Chapter One

 

 

“KENDALL, I can’t believe you suggested this,” Roman Capanelli groused, pacing through the apartment, trying not to explode from excess nervous energy.

“You agreed to it,” Kendall said levelly from where he sat on the sofa. “You talked to Malik yesterday morning.” Kendall stood up and walked into the kitchen, where he poured three glasses of wine. He pressed one into Roman’s hand as he passed, and then handed the other to his partner, Johnny, before settling next to him. “It isn’t that bad an idea. You’re getting married, so spending two days before the wedding apart is rather romantic.”

“It seemed so at the time,” Roman said and took a gulp of the wine, grateful it was afternoon. “I’m nervous.”

“You have no reason to be. You’ve choreographed this wedding tighter than one of your shows,” Kendall soothed. Roman was one of the most talented and gifted choreographers on Broadway. He’d first worked on one of Kendall’s shows years ago, when Kendall was in the chorus and Roman, a lowly assistant. They’d become friends and gotten closer over the years. Their paths still crossed professionally from time to time, but it was their friendship that glued the two of them together.

“Relax and sit down,” Johnny said. “It’s just nerves. You’ve planned the ceremony and thought of everything possible. You simply need to relax now and enjoy it.” Johnny pulled Kendall to him, and Roman wished Malik were there to do the same thing and let him know everything would be all right. “The wedding is going to be beautiful, and you know it.” Kendall got up, walked to the chair Roman had settled in, and sat on the wide arm. “Today is your and Malik’s day,” Johnny continued. “At work, you make your dancers and music come alive with your talent while you watch from the wings. Not today. The stage is yours, and you need to forget about everything else and have fun.”

Roman took another drink of wine.

“Besides, you can believe Malik is just as nervous,” Kendall said with a grin. “But in a few hours, it won’t matter. He’ll be there in his tuxedo, you’ll take his hand, and that will be the end of it.” He actually sighed like a teenage girl and then batted his eyelashes before laughing. “Go ahead and finish your wine. There’s something light to eat in the kitchen, and then we should get dressed.”

Roman nodded and drank a bit more. He wasn’t hungry, but he forced down a few bites from the plate Kendall made for him. He dealt with nerves and preperformance jitters every day. But this was different because it was his show, his wedding, and he wanted everything to be perfect for him and Malik to officially start their life together.

They were still working through logistics. They both had great apartments in the city and had only recently decided they were going to live together in Roman’s. Malik’s had a great view of midtown, but Roman’s was closer to where they worked, and it was in a much quieter section of the city. There was even a possibility they would be able to buy the apartment in a year or two, so they’d made their choice. Granted, the decision had taken a long time for both of them, mostly because neither of them wanted to disappoint the other. So after the wedding, they planned to make the final moving arrangements together, and in a month, they were booked on a twelve-day Caribbean and Central American cruise. By that point, Roman figured, he and Malik would be happily settled into their life together. He smiled at the thought.

“Come on, bride-to-be,” Kendall teased, pulling him out of his ruminations.

“Har har,” Roman retorted as he smiled.

“Johnny is in our bedroom getting ready. The bathroom is all yours, and your tux is hanging in the guest bedroom closet.” Kendall was like a mother hen, which was one of the reasons Roman loved him. He’d refused to let Roman sit at home and dwell on everything that was going to happen. He and Johnny had picked him up yesterday and dragged him out to a club, and they’d celebrated his last night of bachelorhood. Thankfully no strippers had been involved, just a quiet evening with his close friends that Roman would remember for a long time.

He set his half-touched plate on the counter, went into the guest room, and grabbed his kit. Then he spent the next fifteen minutes making sure everything was perfect. He shaved, even though he’d done it a few hours earlier, and then lightly gelled his hair so it would stay. Once he was satisfied, Roman gathered all his things and returned to the bedroom. He stripped off his clothes and started with clean, fresh everything. He intended to spend the night dancing with his new husband, so he wanted everything to be special. He pulled on his tuxedo pants and shirt, but he needed help with his cuff links. He stuck his head out of the bedroom and caught Johnny, who helped him with the cuff links, and then Roman tied his red tie, put on his matching cummerbund, and slipped on his jacket.

