Chapter One

 

CHAD’S CELL phone rang as he grappled with a half-used roll of SpongeBob duct tape. The hope that the sticky, uncooperative strips would secure the spindly leg to the rest of his coffee table still lived on. He glanced at his phone, then back at his home-improvement project. Chad wondered again why he hadn’t just stayed at his parents’ house instead of moving out.

Because it’s pathetic at my age?

They’d been happy to have him there, had said he could stay for as long as he needed to. However, it had been time to leave; he would never find his own way if he didn’t. Chad still had no idea what sort of future lay in store for him, but living with his folks for the rest of his life hadn’t made the list.

The phone finally went to voice mail, and he returned his attention to the dinged-up piece of furniture he’d scored after someone left it at the curb along with the rest of their garbage. It’d seemed a shame to waste a perfectly good little table when all it needed was some tender loving care. The deal he’d gotten on the cartoon-character tape had made it an even sweeter deal. He finally got the last of the gummy remnants attached to the leg, then set the table upright and sat back on his haunches, gazing with pride at the latest addition to his little home.

It wavered for a moment. Then the leg gave way and it toppled over.

Chad sighed. Coffee tables weren’t exactly a necessity in life. He didn’t have to have one. Even if he’d wanted to make his tiny place a bit homier, a coffee table wasn’t the only thing that would telegraph such a thing to potential visitors. Right?

Living alone sucked. Even if he was only in his early twenties, Chad had imagined he would at least have a boyfriend by now. Someone kind and sincere, a man who had his head on straight and cared about such things as family, wasn’t into partying and other stuff that held little to no interest to Chad.

God, I sound so boring.

He didn’t actually think he was, but a few guys he’d gone out with over the years had hinted at it. Enjoying a simple life didn’t have to be boring, especially if you had someone to share it with.

Lindsey found her someone.

His sister’s impending marriage had driven home to him more than ever that he wanted what she had. It hit him that her engagement announcement had coincided with his moving out. Huh. Maybe he should leave town, go somewhere with a larger dating pool, or at least one that didn’t rely solely on the transient population of the base at Naval Air Station Fallon.

He pushed up from the threadbare-carpeted floor, then padded into the teensy studio kitchen. The idea to relocate had occasionally taken hold since he graduated from high school but had never gained any real steam. Going somewhere alone and starting from scratch held no appeal. If he were ever to leave his family, it would be because he was beginning a new life with someone.

He flipped open the cabinet door that held his odd collection of glasses. When he’d moved out, his mom had given him all the strays that had survived the broken sets he’d grown up with. She’d apologized that she couldn’t offer him better ones. He’d been too embarrassed to tell her that he liked them, that they held special memories.

He reached for his favorite green one with the weird, mismatched bumps on it, and his gaze landed on the slightly crinkly photo taped to the inside of the cupboard. He’d folded it in half so that his sister was no longer visible. There were two reasons for that: One, he’d had to steal it from his sister’s dresser drawer when he was a teenager; and two, it would be waaaay too creepy if he could see his sister in the picture while fantasizing about her best friend, Raudel Cruz.

The one that got away.

Yeah. He was an idiot. It was hard for someone to get away when you’d never had them in the first place.

He trailed his index finger down the image.

So incredibly sexy, yet so cool. The genuinely nicest guy ever.

Thinking he could ever have had a chance with Raudel had been his downfall. He should’ve simply accepted that the two years separating them had been a bridge that could not be crossed in high school.

Instead, I opened my big mouth. Enlisted her help.

It had been a classic move of desperation. He’d been lust-addled, his brain cells hijacked by his dick. But if it had merely been his cock holding him hostage instead of his heart, he might have recovered from the subsequent fallout of Raudel unexpectedly dropping by his house that day. His cheeks burned from the memory alone.

Chad snatched the glass from the cupboard, then abruptly closed it. Pointless reflection wasn’t going to rewrite history so that his moment of utter stupidity hadn’t fucked everything up so completely with Raudel. Right as he filled the tumbler with water from his tap, the phone rang.

