The Long Way Around
A wrong turn could lead to Mr. Right.
Sam Cooper is the definition of an introvert: shy, bookish, and the sort to think a wild Friday night involves ordering takeout. He enjoys his quiet life, but after a bad breakup, he’s been yearning for a change of scenery. Luckily, his best friend and former college roommate has the solution.
Wesley Reed—a jokester and expert Sam-handler—proposes an epic road trip to a wedding across the country. They’re both between jobs and boyfriends. Why not hit the open road and make some memories?
Stuck in close quarters for the first time since their dorm days, they’re both surprised at the heat that springs up between them. As best friends, they’ve shared so much over the years, so why does sharing a hotel room—and occasionally a bed—make them want more? Chemistry this smoldering is hard to ignore, but there are road blocks to their romance. Wesley’s keeping a secret, and Sam can’t rely on Wesley to drag him out of his comfort zone forever. If they’re not careful, their relationship may take the ultimate wrong turn.
Reader discretion advised. This title contains the following sensitive themes:drug use
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish. Click on a label to reveal its content.
Heat Wave: 5 - Very explicit love scenes
Erotic Frequency: 4 - Fairly frequent
Genre: contemporary, drama, new adult, romance
Tone: humorous, realistic, sweet
Themes: acceptance, addiction, alcoholism, family, friends to lovers, illness / injury, pining / UST, self-confidence, self-discovery / self-reflection, vacation romance, wedding
Kinks: barebacking, dirty talk, masturbation, public play
Settings: Alabama, America, Atlanta, Austin, bar / club, Charlotte, city, Georgia, Helena, Louisiana, Montana, New Orleans, New York (state), New York City, North Carolina, on the road, Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Texas, Washington (state)
Careers: office worker, unemployed
Williamsport, Pennsylvania, was a city in a loose sense of the word. Nestled between low mountains and the Susquehanna river, it looked like the sort of Colonial-era, red-brick town that most people only saw on postcards. The streets were clean and lined with neat houses, their pointed roofs begging for a layer of snow no matter the season. “Downtown” consisted of a cluster of old buildings—none tall enough to tickle the sky, let alone scrape it—whose stone edifices were elaborate without ostentation.
It wasn’t an exciting city. It wasn’t the sort of place a kid would dream of living someday. But as Sam Cooper looked out over it from the window of his third-floor apartment, he thought, This place feels more like home to me than Montana ever did.
“You there, Sam? Did the signal cut out?”
Filmy curtains swished back into place as he turned away and glanced at his laptop. “I’m here. Sorry, I was lost in thought.”
A grainy version of his sister’s face smiled at him from a Skype window. “What else is new?” Jessica laughed, and her black curls trembled. “Something on your mind?”
“I should be asking you that. You’re the one who’s getting married in—” he walked over to the glass coffee table and peered at his laptop’s task bar “—seventeen days. Wow. Is it June already?”
“Sure is. Speaking of the wedding . . .”
Sam groaned, slumping onto the cushiony couch. “Please, not this again.”
“Yes, this again! What kind of little brother misses his favorite sister’s wedding?”
“You’re my only sister, Jess, and I told you. I have to work.” His tongue was thick as he delivered the lie, despite how accustomed he’d become to it.
He checked his reflection in the little side window that showed his camera feed. His blond hair—the polar opposite of his sister’s inky locks—had fallen across his big brown eyes. They looked black in the low resolution. He was normally meticulous about shaving, but after his last job had unceremoniously dumped him, he’d allowed stubble to creep over his jaw, emphasizing its squareness. His expression had a hint of discomfort. A stranger wouldn’t notice, but Jessica would.
Sure enough, she squinted at him. “Your internship ended a week ago. There’s nothing stopping you from hopping on a plane to Helena. You would have told me if they’d offered you that tech job at the end of your contract.” Her expression softened. “I’m sorry you didn’t get it. I know you had your fingers crossed.”
Sam shrugged and shifted into a sitting position across from the computer. “It happens. Lots of people are going into coding these days, so the competition was fierce. They probably found someone who wasn’t fresh out of college to fill the position. You know, someone who has that mythical ‘experience’ I’ve heard so much about.”
“I thought the point of an internship was to get experience?”
“That was the idea, yeah, but I guess the company had other ones.”
There was no way to know for sure, but Sam had suspicions as to why he hadn’t gotten a job offer after a year with the same small tech company. On all of Sam’s quarterly evaluations, one phrase had come up over and over again: Not a team player. Sam didn’t spend his time gossiping by the watercooler or sucking up to his superiors. He kept to himself and finished his work quietly and expeditiously. As a result, a year later, some of his superiors still didn’t know his name.
I bet Wesley would have gotten the job if he’d been in my place. He would have charmed them all.
His gaze fell to his lap. He rubbed his thumbnail with the pad of his index finger. He’d chewed it down to a stub.
“Are you sure nothing’s bothering you, Sam?” The camera feed showed Jessica studying him with concern. “You look pensive.”
His mouth twitched. “I’m making dinner plans in my head. Boxed mac and cheese is serious business.”
Jessica snorted. “Uh-huh. And when you were staring broodily out the window earlier, you were thinking about new curtains, right?”
“I was watching the sunset. It’s so beautiful here. I’d stay forever if I could.” He chewed on his lower lip. If I can get a job.
