Once upon a time, Nicolas Beckert went to weddings without a heavy pang in his heart.
He’d attended plenty in his day, between his Copper Point cousins, relatives in Milwaukee, and friends of the family. For several years it felt like every weekend there was yet another gift his grandmother or mother picked out, waiting for Nick to amplify it with a little extra cash and a handwritten note wishing the couple a bright future. Nick had always happily gone to these weddings. As the one who had understood without being told it was his job to live up to the legacy of service and grace his father had left behind, Nick knew his duty, and he took pride in fulfilling it, never once begrudging even a penny of those cash packets tucked into the card or a second of those busy Saturday afternoons.
Lately, though, the weddings themselves underscored the fact that while he was present at these events, he was separate from them in a way he couldn’t ever let anyone know.
The wedding of his third cousin at the New Birth Baptist Church in Copper Point was particularly uncomfortable, and it wasn’t just because the first Saturday in June had dawned uncharacteristically muggy and hot. People were gossiping as they always did, but the topic du jour made him distinctly uncomfortable.
“Did you hear, the surgeon and nurse finally picked a date for their wedding? Coming up fast too. First weekend in October.” The speaker, one of Nick’s distant relations, raised her eyebrows knowingly, fanning herself with a paper plate as she stood in line for the buffet. “Going to be a big to-do, since Dr. Wu has his family coming from Taiwan.”
Nick’s great-aunt clucked her tongue. “The things we see sometimes.”
The group around them made ever-so-slightly disapproving noises.
This was spoken a bit loudly, for the benefit of Dr. Kathryn Lambert-Diaz, whose first cousin was the bride. Kathryn was attending with her wife, Rebecca, whom she’d married years ago in a ceremony among friends and accepting family members while Kathryn was doing her residency at the University of Iowa. Nick watched them both, worried Rebecca in particular would say something, but they only continued to chat politely with Kathryn’s parents. They didn’t have plates of food in their hands and looked as if they were about to leave.
“The other couple hasn’t set their date yet, but they’re next.” By other couple, his great-aunt meant Dr. Owen Gagnon and Erin Andreas. “Should have never thought to see the day.”
“All of them working at the hospital too.” Uncle Billy leaned around his wife to addressNick, who stood close enough to easily be drawn into conversation. “You best keep your people in line there, son.”
His wife swatted Billy with her fan. “You leave the boy alone. He’s had enough work, with the embezzlement scandal. He don’t need your sass too.”
Pastor Robert came up behind Nick and rested a hand on his shoulder. “I have faith in our Nick. He’s done a wonderful job with the hospital. I daresay we’ve never had better leadership in place there, thanks to him. We certainly haven’t had a better CEO.” He winked at Nick. “If all it comes with is a bit of unusual community color, I suppose we can count that as a blessing.”
Everyone at the table chuckled, and Nick inclined his head. He wanted out of this conversation. “I should go check on my grandmother and mother, to make sure they don’t need anything. If you folks’ll excuse me?”
They shooed him away gleefully, but Nick could hear them talking about him as he disappeared, and a perverse instinct kept him nearby but hidden so he could eavesdrop.
“He’s the next one we need to see married off.”
“Get him a wife and a couple of kids, and we’ll have ourselves the Copper Point Obamas!”
“What’s taking him so long, though? He never dates anybody.”
“Well, he’s been busy with all those scandals.”
“Scandal’s been done and dusted. Besides, a man’s got needs. It’s not right, him never dating.”
“You don’t think our Nick….”
Nick’s stomach turned over. Wiping his mouth to cover the grimness of his countenance, he moved out of earshot before he heard the rest of that sentence.
He didn’t get three feet, though, before he ran into the choir director, James Grant.
James greeted him with his usual wide smile. “Nick, looking good, brother.” His grin faded as Nick failed to mask his unsettled emotions fast enough. “You all right? Something happen?”
Nick fished up a smile. “Nah. No worries. Too much to do, is all, too much on my mind.”
James raised an eyebrow. “Things haven’t calmed down at the hospital?”
