ONE

 

“ARE YOU happy?”

It was a simple question. Should have been a simple answer. So why was it still rattling around in Peter’s head an hour after Adam had asked it? And why did his insides squirm uncomfortably every time he thought about it? Of course he was happy. Wasn’t he?

He rinsed his hands under the bathroom faucet and chanced a final glance in the mirror. The man staring back at him certainly didn’t look happy.

You’re a sad fucking case these days, Peter Georgiou, he thought tiredly, taking in the dark circles beneath his eyes and the retreating hairline that even the closest shave couldn’t disguise. His lungs grew tight, and he quickly averted his eyes before he looked too deeply and saw something he’d rather not see.

Peter cupped his hands beneath the water, letting it spill through his fingers before bending to splash his overheated face. He struggled to recall a time when he hadn’t felt this weight on his chest, but if it had ever existed, it must have been long ago. Before he knew what expectations were. What had happened to the boy who was going to get away and see the world? Be his own man?

He straightened and flicked his wet fingers at the mirror, shattering his reflection with droplets. With a sigh he reached for the nearby hand towel to dry it off. His image blurred for a second and then crystalized again as the water evaporated. He made a face and then looked away. Ugh. He shouldn’t have had that last beer. He was a gloomy drunk to begin with, but tonight he was more morose than usual.

When had it all started to go wrong? With his dad’s heart attack? When Elena ended their engagement? Or was it before that, even?

The sounds of laughter filtered up to the second floor through the floorboards of the old house. The party was winding down, but a few stragglers still hung on in the living room, having moved inside after darkness settled in and brought the mosquitos with it. Peter wondered if he could slip out without anyone noticing. Then he remembered he had no way to get home without Julian, unless he called a cab.

He was reaching for the door handle when voices drifted through the open window, too low to hear the words but loud enough for him to recognize the speakers. Curious, Peter crept to the window and squinted into the shadows. The bathroom overlooked the narrow backyard, and sound drifted easily. Through the fluttering streamers and paper bells stretching over the deck, two familiar figures moved about below, illuminated by the glow from the kitchen.

Adam hopped up to perch on the deck railing, facing the house as Joe filled a garbage bag with the litter from earlier in the evening. After a mumbled comment, Joe set down his bag and moved to stand between Adam’s splayed knees, his back turned toward Peter, his hands seeking out Adam’s hips. As Peter watched from his secret vantage point, Adam wrapped his arms around Joe’s neck and leaned down to kiss him.

It was slow and tender, and Peter’s stomach hollowed.

His best friends rarely displayed this side of their relationship in public. They’d always been affectionate with each other—Joe was a chronic hugger—even when they were only friends, so once they’d gone beyond that, not much had changed. Unless you happened to notice the way they looked at each other, or the way they finished each other’s sentences, or how one would know what the other wanted without him saying a word.

Peter did his best not to notice.

There was enough light from the house to see Joe’s hand slide up Adam’s pale thigh and under the leg of his shorts. Peter’s breath hitched. His groin filled with a slow heat.

Adam’s husky protest rose upward. “Stop. We’re not alone.”

Joe mumbled something and turned his dark head into the curve of Adam’s neck. His wandering hand kept wandering, rucking Adam’s shorts nearly up to his hip. Adam’s fingers slid into Joe’s curls, tipping his head back.

Peter knew he should look away, give them their privacy, but some perverse instinct made him keep watching. His hand went to his fly, and he rubbed himself through his jeans.

Joe’s deep chuckle made the hair on his arms stand up. Did Joe ever think about that night in their sophomore year of college? Did he even remember? They had both been pretty wasted at the time. Joe had been drowning his sorrows about something, and Peter… well, Peter had been basking in the attention of his new friend. It had been nothing more than a drunken fumble, but he had never been able to completely escape the memory of Joe’s warm, cuddly body against his, the pull of those full lips and the scrape of stubble on his cheek.

Peter’s cock swelled. He snatched his hand away. Jesus. What kind of creep got off on watching his best friends making out?

He spun away from the window and escaped the bathroom before he crossed a line. But as he went down the stairs, Peter let himself wonder what would have happened if he hadn’t been so scared and uptight in college. Would this be his house now? Would that be him down below with a big warm hand on his leg and someone who loved him?

No. In his heart he knew Adam and Joe were always destined to be together. He, on the other hand, would have torn his family apart for nothing.

He’d done the right thing.

Deciding he was not nearly drunk enough for this level of introspection, Peter headed straight for the kitchen, grabbed another beer out of the well-stocked fridge, twisted off the cap with a practiced turn of his wrist, and downed half the bottle in one gulp.

“Slow down there, tiger.” Joe’s younger sister Maria snickered as she entered. “Save some for the rest of us.” The diamond on her ring finger caught the light as she squeezed his arm for old time’s sake and then reached around him to open the fridge. She pulled out two bottles and held them out for him to open.

