Saturday, Three Weeks until the Wedding
GABRIEL DONNELLY rearranged the piles of laundry on the bed for the third time. “So, who are you going to be presenting to this time? And remind me why you’re going to San Diego while I’m stuck here where it won’t stop raining?”
“It’s a conference for trauma doctors,” Ethan Brandt answered. “And when I asked you if you wanted to go, you showed me a list of things you had to get done that was actually as long as your arm.”
Donnelly sighed. “It’s gotten longer since then, with the wedding just three weeks away.” But then he perked up. “You’ll be back before we need to fly to New York to get on the ship, right?”
“Absolutely. Fly out Wednesday, present Thursday, fly back Friday. We’ll pack up and head to New York Saturday so we can get on the ship Sunday morning. We’ll cruise across the ocean and land in the loving arms of every single member of both of our families—even the ones we can’t stand sitting next to at Thanksgiving—plus as many friends as we can stuff into a drafty castle in merry old England. We won’t have a moment to ourselves, plus we’ll have to smile endlessly because everyone has a camera, and we’ll do it all wearing kilts. Sounds like a festival of awesomeness, doesn’t it?”
“It all ends with us finally being husband and husband, and that’s all I care about,” Donnelly said with a smile. “The rest of it is just a bunch of details. Lots and lots of details.” He sighed again. “Hundreds of little details.”
“I know it seems like a lot of work, but what we’re doing is an immense task. Moving an entire wedding across an ocean, in the space of two months, is herculean. Wendell did a lot, and James has been amazing paying for it all and helping out, and Bryce and Nestor have pitched in all over the place, but the hardest parts of it have fallen to you. And you have kept calm and carried on, and you’ve been amazing.” Brandt kissed his fiancé on the nose. “And I love you for it. You’re my hero.”
“You’re just sweet-talking me because you’re guilty about running off to play with doctors in the Southern California sun.”
“Maybe a little. Honestly, I’d rather be here with you. But Greg worked really hard to set this up. If the ER docs who took care of Peter had been made aware of how to support gay and lesbian spouses, Greg might have been able to be with him when he died. It’s really important work.”
“I know, I know. I’m just being selfish, trying to have you all to myself.” Donnelly smiled as he dug deeply into the laundry basket. He pulled out a tiny bright red Speedo. “Taking this along to San Diego or saving it for the honeymoon?” He waggled the shiny bit of fabric at Brandt.
“Let’s say I’m saving it,” Brandt replied, rolling his eyes.
“All right, it goes in the honeymoon pile,” Donnelly sang happily.
“No, I don’t want to take it on our honeymoon,” Brandt said.
Donnelly looked crestfallen. “But you promised.”
Brandt leaned in close and whispered into Donnelly’s ear. “The pool at the Villa Hermes is clothing optional.” He stepped back to take in Donnelly’s shocked expression. “I opt for none.”
“Get over here,” Donnelly growled, yanking Brandt to the bed. “Packing can wait.”
Convention hall, San Diego
PUBLIC SPEAKING hadn’t come naturally to Brandt, but every time he walked to a podium in front of a large group of people, it got a little easier. As he stood half listening to his introduction to the hall full of trauma surgeons, he thought back to the first time Greg Sampson had asked him to speak on behalf of his organization.
It was a group less than a tenth the size of the one he now faced, and he was deeply terrified—as scared as he had been facing an audience of one, Nick, when he undressed for the first time during his undercover work in the frat-themed cam house. Standing before a couple of dozen public-school administrators to discuss how marriage equality was impacting child custody, he had felt just as naked, just as much an imposter. He had fumbled badly through his talk that day (Greg was too much of a gentleman to offer anything more critical than “you seemed a little nervous”) but every speech, every event since then had been a little easier.
For a long time—until recently in fact—his anxiety stemmed not from doubting his knowledge or his authority to speak on these issues, but from his discomfort at being introduced as one of the first openly gay officers on the state police force. Brandt’s inability to come to rational conclusions about his sexuality meant that any introduction that focused at all on his identity would always make him feel uncomfortable in his own skin. He looked forward to the day when he would simply be able to say that he was Gabriel Donnelly’s husband and leave aside any consideration of what that said about his sexual identity. And that day would be here in a little more than two weeks, a thought that made him grin like a lovestruck goofball every time he thought of it.
“And now it is my great pleasure to introduce Officer Ethan Brandt, one of our state’s leading authorities on marriage equality and the changes it will bring—is already bringing—to our country.” Though he had retired from the nightly newscast, Sampson’s voice was still deep and television-perfect. “And I am thrilled to be able to call him a dear friend. Please join me in welcoming Officer Brandt.” Sampson stepped to Brandt and shook his hand warmly, then stood aside as Brandt took the podium.
“Thanks, Greg, and thanks to all of you for inviting me to speak today.” Although his voice lacked the professional timbre of Sampson’s, Brandt sounded sure and confident. He took a deep breath, smiled to the group, and began his speech.
That evening, Brandt met Sampson in the hotel bar.