He checked himself in the full-length mirror, made a few adjustments, and then sat on the edge of the bed to put on his shoes and socks. Then he checked one last time. He looked perfect, and Roman was sure Malik looked just as good in his tux.

“Come in,” Roman said when he heard a soft knock.

Kendall opened the door and walked inside. “Are you ready?” Kendall checked him over with a critical eye, and then they left the bedroom.

“The flowers are at the park, so all we need to do is make sure we get there on time,” Johnny said, peering out the front window. “The carriage is pulling down the street.” Johnny let the drapes fall back into place. Kendall checked that everything had been put away, and they left the apartment.

The white carriage pulled by a jet-black horse was waiting by the sidewalk, and they all climbed in and settled. The driver checked that they were set, and then they began to move. The summer afternoon was glorious as they rode toward Central Park. As soon as they entered what New Yorkers considered their collective backyard, they passed under dense shade trees. Almost instantly, it was like the sounds of the city fell away. Roman could still hear them, but he didn’t really care—it was unimportant.

“I love these carriages,” Kendall said as they rode down the main park road. “Johnny took me for a ride in one on one of our first dates.” Roman saw the couple move closer together. After the ceremony, he and Malik would be able to snuggle, and maybe make out a little on their way to the reception.

“Malik took me on one too. That’s why I set this up,” Roman said.

“Is he arriving in his own carriage?” Johnny asked.

Roman scoffed. “He wanted to walk. It’s only a block. I offered to have a carriage pick him up, but he wasn’t interested. I did tell him he didn’t have a choice afterwards.” Roman stared out at the tall buildings that surrounded the park that appeared occasionally between breaks in the trees. The clip-clop of the horse’s hooves continued as they slowly moved along the road. He was still excited, but as he grew closer to the glade where the ceremony would be held, a calm anticipation spread over him. Malik was going to be there, along with all their friends. His mother would be there as well.

Malik had told Roman he didn’t expect any of his family to attend. Both his parents were now dead, and his only relatives were distant relations in England. Roman had been shocked when he’d received an RSVP just yesterday from one of Malik’s cousins, a guy named Nigel. He’d found an address in Malik’s mother’s old date book and had tracked him from there. Nigel had said he hadn’t realized he would be able to attend until just a few days before, and he hoped it was all right if he came. Roman had called the phone number enclosed and told him of course it was okay.

“Did you tell Malik about his cousin?” Kendall asked as if reading his mind.

“No. I decided it would be a nice surprise for him.” Roman smiled in excitement. The carriage pulled up to the curb and stopped. Johnny and Kendall got out, and then Roman stepped out of the carriage. The driver would wait until after the ceremony to take them to the reception hall. Roman thanked him and confirmed the arrangements before walking toward the glade.

Roman stayed out of sight, waiting in the spot he and Malik had designated. He checked his watch and calmed his jitters that Malik hadn’t arrived yet. He was early, but that didn’t stop him from watching where he expected Malik to arrive.

“Hi, honey,” his mother said as she approached and then hugged him. “You look very handsome.”

“And you look like a fashion plate,” Roman told her, stepping back to admire her gown. His mother had given up a lot while she’d raised him alone. She was striking, even to him, with piercing black eyes and rich-black hair just now beginning to gray. She’d talked of coloring it, but Roman thought she looked radiant. “The earrings are beautiful. How long have you had them?” He couldn’t remember seeing them before.

“They were the only nice gift your father ever gave me, other than you,” she said, regret coloring her voice for a moment. He hugged her and then glanced around, looking for Malik when he stepped away.

Roman’s father had passed away, and Malik’s had taken off when he was eight. Malik had only seen him once after that: when he was twelve and his father was on his way to prison, where he later died.

“Malik will be here,” his mother said. But her calm was belied by the way she looked around as well.

“I wish he’d either get here or call to let me know where he is,” Roman said, his nervousness growing. He checked his watch yet again.

“He’ll be here. The ceremony doesn’t start for half an hour. People are still arriving. I did meet Malik’s cousin.” His mother smiled. “He’s quite handsome, and that accent of his….” She fanned herself. “If I were ten years younger or he were ten years older….” Roman’s mother left the rest of the implications of what she’d do to his imagination.