“Oh, you know how it goes.” Nick couldn’t quite catch his groove. That last remark kept echoing in his head. You don’t think our Nick….
James put a hand on Nick’s shoulder. “Hey. You want to go sit somewhere for a minute and talk? You don’t look so good.”
Talking was the last thing Nick wanted to do. And much as he loved James, sitting with himand having an intimate heart-to-heart would only fuel the flames of what people were apparently thinking about their Nick. He held up his hands. “Thanks, but honestly, I’m just doing a little too much these days.” He took a step sideways and kept walking as he spoke. “I gotta go check in for a second. But we’ll talk soon. The choir is killing it, by the way.”
“All right.” James waved him away, looking sad. “We’ll talk later.”
Nick gave himself a moment behind a bush to gather his composure before hunting down his family. His mother, grandmother, and sister were together at the table where the groom’s closest relatives had gathered, Grandma Emerson holding court. She was in the middle of telling some story as Nick approached, but his sister broke away to greet him.
“Hey, you.” She nudged him with her hip. “You going to get down with me later?”
“Can’t. Got the reception for Dr. Amin.”
She sighed. “Oh right, I forgot you had to leave early.”
“Erin’s covering for me, letting me show up late.” He tugged at his tie and reached into his pocket for his handkerchief to dab at his neck, which dripped in the heat. “Need to go home and freshen up before I head out to the country club.”
“Country club crowd.” Emmanuella wrinkled her nose. “How bad will thatbe?”
“Standard hospital donor schmoozefest. Pretty dry and crusty, but they made the cardiac unit possible. I wish you would’ve agreed to be my date so you could meet Dr. Amin. She’s amazing. You’ll love her.”
“I’ll meet her sometime when she’s notat one of those dog and pony shows, thanks. The dedication ceremony was more than enough for me.” She punched him lightly in the arm. “Besides. It’s time you get a proper date for yourself instead of hauling me around to these things.”
“She wants to meet the family, though, since she wasn’t in town for the ceremony.”
“You should invite her family over for dinner. Mom and Grandma would love it.” She leaned in closer and spoke quietly. “Did I hear right, the Ryans will be there?”
The Ryans were Jeremiah Ryan, their father’s longtime friend and sometimes business partner back in the day, and his daughter Cynthia. Since then, Ryan had made quite a name for himself in the hospital industry, to the point that now he was the CEO of a corporation managing several medical centers in the Midwest. Nick nodded, stealing a careful glance at their mother. “Was she the one who mentioned it?”
Emmanuella snorted. “I can’t believe she hasn’t bothered you about it yet. You know she’s always dreamed about Cynthia Ryan as a daughter-in-law.”
Yes, Nick was painfully aware. He didn’t comment, choosing to wipe his mouth with his hand and send his gaze out across the crowd. It landed on the bride and groom, who stood hand in hand as they greeted their guests two tables over. They looked so happy.
Nick fought another pang in the center of his chest.
His mother spied him then, smiling wide and waving him to her side. “Baby, come sit and eat. I made you a plate, and it’s getting cold.”
Though Nick wasn’t remotely hungry, he held up his hands in apology, dredged up his most charismatic grin, and settled into the space beside her. “Sorry, was making my rounds.” He reached across the table to shake hands with the groom’s family. “Wonderful ceremony. Thanks so much for having us.”
Mrs. Hill beamed and pressed her hand to her chest. “We’re so glad y’all could come. Especially since your mother tells me you have another event yet today?”
“Reception for the new cardiologist, yes.”
Mr. Hill’s chest puffed up at being prioritized over the fancy country club shindig. “I’m telling you, Nick, your daddy would be so proud to see the work you’ve done with that hospital. Not just becoming the CEO, but cleaning up all the mess those fools made for so many years. You’re a credit to his name.”
Nick inclined his head. “Thank you, sir.”
Mrs. Hill elbowed her husband with a sly wink. “Now we have to help find hima lovely wife too.”
Nick pushed the potato salad and baked beans around his plate, doing his best to ignore the leaden feeling in his stomach.