“Great job today, buddy,” he said as Brandt approached. He stood and hugged Brandt in welcome.
Hugging other men in public was another thing to which Brandt had not been accustomed when this adventure began, but he was now able to give Donnelly a run for his money in the public displays department. The men sat.
“Seemed like a good group,” Brandt replied. “And some of those questions—man, I was glad I’d done my homework on medical powers of attorney.”
“It showed they were listening and really taking you seriously,” Sampson said with a smile. “You just get better and better at this stuff.”
Brandt blushed, as he always did when anyone complimented him on anything. Somewhere underneath his tough exterior there would always be a puppy wagging its tail and begging for praise. “Thanks. I’ve learned from the best.” He raised his glass to Sampson, then sipped. “Whoa, that’s different.” He held the glass up and looked at it, then at Sampson. “What did you order for me?”
Sampson smiled. “A little something special. I know you like a whiskey sour in the evening, and the whiskey in this one comes from a shelf so high it can’t even be seen from the top shelf. It is the whiskey of the gods.” He grinned and sipped his own drink. “I am, of course, a scoundrel, plying you with pricey hooch because I have a favor to ask.”
Brandt set his drink on the table, shaking his head. “You don’t need to buy me off—I’d do anything to help you.”
“Well, this is a big one. I know you’re dying to fly back to Gabriel’s loving embrace, but I managed to get us some time at the ER directors’ postconference meeting. I’ve been after them all year to get a slot on their social issues track, but it’s only in the past few months that they seem to have realized that implementing marriage equality isn’t going to simply take care of itself once the law changes. All of a sudden, they are desperate to hear how to change their policies to stay ahead of potential issues, and they want to hear from us. From you in particular.”
“When is the gig?” Brandt asked.
“Saturday morning,” Sampson said with a bit of a wince.
Brandt nodded, a frown working its way onto his face despite his effort to hide it. “Gabriel will kill me. We’re supposed to be flying to New York on Saturday to get on the ship.”
“Which doesn’t leave until Sunday. I’ve already looked into the arrangements—your talk ends at ten in the morning, the limo takes you to the airport, and by noon you’re on a direct flight to New York. First class, I might add. Meet Gabriel there and have an amazing dinner in your suite at the most expensive hotel in the city. My treat.”
“I don’t think you realize the stress he’s been under, planning this wedding. My coming here for just a couple of days was already stretching things. Another one might just push him over the edge.” Brandt’s phone rang, and he pulled it from his pocket. As he glanced at the screen, he thought he caught a glimpse of Sampson looking guiltily away.
Brandt answered the call. “Hey,” he said softly.
“Hey,” Donnelly replied. “Did you send any of the trauma surgeons to the hospital with your heart-stopping charm?”
“Hardly. They were a good group, though. I think it made a real difference.”
“That’s my man, saving the world one speech at a time.”
Brandt took a deep breath. “So, Greg was just saying—”
“That he needs you to stay for another day. I know. He called me a little while ago.”
In the two-second silence that followed, Brandt’s heart sank and refused to beat.
“I swear, Ethan, you must make me out to be some kind of storybook evil queen. Of course you should stay. Think about how an enlightened ER administrator might have made Peter’s last hours better. Don’t even think of saying no.”
Brandt gave a sigh of relief. “Good God I love you,” he murmured into the phone. “I’m the luckiest man in the world.”
“Second luckiest. Now go be amazing, and I’ll see you in New York on Saturday. Greg’s booked us a suite with a whirlpool on a terrace overlooking Central Park. The use we will make of that is going to live in legend—on that you may rely.”
“Boing,” Brandt whispered.
“Then my work here is done. Keep that boner to yourself, mister. I shall require its service on Saturday. Love you.”
“Love you too,” Brandt said, then hung up and tried to both pocket his phone and adjust his growing erection to a more comfortable angle. It didn’t really work. Dammit, Gabriel.
“So Gabriel’s the sweetest guy in the world, and you know it. Of course he wants me to stay.”
Sampson smiled broadly. “My troopers come through again,” he said, raising his glass. “Now drink up. I ordered another round, and each of these costs as much the car I drove in college.”
They had finished their third round of the large, pricey cocktails when Brandt decided he had better head up now if he was going to have any chance of negotiating the elevator buttons successfully.
“Oh, no, wait,” Greg called as Brandt stood to go. “There’s someone I want you to meet.” Sampson waved in the direction of the bar, gesturing for someone to come over. “You’re going to love Kerry. We were absolutely inseparable in college.”
Brandt had met a number of Greg’s extensive acquaintance—he found them a rather elite lot. He had only met those who knew Greg after he became famous, though, so perhaps his college buddy would be a more down-to-earth character.
Greg sprang to his feet. “Kerry! Get over here, you,” he called into the crowd.
Through the now-crowded bar, Brandt at first couldn’t tell to whom he referred.
“Kerry Stansfield, I’d like you to meet Ethan Brandt.”
“Oh, it’s Mercer now… again,” a female voice replied, startling Brandt, who had been expecting to be introduced to a college buddy, not the tall woman with the brilliant smile who had stepped out of the crowd and now stood next to him. She was objectively beautiful.
