for his mood—the damn mill was supposed to pick up yesterday, but there were only so many knuckleboom log trucks in the world, and theirs had all been tied up. So he had to get it done today, in a big-ass hurry, then get ready for the party. It’d be his first official duty as best man. Far as he could tell, though, he didn’t actually have to do anything except show up, preferably after showering off the dirt and dressing up kinda nice.
Well, maybe really nice, because you never knew who he was gonna bump into there. Like the man of honor.
Which was the other reason for his shitty outlook. Since he was being honest with himself about having unfinished business with Lucas, some part of him had decided to dump a whole load of doubts, chief of which was: what if he was the only one of the two of them who cared to remember that night? The last time Lucas had visited, Gabe had made a bit of an effort to talk to the guy, but he’d gotten brushed off. The Wilder family had been going through some rough shit, though, with Carl being injured, so Gabe had chalked it up to bad timing. But it could’ve been that, for Lucas, Gabe was just some inconsequential thing in his past.
Didn’t matter how much his brain turned that around or which angle he looked at it from, he just couldn’t know the truth of it. Worse, it was worrisome how much time he’d spent the last couple of days thinking about it. Better not to think much at all. Work was a great distraction for not thinking much.
The horses settled into their jobs once they began, leaning into the harness every time he hitched them up to the next log. June had been doing it a long time—over twenty years—so she was calmer about it. In another few years he’d have to retire her and send her out to pasture like her mother, May. July was June’s foal, and he had some piss and vinegar in him. Gabe could just imagine what the black gelding would be like if he’d left him intact. So much for inseminating her with that purebred Shire—Gabe had been looking for cooperative spirit, not teenage angst or whatever the equine equivalent was—but that’d been a hell of a fine-looking stallion, at least in the vet’s stud catalog, and the price had been right.
About midmorning, he unhitched the team. He could section this next lot and then eat what he’d packed for lunch before putting the horses back to work. First, though, he needed to refuel the saw.
He’d just finished and was about to replace his earplugs when his mother’s voice asked from behind him, “You got a plan for what’s gonna happen once you’re done with this parcel?”
Gabe didn’t turn toward her, or even flinch, although it’d come out of nowhere. What, she’d started practicing stealth as she came through the forest? She knew better than to walk up unannounced on a guy working dangerous equipment. “You know I got a plan.” He yanked on his glove with a little too much force, and the leather seam at the tip of the index finger slipped under his nail, pressing it up to the point of discomfort.
“Don’t you snap at me, Gabriel Sutton Savage.”
“Sorry, Ma.” She didn’t want him to snap, she shouldn’t be poking at his sore spot. What the hell with her starting this conversation now, outta the blue? Woman hadn’t even said hello. Couldn’t she have brought it up over breakfast?
No. Because Gramma had been there, and they had a tacit agreement not to worry her.
Still could’ve picked a better time. Grabbing up his chainsaw from the log he’d set it on, he prepared to fire it up and end this impromptu family meeting. He didn’t need to go over it again. Since the age of seventeen, he’d known this time would come: the last day he’d cut any trees for a few years. Even skidding with the horse team—a notoriously slow logging method—he’d run out of harvestable parcels. A timber operation that covered three hundred twenty acres like Savage Tree Farm was only sustainable over the long term if logged selectively. Every year, Gabe cut about a quarter of the next mature section. The stand that was supposed to be mature this coming year, well . . . fifteen years ago, Gabe had convinced himself to clear-cut it and a couple of other parcels besides, instead of letting his mom and Gramma go into debt paying his grandfather’s medical bills.
In the present, he still had some work left to do before he ran slap-bang into the reality he’d created back when he was young and inexperienced. ’Course, the regret was unavoidable. He should’ve gone into debt; they’d owed nothing on the farm, and he could’ve paid a loan off by now. Then he wouldn’t be staring down the barrel of no logging for the next few years. It was either that or clear-cut the whole damn thing, then sell it off to one of the big timber companies around here.
That’d never happen, not as long as he drew breath.
“I don’t mean a plan for how we’re gonna get through this; we’ve settled that.” Momma’s hand landed on his shoulder, and this time he did flinch. But then he relaxed at the touch, releasing the pull cord and letting the saw dangle next to his thigh. When she squeezed, he bowed his head, suddenly ashamed of being a dick to his ma.
