I ENJOYED the afternoon visiting before my best friend’s four-day wedding extravaganza weekend for a full ten minutes before I saw her brother leaning against the bar, looking out of place and uncomfortable, talking with the groom-to-be.
“Oh my God, Char,” Tina Jacobs said from the other side of me. “How did you get your brother off that ranch of his on a Tuesday?”
I turned slowly to look at my friend Charlotte Holloway.
“Oh look.” She forced a smile. “Rand’s here. Isn’t that great, Stef?”
I just stared at her.
She smiled wider.
“Okay, fine,” she said sharply, because she felt guilty, and we both knew it. “I lied. My brother will in fact be at my wedding.” She grabbed my bicep tightly, making sure I couldn’t go anywhere. “But this weekend isn’t about you, it’s about me and Ben. You’re not here for fun; you’re here to keep us both sane.”
I shot her a look.
“Stefan Michael Joss,” she snapped, using my whole name, which she never did. “You will stop being annoyed this instant! This is my wedding, for crissakes!”
But she had sworn up, down, and sideways that her brother and I would not cross paths. If she had never brought it up, I would have prepared myself, but as it was, I thought he had to stay home and brand something or round something up or shoot something.
“Like I was really going to get married without Rand. How is that even possible? He’s the head of my family, Stef.”
Since when did she care?
“Use your head, Stef. We both know you didn’t actually think you were getting out of here without having to see Rand.”
But I had, because she had promised.
“He lives, like, an hour away, Stef. Did you seriously think he wasn’t going to come?”
“You promised me he was too busy to leave the ranch.” I repeated what she’d said to me over a month ago when I had been hedging.
“I lied, obviously.”
I arched an eyebrow for her.
“I’m sorry for lying, but you can’t leave. Your name is on the damn wedding program.”
She had a point. Two hundred had been printed, and they weren’t cheap. I knew because she had told me a thousand times—lots of handmade banana leaf paper and ribbon.
“And besides, you have that work thing tomorrow.”
I growled at her.
“Quit. I know you and Rand can be civil for the next four days. It won’t kill you.”
I wasn’t so sure.
Ten years ago, Charlotte Holloway had walked into my dorm room at Arizona State University and announced that she was my roommate. Since I was a boy and she was a girl, I had seriously doubted it. Coed dorms were one thing, coed rooms a whole different story. But when we compared sheets of paper, our room assignment was correct. The error was a clerical one, her name listed as Charles instead of Charlotte, but after an hour together, we both agreed that it was actually fate. We were destined to be friends, best friends. We fit seamlessly, and it felt like we’d known each other forever. When I told her I was gay, she told me that I couldn’t be any more perfect. By the time the admissions office discovered the mistake, we had already pooled our money and moved off campus together. Everything was sailing along great until Charlotte’s older brother came for a visit.
Rand Holloway had made the trip from a small town close to Lubbock, Texas to Tempe, Arizona to check on his little sister a month after she moved. Charlotte’s father was too busy running the ranch, so the task fell to Rand, the man who would someday be head of the family, to either give his approval or drag her home. I was cautioned to be on my best behavior, and I was prepared to be a saint. I was not, however, prepared for Rand Holloway. He walked into our apartment without even a knock of warning, and when I looked up, I had not been able to contain my gasp. I was young, only eighteen at the time, and there, standing in front of me, was easily the most beautiful man I had ever seen in my life.
He was tall, probably six-four, built like a swimmer with broad shoulders and a wide chest that narrowed to lean hips, and from the way his clothes clung to him, he was covered from head to toe in thick, corded muscle. His hair was so black it had blue highlights in it, and his eyes were a piercing turquoise blue, like the sky on a cloudless day. From the chiseled features to the bulging biceps to the way his jeans hugged his long, muscular legs and tight ass, he was utterly breathtaking, and I completely lost my power of speech. Unfortunately, he did not.
“So I guess you’re the fag, right?”
First words out of the man’s mouth and they set the tone for every interaction we’ve ever had from that moment on.