“What?” Greg asked, clearly startled. “What the…?”
“A story for another time,” Kerry replied. “A drunker time.” She extended an elegant hand to Brandt. “Ethan, I’m very pleased to meet you.”
“Likewise,” Brandt managed as they shook hands.
“Please, sit,” Greg said, pulling out the third chair at the table.
“Are you sure I’m not intruding?” she asked with an impish inflection, winking at Greg.
“Alas, no, you’re not,” Greg replied with a chuckle. “Ethan’s wedding isn’t for another week, but he’s already the most married man I know.”
Kerry smiled at Brandt as she sat. “You must be very married indeed. I’ve known plenty of men—and women—who got significantly less married the longer they spent in Greg’s company.”
“Now, if you’re going to tell all my secrets I may have to disinvite you,” Greg scolded with a grin. He turned to Brandt. “One of the risks of keeping in touch with friends from college is that they can tell stories about our awkward first gropings toward adulthood.”
Kerry’s musical laughter rose above the din of the bar. “Awkward gropings indeed! This guy,” she said, pointing at Greg, “had a line out the door and down the dormitory hall, all desperately hoping they might be the next one to get an awkward groping.”
Brandt raised an eyebrow at Greg. This was a side of him he hadn’t heard of before.
“It wasn’t like that at all,” Greg protested. “The first couple of years, I was pretty much lost and confused, trying to make it work with women, most of whom—”
“Most of whom would have given their left boob to be the first to hang a tie on your dorm-room door.”
“Yeah, it always seemed to fall apart after the third date,” Greg said. “That was when certain difficulties arose for me.”
“Or didn’t arise, as the case may be,” Kerry rejoined, casting a wry look at Brandt. “Poor Greg was simply desperate to put his square peg into a round hole. No wonder it wasn’t working.”
Greg fixed his friend with a judgmental squint. “I don’t remember you being so sassy.”
“You don’t remember me after a couple of drinks. Speaking of which,” she said, glancing around the table, “it looks like it’s time for another round. What are we drinking?” Kerry waved to a passing server.
“Expensing this to big pharma?”
“You know it. A conference like this is pretty much a gold mine for us, so the bean counters don’t blink at a bar tab until it hits the mid four digits.”
Greg looked at Brandt. “Kerry here is in sales for one of the big drug companies.”
“I used to be a bench chemist,” she explained to Brandt. “But it turns out there’s less money in coming up with the drugs than there is in smiling prettily to doctors about them, so now I’m the VP of North American sales.” She turned back to Greg. “I’ve pretty much sold out, which is something my friend here knows all about, having turned his promising career as an award-winning investigative reporter into a cushy job reading the teleprompter. And now he’s enjoying semiretirement as a philanthropist.” She reached over and mussed his hair. “So proud of you, by the way.”
“The feeling’s mutual,” he replied, beaming.
“So, Ethan, what brings you here? No, wait, let me guess.” She looked him up and down. “Judging from the musculature, I’m going to say… ortho?”
He shook his head. “I’m afraid not. I’m just a state police officer. I help Greg out with talks on behalf of his organization.”
Her eyes widened. “Wait, you’re the one who spoke to the group this afternoon? About marriage equality in the emergency room?”
Puzzled, Brandt nodded.
“Oh wow. It’s all anyone could talk about for the whole rest of the day. I was working in my company’s booth in the trade area, and usually when one of the big speeches finishes up everyone rushes the floor to see who’s giving away iPads and drinkable chardonnay. But you’ve never seen such long faces. I counted three who were still blotting tears—trauma surgeons, crying!—because of what happened to….” She took a sharp breath and laid her hand on Greg’s, her bright eyes instantly welling with tears. “Sorry, love.”
Greg smiled a bit mournfully and put his hand on hers. “Thanks.”
“I wish I’d had a chance to meet him,” she said softly.
“He was the love of my life, and I’m grateful we got to spend a few years together. I think I heal a little bit every time we do one of these events in his name. And I’m very lucky to have Ethan along to tell the story. I don’t think I’d be able to keep it together if I had to do it alone.”
She turned back to Brandt. “You must be some kind of speaker. I wish I’d had a chance to see your talk.”
Brandt—blushing deeply, of course—chuckled self-consciously. “I can’t do anything like what Greg can at the podium, but I do my best.”
“Handsome, muscly, and modest. Someone very lucky is going down the aisle with you.”
“I will tell him you said so,” Brandt said with a smile. Their drinks arrived to save him from having to deal with any more compliments.
“So, at the risk of bringing the room down,” Greg said once they’d all had a sip, “what’s this about going back to your maiden name?”
Kerry sighed and set down her drink. “Remember that thing you warned me about before my wedding? When I accused you of being a jealous drama queen and told you he would never in a million years ever do such a thing, ever?”
Greg put his hand to his mouth. “He didn’t!”