“Sorry,” he repeated, but meant it this time.
“I’m talking about what you’re gonna do.”
He turned to face her again, trying to avoid her obvious trajectory. “What I always do in the off-season. Hire out the team for other stuff and take it easy.”
Half her mouth quirked up, but the other side pulled down into a semifrown. She glanced around, like she was inspecting the still-standing trees around them. “This ain’t your regular off-season, Gabe. It’s gonna last a fair bit.”
“I know.” Dammit, he’d snapped again, but she didn’t correct him, just let him correct himself. “I’m the one who made this mess, and I’m not likely to forget that.”
“I’m not talking about that anymore. We’ve done it to death, and I supported the decision at the time.” Hugging her arms around herself as if she were cold, she gazed off into the stand of firs. “You made this farm your responsibility when you were still just a kid, and this is the first chance you’ve had in all those years to do something you want to do. So, I’m asking if there’s anything you want that you never had time for before.”
Lucas Wilder’s face flitted through his mind, but that wasn’t much of a life goal, now was it? Shrug it off. “I like working, Ma. This place has kept me going.” It got him through Grampa’s lingering death and gave him something to work toward that was bigger than himself.
She sighed. “You’re so much like your grandfather.”
No, he wasn’t. He clenched his teeth on the objection, though, because she’d heard it all before. “I’ll figure something,” he said instead.
“Once you don’t have a job needing to get done every day, you’ll go stir-crazy.”
Probably. “I’ll try not to lay that on your doorstep, then.”
“I’m not telling you not to be ornery or angry, Gabe. I’m telling you, if you need anything from me, let me know, including having someone around to bitch at.”
“S’pose it’s a good thing you don’t expect me to be all accepting ’bout this.” A smile cracked his irritation like ice on a pond. ’Course, it froze back up again. “Don’t worry, Momma. Something’ll come up.”
Speaking of being like ancestors, she firmed her chin just the way his grandma did. “I’m also telling you to stop blaming yourself.”
Aw, hell. “Guess I’ll have to work on that too.”
Mostly, though, he put it out of his head once she left, because he’d already worn a rut in his mind thinking that over, and it hadn’t gotten him anywhere either.
A few hours later he was finally back at his place, and July finally had his damn blanket and grain. Gabe started undressing as soon as he hit the door of his apartment, beginning with peeling his baseball cap off his sweaty brow and tossing it on the table. As he was unzipping his hickory shirt, the damn cell phone rang in his pocket. He didn’t plan on answering, but he glanced at the name in passing and it was Laura Larson. Well, that’d be Laura Haakinson, now that she’d married. He hadn’t called her, and he couldn’t think of any reason why the vet’d be calling him, so he answered.
“Hey, Gabe,” she began after the preliminaries. “I got a three-year-old you might want to take a look at. Turns out he’s from that mare you had out of June about ten years back.”
That was weird. Generally, if someone wanted to sell something, they, you know, advertised. Far as he knew, the local veterinarian didn’t usually shill livestock. “I’m not really in the market for another gelding right now.” Last thing he needed was to spend money on frivolities, plus he barely had enough grain for his own horses until the winter crop came in.
“He’s a stallion, actually.”
“Then I’m really not in the market—”
“He’s free. Do you remember that ‘urban farmer’ type you sold a mare to near Port Angeles?”
Did he ever. One of those kids who grew up in the city, then hit their twenties, bought a pair of work boots, grew a handlebar mustache, and invested Daddy’s money in starting up a Community Supported Agriculture–type farm. This guy had gone one further and decided he needed a horse to work the land. “Hell yes, Joshua Warburton. What’s he done to my mare?” Didn’t matter that the dude had bought her fair and square, not if he was fouling her up.
