Even hot messes need a happily ever after.
With the quiet help of his wealthy family, Sebastian “Baz” Acker has successfully kept his painful past at bay. But as the end of college draws near, his friends—his buffer zone—are preparing to move on, while his own life is at a crippling standstill. With loneliness bearing down on him, Baz hooks up—then opens up—with Elijah Prince, the guy Baz took a bullet for last year. The aftershocks of their one-night stand leave giant cracks in Baz’s carefully constructed armor. For the first time, the prospect isn’t terrifying.
Accustomed to escaping his demons by withdrawing into his imagination, Elijah isn’t used to having a happy herd of friends. He’s even less comfortable as the object of a notorious playboy’s affections. Yet all signs seem to indicate this time happiness might be within his grasp. When Baz’s mother runs for a highly sought-after public office, the media hounds drag Baz’s and Elijah’s pasts into the light. In the blinding glare, Baz and Elijah face the ultimate test: discovering if they’re stronger together…or apart.
As far as Elijah Prince was concerned, gay weddings could choke on their own cheery goddamned glitter and die.
He sat alone in the back of the overflowing reception hall, framed by floral, ribbon, and balloon garlands aesthetically balanced on the head of the most fabulous of pins. The decor came courtesy of the high-priced wedding planner one of the grooms, Walter, had imported from his native Chicago, because only the best would be procured for his darling Kelly. The chairs and tables, decorated with runners of Italian silk, were Disney-movie themed, because Kelly ate, breathed, and farted Disney.
The grooms had arrived at the reception via a fucking horse-drawn carriage. The wedding party’s table was bedecked in Tangled colors and paraphernalia: little-girl purple and Rapunzel-hair gold weaving between toy figurines and play sets. The space for parents and immediate family sported colors and action figures from Beauty and the Beast, a sea of bright blue and a gold which should have clashed with the Rapunzel yellow yet somehow didn’t.
Elijah was at one of the sections reserved for the choirs and orchestra. His table’s theme was light blue and white, for Frozen. It made him want to gag. He was the only social orphan at the music table, possibly at the entire wedding. Giles Mulder, Aaron Seavers, and Mina Stevenson were at the table legitimately. Giles and Mina were in the Saint Timothy orchestra, Aaron choir, and they all three had roles in one form or another in the all-male and all-female a cappella groups from their college.
Aaron had already broken ranks, leaving the wedding party to snuggle at the music table with Giles, but though Elijah attended Saint Timothy too, he was in zero musical groups. No doubt someone, probably Aaron, had pleaded with Walter and Kelly on Elijah’s behalf to give him an exemption to sit with the musical people.
It didn’t matter how bitter and nasty Elijah was. Giles and Aaron had decided to adopt him, and apparently they intended to never leave him behind. Elijah often loathed the level of their intrusion, except when he was weak enough to admit it was sometimes the only thing keeping him going.
“What are your plans for this summer, Elijah?” Mina asked this as Aaron made his Anna figure flirt with Giles’s Kristoff. When Giles had Kristoff respond with bald innuendo, Mina laughed and launched a handful of table confetti at them so it appeared to come from her Elsa doll.
Elijah nudged his plate hard enough to knock his Sven figure onto its side as he slumped deeper into his seat. “Pastor Schulz got me a job at the cafeteria. Doing dishes and taking out the garbage.” He felt bad about the note of complaint and cleared his throat. “I’m glad to have it.”
“You’re still moving into the White House with us this fall, right?”
Elijah nodded without enthusiasm. The White House was the old mansion north of the music building that traditionally provided off-campus housing for music students. Aaron and Giles would be there, as would Mina and her friend Jilly. Elijah was slated to room with Giles’s old roommate, Brian, who with Elijah would be the other non-music person. It was all tidily arranged.
Except everyone else would be paying rent, whereas Elijah’s portion would be paid out of the pity fund Walter Davidson, née Lucas, had set up for Elijah because he was now officially without parental support. The money in the trust would cover his tuition and any books and supplies his summer job wouldn’t.
A familiar chuckle sent a shiver down Elijah’s spine, and he let his gaze slip to the tall, smiling young man wearing sunglasses at the other end of their table. Baz Acker would be at the White House too.
Mina caught Elijah’s hand discreetly under the table and squeezed. “Let people care for you, okay? You’re owed a little kickback from the game of life.”
“It feels weird.” Elijah buried his Sven figure deeper under his plate and cast a caustic glare Aaron’s direction, waiting for him to point out Elijah used to hate how no one would help him.
Aaron fixed his gaze on his plate, his pretty-boy expression taking on shadows. “I know. But it gets easier, I promise.”