“Did he ever. Then slunk away in the dark of night. Only heard from him one time after that, when he called to offer me a good chunk of his trust fund to keep it quiet. Well, I’m not one to go advertising my poor taste in men, so I never would have breathed a word, but I may have neglected to point that out. So much on my mind at the time, you know.” Kerry laughed. “Next day the papers arrived, I signed, and once the fantastically complicated financial operation had ground slowly to its conclusion, I started my new life as a single lady—as of a month ago. Now all I need,” she concluded, looking about the room, “is to find a nice trauma surgeon to spend a little time with.”
“As hunting grounds for rebound guys go, you could do worse than a bar full of doctors far from home,” Greg advised. “Just be warned that most married trauma surgeons don’t usually wear wedding bands, so watching for a tan line on their ring fingers won’t help you much.”
Kerry laughed. “After what I’ve been through, I think my sleaze detector is pretty finely honed. Turns out that every single buddy of my ex had something going on the side, from a weekly rubdown courtesy of a night nurse to an entire second family the next town over. I know all the signs.” She scanned the room, a sniper acquiring targets. “There’s a bachelor surgeon out there who’s going to crawl to the breakfast buffet tomorrow with the last bit of strength I’ve left him.” She snapped back from sniper to charming pharmaceutical executive in the blink of an eye. “But first, a drink with my college buddy and his strapping but very taken friend.” She held her glass up, and the men joined her in toasting friendship.
Saturday, Two Weeks until the Wedding
Morning, San Diego
TWO DAYS later, Kerry had apparently remembered her whiskey-induced threat to attend the session with the hospital administrators to see Brandt “work his magic.” On Saturday morning she arrived as Brandt was pacing the room, trying to work off his nerves. The ballroom was empty except for a silent band of chair arrangers plying their craft, conjuring neat rows of hundreds of seats from the stacks that kept emerging from closets at the back of the room.
She watched him for a moment as he paced. “This really does make you nervous, doesn’t it?”
He looked up, glad of the distraction. “Frantically. I hardly have to do cardio anymore, given that my pulse doubles every time I even think about what I have to do up there in an hour.” He jerked his head toward the dais at the front of the room. “And this one’s even worse—it’s my first panel discussion.”
She looked at the raised platform. “I would think it would be easier that way, since you’re not up there all alone.”
“Yes, but the people I’m up there with are all smart, and expert in their field, and they probably do this all the time. I’m going to look like I accidentally wandered in from the valet stand.”
She stepped toward him and put an empathetic hand on his arm. “You will be charming and eloquent, and what you say up there will change the lives of the people in this room. I’ve seen the aftermath of one of your talks, remember.”
He smiled, glad to be pulled away from his obsessive dread. “Thanks. I needed to hear that, and normally Gabriel’s the one to tell me. I would have called him, but he’s on his way to the airport by now and doesn’t need to bother with my insecurities.” He shook off his moping. “Greg and I missed you at brunch yesterday.”
Kerry laughed. “Remember my plan to completely exhaust some strapping trauma surgeon? Well, let’s just say he had more stamina than I was expecting. We were still a bit involved when that brunch date rolled around.” She looked a little sheepish. “Truth be told, I was lucky to get dinner. Thank God for room service.” A hint of blush appeared on her cheeks.
“So you were looking for a rebound guy but found something more?”
“Oh hell no,” she retorted with a laugh. “Don’t get me wrong, we rebounded for nearly twenty-four hours straight. But every time he opened his mouth, I remembered why I don’t like surgeons. The only time he ever said anything that didn’t start with ‘I’ was when he was telling me what to do. To him. Luckily we spent most of the day in an incoherent tangle, and I was spared a third telling of how he rebuilt the cheekbone of a major-league baseball player whose name I didn’t recognize, much to his disappointment.”
“So no second date?”
She shook her head vigorously. “But if I ever change my mind, he left me a glossy eight-by-ten headshot with his office number on it,” she said with a roll of her eyes. “Plastics guys somehow view their own beauty as a testament to their skill. Not to say he wasn’t beautiful. And strong. He had muscles in some amazingly convenient places….” She drifted off dreamily.
“Good for you,” Brandt said, genuinely happy for her. “Now, would you like to accompany me to find some coffee? Somehow being blitzed on caffeine helps me be less nervous.”
“It would be my pleasure, Officer Brandt,” she replied with a broad smile.
Somewhere inside Brandt’s autonomic nervous system, an ancient relic of hetero chivalry swung into motion, and his arm extended for her to take as if they were a prom couple. He looked down at his elbow in no small surprise, but if Kerry was fazed by it, she gave no sign; in fact, she smiled warmly as she slid her arm through his. They walked together to the coffee bar in the hotel lobby.
Along the way, Brandt caught sight of their reflection in several of the mirrors mounted on the walls. They made a striking couple, evidenced by the number of heads turning to watch them walk by. The part of Brandt that was gratified ran smack into the part of him that was mortified to know everyone who watched them pass surely considered them a couple. A man and a woman. Together. Brandt suddenly felt the heavy weight of guilt press into his chest as they approached the coffee counter.
