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Nathan Prologue


I’d never been so glad to see our Fifth Avenue apartment building since the day I’d moved in. If I heard another Congratulations for the rest of my life it would be too soon. Hours of smiling and pretend happiness had worn on me. All I wanted was a cold beer and to forget about the day.

Emma hadn’t fared much better.

We hadn’t spoken much on the ride back home and we rode the elevator up to our apartment in silence, both of us lost in thought. As soon as the doors opened on our floor, Emma let out a sigh. “Thank fuck.”

The only reason I laughed was because she’d voiced what I’d been feeling. “Longest day in history.”

Her response was pure Emma. “I need a drink.”

That made two of us. We walked down the hallway to our door. Thanks to the large box filled with unopened champagne, leftover cake, and a few gifts, I had to wait for Emma to fish the key ring from my pocket.

The box was getting heavier by the second and the open door was a welcome sight. We walked into the apartment, not bothering to stop to take off our shoes, and headed toward the kitchen.

I slid the box onto the counter and turned to see Emma standing behind me, her lips pressed into a firm line. Her immaculately styled hair from hours before had become unraveled in places, but the hair product the salon had used kept it at unnatural angles. The makeup that had been perfect at one in the afternoon was splotchy and smudged twelve hours after it had been applied.

To me she was still beautiful, and she looked a lot more like the woman I’d known for eight years.

Even rolling out of her room first thing in the morning, no caffeine in her system, hair rumpled, with sheet creases on her cheeks, Emma was beautiful. The professional makeup and hairdo had only accentuated her natural beauty, but I liked her more like this. Like this, she was my Emma. My best friend and confidant.

After shucking my tuxedo jacket, untying my bow tie, and popping the top three buttons of my shirt, I pulled the box of cake off the top of the pile. Below it sat one of the bottles of champagne we’d escaped with. Emma was still in her dress but had headed over to the silverware drawer and pulled two forks out. “Shall we eat our feelings?”

The first genuine laugh I’d had in hours bubbled from my chest. “God, that sounds like a perfect way to end this day. Can I interest you in champagne?” I held up the bottle of champagne that had caused me to nearly choke on my water when I’d heard its price at the tasting six months earlier.

“Skip the glass.” She reached into the fridge. “Beer?”

“Please.” I might have been wearing a custom-tailored tuxedo and had spent the last week rubbing elbows with New York’s most elite attorneys and socialites, but I still preferred a cold bottle of beer to any glass of wine or champagne offered, and Emma knew it.

I popped the cork just as Emma took the cap off my beer. We traded bottles, and I grabbed the cake box, following her into the living room where we promptly collapsed on the couch, wedding attire and all.

Because, somehow, we’d gotten married that day.

Emma propped her Converse-clad feet onto the coffee table, took a long swig of champagne, then stabbed a bite of cake.

I wasn’t as anxious to eat the cake but sighed in relief as the cold beer slid down my throat. “How did we even get here?”

Emma’s laugh was sardonic, and she shook her head. The motion caused the loose strands to move, but it wasn’t a natural movement, and I found myself staring at it. “I think it started with us drunkenly deciding to date to get people off our backs about not being settled down and nearing our mid-thirties.”

I nodded at the memory. “Right, because we’re far more valuable partnered up or some such shit.”

Another long pull from the champagne bottle later, Emma narrowed her eyes at me. “No, I’m apparently worth more partnered up. Partnered, but god forbid I have children… You needed someone so that people stopped questioning why you weren’t dating.”

My cheeks flushed but I didn’t say anything.

“Elliot Mitchell, you’re thirty-five years old and aside from a drunken half-confession to me that night, you’ve never said the words out loud.”

I drained my beer too quickly and went to get another. There was no point in pretending this was going to be a one- or even two-beer night. “It wasn’t supposed to get this far,” was the only defense I had as once again I took my seat next to her.

