“You know, my nephew’s gay. Maybe if you hire him to do some work in the garden, they could… run into each other?”
THE GRANSHIRE Hotel brooded elegantly over some of Ceremony Island’s most stunning vistas. At the back the cliffs dropped down to the deep, white-sand crescent of the bay, where brightly colored boats rocked at anchor a few miles out. At the front the moorland rolled down, all heather and wildflowers, until it reached the straight, stone-built walls that fenced off the farmland. A small herd of deer sometimes roamed across the land.
The Tatler had named it one of the top ten destination-wedding locations in the UK. Wedding parties arrived from around the world. It wasn’t cheap, and it wasn’t easy to reach. Even UK couples had a long drive over rutted coastal roads and had to take a ferry over the stretch of Irish sea. But couples in search of the perfect wedding seemed to think it was worth it.
It wasn’t just the aged stone hall or posing on the elegant stairway with its black oak railings carved to look like twisted briars. They wanted the trip down to the fairy caves on the beach, the congratulatory pint of Guinness in the traditional country pub with the brasses behind the bar, and the “something old” picked out of the trinket shop in the hollowed-out fisherman’s cottage on the beach—or any number of the other Instagrammable moments the island could provide.
Couples who came to Ceremony wanted a well-chronicled fairy tale or a rom-com, and as the Granshire’s wedding planner, it was Nate Moffatt’s job to make sure they got it—even on days when the last thing he wanted to think about was anybody’s happily ever after.
“Shoes?” he asked as he leaned in through the doors to the Granshire’s bar.
The bar was an expanse of sea-bleached wood and polished metal surfaces that usually looked like it was ready for a magazine spread. It was covered in the detritus of the previous evening’s wedding party, with crumpled confetti swept into multicolored drifts in the corners and glasses sticky with the dregs of fruity cocktails on every flat surface.
A skeleton staff of the bar crew were already making inroads on the cleanup, yawning as they dragged bags of rubbish behind them. They paused long enough to shrug their “no ideas” Nate’s way. He made a mental note to up the usual “thanks for a good job” gratuity he’d send down.
Technically he didn’t need to. Some couples wanted to hire a marquee or get married in the old distillery, which meant hiring on extra staff, but the newly minted Sanders had just gone with the hotel package. So the staff were included. Still, in Nate’s experience it was always better to have a reputation as a good person to work for—for that one event when you had to ask them to dress up like the Mad Hatter and serve Long Island iced teas into the a.m.
Nate left the staff to get on with clearing the glasses and picked his way through the tables to the bar. He leaned over the bar and whistled sharply between his teeth to catch the bar manager’s attention.
“Bride’s shoes?” he asked. “One of a kind. Designer. Look like every other pair of sparkly silver Cinderella slippers you’ve ever seen?”
Max tossed two empty bottles of prosecco into the recycling and raised his eyebrows at Nate. “Somebody woke up pissy,” he said. The short, stylishly scruffy man was the son of the hotel’s owner and Nate’s best friend since they were two awkward gay kids trying to work out why more girls seemed to like them than boys did. It turned out that if you were best mates with the other queer kid in your small, islander class of twenty… that could be your gay quota until you graduated. “I haven’t seen any shoes. I found one of the bridesmaids sleeping it off in the toilet, though, if that helps.”
It was hard to resist Max’s smirk. Despite his sour mood, Nate caught the corners of his mouth twitching up in a return grin.
No matter how Grimm’s-fairy-tale pretty the weddings looked, the aftermaths were always a bit more like something out of the original stories—full of regrets, secrets to keep, and sometimes blood on the floor. Mostly vomit, but sometimes blood.
“As of midnight yesterday, the bridesmaids were back on their own time and not my problem,” Nate said.
“You could check the gardens,” Max suggested as he lifted the pot of coffee from the machine and poured Nate a cup. He didn’t need to ask if Nate wanted it. The answer was always yes. “I saw some of the wedding party dancing out there.”
Nate lifted the cup and took a scalding sip. There were bottles of syrup lined up on the wall, everything from basic bitch vanilla to cheesecake, but those were for people who drank coffee to enjoy it. This was maintenance coffee—hot, strong, and thick enough to stand a spoon upright in.
When he looked up, Max had taken a break from clearing the bar and was leaning on it instead. His arms were crossed, and he raised his eyebrows expectantly. “So? Long night why you’re such a cranky git this morning?”
It had been, but Nate didn’t think Max was wasting a suggestive leer on a 3:00 a.m. escort to her suite for the groom’s tiddly and depressed mother. That left….
Nate hissed out a sigh through clenched teeth. The morning seemed determined to just get on his last nerve. “I take it you’re the one who gave the groom’s brother my number?”
Max’s leer deepened. “Yeah, you owe me one. He still back at yours?”
The leer collapsed. “Didn’t he call you?” Max asked. He sounded genuinely surprised. “I can’t believe it. He seemed really into you, said you were a silver fox.”