“What’s your drink, Officer?” Kerry asked, looking at the menu card. “My treat. Least I can do after standing you up for brunch.”
“My taste in coffee is pretty simple,” he managed to reply. “It’s Gabriel who can go on and on about coffee in its many and varied forms. All of which, apparently, make a big difference to fancy coffee people, but I can’t really tell the good stuff from whatever comes in a can at the grocery store. I sometimes think he can divine from the first sip the name of the plantation where the stuff was grown.” Now he was just rambling.
“You really are nervous, aren’t you? You didn’t even take a breath there.” She smiled and again put a hand on his arm. “You’ll be okay. We’ll get some coffee in you and it will all be fine.” She looked up at the waiting barista. “Two Americanos, please, extra shot?”
Brandt tried to breathe normally.
“I think he was disappointed you didn’t order,” Kerry whispered conspiratorially. “He hasn’t taken his eyes off you since we walked up, the poor boy.”
Brandt glanced up at the young man making their coffees. He seemed to be about the same age as Jonah and Casey, the wrestlers from Woodley who were now finishing their first year at university. As Brandt caught his eye, the barista immediately broke into a flattered grin that stayed—just barely—on the side of professionalism.
“And now you’ve disappointed the cashier,” Kerry continued, glancing at the woman about the same age as the barista who was busily running Kerry’s card for the coffee purchase. “She seemed hopeful that you would smile at her instead of the coffee boy.”
Brandt looked from the barista to the cashier, aghast at the drama he was causing.
“Oh, don’t panic, dear,” Kerry said warmly as the barista put lids on their drinks. “Surely you’re used to this.”
“I never….” He had no idea what to say.
“That’s an Americano, extra shot, for the gentleman,” the barista said, gazing into Brandt’s eyes with a force that made him blink in surprise.
“Thank you”—Brandt glanced at the young man’s nameplate—“Luke.”
Luke blushed, fidgeted, and nearly dropped Kerry’s coffee. “And one for the… lady,” he added distractedly.
“Why, thank you,” Kerry exclaimed, as if he had laid his coat across a puddle for her. She made a not-terribly-successful effort to stifle a giggle.
They walked halfway across the lobby to a pair of ornate armchairs hidden behind a planter full of orchids. Brandt offered the chair with the intricately decorated pillow to Kerry and sat down in the other.
She sipped her coffee and regarded him appraisingly. “Now, when I met you, I knew you were modest. But my goodness, man, have you no clue the wake of roiling hormones you leave behind you as you stride through this world?”
“Now you’re just having fun,” he replied. “And since I am a good sport and you bought my coffee, I will allow you to.” He raised his cup to her and took a drink.
“Ethan, please,” she replied with a hint of an eye roll. “I am having fun, but you can be assured that the little melodrama played out at this hotel lobby coffee bar is just the latest in a long, long line. Surely you’ve noticed it?”
Brandt considered this for a moment. “It’s not that I’ve never noticed anything like that,” he said slowly, “but only among a pretty distinct community of people. See, there’s this friend of mine by the name of Bryce who just goes on and on about me and Gabriel, but that’s just his way. Well, him and his… friend? Partner…? Well, I’m not sure what to call Nestor, but he and Bryce are kind of birds of a feather. A pretty fabulous feather, actually. But aside from them… and our wedding planner this one time… oh, and there’s Nick, but he’s straight. Sort of. I guess….” He wound down and slumped in confusion. “I really am kind of clueless.”
“I’d still call you modest, not clueless,” Kerry replied. “If you took notice of everyone who looked at you like our poor barista, you’d not have time to do anything else. And I can assume that Gabriel has a similar effect on people?”
“Oh yes,” Brandt answered immediately. “Now, guys throw themselves at him.”
Kerry nodded, clearly feeling vindicated. “And he would doubtless say the same about you,” she summed up. “But does he also attract the attention of the fairer sex, as you did with our desolate cashier over there? I only ask because it’s a rare gay man who can draw the ladies the way you do. Greg could pull it off in college, but that was because he was still in denial, and there were many, many women who wanted to help him nail that closet door shut. But once he decided which team he truly plays for, the ladies in waiting… well, they gave up waiting.”
Brandt’s head was swimming again. Every question this woman asked sent him into a tailspin. But a moment’s reflection made clear that she was spot-on. As Donnelly had grown into his skin as a gay man, the hungry looks that came his way came entirely from men. “I guess you’re right,” he said. “It’s men who follow him across the room. But it is—and I’m not kidding here—every single one of them.”
She nodded sagely. “And yet you,” she said, narrowing her gaze, “you pull in everyone. So what that says to me is—”
“That this is about to become a therapy session rather than a friendly chat over coffee?” he interrupted with a smile that showed he meant no offense.
“Your requisition for a change of subject has been declined,” she replied. “What this says to me is that—despite your impending marriage to another man—you somehow manage to, shall we say, engage both men and women. That makes you… bisexual, perhaps?”
“Wow, when you analyze someone, you really go for it, don’t you?” Brandt shook his head and tried to think through all of the things that were wrong with her statement, but kept tripping over the things that were right in it. It was a mess.