It should have comforted him, this reminder that yes, Aaron did understand. He’d been a stalwart protector of Elijah since he found out they both had remix variations on shit-tastic parents. But as usual, Elijah exhibited an allergic reaction to kindness. “Maybe I should find an even sorrier sap than me to coach through his hell, since it worked so well for you.”
Giles glared at Elijah and punched him in the arm.
“You’re going to be fine. It hasn’t been long since…everything.” Mina put a hand in the center of Elijah’s back. “Give yourself space to find your feet. Take comfort in people removing some of your concerns.”
“I’ve helped myself since I was in middle school. I don’t like this attention, the owing people.”
This comment turned the gentle massage at his back into a pointed nudge. “When you were helping yourself in middle and high school, your parents hadn’t attempted to gun you down in the middle of a college campus.”
“Yeah, well, they did plenty of shit almost as bad before, but nobody saw.”
“I think it’s why we want to help you. We know you faced worse, and it upsets us.”
“Yes, but these people donating to the damn trust fund don’t know me. They only feel sorry for me.” Given the burgeoning tally of how much poor Elijah money Walter had collected, a whole lot of people felt sorry for him. It weirded him the fuck out.
“They won’t feel sorry for you if they talk to you for more than five minutes,” Giles drawled. This time Aaron punched him in the arm.
Mina ignored them both and kept soothing Elijah. “Maybe some feel sorry. But anyone there that day, any of our parents and families—we understand exactly what kind of hell you were living with. We want to take some of it away from you.”
You can’t erase hell with a check. Before Elijah could figure out a less caustic way to phrase that, Walter’s friend Cara stood up to make a toast, and the conversation came to a blissful end.
The first attendant’s speech was cute, but a little too much so. When it ended with someone clinking a spoon against a wineglass, inspiring the grooms to kiss, Elijah slipped a flask of cheap whiskey out of his suit coat pocket and took a heavy pull. When everyone whooped and catcalled because Walter pulled Kelly across his lap and kissed him deeper, Elijah emptied the flask some more.
“Go for the tonsils, Lucas,” Baz Acker called.
Elijah tipped his head all the way back, fully intending to drown himself in blissful, drunken oblivion, but before he could, Giles leaned across the table and swiped the flask from Elijah’s hand.
“Hey.” Elijah glared and tried to retrieve his alcohol.
Giles moved it out of reach. “You’re sleeping in the same room as me, and I’m not spending the night listening to you retch into the toilet.” He tucked the flask into his jacket pocket and passed over a bottle of water. “Salvo is going up to sing. Mina will want you to watch.”
Elijah pasted on a polite expression as Salvo assumed their position on the stage. Though Elijah still didn’t want to be here, Giles was right about Mina, and he kept his grouchiness to himself.
They performed an a cappella version of “Something That I Want”, which Elijah knew from watching the girls rehearse was a song that played over the credits of Tangled, Kelly Davidson’s favorite movie of all time. The song was cheesy and this Disney movie shit was totally fucking OTT, but Mina sang wicked lead, and Elijah tapped his toe despite himself. Kelly got up and danced with them, sort of singing but mostly vacillating between blushing and flirting outrageously with his groom, who sat on a chair in front of the stage and ate up the performance with a spoon.
As the song concluded and the audience clapped, Salvo retreated to the wings, and the Ambassadors got up from the table to take their place.
Saying the Ambassadors were hot was like saying water was wet. Each member was either out-and-out gorgeous or exuding so much raw character their rougher mugs only added to their draw. They smelled good as well—this close up, one good deep breath filled Elijah’s sinuses with enough man sweat to give him a semi. Aaron was in the Ambassadors, and while he wasn’t Elijah’s type, he wasn’t painful to look at, especially when he was lost in the joy of a song. In the same way Kelly had joined Salvo for their number, Walter became an honorary Ambassador, and his winks and smiles poked through Elijah’s natural crankiness and cranked up his libido. Walter was Exhibit A of gay-boy crack: flirty, charming, sexy. It was no accident Walter was the one singing about being a heartbreaker tearing girls apart. Anyone with a pulse would go home with Walter.
There was another Ambassador Elijah couldn’t stop watching, though while he was even more handsome than Walter, he also came with an overwhelming sense of guilt and shame. Intellectually Elijah knew the limp and occasional hitch as Sebastian Acker danced was from the hush-hush accident in high school that had severely eclipsed his vision and graced him with a partially titanium skeleton. Yet there was no question the harrowing events of the nightmare afternoon with Elijah’s parents only a few short months ago had done anything but aggravate those ancient wounds.
How did you say I’m sorry when your dad shoots someone in the shoulder? When someone takes a bullet so you and others around you don’t have to? What did it mean when said hero had already saved you once before—but then, as now, never had so much as a casual smile for you in the aftermath?
Baz smiled tonight—a dark, delicious leer pulling at Elijah’s gut.