Charlotte had told her family that I was gay because she didn’t want them to worry about her roommate being a guy. Rand had come to check out Charlotte’s school, her living conditions, and, most of all, me. When I had looked over at my new roommate, I could tell she wanted to crawl under a rock and hide. But I wasn’t mad at her. She had merely been passing along information as if I had been black or red or green or blue, but her brother… her homophobic, cowboy, shitkicker, redneck, small-minded, small-town, prejudiced piece of crap brother, thought I was the Antichrist. It was written all over his face, from the scowl to his crossed arms to the disdain that I could feel radiating off him. He hated me simply because of who slept in my bed. It was stupid, and so was he. I gathered up my things and left until I knew he was gone. The worst part of all was that the man was hot. If he’d been ugly, if I hadn’t thought he was gorgeous before I knew he was an asshole, it would have been easier for me. As it was, there was guilt for initially thinking the enemy was glorious, mouthwatering perfection.
A year later, when Charlotte’s father died unexpectedly from a heart attack, I made the trip to Texas with her to hold her hand, tell her jokes, and just keep her sane. Rand wanted her home, but both she and her mother thought that the best place for her was in school. I was the one who finally told him off, telling him that what he wanted didn’t mean shit to anyone. His father, Charlotte’s father, James Holloway, had sent his daughter to school because he wanted what was best for her. Just because it would be easier for Rand if his sister went home didn’t mean she was going to go.
When he roared back at me that the tuition could no longer be paid, I told him that he didn’t have to worry. I would help my friend stay in school. I would get as many jobs as it took to make sure that she didn’t have to be stuck living anywhere near him and his narrow-minded view of the world. While Charlotte and her mother hugged and kissed me, Rand had stalked from the room like a wounded animal. It became clear that it wasn’t just gay men her brother had a problem with, it was also women who wanted to be more than housewives and mothers. And while Charlotte wanted a husband and lots of cute kids, she also wanted the job that a college education could provide.
As soon as we got back home to Tempe, my best friend got two jobs and I got another in addition to the one I already worked five nights a week. It was hard: sleep became a treat and not a given, but we paid her tuition plus our bills. When we both got promotions, we could actually go out again and do some drinking and dancing, even see the occasional movie. A year later, when Rand offered to start paying her tuition, as he had the ranch back to where it was making money, I took great pride in the fact that she said thanks, but no thanks. He called me on my cell phone to tell me to stop being such a self-righteous prick and pressuring his little sister into decisions she didn’t need to make. With Charlotte listening, I told him to go to hell. She had her own mind, and if she trusted me more than him, maybe that had more to do with him and less to do with me. It was a priceless moment when I got to hang up on him and not pick back up the other twelve times he called. Charlotte had dissolved into laughter watching me dance around the apartment.
Over the next two years, the animosity just escalated. When we graduated, I was sad because I would miss her, but the bright spot was that I would never be subjected to Rand Holloway again, nor the mandatory trips to Texas.
I didn’t go near the Lone Star State, and with Rand never leaving the ranch, my vacations with my friend were evil-free. I was not surprised when Charlotte called to tell me that Rand’s wife had left him after only a year of marriage. I had been more surprised over the news that he had gotten someone to marry him in the first place. She called me a jerk, but her new boyfriend Benjamin Cantwell had agreed with me. Rand wasn’t his favorite either.
Six months ago, Charlotte had asked me to show up for her mother’s sixtieth birthday party. The day afterward, the three of us—Char, Ben, and I—were flying out to Cancun to meet friends. When she told me we were going to the ranch, I was worried, but I figured it was only one day. What was the worst thing that could happen?
I was standing with Charlotte’s uncle Tyler, having a good time, asking him questions while he barbequed, when Rand came by. He told his father’s oldest brother not to waste his time talking to me because I wasn’t really listening anyway.
“I am, actually,” I had snapped at his retreating back.
“Bullshit,” he barked back at me, having wheeled around. “Stefan Joss never listens to anything anybody says.”
“No,” I said coolly, staring directly into his eyes. “I just don’t listen to you.”
The muscles in his jaw clenched, the veins in his neck corded, and his eyes narrowed. “Well, that’s certainly good to know.”
I shrugged, and he walked away without another word.
“You know—” The older man had chuckled, which brought my attention back to him, “I have never seen anyone get a rise out of Rand like that.”
“Sorry,” I said, ready to walk away.
He stopped me with a gentle hand on my arm. “No.” His smile was wide. “It was fun.”
“Yeah, it was,” I smirked at him, which sent him into choking laughter. I wasn’t the only one who thought that Charlotte’s big brother was an ass.