Once again, he tried to ignore it. Less than two weeks until Lindsey’s wedding, and she’d become more unreasonable the nearer it drew. He had a shift at the yogurt shop in an hour, and after the coffee table debacle, wasn’t in the mood for her to strong-arm him into another favor.

A stab of shame poked at him. Lindsey was his only sibling, and she’d be moving to San Francisco after the wedding. Who knew when he’d see her again, and even then, things would never be the same.

By the time he wandered into the open area that was the main room of his humble dwelling, the cell had stopped its insistent ringing. He’d turned on his heel to retrace his path to the kitchen, the siren call of a baloney sandwich reaching out to him, when it started up again.

Yup. Lindsey.

Taking into consideration her ever-growing unstable behavior as time ticked away, hurtling her ever closer to the moment when she’d finally become Mrs. Cromwell, Chad thought he’d better answer. He didn’t want to be responsible for causing her to finally teeter over the edge.

“Hey, Lin. I’ve only got a little while to grab a bite to eat and get changed for my shift, so if you need me to pick up anything for you, or whatever, I’ll have to do it later after—”

“Listen up, Chad. This is important.”

Her tone was calm and serious for someone who’d lately sounded like she was running for her life every time she spoke on the phone. Her words would always be breathless because apparently everything was so urgent and had to be done right now.

“Okaaay.”

“Remember when I told you that Raudel wouldn’t be attending because of school and we’d gotten Daniel’s buddy, Steve, to stand in?”

Fear coiled in his belly. Nuh-uh. No way.

He’d marked himself safe when Lindsey had told him almost a year before that Raudel had opted out, that he’d be doing his finals just before graduation so couldn’t promise her anything.

“Um, yeah. So… what are you trying to tell me, exactly?”

“Chad, darling little brother, I don’t pretend to understand why you avoided Raudel like the plague after confessing to me your everlasting love for him while in the clutches of a rookie drunken stupor. But I do know that you have some sort of, I don’t know, thing about not being around him. Don’t think I didn’t catch how you almost passed out with relief when I said he couldn’t make it.”

And?” Chad never thought he would have the capacity to empathize with the hysteria Lindsey had begun displaying, but he wondered if he should revisit the concept.

“Well, Steve sprained his ankle and can’t make it, so I called Raudel on a whim, and he said he’d work it out and that he’d love to be in the wedding.”

“You did what?” Chad gripped his phone so tightly he thought it might snap in half. Then he collapsed onto his recent garage-sale-sofa purchase. The vague, unexplained tinge of cat piss wafted into the air. He kept forgetting not to land on it too hard.

“Chad, calm down. It’s no big deal.”

Chad pressed his lips together, inhaling a deep breath through his nose to keep from raging at his older sister. She wasn’t the one who would have to face the gorgeous, high school crush who’d witnessed Chad’s all-time most embarrassing moment. He wondered if he could somehow break her and Daniel up before the wedding—he might be willing to hazard the bad karma in exchange for being spared the abject humiliation of such an encounter with Raudel. Even if Raudel wasn’t still smokin’ hot, he’d forever be out of reach to Chad the way he’d been after that awful day. It was all very cruel and unfair.

“Chad? Hello? I have a lot of packing to do still. Don’t mess with me right now.”

Chad was certain there was some sort of toxic drug in bridal gowns, or perhaps added to the frosting of wedding cake samples, or possibly laced in the vellum of the invitations. It was the only explanation as to how his typically even-tempered sister had morphed into the perfect representation of a bridezilla. “I just remembered. I have some important plans next weekend, so I can’t be in the wedding party after all.”

She let out a snort that would’ve put a rampaging bull to shame. “Right. Important plans. You.” Her tone turned menacing. “I don’t have time for your motherfucking high school bullshit right now, Chad. You’re twenty-two years old. Suck it up.”

“You kiss your high-society fiancé with that filthy mouth?”

