Williamsport, Pennsylvania, was a city in a loose sense of the word. Nestled between low mountains and the Susquehanna river, it looked like the sort of Colonial-era, red-brick town that most people only saw on postcards. The streets were clean and lined with neat houses, their pointed roofs begging for a layer of snow no matter the season. “Downtown” consisted of a cluster of old buildings—none tall enough to tickle the sky, let alone scrape it—whose stone edifices were elaborate without ostentation.
It wasn’t an exciting city. It wasn’t the sort of place a kid would dream of living someday. But as Sam Cooper looked out over it from the window of his third-floor apartment, he thought, This place feels more like home to me than Montana ever did.
“You there, Sam? Did the signal cut out?”
Filmy curtains swished back into place as he turned away and glanced at his laptop. “I’m here. Sorry, I was lost in thought.”
A grainy version of his sister’s face smiled at him from a Skype window. “What else is new?” Jessica laughed, and her black curls trembled. “Something on your mind?”
“I should be asking you that. You’re the one who’s getting married in—” he walked over to the glass coffee table and peered at his laptop’s task bar “—seventeen days. Wow. Is it June already?”
“Sure is. Speaking of the wedding . . .”
Sam groaned, slumping onto the cushiony couch. “Please, not this again.”
“Yes, this again! What kind of little brother misses his favorite sister’s wedding?”
“You’re my only sister, Jess, and I told you. I have to work.” His tongue was thick as he delivered the lie, despite how accustomed he’d become to it.
He checked his reflection in the little side window that showed his camera feed. His blond hair—the polar opposite of his sister’s inky locks—had fallen across his big brown eyes. They looked black in the low resolution. He was normally meticulous about shaving, but after his last job had unceremoniously dumped him, he’d allowed stubble to creep over his jaw, emphasizing its squareness. His expression had a hint of discomfort. A stranger wouldn’t notice, but Jessica would.
Sure enough, she squinted at him. “Your internship ended a week ago. There’s nothing stopping you from hopping on a plane to Helena. You would have told me if they’d offered you that tech job at the end of your contract.” Her expression softened. “I’m sorry you didn’t get it. I know you had your fingers crossed.”
Sam shrugged and shifted into a sitting position across from the computer. “It happens. Lots of people are going into coding these days, so the competition was fierce. They probably found someone who wasn’t fresh out of college to fill the position. You know, someone who has that mythical ‘experience’ I’ve heard so much about.”
“I thought the point of an internship was to get experience?”
“That was the idea, yeah, but I guess the company had other ones.”
There was no way to know for sure, but Sam had suspicions as to why he hadn’t gotten a job offer after a year with the same small tech company. On all of Sam’s quarterly evaluations, one phrase had come up over and over again: Not a team player. Sam didn’t spend his time gossiping by the watercooler or sucking up to his superiors. He kept to himself and finished his work quietly and expeditiously. As a result, a year later, some of his superiors still didn’t know his name.
I bet Wesley would have gotten the job if he’d been in my place. He would have charmed them all.
His gaze fell to his lap. He rubbed his thumbnail with the pad of his index finger. He’d chewed it down to a stub.
“Are you sure nothing’s bothering you, Sam?” The camera feed showed Jessica studying him with concern. “You look pensive.”
His mouth twitched. “I’m making dinner plans in my head. Boxed mac and cheese is serious business.”
Jessica snorted. “Uh-huh. And when you were staring broodily out the window earlier, you were thinking about new curtains, right?”
“I was watching the sunset. It’s so beautiful here. I’d stay forever if I could.” He chewed on his lower lip. If I can get a job.
Jessica’s concern warped to sympathy. “You’ll find a way, little bro. You work so hard, and it’s only been a week since your internship ended. There’s a reason you landed it right out of college. You may not be the most . . . gregarious. But employers are going to see how valuable you are.”
“I appreciate your faith in me.” Sam wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “Can we change the subject?”
“Fine by me. Let’s talk about the wedding.”
Damn, I walked right into that.
“I’m so sorry, Jess, but I mean it when I say I can’t make it.”
Jessica’s serious face snapped into place. “Samuel Patrick Cooper.” Her tone crackled like a live wire. “If you’re not at my wedding, what are people going to say?”