Later that night, Rand had stopped on his way into the house to say good night to his family and found me sitting between two of his uncles, drinking beer, talking, all three of us with our feet up on the railing of the porch. More of his cousins were crowded around us, everyone laughing. I was the only one without a cowboy hat on.
“You comfortable?” he asked snidely after he told everyone else he was heading up to bed, since some people had to get up early in the morning to work the ranch. “Think you’d still be if everybody knew?”
“Knew what? That I’m gay?” I asked him, grinning like crazy. “I dunno, maybe.”
Watching his face fall was priceless.
“Stef told us about that,” his uncle Lincoln told him. “I say what a man does in his own bed is his own business. Ain’t that right?”
“It’s just like a man that likes big women.” His uncle Tyler shrugged. “If that’s your taste, why not, I say.”
“He likes big girls,” Lincoln assured everyone, in case any of us had missed it.
Rand’s sky-blue eyes were locked on me as he spoke under his breath. “You’re lucky my family is full of open-minded, good-hearted—”
“Except you,” I cut in, then took a quick breath and smiled wide even as I saw his jaw clench. “No one ever accused you of being a good guy, huh?”
He pointed at me. “You’re a cocky piece of—”
“Aww, are you tired? Is that why we’re name-calling?”
If looks could kill, I would have been dead right there.
“Better get on up to bed, Mr. Holloway. We wouldn’t want you to be tired in the morning and be a dick or anything.”
“You know, one of these days you’re going to get yourself in a mess that—”
“Oh.” I waggled my eyebrows at him. “I love a good mess.”
Everyone laughed, and he stalked across the porch, fuming, fists clenched at his side.
“Stefan Joss, you cannot leave me!” The whispered threat brought me back from my wandering thoughts to Charlotte.
Who was she kidding? I would never, ever leave her.
I rolled my eyes, and she leaped into my arms, wrapping herself around me as tightly as she could.
“Uh-oh, look out. Your man’s coming,” I said, putting her down.
We both turned to see Benjamin Cantwell crossing the room to us. He was dodging people trying to talk to him, making sure he didn’t get caught in someone’s clutches, and finally broke into a jog to get to me. It was easy to see, by the way his eyes lit up and his pleased smile, that the man really liked me. I opened my arms for him, and he lunged at me. The hug was hard and hurt a little, so that way I knew it was real.
“You’re late,” he said when he let me go, shoving me away from him. “I was worried you weren’t coming until Thursday or something and by then my girl’d be a basket case.”
“Oh shut up,” she snapped, smacking him in the arm before moving to my side, leaning against me. “I’m perfectly fine.”
I kissed the top of her head as I squeezed her tight. “Aww, Char, you know I had to show. I mean, who else is gonna watch out for your man at all the strip clubs?”
She laughed, and it was deep and throaty, one of many things I loved about her. I gave her a last hug before I let her go and she went into Ben’s arms. She wrapped hers around his waist, and he anchored her there next to him.
“I was sorry to hear that your guy couldn’t make it, Stef,” Ben said softly, sympathizing.
I squinted at him. “What guy is this?”
“Oh.” He sounded surprised. “Um, Cody, right? Wasn’t that his name?”
“Oh, Ben, Cody is so six months ago.” Charlotte chimed in.
“Less,” I corrected her, “but yeah, he’s done.”
“Need a damn scorecard to keep up with these guys, Stef.”
“He’s just picky,” Charlotte defended me.
“So.” I squinted at her. “You were kidding on the phone, right?”
She deflated, and Ben gave her a sympathetic shoulder squeeze.
“It’s so awful,” she said, her eyes locked on mine. “The dress, the bridesmaid dresses… the tuxedos… Stef, it’s just… just….” She turned and looked up at Ben.
He squinted at me. “It’s bad. Wait’ll you see the tuxedo you’re wearing.”
When she had called, hyperventilating, to tell me that everything she had done in preparation for her wedding had been undone by her mother, her aunts, and her cousins, I had laughed on the phone. How bad could it really be?
But now, as I stood beside her in her room, staring at the atrocity hanging over the mirrored side of the armoire, I was speechless. I didn’t know a dress could have that much beading and lace and….
“What are those… rhinestones?”
