“YOU’RE GOING to wear a hole in the floor if you don’t stop that pacing,” Grayson said with a dramatic eye roll. “You’ve been doing that for the past hour. Everything is going to be fine.”

“Yeah, Uncle Tommy, just chillax,” Petey said from where he sat on one of the wooden chairs, legs dangling as he stared intently at the iPhone Grayson had given him to keep him amused.

Tommy Gordon’s collar suddenly seemed way too tight, but he didn’t pull on it or he’d mess up his bow tie for the millionth time. He had no idea why he was so damn nervous. It seemed like a perpetual state with him, and he hated it most of the time. “Yeah. What business do I have being nervous? It’s only my wedding day, and I’m scared to death that I’m going to forget my vows and stand up there, mouth open like some bigmouth bass, and not be able to say a thing.”

Tommy began to recite the vows that Petey and Grayson had helped him memorize. Tommy hadn’t wanted to use cards during the ceremony, so he’d written his vows out and then rehearsed them so he wouldn’t forget. But now his head was a complete blank and he didn’t know what he was going to do.

Petey set down his game and slipped off the chair. “Xavier, my heart came alive when I met you, and I hope I make you as happy as you’ve made me,” Petey said, then paused, looking at Grayson. “You know, these vows are kind of sappy.”

Grayson swooped in, snatching Petey off his feet. “It’s Uncle Tommy’s wedding day, and it’s the one day when everyone is allowed to be sappy. Especially the guy getting married. So go give him a hug. He really needs one.” Grayson held his son in his arms, swinging him back and forth to the music of boyish giggles and happiness before setting him down.

Petey raced over to him, and Tommy accepted the hug and soaked in some of the innocent joy, lightening his worries. This was his wedding day, and he was marrying the man he loved. If he messed something up, so what? They’d continue with the ceremony. They’d still be married and just as happy. Then he and Xavier could start their life together.

“I love you, Uncle Tommy,” Petey said when Tommy was about to release him, and he hugged Petey once again.

“I love you too, you little monster.” He smiled, and Petey made Godzilla sounds. Tommy laughed, actually laughed, and his nerves receded. This was their day, and he had plenty of backup. Grayson had been the one person to have his back… always, and that wasn’t likely to change even now. He set Petey back down, and Petey returned to his video game. “What time is it?”

“There’s still half an hour before the start of the ceremony.” Grayson shook his head. “You insisted that we get here a full hour early.”

“I wanted to make sure everything was perfect,” Tommy explained.

Grayson walked across the stone floor of what was usually the bride’s dressing room and placed a hand firmly on his shoulder. “How could it not? You planned this down to the smallest detail.” He opened his jacket and pulled out a slip of paper. “You put together minute-by-minute cheat sheets for everyone involved so they’d know where they were supposed to be and what they were supposed to do each second of the day. Including reminders not to wear boxers, though I don’t know why.”

“No one wants to see anything flopping….”

“What would be floppy?” Petey asked.

“Nothing,” Grayson told Petey, then pivoted, giving Tommy a stern look, which Tommy returned. “What?”

“You’re the only one who got that note,” Tommy said and turned away, blowing out his breath in an effort to try to clear his head. This was his wedding day, and he was not going to spend part of it talking about his best friend’s junk.

Tommy had never been the kind of guy who was into physical exercise. He was a geek of the highest order. An obsessive geek, if what everyone told him—on a constant basis—was true, and he had little reason to doubt they were right. The proof was being put back into Grayson’s jacket pocket, after all. Still, Grayson had convinced him to join the health club with him, and they worked out together three days a week. So needless to say, Tommy had seen what Grayson was packing, though it had taken a little while to get used to seeing guys he knew naked like that.

“Should I be honored, then?” Grayson quipped with a smug grin on his lips.

“Stop it. You’re making me nervous again.” Tommy began pacing once more. “Can you find out if Xavier is here yet?”

“Did you make up one of these sheets for him too?” Grayson patted his pocket, and Tommy scowled.