“It’s probably too late to say that I don’t want to pry, isn’t it?” she said impishly. “But it’s just that I’m a pretty good judge of people—my horrid ex to the side—and I also lack any sort of filter to keep every thought in my head from rolling right out my mouth like some demented gumball machine. So, I have to ask: honestly, Ethan, do you even live in that amazing body of yours?”
“I’m starting to think I don’t,” he said, seriously and with no small amount of distress plain in his voice.
She sat back in surprise. “It… it was just a joke—”
“No, I’m serious. I think you’re exactly right.” He looked at her, studying this person who had shown up out of nowhere to jostle his entire self-concept. “Not about the bisexuality, though—you’re completely up a tree about that. But about not living in my body. That’s something Gabriel said to me recently, and he’s known me for years. You got that after being in my presence for a grand total of less than a half an hour.”
“Well, this may sound trite,” she replied, “but women know things.”
“I guess they do,” Brandt said, sitting back in his chair.
Kerry took a breath as if she were about to launch into another inquisition about his identity, and Brandt knew he had to keep that from happening.
“Well, I should get in there,” he blurted, standing abruptly. “Thank you for the distraction. And the coffee. And the psychotherapy.”
“It was my pleasure,” she assured him, rising as well. “You don’t mind if I stick around for the panel, do you? I desperately want to see the Ethan Brandt magic in action for myself. I mean, you have the strapping young barista demographic completely on board, but I would love to see you work a room of hospital administrators. One imagines that a smile—and a shirt full of pectoral muscle—won’t put them over the moon quite so easily.”
“I would be delighted to have another friendly face in the audience. May I escort you back to the room, then?” he asked, holding his arm out again. She took it with a graceful nod, and they made their elegant way through the lobby, once again drawing the eyes of most hotel guests. Brandt let it roll over him, as he had reached his self-reflection limit for the morning.
As the panel began, Brandt was distracted by the presence, in the front row, of Greg and Kerry, who sat together and fixed him with remarkably similar looks of appreciation. Either their early history together had shaped them in ways that were still visible a decade after college, or they thought the same things when they looked at Brandt. That, more than the pressure to say the right thing at the right moment, made him nervous as the panel discussion got underway.
But he soon found his bearings and was able to tell the story of Greg and Peter and the horrible drama that played out at the hospital after their wedding, when Greg was prevented from ever seeing his husband of only a few hours on his deathbed because their marriage wasn’t recognized by the laws of that state. As was the case with the trauma surgeons two days before, there were more than a few tear-dampened faces among the hundreds in the conference hall. Brandt was more keenly aware of this effect than he had been previously, and it gave him a sense of accomplishment that surprised him—not because he could make people cry but because the crying would likely make them remember the import of his talk long after they left the room.
At the end of the panel discussion, Greg and Kerry hovered near the dais while Brandt shook hands and fielded quiet questions from the other panel members—including one who, early in the discussion, had tried to defend the refusal of religiously affiliated hospitals to recognize visitation rights for gay spouses. The panelists took a few pictures, trading their phones around so everyone would get a shot of the group. Brandt was handed business cards from several administrators who wanted to talk with him about making a presentation at their hospitals, and he cheerfully promised to make himself available if his schedule allowed it.
Finally he was able to detach from the group and join Greg and Kerry.
“Great job, as always,” Greg said, crushing Brandt into a hug.
“You’re damn lucky I packed waterproof mascara, you brute,” Kerry teased, clutching a tissue in one hand while she embraced him with the other arm. “That was a master class, my good man. You won them all over within the first two minutes, and even that dick from Saint Whatever’s knew he was in the presence of a higher power. Dude.” She hugged him again.
“Now, I made a promise to a certain Officer Gabriel Donnelly that I would get you to the airport in plenty of time to get on the plane to New York, so I must now march you right out the front door. Got your luggage?”
Brandt reached behind the curtain that covered the wall behind the dais and pulled out his rolling duffel. “Good to go, chief,” he said smartly.
“So, I’m also flying out today,” Kerry said. “Can I hitch a ride to the airport with y’all?”
“You’re welcome, of course, but it’s just Ethan flying out this morning,” Greg said. “I need to work the rest of the meeting to make sure I ruthlessly exploit every tear shed in this room for the good of mankind.”
“You go,” Kerry replied. “He set ’em up, now you knock ’em down, buddy.” She socked Greg on the arm, then turned to Brandt. “Ready to go?”
“Don’t you need your luggage?” Brandt asked.
“I have everything I need right here,” she said, pulling a small rolling bag from behind her chair. “I can pack for a five-day trip in this bag, including cocktail wear and something casually elegant in which to rock a walk of shame like a boss. I tell you, what the modern woman must do to keep all of this up.” She held her arms glamorously wide, as if she were a spokesmodel gesturing next to a very expensive car.
Brandt and Greg exchanged a look and a shrug.
