"My sweet daughter. I'm so happy for you."
Kurt leaned over and scooped the glass of champagne out of his mother's hands as she did her best to throttle his middle sister. "You've said that already, Mama," he muttered, watching his stocks shift across the screen of his phone.
The cavernous great room of his Miami home was packed with family and friends eager to celebrate Marizza’s engagement with an open bar. He'd already had two glasses during the toasts, so he held the glass off to one side until someone else grabbed it. It was his sister, Catherine, judging by the floral perfume that wafted over him.
"You're going to be such a beautiful bride," his mother sobbed into Marizza's dark hair. "Oh, it's going to be such a lovely wedding."
"Gotcha," Kurt muttered, tapping the buttons that would send half a million dollars in trades zipping around the world. The European stock market closed a moment later, the spin of numbers dropping drastically before they came to a jarring halt.
"Yes!" He did a little dance in the middle of the knot of women gushing over Marizza's engagement ring, adrenaline humming through his veins until he felt as bubbly as the champagne.
Ignoring him with the ease of decades of practice, Catherine elbowed him aside. "As long as I don't have to wear another godawful pistachio bridesmaid dress," she said, raising the stolen glass in a mocking toast to their younger sister, Venice.
The oldest of the sisters, Catherine was closest to him in age and temperament, a real force to be reckoned with as she ran the family business. She didn’t look much like him currently, her honey amber eyes much lighter than his, and she’d added streaks of blonde to her dark hair.
"What was wrong with my bridesmaids’ dresses?" Venice asked, her lavender-dyed hair swept into a fashionable bun except for the wisps that floated around to stick to her pout.
"Pistachio," Catherine said. She downed the last of the champagne and handed it off to one of the army of waiters that Kurt had hired for the occasion. Over her shoulder, Elodie nodded vigorously.
Kurt wondered if Elodie even remembered the gothic black-and-gold layer cakes that had been her own bridesmaids’ dresses, or if she had blocked it as one of the traumas of her younger self.
"It was in style," Venice protested weakly.
Kurt rolled his eyes, turning away from the well-worn argument to scan the room. They were going to need more champagne at the rate Uncle Ronnie was going through the stuff. He shot off a quick text to the caterer to have more shrimp appetizers prepared.
Catherine leaned against Kurt's back to poke Venice in the collarbone. "Pistachio."
"I was thinking fuchsia, actually," Marizza said thoughtfully.
He couldn't help the disgusted grimace that crossed his face as he turned to stare at her. Thankfully, the rest of his family seemed to be of the same opinion, his sisters staring in barely-concealed horror. Even Mama looked mildly disturbed at the thought of her olive-skinned, dark-haired daughters in bright pink.
"Oh, hell no," Elodie said, her voice carrying farther than she'd probably expected in the betrayed silence.
Mama frowned, the corners of her mouth visibly turning down. "Watch your language," she snapped. Still petting Marizza's hair, her gentle motions took on a threatening air as she glared around at them all, the fine skin around her eyes not daring to wrinkle.
"But Mama..." Venice whined.
"You will wear whatever your sister picks out with pride," Mama said. "It's an honor to be asked to be a bridesmaid." She grabbed a glass of champagne off of a passing waiter and took a quick sip. "Even if you do look like an oversaturated bottle of Pepto Bismol," she added under her breath.
Kurt tried not to laugh, he really did. Fortunately, the snort that escaped was hidden under Marizza's wail.
"Mama!" Her face crumpled, big crocodile tears welling artfully at the corners.
"Oh, my darling. Don't cry." Mama sniffled as she dragged Marizza to her chest. "It's just all the stress."
Digging around in her sequined clutch, carefully chosen to match her designer dress, she pulled a pill bottle out and popped some in her mouth. "I need to lie down. This is too much for me.”
Kurt could feel the muscles in his jaw twitching as all eyes turned to him. "Of course, Mama," he said, scooping her off Marizza's shoulder before anyone could panic. "Let's go say goodnight to everyone."
She was fragile in his arms, light and limp in a way that completely belied her personality. "Thank you, baby," she told him, patting his cheek and almost catching his eye with one violently-pointed acrylic nail. "You're such a good boy."
Pulling her across the room, the gathered family and friends parting for them like water without a second glance, Kurt waved off Catherine's murmured apologies. The four of them huddled together with downtrodden expressions, but he wasn't worried about it. They'd be bickering before he made it out of the room. Maybe this time, they wouldn't resort to hair pulling.