“I’m glad he made it. Malik didn’t think any of his family would be here.” Roman craned his neck as a man approached the group of wedding guests. He was wearing a dark suit, and for a second Roman thought he could be Malik, but the walk was different.

“I’ll go join the other guests,” she said. “And don’t worry, he’ll be here.” She hugged him again and walked away to join the group of about a hundred people.

“You’re Roman,” said the man in the dark suit as he approached Roman. He looked about Roman’s age and had a dreamy British accent. He held out his hand, and Roman shook it. “I’m Malik’s cousin, Nigel. It was so kind of you to accept my last-minute RSVP.” He looked around. “I’ve been trying to find him….”

“He’s running late,” Roman lied, not knowing what else to tell him. He wished he knew exactly where Malik was. “I’m so glad you could come. He’ll be so surprised, and it will mean the world to him.” Nigel looked a bit like Malik. They had the same blue eyes and light complexion. He smiled, and did his best to keep his attention on Nigel, even though he wanted to keep looking for Malik.

“Well, thank you again,” Nigel said. “I hope we get the chance to talk later.” He stepped back. “And congratulations.” He turned and rejoined the other guests.

Roman and Malik had talked and decided they would invite all their friends and family. Those who could come, or chose to come, would be welcome. The voices from their gathered guests overlapped and mixed together, the sound excitedly happy. Roman wished he felt the same. Every second that passed without seeing Malik increased his nervousness. The comfortably warm day felt hotter and hotter with each passing second. Roman began to shift inside his coat as his temperature rose.

“Have you seen him?” Maureen, one of their close friends, asked as she hurried over. Roman shook his head. She bit her lower lip slightly.

“I’m starting to wonder if something’s wrong,” Roman said, and called Malik’s number for the eighth time. Like all the previous calls, it went to voice mail. He ended the call. After leaving four messages already, he didn’t think another would do any good. “He hasn’t been answering, and that’s so unlike him.” Roman began to pace.

“I left him about eleven last night and he was fine,” Maureen said as she, too, looked around. “He seemed pretty normal… well, as normal as you could expect a guy to be on the night before his wedding.” Roman looked away from the path and toward her. “I’ll walk to his place and tell him to hurry up. You know how hard it is for him to get anywhere on time.”

“Yeah, but I figured this time….” Roman wanted to joke, but his nerves were turning to fear, and from there…. He forced himself away from that line of thought. Malik would be here anytime now. He just had to be.

The seconds ticked by as Roman’s heart beat faster and faster. A few minutes before the ceremony was supposed to start, he headed out to where the guests were gathered. As soon as they saw him, they got into position as if the ceremony were about to begin. Roman numbly saw the officiant standing at the far end of the aisle. His mother raced to him from the front.

“Honey?” she asked, disbelief in her eyes.

“I haven’t seen him,” Roman whispered.

“He’ll be here,” she said. “I’ll ask everyone to be patient; you go watch for him.” She turned. “Because if I see him first, I’ll give that boy a piece of my mind before I let him marry you.” She turned. “Worrying me to death” were the last words he heard from his mother before she walked back down the aisle.

Roman went back to watch for Malik, but as the seconds and minutes passed, his hope diminished. He checked the sidewalk once again and saw Maureen hurrying toward him.

“Is he here?” she asked.

Roman shook his head.

“Damn it,” she swore in a whisper. “I went all the way to his apartment. He wasn’t there. I even used the key he gave me last year. Everything looked normal to me. The bed was made and everything was put away. I checked the bedroom and his tux wasn’t there. I even checked the closet. You know how he always puts everything away where it goes, and everything seemed in its place. He has to be on his way here, so I looked everywhere on my way. He couldn’t have passed me.” Maureen was two seconds from crying, and Roman knew exactly how she felt.

“Anything?” his mother asked as she walked up. She was followed by Kendall and Johnny.

“No,” Roman whispered. “I don’t know what to do.”

“We’ll wait a little longer,” his mother pronounced, and Roman let her take charge. He was in no condition to do that right now and feeling worse and worse by the second. He’d given up looking and stood with his friends around him.