She sighed, but it ended on a laugh. “He’s got a neighbor of about the same type, and that guy’s stallion broke through the fence when Agatha was in heat—”
“He’s calling her Agatha?” He was pretty sure he’d named that one Dahlia—family tradition was to name the fillies they were planning on selling after flowers—but he’d also had a few mares out of June over the years and maybe remembered wrong. He’d only sold one to a hipster farmer near Port Angeles, though. The guy’d had to take teamster lessons from him for a month afterward, to make sure he could actually work the horse. He’d paid for them, but even that healthy chunk of change hadn’t been worth the aggravation of listening to some natural-born urban dweller trying to get all “down-home.”
“Yeah, that’s what she’s called. Anyway, she foaled about three years ago, and this is the result.”
“Should teach those idiots how to build a fence,” he muttered to himself.
Laura chuckled in his ear.
“So he didn’t have him cut, huh?”
Now she was sighing. “Against the advice of his vet.”
“Which’d be you.”
“Which would be me,” she agreed. “Anyway, Joshua’s finally thrown in the towel and admitted he isn’t up to training a work horse.”
“I’m not taking on some beast that someone ruined, Laura,” Gabe warned.
“He had help,” she assured him immediately. “He got some ‘horse whisperer’ type to come out as soon as the colt was born and they did a decent job of imprinting. Since then, he’s done all right, but Blackie is pretty spirited—”
“If you tell me his name’s Black Beauty—”
“Blackberry. Although God knows why, because he’s not black. He’s also a mutt—the father is an American Saddlebred who’s pretty fine looking and apparently places nationally in dressage, but I’m not his vet so I don’t know much else.”
Could be worse. June was a (nearly) purebred Friesian, and he’d usually had her inseminated with Friesian stud, so it was really only two bloodlines . . . He took a second to chew on it. “You say he’s free?”
“Joshua claims that you’re the only person around who can handle Blackie, and the guy says he just wants the horse in a good home. Can’t convince him to put it up for sale.”
He could provide a good home. He’d been around horses since birth. “Tell you what, if I take him? First thing you’ll be doing is gelding him.”
“You should see him first, Gabe. He’s beautiful. Not saying I won’t emasculate him if you want—”
“I wish you wouldn’t use that word.”
“Most of my male clients do.” She clearly enjoyed, it, judging by her tone. “So are you interested or not? No one can train a workhorse like you.”
“Flatterer,” he muttered.
She laughed. “Whatever works.”
Well, shit. “I guess I can take a look at him.” Laura wouldn’t steer him wrong, but that didn’t mean she had it right either. If the stallion did work out . . . Well, a trained workhorse could go for five grand or more. In the end, he promised to call Joshua and arrange a meeting.
Once off the phone, he finished stripping, but his mind was preoccupied by what the hell he’d just agreed to— Only gonna look. All through his shower, he was figuring how he’d feed another equine mouth, and whether taking on a new horse was worth what he’d get out of it in the end. It kept him from letting his mind wander over to revisit what he’d been thinking about all day: Lucas Wilder.
In that respect, he was kinda grateful to that hipster. Guy still needed to learn how to build a damned fence.
“Remember,” Audrey was yet again warning her teenaged employee. “After you set the alarm code, you only have about thirty seconds to get out.”
Lucas was pretty sure only he caught the girl’s slight eye roll.
“And Maisie?” Audrey asked sharply, hands on her hips, waiting until the shopgirl trained her full attention on her. “Do not bring your boyfriend in here and let him hang out, or try to leave early. I’ll know.”
“I wouldn’t!” Maisie protested, but she couldn’t quite meet Audrey’s gaze.
Following Audrey upstairs to her apartment a minute later, Lucas offered to stay. “I mean, if you don’t trust her to close up shop, I could skip the engagement party—”
“That’s a record.” Audrey stopped on the landing and whirled on him. “I’ve been waiting for you to find a way out of this party all day. It took you until—” She checked her watch. “Three thirty to actually try, though. You’re really maturing. Of course, you only arrived in town at noon.”