"Such a good boy," Mama repeated, waving airily at a group of women from her church as she passed. They smiled and waved back, all of them a few sheets to the wind themselves. "You're always there for your mama. You haven't left me."
"I'm not going to leave you, Mama," he said, catching her as she tried to slide out of his arms. Not without a soft bed and a dark room, anyway. He felt a surge of guilt at the thought.
He loved his mother. After his father had passed away, she'd taken over the real estate empire her husband had started, increasing the family's wealth tenfold despite the many roadblocks she'd faced as an immigrant woman. It would have been far easier to go back to her family in Spain.
She snorted, patting the air over his shoulder sloppily. He'd have to check her pill bottle when he got her upstairs, make sure she hadn't taken too many. "Someday you'll leave me," she said. "Some smart woman is going to realize what a wonderful man you are and snatch you up, and then you'll be gone."
She sniffed loudly, tears dripping down her cheeks even as she smiled at Father Julio, the elderly priest sending Kurt a gently sympathetic glance. "Who will help me get to bed when you are gone, mijito?"
It was lucky they'd managed to reach the stairs by that point, because Kurt couldn't hide his grimace. No woman was ever going to tempt him away from his mother — not that he was going to tell her that. He might not always be the most socially adept, but after almost four decades of Catholic mass every Sunday, he had a pretty good idea how well it would go over if he told her that.
Besides, he didn't have time for relationships. Not if he wanted to make that ten percent increase this year, and secure the college fund he'd set up for his best friend's son a full three years early.
"We'll find you a cabana boy," he told his mother as he tried to get her feet to cooperate with him. He could have carried her up the stairs without breaking a sweat, but that would have broken the illusion of normalcy. Nothing was allowed to penetrate that careful balancing act; he'd known that since he was fourteen.
"A young one," he added when she tittered. "Oil up his bronze muscles. Be really scandalous."
"No," she gasped, giggling helplessly into his shoulder. It quickly trailed off into a tired sigh. "Imagine what they'd say."
He wasn't sure which they she was talking about; there were plenty to choose from. His sisters, the church, her friends, the neighbors, all equally important. "They'd be jealous for about ten minutes, until Mrs. Castillo took a baseball bat to her husband again, and then it would be old news."
"Kurt," she gasped, swatting at him with horrified laughter. "Don't say such things."
"It's true," he grumbled. They'd finally reached the top of the stairs, and he dragged her the last few feet to his bedroom. He knew they should have had the party at her house, but there was more space in his.
Besides, if they'd had it at her house, Lucia wouldn't have had any excuse not to make an appearance, and he wasn't going to put his youngest sister through that.
"Oh, baby," she said as he laid her gently on his bed. "Just because something's the truth, doesn't mean it's polite to say."
"I'm not polite," he reminded her, tugging off her heels and rubbing her feet gently.
"You're a good boy." Her foot flexed in his hand, and she sighed. "I don't know why some nice girl hasn't snatched you up already. You deserve a pretty wife who will drag you away from that awful phone of yours."
"I like my phone."
"It's not healthy," she said.
He bit his tongue to keep the sarcastic response back. "Yes, Mama." Switching feet, he dug his thumb into her heel.
"I wish you'd let me set you up on a date. I know so many nice girls. Mrs. Sante's daughter just got her Ph.D. She's the one who was Miss Miami a few years ago. Very pretty." Her voice was starting to slur.
"Sure, Mama. If you want, I can take her to dinner."
He didn't mind taking the neighborhood girls out for a good time. He knew where all the good clubs were, and they never had to worry about him copping a feel. The weddings, though, all three of them, he'd managed to get through without a date.
Even he knew that weddings were different.
"You should take her to the wedding. She's a sweet girl, studied economics. Just your type." Her eyes drifted closed.
He had to admit a bit of interest at that. None of his sisters understood his passion for the stock market, even if Lucia occasionally humored him by listening to him ramble. Maybe he'd take Daughter Sante out to dinner one of these days, and see what her take was on the forecast for the next year.
Not the wedding, though.
He checked his mother's purse for her pill bottle and found only four pills missing. Not healthy, but not a record by any means. Leaving her to sleep it off in the dim room, he headed back downstairs.