Jessica’s concern warped to sympathy. “You’ll find a way, little bro. You work so hard, and it’s only been a week since your internship ended. There’s a reason you landed it right out of college. You may not be the most . . . gregarious. But employers are going to see how valuable you are.”
“I appreciate your faith in me.” Sam wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “Can we change the subject?”
“Fine by me. Let’s talk about the wedding.”
Damn, I walked right into that.
“I’m so sorry, Jess, but I mean it when I say I can’t make it.”
Jessica’s serious face snapped into place. “Samuel Patrick Cooper.” Her tone crackled like a live wire. “If you’re not at my wedding, what are people going to say?”
“If by ‘people’ you mean our parents, then probably ‘Thank God.’”
She rolled her eyes. “They love you, Sam. They’d love to see you. It’s been over a year. You can’t avoid them forever.”
We’ll see about that.
“Even if I weren’t too busy to go—and I still maintain that I am—I wouldn’t want anything to distract from your special day. If I show up, it’ll be returning to the scene of the crime.”
“There was no crime, Sam. You called off a wedding. Big deal.”
He gave her a pointed look.
“Okay, so you called it off the night before, and that was kind of a big deal. But at least you didn’t marry someone you don’t love.”
I did love Michael. But I couldn’t marry him.
Out loud, Sam said, “If the family Runaway Bride shows up at your wedding, it’s going to get our relatives talking. I don’t want to take the focus off you on your special day. Or expose myself to all that gossip and scrutiny, for that matter. I’ll spend the whole night dodging cousins asking me why I did it.”
Jessica pressed her lips together, eagerness written all over her face. She wanted to ask him herself. He’d only ever given perfunctory explanations, and they’d had to be pried out of him.
Mercifully, she restrained herself. “Sam, I would take all the gossip in the world if it meant I got you too. It hurts my heart when I think that you won’t be there. What if I got Mom and Dad to call you, and—”
“No!” Sam exhaled and forced himself to speak at a normal volume. “Please don’t. I can’t handle any more terse conversations with them.”
“It’s your choice: either talk to them on the phone, or talk in person at my wedding.”
Sam opened his mouth, hesitated, and shut it again. His eyes wandered around his apartment, taking in the cream walls, tidy kitchen, and the bedroom sectioned off by bookcases. His bed was made with two perfectly fluffed pillows resting against the headboard.
Looking at his pristine apartment would make most people think Sam had his shit together, but he knew better. It was too clean. When he started washing baseboards and bleaching grout, it was a sure sign that he was spending too much time at home. He needed to get a life in a big way.
It wouldn’t be a bad idea to take off for a long weekend. Break out of my routine. I know what happens when I spend too much time alone in this little apartment. Now that I don’t have the internship to make me leave the house, I’m going feral.
He swished words around in his mouth. “I’ll think about it. I can’t promise anything more than that, but I swear to consider it seriously. You know how much you mean to me. I’d be there in a second if things weren’t so complicated. Okay?”
“Okay.” Jessica eyed him. “Regardless of what you say, I’m not giving up hope. There’s going to be a seat for you at the reception. Right up front. If you leave an empty spot at one of my tables, you’ll be pissing off a bride on her wedding day. That’s a minimum of one gajillion years of bad luck.”
Despite the anxiety twisting his insides, Sam laughed. “Noted. I love you, Jess.”
“I love you too, little bro. Talk to you soon.”
Sam ended the video call, stomach still churning. He stared at his computer’s wallpaper: a photo of him and Wesley Reed—his best friend—when they’d left Penn State a little over a year ago.
Back then, it’d seemed like nothing could stand in Sam’s way. He’d graduated with honors, was about to start a promising internship, and was set to marry his wonderful fiancé only a week later.
Even after they’d broken up, Sam still thought Michael was wonderful. Smart, handsome, funny. The whole package. Sam’s parents had been very vocal about wanting Michael to join the family. Then Sam had gone and ruined everything. He’d wasted tens of thousands of dollars—most of which was his parents’—and Michael had never spoken to him again.
Sam couldn’t blame him. Hell, he was half-convinced his family was only still speaking to him because Jessica had loudly proclaimed her support. Thank God for her. And the fact that he’d chosen to go to school all the way across the country.
His phone buzzed on the sofa next to him. Grateful for the distraction, he plucked it up and glanced at the screen. He had a text from Wesley.
Meet me at Corner Bar? After the day I had, I need booze and Sam-time.
Corner Bar was a pub located, shockingly, on the corner of Fifth and West, three blocks from Sam’s place. Sam composed a quick reply. That’s what you always say.
True, but I really mean it this time. Please? I haven’t seen you all week.
Drinking sounded like exactly what Sam wanted to do right now. Drinking meant not thinking, and he would desperately love to not think. Plus, Wesley had a talent for uncomplicating things. Everything seemed clear and simple when he talked about it.
Wandering over to his dresser, Sam pulled out some clothes that would be suitable for both a bar and the unseasonably cool summer they were having. He changed, grabbed his things, and was out the door a few minutes later. Knowing Wesley was waiting for him was apparently all the motivation he needed.
Night had settled like soot over the city. The streets were still slick from the warm afternoon rain that had fallen earlier. Despite what the calendar said, the air had a hint of bite to it. If today was any indication, they were in for a gorgeous summer.