“Yeah, I think so.”
“You see?” She waved at the dress.
“Huh,” I grunted again.
“Oh God,” she said, throwing herself down very dramatically across her bed.
“Maybe if we pull stuff off,” I offered, fingering the lace and brocade.
“Thank God you’re here,” she muttered into the comforter on the bed. “I can’t do this without you. Nobody gets me like you get me.”
“I know,” I said, because it was true, but also because it was an easy response and I was distracted. “I bet if the sun hit this just right you could, like, blind people.”
She groaned loudly.
“Whose dress was this again?”
“There’s a veil too.”
She lifted her head up off the bed so she could see me. “I’m sorry that you have to deal with the whole ‘man of honor’ thing, but if I had you stand with the groomsmen, it would have been a lie. You and Ben are friends, but Stef—you belong to me.”
“Yes, I do, you poor, dumb bitch.”
Her smile, with the dimples, was luminous.
Back downstairs in the living room of the enormous three-story bed and breakfast we were all staying at, Charlotte clutched my arm for dear life. I felt her fingers dig into my arm as a man and woman stepped in front of us, followed closely by a younger couple.
“Charlotte, is this your best friend that we’ve heard so much about?”
“Yes, Linda,” she said softly, leaning against me. “This is Stefan.”
I looked at Ben’s mom and smiled wide.
She caught her breath.
“Wow,” I said, offering her my hand. “Jesus, Char, you didn’t tell me she was hot.”
Charlotte squeaked her surprise as I yanked her soon-to-be mother-in-law into my arms and gave her a quick kiss before I hugged her tight.
She pressed against me, her fingers digging into my back.
“Hey.” Ben’s father laughed. “Give my wife back.”
I let her go but put my arm around her shoulders, holding her beside me as I looked down into her face. “Whaddya say—can we revisit the dress, Mom?” I asked softly, using the full weight of my arsenal, my voice and my face. Having been told constantly from a very young age that I was gorgeous, I knew I was. The blond hair, dark green eyes, and the permanent tan that I had been born with, all of it blended together made people stop and watch me walk by on the street. I took no credit for any of it—it was just genetics, after all—but I used it to my advantage when I had to, and I had to get that dress altered.
Ben’s mother giggled and wrapped her arms around my waist. “Yes, darling, whatever you want.”
“Oh my God,” Charlotte breathed out on the other side of me.
“Hello there,” Mr. Cantwell said, smiling at me, extending his hand. “It’s a pleasure, Stefan. My girl’s face lights up every time she says your name.”
“Yessir, I know,” I said, smiling at him, taking his hand, gripping it firmly. Nice that he was calling his soon-to-be daughter-in-law “his girl.”
“I know this was a long way to come, but Charlotte said you would do anything for her and Ben,” he said, his eyes warm as he stared at me.
“Yes sir, absolutely.”
He liked me. It was there in his twinkling eyes and the firmness of the handshake. He liked that I appreciated his wife’s beauty and that his son was already important to me.
“Tell me all about yourself. What is it you do, Stefan?”
Before I could open my mouth to speak, Charlotte answered for me.
“Stef’s an acquisitions manager at Chaney and Putnam. It’s a real estate holding firm.”
“Oh.” Mr. Cantwell chuckled. “Well then… maybe I can talk to you about some land I’m thinking of purchasing, get your thoughts.”
“Absolutely,” I assured him.
He nodded, then let out a deep breath before turning to his right. “Let me introduce the rest of my family.”
I met Ben’s sister, Renee, and her husband, Stuart, and was then taken outside on the enormous patio and introduced to her grandparents and all her extended family. Aunts, uncles, cousins—I met everyone, Ben’s mother Linda never relinquishing my hand, Charlotte never leaving me either, her body molded to my side. When the music started, I took the bride-to-be to the dance floor and into my arms. When she started to cry, I scooped her up and spun her around until she started laughing.
“Oh God,” she groaned suddenly a few minutes later.
“Look, it’s the angel of death.”
I followed her gaze and saw Ben standing with Nick and Clarissa Towne.
“You know, I seriously thought about not marrying the man because of his best friend.”
“Are you kidding?” She shot me a look. “You know why. The guy’s an idiot.”
“Well, Ben’s probably not thrilled that your best friend is gay.”
“Ben couldn’t care less. You know why?”