His sisters had dispersed, Venice and Elodie grazing at the buffet, and Marizza showing off her ring to another group of white-haired old women. Only Catherine was still hovering near the doors to the balcony, another glass of champagne in her carefully manicured hand.
"She's fine," he told her as he broke through the crowd. "Still trying to set me up with a date for the wedding, even as she passed out."
Catherine raised her eyebrow at him. "Valeria Sante?" she asked, humming thoughtfully when he nodded. "She's nice enough, but don't get attached. She has an internship in New York starting in October, at her uncle's company."
Perfect. "How unfortunate," he said, smiling thinly. "I never make it to New York."
She snorted into her drink. "If you're looking for a date, I know a few women who wouldn't mind you working at all hours of the day. Vicky keeps asking about you."
Kurt masked his shudder by glancing at his dead silent phone. "Sorry," he told her, "I've got to take this."
"Right." She didn't even try to hide her skepticism as he backed out onto the balcony, pulling his phone to his ear.
"Talk to me," he said, listening to the silence of the night. "Right. Right." As soon as he was out of sight in the shadows, he slumped against the rough stucco wall of the house. "Jesus Christ," he grumbled, tipping his head back to stare at the sky. It was a clear night, but the lights of Miami obliterated any stars.
He was enjoying the peace and quiet, just starting to relax, when his phone rang. Fumbling within an inch of losing it over the balcony railing, he snatched it out of the air and thumbed it on with the speed of long practice.
"Hello?" He strode a few steps forward, cursing under his breath as he noticed Catherine still watching him with a smirk from a pool of bright light near the doors. “Sorry—“ he pulled the phone away from his ear to glance at the caller ID, “—Luke. The call must have dropped."
There was a slight pause. "Yeah," Luke said dryly. "You know how terrible reception is here in downtown Santa Barbara."
"Shut up and save me," he hissed, baring his teeth as he leaned against the railing nonchalantly.
"Sisters arguing again?" his frat brother asked, a poorly hidden laugh making his voice wobble.
"They're trying to set me up with a date for the wedding," he said, turning toward the dark garden. Somewhere in the night, a fountain burbled away, or possibly it was the hot tub. He should probably check.
Jogging down the steps, he sighed in relief as the darkness swallowed him.
"Ah," Luke said, a loaded silence stretching out until he cleared his throat. "You could just tell them you're gay, you know."
"My mother has had four Valium tonight just talking about bridesmaids’ colors. If I kill her with shock, my sisters become my problem."
Luke hissed through his teeth. "Damn. How does she function like that?" he asked.
"Given that she's currently comatose on my bed, I think the answer is that she doesn't." That wasn't entirely true, he knew. She functioned better than anyone could imagine, but he didn't feel like being kind today. "Her bible study group had a whole month of sessions last fall about the Pope's comments on gay people.”
"Oh?" There was the sound of shuffling papers. "That's a good thing, right?"
Kurt grimaced, trailing his fingers through the water sparkling in the moonlight. "It would be if they hadn't decided that they preferred their interpretation."
"Love the sinner, hate the sin," Luke muttered.
It was the fountain making the sound, the hot tub still firmly covered on the other side of the basketball court. Leaning against the wall next to the fountain, he sighed. "Besides, I'm thirty-eight. If I was going to break her heart, I probably should have done it twenty years ago.
“Anyway. How's the new job, by the way, Judge Carter? What does Jay think of you being at the office so late?" He grinned into the darkness, thinking about Luke's artist husband.
"It's only six in California," Luke said mildly. "And there's a gallery opening tonight, so we have a sitter. I'm leaving here as soon as we get off the phone."
There was a pause filled with the scratch of pen on paper. "The job is fine. They keep telling me that they're easing me into it, and it'll get worse after I've been here a while."
Kurt snorted. "Still at the office at six is easing into it? You sound like me."
"Your office is in your pocket twenty-four seven. I have a long way to go before I'm that dedicated."
"I would argue with that, but I really can't. We're up six percent this year." He glanced up at the house as a high-pitched noise filtered over the sound of the fountain.
Luke laughed. "Only? Aren't you aiming for ten? You should get on that," he teased.
"Yeah, yeah. I'll have you know that I landed that commodities trade earlier," Kurt said, reluctantly heading for the stairs. Before he reached the landing, he could already hear the all too familiar scuffle of high heels.
"That's not fair!"
"It's my wedding," Marizza shot back at whichever one of them had whined. "I wore that hideous dress for your wedding; now I get to do whatever I want for mine."