As the table conversation resumed, allowing him to drift into his own thoughts again, Nick focused on the sea of guests. People were happy and laughing, caught up in the festivities. It was a humble gathering, with homemade decorations and family and church members helping cook and serve the dishes in lieu of a catered lunch. It was practically more picnic than wedding, except everyone was dressed in their finest outfits, and in the case of many of the ladies, hats. Nick loved the children the best, in their frilly dresses and suits and ties, chasing each other and giggling as they ran about the lawn, mothers and aunties occasionally hollering at them to mind their clothes or sit and finish their food.
Everything was warm and wonderful and perfect.
The bride and groom glowed as they reveled in their special day. They were good people, and Nick looked forward to watching them make their family together. Except though he celebrated their union and their happiness, it pained him too. With every tinkle of laughter the couple inspired, each beaming smile they shared, the yearning inside Nick grew, until eventually he excused himself from the table and flitted around the reception once more.
When the time came for him to bid people goodbye and get ready for the country club party, he was almost relieved. As he stopped by his family to let them know he was leaving, his grandmother put her hand on his arm. “There’s a bag on the table in the kitchen, a small gift for the Ryans. Give it to them, will you, when you see them this afternoon? And be sure to say hello to Cynthia. Tell her to stop by the house the next time she’s through.”
“Of course.” With a squeeze of her shoulder, Nick went on his way.
He found the gift—locally roasted coffee and a loaf of Grandma Emerson’s famous banana bread tastefully tucked inside tissue paper in an elegant bright blue gift bag—where she’d said it would be. It smelled wonderful, and he lingered to savor the mingling scents. Then, setting his keys beside the package so he wouldn’t forget it, he hurried upstairs to shower.
Shutting his eyes under the spray, Nick saw the smiling faces of the bride and groom once again in his mind’s eye. So happy. So celebrated. So protected. Everything laid out before them, the community ensuring their path stayed clear.
What would that be like, he wondered?
Adjusting the plain silk bow tie over the tips of his shirt collar, he stared at his reflection. He felt much stiffer in his tuxedo than he had in the tan suit and gray-striped tie he’d worn to the wedding. He tried out a few expressions in the mirror, searching for one that allowed him to remain guarded but still seem dignified.
He grabbed the gift bag along with his keys, and to boost himself on the way to the country club, he blasted The Weeknd on his stereo. He sang along, winding down the long, scenic road leading to the country club on the top of the hill overlooking the most beautiful and expansive part of the bay.
Pulling up to the gates, he clicked off the radio, put his work face on, and presented his member card to the guard.
The party was in full swing as he handed his keys to the valet and entered the crush. The women were in elegant dresses, the men all in tuxedos or suits—excepting Rebecca Lambert-Diaz. She and Kathryn had already arrived, no longer dressed in airy outdoor wedding clothes, but while Kathryn wore a simple black evening gown, Rebecca had donned a smart black pantsuit with glittering rhinestones on the collar and cuffs. They seemed a bit more at ease at this party than the one they had left, laughing and mingling with the guests.
Nick took his place in the crowd as well, moving from group to group, smiling and shaking hands, ensuring people felt welcomed. His reception here was markedly different than it had been at church. Here they were wary of him, the young upstart who had changed so much about the tidy lives of Copper Point.
As far as they were concerned, he’d broken all their rules. Nick had been hired to be a pawn. Oh, no one had ever come out and said as much, but he’d understood things with one glance. A hospital CEO, at his age? He didn’t have the experience. His suspicions had been confirmed as soon as he’d come through the door. No real power, no backing. Even so, experience was experience, and it was nice to stay close to home. He’d told himself he could put up with it for a while, until it was time to upgrade.
Except part of him hadn’t been able to shake the idea that he could dig under the rotten surface of the institution and dismantle the system that had broken his father’s spirit and nearly ruined their family. A few years on the hospital board had been enough to catch the attention of the power players at the hospital in a way that dogged him even after he’d been voted out. They worked behind the scenes to ruin his business and nearly cost him his home—and ultimately, through his failing health, had cost him his life.
