Hot messes have a hard time with happily ever after.
Baz Acker and Elijah Prince have it all. They’re engaged, and their wedding is guaranteed to be a spectacle no event will ever top. So why are they hunkered down in a quiet corner of the Acker mansion, restless and edgy while they wait out the holidays?
When Baz suggests a road trip with Walter and Kelly to Las Vegas, it sounds like an ideal escape, but it turns out Vegas only amplifies their unease. Elijah can’t slough off the self-hating his parents programmed into him, and he worries how that will affect his marriage. Baz, crippled en route because of too much time spent in the car without rest, must face the truth that his wealth and influence can’t always counteract the limits his disability will put on his—and Elijah’s—life.
With help from their friends, a wily poker player, a take-no-prisoners drag queen, and a smooth-talking casino owner, they face the truth that happiness is a state of mind, not a destination where they book a stay. What happens in Vegas won’t stay in Vegas—it will follow them all the way down the aisle.
Elijah Prince would rather go to a sing-along showing of Frozen dressed as Elsa with a thousand whining children than go to the Acker Annual New Year’s Eve Party.
He’d come up with all kinds of I-would-rathers in the days since he’d arrived with Baz at the affluent Chicago suburb his fiancé’s family called home. He’d rather sing a solo with the Ambassadors, his college’s all-male a cappella choir. He’d rather let Baz tease him sexually but not bring him to gratification for a week. (That one would almost be fun.) He’d rather take the math portion of the SAT—twice—in a room with the air conditioning turned too low and Justin Bieber playing on repeat in the background. He’d rather walk through a gauntlet of sneering football players. (This thought felt like a cheat, because he knew exactly how to survive football players, having done it far too many times for comfort.) He’d rather go to a Campus Crusaders for Christ meeting, the antigay shitshow he’d had to endure before his parents found out he’d faked his conversion therapy. He’d rather work forty hours a week at the campus cafeteria for a month with no pay. He’d rather drive in downtown Chicago traffic. (He’d allow himself GPS and permission to go as slow as necessary.) He’d rather listen to Gloria Barnett-Acker, his soon-to-be mother-in-law, plan his wedding. He’d rather spend three days getting fitted for a suit while the store’s staff looked down at him, knowing he didn’t belong there.
He’d rather visit his mother in the mental institution or his father in prison.
Those last two thoughts made him feel guilty, and he wasn’t quite sure he’d go through with his threat if offered those activities as an exchange for attending the party, but that they tempted him even for a moment was travesty enough. His mother’s delusions had only increased in the time since he’d last seen her in the campus parking lot. That fateful afternoon when his father had pulled a gun on Elijah and all his friends and Baz had taken the bullet. The last glimpse he’d had of his mother had been her glare as she’d been pushed into a police car. His father had still been struggling on the concrete and swearing loudly when Elijah had been ushered into the ambulance.
They were both permanently out of the picture now, and with the passage of time they hated their son more for being a godforsaken, evil homosexual, not less. Elijah’s father had eventually pled guilty to the charges against him—attempting to murder Elijah, accidentally shooting Baz in the shoulder, committing an act of terrorism on a college campus. Some kind of hate-crime statute had been invoked as well. The bottom line was the Acker family lawyers had ensured Howard and Mariah Prince wouldn’t see daylight for a long, long time.
Elijah’s parents didn’t want to see him again, ever, except maybe in a body bag, and he felt the same way about them. So when he started thinking he’d rather endure their hate than the well-meaning-but-overbearing New Year’s Eve gala where Gloria would parade Elijah around to her socialite friends and tell them how many peacocks would be on the grounds for his wedding…well, he felt horrible. His fiancé’s family had been nothing but kind to him. They’d dialed down their usual holiday celebrations in order to not overwhelm him. They’d given him several thoughtful presents, and they’d declared they considered him a member of the family, with or without a marriage certificate.
But the Ackers’ mere existence was too much for Elijah. Their house was too intense. Their so-called family room was so formal it made Elijah sit up straight and take care not to spill. Sitting alone in the Acker laundry room was overwhelming enough for him to want to break his months-long nonsmoking streak. Everything Baz’s family did and said reminded Elijah he didn’t belong with them.
Sometimes he worried he shouldn’t have asked Baz to marry him, that they shouldn’t be together.
The wedding preparations didn’t help. He and Baz had only been engaged a few weeks, but Gloria already had a huge three-ring binder full of notes about potential ceremony sites, themes, and other things Elijah didn’t understand and didn’t want to. She’d directed her staff to litter every room of the house with brochures for resorts and fancy places around Chicago and the Twin Cities, and some exotic ones, such as a castle in France. She worked stories of wedding planners into conversations, usually ones hired by famous gay couples. She assured them it could be as low-key an affair as they wanted, and she would be happy to take on every detail of the planning. All they’d have to do was show up.