Corner Bar was busy for a Wednesday. Through the clear windows, Sam saw people spilling over barstools and huddling together at pub tables. Wesley wasn’t in sight. Sam’s anxiety ratcheted up a few degrees, but he pressed forward.
He bypassed the people smoking outside, ducked beneath the low green awning surrounding the brick building, and let himself in through the painted double doors. Inside was much warmer than outside, probably thanks to all the bodies. He’d picked a hell of a day to wear long sleeves.
The bar smelled like fried food and beer, in a good way. Sam could almost feel the carbonation tickling his nose already. Three steps in, he heard a familiar voice.
He turned toward the sound and spotted a dark head tucked away at the bar behind a big party. Wesley.
“There you are.” Sam hurried over, a smile sliding onto his face.
Wesley had his long, trouser-clad legs propped up on the stool next to him. He moved them when Sam approached. “Perfect timing, Sammy. I just got here.”
“You know how I feel about that nickname.” The familiar argument was equivalent to a greeting at this stage in their friendship.
Wesley’s blue eyes glinted with mischief. “You pretend to hate it and argue that nicknames shouldn’t be longer than the name itself, but deep down, you find it endearing.”
Sam rolled his eyes. This was the problem with best friends. They knew too much. “I stand by my argument.”
“And I counter by saying your name isn’t Sam. It’s Samuel, which has more syllables than Sammy. So, there.” He drained the beer in front of him and signaled to the bartender. “If I can still hold my own in an argument, then I’m not drunk enough. You want?”
“Yeah, I’ll take a beer.”
While Wesley ordered for them, Sam gave him a once-over out of the corner of his eye. Wesley looked good, as per usual. He’d dressed up in a navy suit that didn’t look expensive but fit him perfectly. A blue button-down brought out his eyes, clear as the summer sky. He’d run some product through his dark hair, smoothing its usual messiness.
“You had an interview today?” Sam asked needlessly.
The bartender appeared with two pint glasses. Wesley stood to grab them, set one in front of Sam, and then took a healthy gulp from his own. “Yup. Hence the alcohol.”
“It didn’t go well?”
“When I walked in, I went to shake hands with my left instead of my right, which caused my interviewer to switch sides just as I put out my right hand. Then I switched again the second he switched. It was like a Russian kick dance. What are those called?”
“Yeah, that. Anyway, I’m not kidding when I say it went on for a solid minute while we both stared at each other with growing horror.”
Sam snorted into his beer. “But you’re not left-handed.”
“I’m sure not.”
“Then why did you—”
“Hell if I know.” Wesley took another long glug. “The rest of the interview went about as well. I totally choked.”
“Damn. You normally make such a good first impression.”
“Says the three jobs you’ve landed since graduation.”
“Yeah, but I’m pretty sure you’re not supposed to job-hop like that. Doesn’t look good on a résumé.” Wesley rubbed his eyes. “I’d take your year of gainful employment over going on all these interviews. They’re torture.”
“I’ll make that trade if I can have your confidence and social skills. At least you know when you go in that you’re going to charm the pants off them. Russian kick-dancing notwithstanding.”
Wesley laughed, the sound deep and pleasant. “Thanks. On to the next, I guess. If I exhaust all the job opportunities in Williamsport, I suppose I can look at some neighboring cities.”
Sam punched his arm. “Yeah, right. Like you’d leave now after spending your whole life here. Sometimes I think half the reason you went to Penn is so you could stay local.”
“Ah, good ol’ Penn State. All this talk of college makes me want to do shots.”
“Wow, you’re really upset about this interview, huh?”
“What gave me away?” He got the bartender’s attention again, shouted an order, and then swiveled on his stool to face Sam. “What about you? Now that your internship is over, you’re looking for jobs, right? If you can’t find anything, are you going to move back home?”
“To Montana?” Sam clutched his throat and made exaggerated choking noises. “No way. Someone could offer me my dream job, and I wouldn’t go back. Not because there’s anything wrong with living peacefully in the mountains, or whatever, but it’s not for me. Besides, I can’t leave you.” He fluttered his eyelashes.
Wesley chuckled. “Shit like that is why people assume we’re a couple, you know.”
“Nah, it’s because they stereotype us. Haven’t you heard? It’s impossible for two gay men to be friends without hooking up. To us, there is only fresh meat.”
That got a solid laugh out of Wesley. He made Sam crack up so often, it was nice to return the favor.
The bartender returned with two shots, and to Sam’s horror, she plunked one of them down in front of him. “Wesley, no.”
“Wesley, yes.” He held his glass up and grinned. “Remember when I got you to do shots in our dorm freshman year? You said it was one of the best nights of your life.”
“Yeah, right before I threw up everywhere. Why do I let you talk me into things?” Despite his protests, he picked up his own glass. He actually wouldn’t mind some hard liquor after his conversation with Jessica.
“Come on, it’ll be fine.” Wesley clinked their glasses together. “What should we toast to?”
“The future? Finding our dream jobs?”
“That’s too generic. We can do better than that.” He rubbed his chin. “Hey, isn’t your sister’s wedding around the corner? Let’s toast to the bride-to-be.”
Sam flinched and looked away to hide it, but he was too slow.