“Yes. You know he has trouble getting anywhere on time unless I’m there with him, and we decided he was going to stay with Gary for a few days to make the wedding and the wedding night special.” Yeah, he realized now that wasn’t one of his brighter ideas. Xavier and Gary had spent that time going out so Xavier could let loose and have some fun. At least that’s what he’d been told when he’d texted Xavier to make sure everything was going okay and to tell him he missed him. Apparently Xavier had used those days as a sort of bachelor party.

“You’re so old-fashioned,” Grayson told him.

“I wanted to do this right,” Tommy said softly as the butterflies in his belly finally stopped beating their wings like crazy. He took a deep breath and settled into one of the chairs. “I only plan on getting married once, and I really just want this to be special, for him and for me.” The truth was that Tommy was going overboard in order to make sure this was the wedding of a lifetime for Xavier. Tommy knew he was geeky and kind of nerdy—okay, a hell of a lot nerdy—so he’d gone all out to show Xavier that he loved him so he’d be happy with a geek.

“It definitely will be. So just relax while I go check on your husband-to-be.” Grayson smiled and left the room, closing the door behind him.

Petey continued playing his game, making occasional faces and laughing.

Tommy sat down next to him. “I like that game too. It’s a lot of fun.”

“Yeah, but it gets too slow sometimes.” Petey fed a dragon a potion, and he smiled and flew away, leaving behind a pile of gold coins that Petey’s character scooped up and added to his bag. Petey looked up from the game.

“For you it may be, but there is a lot more to it than just the dragons,” Tommy explained.

“I know. But I like the dragons. They’re funny, and sometimes when they drink too much berry juice, they fly in circles like they’re drunk. That’s really funny.” Petey laughed and located one of the dragons still on its nest, but he didn’t have any berry juice, so he went in search of a patch. That hadn’t been what Tommy had had in mind when he’d designed and developed the game, but that was part of the beauty of Dragons of Archine. The game could be different things to different players and everyone had fun.

Petey was occupied again, the game drawing him in, and Tommy stood once more, telling himself he wasn’t going to pace the room.

“I saw Xavier,” Grayson said when he came back inside. “He was heading to his changing room and said he’d be ready.”

“He wasn’t dressed yet?” Tommy asked, his heart rate shooting up.

“No. Gary was with him. Don’t worry. The ceremony is in twenty minutes, and it doesn’t take that long to put clothes on.”

“How did he look?”

Grayson swallowed and sat down next to Petey, peering over his shoulder for a few seconds. “Why don’t you put that down and go to the bathroom so you don’t have to during the service. We’re going to get started in a little while, and you need to be ready like you promised Uncle Tommy you’d be.”

Petey handed his dad back the phone and slid off the chair to hurry to the door. “I’ll be right back so you won’t be nervous anymore.” He pulled the heavy wooden door open and slipped out, closing it with a bang.

“He’s amazing,” Tommy said, forgetting his nerves for a few seconds. “I’ll always remember the first time he called me Uncle Tommy.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a handkerchief to blot his eyes. God, this was more nerve-racking than releasing his first video game to the world.

“Tommy,” Grayson said, “I didn’t want to say anything in front of Petey, but Xavier looked like hell. My guess is that he stayed out all night and hasn’t been home at all. He is changing and getting ready, but God knows what shape he’s going to be in. Gary doesn’t look like he’s in any better shape, and I swear….”

A hesitant knock echoed in the room.

Tommy took a deep breath and went to the door. Grayson stopped him and pointed to one of the chairs. Tommy sat down, trying not to hyperventilate.

“Xavier, what are you doing?”

“I need to talk to Tommy,” Xavier said, sounding like shit.

Grayson turned to him, and Tommy lifted his gaze, nodding. Clearly there was something wrong and he needed to deal with it. Whatever plans he’d made were most likely out the window anyway. He certainly hadn’t envisioned a drunk, hung-over groom.

Grayson stepped back, pulling open the door, and Xavier half stumbled in, looking worse than Tommy could ever have imagined.

“What the heck happened?” He hurried over, but Xavier stopped him by putting up his hand. “Are you sick?”