“If by ‘people’ you mean our parents, then probably ‘Thank God.’”
She rolled her eyes. “They love you, Sam. They’d love to see you. It’s been over a year. You can’t avoid them forever.”
We’ll see about that.
“Even if I weren’t too busy to go—and I still maintain that I am—I wouldn’t want anything to distract from your special day. If I show up, it’ll be returning to the scene of the crime.”
“There was no crime, Sam. You called off a wedding. Big deal.”
He gave her a pointed look.
“Okay, so you called it off the night before, and that was kind of a big deal. But at least you didn’t marry someone you don’t love.”
I did love Michael. But I couldn’t marry him.
Out loud, Sam said, “If the family Runaway Bride shows up at your wedding, it’s going to get our relatives talking. I don’t want to take the focus off you on your special day. Or expose myself to all that gossip and scrutiny, for that matter. I’ll spend the whole night dodging cousins asking me why I did it.”
Jessica pressed her lips together, eagerness written all over her face. She wanted to ask him herself. He’d only ever given perfunctory explanations, and they’d had to be pried out of him.
Mercifully, she restrained herself. “Sam, I would take all the gossip in the world if it meant I got you too. It hurts my heart when I think that you won’t be there. What if I got Mom and Dad to call you, and—”
“No!” Sam exhaled and forced himself to speak at a normal volume. “Please don’t. I can’t handle any more terse conversations with them.”
“It’s your choice: either talk to them on the phone, or talk in person at my wedding.”
Sam opened his mouth, hesitated, and shut it again. His eyes wandered around his apartment, taking in the cream walls, tidy kitchen, and the bedroom sectioned off by bookcases. His bed was made with two perfectly fluffed pillows resting against the headboard.
Looking at his pristine apartment would make most people think Sam had his shit together, but he knew better. It was too clean. When he started washing baseboards and bleaching grout, it was a sure sign that he was spending too much time at home. He needed to get a life in a big way.
It wouldn’t be a bad idea to take off for a long weekend. Break out of my routine. I know what happens when I spend too much time alone in this little apartment. Now that I don’t have the internship to make me leave the house, I’m going feral.
He swished words around in his mouth. “I’ll think about it. I can’t promise anything more than that, but I swear to consider it seriously. You know how much you mean to me. I’d be there in a second if things weren’t so complicated. Okay?”
“Okay.” Jessica eyed him. “Regardless of what you say, I’m not giving up hope. There’s going to be a seat for you at the reception. Right up front. If you leave an empty spot at one of my tables, you’ll be pissing off a bride on her wedding day. That’s a minimum of one gajillion years of bad luck.”
Despite the anxiety twisting his insides, Sam laughed. “Noted. I love you, Jess.”
“I love you too, little bro. Talk to you soon.”
Sam ended the video call, stomach still churning. He stared at his computer’s wallpaper: a photo of him and Wesley Reed—his best friend—when they’d left Penn State a little over a year ago.
Back then, it’d seemed like nothing could stand in Sam’s way. He’d graduated with honors, was about to start a promising internship, and was set to marry his wonderful fiancé only a week later.
Even after they’d broken up, Sam still thought Michael was wonderful. Smart, handsome, funny. The whole package. Sam’s parents had been very vocal about wanting Michael to join the family. Then Sam had gone and ruined everything. He’d wasted tens of thousands of dollars—most of which was his parents’—and Michael had never spoken to him again.
Sam couldn’t blame him. Hell, he was half-convinced his family was only still speaking to him because Jessica had loudly proclaimed her support. Thank God for her. And the fact that he’d chosen to go to school all the way across the country.
His phone buzzed on the sofa next to him. Grateful for the distraction, he plucked it up and glanced at the screen. He had a text from Wesley.
Meet me at Corner Bar? After the day I had, I need booze and Sam-time.
Corner Bar was a pub located, shockingly, on the corner of Fifth and West, three blocks from Sam’s place. Sam composed a quick reply. That’s what you always say.
True, but I really mean it this time. Please? I haven’t seen you all week.
Drinking sounded like exactly what Sam wanted to do right now. Drinking meant not thinking, and he would desperately love to not think. Plus, Wesley had a talent for uncomplicating things. Everything seemed clear and simple when he talked about it.