Nick hadn’t really thought he’d be able to avenge his father, had only dreamed of it. But with the help of Erin and the others, he’d done just that. Now there was a new board, a new balance of power, and a new day at St. Ann’s. For many of the people in this room, though? Oh, Nick was still that man. It didn’t matter that the board members who’d embezzled a scandalous amount of money were all in jail and that Nick had helped put them there. These people still didn’t like him. They didn’t like how he’d gone out of his way to make the new hospital board reflect the diverse population of Copper Point. There was a lot of rumbling from this set about “the way things used to be,” their gazes turned toward the past with longing.
Well, Nick thought as he sipped a glass of champagne he’d collected from a passing tray, if they’d rather have the crooks than progress, then screw ’em.
Jeremiah Ryan beamed when he saw Nick, waving him over. Cynthia waved too, her expression welcoming and warm, reminiscent of the faces he’d left at the wedding reception. It also carried the whiff of something more, something hopeful.
Nick smiled back, ready to make his way to this important donor, this friend of the family, this man who understood his difficult position better than anyone, this woman he admired and considered an important friend. But before he reached them, he bumped into another guest, and as soon as he saw who it was, his carefully constructed image fell apart.
“Sorry.” The man, fair-haired and tall, but not as tall as Nick, held up his hands and stepped aside. As their gazes met, the man’s smile fell away. “Oh. It’s you.”
Yes. It’s me.
They both had their masks down as they regarded one another. Nick was conscious of the heavy beating of his heart, of the ache and longing he always felt when he stood this close to Dr. Jared Kumpel. He looked devastating in his tuxedo, crisp and neat, dark-blond hair gleaming in contrast to the dark fabric, his light skin glowing in the dim light.
He was beautiful in a way that stole Nick’s breath and short-circuited his brain. This man had stirred him ever since he could remember, since the moment Nick had been, at last, able to understand why he felt so different than everyone else around him.
Jared spoke first, his voice thin and forced. “How was the wedding?”
It took Nick a second to register what Jared had said, to remember he shouldn’t simply stare at the seductive curve of the man’s upper lip. “G-good. It was good.” He cleared his throat. “Hot.”
“Yes, it’s a muggy day out, isn’t it?” The conversation, such as it was, broke off and dangled.
Nick tugged at the cuffs of his shirt and glanced away. “I should….”
“Of course.” Jared’s voice was flat, dead, as if he couldn’t wait to get away. “I’m sorry to keep you.”
And just like that, they parted, Jared wafting over to the bar, Nick resuming his trajectory toward the Ryans, plastering on the expression he’d practiced in the mirror as the leaden weight settled all the more deeply onto his heart.
Dr. Jared Kumpel wanted to find a dark broom closet, put a bucket over his head, and scream.
It was supposed to be an evening of celebration. The physicians, board members, and local donor class were gathered at the Copper Point Country Club to toast the arrival of Dr. Uma Amin, who would start work next week. After years of embezzlement scandals and a complete overhaul of the hospital board of directors, at last things were peaceful. Perfect, even.
Except for the part where Nick Beckert had a smile for everyone in the room but Jared. The memory of Nick’s bright expression melting away at the sight of Jared, the way he’d hurried off as if escaping the plague, drove Jared directly to the bar, where he sipped his drink and tortured himself by watching Nick pull out the charm for everyone else.
Jared had absolutely no right to feel so proprietary, which only made him crankier. Nick wasn’t his boyfriend, was barely his friend, despite the fact that once upon a time they’d been so intimate he could have identified the man by the sound of his breath. For the past four years, Nick had been Jared’s employer, in a sense, though the contractual relationship between clinic physicians and St. Ann’s Medical Center was complicated. For years the two of them had silently agreed to pretend the past never existed, and this strategy, while frustrating, had mostly worked out for the best.
It was just lately they’d gotten along, talking casually, playing racquetball, hanging out in the safety of large groups. Jared realized he’d allowed these interactions to engender false hope and perhaps a bit of expectation. He wasn’t ready for Nick to start freezing him out.