Wesley’s eyes narrowed. “What happened?”
Wesley set his shot down next to his half-drunk beer, propped an elbow on the bar, and planted his chin in his palm, eyes fixed on Sam.
“All right, fine.” Sam sighed. “Jessica asked me to come to her wedding again today.”
“And you caved and said yes, right?”
“Uh . . .”
“What?” Wesley made a rude sound. “Dude, you have to go. You know you do. Hell, I’m planning on attending.”
Sam’s brow furrowed. “Jessica invited you?”
“No, but only because I told her I was your plus-one.”
“Oh my God.” Sam rubbed his eyes. “You can’t do shit like that.”
“Why not? You don’t have a boyfriend, and I know you’d never work up the nerve to go alone. Enter Wesley.”
Sam couldn’t help but laugh. “If we’re going to discuss this, I need more alcohol.” He downed his shot and came up sputtering.
“Fine by me.” Wesley followed suit much more smoothly and chased it with beer. Then he signaled the bartender for another round. “Why don’t you want to go? Weddings are fun.”
“You know why. I haven’t seen my family since I called things off with Michael. I can’t face them in the same setting where I disappointed them.”
“Sure you can. It’s been a year. No way they’re still mad.”
Sam laughed again, but this time it was humorless. “You’ve met my parents. Think about it.”
“Hm.” Wesley tapped his chin. “I suppose they’re not the most forgiving people. If it’s any consolation, I think you did the right thing. You guys were way too young to get married, and you rushed into it. You met, what, junior year?”
“And you were engaged by senior! I always thought one of these days we were going to find out Michael had some deal breaker, like a gambling problem, or a husband in another city, or he listens to Nickelback.”
“Well, you were right, considering it all fell apart.”
“So, what’s the plan? Avoid your parents until someone dies? You can’t do that. It’s not fair to you, them, or Jessica, for that matter.”
“I know I can’t, but I don’t know what else to do.”
“I’ll tell you. You can suck it up, be a good little brother, and go to your sister’s wedding. You’ll break her heart if you don’t, and instead of remembering who was there for years to come, she’ll remember who wasn’t.”
There was no arguing with that. Sam sighed. “You’re right. I’m not convinced I won’t die of embarrassment, but you’re right.”
More shots arrived. Wesley perked up like a dog who’d spotted a squirrel. “You know what you need? Booze.”
“Right. That’ll help me make responsible decisions.”
“We’re past the decision-making portion of the program and on to drowning our sorrows.”
They clinked glasses, and this time, Sam knew what to toast. “To us. Five beautiful years of friendship. Who would have thought the loud, obnoxious guy who barged into my dorm that fateful day would end up becoming my best friend?”
Wesley met his gaze, eyes bright. “And who would have thought I’d saddle myself with a total square and somehow love every minute of it? To many more years to come.”
The rest of the evening was a bit of a blur.
They ordered more shots—a lot more shots. An inadvisable number of shots. Sam remembered to order water at some point, but it was like putting a bandage on a hull breach. There was lots of laughing and arguing with Wesley about which of them loved the other one more. Then cold air, like they’d walked outside.
Next thing he knew, he was waking up to sunlight battering his closed eyelids.
He started to lift his head and groaned when pain lanced into his skull. “Oh God.”
“Are you finally awake, Sammy?”
At the sound of a muffled voice, Sam managed to convince one eye to crack open. His surroundings weren’t those of his apartment, but they weren’t unfamiliar either. He was lying on olive-green sheets, which smelled like laundry detergent and mild cologne. His clothes from last night were still on and looking much worse for the wear. There were framed vintage Archie posters on the wall, and the headboard had a bookshelf above it that was stuffed with paperbacks, DVDs, and comics in plastic sleeves.
Wesley’s bedroom. Not where Sam had expected to end the night, but not totally unheard of either.
“Damn,” he said to the ceiling. “How drunk was I that I couldn’t make it three blocks to my place?”
“It was more the stairs that you couldn’t handle.” Wesley poked his head into the bedroom. He was wearing a rumpled version of his suit. “Morning.”
“Wes, please.” Sam groaned again. “Kill me.”
“I would, but it’s an awful mess, and I’d rather cure you.” He had two steaming mugs in his hands. He set one on his nightstand before offering the other carefully to Sam.
Sam sat up and took it, taking a gulp without a care for the heat he could feel through the ceramic. Brown sugar, no cream, precisely how he liked it. “Thanks for letting me crash.”
“No worries. It was my fault for pouring all those shots down your throat. I forget you’re a lightweight.”
“The hell I am.” Sam went for a glare, but it probably looked like he was squinting. “No one can drink like you and expect to survive the night. You should pay your liver time and a half.”
“Fair.” Wesley gripped his own cup and blew on it before taking a ginger sip. “It’s been a while since we ended up passed out in the same bed.”
Sam nodded. “Not since senior year, although that time you crawled into my bed after that frat luau. I remember because you were wearing an itchy grass skirt. You mumbled something about ‘murderous coconuts’ and then started snoring.”
Wesley crinkled his nose. “I only vaguely remember that, which means I did it right. Anyway, I know last night got a little out of hand, but I had a blast. Felt like old times. I’ve missed living with you since we became boring adults.”