By the time his mother returned, he was shaking. It was approaching an hour after the ceremony was supposed to start. Roman tried calling Malik one last time. Once again, the call went to voice mail, and Roman hung up.

“I’ll take care of everything,” his mother whispered.

“No,” Roman told her, and walked back toward the group of guests—his guests, friends of his and Malik’s. “Everyone, could I have your attention?” Roman somehow kept his voice from breaking. “Thank you so much for coming, but Malik isn’t here and I don’t believe he’s coming.” The guests turned to look at each other, confusion and sadness spreading over a hundred different faces at the same time. Roman swallowed hard. No use putting off the inevitable. Everyone had been sitting around wondering what was going on for far too long. “It’s not fair to ask you to wait any longer. Please go on over to the reception hall for cocktails and dinner.” He didn’t know what else to say. The food was paid for, and people had come in from out of town.

The guests stood up and began to file away. Many of them stopped by to silently hug him before slipping away as quietly as they could.

“What do you need?” Maureen asked.

“Just go on over to the hall and be the hostess for the evening, please.” He took both her hands in his and kissed her lightly on the cheek. She seemed reluctant to go, but eventually nodded and left. “Something has to have happened,” Roman said to Kendall, Johnny, and his mother. “At least I want something to have happened, because if it didn’t, then that means….” Roman gasped as tears threatened, but he held them back, closing his eyes and building a dike to keep the wave of disappointment and grief he knew was coming at bay for just a little while longer.

Kendall hugged him. “I don’t know,” he said. “But he has plenty of explaining to do when I get my hands on him.”

Johnny looked angry enough to kill, and so did Roman’s mother. “What do you want to do?” Johnny asked.

“Just go back to my apartment.”

“What about all the guests?” Johnny asked.

“They’ll be fine,” his mother said. “Maureen will take care of things. And I suspect most people will simply go home.”

The minister stopped by on his way out and said a few comforting words to Roman. He nodded, but numbness was kicking in.

“I’ll take care of everything here,” Johnny said to Kendall. “Go on and take him home. I’ll meet you at his apartment as soon as I can.”

The words barely registered to Roman as he simply tried to keep himself together.

Slowly, Kendall led him away from the glade and along the path. They stopped at the carriage, and Kendall talked to the driver. Then they got in, and he slowly drove them back the way they’d come a few hours earlier. This time, the excitement and anticipation was replaced with misery and grief, and Roman barely noticed anything that passed by outside.

Eventually, they left the park. Kendall explained to the driver where they were going and then sat back down next to him. Roman wanted to curl up and disappear into the floor of the carriage so no one could see him and he wouldn’t have to look at anyone on the street.

The carriage pulled to a stop, and Roman stood up, staring up at his building. His heart leaped with excitement and he rushed off the carriage and into the building. He raced up the steps and unlocked the apartment door as quickly as he could. He’d seen the curtains move from outside and he was sure Malik must be there. He had a lot of explaining to do, but Roman was so worried he didn’t give the ruined ceremony and heartbreaking doubt a second thought. He rushed inside… and found nothing. The curtains fluttered slightly in the breeze of the window he’d left partially open. Roman checked all of the rooms and then collapsed onto the sofa.

He heard Kendall on the stairs, but didn’t move. Kendall came in and closed the door, and Roman could only stare at the walls. He could hardly get his mind around the fact that Malik had left him at the altar. This was supposed to have been his wedding day, the happiest day of his life.

“Something has to have happened,” he whispered, holding onto the last shred of hope he could think of. “He’d never just leave me like this.” Roman closed his eyes and felt tears begin to well. “Because if something hasn’t happened to him, then that means that the past two years were….” He couldn’t bring himself to say the words.

Kendall sat down next to him. “It’s going to be okay.”

“Is there something wrong with me? Why wouldn’t he just tell me he’d changed his mind? I could have understood. Sure, it would have hurt, but not like this.”

“There’s nothing at all wrong with you,” Kendall answered. “We’ll get to the bottom of what happened.”

Roman nodded, but he wasn’t sure he believed it.