He scowled but didn’t give up. “It just seemed you weren’t totally comfortable with leaving your store in the hands of—”
“She’ll do fine. Maisie just needs to be reminded of the rules, but she’s a good kid at heart.” Audrey waved off the subject and turned toward her apartment, so he obediently followed. The stairs opened onto a small square, with doors on the other three sides. The apartment was directly opposite the landing from them, and to the left was the only bathroom up here—old buildings had such random layouts. To the right was Audrey’s design space, where she’d set up a bed for him. “I can work in my apartment just as easily,” she’d told him right after giving him the tour and letting him dump his stuff. He’d only taken what was absolutely necessary and that he could fit into his car. The rest he left in one of those mobile storage units at Corbin’s—he didn’t know where he was going to settle after he escaped Bluewater Bay again, so there was no use in dragging all his stuff up here, right? It was only for a month or so, then he’d find someplace to live and work, lock himself in his studio, and not come out until he had enough decent work for his show next winter.
Truth was, he was a little jealous of Audrey. He hadn’t quite confessed to her yet, but he was more in favor of her opening up shop here now that he’d seen it. She owned the property, thanks to an inheritance from her grandmother, and he was starting to think it had been a good investment. The building was beautiful, both inside and out. Sheltered in the lee of Sandy Bluff, it had unusually large windows for a location so near the Strait of Juan de Fuca and its weather.
Earlier, looking for the store, he’d driven past twice before seeing the name painted on the window. Tiffany’s Breakfast was written in a large, forties-style script traced with gilt, and underneath it was the more simplified tagline, Fashions vintage and new. Audrey Kilpatrick, designer. It reminded him of an old-fashioned bank, with rough-hewn stone colonnades between the plate glass on the main floor. The brick facade was painted barn red, with darker burgundy trim boards.
He didn’t even remember it from when he’d lived in Bluewater Bay. Had he noticed so little then, or had it changed so much? In spite of knowing he wasn’t the world’s most attentive person, he was pretty sure it was the latter. The downtown was thriving—completely unlike the last time he’d visited, more than two years ago—and offered the occasional glimpse of a famous person. Used to that from Los Angeles, he found he couldn’t care less.
As soon as he’d unpacked his car that afternoon, Audrey had dragged him to lunch at Annette’s, and the patrons had reminded him so much of the film types in Los Angeles (there were even the ubiquitous loud-talking producer sort) that he’d sometimes forgotten where they were. At least, until someone he’d grown up around walked in. Those people all did a double take when they spotted him. Most had waved, or said hello and one or two raised an eyebrow. A few people chatted, and twice he’d relied on Audrey’s adroitly dropped hints to remember names.
Without fail, everyone who dragged them into conversation would ask at some point, “Now, how’s your mother?” and each time he nearly said, “You probably know better than me.” But that would be rude, because in this part of the world, asking after one’s mother was the height of good manners. God, this place was still so provincial. Well, parts of it. The parts that hadn’t gone Hollywood.
“—listening to me?” Audrey’s voice clanged around inside his ear, yanking him back into the present moment.
“Ummm . . .” No point in lying, she knew him too well. He shrugged. “I was thinking.” And staring sightlessly at the flowers she’d arranged on the high, narrow island separating the kitchen area from the living area. The space was more loft than apartment, really. “What did this building used to be again?”
She harrumphed but answered. “It was built to be the hardware store. They must have kept the tack up here. The electrician I hired found a couple of bits and cheekpieces behind one wall when he was rewiring the place. Now stop getting all self-involved and help me get ready for my party.”
“Fine. But I want it noted that I find the duties of the MOH onerous.” He made an overly prim face for her, but then ruined it by smiling when she did.
“Duly noted. You want the bathroom first?”
“You’re the bride.” He waved a negligent hand toward the landing. “Pretty sure they get to shower before attendants.” He needed to spend a few minutes up here anyway, checking out the other changes in his hometown from this new vantage point. Watching the bustle of Bluewater Bay through her huge panes of wavy glass, he could see how people could come to a place like this and find it quaint or charming.
Of course, anyone who’d grown up here could never view it that way.
The party started at five thirty, and Lucas and Audrey were about fifteen minutes late. Pretty good, considering their track record.
“Are you nervous about seeing Gabe again?” Audrey asked over the staccato tap of her heels as they walked down the hall toward the cafeteria.
“Yeah,” he answered absently. Who had an engagement party in an elementary school? “Why is this happening here, again?”
Audrey’s arched brow was in her tone, he didn’t need to look at her. “Because: your mother.”
“Oh yeah.” Mom was a lunch lady. “She’s making the food?”