“Me too.” Sam smiled. “Too bad we couldn’t keep that up. I rented my little studio back when I thought it was going to be Michael and me living there. If you’d moved in, people would really talk.”
“True. We’d probably end up bunking together every night too, instead of once in a while when we’re both obliterated.”
Sam laughed and then winced when it made his head throb. He was about to make a joke about how he wouldn’t mind that, but he stopped himself. Close as they were, there were still lines neither of them ever crossed.
A handful of times, Sam had drunkenly admitted Wesley was gorgeous, which had earned him a round of good-natured ribbing. Although, Wesley had returned the favor, so Sam could tease him back if he wanted. That was as far as it’d ever gone. Their friendship was worth way more than some passing attraction. Sam couldn’t imagine a force powerful enough to get him to jeopardize it.
“So—” Wesley sipped his coffee, face carefully neutral “—are we going to talk about what you decided last night? About the wedding?”
Sam flinched, and this time it wasn’t from the hangover. “Do we have to?”
“I’m afraid we do, my friend. You’ll thank me later, when your sister’s heart isn’t broken and you’re not kicking yourself for the rest of your life.”
“Can I at least raid your pain relievers first?”
From the breast pocket of his suit, Wesley produced a small bottle of aspirin. “Have at it.”
Sam popped three into his mouth, downed them with a swig of coffee, and grimaced. “Okay. Now, give me thirty minutes for it to kick in, and then we can talk.”
“Oh, no, you don’t. Once it kicks in, you’ll say you have to get going, and then you’ll be out of here as fast as you can limp. Right now, while you’re weak and helpless, we’re going to talk.” Wesley sat cross-legged on his side of the bed, facing Sam. “Let’s hear it.”
“There’s really nothing left to say. I’m terrified of going, but I don’t see how I have a choice. I love Jessica more than I hate the idea of facing my parents, and that’s really all that matters.”
Wesley smiled, big and bright as the sun. “You sentimental bastard. I’m so proud of you. I guess all that’s left to do is pack.”
“Pack and spend the next two weeks in a state of constant anxiety.”
“I’ve been thinking about that, actually.” Wesley pulled out his phone. “Today’s June sixth, and her wedding is the twenty-second. Minus today, that gives us fifteen days to get there.”
“‘Us’?” Sam sat up straighter. “You really want to come with?”
Wesley rolled his eyes like that was the most ludicrous question he’d ever heard. “I’m not going to send you off to face the wolves alone. Of course I’m coming with you.”
The relief Sam felt was so profound, his eyes stung. “Thank you, Wesley. Really.”
“You can thank me by paying for gas.”
Sam frowned. “Gas?”
“Yeah. We could book some boring old plane tickets, or . . .” He waggled his eyebrows. “We could take the long way around.”
“What’d you have in mind?”
“A road trip, baby! TJ and Amal–style.”
Sam blinked. “Who?”
“Never mind. I forget you don’t read comics. The point is, we haven’t been on a trip together since that spring break where we drove to Jersey and spent a week drinking on the beach. Since we’re apparently rehashing our college days, we should hit the road. See the country. Boldly go! It’ll be more expensive to drive—hotels, gas, et cetera—but think of the fun we could have. It’d be such an adventure.”
Sam frowned. “I don’t know. A road trip? Being stuck in a cramped car together for all that time?”
“What, you think we’ll get sick of each other? Two best buds like us?” Wesley slapped him playfully. “Come on, when are we going to get a chance like this again? I’m between jobs, and your internship is over. We don’t have boyfriends or mortgages or kids we have to look after. You need to get across the country, and I need a break from all this job hunting. In two weeks, I bet we could do the whole East Coast and then zip over to California with time to spare. What’s stopping us?”
This was leagues outside of Sam’s comfort zone, but Wesley had made some damn good points. There really was nothing stopping them from going, and years from now, when they had nine-to-fives and responsibilities, they could look back on a more carefree time.
Wesley’s lips twitched. “I can tell you’re thinking about it. I like the gleam in those pretty brown eyes of yours.”
“I won’t deny it. Especially if it guarantees I’ll have you by my side.”
“Hey, if you decide you don’t want to do a road trip, that’s fine. I’ll get on a plane and be with you through this regardless. But I think it’d be way more memorable to drive there. We’ve lived in America our whole lives, but how much of it have we seen?”
Sam frowned. “Um, Jersey, like you said, and, uh . . . when I was a kid, my parents took us to the Grand Canyon. But I don’t actually remember it.”
“Exactly. Let’s make some memories that’ll last a lifetime. Shit we’ll look back on in fifty years from now and think ‘That was one of the best times of my life.’ Are you in?” Wes gave him the sweet, big-eyed look of his that could convince the Pope to go clubbing. “Please?”
Sam bit the inside of his cheek. There were plenty of cons. He couldn’t job hunt while he was on the road. He had savings, but not working for two weeks while he had rent to pay wasn’t something he could just do. Neither could Wesley.
A trip like this would be expensive, even if they ate gas-station food and stayed in shitty motels. Plus, he loved Wesley—dearly, completely, deeply—but spending fifteen days in another person’s constant company made the introvert in him palpitate.
There were pros too, though. He’d have someone to hold him accountable and make sure he made it to Jessica’s wedding. Wesley would give him strength when he faced his bloodthirsty relatives. Plus, Sam so seldom did anything daring. He didn’t want to look back on life and see nothing but paying bills and going to bed at a reasonable hour. He wanted to live, for once.