"I'm not going to go," Venice threatened, her voice strained. God, he hoped they hadn't started the hair pulling already.
"Hey, Luke," Kurt said as he topped the stairs, "I have to go." Well, there was no one screaming bloody murder yet, and didn't that just show how low the bar was set?
Catherine was holding Elodie back with one hand while Marizza and Venice faced off, both of them red-faced and teary. The lights from the wall of windows cast the women on the terrace into silhouette. Venice, taller than the others in her towering heels, was sniffling theatrically. It was a miracle she hadn’t broken an ankle on the uneven slate.
"Shit, sorry," Luke said, even as Marizza grabbed Catherine's champagne glass and threw it to the ground. "I did actually call for a reason." The sound of glass shattering on tile didn't even cause a lull in the conversations inside.
"I hate you," Marizza shrieked, lunging at Venice. Kurt caught her around the waist with a grunt, his arm burning as her nails dug into him.
"Sure," he told Luke, juggling the phone as he spun to keep himself between the two women. "What did you need?" Venice was sobbing loudly behind him, but he could tell she was getting closer. "Don't you dare, Maria de Venice Villanueva y Gutierrez," he snapped.
"She threw a glass at me," Venice wailed. "You always take her side."
"Harry's bachelor auction is coming up," Luke said, ignoring the chaos that was Kurt's life with decades of practice. "As the last of the brothers still on the market, he was hoping you'd do it this year."
Marizza yanked him around as Venice got too close, and he almost lost the phone. "A little help here," he snapped at Catherine, who was glaring at Marizza with her arms crossed, more concerned about the loss of her champagne than the fight. She just shrugged at him.
"What's the charity this year?" he asked Luke, forcing another few feet of space between his fighting sisters. "I swear to God, if you bite me again..." he growled at them both.
"Veterans. Cody's organizing it," Luke said, amusement leaking into his voice, badly hidden behind a cough. "You could just let them fight it out, you know. You don't have to get in the middle."
It was as old and tired an argument as any that his sisters dragged out on a weekly basis. "You've never seen Spaniard women fight, have you?" Kurt muttered, cursing as Marizza's heel dug into the top of his foot.
"Enough," he shouted, pushing Marizza into the corner formed by the balcony and the wall and turning to glare at Venice. "If you two can't behave, I'm going to send you home to your respective rooms, and you won't be welcome at my house again until Thanksgiving."
Venice stopped, staring at him in surprise. "You wouldn't dare."
"How could you?" Marizza said, elbowing him in the ribs until he moved aside. "You're so mean to us."
"The worst brother ever," Venice agreed, pulling her sister into a hug and patting her comfortingly.
It was something that had always boggled his mind about his family; it was like the argument had never happened, all four women glaring at him. "And at Marizza's engagement party,” she went on. “Wait until Mama hears about this."
Scrubbing his hand over his face until his skin ached, Kurt shook his head. "Jesus. Just go."
Venice sniffed. "Come on, Marizza. Let's leave the grumpy workaholic to his solitude. No wonder he's alone," she added, herding the others off the balcony. Catherine was the only one who seemed to remember that the two of them had just been at each other's throats, casting an amused look at him over her shoulder as she let herself be led back toward the party and the champagne.
"Be happy you're an only child," he told Luke as he fell back against the railing, exhaustion rolling over him. Sometimes he wondered what he’d done in a past life to be made the older brother of those four. At least he had Lucia, the sanest and sweetest of them, on his side.
"Veterans, huh? Sure, why not; it's not like I have anything better to do. Maybe it'll get them off my back for a little while."
"Great," Luke said, his voice soft. Kurt ignored the sympathy; he was used to his family, and he loved them. "I'll send you the information. We just finished remodeling the guest condo."
"Again?" Kurt asked.
"We didn't have much choice after Junior decided it needed a coat of paint. Acrylics are not made to go on walls. We're just lucky we didn't have to redo the drywall."
He laughed, the sound ringing over the darkened yard. "That's Jay's daughter, all right. I'll see you in California in September, then."
"Not before we see you, I'm sure," Luke said. "Take care of yourself."
"Will do," Kurt said, ending the call. His arm still stung, tiny beads of blood welling up, and he dabbed at them carefully in the light cast from inside. The party would continue late into the night without him.
Checking his pocket for his keys, he headed around the side of the house. He knew a great bar that was open late.