“No, she just got permission to hold it here. I told you this, Lucas.” She didn’t sound annoyed so much as tired. Probably of his only listening to half of the things that came out of her mouth.
“I know. Sorry.” He really was too wrapped up in himself, lately. More so than normal. He needed to make an effort here. One’s best friend didn’t get married every day, or—hopefully—more than once.
“So,” she said, in the manner of someone who was about to bring up a subject only she took delight in discussing, “you are nervous about seeing him.”
Lucas halted, then turned to her when she did the same. Who? They’d been talking about . . . “Gabe? You mean him? Why would I be? I’ve seen him since that happened.” Oh shit, he’d just admitted it, though, hadn’t he? Holding up a hand—even though she was just looking at him smirkily and not actually about to say anything—he added, “I just said yes because that’s what I usually do when I’m not actually paying attention.”
“I know.” Audrey sounded more amused than annoyed. “It’s just that pretending nothing happened for twelve years gets awkward. This is the first time you’re really going to have to interact with him.”
Lucas faux-gasped and clutched his chest. “You never said I had to interact.” He walked on toward the cafeteria, and a second later Audrey’s feet tapped along behind him, moving faster until she caught up and looped her arm through his, which he took as a sign that she didn’t intend to push the topic.
“Ha. Ha.” She didn’t give up, not that he’d really expected her to. Instead she jogged her elbow into his side.
“It’s not like it’s all on me. We were taking turns avoiding each other.”
“This is official, though. You’re the MOH, and he’s the best man. It’s sort of like he’s your date.”
“He’s not my date to the wedding.” Mental note: get a date for the wedding. “Don’t worry, I’ll be very civil.”
“That’s what I’m worried about,” she muttered.
To say that he and Gabe had been avoiding each other the last twelve years wasn’t entirely true. Gabe had definitely avoided him after that night, until Lucas left for college. In the years after that, Lucas had only glimpsed the guy in passing, until his last few visits home, when Gabe kept dropping by his parents’ house, trying to make conversation.
From that point, the avoidance was all on him. They’d done a one-eighty from those few months after he and Gabe had . . . done what they did. Handjob, a tiny voice squeaked from some hidden corner of his mind, then slipped back into the shadows. His brain always tripped up on the specific details of being with Gabe, but the sense memories—those were crystal clear. Every once in a while, in the middle of sex with later partners, the slide of a lube-slicked hand against his skin would take him back to that moment, and he’d be consumed with it again, just like then. Dizzy and exhilarated and hazy with lust. It had been a great first experience. It was what had happened afterward that had soured it for him. Gabe had admitted to playing Lucas, then avoided him like the plague. It had hurt in surprising ways that had nothing to do with sex. Well, not much.
He’d been so naive.
“I happen to know,” Audrey said very close to his ear, chin digging into his shoulder, “that Gabe is nervous about seeing you too.”
This time he didn’t halt so much as jerk to a stop, and only partly because she’d startled him. “What? Wait, are you, like, trying to get us together?”
“Not at all.” Her drawn out, soothing tone was all fake. “I’m just saying that you aren’t the only one.”
No matter how much he squinted at her, she didn’t back down. “You sounded like it for a second there,” he finally grumbled, shuffling his feet into walking. She fell in beside him. “Just so you know,” he added, “I’m not buying his lines again.”
“What if he just wants to hook up?”
He chewed on that for a few yards of elementary school linoleum. “No. He burned that bridge.” Once a player, twice shy, and who cared about mixing metaphors?
“Wow, you’re really nursing that hurt, aren’t you?”
He tilted his nose up and kept his focus on what was in front of him. “What can I say, I’m a grudge holder.” It wasn’t a label he’d ever given himself before, but he’d embrace it now.
“You’re as worked up about this as you were when you found out Drew was cheating on you.”
Subject change, sweet. “He wasn’t cheating, exactly.” He finally looked over at her, just as she yanked him to a stop with a hand on his arm.
“Oh, honey.” She performed the head bobble that indicated she was about to slap him in the face with some reality. “Don’t even. You guys may have had an open relationship, but you had rules, and he was breaking them.”
True. He shrugged, because what else could he say?