“Don’t you have a fiancé for this?” he asked as he obliged, knowing full well Kevin was in the other room.

“Oh, is that what he’s for?” A wicked grin crossed her lips. She still wore the paper-plate hat festooned with ribbons and bows from the shower gifts, although now it tilted precariously to one side. Peter straightened it on her abundant curls. He could hardly believe little Maria Massone was getting married in a couple of months. It seemed like only yesterday that she’d been throwing herself at him every time he hung out at Joe’s apartment: a nineteen-year-old nuisance in tight tittie-hugging sweaters who bathed in vanilla-scented perfume and constantly flipped her hair, trying to catch his attention. Where had the time gone? Everyone was pairing up except him.

“I’ve hardly seen you all night,” she said. “Please tell me I’ve broken your heart and you’re hiding in here because you can’t bear to see me marrying someone else.”

“It’s true. You’ve got me.”

She gazed at him thoughtfully and then shook her head. “Boy, I bet I was a real pain in your ass all those years. It’s so embarrassing.”

“More like Joe’s ass. He’s the one who had to watch his little sister fawn all over me. Me? I didn’t mind so much.” He gave her a flirtatious wink.

“What?” she shrieked. “You mean I actually had a chance?”

Peter held a hand to his heart. “Alas, our love was never meant to be.”

“Oh, hell no. You go distract Joe. I’ll get the car. Let’s elope.”

“Your fiancé might have something to say about that.”

She wrinkled her nose playfully. “Oh right. Him.”

“We’ll just have to be strong and resist this.”

“You’re such a tease, Peter Georgiou,” Maria groaned. “I pity your future wife.”

Peter held up his beer and they clinked bottles. “Look on the bright side. It all worked out in the end. Kevin seems like a great guy.”

“He is.”

“Hey,” he began, “are you happy?”

“What kind of question is that? Of course I’m happy. I’m getting married in eight weeks to the man of my dreams.”

“Spoken like a woman who’s besotted.”

“I am.” She beamed. “I really am. Speaking of besotted, where is Demetra anyway? I was looking forward to meeting her. Didn’t she want to come?”

“She’s at home with a migraine.” Demetra had promised to help get him through tonight but had called him at the last minute to beg off. With the way he was feeling, he was almost relieved she hadn’t made it. He would have been terrible company. She hated it when he got depressed and down in the dumps.

Maria’s eyes narrowed. “Hmm, are you sure this phantom girlfriend of yours isn’t a last ditch attempt to make me jealous?”

Peter pulled out his phone and called up the photos he kept there. He flashed her one of him and Demetra—the one he always trotted out in cases like this because he looked less miserable than usual. “See? No phantoms.”

“Cute,” Maria commented. “She’s a little young for you, though, isn’t she?”

God, even Maria had noticed his options were running out. He wanted to tell her it wasn’t his fault all the acceptable—read Orthodox—women his own age were already married with children. If Demetra didn’t work out, who knew what his mother would do. She’d likely ship a child bride over from Greece. Maybe she already had one waiting. Peter shrugged. “Only five years.”

“You’re bringing her to the wedding?”

“Of course.”

“Cool. I’ll meet her then. Come and hang with us.” Maria hooked her arm through his and dragged him into the living room before he could protest. Most of Joe and Maria’s large Italian family had departed earlier, and now only the under-thirty-five crowd was left.

It was all couples, which he now remembered was what had driven him to the sanctuary of the bathroom in the first place. He supposed that was to be expected at a unisex wedding shower. It wouldn’t have been so bad if Demetra had made it, but as the only single male, he felt like the last of his kind.

Maria plunked him down next to her on the corner of the couch and then immediately cuddled up to her fiancé, who sat on her other side. Sharing the chair to his right were Julian and Sara, clearly overjoyed to have a night out without their one-year-old son and seeming in no hurry to leave. Kevin’s older brother and his pregnant wife, whom he’d met for the first time tonight, lounged on the floor, eagerly listening to Maria’s description of her bridal bouquet. Adam and Joe were still MIA.

Peter’s rebellious dick stirred at the thought of what they might be doing out there. He crossed his legs and tried sending Julian a telepathic message it was time to leave. When Sara asked him to get her another glass of wine, he knew he was in for a long wait.

Jesus, when had he become the last singleton among them?

He never should have come tonight. Especially not solo.

When the talk suddenly turned to breastfeeding, Peter decided he’d reached his breaking point. He casually stood up as if he was going for his own refill, and slipped out the front door.