Except Elijah had attended their “casual” Christmas party, which had been anything but, at least in his book. Now in a few days he would have to attend the biggest party they threw all year. There was no point placing odds on whether or not prominent wedding planners and venue hosts vying for his and Baz’s favor would attend the event. They would be there. Probably a quarter of the guest list would be designed to optimize the preparation for the wedding of Gloria Barnett-Acker’s only son, the son she’d despaired would ever leave college, let alone get married and become a productive member of society.
Elijah told himself it was his turn to compromise, to, as Baz put it, “take a turn around the room and be seen” before the two of them escaped for a more private party with their friends Walter and Kelly. To listen to a few of the pitches, then move on. It wasn’t much to expect of someone who had received more gifts in one family Christmas than he’d received in his entire life. They wanted to show him off, partly because they’d decided he was part of the reason Baz was growing up a little. And yes, he understood some of it was they genuinely liked him for him.
The problem was, Elijah couldn’t yet accept that they should.
Elijah wanted to be grateful to the Ackers and good for Baz, to take deep breaths and get used to this being part of his life now. He told himself it was different than the last time he’d been here, when his relationship with Baz had been pretend and they’d attended a dinner party to disastrous results. He psyched himself up for the New Year’s Eve party in every way he could think of.
The day after Christmas, when facing the upcoming party felt especially bleak, he called his best friend, Mina. As usual, she was a stalwart voice of reason and practicality. “You can do it. It’s one evening, and unless she whips out a contract for you to sign, you’re obligated to no choices on the wedding planning for those few hours.”
She was right, he knew. But it didn’t stop him from being nervous. “The thing is, I know this is only the beginning. She’s going to be this way until the ceremony.” And God alone knew what being married into her machinations would do to him. He glanced at the door to the bedroom suite, then lowered his voice in case Baz was in the hall. “Also, I can’t ever tell how much of this insanity Baz wants. I mean, I know he wants a big show, a pageant. I just wish I knew what parts of it were essential to him.”
“I wish you would ask him these things instead of me. A marriage is based on communication. Right now is a good time to start talking.”
Again, she made all the sense, and again, it didn’t do anything to calm Elijah. “I can’t tell him how I feel about this. He’d freak out. I want to marry Baz, and I understand marrying him is marrying this circus. But…I don’t know. I’m trying, I really am. I’ll tell you, I’ve never wanted a cigarette more than I have in the last ten days.” A cigarette, a joint, three Xanax, and a fifth of Baz’s expensive scotch. The craving clawed at him, and because it was Mina and she was safe, he let some of the snarl come out. “I thought all this damn clean living was supposed to help me manage my anxiety, not make it more unbearable.”
“No, it’s supposed to keep you from killing your liver before you’re thirty. Eating your veggies doesn’t mean you don’t feel pain.”
Elijah loved this most about Mina, how she could smack his bullshit down, ignore his barbs—but it meant when she did, it left him with only the raw terror, which in this moment made tears spill over and thicken his voice. “Min, I don’t think I can do this.”
“I know you can do this. And I’ll tell you as many times as you need me to. You have my number. Just call me, or text, or Skype. I’m hanging out with Giles and Aaron and Lejla for New Year’s, so if you need the full posse, we’ve got your back.”
Elijah wiped his eyes and let out a shuddering breath. “Okay.”
“Talk to Baz. If you think he doesn’t already know how nervous you are, you’re kidding yourself. He loves you and would do anything for you. Let him calm you down.”
His voice broke. “Yes, but I don’t want him to give things up for me.”
Her gentle laughter tickled his ears. “Oh, sweetie. That’s what being in a relationship is.”
“Right, so isn’t it my turn to sacrifice?”
“I don’t know. You’ll have to take it up with the person you’re in the relationship with.”
God, Elijah wished he could lean on her shoulder right now. “Enough about my nonsense. How are you? Everything good in Minnesota? How was your Christmas?”
“Endless. My grandmother keeps showing me pictures of college-age grandsons of her friends on Facebook, and my aunt got in on it too.”
“What? I thought they were okay about you coming out.”
Her laugh was mirthless. “Yeah. They’re totally fine, because I said I was bi. They think it means all they have to do is make sure I fall in love with and marry a man instead of a woman.”
Elijah winced. “So I take it you didn’t tell them you’ve come down more on the lesbian than the bi side?”
“I’m still not sure where I am on the spectrum. Mostly thinking about dating someone makes my head hurt.” She sighed. “Don’t worry about me. I’ve made it through the Christmas gauntlet, and now my biggest concern is what snack I’m bringing to Giles’s place for the New Year’s party and what movie I want to argue for. You go talk to Baz. And keep me posted, okay?”
Elijah promised he would. But he couldn’t help one last I-would-rather, because he’d face a lot more than his soulless parents to be able to spend the holiday with his best friends, not the wealthiest and most-polished residents of the Chicago area.