About a half hour later, his mother came into the apartment, looking grim and a little disheveled. “I’ll kill that boy if I get my hands on him,” she fumed. Roman nodded but barely paid attention.

“There has to be something wrong,” Roman said, turning to Kendall. “There just has to be. We were together for two years. He told me he loved me and asked me to marry him. He helped me plan all this. How could he just not show up, unless he was lying in a gutter somewhere, hurt or dead?” As soon as the words were out of his mouth, the dam burst. Roman had no idea which way to turn, and everything crashed over him all at once. Roman stood up, barely able to see through the tears in his eyes. He grabbed one of the pictures of Malik and him off the end table and stared at it. He wasn’t sure if he wanted to hug it to him out of concern or throw the fucking thing through the window. He settled for just holding it… for now. But that could change at any moment.

“Roman,” Kendall said softly, taking the frame from his hands. As soon as the silver gilt frame slipped from his fingers, the last of Roman’s control went with it. Roman placed his hands over his face and sobbed. He didn’t know who guided him back to the sofa or helped him sit down, but he did know that his mother held him tight, rocking back and forth like she had when he was a child.

Roman clung to her, wetting the fabric of her dress with his tears.

“It’s going to be okay, sweetheart,” she told him over and over.

He didn’t see how anything could ever be okay ever again. He loved Malik with all his heart, and Malik was gone. Roman’s fears swung like a pendulum. Either something had happened to him and he was injured, or worse—that sent his thoughts in one direction—or Malik had abandoned him and left him at the altar without so much as a word. That sent him in a completely different direction, and Roman had no idea what to do. He was out of control with grief, worry, anger, and pain, all of them building and building on top of each other.

“Honey, calm yourself,” his mother whispered. “Just relax,” she said, but Roman couldn’t.

He gasped for air, coughed a little, and then gasped for more. He couldn’t seem to control his breathing, and all he got were short gasps one on top of another.

“Breathe into this,” Kendall said, placing a paper bag over his mouth. Roman pushed it away. “Roman,” Kendall snapped, and placed the bag over his mouth again. “You’re hyperventilating.” The bag crinkled with each inhalation and exhalation, but his breathing slowed. “That’s it. In and out, slowly and deeply.”

“Sorry,” Roman said into the bag, clamping his eyes closed. He was such an unbelievable mess, sitting on his sofa breathing into a paper bag, wishing he could crawl away someplace and die.

His mother moved away from him, rummaging in her purse. Roman lowered the bag and sat back. He kept his eyes closed and did his best to calm the swirling vortex of doubt, despair, and heartache. It wasn’t working.

“Here, take this,” his mother said, handing him a pill. Someone put a glass into his hand, and Roman popped the pill in his mouth and drank, swallowing automatically. It didn’t take long before some of the emotional crap seemed to settle inside him. “Go on into your bedroom and lie down for a while.”

Roman nodded and blankly got up and walked through the apartment to the bedroom. He refused to think that this was to have been his and Malik’s room. He took off his tux and threw it over the back of the chair. Then he climbed in bed and hoped like hell he could go to sleep, and when he woke up, all of this would have been a nightmare and Malik would be sleeping next to him.

Roman settled between the covers, and within minutes, he was out. Thankfully, he didn’t dream and woke awhile later, groggy and disoriented, with something buzzing in his ear. He realized it was his phone vibrating on the nightstand and snatched at it.

“Malik,” he said right away.

“Roman, it’s me, Maureen.”

“Oh.”

“I take it from the way you answered the phone that you haven’t heard from him,” Maureen said, and Roman checked the display on his phone. No missed calls or messages.

“No,” he answered, sitting up, and his vision swam for a few seconds before settling. Then the grief and pain hit him like a punch. He looked around to make sure it was real and then began to shake.

“The guests are leaving, and everyone is asking if you’re okay,” Maureen said.

“I’m fine,” he lied. He heard Maureen “humph” and knew she wasn’t buying it, but thankfully she let it go.

“Okay, sweetheart. I’m going to swing by his place to check once again after I leave here, and then I’m coming over.”

“Okay,” Roman agreed. “I’ll see you when you get here.” Hope tried to build for a few seconds, but he knew Malik wouldn’t be there.