Planting her hands on her hips, along with that silly little clutch purse, Audrey started in again. “You just shrug when I bring up a years-long relationship that ended badly four months ago, but when I mention Gabe Savage maybe playing you twelve years ago, you get snarly.”
“Hate it when you point out insightful shit like that.” He shoved his hands into his pockets and brought his shoulders up around his ears. “It’s just, he was my first—I mean, you know, not that kind of first—”
“And he sort of . . .”
Swallow. “I guess.” He nodded as acceptance sunk in. He’d been hung up too long on the events of one night with a guy he had no real contact with after, when it shouldn’t matter at all. It should be one of those things he only recalled in nostalgic moments, sitting around with friends and talking about guys they’d been with. It should be a story he told with a smile teasing the corners of his mouth, but as far as he could remember, he’d never told it to anyone, not casually.
Audrey’s expression softened, and she slipped her arm through the crook of his elbow, nudging him along until they were on their way again. “Maybe this is your chance to put all that behind you.”
As they drew closer to the party, and the sounds of conversation and laughter began to filter out to them, Lucas got increasingly nervous. By the time he followed Audrey through the door, he couldn’t swear his fingers wouldn’t tremble if someone wanted to shake hands.
Someone like Gabe.
The first people he saw as he walked into the room were his parents, though. It shouldn’t have surprised him that they were here—they were hosting the thing—but it did, making him gape a second until his mother yanked him toward her. “Lucas!”
“Hi, Mom,” he managed, wrapping his arms around her and squeezing tightly for a second. Then she let go, and his father dragged him into a hug, and surprise turned to shock. He stood there mute and frozen, trying to recall if this had ever happened before. No. And he’d have laid all his money and the left half of his brain on it never happening. This person embracing him was the same one who’d nearly gotten violent when Lucas came out to him?
“It’s been too damn long, you,” Dad said, oblivious to Lucas’s confusion and adding a couple of hearty slaps on his back. Affectionate hitting, not the abusive kind. Not that his father had ever actually struck him, but Lucas had been scared a couple of times.
“Uhhh . . . yeah?” Cautiously, he lifted his own hand and patted his father’s arm. The world didn’t end, but the hugging finally did, with an unprecedented amount of hair ruffling and shoulder squeezing. Then there was beaming as his father inspected him from his feet to his hairline.
“You’re looking mighty healthy, boy. Damn, it’s good to see you.”
“You too,” Lucas said on autopilot, but then he really saw his father and realized the man had his hair in a ponytail.
A ponytail. And wearing a suit. A light-colored one he couldn’t be sure wasn’t linen.
“Join the receiving line,” his mother urged, nudging him along a corridor of people. In a daze, he still managed to greet Mr. and Mrs. Kilpatrick—across from his parents—before ending up next to Audrey. He wanted to hiss urgent questions about his parents into her ear, but she was too preoccupied, standing arm in arm with her fiancé, beaming.
“Hey, Zach.” He nodded past her at his brother. He’d missed saying anything before, too caught up in Audrey’s parents and his mental fog.
“Good to see you, man.” Zach grinned, then reached around his bride-to-be and squeezed the nape of Lucas’s neck with real affection.
That he understood—he and his brother might not have always gotten along well as kids, but the last few years they’d communicated more. Lucas would almost say he understood his brother. Unlike his father.
Leaning behind Audrey and keeping his voice down, he asked, “What is up with Dad’s hair?”
“Later,” Zach said quickly. “We’ll talk.” Then he turned away to greet someone new.
It was now occurring to Lucas that it had been a while since he’d seen his family, and it might have been a good idea to meet with them for the first time someplace more private.
When Lucas turned toward the gruff voice on his right and found Gabriel Savage there, for a split second, everything contracted. As if life had removed the past twelve years and simply put an apostrophe in its place. The guy seemed so familiar.
After a second or two of Lucas staring at him, trying to figure out what was happening, Gabe asked, “How’ve you been doing?”
“Fine.” Lucas half smiled, strangely disassociated.
Then Gabe turned to see who was making their way down this apparent receiving line, and the reddish scruff and the very square angle of his jaw was absolutely beautiful for one split second: a perfectly described line of the kind Lucas was always trying to capture in sculpture.