Before the embezzlement crisis, Nick had focused entirely on work, and Copper Point had seemed willing to leave him to his monkhood. But then Nick had taken out the embezzlement ring in the old board and overseen funding for the long-overdue cardiac center, dedicated in his father’s name. He was the shiniest man in town, and everyone wanted him on their arm.
So many damn womenwanted him in their bed.
Watching yet another woman brush a manicured hand along the sleeve of Nick’s tuxedo jacket, Jared told himself it didn’t matter. He’s never going to admit who he is, even to himself, so who cares who flirts with him?
I care, damn it.Turning away with a glower, Jared finished off his drink and wandered into the crowd. Except he didn’t feel like mingling, so he found a table as far from Nick as possible and sat, ready to bury himself in his phone.
He hadn’t had so much as a chance to reach for his pocket before someone joined him. Dr. Owen Gagnon, the anesthesiologist at St. Ann’s Medical Center and one of Jared’s best friends, pushed a glass in front of Jared and plunked down at the table beside him. “Doing all right? You seem off your game.”
After taking a sip of his drink, Jared waved a breezy hand. “Fine. Not feeling the hospital function vibe, is all.”
With a grunt of agreement, Owen peeled back the panels of his tuxedo jacket and settled in. “Jack has to be jealous we didn’t throw him a party when he arrived.”
Jack was Dr. Hong-Wei Wu, St. Ann’s resident general surgeon. “Knowing Jack, he’s indifferent. I’d think he wouldn’t want the fuss but would have endured it if we’d arranged it for him. Though maybe you’re right. Maybe he was quietly offended we didn’t treat him better. He holds a lot of cards close to his vest.”
Owen snorted. “He’s all about doing things up properly. I bet he was mad we didn’t give him more of a welcome. He sure as hell deserved it.”
Jared felt better not thinking about Nick. He tried to keep the conversation going. “By the way, the quintet sounded great, but of course it always does. Your solo was particularly good.”
As usual, Owen ignored the compliment and wrinkled his nose. “I don’t love how every time we have one of these gigs I have to play Pied Piper. Sometimes I want to sit and grouse about having to show up in my monkey suit with the rest of the doctors.”
“If your fiancé hears you, you’ll be sleeping in the garage tonight.”
“Yes, well, the good news is the garage in the mansion is climate controlled.” Owen glanced around. “Still, there’s no reason for Erin to have to hear.”
This time Jared didn’t have to fake his grin. “Have you seen Jack or Simon?”
“Jack’s talking with Dr. Amin. Simon, I’m not sure.”
“Probably with Jack, since he’s not with us. He feels out of place at these things. Until he was Jack’s plus-one, he never had to come.”
“As the nursing rep on the hospital board, he’d be here anyway. He needs to get comfortable.” Owen leaned in closer, eyes sparkling with mischief. “So, Mr. I-Know-All-the-Gossip. How’s Copper Point’s elite handling yet another physician who isn’t a white male evangelical Christian?”
“Oh my God. Where do I start?” Jared rolled his eyes and picked up his drink, sipping it as he moved closer to Owen so they wouldn’t be overheard. “The retired college president’s wife was in a private chat group pitching a fit because the new cardiologist isn’t only from India, she’s Muslim. Someone pointed out there was nothing wrong with that, and the end result was the country club scrambling to find someone they could send into the women’s locker room to break up a fight when the online spat went abruptly offline. Then on Copper Point People someone else—no one of note, some random MAGA—complained about how it was obvious St. Ann’s had an antiwhite hiring policy.”
Owen buried his face in his hands. “That Facebook group is trash.”
“Wait until you hear how it got resolved. People argued back and forth for two days, but when everyone was starting to cool off, someone came in as the ‘mediating’ voice and pointed out at least she was straight this time.”
Owen sat up slowly, drawing his fingers down his face and staring sightlessly at the table decorations in front of them. “Tell me again why we live here?”
“Because Simon couldn’t bear to leave his family when we were looking for somewhere for us to get jobs together after med school. Plus now you’re marrying one of the founding sons. Just because we’re stuck in this crazy town doesn’t mean we can’t get our quiet revenge by living well, though. I think you and Erin should adopt a horde of children and raise them Wiccan. It’s the only way to heal this place.”