“I’m afraid to ask.”
“You are not a total pig like Nick Towne.”
“He’s not that bad.”
She gave me a look.
“I hesitate to even ask.”
“He asked Ben if he had to marry me. Had to marry me, Stef, had to.”
I just smiled at her.
“Like the only way I can get Ben Cantwell is if he knocks me up.”
“Well, his family is very rich.”
She smacked me really hard.
“Shit,” I groaned, rubbing my arm.
“He’s an ass.”
“Stop,” I teased.
“And his wife,” she moaned. “My God, my desk at work is more animated than she is.”
“God, you’re a bitch,” I said, grabbing her hand and dragging her after me off the dance floor.
I raised a hand, and Clarissa saw me. Instantly, her head tilted to the side as her smile made her eyes sparkle.
“Holy shit,” Charlotte breathed out.
“See,” I said over my shoulder. “She shines.”
“Only when she sees you, Stef. Just like everybody else.”
I let go of Charlotte’s hand as I reached Clarissa, and she leaped at me. We hugged tightly, and she buried her face in my shoulder.
“It’s so good to see you,” she said, inhaling me.
“You, too, sweetheart.” I smiled into her hair.
I let her hold me until she was ready to let go. When she did, I held out my hand to her husband and Ben’s best man, Nick Towne, and he pulled me into the guy clench and patted my back hard. His face showed his ease in my presence.
I turned to Ben. “What?”
He just looked at me.
“Nothin’.” He smiled at me after a minute. “Look,” he said as he raised his chin.
I heard my name before I even had time to turn. Charlotte’s mother, May Holloway, was crossing the room, looking very uncomfortable until I waved. She stopped, and I went to her. There were arms held out waiting for me. A half an hour later, as I took a break from dancing, flopping down in the seat beside Ben at the end of the long table, I felt a hand trailing through my hair. When I lifted my head, I found Charlotte. She was looking at me oddly.
“You’re amazing, you know.”
I arched an eyebrow for her, and she snorted out a laugh.
“Classy,” Ben teased her.
“I just… you made Ben’s mom say yes to altering my dress, you made me see a totally different side of Nick and our parents… I mean, look at them over there,” she said, staring across the room. “You’d think they were old friends instead of meeting today for the very first time. It’s all working out.”
I was glad.
“And what started it all?”
“I have no idea,” I yawned, folding my arms on top of the table and laying my head down. Six hours on a plane after pulling an all-nighter at work the previous day was taking its toll on me. Not to mention the copious amount of alcohol I had downed.
“You idiot.” She bumped my side. “You took Ben’s folks over to my mom, and since everyone is crazy about you, they were all so open and receptive. It was awesome.”
“Okay,” I placated.
She pinched my side, but I didn’t even flinch.
“God, Stef,” she said, running her hand down my torso. “Feel that stomach under that shirt; it’s hard as a rock.”
“Not fair,” Kristin Barnes, one of her bridesmaids, said from the other side of the table. “If you’re over there feeling Stefan up, then we should all get a turn.”
“Well, then, come here.”
“Kris, leave him alone,” Ben ordered even as he made room for two other girls on either side of me.
“You’re a big help,” I told him.
There were hands in my hair, under the back of my shirt, on my chest, my biceps, and Kristin’s fingers sliding over my eyebrows. I was drowning in women.
“Holy shit, Char.” Someone laughed. “Your best friend is gorgeous.”
“I know.” She laughed. “I’ve been telling him since freshman year. With those eyes and that hot body, he could have whoever he wants.”
“Oh, most definitely,” Kristin chimed in. “The boy is smokin’ hot.”
I arched a brow for her, and she dissolved into giggles.
“Do you dye your hair, Stefan?”
Before I could answer, Charlotte did.
“No, honey, that’s all natural. The gold tan, the dark green eyes, the dirty blond hair, that’s all him. He looks like that every day when he first rolls out of bed in the morning. The only thing he works at is the body, and he doesn’t work that hard, let me assure you.”
“Hey,” I protested. “My gym workouts are exhausting.”
“Please.” She put up her hand. “An hour a day out of your life is nothing, Joss.”
“I think he’s right, Char,” Kristin agreed. “I mean, there are washboard abs here; I’m thinking he works hard.”