He came back to earth with a thump just before he lost all touch with reality and traced the curve of Gabe’s Adam’s apple with his fingers.
Dammit. The guy looked good. Like, three extra o’s good. Goooood. And still a ginger, as if that could change. Had he grown more chest hair? I don’t need to know. It was so unfair how those khaki pants hugged his ass and that his shoulders were so broad under that blue-striped dress shirt. What was it they used to say? He cleans up purty.
Oh no. Not even one full day in this town and it was all coming back to him.
“Lucas,” Audrey said loudly in his ear, with that special bite to her tone that told him he’d been zoning out when he should have been listening. “Of course you remember Mrs. Larson.”
“Of course,” he repeated, and took the papery, wrinkled hand of one of Bluewater Bay’s oldest and most honored citizens. Not that he could recall why she was so important. Maybe extreme age? She looked like she was rounding on a century. “That’s a very becoming hat.” It was one of those molded straw ones, dyed a strange shade of blueish green. A fake bird was perched to take flight from it, just below the crown.
She beamed. “Why thank you! I’ve had it for ages.” He’d thought they were done, but she kept peering at him, all the lines that wreathed her face wrinkling in expectation as she cocked her head just so.
Lucas scrambled for something else. “How are your grandchildren?” She had a ton, didn’t she?
“Doing just fine. I believe you were in the same class as my youngest grandson, Seth.” She did something with her lashes that—in someone else—he’d think was flirty. “I’m sure he’d love to reconnect with such a handsome young man as yourself.” Then she pursed her lips coquettishly.
Oh my God. Old Mrs. Larson, who was ninety-nine if she was a day, was trying to play matchmaker. Just like his best friend. “Is it something in the water?” he asked.
She blinked, without the fluttery this time. “I’m sorry, sometimes I don’t hear as well as I used to—try my left side.” Clutching her hat, she stood on tiptoe, angling until her ear was right in front of Lucas’s mouth.
“Mrs. Larson.” Audrey saved him. Her voice had just the right touch of socially acceptable laughter, along with the necessary volume. “Lucas is just being silly. I’m sure he’d love to see your grandson again.” Baring her teeth at him, Audrey laid a hand on his arm, then squeezed until her nails dug in.
No, I wouldn’t. But he smiled stupidly and nodded and agreed with whatever she said.
“I don’t want to hook up with Seth Larson,” he hissed in her hair once she’d disentangled them from Mrs. Larson. “Was she seriously suggesting—”
“She’s been doing it with her other grandkids since they were in diapers,” Audrey murmured through the side of her very social smile. “At least she’s an equal-opportunity marriage broker. Now hush, because here comes the grandson himself.”
He got out about half a groan before she stomped on his foot. If only she’d done it a little harder, he might have been able to hobble off in pain before he actually had to speak to Seth Larson.
“Hey there, Lucas. Long time no see.”
Objectively, Seth was pretty good-looking. Not goooood, but definitely attractive enough that—if it were someone else—Lucas would have been interested in a little flirting. But subjectively, he had issues with this guy. Seth been out in high school (albeit not by choice) and had always been trying to get chummy with him, totally ignoring all of Lucas’s very clear “no trespassing” social cues. Pushy prick.
Not to mention he was blond and had a jaw-skimming beard and a neat little mustache, exactly like Drew.
“Hello, Seth.” Lucas bared his teeth. “Nice to see you,” he lied for good measure.
“I bet.” Or at least that’s what Lucas thought he heard, but the guy said it too low to be sure, and then he moved on.
And oddly, even though his voice wasn’t any stronger than before, as he leaned into Gabe’s body and said, “I left my toothbrush at your place last week,” in his ear, Lucas heard it loud and clear.
He didn’t hear Gabe’s response, though, because he turned toward Audrey and enthusiastically greeted whoever she was talking to. If those two were fuck buddies, he wasn’t making it any business of his. Instead, he threw himself into his duties.
It was exhausting. He’d hit his limit of stilted social interaction long before they’d greeted everyone, and soon was relying mostly on Audrey pinching the back of his arm and repeating names he couldn’t remember. But finally the end was in sight.