Wandering over to his dresser, Sam pulled out some clothes that would be suitable for both a bar and the unseasonably cool summer they were having. He changed, grabbed his things, and was out the door a few minutes later. Knowing Wesley was waiting for him was apparently all the motivation he needed.
Night had settled like soot over the city. The streets were still slick from the warm afternoon rain that had fallen earlier. Despite what the calendar said, the air had a hint of bite to it. If today was any indication, they were in for a gorgeous summer.
Corner Bar was busy for a Wednesday. Through the clear windows, Sam saw people spilling over barstools and huddling together at pub tables. Wesley wasn’t in sight. Sam’s anxiety ratcheted up a few degrees, but he pressed forward.
He bypassed the people smoking outside, ducked beneath the low green awning surrounding the brick building, and let himself in through the painted double doors. Inside was much warmer than outside, probably thanks to all the bodies. He’d picked a hell of a day to wear long sleeves.
The bar smelled like fried food and beer, in a good way. Sam could almost feel the carbonation tickling his nose already. Three steps in, he heard a familiar voice.
He turned toward the sound and spotted a dark head tucked away at the bar behind a big party. Wesley.
“There you are.” Sam hurried over, a smile sliding onto his face.
Wesley had his long, trouser-clad legs propped up on the stool next to him. He moved them when Sam approached. “Perfect timing, Sammy. I just got here.”
“You know how I feel about that nickname.” The familiar argument was equivalent to a greeting at this stage in their friendship.
Wesley’s blue eyes glinted with mischief. “You pretend to hate it and argue that nicknames shouldn’t be longer than the name itself, but deep down, you find it endearing.”
Sam rolled his eyes. This was the problem with best friends. They knew too much. “I stand by my argument.”
“And I counter by saying your name isn’t Sam. It’s Samuel, which has more syllables than Sammy. So, there.” He drained the beer in front of him and signaled to the bartender. “If I can still hold my own in an argument, then I’m not drunk enough. You want?”
“Yeah, I’ll take a beer.”
While Wesley ordered for them, Sam gave him a once-over out of the corner of his eye. Wesley looked good, as per usual. He’d dressed up in a navy suit that didn’t look expensive but fit him perfectly. A blue button-down brought out his eyes, clear as the summer sky. He’d run some product through his dark hair, smoothing its usual messiness.
“You had an interview today?” Sam asked needlessly.
The bartender appeared with two pint glasses. Wesley stood to grab them, set one in front of Sam, and then took a healthy gulp from his own. “Yup. Hence the alcohol.”
“It didn’t go well?”
“When I walked in, I went to shake hands with my left instead of my right, which caused my interviewer to switch sides just as I put out my right hand. Then I switched again the second he switched. It was like a Russian kick dance. What are those called?”
“Yeah, that. Anyway, I’m not kidding when I say it went on for a solid minute while we both stared at each other with growing horror.”
Sam snorted into his beer. “But you’re not left-handed.”
“I’m sure not.”
“Then why did you—”
“Hell if I know.” Wesley took another long glug. “The rest of the interview went about as well. I totally choked.”
“Damn. You normally make such a good first impression.”
“Says the three jobs you’ve landed since graduation.”
“Yeah, but I’m pretty sure you’re not supposed to job-hop like that. Doesn’t look good on a résumé.” Wesley rubbed his eyes. “I’d take your year of gainful employment over going on all these interviews. They’re torture.”
“I’ll make that trade if I can have your confidence and social skills. At least you know when you go in that you’re going to charm the pants off them. Russian kick-dancing notwithstanding.”
Wesley laughed, the sound deep and pleasant. “Thanks. On to the next, I guess. If I exhaust all the job opportunities in Williamsport, I suppose I can look at some neighboring cities.”
Sam punched his arm. “Yeah, right. Like you’d leave now after spending your whole life here. Sometimes I think half the reason you went to Penn is so you could stay local.”
“Ah, good ol’ Penn State. All this talk of college makes me want to do shots.”
“Wow, you’re really upset about this interview, huh?”