“Oh yeah, lemme see.”
“Enough.” Ben laughed, getting up and shooing all the girls away, taking a seat beside me. “Y’all should be ashamed of yourselves, groping a gay man. The boy ain’t even enjoyin’ it. Go grope Rand, he’s straight.”
“Oh, I would love to get my hands—” Alison Ford, another bridesmaid, began.
“Gross,” Charlotte groaned.
“Or my mouth,” Kristin added, “on that man.”
“Oh God, that’s so disgusting.”
“He’s your brother, that’s why,” someone else said. “But Char, the man is absolutely edible.”
“Yeah, but he’s way too serious and dark to mess with.”
“‘Brooding’ is a good word.”
They were all talking at once, and I just smiled. I loved girls. They were so much fun.
“And he always looks mad,” another voice suggested.
“But so hot.”
“Any of us would do him, Char, but he seems… angry.”
“Really angry,” Kristin agreed. “Which is why even when he looks like that, I wouldn’t go near that man on a bet.”
There was a chorus of agreement from the table.
“Which is why we love Stef,” another of the bridesmaids put in. “He’s beautiful and sexy and the sweetest guy I’ve ever met in my life.”
“He’s not broken, he’s healthy.”
“If you weren’t gay,” Alison said, “you’d belong to me, Stefan Joss.”
“Bullshit,” Kristin assured her. “He’d be mine.”
“You’re all high; I would have married him in college if he was straight.”
“Pardon me?” Ben interrupted, and the table dissolved into laughter.
“Oh honey,” Charlotte soothed him, getting up to take a seat in his lap.
“Get off me,” he grumbled, much to everyone’s delight.
When all the girls kissed me before getting up to go mingle, I turned my head to Ben.
He let out a snort of laughter. “I wouldn’t be you on a bet.”
I smiled at him as his hand rested between my shoulder blades.
“And thanks for being good to Nicky. I know he ain’t your favorite guy, but he’s not a dick like Rand either.”
“But if you give him a chance, then so will Char, and that’s the truth.”
“Sure,” I yawned, rubbing my eyes hard. “I think I’m gonna go up and unpack and maybe lay down for a while until the bachelor party. I don’t wanna pass out later.”
“Bachelor party is tomorrow night, buddy. Tonight is just all of us goin’ out honky-tonkin’.”
“Do you have boots?”
“And a hat?”
“I’ll just sit and drink, how’s that?”
He nodded, smiling wide. “Sounds like a good plan,” he agreed, and I felt his hand slip off me. “I’ll get you up in time to eat in case you really pass out.”
I nodded and rose up out of my chair, looking down at my friend. “I really am happy to be here, you know.”
“I know.” He smiled up at me. “And I appreciate it too.”
I squeezed his shoulder before I started for the grand staircase. Almost there, I was suddenly faced with Rand Holloway. I waited for the attack.
I crossed my arms.
Seconds ticked by.
His Technicolor blue eyes darkened.
“Jesus, what?” I finally asked, already exasperated.
“This is your greeting.”
“You’re the one standing there not saying a word.”
He nodded, and I threw up my hands, slipping around him to the stairs. I took them in threes and made it to the landing and around the corner.
Rand was one of those guys who called everyone by their last name. I hated it because it had always seemed like such macho bullshit. I turned at my door and watched him jog down the hallway to me.
“Listen,” he said, stopping in front of me. “I just want to call a truce for the next few days, all right? I’ve got enough on my mind without having to fight with—”
“Great, perfect,” I cut him off. “You stay clear of me, and I’ll do the same.”
His eyes searched mine, and as always I thought how beautiful they were. No matter my feelings for the man, he was, without a doubt, stunning. Just the Caribbean blue eyes were enough to melt me into a puddle on the floor. To say the man was hot was an understatement.
He turned and left without a backward glance.
I flipped him off because I felt like it. That he had missed it because his back was turned really wasn’t the point.
Inside my room, I shed my jacket and fell down on the huge four-poster bed. It was nice that Charlotte’s uncle Lincoln had volunteered his business to house the wedding party. I hated big hotels, since I traveled so much with my job. Being at a nice, quiet, charming B&B was a treat. As I closed my eyes, I wondered who had put Rand up to making nice with me. I would have to ask Charlotte if it was her when I woke up after my nap… later.