Outside, he breathed deeply. He sat down on the painted wooden steps and nursed his beer. Of course, Adam and Joe had the perfect front porch to go with their quaint little house. How long before they started having kids too? Once that happened, he would definitely be left behind. He cast a hopeful glance over his shoulder through the screen door. Surely Julian and his wife would want to head out soon. Didn’t they have a babysitter on the clock? He grimaced at the thought of squeezing into the backseat again, squished up against the baby’s car seat, but they were his ride home. A cab would cost him almost forty bucks—forty bucks he didn’t really have.

He closed his eyes and leaned against the hand rail. As soon as he finished this drink, he would go, with or without them. He had dropped into a light doze when the door opened.

Adam sat down beside him on the top step. “Okay, what’s going on with you?” he asked directly.

“What are you talking about?” Peter felt his face heat in the darkness as he blinked the sleep from his eyes and tried not to think about what he’d seen his friend doing earlier.

Adam snatched the beer bottle out of his hand and moved it out of reach. “I’m talking about this. You look like hell, Peter.”

Peter scratched self-consciously at his unshaven jaw. “I was off today.”

“The beard is the least of your worries. It’s the drinking I’m worried about….”

“It’s a party. I’m supposed to be drinking.”

“It’s a wedding shower, not a kegger. And don’t pretend like this is the first time. It’s becoming a regular thing with you.”

When Peter remained silent, Adam pressed harder. “Talk to me. You haven’t been acting like yourself. I’m worried about you.”

“Gee, I’m flattered you still care. What would you know, Adam? You’re hardly around anymore.” Adam’s wounded expression, highlighted by the front porch light, made him immediately contrite. It wasn’t Adam’s fault that he had fallen in love. Peter ran a hand over his own bare scalp. He really shouldn’t have had that last drink. If he wasn’t careful, he would soon be sitting in a corner blubbering. “I’m sorry. I don’t know what I’m saying anymore. I think… I think I’m just jealous.”

“Of?”

“I don’t know. What you have?”

“A clingy boyfriend who snores and hogs the covers? Please, take mine.”

Peter snorted a laugh. As if Adam would ever in a million years let Joe go. As if Peter would ever be brave enough to take him.

He heaved a sigh. “Things are changing, Adam. It used to be the three of us.”

“It still is the three of us.”

“No, it’s you two and then me.” Peter cringed. If his pop heard him now, he’d be horrified. “God, I’m acting like such a girl, aren’t I?”

“Maybe you’re right,” Adam surprised him by saying. “We have been kind of wrapped up in the house. And Joe with his man-of-honor duties.”

It was more than the house, or Maria’s wedding, but Peter held his tongue this time. He’d been a third wheel forever.

Adam gave him a nudge. “What are you doing next weekend?”

“The same thing I do every weekend. Friday and Saturday nights I work at the diner.” He’d had to beg Pop to let him have tonight off.

“Let’s do something Saturday afternoon, then.”

Great. Peter cringed inwardly. Now Adam pitied him. “Don’t worry about it. I’ll probably be hanging with Demetra anyway.”

“Oh. Things still going well with you two?”

Peter shrugged. He said what he always said. “She’s a great girl. Smart. Attractive. Ma loves her. She’s actually been off my back for once.”

“But?” Adam coaxed.

He struggled to find the words to express his thoughts. Demetra wasn’t the problem. He was. Damn Adam and his trick questions. Happy? Who the hell was happy these days?

Adam didn’t get it. No one got it. The pressure on Pete’s chest increased, like someone had fastened a belt around his rib cage and was slowly tightening it another notch. Everyone was moving forward with their lives, and he was standing still. No, going backward, since he was thirty-two and still living in his parents’ basement.

“She has a problem with us, doesn’t she?”

Peter snapped out of his thoughts. “What?”

“I mean you’ve been dating for what, three months now, and we still haven’t met her.”

He coughed. “You’ve got it all wrong. Demetra’s not like that.”

“Then maybe you’re the one who doesn’t want us to meet her.”

Peter’s gut clenched. “Jesus, Adam. It’s only been a few months.”

“But if she doesn’t make you happy—”

“Not everyone finds their soulmate,” Peter snapped, then immediately wished he kept his mouth shut.

“Have you ever thought you might be looking in the wrong place?”

He froze in alarm. What was that supposed to mean?

“I know your folks are pushing you to marry a Greek girl,” Adam continued, “but maybe you should expand your horizons.”

Peter breathed a sigh of relief. Adam only meant he should date outside his neighborhood. “I don’t think that would go over too well.”

“It’s the twenty-first century, Pete.”

“Not in my house it’s not.” For nearly thirty-two years Peter had lived in his parents’ house, under his parents’ rules. He’d been a baby when they moved to this country; it was all he’d ever known, but he might as well have still been living in the village his mother grew up in. As a kid, he’d jealously watched the other boys playing road hockey on Saturday mornings while he went to Greek school. He’d endured the humiliation of Greek dancing classes, marching in the annual Greek Independence Parade, and now, the ultimate disgrace of having his mother fix him up with marriage-worthy women.