Owen rubbed his jaw. “I dunno if I’m organized enough to be Wiccan. Aren’t there a lot of meetings and rituals? I could do casual pagan.”
“I think it depends on the type of Wiccan.” Jared lifted an eyebrow. “Are you ignoring the hordes-of-children part, or is this your way of telling me you’ve changed your opinion on fatherhood?”
“Well. I mean, I don’t know about hordes. But yeah, we’ve talked about it some, and it doesn’t seem such a terrible idea, when I think about it with Erin. Oh.” He straightened, his face transforming into a youthful, slightly ridiculous grin as he waved to someone across the room. “Speak of the devil. I need to go. You sure you’re okay here?”
You fine being alone?That was the translation.
Jared got out the fake smile, wrestling it into something genuine. “Nowhere else I’d rather be. Go see your man.”
After Owen left, Jared sipped his drink and people watched for a few minutes, telling himself everything was fine, but his gaze kept drifting to Nick. The DJ switched to a slow song, and one of the women surrounding Nick took his hands to lure him onto the dance floor. He didn’t fight her.
It was the daughter of the investor from Milwaukee. Cynthia Ryan. The two of them looked stunning together, her dark hair swept up in a breathtaking style no white woman in the room could emulate, her brown skin glowing against her goldenrod evening dress.
If Nick took Cynthia home to Grandma Emerson, she’d give her blessing in the span of a sigh.
Setting his teeth, Jared finished his drink, then rose and went to get a refill.
Matthew Engleton was at the bar, collecting change for a vodka sour, and he grinned at Jared as he approached. “Dr. Kumpel. Good to see you.”
It wasn’t a dismissive greeting, which Jared found interesting. He knew Matt, vaguely, because you couldn’t live in Copper Point and not know the Engletons, especially if you ever had to buy a suit from their family store. Matt was on the hospital board now too, so they’d gotten a bit closer.
Jared smiled back politely. “Good to see you as well. Enjoying yourself?”
“Oh, as much as I can at these sorts of things.” Matt leaned an elbow on the bar and gestured at the crowd of Copper Point elite and St. Ann’s higher echelon. “What about you? You aren’t with your usual crew.”
“We’re all busy networking bees. They want the doctors talking to the potential donors, so if we stay in the corner and drink, it defeats the purpose.”
Matt laughed. “Difficult to hide, I suspect, when one of you is engaged to the vice president.” He motioned to the bartender. “Let me buy you a drink, and you can network with me.”
“But you’re a board member.”
“I’m also one of the potential donors. Dad always gives liberally to the hospital, but he never comes to these functions anymore. He says he needs me to be the representative now. So I have double duty.” He raised his eyebrows. “You’ll have to charm the money out of me, Doctor.”
Oh my. Was Matt… hitting on him? A closer inspection of the man’s focused gaze told Jared yes, he was.
Well. He hadn’t seen this coming. Jared had assumed Matt hid his orientation in deference to the family business. Apparently he was wrong, or there was an exception clause for local pediatricians.
Did he wantMatt to hit on him? He hadn’t thought of Matt as anyone but the polite man who sold clothing well before, and now was also the man who sat in boring meetings beside him. He supposed he was cute enough….
“What’ll you have?” the bartender asked.
“Old Fashioned,” Jared replied.
A familiar feminine laugh behind him made his shoulders relax. “Someone’s ordering an Old Fashioned? Dr. Kumpel must be at the bar.”
He turned around in time for Rebecca Lambert-Diaz to catch his cheek in her hand and give it a gentle tweak. He playfully swatted it away. “Hello, Rebecca. Where’s your wife?”
“Hiding in a corner. She hates these things, and we already had to endure a family wedding this afternoon.” Rebecca smiled at Matt. “Hello again, Matthew. How’s the store?”
Was it Jared’s imagination, or did Matt’s expression dim a little? “Everything’s going well, but we’d do better if our favorite lawyer came by and checked out our new summer line.”