“I’m fine,” Xavier managed to say, slowly sitting himself down. “Gary and I went out as sort of a last hurrah, and we overdid it.” He raised his face, and Tommy got a good look at his glassy eyes.

“Okay. We still have time. Grayson and I can help you get ready,” Tommy said gently.

Xavier shook his head of thick black hair, and then his deep brown eyes cleared of some of their rumminess. “I can’t do this. The wedding and everything that you’ve got planned. It’s too much.” Xavier sat back as all the oxygen seemed to leave the room. Tommy’s head grew light, and fuck it all, he was going to faint, but Grayson was there, holding his arm. “You want more than I think I can give.”

“You waited to tell him now, twenty minutes before the wedding?” Grayson yelled. “You bastard!”

“I’ve spent the last few days trying to think about what I was going to do.” Xavier hiccupped, and his alcohol breath was enough to knock over an elephant. “I thought if I drank and told myself that I loved you and that I really wanted to do this, everything would be all right. But it isn’t true, and I can’t go through with this.” Xavier got to his feet, half stumbled toward the door, and pulled it open. “I’ll see you around.” He left and closed the door with a click after him.

Tommy watched, openmouthed, too stunned to move. The room had turned bone-chillingly cold. “What did he just tell me? That he didn’t love me?” He couldn’t feel his fingers, and then his hands and feet went numb. He tried to think of what he was going to do, but nothing at all came to mind.

“Uncle Tommy,” Petey called as he raced into the room, practically barreling into him. “I saw Uncle Xavier and he looked sick. What’s wrong?” Petey looked at him and then turned to Grayson.

“Uncle Tommy isn’t going to get married. Xavier chickened out and wasn’t man enough to tell Uncle Tommy until right now.” The anger in Grayson’s voice simmered just below the surface. “What he really needs is a hug.”

Petey climbed up on the chair, stood up, and hugged Tommy, and Tommy closed his eyes, willing the rest of the world to go away.

A knock on the door caught his attention, and Grayson peered out before opening it for Tommy’s mom and dad to come inside. “Things were getting late and no one was ready, so I thought….”

“Oh God, Mom….” Tommy gasped. “He left me.”

His mother hurried over, and soon he was hugged by both of them.

“That son of a bitch. I’ll string him up by his greasy balls.” That was his dad, rough as all hell around the edges, and Tommy had never been so grateful for it in his life.

“He’s already gone,” Tommy said.

“Son, do you want me to go out there and explain to everyone what’s going on?”

“No, I will.” Thank God he had decided to keep the ceremony rather small, with only a few dozen people in the chapel. At least it wasn’t one of those huge affairs where he’d have to go up in front of half the western world to give an explanation.

“Sweetheart, you don’t have to. Everyone will understand.”

“No.” Tommy hugged his mom and Petey before standing up as tall as his five-foot-nine-inch frame would allow. If anyone was going to do this, it was going to be him. “I need to do it.”

“Fine, but we’re coming with you.” His mother took one of his hands, and Petey took the other. They left the room and went down the short hallway to the chapel that Tommy had had decorated with tons of sprays of every white flower he could find. For a second he took in the scene: the flowers against the gray stone of the chapel, the vaulted timbered ceiling, the small group of people, his friends, coworkers, and extended family, all turning their heads as he entered.

Tommy walked right to the front, where he met the officiant and thanked him softly, then shook his head before turning to those assembled. “I’m sorry, everyone. But there isn’t going to be a wedding today. It seems….” Tommy’s voice faltered.

“The other groom has left, and Tommy and Xavier will not be getting married.”

Thank God for Grayson.

“Tommy would be very pleased if you would all join him for the wedding dinner. I think your support and love are what’s going to get him through this difficult time.” Grayson put an arm around him, and Tommy wished he hadn’t come out here. The looks of sympathy and pity were almost more than he could take. Tommy wanted to hide. Damn, all he needed was to go home, go to bed, and curl up under the covers and not show himself for a week or more.

“Uncle Tommy,” Petey said, tugging on his hand. “Can I take this tuxedo off now?”