“Hey, hey. Break it up.” Joe squeezed in between them on the top step, jamming Peter up against the railing with a grunt. He draped his left arm possessively over Adam’s shoulders. “What’s with the long face? C’mere and tell Papa Joe all about it.” Hooking his right arm around Peter’s neck, he brought him in for a hug. In Joe’s world, a hug solved every problem—big or small.

“Ugh, that’s creepy,” Peter protested, but he was too drunk to resist the pull for long. At least that’s what he told himself as he let Joe’s warmth lull him. “Adam’s trying to sell you to the highest bidder, you know.”

“He’s just mad because now that he finally got up the nerve to propose, he has to wait.”

Peter jerked upright. Joe’s arm fell from his shoulder. “Propose?” He felt like someone had just kicked him in the balls.

“Don’t say anything,” Adam cautioned. “We’re not telling anyone until after Maria’s wedding. We don’t want to take away from her celebration.”

“Yeah. That’s… that’s great,” he said weakly. “I’m happy for you.” For a second his vision blurred.

“Doesn’t really sound like it,” Joe commented.

Peter pretended not to see Adam elbow Joe in the ribs. That was it, then. Peter had never felt more alone. “Ever wish you could go back and change your life?” he asked suddenly.

“All the time.”

Joe answered so quickly Peter swung his head around in surprise. “What would you do?”

“Not wait eighteen years to tell Adam how I felt.”

There it was again. That unwanted stab of jealousy. Peter swallowed hard when Adam rested his hand affectionately on Joe’s knee. Joe covered it with his own and twined their fingers. Peter looked away. This was not helping his situation.

“Why?” Joe prompted. “What would you do over?”

“Christ, where do I start?” he muttered under his breath. Stop talking, Peter. Just shut the fuck up. “You know what? Ignore me. I’m wasted. I don’t know what the hell I’m saying.” He tried to stand up but Joe grabbed the tail of his shirt and pulled him back down.

“Spill,” he ordered. But Peter remained stubbornly tight-lipped.

“This is about Elena, isn’t it?”

“Huh?” Peter started at the mention of his ex-fiancée. “Where did that come from?”

“You’re the one talking about do-overs….”

“It’s been two years since she got married. Almost four since we broke up.”

Joe rubbed the back of Peter’s neck affectionately. “It’s okay to have regrets, Pete, but you can’t let them control your life. You keep waiting for everything to come to you. Once in a while you’ve got to go out and get it yourself.”

“Oh my God, you’re unreal. I am not still hung up on Elena,” he insisted. But maybe it did all come back to Elena. She’d been the last good thing in his life, and he’d let her go. He shook off the uncomfortable thought. “Hey, no offense, but I’m not taking life advice from either of you. May I remind you how long it took you to figure out you wanted each other?” He rose unsteadily to his feet and fumbled in his front pocket for his phone. “I should go. Will you let Julian and Sara know I left?”

“Why don’t you crash here tonight?”

Peter’s heart jumped in alarm. That’s all he needed. More time with Adam and Joe. “Nah, I’ve got church in the morning, and then I’m working the lunch shift.”

“Then I’ll drive you home,” Adam offered. “Or we can call you a cab.”

He waved aside both suggestions. What was the point of a girlfriend if you couldn’t count on her to help you out? Besides, maybe Joe was right. He needed to make more of an effort. “I’ll see if Demetra’s feeling better. She can pick me up.” Peter had his phone out and the number dialed before Adam could talk him out of it.

It took her a long time to answer. When she did, she sounded none too pleased. He hoped she hadn’t been trying to sleep. “Peter? Hey. I thought you were at that party.”

“I am.” Joe and Adam were watching him carefully. He stumbled to the far end of the porch and lowered his voice. “How’s the headache?”

“Oh. It’s a little better.”

“Good.” Peter heard a man’s voice in the background and frowned. “Is someone there with you?”

“It’s just Louie.” Right. Demetra’s older brother had returned to the city and was staying with her and her parents until he found a place of his own. He’d briefly met the man last week. “Why are you calling?”

“I, uh, wondered if you could pick me up.”

“Peter,” she sighed. “Are you drunk?”

“I’m trapped. My ride’s not ready to leave.” Silence. Peter struggled to stave off the sudden pressure behind his eyes. “Please, Demetra.”

He heard the sound of muffled voices in the background as Demetra covered the phone speaker. “Fine,” she relented. “Give me a few minutes, okay? And send me the address.”

“Great. Thanks, I—” She hung up before he could finish. He turned back to Adam and Joe, who still sat on the step, and forced his lips into a smile. “Looks like you’ll get to meet Demetra after all.”