The last person into the room was Kitty, Audrey’s older sister. Scowling and slouching her way down the gauntlet, he got the impression she wasn’t totally happy. Maybe it was her makeup. It almost looked as if she’d penciled in evil-villain brows, the kind that flew up on the ends. Or not. He couldn’t quite put his finger on it. When she reached him, Kitty narrowed her eyes, tossed her hair behind one shoulder and pointed her nose in the air. “Hello, Lucas.”
What was with the emphasis on his name? “Hey, Kitty. How’re you doing?”
“About as well as can be expected . . .” She flicked him with an up-and-down look. “Under the circumstances.”
“Oh.” Had he offended her without realizing it? He nodded and fervently hoped he could feel his way through whatever was going on. “Great.”
“And how are you?” She threw in that angry chin slant she and Audrey shared.
“You should be, since you got the plum assignment.”
What? It couldn’t be avoided—he turned to Audrey for help, but she was facing off against her sister and ignoring him. The rest of their greeting committee was breaking up around them, wandering off, but he couldn’t escape until Kitty had moved on. Audrey would kill him if he tried.
“Well,” Kitty announced, straightening. “There’s my husband. I should be by his side.”
“What did I do?” Lucas asked as soon as she’d stomped out of earshot.
“Nothing,” Audrey snapped. “She’s just sulking.”
“About not being in the receiving line?” He would have given up his place for a spot at the bar.
Audrey huffed, still squinting after her sister, but that was all the answer he got.
Which meant he had to figure this out on his own. What had she said? Plum assignment. Uh-oh. “How does Kitty feel about me being your MOH?”
She shrugged. “I don’t know.” But her lips tightened into a hard line of determination.
“You haven’t told her?”
“Oh, I told her,” she said airily, in direct contrast with how she’d flexed that muscle below her ear. “I emailed her about it. Then I trashed her reply without even opening it.”
“Weren’t you her maid of honor?” He remembered multiple conversations about the dress Kitty had forced Audrey to wear. “And doesn’t that mean she’s supposed to be yours?” He wasn’t totally clear on wedding etiquette, but he was pretty sure that was some rule or other.
“Personally? I don’t care. It’s my wedding, and you’re my man of honor.” She sliced her hand through the air. “That’s all there is to it.”
“Okay.” Lucas made the universal gesture of acquiescence, showing her his palms. “That’s fine.”
“It’s our life. Mine and Zach’s. It should be the way I want, and I’m not here to make anyone happy except myself and my fiancé.”
“Fine,” he said again. “Um, but does this mean she’s mad at me too?”
Finally Audrey stopped glaring at Kitty and turned to him with a grimace. “I guess it does. Sorry.”
“It’s fine.” His mantra. Shoving his hands into the pockets of his slacks, he tried to smile reassuringly at her.
Crossing her arms over her chest, Audrey squinted in her sister’s direction again. “I don’t know why she’s upset. She gets to be a bridesmaid, just not my main attendant.”
“She’s a bridesmaid?” Should he have asked about this earlier? “Are there other bridesmaids?”
“Do you remember Becca Paulson?”
“Of course.” They’d hung out with her all the time in high school. He wasn’t that forgetful. Of course, he hadn’t seen her since.
“She’s Becca Lundgren, now. Anyway, she’s the other bridesmaid.”
“I didn’t know you kept in contact with her.”
Glancing swiftly around the room, Audrey leaned closer to him. “Honestly, I didn’t, really. But she looked me up when I moved back. I like her,” she added defensively. “And sometimes she helps me out with the store.”
Ahhh. “Who are the other groomsmen?”
“Mike Saito and Jeff Blevins.”
“Oh.” He nodded knowingly.
“You have no idea who they are, do you?”
Nodding morphed into head shaking. “No.”
“You need a minute alone, don’t you?” Patting his arm—right where she’d been pinching him, which kind of muted the kindness of the gesture—she nodded at her own question. “Go ahead. We’re going to be here awhile, you should probably pace yourself.”
“No, I’m good. Really.” He bared his teeth maniacally.
“Just go,” she ordered, pointing toward the door to the school playground.
God forbid he should defy a direct order when it was in his best interest to follow it.