She left half the slice of chocolate cake with raspberry filling uneaten and started on a slice of lemon sponge cake. I couldn’t remember the filling in that one, but then again, the cake had been huge, with multiple layers and just as many different fillings. The only one I’d cared anything about was the layer with German chocolate cake, dark chocolate ganache, and the sweet coconut filling that had nearly given the baker a heart attack when I asked for it.

Eventually, Emma sighed. “Who’d have thought your bringing me coffee one morning would end up with us walking down the aisle?”

I poked at my cake as I thought about that fateful day. She’d been exhausted after having not slept much while preparing for a trial that was starting. I’d stopped by her favorite coffee cart on my way into work to pick us both up coffee, then swung by her firm on the way up to my own office.

Emma’s eyes had widened when she spotted me walking toward her, and a genuine smile spread across her face. She’d pulled me into her office and given me a giant hug and kiss on the cheek. As she sipped the double shot mocha, she sighed. “I’m so glad I’ve called keeps on you forever.”

We’d both laughed, and I’d given her another hug and headed up the elevator to my own office, the law firm her dad had started thirty-some years earlier. I hadn’t thought a thing of the morning detour until Emma flew into my office unannounced at lunchtime, panting as she closed the door, her eyes wild with panic. “Think fast! I don’t know how—” But the knock on my office door cut her sentence off and she groaned. “I’m so sorry,” she apologized as she opened the door to both her mom and dad.

Her mom, Michelle, looked over the moon while her dad—my boss—looked like he’d swallowed a lemon. “Why didn’t you tell us?” Michelle gushed as she continued to speak. “When did it happen?”

“I’m sorry?” I couldn’t figure out what they were talking about.

Michelle carried on like I hadn’t spoken. “An engagement! How exciting! When’s the wedding? Oh, we have so much to plan!”

The ringing in my ears was nearly deafening. My eyes shot to Emma’s but she was pale and offered no help to me, so I did the only thing I could think of. I smiled and went for as close to the truth as I could without having any idea what the actual truth was. “Oh, well, it’s kind of new.”

It had snowballed out of control from there. Before we could right the misunderstanding, Emma had been dragged to a dress fitting. When she’d come home shell-shocked to inform me that her mom had purchased her a wedding dress, we talked about it and had decided to go through with it.

The most mature decision ever? Probably not.

The easiest? Well, looking back, no, it hadn’t been.

But hindsight’s twenty-twenty.

Over the last few months, Emma and I had nearly lost our friendship over the wedding stress. We’d both argued about calling the entire thing off. In the end, we’d followed through with it, but the last week had been a special form of hell.

Emma gave up on the sponge cake and went for a direct kill. “Did you ever talk to your brother?”

I shoved half of the remaining slice of cake into my mouth.

She shook her head. “What am I going to do with you, Elliot? That was half the reason we went through with this insane thing. You two need to talk.”

I washed the bite down with a swallow of beer and glanced over at her. “Do you really think Rand would let him anywhere near me? God only knows what that man knows. He’s huge and kinda scary.”

“And you’ve been an absolute asshole to him all week.”

I made to open my mouth to refute it but Emma held up her hand and glowered at me. “Do not make excuses to me. I get it. Your parents are stressful. He’s in a nontraditional relationship. You’re so vanilla you couldn’t even be considered French vanilla. This year has been stressful and you’ve been on edge. But Jesus, Elliot, you went through so much trouble to get your brother here so you had a chance to talk.”

“That was before I knew he was going to have his Daddy with him! Seriously, I really didn’t think he’d have a Daddy! How the hell do you go to a ranch in Middle of Nowhere, Tennessee, and end up hooking up with your gay boss?”

Emma let out a snort of laughter that told me she was probably tipsy by that point. A glance at the bottle said the champagne was half gone. It was going to be an interesting night. Despite her intoxication, her words were clear and precise. “He told you he was bringing Rand. He gave you warning. And they were sweet together. No offense, but if I could find a man to look at me the same way Rand looks at Kyle, I’d consider dating.”