Nate glanced past Max into the mirror behind the bar and self-consciously brushed gray-streaked brown curls back from his forehead. He was thirty-seven. That was too young to be a silver fox, even if he had been going gray since before he was twenty.
Texted actually. Nate wondered dryly if his mild offense at that meant he should accept that he was older than he felt.
Max looked at him quizzically. “And? He thought you were hot. He called. You hooked up—”
“I didn’t answer him,” Nate said flatly. “I was in the middle of running a wedding. I didn’t have time to hook up with a random stranger.”
Instead of picking up on the prickle of irritation underlying Nate’s voice and backing off, Max made a rude noise. “It never stopped you before. I remember back in Durham, when you were volunteering at the book festival. One night you hooked up with three different blokes between talks and readings, including one of the authors. Still got everyone to fill in your satisfaction survey at the end.”
Nate had to admit, that had been a good night. Of course his years in Durham had been full of good nights. Even if he ended up never using that English Lit degree for anything but impressing boys who liked sonnets. Ceremony wasn’t Durham, though, and Nate wasn’t twenty anymore.
“That was over a decade ago,” Nate said. “And I was a horny idiot.”
“Happy, though,” Max pointed out. He flashed the grin that had gotten more than a few men to follow him for a quick tumble. And the numbers had increased recently. Max wasn’t handsome. There was too much nose and too much jaw, and his hair was too thick for styling, but he had that gloss of growing up wealthy and sure of himself. It had gotten Nate into more trouble than he could easily list over the years, since the first time a ten-year-old Maxwell had poked him in the ribs, grinned, and suggested they do something stupid. “C’mon, Nate. I know your ex did a number on you, but—”
It was the wrong thing to say. It was pretty much always the wrong thing to say.
“Fuck you, Max.”
He put the half-finished cup of coffee neatly down on the counter and stalked out. The bar staff gave each other “this is awkward” grimaces as he passed them. Nate scored out the mental note he’d made about their gratuity, even though he knew he’d back down on that before HR drew up their paychecks.
“Nate,” Max called after him. “Hold on, okay? I didn’t mean to…. Shit.”
The doors into the gardens swung shut behind Nate and cut off anything else Max wanted to say.
It would be fine. Later on Max would apologize and stand Nate one of the crappy, local craft beers he insisted on stocking. Nate would forgive him, because it wasn’t as though bringing up an ex was a good reason to properly fall out with someone. And he might not be a silver fox yet, but he was definitely too old to make a new best friend.
It wasn’t even Max that Nate was angry at anyhow. Or his ex. Despite what everyone seemed to think, he wasn’t pining for that asshole like some Cookson romance heroine.
He walked through the hotel’s small, elegant rose garden. The bride’s shoes were sitting on the edge of the fountain, sparkly silver and damp from dew. Nate left them there for a second and walked to the edge of the garden so he could look over the wall.
The view crashed straight down gray cliffs dotted with seagulls to the decorative, deceptive white slice of sandy beach far below. It was only the start of May and a few sunbathing bodies decorated the sand, while out in the bay, someone was trying to drag a sodden parasail out of the waves. Nate leaned his elbows on the stone, rubbed his eyes, and waited for the hot bubble of anger to sink back into the pit of his stomach.
He spent most of his days planning other people’s weddings. There was the occasional festival and the village fair, but it was mostly weddings. He listened to meet-cute stories, wrangled bridesmaids, vetted speeches, and occasionally pulled off the impossible. To his clients he was charming, supportive, and made sure that the couple got the day they’d dreamed about.
But the happiest day of his client’s life was just another Tuesday for him. When he went home, he wanted to take his suit off, eat leftover pizza, watch Fortitude or something equally miserable, and be a grumpy, single bastard in peace.
It wasn’t too much to ask.
Or he didn’t think so. Everyone else in his life seemed to think differently. His friends kept trying to set him up on blind dates—or blind fucks in Max’s case—and since her cancer diagnosis, his mother was obsessed with the idea that she was going to die before he found someone… and that he’d then die alone and be eaten by cats.
“DO YOU even have a cat?” Max asked.
It was eight hours later. Max was forgiven, Mary Sanders nee Black had her shoes back, and the beer tasted just as bad as Nate had expected. He slouched down on the sofa in Max’s office, one leg swung up over the worn leather arm.
“No.” Nate took a second sip of the beer, which claimed to be cranberry and rosehip flavored, in case the taste grew on you. If it did, it hadn’t so far.
Max kicked back in his office chair and put his feet up on the desk. A footstool was pretty much all he’d ever used the desk for. It wasn’t that he was lazy, but he’d never reacted well to being put somewhere and told to stay there. He couldn’t even talk on the phone unless he was moving, pacing out his conversations in laps of the bar. Why his dad had insisted on the office and then complained that Max was never in it, was beyond Nate.
“So,” Max said. He scratched his jaw with the base of his beer. “Does your mum think you’re going to turn into a crazy cat lady from loneliness? Or are cats just going to be drawn to your corpse from across the island once you’ve karked it?”