Elijah endured the performance in sullen and sadly sober silence. Beside him Giles whooped and applauded when Aaron sang solo. When Walter descended into his adoring audience during the final chorus and the Ambassadors urged everyone to close in on the groom, Giles rose, laughing, to join them.
Unfortunately, at the last second he also grabbed Elijah’s hand.
“No.” Elijah clamped a hand on his chair to keep himself from being dragged off to the gulag.
Giles tugged Elijah to his feet. “Yes. It’s a fucking wedding. You can resume being a caustic asshole tomorrow, but today is Walter and Kelly’s happily ever after, and today you’re going to dance.”
Elijah wanted to argue, to wrestle out of Giles’s hold and describe the full detail of how he wasn’t dancing at a wedding, ever, but Giles was stronger than he seemed for a scrawny geek with big ears. And Elijah might be a caustic asshole, but no, he couldn’t make a scene. Not today, not with these people.
It was hell. The whole day had been acid down his back, but this dance, this moment, surrounded by the great music nerd herd, Baz less than six feet away from him as he flirted with Walter and Kelly’s friends—this was dancing on knives. Everyone smiling. Everyone happy. Everyone laughing, connected, joyously united for those they loved.
Everyone but Elijah.
He moved woodenly, trying not to stand out. Trying not to look like the short, skinny freak he was. Mina drew him into a circle with her and Jilly. When the song was over, Mina squeezed his hand. He stiffened, thinking she’d haul him off for yet another fucking heart-to-heart/pep talk, but she let him go and went to the stage. There must be another Salvo-Ambassadors number.
Whatever. Elijah wasn’t staying for it. He’d done his time. He’d danced and faked merry. Now he needed to find somewhere to hide until this was over, do his best to forget it ever happened. Retreating to his chair, he scooped up his jacket, made sure his cigarettes were still there, then dug inside Giles’s suit coat for his flask.
He’d closed his fingers around it when the music started up. Soft, lyrical strings caught the edge of his heart. Glancing up, he saw Giles, Mina, and a few other orchestra people playing at the edge of the stage. In the center, Aaron and Walter’s friend Rose stood at the mic as Salvo and the Ambassadors fanned out around the room.
On the dance floor, Walter and Kelly stood alone, poised and ready to dance.
The song was “I See the Light”, another Tangled number. Aaron sang the male part of the duet, and Walter’s friend Rose did a less-than-Mina soprano, but mostly the music fell away in the brilliant presence of the two young men on the dance floor. Walter glided with suave grace, and Kelly followed with an untutored gait as charming as Walter’s practiced moves. Around and around the floor they spun, the soft lighting mimicking the lanterns from the song’s source scene in Tangled, the whimsically elegant atmosphere amplifying the moment until it resonated like a string.
It shafted Elijah through the heart.
The flask fell from Elijah’s hand, as did his jacket. Hypnotized, he watched the two men dance, the song cracking open the rough leather casing he’d wrapped around himself.
Perfection. Happy ending. Walter and Kelly Davidson would end up in a fucking suburb. They’d adopt, or have a surrogate for their kids. Same went for Aaron and Giles—oh, Elijah had seen their faces. They wouldn’t go quite this fucking Disney, but they’d be just as goddamned cute. Probably do some big song-and-dance number for the proposal too. They’d have the singers strung out around the perimeter same as this. They’d have an equally exquisite moment for the ceremony itself, one defining and celebrating the two of them. They’d have each other forever, and their union would be witnessed by a thousand friends.
The song ended, and everyone clapped, many also wiping away a tear. Elijah bent to retrieve his things, but his hand trembled, and when he dropped the flask a second time, it skittered away from him into the crowd. He thought about leaving it, but only for a second. He may not get a happily ever after, but he damn well was having his fucking whiskey.
This time when he picked it up, he gripped it tight, clutching it to his chest as he rose. He stood on the edge of the dance floor, which was filling up with the wedding party as the orchestra-chorus began “You’ve Got a Friend in Me”.
Elijah glanced around desperately for an exit. He found one, but not before his gaze once more grazed Baz, and weakened by the hole in his armor, Elijah let his gaze linger as the truth seeped into his heart.
I’m never going to have this. Not this kind of family. Not these kinds of friends. Not with an Aaron or Kelly or Walter or Baz or anyone. No one’s ever going to love me this way. I wouldn’t know what to do with it, even if they did.
He let himself have one moment of wallowing in misery, and then he packed the pain away, back into the dark corner it had lived in since as early as he could remember. He ducked through the beaming, swaying guests and escaped out the side door, safe in the knowledge nobody was going to miss a scrawny, scowling loser, knowing while he wasn’t ever going to get a happily ever after, he could still find a way to get high.