“Oh, right,” she said, dropping her arms. “Forgot that my siren song falls on deaf ears in this group. All right, then, let’s fly,” she said, then hugged Greg. “Love you, buddy. I’ll see you soon?”
“You will,” Greg replied, holding the hug a long moment. “You take care, Ms. Mercer.”
“I will. And for at least a little while, I’ll have this hunk of man to take care of me.”
“You don’t strike me as a woman who needs taking care of,” Brandt said with a laugh. “In fact, I’m a little scared to be setting out without Greg to protect me.”
“You two,” Greg said, laughing. “Get going. Have a great trip, and I’ll see you at the wedding.”
“Which reminds me,” Brandt said as he tucked his notes into his rolling bag, “Gabriel mentioned last week that you still hadn’t told him whom you were bringing.”
“That’s because I hadn’t decided until last night.”
Brandt waited a moment. “And that decision is…?”
“You’re looking at her,” Kerry said, once again holding her arms dramatically aloft. She looked at their faces, then dropped her arms and slumped. “I have to stop doing that.”
“That’s awesome,” Brandt said, genuinely pleased. “I can’t wait to introduce you to Gabriel. And I trust you will save me a dance?”
“Of course,” both Greg and Kerry answered, and all three cracked up laughing.
A first-class lounge
“YOU KNOW, the drinks are free,” the man said as he sat down next to Donnelly.
“Oh, thanks,” Donnelly replied distractedly. This was his first time in the first-class lounge. And likely his last time, given the travel budget of police officers.
“You look like you could use one.”
Donnelly looked up, surprised. “Is it that obvious?” he said with a chuckle.
“Looks like you’ve got a lot on your mind, is all.”
“I guess I do. And I guess I could use a drink.”
“No, don’t get up. No sense shuffling all of those papers around.” The man stood again. “What can I get you?”
“You don’t have to—”
“Please. I’m already up. What’ll it be?”
Donnelly smiled gratefully. “A gin and tonic wouldn’t go amiss right now, I guess. And thank you.”
“No worries. I’ll be right back. You just try to keep all your papers in order until I return.” He smiled warmly, his voice light.
The man was back shortly with a tall, elegant glass in which a lime wedge bobbed and glistened, surrounded by tiny bubbles. “I hope Tanqueray’s okay—I took a chance that you’re not a Sapphire man.”
Donnelly took the glass from him. “Thank you so much. And I’m afraid my gin preferences are determined solely by what’s on sale.” He looked around the room. “Though that’s probably not something that gets said out loud much in a place like this.”
The man laughed. “It can be a pretty stuffy place, all right,” he said, sitting in the chair perpendicular to Donnelly’s, setting his own drink on the low square table in the corner their chairs made. He tucked his messenger bag between himself and the arm of the chair, the strap remaining around his shoulder. “That’s why I often try to find someone who looks like he’s here for the first time. Much better conversation that way.” He extended his hand. “Name’s Sandler.”
Donnelly grasped the other man’s hand. “Gabriel. Pleased to meet you, Sandler.”
“Likewise.” Sandler took a sip of his drink. “Traveling for business?”
“Pleasure, actually,” Donnelly replied. Then he looked at the piles of paper in his lap, and on the seat next to him. “Though it probably looks like I’m planning something on the order of the invasion of Normandy, it’s actually just a wedding.”
Sandler’s eyebrow lifted. “Yours?”
Donnelly nodded. “It’s in two weeks. It was supposed to be a small event at a local church with a few friends and family, but suddenly it’s turned into this huge, out-of-control Frankenstein’s monster of a thing.” He took a big drink of the gin and tonic. “As an example of how insane it all is, I’m about to fly to New York to get on a ship. A ship. Who does that anymore? But apparently that’s how one arrives at a wedding in a castle.”
“Wow.” Sandler looked around the room. “Is your fiancée already there, waiting for you?”
Donnelly rolled his eyes. “Not exactly. He’s at a conference in San Diego, and got stuck there for an extra day. So instead of coming home yesterday and making the trip with me, he’s going to fly there directly and meet me this evening, assuming everything goes perfectly to plan.” He sighed. “I’m sure it will be a lovely voyage straight out of a 1940s movie, but getting there with my faculties intact is the challenge.”
“Well, congratulations,” Sandler said, holding his glass to Donnelly. “I wish you every happiness.”
“Thank you, kind sir.” They drank, and then Donnelly looked up from his stacks of paper. “What brings you here?”
Sandler’s small smile seemed well practiced. “I kind of live here,” he said. “I travel a lot for work.”
“Ah, I see. I don’t know how you do it. I hardly ever travel, and I think you can see already it stresses me out a little. Especially when I’m on my own. If Ethan were here, he’d be pacing and fidgeting and getting me another drink every five minutes.” Donnelly shook his head. “It’s funny, but his mania kind of relaxes me. If I know he’s worrying over everything, then my job is to keep him calm, and that kind of keeps me calm too.”
“You guys been together a long time?”
“It’s been about four years. But for the first two of those, we were just partners on the job. Still, I count them because we were basically together 24-7.”