My eyes fell closed and I stifled a laugh at her statement. “None taken. Truthfully, if a guy ever looked at me like that, I’d consider it too.”

Emma let out a gasp. “I think that was the closest you’ve ever come to admitting your sexuality.”

If only I wouldn’t lose the only family I had if that happened. I pinched the bridge of my nose, trying to figure out a way to change the subject before things got more uncomfortable. “You know it was faked?” I winced at my own words. “I mean, I think it was faked? But now it’s real? At least I think it’s real?”

Emma’s eyebrows made a weird succession of movements before settling on a confused arch. “Well, if they faked it, they faked it well. Your brother is genuinely in love with that man, and Rand looks at him like he hung the moon. And that protective streak he has for Kyle couldn’t possibly be fake.”

I waved my empty bottle around in front of me. “It’s not fake now! It was when we first invited them to the wedding. He didn’t want to come.”

“Imagine that.”

“Hey, we didn’t want to be here either,” I shot back defensively.

Emma leaned over and rested her head on my shoulder. “We’ve fucked up, El.”

Tell me something I don’t know.

“Your dad hates me. Your mom thinks I’m an idiot. My brother hates me. My parents aren’t happy with me… but there’s nothing new on that front.”

“My dad doesn’t hate you. And my mom will cool off.”

The headache that always hung out behind my eyes threatened to turn into a migraine. “We kept this up, thinking it wouldn’t be that bad. Maybe I’d finally make partner out of it; you’d move up in your firm as well. Well, you’re about to be made partner, but your dad made it clear that that isn’t in the cards for me. Fuck.” I scrubbed my free hand down my face.

Emma hummed, that patient understanding way I’d come to know and love about her. Yes, I loved Emma but not in the way a husband was supposed to love his wife. “Did you really want to make partner?”

I lifted a shoulder. “Honestly? I don’t know. It’s just what’s expected, right?”

“There are plenty of attorneys who never want to become a managing partner in a law firm.”

I thought about her words. Did I want to be a partner? If I really analyzed it, I hated my job. I loved the law, I liked family law, and I loved being an attorney. But did I want to bring even more work home every day? Did I want the responsibility of managing other people? Probably not. Hell, I was quickly proving I could hardly manage myself.

I felt my body sink back into the couch as the weight of the realization fully hit me. I didn’t want to be a partner. At least not in Richard’s firm. I’d wanted it because my parents expected it. Fuck.

Emma stayed silent for so long I thought she’d fallen asleep. When she spoke, I jumped slightly. “It was a helluva party, though.”

I couldn’t help my chuckle. “That it was. Too bad we were too angry to really enjoy it.”

We sat in silence for a long time before I came to a decision. “I’ll take the fall for this.”

Emma’s head shot up and she swayed slightly. “What?”

“Em, this is your apartment. This is your life. You’re NYC born and raised. You love your job, you love the city, you love your friends. You’re about to make partner. What do I have? A law degree and eight years in a firm that isn’t going to make me partner? You can still be happy. We’ll file for an annulment on Monday. I’ll find something else. You’ll move on.”

Emma scooted closer. “If I move on, then you have to too. You need to stop trying to please the two most vile people on the planet. If you hadn’t made Nancy and Edward Mitchell happy before this week, you never will. They are truly the nastiest people I’ve ever met, and if you keep trying to please them, you’re going to turn out the same way.”

I winced at her scolding. She wasn’t far from the truth. I hadn’t laughed since their plane had landed. I’d been a fucking nightmare of epic proportions, even worse than normal, and I could admit that. “And how will I do that?” The defeat in my voice was depressing even to me.

Her warm hugs and steady presence would be the worst loss from this entire disaster. I wasn’t going to be able to stay in New York, and I knew that. A city of eight million wasn’t very big when lawyers started to talk. I was going to be blacklisted from every firm in the city. The weight of the last week was nearly crushing.

“You’re going to be true to yourself.”

I took it back. That was the most crushing thing of the last week. My eyes went wide, and my newest bottle of beer paused halfway to my mouth. “I-I what?”