“Always a salesman. But now that you mention it, you’re right, I haven’t been by in a while.” She withdrew a twenty and waved it at the bartender. “Let me get my glass of wine, we’ll find a seat, and you can tell me what you have in stock. I do need a new suit.”
The three of them ended up back at the table Jared had vacated, Rebecca in the middle as she and Matt spoke intensely about women’s clothing. Jared sipped his drink and scanned the room, more concerned about where people were. Jack was with Dr. Amin, poor Simon appearing as lost as Owen had said. Owen was with Erin, talking with the leader of the Copper Point string quintet.
Where was Nick, though?
Jared’s lip nearly curled when he found him. He was with Cynthia Ryan, and didn’t they lookcozy.Grumbling under his breath, Jared took a fortifying drink of alcohol, the burn fueling his ire.
“Don’t you think, Jared?”
He snapped out of his funk at Rebecca’s question. “Sorry, what?”
She gestured to herself, miming dress parts as she spoke. “I enjoy a double-breasted suit, but I think what’s best on me are those single-breasted smooth pieces that don’t have a crease. You know what I’m talking about?”
Jared frowned at her, his attention officially drawn away from Nick. “Well, yes, it’s the most flattering option for you, but it isn’t as if you can wear the same thing all the time.”
Matt held out his hands. “Thank you.I’ve been trying to convince her of this for months.”
Rebecca waved airily. “Whatever, I’ll let the two of you dress me.”
Jared snorted into his Old Fashioned. “You won’t ever give up control so easily, but nice try.”
“Who I’d really like to get into the store is Jared.” Matt bumped Jared’s arm, lingering a little longer than necessary. “It’s been a while since you’ve treated yourself to some new clothes. Unless you’ve been cheating on me with other clothing stores?”
Rebecca laughed. “Jared, leave town to shop? Good luck with that.”
No question about it, Matt was trying to flirt with Jared and was getting lesbian cock-blocked at every turn. Well, Jared supposed he could do worse.
He cut a glance to the other side of the room. Matt was as nice as any number of men, but Jared’s attention was firmly fixed elsewhere.
Jared’s gaze landed on the woman’s hand sliding down Nick’s arm, and his teeth set.
“Did you want another drink?” Matt shook Jared’s glass, which he was shocked to discover was empty. “Or maybe you want to get up and walk around?”
Jared couldn’t look away from Nick, though he knew he needed to. He felt a hand on his arm as he stood—Rebecca gave him a questioning look.
“You’ve seemed off all evening. And honestly, you haven’t been yourself lately, period. Is there something going on?”
How could he tell her or any of them the truth? He bent and kissed her on the cheek. “I’m fine, but thank you.”
She caught his shoulder and kept him down long enough to whisper. “You’re not. You might have fooled the others, but you haven’t fooled me. Who’s giving you a ride home?”
Oh, Lord, now he had Rebecca mothering him. Sighing, he patted her shoulder. “Seriously. It’s not a problem. Okay?”
Matt frowned at him.
Jared squared his shoulders. He wasfine. He was absolutely perfect, and he didn’t need a babysitter. Maybe he’d start an affair with Matt Engleton, what the hell. Maybe sweet little Matt would surprise him and he’d be the next one of their group to find a happy ever after.
Sweet, boring Matt.
“You okay?” Matt asked.
God, they needed to stop asking him. Jared’s face was going to break, he was stretching it so far for these damn smiles. “Absolutely.”
Except as they rounded the corner of a group of chuckling old men, he got another glimpse of Nick as the music shifted. It was Prince of all the damn things, and not only Prince but “Kiss.”
Like magnets, Nick and Jared’s gazes met and locked.
You’re not boring, baby. Not boring at all.
And I haven’t forgotten a thing.
When two new women appeared beside Nick, giggling and tugging him forward, Nick turned away, and Jared couldn’t stand it anymore.
Jared threaded his fingers through his hair in an attempt to hide his shaking hands. “Actually,” he said to Matt, “I think I wouldn’t mind stepping outside.”
Matt beamed. “Great.”
Yes, let’s get out of here.
Except Jared knew from experience it didn’t matter how far he ran. He couldn’t get away from Nick.