“Yes,” Tommy answered. “Let’s go back to the room, and we can all change into more comfortable clothes.” He so wanted to get out of his pants and the white afternoon coat. Hell, he never wanted to look at another piece for formalwear again as long as he lived.

People stood, some milling back toward the rear and others coming toward him. He noticed that Xavier’s parents were gone, likely when he’d skipped out. That was probably a good thing.

“I’m so sorry,” Aunt Virginia said, hugging him tight. “Is it okay to say that I never liked him and that you can do so much better?” She cradled his head, and her warmth and light perfume carried him back to when he was a kid. Aunt Ginny was an amazing woman, independent and self-sufficient, who had never married, and she could be hell on wheels when she wanted to be.

“You can say whatever you want.” He was just so happy his family was already circling the wagons. When Aunt Ginny released him, Tommy saw his dad at the back of the chapel, talking softly, a fierce papa-bear expression on his face. If Tommy knew his dad, he was making sure everyone knew this was all Xavier’s fault. “But you really didn’t like him?”

“No. He was a jerk and spent way too much time worrying about himself.” She stepped back and lowered her head in that way she had of looking over her glasses when she was being deadly serious. “He didn’t look at you the way he should have, as if you were the beginning and end of his world. He was nice and said the right things, but I never saw the adoration in his eyes that you deserve.” She patted him on the shoulder and then drew close once again. “All right, I have to ask you some questions.” Just like that she had switched from aunt to family lawyer and all-around advice giver. “Did you follow what I told you?”

“About what?” Tommy was trying to keep up, but his brain seemed like it was in neutral.

“You didn’t add his name to your house, did you?”

Tommy shook his head. “You said that being married would handle that, so I didn’t do anything.”

“How about credit cards or bank accounts?”

“Bank accounts, no. You said that could wait until after the wedding and it would be easier.”

“What about credit cards?” She had that look, and Tommy cringed. “Give them to me right now.” She held out her hand, and Tommy handed her his wallet. She guided him back into the changing room where he’d been earlier. Petey was in dress pants and a nice shirt, looking much happier as he played his game. Grayson had changed as well. “Which ones?” Aunt Gin asked, holding his wallet open.

Tommy forced himself to concentrate and pulled out the three accounts he’d given Xavier cards for. She took them and asked for his phone, which sat on a tray on the sideboard. Tommy hadn’t wanted to carry it during the ceremony. She was already dialing as she crossed to the other side of the room.

“What’s going on?” Grayson asked.

“I’m saving this sweet one from financial ruin.” Aunt Ginny began punching in numbers, grumbling about getting a live operator.

Tommy turned away. There was only so much he could deal with at the moment. “She’s getting Xavier off my credit cards.”

Grayson groaned. “It wouldn’t surprise me if he tried to buy a damn car on them.” His eyes grew hard as rocks. “He wasn’t good enough for you.”

“Did everyone hate him and not tell me?” Tommy asked, loosening his tie and collar.

“He was a douche,” Grayson said vehemently. “Is there anything else that has his name on it?”

Tommy tried to think. “I got him a car as a wedding present. It was delivered today. I meant it as a surprise, but….”

“You bought that in your name, right?”

Grayson was looking out for him. His aunt was doing the same, and so were his folks. Tommy guessed you found out who your real friends and family were when you got jilted at the altar. God, how in the hell was he ever going to get over this?

“I guess so. I mean, I didn’t do anything special, so it would have to be. They said I could give it to him later, and we were going to be married, so I figured it didn’t matter.” He sat down, and Grayson took the suit jacket and handed him the bag of the clothes he’d brought to change into at the end of the reception.

“Get out of those, and I’ll put them with mine and return them to the rental place. You might as well be comfortable.” Grayson sat between him and Petey.

Tommy sat still, staring at the gray limestone walls, wishing he could just let them swallow him whole. That would be the ticket. If he could simply disappear, then all of this would go away and he wouldn’t be the most pathetic man in all of Bayside, Wisconsin. Hell, he could see bus tours driving past his house, making a special trip just to point out the biggest loser on the north shore. “Here on the left is the home of Tommy Gordon, whose husband-to-be left him at the altar on his wedding day, and on your right is a fine example of prairie-style architecture, circa 1927. It’s good to note that no one living there was ever left standing alone on their wedding day. That would be Mr. Gordon, and look, there he is, gardening in his underwear.”