He got out of bed and rummaged in his drawers for light sweatpants and a T-shirt. He found them and pulled them on. Then he opened the bedroom door and heard soft voices in the living room.

“Are you feeling better?” his mother asked when he stepped into the living room, and Roman shook his head. He’d slept, but it had been because of whatever she’d given him, not because the hell he’d gone through had suddenly gone away. “Have you…?” she began.

Roman shook his head. “Maureen is going to his apartment to see if she can find anything. I know I should too, but I don’t have the energy.”

“Should we call the police?” Johnny asked, and Roman shrugged. He must have slept through Johnny’s arrival. “We’ve called hospitals, but they won’t tell us much. Maybe the police will be able to help.”

“You can call them, but they’ll just say Malik ran off and doesn’t want to be found or something,” Roman snapped, flopping on the sofa.

“We can try,” Johnny told him, and a few minutes later, Roman heard Johnny on the phone.

Johnny explained who he was, and after a few minutes, he got testy and asked to speak to Detective Boutcher. Then the room became quiet. Johnny stepped out into the hallway, and Roman stared at the things around him.

Johnny returned and said, “They’re going to check the hospitals. Detective Boutcher said you can file a missing persons report if you want, but since it’s not a child or a senile senior citizen, they might not be able to start an immediate search.” Johnny stepped over to where Roman sat. “He asked if he could come speak with you. I told him it would be okay. He wants to help. This isn’t official, since we haven’t filed a report yet, but he said he’d stop by in a few hours, at the end of his shift.”

All Roman could do was nod slowly and let the others do what they needed to do. He simply wanted to know what had happened to Malik, because until he exhausted every other possibility, he was determined to believe there was a reason Malik hadn’t shown up—and that he hadn’t been left at the altar and Malik did in fact love him. He had to believe that right now. The alternative was too shattering to dwell on.

“You should eat something,” his mother coaxed, but Roman shook his head. The thought of food made him ill. The only reason he hadn’t been sick was because he hadn’t eaten much in hours. Otherwise, Roman was convinced he wouldn’t have been able to stay out of the bathroom. “Please try.”

Roman thought about it and once again shook his head. Food held no interest, and his stomach rebelled at the mere thought. The others milled around, talking softly. He knew they were staying just so he wouldn’t be alone. Roman thought about asking them to leave, but he didn’t want to be alone. Having people around gave him something else to focus on.

Kendall pressed a wine glass into his hand. He wasn’t sure he should be drinking, but after a few gulps, he didn’t give a damn. He only hoped whatever he’d been given to make him sleep had worn off, because he wanted to get drunk off his ass and he knew he shouldn’t mix the two. He drained the glass and began looking around for more. The others were sitting at his table, eating takeout. Roman hadn’t even realized someone had left and come back. He filled his glass once again and sat down at the table, picking at a bit of food while he drank through dinner.

“That’s enough,” his mother warned firmly when he reached for the bottle again. “That isn’t going to help, and you know it. The policeman will be here, and you need to be helpful.” Roman placed his hands in his lap and waited for the next version of hell to show itself.

When everyone was done eating, he and Kendall took care of the mess because he needed something to do. The buzzer sounded from the lobby, and Johnny answered it. “Detective Boutcher is here,” Johnny said. He opened the apartment door and shook hands with the detective when he came inside. “I appreciate you doing this.”

“No problem,” he said. Johnny shut the door.

“Detective Boutcher, this is Roman Capanelli. He was supposed to get married today, but his partner was a no-show.” The buzzer sounded again, and Johnny answered it. After a few seconds, Maureen came in, and Roman was instantly pulled into a hug. Roman looked at her expectantly, but she simply shook her head.

Johnny made introductions, and Roman flopped on the sofa.

“I was just at Malik’s apartment, and everything is exactly the way it was earlier. No one has been there, and there’s nothing out of place,” Maureen said to Roman. “I talked to him yesterday and everything seemed fine.” She paused. “I knew I should have gone over there this morning and made sure he got ready.”

“What sort of work does Malik do?” Detective Boutcher asked.

“Cyber security,” Roman answered. “He develops computer security systems. He&rsqu