“Fuck you.” She sighed as if the weight of the world was crushing her. “I get that you used to like him a lot, or whatever, but just because he never took the bait when you asked me to put in a good word for you doesn’t mean you have to pine for him forever. Jesus, Chad, what were you expecting? You were only fifteen, and he was about ready to graduate.” Her voice had returned to its previous threatening tone. “Now look. Be at the Lake Tahoe house as planned, ready to stand at the altar with me, or I’ll tell Mom that you lied when you said the dress she picked out for the wedding was very flattering and took years off her age. That what you actually thought was that it was the funniest fucking thing you’d ever seen, and she looked ridiculous.”

“Jesus, Lin. That’s just mean. What’s wrong with you?”

His sister used to be so nice.

Right until about a week ago.

“Family members who act as if they wouldn’t know what adulthood was if it came up and smacked them across the face. That’s what.” She let out another sigh, one that had an air of remorse to it. “I’m willing to concede that I may be a tad out of sorts right now.”

He didn’t dare risk agreeing with her. Or guffawing and stating that her words were a massive understatement.

She carried on. “But Raudel is my best friend. I was so excited when he said he could make it after all. What with it being so last-minute, and finals right around the corner—I honestly never expected he’d agree to be in the wedding after all.”

Chad suppressed a groan. Raudel, UCLA law student and the sexiest man ever to be born in Fallon, Nevada, versus Chad, pervy teen who grew up to become the assistant manager of the local frozen yogurt shop.

Yeah. I’m really looking forward to that. “I understand, Lin, I really do.” He clutched the cell phone so hard, it hadn’t yet escaped the danger of being crushed into little plastic shell and sim card bits and pieces. “I’ll just…” wear a disguise. Change my name. Pretend I have amnesia. “Keep to myself. Stay out of his way so that we don’t have to actually interact. It’ll be totally fine.”

“Um….”

Chad’s gut clenched, and terror clawed its way up his throat from the hesitant, yet bizarrely apologetic, sound of her voice. “Holy Jesus. Out with it, woman. What else have you done?”

“I didn’t do anything.” She cleared her throat. “We chose the house in Lake Tahoe way before I knew who would be in the wedding for sure.”

And?” He was going to strangle her through the phone line if she didn’t own up already.

“Well, there’s only five bedrooms. One for Mom and Dad. One for Daniel’s mom and stepdad, one for Grandma, one for me, Brenda, and Shannon—”

“Stop. Please.” He pinched the bridge of his nose, the fear in his gut quickly turning to bile. “Let me guess. I have to share a bedroom with Raudel.”

“Well, I can’t very well ask him to sleep on the couch!”

The couch. Yaaass. “No worries. I’ll take it. The couch, I mean.”

“It’s located in the middle of the house between the kitchen and the rest of the bedrooms. Everyone will wonder what’s going on, and… and… I will not have you sleeping out there and ruining everything!” Her voice had steadily risen in volume as if she were about to shoot into orbit.

“Okay, okay. Don’t freak out. I won’t sleep on the goddamned couch.” He grunted before another thought occurred to him. “What about Daniel? Where’s he gonna be?”

“The guest house.”

“There’s a guest house? Well, then, maybe I could—”

“Don’t even think about it.” She’d gritted it through her teeth. “Daniel has to stay out there because we aren’t supposed to be together before the wedding.”

“Right. But if he stays with Raudel….”

“He’s the fucking groom, Chad. The groom!”

“All right! Okay. Just… calm down before you hurt yourself.” He still couldn’t believe there wasn’t some solution to his travails. “Are you sure you didn’t do this on purpose?”

His sister growled—definitely not a sound he’d heard from her before. “Hardly. I have much more important things to deal with than my little brother still mooning over some guy from back in fucking high school.”

He growled back. “Mooning?” Really? “Fine. I’ll bow to your unreasonable bridal will. But I want to go on record that I don’t like it. Despise it, even.”

“Just remember one thing, Chad. I will rip your arms off if you fuck up my wedding!”

Oh no. Not a bridezilla in the least.