“Tommy.” Aunt Ginny’s voice pulled him out of his ridiculous daydream. “I need you on the phone.” She patted his shoulder, and he took the phone to answer the questions for the operator.

“I don’t show any recent charges,” she told him. “If you hold, I’ll go ahead and cancel that card for you.” Hold music played and then she was back. “That card is canceled, and the only one I have active on the account is the one ending in 3838.”

“Thank you. That’s my card, so we’re good. I appreciate your help.”

He hung up, and Aunt Ginny took the phone again and began making another call. He went through the process a second time, and then got on the third call. He explained that he wanted to cancel the card for Xavier Mendota.

“Of course, sir,” she said. “I see a number of charges on that account, both last night and up till an hour ago.” She rattled off the amounts, and Tommy wondered just what Xavier had been up to last night.

“Go ahead and cancel the card, and then we can review the charges. My attorney will handle things from here.” He handed the phone to his aunt, and she answered more questions.

“No. Do not authorize that,” Aunt Ginny said.

Tommy got to his feet and went behind the chintz screen to change clothes. By the time he was done, and feeling much better, Aunt Ginny hurried over.

“The bastard just tried to charge a ten-thousand-dollar watch. That was declined,” she mouthed and returned to the call. “Thank you. It’s canceled? … Wonderful. Can you cancel the other card on the account and reissue a new one in case it’s been compromised?” She talked a few minutes longer and ended the call.

“How bad is it?”

“The last few days, about three grand. I stopped the ten-grand purchase, but he’d already charged a little over five thousand and change this morning. There isn’t much we can do about those since he had authorization, but he’s cut off now.” Aunt Ginny turned as Tommy’s mom and dad came in. “Rita, honey,” she said to his mom. “On your way to the restaurant, stop by Tommy’s and make sure jerkwad isn’t at the house.” She turned back to Tommy. “Call the security company and change all the codes so he can’t get in. He’s already tried to steal from you, and if he gets into the house, he could damage things or get access to your computer.”

Tommy nodded. This was a total nightmare.

“We’re on our way,” his dad said, squeezing Tommy’s shoulder as he walked by.

Tommy called the security company, gave them the vocal codes, and then did what he had to in order to change all the passwords and alarm set codes. Once that was done, he called his dad so he could get inside, then hung up.

“Can I just go home now?” Suddenly the thought of dealing with everyone at a public restaurant was too damn much.

“Of course. Petey and I will take you,” Grayson said, and Tommy sat down once again. He was so drained, it was hard for him to stand.

“I’ll see to things at the restaurant,” Aunt Ginny told him. “Just relax. I doubt anyone is going to expect you to make an appearance.” She pulled him into another hug. “If I get my hands on him, I’ll castrate the bastard.”

Tommy chuckled. God, there were so many reasons why he loved her. “He’s not worth it.” He held her close for a while, just relishing the comfort, before stepping back. “I’ll call you tomorrow.”

“You do that. If he shows up and starts causing you any trouble, I can get a restraining order.” She grinned and left the room, her violet dress fluttering in her own breeze.

Tommy looked around, making sure there wasn’t anything he’d forgotten.

“I talked to the officiant, and he’ll lock up and take care of things here. We can go now.” Grayson led him outside and to the limousine that Tommy had rented for after the ceremony. Tommy collapsed back in the seat, closing his eyes, wishing this day would just come to an end. Thankfully, Grayson got him inside and explained to the driver the change of plans, and then the car glided away.

“Daddy, look, there’s drinks and everything,” Petey said.

“Go ahead and open the champagne,” Tommy said without cracking his eyes open. “I already paid for it, so we might as well have whatever we like. Petey, you can help yourself to the soda, just be careful.” He paid little attention to anything, but smiled at Petey’s laughter.