“Let me guess,” Sandler said, rubbing his chin and looking at Donnelly through narrowed eyes. “Police?”
Donnelly nodded. “Very good.”
“Must be a pretty progressive police department if they hire enough gay officers to provide a decent dating pool,” Sandler said with a laugh.
“The department’s been great, but we were pretty much the first to be out. Then again, I’m not actually sure how progressive they were when we joined up. We were straight when they hired us.”
“Ah,” Sandler replied thoughtfully, then sipped his drink. He stopped before swallowing, looked at Donnelly with a tipped head, then swallowed awkwardly. “I’m sorry… what?”
“We were both straight at the time.”
Sandler smiled, but his brow was furrowed. “So I did hear you correctly. I just have never heard anyone say that, I guess….” He stumbled to a stop and shrugged in confusion.
Donnelly grinned. “Yeah, I get that a lot. I should probably come up with some other way to say it, or maybe not say it at all.”
Sandler laughed. “No, please don’t try to be boring. Anyone can be boring. Especially in a place like this.” He looked around at the relentlessly sedate furnishings, the soft lighting, the hushed conversation going on in scattered groupings of suited-and-tied businessfolk. “But you are obligated now to tell me how it happened.”
“Nothing really earth-shattering,” Donnelly replied. “We worked together for a couple of years and got to be best friends. Then we had a kind of stressful undercover assignment, and we were forced to face just how close we’d become. Ultimately the thought of losing him scared me more than the thought of not being straight anymore.”
“That’s actually really beautiful,” Sandler said, his grin turning a little melancholy, just for a moment, before it reset into a more blandly positive configuration. “Good for you. So, tell me about the wedding.”
Donnelly sighed. “Which one?” He chuckled and shook his head. “We’d been planning for more than a year, and then last month the whole thing got ripped out from under us, so now we’re working on ‘Wedding 2.0: The Destination.’”
“How does that happen? What could possibly rip your wedding out from under you?”
“That’s kind of a complicated story. Short version is that by doing our jobs, we managed to piss off someone very powerful, who decided to take a bit of revenge by getting our reception venue to cancel our reservation. The one we’d made a year in advance.”
“Good for you,” Sandler replied.
“Hmm?” Donnelly inquired through his sip of gin and tonic.
“If you pissed off someone who’s that much of an asshole, then you clearly did the right thing. So good for you.”
“Thanks, I guess. Hadn’t really thought of it that way before. But, it turns out to be no easier to plan a wedding from the moral high ground.”
“But you’re taking a cruise across the Atlantic and getting married in a castle. In terms of romantic nuptials, that pretty much takes the cake.”
Donnelly smiled wryly. “I guess we lucked out there. James, the person who got us involved in the case in the first place, felt bad about how our wedding got ruined, so he set this all up for us—cruise, castle on the coast of Devon, the works. I didn’t think it would have been possible to do on such short notice, but that’s the thing about money. If you are willing to throw sacks of cash at a problem, the problem usually goes away. Or becomes someone else’s problem.”
“Well, I think it sounds lovely. I’m heading for London today, and I’m sure you’re going to enjoy the trip much more than I will. Your troubles are no doubt behind you, and it’s all going to go flawlessly from this moment on.”
It was at that moment that the public-address system interrupted the luxurious quiet of the first-class lounge.
“May I have your attention, please” came the dulcet tones of the concierge’s deep British/Indian voice. “We regret to inform you that due to volcanic activity in Iceland, all aircraft are being held on the ground at this time. We expect that flights will resume within a matter of hours, except for those bound for airports in the Northeastern United States, including the New York and Boston metropolitan areas. We apologize for the delay, and if there’s anything we can do to accommodate you in the meantime, I hope you will let us know.” The microphone clicked off, and about half of the people in the room rose and walked toward the desk.
“Oh, that’s not good,” Sandler said.
“If the problem is over Iceland, why can’t we get to New York?”
“Because most flights over the Atlantic begin or end there. They’ll have flights incoming, but no flights able to depart for Europe, which means there’ll be a whole lot of planes on the ground, and then the overflow will be diverted to Boston and the other airports in the region. They’ll be hard-pressed to handle all of that congestion even without domestic flights coming in and out. Same thing happened last time Iceland erupted. It took days before the first flight could go, and weeks before schedules returned to normal. Flying around ash clouds takes a lot of extra fuel, so the airlines tend to cancel rather than reroute.”
Donnelly sat back, aghast. “So there’s no chance I’m getting to New York today?”
Sandler took in a tactful breath, clearly aware he was delivering bad news. “I’m afraid not, Gabriel. If you skip the cruise, you could try to get a flight through Atlanta or Miami, fly across to Rome or Madrid, and then connect to London by rail. It would be a long couple of days.” He glanced up at the concierge desk, now swamped with travelers. “Though you’d have a lot of company.”
“But the ship is in New York. Ethan’s going to New York.”
“Not today he’s not.” Sandler stood. “Let me get you another drink. And then we’ll get this figured out. Don’t worry,” he said with a bracing smile. “We’ll get you to the church on time.”