“What gave me away?” He got the bartender’s attention again, shouted an order, and then swiveled on his stool to face Sam. “What about you? Now that your internship is over, you’re looking for jobs, right? If you can’t find anything, are you going to move back home?”
“To Montana?” Sam clutched his throat and made exaggerated choking noises. “No way. Someone could offer me my dream job, and I wouldn’t go back. Not because there’s anything wrong with living peacefully in the mountains, or whatever, but it’s not for me. Besides, I can’t leave you.” He fluttered his eyelashes.
Wesley chuckled. “Shit like that is why people assume we’re a couple, you know.”
“Nah, it’s because they stereotype us. Haven’t you heard? It’s impossible for two gay men to be friends without hooking up. To us, there is only fresh meat.”
That got a solid laugh out of Wesley. He made Sam crack up so often, it was nice to return the favor.
The bartender returned with two shots, and to Sam’s horror, she plunked one of them down in front of him. “Wesley, no.”
“Wesley, yes.” He held his glass up and grinned. “Remember when I got you to do shots in our dorm freshman year? You said it was one of the best nights of your life.”
“Yeah, right before I threw up everywhere. Why do I let you talk me into things?” Despite his protests, he picked up his own glass. He actually wouldn’t mind some hard liquor after his conversation with Jessica.
“Come on, it’ll be fine.” Wesley clinked their glasses together. “What should we toast to?”
“The future? Finding our dream jobs?”
“That’s too generic. We can do better than that.” He rubbed his chin. “Hey, isn’t your sister’s wedding around the corner? Let’s toast to the bride-to-be.”
Sam flinched and looked away to hide it, but he was too slow.
Wesley’s eyes narrowed. “What happened?”
Wesley set his shot down next to his half-drunk beer, propped an elbow on the bar, and planted his chin in his palm, eyes fixed on Sam.
“All right, fine.” Sam sighed. “Jessica asked me to come to her wedding again today.”
“And you caved and said yes, right?”
“Uh . . .”
“What?” Wesley made a rude sound. “Dude, you have to go. You know you do. Hell, I’m planning on attending.”
Sam’s brow furrowed. “Jessica invited you?”
“No, but only because I told her I was your plus-one.”
“Oh my God.” Sam rubbed his eyes. “You can’t do shit like that.”
“Why not? You don’t have a boyfriend, and I know you’d never work up the nerve to go alone. Enter Wesley.”
Sam couldn’t help but laugh. “If we’re going to discuss this, I need more alcohol.” He downed his shot and came up sputtering.
“Fine by me.” Wesley followed suit much more smoothly and chased it with beer. Then he signaled the bartender for another round. “Why don’t you want to go? Weddings are fun.”
“You know why. I haven’t seen my family since I called things off with Michael. I can’t face them in the same setting where I disappointed them.”
“Sure you can. It’s been a year. No way they’re still mad.”
Sam laughed again, but this time it was humorless. “You’ve met my parents. Think about it.”
“Hm.” Wesley tapped his chin. “I suppose they’re not the most forgiving people. If it’s any consolation, I think you did the right thing. You guys were way too young to get married, and you rushed into it. You met, what, junior year?”
“And you were engaged by senior! I always thought one of these days we were going to find out Michael had some deal breaker, like a gambling problem, or a husband in another city, or he listens to Nickelback.”
“Well, you were right, considering it all fell apart.”
“So, what’s the plan? Avoid your parents until someone dies? You can’t do that. It’s not fair to you, them, or Jessica, for that matter.”
“I know I can’t, but I don’t know what else to do.”
“I’ll tell you. You can suck it up, be a good little brother, and go to your sister’s wedding. You’ll break her heart if you don’t, and instead of remembering who was there for years to come, she’ll remember who wasn’t.”
There was no arguing with that. Sam sighed. “You’re right. I’m not convinced I won’t die of embarrassment, but you’re right.”
More shots arrived. Wesley perked up like a dog who’d spotted a squirrel. “You know what you need? Booze.”
“Right. That’ll help me make responsible decisions.”
“We’re past the decision-making portion of the program and on to drowning our sorrows.”
They clinked glasses, and this time, Sam knew what to toast. “To us. Five beautiful years of friendship. Who would have thought the loud, obnoxious guy who barged into my dorm that fateful day would end up becoming my best friend?”