Nate shrugged. “No idea.” He kicked his foot absently, and his heel bounced off the side of the sofa. “Look, I knew it wouldn’t be easy having her come to live with me while she recuperated. But I thought it would be endless cups of tea and her constantly asking me ‘who’s that, then?’ in the middle of TV shows—not her obsessing about me getting married before she dies, which is apparently going to be any day now.”
That creased Max’s face into a frown, and he straightened up. The chair creaked under him as he shifted his weight. “Is she okay?” He sounded worried. “If Ally’s not feeling well, we should get her back to the hospital.”
Nate decided to blame the beer for the bad taste in the back of his throat. They weren’t kids anymore, and it was petty to be jealous that, in a lot of ways, Max got on better with Nate’s mother than he did. It wasn’t that Nate and his mum didn’t love each other—most of the time—it was just that Ally Moffatt and Max Saint John had all that “free-spirit, difficult relationships with their dads, think they know best for Nate thing” in common.
“Mum’s fine,” Nate said. “That’s the problem. Her brain used to be full of doctor’s appointments and drug regimes. Now she doesn’t have to worry about that, so she’s packed the space with paranoia and matchmaking.”
Max looked like that reassurance hadn’t put his mind entirely at ease, but he let it go. He gestured with the beer.
“C’mon, though. It’s not like she’s trying to make you marry a woman, and, I don’t know, study to be a divorce lawyer,” Max said. “She just wants you to be happy, and it’s not like you are.”
“I’m happy.” Nate tossed his hands in the air in frustration. Beer splashed out of the bottle and onto his wrist. It stained the cuff of his shirt, which only put him in a better mood, dammit. “I’m thrilled. I’m fucking ecstatic.”
“Yeah.” Max rocked back in the chair and folded his arms over his stomach with the bottle balanced on his belt buckle. His eyes glittered over his hook of a nose. “You really sound it.”
Nate rolled his eyes. “Okay. Not right now. Generally I’m fine. Right now, I’m just okay with my own company, you know?”
“You mean wanking?”
Max snorted his opinion. Nate ignored him and took another swig of beer. The taste was not getting any better the more time it spent on his tongue.
And yeah, he wanked. It wasn’t like he’d signed up for celibacy—although with his mother living there it felt like it sometimes—but that wasn’t the point. There wasn’t a point. Despite what people seemed to think, he hadn’t made any big decision about locking his balls away and joining the monkhood.
“Why is it always me, anyhow?” Nate asked. “How come no one is after you to settle down and adopt some deserving little buggers to carry on the family name?”
Max winced and crossed himself with the bottle. His eyes flicked piously upward. “He’s joking. Don’t listen.” He looked back at Nate. “Besides, the last guy my family met was twenty years younger than me, a semiprofessional fire-eater, and stole ten grand from me on his way out the door. My dad lives in fear of me getting attached to the losers I bang.”
“Did you ever get that money back?”
“Nope,” Max said. He scrubbed his hand through his hair, which was a feat considering how dense it was. “Never saw it or my dad’s respect again. The things that guy could do with his mouth, though? Worth it.”
Both of them knew that was a lie. They sat out the slightly uncomfortable opportunity to address it, letting the seconds drag out as they shifted and sighed and picked at the label of their beers. Then Max dragged his smirk back out from where it had sunk and made a crack about hot mouths. It was easy to fill the air with banter. They’d had thirty years of practice, and it left plenty of Nate’s brain to mull over his new idea.
He’d never had a really bad boyfriend. Yeah, Jamie had been a dick at the end, but that had just been… shitty boyfriend behavior. Not country-song bad. Maybe what Nate needed was for people to realize there were worse things for him than watching too much TV.
“Want another beer?” Max licked the last drips from the lip of the bottle.
Nate glanced at his. Somehow he’d managed to accidentally drink most of it. Only a third was left behind the murky orange glass.
“No. I still have to drive home.” He set the bottle down on Max’s unused desk, next to his friend’s kicked-up boots. “Also this tastes like shit.”
“Yeah. The rosehips added something weird to the profile.” Max swung his feet down, stood up, and stretched until things in his spine popped. He slung an arm around Nate’s shoulder and dragged him into a rough hug. “You know, if you don’t like me picking your dates? There’s a whole bar full of people that will be checking out in a couple of days. And they already have a room booked.”
Nate snorted and slung a reciprocal arm around Max’s neck. Twenty years on from the day it happened, and it still made him feel smug that he was taller.
“I have a big wedding party coming in next week. I want to get an early, sober start,” he said. “Besides, Mum would worry.”
Max laughed, told him to give Ally his love, and waved him off through the bar. On his way out through the hotel, nodding goodbye to the receptionist on duty as he crossed the marble-tiled entry, Nate wondered where he could find a bad boyfriend at short notice on an island.
Of course, when he put it like that, there was really only one choice.