Emma poked me with a flawless French-manicured finger. “It’s time for you to live for you. You’re going to find a job you like. You’re going to come out.”

When I went stone-still beside her, she backpedaled slightly. “I’m not telling you to take out a billboard in Times Square. I’m telling you that you’re going to tell at least one person the truth.”

Sweat trickled down my back. I was thirty-five and the closest I’d ever come to saying what Emma was asking—no, telling—me to say was that I didn’t like women in that way. She’d gotten it without my needing to say more. It was what had made our “relationship” work as long as it had. Emma didn’t want to be married or dating; she was happy single. I was tired of dodging attempts at being hooked up with everyone’s friend or sister. With us dating, she hadn’t been pressured to find a man, and I hadn’t been pressured to find someone to date.

Then it had gone sideways.

“I’m not trying to send you into a panic attack, Elliot. But you’re not getting any younger. If you are willing to take the blame for this mess that we got ourselves into, then I’m going to demand that you find happiness. You’re not going to do that until you admit to yourself that you’ve lied to everyone for the last twenty-plus years you’ve known.”

That last piece of cake was not sitting well in my stomach. “Look what happened to Kyle when he came out.”

Emma squeezed my arm. “He found a job he loves, a home he loves, and a man who loves him every bit as much as he loves him.”

“Before that, Em. The hell he went through at home. The hell he went through at school. The hell he still goes through.” I groaned as the weight of it all really sank in. “The hell I’ve put him through so no one looked too hard at me.” I’d been an asshole to him since he came out, but I’d never been there for him before that either. That was on me, but the way I’d treated him since he’d come out was what really bothered me.

She wrapped me in a hug and held me tight. “And it’s time to make that right. Call him in the morning. Without your mom and dad and grandma around. I won’t go if you don’t want me to, but meet up with him, grovel, and apologize. It’s not going to fix it, but hopefully it will set the wheels in motion. Maybe you can salvage something from this disaster of a week.”

“I’ll call him,” I promised after a few moments of silence. “But the odds of him agreeing to meet me are infinitesimal at best.”

We spent the next few hours discussing what steps we needed to take, how we’d move forward and onward, and what we’d do without the other. In the eighteen months we’d lived together, our lives had become intertwined even without the romance. It was going to be an adjustment to not have the other just a door away.

“Where are you going?”

I shrugged. “Back to Chicago, probably. The house is big enough that my parents likely won’t even remember I’m there after a few days. I’ll find a job.”

She chuckled. “Is Chicago really big enough for you to live that close to your parents?”

My dramatic sigh was answer enough. “Fuck if I know. I’ve got savings—I just don’t want to dip into them. Maybe I can find some place less expensive to live? Maybe find a job outside of Illinois.”

“I’m here for whatever you need. Always. I hope you know that.” She pinched the bridge of her nose. “Fuck, I’m drunk. And champagne hangovers suck. I’m going to head to bed.”

“Need help out of that dress?”

Emma looked down at her attire. “Ha! Wedding dresses aren’t made to be gotten out of on your own. They assume the spouse will do that.”

I grinned. “God, I’m going to miss you.”

She got a little teary-eyed. “Same. But you’re going to finally fly. And I’m not going to let you retreat again. You’re free now.”

Instead of acknowledging her words, I did what I did best and changed the subject. “Let’s get you out of that dress.”

She saw through my misdirection but thankfully didn’t push harder. “And in the morning, you’re going to call your brother.”

Five sleepless hours later, I could honestly say I’d stuck to my word. I called Kyle as soon as I thought it was reasonable, but the call went straight to voicemail. So I did the next best thing and sent him a text.

Me: Want to do breakfast?

The text back came about two hours later. Short and to the point.

Kyle: Already home. You can’t use me as your token gay brother anymore.

I read the text a number of times. He was gone, and he was rightfully angry. There was no salvaging this mess, and I had no one to blame but myself. And for the first time in I couldn’t remember how long, I cried.

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