If his family was going to go nuclear on him, he might as well see the world before he died. He’d managed to run out on his wedding because it was important. Somehow, this felt important too. As he debated with himself, he had the strangest feeling, low and wriggly in his gut, that whatever he decided was going to change everything.
“Okay.” He nodded. “I’m in.”
Wesley almost couldn’t believe how easily Sam had caved. Sam was a fun guy, in his own mellow, down-to-earth way, but his comfort zone had a five-block radius. His idea of a wild night out was Wesley’s typical Thursday afternoon.
A week into knowing him, Wesley had joked that he was a balloon, and Sam was a kid holding on to him. Wesley brought fun into Sam’s life, while Sam kept him from floating up into the sky. Sam had laughed and told Wesley that he watched too many John Hughes movies.
As luck would have it, it seemed Sam needed a getaway as badly as Wesley did. Another cup of coffee and some gentle cajoling later, he left Wesley’s apartment with the intention of going home to pack.
After he’d gone, Wesley wandered into the living room and flopped on his futon. Excitement washed through him. This was going to be epic. A road trip across the country with his best friend. Two whole weeks of freedom and going wherever the wind took them. What could be better?
Not keeping a secret from Sam.
Wesley shook that thought off like a wet dog. He wasn’t keeping a secret. He was omitting part of the reason why he wanted to go on the trip. That wasn’t the same as lying. Really. And Wesley had told Sam ninety percent of the truth, so that had to count for something.
Besides, he had every intention of telling Sam the whole story, eventually. Sam was his best friend, after all. Wesley wouldn’t be able to keep it from him for long. Hell, Wesley was surprised he hadn’t confessed the whole sordid tale after his fourth or so shot. Alcohol wasn’t truth serum for him the way it was for some people—like Sam—but it lowered his inhibitions down to “nonexistent.”
Speaking of which.
Wesley heaved himself off his futon—which he’d refused to get rid of after graduating on the basis that it was the only comfortable futon in existence—and strolled into the bedroom. Sam’s face imprint was still in the left pillow. Wesley fluffed it and caught the faint smell of Sam’s fancy cucumber shampoo. The urge to press the pillow to his face was sudden and overwhelming.
You could have passed out on the couch, an inner voice quietly pointed out. You were way less drunk than Sam. You chose to sleep in the bed with him. Why?
Wesley’s brain was quick to make excuses, as it always did when awkward questions about Sam came up. This time around, however, the explanation wasn’t contrived. Sam was handsome in a wholesome, fields-of-wheat sort of way, but Wesley wouldn’t act inappropriately toward his best friend, especially when alcohol was involved. No, he’d slept in the bed last night for a simple reason: he was lonely.
His last “relationship” had been a three-week affair with a guy from work. It’d fizzled out when Wesley quit, since sneaking sex in the copy room wasn’t possible anymore. Sadly, that had been one of his more successful romances.
He couldn’t fathom how Sam had gotten engaged before they were out of college. Wesley had never felt that sort of connection with someone else. Well, besides Sam, of course, but that hardly counted.
When they were kids—and by kids, Wesley meant reckless undergrads who had no business being recognized as legal adults—they’d been surrounded by peers. Making friends had never been easier. Even for Sam, who’d once introduced himself as a strange hissing sound followed by a head-to-toe blush.
Now that they’d graduated, however, it was getting harder to meet people. And they were expected to do odd things like pay taxes and have plans for the future. Adult shit. Technically, Wesley was an adult, and he knew that, but he was low on experience. He still read comics, for Christ’s sake. His solution to a sink full of dishes was to order takeout. When his last boss had asked him about his 401(k), Wesley had blinked and asked, “Is that a band?”
Increasingly, it was Sam and him against the world, which was precisely why he wanted to go on this trip and re-create their college days. Man, he’d give anything to have that time back. But until Apple produced an iTimeTravel, he’d have to settle for the next best thing: getting some serious face time with his bestie.
Sam had been joking earlier when he’d mentioned Wesley moving into his tiny apartment, but honestly, Wesley would live with Sam forever if he could.
But if you lived with him, he’d know your secret. In fact, considering the close quarters you two are going to be in on this road trip, he might figure it out before you can tell him. Sam’s sharp, and he knows you better than anyone.
Wesley frowned to himself and let the pillow drop back onto his sheets. He’d have to be extra careful. This road trip had to be epic. He wouldn’t let anything jeopardize that.
Resolved, he flung his closet doors open and wrestled a battered suitcase out from the back corner. He hadn’t used it since the summer after sophomore year. He’d been the most original college kid ever and had gone backpacking through Europe. As he opened it on his bed, he swore he could still smell Amsterdam on it. So, weed and questionable judgment.
It took him less than fifteen minutes to pack, mostly because his definition of packing involved sniff-testing his laundry and tossing everything that didn’t make him wince into the suitcase. He also grabbed the Sam-pillow off his bed and tucked it under his arm. Just in case they had to sleep in the car or something.
Though he was careful to pack toiletries like deodorant and mouthwash—for Sam’s sake. No one wanted to be trapped in a small space with a dude who forgot to bring deodorant. He also packed his tablet, charging cords, and converters. If there was nothing good on the radio (possible), or they ran out of things to talk about (improbable), they could listen to books and watch movies.