Wesley met his gaze, eyes bright. “And who would have thought I’d saddle myself with a total square and somehow love every minute of it? To many more years to come.”
The rest of the evening was a bit of a blur.
They ordered more shots—a lot more shots. An inadvisable number of shots. Sam remembered to order water at some point, but it was like putting a bandage on a hull breach. There was lots of laughing and arguing with Wesley about which of them loved the other one more. Then cold air, like they’d walked outside.
Next thing he knew, he was waking up to sunlight battering his closed eyelids.
He started to lift his head and groaned when pain lanced into his skull. “Oh God.”
“Are you finally awake, Sammy?”
At the sound of a muffled voice, Sam managed to convince one eye to crack open. His surroundings weren’t those of his apartment, but they weren’t unfamiliar either. He was lying on olive-green sheets, which smelled like laundry detergent and mild cologne. His clothes from last night were still on and looking much worse for the wear. There were framed vintage Archie posters on the wall, and the headboard had a bookshelf above it that was stuffed with paperbacks, DVDs, and comics in plastic sleeves.
Wesley’s bedroom. Not where Sam had expected to end the night, but not totally unheard of either.
“Damn,” he said to the ceiling. “How drunk was I that I couldn’t make it three blocks to my place?”
“It was more the stairs that you couldn’t handle.” Wesley poked his head into the bedroom. He was wearing a rumpled version of his suit. “Morning.”
“Wes, please.” Sam groaned again. “Kill me.”
“I would, but it’s an awful mess, and I’d rather cure you.” He had two steaming mugs in his hands. He set one on his nightstand before offering the other carefully to Sam.
Sam sat up and took it, taking a gulp without a care for the heat he could feel through the ceramic. Brown sugar, no cream, precisely how he liked it. “Thanks for letting me crash.”
“No worries. It was my fault for pouring all those shots down your throat. I forget you’re a lightweight.”
“The hell I am.” Sam went for a glare, but it probably looked like he was squinting. “No one can drink like you and expect to survive the night. You should pay your liver time and a half.”
“Fair.” Wesley gripped his own cup and blew on it before taking a ginger sip. “It’s been a while since we ended up passed out in the same bed.”
Sam nodded. “Not since senior year, although that time you crawled into my bed after that frat luau. I remember because you were wearing an itchy grass skirt. You mumbled something about ‘murderous coconuts’ and then started snoring.”
Wesley crinkled his nose. “I only vaguely remember that, which means I did it right. Anyway, I know last night got a little out of hand, but I had a blast. Felt like old times. I’ve missed living with you since we became boring adults.”
“Me too.” Sam smiled. “Too bad we couldn’t keep that up. I rented my little studio back when I thought it was going to be Michael and me living there. If you’d moved in, people would really talk.”
“True. We’d probably end up bunking together every night too, instead of once in a while when we’re both obliterated.”
Sam laughed and then winced when it made his head throb. He was about to make a joke about how he wouldn’t mind that, but he stopped himself. Close as they were, there were still lines neither of them ever crossed.
A handful of times, Sam had drunkenly admitted Wesley was gorgeous, which had earned him a round of good-natured ribbing. Although, Wesley had returned the favor, so Sam could tease him back if he wanted. That was as far as it’d ever gone. Their friendship was worth way more than some passing attraction. Sam couldn’t imagine a force powerful enough to get him to jeopardize it.
“So—” Wesley sipped his coffee, face carefully neutral “—are we going to talk about what you decided last night? About the wedding?”
Sam flinched, and this time it wasn’t from the hangover. “Do we have to?”
“I’m afraid we do, my friend. You’ll thank me later, when your sister’s heart isn’t broken and you’re not kicking yourself for the rest of your life.”
“Can I at least raid your pain relievers first?”
From the breast pocket of his suit, Wesley produced a small bottle of aspirin. “Have at it.”
Sam popped three into his mouth, downed them with a swig of coffee, and grimaced. “Okay. Now, give me thirty minutes for it to kick in, and then we can talk.”
“Oh, no, you don’t. Once it kicks in, you’ll say you have to get going, and then you’ll be out of here as fast as you can limp. Right now, while you’re weak and helpless, we’re going to talk.” Wesley sat cross-legged on his side of the bed, facing Sam. “Let’s hear it.”