Grayson pressed a glass into his hand, and Tommy took a sip, then emptied the glass and held it out for more. He needed a drink—more than one, as a matter of fact—and at the moment, getting sloshed on bubbly sounded like the best idea of the day.

By the time they turned into the drive and pulled to a stop, Tommy had downed four glasses and was feeling more than a little tipsy as he got out of the car. He had to think of the codes to deactivate the alarm, but it wasn’t on.

“Tommy, are you okay, son?” his dad asked almost as soon as he stepped inside.

“He drank half a bottle of champagne in the car so he’s not feeling any pain at the moment.”

Tommy hugged his dad. “I’m fine, and don’t let Grayson exaggerate. Go on and get yourself something to eat. I’m going to sit here, watch some awful television, and then go up to bed and probably stay there for at least two days.” He hoped to hell everyone left him alone.

“Can I go play games on the big TV?” Petey asked.

“Sure, bud. Go on and have fun.” Tommy wasn’t in the mood to make anyone unhappy for any reason. He was already miserable enough for the entire damn world. He flopped down on his leather sofa in the massive living room, turned on the television, and looked through the screen at nothing at all. At the moment, nothing was going to cut through his misery.

“Are you sure?” his dad asked.

“Yeah. You and Mom have a good time and eat plenty. I ordered you the steak because I know you love it.” Tommy looked around. “Where is Mom?”

“Where do you think?”

Tommy groaned. “God. Please don’t let her cook anything. Not today.” His mother was many things, but her cooking was wildly experimental, and usually what came out of her kitchen was good for one and only one thing: the landfill. So many animals had given up their lives for her cooking over the years, Sarah McLachlan would probably ban his mother if she could. Either that or try to bribe her into veganism.

“I’m just making sure you have something to eat that isn’t chips or cookies,” his mom said, coming into the room and joining his father. “Are you sure you’re okay?”

“I’ll be fine, Mom. All I want is to be left alone so I can cry like an eight-year-old where no one can see me.” Tommy was trying to be lighthearted but knew it fell flat. “Just go and have some fun, eat lots, and for God’s sake, make sure everyone has a good time.”

“If you say so, dear.” She patted his cheek, and Tommy hugged both of them before getting them out the door. As soon as he closed it, he heard the beeps and squawks of the game in the other room.

“You should go and have dinner with everyone else,” Tommy told Grayson.

“Petey is having the time of his life. He loves your television. That thing is so massive, he thinks he’s getting lost in the game. If you want to go on up and lie down, I’ll stay down here with him.”

“Whatever you want. Eat anything in the refrigerator. Not that there’s very much. I suppose I’ll need to get food now.” Tommy’s head throbbed. “I was supposed to leave on my honeymoon in four days, so there isn’t much, but help yourself to whatever there is.”

“What are you going to do?” Grayson asked.

“About what?”

“Your trip,” he answered, stepping closer.

“I’ll probably cancel everything and just stay home. I can work and try to take my mind off this whole awful mess.”

Grayson shook his head. “You should go anyway. Why let him ruin a perfectly good vacation? It’s been too long since you took some time away, and it would let you get out of town and away from anyone who knows about what happened.”

Tommy’s shoulders slumped even further. He wasn’t sure if he was up for anything at all. The thought of crawling into a cave to hide was overwhelmingly inviting. “I sure as hell don’t want to spend an entire week alone.” He leaned forward, leveraging himself to his feet. “I can cancel most of the plans and take the hit on the others.” Tommy shuffled toward the stairs, almost too tired—and maybe a little drunker than he thought—to lift his feet. “Unless you and Petey want to come.”

“He has school, and….”

Tommy looked over his shoulder. “I could say the same thing to you that you just did to me. You don’t take vacations either, and I have everything paid for. I could check into having Xavier’s ticket transferred or see if there are others available. I have a suite at the resort, so there’s plenty of room.” He yawned. “Think about it.”

He climbed the stairs, went right to his bedroom, and closed the door. He stripped off his clothes and got into bed, pulling the covers over his head. Then and only then did he let his emotions loose and cry the way he’d wanted to for hours.