Finally, he wandered out to his living room, where a well-stocked bar boasted a number of opened bottles. One, however, was sealed: the fifteen-year-old, single-malt whiskey his father had given him as a graduation present. Dad probably thought it was long gone by now, but Wesley had been saving it for a special occasion.
A cross-country road trip with Sam totally qualifies. Plus, you never know when you might need to make a Molotov cocktail.
Wrapping up the bottle carefully in a shirt, he tucked it into the suitcase, did a quick check to make sure he had everything he needed, and zipped it up.
There was only one thing left to do: secure their ride. Sam would probably want to take his car—with its up-to-date safety features and terrific gas mileage and blah, blah, blah—but Wesley had another idea.
They were going to travel in style.
* * * * * * *
“You have got to be kidding me.”
Wesley’s arms—which he’d been holding out toward his car like it was a prize on a gameshow—wilted. “What’s wrong?”
“We are not taking that to Montana.” Sam set a large brown Boston bag on the stoop and shook his head so hard, his corn-field hair fell over his eyes. “No way. I’m shocked it’s still running.”
Wesley glanced between Sam and the aqua-blue ’69 Rambler that was parked by the curb, disappointment threatening to wash over him. “I take offense to that. My dad and I restored this car ourselves.”
It was Wesley’s baby. On top of the striking paint color, it had a white stripe down the middle, round side mirrors, and a classic black grill set between two headlights like bright eyes. It was a “beaut,” as his dad would say.
“Yeah, which is what worries me.” Sam eyed the car as if it were a wild animal. “Man, when I got your text saying to come outside, I thought you were too lazy to drag your suitcase up the stairs.”
“Nope, I wanted to surprise you.” Wesley leaned back against the Rambler, which already had his luggage loaded into the trunk. “You’re not seriously refusing, are you?”
“Damn straight I am.” Despite his words, Sam picked up his suitcase again—looking at it made Wesley’s biceps ache—and hauled it over, setting it down on the curb next to Wesley. He leaned on the car as well as if the effort had fatigued him. “How many miles to the gallon does this boat get? Twelve?”
“Twenty.” Wesley sniffed. “On the highway, at least, which is where we’re going to be most of the time. So, we should be fine.”
“This trip is already going to be way more expensive than plane tickets. Can you really afford to pump money into this thing?”
“Don’t you worry about me. I may not be as responsible as you, but I’ve had three jobs in the past year, and I saved money from all of them. My finances are sorted, for once in my life.”
Sam frowned. “I’m not sold. How did you even get your dad to agree to lend you this?”
“He didn’t lend it to me. It’s mine. He signed it over to me on my sixteenth birthday. It lives at my parents’ house because they have a garage, and Dad likes to tinker with it, but I can claim it whenever I want.”
There was actually a lot more to that story. When Wesley had gone over to his parents’ house to pick it up, the encounter hadn’t been pleasant. Dad had made arguments similar to the ones Sam was making right now, only more centered on Wesley and his personal faults. But the car was legally Wesley’s, so in the end, Dad couldn’t keep him from taking it.
He didn’t want to start this trip off on a negative note, however, so he kept that part of the story to himself.
“That’s another thing,” Sam said. “Neither you nor Mr. Reed are mechanics. What if your dad . . . I dunno, left a wrench in the engine core, or something? What if we break down in the middle of nowhere?”
“‘Engine core’? That’s not a thing.” Wesley patted the chrome trim. “I know this car inside and out. I may not be a professional, but I have a lifetime of field experience. If we break down, and it’s something I can’t handle, we’ll take it to a shop. But I promise, this baby’s running every bit as well as the day it came off the assembly line. And hey, it’s been on this Earth longer than either of us have, so if anything, the car should be worried about being handled by two neophytes like us.”
Sam’s expression wavered. “I don’t know . . .”
“We gotta, Sammy. Think about it: a classic car for a classic road trip. It’s perfect. Plus, it’s got bench seats. If we can’t find a hotel, we can sleep in it. During long treks, you can stretch your legs out in the back seat with a book while I drive. Picture yourself all cozy with a pillow behind your back. The windows cracked. Wind ruffling your hair. Oldies on the radio. Sunlight warming the leather seats. Can’t you see it? Hell, I can smell it.”
Sam tilted his head back, thinking. “That is an attractive image, and I have to admit, it’d be fitting to take a car like this out on the open road. It feels sort of magical somehow.”
“Exactly.” Wesley clapped his hands together like an eager child. “Now you’re getting the idea! So, can we take it? Pleeease?”
Sam sighed. “It’s so hard being the single dad of a twenty-three-year-old. Are you certain you want to spend the extra money?”
“Money doesn’t worry me. For all I know, I got that job I interviewed for after all. It could be waiting for me when we get back. Besides, I’m not too good to microwave cup noodles at a gas station. I did it all throughout college, after all.”
Sam smiled. “I’d kill for your optimism.”
“Please don’t. I’m going to be the only person around for the foreseeable future.” Wesley pulled out his keys and dangled them by his head. “Shall we?”
Sam could never resist when Wesley got excited about something. After only another second of hesitation, he nodded. “Okay. Let’s get going.”