“There’s really nothing left to say. I’m terrified of going, but I don’t see how I have a choice. I love Jessica more than I hate the idea of facing my parents, and that’s really all that matters.”
Wesley smiled, big and bright as the sun. “You sentimental bastard. I’m so proud of you. I guess all that’s left to do is pack.”
“Pack and spend the next two weeks in a state of constant anxiety.”
“I’ve been thinking about that, actually.” Wesley pulled out his phone. “Today’s June sixth, and her wedding is the twenty-second. Minus today, that gives us fifteen days to get there.”
“‘Us’?” Sam sat up straighter. “You really want to come with?”
Wesley rolled his eyes like that was the most ludicrous question he’d ever heard. “I’m not going to send you off to face the wolves alone. Of course I’m coming with you.”
The relief Sam felt was so profound, his eyes stung. “Thank you, Wesley. Really.”
“You can thank me by paying for gas.”
Sam frowned. “Gas?”
“Yeah. We could book some boring old plane tickets, or . . .” He waggled his eyebrows. “We could take the long way around.”
“What’d you have in mind?”
“A road trip, baby! TJ and Amal–style.”
Sam blinked. “Who?”
“Never mind. I forget you don’t read comics. The point is, we haven’t been on a trip together since that spring break where we drove to Jersey and spent a week drinking on the beach. Since we’re apparently rehashing our college days, we should hit the road. See the country. Boldly go! It’ll be more expensive to drive—hotels, gas, et cetera—but think of the fun we could have. It’d be such an adventure.”
Sam frowned. “I don’t know. A road trip? Being stuck in a cramped car together for all that time?”
“What, you think we’ll get sick of each other? Two best buds like us?” Wesley slapped him playfully. “Come on, when are we going to get a chance like this again? I’m between jobs, and your internship is over. We don’t have boyfriends or mortgages or kids we have to look after. You need to get across the country, and I need a break from all this job hunting. In two weeks, I bet we could do the whole East Coast and then zip over to California with time to spare. What’s stopping us?”
This was leagues outside of Sam’s comfort zone, but Wesley had made some damn good points. There really was nothing stopping them from going, and years from now, when they had nine-to-fives and responsibilities, they could look back on a more carefree time.
Wesley’s lips twitched. “I can tell you’re thinking about it. I like the gleam in those pretty brown eyes of yours.”
“I won’t deny it. Especially if it guarantees I’ll have you by my side.”
“Hey, if you decide you don’t want to do a road trip, that’s fine. I’ll get on a plane and be with you through this regardless. But I think it’d be way more memorable to drive there. We’ve lived in America our whole lives, but how much of it have we seen?”
Sam frowned. “Um, Jersey, like you said, and, uh . . . when I was a kid, my parents took us to the Grand Canyon. But I don’t actually remember it.”
“Exactly. Let’s make some memories that’ll last a lifetime. Shit we’ll look back on in fifty years from now and think ‘That was one of the best times of my life.’ Are you in?” Wes gave him the sweet, big-eyed look of his that could convince the Pope to go clubbing. “Please?”
Sam bit the inside of his cheek. There were plenty of cons. He couldn’t job hunt while he was on the road. He had savings, but not working for two weeks while he had rent to pay wasn’t something he could just do. Neither could Wesley.
A trip like this would be expensive, even if they ate gas-station food and stayed in shitty motels. Plus, he loved Wesley—dearly, completely, deeply—but spending fifteen days in another person’s constant company made the introvert in him palpitate.
There were pros too, though. He’d have someone to hold him accountable and make sure he made it to Jessica’s wedding. Wesley would give him strength when he faced his bloodthirsty relatives. Plus, Sam so seldom did anything daring. He didn’t want to look back on life and see nothing but paying bills and going to bed at a reasonable hour. He wanted to live, for once.
If his family was going to go nuclear on him, he might as well see the world before he died. He’d managed to run out on his wedding because it was important. Somehow, this felt important too. As he debated with himself, he had the strangest feeling, low and wriggly in his gut, that whatever he decided was going to change everything.
“Okay.” He nodded. “I’m in.”