Wesley whooped. “The adventure begins!”
When Wesley picked up Sam’s bag, he realized why Sam had seemed drained from lifting it. “Holy shit, did you pack your entire apartment?”
“I wanted us to be prepared. I brought a first aid kit, my laptop, some books, magazines, spare clothes and shoes—”
“Jesus. I feel better about my haphazard packing now. You brought enough for both of us.”
Sam ruffled his hair. “I have to take care of my bestest best friend.”
Wesley made a face, but inside, his heart warmed. He stowed Sam’s bag—thank God the trunk had plenty of room—and tossed the keys into the air. He caught them neatly a moment later. “All right. Where should we go first?”
Sam pulled his phone out of his pocket and checked it. “It’s a little after ten now. You said this trip was about seeing the country, so I suppose we should pick a city that’s a few hours from here? We’ll drive there, spend the day, crash, and then do the whole thing over again tomorrow. We can head down the coast, cut across to California, and then loop around to Montana. Two weeks is enough time for at least ten cities.”
“Sounds perfect. Hop in, and I’ll head for the interstate. Pull up a map on your phone and pick anywhere you’d like.”
He slid into the driver’s seat and took a deep breath. A familiar smell filled his nose: leather and what he swore was cigars, though neither he nor his father smoked.
Wesley had heard the story of how Dad had found this car in a junkyard so many times it was like a memory. Dad had towed it home to his pregnant wife, who’d been none-too-impressed. Dad had sworn he’d fix it up and that their baby would inherit it when they were old enough to drive. Mom had predicted Dad would give up on the car after a week, but he’d persisted, trial-and-erroring his way through a steep learning curve.
Wesley was grateful he had. Working on cars was soothing, like solving a metal puzzle. Oil and gasoline smelled like childhood to him, and although he hadn’t taken the Rambler to college—everything was walking distance, and after all these years, Dad was too attached to let it go—the car was Wesley’s baby.
Sam climbed into the seat next to him and whistled. “After hearing you talk about this thing for years, it’s an honor to finally be in it.”
Wesley patted the steering wheel. “Play your cards right, and I might let you drive.”
“Yeah, right. More like beg me to drive the days you’re too hungover to look at the road. How are you feeling, by the way?”
Wesley opened a console on the dashboard and pulled out a pair of sunglasses. After placing them on his nose, he grabbed a bottle of water from the driver’s side pocket. “With these items, I am healed enough to begin our quest.”
Sam laughed. “All right. I bet there’s a road trip app we can use to plan the whole thing. I’ll search for one.”
If it were up to Wesley, they’d head in a random direction and probably never stop. It was a good thing he had Sam around to put a plan together.
Wesley fastened his seat belt. “Ladies and gentlemen, keep your hands and feet inside the vehicle at all times. We’re ready for takeoff.”
Sam followed suit and then buried his nose in his phone. Wesley turned the key in the ignition, and the engine roared to life before settling into a soothing growl. He eased the car away from the curb, excitement tingling from his toes to the tips of his fingers.
He caught a glimpse of himself in the rearview mirror. With his hair still tousled from Sam’s fingers and stubble on his jaw, he looked like the star of one of those old buddy-cop films. He was the loose cannon who broke all the rules, and Sam was the by-the-book lieutenant who remained faithfully by his side.
“Here we go,” Sam said, interrupting his daydreaming. “I found an app that will not only plan our route, but it’ll also tell us how long it takes to get to the cities within a certain radius. Oh, and I found another one that ranks nearby gas stations by price.”
“God, I love technology.” Wesley clicked on the radio and was delighted when classic rock played over the speakers. “How does four hours sound for our first day? Assuming we grab lunch to-go and don’t need too many pee breaks, we can be in a totally new city by three o’clock.”
Sam let out a breath. “Wow, we’re really doing this. It didn’t hit me until you said that.”
“How do you feel?” Wesley held his breath.
“Excited as fuck.” Sam looked at him, grinning so hard his cheeks were twin red apples in his face. “No one but you could have convinced me to do this.”
Wesley’s heart soared. This was the shit he lived for. When people met Wesley, they assumed his friendship with Sam was one-sided. They were right, but it was Wesley who was always chasing after Sam. Sam wasn’t the sort to have a ton of friends, preferring quality over quantity. The fact that Wesley was his best friend was the world’s biggest compliment.
Sam consulted his new app. “There’s Baltimore. Or Philadelphia. How do cheesesteaks sound for lunch?”
“Mighty tempting. That’s a solid maybe. What else ya got?”
“We could go to Cape May Point in Jersey and re-create our beach week there.”
Wesley made a sound like a buzzer on a gameshow. “Negative. I’d rather go somewhere new.”
“All right.” Sam hit some buttons. “Hey, New York City is about four hours away. Ever been to the Big Apple?”
Wesley perked up. “No. Have you?”
“Well, hot damn, Sam. I think we have our first destination!”
Sam laughed. “How long have you been waiting for an opportunity to say ‘hot damn, Sam’?”
“Since literally the moment we met. I’m convinced: this trip is going to be epic.”
Or, check your local library.
Word Count: ~80,200
Page Count: ~300
Cover By: L.C. Chase
Release Date: 08/06/2018
Release Date: 08/06/2018